Casting Fate Windward

July 27, 2016

Vince-GuaraldiWIn 1962, composer-pianist Vince Guaraldi included an instrumental piece on an album of jazz tunes inspired by the film BLACK ORPHEUS. It became a hit single for the Vince Guaraldi Trio and won the Grammy as Best Jazz Composition the following year. It’s called “Cast Your Fate to the Wind.” And after more than half a century, it’s never gone away.

Guaraldi is best known for scoring and performing seventeen PEANUTS tv specials with a signature piano-led sound that really conjures up the cartoon characters. But his most lasting legacy just might be “Cast Your Fate.” The tune has been covered by so many artists that it’s mind-boggling. Many MOR instrumentalists have had a go at it, along with a wide array of others: the likes of George Benson, Earl Klugh, George Winston, David Benoit on the softer side; Quincy Jones and the British group Sounds Orchestral with lush multiplayer arrangements; even the James Gang on RIDES AGAIN, rocking “Cast Your Fate” to a “Bolero”-like drum cadence toward the end of their “Bomber” suite. Carell Weber wrote lyrics shortly after it hit the charts, and vocal versions have been recorded by Johnny Rivers, Mel Torme, We Five and the Sandpipers, among many others, but I don’t like a single one: the lyrics make the song too explicit, too ordinary. It’s as a pure instrumental that the tune really endures. I recently compiled a “Cast Your Fate” playlist just from the records I happen to own: being able to sort a database by song title makes it easy. The list takes nearly 40 minutes to play, but so far I haven’t tired of it. That’s because “Cast Your Fate to the Wind” is open-ended. The possibilities are limitless.

The piece begins with a gently loping lower-register line, then introduces eight light, haunting, faraway-sounding bits of dreamy harmony. It repeats this pattern, slightly adjusted, twice more. Then that inchoate tension finds release in warm major chords: here you detect the only bit of contemporaneity because the syncopation sounds so Sixtiesish, but it still makes you feel good. Now everything you’ve heard repeats. The second time through, you’re looking forward to that resolution at the end, can’t wait for it to arrive. But just as you’ve settled in comes the part which explains why “Cast Your Fate” attracts so many musicians.

Out of nowhere, the piece opens up into an improvisational section that has nothing to do with what has come before. Guaraldi’s inaugural hit version turns on a dime to a swaggering swing rhythm, doubtless reminding hepcats of Dave Brubeck’s time-signature mashups on his groundbreaking TIME OUT, but sounding fairly radical to a pop audience. The piece has now brightened — in fact it has teleported to a different place altogether — and the composer leans back into a midnight-set piano solo, Floyd Cramer “slipped notes,” walking bass line and all. But don’t get too comfortable: this center section ends as abruptly as it arrived. We pop back to that wispy tension-release combo which stated the motif at the top. Then the syncopated riff trails off, losing volume and notes until we can barely hear it. In my imagination, it too is borne away on the wind. Finally Guaraldi ends the track with a root-chord button (the only thing about the record I don’t care for: he should have just faded out).

A schizophrenic middle section is hardly a new invention. For example, the second movement of J. S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 as written by the composer consists of only one measure with two chords, known to geeks as a “Phrygian half cadence.” We can’t be sure, but we believe Bach is inviting a keyboard or violin player to just wail, play an improvised cadenza or any verdammt thing he pleases, just so long as he winds up with the final notes that musically hand it back to the (once again tightly scripted) third movement. The sky’s the limit: interpretations of this section of No. 3 are as varied as are the players themselves. For the most extreme example I know, listen to Wendy Carlos’s space-age electronic freakout on SWITCHED-ON BACH — yet note how perfectly the bellicose Moogy mugging still leads in to Bach’s twinkle-toed third movement. (Carlos recorded the concerto twice more as the technology became more supple, and her second movement is different each time.)

I believe that ability to stretch out and make the piece your own is the secret to “Cast Your Fate to the Wind”’s longevity. It’s fascinating to hear different artists play with it, and not just jazzmen. The Sounds Orchestral dudes give the middle improv a lighthearted Vegas feel. Quincy Jones’s orchestral take is slow and sexy. Earl Klugh makes the piece sound as if it were written for guitar in the first place (lute players did the same for Bach). Allen Toussaint adds blue notes to that syncopated riff. Paul Brooks offers a dance beat. In George Winston’s version (it’s part of an entire album of Guaraldi tunes; George idolizes him) he keeps the left hand going in that same soft rhythm and realizes Guaraldi’s fading riff by reaching into the piano and dampening the strings with his fingers. Joe Walsh even does away with the center section altogether for the James Gang (to play No. 3, all you really have to do is hit two chords), but cleverly uses the main “Cast Your Fate” motif itself as a strange middle section in his own composition “The Bomber” for what amounts to a metamusical joke: whew!

To some snobs, “Cast Your Fate” is a square relic from the Sixties, like Nehru jackets or Rod McKuen poems. But not only do I love it — the theme and the center both — I sometimes crave it. I don’t think a year passes for me without at least one spin of the original Vince Guaraldi record, which still has the best snap to the improv of ‘em all. I know I’m not alone, because cover versions keep on coming. And no wonder. “Cast Your Fate to the Wind” is already beautiful by itself, but your personal touch and taste can make it belong to you.

