Who can define the mystery?

I have to go back decades to describe something that intrigued me.

I was watching a class of very fine dancers rehearse for a performance they were to give a few days later. I was in heaven. They were all technically very fine. So it was especially rewarding to see them go through their paces. It was an experimental company who were to perform off the beaten path kinds of work. And they were remarkable in carrying it all off.

My eyes went to one dancer who was obviously better than the others. During warm up exercises she was exceptional. I couldn’t wait to see her in performance. One or two dancers there did not excite me at all. I ignored them most of the class. What were they doing with this group?

But here is the stunner. When it came time for performance, the one I was impressed with was a bore in performance. And the ones to whom I gave no attention in class, during performance, just enthralled me.

This led me to a great insight. Technique may be great, but performance, when it counts, is what matters. And there is something mystical that takes place once those lights go out in the theater and all eyes are directed to the performers. Some people need that dramatic tension moment and in performance they just steal the show. I couldn’t believe it.

Who can explain it? How did I miss it with those I was not noticing? They were heads and shoulders above the rest once the performance began. The nonentities became the stars.

I never forgot that revelation. Technique is all well and good but performance is what matters.

Recently I watched girls at a barre. One had gorgeous technique, perfectly pointed toes and long gorgeous legs when she stretched them out. I couldn’t wait to see her in the dance part of the class. Again, she was no standout. And someone I did not notice once the dance steps began to the music, stole my attention. I am a slow learner.

How can you explain why someone just takes over the screen and another never does. You may respect Adolphe Menjou. He is a reliable actor. But you are never going to run to see a movie just because he is in it.

What made Clark Gable larger than life? What made James Stewart irresistible? There were many more handsome actors. They didn’t seem to matter. But those two had that certain something that made you want to see all of their movies. Charles Laughton had it. Maureen O’Hara had it.

What makes Giancarlo Esposito hypnotizing no matter what role he plays? You cannot take your eyes off of him.

You can name your own mustn’t miss people.

Rita Hayworth. Mercy, she just took your breath away. She sure was beautiful. And yet, she had such big shoulders, and she could be horsey. But put her on the screen with Astaire and I surrendered at once.

But then everyone is made better dancing with Astaire.

Look at Fred Astaire. His head is big. He isn’t what anyone would call handsome. He is kind of awkward as an actor. But then he moves! And you are forever his slave. He even breathes differently from any other dancer onscreen. That music starts and there is no one else who matters.

With Gene Kelly, it’s easy. He is charming, good looking, compact in build, and everything about him is lovable.

But Astaire is different. That is the star? No way. But then he walks… He even walks differently from anyone else in the world. He stands, says his lines and you are a bit embarrassed for him. Then he walks! Oh, I see. Now THAT is something else. Look at him walk as he sings I’ll Go My Way By Myself in Bandwagon, the movie. Heaven.

And when he dances there is no one else in the world to compare. Whether it is with a woman, or a cane, or a hat stand, whether it is romantic or a tap routine, or some shtick where he uses objects gracefully to delight with his magic, he is always pure gold.

And the big secret is that he can sing, too. Once he was on Dick Cavett and began talking about his composing and his singing. And then that entire interview was only about his singing. The greatest composers always wanted Fred Astaire to introduce their songs to the world. That Cavett show was such a gift to my life. I quickly went out and bought albums of Astaire singing and listened to them for hours on end. Astaire can sure dance, but he can sing, too. He is now one of my favorite singers in the world.

So this is the mystery. Casting directors have to reckon with this all the time. You can listen to singers until you are blue in the face and never find what you want. Then tiny Lea Salonga steps up and sings and that’s it. She’s got it all, vulnerability, a voice, and that certain something. No need for any more auditions.

If you can find the ONE, you have got it made. But if you miss it…

Can you think of unlikely stars who thrill you? Can you explain their mystery?

