Monday, January 21, 2013

Hank's easy-prep Split Pea Soup

• 1 pound Split Peas
• 2 carrots
• 1 onion (or pre-packed diced onion)
• 1 pound frozen bacon
• 8 cups chicken stock/broth
• 3 tablespoons Olive Oil
• Salt, Black pepper

Pre-work: Sift through split peas to make sure there are no clods, dirt, etc. Place peas into a large bowl and soak in water for at least four hours (bowl should have extra space to accommodate peas as they will swell from water absorption).

Preparation: Peel carrots. Slice in half, then dice.

Slice frozen bacon (keeping bacon frozen makes it easier to slice), with bacon strips horizontal to the vertical knife. The strips will separate when heated in the pan.

Coat interior of stock pot with Olive Oil. Heat to medium and add bacon. Stir as bacon/oil mix heats to separate strips.

Add onions. Stir for a few minutes. As onions start to color, add carrots. Heat for a few minutes, then add peas. Stir until ingredients are evenly mixed, then add stock/broth.

Increase heat to high, bring to boil, stirring frequently. Reduce heat. Add a liberal dash of salt and a pinch of pepper. Simmer for 2.5-3 hours, stirring occasionally. After 45 minutes, use potato masher or similar to mash mixture.

Remove from heat. Allow to cool slightly before serving. Promptly refrigerate unused portions.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

On Jodie Foster's coming out

Jodie Foster (photo credit: Tom Sorensen/Wikipedia)

Those who read this blog with any regularity know that I am, as they say “very heavy” into Classical music. I also enjoy other art forms, including cinema. But I don’t follow any actor/actress with the enthusiasm that I apply to music. In 1986, I stood in line for several hours in the cold weather to get tickets to a Vladimir Horowitz concert. I would never do that for another kind of performer. The closest I came to that was waiting to see President Obama last year.

Be that as it may, I enjoy films, and the work of several performers, among them Jodie Foster. My first recollection of her was in Disney’s film Freaky Friday. The fact that I saw this during its original theatrical run dates me. Over the years, I’ve seen other films with her, including Taxi Driver, Silence of the Lambs, Contact, and Panic Room - as well as Home for the Holidays, which she directed but did not appear in. I enjoy her work, but could not be classified as a “fan”, which is short for “fanatic”.

I’d first heard rumors about Foster being a lesbian in the 1990s. Given that she’d never married, I assumed the rumors were true but didn’t give the matter great thought. I heard more about it from time to time, and prior to her speech at the Golden Globes Sunday night, Foster’s sexuality and her reluctance to discuss it in public were nearly universal knowledge. Foster has been known for decades as someone who guarded her privacy, not just in regard to her sexuality but nearly every aspect of her life. She was also known as someone who supported LGBT groups like The Trevor Project, even though she never marched in parades carrying a rainbow flag. Seriously, did anyone with even marginal awareness of Jodie Foster NOT know that she’s a lesbian prior to Sunday night?

Some people, notably Michelangelo Signorile and other activists, have been highly critical of Foster for her reluctance to discuss her sexual orientation in a public forum. But she’s never denied it, either. As she pointed out at the Golden Globes, "I already did my coming out about 1,000 years ago back in the stone age, those very quaint days when a fragile young girl would open up to trusted friends and family and co-workers, and then gradually and proudly to everyone who knew her, to everyone she actually met." To an extent, her story mirrors the experience of nearly every gay person who has come out – not with a public announcement or a magazine cover, but one-on-one.

But for some, like Signorile, Harvey Fierstein, and Hamilton Nolan, nothing is ever good enough. In their continued criticism of Jodie Foster, they are making something that’s really very simple into something complex: the relationship between Jodie Foster and the “public”. She acts in and directs motion pictures. The public buys tickets to her movies. The interaction ends there. To the extent that Foster or any other celebrity makes their life public should be up to them, not preening paparazzi and gossip columnists. I'm aware that some in the gay community have criticized Foster for not being "out" and "political" enough. But I don't believe that celebrities have any obligation to expose their entire lives to the public. Perhaps if those critical of Foster pondered how she was stalked by an unbalanced man who later shot President Reagan, thus connecting her name to his near assassination, they'd understand why Foster guards her privacy so zealously. If Foster were a politician or evangelist who railed against gays while surreptitiously pursuing homosexual affairs, this would be an entirely different matter. As Barney Frank said, “the right to privacy and the right to hypocrisy don’t coexist”.

