Showing posts with label Woody Allen. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Woody Allen. Show all posts

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Cultural Miscellany

I don't comment on or review every cultural event we go to in our area, but one I should have covered was the Maltz Theatre's spectacular production of A Chorus Line, which has now closed, but had a very successful run. We saw the original 1975 Broadway production and I came away with the same feeling from the Maltz production, one mixed with pathos and joy for the performers, each with their own individual story to tell.  Maltz intelligently used Michael Bennett's innovative choreography, preserving it like a classic ship in a bottle, executed with the same degree of professionalism as in the original show.

Ever since seeing Maltz's very first production in 2004 of the Pulitzer Prize-winning drama by playwright Nilo Cruz, Anna in the Tropics, we've had season's tickets to the Maltz and have watched the Theatre's evolution, walking the tight rope between serious theatre / great musicals and the lighter fare aimed at entertainment-only theatre goers.  The shift towards the latter during one season almost resulted in cancelling our season's tickets, but we've been hanging on, hoping for more productions such as Chorus Line, and looking forward to their forthcoming production of the highly acclaimed Other Desert Cities (hooray, serious theatre!), and their concluding production of The King and I. Any Rodgers and Hammerstein show is worth seeing in my estimation.

No sense "reviewing" their production of A Chorus Line in more detail.  It even captured the attention of Wall Street Journal's Terry Teachout, his first visit to the Maltz and undoubtedly not his last.  I agree wholeheartedly with his comments.

Ironically, the Wall Street Journal also reviewed Dramaworks' production of Harold Pinter's Old Times, Teachout attending the preview performance the night after we saw it -- the performance on which my own review was based.

Interestingly, Teachout has reviewed several Dramaworks' productions, recognizing it as one of the best theatres in South Florida, never disappointing on a professional level, but sometimes disappointing the same "entertainment-only theatre goers" the Maltz sometimes tries to please.   

Unfortunately, our local reviewer, Hap Erstein, who is a damn good writer, walks that same fine line (as does the Maltz) for his readers, praising Old Times on the one hand, but hedging his bets saying "if you need to make an emotional connection with a play’s characters to sustain interest — even for the relatively brief 75 intermissionless minutes — Old Times is probably not for you."  He even goes so far as to turn Dramaworks' mantra of “theater to think about.” to " theater to be confounded by."  To his credit though, he does acknowledge "Dramaworks is committed to exposing its audience to absurdist dramas from around the world. That is a worthy mission."

I rarely touch upon movies here.  We don't see many, cherry picking the best when they come out on DVD (why put up with cell phones, texting, long lines, people talking, the endless previews and selling in the movie theatre merely to say you saw the film immediately upon its release -- does it make the film any better?) but I can't leave this cultural odds and ends entry without mentioning what I think is a Woody Allen masterpiece, Blue Jasmine, and a bravura, Academy Award deserving performance by Cate Blanchett.  Regrettably the sturm und drang over child molestation accusations made by Dylan Farrow might overshadow what Allen (and Blanchett) have achieved in the film, a loose tale about lives of the Bernie Madoff crowd and the little people he destroyed.  In fact, the film is a classic portrayal of the "upstairs" and the "downstairs" people, so skillfully portrayed and exactingly written by Allen -- the despicable rich, the admirable working class!  Much of the success of the film is due to the casting by Juliet Taylor, who has cast all of Allen's films since the mid 1970's.

Cate Blanchett portrays a kind of fragility as "Jasmine" Francis, a Blanche DuBois character,  while her sister's boyfriend, Bobby Cannavale, reminded me of Stanley Kowalski.  The film, indeed, seems to be almost a tribute to A Streetcar Named Desire.  It was strange to see Sally Hawkins playing Ginger, Jasmine's sister, as we have seen her so often playing Anne Elliot in the BBC production of Jane Austen's  Persuasion (a DVD we dutifully watch once a year, it is that good). Hawkins is English and to hear and see her play a bag packer in a San Francisco supermarket was somewhat startling, but a real tribute to how brilliant casting makes all the difference.  Woody Allen gave full attribution to Taylor for so much of his success in a recent open letter to the Hollywood Reporter

Finally, last weekend we attended the yearly American International Fine Art Fair, an eclectic collection ranging from classic art pieces to contemporary ones capturing the comedy of modern absurdism.   

