Monday, April 27, 2009

Tom Bergeron, Essayist

There has been an incredible amount of commentary about Susan Boyle, the woman from Ireland who became a YouTube sensation (and beyond) because of the beauty of her singing voice, but none of it as trenchant as the opinion piece Tom Bergeron wrote for the New York Times. Bergeron is the host of "Dancing With the Stars" and "America's Funniest Home Videos", so he would know a thing or two about being famous.

Beautifully clear and moving, Bergeron was able to capture just what this obscure woman will face in the world of fame and glaring lights if she is not careful.

Read the column here:

-- Lars Trodson

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Everything You Love About Slaid

By Michael Keating

It's been five years since Slaid Cleaves (favorite son of South
Berwick, Maine, turned Austin, Texas, troubadour) released an album of original songs. His last release, 2006's "Unsung," (Rounder) was a collection of cover songs by Cleaves friends and musical compatriots.

Released April 21, "Everything You Love Will Be Taken Away," (Music Road Records) is a return to form for one of America's best Alt-Country singer-songwriters sure to please old fans and garner new admirers.

As an added bonus, the disc includes beautiful cover art by another South Berwick, Maine native -- musician/artist Dan Blakeslee.

Here's a link to my review that appeared in the Portsmouth Herald's Spotlight magazine April 16.

Below are Slaid Cleaves' notes to the songs on the new release, courtesy of the press kit.


1. “Cry” (Slaid Cleaves)
That sprang from a couplet in the first verse: “Every man is a myth/every woman a dream.” I found those lines in my journal and had no recollection of writing them, but I couldn’t believe I’d forgotten them. As soon as I had most of the song together, I knew there was something special and deeply emotional about it.

2. “Hard to Believe” (Adam Carroll/Slaid Cleaves)
Adam Carroll came over to my house with some ideas for a song called “Old Town Rock n Roll.” He had a verse and a half, and we banged out two or three more, but neither of us was happy with it. But we both kept working on it, and he ended up ditching everything but the title of the song. I took the verses that we rejected, reworked them some, slapped a new tag line and title on it, and I got a whole new song, too. So out of one failed song, each of us got a good song.

3. “Beyond Love” (Slaid Cleaves/Rod Picott)
That’s a very stylized melody that I probably would have never come up with unless I was dreaming. Lyrically, it’s another very internal song; I was just poking at that tooth, that little bit of sadness that comes as you get older, when the flame of romance starts to dim a little bit. But the beautiful part is, it changes into something even more valuable. I wrote it with my buddy Rod Picott, who I wrote “Broke Down” with and a bunch of other songs.

4. “Green Mountains and Me” (Slaid Cleaves/David Farnsworth)
Dave Farnsworth is a guy I’ve known since my Maine open-mic days. He sent that song to me a couple of years ago in its original form, and I thought it had the potential to be really great. So I approached him and said, “Hey, I’ve got some ideas for this song; would you be willing to bang it back and forth a bit?” I wouldn’t do that with anybody else but an old friend, but I was thrilled with that song when we were through. I think it’s gorgeous.

5. “Run Jolee Run” (Ray Bonneville)
I originally considered that song for my Unsung covers record project in ’06, but I was trying too hard to sing it just like Ray Bonneville, and it just wasn’t coming across right. He’s such a blues man, and I’m not a blues man. So I put it aside for awhile, but it was still one of my favorite songs. Later I sent my buddy Rod an early version of this record, and he said, “It needs something sexy.” And I thought that “Run Jolee Run,” even though the subject matter isn’t sexy, had that kind of groove to it. And I thought, if there’s some way that I can make that work honestly in the context of who I am, it just might work. So I kept at it, and I finally figured it out.

6. “Dreams” (Slaid Cleaves/Rod Picott)
Rod and I used to sit down in a room and try to write together, like Jerry and George did on Seinfeld when they were writing their pilot about nothing. These days, we just kind of share a fragment or an idea and then go off on our own and mess with it. Rod had about half of those lyrics, and I took them to my hotel room and — boom — this melody popped out. Six months after I recorded it, I ended up going back to change some lyrics in the chorus at the last minute. It originally sounded ... well, a little too rainbows and flowers. Before we fixed it, we called it the “Kermit the Frog Song.”

7. “Black T Shirt” (Slaid Cleaves/Rod Picott)
Rod and I went to grade school through high school together, and we lived in this little blue collar town with some rough characters that we were enthralled with and afraid of at the same time. They were dangerous cats that we tried not to get beat up by, but we were always fascinated by those guys, and we’ve written quite a few songs about them over the years.

8. “Tumbleweed Stew” (Slaid Cleaves/Ron Coy/Michael O’Connor)
That’s a wacky little number that was started by my old friend, Wranglin’ Ron. He’s one of those bigger-than-life Texas characters — a bull in a China closet with a huge heart but a way of sometimes bumping people the wrong way. He used to call me up and leave funny messages on my cell phone, and I kept a log of them and some of his lines started ending up in my songs. So he suggested that couplet, “Where can a good man go crazy/where can a cowboy get stoned?” I went off on one of my little writing trips where I had two or three days to stare at those words, and I started concocting a little story about this character who just wants to have a little fun without getting into trouble.

