Notes On The Apocalypse

November 10, 2016

greatWow.

Today we feel much as we did on 9/11. Besides mourning the horrendous loss of life, we were weighted down with the sickening revelation that human beings could even be capable of such heedless obscenity. That existential despair was the miasma which took the longest time to shake. Nobody died on Tuesday, at least not as a direct result of the election. But now our sad incredulity is directed at what millions of our fellow citizens turned out to be capable of doing, and I can tell you from personal experience that this is the scar which will last the longest.

Donald J. Trump’s candidacy should have been stillborn. The litany of disqualifying facts, quotes and acts is too long, too familiar and too dispiriting to recount. He should have been laughed out of the race after his announcement speech, and anybody else would have been. But Donald Trump is a tv star, and he’s been in the living rooms of the reactionary faithful. They may not know him, but they recognize him.

Likewise, you can second-guess Trump’s opposition until the asteroid hits. Bernie Bros who stayed home. Hillary Clinton’s inability to excite the base like Barack Obama. Her old-car smell. The female lady thing. The vast right-wing media which have hammered out Hillary hate for thirty years. Pseudo-scandals like Benghazi and Emailgate that clouded airtime. Voter suppression. James Comey. Gary Johnson.

Almost two million more people voted for Clinton over Trump on Tuesday, about four times Al Gore’s popular vote margin in 2000. In fact, over the last seven Presidential elections spanning 28 years, the Pubs have won the popular vote exactly once: George W. Bush’s second term, when Dick Cheney’s fear-fanning campaign slogan was basically, vote for me or die. Of course, that’s not how we elect the POTUS. But if you think the overall tally is just an electoral trivium, imagine the situation reversed, if Trump had won the popular but been denied the White House by Electoral College math. Torch and pitchfork time, maybe even a Second Amendment solution or two. Democrats just tend to accept it instead, maybe to a fault. Yes, there are students holding up NOT MY PRESIDENT signs today, but they’re mistaken. The Constitution says he is your President-Elect. If you don’t accept it, you’re no better than a Birther, and you are way better than that.

Our disappointment, sorrow and even fear is not equivalent to any other election. If John McCain or Mitt Romney had beaten Obama, I would have been bummed, sure, but I wouldn’t have doubted the victor’s ability to lead the country. Even George W. Bush, whom I felt was in over his head the moment he was inaugurated, managed to keep things running (with those two exceptions in 2001 and 2008). Unlike those men, a President Trump doesn’t inspire a shred of confidence in me. I followed his shameful campaign. We all did. He’s going to have to purge that memory, along with our strong suspicion that he is so monumentally unfit for the office that the safety of our nation could be at stake.

It makes you miserable to imagine the next four years. Trump delivering the State of the Union. Newt Gingrich. Trump before the United Nations. Rudy Guiliani. Trump ignoring climate change. Chris Christie. Trump facing a natural disaster. Bobby Jindal. Trump versus Putin or Kim Jong-un. Roger Ailes. Trump explaining to the plebes why he won’t be building a wall on the Mexican border. First Lady Melania Trump!

Oh yeah. The courts. Mitch McConnell barely won his gamble of stonewalling the nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court for nearly a year, in violation of his Constitutional duty. (At the time he was sure he was saving it for Jeb or Rubio. Bullet frickin dodged!) If I were McConnell, I’d quickly junk the filibuster rule so I could seat any Neanderthal I wanted to replace Scalia, wait for Ruth Bader Ginsburg to finally give up, and pack the court red for another couple generations. I’d also pull the holds on all those other Obama judicial nominees, replace them with my own guys, and robe ‘em fast, thus taking effective control of the third branch of government to complete the trifecta.

The Republican id has made this decision and it’s been set loose. GOP worthies are in charge, and now there are no checks and balances preventing them from doing any goddam thing they want. It stays that way for at least two years and probably four, since the House is gerrymandered out of reach and Senate Democrats will be playing defense in 2018. So here we go. Full Republican control. Now let’s see if they can still remember how to govern, because continuing to say no to everything is no longer an option.

I have thought of a couple of silver linings in these ominous clouds. My favorite is that if you’re Ted Cruz, quit wringing your hands over whether to run in 2020 because now you can’t. Neither can any of those other tards. Trump is impeachment-proof (see Congress, and besides, what could he possibly do that he hasn’t already done?), and even if something should happen to the boss, Vice President Pence, that Christian soldier, is onward of you in line.

Another is that we might finally get some action on our second most important challenge behind climate change: repairing the national infrastructure. Everybody agrees we should do it: hell, they’ve known that for years. But remember, GOP big shots decided on Inauguration Day 2009 not to give Obama anything, no matter how vital. They love their party more than they love their country. Now that Republicans are running the show, they can take political credit for a massive project that will create millions of temporary jobs. It’s past time to quit whining about deficit spending, borrow some money at next to nothing, and begin a no-brainer jobs program.

There are three major drivers of our economy: consumers, business and government. When consumers slow down spending because they’re not making ends meet, business can’t grow because it doesn’t have enough customers to justify new factories and the like. Increased government spending (also known as “stimulus”) is our economic last resort, and thoughtful leaders have the guts to break that glass in an emergency. We’re going to have to repair the crumbling grid eventually. The process might have been started years ago, but, you know, the black guy. Watch how fast Paul Ryan forgets about “austerity.”

If Ryan’s even Speaker any more. The inmates haven’t just taken over the asylum, they’re burning it down, and some of them think the Ayn Rander isn’t conservative enough. (By now I guess you must have to bite the heads off chickens on the House floor or something.) And the Freedom Caucus may have one additional obstacle: the party leader. Trump is a RINO (Republican In Name Only) who has frequently flip-flopped on many issues that are very important to the base and there’s no indication that he’d be willing to toe any party line, making him an utter wild card. When I wrote earlier about his resemblance to a bad-guy professional wrestler, I figured he might pivot from a “heel” to a “babyface” for the general election. Now I hope to God it happens before he takes the oath of office.

These are dark days. So much so that the morning after the election, my wife and I were distraught enough to have a serious conversation about leaving the country, at least for retirement. We decided that we were in shock (I confess that I’m slowly pulling myself out of this stage — the front page of the New York Times still looks like an Onion parody or a terrible nightmare from which I pray I’ll wake up) and that we’d give the Trumpies one year, then pick up the conversation again when we’re more clearheaded. I fear the worst and hope for the best. Unlike El Rushbo (“I hope he fails”) or Mitch McConnell (“The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president”), I’m willing to give the guy a chance. He needs all the help he can get. One only hopes he can swallow his outsized pride long enough to accept it.


