Saturday, March 31, 2007

Spring at Last

It's spring, and it’s safe to come out now. There are still a few wisps of snow here and there on the ground, but one good rain and it will be gone. There are birds in profusion and a few squirrels scurry about, but so far no flower or shrub has dared to bloom, a good thing, because it was well below freezing last night.

The other day I saw a flock of confused geese flying south, down the coast. Do they know something we don’t? Has the climate in Labrador become suddenly hostile? Does Al Gore know about this?

One of these days I will take my bike off its hook in the garage, fill the tires with air, squirt some oil on the axles, don the yellow helmet my safety-minded daughter gave me, and pedal down the dirt road to the paved street and along the beachfront. For a month or two this will be the ideal exercise, then the paved street will be jammed with cars that leave little room for cyclists, and the bike rides will be chancy, helmet or not.

The snowbirds will come back, and we will be glad to see them. The same can’t be said of the evil seagull, which I swear I saw the other day. As recounted in “The Seagull Wars,” this monster destroyed two screen sliders and otherwise terrorized this house last summer. Now, it appears, he’s ba-ack, and the war goes on – endlessly, it appears, just like Iraq.

The wind is up most of the time, cold from the north, and the seas are choppy. Peak gusts have topped 40 mph on many days lately – strong enough to send trash barrels rolling down the road and ripping the globe from one of the patio lights along our driveway. The beach is still deserted and a joy to walk, but a good jacket is a must, no matter what the thermometer says.

The sky has been a spectacular blue in recent days, with not a trace of a cloud from horizon to horizon, another byproduct of those stiff winds. That pristine sky is shown on the cover of my book, “Searching for Joan Leslie’ (available at, and it looks like computer-generated trickery, but no, that’s the sky as it was when my son snapped the picture. All he had to do was add the copy.

In the early evening that bright beacon in the western sky is Venus. It doesn’t hang around very long, but it’s a dazzler. I wonder if the Venusians can look up at their night sky and see Earth, 67 million miles away. Probably not; I read somewhere that it is always cloudy on Venus.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

The Tipping Point

By now you must know that half of all income taxes are paid by 5 percent of all taxpayers. No one seems very agitated about this, especially these days when income inequality is such a hot topic along the campaign trail.

Should we be concerned about the top-loading of our income-tax distribution? We should, but not out of pity for all those investment bankers with their huge bonuses. The real problem lies at the other end of the scale. We should be uneasy about the threat to our democratic system presented by the fact that a large and increasing percentage of all voters pay little or no income taxes.

Throughout the last two decades, Congress – Democrats and Republicans alike – has steadily raised the no-tax threshold, excusing more and more voters from paying the cost of running their government. We are now closing in on the tipping point – the point where 51 percent of all voters pay little or no income taxes.

The implications are ominous: Once a majority of voters have no personal stake in the cost of their government, self-interest will lead them to elect representatives who will increase entitlements without limit. That’s where the system goes ballistic, needing more and more tax revenues – always to be paid by someone else – to support more and more services. If the majority could put the whole load on Bill Gates, they would, but that wouldn’t work, so taxes on the minority will have to rise. And rise.

It wasn’t supposed to be that way. But a century of income taxes, the graduated kind, has inevitably brought us here. Candidates demagogue the issue, pushing for more “progressive” taxes, in effect promising more voters a free ride. The latest variation on the theme is to promise to rejigger the tax laws to bring relief to the middle class, which is usually undefined but assumed to be wherever the votes are. (One remembers Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill setting the upper boundary of the middle class at an income level of $50,000 a year, a mindset that led Congress to impose the Alternative Minimum Tax.)

We are on a slippery slope. It may be too late to head off the threat to our democracy that our lopsided tax distribution system poses. Our only hope is that a card-carrying liberal Democratic president comes out strongly in favor of a flat tax. Only he (or she) could make it happen.

Don’t hold your breath.

Monday, March 26, 2007

The Literary Gourmand

I am inept in the kitchen, but I am married to a very ept lady, who cooks wonderful things. The latest wonderful thing is crab bisque, inspired by a dish we ate in a Sanibel restaurant in January. For some reason, the restaurants around here do not serve crab bisque, though there is lobster bisque aplenty and there is always clam chowder, which can range from watery to gummy. You will also find crab cakes on some menus, as well as crabmeat salads. But no crab bisque. So it was time for Jill to do her thing.

