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Sunday, December 14, 2014

A Day of Anger

I knew I wasn’t going to be comfortable with all phases of the demonstration, but I went anyway, to the “Millions March” from Washington Square, winding up at police headquarters in New York.  

I went with a group from Broadway Presbyterian Church, a mostly white, peaceful lot devoted to the idea of reconciliation.   But the black organizers of the event were calling it a “Day of Anger,” over the latest wave of police killings of unarmed black men, and the impunity granted to the police by the justice system.   In the park, one swarthy black man carried a sign with a clenched black fist and the words “Fuck with me at your peril.” 

As we marched up Fifth Avenue, we came abreast of a group of young people, mocking the cops with a chant borrowed from the Vietnam War era.  Then it began “Hey, hey, LBJ..”   Now it was “NYPD, KKK, how many kids have you killed today?”   This was aimed at the police who lined the avenue, looking on impassively from behind the barricades. 

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Democracy in Dance

-  By Tom Phillips

In his mischievous mode, Mark Morris is a serious comedian.  He doesn't take his dancers seriously, but he has them act as if they’re taking themselves seriously – and in the distance between these points of view is the genius of his gentle wit. 

Morris’s new work, “Words,” is set to Mendelssohn’s “Songs Without Words” for violin and piano, and it reminds me of another comic masterpiece with music by Mendelssohn – Shakespeare’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream.”  “What fools these mortals be!” says Puck, but we love their foolishness as we do our own. 
Laurel Lynch and Billy Smith -- Mark Morris Dance Group 

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Following the Ark: The People's Climate March

-- By Tom Phillips   

Photos: Brandon Johnson
The day began for me with an interfaith prayer service -- the first I've ever been to that seemed to be all in a common spirit.  People gathered on 58th Street under the banners of their various faiths, but I made my way through the crowd, trying to get close enough to the stage to hear the prayers and songs.  Starting with a friendly bunch of Congregationalists from Vermont, I made my way up through Unitarians, Pagans, Quakers, Buddhists and Ethical Humanists, until I wound up on a ragged border between Jews and Catholics, only about 100 feet from the action. 

For once, all the prayers and invocations pointed in the same direction.  We all have a common interest in survival, and the lives of those who come after us.  And there's no disagreement on the who our opponents are -- global corporations, artificial persons created by law for the purpose of doing business, which by their nature put profits first -- even at the risk of civilization.   

Between the two sides lies the institution of government, which has the power to regulate business, but which has largely abdicated its role.  The purpose of the march, on the eve of a U-N conference, was to challenge the idea that governments can't decide in favor of humanity.  Yes, they can.  

The interfaith crowd filled the entire block of 58th Street from Eighth to Ninth Avenue, and hundreds of other groups gathered in other streets surrounding Columbus Circle.  We had to wait while other groups got the march underway, but the band was rocking -- the cellist Michael Fitzpatrick with his intense vibrato, improvising behind gospel singer Roosevelt Credit, and Peter Yarrow, bent and shaky but still singing with conviction, making us sing along.

Finally we stepped out, cheering, behind a replica of Noah's Ark, a float festooned with all kinds of people.  One guy had a T-shirt that said "Don't panic, I'm Islamic."  Another's sign said he was "An Atheist on the Ark."

The march stretched as far as the eye could see, in front and behind, and went on for hours.  I came home and saw a report that said "tens of thousands," but it was hundreds of thousands, without a doubt.  The mood was entirely festive.  This was a celebration of human life and community, the very things at risk.  

Friday, August 15, 2014

The Walking Cure

 -- by Tom Phillips

                       “Sometimes I wonder what I’m a-gonna do,
                        But there ain’t no cure for the Summertime Blues.”
                                                                                    -- Eddie Cochran 

Ever since I was a teenager I have suffered from the Summertime Blues – the aimlessless, hopelessness, boredom and loneliness that result from long days of humid heat, and the collapse of the structures of ordinary time.  What are you going to do? 