For Ann's delectation, sprinkled here and there are magnificent pieces of antique  jewelry to be admired and as for me, rare books, a potpourri of interesting cultural experiences, all on one manageable floor of the Palm Beach Convention Center.  We went with friends Harry and Susan, and I thought this a touching photograph of our wives walking hand-in-hand in City Place, on our way to the Fair from lunch.

In my fantasy life, the one where we win the lottery (and I don't mean merely a $1 million one  -- a lot more is needed to haul some of the exhibit home, including a new penthouse apartment overlooking the intracoastal and ocean -- you have to put the stash someplace appropriate), I'd snap up some of my favorites from the show.

First, as one "needs" something to view the water and the boating activities from the new penthouse; clearly an obligatory purchase would be the Kollmorgen U.S. 20 x 120 Battleship Binoculars for a mere $110,000.

It's a modern penthouse so it would be nice to have something very contemporary such as David Datuna's Eye to Eye Marilyn which will set you back $180,000

Offsetting the modern, we have to add one of Edouard-Léon Cortès' paintings, his style so unusual, the light crying out from the city of Paris in the late 19th century in Après la Pluie, St Denis, Paris for $165,000

Although no price was mentioned, an oil on linen, Sweet Dream of Vermilion Chamber by Zhao Kailin caught our eye as well, the colors perfect for our new penthouse wall.

Finally, putting some real life perspective on fantasies of penthouses, expensive art, were the Robben Island Sketches by Nelson Mandela.  Perhaps seeing his work, reading his words, and knowing what he endured and achieved was the best wakeup call from the fantasy.  His work, priceless.

Monday, October 28, 2013


This is but another novel I took along for the trip, but did not get around to reading it until I returned.  Although I finished it a while ago, it's been on my mind.

Part Franz Kafka, part Woody Allen, and throw in a touch of Mickey Spillane, unlike any book I've read in a long time, Nowhere by Thomas Berger is a dystopian view of the "future" which, as it was written in 1985, might as well be now.  It's about a second-rate gumshoe (he's no Mike Hammer), who aspires to be a playwright, but never seems to get the second act done, who slides down a rabbit hole into the "Kingdom" of Saint Sebastian, ostensibly on "assignment" by the US Government to find out something about the little Kingdom, its monarch, Prince Sebastian XXIII.  It is a little like the country of "Duchy of Grand Fenwick" in The Mouse That Roared, one of my favorite films about the Cold War, but far more bizarre.

Things appear to be topsy-turvy in the Kingdom, but are they?  Children are formally educated by being forced to watch take-offs of old Hollywood movies, Blonds are second class citizens and in fact are "obliged to have sexual relations with anyone who asks them," and although "condemned to menial work, waiting on tables, pulling rickshaws, they also "practice law (people can be severely punished for rudeness) and certain other professions that are more or less honorific elsewhere"  As Russel Wren, our protagonist comments, "and it should be noted that the Blonds are splendid physical specimens, tall and strong and comely, unlike any other oppressed people on record."

There is a "government" which functions like a parody of Alice In Wonderland, where "official scholars" maintain an encyclopedia for the land which no one reads as it is completely idiosyncratic, and hopelessly out of date.  Lawmakers are hard to be found or are completely ineffectual.  And our Prince is a corpulent over-eater, who encourages sodomy throughout the land, but one who is also considered by the people (that is, the non-Blonds) to be benevolent.  No wonder, there is unlimited credit in the country. 

Our perplexed gumshoe has an interesting exchange with a clerk concerning credit and economics at the Sebastian cable office (whether and where cables go is unclear):

  "Saint Sebastian is then a microcosm of Europe? Surely you have as well your own Versailles, Brandenburg Gate, and Erechtheum with a Caryatid Porch?"
  He shrugged in satisfaction. "We are peculiarly blessed, I must admit. For that reason we Sebastianers are not great travelers."
  "Also, on leaving the country one's overdraft and credit balance must be paid, no?"
  "In fact that would be against the law."
  "To leave the country?"
  He shook his head. "No, no: to discharge one's debts in toto."
  "Can you be serious?"
  The clerk spoke gravely. "It would be a profession of lack of faith in one's countrymen. No crime could be more heinous.  Every Sebastianer has a God-given right to be owed money by others. Only in this way does he establish the moral pretext for running up his own large debts. Else our economy would collapse."
  The dismal science has never been my strong suit. Whenever I've tried to understand how, in the same world, filled with the same people, buying and selling the same things there can be regular periods of great prosperity, followed immediately by recessions, my brain spins on its axis (this would make sense only if the good times resulted from the purchase of Earth goods by visitors from Mars, who however on the next occasion took their business to Jupiter).
  If you say so" was my response.

