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Professor Nat Greene: Come on Down!

The inimitable Bob Barker, flanked by “Price is Right” eye candy Janice Pennington (left) and Anitra Ford.

As yours probably does, my alma mater hits me all too frequently with some manner of e-newsletter cum fund-raising communiqué. One can hardly escape the memories stirred/jarred by all this WesContact, which is surely the way they want it. In any case, a recent MailChimp morsel revealed, among other things, that three Wesleyan faculty had received The Binswanger Prize for Excellence in Teaching. While this particular tidbit proved interesting enough to peruse, I’m only now addressing the nostalgia it prompted — immersed as I am, third party, in the college experience of both my kids.

The first thing to say is that my cohort and I attended Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., alongside an actual Binswanger — Benjamin Pennypacker Binswanger to be exact. Never knew him but my housemates and I made note of his titanically pretentious name the first week of school freshman year and never forgot it. Never tired of mocking it, either. Always wondered if he was related to Princeton’s Jay Binswanger, winner of the first Heisman Trophy…

Wesleyan Professor Nat Greene

More to the point, Nat Greene was one of these recent Binswanger honorees. I took a couple classes with him but the first was a survey of European history 1815-1945, and I remember it best because it was the only class I ever took with my housemate Dennis Carboni, an art history major whose course load never again overlapped with mine (classical history/modern American lit).

Greene didn’t necessarily tilt the material toward “social” history, an approach then sweeping uber-liberal bastions like Wesleyan. His hewed more to the traditional “Great Men, Great Events” approach. I remember the syllabus included a book of his own scholarship, “From Versailles to Vichy: The Third French Republic, 1919–1940”, which a) struck me at the time as being pretty awesome, that this guy was teaching from his own work; and b) still resides in a bookcase somewhere here in my house, for reasons completely bewildering to my wife. An entertaining lecturer and no-nonsense grader of essays (all testing was conducted via manic, long-hand scribbling in those little blue booklets), Greene was a fine professor, the sort I hope Silas and Clara will experience at some point in their academic careers.

But here’s what I remember most from my class with Nat Greene: It ran from 10 to 10:50 on Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings in the old PAC building — a few steps from the manhole where we often plunged down into Wesleyan’s famous tunnel system, the subject of another remembrance perhaps. If Dennis and I didn’t dawdle after class, we could race home to my off-campus apartment and catch The Price Is Right at 11 a.m.

Yes, The Price Is Right. It became a sort of ironic obsession for me but something more than that for Dennis, as many things did. It gave me great pleasure to watch him obsessively game this once-seminal game show.

I’m not sure that college kids go in for this sort of thing today, awash as they are in video content and on-demand entertainment delivery choices. However, during the early 1980s, TV was a sort of novel diversion for college kids. We had grown up with it, of course, but had virtually no access to it at school. And so, great delight was taken in the ironic devotion to retrograde programming like soap operas in dorm lounges and late-night reruns of shows like the Rockford Files and Star Trek — things we would never bother watching when home with our families. My sophomore year, my housemate and I came by a tiny black-and-white TV that I’m pretty sure we carried with us the next three years, to three different houses, deploying along the way a staggering array of make-shift aerials including one that involved a pumpkin wrapped in aluminum foil.

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Spanish Avant-Garde Cinema Informs Travel Hell

Spanish Avant-Garde Cinema Informs Travel Hell

About 25 years ago, as part of an avant-garde film series at college, I saw this great Louis Brunuel movie called The Exterminating Angel. Well, it wasn’t exactly “great”, now that I think back on it, but it was surreal enough to have made a lasting impression. In it some 12 to 15 members of Franco’s upper crust gather in a stylish Castilian villa. The first 40 minutes or so depict these men and women seated around a well appointed table, exchanging witty repartée on various existential topics. The movie basically goes nowhere during these early stages and I remember thinking — sitting there in the same lecture hall where I endured Psych 101 — that here was yet another obtuse, hyper-intellectual, dialectical drama of the mind that explores, in excruciating detail (and in Spanish), Iberian class struggles circa 1962. Sorta like My Dinner with Andre meets The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie.

