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February 2017

Book review: "Eleanor Roosevelt vol.3" by Blanche Wiesen Cook

ER-vol3 I remember being spellbound fifteen years ago when I read the first two volumes of Blanche Wiesen Cook's bio of ER. I impatiently waiting for the last volume, checking every few years if it had a publication date. What a disappointment this is. While the first two volumes were full of insights into ER, I felt this one listed a lot of facts and didn't go in any depth in the human element. I suppose Volumes 1 and 2 benefited from Wiesen Cook's novel (at the time) argument that ER and Lorena Hickok were "very, very close friends", which was a bit scandalous when Wiesen Cook first made her case but probably contributed to selling books and is more accepted now. In Volume 3 Wiesen Cook doesn't have a big revelation to make, or perhaps she got tired of her subject. (Wiesen Cook is in her mid-70s now and a project of that scope does take its toll on its author.) In addition, the part about ER's life after FDR is blatantly rushed - something just about every reader agrees on, including the New York Times reviewer. The 3 volumes taken together will make this the definitive biography of ER for years to come, but one can only hope BWC revises Volume 3 and expands the end before it is printed in paperback. 

Book Review: "Eleanor and Hick"

ERandHickThe first half of the book was an excellent read. Quinn compellingly brought Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok to life while maintaining the objective tone required of historians. I found the second half, when Eleanor and Hick lead mostly separate lives, less interesting because Eleanor seemed to have drifted away from Hick by that point, perhaps because of her First Lady duties. Quinn should also be commended for showing ER's insensitive side at times, instead of glossing over it or simply not mentioning it. ER remains very popular to date and it takes courage to show her in her less savory aspects. (She was only human.)

I had known about Eleanor and Hick through ER's biography by Blanche Wiesen Cook (volumes 1 and 2), so I expected that, but ER's "strong friendships" (infatuations? affairs? the book seems to be on the fence) with the much younger Joe Lash and David Gurewitsch surprised me. I felt ER was a bit pathetic in her pursuit of both Lash and Gurewitsch, whether it was out of a need for pure, platonic companionship or something more physical. (You'll notice that she didn't need Hick that much after FDR died but instead sought other travel companions.)

I was also quite disappointed by the contrast between ER's readiness to help her friends and her more lukewarm concern toward her own children, who were plagued by many emotional issues throughout their lives (many, many marriages, a fondness for alcohol, etc). I suppose that given their parents' marriage, you can't blame them for their complicated love lives.

Overall I liked the book but I also felt ER came across as quite indifferent to her children (admittedly grown) and masterful in shaping public opinion, writing bland columns and coming across as a dowdy matron while she loved a woman (Quinn does point out we'll never know if the relationship was physical or not) and then sought the companionship of younger men. It's an interesting facet of ER, for sure.

Finally, the subtitle "The love affair that shaped a First Lady" was probably chosen by the publisher, given that the love affair recedes in the background in the second half of the book and there isn't much discussion of how that love affair shaped ER, except that it made her happy at the time when ER and Hick were close.

Digression: When I read the part about Joe Lash, I kept thinking I had read that name before, until I realized he wrote the Pulitzer-Prize winning "Eleanor and Franklin" (1971) as well as "Eleanor: The Years Alone" (1972). I had never realized he had been much closer to his subject than is the norm with traditional biographers and I'll have to re-read the books to see if/how he tried to shape the ER legend after her death. Sometimes, even supposedly neutral biographers have less critical distance than you think.

Anyway, I found Eleanor and Hick to be an enjoyable read.

Listen Magazine on Bob Dylan's Nobel

ListenMagI wasn't going to write a post about Dylan's Nobel Prize in Literature, but since Listen Magazine - a magazine about classical music that I love - published an article dripping of condescension toward the people, like me, who don't believe Dylan even remotely deserved the Nobel, I do feel compelled to share my thoughts.

First, let me say that Bob Dylan is one of the greatest artists of our ages, and that whatever it is he is doing, he does not even remotely deserve the Nobel Prize in Literature. Perhaps what Dylan does is indeed poetry. It is certainly closer to literature than some of the books you find at airport newsstands. Let's agree for the sake of the argument that Dylan indeed qualifies as a poet, even if he is a poet of the spoken word rather than the written word. This would not be in itself a disqualifying fact - playwrights like Eugene O'Neill have received the Nobel Prize in the past, and the fact that their scripts weren't easily available for purchase except from specialized bookstores until recently (this has changed now with didn't raise a concert of shouts about their not deserving the prize. So what makes it ok for O'Neill to receive the Prize and not Dylan? One thing: the depth of insights into the human condition. People who believe Dylan deserved the prize really can't have red much Nobel-winning work.

But let's compare Dylan with that of poets, since that is the one literature category Dylan could lay claim to. Dylan writes fine poems, but they don't compare to the work of poets who have received the Nobel Prize before him, poets who have risked their lives in dictatorships and yet felt compelled to share their art with the world, to bear witness of the times they lived in, poets who have had an incredibly rich output varying poetry forms and syntax and length and topic. Dylan's output is boxed in by its context of song-making. That's not his fault. Within the limitations of songwriting, he definitely has proved the best at writing poem-like songs. But his songs are nothing compared to the poems by T.S. Eliot, Pablo Neruda, Joseph Brodsky, Czeslaw Milosz, Octavio Paz and Seamus Heaney and only a very U.S.-centered freelance writer could possibly fail to see that.

