Monday, April 18, 2016


At long last, Swedish director JAN TROELL’s magnificent chronicle of Swedish emigration to America is available from Criterion.  THE EMIGRANTS (1971) and the NEW LAND (1972) follow the fortunes of Karl and Kristina Nilsson (Max von Sydow and Liv Ullmann) as they journey to America in the mid-nineteenth century and attempt to adjust to their new world.  Here is a slow-breathing, deliberately paced story of hardship and survival which tracks the changing textures and moods of land and water, moving from the stony monochrome of the bleak Swedish farmland, to the tossing grey-blue of the pitiless ocean, to the bursting colors of the verdant Minnesota river country.  Watch for other films by this shamefully ignored director:   In ZANDY’S BRIDE (l974) the spectacular vistas of California's Big Sur form the backdrop for the developing relationship between a pioneer rancher, Zandy (Gene Hackman) and his mail-order bride, Hannah (Liv Ullmann). HURRICANE (l979), shot in Bora Bora, relates the inner turmoil of star-crossed lovers (Mia Farrow and Dayton Ka'ne) against the spectacular elemental fury of a South Seas storm.  And THE FLIGHT OF THE EAGLE pits the fool-hardy ambitions of three Swedish explorers bent on reaching the North Pole by balloon, against the implacable hostilities of the frozen wastes.

More recently is Troell’s quietly subtle EVERLASTING MOMENTS (2008). Over a span of approximately a decade, as the family grows from three to seven children, and as a young wife Maria (Maria Hellskanen) struggles to keep her home and family together in the face of the Great War, hard times, a workers’ strike, unemployment, and a chronically philandering and abusive husband (Mikael Persbrandt), she keeps taking pictures.  Tentative at first, under the tutelage of the kindly village photographer, Sebastian Pedersen (Jesper Christensen), Maria soon enthusiastically masters the camera.  “Not everyone is endowed with the gift of seeing,” he tells her, an unspoken love in his eyes.  From her own darkroom she produces fragile images of the family cat, the children, her neighbors, village parades, her friend Pederson, and, finally, herself.  “The pictures take me over,” she laments at one point to Pederson, guilty about carrying on her picture-making against the wishes of her husband; “and I’m another person.”  Pederson’s response might well be Troell’s own artistic credo:  “You see a world there to be explored—to preserve, to describe.  Those who have seen it cannot merely close their eyes.  You can’t turn back.”  Maria Larsson’s Everlasting Moment is a family album, a humane and compassionate series of glimpses into lives we care about and are grateful to know.  And all of it is captured not just through the camera eyes of Maria, but through the affectionate viewfinder of Jan Troell himself.

Autographed drawing by John C. Tibbetts

Thursday, April 14, 2016


Time-Travel stories have long fascinated me. And my first encounter at age 13 in 1959 with Jack Finney’s short-story collection, The Third Level, put the seal on what has become a life-long interest. The story is about a Third Level platform at Grand Central Station where a train can take you to Galesburg, Illinois in the year 1894. By the time I had finished the story, by God, I was ready to go there with its gentle narrator as my tour guide.

Although best-known for the book that launched no less than four movie adaptations, including Don Siegel’s classic INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS in 1956, Finney’s time-travel stories command my special attention. And now I’ve completed an article, “Time on His Hands: The Fantastic Stories of Jack Finney,” which will soon appear this Fall in the Weird Fiction Review, No. 7.

Finney’s time travelers oppose the deadening, conformist Present that flattens and stifles the grace and beauty of the Past. Like Miles, they are disaffected and vulnerable, finding themselves at the nexus between Past and Present. The seams momentarily buckle and tear. The boundary between “here and then wavers” (“The Love Letter” 219). A persistent memory, the stimulus of a photograph or letter, an emotional longing are enough to trigger the Past-ness that has never entirely vanished. “Every man remembers the thing that struck him like the thunderbolt of an instant,” writes G.K. Chesterton, “though it had stood there waiting for him as the memorial of an aeon."