This summer I stumbled on an answer.   Browsing in my favorite bookstore, the Labyrinth on 112th Street, I came across a new work by a French philosopher, Frederic Gros, called “A Philosophy of Walking.”   I’ve always been a walker – for transportation, exercise, and mental hygiene – but I never thought of this humble activity as a way of life, as a meaningful act in itself. 

Gros treats it that way. “Walking is not a sport,” he begins.  He writes about famous thinkers and writers for whom it was the essential activity:  Rousseau walked to recover his original, uncorrupted humanity;  Rimbaud walked to escape, to move on, to exhaust his body and mind.  Wordsworth walked to feel the natural rhythms of poetry.  Thoreau walked through the woods to simplify his existence, Nietzsche climbed mountains to drive his thought to its peaks.  Kant walked for discipline, and to relieve his constipation.  Gandhi walked for independence, for peace and freedom.    

Inspired, I tried organizing my life around walking.  And I found that three walks a day can relieve aimlessness, hopelessness, boredom and loneliness, and yield great benefits beyond. 

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

A Dream Deferred

The Life and Crimes of Doris Payne 
Documentary film by Kirk Marcolina and Matthew Pond  

What happens to a dream deferred? asked the poet Langston Hughes.  Ask Doris Payne.

When Payne was a little girl, in the coal country of West Virginia, she wanted to be a ballerina, but someone told her she couldn’t, because “they don’t have black ballerinas.”  All right, she says she thought, if I can’t be what I want to be, I will be something else.

So instead of a dancer or an actress, which this strikingly beautiful, poised and intelligent girl surely could have been, she became an impersonator of beautiful, poised, intelligent women, and used her talent to steal millions of dollars worth of jewelry from high-end shops all over the world.   Her greatest heist was at Cartier’s in Monte Carlo, where she pretended to be the wife of Otto Preminger, and made off with a diamond worth a million dollars.  She then sewed it into her girdle as she escaped from custody in Monaco, flew back to the U-S and fenced it on 47th Street in New York, for $148,000. 

Ms. Payne, now an octogenarian, multiple repeat offender, tells her story in this alternately charming and chilling documentary.  She repeatedly breaks into laughter while telling of her thefts and her jailbreaks – confessing that part of her motive was surely to punish and poke fun at the society that put her on the margins.   

In the end, though, it’s not a funny story.  At 83, we see Payne arrested yet again, her career failing largely because of new surveillance technology that makes it so much harder for jewel thieves to go undetected.  She seems resigned to a life bouncing in and out of prison and halfway houses, always plotting, always lying, usually broke and homeless. 

An overheated witness at her trial describes her as a psychopath, but she’s clearly not.  To her best friend she’s an honest woman, to her children a loving mother, and to the viewer, a sympathetic character.  She makes her way by ripping off a well-insured business that makes its own way by exploiting poor miners, and ripping off wealthy consumers.   Asked why she hasn't apologized for her crimes, she says no one has showed up to apologize to.  How about the saleslady who called her a psychopath?  Well, it wasn't her jewelry.  She was just the saleslady, says Payne.  

Film review:  this is not a great documentary.  Doris Payne seems much smarter than the film-makers, whom she uses and manipulates as she would anyone else.   Still, they let her tell her own story in her own words, and it's a gem.      

-- Copyright 2014 by Tom Phillips 

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Serenade at Eighty

-- By Tom Phillips

Eighty years ago this week, a new art form was brought forth on this continent.   On June 10, 1934, George Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein’s fledgling School of American Ballet performed the first ballet choreographed on and for American dancers – Balanchine’s Serenade.  It was the beginning of a revolution, but not the kind that anyone expected.  
When Balanchine arrived in America in 1933, a refugee from imperial Russia, no one was clamoring for a new classical ballet with music by Tchaikovsky.  These were the depths of the Great Depression, the heyday of John Steinbeck in America, and Socialist Realism in Russia.  The arts were expected to reflect the social and political struggles of humanity.  Modern dance seemed much closer to the spirit of the time.  And the main figure in modern dance was Martha Graham, whose whole career had been a revolt against the ballet tradition.

