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2013/07/28

Mark Salzman's "The Soloist"

by John Bloner, Jr.


"For a serious novelist, there are recurring obsessions; repetition is the natural concomitant of having something worthwhile to say, and repeatedly needing to say it."  John Irving

Author Mark Salzman confronts his obsessions in his work, whether he's writing fiction or non-fiction, allowing the reader to not only witness Salzman's, but also to confront and explore one's own thoughts on parental and self-expectations, spirituality, justice and discipline.

Mark Salzman: writer, martial artist, cellist
In his nearly 30-year career, Salzman has produced seven books, both non-fiction and fiction,weaving these themes repeatedly into his stories and essays. His second novel, The Soloist, (published in 1994) is emblematic of his obsessions made manifest through the book's narrator, Reinhardt Sundheimer, a 35-year old music teacher in Los Angeles, whose past has damaged his ability to fully function as an adult. He cannot form relationships, play his cello without a self-diagnosed hearing problem affecting his sense of pitch, and unshackle his identity from his former self as a child prodigy on his instrument.

Salzman writes from experience. He took up the cello at age seven and excelled at it.  At age sixteen, he earned acceptance into Yale based on his musical proficiency. However, two weeks before the start of the school year, he attended a concert by Yo Yo Ma, who performed a piece from Bach's Suites for Unaccompanied Cello.  "His playing was so beautiful, so original, so intelligent, so effortless that by the end of the first movement, I knew my cello career was over," Salzman told the New Yorker.  He entered Yale and instead became a Chinese major.



The pleasures of reading The Soloist go beyond plot, in the way that any favorite book may mean more to you than solely witnessing the journey of a character through time. In part, the novel is a love poem to the cello, to its sonorous tone, to Johann Sebastian Bach, who composed the Cello Suites in 1720 and to the Spanish cellist Pablo Casals, who, 170 years later, came upon their sheet music and spent the next twelve years practicing their intricate dance and moods before sharing them with the public.

In the novel, Salzman makes distinctions between those who merely play music and those who are able to both play and feel music with their body and spirit.  He writes:

"I know from my own experience that the emotions in music are musical emotions, and develop according to their own rules of chemistry and experience. They resemble and can strongly evoke the emotions we associate with profound life experiences, like sexual love or the death of a parent, but you don't need to have those experiences to 'feel' music properly."

While Reinhardt, the story's narrator, has given up performance by the beginning of the book, he continues his association with the cello by serving as an instructor.  In this role, he meets Kyung-hee, a nine-year-old Korean boy, who is awkward, bullied by his mother (as Reinhardt himself was bullied), but is transported into a higher realm when he draws his bow across the strings and contorts his small hand at the fingerboard.


Upon hearing Kyung-hee play the cello, Reinhardt relates to the reader, "I could tell immediately and beyond any doubt that this boy felt the music. His interpretation was simply too fresh, too original to be explained by imitation. It had to come from some inner source, even though I had the impression that the music came from all around him."

While the Korean boy is not clinically a savant, he is like a special lamp that can only shine when the juice of music flows through him.  Otherwise, he is limp, gape-mouthed, and of little use. 

In this way, he mirrors Reinhardt, whose mother sheltered him--particularly from the opposite sex--as a young man, leaving him unprepared for life beyond the cello and the concert stage. As he tells the reader at the beginning of the book, "I'll be thirty-six years old this spring, which is young for a retired concert soloist but old for a virgin."

One thread of The Soloist follows Reinhardt and Kyung-hee on a quest toward wholeness as human beings, beyond parental pressure, beyond being musical performers, beyond ego and its narrow view of identity, and toward being present in their lives.


Soon after Reinhardt takes the young cellist on as a student, he receives a letter from the Superior Court of Los Angeles, summoning him to jury duty, where he is selected to serve on a murder trial. 

That the defendant in the trial has killed another man is of no dispute. A college dropout, Philip Weber had joined the Los Angeles Zen Foundation, a Buddhist Church, where he beat his Zen master, Kazuo Okakura, to death with the man's oak stick. The trial focuses instead on the question of sanity. Was Weber pushed to a breaking point by by the Zen master?  Did the severe meditation practices at the Foundation contribute to his breakdown?

Reinhardt learns that in the days leading up to the killing, Okakura had given a koan--that is, a riddle--to Weber to reflect upon during his meditation: "If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him!"  Weber takes the koan literally and murders Okakura.

