Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Hope for the New Year

We in the United States have, as of this writing, a full day before the coming of the New Year.

2008 was a year of catharsis. Much involved unrest but also change. From chaos, however, often comes the greatest creativity. The Random House dictionary first calls creativity "the state or quality of being creative" but then:

"the ability to transcend traditional ideas, rules, patterns, relationships, or the like, and to create meaningful new ideas, forms, methods, interpretations, etc.; originality, progressiveness, or imagination: the need for creativity in modern industry; creativity in the performing arts."

No truer or more poignant statement can be made about the year to which we will, today, say goodbye. Stasis must and will be challenged.

As I have often done to my close friends, I more broadly call to attention in the New Year the tragedy of Healthcare and the plight of the elderly in America. My stomach turned in complete revulsion as I watched conservative politicians in the United States during Election 2008 continue to boast of the value of, and encourage the continuation of, "free market" economy in relation to health and prescription coverage. Unfathomably absurd statements about "freedom of choice", "tax credits", etc., flowed freely from the mouths of these disgusting liars who hide behind so-called faith as their social platform, while gleefully continuing to promote making the wealthy richer and taking away from the disadvantaged. While the greed of the most affluent people in what we were told was for many generations and led to believe will be again, presumably (artificially), the world's most prosperous country -- only, of course, for the chosen -- is being "discussed" but still not dissected or, Heaven forbid, curtailed, essentials for the least fortunate, most needy of our population are bantered about without a care. It is easy for politicians -- all of them wealthy (even the least well-off lawmakers, giving them the most unnecessary benefit of the doubt of their overall assets and the wealth required just to run for office in this country, earn salaries that are significantly higher than the average American) -- to make decisions, no matter how much they shed crocodile tears while doing so, to diminish services for senior citizens and other needy populations. Even if people find ridiculous justifications for the turning around of lives for the disadvantaged but still so-called "able bodied" in the U.S. (the bleeping "American Dream"), GET IT THROUGH YOUR HEADS FOLKS... NO MATTER HOW MANY ABUSERS OF OUR SYSTEM EXIST, NEEDY ELDERLY PEOPLE DO NOT HAVE OPTIONS TO "BETTER THEIR LIVES". PERIOD. So we watch the rich give nothing -- even when they are "generous", they only give to advantage themselves (tax write-offs, publicity, their own personal agendas, etc.) -- there is no true remorse to taking away from the genuinely needy.

The truth is, we are living in a specious concept of politics and economics with a series of fundamental untruths at the center. With the reactions to the current world and U.S.-specific economic crisis and the "change" brought about by the last election -- which will, at best, only spark dialogue among those who may, at the ground level, have very limited, but at least some, tangible effect -- all of it is in the name of "getting back to where we were before". We cannot. Where we were before advantaged some but never those who were really in need, or even those who have produced and not respected for it.

In 2009, as we hope for a better, albeit still artificial, economy, and betterment in this regard for ourselves personally, I pray that my words at least inspire one, two, 20, however many individuals as I can to at least THINK ABOUT Healthcare in America, and the plight of the defenseless elderly, and do something about it... whatever she, he, they can.

On a very personal note, I pray for love to prevail in 2009. This is not a "fortune cookie" quote; I write this with great seriousness. Love for an-other, others, opens our hearts and lets us look more sincerely at their personal and/or collective needs. Love is our heartbeat; it makes us recognize our own, and our sisters' and brothers', vulnerability and truth.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The Holy Night Trinity

For me, one Christmas song stands high above the rest. It is the carol, written by Adolphe Adam in 1847 (with the words from a poem by Adam's contemporary, Placide Cappeau), known in French as "Cantique de Noël", and by English speakers as "O Holy Night". It is this song that touches me the most at the holidays. Not only the extraordinary music, but the force of the original lines of the poem. I love so many aspects of popular music, but, in my opinion, no pop singer -- in pure pop, gospel, jazz, R&B, etc. -- can truly do justice to "O Holy Night". It is most effective in a person posessing a sweeping operatic instrument, capable of centering a listener's attention to the song with the sound of a great voice.

Three singers have most deeply affected me with their gift to mankind of performing this song; two on records, one live in performance. I adore other interpretations, including those of the incomparable Enrico Caruso, Luciano Pavarotti, Leontyne Price, Renata Tebaldi and many, many more fine artists, but there are three standouts in my memory that surpass even them.

One is the "Cantique de Noël", in the original French, sung by the great French dramatic tenor, Georges Thill (1897 - 1984). Thill had a combination of power and latin masculinity in his voice, as well as his beautiful singing of the French text, which gave the song infinitely more impact than virtually all others. Listen to how he delivers the words:
"L'amour unit ceux qu'enchaînait le fer.
Qui Lui dira notre reconnaissance,
C'est pour nous tous qu'Il naît, qu'Il souffre et meurt."
If you were not a convert to this version before, I believe this phrase alone could turn one permanently to Thill's side.

In my heart, Thill's true rival in this carol is the one-and-only Jussi Bjorling, the magnificent, all-too short-lived Swedish tenor (1911 - 1960). While Thill made many recordings, Bjorling lived into the maturity of electrical and long-playing discs. For anyone who has not yet experienced this voice, a hearing of his warm, sunny voice, with his almost superhuman top notes (although, in life, Bjorling was famously insecure), in virtually any of the operatic or classical song repertoire that he recorded, I would say is a must. His "O Holy Night", sung in Swedish (as "O Helga Natt"), is a model both of pathos and vocal control. The high C that caps the song, taken with complete fearlesness, is a unique thing indeed.

