Culture Corner: Chuck Berry and the American Songbook—An Appreciation

By Bernie Langs

Chuck berryI saw Chuck Berry, the founder of the music genre of rock ‘n’ roll in the 1950s, in concert in the midst of my life’s blur of the mid-to-late 1980s at a fairly small New York City concert venue. He was paired up that evening with Ronnie Wood, the second banana guitarist of the Rolling Stones and the man whose presence in that band had rescued it when Mick Taylor quit out of nowhere in the mid-1970s. Berry was the headliner, and as usual, he was famously late. Ronnie announced he’d play while we waited for his sparring partner, and I still remember him struggling to sing the slow Robert Johnson blues masterpiece, “Love in Vain” when suddenly he just spoke into the microphone and announced, “Okay, here’s the point.” At that time on the planetary, Euclidean grid and map of rock history’s great moments, he took his metal slide to his guitar and ripped out a monumental solo of deep emotional joy and pain, which is the signature mixture of the Blues. The Brits, of course, had rearranged and stolen the Blues methods in the 1960s from the African American players of the United States. When Berry arrived at the hall that night, he stole it back, at least for one evening.

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Life on a Roll

All photos contributed by Elodie Pauwels.

http://elodiephoto.wordpress.com

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I arrived late at night for a short weekend in Winchester, England. I discovered the city the next morning. On my way downtown, there was an old cemetery, which could have been there for centuries. Further, there was no one by the arches of the cathedral—it actually had just rained. The only colorful spot I could see was a bright red Mini Cooper.

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Twenty-four visits to Stockholm: a concise history of the Rockefeller Nobel Prizes. Part I: Alexis Carrel, 1912 Prize in Physiology or Medicine

By Joseph Luna

If there were an epicenter for a fascination with the Nobel Prize, The Rockefeller University, with 24 such awards, would be it. For its size, the university has the greatest density of Nobel prizes of any place in the world. The big-picture factors that have led to such a prestigious legacy are ones best left to historians to debate. As a graduate student, I have two much simpler questions: what was each prize for and how were the essential discoveries made?

acarrelIn this series, we’ll peel back the arcane language and suspend a bit of hindsight to explore concisely the ideas and experiments that underlie each of the university’s 24 associated Nobel prizes. From the obvious “why didn’t I think of that?” to “that can’t be true” courageous nonconformity, we’ll look into the context of the problems solved and their greater importance. For if genius really is “seeing what everyone else has seen and thinking what no one else has thought,” I wonder what truths of the scientific process can be wrought by studying examples of genius close at hand. This isn’t to say that getting a call (or telegram) from Stockholm at five in the morning is the ultimate imprimatur of genius, but, as examples of what one university has accomplished over the past century, they’ll do just fine.

So let’s begin. We’ll start our journey with something so fundamental, that we rarely give it a passing thought: plumbing.

sutureAny organism with a circulatory system, by definition, is filled with plumbing. The human body is a veritable city of blood pipes: around 60,000 miles of vessels ferry close to 5 liters of blood, all thanks to a large and reliable heart pump. These basic components of human anatomy (of existence even), work tirelessly in the background, ignored only until something goes wrong. For a surgeon over a century ago, such failures of circulation were frustrating things to encounter. Unlike the plumbing in an actual city, where a team of welders could quickly repair a ruptured water main, there was little a surgeon could do to solve the same problem in a person rapidly losing blood. Where was the surgeon’s welding torch?

Alexis Carrel, a French experimental surgeon and the first of the university’s Nobel Prize winners, answered this call by inventing many surgical techniques used to repair blood vessels. As anesthesia and aseptic practices became widely adopted in the operating room by the early 20th century, such experimental surgery became possible, and Carrel devised cleverly simple and incredibly powerful methods that unarguably helped lay the foundation for modern organ transplantation. His basic question boiled down to this: how do I join two delicate and floppy tubes end-to-end? Many before Carrel had tackled this problem, using bits of bone or metal as rigid scaffolds for crudely sewing two blood vessels together, but complications like infection, hemorrhage, and bruising were constant problems. Carrel’s solution first required an initial detour. He left the operating room entirely and learned to sew from those who knew best: French embroiderers. Apocryphally, some say Carrel had learned embroidery from his mother in his boyhood, while others write merely that he studied under the finest embroiderers in France. What mattered was that he became so good at embroidery that his stiches across sheets of paper were fine enough to be invisible on both sides. Returning to the operating room, he perfected what is now known as Carrel’s triangulation technique for joining blood vessels together. No fancy devices were needed other than silk thread, fine embroidery needles and lots of skill, though the basic premise is ingeniously simple. Three stitches are placed at equal points around the circumference of a vessel to be joined. By pulling at these stiches, the vessel opening no longer resembles a floppy circle but a rigid triangle. Holding two such triangulated vessels end-to-end, it becomes easy to sew across the seam for a blood-tight seal (see below). Since no forceps are used to hold the edges of a blood vessel, only light and delicate silk thread, all sorts of complications were greatly reduced. Varying this basic technique, end-to-end anastomosis, Carrel performed veritable miracles of medicine. He could repair vessels of virtually any visible size (as small as “matchsticks” as one observer put it) and attach them to other vessels in all manner of ways, from junctions to loops. He devised means to repair blood vessels without exposing them to infectious agents, worked out ways to viably preserve tissues outside the body, and performed some of the first successful organ and limb transplants in animals. But Carrel’s visionary work was a full half-century before its time for wider use in humans, as he lacked antibiotics to control infection and the drugs to suppress the immune system. His lab closed upon his retirement in 1939, but the dream of transplant surgery certainly did not. As his 1912 Nobel can attest, Carrel demonstrated that the surgical part of transplantation and tissue repair was both possible and practical.

