Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

2013 Film Roundup, Part 1: The Oscars and the Year in Review

(I'm further behind than usual on my annual post-Oscar film roundup, a pre-blog tradition I'll be tweaking after this edition. But here's part one in the meantime.)

2013 was a good year for film. Fare for adults was plentiful and varied. The comic book movies and other would-be blockbusters were mostly decent yet unexceptional, but Gravity was a cut far above in terms of spectacle popcorn movies.

As usual, discriminating movie lovers watch the Oscars to cheer and boo, to see good work rewarded, and to marvel at those talented but sometimes clueless people who can deliver worthy films but also astounding bad taste.

As host, Ellen DeGeneres was… okay. After Seth McFarlane's rude and raunchy stint last year, the producers went with "nice" (although DeGeneres did have a weird dig early on that Liza Minnelli looked like a female impersonator that didn't play that well for the audience or Minnelli). I'm not a fan of extended "working the crowd" stuff, which with a Hollywood set veered toward self-satisfaction. As for the Oscar group pic – neat to crash Twitter. Meta and all that. I felt the goofiness outweighed any narcissism. Meanwhile, I wish the cheap seats had also gotten some pizza, but it's cool that the delivery man got a big tip. (For what it's worth, I liked Jon Stewart as host, and think Steve Martin might be my favorite – debonair and with a playful and savage wit. But chacun à son gout and all that.)

The presenters: The best moment was Robert DeNiro's intro for the writing awards – "The mind of a writer can be a truly terrifying thing. Isolated, neurotic, caffeine-addled, crippled by procrastination, consumed by feelings of panic, self-loathing and soul-crushing inadequacy. And that’s on a good day." The weirdest was undoubtedly John Travolta, who mangled Idina Menzel's name as "Adele Nazeem" and spawned a new meme. (It quickly had its own name generator. By the way, the Oscar telecast scripts – which are fed into the teleprompters – give phonetic spellings of every name to avoid exactly this kind or blunder. I don't know if Travolta is dyslexic or was drunk or just had a brain meltdown; accounts vary.)

Other moments: Pink has a much prettier singing voice than I realized, and did a lovely job overall on "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." (I agree with her critics that it's bad form to take a big breath in the middle of a word, though.) This year and last, a singer came on after the Montage of Death (as we call it), and I much prefer the approach from a few years back, when Queen Latifah sang gracefully during the "In Memoriam" segment. (Meanwhile, I correctly guessed that Kristen Bell was the "virgin sacrifice" this year presenting the technical awards; traditionally it's some gorgeous starlet surrounded by middle-aged white men.)

The speeches: I was glad to see the Oscars take a page from the Emmys' book and have a designated speaker or clear divvying of parts, so that no one was left stranded at the end (that always pained me). Jared Leto kicked off the night with a well-prepared, segmented speech that humbly thanked his mom and noted others' struggles. The rhyming acceptance speech for Best Original Song was charming. Cate Blanchett gave her fellow nominees some sweet shout-outs (and a weird dig at Julia Roberts, who loved it; obviously some inside joke). She also made a welcome point to Hollywood about how audiences will indeed watch a film with a middle-aged woman in the lead. Matthew McConaughey's speech was loopy, including a funny, affectionate bit about his deceased father but also an odd section about how his hero is himself in the future. I appreciated the sense that he doesn't like to rest on his laurels and wants to keep improving, but it came off as more egocentric than I imagine he intended. (He's grown from a decent but unexceptional pretty boy actor with some raw charisma into quite a fine performer.) The best speech for me was easily the effusive one from Lupita Nyong'o, who thanked the historical Patsey (her character), the entire cast and crew of 12 Years a Slave, and made a lovely distinction by not saying that 'your dreams can come true' but that "your dreams are valid."

For the most part, I thought the awards went to the right recipients or at least they were defensible. For instance, I was rooting for the extraordinary feature documentary The Act of Killing, but I've heard good things about the winner, 20 Feet from Stardom, and having one of its subjects break into song during the acceptance speech was one of the best moments of the night. Personally, I enjoyed Despicable Me 2 more than Frozen, but the latter film was immensely popular and well-crafted on its own terms. I was sorry that Iranian film The Past wasn't nominated for Best Foreign Language Film (it was knocked out during an earlier round of the process), but the eventual winner, The Great Beauty, is a gorgeous piece. I felt a bit bad for American Hustle, one of the best films of the year, which earned 10 nominations yet won zero awards. It was the victim of bad timing (similar to Peter O'Toole and his nominations), because all of the winners were deserving. Just consider – American Hustle had nominees in all four acting categories, and in the past four years, films directed by David O. Russell have garnered an impressive (and well-deserved) 11 acting nominations.

I enjoyed Gravity as a movie-going experience, and its craftsmanship will surely be studied in years to come, but I wouldn't rank it as Best Picture before 12 Years a Slave or American Hustle, so I was relatively pleased with how the night shaped up. Similarly, I was glad to see 12 Years a Slave and Her win the screenwriting awards, although I also would have been happy to see American Hustle win.

