What Did Ancient Romans Eat? New Novel Serves Up Meals And Intrigue


Fortified dwelling and open air banquet, detail from a mosaic portraying a Nilotic landscape from El Alia, Tunisia. Roman Civilisation, 2nd century. Musée National Du Bardo (Archaeological Museum)

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Fortified dwelling and open air banquet, detail from a mosaic portraying a Nilotic landscape from El Alia, Tunisia. Roman Civilisation, 2nd century. Musée National Du Bardo (Archaeological Museum)

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“Marcus Gavius Apicius purchased me on a day hot enough to fry sausage on the market stones.”

So begins the tale of Thrasius, the fictional narrator of Feast of Sorrow. Released this week, the novel is based on the real life of ancient Roman noble Marcus Gavius Apicius, who is thought to have inspired and contributed to the world’s oldest surviving cookbook, a ten-volume collection titled Apicius.

But it is Crystal King’s Feast of Sorrow that brings readers into the kitchens of ancient Rome, where nobles and slaves jockeyed for position by using food as bargaining chips for personal and professional advancement — whether it’s the radishes that Thrasius carves into roses for his lady love and fellow slave, Passia, or the pig-shaped pastries stuffed with ham that he makes to delight the dinner guests of his gluttonous master. For Thrasius, relocating from the countryside to the metropolis also means the coveted opportunity to cook, and serve, the exotic animals killed by Roman gladiators: bears, tigers, rhinoceros.

During Apicius’ time, in the 1st century AD, the Roman Empire stretched from northern Europe to Africa, with a total population estimated up to 100 million people. It was an empire filled with ingredients and food traditions that made their way to the capital city with traders and slaves. At the same time, Romans were extremely influential throughout the empire, bringing the original versions of everything from haggis to French toast to Roman settlements.

“As conquerors, Romans brought their food and lifestyle with them,” King says. “Excavations in Britain have turned up many food artifacts that originated in Rome, like garlic, asparagus and turnips.”

History tells us that Apicius had a voracious appetite for the finest foods. The Roman naturalist Pliny, a contemporary of the gourmand, reported that Apicius referred to flamingo tongues as being “of the most exquisite flavor.” Apicius is also credited with inventing what is considered to be the world’s first version of foie gras, made from pigs rather than geese.

“We think of foie gras as a French delicacy,” says King, “but it was well-documented that Apicius was known for feeding his pigs with dried figs and then overdosing them with honeyed wine to produce fatty livers.”

Feast of Sorrow

A Novel of Ancient Rome

by Crystal King

Hardcover, 406 pages |

purchase

But at the center of Feast of Sorrow is the view of the ancient Roman world, by turns exciting and cruel, through the eyes of slave Thrasius, a talented cook who is purchased by Apicius for the unimaginable sum of 20,000 denarii, about 10 times the yearly wages of a common soldier.

“Apicius would have gone out of his way to pay for the best cook,” asserts King. “He was a lover of luxury who traveled the world in search of the best ingredients, at great expense. He would want to have his kitchen led by someone who could do justice to those ingredients.” Indeed, his renown as an epicure inspired the eponymous cookbook Apicius, published three centuries after his death.

Thrasius soon learns that Apicius seeks to elevate his political power by serving elaborate meals to the Roman elite, dishes made with the most sought-after ingredients of the time, from oysters to silphium, an herb native to present-day Libya that was already going extinct during the time of Apicius, despite desperate attempts at cultivation.

“Silphium was their most precious flavoring,” says King. “In fact, it was so prized that you’ll find its image on coins.” Indeed, in Feast of Sorrow, Thrasius is flattered to be given an amulet by Apicius emblazoned with the silphium leaf, a symbol of how prized he is by his master.

With romance, intrigue and tragedy supplied in abundance throughout the story, it’s the book’s title which provides clues as to the downfall that must inevitably come from Apicius’ insatiable hunger. “The characters’ lives are consumed by sorrow, even as they are consuming these feasts,” King says. “Apicius has everything, yet at the same time, he has nothing.”

9th-century manuscript De re culininaria (sometimes De re coquinaria), attributed to Apicius.

Courtesy of The New York Academy of Medicine Library


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Courtesy of The New York Academy of Medicine Library

Using food as a central theme for the story was a logical concept in King’s view, because food was such a precious commodity.

“Even the word ‘salary’ comes from the Latin word ‘salarium’,” she says, referring to a Roman soldier’s allowance for purchasing salt. During the process of writing elaborate descriptions of roasted hyacinth bulbs and morels cooked in wine, King felt the need to delve into Roman cookery, consulting with historians. The result is a companion digital cookbook called A Taste of Feast of Sorrow.

What King found was that ancient Roman cuisine was far different from modern-day Italian recipes, as lemons, tomatoes and pasta were not yet part of the culinary landscape. Instead, she found herself trying to learn how to stomach the flavor of garum, a potent fish sauce made from fish entrails that was found in nearly every dish of the time.

“I grew up in a landlocked area,” King says, “and I’m not really that fond of fish. Garum was the hardest for me to figure out, but when you use it sparingly — sometimes just a couple of drops — it isn’t really fishy, but adds salt and umami.”

King and her husband now make Parthian chicken regularly, a roasted chicken flavored with sweet white wine and asfoetida powder — a substitute for the long-extinct silphium. Still, she laments that she’ll never know what certain ancient delicacies, like peacock, taste like.

On the other hand, some delicacies are perhaps better left to the imagination. “Dormice were fried and eaten whole,” she notes with a bit of a shudder. “Romans would eat all the pieces of the animal, and I mean all the pieces. We talk about ‘tail to hoof’ eating today, but they took it to a whole other level. I’ll stick to the Parthian chicken.”