Incidentally, Carrel’s lab was located on the 6th floor of Founder’s Hall, where the gym stands today. What a sight to imagine there: a surgeon hard at work in 1912, saving a dog or a patient, carefully suturing blood vessels, aiming to forestall certain death. I doubt any have sweat more than Carrel did in that space.

For Your Consideration – Ones to Watch, Vol. 1 Edition

By Jim Keller

With the conclusion of last month’s Telluride Film Festival, it’s time to kick off our three-part “Ones to Watch” series. This year, I’m shaking things up a bit by beginning with the Best Actor race—primarily because there are about 44 men vying for five slots, currently more than in any other acting category. Who will have what it takes to take home gold come Oscar night? It’s too early to tell, but we can make some reasonable, educated guesses. But first, let’s look at last year’s names and see how they fared with Oscar.

Three of the leading men discussed in last year’s column went on to earn Best Actor nominations: Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave), Bruce Dern (Nebraska), and Leonardo DiCaprio (The Wolf of Wall Street). Matthew McConaugheywon the Best Actor Oscar for Dallas Buyer’s Club. Only one actor was snubbed—Robert Redford (All Is Lost),who was unseated by Christian Bale (American Hustle)—but the race was crowded and this possibility was always on the table. As for George Clooney in Monuments Men and Steve Carell in Foxcatcher, both films werepushed back by the studios until 2014—the latter is discussed again in this column. Finally, Tom Hanks’s role in Saving Mr. Banks was later determined to be supporting, not lead.

THE CHANGELING: Steve Carell – Foxcatcher (director: Bennett Miller):

FYC: This drama, based on Mark Schultz’s autobiography, tells the true story behind the 1996 murder of Olympic wrestler David Schultz by paranoid schizophrenic and heir to the du Pont chemical fortune, John Eleuthère du Pont. Carell (du Pont) won the Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Television Series – Musical or Comedy in 2006 for his role on The Office—a role that earned him subsequent consecutive nominations from 2007–2011. Not only does Carell play against type in Foxcatcher, but donning a prosthetic nose, he has the heavy make-up card to play (see Nicole Kidman’s and Charlize Theron’s Best Actress wins for The Hours and Monster in 2003 ­­­and 2004). Further, Carell won rave reviews at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, where Miller picked up the Best Director prize and the film competed for the Palme d’Or. There is every reason to believe that Carell will land a nomination, but in which category is the question. While he will campaign as lead actor, both Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo (who play Mark and David Schultz), are considered co-leads. But at the end of the day, the Oscar voters alone will decide Carell’s category (see Kate Winslet’s Best Actress win for The Reader in 2009 for a huge example of category fraud—Winslet’s role was by all accounts supporting). Given Carell’s star power, expect to see Tatum and Ruffalo go head-to-head in the supporting race.

THE HAS-BEEN: Michael Keaton – Birdman (director: Alejandro González Iñárritu):

FYC: In this tale of redemption and self-reinvention, Keaton plays an also-ran who once portrayed an iconic superhero, and battles his ego as he mounts a Broadway play and works to recover his family and career. To be sure, the irony that Keaton played Batman twice is not lost. But after inhabiting more than 71 roles, the 63 year-old has only a single Golden Globe nomination for his lead performance in a mini-series made for television, Live from Baghdad in 2003. Why then, am I writing about Keaton? Because it’s a plum role that looks fantastic in the trailer and Hollywood loves on and off-screen success stories such as this one. If Keaton is as good as early buzz portends, one could call it imitation of life. 

THE DRUGGIE: Joaquin Phoenix – Inherent Vice (director: Paul Thomas Anderson):

FYC: This adaptation, based on Thomas Pynchon’s novel, follows drug-fueled detective Larry “Doc” Sportello (Phoenix) through 1970s Los Angeles as he investigates the disappearance of a former girlfriend.

Phoenix was first nominated in 2001 for Gladiator (supporting) and again in 2005 for Walk the Line (lead). He earned his last nomination for Anderson’s previous film, The Master in 2013—even after declaring that he didn’t want any part of the Oscars. This shows the high regard the Academy has for Phoenix. So the only question here is if Anderson’s first adaptation will be up to snuff for Academy members.

THE STRAIGHT GAY MAN: Benedict Cumberbatch – The Imitation Game (director: Morton Tyldem):

FYC: In this drama Cumberbatch plays Alan Turing— the English mathematician and logician who helped crack the Nazi’s Enigma code during World War II and invented the modern computer before being prosecuted for homosexuality by the British government. Cumberbatch has been making a name for himself across television (Sherlock, Parade’s End) and film (12 Years a Slave, August: Osage County). This could be the vehicle for him to snag the Academy’s attention.

THE MONEYMAKER: Brad Pitt – Fury (director: David Ayer):

FYC: The film is a WWII drama set in April, 1945, about army sergeant “Wardaddy,” (Pitt) who commands the Sherman tank “Fury” and its five-man crew. Outnumbered and out-gunned, the men face overwhelming odds in their attempts to strike at Nazi Germany from behind enemy lines. With three acting nominations under his belt, Pitt has proven to the Academy that he’s more than a pretty face. In 1996 he was nominated in a supporting role for Twelve Monkeys,and Pitt went on to earn two lead actor nominations for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Moneyball, in 2009 and 2012, respectively. The trailer looks great and this could be the right vehicle (har har!) to get him that elusive Best Actor statuette.

