Monday, May 31, 2010

For-Real "Slumdogs" in Brazil: Monday Journal #1 (of 2)

The Brazilian town of Caxias do Sul has found a novel way to deal with its rampant stray-dog problem. Because shelter space is so scarce, the organization called So Ama (Just Love) has built and housed over 1000 dogs and about 200 cats in a shanty-town, or favela, comprised of small dog houses and tin shacks.  Favelas are also used to house the city's poor; most would call these units slums.

In other words, "homeless" dogs in Brazil now have their own slums in which to live.

When I first saw the story, on the front page of the Chicago Tribune, my emotions were mixed.

Perhaps my initial reaction of distaste was based on the negative connotation of "slum" as a desperate, despairing place of crime and poverty.   Maybe a better word for what So Ama has built would be "shelter', which has a much more humane connotation, as I would be the first to agree. 

Still, before I read more about So Ama's naive wish to change the world for these unfortunate animals, and to provide them with shelter space before the demand far exceeded the supply of shelter housing, I had to pause.  It looked like a mockery of human poverty, and a sad reminder that much of the world regards animals as unfeeling creatures, helpless in the face of human ignorance and neglect.  I thought how terrible it must be to be chained to a doghouse indefinitely, to deal with the natural elements like rain, mud, insects, and extreme heat.  I wondered if the animals got exercise beyond the reach of the leashes that chained them to their houses, whether the houses received regular repairs, if the area was secured against abuse and threat of injury or violent death, and if there was any emotional care and love beyond basic feeding and (I hoped) cleaning.

Given the poverty of the area, and the meager government resources, the organization has done the best that it could, providing 12 tons of food per month, paying over $14000 in monthly veterinary bills, and caring for all of these creatures with a staff of only 15 volunteers

Knowing how daunting it can be to feed and clean and walk 2 dozen dogs in a 2-hour shift on a Tuesday evening, I could not comprehend the amount of time needed to provide daily care for what would amount to nearly 100 dogs, and about a dozen cats, per volunteer.

I realized that the Brazilian climate was likely more conducive to outdoor living, and that our harsh winters and hot humid summers would be a death sentence to our shelter dogs if housed in the same way. 

The "slum dogs" are all available for adoption, but Brazilians seem more reluctant to adopt shelter dogs, opting instead for pure breeds.  Many of these animals will never leave the favela.

I wondered if the government would consider subsidizing human families who resided in "slum" housing, provided they could take in and demonstrate care given to one of the So Ama dogs.  But that is my naive view of a perfect world.  There is no easy way around the dilemma.  I applaud the organization for providing care for these creatures on such a massive scale.  But I long to see a world in which So Ama, The Buddy Foundation, and all of the animal advocacy and anti-cruelty groups would cease needing to exist.

Here's a link to an aricle in Reuters, which provided much of my information. On the link is a 2-minute video of the favela and interviews with So Ama representatives.  I would like to know what others think about this solution to caring for homeless animals.

Dennis Hopper, "Easy Rider", and the Death of Idealism--Monday Journal #2 (of 2)

Peter Fonda uttered one of cinema's most prophetic lines in the 1969 counterculture classic film "Easy Rider", directed by and co-starring the late Dennis Hopper:

 "We blew it."

With the death of Hopper this week, a little bit more of the 1960's counterculture dream died with him.  

In the years before his death, Hopper himself no longer believed in the druggy anti-establishment he helped to define with the production of "Easy Rider". In fact, like a number of counterculture icons in Hollywood's late-'60's, his life settled into a conservatism at odds with the youthful protest encouraged by and reflected in his landmark film.

(Of course, Hopper had to clean up his act, and relinquish a self-destructive lifestyle.) 

Contemporary moviegoers may remember Hopper primarily for his dual turns in 1986: the first one as an exquisitely frightening criminal in David Lynch's "Blue Velvet"; the other, his sole Oscar-nominated performance, as the pathetic, alcoholic father of a high school basketball player in "Hoosiers".

But for many, Hopper (and Fonda) will always be Billy and Wyatt, the dropped-out, drugged-up counterculture "outlaws", riding motorized "horses" across a troubling western landscape after making a big score.  With Jack Nicholson's freewheeling lawyer in tow, the trio looked for American freedom, abandoning the establishment and its ideas of time and responsibility, never realizing that their "freedom" depended on the very "system" they sought to escape.  Instead of achieving freedom, they became victims of the prejudice and hate buried within that system  that they unwittingly supported.