The New Deal Is Old Again

October 28, 2016

img_0077We went up to Poughkeepsie (that name always makes me think of THE FRENCH CONNECTION) last Saturday to attend a glorious wedding, but first we took a side trip to the FDR Presidential Library and Museum in nearby Hyde Park. The library is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year. The math doesn’t seem to work, does it? That’s because Franklin Delano Roosevelt had no idea that he would serve a third term as President (he claimed he hadn’t even decided to run yet, but playa hataz on the right didn’t believe him) so construction began in 1939 and the facility officially opened on June 30, 1941, barely five months before the event that would determine the second half of his service as POTUS.

These days you need to hold up on the museum until your complete term is finished. Pubs wanted to make sure there could never be another wildly popular progressive like FDR: their solution was a Constitutional term limit. But liberals can’t really complain. Absent the 25th Amendment, Ronald Reagan might well have been re-elected way past his sell-by date. He would almost certainly have won a third term in 1988, yet even Reagan might not have been able to beat Bill Clinton four years later. His poignant letter to the nation (“I now begin the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life”), bravely acknowledging and declaring his battle with Alzheimer’s disease and giving a Reaganesque boost to research efforts, came in November 1994, and presumably he had already begun showing symptoms in public. The public would be unable to ignore the President’s illness.

img_0062I’ve been to a few of these POTUS museums — keep in mind that the primary mission of each one is not to preserve history but to make the boss look good — and FDR’s is right up there with the best of em. It’s not rickety at all for something that’s older than I am, and the display technology is fairly up to date: rear-projected video, sleek design, intuitive self-guidance. It’s clearly been modernized over the years, making the contemporary Roosevelt items look even more historic. My favorite display was a mockup of a typical Thirties blue-collar household ready for a Fireside Chat: clothes hanging from a line, the radio a centerpiece of the room. You’re invited to sit down at the table on the “set,” choose a Chat, and take yourself back in time.

This great cultural remove, the many titanic developments that separate us from the imaginary family in that room, struck both of us independently as we realized how eerily similar we are, all these years later. Too easily we tend to call this or that event “unprecedented.” Man, just about everything is precedented.

img_0059Historical events can appear inevitable in hindsight, but they weren’t at the time. People who agree with SCOTUS Justices Scalia and Thomas call themselves “originalists” and like to base their opinions on “what the Framers intended.” But a Broadway frickin musical gets closer to the actual atmosphere. The Framers were a bunch of argumentative partisans looking out for their own personal interests and pocketbooks, and they didn’t intend anything as a group. The Constitution wasn’t written on stone tablets by Jesus. It was hammered and pleaded and compromised into shape, and ratification was a series of bruising battles. The resulting document was the best these flawed people could do — and note that it was almost immediately amended ten times because some states demanded it.

img_0061Well, Roosevelt’s presidency was no less of a struggle. Despite being dealt the worst hand of any successor in Presidential history (Barack Obama received the second worst), FDR went to work almost immediately to move the dispirited country forward again. All these dopes who say, “on my first day in office, I’ll…” to get cheers from the cheap seats should be awed by what President Roosevelt accomplished in his first 100.

img_0056The first thing that struck us is that, much like today, Roosevelt had plenty of powerful opposition even though the country had officially grown desperate. (At least he was white, so he had that goin for him.) Private industry didn’t want to take the rap for the Depression, so the New Deal was roughly derided as Commie incursion by a volatile group of nay-sayers. That display up there on the first 100 days rightly concedes that some of FDR’s early proposals were failures. But at least he got the needle moving in the right direction — yet he was dogged at every turn. Even as war clouds darkened, isolationists begged to keep our concentration inward. Some were morally against war, others were morally against any disturbance to the fragile return of profit, and some farseers realized that grand-scale war could itself be very profitable, but that’s another story. The Orc hordes currently arrayed against President Obama (and almost certainly massing against a potential President Clinton) are nothing new — even today’s shameful level of disrespect has at times been seen before — and the most active, significant administrations have still faced constant braying from the other side.

img_0073“No battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy,” said Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke the Elder, and the second thing we noticed was that luck plays an outsized role in any Presidency. FDR had a giant bit of good fortune on the horrible day of December 7, 1941. He had long understood that Hitler was the greatest worldwide danger, but there was a strong resistance to the US entering the war (some still remembered the trenches and mustard gas of the previous Great War). Then came the brutal surprise assault on the US naval base at Pearl Harbor. War with Japan was declared by an inflamed Congress — and the Axis’s Tripartite Pact meant that Germany and Italy were also at war with the US. So, only a week after the “day which will live in infamy,” Congress declared war with Germany without a single dissenting vote, and FDR had the authority he knew was necessary all along. He was lucky. The Axis did the work for him.

It’s easy to imagine the heated fervor of the time for anyone who lived through September 11, 2001 and its aftermath. Though we didn’t go so far as to set up internment camps for Muslim-Americans (some Americans wanted to; a few still do), the neocons in the White House saw a similar galvanizing opportunity. They could re-draw the map in the Mideast on the back of a national frenzy for revenge. The real motives for their warmongering (oil? strategic military bases? gargantuan wartime profits?) may never be known for sure, but we do know they were almost peeing themselves with excitement over an American presence in the region while the country rattled its sabers alongside them. Hence the tepid, nearly nonexistent opposition to the Patriot Act, George W. Bush’s warmaking power, and the hamhanded invasion of a country that had nothing to do with 9/11 and was no threat to the homeland whatsoever.

Face it, Americans frighten easily. Look at the overblown Ebola scare of 2014, during which I recall a sitting Senator, South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham, actually staring into a camera and warning, “We’re all gonna dah!” (Never mind the genuine scourge in Africa.) We as a nation have a knack for setting calamity aside when it happens far away, but when danger threatens at home we freak out. It happened in 1941 and it happened again sixty years later. That quaint little room with the radio has faded into history, but the thing is, history keeps repeating itself.

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My NYFF 2016

October 17, 2016

unknownThe evolution of movie distribution is starting to affect my behavior at film fests. Tech has all of a sudden gotten personal.

For the first time in the New York Film Festival’s 54-year history, it opened with a documentary, Ava DuVernay’s 13TH, a searing look at the dysfunctional American prison system — and I didn’t lift a finger to attend. (N.B.: I’ve seen it now, it’s quite powerful, but the following comments aren’t about the quality of the work.) This picture is distributed by Netflix and became available for streaming while the fest was still underway. I also knew the docs HAMILTON’S AMERICA and GIMME DANGER were headed for streaming or PBS before the month was out. This choice has arisen before, at Sundance. But Sundance happens to happen in midwinter, a fallow period on the annual movie schedule. The broad-release windows are far enough away that at high altitude it seems worth it to check out stuff like WHAT HAPPENED, MISS SIMONE? or FREEDOM SUMMER then and there. (I would never want to miss the next SEARCHING FOR SUGAR MAN by so much as a day.) But in the hipness of time, by NYFF’s autumn I want to know in advance the distributor and the release pattern before I give up a slot of time. Lots of previous NYFF entries have debuted theatrically within days of their fest screenings — even streamers still need that public release for notoriety and Oscar qualification — but there’s something more immediate about being able to punch it up at home on your own schedule. You may never ever do that. Most Netflix queues are very long. Later, gater. (A film-sprocket joke.) But if that recent additional option dampens attendance at certain fest screenings, it’ll be interesting to see if/how that affects selection and programming in the future. As always, one never knows, do one?