Posted in Cinephilia, Music, Other stuff... | Leave a comment

June 29, 2007

The essay below was originally published on February 23, 2008, a week after I had purchased my first iPhone. Since today is the 15th anniversary of the introduction of the amazing iPhone, I thought we’d update the post a bit and wish the most life-changing and revolutionary electronic device introduced in the 21st century a happy birthday…

The iPhone is a (r)evolutionary device

Last Saturday I purchased an iPhone and ended my four-year hellish experience with Motorola phones. Before I begin describing what a revolutionary and evolutionary device the iPhone is, let me make my parting comments about Motorola.

Motorola has been living off their (undeserved) reputation for a long time. I owned a Motorola i730 from 2004 through 2006 (two different phones because of “firmware issues”) and a V3c RAZR from 2006 through this year (also, two different phones because of “firmware issues” — do I see a trend here?). Both were crappy products with lousy software, and GUIs that appear they were designed by imbeciles for imbeciles. Suffice to say I will never buy one of their products ever again. And, if recent news articles are true that Motorola’s cell phone sales have plummeted because of customer dissatisfaction, I’m not the only one thinking that.

(Note to Verizon Wireless: your disabling my ability to copy my pictures from my phone to my desktop because of your desire to cross-sell me a crappy picture service I wouldn’t have used anyway, makes you not only greedy, but stupid and incredibly short-sighted. Now that I know that you think your customers are idiots, I won’t be coming back. Your signal was pretty darn good, though.)

I’ve had a week to work and play with the iPhone and it’s a marvel. This is the first time I have used a cell phone where I can honestly say it was a pleasure. It has a large easy-to-use keypad for dialing, it’s loud enough to hear in traffic, it sports a wonderful interface that is intuitive and easy to use (thanks to the OS masters at Apple Inc.). You can add IMAP (or POP) email accounts in a flash (I have five accounts, including my work account, and it was easy as pie to set them all up), a superb calendar, a notes application, and a lot more. The keyboard is just fine for me, but I know some people have complained that the placement of the keys are too close together.

Oh, and did I tell you it’s an iPod as well? That’s icing.

The iPhone has one major weakness, though: battery life. It eats battery power. I stopped using it as an iPod the third day I had it because the charge did not last ten hours. If you listen to your music or podcasts for longer than three hours a day, and intend to use it for everything else it does, forget about it. If this is going to be your only device, that is, if you plan to use it as a cell phone, an iPod, as your primary email client, your calendar, etc., I suggest you buy a crapload of chargers and have one wherever you place it. For me that’s not a big deal because I have an iPod and I’ll still use that. The other major weakness is the crappy AT&T EDGE network. Very slow. I should have waited for the G3 version, but using my RAZR was becoming hazardous to my mental health.

This device has revolutionized cell phone design and has everyone else scrambling to top it (fat chance). Apple correctly saw that the ubiquitous cell phone had to evolve into something else, something that was so useful, and that would become so necessary to help us run our digital life, that it would be unthinkable without it. I think they succeeded admirably.

Give it a test drive. I’m warning you, though, if you use it for more than an hour to its full potential, you will never be able to go back to your old-fashioned cell phone.

Posted in Macs and PCs | 2 Comments

The “Pied Piper” as allegory in The Sweet Hereafter

I’ve been a fan of Atom Egoyan’s movies for years, especially Exotica (1994) and The Sweet Hereafter (1997).

The Sweet Hereafter is an adaptation of Russell Bank’s novel. The film uses the poem “The Pied Piper of Hamelin” by Robert Browning as an allegorical device to make comparisons between the lives of the town’s children in the film — most of whom perish in a tragic school bus accident — and the children portrayed in the poem, led away by the Pied Piper after the town elders breaks their promise to the Piper about the payment for eliminating the town’s rat infestation.

