Monday, May 28, 2012

The Painted Veil


Somerset Maugham was a good story-teller, not, in my opinion, a good writer, but a very good story-teller. There’s a difference. Graham Greene was one of the best story-tellers (The Third Man, The Quiet American, The End of the Affair, The Heart of the Matter, etc), but as a writer he could not compare with Evelyn Waugh. Greene wrote with the screenplay in mind, and actually turned several of his novels into scripts, whereas Waugh’s movies rarely made good movies, the exception being the wonderful British miniseries Brideshead Revisited.

But back to Maugham. Recently a friend recommended a movie based on a Maugham story, The Painted Veil. I wasn’t able to see the movie (but will one day), but found the story in my library, in a volume called The Maugham Reader. At 200 pages, it is longer than the usual Maugham short story, but it is worth the time. Like most of Maugham’s work, it is stiffly written, but what a story! It was first made into a movie in 1934, starring Greta Garbo, but the version my friend recommended was the 2006 film, with Naomi Watts, Edward Norton, and Liev Schreiber. The drama takes place in China, and the movie was filmed on location. I’m sure that the movie was much better than the printed page, and I thought while reading it that it would have made an excellent subject for Merchant and Ivory. I was not overjoyed by the ending, but others will disagree. Anyway, the screenwriter may have altered the final scenes. I’ll have to see.

The story involves a flighty, attractive young English woman who, anxious to be married before her younger sister trots down the aisle, marries a bacteriologist whom she can barely tolerate. The two travel to Hong Kong, where the bacteriologist has a mid-level civil post. Bored to tears, the bride (Kitty) enters into a torrid affair with a fast-rising British magistrate. The husband, a dutiful, dull sort (but very intelligent), finds out, and in a confrontation agrees to a divorce on two conditions: The lover’s wife must also agree (in writing) to a divorce, and the lover must agree to marry Kitty once the decree is final. The bacteriologist (Walter) is far ahead of his wife in this game: As he expected, the lover wanted Kitty only as a plaything, not a wife, and he is much too ambitious to permit a scandal.

Walter then announces that his research will take him to the interior of China, where there is a cholera epidemic, and he wishes his wife to accompany him. I have told you enough. You will have to find the story at the library or, better still, find the 2006 movie. When I see it, I will let you know what I think.

Note: My thoughts on the movie appear in a blog dated June 15, 2012.

Friday, May 25, 2012

The Facebook Fiasco

The rules that apply in the stock market have changed, apparently. People placed orders to buy Facebook stock a week ago, swallowing the hype that promised a 10- or 20-point jump in the IPO, offering the first buyers a handsome profit, guaranteed. But it closed 20-plus percent down, meaning a hefty loss for many. Horrors! You mean stocks can go down as well as up? That's unfair, if not illegal. Better call my lawyer. Better yet, convene a Congressional committee. The Massachusetts Attorney General, never one to resist a headline, has subpoenaed the underwriter. It's a voter's constitutional right to scalp a profit on a hot IPO.

There were glitches in the system, certainly. But buying stock in an IPO expecting to flip it for a quick gain (as most were) is a gamble. I was not a player in this game, but I do trade stocks, and decades of experience have taught me that profits are never guaranteed, no matter how euphoric the CNBC talking heads are. In fact, the more giddy those folks are, the more you'd better watch your wallet.

The rules have changed. The old paradigm, in which new ventures siphon talent from established companies by offering stock options and grow, creating jobs and wealth aplenty, is under attack. The new President of France wants to outlaw stock options. In the U.S., the whole economic system is being challenged by the "Occupy" movement, backed by large segments of the press. Never mind that this is the same system that lifted millions of immigrants into a prosperous middle class and saved the world from communism and fascism. The new war cry is "What have you done for me lately?"

Blame the banks for the economic meltdown. Blame investment bankers. Blame private equity. Blame anyone but the people who borrowed recklessly, because those people vote. We are going to hear more of this nonsense in the next six months, because the blame game plays well in a sound-bite world. Candidates Obama and Romney are equally culpable because both are telling voters what they want to hear. Telling them what they need to hear is politically lethal.

I have no sympathy for those who lost money on Facebook. Maybe if they hold their stock, they'll recover; maybe not. The losers will complain that the system was rigged against them. If they really believe that, they shouldn't have put their money at risk. They should have stowed their dollars under their mattress.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Wegmans.....The Musical!

I was one of 900-plus people lucky enough to squeeze into the auditorium of the Algonquin Regional High School in Northborough, MA the other night. The occasion was the one and only performance of Wegmans…The Musical!. The production, staged by Algonquin’s Advanced Drama Class, began as a 20-minute skit, but the class kept hanging subplots and musical ideas on the tree until it blossomed into a full, two-act musical. The concept was inspired, and the execution was terrific.

