Posted in Books, Movie Reviews

Sarah’s Key: The False Comfort of Forgetting

Kristin Scott Thomas as Julia Jarmond

One of the hard truths of life is that there’s never enough time to read all the books you want to read, or to see all the films that pique your interest. So it wasn’t until the last two weeks that I caught up with “Sarah’s Key”, the multi-layered novel by Tatiana de Rosnay, and its movie version, starring Kristin Scott Thomas.

“Sarah’s Key” tells two stories simultaneously. We follow Sarah, a 10-year-old Jewish girl in Occupied Paris, as she and her parents fall victim to the infamous Vel d’Hiv Roundup conducted not by the SS, but by the French authorities. Before leaving their apartment, Sarah tries to save her 4-year-old brother Michel by locking him in a secret cupboard, promising him, “I’ll come back for you”, as she pockets the key. The second story is that of Julia Jarmond, an American journalist, who comes to learn the role her French husband’s family played in Sarah’s story after Vel d’Hiv and her later escape from a detainment camp in Drancy.

De Rosnay fits a number of considerable issues into her compact book. Let’s start with the theme common to both stories—the varying degrees of culpability displayed by the characters. We first see the outright collaboration of the French authorities, who eagerly exceeded what the SS ordered by including over 4,000 Jewish children in the Vel d’Hiv Roundup. Collaboration shades into complicity as we watch the behavior of the landlady at Sarah’s apartment building, as well as that of various characters who see and do nothing. And then there’s the Tézac family, Julia’s in-laws, who passively benefit from the situation by moving into the large and suddenly vacant apartment of Sarah’s family only a few days after the Roundup. They suspect, but choose to ignore until confronted by Sarah’s return. And finally, there are Julia’s husband and his aged grandmother, who simply bury the past altogether and hope everyone will forget.

De Rosnay’s story forces us to consider other, yet equally important questions. What is identity? Is it right to confront someone with the fact that a parent was not who she says she was, and by extension, you as her child are not who you think you are? This happens twice in “Sarah’s Key”, the first, with a happy outcome, when Julia’s father-in-law learns that his own father, despite all appearances, never forgot Sarah. And then because of Julia’s compulsion to learn Sarah’s fate, she meets her son, who is shocked to learn of his mother’s experiences. He almost nastily denies what Julia’s investigation has uncovered, but after the passage of time, comes to embrace it, as well as the woman who brought him this knowledge. Though it’s easy to foresee, the tribute Julia ultimately pays Sarah is a fitting end to both stories.

The historic background of de Rosnay’s novel is little known in the U.S., where the myth persists that all of France fought in the Resistance during World War II down to the last man, woman and child. I already knew about the Vel d’Hiv Roundup—oddly enough, not because I had been a college history major, but through another excellent novel I had read in high school, “An Infinity of Mirrors” by Richard Condon, the author of “The Manchurian Candidate”. The shades of gray involved in the story of France during World War II can’t be described in a 30-second sound bite; the post-war sweeping of this history under the rug by the French themselves is another reason why we know so little about it. In fact it wasn’t until 1995 that a French official, in this case President Jacques Chirac, publicly acknowledged the nation’s complicity in the Vel d’Hiv Roundup and other similar actions during the Occupation.

Whether as novel or film, “Sarah’s Key” is a haunting experience. The movie follows the book version of Sarah’s story very closely, but Julia’s story loses some key elements in the translation to film—her background and marriage, the role her daughter plays in uncovering Sarah’s fate, and most prominently, the elimination of several of Julia’s in-laws and friends whose views and experiences illustrate a fascinating range of reactions to her investigation. There are also some subtle but important differences in the details. Both book and film contain a scene in which the Dufaures, the older couple who shelter Sarah, offer a bribe to a French official to refrain from demanding identity papers for the child they’re hiding in plain sight. Tellingly, in the novel he pockets the cash without further question; in the film he sees the bills, yet nobly declines the money, letting Sarah pass as the couple’s grandchild. I don’t think I’m being overly cynical by saying that the scene as related in the novel is closer to reality.

The film features some excellent performances by Kristin Scott Thomas as Julia, Niels Arestrup and Dominique Frot as the Dufaures, and especially Mélusine Mayance as Sarah. The DVD version has a lengthy and engrossing “Making of…” that adds to the experience in important ways. Both the movie and the book are well worth your time.