The “Pied Piper” tells a tale in poetic form of the consequences of broken promises. In fact, the poem deals, not only with broken promises, but with corruption, anger and vengeance. Egoyan picked up on these themes when he used this poem, as read by the sole child survivor of that horrible accident, as a device to punctuate the story of the town’s loss of its children. Juxtaposing the film with the poem, apparently unrelated stories, and then allowing the audience to guess at just who the “Pied Piper” is in the film, is an innovative way to move the story along and adds a dark, fairy tale element to it.

In the film, the story of the Pied Piper is used to frame three characters: the personal injury/wrongful death attorney, Mitchell Stephens (played by Ian Holm), trying to lead the townspeople into filing liability lawsuits; Nicole Burnell (played by Sarah Polley), a 14-year-old who is paralyzed in the accident; and Nicole’s father, Sam (played by Tom McManus), who has committed incest with his daughter. Nicole reads the poem to two of the children that she baby-sits who die in the school bus accident. The main readings are in the beginning and in the last part of the film where you see Nicole, in a flashback before the accident, closing the book with the poem and walking down a hallway.

In the poem the lame boy laments not being able to follow his friends in Hamelin to the place the Piper has taken them to where “everything was strange and new.” In the film Nicole is a victim twice over: she is a paraplegic due to the accident and she is emotionally wrecked from the incestuous affair with her father. At this point in the film she represents the lame boy in the poem. Her friends have all gone to this “strange, new land,” the sweet hereafter, but she is left behind. Her anger, part of which is internalized, becomes evident when she gives false testimony at the deposition. She accuses Delores—the school bus driver who is truly anguished and distraught because of the accident—of speeding.

Nicole’s lie drives both Pied Pipers away: Mitch, who has promised the grief-stricken and vulnerable community that their losses will be avenged if they file the lawsuits, now has no case to pursue; and Sam, Nicole’s father, who enticed his daughter to have sexual intercourse thereby breaking one of the oldest of human taboos, will not be monetarily compensated for the damages inflicted on Nicole in the accident.

Nicole is transformed from the lame boy in the poem to the figure of vengeful Pied Piper who steals from the town, not children, but the opportunity of redress and, yes, revenge. Her anger at her father, like the Pied Piper’s anger at the Hamelin town government, lashes out and affects everyone in the story.

The Sweet Hereafter is a dark film. Dead school children and sexual abuse are real—sometimes they are too horrible and painful to face. Atom Egoyan has helped us face them head-on in his remarkable film.

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Remembering a wonderful teacher

Henry Weisberg was my English teacher in 11th grade. Even though I became a math teacher, it was always my English teachers that I revered. And he was my favorite.

He had a gentleness and kindness.

He used to write on the blackboard Shakespeare quotes that I would memorize, and I can recite them to this day. When we finally read the play and one of those quotes turned up in my reading, it was always such a splendid surprise. He made everything alive in class.

He would read to us. He read Poe’s, The Telltale Heart with such expression that it made that already terrifying story come alive right in front of us. I liked to go back to visit him years after I graduated. And I always requested that he read the Poe story to me and he did. Much of my love of literature sprang from Mr. Weisberg’s influence.

Once when I had won the school’s I Speak for Democracy contest, and I was to go to the celebration for the city’s school’s winners, I asked that Mr. Weisberg be my sponsor and go with me. I vividly remember that when he had to face me to tell me that he had a prior commitment and had to disappoint me, he tenderly fixed the lapel of my coat which had folded under. That simple gesture mitigated my sadness that he would not be going as my sponsor.

Many years later I decided to look him up. It was more difficult than I expected to find him. There was no internet then. Every avenue would give me a clue but I could not find him.

I began calling the phone number of my last option. No answer. I persisted, and finally, days later, someone answered the phone. Would it be the correct house?

“I am trying to locate Henry Weisberg who taught English at Lincoln High School in the fifties.”

“You found him.” a woman told me. (At last.)

“I have been calling since last Thursday.”

