Unique Look Behind the Scenes

“Don’t ever assume things,” my aunt used to say. Just because What the Camera Didn’t See is a behind-the-scenes look at Hollywood filming doesn’t mean it’s tawdry or sensationalistic. It’s not in the same category as say, Behind the Candelabra, Scott Thorson’s book about his years with Liberace. For one thing, it’s not ghostwritten. Cinematographer Alec Hirschfeld also happens to be a writer. A good one.

He operated a camera at many famous movies of the past fifty years like Taxi Driver, Goodbye Columbus, Diary of a Mad Housewife, and Terminator. He reveals intriguing anecdotes about those (and other) films and his working methods. He also talks about problems that some of these films raised, like how Taxi Driver was physically challenging for the staff, and also psychologically to Hirschfeld. He felt like an outsider with his long hair and alternative lifestyle. (I well remember the time in which such differences mattered.)

As every creative knows, sometimes you take what work you can get. Hirschfeld also filmed some B movies, like The Last American Virgin. He uses his experiences on that film to tell about the changing attitudes toward on-screen nudity. In A movies, such scenes were generally treated with “sensitivity” and only the essential cast and crew members were allowed on set. In B movies, nobody cared, and people freely walked about during the nude scenes, some just to gawk.

He also uses his experiences with the black-produced film Cotton Comes to Harlem to write about the racial attitudes he grew up with, those of a middle-class educated Jewish boy. “If I had ever had a black friend . . . I might have understood how significant it was, in the face of institutional racism, that this film was being made at all.”

Hirschfeld deals candidly with his life. While building a successful career, his past was close behind. One day he discovers that he’d fathered a child in a short-term relationship from long ago. While unintended pregnancy was common in those years, I would’ve liked to have read more about his relationship with this newly-found daughter.

There are flashes of humor in this book. Unlike Tina Fey’s jokey memoir Bossypants, What the Camera Didn’t See features occasional wry observations like this one: when filming Jaws 2, the crew was beset by flocks of interfering butterflies. “Like the shark, they could not be reasoned with. I’ll bet you didn’t know that a whole bunch of butterflies is called a kaleidoscope, or a swarm if you’re not crazy about butterflies. I’m sure the production report said ‘swarm’, since, ‘shooting delayed by kaleidoscope of Monarchs’ is less ominous.”

This book is more than an excellent summer read. You may actually learn something from it.

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Brickyard Stories 2.0: A Lynn MA Neighborhood Before and After Urban Renewal, edited by Carl Carlsen

Brickyard stories 2.0: A Lynn MA Neighborhood Before and After Urban Renewal is the most engaging oral history I’ve read about a place since Studs Terkel’s Chicago (1986).

Both books go directly to the source – the citizens – when writing about cities. Carl Carlsen did not depend upon the local historians, nor did he rely on the preconceived notions of contemporary news hacks. He sought out the guy living in the tenement demolished when a car crashed into it and the Black woman who owned her own hair salon and retired in her early 60s. These people, not the pundits, experienced the drudgeries and triumphs of neighborhood living.
Continue reading “Brickyard Stories 2.0: A Lynn MA Neighborhood Before and After Urban Renewal, edited by Carl Carlsen”

A Cinderella That Creates Genuine Magic

Boston Center for the Arts Plaza Theatre, Opera del West performance of Jules Massenet’s Cendrillon. Music by Jules Massenet, Libretto by Henri Cain. Artistic Director: Eve Kochen Budnick. Stage Director: Rebecca Kratzer. Cendrillon: Jennifer Jaroslavsky; Prince Charmant: JoAnna Pope; Pandolfe: Craig Juricka; Madame de la Haltiere: Suzanna Guzman; La Fee: Sulgi Cho.

August 11, 2019

Kudos to Eve Budnick, Artistic Director for Opera del West’s Boston Plaza Theatre at the Boston Center for the Arts in the South End! She performed miracles in such a small performance space, turning it into a magical version of Jules Massenet’s opera, Cendrillon (Cinderella). The production included hefty vocal work by Craig Juricka as Pandolfe and Suzanna Guzman as Cinderella’s conniving mother. Jennifer Juroslavsky was stunning as Cinderella, based on her wide ranging mezzo and emotionally nuanced performance. Her pairing with JoAnna Pope as Prince Charming was splendid, particularly in the second half, when these two marvelous mezzo-sopranos came together. There was excellent choreography in this production by a set of wide ranging young women who imparted this tiny stage with a sylvan atmosphere. Such a fairytale-like quality was a large part of Massenet’s frame of reference and it lended excellence. The use of broad-based humor when appropriate (such as the scene with drunken sisters at the ball) kept the opera light.