The chapters that deal with the trial, as well as chapters that focus on Reinhardt's youth, give Salzman an opportunity to explore the role of the mentor in building or destroying the student he purports to help. As a young teen, the author found his path to inner strength in kung fu and his mentor in a martial arts expert. He held this man in high regard, but became disillusioned when his mentor choked another student for no other reason, Salzman saw, than the sadistic pleasure of the strong preying upon the weak.

While he continued to practice martial arts, he separated himself from that teacher, a story he tells in the documentary, The Protagonist, directed by his wife, Jessica Yu.



The United States' judicial system is not only a part of a story line in The Soloist, Salzman returns to it again in his non-fiction publication, True Notebooks, an account of his experiences as a writing teacher in Los Angeles' Central Juvenile Hall.   Upon entering the maximum security prison for juvenile offenders, he had expected to find a group of chest-thumping, self-hating young men whose interest in writing would only be to cast odes to the AK-47 assault rifle.  What Salzman found instead were boys who were emotionally younger than their ages.  He characterized them as "desert plants that haven't been watered for years." The process of writing became a "release of an enormous burden they'd been carrying." 


In his article,"Juvenile Justice In America," author Michael Varga writes, "What is hurting America today is the rate of incarceration of children. In the past twenty years, resources have continually been taken away from California's grammar schools, middle schools, and high schools. At the same time, there has been an exponential growth in funding to juvenile detention centers. This is reflective of what America values."

Mark Salzman's story in The Soloist and True Notebooks also point toward the lack of responsibility found in parents to raise and emotionally support the children they have brought into the world. Poet and essayist Robert Bly refers to this behavior as characteristic of a sibling society. In a PBS interview, Bly points out, "In America, the typical time a man spends in conversation with the son or daughter is ten minutes a day. In Russia, the old Russia, it was two hours a day."  


Philip Weber, the man on trial in The Soloist, is characterized as someone who hasn't found terra firma. He was raised by nannies instead of a father, who was regularly away on business, while his mother suffered under chronic mental illness. His teachers paid little attention to him. After Weber failed in college, his father sent him adrift for good. He tried to find his footing in the Unitarian Church, but instead found that its members were more interested in bake sales than in spiritual growth. He tried the Church of Scientology before he arrived at the Los Angeles Zen Foundation and committed his crime.

Weber and Reinhardt are alike in their incomplete maturation. Reinhardt spent his youth on the road from concert hall to concert hall, while his mother reveled in his fame. She was ruthless in ensuring that nothing would separate his attention from practice and performance. As a result, he lacked relationships with children of his own age and his father.

While he reluctantly takes on Kyung-hee as a student, the experience transforms him. He is no longer the boy, seeking his mother's approval, but the grown-up who finds that teaching is much more than being an educator; it is instead the ability to recognize the needs and talents of the student and the boy who inhabits that role. It is about being present for someone rather than living vicariously through them.


While writing this article, I listened to Bach's Suites for Unaccompanied Cello through interpretations by Yo Yo Ma and Pierre Fournier. What is it about the cello that it can evoke sadness and joy within the bowing of its strings? I also read Eric Siblin's first book, The Cello Suites: J.S. Bach, Pablo Casals, and The Search for a Baroque Masterpiece, which the Queen's Quarterly referred to as a "magnificent obsession...The way the doors opened onto other doors in his quest makes Alice's seem one-dimensional by comparison." 

The photos of the young cellist and the prison images used in this article are not from the book, but are displayed here to offer visual support to the text.

In attempt at summary for this article, I am sharing a video by ThePiano Guys as my wish to express the out-of-body experience in reading Salzman's novel, particularly its final paragraphs, which provide a sensation of running downhill when gravity takes hold of your legs and you are no longer in control of your body but are being carried along, as if by great wings.

2013/07/21

Maureen Cashin Bolog

by Lisa Adamowicz Kless

When thinking of finding a top-notch acting coach in the US, many people’s minds might automatically wander to Los Angeles.   I’m sure that it would be unexpected for them to find out that one resides and teaches in the Midwest; specifically, in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

Maureen Cashin Bolog
Many years ago, on a winter afternoon that was one of the most bitterly cold in over a decade, I had the pleasure of interviewing Maureen Cashin Bolog, owner of Actor’s Craft, and the top-notch acting coach mentioned above.  After welcoming me into her home, Maureen told me that she’d "put the kettle on", and was preparing hot tea for us (the prefect chance for me to defrost.) As she pulled out mugs and prepared our tea, I found that instead of being the "interviewer" myself, Maureen was asking about me, something that I haven’t encountered often in interviews since. Originally, our meeting was only supposed to last for forty-five minutes. Nearly four hours later, I left Maureen's home, warmed by not only the tea, but the company and conversation.

