Saturday, November 29, 2008

The Rockettes: High Kicks In Solidarity with their Bollywood Sisters

The shocking news from Mumbai coincided with our national day of Thanks-giving. It’s true every day that people are suffering at home and abroad. But this was an extreme juxtaposition between the formal day we give thanks for family, friends, and the beauty of this nation, and people being individually murdered by unspecified terrorists. It became even more heart-wrenching when we learned of the death of the Virginia dad and the Brooklyn Rabbi and his wife.

Parallel to this shocking situation, and not related to it, was the AP reporting on Thanksgiving eve that “The FBI has warned New York area law enforcement of a ‘plausible but unsubstantiated’ al Qaeda suicide bomb attack against the area’s commuter rail systems over the holiday.”

This was the backdrop to my Thanksgiving pilgrimage to the Radio City Christmas Spectacular.

The first practical issue: do I get on the subway? Should the family get on the Long Island Rail Road to come in? We briefly thought the answer to both would be “no.” But that feeling of “they win if we change our lives” kicked in, and so we partook of mass transit.

The Christmas Show was reimagined last year by Linda Haberman for its 75th anniversary. I only saw it one other time, somewhere in the nineties, but it was clear that she brought the experience into the 21st century and completely paid off on the word “SPECTACULAR” above the lowly “show.” It’s hipper, sleeker, and more WOW. It is a thrilling ninety minutes of spirited spectacle, from Santa’s 3-D sleigh ride into town, to an amazing number with the Rockettes on a doubledecker bus that really looks like it’s barreling through the city. Haberman has given the Rockettes more sophisticated choreography than of old to illuminate their precision beyond the kick line.

The Living Nativity has been shortened, as well as the Nutcracker excerpt. From the live pit orchestra that swings a mean beat to the live fireworks that go off over the “New York sequence” to the multitude of dancing Santas, the show has an exuberance that is hard to find in our post-ironic times. Even the most jaded soul would have to smile somewhere along the line, and kids of all ages were squealing with delight.

It was sobering in the evening then to learn more about the killing in Mumbai. I travel a lot, and I tried to imagine what it would be like to be in the hotel restaurant for dinner and be confronted by terrorists shooting people in the head, slitting the throats of others.

Some commentators from the Indian Times are calling this the Indian 9/11. Certainly as a watershed moment, but what is so different between the two is that the 9/11 terrorists killed like aerial bombers. These killings were hand-to-hand combat, except that their victims were unarmed civilians. It can’t get more vicious or depraved.

At this moment, who the terrorists are is unclear. What do they want? That is not clear either. In nonpolitical terms, it’s more what they don’t want. These terrorists don’t want anyone to imagine and create. They don’t want anyone to sing and dance, and to make a business out of it. They don’t want to see some people lighten the troubles of others by entertaining them.

Well, too bad dirtbags. Human nature is hard-wired to create. For some, that leads to the crazy, inspired idea that 36 women in matching outfits can dance with such precision that it will be a wonder to behold. For some, creativity leads to the singing and melodrama of a visually stunning Bollywood film. These things are not going to disappear just because some malcontents don’t like them.

Suketu Mehta, a professor of journalism at New York University who grew up in Bombay (before its independent name), is the author of Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found. This is from what I’m sure will be a much-quoted Op-Ed essay, “What They Hate About Mumbai”:

“The terrorists’ message was clear: Stay away from Mumbai or you will get killed. Snip. But the best answer to the terrorists is to dream bigger, make even more money, and visit Mumbai more than ever.

So I’m booking flights to Mumbai. I’m going to go get a beer at the Leopold, stroll over to the Taj for samosas at the Sea Lounge, and watch a Bollywood movie at the Metro. Stimulus doesn’t have to be just economic.”

Amen to that. The Rockettes will keep kicking, Bollywood will keep singing, as the world tells the terrorists, NO.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Thanksgiving: A Time to Be Grateful for So Much

Those people cannot enjoy comfortably what God has given them because they see and covet what He has not given them. All of our discontents for what we want appear to me to spring from want of thankfulness for what we have. Robinson Crusoe, Daniel DeFoe

It’s an oversimplification, but the thought of giving thanks for such a dire situation haunted me. Imagine being shipwrecked, alone, on a desert island, and being thankful for what you have—abundant food, good shelter, clothing, sunlight—instead of cursing what you lack, the company of another. Since I found that sentence, whenever I start to glance at the negative side of my balance sheet, this thought shocks me back a bit to look at the abundance of riches on the positive side.