It started with a trip to the Food Network web site, which yielded an easy-looking recipe for something called Crabby Bisque, but it ended, as usual, with a variation on the theme. I do not exaggerate when I say that the final product gave new meaning to the term “to die for.” You may have found a useful tip or two if you’ve been reading this blog regularly, but what I am going to tell you now is the most valuable information you are likely to read this year.

Here’s what you will need:

2 15-oz cans of condensed lobster bisque, available at the supermarket under the Gordon’s Naturally Chesapeake label. (Now you see that we are dealing with crab/lobster bisque here.)

1 pint of heavy cream

1 lemon’s worth of lemon juice (squeeze a lemon; don’t buy juice)

2 dashes of tabasco

1 tablespoon of chopped fresh parsley

2 6-oz containers of fresh crabmeat (save a small amount for garnish)

Put the works into a blender, about 1-1/2 to 2 cups at a time, and blend away.

Heat, but do not boil. Serve with crabmeat garnish

That’s it. You will bless me for sharing this gem with you, and you will wonder how anything so simple can be so delicious.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Anthony Powell

We’ve talked about several of the great British authors of the last century or two – Waugh, Greene, Trollope, and others – and now it is time to address Anthony Powell, a true titan, a master of the novelist’s art – and a writer hardly known to the American public.

I was put onto Powell about 30 years ago, when at a financial conference in London I struck up a conversation with a British portfolio manager about – what else? – books. He told me, in a tone that reeked of triumphalism, that he had just finished reading Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time – a second time!! The full impact of this feat hit me only when I learned that Dance is not a book but a series of 12 novels spanning the period from just after World War 1 through two decades after World War 2. The period is well traveled, but Powell’s characters make it seem brand new.

Powell wrote the first novel in the series, A Question of Upbringing, in 1951, the twelfth, Hearing Secret Harmonies, in 1975. How many writers can labor on a single narrative for 24 years? Just keeping the characters straight is an achievement, especially as a character may enter in volume 3, exit in volume 4, and resurface in volume 11, by which time you may have forgotten all about him or her. I found this a problem as I worked my way through the 12 books, and I must also say that the best of the 12 are the first three or four and that the last few are the weakest. The series is nevertheless an impressive achievement and one of the literary landmarks of our time.

The novels begin by examining the friendship of four boys in an Eton-like school in the early twenties: the narrator, Nicholas Jenkins, his friends Charles Stringham and Peter Templer, and – unforgettably, Kenneth Widmerpool, one of the major comic creations of twentieth-century literature. At the outset Widmerpool’s cluelessly inane behavior seems to mark him as comic relief, but by the end of the series, the buffoon emerges as a darker, more threatening presence.

Powell (rhymes with pole, not with towel) lived a long, productive life, which ended in 2000 when he was 95. There were many other novels (his first was published in 1931), biographies, critical essays, and at least two plays. He was a contemporary of Waugh and Greene at Oxford. In World War 2 he worked for British Intelligence, and the three Dance volumes dealing with the War are widely regarded as among the best covering that territory.

There is something about a novel series that is especially satisfying. Finish one good read, then greet many of the same characters again in a new book, and so on, until the whole tapestry is hung – at which point you feel either relief or loss, depending on the quality of the story. Some of Dickens’s and Trollope’s best works first appeared as serials in newspapers, with readers anxiously awaiting each new episode. The literary serial seems to be out of style today, the nearest counterpart being a television series like Upstairs, Downstairs or Dallas.

Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time, ideal miniseries material, was in fact produced for television in England about 10 years ago. The cast included John Gielgud, Edward Fox, and ZoĆ« Wannamaker. The 50-year span was compressed into four two-hour segments, and reports from abroad say it was superb. For now, we’ll have to take their word for it; the series was never aired in the U.S., nor is it available in the standard (NTSC) format for American VCRs or DVDs. If you have a player that can handle the British format (PAL), you can probably find a tape or disc at Amazon or eBay.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Searching for Joan Leslie

I am happy to say that the printing problems in "Searching for Joan Leslie" have been resolved, and any copies ordered from now on should be bug-free. The book is a 184-page, 6 by 9 paperback containing most of the blog postings of the past year, edited and organized by subject. To learn more, go to and search under "Van Veen".

