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Gene’s Way, Gene’s Steps, Gene’s Style: How Debbie Reynolds Learned to Dance in Three Months for Singin’ in the Rain


Arguably the greatest movie musical ever made, Singin’ in the Rain is celebrated as much for its songs and dances as its behind-the-scenes lore: Gene Kelly’s 101-degree fever while filming the title number; Donald O’Connor taking to his bed with exhaustion after filming “Make ’Em Laugh”—only to have to reshoot it days later due to a camera malfunction; Debbie Reynolds rehearsing until her feet bled. But of all the “making of” stories, the most impressive is that Reynolds, only 19 at the time, learned to dance in just three months to play leading lady Kathy Selden. A novice dancer with a gymnastics background, Reynolds entered a period of intense rehearsal in April 1951 to reach the level of Kelly and O’Connor, dancers who had been performing professionally for years. For eight to 10 hours a day, Kelly rehearsed with choreographic assistants Jeanne Coyne and Carol Haney and tap teacher Ernie Flatt—with Kelly popping in occasionally to check on her progress. Intimidated by Kelly’s notorious short temper (“When it breaks,” Reynolds said, “it’s like a giant explosion and all hell is let loose”), Reynolds routinely faltered. She lost confidence and often burst into tears of frustration and exhaustion. A stern taskmaster, Kelly wouldn’t allow Reynolds to leave until she was “step perfect.” As co-director, choreographer and star of the film, Kelly’s artistic vision and style—a unique amalgamation of ballet, tap and jazz—drove the production. Even Cyd Charisse, a classical ballet dancer, and O’Connor, a self-proclaimed hoofer who had been performing since childhood, had to adjust to Kelly’s standard. As Reynolds later recalled, it was “Gene’s way, Gene’s steps, Gene’s style.” Reynolds, in her first leading role, had a lot to learn in a very short period of time. To dance with both Kelly and O’Connor in “Good Morning,” a number featuring incredibly intricate footwork and precise unison, Reynolds needed to “be equal to them.” Dancing alone, any mistake or subtle deviation might not be noticeable. In unison, every error becomes magnified. Ever a perfectionist, Kelly demanded the same impeccability from his dancers, and, for Reynolds—young and inexperienced as she was—the pressure of the situation overwhelmed her. After one particularly rough rehearsal, Reynolds was found sobbing underneath a piano by another dancer who happened to be walking by. Asked why she was crying, Reynolds blubbered that the whole process was killing her. The man assured her that death was not imminent and learning to dance was always hard—but necessarily so. “If you’re not sweating, you’re not doing it right,” he said. The dancer turned out to be Fred Astaire, who was working in the rehearsal room next door on his film The Belle of New York. “He invited me in to watch him rehearse,” Reynolds recalled. “Nobody got to watch him dance, and he let me watch him until he was just red in the face, and it showed me, even the greats find it hard to be really excellent, but you have to keep striving.” Astaire encouraged Reynolds not to give up, but rather embrace the challenge. What Reynolds had witnessed was a lifting of the dancer’s mask. Astaire and Kelly did what all great dancers do: make the difficult look effortless. Such ability belies the hard work, precision and skill that go into the creation of each number. If a dancer were to communicate the difficulty of the act to an audience, its essence would disappear—the narrative quality, the emotional communication, the expressive capacity of the dance would shatter. You might as well watch someone working out at the gym. Through the hours of rehearsals and filming (40 takes alone were shot of “Good Morning”—another day that left her with bloody feet), Reynolds achieved something truly remarkable: She danced beautifully. Years later, Kelly praised her hard work and determination: “Debbie was strong as an ox, and…could work for hours. Also she was a great copier, and could pick up the most complicated routines without too much difficulty.” For her part, Reynolds was forever grateful to Kelly. “Gene taught me discipline….He taught me how to be a perfectionist….But at the time I could have done without his perfection.” In one of the last scenes of Singin’ in the Rain, Lina Lamont, the shallow film star whose niggling voice demands overdubbing from Reynolds’s character, addresses “her public” after the premiere of The Dancing Cavalier: “If we bring a little joy into your humdrum lives, it makes us feel as if our hard work ain't been in vain for nothing.” Singin’ in the Rain has brought joy into our humdrum lives now for 64 years. And no, Debbie, your hard work ain’t been in vain for nothing. Photo: Everett Collection

by Maureen Maryanski

Sep 23, 2016

This Week, in Limerick: Farewell, Brangelina


Thursday, September 22 Autumnal As we wait for next Monday’s big brawl, Let us sip pumpkin-spice alcohol, Say goodbye to the summer (What a climate-change bummer), And look fearfully forward to fall. Pas Très Jolie It is done. Angelina and Brad Are not one “Brangelina.” It’s sad. Now they’re two. Now they’ve split: Ms. Jolie. Mr. Pitt. No more Pitt-Jolie hyphen. Too bad.

by James Waller

Sep 23, 2016

Snowden: Portrait of a Whistle-Blower


Edward Snowden was the agent behind the 2013 revelations of the National Security Administration’s vast international and domestic spying operation. But Snowden claimed he didn’t want to be the focus of the story. In Laura Poitras’s extraordinary 2014 documentary, Citizenfour, Snowden twice demurs: “I’m not the story here,” he insists, and then, later, “I don’t want to get myself into the issue . . . where it takes away from the stories that are getting out.” Vain wish, that. For of course Snowden was and will ever be the story’s matrix—whistle-blower or traitor, hero or villain, depending on your point of view. Citizenfour’s cinematic power resides in its moles-and-all portrayal of a brilliant young man who is risking everything—career, love, freedom, possibly even his life—to bring to light the U.S. government’s limitless, unconstitutional invasion of privacy. Poitras captures Snowden at the very time of crisis, when he’s holed up in a Hong Kong hotel room, pouring out his soul and opening the trove of top-secret information he’s stolen to the filmmaker and her collaborator, journalist Glenn Greenwald. It’s terrifying—not least because the viewer, like Snowden himself, can’t be sure that CIA/NSA thugs won’t bust down the door at any moment. Citizenfour is the rare film that intensifies the way you look at the world; I remember leaving the theater with my personal paranoia thrumming full throttle. The first thing that needs to be said about Oliver Stone’s new biopic, Snowden, is that it’s a much more conventional piece of filmmaking than Citizenfour. The second thing is that, despite itself, it’s pretty damned good. Director Stone (who cowrote the screenplay with Kieran Fitzgerald) uses the Hong Kong interviews Snowden gave to Poitras (played by Melissa Leo) and Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) as a fulcrum, fleshing out the story of Snowden’s life and political evolution through a series of flashbacks that begin in 2004, when 21-year-old Ed (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) was a U.S. Army Reservist trying to make it into the Special Forces. When two broken legs force him to give up on that dream, he decides to use his substantial intellectual talent to help his country in other ways, training with the CIA and then taking a series of intelligence jobs that lead him, finally, to an “infrastructure analyst” post with NSA contractor Booz Allen Hamilton at the NSA’s regional operations center in Oahu, Hawaii. There, his top-level security clearance enables him to access all the classified information he’ll eventually divulge. From left: Melissa Leo, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Tom Wilkinson, Zachary Quinto. Photo by Jurgen Olczyk /© Open Road Films / Courtesy Everett Collection Meanwhile, while he’s climbing the career ladder, Ed falls head over heels for a young woman named Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley). In Stone’s telling, Ed’s love and concern for Lindsay are integral to his fateful decision. As the moral quandaries imposed by his job become more intolerable, Ed’s worries mount that his and Lindsay’s relationship—repeatedly damaged by the pressures of Ed’s work, which he can never talk to her about—cannot be sustained, and also that Lindsay is under NSA surveillance and herself in grave danger. Frankly, I found Snowden’s romantic story line just a tad too pat: Boy gets girl, boy loses girl (a couple of times), and then (you guessed it) boy gets girl back again. And other aspects of Snowden’s plot—so laden with ironies and foreshadowings—seemed Hollywood-picture artifices that just couldn’t be true of any actual human life. And yet. And yet. Edward Snowden’s adventure is remarkable, almost mythic in its fatedness. In an early scene in Snowden, Ed tells a CIA interviewer that Joseph Campbell is one of his influences, and in reality Snowden’s life has played out like one of those classic heroic quests Campbell spent his career analyzing and celebrating. A young, weakling genius—so sweetly naive he’s dubbed “Snow White” by a sarcastic coworker—undergoes a series of excruciating trials that strengthen him and ultimately guide him to sacrifice his very self, if need be, to save the world. Whew. Whether the world has in any meaningful sense been made better by Snowden’s act is, of course, untellable. Various measures purporting to limit the U.S. intelligence services’ power and reach have been enacted, but I don’t think I’m alone in assuming that the government can still find out anything and everything about anyone and everyone. But even if the hero’s sacrifice is futile, his (or her) story must be told. And Stone, despite the screenwriting contrivances, tells Snowden’s story well, aided by a sensational performance by his lead actor. Gordon-Levitt doesn’t look at all like Edward Snowden, and, except for era-specific changes of eyewear, doesn’t try to. But he exactingly reproduces Snowden’s peculiar, and peculiarly memorable, voice. At once halting and mellifluous, monotonous and grandiloquent, it’s a voice that seems as self-taught as Snowden’s erudition. (Snowden made it into intelligence analysts’ top echelon without ever graduating from high school.) Gordon-Levitt inhabits the character so absolutely that it isn’t as jarring as it ought to be when, near the end of the film, the real-life Snowden takes over the role. (Whether putting Ed Snowden himself into the film was a wise directorial choice is another question.) The other actors, as critics say, acquit themselves well—especially Woodley, whom I’ve loved ever since she played George Clooney’s brattish teenage daughter in The Descendants, and Nicolas Cage, who plays a cranky, bitter old fart of a teacher at the CIA’s spy academy. Welsh actor Rhys Ifans is appropriately scary as Snowden’s CIA mentor, Corbin O’Brian—a Big Brother whose repulsive self-confidence dissolves when his favorite little puppet betrays him. And Snowden’s special effects are clever and well deployed—especially the psychedelic montages that accompany Ed’s epileptic seizures. (Were you aware that Snowden has epilepsy? Neither was I.) Mythic tales are supposed to remain thrilling no matter how familiar they may be, and perhaps the best aspect of Stone’s film is that it manages to sustain and even amplify the suspense throughout, despite the fact that we all know how Snowden’s story will turn out (well, at least up to his current comfortable exile in Moscow). That’s partly a function of Stone’s use of voice-over, a narrative stratagem that generally fails more often than it succeeds. But Gordon-Levitt’s preternatural impersonation of Snowden’s bland, self-conscious and fretful vocal style conveys the fear and dismay he almost perpetually suffered, and aside from William Holden’s narration in Sunset Boulevard, I can’t think of another movie in which voice-over has worked so well. So do go see Snowden. And then join the call urging President Obama to grant Ed Snowden a pardon. Which won’t ever happen. Unless, of course, the magical trajectory of Mr. Snowden’s life should take yet another astonishing turn. Photos: Everett Collection

by James Waller

Sep 22, 2016

Insider Interview: Ron Yekutiel of Kaltura


New York–based software company Kaltura recently made headlines when it received a $50 million investment from Goldman Sachs. But it wasn’t Kaltura’s first large backing from an outside investor. Since its founding in 2006, the company has had a total of three big funding rounds totaling $110 million. Why are so many betting big on what appears to be just another video delivery company? For one thing, Kaltura’s client list is impressive—not only in online streaming, but in education, enterprise and, since 2014, over-the-top (OTT) content. For another, Kaltura owns more than 1,000 APIs. And it doesn’t hurt to have three PhDs on the executive team. But what really captures the attention of the private equity market is the strategic DNA and radical scalability of the business. We’re talking true-blue, bottom-up disruption based on…the Lego brick. Really. Q: First off, why so many PhDs? A: I just have PhD envy [laughs]. My father is a PhD, so the closest I got is to have a lot of PhDs around. I’m not supposed to be the smartest guy in the room—I am supposed to figure out how I can do more with all of them together. Q: So the brain power is clearly off the charts. What does this look like when applied to the challenges of delivering video content? A: There are a lot of common denominators around the treatment of video as a new data type that can be applied to multiple business verticals. The underlying theme across all these different environments is one of openness and flexibility. So, in the same way, we have myriad products for each of the use cases that we can extend, modify and integrate in a very open way. Based on this model, we now have 170 partners that have created plug-ins to Kaltura. And we have north of 150,000 open source contributors, all because we’re very flexible and open. It’s like how Lego went from producing Lego pieces to selling trucks, planes and cars made out of Lego pieces. Q: I love the Lego analogy. A: Everyone who talks about flexibility can talk Lego. We followed the same type of transition. When people go against us they say, well, you know Kaltura, it has so many APIs and it’s an open system so it needs to have a fleet of developers. Not true. We sell these Legos already put together. We have products you can buy off the shelf, but it so happens that if you want to rip off the wing and make it something else, you are able to do that. And yes, it’s true that if you want to have another product entirely, you are able to do that, too. The Kaltura executive team. Q: Can you walk us through the evolution of the various businesses? A: We started in classic web publishing for media companies, and we clawed our way up from the small publishers to the FOXs and ABCs of the world by powering their web environments. With this, we had a video management system for uploading video, publishing it on the web, etc. That was our first move. Then we got into enterprises by transitioning from an external video player on the website to an internal player by building the same tools for corporates to use for learning, training, collaborating and basic communication. So we essentially transformed the webcasting product into a corporate YouTube product, a full-blown video portal with all the management tools. We’ve since sold that to 20 of the Fortune 100 companies. We then got into universities by building learning into information systems with Blackboard, and later added lecture-capture tools. So it was initially media, then enterprise, then education. Last we added the OTT vertical. Kaltura MediaSpace portal for streaming video. Q: Does that breadth become too much to manage? A: The open, flexible design of the company is something we had in mind when we began, so it’s not something we decided along the way and bootstrapped while trying to build. The scalability is something we were very thoughtful about and it’s working very well. I mean, the proof is in the pudding: We’re catering to the largest media companies in the world, some of the largest Fortune 100 companies in the world and the largest schools in the world. Q: And now OTT is booming. A: The shift we made from web to OTT was perfect in the way of timing. We purchased Tvinci in May 2014. That October, HBO announced plans for HBO Now, and immediately many others announced direct-to-consumer offerings. So I think the end of 2014 was when OTT stopped being just Netflix, and started being so much more. And we were there with the Tvinci acquisition six months before. We’re very happy the timing was good for us. Kaltura's OTT NOW sample interface. Q: Why did you decide on an acquisition as opposed to growing it organically, like the other verticals? A: Tvinci was a great company. It was close to our research and development center, and we loved the people and the team. It had this kick-ass platform with superb solutions for telcos and media companies. It was a Jerry Maguire moment when Tvinci completed us: It was more like a Netflix; we were more like a YouTube. We were more ads; it was more subscription. Had we not used that shortcut, it would have been way harder. Yes, we have a horizontal strategy, but sometimes you need to have a DNA of a certain nature. When you look at pay TV it’s a different type of DNA than web or enterprise. It’s a specific set of capabilities. So we were humble enough to understand that we need an influx of that. At the same time it didn’t affect our strategy of having a unified platform. So we’re true to our strategy, but we’ve doubled down on OTT with the acquisition. Q: People are talking a lot about virtual reality and 360° videos for entertainment. How can these emerging technologies be applied to the less-sexy sectors like enterprise and education? A: I am a huge believer in VR, personally. I think from a very high philosophical perspective it is a paradigm shift that is going to happen. At the end of the day, there are two main things that define us as human beings: our constraint on space and our constraint on time. We live in a time where we can’t move back and forth and we’re also limited on space. There is no “Beam me up, Scotty” yet. I see VR as a solution to this. If I look at education, I see us sitting in virtual classes and feeling that we are all there together, teleported right into the classroom with each other. In enterprise, we’re going to be getting conference calls and, instead of video streaming, you will put the VR glasses on from your camera or your laptop, and boom, you’re teleported to a new environment. With this I foresee a dramatic increase in video. It will be a thousand or more times greater than it is now, because everyone believes that with a distributed workforce, everyone’s going to be using this every day. So the disruption is upon us. Q: And that’s the perfect enterprise case, this distributed workforce. A: Totally. And at this convergence we’re getting into video live and we’re adding layers of video conferencing, because eventually the line will be completely blurry between VOD, webcasting and video conferencing. Unified video systems will need to be VR-supportive so we can beam ourselves up and be everywhere. So if we look at the video technology companies, in five or 10 years, they are going to enable you to be everywhere and work everywhere. That’s where we need to get to. Visit Kaltura's website here.  Photos courtesy of Kaltura.

by David Pfister

Sep 21, 2016

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