Monthly Archives: November 2013

Sherman Alexie Wants You To Be A ‘Superhero’ For Indie Bookstores


Sherman Alexie models an Indies First tote bag.  He plans to put in shifts at five Seattle bookstores this Saturday.

Sherman Alexie models an Indies First tote bag. He plans to put in shifts at five Seattle bookstores this Saturday.


American Booksellers Association

Back in September, poet and novelist Sherman Alexie wrote an open letter to a group of people whom he called the “gorgeous book nerds” of the world, asking them to become “superheroes” for independent bookstores.

More than 1,000 authors answered his call, which means signing on to work at local indie bookstores today, Small Business Saturday, as part of the Indies First campaign. Alexie tells NPR’s Scott Simon that he’ll be doing a marathon of five stores, helping to sell some of his favorite books. Has Alexie sold books before? “No,” he laughs, “although when you’re a writer in this era, certainly you are pretty much a salesperson.”

Interview Highlights

On the importance of independent bookstores

My career happened because the booksellers at independent bookstores hand-sold my book. Readers and potential buyers would come into their stores, they would pick up my books of poems, my books of short stories — published by micropresses — and put it in their hands. And that’s the kind of relationship that exists between independent booksellers and their customers, and authors have a chance there that they wouldn’t otherwise have a chance in this giant Internet world where it’s impossible to get noticed.

On recommending his own books today

That’s not primarily why I’m there — and I’m also working in Seattle, my hometown, where I live, so certainly most of the people who show up are probably already going to have copies of my books. I’m going to be doing what a bookseller does — they’re going to walk in and … I’m going to ask them, what kind of book are you looking for? And they’re going to say, “Well, I loved this book of stories by Lorrie Moore,” and I’m going to say, “Well, why don’t you check out Natalie Serber’s Shout Her Lovely Name? I think you’d really enjoy that.”

Emily Dickinson’s Envelope Writings: ‘Gorgeous’ Poetry In 3-D


The Gorgeous Nothings

Readers always seem to want to get closer to Emily Dickinson, the godmother of American poetry. Paging through her poems feels like burrowing nose-deep in her 19th century backyard — where “the grass divides as with a comb,” as she writes in “A narrow Fellow in the Grass.”

And yet the deeper one probes the poems, the more their meaning seems to recede, so that their minutiae suddenly speak for an almost inarticulable, often dark truth or wisdom at the core of things: “Zero at the Bone” is how she characterizes the more-than-fear she feels upon meeting the snake who is this poem’s subject. Her images are so strange, and yet so startlingly accurate, that it’s hard to believe one person could contain such contradictions. Who was this poet, really?

Until now, to fathom Dickinson, fans could make the pilgrimage to her Amherst, Mass., home, scrutinize the authenticated and contested daguerreotypes for clues and, of course, pore over her poems and letters. But now we have another way to approach the Emily who inspires and confounds us: this significant collection of facsimiles and transcriptions of late poems drafted — one might even say grafted — on leftover envelopes.

This daguerreotype of Emily Dickinson, in her late teens, is the only authenticated portrait of the poet past childhood.

This daguerreotype of Emily Dickinson, in her late teens, is the only authenticated portrait of the poet past childhood.


Courtesy of New Directions

These 52 pieces were found, unbound, among Dickinson’s papers, written on envelopes that had been used or addressed and unsent. They are as much works of visual as textual art, offering the chance to read into Dickinson’s slanting handwriting. Her bubbly loops and long strokes suggest, to me at least, the odd confidence of one who knows the peculiar joy of refining and performing her own identity on a private stage, a bit like the names of boys or bands on the backs of middle-school notebooks.

And, if we agree with editor Marta Werner, Dickinson was playing not only with the arrangement of words in poetic lines, but the arrangement of different groups of words on different parts of these envelopes. On a folded-over lip of one envelope, she describes a “Drunken man” (who may also be dead, or almost dead), “Oblivion bending / over him,” and, written slanted over the curled edge, “enfolding him / with tender / infamy.” It’s the medium making the metaphor here, something usually reserved for sculpture. This is poetry in 3-D.

These are late writings, probably composed after she’d sewn up the last of her famous “fascicles,” the bound packets in which her poems were found after her death. So these are experiments, perhaps, begun after she’d set the bulk of her legacy in store for “immortality,” one of her favorite words. Due, perhaps, to the limits these unusually shaped pages exerted on her writing, the best of these poems are among her most compressed and aphoristic. “A Pang,” she writes, “is more / Conspicuous in Spring / In contrast with the / things that sing,” blending colloquial and biblical speech in the kinds of enigmatic leaps that make her poems rush with wind.

The Gorgeous Nothings is an art book as much as a poetry book, featuring full-color facsimiles of 52 of Emily Dickinson’s envelope poems.


Jen Bervin/Courtesy of New Directions

The Gorgeous Nothings is an art book as much as a poetry book, featuring full-color facsimiles of 52 of Emily Dickinson's envelope poems.

The Gorgeous Nothings is an art book as much as a poetry book, featuring full-color facsimiles of 52 of Emily Dickinson’s envelope poems.