Here’s my take on the eleven films I saw this year, in order of screening:

manchester-seaMANCHESTER BY THE SEA**** Kenneth Lonergan is becoming more and more surefooted, both at the keyboard and the viewfinder. This is a subtle, confident meditation on grief and loss with frequent brushstrokes of levity, a movie made with such assurance that it seems inevitable. Casey Affleck plays Lee Chandler, a morose handyman in Boston who is so tightly wound that early on, when he thinks two guys in a bar are literally looking at him the wrong way, he clocks them both. The rest of the picture gracefully and patiently shows us why: Lee has barely lived through an almost unutterable tragedy and now faces yet another upending trauma. The hollow look, the way he recoils from other human beings, the barren brokenness is off-putting at first, but as we discover details (shown in unannounced flashbacks, each calmly cut together as if it were the next present-day scene) the character gains dimension and color, served perfectly by Affleck’s trademark laconic mumble. The New England setting looks gorgeous, and a superb supporting cast, led by Lucas Hedges as a nephew whose path intersects with Lee’s, never falters, not even when a well-known star shows up for a cameo. Lonergan has come a long way since YOU CAN COUNT ON ME; his screenplay is sophisticated enough to deliver some redemption while reminding us that not everything in life can be tied up with a neat little bow, not even in the movies.

toni-erdmann-19-rcm0x1920uTONI ERDMANN**** A beauty that marches to its own drummer, Maren Ade’s new film is a screwball comedy about an ingratiating screwball, played by the marvelous (and that’s the word) Peter Simonischek. It’s also an intimate father-daughter story with real resonance, thanks to Sandra Huller’s brave, sensitive performance. Winfried is a lumbering freethinker who is always looking for the next practical joke, while Ines climbs the corporate ladder in her tailored black pantsuits. They seem to be emotional oil and water, and the film is essentially Winfried’s attempt at connection, but that makes it sound far too stuffy. The comic and dramatic tracks unfold simultaneously; we’re never far from the proverbial spoonful of sugar. There are piles of hilarious surprises, so I mustn’t reveal too much more, but let’s just say that the appearance and even identity of the title character gets a huge laugh. This film was the darllng of Cannes this year and the New York audience also ate it up. At one point they were shrieking so loudly that they would have missed a great topping line if not for the subtitle (it’s mostly in German, but there’s enough English to keep us off balance). That came during a bravura five-minute sequence toward the end that just might go down in movie comedy history. At 2:42 I found it a tad indulgent, but patience earns a huge profit.

paterson-credit-mary-cybulski-cannes-film-festivalPATERSON*** (U.S. Premiere) A new Jim Jarmusch flick is always of interest and this year NYFF has two, including GIMME DANGER, a documentary about Iggy & the Stooges. That subject seems an odd fit for Jarmusch’s dialed-back style, but there it is. This one is more in the zone. Adam Driver plays a city bus driver who scribbles poetry in his free moments. His name is Paterson and he lives in Paterson, New Jersey, just as did his idol William Carlos Williams, whose famous epic poem is called—but you guess. We spend a week with Paterson, his loving but ditzy wife (the pixieish Golshifteh Farahani) and their scene-stealing English bulldog Marvin, and the days are essentially the same. He gets up, eats Cheerios, walks to the depot, writes for a few minutes, drives all day (his recreation is eavesdropping: folks, the bus driver can hear you), goes home, has dinner, walks Marvin past a bar where he enjoys one beer, and heads back for bed. Paterson’s patience is inexhaustible: his wife burbles with out-of-reach ideas and is visually fixated on black-and-white designs on everything from shower curtains to cupcakes. He’s more polite than you would be on his first bite of her dinnertime cheddar-and-broccoli pie. The only conflict comes from people around him, until Marvin causes a heartbreaking event. We also hear Paterson narrate some of his poetry — it’s good, written for the movie by a ringer — and none of this would work if we didn’t buy that. Jarmusch specializes in finding the strangeness in normalcy, and there’s so much going on just to one side of the principals, barely in frame: for example, the offhand appearances of different sets of twins seems somehow foreboding, but it’s played as nothing more than a pattern recognizable to a poet. This is not for the antsy viewer, but it encourages us to keep our eyes and ears open to the wonders around us, because they are definitely there.

ukr_9mar150186_rgb-0-2000-0-1125-cropCERTAIN WOMEN*** A soft, sensitive melding of Maile Meloy stories, faintly connecting in the screenplay of director Kelly Reichardt. We are in Nowhere, Montana; the most urban place we see is Livingston, population high four figures. Three dramatic tracks follow a lawyer (Laura Dern) dogged by a disgruntled client (Jared Harris), a woman (Michelle Williams) whose family is building its own home, and another attorney (Kristen Stewart) who endures an eight-hour round trip from Livingston into the country to teach a weekly class in school law and infatuates an introverted ranch hand (Lily Gladstone, the movie’s real find). All the women are in different emotional places and want different things, but they each have to reach down and summon determination, even the quiet horsewoman who can barely look her idol in the face. There are thin threads beyond setting which join the tales: for example, at one point a character from another story walks through in the background, out of focus and casually ignored. The acting is fine all around, but whenever she appears you can’t take your eyes off Ms. Gladstone, even though she barely speaks and only changes expression very subtly; her attraction isn’t played as overtly sexual but you can definitely feel the heat. This performance is a career-maker.

arton4596JULIETA**** Another adaptation of short stories, this time from Alice Munro — realized by none other than Pedro Almodovar. It depicts the tumultuous events in a Madrid woman’s life extending some thirty years, and the title role is taken by two different actresses. We meet Julieta at age 50, played by Emma Suarez as a middle-aged beauty whose face is weary and drawn with emotional pain. After a chance meeting with an old friend, she abruptly disappoints her lover by changing their long-standing plans and sits down to write to her estranged daughter, beginning with the fateful night she met the girl’s father 25 years ago. Julieta at 25 is played by the glorious Adriana Ugarte, and gradually we learn the reasons for her torment and the split with the daughter. Almodovar manages to make the ladies appear to be the same person through gradual aging and a beautiful handoff some years later, in a defining visual moment that the French call a coup de cinema: Ugarte’s hair is being toweled off after a bath, but when the towel is removed, it’s Suarez once again in a near-perfect fit. Wow. There is some humor (notably from Almodovar regular Rossy de Palma as a Miss-Gulchian housekeeper), but much less of the wit and wackiness we’ve come to expect from the maestro, replaced here by portent and more drama, less melo. It’s seamless filmmaking that respects its audience by allowing loose ends to dangle until the moment their joining is needed. I’m not familiar with the source material, so I can’t speak to Almodovar’s merging of three Munro stories or shifting the setting from Canada to Spain, but it looks like it was meant just for him.