In that same Wiki write-up was James Joyce’s famous take on the character Robinson Crusoe and the idea of British colonization:

"He is the true prototype of the British colonist. … The whole Anglo-Saxon spirit is in Crusoe: the manly independence, the unconscious cruelty, the persistence, the slow yet efficient intelligence, the sexual apathy, the calculating taciturnity."

I felt so thankful for the enormous gift of James Joyce. For all he embodies of Irish soul, for his sublime use of the English language, for his pointed criticism.

And feeling connected to the wit and mind of Joyce made me think of John Donne,

"All mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated.......No man is an island, entire of itself...any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind."
Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, Meditation XVll

One aspect of these connections between we volumes of one author is heightened, for me, by blogging. As I come to the end of a second year of this writing adventure, I am thankful for the community of readers who stop by these pages, and who create such wonderful pages for me to wander through. I don’t know if I’ll make it through a third year, but for now I’ll agree, Never, Never Say Die.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

November 22, 1963, to be seen from May 19, 2044

In the modern era, the death of one man stands apart from all others in American history. You don’t need to be a conspiracy fan to wonder what and who really was behind the death of John F. Kennedy. Forty-five years out, the story of the loner Oswald, then murdered by the nightclub owner Ruby, just doesn't set. And that’s not including the insanity of the single bullet that “traversed 15 layers of clothing, 7 layers of skin, and approximately 15 inches of tissue, struck a necktie knot, removed 4 inches of rib, and shattered a radius bone.” (wiki)

I saw a British documentary on the life of Jacqueline Kennedy that put a timeline to events in 1963 that I had not known before.

Jackie Kennedy gave birth to Patrick Kennedy on August 7, 1963, six weeks prematurely. In a crushing fate, he died two days later.

In October, Jackie’s sister Lee Radziwill convinced her to come out on Aristotle Onassis’s yacht to help her recuperate from the tragedy. The married Lee was having an affair with Onasiss, and he had an interest in Jackie. Even in the swinging sixties, it was a bold move for the married first lady to go to the yacht of the married Ari, unescorted. Payback for Jack’s epic philandering? Who knows.

A month later, JFK is murdered in Dallas.

This documentary did a good job of speaking to the emotional agony that Jackie suffered in her marriage to Jack. Such an intelligent, vibrant, talented woman who had the misfortune to once fall in love with a selfish man of enormous power. She had the misfortune to be attracted to the glamor of JFK, and she paid for it for the rest of his life as only a woman can pay.

In 2003 Robert Dallek published An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963. He approached the Kennedys to allow him to read the 500-page transcript that Jackie Kennedy recorded before her death in 1994. From USA Today, “Caroline Kennedy politely refused Dallek's request to read it, saying her mother asked that it remain closed until 50 years after her death.”

If it is actually released May, 19, 2044, I think it will shed some new light on what happened in Dallas. I for one can’t wait to find out.

(photo from The Kennedy Assassination website. Website by John McAdams © 1995-2008)

Saturday, November 15, 2008

"Quantum of Solace": Shaken Beyond Belief

For my review of Skyfall, please go here.

The title of the new Bond film begs attention be paid to its distinct words. Quantum is a great Latinate word meaning “the smallest discrete amount of any quantity.” As for "solace":

“This flower is fair and fresh of hue,
It fadeth never, but ever is new;
The blessed branch this flower on grew
Was Mary mild that bare Jesu;
A flower of grace:
Against all sorrow it is solace.”

In John Rutter’s carol “There is a flower” the last word is pronounced “so-lace” to rhyme with "grace."

If James had a modicum of belief himself, even in the British humanist tradition, we would have a film that has some spark of life rather than relentless, grim death.

His quest for personal solace—which the concise OED defines as “comfort in distress or disappointment or tedium”—-is a vendetta to kill the villains who blackmailed Vesper into betraying him in Casino Royale. And yes, spoilers follow.

The general consensus of QOS is that this Bond is missing the wit and attitude—-park rake, part bon vivant—-that has defined the character.

Cosmo Landesman, Times: “Bond has been stripped of his iconic status. He no longer represents anything particularly British, or even modern. In place of glamour, we get a spurious grit; instead of style, we get product placement; in place of fantasy, we get a redundant and silly realism. Craig makes an attractive corpse, but Bond is dead.”

Bond is extremely taciturn in this film. He does not banter, there is no repartee, and only minimal actual dialog.

A.O. Scott, NY Times: “Does every hero, whether Batman or Jason Bourne, need to be so sad? I know grief has always been part of the Dark Knight’s baggage, but the same can hardly be said of James Bond, Her Majesty’s suave, cynical cold war paladin. His wit was part of his--of our--arsenal, and he countered the totalitarian humorlessness of his foes with a wink and a bon mot.”

