Friday, March 30, 2012

Love is always better when someone dies

... onscreen, that is. Or, at least, when lovers are parted by time, distance or fate.

The re-release of James Cameron’s “Titanic” next Wednesday got me thinking about the greatest movie romances. Sure enough, they end not with lovers united but lovers divided.

Would we have felt the passion of Jack and Rose as deeply had they walked through life in the Vale of Happiness? Would we have embraced the Celine Dion song “My Heart Will Go On” if the title had been “Our Marriage Will Go On, Including Children”? I don’t think so.

“Gone With the Wind,” “Casablanca,” “Brief Encounter,” “Wuthering Heights” – the list of memorable, ill-matched film couples stretches on and on. (And not just straight couples, either: Think of the power of “Brokeback Mountain.”) The pictures needn’t be dramas: Woody Allen’s deepest comedy, “Annie Hall,” follows a couple whose affection for each other can’t compensate for their neuroses and differences. Nor is this strictly an English-language thing, as masterpieces from “Les Enfants du Paradis” to “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” prove.

Maybe that’s because audiences see intense passions as unsustainable. If Scarlett and Rhett stay together, one will clobber the other after a few months. If Rick and Ilsa abandon Victor Laszlo to the Nazis and run away, their consciences will plague them forever. If Jack and Ennis live openly as a pair, citizens near Brokeback will hound them incessantly.

Maybe we just prefer a good cry to a warm smile. However much we beam with happiness when couples finally connect in “Sleepless in Seattle” or “When Harry Met Sally,” our feelings of joy aren’t as intense as our feelings of sadness when the soul-matched Cathy and Heathcliff part in “Wuthering Heights.” (Although, of course, death unites them, as it will Jack and Rose in “Titanic.”)

You’ll notice that a lot of these titles come from the 1930s through the 1950s, when a higher percentage of movies were made for emotionally mature people. (I could also have mentioned “From Here to Eternity,” “Citizen Kane” – which, in its own way, is a twisted love story – virtually all of film noir and even certain musicals, such as “An American in Paris” and “Carousel.”)

Today, more folks buy tickets for the purest kind of mindless escapism. A few filmmakers still believe that tragedies can lift us out of our daily lives in a meaningful way, but most aim to deliver excitement as superficial as a ride on the Tilt-a-Whirl at the state fair.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Get out of town!

Some Charlotteans see Mecklenburg County the way New Yorkers look at the world in the famous Saul Steinberg cartoon: We’re about 80 percent of the map, with neighboring counties forming another 15 percent around our borders. Anything beyond that rim appears as a grease spot on the horizon.

That’s why I have a hard time convincing people to go to RiverRun International Film Festival, even though a tortoise like myself can reach it in 90 minutes on the highway. But it comes back to Winston-Salem April 13-22, and I’ll be up there gorging on movies. I’m a judge this year and a speaker; I’ll be on the "What the Hell Happened to Film Criticism? Part 2" panel at 2 p.m. April 22. But even if I weren’t, I’d want to attend. (Get details at:

I’m a little old for the Intergalactic Space Party, which promises "DJs...playing all the music you’d ever want to hear on your road trip to the moon." But I can still sit through four movies a day, distracted only by two meals, and enjoy every one. The 140 films offered make this the most diverse festival I know of in the Carolinas, and the convenience of screenings -- most of which take place on the University of North Carolina School of the Arts campus -- make binging easy to do.

Want documentary Oscar nominees? Kirby Dick, Frederick Wiseman and Joe Berlinger all have new films here. Want big names in features? Hong Kong action master Johnnie To brings in "Life Without Principle," about a gangster, bank officer and cop whose fates intertwine at the onset of the global economic crisis. Fred Schepisi’s "The Eye of the Storm" stars Charlotte Rampling as a woman who controls every aspect of her upper-crust life; Geoffrey Rush and Judy Davis play her kids. I look forward to a gritty new "Wuthering Heights" from Andrea Arnold, who won a short-film Oscar and has yet to hit her stride.

Two suggestions to festivalgoers: The food on campus doesn’t amount to much, and you’ll get tired of the sandwich truck (good as it is) that hangs around outside the screening area, so give yourself time to drive downtown for meals. (That takes about 10 minutes.) See a bit of Winston while you’re there, if you're less manic about movies than I: Buy sweets at the Winkler Bakery at Old Salem or check out American art at Reynolda House. And if you see me, let me know you made the long and dangerous journey north. We pilgrims have to stick together.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Public hangings? THAT's entertainment!

