• Grand Budapest Hotel

    Wes Anderson's newest film has the whole world obsessed with pastries and European decadence, but will the substance be lost under the style?

    by Max Sparber

  • The 1968 Exhibit

    The Durham Museum looks back on a very busy year, and it's just too much, man.

    by Max Sparber.

Open the Pod Bay Doors, Hal: Mad Men Mid-Season Finale

by Max Sparber in


Mad Men has reached its end, almost. For peculiar reasons that even show creator Matthew Weiner can’t clearly articulate, they have split their final season into two seasons, and so Sunday night’s climax was, strictly speaking, the midpoint.

Nonetheless, it worked fine. We have long seasons in America, while British shows, where they call them “series” instead of “seasons,” are relatively abbreviated and often more like an American miniseries, with an overarching storyline that straddled the season. This felt like that. Set in 1969, one of the most turbulent years in American history, the show itself was about turbulence, symbolized in a series of airplane flights.

I don’t wish to simply recap the season, so let me offer, in list form, some of what stood out in the show for me:

1. With the midseason finale, which ended with a song and dance number from Bert Cooper, the show finally admitted what I have long suspected: It is secretly a sequel to the 1961 Broadway musical “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.” That production told the story of an unscrupulous businessman with a questionable path who rises through a thicket of office politics but is eventually humanized by love, which would be the “Mad Men” story, except that Don Draper, the main character of “Mad Men,” isn’t all that good at love. “How to Succeed” starred Robert Morse, the actor who played Bert Cooper, and the whole song and dance number was very Fosse.

2. One of the big events of 1969 was the Stonewall riots, and it wasn’t mentioned in “Mad Men,” but didn’t need to be. Last season the show slowly revealed that the charming, ambitious Bob Benson is gay, and he has been away this whole season, but for one episode in which he returned with an ill-considered marriage proposal. He also brought a friend from Detroit who mistakenly hit on a policeman and wound up badly beaten and locked up, and the two shared a pained, coded, but exceptionally intimate discussion about how common this sort of thing really is. For those paying close attention to the chronology of the show, this episode happened the weekend before Stonewall.

3. Pete Campbell, who, for seasons, has been a fascinating but insufferable expression of tantruming privilege, settled comfortably this season into being an almost purely comical character. It’s a surprising turn – after all, he had been a lout and a cad, but also one of the show’s few voices of progressivism. But it works, thanks to the fact that actor Vincent Kartheiser is so at-ease with the character’s most awkward preppy affectations, including dated slang, simmering pomposity, and magnificently batty cries of frustration. He’s always been one of the show’s more complicated foils, and it turns out he’s a terrific comic foil.

 4. The most important relationship in the show has been the one between Don Draper and his former protégé Peggy Olson, and the show has watched her concurrent rise as it paralleled Draper’s frequent falls. For a show that began with a relentless critique of the widespread misogyny of the early 60s, where women were helpmeets, wives, or sexual objects, it’s significant that Draper and Olson’s relationship has never been romantic (in fact, he once chastised her with the words “I’m not your boyfriend.”) The final episode of the half-season had Draper turning the reins completely over to Olson, primarily as a response to an office turmoil where she would benefit from a public success; this was an entirely unselfish act of Draper’s part. More significantly, Draper didn’t make her success possible. Instead, it happened because he got out of her way.

 We’re still in a time when women are seen as helpers, spouses, and sex partners. The fact that this show created such a long storyline where Peggy Olson was none of these things to Draper, and that it culminated, not with him rescuing her, but instead with him realizing he was in the way of her success, is worth noting.

 5. 1968 was also the year “2001: A Space Odyssey” came out, and the show frequently referenced it, most strangely in copywriter Michael Ginsberg’s paraphrase of astronaut Bowman’s final line from the film, “My God, it’s full of stars.” Lugging an unwanted sofa to his office, Ginsberg complains about the one it’s replacing: “It’s full of farts!”

 As it turns out, “2001” is the background noise of Ginsberg cracking up, which he does suddenly and traumatically, with an act of self-mutilation that may be the show’s greatest shock. Ginsberg’s paranoid schizophrenia was trigger by the instillation of a large computer, and he has a HAL-like meltdown as a result, with one scene, in which he watches the lips of two men speaking behind glass, exactly duplicating HAL’s p.o.v. shot from the film. In “2001,” the humans were strangely expressionless, moving forward to a new stage of evolution in which they no longer need machines to reach the stars, and it is the machines that have become the fragile, temperamental, easily broken things that humanity leaves behind.