THE SELF-STARTER: Eddie Redmayne – The Theory of Everything (director: James Marsh):

FYC: This biopic examines the life of famous physicist Stephen Hawking and his relationship with his now ex-wife. While he has inhabited smaller roles in a few earlier films, Redmayne’s first major Hollywood coming out was in 2011’s My Week with Marilyn. Determined not to be just another flash in the pan, the Britt revealed himself as a vocal powerhouse in Tom Hooper’s adaptation of Les Misérables the following year, which opened more doors. Now, Redmayne demands to be noticed in his most ambitious role yet, playing Hawking, who suffers from ALS—not an easy undertaking. If he’s successful, and the film gets some traction, Redmayne could find himself face-to-face with the Academy.

THE ARTIST: Timothy Spall – Mr. Turner (director: Mike Leigh):

FYC: In this biopic that explores the last quarter century of the great, eccentric British painter J.M.W. Turner’s life, Spall plays the titular character. Perhaps best known to American audiences for his role as Wormtail in the Harry Potter films, this year’s Cannes Film Festival Best Actor winner hasn’t yet attracted the Academy’s eye. Instead, Spall has plotted a quiet course into the Oscar conversation by being a stalwart player in Leigh’s films over the years. Beginning with a role in 1990’s Life is Sweet, followed by Secrets and Lies, which earned him a Best Actor BAFTA (British Academy of Film and Television Arts) nomination, and Topsy-Turvy, which earned him a second BAFTA nomination for his supporting role, Spall has now appeared in five Leigh films. Given the film’s positive reception thus far, it stands to reason that, by year’s end, Spall’s Best Actor hardware could multiply.

MR. DYNAMITE: Chadwick Boseman – Get on Up (director: Tate Taylor):

This film follows James Brown’s rise from poverty to become one of the most influential musicians in history. Boseman resurrects the icon by stepping into his well-warn shoes, becoming one with Brown’s soul, and eschewing any notion of an artist caricature. While he earned rave reviews for his portrayal of baseball great Jackie Robinson in last year’s 42, the Academy has yet to come knocking—this performance could certainly change that. Taylor’s last film, The Help, was released around the same August date as Get on Up in 2011 and it successfully mined an untapped period for Academy recognition. It seems Taylor and the studio behind the film, Universal Pictures, had the same hopes here. But it’s early in the Oscar season and the heavy-hitters are yet to come. So whether or not Boseman can hold on for one of the final five slots is to be determined. Unfortunately, unlike The Help, Get on Up will likely not have the added muscle of multiple film nominations buzz behind it.

THE NEWCOMER: Jack O’Connell – Unbroken (director: Angelina Jolie):

FYC: Jolie’s second feature film, based on the best-selling book Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand, chronicles the life of Olympic runner Louis Zamperini, who wastaken prisoner by Japanese forces during the war. While O’Connell earned recognition for playing the lead in Starred Up overseas, the film has just received a limited release stateside, so it’s likely that his portrayal of Zamperini will be the first that most Americans see of him. Still, many Oscar prognosticators speculate the film will be a juggernaut in this year’s race. It has a highly-respected woman at the helm, it’s timely (given Zamperini’s recent passing), it features the screenwriting talents of Joel and Ethan Coen, and it’s being released on Christmas Day—prime Oscar picking time. Not to mention that the Academy loves tales of overcoming great odds, biopics, war films, and athlete stories—check, check, check, check! It is for these reasons I chose to discuss the British O’Connell. So for now, he gets to ride the colossal Unbroken wave, and it remains to be seen whether or not both the film’s and the actor’s Oscar chances will be realized or dashed to bits on the rocks.

As I indicated at the top, this is merely a smattering of the leading performances to bow this year. Bradley Cooper just had his name thrown in the ring for Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper, Christian Bale joins the hunt as Moses in Ridley Scott’s epic Exodus: Gods and Kings, and Michael Fassbender could turn some heads in the title role of Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth. Each of these men is a past nominee and each of them should be expected to bring it. Who will be left standing at the end of a long line of blows to compete in the title match? Stay tuned as the race has just begun. Next time we’ll review some of the leading ladies’ roles of the season. So until then, I bid you adieu.

A One Day Jaunt: Whirlwind D.C. Trip on the Cheap

By Susan Russo

A one-day trip to Washington D.C.? Are you crazy? No, I am just ultra-cheap. You won’t get to everything on your must-see list, but you can manage a lot with some planning. Maps of DC’s most popular tourist spots in what is called the “Federal District” are easily available on the Web. Most of these places are FREE. Starting on the National Mall, you can visit the Smithsonian museums—the American Art Museum, the National Air & Space Museum, the Freer and Sackler art galleries, the National Museum of American History, the National Museum of the American Indian, the Hirschhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the National Museum of Natural History, the National Gallery of Art, and the National Portrait Gallery (sorry, Stephen Colbert’s portrait has been taken down.) Also free are the outdoor memorials—the Jefferson, the Lincoln, all the war memorials, and the Washington Monument (you can even go up to the top with a free pass on the day you arrive, or with a $1.50 advance ticket). Within walking distance are the White House, the Library of Congress, and the U.S. Capitol Building. The Library (Monday through Friday) and the Capitol (Monday through Saturday) offer free tours of their amazingly beautiful interiors (advance reservations are recommended for the Capitol). Easily reached on the Metrorail system (“the Metro”) is the wonderful National Zoo (also free) with grounds opening at 6:00 a.m., buildings at 10:00 a.m. and closing at 8:00 p.m., with free strollers and wheelchairs available. Also on the Metro, you can go to Georgetown, with its elegant townhouses, cafés, restaurants, and the C&O Canal Walk, and to Dupont Circle, with bookstores, restaurants, ice cream parlors, and, nearby, the impressive, varied mansions housing most of the embassies.

