Wednesday, May 30, 2012

This Doctor will always be in

Thirty years ago this October, a blind man opened my eyes.

Before I saw Doc Watson play at McGlohon Theatre, I had never been to a concert of traditional music. A friend of mine nagged me into going -- this was the homegrown music of my newly adopted state! -- and I acquiesced with low hopes.

He seemed old to me, old and wrinkled. (I realize now he was just about the age I am today.) He seldom spoke: maybe just "Here's a song I think you'll know" or "I heard this growing up." And without seeming to put out any effort, he filled the room with joy and sorrow.

I learned three things that night. First, music has no boundaries. He played songs academicians would classify as blues, gospel, folk and country, and they all blended into one seamless flow of Americana. Definitions became irrelevant.

Second, though his sometimes quavery baritone reached for notes, he had a beautiful voice. The honesty of his singing made it so.

Third, any kind of music can speak to a listener with a little patience and open ears. Baroque music may be more difficult to grasp on a first go-round than bluegrass, but even Bach yields simple pleasures on first listening.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have a date with Doc's CD from the Newport Folk Festivals of 1963 and '64. "Froggy Went A-Courtin'," and I have to hear how that turns out.

Monday, May 28, 2012

The great thing about great music

Critics commonly refer to 1939 as the best year ever for movies: "Gone With the Wind," "Goodbye, Mr. Chips," "The Wizard of Oz," "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," "Wuthering Heights," etc., etc. They're not usually talking about "They Shall Have Music." But maybe they should be. (And hey, it got an Oscar nomination for best scoring.)

Hollywood could remake any of those classics today -- except this one. Nobody would give a violinist top billing, as Jascha Haifetz gets in "Music." Nobody would open with an unbroken, nine-minute performance of Saint-Saens' "Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso" or end with a full rendition of the last movement of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto in E Minor, as this does. And sadly, I don't think producers today would have the cojones to make a movie in which slum kids saw their lives transformed by classical music.

The plot's kind of hokey: Petty thief Frankie (Gene Reynolds, who went on to produce "M*A*S*H and other TV shows) finds two discarded tickets to one of Heifetz' Carnegie Hall concerts. When he can't scalp them, he ducks inside to escape a cop and is amazed by the violinist, whom he bumps into afterward. When Frankie runs away from his angry stepfather, he ends up at a music school; luckily, the teacher (Walter Brennan) realizes he has perfect pitch and lets him sit in with the violins and sleep in the basement. The music school runs out of dough, Frankie begs his old pal Jascha for help, and the great man comes through.

Heifetz spends 90 per cent of his screen time playing in his coolly elegant way, cracking a smile now and then. The movie's worth seeing for that, though the kids do a good job, and Joel McCrea turns up as a guy in love with the teacher's daughter. ("Union Pacific," released the same year, was about to make him a star.)

But the thing that really touched me was the belief that exposure to Beethoven and Chopin could turn a potential hoodlum into a productive and happy kid. We've seen countless movies about would-be stars using music to get rich; here's one that suggests great music makes us emotionally richer. Frankie's not going on to a solo career; he simply realizes that loving beauty doesn't make you weak or foolish and deepens your understanding of life.

A movie in our postmodern, cynical age would never suggest such a thing without an ironic sneer, but it's as true now as it ever was. Too bad we've forgotten that. 

Friday, May 25, 2012

One man. One woman. Naked, onstage.

Emotionally speaking, of course. Because there's nothing more revealing for an actor than to command a platform alone for 75 to 90 minutes.

If they're bad, there's nowhere else to look, no one to share the blame for lines that fall flat or timing that goes awry. But if they're good, the triumph is entirely theirs -- and we relate to them in a direct, powerful way we can't do when dividing our attention and loyalties among a big cast.

Two actors are giving first-rate performances in just those circumstances this weekend. Mark Sutch plays a Dutch librarian who goes on an obsessive quest for 15 years in "Underneath the Lintel" at Warehouse PAC. (My take on it: And Lauren Otis plays a pregnant 16-year-old on a journey to meet the baby's father in "The Edge of Our Bodies" at Carolina Actors Studio Theatre. (My review:

Both shows started in CAST's cozy quarters at 2424 N. Davidson St. "Lintel" was a visitor; "Bodies" is the last show of CAST's mainstage season and runs through June 23. In fact, CAST is importing three more plays, running May 27-June 30 at various times.