 “Mad Men” is not set in that world. The computer is just a computer. It is people who are fragile, temperamental, and ultimately broken.

Monster Mash: "Only Lovers Left Alive" and "Godzilla"

by Max Sparber in

Omaha is, just now, a bit of a monster mash. Vampires and giant monsters have converged on the town, and one supposes it is just a matter of time before they meet up to pony, boogaloo, and do the swim.

For the first group, the vampires, this would be entirely in character. They are the brooding bloodsuckers at the center of Jim Jarmusch’s “Only Lover Left Alive,” currently playing at Film Streams. One of them is played by Tilda Swinton, or perhaps simply is Tilda Swinton – I have not been able to determine if this film is a documentary about the arch, pale English actress. It would be just like Tilda to lurk about in Tangier like some modern-day Paul Bowles. It would be very like her to pack for vacations simply by filling valises with beloved books. And it would be just like her to occasionally dine on human blood.

Her partner is Tom Hiddleston, an actor best-known for playing the petulant, frequently campy Loki from the “Thor” and “Avengers” movies. Here he tamps down his natural inclination to grin saucily and say something deliciously wicked, which is too bad, really, because how vampiric would that be? Instead, his version of the nosferatu is a brooding loner in a shabby chic mansion in a derelict part of Motor City – which, things being as they are, is the entirety of Detroit. He makes droning rock music, letting recordings of his stuff slip out thanks to his version of Renfield, a wide-eyed instrument dealer played by Anton Yelchin.

Hiddleston takes his friends on nighttime tours of his adopted city, both agonizing over and enjoying its decay, which is so severe that pools of toxic chemicals develop in underground parking garages; they are toxic enough to peel skin from bone. The vampires attend midnight rock concerts in forlorn clubs, wearing sunglasses, buried in a corner booth, sipping O-Negative blood from a flask, and nodding their heads appreciatively to the music.

The film’s primary conceit is that these vampires are the secret sources of our most valued art – they have slipped their works through to us through the centuries, penning Shakespeare’s plays and writing minuets for classical composers. It’s a fun idea, but also well-trod ground. Ever since the era of the Penny Dreadful, our vampires have been Byronic – mad, bad and dangerous to know, but also wells of romantic creativity. This film even name-checks Byron, who Hiddleston is supposed to have been friends with. Hiddleston has an entire wall of cultural greats, all of whom, one supposes, either were influenced by vampires or were, themselves, vampires. Endearingly, this wall seems to include Rodney Dangerfield.

As familiar as this story may be, though, Jarmusch offers a typically eccentric take on it. The vampiric addiction to blood has been treated as a metaphor for substance abuse before, and this film visits the same territory – especially in a long middle-section in which the vampire couple is visited by an especially troublesome relative whose vampirism is a mechanism for Courtney Love-styled misbehavior. But Jarmusch extends this, making culture itself the addiction, with Yelchin’s character acting as a hybrid rock and roll groupie/drug dealer. He displays guitars the way pot dealers do their wares, with a clandestine knowingness. In return, he slips Hiddleston’s music out to the public, unmarked, through back-channels and handshake deals. It is less the world of music promotion and more the world of contraband.

And so it must be. In the world of the vampire, the most dangerous thing is being public – Hiddleston is constantly hunted, not by Van Helsings with stakes, but by rock and roll kids who might dangerously shatter his anonymity. He really should stop making music, as sooner or later it will be the death of him. But he can’t, because culture is his drug. He’s the only cinematic vampire who, arriving in Tangier, hunts an oud rather than a human, and staggers away, near death from starvation, to a club to hear Lebanese vocalist Yasmine Hamdan. Blood is boring. Art is the pure stuff.

Speaking of boring, that brings us to our second monster, Godzilla. Oh, I’m just being catty for the sake of a transition. The new Godzilla film isn’t boring, precisely. There is a lot to like about it, including set design directly inspired by a 1960s Japanese palette and a suitably frantic performance by Brian Cranston, who seems to be the only person in the film surprised to discover there are giant monsters in the world.