With the increasing importance of visual effects in genuinely good filmmaking, awards voters should ponder what constitutes directing and what constitutes cinematography versus visual effects. If the director is the person who mixes and coordinates everything, from performances to technical elements (which is usually the case), it makes sense that the talented Alfonso Cuarón won this year, just as Ang Lee won last year for Life of Pi for similar mastery. Ideally, technical expertise and the craft of filmmaking won't completely trump the art of eliciting a set of good performances, but that hasn't been the case in recent years (Tom Hooper won for the traditionally shot and superbly acted The King's Speech in 2010). Obviously, the elements don't need to be mutually exclusive, and in good filmmaking they frequently aren't.

The line is less clear between cinematography and visual effects, though, and it seems one must almost see the behind-the-scenes features to fairly judge the work. Many of the gorgeous shots that probably won Life of Pi the cinematography award last year were in fact visual effects shots (the film won for visual effects, too, justifiably). How much of the kinetic, acrobatic visual style of Gravity was due to Director of Photography Emmanuel Lubezki? How much was the visual effects team? How much was director Alfonso Cuarón? Given Lubezki's extraordinary past work (especially in Children of Men, the third film reviewed here), I was happy to see him win. Still, cinematography, editing, and the two sound categories (and to a lesser degree production design and costume design) can be poorly understood by Academy voters and the audience. (I'll make a plug again for the Academy explaining them better, as well as for promoting the short films.) I thought Gravity was a worthy recipient for its many awards in the more technical categories. However, Inside Llewyn Davis is one of the most lovely, exquisite soft-lighting jobs I can recall and its sound mix (featuring plenty of good folk music) is also superb; it's just that they're less flashy. I'm also reminded of David Watkin, who won the cinematography Oscar for Out of Africa and noted how much it was due to the work of the second unit (that traditionally does most of the landscape shots). All that said, good for Lubezki.

I was rooting for Amy Adams to win at last for her versatile, multilayered, keep-us-guessing performance in American Hustle. She's been consistently outstanding, it was her fifth nomination and all of the other nominees had already won (although in the supporting category for Blanchett and Dench). Still, Blanchett was superb in Blue Jasmine, and classily praised Adams and the other nominees from the stage. Personally, I might have given Best Actor to Chiwetel Ejiofor's powerful performance in 12 Years a Slave (and wonder how many more shots he'll have at the Oscar), but previous supporting actor nominee Matthew McConaughey was excellent in Dallas Buyers Club.

Finally, although I respect the intent behind the Independent Spirit Awards, I suspect they may need to be rethought next year. Currently, contending films must have a budget of 20 million or less, which is pretty cheap by Hollywood standards. The problem is that most of the nominated films, except in special categories, tend to be "mini-majors," semi-indies partially financed and backed by the bigger studios. This year, almost all the major categories were won by the same people and films that won the corresponding Oscars. That speaks well of the Academy recognizing good 2013 films, but it also leaves the Independent Spirit Awards looking less special, apart from providing a few more picks to the potential viewing list.

Anyway, on to the reviews.

(But not yet! I'll update this post later when the other sections with all my reviews are done.)

Monday, March 17, 2014

St. Patrick's Day 2014

Happy St. Patrick's Day! Here's a tune I've posted elsewhere, Makem and Clancy's rousing rendition of "The Rocky Road to Dublin":

(I posted the High Kings' excellent version last year.)

For the day, Digby posts a U2 classic.

Meanwhile, Anne Laurie at Balloon Juice has posted an open thread (and there are some other posts for occasion).

My archives: 2013 (A children's version of the Táin Bó Cúailnge, plus the aforementioned tune), 2012 ("History of Ireland in 100 Excuses"), 2010 ("Four Green Fields" and "The Patriot Game," which I think pair well, and I've used a couple of times), 2009 ("Ar Eirinn Ni Neosainn Ce Hi," one of the prettiest songs I know) and 2007 ("The Wind That Shakes the Barley").

Finally, this has been making the rounds:

(Never let it be said that the Irish don't have a sense of humor about themselves.)

Feel free to link any favorite Irish songs, poems or what-not in the comments.

Sunday, March 09, 2014

CPAC 2014

Every year, the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) yields an interesting look at the conservative/libertarian movement in America, from professional political figures trying out their latest (or well-worn) pitches on the faithful to more grassroots figures (often a little nutty, but more sincere).

Roy Edroso has written a series of a pieces that can be accessed through posts one, two and three. (As I wrote over at his place, I appreciate his kindness with the people who aren't, um, professionally evil.)

Media Matters: "This CPAC Panelist Thinks It's A "Liberal Lie" That A State Has Ever Banned Gay Marriage." That would be Michael Medved, who apparently has taken reactionary petulance to the level of braying ignorance.

John Hudak of The Brookings Institution tweeted up a storm, including this picture of a near-empty minority outreach panel.

TBogg: "Christine O’Donnell is waving, not drowning in a sea of obscurity" (there's also a Balloon Juice thread on the subject).