Cendrillon included a spectacular South Korean lyric coloratura soprano, Sulgi Cho, as the fairy wielding a goodly amount of power over the fairy tale. Her soprano voice had a high tessitura and seemed pretty effortless most of the time. Her excellent makeup and costume made her look suitably otherworldly.

On a personal note, I think it’s a real shame that superb groups like Opera del West are limited to such tiny spaces that do not fully allow the dancers to be graceful and the opera singers to really let loose when the librettos require. However, such limitations will not prevent me from going back to future productions. I expect them to contain just as much magic as this one does.

The Straz Presents La Bohème

Giacomo Puccini’s opera La Bohème started with a feud between him and fellow composer Ruggero Leoncavallo, who’d composed the immortal Pagliacci (1892).

La Bohème. Maestro: Anthony Barrese. Singers: Raquel González (Mimi), Todd Wilander (Rodolfo), Ashley Kerr (Musetta), Keith Harris (Marcello), Jean Carlos Rodriguez (Schaunard) and Lawson Anderson (Colline). Opera Tampa Orchestra and Chorus.

Original Poster

Giacomo Puccini’s opera La Bohème started with a feud in the early 1890’s between him and fellow composer Ruggero Leoncavallo, who’d composed the immortal Pagliacci (1892). At that time this short opera was better than anything Puccini had written, including his earnest yet muddled Manon Lescaut (1893). So Leoncavallo was no slouch and definitely a formidable competitor. Nevertheless, Puccini’s La Bohème prevailed and quickly became one of the immortals in the repertoire while Leoncavallo’s version, although successful in its day, sunk into obscurity and is rarely performed today.


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The beauty of a how-to book is not just that it teaches you what you know nothing about, but also that it nudges you back toward something you have known about but never tried.

STOP TYPING!: Write Better with Speech Recognition Speech-to-Text Software! by Keith Connes. $.99 (or free with Kindle Unlimited via Amazon).

Had I read this book six months ago, it would’ve saved me at least six hours of labor. I was writing an article that initially involved recording a phone conversation. I then had to transcribe that conversation with my nimble fingertips. Had I known more about Dragon NaturallySpeaking software, I would have not spent so much time transcribing. Continue reading “STOP TYPING!”

Review of John Coltrane’s Both Directions at Once

Here’s my review of a Blu-ray recording of John Coltrane’s “lost album,” Both Directions at Once, as it appears in Audiophile Audition (www.audaud.com).


Coltrane: Both Directions at Once

I don’t get to say these words very often: here’s a review of the latest killer John Coltrane album!
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The Sarasota Opera’s Manon Lescaut: Handling a Flawed Masterpiece

Much creativity and planning went into the Sarasota Opera’s stage settings, casting, and musical conducting.

Manon and Des Grieux in the Louisiana Desert

Manon Lescaut: Sandra López; the Chevalier Des Grieux: Matthew Vickers; Lescaut: Filippo Fontana; Geronte: Costas Tsourakis; Conductor: Victor DeRenzi; Stage Director: Stephanie Sundine; Scenic Designer: David P. Gordon; Costume Designer: Howard Tsvi Kaplan; Lighting Designer: Ken Yunker; Chorus Master: Roger L. Bingaman

Giacomo Puccini’s Manon Lescaut (1894) had much going against it from the start. His previous operas had been lukewarm forays, not exactly successes. A previous (and successful) version, Manon, had been completed just 10 years previous by Jules Massenet. Puccini kept changing librettists and in the end nobody even wanted their name on the opening program. He pared down the plot of Abbé Prévost’s novel Histoire du Chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut so much that even today, audiences scratch their heads over its awkward transitions and strange omissions. For some reason, he concentrates all of the gaiety in acts one and two, and all of the gloom in acts three and four.

But in the end, very little of this matters. Nineteenth century operas are rarely strong arguments for sterling plot creation. Later in life, Puccini did improve significantly, as any opera fan can see from his last and greatest opera Turandot (that of Luciano Berio’s ending, not Franco Alfano’s). The Sarasota Opera performance dives gleefully into ML’s optimistic first act and beautifully conveys the spirit of youthful infatuation. As Des Grieux, Matthew Vickers pours out his feelings beautifully in the famous soliloquy “Donna non vidi mai,” made famous by Enrico Caruso and attempted by every other tenor since. As Manon Lescaut, Sandra López sings her brilliant and joyous aria while living with the libertine Geronte,“Lora, or Tirsi.” The audience suddenly senses it’s not going to go on forever.