Best still, the film gives us a world in which monstrous titans have their own agenda, unburdened by the concerns of humanity, which is mostly to smash each other to pieces, which is a pretty typical agenda in the animal kingdom. I mean, look at a cat – when they are not asleep, they are either plotting or rehearsing murder, and we only exist to open cans of tuna and scratch their itches when they let us.

Godzilla and his foes have even less use for humans than that. We’re orthogonal to their experience, but for the fact that we sometimes make things that are full of radioactivity, which is a bit like a tuna can to these behemoths. So they crash through our cities and eat our nuclear power plants and all we really get to do is run away from them. There is a plan to destroy them, but it fails so spectacular that the monsters probably never even noticed it occurred.

And so the people on the ground are to the monsters as ants are to us. And it often seems like the filmmakers feel the same way – characters are perfunctorily drawn in, and frantically go about their business, and their business is running and hiding.

But the film stays on the ground with these ciphers. We mostly see Godzilla at a distance or hidden, and if the film’s monsters are away from our ostensible heroes, we only find out about them from news reports. It isn’t until the film’s last scenes that we are given a few minutes of Godzilla duking it out with his foes in a San Francisco that they have managed to flatten and set fire to, and it isn’t enough. Godzilla isn’t a minor character in his own story – he’s the star.

The film needed a director who can choreograph giant monster action scenes, and doesn’t have it. They just sort of swat at each other, and Godzilla sometimes spits fire (once spectacularly), but otherwise seems to forget he has that ability. But film is the staging of action – character is revealed through action. A well-choreographed fight scene can tell you more about a character, more honestly, than hours of dialogue. All we learn about Godzilla is that he is big and he sometimes hits things, and that doesn’t make him Godzilla, that makes him any monster. Heck, that makes him Tommy Lee Jones in “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” who, frankly, was more terrifying than anything shown in “Godzilla.”

Even cats are more terrifying, once you realize that, when they look at you, sometimes they are wondering to themselves. And what they are wondering is: What if humans were a little bit smaller, and cats were a little bit bigger?

A New Omaha Whisky from Borgata

by Max Sparber in , , , ,

There’s a new, local whisky about, and I’ll discuss it in a moment, but first I want to say that it’s a bit surprising that Omaha hasn’t had its own whisky for such a long time. After all, this was a city that, to a large extent, was built by the Irish, who invented the stuff. This was, and is, a brewing town. This was a frontier town. This was a town with a sizable underworld. And Omaha is a place that likes to drink.

I haven’t had the time to really dive into whisky’s history in Omaha, as the history is long, and it is thirsty reading, and so I can’t do more than an hour or so without waking up with a headache. I know that Willow Spings was our first incorporated distiller, although there were home stills before then and probably continuing on to this very day. Willow Springs had a previous concern in Iowa and came to Omaha in 1866, and was first located on 4th and Pierce Streets south of downtown. It made a variety of alcoholic beverages, including beer, gin, bourbon, and rye. The company officially shuttered its liquor operations in 1919 when the country went dry, producing soft drinks. Unofficially – well, we know they made ingredients for homebrewed beer, but some bad malt and the Great Depression seems to have killed them off.

And, from then, nothing locally produced – or mostly nothing, at least. In 1964, Ed Phillips and Sons Liquor began distributing its own scotch, but it wasn’t made locally; instead, it was repackaged from another Phillips, the one from Minnesota that for years was famous for bottom shelf liquor. Just as an aside, the scion to the Ed Phillips and Sons eventually married a Minnesotan named Pauline Friedman, who was better-known to the world as advice columnist Dear Abby.

But now Borgata Brewery, in the Old Market on 11th and Jackson, has started producing its own whiskey. Borgata opened in the former location of Second Chance Antiques, a storefront that was once overstuffed with the detritus of Omaha’s past and generally smelled of cat urine. (Second Chance still exists, and its new location, while still cluttered, is better organized and blessedly free of the smell of urea.) This is an unexpectedly appropriate venue for Borgata, as they see themselves as a link to Omaha’s brewing past, and waxed eloquent about the subject in a recent issue of Omaha magazine.

They’ve had their own beer going for a while now, which I can’t drink due to a digestive system that responds to grain proteins as though they carried the Spanish flu. People seem to like the beer, though, and it is a pleasant place to drink – the storefront has been opened up to an uncluttered, stained oak-sort of place with amiable waitstaff and, perplexingly, a yoga class that sometimes meets in the back.