Jen Bervin/Courtesy of New Directions

The editors offer endless avenues of interpretation; the typed transcriptions of Dickinson’s handwriting are superimposed atop the outlines of their corresponding envelopes, so the multidirectional layout of the text isn’t lost. A series of esoteric indexes — by shape of the envelopes, by what direction they are turned, by whether or not they have “penciled divisions,” for example — encourage the reader to speculate about the various relationships Dickinson may have conceived between paper and words.

It’s a good season to chase after the ever-elusive Emily Dickinson. In addition to this book, there’s a corresponding exhibit in Chicago, and all of the poet’s online archives were recently organized into one accessible hub. This book is a rare gift for all poetry lovers. We are lucky to have more of Dickinson’s ongoing “letter to the World / That never wrote to Me,” an endlessly fascinating correspondence, addressed to any of us who find it — so long as we’re willing to answer it with concentration and curiosity.

Sherman Alexie Wants You To Be A ‘Superhero’ For Indie Bookstores


Sherman Alexie models an Indies First tote bag.  He plans to put in shifts at five Seattle bookstores this Saturday.

Sherman Alexie models an Indies First tote bag. He plans to put in shifts at five Seattle bookstores this Saturday.


American Booksellers Association

Back in September, poet and novelist Sherman Alexie wrote an open letter to a group of people whom he called the “gorgeous book nerds” of the world, asking them to become “superheroes” for independent bookstores.

More than 1,000 authors answered his call, which means signing on to work at local indie bookstores today, Small Business Saturday, as part of the Indies First campaign. Alexie tells NPR’s Scott Simon that he’ll be doing a marathon of five stores, helping to sell some of his favorite books. Has Alexie sold books before? “No,” he laughs, “although when you’re a writer in this era, certainly you are pretty much a salesperson.”

Interview Highlights

On the importance of independent bookstores

My career happened because the booksellers at independent bookstores hand-sold my book. Readers and potential buyers would come into their stores, they would pick up my books of poems, my books of short stories — published by micropresses — and put it in their hands. And that’s the kind of relationship that exists between independent booksellers and their customers, and authors have a chance there that they wouldn’t otherwise have a chance in this giant Internet world where it’s impossible to get noticed.

On recommending his own books today

That’s not primarily why I’m there — and I’m also working in Seattle, my hometown, where I live, so certainly most of the people who show up are probably already going to have copies of my books. I’m going to be doing what a bookseller does — they’re going to walk in and … I’m going to ask them, what kind of book are you looking for? And they’re going to say, “Well, I loved this book of stories by Lorrie Moore,” and I’m going to say, “Well, why don’t you check out Natalie Serber’s Shout Her Lovely Name? I think you’d really enjoy that.”

Emily Dickinson’s Envelope Writings: ‘Gorgeous’ Poetry In 3-D


The Gorgeous Nothings

Readers always seem to want to get closer to Emily Dickinson, the godmother of American poetry. Paging through her poems feels like burrowing nose-deep in her 19th century backyard — where “the grass divides as with a comb,” as she writes in “A narrow Fellow in the Grass.”

And yet the deeper one probes the poems, the more their meaning seems to recede, so that their minutiae suddenly speak for an almost inarticulable, often dark truth or wisdom at the core of things: “Zero at the Bone” is how she characterizes the more-than-fear she feels upon meeting the snake who is this poem’s subject. Her images are so strange, and yet so startlingly accurate, that it’s hard to believe one person could contain such contradictions. Who was this poet, really?

Until now, to fathom Dickinson, fans could make the pilgrimage to her Amherst, Mass., home, scrutinize the authenticated and contested daguerreotypes for clues and, of course, pore over her poems and letters. But now we have another way to approach the Emily who inspires and confounds us: this significant collection of facsimiles and transcriptions of late poems drafted — one might even say grafted — on leftover envelopes.

This daguerreotype of Emily Dickinson, in her late teens, is the only authenticated portrait of the poet past childhood.

This daguerreotype of Emily Dickinson, in her late teens, is the only authenticated portrait of the poet past childhood.


Courtesy of New Directions

These 52 pieces were found, unbound, among Dickinson’s papers, written on envelopes that had been used or addressed and unsent. They are as much works of visual as textual art, offering the chance to read into Dickinson’s slanting handwriting. Her bubbly loops and long strokes suggest, to me at least, the odd confidence of one who knows the peculiar joy of refining and performing her own identity on a private stage, a bit like the names of boys or bands on the backs of middle-school notebooks.

And, if we agree with editor Marta Werner, Dickinson was playing not only with the arrangement of words in poetic lines, but the arrangement of different groups of words on different parts of these envelopes. On a folded-over lip of one envelope, she describes a “Drunken man” (who may also be dead, or almost dead), “Oblivion bending / over him,” and, written slanted over the curled edge, “enfolding him / with tender / infamy.” It’s the medium making the metaphor here, something usually reserved for sculpture. This is poetry in 3-D.

These are late writings, probably composed after she’d sewn up the last of her famous “fascicles,” the bound packets in which her poems were found after her death. So these are experiments, perhaps, begun after she’d set the bulk of her legacy in store for “immortality,” one of her favorite words. Due, perhaps, to the limits these unusually shaped pages exerted on her writing, the best of these poems are among her most compressed and aphoristic. “A Pang,” she writes, “is more / Conspicuous in Spring / In contrast with the / things that sing,” blending colloquial and biblical speech in the kinds of enigmatic leaps that make her poems rush with wind.

