Posted: September 18, 2018 Filed under: Movies | Tags: Chicago 1968, Haskell Wexler, Medium Cool
As a followup to my review and comments on Haskell Wexler’s film, Medium Cool, here’s an important short film interview with Wexler, made in about 2014, the year before he died. Wexler talks about the film and his filmmaking. He describes the mood and atmosphere in Chicago at the time, his political attitudes, racism and the antiwar movement, and how Medium Cool came to be. Please enjoy.
Posted: September 18, 2018 Filed under: Movies | Tags: 1968 DNC Chicago, Haskell Wexler, Medium Cool, Robert Forster, Verna Bloom
Haskell Wexler, right. Image courtesy H&J.
Haskell Wexler invented a new hybrid form of filmmaking when he created Medium Cool, released in 1969. I saw the film back then, but was probably unconscious of anything but the story and its background—the antiwar protests and police action around the1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
This is the film’s 50th anniversary and I celebrated by watching the film—three times. Once by itself and twice with the excellent commentary tracks included on the DVD. (You see, Netflix, that’s why some 3 million crazy people still subscribe to your DVD service—because it’s the only way we can view foreign films and classics like this. You have 40 times that in streaming subscribers, so I hope you keep finding us profitable too.)
Theatrical film poster, 1969.
Wexler layers a fictional story of a loner TV news cameraman, a single mom and her young son over cinema-verité-style documentary footage of news events leading up to the convention (Robert Kennedy’s assassination and funeral, the arrival of the protestors in Chicago, the preparation of troops, police and Illinois National Guard) with the events inside the convention hall (the old International Amphitheatre) and in Lincoln Park, Grant Park and on Michigan Avenue.
Wexler started researching his film at least a year in advance and had tips that there would be a major protest action surrounding the convention. Because of his planning, he was able to have his characters carry out the plot against a backdrop of actual convention footage and street protests. The other innovation is Wexler’s use of quick cuts and sharp transitions. He takes you from A to C without stopping at B to explain, as Roger Ebert says in his 1969 review. That’s a technique we are used to now, but it was probably jarring 50 years ago.
Robert Forster plays John, the cameraman, and Verna Bloom plays Eileen. The most striking sequence is near the end of the film when Eileen is frantically looking for her independent-minded son, Harold (a 13-year-old untrained actor, whose performance is rough, natural and phenomenal). Harold has wandered away from their home in an Uptown slum (a poor white migrant neighborhood at the time) to go down to Grant Park with one of his buddies. Eileen follows him downtown, looking frantically through the crowds and marching along with the protestors on their way to the convention site. She’s in the middle of the actual police attack on the protesters. Wexler very cleverly had Verna wear a bright yellow dress, which meant she was easy to follow in the crowd.
Finally Eileen and John connect and get in his car to continue the search for Harold.
The film ends with a tragic accident, which happens for no reason, as accidents do. (My sister Linda died at the age of 27 in a similar car crash in January 1970, a life ended for no reason. She died at the same age and in the same year as Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin.)
There are plenty of other dramatic elements to the film. One interesting segment involves a fictional story about a cabdriver who found a package with $10,000 in cash in his taxi and returned it to the owner. John visits his home to interview the driver and meets all his friends. It’s 1968, remember, and the driver’s friends (the whole cast in this sequence is African-American) are artists and activists. They accuse John of being a police spy and the conversation gets racially heated. (Some of the film is scripted and much of it is improvised, including most of this scene.)
In the newsroom, there are discussions of what it means to be a journalist today. And in one scene, John finds out that the TV station has been giving his news footage to the Chicago police. He explodes and eventually loses his job over it. And there’s Harold’s fascination with his pigeons, which he cares for on the roof of the building where they live.
The cameraman and his sidekick, the sound guy, are carrying the bulky equipment of the period. It’s interesting to imagine what Wexler might do today using a smartphone. Excellent films like Tangerine (2015) and Searching for Sugar Man (2012) were shot on smartphones. The Oscar-nominated The Florida Project was shot on 35mm in 2017.
Medium Cool is brilliant because Wexler, the director/cinematographer, starts with an idea and carries it out with style and intensity. Medium Cool is a masterpiece, a landmark film that never got much attention. At the time, it was given an X rating because of some nudity in a delightful bedroom chase scene. Because of DVDs (1995), you can see it today—and I recommend that you do.
You can read Roger Ebert’s 1969 review here. Rather than reviewing the film, he focuses on Wexler’s approach and technique, for reasons he explains.
Posted: August 27, 2018 Filed under: Books, Technology, Writers & writing | Tags: Kurt Vonnegut, Player Piano
This was the cover of my old copy of Player Piano, lost in the mists of time and too many moving boxes.
It’s 1952 and a debut novel by a 23-year-old writer is published by Delacorte Press. Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s Player Piano about a near-future society is categorized as science fiction and doesn’t get much attention.
I first read Player Piano many years ago. Probably some time soon after college, when I was devouring his other books, such as Cat’s Cradle; God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater; Sirens of Titan and Slaughterhouse Five. I read Player Piano then too, but my copy disappeared in one of my moves.
Recently my son Andrew mentioned that Player Piano has parallels to today’s society, made up of an elite, educated upper class and an underemployed lower class. I decided it was time to take another look at Vonnegut. I am amazed by how striking the parallels are to today’s society. And how prescient Vonnegut was, as a young writer/publicist working for General Electric in Schenectady, New York. He recreates that milieu in Player Piano as Ilium, home of the Ilium Works, “where machines hummed and whirred and clicked, and made parts for baby carriages and bottle caps, motorcycles and refrigerators, television sets and tricycles….”
The time is after the third world war, which was followed by riots, and a government clampdown on saboteurs. The machines developed in the wartime miracle now control every aspect of life and no humans are needed to operate them.
The hero of Player Piano is Dr. Paul Proteus, a brilliant engineer and head of Ilium Works. He’s mostly happy with his life as an engineer and manager and hopes for a promotion to run the Pittsburgh Works. So does his wife Anita. They’re part of the executive/engineer class who live a privileged life with high incomes and lavish homes and possessions.
