Build Your Own Paul Newman Film Festival

It's all over now, baby blues.

Our downtown theater had a brilliant idea for getting through winter: a Paul Newman film festival. It’s looking like 2010 is going to be a long winter in many parts of the country so head down to the video store—support ‘em while you’ve got ‘em—or load up your Netflix (boo!) cue, and hold you own Paul Newman retrospective. Here’s a list of our favorite films from Old Blue Eyes himself. We miss him already.

1. The Hustler (1961). This isn’t just a good Newman film; it’s one that deserves to be on lists of the best American films ever. Filmed in gritty black and white, Newman plays Fast Eddie Felson, a man with a million-dollar pool game and a ten-cent values system. The film is about Eddie’s rise, fall, and wizening. Watch also for a magnificent supporting performance from Jackie Gleason as Minnesota Fats. You can skip the 1986 Martin Scorsese sequel The Color of Money in which Newman reprises the Felsen role. Let’s just say that Tom Cruise is a lesser actor than anyone in the original.

2. Cool Hand Luke (1967) is deservedly an American classic. Neman plays the title role, a prisoner in a backwater Southern penitentiary whose antics and escapes delights his peers and drives his captors to fury. Newman’s egg-eating sequence remains a riot. Part black comedy, part drama, part tragedy… If you’ve never seen it, learn why “What we have here is a failure to communicate” became part of the lingua franca.

3. Hud (1963) is an underappreciated masterpiece in which Newman is Hud Bannon, a Texan rancher who is the id to his father’s (Melyvn Douglas) superego. This cad-versus-saint struggle is reminiscent of James Dean in East of Eden. Newman’s scenes with Patricia Neal absolutely sizzle.

4. There are loads of early Newman films where he plays a young man caught up in the injustices of Southern patriarchy. Many of them were originally penned by Tennessee Williams and frankly, though some would call this sacrilege, they’re all basically the same damn story. Most people like Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), where Newman is cast alongside a sultry Elizabeth Taylor. This is certainly worth watching, but we prefer Sweet Bird of Youth (1962), in which Newman is drifter Chance Wayne and butts heads with local boss man Tom Finley (Ed Begley).

5. Mr. and Mrs. Bridge (1990): After all those films in which Newman was portrayed as victims of tyrannical Southern patriarchs, Newman got to reverse the role when he turned sixty-five. Walter Bridge keeps a tight lid of his three children, his emotions, his tolerance for modern life, and his wife, India (Joanne Woodward) in this Merchant-Ivory production. Is Walter a man out of time, or a quiet monster? The answer’s not as easy as you think and Newman’s nuanced performance makes it harder to discern.

6. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1968) was one of the first films in which Newman wasn’t the handsomest guy on the set. So he made up for it by turning on the charm. As Butch, he’s the brains of a turn-of-the-twentieth-century outlaw gang. Sharp dialogue, amazing synergy with co-star Robert Redford, and George Roy Hill’s quirky direction guaranteed that paths would cross again.

7. The Sting (1973): Newman, Redford, and Hill again. In truth, the film is really a Butch Cassidy redux with the outlaws recast as 1930s gangsters. As Harry Gondorff, Newman is once again a criminal mastermind, this time in a scheme that’s equal parts revenge and con. (Yes, Ocean’s Eleven is a glitzy steal of The Sting updated and moved to Vegas.) A terrific soundtrack of Scott Joplin rags makes this satisfying feast even tastier.

8. The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (1972): Another rogue role, this time as a late 19th-century Texas judge who’s also arresting officer, prosecutor, and executioner. Bean obliterates the distinction between criminal and justice, and heaven help the man who besmirches the name of dance hall queen Lillie Langtry. This underappreciated offbeat comedy is great campy fun.

9. Newman was always great playing morally compromised characters, but as he aged he got even better. Many people applauded Newman’s role as the alcoholic ambulance-chasing Boston lawyer Frank Galvin in The Verdict (1982). It’s a fine performance, but we like his turn in The Hudsucker Proxy (1993) even better. Think Carl Icahn with a cigar and the personality of a cobra and you’re on track for Newman’s Sidney Mussberger, the chair of a corporate board looking for a fall guy to blame for a manufactured crisis so Mussberger and his cronies can scoop up deflated company stock. This Coen Brothers black comedy skewers Big Business and turns conventional morality plays inside out. They film it in a surreal fashion that’s part Metropolis and part Brazil.