Monday, March 19, 2007

The Book (cont'd)

Noting some bugs in the first edition of "Searching for Joan Leslie," I uploaded a new version. The bugs were removed, but a few new ones (some dropped copy) mysteriously crept in. They are not on the pdf, so the problem is with the printer. We'll get it sorted out soon, but meanwhile, I suggest holding off on ordering your copies. I'll let you know when all is well.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

The Tragedy of Iraq

It is fashionable in some circles, especially European circles, to take George W. Bush for a fool. I don’t subscribe to this view. I watch his press conferences, the give-and-take with the Washington press corps, all primed with their gotchas, and I see a quick-thinking, rational, intelligent speaker. Sure, his talking points are well rehearsed, but there is enough off-the-cuff repartee to convince me that this man is no fool.

And that makes the Iraq situation doubly tragic. Given the performance of the economy, George W. would be an immensely popular national and world leader today if it weren’t for one egregious misstep: his decision to invade Iraq.

To be sure, there are those of the other political persuasion who would try to make the most out of income inequality, Hurricane Katrina, and the loss of manufacturing jobs. But they would be swept aside under the weight of the facts: low unemployment, low interest rates, high stock prices. Sans Iraq, our President would be walking on water.

Instead, he is drowning. The opposition has in Iraq a weapon of political mass destruction. Congress has been lost, and W’s economic policies are imperiled. His defense secretary resigned in near disgrace, his Vice President’s aide has just been convicted of perjury, his attorney general may be hounded out of office.

Iraq wasn’t a minor mistake. It was, as the President’s enemies charge, the greatest foreign policy blunder in recent memory. Its negative effects will outlive us all. It has made a good portion of the world despise us. It has cost us thousands of lives and hundreds of billions of dollars. More than 100,000 Iraqis are dead because we insisted on liberating them. Not least, it has deepened the political divide in this country and sabotaged the President’s own party and his domestic agenda.

George W. Bush now sits at the center of a tragedy as profound as any of Shakespeare’s. As you will remember, the protagonist of every Shakespearean tragedy owed his destruction to some fatal character flaw. What was Bush’s flaw? History will render its judgment, but here’s a stab at it: The President authorized the invasion of Iraq, not because he was dumb, but because he was weak. Surrounded by advisors pushing for invasion, he put aside his own misgivings (I’m sure he had them) and went with the neocon flow. He was Macbeth giving in to the urgings of his wife. Our tragedy is compounded by the fact that there is not, in either party, a Macduff in sight.

It’s an old story, even older than Vietnam. It’s easy to go to war, especially when you’re the Commander-in-Chief and Congress has forgotten that war is technically its prerogative. It looks macho, but it’s really a sign of weakness. A strong president would find the courage to say no to the hawks and yes to the diplomats.

The writer Kurt Anderson reminds us that in 1848 a young Congressman named Lincoln wondered aloud what the dickens the U.S. was doing invading Mexico. President Polk, Lincoln said, must explain the war “with facts and not with arguments…..But if he cannot….then I should be fully convinced that he is deeply conscious of being in the wrong, that he plunged into it and has swept on and on till, disappointed in his calculation of the ease with which Mexico might be subdued, he now finds himself, he knows not where.”

Saturday, March 10, 2007

The Beachcomber's New Book

If you enjoy these blogs, you may be interested to learn that most of the postings of the past year are now available in book form. The book is called “Searching for Joan Leslie,” and it is published by It is a paperback, in 6 by 9 format, and it will cost you $10 plus shipping. It will appeal to a very small, very select audience, and only the magic of on-line publishing makes such a book economically feasible. From royalties off the book sales, I expect to net enough to buy lunch at the Olive Garden, if I don’t eat too much.

To learn more, go to Then search under "Van Veen".

Friday, March 09, 2007

Six Guys Named Vinnie

For a people who pride ourselves on our ability to speak freely, we have become awfully sensitive lately. The latest in a series of absurdities that seems to have no end involves the man who is slated to become the next head of the New York Stock Exchange. He is an ardent advocate of eliminating human specialists from the floor of the Exchange and replacing them with computers – an entirely sensible idea, since the specialists’ function is the sort of mathematical job that computers should be able to do faster and with fewer errors.

In making his case in a recent speech, the man decided to use picturesque language. Specifically, he said that he personally would rather have his transactions handled by a computer than by “six guys named Vinnie.” No sooner had the words left his mouth than some members of the Italian-American community attacked him for making an ethnic slur.

What’s going on here? Who says Vinnie is Italian? All the Vinnies I knew growing up were Irish. Vincent Van Gogh was not Italian, nor was Vincent Price. In the funny TV commercial for TV blockers, Vinnie is the guy hit over the head with a shovel, not the hit man. The only Vinnie I can think of that fills the bill is My Cousin Vinnie, a good-hearted Italian-American lawyer.

