31 October 2011

Dan Rather Turns 80

Nothin’ But Good Times: Who can forget our hard-hitting interview with candidate Bob Dole (center)
at the 1996 Republican National Convention in San Diego?

Dan Rather turns 80 today — a development that has the perverse effect of making me feel old, since for a very long time a principal determining factor in my stalwart belief in my own youthfulness was my ability to chase after him, from Cape Town to Alaska, from Osaka to Havana to Tbilisi to the eye of whatever storm happened along. Nowadays, I couldn’t keep up with him, and lately I haven’t been asked to. But Dan keeps charging ahead.

Spend a little time in Dan’s orbit, and the most outlandish notions begin to seem perfectly commonplace. Take, for example, his penchant for colorful expressions, or “Ratherisms.” Chances are, you don’t know anyone who talks like Dan — but I do — and in his company, you may start talking like him, too.

And so, in honor of my tee-total, me-mortal mentor, model, sometime boss and longtime friend, I’d like to wish him a happy birthday — his way.

Here’s hoping your birthday is happier than a fourth-grade field trip to a chocolate factory…

More festive than happy hour at the Chicken Ranch…

More memorable than a moonwalk…

More song-filled than a honkytonk jukebox…

Hotter than Kreuz’s barbecue pit…

Full of more kicks than a line dance at Billy Bob’s…

Wilder than a possum hunt on Crack Street…

More exciting than a doubleheader in extra innings … during a hurricane…

As dazzling as Jean’s smile…

…And just the start of another back-to-the-wall,
foot-to-the-pedal, eyes-to-the-stars,

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29 October 2011

Joyce Castle at the Café Sabarsky

Until such time as I can get regular access to a working scanner, we’re going to have to settle for pictures from other sources.
I drew this caricature for Joyce following her performance as Lady Jane in Gilbert & Sullivan’s Patience, at Glimmerglass in 2004. It’s posted (like all the other pictures in this entry) on her indispensable website.

Versatility is among the qualities I most admire in the mezzo-soprano Joyce Castle — understandably, I guess, when you consider some of the roles I’ve seen her play, from the Old Lady in Bernstein’s Candide to … the old lady in Einem’s The Visit of the Old Lady. I’ve heard her sing songs from the 19th century, as well as songs so modern the ink hasn’t dried on the page. There’s really nothing she can’t do.

High among her other admirable qualities is the ability to scale her performance to the room, big opera houses and small, “straight” theater and the recital hall. She’s got such a sure sense both of her craft and of the crowd that she knows, as if by instinct, exactly how much she needs to do in order to get her point across — as if she were standing next to you.

“Speak Low”: On this night, it wasn’t just a song title.

Thus my expectations were high when Joyce announced that on 27 October she’d be performing a cabaret act in the Café Sabarsky, at New York’s ganz chic Neue Galerie, the Fifth Avenue museum specializing in German art. The whole building is narrow, and the café takes up only part of the ground floor: Joyce would be communicating on a scale wholly new to this audience, at least.

In the event, I was all but sitting in Joyce’s lap, or she in mine: anyway, I was in the front row. And by golly, she who can make the heavens tremble, when she wants to, now delivered a performance as intimate as a personal conversation.

Mrs. Lovett in Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd was among the very first roles I saw her perform (here, with the great Timothy Nolen). Imagine my pleasure Thursday night when, after all these years, she launched into one of the numbers from that show:
Good things come to those who “Wait,” indeed.

Joyce has experimented with cabaret before, including collaboration with the evening’s pianist, Ted Taylor, whose estimable contributions to the Sabarsky evening included a couple of ingenious medleys. The material was, for Joyce, typically wide-ranging, embracing three languages and including Yvette Guilbert’s “Je suis pocharde” (Joyce portrayed Guilbert in Martha Clarke’s Belle Epoque at Lincoln Center in 2004), one of William Bolcom’s great cabaret numbers, and a Jake Heggie song from Statuesque, a cycle he composed especially for her.

Joyce also sang a couple of Hanns Eisler numbers and lots of Kurt Weill, a composer whose work means a lot to both Joyce and me, and in whose archive she and I met, many years ago. I was delighted to hear her incarnate the goddess of love once again, in numbers from One Touch of Venus, especially a soulful “Speak Low,” and I thrilled to hear her searing rendition of “Is It Him Or Is It Me?” from Love Life.* The warmth and feeling of her voice are ever wondrous.

My personal favorite of Joyce’s stage roles, the hard-living Claire Zachanassian in Gottfried von Einem’s The Visit of the Old Lady, New York City Opera, 1997.
Please direct your most special attention to Joyce’s upstage leg.

That’s a powerful number, as a wife looks over the remains of her failed marriage: in the confines of the café, how easy it would have been to overplay the drama. Joyce offered restraint that, in the context of the song, became all the more compelling. She respected the song’s bluesy roots, too. Not every opera singer can do that, you know.

