Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Viva Kazan!

     On May 5th, I watched Wallace Beery portraying Pancho Villa. It struck me as such an odd casting that I blogged about it:  Vive Cinco de Beery.  While I didn't mention it in my blog, I was thinking that a movie I had seen about Emiliano Zapata was much better.  As luck would have, TMC aired Viva Zapata on Sunday.  I was able to catch the tail end of it.  My memory served me well, it was a much better movie.
     First of all, the movie was written by John Steinbeck and directed by Elia Kazan.  A great writer providing the dialogue and story matched with a great director, a master of black and white films with a wonderful sense of drama and history.  To top it off, Marlon Brando was cast as Zapata and Anthony Quinn as Zapata's brother Eufemio.  Brando was so much more believable as Zapata compared with Wallace Beery's portrayal of Villa.  Alan Reed, an actor who I am not familiar with, played Villa in the Viva Zapata film.  He played a much better Pancho Villa than Beery.
     Steinbeck and Kazan did a masterful job portraying the plight of the poor in Mexico.  They showed the smolder and fervor that was Emiliano Zapata and how he championed their cause.  I would watch this movie again.  The betrayal and death of Zapata was so well done in the film that it one of the most gripping scenes in film in my humble view.  The movie was the first in which Kazan shot on location and strove to use strong local accents for the characters.
     Of course, I was familiar with John Steinbeck.  I read almost every book he wrote beginning in 9th Grade.  And most certainly, I was familiar with the work of Marlon Brando and Anthony Quinn.  It wasn't until the early 2000s, that I paid attention to and began to admire the talents of Elia Kazan.  Well, better late than never.
     My Dad, always spoke highly of Kazan's film, America America.  In in the early 2000s, I got it in my head to finally watch the film and see what he found so intriguing.  Before watching it, I did an internet search and learned that a Greek fellow born in Istanbul in 1909 wrote and directed the film.  Elias Kazantoglu came to America and changed his name to Elia Kazan.  He went to Williams College and Yale.  He started off in New York City as an actor but gravitated to directing.  Beyond the films mentioned here, he directed On the Waterfront and A Street Car Named Desire.  His last film was made in 1976 but he lived on to the age of 94 and passed on in 2003.  
     I learned that he wrote a book that he turned into America America which I bought and read.  I liked the book.  Then I watched the movie.  I appreciated why the movie so impressed my Dad.  America America was the story of how Kazan's family left the waning days of the Ottoman Empire and came to America.  
It is a great movie and definitely one that each Armenian should see.  
     I also learned today that Elia Kazan also wrote an autobiography which is now on my reading list.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Walking by Hanson Hall

     One of the small pleasures about teaching at North Park University is walking past Hanson Hall.  As Hanson Hall is part of our school of music, I can often count on hearing some lovely music wafting out of the practice rooms.  It could as routine as someone just practicing scales.  It might be a soprano voice working on an aria, a violinist practicing a sonata, or a clarinet learning a symphonic piece.  I have heard trombones, trumpets, and oboes.  It is always a treat as our music students are quite talented. As I never think about it until I hear the music, it is always a pleasant surprise.
      I think of it as a culture break in my day.  Most of the time it is just a matter of seconds as I walk by.  Sometimes, when I hear something especially intriguing or lovely, I might stop listen even more. It is part of the campus ambiance.   But it will soon be no more.
     The University is planning a renovation of Hanson Hall that will last from June through the end of the year.  The renovation will include improved climate control, an elevator, and acoustic treatment of all rooms.  When I first heard about, it seemed like a great thing to do.  Then it struck me, acoustic treatment of all rooms means they were soundproofing the place.  After the renovation, I could still walk by but... there would be no more music to be heard.  Oh no.