 


You Brexit, You Own It

July 14, 2016

d4Is the Western world slowly going nuts, or is it just our imaginations? Are we living through a real inflection point, a cultural hinge that signals lasting change, or is this only a particularly dodgy moment in the managed chaos that is normal, everyday life? Damned if I know, but when has ignorance ever stopped a blogger from spouting?

This has been a horrible summer. (“Wretched,” as the Times put it.) Violence and lunacy have dominated the society. We have officially become inured to mass murder, even when the victims are police officers. The ludicrous Donald Trump campaign is the most click-worthy assignment in what’s left of journalism. The British electorate narrowly but decisively announced that it is not European and instantly became the world’s sixth largest economy, down one slot from its former #5. The unglued leaders of Russia and North Korea are rattling their sabers, and some of those sabers are big scary bombs. A frustrated ISIS is stepping up its global campaign of random mayhem. There’s a nasty virus that’s about to strike the homeland while Congress dithers away any scientific funding for petty partisan “reasons” that also hobble the simplest efforts to compromise on anything. Nor does warm-weather leisure offer any solace: our beloved summer blockbuster multisequel extravaganzas have collectively run out of gas, uniformly disappointing the folks at the multiplex (maybe the Ghostbusters will save us this weekend), and if violent crime doesn’t harm any Olympic athletes in Rio, then filthy water will. All this is overlaid with an inchoate feeling of formless dread, like the dinner party in that creepy indie THE INVITATION. People are disturbed, uneasy. I can hear it in casual conversation. It’s something more than the natural urge to kvetch about whatever bastards are in authority. It feels to many like there’s some calamity lurking just beneath the surface, but they can’t quite put their fingers on it. Something is happening and they don’t know what it is. Do they, Mister Jones?

Kids who were grade schoolers in the Fifties/Sixties, like me, have lived their whole lives with a deeply repressed fear of the atomic bomb. The “duck and cover” drills, the overheated educational films, the high drama of the Cuban missile standoff, all made innocent tykes actually contemplate the end of the world. That looming feeling largely dissipated with the Cold War, but listen to William Perry, Bill Clinton’s defense secretary: “today, the danger of some sort of a nuclear catastrophe is greater than it was during the Cold War and most people are blissfully unaware.” But that’s not it, nukes. Rather, it’s a wispy feeling that something ineffable is slipping away. Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold, as Bro. Yeats reported. When white men fear the loss of their hegemony, first they get mad. Then they get even. Thus Brexit. Thus Trump.

I don’t know much about British politics, but I get the feeling that many who voted to Leave the European Union were simply staging a retail-level protest. They voted to “stick it to The Man,” as the kids sing in the SCHOOL OF ROCK musical, but they didn’t expect to actually win. I get that feeling because nobody seems to know what to do now. The bad boys of the Leave movement, Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage, had to admit the very next morning that their promise of freeing up £350 million a week for the National Health Service had been bullshit, and that cold reality would leave Brexiteers intending to restrict EU immigration “disappointed.” I also get that feeling because the torrent of citizens clamoring to sign a petition calling for a new referendum was so intense that it crashed parliament.uk. That’s some serious Leaver’s remorse. All that’s left after the maelstrom is a populist detritus of racism and xenophobia: after all, the true dog-whistle pitch was that all those pounds sterling were going to lazy low-class (darker) Europeans.

Sorry, Brits, no do-overs. You Brexit, you own it. After hearing your decision, the EU doesn’t want a new vote either. Brussels would rather you get the ball rolling and get out — because unless it makes an example of the UK to show the perilous downside of secession, the whole arrangement could crumble. Yes, the Leave campaign turned out to be nothing but warmed-over snake oil, but nobody forced you to buy it. So don’t let the door hit ya where the good Lord…

Here at home, that same sense of frustration is responsible not only for Trump (in fairness, he was unwittingly aided by a, um, Mexican standoff among all other Pub candidates, each of whom wanted to be THE ONE PERSON to shut him down) but also for Bernie Sanders’s amazing insurrection of a campaign. They both promise the impossible, a Great Wall and job restoration here and free college tuition there, but as with the Leavers, it sounds good.

Trump’s most vocal constituency seems to be with what’s left of the Dixiecrats, who now live all over the country (see Nicholas Confessore’s great piece in the Times), but the same suppressed rage that powered Brexit is his electoral backbone. It’s whiter and older than the country at large, but it may be enough to actually make him competitive in some swing states; for example, a new Pew Research poll suggests that if the election were held today, more than three quarters of white evangelical Protestants would vote for Trump, that devout God-fearing pilgrim. (Watch out for polls in general: Bernie and Brexit both upended them this year. Tech makes good political polling harder and harder to pull off.)

In contrast, the Sanders pitch fell snugly into the ears of the Yutes, and no wonder: he was painting a picture of the way things really ought to be, and idealistic young minds responded heartily. But as Mario Cuomo liked to say, you campaign in poetry, you govern in prose. If Congress can’t even agree on Zika funding before slinking off to summer vacation, if threats from the bullies of the NRA can turn bold patriotic solons into sniveling cowardly toadies, then Bernie’s program is a non-starter. We change things in this country incrementally. The last try at a popular revolution didn’t work out so well for Jefferson Davis and pals. Real progress has to issue from inside the institution, which first of all means simply voting the obstructionist sumbitches out of office.