Joyce can be hilarious, too, and her flawless diction is perhaps never more valuable than when she’s singing a comic number, whatever the language may be. Flanders and Swann’s “The Gnu” and “Je suis pocharde” had me in stitches — and in both these cases, Joyce’s ability to mug hoisted the comedy even higher.**

Since Joyce celebrated her fortieth season in opera last season, it stands to reason that this is her forty-first. As her career moves ever forward, what empires remain to conquer? Before Thursday night, I might not have known the answer, but I’ve got one now.

As Sally Bowles would say, “Come to the cabaret!”

Joyce as Klytemnestra in Strauss’ Elektra. Is it possible that she’s such a nice person offstage because she gets all the nastiness out of her system when she’s onstage?

*NOTE: I hadn’t even told Joyce that Follies had given me a yen to hear Love Life. Really, her artistry is uncanny.

**She’s equally funny in her own material, as in her account of “Opera Songs,” Volume Seven of The Scribner Radio Music Library, which she’s performed elsewhere. Given her distinguished track record in Sullivan and in Wagner, Joyce could be the next Anna Russell whenever she sets her mind to it.

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27 October 2011

Burning Down the House

XANTHIPPE: “Gee, honey, you look depressed. What’s the matter?”

SOCRATES: “Aw, I burned down the house again today.”

XANTHIPPE: “Oh, no! That’s the third time in a year! How much of our stuff was inside?”

SOCRATES: “Everything — all our papers, the novel I’ve been writing, all our records, our pictures and books — everything.”

XANTHIPPE: “You kept a backup, though. [Pause] Didn’t you?”

SOCRATES: “I kept meaning to do it.…”

XANTHIPPE: “Well, darling, you’re just going to have to pack up all the ashes and debris and take them down to that guy with a sifter. Maybe he can retrieve a few things.”

SOCRATES: “He’s all the way over in Corinth — and last time, I had to wait three days before he could even see me!”

XANTHIPPE: “You should have thought of that before you burned down the house, wise guy.”
Homes did burn in days of yore, of course, and so did libraries, sometimes by accident (Alexandria), sometimes not (consider Umberto Eco’s thoroughly credible scene in The Name of the Rose). Yet on the whole, “data storage” today strikes me as a far more fragile business than many of us are willing to acknowledge — perhaps less reliable now than at any point in history.

I would think this, of course, since I dropped my cell phone in the toilet last night, and now a host of phone numbers, text messages, and other data are (at least temporarily) lost to me. Within the past year, I’ve also witnessed the untimely demises of two laptops — one of which had crashed and died once already within the preceding year and was operating on a brand-new hard drive.

These experiences may explain my shock the other day, when Elise was looking at my stuff. Books, records (CDs, LPs, DVDs, and some VHS), documents in several file cabinets: all of it, she observed, the sorts of material that now can be stored conveniently on tiny chips or in cyberspace. Had I thought about joining the 21st century, she wanted to know, and had I considered how much more room I’d have if I simply got rid of all this stuff?*

I could hardly believe she’d say such a thing. Why not just tell me to throw it all out the window? Really, for all her good intentions, I sometimes think that Elise just doesn’t understand the importance of my stuff: to me, it’s not decoration, whereas she’s the person who once rearranged all the books (my books) in the living room by color and size.

Some of my stuff is my vocation — I’m a writer, after all. Some of my stuff is my passion, including multiple copies of recordings of the same opera. And if I don’t trade in all my stuff for the ease and convenience of virtual storage, there’s at least one good reason: the sort of thing you see in the photos below is the sort of thing that very, very seldom happens to a paperback book.

*NOTE: The foreman of the moving crew agreed with Elise, it must be said, but on the other hand, he’d lifted and carried it all.

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26 October 2011

Sondheim’s ‘Follies’ on Broadway

There’s a classic Broadway musical that uses the homegrown conventions and style of a theatrical revue to tell of marital discord in a shifting time frame, against a backdrop of economic uncertainty. With a brilliant score but a problematic book, it’s seldom revived, but its influence can be seen in the work of dozens of composers and playwrights in the subsequent generation.

I’m referring of course to Kurt Weill and Alan Jay Lerner’s Love Life (1948), the ghost of which hovers behind Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman’s Follies like the phantom showgirls who haunt the Weismann Theater in their 1971 musical, now being revived on Broadway. As a Weill fan, I feel a twinge of regret each time Follies captures the headlines in yet another “rediscovery of a neglected masterpiece”: when will I ever see Love Life onstage? But I can’t begrudge the Sondheim Juggernaut overmuch this time, because the present revival, directed by Eric Schaeffer, is terrific — so good, in fact, that it’s compelled me to reassess the piece.

