Thursday, June 30, 2011

Movie Review: Tied to a Chair

Article first published as Movie Review: Tied to a Chair on Blogcritics.

Tied to a Chair, Michael Bergmann's zany comedy which has picked up a number of awards from some of the lesser film festivals opens April 22 at the Big Cinemas Manhattan in New York City. Among the awards garnered are Best Feature Film at the New York International Independent Film and Video Festival and Best in Festival from the Heart of England International Film Festival. Written and directed by Bergmann whose other films include Milk and Money and Trifling with Fate, the film stars Bonnie Loren as Naomi Holbrooke, a seemingly scatter brained middle aged American housewife who leaves her British husband to pursue her dream of an acting career, a dream she abandoned when she married.

In a complicated plot that leads her from London to Cannes to New York in pursuit of a part in a movie being shopped around by one hit director Billy Rust (Mario Van Peebles), she gets herself involved with a murder investigation, some local mobsters, and a terrorist plot. And although when the movie begins she is portrayed as a clumsy inept housewife who can't even manage to use a microwave without starting a fire, as the story progresses it turns out not only is she an expert mechanic, she is also a champion stunt driver, a pilot, and quite an effective amateur anti-terrorist agent. Very much a screwball comedy of the kind you think of when you think of a Lucille Ball or Goldie Hawn, Tied to a Chair is a film where no matter how often the heroine seems to be making a mess of things, she manages to make everything turn out alright in the end, and remain a loveable clutz throughout. This is Loren's movie. If you buy into her character, you will buy into the movie; if not, well there isn't very much else. And while she may well be the best thing in the film and she did win the best actress award at the New York International Independent Film and Video Festival, she is no Lucille Ball. It is a bit much asking her to carry the film.

There is a large cast of characters, but most of them are simply stereotypes. There is a Jewish accountant for the mob, a mob boss who is funding a movie for his girl friend to star in, a washed up film maker looking to sell out for a buck, a gaggle of inept Arab terrorists, and a couple of semi-competent Keystone Kop clones that need a ditzy middle age blonde to do their jobs. Moreover too much of the acting is artificial and stagey. Too often the actors seem to be doing little more than mouthing lines; they rarely get into the character. They are actors playing a part. Even a veteran like Van Peebles doesn't manage to make his character come alive.

At the least Bergmann keeps the film moving at the kind of rapid pace that a film like this demands if it's going to keep the viewer from thinking too much about the probability of what is going on. Instead of wondering about a strange woman showing up to give our heroine a hundred dollar bill at an airport when her cash card won't work, we are given an inventive comic car chase to watch. Instead of smirking over an improbable audition in a director's hotel room, we can laugh at Loren clumping about bound to her chair. There is always something new to get your attention and distract you from the comic book nature of the action. There are some well done special effects, and some nice location shots in New York City, but nothing so spectacular that it can make up for the film's inadequacies. While it is true that there are some laughs scattered about through the film, more often than not the humor gets lost in the cliché character and the pedestrian performance.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Music Review: Jazz Roots: The Music of the Americas

Article first published as Music Review: Jazz Roots: The Music of the Americas on Blogcritics.

Jazz Roots: The Music of the Americas is a two disc collection of 41 classic tracks illustrating the history of jazz from its African origins and its early blues and Dixieland development through to its contemporary manifestations. It covers a wide variety of styles and movements and features the work of many legendary performers and their recordings. Jazz lovers will find more than a few of their old favorites; neophytes will discover for themselves some of the iconic performances that have enchanted listeners for almost a century. This is a collection that defines what is recognized as the first truly American genre.

Beginning with Nigerian born Babtunde Olatunji's "Akiwowo" from his 1959 Drums of Passion album and ending with pianist Eldar Djangirov's 2004 recording of "Sweet Georgia Brown," Jazz Roots is nothing short of series of highlights. It has something for everyone. If you like the early piano, there's Scott Joplin playing "Maple Leaf Rag" from back in 1916; if you like something more modern, there's Dave Brubeck and the quartet featuring Paul Desmond on the saxophone doing "Take Five." Bessie Smith sings lowdown blues; Ella Fitzgerald improvises with an angelic purity of tone. There are the big bands of the thirties and forties: Benny Goodman, Glen Miller, Count Basie, and Duke Ellington. You can't help but get ready to swing when you hear the opening drum solo of "Sing, Sing, Sing," the piano intro of "Take the A Train," or the riffs of "One O'Clock Jump."

Bebop is represented by Charley Parker's "Ornithology" and Dizzy Gillespie's "Manteca." Latin influences are illustrated by the Afro-Cuban bands of the late forties and fifties, Tito Puente and Machito, as well as a more modern take on the style from Tiempo Libre's 2008 "To Conga Bach (Conga)" inspired by Bach's C Minor Fugue from The Well Tempered Clavier, Book 1. Brazilian jazz and the bossa nova craze of the sixties and seventies are represented by Antonio Carlos Jobim and Eliane Elias. Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane and Miles Davis exemplify what the liner notes call "hard bop." A variety of modern jazz movements –fusion, funk, contemporary and others—are also included with tracks from musicians like George Benson, Kenny G, Wynton Marsalis and Herbie Hancock.

While some jazz aficionados may have some personal favorite song or artist they would have preferred to the selection included in the album, it is hard to argue with what producers did choose. Clearly the album is meant for the novice. The intention is to whet the appetite, encourage further investigation. It aims to be neither exhaustive, nor comprehensive. After all to limit the representation of Dixieland, for example to three recordings, even if one of them is Louis Armstrong, can hardly be considered anything more than a taste. When you've got an album that includes Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughn, Billie Holiday, Grover Washington, Jr., Lambert, Hendricks & Ross, and Chris Botti as well as all the other masters already mentioned, it is somewhat mean to complain.

The two disc set includes an informative 25 page pamphlet discussing each of the different jazz styles, listing some of the many musicians associated with that style, and explaining the history and educational mission of the Jazz Roots project which began in 2008 when producer Larry Rosen was asked to create a jazz series for the city of Miami's Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts. Rosen in collaboration with Carl Griffin created a series of themed concerts as well as an educational program for students to learn about the music. With the help of Sony Masterworks and Quincy Jones the program was expanded to other cities and to this album which tries to show "through these historic recordings the linkage of the Drums from Africa and the music of Western Europe, to show how that marriage gave birth to The Music of Americas." If future projects are anything like this album, jazz loves and jazz lovers-to-be have a lot to look forward to.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Book Review: Charles Darwin: The Power of Place, Janet Browne

This article was first published at The Compulsive Reader.

Charles Darwin: The Power of Place
by Janet Browne
Hardcover, 624 pages
Knopf; (September 10, 2002)
ISBN: 0679429328

If the first volume of Janet Browne's impressive biography of Charles Darwin, the 1995 "Charles Darwin: Voyagings," uses the metaphor of the voyage to symbolize the dominant thread of Darwin's early years, her new volume," Charles Darwin: The Power of Place," which has just won the National Book Award, moors him securely to his home in the English countryside and the plenty he was able to find in his little piece of earth.

The picture of Darwin that emerges from her biography, the one of an addicted collector and an impassioned observer of tidbits of nature from his own English gardens and exotic voyage around the world as well as everything he could cajole out of his network of scientific friends, casual acquaintances and even absolute strangers, but most importantly with the gift to take these pieces of observed fact and put them together into a theory that was to transform the mind of the world in which he lived and cast a long shadow on the world that was to come.

Volume one takes Darwin from his birth to the 1850's as he begins to develop and fine tune his ideas of species adaptation and natural selection as a result of his readings of the work of Robert Malthus, his new understanding of some of the implications of the geological ideas of Sir Charles Lyell, and his intensive study of barnacles, pigeon breeding, and plant fertilization. Although focused primarily on Darwin's growth and development as a scientist, Browne does not neglect all the other elements of his life. Sometimes these are treated in summary fashion without the kind of detail given his accomplishments as a naturalist, still there always enough to paint a well rounded portrait of the man himself.