Serenade starts with a tableau that could have been created by Graham.  Seventeen girls stand in blue light, their feet straight ahead.  One arm is raised, the hand flexed toward the vertical. Balanchine reportedly told them they were “blocking the moonlight.” The position is un-balletic, the expression anti-romantic; but suddenly it begins to transform.  The wrist curves and circles overhead, then diagonally across the center line of the body, followed by the gaze; the arms form a ballet position at the hips. Then, without warning or preparation, seventeen pairs of feet suddenly turn out from parallel to first position. The floor squeaks in protest. The movement is abrupt, almost violent -- not an impulse from within, but a discipline imposed from outside. Graham herself said the first time she saw it, tears sprang to her eyes. “It was simplicity itself,” she said, “but the simplicity of a very great master.”

Next the heads lift, the arms rise and spread out, and the torso lifts as the right foot points to the side.  The dancers breathe and expand, no longer blocking the moonlight, but open to the world in front of them.  The sequence could end here, but it doesn’t. Balanchine – who talked of “forcing” beauty out of human material — closes the feet, crossing the ankles to the fifth position. The arms again rise and spread, but this time the bodies reach beyond the vertical, looking to the sky. “Blocking the moonlight” has been transformed, step by step, into ballet, into an opening toward the heavens.  Balanchine’s young ballerinas have yet to move from their places, or even bend their knees, but they have already foreshadowed the drama to come: the transcendence of modernism by classicism.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Chairman Mao and the Goddess

-- by Tom Phillips

Twenty-five years ago this May, I went with CBS News to cover what turned out to be historic events in Beijing.  We were the only crew from a major U.S. network on the scene, but it wasn’t because we knew what was going to happen.  We were planning to cover the meeting of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and China’s communist party leaders – a summit conference that became just a footnote to the tumult in Tiananmen Square, and throughout China

The pro-democracy protests that swept China in 1989 had been building up for weeks, and climaxed in mid-May with a huge demonstration that filled Tiananmen Square with more than a million people.  Protests were also reported in hundreds of other Chinese cities.  It came about because of a confluence of factors – mourning for the death of a leading party reformer in April, spring weather and spring fever, the presence of foreign reporters and loosening of press restrictions for the Gorbachev visit.   But it also had to do with the global atmosphere – Gorbachev’s reforms, the implosion of the Soviet empire in Europe, the rise of democratic aspirations everywhere.  It felt like an unstoppable movement – democracy was coming to the People’s Republic, for a billion people in the world’s largest civilization.    

America, or the idea of America, was the ultimate inspiration.  The students tried to build a papier-mache replica of the Statue of Liberty, but the torch sagged when held with just one arm, so they rebuilt it with the other hand holding the wrist for support.  They called it the “Goddess of Democracy,” and installed it in the square, facing the huge portrait of Mao Zedong.  This reportedly enraged the communist party hard-liners. 

Demanding democracy, the student leaders set up their own little democracy in the square.  Everything had to be voted on.  We discovered this when producer Susan Zirinsky and I, rushing back to the hotel, took a shortcut across the square.  When we arrived at the edge a security fence was in the way, right next to one of the student command posts.  Zirinsky, never one to be denied, was not about to turn back.  She pleaded with the students, dropping the names of their leaders, saying all we were trying to do was get their story out.  They huddled and voted, all their hands shooting up simultaneously.  We won, and jumped the fence. 

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Levin Leaping: Malamud's Masterpiece Redux

  -- By Tom Phillips  

At last!  My candidate for the Great American Novel has gotten the boost it so desperately needs.  This long-shot is "A New Life,” Bernard Malamud’s 1961 epic of a down-and-out New Yorker in the Pacific Northwest.  It's a tale of mutual transformation, unlike anything else he ever wrote, but based on his own true experience in that very time and place.   