Also from TBogg: "Watch: Sarah Palin revises kid’s book “Green Eggs and Ham” for an enthralled CPAC crowd." (Word salad as political performance art. The audience ate it up.)

Jim Newell at The Guardian has written a series of posts, including "Perry and Norquist use CPAC to talk tough on appropriating liberal policies."

Dave Weigel's CPAC series includes Conservatism in America, 2014."

Digby has a few commentaries, including "The jawdropping, stunning, breathtaking chutzpah of Michele Bachmann" and "So much for the GOP's youth outreach."

Wonkette has a few posts, including "Reaganpalooza! A Children’s Treasury of Douches Near But Not Officially Part of CPAC."

Charles Pierce also has a CPAC series.

Balloon Juice posted and rounded up many other pieces on CPAC, in "Return of the CPAC," "Dueling Social Theories at CPAC," CPAC for Kooks" and "CPAC Roundup."

Finally, a NSFW piece on CPAC-related (and mostly gay) Craig's List casual encounter ads. (This happens every year, but some of the ads this time, are... creative.)

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Future Islands – "Seasons (Waiting On You)"

This song has been in rotation at KCRW, and you can hear/see the official video here. I went with the live version, though, because the band made their television debut on Letterman on Monday, and their frontman (Samuel T. Herring, apparently) is a theatrical goofball who goes for broke. Rock on, brother!

Sunday, March 02, 2014

On Obituaries and Everybody Dying

(Old Man in Armchair, by a follower of Rembrandt. National Gallery, London.)

There's been a rash of deaths in the performing arts these past few months, and it seems like all I'm writing these days are obituaries. I hope to get to other (long-simmering) pieces eventually. Still, if there's a time to take note of someone's life and career, their passing is it (in our culture and most others). I have limited time to write, so I'd at least like to pay homage to people whose work I've appreciated over the years. As Arthur Miller wrote (in a play Philip Seymour Hoffman starred in not long ago), attention must be paid.

Harold Ramis (1944–2014)

Harold Ramis has died at the age of 69. He directed two films dear to me, Groundhog Day and Ghostbusters, and had a hand in many others I enjoyed. By all accounts, he was a selfless collaborator, and this is amply on display in Ghostbusters, which Ramis acted in and cowrote with Dan Aykroyd. Ramis plays Egon Spengler, the no-nonsense brains of the outfit, meaning he delivers some great lines deadpan, but mostly plays straight man to Bill Murray and Aykroyd – and let them have most of the funniest lines. (He also often showed sound judgment as a writer and director, as when he rejected a studio idea that the cause of Phil's Groundhog Day predicament should be a jilted ex soliciting a gypsy curse on him.) Some great tributes have been written to Ramis, but I wanted to take a look at Ramis' craft and artistry, especially since comedy often don't get no respect.

The difference between a decent comedy and great one is often just a few elements, and Ramis' successes demonstrate that well. Three aspects stand out for me – the ending, exploring the premises, and the human core of the story. (Obviously, in a good story, all of these will overlap.)

Let's begin with endings. They can be tricky, and it's not uncommon for a story to go for the big climatic scene and flop. The typical forced-versus-earned climax chooses spectacle over character, and loses sight of what made us invest in the story earlier. A forced climax in action and horror films tends to be a big-but-hollow CG spectacular. Comedies often build toward madcap mayhem, the ultimate chaos of the film – but in the forced versions, it all feels strained and artificial. In The Party, the forced climax is the all-too-predictable, everyone-in-the-pool-with-the-baby-elephant bit. (Some people love the film; I think Peter Sellers is brilliant and delivers some great moments, including a hilarious Gunga Din parody, but don't like the overall flick much.) In American Pie 2, it's the turn into the third act – the overamped-for-the-circumstances scene where the bros hear their other bro is distraught and has gone walking on the beach alone (oh noes!) so they must find him urgently, pull him out of the film's lowest moment (bro despair of little more than a minute or two) and then stride back to the beach house together, gorgeously lit as the music swells, bro-triumphant. (I only saw the first two films in the series, and they have their moments, but that sequence felt forced, unearned and reeked of filmmaker desperation.) I'm sure readers can come up with their own examples. But compare the misses with the finale of Ghostbusters. The extended showdown with the demon Gozer, who transforms into the giant Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man, is absolutely hilarious. The editing build-up of teases and reveal is perfect, Dan Aykroyd's lead-in is masterful, and the ensemble play off each other beautifully, with some classic lines. (Ramis: "I'm sorry Venkman, I'm terrified beyond the capacity for rational thought.") The climatic parade mayhem scene Animal House is likewise actually funny. In a different tone, Groundhog Day's big celebratory party scene feels completely earned, as does the final morning wake-up scene. Ramis knew how to set up his partners for a topper, and at his best, he really stuck the landing.