The finest performance of "O Holy Night" that I've ever witnessed "live" was on television. It was in the St. Patrick's Cathedral (Archdiocese of New York) televised Midnight Mass of December 1984. This performance was conducted by the late John Grady, leading the St. Patrick's Cathedral choir and orchestra (John, who I knew for a few years, was also affiliated with the Metropolitan Opera), and witnessed by the, then new, Archbishop of New York, John O'Connor (who, in the next year, became Cardinal). December 1984 occurred one season after the Metropolitan Opera's Centennial Season celebrations, and it is an artist on the MET roster that annually performs the "O Holy Night" at the Midnight Mass at St. Patrick's. Such luminaries as Pavarotti, Renata Scotto, Marilyn Horne, Renee Fleming and numerous others have given their services to the Mass in this song. In December 1984, it was a then new MET artist -- who made her debut on opening night of the 1983-1984 Centennial Season -- my beloved Jessye Norman. I was already a passionate devotee of the voice and art of Jessye Norman, and her arrival at the MET on the Centennial opening night in Hector Berlioz's epic opera, LES TROYENS, was one of the great moments of my life. I was 20 years old then, we didn't have the Internet and no matter how much information I could find about Jessye Norman before I had the blessing of getting to know her for many years, I didn't know she would sing at the Mass. We waited each year to see who would be "on" (since they've televised the event), and when Jessye started to sing, my jaw dropped. It never lifted. My mouth was open in awe of the sheer grandness of Jessye Norman's sumptuous, cavernous voice pouring out into the huge Cathedral, at one point even drowning out the entire chorus, orchestra and full pipe organ. That alone would be awe-inspiring -- I'll never, as long as I live, forget her final, massive high note on the final word of "glory" (in English) -- but it was the sublety of the singing and the interpretation, the piano and pianissimo notes, the sheer artistry, even in such a venue, that was truly something that I would never hear again by anyone else. I wish this performance could be released on a collection of music from the Midnight Masses so that it will never be forgotten. I certainly will never forget it. I've heard Jessye sing "O Holy Night" in subsequent years, and it has always been an event, but never the same as in that Mass. (A similar thing happened to me in the "Urlicht" from Mahler's Symphony No. 2, "Resurrection", wherein Jessye sang the contralto part in this work, I believe in 1984 as well, possibly '85, under the baton of Leonard Bernstein, with the New York Philharmonic. I've heard her sing the "Urlicht" many times hence but she never seemed to feel it as deeply, even when equalling the reading technically or giving a fine performance from other perspectives.)

Though I don't have a copy available of the Norman reading -- I do still have it, however, on a very fragile VHS tape, recorded fuzzily (without a satellite dish or cable television) -- below are the unforgettable Thill and Bjorling readings (from YouTube).


(Photo of Jessye Norman by Carol Friedman.)

  • Georges Thill:

  • Jussi Bjorling:

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Deborah Polaski IS Elektra!

On December 9, I experienced one of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra's concert performances of my all-time favorite opera, Richard Strauss's 1909 dramatic masterpiece, ELEKTRA. It was one of four outings of the work in the 2008/2009 valedictory season of the legendary American maestro, Lorin Maazel, as the NYPO's Music Director.

This concert performance was a true event. The expanded Straussian forces of the NYPO under Maazel sounded gorgeous--expansive, open, everything in tune, with exceptional attention to musical details. Where the orchestra could explode with bombast, it never did--climaxes were remarkably loud but the overall performance was captivatingly restrained and internalized. It let the drama of the work come out from within.

One must say, however, that despite Maazel's extraordinary interpretation of the score -- a more inspired performance from the maestro than most in recent history -- and the sheer beauty of the orchestra, this ELEKTRA belonged to the performer of the title role, the great American dramatic soprano, Deborah Polaski. In what turned out to be her astonishing 175th career performance of ELEKTRA, Polaski belied her veteran status with singing that was fresher and more focused than in several seasons past. She has always been a distinguished artist -- a Bayreuth veteran with a repertoire centered in the most vocally punishing roles of the operatic repertoire -- but she absolutely shone on Tuesday. Like Maazel, Polaski took an introspective approach. She towered where necessary, both in voice and presence, but it was never in an effort to overemphasize Elektra's hatred, fear or eventual madness. This was not a growling, vengeful fiend but a Mycenaean Princess driven to hate. Polaski's voice had the marvelously familiar "rolling thunder" in the middle and upper-middle ranges that I have loved since my first hearing of her almost 15 years ago -- in another astonishing Elektra in-concert with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Daniel Barenboim, co-starring my beloved Alessandra Marc as Elektra's sister, Chrysothemis -- and her top notes were better placed than they have been in quite a while. All in all, as the person who accompanied me to the performance said about Polaski, "wow, she's really something... she really IS Elektra!"

Hear the one-and-only Deborah Polaski in Elektra's great opening monologue, "Allein, Weh ganz allein" (clip from YouTube):

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

All three Uferts voted!

I voted yesterday. My mother voted yesterday. My father, a lifelong political activist for the Left, voted yesterday for the first time in more than two decades. What? Political activist = has not voted in more than two decades? Doesn't add up. The reason my dad has not voted in countless previous elections has largely, until the past couple of years, had nothing to do with his decade-long struggle with ill health. So how does activism and a lack of participation in the political process connect?

My father believes that voting under the confines of the political landscape in the U.S. does not represent choice. In a way, by not exercising the right that so many, and he personally, fought for over the years -- my dad fought in Korea -- he has been fighting even further against the system.

This is why I was honored by the fact that my parents and I pulled the levers in this election. I am probably 90% aligned with my father in his beliefs about the political situation in this country, but the remaining 10% compelled me -- ever since I first became aware of him even earlier than the 2004 Democratic Convention -- to voice my support of and vote for Barack Obama for President of the United States. My father's vote in the current election is, therefore, for me, a mild ray of hope.

I always do vote. My vote on November 4, 2008 was, however, cast in honor of two people... my parents. See the note that I wrote to my family and dear friends one day before the election in tribute to them and to Barack Obama:

"Attached to this email is a photograph (*To this email to my family and friends, I attached a photo of my dad) of my father, Frank Ufert, currently age 74, United States Army veteran of the Korean War, former photographer, journeyman cabinetmaker/construction supervisor, who was in his own, unfortunately failed business for nearly 20 years, then became an OSHA construction safety officer -- who, incidentally, survived 9-11, having escaped his office in New York's World Trade Center plaza while having to return to work in a wheelchair after suffering a stroke several years prior because he could not afford to retire (he was the only OSHA Northeast Region employee to work on a part-time basis because of his unique medical and financial condition) -- now, officially, retired.

Many of you know that my father is a diabetic who, at age 65 in 1999, had triple-bypass surgery and then, as I mentioned above, a stroke in 2000 which left him permanently paralyzed on the left side of his body. In his ongoing struggle with his diabetes, he now has a defibrillator, has experienced debilitating glycemic seizures throughout the ensuing decade and is currently battling a very serious bout of dangerously reduced red blood cell production.

Many of you also know that my mother, Josephine Ufert, daughter of Italian immigrant parents, is currently 80 years old, worked with my dad in his business and then for the McGraw-Hill Companies in an administrative position before retiring during a corporate staff reduction. When my father fell ill, my mom -- not by choice but by love and, moreover, because of my parents' financial situation -- became his sole caregiver. While my dad's illness nearly killed him two decades before it should have -- and continues to do so a decade before normal life expectancy -- my mother's burden of care for my father is, equally, taking the life out of a woman formerly far-younger-than-her-years.