Those we call celebrities needn’t be placed on pedestals as role models. Indeed, those who often portray themselves as such, like Lance Armstrong, end up bitterly disappointing their fans. Has Jodie Foster ever let down her peers or her admirers in the way Armstrong has? She consistently gives her best as an actress, and there hasn’t been a hint of scandal around her. She has lived her life with quiet integrity. The quality of her work makes her far more of a role model (along with legions of ordinary gay Americans) than the rantings of gay activists, who often have little to bring to the table other than being loudly gay. These are the very same people who bemoan the “mainstreaming” of LGBT Americans. It’s all very well for them, since they live in gayborhoods, work out at gay gyms, eat in gay restaurants, drink in gay bars. They have little conception of the lives of those of us who live in flyover country, do our jobs, enjoy our friends – and just happen to be openly gay and in the grand scheme of things, do more to further the cause of LGBT acceptance than the “in your face” activists.

Monday, January 14, 2013

How Absolute?

What is Absolute music?  How separate and distinct is it from Program music?  Is there a connection between Absolute music and the outside world?  Or is music just notes hanging in the air, separate from reality?

These were the questions I pondered after Saturday night’s Cleveland Orchestra concert at Severance Hall.

The program consisted of two works, both Russian in origin, but so different they sounded like they came from different universes. 

The opening piece was Tchaikovsky’s Second Piano Concerto, featuring Garrick Ohlsson as soloist.  For over a century, the work has existed in the shadow of its more famous predecessor, the First Concerto.  This doesn’t mean the Second Concerto is of lower quality, any more than Rachmaninoff’s Third Concerto is weaker than the Second Concerto (and it’s worth noting that the Third Concerto is now the most popular among Rachmaninoff’s works in the genre).  I have fond memories of Ohlsson’s performance of Busoni’s mammoth piano concerto (over 70 minutes long, in five movements, with a choral finale) while on tour with the Cleveland Orchestra in Boston over 20 years ago.  Decades later, it stands as a stunning feat of virtuosity coupled with robust musicality.  Since then, he’s recorded a very fine cycle of Beethoven Sonatas and a complete cycle of Chopin’s music that, frankly, I’ve found to be a mixed bag.  Still, I had high expectations for this performance, which were somewhat let down.  Ohlsson was clearly on top of the work technically, despite it being new to his repertoire and a minor memory slip in the last movement.  But the fervency I heard years before in a performance by Zsolt Bognár, whose phrasing and rhythm imparted such depth into the score, were missing here.  The orchestra’s playing under Franz Welser-Möst on Saturday night was beyond reproach.  But the fact that Alexander Siloti’s arrangement of the second movement was used in place of Tchaikovsky’s original also weakened the whole for me.  I find it ironic that a conductor who’s very willing to program music like Bruckner’s Eighth symphony without cuts feels the need to adopt a sliced and diced version of a shorter work.

From the optimism and romance of the Tchaikovsky concerto in the first half, we were plunged into the bleak and terrifying Shostakovich Tenth Symphony.

The opening movement of the Symphony, which is mostly hushed, was interrupted by a continuous stream of coughing from the audience.  Cleveland is not immune to the flu epidemic sweeping the nation, of course, but whether from illness or for other reasons, it was quite aggravating to those of us who came to hear music rather than to be looked at.  The second movement, a brutal, martial piece, conjured visions of Soviet oppression.  While the Nocturne-like third movement was like an interrupted Romance – perhaps between the composer and his student Elmira – both of whom are alluded to in the score.  Welser-Möst was in great form here, holding the sprawling piece together masterfully and refusing the temptation to get past the bronchial afflicted audience by speeding up or raising the dynamics. The finale was greeted by a long and well deserved ovation. An acquaintance of mine derided the Shostakovich as “a bunch of noise” (grant you, this is the same person who hates Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto because it doesn’t have a cadenza).