For example while making clear that he was a doting father by showing him in all his glory with his first child, William, there quite a bit less about the rest of the considerable brood--in some cases little more than the mention of a name in a lt. Indeed the same can be said for his personal relations with the rest of his family. There no question of his love for his wife, but there little attempt to fill in the minutiae of their daily lives together. Detail reserved for his five year voyage on the Beagle; his friendships with the great naturalist--the botanist, the zoologist, the entomologist, the ichthyologist, the geologist--of the day. The scientific minds of the nineteenth century, both foreign and domestic, great and small, friend and stranger, are the cast of thousands that parade through the pages of this biography.

While emphasizing Darwin's ability to think outside the nineteenth century box when it came to interpreting the data he had so painstakingly collected, Browne is also mindful to point out that there were others moving in similar directions, perhaps not as carefully nor as seriously, but still in some ways prefiguring what Darwin was going to do and in some sense cutting the beginnings of the path he was to bulldoze. "Vestiges of the Natural Hotly of Creation,"; published anonymously by the Ccottish popularizer, Robert Chambers, perhaps the one most extensively treated in the first volume. In the second volume, she discusses the essay of Alfred Russell Wallace which precipitated Darwin's eventual decision to finally write and publish his own work.

Browne, however, makes clear that in other than scientific respects, Darwin was a man of his time. She points out his paternalistic attitudes to the native populations he came across on the Beagle voyage, attitudes typical of the colonizing Englishman of the day absolutely certain of the superiority of his own culture to anything he might come across anywhere else. his attitudes towards woman were also typical of his day; he saw no reason to educate his daughters beyond the characteristic accomplishments in language and the arts offered by the ubiquitous governess. And even though he found his own abortive attempt at the traditional classical education unrewarding and worth little, he was unwilling to try something more radical for his first son, although he did come round for his later sons.

Her second volume reiterates this theme in her decision of some of his thinking in "The Descent of Man"; where she concludes that he subscribed "wholeheartedly"; to the presumed progressive movement of civilization so dear to the hearts of so many Victorian thinkers. "Darwin certainly believed that the moral and cultural principles of his own people, and of his own day, were by far the highest that had emerged in evolutionary history."; Even his tendency for personifying the force he called natural selection in the "Origin of Species"; suggested to many vestiges of that designing force which his more orthodox contemporaries equated with the deity. Radical thinking in one area is not radical thinking in all areas.

Further illustrating his ties to his age, Browne points to the rationalist scientist's seemingly contradictory passion for the sentimental novels so popular in the Victorian period, a passion Darwin himself acknowledges in his "Autobiography:"; ". . .novels which are works of the imagination, though not of a very high order, have been for years a wonderful relief and pleasure to me, and I often bless all novelist. A surprising number have been read aloud to me, and I like all if moderately good, and if they do not end unhappily--against which a law ought to be passed. A novel, according to my taste, does not come into the first class unless it contains some person whom one can thoroughly love, and if it be a pretty woman all the better.";

Surely a remarkable, but nonetheless welcome, confession from a gentleman of science.

Darwin, by the time the first volume leaves him has settled outside of London into a family enclave at Down House in Kent that the author compares to a ship of which he is the captain and where life arranged to revolve around his needs and the important work that he was doing.

Recipient of a large inheritance from his financially astute father, he was blessed with the leisure to pursue his scientific inclinations as something of a gentleman amateur, not unusual in his day. He had no need to meet the requirements of making a living for his family. He was free to indulge his interests wherever they might lead. Perhaps the only fly in his idyllic prospect was his health. Continually bothered by a bad stomach, vomiting, eczema, pain and gas, he often found it necessary to isolate himself from society. The cause of his problems was never really accurately diagnosed and he vainly subjected himself to a variety of popular treatments--including cold water baths and wraps. While there is no doubt of his suffering, Browne suggests that his sickness may well have also provided him with an effective excuse to avoid those duties that he found distressing like funerals--he did not attend those of his father or close friends like Lyell--or time consuming, like attending meetings. Moreover, he seems to have relished the attentions his illnesses won him from his wife and family.

Browne's second volume begins in 1858 with the circumstances surrounding the production and reception of what the great work of Darwin's life, the "Origin of Species."; Having spent twenty years collecting factual material, Darwin was only compelled into presenting his revolutionary work to the public by a co-incidence. One of his many scientific correspondents, Alfred Russell Wallace sent him an essay that he had written for his perusal and help in getting it to the right people. Darwin read the essay and was shocked to find that it was in fact his own theory in summary. Worried over the loss of his proprietorship of the idea and his ethical obligation to Wallace, he consulted his scientific friends and was persuaded to get his own theories out to the public in a joint presentation with the Wallace essay. Without this impetus he might well continued his collection of facts ad infinitum.

Browne points out that 1859, the year in which the book was published might well have been one of the most productive literary year in British history. 1859 saw the publication of Tennyson's "Idylls of the King,"; Mill's "On Liberty,"; Dickens' "A Tale of Two Cities,"; Eliot's "Adam Bede,"; as well as one of the most popular books of the period, Samuel Smiles, "Self-Help."; Still none stirred the pot like Darwin's.

Even though Darwin had been careful to leave the question of the application of his ideas about natural selection to the human animal, critics like Richard Owen, whom he had thought a friend, were quick to accuse him of looking to the ape for man's ancestry. The "man from monkey"; was to become the icon for those who looked to attack Darwin and his ideas about evolution. Moreover it was also to become the essential theme of the man who was to become his most influential defender, Darwin's bulldog, Thomas Henry Huxley. Throughout most of the controversy surrounding his work, it was Huxley and his other scientific friends who fought the battle, as though it were unseemly for the great man to soil his dignity in the trenches of partisan warfare. So, with a little help from his friends, Darwin went on happily to pursue his more esoteric observations and experiments--with orchids, with insect eating plants, with climbing plants.

It wasn't until the 1871 that he felt it necessary because of the differences he perceived between his Darwinist disciples and himself on the evolutionary development of man to publish his own ideas on the subject. He had been collecting material on the subject even before the "Origin,"; but had carefully shied away from the added controversy the touchy subject was bound to raise, but by the seventies, Browne points out, he felt it necessary to speak out because he disagreed with the insistence of friends like Lyell and Wallace on a spiritual element in the evolution of man as opposed to that of other life forms. "The Descent of Man"; was his answer.

Steeled for a furor over the book, he was perhaps surprised at how mild the criticism was. Most reviewers took his ideas seriously even if expressing moderate disagreement. Browne concludes that his celebrity and his status as a cultural icon for the scientific spirit may well have blunted much of his audience to the consequences of his ideas. At any rate the book seems to have stirred nowhere near the controversy of the "Origin of Species.";

Indeed the last years of his life brought him official honors and recognition, culminating in his interment in Westminster Abbey, somewhat surprising for such a radical thinker. It was almost, as Browne suggests, as though the man had achieved a cultural importance beyond the controversy of his ideas. his honest and thoughtful exploration of new ideas seemed more important than the ideas themselves. The process he symbolized--even when that process was being challenged and superseded by more rigorous methods-- represented more than the product.

Browne's two volumes are invaluable, measured guides to one of the most controversial figures of the nineteenth century.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Book Reviews: Trash and Bastard Out of Carolina, by Dorothy Allison

Originally published on The Compulsive Reader:

Paperback: 224 pages
Plume; (October 2002)
ISBN: 0452283515

Bastard Out of Carolina
Plume; Reprint edition (March 1993)
ISBN: 0452269571

In a new essay included as an introduction to the reissue of her 1988 collection of short stories, Trash, Dorothy Allison makes her agenda-- political, emotional, aesthetic-- crystal clear. She is feminist, lesbian, southern "trash" and damn proud of it; so whatever you might think about that, she declares with chip atop shoulder, "let me promise you, you don't want to make us angry." I don't know about the other feminist, southern "trash" lesbians, but if the stories in Trash and her novel Bastard out of Carolina are any indication making Dorothy Allison angry is the very last thing you want to do.

With the exception of the final story, "Compassion," in which three sisters reunite to see their mother through her final days as she lays dying of cancer, added for the new edition, all the stories are from the earlier edition. Although fictional they are very clearly grown from the soil of Allison's own family and relationships. Essentially there are two voices: the young girl growing up in Greenville, South Carolina telling about her Mama and her sisters and her aunts and her grandmother, and the defiant lesbian reveling in her sexuality. What they both have in common is that they are voices of the "other," voices either excluded entirely from the dominant culture or perceived only in stereotype. Allison's work seeks a more honest representation of these voices.