9. “Twistin’” (Slaid Cleaves/Eric Blakely)
My friend Eric Blakely suggested the idea for that song after reading a story about a town in East Texas that had a hanging tree which people would flock to on hanging day, bringing the kids and selling lemonade and stuff. It’s a pretty gruesome part of our past that I was trying to catch in that song. I actually recorded a different version for Wishbones, but it didn’t fit for some reason. But I tweaked it over the years and decided it would fit the theme of this record just fine.

10. “Beautiful Thing” (Slaid Cleaves)
I’ve always been obsessed with political issues, and especially with the frustration and the cynicism that goes hand in hand with anything political today. But the last thing I wanted to do was pick up the flag from one side and preach to the converted. My goal was to design the song so it wouldn’t become obsolete. I like what Stephen King said about it being “reluctantly optimistic.” Maybe it comes from growing up listening to Springsteen, but I’ve always been intrigued by the idea that people keep at it, keep trying, despite every cloud of cynicism, regret and disappointment.

11. “Temporary” (Slaid Cleaves)
That’s another one of the dream songs on this record. I woke up with that melody in a hotel room, and remember stumbling to the laptop to get it down. That song kind of wraps up the mood of the whole record, which started with me looking at the new year in ’07 and thinking, “Man, I’ve really got it good now; there’s nothing left but just losing it all!” I really think it’s important to know that everything you have is temporary, so you have to enjoy it now.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The 2009 Pulitzers

They've been announced, and if there's something on this list that you'd like to read, see, or hear, please go seek it out.

Buying a hardcopy of some of the papers that won this year may be difficult, but try to visit them online if you have the time. Newspapers can still make a difference.

Also, here is a link to the Columbia Journalism Review's The Audit, which keeps a sharp eye on the business press, which we can all use these days.

We'll post a link to The Audit here on our site for easy access.

-- Lars Trodson


Monday, April 20, 2009

Mike Nichols To Alfred Hitchcock: You Suck.

By Lars Trodson

Well, not quite that bad.

But I thought a comment made by director Mike Nichols in a recent profile of him in The New York Times was a little odd. The article, written by Charles McGrath, is headlined “Mike Nichols, Master of Invisibility” and the occasion it marked was a retrospective Nichols’ career received from the film department at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

McGrath confronts the fact that Nichols does not really have a directorial style in almost the opening of the piece.

“[I]t’s sometimes hard to say what makes a Nichols movie a Nichols movie,” writes McGrath. “They seem like vehicles for actors, not the director, whose stamp is in leaving almost no trace at all.”

Nichols career started out with a bang: “Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?”, “The Graduate”, “Catch-22” and “Carnal Knowledge.” He then stumbled through the 1970s, with some very odd films indeed (“The Day of the Dolphin”), and then went on to settle into a 30-year period of boom and bust: (“Silkwood”, “Postcards From the Edge”, “Regarding Henry”, “Wolf”, “The Birdcage”).

So it was a little strange for Nichols, in his own defense, to denigrate Alfred Hitchcock -- as though having a signature style was a negative thing. “‘If you want to be a legend, God help you, it’s so easy,’ Mr. Nichols said the other day over coffee in his Times Square office. ‘You just do one thing. You can be the master of suspense, say.’”

Sure, Mike, if it makes you feel better.

Let’s be clear, that comment is also directed at a Martin Scorsese or a Guy Maddin or a John Carpenter or Samuel Fuller or Budd Boetticher or Sam Peckinpah or anybody else that had the crazy idea that a movie could be a very personal thing.

But maybe Mike Nichols is actually a pioneer. Maybe he’s the guy who helped destroy the idea that you could be an American auteur and make popular films. If so, he succeeded.

And it was so easy!

Here’s the NY Times article:

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Take Three: 'Chimes at Midnight'

Editor's note: Take Three is a occasional feature at Roundtable Pictures in which Gina Carbone, Mike Gillis and Lars Trodson review the same film.

How Ill YouTube Becomes ‘Chimes at Midnight’

By Gina Carbone

I hope for Orson Welles’ sake the medium is not the message. At least, not when it comes to watching “Chimes at Midnight” in its most readily available format: You Tube.

Welles’ 1965 film on Shakespeare’s recurring character, Sir John Falstaff (played by Welles himself with doughy bravado), is apparently mired in who-owns-this? issues and unavailable in the United States . You can get it as an import DVD/VHS or you can watch the 11-part hatchet job for free on You Tube.

While it’s a truly an applause-worthy treat to have the film Welles was most proud of available in the world’s video common room, there’s nothing from “Seven Samurai” to “The House Bunny” that can be withstand being viewed in 10-minute segments on a tiny screen, with commentary posted underneath it like a VH1 “Pop-Up Video.”

For example, the climactic scene where playboy Prince Hal/Henry V (Keith Baxter) has delivered a fatal blow to ambitious rival Henry “Hotspur” Percy (Norman Rodway) includes a moving as-I-lay-dying recitation by Rodway.

“O Harry, thou hast robbed me of my youth!