But never mind the beer, I was there for the whiskey. It’s brand new – the batch I had probably had been distilled within the week. It comes from a corn mash, and that means, at the moment, it’s basically moonshine. The stuff is so new that it doesn’t have a name or a proper bottle yet, but is instead sold from a nondescript glass bottle with the words “White Whisky – 80 Proof” written in silver marker on the front.

I’ve had moonshine a few times. There’s a novelty moonshine that tastes like popcorn had been dunked in neutral spirits until both had turned poisonous. I can’t recommend that stuff. There’s also Midnight Moon, which has started to show up in our grocery stores, which is part of the reason I like Omaha grocery stores. Perhaps because moonshine tastes so strongly of corn, and, at high proof, burning, this brand mixes in apples or blueberries or cherries, and the results are flavorful but somehow unsatisfying. I suppose I grew up with images of moonshiners drinking clear liquid out of an earthenware jug, and the addition of fruit just makes the experience a little too much like seeing a hillbilly drinking a smoothie.

As near as I can tell, the single-malt White Whiskey on sale just now at Borgata is as close to the real stuff as you’re likely to get. They’re aging it, but that stuff won’t hit the market for a few years, and by then it will taste different. Right now is when you can get the stuff straight from the still, when it is still clear and strong and its primary flavor is the corn mash it came from.

It’s not as fierce as you expect, or, maybe it is and I have just been ruined by years of drinking things like Slivovitz and Campari, liquors that get into a fight with your tongue and sometimes go at it with a blowtorch. But I found the heat on Borgata’s whiskey to be subtle, which may be a good thing, as few people want their experience with alcohol to involve their tongue turning black and their liver spontaneously failing. On the other hand, unaged whisky is a sort of legendary liquor challenge, the sort of thing inhaled by mountain men before they strip off their shirts and knife fight a cougar, so you do hope for a bit of a challenge.

Nonetheless, it’s been 80-some-odd years since Omaha has had its own whisky, and it’s about time. At the moment, drinking Borgata’s whisky is not about aesthetics – after all, they are not looking to make moonshine, and we won’t know for a few years what they are looking to make. No, at the moment, it’s about experience. It’s about being on hand for history.

And I may be misunderstanding Nebraska law, but I am pretty sure you can knife fight a cougar after the drink, if you want.

THIS WEEKEND IN OMAHA: 04.11.14

by Max Sparber in , ,

It can’t be easy being in a family where everybody seems to be famous. There is Ellis Marsalis, Jr., who quietly, from the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts, became the educator for an entire generation of jazz musicians, including Terence Blanchard, Harry Connick Jr., and  Nicholas Payton. Ellis literally fathered four musicians as well. There’s trumpeter Wynton, who has managed nine Grammys in his career. There is saxophonist Branford, whose career included playing on Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” and leading the band on the Tonight Show. There’s drummer Jason, an NEA Jazz Master award-winner.

And then there is trombonist Delfeayo, who perhaps followed his father’s lead most closely, and will be at the Holland Center on Saturday, thanks to Omaha Performing Arts. Delfeayo has done a lot of work as an educator, cofounding the Uptown Music Theatre in New Orleans. He’s also a producer who has had an enormous amount of influence in the way contemporary jazz is recorded, with its focus on the sounds of acoustic instruments.

This Saturday will see the opportunity to see Delfeayo as a performer and, unsurprisingly, he is superlative. He doesn’t record often, with his last album dating back to 2011, but it’s a good sampling of what he is capable of. Called “Sweet Thunder: Duke and Shak,” it was a new recording of music composed by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, inspired by William Shakespeare. Delfeayo interpretation both respected the original work – he recorded with an octet, as Duke did – but added elements of New Orleans hot jazz to Ellington’s stately swing.

I’ve never met Delfeayo. I met Branford briefly in Minneapolis. I wandered by a church, and there he was, inside, speaking about the importance of studying civics in school. I mention this by way of segue, and I realize it is an odd one, but segues are never fun when they are invisible.

And so, here it is, the segue: I also have never seen “War Horse,” now at the Orpheum, but I once took a class in puppeteering from the people who created the titular horse. They are the Handspring Puppet Company from South Africa, and they were at the Walker Art Center with a show called “Zeno at 4 a.m.” This was based on writing by Italian author Italo Svevo, and consisted of a distressed puppet in a bad bedevilied by troublesome dreams, or perhaps hallucinations, that the troupe projected behind him. These were abstract and nightmarish objects engaged in confounding motion, and were created from scissors and bottles and other things you might find in a rubbish bin; these were manipulated on a nearby table and filmed lived, forming the projection.

