Friday, May 21, 2010

The Evils of American Consumerism

The Mall of America- I guess we are all to blame.

To see complete album, click here:

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Reflections In a Swimming Pool

From Wikipedia: The Swimmer is a 1968 film directed by Frank Perry and starring Burt Lancaster. A surreal, allegorical tale, it is based on the short story of the same name by John Cheever, adapted by Eleanor Perry (wife of director Frank).

I have seen “The Swimmer”  many times and find it as powerful as ever.  When it was first released, the movie was a box office and critical bomb.  Maybe it was the subject matter, maybe it was the zeitgeist, or maybe it was the counter-type casting of Lancaster who plays the main character Ned Merrill.  The plot is comprised of a simple conceit- a man swims across a wealthy county- one swimming pool at a time.  What unfolds, lap by lap, is a portrait of a man’s life and that portrait is painted by the reactions of those he encounters.  At first his neighbors are happy to see him, but with each new pool we learn more about Ned.  We learn about his long descent from power and wealth to loneliness and despair.  We learn of his wealthy wife, his troubled children, and his infidelities.  Yet, Ned seems incredulous when confronted by each new revelation and he begins to shiver as the warm summer day progresses.  The final assault on his psyche is during a brief encounter with a former lover, played by a beautiful Janice Rule.  She admits to Ned that she pretended to care for him and that he was a bore.  At the end, Ned confronts the reality of his ruined house, family, and life.
This is not an easy movie to watch, and it has a tendency to stay in one’s head.  Lancaster was very effective, which surprised me because I really only knew him through his part in western movies.   Janice Rule had just the right balance of sensuality and emotional distance to play Ned’s old flame.  Pre-surgical Joan Rivers has a small part where she plays a frustrated wife who flirts with Ned, but is ultimately pulled away by her male companion. 

There are scenes in the movie that last too long (e.g., Ned running through a meadow or crossing a busy highway). The latter scene is interesting, however, just to see the 1960’s cars.  There are many artsy shots (e.g., long focus on the landscaped then refocusing on a tree leaf) that look not very sophisticated by today’s standards.  The music, the main theme of which was written by Marvin Hamlisch, is too loud and it is intrusive.  The orchestra’s instruments are too closely mic’d, which makes the music even more overpowering. 

In spite of these small problems, “The Swimmer” is powerful film.  It’s the kind of movie we don’t see much of today.  It doesn’t have a single killing, no bomb blasts, no aliens, and no CGI.  It also focuses on the lives of mature people, something that we just don’t see in movies today.  There are few- “Far From Heaven” and “The Hours” come to mind.  Maybe the subject matter is just too depressing and maybe we don’t need to be reminded of our failings- many of us know them very well without having to see it in a movie.  But “The Swimmer” gives us entre into the lives of the super rich in the late 1960’s and I, for one, am happy to reflect on that world, while drawing parallels to my own.

A memorable quote from Ned- “My life didn’t turn out the way I thought”.  So too for me.  

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

More Photos of Atlanta

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Runnicles and Bruckner

Donald Runnicles
Last week’s ASO concert featured Donald Runnicles conducting Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 4 in D Major and Bruckner’s Symphony No. 7 in E Major. The Bach was played by a chamber orchestra-sized ensemble. Runnicles conducted from the harpsichord. The good news is that in live performance, the harpsichord is not prominent. Usually in recordings it is artificially loud, and being that I don’t think it the most attractive-sounding instrument, I like it a lot more in the concert setting. Now, the bad news. The Ouverture of the Bach work was oddly played. Maybe it’s attributable to the group warming up or to Runnicles’ attention being on the harpsichord or the symphony hall acoustic, but the violins could hardly be heard and the tempo was nearly undecipherable. However, the rest of the piece, based on dance rhythms of the time, was well played and very enjoyable.

The Bruckner was outstanding. I am now convinced that Symphony Hall is designed for big, brassy and loud music. I have always found Bruckner’s music interesting, in part because it is not all that well known. It also tends to move from quiet to brassy loud and quiet again. The orchestra, especially the brasses and woodwinds were magnificent. The orchestra played well together with nary a false start or intonation problem. It was a very satisfying rendition.

I was surprised that about a third to a half of the seats were empty. Maybe that’s why Bruckner is not that well known!