The others? Since people are no longer needed to operate or control the machines, they are given the choice of serving in the Army or working for the Reconstruction and Reclamation Corps—the so-called Reeks and Wrecks, who fix bridges and fill potholes. The government provides everyone with an adequate income for home, food, clothing, healthcare, education—everything a family needs to survive. Perhaps you think people are happy to have all their needs provided without doing any real work? But no, people are depressed and desperate to do real meaningful work.
As one writer said about Player Piano, “The rotten core buried under a façade of shining machines is that this society has made humanity superfluous, sucked all meaning out of the world, and replaced humanist values with a machine ethic predicated upon a new holy trinity: ‘Efficiency, Economy, and Quality.’” Sound familiar?
Even human relations are mechanized, Vonnegut thinks. Paul talks about his wife being skilled at “the mechanics of marriage.” On their phone calls, Anita ends by telling Paul she loves him and he robotically replies, “I love you, Anita.”
Paul occasionally visits a certain bar in Homestead, the area where the Reeks and Wrecks live. He becomes aware of their unhappiness as he talks to workers who have ideas and skills they’d like to contribute, even though they’re unwanted.
Kurt Vonnegut in 1972. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Nevertheless, he loves the music of his machines. “The lathe groups, the tenors…. the welders, the baritones…. the punch presses, the basses.” He has nagging doubts about his life, which he tries not to acknowledge, until some dramatic events take place at the executive retreat on an island called The Meadows. It’s the kind of event you’d expect it to be: lots of team sports, structured camaraderie, controlled drinking and tight scheduling, announced by the omnipresent loudspeaker. Paul’s future life changes as a result and he ends up joining the revolution concocted by the underground Ghost Shirt Society, a group of radicals who want to destroy key machinery and restore dignity to human work.
There’s a second thread to Player Piano. A representative of the U.S. Department of State is escorting two foreign visitors around to various American cities. The Shah of Bratpuhr and his translator express an outsider’s skepticism of the wonders of American society. It’s Vonnegut’s technique, which he uses in other books, of showing a skewed perspective on our lives.
Player Piano isn’t a diatribe against technology. It’s a critique of corporatized society, of adopting technological change without any thought for social or political change. We can have machines control everything without any human operators, so let’s just do that.
Vonnegut’s writing is a mix of satire and black humor, social and political critique. He’s hard to categorize, which probably didn’t help his reputation among critics who find it more convenient to pigeonhole artists and writers. He’s more likely to be recognized for his literary genius since his death in 2007 gave critics a reason to fully explore his life and oeuvre.
So I highly recommend a reading or rereading of Player Piano for a break from your daily news and political blather. If you’re thinking well, this sounds interesting, but I don’t like sci-fi. Player Piano isn’t sci-fi. There are no aliens with weird-shaped heads, no humans with amorphous sexual abilities, no strange worlds defined by frost and desert. This is the U.S., populated by people like you and me. Furthermore, it’s a readable 340 pages, not a doorstop tome. You can buy it here or here or borrow it from your public library.
And now, it’s time to reread Vonnegut’s acknowledged masterpiece, Slaughterhouse Five.
Posted: August 20, 2018 Filed under: Digital life, Writers & writing | Tags: Bill of Rights, bloggers, First Amendment, online media, Third Coast Review
Last week, more than 300 newspapers all over the country recommitted to the basic tenets of a free press and community service through journalism. At Third Coast Review, we thought it was important to take this same stand and point out that writers for online media are journalists too. We are thus bound to and supported by the First Amendment. Here’s my essay.
“Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.” The famously acerbic journalist, A.J. Liebling, wrote that in the New Yorker in 1960. Although that may well have been true in 1960, today we are journalists without owning a press.
On August 16, more than 300 U.S. newspapers joined in editorial harmony to state vehemently that a free press is essential to America’s democracy and to counter the ridiculous and hateful statements of the current occupant of the White House. (Do I have to say his name?)
Initiated by the Boston Globe, the event was joined in by major metro dailies such as the Houston Chronicle and the New York Times, both Chicago dailies and the suburban Daily Herald and many smaller city newspapers all over the state and the country, such as the Durango (Colo.) Herald, the Kokomo (Ind.) Tribune and the Ripon (Wis.) Commonwealth Press. You can read the New York Times editorial and quotes from many of the 350 newspapers here.
We applaud the comments of all these important newspapers, large and small. We particularly liked this excerpt from the Sun-Times editorial:
“We are the enemy of nothing but ‘thoughts and prayers’ when children are slaughtered. We are the enemy of faked-up outrage.
“We are the friend of the teacher who never gives up, of the small business owner who hires ex-offenders, of the bus driver who makes every last stop, of the architect who designs a beautiful building, and of the bricklayer and ironworker who build it.
“We are the friend of an open lakefront, a clean Chicago River, excellent middle linebackers and deep-dish pizza.
“Above all, we are the enemy of bad journalism, and we commit ourselves each day to practicing the best journalism. We do our best to tell our city’s story, the sum total of every Chicagoan’s story, straight and fair, come what may.”
We want to point out that online news media also support and value the press freedom guarantee of the First Amendment. Our fellow online media—such as our friends at Block Club Chicago, the Beachwood Reporter, Reddit Chicago, and possibly Chance’s reborn Chicagoist—all benefit by the First Amendment. You may not think of this when you read our pop music reviews, our commentary on storefront theater, our videogame reviews and Third Coast Today, our regular news feature. But like our online colleagues, we are beneficiaries of the First Amendment and we damn well will publish whatever we think is important for our readers to know. And no government agency—should they know or care what we write about—will stop us. Not the city, or the police department, the county, the state of Illinois or any government agency. If Third Coast Review is ever silenced, it will be because of lack of funds or lack of support.
So as the Boston Globe and the New York Times requested, read and subscribe to your local newspaper. And read and share your local arts and culture site, Third Coast Review.
And I’ll add here, please read, share and support your local bloggers and other writers who comment on matters political and personal. Share their posts, comment on their sites and donate a few bucks if you can.