Walking and the Metro are my favorite ways of touring, but there are also Old Town Trolley Tours and the DC Ducks (amphibious vehicles). These can be boarded at Union Station, Washington, DC, where trains and some buses arrive. Trolley Tours (the hop-on, hop-off variety – $35/adults; $26/child; free for children under 4 years) will take you to all the places mentioned above, as well as to Arlington Cemetery and the Tidal Basin (where you can hire paddle boats). DC Ducks ($35/adult; $26/child) is a 90-minute talking tour past most of the sites above, but also onto the Potomac River. “Segway Tours” (helmets and training provided) are guided and must be booked in advance for different time periods: the Experience tour ($65/2 hours), the National Mall tour ($75/3 hours), the Food Truck tour ($65/3 hours), and the Monuments and Memorials tour ($75/3 hours).

My thrifty one-day (and longer) trips are by bus, all of which make rest stops at highway centers with food concessions and clean restrooms (more about that later). The fares I have obtained were for travel roundtrip on Saturday, September 6. Greyhound Bus Lines (starting from the Port Authority at 42nd Street and Eighth Avenue, and arriving at Union Station in D.C.) offers  Web fare of $45 roundtrip, if you book very early departures and late returns (e.g., the 3:45 a.m. bus stops in Maryland and arrives at 11:05 a.m.; the returning 8:00 p.m. bus arrives at 12:30 a.m.).  The BoltBus (starting near Macy’s 34th Street and arriving at Union Station) charges fares from $1 to $25 each way, depending on when you buy your ticket and on the time of day (e.g., for $23 the 6:30 a.m. bus arrives at Union Station at 10:45 a.m.; for $15 the return bus at 6:30 p.m. arrives in New York at 11:00 p.m.). GoToBus, also called Eastern, starting near Macy’s and arriving at Washington’s Chinatown, charges $25 each way (e.g., the 7:30 a.m. bus arrives at 12:01 p.m. and the returning 8:00 p.m. bus arrives at 1:00 a.m.).  I have taken the GoToBus for 30 years, starting when the fares were $10 each way, and they were called the Chinatown buses, leaving from and returning to Chinatowns in both cities.

For the more affluent, trips to D.C. can also be made on Delta and USAir shuttles, the current costs for roundtrip being $290.There is now, however, a Metro stop at Reagan National Airport, so there’s no expensive taxi ride to and from D.C.  And then there is Amtrak, which is $79 each way (or higher if the less expensive seats are sold out or if you take the Acela), but my last trip on Amtrak to and from Williamsburg, VA, was marred by the deplorable conditions of the restrooms, which I wrote about to the Directors of Amtrak, daring them to take a trip of over three hours on one of their trains. I did, however, add that the courtesy of the conductors and café staff were excellent. And the seats are really more comfortable than on the bus!

New York State of Mind

This Month Natural Selections interviews Danielle Little from the Brivanlou Laboratory.

danielleHow long have you been living in the New York area? 
47 years (all my life) I’ve been in New York.

Where do you currently live?
I live in the Bronx.

Which is your favorite neighborhood?
167street Anderson Ave.When I was living around there I met a lot of people who looked out for me and made sure I stayed in school, I had a lot of fun on that old block. Had some good times and bad times but we stuck together and watched each others family.

What do you think is the most overrated thing in the city?
The trains! because It is a shame that we have to pay so much money to get to work, school or anywhere.

What would you say is most underrated?
The horse and carriage ride through the park. It can be romantic!

What do you miss most when you are out of town?
I really don’t miss anything when I’m away. When I go out of town I just relax and let my mind be free. I worry about missing things when I get back…lol

If you could change one thing about NYC, what would that be?
I would change the cost of living for the people who cannot afford high rent and raise the taxes on the rich. lol

What is your favorite weekend activity in NYC?
Finding a nice restaurant and taking a nice long walk through Central Park. Sometimes as long as half the day

What is the most memorable experience you have had in NYC?

Going to the top of the Statue of Liberty. One time I was with a group of friends and we dared each other to go to the top. Just the walk up was scary enough. I even looked over the edge and was so scared but it was fun!
If you could live anywhere else, where might that be? A long time of ago I would have loved to move to Atlanta. The cost of living is way cheaper. You can buy a house for the price of a studio apartment in NYC. Not to mention I have a lot of family out there.

Do you think of yourself as a New Yorker?
Yes I do….. Born and Raised. New York is where it’s at!

Ten Years of Natural Selections

By Daniel Briskin

Continuing on with our salute to the tenth anniversary of Natural Selections, here is a comic republished from 2004.

This month, the Natural Selections Editorial Board bids farewell to Daniel Briskin. We would like to thank him for his dedication and for helping Natural Selections to become what it is today.