Hence...."We blew it".

But before that sobering discovery, Billy and Wyatt moved through a landscape of idealism that motivated their journey of discovery, before "being bought and sold in the marketplace": the rancher making a life of his own with a loving family; the hitchhiker from "the city" returning to his friends on the communal farm; and the farm itself, misguided, yes, but born of a true desire to make a successful life among a large blended "family", cut off from the requirements of a button-down corporate lifestyle.

It was the same impulse that drew people to the Woodstock festival the year "Easy Rider" was released.  It was the same innocent and often misguided idealism so beautifully captured in the revived 1968 musical "Hair".

Even Woodstock had been revealed to have been as much a corporate venture as an attempt to create a "nation" of peace and free love.  But the impulse was true, the idealism very real, and unfortunately impossible to sustain.

Even though the "hippie" movement, the counterculture, was not as innocent as the dreamy, glamorized images portrayed in movies and music of the day, there was something sort of wonderful about that time, at least the romanticized version of it, that may become as nearly forgotten as "Easy Rider".

That was the sense of a shared experience, a coming together of people young and old but driven mostly by the young, who recognized the mindless conformity that was killing them spiritually in the marketplace and literally in the jungles of Vietnam. 

Music was concerned with Coming Together, of I'd Like to Get to Know You, of Giving Peace a Chance.  

Artists like Joan Baez sought to organize, kids tried to set up communes, students spoke out for themselves and each other, protested unjust war and injustice all over, and advocated against oppression.   Communications was the popular college major of the day.  There was a belief that that ethereal, peaceful idealism could change the world.

Now, there's a subtle feeling that the lesson of the 1960's is that individuals must look out for themselves.  Shared goals are accomplished individually on-line, and not in groups both jubilant and urgent. There is no longer a meaningful shared musical or media heritage, which once successfully transmitted culture between groups and generations, so that (in spite of the information available on the web) many people have little knowledge or understanding of the relevance of popular culture from before their time.  People remain "connected" yet isolated, their worlds confined to their headphones, their laptops, their texts.  Community service is a requirement of graduation, a way to beef up a resume, and not a genuine outpouring of idealism.

Even though the look and music of "Easy Rider" is today is "dated", fixed in a fleeting period of time, it seems that we have taken to heart that surprising and sad line, "We Blew It."  It seems no longer possible to reclaim the idealism of that time.  The '60's were like the rebellious adolescence of America. 

And now that the world is literally bleeding to death in the Gulf, another one of the icons of that idealism, whether Hopper deserved that label or not, is gone.

The movie lives on...but it can never mean the same thing it once did, ever again.  And in some odd way, it is as relevant as ever.

Because, unfortunately, we continue to blow it.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Post Number 200, And What This Has All Meant to Me So Far: Sunday Journal

It all began last September with a little wooden roller coaster that was soon to close at the amusement park of my childhood.

Now it's 200 entries later!  I have enjoyed the production of this Journal of Reinvention, and look forward to the next 200 posts.  As much as I try to shape its direction,  the topics and the things that insist on being put into words often surprise me. 

It's sometimes hard work, and it keeps me up way too late some nights, and yet it tugs at me to get it done, to get my thoughts out there, to please my readers and not let them down, and to work the writing until it's right and true.  

Mostly, it has been the regular visits and encouragement of you followers and readers that has motivated me to keep it going, when at times it seems as though it is not important, as though sustaining the effort is futile, fruitless.  I thank you for sticking with me.   You are in my personal Hall of Fame in the right hand column.........

In the end, I am enjoying participating in what I view as an on-line conversation.

This is my "newspaper column", my editorial page, my forum, my experiment, my writing exercise.  I can try new things here, put forth my opinion on world events and politics and culture, speak the thoughts of others or hit a nerve with some, and engage readers in the conversation.  In another time and place, I might have been a Roger Ebert, or Irv Kupcinet, or any number of regular columnists, treating a different topic each day, a kaleidoscope of things of interest to me that I hope will capture the imagination, or spark a reaction, from others.

Among the many items I have enjoyed sharing with you:

--The Christopher Isherwood series, in keeping with the release of "A Single Man". 

--The film and theater and book reviews: Cabaret; Citizen Kane; Hair (on Broadway!) August: Osage County; Olive Kitteridge; Billy Elliott, and many more.  One review I'm most proud of is  my lone voice in the wilderness championing the merits of Nine.  I think that some day someone more intelligent and articulate than myself will rediscover Nine and extol its virtues and set it on the road to classic status.

