Friday, October 26, 2012

A letter from a U.S. Marine

A reader sent me a letter recently, by which I knew him to be of my generation or an older one. He was writing from Spindale with kind words for my review of "Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo" at Carolina Actor's Studio Theatre. He signed his note Col. Thomas Paul Graham, USMC (ret).

More interesting than the compliments was a poem he enclosed. He'd dedicated it to the late George Will Curtis, a U.S. Army captain and newspaperman he'd befriended. He titled it "A Photograph From Kosovo," but the snapshot of wailing women he describes in the first verses triggered memories of his time in Vietnam decades before:

"Doi dai! Doi dai! Their black pajama arms fly up
Or clutch tightly around themselves or enfold
Their Viet kin or friends. Their accusing eyes, brimming cups
Of black, biting, bitter tears cry...cry cold...."

War has often inspired powerful poetry, from Homer's epics of ancient Greece through my own generation. My favorite British poet of the 20th century, Wilfred Owen, died one week before the end of World War I, while storming a German stronghold. Benjamin Britten's War Requiem incorporates Owen's devastatingly sad work, including the most touching poem I know about battle: "Anthem for Doomed Youth."

But most great war poems have come from people who were already poets (or, at least, writers) before they went off to fight. Col. Graham was not, as far as anything on the Internet tells me. He has written from the heart and from a sense of horror at what he saw, and he shared those reactions not for acclaim but for understanding -- or as much understanding as someone who hasn't entered battle can give him. (I was in the last round of the draft for the Vietnam War but was not selected to go.)

The poem reminded me, for the thousandth time, not to let preconceptions run away with me: Col. Graham also enclosed a picture of himself in uniform, wearing what my Air Force dad would have called a "fruit salad of medals," and I didn't expect a poetic side.

And I realized again that the desire to make art out of our experiences lies in all of us. Sometimes it lies dormant, because it doesn't get the right intellectual or emotional encouragement. Sometimes the minutiae of our daily lives bury it too deeply to grow. As William Wordsworth warned, "The world is too much with us, late and soon,/Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers." But those powers are in every human being.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Straight Charlotte needs to get 'Bent'

In an ideal North Carolina, I would not be writing this column, and there’d be no need for Queen City Theatre to open Martin Sherman’s “Bent” in Charlotte Thursday.– except, perhaps, as a period piece, the way we now watch plays about slavery.

But this is the state we’re in:

A 22-year-old man has accused his former Rutherford County church of holding him against his will, while he was physically and emotionally abused because he is gay.

The pastor of Providence Road Baptist Church in Maiden recently gave a sermon about his plan to eliminate homosexuals: Isolate them behind an electric fence, feed them and wait for them to die.

Opponents of gay marriage complain that, if homosexuals are allowed to wed, people may next ask to marry beasts of the field. (And their view of Amendment One prevailed.)

Martin Sherman’s 1982 play, nominated for a Tony Award when Richard Gere starred in it, takes place in Nazi Germany during and after the Knight of the Long Knives, the three-day period in 1934 when the Nazi regime carried out a series of politically inspired murders.

Though Sherman is Jewish, this isn’t another play about Jews suffering during the Holocaust. It’s about a different group that was systematically brutalized: Homosexuals, whose behavior was against the law and who were forced to wear pink triangles for identification. (That law hadn’t been enforced much before Hitler, but he used it to eliminate “undesirables.”)

Max (whom Gere played) is a wealthy gay Berliner whose “deviant” lifestyle gets him assigned to the Dachau concentration camp. There he identifies himself as a Jew, believing that will make him less likely to be killed, but falls in love with a male prisoner.

The play opened on Broadway at the height of the Gay Rights Movement. Glenn Griffin, who’s directing this production, plans to take “a modern approach to (it).

“The play will be set during Nazi Germany, but there will be a modern tone. This play still speaks to a modern audience: Homosexuals are still trying to find equal rights in America. In other countries such as Uganda, homosexuals are being tortured and killed just trying to get a foothold in equal rights.” (

He believes “Bent” will be as relevant now as when it was first produced. Sadly, I have to agree. We couch our disapproval of homosexuals in politer terms, but we’re comfortable expressing it.

And here’s a final thought: Virtually all the non-Jewish people in Nazi Germany would have identified themselves as Christians. How they managed to align their brutality with the teachings of Jesus I have no idea, but they worshipped in his churches and praised his name.

Monday, October 22, 2012

The worst people in the world?

That would be the Ik, a tribe in northern Uganda, according to anthropologist Colin Turnbull, who wrote a 1972 book about them titled "The Mountain People." It depicted them as a tribe which abandoned children as soon as they could walk and let the elderly starve. Turnbull apparently came to believe they represented human nature at its most base and basic: They lived in near-starvation conditions, and terms such as "goodness" and "virtue" had become irrelevant.