As for those polls (again with the polls) suggesting Sanders would do better in a one-on-one matchup with Trump, they’re ignoring one thing: the Pub slime machine. The right has been clawing, biting, nipping at Hillary Clinton’s heels for thirty years now. All their oppo is out in the open. You can see the desperation on the faces of Trey Gowdy’s laughable, tax-wasting committee. This e-mail business is the last sliver they’ve got, which is why they’re stretching it like a rubber band, refusing to let the matter go while there’s still an election on. But fear Bernie Sanders? Like Br’er Rabbit feared the briar patch. If he were the nominee, stomping the Socialist would be a cinch. Remember those Commies you used to hate? Well, that’s this guy! Sen. Sanders would also be the first Jewish president, but they wouldn’t even have to go there: anti-Semites will figure that out for themselves. And remember, you don’t have to win the popular vote to win the election, as George W. Bush showed us in 2000. But it could get even worse than that. If too many progressives sit on their hands or vote for a third-party candidate, nobody would have a majority and the election would be thrown to the House of Representatives. Each state would get one vote. Look at a map.

A lot of frustrated people voted for Brexit. Well, we have a lot of frustrated people here too. Today’s Times reports Clinton and Trump actually tied (these pollsters are really starting to bug me), as the tiresome Pub mantra of You Can’t Trust Her continues to weigh her down. Next week’s Republican convention in particular will be a major sideshow: people will be packing heat outside (I hope nobody gets hurt; the Secret Service is imposing gun control inside the convention hall), and Trump’s acceptance speech — assuming the terrified party bosses can’t find some way to hijack his candidacy — will probably be the highest-rated such speech in the history of television. The Democrats meet the following week, but during the primary season all they could talk about was boring old issues, so how could it possibly be any fun? This election seems like a horror-comedy, but it’s dead serious. The know-it-alls have counted out Donald Trump from the instant he descended from the heavens on an escalator last June. We’d better pay attention now. There’s one more thing for the uneasy American to worry about today, and that’s this. TRUMP. COULD. WIN. And there’ll be no do-overs. Like the Leavers, we’ll own it.


Terminological Inexactitude And Other Obfuscations

June 20, 2016

61b9BIkGz7L._SX369_BO1,204,203,200_If you find annoying the blatant B.S. rampant in politics, business and culture, here’s a chance to turn your grumbles into giggles. The latest collaboration by those scamps Henry Beard and Christopher Cerf is a compendium of doubletalk, deception and crude euphemism from all parts of society: SPINGLISH.

Our curators are a distinguished duo. Beard is the co-founder (with Doug Kenney and Harvard schoolmate Rob Hoffman) of National Lampoon and co-author (also with Kenney, while they were both in college) of the magnificent book-length parody BORED OF THE RINGS. In 1975, having fulfilled his contractual obligation, he cashed out of the Lampoon and became an instant rich man. The brand was as hot as it gets at the time and would soon scale new heights in the movie business, but Beard was sick of having to herd a ragtag group of high-strung cats like Tony Hendra and Michael O’Donoghue. He equated the Lampoon years with his hitch in the Army Reserve, which he hated. But now he could do anything he wanted, which included a lot of golf. He tried screenwriting and didn’t like it, then returned to his real forte, intelligent humor, which often put him on the Times bestseller list in the ensuing years. Cerf was also a pixieish provocateur on the Lampoon staff in its Seventies heyday. Besides writing, he has worked in music and television: I still envy one of my closest friends for getting to share quality Chris Cerf time on the public television series BETWEEN THE LIONS. But he will always be my hero for co-founding the “Institute of Expertology” with Victor Navasky and then issuing the ultimate collection of learned but mistaken prognostication, THE EXPERTS SPEAK, along with its shocking-and-aweing little cousin, MISSION ACCOMPLISHED! OR HOW WE WON THE WAR IN IRAQ.

51hbNavCQtL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_514VuaGXeuL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_At first glance, SPINGLISH’s wry explications of deliberately squishy phrases may suggest a 21st-century version of THE DEVIL’S DICTIONARY. The difference is, Ambrose Bierce was mocking; Beard and Cerf are reporting. Every entry is sourced and footnoted, mostly with second-hand citations in articles and papers, but there are plenty of notes that come complete with perpetrator and date. For example, we all know a “gentlemen’s club” is really a strip joint and “ethnic cleansing” is a blander term for genocide, but what corporation would use the creepily cheerful claim that eliminating one thousand jobs was “rewiring for growth”? Walgreens did, in a press release on January 8, 2009. The book is ecumenical and favors no particular culture-war combatant over another: outre usage seems to be universal. In 2008 Tesla’s Elon Musk described the “layoff” (itself an example of Spinglish) of ten percent of his workforce as a “modest reduction in near-term head count.” Emotionally neutral ways to downplay firings are some of the most common examples of soft-serve spin: other popular inspirations include lying, plagiarism, bankruptcy, and the use of lethal military force.