“I can’t believe you said that,” the woman responded. “My husband had a heart attack on Thursday.”

“Don’t tell me, please.” I said in fear.

“No, he is fine. He will be home in a day or two.”

Whew!

She told me where he was recuperating.

So I wrote him a letter on pretty hearts and flowers stationary:

Dear Mr. Weisberg,

I spoke to your wife on the phone Tuesday and she told me you were in the hospital. I hope by now you have received [my] package. When you read this letter, you may begin to understand how sad [I] feel that [my] Mr. Weisberg is not well. Please rest and do what your doctors tell you. The world has precious few great men around…

[Your wife] said it would be all right for me to write.

It would be a pleasure if, when you are better, [I] could get in touch with you.

So you must concentrate on healing yourself, now. You KNOW I am sincere when I say, “Get well soon.”

Love from,

Well, he got out of the hospital and I made an arrangement for a visit. I went and it was marvelous. I got the chance to tell him how much he influenced me and how I know all of Shakespeare and named many other authors. I told him about my literary life and how much I owed him. It was marvelous. When it was soon time for the visit to end, I was thinking that I didn’t want it to be over. He read my mind. “Every Monday I meet with some scholar friends and we discuss lots of things and I think you would love that. Why don’t you join us this Monday?”

Hooray.

I was all set to go and so looking forward to it. On Sunday I got a call from his wife.

“Don’t tell me, please,” “Yes. He died peacefully last night. You made him very happy with your visit.” Ohhhhh.

I went to the large funeral and wept.

I thought what if I hadn’t looked for him until too late?

I received this handwritten note a week later from his wife:

Dear …,

Your letter, telephone calls, beautiful basket of goodies, and your visit couldn’t have come at a better time. You brought much happiness to Henry. Thank you for being so kind and thoughtful.”
Fondly,

Betty Weisberg

There is a message here. Be sure you learned it.

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I’m old-fashioned

The Miami City Ballet Company performed a Jerome Robbins ballet in the days when they were dancing live, before the Covid mess.

I love Robbins, but this one was one of the most rewarding and sweet pieces of his I ever saw. It evidences his love of Fred Astaire. What could be bad?

Click on the link above and start the video at the two minute mark. The ballet as I saw it in the theater begins by a screen coming down from the rafters and shows the dance part of the number from this video to the end. Bliss.

Then the screen disappears and onto the stage comes a couple in dressed in a bright color. This takes some getting used to because seeing the tiny dancers compared to the larger than life movie shakes us up. But after a minute or two the audience adjusts and we are back engrossed with the dancers.

The ballet from this point on is one couple at a time each in another bright color dancing variations of what we saw on the screen. It took me repeated viewings to notice this. The music is Morton Gould, and is made up of variations of the Jerome Kern song, “I’m Old Fashioned.”

All of the dancers come on stage together after every couple has finished and the stage is flooded with their brightly colored costumes. Then each couple gracefully sweeps off and returns dressed in black. After a time the stage is again filled with couples – all in black now.

Then the movie screen comes down again and there is a repeat of the number from the above clip of the movie. This time the dancers are all in black with Astaire and Hayworth. Suddenly all of the dancers stop and look up at the screen and watch. In the audience of the Florida theater we all gasp. The dancers, all dressed in black watch a black and white clip of perfect beauty, mesmerized, like the rest of us. It was worshipful, and why not?

There is no way to describe how gorgeous, how literally breathtaking that moment is.

Now it is the orchestra in the theater that takes over as we no longer hear the one from the soundtrack. And now all of the dancers are copying the movements from those on screen.

My emotional reaction was so strong. I sobbed. Heaven.

How does Robbins do it? He does it because he is a genius. That’s all.

I asked about the colored costumes as opposed to the black ones. I thought there might have been a comment on Astaire’s black and white movies. The bright colors seemed imitative of the technicolor movies Astaire later appeared in. I thought Robbins was paying special tribute to the beauty of the black and white Astaire movies. No none seemed to agree with me.