Posted: July 24, 2018 Filed under: Art & architecture, Theater | Tags: American Players Theatre, Arcadia Books, As You Like It, Blood Knot, Born Yesterday, Exit the King, Spring Green, Taliesin Preservation
FLW’s view of the Wisconsin countryside. Photo by Nancy Bishop.
Spring Green is an arts center in nearby south central Wisconsin that’s easily accessible to Chicagoans interested in theater and the work of Frank Lloyd Wright. In a long weekend, you can see classic theater at the American Players Theatre (APT) on a hilltop in Spring Green and tour Taliesin, the home, studio and school built, rebuilt and rebuilt again by Frank Lloyd Wright, his apprentices and family. (This article was previously posted at thirdcoastreview.com.)
I was in Spring Green last week for the annual meeting of the American Theatre Critics Association and, as is our custom, we crammed as many plays as possible into the four-plus days. The conference was expertly organized by Madison ATCA members. Discussions included association-focused business plus panels and speakers on topics such as producing period comedy today, racial equity in theater, podcasting and legal/ethical issues in criticism. We also spent an afternoon on a private tour of Taliesin. First, a recap of some of the plays we saw. There are many theater connections between Chicago and APT, as you might imagine.
Bird’s-eye view of the stage and seating at American Players Theatre. Image courtesy APT.
American Players Theatre
At the Hill Theatre, you’re seated in a natural bowl on the hillside. To reach it from parking and picnic grounds below, you walk up a hill through the woods on a gravel path. There’s also shuttle service to the hilltop. Your theater companions are hordes of mosquitoes, so the theater sets up “spray stations” around the grounds.
As You Like It by William Shakespeare
Set in 1870, As You Like Itis a totally delightful and quite traditional rendition of this happy-ending play, directed by James Bohnen. (Bohnen was longtime artistic director and cofounder of Remy Bumppo Theatre. He now also runs Arcadia Books in Spring Green, a fine indie bookstore and cafe.) Melisa Pereyra is a charming Rosalind and her friend Celia (Andrea San Miguel), her admirable sidekick. After Rosalind is banished by Duke Frederick, she and Celia head to the forest of Arden in disguise. Many scenes and many characters later, disguises are removed and several couples are happily joined in marriage.
An interesting casting choice is Chicago actor Tracy Michelle Arnold as Jaques (a role usually played by a male). At the end, Madame Jaques declines to return to court and makes her own way. During a later discussion, someone suggested that Madame Jaques represents one of those 19th century woman travelers. (As dramatized in the play On the Verge or the Geography of Learning by Eric Overmyer.)
The settings on the Hill Theatre stage are simple and built on the gray frame structure that holds the theater’s sound and lighting equipment. (Actors in Hill Theatre are never amplified because the company prefers natural sound. Thus the company doesn’t stage musicals.)
Madigan and Madden in a scene from Born Yesterday. Photo courtesy APT.
Born Yesterday by Garson Kanin
You probably know the story of Billie Dawn, the “dizzy blonde” who really isn’t, and her thuggish boyfriend. Remy Bumppo Theatre staged an excellent version in 2017. APT’s production brightened our Saturday night, starring Colleen Madden as Billie, David Daniel as Harry Brock and Reese Madigan as Paul Verrall, the journalist who becomes Billie’s tutor and more. Direction by APT artistic director Brenda DeVita was spot-on and each actor kept the pace and the sparkling dialogue.
Set in a luxury suite in Washington DC in 1946, Nathan Stuber’s scenic design adds black and metallic art deco ornament and furnishings to the Hill Theatre backdrop. Fabio Roblini’s costume designs, especially for Billie, are exquisite and timeless.
Haven’t seen Born Yesterday lately? Get a DVD of the 1950 film, starring Judy Holliday and Broderick Crawford. Holliday won an Oscar and a Golden Globe for her performance.
At the Touchstone Theatre.The Touchstone, opened in 2009, is located about halfway up the hill and it’s enclosed, air-conditioned and sans mosquitoes. Both venues have raked seating, so sightlines are excellent no matter where your seat is.
DeVita and Lawrence in Blood Knot. Image courtesy APT.
Blood Knot by Athol Fugard
Fugard’s 1961 play, set in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, during apartheid, tells the story of two brothers who live together in a shack in the “colored” section. They have the same mother but different fathers. Zachariah (Gavin Lawrence) works for an oppressive white boss and comes home each evening to soak his aching feet and eat a meal prepared by his at-home brother, Morris (Jim DeVita). Zach is dark-skinned and Morris is a light-skinned man who can “pass” for white and apparently has in the past. Chicago’s Ron OJ Parson directs this slow-burner of a play. Act one sets up the story of Zach’s desire to meet a woman and Morris helps him meet a newspaper “pen pal.” (Yes, that’s how people met before OKCupid and Tinder.)
The pen pal sends her photo (she is a white woman) and later says she plans to visit Port Elizabeth and wants to meet Zach. The two brothers, who have engaged in role-playing games since they were children, embark on a plan. In act two, the games ratchet up to an explosive level. This is a intense play about an era of a different sort of racism than the racism we live with now.
Both actors deliver powerful performances, but there has been controversy over the casting. In early productions of the play, Fugard, who is white, played Morris. And DeVita is white. The optics of the casting selection are tainted because it was made by his wife, artistic director Brenda DeVita. Director Parson came on later but apparently he concurs with the decision.
The controversy is addressed in this article in American Theatre magazine. These questions of representation and appropriation have been roiling the theater world recently. APT has decided to expand the conversation with a special “pay what you like” performance of Blood Knotat 12noon on Sunday, August 12. The performance will be followed by a panel discussion to explore the issues in the play, including the casting.
Exit the King by Eugene Ionesco
Ionesco’s 1962 absurdist play is the story of King Berenger (APT veteran James Ridge), who is told by his first wife, Queen Marguerite, and his doctor that he has only hours to live. His current wife, Queen Marie (the lovely Cassia Thompson) does everything she can to keep him alive. His kingdom is crumbling around him, he has lost all his powers, the birth rate is zero, and by the way, he’s 400 years old. The Doctor (James Pribyl) tells the king, “In three days you lost all the wars you ever won.” Every action in the play is announced by the Guard (Chicago actor Casey Hoekstra), usually to ridiculous extremes.