On reflection it’s somewhat sad how many of these euphemisms have fallen into common use and thus are widely understood in their unadulterated true form: collateral damage, downsizing, Rubenesque, sanitation engineer, friendly fire, overserved, mobile home, semi-private, surgical strike (surgeons try to prevent loss of life), executive assistant, well-endowed, strategic withdrawal, and many more. To help further our understanding of this obfuscatory tongue, the bulk of the “dictionary” is “Spinglish to English,” but the authors include a handy reverse “English to Spinglish” section so we can experience verbal transmogrification in yet another way.

The droll observations of our two auctorial satirists provide lots of fun. “Support our troops” really means “support our policy.” “Judicial activism” is “what judges you don’t agree with do.” A “freedom fighter” is “a terrorist who happens to be on the side you’re supporting.” “Hands-on mentoring” is “sexual relations with a junior employee.” “Fanaticism” is “what enemy troops display when they storm a well-armed position. When our troops storm a well-armed position, they display bravery.”

51IVFr0ZoeL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_SPINGLISH is quite the welcome relief after Beard and Cerf’s previous reference, ENCYCLOPEDIA PARANOIACA, devised by the “Cassandra Institute” as a guide to everything you should be “afraid of or worried about.” It’s fundamentally hilarious in that the book’s very existence makes fun of the fact that we Americans are afraid of our own shadows, but entry after impeccably sourced entry may actually cause you to fret about something new after having lived thus far in blissful ignorance. “This book just might save your life,” it claims. “(Apologies in advance if it doesn’t.)” SPINGLISH is at once lighter and more transgressive. There’s only one thing funnier than someone who thinks he’s clever clumsily trying to put one over on the rest of us, and that’s a tiresome pontificator taking a well-deserved pie in the face. To enjoy that bit of verbal slapstick, you need THE EXPERTS SPEAK.


Spoiler Alerts!

May 16, 2016

WARNING: DO NOT READ THIS POST if you’re not yet caught up on the current sixth season of GAME OF THRONES through at least S6E3 and you care about whatever’s going to happen next. Also READ NO FURTHER if you’re a TVphobe or non-subscriber to HBO still slogging your way through the bloody but convivial George R. R. Martin source novels. In truth, the following essay is frickin JAM-PACKED with pop-culture spoilers, including the illustration below. Hear me, O reader: MULTI-SPOILER FRICKIN MEGA-ALERT!!

I was standing in line at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival behind a friend who had just seen Lars von Trier’s DOGVILLE elsewhere at the fest. She was talking to somebody ahead of us, and their conversation somehow wandered to Nicole Kidman, the film’s star. (I was flitting between that vocal thread and the one behind me, which included my wife and our hostess.) Then she said something like, “Yeah: it was so odd when Nicole killed them all at the end.” She caught my eye and realized, shit: I just ruined the ending for him. You have to be a bit of a masochist to watch much of any von Trier, but no, I hadn’t seen the flick quite yet. (I have now. It was indeed ruined, but not by her.)

Since my friend’s mortified facial expression showed that she was really sorry, it had just been an accidental slip of the tongue, I decided to have a little fun with her. I acted wounded and “retaliated” to try and make her laugh. “It was his sled! He thinks he’s his own mom: he’s frickin crazy! They mash up dead people and serve em as food! They didn’t go anywhere, they landed in future New York City! He’s been a ghost this whole time!” She knew exactly what I was doing in my mock rage, and judging from the giggles, she was amused as well as relieved. That had certainly been my intent.

But damn: a decade later, it’s harder than ever to keep secrets from the popular culture, and you don’t have to stand in a festival line any more to get pre-hipped. One day it will be impossible to prevent leakage, but that day has not yet arrived, and for proof I cite both HBO and Lucasfilm.

STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS was so eagerly awaited that the producers even released photos from the table read. Yet by sternly restricting access and keeping mouths shut, they concealed a major plot point that caused an audible reaction in the theater where I saw it, and probably everywhere else too. (I’m withholding this spoiler in case you haven’t yet seen the flick, but you’d better hurry up, because missing STAR WARS might be illegal by now.) But the equally massive GAME OF THRONES machine also kept a corker to itself, for the better part of a year.

I thought readers of Martin’s “Song of Fire and Ice” novels had been quite courteous in keeping mum about surprises, beginning in the series’ first season. Most of the show’s rep company have now become household names, or at least household faces. But at the beginning the only actor many viewers recognized was Sean Bean, of the LORD OF THE RINGS movies. The single most shocking event of the first season was “Ned Stark”’s execution at the command of sadistic young tyrant King Joffrey. Plop went the head of the character we assumed was the star of the show, establishing THRONES’s grisly dictum: on this show, nobody’s safe. Thing is, though, readers of the source novels had well known about this twist, some for as long as twenty years. They also knew in advance how and when Joffrey himself would die. They knew about the carnage to come in the notorious Red Wedding. They knew why Tyrion Lannister (as played by Peter Dinklage, he became the real star of the series) would be forced to commit patricide. And lots more. The reading public is probably a small fraction of THRONES’s worldwide viewership, but it still largely remained silent, even amidst the din of the Internet. That’s remarkable restraint: maybe readers were so pleased to see such a faithful, gorgeous adaptation that they felt protective.