--A look at Oscar 40 years ago, in 1969.  I invite you all to re-visit 1970 when the next Oscar nominations are announced.  40 years from now, in whatever format blogs will have taken by then, I will look back at how time has treated Avatar and The Hurt Locker and Precious and Inglourious...

--"Lucia" the 3-minute short story

--Anecdotes from Phoenix, and New York

--My Italian heritage, and my plunge into learning to speak the ancestral language. 

--My essay about the breakwater in Cape Cod, and how the stepping stones represented a metaphor for my creative life.

--Most of all,  the animal stories....Remembering Maggie and sharing her with you.....the baby pigeon lost in the snow that "saved" my life....the magical and heartbreaking stories at the Dog Shelter where I spend time on Tuesdays...and my last post, about the outrage and sadness of the treatment of dairy cows on one farm in Ohio, which could be the most emotional and saddening story I think I have yet written. This one will definitely be a life-changer for me.

I would be proud to know what any of you remember as a favorite entry from this journal...

So, what about this re-invention idea?  I started out to chronicle the changes I was actively making to become a better, more useful and creative person; to share and give encouragement to those who wanted to explore new avenues of life. This would be my own space where everyone was welcome.  And I was excited to visit other blogs, and respond and learn from them too.  Sometimes, the changes happened by happy accident.  I may not be a wholly different person, but I have done more and newer things and am ready to keep exploring.  Great things could be ahead... 

And a lot has changed...I am in a new residence....have become directly involved in animal care and advocacy...Actively learning a new language.... I'm not afraid to express my opinions and back them up with research.....and I have a liberating inkling that much more is possible.

Most of all, it is this process,  this blog creating this desire within me to channel my writing in a new direction, and for an immediate readership, that has been the most significant way I have re-invented myself since last September.

I am excited to see where this journal continues to lead. I will be happy to have you along on this journey, as I will be proud to accompany you on yours.  On to 200 more.....

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Dedicated to Tortured and Abused Animals...The 199th Post

On the eve of my 200th post on this blog, I found a story that renders irrelevant almost everything I have enjoyed sharing and writing about:  essays about my favorite movies, stories about my departed dog, anecdotes about my home town, my forays into arts and opera and the Italian language, and journal pages from my modest travels.

Only the stories from my Tuesday nights at the Dog Shelter come close to being as important to me as what I must share with you now.  I write this because I must.  I do not mean to upset anyone, but you would be less than human if you were not upset. I guess I want to rally support from those of you who I know to be sensitive and caring people, to join me in speaking out against the unspeakable..

After 198 posts, I have a story that has broken something in me, changed me, re-defined what it is to reinvent myself, and put that into focus.

While reading today's Huffington Post (the blog that inspired me to finally try one of my own) I saw a letter by Jamie Lee Curtis to the owner of Conklin Dairy Farms in Ohio.  Attached to the letter was an undercover video of alleged abuses of the dairy cattle there, taken by an animal advocacy group from Chicago called Mercy for Animals.

I read the post, and reluctantly, began to watch the video. 

Nothing could have prepared me.....

Horrible.  Profoundly saddening and angering.  Caught horrific footage...calves being thrown to the ground, stomped repeatedly....cows and calves being beaten by fists, crowbars to the face....cows having their milk sacs prodded with pitchforks....I dissolved in tears, wanted to scream.......

Here is how the Mercy for Animals web site described what the video portrayed:

  • Violently punching young calves in the face, body slamming them to the ground, and pulling and throwing them by their ears

  • Routinely using pitchforks to stab cows in the face, legs and stomach
  • Kicking "downed" cows (those too injured to stand) in the face and neck – abuse carried out and encouraged by the farm's owner
  • Maliciously beating restrained cows in the face with crowbars – some attacks involving over 40 blows to the head
  • Twisting cows' tails until the bones snapped
  • Punching cows' udders
  • Bragging about stabbing, dragging, shooting, breaking bones, and beating cows and calves to death
I look into the desperate and uncomprehending eyes of these benign, trusting creatures, and I see the horror of all the abused, mistreated, tortured animals of the world...nothing else seems significant, knowing that this is just one of perhaps thousands of similar cases of abuse happening this second...and not just to animals, but to children, and other helpless, innocent humans, and other creatures of the world.....