Much creativity and planning went into the three stage settings. While done in period style, the opening village street scene is kinetic rather than static, buzzing with life, and the resulting intrigue is exciting from the start. In Act II, as Manon luxuriates in her mansion with Geronte, the very walls cry out “nobility.” But the final act in the Louisiana desert (don’t ask how they got there) is most stunningly well designed. A huge twisted fallen tree in the foreground underscores the twists and turns that their love affair has taken and contrasts with the gloriously ruddy sunset behind them. Dense emotional expression is reached in the final duet between Manon and Des Grieux. In “Tutta su me ti sposa,” Manon succumbs to grief and despair, realizing how her selfishness has brought tragedy upon her and her lover. As Geronte, Costas Tsourakis is the right kind of vile and cursed scoundrel. Filippo Fontana’s Lescaut is convincing as an unreliable ally, shifting his loyalties back and forth.

The orchestra – through the tidy wand of conductor Victor DeRenzi – showed its skill in the Act III instrumental “Intermezzo,” which is one of Manon Lescaut’s most unusual features. Why does it even exist? Good question. Some believe that it abstractly conveys Manon’s sentencing and her transportation to Le Havre. Seems plausible. Toward its conclusion it grows tempestuous and seems to careen toward disaster. But it avoids tragedy and lulls us with a descending motif that deceptively shimmers with hope. However, as clever as the device is, it’s a bit subtle for the uninitiated. In later years, Puccini made sparse use of such lofty intermezzi (Suor Angelica, 1918). Perhaps he realized that straight plotting conveyed emotions more efficiently?

So is Manon Lescaut “grand opera?” Not quite. But parts of it are pretty good. In focusing on the show’s highlights, like the inherent spectacle of the lovers’ plight, the Sarasota Opera made us realize that its cracks & flaws, Puccini’s youthful “experiments,” were not really that big a deal.

Review of Prokofiev’s Ballet Romeo & Juliet

An astounding Blu-ray disc of Prokofiev’s ballet Romeo and Juliet, featuring an energetic and talented cast.


Prokofiev: Romeo and Juliet

Here’s my review of a Blu-ray recording of Prokofiev’s ballet Romeo and Juliet, as it appears in Audiophile Audition (www.audaud.com).
Continue reading “Review of Prokofiev’s Ballet Romeo & Juliet”

Non-Dairy Vs. Dairy Consumers: Dueling Studies

It’s difficult to choose whether the dairy industry or the vegan movement is right about whether milk products are healthy or not. How do you choose?

What do you do when beliefs you thought you’d researched to death years ago are suddenly contradicted by fiendishly convincing studies? Do you adjust your beliefs? Or do you investigate further to confirm them?

Recently I participated in a discussion on Facebook about dairy consumption. I questioned whether it was healthy for humans to consume dairy (at least beyond infancy). I then produced a link to “7 Reasons Milk Is Bad For You” (Bustle, Rachel Krantz, 1/25/2016). I was then challenged by my Facebook friend Kevin Smith who produced his link, “Milk and dairy products: good or bad for human health? An assessment of the totality of scientific evidence” (Taylor & Francis Group, Tanja Kongerslev Thorning, Anne Raben, Tine Tholstrup, Sabita S. Soedamah-Muthu, Ian Givens and Arne Astrup, 11/22/2016).

Technically, neither article is a “study” in the classic sense. They both just contain links or references to actual studies. Neither article knows about the other. Thus there’s no point-counterpoint discussion going on (although there is some overlap on several points).

Rachel Krantz’s article did not appear in a scientific journal but a popular one that also contains articles about veganism, lifestyle choices, relationships, celebrities, etc.; however, she stripes her text with multiple hyperlinks to supporting studies.

The Taylor & Francis Group article is three times as long and is top-heavy with references. It has 114 footnotes, compared with less than half for the Bustle article.

Contradictory Views of the Same Subject

These two contenders widely contradict one another. For example on the issue of dairy products causing or exacerbating osteoporosis, T&FG says: 

Osteoporosis has been described as a 'paediatric disease with geriatric consequences’ as low milk, and hence, low mineral intake during childhood and adolescence has been associated with significantly increased risk of osteoporotic fractures in middle and older age, particularly in women
 (49, 50).