For many reasons, but mostly for my parents, I will vote tomorrow for Barack Obama for President of the United States. Trickle-down economy does not work. It is a miserable failure. The rich are greedy and will always be. Even for those in the U.S. who are medically insured like my parents -- so many are, tragically, not -- the opportunities to receive appropriate care in direct proportion to their ability to pay for insurance (at the low end of the cost spectrum) and to their years of labor in the workforce are abysmal. The fact that continued discussions from the right exist about further privatization and deregulation of healthcare are reason alone to vote for anyone, good or bad, who even wants to attempt to address this situation differently.

My vote for Barack Obama -- yes, he is another meglomaniacal, self-serving politician but the most progressive, intelligent, socially responsible and, seemingly, at least somewhat sincere of the kind -- is to get dialogue started and to quell, in part, the unchallenged voice and power of the radical political right in the United States. Issues of the economy and the needs of working-class people, of a woman's right to choose, of tax policy, of the costs of education, of other critical civil rights will, at least, be DISCUSSED again in an open forum. The fact that in a country with a nearly 250-year formal identity, with the same number of years of diversity in its population, with a presidency that in 2009 will be 220 years old, we can, for the first time, have a President that represents so many facets of the identity of the nation, would also nearly be compelling enough for me to vote for him.

But my vote for Barack Obama is in honor of my parents and all those who have been fighting against disgusting greed in terms of healthcare in the U.S.


Hugs, Karl"

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

I Exercised My Right to VOBAMA!

I just participated in the most important political process of my lifetime. My 80 year-old mother and 74 year-old, disabled, severely health-compromised father, also just made it to the polls. If you are an eligible voter and have not yet voted, please, please get out and exercise your right... This time, it is a must.

I'm praying for a victory for Barack Obama and Joe Biden!

Friday, October 31, 2008

Scariest Thing I Can Imagine on Halloween

There is no more chilling image than the thought of this man as President of the United States.

Happy All Hallows' Even and remember to get out and vote for Barack Obama on or before November 4th, or you'll see this horrifying "mask" in every diplomatic negotiation, every national policy debate, on all television stations and in every newspaper and magazine for, potentially, at least 4 years!!!

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Barack on The Daily Show - Didn't Get the Memo on the Bradley Effect

Barack Obama said last night on "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" that:

"I don't think white voters have gotten this memo about the 'Bradley Effect."

Let's PRAY that, at least for some, this really is true.


Sunday, October 26, 2008

Prayers for Jennifer Hudson

Like so many others, my most heartfelt condolences go out to Jennifer Hudson on her tragic loss this weekend of her mother and brother. Moreover, I'm sending prayers to her and her family to find her missing nephew alive and well.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008


For those who, like me, love opera, another stunning, inspired move from Peter Gelb's brilliant, multimedia-driven team at the Metropolitan Opera.

Starting today, the company is offering MET PLAYER, a catalog of -- as of now -- 13 on-demand HD performance videos, 37 historic video performances and 120 Met radio broadcasts (audio), all available for web streaming, with many more to come. It is a subscription service and clearly worth every penny.

What I would have given for such broadaccess to the MET's archives as a young listener! It took years to finally break open and make available the vaults of the MET's historic radio and other media archives. Now, with technology, we not only have Gelb's great effort in negotiations with unions, etc. to enable us to behold this priceless legacy, but the chance to hear and see it at our fingertips.

I'm almost literally overwhelmed. GO GELB!!!

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

From the Daily Show with Jon Stewart: "Understanding Real America in Wasilla"

Hilarious account of the "REAL AMERICA" (blech!) that is Wasilla, AK.

Thank you, Jon Stewart! :-)

Thursday, October 16, 2008

The U.S.'s Oldest Overseas Voter

I'm thrilled to know that this woman, Mother Cecelia Gaudet, age 106, a Catholic Nun, as deeply religious as one can be, feels that Barack Obama is the right person to be the next President of the United States. She has lived through EIGHTEEN Presidents.

She says in the interview that the next President "should be like a father and love his people and do the best of course."

God Bless her.

I'm Just Speechless!

Read the summary here.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Someone on "That One"

In last night's unexceptional so-called Presidential "debate", I heard a candidate for an extraordinary position -- a position once reserved for exceptional individuals -- use a term to describe his opponent which brought new meaning to pejorative. If I were to choose one part of the dictionary definition of the word "pejorative" to best describe the context and application of the term used last night by that candidate, it would be "belittling" but with a meaning far uglier than even pejorative can portray.

For me, the term used was among many things an abhorrent personification of the inherent RACISM of the campaign. Not the expected direct racism of certain voters, or the the "silent racism" of others who may even be genuinely supportive of the positions or overall personage of the Democratic candidate but because of things they would never say to anyone else will pull the lever differently on Election Day. Instead, it blatantly exposed the racism of the Republican Presidential candidate. THE TERM WOULD NEVER HAVE BEEN USED BY THIS WHITE CANDIDATE TO ANOTHER WHITE CANDIDATE OF ANY AGE OR PERCEIVED LEVEL OF POLITICAL EXPERIENCE. It showed that the Republican Presidential candidate lives within the framework of belief in WAR AGAINST AN ENEMY. All of those "enemies" in the Republican candidate's personal experiential framework have been PEOPLE OF COLOR. Last night, without a shadow of a doubt, he was AT WAR WITH AN ENEMY... an OTHER.

The Republican candidate's running mate, either when she is on or .0002 seconds off script, is spewing or goading from the crowd a hurl of fear-mongering, bigoted epithets waylayed at the Democratic candidate. The comments being made at the Republican rallies are frighteningly reminiscent of the pre-Civil War or pre-Civil Rights South.

The Democratic Candidate for President of the United States in the 2008 Election is NOT "THAT ONE"... he is BARACK OBAMA, THE ONLY ONE WHO DESERVES MY VOTE. The person who used that awful, derogatory term to describe a candidate for the United States Presidency is not just wrong, he and his running mate are DANGEROUS.

READ ABOUT THE ATTACKS (New York Times Editorial)



Sunday, September 28, 2008

Inge Borkh - Grand Dramatic Soprano

Life's arc, even with exceptions, is of course consistent. With the very best of longevity and health, we human beings get approximately 70-90 years to walk the earth in one lifetime. This may be glaringly obvious but when parallel lives are juxtaposed, it can be quite sobering.

