Weekly musings on the arts and current events.

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 CĂ´teaux 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