Conductor Arturo Toscanini’s BBC records for EMI were collected some years ago as a six-CD recording set which I bought to become better acquainted with the art form and its highly touted orchestral master. My goal was to immerse myself in properly performed, quality classical music. Knowing that Toscanini, whose reputation is legendary, was noted for seeking to create the objective musical performance of a composer’s work, I thought this product would be a good starting point.
While I’m clearly not an expert on classical music, I think I made the right choice. The series leaves this pop, dance and rock fan enchanted and wanting more.
I had known that Toscanini (1867-1957) is best known for authoritative accounts of standard pieces of music in opera and orchestral music, though most seem to know his NBC recordings for the broadcasting network’s symphony orchestra, which NBC created for him in 1937. Toscanini also recorded music with the BBC Symphony, New York Philharmonic and the Philadelphia Orchestra. Most of his BBC records are available on Arturo Toscanini: The HMV Recordings, a single boxed set which is part of EMI’s Icons series. The collection features compositions by Beethoven, Debussy and Brahms, as well as Toscanini’s conduction of music by Wagner, Mendelssohn and Mozart, among others.
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The energetic performances are detailed and enunciated. How familiar classical music pieces are uniquely framed and delivered is striking both in terms of quality and distinctiveness. Many of these records are almost 90 years old.
Brahms is a favorite. I have enjoyed listening to various recordings of his music for years. However, under Toscanini’s direction, his symphonies and overtures are faster, more urgent and, sometimes, more powerful. The conductor’s passion is evident in these live concert recordings. Works by Beethoven, Mozart and other masters are irresistible here, too. Even if a prelude or piece of music is not to my personal preference, the performance under Arturo Toscanini, who died at the age of 89 after retiring in the 1950s, is always compelling. The Italian immigrant, who refused to sanction authoritarianism, conducts composer Richard Wagner’s overture from Faust with vigor.
These recordings are old, so don’t expect perfection (or liner notes; the box contains only six discs and six sleeves). Expect imperfection in the audio quality. But I was surprised at how well preserved they are given the context and my adaptation to today’s superior technology. I am thoroughly enjoying discovering the joys of Arturo Toscanini. I feel like I’m just getting started and newly motivated to listen to classical music with deeper appreciation from a master’s perspective. In short, Toscanini leaves me greedy for more of his remarkably studied, practiced and expertly performed work.
This year was mixed for me, though I’ve made progress. I know that I’m grateful for the best readers, clients and partners. Though this blog is an informal repository for my thoughts, I covered essential movies, ideas and cultural points this year and I managed to find, explore and examine the good, even the best. But 2017 was the year of the purge, as I argued here, when men of ability, skill and reason, such as studio executive Harvey Weinstein, broadcaster Tavis Smiley and Judge Alex Kozinski, were, whatever their alleged crimes and flaws, prejudged, smeared and maligned due to a surge of groupthink based on faith in egalitarianism. This year, it became harder to find the good.
The year began with the death of a talented actress who embodied goodness, tact and restraint, Mary Tyler Moore. MTM was the best. An effort to restore one of Richard Neutra’s most cherished buildings gained my attention for an article published on the Los Angeles Times site. I did an exclusive interview with the writer and director of last winter’s feel-good box office hit Hidden Figures and I previewed a literary study of famous authors’ words and writing patterns, all of which I wrote about here.
The Neutra article led to an in-depth interview with the architect’s son on the eve of his 90th birthday. I posted about my time with Dion Neutra and other exclusive interviews (i.e., a new head of the Ayn Rand Institute and Lasse Hallstrom on his cinematic tribute to man’s best friend, A Dog’s Purpose) which I covered here. The interracial horror comedy, Get Out, merited a positive — not a rave — review. I reviewed the Oscars, probably for the last time.
Battlestar Galactica‘s original Captain Apollo, Richard Hatch, died this year. Hatch, whom I had met when I was a boy and, again, for an interview as an adult, was a passionate actor and a kind and decent man. Sam Smith and Ed Sheeran released new albums with melody and soul. Bill O’Reilly was fired from Fox News over claims of sexual impropriety, major media news which started a disturbing trend. I had already warned against jumping to conclusions over claims spread fast and wide via social media when I wrote some time ago about NBC News penalizing anchorman Brian Williams. I returned to the topic again in 2017 to forewarn that mass hysteria over Harvey Weinstein could spread far and fast, too, and not for the good.
