Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Brief Encounter

The first time I saw Brief Encounter, I saw it in a theatre; I was a teenager. I thought it was just about the best love story ever (okay, I was an overly romantic teenager). I hadn't seen it in years, though one of the lines kept coming back to me ("Go, you'll miss your train") and I could not remember what it was from. Six months ago I saw the movie again, and reclaimed the source of the line, and I've just watched it again. I couldn't remember why I'd rented it from Netflix again, and about ten minutes into it, I went "oh, yeah, now I know."
There are places in it 65 years later that seem kind of silly, in particular, the throbbing Rachmaninoff score. I really don't need to be told how to feel here- the other elements do it just fine. Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard are not pretty- they are both in their mid-thirties (and frankly, look a decade older), we can see their wrinkles, they look perfectly ordinary, which is the point. I never really think of Coward as a dramatic playwright- I think most of his dramas haven't aged well at all, while his songs and some of the comedies certainly have (I wish I'd seen Angela Lansbury do Madame Arcati). David Lean's direction is so restrained for this little story, and he gets such great performances out of his actors, as he did in Dr. Zhivago (was Omar Sharif ever so good before or since?), and Great Expectations (how can you not fall in love with Alec Guiness' Herbert Pocket?). The guilt and shame that the adulterous characters feel is so genuine it's palpable. The movie is still moving.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Esther Hautzig

When I was six or seven, I bought a book at the Fairfax Elementary School book store (one book rack in Miss McCracken's classroom) called Let's Cook without Cooking, full of recipes that you could make without turning on the stove. My personal favorite was peanut butter butterscotch fudge.
When I was ten years old, I took a book out of the Fairfax Elementary School Library- The Endless Steppe. Both of these books were by Esther Hautzig. She died on Sunday, November 4th (link to the Times obituary above).
I loved The Endless Steppe- I borrowed it multiple times, and would keep reading it over and over until I had to return it. It was her own story- how Soviet soldiers stormed her parents house in Vilnius in 1941, and transported her family to Siberia for forced labor when she was eleven years old. Hautzig (her maiden name was Rudomin) worked in gypsum mines and in construction. She, her parents and her grandmother survived the war; ironically, the Soviets saved them from being exterminated by the Nazis because they were Jews.
Hautzig wrote in a clear, reassuring voice in Let's Cook without Cooking. In The Endless Steppe, she wrote in the voice of a teenager, like the teenager that she was when she was arrested in 1941. And frankly, not unlike the ten year old I was, growing up in Ohio. That was the extraordinary thing about her autobiography, that it was so entirely accessible, even to a kid growing up in the Midwest. I didn't realize she lived in New York; if I had, I think I would have asked her out for tea. Because after reading her book, you really felt like you knew her.

The Paradine Case

I am a bit of a Hitchcock junkie, though I certainly don't love each and every movie. Until a few years ago, I had never seen The Paradine Case (1947), and I really enjoyed it. Alida Valli, Charles Laughton and Ethel Barrymore, Louis Jourdan in his first English-speaking role- what's not to love? Well, I saw it again last night and I'm rethinking my opinion. The screenplay tips you off fairly early who did it. Gregory Peck is the lead. I've always thought he was sort of wooden, but that's particularly true here. That's also true of Ann Todd who plays his long-suffering (oh, boy, does she suffer) wife. It's actually pretty unsatisfying. The most striking thing to me (which I remembered from the first time I saw it) was the establishing shots of London, still badly bombed.
IMDB tells me that Alida Valli's was born Alida Altenburger; she went into hiding to avoid being executed under Mussolini's government (she refused to perform in propaganda films); and her first husband was involved in a "drug, sex and murder scandal" with his mistress.
Also on the DVD was a Lux Radio Theatre version of "The Paradine Case" with Joseph Cotten playing the Peck role. Much better! Cotten and Valli had just returned from Vienna after shooting The Third Man, though it wasn't released in the US until 19489.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Cheaper by the Dozen

About a month ago, Jill Lepore reviewed Matthew Stewart's new book, The Management Myth: Why the Experts Keep Getting It Wrong. Fredrick Winslow Taylor was the so-called Father of Scientific Management, and worked as the first management consultant with corporations. Among his disciples were Louis D. Brandeis, the reform-minded attorney who went on to serve on the US Supreme Court, and Frank and Lillian Moller Gilbreth, the parents of the family immortalized in Cheaper by the Dozen and Belles on Their Toes.
Stewart's book starts out by claiming that Taylor fudged his numbers, so that scientific management wasn't so scientific after all. His stabs at efficiency (having workmen take fewer steps and make fewer moves in completing a task) was called Taylorizing. While Stewart's book addresses the foibles of management consulting, I was drawn to the article because much of it is about the Gilbreths. I spent many hours reading, over and over again, Ernestine Gilbreth Carey and Frank Gilbreth, Jr.'s two books about their family. I also saw the 1950 movie, though in retrospect the casting seems very strange. Clifton Web as a father of 13 (one child died of diptheria)? I can buy Myrna Loy having a PhD from Brown, but as the mother of all those kids, all of whom were breast-fed? The real Gilbreths used motion study to improve work efficiency, and used a movie camera (quite revolutionary in the 1910s) to measure it. Frank Gilbreth died in 1924, but Lillian Moller Gilbreth carried on their work, initially as a consultant and then on the faculty at Purdue University. Lepore says: "If you have an island in your kitchen, or a rolling cart, or if you think about a work triangle, you've got Lillian Gilbreth to thank." Dr. Gilbreth died in 1972, at the age of 93. Their photos are from Wikipedia.