I’ve also seen Handspring’s production of “Woyzeck on the Highveld,” which set Georg Büchner’s tragic play in South Africa, acted out by appropriately mournful seeming puppets. So they have a particular talent in taking literary works and bringing them to life with objects, and it’s no wonder they were tagged to create the life-sized horse puppet that stars in this adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s children’s novel. The story tells of a workhorse purchased to work on the front lines during World War II, perhaps humanity’s ghastliest war, and the horse witnesses the worst of it.

This is the sort of thing that puppetry is especially good at. The play’s horse, Joey, is a metonym for the human experience of war. He must be our witness, and yet be enough of a blank for us to project our own experiences onto him. And yet, still, he must be a believable horse, despite visibly being made of steel, leather, and aircraft cables and having live puppeteers visible onstage operating them.

From the sound of things, they accomplished this task admirably. I base this in part on reviews for the show, which have burst with praise, and from the throngs of playgoers I see downtown emerging from the play, who look gutted. Usually people don’t have much of an emotional reaction to aircraft cable, much less sobbing at the fictional adventures forced on the cable. Sometimes puppetry is so very like magic it’s indistinguishable.

It’s actually a bit too much to take in all it once, which is how I like my art. I am a notoriously fast gallery attendee, speeding through with just a darting glance at each piece of art. It’s usually because I am making a bee line for the wine table, and I typically return to investigate any art that intrigued me.

But I never feel this is the way to get to know a piece of art. Admittedly, unless the artists goes for especially complicated composition, there’s often not a lot of immediate information to get from, say, a painting – years ago I interviewed Steve Joy, then the curator for the Bemis Center, and he opined that painting is a shallow medium. I don’t know that it always is, but it can be, and so sometimes it seems like a glance is enough.

But I am a lifetime museumgoer and have my own art collection, and if there is one thing I have repeatedly found, it’s that seeing a piece of art for years, especially by living with it, changes your experience of the art dramatically. Favorite pieces fade, while works that seemed oblique or awful become comforting and prized. And it’s not just that we change over time, and so our tastes about art change.

It’s that art changes us. It may be a shallow medium, but a shallow culture of Clostridium botulinum can still produce enough botulism to do you in. And it is often the art that seemed least interesting or most alienating that carries with it the strongest poison. Stare it for an hour and you might find youself liking what you previously hated. Stare at it for a week and it may change the way you think about art. Stare at it for years and it might change who you are.

I’ve had it happen to me. When I first saw Gedi Sibony’s art, I was a rooster in a top hat who people through coins at to dance on a hot plate. Look at me now.

The Joslyn Museum is offering a similar opportunity to experience the long-term effects of art this Saturday, part of a national movement called “Slow Art Day.” The setup is simple: Look at five or more pieces of art for 10 minutes or more, and then discuss. It really doesn’t seem like that much of a challenge, but 10 minutes can have its effect. I expect when people meet to discuss, the art will have had its effect.

I expect they will be gutted.

That last sentence was something we call a “button” in the writing game – just a little phrase that ties everything together and makes a piece of writing feel like it’s deliberate and crafted, rather than a sort of typed form of babbling. Usually you don’t highlight the button, but leave it there without comment and congratulate yourself on once again using the tricks of writing to punch up your column.

But I say what’s the fun of a button if it’s invisible.

CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER

by Max Sparber in


Captain American, the spangled, square-jawed, patriotic superhero that is the eponymous lead of “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” began with moral repulsion.

The character's creators were Jewish. There was writer Joe Simon, nee Hymie Simon, whose father was an English tailor, a common profession for Jews in England. There was illustrator Jack Kirby, nee Kurtzberg, whose parents were Austrian Jews. And there was publisher Martin Goodman, nee Moses Goodman, the child of Lithuanian Jews.

When Joe Simon first conceived Captain America in 1941, it was in direct response to the rise of Naziism; one of the title’s most popular issues, lampooned in the first Captain America movie, had the hero belting Hitler on the jaw.

I mention this because “Winter Soldier,” aside from being a superlative action film, also seems a product of moral outrage. I can’t discuss this without disclosing some of the details of the film, so, be warned: Spoilers ahoy.