Sadly, this is exactly what happened. Prejudice, jumping to conclusions and injustice compounds.
Unfortunately, cancer was caught again in Olivia Newton-John, who exudes strength, confidence and grace as she keeps recording, performing and healing. Anyone with cancer, or who loves one with this disease, should know about Olivia’s efforts, artistry and example. I wrote Southern California stories for the Los Angeles Times’ local editions on a new center for studying Los Angeles at Occidental College, a new leader in Ayn Rand’s philosophical movement and the shopping center targeted by the Hillside Stranglers, which I linked to and bundled here. I added a number of articles to my backlog, including three previously published articles on Walt Disney’s Bambi, taught my night classes on media and writing and a summer media series for seniors in the park, and posted a 30th anniversary review of Steven Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun, a review of his classic E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrialand a 40th anniversary review of the filmmaker’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
In politics and government, Republicans and the president failed to repeal ObamaCare, so I criticized so-called free market intellectuals for not stepping in to help. To back it up, I offered a detailed proposal in a piece published on Capitalism Magazine about forming a proper starting point in seven steps to exit this monstrous health care law (read it here).
This year marks the 60th anniversary of the publication of my favorite novel, Atlas Shrugged, so I posted my thoughts and a remembrance of my first reading here. I attended some events at an annual conference dedicated to studying and applying its author’s philosophy, the Objectivist Conference (OCON), where I found need for improvement and a reason to celebrate. I wrote about OCON here.
Pittsburgh is the setting for an extraordinary new television series, This Is Us, which I reviewed and recommend, especially for families and those with middle class values. More so for those dealing with cancer, bigotry and alcoholism. I also reviewed and appreciate Wonder Woman (the new Thor sequel, too) but the comics genre is fading. In the absence of great new romanticist works, I prefer the fresh and more subtle humor and thematically more realistic and uplifting stories in depictions such as This Is Us. Sundance TV’s gripping and intelligent microseries Cold Blooded aired this year, too, in what ought to become a new sub-genre of non-fictional true crime programming: a whole perspective which accounts for the lives of the victims.
This summer’s murder in Charlottesville, too, left widespread damage in its wake, and not just from the so-called alt-right or the so-called antifa movements on right and left. The Charlottesville protest was premeditated, coordinated, attacked and, in the aftermath of the president’s ignorant response and the often ignorant reaction to his response, silenced many reasonable Americans into not talking about politics, ideas or dissent about any serious topic. I think this self-imposed suppression of one’s thoughts, writings and speech is a grave mistake. What the West needs now is a more, not less, frequent and persistent exercise of speech.
On the blog, I posted several firsts in 2017. I decided to create a Christmas gift guide on the blog, which turns 10 years old next year. Read my first review of an Alfred Hitchcock movie here. Read my first reviews of Ernst Lubitsch films here and here. I took on the topic of technology’s aggregation — in news and in movie reviews — and I was the first to warn against a rising voice for theocracy, Roy Moore, and on the proper principle.
For the first time, I posted reviews of LA stage productions: The Rainmaker and Driving Miss Daisy. Both of these plays had long ago been adapted for the screen, the latter as Oscar’s Best Picture winner for 1989 (the subtly integrationist movie could never win in today’s lynch mob atmosphere). Other adaptations or revivals this year, besides Thor and Wonder Woman movies, include an entertaining screen version of Stephen King’s novel, It, which is the year’s most unanticipated box office success, Denis Villenueve’s Blade Runner 2049, Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour and the Dionysian Call Me By Your Name.
That last film, like Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water, does not depict a love story, contrary to its raving critics’ assertions. Like 2016’s Moonlight, which initiated this trend of overestimating moodily immersive movies of style more than substance, the visually striking or appealing movies lack depth and/or coherence. The same is true of another of 2017’s hit movies, Disney/Pixar’s animated Coco, and this year’s entry in the annual Star Wars debut, The Last Jedi.
Better, deeper movies this year focus on the individual of superior ability: the biting and judgmental (as against pre-judgmental), I, Tonya; the enjoyable Battle of the Sexes; the poignant Thank You for Your Service and the story of the young, principled lawyer who would become a judge on the U.S. Supreme Court, Marshall. Note that each of these films essentially dramatizes known, fact-based events in reality, i.e., naturalism. The more the faith, feelings and fantasy-based movies advance in the culture, the more pressing the need for great works of romantic-realist fiction.