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Posted in Movie Reviews, Music

Korngold At Last

Erich Korngold

He was the dean of Hollywood film composers in the 1930’s and 40’s. Years before the Nazi dictatorship that forced him and so many of his contemporaries to flee Europe, he had made his reputation as a child prodigy, a modern-day Mozart. Yet his classical compositions, his operas and his ballet scores would be eclipsed for decades by the music he composed for Warner Brothers. But his reputation would ultimately rebound, to the point where his work would find a place once again on the concert stage, and his amazing Violin Concerto would become standard repertoire.

I’m speaking of Erich Wolfgang Korngold, of course.

Born in Moravia, Korngold grew up in Vienna. He was something of a child genius at composition, and his earliest works were performed by major orchestras while he was still a teenager. His operas featured the leading artists of his time—“Die Tote Stadt” premiered at the Met in 1921 and starred Maria Jeritza, the legendary soprano who was the first to heighten Tosca’s drama by beginning “Vissi d’arte” while lying face down at Scarpia’s feet.

Korngold came to Hollywood in 1934 and signed an exclusive contract with Warner Brothers the following year. He  practically became synonymous with Errol Flynn movies–“Captain Blood”, “The Sea Hawk”, and “The Adventures of Robin Hood”, for which he won an Oscar—and other costume dramas like “Anthony Adverse” (his first Oscar) and “The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex”. He did do “modern dress”–famously, “Kings Row” (“Where’s the rest of me?”) “Between Two Worlds” (more about that later) and, his last score for Warner Brothers, that Bette Davis camp classic, “Deception,” featuring what later became his Op. 37, the Cello Concerto in C. After World War II and the end of his film contract, Korngold devoted his energies exclusively to composing concert works. He died in 1957 at the age of 60 after several years of ill-health.

Korngold’s name started to return to prominence in the 1970’s. The New York City Opera revived “Die Tote Stadt” and Charles Gerhardt began his Classic Film Scores series with “The Sea Hawk”, followed by “Elizabeth and Essex”, bringing Korngold’s wildly romantic yet exhilarating sound front and center. Taken together, these recordings showcase a wide range of Korngold’s talent. I’m particularly fond of the selections from “The Sea Hawk”, which puts us on the bounding main with sweeping strings and majestic brass. Korngold’s music is intensely lyrical, and this was never on better display than in “Nora’s Theme” from the non-Bette Davis “Of Human Bondage” (For collectors of trivia, this was the music that Dorothy Hamill skated to when she won Olympic Gold). There’s more than a little Richard Strauss in his music—the selection from “The Constant Nymph”, featuring a contralto solo, could have come straight from “Der Rosenkavalier”. But Korngold’s Cello Concerto, which figures so prominently in “Deception”, is all his, and somewhat more abstract than the rest of his scores. Perhaps it hints at the direction he would have taken in film music, had he chosen to continue in that medium.

Another of my favorite Korngold albums is the aptly titled “Between Two Worlds“, referring not only to his film score of the same name, but the fact that the disk contains two of his best concert works, the “Symphonic Serenade” and the “Theme and Variations.” Warner Brothers’ “Between Two Worlds” was a wartime remake of the moralistic “Outward Bound”, made lively by the presence of some great studio talent—John Garfield, Paul Henreid, Sydney Greenstreet and Eleanor Parker, with Faye Emerson as the fallen woman and George Coulouris as the villainous war profiteer. Korngold’s score features some of his most ravishing music, and while the film contains some huh? scenes (nowhere in any universe could Sara Allgood have been John Garfield’s mother), the score never ceases in its beauty.

But when all is said and done, my favorite Korngold work is his Violin Concerto. The piece just…..sings. Without any apology whatsoever (and as expressly permitted by his Warner Brothers contract), Korngold incorporated themes from at least three of his movies—“Another Dawn”, “Juarez” and most memorably, “The Prince and the Pauper”—into the work. Yet in doing so, he transformed them. This concerto has drive—it’s an independent statement, neither an illustration of action nor a mere commentary on another medium. Yes, it’s shamelessly rhapsodic, but there’s enough meat on its bones to be a welcome showcase for the soloist (Jascha Heifetz premiered the work in 1947). Among its many delights is the dialog in the last movement between soloist and concertmaster, when the two toss the theme back and forth in Q&A fashion. The music comes from Korngold’s score for “The Prince and the Pauper”, and it’s fascinating to compare its first, pompously majestic version on “The Sea Hawk” album to its witty appearance in the concerto. It’s a wonderful piece from start to finish, and I had the good fortune to hear it live just several days ago, performed with unabashed glee by violinist Leonidas Kavakos, accompanied by Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic. What a ride!

