The New York Times reports an interesting background story to Oscar winner's Natalie Portman's career: "On Sunday night, the gorgeously pregnant Natalie Portman, 29, won an Oscar for her performance as Nina, a mentally precarious ballerina in the shock fantasy “Black Swan.” Among the lesser-known but nonetheless depressingly impressive details in Ms. Portman’s altogether too precociously storied career is that as a student at Syosset High School on Long Island back in the late 1990s, Ms. Portman made it all the way to the semifinal rounds of the Intel competition. For those who know how grueling it can be to put together a prize-worthy project and devote hundreds of hours of “free” time at night, on weekends, during spring break and summer vacation, doing real, original scientific research while one’s friends are busy adolescing, the achievement is testimony enough to Ms. Portman’s self-discipline and drive. While carrying out her investigation into a new, “environmentally friendly” method of converting waste into useful forms of energy, and maintaining the straight-A average she’d managed since grade school, Ms. Portman already was a rising movie star. She’d been in films directed by Woody Allen, Tim Burton and Luc Besson, appeared opposite Julia Roberts, Jack Nicholson, Matt Dillon, Uma Thurman, Drew Barrymore and I’m getting tired of typing celebrity names here. She took on the major role of Queen Amidala in the Star Wars prequel trilogy that rocketed her to international fame. And then she went on to Harvard University to study neuroscience and the evolution of the mind."
To sit in an audition jury is less fun than most people think. Most of all for a sensitive writer. It's always an awkward situation to watch a professional actor/singer show off to get a job. I tend to suffer with the contenders. Sometimes I even get upset. This happens when a gifted singer presents a song that is beyond his abilities. Deplorably that is not an exception.
"Sometimes a writer may look for more than questions or may ask for concrete suggestions, but one way or another the choices for the work have to be organic and emotionally logical to the writer, or else they do come from someone else, will be false and stilted, will take away from the organic rhythm of the work, and the play invitably suffers. I don't believe play doctoring works. Nurturing does."
Recent studies have found large changes in cues and behavior when a woman is at the stage of peak fertility. Lap dancers get much higher tips. The pitch of a woman’s voice rises. Men rate her body odor as more attractive and respond with higher levels of testosterone. At this peak-fertility stage, women are more interested in going to parties and dance clubs, and they dress more attractively (as judged by both men and women). Some women’s attitudes toward their own partners also change, according to research by Dr. Haselton along with a U.C.L.A. colleague, Christina Larson, and Steven Gangestad of the University of New Mexico.
Toward the end of 2010, a small book by a 93-year-old man unexpectedly reached the summit of the bestseller list in France. Indignez-vous! by Stéphane Hessel sold more than 600,000 copies between October and the end of December, propelling it above Prix Goncourt–winner Michel Houellebecq’s novel La carte et le territoire by several hundred thousand copies. Hessel had written other books. His publishers, the independent Indigène Editions in Montpellier, far from Paris, had produced other volumes. But none had reached the public in such numbers. The book both reflected and anticipated the spirit of student demonstrations in France and Britain, as it did the wave of revolt now challenging dictatorships in the Middle East.
Hessel’s life would make a novel, although his story is too hopeful to be told by nihilist Houellebecq. His father, Franz Hessel, was a German Jewish writer who emigrated to France with his family in 1924, when Stéphane was 7. Franz’s friend Henri-Pierre Roché used him and his wife, Prussian beauty Helen Grund, as models for Jules and Kate in his 1953 novel Jules et Jim. This was the enchanting tale of a woman who loved and was loved by two men that was translated to the screen in 1962 by François Truffaut. Franz Hessel wrote novels in German and French. His admiration for France and French literature led him to produce, with the great German Jewish literary critic Walter Benjamin, the first German translation of Marcel Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu. Stéphane grew up in a literary milieu that the German invasion of France shattered in 1940. After studying at the University of Paris’s prestigious École Normale Supérieure, he served in the French Army during the Battle of France and, like more than a million other French soldiers, became a prisoner of war. Following his escape from a POW camp, he joined Gen. Charles de Gaulle and his small band of Free French résistants. Hessel’s was a rare act of patriotism when most of the French professed loyalty to Vichy leader Marshal Philippe Pétain and his policy of collaboration with Germany. The attitude of the majority of Hessel’s military colleagues found expression in the decision of a French court-martial that sentenced de Gaulle in absentia to death for treason. Hessel belonged to a tiny minority that was outraged enough to oppose Pétain’s New Order, which replaced “liberty, equality and fraternity” with “work, family and nation.”