As she says in a 1995 interview much of what has been written about the southern working class, both black and white is basically "romanticized, generic, trivializing nonsense." Then she says:

I want my writing to break down small categories. The whole idea in Bastard Out of Carolina was to give you a working class family that had all the flaws, but to also give you the notion of real people and not of caricatures. A lot of working-class fiction or psedo-working-class[sic.] fiction gives you dismissive caricatures, people who drink and whore and kill each other and are funny about it. I wanted my characters to be charming, so charming they wake you up in the night. That, for me, is political fiction. It takes you out of yourself, it makes you brood on it, it makes you worry about what happens after the book is over. It makes you want to argue with these women and talk to the men.

If this is indeed what she intended, there is no question but that in both the stories and the novel she succeeded. Over and over again she creates characters that are memorable in their flawed humanity: Grandma Shirley in "Meanest Woman Ever Left Tennesee" who tells her husband after her last baby is still born: "You've had your last poke at me. . . .I never wanted it, and if you come to me for it again, I'll cut your thing off and feed it to these damn brats you pulled out of me;" the pool playing Aunt Alma of "Don't Tell Me You Don't Know" who comes to reconcile the narrator with her mother, the narrator in "Steal Away" who gets her revenge on those who look down on her by stealing from them, even the commemorative roses from the welcoming sign as she drives away from her college graduation with her parents.

That the most memorable of these characters are from her childhood and that they reappear in her novel is indicative of the impact of Allison's youthful experience and her need to come to terms with it through her fiction. Indeed it is these South Carolina stories that are the cream of the volume. From the catalogue of death that flows through "River of Names" to "I'm Working on My Charm's" portrayal of the southern waitress, these are the stories that grab the reader and with their brutally honest acknowledgment of the author's love/hate relationship with her roots. The lesbian stories seem to me more self conscious.

It is not that they lack passion. They are filled with it, both physical and emotional. It is not that they are dishonest. They idealize lesbians no more than the other stories idealize "trash." It is simply that they give the reader the feeling that the author is as much interested in the cause as she is in the characters, as much interested in standing up and shouting "I am a lesbian and this is what I do" as she is in the story. None of the characters in these stories seem to me to rise to the level of say Aunt Raylene, the lesbian aunt in Bastard Out of Carolina.

The one exception would be "A Lesbian Appetite." Like "River of Names" this is a catalogue, a catalogue of foods and their associations. Since it is women that are most often the cooks and the sources of food, the leap from childhood biscuits and red beans and rice to the foods associated with adult lovers is not great; Mona and three bean salad from a can, Lee and eggplant, Marty and barbecue, and from there to the taste of love making is even less of a leap. Presented as a series of variations on a theme, the story is a tour de force, and it is not without merit that it has made its way into a good many anthologies of gay and lesbian literature.

Bastard Out of Carolina takes much of the material from the stories, sometimes complete passages verbatim, and reworks it into a rich and powerful novel, almost as if the stories were a trial run.

Ruth Anne Boatwright, nicknamed Bone, is the narrator and the bastard of the title. Beginning with her birth during an automobile accident and her mother's attempts to get the red inked block letters of illegitimate removed from her birth certificate, she chronicles her childhood in Greenville until she is almost thirteen. Allison calls Bone's family "working class," others would probably call them white trash. They are men and women who work hard for their families, but too often cannot manage to get by, sometimes as a result of their own failures--fighting, drinking, pride--sometimes as a result of perceptions of those around them. Their lives are in some sense fulfillment of the expectations of those around them

Bone looks at a school bus filled with children she hates because she knows they are looking down on her. She resents her step father's family because she recognizes that they treat her and her sister like trash.. The sheriff, the manager of Woolworths, the nurse at the hospital, even when they seem to acting nicely are demeaning you in their condescension. Pride, alcohol, fighting--these are the adult response. For Bone it is stealing candy from the Woolworth, befriending the albino Shannon Pearl who is even more an outsider than she is, daydreaming of gospel music stardom.

But in the end it is in each other--in family--that they must find comfort. It is in pecan pie that Mama makes for Uncle Earle. It is in staying to care for the dying Aunt Ruthie and arranging her plants, soothing Aunt Alma when she "goes crazy" and wrecks the house, bringing round an eligible bachelor for Mama after the death of her husband. Other children won't mess with Bone because they know she has older cousins who will see to it that she is taken care of. It is the family that is the safety net.

The problem for Bone is that in her case the safety net fails. Her step father, Daddy Glen, is both a child batterer and a molester. Unaware at first of the molesting and torn by her love for both, her mother accepts his reasons for the beatings, until by the end of the novel she is forced to choose between the two.

Allison is clear that she is breaking new ground in traditional Southern literature. In the story, "Monkeybites," her lover, a literature major, tells the narrator: "You southern dirt-country types are all alike. Faulkner would have put that stuff to use, made it a literary detail." "Southern Gothic--," she continues, " . . .Throw in a little red dirt and chicken feathers, a little incest and shotgun shells, and you could join the literary tradition." The narrator's answer is "Shit and nonsense." These are the caricatures and stereotypes. Her people are not details and background characters. The young Bone stops reading Gone With the Wind because she realizes that she can never be Scarlet O'Hara. "Emma Slattery, I thought. That's who I'd be, that's who we were. . . .I was part of the trash down in the mud stained cabins fighting with the darkies and stealing ungratefully from our betters, stupid, coarse, born to shame and death." In Allison's book Bone is Scarlet O'Hara.

There is something highly personal about Allison's work, not in the sense that her work is autobiographical--although it is easy to make that assumption because of the first person narrator, the reappearance of characters, often with the same names, in the books, and the reliance on detail from her past. The difference between using detail from one's life and writing autobiography should not be ignored. She gives a telling example in her interview: "And then there's girlfriends. I don't know about you, but a lot of my girlfriends have been my stepfather. A lot of my girlfriends have been my uncles, some of whom were truly wonderful men, but not marrying types." Her personal life is in her work as it is in the work of all writers, not in the particular detail or incident necessarily, but in the general truth.

"I try for truth, and language. Sometimes if the language works, I let the detail slide. But I am a write, and I know my own weaknesses. In the end, the stories have to have their own truth and craft," she says in her new introduction. That the work seems so sincere, so personal is a testament to Allison's success as a writer, to her ability to divine the truth that is the heart of fiction.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Book Review: Dreyfus: Politics, Emotion, and the Scandal of the Century, by Ruth Harris

Article first published as Book Review: Dreyfus: Politics, Emotion, and the Scandal of the Century by Ruth Harris on Blogcritics.

Late in September of 1894 a cleaning woman working in the German embassy in Paris discovered the discarded fragments of a memorandum which contained French military secrets in the waste basket of the German military attaché. The cleaning woman, who also happened to be a French spy working for military intelligence, turned the pieces of the memo over to the authorities, who analyzed the fragments and determined that there was a traitor on the French army general staff. On October 15, a promising young Jewish officer, Alfred Dreyfus, was arrested for the crime. He was court martialed and convicted on evidence that many considered trumped up and flimsy. In January of 1895, he was publically degraded, his epaulettes torn from his uniform, his sword broken in two. He was then paraded around the courtyard of the military school to the jeers of a screaming mob. In the end he was sent off to imprisonment on the notorious Devil's Island. Thus began the cause célèbre that was to rock France for the next decade and more, the Dreyfus affair.

