Weekly musings on the arts and current events.

Friday, December 25, 2009


Others have already remarked on the timeliness of Up in the Air, which meditates upon the efficacy of alienation, in our throw-away society, to help us survive a brutal recession. To its many positive reviews, I only wish to note its seamless interweave of documentary and dramatic filmmaking. I'd assumed the many "terminated employees" in the cast were actors, but later read that Jason Reitman interviewed people who'd been "let go" and asked them what they'd like to say to the human resources bureaucrats who gave them the bad news.

In the fifties, many low budget war films cut away from scenes that were crisply filmed in sound studios to grainy sixteen millimeter footage of actual battles. The effect was visually shabby, and worse, demeaning to the soldiers whose genuine peril was of less immediacy to the audience than that of the actors.

There is no such condescension in this film. The ex-employees movingly reveal their pain, distress, and sense of betrayal, with no sacrifice of their dignity. Indeed, only veteran actor Steve Eastin is called upon to become unglued. His virtuosity resonates with what so many in the film and in the audience have experienced. That's what we hire actors to do for us. It's what theatrical visionary Jerzy Grotowski taught is the holy mission of the actor.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

A Christmas Visitor

It's not my holiday, but I've always enjoyed it. I actually like the bustle of Christmas shopping, especially when there are Salvation Army Santas ringing their bells. At school in the fifties, carols were part of our curriculum and I remember the words to them all. Once my class went caroling near my house where homes were lavishly adorned with lights, statuettes, and even a creche scene in a garage with live animals. The holiday movies are a treat, especially It's a Wonderful Life and George C. Scott's Ebenezer Scrooge. And Handel's Messiah never ceases to surprise me with its charm and grandeur.

As long as I can remember, the faithful have deplored the demise of spirituality at Christmastime. The truth is that this holiday, which before Dickens was just an occasion for drunkeness and violence, is more spiritual than ever. For those of us who find inspiration in aesthetics, Christmas is the world's best blend of art and faith. And if we do not believe in a saviour, we can find holiness in childhood, which is what Christmas honors for us all.

Granduca Madonna by Raphael, 1504. Click on the picture for a closer look.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Feasting on Light

Two thousand years ago in Jerusalem, there lived two scholars whose rivalry still reverberates. The patient, liberal, humanitarian Hillel is fondly remembered, while the strict, misanthropic, even racist, Shammai is reviled.

In one famous anecdote, a Roman soldier came to Shammai asking him to teach him the Torah (or the essence of it, assuming the soldier was an Aristotelean) while he stood on one foot. Shammai dismissed him as a fool, so the man went to Hillel with the same challenge. Hillel answered by coining the Golden Rule: "What is hateful to yourself, do not do to others. That is the entire Torah; all the rest is commentary. Now, go forth and learn."

Shammai was Douglas to Hillel's Lincoln, Berger to his Perry Mason, Draco Malfoy to his Harry Potter.

In another famous exchange, Shammai taught that all eight lights of the Hanukkah menorah should be kindled on the first night and then diminished, one by one, each night thereafter. Hillel taught the reverse: start with one and then add. Hillel reasoned that it is our mission to bring light to the world, enhance it, and heal the world, rather than to witness its extinction.

Happy Hanukkah.

The Golden Rule by Norman Rockwell. Click on the picture for a closer look.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Falling From Grace

If ever a week had a theme, it was this one. Tiger Woods lost his dignified image as a focused and gentlemanly athlete. Serena Williams was fined and placed on probation for her outbursts at the U.S. Open. The emirate of Dubai was revealed to be a kingdom built on sand. The Secret Service was tarnished by two gatecrashers who bluffed their way into the president's first state dinner. Mike Huckabee became the target of formerly adoring conservative bloggers because he was responsible for the release of the man who murdered four Tacoma police officers. And most important of all, Barack Obama gave a tepid speech in support of his escalation of our efforts in Afghanistan, drawing only qualified approval from those who support the war, and alienating him from a large part of his base.

I, for one, take no pleasure in any of these developments, and can only hope that the reputations of all will eventually be restored...well, maybe not Huckabee's.

Satan by Gustave Dore; an engraving for a 19th Century edition of Paradise Lost. Click on the picture for a closer look.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009


Thanksgiving may be the last unspoiled national holiday. Christmas is a wreck. Veterans Day, Memorial Day, and Labor Day are only distinguishable, in the popular perception, from Arbor Day and Flag Day by the fact that they give us a day off. Presidents Day is itself a compromise, and that says it all. Martin Luther King's birthday, like Columbus Day, creates more controversy than concord. New Years never meant anything and never will. And Fourth of July scares the bejesus out of my dog.

But Thanksgiving, in every segment of America, still retains its original meaning and unembellished observance. It's still a time for friends and families to gather and eat, and it still gives us cause to reflect on what life has bestowed upon us.


Wild Turkey, John James Audubon. Click on the picture for a closer look.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Running Fence

In the summer of 1976, I was acting in stock in the Napa Valley while the artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude were draping the neighboring hills of Sonoma and Marin with their Running Fence. It was twenty four and a half miles long, eighteen feet high, and crossed fifty nine ranches. It remains in my memory as one of the most stunning sights I have ever seen.

For those who have never driven through the hills of Northern California, they are truly gentle and rolling. Martin Luther King, in his "I Have a Dream" speech, called them "curvaceous"--a Playboy neologism, but so what? Running Fence drew a luminous white line along the slopes and rises. The fabric shimmered in the sunlight and glowed in the dusk. In short, the fence derived all its beauty from its surroundings, and thereby showed how truly selfless art can be.