The lack of wit as a criticism, though, doesn’t make sense on the Bond timeline. Casino Royale and the QOS sequel predate Dr. No. Which means that we are in the land before the wise-cracking Bond.  Same thing about his devotion to duty. It defines the character later, and is missing here—-but it’s in his future.

The other major criticism is voiced by the great Roger Ebert, “James Bond is not an action hero!” Everyone is drawing a parallel to Jason Bourne, and not in a good way. I think there’s also a lot of Die Hard going on, in the ridiculous amount of physical beating that JB takes without dying.

Beyond the action film is an atypical take on the Bond girl. Strawberry Fields is introduced (Jemma Arterton) as a quick, disposable conquest, who has the dubious honor of being a visual inverse of the disposable conquest in Goldfinger.

The other is Olga Kurylenko, an actual partner from the Bolivian secret service. But they don’t become lovers. Richard Corliss had an interesting observation about the title that I think is echoed in this shot.

“So this time the keepers of the 007 flame went with one of the short story titles, which sounds more suited for an Antonioni film than the highly torqued action adventure that is Quantum of Solace.”

Olga is “dusted” a tanning color for the role, making her look Mediterranean. She and Daniel look exceedingly elegant here, her dress an echo of the sixties chic, with the set-in waist and sweetheart bodice. Walking through the desert definitely has an aura of Antonioni about it.

Corliss also see shades of Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much, Jackie Chan films, Syriana, and more. I can’t hear Bolivia without echoes of Butch Cassidy’s last dream. In some ways, the film suffers from too many cinematic quotes.

Rebooting a character for a new century is tricky business. Going back to roots is one way to try it. Daniel Craig has the gravitas and authority to be Jame Bond in the Connery mold. What he needs is a story that connects his energized take on the character with the essence of what made his character special.

QOS is still big time Hollywood in its excess best. It’s slick, polished, and exhausting to watch.

I had the most emotional connection to it at the very end, when the classic theme song kicks in over the final credits. They need to start there for the next film, and give us a Bond that we recognize.

If by the time he drops the necklace in the snow, he has forgiven Vesper and himself, then he is on the road to back to humanity. The fans can only pray so.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Happy Birthday, USMC

Today is the date of birth of the United States Marine Corps. It’s not something that gets much attention in the broad press.

I first learned about it a few years ago, of all places, in front of the 21 Club in New York City. As I was walking by an employee was raising the distinctive Marine flag on one of their poles. He told me it was in honor of their birthday.

“On November 10, 1775, the Second Continental Congress resolved to raise two battalions of 'American Marines.' Congress commissioned 31 year old Samuel Nicholas, a well-known Philadelphian, as captain of the fledgling force of Continental Marines. Nicholas raised two battalions of Marines and so began the long, illustrious history of the United States Marine Corps.”

My father was a Marine. Not a career man. Too young for WWII, he enlisted after the war and put his time in for the GI bill. He was a communication specialist, and his “speaking” in the “dahs” and “dits” of Morse code was pretty cool when we were kids. In more ways than that, “once a Marine, always a Marine.”

From the Commandant's Annual Message:




Today’s 233 birthday reminds me that the Marines are out on the battlefield every day, following orders. For a moment today, wherever they are in the world, they will participate in some celebration of the foundering of the Corps. We can only pray that the new Commander-in-Chief will not waste a single one of their devoted lives.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

My Three Best Friends: Malleus, Incus, and Stapes

My grandmother used to say that people get the funniest things, except that they are not that funny.

I have fallen into that category a few times, where, among other things, I have learned new words. The one was CSF leak. That condition now has a celebrity face to it in George Clooney.

The other was cholesteatoma, which has no celebrity presence.

Looks like something about cholesterol, doesn’t it? Many doctors have never heard of it.

Here’s one jolly definition:

“Cholesteatomas have been recognized for decades as a destructive lesion of the skull base that can erode and destroy important structures within the temporal bone. Its potential for causing central nervous system complications (eg, brain abscess, meningitis) makes it a potentially fatal lesion.”

It’s a little like a microscopic Blob, that great sci fi movie from the sixties, that eats anything in its way. The lesion is actually dead skin and cells that have clumped together because of a retracted eustachian tube. A retracted tube doesn’t allow enough air to circulate in the middle ear, and air is needed to clean out the dead skin and cells that slough off.

The tumor grows and grows. It attaches to the ossicle chain, the miracle of the 3 smallest bones in the body in the middle ear: the malleus, incus, and stapes.