Honey Fritters—Apicius 7. 1 1 .6 and Cato 79

By Crystal King

Honey fritters

Courtesy of Simon and Schuster


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Courtesy of Simon and Schuster

Honey fritters

Courtesy of Simon and Schuster

The Apicius cookbook has a simple fried dough recipe that calls for the cook to combine coarse wheat flour (or semolina) with water or milk over heat until it’s a thick porridge. That mixture is spread out on a sheet, cut into pieces then fried in oil, drenched in honey then sprinkled with pepper. However, the ancient Roman Cato, in his treatise On Agriculture, has a tastier recipe.

Mix the cheese and spelt in the same way, sufficient to make the number desired. Pour lard into a hot copper vessel, and fry one or two at a time, turning them frequently with two rods, and remove when done. Spread with honey, sprinkle with poppy-seed, and serve.

Simply put, take equal parts ricotta or other soft cheese and flour (you can use any type of flour that is to your liking), form it into dough balls, then fry in oil. Let cool, roll in honey and sprinkle in poppy seeds. These are extra good if sprinkled with pepper and if you substitute poppy seeds for toasted sesame seeds. To get a sense of proportion, a half cup of ricotta and a half cup of flour will make approximately six 1-inch fritters.

Paula Hawkins Prepares To Dive ‘Into The Water’


Paula Hawkins’ 2015 book — The Girl on the Train — was a massive bestseller. A tense domestic thriller with a boozy, unstable narrator, it caught the imagination of a reading public desperate for the kinds of dark deeds and desperate women Gillian Flynn pioneered in Gone Girl a few years earlier.

Back then, Hawkins was down on her luck after a string of unsuccessful romantic comedies written under a pen name — now, she’s one of the highest-paid authors in the world. So how do you follow up that kind of smash?

Hawkins is about publish a new book, Into the Water, about a small English town with a sinister history of drowned women. She says the huge success of The Girl on the Train hasn’t really changed her, but it hasn’t been easy, either. She’s happiest when she’s just left alone to write, and alone time can be scarce when you’re a number one bestseller.

“I write best when I can immerse myself in a book, and in the characters,” she tells me. “Having to drop everything to run off and talk about your old characters. It’s really quite difficult for me.” Those interruptions meant that writing her new book took longer than she’d hoped — but there was one thing that was helpful: A walk by the water.

Hawkins and I go for a stroll through Victoria Park in East London — it’s a bright, blustery day, and as we wander by the rows of houseboats on Regents Canal, it feels like we’re a million miles away from the dark worlds Hawkins creates.

Water “can conceal,” says author Paula Hawkins. “You don’t know what lies beneath it.”

Alisa Connan


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Alisa Connan

“It’s a lovely walk, down by the canal, and walking is my way of sorting through things — if I’ve got a problem, I often go for a walk. A writing problem, I mean.”

There are no lovely walks by calm currents in Into the Water — it’s set in the fictional English town of Beckford, where troublesome women have an unfortunate tendency to end up in what the locals call the Drowning Pool. The book begins with one of those drowned women, Nel, whose death draws her sister Jules back to Beckford after decades away.

Everyone has a relationship to the water, Hawkins says. She herself has happy memories of swimming during beach vacations in Zimbabwe, where she grew up. But sometimes that water got rough. “There were some frightening moments as well. And I think for some people, a frightening moment can turn into a phobia. And this is what I’ve sort of looked at in this book.

In Into the Water, people look at Beckford’s river and they see all kinds of different things. At one point, a character describes it as “infected by the blood and bile of persecuted women.” Hawkins laughs when I bring that up.

“Indeed! That’s the thing about water, if you live near water,” she says. “It’s ever-changing, isn’t it? It’s never quite the same. I remember walking along a beautiful stream, thinking about what a lovely place this would be to go for a swim, and we came around a corner and there was a dead sheep, washed up a bit. So yes, it can conceal, can’t it. You don’t know what lies beneath. And that’s a big theme in Into the Water.

I’m beginning to get the sense that despite her cheerful childhood, Hawkins is definitely the kind of person who sees the skull beneath the skin. “I am something of a pessimist, and I do tend to think of worst-case scenarios in any given situation.” she says. “But I think I’m just fascinated by working out how people react in extreme circumstances, how people react to tragedy or adversity.”

The Girl on the Train followed a woman in the depths of adversity, an alcoholic who’d lost everything — job, marriage, home, and big chunks of her memory — who began to make up dangerous stories about the people she saw every day through the train windows as she pretended to commute to her long-gone job. That story was inspired by Hawkins’ daily travels. But one of the ways you can follow up a big success is to do something different, and she says her new book comes from somewhere quite different, somewhere not as rooted in her own life

“I was thinking about siblings, family relationships, the way in which we tell stories about our lives, how sometimes, you can remember something from childhood, and then you’ll have a conversation with other members of your family, and they’ll remember that that event in a completely different way. I was wondering about what happens if actually the thing that you’re mis-remembering or that you disagree on is absolutely fundamental to you. What would that do to you when you discover it later.”

There are some threads that seem to run through both books — particularly the idea that what we remember, or even what we see in front of us is not what’s true. “There are characters in Into the Water who present themselves as upstanding pillars of community,” Hawkins says, “and we know from experience that people who present themselves as paragons of virtue are often not.”

With any new book, there’s always pressure — will readers bite? Will critics bite harder? That pressure’s doubled when you’re trying to avoid the dreaded sophomore slump. And so far, critical response to Into the Water has been, well, mixed.

“If she had just done Girl on the Train 2, I don’t think a lot of people would have blamed her for replicating it,” says Janet Maslin. She’s a contributing critic for the New York Times. “I really like what she did with The Girl on the Train, and I’m sorry to say that I would have preferred something much more like that.”