1976 was America's Bicentennial Year and it was also the year of my father's final illness. When Jeanne-Claude died this week, I was newly in mourning for my mother. For me, the artist's passing reprises her fence, and reminds me that the beauty of my parents' lives was derived by the humble way with which they graced their surroundings.

Click on the picture for a closer look.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Good and Great

Watching the health care debate, I feel humbled. Each of the many sides presents articulate and compelling arguments. I'm critical of Dennis Kucinich and Eric Massa for voting against the House bill, but I grant that I'm touched by their objections. Same with the Republicans and the Blue-dog Democrats whose concerns about the cost of the program are not to be scoffed at.

As a moderate, I am grateful for those who stand to my left and to my right. The former give voice to the compassion and indignation we feel when the humanity of the poor is assaulted. The latter demand that we not forget what the years have taught us about human culpability.

Bertold Brecht, a Marxist, grappled with the dilemma of charity versus prudence in his farce The Good Person of Szechwan. In it, a woman protects her small business, while serving her charitable impulses, by appearing alternately as her compassionate self and her strictly frugal cousin.

Willy-nilly, the insurance companies play this dual role today. Sometimes they are heartless; sometimes they serve us almost too well. But for those who believe the real problem lies in the fee-for-service structure of the health care industry, insurance companies potentially can be an ally in effecting change. The trick is first to get everyone covered.

I place my hopes on long term development rather than sweeping re-invention. It will take time. The House bill is a start.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

No posting this week

I am again on the road, this time for a bereavement, and will not be able to post. Please come back next week.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

That time of year thou mayst in me behold

For us traditionalists, art should never stray too far from beauty, but this does not mean artists must paint beautiful subjects or prettify ugly ones. Ivan Albright was merciless in his depiction of decrepitude and despair. And yet, his macabre images are stunning, heartbreaking, and engrossing. They have an oddly inspiring beauty that touches our souls, albeit with icy fingers.

Happy Halloween.

Portrait of Mary Block, 1957. Click on the picture for a closer look.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Culture Clash

The immensely gifted Columbian artist Fernando Botero created a numbered series of paintings and drawings of the prisoners' sufferings and humiliations at Abu Ghraib, his adipose style evoking Christian iconography. He has donated the collection to the University of California at Berkeley where they are now on display. "Art is a permanent accusation," said Botero, and certainly it will never be possible to consider these works apart from their shameful context.

Across the street from the Berkeley Art Museum is Boalt Hall, the scene of ongoing demonstrations against Professor John Yoo because of his participation in the writing of legal memoranda, during the Bush administration, authorizing enhanced interrogation techniques. Protestors have labeled Yoo a war criminal and demanded that his tenure be revoked. For his part, Yoo has said: "I saw that a small group can now attack us with the violence of a nation…the Geneva Convention never recognized this kind of enemy."

Let's take a step back. On the same campus two eloquent voices are being heard on the subject of torture. Each raises troubling questions for us to deliberate and neither should be silenced. This is what academic freedom is for and why universities exist. Let's all go back to class.

Abu Ghraib #44, 2005. Click on the picture for a closer look.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

First Rain

Only October, and here's our first rain.

It teased a while, showering hard for ten or fifteen seconds and stopping. The clouds turned from pewter to platinum and the air became a tad warmer, as if to say, "I'm done raining; you can come out now."

But soon the platinum turned to lead, a chill set in, and it rained all night.

We're never satisfied. We're in a drought, but our fire scorched hills are liable to erode into mudslides. The grapes aren't all harvested in the wine country, so this early storm may cost us some chardonnay and zinfandel. Nevertheless, seeing the perked up greenery in my yard, smelling at last a freshness in the air, and listening to it fall, are sumptuous pleasures.

Gustave Caillebotte's painting shows the first fat drops rippling the surface of the still placid stream. In a few minutes, we can imagine, the water will flow faster and rise in its banks, and the reflections of the trees will disappear. It's the kind of rain we wish to get caught in.

L'Yerres, pluie (1875). Click on the picture for a closer look.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Necessary and Proper

The last word Michael Moore speaks in his film Capitalism, A Love Story is "democracy" which he advocates as a remedy for the "evil" of capitalism. He invites us to join him in a movement that may well be a socialist revolution--he doesn't quite say. The sound track under the end credits is more revealing: The Internationale.

Our financial system is in a mess, but is it irretrievably evil? And will enhancing democractic involvement cleanse it? Can we vote ourselves prosperous?

Alexander Hamilton, while advocating ratification of the Constitution, said: "It has been observed that a pure democracy if it were practicable would be the most perfect government. Experience has proved that no position is more false than this. The ancient democracies in which the people themselves deliberated never possessed one good feature of government. Their very character was tyranny; their figure deformity."

I suggest that our democratic institutions are at the very source of capitalism's miasma. Our weakened regulatory agencies, and the short term horizons of both politicians and business people, have betrayed voters and investors alike.

However, direct democracy, as exemplified by the initiative process in California, has resulted in unfunded mandates and ineffectual government. Democracy, as sensationalized by the media, has marginalized our most vital concerns and trivialized the decision making process. And lest we forget, democracy, as practiced by communist republics, did nothing to protect people from starvation, oppression, and mass murder.

Our political system is in need of rigorous reform. With a 1.4 trillion dollar deficit, this should be obvious to all. But reform should be intricate and arduous rather than sweeping. Partisanship has thus far stalemated the process. But I'm not willing to give up. I just hope we can undertake it without the distractions of ideologues, demagogues, or (sorry Mr. Moore) populists.

Portrait of Alexander Hamilton by Daniel Huntington, 1865. Click on the picture for a closer look.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Back from Oregon

My greatest pleasure was the morning air. After a summer of heat waves and smoke in Southern California, I awoke each morning in Oregon just to breathe the air with its nip of autumn and taste of dew.

