Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Harold Ramis...genius?

In the 36 hours since I heard about Harold Ramis' death, I have seen five articles that referred to him directly or obliquely as a comic genius.

Really? A genius? He co-wrote four extremely entertaining comedies over a 34-year career: "Animal House," "Ghostbusters," "Caddyshack" and "Groundhog Day." (He also directed the latter two.) A bunch of his second-tier projects -- "Stripes," Meatballs," "Analyze This" -- are easy to watch.

He diluted a lot of good memories by turning hits into bad TV spinoffs ("Delta House"), unnecessary sequels ("Analyze That") or feeble copies. (There are nearly a dozen "Ghostbusters" movies, TV shows and video games.) He hadn't made a decent feature in 15 years when he died Monday.

That's not to knock the stuff he did well, and I think he didn't get enough credit in obituaries for contributing skits and episodes in the 1970s to "SCTV," which was laugh-out-loud funny much of the time. But why can't writers be content with calling him "an influential filmmaker" or "a witty director" or even "a guy who knew what makes America laugh"?

There haven't been many true geniuses in the 100 years that people have made feature-length films. When we apply that word, we cheapen it for the people who really are geniuses, and we don't do Ramis a service: It's pretentious to apply it, even posthumously.

Ramis once modestly said "I'm at my best when I'm working with really talented people, and I'm there to gently suggest or guide or inspire or contribute whatever I can to their effort." He frequently did that, and his movies remain appealing because he did. But I'm pretty sure he never thought he was a genius -- or would want to be called one.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Ivan Nagy: They also serve...

Ivan Nagy, perhaps the greatest ballet partner of the 20th century, died this weekend in Budapest. He was never as famous as many peers, especially Mikhail Baryshnikov or (early in Nagy's career) Rudolf Nureyev. But Natalia Makarova called him her favorite partner, and this pas de deux from "Swan Lake" shows why. (Violinist Itzhak Perlman and cellist Lynn Harrell are playing the solos onstage.)

The focus is obviously on her; the choreographer wants us to see the woman-as-swan most clearly. But look how easily she takes to the air in his arms: She really seems to be a bird caught between flights. Cynthia Gregory, a principal with Nagy in American Ballet Theatre, told the Cincinnati Enquirer, "I danced my first 'Giselle' with him. It's a performance that is still emblazoned in my head and in my heart. I felt I was floating with him. That's when I fell in love with him. He was so dreamy." (Nagy was artistic director of Cincinnati Ballet in the late 1980s.)

He never had the outgoing stage personality that defines a star the whole world can embrace. He had beauty of line, aristocratic poise and a sense of calm; every dancer from Gregory to Princess Diana knew she was safe in his arms. (He danced a foxtrot with Diana at a London gala after becoming artistic director of English National Ballet in 1989.)

Most newspapers overlooked his passing; the Charlotte Observer didn't mention it, and I couldn't even find an obituary on the New York Times site. He performed in the shadows, metaphorically speaking, through his whole career -- either the shadows of more overtly charismatic male dancers or the great women he partnered. Here's some rare footage of him, proving he was as supportive to his ballerinas in the rehearsal room as onstage:

In a sense, Nagy typifies all the supporting players without whom the stars and divas of the world would lose luster: Character actors who let the leads take the spotlight, best-friend opera mezzos who leave the high Cs to the sopranos, orchestral musicians who provide such a crucial texture to a soloist's flights in a concerto. Like all of them, Ivan Nagy was essential to the art form he loved.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

UMAR: Art is the voice of the soul

You are looking at a mixed media piece by an artist I know only as Angelo S. I met him Tuesday afternoon at the annual luncheon to benefit UMAR, an organization that finds homes and jobs and creates other opportunities for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

UMAR's arts program never fails to intrigue me, not least because the people in it sometimes have limited use of their hands or reduced motor skills. People paint, draw, take photographs, make jewelry, work with glass or plants. Angelo has made a short film titled "My Smile" and designed furniture. He obviously loves music: He has written abstract pieces and created this collage, which has no title but bears the phrase "Music is the voice of the soul."