While the author of the Listen Magazine article put up a valiant effort to help readers see the beauty of Dylan's poetry, several passages were both inaccurate - to the extent that I had to wonder whether the author was trying to be deliberately dishonest - and extremely condescending toward people who disagree with the Nobel Prize Committee's choice. I'll quote just one, since this post is already longer than I had planned. The umbrage taken by members of the literary community seemed aimed at what was taken as the Nobel's thin definition of their profession, because they felt the purpose of the prize was to bring global attention to literary lights often laboring in somewhat obscurity in their own land - the names of Svetlana Alexievich, Patrick Modiano and Tomas Transtromer being little known until Stockholm smiled upon them. 

Sir, Patrick Modiano has been a literary giant in France since 1978 when he won the Prix Goncourt (equivalent to the Pulitzer Prize) for his novel Rue des Boutiques Obscures, and some would argue he had been one of France's best-known novelists since his prize-winning first novel, La Place de l'Etoile, published in 1968, which received the Prix Roger Nimier and the Prix Feneon. The fact that you didn't know who Modiano was before he got the Nobel Prize (or more likely before you had to write this article about Dylan's prize) doesn't mean he wasn't well-known, Sir. And if the Nobel Prize can help bring a greater audience to an investigative journalist like Alexievich, who works under incredibly difficult conditions, I don't think it's a bad outcome, Sir. But you can go ahead and pick up your guitar and hum your Dylan songs while Nobel-Prize-worthy writers try to improve their world. I doubt you'll pick up a book, unless it's Allen Ginsberg's Howl

Now there is one argument in favor of Dylan's winning the Nobel Prize, and while I don't think it's enough to justify giving him the prize, I'll cite it here anyway. Maybe his songs are only second-rate poems, but they have moved audiences like no traditional poem ever has, especially in the turbulent era of the Vietnam War. Dylan's songs-poems, in that way, have had a far greater impact that the work of any of the other Nobel-Prize-winning poets. If a work's quality is measured by the impact it has, then Dylan's songs set the standard every other poem should be evaluated by. And as we face turbulent times anew, maybe his Nobel Prize - deserved or not - can serve as a reminder of the power of music in moving audiences to take a stand. 

Review of "Rothko's Rooms"

RothkosRoomsDon't be fooled by the opening sequence: "Rothko's Rooms" is a fascinating documentary with much more ambition and scope than its avowed goal of telling us how a set of nine Rothko murals found their way to the Tate Gallery. Those murals do provide a unifying theme for the movie, beyond the obvious idea of making a documentary about Rothko, and help keep it focused on the concept of “Rothko place” or “Rothko environment” that was so dear to Rothko in his lifetime.

Rothko had very specific ideas about how his works should be exhibited, and the idea of showing them as a group was extremely dear to him. The paintings shown first at the Tate Gallery and later at Tate Modern were part of a set of thirty Rothko had originally painted for the Four Seasons restaurant in the Seagram Building in New York City, before he backed out of the commission and returned the money. (We are told that Rothko, who leaned toward Socialism, thought the restaurant’s workers would be able to see his murals from their canteen or on their way to it, and he was incensed when he learned they would hang in the upper level of the restaurant itself, above the heads of wealthy patrons.)

The movie shows us many stills of Rothko’s paintings throughout his career, allowing us to take stock of the evolution he underwent from his figurative painting phase to his surrealist one to more abstract works that meld into those of the multi-form period, to the focus on color of the mid-1940s to the late-1940s, until the rectangular forms Rothko is best known for, which he painted from about 1949 onwards.

The movie also benefits from many testimonials of key members of the art world such as Sean Scully, Phyllis Lambert and Philip Johnson who had commissioned the murals for the Seagram building, and the director of the Tate Gallery when Rothko gave his paintings, Sir Norman Reid (he has a wonderful anecdote regarding why Rothko, who was famously indecisive, finally agreed in November 1969 to donate his paintings to the Tate after six years of negotiation – I’ll give you a hint: it has something to do with a tax change), Rothko’s friends and collaborators, and finally Rothko’s two children, who speak thoughtfully and convincingly about their father and his art.

The first half of this 60-minute documentary are spent on general yet highly informative considerations about Rothko’s life, his working habits as an artist and his paintings, such as the contrast of the New York urban landscape and the immensity of Rothko’s best-known paintings, as well as the influence of the Southwest on the colors he used. The movie changes focus at the halfway mark when it starts delving in more detail into the Seagram murals, Rothko’s continued efforts to create a “Rothko environment”, how nine of the thirty Seagram murals found their way to the Tate Gallery, and Rothko’s suicide.