Just about the time my roommates and I were getting restless, wondering what better things we might be doing with our youth, the guests do a funny thing: Instead of going home, they all crash in the music room. Next morning, a military fellow in the film calls attention to himself with great ceremony and indicates that, sadly, he must take his leave. But his friends won’t have it; they talk him out of it… Before long a couple stands and makes a gracious but unmistakable move to depart. When the group protests, they look at each other and decide to stay… More high-blown conversation ensues before another guy excuses himself, thanks his hosts, dons his coat and gets as far as the door jam. Those assembled seem prepared to let the man go, but for reasons he doesn’t seem to understand, he turns around and resignedly re-takes his place on the couch.

It becomes clear that no one, for reasons they’re unable to articulate or comprehend, can leave the room.

Eventually the situation becomes dire. Even the servants have fled the premises for reasons they themselves cannot explain. Yet the guests are trapped, by what they don’t know. Hours pass. The police show up outside and attempt to coax them out with bull-horned pleas and instructions. Nothing works. It’s become a veritable hostage situation and eventually the guests eat all the leftovers and dicker themselves into a state of desperate exhaustion. Days pass, farm animals materialize in house (!) and one by one the guests collapse from a lack of food and water.

I can’t remember how the movie ends but my family and I are traveling over the impending holiday. Here’s hoping that life doesn’t mimic art exactly.

Like Brunuel’s dinner guests, we’ve all of us found ourselves stuck inside the some airport’s secure gate area, the bewildered prisoners of grim circumstances beyond our comprehension. Over and over again we try to leave, but for a variety of reasons — some practical, some damned surreal, all of them out of our control — we cannot.

Hour upon hour of travel impotence inevitably leads to contemplation, some of it darned existential. Surely Brunuel must have been an experienced air traveler. I looked into it, and found this telling quote re. The Exterminating Angel: “Basically,” the filmmaker explained, “I simply see a group of people who couldn’t do what they want to… That kind of dilemma, the impossibility of satisfying a simple desire, often occurs in my movies. From the standpoint of reason, there is no reason for this film.”

Godspeed to all of us this holiday season, everyone.


McShane Deserves a Bust in Rogue’s Gallery

McShane Deserves a Bust in Rogue’s Gallery

For reasons I’ve never quite understood, I’ve maintained an odd recollection of and attachment to the 1969 film, If it’s Tuesday, This Must be Belgium. It was on TV when I was a kid but no more frequently than any other junkie films that populated the late-night film archives of local Boston affiliates. Why would I so fixate this film? For a while I assumed it was the presence of a youngish, sneaky hot Suzanne Pleshette, and maybe that’s it. But maybe, just maybe, it was the fact that her love interest was played by Ian McShane.

I keep running into this guy. I just plowed through three seasons of Deadwood, in which he hit it out of the park as iconic Gem Saloon owner Al Swearengen. Now I’m onto a British mini-series production of Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Fall, where McShane presides as the conniving Bishop Waleran. This son of Blackburn, Lancashire has been around forever but it wasn’t till the other day that I realized what a long screen relationship I’ve had with him.

His big screen credits frankly leave a bit to be desired. I wouldn’t call them four thousand holes in the resume, but several decades of nothing films have been followed, of late, by a series of grey-eminence roles (Coraline, The Golden Compass) and bit parts in animated features (Shrek the Third, Kung Fu Panda). He may be the only British actor who failed to land a sinecure via the Harry Potter franchise. Sexy Beast was a fine film, though his solid portrayal of Teddy Bass was overshadowed (along with everything else in this 2000 feature) by the sublime, astonishingly evil Ben Kingsley character (yeah, he’s got range but who knew Ben had that in him?). McShane’s Blackbeard in the latest installment of Pirates of the Caribbean, On Stranger Tides, was probably a nice payday but it ain’t gonna win him any Best Supporting Actor nominations.

On TV, however, McShane has turned in a hall-of-fame-caliber roster of work, on both sides of the pond. God praise Wikipedia for logging it all for posterity. This guy is a mini-series maestro — Roots, Disraeli, Pillars — and has starred and/or appeared in a laundry list of fine or otherwise noteworthy series: Space 1999, Magnum P.I., Miami Vice, Dallas, The West WingDeadwood’s well earned praise, and his centrality to the show, now overshadow what had been the jewels in his crown: eight years as the unabashedly mulletted, somewhat slimy antique dealer, Lovejoy, and a recurring role in the equally laudable (and British) series Minder.

I’m not trying to make any monumental cultural point here. Only that no one does rogues of ambiguous motivation like Ian McShane.