Monday, November 28, 2016

The Leopard

Burt Lancaster and Claudia Cardinale 

  I've been meaning to include the film version of "The Leopard" in the Masterpiece section of the Weekly Bystander for some time but the contentious Presidential election took most of my attention in the past few months. But the reaction to the election results brought to mind the most famous line from the book and the movie. 

                          "Everything needs to change, so everything can stay the same."

The DVD version of “The Leopard”, Luchino Visconti’s masterpiece, gives us an opportunity to view a great film and get a history lesson at the same time. The film stars Burt Lancaster in perhaps his greatest performance as a world weary, nineteenth century Sicilian aristocrat. He is surrounded by an outstanding supporting cast that includes the young and beautiful Claudia Cardinale, and the noted French actor, Alain Delon.

The film is a faithful adaptation of the novel of the same name by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, himself an Italian aristocrat. It tells the story of an episode in the “Risorgimento”, the name given to the movement for Italian unification in the nineteenth century. In the background is the invasion of Sicily by a small army of red-shirted revolutionaries led by Giuseppe Garibaldi that successfully overthrew the ancient monarchy of Naples and Sicily in 1860.

Both Lampedusa’s novel and Visconti’s film make it clear that Risorgimento is a nice word for the conquest of the rural, feudal South of Italy by the urban, industrialized North. It is interesting that the events depicted in “The Leopard” coincide with our own Civil War. “Gone with the Wind” could well be the American version of “The Leopard.” In both epics the members of an aristocratic household are trying to keep their heads above water during and after the calamitous events that engulf them. In both cases an old world is fading away and being replaced by a new world full of schemers and parvenus. Only those who can adapt to the new circumstances will be able to survive.

“Gone with the Wind” centers around Tara, the beautiful Georgian estate of the O’Hara family. “The Leopard” centers around Donnafugata, the equally beautiful Sicilian estate of Don Fabrizio Corbera, the Prince of Salina. In both films we see the families, the neighbors, the servants, and the peasants or slaves who combine to provide a picture of Southern life.

In GWTW Scarlett O’ Hara, the family’s spoiled daughter, is the central figure, but Visconti’s masterpiece revolves around the father of the family, Don Fabrizio. He sees himself as a leopard who will only be succeeded by hyenas and jackals. Burt Lancaster plays Don Fabrizio to perfection although one of the commentaries in the DVD set notes that the aristocratic Visconti originally considered Lancaster as little more than a cowboy actor.

The DVD set comes in two versions: an Italian language one with English subtitles, in which only Lancaster’s voice is dubbed; and an English version where Lancaster speaks English and everyone else’s voice is dubbed. I prefer the Italian language version especially since Italian movie makers do such a great job of dubbing. You would swear that Burt Lancaster is actually speaking Italian.

The film is beautifully photographed both inside and out. The DVD commentary explains the extraordinary efforts Visconti took to recreate even the minutest details of Sicilian life. The ball scene toward the end of the film is magnificent. While the film can be enjoyed on its own, the various commentaries on the DVD set add to the enjoyment. There are also interviews with some of the participants including a still beautiful Claudia Cardinale, as well as an historical introduction to the background of the Risorgimento.


Monday, November 21, 2016

Thanksgiving 2016


To say I was born and raised in New York City would be a little misleading because in my memories of New York in the 40s and 50s, the city was a collection of small towns or villages. I was born in Woodside, a section of the borough of Queens, and the skyscrapers and streets of Manhattan were as remote for me as China would be to my grandchildren today.

Because of our insularity I can’t be sure if a Thanksgiving custom we had back then was unique to Woodside or whether it could have been found elsewhere throughout the great metropolis. Anyone else I’ve mentioned it to has never heard of it including my wife who was born a little bit north of the City in White Plains, the hub of Westchester county.

Anyway, on Thanksgiving morning the children in our neighborhood would dress up as bums or hobos. It didn’t take much since we would usually wear our clothes until they literally fell apart. We would take our most worn and tattered clothing and rip and tear them a little more. Then, we would blacken a cork over a candle and smear it over our faces to simulate dirt. I remember my grandmother giving me a little pouch with a drawstring, or was it a pillowcase, that we hobos could sling over our shoulders.