Both the Concerto and Symphony were audibly and obviously composed in Russia, one could hear it in the orchestration and melody.  Yet they were spiritually poles apart from each other, and were reminders of the terrible things that happened to that country in the 70 years between compositions.  (Under Putin, I fear Russia is reverting to a Stalinist era.  Will the music reflect that?)  

No composer is completely divorced from the corporeal world around him.  The Bohemian influence is quite evident in Dvořák’s works.  Even the “New World” Symphony and “American” string quartet – which meld Native and African American melodies into their structure – retain a Czech flavor.  After Beethoven went deaf, his music evolved into an ever more spiritual plane.  But even in his most elevated works, such as the last piano sonata, the Ninth Symphony, and the last string quartets, there were still traces of the physical – the music still had the flavor of being in a Germanic/Austrian sphere.  Even the famous Ode to Joy has the hallmarks of a German beer drinking song.

So, even the most absolute music is not completely pure.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Travesty in Hyde Park on Hudson

Franklin Delano Roosevelt has been portrayed by many actors in productions of many kinds. Ralph Bellamy (on stage, in film, and on television), Edward Herrmann (on television and in a Hollywood musical), Ralph Vaughn, Jon Voight, David Ogden Stiers, and Kenneth Branagh have each brought their own skills to bear in interpreting this complex man – a figure at once tangible and elusive.

Of course, many films have dealt with historical figures and or situations. Some have used historical events as backgrounds for a fictional story, usually Romantic – such as Titanic and Pearl Harbor. In those cases, real-life figures are relegated to supporting roles. Others have placed the historical figure dead center in the production – dead usually being the operative word. Too often, historical biographies are like animated wax museums: the Important Events in a lifetime are recreated in the span of a few hours with little insight given into the person’s character, into what drove these flesh and blood people. Oliver Stone’s Nixon, when it wasn’t busy running off on tangents about the Kennedy assassination, was one of the more successful attempts. Thirteen Days would have been much better if Kevin Costner’s role hadn’t been so inflated. The miniseries on John Adams is the finest example I’ve seen – the seven hour running time gave the writers and producers adequate time to flesh out the characters.

Sadly such is not the case with Hyde Park on Hudson, which is neither a biographical film nor a historical melodrama. HPoH isn’t merely the weakest film I’ve ever seen on FDR, it’s the worst film on a U. S. President I’ve ever seen. How bad is HPoH? Abe Lincoln Vampire Hunter, and FDR American Badass – neither of which was intended to be taken seriously – are masterpieces by comparison. That’s how bad this stink-bomb is.

Whether a play, TV show, or film: if it ain’t on the page, it ain’t on the stage. With a strong script, nearly any production’s flaws can be overlooked. When the script is weak, “all the kings horses and all the kings men…” – and the screenplay for HPoH is God-awful. It makes no attempt at a dramatic through-line, with no sense of a beginning or ending, nor character development. Indeed, the characters are two-dimensional and, frankly, uninteresting. Then there are the “liberties” taken with history.

Margaret "Daisy" Suckley with Fala, the dog she gave to FDR.

There is so much outright falsehood that it’s hard to know where to begin. But let’s start at a central plot element, the film’s portrayal of FDR’s “affair” with Margaret “Daisy” Suckley. A typical scene has FDR driving Daisy in his manually controlled Ford, waving off the Secret Service, and then parking with Daisy in a field – whereupon she provides her own “manual” service to the President. Yes, you read it right: FDR gets a hand-job on film – something of a Presidential first.

Margaret Suckley in old age.

