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Friday, December 02, 2016

Buckwheat Zydeco

Stanley Dural Jr., better known as Buckwheat Zydeco, died in September. In my efforts to explore all different kinds of music, I picked up a best of album and it has been pleasant accompaniment for over a week. You know what zydeco is--it's New Orleans funk with an accordion.

It was developed by the French-speaking Creole people of Louisiana, and is usually dance music. In fact, most zydeco songs, at least to my ears, sound pretty much the same, with negligible lyrics ("Bim Bam, Thank You Mam" is one track, and the intriguing "I Bought a Raccoon" is another, and they pretty much sound like the same song). But some of the songs are slowed down and instrumentals, and make you feel a little wistful, like "People's Choice," or have a message, like "Make a Change."

There are also some intriguing cover songs on this album, such as Morris Dees "Ya Ya," which I think is my favorite, Hank Williams' "Hey Good Lookin'," and Eric Clapton' "Why Does Love Have to Be So Sad."

New Orleans is near the top of my list of places to go that I haven't been, and much of it is because of the music. I now have to go to place that plays zydeco, have a few strong drinks and get sweaty listening to the music and watching the people dance. I'm sorry Buckwheat Zydeco is gone, but at least his passing introduced me to a wonderful form of music. He makes the accordion hip. Here's a taste.

Thursday, December 01, 2016

The Invention of Nature

There's a statue in Central Park, just across the street from the Museum of Natural History in New York, of a man named Alexander von Humboldt. I passed that statue often and wondered who he was. At one time, everyone knew he was. "Described by his contemporaries as the most famous man in the world after Napoleon, Humboldt was one of the most captivating and inspiring men of his time," writes Andrea Wulf in her biography, The Invention of Nature. She also adds, he was called the Shakespeare of sciences, and "More places are named after Humboldt than anyone else." Nevada was almost called Humboldt (there is a county in that state that bears his name, as well has Humboldt State University in California).

So who was he? Wulf puts it this way: "Humboldt revolutionized the way we see the natural world. He found connections everywhere. Nothing, not even the tiniest organism, was looked at on its own. ‘In this great chain of causes and effects,’ Humboldt said, ‘no single fact can be considered in isolation.’ With this insight, he invented the web of life, the concept of nature as we know it today."

Born in Germany, Humboldt was in incredible polymath. He had an urge to travel from the get-go, after serving as a mine inspector. His first great trip was to South America, where he identified new species of plants and explored volcanoes. Much later in life he made an epochal trip to Russia, where he again made connections between all natural objects, whether they be rocks or animals. He was friend to Thomas Jefferson, Goethe, and Simon Bolivar.

Wulf's book is not only a biography of Humboldt but also something of a detail of his lineage. She goes off on null chapters that at times take us too far away from the subject. We learn about Bolivar, and also men whom he inspired, like Charles Darwin, Henry Thoreau, and John Muir. If I wanted to read their biographies I would, so to go into such detail about them seems superfluous. She also writes a chapter on Ernest Maeckel, whom I had never heard of, and who coined the term that Humboldt had theorized: ecology.

Why isn't Humboldt known today? The statue in Central Park dates back to the 1880s and was commissioned by a German-American society. This is part of it, Wulf thinks. The anti-German sentiment of the first World War, which caused the House of Windsor to take a new name diluted his fame. Also, the era of specialization overtook the polymath. Today it would be unthinkable for one man to be a botanist and a vulcanologist.

What Wulf's book does do is make plain how important Humboldt was to the scientists who followed. He wrote many books, including a multi-volume series called Cosmos (he came up with the word from the Greek) that tried to tie together everything into one system: "He wanted to write a book that would bring together everything in the heavens and on earth, ranging from distant nebulae to the geography of mosses, and from landscape painting to the migration of the human races and poetry." It was a huge seller.

Humboldt was a remarkable man, and this book attests to it. He seems to have never had a relationship with a woman worth mentioning--Wulf doesn't delve into this private life, only that he had a loving relationship with his brother and sister-in-law. He seems to have been completely devoted to his work. He died at the age of 89, but his discoveries live on.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Them!

For the last film of my after-school class on horror movies, I chose Them!, which turned out to be a good choice because none of the kids had heard of it, let alone seen it, and though it's not in color it was made in 1954 and therefore more modern in tone. It also features giant ants.