Danny has been a contributor and editor for Natural Se- lections for nearly two years. He worked as a Research As- sistant in the Laboratory of RNA Molecular Biology and began a graduate program at MIT, beginning this fall. While preparing for graduate school, Danny contributed this year by dusting off a collection of comic strips that originally ran in 2004 issues of Natural Selections. This dovetailed nicely with the publication’s 10th anniversary. We wish him all the best!

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Culture Corner: Summer Film Roundup

By Bernie Langs

By way of introducing the highlights of my experiences with selected movies I watched in the summer of 2014, I am oddly reminded of the Roman Emperor Nero and the infamous popular image of him as the ruler who “fiddled while Rome burned.” The notion of Nero playing the lyre at a time of crisis can be traced back to the ancient biography of him by the historian Seutonius in his book The Twelve Caesars. It took only a couple of thousand years for the story to be diluted down to the image we now have and for it to become a metaphor for someone who dallies foolishly during a time of immediate crisis. The point is that the summer of 2014 was one of constant emergencies and tragedies on the international and domestic stages, some of which I wonder if the world will ever recover from. And yet, while our politicians avoided or, in most cases, just could not figure out viable solutions, the public, so very emboldened (and deluded) by the idea that the ballot box gives them power, also sat back and could not truly and in a meaningful way, engage. My own personal fiddling was scored by the following flicks.

all is lostThis summer, the big studios poured out yet more comic book epic films and other banal entertainment with big bright explosions. This allowed my stretch of not actually going to a movie theater to reach a life-long record length of time. Yet, I was able to find some recent film nuggets to watch On Demand on stunningly detailed HD television or downloaded on my hand-held Kindle Fire device. Films that present the story of an isolated individual facing a near impossible situation and either persevering or perishing in a gallant tale of courage have always appealed to me. Two movies I watched this summer examine this bravery and both did it extremely well. Robert Redford is the sole actor in All is Lost and how he was not nominated this year for an Academy Award as Best Actor for this performance will remain a mystery in perpetuity [Editor’s note: though Jim Keller’s “For Your Consideration” column may shed some light on that]. Redford was in the 1972 film, Jeremiah Johnson, about a 19th century American who takes to the snowy mountains to leave civilization behind and ends up facing everything from attacks by Native Americans to bears. The title character’s solitude as portrayed by Redford is best summed up at its end, where Johnson is reunited with a like-minded elder mountain man and he sorrowfully says, “I wonder what month it is.” All is Lost takes place in the present and there is almost no dialogue in the whole film aside from the tearful, regret-filled prologue speech. It’s the story of Redford’s unnamed character on a boat, in the middle of the ocean, and his struggle to stay alive and afloat after he is awakened to find a hole in his ship made from striking a large, metal container used to export goods. It’s a fantastic nuanced fight that he displays and the movie builds to an excellent and thrilling finish.

Gravity was surprisingly engaging as well, with Sandra Bullock portraying an astronaut in crisis out in space with nothing but her wits and the advice of a Buzz Lightyear-type, George Clooney to pull her through. The final two minutes had me thinking that this was a new generation’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. That film, masterminded and directed by Stanley Kubrick from the book by Arthur C. Clarke, was more subtle, and left its audiences wondering what in hell it all meant. Gravity finishes with an oddly Kubrick-like flair, yet it is an ending meant for a 21st century audience that likely won’t think about its implications for hours or years to come, the way I did after I saw 2001 at a film revival house theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1980.

Tim’s Vermeer was another fine film I watched this summer. The entertaining and sometimes frightening comedy duo Penn and Teller created this documentary about how software maven, Tim Jenison persists over years of preparation and months of actual painting to produce a replica of a detailed Johannes Vermeer painting. Jenison, who is not an artist and had never painted before, creates an optical device using only materials that were available centuries ago in Vermeer’s time. He seems to prove his theory about how Vermeer was able to paint in such minute detail, which is beyond the scope of what the human eye can actually see. Vermeer could only have done so with the aid of a mechanical device like the one Jenison builds. But he doesn’t stop there. Jenison physically recreates the room depicted in the painting, from the tapestries to the furniture to scale. He even makes his own paints, using only materials available in Vermeer’s time. The film entertains because Jenison, though brilliant, is human, and his gargantuan task often leads to bursts of frustration, many of which are funny and amusing. But his patience and persistence gives the film its passion and leaves one with a lesson of the satisfactions of succeeding with personal tests of endurance.

budapestI had high expectations for Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel—especially since I recently discussed his movie, The Darjeeling Limited with high praise. I wasn’t disappointed. In this surreal fable-like movie, Ralph Fiennes plays the concierge of a fictional hotel in a fictional country with incredible humor, refinement, and with a keen sense of adventure. Similar to Woody Allen, it appears that actors are anxious to work with Anderson, and the cast includes some of today’s better film personalities. One expects Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, and Jason Schwartzman to make their usual appearances, but there are many surprise stars, including an almost unrecognizable, yet characteristically tough, Harvey Keitel. The tale, told in flashback, takes place mostly in the early 1930’s and Fiennes’s character, Gustave H., is the consummate Old European hotel concierge, who is teaching a young bellhop protégé the ropes of pleasing the most demanding of Old World wealthy guests. The movie reaches hysterical and improbable levels of convoluted plot twists and diversions, all of which are a pleasure to watch unfold and resolve. Ralph Fiennes’s previous roles include the mob boss in 2008’s In Bruges—his entrance towards the end of that movie is a wonder of hilarity mixed with a dangerous persona. He reaches new heights of subtle comedic touch in Budapest. I loved listening to his vocal inflections throughout this performance.