I spent most of my days driving beneath colonnades of alder, cedar, and spruce. On a coastal highway, the moss covered tree trunks graciously leaned over the road as if to canopy the cars.

Oregon is clean. I've car-camped in California from north to south and never seen a picnic table that wasn't heavily etched with grafitti, but from what I saw, this blight has yet to reach Oregon's camping grounds. Furthermore, on the way up to Crater Lake, I drove for miles without seeing any litter at all. It could be, however, that I was merely witnessing the effects of federal infrastructure spending. On every highway there were crews, usually with a sign announcing that their work was paid for by Recovery Funds.

This week, the seasons changed in Oregon, with snow at 5000 feet and rain at lower elevations. The trees were solid green on the way up, but turning colors on my return. I felt privileged to witness it.

Satellite photo of Oregon with borders added. Click on the picture for a closer look.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Time Out

TallTchr will be in the air and on the road this week. Check back at the end of next week, say around October 2nd, for a new post. Thank you to any and all who visit this site.

Roadtrip; a computer generated image by Steven Stahlberg. Click on the picture for a closer look.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Art of Healing

Permit an analogy. When Thomas Eakins painted The Gross Clinic, he meant it as a tribute to the advent of corrective surgery. The canvas is of heroic dimensions and the composition is classical, with the doctor attending and lecturing in a halo of light. Dr. Gross doesn't merely hold a scalpel in his bloodied hand, but the future of medicine.

Looking at this scene today, however, we are more likely to recoil, like the woman on the left. The physicians are in street clothes and there is no attempt to keep any part of the procedure sterile. We don't see the future of the healing arts, but their crude and brutal past.

Today we are faced with reforming health care in America, and as the President told us last night, we are the last developed democracy to do so. We have a system that permits insurance companies to cherry-pick their clients, charge wildly varying rates, deny benefits in bad faith, and circumscribe doctors. And yet, a vocal minority in America resists change.

It's difficult to know what part of the present system conservatives are trying to protect. Perhaps they believe that medicine will become more impersonal, more vulnerable to political machinations, maybe even more expensive. Perhaps they're simply frightened of the unknown the way all of us fear doctors and hospitals.

I think the present system is untenable and will one day look as primitive as Dr. Gross and his operating theatre. Change will come. The question is: will our nation be healed by it, or overtaken?

The Gross Clinic by Thomas Eakins, 1875; 8' x 6.5'. Click on the picture for a closer look.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

The Cataclysm

Southern California has been hot and ablaze this week. It may be a fortnight before the flames are extinguished and the air begins to clear. Our sunsets are the color of blood oranges.

Our charred hills and forests were home to deer, rattlesnakes, racoons, opposums, hawks, squirrels, owls, chipmunks, skunks, coyotes, mountain lions, and bears, among many other species. How many of them have perished? Their plight made me think of this allegorical painting by Franz Marc.

The artist had the cataclysm of World War I in mind when he painted The Fate of the Animals and inscribed on the back of the canvas: "And all being is flaming agony" (Und Alles Sein ist flammend Leid). Marc was later drafted and fell at Verdun in 1916.

Here in the city, we've watched the plumes of smoke spread into an opaque haze that burns the backs of our throats. We've read about those who've lost their homes and about the sacrifices of the firefighters. We're tired of it all and wish to be done with it. As for the agony of the fauna of the hills, it is almost too much for us to contemplate.
Tierschicksale, 1913. Click on the picture for a closer look.

Thursday, August 27, 2009


The National Portrait Gallery put this Andy Warhol silkscreen on display today. It was done in 1980 to help raise money for Ted Kennedy's presidential campaign.

About the time that designers started sewing their labels on the outside of their garments, Warhol explored our cult of celebrities. I can parse, if not really appreciate, his pixieish confluence of medium and message. But it is gratifying that, however much the artist esteemed his subject, and despite the Kennedy family mystique, Ted was not a cult figure. We mourn him this week, purely and simply, because he was the finest man in our government and the greatest senator of our time.

Click on the picture for a closer look.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Taking the High Road

Scotland has repatriated the convicted Lockerbie saboteur to die among his people. Many are embittered by this act of compassion, saying Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi should rot in jail. The United States vigorously protested his release (189 of the 270 victims were Americans) and his hero's welcome in Tripoli has rubbed more salt into the wound. However, many Britons concur with the decision, and still others doubt that Megrahi was guilty in the first place.

I admire what Scotland has done. I think their compassion has turned Mr. Megrahi into an emissary for civilization: a sword beaten into a plowshare. His return to Libya is proof that the country he attacked is morally superior to the one that sponsored his mission. And while this may not be apparent to the bused-in demonstrators at the Tripoli airport, we must believe that it will resonate in the consciences of civilized people everywhere else.
Post Script: Added Sunday, August 23.
Since writing the above two paragraphs, it's been revealed that influences other than compassion may have been at work. The Prime Minister and his predecessor had both been in discussion with Libya about a prisoner exchange, including Megrahi, and his release was advantageous for British Petroleum. There have been denials all around, but the fact remains that responsibility for foreign affairs rests with the central government, and undeniably, this has been a muddle. The high minded message that I praised has been lost, and we are again at stalemate with the Muslim world: their fanaticism vs. our venality.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Coming Detractions

I thought movie marketing was supposed to be savvy. Attending my local multiplex to see Julie and Julia, among a largely suburban crowd of older foodies and public broadcasting subscribers, I saw trailers for a remake of the Oedipul nightmare The Stepfather; plus the long awaited film of the pedophile/slasher novel The Lovely Bones; and an apocalytic sci-fi flick in which the world ends in 2012 with St. Peter's basilica toppling and rolling over a crowd of worshipers, an air craft carrier capsizing and washing over the White House, and Manhattan island sliding into the Atlantic, New Yorkers dying like ants.