thumb_1892_media_image_1144x724PERSONAL SHOPPER** (U.S. Premiere) Olivier Assayas follows up CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA by bringing back Kristen Stewart as yet another assistant, who desultorily selects and buys haute couture for a wealthy Parisian woman. She has just lost her beloved twin brother to a congenital heart condition which she shares. She also believes herself to be a medium. These three premises get jingle-jangled together, none too neatly, as Assayas attempts a modern-day ghost story. The arm’s-length attitude of Stewart’s one-note performance, while suitably intense, prevents us from getting inside her head or caring about what happens to her. There’s enough arty murkiness to cause post-screening arguments over what we’ve just seen. Assayas is certainly talented: things go bump in the night with style and tension, and believe it or not, a suspenseful, eerie scene is composed almost entirely of text messages on a smartphone. But while I admired the attempt to keep so many dramatic balls in the air at once, I couldn’t buy the end result. Too bad: I loved Assayas’s version of DAY FOR NIGHT, 1996’s IRMA VEP.

20th-century-women20th CENTURY WOMEN**** (Festival Centerpiece, World Premiere) A near-perfect invocation of a little-regarded time and place: Santa Barbara, 1979. The last vestiges of the counterculture have morphed into New Wave posing, and Ronald Reagan waits in the wings. No cell phones, no Internet, no MTV. Everybody still smokes. But life goes on in the rambling house of an unusual extended family, encompassing room renters and hangers-on. Mike Mills’s attention to period detail sets the stage wonderfully for a career performance by Annette Bening as the crash pad’s single-mother matriarch: still beautiful but cosmetically mature, she shines with life-force. The other two 20th-century women are fire-haired punk tenant Greta Gerwig and too-experienced teen Elle Fanning, who sneaks over from her own house to sleep — just snooze, no sex — with Bening’s hormonal son (a sensational Lucas Jade Zumann). A freelance carpenter (Billy Crudup) is also in the house and the story mix. I loved the amount of attention paid to the son’s dramatic arc: he’s a good boy who is nevertheless kicking at his stall, and his rebellious yet devoted relationship to his mom feels genuine. For fogeys like me, it’s painful to accept that 1979 is far enough gone to actually inspire nostalgia, but it is and does. A real crowd-pleaser that ought to have a nice commercial life.

thumb_1896_media_image_1144x724SIERANEVADA**** (U.S. Premiere) A pitch-black comedy about a dysfunctional family which gathers in its deceased patriarch’s Bucharest apartment to send off the old man with rituals, food and wine. The range of (mostly) comic clashes and conspiracy is so broad that at one point the camera rests in the middle of a hall and simply pans left and right as one or another door opens with the latest crisis. Other times the camera is locked down for ten minutes or so as the actors, I assume, improvise. The net effect is that it all appears to be happening in real time in front of us as if we’re another guest, even when we briefly leave the apartment at one point. The feast, which looks delicious, is delayed and delayed because a ritual must first be performed, and the priest is late. When he finally arrives, his chants and prayers are interminable and some guests are dying from hunger before he issues his laugh-out-loud exit line: “Brevity is the soul of wit.” I’m partial to movies like this because we can all recognize aspects of our own families, whether we’re related by blood or by lot: humanity is international. Cristi Puiu (THE DEATH OF MR. LAZARESCU) has a twinkle in his eye, unlike several quarrelsome family members. At 2:53 it’s way too long (that trip outside isn’t really necessary; the crucial monologue could have been staged indoors), but I loved it anyway. We never find out the meaning of the title.

ob_ce416f_le-fils-de-joseph-8-eugene-green-amalrSON OF JOSEPH*** (U.S. Premiere) Bent spirituality and baroque satire from Eugene Green, a drama about a disillusioned, rebellious Parisian kid’s search for his, later just a, father. Satisfyingly skewered is the French publishing industry (“nothing is invented,” M. Green insisted afterward), as the kid discovers a high-rolling caddish book man is his long-deserted biological pop. Then he meets someone better, unaware that he’s the big shot’s brother. The director has a distinctive way of staging what would normally be intimate, personal scenes with austerity of language and motion; at times it’s anti-natural, almost as if we’re watching animatronics. (This oddly stilted effect is evidently even more pronounced to French speakers.) He also winkingly overlays the story with a Biblical subtext expressed in “chapters,” down to the ass which accompanies “Joseph” and “Marie” on a fateful journey toward the end. It’s too mannered to be a classic, but it’s quite enjoyable, pleasantly perverse in its own sweet way.

elle-cannesELLE*** (U.S. Premiere) Paul Verhoeven’s first feature in ten years, and first ever in French (it’s France’s submission for next year’s foreign-language Academy Award), is a genre-bender that really coaxes the gamut of emotions from its audience. It’s either a comedy with a very dark subtext or (my take) a very dark movie with some funny stuff in it. It also shares DNA with whodunits and thrillers, but it’s not really that either. As Verhoeven warned us before the screening, this film can be painful to watch at times. Before we’ve even caught our breath, the very first sequence depicts a violent rape. We are left completely at sea, unable to understand the victim’s oddly muted reaction. She is played incandescently by Isabelle Huppert, whose character is a video-game executive and the daughter of a reviled mass murderer: whew! I don’t mean any criticism when I say this story is populated by outrageous and awful human beings — that’s on purpose — but afterward we struggled to think of one “good guy” at all. (I think there’s only one in the entire flick. After you see it, I’ll tell you who.) While the credits were rolling I was thinking about this dramatic miasma and I would have given only two stars, which I consider a negative evaluation, because I was sinking under so much funk at that point. But we kept talking about it while waiting for our last movie (I heart film fests), and I realized that Verhoeven’s deliberate untidiness — he’d said afterward that he left some story threads unresolved so the audience could fill them in on their own — was actually a great strength. The more I thought about ELLE afterward, the more I auto-revised my opinion. (Shades of the French New Wave!) By the time the Oscars roll around, I may even wish another star upon it in hindsight. Be warned: this movie plays rough. But look how it affected me.