One of the first things I realized as we began to talk that day is that Maureen has a deep passion and enthusiasm for what she does.  With a master’s degree in television and film, she’s had the opportunity to study with some of the biggest names in the acting/coaching industry, including Ivana Chubbuck, whom Maureen has studied with many times. Maureen has the distinction of being the only acting coach in the Great Lakes area officially certified to teach The Chubbuck Technique. For those not familiar with Chubbuck, she’s one of the people that Halle Barry thanked when she accepted her Oscar, and has also worked with celebrities such as Beyonce and Charlize Theron.  Maureen has also studied with Howard Fine, once described as the "#1 Acting Coach To the Stars", and she uses the Haber phrase technique of Margie Haber, who’s also worked with many top actors.

Maureen and Ivana Chubbuck
Maureen brings all of that experience back to Kenosha when she coaches and teaches at Actor’s Craft, the business she started in 2005 to offer classes and programs for adults, teens and children.   She’s described her classes as being much more than your typical assembly line: "we're here for ten weeks and then you move on to the next class".  Instead, Maureen believes that as an acting coach/teacher, she needs to invest herself in the individual, paying attention to the details of their acting in order to help them be successful.   Her emphasis is that what one needs to do as an actor is to put yourself into a character, not the other way around. You have to consider how you would act and react if you lived in that time period, place, or in the circumstances in the script. Otherwise, she believes, if you're not bringing yourself to the roll, you risk playing not a character, but rather a caricature.

And with Wisconsin being called "the third coast" (the L.A., CA area and New York are the others) as far as the acting and film industries are concerned, Maureen and many others believe that the pieces are in place to make things happen. With more productions being filmed in the Midwest and with the opening of RDI in the Milwaukee region, she said it's not just a pipedream to have exciting film industry opportunities here in Wisconsin. The RDI studios feature three soundstages, in addition to dressing rooms and production offices, putting a lot of potential at Wisconsinites' fingertips.

Maureen and actor/Wisconsin native Tony Shalhoub at the RDI opening gala
Maureen has also worked (and still is working) with clients that have hearing or cognitive impairments. She counts them among the most dedicated of her students, and says that some of the techniques that they've practiced with her in class have had a positive impact on their daily lives.

She's also has been visiting residents of Woodstock Health and Rehabilitation Center in Kenosha for many years, offering activities for seniors that help them to find common ground and build camaraderie. "Our goal is to engage the senses as we stimulate creative thinking and facilitate friendships among residents, with integrity and and respect for the lives they lived, and continue to live", Maureen says.  

Maureen with some senior program participants 
Maureen has even expanded her programs to work with business professionals, helping them hone their public speaking and presentation skills.  She believes that the same techniques that help actors play powerful characters onscreen can help executives compete successfully too. She combined steps of the Chubbuck Technique, the "Physical Actor" program she created, as well as strategies used by Fortune 500 companies to create a new program called "The Dynamic Executive". Maureen is now using this program to work with professionals in medical, automotive, legal, industrial, and corporate fields.

The list of Maureen and Actor's Craft success stories is a long one, with clients going on to plenty of major projects and productions.  For example, student Aaron Farb first began studying at Actor's Craft before moving to Los Angeles, and has had roles in the movie 42, the second season premiere of GrimmDrop Dead Diva, and worked as a body double for Christian Bale in The Dark Knight Rises.  Another client won a $10,000 scholarship to New York Conservatory for Dramatic Arts, and credited Maureen with helping him reach that goal.  Some of Actor's Craft's child students have also used their acting skills to land roles in a Disney TV series, being cast as Simba in a The Lion King show in Las Vegas, acting in television commercials, and even appearing in music videos.

"It's important that I keep studying to improve.  I want to bring a (high caliber of training) back to Kenosha", Maureen told me when I first interviewed her, and based on the success that her students have enjoyed over the years, it seems that she's continuing to do just that.


To learn even more about Maureen Cashin Bolog and Actor's Craft, visit the website at www.actorscraftwisconsin.com.