George R. R. Martin is a fine writer, but he’s also relatively, and notoriously, slow. It has taken him two decades to produce the five long, intricate novels which are the basis for GAME OF THRONES. (I would say six, since he seems to be very close to finishing the latest one, but he’s left at least two deadlines unmet, so we’ll have to believe it when we see it.) As the HBO series gained popularity over five years, it became evident that neither the network nor the showrunners could wait for the author to finish the cycle (and two of the books take place simultaneously, shortening the timeline even further). Though they have already made slight changes from the printed version of Martin’s story (for example, the bodies strewn in the Red Wedding include victims new to readers as well), in the current sixth season the tv people move past the published books. This year, for the first time, loyal readers are in the dark along with the rest of the audience.

The cliffhanging development at the end of last season was the assassination of fan heartthrob Jon Snow, played by Kit Harington. Dashing leading men have been dropping like flies on this series and there are precious few left. (Nobody is safe, sure, but if they ever decided to kill off Dinklage’s Tyrion, they might as well just pack up and close the store.) The last shot of the season finale showed Jon’s multiple stab wounds staining the white snow. Cut to black.

AAAUGH! screamed anguished viewers. He can’t be dead! Message boards and chat rooms erupted with resuscitative theories. But for the rest of the summer, for the rest of the off-season, up until about two weeks ago, the producers assiduously misled everybody and maintained a real-life fiction to rival their elaborate medieval melodrama. For it had been their plan to bring Jon Snow back from the dead all along. The magical Melisandre — who revealed her own surprise in the previous episode — incanted away in a scene so languid that it was parodied on the following week’s SNL. Some ritual smoke, a sexy sponge bath, and Jon Snow was good to re-go. In this day and age, though, it took a titanic effort to keep the secret until air time.

First, there was no mention of Jon Snow whatsoever within the production: his name was as taboo as Voldemort’s. Harington’s lines in typed Season 6 scripts were given only to “LC,” or “Lord Commander,” Jon’s rank in the Night’s Watch (don’t ask). As the questions arose immediately after last season’s murder, Harington asserted, “Jon Snow is dead.” Same message from anybody associated with the show. (It’s not really a lie, is it? He was dead.) Then somebody spotted Harington in Belfast, where his scenes are shot, wearing the Snow character’s hair and beard. “I have to play him as a dead body,” he demurred. The conspiracy was so vast that Entertainment Weekly, allowed in on the ruse, was on the stands with a “He’s Alive!” cover story less than a week after air. And now Jon Snow is roaming the land of Westeros again. Mission accomplished.

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The EW cover. I put it down here “below the swipe” so people wouldn’t stumble onto it.

All that trouble just to surprise people? It was easier back in the day. To preserve the jolt of a lead character’s murder midway through PSYCHO (shaking up its audience just as Ned Stark’s beheading does), Alfred Hitchcock simply forced exhibitors to close their doors after the film began. Nobody admitted during the performance, as opposed to the come-in-any-time policy for most other movies. Theater managers were indignant at first, fearing the loss of casual walk-in business, but patrons waiting for the next show formed lines nearly everywhere, making PSYCHO look like a hit and then becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy as others got curious. All because Hitch was concerned that late arrivers wouldn’t understand why they weren’t seeing the star.

Is there a statue of limitations on revealing a plot twist? When I was working on the PSYCHO entry for GEORGE LUCAS’S BLOCKBUSTING, my editor objected to the line, “Because a key character does not survive PSYCHO’s halfway point…” He thought I was being too coy and wanted me to spell it out. But I strongly objected: even though most readers will know exactly what I’m talking about — the scene in question has entered general mass culture and is constantly lampooned — there are others who don’t, people who have never seen PSYCHO. It would be a disservice to Hitch to obviate his chance to startle. (P.S.: I won.) I hated so many reviews of Gus Van Sant’s PSYCHO remake because the critics assumed familiarity with the story. Why would you ruin a thriller that way? I already spoiled PSYCHO’s big reveal up there in the Sundance line, but this is different: I warned you fair and square. A pox on anybody who sneaks a spoiler in, and that goes double for online comments. Follow the lead of SIGHT & SOUND, the best film magazine there is, and warn people away from TMI.

Sometimes the secret is so sublime that journalists just naturally give it a wide berth. I never saw any mention of the big surprises in THE CRYING GAME or THE SIXTH SENSE before I saw them. Others seem to be fair game. The stunning development in MILLION DOLLAR BABY was all over the press, even in feature stories; a non-entertainment headline in a plane passenger’s newspaper spoiled it for me from across the aisle.

The horror writer Clive Barker remembers seeing PSYCHO one afternoon back in England. Blown away, he stuck around for a second showing. Two schoolgirls came in and sat in front of him. As Barker tells it, the second time he was paying more attention to their reactions than to the film itself. He says he couldn’t wait until one character went snooping in a creepy place toward the end — and the resulting shrieks from the girls didn’t disappoint. He appreciated Hitch’s unspoiled surprises on a different level. He knew what was coming — and that was the suspense.