I seriously questioned whether I could go on living in a world that produces such cruelty. 

I know, intellectually, that this horrific abuse of humans and animals exists, but I cling to the naive notion that there is enough beauty in the world to compensate for these remote instances of horror that, unseen, fail to affect me.  It is necessary remind myself that all is not art and beauty.  And maybe I CAN effect change, in a small way...perhaps from this page.

For me to post the video here would, I think, constitute abuse.  But caring individuals should see what has happened.  I am including the link to the Mercy for Animals web site here, containing the video as well as comments from animal care experts, so that you may understand why this has upset me and so many others so much, and so that you have a recourse for supporting this organization in fighting this cruelty.

As a result of the efforts of this group to produce and release the video, the main perpetrator of these awful abuses was arrested and arraigned today on 12 counts of animal cruelty. "Each cruelty to animals count he faces has a maximum penalty of 90 days in jail and a $750 fine."

My nurturing side, my forgiving side, is misfiring tonight.  I doubt that a person this dangerous can ever be redeemed.  I don't think the maximum sentence is enough to compensate for what he has done or to turn his heart around.

And there are so many others....

Can I summon the courage to make the changes necessary to join the fight against it?  I hope I can offer some reports of progress in this effort, very soon. The dog shelter is but a first step. 

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Great Movies: In Defense of The Greatest American Film

I continue with my series of personal musings about the state of moviemaking and moviegoing, by taking another look back at an old masterpiece.  It is a film that I didn't warm to at first, and after watching it closely, reading about its history, what it represented, and how it inspired many great filmmakers, I learned to appreciate it and admire it. 

Soon it grew on me: the stark and clever imagery, the intelligent and witty dialog, the brassy and often playful music score, and the beautifully realized labyrinth of a plot.  Nowadays, I truly enjoy it.  Even though it is very familiar to me, I am still amazed by its freshness, and its ability to show me new things with each viewing.

I now agree with Pauline Kael, (a hero of mine), when she said that it was one of the most enjoyable great films ever made.

I have pondered this essay for weeks....thinking that I wanted to be careful not to do it an injustice with hasty opinions badly expressed.  This film deserves the care and perfection it offers its viewers, and an acknowledgment of the intelligence and sensitivity of its audience.

I have been disheartened to read on-line movie reviewers claim that this milestone film is overrated.  Seems that moviegoing has become more of an amusement park attraction than a participation in the humanities.  Many truly artistic films which require thought, active engagement, emotional openness, and an appreciation of human nature, alienate some of those who attend movies for a temporary visual thrill,  or the empty fullness of a happy meal.

I still get excited when I think about this film.  Essentially, it is a mystery story.  A journalist, trying to fashion a conclusion to a newsreel about a famous and wealthy newspaper magnate, looks for the meaning in this man's life by interpreting his dying word.

As we begin, we are drawn in, ominously, to the lighted room of a castle, to the man's deathbed, the placement of the window remaining fixed in the frame even as the shots move closer, change perspective.  And suddenly the light goes out....

The structure of the plot, which is basically a psychological profile of this great and hated man, tells the story in bits and pieces, with each segment providing a little more to the puzzle. The newsreel itself gives us information about the man's life that completes the biography without ever being mentioned again in the movie (for example, the death of his first wife and son).  The rules of cinematic time are bent and re-connected in breathtaking and economical ways, moving us though an exciting history of the man's triumphs, losses, and tragic flaws. This kind of non-linear storytelling was groundbreaking in its day, and has rarely been as successful.

A snow globe is broken early in the film as his dying word is uttered.  We see it appear again, imperceptible, in the corner of the parlor of his future second wife....mothers are mentioned...a wistful expression appears on the man's face...clues abound, but don't stand out as clues...The globe appears one more time as the man, having lost love yet again, tears apart a bedroom in a rage.  When he finds the globe in his hand, he cannot bear to break it...he utters the word again...and for the first time, we see him in tears, aging and broken.

Here is a rich man who had everything except the primal love that he lost in childhood.  By the time the film ends, no one in the film ever discovers the meaning of his last word...but we do.  And it is absurd in and of itself.  Yet when the deeper implications expand in our minds (the tragedy of family abandonment, his striving for greatness to compensate for loneliness, his last remnants going up in smoke), it is chilling and profoundly moving.

When I finally understood this multifaceted, ambitious, and tragic character, I felt I knew myself better, and the motivations of others like him.  The ability to present a character so vividly that one can translate that understanding into a deeper wisdom of our own world-- that is the greatest gift that  motion picture art, (any kind of art) offers a viewer.

There is a cold, detached aura to the film.  (Note, for example, how the narrator, with whom the audience closely identifies, never shows his face.) The film's style and construction is of a piece with its title character: demanding, complex, enigmatic, and forceful.  It is not a
"crowd-pleaser",  but it offers huge emotional and intellectual awards to those who give it a chance, and re-visit it.  It is silly to claim that the movie is no good because it is no longer a popular title.  Great works of art typically are not those immediately sought out by a mass audience.

Orson Welles.  Charles Foster Kane. Xanadu.  The Inquirer.  A Declaration of Principles.  A glass snow globe. "In search of my youth".  "Rosebud".  I hope you may wish to see "Citizen Kane" for the first time, or give it another look.  Calling any piece of art the greatest of all time is a difficult proposition.  But the motion picture is a relatively young art in America, and "Citizen Kane", with its innovation, freshness, honesty and intelligence, is a worthy claimant to that mantle.

Overrated?  Not at all.  We must do a better job preserving cinematic traditions, and championing for posterity the kind of classic cinematic art that aspires to exploring the human condition.  Movie lovers need this cinematic foundation,  just as students of other art forms revere their respective artisitc traditions. 

We need to support critics, on-line or otherwise, who have earned a claim to expertise, and do not dismiss great works of art because they don't conform to a narrow definition of what's popular, pleasurable, or cool.  We have to cultivate an appreciation of fine films that may not seem relevant now, but that are actually rich in universal themes, emotions, even techniques.

All art forms have their respected classics, and great artists.  Beethoven, Monet, Dudhamel, Robbins, Austen, and yes, even Welles-- deserve respect for their achievements and influence, and should not be disparaged by those who may not yet be ready to appreciate their artistry, their beauty, right away. 

So forget the intimidating, inflated labels, and see "Citizen Kane."  Actively engage with it. Watch every part of the screen carefully. Make your own discoveries. Enjoy!

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Mount Prospect Illinois: My "Old" Hometown, An Unlikely Cultural Mecca--"Idol", "Glee", and "Blues"

Town Motto:  "Where Friendliness is a Way of Life."

Mount Prospect, Illinois, is the town where I grew up; and now, it is my home town once again. 

My parents still reside in the little house they bought almost 50 years ago, and my roots here go deep. After many years of residence in Iowa and Arizona, years that seem like separate lifetimes, and having just moved from another Chicago 'burb, I have come full circle.

Almost 14 years ago, I met Mark, who purchased a similarly small house near the local High School, for the convenience of his two young sons.  Now that the boys are grown, Mark and I have the opportunity to share this home together.  It's cozy, welcoming, has a festive back patio and yard, and is filled with sentiment, art and music, film, and good memories. (It's the white one on the right, under the perilously large pine tree.)

My condominium sold after years of attempts. When the buyer said "Yes", at once I was in a rush to pack, arrange a time with movers and charity pickups, meet a closing deadline--and then wait some more, as the buyer, who requested a quick move, is now experiencing delays of his own.

Across the street from the house is a large field used for youth soccer, football, and baseball games, as well as band concerts and fireworks displays. It's an active location, but  far removed from the more sophisticated "gay meccas" of Boys Town and Andersonville in the city, where many of our peers reside.  Joggers love it.  Geese and seagulls flock there by the hundreds (truly!) at certain times of year.  Maggie (our basset hound) loved to romp there, or just sit quietly on the vast expanse of lawn with me.  Once, she escaped the fenced yard, and we were frantic...until we found her sitting next to a bench full of kids watching a soccer game.

Here's another angle on our "cottage", and regular readers would easily find it.   Maggie is still very present in what will always be "her" home.

* * * *


This nondescript suburb of just over 50,000 residents lately has come under the media spotlight, and is now the unlikely source of hugely popular culture.

Most recently the town has become known as the home of American Idol Finalist Lee DeWyze.  Signs and T-shirts uging everyone to "Vote 4 Lee", or "We Be-Lee-ve", are nearly everywhere, and there's little escape.  The town's obsession is humorous and harmless, and has produced a positive, if fanatical, energy. Lee's fortunate chance to sing on national television attests to television's lasting power to legitimize most everything.  Everything is more real if it's on TV...and now the the town feels touched by fame, and is basking in attention.

I don't know Lee, but he seems like a nice enough fellow. I do find some gentle irony watching a fanfare for him played by the marching band of the high school where he was once kicked out for fighting.  His is a nice story of discovered talent, redemption, and humility.  If he wins it all next Wednesday, it could be a first...Mt. Prospect townspeople holding a riot on Main Street.

* * * *

Mount Prospect is also home to Ian Brennan, one of the creators and writers of that modest little TV series called "Glee.  In a recent exclusive interview,  blogger Jackie Tithof Steere found Brennan to be gracious and open about his days as a member of the choir of Prospect High School, which served as the inspiration for the show.  You can read the interview here.

In response to the question if the success of the show now causes Brennan to be recognized on the street, he humorously replies that one of the best things about being a writer is that no one hassles you!

* * * *

Last year, no less respected a publication than Business Week selected Mt. Prospect as the best town in the country to raise children!

Mount Prospect, a suburb 25 miles northwest of Chicago, was not only the best place to raise your kids in Illinois, it topped our list nationally. It has low crime, great schools, and homes for a wide range of incomes. Children have access to ball fields, hiking trails, skating rinks, indoor swimming pools, recreational centers, stores, restaurants, and multiplex movie theaters.

And finally, Mt. Prospect is home to the Blues Brothers.  To anyone who remembers the 1980 Belushi-Aykroyd film based on their SNL characters, the "bluesmobile" driven by Jake and Elwood was a Mt. Prospect Police Car.  The actual car can be seen on the second floor of the Blues Bar on Elmhurst Road downtown.

So ends my tourism promotion of our average little town.  So come join us!  The train is always on time, I mowed the lawn today, and we love to have guests over for a barbecue.  My new life in "old" Mt. Prospect promises to provide an active and intersting summer (provided we can make frequent escapes to Downtown Chicago!)

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Musings on "The Best Years of Our Lives," Movies and War Veterans, Russell Crowe and Cate Blanchett--Wednesday Journal

Among some hidden treasures I found while I was packing belongings for my move on Saturday, I re-discovered an autographed photo of Harold Russell that I picked it up several years ago at a collectibles show.  It was autographed, incredibly, by Mr. Russell himself.

I wonder how many of my readers know who Harold Russell is; I suspect most people, even those who love movies these days, don't remember him. At one time in America's pop-cultural history, Russell was an icon, an inspiration, and an Oscar-winner.

In 1946 Hollywood released what is perhaps, if I had to choose, my all-time favorite movie: "The Best Years of Our Lives."  With an incredible cast including Oscar-winner Frederick March, Myrna Loy, Teresa Wright, Dana Andrews and Hoagy Carmichael, it's a story of three WWII soldiers returning home to the States to face adjustments to family, career, and physical and emotional disability.  Russell is Homer Parrish, a young sailor who loses his hands in a ship's fire, and must overcome his fear of intimacy with Wilma, his childhood sweetheart..

Russell himself was a disabled veteran, a double amputee who used prosthetic "hooks". That's why I treasure his autograph on my photo.  His authenticity and the unabashed honesty of his portrayal earned him one of the film's seven Oscars (as Supporting Actor), plus an honorary Oscar for being an inspiration for disabled war veterans throughout the U.S., making him the first (and only) actor to receive two Oscars for the same role.

Combining subtle and detailed deep-focus camerawork by "Kane" lenser Gregg Toland, a stirring orchestral score by Hugo Friedhofer, strong portrayals by all, with the help of Robert E. Sherwood's mature and entertaining script, and sensitive and perceptive direction by William Wyler, "Best Years of Our Lives" brims with memorable small moments and unforgettable sequences of great emotional power.  While the time period may be dated and the attitudes old-fashioned, the concerns and anxieites faced by these characters are as fresh as any film that could be made today.

Toward the film's climax, Homer and Wilma have a confrontation, a moment of truth. Homer shows Wilma what their life would be like with his physical challenges; we are allowed to fill in details of their future. They must decide if they have the love and courage to marry in spite of Homer's disability.  I like films that deal with human concerns and move me in such a way that I gain more understanding, more empathy, and have an emotional release. This scene stirs people, moves them, wins them over.  Check out the clip (see the whole movie first if you haven't already.):

It occurs to me that Hollywood seems to be forgetting, or giving up on, the presentation of contemporary human drama on the big screen, and practically ignores stories of returning war veterans.  ("Brothers" was good melodrama, but a poor reflection of everyday America; "Hurt Locker" was not really a "coming home" picture).  Certain movie audiences, I think, would come out to theaters to see a film about how today's veterans are adjusting to today's world. 

