The Farewell

This lovely new film written and directed by Lulu Wang starts with that staple of family dramas, assembling the clan (trailer). In this case, a woman’s sons and their wives and children are returning to Changchun, China, from Japan and America on the pretext of a family wedding, but in reality because the family matriarch, Nai Nai, is dying. Though widely dispersed, they are united in a conspiracy to keep that truth from her as long as possible.

All except Billi (Awkwafina). She immigrated to America with her parents at age four and has adopted this country’s attitudes toward personal autonomy. This secret is too big, too consequential, too awful to keep. So, when her young poleaxed-looking cousin moves up his wedding to a Japanese woman as a ploy to get the family together, Billi is discouraged from attending. She doesn’t have the poker face necessary to maintain the deception. She goes anyway.

And what do families do when they get together? They eat! Over a series of meals, including the eerily familiar wedding reception, the food serves as a distraction when discussions become too intense and personal. Grandma Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen) is lively and charming, and the mutual love between her and a devastated Billi is beautifully portrayed. They tell her she isn’t sick, and that’s the attitude she adopts. And, really, she manages the family and the wedding minutiae with energy. The family keeps trying to take on various tasks, but she’ll have none of it.

I especially liked the portrayal of Billi’s parents, her stunned father (Tzi Ma) and chilly, no-nonsense mother (Diana Lin), as well as the poor Japanese bride (Aoi Mizuhara), gamely participating in everything without understanding a word.

The movie delves deeply into cultural differences and, by exploring them in such vivid detail, establishes bona fide universals. Given the subject matter, you would not expect this film to have a nice dose of comedy, but it does. Families closely examined almost always do, in the midst of whatever chaos surrounds them—painful wedding toasts eliciting surefire groans.

Christy Lemire for RogerEbert.com, nails it when she says Wang has “made a film about death that’s light on its feet and never mawkish. She’s told a story about cultural clashes without ever leaning on wacky stereotypes or lazy clichés.” See it!, then go out for Chinese food. You will be in the mood.Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating 99%; audiences 88%.

Topdog/Underdog

The final production of the 2019 season at Princeton Summer Theater is Suzan-Lori Parks’s 2002 Pulitzer Prize winning Top Dog/Underdog, directed by Lori Elizabeth Parquet. The show premiered August 8 and runs through August 18 at Princeton University’s Hamilton Murray Theater.

Sibling rivalry that boils over into violence is as old as Cain and Abel, with the line between love and hate ever-shifting. African American brothers Booth (Travis Raeburn) and Lincoln (Nathaniel J. Ryan), five years older, have an uneasy relationship made more acute by their dwindling life prospects. Despite Booth’s determination to change his name to Three-Card, the brothers seem constrained by the names their father chose for them as a cruel joke.

Booth has a one-room apartment and a girlfriend whom we never see (and who may be apocryphal); Lincoln has come to live with him after his wife threw him out, and Booth would like to get rid of him too, but Lincoln has a job and income, even if paltry. In a tangle of symbolism, he works in a carnival, in whiteface and dressed up as Abraham Lincoln. People pay to come into his booth and shoot him with a gun filled with blanks. They carnival hired him because they can pay him less, but even that meager income is threatened, because management plans to replace him with a wax dummy.

In the old days, Lincoln made a good living fleecing tourists with the Three-card Monte con, but initially refuses to take up the cards again. Booth would like to develop a Three-card Monte racket of his own. In the opening scene, he’s practicing his card-handling skills and patter at the front of the stage, when his brother enters, in full Lincoln regalia. Startled by Lincoln’s entrance, Booth pulls his gun, then lies about what he was doing. Playing solitaire, he says.

Throughout the course of the play, much comes out about the brothers’ reaction to being abandoned by their parents when they were 16 and 11 and their uneasy relationship in the ensuing twenty years or so. Which of them is the top dog and which the underdog shifts back and forth many times.

Raeburn gives an energetic performance as Booth, ever the kid brother, teasing and bouncing to keep Lincoln’s attention. Much of the comedy in the production comes from his portrayal. Ryan starts out as the ghostly Lincoln, morose and beaten down not just by his bizarre job but the even more awful prospect that he may lose it. He resists Booth’s importuning to go back to his Three-card Monte days, and finally, alone in the apartment, really comes to life when he takes up the cards again.