Dreyfus: Politics, Emotion and the Scandal of the Century, Ruth Harris' comprehensive study of what for a long time was simply known as the "Affair" combines a historical survey of events with an analysis of the factional disputes between the Dreyfusards, those who for one reason or another supported Dreyfus' against his accusers, and the anti-Dreyfusards, those who supported the army and the right wing government. Where past studies have tended to see the central issue in terms of anti-Semitism, Harris, while recognizing that anti-Semitism indeed played a significant part in the reaction to the case, makes the point that it was not the only issue. The motivations of people on both sides of the Affair were often complex. Anti-Dreyfusards included nationalists who felt it was necessary to support the honor of the military even if they were in the wrong, conservatives who felt the need to defend the perks of the aristocracy, and Catholics who were unhappy with the secularization of the state. The Dreyfusards on the other hand were often republicans who had little use for either the military or the conservative government and believed in meritocracy rather than aristocracy. Some supported Dreyfus less for individual justice than for the principles involved. Some were simply concerned with the plight of the man. Certainly there were anti-Semites at work, but anti-Semitism alone does not explain the complexities of the situation.

Harris introduces a large cast of characters on both sides of the Affair. There are the family members, his wife Lucie and brother Mathieu who were stalwart in his defense. There are the well known figures like the novelist Emil Zola whose pamphlet, J'Accuse may well be the most famous document associated with the Dreyfus case and Clemenceau who was later to lead the country. There are the schemers like Commandant Henry who forged evidence and eventually committed suicide and the men of honor like Colonel Picquart who went to prison for defending Dreyfus. There were the contemporary journalists and propagandists like Bernard Lazare and Edouard Drumont, not to mention the lawyers, politicians, intellectuals, anti-intellectuals, generals andsalonnieres. Despite the large number, Harris manages to portray individuals in depth and with precision. In most cases she carefully draws her insights from their own letters and published writings. Altogether, her portraits of both Dreyfus supporters, antagonists and even those who tried to ignore the issue, create a panoramic picture of French society at the turn of the century and the impact of the Affair on that society.

In Dreyfus, Harris manages to tell a remarkable story with scholarly care. It is one of those rare academic works that is both readable and well documented. Notes and bibliography are impressively voluminous. Moreover the volume includes a wealth of illustrations, photographs and cartoons.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Book Review: Corduroy Mansions, by Alexander McCall Smith

Article first published as Book Review: Corduroy Mansions (Corduroy Mansions Series #1) by Alexander McCall Smith on Blogcritics.

Alexander McCall Smith seems to sprout series like my lawn sprouts dandelions. And while there are those who see in the lowly dandelion nothing but a weed, there are always those of us, like Ray Bradbury who looks back to it as the wine of youth. Corduroy Mansions which announces itself as the first in a new series may well spark similar dual reactions among readers. There are those who will be upset with the many characters introduced and left hanging, the many plot elements left unresolved. There will be those who are enchanted by the large cast of charming oddball characters and look forward to meeting them again in future volumes, who are happy, like fans of serial dramas and soap operas, to wait for future episodes to deal with unresolved issues.

In Corduroy Mansions, rather than focusing on one individual as he does in his Isabel Dalhousie series, Smith introduces a cast of more than a dozen characters all in some way associated with a particular three flat building in the Pimlico section of London. There are the people who live in the flats, a wine merchant and his son on the top floor, four young single women who share the middle floor apartment, and a mysterious middle aged man on the ground floor. There are the people associated with these tenants: prospective love interests for the young ladies and the wine merchant, friends, business associates and employers. There are even relatives and love interests of some of these once removed characters. What you get is a kind of panoramic picture of a certain segment of London society in all its variety.

The narrative moves rapidly between almost as many story lines as there are characters. The wine merchant wants his son out of the flat and on his own. The son dislikes dogs, so the merchant agrees to a time share arrangement for an ex-drug sniffing dog ponderously named Freddie de la Hay to try to get the boy to move. One of the young women is an art student who is testing a relationship with one of her fellow students who she had thought was gay. Another works for an obnoxious member of Parliament, telling named Oedipus Snark, who is involved with a literary agent who breaks up with him during a weekend at Rye only to become involved with a younger man she picks up driving out of the car park. Complicated? You bet. And these are only a sample. There is more, a lot more.

In some sense the various plot lines, where very little of momentous import occurs, are less significant than what amounts to a gentle satiric portrayal of life among the denizens of Corduroy Mansions and their cohorts. Smith, like the naturalists of a previous century, takes the reader on a tour of a slice of the life of a group, but unlike them he doesn't attack, he pokes and prods at their follies and foibles. These are not evil people. At worst they are selfish and uncaring; at best they are simply vocti,s of modern self absorption. More often than not they are simply inept and unable to confront either their problems or one another until things get so overly complicated they have no other choice. Some seem more quirky and inept than others, but all of them are inadequate in one way or another.

As he does in his other novels, along the way Smith provides the reader with some interesting intellectual nuggets of speculation on a variety of subjects. Isabel Dalhousie, for example, likes to ponder over problems of practical ethics. In Corduroy Mansions similar questions arise about things like the treatment of animals and importing food. Characters discuss everything from the nature of beauty to the biology of scallops, from humane architecture to the psychology of dogs. While these discussions reflect the breadth of Smith's interests, they are always bound to character and never become distractions.

Readers willing to put up with the many unresolved plot points will find a lot to like in this first of his new series. They will be happy to know that the second in the series, The Dog Who Came in From the Cold, is already available in hardcover. Who knows, the answers to some of the questions left from Corduroy Mansions may be sitting there awaiting the determined reader.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

DVD Review: Cedar Rapids

Article first published as DVD Review: Cedar Rapids on Blogcritics.

Cedar Rapids, Ed Helms' first effort after the success of The Hangover, is now available on DVD in what is advertized as a "The Super Awesome Edition." And while "Super Awesome" may be a bit of a stretch, "Awesome" doesn't seem out of the realm of possibility. If it didn't get the same kind of box office success as The Hangover, Cedar Rapids is certainly a pleasant enough comic romp with a stellar cast, and there are laughs aplenty for an hour and a half in front of the small screen.

Helms, in a part made for him, the kind that he could probably mail in with his eyes closed, plays Tim Lippe, a small town insurance agent who is delegated to attend a business convention in Cedar Rapids as a replacement for his agency's hot shot agent who has died under embarrassing circumstances. Lippe is a good natured innocent. He may be having an affair with an older woman played by Sigourney Weaver who it happens was his teacher when he was twelve, but he is truly in love. She, on the other hand, is only interested in playing around. In his naiveté, he is clueless and clueless defines his character throughout the film. He arrives at the motel in Cedar Rapids and runs into a prostitute (Alia Shawkat) who he takes for ordinary young girl. He doesn't drink; he carries his money in money belt under his clothes, and (to make sure his character is absolutely clear) he wears "tighty whities." Cedar Rapids may not be the den of inequity that Las Vegas is, but for the likes of Lippe it will do just fine.

In Cedar Rapids he is joined as roommates by Dean Ziegler a loud, hard drinking cynic played with panache by John C. Reilly and Ron Wilkes (Isiah Whitlock, Jr.) an upright gentleman and the first Afro-American Lippe has ever met. Anne Heche rounds out what seems to be the requisite quartet of characters in these kinds of films as a foxy married insurance agent out for some extra marital fun at the convention conveniently named Joan Ostrowski-Fox. Wilkes, if not the naïve innocent that Lippe is, is perhaps the one character in the film portrayed as an honorable person. Ziegler and Fox, while not exactly models of virtue, at least demonstrate that not all immoral behavior is equal. They may be engaged in sinful behavior, but they are good natured and true to their friends. This in contrast to characters like the president of the insurance association and the owner of Lippe's agency, played respectively by Kurtwood Smith and Stephen Root who are shown to be hypocritical babblers and dishonest to boot. Cedar Rapids paints a world in which a prostitute or an adulterous may well turn out to be more admirable as a human being than a pious pretender.

The plot which centers on Lippe's need to win the prestigious two diamonds award for his agency is less important than the set pieces he and the rest of the crew run through as he learns what the world is really like. There is a trip to a raunchy meth party where Rob Corddry shows up as a tattooed thug and Lippe gets his first taste of drugs. There is a bit of clothed and unclothed dipping in the motel pool. There is an assortment of convention activities: breakfasts, talent shows, scavenger hunts. There is, of course, a scene with Helms interrupted on the commode complete with appropriate aromatic references. All of these give Helms the opportunity to trot out his cute duck out of water persona, a persona he plays with masterful strokes, while the others wink and nod at his innocence.