Like Jesus’s miracle of turning water into wine at the wedding at Cana (as noted in John’s Gospel) I have saved the best for last. I have quite the soft spot for British humor since the days of stumbling on the U.S. premier of Monty Python’s Flying Circus in the mid-1970s, where one would have least expected to find such irreverence. The 19th century art critic John Ruskin said something along the lines of “in the face of the most gorgeous sight of countryside an Englishman will not pause to make a wise-crack.” The other day I heard a musician note that the British are unique in their deep-set humor to the point that they would allow appropriate and accepted jokes at “a funeral of triplets.”

the tripMy wife alerted me to The Wall Street Journal review of the new movie The Trip to Italy. Discovering that it was a sequel, we tracked down the first film, The Trip, made for the BBC in several episodes in 2010 and released later that year as a feature film. The Trip follows Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon playing versions of themselves through a tour of north England restaurants Coogan is to review for a British publication. The absolutely stunning countryside is depicted matter-of-factly, as are so many great cinematic views of small English towns and their varying historic remains. Coogan and Brydon were about 40 years when filming, and while watching I had the thought that the British version of the immaturity of the modern male adult is more mature than his American counterparts. Then, Ben Stiller, Hollywood poster boy for childish antics appeared in a dream sequence. Coogan and Brydon riff throughout their car rides, meals, and hotel stays with incredible wit, erudition, and silliness. They make one laugh by reciting classic English poets or by attempting to out-imitate each other with impressions of veteran Brit talent, Michael Caine. Brydon notes and demonstrates, quite hysterically, in his impressions of Caine, the subtle difference in inflections of the early Caine and the old Caine. The biggest problem with The Trip is that I laughed so hard during some of their fast-paced attempts to one-up each other, that I missed a lot of dialogue. My wife told me that her friend watched the movie a second time with subtitles, so as not to miss any lines.

I began this column with the gloomy image of the matricidal madman Nero fiddling as his world burned and likened it to our own inability to fix the complex problems we face today while spending time watching movies. Yet, I will not leave you adrift like Robert Redford and Sandra Bullock. Let us remember, though to be honest I can’t come close to recalling the actual phrasing, the lesson taught in ancient China: Fix (rectify) your family, and then you can fix your village; fix your village and then you can fix your nation; fix your nation and then you can fix the world.

Leaving the Lab, but Still Thinking Science

By Mayla Hsu

1024px-Barbara_Ehrenreich_2_by_David_ShankboneBarbara Ehrenreich graduated from The Rockefeller University (RU), Class of 1968, but never worked as a scientist. Instead, she became a journalist, best known for Nickel and Dimed, in which she documented the hardship of life working at a series of low-wage jobs. She has written nineteen books and numerous articles, on diverse subjects such as women’s health, war, economics, and the joy of dancing. Her most recent book is Living with a Wild God, a memoir describing her childhood into early adulthood, and an exploration of how a lifelong atheist reconciles episodes of mystical dissociation with an absolute conviction in reason and science.

How is it that someone who received a PhD in immunology from a leading university ended up as a leftist freelance writer? Natural Selections recently interviewed Ehrenreich to find out. It’s a story of a promising young scientist who took some unexpected turns by being completely true to herself.

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Paninis and Pupusas: A Jackson Heights Love Story

By Brianna Caszatt and A Gerald Martini

In the months leading up to the World Cup, we kept reading headlines like “Panini Truck Heist in Brazil” or “Colombian Teacher Caught Stealing Students’ Paninis,” to which we thought: what the heck do sandwiches have to do with football? Then our Brazilian friend presented us with our very own Panini World Cup sticker book so we could join him in his quest to collect all of the stickers needed to fill its pages; Panini, it turned out, was a sticker brand rather than a sandwich.

The goal of a Panini sticker book is simple: collect and stick on every sticker (there are 643 in all). There are several stickers related to the Panini brand, FIFA (the international football organization), and the World Cup more generally, including stickers for the 12 stadiums (each stadium is split into two stickers). But, most importantly, each of the 32 teams has a national emblem, a group photo, and a picture for most of the players (there are only 17 player stickers per team rather than the full 23, and these were from the players who were projected to be selected for the tournament, meaning some stickers are of players who ended up not getting selected to actually play).

To start our collection, we bought seven-packs of stickers for $1 each at sports stores and bodegas around the city. Early on, almost every pack that we purchased was packed with stickers that we needed—it was fun! But as our sticker book filled up, we started getting a lot of duplicates, meaning each packet of seven had fewer and fewer of the stickers that we needed. It was time to start trading—and that was when things started getting really exciting.

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Crickets: From Midnight Music to Midnight Snack?

By Jason Rothauser

1024px-Chingrit_thot“And how much is that per cricket?” I ask. I’m standing in front of the reptile cages of a local Brooklyn pet store.

“Ten cents a pop.” Sounds reasonable.

“I’ll take forty.”

In a minute or two, the clerk has wrapped up the insects in a large plastic bag, the same way you’d take a goldfish home from the fair. They’re mottled brown and reassuringly lively, hopping frantically against the top of their enclosure like popping corn.

As the clerk rings up my order, she jokes, “Salt, pepper, ketchup?” She doesn’t know just how close to the mark she is.