To those of us who lived a significant part of our lives in the middle to latter part of the 20th Century who were/are passionate about the operas of Richard Wagner and Richard Strauss, there have been only a small handful of soprano names that were literally synonymous with the great heroic leading ladies in these works. The names are Birgit Nilsson, Astrid Varnay, Martha Moedl and the only one still with us today, Inge Borkh. There were others, including one more who reigned supreme with these four ladies, Leonie Rysanek, but it is chronology about which I am making note--Rysanek, a beloved artist of mine, was born in 1926. Birgit Nilsson was born in 1917 or 1918 (depending on the source), Astrid Varnay in 1918, Martha Moedl in 1912 and Inge Borkh in 1917. Again, all but Borkh are gone, while the magnificent vocal legacies of each woman remains.

These voices are the ones of a TRUE "golden age", wherein those who prepared them in the roles of Bruennhilde, Elektra, Isolde, the Dyer's Wife, Senta and Salome actually knew and worked with Richard Strauss and studied directly under the "disciples" of Richard Wagner. From the perspective of vocal power and glamor, and from the first-hand experience they had with their assumption of these parts, they will never be equalled.

While I revel in the voices of the others, my very first hearing of Richard Strauss's opera, Elektra -- my favorite of all operas -- was not, as some think, in the performances of the very first opera I attended at the Metropolitan Opera House (an Elektra for the ages with Birgit Nilsson and Leonie Rysanek in the 1979-1980 season), but Dr. Karl Boehm's magnificent Deutsche Grammophon recording of the work with the Staatskapelle Dresden. On that recording, the Elektra was Inge Borkh. To this day, the power, openness, freshness and beauty of Borkh's voice remain the same experience. Every recording I've heard (both studio recorded and "live") of this incredible artist -- from the earlier parts of her career in the 1950s to the latter parts in the 1970s -- remained consistent... a rarity. In addition to the Strauss and Wagner parts, her undertaking of the title role of Turandot in Puccini's opera, on a Decca recording with Mario del Monaco and Renata Tebaldi, is similarly breathtaking.

Although I am only in my early-mid-40s, I heard Nilsson live and Varnay live at the very end of their careers, and Moedl sang in Vienna into the 1990s. This where the chronology is directly affecting... All were alive in my lifetime, all sang in my lifetime, all, once again, but one are no longer on this planet.

I SALUTE, with the deepest of respect, Mme. Borkh, the last, still vital being in a unique line--one equal to the others in every way.

Inge Borkh in Richard Strauss's Die Frau Ohne Schatten (from YouTube):

Inge Borkh in a 1990s interview -- how beautiful she still was at almost 80! -- and a scene from Bloch's Macbeth (also from YouTube):

Friday, September 12, 2008

Happy Moon Festival :-)

I want to wish everyone a very happy Moon Festival. Be sure to eat lots of yummy mooncakes. I tend to like the ones with the egg yokes inside... as I understand it, that type of mooncake is sort of difficult to get in the States.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

9-11 - Never Forget

I'm no reactionary, "nationalistic" zealot. I do, however, honor the memory of 9-11. My father is a survivor of the event: he was at work that day, in his office in 6 World Trade Center. He returned to work (for OSHA) after suffering a debilitating stroke the year prior which left him paralyzed on one side. Though he went back to work in a wheelchair and would not have been able to escape his office on that day without help, his colleagues wheeled him out of the office in time to be safe.

I honor the memory of tragically lost lives and of the true heroism of REAL PEOPLE (not opportunistic politicians) who aided the sick, wounded, etc. oft to their own detriment. That horrible event -- which, being a lifelong Manhattanite, I witnessed first-hand -- will forever haunt me and my fellow New Yorkers in a way those who did not live here when it happened can never understand.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Rodan and War of the Gargantuas - Toho Classics on DVD

The great blog, SciFi Japan, announced that on September 9, Classic Media will release on DVD a double-bill of the landmark Toho Studios Kaiju Eiga (怪獣映画), 1956's RODAN (ラドン Radon), and 1966's WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS (フランケンシュタインの怪獣 サンダ対ガイラ Furankenshutain no Kaijū: Sanda taiGaira, lit. "Frankenstein's Monsters: Sanda Versus Gaira"). War of the Gargantuas will appear for the first time ever in the U.S. on DVD!

I grew up knowing every line of dialogue from the English-dubbed versions of these films. According to SciFi Japan, the new release will include the original Japanese and the U.S. versions of the film, and will also have as a supplement, an important new documentary called "Bringing Godzilla Down to Size". The documentary is a chronicle of Japanese special effects, focused on the work of special effects pioneer, Tsuburaya Eiji (円谷 英二), and will contain interviews with many of the directors and actors who participated in Kaiju Eiga throughout the 1950s, 60s and 70s.

I CAN'T WAIT!!! :-)

Photo provided to SciFi Japan as a courtesy from Classic Media. © 2008 Classic Media, Inc./© 1956, 1966 Toho Co., Ltd.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Don LaFontaine - The Voice of Movies

"In a world..." that would not have been the same without him, such came the voice of Don LaFontaine. Less than a week after his 68th birthday, LaFontaine, the authoritative, dramatic voice of hundreds of movie trailers, passed away today from "complications from pneumothorax" (or a collapsed lung).

His sound will be missed.

After years of being known for his voice alone, an appearance in a GEICO spot made his face as famous as his voice. See it here (from YouTube):

Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Next President and Vice President


(Photo: Brian Kersey/UPI/NEWSCOM/FILE. Copyright © 2008 The Christian Science Monitor. All rights reserved.)

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Beijing Olympics Comes to an End

What a spectacular end to the Beijing Summer Olympics. The great Zhang Yimou outdid himself in the Opening and Closing Ceremonies.

Congratulations to all of the athletes worldwide who brought moments of peace through the games and their extraordinary achievements!

Oh, and the Closing Ceremonies actually included performances by Major Chinese-language Pop Stars--the ones who were sorely missing from the magnificent Opening Ceremonies!!!

Monday, August 11, 2008

Michael Phelps RULES!!!

The astonishing Michael Phelps just won another Gold and achieved another World Record at the Beijing Olympics. Way to go, man!

Friday, August 8, 2008

Beijing Olympics - Happy 888!

Today marks the start of the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing China. I wish all the athletes, worldwide, the very best.

These 5 adorable characters represent the Fuwa who, according to the official Beijing Olympics website, "serve as the Official Mascots of Beijing 2008 Olympic Games, carrying a message of friendship and peace -- and good wishes from China -- to children all over the world."