I suppose I should be grateful to the theatre for warning me off these atrocities, but I can't help wondering if pitching popcorn movies to a crowd that came for bouef Bourguignon and thon a la Provencales, doesn't show a lack of, shall we say, savoir faire?

Julie and Julia is very tasty, by the way, but I suggest you show up a soupcon late to skip the premier plat du repas .

Thursday, August 6, 2009

The Sound of Silence

Journalists quipped that Bill Clinton uncharacteristcally left all the talking to others when he arrived at Bob Hope Airport in Burbank from North Korea with Laura Ling and Euna Lee, the two former captives.

Why didn't he take the mike? I see three possibilities: the first is humility and I cross that off the list right away. The second is pride. If it's true that this mission was all carefully mapped out, and Clinton was selected by Pyongyang to do the honors, then he probably viewed it as a piece of diplomatic theatre over which he had neither script approval nor artistic control. The less said about it the better.

The third possibility is the most dire: that he has something to report and it is for the White House only.

Thursday's New York Times editorializes the hope that his mission will unblock negotiations with North Korea by giving Kim Jong-il another face saving opportunity. However, scan over to the Op-Ed page in that same issue, and you'll read Nicolas Kristoff calling for more aggressive tactics in circumscribing North Korea's nuclear program, which is rumored to have built a reactor inside a mountain in Myanmar, and to be colluding with Iran in developing weaponry.

Maybe Bill didn't speak because he had nothing good to tell us.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Uncle Vincent

We know so little about Vincent Van Gogh. Wednesday was the anniversary of his death in 1890. He'd shot himself two days earlier, but it's not even clear that he intended to kill himself. Was he self-destructive? There's been speculation recently that he didn't cut off his ear; Gauguin did. Vincent took the rap to keep Paul, whom he loved like a brother, out of jail.

Van Gogh was a gregarious, idealistic, and loving man who suffered deeply from the many who shunned him. When Theo and Johanna named their newborn Vincent, in February 1890, he immediately began this painting for the baby's room. The work was slow, interrupted by periods of incapacity. "I felt ill at the time I was doing the almond blossoms...Now the trees in blossom are almost over; really I have no luck." However, he must have felt great satisfaction when Johanna wrote him: "What he does do is look at Uncle Vincent's pictures with a good deal of interest--the tree in blossom especially, which is hanging over his bed, seems to enthrall him."

The baby had an excellent eye for uncles.

Almond Blossoms, 1890. Click on the picture for a closer look.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Seven Thoughts About Health Care

1) The critics are right: government run health care is a thing to be feared. I see the VA hospital system as an example. My treatment by a VA dentist resulted in permanent damage to my jaw. He was a nice guy, but I'll bet he graduated last in his class and that's why he was drilling for the government.

2) A government run health care delivery system would be vulnerable to political influence in hiring and promotion, supply purchases, location and construction of facilities, maintenance contracts, transplant waiting lists, perhaps even triage.

3) And can we ever forget those rats that infested Walter Reed?

4) But Harry & Louise type critics are disingenuous when they claim that health care reform will insert bureaucrats between the doctor and the patient. The bureaucrats are already there, courtesy of the insurance companies, and they're ever alert to rationales for denying benefits to the sick.

5) If we don't address the problem, health care will bankrupt us. I noticed in my recent out-patient surgery that there were nine profit centers in for a slice: the surgeon, the anesthesiologist, the hospital, the medical laboratory, the hospital pharmacy, the retail pharmacy, my physician and his medical group, Blue Cross-Anthem HMO, and a sub-contractor whose sole function was to process the paperwork. Mind you, in this case there was no assistant surgeon, no imaging or diagnostic testing, no physical therapist, no nurse-practitioner visiting my home, no prosthetics, and no hospital stay, just to name a few items that could have ramped up the cost.

6) I still get solicitations from insurance companies for cockamamie policies that target single diseases, such as certain cancers or "death and dismemberment". Such policies turn insurance into a crapshoot wherein the client bets on how he is most likely to die. They don't tell people that the number one cause of death is heart disease, not cancer, and that the most common debilitating ailment is back injury, not amputation.

7) I have three good friends walking around right now with no insurance and no prospect of ever getting insurance due to pre-existing conditions. I say three, but I fear the real number is much higher. Having no insurance is not something people want known.

Sketch for "The Pharmacist" by Norman Rockwell, 1939. Click on the picture for a closer look.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Have To Be There

Too bad a couple of sub-par pictures can't make a good one. The snapshot is one I took of the General Grant tree. The painting is by the great Hudson River landscapist gone west, Albert Bierstadt.

I'm long due for another pilgrimage to the redwoods. The groves remind me of cathedrals--people talk in hushed tones when they visit. They take their photos discreetly so as not to disturb anyone's meditation on these, some of the world's largest and oldest inhabitants.

My photo lacks the richness of the sequoia's rust colored bark. Bierstadt's painting missed their stateliness. With his habit of improving on nature, he turned his tree into a tart.

Summer is here; time for a visit to the big trees to see what they're really like. I know the best camping sites in Sequoia National Forest, so who will come with me?

Click on the pictures for a closer look.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Leap of Faith

Candidates are nominated by the bases of their respective parties, but presidents are elected by the middle. Sarah Palin is enamored by the right wing of the Republicans, but she has yet to make a dent among moderates, much less Democrats. And the strange thing is that she doesn't seem to fully grasp this.

She's spurned the advice of the many who told her to go back to Alaska, do a good job, study the issues, and strive to enhance her credibility among a larger constituency. She has chosen instead to galvanize her followers and perhaps champion a movement.