Did you see the news story last week about the town of Medora, N.D.? Mayor Doug Ellison wants to stage mock hangings to attract tourists and has offered to be the guy who takes the faux fatal drop. He plans to purchase material for his gallows from a movie industry stunt supplier. Planning and Zoning Commission members will vote on this idea next month: "Say, Ed, I'm not sure Water Street is zoned for executions. Let's move this over to Elm." (The story:

I went to, where the town is billed as "North Dakota's #1 Destination." (Really? And it needs to stage hangings?) The spring calendar includes a Cowboy Poetry and Memorial Weekend, the 58th Annual Bird Walk, a musical revue honoring Theodore Roosevelt and multiple events featuring horses and guns, so the town doesn't seem to be dying. Although there's a precedent for public corpses: The "Murder and Mayhem in Medora" weekend June 9-10 celebrates "events that transpired in the 1880s, when Marquis deMores lived and ranched in the Medora area." (He named the town for his wife.)

But the mayor says his "vision is to stage a shooting, where I'd gun down someone in the street, have a trial and a hanging, all within 20 minutes." Maybe that's become the American fantasy of justice: A crime so blatant that there can be no doubt about guilt, followed by a speedy whisk through court -- no defense needed -- and a hanging that satisfies our need for vengeance. Vigilantes, who have temporarily been stilled by the recent unpleasantness in Florida, can cheer.

The problem is, this dimwit's idea is being marketed as entertainment: We're supposed to delight in the slaying of a criminal. After all the degradation of TV reality shows, the smarmy lip-smacking over public humiliations of celebrities and the mind-numbing brutalities of video games, have we really come to this? Are Americans so sick that they'd take pleasure in seeing anyone, even a ruthless outlaw, hung before their eyes?

Friday, March 23, 2012

Chucked out at the library (the sequel)

More people read and commented on my previous post -- the one about being unable to find three of Charles Dickens' novels in any branch of the Public Library -- than ever before, so I wanted to share one more round of thoughts. (In this case "ever before" means "during the month this blog has been around," so I tempered my excitement.)

Someone helpfully pointed out that "Dombey and Son" (which I bought today in a store for used books), "Martin Chuzzlewit" and "Barnaby Rudge" were all available for free as downloads. Yes, I knew that. But not everyone reads books on computers or portable devices -- some people don't even own such things -- and making hard copies of books available to them matters, especially when older folks raised on the classics are the likeliest readers for such titles. (And least likely to download them.)

An e-mailer said it wasn't a library's job (I'm paraphrasing here) to fill shelves with obscure books. I don't insist we keep the complete catalogue of Henry Handel Richardson. But we're talking about the most prominent English-language novelist of the 19th-century, whose collected works would fit on about three feet of shelf space.

Someone else made a disparaging comment about libraries not being museums. But one of their jobs -- only one, but a big one -- is to be exactly that: a preserver of culture, made available for free to residents of this county in formats that all of us can use.

Otherwise, what's the point of having a physical library at all? Why not just have ten dozen employees sitting in a windowless office somewhere off Arrowood Road, linking patron after patron to digital books and music and streamed video? That may indeed be the library of the future, long after I'm dead. I look forward to not seeing it.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Chucked out at the library

I went to the Public Library today to donate stuff. On a whim, I decided to see which branch had a copy of Charles Dickens' "Dombey and Son." Correct answer: None.

Also no "Barnaby Rudge" or "Martin Chuzzlewit." Say what? The entire library system for Charlotte-Mecklenburg has no copies at all of three novels by Chuck D., the most popular writer of the 19th century? He wrote 15 novels, not counting "A Christmas Carol," and we're missing 20 percent.

I realize there's not a vast demand for these books. I realize I can find them online for relatively little dough. I also saw an inexpensive copy of "Dombey" at The Last Word, where I go from time to time for shopping therapy. (It's the only used bookstore in Charlotte, as far as I know, that sells many CDs and DVDs.)

I also realize libraries want desperately to attract patrons who aren't middle-aged white guys, so DVDs and CDs and graphic novels and beach reads and literature aimed at underrepresented communities all take priority over musty, little-known novels by dead Brits. (I won't ask what happened to the copies of "Rudge" and "Chuzzlewit" I donated. I assume they were sold, which won't keep me from renewing my Friends of the Library membership.)

But one of the functions of a great public library is to offer books by the most important authors -- not just the most popular reads, but at least one copy of all significant titles by a writer of this caliber. And Dickens isn't an isolated incident: The library has Miguel de Cervantes' "Don Quixote" in English and Spanish, but not a single other work by Spain's most prominent writer. Surely there's room in our up-to-date system for a bit more history?