Capitalisn’t

May 5, 2016

51gjhcyg1lL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_My friend Doug Ross sent me a book out of the blue. (I love when that happens.) He’d been talking about this breezy, fascinating volume by a Cambridge economist, but “Cambridge economist” alone had my eyes glazing over. In mild exasperation he sent it my way, and 23 THINGS THEY DON’T TELL YOU ABOUT CAPITALISM, its listicle title, consigned it to my “maybe one day” pile. For some reason that day arrived, and do I owe Doug a round of applause. This thing is substantial, economically sound, and thoroughly accessible to us civilians (unlike Thomas Piketty’s work). It’s also fun and puckish in the way it gleefully destroys received wisdom on how profit-centered economies really work. “There is no such thing as a free market,“ Ha-Joon Chang begins (that’s Thing 1), and he’s just getting started.

Most politicians who yak about the “free market” actually mean, “free from those pesky regulations.” But as Dr. Chang points out, all developing economies, including that of the United States, have used regulation and protectionism to give domestic wealth a chance to emerge and then to preserve it. Most regulations aren’t apparent to us, he writes: we notice one “when we don’t endorse the moral values behind it.” To the rich world, identical tactics in struggling economies can seem unfair, but that is not how global capitalism works. This conflict between perception (“common knowledge”) and reality powers the entire book, which mainly consists of hole-poking into the fiscal piety of what the author terms “free-market economics,” or simply letting the “invisible hand” of the economy seek its own level. That is not what happens, never has been, and if any state or consortium actually tried to leave its market alone, the result would be disastrous.

Each discussion of the author’s 23 Things begins with a paragraph called “What they tell you.” As I read them, I was struck again and again: jeez, that’s exactly what I was taught! The next paragraph is the truth, “What they don’t tell you.” Finally, Dr. Chang explicates his conclusions with data, logic and common sense, all sourced and cited in notes at the end. Never does he outpace the lay reader, not even when one or another of his Things seems counterintuitive (Thing 4, “The washing machine has changed the world more than the internet has”) and deliberately invites scorn or disbelief until the author patiently proves his point.

The book’s brief 260 pages contain a wealth of upended “wisdom” and provocation. We do not live in a post-industrial age. The U.S. does not have the world’s highest standard of living, though its managers are paid too much, as are most workers in other rich countries. Africa is not doomed to perpetual underdevelopment. Financial markets need to become less efficient, not more. The trickle-down theory is a sham. Even after Communism, we still live under planned economics. People in poor countries are more entrepreneurial than those in rich countries. We are not smart enough to leave things to the market. And much, much more.

You will almost certainly disagree with at least a few of the 23 Things before Dr. Chang gets through with you, maybe even after. His institutional bias is certainly toward the collective and the global, and that’s all a right-wing radio host would need to cut him down. But there is no question that you will be made to think more rationally, and more planet-centrically, about “the things we know that just ain’t so.” What more can you ask of a book you can either ponder bit by bit, or devour in a single sitting?


The Stage, On The Page

April 12, 2016

The-Secret-Life-of-American-Musicals-by-Jack-ViertelThe Broadway musical is as American an art form as jazz or the blues, and it has patriotically survived the recent British invasion led by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Cameron Mackintosh. The term “musical comedy” has become rather archaic, since we find very little humor (but there is some) in bombastic productions like LES MISERABLES or THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA. Yet troupers are still singing and dancing on the Great White Way, and to record-setting business, too; the New York “legit” theater has never been healthier.

I know a few people who don’t like musicals on principle. It annoys them whenever a character breaks into the story to sing: it’s unnatural, unrealistic, even silly. (Now when a hobbit puts on a magic ring to turn invisible, they’re perfectly happy. But we all have our own contradictions, don’t we?) My niece, one of the most devoted Broadway fans I know, attends nothing but musicals. But to non-aficionados they’re all pretty much the same, distinguishable only by the setting or, more rarely, by the intrusion of a contemporary type of music (HAIR, RENT, HAMILTON). A devotee would certainly disagree, but how many of them have sat down and truly thought it through? Any presentation that demands the attention of an audience for nearly three hours has to lead it on some kind of narrative ride. My biggest takeaway from an eye-opening new book is how much commonality most well-made musicals share, even when very creative people are racking their brains for brand new ways to surprise and delight the folks in the seats.

There are general principles that most of the best, longest-lasting musicals observe, and they are deconstructed for you in THE SECRET LIFE OF THE AMERICAN MUSICAL by Jack Viertel. It’s packed with anecdotes and lore, authoritative without forgetting to be fun, the best general-audience guide to “how Broadway shows are built” (per the subtitle) that I’ve ever encountered. Mr. Viertel is senior vice president of Jujamcyn Theaters, one of the three big Broadway owner/producers (see more below), and he has also been a dramaturg and newspaper critic. Over a long career he’s worked with both the creators and the landlords, combining an expert’s breadth of knowledge with a fan’s appreciation and enthusiasm. I used to joke that I was the only straight man in New York who saves all his Playbills. Evidently I was mistaken.

“Building” a musical, no matter what kind, requires some basic materials. When the curtain rises, the audience immediately needs to know, Where are we? Who are these people? How can I tell them apart? And why should I care? From there, a remarkable number of classic pieces — including the current hottest ticket in the world, HAMILTON — use similar patterns to create interest and pleasure in their audiences. “It’s only in hindsight that the patterns emerge,” Mr. Viertel writes, and he takes pains to assure us that writers and composers are not working from a cookie-cutter template. But in his hands it’s amazing to compare creative solutions that achieve common goals. Not all hit shows follow these patterns, and not every show contains every single one, but there’s much more agreement on what the author calls the “classic chassis” than you’d expect at first thought.