In his story collections The Third Level and I Love Galesburg in the Springtime, and his novels Time and Again and its sequel, From Time to Time, Finney has found ways to take his characters (and us) back in time. On the one hand, there are simple talismanic props—a letter, an old rolltop desk, and a stamp from1869 that enables two lovers to communicate across time; and a “Woodrow Wilson” dime that serves as a passport to an alternate world and an alternate time. On the other hand, there are all manner of Time Machines, as it were, that effect the transition: The train from the platform of Grand Central’s Third Level steams toward 1894; the Wright Brothers aeroplane in “Quit Zoomin’ Those Hands in the Air” takes an inventor back to the Civil War with an offer to help General Grant with aerial surveillance (the offer is refused); and a restored Jordan Playboy automobile in “Second Chance” drives its happy occupant backward from 1950 to 1923.

The Past itself becomes a character that is reluctant to yield to the incursions of the Present. In the title story in I Love Galesburg in the Springtime, another favorite, the entire Illinois town’s past history conducts guerilla raids on present-day changes. Turn-of-the-century streetcars clang through the modern-day streets and ancient fire trucks leap to the alarm bell to rescue an old house from destruction. "'It's resisting us," says a local citizen, "for the past isn't so easily destroyed.”

This is no mere nostalgia. Finney is careful to note that fractured time can be dangerous. In a disturbing fable, “I’m Scared,” the narrator speculates on the consequences of a “growing rebellion against the present:
For the first time in man's history man is desperate to escape the present. Yes, there is a craving in the world like a thirst, a terrible mass pressure that you can almost feel, of millions of minds struggling against the barriers of time. I am utterly convinced that this terrible mass pressure of millions of minds is already, slight but definitely, affecting time itself.
The ease and availability of new time travel technologies are hemorrhaging the future. Disaffected people escape to the Past—and do not return. “’Man is disturbing the clock of time, and I am afraid it will break. When it does, I leave it to your imagination the last few hours of madness that will be left to us; all the countless moments that now make up our lives suddenly ripped apart and chaotically tangled in time.”

Although Finney’s stories never appeared on Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone, Stephen King has famously declared that Finney, perhaps more than anyone, truly forged the modern fantasy vein popularized in that series: "I urge you to find a copy of Finney's The Third Level," wrote King, "which will show you what The Twilight Zone could have been."  

Drawing of Jack Finney by John C. Tibbetts
I may be no longer the thirteen-year old kid who first stepped on the platform of the Third Level so long ago, but when I dip back into the pages of Finney's books, as I do on occasion, strange things happen. Characters don't move and talk precisely the way I had remembered; events don't transpire in just the way I had supposed. Blinking, I double-check the lines of print. No, that can't be... Just as the seams between past and present in Finney’s stories “momentarily buckle and tear,” I think the borders between Finney and me are breaking down. I am no longer sure what time period, even what reality I inhabit...

That's all right. I'm content. Jack Finney's work, I am convinced, is for all our times, not just for this one. That's his secret: He tests the flux of time and tide against the ticking of our own pulses.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016


The late EUGENE ISTOMIN (1925-2003) was one of the greatest and most respected pianists of our time. And now we have the news that Sony Classics has released a boxed set of vintage recordings, EUGENE ISTOMIN: THE CONCERT & SOLO RECORDINGS.

He was also a helluva nice guy. More on that presently.

We have waited for this for decades, inasmuch as most of his recordings have been out of circulation. The discs include his rarely-heard Bach and Mozart recordings; his celebrated performances of concertos by Rachmaninoff, Beethoven, Schumann and Chopin; and the classic readings of solo works by Chopin (the Nocturnes are in a class by themselves), Brahms (an unsurpassed “Handel Variations”), Schubert, and Stravinsky. In particular, the Rachmaninoff Second Concerto with Eugene Ormandy has long claimed a place among the very finest readings extant.

