Sunday, April 19, 2015

STAGE: Newsies

So glad we got the chance to see Newsies while it was here in LA. What a delightful musical, just good old-fashioned, foot-tapping fun. The dancing is a sight to behold, dancers flying around stage, leaping, doing kicks, splits, and other moves that we just watched in wide-eyed, open-mouthed enjoyment. The staging is a dynamic, fantastic recreation of 1890s New York City. The story is sweet and old-fashioned, loosely based in a historical event when the "newsies" (the boys who hocked newspapers, you know, as in "Extra! Extra! Read all about it!") went on strike against Joseph Pulitzer's The World newspaper. We haven't seen a more endearing singing-and-dancing bunch of street kids since West Side Story.

Sunday, April 05, 2015

FILM: Woman In Gold

I don't understand why the critics are so down on Woman In Gold. We really enjoyed it. Fascinating story about a headline legal battle for restitution of Nazi-looted artworks, interleaved with a woman's memories of her youth in a prominent Jewish family in Vienna before WWII and her harrowing escape after the Anschluss. Helen Mirren is flawless in her portrayal of Maria Altmann, determined to achieve justice but understandably reluctant to face the ghosts of her past in Vienna. Ryan Reynolds plays a young family-friend attorney who risks his career taking on the case, at first just for the profit potential but ultimately for much more personal reasons. Sure, there's a moment or two of necessary legal exposition, but I was fully engaged with the drama both in the present and the past. It's also beautifully filmed, with some vivid recreations of pre-WWII Vienna, as well as gorgeous scenery of Vienna and Los Angeles. We discussed the film through dinner afterward, and dove into Google later on to get even more background on the fascinating story. So far as I can find, it seems that much of it is pretty true to fact. Maria Altmann's film escape from the Nazis seems much closer to the truth than was that other Maria's famous escape. And now, of course, we are eager to revisit the real Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I when we are in New York next month, now that we know much more of her story.

Friday, April 03, 2015

Thoughts on Indiana: Balancing Liberty and Civil Rights

When the Civil Rights Act was enacted in 1964, much controversy surrounded its prohibition of discrimination in "public accommodations", which meant that hotels, restaurants, and theaters would have to serve black and white alike. While it was acknowledged that the law could require governmental actors to treat citizens equally, it was not broadly accepted that the law could mandate equal treatment by private actors. Shouldn't a privately owned business have the liberty to employ and to serve whomever it chooses? Understandably, that was the point of view of the owners of hotels, lunch counters, and other businesses in the south who were being forced by the new law to serve blacks and whites the same. It was also a point of view shared by some for philosophical rather than discriminatory reasons. Some such as Barry Goldwater worried about governmental encroachment on liberty, and that it was unwise for the government to "legislate morality". That view had also been the position of the US Supreme Court nearly 100 years earlier, when it struck down the Civil Rights Act of 1875 as unconstitutional in its attempts to outlaw discrimination in public accommodations. But much had changed in those 100 years, including the increasingly central role of commerce in our society, and along with that, the Supreme Court's increased recognition of Congress's power to regulate commerce. And enough of a majority in Congress recognized that continued private discrimination in the commercial sphere would have been intolerable. It clearly was not tenable to simply say "if one restaurant chooses not to serve them, they can find another". Blacks were shut out of hotels and restaurants in neighborhoods or even entire towns and regions, effectively curtailing their freedom to travel. Property owners and realtors conspired to keep blacks out of "white neighborhoods". Without mandating anti-discrimination in public accommodations, coordinated private action could (and did) keep oppressed minorities from being able to participate fully and equally as citizens in our commerce-centric society. Now from our point of view 50 years after Selma, it seems pretty clear that the regulations of public accommodation were necessary and proper.

Yet the tension between competing liberties underlying the public accommodation issue remains with us. I think many Americans share a "common sense" instinct that discrimination on characteristics such as race and religion is wrong. And I think many Americans also share an instinct that each person should be entitled to make their own choices about the work they do and who they do it for. No one should be forced by the government to do something against their conscience. These two principles come into conflict when one person's conscience collides with another's notion of unacceptable discrimination. In the area of commerce, Americans have generally come down on the side of anti-discrimination, especially when it involves large corporations or relatively impersonal business transactions, where the involvement of the business owner's conscience can seem rather indirect and abstract. Now we are at a new flash point in the tension between personal liberty and anti-discrimination laws that centers on bakers, florists, and photographers. While there are certainly analogies to be made to lunch counters and buses, there are differences that should be considered. The fact that these are small businesses and personal services with expressive elements bring the liberties in question into sharp focus. I think one must acknowledge that the participation of the baker or the photographer in a wedding presents a level of tacit endorsement not present in providing a hotel room or a restaurant meal or a train ride.