The script is by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, who also penned the first Captain America movie. That film was set in the midst of the Second World War and was very much the sort of thing that Simon, Kirby and Goodman had intended for their hero. Steve Rogers, the 90-pound weakling who would be genetically enhanced to become Captain America, was thoroughly square. He represented a sort of American ideal, in that he was physically imposing but morally uncompromised – all he really wanted was to be strong enough to take on a bully.

In these films, Rogers is played by Chris Evans, an actor previously known for playing against his essential gorgeousness with an admirable loopiness – he always seemed to be offering a lopsided grin and a comic wildness. Here, however, he was a man with a single, earnest goal, and that was to take down the enemy. He was put up against a twisted, occult army reaching for the technological sophistication to destroy the world, a group called HYDRA but existing as allies of and proxies for the Third Reich.

At the end of the first film, Captain America was left frozen in the ice, to be revived in modern times. This is a story that we usually reserve for caveman, and, once defrosted, Rogers is treated as a returned Cro-Magnon. The world of the Greatest Generation, which is looked back at with Rogers’ rejection of ambiguity, is treated as being far so removed from the modern world that it may as well have had men in caves painting bison on the walls.

In the modern world, the sort of world-destroying technology the Nazis sought have now become something any terrorist or rogue state could achieve. This leads to endlessly monitoring by an intelligence organization called S.H.I.E.L.D., which uses Captain America as a blunt weapon, throwing him into combat to mop up, but leaving him vague as to what, precisely, needs to be mopped.

The film gives Rogers a partner in the Black Widow, a former Russian intelligence officer with a long history of morally ambiguous wet work; one gets the sense that the trail of dead behind her is terrifyingly long, and that many among the dead were collateral damage. She’s played by Scarlett Johannsen, her third time in the role, and her most substantial. For much of “Winter Soldier,” she leads the action, Captain America trailing behin. She’s far more skilled at subterfuge and intelligence gathering than he is, and this is a film where those skills are essential.

As it turns out, S.H.I.E.L.D. is compromised. A series of scenes, including a crackerjack assault on a heavily armored car, demonstrate that agents of HYDRA have slowly moved into leadership positions in the organization. They’ve been responsible for stovepiping bunk intelligence in order to undermine democracy, and their latest scheme is to send up giant, self-sufficient, flying killing machines to engage in a massive campaign of extralegal assassinations against anyone who might oppose them. They’ve made their list of enemy combatants by trawling emails and phone messages and then using that data to profile dissenters.

All this might sound familiar. There are echoes of the buildup to the Iraq war, the rise of the NSA-driven surveillance state, and even drone warfare in all this. The film proposes that our politicians and intelligence leaders are not acting in service of democracy, but instead are secretly in cahoots to protect their own interests, which are obscure and malevolent. The film even casts Robert Redford, himself a veteran of films about shadowy schemes, as the most shaded of the schemers. It’s as though we’re at the end of “Three Days of the Condor,” and Redford uncovers the conspiracy, and it wears his own toothy smile and perfect hair.

Throwing Captain America into this is a brilliant conceit. This is not a man with a lot of respect for moral ambiguity, and his spangled uniform doesn’t represent a blind allegiance for anyone who drapes themselves in the flag. Steve Rogers sees America as a force of morality, a corrective to bullying, whose correction comes as a punch in the jaw. And so, once he figures out what is going on (or, more properly, once the Black Widow figures it out), he does what he does best: He starts punching. It's just the American way, even when it involves punching other Americans.

The climactic, heroic scheme involves a massive data dump, by the way. At the end of the film, our heroes have become a sort of mixture of Julian Assange and Edward Snowden, attacking governmental corruption by forcing radical transparency on them. Captain America’s version involves dogfights over Washington DC, a man with mechanical condor wings, and a battle against an old friend on a burning helicopter the size of a battleship, but the goal is the same. Captain America’s task in this film is the same as it was in the previous "Captain America" movie, to smash corruption and destroy corrupt institutions, and it put him in surprising company, as he’s the living embodiment of a phrase authored by anarchist theorist Mikhail Bakunin:

The urge to destroy is also a creative urge.

MICKEY ROONEY, 1920-2014

by Max Sparber in


There have been a few moments when the 20th century crashed to an end, always with a death. Frank Sinatra passed away in 1998, and with him, America’s first great era of popular standards lost one of its most defining voices.