Images from the Opening Ceremonies (from YouTube):

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Marie Dressler - Superstar

Today, with our Angelina and Lindsay and J-Lo and Paris and Beyoncé, hot female stars fill the media sky. In the 1930s it was no different: with Jean Harlow, Carole Lombard, Myrna Loy, Loretta Young and more.

However, in the 1930s one unlikely superstar phenomenon moved ahead of the pack. This phenomenon was the great Canadian-American screen and stage actress, Marie Dressler. No different than the 21st Century, popularity in that period in entertainment history was largely determined by youth and looks. However, after an undistinguished earlier stint in film and an important stage career, Marie Dressler, never a beauty (her autobiography was entitled "The Life Story of an Ugly Duckling.") and, in the end of the 1920s into the early 1930s, already in her 60s, appeared in the Greta Garbo classic, "Anna Christie", and became an overnight sensation. By the mid-30s, this incredible woman who could be equally powerful and effective in the most serious of dramatic roles or in the frothiest comedies, was among the highest-paid Hollywood stars and had top billing over stars like Jean Harlow in George Cukor's cinematic masterpiece, "Dinner at Eight". Unfortunately, Dressler's star would not -- at least in this incarnation -- burn long. She died of cancer in 1934 at only age 65.

It was a treat to see Robert Osborne's tribute this week to Marie Dressler, whom I've long admired as an actress and personality, on Turner Classic Movies. Among the Dressler films shown on TCM was "Min and Bill" for which she won the Best Actress Oscar® in 1931. This, along with her more well-known films to later audiences such as "Anna Christie" and "Dinner at Eight", as well as her hilarious comedies with her longtime co-star, Polly Moran, demonstrated her legendary versatility and complete command of the screen.

Will there still be an audience for great classics starring people like Marie Dressler in the future? There are still people who lived in the 1920s and 30s, albeit fewer each day, who actually remember that era and the dawn of cinema, the dawn of talkies, etc. When we detach from that, will our new generations which are obsessed with easy-to-digest celebrity, even care about the origins of motion pictures? I wonder...

Let Marie Dressler charm you in this wonderful clip from the "Hollywood Revue of 1929" (from YouTube). She IS the Queen!

Thursday, July 24, 2008

In HK With the Cast of "Batman: The Dark Knight"

I don't want to give away too much, but suffice to say that there are some really hot action scenes from "Batman: The Dark Knight" which take place in Hong Kong. See the photo for a little preview...

I was just sent a referral to a video on YouTube which showed the November 2007 HK press conference for the film with director Christopher Nolan and some of the cast. For those who can understand Cantonese, it appears below. For those who can't (like me!), the comments from Nolan, and stars Christian Bale, Morgan Freeman and others are in English.

An interesting tidbit: A young HK star named Edison Chen (陳冠希) makes a VERY BRIEF appearance in The Dark Knight. I assume -- and this is only speculation on my part -- that, with Chen's star having been on the rise, he was slated for a larger part. However, in the midst of the filming and then post-production/promotion, he was part of a now rather well-known photo scandal. I wonder if -- and, again, I am only guessing here -- his role was going to be more important in the film had the scandal not broken. Food for thought...

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

"Batman: The Dark Knight" - DO NOT MISS IT!

I rarely see movies in the theater of late. There are many reasons for this, but most of them involve what I will call, without elaborating "ROI". Basically, the movies themselves are not worth the $12 USD ticket price and the relative inconvenience over other alternatives.

I am a die-hard cinema fanatic and, in some ways, miss the theater--a focused experience with no home distractions, the power and quality of 35 and 70mm projection, broadly-ambient 6-track surround sound, and now digital projection of stunning clarity. There is still nothing like watching a great movie on a big screen. However, there are few films that, to me, warrant the outing.

A brilliant exception... The Christopher Nolan blockbuster "Batman: The Dark Knight", (now in theaters and with the biggest opening weekend ticket-purchase-wise in the history of film)... and seeing it in the IMAX experience. With all of my love of "highbrow" art films, international cinema, etc., I confess that this big-budget epic would, ordinarily, not be as much my proverbial cup of tea as one might think. There is, though, my passion for Sci Fi, and for great Action epics -- some of which rival(ed) (or even emulate(d)) the works of Ford, Kurosawa, et. al. -- and I get tremendous pleasure when one is truly wonderful. The Dark Knight? TRULY WONDERFUL!

What makes this film not just an extraordinary thrill to behold in an enormous IMAX (and, I'm sure, in a HD Digital-projected) environment, and a hold-your-breath special effects action adventure with a terrific series of locations (New York/Chicago-hybrid Gotham City, Hong Kong, etc.), which is a well-directed thriller and is generally well-acted by the always fine Christian Bale, Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman, the great Sir Michael Caine (less utilized in this chapter of the Batman series, so Freeman, one of my long-time favorites since the children's TV series, "The Electric Company", many centuries ago when I was a kid, surpasses him), the surprising Aaron Eckart (in that order) and a decent, though un-special, Maggie Gyllenhaal (a curious bit of casting to replace the awful Katie Holmes as Rachel Dawes... we miss you, Katie--who can we laugh at in this film)? Two words (and not just from the "hype")... HEATH LEDGER. The late actor's Joker is IMHO, as someone also put it, the "finest screen villain since Hannibal Lecter." No exaggeration.

I won't give away too much, but Ledger's performance is, again IMHO, incomparable. His treatment of all of the "bravura" parts is, as many expected with all the buildup, technically brilliant. However, it is the subtlety of his performance -- just the constant licking of the lips alone, used not only as an effect but going even a layer below to the physiological (he is compensating for his deformity) -- and the fact that he then acts a character as a layer above everything, makes it beyond compare. This, for example, is what was missing for me in Jamie Foxx's hardworking portrayal of Ray Charles in "Ray". I felt that one marvelled at Foxx's technical performance but there was no "additional acting" which made you realize that a characterization was in play. The last performance of that type that I saw on film was Martin Landau's Oscar®-winning portrayal of Bela Lugosi in the so-so, tongue-in-cheek Tim Burton biopic, "Ed Wood". Landau elevated an otherwise enjoyable but ordinary film to a great one through the strength of his, and his alone, once-in-a-lifetime essay of Lugosi--a human being, as well as an icon, in a struggle with depression and drug addiction. Ledger gives this level of performance in "The Dark Knight"; a far better film overall than "Ed Wood" (ironically, Burton directed the first films in the late '8os/'90s Batman series), but brought to true classic status through Ledger's work.