Angelo seemed shy, so I asked another staffer about him. She told me he had created another work by putting a canvas on top of a speaker, setting watercolors on the canvas and letting vibrations from the speaker distribute the paint. He literally made music visible.

I doubt I'd have had that notion, but if I had, I'd never have acted on it. For Angelo and other UMAR artists, there's no barrier between idea and execution: His curiosity and imagination stimulate him, and he gets busy.

UMAR has other artists who do more traditional work, of course. Here's a painting by a fellow named Dale, which I also bought. It leaps off the canvas with a kind of Van Gogh wildness:

Events like the Friends of UMAR luncheon inspire us not to judge people too quickly, assuming limitations before we get to know them. But they also remind us that folks who have fewer gifts than average in one area may have more abilities than the typical person in another. I can do a lot of things, but imagining paintings like these isn't one of them.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Itzhak Perlman: A masterpiece, a missed opportunity

If you attended Itzhak Perlman's performance Saturday night at Belk Theater, you heard a revelatory rendition of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto in E Minor. I couldn't find a recent video of him that would reflect his current thoughts about the piece, but here's a sample of him playing the first movement some years ago:

Before he came, I wished the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra hadn't asked him to play this chestnut. (He didn't propose it.) He was virtually certain to sell out the hall -- as indeed he did -- because he's the most famous classical violinist in the world. Why not let him play something we wouldn't otherwise hear? My choice: Prokofiev's second concerto, because his recording with Gennady Rozhdestvensky conducting is the best rendition I've heard.

The Mendelssohn had such profound intimacy that I was grateful for the experience; I've never heard it given such depth, even in recordings I admire. It inspired me to order a box set of his albums, including a celebrated Mendelssohn coupling with Andre Previn on the podium, to try to recapture the feeling.

That said, the CSO missed a great opportunity to play a symphony that would have been excluded from the Classics Series repertoire because it was tough to sell. The combination of Perlman and the Mendelssohn E Minor was guaranteed to fill seats. So why put Mozart's Symphony No. 40 on the first half of the concert?

Few people love Mozart more than I do: I once bought a 170-CD set of his complete works, so I could hear obscure organ sonatas and Italian-language operas he wrote as a pre-teen. I think the G Minor Symphony is the greatest in the world up to the time of its composition, possibly excepting half a dozen contenders by Haydn.

But think of all the things that could have replaced it! I'm not suggesting something as far out (for Charlotte's timid ears) as Szymanowski or Hartmann or Tubin. But why not program a Prokofiev symphony or Bartok's "Miraculous Mandarin"? If the CSO wanted to keep costs down, because the orchestra needed for the Mendelssohn concerto wasn't a big one, what about a Shostakovich chamber symphony? Or why not have an all-Mendelssohn night and play his first symphony plus one of his overtures?

I thought back to a conversation I had 17 years ago with conductor Daniele Gatti. He was on a national tour of American cities with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, playing programs anchored by Mahler's Fifth Symphony or Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra. Carolinas Concert Association, fearful that those works would make Charlotteans stay home, asked him to play Tchaikovsky's Sixth Symphony instead.

He told me only two cities on the tour wanted him to dumb down his programming: Charlotte and Hartford, Conn. Must we always be the Hartford of the South?

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Thug Notes is the (*&^%$@! bomb!

I'll start you off with a bizarre, funny video. Be warned. The language isn't pretty:

This comes from a series called Thug Notes. These five-minute videos deconstruct famous works of literature, from "Heart of Darkness" to "Frankenstein" to "The Gr8 Gatsby." Here's another one, about a white whale:

The commentary comes from Dr. Sparky Sweets, Ph.D. (He's actually comedian Greg Edwards.) Sparky probably takes his name from Spark Notes, the most popular online site where students read (and, alas, often steal) condensed insights about masterworks. My own generation used Cliff Notes, jokingly referred to as the place lazy and unprepared kids should go "if your grade is about to go over a cliff."