Rakesh Potluri produced the set (the vividly floral wallcoverings were inspired by the work of artist Kehinde Wiley, who created the portrait of Barack Obama at the National Portrait Gallery). Music from the hip-hop duo Outkast’s 1998 album Aquemini, which like the play is thematically influenced by differences between the two principals.

Princeton Summer Theater productions are staged in Hamilton Murray Theater on the university campus, easily reached from New York by car or train. Take New Jersey Transit to the Princeton Junction station, then the shuttle train into Princeton. The shuttle ends a short walk from the theater, which is also walking distance from numerous restaurants.

For tickets, call the box office at 732-997-0205 or visit the ticket office online.

Revolution in the News

The American Revolution. The first one. Last week Joseph Adelman gave a talk at the wonderful (and, alas, soon to be moving out of our area) David Library of the American Revolution about his new book, Revolutionary Networks.

While much has been written about the importance of colonial-era newspapers and broadsides in spreading the word about the ideas and events of the American Revolution, no one before has paid as much attention to the printers actually responsible for producing them. Only a few were as well known or wealthy as Benjamin Franklin. Yet, though they were engaged in hard physical labor and not necessarily well educated, they straddled a unique place in society—one foot in the working class and the other in contact with the elite of their communities.

Much of what appeared in the newspapers of the day was recycled from other larger papers (a slow-motion form of “broadcasting”), some came from oral reports of townspeople, visitors, or sea captains, and some from written reports to the newspaper or obtained by it. Only the largest newspapers would employ journalists to go out and find stories. Oddly, in most towns, local news got short shrift. The number of local movers and shakers was so small, the local news was not news to them. The job of the printer was to decide which material from these sources to reprint and how much of it, and in that curatorial role, they played a significant part in spreading the arguments for independence and popularizing those ideas.

The Stamp Act, a significant British miscalculation, hit printers especially hard by taxing the paper they printed on. In case you wonder what the printers thought of it, the skull and crossbones version pictured gives a fair idea! A boss of mine would often repeat the maxim, “never alienate the man who buys ink by the barrel.” That is exactly what the British did, and the “the killing stamp” was circumvented every way possible.

Prior to the Boston Tea Party, the Sons of Liberty worked with local printers to encourage stories emphasizing how calm and orderly they were, a prescient public relations effort. Paul Revere rushed to Philadelphia with the story of the Tea Party, which prevented a similar occurrence in that city. The ship’s captain was given a choice: sail back to England with his tea or suffer the same fate as the East India Company’s ships in Boston. He sailed.

A final anecdote: you may recall that Benjamin Franklin advocated for creation of the U.S. Post Office. His goal wasn’t to facilitate personal correspondence, but to improve the circulation of newspapers, which he of course printed. So all those newsprint sales flyers that arrive in your mail? Annoying as they are? Going right into recycling? They are carrying out the original purpose of our postal service!

Adelman is an assistant professor of history at Framingham State University, among other posts.

Echo in the Canyon

In the brief musical moment of 1964-1967, Laurel Canyon in the Hollywood Hills was the place to be. It was home to an astonishing number of California-based rockers, the vanguard of rock music’s California sound. And it was the pilgrimage destination of choice for British bands like, oh, The Beatles. Across an ocean and a continent, the two nation’s young musicians inspired each other. Meaningful lyrics, tight harmony, the 12-string . . .

Andrew Slater’s documentary about this era is a mishmash of different parts (trailer). Yet it manages to provide enough music and tickle enough memories to create a pleasing whole. It has  a modern-day concert recreating some of the music and coffee-table discussions about the concert; historic documentary footage of performances, television appearances, and in-studio recording sessions; current-day interviews with a good number of aging principals; and unexplained snippets of a 1969 French movie set in Laurel Canyon, Model Shop, mysteriously appear. As to the last, give Slater credit for an inventive, if baffling, bit of cinematic free association.