Many films don't fully explore their own premises. It's a key frustration for viewers of a near miss, usually voiced something like, "They had a good idea, but they just didn't know what to do with it!" The better the core idea, the more maddening the whiff is. In the best films, that exploration has happened during the writing process, dozens of bad (or merely not as strong) ideas have been tried out and discarded, and the final script reflects all that thought and experimentation. The best scripts work through all the weak spots until the character(s) and the plot click together and are inseparable. Groundhog Day is one of those films for me, and I've praised it more times than I can remember on those grounds. I found it immensely satisfying when I first saw it, because every time I thought, "What about...? What if he tried..?" the filmmakers actually explored it. (Groundhog Day was originally written by Danny Rubin, but it was significantly reworked in collaboration with Harold Ramis, and both authors deserve some credit for the script's success.) Dumb characters are maddening to watch. Phil (Bill Murray) is certainly selfish, self-destructive or despairing at points in the movie, but he's not dumb. He tries everything – personal advantage, charity, suicide, conning Rita (Andie MacDowell), and many other approaches. The basic idea of being stuck in a particular place has been explored countless times in storytelling, and the idea of being stuck in a specific day or returning to the same spot has been done several times in sci-fi. (I've actually argued that Groundhog Day can be viewed as sci-fi/fantasy/speculative fiction – using an unusual situation to explore some facet of the human experience.) Groundhog Day covers similar ground to other "trapped" stories, and it's actually funny to boot (even moving). That's quite the feat.

On that point – Groundhog Day works so well because Phil not only amuses us, we begin to really care about him and his predicament. There's a human core to the story. (In Ghostbusters, that element isn't as strong or crucial, but we do grow to like the team.) Groundhog Day is one of Bill Murray's best performances, and the importance of that can't be underestimated. But the screenplay, cowritten by Ramis, creates the path, and Ramis' direction guides that performance and sets the story's pace and build. There's a great line in The Fisher King where Jack (Jeff Bridges), who's in genuine despair and feeling deserved guilt, says, "I wish there was some way I could just pay the fine and go home." He wants an easy out rather than actually changing. One of the triumphs of the The Fisher King is that it fully explores that dynamic and what it takes for Jack to truly transform, and Groundhog Day pulls off something identical. After a lovely night with Rita, Phil tries to recreate the magic another night, but it's forced and artificial, and doesn't work. In a different vein, he tries to save the life of a homeless man, but nothing he tries succeeds. Both of those elements are pretty damn profound for something sold as a comedy. (The sequence of deaths is also masterfully assembled.) Death can't be cheated forever, and sometimes not even for day; true love is not a matter of tricks or following the um, perfect script, but of honestly, intimately connecting with a human being. Call it soul or heart, but we need to care about Phil for the film to resonate ultimately; Ramis and the rest of the team provide a recognizable human experience in the fantastical by grounding the proceedings in an emotional reality. ("Imaginary gardens with real toads in them.")

All of this is to say that Harold Ramis' best work shows a craftsmanship and artistry that's genuinely impressive. Here are a few scenes to demonstrate this. First, here's one of my all-time favorite comedy scenes:

Ramis deadpans his bit expertly, as does Ernie Hudson in his reaction. Notice all the exposition and setup in this scene hiding under the comedy? It starts with Ramis, Aykroyd builds on it, Murray mentions the EPA and asks about the grid, gets an update, and then the scene closes with a callback – "What about the twinkie?" We get several funny lines – all rooted in character – plus plot development, all in about 45 seconds! That's mighty efficient.

Here's the bridge scene, the most serious one from the same movie. Ramis isn't in it, but he and Aykroyd wrote it, and notice that only this combination of team members could have this discussion. The scene is actually pretty spooky for a comedy, and builds the stakes and tension:

Over to Groundhog Day. Murray's very good here, but this sequence also shows off how tightly written and edited the film is:

In this later clip, Phil tries to recreate the connection he felt with Rita building a snowman on a previous Groundhog Day. But Phil's trying to force things, and discovers that the magic doesn't work like that:

Well done.

Links:

Harold Ramis on the metaphor of Groundhog Day (video).

The Los Angeles Times obituary.

The New York Times obituary.

The Chicago Tribune obituary .

The NPR obituary

The Variety obituary.

Rob Vaux's fine remembrance.

The io9 remembrance.

Ubiquitous character actor Stephen Tobolowsky, probably best known as Ned Ryerson in Groundhog Day, has a great remembrance of Ramis.

The Wrap: "Harold Ramis, ‘Buddha of Comedy,’ Remembered By Rainn Wilson, Judd Apatow," "Harold Ramis and Bill Murray: Inside The ‘Groundhog Day’ Duo’s Decade-Long Feud" and "President Obama Makes ‘Caddyshack’ Joke in Tribute to Harold Ramis."

Esquire:"An Oral History of Ghostbusters."

Indiewire, 2013: "5 Things You Might Not Know About Groundhog Day."

The New Yorker, 2004: "Comedy First: How Harold Ramis’s movies have stayed funny for twenty-five years."

DVD Review, 1999: "Anatomy of a Comedian."

Saturday, March 01, 2014

Sid Caesar (1922–2014)

(The NY Times' neat photo compilation.)