These crickets aren’t for a pet lizard. They’re on tonight’s menu.

It’s hard to think of a stronger culinary taboo than eating insects. Many Americans can barely abide the presence or even the sight of them, but billions of people around the globe regularly consume a wide variety of insect life. The reason is simple: insects are nutritious, incredibly energy efficient, and even tasty. The reason that we all should eat insects is even simpler: it might help to save the planet.

Our current system of global food production is not sustainable. A 2006 United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization report found that our present levels of meat production contribute 14–22% of the greenhouse gasses produced in the world in a given year. As the developing world continues to eat more like America does (i.e., much more carbon-intensive meat instead of produce), this proportion will only grow. The reason livestock like cattle are so ecologically deleterious is the inefficiency that comes with raising them. It takes eight pounds of feed to grow just one pound of beef. Insects, by comparison, turn food energy into body mass much more efficiently: a ratio of about 2:1 feed to body mass. And while producing livestock on a large scale requires “monocrops” of corn that themselves are harmful to the environment, insects can be fed on agricultural byproducts and other organic matter that would otherwise go to waste.

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New York State of Mind

This Month Natural Selections interviews Daniel Goldsmith, Summer Volunteer from Yeshiva University, in the Knight Laboratory of Biophysics.

By Susan Russo

photo (1)How long have you been living in the New York area? I’ve lived in the New York area for most of my life.

Where do you live? In Washington Heights.

Which is your favorite neighborhood? I would have to say Greenwich Village. It has a lot of great venues and attractions, from comedy clubs, to chess shops, to used bookstores.

What do you think is the most overrated thing in the city? And underrated? The shopping scene tends to be overrated. While the comedy scene in NYC is well known, people do not often engage in it. Accessibility to stand-up and improv comedy open mics is underrated.

What do you miss most when you are out of town? The excitement of the city. There’s a definite liveliness that isn’t matched anywhere else.

If you could change one thing about NYC, what would that be? Transportation being more affordable.

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Culture Corner

An Interview with Richard Torregrossa, Author of Terminal Life: A Suited Hero Novel and Cary Grant: A Celebration of Style

By Bernie Langs

 RT CG author picSeveral years ago, I was checking the blurbs of recommended articles and reviews indexed by the Arts & Letters Daily web site as I do every day. The site recommended a review of a book about the fashion sense and style of the late, great actor, Cary Grant. Since I admire Grant and his body of work (especially the films done with director Alfred Hitchcock), I clicked and discovered that the book in question was written by a friend I’d worked with at a publishing house. Richard Torregrossa and I became fast friends in the mid-1980s, as we did the dull work of pre-computer copy-editing and marketing, and in his case, copy-writing, editing, and interactions with authors. In addition, we attended book release parties from other publishers where we sipped wine in the evening and hovered in reception room corners while we watched literary types and quietly wise-cracked observations to each other.

We both lived in Brooklyn and finally Torregrossa, born and bred there, had enough and headed west to seek new opportunities, his fortune, and adventure in California. We contacted each other now and then and I was pleased when he found success utilizing his cartoon drawing skills with several captioned-illustrated books such as Fun Facts about Dogs, The Little Book of Wisdom, Fun Facts about Cats, and the more poetic and meditative The Man Who Couldn’t See Himself.

One phone call we had in the 1990s, was memorable as I listened to a story of how he’d scored a difficult book contract. Torregrossa told me that since he couldn’t afford a literary agent to work the difficult terrain of the competitive publishing business on his behalf, he invented an agent, and sent out inquiries under their name. His fictitious agent made inroads into the business and, one afternoon, Torregrossa received a call from a publisher interested in signing him, but on different terms. Torregrossa said his agent was in the room and advised him to stand his ground. The publisher asked to speak with Torregrossa’s agent. Torregrossa, without hesitation, asked him to hold, took a beat, impersonated his fake agent with an accent and a higher pitch, and worked out the deal.

After I read the online review about Torregrossa’s book, (which includes an introduction written by fashion designer icon, Giorgio Armani), I tracked down his email and we resumed our long-distance friendship. I read many of his erudite and well-written freelance, fashion newspaper columns in major international and U.S. publications and was glad when he became a style consultant with a history of fashion curator at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. When Torregrossa delved into fiction with Terminal Life, I read an advance copy. It was just released to excellent reviews. The graphically violent, action novel unfolds at a quick pace, but with twists on the genre. There is a unique hero, Luke Stark, a former Navy SEAL who returns home to learn that his wife was murdered and his son disappeared. And so begins his tale of revenge written through deftly presented prose. The book’s themes examine everything from the value of life to the complications of filial obligations. There’s also a sprinkling of fun and humor. When I finished Terminal Life, I told Torregrossa that the way he artfully managed the book’s deeper ideas was selective and subtle, which packs a more powerful punch and leaves a larger impression.

Torregrossa kindly agreed to be interviewed on the eve of his new book’s release for Natural Selections.

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For your consideration – Cannes Shakedown Edition

By Jim Keller

It’s become a regular thing for me to take a bit of a hiatus after May’s Cannes Film Festival. This is largely because there simply isn’t much to write about in the Oscar world, but if I’m one hundred percent honest, it’s nice to have a bit of downtime as the summer months approach. So here we are in the thick of summer, the FIFA World Cup 2014 just came to a close, and most people are not giving the film world a second thought. Yet here I sit, mere weeks after the July 4th weekend, on the precipice of what is sure to be a crazy Oscar race, slowly beginning to take shape much like galaxies from dust particles. To that end, I am reluctant to dive into the “Ones to Watch” series just yet so in this edition we take a closer look at those films and performances in the Oscar conversation that bowed on the Croisette, which could earn nominations in their respective categories.