Monday, March 19, 2012

Size DOES matter

I speak, of course, of the arts. I thought about this after watching an estimable "Sleeping Beauty" by N.C. Dance Theatre and singing in the chorus of "Eugene Onegin" with Opera Carolina, which coalesced on Saturday night in a way none of us might have suspected from the dress rehearsal. ("Bad dress, good show" -- that's what people say, but it's not always true.)

As well as both came off, I imagined what might have been possible with greater numbers in the corps and chorus. Part of the impact of full-length story ballets and grand opera comes from sheer magnitude, from the spectacle of seeing a stage full of Wilis menacing Duke Albrecht in "Giselle" or rank upon rank of Egyptians screaming for war in "Aida." And Charlotte can't afford those.

The size of the venues available partly limits the performances: Even the smaller ranks of NCDT seemed plentiful enough in Knight Theater, and you can't fit more than one horse onstage in "Carmen" at the Belk. But most of the difficulty is financial, and this is one of the rare occasions where throwing money at a problem would solve it.

If I were a zillionaire, I'd give the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra enough money to hire another half-dozen full-time string players. (Or, rather, to expand its endowment, so money would regenerate itself over time.) I'd enable NCDT to add to its list of principal dancers and do pieces by expensive choreographers. I'd back a production that might otherwise be too costly for Opera Carolina: "Boris Godunov," perhaps. Or, in my dreams, a "Ring" cycle. (But I'd have to supply enough money that attendance became irrelevant.)

Audiences satisfied with current levels might not clamor for these improvements, and regular ticket sales won't pay for them. But this is one of the rare situations where bigger really would be better. I hope someone on the brink of endowing yet another business school gives that some thought.

Friday, March 16, 2012

You have 36 hours to "Beauty"-fy yourself

I seldom blog twice in one day, but I chugged back into the office to urge you to spend some part of Saturday or Sunday watching N.C. Dance Theatre's "Sleeping Beauty." I have seldom seen the company dance with such confidence and poise -- perhaps never, in so large an undertaking as this. (Tickets:

Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux has based his version on the original choreography of Marius Petipa and stayed faithful to the "Beauty" I remember. I happened to catch Anna Gerberich's performance as the enchanted princess, a role in which she alternates with Alessandra Ball: Gerberich has just the right combination of tensile strength (especially in the Rose Adagio) and a liquidity that lets her melt from move to move.

The costumes and sets, borrowed from Ballet West, are eye-catching down to the vine-covered scrim that descends when Aurora falls under her spell. Bonnefoux tapped not only his NCDT principals and NCDT 2 dancers but students from the school, who together form a surprisingly unified whole. (Nice to see Kati Hanlon Mayo, who'd have been a fine Aurora in her day, in her cameo as the queen.)

"Magical" is an overused adjective, but it applies literally here. You could imagine little girls, bewitched by the grandeur and the satisfying story of wickedness vanquished, falling in love with ballet itself for a lifetime. It's remarkably hard for a mid-sized company to pull off a piece as large and difficult as this one, and you have until 2 p.m. Sunday to see how it could.

So I'm reading 'The Hunger Games...'

...being the good North Carolinian that I am, and a citizen who wants to celebrate the biggest film made in this region in at least two decades. And I notice that (spoiler alert here) Katniss never kills anyone except 1) in self-defense or 2) as a mercy killing, after wild beasts have mauled him. (And she does so from a distance, so her hands stay literally clean.) Peeta, her boyfriend-in-the-making, doesn't kill anyone, as far as I could tell.

The book's cleverly thought out, smoothly written, inventive and acute in social commentary. But the hero and heroine remain strangely innocent for people thrown into a brutal arena where other "tributes" slay each other in a last-killer-standing contest. I expected to read about the transformation of a shy, decent girl into a person hardened by the ugly realities of combat,

Then I thought about the Harry Potter novels, all of which I have read, and couldn't remember whether Harry had actively snuffed anyone -- no matter how malevolent -- except in self-defense, and rarely then. That got me thinking about all the great children's literature I've read, back to "Treasure Island" and "Kidnapped" and beyond, and I realized that's almost always the way: However horrible the world may become, the hero(ine) must remain unspoiled by destructive impulses.

It was kind of refreshing to see that, over two centuries or so of books written for kids, this kind of naivete prevails. We don't force teenagers to participate fully in the cruel realities of life in the great written narratives -- which, sadly, is why we call them fables.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Where did all the real men go?

I waited until "Jersey Boys" had left town, so nobody would think I was complaining about the stratosphere-piercing falsetto of the guy playing Frankie Valli. I enjoyed him immensely, but I did wonder what happened to all the deep voices that once made Broadway great.