I have read descriptions of how they work, how they create sound for us to hear, and it still seems to be a miracle beyond belief. Think about your ear, now think about THREE BONES banging away in there: the hammer, the anvil, and the stirrup.

Once the cholesteatoma was found in my left middle year, I didn't have an option. And so I had 5-hour surgery to cut the growth out. Almost always cholesteatoma surgery means ripping out the bones of hearing with the tumor, leaving you completely deaf in that ear. Then 6 months to a year later, they go back in and try to replace the bones with prosthetic malleus, incus, and stapes, either from a cadaver, or made of titanium.

But I had a 1 in a 100,000 piece of good news: the tumor was sitting in such a way that he could cut it out and leave the ossicle chain intact.

I go once a year for a followup visit. It’s been 4 years now. It’s possible that a piece was hiding behind the bones, and will grow back. Then I will be back in surgery. It is definitely waiting for the other shoe to drop.

At least til that time, I can hear it, and the proverbial pin.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

November 4, 2008: A Turning Point in History

Out of the ashes of the worst eight years in American history comes the most progressive moment in the life of this young country.

I didn’t grow up in a very political household, but a socio-political moment from my childhood took form on this historic day.

Somewhere in the early seventies my mother had a moment of casual prescience. I had been asking her about the presidency, who can become president, etc. She said that any American citizen can.

I asked if a woman could be president. She said yes, technically, but that she thought the country would elect a black man as president before it elected a woman.

It was an offhand comment that stuck in my brain all these many years. And lo, it has come to pass. The primacy of male leadership has been upheld by the collective mandate at the time when Hillary Clinton was the most viable female candidate ever.

But that is looking back. It is a historic day to be shared and savored by all, the day that the race barrier to the highest office in the land was shattered. A man of color is now the leader of the free world. The social ripple effects of that will be tidal.

I pray that president elect Obama enters our lives with strength and wisdom and discernment. I reject any sense of the messianic about him. He needs to be a grounded, down-to-earth leader willing to slog through overlapping problems of the most serious nature. In reality, when the people’s work is really being done, it’s the least glamorous job there is. As citizens, we do him a dishonor to approach his administration with any expectation of miracles.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

What are the Odds (or should I say Oods)?

Big news in the Dr. Who universe, which I learned, as I do many things, via Alan Sepinwall. David Tennant has formally announced he is leaving the role, and now we have the delicious suspense of waiting to learn who will be the eleventh doctor.

Thank goodness the Irish bookmakers are on the case. They are dutifully tracking the shifting odds between all the names be bandied about. The top 3 as of this writing are David Morrisey, Paterson Joseph, and James Nesbitt.

I love the tradition of the novelty Irish books. (Vegas does some too, in a more limited way.)

The Irish will lay odds on and about everything. While the national spirit of their Anglo-Saxon neighbors insures everything a la Lloyds of London—-Betty Grable and Tina Turner’s legs, Keith Richards’s fingers, Celine Dion’s vocal chords-—the Irish national spirit is much more playful.

I don’t have a gambling gene in me, and I know that it can be an addiction that brings misery like any other addiction. But in it’s entertainment mode, it takes a fun spirit to bet on whether Birmingham will have a white Christmas, where Russell Brand will find his next job, and the granddaddy of them all, who will be the next pope.

Paddy Power
is one of the big online betting sites; it offers the usual horse and sporting events, but also a section devoted to novelty bets, which is where we find the Doctor Who odds. It offers 60 actors, which now begs some questions:

Is this the time to break the color barrier for the Doctor? Or the gender barrier-—Alex Kingston is given 50 to 1 odds, but at least she’s listed. As a smart commenter said over at Alan’s, the writers definitely set up Doctor/Donna this season, perhaps laying the groundwork for a female Doctor.

The list continues as a who's who (no pun intended) of British actors--John Simm, Adrian Lester, Anthony Head, Bill Nighy, Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie--all the way to the long shots of Ricky Gervais (80 to 1), Hugh Grant (100 to 1), and Robbie Williams (150 to 1).

One idea I haven’t seen anywhere is an American actor taking on the role. I know, there is nothing more “British to the core” than Dr. Who. And it’s nice that it’s been spread around the whole isles, with the Scottish Tennant, which would be continued further if the Northern Irish Nesbitt takes over.

But an LA detective is prototypically American, and yet the esteemed Damian Lewis is playing him beautifully; an East Coast doctor who is the son of a US Marine is Amurican, but it’s no less than Bertie Wooster who brings him to life. If these Brits weren't on our own tv shores, the thought would not have crossed my mine.

Still, if the Irish bookmakers aren’t giving odds for any American actors, then, it’s not a possibility. This is something they know.