I better brook the loss of brittle life

Than those proud titles thou hast won of me….”

It’s a beautiful scene, even with a You Tube poster asking “At 9:47, is it a car passing by in the background at the very left?"

I’m easily distracted by things around me -- e-mails popping up, something the cat is doing, those comments under the screen -- and I doubt I’m alone, which is why going to a dark theater with a huge screen is still the best way to view anything.

I tried to blow the picture up to full screen, but the video quality -- never good to begin with -- just got more distorted with size.

Grateful You Tube posters sent their thanks for having this available online and I am glad it was there, too, but I can only wonder if Welles would appreciate this format. Does the end of a larger audience justify the means?

What would Sir John Gielgud -- a rock of cold, lofty perfection as Henry IV -- think of seeing his “Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown” speech cut off mid-stream between parts seven and eight?

Even putting aside the medium, “Chimes at Midnight” has its issues. You can’t blame the out-of-sync dialogue on You Tube, but it’s also impossible to ignore as it turns scenes into badly dubbed Japanimation. Some of the dialogue is unintelligible, and paired with a disjointed format it makes following the film more difficult than it should be.

Despite the low budget production and imperfect medium, this is clearly the work of a director in his prime. The artistry is sumptuous and deserves a bigger venue than a computer screen.

No one frames a shot like Welles. No one uses light like him. The fluidity of movement. The angles, the symmetry, the beauty. Just having shadows and light form what looks like bars on the walls of a castle. Simple to do, but it takes a visual master to carefully plan such perfect contrasts. Credit also goes to cinematographer Edmond Richard, but the look is so Welles you could check each shot for his fingerprints.

The battle of Shrewsbury alone –- the film’s most famous scene –- is such a textbook lesson in how to shoot battle scenes it’s influenced every such scene since (most notably “Braveheart”).

The music, the mud, the shots from horses legs, the cuts fast enough to please Tarantino. And through it all, the humor, as embodied by Falstaff and his merry mates.

Welles’ R-rated Santa Claus is everything Hal’s forbidding father is not. At one point, Falstaff and Hal put on a show for their friends; wearing a cushion and a pot as crowns, they poke fun at the king.

During the battle, Falstaff in his full armor, plays dead -- leading to his famous “The better part of valor is discretion” line -- but still tries to take credit for killing Percy.

At the end of the battle you can see the conflict building in Hal. The draw of ambition that ultimately propels him to cut ties with Falstaff -- like the stoner buddy dumped by the friend who finally gets a real job.

And what a cold parting they have. Poor Falstaff, gleeful at the death of Henry IV, is elated at the rise of his old friend Henry V, not knowing the change that’s come.

FALSTAFF: “God save thee, my sweet boy!”

KING HENRY V: “My lord chief-justice, speak to that vain man.”

LORD CHIEF-JUSTICE: “Have you your wits? know you what 'tis to speak?”

FALSTAFF: “My king! my Jove! I speak to thee, my heart!”

KING HENRY V: “I know thee not, old man: fall to thy prayers;
How ill white hairs become a fool and jester!
… Presume not that I am the thing I was;
For God doth know, so shall the world perceive,
That I have turn'd away my former self;
So will I those that kept me company.”

Ouch! Falstaff is banished upon pain of death -- basically given a restraining order of 10 miles.

In the scene, King Henry is shot from below and Falstaff from above. The merry student has become the harsh master. Daddy issues get the best of ‘em every time.

So much of the story is about Henry IV and Henry V, it’s not really fair to consider this a spotlight on Shakespeare’s supporting characters -- ala “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.”

And yet it is through the lens of Henry V that we see Falstaff evolve from a lazy hedonist to a brokenhearted old man betrayed by a hypocrite.

The end of the film leaves a sad, ironic taste in our mouths -- Falstaff’s coffin is wheeled away as we hear the chronicler Holinshed (Ralph Richardson), praising Henry V:

“The new king, even at first appointing, intended to put on him the shape of a new man. This Henry was a captain of such prudence and such policy that he never enterprised anything before it forecast the main chances that it might happen. So humane withal, he left no offense unpunished nor friendship unrewarded. For conclusion, a majesty was he that both lived and died a pattern in princehood, a lodestar in honor, and famous to the world always.”

“Chimes at Midnight” is a film that deserves the high-quality Criterion treatment. If anything, this 11-part YouTube posting is a sad Sally Struthers commercial someone should send to the Criterion Powers That Be. For only 10 cents a day you too could save this Orson Welles masterpiece.

And it deserves saving.


Remembrance Of Things Past: "Chimes At Midnight" by Orson Welles

By Lars Trodson

Orson Welles was the most nostalgic of the modernists. He was recognized for the way he told a story, not for the stories he invariably chose to tell. “Citizen Kane” is pulpy, after all. It was elevated by the elegance and vision of the photography and acting, and the perceptions in the screenplay. But it’s not a terribly profound story. And then came “The Stranger”, “The Lady From Shanghai” and “Touch of Evil” -- all of which are potboilers, and all of which have cinematic flair unmatched by almost any other filmmaker. Welles was creating a new vocabulary for movies, but almost strictly from a visual point of view. Welles was no threat to the censors.