Divas: Bernadette Peters and Jan Maxwell

Follies is far stronger than I previously believed. It may even be as good as Sondheim cultists say it is — and in this town, that’s saying a lot.

In New York, it is for example risky, depending on the company one keeps, to point out that Sondheim’s outsized theatrical ambitions have been hampered in collaboration with writers who never can quite keep up: rare is the book to a Sondheim musical that’s anywhere near as effective as the score. James Goldman’s book for Follies is a case in point, and on my earlier encounters with this play, substantial effort went into “fixing” the book.

Lee Remick as Phyllis, Barbara Cook as Sally
Lincoln Center, 1985.
By chance, last night’s performance coincided with Miss Cook’s birthday.

The first strategy was to make me forget the book by force of distraction: the big-name concert at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall in 1985 (which I saw only on TV) altered the original text, but who was really paying attention to it anyway? Barbara Cook, Lee Remick, Carol Burnett, Licia Albanese, Comden and Green, Elaine Stritch, Mandy Patinkin, George Hearn, Phyllis Newman — one after another — were a text unto themselves.

Blythe Danner as Phyllis, 2001

A second strategy is to beef up the book, by hiring performers better known for acting than for singing, as the Roundabout Theatre did for its revival, which I saw at the Belasco ten years ago. My revered Blythe Danner was Phyllis, the great Judith Ivey, Sally, and Polly Bergen, a fiery, memorable Carlotta. This actor-centric strategy might have worked better had the rest of the Roundabout production been less tatty. As it was, the leading ladies’ excellence in the book scenes was mitigated by the audience’s (and perhaps their own) anxiety: would they be able to sing the big numbers? The answer was yes, mostly, but we expended a lot of energy in getting to that point.

Phantoms: Ben (Ron Raines) and Sally (Bernadette Peters)
with their younger selves (Lora Lee Gayer, Nick Verina)

Now Schaeffer’s production bursts on the scene, after a successful run at Washington’s Kennedy Center. What tinkering with the book was done, I can’t say: I’m not the sort of Sondheim fanatic who has every variant committed to memory. But Goldman’s bitterly clinical, of-its-period dissection of the American marriage seems more plausible here than it did in my previous encounters — not least because it’s abundantly clear to modern audiences that Sally, the motor of the plot (such as it is), is a chronic depressive in desperate need of strong medication. Yeah, such a person really might wreak havoc this way.

Who’s that woman? It’s nearly everybody, actually.

Follies, stripped of its will-it-fly concerns, now takes its place next to Sondheim’s Company in its attitudes and Assassins in its form: a pastiche revue — with heavy debts to Weill. The show is better than I thought, and at last I was free to focus on the performances.

Which is as it should be. The story of a company reunion on the eve of a theater’s destruction, Follies is a series of star turns, and every number invites diva worship. For me, the revelation was Jan Maxwell, who has become a Broadway superstar while I was in France: this was my first glimpse of her, and she’s beyond fabulous, delivering a “Could I Leave You” quite unlike any I’ve ever heard.

So, anything exciting happen while I was in France?
Jan Maxwell as Phyllis

Often, singers take their cue from “Leave You”’s lilting tempo and Phyllis’ frosty elegance: the song is the most genteel slap in the face imaginable, and surely it was Blythe Danner’s unrivaled track record in this sort of character that got her hired by the Roundabout. Maxwell (and Schaeffer and music director James Moore) take her cue from the text, however: in her hands, “Leave You” is an explosion of pent-up rage, and if the waltz is still playing, it’s because Phyllis is so deep in her rut that, even now, she can’t climb out of it. She’s a prisoner of her own Park Avenue charms.

Bernadette Peters is up to something equally tricky in her interpretation of Sally, playing not only the character but also commenting on her own kewpie-doll image. Not everybody finds the result satisfying; I did, for the most part. In the proper context, Peters seems to be saying, a kewpie doll is adorable, but in Sally’s circumstances, that same doll is a nightmare. Even so, one has almost to admire Sally, who is gambling her own happiness — and that of three other people — on a pipe dream.

Song of Bernadette:
Let’s face it, most of us would turn out
just to see her read a gum wrapper.

Sally is ambitious, and so is Sondheim, so it’s no surprise that he’s written some of his most poignant music for the character. Surprisingly, Peters’ delivery of “Losing My Mind” was for this audience the least successful element of her performance. Instead of singing the song straight, as she has done in concert, she milked the emotions, and even she didn’t seem entirely comfortable doing so. I certainly wasn’t. The song doesn’t need this, and since it’s sung by a woman who is nearly catatonic in her depression (“stand[ing] in the middle of the floor, not going left, not going right”), it makes no sense when it’s hammed up.

But who can pass up an opportunity to see Bernadette, the last great star of Broadway musicals, to whom we refer by her first name, as if we know her personally — and in Sondheim, no less?