2017 closes with the demise of the American male, amid the deaths of rock’s Tom Petty and Playboy founder Hugh Hefner, as a byproduct of clustered, disconnected accusations from an often nameless, faceless clan of claimants that break silence (and contracts) to come forth via publicity campaign, not in a judicial court assuring due process. The movement’s name is similarly flawed and amorphous: Me, Too.
For this year’s Me, Too-ing, few noticed that one of the year’s most popular cultural products, a mediocre Star Wars movie, is made possible by Hollywood’s most powerful woman, Kathleen Kennedy, who originated one of the year’s most ominous cultural acts. Kennedy, who runs Lucasfilm for Disney (currently subsuming Fox), called for creation of a new commission to establish work standards, on the condition that the standards be established by (her words, not mine) college professors, feminists and activists.
In fact, Hollywood’s powerful new women’s group, the Commission on Sexual Harassment and Advancing Equality in the Workplace, is in formation. The commission has designated its leader — law professor Anita Hill, who long ago accused a Supreme Court nominee of sexual harassment, assertions which were never charged, litigated or substantiated — and the new order for anti-sexual, anti-male rules of engagement is currently underway. Pressure on government to enact rules against speech, conduct and sex in the workplace (and everywhere else) is likely to expand, not contract.
Meanwhile, in lieu of catastrophic threats from jihadist states such as Iran and Saudi Arabia and North Korea, the proper role of government — defense, a judicial system, police — shrinks while the state’s improper role expands. For instance, the cost of government-controlled medicine, i.e., ObamaCare-compliant health plans, rises while access and quality of health care plummets. In the past 72 hours, government-controlled lights went out in America’s busiest airport and a government-run train derailed with deadly wreckage in the West. Soon, what you say and do at work could be regulated or influenced by a commission run by a law professor at Brandeis University — an institution which silenced an author who’s a feminist for speaking out against Islamic terrorism — or a government agency, crony or subsidiary.
So, those who think different and speak up face these and other obstacles in the year ahead, which means 2017 ends as a year in which disaster and darkness looms while silence spreads. More and faster than ever, as Ayn Rand forecast over 60 years ago, we are running out of time to save ourselves. This culture of fantasy and faith must be challenged, opposed and countered. This writer does everything I can do to offer tools, stories and fuel for the journey ahead.
My relationship with Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand began years ago. As most reading this may know, the fictional story of man’s mind on strike is Rand’s magnum opus. I read the mysterious tale, which struck me as both knowing and searching, one summer in Chicago. I recall thinking that it was at once epic, cautionary and glorious. When I finally finished, I felt exalted. I’ve read Atlas Shrugged, which was published 60 years ago today, several times since.
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But that first time was indelible. I was confused, serious and young, still forming my thoughts and views and, frankly, wanting more from life than sometimes seemed possible. I remember reading Atlas Shrugged — in my apartment, while riding on the El or Chicago & North Western railroad or on the rocks on Lake Michigan’s shore — and thinking that this story was suddenly, strikingly very important and relevant. I had lived long and hard enough to know that its characters, plots and theme were true, though I knew I had more to learn.
Reading Atlas Shrugged was part of my lesson plan. It turned out to be much better than that. This is a plug, not a review. Yet writing even this brings back the searing emotions I experienced while reading Atlas Shrugged as a young man. I was caught up in the thrills, suspense and drama of everything from finding the motor to losing the lights of New York City. I hung on every page and thought about every chapter. I recall being stopped by passengers on the train. I was often harassed or scolded but I was also met, on occasion, with an abrupt interruption by someone who’d say something short, direct and oddly personal. They’d usually spot me reading. Then, before disembarking, they’d simply tuck a briefcase, newspaper or package of cigarettes away while coming to face me and say: “Who is John Galt?” I’d look up. We’d almost always part in silence with a nod or a smile.
Yet there’s loneliness while reading this epic tale. I experienced it that summer in Chicago, again when I re-read it years later, and again and again, as the world closed in, resembling the dystopian America Rand conceived, re-created and dramatized with romantic realism, power and a passionate love for life. The story of the woman of ability who runs a railroad in a rotting civilization and who is the ideal man breeds a sense of alienation, at least it did for me, while at the same time yielding a sense of clarity and peace. I am enlightened, soothed and uplifted when I read Atlas Shrugged. I am horrified, too, of course, and the libertarian movie trilogy narrowly and unfortunately focussed on that, but, mostly, I am exalted. Though it is fiction, this is the world in which I live. It is richer and more vibrant than the horror of a civilization coming to a grinding, screeching stop.
In Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand teases, sketches and distinguishes with literary brilliance what makes the world go. She does this eerily, compellingly and with grace, depth and grandeur. That I’ve found it takes a lifetime — at least it does for me — to contemplate, reflect and integrate the wisdom to be gained from its themes is less discouraging now than it was when Atlas Shrugged was in its 20s. I celebrated in Boston when Rand’s last published novel turned 35, ten years after its author had died, and again in Colorado when it turned 50. And again at the first Objectivist Conference (OCON) in Chicago and this summer at the world’s first OCON in Pittsburgh. I think of it when the lights go out, trains derail and Washington directives come down. I think of it when the manmade glows, rockets soar and the individual rises above the collective and for his own sake.
I think of Atlas Shrugged, too, when the best men fall, hide or stumble. The world is still confusing, though I am less confused, perhaps even more than when I read it when I was young. There is still so much about life that stings, saddens and looms, and, 60 years after it shocked the West and was denounced by the dominant thinkers, Atlas Shrugged is here to read, enjoy, think about, ponder and inspire.
In my general adult writing course, I recently read “All Summer in a Day” by Ray Bradbury and a draft of a short-short story I wrote called “Escape from Indigena”. Each student reads or listens and formulates what he thinks is the writer’s theme. This immersion in the writing process, which I call Writing Boot Camp, is a kind of mental fitness training for living in a world that still sometimes feels like it’s about to “blank out”, expire or has just plain gone bad. Atlas Shrugged is foremost a novel about what being alive means. It is poetic, serious and profound. I first read it because I passionately wanted to live. I write this because I still do. So, this is my 60th anniversary plug for Atlas Shrugged, which is to say — if you want to read a great and powerful American novel, especially if you, too, sense that something’s horribly wrong with the world and you want to know why so you can live and enjoy your life to the fullest, do something wonderful for yourself: read Atlas Shrugged.
A movie about exceptionalism overcoming racism at an agency of the government, an effort to restore a building and a forthcoming book about accounting for an entire arts genre give me fuel this winter.
Top U.S. film
America’s top movie at the box office is Hidden Figures, which centers upon three individuals of ability in the Jim Crow-era South, when racist laws infected even an aeronautics U.S. agency charged with launching an American into outer space. It’s a wonderful film, really, which doesn’t surprise me because it’s written and directed by the same individual who wrote and directed 2014’s St. Vincent, which is also very good. His name is Theodore Melfi and he recently talked with me about writing and directing the talented cast, which includes Empire‘s Cookie, Taraji P. Henson, his thoughts on racism, storytelling and what he’d do differently and having his movie screened at the White House. Read my exclusive interview with Melfi about the nation’s number one motion picture here.
Eagle Rock Clubhouse by Neutra
Speaking of exclusive interviews, I’ve recently had the pleasure of interviewing architect Dion Neutra at his home and office designed by his father, the late modern architect Richard Neutra, whose legacy I explore in an article about a campaign to restore one of Neutra’s signature buildings (read the story on LATimes.com here). I’ve been covering this effort by an architect and a realtor who say they want to restore the Los Angeles clubhouse to its original splendor, and finally met and interviewed them at Neutra’s building for a detailed restoration tour. The building, a parks and recreational center in northeast Los Angeles, opened in the 1950s with a stage that plays to both interior and exterior audiences, a kitchen with a window for selling concessions, an athletic court, reflecting pool and sloping landscapes—all in glass, brick and Neutra’s favored metal, steel—with a director’s office overlooking gymnastics, trails, pine trees, playgrounds, tennis courts and with retractable walls to let the air and spectators or audiences inside. The two gents are in talks with Dion Neutra as I write this.
New book this March
A forthcoming book features new and interesting data about the words and works by William Faulkner, Sinclair Lewis, Stephen King, Agatha Christie and Ayn Rand among other literary greats. It’s titled Nabokov’s Favorite Word is Mauve (Simon & Schuster, March 14, 2017) and the author covers detailed statistical analyses of these and other writers in a solid narrative. Among the newly mined data are authors’ ‘favorite’ words, how sexes write differently—Rand rates as “masculine”—and use of adverbs, exclamation points and novels’ opening lines. Mine is the book’s first non-trade review. Read my article here.