While Stéphane was working with de Gaulle in London, Franz Hessel died in France. Stéphane parachuted into occupied France in advance of the Allied invasion of 1944 to organize Resistance networks. The Gestapo captured him and subjected him to the baignoire, a form of torture that would later be called waterboarding. He was transported to Buchenwald and Dora concentration camps, avoiding the gallows only by switching identities with an inmate who had died. While being transferred to Bergen-Belsen, he escaped.
Hessel became a diplomat after the war and was involved, along with Eleanor Roosevelt, in drafting the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Awards and honors followed, the most recent of which are the Council of Europe’s North-South Prize in 2004, the rank of Grand Officer of the Legion of Honor in 2006 and the 2008 UNESCO/Bilbao Prize for the Promotion of a Culture of Human Rights. Throughout his postwar life as a diplomat and writer, Hessel has retained the sense of indignation that drove him during the war. This book is a testament to his belief in the universality of rights, as his defense of Palestinians under Israeli occupation and of illegal immigrants in France attests. The popularity of this slim but powerful volume answered the public’s need for a voice to articulate popular resentment of ruling-class ruthlessness, police brutality, stark income disparities, banking and political corruption, and victimization of the poor and immigrants. Hessel had arrived in France when many of the French were decrying Jewish immigration as the “threat from the East” (about which Joseph Roth wrote movingly at the time in essays later collected and published in the book The Wandering Jews). Of course, the real threat from the East was the Nazism that many on the French right admired as an antidote to what they perceived as the indiscipline of French society. Their intellectual heirs—echoing the earlier distaste for foreigners and for the ostensible fecklessness of the working class—hold positions of power in France today.
Hessel writes in this book, “How lucky I am to be able to draw on the foundation of my political life: the Resistance and the National Council of the Resistance’s program from sixty-six years ago.” That program, declared on March 15, 1944, set out the wartime and, significantly, postwar goals of the Resistance. Defeating the Nazis and their French collaborators was only a stage, the combined Resistance declared, on the way to “a true economic and social democracy.” Hessel rejects the claims that the state can no longer cover the costs of such a program. It managed to provide that support immediately after the Liberation, “when Europe lay in ruins.” How could it not afford to do the same after it became rich? Similarly, in Britain the state paid for free universal education, including higher education, free universal medical care and other benefits that improved the health and well-being of the country’s children immeasurably after a war that left the nation bankrupt. Now, after half a century of prosperity and the accumulation of fabulous fortunes, the government says it can no longer pay for the social rights for which an earlier generation fought and for which it voted overwhelmingly in 1945. The British coalition government’s cuts in social benefits, its dramatic increase in the cost of university education and its transformation of the National Health Service into blocks of private trusts come in tandem with its absolution of the tax obligations of major corporations like Vodafone and its public subsidies to private banks. Outrage and indignation are not inappropriate responses.
Students cutting class is something that has existed ever since school was invented. But the Anaheim Union High School District school district is enacting a plan to get their kids in line. According to the Orange County Register, "seventh- and eighth-graders with four unexcused absences or more this school year are assigned to carry a hand-held GPS device about the size of a cell phone." The program has a great success rate: "Where the GPS technology has been implemented, average attendance among chronically truant students jumped from 77 percent to 95 percent during the six-week program."
According to a recent study published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 14 to 62 percent of the 165 million dogs and cats in the United States sleep in bed with humans, with other surveys skewing higher. Other surveys are skewing even higher.