It is painful to know that Ledger -- who captivated me as an acting presence since his performance as Billy Bob Thornton's son, Sonny, in the excellent "Monster's Ball" -- no longer walks the Earth. I hope, wherever his spirit is, he is smiling from ear-to-ear at his achievement as the Joker. Hahahahahahahahaha!!!

Here is the trailer, from YouTube:

Friday, July 18, 2008

Pierre Boulez at 80 - Mahler Symphony No. 2 "Resurrection"

In 2005, the grand French composer/conductor (once Music Director of the New York Philharmonic), Pierre Boulez, turned 80. The Staatskapelle Berlin, one of the world's oldest orchestral ensembles, honored the maestro's birthday by presenting him conducting the orchestra in a Mahler series.

On DVD from EuroArts/Arte is a video of a spectacular performance from the Boulez/Staatskapelle Berlin celebration series of Mahler's Symphony No. 2, the "Resurrection". It is one of the most touching essays of this work I've ever experienced. The maestro, completely focused and almost stone-cold on the podium -- in Richard Strauss, Fritz Reiner fashion -- unleashes waves of gorgeous sound from the orchestra and chorus. Everything is delivered with musical nuance but also with a complete, unbridled passion which belies Boulez's conducting stance. It means that he drilled a lifetime of experience with Mahler's music, and his power and exhuberance, into the players and singers before the performance, and then let them "do the work" in the hall.

If you get your hands on the DVD, you'll experience a real treat.

Photo Credit: Copyright © 2005 Clive Barda (for Deutsche Grammophon).

An excerpt from the great final movement can be heard and seen here (on YouTube):

Thursday, July 3, 2008

From Reuters: "Lost footage of "Metropolis" surfaces in Argentina"

According to a Reuters article published today, missing scenes from Fritz Lang's "Metropolis" were discovered in a museum in Argentina.

In a quote in the article from "Helmut Possmann, head of the foundation which owns the rights to the film, the Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung", he said that the foundation was "overjoyed" by the find as the lost footage was considered to be gone forever:

"We no longer believed we'd see this. Time and again we had had calls about supposed footage but were disappointed."

Fans like myself of this true masterpiece of World Cinema, we are now salivating over the prospect of seeing it anew.

Read the full Reuters article here.

If you've never granted yourself the thrill of seeing "Metropolis", check out a brief clip (from YouTube):

Monday, June 30, 2008

Ippudo New York - Yumm!

Japanese restaurant food made by, um, Japanese is getting rarer and rarer to find in New York. As I was growing up and Japanese investors and corporations were purchasing a significant amount of New York's real estate and important businesses, authentic Japanese restaurants were a plenty, even in lower-priced (the stuff I could afford!) categories. I miss this--it seems that most lower or mid-priced Manhattan Japanese restaurants are now Chinese-owned and have lost their genuineness.

An exception is the new, New York branch of the previously Japan-only chain, Ippudo (一風堂). In Manhattan's East Village which still boasts a considerable number of Japanese/Japanese-American-owned, Japanese/Japanese-American-staffed Japanese eateries, Ippudo is a breath of fresh air. It is fun, simultaneously bright and dim, and full of energy. The focus: ramen noodles. Chewy, perfectly al dente ramen are served with a variety of broths. I've not myself yet opted for Ippudo's traditional soupy kinds of Ramen presentations because I don't eat pork and the broth is pork-based. I may make one of my rare exceptions to my non-religious, non-dietary-restriction rule to try the standard Shiomaru, Akamaru, etc. (I sometimes eat tiny bits of pork in, say, Chinese turnip cakes during dim sum, but I never consciously order it or eat large quantities of it... beef, lamb and other red meat, on the other hand, is not just out for me but verboten.) So far, I've had a wonderful summery ramen salad with a refreshing grapefruit dressing -- surprisingly good -- and many of the very (very!) tasty, beautifully-presented, yet not "stuffy" appetizers.

Most special are two aspects of the restaurant and the food. First, that you are literally in the kitchen when in the dining room. Large, transparent glass (or plexiglass?) panels show the kitchen in an almost 360-degree view inside the restaurant. Cooking and dining are seamlessly joined. Second, the freshness of the noodles; they make them on premises and they are just perfect. Ippudo is no more special to me than my beloved New York staple, Sapporo (札幌市), especially the smaller Sapporo location on 49th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues, where I've been a regular and devoted customer since I was a child. However, it is great fun, great food and a little more upscale in it's simplicity and straightforwardness (does that make sense?).

See the New York Times review (published, April 30, 2008) and do experience it. Delicious!

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Nogami Teruyo and Nakadai Tatsuya at the Japan Society - One of the Greatest Moments of My Life!

Tonight, at New York's 100 year-old Japan Society, I had an incomparable experience. This month and next, the Japan Society is featuring two major film events: one entitled "Japan Cuts"; and a retrospective of the work of Nakadai Tatsuya (仲代 達矢), arguably Japan's greatest living actor. The latter is the Nakadai Retrospective--a co-production with Film Forum (where the films are being screened).

In honor of Nakadai-san's work with legendary director, Kurosawa Akira (黒澤 明), Japan Society hosted an appearance, on June 25, by Kurosawa's 50+ -year "right hand", his "script girl" -- and, later, Assistant Producer -- Nogami Teruyo. Nogami was interviewed by Michael Jeck before a sold out audience and signed copies of her book, "Waiting on the Weather". The book is a recollection of Nogami's work with Kurosawa.

During the interview with the magical 81 year-old lady, with her shock of white hair, vibrant personality and lightning fast responses (through a translator) to Jeck's questions, clips of Kurosawa's films were played. At one point, Moderator Jeck said that he would show a specific clip and, afterward, that he and Nogami-san would be joined by a "special guest". The clip was from Kurosawa's late-career masterpiece Ran (乱)--a scene featuring Nakadai Tatsuya in a moment of Lord Hidetora's Lear-like madness. The lights came up and Jeck motioned to the front row of the audience where he called up, to our shock and surprise, none other than NAKADAI HIMSELF! Not only were we in the presence of the greatness of Nogami-san, we now had the legendary Nakadai, in New York City, right there on stage with her. I literally gasped as the 75 year-old Nakadai, still the handsome movie star -- appearing some 15-20 years younger than his age -- nearly lept to the stage. He joined Nogami in answering questions, but I nearly didn't hear the answers... I was completely star-struck!