But that’s part of being an author — you may love your book, you may labor over it for years, but once it goes out into the world, Hawkins says, you have to let it go. “It is terrifying, and yet it’s almost like stepping off a cliff, isn’t it? The book is out there. I can’t change anything now, the reviewers have it. They will react how they react. Readers will react how they react. There’s nothing you can do now, so just take deep breaths.

And perhaps, take a calming walk by the water.

Editor Rose Friedman and producer Andrew Limbong contributed to this story.

The Journalists Who Wring Life Out Of Death: ‘Obit’


Obit profiles the Obituaries desk of The New York Times, where journalists distill whole lifetimes into 800 words.

Kino Lorber


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Kino Lorber

Obit profiles the Obituaries desk of The New York Times, where journalists distill whole lifetimes into 800 words.

Kino Lorber

They say everyone dies twice: once when they take their last breath, and again when their name is spoken aloud for the last time. The heartfelt and unshakable new documentary Obit, a profile of the Obituaries section at the New York Times, considers the people who have devoted their professions to extending the period between those two deaths. A well-crafted obituary will enshrine its subject in the collective memory, but it’s a balance between sentimental eulogy and tough reportage. Says one of the interviewees, “We put word limits on human beings.”

Director Vanessa Gould was inspired to make her film after the Times ran an obituary on a friend of hers, the reclusive French sculptor Eric Joisel, whom she featured in her first documentary Between the Folds. And though Gould never reveals herself on camera, it is abundantly clear that Obit was made by someone who, to paraphrase featured obituarist Bruce Weber, has encountered death before and knows how to approach the subject with compassion. This caring eye is the movie’s secret strength, the thing that elevates it from a morbid exercise in nostalgia to a touching inquiry on the nature of public legacy amid the ceaseless march of time.

Gould follows a day in the lives of the Times Obits desk, a team of around a half-dozen writers, editors, and researchers who go to work every morning and ask, “Who died?” Then it’s a mad scramble to get a meaningful 800-word summary of the winner’s life into the paper before deadline. The day unfolds as a series of ordained tasks: first, consoling the grieving next-of-kin over the phone, while extracting from them the most basic, unpleasant facts of the moment (time and cause of death, past marriages, medical history). Then it’s off to the “morgue,” the name for the Times archival room housing decades’ worth of clippings on thousands of people, shelved among endless rows of filing cabinets. Formerly staffed by a team of researchers, the “morgue” today is run by just one person, Jeff Roth. Gould’s camera follows him in tie and rolled-up sleeves as he moves across the aisles and skims his fingers along yellowed pages, marveling at his kingdom of the past.

Obit is the third documentary to be granted permission to film inside the Times offices, the others being the generalist state-of-the-news report Page One and Bill Cunningham New York, a profile of the celebrated photographer (whose own obituary flashes briefly here). Both Cunningham and the subjects of Page One, David Carr and Brian Stelter, were charismatic onscreen presences. The Obit writers themselves — including Weber and Margalit Fox, a trained cellist who writes marvelously, but speaks in cliches like “robbing Peter to pay Paul” — are not. And so we learn very little of them outside the newsroom, which is perhaps for the best, even if it does create the impression that the folks doing this work are well-read Grim Reapers. (One former obit writer, Doug Martin, wryly complains he never gets to meet the subjects he covers.)

Instead, Gould and her editor Kristen Bye accentuate the prose in question with crisply edited video of the obituary subjects’ lives, both on their own terms and, in poetic bookending montages, weaved into the larger narrative of the past century of human history. Ironically, given that most of the film is set in a quiet office, it shows a preference for daredevils: prominent position is given to oarsman John Fairfax, who conquered both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, and aviator Elinor Smith, who set numerous flying records as a 16-year-old pilot. In fact, Smith beat her own odds in the Times, which, way back in 1931, had prepped an “advance obituary” (a write-up of a person’s life while they’re still alive) in the event she had gone down with her plane during a particularly gnarly stunt. The film is lighter on faces of color, and Fox’s explanation of why so many of her subjects are white males seems to open a door that Gould is unwilling to enter.

When discussions turn to moments of obit history, like the time the team had only a couple hours to react to the death of Michael Jackson before going to press, the film cannot help but serve as its own advance obituary for the age of newsprint. Its descriptions of the thrills of beating a deadline or arguing over whether a person’s life deserves “the front page” or “above the fold” feel like another enshrinement of a dying era. Those things still matter, as do those steadfast word limits — for now. And the measure of a human feels more noteworthy when it’s eating up some limited quantity of space on a page, instead of a couple of kilobytes in the infinite void of the Internet, where everything is both immortal and easily forgotten.

But the printed quietude won’t last, as obituaries are beginning to suffer from the same breakneck pace as the rest of the modern news cycle, and are therefore expected to appear instantaneously with the first TMZ banner. When Philip Seymour Hoffman died on a Sunday morning in 2014 at the age of 46, readers were complaining that a piece hadn’t written itself immediately. Meanwhile, the paper that’s willing to run such attentive cradle-to-grave articles continues to face its own challenges. Weber himself has taken a buyout from the Times since Obit‘s premiere at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival—though many of his advance obituaries will continue to appear as his subjects take their leave from the world stage, including, just this week, his deeply reported and thoughtful remembrance of director Jonathan Demme. Watching Obit, and then reading that obit, makes clear another old truism: there is much life to be found when one looks at death.

A Behind-The-Scenes Couple Get Star Treatment In ‘Harold And Lillian’


Howard and Lillian: A True Hollywood Love Story chronicles the marriage of Lillian and Howard Michelson, who triumphed over challenges that have doomed many Hollywood couples.

Zeitgeist Films


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Zeitgeist Films

Howard and Lillian: A True Hollywood Love Story chronicles the marriage of Lillian and Howard Michelson, who triumphed over challenges that have doomed many Hollywood couples.