The thread of “the sense of a Rothko place” is convincingly weaved through the narrative, not only for the Seagram building but also for the Rothko Room in the Phillips Collection in DC, which came about shortly after the Seagram commission fell through, the Rothko Chapel in Houston, and the New York City studio where Rothko painted those murals, which has become a Japanese teahouse. I found it particularly poignant that the people at the Tate Gallery heard of Rothko’s passing the day the paintings finally arrived.

This is a must-own for anyone interested in Rothko.

Movie Review: "The Salesman"

Salesman2What a great movie, masterful in pace and plot twists, with multi-dimensional characters who, as a bonus, provide a glimpse of insight into life in today's Iran. The end drags on a little, which I felt was to give the Iranian censors the ending that would allow the movie to be distributed, and it is done in such a way that you can guess which ending the director probably wanted for his movie. (I'll give you a hint: good storytellers don't go to the same well twice.) Director Asghar Farhadi highly deserves his award at the Cannes Festival for Best Screenplay and his movie's nomination for Best Foreign Film at the Oscars. Leading man Shahab Hosseini also deserves a nuanced performance that fully warranted Hosseini's Best Actor Award at Cannes.

You can read the review on here and that by the New York Times there (it's a NYT Critics' Pick). I'm not going to attempt a review that rivals theirs, but I wanted to point out how filmmakers today can still produce remarkable movies on low budget - and those filmmakers don't need special effects, or a MFA in screenwriting, to succeed in the business. And I wonder, when I watch such an amazing movie like The Salesman, whether it is still possible for an American filmmaker to produce a movie like this, or whether we are condemned to praising terrible indie movies that become in turn highly acclaimed by the critics (I think for instance of the mediocrity of an indie hit like Don't Think Twice. I was also massively underwhelmed by Boyhood two years ago). The Salesman is also far superior to the media darling Manchester-by-the-Sea, which I mention because they have similar qualities as low-key family dramas. In fact, the only movie that awed me so in recent memory is the Russian movie Leviathan. Those foreign filmmakers have more to teach American ones than American ones are necessarily willing to admit.

The movie theater was almost empty when I saw the movie on Friday night, and I suppose part of it has to do with the fact that the movie is not in English (although it is subtitled.) I attended a performance of Donizetti's opera Elisir d'amore at SMU Meadows School for the Performing Arts earlier this week and the room was full of friends and family members who had come to support the amazing SMU undergraduates singing in Italian as if it were their native language. At intermission I heard more than one teen (sibling?) complain to the grown-ups nearby that it was hard to understand what was going on, although the performance was supertitled. It was not that difficult to follow along, especially an opera like Elisir d'Amore, where you can guess the narrative from reading the synopsis beforehand and looking at the singers, even if you don't understand what they're saying (another teen said: "The only word I understood was 'amore'.")

This came to mind in the context of Salesman because I think that Americans who only want to watch entertainment in English deprive themselves of key opportunities to watch superior movies or live performances, which would in turn help them make better works of art for those of us who don't care for grand-guignolesque car chases or robot monsters about the future. I'm not saying watching foreign films is always easy, even with subtitles - when I was on sabbatical in Boston I once watched a (mostly in black-and-white) Polish documentary about theater in Poland at ArtsEmerson -- it was the U.S. premiere of Andrzej Wadja’s The Possessed Years Later, a documentary about his groundbreaking adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s The Devils -- and that probably pushed me to the limits of what I was willing to do out of interest in art. But ArtsEmerson has further embraced this idea by inviting theater troupes to perform in their native languages. They presented Three Sisters by Chekhov - in Russian - after I left Boston and I would just have loved to see it live. Maybe I'll catch Uncle Vanya instead. It does help that I both love Chekhov plays and know Russian.

I don't know a word of Persian, though, and yet I could follow The Salesman easily. So I hope that people who are reluctant to watch a movie or a play in a language they don't understand will nonetheless go and see it. Americans have never shied away from English-language remakes (apparently a remake of German-language Toni Erdmann is in the works) but we will lose a lot of opportunities to understand other countries and cultures if we have to remake everything in English to bring Americans into theaters. On the other hand, maybe it would already be a good start if we could get the American filmmakers and the foreign-born crowd into the theaters to watch foreign movies. Maybe it'll aways be unrealistic to hope that the majority of American-born can find an interest in foreign movies instead of watching the Superbowl. (And of course there are exceptions, especially in places like Cambridge, MA or Seattle or San Francisco.) But maybe the American filmmakers can then learn from their foreign counterparts and bring those storytelling skills to their audiences, and the foreign-born can fill enough theaters to convince distributors to keep bringing those movies to America, and in that way directors like Farhadi can still have an impact on filmmaking today. Maybe that's enough. The Salesman, which opened in limited release two weeks ago, has grossed so far about $350,000 in the U.S. At $10 a ticket [$8 for matinees, $11 at full price], that's about 35,000 people in the U.S. who have seen it so far, and can appreciate what a remarkable film it is. Oscar winner A Separation, also from Farhadi, ultimately grossed $6,700,000 (or about 670,000 movie-goers) and probably approximates the U.S. market size for a movie in Persian. Here's to hoping The Salesman finds its way to the remaining 635,000. The movie deserves it.