Mr. Rogers, Rand, Carnegie and Pittsburgh

Read my article “Bridging Ayn Rand and Pittsburgh” in the winter edition of Pittsburgh Quarterly, currently on sale at certain newsstands in the city of bridges. I bought a copy at a downtown Pittsburgh shop during a recent visit over Thanksgiving (more on the trip below). It’s an account, and I think perhaps the first in publication, of the philosopher who described herself as a radical for capitalism and what contends as the foremost city of the Industrial Revolution. I pitched a few ideas to my editor and publisher and this is the byproduct of the one he thought best serves the magazine’s readers.

In the piece, which may become available online, I focus on the Forties, when Rand wrote her observations of Pittsburgh in her journal, corresponded with an admiring book critic for a Pittsburgh newspaper and prepared for the movie adaptation of her 1943 novel The Fountainhead. All of these tie into each other and relate to an interesting comment by Objectivist scholar Greg Salmieri, whom I interviewed for the article. Dr. Salmieri, who’s editing the University of Pittsburgh Press series of books studying Rand’s philosophy, gives his opinions on Rand’s ideas and how they’ve been interpreted within the context of today’s false left-right political dichotomy.

I am delighted that publication of the first article about Rand and my hometown coincides with the first reprinting of my article about Andrew Carnegie in Capitalism Magazine (read it here). Carnegie is one of my first heroes. I became fascinated with him as a boy. As with Ayn Rand, the more I learn and know about this man, the more I admire him. I wrote this piece several years ago as a sidebar to an article I’d been asked to write for a magazine.

Having just visited the city of Carnegie Mellon University, Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Museum of Natural History, and, yes, Carnegie Hall (not the one portrayed in Green Book), I can happily say that I think you’ll find this profile of Andrew Carnegie worth reading. I won’t be surprised if you discover that you’ve learned something new and admirable, even exciting, about this amazing man, whose birthday I celebrated while I was in Pittsburgh.

One of the things I love about Pittsburgh is that its residents have real awareness, knowledge and appreciation, even admiration, for capitalists and captains of industry. Wherever I went on Carnegie’s birthday while visiting Pittsburgh, everyone with whom I discussed the man was instantly interested, engaged and aware of his legacy, his stature, his greatness. I’ve written about Pittsburgh on this blog several times, and will write more soon about this year’s Thanksgiving trip, but I find that I am often surprised by this city’s unique ability to wall off the world’s spreading religion of hatred of moneymaking. There’s real reverence for it here, however unpolished or weary it may be. The city of steel, in this sense, can spark like that.

This is one reason it was wonderful to see the new movie about Pittsburgh’s pioneering child development host, Mr. Rogers, with my family in Pittsburgh. It’s a warm, thought-provoking film that holds your interest as an individual, challenging you to introspect, engaging you with silence, not screaming, blaring, sensory-driven assault. Yet it comes together as a whole, respecting the uniqueness of each individual and his choices, even when those choices deviate from traditional notions of family, holidays and what constitutes a proper gathering. See A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood starring Tom Hanks as Fred Rogers by yourself, alone and in solitude or with a friend. Or with your chosen family as I did. Read my movie review on the cover of the New Romanticist here.

Look for more posts — on its theater, culture, hospitality, downtown and sports — about this fall’s trip to Pittsburgh soon.

 

Hong Kong Fights to be Free

Hong Kong’s protest leader Joshua Wong recently Tweeted this image of a painting, which imitates Liberty Leading the People (1830) by French romanticist painter Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863), whose painting is at the Louvre in Paris. This brave young anti-Communist and his fellow rebels in Hong Kong fight as I write this for their freedom, lives and future. To paraphrase Ayn Rand, those supporting and participating in the Hong Kong protests fight for the future by living in it today.

Nothing on earth, based on what I know, matters more to the West’s survival at this moment than Hong Kong. That few think about, let alone grasp the meaning and magnitude of, this assertion is a fact of reality. Those that don’t want to know or do not care about Hong Kong, the West, America, rights and individualism are, ultimately, of no consequence.