Then, we were ready to make the rounds of our neighbors to ask, “anything for thanksgiving.” Inevitably, they would answer our plea with some of the bounty from the meal they were preparing. Usually it would be apples, or walnuts, or sometimes a few pennies. Don’t laugh. twenty pennies were enough to buy a Spalding (Spaldeen), the elite of bouncing rubber balls used by us in so many street games.

I don’t know where the “anything for thanksgiving” custom came from. We lived in a small neighborhood that seemed to have been mainly Irish with a mixture of Italians. In my nearby Catholic school the majority of the kids seemed to have Irish names. There were Ryans, Regans, Dunphys, Moylans, and Healys. However, A few blocks down busy 69 Street were the Napolitanos who ran the grocery store. In the other direction lived the dreaded Gallos whose kids were the toughest in the school.

But I’m not sure that “anything for thanksgiving”  was an ethnic custom. We were a predominately Catholic neighborhood and the idea of thanksgiving was part of our religious heritage even though none of us knew that the word “Eucharist” meant “Thanksgiving.” On the other hand, it could have been a peculiarly American response to the end of the Great Depression and the Second World War. Nothing had marked the depression so much as homeless men on bread lines or riding the rails. These were the hobos that we children imitated. 

Even though most of us could be considered poor, at least we and our neighbors would be able to sit down that afternoon in our homes to the best meal of the year. We did have a lot to be thankful for. The Depression was over, the men had returned from the terrible war, and the NY Yankees were on the verge of recovering their past glory.

Almost 70 years have passed since those childhood years but I can truly say that my wife and I have much to be thankful for. Our grandparents came to this country from Italy with nothing but their own traditions, customs, and religion. Like most children of immigrants our parent came to love America and worked hard to provide for their children and give them a standard of living that is still the envy of the world.

Today, after one of the most divisive political campaigns in U.S. history, there is more reason to hope than to fear. I would just like to end this post with George Washington’s Thanksgiving Proclamation of 1789. Thanksgiving did not become a National holiday until after the terrible Civil War, but Washington’s words are as meaningful today as they were in 1789.  

Thanksgiving ProclamationIssued by President George Washington, at the request of Congress, on October 3, 1789

Whereas it is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly to implore His protection and favor; and—Whereas both Houses of Congress have, by their joint committee, requested me “to recommend to the people of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer, to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness:”

Now, therefore, I do recommend and assign Thursday, the 26th day of November next, to be devoted by the people of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be; that we may then all unite in rendering unto Him our sincere and humble thanks for His kind care and protection of the people of this country previous to their becoming a nation; for the signal and manifold mercies and the favor, able interpositions of His providence in the course and conclusion of the late war; for the great degree of tranquility, union, and plenty which we have since enjoyed; for the peaceable and rational manner in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national one now lately instituted; for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed, and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and, in general, for all the great and various favors which He has been pleased to confer upon us.
And also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations, and beseech Him to pardon our national and other transgressions; to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually; to render our National Government a blessing to all the people by constantly being a Government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed; to protect and guide all sovereigns and nations (especially such as have shown kindness to us), and to bless them with good governments, peace, and concord; to promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the increase of science among them and us; and, generally, to grant unto all mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as He alone knows to be best.

Given under my hand at the City of New York the third day of October in the year of our Lord 1789.

Go. Washington


Monday, November 14, 2016

Trump Victory: Why and How?

The Woman Who Beat Hillary

Did Donald Trump win the election of 2016 or did Hillary Clinton lose it, or was it a combination of both? To answer the question let’s first get past the Electoral College business. It is true that Clinton actually beat Trump in the popular vote by less than 1% of the more than 120 Million votes cast. But Trump won the election by carrying enough states to win by a good margin in the Electoral college. 

In the seven games of the recent World Series the Chicago Cubs and Cleveland Indians both scored the same number of runs but no one would ever suggest that the hard fought series ended in a tie. The Cubs were clear winners because their dramatic victory in the seventh game of the series gave them a clear margin of 4 games to 3. If the World Series had been decided on the basis of total runs scored, it would have been a completely different ballgame.

In the same way if the Presidential election was based on the total popular vote count, the whole election process would have been a completely different ballgame. Both sides would have mounted different campaigns with markedly different strategies. No matter what one thinks of the Electoral College, it is completely bogus to suggest changing the rules after the game has been played, especially since both sides had agreed to play by those rules. In fact, no Democrat ever complained about the Electoral College as long as Hillary Clinton was leading in the polls.