"Eliza" is a one-woman piece, adapted from poems by Dede Wilson, starring Pamela Freedy as a Londoner who sails to New Orleans in 1837 and embarks on a turbulent life. "Under the Red Cloak," a choreopoem by Dee Abdullah, deals with women's shared stories of childbirth, pain and healing. Keith Huff's "A Steady Rain" is about two Chicago cops whose decisions to return a panic-stricken boy to his guardian has repercussions. (Details: Go to "buy tickets" at

Charlotte theaters have long been helpful to temporary tenants, from Theatre Charlotte's hosting of the "Just Do It" series to Actor's Theatre of Charlotte's cooperation with everyone from The Light Factory to Sunday morning church worshippers

Yet CAST, which moved into its new digs last summer, has embarked on an especially ambitious and extensive program as a landlord. More power to the company for playing host to such a wide variety of shows; the theatrical spring will be richer for that decision.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

English people are nasty

Or so Hollywood wants us to think. Whenever a deranged demigod goes on a rampage or an alien attacks the planet, he or she seems to have an English accent. Current cases in point: Loki in "The Avengers" and Boris the Animal in "Men in Black 3."

Loki should theoretically have a Scandinavian accent, right? He's a character from Norse mythology. (Thor, his half-brother, has an unaccented voice.) Boris is a Boglodyte, whatever that is; he doesn't even come from Earth. But there they both are, sounding like a "Macbeth" audition is in the offing.

This tradition goes back half a century, when Hollywood typically hired Brits to play Nazi generals. It dates in superhero movies back at least to "Superman II" in 1980, when Kryptonian criminals sounded like refugees from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.

So why should this be? Are American filmmakers still upset about the War of 1812? Do we resent the fact that James Bond, coolest secret agent of all time, has a British accent? (Tinged with a Scottish burr, of course, in Sean Connery's case.)

No, something else is at work. In Hollywood, a villain's British accent represents class consciousness and superciliousness. When he gets his comeuppance, usually at the hands of an American, the story reminds us that guts and heart matter more than breeding or brains. You think you're so smart, Mr. Demigod? Wait until Iron Man kicks your Norse butt all the way to another dimension!

There's a subtle message here, too: People with lots of intelligence can become megalomaniacs. We start to associate the phrase "smarter than you and I" with "better than you and I," which Americans can't tolerate. Maybe that explains why we so seldom vote for the smartest person in a political race and so often choose to support folks of average intelligence, who remind us of ourselves.

Monday, May 21, 2012

The things we do for love...

I figured the title of this post would apply to me, the come-with husband who tromped off with his wife Saturday night to see one of her former students perform with the Matthews United Methodist Church Youth Choir.

I'd sit smilingly through an hour of Broadway numbers, possibly after stuffing myself with ice cream left over from the annual church picnic. I'd shake a few hands, compliment people politely (I've known choir director Craig Estep for years) and go home, duty fulfilled.

But midway through the opening "Phantom of the Opera" medley, something happened. First, some of the singers were better than I'd expected. More importantly, the earnestness and energy -- yes, and love -- radiating from the performers swept me up.

Not all of these soloists are headed for Broadway careers, though tenor Michael Juilliard should certainly consider the school that shares his name. Nor did all of them fully understand the heartbreak and political upheaval about which they sang; they hadn't yet experienced all the passions that drive adult Broadway characters.

But every single one of them, down to the back-row choristers who never soloed, had experienced the transformative power of music. All of them knew the happiness of using a talent -- a God-given talent, I expect they'd say -- that helped them add a little joy to the world.

We often forget that the word "amateur" comes from the Latin "amator," or "lover." Like all the things we do for love, this kind of singing had a special beauty all its own.

Friday, May 18, 2012

"The Godfather" -- an offer they COULD refuse today

Forty years ago today, "The Godfather" was the most talked-about movie in America. People were quoting it -- "I made him an offer he couldn't refuse" -- buzzing about the Mafia, going to see it over and over, even (briefly) letting it influence men's fashions. (Love those fedoras.)

I've been watching the first two parts of the saga while plodding along on my treadmill this week, and three things have occurred to me.

First, nobody these days would release a grand-scale, thoughtful, complex drama like "The Godfather" in spring, as Paramount did in 1972. They'd hold it at least until October, figuring that Oscar voters have the memories of fruit flies. But there was a time, o my children, when memorable films came out all year round.

Second, the infantile minds in focus groups today would start the negative buzz after the first test screening: too slow, too bloody, nobody to root for, no romance, not enough laughs to lighten the story. And what's up with Marlon Brando's mumbling? Did he have cotton in his mouth or something?

