Take-Home Arts

Fate plays a role in the writing of this column, as it does in all aspects of life.

This week, we had a timely subject scheduled to share with you, only to have events arise at the last minute which makes writing on that subject impossible. So, we have a chance to write for the second time this summer about what I call ”the take-home arts.” That is, television reviews, film reviews and book reviews, which are always timely. Some of the information has been burning a hole in my in-basket for quite some time, waiting for an opportunity to be shared with readers, so I hope you’ll enjoy learning about it.

THE NEWSROOM

Possibly the best television show now being shown, although sadly only to those with the income to purchase HBO programming, is the latest effort from writer and producer Aaron Sorkin, who is probably best known for his series ”The West Wing.”

Those of us who work in journalism are probably especially troubled by what has happened to our profession in recent years. With the development of the home computer and the creation of cable television and satellite television access, it was once hoped that individual people would have access to more points of view and greater opportunity to learn the truth about what is going on.

To some degree, that has happened, but to a larger degree, these inventions have created greater competition among the creators of television programming, including news programming, for advertising dollars. They have responded by giving the viewer what they believe he or she wants to see. It is obvious that even the main presenters have fallen victim to a willingness to say anything, show anything, offer proof – real or invented- that anything is true, so that viewers can now shop among programs until they feel themselves proved correct in their beliefs, even if they believe that two plus two is five, or the moon is made of green cheese.

When I was in school, I remember reading that polls showed that news broadcasters such as Walter Cronkite, Edward R. Murrow, Chet Huntley and others were the most admired people in our country. Now, I think most of us assume that the people we see on news broadcasts are good looking faces who spout whatever nonsense the money men who pay their immense salaries want us to believe.

”The Newsroom” is a dramatic fiction, in which a major news broadcaster – Will McAvoy, played by actor Jeff Daniels – undergoes a meltdown and decides he will henceforth tell his viewers the truth, whether they want to hear it or not. The program is set between a year and two years in the past, so the audience typically knows the truth, or at least the reality, of the events Will is reporting. When confidential sources begin to hint that a major announcement is coming from the White House, for example, we quickly pick up that this is the announcement that Osama Bin Laden has been killed by Navy Seals.

As a result, as the news reporters and the staff which supports them struggle to decide what they should report and how they should report it, we know whether their latest tip is true, or if it could be a career-ending mistake to announce it on the air.

Some of the tension of the program comes from the pressure from the owner of the network, as played by Jane Fonda, who ironically was married for a decade, in real life, to Ted Turner, who owns CNN. She orders Will not to report negative information about politicians, even if he can prove it, because she needs their votes on bills to increase her profits. Will is protected, to some degree, by his news director, Charlie Skinner, a lifelong journalist played by Sam Waterston, bringing with him piles of viewer faith, from his portrayal of the District Attorney in the original ”Law and Order” series.

Famed retired anchorman Dan Rather has written a review of ”The Newsroom,” which he calls ”By any objective analysis, the best drama on television, cable or network.” He insists that this is the way most television journalists talk, think, work, and live. One assumes he would know.

Rather claims that there are still a few newscasters who are as courageous and truthful as Daniels’ character and Emily Mortimer’s character of Mackenzie McHale, who is the producer of Will’s program and also his former girlfriend. He says there are fewer people as transparent and truthful as Fonda’s and Waterston’s characters at the head of the business part of the networks.

One of the strong parts of Season One of the series was when Will wanted to lead off the news broadcast with reports on the debate in Congress over raising the debt ceiling, which had the possibility of affecting the lives of every man, woman and child in the nation, but so many viewers were changing the channel away from his program, because ”We don’t want to hear about all that boring economics stuff,” and preferred to watch other networks’ coverage of the Casey Anthony trial, he was forced to surrender and send his staff in search of people who went to high school with the accused child killer or who had psychic visions of whether she was guilty.

Will makes the case that there are thousands of people currently on trial, accused of having killed one or more of their own children, so Ms. Anthony’s case is not a vital need for us to know, but the voice of the people spoke and he knuckled under.

The show isn’t perfect. The intelligent viewer must separate the fact that it is a drama, presented from a particular point of view, not an intellectual analysis of truth in our society.