Marguerite is played by Tracy Michelle Arnold, who also plays Jaques in As You Like It. Arnold and Thompson are both beguiling in their parts but I thought Ridge’s characterization was weak. (We saw him again that night in Born Yesterday, where he plays Senator Hedges.) Exit the King (the only APT production we saw that runs under two hours) is a witty and moving meditation on death and mortality. APT’s production is uneven, but worth seeing if you visit Spring Green.
FLW’s bedroom. Photo by Jack Whaley, courtesy Taliesin Preservation.
Our three-hour tour of Frank Lloyd Wright’s 800-acre estate included his former home, studio and school. (More info below about tour options, prices, etc.) I was in two different groups for the tour—first of the Hillside School, Studio and Theater and second of the house known as Taliesin 3. The two groups were led by capable and knowledgeable docents Kyle Adams and Jill McDermott.
Wood flooring in the Drafting Studio.
The school was built in 1902 to replace the one his aunts had built in 1887. The building features the Assembly Hall, a typically spacious Wright area with a high ceiling, dark and light contrasts in the woodwork and ceiling framing. Built-in furniture pieces were added later. The Drafting Room, in use today by architects and apprentices, has an interesting striped wood flooring, left over from FLW’s design for the Johnson family Racine house, Wingspread.
In the theater, Taliesin’s apprentices and staff would perform plays, musical and literary events and view performances by guests. The colorful theater curtain was designed by Wright and made by the apprentices.
The original house was mostly destroyed by the 1914 fire, an event that included the murders of Wright’s lover, Mamah Borthwick Cheney (both had left their spouses to be together), and her children, by a Taliesin workman. Later fires destroyed parts of the house, thus the terminology, Taliesin 3. Half of the extensive house was built for agricultural purposes and functioned originally as animal sheds. The house features many FLW touches, such as bands of windows that frame the grand view of the rolling hills, river and countryside. At one point, the Wisconsin electric company installed electric poles and lines across the land. Wright was incensed and demanded they be removed, because they spoiled his view. (They were eventually replaced by underground wiring.)
View of the theater and curtain designed by Wright. Photo courtesy Taliesin Preservation.
Want to learn more? If you’re interested in learning more about the development and history of Taliesin, there are many FLW biographies, of course. But I recommend The Fellowship: The Untold Story of Frank Lloyd Wright & the Taliesin Fellowship by Roger Friedland and Harold Zellman (2006, Harper Collins, 690pp). The authors, a sociologist and an architect, tracked down and interviewed dozens of the apprentices who worked with Wright at Taliesin. Their stories are epic but detailed in the everyday activities, tragedies and scandals at Taliesin, where Wright, a genius, egotist, misogynist, racist and anti-Semite, ruled with an iron hand. He couldn’t manage money and was greatly influenced by his third wife, Olgivanna, who was a devotee of the Greek-Armenian spiritualist, Georgi Gurdjieff. The book is rich in detail, gossipy, well-researched and annotated, and impossible to put down.
Tourist tips for visiting Spring Green
Try to plan your trip when the weather is not hot and humid. If I go to APT again, I will choose a time in late September or October. Sitting in the Hill Theatre when the temperature is in the high 80s and very humid and you are covered with insect repellent and persistent mosquitoes is not my idea of comfort. And in midsummer, the sun is out until well into the first act, so there’s not much relief from the heat. I know the Greeks invented outdoor theater, but they didn’t have electricity and air-conditioning. I’ll take my theater inside, with AC and no bugs, thank you. It’s hard to concentrate when you’re miserable and bug-swatting.
Dress casually and wear comfortable walking shoes. Bring water or other beverages, bug spray if you don’t like DEET, and something to fan with.
To order theater tickets, see the calendar for the full list of plays and order online or call 608-588-2361. Ticket prices range from $51 to $86, depending on day and location. Here’s a helpful page of tips from APT.
To tour Taliesin, see tour options and make reservations here. Tickets are $54 each for the two-hour House or Highlights tours, $22 for the one-hour Studio and Theater tour, and $90 for the four-hour Estate tour. Other tours are available too. At the Frank Lloyd Wright Visitor Center, you’ll find a gift shop and the Riverview Terrace Café, serving produce grown at Taliesin.
Dress casually and wear comfortable walking shoes. You’ll be walking on uneven ground and old stone paths. Bring sunscreen, bug spray, water and something to fan with. At Taliesin, most interior spaces are not air-conditioned.
Posted: April 8, 2018 Filed under: poetry, Writers & writing
The Printer’s Devil explained. The symbol of the printer’s devil reflects my love for the printed word. A printer’s devil in history was thought to be a pesky demon that, when the printer was not watching, would iuvert letters, mizspell a word or perhaps remove an entire word or even a complete line. This was in the era when type was set one character at a time. In more recent eras, the printer’s devil was an apprentice who ran errands and did menial tasks around the print shop. That was me in high school, when I worked at my dad’s print shop in the West Loop.
The Printer’s Devil is an occasional column I write for Third Coast Review. This post is adapted from my first Printer’s Devil column. More on the little red devil below.
Poetry has always been part of my life, from Mother Goose rhymes to poetry and poetry-writing classes in high school and college. Mostly it was just on the sidelines of my life, except for a few brief flurries of serious writing. But recently I’ve decided that I need to help jump-start the poetry renaissance.
You may not think a poetry renaissance is necessary in Chicago. After all, Adam Morgan writesthat Chicago may be the poetry capital of America, partly because of the founding of Poetry Magazine here in 1912. He also credits other publications, venues and poets for Chicago’s dynamic poetry scene.
The poetry slam got its start in Chicago in 1984, and the Louder Than a Bomb poetry competition was founded here by Kevin Coval, Anna West and Young Chicago Authors. LTAB competitions are now held in cities across the U.S. (I recently wrote about a night of Coval’s readings from his latest book of poetry, A People’s History of Chicago, at the Driehaus Museum.)
The national Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry Magazine, is headquartered here and we also have the Poetry Center of Chicago.