24-hours of Torture and Mayhem

On Sunday night, King Henry found out about Katherine Howard’s indiscretions. The young queen, played by Tamzin Merchant, had lived a wanton life. In her most recent escapade, she had bedded the King’s trusted groomsman. I had to Google to find out exactly what a groomsman does, and it relates to certain clean up duties in the stool room. For her treasonous behavior Katherine was sentenced to death by beheading. The groomsman was to be hanged and drawn and quartered, which was commuted by Henry to simple beheading. One of Katherine’s earlier lovers had to suffer the entire hanging, drawing and quartering. By our supposed civilized standards, this was a barbaric punishment. It is described thusly in Wikipedia (not for the faint of heart, but bear with me, I have a point to make:

The condemned man would usually be sentenced to the short drop method of hanging, so that the neck would not break. The man was usually dragged alive to the quartering table, although in some cases men were brought to the table dead or unconscious. A splash of water was usually employed to wake the man if unconscious, then he was laid down on the table. A large cut was made in the gut after removing the genitalia, and the intestines would be spooled out on a device that resembled a dough roller. Each piece of organ would be burned before the sufferer's eyes, and when he was completely disembowelled, his head would be cut off. The body would then be cut into four pieces, and the king would decide where they were to be displayed. Usually the head was sent to the Tower of London and, as in the case of William Wallace, the other four pieces were sent to different parts of the country. The head was generally par-boiled in brine to preserve the appearance of the head in display, while the quarters were more often prepared in pitch, for longer-lasting deterrent displays.

One could only hope not to survive the hanging. There was a depiction of the punishments, which I had to turn away from because of its brutality.

There is one scene where Katherine is performing a sad and lonely ballet while her two lovers are being hanged. Merchant did a wonderful job of portraying this as an act of a terrified adolescent, rather than as something macabre. Katherine purportedly said that, before her beheading, she was dying as a queen but she would have rather died as the wife of Culpepper, the groomsman. There is some debate as to the veracity of the quote, but it would certainly show some bravery- what was there to lose anyway (other than her head)? For his part, Henry was so broken up over the executions that he had a party with about 10 young women.

Now to my real point- last night, Jack Bauer found the Russian who killed Renee Walker, his love for this 24-hour period. Jack, being ever so curious and in the throes of great sadness, decided that he had to find out who ordered the killing. So, after repeated attempts to obtain the information civilly, Jack decides his only recourse was torture, of which he is an expert. So, he takes a pair of pliers and pulls the skin off the stomach area of the Russian. Ooops- no information. Then Jack thrusts a knife into the wound. Ooops- no information. Jack then makes several vertical cuts in the victim’s skin. Ooops- no information. Then Jack takes a blow torch and aims its flame into one of the wounds. Ooops- no information. Jack then mutters that his strategy was not working. He then saw the operative’s cell phone. Jack picks it up only to realize that its SIM card is missing. He yells at the Russian to tell him where the card is. Ooops- no information. Jack then realizes that the Russian must have swallowed it. Jack then cuts into the man’s stomach, and reaches in to retrieve the SIM card so he can trace who made the call to kill Renee. Now I know that this is TV- the kind of brutal TV that we have come to expect from the producers and writers of “24”. But this was beyond what anyone could anticipate. Someone had to think this stuff up and to that extent, is it any worse than those who thought up drawing, quartering, etc.? While one set of tortures actually happened, and one was fiction, but the common thread is that someone designed both. To the extent that the tortures that we use to extract information (and I don’t think we know even half of the story), we are no better than Henry, who lived 500 years ago.

Grim, no?

But on a lighter note, Sarah Bolger, who plays Henry’s daughter Mary from his first marriage, is wonderful. She is reserved, elegant, and is adept at court intrigue. This is the same woman who became known as Bloody Mary for her execution and torture of Protestants. Isn’t religion grand?