"The Super Awesome Edition" includes deleted scenes and a gag reel. There are also short interview segments about the meth party scene featuring Corddry, a scene where the quartet joins in with a Lesbian wedding party which features the film's writer Phil Johnston, and a look at Mike Pyle rehearsing for an Irish clog dancing routine he does at the convention talent show. Finally there is one hell of a funny insurance company advertisement parody, "Top Notch Commercial." All is all, Cedar Rapids makes for a nice evening's entertainment.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Music Review: Bob Dylan, Bob Dylan In Concert Brandeis University 1963

Article first published as Music Review: Bob Dylan - Bob Dylan In Concert Brandeis University 1963 on Blogcritics.

While Bob Dylan devotees will be thrilled with the release of a previously unknown live recording of the young singer taped at Brandeis University's First Annual Folk Festival in May of 1963, more casual fans may be less impressed. The concert tape was discovered in the archives of music critic and Rolling Stone founder, Ralph Gleason, by his son a little more than a year ago after the death his mother. Only twenty one at the time of the concert, Dylan was yet to establish himself as one of the luminaries of the folk scene. Although he was recording with Columbia records, his first album, Bob Dylan, which contained very little original material hadn't been particularly successful. His second album which included some of his soon to be iconic songs had yet to be released. Festival headliners were Pete Seeger and Jean Ritchie; Dylan was the equivalent of an opening act.

The concert tape contains two sets and seven songs all of which are available elsewhere in studio recordings. There are three talking blues: the "Talkin' John Birch Paranoid Blues," "Talkin' World War III Blues," and "Talkin' Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues." The first is a satirical attack on the anti-communist lunatic fringe, which was later to create some controversy when Dylan was not allowed to sing it on The Ed Sullivan Show. All three show the singer still in the Woody Guthrie phase of his early career. There is a foreshortened version of "Honey, Just Allow Me One More Chance" which was to be included on The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan. The "Ballad of Hollis Brown," as intense a composition as anything in Dylan's early canon, is the longest of the songs on the album. "Bob Dylan's Dream," sung with a kind of lyric clarity that no longer seems to interest the seventy year old singer, and the plaintive protesting "Masters of War" are probably the highlights of the two sets. The latter, which ends Dylan's first set, gets a really enthusiastic reception from the audience.

Liner notes for the album are written by Michael Gray author of The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia and Song & Dance Man: The Art of Bob Dylan. They provide an interesting prospective on the singer and his repertoire at this early stage of his career. The concert, Gray points out, was not a momentous performance. "It reveals him not at any Big Moment but giving a performance like his folkclub sets of the period: repertoire from an ordinary working day."

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Music Review: Stan Getz and Cal Tjader, Cal Tjader/ Stan Getz Sextet.

Article first published as Music Review: Stan Getz & Cal Tjader - Stan Getz/Cal Tjader [Remastered] on Blogcritics.

Somewhere in a carton in the back of a closet in our laundry room there's one of those red vinyl LP's Fantasy records was putting out back in the fifties. It was called Ritmo Caliente and it marked the first record I ever bought by vibes master, Cal Tjader. Tjader, although he had played with George Shearing, was probably best known at the time for his work in combining Afro-Cuban rhythms with jazz, and the Ritmo Caliente was trade mark Tjader. Saxophonist Stan Getz, on the other hand, was more or less a straight ahead jazz man. He had begun with the Woody Herman orchestra to become one of the premier sax players of the day. It wasn't until later in his career that he became associated with the bossa nova. If I'm not mistaken there's an album he made with Gerry Mulligan in that same carton. Tjader and Getz knew each other, but they hadn't recorded together. Hadn't, that is, until they got together for a 1958 session for Fantasy as the Cal Tjader/ Stan Getz Sextet.

The session they produced, now available in a remastered release from Concord Music Group, is enough to make any jazz enthusiast sorry the two men never managed to get together more often. They work together like the proverbial well oiled machine. Ballad or up-tempo, it doesn't matter; they blend like they'd been playing together for years. As the liner notes point out, it isn't always the case that all-star combos always mesh well. The parts don't always produce a cohesive whole—not the case here. Here we have a sextet led by two all stars where the whole is just as good as if not better than the sum of its parts. There are seven tracks on the disc and each one is better than the other. According to the new liner notes written for the remastered release, there are no extra tracks on the new release, because everything that was recorded at the original session was so good, it was all included on the original release. There were no alternate takes. None were needed.

The sextet features Vince Guaraldi on the piano and Eddie Duran on guitar, both of whom had played with Tjader. Bassist Scott LaFaro and drummer Billy Higgins came along with Getz. Duran had played with Getz, but the notes indicate that none of the others had played together before. Still, whether working on old standards or new pieces composed for the set, they played seamlessly.

The set opens with a Guaraldi composition, "Ginza Samba." It runs over ten minutes and while it begins with the Latin beat that was to become associated with the bossa nova, it goes back to the more conventional 4/4 rhythm for long solos through the middle to the end. The set ends with a lyrical take on the old standby "My Buddy." Tjader's mellow opening solo is followed by a swinging passage from Getz, before they come together for some dynamic interaction at the ending. Tjader does some sweet work on Lerner and Loewe's "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face, and there's a real sparkle to the ending. "For All We Know" gets a restrained treatment from Tjader's vibes, which gets picked up by Getz in his solo.

Three pieces by Tjader round out the album. "Big Bear" is an up-tempo swinger. "Liz-Anne" is a waltz written for his daughter, "Crow's Nest" gives them an opportunity for a funkier vibe. Getz does some nice solo work on the waltz, and both he and Tjader riff together with abandon on "Crow's Nest." Guaraldi and Duran get their licks as well. There's even a funky bass solo. All in all this is one fine album, well worth resurrecting.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Book Review: Moment of Glory by John Feinstein

Article first published as Book Review: Moment of Glory: The Year Underdogs Ruled Golf by John Feinstein on Blogcritics.

Sports journalist John Feinstein has a knack for finding a good story and telling it with enough technical information to keep the interest of the sports buff, but not so much as to turn off the more casual reader. Even when the reader already knows how everything is going to end, Feinstein still manages to create drama in the telling. He paints careful portraits of all the characters involved so that the reader has real insight into what the events mean for them. He is as much interested in the human being as he is in the athlete.

Moment of Glory, his latest look at the world of professional golf is no exception. The book deals with the four major tournaments of 2003 and the golfers who struggled in them. Tiger Woods, who had been dominating the sport for several years, had become unhappy with his swing, in spite of the fact that he was winning regularly. He began tampering with his swing, fired his long time coach, and suddenly his game seemed to desert him. For a year or so he became mortal once again, opening a door for some of the other players; a door that in the majors of 2003 some very unlikely players were going to walk through.

After detailing Woods' situation, Feinstein goes on to describe each of the major tournaments beginning with the Master's at Augusta and moving through the US Open and the British Open to the PGA. He emphasizes the importance of the tournaments and the effect that winning them will have on the lives of the players. These major tournaments have the capacity to make a career. They can take a relative unknown and transform him into star, and at least in three of the 2003 tournaments that is exactly what they did. Mike Weir, who won the Masters, had been a comparative journeyman up to that point. He was happy to have made it into the tournament, ecstatic to have made the cut, and on no one's radar to end up wearing the green jacket. The same is true of Ben Curtis who had never won a pro tournament prior to his win in the British Open and Shaun Micheel who took the last tourney of the year, the PGA. Only Jim Furyk, the US Open winner, who many thought of as one of the better golfers never to have won a major, was someone who might have been thought of as a potential winner. It was as Feinstein's sub-title declares, "the year of the underdog."

Each of the tournaments had its moments of drama and Feinstein makes the most of them. There is the unlikely duel between Weir and Len Mattiace. There is Peter Bjorn's sand trap debacle in the British Open. There is Tom Watson's emotional first round at the US Open. There is Shaun Micheel's agony while checking over his score card. These are the moments of glory in these men's lives; they are moments that may never be repeated.

