Thursday, July 29, 2010

Personal Items I Re-Discovered ..Thursday Journal


This should be sort of fun...a look at some odds and ends I recently found before I moved, when I finally opened some drawers and closets containing boxes and items I had not disturbed for years..

I just moved out of my condominium after having lived there 16 years.  I have occupied the home I share with Mark for just over a month, and I'm still putting things away and rearranging.  Some of the things I came  across have made me laugh, or just stare in smiling disbelief.

--My Betamax Machine:  In the mid-1980's, my family jumped on the bandwagon and purchased one of the first pieces of equipment for in-home movie exhibition.  The big name was the Sony Betamax, an impressive (for its time) metal machine with a popup slot on top in which you inserted a small videotape and pressed it down to start playing.  Tapes were available for rent from video stores. This machine must have weighed over 50 pounds, and was trimmed in wood to match our console television set.
In just a few years, our Betamax had become obsolete in favor of the VHS format.  Beta was supposed to have been better resolution, and the tapes were more compact, but VHS won out. 
There is still debate as to why VHS won out. The reason I give credence to is the fact that Sony did not allow pornography on beta tapes, but the manufacturers of the VHS format did.  Not that it matters now...I have hundreds of VHS tapes now in my collection, too!
It was a good dose of laughs and nostalgia when I found this behemoth of a machine wrapped in a large towel in my storage locker.

A Couple of Souvenir Movie Program Books  Major movies at one time were released as "road-show" attractions.  A film would play in one luxury theater in a city for several months, before being distributed to outlying suburbs.  Sometimes tickets were sold in advance on a reserved-seat engagement, similar to a live play.  And, like a theatrical play, souvenir program booklets were sold.  I have two of them: "Oliver!" and "The Godfather Part II".  These books functioned like DVD extras do now, with glossy, beautifully reproduced photos of the making of the film,  with essays and anecdotes, as well as biographies of cast and crew.  I found the "Oliver" booklet on line, but not "Godfather II", leading me to believe it is rare indeed.  If anyone else has one or knows if one is available for sale on-line, let me know!

--An old photograph of me, my mother, and Cassie This was taken circa 1982.  Cassie was our second Saint Bernard, not as large as Tippi, but just as lovable.  I laughed when I saw myself in my Justin Bieber hairstyle.  I was also struck by how much my eyes resemble my mother's.  She was on the brink of years of emotional struggle at that point....  The porch is still the same, will never change...

A Family Tree...on My Father's Side:  Before he died, my father's brother (my uncle Martin) began a family history. This he accomplished years before on-line searches.  He was able to trace my paternal ancestry back to 1749 and Franc Juzef ... This is not my Italian side... and I know very little about my father's family, so this was a valuable find....
According to the document:  "(Our) family came to the U.S. in 1885 from a small village located between Kartuzy and Danzig within the Kashubian Corridor or West Preussen, then Germany, now Poland."
Page 10 of the document lists my grandparents and my father and his 10 siblings.  Only he and his youngest sister, my aunt who is a nun in a convent in Ft. Worth, survive.
My grandmother's name was Mary Wierzbanowski. She was born in 1884, and died in 1943 when my father was 15 years old.
My Grandfather was also Martin.  That is my Father's middle name.
My sister and I are the last two names on the document.

A Kindergarten School Portrait  This five-year-old is filled with hope and innocence.  He has not changed too much since then...even before he lost his baby teeth, he had a gap in front, as he does today.  He has the look of a kid who wanted to please, who wanted to be happy, and learned too early of the pain and disappointment of the world..until dogs, and some close friends and mentors, came into his life.  Fortunately,  after many fashion disasters, his current hairstylist saves him from embarrassment.   Andy Warhol would have loved the double-image photo...

Monday, July 26, 2010

"I Am Love" Captures Grand Passions Like Opera Does--A Film Review

"Io sono l'amore" ("I Am Love") tells the story of a wealthy Italian family adjusting to the globalization of their textile business, the insecurities of their grown children, and the infidelities of the wife and mother (Tilda Swinton) struggling to honor her Russian roots within this closed system.