Over Here, “Still Here”: Elaine Paige as Carlotta

Londoners feel much the same about Elaine Paige, whose position in the West End is roughly comparable to Bernadette’s on Broadway. Paige’s New York appearances have been rare, and this one is curious: sure, Carlotta is a great part, but was nobody offering her a lead? Oh, well. Paige has great fun with the character comedy (and the American accent), and her “I’m Still Here” pleased the crowd, including me — even if it didn’t induce catharsis, as some other singers’ versions have done. (Polly Bergen made it seem she was making up her volcanic rendition on the spot.)

Ron Raines started out a bit stiffly, his line readings not quite ringing true — and yet, for Ben, this seemed about right. As the evening wore on, he grew in strength, with a pleasing baritone and conflicted character, aspiring to a tragic hero’s nobility and stature. Lovely as he sounded in “Too Many Mornings,” what struck me most was his desperate attempt to make things right: this Ben is a louse, yes, but not so much that he’s prepared to ruin Sally’s life — or to help her ruin it herself.

Can’t get enough “Too Many Mornings”:
Ron Raines and Bernadette Peters

Danny Burstein threw himself into Buddy’s character, moving from awkwardness to resignation to inarticulate fury: the dance breaks in “The Right Girl” never seemed so expressive as now, when the usually glib Buddy can find no more words. Really, if this production can boast a surprising asset, it’s the ability to evince sympathy for the leading men, rather than focusing entirely on the ladies. (Praise to Christian Delcroix, who convincingly portrayed Young Buddy, really capturing Burstein’s distinctive inflections.)

Burstein in “The God-Why-Don’t-You-Love-Me Blues,”
with Jennifer Foote and Kiira Schmidt

Beyond the dynamics of the central couples, Follies is a collection of top-notch specialty numbers. Tremendous interest centered on mezzo Rosalind Elias, the Metropolitan Opera stalwart making her Broadway debut in the twilight of a long career.* Regal in a mulberry gown, in “One Last Kiss,” she sang circles around the soprano who played her younger self.

Elias, with David Sabin as impresario Dmitri Weismann

A vocal powerhouse who also dances up a storm, Terri White elicited whoops and roars from the crowd with “Who’s That Woman,” while Jane Houdyshell’s take-it-or-leave-it “Broadway Baby” proved absolutely winning: I took it, baby, I took it. I’ll never understand “Ah, Paris,” a number that, paradoxically, never goes anywhere, but Mary Beth Peil looked like a million bucks. Seriously, her picture must be sitting in the same attic as Bernadette Peters’, I think.

Schaeffer’s production laid on the atmosphere a bit thickly, with eerie sound effects pumped into the house prior to the show and during intermission, while extra showgirls haunted the stage incessantly. (Maybe this is the ideal show to see for Halloween?) But overall, his Follies won unprecedented admiration from me, and brought me a step or two closer to full-fledged Sondheim Worship.**

Now if only somebody would revive Love Life.

The sensational Terri White, center, leads the company
in “Who’s That Woman.”
Among White’s other roles is Chicago’s Mamma Morton,
once a showcase for my beloved Marcia Lewis.

*NOTE: Though Rosalind Elias and I have never met, she’s one of Teresa Stratas’ dearest friends. I’m not sure how it’s possible for us to keep crossing paths for so many years.

**Non-New Yorkers may not understand how deep in Sondheim’s thrall this city is. People wander the streets saying, “The peace of Steve be with you, brother,” and if you don’t respond correctly, they look at you in a puzzled way and say, “Are you not of the Body?”

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25 October 2011

Disturbing Books for Troubled Times

Portrait of the author as the star of an adaptation
of another author’s book:
Laurence Olivier as Hurstwood in Carrie (1952)

Ordinarily, I’d be among the first to recommend reading as an excellent pursuit in tough economic times. Few activities are less expensive or more sympathetic to the un- or under-employed who are struggling to make ends meet and uncertain of future prospects. In the pages of good books one may find countless examples of uplift and inspiration in the biographies, even (or especially) the fictional ones, of those who have faced greater challenges than ours, who have risen above greater privation and suffering, then triumphed and endured.

On the other hand, I didn’t quite bargain for my current predicament. The books I’ve been reading are downright terrifying, and it’s all because I had the fool notion of giving a second chance to a couple of novels I’d dismissed years ago: Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie, and John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces.

Son of the Confederacy: Ignatius J. Reilly.
A detail from the cover design of a recent edition.

Both novels are considered American classics by now, which in Dreiser’s case means that very few people read the book who aren’t required to do so in school; and in Toole’s case, that I am very old, since his novel was published posthumously when I was in high school. Both novels feature central characters in dire economic straits, though they’re not entirely aware of this fact. And here it is that I begin to see myself, a little too clearly, in the pages.