And should we all assume that the Big Board specialists are disproportionately Italian? If so, so what? I don’t understand the thought train at work here. The speaker was not talking about six drug dealers or six child-abusers; he was talking about six stock-exchange specialists. I doubt that little kids, even in Brooklyn, taunt each other with “Your old man’s a stock-market specialist!” – much less, “Your old man’s an Italian stock-market specialist!”

In the YouTube era, it is possible to catch virtually anyone saying something that someone can consider offensive. If you are living, breathing, moving, and talking, you are leaving a film trail that someone can use against you. It can be any word or phrase that can be deemed “insensitive.” If you didn’t know you were being insensitive, that’s even worse; it just proves you’re insensitive to insensitivity, which is insensitivity squared.

Yes, there are instances when words can be hurtful, but the First Amendment does not protect only unhurtful speech. It is supposed to protect speech that is stupid, inflammatory, and even hurtful. Speech is either free or not free; it cannot be free with exceptions.

What about someone who yells “Fire!” in a crowded theater? Yes, that’s wrong, but not because the word is wrong. The act is wrong. Yelling “Flood!” or “Cockroaches!” would be just as bad. There is no insensitivity at issue here, only the act of creating panic. It’s a fine distinction, but an important one.

It all started, I suppose, back at the dawn of the civil-rights era, although you could also blame the birth of feminism, when Mizz was in and Mrs. was out, and girls were out and young women were in. Suddenly, everyone in America was a member of an aggrieved class, with lawyers urging them on, because you can’t have class-action suits without classes. It would not surprise me to learn that some lawyer is busily recruiting men named Vinnie to pursue a class-action suit against the New York Stock Exchange, which has the deep pockets that are essential in such matters.

Now that we are entering the presidential campaign of 2008, we will be treated to an avalanche of stories about candidates making insensitive remarks. Even now, legions of campaign workers are scouring YouTube and similar sources for ammunition. Mostly, they need victims. Today it is Vinnie. Tomorrow it will be Sol or Pat or Pedro. Since the heinous remark will be caught on tape, denial is impossible, so an apology will follow. We will thus be drowned in a flood of tearful apologies, but they will not be enough for the offended, who will ask – nay, demand - that the offender’s party repudiate the remark or, preferably, boil the offender in oil.


“I look forward to that happy day when blacks, negroes, colored people, and blacks can all live in peace and harmony together.” -------Steve Martin

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

The Departed

The South Boston Irish, warts and all, make up the world of Martin Scorcese’s The Departed. They like to drink and womanize, they go to church a lot, and they are capable of turning on each other suddenly and violently, They live and die fatalistically, as if it’s no big deal to kill or be killed, because, as Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson) says, when told someone’s old mother is on the way out, “so are we all.”

The Southie of The Departed is not the Southie my Dad always talked about. His Southie was a place of bonding for life. If you were from Southie, you were the salt of the earth. So said my Dad, and on this subject more than any other, his word could be taken to the bank.

But Martin Scorcese was not making a morality play about South Boston. He was making a cops and robbers entertainment, the kind of movie that used to pair Jimmy Cagney and Pat O’Brien, and in this he succeeded brilliantly. Few movies that run for 2-1/2 hours can keep you from looking at your watch along the way (or falling asleep), but in this case the challenge is to keep from falling off the edge of your chair. Two young men, played to perfection by Matt Damon and Leonardo diCaprio, play two moles – one working inside the Massachusetts State Police for crime boss Costello, the other working for the police inside the Costello gang. As Costello and the police try to identify the rats in their midst, the tension rises, and by the end, almost every actor playing a central character in The Departed turns out to be playing the title role.

Most of the film was shot in Boston, very credibly. The three-deckers, the corner groceries, the hahbah, City Hall, the State House, the subway, the Central Ahtery, all are there. All that was missing was a scene shot at Fenway Pahk or the Boston Gahden. Two of the key actors, Matt Damon and Mark Wahlberg, are native Bostonians, which added to the authenticity. These and the other members of the excellent cast are all clones of characters I ran across every day while spending the first 25 years of my life in Boston. Even their names – Billy Costigan, Frank Costello, Colin Sullivan – sounded eerily familiar. And the scriptwriter just had to be a Billy Monihan.

A few days after watching the movie, Jill and I were driving through Norwood, just south of Boston, when we noticed a funeral gathering by the big Catholic church in the center, St. Catherine’s. The crowd waiting outside the church was made up mostly of young men, sad-faced and tall and splendid in their black suits.