lost-city-of-z-charlie-hunnam-and-tom-hollandTHE LOST CITY OF Z*** (Festival Closing Night, World Premiere) An old-fashioned widescreen epic, a “movie movie” like they used to make, this is the story of Lt. Col. Percy Fawcett and his nearly lifelong obsession with a lost city in the Amazon rain forest. We pick him up as a young turn-of-the-century British officer who is sent on a mapmaking mission to ward off a looming dispute between Bolivia and Brazil. The jungle scenes are raw and exciting, and after some real scares Fawcett, whose noble chin belongs to a very capable Charlie Hunnam, comes to respect and admire the native people, especially when he finds evidence of a superior technology that was evidently developed in antiquity and in isolation. His expeditions back to “Amazonia” span nearly thirty years and are interleaved with stretches of life at home and some harrowing duty in the trenches of World War I; both Hunnam and wife Sienna Miller age very well, assisted by convincing makeup. It’s meant to be a grand adventure in the wild combined with gentlemen’s discourse by the stuffed shirts in England, sort of the PBS version of Indiana Jones. One can quibble with the balance because the movie really comes alive when we return to the jungle, again and again. In the tradition of such spectacles, the job of the director is to stay out of the way, and James Gray lets us concentrate on the story and forget about the production, except for one aspect, and here I must make a filmlover’s confession. This piece was shot on 35mm film and proudly projected that way for the Alice Tully Hall audience, but I have to say it: whether I’ve been desensitized or simply aging, I prefer digital projection. Celluloid looks great for brightly lit exteriors, and Darius Khondji’s landscapes earn oohs and aahs throughout. But for low-light scenes, especially interiors, the image is softer and it’s easy to be distracted by reel-change cue dots and other degradation on the film stock, even though it should have been the first time through the projector for this print. Some people like the look, just as some prefer to hear music from a needle vibrating on vinyl (and they may have a point). I don’t mind any perceived “harshness,” and at my age I want the image razor-sharp. It may be unhip of me but it matters for real: we wanted to check a musical piece and we couldn’t make out the teensy type as the end credits rolled by. It was slightly out of focus and thus illegible at the world premiere. This film is a nice diversion, a respectful and capable throwback of a production with great support by Tom Holland and Robert Pattinson (hey, Kristen Stewart’s not the only teen vampire turning into a real actor!), but sue me: I bet it’ll look even better on Blu-Ray.

WISH I’D SEEN: BILLY LYNN’S LONG HALFTIME WALK, MOONLIGHT, MY ENTIRE HIGH SCHOOL SINKING INTO THE SEA, ONE-EYED JACKS (on the big screen)

Other NYFF Reports

2015   2014


The Moment I Got It

October 14, 2016

unknownWhen I heard the announcement yesterday that Bob Dylan had been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, my first thought was, “What a strange choice.” My second thought, an instant later: “What took them so long?”

The “strangeness” comes because most of us don’t think of Dylan’s unmatched output as “literature.” Though much initial reaction is supportive, the backlash has quickly formed. Novelist Rabih Alameddine tweeted, “Bob Dylan winning a Nobel in Literature is like Mrs Fields being awarded 3 Michelin stars.” Jodi Picoult offered the hashtag #ButDoesThisMeanICanWinAGrammy? The meanest (and funniest) dig I’ve seen comes from Scottish novelist Irvine Welsh: “I’m a Dylan fan, but this is an ill conceived nostalgia award wrenched from the rancid prostates of senile, gibbering hippies.”

Unlike the timorous voters for Oscars and Grammys, the Swedish Academy was not afraid to take a bold step which arguably blows up the whole definition of literature, much as Dylan himself once did for popular music. It calmly explained in its citation that Dylan was being honored “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” But that presents two problems for non-senile, non-gibbering purists.

First, “song.” That Dylan is a masterful writer — at minimum, one who has repeatedly been able to connect with his audience in a deeply felt way for more than half a century — cannot credibly be contested. But aside from the very fine prose voice of his memoir CHRONICLES VOLUME ONE, most of Dylan’s work has been written not to be read, but to be performed aloud. (He’s the first musician ever to receive this honor.) Walt Whitman may “sing the body electric” and compose a ”Song of Myself,” so a poem can be a song. But can a song be a poem? If not, the anti-Bob faction may have a point — but the selection committee emphatically says yes, it can.

Second, context. There have been quite a few print collections of Dylan lyrics over the years, and I believe another one is expected this fall. When you flip through a representative sample, you’ll indeed find a trove of vaulting images and dazzling metaphorical beauty. But you’ll also have to read past a simple 12-bar blues lyric that might sound great — fulfilling its artistic purpose — but looks hopelessly banal on the page. In other words, this big-tent view of literature will require its own aesthetic to be properly studied and appreciated. We haven’t developed that yet, which is one reason some folks are freaking out today.

tumblr_inline_mw3xrqtc8x1rilmyoThere’s one more strike against Dylan. Even conceding that a song is really a poem performed out loud, what’s up with that crazy anti-musical voice? I faced this problem myself when I encountered Dylan for the first time. It was fall 1964, I’d just entered high school, and I saw a short notice in Time magazine about his new record, ANOTHER SIDE OF BOB DYLAN. I knew he was the guy who’d written “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” both covered by Peter, Paul & Mary (the latter by Simon & Garfunkel too: they and Dylan shared a producer, Tom Wilson), but I had never heard his voice. I dropped the needle on Side One Track 1, “All I Really Want To Do,” and almost started laughing. This nasal, vibrato-less wail was on pitch all right, but it cut through the air and clashed with the litany of rhymes in the verses, and then the sumbitch yodeled on the chorus and blew simple open chords on a harmonica! To the piano for “Black Crow Blues,” of which I thought nothing special, then an interesting little riff, “Spanish Harlem Incident,” but I still wan’t really paying attention.

The next song was called “Chimes of Freedom.” It begins, “Far between sundown’s finish / And midnight’s broken toll…” I perked up: something was different. I leaned in to a cascade of images. Where “All I Really Want To Do” had been playful, this was mature and sophisticated — the yodeling hayseed was nowhere to be found. Now it was a rousing call for basic human decency using linguistic connections I’d never heard before. I listened to the entire seven-minute song, picked up the needle and played it again. The second time through, I found myself fixated on one word: the chimes of freedom were “flashing.” Chimes don’t flash. They peal, clang, bong, jingle, whatever. They toll in the song itself. Then I said, whoa: the lyric doesn’t say they’re listening to the chimes, it says they’re gazing upon them during a thunderstorm. Any other songwriter would describe the experience as aural. Who would think to observe the chimes of freedom visually? I listened one last time before continuing with the rest of the album. Now I was seizing on the lyrics. My focus had moved past the voice into the heartbeat of the songs. I was breaking down the verses in real time if I could, and on subsequent plays if not. There was a richness, a substance, that I’d never heard in popular music. By the Lp’s end I had become a Bob Dylan fan. On the power of the poetry. On the strength of the literature. And I’m only frickin fourteen.