The book is organized like a two-act show. From the overture to the curtain call, Mr. Viertel illustrates structure with historical examples, trivia, and backstage color told with savvy assuredness. He shows how the “song plot” advances storytelling: despite my friends’ distaste, there are perfectly valid reasons why somebody starts singing. We learn about the “I want” song, which establishes a difficult goal (like “My Shot” in HAMILTON); the conditional love song (there’s a dramatic reason it’s “If I Loved You” in CAROUSEL instead of just “I Love You”); the “noise,” which uses comedy and kinetics to recharge the audience in the third or fourth song slot (“Hasa Diga Eebowai” in THE BOOK OF MORMON); the song which is basically there so a big star can shine; the Main Event, sometimes called the “11 o’clock number”; and lots more. You find yourself nodding your head at aspects of the musical experience that you’ve frequently seen but never really noticed, like the Second Couple (Will Parker and Ado Annie in OKLAHOMA!, Nathan Detroit and Miss Adelaide in GUYS AND DOLLS) which provides counterpoint to, and frequently comic relief from, the romantic leads. It’s a little like finding out how a magic trick works, but the net effect is to make you appreciate originality even more.

razzleMr. Viertel’s book is about the show. A second one is about the business. RAZZLE DAZZLE by Michael Riedel recounts the colorful, sometimes oddball history of the people who own the Broadway houses and battle each other for the best bookings. Mr. Riedel has been the wildly popular theater columnist for the New York Post for nearly twenty years; he’s probably the second most influential journalist in the field, just behind the lead critic for the New York Times. He is impressively well plugged in, and has either witnessed or heard first-hand accounts of some hair-greying events in a wobbly industry that was almost snuffed out by the slow deterioration of its Times Square neighborhood by the mid-Seventies. Now, of course, Times Square, most notably the formerly notorious 42nd Street, has been transformed into a booming, profitable family destination — and the Broadway theater owners had a great deal to do with it.

A pause for some definitions. Despite how it sounds, the difference between a “Broadway” and “off-Broadway” production is not location, but the number of seats in the theater. Five hundred and above makes it a “Broadway” house, no matter what’s playing there. One hundred to 499, “off-Broadway.” Below 100, “off-off-Broadway.” At Lincoln Center, for example, the Vivian Beaumont Theater, current home to THE KING AND I, is “on Broadway.” Under the same roof, down one flight of stairs, is the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, much more intimate and thus “off-Broadway.” And neither one of them is located in the Times Square “theater district.” So it’s the auditorium, not the address. There are exceptions, like Carnegie Hall, which usually hosts individual musical performances rather than scripted theatre; and the outdoor Delacorte Theater in Central Park, home only to two “free Shakespeare in the Park” shows each summer.

This distinction isn’t simply academic. As you have probably guessed, money is involved. The actors, musicians and backstage crew work under different contracts depending on the producer’s potential gross. Furthermore, some Broadway houses are physically much smaller than others, so they tend to book straight plays, where every cost is more modest, and those productions can certainly yield profitable hits too. But big brassy shows, in the largest theaters, are where the real money is and where the tourists flock. If you’re waiting for discount tickets at the TKTS booth in Duffy Square and you fancy a play, go straight to the far window. Non-musicals only. Nobody’s there. Smaller doesn’t equal worse: much of the most exciting theatre in New York, including a few reduced-scale musicals, is performed off-Broadway. But razzling-dazzling singing and dancing in Broadway-sized houses is what each of these books is overwhelmingly about.

Mr. Riedel chronicles the rise of the Shubert family, Broadway’s biggest landlord, beginning with its hardscrabble upstate origins and finally its brave move into New York City, where a loose consortium actually referred to as “the Syndicate” — its founders were the five largest theater owners at the turn of the century, who controlled the best houses in the biggest cities across America — intimidated its rube competition as surely as Vito Corleone and his boardroom peers. We watch the bold, determined Shuberts buy and build, and suffer its own clan’s fools as must any family-run company. On July 7, 1972, the feckless, drunken surviving Shubert was deposed as head of the Shubert Foundation, which legally owns the theaters, by family lawyers Bernard B. Jacobs and Gerald Schoenfeld. “Bernie and Jerry” then became responsible for the Shubert Organization’s greatest years, and for a notable era were the most powerful producers on Broadway. Mr. Riedel has the most intimate access to these people, and my main beef is that he gives the other players short shrift. But after all, the Shuberts are arguably where the action is. They are far and away the largest landlord, with 17 Broadway theaters. The competing Nederlander organization owns 9, and Jujamcyn (Mr. Viertel’s employer, which is mentioned here only in passing) has 5.