Most any night of the week you can find a live poetry reading somewhere in Chicago.
Poetry lives a full and vibrant life in Chicago.
Nationally, the Academy of American Poets offers you a Poem a Day by email. Some of them are quite good. Many are by contemporary poets and some by traditional poets (i.e. dead white people). The Poetry Foundation has an app for your smartphone that enables you to search and read a favorite poet or “spin” and choose poems that match a mood or situation, like “Nostalgia and Family” or “Frustration and Love.”
The renaissance in poetry isn’t new but it’s exciting. It may have started with the genesis of poetry slams 30-some years ago but hip-hop’s expansion to a wider audience through the work of Chicago artists like Common and Chance the Rapper helped its revival.
I was not much of a hip-hop fan until a few years ago, when I saw the megamusical Hamilton for the first time. It opened my eyes to the wonder of hip-hop in storytelling. Hip-hop artists can smash together a profusion of words—like Dylan and early Springsteen—and make their stories rich and compelling.
My own love for poetry began in college. We read Shakespearean sonnets in my Shakespeare summer school class at UIC (sitting on the grass outside our own “Harvard on the Rocks” at Navy Pier). Listening to Professor Kogan read the sonnets aloud and reading them ourselves was a joy. Then later at Mizzou, I always found time away from my journalism courses for poetry. My favorites were:
- A modern lit course taught by Donald Justice in which I learned to love T.S. Eliot and W.H. Auden. Justice was one of the few professors I remember by name from my undergrad years. He was a quietly inspiring teacher and later considered an influential poet and writer. It was exciting to learn recently that a good friend also studied with Justice at another school. We enjoyed sharing our memories of his classes.
- A marvelous poetry-writing seminar with the great poet, John Neihardt. I still have my folder of poems, written on a typewriter and edited by hand, from that class. Some of them are not bad; some are embarrassing.
Image courtesy John Neihardt State Historical Site.
As a J-School reporter, I interviewed Professor Neihardt at his farm home and wrote a feature on him for the Columbia Missourian, the J-School’s daily newspaper.
I’ve continued to read poetry, listen to it at every chance, and occasionally write it over the years. My poetry library includes works by my favorite poets—Auden, Eliot and W.B. Yeats, Chicago’s own Stuart Dybek, Kevin Coval and Carl Sandburg, plus Ron Padgett, Dylan Thomas, John Berryman, John Ashbery, Emily Dickinson, William Carlos Williams and Federico Garcia Lorca. I’m expanding my poetry interests by reading a more diverse group of poets. I like the work of Richard Blanco, who read “One Today” at the second Obama inauguration. I also like Natalie Diaz; her first book is When My Brother Was an Aztec, and Chicago poets Sandra Marchetti, Eileen Favorite and Laura Passin.
The 2016 film, Paterson, was thrilling because it was about a busdriver poet. As I said in my review, “It’s a beautiful film about nothing much.” It’s the story of a busdriver named Paterson who drives a bus around Paterson, NJ, and writes poetry every day. He also reads William Carlos Williams, a Paterson native.
As I said, my passion for poetry makes me want to jump-start the poetry renaissance. I guess I want everyone to appreciate poetry. So I ask, why do so many people say they don’t like poetry?
I belong to a book group that meets every month or two to read and discuss a notable book of fiction or nonfiction. It’s a group of a dozen or more highly literate and well-read people. One night I suggested we read the Kevin Coval book I mentioned above and I got groans. “I could see reading a few poems,” one person said, “but a whole book?”
My attempt to sell poetry that way didn’t work but the host for the next meeting asked me to spend a few minutes talking about poetry and reading a few poems. So I did that and I think most people said they enjoyed it. But several insisted they still hated poetry. Why, I wondered?
Matthew Zapruder tries to answer that question in his 2017 book, Why Poetry? It’s “an impassioned call for a return to reading poetry and an incisive argument for its accessibility to all readers.” Zapruder thinks the aversion to poetry results from the way it is taught in most schools—as something to analyze, parse and understand. Really, he says, the way to read poetry is just to read the words of the poem and forget everything we were taught in school about it. Just read the words.
Plaque on house where Auden lived in Brooklyn Heights. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Zapruder tells about how he was assigned to read a poet in high school and he picked W.H. Auden because the name was listed first. He knew nothing about Auden, whether the name indicated a he or she. But he still remembers the first lines he read, from “Musee des Beaux Arts.”
About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just
walking dully along;
Something just clicked, he says. He didn’t quite understand all of it but he knew it said something important about being human.
Auden is perhaps my favorite poet of all; I have half a dozen books of his work. In his great poem, “In Memory of W.B. Yeats,” he writes, “For poetry makes nothing happen: It survives in the valley of its saying … / It survives / A way of happening, a mouth.”
The little red devil is a toy that operates under solar power, so it’s hard to make him hold still for a portrait. He’s standing on the letters that make up my first name, from fonts of various sizes from California job cases. Thanks to my son Steve and his wife Jan for finding them at an antique store.
Posted: January 16, 2018 Filed under: poetry, Writers & writing
My copy of The Waste Land from my modern lit class at Mizzou.
(An homage to the St. Louis poet who became a Brit and also to Lou Rawls)
January is the cruelest month.
Where did T.S. Eliot get that April business?
January is the cruelest month, breeding
Black ice boulders out of the dead streets, mixing
Memory and desire, the memory of light,
The longing for sun, at least more of it every day.
January is the cruelest month, building
Slippy slides on the sidewalks, lurking
In wait for me to land flat
On my butt, if I’m lucky.
January is cruel, refusing
To share its light with those who wake in the dark
And work through the rare hours of sunshine.
Assuming there is any anyway.
Sometimes winter keeps us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life for spring.
What branches grow
Out of this icy rubbish? We do know
There is life to come under this ugly blackness.
I will show you how winter can be beautiful
If only the ice would melt
And we could walk happily again
On dry sidewalks, even if the temp is single digits
With a wind chill below zero.
While the Hawk blows off the lake, sending
Me on to a dead end street
Where there is nothing to stop the wind.
So they put ropes on some of the buildings to help
Us get around the corners.