But they are not the only moments. Feinstein is careful to show the human side of these athletes. Furyk discovers that it is up to the golfer to get his name engraved on the US Open trophy. Curtis refuses to postpone his wedding plans after winning the British. Weir's wife breaks Augusta's rules by running out on the course to congratulate him. Micheel celebrates his victory at Wendy's drive thru. The book is filled with this kind of human interest detail. It is the kind of detail that makes Feinstein's work palatable to the general reader who has little interest in slices and pitching wedges.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

A Note on The Killer Angels

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Explores the Battle at Gettysburg through the eyes of significant figures on both sides. Longstreet is featured as the man who, understanding the principles of modern warfare, might have saved the day for the South, had he been able to convince Lee to follow his ideas. Chamberlain is the focus of the Northern point of view and his bayonet charge at Little Round Top. Emphasizes the respect professional soldiers on each side had for each other.

The book illustrates how fiction may well give a more impressive if not more accurate picture of historical events.

Book Review: Bad Sports: How Owners are Ruining the Games We Love, by Dave Zirin

Article first published as Book Review: Bad Sports: How Owners are Ruining the Games We Love, by Dave Zirin on Blogcritics.

In Bad Sports, Dave Zirin takes the reader on a short guided tour of the many and varied sins of the millionaire owners of professional sports franchises in the United States to demonstrate how they are fleecing the public while ruining the sports the lowly fans love. There are mean spirited villains in Zirin's world, and these villains—or perhaps devils as one recent book on the millionaires who wrecked the country's financial system calls them—are the money grubbing owners and their apologists and enablers in the press and the government. The guys who actually play the games may not be perfect, but, at least as far as Zirin is concerned, they are more sinned against than sinning. They are the workers, labor. And like all labor, from Zirin's point of view, the players are taken advantage of by capital. Zirin comes at the problem from the left, the far left, just about as far left as you can get. Conservatives will clearly have a problem with his analysis.

On the other hand, if like me you lived in Brooklyn back in 1958 when Walter O'Malley took our beloved "Bums" out of Ebbets Field and moved them to Los Angeles, you may be more inclined to agree with Zirin. If you lived in Baltimore, when Robert Irsay packed up your, strike that, his colts and sneaked off to the greener fields of Indianapolis, you may not find him so radical. If you live in Seattle, you may have a lot more sympathy for his ideas. And it is not simply teams absconding and leaving their fans in the lurch, there are other sins. There are the power mad tyrants who think their money makes them experts in football or basketball or whatever. There are the cheapskates who refuse to spend the money necessary to field a respectable team, a team that has a chance of winning. There are the blackmailers who hold cities up for the ransom of tax payer supported gleaming new arenas. And this says nothing about the way some of these owners, who Zirin considers nothing short of megalomaniacs treat their employees, use their teams to promote their political and religious ideas at the public expense, and overcharge patrons for an inferior product. His book is nothing short of a radical indictment of modern sports ownership.

It is filled with examples. Zirin names names, but there is little that is new. This is less an investigative piece than it is a collection of reports culled from the news and the blogosphere. He talks about James Dolan's problems with the Knicks and his sexual harassment suit. He talks about the Tom Hicks' problems with the fans in Liverpool after his purchase of their football team. Then there's Dan Snyder in the nation's capital and Peter Angelos in Baltimore, Donald Sterling and David Glass, and on and on. The stories of mismanagement and the complaints about gauging have been around a long time. What Zirin does is gather them all together to make his case.

What is his case? Think Don Quixote tilting at windmills, the man from La Mancha dreaming the impossible dream. What he is advocating as the best model of sports ownership in this best of all possible worlds is that of the Green Bay Packers. A team should be owned by its fans. No doubt he is aware that this kind of thing happened once, and it isn't likely that it is ever going to happen again. Still the comparison between greedy ownership charging eight bucks for a beer and refusing to allow fans to bring food into the stadium, and Green Bay where concessions are run by volunteers and sixty percent of the income goes to charity is worth noting. The comparison between small market teams which can't seem to dig their way out of the mire, and a small market team that just managed to win itself a Super Bowl, albeit too late to make Zirin's book, has got to say something about the viability of this particular windmill.

Zirin writes with flair and some venom. Cutting remarks are part of his stock in trade. He has no sympathy for the millionaires, neither the self made, nor their heirs. Private peccadilloes public gaffes, all are fair game. Evict a woman from her rent controlled apartment; dump an all star player turned front office man out of his office; use your publicly funded stadia for prayer meetings: all are equally grist for Zirin's mill. The bigger the name, the greater seems his joy in pointing to the clay feet. One might argue that pointing out that millionaires and their offspring are greedy, that as often as not they're lucky rather than smart, that they think a lot of themselves is not quite a revelation, and that is probably right. On the other hand, when I think about the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Baltimore Colts and the Seattle Supersonics, revelation or not, it feels good to see someone take them down a peg.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Book Review: Mr. Peanut, by Adam Ross

Article first published as Book Review: Mr. Peanut by Adam Ross on Blogcritics.

Adam Ross's acclaimed 2010 debut novel, Mr. Peanut, now available in paperback from Vintage Books, is one of the most intriguing pieces of fiction to come along in recent years. It is the kind of book that keeps readers guessing from the first page, and may well leave them still guessing when they get to the last. Those readers who are fond of neatly tied up linear narratives will more than likely find themselves tearing their hair at Ross's intricately convoluted story of marriage, mayhem and murder. Those readers content to live with mysteries that they may well never quite understand, but are happy enough with the trying will have plenty of mystery to keep them happily turning pages.

Mr. Peanut's plot is so rich in complex twists and turns that no summary can do it justice. It works on multiple levels and branches out in different direction, so that it is often difficult to distinguish between dreams, imagination and reality. Suffice it to say that it concerns the marriage of computer game mogul, David Pepin and his wife, Alice, a teacher of emotionally disturbed youth with a weight problem and a peanut allergy. Their marriage, despite his assertions of his love for her, is as dysfunctional as anything Edward Albee ever imagined. The narrative doesn't follow a simple chronological order, but scoots back and forth over the years of their relationship. They met in college in a class on Alfred Hitchcock's motion pictures, and the book is filled with sly allusions to the director's oeuvre, many more allusions than this reviewer recognized. David is also writing a novel about his life with Alice, a novel in which he imagines she has been killed, and when she does in fact die, it is not always easy to distinguish between his life and his novel.

Embedded in David's story are the stories of two other dysfunctional marriages. There are two detectives assigned to investigate the case. One has a wife who has mysteriously taken to her bed and refuses to leave it. The other it turns out is the famous Dr. Sam Sheppard who went to prison for killing his wife and then had his conviction overturned. Pepin and the two detectives are all men who are having problems with their wives; they are all men who seem to find their women enigmatic creatures. They are all men who have thoughts about terminating their marriages in one way or another. It is perhaps easiest to think about the three strains as variations on a theme. In fact in some sense this is the most appropriate way to see the novel as a whole.

For most of the book, the literary ancestors that came most often to mind were the experimental French novelists of the middle of the 20th century who were the creators of what was then called the New Novel, especially the novels of Alain Robbe-Grillet. Robbe-Grillet's novels never move in a linear fashion, moreover the reader can never be sure about what is actually happening, what is dream, what is the description of a picture or a photograph, what is wishful thinking on the part of the narrator. Ross's narrative follows a similar non-linear pattern. Alice complains to Pepin at one point that he looks at life in terms of straight lines but he needs to think of it in terms of cycles. The book is filled with references to the illusionist work of the artist M. C. Escher: pictures where stairs going up turn into stairs going down, floors become ceilings, hands draw each other. He creates a world which doesn't seem to follow any of the laws of the natural world we live in. The other worldly Mobius Strip is perhaps the one image from Escher's work that is the most apt metaphor for Ross's book. Not only is there a villainous character who is named Mr. Mobius, but the idea of a narrative that is constantly turning in on itself, without anything that can be a beginning or an end seems a very nice description of Ross's method.

Of course, Robbe-Grillet insisted that it was a mistake to try and make any realistic sense out of his work. Realism was, in fact, what he was trying to avoid. The reader who was trying to find some logical peg to hang onto, some moral or psychological truth to life—that reader was doing exactly the wrong thing. Robbe-Grillet wants a reader who is content to dwell in mystery, to revel in the non sequiter. Mimetic representation of life was not what he was after; meaning was the thing to be avoided. I doubt Ross goes that far. By the time you get to the end of the novel, there is clearly a reasonable explanation of events that will satisfy many readers; still he does offer other possibilities. In this sense the ending of the novel is reminiscent of John Fowles' classic The French Lieutenant's Woman. Life is never neat, and a neat ending to a novel is merely an oversimplification.