Writer-director Cevin Soling read Turnbull's book in high school. Nearly four decades later, he took a documentary crew to Uganda to find out whether the Ik really lived without music or humor or a sense of play, whether they really could be "the worst people in the world." He recorded his journey in "Ikland."

The film is as much about the process of making a documentary -- especially under adverse conditions -- as the results of the search. He and his crew deal with an irate elephant, bribe-taking officials, gun-toting men who may be part of the nefarious Lord's Resistance Army, dysentery and a wasp that can reportedly bore through a human skull.

His team finally reaches the Ik, subsistence farmers who don't raise cattle (rural Africa's traditional standard of wealth) and whose crops regularly get raided by other tribes. They turn out to be as compassionate and philosophic as anyone else under their circumstances; you and I wouldn't want to share their fragile, nomadic existence, but we can identify with their sentiments. (So much for Turnbull.)

I learned about "Ikland" by pure chance: Someone I interviewed months ago sent me a copy. Otherwise, this quietly revelatory film might have passed unnoticed in the immense mass of releases I never even hear about. As I watched, I wondered how many other enjoyable documentaries have vanished into the mist unseen.

The blessing of the Internet is that one can find almost everything there. But the Internet also reminds us of the infinite size of world culture. It's like having a telescope that reaches far into the universe in all directions: It's a thrill to stumble upon a new star, but it's frustrating to know there are millions of stars we'll never encounter.

Monday, October 15, 2012

I'm scribbling on the side of a parked van...

...and thinking "This is great. Here's a guy, parked at the curb on North Davidson Street, and people have written and drawn pictures all over his vehicle. I'm not gonna be left out."

But my conscience was clear, because the owner had printed "The Roaming Chalkboard -- Draw Something!" on the side of the van, which had been painted black (or perhaps stripped of its original paint) so passers-by could leave their marks. He (or she) had thoughtfully clipped cups full of colored chalk to the front windows on both sides.

Folks had written obvious stuff ("Tarheels #1") bnt mostly attempted to be bizarre ("I have a mermaid costume for my cat") or philosophic: "Though dreams be sweet and imagination divine, reality returns." I wrote "Not all learning can be quantified," as a tribute to teachers everywhere drowned by inane testing regulations.

I waited a bit, but the owner/driver didn't come back. I salute him in absentia: He liberates people to write anonymously, inspires creativity and gives pleasure, which is more than most of us can say. And he fit right in with his location: NoDa remains the place in Charlotte most likely to hold a creative surprise like this.

As I drifted in and out of nearby art galleries, I was struck not just by the quality of the work -- one can see high-quality art all over Charlotte -- but by its imaginative elements. Creators had found ways to repurpose everyday objects, to find utility or beauty in things cast aside or overlooked. They saw differently from the rest of us and made us see, too. If there's a better definition of an artist, I don't know it.

Friday, October 12, 2012

James Bond must hate America

I understand why "Skyfall," the new James Bond adventure with Daniel Craig, will premiere in London on Oct. 23. The first Bond film, "Dr. No," opened there 50 years ago this month. What I don't get is why the United States will be one of the last territories on Earth to see it, on Nov 9.

We're coming in after Bahrain and Bulgaria, Iceland and Iraq, Poland and Portugal, to name just some of the 28 countries where it will open Oct. 26. In fact, the United States will snag the movie ahead of only Australia, Cambodia, the Dominican Republic, Japan, New Zealand and South Africa. We are outranked even by Estonia, Nigeria, Uruguay and Vietnam.

There are many reasons such a release pattern could make sense for a movie, but none apply to "Skyfall." Producers aren't trying to build favorable word of mouth (and don't need any). These aren't test screenings for an unfinished film that will be re-cut by the time it gets here. Nor are they festival screenings meant to garner critics' awards before general release.

A conspiracy theorist would argue this is part of a 50-year Bondian degradation of the United States. The American characters in Bond movies are almost always greedy, doltish, rude or unhelpful. CIA agent Felix Leiter, who has appeared in various incarnations throughout the series, is useful but never allowed to take the most important role in any operation. I suppose that's because, in real life, the CIA has always been led by the nose by Britain's MI6. (Not.)

Hey, maybe we should be grateful the studio isn't making us wait longer for "Skyfall." We got "Dr. No" seven months after it came out in England, "From Russia With Love" six months after its London premiere -- and then only in a limited New York engagement -- and the immortal "Goldfinger" four months after the Brits saw it. When you're a second-class nation, I suppose you'd better get used to the soggy end of the crumpet.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Why I like Teddy Roosevelt

Every once in a while, some disgruntled reader sends me the extracted quote from President Roosevelt that begins "It is not the critic who counts -- not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena..."

