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June 2016

Movie "The Damned Don't Cry" (1950)

Damned_don't_cry_poster_1950The first question that comes to mind is: between this and That Hamilton Woman (a 1941 movie starring Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier at the heights of their powers and in the good days of their marriage), why did good movies have such terrible titles in the 1940s and 50s? Marketing has made a lot of progress since. The Damned Don't Cry is my favorite Joan Crawford movie, with Mildred Pierce coming second.

It's about a woman who leaves a broken home behind after her young son dies in an accident (unwittingly brought about by his controlling and callous father) and little by little moves up in the world by having men do her bidding - first the hapless accountant, then the head of the mob played by David Brian who turns her into high-class bait, then the mobster's lieutenant in California, whom she comes closest to love, but of course in those film noirs the story never ends well. Crawford was best known for portraying women born on the wrong side of the tracks who try to claw their way up, and she doesn't disappoint.

Besides the compelling storyline - the tension builds up at every step and you never guess how exactly it will end - I loved most the lighting of the sets, with the use of the cars' headlights at dusk/night, the choice of angles for the shots and the use of a prologue at the beginning of the movie before going back to the main character's early days. Crawford gets to show us her wide range of acting and I always enjoy watching on screen big names of the moment who have now faded into oblivion, such as David Brian and Steve Cochran. Joan Crawford had a complicated personal life and her acting on screen helps us remember the talent that counterbalanced her difficulties off-screen. If you like films noirs, this is a great choice.  

Shostakovich and dance

Back in May I saw both the Shostakovich Trilogy at American Ballet Theatre - an all-Ratmansky program on Shostakovich music - and the 21st Century Choreographers II program at New York City Ballet, which ended with Ratmansky's DSCH Concerto again set to music by Shostakovich. The NYCB program also included a new piece by Justin Peck, which was far better than I expected, a new piece by a choreographer whose name I forget and then a new work by Christopher Wheeldon shamelessly capitalizing on the success of An American in Paris via a ballet set to Gershwin's music with Robbie Fairchild in the title role, although Amar Ramasar stole the show. (The sad part was, the Wheeldon ballet played before the last intermission and the Ratmansky program, for which a number of supposedly cultivated New Yorkers didn't stay, having seen the Wheeldon one.) While the works of his competitors had moments of brilliance as well, Ratmansky unquestionably emerged as today's leading choreographer in the difficulty of the moves and the interplay between the music and the dance. He doesn't go for facile or expected choreography.

I did like the DSCH Concerto a bit better than the 3 works he showed at ABT because the ABT Program was darker - I thought it was a pity to only show the tormented side of Shostakovich's music, since he was capable of so much more. DSCH Concerto is set to Shostakovich's Piano Concerto No 2, which, according to the NYCB website itself, "displays the composer's optimistic energy after the repressions of the Stalinist era." It is well-known by now that the 4 notes of the title, D, S, C and H, also spell the beginning of Shostakovich's name in its German spelling. Here is the New York Times review. The ballet deserves every single word of praise Alastair Macaulay heaps on it. And below is a glimpse of the ballet in rehearsal at Pacific Northwest Ballet, posted on PNB's YouTube channel.

Shostakovich Trilogy is set to excerpts of Symphony #9, Chamber Symphony and Piano Concerto #1, and the website of the Metropolitan Opera (where ABT performs when in NYC) quotes the New York Times back at the 2013 premiere as follows: "Fascinating, poetic, enigmatic. Alexei Ratmansky’s Shostakovich Trilogy includes expressions of ebullience, heroism, affection, wit and inspiration." Although I preferred DSCH because it had less soul-crushing angst, the performers of Shostakovich Trilogy were superb. Let me mention in particular Jeffrey Cirio in Chamber Symphony, who recently joined ABT from the Boston Ballet, and Calvin Royal and Gabe Stone Shayer in Piano Concerto #1. Here are excerpts thanks to San Francisco Ballet on its YouTube channel. 

The great New York Times dance critic Alastair Macaulay himself singles out Gabe Stone Shayer for praise in his recent review of ABT's Swan Lake. I'm always amazed by his careful read of dancers' gestures and acting. Here's to wishing Stone Shayer much success to come in the company's ranks!

Review of "Weiner" Movie

WeinerMovieEarlier this week I went to see the "Weiner" documentary. I'm still trying to figure out what I think of it - I wish there'd been more insight into Weiner as a person (besides the scandals) and as a politician (besides the fact that he was fighting for the lower middle class - what were the specific ideas he had for New York City?), but mostly I came out of it with profound sadness for the young or not so young staffers who went into the campaign to make a difference and had their hopes crushed. The movie itself was made by Weiner former chief of staff Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg. 