2013/07/14

The Apartment

by Dave Gourdoux


Movies made in Hollywood between 1930 and 1968 were required to obey something called the "Motion Pictures Production Code".  The Production Code imposed ridiculously strict censoring rules on all films approved to be shown in the United States.  Any scene showing even a fully clothed man and woman in a bed together was prohibited, as was any kiss that lasted longer than three seconds.  Any discussion of "indecent" topics like homosexuality or attacks on such sacred institutions as marriage or government could only be hinted at.

These rules handcuffed any filmmakers interested in exploring serious subject matter.  Screenwriters and directors had to be uniquely creative to address mature content, oftentimes burying the real story behind symbols inserted into the main story.  More often than not, serious and personal directors like John Ford, Howard Hawks, and John Huston had to hide what they were really interested in behind conventional stories told in popular genres.

Comedies and westerns flourished in the production code era, primarily because they didn't require a lot of controversial subject matter.   Most westerns, for example, were simple and straight forward variations on the standard good versus evil conflict, while there was an abundance of unique and gifted comedians making inventive and broad and approachable comedies.  The Hollywood musical (I'm sorry, but 98% of which I just don't get) provided the wholesome escapism that the writers of the code thought movies should represent.  On the flip side, the film noir genre, one of the greatest and most significant artistic developments in the history of cinema, with its dark and sinister undercurrents that were always ominously hinted at, would have never existed, if not for the production code.  The makers of film noir hinted at those things the code forbid them from showing, and the films drew their power from the unseen presence of them in the shadowy darkness.

But filmmakers who were interested in creating truly personal films and exploring mature and complex themes without hiding behind an established genre were stifled, and became few and far between.  This is why, after the abolition of the production code, the late sixties and the seventies saw an explosion of talented American directors creating intensely personal masterpieces, and directors like Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, and Robert Altman created a new language of film.

Prior to 1968, foreign directors like Vittorio De Sica, Francois Truffaut, Ingmar Bergman, Akira Kurosawa, and Federico Fellini were making bold and personal statements that American filmmakers were unable to make.   The code forced conformity, and in the 50s, at the same time that a global renaissance was occurring, American films were at their most bland and banal. 

There were, of course, still brilliant American directors making great films.  John Ford's "The Searchers" and Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo", "Rear Window", and especially "Psycho", bent and twisted the limits of the production code to make intimate personal statements and break new ground.  With the release and success of Stanley Kubrick's "Doctor Strangelove" and "Lolita" in 1962 and 1964, it became apparent that the days of the code were numbered.

But of all the directors from the production code era, it was Billy Wilder that most consistently and stubbornly pushed its envelope.   Wilder's career began in 1939, as co-screenwriter of the classic "Ninochtka," directed by the great Ernst Lubitsch.  By 1944, he was already directing his own scripts, making his debut with the classic film noir, "Double Indemnity", and already laying the groundwork for the iconoclastic themes that would ultimately define him.

Wilder's films can be seen as examinations of cynicism.  "Double Indemnity" is about murder and insurance fraud, "Sunset Boulevard" is about the corruption of Hollywood,  "Ace in the Hole" is about the media's exploitation of real life tragedy, and "Stalag 17" is about a group of prisoners of war and their rush to judgement in identifying an informer among their ranks.  Each of these films has, at its center, an anti-hero. Sometimes, the anti-hero finds redemption, sometimes he doesn't; in "Sunset Boulevard," for example, the amoral screenwriter played by William Holden ends up dead in Gloria Swanson's swimming pool.

Jack Lemmon and Billy Wilder
The film I think that best defines Wilder's anti-hero and most deeply examines cynicism is 1960s' "The Apartment."  As C.C. Baxter, Jack Lemmon gives one of the greatest performances in the history of film as the lonely bachelor looking to get ahead in corporate America, represented here by a huge insurance company. Lemmon loans out his apartment to married managers in the company to have their affairs, in return for career advancement.  He hits the jackpot when the personnel manager, Sheldrake, a slimy monster played perfectly by the normally likable Fred MacMurray, begins using the apartment for the latest in a long string of office affairs.  MacMurray is brilliant in portraying his character as so thick and dim-witted that he has no concept of the lives he is damaging; he is almost pathological in his evil. 