We first see George Hurstwood, the male protagonist of Sister Carrie, in the lap of comfort: he’s the manager of what Dreiser calls a “resort,” an upscale bar that entails a fancy restaurant and evidently some other facilities, as well. He dresses well, hobnobs with celebrities, and earns a respectable income, making investments on the side (in his wife’s name), and inspiring in his children a noxious double-dose of upward mobility and entitlement.

In happier times? Jennifer Jones as Carrie Meeber, with Olivier.
David O. Selznick can’t have enjoyed this movie.

Then he meets Carrie Meeber. By the end of the book, he’s out of work, and so guilty over his previous lapse (stealing a lot of money in order to run away with Carrie) that he can barely bring himself to go on job interviews. A single rejection is enough to discourage him for days — or worse. Much, much worse.

As a middle-aged man who spent two years seeking any sort of employment in the self-same city of Manhattan, having just struck up with a much younger lover, I identified only too well with Hurstwood: the way he pounds the proverbial pavement, the way he idles in hotel lobbies and bars, the way he sits around his apartment and reads the paper while sweet young Carrie looks on. Nobody ever wrote this stuff better than Dreiser did, and yeah, I know because I’ve done all that.*

Down-and-out: Olivier as Hurstwood
The film’s producers surely hoped to capitalize on the success of A Place in the Sun (1951), an adaptation of Dreiser’s An American Tragedy — the very novel that turned me off of Dreiser. Would I have been more tolerant if I’d seen either movie when I was in high school?

Finding a little job and having completed Sister Carrie, I turned to Confederacy of Dunces, a comic (thus far) potpourri set in New Orleans, circa 1960, and populated by aggressively eccentric characters. When I first tried the book, not long after it came out, I found the whole business rather labored and not worth my time — but mellower now in middle age than in high school, I’m more open to the book’s loopy charms.

This makes me only more vulnerable. Toole’s protagonist is Ignatius J. Reilly, a pompous, pampered intellectual mama’s boy, devoting years to the writing of a book that will never be published. He closely resembles Victor Buono’s character in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, but here he takes the spotlight. And when money runs short, Ignatius doesn’t latch onto a former child star — he condescends to go out and get an office job. Not unlike the one I’ve got.

Lacking the green cap with the ear flaps
yet brimming with the requisite theology and geometry:
Victor Buono in Baby Jane.

With his many (and useless) “improvements” to the workplace, with his sophisticated filing system (throwing everything into the trash), with his mistakes and misinterpretations and malentendus, and above all with his constant belief in his own superiority to his surroundings, Ignatius reminds me a little too much of myself. On the job but never on the ball, on my high horse but on the down-and-out. (Or near enough.)

The resemblance isn’t absolute, of course. Ignatius, after all, isn’t merely arrogant, vain, self-centered, and snobbish. He’s a monumental narcissist — and therein lies much of the novel’s outrageous appeal.

Why, Ignatius even sees himself in the books he reads! What a ludicrous monster he is.

Excited by the recommendation of Walker Percy, who rescued Toole’s manuscript from oblivion, I bought a copy of the paperback.
It’s lingered on my shelf for decades.
Further proof that one should never throw out anything, least of all a book.

*PERSONAL NOTE: Sorry, Kara. Sorry, Elise.

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24 October 2011

Occupying Myself around Wall Street

“Occupy Wall Street has become an event for its own sake, a destination for the aimless,” the columnist Richard Cohen wrote in the Washington Post today. On Saturday, if he’d seen me, Cohen might have thought my presence confirmed his analysis. After all, I was in Zuccotti Park primarily because I’d attended another event nearby, and I arrived at this particular hour because that event, a wine-tasting, had left me too buzzed to go to the gym, as I’d planned. Once I got there, I started taking pictures, and I bought two buttons for my mother’s collection of political memorabilia (somewhat neglected, lately). Just so, Cohen describes the ongoing protest in New York as “something that occurs on countless iPhone cameras, a tourist attraction with the usual vendors.”

Well, I don’t have an iPhone, but it’s true that I came mostly to observe. I’d been planning to do so for a couple of weeks, but you know how it goes: a new job at weird hours, the fact that Zuccotti Park lies at the opposite end of Manhattan Island … it took me a while. Yet I wasn’t quite “aimless,” and ultimately, like Richard Cohen, I find Occupy Wall Street interesting at least as much for the reactions it provokes, as for what’s actually happening in the Park.

Having heard so many tales from Madeline Gilford about how FBI agents used to station themselves at protest meetings (and any kind of gathering) to take photos of suspected left-wingers, I felt terribly conspicuous when I began to take pictures in Zuccotti Park. To make matters worse, the protesters kept moving around.

It occurred to me that the very blurriness of my photographs was a proof in itself that my intentions were benign.

See? I wasn’t spying.