Mr. Peanut will frustrate many; many will find it fascinating. Put me in the latter camp. This is book to be read and read again. There will always be something new to think about. Even the title, it has so many ramifications that it boggles the mind. Alice is allergic to peanuts, and perhaps dies from the allergy. She calls the baby she carries earlier in their marriage peanut. The actual Mr. Peanut appears in a commercial on TV the night Marilyn Sheppard is killed. The description of Mr. Mobius is fairly close to the advertising icon. Indeed the shape of the peanut is not that much different from the shape of a Mobius strip. All this may mean something. I suspect it does. If it were Robbe-Grillet writing, we'd probably do well to leave it alone; on the other hand, with Ross, one reading may be too soon to give up.

I may not be able to explain everything that happens. I certainly didn't catch all the allusions. I may not be sure what it all means. What I am sure of is that I thoroughly enjoyed reading it, and I know I will be reading it again.

Back awhile ago, the Slate Double X Gabfest book club held a discussion about Mr. Peanut. I have it on my iPod. I didn't listen to it at the time because I hadn't yet read the book and I wanted to form my own opinions without a little help from my friends. Now that I have read and written about it, I'm going to listen to the podcast, and if there's anything illuminating I'll be back with Mr. Peanut redux.

Friday, June 17, 2011

DVD Review: New York Street Games

Article first published as

The documentary New York Street Games now available on DVD is as much a celebration of a simpler time in this country's history, a time when parents felt the world was a safe enough place to allow their children to spend their days running and playing on the streets of the world's biggest city, a time when a pink high bouncer and a sawed off broomstick were all the equipment a child needed to keep busy with friends from lunch to dinner, as it is a nostalgic look back on what for many of us were the games of our youth. The streets, the empty lots, the school yard—any place that offered the space to hit a ball or draw a court with a piece of chalk was ripe for a playground. Kids didn't need organized sports like the Little League, whether it was Kick the Can or Punch Ball, they organized their own games.

Now their games are legendary. New Yorkers look back on them with a nostalgic passion for their idyllic youth. The film is filled with them waxing eloquent about the games of the streets. Whether it's C. Everett Koop talking about Ringaleavio, Regis Philbin describing his first kiss during a game of Hide and Seek, or Whoopi Goldberg explaining how her brother sat her in the crate of his home made soapbox derby cart, these are people glowing with happy memories of a vanished past. While you may have to wonder if things were quite as wonderful as their rose colored visions seem to make them, there is no question they think so. There is nothing so powerful as the happy memories of youth.

Stick Ball is probably the best known of the New York Street Games. Played between the sewers in the middle of the street, the batter would toss a Spaulding—pronounced 'Spaldeen' by the true New Yorker—in the air and swat at it with a broomstick. If he hit it, he would run the make shift bases, first base at the right curb, second at the next sewer, third at the left curb and back home. It was the street urchin version of baseball. Good hitters could hit it over two sewers; great hitters three. Legend had it that baseball great Willie Mays would play with the local kids, and he could hit it two sewers down the next block.

With the profusion of cars clogging city streets today, Stick Ball and the other street games—Stoop Ball, Slap Ball, Punch Ball—are little more than relics of days gone by, although the documentary does describe some of the efforts to keep the games alive. For example, there are some streets in the Bronx, called Stick Ball Boulevard, closed to traffic on the weekend for a Stick Ball league. In Clinton, Wisconsin, a New York expatriate sponsors the Stoop Ball League of America. A day camp North of the city has a bunch of old timers showing off their skills at Slap Ball. Of course, more often than not these are adults reliving their past. Some of them may bring their kids along, but these efforts are less about the new generation than they are about themselves.

Like the games, this is a film that will bring joy to the heart of those of us who remember running around on those streets chasing after those pink 'Spaldeens.' Younger audiences may be more inclined to see it as an anthropological study, a kind of "Coming of Age in the Bronx." I doubt they would have the kind of visceral emotional identification with the film. That said, this is a film that had me smiling from beginning to end.

Narrated by Hector Elizondo, the film includes reminiscences by Keith David, Curtis Sliwa, Joe Pantoliano, Ray Romano, Robert Klein, and photographer Arthur Leipzig along with more than a dozen others. Although there are no additional materials included on the DVD, there is a little spiral bound booklet attached which describes the rules and play of many of the games included in the documentary.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Music Review: Levon Helm, Ramble at the Ryman

Article first published as Music Review: Levon Helm - Ramble at the Ryman on Blogcritics.

Often there is an excitement about live concert recordings, an electricity that studio gigs for all their perfection can never quite equal. Just listen to the audience reaction to the first few bars of "Rag Mama Rag” on Levon Helm's new album Ramble at the Ryman and you can feel the thrill of expectation. It is the kind of response that has to affect a performance. It is the kind of audience reaction that brings out the best in a performer. Helm's ramble on the fabled Ryman stage builds on that energy to revisit and reinvigorate some of the best of his classic work. This ramble is a joyful romp.

Ramble at the Ryman collects fifteen songs that range over the different stages of Helm's career. There are songs from his days with The Band; there are songs from 2007's Dirt Farmer. Variety is key to the set. From the opening number, Robbie Robertson's "Ophelia" which ends with a solid Dixieland jam to the final rousing chorus of "The Weight" with its horns and harmonica, Helms and an impressive line up of his friends who seem to have just casually dropped by to help out run a gamut of musical genres. There are low down blues like "Baby Scratch My Back" and twanging country blues like Teresa Williams' vocal on "Time Out For the Blues." "Anna Lee" and "A Train Robbery" are modern takes on the traditional narrative folk ballad. Sheryl Crow joins Helm for a Cajun inspired "Evangeline" and then does a Carter Family country hymn, "No Depression in Heaven." The traditional "Deep Elem Blues" has a real jazz feel and Chuck Berry's "Back to Memphis" is an old time rocker. With guests like Crow and Buddy Miller, Sam Bush, Billy Bob Thornton and John Hiatt adding their voices to the mix, whether it is repertoire or performer, this is an album that doesn't want for diversity.

While for those of us of a certain age, the homage to the days of The Band with tunes like "The Weight," "Rag Mama Rag," "Chest Fever" and "The Shape I'm In" may well be the highlights of the concert, this is not a golden oldies show. If Helm isn't going the way of his erstwhile band mate Robertson on his recent album, How to Become a Clairvoyant and recording brand new music, it is nice to see him putting his own stamp on these classics.

The band for the concert, which is also available on DVD, includes Larry Cambell on electric guitar and an assortment of other instruments, daughter Amy Helm on drums and mandolin, Teresa Williams on acoustic guitar, and Brian Mitchell on piano, organ and accordion. All join in on vocals. There is a swinging horn section made of Erik Lawrence and Jay Collins on saxophone, Stephen Bernstein on trumpet, and Clark Gayton on trombone and tuba. Tony Leone joins Helm on drums and Paul Ossola plays bass. Little Sammy Davis is featured on harmonica and does a bang up job rocking the blues on "Fannie Mae."

After a bout with throat cancer and problems with his voice, it is truly exciting to see how well he has recovered. Helm may not be quite the singer he was back in the day, but who is? The signature Southern grit that marked his vocals in the past with true intensity and emotional honesty still comes through loud and clear. And that is plenty good enough to make Ramble at the Ryman an album that should be on your iPod.


Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Music Review: The Headhunters, Platinum

Article first published as Music Review: The Headhunters, Platinum on Blogcritics.