The great Sid Caesar has died. I mainly knew him from countless viewings of the compilation film, 10 From Your Show of Shows, a great showcase for his immensely talented comedy troupe. I later caught additional sketches (all excellent), and learned about his dream team of writers, including Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, Neil Simon, and Larry Gelbart. (Carl Reiner was both a writer and performer.) It's just staggering. Caesar himself was a stupendous comic actor, and had an immense talent for both pantomime and improvising in gibberish and fake foreign languages when required. (He called it "doubletalk." The brilliant Imogene Coca could perform it, but needed it written out, whereas Caesar would spout it off-the-cuff.)

The Wikipedia entry linked above is quite good and full of great quotations about Caesar. He's also appeared in fictionalized form, most notably in My Favorite Year (Mel Brooks was its uncredited executive producer) and Laughter on the 23rd Floor, the stage play by Neil Simon. The Caesar portrayed in those was fairly true-to-life – extremely talented, passionate, driven, an addict and a bit of a personal mess, the occasional bout of temper, committed to excellence in the craft, and deep down, caring deeply about his team. (Although it should be mentioned that those who caught Caesar at a bad time, especially during his heavy addictions years, don't remember him fondly on a personal level.)

If you can find it, PBS aired a great reunion called Caesar's Writers. Meanwhile, here are some clips and links:

"Five Dollar Date," which he wrote, and shows off his versatility, verbal skills and energy:

"The German General," written by Mel Brooks, and one of Caesar's best double-talking performances:

"From Here to Obscurity," one of the many film parodies (and quite long by today's standards):

"This Is Your Story," supposedly one of Caesar's personal favorites:

Mel Brooks about Sid Caesar on Conan:

The Daily Beast has five more clips, including "The Clock" and "At the Movies."

The Los Angeles Times obituary.

The New York Times obituary.

The NPR obituary.

The Hollywood Reporter obituary.

The Variety obituary.

The BBC obituary.

The PBS NewsHour obituary.

Billy Crystal's tribute: "Why Did I Become a Comic? He Inspired Me."

Ken Levine's thoughts on Sid Caesar (he didn't have a good experience interviewing him, but it's a classy piece).

The Orlando Sentinel appreciation.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Philip Seymour Hoffman (1967–2014)

I was shocked and saddened to see that Philip Seymour Hoffman had died. He was an extremely talented, versatile and intelligent actor who made every project he was in better (seeing his name on the credits was a reassurance). His early work is notable for how he turned what could have remained small, forgettable or clichéd roles into memorable, intriguing characters. Likewise, one of many things I admired about it was that, even after he was getting leading parts, he continued to play extremely interesting supporting roles. He was a regular fixture of P.T. Anderson's films, and it's no surprise that good writer-directors sought out Hoffman and vice versa. Although he had a hulking frame, he managed to sell himself (all the way to an Oscar) as the diminutive, soft-spoken Truman Capote. He could play a snitch or a villain with panache, and showed a deft feel for comedy as well. His death at the relatively young age or 46 is a tremendous loss. A rash of fine performers have died recently, but at least Peter O'Toole, Pete Seeger, Maximillian Schell, Shirley Temple Black and Sid Caesar had long runs.

Hoffman's list of credits is extraordinary. I still need to see his directorial efforts, but the list of performances I loved is long. He plays a memorable weasel in Scent of a Woman and a suck-up par excellence in The Big Lebowski. As Scotty in Boogie Nights, his self-loathing (he's gay and smitten with Eddie/Dirk) makes him sympathetic. I've only seen clips of Flawless, but a friend of mine who adored Hoffman cited that performance all the time – what impressed her was that Hoffman didn't play Rusty as stereotypically gay or transgendered, but simply and matter-of-factly as a woman, and with dignity (more unusual in 1999 perhaps, but still). He plays a small but crucial role as the nurse in Magnolia. In The Talented Mr. Ripley, he's the one character to see through Tom Ripley's façade from the start, and he infuses his lingering stares and offhand remarks with subtle but palpable menace. In Almost Famous, he delivers a lovely, kind sermon to our hero on being "not-cool" and how embracing that difficult path can lead to becoming a good writer. He's the comic relief buddy to Ben Stiller in Along Came Polly, and he brings a goofy, fun energy to every scene he's in. His Oscar-winning performance is Capote is restrained, detailed, and engrossing. His passionate bluster as Gus in Charlie Wilson's War is enormous fun and one of the best things about the movie. In Doubt, the movie depends on him keeping us guessing, and he walks that line expertly. He and Paul Giamatti are excellent and the best things about The Ides of March. He's grounded and completely believable as worldly-wise Oakland A's baseball manager Art Howe in Moneyball. His charismatic, enigmatic role in The Master is assured and accomplished, and he plays wonderfully off his costars Joaquin Phoenix (playing Freddie) and Amy Adams (as Peggy), utterly still in the face of Freddie's manic chaos, yet occasionally exploding his own façade when challenged. The scenes between him and Donald Sutherland in Catching Fire were a joy. Hoffman was always so good regardless of the role it was easy to take it for granted that he'd deliver a fine performance and that he'd gift us with many more in the future. He will be greatly missed.

