Saturday, December 2, 2023

Quote of the Day (Louise Erdrich, on Why ‘You Have to Love’)

“Life will break you. Nobody can protect you from that, and being alone won't either, for solitude will also break you with its yearning. You have to love. You have to feel. It is the reason you are here on earth. You have to risk your heart. You are here to be swallowed up. And when it happens that you are broken, or betrayed, or left, or hurt, or death brushes too near, let yourself sit by an apple tree and listen to the apples falling all around you in heaps, wasting their sweetness. Tell yourself that you tasted as many as you could.”—American novelist-poet Louise Erdrich, The Painted Drum (2005)

(This photo of Louise Erdrich was taken in Rome on July 5, 2015 by Alessio Jacona.)

Friday, December 1, 2023

Photo of the Day: Jerome L. Greene Science Center, Columbia University

Sixteen years ago, at a college class reunion, I heard a presentation about Columbia University’s proposed Manhattanville project—a projected 30-year plan that, the administration believed, would keep the school competitive with other Ivy League universities with far more space. 

But I wondered how on earth the university hoped to put together something so sprawling that it would not only enlarge the school’s footprint, but utterly transform the West Harlem area just north of the school’s reach at the time.

Above all, I questioned how easily the university could steer the project to completion, given its fraught history with its own Morningside Heights neighborhood.

I shouldn’t have wondered. Columbia already owned much of the land, and in July 2008 The Empire State Development Corporation gave it a powerful weapon for rolling up the rest by declaring the 17-acre site in Manhattanville blighted. 

You won’t find the storage facilities, gas stations and auto-repair shops that gave rise to that designation, anymore than you’ll find traces of what used to be “San Juan Hill” in Lincoln Center. I’m sure many West Harlem residents continue to question the university’s resort to eminent domain and the displacement that followed. 

Only time will tell just how well the university fulfilled its claim that it wanted to “facilitate the revitalization, improvement, and redevelopment” of this section.

But, driven by curiosity, I walked up from Morningside Heights a couple of weekends ago to see how the focus of all this frenetic building (and legal) activity looked. 

Just west of Broadway between 129th and 130th Streets, I sighted the 450,000-square-foot Jerome L. Greene Science Center, home to the Mortimer B. Zuckerman Mind Brain Behavior Institute. 

The nine-story glass structure, designed by Renzo Piano Building Workshop and completed in 2017, seeks to bring together neuroscientists, engineers, statisticians, psychologists and other scholars to collaborate on research, teaching and public programming.

Standing close by Lenfest Center for the Arts and the University Forum, the Greene Center is transparent on its ground floor, conveying a feeling of openness differing from the university’s prior reputation of being closed off from its neighbors. 

The building has surely advanced the school’s desire to be a hub of scientific research and collaboration. How well that will soothe some residents’ long memories of the bruising battle to build it and the project it's a part of is another matter.

Movie Quote of the Day (‘Terms of Endearment,’ With a Line That Could Be Jack Nicholson’s Motto)

Garrett Breedlove [played by Jack Nicholson]: “I don't know what it is about you, but you do bring out the devil in me.”— Terms of Endearment (1983), screenplay by Larry McMurtry and James L. Brooks based on McMurtry’s novel, directed by James L. Brooks

Forty years ago this week, Terms of Endearment premiered. It would go on to win several Oscars, including Best Picture. But the one that, to my mind, may have been most deserved, for Best Supporting Actor, went to Jack Nicholson. 

After a commercial and creative trough for him following his Best Actor Oscar for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in 1975, the award solidified a career upturn that began in 1981 with his role as Eugene O’Neill in Reds.

Nicholson’s character—a retired (and randy) astronaut who romances Shirley MacLaine’s Aurora Greenway—was not part of Larry McMurtry’s novel. 

But James L. Brooks’ creation of the character provided the film with a welcome jolt. The role seemed almost tailor-made for Nicholson. (Indeed, he could easily have said the line above in The Witches of Eastwick, The Shining, or to the many women he wooed offscreen.)

Thursday, November 30, 2023

Flashback, November 1963: Master Filmmaker Kurosawa Caps Crime-Thriller Quartet With ‘High and Low’

International audiences had become accustomed to daringly innovative cinematography and visual storytelling by Japanese writer-director Akira Kurosawa, even when he turned to foreign influences such as the American Western (The Seven Samurai), Dostoevsky (The Idiot), Shakespeare (Throne of Blood), Gorky (The Lower Depths) and Shakespeare (Throne of Blood) for his examinations of his own country’s psychology.

But with High and Low, which premiered in the U.S. 60 years ago this month (and, incidentally, in the week following the JFK assassination), this supremely influential figure in world cinema turned to a genre that had come particularly to fascinate him: the crime thriller, in this case based on the American pulp novel King’s Ransom, by Ed McBain.

Trust me, not every adaptation of one of McBain’s 87th Precinct novels works. As evidence, I submit two 1990’s TV movies in the long-running Columbo series, “Undercover" (based on Jigsaw) and “No Time to Die” (source: So Long As You Both Shall Live), by general agreement of fans of Peter Falk’s rumpled detective the nadir of the series—and the only two stories not written originally for the show.

But Kurosawa did not merely translate the setting of McBain’s police procedural from an American metropolis to Japan. 