The acting of the cast is excellent, although on blogs which invite the public to do their own reviews, there was, for example, a major series of complaints that one of the news program’s interns, played by Allison Pill, remained faithful to her boyfriend, played by Thomas Sadoski, when the other editor who was really interested in her, played by John Gallagher Jr., was much better looking. It demonstrates in reality the truth that many people are more focused on issues which don’t matter, such as which fictional man is more attractive to Ms. Pill’s fictional character, than we are in voting rightly and reacting responsibly to the threats to our own lives.

The series recently began its second season of broadcasts, which I haven’t seen yet. If you’re not able to pay for the cable network which presents it, you can purchase, rent, or borrow the entire first season of the show, for download or on DVD. It is available for free, in some local libraries. It could push you powerfully into the real world – it did so for me.

WAGNER AND ME

If a beautiful tapestry develops a disfiguring stain, some people will see that as a beautiful tapestry with a stain, and others will see it as a stained piece of cloth which was once beautiful.

For music lovers, few composers compare with German composer Richard Wagner for both the intellectual complexity of his music, and its sheer, overpowering beauty and majesty. At the same time, in his personal life, Wagner was an outspoken Anti-Semite, and his music was celebrated and encouraged by Hitler and his Nazi party, while Hitler, in turn, was actively supported by Wagner’s children and grandchildren.

Actor and successful author Stephen Fry is both Jewish and homosexual, for either of which he would have been murdered by Hitler and his gang. Indeed, he reports in the film ”Wagner and Me,” that he lost a number of his relatives to the Holocaust. And, sad as it is to say, there are people alive today who would just as eagerly support a repeat of all that evil, so to encourage one of its inspirations is not without risk.

Fry loves the music of Wagner. He says it both thrills him and inspires him to behave in ways which make his life richer and more beautiful. Is it reasonable that he loves the music, even if he despises the thinking of its creator, and the uses to which the music was put, within the lifetime of many people still alive today? Is it great art with a stain, or stained art which should be made extinct, for the good of the world.

That problem is the basis of an 89-minute documentary film, from 2010, titled ”Wagner and Me.”

Fry is a delightful person to watch, whether acting a role, or playing himself, because he is so natural. We see him follow the steps of Wagner, visiting his homes, the theaters where he had successful career moments, and finally the fabled theater at Bayreuth, Germany, which was created especially to perform Wagner’s many operas, especially the legendary four operas of the Ring Cycle.

What makes Fry so watchable is his child-like enthusiasm. When he is allowed to touch an original score, written in Wagner’s own handwriting, he is so obviously thrilled, it’s impossible not to share at least some of his enthusiasm. When he sits in a rehearsal hall and the music of an orchestra, playing Wagner, washes over him, it’s like watching a child, reunited with his pet dog, after a long separation.

Among the people he speaks with on the film is cellist Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, who spent her teens performing with the orchestra the Nazis formed from condemned Jews at the concentration camp at Auschwitz. He asks her outright if she thinks he is wrong the love the music, or wrong to visit Bayreuth. The interesting thing is that clearly her mind thinks it is all right, but her heart tells her it is very wrong. She demurs that perhaps he could just listen to the recordings rather than take his film crew to the sites which feature prominently in Nazi-era photographs, but in the long run, she opts for art.

When her Auschwitz orchestra is discussed in contemporary media, it is common to state incorrectly that the musicians were forced to play Wagner’s music to their dying comrades. She assures Fry that the composer’s works require far more instrumentalists than were available in the death camp, so music by less incendiary composers were their only performances.

The film is very successful as a travelogue, beautifully photographing the splendors of the German Alps and the various theaters and sites connected with Wagner’s life. It is successful as a history, accurately laying out the life and the words of the composer. It’s success as a work of art depends on the viewer’s personal response to the information which it reveals. As a side benefit, you get to hear wonderful, wonderful music, thrillingly performed.

The film is available for downloading, purchase, or rental, and can be borrowed from certain area libraries. All this wonder, available at low price or for free, with a little bit of energy required.

Winks

Erie’s Station Dinner Theater is opening a new Canterbury Feast production, which they call ”Canterbury Casanova.” Performances began last night, and will continue on weekends, through Nov. 9, Fridays at 7 p.m., Saturdays at 5:30 p.m., and Sundays at 2:30 p.m. The Sunday show on Labor Day Weekend will begin at 6:30 p.m.

At each performance, actors alternately perform the show and serve a full dinner, while remaining in character. The meal is eaten as it would have been in the Middle Ages, largely with fingers.

For additional information, phone the box office at 814-864-2022 or go to the company’s website at www.canterburyfeast.com. The theater is located on Peach Street, in Erie.