“I wonder who died,” I said as we drove by.

Jill, sizing up the scene, figured it out on the spot.

“Billy Costigan.”

It is a bloody, extremely violent film, in which the only adjectives permitted are four-letter words and their derivatives. The few women in the story exist only as playthings for the men. But the characters in this world act and talk like that. You will not like most of them, but that’s beside the author’s point.

The Departed won the Oscar as Best Picture, and I can’t argue with that. Of the nominees, I saw The Queen (excellent) and Little Miss Sunshine (good, but vastly overpraised). In that small sample, The Departed stood out for its script, ensemble acting, and direction (another Oscar, for Scorcese). I plan to see The Last King of Scotland, another essentially unsavory story about evil men doing evil deeds. Amin wouldn’t have lasted long in Southie, or Costello in Uganda, but from what I have read, the two were cut from the same cloth.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Ethan Mordden on Musicals

As any reader of these posts knows by now, I have long been a follower of musical theater. I have seen most of the classics, many of them in their original Broadway incarnations. My shelves are crammed with original-cast CDs and LPs, video tapes, and DVDs. My heroes are Richard Rodgers, Irving Berlin, John Kander, Fred Ebb, Stephen Sondheim, George Gershwin, Jerome Kern, and their contemporaries who gave us so many wonderful memories. I have read their biographies. I play their songs on my piano.

I take my children to musicals every chance I get, and I rattle on about them when we are together. As a result, they probably think their dad knows more than anyone alive about musical theater. Sorry, kids, but a man named Ethan Mordden knows a thousand times as much about musicals as I do. His knowledge is encyclopedic, and, what’s more, he is a fine writer. If you have even a wisp of interest in the subject, I strongly recommend his series of books on Broadway musicals. The more familiar you are with the great and not-so-great shows, the more you will get out of the books, but even if you’re only dimly aware of South Pacific and The Sound of Music, you’ll enjoy the stories.

The six books in the series cover six decades, to wit:

Make Believe; The Broadway Musical in the 20s.
Sing for Your Supper: The Broadway Musical in the 30s.
Beautiful Mornin’: The Broadway Musical in the 40s.
Coming Up Roses: The Broadway Musical in the 50s.
Open a New Window: The Broadway Musical in the 60s.
One More Kiss: The Broadway Musical in the 70s.

Most people believe that the golden age of the musical was the period from the 40s (Oklahoma!, Carousel) through the 60s (Cabaret, My Fair Lady), and the best of Mordden’s work are the three books covering those decades. As the century wound down, the musicals became less innovative, the music less melodic, the lyrics less clever, and Mordden skewers the musicals of the last 25 years in “The Happiest Corpse I’ve Ever Seen.” In this acerbic wrap-up, he doesn’t mince words: Musicals, he laments, have been going downhill, for a variety of reasons. (If you doubt this, consider the number of revivals playing the Great White Way these days.)

Mordden’s writing sparkles. Here, for instance, is an excerpt from his loving description of one of my favorites, the 1963 musical She Loves Me:

It’s a superb story superbly told, an acknowledged glory of the day. The Gay Life tells a good story, but it boasts a more outgoing score and enjoyed excellent production values. The production, now, is gone and the score just a cast album. She Loves Me is a classic, because it will always surprise a willing public. Remember my matinee ladies? As She Loves Me reaches its curtain, Georg and Amalia are leaving the store on Christmas Eve. They’re about to part company. But he knows that he’s Dear Friend. And we know that he’s Dear Friend. Now she has to know. So he quietly sings to her the words of the letter she composed during “Ice Cream.”

Now she knows.

And, as Barbara Cook turned to Daniel Massey with a look at once relieved, ecstatic, and terrified, the Eugene O’Neill Theater broke into tremendous applause even before Cook reached Massey’s arms for the curtain tableau.

I was waiting for that, those women were saying. You presented a lovely tale in a unique way, and now I realize that if I am to be stimulated, inspired, and touched, it needn’t be a musical play that does it. Musical comedy can have magic moments, too.

And here is some of what Mordden has to say about The Music Man:

Now a book scene fixes Hill up with an old crony, who warns him about the local music teacher and librarian, smart and a purist in everything. But Hill’s got a band to sell, and he smoothes into “Ya Got Trouble,” setting the plot proper in motion. Why, that pool table promises nothing less than the arrival of sin in River City! The good people of the town can only protect themselves by herding their youth into a marching band of …yes! Seventy-six trombones!