Supporters of hers, like William Kristol, believe her resignation as Governor of Alaska is a strategic move, while critics, like Ed Rollins, describe it as impulsive and "idiotic". I suggest it is both and it is neither.

Her decision is evidence of an amor fati, urging her to believe that out of execration will come triumph. And therefore, I expect she will continue to court controversy and invite criticism as she improvises an eccentric path to her Apocalypse.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Listening to Summer

So soon?

Is it already time for languid afternoons, buzzing insects, sweet smells of warm vegetation, sudden rains, and nights noisy with crickets and bullfrogs?

Other seasons may hold more specific memories--Autumn school days, Christmases past, spring weddings--but summer revives our childhood sense of time: how it can be a snail when we are impatiently waiting, and a hummingbird when we are enraptured with play. And summer can make us wonder the way we used to when we were kids.

Listen to this painting by Pissarro and to its distant conversations and dragon flies skimming the grass. To the chatter of children and to barking dogs. To the flapping of sheets on the line and the chopping of wood that echoes across town. I'm projecting--most of these things aren't even on the canvas--but I can't look at a painting this evocative of summer without hearing its music.

Camille Pissarro: The Hermitage at Pontoise (Les Côteaux de l'Hermitage), ca. 1867. Oil on canvas. Click on the picture for a closer look.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Nine Runners-Up

The Oscars have announced that there'll again be ten nominees for best picture instead of five. The last movie to beat out nine competitors was Casablanca in 1943. I thought I'd revisit the nominees from 1939 which is often said to be Hollywood's best year. The winner was Gone With the Wind, but here are the runners-up:

Wizard of Oz--even more iconic than GWTW.
Love Affair--Irene Dunne/Charles Boyer in a fine comedy-drama that was remade as An Affair to Remember.
Goodbye Mr. Chips
--there'll always be sentimental movies about teachers, and they'll always be welcomed.
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington--second pairing of James Stewart with director Frank Capra; It's a Wonderful Life was seven years later.
Ninotchka--Garbo gets the Lubitsch touch with a strong supporting cast: Melvyn Douglas, Sig Ruman, Felix Bressart, Bela Lugosi.
Of Mice and Men--much admired filming of Steinbeck's sure-fire book.
Stagecoach--John Wayne's breakout film under John Ford's expert direction is perfect…until the ending.
Wuthering Heights--I hear women like it.
Dark Victory--Bette Davis in a fine soaper; she lost the best actress award to Vivien Leigh.

Ten true contenders. I'd rather see any of them than such recent Oscar winners as Braveheart, Titanic, or Return of the King, but that's just me...and maybe you, too.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Liza and the Treachery of Art

I like to show Cabaret to my students. The film is deftly deceptive in presenting songs, characters, and images that appear sympathetic but are in fact deeply flawed. The scene in the beer garden, where the Hitler Youth serenade the patrons, is homage to Casablanca’s “Marseillaise” sequence. It looks like a grass roots awakening of hope, but the lyric reveals that it is the anticipation of the spoils of war that brings the beer drinkers to their feet. Immediately thereafter we see the rascal MC, Joel Grey, in a new light: the devil.

When the unrepentant Sally Bowles sings the title song at the end as though it were an anthem to freedom, we’re sorely tempted to forgive her impatience with love and obliviousness to suffering, and to agree that “Life is a Cabaret, old chum”, until Bob Fosse's camera reminds us of the Nazis and the gathering storm.

Watching this wonderful 1972 film now, we see no daylight between Liza Minelli and the character of Sally. They've lived exactly the same, each in her own generation. We mustn't judge them for giving into their demons or escaping into hedonism from worlds gone mad. But we can wish they'd found and held onto something that doesn't fade to black.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Guilty Pleasure

I love the paintings of Bouguereau. There, I've said it.

He's what's called an "Academic Painter", a stultifying title if ever there was one, and his style was assiduously classical, depicting the idealized beauty of young girls. He was much admired in his day, especially by rich patrons who ignored, even castigated, works of the Impressionists. However, once the world finally learned how to look at a Van Gogh, Cezanne, Monet, and the like, Bouguereau fell out favor with a thud.

I find in him a version of my own vision of perfect summer days, clothing-optional splash parties, and golden glowing afternoons eased into night by a breeze that gently blows out the last rays of the sunset.

I don't know whether Bouguereau brings out the sentimentalist or the dirty old man in me, but I love his paintings.

There, I've said it again.

Seated Nude, William-Adolphe Bouguereau, 1884
Click on the picture for a closer view.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Washington at the Wheel

It was October of 1973 when OPEC imposed an oil embargo resulting in lines to buy gas in the U.S. 1973 was what we in the education racket call a "teachable moment". The American consumer learned overnight that the supply of gasoline was finite, that America depended too heavily on foreign oil, and that the price of fuel was volatile. Unfortunately, American auto makers have done all they could over the last thirty five years to erase the blackboard.

It seems incredible now, but regular gas in the early 70's sold for around $.36 a gallon. Once it hit $.50, consumers discovered fuel efficient Toyotas, Hondas, and Datsuns (now Nissan). And once we got these babies home, we also found that they were durable, lasting well over 100,000 miles. American car culture back then had us believing only paupers and eccentrics drove cars for that long.

The bankruptcies of Chrysler and GM follow thirty five years of corporate footdragging. These companies, so resistant to change, must now chart entirely new courses. But it is most unclear as to who will instruct the executives: the market or the federal government? If the former, what will the consumer accept from companies that have never produced a safe, fuel efficient, and durable vehicle before? If the latter, what's to prevent these companies from abandoning the quest to be competitive in favor of simply lobbying for more handouts from Washington?

The president has said that the federal government will not interfere with day to day operations. But if the fed is not to teach Detroit the car business, who will?