Handsome, low-key Jakob Dylan is the film’s interviewer and concert performer (along with Cat Power, Fiona Apple, and Beck). What’s so refreshing about Dylan is that when he asks one of the aging rock stars a question, he shuts up and listens to the answer. His singing voice isn’t great, but it’s plenty good enough, and with the concert’s songs featuring younger performers and today’s musical styles, it brings the music to a new generation.

The best parts of the film are the interviews and 1960s (mostly black and white) video clips of the original folk-rock stars in action—jamming at home, in the studio, on stage, and on television. The Byrds, the Mamas and the Papas, Buffalo Springfield, the Beach Boys. OMG, the hair, the clothes, the polyester. But The Sounds are what blow you away again.

Wonderful interviews about the experience of living in and visiting Laurel Canyon with many stars, including: Stephen Stills, Graham Nash, Michelle Philips, Roger McGuinn, Brian Wilson, Tom Petty (in his last film interview, pictured with Dylan, above), Eric Clapton, and Ringo Starr. David Crosby explained that people are wrong when they say creative difference caused him to be booted from the Byrds. “I was kicked out because I was an a——” (an insight borne out by the preview for a new documentary about Crosby, shown prior to Echo).

This joins the group of excellent rockumentaries like The Wrecking Crew, Twenty Feet from Stardom, and Standing in the Shadows of Motown.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ ratings: 93%; audiences, 91%.

****No Way to Die

ancient China

By PA De Voe – If you want a total escape from Brexit or US or European politics, PA De Voe’s second-in-series Ming Dynasty Mystery, No Way to Die, will take you back to late 1300s China. As a devoted fan of the Judge Dee mysteries of Robert van Gulik, set six hundred years earlier in the Tang Dynasty, I was delighted to find De Voe’s well-crafted series.

The prose is deceptively simple. No lengthy descriptions, just enough information to let you picture the scene—a style in keeping with both the era in which the stories are set and the heavily verb-dependent Chinese language.

Women’s doctor (and woman doctor) Xiang-hua is asked to serve as coroner to determine whether the mangled body of a stranger found in the village herbalist’s pig pen got there through foul play. Alas, the pig had made a bit of a meal of the man before his body was removed. Numerous males of the community are concerned the sight of the mangled corpse may be too much for the young Xiang-hua. But she does not shrink from the task. Trained as a healer by her grandmother, Xiang-hua is determined to fulfill her obligations (striking a feminist note that resonates in the 21st century). It’s tough, but she’s in possession of herself well enough to discover the dead man, muddy and bloody, had been stabbed in the back.

The local officials want to know the victim’s identity and, if possible, who stabbed him, before they have to report the crime to higher authorities. If they fail to find out, it will likely to bring down the wrath of the bureaucracy, never a pleasant outcome in ancient China, as punishments were plentiful and harsh. This is a prime example of how De Voe uses 700-year-old realities to create situations that adhere to one of the basic memes of modern crime stories: the ticking clock.

The investigation enables a fascinating trip back to a colorful and simpler time, and though the culture was so different, human emotions and motivations are the same across eons. De Voe’s training as an anthropologist and her advanced degree in Asian studies mean that what she writes carries an authority based on deep knowledge of that long-ago culture and society. I’ll be looking forward to more of her excellent tales!

Weekend Movie Picks

The Biggest Little Farm

This charming documentary records John and Molly Chester’s epic attempt to create a sustainable farm an hour outside Los Angeles (trailer).

They say early on that they found a sponsor who believed in their vision of a farm that, with a multitude of animals and kinds of crops, captures the power of biodiversity. That sponsor had deep pockets, because, while what they’re doing is a beautiful thing, it looks expensive.

The first challenge of Many was bringing back the soil from its status as moonscape. You follow them over seven years of trials and successes, and now their egg business (ravaged by coyotes killing the chickens) and fruit business (ravaged by hungry birds) are thriving. The farm gives tours, because it’s a beautiful place to see. And a gift shop.

Although the Chesters’ approach has a lot of intellectual and emotional appeal, he’s realistic enough to recognize that Mother Nature isn’t charmed by good intentions. Staying on top of it isn’t easy or inevitable. Still, you’ll leave the theater happier.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 91%; audiences: 97%.