Okay, we’ve had a startling novelty in the salesmen’s rap number, a mock-traditional “opening” chorus of “merry” villagers – Sigmund Romberg gone sour - and the action has kicked in painlessly, naturally. One thing’s missing – the romance. No: Here comes the music teacher, to prim, self-righteous “walking” music. Hill follows her, masher-style. We’re on.

Clearly, one of The Music Man’s unique qualities is a resuscitation of a culture that, after two world wars, television, and Elvis Presley, had utterly disappeared. Knickers, pianola, cistern, corncrib, dime novels, “so’s your old man,” stereopticon slides, Montgomery Ward, canoodling, - a goodly portion of the show’s content had been retired to the American memory bank by the 1950s. Willson is telling a story that is all but faerie today.

Spending a couple of hours watching a talented company perform one of the classic musicals is one of life’s greatest pleasures. If you can’t get to a theater, listening to an original cast recording is the next best thing. Or reading one of these books and having the plays come to life on the printed page.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

The Lost City

Andy Garcia, I am told, has a checkered reputation among the Hollywood cognoscenti. I don’t know anything about that, and I frankly don’t care. What I do know is that his movie The Lost City shows a great deal of artistry, technical skill, and dedication. It is, in fact, a very good movie – not without flaws, which I will come to, but definitely worth watching.

The story is laid in Havana, just before and after Fidel Castro came to power. Garcia was born in Cuba, and in 1961, two years after the revolution, he and his family fled the island for good. Andy was six at the time. Once he became an established movie actor (in The Godfather) with connections, he began nurturing a vision of a movie dealing with the events of the Cuban revolution, set against the sights and sounds (especially the music) of his native land. The movie was released in 2005, and it came and went without much notice. The DVD is available, and that’s how I came upon it.

At the center of the story is a Law Professor at Havana University, his wife, and his three sons. The two younger sons are idealists being drawn into the Castro movement. The oldest son, Frederico (called Fico), strives to remain apolitical as he runs a Havana cabaret (thus the music). Fico wants nothing more than to keep the family together, but in this he is thwarted by the winds of change. The seizure of the palace and the flight of the dictator Batista are recreated believably, and the suffocating rule of the new regime is also on display. (“Remember,” lectures Che Guevara at one point, “the end justifies the means.”)

Garcia’s direction and his strong portrayal of Fico are impressive. The film has an epic look about it, with glorious cinematography (shot in the Dominican Republic) and authentically Cuban music, well performed. The actors playing Fico’s parents and his brothers are excellent, as is the Spanish actress Ines Sastre, who provides the love interest. The script, by Cabrera Infante, is intelligent and moving.

So what’s not to like?

Garcia apparently could not resist the opportunity to cast two “names” in two supporting roles. Bill Murray plays a has-been comedian who attaches himself to Fico and his cabaret, for reasons that are left unexplained. He adds nothing to the story or to the movie. Dustin Hoffman plays the mob leader Meyer Lansky. It’s a small part, and 100 other actors could have done it as well. Worse, it is clear during the “making of” feature, that Garcia indulged Murray and Hoffman inexcusably, allowing them to insert contrived business and lines. Hoffman is tolerable, Murray is not – although it is clear that Garcia thinks he pulled off a coup in hiring his Pebble Beach golf buddy.

The other failing is the film’s length. At the two-hour mark, Fico is flying out of Havana, escaping to New York and a new life, leaving the girl friend and his parents behind. It is a bittersweet moment, and it is also a perfect closing scene. But no. The story line follows Fico to New York, for 20 more minutes of anticlimactic scenes, some with the extra baggage of Bill Murray and Dustin Hoffman.

Think about the ending of Casablanca. Ingrid Bergman and Paul Henreid take off in the plane for Lisbon, while Humphrey Bogart and Claude Rains launch a beautiful friendship. Curtain. Would it have made sense to follow the fugitive couple to Lisbon and watch them set up housekeeping? I think not.

These criticisms aside, The Lost City is a movie you will not soon forget. In fact, it could assume cult status at some point, and in post-Castro Cuba it could become a landmark film, a must-see for all those interested in their country’s history.

And why did the movie fail to attract much attraction when it was released? Alas, it quickly became entangled in politics. Some South American governments reportedly banned it because they thought it showed Che in a bad light. It was stiffed by some film festivals, and many defenders of Fidel Castro attacked it. As I watched it, it seemed to me that both Batista and Castro were vilified, but apparently a right-wing dictator is fair game, a left-wing dictator is not.