Energized, I went back and bought his three previous albums (how would his own “Blowin’ in the Wind” sound, I wondered? Like Woody Guthrie in the Dust Bowl). Retroactively, I learned that he had arisen out of the “traditional” Greenwich Village folk scene but was upending propriety by “writing” his own songs early on. I use quotes because his early “Farewell” (the one at the end of INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS) is nothing more than “The Leaving of Liverpool” with altered lyrics, just as “The Patriot Game” becomes “With God On Our Side” in his hands. But melodic “homage” is part of the folk tradition too. Then Dylan became more topical and the darling of the civil rights and antiwar movements with powerful pieces like “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” and “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.” By the time of ANOTHER SIDE, though, he was undergoing another step in his evolution and setting the topical folk scene aside, causing resentment that survives in some circles today. And that’s where I caught up with him.

About a year later, on Nov. 27, 1965, my sixteenth birthday, I was sitting in an audience at McCormick Place in Chicago for an early stop on Dylan’s first tour with electric instruments, brought on after a solo acoustic set and intermission. Musically, he was advancing faster than his audience and there were plenty of boos during the second set. (This show was very much like the one recorded at the Royal Albert Hall the following year and released as part of the “Bootleg” series.) I have rarely been so thrilled to be at a concert. Maybe Elvis. Maybe Sinatra. Maybe not.

Dylan’s material didn’t sound like old folk songs any more. He was inventing beautiful melodies as well. The verbal allusions were a mashup of current popular culture and the classics, intruding on and elevating each other as if inside a dream. Yet even this was only a career byway. Dylan has continued to reinvent himself, periodically shaking off all but the most ardent fans in the process. (He lost me briefly during his born-again Christian phase in the late 70s-early 80s.) In this respect his career more resembles a painter’s than a performing artist’s: a country period, a gospel period, an American songbook period. Not every one of his song lyrics belongs in the permanent pantheon. Neither does every single thing written by Faulkner or Hemingway. But a remarkable body of Bob Dylan’s work does indeed belong there. If 2016’s Nobel Prize in Literature forces us to reevaluate the very meaning of the term, then that was a well-given prize indeed.

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10/30/16: Some of these same thoughts, more artfully realized, by David Hadju. (Listen to the commentary by Hadju, Sean Wilentz and Robert Christgau on the INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS Criterion DVD.)


Stand-Up Tragedy

September 23, 2016

1458047088866It’s even worse.

When I first wrote about standing-ovation creep on this page more than six years ago, it was an irritation, like a skin rash you just have to live with. Since then, it’s become an out-and-out pandemic, infecting more and more theatre audiences in New York — and, I’d be willing to bet, where you live too, because this virus is issuing forth from the heartland.

Let’s restate a few caveats. A performance that brings an audience to its feet with gratitude is a wonderful thing, and once upon a time such a spontaneous eruption swelled the cast and crew with pride precisely because it was so rare. I have witnessed these thrilling occasions — but fewer times than I have fingers. (My most recent was HAMILTON.) However, the days when you could actually reward a magnificent production beyond mere seated applause are long gone, and they have vanished before my very eyes.

I recognize that audience behavior evolves over time. Beatles aside, the loudest sound in an Ed Sullivan or Johnny Carson audience was the ol’ two-fingered whistle. But watch Colbert or Maher today, and you’ll hear people — usually women — shriek where they used to laugh. I’m sure that excited reaction is a bleed-over from pop music concerts, and it’s fine for a talk show where revving the crowd up to paroxysmal frenzy is part of the trick. Thing is, we’re starting to hear the whooooooooos for stage musical numbers, even “this is my way of saying I think that’s funny” in the more raucous comedies. This is a second cousin to stand-up fever.

It’s very expensive to visit New York, even before the theater sticks out its palm for you to cross so lavishly. If you go to a Broadway show, you expect to see transcendence; it had better be better than what your community theater can pull off. Some shows are certainly lesser than others, but they are all of professional caliber, and if you’re not used to that, damn near anything can impress you, especially if it features someone you’ve seen in movies or on tv. I believe that’s where the ubiquitous standing O has come from: visitors from out of town. My latest piece of evidence: I was sitting in a side box for AN AMERICAN IN PARIS a couple weeks ago, so I was able to watch the crowd. The standing ovation that day was definitely led by people in shorts and sandals.

Why should I even care about whether people jump to their feet or not? They’re just being nice, get off their backs! Two reasons. One, as stated above, when it happens every time, the gesture is demeaned: performers will never again be able to earn a legitimate standing O, since they will automatically receive one simply by getting to the end of Act II. Two, I enjoy watching actors take their curtain calls, but unless I stand as well (to my shame, I’ve done it a few times) all I can see is a butt from the previous row. Usually I remain seated anyway. It’s not because I didn’t like the show; it’s because it didn’t deserve a standing ovation!

Here’s how bad it’s gotten. The other night I went down to 59E59, the only off-Broadway theater in rational walking distance from my house, to see a surrealistic farce called BEARS IN SPACE, part of a citywide Irish theatre festival. Delightful show: four young guys using deliberately low-tech theatricality and ratty hand-and-rod puppets, snarky as hell but telling a story that turned out to be very sweet. (One of them was Jack Gleeson, GAME OF THRONES’s sadistic King Joffrey, but in one section he played that notorious imperiousness for laughs.) The audience — couldn’t have been 200 people — were attentive, laughing where they should, etc. They loved the show. (I did too.) The boys wound it up and the applause was vigorous, energetic. As I was joining them in banging my hands together, something was vaguely bothersome. WTF? Finally it struck me. Nobody in the appreciative, giddy audience had risen to their feet! I self-flagellated on the walk home (what, no standing O means you’re missing something, dickweed?) and sat down to write this piece, my first sequel. Dudes and dudettes, standing ovations are WAY WAY WAY too common, but there’s nothing anybody can do. Their function as a meaningful way to communicate back to the stage is all over.

img_14609/27/16: Last night, at the new production of THE FRONT PAGE (it was that or the Clinton-Trump “debate”), before the inevitable tumultuous standing ovation, came some “sitting ovations,” or entrance applause, for everybody the audience recognized: Jefferson Mays, John Slattery, John Goodman, Robert Morse, Nathan Lane, even Holland Taylor. This show is a trifle, an amusing limited run for holiday-season tourists, slathered with stars, and it did make me laugh a few times. But to the adoring audience, it killed. A standing O was locked in the moment they opened their programs, and every comment I overheard afterward reflected a mind duly blown. But I won’t play the snob card: New York needs their money.

11/23/16: Yes, the cast of the final play in the “Gabriel Family Trilogy” did a wonderful job, but DAMN! Even most of the audience in a little 200-seater upstairs at the Public felt the need to hit their feet. Fortunately we were sitting in the first row, and I think I caught a couple of curtain-call winks — thanks for giving us an enthusiastic response but not fucking standing up! — or maybe it was just my imagination. I mimed applause to Jay O. Russell in the lobby as we were filing out and he seemed to enjoy it. But the war’s over. Automatic standing Os and Trump have each won.


Quelle Horreur!