The Gorgeous Nothings is an art book as much as a poetry book, featuring full-color facsimiles of 52 of Emily Dickinson’s envelope poems.


Jen Bervin/Courtesy of New Directions

The Gorgeous Nothings is an art book as much as a poetry book, featuring full-color facsimiles of 52 of Emily Dickinson's envelope poems.

The Gorgeous Nothings is an art book as much as a poetry book, featuring full-color facsimiles of 52 of Emily Dickinson’s envelope poems.

Jen Bervin/Courtesy of New Directions

The editors offer endless avenues of interpretation; the typed transcriptions of Dickinson’s handwriting are superimposed atop the outlines of their corresponding envelopes, so the multidirectional layout of the text isn’t lost. A series of esoteric indexes — by shape of the envelopes, by what direction they are turned, by whether or not they have “penciled divisions,” for example — encourage the reader to speculate about the various relationships Dickinson may have conceived between paper and words.

It’s a good season to chase after the ever-elusive Emily Dickinson. In addition to this book, there’s a corresponding exhibit in Chicago, and all of the poet’s online archives were recently organized into one accessible hub. This book is a rare gift for all poetry lovers. We are lucky to have more of Dickinson’s ongoing “letter to the World / That never wrote to Me,” an endlessly fascinating correspondence, addressed to any of us who find it — so long as we’re willing to answer it with concentration and curiosity.

Around The U.S., Holiday Theater With Local Flair


Seven In One Blow, which plays at New York City’s Axis Theater, is one of many recurring holiday-season productions across the U.S. that bring a distinctly local flavor and history to bear.


Dixie Sheridan

Seven In One Blow, which plays at New York City's Axis Theater, is one of many recurring holiday-season productions across the U.S. that bring a distinctly local flavor and history to bear.

Seven In One Blow, which plays at New York City’s Axis Theater, is one of many recurring holiday-season productions across the U.S. that bring a distinctly local flavor and history to bear.

Dixie Sheridan

Whatever they are, our holiday traditions tend to be a mixture of the universal and the specific.

If we celebrate Christmas, for instance, we might have stockings and trees just like our neighbors, but we might also be the only ones in town who wear homemade elf hats while we open presents. It’s a mix that helps us feel closer to the rest of the culture while reaffirming what’s special about our own little community, family and home.

That balance also energizes theater this time of year. For every touring production of The Rockettes or comforting remount of A Christmas Carol, there’s a holiday show specifically intended for a local audience, bringing together a block or a city instead of the world.

Take The Christmas Schooner, a musical about real-life sailors in the early 20th century who risked their lives to carry a boatload of Christmas trees from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula across Lake Michigan to sell them to Chicago’s German immigrants. Written by John Reeger and the late Julie Shannon, the show has been produced in the Windy City almost every season since it premiered in the mid-’90s; for the last three years, it’s gotten a highly polished treatment from the Mercury Theater, which opened its latest remount this week.

The Christmas Schooner, about sailors who risked their lives to carry Christmas trees to Chicago, has been playing during the holidays in the Windy City since the ’90s.


Peter Coombs

The Christmas Schooner, about sailors who risked their lives to carry Christmas trees to Chicago, has been playing during the holidays in the Windy City since the '90s.

The Christmas Schooner, about sailors who risked their lives to carry Christmas trees to Chicago, has been playing during the holidays in the Windy City since the ’90s.

Peter Coombs

Even though he’s seen the show over a dozen times, Chicago Tribune theater critic Chris Jones remains charmed by its local heart.

“It’s the only Christmas show in Chicago that is really a Midwestern story,” he says. “It’s driven by the Great Lakes and Lake Michigan, which we see every day, and I think seeing this show is one of the few times it dawns on Chicagoans to say, ‘Oh yeah, there were those communities up there around that lake.'”

For Mercury Theater’s Walter Stearns, who directs The Christmas Schooner, that sense of place is a compelling reason to keep the show going.

“Hopefully, you see this show, and you feel like more of a part of the community in this building and this area,” he says. He adds that certain aspects of the production, including a ritual called “blessing the Christmas branch,” have become so popular that some audience members recreate them in their own homes.

Parochial theater isn’t only about tradition. Sometimes, local holiday shows invite outsiders to see themselves as part of the season. That’s why Randy Sharp wrote Seven in One Blow, Or The Brave Little Kid, which she’s currently directing in its 12th annual production at New York City’s Axis Theater Company.

Loosely based on the fairy tale “The Brave Little Tailor,” the play, which opens this year on Dec. 6, follows a young city boy on a variety of adventures.

“For me, it’s a very New York City play,” says Sharp, who is also Axis theater’s artistic director. “I wanted to touch on stuff like kids whose parents work, or kids with two dads, or kids with one parent. I was a latchkey kid, a city kid, and I feel like people aren’t writing fairy tales about city kids. I wanted to reach out and not just tell a story about some good little angel in some imaginary land.”