***

Flash forward to now. I am watching a Dick Cavett repeat and he has Fred Astaire as his guest. And they show us another clip from this same movie, You Were Never Lovelier.

Astaire is trying to impress Adolph Menjou because Astaire wants to meet and dance with Menjou’s daughter from the movie, Rita Hayworth. Astaire melts as he describes to Cavett how gorgeous Hayworth is and who wouldn’t want to meet her?

Here is the clip. It is only the first minute I am stressing, but you can watch the whole thing. Then go back and rewatch the first minute.

This film is from 1942.

In 1944 Robbins did his first major ballet, Fancy Free, about three sailors on leave. They are trying to impress some gals they meet. There are three sailors and only two ladies for them to fight over. They each show off in their own style and personality.

This is the solo of the “Rhumba Boy”:

Now will you look at that? Notice especially in the last moment of this adorable solo how much Robbins took from that first minute of the number in Menjou’s office.

What a find for me! And I get to enjoy the discovery of how much Jerome Robbins was tickled by Fred Astaire.

Enjoy!

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Woody Herman’s ‘Golden Wedding’ – even the scratchy sound can’t ruin its magic

An orchestra leader at a dance decided to play Name That Tune. I knew all the answers but let others offer them. However when he got to the last one, it was my favorite instrumental of all time, I couldn’t contain myself and said, “I know!” The orchestra leader was in disbelief. No one ever guessed that one. And indeed no one else in the room knew what it was.

I shouted, “Woody Herman’s ‘Golden Wedding’!” He was dumbfounded. “How do you know that one?”

How did I know it?

When I was about seven a jukebox was brought into our house with many 78 speed records. It was for a party we were going to have to celebrate my brother’s Bar Mitzvah. One of the records was this one and as soon as I heard it, I went nuts and listened to it over and over. There is not one second of it that I do not adore. The drums are subtle, the clarinet is talking to us and the band is perfect in its accompaniment. It was love at first hearing.

Years later I had a friendship with someone who taught me how to listen to jazz. He wanted to know what I knew before he began my “education.”. Among other things I effusively told him about how much I loved this record and he answered me:

I am proud to call you my first student. You really understand what joy and happiness can give back to you as the listener. Now so many people just miss this or don’t care for or perhaps don’t TRUST what great music can do for them…

He used to tell me I had special ears because it saddened him that too many don’t get the joy of listening to wonderful musicians the way he and I did.

Here is how I describe this brilliant record:

Woody herman is known for “Woodchopper’s Ball” and “Four Brothers” and such. But the best Herman for me is his first version of the recording of “Golden Wedding.” This is a Klezmer sounding record that in just a couple of minutes packs so much punch and creativity that it captivates me and takes me heavenward.

The record opens with a subtle bunch of drum rhythms that mesmerize. That introduces the number with insouciance. The sticks roll around and then add punctuation and then continue a melodious quiet set up. Here comes the clarinet letting you in on the melody, a Yiddish treat. The drum leads to a twiddle and bells with cymbal punctuation. So ends the first phrase. This repeats. The listener’s ears are ready for more. The clarinet wails and moans as it starts to be getting to be too much to bear. The trumpet comes in with this statement. “Ya think? Well what about what I have to say?” The band is now getting interested and quietly building up steam. All the while the tom tom drummer is saying, don’t forget me. Now the drum says, “It’s my turn.” A conversation between drums begins (at 1:01) Then the cymbal talks. That sound is so good. Small drum rolls get quieter and keep up the tension.

THEN (1:43)

BLAST! All hell breaks loose! The orchestra says LET’S GO! Brass and all swing out and drive you mad. Then…(2:09) back to the beginning as we collect ourselves. We have to close this out now. The excitement is wonderful but it’s time to put this to bed. Can we top what has happened so far? A quiet rhythm on the drum pulses. This leads to the opening theme on the clarinet – remember me? Get ready – as the closing begins. (2:15) With the band giving perfect backup the clarinet rises a tone at the end of each try. Can it go any higher? No way. But it does! At the end it squeezes out one higher note as the band winds it all up.