If you’ve never heard of Wegmans, some explanation is in order. It is a chain of grandiose grocery stores in the northeast, and its first venture into New England was the Northborough store, which opened last fall. The Northborough Wegmans is as innovative as it is huge – so innovative that a battalion of Russians, armed with cameras and notebooks, descended on Northborough to capture the store’s essence, with an intent to clone it in Moscow. (Good luck with that.) Words can hardly describe the Wegmans experience, but let’s say that a hurricane has just hit the New England grocery scene.

The story of Wegmans….The Musical! pivots around twin brothers. One (Teddy) manages Wegmans, and the other (Roy) runs a competitor, Acme Foods. Teddy is all good, and Roy is all bad, jealous, and determined to rain on Teddy’s parade. Roy hires a young clerk, Sheldon, and convinces him that his destiny is to become a Jason Bourne and save the world from the evils of Wegmans. So Sheldon takes a job at Wegmans and tries to dig up dirt on Wegmans and its manager, Teddy. There are enough subplots to keep the cast of 18 busy. There are a couple of romances and there is a senile old man who is determined to walk to Wegmans with his walker (think of a shuffling Tim Conway). It’s all over the top, but once you accept that, it’s hilarious.

The music is “imported” from Les Miz, West Side Story, Rent, Fiddler, and other Broadway hits, with situational lyrics grafted onto the familiar tunes. Examples: Act One closes with a parody of the barricade scene from Les Miz, with the faux marching and, in place of the tricolor, a waving Massachusetts state flag, all to lyrics that celebrate “One Great Store.” And the show opens with “Seasons of Love” from Rent translated into “Wegmans We Love” (“525,600 square feet”).

Only two members of the cast could really sing: Steve Tzianabos (Teddy) and Juliana Fiore (a Wegmans worker). (Few hit musicals have more than two good voices, and many, like My Fair Lady, don’t even have two.) But the entire cast could act, which is what you’d expect from an Advanced Drama Class, and the enraptured audience helped create a sense of jubilation. Among the enraptured were representatives of Wegmans, and a video record will surely find its way to Wegmans’ Rochester headquarters.

So hats off to Maura Morrison’s Advanced Drama Class at Algonquin (known to its students as “the Gonk.”) They showed great enterprise, imagination, and talent in pulling this together.

Saturday, May 05, 2012


I read a lot, and most of what I read in the New York Times, the Economist, the Financial Times, and other periodicals is depressing. There are little wars raging all over the world. Not big wars, but little wars, with mobs on the streets, soldiers shooting at them and the mobs shooting back. It’s the same story in Syria, Mali, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Egypt, Somalia, Yemen. The world is awash in guns, some of them supplied by us to help throw the Russians out of Afghanistan and now in the hands of the “insurgents,” shooting at the “coalition forces.” The guns outlive their owners and are passed from hand to hand, from the graves of one generation to a new generation of liberators, en route to new graves. Depressing.

Among the more depressing statistics I came across the other day was this: In this country, 73 percent of black babies were born out of wedlock last year, 53 percent of Latino babies, 29 percent of white babies. It seems the so-called nuclear family is on the way out. Technically, “out of wedlock” doesn’t have to mean that, but it seems to. That is the most worrying trend of all. Families are the glue that holds our civilization together, and, though I can’t prove it, there must be a link between the collapse of the family and all those little wars, the collapse of order in the streets, in politics, in diplomacy. There may be a better way to organize humanity than in family units, but I certainly don’t know of one.

The state of the economy is often blamed for the decline of the family. If the father can’t find a job, the story goes, of course the family will break up. Nonsense. We’ve been through tough times before – much tougher, in fact. In the 30s, my mother pushed a baby carriage, with me in it, around the streets of Dorchester looking for a rentable flat, while my father looked for a job, any job. Millions of Americans were in the same boat, but in those days half the babies weren’t born “out of wedlock.”

Maybe technology has made things too easy for us. Want to be entertained? Click. Want to find out something? Google it. Want to communicate with someone? There’s Facebook, iPad, iPhone. Who needs family?

I watch the News at 11, where the anchor says “Good evening,” and then proceeds to tell you all the reasons why it wasn’t. A car crashed in Scarborough, a house burned down in Kennebunk, a child molester was arrested in Freeport. That’s the way it is, not just in Maine, but everywhere, because tragedies are part of life, and you can’t click your way out of them. But somehow even the worst tragedy is bearable when a family decides to get through it together.