It's a gorgeous, overheated, angry, fashionable, passionate, muddled, food-laden concoction that invites a viewer for a sophisticated wallow. (Sounds like Sunday afternoons with my Grandparents and their friends.... ). In spite of a few wrong turns, I enjoyed this film, and experienced the kind of catharsis that one has at a tragic opera, where you may chuckle  at yourself for succumbing to the gamut of sentiment and emotion.

“I Am Love” surrounds us with the seasons of Milan, its action and incidents occurring inside gorgeous villas, stylish cities, and the tranquil Italian countryside. It is a leisurely setting for the story of Emma (Swinton), her husband Tancredi, an art dealer, and her elder son Edoardo, a student athlete and businessman. At a lavish birthday party for Tancredi’s father at the start of the film, the patriarch turns over the family business to both Tancredi and Edoardo, each of whom have conflicting aspirations.

It’s a complex scene in which the characters and relationships are filled in like a mosaic, and the motives and conflicts are slowly revealed. In a later plot development, Emma discovers by accident that her daughter, who is attending art school, is involved with another woman. This revelation will create a bond between mother and daughter that will provide Emma with an advocate in her escape to her future life of passion with another outsider, the chef Antonio.

Antonio, Edoardo’s school friend, a fellow athlete and restaurateur, appears at the villa with a special dish he has prepared for the occasion.  Edoardo and Antonio are close, and plan to go into business together by opening a restaurant. What unfolds, in a mystical and poetic way, is how Emma meets Antonio, and slowly discovers her love for him during subsequent incidents in which he has an opportunity to cook for her. The sensual connections blossom into an irresistible physical attraction which explodes with abandon during a tryst in the country.

From there, the film appears to explore the idea of globalization by positioning the characters and their origins against each other, their conflicts and alliances illustrating the pros and cons of a world in which boundaries are blurred, yet regional and ethnic traditions still hold a powerful influence on our psyches. It is also a forceful parable about being overcome with love, and the risks inherent in following one’s heart at all costs.

The film seems uncertain about its attitudes toward maintaining familial roots, or whether it approves of a global world. But it’s the romance, and the tragedy borne of it, that carries us along on waves of melodrama. By the end, it’s a marvel of grand, irrational passions.

If I could change one thing about “I Am Love” it would be my desire to let the images breathe a little more. I would guess that two thirds of the movie is filmed using a telephoto lens, which is effective in intimate human drama, but washes out the opulence of the surroundings; these could have been put to better use as an enhancement to the themes of love and longing. With so much beauty all around them, why not use the fashions and the landscapes and the sets to the film’s advantage?

The performances are first-rate, and the actors are attractive and convincing. The young men in the cast outshine even the opulence of the sets. Swinton gives the role her all, and bares her soul (along with everything else). Seeing her also credited as a producer, the film comes close to appearing to be a vanity project for her;  but this character is very close to her heart, and she displays the full range of sensitivity, lust, maternal caring, fear, guilt, and rebellion.

I was enthralled by the appearance of Marissa Berenson in a large supporting role as the family matriarch. I would not have recognized the innocent Jewish bride of “Cabaret” or the aristocratic Lady Lyndon. She gives the most full-bodied performance I have ever seen from her, and her presence was a comfort to me, just as Sophia Loren’s recent return to the big screen reassured me.

This film is operatic in its resolution of the story for maximum anguish. Here, I have to describe what may be the most unusual explanation of a movie’s title I have yet seen. Emma and Tancredi are in bed watching the late show (when Late Show meant a televised classic movie). The film is “Philadelphia”, and the scene is Tom Hanks’ translation of the aria La Mama Morta from the opera“Andrea Chenier”. A recurring lyric in the aria is “I am love”. Otherwise, the scene has no bearing at all on this film. Those who know the aria understand that a celestial spirit has come to alleviate the singer’s suffering with a fatal kiss. As foreshadowing, it’s as obscure as you can get.