As it is in part a "mystery" novel, I'll not let on about the final resolution, but, hint, there is a Sebastiani Liberation group -- one of the reasons Wren is thrown into the rabbit hole in the first place.  Blond Olga, who Wren first meets as a stewardess on the Sebastiani Royal Airline, is connected to the group, explaining to Wren "Foreigners sometimes do not understand our vays.  Ve do not have to screw under every circumstance," just a little foreshadowing.

Written in 1985, Berger's book is one to be read today and to be pondered, and to be enjoyed for its ironic, satiric sense of humor.

Friday, July 1, 2011

A Meaningful Life

We just returned from Sicily where we attended the wedding of the son of my wife's best friend, Maria. In fact, Ann had been visiting two weeks before my arrival and when I arrived for my brief four day stay, we took residence in an ideally situated downtown hotel in Palermo so I could squeeze some sightseeing of the city as well. The wedding was held in a Palermo church constructed in the 16th century and then we went to a reception at a private castle-like Villa on the Mediterranean outside of Palermo. I'll write more about this experience when I have a chance to work on the photographs, so consider this Part I which is mostly about the book I read on the plane, a flight from hell (Miami to Rome to Palermo) on Alitalia, perhaps the worse airline ever. It starts with their web site which has no record locator, no means of choosing seats, everything must be done by phone with harassed agents whose main job is to dismiss the call as quickly as possible.

During my working days, I regularly flew business or first class, so finding myself in today's economy class on an eleven hour flight with screaming babies, half dressed people, and four rest rooms for the entire economy class, came as a shock and gave new meaning to the word squalor. Diapers were being changed on nearby seats with all the attendant odors helping to create an excruciating environment. Towards the end of the flight some lavatories were unusable as whatever didn't fit into the toilet wound up on the floor. The food was indecipherable at times. I recognized my pasta "dinner," but the "snack" before landing was some sort of a gooey bread, with a kind of cheese and onions baked on top served without utensils. Who cares, wipe your hands on your seat, if you can find a spot as it must be the smallest seat and space of any airline's economy class . I've had flights on commuter airlines with more space. No seating etiquette as well, as the person in front of me took it upon himself to recline all the way, leaving the tray nearly in my chin.

Fortunately, I packed my noise cancelling headphones with my iTouch and listened to music the entire flight as I read a recently reissued novel, A Meaningful Life by L.J. Davis originally published in 1971. This is a forgotten classic, the kind I used to seek when I was in the reprint business, my major find having been Richard Yates' Revolutionary Road. Kudos to the New York Review of Books for discovering this one.

Two years ago I reviewed Sam Savage's The Cry of the Sloth and I have to wonder whether Savage had read Davis' A Meaningful Life. The two protagonists seem to be the same person confronting the dilemma of "a meaningless life." At the time, I said Savage portrays an inexorable path for our protagonist, a fascinating, tragicomic portrait of isolation and personal failure, in the tradition of Gogol and Kafka." Davis did the same for his protagonist, Lowell Lake, more than thirty years earlier. A Meaningful Life is written in the finest tradition of the black comedy and I think if Woody Allen and Franz Kafka teamed up, this could have been their collaboration.

The novel is set in my familiar 1960's, the same decade I married my first wife while we were still in college and lived in Brooklyn. Hopefully, that is the only similarity between Mr. Lake and myself. Lowell drifts into marriage in college, gives up his scholarship to graduate school, mostly to show his new wife that he is in charge of their lives and to prove it further, decides to move from California to New York City, where he will write a novel and she will work, over her objections (knowing Lowell to be unrealistic). His wife's mother also objects to Lowell right at the start (he's not Jewish; her daughter is). Her father simply entreats Lowell to call him Leo and that is about the extent of their relationship. Early in the novel Lowell fantasizes his future life as being a subject for the law and at the end this fear rears its head again. Davis' description of Lowell's wedding pretty much sets the timbre of the writing:

"The moment Lowell took his place at the altar, a fog of terror blew into his mind and few things sufficiently penetrate its veil to be remembered with any clarity afterward. He hadn't been nervous that his voice would break or that he would fart loudly -- but he was scared now, and scared he remained. He was changing his status in the community of man. He was in the hopper of a great machine and he could no more get them to turn it off than a confessed and proven murderer could change his mind about his trail...The law had him and there was no way out, or least not a nice or easy one: it was a matter for judges and courts, his wife testifying about the length of his prick and the dirty things he whispered in her ear when he was drunk ...the judge scolding him, alimony; he could see it all. The other way out was murder or moving secretly to another town, changing your name, losing all your friends, denying all your accomplishments, a kind of suicide....He was going to be a grown up now, and there was no stopping it."

On their drive to New York, he makes a wrong turn and winds up in Brooklyn, foreshadowing Lowell's eventual involvement in the borough. But before that denouement they endure nine years of "marriage," Lowell at first "working" on his novel, which turns mostly to gibberish and both Lowell and his wife retreat to drinking when his wife daily returns from work. Their days are filled with the details of living, more like surviving, watching sitcoms, drinking, while Lowell slides down the vortex of a meaningless life, without any purpose. Why even dress?

"At the end of six months his wife systematically began to throw away his clothes. True, his clothes were showing a few signs of wear; Lowell had never been particularly interested in clothing, bought it as seldom as possible, and wore it as long as he could, often developing a stubborn affection for certain items. It was also true that his underwear was a disgrace, his Jockey shorts hanging in soft tatters and his undershirts so full of holes that wearing them was nothing but a formality; on the other hand, it was kind of startling to go to the suitcase that served him in lieu of a bureau and find that his possessions had been weeded again, the supply growing shorter and shorter as the days wore on, the time fast approaching when he would go to his suitcase and it would be empty. Worse than that, it was kind of sinister to have laid out your shirt and pants before going to bed and then wake up to find one or the other of them gone, the contents of its pockets heaped up on the table beside the typewriter. He always intended to buy replacements, but he never got around to it, and meanwhile no amount of grumbling would make his wife stop. She had a case and he didn't, and that was that; his clothes were really wearing out-perhaps not quite as fast as they were being thrown out, but that was purely conjectural and largely in the eye of the beholder, especially when it came to arguing about it-and he really did forget to buy new ones, so when you came right down to it, he had no one to blame for his impending nudity but himself. If a kinder fate had not intervened, it was altogether possible that Lowell would soon have been totally naked, hovering thin and birdlike and obsessed above the typewriter like some kind of crackpot anchorite. Although this state of affairs would have precluded ever leaving the apartment again, at least alive, that would have been all right too."

Reaching the bottom, he symbolically fears he does not even exist. His wife was to blame once again in his mind, a mind now totally disheveled and lack of purpose:

"One day, in going over his papers, he discovered that his wife had thrown out his birth certificate. There was no proof that she had done so, but the damn thing was gone, and he knew instinctively what had happened to it. It was a blue piece of crackly paper with all of Lowell's statistics arranged in graceful script above a gold medallion and the signatures of the delivering physician, the resident, and the director of the hospital, just like a diploma. It not only proved that he had been born, but the fact that he possessed it proved that he was a grown-up....He rifled the shoebox where these things were kept, he scoured the room, searched the wastebasket and then the garbage cans outside, but it was nowhere to be found. His wife had thrown it away, just as she occasionally threw away scraps of paper on which he'd scribbled some important thought. It was gone."

Finally, Lowell admits to himself that his "novel" is nothing but a means of passing time with booze. Through the shadowy connection of an "Uncle Lester" -- his wife's uncle -- he gets a job as a copywriter for a plumbing trade journal, neither knowing anything about plumbing, nor having any interest in the subject. He took the job with the understanding (his, not his employer's) that it would only be temporary (sort of like his life itself). As soon as he got the job, "his wife settled down almost as if a wand had been waved over her, bought a black garter belt, and never chewed gum again."