I don’t disagree with the Occupiers, so much as I find myself constitutionally incapable of joining them. In life there are Antigones and there are Ismenes, the late Bruce Donovan used to say, and even as a boy in his classroom I knew I wasn’t an Antigone. Grown-up now, I confess that the solidarity I feel with the protesters is of a vague and somewhat awkward sort.

Occupy Wall Street is serious about tidiness and recycling.

This is my prerogative, not only as an American but also as a journalist, a calling that entitles me to get the story completely wrong, where Occupy Wall Street is concerned. Or so it would seem. We’ve been told that “the media ignored the protests for weeks,” yet when I got to Zuccotti Park, there seemed absolutely nothing suspect about this ostensible “media blackout.”

The demonstrations downtown are (still) very small, and the most remarkable thing about them — endurance — was by necessity untrue of them at their outset. I know it will come as a shock to the protesters, but there are other stories to be reported, competition for airtime or print space is fierce, and they simply didn’t stack up. Not at the start.

By now, the Occupy protests in New York (and several other cities) have engendered lots of media coverage, much of it wrongheaded. Some of the claims made by those who sympathize seem grandiose. Then you look at claims made by those who disagree — and they’re even more extravagant, especially in comparison with what you see when you go downtown.

This is what’s threatening our institutions, our prosperity, our national security, our very identity? Really? This is going to give aid and comfort to our enemies, and not incidentally make Barack Obama a one-term wonder?

Here for the long haul? The protesters have brought tents and sleeping bags.
Proof, perhaps, that the protesters aren’t all college kids.
How many do you know who make their beds every day?

Winter is coming, and it will get harder to camp out in Zuccotti Park. That’s why it was important to me to shlepp downtown, and not to wait any longer: I wanted to see this while it was still in some sense thriving. I wanted to observe, as I say, and also to think. Even if I never picked up a picket.

Ultimately, I wonder who’s more naïve: the folks who think their little sit-in may deserve some attention and bring about change — or the folks who thought they could toy with the economy and let the guilty run free?

At the very least, the scofflaws and their enablers know now that impunity isn’t a divine right: it was pure luck, and it may not last.

Beast behind bars?

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22 October 2011

Dangerous E-Lisions

Please, please, Mister Postman

For modern readers, much of the fascination of Choderlos Laclos’ celebrated novel, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, is the use of old-fashioned letter-writing. How could people in the 18th century seethe and plot, how could they flirt, much less have wild, passionate sex, when they weren’t even in the same room and had to wait days before receiving a response? In our day and age, we wouldn’t have the patience — and what’s more, we wouldn’t have the language, either.

The truth is that we’ve lost the ability to write letters, and many of us have lost the ability even to write e-mails. We do possess an ability far beyond the scope of Laclos and his characters, however, and it is my happy duty now to demonstrate the ascent of mankind. For we, too, can conduct our vicious business in writing — after our own fashion. Read on, and see what I mean.

Even Stephen Frears’ otherwise excellent film failed to enable Merteuil (Glenn Close) and Valmont (John Malkovich) to explore the full range of possibilities.

11:17 A.M. October 22, 2011
The Vicômte de Valmont to the Marquise de Merteuil

can i haz tourvel?

11:18 A.M. October 22, 2011
The Marquise de Merteuil to the Vicômte de Valmont


11:18 A.M. October 22, 2011
The Vicômte de Valmont to the Marquise de Merteuil

4 realz!

11:19 A.M. October 22, 2011
The Marquise de Merteuil to the Vicômte de Valmont


11:20 A.M. October 22, 2011
The Vicômte de Valmont to the Marquise de Merteuil




11:21 A.M. October 22, 2011
The Marquise de Merteuil to the Vicômte de Valmont

omg u r 2 gross

11:22 A.M. October 22, 2011
The Vicômte de Valmont to the Marquise de Merteuil

: P

11:22 A.M. October 22, 2011
The Vicômte de Valmont to the Marquise de Merteuil


11:23 A.M. October 22, 2011
The Marquise de Merteuil to the Vicômte de Valmont

no u got 2 haz volanges 1st.
: )

11:24 A.M. October 22, 2011
The Vicômte de Valmont to the Marquise de Merteuil

: (


11:45 A.M. October 22, 2011
The Présidente de Tourvel to the Vicômte de Valmont

Stop sexting me!!!

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21 October 2011

Haigh’s ‘Weekend’

Alone together: Russell (Tom Cullen) and Glen (Chris New)

I get the feeling that filmmaker Andrew Haigh is speaking through Glen, one of the principal characters in his movie Weekend: an artist exploring gay themes, Glen predicts that gays won’t come to his gallery exhibition because they’re only interested in “a glimpse of cock,” while for straights the whole subject matter is simply too remote to be bothered with.