Among those who do, it’s additionally discouraging to know that few choose to stand with Hong Kong. Rare friends, who on these issues are more like brothers, such as Andrew, Maryallene, Rohit, Amy and Mark, make a point to take the lead, express support and in clear and explicit terms.

Most do not, even among those who claim to know better, as I recently reaffirmed while skimming social media. After reading a portion of an extended comments thread from a post about a dispute between the author of an innocuous commentary about being gay and an anti-sex critic, this inversion became clear. The thread chiefly consists of aimless speculation about what one might do about this or that in response to (!) an arbitrary assertion. The comments are posted by those who claim (or ought) to know better as Hong Kong hangs in the balance. The frenzy’s not an occasional occurrence. Posting about trivial issues “while Rome burns” is chronic. Today’s best minds are consumed by memes, pictures and nonsense.

Meanwhile, Communist China, which poses a military threat to the U.S., Taiwan, Japan, Australia, South Korea and every pro-Western nation, allied with America’s worst enemies, Iran and North Korea. This comes as Hong Kong’s rebellion spins Communist dictator Xi Jinping and his dictatorship into turmoil. Today’s New York Times reports that

… at a meeting that has not been publicly disclosed, Mr. Xi met with other senior officials to discuss the protests. The range of options discussed is unclear, but the leaders agreed that the central government should not intervene forcefully, at least for now, several people familiar with the issue said in interviews in Hong Kong and Beijing…Now Mr. Xi faces an even bigger trade war, with much higher tariffs and greater tensions. The [dictatorship] appears to be hewing to a strategy of waiting out Mr. Trump, possibly through his 2020 re-election campaign, even as the dispute has become a drag on the economy…[Red China’s puppet in Hong Kong] offered a candid assessment of Beijing’s views, even if one she did not intend to make public. She said Beijing had no plan to send in the People’s Liberation Army to restore order because “they’re just quite scared now.”

“Because they know that the price would be too huge to pay,” she went on. “Maybe they don’t care about Hong Kong, but they care about ‘one country, two systems.’ They care about the country’s international profile. It has taken China a long time to build up to that sort of international profile.”

… State television and the party’s newspapers now refer to [Xi] as “the People’s Leader,” an honorific once bestowed only on Mao. “The People’s Leader loves the people,” The People’s Daily wrote after Mr. Xi toured Gansu, a province in western China. Mr. Xi’s calculation might be simply to remain patient, as he has been in the case of Mr. Trump’s erratic shifts in the trade war. In his remarks on Tuesday, Mr. Xi also gave a possible hint of the government’s pragmatism.

“On matters of principle, not an inch will be yielded,” he said, “but on matters of tactics there can be flexibility.”

Journalist John Stossel once told me during an interview in New York City that real news, i.e., the first draft of history, happens slowly. I think this is true. What happens in Hong Kong matters.

I’ve been writing about Asia, China, Korea, Vietnam and the Orient for decades and it’s impossible for me to ignore that, in this singular act of rebellion led by brave Mr. Wong and his comrades, the East comes to a climax which has the potential to uproot Communist China and pivot to buy time to save the West. The rational individual ought to dispense with the meaningless and instead watch, think, evaluate, judge and exercise free speech to support the rebellion for liberty in Hong Kong.

Joshua Wong, who was arrested for crimes against the state and is out on bail, strikes me as savvy enough to know that even the best minds in the West are too easily distracted by pictures and other sensory diversions. So, he’s posted a painting as propaganda to support his noble cause. But in words and deeds, nothing less than his life, and his love of it, is at stake.

 

Theater Review: Miss Saigon at the Pantages

Though I never saw Cameron Mackintosh’s original 1991 Broadway production, let alone the 1989 production in London where it debuted, I’ve wanted to see Miss Saigon. I attended the revised Miss Saigon, which debuted five years ago, at Hollywood’s Pantages theater. The U.S. touring show, directed by Laurence Connor, disappoints for the lack of characterization, absence of conflict and mediocrity in music.