Nest time around: Max Steiner, the go-to composer for Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart and the tallest and darkest leading man of all time….King Kong.

Posted in Television

“Mad Men” Unfulfilled—Again

Hopefully the dawn of a new day

The end of each season of “Mad Men” always brings more than a whiff of sadness—we know we’ll be missing the ladies and gentlemen of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce until Matthew Weiner, AMC and/or Lionsgate get their act together and the show returns. But Season Five, which ended last night, leaves us with a new, unsavory feeling. It was like sitting down to a multi-course meal of uncomfortable variety—the appetizer was somewhat routine, the salad was zesty (spiked with LSD), the entrée was spectacular (“The Other Woman” and “Commissions and Fees”), but boy, did the souffle fall flat (the season ender).

Let’s begin with the core of the show—Don Draper. Here’s a man who’s not in touch with the zeitgeist, but who’s in a profession where this is essential. Don still thinks like it’s 1960, in his marriage and his business, but the culture is exploding all around him. He knows the Beatles, but that’s it. No wonder he’s threatened by Ginsburg, leaving his better Sno Ball idea in the taxi on the way to the client presentation. Yes, he wowed Jaguar, but look whom he was addressing—a bunch of old fogies like himself. Don may be only 40, but in 1966, 40 was a lot older than it is today. It was the 1960’s that made that change, as “Mad Men” is beginning to illustrate in its usual deft fashion. We’ll see more of this next season, I’m sure, because last night ended at the outset of 1967. The Summer of Love is dead ahead.

Let’s talk about what “Mad Men” got right in Season Five—the portrayal of the various choices women of that era were forced to make (and still do). I can’t say enough about “The Other Women” and the juxtaposition of Joan, Peggy and Megan as they confronted major issues and responded in illuminating ways. Joan’s sleeping with a key Jaguar decision-maker to secure the account for SCDP tore the heart out of many viewers (myself included), but I can’t argue with the fact that for her it was a practical and sound financial decision. Peggy’s leaving SCDP for a better paying job at a rival agency was long overdue, particularly since we saw her treated so poorly all season long. No lobster for lunch was the least of it—watching Don throw money in her face was the ugliest act we’ve been forced to witness on the show. And aspiring actress Megan’s encountering the cheesecake, if not the casting couch, side of the business was the final punctuation to perhaps the best episode “Mad Men” has aired to date.

We learned more about the characters we thought we knew, not all of it neatly packaged or even nice. Bert Cooper’s non-objection to Joan’s involvement with Mr. Jaguar was a shock. Here’s the zen master himself, a co-founder of the firm, not staking out the high moral ground. Yes, he told Pete to make it clear to Joan that the option was hers, but this was not a reaction the audience expected. On a lighter note, we saw Roger find enlightenment (and end a bad marriage) through LSD in what was the funniest sequence of the entire season. His hallucinating Bert’s picture on the bill he handed the cab driver was priceless. It was fitting that in the closing montage of last night’s episode we saw Roger, buck naked, tripping while meeting the dawn. And though she had little screen time because of January Jones’s pregnancy, we saw Betty Francis acting as both Bad Mom (attempting to poison Sally’s view of her father by revealing his marriage to Anna Draper) and Great Mom (her reassuring and comforting Sally after she got her first period).

The acting on the show remained spectacular. In a season of wonderful performances from Jon Hamm, Christina Hendricks, Elizabeth Moss and Kiernan Shipka, Jared Harris cops top honors. His Lane Pryce was haunted all season by the low esteem in which he knew his partners held him, his unfulfilled dream of bedding either Joan or Delores (the woman in the photograph), his tax problems, and ultimately the repercussions of his forging a check on the company account. Harris’s performance in “Commissions and Fees” was nothing short of stellar. I predict that Don’s confrontation with Lane will make the Top 10 list of the show’s best scenes no matter how long it runs.