The White Crow

The plot of this movie is well known, how brilliant Soviet ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev defected to the West at the Le Bourget airport in Paris (trailer) at the end of a visit by the Kirov ballet, then became the greatest ballet star of his generation. This wonderful movie, written by playwright David Hare and directed by by Ralph Fiennes (who also plays Nureyev’s teacher, ballet master Alexander Ivanovich Pushkin), tells his early story in black and white flashbacks.

The early story is important, because Nureyev’s poverty-stricken childhood in a Tatar Muslim family, with an absent father, may help explain the enormous chip on his shoulder. Let’s just say he’s not Mr. Congeniality. He knows he can succeed only if he excels, and his default assumption (a correct one, it appears) is that the Soviet system of training, work assignments, and so forth do not share his goal. The 23-year-old Nureyev’s ultimate defection in 1961, not without its dangers, is not prompted by politics, but by the desire for freedom to practice his art.

Ukrainian ballet dancer Oleg Ivenko looks and moves with Nureyev’s assurance and projects his charisma. He barely struggles to be likeable; he’s a man on a mission, weighed down by the oppressive handlers sent with the company to Paris. The critics are lukewarm, but audiences sense the film’s appeal, “full of small pleasures,” says Moira MacDonald in the Seattle Times—and big ones too, when Ivenko dances.Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 67%; audiences 85%.

Dover, Delaware: Travel Tips

With only three counties and less than a million residents—including one 2020 presidential candidate—Delaware is tucked into the Atlantic coast, at the confluence of New Jersey, Maryland, and southeastern Pennsylvania. Interstate 95 cuts across the top of it, giving travelers between Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, and Boston access to the state’s largest city, Wilmington, but missing the capital, Dover, by nearly 50 miles.

Maybe that semi-isolation is what has allowed Dover to stay modest in size and allow its central area to suggest you’re stepping back into colonial history, an impression magnified by the brick sidewalks, the green squares, and the federalist architecture—all red brick and white paint. A plaque marks the location of the tavern where, in 1787, Delaware’s delegates were the first to sign the new U.S. Constitution, inspiring Delaware’s nickname, “the first state.”

Last week we spent two days there and, yes, we found plenty to do and see in the historic downtown area. We started with the Biggs Museum of American Art, which has a small collection expertly displayed in period rooms that include art, furniture, and appurtenances, plus some bold wallpaper! The current Legislative Hall, where you can visit both chambers, and the Old State House, which even Delaware outgrew, are worth a visit and offer tours. We did Legislative Hall on our own, but had a docent for the old statehouse and for the governor’s house, Woodburn, where you can arrange a private tour. Portraits of the state’s first ladies fill its reception hall.

We visited a French bakery (only once), located near the Johnson Victrola Museum with its fine display of the machines that brought music into the homes of millions. Lots of representations of Nipper, too, listening to “his master’s voice.” Excellent early example of branding.

Finally, we drove out to Dover Air Force base to visit the Air Mobility Command Museum, which has exhibits indoors in a converted hangar and, outside, a mind-boggling airplane parking lot. Latch onto a guide, who can take you up into some of the planes. Most amazing was walking inside the cavernous C5 cargo plane, which is big enough to hold six full-size buses or a couple of giant tanks. The Museum is preparing a special D-Day exhibit which we were sorry to miss.

All that, and we didn’t get to the beaches or the area’s several wildlife refuges!

Photo credits: View of the Legislative Hall by Marc Tomik is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 ; Johnson Victrola Museum, Vicki Weisfeld.

Big Screen Music: A Tuba to Cuba

Two supremely entertaining documentaries in theaters now on the power of music and dedication of musicians. Yesterday, Aretha Franklin’s Amazing Grace, which we had to wait almost a half-century to see on screen.

A Tuba to Cuba

Unbelievably, two movies in the space of two weeks have featured a tuba (see review of A Woman at War), but coincidence has struck gold. A Tuba to Cuba tells the story of a two-week Cuban adventure by members of New Orleans’s Preservation Hall Jazz Band who in 2015 traveled there for a series of concerts, get-acquainted sessions, and impromptu events. The documentary was directed by T.G. Herrington and Danny Clinch (trailer).