August 18, 2016

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On May 24, 1976, nine French experts sat down at the InterContinental Hotel in Paris to taste a flight of wines that included some of the most revered products of their own vineyards along with new, little-known bottles from little-regarded California. What happened in that room changed the world of wine forever. JUDGMENT OF PARIS is the last word on this earthshaking event and its profound ramifications, written by a knowledgeable eyewitness. It’s one of the best wine books I’ve ever read.

The shocking effect of the “Judgment of Paris,” as the event has come to be known, struck like a lightning bolt. It could hardly have been anticipated: such tastings happen all the time. The organizers, wine retailer Steven Spurrier and his colleague Patricia Gallagher, simply put together an amusing way to acknowledge the American bicentennial — and “the role France had played in that historic endeavor” — by introducing French super-palates to some of the interesting wines coming from the New World, both reds and whites. For comparison, Spurrier told the judges, he had also selected some French wines crafted in a similar style. Like many tastings, this one would be conducted “blind,” meaning the judges would not learn the wines’ identities until after they had rated them.

The Paris tasting was a watershed event for two reasons. First, the highest-rated wines, both red and white, were — spoiler alert, though this is not a book of suspense — from California! Second, a correspondent for Time magazine was present, and he sent the news to the world in the following week’s issue. Nobody is better qualified to write about this event, because despite Spurrier and Gallagher’s best efforts, only a single journalist could be roused to attend: our author, George M. Taber. Even Mr. Taber remembers idly brushing off the invitation in his mind: “it seemed almost absurd to compare the best French wines with California unknowns.” But when he saw a judge swirl, sniff and sip from one glass and pronounce, “Ah, back to France!” he double-checked the list in his hand with Gallagher. It was really a Napa Valley Chardonnay! Later, another judge dismissed another white wine: “That is definitely California. It has no nose.” Mr. Taber again had to make sure that the list he held was correct, for this was a 1973 Batard-Montrachet Ramonet-Prudhon, one of the best-regarded white Burgundies on earth. He realized, “Spurrier’s Paris tasting might just be an interesting story after all.”

At the 1976 tasting, from left: Patricia Gallagher, Steven Spurrier, and I don't know.

At the 1976 tasting, from left: Patricia Gallagher, Steven Spurrier, and I don’t know.

This book is wonderful not so much for its account of the event itself — the blow-by-blow description is only twelve pages long — but for helping us laymen understand what came before and after. While it’s perversely thrilling to watch pompous, patronizing worthies brought low (the EXPERTS SPEAK effect), this is really an uplifting, human-sized story featuring the Napa pioneers Mike Grgich, Warren Winiarski and Jim Barrett, who was portrayed by Bill Pullman in the underrated film inspired by the white-wine competition, BOTTLE SHOCK. We get to know these quirky, obsessed guys and watch how they manage to craft wines superb enough to stand up to the best France had to offer.

After introducing Spurrier and his little Parisian wine shop, Mr. Taber draws the bigger picture, beginning with a concise history of the wine industry in both France and California (which was awash in everyday wine before Prohibition). It’s hard to imagine this some forty eventful years later, but keep in mind that at the time of the Paris tasting, France ruled the wine world to the exclusion of most others. Fine wine, as opposed to jug or table wine, was considered to be exclusively European: if not French, perhaps Italian or Spanish. That’s where premier wine was made, and nowhere else. To most aficionados, California wine was nothing more exciting than a giant jug of Gallo “Hearty Burgundy.” But out of sight of Old World wine devotees, things were rapidly changing.

The terroir — climate, soil, slope, everything that gives a place its identity — of Bordeaux and Burgundy, the most prized viticultural regions in France, has been producing distinctive wine for centuries. Generations of winemakers — often literal generations as progeny take over the longstanding family business — have learned over time how to exploit their land, coax out the most useful grapes, and deal with the vicissitudes of weather that make each vintage unique. California winemakers couldn’t count on the wisdom that comes with long experience; they had to improvise. But they did have some advantages. Without being tied to rigid tradition, they felt free to experiment with new techniques and technologies. And their growing season of warm days and cool nights, with relatively predictable rainfall, was far less volatile: the range of quality between good harvests and poor ones was thinner than that of their French counterparts. What they were doing was under the radar, which is why the idea of a world-class wine from California was “almost absurd” in 1976. But the visionaries had known for years that this place — the Napa Valley and Sonoma County — seemed just perfect for making fine wine. Now they had to learn how to use it.

A great winemaker is a combination of farmer, chemist, artist and salesman: a practical dreamer. Sometimes it takes more than one person to nail down all these qualities. Mr. Taber repeats the probably apocryphal but famous exchange between Modesto’s Gallo brothers: Ernest is reputed to have said, “I’ll sell all the wine you can make,” to which brother Julio responded, “I’ll make all the wine you can sell.” The runup to the tasting shows the many roads traveled by its American principals, who were devoted to quality, not quantity. Warren Winiarski discovered the conviviality of everyday wine while spending a graduate-school year in Naples. Mike Grgich was a Croatian who grew up in a casual-wine culture. And Jim Barrett had his first taste in law school but graduated to finer wines after his real-estate law practice in Los Angeles flourished. However it happened, each man became enthralled with the idea of producing wine, each inspired by the great growths of Bordeaux and Burgundy. But they needed each other to put together the total package.

They also needed practical experience, and Mr. Taber details the winding paths that led Winiarski to found Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars and Barrett to revive Chateau Montelena (Grgich was its chief winemaker), makers of the red and white wines which won the Judgment of Paris. Stints at various established wineries, and the breakthroughs generously shared by other obsessives like Robert Mondavi — a natural-born marketer who became the face of Napa wine — allowed them to collapse the European centuries into years. Although Mr. Taber pays the most attention to the two victors, with precise reporting on the making of both individual winning vintages, he also goes into detail on each of the other wines presented at the Judgment. Six California Cabernet Sauvignons were tasted alongside four Bordeaux reds, and six California Chardonnays with four white Burgundies. At last Mr. Taber arrives at the main event, as the unlabeled, pre-decanted bottles are brought in while the judges chat merrily.

When Barrett and Grgich’s 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay was announced as the highest scoring white, the reaction of the judges “ranged from shock to horror.” As the reds were poured, Spurrier felt they would not let that happen again. They knew the French reds forward and backward. But, incredibly, Winiarski’s 1973 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet won as well. It was incontestable: fine California wines could now rival the finest in the world.

WinePouring_1-CREDIT_Bella_Spurrier_Paris-1976Actually, it was contestable, and the French judges’ grapes immediately turned sour. Mr. Taber’s report appeared in the June 7, 1976 issue of Time in the “Modern Living” section, a one-column note following a story on a new theme park in Atlanta. But the buried notice seized the wine world instantly, and the French started walking back the results. Mr. Taber summarizes their main objections and even concedes one, that the tasting was mathematically stacked against France by presenting more American wines. But Spurrier hadn’t been thinking of the event as a contest; in fact, he was certain the French wines would score highest. He was simply trying to showcase some interesting bottles from the New World.