It takes a lot of confidence, some might call it "chutzpah," to call your new album Platinum, but the latest from the Headhunters may well justify the title. After all, back in the '70's as the liner notes point out the "band became the first jazz/fusion group to go platinum," and even a cursory hearing of their latest shows them at the top of their game. Led by original Headhunters percussionist Bill Summers and drummer Mike Clark, the band lays down an eclectic set of percussion fore-fronted tracks that moves from hip hop to salsa to traditional African rhythms stopping to sample a cornucopia of other genres along the way. In an on-line interview with Nick De Riso at Something Else!, Summers describes the vibe: "My personal description for the music we are playing now is New Urban. It’s a specific new genre, something that represents all of the metropolis. It’s European, it’s Asian, it’s African. There is lots of jazz, funk, elements of rap. It’s being fair to all of the music. When people hear it, hopefully they feel part of the family."

Members of the family helping out on some of the tracks are guest artists Snoop Dogg, George Clinton, Killah Priest, Jaecyn Bayne, and Private Pile. Then there's trumpet stalwart Derrick Gardner, horn player Azar Lawrence, and Jerry Stucker on the guitar. Patrice Rushen shares the keyboard honors with Kyle Roussel, and Headhunter original member, Bennie Maupin, comes back for some work on the soprano sax. Then of course there is the core of the band: bassist Richie Goods, horn players Donald Harrison and Rob Dixon, and Gary Mielke on keyboards. On any given track, you can shake them up and mix and match as needed.

Highlighting the disc are some fine instrumentals. "Tracie," written by Summers in memory of his late wife, features some sweet trumpet lines by Gardner played over pulsating Latin rhythms after the horn section sets the tone. "M Trane," Clark's tribute to John Coltrane written along with Jeff Pittson, begins with a kind of duet between Rushen on the piano and the horns and runs through nearly nine minutes of happy improvisation. "Salamander" lays down a funky groove which according to the liner notes gets picked up again later on in the album in "Skizness" with a Private Pile rap replacing "Salamander's" dynamic horn solos. Richie Goods' "Soul Glow" is a throwback that gives the band an opportunity to showcase its straight ahead chops.

Snoop Dogg is featured on "Funk With Us" where he is joined by Clinton, Priest and Bayne. Bayne opens the album with "Mission Statement," which is presumably a manifesto describing the band's new direction. Summers joins Bayne's rap with a softer vocal on "Apple Tree." "Congo Place" begins with some throbbing percusion leading to a Donald Harrison vocal punctuated by a chanting chorus that seems to look back to African roots by way of New Orleans. "Head Hunting" is a tour de force for Clark and Summers with a haunting melody that gives the whole band a shot to shine.
Platinum is an album that melds elements of different musical traditions to create a whole that may well be greater than the sum of its parts. In an interview with Dominic Fragman of, Mike Clark calls the album: " A cross generational effort, we mixed up a lot of genres--jazz, funk, African, latin, and even hip hop on several pieces--that was fun!" It may have been fun for him and the band, but for the listener, it's a blast.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

2011 Tony Awards Show: Hits and Misses

Article first published as 2011 Tony Awards Show: Hits and Misses on Blogcritics.

Sunday night's Tony Award show seems to have been as much an infomercial intended to advertise the Broadway product as it was an occasion to reward the best of the 2011 season. The inclusion of musical numbers from last year's winning Memphis, the Lincoln Center production of a concert version of Company which will be appearing in theatres across the country, and the disaster prone yet to officially open Spiderman to the exclusion of the actual presentation of what some must have considered the "lesser" awards may have been more entertaining for the TV audience, but it clearly demonstrates someone's priorities, and those priorities aren't exactly awards.

That said the four hour show had both its highlights and its lesser moments. First the hits:

The musical number from Kander and Ebb's The Scottsboro Boys gave viewers an opportunity to get some idea of what this innovative show which had closed before its time was like. Presumably it will tour, and perhaps this taste will help it find an audience.

The energetic tap number from the Anything Goes revival was a convincing demonstration of why Sutton Foster was soon to be a Tony winner.

Andrew Rannells' "I Believe" from The Book of Mormon was a show stopper and only one of a number of highlights associated with the multi-award winning production, including Trey Parker's shout out to Joseph Smith and Nikki M. James' endearing excitement over her award for featured actress.

As far as acceptance speeches go John Larroquette was nicely ironic and low key about his featured actor award for How to Suceed. . . ., and Mark Rylance may have mystified some viewers with his acceptance via prose poem recitation. Although it seems he's done it before, it still feels fresh.

Neil Patrick Harris, from beginning to end, is just about everything anyone could want in a host. Whether entering on the War Horse puppet, reeling off Spiderman jokes against the clock, or doing his end of show rap, he is nothing short of the latter day Bob Hope.

Brooke Shields showed that beneath that ideal beauty beats a real human being.
Frances McDormund's fashion statement was refreshing if nothing else. It certainly distinguished her, if not from The Edge, at least from the rest of the crowd.
Now for some of the lesser moments:

The dramatic actors' little introductions to their nominated plays were weak substitutions for a glimpse or two of the production.

Too often the remarks written for the presenters were so pretentious that you had to admire the presenter's ability to read them with a straight face.

Actors shouting their thank-yous over the music telling them to get themselves off the stage leave something to be desired. There has to be a way to get them off the stage that is less intrusive, a hook perhaps.

Of course the most annoying thing about the show for theatre lovers had to be the relegation so many awards to announcements around the commercial breaks. It is important to entertain the audience, but it is equally as important to celebrate the award winners.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof: Small Parts, Small Actors

Article first published as From the Green Room: Small Parts, Small Actors on Blogcritics.

As the old canard has it, there are no small parts only small actors. Recent experience suggests that it would be more truthful to say there are indeed small parts and small actors aplenty to fill them complaining all the while. Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, in which I find myself one such small actor playing one such small part, offers a case in point. While the play has some of the great acting roles in the contemporary American theater, it also has some real stinkers. Included in the cast are a cadre of servants who are little more than walk-ons, a gaggle of no necked children, Dr. Baugh and the esteemed Reverend Tooker, the small part for this small actor. Williams, if nothing else, provides a lot of work for actors.

Now for a professional actor even a small part is a pay day. It may do little for the ego, but it does put food on the table. I would imagine that Maxwell Glanville who played the servant Lacey and Fred Stewart who was the original Rev. Tooker were just as thrilled to get their paychecks as Burl Ives, Ben Gazzara and Barbara Bel Geddes. Of course Burl, Ben and Barbara got the plums as well, but half a loaf is worth something. With the economics of the theater today, however, there are few, if any, new plays—straight plays especially—requiring these kinds of small parts that are likely to be produced professionally. Equity actors don't come cheap. It is not the typical theater that can afford to cast even classic dramas like Our Town, neglected relics like Camino Royal, let alone produce a new work with a cast of thousands. Non-profits may be, but don't look for them on the Great White Way. On Broadway, you're more likely to see a show with a cast of two than you are with a cast even the size of Death of a Salesman.

If a paycheck is at least incentive for the professional actor, what is the incentive for the amateur? Take Rev. Tooker. He first appears in Act I. He is playing croquet with Doc Baugh. They have a few lines about the game as a kind of background for Maggies' plaints about life with Brick on that hot tin roof. He is, unfortunately for the actor, off-stage. He appears again at the beginning of Act ll, provoking Big Daddy with his prattle with Gooper about memorial gifts. He has his big moment in the play when Big Mama pulls him on her lap and leaves the stage in embarrassment when Big Daddy begins to make sexual remarks. He is back before the end of the act sheepishly looking for the "gentleman's lavatory. In the third act he stands around for awhile as the truth about Big Daddy's cancer is detailed, and quickly gets out of the way. It is not that he has no function in the play. Like Maggie, Gooper and Mae, he is, on a lesser level, another leech—or in his case a gnat—looking to suck a little blood out of the dying man. He has a moment of comic relief.

The role may be better than a walk-on, but it really offers little for the actor and adds little to the drama that couldn't have been done in some other way. Indeed, you have to wonder what difference it would make if he were eliminated entirely. Were Williams writing today, I have no doubt he would have found a way to get rid of the good reverend, and he would be right to do so. Certainly there are small parts that offer the actor a moment on stage that has creative possibilities. I think of the Professor in Our Town, Marley's ghost in A Christmas Carol, even the Gentleman caller in The Glass Menagerie. These are the roles where the actors may be small, but the roles aren't. Rev. Tooker is a small role, just right for a smallest of actors.