Shirley MacLaine and the sociopath ... Fred MacMurray?
While MacMurray is a monster, what are we to make of Lemmon's character?  On the surface, at least, Lemmon is just as immoral as other great Wilder hucksters, like the reporter played by Kirk Douglas in "Ace in the Hole", or the screenwriter Holden plays in "Sunset Boulevard."  The difference is in "The Apartment," Wilder lets us see how desperately lonely C.C. Baxter is, and how naively he pursues his corporate ambitions.  Like Willy Loman in Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman," Baxter emerges as a tragic figure, a man who invests too much in his belief of the wrong dream.

What ultimately saves Baxter, what makes him eventually stand up to Sheldrake, is love.  Baxter has been slowly and privately falling in love with the elevator operator Fran Kubley, played by Shirley MacLaine.  He then learns that the woman Sheldrake has been meeting with in his apartment is none other than Kubley.  Sheldrake drives Kubley to attempted suicide. Baxter discovers her in his apartment and revives her.  Even then, Baxter remains faithful to Sheldrake, and tries to make excuses for him, until even he finally sees the depths of Sheldrake's evil.

So Wilder gives us a petty but ambitious low level corporate employee who is willing to sell himself and even the woman he loves in return for advancement as the hero.  Why on earth would we ever care about such a weak and amoral figure? Well, I'd say it's about one third the genius of Wilder's script, and the other two thirds the genius of Lemmon's performance.

Lemmon, who at the time was known primarily as a comic actor (coming off one of the greatest comedic performances ever in Wilder's previous film, "Some Like it Hot"), makes Baxter so earnest and naive that we can't help but like him.  In portraying Baxter's loneliness, Lemmon injects a level of pathos comparable to the great Charlie Chaplin.  He wears Baxter's heart on his incredibly expressive face, and we watch him fall in love with MacLaine, we watch him gradually realize how evil MacMurray really is, and we watch and cheer him on as he eventually redeems himself. 

MacLaine is perfectly cast as the love interest.  As written byWilder, her character has some of the same flaws as Lemmon's; while she is never as naive, she still gives Sheldrake more chances than she should.  At the root of her troubles is the simple fact that she is just as lonely as Baxter.  MacLaine makes you feel her loneliness and the inner conflict that drives her to attempted suicide.

"Just shut up and deal"
"The Apartment" is, more than anything else, about two lonely people who turn to deeply cynical choices in attempted escapes from their loneliness.  That they find each other is a rare triumph in Wilder's world of love over cynicism. 

As a filmmaker, Wilder always remained a writer first.  As a director, he hated elaborate shots or fancy camera tricks, saying that they detracted from the script.   His greatest gift as a director was his handling of actors; seventeen times actors or actresses in a Wilder film were nominated for an academy award.  His films are visually lean and efficient; nothing is wasted, while the stories and the acting are always first rate.  Wilder was nominated for the Best Director Academy Award eight times, and eleven times for screen writing.

"The Apartment" was marketed as a comedy, and although there are occasional funny lines and comically awkward situations, in interviews, both Wilder and Lemmon agreed that the film is anything but.  Neither one of them ever understood how it got branded as such.

Corporate America work place circa 1960 ...  those aren't computers on all those desks
Today, it's interesting to watch "The Apartment" and compare it to the AMC series "Mad Men."  There are a lot of similarities in the two portrayals of the workplace.   It's also interesting to see the hundreds of workers crammed together in rows and rows of desks, and not see a single computer anywhere.   It's an interesting view into what the corporate workplace looked like before the digital revolution.

As far as the production code:  in "The Apartment," there is a tremendous amount of sex going on, with men and women who are not married to each other.  It all occurs offscreen, but there's no denying that its going on.  It isn't implied or hinted at; it's right there, and it's central to the film's plot.  This made "The Apartment" quite the risque movie when it was released.  It's also a tribute to Wilder's ability as a screenwriter that a direct and adult themed movie could be made that complied with the code's rules without insulting its audience's intelligence.

"The Apartment" was a critical and commercial success.  Nominated for ten academy awards, it won five, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay.  Its success made it easier for more films to take chances,  and eventually helped bring about the demise of the production code.

Jack Lemmon strains the spaghetti as Shirley MacLaine looks on
It's interesting that "The Apartment" is Wilder's last great film.  As the influence of the production code waned and filmmakers were given greater freedoms, Wilder's subsequent movies seemed to lag behind, and seemed to grow further and further anachronistic.  He seemed out of touch with the times.  It's as if, spending so much of his career trying to overcome the limitations of the production code, once it was gone, he didn't know what to do with artistic freedom.

For more information, visit IMDb: www.imdb.com/title/tt0053604