The other day I was asked what I regard as the first musical ever. Spontaneously I answered: "The Magic Flute, of course". In the late 1780s Mozart complained that theatre music should be for everybody and not for the manicured gardens and gilded opera houses reserved for the aristocrats. Mozart was proud of his hits, boasting in his letters that his melodies where being played and sung on the streets of Prague and Vienna.
On Feb. 15, 1965, a diffident but self-possessed high school student named Raymond Kurzweil appeared as a guest on a game show called I've Got a Secret. He was introduced by the host, Steve Allen, then he played a short musical composition on a piano. The idea was that Kurzweil was hiding an unusual fact and the panelists — they included a comedian and a former Miss America — had to guess what it was.
On the show, the beauty queen did a good job of grilling Kurzweil, but the comedian got the win: the music was composed by a computer. Kurzweil got $200.
Kurzweil then demonstrated the computer, which he built himself — a desk-size affair with loudly clacking relays, hooked up to a typewriter. The panelists were pretty blasé about it; they were more impressed by Kurzweil's age than by anything he'd actually done. They were ready to move on to Mrs. Chester Loney of Rough and Ready, Calif., whose secret was that she'd been President Lyndon Johnson's first-grade teacher.
But Kurzweil would spend much of the rest of his career working out what his demonstration meant. Creating a work of art is one of those activities we reserve for humans and humans only. It's an act of self-expression; you're not supposed to be able to do it if you don't have a self. To see creativity, the exclusive domain of humans, usurped by a computer built by a 17-year-old is to watch a line blur that cannot be unblurred, the line between organic intelligence and artificial intelligence.
That was Kurzweil's real secret, and back in 1965 nobody guessed it. Maybe not even him, not yet. But now, 46 years later, Kurzweil believes that we're approaching a moment when computers will become intelligent, and not just intelligent but more intelligent than humans. When that happens, humanity — our bodies, our minds, our civilization — will be completely and irreversibly transformed. He believes that this moment is not only inevitable but imminent. According to his calculations, the end of human civilization as we know it is about 35 years away.
Maybe quite soon, eyeglasses will have tiny batteries, microchips and assorted electronics to turn reading power on when you need it and off when you don’t. Traditionally, people who hit their 40s often need extra optical help as farsightedness sets in. They may buy bifocals or no-line progressive lenses. But such glasses have a drawback: the lenses that magnify fine print also blur objects more than an arm’s length away when a wearer looks down, distorting the view when on a staircase, for example, or when swinging at a golf ball. New electronic spectacles, made by PixelOptics and called emPower, are intended to handle that problem with an unusual insert in the bottom part of the lenses: liquid crystals, cousins to the familiar ones in television displays. The crystals change how the lenses refract or bend light, just as varying levels of thickness do in traditional glasses. Only one downside: You have to charge them overnight.
Spider-Man, the 65 million dollar Broadway musical doesn’t officially open until March 15. That date was postponed several times. Last Staturday, for the first time ever, the New York Times decided to send its critic, Ben Brantley, to a preview. His review was published in yesterday's paper; it is devastating. Brantley finds Spider-Man so grievously broken in every respect that he thinks it is beyond repair. Brantley is often unfair, so his judgement has to be taken with a grain of sugar. Nevertheless it is surprising that the show's director, the revered Julie Taymor who also wrote the book, is panned by one of her former admirers. Brantley writes: Spider-Man is not only the most expensive musical ever to hit Broadway; it may also rank among the worst."
"Great minds are related to the brief span of time during which they live as great buildings are to a little square in which they stand: you cannot see them in all their magnitude because you are standing too close to them."
"Nothing endures except change; nothing is constant except death. Every heartbeat wounds us, and life would be an eternal bleeding to death, were it not for literature. It grants us what nature does not: a golden time that doesn't rust, a springtime that never wilts, cloudless happiness and eternal youth."
Songwriting collaboration is a volatile business at best. I have worked with composers who refused to rewrite melodies which did not fit the characters they were meant for, and for a time I suspected the refusal was based on arrogance. But I was wrong. Composers who stubbornly stick to what they have written are afraid they have no other notes in reserve. Their refusal to rewrite is just a ploy to cover their imagined infertility.