Given that Welles had an affection for paperback fiction -- don't condescend to this, almost everyone does -- it might seem at first glance that William Shakespeare would be the ideal collaborator for Welles. Maybe Shakespeare could energize his craft. If so, we could be treated to Welles’ visual feasts while enjoying the beauty of Shakespeare’s language.

But by the time the two met up, Welles had been kicked out of Hollywood and he no longer had any money to work with. In order to enjoy Shakespeare you have to hear the words. And Welles, having apprenticed in radio and who understood the need for clarity on the soundtrack, was saddled in the 1950s with a still active cinematic imagination but equipment that was too inferior to the task.

And so it is with “Chimes At Midnight”, Welles’ 1965 remix of the King Henry plays that puts Sir John Falstaff at the center of the action. The film is now available in its entirety on You Tube, which is becoming your friendly neighborhood arthouse.

No matter the technical limitations, “Chimes At Midnight” is a beautiful film. Welles did a magnificent job of pulling the threads out of five Shakespeare plays to create this portrait of the old, dissolute, lying and gentle-souled man named Falstaff, who may be the single most beloved character Shakespeare ever created. Welles was not even 50 when filming began on the project, but he had already been looking back for some time. It’s no wonder he gravitated to Falstaff -- the “false staff”, the fake king -- the inveterate storyteller, the charlatan, a man who accomplished little but floated by on his charms and his connection to those more richer than he. The parallels between Welles and Falstaff have been gone over too often to repeat here. But the connection in this instance makes the experience of watching "Chimes At Midnight" richer, not poorer.

If only because we realize that while Falstaff was never really royalty, in real life Orson Welles actually was.

Once. and now he is again. The king is dead, they say, long live the king.

"Chimes At Midnight" opens with two distant characters walking slowly on the snow-covered countryside, and we hear the pipes, and it is Falstaff and Justice Robert Shallow (Alan Webb), and they are already reminiscing. "Oh the days that we have seen," says Shallow. And they talk about people they have known, including a woman once young, but who is now "Old, old," according to Falstaff. As they settle in near a small fire, Swallow once again tries to lighten the mood about their past exploits, but Sir John Falstaff is having little, if none of it: “We have heard
the chimes at midnight,” Falstaff says. He is not rejoicing. Falstaff, who at this point may have already been banished by the newly crowned king he loved, knows his life is nearly over.

It is then the credits roll, with horses galloping across the frame -- a strong motif throughout the film -- and the thrilling music by Angelo Francesco Lavagnino begins. Welles uses the old John Ford trick of putting the earth very low in the frame to make the sky seem huge and the possibilities endless. The vista goes on forever, but it is a cold, misty, fog-bound vista, and it does not look friendly.

Ralph Richardson
, reading from Holinshed's Chronicles, sets the scene -- a kingdom torn by two pretenders to the throne. In the first scene after the credits, the old King, Henry IV (John Gielgud), banishes Worcester (Fernando Rey), Henry Percy, known as Hotspur, and their father, Northumberland (Jose Nieto). The scene for the confrontation is set, but Welles is more interested in Falstaff, the stuff of comedy and meditations on what it is like to be once known and loved, only to turn old and forgotten.

We soon meet Henry VI's son, Hal, and his youthful partner, Ned Poins (Tony Beckley) after they've picked Falstaff's empty pocket. They soon propose a jest: a robbery in the woods during which they will hide Falstaff's horse, and after which Hal and Ned will dress as the victims. They want to see how "brave" Falstaff will turn a tale of cowardice into one of bravery. Falstaff agrees, and out to the woods they go.

"How longest Jack did thou seeest thy own knee," Hal asks Falstaff as he helps the old man put on his disguise.

The scene of the robbery in the woods is beautifully shot (by Edmond Richard), and the stands of trees look like sentinels against the white snow. Hal and Ned do indeed pretend to be those raided upon, and they chase a fleeing and frightened Falstaff into the woods. Later, when Falstaff tells the story not knowing that Hal and Ned are listening in, he lies and says he repelled an attack by two -- no four, no eight! -- men.

But this series of scenes, even though comic, foreshadows Hal's betrayal of Falstaff. He loves the old man, but only as a foil, as a diversion. Hal belittles Falstaff throughout, he's a "huge hill of flesh" or a "horseback breaker" and our hearts sink because we know -- Welles knew -- that Hal's renunciation of Falstaff was soon to come.

(In the play within the play at Mistress Quickly's roominghouse, where Falstaff lives, Hal and Falstaff play roles. In their playacting, Falstaff pathetically tries to seek reassurance that his place with Hal is secure, but Hal assures him, if only in jest, that it is not.)

The subplot that leads to the action in the movie, the enormous, panoramic Battle of Shrewesbury, begins when the aggrieved Harry Percy (Norman Rodway) begins the plot to overthrow Henry IV. Percy and King Henry IV were once allies, but a broken pact has set them against each other.

The early scenes between Percy and his wife Kate (Marina Vlady) are playful and flirtatious, and they are memorable for the fact that it is here that Welles discovers sex -- that is, adult, mature, healthy sex between two people who love each other. Once the scene is set for the confrontation, Welles returns to the messy life of Sir John, who also enjoys a lover, the beautifully named Doll Tearsheet (Jeanne Moreau), which gives you an idea of how energetic a lover she must have been.