FDR was no plaster saint, he had a multitude of character defects: he was often devious, manipulative, and ruthless. (I won’t bother going into the many character flaws of his predecessors, which have been documented elsewhere). FDR was also an unfaithful husband. He had an affair with Lucy Mercer and more than likely with Marguerite “Missy” LeHand. Both Mercer (by 1945 the widowed Lucy Rutherfurd) and Suckley were with FDR in Warm Springs when was stricken by a fatal stroke – Missy had died the previous year. (The idea that Lucy and Daisy both had affairs with FDR and then spent time together as if they were aging sorority sisters boggles the mind.) HPoH’s portrayal of Suckley’s relationship with FDR as anything more than a friendship between a magnetic, complicated man and his spinster, sixth cousin is not only fanciful, it’s defamatory. HPoH bears no resemblance to Daisy’s diaries of their time together, which were published after her death in 1991. If there was any special aspect to FDR’s relationship with Daisy, it’s that he revealed more of himself emotionally than he did with the rest of his circle – it was to Daisy alone than he confided what a burden the Presidency was becoming to him, how much he wanted to retire, and his fears about his health. His trust in Daisy was such that two of the very rare photographs of FDR in a wheelchair were taken by her. There were dozens of women, and not a few men, whose lives revolved around doting on FDR. There was a certain effervescence about him that made people want to spend time with him. Indeed, Winston Churchill wrote that meeting FDR was “like opening your first bottle of champagne”. Adoration does not necessarily equal sexual conjugation.

Welcoming the King and Queen to New York.

I would also add that Daisy was nowhere near as attractive as Laura Linney, an actress I have to feel sorry for after seeing HPoH. I’ve followed Linney’s career with interest since she first appeared as Mary Ann Singleton in Tales of the City back in 1993. More recently, she did a compelling star turn as Abigail Adams. But here she has little to do but hide behind a veil of demure coyness. If Linney’s agent recommended this movie for her, he should be fired.

Bill Murray neither looks nor sounds like FDR. Worse, he makes little effort to look or sound like him, from the way he wears his pince-nez, to the angle of his cigarette holder, to the timbre and accent of his voice. Anthony Hopkins didn’t look or sound like Richard Nixon, but he was able to get inside the character and deliver a compelling performance. That’s not the case with Murray. Nor is Murray able to recreate the halting walk FDR taught himself after becoming paralyzed in 1921. (Indeed, the only actor I’ve seen recreate FDR’s walk convincingly is Edward Herrmann.) The man whose crippled legs were masked by the determination and iron will that allowed him to guide America through the Great Depression and World War II is nowhere to be seen here. As portrayed by Murray, FDR is merely a cocktail swilling, dilettante and bon-vivant who happens to be President of the United States – when he’s not too busy soliciting “favors” from the women in his life. I have to wonder whether Murray has read even one of the many biographies about FDR before taking this role. Inexplicably, the board of the Golden Globes has nominated Murray as Outstanding Actor in a Musical of Comedy, proving their ignorance about FDR.

Olivia Williams is entirely miscast as Eleanor Roosevelt. Nothing of the real vitality that attracted Franklin to her is here (shortly before his death, FDR told his son that even after 40 years of marriage, Eleanor was still "the most fascinating woman" he'd ever met), only hints that she sought companionship from other women. Nor is the passion for social justice that fueled Eleanor from her adolescence until her death. Here, she's merely an irritated quasi new-age ditz.

Not everything about HPoH is completely terrible.  Samuel West and Olivia Colman turn in excellent, perfectly timed, performances as England's King and Queen.  Elizabeth Wilson is fine as FDR's mother, although why she uses a slightly foreign accent when the real Sara Delano Roosevelt was born in New York is puzzling to me.  The propmaster does an excellent job recreating the look of 1939.

But the film suffers from a split personality: for the most part, it's a comedic culture clash about the British Royals' visit to America; then it becomes a clumsy, angsty drama about a philandering President's multiple affairs.  The latter plotline could have been entirely dropped and the film would have been much stronger.

The exterior of Springwood looks nothing like the real thing (I've been there). I can certainly understand why the Roosevelt Library in Hyde Park would decline to allow this tripe to be filmed on location, but couldn’t the filmmakers have created a CGI version?

In short, Hyde Park on Hudson is not historically accurate. Worse to some, it’s not entertaining – not even as a low-sex comedy, as it’s too slow moving. The writer, the producers, and Murray himself should be ashamed they ever committed to this project.

I’ve often thought an effective way to recreate FDR’s presidency would be via a television series, reminiscent of The West Wing, circa 1933-1945. It would be fast paced, with crackling dialogue and interesting characters, and no fictionalization. Indeed, some scenes could be lifted verbatim from the recordings made in the Oval Office. FDR’s life and presidency were fascinating enough – witness the dozens of biographies written about him.

Aaron Sorkin, are you reading this?