My point is about more than feeling sorry for college students' idealism that was wasted on the candidate, although some testimonials, filmed before the second scandal, just wrung my heart, especially the one by the young male whose mother didn't want him to work for Weiner. People comfortable in the "aide" mode need to find a candidate who can help them deploy their talents in order for them to fulfill their potential, and while for many taking part in a campaign will simply be an interesting experience to put on their resume before they apply for law school, one has to wonder how much talent got wasted because smart and talented twenty-somethings bet on the wrong horse. 

This is also of course the challenge facing Huma Abedin, about whom much good had been written because of her status as long-time aide to Hillary Clinton (and some bad - I mention a recent Newsweek article below), and who might have been a remarkable First Lady of New York, but whose husband has dreadfully fallen short of expectations. And while she might find many things to love in Weiner even today, one has to wonder what sort of impact she could have had if she had married a different, more successful politician.

The movie also mentions that some of the Weiner staffers signed up because of how close Abedin is to Hillary Clinton, who was already at the time expected to run for President - I suppose that at that rarefied altitude of top political power you don't have any friends, but it also must be tough at times to know that you can never know why people want to be around you.

Newsweek recently ran an article on Abedin that does not portray her in a good light, using terms such as "selfless servility", "relentlessly obedient", "glorified lady's maid" with "a penchant for designer bags and dresses" and more. But the journalist also wrote: "The humiliation of those years is a fading memory now; if anything, it’s a badge of merit at the Clinton campaign offices in Brooklyn, where, as campaign vice chair, Abedin reportedly vetted the entire Clinton for President campaign staff." This is not the impression conveyed in the documentary, where Abedin's steely glares are powerless to keep her husband from making a fool of himself again and again.

Communications director Barbara Morgan came out the best - poised and thoughtful, and deserving a better boss to express her talents than Weiner. (The moment when another staffer recounts how Morgan was badgered by reporters who threatened to write that she and Weiner were having an affair if she didn't answer their questions was chilling. Also chilling was Abedin's clear-eyed comment that she should look happy when she gets out of the building.)

To my own surprise, I couldn't help but feel sorry for Weiner himself when the woman who revealed the second scandal gloated on camera about bringing him down and - having shown up in front of the building where he was going to concede defeat - ran behind him to try to force a meeting when he used backdoors to avoid her. 

Politicians like Richard Nixon have also been deeply flawed and seen their career implode, but at least with Nixon there is some understanding of why he turned out the way he did, especially due to his permanent feeling that he was an outsider and that people were out to get him. LBJ grew up poor, felt alienated from the Kennedy clan and was blindsided by Vietnam. With Weiner, there is no such understanding offered, at least in the movie. Why did he self-sabotage like that? The movie offers no answer, and ultimately remains shallow, but offers fascinating glimpses into an imploding political campaign nonetheless.

"Shostakovich against Stalin: The War Symphonies" DVD

ShostakovichAgainstStalin This is my favorite DVD about my favorite composer, hands down. It contains beautiful excerpts of the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic and Kirov Orchestra led by a much younger Valery Gergiev (who has, it seems, his own complicated relationship with the top man in power) and is fascinating not only because of the discussion of Shostakovich's war symphonies but because it provides an amazing glimpse into life in the Soviet Union during the war. (The pictures of dead bodies in the snow and the discussion of cannibalism are eerie.) Thus, it is an important document both for musicians and historians. 

My favorite moment was when Shostakovich is interrogated on a Friday and is told to come back on Monday at noon for further questioning, which looks like it will surely lead to arrest and long-term imprisonment if not death, and when he reports to the place (not sure if it was the police headquarters or the prison) on Monday at noon he learns his interrogator himself was arrested on Sunday. So Shostakovich survived because of that.

I first discovered the DVD last year but for some reason never got around to writing a post about it. This is actually the DVD that got me interested in "Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk", for which I particularly recommend the remarkable movie version "Katerina Ismailova" with Galina Vishnevskaya  - Mrs Mstislav Rostropovich, the greatest cellist of the 20th century - in the title role.  

In addition to a 76 minute documentary, the DVD also has 70 minutes of audio extracts that you can listen to without the documentary if you are so inclined. It samples Shostakovich's war symphonies and so provides a good introduction to his symphonic music. And if you want more Shostakovich after that, I love this collection of his complete symphonies by various artists, that one of his concertos, and the box set of the Emerson Quartet playing his chamber music.