Four Books, Two Films, One Play, One Exhibition – Whew! (7 cents)

In reverse order:

1. The Exhibition. There is an enormous exhibition space on the ground floor of the west (older) building at Washington’s National Gallery that has been, over the past several years at least, used to house fairly long term, large, often home-grown exhibits. A few weeks ago, the gallery opened an exhibit of over 80 impressionist and modernist paintings from the Chester Dale Collection, all of which are owned by the National Gallery. Some of the paintings are normally on display elsewhere in the building; some are not. What amazes you as you go through the exhibit is how many of the paintings (by Picasso, and Monet, and Renior, and Cezanne, and Braque, and Matisse, and Cassatt, and Corot, and Degas, and Modigliani, and on and on) you recognize.

Dale was a Wall Street type, with a wife with an eagle eye for good art, who was very involved with the National Gallery, and who bequeathed his collection (that part of his collection, which he had not earlier donated) to the Gallery upon his death in 1962. In total, Dale gave over 200 paintings to the National Gallery.

You don’t have to hurry, as the paintings will be on display until July, 2011, but you may want to wander through more than once. There is also a 15 minute film about the Dales and their collection (which I have not yet seen), and a separate, small exhibition entitled “Ex Libris: Chester Dale”, which shows a collection of artists’ books, which have been inscribed to the Dales, but such artists as Picasso.

2. The Play. I had seen two previous plays by Neil Labute at the Studio Theatre. First, there was “The Shape of Things” (also turned into a movie), sort of a university student version of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”, where two couples tear each other apart. I found the play intriguing, but more than that, tedious, perhaps because it is such a long one-act piece. Then came “A Fat Pig”, the story of a young woman, very, very obese, who is the butt of everyone’s unadvised jokes. This one, I found simply offensive.

So, I went to see “Reason to be Pretty” this weekend, I was not expecting very much. “Reason to be Pretty”, “The Shape of Things” and “A Fat Pig”, by the way, form a trilogy based on “ugliness”, of all things.

Steph is a young woman in a four year relationship with a man who, in an offhand remark to a friend (overheard by the friend’s wife), says that Steph has a “regular face”. They are comparing her to a new employee, who is a real knockout.

The remark gets back to Steph who goes ballistic, and all of the relationships go downhill from there. So you have “The Shape of Things” (couples berating each other), “The Fat Pig” (a physically less than perfect woman) and even “Virginia Woolf” all thrown in together. What saves “Reasons to be Pretty”? First, although strewn with hyperbole, relationships are certainly affected by words that are not well thought out, and by words that are totally misinterpreted, and second, because the writing is so good. Of course, it helps that the cast is first quality, and the direction very sharp.

A surprisingly good night at the theater.

3. Film #1 – “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo”. I have been seeing more people reading Stieg Larsson’s book on the Metro than any other in recent weeks and, although I haven’t looked at the book, when the movie was released, and I had a free night on my hands, I thought I’d give it a try. I was very disappointed, although some people I know have thought the move to be excellent.

I should say at the start that I thought the acting was terrific. The cast is Swedish, of course, and not people that I am familiar with, and I was reading the subtitles, but each of the characters in this (in my view) totally unrealistic and somewhat silly story, were very credible.

But it’s the story line that got to me. An old Swedish aristocrat, knowing his days are numbered, hires a 40-something investigative journalist from Stockholm to research the death of his favorite, teen-age niece, 40 years earlier. (Why is the journalist free to take on this responsibility? Because he has just been railroaded into a libel conviction on a totally unrelated matter and has to go to prison, after a six month reprieve. Who cares?) The journalist is selected on the basis of a separate investigation by a stealth investigation organization whose best employee is a troubled 24 year old woman, with a troubled past, who has her body pierced in all sorts of places, uses color all over his face but only dresses in black and, oh yes, has a large (and quite nice) dragon tattoo that covers her entire back.

In the course of the investigation, this unlikely pair gets together, and prove themselves unstoppable – a man with experience, instinct and courage, and a woman with a photographic memory and razor sharp concentration. They discover that there were a pattern of murders back in the day, the niece being only one victim, and that there were Nazis and other kinds of nasties involved, and that the murders would be solved, but only after our two heroes are molested, tortured, and almost killed (several times) while they work the case.

What did I object to? First of all, I think that the story is really dumb. And second, the gratuitous physical and sexual tortures were way over the top, and added nothing to the dumb story line.

So why do so many people like it? The answers are, I guess, obvious, and once again do not speak well to the human condition.