Unlike their outstanding adaptation of Victor Hugo’s epic novel Les Miserables, main songwriters Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg wrote music as the plot instead of building music around the plot as was the case with Les Miserables.

Unfortunately, the music is mediocre — good at best — and never moving, so the light opera isn’t strong enough to fill in the numerous plot gaps. Chief among the gaps is an absence of what ought to have been the story’s source for a primary conflict: Communism. By avoiding the dictatorship of the proletariat imposed by North Vietnam, Miss Saigon dodges the question of why anyone would be terrified of remaining in Vietnam after Communist North Vietnam defeated nationalist South Vietnam in the Vietnam War.

This is an extremely important and fertile area for the theatrical work. The Vietnam War, which the official Miss Saigon website persuasively implies ought to be called the Second Indochina War, had a serious and devastating impact on the West in general and America in particular. To its credit, Miss Saigon dramatizes in light opera the agony faced by everyone who lost (and to a lesser extent “won”) the Vietnam War.

Miss Saigon is problematic. The leading man and the leading woman are too sketchy. There’s not enough definition, set-up or emotional power in Boublil’s book, Schonberg’s songs or its execution to sustain the show. 

The American soldier and his South Vietnamese prostitute aren’t merely stereotypical. They’re generic. This proves to be deadly in spite of the better songs. For example, Chris (Anthony Festa), the American soldier, barely gets to be a soldier for most of the show. Worse, he has no apparent goals, motives or ambitions beyond being with the prostitute or, later, his wife. He’s traumatized by nightmares but he’s never shown in combat, let alone in sustained exposure to trauma during war. So his torment is fleeting.

Kim (Emily Bautista), the South Vietnamese prostitute with whom he falls in love after one night in Saigon, likewise never expresses interest in any other endeavor than being a wife, mother or daughter. This makes it difficult to see this pair as fully functional young adults making choices — including the sort of dark and serious choices the plot hinges on — in a war-torn or postwar-torn world.

Other characters have problems, too. The Engineer (Red Concepcion), which could’ve been given depth, nuance and pathos, is ultimately cartoonish. The character is basically Kim’s pimp. Like the Thenardier couple in Les Miserables, if not as evil, he provides a degree of comedy to the tragedy. 

He gets a backstory in the second act and it’s very interesting. But it raises more questions than it answers including how he came to want the American dream which he sings about and became knowing, corrupt and worldly. The character, which is integral to Miss Saigon, spends three years in a Communist concentration camp and barely shows the effects.

The interracial character could’ve been — and, in a better show, would have been — given an origin story with meaningful exposition. Even his nickname, the Engineer, could’ve been developed as a play on the monstrous social engineering brought forth by Ho Chi Minh and the Communists in the wake of a war which ravaged this agrarian Southeast Asian nation during three decades. Instead, he’s a comical pimp.

Other characters also squander potential. For instance, Gigi, the hooker with a heart of gold (and the come-on to match) pairs with another American soldier but exhibits kindness for the sweeter, more innocent Kim. Gigi’s Yankee soldier, John, offers a similar contrast. It’s his idea to hire prostitutes. He introduces Chris to Kim. In a way, he engineers their relationship. But it never goes deeper than that. And his entire postwar career inexplicably relates to fostering the war’s interracial children. John’s character could’ve really meant something. Instead, it sort of drifts without impact or definition. 

Then there’s Chris’s American wife, Ellen. She gets a new song in the revised production and it’s a good tune (“Maybe”). But, again, for a musical predicated on the idea of minding the life-changing meaning of epic romantic love, Ellen is without any evident interests, goals or principles beyond being a loyal and devoted wife. 

Finally, there’s the closest Miss Saigon has to an explicit villain; Thuy.