Johnny Carson died in 2005. The time when a single evening talk show host could dominate the American airwaves, and the American dialogue, had already passed with the first late night wars in 1992, but Carson’s death put stamp of finality on it.

And, lest it seem like only old white men might make this list, Katherine Hepburn died in 2003, although it doesn’t feel like an era ended with her, but instead that she inspired a new one. Her strange mix of sophistication, toughness, and occasional lunacy still feels very contemporary, while Sinatra’s music feels vintage and Carson’s interstitial comedy routines feel dated.

The likes of Mickey Rooney, however, will never be seen again. Let’s face it – even in his own time, he was an odd duck. Although he was one of the last living performers who started in the silent era, he was a child at that time period, and his real rise to stardom came in the late 30s and early 40s with the Andy Hardy films, in which he played an American everyteen.

Nowadays, the idea of having Rooney play an ordinary kid seems like a wild piece of miscasting. Despite the fact that Rooney actually was a teen when he started making the films, and had a sort of fresh-scrubbed boyishness that he never really lost, Rooney’s origins were in vaudeville. Rooney didn’t act so much as he gloriously overacted, belting everything to the back row, and it’s no wonder that the series paired him with a fellow child vaudevillian as a romantic interest: Judy Garland, with whom he developed an intense friendship.

If people remember these films, they remember a sort of generalized storyline in which there is some sort of a crisis and then Mickey and Judy decide the best way to solve it is to put on a show. This actually is the plot of “Love Finds Andy Hardy,” and it’s no wonder it became iconic – Rooney and Garland always seemed primed to put on a show; in fact, they seemed like they were already rehearsing it. There’s a reason the two performers were so frequently used in musicals – it’s because they just sort of seemed like they were ready to burst out with a song and dance number at every waking moment.

Rooney played his share of tough kids, and that seemed a better match for his talents, as street urchins were already treated as exaggerated characters by Hollywood. (Just look at the transformation of the Dead End Kids, who starred in a series of naturalistic crime melodramas, into the Bowery Boys, who starred in broad comedies.) Just prior to doing the Andy Hardy films, Rooney had a supporting role in the first sound adaptation of “Little Lord Fauntleroy” playing a Brooklyn bootblack, which he does with a newsboy accent, a boxer’s swagger, and a penchant for crying out things like “Cheese it!” The same year, he played a proto-juvenile delinquent named Shockey Carter in “Hoosier Schoolboy," who spends the entire film with his hands balled up into fists, ready to punch the next person who looks at him cockeyed.

And so we end up with “Boys Town,” made the same year as “Love Finds Andy Hardy,” in which Rooney plays the toughest kid ever to bedevil Father Edward J. Flanagan at his Omaha home for wayward boys. The film does a perfectly adequate version of retelling the story of Flanagan, although the Irish priest is played by Irish-American actor Spencer Tracy without a whiff of an accent. Flanagan had worked for years with the chronically indigent in Omaha, and had come to the conclusion that if you reach out to a man when he is already broken by circumstance, you are already late. And so Flanagan set out to find at-risk boys, who he refused to believe were bad. The film sends him Mickey Rooney to test his theory.

It’s interesting to parallel the performances of Tracy and Rooney in this film. Tracy was an ex-military man, a trained public speaker, and his first acting experiences were in stock theater and then Broadway, where he started to develop a wry, laconic, understated persona that he would mine throughout his Hollywood career. Rooney, in the meanwhile, was a dervish, with a genuine mastery for broad comedy and a taste for burbling sentiment. Tracy plays Flanagan as subdued, even-tempered, and thoughtful. Rooney plays his character, Whitey Marsh, as a sort of burlesque of juvenile misbehavior, including a scene in which he marches around the Boys Town grounds followed by a literal brass band, and when things go bad for him, he explodes into terrifying hysterics.

As a result, Tracy and Rooney not only seem to be in a different movie; they seem to be in a different universe. It shouldn’t work, but, given the setup of the film, it does. Rooney isn’t just some bad boy that challenges Tracy’s long-suffering priest. He’s like some space alien, or some occult force; he's a human dynamo of roiling emotions and theatrical misbehavior. If Andy Hardy can fix anything by putting on a show, Whitey Marsh is equally capable of creating a show, and his bring chaos.