I have witnessed a number of memorable auditions, often wondering why young actors and singers try to do stuff that exceeds their abilities while they would be very convincing if they just would show what they actually can do well. The best audition performance I ever saw was that of Wolfgang Pampel, a very experienced actor (he lip-synced J.R. of the tv series "Dallas" for the German screen). He came on stage with a little doll, sat down and, miming an old lady, started singing "O What A Beautiful Morning". We were so stunned that we hired him on the spot to play Duke Max in "Elisabeth".
"Artists don't wonder, What is it good for? They aren't driven to create art, or to help or teach people or tomake money. They are driven to lessen the burden of the unbearable disparity between their conscious and unconscious minds, and so to achieve peace."
Freud called music polymorphous perversity. We take pleasure in music because it states a theme, the theme elaborates itself and then resolves, and we are then as pleased as if it were a philosophical revelation - even though the resolution is devoid of verbal content.
"Every day you may make progress. Every step may be fruitful. Yet there will stretch out before you an ever-lengthening, ever-ascending, ever-improving path. You know you will never get to the end of the journey. But this, so far from discouraging, only adds to the joy and glory of the climb."
“Our strongest writers keep falling away from the theater because they can’t make a living. And without writers we can’t have a theater. So we are responsible for them. We are responsible, I think, for turning our theaters into artistic homes.”
Emilio Estevez, a successful screenwriter, owns a small estate in Malibu. In 2005 he started planting the front yard with vines. His parents, Martin and Janet Sheen, protested: "Son, you're out of your mind". By now Mr. Estevez produces not only screenplays, but about 800 bottles of good wine every year. His two passions share an interesting parallel: “Your grapes are really your script,” he says. “Without good fruit, you’re just not making a good bottle of wine. Without a good script, the best actors in the world have struggled against bad material to make a good movie.”
Born 9 March 1910 in West Chester, Pennsylvania, Samuel Barber started composing at age 7 and attempted his first opera at age 10. He was only 28 when he wrote his master piece, Adagio for Strings. That was in 1938. Barber was very productive after that, but none of his works achieved similar recognition. After the harsh rejection of his third opera Antony and Cleopatra which he believed contained some of his best music, he was diagnosed with clinical depression.
"I was not old enough to remember the sacrifices of the great generation who saved Europe in the Second World War, or to quite comprehend what was going on in Vietnam. But what I do remember, and cannot forget, is watching a man walk on the moon in 1969 and thinking here is a nation that finds joy in the impossible. The Irish saw the Kennedys as our own royal family out on loan to America. A million of them turned out on J.F.K.’s homecoming to see these patrician public servants who, despite their station, had no patience for the status quo. I remember Bobby’s rolled-up sleeves, Jack’s jutted jaw and the message — a call to action — that the world didn’t have to be the way it was. Science and faith had found a perfect rhyme."
Every now and then, there is a star on a musical stage with such a charisma that you don't care about the singing. Think of Glenn Close who turned the musical "Sunset Boulevard" into an unforgettable event on Broadway. In the Fifties, Gertrude Lawrence who had no voice always brought magic to the theater. Kurt Weill once praised that quality: "She has the greatest range between C and C sharp of anyone I ever knew".
Philip Pullman, a British writer ("The Golden Compass"), is the author of a critical book about the Christian faith, titled "The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ". When outraged believers challenged and threatened him, he answered them like this: "No one has the right to live without being shocked. No one has the right to spend their life without being offended. Nobody has to read this book. Nobody has to pick it up. Nobody has to open it. And if they open it and read it, they don't have to like it. And if you read it and you dislike it, you don't have to remain silent about it. You can write to me. You can complain about it. You can write to the publisher. You can write to the papers. You can write your own book. You can do all those things. But that your rights stop. Nobody has the right to stop me writing this book. Nobody has the right to stop it being published, or sold, or bought, or read."
On a sunny California day in 1994, director Steven Spielberg was whizzing through the lot of the Universal Studios. His sports car hit a speed bump and he banged his head. He did not stop nor did he complain, but somebody must have watched the incident. By the next morning, all the speed bumps on the lot had been removed.