1948 Cadillac dashboard

Monday, May 25, 2009

Peasant Girl With a Scarf

I can't get this girl off my mind; she looks familiar. I tell myself that at my age, everyone is starting to look familiar. Still, whenever I glimpse her, my memory rummages through a flurry of faces.

Who could she have been? A classmate from college? A waitress at an old hangout? A girl on a bus that I looked at, but didn't summon the courage to talk to?

She's a big boned lass with a thick neck and strong wrist. She's dressed for outdoor toil and the sun has left its imprint on her cheek. She works hard, but this is a moment of respite. The faraway glance in her eyes, the chin resting, and the parted lips, all betray her sweet girlish longing, and this evokes in me nostalgia for a time when romantic possibilities seemed infinite.

From beneath her head scarf, rich locks frame her face. She has two scarves! Which is the eponymous one? The red, certainly, because it's the scarf she doesn't really need. Courbet may have seen that dash of color adorning this working girl's neck and admired it, as I do, and perhaps even wondered whom she reminded him of.

Peasant Girl With a Scarf, oil on canvas, Gustave Courbet, c. 1849.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Blood Sport

There's a charm offensive to rehabilitate Michael Vick now that he's been released from prison. New York Times sports columnist William C. Rhoden has written pieces calling for his reinstatement in the NFL. He claims that Vick's imprisonment for dog fighting was a "heavy-handed misapplication of justice." And the ever alert Wayne Pacelle, President and CEO of The Humane Society of the United States, has joined the Vick team, recruiting him as a spokesman to help save innocent pooches from people like, well, Michael Vick. Pacelle is hedging his bet, however, saying he's a "participating skeptic."

It's also been rumored that the Buffalo Bills are interested in signing Vick so he can throw passes to their temperamental star receiver, Terrell Owens. I expect Mr. Rhoden would concur that the Bills are a New York team.

But it's all beside the point. For the last ninety years, it's been a tenet of American sports that gamblers and athletes must never mix. Vick was not just a dog-fighting bettor, he was the house, putting thirty to fifty thousand dollars at risk on each contest that he staged. Neither the fact that this was illegal gaming, nor the fact that dog fighting is a barbaric blood sport, should matter nearly so much to the NFL as the fact that he breached the firewall with impunity and on a large scale. Athletes have been permanently banned from their sports for gambling in the past; why on earth should an exception be made for Michael Vick?

Friday, May 15, 2009

Still Life--an Oxymoron

Ancient Egyptians painted still lifes inside the tombs of the pharaohs: sustenance for their journeys to death. Familiar subjects for European artists were bowls of fly spotted fruit and tables laden with carcasses of rabbits and fowl, set in rooms with somber walls. Until the Impressionists, still life paintings tended to be unappetizing; they caution against gluttony and remind us that the life of the flesh is fleeting.

Still life, taken literally, must mean death--life gone still. The foods presented repel us and scold us for being creatures that feed upon living things. Food is not a temptation but a memento mori.

Or am I wrong? Has buying meat in plastic wrap rather than on the hoof made me squeamish? Did people of another age look at the oysters on this platter and salivate?

I confess, I look away when I see a still life. Even the cornucopias make me think of dying.

Willem Claesz Heda Still Life with Gilt Goblet (Netherlands, 1635)
Click on the picture for a closer look.

Monday, May 11, 2009

"He was nice, and he was fun."

Last Saturday was the celebration of Dom DeLuise's life, and as I have a tangential connection, I attended. Although I didn't know him, I came away feeling touched by his spirit. Various people spoke, movingly or hilariously--in the case of his youngest son, it was punch lines delivered through sobs.
I jotted down a few things that were said and here they are:
• I asked Dom the Actor's Studio question--what do you hope they'll say to you when you arrive in heaven? He answered: "Great, you're just in time for lunch!"
• Mom always picks up pennies when she finds them on the sidewalk. She was having a great day in New York, finding seven, before I saw Dad surreptitiously reach into his pocket and drop number eight.
• (Carl Reiner) He never forgot to send me a birthday card, and always with a dollar in it.
• (Norman Lear, by letter) I walked into his living room and there was a flower pot with exactly one stem in it on the table, and Dom, all 250 pounds of him, called out:"I'm over here behind the plant!"
• (Mel Brooks) We had 55 days to shoot Blazing Saddles, but when we added Dom to the company for one scene, I went back to the studio and got two extra days. They didn't understand why, but I knew.
• I'd call my dad whenever I had something important in my life, some great problem or exciting news, and he'd listen and listen, and then he'd say: "I'm sorry, who is this calling?"
• He'd ask people he just met how they lost their virginity.
• He could prepare a dinner party for ten with an hour's notice, and cook for fifty...When my wedding preparations fell apart, he took over and planned the whole event in two days, saying as he always said: "It's fine. Whatever happens, happens. We'll deal with it."
• Everyone who came into contact with him left with great joy...and also a sandwich.

Friday, May 8, 2009


Sleep turns every one of us, even the most prosaic, into an absurdist. Imagine: Oliver Cromwell, Queen Victoria, Vladimir Lenin, Leona Helmsley, Lawrence Welk and Richard Nixon all had surrealistic fantasies once they lay their heads upon their pillows.

Sleep is hard to envision…dreams are easy, but sleep evanesces. It spins the color wheel and stops between crimson-black and purple. Shapes beckon silently with limbs made of night clouds. The mind slips its moorings and floats out on the ebbing tide. Sleep stretches the canvas for our dreams to paint pictures that are always in motion, like this one by Mark Rothko.