The band members of all ages find much musical commonality with their Cuban brethren, which they trace back to African influence, and they delight in their discoveries and in each other. Each member of the current band on the trip has a chance to shine as both performer and person.

Leader of the goodwill expedition is Ben Jaffe, whose parents, Allan and Sandra Jaffe,  moved to New Orleans in the early 1960s, loved the music, and feared it was being lost. His father played the tuba, and started the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, for which the entire nation owes him profound gratitude.

The scenes around Havana, as well as several other towns, show the expected 1960s American cars and colorful houses, and a gorgeous concert hall in their final stop. But above and beyond the physical surroundings, the people—especially some jazz-loving young Cuban musicians—are terrific. The trip inspired the later PHJB album So It Is.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 100%; audiences 82%.

Big Screen Music: Amazing Grace

Don’t miss these documentaries about legendary musical performers in theaters now. They are indisputable testimony about the power of music to overcome barriers and speak to the heart. Tomorrow: A Tuba to Cuba.

Amazing Grace

Eagerly anticipated since its impending availability was announced some months ago, Aretha Franklin’s performance of gospel music, recorded and filmed at two successive nights at the Watts New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles, 1972, sat unwatched for nearly fifty years. These two nights provided the live recording of the most successful gospel album in history.  Originally filmed by Sidney Pollack and crew, “technical difficulties” with the soundtrack prevented its actual viewing until the project was resurrected by Alan Elliott (trailer).

Now, those difficulties are solved and Franklin’s genius as an interpreter of gospel is like a blinding light. She receives strong support from the other musicians, the powerful Rev. James Cleveland, and the Southern California Community choir and its charismatic leader, Alexander Hamilton.

I was delighted to see and hear from her father, Rev.C.L. Franklin, too. I’d heard a lot about his role as an early leader of the civil rights movement in Detroit. Aretha felt his influence felt her entire life. There’s a lot going on in every scene, with her family, the congregation, the other musicians, the filmmakers, and, on the second night, Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts in the audience, but Aretha remains calm and centered in all this hubbub. It’s the music and its message that preoccupy her.

At that point in her career, with 11 number one singles and five Grammys, she could have done anything. She gave this her all.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 99%; audiences 90%.

The Enduring Allure of the City of Light

People around the world were stunned and saddened as photographs of the partial destruction of the cathedral of Notre Dame, that icon of Paris, burned. (See how laser point clouds of gothic cathedrals, which may help in reconstruction, are created.) Paris, its landmarks, its street scenes, and its culture have inspired classic literature from the popular works of Dickens and Victor Hugo (for whom Notre Dame plays a starring role) to the American expats in the 1920s to Anthony Doerr.

Crime writers too have found it a congenial home, not because crime happens there as it does elsewhere, but because to set a crime novel in Paris is to establish a contrast, a friction between the sordidness of deeds and the beauty of the setting, even as it may live only in the reader’s imagination.

The Sûreté was quick to adopt some of the early criminal detection measures developed in France, too: Alphonse Bertillon’s system of identifying criminals through body measurements—a forerunner of today’s biometric identification—and the 1863 discovery by Paul-Jean Coulier of the means to reveal fingerprints on paper, roots from which sprang stories of very French detectives, most  notably Georges Simenon’s Jules Maigret.

The attraction continues. Here are four crime novels from the last year with significant Paris roots.

****The Long Road from Paris by Kirby Williams – In the late 1930s, a New Orleans octoroon jazz prodigy is making a success of his nightclub with the help of his Jewish girlfriend. Then the fascists appear. 

****A Long Night in Paris by Dov Alfon – an Israeli mistakenly murdered at Charles de Gaulle airport triggers a desperate investigation in Paris and Israel to find the real target.

*****Paris in the Present Tense by Mark Helprin – A gentlemanly aging cellist plunges well outside his comfort zone to help the people he loves.

****Number 7, Rue Jacob – by Wendy Hornsby – A Parisian couple is pursued around Europe in a deadly game, as shadowy persons ask cell phone users to “find them,” then “stop them.”