One  moment threw me out of the story and made me blurt an involuntary laugh: this was the second film in a row I had seen in which a found lock of hair supplied a clue to a character’s infidelity. This device should now be retired permanently. (I won’t spoil it by naming the other film, but those who read this journal regularly will have figured it out.)

“I Am Love” is in Italian with English subtitles. It has an authentic feel for the Italian way of thinking and feeling (which is usually exhausting and overabundant). As a meditation on love, loss, family ties, and global connections, it provides much to ponder, especially with one’s heart.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

"Inception" Elaborate Surface, Empty Inside--A Film Review

I was intrigued by the premise of "Inception".  Who wouldn't be fascinated by the idea of entering the dreams of another, to remove dangerous ideas from another's unconscious, or, more deliciously, to penetrate several mysterious levels of subconscious to plant an idea that will grow and change the world? 

This is a movie I really wanted to like, and I kept an open mind. 

Yet "Inception" never really develops its themes, or explores its Freudian musings.  Ironically, for a film that is concerned with descending into dreams within dreams, "Inception" never penetrates deeper than its own elaborate surfaces.

This is a film that comes with a ready-made audience, and is fairly critic-proof.   The few unique set-pieces and twisty, explosive visuals will be enough to keep fans mindlessly entertained, and should ensure a healthy box-office.  However, those who are entertained by thought-provoking stories, with characters and situations that reflect the world around them, and who want to take something of value from their investment in a film, should beware of the raves in the ads urging you to see "Inception" twice...You might want to read the reviews twice, and then stay home.

"Inception" is ostensibly about an expert in dream engineering, or "extractor" (Leonardo DiCaprio) who is hired by a corporate businessman (Ken Watanabe) to enter his competitor's dream (Cillian Murphy), insert an idea in Murphy's subconscious to abandon his corporate empire, which would keep Watanabe in business, and allow DiCaprio to return to his motherless children (his wife, Marion Cotillard, lost touch with "reality" after Dicaprio similarly entered her subconscious, once...).

Eventually it morphs into  "real" plots involving the DiCaprio-Cotillard marital tragedy; and Murphy's troubled relationship with his father (leading to a really odd , pointless kind of "Citizen Kane" moment involving a child's pinwheel.  Or maybe that was the idea that was planted...who can say?)  I guess when you trade in dreams, you can justify just about anything you want to throw into the mix.

DiCaprio assembles his own team to assist him, including the unconvincing Ellen Page as a brainy dream "architect", and the wonderful Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a dream-monitor, to lend support and assistance. (ASIDE:  I like Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and his strong resemblance to a young Heath Ledger lends this film an unavoidable Nolan-"Dark Knight" connection. )

The film then sets up three or four parallel dream-worlds. There is no shading, no irony, little humor, and no serious attempt to explore its own dream-logic.  Since one is never always sure what is real or what is a dream, there is practically nothing at stake, so we're left with endless displays of pyrotechnics and digital effects, and a wall-to-wall pulse of noise that has, incredibly, been praised as an effective music score.

After about 30 minutes of this nonsense, "Inception" feels like being trapped in a room filled with fanboys and gamers who are impressed with the fantasy they have devised, and spend hours explaining the rules as they make them up along the way.  The dialogue in "Inception" exists as endless exposition.  Characters say nothing except to explain what is about to happen, what has just happened, what might happen in different circumstances, what would have happened but didn't....

The performers plunge gamely into their roles, and to their credit they mostly convince us that they truly believe in the proceedings and take them deadly seriously.  Least effective is Page, although she does deliver the film's only witty line, which produced the only reaction from the packed house where I saw the film on Saturday.  Best is Levitt, who looks great in his suits and delivers his lines with a sense of throwaway fun.  As for DiCaprio, I enjoyed him here more than I have recently, owing to the fact that he uses more than just his furrowed brow to convey emotion (although his high-pitched voice is wrong for drama).  Cotillard, as always, is compelling, and I hope she gets to play a contemporary, modern-day romantic character soon.

Director Christopher Nolan has admitted that his entree into film making was inspired by seeing "Star Wars" at age seven.  That seems to be the driving impulse of the bulk of the motion picture industry today...(I envision Hollywood decision-makers and "artists" addicted to fantasy, like the wasted indoctrinees of an opium den, trading in and consuming the same substance until they die of malnutrition...) 