     Well, the next time I saw Craig Johnson, the Dean of the School of Music.  I brought this up to him.  He confirmed my fears.  Yes, they were sound proofing all the practice rooms and performing spaces.  I would no longer hear beautiful music when I walked by Hanson Hall.  I made my case, tongue in cheek, for why I thought this was not a good idea.  As expected, I was not successful in changing any of the plans for Hanson Hall but he did understand.  Dr. Johnson went on to point out that a student practicing in one room could hear the students practicing in other rooms.  That could be distracting for sure.  He also said that if I could hear the students practicing outside the building, they could hear all the street nows.  Yes, I could see how this could also be distracting to the musicians.  There are a fair number of ambulances, sirens blaring, on Foster Avenue en route to Swedish Covenant Hospital a few blocks away.
     Hmmm... what might be done? What would be a win-win here?
     They should set the rooms up for recording.  Students could then listen to their practice sessions and have a better idea of what to work on to improve.  Given that they would have to mic each room, they could then provide a feed from a random room to a speaker system mounted on the outside of the building to keep the ambience going.
     Seems like a great and not terribly expensive idea to me.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Viva Cinco de Beery!!#Reception
      It is near the end of the semester.  Monday is the last day of classes.  While being a professor is not a terribly stressful job, it is good on a Friday afternoon at this time of the year to come home, kick off my shoes, plop down in the easy chair, feet up, and peruse what might be on the television.  A scotch on ice might be in order, but not today.
     It is amazing how often, even with hundreds of channels, there is nothing on TV.  At this time of day, I tend to favor movies.  I seem to like shoot 'em ups, comedies, and then everything else.  I don't think I have ever watched a musical on purpose.  Today, it didn't really matter what I watched.  There was something therapeutic in the surfing and searching.  As Seinfeld once noted in his eponymic sitcom, I was not really watching TV, I was more interested in what else was on TV. 
      Like some kind of modern prospector, I was looking for some nugget of gold.  Harold and Kumar?  Interesting but not today.  The Road Warrior, the Mel Gibson original?  Almost.  Diary of a Mad Black Woman?  Mmmm... no.  I, Robot... oooh, science fiction with Will Smith.  I made a mental footnote of the channel and kept surfing.  Dr. Strangelove?  Bull Durham?  One of my all time favorites, Groudhog Day.  Nah,  nope, uh uh.  TCM, not surprisingly, was airing a black and white movie. Wallace Beery was starring.  This had possibilities.
     It was movie I was not familiar with.  Besides Treasure Island, how many Wallace Beery movies could I name anyway?  This one was called Viva Villa!  The film is a Hollywood, thus fictionalized, biography of the Mexican revolutionary Franciso "Pancho" Villa (1878 - 1923).  Villa joined the cause of Francisco Madero and helped him to overthrow of Porfirio Diaz.  Pancho Villa is a Mexican hero often being portrayed as being dedicated to bettering the existences of the peasants. 
     Wallace Beery?  Really?  He was a horrible Villa.  It was like he was portraying Wallace Beery pretending to be Pancho Villa.  His tried to speak in a Spanglish accent and, well, he sounded ridiculous.  Too much of his Missouri roots came through in his Mexican accent.  Everyone else in the film had much better accents.  Oddly, he wasn't much different as Long John Silver but was infinitely more believable to me.  It mattered not.  This MGM film was a success back in 1934 when it was made.  It was nominated for a few Academy Award categories but being up against classics like It Happened One Night, The Thin Man, and The Gay Divorcee, it did not win.  It grossed $1.9 million and a profit of $87,000.  These are minimal numbers by today's standards but solid performance the era in which it was made.  The crowds liked the movie and its star, Wallace Beery.
     I suppose TCM showed this film in honor of it being Cinco de Mayo.  Cinco de Mayo honors the Battle of Puebla, May 5, 1862, in which the Mexican army defeated the French.  The holiday is bigger in the US than in Mexico and often confused with Mexican Independence Day here.  Mexican Independence Day is actually September 16.  It kind of all makes sense that TCM would show this caricature of Pancho Villa played by Wallace Beery for a Mexican holiday that we have blown out of proportion.  I was definitely entertained by it all.