Third, no studio now would fund it, buy it or distribute it widely, with confidence -- unless, perhaps, it had been made so cheaply that nobody could lose much money on the gamble. But I'd bet my life insurance that not a single studio head would greenlight it today.

Four decades ago, studios still tried to think big, spend prudently and appeal to a wide range of moviegoers. Today, they spend big, barely think at all and consider folks over 35 to be invisible or unreachable. But that's why the Lord gave us DVD players....

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Free movie stuff!

Sometimes the second shall be first. Case in point: the Summer Blockbuster Series, a lineup of action-adventure films between now and August. People who participate agree to attend on the day after the movies have opened, so they probably wouldn't be the most rabid fans. But there are perks.

Here's how it works: Moviegoers who sign up via Facebook ( get together for lunch or dinner, depending on the time of the scheduled showing. They eat, get prizes, watch the screening and agree to post comments about the experience on Facebook. Everyone who went to the "Avengers" screening got an Avengers bag, poster and key chain. Promoters also gave away 18 tickets to the Comedy Zone and two fireworks bundles from Phantom Fireworks.

Another group will go to "Battleship" Saturday. The list of screenings then stretches on to "Men in Black III," "Total Recall," "Prometheus," "G.I. Joe: Retaliation," "The Amazing Spider-Man," "The Dark Knight Rises" and "The Bourne Legacy."

Two thoughts occur to me. First, "Battleship" is the only movie on this list -- "Avengers" included -- that isn't a prequel, spinoff, sequel or remake, and even "Battleship" is inspired (however loosely) by a board game. Hollywood has always suffered crises of originality, but this one seems especially acute.

Second, there are some movies that should be seen only if someone gives you a gift to make the event  worthwhile. I need no inducement to see "Dark Knight" and "Prometheus," but anyone who wants me to sit through a "G.I. Joe" sequel had better provide a non-cinematic incentive. A Rolex would be about right.

Monday, May 14, 2012

The middle class gets dumped on again (or "Dearth of a Salesman")

My wife and I were thinking of going to New York and seeing the Tony-nominated production of "Death of a Salesman," starring Philip Seymour Hoffman and Andrew Garfield. Luckily for us, premium tickets were still available for a Saturday matinee at $519.35 apiece, including the $119.85 processing fee. the June mortgage, or see "Death of a Salesman"....

Wait, let me say that again: There was a $119.85 processing fee per ticket. Was a courier going to buy a round-trip on a plane and bring the tickets to my house in person?

All the other seats were sold out. But here's the brutal part: Had we been able to buy seats at the back of the theater upstairs, they'd have been $99.45 each. I can get center orchestra seats at Belk Theater for a Saturday evening performance of a big musical, "La Cage Aux Folles," for less.

The really grating thing is that Arthur Miller's masterpiece reveals the shabbiness of lives devoted to making money. It's about a guy in the lower-middle class who chases the futile American dream of financial security, instead of finding out who he's meant to be. And all the Willy Lomans of the world, the people this play is about, haven't a hope in Hades of buying tickets to it.

I'm seldom grateful to live in Charlotte instead of New York, culturally speaking, but I am right now. I look at the upcoming "Edge of Our Bodies" at CAST and "Marvelous Wonderettes" at Actor's Theatre and the current "Putnam County" at Theatre Charlotte, and ALL the tickets are under $30. In fact, you can get balcony seats to the Broadway Lights tour of "La Cage" for $20, if you're on a tight budget. On a value-for-money scale, Charlotte comes out ahead.

I realize the cost of paying Broadway unions and film stars such as Hoffman and Garfield drives ticket prices higher. But when you price your cheapest tickets at $100 a pop, you're telling ordinary folks that you have no interest in sharing one of the great works of the American stage with them. That's a pretty sad thing to do.

Friday, May 11, 2012

'The Avengers:' The good is the enemy of the great

Some fans of "The Avengers" asked me why I gave it three stars on a scale of four, after I'd said that it did everything it set out to do within the confines of its genre. How could a cheeseburger movie not get 4 stars, if it's the best cheeseburger movie of its kind around -- or maybe ever made?

Fair question. After all, the populist voters on Internet Movie Data Base have rated it the 29th best film in the 120-year history of world cinema, last time I looked. They're thrilled because it met every one of their expectations for that genre. I was hugely entertained but not thrilled, because it didn't exceed any of mine.