Speaking of the New World, ask most winelovers about the significance of the Paris tasting of 1976 and they’ll say it put California wines on the map and forced serious oenophiles to take them seriously. But as Mr. Taber shows, that wasn’t the largest consequence. Winemakers all over the world realized that if they found the right spot, used the right methods and brought the right passion and taste to bear, they could also produce world-class wine. The Judgment of Paris demystified Europe in general and France in particular. It led to the globalization of fine wine. In the book’s longest chapter, Mr. Taber takes a globe-spanning tour three decades later to a few great wineries outside France and Napa/Sonoma. The world’s best Sauvignon Blanc comes from New Zealand. Its best Syrah is made in Australia (in “Strine” it’s “Shiraz”). There’s a fabulous single-vineyard Chardonnay produced in South Africa (now the rest of the world can actually buy it in good conscience), and a real Burgundian is making dazzling Pinot Noir in the Willamette Valley of Oregon. And so on and on, for these pioneers represent many hundreds more. In wine terms, the “New World” now indicates everywhere but Europe.

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The finest French wines — if one can afford them — can still be mind-blowing, and the great chateaux are a deserved source of national pride. But France’s share of the worldwide wine trade has inexorably slipped in the years since the Judgment while newcomers like Australia and Chile have been on fire: they’re unafraid to target a specific promising market. For example, Yellow Tail is fairly-priced everyday wine specially crafted for the American palate and marketed under a brand name that’s easy to remember; it’s hugely popular, and it comes from Down Under. France’s — and now Napa’s — competition is everywhere these days. Mass marketers like Yellow Tail aside, there has never been a better time to enjoy respectable wine at an affordable price.

My hardcover copy of this book was published in 2005, and I just now got around to it (so many books, so little time…). Click on the jacket art up top, or the book title in the first paragraph, and you’ll link to a revised and updated paperback reprint, about a year later. The further passage of time hasn’t really changed Mr. Taber’s conclusions. The wine industry, like so many others, continues to consolidate. But the Internet and the inevitable dissolution of remaining laws preventing interstate shipping (it’s up to each individual state legislature) are enabling smaller wineries to reach far-off customers without the permission, or the fees, of middleman distributors. Mr. Taber writes clearly and vividly, and assumes you don’t know a thing about wine. By the time you’re finished, he’s given you an excellent idea of how “bottled poetry” is created, and a front-row seat at the thunderous event that changed everything.


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. (See the exhaustive list below.) 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 grown 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 line, then introduces eight light, haunting, faraway-sounding bits of dreamy harmony. It repeats this pattern, slightly adjusted, twice more. Then that incipient 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: I wish he’d 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 ever 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.

8/3/16: Here, courtesy of Guaraldi expert Derrick Bang, is an amazing list of “Cast Your Fate” cover versions over the tune’s first fifty years. You can learn lots more about Vince Guaraldi at Derrick’s great website and from his book VINCE GUARALDI AT THE PIANO. Thanks to George Winston for hooking us up.

Twists of Fate

Mel Torme, (single) (1963; hit #4 in Australia on 5/25/63)
Quincy Jones, Plays Hip Hits (1963/June)
Arthur Lyman, The Exotic Sounds of Arthur Lyman at the Crescendo (1963)
Steve Allen, Gravy Waltz and 11 Current Hits (1963/March)

Warren Covington, Let’s Dance Latin (1964/April)

Floyd Cramer, Class of ’65 (1965)
Xavier Cugat, Feeling Good (1965)
Ferrante & Teicher, Only the Best (1965)
The In Crowd, The In Crowd (1965)
Sounds Orchestral, Cast Your Fate to the Wind (1965/March)
The Jimmy Wisner Orchestra, Cast Your Fate to the Wind (1965)
We Five, You Were on My Mind (1965)

Steve Alaimo, Steve Alaimo Sings & Swings (1966)
Anita Kerr Singers, Slightly Baroque (1966/November)
Baja Marimba Band, Watch Out! (1966)
Martin Denny, Golden Greats (1966)
Shelby Flint, Cast Your Fate to the Wind (1966/August)
Joe Harnell, Golden Piano Hits (1966)
Horst Jankowski, More Genius of Jankowski (1966)
George Martin and His Orchestra, And I Love Her (1966)
101 Strings Plus Guitars Galore (1966)
Johnny Rivers, Changes (1966)
The Sandpipers, Guantanamera (1966/October)

Chet Atkins, It’s a Guitar World (1967)
Ramsey Lewis, Goin’ Latin (1967)
Billy Strange & The Challengers, Billy Strange & The Challengers (1967)

The James Gang, Rides Again (1970)
Allen Toussaint, From a Whisper to a Scream (1970)
Quincy Jones, Smackwater Jack (1971)
The Marketts, AM, FM Etc. (1973)
Roger Williams, ??? (1976)
David Axelrod, Heavy Axe (1975)
George Benson, Good King Bad (1975)
Earl Klugh, Magic in Your Eyes (1978)
Larry Vuckovich, Cast Your Fate (1982)
Hollyrock, Legalize Freedom (1987)
David Benoit, Waiting for Spring (1989)
Dave Brubeck, Quiet as the Moon (1991)
Dave Stewart, Spin (1991)
Dean Magraw, Broken Silence (1994)
Mike Strickland, My Favorite Things (1994)
Bill Cunliffe, Bill in Brazil (1995)
Laurens Van Rooyen (1996)
George Winston, Linus & Lucy: The Music of Vince Guaraldi (1996)
Ray Bryant Trio, Ray’s Tribute to his Jazz Piano Friends (1998)
Russ Conway, Walk in the Black Forest (1998)
Paul Brooks, Drift Away — Seascapes (1999)
Klaus Doldinger, Works & Passion (2001)
Jazz East, The Springwater Incident (2002)
Gretchen Phillips, Togetherness (2003)
Karin Plato, The State of Bliss (2003)
Nick Stubblefield, Tried As an Adult (2003)
Richard de Cluny, Romantic Instrumentals — Piano Nights (2004)
Buddy Fambro, Higher Consciousness (2004)
Dan Luevano, Simpler Times (2004)
Dave Pell, Meditation (2004)
Nelson Rangell, My American Songbook (2005)
Larry Brown, The Long Goodbye (2006)
Starlite Orchestra, Pop Hits on the Piano (2006)
Steve Hall, Swept Away (2007)
Pam Pierce, Believe It (2007)
Bonney & Buzz, Bang It Again (2008)
Don Brennan, Well, to Begin With (2008)
Free Wind, Piano Chillout (2008)
Jennifer Leitham, Left Coast Story (2008)
Aaron Brask, The Guaraldi Sessions (2009)
Graham Blvd, Songs for Pirate Radio (2010)
Herb Alpert and Lani Hall, I Feel You (2011)


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