Thuy goes from the South Vietnamese soldier to whom Kim is engaged to a commissar in Communist Vietnam. What becomes of him serves as an important catalyst to the climax of Miss Saigon. With the bitterness, rage and cruelty of Strelnikov in David Lean’s epic war romance Doctor Zhivago (1965) and the sense of inevitability an otherwise decent man must face under Communism of Taganov in We the Living (1936), Thuy could’ve been one of musical theater’s great dark, tragic characters.

Each character is wrapped in a convoluted plot resulting in vagueness and disorientation. Miss Saigon begins in 1975 with no real sense of Saigon’s swirling, mass panic, desperation and madness. The musical contains none of that sense of urgency. Historic moments of Saigon’s last hours before it fell to Communists and became Ho Chi Minh City are relegated in this new production to a downsized series of scenes and numbers that lack scope and intensity and therefore snatch from Miss Saigon deliverance of its proper juxtaposition of agony, doom and wonder.

 


Interestingly, Miss Saigon, the stage musical, is an adaptation of Giacomo Puccini’s opera, Madama Butterfly (1904), according to the musical’s website. But the source of inspiration for Puccini’s opera is the novelette Madame Butterfly, by John Luther Long. The site describes the story as “an 1898 Asian American romance that was published in American Century Magazine.” The novelette was apparently dramatized as a one-act play by David Belasco, Madame Butterfly: A Tragedy of Japan. “After its 1900 premiere in New York,” Miss Saigon reports, “the play transferred to London, which is where Puccini saw it.”

OCON Cleveland 2019

OCON Cleveland, like OCON Pittsburgh and OCON Chicago, makes the most of its centrality of venue and location. I think today’s audiences are art-deprived, as I’ve written. So this year’s arts theme, pegged to the anniversary of a collection of Ayn Rand’s arts and literature essays, undoubtedly helps.

The best aspect of the conference is its venue, the Hilton Cleveland Downtown, which was built for the 2016 Republican National Convention (read my review here). Overall, the sponsoring Ayn Rand Institute’s best conferences in terms of the whole experience are the ones held in mid-American cities. OCON Cleveland squandered the opportunity to capitalize on the history of the location, unfortunately. There were no lectures on John D. Rockefeller and Standard Oil, for instance, or other obvious Objectivism tie-ins. Tours of Cleveland are another missed opportunity.

OCON increasingly tends to be oriented to a lighter, less intellectual and educational and more social experience, so this is not surprising. Gone are the deep dive courses of yesteryear, when I could delve into details, nuances and aspects of my favorite artists such as Hitchcock, Hugo and Hawks. In Chicago, I studied Aristotle with an Aristotelian scholar for several sessions. In Cleveland, the same scholar was reduced to a single session.

I’ve heard it said that “young people” are to blame. I don’t accept it. Certainly, I think it’s true that the incessant and ubiquitous technology glut often depletes or mitigates one’s ability to focus. But offering less is a self-fulfilling prophecy. OCON ought to offer deeper, longer and more serious studies with streamlined teaching. Not in fragments that often turn into advertisements for whatever the speaker’s selling. There were too many ads, or plugs disguised as something other than ads, for my money at this year’s OCON. Let the trader principle play out and have an Austen Heller room in which to showcase, mix and trade. Also, the full schedule ought to be announced and advertised in advance, not doled out in spurts as if prospective customers are inclined to act on a whim.

Here are other criticisms: no greeting, let alone orientation, at conference registration — an announcement of the death of a prominent Objectivist intellectual mentioned as an aside (which turned out to be false and was retracted without apology) — and the worst part: an intellectual who’d denounced Leonard Peikoff was admitted and is sanctioned by the ARI, which is unfortunate.