Never read it?  Never heard of it?  You're not alone.  “A New Life” is the most ignored work of a hugely popular author.  The New York Public Library system recently held 164 copies of Malamud's best-loved novel “The Assistant,” and exactly one copy of “A New Life.”   But “A New Life” has just gotten a new life, thanks to New American Library, which has published two volumes of Malamud’s work to mark the 100th anniversary of his birth, and to literary lioness Cynthia Ozick, who has finally given Malamud’s masterpiece its due. 

In a front-page review for The New York Times Book Review, Ozick compares “A New Life” with no less than Huck Finn as a moral tale, and Gatsby as a saga of American transformation.  She calls it “one of those rare transfiguring American novels that turn wishing into destiny.”  Whatever that means, I think she’s right.   “A New Life” is an immensely complex, immensely entertaining vision – the closest thing to "Ulysses" ever written in America.  It's a hair-raising trip along the disputed borders of east and west, the Fifties and the Sixties, pragmatism and idealism, Judaism and Christianity, repression and revolution.  

Saturday, February 1, 2014

The Age of Melody

After watching the Grammy Awards on TV this week, I came away recalling some inviting rhythms (Daft Punk), biting lyrics (Lorde), and sweet voices (Kacey Musgraves) -- in addition of course to the costumes and special effects.  But I can’t say I came away with a catchy new tune.  The age of melody is long gone. Tunes took a back seat starting in the 1950s, displaced first by rockin’ rhythms, then by the lyrics of folkie songwriters.  In the age of the singer-songwriter, a tune was just a few repetitive notes to hang the verses on.  And in rap music, melody disappeared completely, as music got down to just the word and the beat. 

Someday, melody is going to make a big comeback.  That’s not because any of the above trends were wrong or not necessary.  It’s because melody is the element of music that says the most, on the most basic level.  It’s the musical statement that stands for the whole piece.  And it lasts longest in the memory.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Outside Llewyn Davis

                                             “There was music in the cafes at night,
                                                And revolution in the air.”
                                                                   B. Dylan   
Critics are raving about “Inside Llewyn Davis,” the new film by Joel and Ethan Coen evoking the Greenwich Village folk scene of 1961.   But the Coen brothers, and most of the critics, weren’t there at the time.  As one who was there, I’d say the Coens got it wrong.

Not so much in the details. McDougal Street looks a lot like it did in 1961, with the coffee houses and the grimy Kettle of Fish tavern.  The Gaslight Café, which in the film is a mash-up of the Gaslight and Gerde’s Folk City, looks like neither, but enough like a typical folk club of the period.  Oscar Isaac, as the title character, looks and sounds a little like Dave Van Ronk, on whom he is “loosely based,” though both his beard and his voice are neater, his guitar playing is nowhere as complex and sophisticated, and his commitment to folk music is suspect.  The surrounding cast of characters – the sleazy bar owner, the dysfunctional folk-record producer, the mumbling beat poet, the chick who sleeps with too many guys, the kindly abortion doctor, the phony folkies who hope to cash in on their music, the cynical talent manager who knows how to make that happen --  are all based on real types of the period. 

What’s missing is the spirit – the electric atmosphere that made the Village a magnet for every kind of artistic rebel.   Llewyn is a loser, a self-absorbed artist, easily discouraged by failure.  Dave Van Ronk was a musical genius and an indomitable force on the folk music scene.  He never made money from it, but he never quit, and he never quit because he loved the material so completely that he made it his own, his own identity.  To watch and hear him perform for small change in the Gaslight Café was like a religious experience – he hovered over his guitar, savoring notes as he bent them into blues, croaking out the old complaints in his untrained, roughed-up but gentle high tenor voice.   Here was a man in love with an America that had practically disappeared in the militarized, commercialized and sanitized world of the forties and fifties.  In love, and able to express it in songs he’d copied and adapted from obscure field recordings.   And not about to sell it out, or give it up, no matter what.