Bruch's Violin Concerto - A Classical Cousin


In the spring of 1866, Max Bruch's first violin concerto was debuted by celebrity violinist Joseph Joachim.  Its auspicious beginnings paved the way for its permanent success; the concerto is still popular (here it's played by my favorite violinist, Gil Shaham).  Bridging a gap wider than 150 years, Bruch's passionate melodies still have the ability to move us, bringing to heart a time period that can feel distant in pictures or even on paper.

For comparison's sake, I found a Goodreads book list called "Popular 1860s Books."  It's really astounding to see so many famous books there, at a glance.  High on the list is, of course, Little Women, whose recent Masterpiece Classic adaptation I've enjoyed watching on PBS (tomorrow is the conclusion!).

Clearly great classics of art and literature did not appear within a vacuum.  I'd love to think a writer somewhere in Bruch's audience was inspired by the story he tells with this piece.

A Fistful of Dollars - An Outsider's Review


Mild disclaimer...I'm what you would call a "casual" Western fan.  I've read very few Westerns, and my viewing experience has been largely of the vintage variety, ranging from John Wayne classics to more obscure TV series, like my all-time favorite, The Virginian.  I've mostly avoided heavier fare, a la The Revenant, and to be honest, the first Western I liked was a Gary Cooper comedy called Along Came Jones (1945).

Gary Cooper in Along Came Jones trailer
Gary Cooper's lovably dorky Melody Jones

The above makes me particularly ill-qualified to review Westerns as an overall genre.  But since watching A Fistful of Dollars (1964) with my parents last night, I thought I'd share some first impressions of an early Clint Eastwood film.  (Note: my "first" first impression of Eastwood was his film The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976), which was too gritty for me to really enjoy.)

A Fistful of Dollars is the first of director Sergio Leone's famous "Dollars" trilogy, three "spaghetti Westerns" so-called due to being Italian films set in the American Old West.  Thirty-something Clint Eastwood stars as the American protagonist, the "Man with No Name" who shows up in the town of San Miguel with a gun, a horse, and his signature poncho.  He finds himself in the middle of a family feud between the fierce Rojo family and the less-fierce Baxter family, neither side particularly pleased to have a stranger intruding on the drama.  Meanwhile, a mysterious woman named Marisol and a traumatized little boy draw the Man further into the conflict and the darker side of the Rojos.


This is one of those "iconic" films which is all genre and no story.  Ok, there's a story... but it's told in tropes and archetypes.  Here you won't find the moral dilemmas of The Virginian, nor even the psychological depth of Wayne's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. We have Evil Guys, Good Guys, and a Small Town - oh, and of course, the Superman figure.

To be fair, what Eastwood creates here is his own archetype, one he became famous for.  Cool-headed, lanky, and with a dry sense of humor, he is an echo of Wayne, clearly from the same "family" but not a twin.  A sense of ambiguity and pragmatism surrounds the Man with No Name.  He makes no promises, and he has no expectations.  With minimalist dialogue, the Man makes his position clear nonetheless; he is on his own side, living and killing by a set of morals which are partly learned yet partly self-defined.

Rojo and his henchman, quintessential villains

What saves the film from being purely violence is Marisol's subplot.  Another layer of the Man's character unfolds as he witnesses her plight, and without saying too much, I felt it added some depth to an otherwise shallow tale.  It would hardly be a Western without a damsel in distress, but in the context of A Fistful of Dollars, the role of a "weak" female character is well understood by the grim setting, as well as balanced by her male counterparts, the innkeeper and the coffin maker.

Overall: 3.5 out of 5 stars.  Contains some violence, equivalent to modern PG-13.

Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens

Michael Llewelyn Davies as Peter Pan
Michael Llewelyn Davies as Peter Pan - Photo by J. M. Barrie

Peter Pan - immortal, magical, and forever lonely - has his origins in a novella called Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens (1906).  This little story predates the more famous novel Peter and Wendy by some years (the latter I reviewed in my latest podcast episode "Getting Older with Peter Pan").  Like his fictional contemporary Sherlock Holmes, Peter Pan was both a real-life figure and a figment of imagination, a character who would haunt his author for decades.  There are glimpses of this bittersweet legacy in Kensington Gardens, itself an excerpt of a larger novel, The Little White Bird.  Through this iterative story development, one easily senses J. M. Barrie's personal connection to the Peter Pan mythos.

The tale begins with an anonymous father-figure and a boy named David who take walks in London's famous Kensington Gardens.  The narrative drifts from a conversational discussion of the Gardens (and how children like to play there) to the two "remembering" the time Peter Pan first came to live there.  Like all great oral traditions, "Peter Pan" starts as a story that David and the narrator make-believe, later becoming a fully fledged legend in the vein of Robin Hood - someone you are not quite sure is fictional. 

Kensington Gardens in the winter - Photo by Sandpiper

Apart from the day he left his mother for life as a bird-child, Peter Pan's most momentous day is when Maimie Mannering gets stuck in Kensington Gardens after "Lock-Out."  Both somewhere under six years old, Maimie is scarcely older than Peter, but she knows far more about the outside world than he does.  Maimie is the prototype for Wendy, and like Wendy she has a great fascination with fairies, who don't immediately return the courtesy.  Peter, in any case, loves Maimie and asks her to stay with him in the Gardens forever.
She had shut her eyes tight and glued them with passionate tears. When she opened them something very cold ran up her legs and up her arms and dropped into her heart. It was the stillness of the Gardens.
Kensington Gardens is a strange medley of themes.  On the one hand, the conversational tone takes on the air of folklore and the making of a classic fairytale.  On the other, there is all of the poignancy and ghostlike qualities of Peter and Wendy without nearly as much of the humor.  Plotwise, the two stories overlap, but they are essentially different, because one shows us Peter in his "prime" - leader of a gang of boys - and the other is Peter in his babyhood, quite literally a young child and therefore needy.

Peter Pan Put his strange case before old Solomon Caw
Peter Pan and the crow - Arthur Rackham

Of the two stories, I would start with Kensington Gardens if the Victorian Gothic appeals to you (the ending is bizarrely morbid) or if you like the deeper nuances which come with such stories as The Jungle Book.  For those who prefer a lighter read, Peter and Wendy balances pathos with a vivid, if somewhat dated, sense of humor and breathtaking adventure.