DATE May 8, 2003 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Sarah Chayes discusses how she's helping rebuild
Afghanistan as part of the organization Afghans for Civil Society
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
In her work helping to rebuild Afghanistan, Sarah Chayes dresses as a man, has
faced down a former warlord and directed the reconstruction of a village.
Perhaps you recognize her name. Sarah Chayes is a former NPR correspondent
who covered Paris, Kosovo and the fall of the Taliban. Now she's field
director of the Kandahar branch of Afghans for Civil Society, which was
founded by an uncle of Afghanistan's interim prime minister, Hamid Karzai.
The group's mission is to promote democracy in Afghanistan by contributing to
the formulation of public policy and the physical rebuilding of the country.
Sarah Chayes' first major project was directing the reconstruction of
Akokalacha, a small village near the Kandahar airport. Half of the houses in
the village were decimated during the allied bombing of the airport in one of
the last big battles before the fall of the Taliban. The goal was to rebuild
the 30 mud brick huts that were destroyed and to add something they previously
lacked: stone foundations. This required getting stones and getting access
to the quarry, and that wasn't easy.
Ms. SARAH CHAYES (Afghans for Civil Society): It was a wild story. One day,
our chief engineer comes in to me and says, `There's a problem with the
stone,' and the problem with the stone turned out to be that the governor's
men in arms had blocked our tractor at the quarry and weren't permitting us to
get any stone for foundations. Now the landscape there is extremely
forbidding and about the only thing that there is in plenty is stone, right,
but it turns out what we learned, as we followed this labyrinth through to its
source, was that the governor was imposing a monopoly on stone in favor of his
brother, brother-in-law and another partner. And so nobody in the entire city
was able to get stone, legally anyway, in order to conduct reconstruction. I
mean, here you were in a province devastated by 30 years of almost
uninterrupted violence and destruction, and finally there was a glimmer of an
opportunity to begin a reconstruction process, and the very governor of the
province was preventing that from happening in order to corner the market
GROSS: OK. So who is this guy, this governor, who is preventing his own
people from rebuilding their homes?
Ms. CHAYES: This guy is called Gul Agha Shirzai, which means something like
noble flower Shirzai. He was governor of Kandahar province before the
Taliban, and indeed, it's partly because of his governing style that the
people of southern Afghanistan actually kind of welcomed the Taliban, because
so much murder and mayhem and arbitrary violence and looting took place on his
watch that the people were desperate for anything that could impose a
semblance of order.
And what happened was as the United States was launching or involved in the
conflict, Hamid Karzai, who's now president of the country, was negotiating
his way down toward Kandahar. Kandahar had been the stronghold and the real
capital of the Taliban regime. And there was felt on the part of the
Pentagon, presumably, a need for a military action to put pressure on this
negotiating situation. So Gul Agha was kind of chosen as a guy who had guns
and who could muster people with guns and inserted, with US assistance, onto
the south of Kandahar. And then what happened was a major battle at the
airport, which is just south of Kandahar, which was the last stand of
al-Qaeda. And Gul Agha was involved in that battle. Karzai obtained the
surrender of the Taliban and asked Gul Agha to remain outside the city. He
did not want him to become governor. And what happened was he, Gul Agha,
invaded the city in order to regain his position as governor, and Karzai,
who is extremely conflict averse, was not willing to have another bloodbath,
more Afghans dying, and basically gave in to the blackmail.
GROSS: And what about the United States? Gul Agha had helped the United
States take the airport in Kandahar. So did the United States help Gul Agha
become governor or stay governor?
Ms. CHAYES: Yeah, in the sense that the arms that made it possible for him to
invade Kandahar had been provided to him by the United States. They continued
to provide him with arms after he was inside the city so they continued to arm
him, in a sense, against their other anti-Taliban allies who were grouped
around Karzai. It was a very odd situation and, you know, to the point I
actually drove into Kandahar with one of Gul Agha's soldiers, and I was asking
him about this, and I asked him the exact same question. After he described,
you know, how they swooped down the hill toward the city with all guns blazing
and sticking out of their pickup trucks and all this kind of thing, I said,
`Where were the Americans?' and he said, `Oh, the Americans told us to do it.'
And I was just quite amazed that, in a sense, we were instrumental in pitting
two different anti-Taliban groups against each other.
What then started to happen is that relationships that are created in battle,
in the field, have a kind of longevity, so that as American forces finished
their rotation and new ones came in, you know, there was a kind of
fraternization, I think, that was going on with Gul Agha's people, and so that
relationship was really cemented, so that, for example, Gul Agha's brother is
the one who provides, you know, outer-ring security to the US base at the
airport south of Kandahar. That also then means that most reconstruction
contracts, the bidding conferences are actually held in the compound belonging
to the brother of Gul Agha. And in these sorts of almost accidental ways,
this relationship gets cemented and Gul Agha is able to use this kind of
support or backing of the United States to further entrench his own position.
And I don't think this was a deliberate policy at all. I think it just kind
of evolved out of an alliance of convenience back when it was forged...
GROSS: And favors that are owed back and forth.
Ms. CHAYES: Correct. That's exactly right.
GROSS: Well, so you've hit on what is maybe a kind of typical problem of
nation-building after war, which is that some of the alliances forged during
the actual fighting are not the best alliances when it comes to building
democracy after the war is over.
Ms. CHAYES: You said it. I think that's a really, really major issue that we
all need to think about, particularly as, you know, our attention turns to
Iraq, which, in many ways, is a similar situation. And I think that what
happens is because of these postwar situations, almost de facto, the most
important US presence on the ground ends up being the military, and that means
that everything the military does in its own mission has political
ramifications on the ground. But nobody really told the guys on the ground
that they were making policy, and so they don't necessarily take in the right
information. They don't make their decisions in a kind of political
consciousness, if that makes any sense. And what I've actually found with the
military is that they--at least, you know, those officers that I've had a
chance to speak with, is that they are actually quite open to criticizing
themselves and to adjusting their behavior once they realize that their
behavior can have such incredibly important political ramifications on the
GROSS: Well, let's get back to the saga of getting the stones that you needed
to build the stone foundations for the village that you were trying to rebuild
in Kandahar. You know, you couldn't get the stones because the governor,
who's very corrupt, wanted you to just do business with his family's cement
company and to not get the stones from the mountains. So how did you get what
you needed finally?
Ms. CHAYES: Brute force, basically, meaning we argued with him then and kind
of cajoled him into setting up a meeting with the local director of mines and
industry, and we dragged him out to the quarry and kind of showed him that
this was the only place that we could actually get stones and got him to kind
of give us a special dispensation, and that after, you know, again, some
effort, ended up working. Unfortunately, what then happened was, as soon as
we got all the stone we needed, the quarry operator was jailed for about 10
days and then we had to also raise a lot of Cain to get him out of jail.
GROSS: You must have felt awful knowing that he was put in prison because you
convinced him to give you the stones you needed.
Ms. CHAYES: Terrible. We felt really terrible. And it was like one of
these situations where individuals suffer in a kind of effort to change a
bigger picture. We did get him out, and he wasn't mistreated. We were really
scared because there are some very bad stories about what happens in the
governor's jails, too, and we were growing white hair and were really relieved
that he wasn't mistreated in any kind of way. On the other hand, what did
happen is he had stockpiled a lot of broken pieces of stone that are good for
turning into gravel, and all of that material was bulldozed over to the
governor's family's cement factory so that they could use it for gravel and
cement. So it was also a kind of major theft, the jailing.
GROSS: Do you think that the problems you've had in just trying to get stone
to rebuild the foundations in the village that you're trying to rebuild in
Kandahar--do you think these are typical problems in Afghanistan now, trying
to rebuild in the aftermath of the war and trying to build a democracy? Or is
this just some kind of unusual story that you happened to run into?
Ms. CHAYES: I can't speak very well for areas other than the south, but I do
know that there is a Gul Agha in, you know, at least five major provinces in
the country. And this is how warlords work, is that they use every resource
at their disposal to further consolidate their own personal power and their
own control over these resources, and that's where I think, you know, being
close to the ground in the way that we are allows us to try to provide aid in
a conscious way, provide assistance--I don't want to say aid--in a conscious
way so that, rather than reinforcing a detrimental situation, we're actually
trying to empower the Afghan people, and I think that takes being very close
to the ground. It takes not hiding behind the kind of fig leaf of being
apolitical. I mean, in a way, you can't be apolitical, even in the
reconstruction business, because you can actually reinforce something that is
against the interests of the Afghan people, so I actually think that this
story of ours, with our little village, is very emblematic of exactly what's
the biggest problem in the reconstruction of Afghanistan. And, indeed, you
know, I suspect in Iraq, there's going to be a similar version, because
warlordism--it's like a new ideology in a way.
GROSS: Sarah, so how far have you gotten in actually rebuilding the village
in Kandahar that you've been trying to rebuild, the village that was decimated
by US bombing?
Ms. CHAYES: We actually finished building that village. It's done. It was a
saga because there was not only the tussle with the governor, but there was
also a certain degree of tussle with the villagers, who saw us as dollar
signs, in a way, coming out of the sky and who were dealing with us--you know,
this is also a country that has had no future for the last 30 years, and so
people have a hard time thinking in terms of developing a relationship which
will be an ongoing relationship and which will bring them a variety of
different kinds of support, you know, over time. And they were basically
negotiating like there's no tomorrow.
They were determined to get the biggest, nicest houses they could possibly get
from us, and it was a frustrating--I mean, our original intention was to
rebuild the houses exactly as they had been, but we discovered that we
couldn't actually find out how they had been because we kept being told that
they were nine rooms big with a bathroom in every room and air conditioners...
GROSS: Yeah, right.
Ms. CHAYES: ...and stuff like that. And so we ended up, you know, building
pretty standard houses, and they were, to some extent, disappointed because
they were hoping to get their mansions. But we did have a lovely sort of
epilogue when we were scouring the region for another village to rebuild and
stopped a farmer in his field and asked, you know, whether he knew whether
American bombs had destroyed anything in that area, and it was not far from
Akokalacha, which is the one that we did rebuild, and he said, `Oh, yeah,
there was one right next to the airport, you know, but some humanitarian
organization rebuilt it, and now it's a good Kolacha(ph),' and so that was
GROSS: My guest is Sarah Chayes. She's a former NPR reporter who's now the
Kandahar field director of Afghans for Civil Society. We'll be back after a
break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Sarah Chayes. She's a former
NPR reporter, and now she's working with Afghans for Civil Society, which is
trying to help build democracy in Afghanistan and to literally rebuild
villages in Afghanistan.
Sarah, you are working in a culture where women do not have equal rights, and
under the Taliban particularly, they weren't even allowed out in public unless
they were totally covered from head to foot, and even then, they were only
allowed out in public under certain circumstances. You basically dress like a
man in your travels through Kandahar. Why don't you describe the clothing
that you wear?
Ms. CHAYES: It's a very loose sort of knee-length shirt called a camise, and
then enormously loose trousers that are held tight at your hips by often a
very beautiful sparkly beaded belt. And when I first ordered my first pair of
these, I actually thought they had gotten the measurements wrong. I thought
they had exchanged the length and the width, because honestly, when you hold
the thing out, it's basically your two arms outstretched. It's very
well-adapted to the weather, which is extremely hot in the summertime. Then
there's basically just a piece of cloth that's got this incredible Kandahari
embroidery worked across both ends that you can either sort of throw over your
shoulders as a shawl, throw over your head to cover your hair if you happen to
be female like me, or actually even tie around your head as a turban. And
when it started getting really, really, really insufferably hot, that's what I
started to do because I just couldn't bear having an extra layer on me.
And I actually decided to wear these clothes back when I was reporting, and it
was during the conflict, and I went up from Quetta, where I was based, to
Chamman, which is right on the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, and
it's an extremely conservative small town. Indeed, it's where a lot of the
Taliban came from. It's where a lot of them got their madrassa education, and
I noticed that there were zero women on the street. There were absolutely
none, and there were no Westerners, and I kind of thought, look, I've got four
choices. I can either wear a burqa, which I'm not going to do. I can wear
Western clothes, which would like wearing neon lights. I could wear Pakistani
women's clothes, which is what I would wear down in Quetta, but that's like
wearing neon lights because there are no women in the street. Or I could wear
men's clothes, and it's not like I was trying to disguise myself as a man in
GROSS: It's not "Yentl."
Ms. CHAYES: Yeah, exactly. But what it was was trying to create a kind of
optical illusion, so that at least from a distance of 50 yards, I wouldn't be
gathering a crowd, because that's what would happen otherwise. And it
actually worked, and so I continued to wear them, you know, in Kandahar when
the Taliban finally fell and I went in. And now I could wear Western clothes
because there are enough Westerners in Kandahar, but I've just gotten used to
it, and it's kind of become my--I mean, I think I'm a bit of a circus freak
show there anyway, and so it kind of goes with the territory.
GROSS: OK. So, you know, you're wearing a turban. You're wearing, you know,
men's clothes. Do you confuse some of the men who you have to deal with, not
only the men you're working with who--I mean, the men you're working with at
Afghans for Civil Society understand what you're doing and why you're doing
it. But you're also dealing with this corrupt governor and you're dealing
with a lot of people. You're dealing with villagers who don't know who you
are or what you're doing there until you've had a chance to explain it to
them. So do some of them think that you're bizarre, being a woman dressing
like a man? Gender-bending is not...
Ms. CHAYES: Right.
GROSS: It's not common in Afghanistan?
Ms. CHAYES: Right. Drag is not common yet. I think I do confuse people and
now, as I say, that there are more Westerners and Western women working in
Kandahar, I really do stick out. What I hear in the street all the time is
people saying, `(Foreign language spoken). It's a woman. That's a woman,'
you know, and now, you know, I kind of take it in stride and, you know, kind
of wink and say, `Oh, that's a little boy. You're a boy. You're a boy,' you
know, and so I kind of hand it back to them, and people laugh and all that.
Occasionally, people do ask me, you know, `Why do you wear men's clothes?' and
I pull out this old saga, or sometimes I'll say, `Well, you know what? In
America, I wear men's clothes, too, so why shouldn't I do it here?'
And I do think there's a kind of license that's allowed to foreigners, even in
very conservative Muslim countries. I've lived in a couple, and as a kind of
professional woman, which breaks all the rules anyway, you're sort of treated
like a martian. You're some other object that's allowed to gender-bend, in a
way, and I've found this. I lived in Morocco a long time ago, and I would
find men would take my hand, which is a completely unthinkable gesture between
a man and a woman in a country like Morocco or Afghanistan, but they were
reacting to me like to a man, while at the same time, I can go and hang out
with the women. So it's actually a real privilege to be a foreign woman in
this kind of a country.
GROSS: Just one more question about being a woman working in Afghanistan. Do
some of the men in Afghanistan think that because you're an American woman,
that they can hit on you and that that's OK?
Ms. CHAYES: Never happened. It's never happened.
Ms. CHAYES: Yeah. Yeah, it is. Because there again, I think culturally, the
consequences are so enormous, you know, that that's really taboo.
GROSS: Sarah Chayes is the field director of the Kandahar branch of Afghans
for Civil Society. She'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm Terry
Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Coming up, Lloyd Schwartz reviews a new DVD of Cole Porter musicals.
David Bianculli reviews the new 10-part nature series by Sir David
Attenborough on the Discovery Channel. And we continue our conversation with
Sarah Chayes. She's helping to rebuild Afghanistan.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Sarah Chayes. She's a
former NPR reporter who's now helping to rebuild Afghanistan and move toward
democracy. She's the field director of the Kandahar branch of Afghans for
Civil Society, which was founded by an uncle of Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan's
interim prime minister.
What are some of the changes in the lives of women in the villages that you've
been working in in the post-Taliban society?
Ms. CHAYES: The lot of women has improved dramatically since the Taliban were
gone. I mean, if nothing else, they can, you know, take a ride in the
horse-drawn taxis into town by themselves without having to have a male
escort. They can work as teachers; they can go to school as students. But
the Kandahar area anyway remains an extremely conservative place, and to some
extent a lot of the strictures that the Taliban brought to the rest of
Afghanistan were rooted in the most conservative of the local village
traditions of the Afghan south.
So what we have found is that, although you do see women in the street and
although there are a number of programs that, for example, create places where
women can work--we have an income generation project which is based on this
very fine embroidery that is characteristic of the Kandahar area, and what we
have done is decide to go from house to house. It's like the old putting-out
system before the industrial revolution; we bring raw materials to women in
about a dozen houses scattered through and around Kandahar and each house is a
focal point for between, I would say, five and 30 women. So we're actually
employing 200 women throughout the town. And we've been, you know, just
amazed at how strong the constraints remain on women in the Kandahar area.
And by `we' in particular, I mean myself who has lived in a number of other
Muslim countries and our director of women's programs there who is an
Afghan-American who was born in Afghanistan, and even she has been completely
shocked to find how stringent the restrictions remain on women.
And so what we're trying to do--this is a very popular program because we're
not breaking the rules and because we're not asking--you know, we're not
fomenting revolution quite yet, you know. So what we hope to do is to be able
to piggyback other activities on this income generation project. One of them
that we've already started is simply a neighborhood discussion group, and even
that in one of our neighborhoods where we first proposed to do this, you know,
we asked some of our women, `Well, what if we held a tea once a month and just
had a social event for all the women in the neighborhood?' And they kind of
looked at each other nervously and said, `Nope, we wouldn't have permission to
do it. We could only see other women for weddings and funerals.' And this
turned out to be the home of one of our drivers, and we turned to him, `Ali
Ahmed(ph), is this true?' And he said, `Look, I know my wife's father and I
know her brother, but I don't know her uncle. And so I won't let her go to
her uncle's house. Why should I let her go to some stranger's house for a
We have neighborhoods where we could do this, that were slightly less
conservative. And it's just been an extraordinary--again, we're kind of
feeling our way, but it's been an extraordinary experience to bring 30 women
together and start talking about the issues that really determine their lives.
GROSS: Is there still a lot of violence in Afghanistan now? You read in the
newspapers about continued attacks from Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters. Do you
feel that violence in Kandahar?
Ms. CHAYES: We feel in Kandahar a distinct uptick in extremist activities
since about January. I mean, it really is noticeable both in terms of
threats--for example, the old technique of leaving what are called night
letters in mosques has started again; these are letters that are threatening
to people who work with the Americans or work with the new government,
threatening to people who send girls to school. One of our families of women
who work in our income generation project took their girls out of school
because of some of these letters. There are almost, I would say, certainly
weekly if not more often events like, you know, a rocket shot off somewhere to
somewhere, you know, usually random. There was an extremely gruesome
assassination of an International Red Cross worker just north of Kandahar in a
really classic extremist kind of setup where about 30 former Taliban ambushed;
you know, blocked off a road, pulled aside the first foreign car they found,
radioed for instructions and killed the one foreigner in the cars.
That said, I think it's not like working in Sarajevo during the war or
something like that. I think the reaction on the part of the international
humanitarian community has been a little bit excessive. A number have reduced
their staffs in the Kandahar area; some have closed entirely, and I actually
don't think that's warranted.
GROSS: Mm-hmm. Did the war in Iraq penetrate the consciousness of the
villagers that you're working with in Afghanistan?
Ms. CHAYES: Not really. Not as much as one would have thought from, you
know, a US perspective. It turns out that people in post-conflict societies
are really self-absorbed; I mean, they're really concerned about getting their
own lives going again. They also have long memories in Afghanistan, and they
do remember that when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan Saddam Hussein
applauded. And so that reduced the amount of sympathy that there might have
been for the Iraqis.
I think it's also a really telling point that, you know, here is
Afghanistan--is an extremely conservative Muslim country--that was not opposed
to the US invasion of Iraq. And the real concern that I felt on the ground
was that the US attention would turn so quickly away from Afghanistan just at
a moment when US people on the ground were starting to get enough of an
understanding to really begin to do a good job there. I mean, it really took
a year and a half for Americans to become familiar enough with Afghanistan and
with the conditions there for their activities and actions and assistance and
intervention to make a positive difference. And so Afghans were really
worried, `Oh, my God. They're going to leave us, and then where will we be?'
GROSS: Well, has that happened? Do you feel that a lot of American attention
has been diverted from Afghanistan to Iraq?
Ms. CHAYES: I think that's really happened. You can feel it in Washington.
In other words, when we have to approach USAID in Washington, we find that all
the people we had been working with have been moved over to Iraq. It's very
visible in terms of the quantity of assistance that's reaching Afghanistan. I
mean, you know, there's just money that was supposed to be earmarked for
Afghanistan has been set aside and is now probably on its way to Iraq.
On the ground, you don't feel it as much because people who are stationed in
Afghanistan are preoccupied with Afghanistan. And so there you do still feel
the attention on the ground.
GROSS: You left journalism; you left your position as an NPR reporter to do
this aid and democracy-building work in Afghanistan. Why did you leave
Ms. CHAYES: I had felt all the time that I was working in journalism this
issue of how much good are you doing, you know. And especially reporting from
Paris I remember thinking sometimes, `Golly, my job is to entertain, you know,
intelligent and well-to-do Americans with the foibles of intelligent and
well-to-do Europeans,' you know? I mean, on down days sometimes I would think
that, and kind of would keep myself going by saying, `Well, just being a
foreign correspondent is a kind of sedition, I think, in America; just keeping
other countries on the map in America is a really valuable thing to do.' But
there was always this kind of desire to participate in some way or to, you
know, kind of do something rather than only observing.
But nothing quite felt right, because the thought of kind of joining the
international humanitarian industry, which it is sort of, didn't quite feel
right. And what happened in this case was just--it was just a fluke. I mean,
it fell into my lap, and it was so perfect; it was so right. I was leaving
the area. I had had a pretty long rotation, about two and half months, and I
was saying goodbye to sort of favorite people and good sources and things like
that, and one of them was the uncle of the Karzais, whom I had interviewed a
couple of times only, but they had each time been really, really insightful
interviews; I mean, he really was able to give me, you know, a kind of grasp
of what the situation meant that I hadn't gotten elsewhere, and I really liked
him. He's intelligent. He's very insightful but never too negative, you
know. You know, we had dinner, and as I left, he just looked at me and said,
`Wouldn't you come back and help us?' And it was sort of the clarion call.
And I think the other factor really is these Karzais, who, more than any other
political figure that I've encountered in any other post-conflict society or
even in America, they move me, because I really feel like they are doing
everything they can for the good of their people, and it's not a personal
agenda. And I just haven't seen that anywhere else, and it felt like, you
know, if you've been offered the opportunity to take part in this struggle
this way with these people, you just can't turn it down.
GROSS: Well, Sarah Chayes, thank you so much for telling us a bit about the
work that you're doing. Thank you.
Ms. CHAYES: Thank you, Terry.
GROSS: Sarah Chayes is the field director of the Kandahar branch of Afghans
for Civil Society. She's a former NPR reporter. A new documentary about her
called "Life After War" has been showing on the film festival circuit.
Coming up, Lloyd Schwartz reviews Cole Porter musicals now out on DVD. This
is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: DVD of Cole Porter musicals
TERRY GROSS, host:
During the Depression, World War II and the Cold War, the movies responded
with both political satire and sheer escapism and sometimes something deeper.
One of the people who did all of the above was Cole Porter. Five movie
musicals with Porter's scores made between 1940 and 1957 have just been
released on DVD. Classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz has a review.
LLOYD SCHWARTZ reporting:
We usually think of Cole Porter as a Broadway composer, but he started writing
songs for Hollywood movies as early as 1929. The first movie adaptations of
his Broadway shows kept only the most popular of his songs, like "You're The
Top" and "I Get a Kick out of You" from "Anything Goes!" Later, the scores
for two of his biggest Broadway hits, "Kiss Me, Kate" and "Silk Stockings,"
remained largely intact. These two films and three movies for which Porter
composed original scores have just been released on DVD.
"Broadway Melody of 1940" stars Fred Astaire and the athletic tap dancer
Eleanor Powell, a superstar of the late 1930s and early '40s, with George
Murphy, long before anyone would have guessed he'd become a senator from
California, and the Wizard of Oz himself, Frank Morgan. One of Porter's most
hypnotic songs, "I Concentrate On You," was written for this film. The most
ambitious number is "Begin the Beguine," a song Porter had written five years
earlier for a flop called "Jubilee." It's one of the glitziest numbers ever
filmed, using a glass dance floor, gigantic mirrors and vast, gauzy curtains.
A documentary on the DVD calls this the largest set for any musical number
ever filmed. But the most magical moment comes when Astaire and Powell, who
hardly even touch, simply come strolling in. My favorite number, though, is
Astaire and Murphy in a novelty song called "Please Don't Monkey With
(Soundbite of "Please Don't Monkey With Broadway")
Mr. FRED ASTAIRE and Mr. GEORGE MURPHY: (Singing) Whoa. Glorify 6th Avenue
and put bathrooms in the zoo, but please don't monkey with Broadway. Put big
floodlights in the park and put Harlem in the dark, but please don't monkey
with Broadway. Though it's tawdry and plain, it's a lovely old lane, full of
landmarks galore and memories gay. So move Grant's Tomb to Union Square and
put Brooklyn anywhere, but please, please, I beg on my knees, don't monkey
with old Broadway.
SCHWARTZ: The best of all the Porter movies should have been "Kiss Me, Kate."
Too bad the censors got ahold of it, so some of Porter's most risque lyrics
had to be tamed. Evidently in the 1950s a Hollywood movie couldn't refer to
the recent Kinsey Report on sexual activity, so Porter's witty reference to it
in "Too Darn Hot" had to be changed to `the latest report.' Yet in "Brush Up
Your Shakespeare," sung by Keenan Wynn and James Whitmore as two gun-toting,
Bard-quoting, shoe-tapping hit men, one of Porter's raunchier lyrics slipped
past the censors. I guessed they hadn't brushed up on their Shakespeare quite
(Soundbite of "Brush Up Your Shakespeare")
Mr. KEENAN WYNN and Mr. JAMES WHITMORE: (Singing) Brush up your Shakespeare.
Start quoting him now. Brush up your Shakespeare, and the women you will wow.
If your girl is a Washington Heights dream, treat the kid to "A Midsummer's
Night Dream." If she fights when her toes you are mussing, pull her close,
"Much Ado About Nothing." If she says your behavior is heinous, take a ride
in the "Coriolanus." Brush up your Shakespeare, and they'll all kowtow.
(Soundbite of tap dancing)
SCHWARTZ: The best dance number in "Kiss Me, Kate" is "From This Moment On,"
a song that was dropped from an earlier Porter show. Young Bob Fosse was
encouraged to choreograph his own steamy duet with Carol Haney, so this may be
the earliest film record of Fosse's inimitable style.
"High Society," a movie version of "The Philadelphia Story," Philip Barry's
satire on the American class system, starred Grace Kelly in the role created
by Katharine Hepburn and teamed Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby for the first
time. Though "High Society" is rather bland as satire, Porter's songs are
tuneful, touching and funny, including his last number-one hit, "True Love,"
sung by Crosby and Kelly; Sinatra and Celeste Holm singing "Who Wants To Be A
Millionaire"; and Sinatra and Crosby's "Well Did You Evah?" another song
written for an earlier show. The setting is now the Newport Jazz Festival,
which is a great excuse for Cole Porter to write a couple of songs for Louis
The more frivolous "Les Girls," directed by George Cukor, stars Gene Kelly,
but the British comedienne Kay Kendall, the personification of droll, steals
the picture as the girl in Kelly's trio who has written a tell-all memoir.
Kendall died of leukemia only two years later.
One of Fred Astaire's last romantic leading roles was in "Silk Stockings," a
Cold War musical satire based on "Ninotchka," Ernst Lubitsch's great 1939
screen comedy with Greta Garbo as the Soviet agent who succumbs to the charms
of Paris. Astaire gets to sing one of Porter's best late songs, "All Of You."
He plays a producer, so even in a love song Porter has him figuring
(Soundbite of "All Of You")
Mr. ASTAIRE: (Singing) I love the looks of you, the lure of you. I'd love to
make a tour of you, the arms, the eyes, the mouth of you, the east, west,
north and the south of you. I love to gain complete control of you, and
handle even the heart and soul of you. So love at least a small percent of me
do, for I love all of you.
SCHWARTZ: Director Rouben Mamoulian also gets memorable comic turns by Peter
Lorre as a Russian envoy and Janis Paige as America's `svimming sveetheart,' a
swimming star who comes to Paris to play her first serious role on dry land in
a movie based on "War and Peace." `What do you think of Tolstoy?' a reporter
asks her. `We're just good friends,' she answers. Her number with Astaire,
"Stereophonic Sound," is Porter's satirical take on Hollywood's attempt to
lure customers away from their TV sets. Even with bowdlerized lyrics, it's a
comic gem. Hollywood didn't always give Porter the respect he deserved, but
his songs still make these movies among the most entertaining ever made.
GROSS: Lloyd Schwartz is classical music editor of the Boston Phoenix. He
reviewed the new DVD set of Cole Porter musicals issued by Warner.
(Soundbite of "Stereophonic Sound")
Unidentified Woman: (Singing) Today to get the public to attend the picture
show it's not enough to advertise a famous star they know. If you want to get
the crowds to come around, you've got to have glorious Technicolor,
breathtaking Cinemascope and (in stereophonic) stereophonic sound. If folks
today could witness Valentino and the sheik, they never would appreciate this
loverboy's technique. If you want to hear applauding hands resound, you've
got to have glorious Technicolor, breathtaking Cinemascope and (in
stereophonic) stereophonic sound.
Unidentified Man: The customers don't like...
GROSS: Coming up, David Bianculli reviews Sir David Attenborough's new nature
series. This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: Sir David Attenborough's "Life of Mammals"
TERRY GROSS, host:
Sir David Attenborough, who worked on his first nature documentary for
England's BBC nearly 50 years ago, is still at it and, according to TV critic
David Bianculli, still turning out informative and entertaining masterpieces.
DAVID BIANCULLI reporting:
I've always thought that the very best teachers--the ones you not only
remember from high school or college, but the ones who influenced your tastes,
your passions and your life--are the ones who had two great gifts. First,
they knew their subjects cold, so well that they could go on and on about them
for hours without referring to a single note. Second, they had a passion for
their subject that was so obvious it was infectious. Sir David Attenborough
on television is that kind of teacher.
His latest documentary miniseries, "Life of Mammals," begins tonight on the
Discovery Channel. The cable network has imported this latest production,
which is great news, but is televising it in inconvenient doses, which isn't.
At first, Discovery Channel was going to show only six hours of the 10-hour
"Life of Mammals," three hours tonight, three more tomorrow night. Then it
decided earlier this week, probably after a lot of critics and other
Attenborough fans complained in advance, to show the whole thing. The
remaining four hours are shown over as many nights next week.
Hard-core fans with DVD players can and maybe should merely wait until next
week when the complete "Life of Mammals" goes on sale. It's even letterboxed,
while the Discovery Channel shows it in the regular square dimensions of pan
and scan. Even so, it's hard to complain about the way a network presents
something when what it's presenting is this superb. If you've never seen
Attenborough in action, that means you've missed some of the best nature
series of the last 30 years, "Life on Earth," "The Living Planet," "The Trials
of Life" and the more recent "Secret Life of Plants" and "Life of Birds."
Quite simply, he makes the best TV shows on the planet about the planet.
With each documentary, he uses the latest technology to capture images no one
ever has before, and lots of the time he's right there with the animals,
whispering like a golf commentator as he talks about them from only a yard or
(Soundbite of "Life of Mammals")
Sir DAVID ATTENBOROUGH (Host): Their eyes are more sensitive than ours, but
neither they nor I can see these lights. They're infrared and visible only to
our special cameras.
(Soundbite of roaring)
Sir DAVID: Lions hardly ever roar during the day. It's very much a nighttime
thing. And now in the darkness, there are a number of them roaring. Just
around here there are two, I know, within three or four yards of where I am
now and there's a third perhaps 20 yards over there, though it's difficult to
tell because it's pitch-black except for just a faint moonlight.
(Soundbite of nature)
Sir DAVID: Three of them belong to the same pride, and they're communicating,
telling one another where they are.
(Soundbite of roaring and nature)
Sir DAVID: Those are not aggressive roars; they are communication roars, but
they are quite enough to chill the blood in the blackness of the night.
BIANCULLI: Attenborough seems to know everything and enjoy it even more. His
grin is dazzling as he swims with sea otters, boats alongside blue whales and
wades with manatees. He even stands in an African forest and cries wolf,
imitating the howl of a wild dog and letting it echo through the hills.
Cameras are placed next to some of those wolves, who are observed listening to
Attenborough's call and then responding to it. The first two howls you're
about to hear are from the host of "Life of Mammals"; the rest are not.
(Soundbite of "Live of Mammals")
Sir DAVID: If animals are to work in a team, they need to be able to
communicate with one another. And sometimes it's possible for you to
communicate with them.
(Soundbite of howling)
BIANCULLI: `Howl' about that.
Sir David Attenborough is nearly 80 now, yet he approaches nature like a kid
on his first walk through the woods, and all the while without being obvious
about it. He underscores the amazing interconnectedness of nature and the
fragility and bravery and majesty of life itself. "Life of Mammals" is
beautiful to look at, important to think about and impossible to forget.
Whether you see it on the Discovery Channel or next week on BBC Video's DVD
set, you must see it.
GROSS: David Bianculli is TV critic for the New York Daily News. David
Attenborough's "Life of Mammals" begins tonight on the Discovery Channel.
(Soundbite of music)
Unidentified Man: (Howls)
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.