Them!, directed by Gordon Douglas, is one of the prime examples of the atomic age fear films that imagined radiation causing all sorts of havoc. It really started in Japan (with good reason) with Godzilla, but soon there were giant praying mantises, giant tarantulas, and even giant rabbits (the anti-classic The Night of the Lepus). I think Them! is the best of them, as though it follows the traditional monster movie formula, it's suspenseful and even over sixty-years later the ants look pretty scary.

The film begins with two highway patrolmen in New Mexico finding a little girl wandering the desert. She's in shock and can't talk. They then find her family's trailer, ripped open. Later, they will find a store ripped open, the proprietor dead. One of the cops is James Whitmore, and in a stretch of believability he will be involved each step of the way, without even a scene of him telling the army that he won't back off. The same is true of FBI man James Arness. Do they teach New Mexico state cops to use flamethrowers?

After a footprint of some kind of animal is sent to Washington, a father/daughter pair of entomologists returns with a crazy idea; it's giant ants. The father is Edmund Gwenn, who believes that since the attacks were so near the atomic testing grounds in White Sands, that the ants are mutations. There is no mention of the scientific fact that ants that size would be unable to move, but this is only a movie. Two queens have hatched and escaped the nest. One is killed, but another finds its way into the Los Angeles sewer system.

The film is very heavy on the warnings of radiation. The last lines of the film belong to Gwenn: "When Man entered the atomic age, he opened a door into a new world. What we'll eventually find in that new world, nobody can predict." But since it's been now over seventy years and nothing once benign has grown to monster size, we can ignore the warnings of Biblical prophecy and concentrate on how well made this movie is for a B-movie that probably played in drive-ins. Like Jaws some twenty years later, the ants have an introductory sound--they chirp, like seventeen-year cicadas. Hear that sound and then seeing those large, bobbing heads can get under the skin.

Two actors found big fame as a result of this film. Walt Disney was casting his Davy Crockett film and watched the film to see Arness, but instead was impressed by Fess Parker, as a pilot who has been committed because he says he saw giant ants flying at him. Parker played Crockett, as well as Daniel Boone. But Arness did all right--John Wayne saw the film and recommended him to play Marshal Matt Dillon on Gunsmoke (a part Wayne had turned down). That show ran over twenty years.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

The Gap of Time

Hogarth Press is doing something very interesting, though some will probably find it a literary blasphemy. They are engaging authors of some renown to rewrite Shakespeare, or at least take a play and put in novel form. The first of these (I'm not sure if they're doing them all; the histories might not play well) is Jeanette Winterson taking a crack at The Winter's Tale with The Gap of Time.

Unlike modernizing a Shakespeare play in a production, putting it in novel form allows for more freedom, and the whole point is to change it, otherwise we would just be reading the annotated text. Winterson sets the story in modern-day London, for the most part. Leo Kaiser (our stand-in for Leontes) is the rich man who becomes insanely jealous of his old friend Xeno (Polixenes) and suspects that he has fathered the newborn of his wife MiMi (Hermione).

Winterson writes, in something of an epilogue, "The three possible endings are: Revenge. Tragedy. Forgiveness. Shakespeare knew all about revenge and tragedy." The Winter's Tale was late in his career, and the man was now writing about reconciliation and forgiveness, as he would in The Tempest. The Winter's Tale was Othello rewritten with a happy ending, and Winterson keeps that, but also seizes upon something else, as the title suggests, time.

One of the repeating themes of the book is the replaying of time--the moment in the film Superman when the Man of Steel resets time by flying around the Earth at high speed is mentioned many times--it's an interesting mixture of high and low culture. Winterson also notes: "The Winter’s Tale is a play where the past depends on the future just as much as the future depends on the past. The past in The Winter’s Tale is not history; it’s tragedy." Also, "The past is a grenade that explodes when thrown."

Though this book is not difficult at all, knowing the play will help get some of the in-jokes, especially the names of the characters. The baby born to MiMi (still named Perdita) is adopted by a man named Shepherd and his son, Clo (in the play they were a shepherd and a clown). Autolycus, the con man and trickster, is turned into a used-car salesman (Auto Like Us, get it?) and Antigonus, now called Tony, who takes the baby away from an enraged Leo, is not killed by a bear, as in the play, but by gunmen after his suitcase full of money.