Just so, Haigh has written a gay love story that has won prizes and sensational reviews like this one from New York’s David Edelstein: “I hate to damage so fragile a work with overpraise, but, gay or straight, if you don’t see yourself in this movie, you need to get a life.”* And yet a midweek evening screening in Manhattan was sparsely attended.

That’s a shame, because Weekend is a wonderful movie, hugely ambitious in its very smallness. People have been calling it a romantic comedy, but I’m not sure that’s apt — or anyway, this quiet English picture doesn’t much resemble other gay rom-coms, which tend to be about pretty boys saying stupid things — and it doesn’t resemble straight rom-coms, either, in that it is so completely honest and real. Thank you, Mr. Edelstein: I did see myself in this movie.

We begin with Russell (Tom Cullen), held in such tight close-up that we’re constantly aware how alone he is, even at a dinner party: only fragments of other people enter to share the screen with him, and he doesn’t really connect with any of them. (Tellingly, they’re his best friends — but they’re straight.) When Russell arrives at a gay bar, the camera pulls back just enough to lose him in the crowd. And so you know, without being told: he’s ordinary, and in life you’d probably never notice him.

Gradually the camera will embrace both Russell and Glen (Chris New), still in tight close-up much of the time, but together. They cruise each other at the bar, then flirt with others, and somehow wind up with each other. Haigh doesn’t show us exactly how it happens, and he sets up a nice morning-after joke when the camera reveals Glen in Russell’s bed: we were kind of expecting to see the other guy. Since none of the actors is well-known, Haigh can play with their identities this way.

Identity is Glen’s fixation, the subject of his art project: what we reveal to others, what we expect from them. In bed, he interviews Russell about the night they’ve spent together, and here Haigh begins to explore our expectations of the identities of his characters. Over the course of the eponymous weekend, we see that Glen — initially chattier and more open — insists that other people, including Russell, speak their truths to him not least because he wants to avoid speaking certain of his own truths.

Meanwhile, Russell, quasi-closeted, so laconic he’s barely articulate, turns out to be more honest, not least about his emotions. He’s engaged in an artistic endeavor of his own, somewhat similar to Glen’s, a “log” in which he describes the men he’s known. But he’s not writing for the public, only for himself.

Russell is a lifeguard, and at first Glen can’t refrain from condescending: this is England, after all, and class always plays a role. But the lowly job wins Glen’s respect when he realizes that Russell actually has saved people’s lives. I wondered (somewhat unhappily) whether this was an on-the-nose set-up, whether Russell was now supposed to save Glen’s life, whether metaphorically or not.

But the movie’s conclusion is ambiguous. The one-night stand has turned into two days spent mostly in each other’s company, and we see the beginnings of what may be a durable bond — if not for the fact that Glen announces that he’s moving to the United States, taking the train to London on Sunday evening.

I won’t give anything away, I hope, but there are other clues, too, that the meeting may mean more to Russell than to Glen, who admits he can’t remember Russell’s last name and who returns the recorded interview to him: now Russell has the only documents of their relationship, and there’s nothing to keep Glen from forgetting it.

Yeah, I’ve been there, Mr. Edelstein, and if this movie takes off as it deserves to, it’s entirely possible that guys who are hooking up will ask first whether their new friend is a Russell or a Glen. Just to be sure.

For all the proliferation of gay stories on film in recent years, there are still many seldom if ever told, and I’ve never seen anything quite like this picture. There are some laughs in Weekend, but it’s not a comedy as such; there is love, but it’s not really a love story. Certainly most gay love stories onscreen tend to high drama if not bawdy farce, neither of which is on display here. There’s some pretty heavy-duty sex, and even some body fluid, but this isn’t porn, either, and as promised, we don’t get so much as “a glimpse of cock.”**

Where Weekend is truly explicit is in its depiction of how men interact with each other when they are alone together, in the purest and most double-edged sense of that phrase. Few movies have inspired in me so much hope and so much sadness, in nearly equal measure.

*NOTE: One prominent exception to the chorus of praise the movie has received has been The New Yorker — yes, The New Yorker. I, too, would’ve hated the film Richard Brody describes — but his description bears absolutely no resemblance to the movie I saw. It’s almost as if he saw the Godard movie instead. There’s no accounting for tastes.

**You realize afterward that, while you know just what acts were engaged in, you didn’t really see anything, and in a way that’s typical of Cullen and New’s acting in general: everything seems improvised and completely natural, and yet they are acting. And of course the purpose of the body fluid here is neither gross-out comedy (as in Something about Mary’s “hair gel”) nor titillation but more of Haigh’s mirror-up-to-life realism. Certain things do happen when men get together.

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20 October 2011

Milton Cross Suspended for Political Activities

NEW YORK, OCTOBER 20, 1972 -- Radio announcer Milton Cross, host of Texaco’s live broadcasts from New York’s Metropolitan Opera since their inception in 1931, was suspended from his duties today, following revelations about his political activities.