If done with taste by artists with an instinct for entertaining audiences and tapping into the zeitgiest,  with a good story and characters we can identify with in contemporary terms, today's moviegoers could have their own "Best Years."  If given support by sensitive critics, and possibly an award or two, I suppose it could achieve a success of "Gump"-ian proportions.

It has been evident, after years of combing the movie listings of films playing on Chicagoland screens, that a younger and less mature moviegoing demographic is being curried favor by the businessmen in Hollywood.  Moviegoing habits are slowly changing the way mass audiences regard, and use, theatrical motion pictures.  Moviemakers have addicted people to the adrenaline of thrill rides, base comedies, and  computer-generated worlds, provided little in the way of more serious subject matter, and then claim that that's what audiences want.  

Except for a few weeks in December and January, depictions of the world around us, with flesh-and-blood characters overcoming identifiable real-life obstacles are rarely to be found on movie screens.  And for all of us, a valuable moviegoing experience is being lost. 

I had some interest in seeing the new "Robin Hood", Ridley Scott's re-invention of the legend, starring Russell Crowe and Cate Blanchett.  I loved Scott's visual sense and impeccable director's eye in "Thelma and Louise", and a recent re-visiting of "Gladiator" gave me renewed appreciation of his handling of dramatic dialogue sequences.  And I think there are few actors today with the gravity of talent and strength of presence as Crowe and Blanchett.

The reviews have been mixed, with one critic stating that the two leads are too good for the roles they are asked to play. (I still have not seen it, but still plan to, after my move is complete.)

The pairing of these two on screen is still a brilliant idea with great dramatic potential. How interesting it would be to cast them as the mature couple in a  remake of "Best Years"---not the exact film, but a contemporary rendering inspired by the original.  Injured war veterans are returning from the Middle east with grave disabilities, and the porrtrayal of their challenges and triumphs of readjustment, as well as their tragic losses, would make for compelling moviegoing.  I highly recommend the 1946 film, winner of the Best Picture Oscar, and one of the most popular films of its day. It's a lively, dramatic, thoughtful and entertaining movie.  If we could just get good backing for films of this kind, audiences would re-discover how exciting, and emotionally cleansing great films on a big screen can be.  Enough of perpetual dessert...let's start serving a main course....

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Gay Actors, Straight Roles...A Newsweek Powderkeg, a Tuesday Journal

I begin my series on current trends in the movies, seen from the perspective of one film-lover and student, who still views motion pictures (as well as theater) as an art form.

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The article published by NEWSWEEK on April 26 by Ramin Satoodeh asked why it seemed more acceptable for heterosexual actors to portray gay characters,  than for openly gay actors to play straight romatic leads.  His primary example was out Sean Hayes, a gay actor who, before coming out, played a comically flamboyant gay character on the TV series "Will and Grace", and who is now competing for a Best Actor Tony Award in the Broadway revival of  "Promises, Promises."

Since then, there has been a firestorm of reaction, from accusations of homophobia aimed at Satoodeh, to a public rebuttal from Hayes' costar in the musical, to calls for a boycott of Newsweek from members of the cast of Glee (which was also singled out for criticism in the article).

On the one hand, I fully agree with those who find the article misguided.  Perhaps it caused offense because it was a fairly shallow piece of writing which covered tired ground . I agree with the critics of several of the points made in the article.  Yet I think the issue is worth a closer, more honest examination, and requires more than a knee-jerk response to a failed essay.

First, I am angry that actors who are honest about their sexuality cannot find work. It's like "don't ask don't tell":  if actors don't reveal their homosexuality, then casting directors seem more likely to hire them to play straight characters.  There are scores of talented actors who deserve a chance to develop their craft, and their sexuality has nothing to do with talent, the same as with most jobs.

Second, for the most part I would argue that skilled performers artfully use their craft to inhabit characters unlike themselves, and are successful in making audiences believe that they are the characters they portray. One need not be a teacher, baseball player, serial killer, etc., to successfully play one (as Maggie Smith, Gary Cooper, or Anthony Hopkins would all readily agree).