So, what explains the dramatic result that hardly any poll or pundit had predicted? Democrats are offering a number of explanations. Hillary Clinton seems to blame her loss on James Comey, the director of the FBI. She claims his surprise announcement that he was going to reopen the email investigation after earlier indicating that it was no longer worth pursuing stopped her momentum in its tracks.

However, as the results were coming in on election night distraught Democrat sympathizers were putting the blame on Clinton herself. The vote counters at CNN were forced to admit that Clinton was running well behind President Obama’s 2012 totals among Blacks, and Hispanics. She was also not getting the high percentage of votes she needed among women voters. Some commentators even began to admit that Clinton was a weak, flawed candidate to begin with. This was a startling admission for throughout the campaign none of her supporters had ever expressed the least doubt.

I stayed up till 1:00 on Election night and flicked between channels but failed to find anyone who would credit Trump and his strategy for the victory. Yet, he had campaigned hard and enthusiastic crowds appeared at all of his rallies. At a last minute rally in Michigan 30000 people waited to hear him address them at 1:00 in the morning. He had spent all that day appearing before enthusiastic crowds in five or six separate states. Despite his tarnished reputation, I don’t think I have ever seen a candidate generate such enthusiasm.

One commentator did admit that maybe in this election, enthusiasm counted for more than political organization. In key battleground states it is clear that more Republican and Independent voters came out for Trump than came out for Mitt Romney in 2012. At the same time, Hillary Clinton fell short of the votes gained by Barack Obama in 2012.

In the end, I believe that historians will look back and find that Trump, despite his flaws, was riding a great wave that began in 2010 when Republicans won back the House of Representatives only two years after Obama’s overwhelming victory in 2008. The House of Representatives is still the most responsive part of the Federal government, especially since each Representative must run every two years. Even with President Obama’s repeat victory in 2012 the wave continued to gain momentum when the Republicans gained control of the Senate in 2014.

Democrats and their many supporters in the media think that demographics are on their side but they largely ignored this populist groundswell though out the country. As I watched CNN throughout the campaign I was amazed at how much commentators talked and how little they listened. It was not just that pundits on both sides shouted down their opponents, but also that they failed to use their own eyes. Viewer got opinion but little actual reporting.

For example, on almost the eve of the election one panel worried about voter suppression tactics that they thought Trump supporters would use to keep the Black and Hispanic vote down. During the discussion the moderator asked a CNN reporter on the scene in either Florida or North Carolina whether he observed any voter suppression. He said that he had not seen any and that the presence of so many poll watchers meant that anyone who wanted to vote would be able to. The panel brushed aside this report and continued to bemoan voter suppression.

I don’t think that the wave that began in 2010 is necessarily Republican or Conservative. I think it is a wave of the under-privileged against the privileged. By under-privileged I mean those who have come to believe that they work and pay taxes to support those who get government benefits and privileges often without working. These people have to pay for their own medical insurance and receive no subsidies. They do not have the pension benefits that government employees and public service union members enjoy. They only have Social Security.

Perhaps the most shocking statistic coming out of the election was the vote in Washington D.C. where the nation’s Capital gave its three electoral votes to Hillary Clinton by a 96% to 4% margin. I know that there is a large Black population in Washington but it also appears that the overwhelming majority of people who work for the Federal Government are Democrats. Almost as revealing was the fact that more than 90% of the media covering the election were contributors to the Democrat party.

The new under-privileged are caught in the middle. They pay for the benefits enjoyed by wealthy Congressmen and well-to-do government employees, and also pay for the benefits and subsidies that go to the increasing number of those who do not or cannot work. They do not get food stamps, Medicaid, or housing assistance.

During the election campaign they saw Wall Street billionaires and hedge fund managers contributing massive amounts to the Clinton campaign. They saw wealthy entertainers and athletes campaigning for Hillary Clinton. Moreover, despite their hard work and patriotism they have to stand by and hear themselves called bigots, racists, and homophobes.

I don’t believe that Hillary Clinton lost the election because of her lies and emails. She lost the election when she spoke one line straight from the heart. She really meant it when she called Trump supporters “deplorables.”