10. And why not Newman as a lovable crank? He positively inhabits the role of Donald Sullivan in Nobody’s Fool (1994). Sully is a working class guy who’s never been anywhere, never escaped his old man’s shadow, and is getting too old for the hard labor, hard drinking, hand-to-mouth existence he’s living. He’s got a crazy ex-wife, a resentful son with problems of his own, a slow-witted sidekick, a sometimes girlfriend who is getting tired of waiting, and external demons in the form of an immoral employer, an abusive and stupid town cop, and an even dumber banker. Only his landlady (the marvelous Jessica Tandy) understands Sully. But will Sully achieve self-realization before the sands run out? Tender, funny, and poignant, author Richard Russo must have had Newman in mind when he wrote the novel on which this film is based.
Let us know your favorite Newman films and we'll beat a path to the loal vid store.


Alisdair Fraser and Natalie Haas Live

Alisdair Fraser and Natalie Haas
March 2, 2010
Iron Horse Music Hall
Northampton, MA

The evolving mastery of cellist Natalie Haas is a wonder to behold. The March 2 concert at the Iron Horse marks the sixth time I’ve seen Haas perform with Scottish fiddle nonpareil Alisdair Fraser, and I can recall those tentative first concerts in which she was essentially a rhythmic bass-like adornment for fiery Fraser reels. There’s still plenty of that; after all, when a fiddler lights it up—especially one as skillful as Fraser—there’s simply no way that a cellist can get up and down the neck that fast. Or is there? Haas is getting close and on her recent tour with Fraser she accomplished greased lightening runs that involved stretches of her hand that few people can do on a table in still motion, let alone racing down the strings without skipping a beat or hitting a sour note.

Haas has also grown in maturity in the sense that she now leads as well as follows, even to the point where she can correct the master when he’s off course. Fraser and Haas began their collaboration by exploring Scottish country dance music. In this mode, Fraser is a passionate imp who puckishly takes jigs, strathspeys, and reels, works their tempos, and fills in the spaces with individual notes of such pristine purity that they can leave one breathless. Haas serves as both frame and contrast—plucking her cello strings like a jazz bassist or bouncing the bow off them to provide resonant counterpoint.

Fraser and Haas still do a lot of this, but it’s largely drawn from their 2004 recording Fire and Grace. What has emerged since In the Moment (2007) is infinitely more complex. Cello and fiddle combos were once traditional in Scotland, but there can little doubt that many of the pieces Fraser and Haas now perform owe their arrangement style more to classical music than to village tradition. One of the finest examples of this is the duo’s take on a (very) slow reel titled “John MacDonald’s.” It has a drop-dead gorgeous melody in the raw, but Fraser opened it with notes so fragile and glass-like that they tinkled like crystal. When Haas added resonant bottom the effect was as if a musical tidal wave had washed across the hall. The two proceeded to weave tapestries in the air with colors that flashed and faded in the mind’s eye. When it was over one wished to scream “Bravo!” but that would have seemed gauche for such moments of delicacy and beauty.

And so passed most of the night, though Fraser offered plenty of comic relief with his sardonic stage chat, and he and Haas have the common sense to mix up the material. (A particularly delightful change of pace is their quirky “Alien Celidh”). There was also a nice moment in which Natalie’s younger sister Brittany, a fiddler with the “newgrass” group Crooked Still, mounted the stage to play along. I could ramble on tossing superlatives, but let this suffice: Even if you think you don’t like “Celtic” music (whatever that might be these days!), if Alisdair Fraser and Natalie Haas appear anywhere near you, go out of your way to see them. You will be astonished. See http://www.alasdairfraser.com/performances.html for touring schedules.


Final Salute Deeply Moving and Powerful

Final Salute: A Story of Unfinished Lives.

By Jim Sheeler

Penguin, 2008.
ISBN 978-0-14-311545-8.