The legendary Istomin-Stern-Rose Trio
 (Stern, left, Rose, center)

It was a great privilege to call Eugene a friend. I had been listening to his recordings since boyhood (when a Columbia Masterworks recording of his Rach 2 and his Chopin Nocturnes changed my life).

My first encounter with Istomin’s Rachmaninoff. . . at age 8! Many years later we talked about this classic performance.  Never have Istomin’s performances of the Chopin Nocturnes been surpassed.

And when we first met, I was prepared to sit at the feet of a Monument. But no, from the get-go he was just a “Friend.” A very special friend, to be sure—but an amiable guy, as it turned out, whose shop-talk included not just music, but sports, politics, paintings (he was a connoisseur collector), books, and an endless fund of anecdotes about his beloved mentor, Pablo Casals. We met many times, beginning in the 1980s. . . in New York, Washington, DC, and Kansas City. He “introduced” me to the fabled Steinway basement, invited me as a guest to join the jury of the First International William Kapell Piano Competition at Lincoln Center, appeared on my television and radio shows, and allowed me to tape our conversations (including several demonstrations in his New York apartment of Schumann at the keyboard). One particularly cherished memory was a post-concert party held in his Washington apartment with some of his friends and colleagues (including pianists John Browning, Shura Cherkassky, and Paul Badura-Skoda).

With Eugene Istomin, Washington, D.C. 1989
You can hear his voice and his performances in two of my radio series, THE WORLD OF ROBERT SCHUMANN (in which he demonstrates Schumann’s First Sonata), and in a “Tribute” episode of PIANO PORTRAITS, in which he talks about his career, his memories of Serge Rachmaninoff, his association with the famed Istomin-Stern-Rose Trio, his favorite piano (loaned him by Vladimir Horowitz), and his marriage to the remarkable Marta Casals Istomin (who graciously consented to an interview).
Istomin and Rachmaninoff (drawing by John C. Tibbetts)

Oh—I forgot to mention Eugene was a rabid baseball fan of the Detroit Tigers. He would attend Spring training, sit in the dugout, and answer to the nickname “Fingers”! I cherish a photograph he let me take of him wearing the full Tigers regalia!


Friday, April 1, 2016


A Super Trifecta, from Batman v Superman

Although it’s a long slog before Wonder Woman shows up, it’s almost worth the wait. Here she is, joining Batman and Superman in battle against the ugly Kryptonite Monster. The memorable moment goes like this:
Batman: “Is she with you?”
Superman: “No, I thought she was with YOU!”
Okay, guys, settle down. it’s a mystery where she came from and why she’s here. I couldn’t figure it out, either, but wow, she looked great! As Alfred, Batman’s faithful butler (Jeremy Irons) says, “How to explain it???”

Of course, there’s enough pummeling and pounding to go around. It’s the most tedious trope in the Super Hero Universe, why they keep bashing on each other, when there’s never any apparent ill effect.

Meanwhile, another favorite trope asserts itself, and that’s the intrusion of numerous television newscasters to comment on the scene, like Anderson Cooper, Wolf Blitzer, Andrea Mitchell, etc. They keep popping up, film after film. I keep wondering where the hell the Fox News pundits are? Where are Sean Hannity, Chris Wallace, and, above all—where is Megyn Kelly? Perhaps they’re waiting in the wings, ready to join the ranks of the Super Villains.

The only compelling drama in this film is the suspenseful wait for Mad Magazine to launch a suit for plagiarism against the film. Those of us with long memories will recall the fourth issue of Mad (April-May 1953) when the brilliant Harvey Kurtzman and Wally Wood produced "Superduperman," where Superman and Captain Marvel (here named “Superduperman” and “Captain Marbles”) duke it out. Superduperman is unable to harm Captain Marbles until he provokes Marbles into punching himself in the head.

I can hear Sup’s bouncing boing and boink now. . .

There’s nothing much else to say, except that there’s a fleeting quote on the soundtrack of a waltz by the great Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich. Now THERE was a genuine super hero!