Wednesday, February 29, 2012

HOWARD KISSEL

The premature death at 69—though it would have been premature at any age—of Howard Kissel is a severe loss to everyone involved in the theater, interested in theater, and relative or friend of his. Whenever Howard was at a play, before the beginning or during intermission, a small crowd of chatty admirers assembled around him as they did around few other critics. Lovable as a human being, he managed to be so even as a critic, which, without being a milksop, is no small achievement.

An old joke has it that a pessimist sees only the holes in Swiss cheese, whereas an optimist sees only the cheese.  Perhaps there are also critics who manage to see the cheese above all, and the holes, if holes there are, only in second place. Howard was surely one of those.

He was a drama critic for some forty years, first at Women’s Wear Daily, then, for twenty years at the Daily News, and finally as a columnist at the Huffington Post. He also at various times reviewed film, opera, ballet, food, and books, the last of which he was particularly good at, and I wish he had done more often.

He also wrote books, about David Merrick, Stella Adler’s teachings, and Noel Coward, and was a frequent speaker or panelist on arts subjects. He also briefly taught Musical Theatre History at Marymount Manhattan College. Even more briefly, but delightfully, he played the protagonist’s manager in Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories. Wherever he went, his shock of wavy silver hair was a cynosure, if not indeed a rallying point.

Politically, he became more and more conservative with the years, but did not allow this to cloud his aesthetic judgments, to the extent that it is humanly possible. He also kept up his interest in the arts, and kept exercising yet another of his talents—for friendship.

Howard Kissel was a true friend to everyone he knew: sympathetic, compassionate, and understanding. This last is important: one can be compassionate without full understanding, but full understanding helps immeasurably. And as if all that weren’t enough, he could also be very witty.

We saw quite a bit of each other. Often at restaurant meals, which was also one we shared at our penultimate get together. The cuisine was quite undistinguished, but Howard, who was also quite a good cook in his own right, enjoyed it a lot more than I did. Eating was always a serious thing for him, and here too he uttered his famous rapt: “This is delicious.” As for our last shared experience, it was a performance of the ballet Romeo & Juliet, which thoroughly pleased Howard, but I found quite deficient in Peter Martins’s choreography, its inability to tell a story in dance, and in the dreadful set by a supposedly leading Danish artist.

But one of the best things I know was chatting with Howard on the telephone. Some people, perfectly pleasant in person, are not so good on the phone. They go on too long or hang up too soon, are too discursive but do not properly listen, or simply don’t think of certain interesting things they would have brought up in a tete-a-tete.

Howard, however, was perfect on the phone, and always good for a stimulating conversation. It is a good thing that these talks, which in our earlier days could go deep into the night, were not long distance. They could have bankrupted both of us. Perhaps kindred to it was his admirably cozy way of chairing both the drama critics’ and film critics’ circles, which no one else has ever straddled.

The especially nice thing was discussing theater with him. Even though we belonged to very different schools of criticism, his tolerance made my strictness as opposed to his indulgence acceptable to him, and his unassuming way made that indulgence somehow acceptable to me. It was wonderful when we did agree, and never annoying when we didn’t. And we had terrific laughs together, many about the reviews by some of our well-paid colleagues, whereas he and I were both eventually treated shabbily by the media we had dedicated so much to.

While his initially pleasant marriage to the late Christine, violinist and ceramist, was still functional—she having later become a rather nutty recluse in the upstate country house, while he soldiered on in the city apartment so cluttered with decades-old newspapers she had amassed that even the dog had to fight his way through to the door—the Kissels and the Simons had many joyous dinners together. But out of respect for Christine, who never even set foot any more in the city, Howard kept those mounds of newspapers till the day she died, though when some utility like the fridge broke down, he felt too ashamed to let a repairman in to see the mess. And that is another good thing about him: he provided one with a veritable trove of bizarrely funny anecdotes. For example, about the leaky roof in the kitchen of their country house, which they couldn’t afford to have repaired, and merely had some sort of tarpaulin to keep the rain off their meals.

Or there was the time when he could finally afford to buy a rickety jalopy ready for the junkyard, and he proudly told us how they could now take extensive snail-speed trips to some neighboring town along sparsely traveled back roads.

But memories, alas, are not quite as good as living company. And so, sadly, I must cite yet another talent of Howard’s: the ability to be missed most intensely—perhaps more than one could miss any other friend. May he rest in the peace he brought to everyone he knew: sharing it with us, and himself enjoying it to the utmost.                
                                                                                                                                                                     It is of some comfort to recall that the final chapters of his life comprised a loving visit with his sisters in Florida, and a greatly savored class reunion in California that also involved other delightful experiences in several Western locations, and can be read about in his last Huffington Post column.