I've never read Winterson before so I don't know if this is indicative of her prose or whether it's a new creation. It is melancholy, of course--the events of the first half don't allow for much happiness. The modern touches--Xeno is a designer of video games--at times seem whimsical, but the prose sings. "The streets fuzzy with light rain. The plastic peel-off shine of the pavements. The shimmer under the sodium street lamps. Cars queuing at the red light, wipers in rhythm, drivers with the windows down against the heat. Big guy in a van, his right arm resting on the rolled-down window, elbow out, letting the rain run in, scrubbing his forearm in relief across his face." If Shakespeare knew about cars he might have written something like that.

The second half of The Gap of Time, which deals with a grown Perdita and her love of Xeno's son Zel (for Florizel) isn't quite as gripping. Perdita for a moment worries that she's Zel's sister, but figures everything out on her own, and her meeting with Leo, under a ruse, without him knowing who she is, works beautifully. But the reveal rushes by (to be fair, it kind of does in Shakespeare, too). But there are still some great lines, and even a little comedy: "Perdita ran across the road. She’s lovely, thought Leo, watching her, and she has no idea that she is. His current date was a Russian lingerie model who Vaped during sex."

I'm up for reading more of these. The next one is a take on The Merchant of Venice.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Loving

Loving v. Virginia, from 1967, is well known to civil rights lawyers and civil liberties buffs like me. While I knew the basic facts--that an interracial couple had sued and their victory did away with anti-miscegenation laws for all time--I did not know about the lives of the plaintiffs. I thank Jeff Nichols for letting me know in his thoughtful and extremely understated film Loving (thankfully, the couple had an incredibly ironic last name--Lipschitz wouldn't have done it).

Richard Loving (Joel Edgerton) and his wife Mildred (Ruth Negga) lived in a part of Virginia that didn't have that much of a problem with mixed race marriages. We don't know how their families dealt with the relationship, but her family is accepting of him and mostly his mother is accepting of her. Who isn't accepting is the county sheriff, who gets a tip that they've gone off to D.C. to marry and when they get back they are arrested.

They accept a plea bargain that lets them avoid jail time as long as they get out of the state and don't come back at the same time. They sneak back for the birth of a child and get caught again, but are let go. Eventually Negga can't take city life and they move back to a different county in the middle of absolute nowhere. She decides to write to Attorney General Robert Kennedy, who passes on her letter to the ACLU (imagine such a letter to Jefferson Sessions, who probably still believes in anti-miscegenation laws) and she soon has lawyers tackling the case.

What makes Loving fantastic is what it's not. The Lovings were simple people, and I don't mean that in a pejorative sense. He worked construction, she kept house, and while literate, they were not highly educated and didn't have much to say. I think of one scene where Edgerton comes home to find a TV crew in the house. He doesn't like it, but Negga tells him she thinks it will help. In a lesser movie he would have given a speech about how they don't have to have their privacy invaded, ya da ya da, but the man was incapable of such a thing, and has nothing to say. His silence speaks more than a phony speech.

Dignity is a word that is thrown around a lot, and in the case of black people can be a double-edged compliment (Sidney Poitier was frequently called "dignified" by people who had no other compliment to pay him) but in Loving, these two people are dignified. They go through with it because they love each other. They will be helping a lot of other people (Negga seems more interested than that than Edgerton) but most of all is the simple truth that they love each other and want to live together as husband and wife like anybody else. Try to keep a dry eye when the lawyer asks Edgerton if he wants him to say anything on his behalf to the Supreme Court: "Just tell the judge I love my wife," is all he wants to say (though it's not shown, the lawyer did say that).

Nichols, writer and director of a number of equally quiet and thoughtful indies (Midnight Special being a loud outlier) turns out to be a perfect person for this assignment. That may hurt Edgerton and Negga for awards, because they have no big scenery chewing moments, (no "Oscar clip," as they say) but should be remembered. This film is also extremely timely, as it provided a basis for the recent gay marriage ruling (the unanimous decision by Earl Warren said that "marriage is an inherent right") and that so many of our rights are under threat of being rolled back that we could use a reminder of those who fought and won these rights in the first place.

Loving is one of the best movies I've seen this year. Every American should see it.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

White Christmas

The latest in the Broadway series at the Smith Center was Irving Berlin's White Christmas, and if one knows what one is in for, like I did, one can have a good time. I watched with a kind of goofy smile on my face, for though White Christmas is about as substantial as the artificial snow shot out over the audience at the end, it's a nice way to spend two and a half hours not thinking about anything troubling.

