Potpourri: “Silver Linings Playbook”, “The Zimmermann Telegram” and “Woody Sez”

1. “Silver Linings Playbook”

A few evenings ago, we went to see ‘Silver Linings Playbook” at the Avalon.

I generally have a hard time with comedies based on someone’s (or some group’s) illnesses or deficiencies. But I had seen some previews of “Silver Linings Playbook”, and heard star Bradley Cooper on TV, and thought it looked like it might be worth seeing. Last night, we saw it at the Avalon. With only a few reservations, I recommend it very strongly.

Cooper plays Pat, a young, former substitute teacher in a suburban Philadelphia high school, who has been diagnosed with bi-polar disease after a violent incident after he caught his wife and fellow teacher, Nicki, nude in the shower with another faculty member at the high school. Given an 8 month minimum sentence to a mental health facility in Baltimore, his mother gets him out at the end of his minimum sentence, but against the advice of the medical staff.

Coming home to live with his parents (he is out of contact with his wife), he is determined to (a) re-unite with his wife, and (b) stop taking his medication. It turns out that (a) appears to be a hope without a basis in possibility and (b) is a big mistake. But he does meet another young woman, Tiffany, who has her own emotional difficulties, but who is contact with Nicki, through Nicki’s sister Veronica, whose husband is a friend of Pat’s.

Tiffany, whose relationship with Pat is a bit unsteady, agrees to take a letter to Nicki (which would violate a restraining order to which Pat is subject) if Nicki in turn does her a big favor – in this case acting as her partner in an upcoming dance contest (she views dance as her own form of therapy).

In the meantime, Pat’s family tries to help their son, but his father, Robert de Niro, has emotional and financial problems of his own. His form of self-therapy seems to be following, and betting with his friend Randy on, the Philadelphia Eagles, although he has been banned from life from attending games for fighting in the stands. Pat’s Indian-born therapist, Dr. Patel, also has a significant role to play, both as therapist and as Eagles’ fan.

Pat’s motto, gained in Baltimore, is “Excelsior”, which he defines as always looking for the silver lining. He finds his silver lining indeed, but not without moments of high comedy, and extreme trauma. “Silver Linings Playbook” is a feel-good comedy, if it is alright to have a comedy whose stars do have serious emotional problems.

Both Bradley Cooper as Pat and Jennifer Lawrence as Tiffany do a wonderful job, as does de Niro. The movie is well directed and filmed. Whether the characters of Pat and Tiffany accurately reflect bi-polar disease is a question, but probably not important. Similarly, whether Philadelphia sports fans are accurately portrayed is a question – they are violence prone, narrow minded and mean. Does that sound like Philadelphia fans?

Highly recommended, an enjoyable fantasy, removed from reality, with a happy ending.

2. The Zimmermann Telegram

Thomas Boghardt spoke yesterday at the International Spy Museum about his new book, “The Zimmermann Telegram”. While I was not overly impressed with his presentation, I did learn some new things.

In 1917, during World War I, the Germans sent a telegram to Mexican authorities proposing an alliance with the payoff to Mexico being a return of Texas, New Mexico and Arizona to Mexico from whence they came so many years earlier. The telegram, which became a cause célèbre, was not acted upon. But it had become commonly acceptable that the message contained in Zimmermann’s telegram was one of the issues that prompted the United States’ entry into the war.

Here is what I learned:

First, the Germans had a broader policy of trying to destabilize its opponents, the Allies, by fomenting problems elsewhere in the world that would take attention away from the fighting in Europe. The most successful example was the German support of the Russian Bolsheviks in exile in Siberia, financing their return to Russia which led to the 1917 revolution and the departure of Russian troops from the war. Less immediately successful was the attempt to create problems for Britain in its many African colonies. Even less successful was its entrée to Mexico, but whether or not it had any chance of success, it fit the German policy of world wide diversions.

Second, the Mexican offer was developed by someone on the staff of foreign minister Arthur Zimmermann, and signed off on by Zimmermann. I guess we don’t know whether it was approved higher than that.

Third, the British had cut the underwater telegraph cables of the Germans, so Germany had no direct way to communicate with Mexico. It did, however, use the cables of neutral countries, including the United States, to communicate internationally, and in this case, the message was delivered to Mexico (in code) through Washington, by the Americans, to Mexico. The United States was unaware of what it was transmitting.

Fourth, the British, on the other hand, had successfully broken German codes and were looking at all international cables from Germany. They knew what was in the Zimmermann telegram as it was being transmitted across the world, from place to place, but they couldn’t say anything, because the Americans (still neutral) did not know that the codes had been broken.

Fifth, while the Zimmermann telegram was published in all the newspapers, Boghardt does not think that it was a game changer in press support encouraging American entry into the war. He concluded this by looking at how various newspapers handled the story: those which supported entry into the war before the Zimmermann revelation continued to support America’s entry, and those who were isolationist before remained isolationist after.

Sixth, there is apparently little evidence in government documents supporting the theory that this was a major factor in America’s entry. Much more important, he said, was the German decision to use its submarine warfare to attack all vessels in the Atlantic, whether they belonged to allies or neutrals. This had such an adverse effect on American trade that the formal siding with the Allies was all but inevitable.

I was not convinced that I needed to read the book, but was happy to have attended and received a broader education about the Zimmermann telegram.

3. “Woody Sez”

Last night, we went to see “Woody Sez” at Theater J, a staged musical biography about the life struggles and music of Woody Guthrie.

The best things about the show? First, of course is Guthrie’s music, the very familiar and the not so familiar, which is easy to listen to, easy to tap your toes or clap to, and sometimes easy to sing along with. Second, is the musical talent of the four person cast (including David Lutken, who also is listed as ‘co-devisor’), who each seem to be able to play any non-wind instrument you place in front of them: fiddle, bass, guitar, mandolin, banjo, spoons, dobro, and one wind instrument – harmonica. Third, you get a good idea of the mostly tragic course of Guthrie’s personal history, including his slow death from Huntington’s disease when in his mid-50s.

The weak points? While the music and bio was there, I didn’t think that the show itself captured the spirit of Guthrie, himself. It all seemed too much imply like a show. The set itself is not much (I think the set may travel with the show, which has been presented in many places since it premiered three or four years ago, both in this country and the U.K.). The actors’ voices vary in quality (which is probably all right for this type of music, and if there is a choice between voice and instrumentality, go for the instruments). And, finally, I don’t think the show knows exactly what it is. Is it a concert, simply held together by set dialogue which outlines Guthrie’s life? Or is it a Guthrie biography with musical accompaniment. David Lutken clearly is playing Guthrie and acting as sort of a narrator through most of the show – and as narrator he talks of Guthrie in the third person. I don’t think it works. I almost wished I was watching a concert with a separate narrator standing to the side explaining what we were hearing.

This does not mean that I would suggest staying away from the show. The music, the history, the story of Guthrie’s life, all worth hearing/seeing. But as a piece of theater, I think the show itself is lacking.

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