It’s this tension between Tracy and Rooney that elevates the film beyond the melodramatic morality tale it might have been. With Rooney’s presence, it becomes almost cosmic. Without Tracy to ground him, there’s no telling how big Rooney’s performance might have gotten. It’s not just that Whitey Marsh needs Boys Town – the world needs Boys Town. Rooney is already devouring the scenery. Without  Boys Town, he genuinely seems capable of eating the world.

By contemporary standards, Rooney’s performance style seems unfathomably showy, mostly because the conventions of silent film and vaudeville are so far in the past. As a result, it’s sometimes cringe-inducing to see him in films, with the most notorious example being the lecherous, buck-toothed Japanese caricature he played in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” which, even when the film was released, was the subject of protest. (Rooney admitted that he, too, eventually cringed at the performance.) Rooney was genuinely a terrific performer – one need merely look at his unshowy later roles in “Bill” and “The Black Stallion” for examples of this. But, left to his own devices, he was going to go big, and for someone as diminutive as Mickey Rooney (he was 5’2”), nobody went bigger.

And that’s just who he was. I have a friend who essentially babysat Mickey Rooney and Donald O’Connor – another former child actor capable of massive performances. This was about 15 years ago, and both men were quite aged at the time. I asked my friend how it was to spend a day with these two performers.

“Exhausting,” he said.

And so here we are. Mickey Rooney has died, and it is like hearing that a nuclear power plant that ran a continent has been decommissioned. Rooney represented the spectacle of Hollywood’s golden age – heck, he didn’t just represent it, he internalized it. Left alone in a room, Mickey Rooney was a Technicolor musical with a cast of thousands.

That’s gone now. I expect to look over the horizon at Hollywood and see its lights blinking out, and discover it was lit for a century by sticking a plug into Mickey Rooney.

THIS WEEKEND IN OMAHA: 04.04.14

by Max Sparber in , ,


I used to like to joke that my goal was to be a professional basketball player, and that I hoped to play for the Washington Generals. This joke never went anywhere, so I removed it from my repertory, but now seems like a good time to explain myself.

The Washington Generals formed in 1952, since then have only managed to win six games. They have lost 13,000 times and counting. As a bookish art critic with a diet that consists almost entirely of gruel, if I have a shot at playing for any professional team, it is for the Generals.

They are, of course, the foil to the Harlem Globetrotters, who will be performing their signature comedy athletics this Saturday at CenturyLink Center. And the Generals might not be the best place to even start a discussion about the Globetrotters – I could easily wax eloquent for 1,000 words about their theme song, “Sweet Georgia Brown,” and the extraordinary version used by the sports team by the unfairly obscure Brother Bones.

But by now you must have noticed that I can wax eloquent about just about anything for 1,000 words. Since I mentioned a jazz standard, let’s move on to a related topic.

Some are content to listen, but for those of you inspired by great music to make some of your own, there is a workshop in songwriting starting on Saturday at the 402 Arts Collective. The three-part class, called “Find Your Voice: Songwriting Series,” is led by Kait Berreckman. Educated at the Berklee School of Music, Berreckman’s own music, or at least what I have heard of it on YouTube, pairs intimate, confessional lyrics with exquisite, jazz- and country-tinted melodies; it’s frequently exquisite.

I’m a bit surprised to discover improv troupe TheWeisenheimers are still about, only because they've been around so long, and improv teams typically have the lifespan of a garage rock band. I attempted to produce a series of late-night performances by them at the Blue Barn Theatre more than a decade ago, which, due to miscommunication that I still feel badly about, fell apart. I later worked with one of the former Weisenheimers, and he seemed sanguine about the whole affair, but still. You want to support local artists, and sometimes things go pear shaped.

They’re at the Pizza Shoppe Collective on Saturday, still doing the sort of short-form improv they were doing when I first met them – it’s the sort of improvised games that “Who’s Line Is It Anyway” made famous, and is about the most inherently crowd-pleasing sort of improv comedy out there. It’s a style that benefits from a quick wit and a sudden sense of the absurd, which I recall the troupe having in spades.

I still know one of the performers, in the way everyone in the local theater scene sort of knows each other. Theresa Sindelar is a mainstay of the local acting community, and is something of a Playhouse superstar, having turned in a series of brash, comically outrageous performances on their stage in the past few years. She possesses a certain performative fearlessness, which is always welcome in theater but absolutely essential in comedy, and should be on full display this weekend.