The assassination of President John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963 still haunts our collective imagination, and rightly so. It was the moment when the entire nation was forced to confront the violence endemic to American life, when people sitting in their own homes watched murder happen. Stephen King’s novel 11/22/63 was one of the popular books of 2011. Twenty-five years after nomination for the National Book Award, Don DeLillo’s Libra still provokes reflection.
References both serious and comic to the murder abound in popular culture. One of the most talked-about episodes of Mad Men tried to recapture the horrified bewilderment of Nov. 22 and its aftermath. The assassination crops up everywhere, from lyrics by They Might Be Giants (“I remember the book depository where they crowned the king of Cuba”) to The Seinfeld episode “The Boyfriend,” to The X-Files’ “Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man.”
People are still trying to make sense of what happened on Nov. 22, 1963. One way they do that is to believe in conspiracy theories: It was the CIA, or Castro, or LBJ. Author Fred Kaplan explains why all of those theories are nonsense.
Two years ago, Errol Morris presented the solution to one of the most persistent mysteries surrounding the grassy knoll, who was umbrella man?
The John F. Kennedy Library and Museum will hold a tribute to JFK this afternoon. Details are here.
If you’re more interested in Kennedy’s life and career than in how it ended, take advantage of the library’s pass to the museum and visit in the near future.
Last weekend a friend I hadn’t seen in a long time stopped me on the street and asked me what the library was doing to commemorate the 200th birth year of Richard Wagner. The library has too many programs for me to keep track of, so I said, “I’ll get back to you on that.”
There is no question that Wagner is a towering figure in Western culture. He influenced later composers such as Claude Debussy, Hector Berlioz and Gustav Mahler. And his cultural impact extended beyond music: the works of the illustrator Aubrey Beardsley, the painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and writers ranging from Charles Baudelaire to D.H. Lawrence all owe something to Wagner.
But Wagner’s a controversial figure, to put it mildly. Like many Europeans of his day, Wagner was anti-semitic. And the Nazis loved him, seeing in his musical explorations of pagan myth the expression of a pure Germanic ethos. Some critics even argue that anti-semitic motifs are present in his operas, and Wagner’s own grandson thinks his music should be banned. Nevertheless his operas are among the high points of Western classical music. SPL has many of his operas on DVD, including Tristan und Isolde (one of the great love stories of Arthurian legend) and the incomparable Ring des Nibelungen: Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried, and Götterdämmerung. You can also read about Wagner and his family in the critically acclaimed Wagner Clan: The Saga of Germany’s Most Illustrious and Infamous Family.
But however much Wagner’s operas are performed around the world, however much works such as The Waste Land or Ulysses have been influenced by the maestro, the real proof of the profundity of Wagner’s stamp on our culture is in what animators and critics agree is one of the best cartoons of all time. The team that created Bugs Bunny manages to riff on Tannhäuser, the Ring operas and The Flying Dutchman all in seven short minutes:
His works were populated by murderers, conmen and schemers, people living alongside us, but in a separate world with its own rules and risks and expectations. Leonard wrote about this world with an emotional depth and a gritty realism that endeared him even to critics prone to be dismissive of crime novels.
Readers curious about Leonard have two options for sampling his distinctive talent. A number of his books are available in the network. Second–and this is a more indirect way of trying his work–some of his writings were eminently suitable for adaption to film. Two of his short stories are the basis for the films 3:10 to Yuma and The Tall T; another is the basis for the FX TV series Justified.
“Dark fins appear, innocent/as if in fair warning”–Denise Levertov, “The Sharks.”
“You may rest assured that the British government is entirely opposed to sharks”–Winston Churchill in Parliament, Prime Minister’s Question Time, Feb. 20, 1945.
We’ve barely begun to recover from the heart-stopping excitement of Sharknado, and here we are in the middle of Shark Week, the Discovery Channel’s annual celebration of all things squaline. And while I’m sure that most of the programming of SW 2013 is perfectly fine, it is my professional obligation to echo commentary currently on the Internet: Contrary to what you might have seen and heard last weekend, megaladons (the largest known shark ever) still do not exist.