"Showboat," the first modern book musical (which celebrates its 85th anniversary in December), had leading men who were a baritone and a bass. All the great Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals -- among them "Oklahoma!" and "Carousel" and "The King and I" and "The Sound of Music" -- were written for lower male voices, as a rule. Emile DeBecque, dapper French hero of "South Pacific," is a true bass.

That's because most of the biggest pop singers from the late 1920s through the 1950s had lower voices: Al Jolson, Bing Crosby, Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra. They often  put show music on their albums, and theater composers generally wrote in their ranges. ("Kiss Me, Kate" has seven significant singing roles, and a baritone could do any of them.)

But when rock music came along, forcing high-voiced lead singers to roar over orchestras, live theater followed suit. Through the 1970s, as Boston and Aerosmith and the like hired high tenors as vocalists, Broadway began to do the same. "The Phantom of the Opera," "Les Miserables," "Chess" and other huge shows required guys with loud top notes and almost no bottom. (Traditional opera followed the same path, as orchestrations got heavier: You need a mighty-voiced tenor to ride atop a Wagnerian orchestra.)

The result: Deep voices fell out of favor. With luck, I'll see that trend reversed someday, but the high-pitched boys currently seem to have it all their own way.

Monday, March 12, 2012

It's either Hugh Jackman or me

After I complained about Billy Crystal's performance as the Oscar host, a reader e-mailed me to ask whom I'd rather see introducing the Academy Awards. The honest answer is, "Me." I can sing. I own a tux. I'm not afraid of crowds. I've been on television and know how to use cue cards. I watch a lot of movies (more than Billy Crystal, I'm sure). And millions of people would tune in out of sheer curiosity. (OK, they'd tune back out immediately. So measure the ratings for the first three minutes!)

Realistically, though, I'd say Hugh Jackman, who actually did host three years ago. He's urbane, funny, he can also sing, and he's such a good host that he once won an Emmy Award for hosting the Tony show. He wouldn't kiss up to celebrities, he wouldn't drag out routines, and he has a sense of humor about himself. He also -- and I say this reluctantly -- has a shade more charm than I do.

And unlike Crystal (or me), he'd appeal to somebody under 40. The problem with hiring Anne Hathaway and James Franco was they were too young to know how to run a show smoothly. Crystal, meanwhile, is now about as fresh and flexible as a year-old English muffin. Jackman falls right into the sweet spot between them, age- and experience-wise.

A story about him: Charlotte native Merwin Foard, whom we profiled in today's Observer (, has understudied or stood in for some of the biggest names on Broadway: Nathan Lane, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Michael Cerveris and others. But when offered a job as Hugh Jackman's stand-in for "The Boy From Oz," the 2003 show that won Jackman a Tony as best actor, he turned it down.

He realized that every person in the theater would be there only to see HJ. If a disembodied voice announced that Jackman was indisposed, and "Today the role will be played by Merwin Foard," he'd be likely to see a sea of backs moving toward the box office for refunds. Jackman is unique, and he ought to be hosting the 2013 Academy Awards.

Friday, March 9, 2012

We interrupt the Tchaikovsky orgy...

...that is, the frenzy around the Charlotte Symphony's all-Tchaikovsky concert March 30-31, Opera Carolina's "Eugene Onegin" March 17-25, N.C. Dance Theatre's "Sleeping Beauty" (which runs now through March 18) and various other events. Herewith, four factoids you may not encounter in the PR blitz:

1) He was a bad judge of his own abilities. While writing "Yolanta," the opera he wrongly thought would be embraced by future generations, he told a friend he was also working on a ballet of no consequence. It was "The Nutcracker."

2) His first piano concerto, probably the most popular in the classical repertoire, was a dud in Russian circles. His friend and mentor, Nikolai Rubenstein, deemed it unplayable: "There are only two or three pages that can be salvaged, and the rest must be thrown away." No Russians wanted to play or conduct it, so Tchaikovsky had to wait until a German conductor, Hans von Bulow, premiered it in Boston.

3) Speaking of Germans, Tchaikovsky hated Brahms. Called him "a giftless bastard" whose unemotional, tradition-bound writing had no merit. (That's unfair, of course.) Each may have been the last great Romantic composer in his country, but Tchaikovsky had zero empathy for old Johannes.

4) Tchaikovsky may have whacked himself. The jury's still out as to whether he got cholera from drinking untreated water during an epidemic or committed suicide at the behest of an informal tribunal, held after he began an affair with a member of the tsar's royal circle. (And, of course, the infected water could have been his way of doing that.) Whichever answer is correct, he died a wizened, white-haired, worn-out genius, looking far older than his age of 53.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Are you beautiful? Really? Are you sure?