One can truly think of him as having spread and enjoyed good cheer from coast to coast. And how to sum him up, now that he is gone? Noel Coward has a little-known play called This Was a Man. Of Howard it can be said: This was a mensch.

Friday, February 17, 2012

THE NOSTRUM OF NOSTALGIA

Americans are too prone to nostalgia, a phenomenon comparable to gushing about babies, movie stars, and pets. That it was considered unhealthy is evident from its name, based on two Greek words: nostos, a return home, and algos, sickness. Dictionaries define it as either a yearning for something past or homesickness. There is a difference.

It is one thing to long for the past in whatever form (retro fashions, vintage cars, one’s real or imagined childhood, and the like), and another to yearn for home from abroad (as in armed service, business travel, special studies, and such). In other words, nostalgia is the wish to negate either time or distance, humanly understandable but scarcely salubrious.

Of course, in a mild form, a great many of us are susceptible to it; it is only when it becomes intense and persistent that it turns seriously unhealthy—like the difference between a cold and pneumonia, between sniffles and high fever. Granted, nobody dies of nostalgia, but why look at the world distractingly through the rear- view mirror rather than as required through the windshield?

Agreed, a major reversal of fortune can elicit , if not entirely justify, nostalgia, but how many people can claim that as an excuse? These thoughts are induced by a couple of recent movies, the Franco-Belgian The Artist, with ten Oscar nominations, and the Anglo-American Hugo, with eleven. Both are competing for Best Picture, but omens are more favorable to The Artist, including its awards and popularity in Great Britain.

I myself find The Artist disgraceful. It is a perfectly silly, sentimental story, told almost entirely without sound and in black-and-white, to resemble old-time flics. This is like trading in your car for a horse and buggy, or like reverting to babytalk. especially considering the paltry quality of those by-gone movies meant to be replicated. Monochrome may be suitable for dark doings, as in Agnieszka Holland's current In Darkness, about a group of Polish Jews in World War Two hiding from the Nazis in the Lwow sewers. But using it merely for nostalgia I consider lack of both good taste and sound judgment.

To be sure there are distinct allusions even to such superior movies as Citizen Kane and A Star Is Born, yet imitation of this kind is hardly a virtue. And what about bringing in Malcolm MacDowell, a major but now neglected actor, merely to share a bench with the heroine for a couple of minutes?

Absurd, too, is the leading man’s losing his fortune and star standing on the flop of  an epic, self-financed picture, excerpts from which prove absolutely no worse than the rest of The Artist. Downright ludicrous is the soundtrack’s acquiring audibility just for the depositing of a tumbler on a table, presumably symbolic of the coming of sound to the movies, though this one promptly reverts to mutism.

For further incredibility, consider the hero’s confinement in a burning house long enough to turn to a crisp, but being saved by his faithful dog’s tugging at a nearby policeman’s trousers, which in some unexplained way leads to the putting out of the flames in ample time. Or take the heroine, now a star, getting, as the intertitles inform us, a brilliant idea for saving the situation, which turns out to be nothing more than the surly and despotic studio head’s being enchanted  by her and her hero lover’s performing a second-rate dance sequence inordinately dwelled on.

There is an abundance of clich├ęs, such as a torn-off poster for the hero’s ruinous movie blown to a sidewalk, with indifferent feet cruelly treading on it. Be it said, however, for the hitherto undistinguished writer-director of the film, Michel Hazanavicius, that his star and real-life wife, Berenice Bejo, is pretty and charming, and that his protagonist, Jean Dujardin, resembles some of the leading men of yore. But even the unrelenting score by Ludovic Bource will stoop to such a trick as switching into Bernard Herrmann's celebrated score for Vertigo, the sort of dirty doing the great film composers of olden times would not have condoned, let alone perpetrated.

Yes, Hugo, too, has its share of nostalgia, and even rewrites history. Moreover, the notion that a young boy, upon his father’s demise, would inherit the job of regulating the clocks of a major Paris railway station is fairy-tale stuff. But the screenplay is by John Logan, an established writer, and the direction by the distinguished Martin Scorsese. The film unabashedly but nonexclusively appeals to a young audience,
its two young principal actors could not be more delightful, and even its use of 3D is not showily overassertive. I only wish Howard Shore, the composer, had resisted annexing Satie's well-known and superior Gymnopedies to his otherwise acceptable score, for which aberration see above under Ludovic Bource.

Perhaps there is a symbolic significance in the contrast between the dogs that figure importantly in both these Oscar contenders. In The Artist, the dog is preternaturally clever; in Hugo, he may perhaps be (dare I say it?) too doggedly ferocious, but still rather more believable.  So, too, Hugo takes place in an ingeniously evoked Paris, whereas The Artist merely smells of the studio.