The New York Times obituary.

The Los Angeles Times obituary.

The Washington Post obituary, plus fan and peer reactions.

Rob Vaux's remembrance for Mania.

Rolling Stone: "Philip Seymour Hoffman Mourned Online by Fans and Colleagues," "Philip Baker Hall Remembers 'Genius' Philip Seymour Hoffman" and "9 Overlooked Philip Seymour Hoffman Performances."

Aaron Sorkin: "Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Death Saved 10 Lives."

Marc Maron on Hoffman and addiction.

Lance Mannion revisits his reviews of Hoffman's films, starting here (you can scroll through the other posts up above).

The remembrance threads from LG&M and Balloon Juice, featuring some great clips.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Pete Seeger (1919–2014)

It had to happen eventually. Pete Seeger has died at the age of 94 after a long and very full life. (His wife Toshi died last year; they had been married 70 years.) Pete was a great and highly influential musician, and an even better human being. His contributions to folk music were colossal, and it's striking to see how many protest songs he wrote or popularized, most famously, "We Shall Overcome," which became central to the Civil Rights Movement. He also introduced music to several generations of kids. Bruce Springsteen put it well a few years back when said Pete Seeger was:

…a living archive of America’s music and conscience, a testament of the power of song and culture to nudge history along, to push American events towards more humane and justified ends. He would have the audacity and the courage to sing in the voice of the people, and despite Pete’s somewhat benign, grandfatherly appearance, he is a creature of a stubborn, defiant, and nasty optimism.

If you haven't seen it, the PBS American Masters documentary on Pete Seeger, The Power of Song, is excellent (for now, at least, it can be viewed online). Meanwhile, the 90th Birthday Concert has quite the lineup, and the 1982 documentary, The Weavers: Wasn't That a Time has some great footage.

Pete had a generous soul. It was impossible not to feel that, and the joy he felt in playing music and in communal singing. He just beamed on stage. As I wrote in an post several years back:

I saw Pete and Arlo Guthrie perform about six times in the 80s and 90s, mostly together, in one case a solo performance by Arlo at the Smithsonian. Going to see them was a family outing. During that period, Arlo played "Alice's Restaurant Massacree" again for the 20th anniversary, adding some funny stuff about Nixon. By the 90s, Pete was bringing his grandson Tao Rodriguez-Seeger out more often to help him sing, and Pete would just lie down on the stage between songs, propping himself up with his elbows. He and Arlo would trade off songs, bantering about what to sing next. They'd include some familiar favorites and add some new pieces, and always insisted on plenty of audience participation. They were very friendly, cheerful events.

Many people in this country probably have an informal list in the back of their minds of Americans they admire, of people past and present they think exemplify the best of the country and its potential, despite any flaws. Martin Luther King, Jr. is probably the most obvious choice for many. I'd add a number of activists, including Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony, and Dorothea Dix. I'd probably add a couple of dozen artists at least. And on my list, I'd definitely include Pete Seeger. He was authentic. He was caring. He was often selfless. His faults, such as they were, grew from a good place. It might sound hokey, but I find it encouraging that America could produce a person like him… and that so many other Americans (and other people around the world) also valued Pete Seeger and what he did.

John Holbo of Crooked Timber has a good, playful post titled, "Conservative Taken Aback At President’s Reaction To Death Of Seeger." As Holbo points out (and others in the comments thread do), it's no surprise that the conservatives at National Review would excoriate Pete Seeger for once belonging to the communist party. As The New York Times obituary reports, he had left the party/organized movement by 1950, even though he never considered "communist" a dirty word. Additionally, t's well worth remembering how different the world looked leading up to, during, and after WWII. (John Fund at National Review claims Pete was "an unrepentant Stalinist until 1995." I'm guessing Fund's justifying adding at least 45 years to the timeline through some weaseling about what constitutes "repentance" to his satisfaction, as if he would ever be truly satisfied.) If Pete was a communist, he was a great American communist. He was always pro-labor, pro-diversity, pro-music, pro-arts, and pro-human. For me, there's never been any question that Pete's heart was in the right place, even if his judgment of Stalin in particular was faulty. National Review was arguing for segregation in the South and the inherent racial inferiority of blacks in the 1950s. It was denouncing the Civil Rights Movement and Martin Luther King, Jr. for "rabble-rousing demagoguery" in the 1960s. Pete Seeger was on the wrong side of National Review on all of that, and on the right side of history. Answering the question "Which Side Are You On?" ain't too hard.

I've featured Pete Seeger's House on Un-American Activities (HUAC) testimony in 1955 before, and it's worth reading in full. But some highlights:

I am not going to answer any questions as to my association, my philosophical or religious beliefs or my political beliefs, or how I voted in any election, or any of these private affairs. I think these are very improper questions for any American to be asked, especially under such compulsion as this. I would be very glad to tell you my life if you want to hear of it.