Nakadai Tatsuya and Nogami Teruyo at the Japan Society 6/25/2008

This, however, was not the only extraordinary moment for me in this already unbelievable evening. I literally dragged myself to the event--I have been suffering for the past several months with an illness that seemed to have healed but relapsed a few days before. I had been in the hospital (on antibiotics both in hospital and at home) and I am now, unfortunately, back on antibiotics. This makes me very tired. Still, I would have regretted so much missing the opportunity to see and hear this special interview with Nogami-san, so I forced myself to the Japan Society tonight.

I attended the event alone. By "alone", I mean that no one else I know personally attended the talk with me. A tall woman of a bright and friendly countenance, and a definite "presence", sat next to me in the auditorium. We began to talk and she asked about my interest in the event and in Japanese Cinema. I explained as much as I could muster in my semi-delirious state (from the tiredness that comes with taking antibiotics). She was very charming. She followed by explaining her introduction to Japan many years ago--as a teacher, on a Fullbright grant after she graduated from college (Wesleyan). She also described her long journey of interest in Japan, Japanese culture and Japanese cinema and that she had even been an essayist on Japanese film. She then mentioned that, at one time, she would write film-related essays in the sometimes absence of the person who became her husband. She then revealed that her husband, as she pointed to my copy of Nogami-san's "Waiting on the Weather", was "him". It was no less than the person who wrote the foreward to Nogami's book, the great American scholar (and popularizer) of Japanese film, Donald Richie, one of my heroes! The woman was MARY RICHIE, Donald Richie's former spouse, about whom I had read extensively, especially in Richie's highly expressive, revealing book, "The Japan Journals: 1947-2004". I couldn't believe it. Mrs. Richie and I spent much of the evening talking. What a profound pleasure to meet her!

Mary Richie and me, Japan Society 6/25/2008

I think it was destiny that brought me to tonight's event. It was certainly a night I will never forget.

Asian-American International Film Festival (New York) - July 10 - 19, 2008

June and July are chock-full of ground-breaking Asian and Asian-American cultural and other related events.

Yet another important cinema series, the now 30+ year-old Asian-American International Film Festival (a co-production of Asian Cinevision and the Asia Society) is being held in New York from July 10-19. This festival has brought to the American fore the likes of master filmmakers, Mira Nair, Ang Lee (李安 Lǐ Ān), Wayne Wang (王穎 Wáng Yǐng), Park Chan-wook (박찬욱) and Justin Lin (林詣彬 Lín Yìbīn) with the U.S. and New York premieres of some of their seminal cinematic works.

Be sure to check it out!

The intro. video from the 2007 festival appears below (from YouTube).

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

George Carlin (1937 - 2008) - The Passing of One of My Heroes

The truth was told by George Carlin. I can't tell you how much I will miss his powerful voice and his honesty. I will miss the view that he had of politics which so few else would articulate.

I'm overcome by his passing.

Though I am taking the coming election very seriously, in many ways to hell with it. Here is the unadulterated truth about politics in the U.S. and around the world from George Carlin (from YouTube):

Friday, June 20, 2008

Japan Cuts - Concurrent Film Festival - July 2-13

Simultaneously with the NYAFF 2008, the Japan Society is hosting its own important film program, Japan Cuts. Some films overlap with NYAFF, but there are other gems in this festival that should not be missed.

Among the programs within the Japan Cuts fest is another simultaneous fest, a tribute to Nakadai Tatsuya (仲代 達矢), who is still living and actively continuing, at age 75, his more than 50-year career. Nakadai has long-been, and continues to be acknowledged by the world cinema community one of Japan's greatest-ever actors and he is one of my personal favorites.

Check out the trailer for Japan Cuts on YouTube:

New York Asian Film Festival - June 20 - July 6

Subway Cinema is presenting its annual film event, the 2008 New York Asian Film Festival, June 20-July 6. This year's festival is a co-production between Subway Cinema and the Japan Society.

Films in the series have grown this year to 43, along with 2 short film programs. Be sure to check it out!

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Ninja Warrior - G4 Network

I've just seen a "reality show" on the G4 cable network entitled Ninja Warrior. It is an edited version of a Japanese program, Sasuke (サスケ The Great Ninja Warrior).

I put "reality show" in quotes because Ninja Warrior -- though there are the obligatory appearances by (Japanese) celebrities and the "misfits" that one finds in the audition/tryout parts of any U.S. or other reality program -- is an extraordinary athletic endurance test rather than a 21st Century bastardization of a '50s talent show. I'm astonished by the physical prowess of the contenders.

I also didn't know that Sasuke has been on television in Japan since 1997. I'm definitely hooked!

Check out a clip below.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Then and Now - Losing 150 pounds

Among my most important life achievements was losing 150lbs. (68kg.) in the 1980s. In my 20s, I weighed 300lbs. (136kg.). People who see photos of me from the time -- such as the one above -- will oft refer to my laughter and seeming happiness. It was actually miserable. No matter what successes, failures and everything in-between that I may have had since, nothing will compare to this triumph over my body--one that probably, in the long run, saved my life.

Weight loss is "no picnic", so to speak! It is not an instant solution for happiness. It does not automatically give you the rewards that you expect. HOWEVER, there is no substitute for the improved mental and physical health that comes with changing your body in a positive way.

Most people ask the inevitable question: "How did you do it?" I did it in the '80s, prior to gastric bypass surgery and all of the other procedures that exist today. It was simply a life change. By "simply", I do not mean to diminish the all-encompassing process that comes with making the decisions and lifestyle modifications which must be made when attempting such a dramatic transformation. I use the word "simply" to indicate that it was, with dogged determination, changing eating and exercise habits. This, of course, is not an option for all. When I answer that inevitable question, I say, "it was a process." The usual reply is "what do you mean?" I always counter-respond with "you have to be ready, emotionally, for the process... it starts with your head and heart." In my observations -- both of my own situation and that of others -- is that excessive weight is most often a symptom of another, very different issue, usually emotional, even physiological... and by physiological I mean that it is more often a "manifestation". I do not mean that I am ignoring those with issues of metabolism and other serious medical conditions who gain or continue to carry weight. I also do not mean to say that everyone is meant to be thin. However, excessive weight is a problem, one that is not just physical, and must be dealt with in one way or another to improve health.

I'm happy I was given the gift of the discernment, more than 20 years ago, to make this change. I continue to fight with the issue. My metabolism, because I was a largely inactive child, is slower than some, and I realize that I must treat my food addiction similarly to those who suffer addictions to drugs, alcohol, etc.--I'm fortunate that I do not have, and have never had, addictions to any other substances. I am now, because of career responsibilities, a recent bout of illness, and other lifestyle issues, battling with gain and loss of approximately 20 pounds. I am now determined, with some exceptions -- you can't maintain weight in the long run by completely avoiding the foods that you like or avoiding social situations wherein you eat food that you probably shouldn't -- to take off about 10 pounds. Back to dogged determination... THANK GOD it never ends!