What I found most irritating about last night’s episode was our being forced to spend so much time with “Mad Men”‘s most annoying characters, namely Pete Campbell, Megan Draper and her mother. While it was not surprising to see Pete sink to even greater depths by setting up Joan and Mr. Jaguar through a series of half-truths, why did we have to endure not only his affair with a fellow commuter’s wife, but her return? And I’m really tired of Matthew Weiner’s crushes on January Jones and Jessica Pare. Neither they nor their characters are all that interesting, and it borders on criminal how much air time was wasted this season on Megan, whether at SCDP or acting class, whether with Don or one or more of her parents. The engine that makes “Mad Men” go is the ad biz, and we didn’t see enough of it this season.

Draper & Olson, anyone?

The highlight of “The Phantom” was without a doubt the scene illustrated on the left. Peggy and Don, equals at last. I have no doubt whatsoever that we haven’t seen the last of Peggy Olson, because in “Mad Men” World her story is second only to Don’s. Given the setting of the show, it hasn’t even reached its peak. I anticipate that she and Don will be reunited, but she’ll be a full partner on her own terms. And since we enjoyed the welcome sight of Freddy Rumsen and Paul Kinsey once again, can’t Sal Romano return to this show for at least one episode next season? He would have been made for the ’60’s, and logically with Peggy now traveling in different professional circles, their paths should cross. While all of this is supposition, we can bank on at least one sure thing—Bert will finally get an office again.

I’m not looking forward to the “Mad Men”–less months ahead, even with the show’s cracks in the wall. It’s still by far the most engrossing hour on TV, and we’re so much the poorer without it.

Posted in Baseball

Thank You, Johan Santana

It’s The Morning After, and it wasn’t a dream.

Johan Santana, only a year removed from arm surgery, pitched the first no-hitter in the Mets’ 51-year history.

Take it from a lifelong Mets fan, the team’s total drought in the no-hitter department was a standing joke. Howie Rose, the Mets’ radio announcer, will now have to develop a new shtick. Until today, his response to the first hit delivered by the opposing team in each and every game was: “It is now the [nth] Mets game without a no-hitter.” The Mets play the St. Louis Cardinals again today at 4:00 pm. I predict Howie’s listenership on WFAN will be through the roof, just so the fans can hear his new catchphrase.

Take it from me, Johan’s no-hitter works on so many levels that the reverb is deafening. First of all, IT WAS JOHAN. This can not be overlooked. I think most fans expected a no-no at some point, but their biggest fear (mine too) was that it would be a fluke pitched by some journeyman bum the Mets had to settle for to give them innings. After so many years, we not only wanted a no-hitter, we wanted to have it all—a gem pitched by the ace of the staff. Tom Seaver came close in 1969—I remember watching him take a no-hitter into the 9th inning against the Cubs—Doc Gooden pitched pure fire, and several years ago Tom Glavine wound up with a fabulous one-hitter. So to see our Number 1 starter do this after so many said he’d never be the same, post-arm surgery, was beyond sweet.

After all the sturm und drang with the Bernie Madoff bankruptcy trustee, the Wilpons’ propensity for foot-in-mouth disease, their financial woes, the team’s inability to compete in the free agent market, the perfect game earlier this season by Philip Humber (a Met discard), and—let’s face it—the Mets’ abysmal play during the last couple of years, the no-hitter and the efforts of the entire team in backing up Johan remind us that our boys are a force to be reckoned with. There’s a ton of young talent here—Daniel Murphy, Mike Baxter,Kirk Nieuwenhuis, Ruben Tejada, Ike Davis, Jonathan Niese—and things can only get better. Although David Wright announced yesterday that he won’t talk contract during the season, I suspect the Wilpons are floating a bond issue in order to be able to sign him. They’ve made a lot of mistakes over the years, but I don’t think failing to sign David Wright long-term will be one of them. He’s the face of the franchise and a team leader. The Mets can not afford to lose him.

And how perfect was it that the no-hitter came against the Cardinals? The Mets’ perennial nemesis and opponents in the 2006 NLCS, which our Boys from Flushing should have won. And to see Carlos Beltran, our major 2006 disappointment, in a Cardinals uniform as Johan worked his magic made it even more rewarding. After so many years, we’re among the big boys at last.

Last night was exciting. This morning we’re basking in the afterglow. And if you see someone walking around today, smiling a small, almost secret smile, you can bet the ranch that’s a Mets fan.