Differing views on "contributions" to society:

MR. SEEGER: I feel that in my whole life I have never done anything of any conspiratorial nature and I resent very much and very deeply the implication of being called before this Committee that in some way because my opinions may be different from yours, or yours, Mr. Willis, or yours, Mr. Scherer, that I am any less of an American than anybody else. I love my country very deeply, sir.

CHAIRMAN WALTER: Why don't you make a little contribution toward preserving its institutions?

MR. SEEGER: I feel that my whole life is a contribution. That is why I would like to tell you about it.

On inclusiveness:

MR. SEEGER: I have sung for Americans of every political persuasion, and I am proud that I never refuse to sing to an audience, no matter what religion or color of their skin, or situation in life. I have sung in hobo jungles, and I have sung for the Rockefellers, and I am proud that I have never refused to sing for anybody. That is the only answer I can give along that line. . . .

"These features": what do you mean? Except for the answer I have already given you, I have no answer. The answer I gave you you have, don't you? That is, that I am proud that I have sung for Americans of every political persuasion, and I have never refused to sing for anybody because I disagreed with their political opinion, and I am proud of the fact that my songs seem to cut across and find perhaps a unifying thing, basic humanity, and that is why I would love to be able to tell you about these songs, because I feel that you would agree with me more, sir. I know many beautiful songs from your home county, Carbon, and Monroe, and I hitchhiked through there and stayed in the homes of miners.

This bit's more subtle, but it's probably my favorite (emphasis mine):

MR. TAVENNER: The same occasion, yes, sir. I have before me a photostatic copy of a page from the June 1, 1949, issue of the Daily Worker, and in a column entitled "Town Talk" there is found this statement: The first performance of a new song, "If I Had a Hammer," on the theme of the Foley Square trial of the Communist leaders, will he given at a testimonial dinner for the 12 on Friday night at St. Nicholas Arena. . . .Among those on hand for the singing will be . . . Pete Seeger, and Lee Hays—and others whose names are mentioned. Did you take part in that performance?

MR. SEEGER: I shall he glad to answer about the song, sir, and I am not interested in carrying on the line of questioning about where I have sung any songs.

MR. TAVENNER: I ask a direction.

CHAIRMAN WALTER: You may not he interested, but we are, however. I direct you to answer. You can answer that question.

MR. SEEGER: I feel these questions are improper, sir, and I feel they are immoral to ask any American this kind of question.

MR. TAVENNER: Have you finished your answer?

MR. SEEGER: Yes, sir.

MR. TAVENNER: I desire to offer the document in evidence and ask that it be marked "Seeger exhibit No.4," for identification only, and to be made a part of the Committee files.

MR. SEEGER: I am sorry you are not interested in the song. It is a good song.

I imagine Pete saying that with his characteristic warm smile, and it makes me smile in turn. Talk about cross-purposes – his inquisitors wanted to lock up Americans for thoughtcrime; Pete wanted to talk about music. You either hear the music and appreciate it, or you don't. You either get what Pete's saying here, or you don't. (Not coincidentally, one of my favorite Zen stories hits the same basic point about what has value in this life.) As a wise colleague used to say to me, for those moments when you've given it a solid effort and just can't get through to someone, "There are some people who just don't get it, and if they don't get it, you can't tell 'em." That's certainly true of HUAC and their contemporary descendants, and it's their loss. It's also a loss they're determined to inflict on other people. It's an impulse consistently points out about conservatives, how they try to appropriate the arts and pop culture for propaganda purposes instead of just enjoying them, thus obstinately denying themselves one of the beautiful experiences possible in life.)

There's much to admire about Pete Seeger, but it's Pete the musician and the human being that stick with me the most. As for him as a political activist, you could put it this way: Pete never completely gave up on anyone... but he also didn't stand still waiting for them to figure it out.

I'll only post a few songs here, since the possibilities are vast, and several of the posts linked further below feature good selections.

Links:

NPR: "Sing Out: A Concert Celebration Of Pete Seeger" (2005)

The New York Times obituary.

The Associated Press obituary.

Arlo Guthrie remembers Pete, one and two.

Sister Peggy Seeger's home page.

Bruce Springsteen.

Roy Edroso.

Charlie Pierce.

The Pete Seeger appreciation page.

Time: "Songs of Peace and Protest: 6 Essential Cuts From Pete Seeger" and "Why Pete Seeger Mattered: The Pied Piper of the People’s Music."

NPR: " Folk Musician Pete Seeger, As Remembered By His Goddaughter."

John Nichols, The Nation: "Pete Seeger: This Man Surrounded Hate and Forced it to Surrender."

The Atlantic: 'This Machine Surrounds Hate and Forces It to Surrender.'

New York magazine: "Jody Rosen: There Was No ‘I’ in Pete Seeger."

Jesse Wegman, New York Times: "Pete Seeger, Neil Young and the Importance of Letting Go."

Corey Robin, Crooked Timber: "The Beauty of the Blacklist: In Memory of Pete Seeger."