To be great, a work of art has to take you somewhere you haven't been before. Maybe a chef introduces you to new combinations of flavors. Maybe a painter makes you see a common household object in a new way, as Cezanne does with his miraculous pears and apples. Maybe a composer, bound as they all are by the dozen notes of the musical scale, arranges those 12 in a way that creates new beauty or drama.

Sometimes a filmmaker pulls familiar pieces into a new pattern, as "Avengers" writer-director Joss Whedon did with Drew Goddard in their script for "The Cabin in the Woods." But if you start out with a template and do all you can to stick to it, element by element, greatness remains beyond you. Nobody ever became a master by coloring carefully within the lines.

Schoolteachers have ratings of "meets expectations" and "exceeds expectations." Sometimes a student wonders, after doing work better than anyone else in the class, why he didn't get the higher rating. A likely answer: He didn't live up to his potential, which was also higher than anyone else's in the class. He settled for the best that others could do, not the best HE could do. And "The Avengers" isn't the best Joss Whedon can do. 

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

I blew up the Charlotte Observer today

Metaphorically, of course, as I can't afford to retire until well after the mortgage is paid. But I went to, typed in "600 south tryon street charlotte north carolina" and watched machines from outer space devastate my block. Luckily, they left the parking deck across the street alone, so I should be able to drive home. ("Eyewitnesses claim that the aliens seem to be alive and are making intelligent decisions," said a newsflash on the screen. Well, there you go.)

This site can apparently load aerial photos from any common street address. And if you're having a rough day at work, watching your office explode may provide vicarious satisfaction. (Note to any editors reading this: I enjoy every moment of my wonderful job.)

The publicity stunt promotes the movie "Battleship," which opens May 18. The film can use all the help it can get: Early reviews describe it as a mix between a "Transformers" rip-off and a propaganda film for the U.S. Navy, and even lenient voters at the Internet Movie Data Base have been lukewarm.

This reminded me of an old adage: The cleverer the promotion is for a picture with a bad smell hovering over it, the less good the movie is likely to be. Back in the days when studios still sent critics promotional gimmicks, I was happy to get the shipments but always doubtful that the film themselves would live up to the marketing. (A notable exception: the jewelry-box coffin, fangs and Hollywood-style blood makeup kit sent before the original "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," which was good.)

I have no take on "Battleship" yet myself, as I haven't seen it. And hey -- the first "Transformers" movie was pretty entertaining. But the fact that I'm having fun with it now makes me think I won't have fun with it later....

Monday, May 7, 2012

Shut your *&^@%! mouths, please

I am addressing two sets of dimwits who sat behind me this weekend at high-ticket cultural events. The first was the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra's KnightSounds concert at Knight Theater; the second was "Come Fly Away," the touring show in the Broadway Lights series at Belk Theater.

At KnightSounds, two guys chatted blithely during a quiet moment in the Ravel Piano Concerto, superbly played by Swiss pianist Louis Schwizgebel. At "Come Fly," two women giggled and commented during the Frank Sinatra numbers choreographed by Twyla Tharp. (Good thing they weren't in New Jersey, where talking loudly during Sinatra's songs can earn you a seat in a dumpster.)

Now, I understand that people -- especially people under 30 -- have grown up with the idea that you can talk through a public showing of a movie, because they have gotten used to talking over DVDs at home; they don't make any distinction between the two experiences. But there's more leeway for loud behavior in a movie theater, especially if we're watching "The Avengers" or "Cabin in the Woods," and it's a different kind of communal experience.

These people all looked to be in their 50s, which means they were presumably raised to keep quiet at plays and concerts. I don't mean cathedral-style quiet: Laughing or applauding and speaking briefly between movements makes perfectly good sense. When you hear a song you recognize, nobody should look at you squinty-eyed if you emit a big "Ahhhhh" of satisfaction.

But the point of music is to hear it. If you talk, you don't hear it. And I, who actually want to hear it, don't hear it either. Yet these folks looked owl-eyed with surprise to see me turn around with a finger to my lips and say politely -- really, it was politely -- "Please keep it down."

Part of the problem was probably alcohol: You get a free drink ticket with each ticket you buy to KnightSounds, and I have a feeling these two guys also cadged a couple from teetotaler friends. (I'm sure concertgoers love the free booze, but...that's another column.)

Most of the problem is our cultural sense of entitlement. "Do what I damn well please" seems to be the motto of many Americans in many walks of life these days: "I bought a $70 ticket to the Belk, and that gives me the right to flap my lips if I feel like it."