January is still the cruelest month.
Madame Sosostris, famous clairvoyante,
Had a bad cold because she didn’t get a flu shot
Despite being the wisest woman in the Midwest.
Here, said she, is your card. The frozen Phoenician sailor
Who should have known better than to go out without
Boots, hat, earmuffs, mittens and down.
Those are shells that were his ears. Look!
Now frozen to pink marble.
Here is Belladonna, the Lady of the Rocks.
I could have told her not to swim off the rocks
At Addison, when chunks of ice cover
What was once and will be again
Our beautiful blue lake.
January is the cruelest month, even if, as I,
You love winter.
Just not quite as much of it.
T.S.Eliot, The Waste Land And Other Poems, (1930, Harcourt Brace and Company, Inc.)
Lou Rawls, “Dead End Street Monolog” from Lou Rawls at the Century Plaza (Live) (1973)
And Mr. Justice (I think), my senior year English professor at the University of Missouri, who taught me to love modern poetry and especially, T.S. Eliot.
Posted: January 1, 2018 Filed under: Digital life, Movies
My list of best films of 2017 would certainly include The Shape of Water, Lady Bird and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. But this isn’t my best-of list. This is a film I loved even though it’s imperfect and isn’t on most best-of lists.
California Typewriter, directed by Doug Nichol (best known for music video and commercial production), is an homage to the old-fashioned typewriter through a series of stories told by writers, musicians and artists who use and love their typewriters. The interviews are woven around the story of a Berkeley typewriter repair shop, the eponymous California Typewriter, and the devoted owner and the genius repair guy who work hard to keep the business, as well as the typewriters, going. It’s inspiring to hear writers like David McCullough and Sam Shepard talk about their typewriters and to hear musician John Mayer talk about why he’d rather write lyrics on his typewriter than on a computer. Tom Hanks shows his collection of 250 typewriters and tells us why he’ll ignore any email thank-you notes.
The five-member Boston Typewriter Orchestra plays concerts. One typewriter has “this machine kills fascists” lettered on its back, an homage to Woody Guthrie. (See a track from one of their concerts below.) They adapt Gil Scott-Heron’s This Revolution Will Not Be Televised” into “This Revolution Will Be Typewritten.” They also play a cover of “Rain and Blood” by Slayer, a bit of literally heavy metal music.
Silvi Alcivar writes poetry for hire. She sits in public places, where people tell her their stories. She turns their stories into poems, which she types on her portable typewriter and presents to her customers. Sort of like the letter-writers who used to sit in public places and write letters for illiterate people. (See the 1998 Brazilian film, Central Station.)
My favorite character, whose life we follow throughout the film, is Jeremy Mayer, an artist who creates sculptures from typewriter parts. Originally from the Minnesota Iron Range, he now lives in Oakland. He and the repair shop owner mosey around street markets and fairs, looking for old typewriters that can be salvaged and sold or that are irreparable and can be deconstructed for parts. Mayer makes abstract and figurative sculptures, using only typewriter parts and bolting them together using the original screws and bolts. No soldering. He talks about the visual influence of Fritz Lang’s film, Metropolis.
At first he struggles to sell anything and to make much income from his sales. By the end of the film, he’s installing a major piece in the city apartment of a wealthy tech executive, and his work is being written about in Wired, Gizmodo and tech blogs. By the end of the film, he’s in India working on a huge sculpture to commemorate the closing of the last typewriter factory in Mumbai.
California Typewriter is simply a story of people whose lives are connected by their love for typewriters. John Mayer is inspired to write his lyrics on a typewriter after seeing Bob Dylan typing lyrics in Don’t Look Back, the D.A. Pennebaker film about Dylan’s 1965 concert tour in England.
David McCullough laments the loss of the typewriter’s analog process, which enabled us to see how important documents are created with redrafts, crossouts and handwritten corrections on different versions. That process was preserved as part of history, where a researcher could see the steps in drafting presidential speeches and policies.
The original Sholes and Gliddens typewriter, manufactured by Remington.
We also learn about the history of the typewriter from a collector of antique models. The first working typewriter was developed by Christopher Lathem Sholes in 1869 in Milwaukee. Sholes and Gliddens typewriters, the first commercially successful models, did not work like later models with keys striking a roller, but even the very first one had a QWERTY keyboard, invented by Sholes.
We can equate today’s interest in typewriters to the passion for music on vinyl or the love for vintage cameras, with their darkroom and photo print features. Sometimes it seems as if the digital world gobbles up everything in its path too quickly. (I’m thinking of the worlds of newspapers and books too.)
But the love for the analog meets digital demand at some point, because a business needs it to survive today. By the end of the film, California Typewriter has a new website to promote its repair work and typewriter sales.
I recommend California Typewriter whether or not the manual typewriter was once part of your life. It’s a charming film, a romance with our mechanical past. I did write on typewriters, first manual, then electric, for decades. But when I first began writing executive speeches, with their interminable versions, on a Wang word processor and then on a Macintosh, there was no turning back. I was happy to give up the scissors and tape by which we reconstructed drafts, in favor of producing a clean version on a computer screen. My analog rhapsody crashed and burned when I turned on my first Mac.
A side note on the value of typewriters. Early in the film, we watch an auction house sell Cormac McCarthy’s typewriter—an Olivetti on which he wrote most of his novels—for $254,000.
Posted: November 9, 2017 Filed under: Theater
I feel guilty about neglecting this personal blog, but as I’ve said before, I’m doing all my writing over at Third Coast Review, mostly on the Stages page, but also in Lit (new review of a Chicago novel about the early days of Chicago electric blues) and Art (a couple of posts like this one on the Century of Progress homes on the beach in Indiana).
The article below is a recap of my visit to New York last week—mainly for a theater critics conference. The schedule provided plenty of time for great theater, and I took advantage of that by seeing four interesting off-Broadway productions. But no Broadway musicals. If you’re interested in Dear Evan Hanson or Come From Away, you’ll have to go elsewhere. But I did have one Broadway regret.