The thing is, Sparky's pieces are more than jokes. They use animation and graphics to get at the core of these classics, and they offer insights about themes and characters. As Edwards told Tampa Bay Times columnist Ernest Hooper, "The gift of literature is universal in meaning and should be made accessible to everyone on every plane. Thug Notes is my way of trivializing academia's attempt at making literature exclusionary. (I show that) even highbrow academic concepts can be communicated in a clear and open fashion." (To see the complete list, visit

Here's his take on an Oscar Wilde novel:

The vernacular of the streets will keep these videos from becoming classroom tools any time soon, though my teacher wife says her middle-school students have happily discovered them. The language is no coarser than we hear in hip-hop songs. And unlike many recording artists, Edwards uses slang to elevate a discussion, rather than degrade people.

He's absolutely right that any reader might enjoy "Great Expectations" or "1984," if language doesn't pose a barrier. Dickens and Orwell and Shakespeare endure because you don't have to be white or middle-class (or a genius) to appreciate them; you simply have to find an entry point, and something has to spur your curiosity.

If these ------- Thug Notes can do that, I say this is one -------- great idea, and I salute the ------------- who came up with it.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Little Theatre of Gastonia rocks a play

I hadn't seen "An Inspector Calls" since the Tony-winning Broadway revival 20 years ago, directed by Stephen Daldry, whose next big success was "Billy Elliot." I don't think any Mecklenburg County company has given J.B. Priestley's drama a full run since then. So when I saw that Little Theatre of Gastonia was doing it, I drove over Sunday to take a look. (The show continues this week.)

Once upon a time, many community theaters put "little" in their names to denote non-professional status. (Theatre Charlotte was using that designation when I arrived in 1980.) Gastonia still makes community theater the old-fashioned way: no full-time staff, volunteers working hundreds of hours -- 669 up to opening night, according to the estimate in the playbill -- and a box-office that's open whenever someone can be there, usually an hour or so before showtime. You can get tickets online at CarolinaTix, of course, and they're a bargain: $15, with discounts for students and seniors.

But once the lights went down, I found myself immersed in the troubles of the Birling family, upper-class folks living in an industrial city in the northern part of England. On the evening of the daughter's engagement to the son of another wealthy manufacturer, an inspector calls with disturbing news: A young woman has committed suicide, and he suspects everyone present may have played some part in her downfall.

The actors were fully immersed in their parts and consistently convincing. They, too, seemed caught up in a story that argues we're all connected, all responsible for each other's suffering. That's a message of compassion we need to hear more often in America these days, as the gulf between rich and poor continues to widen.

I came away convinced again of two things. First, love of language carries a performer a long way toward success. Passion matters more to a production than smoothness of presentation; an occasional dropped accent or fumbled word doesn't get in the way, if actors are as dedicated as these. I forgot I was watching people who go to high school or work at a local airport and took them seriously as characters.

Second, plays like this are the answer to the question, "What good is literature?" We're constantly told children need to be raised pragmatically; money spent on education should go toward courses of study that point straight to solid jobs. But students who don't stop to humanize themselves along the way end up like the Birlings, smug and narrow-minded and secure inside their insular lives. Does anyone really want to live in their world?

Friday, February 7, 2014

'Death of a Salesman' (Philip Seymour Hoffman, part 2)

The more I read about Philip Seymour Hoffman, the sadder I get. I've never been addicted to anything, so I can't begin to imagine what it's like to fight that battle every day -- and in his case, to feel you're slipping irrevocably downward.

I thought of him again today, when I realized that Monday will be the 65th anniversary of Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman." Hoffman took the title role in 2012, earning a Tony nomination in the fourth Broadway revival. He played a man who feels himself slipping irrevocably downward, and who finally kills himself so his insurance will pay the family's bills and start his sons on new journeys.

The American theater has never produced a play with more universal impact. I don't say it's our greatest play -- I don't know what that would be -- but I once read that it has been done in more countries and languages than any other. I remember an article in American Theatre magazine about a Chinese-language production that riveted Beijing audiences, because they perfectly understood the gap between parental expectations and children's assertions of independence.