By the same token, I suppose it would also give me the right to move to the seat behind you, gently kicking your chair every 10 seconds until you erupted in volcanic rage. But I would never do that -- unless, of course, you simply wouldn't shut up.

Friday, May 4, 2012

What IS this "Thing" called love?

If you are a Charlottean of a certain age or a New Yorker of a certain cabaret sensibility, you may already know about the late Earl Wentz. If not, let me elucidate.

He was born in Charlotte in 1938, graduated from East Mecklenburg High School and stayed a North Carolinian through college (Queens, Wingate, UNC Charlotte) and beyond. He acted all over the state, especially with the Vagabond Players at Flat Rock Playhouse; there he once played Felix to the Oscar of the respected Pat Hingle in "The Odd Couple."

But his love of the Great American Songbook eventually sent him to New York, where classic compositions can always get a hearing. There he created the American Composer Series, which produced 15 revues devoted to Tin Pan Alley masters, and served as a church organist at John Street Methodist Church for 16 years. He died in Charlotte in the fall of 2009 at 71.

Like composers since the days of J.S. Bach, Wentz led a double life musically. He wrote serious works, including an hour-long requiem for four soloists, and music for secular venues, including an off-Broadway musical with gay themes, "The Marital Bliss of Francis and Maxine." And like the vast majority of composers since Bach, he labored in relatively obscurity and would be forgotten after death -- except for his surviving partner, Bill Watkins.

Watkins has issued a CD through Sixpence Inc. titled "What Is This Thing? Earl Wentz Plays Love Songs of Cole Porter." On it, the soloist embroiders themes from "Night and Day," "You Do Something to Me" and 10 other standards. (Go to to learn more.) Tempos are gentle, rather than jaunty; the piano elaborations are delicate, rather than dazzling. Wentz maintains an uptempo groove all the way through a song just one time: This is the kind of discreet playing he might have done at the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami, where he once worked.

Watkins plans to issue another three volumes of Wentz's Porter. Incredibly, he has also begun to catalog all of Wentx' musical and theatrical activities over a six-decade stretch at The Earl Wentz Project (, which offers photos, playbill covers and an astonishing amount of detail. You could almost call Watkins' dedication to Wentz obsessive, but that's the way minor figures get into the history books -- and also one of the effects of this thing called love.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Steal this book! (And CD, and DVD....)

I speak metaphorically, of course: You’ll have to pay a price so small you may be embarrassed to take away so much material for so little dough. But the best media deal of the year is available this week in the Friends of the Library’s spring sale.

I have already gone twice: first on the preview night, when all the Friends get invitations – not to mention free baked goods and coffee, a heck of a bargain for a $25 membership – and again on Sunday, when the place was virtually empty except, for smiling volunteer staffers. I sneaked my sack of bargains upstairs, so my wife wouldn’t know the full scope of my self-indulgence, but they included these winners:

Relatively rare cast albums for “The Triumph of Love” and “The Cradle Will Rock” ($2 each); a pristine DVD copy of the director’s cut of “Blade Runner” ($3, and why didn’t I already have that?); the Library of America anthology of Raymond Chandler’s later mystery novels, stories and essays, which retails for $35 and cost a princely three bucks; the collected short stories of Somerset Maugham, beautifully bound in a slipcase ($8); a fistful of CDs ranging from 1940s western swing to the violin sonatas of Mozart ($2 each).

I am shameless enough to get up early on May 4 and drag myself down one last time for Bag Day, when you can fill a sack with anything it will hold for $5. But prices have already been slashed, and pickings grow slim, so you may want to get there earlier. The hours are 11 to 6 until then and 9 a.m. to noon on Saturday. (The sale is on the ground floor of CBRE SouthPark Towers at 6100 Fairview Road, at the corner of Fairview and Barclay Downs.)

It seems a little weird to pore over these castoffs from someone’s collection: CDs that were probably played once, DVDs that are still (in some cases) sealed; books whose spines haven’t been cracked and whose pages aren’t riffled, showing utter indifference in the readers. Were they unwanted gifts thrown aside? Impulse purchases instantly regretted?

Whatever they have may been to the people who didn’t want them, they’re treasures to me. The thrill of finding a long-sought, out-of-print novel I’ve wanted to read for years always gives me a frisson of delight. I found that word in the French-English dictionary that was going for a dollar – if it’s still where I left it. I’m not the only hoarder who can recognize a bargain in a city this big.