And in the meantime we also have King Henry's disappointment with Hal. He calls him an "effeminate boy" and laments the "dissolute crew" he keeps (which includes Falstaff) -- while wishing that his own son was more like Percy, whose manliness and athleticism is defined by his nickname, Hotspur.

In his choice of locales, Welles makes it supremely clear just how cold and uninviting life in a castle must have been: shut off, surrounded by stone, cavernous and dank, and almost assuredly littered with garbage, smeared with shit, with pools of rancid water lying beneath the foot. Welles, as much as any filmmaker ever has, makes you realize that the royal life is one of compromise (at least in the 15th century).

The crowning achievement in "Chimes At Midnight" is the Battle of Shrewsbury. Long famous even before the movie could be seen. it was widely believed to have influenced the battle scenes in Mel Gibson's "Braveheart" -- and it is easy to see that Gibson wasn't influenced by them as much as he ripped them off. The battle is an undisputed cinematic achievement. It's astonishing, tense and dramatic, and full of believable action. Something, by the way, Gibson failed at -- if you look at the back of the frame in Gibson's "action scenes" some of the extras are barely moving.

Welles, however, had everything under control, and the battle moves fluidly and realistically. The viewer never loses his place. Men look like they die, and they look like they hurt.

I get disgusted when the people who heap praise on Steven Spielberg and "Saving Private Ryan" make you think no one had ever directed a realistic battle scene before. Samuel Fuller could have done it -- and just as well and even more realistically -- if he had money and computer effects. But he had no money when he made "The Big Red One" -- and that movie has real more heart than "Saving Private Ryan" will ever have.

But Welles, God bless him, invented a battle scene with almost no cinematic equal with no money and no effects. He just had a supreme cinematic eye, a gift for editing film, and a passion for art.

The scenes of battle are a magnificent achievement. They should be studied, they should be emulated, and they should be justly praised. But they also need to be acknowledged.

Then, after the battle, and threats to the throne have been vanquished, the old King dies. Hal ascends to the throne as Henry V. Falstaff and his friends rejoice -- friends in high places, after all.

But Falstaff has not been paying attention to what Hal has been saying. He has not heard the contempt, and the ridicule. Welles makes the audience both see and hear the forthcoming betrayal all through the film. The storytelling here is masterful -- in each scene we want to yell to Sir John, "Wake up!" Welles has made Shakespeare intimate -- like a chamber play, a few characters playing before a tiny group of sympathetic friends.

But Falstaff has not heard Hal's cruel rebukes. No doubt drunk, Falstaff breaks up the new king's procession in an effort to praise his friend Hal. It is here that Hal -- well, no longer Hal, but a King, after all -- says "I know thee not, old man." The humiliation is complete. Falstaff holds out a false hope: "I shall be sent for in private to him" -- but the dream is over, the days are done. The only thing now before Falstaff is a barren, wintry landscape.

It is then we finally learn how truly sad the opening scene is. And it is only then that we realize how masterfully Welles has crafted the story.

We now know that it is only Justice Shallow, as he and Sir John slowly move through the snow in that first scene, who yearns for the days that the two of them have seen. It is only Justice Shallow who believes they were good days, the best days. "Jesus, the days that we have seen!" says the high-pitched Shallow. But John Falstaff never answers the memory directly. "Old, old," he says. And then, when Justice Shallow prods his memory once again, Falstaff, looking into the embers of a fire too distant to warm the distemper in his soul, doesn't acknowledge what Justice Shallow is saying. Falstaff only knows that the good old memories are over. "The chimes at midnight," are no longer a celebration of what has happened, but come now more as a gentle, if firm reminder, that the day is done.


"Chimes at Midnight" Rings True

By Mike Gillis

Let me get this out of the way first: Watching a film on You Tube, in 11 parts and of low quality, is a chore. Even more so if the audio is out of sync and the video's pixels warble like vision one too many stiff drinks into the evening.

A few fuzzy minutes into “Chimes at Midnight,” Orson Welles' remarkable Shakespearean fusion, I was ready to throw up my hands and power down the computer. But then something rare happened: Except for having to click subsequent parts every 10 minutes, I largely forgot I was watching a movie on a tiny screen.

For now, You Tube is one of the few places you'll see “Chimes at Midnight.” The film, shot in Spain between 1964 and 1965, is still of questionable ownership, no doubt because of how Welles raised the money to finance the production. DVD copies can be had, from Brazil, I believe, if you're willing to shell out upwards of $50.

I'm not aware of any efforts to restore “Chimes at Midnight” so I can't be sure the version on You Tube isn't a doctored or cobbled print –- syncing issues seem to plague many of the prints that still exist –- and that's shame. “Chimes at Midnight” deserves to be seen on a big screen and in better shape. Why not Criterion to the rescue?