Here's a small taste of the original Willy, Lee J. Cobb, reprising his role for television in the 1960s:

Miller's play, written shortly after Americans had come back from World War II, deals with so many themes: a feeling that the "little guy" can never get ahead in America, the rebellion of a son against a father's dreams for him, the self-delusion necessary to get through an indifferent world, the ways we compensate for inner hollowness with outward striving for success. I have never seen a production that didn't move me, including Dustin Hoffman's performance in the 1980s. Here's a longer version of the scene above:

Philip Seymour Hoffman once said that Miller's first play, "All My Sons," made him want to be an actor:

It's a great play, and at the end of the play the father goes off-stage and kills himself. It's a very sappy, corny memory, but I remember thinking I had found something that no one knew about. I could just not get over the fact that these people in front of me were getting me to believe something that was not happening. I matured in those two hours, just experiencing that.

I wish the high he felt that day in the theater -- and on all the days he knew he'd done good work as an actor -- had kept him afloat through the dark times. But when I think of salesman Willy Loman, struggling to overcome depression and a feeling that life wasn't worth such a struggle any longer, I get a hint of what Hoffman might have been going through.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Philip Seymour Hoffman

I'll leave it to others to gossip about the 46-year-old actor's sad death. I'm here to celebrate his skill. Let's start with a clip from "Doubt," where both he and Meryl Streep earned Oscar nominations:

I first began to care deeply about Hoffman's work 14 years ago. He scored in a double-bill at the Toronto International Film Festival, playing egotistical, truth-telling rock critic Lester Bangs in "Almost Famous" and a conflicted screenwriter losing control of his script in "State and Main." I asked for an interview and was told he preferred not to give them: He wanted the work to speak for itself. That's often a euphemism for "You're a waste of my time" when you hear it from a big star, but I took it at face value in his case. (At any rate, he wasn't a big star yet.)

And his work did speak for itself. He was nominated for a Tony that year in a revival of Sam Shepard's "True West," where he alternated the leading roles with John C. Reilly. (Reilly was nominated, too.) He went on to earn four Oscar nominations over the next 13 years and Tony nominations for his other two forays onto Broadway, revivals of "Long Day's Journey Into Night" and "Death of a Salesman." He played Willy Loman when he was 44, surely the youngest person ever to take that role in a prominent production.

But Hoffman could always play younger. Or weirder. Or angrier or funnier or more sinister. In a generation of mere screen personalities and attention-grabbing eccentrics, he was one of the rare chameleons who could settle convincingly into almost any role. When he and Joaquin Phoenix combined in "The Master," two masters of their craft went head to head:

Hoffman won his only Oscar for "Capote," where he gave one of the most remarkable impressions of a celebrity I've ever seen. He was the wrong age and weight and height, yet he managed to make himself small and sharp and shrewd, and he caught Capote's constricted voice perfectly. Here's a sample:

Obviously, all the fame and money and awards didn't fill some hole in his life. I don't need to speculate about what was missing, though something was: After more than two decades of sobriety, he reportedly went back to drugs again last year and began his downward slide. The folks filming the second half of "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay" will have to work around his death, but Hollywood always finds a way to do that.

When he died, he was working on a TV series for Showtime, one written and directed by John Cameron Mitchell ("Hedwig and the Angry Inch"). It's in post-production now; he plays Thom Payne, a character named for the perennially dissatisfied spokesman for the American Revolution. Here's the synopsis from the Internet Movie Data Base:

"On his birthday, Thom Payne gets the gift of insignificance and also a new boss. He suspects his ED pills are interfering with his anti-depressants, leaving him with neither happiness nor... happiness. In a culture that reveres youth -- a culture he helped create -- Thom needs to figure out what his purpose is, now that he's halfway to death and nobody cares what he thinks."

Did the last days of his life imitate art? I have no idea. Will he be terrific in this role? You know he will.