So satisfying a journey for so much fun in just a few short minutes. Perfection.

The Herman band tried to redo this one later, but it wasn’t as good. Anyone else who tried to record it could never top this one. A masterpiece.

How did I know that answer? I only listened to this record maybe a hundred times while we had that jukebox.

Listen to it and see if you can resist it.

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Our insane times…

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December 16, 1770

Today we celebrate Ludwig van Beethoven’s semiquincentennial. Born 250 years ago, on December 16, 1770, the namesake of this blog, the “mighty thunderer,” was quite possibly the greatest musical genius that ever lived. He changed the course of Western music.

Beethoven’s music has meant so much to me and has been such a part of my life for over half a century. My earliest (and strangest) Beethoven memory relates to a party my parents had when I was a young man of 14 or 15. The guests brought over all manner of LPs to listen to on our old Grundig console. One of the guests, and I cannot fathom why, brought the old pink RCA Victrola set of the complete Beethoven symphonies conducted by Toscanini, as his musical selection. A very odd choice for a party. That bizarre mental image has never left me and just underscores that the power of Beethoven’s music is such that someone thought it a good idea to bring to a party!

The very first time I heard the famous 5th symphony was a recording by the under-appreciated and under-recorded Erich Kleiber conducting the Concertgebouw Orchestra. It’s been reissued on CD and is highly recommended. To my young mind, Erich Kleiber’s Fifth was, and still is half a century later, a thunderbolt. (As is the Fifth recorded by his also under-recorded son Carlos for DG.) I had never heard anything like it. That record started me on my life-long love affair with Beethoven. 

In the early seventies I started collecting the Time-Life Beethoven Bicentennial Collection. This was the Deutsche Grammophon complete edition issued in 1970, reissued on (crappy) American pressings. I had several of the box sets.  I discovered the piano sonatas and string quartets with these sets. I also had a couple of the original German pressings with the boxes in red fabric and a little gold label attached to the spine. It was one of my first obsessive efforts in collecting Beethoven. Today I own two complete editions: the  Deutsche Grammophon and EMI (Warner Classics) sets, both released this year. I still own five complete symphony sets on LP: Karajan (1963 and 1977), Szell, Klemperer, and Toscanini.

The two works that have stayed with me over all the years I’ve listened to Beethoven, are his masterpiece, the Symphony No.3 “Eroica” in e-flat major, Op.55, and the Piano Sonata No.8 Opus 13, the “Pathetique.” The slow movement of the Eroica (marcia funebre) always make me well up with tears. On the masthead of this blog is a photo of the original score where Beethoven, in a fit of pique, violently scratched out his dedication to the pre-imperial Napoleon of his political fantasies, and instead dedicated it to the “memory of a great man.” And, of course, the slow movement of the sonata, the adagio cantabile, is arguably Beethoven’s greatest and most beautiful utterance as a composer.

There is very little I can write about his music except to urge you listen to as much of it as you can: The late piano sonatas, the ethereal late string quartets, the Missa Solemnis, his incredible piano trios, and, of course, the symphonies. All of them.

The end of the glorious Beethoven Year 2020! Happy Birthday, Ludwig!

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Beethoven 250 | A sampler of his great works


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December 16, 1770

The man that was born on this date in the year of our Lord 1770, the namesake of this blog, Ludwig van Beethoven, the “mighty thunderer,” quite possibly the greatest musical genius that ever lived, changed the course of Western music. Today marks the start of the Beethoven Year 2020 when we will celebrate the master’s semiquincentennial. 250 years ago, next December 16, 2020. Happy Birthday, Ludwig!

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