That was the show I didn’t see. I’m a huge Bruce Springsteen fan—I’ve seen him in concert dozens of times, but I thought the tickets to his Springsteen on Broadway show were too expensive. I was able to buy tickets for those off-Broadway plays and pay for dinner too for the price of one Springsteen ticket. (The Walter Kerr Theetre where Springsteen is performing was right around the corner from my hotel.)
Here’s a recap of my theater week, highlighted by two excellent dramas at Lincoln Center, a madcap take on Shakespeare, and a thoughtful new play about mother-son relations. And I even squeezed in a delightful children’s theater production.
After the Blast by Zoe Kazan at the Claire Tow Theater at Lincoln Center
After the Blast, directed by Lila Neugebauer, is a dystopian tale of a world after environmental catastrophe. Everything is frozen. It’s nuclear winter. The characters are mostly scientists, who talk matter of factly about when they will get to go “upstairs”—that is, above ground, again. (The answer is not very damn soon.) Their work is finding ways to sustain humanity below ground as well as to prepare for “rehabitation” of the earth at some distant future time. (One of the scientists admits that they let it leak that rehabitation might be sooner to give people some hope.)
Oliver (William Jackson Harper) and Anna (Cristin Milioti) are settled in below ground. Their contemporary home is Ikea-store simple and well-designed, but their only connection to nature is through images on a projection screen that becomes a “window” in their apartment. People use substances like marijuana to help them cope. They also can “sim”—simulate experiences above ground. If you want to visit the mountains or seashore or see penguins in a zoo, you can “sim” it.
Their friends Carrie (Eboni Booth) and Sam (Davis Pegram) are having a baby and Oliver and Anna yearn to have a child too. Propagation is tightly controlled and Anna is preparing to apply for her fertility treatment, but she has been rejected before, partly because of her depressed state of mind.
Oliver brings home a helper robot to help her prepare for her next fertility interview. Anna’s role is to train the robot in movement and speech, so that the robot can be assigned later to a disabled person who needs support. At first Anna rejects the robot, but gradually she gives in and begins to work with it. The robot responds, becomes Arthur, and Arthur and Anna develop a strong, affectionate relationship. Milioti’s performance as friend and mentor to Arthur is sweet and believable. (Arthur and Oliver even have a conversation about Anna.) Anna passes her next interview and Oliver and Anna may be on the road to becoming parents.Or not. (I pondered whether there is some parallel between training a robot and raising a child.)
After the Blast is s warm, humane story that is terrifying in its implications. The nuanced direction and performances are excellent. It continues at the Claire Tow Theater (Lincoln Center’s “greenhouse”) through November 19.
Measure for Measure by Elevator Repair Service at the Public Theater
Perhaps you’ve seen Elevator Repair Service in Chicago. They performed their six-hour masterpiece reading of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby—in a play titled Gatz—in 2006 at the MCA theater. More recently, they brought their dramedy of a Supreme Court case titled Arguendo to the MCA theater in 2014.
Measure for Measure is less successful than the other two ERS plays, but it is refreshing in its approach to the Shakespearean canon. The play is done in modern dress, set at some indeterminate modern time and performed on a set furnished with several rectangular office tables and a dozen chairs—plus six or eight early 1900s-era “candlestick” telephones. The action proceeds at breakneck speed, with actors often speaking so fast you can’t understand them. But most often, the text itself is rolling up the wall and across the ceiling of the set. (It’s performed in the Public’s third-floor LuEsther Theater and runs through November 12.)
Scott Shepherd, who played the lead in Gatz, is cast as the Duke (and masquerades as a friar). The bad guy, Angelo, who takes over the kingdom when the Duke departs, is wickedly played by Pete Simpson. Claudio (Greig Sargeant) is wrongfully imprisoned and his sister Isabella (Rinne Groff) pleads with Angelo for his release. She becomes entangled in two different tricks that are part of the play’s intricate plot. The “bed trick,” wherein Angelo is fooled into thinking he has slept with Isabella, and the “head trick,” wherein the head of the wrong prisoner is brought to Angelo as proof of execution. Various actors portray jailers, executioners and other functionaries in madcap fashion and sometimes silly costumes.
Measure for Measure (or M4M) is considered one of Shakespeare’s “problem” plays and it isn’t often performed. My brief description of the plot indicates why. I’ve read MFM and I have seen it at least once. I think that going to see M4M without any knowledge of the play might make it hard to follow. But I applaud ERS and the Public Theater for commissioning the play. And I definitely look forward to the next production by Elevator Repair Service.
Junk by Ayad Akhtar at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre at Lincoln Center
Junk is Akhtar’s latest play, which opened last week at Lincoln Center. I saw the play in its last preview performance. It is spectacularly staged and performed, on a set divided into six to eight honey-combed cells on two levels. The scenes are short and the dialogue is smart and snappy. I’m sure we’ll see it in Chicago soon. One of Akhtar’s plays, The Invisible Hand, is currently running in an outstanding production at Steep Theatre. Goodman Theatre presented Akhtar’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning Disgraced in 2015.
Junk refers to the 1980s high-yielding junk bonds used in the practice of corporate raiders taking over companies, often by using the company’s own assets to do so, then stripping the company of its remaining financial, real estate and equipment assets, and firing employees to make the company more profitable—and sometimes to just plain kill it. The plot and characters closely resemble the Michael Milken/Ivan Boesky scandal, although of course, the playbill specifies that the play is a fictionalized account and the characters are “stitched together and never anything other than fiction.”
The Milken-type character is Robert Merkin, played a little too blandly by Steven Pasquale. The large cast is made up of an array of investors, lawyers, an ambitious journalist, a Guiliani-type prosecutor who runs for mayor, and the doomed president of an old manufacturing company targeted by Merkin. The Boesky-type investor character is believably fleshed out by Joey Slotnick, a Chicago actor and member of the Lookingglass ensemble.
The story may remind you of a Chicago production of Other People’s Money, staged by Shattered Globe in 2013. Instead of Robert Merkin, we had Larry the Liquidator, played here by Ben Werling and in the 1991 film by Danny DeVito. The plot is similar but Junk is much more sophisticated, both in staging and script.