I admit I'm a little tired of Shakespeare these days. It seems everyone is looking to rewrite Shakespeare for the modern world, changing settings and characters or transplanting Shakespeare's dialogue to a contemporary setting. Welles himself said setting doesn't matter much when staging Shakespeare. “There are, for instance, a thousand Shylocks: grim patriarchs, loving fathers, cunning orientals, and even comics with long noses. Remember that every single way of staging and playing Shakespeare -- as long as the way is effective -- is right,” Welles wrote in “Everybody's Shakespeare.”

That may true, if not a little overwrought after a while, but Welles had a special gift when it came to Shakespeare. “Falstaff: Chimes at Midnight” is the clear distillation of that gift. The film, which is carefully threaded with plot and character from a handful of Shakespeare's plays, most notably Henry IV, parts 1 and 2, is a remarkable tapestry of Welles' considerable talents as a filmmaker and actor and some of the best dramatic elements of Shakespeare. The object of Welles' affection and attention is Sir John Falstaff, the old, obese knight who opines to a young and impressionable Prince Hal in Henry IV, 1 and 2, and is forsaken by Hal once throned as Henry V.

Watching “Chimes at Midnight,” even on the smallest of screens, I was first struck by Welles, who plays Falstaff with such incisive balance: humor, wisdom, joviality and unexpected charisma. It is, to me, a career-capping performance, the culmination of a life's dream and work. With Falstaff, Welles also makes his first leap off the pages of the play and carves a new path. Welles' Falstaff, whether gregarious or pathetic, comic relief or prosaic soothsayer, is real in a way seldom seen. I suspect that has more to do with Welles, who in “Chimes at Midnight” seems to be reflecting on the nature of friendship, above all, and that connects Falstaff with the viewer far more effectively.

As expected, there are many fine performances in “Chimes at Midnight,” including John Gielgud as Henry IV and Keith Baxter as Prince Hal and Henry V.

Apart from Welles as Falstaff, the real pleasure and departure in “Chimes at Midnight” is Welles' unwavering eye. This is the world he has always wanted to populate with celluloid characters and locations. Welles, so well known for the deep focus of “Citizen Kane” or the open spaces where his camera relaxes and lets life unfold, finds real purpose in “Chimes at Midnight.” There are magnificent exteriors, of castles and battlefields, and well-made interiors, from the bawdy house and tavern where Falstaff spends much of his time, to the keep of Henry IV. Welles knows when to keep the camera still, as he often does in the confined spaces he often prefers, andwhen to push it with great effect, as he does with sweeping shots inside the raucous bawdy house or outside the castle walls. This is Shakespeare come to life.

There is another treat for me. “Chimes at Midnight” is often recalled for its Battle of Shrewsbury. I'd never seen it but remember hearing that Mel Gibson watched it in anticipation for “Braveheart.” The Battle of Shrewsbury, which tops five minutes, is brutal and masterfully shot, stained with the graphic damage of war, caked in mud, blood and smoke. Apart from being what has to be one of the most gripping battle sequences I've seen, Welles focused on the horror of war, which isn't often the point in Shakespeare adaptation. It dispenses with political observations and patriotism, such as can be found in Laurence Olivier's battle sequence in his version of “Henry V,” and shows war for what it is. I find it interesting that film like “Saving Private Ryan” is recognized for underlining the horror of war by making it bookends in a melodrama, where Welles uses the stark horror of war midway through his film, and seemingly out of place for its violence, for greater effect.

Below you can watch part one of “Chimes at Midnight.” Click on the video after part one for parts two through eleven. It's not the ideal way to see this picture, but it's a start. So thanks to You Tube for giving "Chimes at Midnight" a chance to find an audience.

I do hope to one day see it, as intended, on a screen just a bit bigger.


"Chimes at Midnight" Part 1


Sunday, April 12, 2009

The iPhone, the Kindle, and the Mistake in the Declaration of Independence

By Lars Trodson

"In their ongoing effort to eradicate every single job in publishing, Amazon last night announced plans to sell e-books books for the iPhone. With the announcement, the company released its new iPhone application, which gives customers access to all 240,000 titles in its online store, all for the low price of not that much less than you'd pay for a real book. The Times thinks this signals that Amazon is more interested in selling e-books across platforms than in making theirs the top e-reader, though it seems more to us like a plan to emphasize the Kindle's superior battery life (practically infinite) over that of most other portable devices (our iPhone dies after a few hours, even if it's idle in our pocket). The application is well designed and everything, but we'd imagine fewer people will be wowed enough by the e-book experience to buy a Kindle than will be annoyed enough, when their phone shuts off, to just buy a paperback. Then again, we are old." -- New York Magazine (not The New Yorker), March 4, 2009

The iPhone, as the above article in New York magazine states, has a reading application. It might be feasible to actually read an entire piece on your phone and absorb it. But I would imagine that even the briefest articles would seem unduly long if a “page” on your iPhone -- that is, the text available on your screen -- accommodates no more than a paragraph.

The web is for little bite-sized bits of information. It is not a place to read anything longer than a headline. But it seems pointless to fight it. In the near future, the whole world will be channeled right to your phone. If you can Tweet an entire movie review on Twitter, then what is the point of trying to craft an essay that tries to lay out a sophisticated argument for or against a film? All we can do here, I suppose, is to keep swimming against the tide.