According to witnesses, Cross was seen wearing an “I Like Ike” button on several occasions in 1952, and again as late as 1956; later, he attended meetings of the Parent–Teacher Association, a well-known Socialist “front” organization promoting public education at taxpayer expense. Cross is believed to have been a card-carrying member of the New York Public Library, as well, and to have associated with foreign nationals, including Galina Vishnevskaya and Amelita Galli-Curci.

“Just the fact that he was able to pronounce those names correctly” shows the extent of Mr. Cross’ involvement, the head of Discipline, Integrity, Liberty and Fairness in Media, a prominent media watchdog organization, L. Irvine McCarthy II, told reporters at a press conference today.

Even Mr. Cross’ plaque on the Hollywood Walk of Fame
is a red star, a blatant tribute to the Soviets,
Mr. McCarthy says.

“DILF in Media applauds the network for suspending Mr. Cross,” Mr. McCarthy said, “and we will continue to investigate allegations of political bias in his broadcasts. Already I have compiled a list of 57 operas that are clearly un-American, yet they continue to be presented to unsuspecting citizens of this great nation.”

Mr. McCarthy went on to cite the following examples, among the most popular of Mr. Cross’ broadcasts:
  • Madame Butterfly, by Puccini, disrespectfully quotes “The Star-Spangled Banner” and depicts an American naval officer in an unflattering fashion, sometimes prompting audiences to boo unpatriotically;

  • La Bohème, also by Puccini, sympathetically depicts impoverished artists, poets, and a philosopher;

  • La Traviata, by Verdi, glorifies prostitution and premarital sexual relations;

  • Hansel and Gretel, by Humperdinck, depicts starving children and also witchcraft, which is un-Christian, while targeting the most impressionable listeners, our country’s young people;

  • Tristan and Isolde, by Wagner, depicts drug use and adultery;

  • The Marriage of Figaro, a “comedy” by Mozart, mocks powerful, rich people; and

  • Aida, by Verdi, is about foreigners.

    (List courtesy of DILF in Media.)
“Indeed, as I review these broadcasts, I can find very few American values — or names — of any kind,” Mr. McCarthy concluded. “Clearly, a particular set of political viewpoints has been conveyed, every Saturday over a period of many years, to unsuspecting audiences.”

Mr. McCarthy stated that the broadcasts use an array of sophisticated brainwashing techniques borrowed from the Soviets. “The worst of these may be ‘sleep-suggestion,’ in which the unconscious subject receives aural instruction,” Mr. McCarthy said. “After all, who can stay awake during those operas? They could be telling us to sabotage the American government, and we’d never even know it!”

DILF in Media’s team of expert cryptologists are still trying to crack the Saturday afternoon code, known as “Italiano,” Mr. McCarthy added. “Who knows what nefarious messages are being conveyed to our enemies? How long can we permit this threat to continue?”

NOTE: This is just a note of solidarity extended to Lisa Simeone, whose tenure as host of NPR’s World of Opera program was threatened this week because of her involvement, unpaid and on her own time, in Occupy DC — though she is a freelancer employed by an outside producer (not by NPR), on a program where her personal political views are not only irrelevant but darned tough to communicate. The right-wing campaign to intimidate the mainstream press continues unabated, however: Simeone has confirmed that she’s been fired from her other job, hosting a documentary program called “Soundprint.”

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Carla Bruni Has a Baby

No dream: This is really happening.
The baby is said to have her father’s eyes.

In a development that has absolutely nothing to do with Nicolas Sarkozy’s re-election campaign, Franco–Italian singer–actress Carla Bruni-Sarkozy had a baby girl last night, becoming the first French President’s wife ever to give birth during her husband’s term of office. Bernadette Chirac would have been happy to oblige, of course, but nobody ever thought to ask her.

Analysts in the conservative UMP (Union for a Popular Movement) party are confident that President Sarkozy really is the father. Around the world, celebrations greeted the happy news.

Here’s one such party, in Britain yesterday.

In a curious coincidence (or is it?), at more or less the precise moment the baby was born, Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi, quite possibly President Sarkozy’s all-time least-favorite dinner guest, died. That ought to keep believers in reincarnation busy for at least a couple of decades.

On the bright side, this morning’s news relieves the proud parents of having to invite Qaddafi to the christening.

It’s unclear how many thousands of boys are going to be frustrated when it becomes apparent that Bruni probably won’t look much like this the next time she has her picture taken.

Quelqu’un m’a dit …

Yet again, however, Madame Chirac has a lot of spare time on her hands these days and is probably looking for an opportunity like this. How long before somebody asks her?

But really, this is a time to join the world in wishing the Sarkozys all the best on this happy day. Bonne chance, Sarkozette! It looks as if you’re gonna need it.

Opa! Greeks were celebrating yesterday, too.

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