The Junk production was first staged in Los Angeles and the New York set is identical to the LA version. Director Doug Hughes and scenic designer John Lee Beatty moved the LA production to New York. My question: will a certain Chicago theater pick up the production and move it unchanged to a Chicago stage? That has happened recently with a couple of successful New York productions. Junk is scheduled to run at the Beaumont until January 7. I’d bet we’ll see it here in the 2018-19 theater season.
The Treasurer by Max Posner at Playwrights Horizon
David Cromer directs this rather low-key story about a middle-aged man, The Son (Peter Friedman) and his widowed mother Ida (the great Chicago actress Deanna Dunagan), who has spent all her funds and is inching toward dementia. The Treasurer is so designated by his two brothers, who ask him to watch out for their mother’s finances, while they fund her move to a luxury retirement center, rather than a more modest home in keeping with her financial status. “But I’m a Beaverbrook person,” she says. “That’s where all my friends are.”
The story is carried out mostly by telephone conversation. Son with brothers, son with mother. We see Ida reaching out for human contact in scenes with retail store clerks as she tries to buy purple pants, new pillows ($700 each or two for $1200) and a new smartphone.
Posner uses a narrative technique where the character narrates what he is doing to us, the audience, without physically doing it. The play opens with a monologue by The Son (the Treasurer) who tells us he is riding his bike and knows that he will go to hell. That prediction ties in to the ending of the play, but I didn’t think the ending fit with the whole tenor of the play.
The set is designed with angled walls, so often a character is unseen (in another room or space), represented by a disembodied voice. I like the way scene changes are handled in this 90-minute play. Crew members simply walk on stage with a new prop or piece of furniture. While other action is proceeding, they get ready for the next scene. It’s naturalistic and practical and fits with the style of the play. The Treasurer closed November 5.
My Perfect Pet by Jeff Eisenberg at the Playroom Theater
This original play is about a young girl who hopes to get a puppy for her 10th birthday. It takes a while for her to prove to her parents that she really is ready for a puppy but when the puppy does arrives, it’s a perfect surprise. Two college students portray the two sisters and a new graduate portrays their friend Josh (and the puppy). The parents are portrayed by two talented actors.
My Perfect Pet is perfectly adorable and runs just over an hour. The many small children in the audience (recommended for ages 4 to 9) were delighted too and bounced around in their seats to the tuneful music. My Perfect Pet runs on Saturdays through November 18.
Posted: July 28, 2017 Filed under: Theater | Tags: Athenaeum Theatre, Broken Nose Theatre, Eclipse Theatre, Pride Films & Plays, Steep Theatre, Steppenwolf Theatre, The Den Theatre
Hir at Steppenwolf Theatre. Photo by Michael Brosilow.
Who said theater was dead in the summer? Chicago’s theaters, storefront, midsize and large, have active summer seasons. These are some of the plays I’ve seen and reviewed in the last few weeks. They’re all still running, so you have time to see something wonderful.
Hir at Steppenwolf Theatre
Taylor Mac’s script for Hir (pronounced “here”) is brilliant, wordy and fast-moving. It’s a startling play, as I said in my headline, because the publicity makes you think it’s all about sexuality and gender identity. But it’s about much more than that. Terrific acting and a set that will make you happy to go home to your relatively neat living room. Director Hallie Gordon has some of Chicago’s finest actors to work with and she takes full advantage of their talent in the pacing and mood of this play. Runs through 8/20; running time 2 hours.
Megastasis by Eclipse Theatre at the Athenaeum
Megastasis‘ title is odd and never really explained well in the script, but ignore that, because this play is terrific, terrifying and informative. Yes, really informative. The playwright takes the time to have characters explain what’s happening to young black men because of mandatory minimum sentencing, changes in drug laws, asset forfeiture, and parole restrictions. The story is about Tray, a young man trying hard to make a life for himself and his baby daughter, while living with his grandfather. A couple of small mistakes (like buying a few joints) get him in trouble that results in a long prison term. It’s a wonderful and disturbing human story. My review. Runs through 8/20; running time 2 hours, one intermission.
Lela & Co. at Steep Theatre
Lela is a woman disrupted and betrayed by the men in her life. It’s an unsettling and searing performance by Cruz Gonzalez-Cadel, in a play that the playwright calls a monologue. But the men keep appearing to interrupt her and change the course of her difficult life in an eastern European war zone. Read my review and see this show before it closes on 8/19; running time is 100 minutes, no intermission.
At the Table by Broken Nose Theatre. Photo by Matthew Freer
At the Table by Broken Nose Theatre at the Den Theatre
My review of At the Table mentions that it might remind you superficially of The Big Chill, but the conversation goes much deeper than that 1983 film. Act one is chatty, sometimes contentious, as we get acquainted with the diverse group of friends. Then, “scene two of act one breaks the play open. Perlman’s smart writing has lulled us into thinking we are seeing a contemporary comedy of manners, set in a rustic weekend house … while lurking in the bushes are today’s racial and identity collisions.” You can see At the Table–and you should see it–through 8/26. Running time is 2.5 hours with one intermission.
How to Be a Rock Critic (From the Writings of Lester Bangs) at Steppenwolf’s 1700 Theatre
This is a terrific one-man show where Erik Jensen takes on the persona of iconic rock music critic Lester Bangs and invites us into his messy, drug- and cough-syrup ridden musical nightmare life. I reviewed this with one of my colleagues and we had fun with it. Jensen and his wife, Jessica Blank, are co-playwrights in this adaptation; she’s the director. They are a formidable pair. Runs only through Saturday 7/29; running time 90 minutes.
The Nance at Pride Films and Plays
There’s a lot of silly burlesque comedy plus bubbly dancing girls in The Nance, but there’s substance too, as my review notes. The story is about a middle-aged gay man who performs “the nance act” at a 1930s New York burlesque theater at a time when the same activity in real life would put him in jail for illegal homosexual activity. It’s a time of change in burlesque theater and the playwright doesn’t hesitate to tell us about the actions of Mayor Fiorello La Guardia and his licensing commissioner–and the response of the theater community. Runs through August 13; running time 2.5 hours.