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The Not So Splendid Table

Ms. Kasper

I have never been into food, other than to keep alive.  I have 5 recipes that I rotate through the week. On certain Saturdays however, I do hear “The Splendid Table” on NPR.  The show’s host is one Lynne Rossetto Kasper. Not being a foodie, I cannot attest to her expertise.  It seems like the microphone is so close to her mouth that I can hear her salivate as she talks about the food.  A few weeks ago, Ms. Kasper got into a discussion with a caller who said that he recently picked up some beef cheeks.  My lunch quickly began to move up into the back of my mouth.  To hear these two go on about the mysteries and joys of braised cow cheeks was nothing short of disgusting.  I am not anti-meat eating for me, but this discussion was in terrible bad taste- if you will pardon the pun.  I hope I never have to hear Ms. Kasper go on about food in this way again.  Ugh. 

Miscellaneous TV and a brilliant suggestion

“The Tudors”- the final season is here.  Katherine Howard (Tamzin Merchant) is the queen and Henry is showing his age, although efforts to age Jonathan Rhys-Myers don’t make him look like the elder Henry VIII.  He does not weigh 300 pounds and the stench of his leg ulcer certainly does not come through the TV, which is a good thing.  Merchant is quite good.  She is young, as was Katherine, and she has a naïve quality, especially when dealing with Henry’s daughter Mary.  Seeing her quizzical in the cathedral when Mary stands next to Henry was enjoyable and believable.  Judging from the show, and some brief history on the web, Henry was cuckolded by Katherine, as well as his assistant Thomas Culpepper, played by  Torrance Coombs.   I am sure that history was never this good looking, but what a triumvirate of genetic blessings.  “The Tudors” has been worth the time invested.  I have learned more about English history than ever before.  As Mel Brooks said “It’s good to be King.”

“Nurse Jackie” is in its second season.  Edie Falco plays Jackie, a drug-taking, but great nurse.  She plays around on her husband (Dominic Fumusa), with seemingly no guilt.  She has a very neurotic 10-year old daughter, who may be on her way to becoming psychotic.  She has a pharmacist-lover played by Paul Schulze, who is unscrupulous.  He has befriended Jackie’s husband and threatens to reveal his clandestine relationship with Jackie.  Peter Facinelli stars was a self-absorbed physician- I know- a stereotype!  Anna Devere Smith plays Gloria Alkalitis, the ER administrator.  Falco is very believable, as she always is.  From her days on “Oz” she has played strong female characters that control through dint of their strong personalities, but also through her sexuality.  She is one actress that I would be happy to spend an hour with over dinner.  Anna Devere Smith plays her cynical character perfectly.  She infuses the right amount of humor to make her Machiavellian machinations believable.  There are a few hanger-on characters that are not that compelling to me.  One is a nursing student Zoey Barkow, played by Merritt Wever.  She flies between being naïve, to being in-charge, to being manipulative.  Another less than believable character is Dr. Eleanor O’Hara, played by Eve Best.  One problem for me is that Best’s English accent and soft voice make it difficult to understand what she is saying.   She has a lover, played by Julia Ormond, who has never been a believable actor.  “Nurse Jackie” is a showcase for Falco’s talent and is she makes the show worth watching.

The final season of “24” is playing itself out.  It is several notches better than the last 5 seasons.  Jack Bauer has become a more vicious operative who thinks his job is to provide justice without benefit of trial and jury.  Chloe(Mary Lynn Rajskub) has unbelievably been made a very dyspeptic acting director of CTU.  The President, played by Cherry Jones, is an idealist who is willing to sell out her principles in search of peace in the middle-east.  Who knows, that probably happens every day in Washington.  Anil Kapoor, of Bollywood fame, played Kamistan President Omar Hasson.  Annie Wersching plays a somnambulant, vombified Renee Walker.   Freddie Prinze, Jr. plays agent Cole Ortiz, who is badly in need of some sum to color his overly white complexion.  The real standout of this season, however, is Katee Sackhoff as Dana Walsch, an unscrupulous and devious CTU employee.  I have been a fan of Sackhoff since her BSG days.  Seeing the fear in her face as she is being held hostage by a group of mercenaries is gripping.  Her terror is palpable.  Her strength in the face of waterboarding is also powerful.  Sackhoff is a muscled woman, who is built like a swimmer.  I hope that she finds a strong character to play in a series of her own.  In fact, she would make a wonderful special agent Jacqueline Bauer.  Seeing her rough up male baddies would be a treat.  This could be the idea of the TV century.  Fox- give me a call and we’ll talk.