The Kindle, which has a nice name, is designed to approximate the experience of reading an actual book, but without having to soil your hands by having to hold the real thing. Maybe the name Kindle came out of the idea that if you buy a Kindle you can use your real books as kindling to start a fire in your fireplace.

The Kindle will give you access to hundreds of books, newspapers, periodicals, and whatnot, which simply means that you can quickly move on to something else if you happened to get bored.

Well, maybe you can't "quickly move on." This is from, in an article comparing the iPhone reading application (Stanza) to the Kindle:

"Stanza, like Kindle, lets users download new content directly to their device. It has a snappy interface that allows readers to flip through a book simply by tapping the edges of the page and responds far faster than Kindle's poky E-ink screen, which takes about a second to turn pages." -, Oct. 2, 2008.

Now, you read that right. The Forbes writer declared that you are wasting valuable time in your life with a Kindle because it takes "about a second to turn pages." The writer described that pace as "poky."

I admit that a book or an article should grab you right away -- that is what in the newspaper business we used to call the compelling lede -- but these digital reading applications obviate the need for any kind of commitment to the story, which a book requires. You can read a snippet of just about anything and move on.

But commitment to the content seems beside the point. What you are being asked to do is commit only the device that distributes your information.

From the New York Times of March 4, 2009: "Amazon said that it sees its Kindle reader and devices like the iPhone as complementary, and that people will use their mobile phones to read books only for short periods, such as while waiting in grocery store lines. “'We think the iPhone can be a great companion device for customers who are caught without their Kindle,' said Ian Freed, Amazon’s vice president in charge of the Kindle."

Let us now hope that the phrase "a great companion device for customers who are caught without their Kindle" enters into the popular lexicon, much like "wardrobe malfunction."

"But, darling, I was caught without my Kindle!", you can explain.

By now you can see where this is heading. Reading is to fill those brief, empty spaces that you experience when you are waiting to buy something. What you read is a disposable item -- in fact, if you grow up thinking that everything you read only comes through some kind of screen -- writing isn't even something that an actual person produced. It just floats out there magically in cyberspace waiting for someone to log on to it.

Books are the opposite.

Book lovers will tell you that they hate to sell them, hate to give them away, hate to have the dust jackets ruined. But they love to have them just hang around the house. Book lovers will just take a book down off a shelf and spend some time with it, and even read no more than a few paragraphs to reconnect with the thing. A book isn’t thought of as a product, and it certainly isn’t just a vehicle to distribute information. It’s much more valuable than that. It’s an heirloom and a distant memory and a constant companion.

And we're just talking about the book itself -- not even what is inside it. The affection we have for books has more to it than just the writers. Book lovers look at them in holistic terms. They remember the first time they came across "Captains Courageous" in school. They associate certain writers with specific publishing houses. Hemingway with Scribners. Beckett with Grove. Ginsberg and City Lights. Robert McCloskey with Viking. A publishing house was associated with a certain logo, a certain style of book jacket, and they all were published in New York City and guided by the steady hand of a real editor who could tell Hemingway to chuck four novellas and only publish one called “The Old Man and the Sea.”

A book, then, was a thing very close to the author. A book, a novel, a hardcover, the paperback, got you very near the source. You got the feeling -- even if it wasn’t true -- that the published novel was as close of an approximation of the author’s physical vision of his writing that we ever would see aside from the writer designing and publishing the book himself. Maybe in some cases it was even closer to the author’s vision -- sometimes a writer is not a very good judge as to how their work should be presented.

But that is why we love books -- it is a complete experience. The entire packaging brings us closer to the contents. We have a fondness for almost everything associated with favored books -- down to the tactile experience of how the paper feels on the fingertips.

And because of this connection, because of this very real connection from one book to the next, we feel we owe the author of the next book we buy, or borrow, or find, the respect of giving his work a chance. We will offer up the commitment because we know, if the author speaks to us, everything else about that little volume will end up giving us some kind of pleasure, too. It is inevitable because the published book allows is to feel the craftsmanship, the care, the nurture, indeed, the love that has gone into its production.

We can see the human fingerprint on a published novel, because it feels to us to be only one generation away from the original manuscript itself.

That is what I have been meaning to say.

We are getting away from the source. We don’t know where our water, or our food, or where are art comes from any more. All were once locally produced, and now they come from some far off places -- in some cases they originate from a place you cannot find on a map.

The iPhone, and the Kindle, brings us further away from the original manuscript and the published novel of that manuscript. These things could not be less human or less impersonal, and they offer up no chance for love.

It is essential to feel connected to art, and to nature, but now we seem to have entered into an era where we experience only the facsimile of just about anything. This has been a long time coming. In the anthology of essays titled “Man and the Movies”, editor W. R. Robinson wrote in his introduction: “Since the Renaissance... Western man has been fascinated by the reality and delights of vision. That fascination has grown until today we buy the package ... rather than the substantive product; we vote in presidential campaigns for the image rather than the ideology...” This was published in 1967. If today we see Picasso’s “Guernica” reprinted in a magazine we simply believe that we have “seen” it, that we have experienced it. That path has led us to think that staying at a pyramid-shaped hotel in Las Vegas is akin to having visited Egypt.