* * * *

When asked if American objectives in Iraq have been worth their human cost, Gold Star mother Betty Welke does not equivocate. “No, it wasn’t worth it,” she states. But she goes on to remark, “The public doesn’t want to deal with it because heaven forbid they were wrong.” (270-71) Welke doesn’t speak for all of those who lost loved ones, but it’s confession time; she sums up exactly what this reviewer both has thought and has failed to feel. I kept Jim Sheeler’s book about military families unopened on my shelf for quite some time because I am angry about the senselessness of the war, but I also ignored it because I’m weary and didn’t want to—in Welke’s words—“deal with it.”

Deal with it we should and must. On the surface, Jim Sheeler’s Final Salute deals with fallen warriors, but its essence lies in the well-chosen adjective “unfinished” in the title. It is not about soldiers and death as much as about the struggles of those left behind who don’t have the luxury of non-contemplation. Sheeler, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, takes us deep into six Gold Star families and confronts us with the fallout from combat that transcends politics, military clich├ęs of valor, and reason itself. It is, in short, a portrait of pain that is, at turns, heart-breaking and heart-warming.

Sheeler covers all the bases, making sure that we consider all the aspects of war we’d rather not. By the time he’s done probing the psyches of casualty assistance officers--those young men who knock on doors and deliver the news no one wants to hear--you understand perfectly those who say they’d rather be the victim than the messenger. Sheeler also takes us inside the minds of those we’d probably not otherwise imagine: gravediggers, tombstone carvers, passengers on an airliner watching a coffin being offloaded, children who’ve lost fathers, lost-for-words neighbors who detour when they see a young widow….

How does one make sense of such a war? Army Private Jesse Givens drowned in the desert; his tank took a mortar round and tumbled into a canal; Navy Corpsman Christopher “Doc” Anderson perished from a mortar round just moments after saving another man’s life. Sheeler shows us the various ways in which families cope (or fail to do so)—Brett Lundstrom’s community held a Lakota Sioux healing ceremony, Melissa Givens writes letters to her dead husband, Joyce Cathey has her dead brother’s portrait tattooed to the back of her neck…. The only constant in the book is that the military’s emphasis on brotherhood is far more than hollow rhetoric; as Sheeler shows, comrades-in-arms feel each loss deeply and many are there for the families long after their official ceremonial duties are over.

This is a deeply personal and powerful book that lets emotions unfold honestly and without comment. It is neither a war-as-video-game nor war-as-senseless-loss book. It does not preach, moralize, or instruct; in fact, there is no discussion whatsoever of the U.S. mission in Iraq beyond remarks made by Sheeler’s subjects. And in the end, this makes it the best didactic tool imaginable—one that allows readers to form their own conclusions. I cannot say that this book changed how I view the war, but without a doubt it touched my soul.


American League East Preview

I hate 'em, but I'm still picking them!

Baseball’s power division could get even more interesting—Baltimore has been slowly assembling a superb nucleus. In order of last year’s finish:

New York Yankees: The defending world champions were busy in the offseason. Departing are Johnny Damon, Hideki Matsui, Phil Coke, Chien-Ming Wang, Melky Cabrera, Xavier Nady, Jose Molina, a few bit players, and some prospects. In come Curtis Granderson, Javier Vasquez, Nick Johnson, Boone Logan, Randy Winn, and Jamie Hoffman. Are the Yankees better? Not as I see it. Vasquez joins Sabathia, Burnett, and Petite to make up a solid 1-4 rotation, but the bullpen will be worse if the Yanks continue trotting out Joba Chamberlain every fifth day. Joba, like A. J. Burnett, throws too many pitches and they grind down the pen. Phil Hughes should start and Joba belongs in the pen because one day age will catch up to the magnificent Mariano Rivera. Gaudin, Aceves, and young David Robertson are good, but then come bums (Marte and Logan) and question marks. The Yanks just signed Chan Ho Park; that tells you how much confidence they have in the bullpen.

Teams will still need to score lots of runs to beat the Yankees as the lineup remains formidable. Teixeira, Cano, Jeter, and A-Rod are the best infield in baseball by a wide margin. Jorge Posada is aging, but he’s still one of the better catchers in baseball and is dangerous at the plate. The outfield is less impressive. I wouldn’t have resigned Damon either, but I’m not a Granderson fan. If he doesn’t hit lefties any better than last year the Bombers will miss Matsui. Swisher and Gardner ought to be role players, not starters and the Winn signing is a head-scratcher that means they’ll probably lose Hoffman, a Rule 5 signing. Nick Johnson just went on the DL by tying his shoes.