Still, I have to admire Nolan's dedication to this complicated if empty concept, and the difficulty of his task to make a coherent whole from this maze of undigested material.  Many critics have applauded the film as an example of a shared audience dream, or a metaphor for the processes of life, or even the Shakespearean idea of a dream without a bottom.  All of these are noble ideas for cinematic treatment, but really, they are "projecting" these ideas into this film.

I am not a fan of Nolan's visual or storytelling sense. Aside from a script that has no nuances and a tired sort of cleverness, the picture is filmed in a dreary monochromatic palette, the dream sequences are fairly standard chase-scene fare spiced up with "Matrix"-retread effects, and the score by Hans Zimmer is a real disappointment.

The music in "Inception" has for some reason gained a following of its own, maybe because the score was streamed, live, on-line during the world premiere.  In interviews, Zimmer describes how he was not allowed to see Nolan's images, but could only score off of the script. This was Nolan's misguided experiment in artistic "shared dreams".  I think the result intrusive, boring, and an embarrassment to great film music.

Another jaw-dropper is the filmmakers' decision to use Edith Piaf's "Non je ne regrettte rien" as a device, a "kick", to suddenly waken an endangered dreamer.  Marion Cotillard won an Oscar for playing Edith Piaf in "La Vie En Rose", and the use of this song seemed like a bad in-joke.  Zimmer claims that the song was already in the script before Cotillard was cast.  He then goes on to say that he was afraid to ask Cotillard what she thought about the song's inclusion, which Zimmer himself urged Nolan to retain.  If she read the same script as Zimmer, I don't understand his fear.  I still think the song is a mistake....although Cotillard is a great addition to this film.

 While some may be convinced that "Inception" recreates a dream-state, a more objective viewer may discern that it merely induces sleep.  Even in a film that uses dream-logic, there needs to be a disciplined vision, and it needs to be clearly communicated to an audience. One may well give up hope determining the significance of the totems, whether the "kicks" will work, who the "projections" are and by what rules they exist, and when a "dream-suicide" will really kill you or just send you to limbo....

This is a film I hated to review negatively.  The effects work is limited but excellent, and I found myself finally engaged in the proceedings during the last fifteen or so minutes, when there was the promise of an emotional payoff.  But "Inception" seems like a film that is too impressed with itself.  It needs the "kick" of some tighter setting the alarm an hour earlier...

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Recovering From A "Virus"..Thoughts on Movies, Reading, and A Computer-less Week--Saturday Journal


I'm back....
Before my laptop computer contracted a disabling "virus" this past week, I had not considered how much time I had been spending at my keyboard, laboring at my writing and reading electronic images.

After I had posted my review of "The Kids Are All Right", a number of sinister messages kept popping up and preventing me from going on-line, or doing anything else on my machine.

I am not certain how this happened, but if you see any messages with the word "Antivir", then chances are you have been infected too.

I took my laptop in for servicing, probably a simple procedure, but with all of the others in line ahead of mine I had to wait a few days.

I am back on-line and thank those of you who have remained as followers during my unexplained absence.  I have a lot to catching up to do.

Here are a few random items that occupied my thoughts while I was computer-less....maybe some of these ideas will be worth developing later as essays in their own right:

---ON BEING WITHOUT THE WEB: It was a bit of a relief to have some of the control for my blogging taken away for a few days.  It forced me to attend to other things...and I slept a lot better this week.

---ON MY EMOTIONAL STATE WITHOUT A LAPTOP: I didn't realize how chronically anxious I had become, trying to meet self-imposed deadlines on posts I felt I just had to write, and pushing myself to publish in order to stay relevant, and not disappoint those who have expressed enjoyment of my writing.

---ON MISSING THE BLOG: Not everything I write appears on the blog; but I missed the format, and the immediate response and instant gratification of reader feedback.  Positive feedback is the fuel that keeps me going, and has always been.  Although I accept that I can't help it, at least now I can be honest about this quirk of mine.

---ON BOOK-READING: I have stopped reading books like I used to, and it's time to get back into that habit.  I have done copious reading on-line, which is effective in amassing a lot of information and keeping on top of a rapid world.  But for a depth of knowledge, for contemplating, mastering and synthesizing ideas, and for creative inspiration and a sense of exhilaration that comes with deep understanding, nothing for me beats continuous book-reading.

---ON ON-LOCATION SHOOTING:  Downtown Chicago was tied up and disrupted last week with the filming of  scenes from the new "Transformers 3" movie.  Why, I asked, didn't they just re-create the city through computer-generated effects?  Did the success of the film depend on a few minutes of shooting right here in the city?  I suspect not.  Neither the film nor the city of Chicago really needed one another.  If it were a story of some consequence or broader appeal, then I might have justified it....  "The Dark Knight" did not succeed or fail based on its Chicago barely registered in viewers' minds....

---MOVIE BLISS, '70's STYLE:  I regressed to some old favorites on the home screen: "Five Easy Pieces" reminded me of when a movie starring Jack Nicholson was important. His portrayal of Bobby Dupea is one of the most complex and appealing characters he has ever achieved.  It's a rare look at a man trapped between two worlds, and alienated from them both: the pretentiousness of the intelligentsia, and the numbing mediocrity of a specific blue-collar existence.  There is a lot here for even a modern young audience to appreciate, but how to provide exposure, create a desire to experience this film? 

"Dog Day Afternoon" is a deceptively rowdy tale of how  one man's life completely disintegrates in one day.  Al Pacino is inhabits Sonny with puppy-ish volatility.  We see layers of a disturbed life slowly revealed, yet find ourselves caring for him, wanting him to succeed with his schemes, if only because his motives, although misguided, are honest.  It is also pretty bold, for its time,  in its treatment of bisexuality and transvestism.  As it grows progressively dark, intimate, and tragic, it still has some exciting set pieces, including Pacino's classic "Attica" speech.

--ON JOHN CAZALE'S REMARKABLE BRIEF CAREER: John Cazale, who was involved for a time with Meryl Streep, and died of cancer very young, had arguably the most artistically successful movie career  any actor ever had.  He made only five movies in his lifetime...all 5 were nominees for Oscar's Best Picture.  In order: "The Godfather", "The Godfather Part II", "The Conversation", "Dog Day Afternoon", and "The Deer Hunter".

Coming up: "I Am Love"; "Inception" More Chicago Architecture; Personal Items from my Archives

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Bening and Moore Are Quite "All Right"--A Film Review

Prologue: "The Kids Are Alright" is an album of music by the British Rock Band "The Who", containing such iconic '60's tracks as "My Generation" and "Won't Get Fooled Again". It's part of the formative soundtrack of the two protagonists of the 2010 film of the same name, women who remained true to their counterculture ideals, and who find these ideals tested as they confront a changing culture.  Their children, however, are less troubled by these conflicts, and cope with their indirect might even read the title of the film The KIDS Are All Right--as opposed to their mothers...

In the new movie, two adversarial characters are surprised to find a shared love for the music of Joni Mitchell and her "Blue" album, prompting a lovely acapella rendition of "All I Want". For those that appreciate her art and music, Joni Mitchell represents a virtual lifetime of gained wisdom and rainy afternoons and recovery from lost loves and the poetry of intimacy. It is rare to meet true fans, and once you do. you may be more willing to overlook their faults.  It is clear that the movie "The Kids Are All Right" has its head and heart in the right place.

*   *   *   *   *

"The Kids Are All Right", Lisa Cholodenko's contemporary dramatic comedy, examines the relationships among members of a unique California family.  This film, released during a summer in which articles about the lack of movie originality appear almost as frequently as the kiddie-sequels, comic-book blockbusters and thrill-rides they decry, seems like some sort of happy anomaly.  It's like a Brigadoon for a neglected segment of film-goers, who once upon a time took for granted that original stories about recognizable people,  which tap into the current zeitgeist, were the stock and trade of Hollywood. 

And now Cholodenko and co-writer Stuart Blumberg have crafted a movie that is relevant, yet made with the lightness and care of some of the great films of the 1970's.  "The Kids Are All Right" compares favorably with the best work of Paul Mazursky, Bob Rafelson, and Hal Ashby. 

I was pre-disposed to enjoy this moving and funny story of a lesbian couple, their two children each conceived by the same sperm donor, and the way this man's reappearance into their lives spins them all into unexpected directions.

Instead of 3-D, we get flesh-and-blood humans in conflict.  Instead of guns, there is wit and sharp dialog.  Instead of creatures and CGI, we are consumed by a world of likable, flawed people who seem like old friends who come to visit for a brief summer interlude.

And, just like the characters, the movie itself is likable and flawed, and worthy to be embraced.

This is a character study in every sense, and it needs great performers to inhabit these characters.  Happily, the actors in "The Kids Are All Right" know their roles intimately and behave onscreen with a naturalness that makes our identification with them, and our scrutiny of their behavior, so rewarding. This is what the film medium does best.  After a while I found myself so absorbed by these people, and so intrigued by their unpredictability, that I felt I had lived with them, had moved around in their spaces.

Annette Bening is Nic, a medical professional and the strength of the family.  To me, Bening is the one who holds the film's center together.  We utterly believe her warm inner core, her need for control, whose fierce love for her partner and children sets herself up for a huge emotional fall.  When the story threatens to veer off-track in the second half, it is Bening's authenticity that convinces us of the believability of the unusual events that unfold.  We trust her completely as an actress, and she never makes a mistake. It is always a treat to see her on screen, and I have missed her presence lately.  This could be the best work she has done since "American Beauty." 

Julainne Moore is a perfect complement to Bening's style.  Her character, Jules, is insecure and needing of constant love and reassurance, and is seeking her own way, both within her family and as a creative member of society (Jules is starting a landscape architecture business as the film begins).  Moore plays her scenes with Bening with the right balance of quirky delivery and restlessness.  She is vulnerable and formidably comic, and I don't think she has ever been so expressive on-screen.

Both Moore and Bening take us on a familiar journey: that of a marriage and its challenges, and the overwhelming love of mothers for children.  The film is free from political posturing.  It does not set up  lesbian marriage/motherhood as a paragon, and so we find ourselves forgetting about the novelty of the situation and responding to the universal themes of loyalty and fidelity and discontent.  We care about these characters like we do good friends. We laugh at their new-age platitudes but make concessions for their weaknesses, even when the movie's plot points become shaky.

Mark Ruffalo is pulled into the lives of this family as Paul, the man whose donated sperm Nic and Jules used to conceive their two children.  It is the kids who contact him and set up the meeting that changes everything.  Paul is problematic both in terms of the conflicts in the story and as a device in the film.  I liked his performance a lot, as a man who is unwittingly united with his own kids, and the women who raised them, and wrestles with his paternal affection as well as a sexual attraction for Moore, which she reciprocates (in graphic detail).  Ruffalo is appealing, and wins us over to the contradictions of his character.  His is a compelling portrait of a deceptively easygoing man-child.

It is here that I worried that the film might be derailed.  I remember objecting to the plot twist in "Chasing Amy" in which a lesbian character finds sexual bliss in the arms of a man. I also wondered why the straight sex in this movie was so explicit, and the love between the two partnered women was kept completely under wraps.  These were my initial criticisms, which for me were resolved with the film's emotional finale..... What transpires (no spoilers here) sets up conflicting tensions in the viewer that need some kind of resolution, and so Ruffalo's hapless Paul is made into sort of a scapegoat.

The Kids in the film are Mia Wasikowska, the eldest, who must make some sort of peace with her friends and her mothers as she prepares to go to college; and Josh Hutcherson, the younger, who grapples with the situation with equal amounts of hero-worship and disappointment.  Both of these actors are perfect, often better than the script asks them to be.  Hutcherson' Laser recalls a mellower version of the troubled son in "Terms of Endearment", and Wasikowska, whose character is named after Nic's idol Joni Mitchell, is bright and intelligent and who lives up to her character's namesake.  Aside from Bening's presence here, the scenes between Joni and her friends recall the acerbic posturing of "American Beauty".