But let’s get to the heart of the matter, shall we? Sharks are terrifying, and the terrifying has a perverse allure. As one person put it on Twitter: “They’re ancient, and one of the last things on earth that puts us lower on the food chain. Gotta respect that.” Admittedly, sharks have more to fear from us than we do from them, but that’s small comfort if you’re swimming in the ocean and find yourself near one. And the fear of sharks is a very old one. Most modern historians and biologists believe the “monsters” Herodotus described devouring shipwrecked Persian sailors were sharks.
I didn’t submit my suggestions in time to be included in the last post but I’ll throw a few out there now. I recently saw Woody Allen’s Manhattan Murder Mystery , which was a lot of fun. Woody re-teams with his erstwhile muse Diane Keaton, and the inspired addition of Alan Alda and Anjelica Huston makes the whole thing even better. Carol and Ted (Keaton and Alda) are sure that their elderly acquaintance Paul (Jerry Adler) has committed the perfect murder. Hard-boiled author Marcia Fox (Huston) jumps into their bumbling investigation with both feet, but Larry (Allen) thinks they’re all nuts. Extra: before they were famous fun! Look for Zach Braff (aka J. D. Dorian) and Aida Turturro (aka Janice Soprano) in blink-and-you-miss-them roles.
Some of the old sitcoms make me laugh too, and The Dick Van Dyke Show has to be one of the best. The show features great writing (much of it by Carl Reiner) and an incredibly talented cast. Check out this clip for some crazy 60′s dancing by Buddy, Sally, and the rest of the gang, including a 25 year old Mary Tyler Moore. As for Dick Van Dyke’s performance, I have no words, only a question – how does he do that?
After last week, a lot of us could probably use a break from reality: a few minutes or a few hours of not thinking about the horrors of last week. I asked my colleagues what makes them laugh, cheers them up when they’re down, or just makes them forget their worries. Here are a few suggestions.
East Branch Director Marilyn suggests A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. I have to second that: Confederacy is one of the craziest, best-written pieces of inspired lunacy that I have ever read. To get a sense of the book and what it means to so many readers, check out the foreword by the writer who shepherded the manuscript of the novel to publication, Walker Percy.
Marilyn also recommends Cold Comfort Farm, a 1932 comic novel by English writer Stella Gibbons. She’s also partial to the 1995 film adaptation, starring Kate Beckinsale and Stephen Fry.
Today we honor the memory of one of the greatest Americans ever, a man whose courage, wisdom, and determination changed this country forever. In the twelve years between his leadership of the Montgomery Bus Boycott and his murder at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Martin Luther King did more to advance racial justice than had been accomplished in the previous century since emancipation.
The finest work I know on King’s life and work is Taylor Branch’s three-volume America in the King Years. I particularly enjoyed the first volume, Parting the Waters, which is an absorbing account of King’s career up to the March on Washington as well as a fascinating examination of African-American society in the Jim Crow era.
If you’re not up to tackling Parting (it’s over a thousand pages), I highly recommend Harvard Sitkoff’s The Struggle for Black Equality. It’s fewer than 300 pages and compulsively readable. The chapter on the Montgomery Bus Boycott alone makes the book worth a trip to the library.
If you would rather watch than read, try Eyes on the Prize. This 1987 documentary on the Civil Rights Movement won a Peabody and 2 Emmys.
Join us for a three-part film series showcasing the use of classical music in war movies. The series kicks off at the Central Library this Saturday at 10:00 a.m. with Gallipoli. Live musical accompaniment for some scenes will be provided by members of the Cambridge Symphony Chamber Players for all three films.
1981; Starring Mel Gibson, Mark Lee, Bill Kerr, Harold Hopkins, Charles Yunipingli, & Ron Graham; Rated PG; 1 hour 52 minutes
Amazon.com says, “An outstanding drama, Gallipoli resonates with sadness long after you have seen it. Set during World War I, this brutally honest antiwar movie was cowritten by director Peter Weir. Mark Lee and a sinfully handsome Mel Gibson are young, idealistic best friends who put aside their hopes and dreams when they join the war effort. This character study follows them as they enlist and are sent to Gallipoli to fight the Turks. The first half of the film is devoted to their lives and their strong friendship. The second half details the doomed war efforts of the Aussies, who are no match for the powerful and aggressive Turkish army. Because the script pulls us into their lives and forces us to care for these young men, we are devastated by their fate.”
The next two movies in this series are:
Scent of a Woman, on Saturday, November 17th at 10:00 a.m.