When trying to sort out questions like these, I find it is good to seek out analogies to probe for principles, and to try to eliminate my own partisan prejudices. And it is good to try to imagine how the "other side" sees things. To that end, I've been contemplating thought experiments like these: Imagine a marriage which is legal, but which you would find morally repugnant. For me, I am imagining some religious cult community making arranged marriages between girls at the youngest legal age to the eldest patriarchs of the cult. If you were a baker, how would you feel about baking wedding cakes for those cult people? (And please include nice little figurines of a young bride and an old groom. And could you write some messages about wifely obedience in the icing?) Reject them, and you're practicing religious discrimination and facing legal trouble. Similarly, should a gay baker be required to bake a cake for an Exodus "graduation" ceremony for ex-gays? Should a Jewish tattoo artist be required to take a customer who wants a swastika tattoo? If you want the principle of anti-discrimination above personal liberty in all cases, you need to be prepared to force all of those service providers to serve all of those odious customers. On the other hand, if you think that there needs to be some room for personal service providers to exercise conscience and choice of who they serve, then we've got a trickier set of questions to figure out where to draw the line and strike the balance.

With the rise of Religious Freedom Restoration Acts (RFRAs), it makes religious liberty weigh stronger in the balance, though I'm not sure everyone has really thought through the consequences. I think libertarians will generally like RFRAs, as religious liberty ultimately boils down to freedom of conscience. Social conservatives think they like RFRAs, because they imagine them protecting their own religion. They will, but I'm not sure they yet realize that RFRAs will have to protect any and all religions equally. And my religion is whatever I claim my religious convictions to be. The courts will not be able or willing to adjudicate which religions are proper religions, or which convictions are central to a faith. Some clever stoner has already founded the First Church of Cannabis in Indiana. I also can see an interesting wrinkle where, as more churches are turning to give religious recognition to same-sex marriage, RFRAs will enable gay couples to add religious anti-discrimination arguments to their petitions for equal treatment. Thanks, RFRA! (That would be an echo of Perez v. Sharp, the 1948 California Supreme Court case that declared anti-miscegenation laws unconstitutional. Andrea Perez, a white woman seeking to marry a black man, asserted a free-exercise-of-religion claim because her Catholic church was willing to marry her but the state would not issue the license.) The US Supreme Court in 1878 foresaw the problem of giving absolute freedom to religion, writing "To permit this would be to make the professed doctrines of religious belief superior to the law of the land, and in effect to permit every citizen to become a law unto himself." (From Reynolds v. U.S., where they ruled that being a sincere Mormon did not excuse one from generally applicable anti-bigamy laws.) These same fears and very words were cited by Justice Scalia in 1990, ruling that Native American religious regard for peyote did not trump Oregon state law (Employment Division v. Smith). Backlash to that decision triggered the first RFRA at the federal level, with strong bipartisan backing. With RFRA, Congress basically said, "if the Court won't find strong religious freedom in the Constitution, then we shall enact it as law". I think it's only a matter of time before Warren Jeffs or someone like him files a RFRA claim seeking his FLDS church to be excepted from the anti-bigamy laws. With RFRA, they could make a compelling case. There would certainly be a rich irony in that. A favorite jeremiad of social conservatives is that allowing gay marriage starts a slippery slope to polygamy. And yet it may be that the latest RFRAs, pushed by conservatives as a backlash to gay marriage, are what open the door to polygamy. And wouldn't Mike Pence want to bake that cake?

Friday, March 27, 2015

FILM: The Way He Looks

There's something about a good coming-of-age story that never gets old because it taps into our nostalgic recollections of those tender and tempestuous feelings of our youth when we were still figuring out who we were and what our place was in the world. In the Brazilian film The Way He Looks (Hoje Eu Quero Voltar Sozinho), we have the classic triangle story of a boy on the fringes of the high school social scene and his girl best friend, and how everything changes when a new boy transfers into the school. The intriguing added dimension to this story is that the protagonist, Leonardo, is blind. So not only is he dealing with more typical teenage angst of wondering what his first kiss will be like, but he also struggles with being teased at school, and he wants to stake out some independence in his life, despite having some unavoidable dependence on others, especially his protective mother. The actors who play Leonardo (Ghilherme Lobo), his BFF Giovana (Tess Amorim), and the new boy Gabriel (Fabio Audi) are all genuine and touching in their portrayals of the complex brew of feelings that get stirred up. Writer-director Daniel Ribeiro's film has all the earnestness and charm of The Wonder Years, and even though you probably know broadly how the film will ultimately turn out, it is a warm and engaging story, and a delight to see it unfold.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