The Atlantic: "Pete Seeger's All-American Communism."

Bhaskar Sunkara, Al Jazeera: "In defense of Pete Seeger, American communist."

Michael O'Hare.

Billboard: "Pete Seeger, Legendary Folk Singer, Dies at 94."

USAToday obituary.

MTV: Folk Legend Pete Seeger Dead At 94: Here's 12 Reasons Why He Ruled."

National Catholic Reporter "Pete Seeger: a man of faith."

The Balloon Juice thread.

The Crooks and Liars thread.

The LGM thread.

The Crooked Timber thread.

Fretboard Journal: "Pete Seeger's Last Letter."

Monday, January 27, 2014

International Holocaust Remembrance Day 2014

How to remember and teach the Holocaust have always been issues of debate, further complicated by the passage of time and the dwindling number of survivors. The Shoah Foundation started by Steven Spielberg has done an admirable job of capturing survivors' stories. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum remains an extraordinary resource. For high school students and younger, the Facing History and Ourselves curriculum has proven useful. And in past posts in this category, we've discussed some of the many books, films and other works that grapple effectively with the Holocaust.

If it's offered again, I'd also recommend the Coursera MOOC The Holocaust. (If it's not, I hope the video lectures are put online for public access.) I went through it last year, and it was one of the best Coursera classes I've taken. For those already familiar with the subject matter, there are still new details and stories to discover. (For instance, a fascinating guest lecture focused on various Holocaust memorials around the world and the thinking behind them.) For those new to the subject, the course introduces basic key history, major themes and some notable stories.

A brief aside on MOOCs (massive open online courses). They're great for lifelong learners interested in studying something new or revisiting a beloved subject. They're also good for students with limited educational opportunities otherwise. They're not, however, a substitute for a solid overall education or good classroom instruction. (They're definitely not a good reason to fire teachers or pay them less.) MOOCs with written assignments use peer review. It's a necessity given the number of students normally involved, but it's the weakest element and (in my experience) ranges from adequate to maddening. (Critical thinking and advanced writing can't really be taught with a blunderbuss approach.)

Anyway, here's the course's blurb:

This online course grows out of the "on-campus" version that has been co-taught by Murray Baumgarten, Distinguished Professor of English and Comparative Literature (Literature Department), and Peter Kenez, Professor Emeritus (History Department) for over 20 years, and has been aptly dubbed a “Legacy Course.”

The cross-listed and interdisciplinary nature of this course is its very force. Murray and Peter locate the theoretical stakes of the Holocaust at the nexus between history and literature. To this end, students will be asked to explore memoirs, historical documents, poetry, documentary footage, filmic representations, novels, and many other forms that attempt to convey the multiplicity and variety of human experience.

By the end of the course, students will have expanded their knowledge of Eastern and Western Jewish communities, the origins and development of antisemitism, the formation and operation of concentration camps, resistance movements, and the Holocaust as a problem for world-history. Additionally, students will have engaged with the problematics of representation, memory, "the memorial", and witnessing.

The assignments consisted of three short essays based on the lectures and readings. The essays were then peer reviewed.

Peter Kenez is a Holocaust survivor and Murray Baumgarten's family fled Europe before he was born. Kenez would lose his train of thought occasionally when lecturing, but he's a thoughtful man and knows the subject extremely well. Baumgarten's the more sardonic of the two and the more entertaining lecturer, but the two play off each other well, filling in important points for each other and pointing out areas of dispute between them (mostly semantic). They also have great warmth for one other. This is a class taught by two old friends who know their stuff. No doubt the real class is much better, and I doubt most of the online students went through all the materials (I still need to finish some myself). Still, given the limitations of MOOCs and the weightiness of the subject matter, I thought it was well done (helped immensely by a great teaching assistant who was very active on the discussion forums). This is material I think I know to some extent, care deeply about, and have a little experience teaching. This course and others like it could be another valuable option for teaching the Holocaust to new audiences.

Besides the lectures and some essays, these were the core materials:

Suggested Texts

Appelfeld, Aaron. Badenheim 1939
Arieti, Silvano. The Parnas
Bauer, Yehuda. A History of the Holocaust
Borowski, Tadeusz. This Way for the Gas, Ladies & Gentlemen
Browning, Christopher. Ordinary Men
Fink, Ida. A Scrap of Time
Levi, Primo. Survival in Auschwitz
Kertész, Imre. Fateless
Schwarz-Bart, André. The Last of the Just
Tec, Nehama. Dry Tears
Wiesel, Elie. Night

Related Films

Image Before My Eyes Everything Is Illuminated
Shoah (excerpts)
Night & Fog
Europa, Europa
Partisans of Vilna
Divided We Fall
The Wannsee Conference
The Pianist
Shop On Main Street

Primo Levi's Survival in Auschwitz, also known as If this is a man, is probably my favorite piece listed above (I wrote about in a previous year), along with Alain Resnais' short but powerful documentary, Night and Fog. Anyway, it's a good list of recommendations. (Feel free to pass on any other favorites in the comments.)