The colorful business story is interspersed with fascinating producers’-eye views of how a few landmark shows (at least in a business sense) made their way to the stage: EQUUS, A CHORUS LINE, DREAMGIRLS, CATS, NINE, CHESS, 42ND STREET, and more. Creative talents like Michael Bennett and Andrew Lloyd Webber deal with both adulation and ignominy before our eyes. And the long slog toward the desperately needed rejuvenation of Times Square — featuring Atlanta architect John Portman, he of the glass elevators, and his mammoth Marriott Marquis Hotel, which plants a gentrifying flag in the seedy district (its lobby is five floors above the hoi polloi at street level, and there’s a Broadway theater inside the hotel) — becomes a life-and-death struggle from the producers’ point of view. (“Where’s Broadway going to go? New Jersey?” asks a skeptical Mayor Ed Koch about the neighborhood.) Again, the book is too Shubertcentric: we also don’t get that close a look at interlopers like the Walt Disney Company, whose seemingly daft 49-year lease of the decrepit New Amsterdam Theater was the key to the revival of 42nd Street.

In the analog era I might have noted that some of the location description might be a little off-putting to people who don’t know New York City that well: I might have complained that there was no theater-district map. But everybody can locate these places on their frickin phones by now, so all you really need for SECRET LIFE and RAZZLE DAZZLE is a love for the American musical, and/or a curiosity about how it’s served to you. One’s for the notes. The other’s for the C-notes. But you can’t have Broadway without both of them.


Jim Dollarhide, 1952-2016

March 18, 2016

UnknownJim Dollarhide apparently died on Wednesday in a fire at his lakefront home in Madison, Mississippi. I say “apparently” because they found a body in the still-burning rubble of his 3800-foot house and Jim is missing, but it will require some dental examination to make sure. The firefighters said the “structure was fully involved” by the time they got there at 10:41 p.m. after an emergency call from a neighbor, and the upper levels had already collapsed. It’s almost certain Jim is gone. If I have to retract this piece, I will do so with great joy.

I’ve known Jim since my advertising days in the Seventies. He was the first filmmaker I got to spend quality time with. I like movies and all, and I even took some production courses in graduate school so I have some idea what it feels like to create them, but this was the first guy I ever met who had already decided to make a living at it. To Jim, a beautiful image might be all well and good, but it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing: it has to move.

You meet lots of gifted photographers in the ad game, but they produce a different kind of art. The still shooter shows you an instant in time. The filmmaker shows you the passage of time. Jim had the eye for nifty composition which any good fotog possesses, but it was that third dimension, the depiction of duration, that fascinated and obsessed him.

Jim was a blue-collar filmmaker. By that I mean he was no rarefied sissy on location; he could get down and dirty in physical labor with his crew, made up of people he liked and respected. But he demanded professionalism and courtesy. Once my ad agency hired Jim to do some films and tv spots for Yazoo Mowers, those big-wheeled monsters built like tanks. I was the agency producer, meaning all I had to do was stand around and nod, and guzzle the occasional soft drink. But even with my light load of responsibility, it was the most horrible shoot I’ve ever been on. For two weeks it was steaming even by Mississippi standards (the grips showed me how to dip a neck scarf in Sea Breeze astringent and ice water to cool down the circulation), we were in a severe drought so most grass was brown and we had to figure out how to color it (the mayor had even forbidden people from watering their lawns), and too many of the setups were on undulating spreads that required time-consuming engineering to lay dolly track for smooth camera motion. But we made it through somehow, and celebrated with a wrap party at Jim’s house. I decided to buy each of the crew members a really nice knife to say thanks for going above and beyond. I guess I’d gone there too: one of them said, “This is the first time a producer ever gave me anything.” Jim was walking by, and over his shoulder came, “He gave you a job.”

Me, trying to look productive on that godforsaken Yazoo shoot. Jim is peeking out from my left armpit.

Me, trying to look productive on that godforsaken Yazoo shoot. Jim is peeking out from my left armpit.

Jim’s page on IMDb notes that he “founded a production company called ‘Imageworks’ two decades before Sony Pictures used the term.” I know it does because I’m the one who put it there. We were both running teensy little outfits in the Eighties and we had a symbiotic relationship. He was doing fewer commercials, which are tightly scripted beforehand, and more industrial films and longer documentaries, where he could call in a writer at the pre-production stage. The difference in our two companies was that Imageworks was hugely capital-intensive: Jim had to keep up with emerging technologies, so he needed new equipment all the time. He originally had one of those honking Steenbeck flat-bed editing decks, where to make an edit you physically snipped the film and spliced it back with tape, which is how movies had been cut since time immemorial. In those days some bigger houses were using a process called “negative to tape” for their first baby steps into online editing, but Jim had to separate wants from needs in order to survive in the more frugal environment of central Mississippi. Now the Steenbeck is as quaint a relic as the X-Acto knife, but Jim had long since moved on. It’s a shame that he largely missed out on the digital revolution of the past few years — shooting on location is cheaper and nimbler than it’s ever been before.

Jim not only loved his craft, he also loved his native state of Mississippi, but not in a Confederate way. He was a huge music fan and cherished the rich tradition of Mississippi Delta blues. He shot thousands of feet of B. B. King and became a good friend; Jim’s documentary plays every day at the B. B. King Museum in Indianola. After all the years slogging and working together for industry and commerce, I guess my favorite film of Jim’s is the scriptless HARMONIES: A MISSISSIPPI OVERTURE (1994), a labor of love and a piece of pure cinema that tells you everything you need to know about him in just 25 minutes. He was a kind, upstanding, talented man whose generosity of spirit mentored so many young men and women; their praises and tears are pouring in equally today. Goodbye, Jim. You were one of a kind, and you are already missed.


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