Which leads us to, of all places, the “Declaration of Independence.” In the interests of full disclosure, I have not been to Washington and seen the original, but my favorite way to read that document is to do so in its handwritten state. When I was a kid I had a replica, printed on some faux parchment, which I read over and over. One of the most fascinating aspects of that miracle of prose occurs late in the list of grievances. Near the end, we see the following sentence: “Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury.”

There is no question that our burgeoning Republic was lucky enough to have Thomas Jefferson as its primary writer. His prose is consistently lovely and clear (even if his finances were not), and it is no wonder that, when Jefferson’s prose was transcribed onto that official document, the calligrapher was made to insert the word “only” into that sentence. It would have been forceful nonetheless: “Our repeated Petitions have been answered by repeated injury.” But as the document was being written out, or proofed, someone noticed that the extra two beats of the word “only” was missing, and that it was essential to be inserted. Maybe it was Jefferson himself who noticed the omission.

So in the document you can read that sentence, "Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury." And floating slightly above the sentence is the word "only", with the proofreaders mark, the upward turned arrow, showing where the word should be inserted.

Because of that tiny mistake, it is easy for me to realize the “Declaration of Independence” was created by people. It is a human creation. I can never overestimate how much more profound my connection to this document is because of that slight amendment. It is an imperfection that makes the thing even more perfect still.

The error allows us to see the human being within the art.

Today, there are no mistakes, no early drafts of poems or revisions of novels. If the robots of today can begin to express human emotion, then what will prevent young people in the year 2025 believe that the Bible is nothing more than html. I want to say, don’t be afraid of scratches on the record, or double imprints on the coin, or inky revisions on emerging versions of the manuscript, or frayed, cloth-bound first editions.

But soon, very soon, everything and anything, from the classified ad to “Angela’s Ashes” to “Burt Dow, Deep Water Man” will be available in the same font on the same glassy-eyed computer screen. We will be able to read each in little bursts in the checkout line, if we so choose.

But some of us will not. I'm not a doom-and-gloomist here. I'm not going to say that this road will turn us all into a bunch of cyborgs who won't know whether our emotions are real or implanted by a computer chip.

I think society will break into three camps, each thinking they are correct: one will think technology is the answer to all our communication and business needs and will create success, the second will believe that hardcopy books and periodicals lead to a quieter, more spiritual and stable kind of life, and there will be a third camp that won't care about either.

These camps will mingle just fine with one another - families will have proponents of each philosophy -- and society will debate the value of each approach. The discussion will last forever -- and no matter who lopsided the debate may get, each side will passionately believe it has won.

Here are two articles about two men who did not write the Declaration of Independence, but who actually may have written the Declaration of Independence:

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

An Open Letter to Cheerios

To: The Makers of Cheerios, Maple Plain, Minn.
From: Lars Trodson

I am wondering if you can mend my broken heart. My mother was rummaging through her attic (no doubt to package up more junk to send to her kids), and found a little postcard that contained a promise. No, it contained more than a promise. It contained the dreams of a little boy.

It turns out that in May, 1970, I received a promise from you that my Pan Am 747 Superjet model was on its way. Sure it would take 10 weeks, but you said you were "working around the clock to fill hundreds of thousands of orders like yours." Well, obviously you were working around the clock to fill hundreds of thousands of orders -- minus one! Because I never got my jet. Maybe your boys knocked off at a minute before midnight.

"Thank you for your patience" is the way you end the card. Patience, indeed.

The cause of the nagging, empty feeling that has been following me for the past 40 years is no longer a mystery. When I was 9 I had dreams that my life would take me to faraway, exotic places -- I could fly! In July 1970, I began to feel a little grounded. This little boy didn't soar any more. Now I know why.

If you have no more in stock, I understand. I have your beautiful postcard, with a color photo of that gleaming jet, offering the fulfillment of a promise, which at one point seemed just a few weeks away.


Thursday, April 2, 2009

The Losing of Pelham 123

By Lars Trodson

Harry Knowles is right. The original "The Taking of Pelham 123" is one of the great, gritty 1970s New York cop movies. And the remake that will come out this summer isn't going to even come close. You just know it. It'll be louder, it'll be flashier, it may even be exciting. But it won't have the buildup, or the tension, or the wit of the first one.

The original was released in 1973, and starred Walter Matthau, who was at the beginning of a great stretch of character and starring roles -- a string of successes almost unmatched for an actor who was past leading man status. Matthau really was at the top of his game throughout the 1970s, and "Pelham" is right up there as one of his indelible screen characterizations. Casting Matthau was pure genius.

The 1973 "Pelham" was directed by Joseph Sargent, and was shot by Own Roizman, who also photographed "The French Connection" a couple of years before. It has that grainy, rainy, celluloid look that has completely vanished from movies.

At Ain't It Cool News they linked the trailer of the new version along with a YouTube clip of the original's titles. The short opening of the Matthau version, with its jazzed, hopped up score, is enough to tell you that the original was made by men, and the new one by boys who want to show off their shiny new toys.

Here you go: