Thursday, June 8, 2017

How relevant is a classical work like "Belshazzar's Feast"?

On Sunday, the Buffalo Philharmonic and its chorus (JoAnn Faletta conducting) performed Belshazzar's Feast, by William Walton. Based on the Old Testament story about Belshazzar, the son of the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar, this was composed in the 1930s. The story is of a king whose hubris and vainglory is such that he ignores biblical injunctions. After a wild feast and night of revelry, he is killed in his sleep (I'm not sure by what).

The chorus sounded strong (although they were sometimes overwhelmed by the huge orchestra), and Kevin Deas, the baritone soloist, projected the verses with a tremendous voice. It's a short piece, only 35 minutes, and the audience gave a good round of applause. Yet, the work didn't feel that compelling to me as a composition. The old bible language had an old-fashioned, voice-of-God tone that doesn't speak to me. It sounds morally right that heedless cruelty and wild revelry should exact a just punishment. Yet, as modern people we are accustomed to frequently seeing violent images and cruelty on television and in our media. Terrorist attacks, war, crime, greed, avarice, viciousness of all types -- it's in our faces all the time. But rarely do we see justice done in a succinct, satisfying way. Therefore, simply being told (or sung to) that Belshazzar met his just end one night just doesn't move me.

On the other hand, the piece that opened the concert, An Orkney Wedding, With Sunrise, by Maxwell Davies, was beautiful and emotional. After the dancing and drunken goings on of the guests celebrating the wedding, the sudden appearance of the bagpiper marching down the aisle of Kleinhans and playing the pipes -- the sunrise -- was wonderful and moving.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

A forgotten hero of Crete during the German occupation: The Cretan Runner, by George Psychoundakis

The Cretan Runner: His Story of the German Occupation, by George Psychoundakis. (New York Review Books, 1998, first published in Great Britain by John Murray in 1955. Translated from the Greek by Patrick Leigh Fermor.

George Psychoundakis was a young shepherd on Crete in 1941 when the German army invaded. He joined other Cretans in the 10-day resistance. After the occupation of the island and evacuation by the British and Greek armies, he volunteered as a runner for the British underground service -- simply referred to as "the Service". The Cretan Runner is his memoir of the years of occupation, translated and annotated by his good friend, the writer Patrick Leigh Fermor. Fermor was a British officer who coordinated intelligence and resistance efforts on Crete, and George often took orders from him. George's modesty and humility help him come across as a very sympathetic and trustworthy figure.

He records the many missions, battles, encounters with the Germans that he took part in. As a runner, he carried messages and supplies over great distances and rough terrain, at great peril to himself. He was often on the brink of exhaustion and starvation, and was shot at numerous times. An uneducated man, George nevertheless writes with a good literary sense for observation, and a sense of drama. He describes his fellow Cretans and British soldiers as mostly brave and patriotic. However, he also names and identifies collaborators, and others who stole from fellow Cretans (sheep stealing was apparently common). George several times refers to the summary executions of collaborators by fellow Cretans. He offers no justifications for the executions, nor does he voice his disapproval.

I enjoyed the sense that I was reading a very "Greek" book, plainly written, with Greek intonations and behaviors. His fellow resistance fighters were "boys". Finding some good wine and hospitality is always a good thing. Spending a day resting with friends and eating well after so much hunger, is a very good thing. The egoism among the Cretans is there, their belief that each man is a heroic captain.

The memoir is somewhat repetitive, as this is a log of people and events, many of which have the same outlines. It will mostly be enjoyed by readers who want a closely observed account of what happened in those distant mountain villages.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Donald Marguiles should re-write Act 2 of "The Country House"

We saw "The Country House," a play by Donald Marguiles, at Road Less Traveled Productions, downtown Buffalo, on Thursday night, May 18, 2017.

This play depicts an acting family getting together for a summer holiday in the Berkshires in the family's country house. It is one year since the death of the daughter of the family matriarch has died of cancer. The deceased daughter's husband shows up with a Porsche and a young girlfriend. A famous handsome actor spends a few days in the house, attracting the active attention of every woman on the stage. The matriarch's son, a failed actor who wants to write a play, is angry at everybody. And so, a number of strained family interactions are set off.

The first half of the play has a decent share of humor. There are some nice quips. The set has a comfortable feel (although it doesn't hint at any underlying tensions in its design or setup). This is a very good cast, and they made the first act enjoyable. I especially liked Christian Brandjes as the failed actor Elliot, and enjoyed his energetic depiction of Elliot's cynicism. To my surprise I also liked Kristen Tripp Kelley as Nell, the gorgeous young girlfriend -- Nell did not come off as "incandescent" (in Walter's words) and didn't initially seem right for the part. Yet Kelley has a quiet focus and a way of depicting an interesting interior life that makes up for her not being the flashy eye candy referred to in the play.

By the intermission however, I began to feel that the playwright's grasp of the characters was weak. These were stock characters in fairly cliched exchanges. The hunky actor building schools in  the Congo as a display of his virtue. The deluded aging matriarch who thinks she still attracts young men. The aging director who mounts a defense of his wealth earned by making commercially successful films. The second act seemed predictable and strained. The last twenty minutes in particular, with Elliot wailing about how his mother, Anna, didn't really love him when he was a boy, were painful to watch. I couldn't help but feel that Marguiles needed a strong revision.

I wanted to like the play because of the very good cast. We appreicate the Road Less Traveled troupe and their energy in mounting the play. But the play itself needs work.

Friday, April 21, 2017

The BPO's Friday morning concert starring Natasha Paremski

The Buffalo Philharmonic concert this morning featured the young pianist Natasha Paremski. She was terrific in Beethoven's Piano concerto 3. From the first chords, I was struck by the bold clarity of her playing. Bought one of her CDs at intermission. I would have liked to hear the entire piece again, as I found my attention wandering at several points. Was there something slightly mechanical about  the  way she played, or is it the concerto itself?

A short piece on the program, titled Starsplitter, was by local born young composer Phillip Rothman, who was in the audience. It was a wall of sound, and we liked it, though I couldn't exactly discern much form. But I would hear it again.

Liked Kodaly's Dances of Galanta -- nice warm sound. However, I didn't think it has the earthy gypsy-inspired sound I want in folk dances. These were orchestral folk dances, folk dances for PhDs.
And conductor Joann Faletta -- she must give herself and the whole orchestra a good dose of caffeine (or something) when they play. She always achieves a bright, clear tone. With quick tempos.

Because of a scheduling problem, we had to move our Saturday night tickets to this morning for this concert. At 10:30 on a Friday morning, the audience was mostly in their 60s, 70s, and up. Kleinhans  was perhaps two-thirds full. Obviously, these were people who don't like driving at night, or driving into the city at night. It's good that the BPO accommodates this audience with 10:30 morning concerts on Fridays. But it's an awkward time in some ways, with the concert finishing at 12:40, leading to a late lunch. And I missed the little bit of diversity in the audiences that we see on Saturday nights.

Monday, April 3, 2017

How I understand the Russia-Trump thing -- a work in progress

I thought it might be useful to write down what I know about the current state of the Russian hacking of our election, and the possible links between the Russians and the Trump campaign. It's all very complicated. I usually try not to spend too much time on this political stuff (life is short), but I have had a feeling of foreboding about this, as if something terrible will come of this, one way or another. So I'd like to write it down, and be able to revise it, and look back on it, to see how my understanding changes. If friends are interested, they are welcome to make suggestions to correct factual mistakes or argue with my suppositions and announce what a naive fool I probably am.

1. Elements of Russian intelligence agencies, or their surrogates, "hacked" the presidential election campaign of the United States by (a) generating thousands of false and defamatory stories about Hillary Clinton and her campaign and spreading the stories on a number of blogs and media web sites (usually conservative and far-right sites); (b) using individual "trolls" with fake profiles who logged onto media sites to incite Trump supporters and spread falsehoods; (c) penetrating networks and Web accounts of Democratic and Republican Party staffers. In the case of the hacked Democratic party accounts (such as those of John Podesta) they relayed possibly embarrassing information to WikiLeaks and other outlets. The hacking attacks began perhaps a year before the election (I'm uncertain of the timing). This is my understanding of what our own intelligence agencies (the FBI, NSA) have found and reported. I believe them, or at least, I see no reason not to believe them.

2. It's significant to me that the FBI has reported that Republican Party networks were also breached by the Russians, but that the Russians did not visibly act on whatever information they obtained there. The Russians had a pretty good idea of what Republicans were thinking and doing in private. That was apparently enough for them. Near the end of World War II, when Stalin met Roosevelt and Churchill at Yalta to discuss the final stages and aftermath of the war, Stalin was well informed about the Roosevelt-Churchill strategy thanks to informants within the American and British governments. The Russians apparently continue to be very good at this sort of thing.

3. From the time of the initial revelations about Russian cyber attacks and attempts to harm the Clinton campaign, I've had two concerns about the FBI narrative that Russia actively worked against the Clinton campaign.

a. Why would the Russians attempt to specifically harm the campaign of the likely winner? At the time they were hacking and supposedly posting thousands of fake stories against Clinton, Clinton was the strong favorite to win the election. If their espionage was discovered by the US, and if Clinton won the presidency, they would have then faced a president much more antagonistic than Obama.

b. How could the Russians be sure of what they would be getting if Trump was elected? They surely understood that Trump is an uninformed, erratic man who seems to believe and express falsehoods and conspiracy theories. Why would they want such a man in charge of thousands of nuclear missiles pointed at Russian cities?

4. The overall Russian intentions and strategy are not entirely clear. Under Vladimir Putin's direction, Russia has been conducting a political, cyber, and military campaign to weaken NATO and the West, and to expand Russian influence in Europe and the Middle East, for about ten years. Their hacking of our election may simply be a brazen continuation of that campaign. Perhaps they saw supporting Trump (a divisive, anti-democratic man with authoritarian tendencies) as the best way to accomplish their strategy. There's too much we don't know.

5. Yet, the Russian actions, as presented by James Comey, the director of the FBI, amount to espionage intended to harm the Clinton campaign, and to aid the Trump campaign. It is hard to imagine that Comey and the other American intelligence heads would publicly make these pronouncements unless they were dead certain.

6. The detail, scope, and penetration of the Russian campaign should be thoroughly investigated and published. I believe the FBI and NSA and Senate Intelligence committees are conducting that investigation. (The House intelligence committee is headed by an apparently partisan Republican, Devin Nunes, who has sadly discredited himself; it's unlikely that committee will get far.)

7. Aside from seeking to understand the scope of the Russian penetration of our electoral process, there is this question: did members of the Trump campaign, or Trump  himself, collude with the Russians in the effort to harm Hillary Clinton's campaign? I assume the FBI and Senate investigations will explore that question. There were financial and political contacts between members of the Trump campaign (Paul Manafort, Michael Flynn) and Russian oligarchs and Kremlin media. There have been reports of meetings between Trump representatives and Russian officials prior to the inauguration.This rises to the level of circumstantial evidence of collusion. That Trump himself expresses a high regard for Vladimir Putin is a possibly related matter.

8. However, there is currently no direct evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian intelligence agencies, at least none that has been made public.

9. My own speculation: it does not seem likely that Trump or his campaign directly colluded with the Russians in a deal to get himself elected. Whatever else he is, it is hard to fathom that anyone would think that such a deal could stay secret, and that he would not realize he was placing himself in impossible danger. More likely to me is that Trump himself or members of his campaign had willfully entered into financial or political ties with Russian oligarchs. Putin has established a system of exerting influence through wealthy associates who form useful relationships with influential non-Russian partners. They basically offer big profits and money to the non-Russians, achieving their acquiescence, compliance, and support. It's plausible that these connections and relationships helped Russian intelligence get easier access to American electoral resources and networks -- the job of the hackers was thus made easier thanks to unwitting American partners.

10. My own further speculation: the Russians under Putin probably see their cyber hacking as no big deal. They are simply using the tools at their disposal to push the Americanskys and get a desired result, and they assume that we do the same things. That they successfully hacked our system, and Donald Trump actually won the election, probably astounded them as much as it did many of us.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Knausgaard's My Struggle: why should I go on to Book 2?

My Struggle, Book 1, by Karl Ove Knausgaard. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux edition 2013 (originally published in Norway, 2009).

Knausgaard himself is the narrator of this book, and is often referred to within the narrative by his name. The events are frankly autobiographical, though I've read that Knausgaard modified sections and characters so as not to painfully offend some family members. This strikes me as perfectly legitimate for a work of fiction. Even autobiography is, in a profound sense, a work of fiction -- an autobiography is not a recording, but a work of the imagination. The work -- six volumes -- is an international sensation, having sold millions of copies. I finally got down to reading Book 1.

Book 1 bounces from present-day scenes of the author living in Stockholm and writing his novel, this novel. The events of his life gathered here mostly involve his teenage years and his relationships with his parents and other school-age people. We see him worrying about girls, getting drunk with acquaintances at parties, imagining himself as a rock and roll guitar player, playing in a band -- a boyhood that many suburban American boys and girls would recognize. A major theme, repeated many times, is his relationship to his father, a selfish, sometimes detached, and cruel man, whom Karl Ove nonetheless tries hard to impress, and whom he obviously loves.

The writing is very "plain". Knausgaard doesn't strive to carefully depict events and characters, or the  surroundings. There's little insight into people and their motivations. Here is a random paragraph:

I got up and went into the kitchen, put a plate of meatballs and  spaghetti into the microwave, because I hadn't eaten since lunch the day before, went into the bathroom and showered, mostly to pass the minutes it took for the food to heat, dressed,, found myself a kife and fork, poured a glass of water, fetched the plate, sat down to eat.
There's a lot of that. The narrator seems compelled to relate undramatic daily events from periods of his life as if these were bits from a journal. It's important to him because...I'm not sure why. Despite this prosaic quality, the work is absorbing. I was interested in Karl Ove's fumblings and adventures as a teenager. He reminded me of myself. This feels like an honest, unsparing work -- he doesn't shy away from depicting himself in an unflattering or selfish light. He does the same to his friends and family members (something not appreciated by some family members; I've read that his wife was deeply depressed by his exposure of her and their family life in the novel). How much of the plainness Knausgaard's  style, and  how much is contributed by the translation from the Norwegian (by Don Bartlett) is impossible to say.

Will I go on to Book 2? I don't know. I recognize that this is a literary accomplishment. It's absorbing, in the way that reading the diary or journal of close friend might be absorbing. It feels like an accurate psychological recreation of a life, of a journal. But I don't know if I really want to read much more. It's also quite boring at times. What about this has drawn so many millions to buy the books?

Angela Hewitt's Bach concert with the Buffalo Philharmonic

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Wonderful concert. We were unfamiliar with Angela Hewitt (as we are unfamiliar, in general, with internationally known concert pianists). She played  Bach's Piano Concerto No. 3 in D, which was immediately recognizable. It had an exciting, driving sound. Physically, she plays with a kind of commanding, strong presence -- you see and feel her really focus and control the keyboard. She also played Bach's Piano Concerto No. 1 in D Minor, also pretty recognizable. It was a wide river of sound.

The program started with Mendelssohn's Hebrides Overture, just before Hewitt came onstage. A nice piece. Didn't know Mendelssohn was a teenager when he wrote it. The second half of the program was Mendelssohn's Symphony no. 5, the Reformation. Very nice, and has the recognizable Mighty Fortress theme. Seemed like conservative choices -- nothing beyond the 1800s. And wouldn't it have made sense to have Mendelssohn in the first half of the night, and Angela Hewitt in the second half, as the climax of the evening?

The audience took up less than 2/3 of Kleinhans, with most of the audience near stage left, where Hewitt and the piano played. Wonder if the Sunday afternoon audience was bigger.

The Buffalo News's Mary Kunz Goldman reviewed the concert and had lots of good things to say.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Naivete is no excuse: the play "After the Revolution", by Amy Herzog

After the Revolution, a play by Amy Herzog. Directed by Saul Elkin. Seen at the Jewish Repertory Theater, Amherst, NY.

The central premise is about a fervent young, left-wing, Jewish lawyer who learns from her father that her beloved grandfather, who was blacklisted in the 50s, actually passed secrets to the  Soviets. The revelation has a shattering effect on her, and her relationship with her father. She's furious that he didn't tell her when she was younger.

A good cast, good performances. I especially liked Tom Makar's performance as Morty, the wealthy old leftist, who counsels Emma, the young lawyer to hold fast to her ideals and the foundation she started in the name of her grandfather.

I'm not convinced by the central premise. If we are to believe that Emma is a smart lawyer, how is it that she didn't herself question her grandfather's status years ago? There are numerous books on the subject -- we know that dozens of people working inside the US government turned over information to the Soviets. It would seem obvious that Emma would have questioned her grandfather's activities long before the play's action. Furthermore, we are meant to believe that her father, a leftist teacher played well by David Marciniak, actively deceived her all throughout her life. Were there no dinner table conversations in which grandfather was discussed? Of course. The man we see on stage does not seem like a man who would actively deceive his daughter on such an important subject. The family drama scenes therefore struck me as overwrought.

And what's with the annoying rotating stage? The whole thing creaked noisily like some eighteenth century elevator between scenes. I would understand if there were dramatic changes of scenery. But there weren't -- a few chairs were moved around. Was there some message in the rotating stage? Something about the generations changing? I didn't get it.

Saul Elkin directed the play. He was there, and he looks much the same after thirty some years.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Russian spying then and now, and praisworthy traitors: The Secret War, by Max Hastings

The Secret War, by Max Hastings (HarperCollins, 2016). Tells the stories of the opposing intelligence branches of the Allied and Axis armies that fought World War II, their successes and many failures. Contains many detailed and interesting portraits and stories of spies, double agents, traitors, learned code breakers, informants, soldiers and sailors, ordinary citizens. Often, their stories ended badly for them.

In light of the current controversy over Russian hacking of our electoral process, it was interesting reading about the massive efforts that Stalin and his agents invested in penetrating not just the inner circles of the Nazi German military and government, but of  Britain and the United States -- the Soviet Union's allies from 1941 to 1945. Kim Philby, Anthony Blunt, and other moles in Britain's MI5 fed Stalin thousands of secret documents during and after the war. In the United States, Alger Hiss, Harry Dexter White, and dozens of others in the US government sent crucial details about American technological and military secrets to the Soviets, particularly about the atomic bomb, enabling Stalin to build a nuclear weapon years sooner than he otherwise could have. And Stalin was completely briefed on Western intentions and strategies at Yalta. Hastings asserts that the US and Britain did not invest the same clandestine resources against the Soviet Union until long after the war -- after all, they were our allies. Hastings paints an ugly picture of the Soviet spy system and its techniques. Vladimir Putin and his Federal Security Service (FSB) agents appear to be simply carrying on the work of their KGB and NKVD predecessors, perhaps in a milder form.

Codebreaking is not a glamorous pursuit, but Britain's ability to break the German Enigma machine encryption code enabled British and American forces to read thousands of German military orders and documents. It was an invaluable help in defeating Hitler. These sections are not necessarily gripping reading, however, and the sections devoted to the setup and functioning of the Bletchley Park compound outside of London, where Alan Turing, Bill Tutte, and the other puzzle solvers labored, are a bit of a slog. Yet this work was essential to the war effort.

Hastings weaves the story of the "Red Orchestra" through the narrative. This was a group of Germans who spied on Germany and radioed information to the Soviets. Several Red Orchestra members were communists. They were quite successful for a time. I couldn't help but admire these men and women, despite whatever naivete they possessed in regards to Stalin and the Soviet system. They included two married couples, Libertas and Harro Schulze-Boyzen, and Arvid and  Mildred Harnack. They knowingly risked their lives to help defeat Hitler and Nazi Germany. They were traitors to their country -- so how should we regard them? How do modern Germans regard them? The Abwehr (the Wermacht's secret intelligence branch) eventually caught them. They were brutally tortured and executed.

There are dozens of similar narratives, from all the countries involved. One of the vivid achievements of this book is the complicated panorama of the war that Max Hastings has constructed. He conveys the scope of what was happening, of hundreds of different war theaters large and small, of millions of people in all parts of the world, all of them moving to their own separate, often tragic destinies.

By the time I ended this 558 page book I didn't want it to end. I came to trust and like Max Hastings, and wanted it to continue. Soon I'll pick up his book about World War II, Inferno.  

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Collage New Music -- Edward Cohen Memorial Concert

This concert was at MIT's Killian Hall, Sunday, February 14, 2016. Collage New Music was conducted by David Hoose.

From the program notes, I read that Edward Cohen was a beloved music professor and composer at MIT's Music department. These memorial concerts have been going on for several years. He sounds like a lovely, talented, and inspiring man. His own piece, Elegy, was part of the program, and I enjoyed it. The soprano Nina Guo beautifully sang the lines, from the poems Eurydice and Lyda, by Hilda Doolittle. It must have been difficult to sing these lines, with the notes and pitches doing all those unexpected things, but she did it very well.

I was vaguely aware in college of a poet named "H.D.", but I don't recall much about her work. Re-reading her poems from the concert, I found that they need lots of re-reading. At least for me. I'm not sure I find her accessible, yet I can hear a distinct wistful voice there.

She had an interesting life. Here is a bio on her:

In the program was a suite of songs by Peter Child, based on poems by the British 19th century poet John Clare. I liked the music, and I had an immediate liking for Clare -- I'd like to get some of his poetry. I found his work accessible and moving. Some of his lines have a strange power, such as these from the poem "I Am":

Into the nothingness of scorn and noise,
Into the living sea of waking dreams,
Where there is neither sense of life nor joys,
But the vast shipwreck of my life's esteems;
And e'en the dearest -- that I loved the best --
Are strange -- nay, rather stranger than the rest.

Wow. Vast shipwreck of my life's esteems. A line like that could upend your day. What a sad life he had. He surely deserves to be read today. So it was good to have both of those poets, and the contrast between them, providing the texts for some of the music of Sunday's concert.

What a wonderful concert that was. With our friends, we talked about some of the oddities of new music, how it was a very academic-looking crowd in Killian Hall. Here we had Collage NEW Music in 2016 conducted by a silver-haired David Hoose, performing music by 19th century and early 20th century poets, for an audience of mostly over 50ish types. I really enjoyed it.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

The Great Fire, by Carl Ureneck -- the story of Asa Jennings and the rescue of Smyrna's refugees

The Great Fire: One American's Mission to Rescue Victims of the 20th Century's First Genocide, by Carl Ureneck (HarperCollins, 2015).

Ureneck's narrative provides a day-by-day account of the Turkish Nationalist army's occupation of Smyrna in September, 1922, and the halting relief effort that eventually rescued over 250,000 Christians (mostly Greeks and Armenians) from the Smyrna quay. The book details the tireless and ingenious efforts of the American Methodist minister Asa Jennings to organize the relief effort and the flotilla of ships that eventually brought the refugees to the Greek islands and mainland, and safety. I could hardly put the book down. And it's also a difficult book to read at times, with many eyewitness accounts of the horrible atrocities committed by the nationalist Turkish soldiers and bands of thugs.

I was first introduced to Reverand Asa Jennings in Giles Milton's fine book about the Smyrna disaster, Paradise Lost. Ureneck gives us much more detail about Jennings, and fills in the man's activities: his searching the choked and dangerous streets for weak and injured refugees, particularly pregnant women, and bringing them to shelters; his efforts, along with other American and European officials, to feed and protect the refugees; his amazing efforts to motivate and bluff American and Greek officials to orchestrate the flotilla of Greek and European ships that eventually saved the traumatized refugees from Smyrna and its environs. All of this done while putting himself in constant danger. I felt inspired by his courage. Given his small physical stature, his mild manner, and the bureaucratic and human obstacles he faced, it would have been easy to turn him into a mythic character, a kind of unapproachable fairy tale character. But Ureneck avoids that, and describes Jennings instead as a fully realized man with strengths and weaknesses who simply was in the right place at the right time to do great work.

There are many interesting stories and side-stories, especially those involving the official American reluctance to get involved with aiding the Christian refugees despite the colossal humanitarian dimensions of the tragedy. Admiral Mark L. Bristol, the U.S. High Commissioner in Constantinople (Istanbul) comes across as being less interested in saving Greek and Armenian lives and more interested in ensuring American financial interests and appeasing the Nationalist Turkish movement headed by Kemal Ataturk -- he wanted America to be on the side of the winner. The American Lt. Commander J.B. Rhodes, on the other hand, is presented as one of the sympathetic figures, a Navy captain who worked with Jennings, and effectively saved people and provided valuable relief to thousands while struggling within the bounds of Bristol's hands-off orders.

Then there are the horrible events. Ureneck uses diary accounts from Jennings himself, Armenian doctor Garabed Hatcherian, Theodora Gravos, a Greek refugee from the interior, and others. They detail scenes of almost unbelievable cruelty. The Greek and Armenian refugees suffered continuous murder, rape, and looting in Smyrna during those weeks in September 1922 (culminating years of atrocities by Nationalist Turks on the Christian populations of Asia Minor). Greeks and Armenians were effectively deported from or exterminated in what is now Turkey.

Here is an excerpt from Ureneck's account of young Theodora Gravos's desparate attempts to escape Smyrna with her family:

At the corner, she saw a girl who was sitting upright on a pile of rocks...Theodora walked closer and saw that there was a piece of wood that had been shoved into her body from behind to her mouth. It was what had kept her in the sitting position.

This and other scenes almost defy credulity. Reading this as a comfortable 21st century Greek-American, who grew up in secure America, it's hard to comprehend the demonic impulse that would compel a human being to do such a thing to a young girl. But the accounts are too many, from this and other books, to not believe them. And they all attest to the same systematic torture and brutality on the part of the Turkish regime. It's not so different from the cruelty exhibited in today's Islamic State killings, live burnings, and beheadings.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Brooklyn, the movie: is Toibin's novel this formulaic?

Brooklyn, a movie directed by John Crowley, starring Saoirse Ronan, about a 21-year old Irish girl in 1952, who comes to live in Brooklyn. Based on a novel by Colm Toibin. Script by Nick Hornby.

The story of Eilis sailing to American, overcoming her homesickness, finding love, and being called back to Ireland by a tragic death in her family is a good story, one that I felt drawn to as a Greek-American. We found good things in the movie, mainly in the actors and their ability to translate the slight plot into bits of suspense, and to generate interesting questions: will Eilis overcome her homesickness? Why did she agree to leave home in the first place? Does she really love Tony the Italian-American plumber? Why doesn't she tell her mother on returning to Ireland that she has married Tony? Why does she lead on that fellow Jim, who courts her in Ireland? The movie stays with me, and I keep thinking of Eilis and the others.

But mixed in are a lot of frustrating bits, and the frustration centers on the characters and their actions being formulaic and sanitized. No doubt there were kindly, knowledgeable Irish priests who miraculously knew what an immigrant girl needed. No doubt there were irascible, stern Irish women who owned boarding houses for girls who had motherly hearts of gold. No doubt there were church dances as chaste and staid as the ones depicted here. No doubt there were Italian American families who ate dinner (the adults with the requisite juice glass of red wine) that were as polite as this one and had as clever a smartaleck younger brother as this one had (as if the actors got their cues from Leave it to Beaver). No doubt there were moments in Brooklyn where the streets were as quiet and suburban looking as those in this Brooklyn. And perhaps on the beach on Coney Island, there were instances where scattered black families sat on the sand mixed in among white families in 1952 (in my memory, beaches were often the scenes of racial conflict). I could go on.

To put all these formulaic characters in one film, without exploring the dark hard-edged realities of life, is risking overt sentimentality, and undercuts the story. The film often has the feel of being made for television (with the slow, thoughtful pace of Masterpiece Theater). The people are well scrubbed, coiffed, and clean shaven, even at the end of the day. The dresses and pants and shirts are perfectly wrinkle-free and clean and stylishly placed. Always. Just as in television.

I did find some scenes that were endearing and moving. I liked Eilis and Jim Farrell (played by Domnhall Gleeson), the young Irishman who courts her. Eilis comes across as a very practical girl who's trying to figure out what she wants. We found ourselves questioning her actions and motives -- and that's great. Except that what we often questioned was the logic of the story and its depictions. I found myself wondering if Toibin's novel had the same formulaic elements.