Green Over Blue oil on canvas, 1956. Click on the picture for a closer look.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Jack Kemp

If compassionate conservatism had a face, it was Jack Kemp's. He was the man who convinced Ronald Reagan that cutting taxes would stimulate the economy. However, he was also the Housing Secretary who believed in carving out enterprise zones in the nation's ghettos and helping poor people buy their homes. And, he favored immigration reform. He'll be warmly remembered.

But Jack Kemp was only partially successful in defining conservatism for our times. I suggest the present woes of the GOP can be attributed to its failure to embrace the more costly and humanitarian half of what he was saying.

There is an underside to conservatism as it is practiced in America that smells a lot like Social Darwinism. Compassionate governance is anathema to those who oppose social activism with taxpayer dollars. Perhaps the salvation of the hardliners is that they protect taxpayers yet to be born, since the federal government, under both parties, has accustomed itself to the ease and convenience of big budget deficits.

Kemp, for all his can-do optimism, could never make the numbers come out right, and his dreams of social progress gained little currency in his own party.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009


By rights, Socrates should be the patron saint of teachers; however, he wasn't a Christian. So the Catholics are stuck with the insufferable Gregory the Great (he despised sex) and John Baptiste de la Salle, founder of the Christian Brothers schools where there was always a supply of sturdy new rulers in case one was unaccountably shattered.

When I first thought of entering the field, I called a former teacher of mine and asked him if it had been a fulfilling profession for him. "O my lord, yes," he said, "but the secret is to teach all the time." This was to be our last conversation, as he was very ill, and his words were a great, albeit daunting, gift. He meant that a teacher must never retreat from speaking the truth.

As classes resume for me tomorrow, I will try to bear in mind a corollary to his advice: students learn all the time. The problem is that in our stifling institutions, too often students learn lessons that are wrong. As we herd them into homeroom where nothing happens other than roll call, students learn that showing up is all the school wants or expects of them. As the fire alarms blast at various times every single day, and are summarily ignored, they learn not to heed warnings or to take precautions. And as young teachers are laid off due to budget cuts, students learn that an education is of little value in the workplace.

Socrates was martyred for corrupting the youth of Athens with his gadfly questioning. He taught all the time, turning his own execution into a teachable moment. He was a philosopher and teacher for the ages, and therefore despised by the institutions of his day.

Socrates: Fresco from ancient Ephesus

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Desert Winds

In the movie Lawrence of Arabia, the American reporter asks Lawrence why he loves the desert. "Because it is clean" he answers.

It is the wind that sweeps the desert clean. It trims deciduous leaves and fronds from the trees, shakes the dust off the rocks, and refuses to ever let the air grow stale.

Once the wind starts cycling, it blows all day and well into the night. It sounds like a base drum played with wire brushes. When it crescendos, the sky opens its throat and croons in an alto range: a chorus or an aria, but women's voices, no longer young.

For the traveler, the wind is a bullying antagonist. For those seeking calm, the wind is a torment. But for those who can find calm within, while the elements rage, the wind is like the music of Beethoven: both arousing and soothing with its passion.

Georgia O’Keeffe’s “Red, Yellow and
Black Streak” (1924)

Saturday, April 18, 2009

The Solace of Poetry

Someone let me down. The details aren't important and the damage won't be lasting. But during the period of reeling and reflecting, and thinking too late of what I wished I'd said to her, I thought of this poem by Emily Dickinson and it gave me comfort.

Poets give voice to anguish and injuries that can afflict us all. A poet can dignify our heartbreaks and restore our hopes. In the 1934 film "Twentieth Century" John Barrymore says to the weeping Carole Lombard: "The sorrows of life are the joys of art." I wish I knew which of the five writers on that film was responsible for that line because it is very wise.

Here is the Emily Dickinson poem I turned to this morning:

It dropped so low--in my Regard--
I heard it hit the Ground--
And go to pieces on the Stones
At bottom of my Mind--

Yet blamed the Fate that flung it--less
Than I denounced Myself,
For entertaining Plated Wares
Upon my Silver Shelf--

ca. 1863

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Lady Writing a Letter with her Maid, 1670

In this Vermeer, a woman is intently writing while her servant apprehensively looks out the window, waiting to deliver her mistress' letter. There's a crumpled paper on the floor which people used to think was a discarded first draft until someone cleaned the canvas and found a dab of red next to it--sealing wax. (Click on the picture for a better look.) The letter angered her, but now she's collected herself and is penning her response. On the wall is a painting depicting Pharaoh's daughter, with her maidservants, finding Moses among the bulrushes. One of them, by tradition Moses' sister, stands behind the princess exactly as the servant stands behind the writer.

Symbolically, there are several possibilities. Perhaps a negotiant is testing the woman's mettle, which will prove regal. Perhaps the mistress is pregnant and her suitor has rejected her, but she's not about to cast the babe upon the waters. Perhaps it is the servant who is in distress and the woman has resolved to defend her. In any case, there's a pact between servant and mistress, and much is at stake.

For me, this painting is about the reach and strength of women. Of the many ladies Vermeer painted in domestic scenes, quite a few had pens in their hands. Writing is an expression of will, enabling women to spread their influence past the confines of their homes. I have no doubt that Vermeer wants us to heed what they have to say.

Sunday, April 12, 2009


No one born in Chicago ever thinks of him or herself as anything other than a Chicagoan. I've lived in Los Angeles for twenty years, but I'll never be a Los Angeleno. Never.

Chicago's pull, I suspect, is the simultaneity of its pigeon-gray grittiness and its sneak-attack grandeur. It didn't happen by accident. For one, the entire lakefront is public. The waves crash almost at the feet of the skyscrapers, except there are parks and beaches every foot of the way.

For another, the city has cherished architecture, preserving the old and inspiring the new. But most of all, Chicago seems to have learned balance from its extreme winters and summers: industry and art, commerce and culture, finance and sports.