4. Movie #2. “Arrebato” or “Enraptured”. A 1980 Spanish film, which one reviewer described, in effect, as a cult film lacking a cult, was just as bad (perhaps even worse) than the “Dragon Tattoo”. It was shown at the National Gallery, as part of a mini-series of Spanish films.

Directed by Ivan Zulueta (who recently died at the age of 66), and starring Eusebio Poncela and Cecilia Roth (who went on to successful careers in Spanish films), the films is about drugs and movie making and vampires. As best I could figure out, the two male characters are obsessed with making movies (the females are just along for the ride), and obsessed with taking drugs. Each of these activities, which cannot be avoided and form the basis of their existence as human beings, also sucks their life blood out of them (literally, as well as figuratively). The characters are, each of them, unpleasant in their own way. And by the end of the film: poof, they’re gone.

OK, the books (each somewhat out of the mainstream) will get brief reviews:

1. “American Overture: Jewish Rights in Colonial Times” by Abram Vossen Goodman, written in 1947 and published by the Jewish Publication Society. A fairly quick read, thorough without being overly scholarly, it tells the story of Jews in early New York (New Amsterdam), and Georgia, and South Carolina and Pennsylvania, before the founding of the United States. Although the Jewish experience was different in each colony, the pattern was the same: there weren’t enough Jews to threaten anyone, and there was sympathy for believers in the Old Testament at a time and in a place where Old Testament and Hebrew studies had a prominent place in Protestant thinking. And most importantly, the Jews were not Catholics, and it was the “Papists” who had trouble in the New World and towards whom discrimination was aimed. Compared to the Catholics, the Jews led a privileged life.

2. “Homo Politicus” by Washington Post political columnist Dana Milbank, published in 2008. I always enjoy Milbank’s columns, so it’s not surprising that I enjoyed his book describing the particular anthropological and sociological characteristics of that strange species known as a Washington politicians. This book provides a great review of every scandal, misstep, lie, and governmental malfunction of recent times. It is clever, biting and funny. It is accurate. It is very, very sad.

3. Sidney Zion’s “The Autobiography of Roy Cohn”. If you were fascinating by Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America”, you’d be equally fascinated by this book, published shortly after Cohn died in 1988. Roy Cohn, notorious for his role in the Army McCarthy hearings and for his provocative lifestyle, was dying of AIDS (which he denied, saying he had “liver cancer”, as we know from the play). Sidney Zion, certainly not a right wing figure, and Cohn were unlikely friends, and when Cohn’s publisher turned down the draft of an autobiography that Cohn had put together, Cohn hired Zion to touch it up (which in fact meant, to rewrite it completely). So this book is an autobiography, as told by Cohn (i.e., without external research or corroboration) by as written by Zion. And, because Cohn died before the book was finished, the book ends not as Cohn would have ended it, but with Zion’s personal reflections and recollections on his subject.

It is a surprisingly sympathetic portrait of a man hard to feel sympathetic for, someone whose background (highly privileged in New York legal and political circles), whose early liberalism and later strong feeling of anti-Communism, whose lack of family responsibilities (as a closet homosexual) provided no need to build up a retirement account (as he puts it), and whose belief that he can call up anyone at any time for any reason without any hesitation and expect a positive response in spite of his knowing that he is viewed with such negativity, created an individual with thought processes all his own. You won’t necessarily like Cohn at the end, but you will be fascinated.

4. “I Was in Hell With Niemoeller” by Leo Stein, published in 1942. Leo Stein (not Gertrude’s brother) was a Jewish law professor in Berlin arrested in the late 1930s for having slandered the Nazi system his discussion of German law in the classroom. This was before Jews were being arrested for just being Jews, although there were heavy anti-Jewish restrictions in place, and a time when many were simply waiting for Germany to get back to its senses. In prison, and later in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, one of Stein’s fellow prisoners was Pastor Martin Niemoeller, Protestant leader who refused to allow his church to be brought under the saw of Der Fuhrer and was being punished accordingly. Stein was apparently not a religious Jew (whether he had been Christianized, I do not know), but had extra-ordinary respect for Niemoeller (whom he had met previously), and for Niemoeller’s ability to rise above his situation, operate on a spiritual level in unspiritual times, and treat all of his fellow prisoners with compassion and respect. A very interesting book, somewhat because of its description of Niemoeller, but more so, I thought, because of its description of German prisons and camps at this time.

Both Niemoeller and Stein survived the war. Whether they had any further contact with each other, I do not know.

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