Zeitgeist Films

What it is like to be married in Hollywood? We have a good idea about what it’s like to be divorced in Hollywood, we’ve seen famous couples run aground by egos and scandal, and we’re well-versed in the ups-and-downs of a lifestyle where fortunes vary and relationship are jostled like luggage on a turbulent flight. The beautiful documentary Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story celebrates a marriage and creative partnership that lasted six decades in the business, one that survived stretches of poverty and joblessness, catastrophic injury and alcoholism, and the challenges of raising an autistic son at a time when “refrigerator mothers” were blamed for the condition. Bottom line: A Hollywood marriage can be sublime and inspiring, but it’s always an adventure.

Though well-known and beloved by their peers, Harold and Lillian Michelson had the sorts of jobs that are often so far below the line that they’re not credited at all. As a production designer and art director, Harold would eventually earn Academy Award nominations for Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Terms of Endearment, but for the bulk of his career, dating back to an apprenticeship at Columbia Pictures in the late ’40s, he worked the art department as a concept illustrator and storyboard artist. Despite a passion for books and a formidable intellect — she was a spelling bee champion in her youth — Lillian stayed home and raised their three children until the early ’60s, when Harold was brought onto the lot at Samuel Goldwyn. He helped land her a volunteer position in the research library across the street, and a second career was born.

Only the most hardcore cinephiles have heard of the Michelsons, but even casual viewers are familiar with their work. Harold’s talent for adjusting his storyboards for different camera lenses and telling stories shot-by-shot is readily apparent in sword-and-sandal epics like The Ten Commandments, Ben Hur, and Spartacus, and he worked side-by-side with Alfred Hitchcock on The Birds and Marnie, two of the master’s most strikingly composed films. One of the most famous shots in cinema history — Benjamin Braddock framed by Mrs. Robinson’s leg in The Graduate — appeared first on Harold’s sketchbook before it was immortalized on screen. He wouldn’t start collecting more prominent credits until later, when he worked in production design and/or art direction for filmmakers like Mel Brooks and Danny DeVito.

For her part, Lillian toiled in the research department, where she quietly unearthed the specific period details and bric-a-brac that would lend real-world authenticity to Hollywood fictions. In Harold and Lillian, she describes the extraordinary lengths she would go to get things right, like querying old Jewish women at a deli to find out what 1890s bloomers looked like for Fiddler on the Roof or pressing ex- (and current) drug lords and DEA agents for information relevant to Scarface. When asked the impossible, like getting photos from inside CIA headquarters, she could deliver. She talks about research as a “time machine” that allows her to access other worlds, much as she did as a five-year-old orphan in Miami Beach.

Lillian’s voice carries the documentary — Harold died in 2008, though he left a wealth of interview footage behind — and collaborators like DeVito (who also executive-produced), Brooks, and Francis Ford Coppola offer themselves as talking heads, along with other researchers, storyboard artists and technicians in the field. Harold’s extensive illustrations of their lives together — including a marvelous tradition of homemade birthday and anniversary cards, adorned by sweet poems and artwork — give Harold and Lillian all the visual panache it needs, much like a real-life version of the side-by-side comparisons between his storyboards and a finished sequence.

The stories Lillian tells are a treasure-trove of personal and professional anecdotes, doubling as a side history of Hollywood itself. But Harold and Lillian is most affecting as a tribute to their marriage, which was full of romance and hardship and uncertainty, but built from the beginning on mutual respect and enthusiasm. “You must have shared experiences for a marriage to have some kind of soil to grow on,” she says, offering a key insight into why so many Hollywood marriages struggle to last. In a business where individual success waxes and wanes, and each new production is a job that will eventually be lost, the Michelsons rode out its crazy vicissitudes with something approaching harmony and grace. Theirs is a model few will ever get to follow.

‘BANG! The Bert Berns Story': The Complicated Man Behind ‘Twist And Shout’


Bert Berns (left) and Jerry Wexler (right) wrote The Drifters’ “I Don’t Want to Go On Without You” in 1964. (But when the music business drove them apart, they did anyway.)

Abramorama


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Abramorama

Bert Berns (left) and Jerry Wexler (right) wrote The Drifters’ “I Don’t Want to Go On Without You” in 1964. (But when the music business drove them apart, they did anyway.)

Abramorama

There are many explanations for Bertrand Russell Berns’ relative obscurity. The subject of Bang! The Bert Berns Story flopped as a performer, and so turned to songwriting and producing. He sometimes composed under aliases such as Bert Russell and Russell Byrd. And several of his tunes became associated with their performers, who were widely assumed to have written them.

Also, Berns died young, succumbing to the long-term effects of childhood rheumatic fever at 38. It was 1967, and rock ‘n’ roll was just beginning to be chronicled by sympathetic observers.

So Berns is less remembered than his songs, which include “Piece of My Heart,” “Tell Him,” and “Here Comes the Night.” These were all written during an eight-year run whose first success was the Jarmels’ 1961 “A Little Bit of Soap.” The soap, the group sang, “will never wash away the tears” — a Berns motif. A child of Russian Jewish immigrants and the polyglot Bronx, Berns wrote almost as many weepies as Appalachia’s Hank Williams.

It’s a compelling story, told unobtrusively by directors Brett Berns — the musician’s son — and Bob Sarles. The documentary may not have widespread appeal, but should engross viewers who know the songs but not the man behind them.

Berns was one of many white (and mostly Jewish) New Yorkers who in the early 1960s wrote and produced for African American performers. These acts included the Drifters, Solomon Burke, Ben E. King, Garnett Mimms, the Exciters, and the Isley Brothers, who scored with “Twist and Shout,” a song to which co-writer Berns brought the Afro-Cuban beat he loved.

