Wednesday, October 30, 2013

90% of the truth is a lie

Did you read the recent article about Ezra Vogel? The Harvard University professor emeritus had written "Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China," an 876-page examination of the Chinese leader's legacy. It had sold 35,000 copies in America, a respectable number, but he knew the real market would be in China.

All he had to do to sell it there was take out things that Chinese government censors didn't like.

No more acknowledgment that Chinese newspapers refused to report the fall of Communism in eastern Europe in the 1980s. No more mention of the state dinner during the Tiananmen Square uprising, where a shaky Deng couldn't keep food on his chopsticks in front of Mikhail Gorbachev. You get the idea.

Ka-ching! The book sold 650,000 copies. When asked about his decision, he said, "To me, the choice was easy. I thought it was better to have 90 percent of the book available here than zero."

I can forgive a professor for wanting to earn royalties on which he can live out his days. But why not just say, "Hey, I needed the money"?

Imagine the uproar if a biographer agreed to remove the Monica Lewinsky incident from a Bill Clinton biography and said, "Well, it still covers 90% of his time in office." (Actually, Hillary Clinton comes off well in this context: The New York Times reports that she yanked her book "Living History" off Chinese shelves in 2003, when she learned substantial portions had been removed.)

At least Vogel's book presumably made some sense when the censors were done. Qiu Xiaolong, who was raised in China but lives in St. Louis, now refuses to let his Inspector Chen mystery novels be published in his native land.

He told the Times his first three books were re-edited so badly that plots became incoherent. Chinese censors altered characters, rewrote plot lines to make them more flattering to the Communist Party and relocated the action from Shanghai to an invented locale called H City. Why? Because, of course, major crimes are never committed in Shanghai in real life.

Monday, October 28, 2013

The day the Martians landed

I grew up in South Jersey in the 1960s, about an hour from the city where the first Martian warships came to Earth exactly 75 years ago.

What -- you don't remember reading about the attack on Grover's Mill that sent thousands of people running for their lives? You can relive the event Tuesday at 9 p.m. on PBS-TV, when "American Experience" explores the most famous panic in radio history.

The show "War of the Worlds" pays tribute to the broadcast of that name by Mercury Theatre on the Air, which adapted H.G. Wells' novel into a one-hour show on Oct. 30, 1938. (Aptly, it was heard on the night before Halloween, aka Mischief Night.)

Folks who listened from the beginning knew they were hearing a radio play directed by Orson Welles. But much of the audience, which switched over to CBS during a lull in ventriloquist Edgar Bergen's popular show, broke into a "news bulletin" about a Martian heat ray wiping out U.S. troops.

Here's the original broadcast, perhaps the greatest hour of scripted radio ever:

Americans were already prepared to hear disastrous news on the radio. The Lindbergh baby kidnapping of 1932 and especially the explosion of the Hindenburg zeppelin in 1937 -- both of which happened in New Jersey -- had created radio sensations. And the international news leading up to the week of the "War" broadcast suggested that Hitler would trigger World War II at any moment.

So the terrifically exciting broadcast told us the apocalypse was near, and gullible folks reacted accordingly. The TV documentary recreates their reactions, with actors speaking lines from original accounts. (And not always convincingly: An alleged New Jersey resident mispronounces "Bayonne.") My favorite comment came from judge A.G. Kennedy of Union, S.C., who believed CBS should be sued and called Welles "a carbuncle on the rump of degenerate theatrical performance."

Any discerning listener would have known an Army unit couldn't mobilize within 15 minutes of the "landing," and anyone who stayed with the program soon realized it was collapsing time: Days go by before the story ends. But in an America that had no other forms of mass communication, plenty of people didn't make such distinctions.

Could we be fooled as easily again, in an era when television and the Internet give us immediate visual access to breaking news? Read Facebook posts and Twitter feeds the next time a bogus rumor spreads like cancer and give me your reply.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Want art for your neighborhood? Grab some!

If your neighborhood lacks public art, here's a heads-up: The city of Charlotte, the Public Art Commission and the Arts & Science Council have created an initiative called Neighborhoods in Creative pARTnership. (Yeah, that's how it's written.)

What's the idea? To get public art to places around the city that lack it. Five projects of up to $23,600 each (or a total of $118,000) will be awarded according to multiple criteria: neighborhood participation, geographic distribution, the strength of the idea and the potential impact on community growth.