Dante Alighieri

Week before last, I spent a lot of quality time with Dante (mostly Inferno), working on a new ten-minute play. I had read The Divine Comedy for a class in college (Dorothy Sayers' translation, which unfortunately is out of print). What impressed me in looking at Dante again is how modern (he was born in 1265) much of his work feels. Here is a brief selection of my favorite quotes from him. I will not attempt writing out the Italian, though pretty much everything sounds better in Italian.
The Inferno

When I had journeyed half our life's way
I found myself within a shadowed forest
for I had lost the path that does not stray. Canto I, lines 1-3.

There is no greater sorrow
Than to be mindful of the happy time
In misery. Canto V, lines 121-123.

He listens well who takes notes. Canto XV, line 99.


Thou shalt prove how salt is the taste
Of another man's bread and how hard
Is the way and down another man's stairs. Canto XVII, lines 58-60

The night that hides hings from us. Canto XXIII, line 3.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Ali and Nino

My friend Tatiana, who shares my devotion to Dorothy Parker and is one of the most voracious readers I know, lent me a copy of Ali and Nino: A Love Story. It isn't earth-shatteringly brilliant prose, but quite compelling. But it is largely set in the 1910s in an interesting part of the world: the Caucusus, where Georgia, Armenian and what becomes Baku, Azerbaijan. The story is about Ali (a Muslim Azerbaijani) who falls in loves and marries Nino (a Georgian princess). Much of the novel takes place during World War I (Veteran's Day appropriate).
The cover of the novel says that it's by Kurban Said. The copyright page says it's owned by the late Leela Ehrenfels, the stepdaughter of an Austrian countess, Elfriede Ehrenfels von Bodmershof. I started looking for more information about Said and the Baroness. It seems that Kurban Said is a pseudonym, but other than that, there are a few possibilities for the author. There is a great New Yorker article from 1999 about exactly this: "A Reporter at Large: The Man from the East" by Tom Reiss. The novel has a reputation for being much-loved in Azerbaijan and Iran. Reiss' hunt-the-author tale is quite a story in itself. If it is not the Baroness, it is Essad Bey, who was born Lev Nassimbaum. Nassimbaum grew up in Baku, where his father was in the oil business. The Reiss article has wonderful photographs in it, too, including a Viennese group shot with Mike Nichols as a toddler and his father with Nassimbaum. Naussimbaum made two trips to the U.S., where he became friendly with George Sylvester Viereck, who was later jailed as a Nazi agent. (In college, I studied with Viereck's late son Peter, who was most definitely not a Nazi agent.) Eventually, Naussibaum fled Germany for Austria, and fled Austria for Positano, Italy, where he died of natural causes in 1942.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Mennonite in a Little Black Dress

Rhoda Janzen is a poet who teaches at Hope College in Holland, Michigan. Her memoir, Mennonite in a Little Black Dress, is about the turmoil of her early 40s. Over the course of two years, Janzen had a hysterectomy (which resulted in a year of her having to pee into a bag); her husband of 15 years left her for a man he met on; and she was in a serious car accident. Yes, this is a funny book.

Once her bones had started to heal from the accident, Janzen decided to go home to her parents in California. Her father was once the “Mennonite [Brethren] equivalent of the Pope.” I knew almost nothing about Mennonites before I read this book; I always thought of them as Amish but with buttons and cars. That isn’t entirely wrong (they do have buttons and cars), but there are other aspects of modern life that Mennonites shun, or at least shunned during Janzen’s childhood. That list includes drinking, dancing, gambling, card-playing and Ouija boards. The other holes in Janzen’s childhood experiences include an absence of Lite-Brights (I loved Lite-Bright!), Barbie’s Dream House, Bonnie Bell Lip-Smackers (I had quite a collection of those, including root beer flavor) and popular music.

A sub-set of the Anabaptists, the Amish spilt from the Mennonites in the late 17th century. The Mennonites, being unwelcome in the German-speaking countries, found a haven in what is now Ukraine, under the protection of Catherine the Great (German herself). Mennonites are non-violent to the point where the men receive exemptions from military service and are opposed to the death penalty. They also live in opposition to the consumer society. I have heard in the NYC subway fantastic a capella close-harmony singing by Mennonites; they were handing out CDs. I took one, hoping that it was music, but it turned out to be sermons. When Jantzen describes her difficulties with the Mennonites, they are identical to mine with the Catholics: no female clergy (although she implies this may be changing); no abortion (or as she puts it, “Judge the mother, love the baby”); no homosexuality; and the “traditionally narrow definition of salvation.”

The book is not just about the Mennonites, of course. It’s about confronting yourself and your past; it’s about facing the reality of getting divorced in your 40s. There are many adventures ahead of you, no doubt, but given age and a hysterectomy, having children is not among them. Jantzen does not shirk facing the truths in her marriage (like the fact that she knew that her ex-husband had relationships with men before they met), either. But for all of that, there is something ultimately joyful about Jantzen’s book and her journey.

For more about Janzen and her book, there’s a q. and a. with her at; and a review in the New York Times Book Review this week:

Disclaimer: A few weeks ago, someone from Henry Holt approached me about reviewing Mennonite in a Little Black Dress. I said sure, and received my review copy.