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The production of Schiller’s play ”Mary Stuart,” at this year’s Stratford Festival, in Canada, has proved so popular with audiences that it has been extended for the third time. This latest extension includes additional performances on Oct. 2, 3, 5, 9, 10 and 11. Tickets are already on sale.

The production stars festival favorites Seana McKenna and Lucy Peacock, and is performed in the Tom Patterson Theatre.

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Single tickets go on sale today for the 2013-14 season of the Buffalo Philharmonic. Season tickets for the classical concerts, the popular concerts and the entire season of performances have been on sale for some time.

Among the artists coming to perform with the orchestra in the coming season will be cellist Yo-Yo Ma, rock group Queen, Broadway star Bernadette Peters, conductor Doc Severinson and composer Miguel Aguila, among many others. Music director of the orchestra is JoAnn Falletta, who will be the annual Murray L. Bob speaker on Oct. 15, at the James Prendergast Free Library, in Jamestown.

For additional information, go to the orchestra’s website at www.bpo.org. Purchase tickets at that site or phone 886-5000.

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Lovers of Film Festivals will be interested to know that it is possible to join the computer-based mailing list of the Buffalo International Film Festival. There is a particular festival each year, and the organization sponsors special showings of films and occasionally advance previews of coming films at Buffalo-area film theater, all throughout the year.

To join their list of contacts, go to their website at www.BuffaloFilmFestival.com.

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Among the exhibits now on view in the galleries of the Burchfield-Penney Art Gallery, is ”Marilyn Monroe: The Douglas Kirkland Photoshoot.” The exhibit is a series of sensual photographs of the late actress, taken shortly before her premature death. Aug. 22 from 7:30-9 p.m., the gallery will screen one of the actress’s films: ”The Misfits.”

Sept. 12 at sunset, the gallery will open an exhibit called ”The Front Yard,” a lighted exhibit which will turn the facade of the building into an on-going display of contemporary art.

The gallery is located at 1300 Elmwood Ave., in Buffalo, directly across the street from the Albright-Knox Art Gallery.Phone them at 878-6011.

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The Erie Insurance Arena is currently selling Personal Seat Licenses. These allow an owner a period of days in which to purchase a ticket to a specific seat of their choice, before that seat will be offered for sale to anyone else. Owners will also be admitted to club level amenities, including full bar and lounge, at all adult performances. Purchasers of licenses are not required to buy any tickets, but get first opportunity to do so, if they wish.

Cost is $250. For information or to purchase, go to www.erieevents.com or phone 814-425-4857. The arena is located at 809 French St., in downtown Erie.

Aug. 23 at 4 p.m. and 7 p.m., the arena will play host to the touring company of the Disney Junior Live production of ”Pirate and Princess Adventure.” The performance by live actors, singers, and dancers will feature appearances by Peter Pan, Captain Hook, and Cinderella, among other popular Disney characters. Use the web address or the phone number given above for additional information, or to purchase tickets.

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Last week, we gave you an overview of six productions in the 2013 season of the Shaw Festival, in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, Canada.

The current season of performances will continue through early November. Since the column was written, the festival has announced their season of productions which will be scheduled for the 2013-14 season in the Festival Theatre, the largest in the small Canadian town.

The headline production of the coming season will be the musical show ”Cabaret,” by John Kander and Fred Ebb, based on a story by Christopher Isherwood. Other productions at that theater, in the coming season, include ”The Philadelphia Story,” by Philip Barry, and ”The Philanderer,” by George Bernard Shaw. The latter was written in 1893, but was not allowed to be produced by the British censor, until the third act was completely changed. The new production will restore the original material, as the playwright intended.

Names of performances which will take place in the other three theaters at the Festival will be announced soon.

Additional information is available at www.shawfest.com.

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The 1891 Fredonia Opera House has recently installed a new digital cinema projection system and enhanced sound, for the showing of films at the facility.

The recent showing of the contemporary film ”Gatsby” was the first to use the system.

The new system was funded in part by the ongoing ”Maintain and Sustain” Campaign, which seeks to raise $300,000 for technology and facility improvements and repairs. The campaign began in June of this year, and has reached approximately one-third of its goal, at this time.

The annual fall membership drive for the organization, which will begin soon, is to raise funds for daily operations of the theater. ”Maintain and Sustain” is a capital fund drive.

For additional information about either drive, phone 679-1891 or go to their website at www.fredopera.org.