Go back to that last sentence and read the phrase again: "the strength of the idea." That means YOU submit the idea. No stranger will drop a piece of sculpture at the entrance to your neighborhood or paint some mural on a nearby wall. You don't have to execute the concept, but you get to weigh in on it.

A panel of selected officials, city staff and urban planning and design pros will make the final decisions, but ordinary people such as you and I can make proposals. (Well, you'd better leave me out of it. Most of the public art people have put up around here doesn't appeal to me.)

You'll find applications, guidelines and selection criteria at, and you have to submit an application by 5 p.m. on Nov. 14. Folks from the ASC are available to attend scheduled neighborhood meetings to discuss eligibility guidelines, artist selections and the design process. The city's Neighborhood and Business Services department will help the ASC connect with neighborhood groups.

According to the press release, this art is meant to enhance the city's character, contribute to economic development (isn't that rather a tall order?) and add "warmth, dignity, beauty and accessibility to public places." That sounds mighty good to me.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Vadym Kholodenko: Catching greatness on the wing

Twice in my life, I've seen a 27-year-old pianist who had won a major competition, had yet to achieve worldwide fame and took my breath away.

The first time was in 1975, when Murray Perahia played Chopin's First Piano Concerto at Duke University. He has since been showered with too many accolades to count and remains one of the greatest living keyboard artists. The second time was Friday night at Central Piedmont Community College, when Vadym Kholodenko played the second gig in the Charlotte Concerts season.

They'd booked him into Halton Theater because he won the gold medal at the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition this year. Here's a video of his recital at the Cliburn, which includes the performance of Stravinsky that showed up (along with Liszt) on his solo debut album from Harmonia Mundi:

If you missed Kholodenko, you missed a poet. He sustained the long, wandering melodies of Rachmaninov's First Piano Sonata for 40 minutes, an achievement most pianists wouldn't attempt. (Pretty much everyone goes for the more structured and concise Second Sonata.)

After the break, he played a series of Rachmaninov transcriptions: pieces by Bach, Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky, Bizet and others. His traversal of Rachmaninov's adaptation of themes from "Carmen," now sensuous and now thunderous, left the audience hollering in approval.

Like Perahia, he seems to be shy: He nodded briefly during the applause between pieces, sometimes not even rising for a bow. He talked only to introduce two encores -- the Bizet and something I didn't recognize -- but his mumbles didn't reach row N, where I sat. He spoke through his keyboard, from a whisper through a roar, and said all he needed to say.

Friday, October 4, 2013

God, Hollywood and Jackie Robinson

A friend sent me an article recently about "42," the Jackie Robinson biopic that came out this spring and can now be seen in all formats. Writer Eric Metaxas wondered why the filmmakers left out mentions of Robinson's religious faith: He was praised for adopting a dignified stance toward the people who hated him for breaking the color line in Major League Baseball, but the film didn't stress his real-life adherence to Christian principles or respect for Jesus' teaching.

I wonder why that was. A film biography should explain how the character of the protagonist was formed. A movie about Napoleon would stress his military beginnings; a film about John Keats would explore his literary roots; a movie about a practicing Christian ought to bring Christianity into the story, if it had a serious effect on his life.

Some people will interpret this as a financially motivated decision: In order not to annoy nonbelievers, the producers decided to drop this element of Robinson's life. But surely the average moviegoer, believer or not, wouldn't be put off by hearing that some of Robinson's patience and perseverance came from the Bible or other Christian teachings.

Some will see it as a further slap in the face of a large section of the public that has already given up on movie theaters, preferring to watch, rent or buy a miniseries such as "The Bible" for home enjoyment. Metaxas argues that Hollywood should cater more to this audience, which spent $600 million on "The Passion of the Christ" nine years ago. I think that's irrelevant, because "Passion" became a unique, must-see event in the way "Titanic" did. Christian films before and since have found small audiences in theaters and larger audiences at home, and none have been blockbuster hits.

I'm assuming the people behind "42" just didn't care one way or another. They may have had the stereotypical idea that all black kids raised in the Depression-era South grew up as churchgoers, so his faith went without saying. They may have stressed the sectarian side of his non-violence, because that's the side with which they could identify themselves. Neglect seems a likelier cause to me than caution: This is a sin of omission, rather than commission.

If you look around a bit, you can find Hollywood films that examine spirituality. "Gravity," which has now become the most memorable movie of the year for me, shows a life-changing event that may or may not be inspired by God: The viewer must make up his own mind. Maybe filmmakers feel freer to think about such things in works of fiction, where nobody calls their research and accuracy to account.