Usually, the sender is trying to say that arts critics are idiots (often because he has disagreed with me) or have no value. This isn't what Roosevelt was saying at all, if you read the whole quote. But today, I decided to read the whole speech. It's an address from April 23, 1910, to the Sorbonne titled "Citizenship in a Republic." And it's one of the most commonsensical, intelligent definitions of the rights and responsibilities of those of us who live in a republic that I have ever read.

I hope folks of all political persuasions will take the time to consider it. (Here's the text: But in the spirit of a critic judging a work of literature -- one he never thought to read but much enjoyed -- here are three of my favorite excerpts.

"The average citizen must be a good citizen, if our republics are to succeed. The stream will not permanently rise higher than the main source; and the main source of national power and national
greatness is found in the average citizenship of the nation. Therefore it behooves us to do our best to see that the standard of the average citizen is kept high; and the average cannot be kept high unless the standard of the leaders is very much higher."

"In every civilized society, property rights must be carefully safeguarded. Ordinarily, and in the great majority of cases, human rights and property rights are fundamentally and in the long run identical. But when it clearly appears that there is a real conflict between them, human rights must have the upper hand, for property belongs to man and not man to property."

"Perhaps the most important thing the ordinary citizen, and, above all, the leader of ordinary citizens, has to remember in political life is that he must not be a sheer doctrinaire...The one-sided fanatic, and still more the mob-leader, and the insincere man who to achieve power promises what by no possibility can be performed, are not merely useless but noxious."

A wise man, TR.

Monday, October 8, 2012

The $30 play ticket

You may have heard that Actor's Theatre of Charlotte signed a contract with Actors Equity Association to pay all its performers a minimum salary, according to union rules. This is good news for a lot of reasons, and you'll find out why here:

At the same time, it has led to a $2 bump in single ticket prices: ATC is now charging $31 on weekend nights for seats. As far as I know, it's the first local theater to get that price for all shows throughout a season. (The Broadway Lights touring productions that come to the Belk and Ovens cost a lot more, of course.)

I used to hear scuttlebutt that theaters wanted to keep the first digit of the ticket price a "2," for fear of scaring patrons away. ATC is in the middle of its first show under the new contract, "God of Carnage," so the company won't know for a while how single ticket sales are affected. But I can't imagine people saying, "$58 for my wife and me was perfectly fine, but $62 is outrageous!"

The shows still seem like a bargain to me. You can pay a lot more for a lot less entertainment (insert Panthers joke here), and you'd spend $31 these days on two-thirds of a carton of cigarettes or an average steak at an upscale restaurant. Both would probably be forgotten as soon as they were consumed.

How does one put a "value" on theater, anyhow? If we remember it for a day, is it "worth" $10? For a week, $20? For a decade, $100? I saw Lynn Redgrave in George Bernard Shaw's "Saint Joan" 35 years ago; I can still remember the emotions that rocked me and the speeches that left me thinking about war and male-female relations and the nature of Christianity. I think $30 is a small price to pay for any experience that might just last a lifetime.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Lawrence of Arabia sez...get off your butt

Maybe you have a pressing engagement. Maybe you think $12.50 is always too much to pay for a movie ticket. But if you claim to love movies, those are the only acceptable reasons to blow off the screenings of "Lawrence of Arabia" on Thursday at Concord Mills or Stonecrest. I wish the run lasted more than one day, because I have work during both the matinee and evening screenings and can't figure a way to skip out.

The full title now appears to be "Lawrence of Arabia 50th Anniversary Event: Digitally Restored." The key words are the last two. A New York Times article ( explains in depth why the digital cleanup of this re-release makes it imperative to watch in theaters: The Blu-Ray disc released later this year won't compare, no matter how grand your home system may be.

I saw the last re-release almost 25 years ago at SouthPark Cinemas, which had the biggest screen in Charlotte at the time. My parents never took me to the original, because I was 8 when it came out, and they knew I couldn't sit through a 227-minute movie without snoring or crying. I had seen the film many times on VHS by then, but the sight of camels marching in single file across the desert under a monstrous red sun took my breath away.

For me, "Lawrence" will always be the most spectacular meeting point between blockbuster opulence and narrative skill. Almost every technical aspect of the film won an Oscar: score, editing, cinematography, art direction, sound. The picture and director David Lean also won. Peter O'Toole should have joined them in the winners' circle for the title role, but Gregory Peck swiped the best actor Oscar for "To Kill a Mockingbird." (He was a great Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch, but O'Toole was a great Lawrence.)

The film doesn't worship the man who attempted to organize and liberate Arabs from colonial domination during World War I. He's shrewd yet foolish, tough yet broken, heroic yet misguided and finally unknowable on some level: He has not a single friend in the movie except Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif), whom he regularly exasperates.

As a movie biography, this has no equal. As a work of sheer visual dazzlement, it has few peers. As an excuse to get off your couch and see a film as it was meant to be seen, it's at the top right now.