1998; Starring Al Pacino and Chris O’Donnell; Rated R; 157 minutes
Amazon.com says, “Hoo-ah! After seven Oscar nominations for his outstanding work in films such as The Godfather, Serpico, and Dog Day Afternoon, it’s ironic that Al Pacino finally won the Oscar for his grandstanding lead performance in this 1992 crowd pleaser. As the blind, blunt, and ultimately benevolent retired Lieutenant Colonel Frank Slade, Pacino is both hammy and compelling, simultaneously subtle and grandly over-the-top when defending his new assistant and prep school student Charlie (Chris O’Donnell) at a disciplinary hearing. While the subplot involving Charlie’s prep-school crisis plays like a sequel to Dead Poets Society, Pacino’s adventurous escapades in New York City provide comic relief, rich character development, and a memorable supporting role for Gabrielle Anwar as the young woman who accepts the colonel’s invitation to dance the tango. Scent of a Woman is a remake of the 1972 Italian film Profumo di donna. In addition to Pacino’s award, the picture garnered Oscar nominations for director Martin Brest and for screenwriter Bo Goldman.”
Platoon, on Saturday, December 1st at 10:00 a.m.
1986; Starring Charlie Sheen, Forest Whitaker, Tom Berenger, Willem Dafoe, and Johnny Depp; Rated R; 120 minutes
Amazon.com says, “Platoon put writer-turned-director Oliver Stone on the Hollywood map; it is still his most acclaimed and effective film, probably because it is based on Stone’s firsthand experience as an American soldier in Vietnam. Chris (Charlie Sheen) is an infantryman whose loyalty is tested by two superior officers: Sergeant Elias (Willem Dafoe), a former hippie humanist who really cares about his men (this was a few years before he played Jesus in Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ), and Sergeant Barnes (Tom Berenger), a moody, macho soldier who may have gone over to the dark side. The personalities of the two sergeants correspond to their combat drugs of choice–pot for Elias and booze for Barnes. Stone has become known for his sledgehammer visual style, but in this film it seems perfectly appropriate. His violent and disorienting images have a terrifying immediacy, a you-are-there quality that gives you a sense of how things may have felt to an infantryman in the jungles of Vietnam. Platoon won Oscars for best picture and director.”
The Cambridge Symphony Orchestra has worked with organizations that honor American veterans over 2012. The CSO has chosen these three war-themed films, and through an introduction with live chamber music, will spotlight how familiar classical music underscores the theme of war and its aftermath for veterans.
These programs are free and all are welcome. We hope you can join us!
America’s first celebrity chef would have been 100 years old today. But I should add that the phrase “celebrity chef” doesn’t come close to doing her justice. A master performer and a culinary genius, she transformed the way millions of Americans eat. When her series “The French Chef” first aired in 1963, the U.S. was a country of white bread and Jell-O to a degree that’s hard to imagine in the age of farmer’s markets, locavore groceries, and The Food Network. But with her theatrical gestures and falsetto-like voice, Child made the Western world’s premiere cuisine accessible to American home cooks. And she didn’t limit herself to television. Her Mastering the Art of French Cooking is remarkably clear and approachable. No less an authority than Craig Claiborne said Mastering “may be the finest volume on French cooking ever published in English.”
If you would like to learn more about this remarkable person, Noel Riley Fitch’s Appetite for Life is (so far) the authoritative biography. You can also get a fascinating look at Child’s life and work by reading As Always, Julia, Child’s collected correspondence with Avis DeVoto, her close friend and behind-the-scenes collaborator in the creation of Mastering the Art of French Cooking (many of the recipes in the book were tested in DeVoto’s kitchen).
Now, on to the schedule. Dan has chosen three “Scary But Funny” films for this inaugural series. First up, this Saturday at 10:00 a.m.: Ghostbusters, starring Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Sigourney Weaver, Harold Ramis, and Rick Moranis. When ghosts go on a rampage, only three men can save the world. Soon every spook in the New York City is loose and our heroes face the supreme challenge. If you want your spirits raised, who you gonna call? Ghostbusters!
Next up is Gremlins on May 5th and then Men In Black in May 12th. All will be shown at 10:00 a.m. at the Central Library.
This free film series is sponsored by the Friends of the Library and all are welcome. We hope you can join us! Look for more Community Curated film series in the weeks and months to come.