Monday, June 9, 2008

Ma Ying-Jeou - Taiwan's New President

On May 20, 2008, the debonair, National Taiwan University/NYU/Harvard-educated (!), former KMT Chairman and former Taipei Mayor, Dr. Ma Ying-Jeou (馬英九) was sworn in as, essentially, the sixth President of the Republic of China (Taiwan). I say "essentially" because this list includes the first in the "modern" line, "Generalissimo" Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石), who is hard to categorize simply as a "President".

It is an extraordinary phenomenon that only two generations ago, Taiwan was led by a just-post-Qing Dynasty warlord. Equally fascinating is the fact that President Ma, even in largely ultramodern Taiwan, faces many issues that continue to carry forth from the warring period following the "Great Qing" and the struggles with the immediately-succeeding Chinese governments (Mao Zedong 毛澤東/毛泽东, etc.).

Taiwan was once a financial superpower. While it still in many respects dominates economically in its development of technologies, Taiwan's fiscal well-being has suffered greatly in recent years because of the ongoing tensions with the Chinese Mainland. President Ma will have to face these issues with fresh diplomacy and economic deftness.

I don't have a specific position on which of many complex "perspectives" is/are the "right" one(s) for today's Taiwan; other than to deeply respect the nationalism which has grown in most of the Taiwanese people that I've met. Their national identity comes from many years -- far older than modern Taiwan (which started with the post-WWII Chiang government) -- of unique, evolved culture and understandably related pride. I hope that President Ma will find the right balance between this critically important aspect of Taiwan's people and the actions that will, hopefully, contribute to reviving its economy--a.k.a. ties to the Chinese Mainland, as well as other world nations.

My very best wishes go to the new President and to Taiwan.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Portishead - Third

With my love of opera and classical music, friends find it fascinating that I am also passionate and knowledgeable about certain popular music. I remember having a conversation with a friend -- a very important opera singer who sings leading roles on the world's great stages but who, in private life, primarily follows popular music -- about the band, Van Halen. My friend was speaking to another friend in a social environment about loving different Van Halen songs and I asked "which did you prefer, David Lee Roth Van Halen or Sammy Hagar Van Halen?" My friend, with whom I can have several hours of discussion at a time about nuances of Richard Strauss or Verdi or works of the Second Viennese School, was stunned that I not only knew Van Halen's music, but that I would make the David Lee Roth/Sammy Hagar distinction. Unfortunately, I confessed that, though "Ain't Talkin' 'Bout Love", "Jump", "Hot for Teacher", et. al., which were part of the David Lee Roth period/origins of the band, are, essentially, the classics and the preference of my friend and her friends, I prefer the power of Sammy Hagar's voice. BUT I DIGRESS...

This weekend, I was in the Union Square Virgin Records -- a last holdout of a large, well-stocked music store where so many are fading because of the online purchasing and/or downloading phenomenon (WHERE WILL I GO WHEN THERE ARE NO MORE MUSIC/VIDEO STORES... :-( ) -- and heard a new album on the loudspeakers. When I inquired about the song that was playing -- a richly powerful piece of electronica with passion but the almost semetrical coldness which is often characteristic of that musical genre -- I learned that it was a single off of the new album from the pioneering British electronic band, Portishead. It turned out to be their new album entitled "Third", their first in a decade. It was the track, "We Carry On", which was being played. An awesome, in the dictionary definition of that word, piece of music. The rest of the album is filled with musical diversity. I've not bought a pop CD in a long time but I couldn't wait to get this one into my hot-little-hands, so I made an impulse purchase.

Here, from YouTube, is the video of this extraordinary musical work.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

The Jews of New York - Touching Tribute

This week, PBS Television re-ran an extraordinary documentary narrated by Tovah Feldshuh, called The Jews of New York. According to the film's website: "THE JEWS OF NEW YORK profiles Jewish individuals and institutions that changed the face of New York, woven together with expert commentary, to present a broad spectrum of the ways in which the Jewish community has impacted secular New York life from the earliest immigrants through today."

Profiles in the documentary include incisive histories of New York's groundbreaking Mount Sinai Hospital, the making of the legendary Broadway show (and film), "Fiddler on the Roof" (explaining its New York origins), the Schiff Family (including the remarkable philanthropy of Jacob Schiff), and an interview with ubiquitous former New York Mayor, Ed Koch. Most touching for me, however, are portraits of the Hasidic Rabbi, Haskel Besser -- which really must be seen/heard to be appreciated -- and of the Russ Family of the Lower East Side's more than 100 year-old "Russ & Daughters Appetizers" (an unparalleled Jewish food shop). As for the latter, I find the most tear-inducing, special part to be that the most recent generation of Russ's is now, with aplomb, keeping the tradition.

I don't identify a lot with the Jewish portion of my heritage. I am more parts Italian-American Catholic (my mom's side) and German/Hungarian-American Agnostic Socialist (my dad's side) than Jewish. However, my great-grandmother -- my father's father's mother, whom I knew as a child and who lived 99 years -- was a Jewish immigrant from Germany to the U.S. This, of course, made my grandfather (my father's father) Jewish. However, there, for my lineage, it stopped--my grandmother, my father's mother, was not Jewish and the bloodline ended with my grandfather. Perhaps it is that fact -- something "in my blood" -- which drew me so much to the beauty and sentimentality (the most positive meaning of that word) of this documentary? Perhaps it is just being a New Yorker? New Yorkers of any ethnic background, of my generation and many, many New York generations before mine, felt the rich culture of Jews as an integral part of the fabric of the city. The food, the influences on the healthcare, financial, education, legal systems and so much more, the language (I grew up using Yiddish words without even knowing they were Yiddish!), the music, the art, the film, the Orchard Street of old... so, so much. It is certainly that, plus having a Jewish great-grandmother and grandfather (and when he remarried after divorcing my grandmother many years before I was born, he married a Jewish woman--an Austrian immigrant who spoke fluent Yiddish), which called my attention to many of the nuances of this terrific cinematic work.

It is also the craft with which the Jews of New York was made which captured my attention. It is a very simple film, but while it is sentimental in the right ways, it never oversentimentalizes (if that is a word!) even when being nostalgic. It lets the interviewees tell their stories in a very straightforward and contemporary way. Another not-to-be-missed work!

Clips (on the film's website, with more available):