Boston Red Sox: On paper this is the best pitching staff in MLB. Beckett, Lester, Dice-K, free agent signee John Lackey, Clay Bucholtz, and the ageless Tim Wakefield looks very good. The open question is whether they are good. I don’t look for Lackey to do as well in the AL East, Dice-K may be as fragile as he is stubborn, and Bucholtz may be overhyped. If any of them falter, Michael Bowden or Boof Bonser may get a long look. Is Daniel Bard poised to be the closer? The Sox aren’t showing much inclination to nail down Papelbon, so look for Bard to get more chances. Who will show up? The stud or the deer lost in the headlights? He was both last year.

The pitching needs to be good because the Sox aren’t going to out-lumber the Yankees. Youkilis is a great hitter, but Pedroia retuned to earth last season and I think he’s more of .280 hitter than a .330 guy. If I’m right, the Sox infield won’t be very productive. Adrian Beltre? Please! Another NL one-season wonder. Scutaro? Good glove, but not much of a stick. David Ortiz? He’s looking fat, slow, and the buzz is that he used more PEDs than have been made public. Victor Martinez is the big stick, but he’s a mediocre catcher on a staff that couldn’t hold on runners with a staple gun. The Sox outfield of Ellsbury, Cameron, and J. D. Drew is less than its press clippings, though it sure is fun to watch Ellsbury run. The lineup may be better than it looks on paper, but this team lives and dies with its pitching. The latter is so deep, though, that the Sox should win the East.

Tampa Rays: I said last year that ’08 was a fluke and was right. They’re still a fluke. James Shields must be a number one now that the disappointing Scott Kazmir has departed, but Shields looks more like a three to me. David Price is yet to live up to his ballyhoo and an injury will probably send him to AAA for a time. Andy Sonnanstine was almost traded and the Rays might have been better off keeping Edwin Jackson. In my view the top Rays pitcher is Matt Garza. One place where the Rays will be much better, though, is finishing games. Rafael Soriano is a huge upgrade.

The Rays fly on the base path, but there are too many low OBP guys. People rave about Carlos Pena’s 39 dingers but forget that he hit .229, which is eight points more than what DH Pat Burrell hit, and a point higher than their starting catcher (Navarro). You have to like guys like Upton, Crawford, Bartlett, and Longoria but there’s just something about this team that feels wrong to me. If the pitching struggles, the Rays could become manatees.

Toronto Blue Jays: They did what they had to do in trading ace Roy Halliday and making sure he got out of the AL. This makes Ricky Romero the new ace. He’s decent, but not a number one. The only other starter whose ERA was (barely) under five is Kevin Gregg and that was with the Cubs. The Jays’ future staff is in Syracuse, not Toronto. If Kyle Drabek lives up to his billing the Halliday trade will work out well in the long run and that’s the way the Jays need to think because this team won’t compete this year. They unloaded Alex Rios, a great move, and need to do likewise with Vernon Wells, if they can get anyone to take his contract. There’s not a lot of firepower in their lineup, just some good-but-not-great players: Travis Snider, Adam Lind, Edwin Encarnacion…. They’ve no idea who the catcher will be. And here’s saying that Aaron Hill won’t come close to replicating last year’s numbers.

Baltimore Orioles: If kids like Matusz, Bergerson, and Tillman pitch well, this team is going to surprise people. The O’s already have the best outfield in baseball that almost nobody knows about: Adam Jones, Nick Markakis, and Nolan Reimold. Heck, backup Luke Scott is as good as anyone the Yankees will start, and that leaves Felix Pie as trade bait (which they should dangle immediately, because he’ll never live up to his potential). Matt Wieters looks like a budding All-Star catcher. The infield has veterans Garrett Atkins, Brian Roberts, Miguel Tejada, and Ty Wiggington. The future looks bright for the Orioles--if the pitching is there.

Predicted Order of Finish:
(1) Red Sox, (2) Yankees, (3) Orioles, (4) Rays, (5) Blue Jays