Though Seven in One Blow has been produced in other places, it’s certainly connected with New Yorkers year after year.

“We have kids who have been coming since they were 10 years old, and now they’re 22,” Sharp says. “We had a kid who started coming when he was around 11 or 12, and last year, we saw him bring a girl he was engaged to.”

In Atlanta, the troupe Dad’s Garage has found a singular way to get repeat business for its annual holiday show: It asks audience members to help create it.

A recent staging of Invasion: Christmas Carol found the improv crew at Dad’s Garage in Atlanta forced — by audience decree — to wedge Santa into the story of Scrooge and Tiny Tim.


Linnea Frye

A recent staging of Invasion: Christmas Carol found the improv crew at Dad's Garage in Atlanta forced — by audience decree — to wedge Santa into the story of Scrooge and Tiny Tim.

A recent staging of Invasion: Christmas Carol found the improv crew at Dad’s Garage in Atlanta forced — by audience decree — to wedge Santa into the story of Scrooge and Tiny Tim.

Linnea Frye

Invasion: Christmas Carol, which opens on Friday, Nov. 29, begins as a typical version of the Dickens classic. But soon enough, the company members, all trained improv performers, ask patrons for suggestions about how the plot should change. One of their first contributions is deciding who “invades” Scrooge’s story.

In the show’s previous five seasons, the interloper has been everyone from Jack the Ripper to Paula Deen to a guy in a hot dog costume.

“You get the best of both worlds,” says Dad’s Garage artistic director Kevin Gillese, who also plays Scrooge. “You get the production design and familiarity of a scripted holiday show, and you get the chaos and audience engagement of an improvised show.”

The upshot: “It’s just fun every time. Our artists are happy and inspired to do it again year after year.”

Gillese suggests something important: As much as they mean to audiences, local holiday shows can also be powerful for the artists who return to them every season. They can provide a chance to focus on the community-within-a-community that a theater scene so often creates.

“We go on these challenging journeys through the year with our primary work [at Axis], but we always come back to this holiday family,” says Sharp, noting that most of the performers in Seven in One Blow have been in the cast multiple times.

“It’s like we let ourselves indulge in the holiday spirit, too. I mean, this year we slogged through this research and development on a project about the Dust Bowl, but now we’re getting together for this show that we know and that we love, and that so many of us do every year. It’s almost like a family dinner.”

Mark Blankenship edits TDF Stages, a magazine about theater and dance. He tweets @iamblankenship.

These Cookbook Photos Redefine What Fresh Seafood Looks Like


  • Salmon

  • Red Snapper

  • Albacore Tuna

  • Tuna

  • Hamachi Yellow Tail

  • Langoustines

  • Geoduck Clam

  • Fluke

  • Lobster

  • Fluke

  • Monk Fish

How to make dead fish look attractive? That’s the challenge New York-based duo Shimon and Tammar Rothstein faced when they were hired to do the photography for famed French chef Eric Ripert’s book On the Line.

The book has been out for a few years, but it caught our attention again when it popped up on photography blog Feature Shoot this month.

Ripert’s specializes in delicately prepared fish. And the motto of his Michelin three-star-rated restaurant Le Bernardin in New York is “The Fish is the Star of the Plate.”

So in his book, Ripert wanted to show off all the fresh ingredients that went into his cooking — especially the fish. But as Tammar tells The Salt, no one wants to shoot a dead fish.

The photographers’ brilliant solution? Pose the dead fish as if they’re still alive. The resulting images might not make your mouth water, but they are strikingly beautiful.

“I thought it was the best way to show the fish in the most authentic and real way,” Tammar says. The husband-and-wife team shot all the photos in the salon of Le Bernardin. So they covered up the fancy carpet and started tossing around the seafood.

They used high-speed flashes to freeze the fish in mid-air. And they got the Le Bernardin chefs to throw buckets of ice and water over the fish to make it look as if they were swimming in the sea.

Of course, the photographers also shot photos of fish after Ripert expertly prepared and plated them. And those photographs look much more conventionally appealing to the palate. Their goal with the raw ingredients was to make them look as fresh and natural as possible.

But some fish are more photogenic than others. Their biggest challenge? Monkfish. “It’s really gross looking,” Tammar says. “It was our Moby Dick.” The first time the Rothsteins came face to face with the dreaded creature, Ripert wanted them to photograph it for another one of his cookbooks.

“And we just couldn’t find a way,” Tammar says. “There was no way we were able to shoot it.” This time, they were determined. It was too slimy and floppy to toss up in the air. So Shimon tried putting it in a glass vase. “And all of a sudden, the mouth popped open so it looked like a flower,” Tammar says.

He’s not the prettiest flower. But he sure looks fresh.

Finding ‘Great Beauty’ Amid Rome’s Corruptions


In The Great Beauty, director Paolo Sorrentino surveys the city of Rome through the eyes of jaded journalist Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo), taking in the city's degeneracies alongside its eternal beauties.

In The Great Beauty, director Paolo Sorrentino surveys the city of Rome through the eyes of jaded journalist Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo), taking in the city’s degeneracies alongside its eternal beauties.


Gianni Fiorito/Janus Films

Rome is often called the Eternal City, and generations of filmmakers from around the world have sought to capture its enduring beauty on screen.

The new film The Great Beauty is the latest, a picture that casts Rome itself in the title role. After playing to critical acclaim in Europe, it opens in American cinemas this month. The film is also Italy’s official entry at this season’s Academy Awards.

The Great Beauty is a double-edged portrait, out to capture both the beauty and the ugliness of modern Rome.

A World Of Distractions

The film opens with a rooftop party to end all parties: a flashy crowd of the city’s sexiest and richest, grooving and grinding above Rome’s skyline. When the man of the hour — Jep Gambardella, journalist and onetime novelist, turning 65 — makes his entrance, he’s tailored to a fault and surrounded by women.

Director Paolo Sorrentino says this flashy opening is meant to hurl you right into the Roman high life.

“I believe the beginning of movies has to be a breakthrough,” he says. “I wanted to create a party scene that’s unforgettable, knowing that party scenes are very complicated for directors. We worked a lot, we worked many days. I picked each face one by one.”

The Great Beauty sets the stage for its exploration of Rome with an opening birthday party scene of surpassing decadence.


Gianni Fiorito/Janus Films

The Great Beauty sets the stage for its exploration of Rome with an opening birthday party scene of surpassing decadence.

The Great Beauty sets the stage for its exploration of Rome with an opening birthday party scene of surpassing decadence.

Gianni Fiorito/Janus Films

As the party swirls around him, Jep steps out of the crowd, lights his cigarette and speaks into the camera, reflecting on the one great novel he wrote 40 years ago and the life of substance he’s avoided ever since.

“I wanted to make it very clear from the very start that the world we were going to enter is a world made of a people who seek to constantly distract themselves, in order not to dedicate themselves seriously and sensibility to real life,” Sorrentino says.

As the party ends, Sorrentino’s camera pans out to reveal Rome just before dawn. New York University professor Stefano Albertini says it’s the image of an ancient city at peace in a way the film’s characters are not.

“It’s probably one of the few times of the day when the city is almost a desert,” Albertini says. “Because even in the middle of the night there are always lots of people around — but then at dawn you have that metaphysical sensation that you are in an empty city that is in between something.”

And as the main character walks home in that early light, he pauses to look at children beginning their day in a convent, the camera lingering to relish the details of the marble columns and arches of ancient buildings.

‘The Sacred And The Profane’

Peter Becker, who is releasing the film in the U.S., says Sorrentino’s Rome demands that kind of introspection.

“We’re constantly reminded of this glorious architecture and statuary, and of the fantastic legacy of ancient Rome that surrounds you just by being in Rome,” he says. “And so how can you not measure yourself against that on a day-to-day basis in a certain way? It’s just your environment.”

In addition to stunning tableaus of buildings and light, Sorrentino uses classical music to convey the grandeur of Rome and to contrast it with the party jams that soundtrack the decadence.

“By having the Vatican within it, Rome is seen as the center of the sacred world,” Sorrentino says. “But it is also the city where the profane, sin and vulgarity, are everyday occurrences. Through music, I wanted to show the coexistence of these two sides of the city, the sacred and the profane.”

A National Tradition

This certainly isn’t the first film to explore those uniquely Roman contradictions, the sins and the saints. Sorrentino follows in a line of post-war Italian filmmakers who sought to contrast the poverty and glamour of Rome, to puncture the image of movie stars riding around fountains on Vespas.

Like Federico Fellini, Sorrentino makes his characters almost caricatures. He inserts strange, surprising moments into the narrative. In one of them, a chorus of singers perform above a fountain as Japanese tourists try to capture the beauty on their cameras. Suddenly, one of them drops dead.

In director Federico Fellini‘s 1960 film La Dolce Vita, another journalist (Marcello Mastroianni) avails himself of the beauty of Rome, including Sylvia (Anita Ekberg) and the city’s famous Fontana di Trevi.


AFP/Getty Images

In director Federico Fellini's 1960 film La Dolce Vita, another journalist (Marcello Mastroianni) avails himself of the beauty of Rome, including Sylvia (Anita Ekberg) and the city's famous Fontana di Trevi.

In director Federico Fellini‘s 1960 film La Dolce Vita, another journalist (Marcello Mastroianni) avails himself of the beauty of Rome, including Sylvia (Anita Ekberg) and the city’s famous Fontana di Trevi.

AFP/Getty Images

“That character, a tourist … is seeking beauty and ends up being overwhelmed, overtaken by that beauty,” Sorrentino explains. “Beauty is a fleeting experience that does not last. All things that do not last hurt us, and metaphorically, beauty can kill us.”

And that’s a kind of commentary on the pursuit of pleasure that characterized the Rome of former Prime Minster Silvio Berlusconi — a city of extremes, rife with corruption, excess, hedonism and ugliness.

But Albertini says The Great Beauty isn’t just an attack on Berlusconi. It’s also an indictment of the intellectuals and artists who retreated from responsibility in those years.

“The fact that Sorrentino decides that his character moves around the circles of leftist Rome, and that in these leftist circles, the emptiness is as big as it is in the circles of the right says much about his personal evaluation that I happen to agree with,” Albertini says.

“It’s not only a problem of an ugly right. … It’s also the problem of an empty left.”

According to Albertini, The Great Beauty marks “the end of a creative crisis,” not for a single person, but “what seems to be the creative crisis of an entire country.”

The main character, in any case, finds a path out of his own creative crisis, a path beyond the nightlife, and one that renews his faith in Rome’s great beauty.

Finding ‘Great Beauty’ Amid Rome’s Corruptions


In The Great Beauty, director Paolo Sorrentino surveys the city of Rome through the eyes of jaded journalist Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo), taking in the city's degeneracies alongside its eternal beauties.

In The Great Beauty, director Paolo Sorrentino surveys the city of Rome through the eyes of jaded journalist Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo), taking in the city’s degeneracies alongside its eternal beauties.


Gianni Fiorito/Janus Films

Rome is often called the Eternal City, and generations of filmmakers from around the world have sought to capture its enduring beauty on screen.

The new film The Great Beauty is the latest, a picture that casts Rome itself in the title role. After playing to critical acclaim in Europe, it opens in American cinemas this month. The film is also Italy’s official entry at this season’s Academy Awards.

The Great Beauty is a double-edged portrait, out to capture both the beauty and the ugliness of modern Rome.

A World Of Distractions

The film opens with a rooftop party to end all parties: a flashy crowd of the city’s sexiest and richest, grooving and grinding above Rome’s skyline. When the man of the hour — Jep Gambardella, journalist and onetime novelist, turning 65 — makes his entrance, he’s tailored to a fault and surrounded by women.

Director Paolo Sorrentino says this flashy opening is meant to hurl you right into the Roman high life.

“I believe the beginning of movies has to be a breakthrough,” he says. “I wanted to create a party scene that’s unforgettable, knowing that party scenes are very complicated for directors. We worked a lot, we worked many days. I picked each face one by one.”

The Great Beauty sets the stage for its exploration of Rome with an opening birthday party scene of surpassing decadence.


Gianni Fiorito/Janus Films

The Great Beauty sets the stage for its exploration of Rome with an opening birthday party scene of surpassing decadence.

The Great Beauty sets the stage for its exploration of Rome with an opening birthday party scene of surpassing decadence.

Gianni Fiorito/Janus Films

As the party swirls around him, Jep steps out of the crowd, lights his cigarette and speaks into the camera, reflecting on the one great novel he wrote 40 years ago and the life of substance he’s avoided ever since.

“I wanted to make it very clear from the very start that the world we were going to enter is a world made of a people who seek to constantly distract themselves, in order not to dedicate themselves seriously and sensibility to real life,” Sorrentino says.

As the party ends, Sorrentino’s camera pans out to reveal Rome just before dawn. New York University professor Stefano Albertini says it’s the image of an ancient city at peace in a way the film’s characters are not.

“It’s probably one of the few times of the day when the city is almost a desert,” Albertini says. “Because even in the middle of the night there are always lots of people around — but then at dawn you have that metaphysical sensation that you are in an empty city that is in between something.”

And as the main character walks home in that early light, he pauses to look at children beginning their day in a convent, the camera lingering to relish the details of the marble columns and arches of ancient buildings.

‘The Sacred And The Profane’

Peter Becker, who is releasing the film in the U.S., says Sorrentino’s Rome demands that kind of introspection.

“We’re constantly reminded of this glorious architecture and statuary, and of the fantastic legacy of ancient Rome that surrounds you just by being in Rome,” he says. “And so how can you not measure yourself against that on a day-to-day basis in a certain way? It’s just your environment.”

In addition to stunning tableaus of buildings and light, Sorrentino uses classical music to convey the grandeur of Rome and to contrast it with the party jams that soundtrack the decadence.

“By having the Vatican within it, Rome is seen as the center of the sacred world,” Sorrentino says. “But it is also the city where the profane, sin and vulgarity, are everyday occurrences. Through music, I wanted to show the coexistence of these two sides of the city, the sacred and the profane.”

A National Tradition

This certainly isn’t the first film to explore those uniquely Roman contradictions, the sins and the saints. Sorrentino follows in a line of post-war Italian filmmakers who sought to contrast the poverty and glamour of Rome, to puncture the image of movie stars riding around fountains on Vespas.

Like Federico Fellini, Sorrentino makes his characters almost caricatures. He inserts strange, surprising moments into the narrative. In one of them, a chorus of singers perform above a fountain as Japanese tourists try to capture the beauty on their cameras. Suddenly, one of them drops dead.

In director Federico Fellini‘s 1960 film La Dolce Vita, another journalist (Marcello Mastroianni) avails himself of the beauty of Rome, including Sylvia (Anita Ekberg) and the city’s famous Fontana di Trevi.


AFP/Getty Images

In director Federico Fellini's 1960 film La Dolce Vita, another journalist (Marcello Mastroianni) avails himself of the beauty of Rome, including Sylvia (Anita Ekberg) and the city's famous Fontana di Trevi.

In director Federico Fellini‘s 1960 film La Dolce Vita, another journalist (Marcello Mastroianni) avails himself of the beauty of Rome, including Sylvia (Anita Ekberg) and the city’s famous Fontana di Trevi.

AFP/Getty Images

“That character, a tourist … is seeking beauty and ends up being overwhelmed, overtaken by that beauty,” Sorrentino explains. “Beauty is a fleeting experience that does not last. All things that do not last hurt us, and metaphorically, beauty can kill us.”

And that’s a kind of commentary on the pursuit of pleasure that characterized the Rome of former Prime Minster Silvio Berlusconi — a city of extremes, rife with corruption, excess, hedonism and ugliness.

But Albertini says The Great Beauty isn’t just an attack on Berlusconi. It’s also an indictment of the intellectuals and artists who retreated from responsibility in those years.

“The fact that Sorrentino decides that his character moves around the circles of leftist Rome, and that in these leftist circles, the emptiness is as big as it is in the circles of the right says much about his personal evaluation that I happen to agree with,” Albertini says.

“It’s not only a problem of an ugly right. … It’s also the problem of an empty left.”

According to Albertini, The Great Beauty marks “the end of a creative crisis,” not for a single person, but “what seems to be the creative crisis of an entire country.”

The main character, in any case, finds a path out of his own creative crisis, a path beyond the nightlife, and one that renews his faith in Rome’s great beauty.

A Poet’s Advice For Unlikely Partners: Just Dance


Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (second from left) shakes hands with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry next to Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi (far left) and French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius (far right) after a statement on early November 24, 2013 in Geneva.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (second from left) shakes hands with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry next to Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi (far left) and French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius (far right) after a statement on early November 24, 2013 in Geneva.


Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images

Sometime after 3 a.m. on Sunday, international negotiators emerged from a conference room in a Geneva hotel, bearing with them weary smiles and a historic agreement. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Iran Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and representatives from five other world powers had come together on a deal to freeze the Iranian nuclear program temporarily.

Of course, conversation about the deal didn’t end when the negotiators stepped away from the table. In fact, it has only just begun, as Americans, Iranians and the rest of the world react to the agreement reached at the negotiating table. The deal has been called by some the most important breakthrough with the Islamic republic since 1979; by others, it’s been called a distraction that doesn’t go far enough.

In the confusion of voices, context can lend a vital anchor when understanding landmark events such as these. In this installment of our series, “This Week’s Must Read,” author Ariel Dorfman suggests a book that he says might bridge national differences and help Americans connect with regular Iranians.

The Essential Rumi

This Week’s Must Read

The Essential Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks with John Moyne.

The agreement to temporarily curb Iran’s nuclear program has been called a breakthrough for diplomacy. But it also demands another sort of breakthrough, a unique chance for Americans to gently plunge into the deepest wells of Persian identity that originate in a civilization preceding ours by many centuries.

We can do so by connecting with Rumi, a Sufi master born in 1207, whose luminous, salacious mystical verses written in Farsi are carried by all Iranians in their hearts, as we do the words of Shakespeare. To read even a small selection of Rumi’s witty poems to his beloved can help shatter the blinding stereotypes that separate us from ordinary men and women in Tehran today.

But exploring the world of Rumi is not merely a matter of what I would call literary diplomacy, people-to-people diplomacy through poetry. Rumi was one of the wisest men to have wandered the earth. Besides exulting in his quest for love and God and the milk of reconciliation, we might also turn to him for guidance as to how Americans, Iranians and others should react to this nuclear deal — including those who might be skeptical.

“Give up wanting what other people have,” Rumi says. “That way you’re safe. / Where, where can I be safe? you ask. / This is not a day for asking questions.” In another poem, he says, “Gamble everything for love, / if you’re a true human being.”

And some words of warning to those involved in these negotiations on both sides: “The wine God loves / is human honesty.” And, “Don’t let your throat tighten / with fear.”

As to breakthroughs, Rumi tells us: “Dance, when you’re broken open. / Dance, if you’ve torn the bandage off. / Dance, in the middle of the fighting.” Dance with Rumi’s words and risk breaking yourself open. Then perhaps we’ll have brought some peace to the troubled souls of our vast and divided humanity.

“We have fallen into the place,” Rumi promises, “where everything is music.”

The latest book by Chilean-American author Ariel Dorfman is Feeding on Dreams: Confessions of an Unrepentant Exile. Six of his books have been translated into Farsi. He lives with his wife, Angélica, in Durham, North Carolina and, when time permits, in their native Chile.

Finding ‘Great Beauty’ Amid Rome’s Corruptions


In The Great Beauty, director Paolo Sorrentino surveys the city of Rome through the eyes of jaded journalist Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo), taking in the city's degeneracies alongside its eternal beauties.

In The Great Beauty, director Paolo Sorrentino surveys the city of Rome through the eyes of jaded journalist Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo), taking in the city’s degeneracies alongside its eternal beauties.


Gianni Fiorito/Janus Films

Rome is often called the Eternal City, and generations of filmmakers from around the world have sought to capture its enduring beauty on screen.

The new film The Great Beauty is the latest, a picture that casts Rome itself in the title role. After playing to critical acclaim in Europe, it opens in American cinemas this month. The film is also Italy’s official entry at this season’s Academy Awards.

The Great Beauty is a double-edged portrait, out to capture both the beauty and the ugliness of modern Rome.

A World Of Distractions

The film opens with a rooftop party to end all parties: a flashy crowd of the city’s sexiest and richest, grooving and grinding above Rome’s skyline. When the man of the hour — Jep Gambardella, journalist and onetime novelist, turning 65 — makes his entrance, he’s tailored to a fault and surrounded by women.

Director Paolo Sorrentino says this flashy opening is meant to hurl you right into the Roman high life.

“I believe the beginning of movies has to be a breakthrough,” he says. “I wanted to create a party scene that’s unforgettable, knowing that party scenes are very complicated for directors. We worked a lot, we worked many days. I picked each face one by one.”

The Great Beauty sets the stage for its exploration of Rome with an opening birthday party scene of surpassing decadence.


Gianni Fiorito/Janus Films

The Great Beauty sets the stage for its exploration of Rome with an opening birthday party scene of surpassing decadence.

The Great Beauty sets the stage for its exploration of Rome with an opening birthday party scene of surpassing decadence.

Gianni Fiorito/Janus Films

As the party swirls around him, Jep steps out of the crowd, lights his cigarette and speaks into the camera, reflecting on the one great novel he wrote 40 years ago and the life of substance he’s avoided ever since.

“I wanted to make it very clear from the very start that the world we were going to enter is a world made of a people who seek to constantly distract themselves, in order not to dedicate themselves seriously and sensibility to real life,” Sorrentino says.

As the party ends, Sorrentino’s camera pans out to reveal Rome just before dawn. New York University professor Stefano Albertini says it’s the image of an ancient city at peace in a way the film’s characters are not.

“It’s probably one of the few times of the day when the city is almost a desert,” Albertini says. “Because even in the middle of the night there are always lots of people around — but then at dawn you have that metaphysical sensation that you are in an empty city that is in between something.”

And as the main character walks home in that early light, he pauses to look at children beginning their day in a convent, the camera lingering to relish the details of the marble columns and arches of ancient buildings.

‘The Sacred And The Profane’

Peter Becker, who is releasing the film in the U.S., says Sorrentino’s Rome demands that kind of introspection.

“We’re constantly reminded of this glorious architecture and statuary, and of the fantastic legacy of ancient Rome that surrounds you just by being in Rome,” he says. “And so how can you not measure yourself against that on a day-to-day basis in a certain way? It’s just your environment.”

In addition to stunning tableaus of buildings and light, Sorrentino uses classical music to convey the grandeur of Rome and to contrast it with the party jams that soundtrack the decadence.

“By having the Vatican within it, Rome is seen as the center of the sacred world,” Sorrentino says. “But it is also the city where the profane, sin and vulgarity, are everyday occurrences. Through music, I wanted to show the coexistence of these two sides of the city, the sacred and the profane.”

A National Tradition

This certainly isn’t the first film to explore those uniquely Roman contradictions, the sins and the saints. Sorrentino follows in a line of post-war Italian filmmakers who sought to contrast the poverty and glamour of Rome, to puncture the image of movie stars riding around fountains on Vespas.

Like Federico Fellini, Sorrentino makes his characters almost caricatures. He inserts strange, surprising moments into the narrative. In one of them, a chorus of singers perform above a fountain as Japanese tourists try to capture the beauty on their cameras. Suddenly, one of them drops dead.

In director Federico Fellini‘s 1960 film La Dolce Vita, another journalist (Marcello Mastroianni) avails himself of the beauty of Rome, including Sylvia (Anita Ekberg) and the city’s famous Fontana di Trevi.


AFP/Getty Images

In director Federico Fellini's 1960 film La Dolce Vita, another journalist (Marcello Mastroianni) avails himself of the beauty of Rome, including Sylvia (Anita Ekberg) and the city's famous Fontana di Trevi.

In director Federico Fellini‘s 1960 film La Dolce Vita, another journalist (Marcello Mastroianni) avails himself of the beauty of Rome, including Sylvia (Anita Ekberg) and the city’s famous Fontana di Trevi.

AFP/Getty Images

“That character, a tourist … is seeking beauty and ends up being overwhelmed, overtaken by that beauty,” Sorrentino explains. “Beauty is a fleeting experience that does not last. All things that do not last hurt us, and metaphorically, beauty can kill us.”

And that’s a kind of commentary on the pursuit of pleasure that characterized the Rome of former Prime Minster Silvio Berlusconi — a city of extremes, rife with corruption, excess, hedonism and ugliness.

But Albertini says The Great Beauty isn’t just an attack on Berlusconi. It’s also an indictment of the intellectuals and artists who retreated from responsibility in those years.

“The fact that Sorrentino decides that his character moves around the circles of leftist Rome, and that in these leftist circles, the emptiness is as big as it is in the circles of the right says much about his personal evaluation that I happen to agree with,” Albertini says.

“It’s not only a problem of an ugly right. … It’s also the problem of an empty left.”

According to Albertini, The Great Beauty marks “the end of a creative crisis,” not for a single person, but “what seems to be the creative crisis of an entire country.”

The main character, in any case, finds a path out of his own creative crisis, a path beyond the nightlife, and one that renews his faith in Rome’s great beauty.