FILM: Lilting

Cambodian writer-director Hong Khaou's film Lilting works quiet poetry in its elegiac portrayal of two near-strangers who lack a common language but share a common loss. Junn is an older Cambodian-Chinese woman living in a senior community in London who speaks no English, and with the untimely death of her son Kai, has no one left. Richard, Kai's English partner, wants to reach out to her, but his attempts are complicated not only by their language barrier, but by Junn's unawareness that her son was gay. With the help of an amateur translator, they grapple their way to a common understanding of their shared loss. Cheng Pei Pei perfectly embodies all of Junn's sadness, dignity, simmering resentments, and pluck, while Ben Whishaw portrays powerful emotions with masterful restraint. There are poignant scenes of each of them living with their own memories of Kai, and a perfect mix of lightness and seriousness in their attempts to communicate. Director Khaou visualizes this very touching story with a quiet beauty that is almost haunting.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

FILM: The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

It was too much to hope for that the Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel would live up to the first one. It was indeed second best. It was delightful to see all those great actors again, the film had some nice moments, and I did enjoy much of it though more out of warm feelings for the characters carried forward from the first film. Kind of like the sort of class reunion where you enjoy it more for reliving old memories jogged by seeing familiar faces than for the stories of what is going on with the people now. While the script tried to capture the great life struggles and lessons of the first film, most of the new story lines were rather contrived, really strained the willing suspension of disbelief, and at times didn't even make any sense. The direction didn't help either. Dev Patel's character, while exaggerated in the first film, was over-the-top in this one, and addled by some strange relationship between his fiancee and some new character (Sonny's "best friend" who we've never seen before and he doesn't care for anymore, who is maybe part of his fiancee's family, but who can make sense of it?). I don't recall Bill Nighy's character being quite so stumbling and at a loss for words, but that's all he was allowed to be here. Maggie Smith was mostly played up for her Downton-dowager-style tart remarks, and what the heck exactly happens with her in the end? I did enjoy the unexpected turn of Celia Imrie's story line, and Penelope Wilton gets a nice bit of depth in the end. If you liked the first film, you can enjoy the second one if you go in with lowered expectations and don't try to make too much sense of it, just go with it. But it is quite clearly the second best.

Monday, March 16, 2015

BOOKS: Like Water For Chocolate

I'm about 20 years late to this party, but count me a fan of Laura Esquivel's "Like Water For Chocolate". Being a foodie as well as a fan of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Isabel Allende, how could I not love this book? Each of the twelve chapters in this charming tale begins with a family recipe, and food figures prominently in the story. The way that recipes are handed down through generations (though not always mother to daughter, sometimes aunt to niece, or through loyal family servants), the way that cooking and food are so central to family events, and the wonderful magical device of the protagonist's emotions being transmitted through her cooking combine to make a most flavorful story. Anyone who cooks for their family should relate to that particular magic. I thoroughly enjoyed the characters, the romantic story, and the colorful, magical, mouth-watering descriptions. Now all that remains is to try out the recipes to see if they are actually as good as they sound.

Sunday, March 08, 2015

STAGE: Corpus Christi

On Saturday, we were privileged to see a rare performance of the controversial Terrence McNally play Corpus Christi. When the play first opened in New York in 1998, it was almost immediately shut down by hordes of Christianist protesters screaming that it was sacrilege. Now that I've seen it, I wonder if all of those folks might have been so hostile if they had actually seen the play themselves and given it a chance, rather than just foaming at the mouth at the very idea of it. The idea of it is this: it's a passion play, telling the Christ story, but transported to modern day Texas and portraying Christ and some of the apostles as gay. Just to be clear, it is not a satire or parody of the Passion, it is an earnest passion play. In the latter half of the play, the events leading up to and including the crucifixion are told with great integrity and with, well, great passion. The translation to modern times, modernized characters, and modern prejudices adds tremendous depth and power to the great classic story. I think the greatest iconic stories can certainly stand up to and transcend being adapted into another time, place, and sensibility, and even be enriched in the process. It's like a translation. A translator can strive for a close, literal translation, or go for a looser translation that aims to capture the "heart" of the meaning in modern terms. (Yes, I'm asserting that Terrence McNally's liberties with the Passion story are no more sacrilegious than loose modern Bible translations like The Message. It's certainly no more sacrilegious than Jesus Christ Superstar.) The way that lepers, tax collectors, and centurions were reviled in the first century is abstract for us, an intellectual exercise. People in first century Judea had visceral reactions to those character types that we just don't feel today. By leveraging contemporary prejudices about homosexuality and playing with gender in the casting, McNally makes us feel the impact of the story, of what it meant for God to take human form, with more visceral integrity than a "straight" telling can produce. Personally, I may have been more moved by this than by any other dramatization of the Passion that I have seen.

(Just to add the gravitas of time and place to this production, it meant all the more that we saw it performed in a church, with the full knowledge and blessing of the priest and archbishop, and on the 50th anniversary of the Selma "Bloody Sunday" march for civil rights.)