Krantz references this article by Dr. Neil Barnard:

A study published by the American Medical Association in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine this year showed that active children who consume the largest quantities of milk have more bone fractures than those who consume less. This was not surprising. Prior studies show that milk consumption does not improve bone health or reduce the risk of osteoporosis and actually creates other health risks." (Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine) 

The two articles go on like this, one hard-hitting – and convincing – reference after another from sources that contradict each other whenever they intersect. So where’s the truth? Alas, hard to find. It would take weeks of surfing just to track down all the studies referenced. Only then could you take apart the assertions, one by one, and try to spot any cherry-picking of results, confirmation biases, and null hypotheses. Neither article evaluates information in the studies they reference: the control groups used, critical theories employed, data mining, ethnography, deviation, population size, focus groups, life histories, and a score of other arcane factors. There are people who make their livings analyzing these things! In short, whenever a study’s results are reproduced in any article you read, there is no way to tell if they’re trustworthy or not. Except if you read the original study. And you’re trained to spot irregularities.

Another Strategy in Order?

Why not find out more about the studies themselves? Do either of them directly address the results from their adversaries? Was there anything unethical or sloppy from the data-gatherers? Who benefits from the conclusions and how?

There is no sparring with adversarial research in Krantz’s article. No pro-dairy article was analyzed and criticized. (Too bad, spirited debate is always entertaining.) Same for the T&FG study. Both sides obsessively presented their points of view. Neither Krantz nor her magazine got back to me with questions I had, which I found rather crass. I felt ignored, I really did.

A Yellow Flag Awavin’

T&FG produced this disclaimer in its “Conflict of interest and funding” section at the end of the study. 

Anne Raben is recipient of research funding from the Dairy Research Institute, Rosemont, IL, USA and the Danish Agriculture & Food Council. Tine Tholstrup is recipient of research grants from the Danish Dairy Research Foundation and the Dairy Research Institute, Rosemont, IL.

Interesting. While it’s nice of them to admit this up front, can you imagine this disclaimer being mentioned when a dairy industry brochure quotes their favorable findings?

Then there are the travails of  T&FG itself. According to Wikipedia:

In 2017 Taylor & Francis was strongly criticized for getting rid of a public health journal editor in chief who accepted articles critical of corporate interests. The company replaced the editor with a corporate consultant without consulting the editorial board. [Also], the publisher has been accused of processing articles in a speedy manner without proper peer review.

While neither of these “whoopsies” necessarily raise a red flag, they do raise yellow ones. Sometimes such controversies are just the tip of the iceberg. T&FG may have gotten nailed for these two indiscretions, but are there are others lurking the wings? We just don’t know. Also, to be fair, it doesn’t necessarily mean that all of the research in their study is flawed because of these events. However, it can’t help but muddy the waters.

Who Benefits?

Finally, who benefits and how? A study that exhaustively and eloquently refutes the claims of the pesky anti-dairy folks may be appreciated by the dairy industry. Things are not looking good for them. 

A recent Mintel report says the US dairy category will see a continuous sales decline, in contrast to its strong growth in 2014 when there was a combination of high milk prices, increased international demand, and dairy milk repositioning itself to align with health trends.

Who benefits from the Bustle article? Well the Bustle webzine of course. Anything that can boost readership must be smiled upon by their advertisers. Also Rachel Krantz, the author who wrote it. (Hopefully she got paid for it.) And possibly companies like Silk, the folks who make that thinly flavored almond milk. Any darts thrown at the dairy industry surely must delight them.


Which of these two articles can you believe? With so many contradictory studies in tow, they end up confusing rather than helping us.

Truth is ever elusive. For me, it boils down to personal experience. Half my life ago I stopped consuming dairy and almost immediately felt the effects.  I felt less sluggish at the end of the day, and lost weight and managed to keep it off. Others on the internet have reported similar (but unquantifiable) effects: more energy, decreased sugar urges, fewer and less severe colds. Try going off it yourself for a month and see what happens.

What also helps me decide is the bad state of my credulity. It was dealt a knockout blow a long time ago by a healthy skepticism toward powerful corporations and interest groups like the American Dairy Association. Remember them? Fifty years ago they flooded the airwaves with ads like this: “You never outgrow your need for milk.” These days I don’t know anyone who still drinks their recommended three glasses of milk a day. This skepticism has served me well during my 9-to-5 years working for big corporations, and today, whenever I watch the national news.

In the end, deciding what to believe and consume is up to you, not research articles.  You’re going to have to do your legwork with a skeptical eye. I can’t do it for you because frankly, I don’t have the time.