The musical is based on the 1954 film of the same name, which starred Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye, and features the song of the title. However, that song, by Irving Berlin of course, debuted in the 1942 film Holiday Inn. The stage musical opened on Broadway, to tepid reviews, in 2008, but has had a long life as a touring show.

This show is steeped in nostalgia, and I imagine the '54 film (which I haven't seen) was already nostalgia. It opens during World War II when two song-and-dance men hook up. Ten years later they are big stars, and meet a sister-act at a New York nightclub. One of the couples is instantly smitten, the other takes a little while longer. All  four end up at an inn in Vermont, which is run by the boys' old general (nothing like whopping coincidences in corny musicals) that is struggling because there is no snow (global warming back then?) The boys decide to put on a show to help him out, a plot device that is old as the hills. They're even doing it in a barn.

The book of the show is by David Ives and Paul Blake--I don't know why it took two people to write such a feeble book, which is full of old jokes and empty platitudes. What matters is the music, all of it written by Irving Berlin, and the dancing, choreographed by Randy Skinner, who also directs (he was the original choreographer of the Broadway show). The stand out numbers are the close of Act I with "Blue Skies," and the opening of Act II, "I Love a Piano," which has some amazing tap dancing. The show closes of course with the title song, but it's interesting that we only hear the chorus. The verse, which is hardly ever heard, is about a guy in Los Angeles who misses the snowy Christmases of his youth, but of course that wouldn't fit here.

As far as the cast goes, I acually recognized two of them. John Schuck, now billed as Conrad John Schuck, was a TV staple of the '70s (especially in his role on McMillan and Wife) and played Walt Waldowsky, the "Painless Pole" in the film version of M*A*S*H. Here he plays the old general. As his busybody concierge is Lorna Luft, who is Judy Garland's other daughter. If that sounds demeaning, Luft starts her own bio with who her mother was.

The leads are charming. Sean Montgomery and Jeremy Benton have to fill the giants shoes of Crosby and Kaye, respectfully, and they do the wise things and don't even try. They play it their own way, and there is no crooning to be heard.

Broadway musicals can comment on the times, or they can be simple escapism. White Christmas is the latter.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk (2016)

As the Beatles sang, "I just had to look, having read the book," Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, by Ben Fountain, was a terrific book, but Ang Lee's film gets the plot points but misses the bigger picture. The screenplay by Jean-Christophe Castelli can't hope to capture Fountain's descriptions of the decadence of a Thanksgiving Cowboys' game, but instead reduces it all to pedantic speechifying.

The film matches the book almost beat for beat. Billy Lynn (Joe Alwyn) is a nobody from Texas who finds himself a hero in the Iraq War. He and his company, "Bravo," are treated as heroes at the Dallas Cowboys Thanksgiving game. Their unctuous owner (Steve Martin, capturing Jerry Jones without imitating him) sees their story as something that can turn around the view of the war.

Meanwhile, Chris Tucker is an agent who is trying to pitch Bravo's story to the movies, and Billy's sister (Kristen Stewart, in her usual depressed state) wants Billy not to redeploy and get an honorable discharge.

There are flashbacks to the events of the war, when Billy was unable to save his Sergeant, (Vin Diesel), a Buddhist given to pontification. The surviving sergeant (well-played by Garret Hedlund) is a no-nonsense bullshit detector. The other guys of the company aren't as well-rounded, given time constraints. But Billy does get to make out with a Cowboys' cheerleader (Makenzie Leigh), who in the book was emphasized as an Evangelical.

The book succeeded, but the movie fails, to show how pageantry and meaningless spectacle does nothing to celebrate the troops' sacrifice, but only makes them political pawns and extras in their own celebration. Frankly, I thought if this movie ever got made they wouldn't get cooperation from the NFL or the Cowboys, since they are mocked so relentlessly in the book. They even keep the part where Destiny's Child is the performing musical act, and we get a view of the back of Beyonce (it would have been great had she agreed to do a cameo).

What Billy Lynn may best be remembered for is Lee's decision to shoot a version of it in 120 frames-per-second 3D, an odd choice for a dramedy. Of course, that is only available in five theaters world-wide. I saw the drab old 24 fps version. Maybe I should have made the drive to L.A. to see the other one, it probably would have much more exciting.