Saturday, March 07, 2015

FOOD: Elf Cafe

So many brilliant combinations of flavor, all vegetarian, can be found at Elf Cafe in Echo Park. Many of the flavors are drawn from a Mediterranean palette, such as ras el hanout from Morocco or sumac from Lebanon, but deployed with fresh local produce in creative new dishes. I started with a kale salad with cucumber, avocado, and kalamatas in a fantastic dressing of sweet Persian lime with sumac, cumin, and dried mint. Dinner was a socca crepe covered in a spinach ricotta mix, topped with thin slices of fingerlint potato, dollops of truffle cream with almonds, garnished with a bit of kale and shredded Brussels sprouts, dusted with pecorino. My husband had a rich wild mushroom truffle risotto. The flavor combinations were just genius, marvels on the tongue.

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

BOOKS: The Churchill Factor

There are probably dozens of biographies of Winston Churchill, to which Boris Johnson, the colorful British politician (currently mayor of London), has added another: The Churchill Factor. While I haven't read any of the others to compare them, I certainly found Johnson's take on this amazing man to be very engaging. Perhaps unique to his offering, his book is a character inquiry rather than a conventional biography, digging in to the question of what made Churchill Churchill. He explores various angles, from his relationships with his father, mother, and wife; his schooling; his love of oratory; his experiences as a war correspondent; his fascination with airplanes; his work habits; the way he treated his staff; his inventiveness; his painting; and much more. Through these various angles of inquiry, Churchill's full story comes to life in rich detail, explored thematically rather than chronologically. Johnson is clearly a huge fan of Churchill's, and unlike more scholarly biographies, his admiration and partiality to Churchill is unabashed. He does try to give some fair due to those who would find some fault or other with Churchill, but the last word is invariably positive. (He does also take some effort to separate the witty quotes that Churchill actually said, to those which have been popularly but erroneously attributed to him.) Despite this, or perhaps even because of it, the book is quite enjoyable, and the author's enthusiasm for his hero is contagious. While I was certainly aware of Churchill's role in WWII, I have to admit I knew nothing of the rest of his very long and amazing career, having made significant contributions in the first world war as well as the second. Just a couple of the extraordinary things I learned: Prior to his political career, Churchill had impressive military experiences, personally facing enemy fire on four continents, and thus giving him unique authority during WWII to ask nothing of his fellow citizens that he wouldn't do and hadn't done himself. His political career was so long that in his last stint as Prime Minister, he had a cabinet member who had been named after him. And who knew that Churchill was personally responsible for the development of the tank in WWI? In addition to Johnson's faithful research in talking to people who knew the man and visiting key places of importance to him, I found Johnson's insight as a politician himself to add some valuable color to the book. If you have any interest England, history, politics, or even just a really good character sketch of an extraordinary man, you will enjoy this book.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

OPERA: The Barber of Seville

Rossini's Barber of Seville is perhaps the world's favorite opera buffa, and with good reason. You have Rossini's delightful music with its hummable, memorable themes (already familiar to anyone who grew up with Bugs Bunny). And you have the classic Beaumarchais comedy of sassy servants helping young lovers outwit pompous elders with disguises, subterfuge, and plot twists, the pinnacle of French comedy drawing on commedia dell'arte traditions. The current production at LA Opera renders this classic splendidly. Some bright young talents enliven the lead roles, with a shimmering golden tenor of René Barbera giving us a handsome Almaviva, the brilliant soaring mezzo of Elizabeth DeShong giving us a spirited and sassy Rosina, and the nimble mellifluous baritone of Rodion Pogossov making a puckish Figaro. Many of the great arias, duets, and ensembles ended to sustained applause from a delighted audience. The set (from a Teatro Real Madrid production) cleverly uses some giant white columns and walls with baroque details and wrought iron gate, all of which move around and reconfigure from a Seville street under a balcony to the interior of Don Bartolo's home. While the architecture is ornate, the furniture is spare, just the essential pieces, plus several chairs that get used in unexpected ways, including being artfully tossed around and pulled out from under people. The costumes and lighting play with color, beginning the play in nearly all white, adding color as the plot progresses, with the finale a riot of bright colors when the lovers take off in an air balloon. (Hey, didn't I just see that balloon the other week in the Ghosts of Versailles? :-)) The direction is lively and playful, layering physical comic notes on an already very funny libretto (like a hyperactive Figaro circling the others when they are "frozen like statues", waving his hands in front of their unregistering faces). When Almaviva sings his opening serenade, the women of Seville step out to see what is going on, and throughout the opera an ensemble of nosy townsfolk are always looking in around the edges of the action. We took our college-age nieces to see this, as it's such a good first opera experience, and we all enjoyed it immensely.