California people think I'm joking when I say that I find Chicago's winters bracing. Chicago people know that I mean it.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Polls Apart

I've spent a little time reading Rush Limbaugh lately because I want to find out if conservatives have more to say these days than just "no". If they do, I haven't found it yet. Rush seems to concur with Bobby Jindal who, in his GOP response to Obama's address before Congress, famously advocated doing nothing about the present economic crisis. However, I did find an interesting aside in Limbaugh's scoffing at Obama's approval ratings when he cited a Pew Research poll: " There has never been more polarization in this country under a president than there is with Obama, including under Bush, according to Pew." So I went to the poll and it made strange reading indeed. Apparently 88% of Democrats and 27% of Republicans approve of Obama. Pew subtracted these numbers to conclude that there is a 61 point partisan gap in his ratings. The problem is that mathematically, adding and subtracting percentages makes very little sense. It's like saying 30% of my money plus 30% of Bill Gates' money equals 60% of our money…I wish! I'm sure that Rush and Pew would protest that this is just an indicator to make a very limited point. OK, but isn't that exactly the kind of "drive-by journalism" that Mr. Limbaugh claims to deplore?


Saturday, April 4, 2009

Spring's Awakening, ca. 1920's

Spring is for those who've earned it. We don't value it enough here in our desert clime. It's a reward for waiting out the snowstorms, short days, and frigid nights. It's nature's apology for raw winds and frozen toes. Artists sometimes go overboard with verdancy and blossoms; no need. To those who love spring, a bud or a single butterfly will do. That's why I chose this painting by Alexis Jean Fournier (American, 1865-1948). In this landscape the ground is still sodden, but you can unhunch your shoulders, walk without bracing against the wind, and take an extra moment along the way to assure yourself that the ravages of winter have done no lasting harm.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Young Jew as Christ

Or, Christ as a young Jew, if you prefer. Rembrandt lived in the Jodenbreestraat, a part of Amsterdam where Jews were settling. He befriended his neighbors and, despite the Jewish injunction against the making of graven images, he got them to sit for him. Perhaps he thought the Jews were physionomically closer than the Dutch to the people of the Bible.

For example, his rendering of Jacob on his death bed looks much like an elderly Chasid we might see walking to shul in the Fairfax neighborhood of Los Angeles: long beard, aquiline nose, papery skin, tired eyes.

Did the young Jew who sat for this portrait know that he was modeling for Christ? I have no idea. But I think it's fair to say that this Jesus is less ethereal and more incisive than most that we see hanging in churches--a teller of parables and a turner-over-of-money-changers'-tables. But who was this man really? A laborer with a young wife? An apprentice diamond cutter? A student who tutored rich men's children to make ends meet? A poet? We'll never know him for himself, but he brings to the role of Jesus a vibrancy, even an athleticism, that we seldom see in religious art. Rembrandt, the lover-of-women and spender-of-money, is telling us that if God did become flesh, he must have been a most engaging man.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Madonna of the Chair

When I was in Florence, touring the Palazzo Pitti, this painting stopped me in my tracks. The composition is utterly perfect and yet relaxed and natural. The colors and textures of the fabrics feel durable and comforting. The upright post of the chair, perhaps a symbol of the cross and perhaps not, tells me this is a domestic setting, maybe even a kitchen. I want a chair like that. Raphael painted these three figures--Mary, Jesus, and John the Baptist--many times over, but never with such understated elegance.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Foreclosed and Forgotten

My lovely neighbors have gone; I don't know where. They came from the Czech Republic, made good, bought the century old mansion next door, and lived there happily until the economy, and their various business interests, turned sour. They tried to sell and get out from under their million dollar mortgage, but there were no buyers. Finally, they left, abandoning their equity, personal possessions, and equipment they used to produce their private label clothing line. A few days later, a huge dumpster was delivered onto the wraparound driveway. Two men labored for three days, filling it twice with clothing racks, file cabinets, dishes and cups, andirons, throw rugs, a dresser, lamps, chairs, several generations of children's bicycles, and much more. The house that once sold for 1.2 million can now be had for $499,000.

In the photo, a member of a movie crew can be seen wheeling a light. The house has appeared in numerous films. Last summer a youthful crew was there all night, filming and then babysitting their equipment until morning. Although I couldn't make out the words, the music of their banter rising on the breeze to my window, while I read through the night, was delicious…a vocal pastiche of profound dialogue, artistic collaboration, lavish sarcasm, girlish rising inflections, gay nasality, and an occasional lick of song. They were enjoying the house, furnishing it with the conviviality it was built for. But now it stands empty.


Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Attract and Retain

Which is more byzantine: the underlying value of a derivative or the compensation agreement for those who trade in them? It appears there's nothing to prevent paying bonuses to the executives who nearly destroyed AIG because the recipients all have contracts. AIG has assured us that bonuses for employees in other sectors of the company have been cut or eliminated. If I understand this right, that means people in the company's profitable sectors are getting punished while those in the financial products unit that lost untold billions are being rewarded...with taxpayer dollars.

The explanation we hear from all bonus paying companies is the same: they must pay them in order to attract and retain talent. Without bonuses, their key employees might jump ship. My question is: jump where? This is a recession, remember? Banks and financial firms are going belly up right and left. Who's there to hire them, much less pay them in the manner to which they are accustomed?

Meanwhile, there's new talk of merit pay for teachers. The idea is the same: to attract and retain talent. The problem is, that at the very time when this is being discussed in Washington, thousands of teachers are being sent pink slips in almost every state. Morale among the new teachers that I mentor took a body blow this week when they all received notices. The bonuses paid to teachers are paltry compared to those paid on Wall Street (I know because I get one), but they're worthless if the nation is not committed to keeping its schools fully staffed.