It is also treading on the shifting sands of offense to hold up one standard of masculinity and insist that an actor conform to that narrow image in order to be believable.  Sean Hayes may not be cut from the cloth of the superhero or other macho archetype, but that should not be used to judge his effectiveness in a light romantic comedy about a more cultured male character.

And now I must offer my own heartfelt feelings on the other side of the coin, complicated and illogical though they may be.

Somehow, when an assumed "straight" actor sensitively portrays a gay character (without stereotype,) it feels sort of welcoming....I can't quite put my finger on it, but it seems safe ....Also, it appeals to a fantasy I carry with me into a darkened theater that perhaps the actor I am watching might be gay. 

Obviously, I would rather know that a gay actor is inhabiting a gay role; it would definitely enhance my identification with the character, and make for a more powerful viewing experience, one that is rarely offered to gay audiences.

(The anomaly of "Brokeback Mountain", and why it felt acceptable that the characters were successfully played by straight actors, is that Jake and Ennis really believed they were straight....they portrayed men for whom homosexual feelings were so threatening , so beyond their ability to understand them, that they continued to live conventional lives, even as their sexual yearnings gnawed at them in secret. )

On the other hand, if I am to be completely honest with myself, when I see a self-identified gay actor play a romantic straight lead, it DOES often make a difference in my acceptance of the character....I am thrown out of my suspension of disbelief, even for a few seconds.  In an odd way, it is like watching a friend living life back in the closet, a painful and ungenuine way to live;  or as though that "out" friend said he would marry the girl anyway....

And so, I seem to be responding emotionally to the very attitudes that, intellectually, make me angry.

In my defense, I personally do not respond with revulsion, catcalls, nervous laughter.  I don't reject the actor outright; instead, I give the performance its due. 

Where the real problem lies is in the lingering and unshakeable attitudes of real homophobes among ticketbuyers who can effect the end of an actor's career.  If these fans are threatened by their identification with an actor whose personal life suddenly does not conform to his carefully shaped public persona, or to the types of roles the actor has become associated with, they stop buying tickets.  (Some blame can be placed at the door of the actors who perpetuate the lie....)

There's no denying that there are some personal attributes that make it impossible for actors to portray roles under certain circumstances.  For example, audiences would not accept a love story between two characters portrayed by real-life brother and sister (or between any real-life family members);  our culture has evolved to frown upon actors portraying ethnic characters with the help of makeup effects (like blackface); and we would find it illogical for only men to be allowed to act on stage in both male and female roles (as in Shakespeare's day).

(Of course, there is on occasion a rare portrayal that succeeds beyond expectations of gender.  Linda Hunt astonished as a small Indonesian male journalist in "Year of Living Dangerously"; John Lithgow was winning as Roberta Muldoon in "The World According to Garp".)

It should not make any difference that an actor, whose stock in trade is getting us to believe a character in a story, is gay or straight or anywhere on that continuum.  And it serves no purpose to publish articles by writers who have not searched themselves and written from their own hearts instead of making offensive generalizations.

But some attitudes prevail, and it does no good, either, to ignore them.  Better it is to confront them head-on and do a better job of PR on behalf of talented performers who deserve a chance to play the roles their talents are suited for.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Coming Soon: A New Series on Movies; I am Moving; Current Literature

For the next few days, I will attempt to write some essays that take a closer look at the state of the art of film today, based on topics that have captured the attention of the popular press.  Included will be the following;
--From "Best Years" to "Hurt Locker": Hollywood portrays Returning War Veterans
--The state of film criticism, and a personal defense of "Citizen Kane"
--A reaction to Roger Ebert's essay on the diminishing returtns of 3-D technology
--Gay actors and straight roles, and vice-versa: one writer's opinion on the Newsweek powderkeg

I hope to see some new releases soon, and post my reviews.  "Robin Hood" attracts me on the promise of two dynamic and talented performers, Russell Crowe and Cate Blanchett.  "Please Give" is the kind of small and intriguing character-driven comedy-drama that that was once a Hollywood staple.

I may also revisit old favorites and classics from the warm confines of our cozy home-screening-room, and hopefully generate excitement in returning to older favorites, and perhaps start some discussion around these. 

I am in the midst of moving, having miraculously sold my condominium, which has been my "home" for 16 years.  I believe there is some good material for emotional, funny, and surprising personal essays.

Finally, I will come back to a favorite piece of recent literature, "Olive Kitteridge", after I attend a book discussion next Monday.

Thanks for staying tuned.....