The most interesting movie I've seen in the last few weeks was a six-minute video made by six members of Girl Scout Troop 445. You'll find it here:

The camerawork's a little shaky, perhaps intentionally. The girls, who come mostly from the Highland Creek area and are roughly of late middle school age, use a technique I first saw in the 1967 documentary "Don't Look Back," where Bob Dylan wrote the lyrics to "Subterranean Homesick Blues" on flash cards and held them up before a camera. Like Dylan, this sextet has something serious to say.

"Beauty Redefined" starts with the girls revealing their anxieties: extra weight, eczema, unattractiveness, apathy, judgmentalism, impatience. Then the tide turns, almost literally. (They're at the beach.) Cards define "ugliness" as peer pressure, discrimination, demoralization, hatred. The cards urge patience, kindness, confidence, acceptance. One says "A girl's true beauty is a reflection of her inner happiness." The film ends with an affirmation that Abbie, Aslan, Johanna, McKayla, Sydney and Victoria are beautiful -- and so are you.

I'd have appreciated a film like this when I was a stout, spotty-faced eighth-grader. Membership in the Low Esteem Club is open to both boys and girls, though boys aren't exposed to the same cruel evaluations of body image that girls face. This video reminds us we're all good at something, valuable in some way, "beautiful" spiritually or emotionally whether we're good-looking or not. (And none of these girls happen to be unattractive.)

That's a message Hollywood and TV producers almost never convey, in their frantic and absurd assertions that being hot differentiates winners from losers in America. That's why "Beauty Redefined" sticks in the memoey, when so much frivolous entertainment trash blows away overnight.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Do we really need a Charlotte Film Festival?

You might think the question answers itself. Any film festival can't help but lend a little glitz and coolness to a city not conspicuous for either. But it's not that simple.

After all, Asheville had a delightful fest: premieres from major independent distributors, documentaries that went on to Oscar nominations, strange but satisfying feature narratives -- and it took place in early November, right after the peak of leaf season in the mountains. But it collapsed in 2010 after the city withdrew funding, partly because it hadn't brought new visitors to the city.

The Charlotte Film Festival begins today in a crowded field: The Charlotte Jewish Film Festival is going on, the Charlotte Black Film Festival ended Saturday, and the Projecting Hope Film Festival for family-oriented movies will start Friday. So do we even need an all-purpose festival?

I'd say we do. The other three all speak to specific audiences, however much they reach out beyond their communities. (Or don't, as the Black Film Festival didn't contact me; I found out about it by chance.) But the Charlotte Film Festival belongs to the whole city.

I judged student films this year, watching entries that ranged from a Kuwaiti political fable based on "Alice in Wonderland" to a British short about fairy tales with Julian Sands in a leading role. (Some of those students must be rolling in dough.) Even from those five films, I got a sense of the broad, fascinating world of cinema that no other festival locally gives us. And that's why we'd be poorer if the Charlotte Film Festival went away.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Davy Jones and the birth of "reality" TV

The death of Davy Jones this week got me thinking about my own mortality -- that happens, whenever anyone less than 10 years older than you joins the choir invisible -- and the Monkees, who were delightful or idiotic, depending on how old you were when they made their televised debut in 1966. (I was about to turn 12, so...delightful.)

Their true legacy isn't the long roster of hits on my two-CD collection, including the immortal "Daydream Believer" and "I'm a Believer." It's the long, undistinguished history of "reality" television which, as far as I can see, starts with them.

Bob Rafelson, who later became the Oscar-nominated writer-director of "Five Easy Pieces," and Bert Schneider were inspired by the success of the movie "A Hard Day's Night," in which the Beatles played characters based on themselves. They wanted to build a TV series around the Lovin' Spoonful, whose label wouldn't let them take part. So they auditioned for new band members.

Like the Beatles, the Monkees got their name by misspelling an animal and consisted of a cute lead singer, a snarky intellectual guitar player, a goofy drummer and a shy guy lost in the shadows. They used their own names for the characters, sang their own songs on the show and acted out exaggerated moments from entertainers' lives such as theirs.

Sure, the episodes were scripted. (So are modern reality shows, to some extent.) Yes, the characters  lacked the mean-spiritedness, vulgarity and obnoxious self-promotion of people on "The Bachelor" or "Jersey Shore." But in some way, the poisonous inanity that has swept across modern TV has its roots in the innocent "true-life" shenanigans of "The Monkees."