Visiting and making new friends is a top value. I gained the highest value at OCON Cleveland in the lessons on bacteriophages (with a nod to Arrowsmith by Sinclair Lewis), PrEP, the scourge of mosquitos, CAR-T, Rachel Carson and CRISPR by the brilliant if breathless Dr. Amesh Adalja — behaviorism and Ivan Pavlov — Christianity’s dubious origins — interesting advice with cogent thoughts on Bob Dylan and criticism of being “inquisitorial” within the context of what the speaker calls personal, as against optional, values — and a lecture on Aristotle with insight into Rand’s thoughts on his philosophy of art.

Though I was unable to attend several major lectures and courses, I enjoyed Shoshana Milgram’s newest work on the splendor of Victor Hugo and I would’ve liked to have seen Dr. Milgram, an English literature professor and Rand’s biographer, on the arts panels. My personal favorite presentation was Stephen Siek’s marvelous, two-part lecture about and biographical introduction to Sergei Rachmaninoff, whose struggle, work and life are as larger than life, passionate and inspiring as his music. This type of mini-course makes OCON uniquely enriching. OCON ought to let those who attend be greedy for more.

 

Three New Exclusives

Comedienne Julia Sweeney’s back and I saw her new one-woman show, Older & Wider, last weekend in Westwood. I’ve always found her humor to be unique, relevant and compelling, so I was interested in seeing her return to show business after a break to be a wife and raise her daughter on Chicago’s suburban North Shore.

Happily, Older & Wider is topical, intelligent and hilarious. While I incessantly hear about “diversity and inclusion”, I rarely hear about demand for rare, intelligent artists of ability such as Julia Sweeney, who’s making the most of being an older woman in her new theatrical work. I am glad to know that she’s currently starring in a new show on Hulu. I’d love to see her get more work in Hollywood.

I’ve posted my review of Julia Sweeney: Older & Wider here.

Also, read my new interview with screenwriter and director Robert Benton here. We met during Turner Classic Movies’ 2018 Classic Film Festival at the site of the first Academy Awards, the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, on Hollywood Boulevard. I’ve met and interviewed Benton before and found him to be incredibly sharp, thoughtful and engaging.

This time was no exception. The subject was his Oscar-winning Best Picture, Kramer vs. Kramer, a groundbreaking movie about men, parenting and divorce which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year. We discussed his original choice for the crucial supporting role of Joanna Kramer, which eventually went to Meryl Streep, propelling her career. But Benton, who’s talked with me about working with Nicole Kidman, Morgan Freeman and Anthony Hopkins, also went into detail about working with Sally Field, who won an Oscar for her performance in what’s probably his most personal film, Places in the Heart.

Robert Benton, whose Texas-based Places turns 35 years old this year, has created, written or directed some of the most iconic movies of the modern age, from Bonnie and Clyde to Superman (1978) to Kramer vs. Kramer. I consider it a privilege to interview this former journalist again in the heart of supposedly “inclusive” Hollywood where this masterful storyteller should be invited to create more movies.

My newest classic movie review honors the 70th anniversary of a film about great baseball legend; the story of Chicago White Sox pitcher Monty Stratton, portrayed by James Stewart. Like Places in the Heart, the Academy Award-winning motion picture, The Stratton Story (directed by Sam Wood and released in the same year he was robbed and died) partly takes place in the Lone Star state and involves tragedy, overcoming adversity and a single act of gun violence.

The picture also stars Agnes Moorehead as Stratton’s tough-minded mother and June Allyson as his romantic partner. I don’t want to spoil the experience of the 1949 film about Monty Stratton, whom I’m afraid has sadly fallen into relative oblivion. But I found this movie about rising to one’s hardest challenges inspiring. It’s about baseball, of course. It’s also about what happens when the most hardworking type of person fails, falters or makes a potentially deadly mistake — and the character of one who chooses to recover — and the type of person who loves him.

But, like the best sports-themed movies, it’s also very much about living life; the daily hustle and grind of it in simple yet daunting steps. Read my review of The Stratton Story here.

Music Review: Arturo Toscanini | The HMV Recordings

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.


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