The newest Writing Boot Camp starts up next month (seats are still left in the 10-week course, so register here), moving to Tuesday nights, the day after my all-new course on social media (register here). These courses evolved from career camp workshops I was asked to teach several years ago. I subsequently taught a series of nine media and production workshops for Mood U, online, economic development, expo and public library presentations and developed the writing and media classes into full courses a few years ago for adult education in LA. They’re works in progress yet past students give positive and constructive feedback, so I’ve created Facebook groups for past students. Stand by for details and more on the upcoming courses.
Meanwhile, thank you for your readership, support and trade. I read every piece of correspondence, though I’m sometimes slow to respond, sent through the site and social media. This year, I plan to remake my website and I am working on other projects, from stories in manuscripts and screenplays to my cultural fellowship, new partnerships and a new media enterprise. For now, I want you to read, share and gain value from these articles about inspecting works of art and making, or mining, something good.
This spring, two annual festivals caught my attention. The Los Angeles Times Festival of Books at University of Southern California (USC) is always interesting for its literary lectures, panels and appearances. I usually learn about new stories, books and publishing deals, trade trends and developments and run into someone I know or want to know and this year was no exception. I learned about everything from new literary journals and adapting Greek plays to new small publishers, printers for self-published books and blogs, resources and programs for writers.
The Festival of Books panels, in particular, can get pretentious as writers and editors share their thoughts from the ivory tower and some of the comments reinforce that today’s dominant intellectuals are disconnected—some knowingly—from audiences and reality. For instance, a dramatic arts dean at the university, a published author, admitted that he hadn’t read the play he was adapting. He added that he’d read it once decades ago but seemed oddly proud of his not having studied and mastered his topic, as if this was the point of adaptation; to evade the cause of the work. Others rambled and most speakers at the panel discussions talked as if everyone was familiar with every term, work and literary reference, though moderators tried to keep them grounded in communicating with a wide, general audience.
Listening to writers talk about writing makes me think about better habits, tools and techniques and the event offers an opportunity to meet other writers, editors and publishers. For some of my contracted projects, it’s especially helpful to know about new producers in the market at any point in the writing-to-publishing process. So, overall, I’m glad I went.
Turner Classic Movies hosts a classic movie festival in Hollywood every year, which I attended for the first time in 2015 and again this spring (read my roundup of 2015’s event here and a preview of 2016’s festival here). The panels are, perhaps not surprisingly, less pretentious than the book festival’s, though I found myself wanting more of the exchanges than some of the brief interviews and panels delivered, though Faye Dunaway’s interview was extensive and the star of Network, The Towering Inferno and The Thomas Crown Affair was thoughtful and gracious (more on this later).
A panel discussion on journalism and movies with writers, editors and a producer, which I wrote about for LA Screenwriter (read my report here), could have lasted another 45 minutes and I would have stayed. TCM’s panel, which was moderated by TCM host Ben Mankiewicz, a TV journalist earlier in his career, included writer/director James Vanderbilt (Truth), Oscar-winning writer Josh Singer (Spotlight), broadcast news producer and author Mary Mapes (portrayed in Truth by Cate Blanchett) and journalist/editor Ben Bradlee, Jr., portrayed by John Slattery in Spotlight—Bradlee was partly responsible for managing the Boston Globe’s Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage of the Catholic Church sexual abuse scandal, the subject of Spotlight, which won 2015’s Oscar for Best Picture.
Additionally, I plan to post a roundup of 2016’s TCM Classic Film Festival, themed this time to “Moving Pictures”, including coverage of other lectures, interviews and related news, such as TCM’s new fan club, Backlot, and its new streaming partnership with the Criterion Collection. ‘Like’ my Facebook page for regularly posted mini-reviews of films on TCM’s lineup.
For live instruction, evaluation and discussion of movies, books and media, and studious breakdown of the writing process, feel free to attend my classes if you’re in Los Angeles this summer. Space is limited for updated courses on social media (read more and register here) and Writing Boot Camp (read more and register here) in Burbank. If you want help with a project and you’re unable to attend, let me know (I can probably help by phone, FaceTime or Skype). Otherwise, read the monthly newsletter for tips, tools and thoughts. Look for new reviews, articles and stories to come.