But after nine years of marriage (Davis describes their marriage as a cross between Long Day's Journey Into the Night and Father Knows Best), his life amounted to "an endless chain of days, a rosary of months, each as smooth and round as the one before, flowing evenly through his mind. You could count on the fingers of one hand the events and pauses of all that time: two promotions; two changes of apartment (each time nearer the river); a trip to Maine, where he realized that his wife's legs had gotten kind of fat-five memories in nine years, each no more than a shallow design scratched on a featureless bead. It was life turned inside out; somewhere the world's work was being done and men were laboring in the vineyards of the Lord, Khrushchev was being faced down on the high seas, and Negroes were being blown up and going to jail, but all Lowell did was change his apartment twice, tell his wife to put on some pants, and get promoted faster than anybody else on the paper -- a tiny, dim meteor in an empty matchbox."

But at this time Lowell discovers the biography of Darius Collingwood, a tycoon and ruthless raconteur of the 19th century, a person as opposite of the passive Lowell as one can be. He becomes mesmerized by his life, especially by the discovery that Collingwood had built a mansion in Brooklyn, one that was for sale in the Fort Green/Bedford Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, which in the 1960's looked more like Berlin at the end of WWII. Vagrants, bums, and all sorts of unsavory figures occupied empty disintegrating buildings. Lowell becomes fixated on buying the old Colingwood mansion and renovating it, not knowing anything about real estate, carpentry, plumbing, electrical repairs and with some savings he had secretly put aside from his "work" he plunges into a nightmarish version of Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House.

The real estate closing with a "Mr. Grossman," the seller, reveals his ignorance:
"[He never did]... get to see Mr. Grossman, who was represented at the closing by a lawyer of such intimidating respectability that he made Lowell feel like some kind of meek crook whenever he spoke to him. Sometimes Lowell wondered if Mr. Grossman existed at all, if he wasn't the creation of real-estate interests, doing voice imitations over the phone in order to collect rents and fight off city agencies and sell houses to people like Lowell. Anything seemed possible, even probable. Sitting there in the lawyer's office above Court Street with sleet rattling on the windows, money changing hands, and a great deal of incomprehensible but threatening nonsense going on all around him, he felt like a mental defective on trial for rape and witchcraft: he couldn't understand a word of it, but he had the distinct feeling that it would not end well. Papers were produced and signed; Lowell wrote checks, and they were taken from him; men conferred in glum, hushed voices with their heads close together, continually referring to Lowell as 'him.'"

So, with the first found enthusiasm of his life, Lowell begins work on his crumbling edifice.. He evicts the squatters in the home. He buys tools. He has them stolen. He buys books about renovation and understands little. He seeks out a neighbor who had renovated a similar property (unsuccessfully) for suggestions. He is demonically watched by the so called residents in those slums. His wife helps for a while, but then goes to her mother's, but returns to their apartment where she lives a chaotic life. He finally gets to the point that he has to hire a contractor but only two show up to quote, the first of whom just walks out and the second, a Trinidadian by the name of Cyril P. Busterboy who agrees to take on the job with his crew. Lowell calls him Mr. Busterboy. Mr. Busterboy calls him Mr. Lake. Gradually Lake hangs around Busterboy and his crew, buying them beers and most of the work stops as they all get drunk during the day. Lowell is so drunk one night he sleeps in the remains of the building's master bedroom, on a tarp on the floor, hears a noise downstairs and confronts a shadowy figure. Lowell, with a crowbar in hand, and still in a drunken stupor, successfully bashes the intruder's head in like a crushed watermelon. He deposits the body in the dumpster and throws other trash over the body, leaving blood all over the room. The dumpster is picked up in the morning, Lowell convinced the police will come, but no one misses the intruder whose life was obviously as meaningful as Lowell's. Mr. Busterboy tells him not to worry, that his men will clean up the blood. This is covered over with sterile new plaster. He loses the house, but does not care, "contemplating a future much like his past, he realized that it was finally too late for him."

Although a literary work, it is more a profoundly disturbing philosophical piece. How does one define a "meaningful life?" Lowell is a caricature in the extreme, simply being swept along by forces over which he has little control and when he does participate in the decision making, he inevitably makes the wrong ones, not realizing consequences. He simply has no interests, and therefore no real friends. Time erases all, but Davis' novel is a reminder to find one's passion -- and for most people that means meaningful work, or an avocation, something Lowell miserably fails at. Depressing? Yes, but Davis sees it as the modern dilemma.

More on Sicily later. But, as a preview, a panoramic view of Castellammare del Golfo, outside of Palermo, the birthplace of our friend, Maria. There fishermen gather to pursue their livelihoods as they have done for centuries, work and camaraderie providing a meaningful life.