By confining the accomplices in the kidnapping to the margins of the story, Kurosawa (who collaborated on the screenplay with Hideo Oguni, Eijiro Hisaita, and Ryuzo Kikushima) concentrated on the relationship between the crime’s ringleader and wealthy industrialist Kingo Gondo (played by Toshiro Mifune, paired with Kurosawa for the 15th and next to last time)—one with unexpected subtleties and class tensions.

Being most familiar with Kurosawa’s samurai films and historical epics, I was surprised to see how fluidly he handled a contemporary setting. But I may have been even more astonished to learn that High and Low represented his fourth venture into Japanese film noir, following Drunken Angel, Stray Dog, and The Bad Sleep Well.

The environment of this film is far removed from the agrarian world of so many earlier Kurosawa films. By this point in the 1960s, Japan was achieving levels of consumer spending and financial sophistication unimaginable before World War II.

“In Japan, the society progressed through a rapid growth, which was an unnatural process,” Kurosawa remembered. “Daily life lost its natural course. To live, it became necessary to work beyond one's abilities. That's why instability among people has increased.”

In the script that Kurosawa helped fashion from the McBain novel, that “instability” gave rise to a kidnapping, reflecting a frightening national trend of the time. (Kurosawa himself had received kidnapping threats involving his own daughter, Kazuko Kurosawa).

Gondo, a hard-charging footwear tycoon, not only faces a blackmail demand that could bankrupt him—just when he needs the money to fend off an internal coup—but won’t even be paying for his own family member, as the kidnapper has mistakenly snatched the son of Gondo’s chauffeur.

The planned ransom exchange on a bullet train is one of Kurosawa’s most exciting sequences, brisk with motion. But scenes set in Gondo’s home, though stationary, work equally well, as Kurosawa focuses on the tension engulfing Mifune, a normally forceful actor here required to register his emotions with greater restraint.

Over the years, I had come to admire such Kurosawa gems as Rashomon, The Hidden Fortress, Yojimbo, and, of course, The Seven Samurai. But I was pleasantly surprised by his change of pace in High and Low

It was the highest-grossing film in Japan in the year of its release, and with its powerful energy and deep moral seriousness, it also happens to be an uncommonly thoughtful thriller. 

Quote of the Day (Andrew Ferguson, on Notes Made by Famous Readers in Their Favorite Books)

“The task of a marginalia maven is at right angles to the task of reading a book: It is an attempt to read the reader rather than to read the writer. For several decades now, scholars have been swarming the margins of books in dead people's libraries. Those margins are among the most promising sites of ‘textual activity,’ to use the scholar's clinical phrase—a place to explore, analyze, and, it is hoped, find new raw material for the writing of dissertations. Famous readers whose libraries have fallen under such scrutiny include Melville and Montaigne, Machiavelli and Mark Twain.”— American journalist and author Andrew Ferguson, “Nixon Between the Lines,” The Atlantic, October 2023

I came upon this article several weeks ago and set it aside for future reference. Early last night, I became intrigued by Ferguson’s opening paragraphs: his discovery of Richard Nixon’s books in the late President’s library and museum in Yorba Linda, CA.

An inveterate reader, Nixon engaged heavily in these materials, becoming a counterpart to the famous authors that Ferguson mentioned as scribbling in margins. One book the disgraced ex-President digested in his unwanted retirement deeply annoyed him with its revelation that in 1969, his then-National Security Adviser, Henry Kissinger, had ridiculed him “in private conversation with liberal friends.”

Irony of ironies: even as Ferguson was researching his biography of Nixon among these previously unsampled books, Kissinger himself was appearing at the Nixon Library to promote his own latest book, Leadership, in which he had praised his old boss.

A further irony of ironies: only a few hours after reading about this conjunction of events, I found on the Internet that the man Ferguson called “the 20th century’s only celebrity diplomat” had passed away, at age 100.

Somewhere in the afterlife, I suspect, Nixon and Henry the K are going to have a very long conversation.

Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Quote of the Day (Graham Greene, on Why Books Excite Us So Much in Childhood)

“Perhaps it is only in childhood that books have any deep influence on our lives. In later life we admire, we are entertained, we may modify some views we already hold, but we are more likely to find in books merely a confirmation of what it is in our minds already; as in a love affair it is our own features that we see reflected flatteringly back. But in childhood all books are books of divination, telling us about the future, and like the fortune teller who sees a long journey in the cards or death by water they influence the future. I suppose that is why books excited us so much. What do we ever get nowadays from reading to equal the excitement and the revelation in those first fourteen years?...It is in those early years that I would look for the crisis, the moment when life took a new slant in its journey towards death.”—English novelist, short-story writer, screenwriter, playwright, and journalist Graham Greene (1904-1991), The Lost Childhood and Other Essays (1951)

Tuesday, November 28, 2023

Quote of the Day (Robert Frost, on ‘Bare November Days’)

“Not yesterday I learned to know
     The love of bare November days
Before the coming of the snow,
But it were vain to tell her so,
     And they are better for her praise.”— Pulitzer Prize-winning American poet Robert Frost (1874-1963), “My November Guest,” in A Boy's Will (1915)
I took this photo in Overpeck Park, not far from where I live in Bergen County, NJ, three years ago this month.