Among Berns’ peers and collaborators were Mike Stoller, Jeff Barry, Brooks Arthur, Richard Gottehrer, Jerry Ragavoy, and the late Ellie Greenwich, all of whom appear in Bang! Another associate was Atlantic Records’ Jerry Wexler, who became a nemesis after Berns’ BANG! Records proved a strong competitor. (Atlantic actually backed BANG!, whose name was derived from the initials of Berns and the label’s ruling troika: Ahmet Ertegun, Nesuhi Ertegun, and Gerald Wexler.)

After his songs began to be covered by British rock bands, Berns did three stints in London, working with Lulu and Them, whose singer was Van Morrison. That led to Berns’ production of Morrison’s first solo album. In Bang!, Morrison, Paul McCartney, and Keith Richards all extol Berns’ gifts and influence.

Although his preference was for R&B, Berns also launched the careers of Rick Derringer (then with The McCoys) and Neil Diamond. The latter is probably not a Berns fan. After Diamond asked to be released from his BANG! contract, one of his gigs was disrupted and his manager was assaulted.

A coincidence? Bang! is no exposé, but it doesn’t ignore Berns’ links to gangsters. One of them, Carmine DeNoia, even appears on camera to recount some of his milder misdeeds. As befits his nickname — Wassel, a child-like mispronunciation of “Rascal” — he doesn’t appear all that scary. But Berns’ pals and protectors also included Tommy Eboli, acting boss of the Genovese crime clan.

Perhaps that connection is what inspired the filmmakers to enlist Steve Van Zandt to narrate the movie in a Sopranos-worthy growl. The cliche-loaded lines he speaks were written by Joel Selvin, who penned a 2014 Berns biography.

Fortunately, Van Zandt says less than Berns’ friends and family, notably wife Ilene, who outlived him by 40 years. Thuggish business practices aside, Berns seems to have inspired much love and admiration, partly by being color-blind in an industry that treated great black singers as hired help.

Of course, one way Berns endeared himself to such on-screen reminiscers as Cissy Houston, Ronald Isley, and the Exciters’ Brenda Reid was simply by giving them great songs to sing.

The Journalists Who Wring Life Out Of Death: ‘Obit’


Obit profiles the Obituaries desk of The New York Times, where journalists distill whole lifetimes into 800 words.

Kino Lorber


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Kino Lorber

Obit profiles the Obituaries desk of The New York Times, where journalists distill whole lifetimes into 800 words.

Kino Lorber

They say everyone dies twice: once when they take their last breath, and again when their name is spoken aloud for the last time. The heartfelt and unshakable new documentary Obit, a profile of the Obituaries section at the New York Times, considers the people who have devoted their professions to extending the period between those two deaths. A well-crafted obituary will enshrine its subject in the collective memory, but it’s a balance between sentimental eulogy and tough reportage. Says one of the interviewees, “We put word limits on human beings.”

Director Vanessa Gould was inspired to make her film after the Times ran an obituary on a friend of hers, the reclusive French sculptor Eric Joisel, whom she featured in her first documentary Between the Folds. And though Gould never reveals herself on camera, it is abundantly clear that Obit was made by someone who, to paraphrase featured obituarist Bruce Weber, has encountered death before and knows how to approach the subject with compassion. This caring eye is the movie’s secret strength, the thing that elevates it from a morbid exercise in nostalgia to a touching inquiry on the nature of public legacy amid the ceaseless march of time.

Gould follows a day in the lives of the Times Obits desk, a team of around a half-dozen writers, editors, and researchers who go to work every morning and ask, “Who died?” Then it’s a mad scramble to get a meaningful 800-word summary of the winner’s life into the paper before deadline. The day unfolds as a series of ordained tasks: first, consoling the grieving next-of-kin over the phone, while extracting from them the most basic, unpleasant facts of the moment (time and cause of death, past marriages, medical history). Then it’s off to the “morgue,” the name for the Times archival room housing decades’ worth of clippings on thousands of people, shelved among endless rows of filing cabinets. Formerly staffed by a team of researchers, the “morgue” today is run by just one person, Jeff Roth. Gould’s camera follows him in tie and rolled-up sleeves as he moves across the aisles and skims his fingers along yellowed pages, marveling at his kingdom of the past.

Obit is the third documentary to be granted permission to film inside the Times offices, the others being the generalist state-of-the-news report Page One and Bill Cunningham New York, a profile of the celebrated photographer (whose own obituary flashes briefly here). Both Cunningham and the subjects of Page One, David Carr and Brian Stelter, were charismatic onscreen presences. The Obit writers themselves — including Weber and Margalit Fox, a trained cellist who writes marvelously, but speaks in cliches like “robbing Peter to pay Paul” — are not. And so we learn very little of them outside the newsroom, which is perhaps for the best, even if it does create the impression that the folks doing this work are well-read Grim Reapers. (One former obit writer, Doug Martin, wryly complains he never gets to meet the subjects he covers.)

Instead, Gould and her editor Kristen Bye accentuate the prose in question with crisply edited video of the obituary subjects’ lives, both on their own terms and, in poetic bookending montages, weaved into the larger narrative of the past century of human history. Ironically, given that most of the film is set in a quiet office, it shows a preference for daredevils: prominent position is given to oarsman John Fairfax, who conquered both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, and aviator Elinor Smith, who set numerous flying records as a 16-year-old pilot. In fact, Smith beat her own odds in the Times, which, way back in 1931, had prepped an “advance obituary” (a write-up of a person’s life while they’re still alive) in the event she had gone down with her plane during a particularly gnarly stunt. The film is lighter on faces of color, and Fox’s explanation of why so many of her subjects are white males seems to open a door that Gould is unwilling to enter.

When discussions turn to moments of obit history, like the time the team had only a couple hours to react to the death of Michael Jackson before going to press, the film cannot help but serve as its own advance obituary for the age of newsprint. Its descriptions of the thrills of beating a deadline or arguing over whether a person’s life deserves “the front page” or “above the fold” feel like another enshrinement of a dying era. Those things still matter, as do those steadfast word limits — for now. And the measure of a human feels more noteworthy when it’s eating up some limited quantity of space on a page, instead of a couple of kilobytes in the infinite void of the Internet, where everything is both immortal and easily forgotten.

But the printed quietude won’t last, as obituaries are beginning to suffer from the same breakneck pace as the rest of the modern news cycle, and are therefore expected to appear instantaneously with the first TMZ banner. When Philip Seymour Hoffman died on a Sunday morning in 2014 at the age of 46, readers were complaining that a piece hadn’t written itself immediately. Meanwhile, the paper that’s willing to run such attentive cradle-to-grave articles continues to face its own challenges. Weber himself has taken a buyout from the Times since Obit‘s premiere at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival—though many of his advance obituaries will continue to appear as his subjects take their leave from the world stage, including, just this week, his deeply reported and thoughtful remembrance of director Jonathan Demme. Watching Obit, and then reading that obit, makes clear another old truism: there is much life to be found when one looks at death.

A Behind-The-Scenes Couple Get Star Treatment In ‘Harold And Lillian’


Howard and Lillian: A True Hollywood Love Story chronicles the marriage of Lillian and Howard Michelson, who triumphed over challenges that have doomed many Hollywood couples.

Zeitgeist Films


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Howard and Lillian: A True Hollywood Love Story chronicles the marriage of Lillian and Howard Michelson, who triumphed over challenges that have doomed many Hollywood couples.

Zeitgeist Films

What it is like to be married in Hollywood? We have a good idea about what it’s like to be divorced in Hollywood, we’ve seen famous couples run aground by egos and scandal, and we’re well-versed in the ups-and-downs of a lifestyle where fortunes vary and relationship are jostled like luggage on a turbulent flight. The beautiful documentary Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story celebrates a marriage and creative partnership that lasted six decades in the business, one that survived stretches of poverty and joblessness, catastrophic injury and alcoholism, and the challenges of raising an autistic son at a time when “refrigerator mothers” were blamed for the condition. Bottom line: A Hollywood marriage can be sublime and inspiring, but it’s always an adventure.

Though well-known and beloved by their peers, Harold and Lillian Michelson had the sorts of jobs that are often so far below the line that they’re not credited at all. As a production designer and art director, Harold would eventually earn Academy Award nominations for Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Terms of Endearment, but for the bulk of his career, dating back to an apprenticeship at Columbia Pictures in the late ’40s, he worked the art department as a concept illustrator and storyboard artist. Despite a passion for books and a formidable intellect — she was a spelling bee champion in her youth — Lillian stayed home and raised their three children until the early ’60s, when Harold was brought onto the lot at Samuel Goldwyn. He helped land her a volunteer position in the research library across the street, and a second career was born.

Only the most hardcore cinephiles have heard of the Michelsons, but even casual viewers are familiar with their work. Harold’s talent for adjusting his storyboards for different camera lenses and telling stories shot-by-shot is readily apparent in sword-and-sandal epics like The Ten Commandments, Ben Hur, and Spartacus, and he worked side-by-side with Alfred Hitchcock on The Birds and Marnie, two of the master’s most strikingly composed films. One of the most famous shots in cinema history — Benjamin Braddock framed by Mrs. Robinson’s leg in The Graduate — appeared first on Harold’s sketchbook before it was immortalized on screen. He wouldn’t start collecting more prominent credits until later, when he worked in production design and/or art direction for filmmakers like Mel Brooks and Danny DeVito.

For her part, Lillian toiled in the research department, where she quietly unearthed the specific period details and bric-a-brac that would lend real-world authenticity to Hollywood fictions. In Harold and Lillian, she describes the extraordinary lengths she would go to get things right, like querying old Jewish women at a deli to find out what 1890s bloomers looked like for Fiddler on the Roof or pressing ex- (and current) drug lords and DEA agents for information relevant to Scarface. When asked the impossible, like getting photos from inside CIA headquarters, she could deliver. She talks about research as a “time machine” that allows her to access other worlds, much as she did as a five-year-old orphan in Miami Beach.

Lillian’s voice carries the documentary — Harold died in 2008, though he left a wealth of interview footage behind — and collaborators like DeVito (who also executive-produced), Brooks, and Francis Ford Coppola offer themselves as talking heads, along with other researchers, storyboard artists and technicians in the field. Harold’s extensive illustrations of their lives together — including a marvelous tradition of homemade birthday and anniversary cards, adorned by sweet poems and artwork — give Harold and Lillian all the visual panache it needs, much like a real-life version of the side-by-side comparisons between his storyboards and a finished sequence.

The stories Lillian tells are a treasure-trove of personal and professional anecdotes, doubling as a side history of Hollywood itself. But Harold and Lillian is most affecting as a tribute to their marriage, which was full of romance and hardship and uncertainty, but built from the beginning on mutual respect and enthusiasm. “You must have shared experiences for a marriage to have some kind of soil to grow on,” she says, offering a key insight into why so many Hollywood marriages struggle to last. In a business where individual success waxes and wanes, and each new production is a job that will eventually be lost, the Michelsons rode out its crazy vicissitudes with something approaching harmony and grace. Theirs is a model few will ever get to follow.

‘BANG! The Bert Berns Story': The Complicated Man Behind ‘Twist And Shout’


Bert Berns (left) and Jerry Wexler (right) wrote The Drifters’ “I Don’t Want to Go On Without You” in 1964. (But when the music business drove them apart, they did anyway.)

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Bert Berns (left) and Jerry Wexler (right) wrote The Drifters’ “I Don’t Want to Go On Without You” in 1964. (But when the music business drove them apart, they did anyway.)

Abramorama

There are many explanations for Bertrand Russell Berns’ relative obscurity. The subject of Bang! The Bert Berns Story flopped as a performer, and so turned to songwriting and producing. He sometimes composed under aliases such as Bert Russell and Russell Byrd. And several of his tunes became associated with their performers, who were widely assumed to have written them.

Also, Berns died young, succumbing to the long-term effects of childhood rheumatic fever at 38. It was 1967, and rock ‘n’ roll was just beginning to be chronicled by sympathetic observers.

So Berns is less remembered than his songs, which include “Piece of My Heart,” “Tell Him,” and “Here Comes the Night.” These were all written during an eight-year run whose first success was the Jarmels’ 1961 “A Little Bit of Soap.” The soap, the group sang, “will never wash away the tears” — a Berns motif. A child of Russian Jewish immigrants and the polyglot Bronx, Berns wrote almost as many weepies as Appalachia’s Hank Williams.

It’s a compelling story, told unobtrusively by directors Brett Berns — the musician’s son — and Bob Sarles. The documentary may not have widespread appeal, but should engross viewers who know the songs but not the man behind them.

Berns was one of many white (and mostly Jewish) New Yorkers who in the early 1960s wrote and produced for African American performers. These acts included the Drifters, Solomon Burke, Ben E. King, Garnett Mimms, the Exciters, and the Isley Brothers, who scored with “Twist and Shout,” a song to which co-writer Berns brought the Afro-Cuban beat he loved.

Among Berns’ peers and collaborators were Mike Stoller, Jeff Barry, Brooks Arthur, Richard Gottehrer, Jerry Ragavoy, and the late Ellie Greenwich, all of whom appear in Bang! Another associate was Atlantic Records’ Jerry Wexler, who became a nemesis after Berns’ BANG! Records proved a strong competitor. (Atlantic actually backed BANG!, whose name was derived from the initials of Berns and the label’s ruling troika: Ahmet Ertegun, Nesuhi Ertegun, and Gerald Wexler.)

After his songs began to be covered by British rock bands, Berns did three stints in London, working with Lulu and Them, whose singer was Van Morrison. That led to Berns’ production of Morrison’s first solo album. In Bang!, Morrison, Paul McCartney, and Keith Richards all extol Berns’ gifts and influence.

Although his preference was for R&B, Berns also launched the careers of Rick Derringer (then with The McCoys) and Neil Diamond. The latter is probably not a Berns fan. After Diamond asked to be released from his BANG! contract, one of his gigs was disrupted and his manager was assaulted.

A coincidence? Bang! is no exposé, but it doesn’t ignore Berns’ links to gangsters. One of them, Carmine DeNoia, even appears on camera to recount some of his milder misdeeds. As befits his nickname — Wassel, a child-like mispronunciation of “Rascal” — he doesn’t appear all that scary. But Berns’ pals and protectors also included Tommy Eboli, acting boss of the Genovese crime clan.

Perhaps that connection is what inspired the filmmakers to enlist Steve Van Zandt to narrate the movie in a Sopranos-worthy growl. The cliche-loaded lines he speaks were written by Joel Selvin, who penned a 2014 Berns biography.

Fortunately, Van Zandt says less than Berns’ friends and family, notably wife Ilene, who outlived him by 40 years. Thuggish business practices aside, Berns seems to have inspired much love and admiration, partly by being color-blind in an industry that treated great black singers as hired help.

Of course, one way Berns endeared himself to such on-screen reminiscers as Cissy Houston, Ronald Isley, and the Exciters’ Brenda Reid was simply by giving them great songs to sing.

An Israeli Couple Haltingly Navigate Grief Over ‘One Week And A Day’


Zooler (Tomer Kapon) bonds with his grieving neighbor Eyal (Shai Avivi) in One Week and a Day.

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Zooler (Tomer Kapon) bonds with his grieving neighbor Eyal (Shai Avivi) in One Week and a Day.

Oscilloscope

Anyone who’s experienced grief more as a wild boat ride on stormy seas than as the scheduled five stages from denial to acceptance, will feel intimately spoken to by One Week and a Day, a trenchant first feature from the young Israeli writer-director Asaph Polonsky. Equal parts bracing and beguiling, Polonsky’s modestly budgeted movie addresses head-on the ungovernable confusion and raw emotion that attend one of the worst losses anyone can suffer — the death of a child. Yet it’s a comedy, with the great French comedy director Jacques Tati grinning discreetly in the rear-view mirror.

The story unfolds in a quiet Israeli suburb over 24 hours after the shiva, seven days of Jewish ritual mourning, have ended. Everyone leaves, the casseroles stop coming, and everything goes quiet in the house of Eyal and Vicky Spivak (played deadpan by Israeli comedian Shai Avivi and Russian-Israeli actress Jenya Dodina) as they struggle to process the death of their grown son Ronnie, presumably from cancer.

Straining what is clearly an affectionate marriage, the two veer off on separate tracks of crazed non-coping. While Vicky doggedly cleaves to known routines, Eyal, his face frozen into a steely glare, runs amok. He invites some open-mouthed tots over for an aggressive round of ping-pong; fights a cab driver for a bag of cannabis lifted from the hospice where his son spent his last days; slugs his next-door neighbors for having loud sex repeatedly within earshot. Mostly he hangs out with the neighbors’ son, Zooler (Tomer Kapon), a former friend of Ronnie’s and a rumpled eternal child who knows how to roll a joint, play air guitar while jumping on the coffee table, and, apparently, not too much more. For the time being, Eyal too is a kid, minus the charm.

In the boilerplate grief narrative, the bereaved go a little nuts; navigate a way through; closure ensues. For a while One Week and a Day seems to operate within that well-worn rubric, but closure is a foreign country here, and the tone moves from elegiac and antic. The actors follow the first rule of Tati — play everything absolutely straight, but especially the comedy. Polonsky’s pacing is as willfully choppy and disjointed as Eyal’s inner life. Often the movie feels as if it’s making itself up as it goes along, which is about right for a man who has completely lost his bearings. Resolutely non-psychological and spare with its sharply funny dialogue, One Week and a Day apprehends its walking wounded through their mood swings, their half-assed lurches into elaborate plans we can tell they’ll never complete. The soundtrack, too, runs all over the musical map, giving voice to the couple’s internal disarray and their desperate gambits to recover the meaning that has drained from their lives.

What’s so funny, and so sad, about Eyal is that he has no idea how badly he’s flailing. He goes about each cockamamie goose chase with grim-faced zeal, as if his life depended on it. Blinded by sorrow and rage, Eyal tries to bind his son inside himself, until at last he wakes up to the fact that he has quite literally lost the plot. It would ruin things if I told you how, but there comes at last a softening of sorts, and some inspiration from unexpected sources. In One Week and a Day it’s the young who are instinctively wise about how to take sorrow on board and live within and around it. As for Eyal, a prolonged moment of grace at the grave of a total stranger shows him that collective mourning rituals may offer solace after all. To say nothing of a cleansing shower and a falafel shared with someone he loves.

‘Dear White People’ Creator Calls The Netlix Series ‘A Conversation Starter’




ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The writer-director Justin Simien understands the complexity that surrounds identity and labels, so I asked him about the title of his show “Dear White People.” It’s generated controversy from people who argue that the phrase shuts white people out of the conversation.

JUSTIN SIMIEN: I think if it was “Yo, White People” or “Hey, White People” or, you know, “Eff You, White People,” you know, I could see that. But to me, dear – dear anything is an invitation to a conversation. That’s what that sort of – just in a language-on-the-page kind of way, that’s what that implies. And I hope that as you watch the series, it begins to take on different kinds of meanings, you know. I think that there are characters who feel like they’re constantly in response to white people. Like, they are constantly having to dear-white-people in their everyday lives. I hope that people see it as a conversation starter not as sort of a way of being shut out of a conversation.

SHAPIRO: One of the issues that a lot of characters in your show struggle with is, can you be black and still – fill-in-the-blank. Like, can you be black and be gay? Can you be black and date a white guy? Sometimes it felt like you were opening doors that are typically closed.

SIMIEN: Maybe so. I mean, I think that’s a part of anything that’s exciting in art. You know, I loved Lena Dunham’s “Girls.” I love “Blue Is The Warmest Color.” You know, I love watching things that are the dirt underneath the fingernail things, like, those little things about our lives that, you know, maybe you have thought about but just never thought you’d see on the screen before. And certainly for audiences that don’t know anything about sort of the ins and outs of black identity, I can imagine that, yeah, it would be a really interesting sort of glance into all the things that we sort of think about and deal with. I mean, one of the things about being black in this country is that you – your personality and your – what you are to the society is kind of decided for you (unintelligible) people around you.

SHAPIRO: Do you mean that people expect you to be able to play basketball, for example? They look at you, and they say, oh, you’re black, so you must be good at X, Y, Z…

SIMIEN: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: …And not at A, B C, that sort of thing?

SIMIEN: That, you know, but also all kinds of complex versions of that as well. You know, all sorts of assumptions that, you know, might even seem positive on the surface. But nevertheless, I’ve been taught through life experience that, like, I’d better open my mouth and quickly define myself in a new space and with new people because if I don’t I will be defined.

SHAPIRO: The show is set in an Ivy League university. And so even if the students face some degree of oppression, they’re still relatively privileged. And one of your main characters, Sam, touches on this in the first episode. Let’s listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, “DEAR WHITE PEOPLE”)

LOGAN BROWNING: (As Samantha White) You know, in the real world, kids are getting shot by cops for being black; voter rights are still being suppressed; our criminal justice system continues to propagate a new Jim Crow. This isn’t about a college magazine. This is about a movement. We’re surrounded by the future leaders of this country, and we’ve finally got their ear. So what do we want to say?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) About what now?

SIMIEN: (Laughter).

SHAPIRO: They’re distracted. They’re distracted.

SIMIEN: (Laughter).

SHAPIRO: So when people are getting shot and locked up in the real world, why write a show about what some people would describe as microaggressions?

SIMIEN: I think this is actually the conundrum that a lot of black people faced. You know, we had a black president. You know, one black celebrity actually was a billionaire for the first time. And…

SHAPIRO: Oprah Winfrey.

SIMIEN: Exactly. And black people had more of a prominent role in the culture. And so for a long time, you really couldn’t even mention racism to a white person, frankly, because you’d be accused of crying wolf.

But I think one of the things that we have to continue to explore and think about are the ways in which everyone is oppressed by this system. These black kids and the white kids, all of whom are at the same school, all of whom are – if they’re not from the same socioeconomic level, at least here at this school they all feel kind of equal and similar. But yet the black kids are experiencing a very different kind of Winchester than the white kids are experiencing.

SHAPIRO: I feel like there was an era of black storytelling in TV and movies that was sort of driven by Spike Lee and his contemporaries. And you’re of a different generation now. And this is a very kind of post-Obama black narrative.

SIMIEN: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: And I wonder how you would describe what this moment is in telling black stories in TV and movies.

SIMIEN: Well, I think what’s new and different about what’s happening now is that there are multiple different versions of black lives being presented simultaneously. So you know, the fact that you can watch “Insecure,” watch “Dear White People,” watch “Atlanta,” watch “The Haves And The Have Nots,” watch “Scandal” and see completely different versions of us, it suggests that we’re human beings. You can’t sort of pin us into one or two experiences. And that’s what I think is unique about this time.

SHAPIRO: Justin Simien, it’s been great talking to you. Thank you.

SIMIEN: Thank you so much.

SHAPIRO: Justin Simien is the creator of the new Netflix show “Dear White People.”

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