The Movie: Once again, I went to see a new central European movie, this one “White Palms”, a Hungarian movie (filmed partially in Canada), based on a true story about a Hungarian gymnast, the brother of the director, who starred in the film. Once again, it was heavy, heavy, heavy. Imagine: a young boy in Debrecen, Hungary, is a talent gymnast-in-training, being coached by a sadistic disciplinarian who looked like he belonged guarding a concentration camp. His pushy parents, proud of his accomplishments, are oblivious to the scars and welts on his body. Finally, at 15, he runs away to (of course) join the circus, which in fact is run by a Russian as sadistic as the coach. He is seriously injured doing a “death twist” on the trapeze without a safety net, apparently retires from gymnastics and, some time later, takes a coaching job in, of all places, Calgary (the movie does not say what happens after he falls from the trapeze or how he winds up in Calgary where he apparently knows the owner of the local gym). His coaching career is cut short because he belts a kid in his class, something that Canadian parents won’t put up with, and is instead assigned (in lieu of being shipped back to Europe) to try to coach a talented teenager, who has become very surly and introspective. He succeeds in establishing a rapport, and trains him well enough that he enters into the world gymnastic contest being held in, of all places, Debrecen. His coach, our hero, also enters into the competition. The Canadian comes in first; the older Hungarian third. This is all very exciting, and the coach disappears after the contest to (once again) join the circus. He now lives in Las Vegas as a member of Cirque du Soleil. Truth is stranger than fiction.

The two gymnasts do play themselves, the gymnastic events are well filmed and exciting. The Canadian in fact went on to win a gold medal for Canada in the 2004 Olympics. The early sadism and cruelty, though, is very hard to sit through and, although the film has received some very strong reviews, I would not advice you to put yourself through it.

The Books: Just a quick report. As part of my “I think I’ll read a book that no one else has ever read” program, I read a volume called: “Assignment Algiers” by a retired U.S. intelligence agent named Erasmus Kloman and published by the Naval Institute Press. Kloman was part of the original OSS during World War II, assigned to Cairo (British Egypt) and Algiers (French Algeria) and then, after the invasion, Italy and France. Having recently read and enjoyed jounalist Frank Gervasi’s “A Violent Decade”, which covered much of the same territory, I had a better understanding of how the American and British armies succeeded in defeating the Germans in North Africa and how difficult the Italian campaign was, even after Mussolini was dismissed as the leader of Italy. But I hadn’t realized how active American intelligence agencies were in helping guide the armies (of course, sometimes their advice was ignored), nor how much intelligence was able to be gathered by a relatively small number of agents, carefully placed who, at the same time, were trying to figure out how to organize and operate an intelligence agency for the United States, something that had not been done before. Well worth reading.

I am continuing my program with reading a biography of physicist Max Born, written by Nancy Thorndike Greenspan. Well written, but meant for someone who has some idea as to what quantum physics is all about, I am glossing over the science and concentrating on comings and goings of Born in this very interesting inter-war period in Germany (I know he is going to leave Germany soon).

I also recently read Edward Albee’s “The Zoo Story” – a one act play about two men who meet in the park, one a family man, and one a penniless loner of dubious sanity, and what transpires as Jerry (the loner) tells Peter what happened between him and his landlady’s dog, and what happened at the zoo. Hint: there is no happy ending. A nice short play for a theater with a very limited budget.

The lecture: I went to hear Neil Sheehan speak about his latest book, “A Fiery Peace in a Cold War”. The book has received wonderful reviews, but I wonder how many people will really sit down and read it. It’s about the cold war, and the development of a missile defense (to replace, or supplement a bomber defense) as a way to bring about a delicate balance (reminds me of Albee) to keep the Soviet and the Americans from blowing each other up. He focuses on the role played by General Bernard Schiever, who was the most powerful voice in the military arguing for the development of a missile shield and the team that he assembled, and the willingness of Eisenhower to let them proceed in spite of some vociferous opposition from General Curtis LeMay and others.
The book took Sheehan 15 years to research and write; his last book, “A Bright Shining Lie” took him 16 years, so he is speeding up. The presentation was absolutely fascinating but, again, there was enough detail given in those 45 minutes or so, that I don’t think I’d want to dig through the entire book.

The Exhibit. I took a quick look at the Meyerhoff Collection exhibit at the National Gallery (I was on a very tight schedule) and will definitely go back. A large exhibit of twentieth century masterpieces given to the gallery by the Baltimore Meyerhoffs, it includes numerous works by John, Pollack, Kelly, de Kooning, and many many others. I heard a small part of a guided docent tour that focused on the concept of the canvas (flat and smooth, or something to have things sticking out of), rivalry between certain artists, references to fellow artists in various of the works, subtle touches of satire or irony that one would not easily notice, working with color and layout in very careful ways, and of course common themes and techniques. I would love to do the complete tour with this particular docent, but do not know if docent identity can be learned in advance.

The Restaurants. Less eating out than usual over the past week, in part because we had guests at our house and had meals at the houses of three groups of friends. We did have one very fine meal at Rasikas, a fairly new, and very contemporary Indian restaurant off Seventh Street downtown. We went there on our way to the home opener of the Caps at Verizon Center. That game was pretty good – it started off very strong, although the Caps had to hold off a strong rally by the Bruins in the last period. But since then, the Caps have lost 3 in a row. This is how you get to the Stanley Cup?

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