Foxcatcher (director: Bennett Miller):
This drama tells the true story behind the 1996 murder of Olympic wrestler David Schultz by paranoid schizophrenic and heir to the du Pont chemical fortune, John du Pont.

For Your Consideration (FYC): Not only did Miller win the festival’s Best Director prize, but his film went on to vie for the Palme d’Or, which it lost only by a narrow margin to Turkish director Nuri Bilge’s Winter Sleep. As I mentioned in the last column, Miller won the Best Director Oscar for Capote in 2006. For now, he is the one to beat in the Best Director race. Also in May I wondered how meaty Channing Tatum’s role as David Schultz would be. While Steve Carell (du Pont) will campaign as lead actor, both Tatum and Mark Ruffalo, who plays Schultz’s younger brother, also named Mark, are considered co-leads. But with Carell’s playing against type, the two will likely compete head-to-head in the supporting race. A nomination here would be the first for Tatum, while Ruffalo earned a Best Supporting Actor nomination for The Kids Are Alright in 2011. On top of that, co-screenwriter, Dan Futterman was nominated alongside Miller for his work on Capote in 2006, so look for him to figure in. All of this combined makes Foxcatcher a viable Best Picture nominee and possible winner.

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An Extraordinary Early American in Europe

By Susan Russo

Portrait_of_Ira_Aldridge,_by_Taras_Shevchenko_(1858)Ira Aldridge was born in New York in 1807 to free black parents: Daniel, a clerk and preacher, and Luranah Aldridge. Ira was schooled at home until 1820, when at the age of 13, he was enrolled in the African Free School Number Two. In the 1820s in New York City William Alexander Brown, a West Indian, started four “backyard” or public garden theatres, with plays followed by musical entertainments. During the same period, Brown founded the first all-black “African Theatre,” presenting Richard III, followed by an opera and a ballet. City officials closed all of Brown’s and others’ similar enterprises shortly after each opening following complaints, the last closing culminating in a riot.

At 14, Aldridge found a job in New York as a dresser at the whites-only Chatham Garden Theatre. His employer was a touring Anglo-American actor, James William Wallack. It is not known whether the connection with Wallack played a part in his decision, but, in 1824, Aldridge embarked for Liverpool, England, on his way to accept the award of a scholarship to study theology at Glasgow University. (During this period, a number of religious institutions and anti-slavery societies in England, Scotland, and America were active in supporting advanced education, but in limited subjects, for Africans and African-Americans.)

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World Cup 2014: Enough Info to Get by in Conversation

By Brianna Caszatt & A Gerald Martini, football masterminds 

480px-WC-2014-Brasil.svgTemperatures are rising and flowers are in bloom: summer is practically here. And for one month this summer, people around the globe will be riveted to their screens watching all the drama unfold in Brazil at the 2014 World Cup—the football (yes football, but soccer if you must) tournament that 32 countries have spent the last three years qualifying for. Remember how excited you were to watch the Olympics? Well double it, and that’s how the rest of the world feels. But if you can’t muster that much enthusiasm, this handy guide we’ve created should at least help you keep up with all the cool kids watching. So muddle some limes for a month’s worth of caipirinhas and grab your contraband caxirola, Brazil’s noise-making answer to the vuvuzela (imagine if a rattle and brass knuckles had a baby—they’ve since been banned from the stadiums after being used by fans as missiles), and let’s tuck in.

For those of you who are total World Cup novices, there are eight groups of four teams each. Each country will play all three of the other teams in their group, and the top two teams from each group will advance to the knockout rounds. The top two from the group are determined by awarding three points for a win, one for a draw, and zero for a loss. Google “World Cup 2014 Bracket,” print one out, and make your own predictions!

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Culture Corner – The “Exotic Foreign” of Wes Anderson and Haruki Murakami

By Bernie Langs

There is much made in some classical and modern philosophies of the concept and ambiguity of what is termed “the other.” In addition, one can find obscure musings on the idea of “the stranger” from the pens of philosophers as far afield in time and thinking as Plato and Camus. I’ve been avoiding, of late, the more difficult works of such trained thinkers and their non-fictions, opting to glean life lessons from those more akin within the arts to current travails. What I continue to discover is that I draw great pleasure from the belief that ideas originating from lands abroad that I will most likely never visit, appeal to my sense of intellectual adventure, offering to me, and perhaps to others, the mystery of the “exotic foreign.”

I offer, by way of example, two works of art extremely different in nature appealing to this sense. Wes Anderson co-wrote and directed the film The Darjeeling Limited in 2007 and Haruki Murakami wrote the book “Sputnik Sweetheart” in 2001. In Anderson’s movie, we follow the travels of three brothers on a train through India, a trip they take in an attempt to bond and heal a year after their father’s untimely death. The brothers are played to absolute perfection by the actors Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, and Jason Schwartzman (Schwartzman has frequently appeared in Anderson’s films and he is also a co-writer of this movie). The viewer identifies with these foreigners since we can relate to the notion of Western individuals seeking spiritual solace in the East as visitors. We discover India as they do, as enlightened tourists hoping to catch a glimpse and some meaning from something new and completely alien to our routines.

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