The script contains some wonderfully fresh dialog and a unique look at a family doing its best to hold together.  I think the film's only weakness is in the plotting, which adds one contrivance to another into a shaky structure.  It is well-directed and paced, though, and the actors, once again, make us believe in it like the caprices of life itself.  Come Oscar time, all of the performers and Cholodenko ought to hear their names called as nominees...and I would wager that one or two Oscars are in this film's future. 

There is so much more to explore in Paul's character, and the real issues of paternity and family and how he deals with a newfound love for the children he helped create.  Now THAT would be a Summer sequel I would line up for.  Paul made mistakes, yes, but I can't really pin all of the blame on him.  After all, he loved Joni Mitchell's "Blue"!

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

My First Saint Bernard...An Emotional True Story

A few weeks ago I found her picture in a box I had stored in my closet.  The picture had faded, tinted over with sepia, like an old tintype.  So completely had I put the memory of her behind me, that the story of her life with us, nearly thirty years ago, might have occurred in a fantasy.

When Tippy and I first met, I had just returned home for the summer from my Freshman year at the University of Iowa. I remember taking the call in my dorm room a week before; my sister breathlessly informed me that our parents adopted a puppy from a breeder at the International Dog Show.  A 5-month old Saint Bernard puppy in fact.

Upon entering the house from the back door, a broad brown-and-white head with large floppy ears suddenly appeared at the top of the steps, the brow wrinkled in curiosity as she looked down at me. 

Her soft curly fur made her appear like a lamb. I loved her immediately.  My mood swung from amused happiness to almost mourning, as I somehow knew, as if I had lived this life already, that Tippy would be lost to me some day.  I resolved to make the most of our time together.

I stayed at home all summer, working a job at a bookstore and doing chores around the yard. Tippy was my shadow, my buddy, my playmate. 

She grew so fast, and eventually weighed in at almost 200 pounds.  We fed her from a wok, and cleaned the backyard with a large shovel.  Tippy learned to do her stuff along the back fence, kindly helping us avoid an accidental misstep.  She got brushed every night, and we removed enough fur each time to knit a small sweater. 

Her favorite time of day was early evening and her favorite place to be at that time was the front porch. Just saying the word "porch" produced tail-wags strong enough to knock lamps off of our living-room end tables.  She quivered with happiness as we led her out the front door, and almost immediately, the kids in the neighborhood came for her nightly play, climbing on her, petting her, and enjoying the licks of her big old tongue, that I can still feel lapping at my cheek like a piece of warm bologna.

I thought I had stopped missing her attempts to sit on my lap.  I thought I had stopped missing her eating a bowl of beef stew, and cleaning the bowl but hilariously spitting out all the peas.  I thought I had forgotten how she kept me awake at night with her godawful snoring, so that I would grab her leg in the dark to make her stop--and she just rolled over, out of reach, and snored up a storm again (I didn't sleep a lot that summer).  I thought I forgot how funny she looked when I bathed her from the hose in the garden...and how frightened she was of the hair dryer.  I thought I had forgotten her love of the snow, during some of the coldest winters we ever had in Chicago.

I returned to school every fall with lots of pictures to show my friends, and went home for summers and her excited routine.  I looked forward to it as much as she did.  She was a big and gentle friend, sensitive to my  energy as well as my quiet moods, alternately frolicking in play, or resting quietly with Joni Mitchell or Gordon Lightfoot playing on my turntable.

Eventually my sister came to school at Iowa, and Tippy missed us both.  My parents did what they could to keep her occupied, and exercised, and distracted.

When my sister graduated (I was working full-time at Iowa by that time) my parents decided to surprise us. They rented a U-Haul to pack my sister's belongings, and let Tippy ride with them to Iowa.  They were looking forward to the shouts of surprise and the deep barks of recognition...a wonderful graduation present.

Along the way, however, Tippy became agitated.  I can't describe what I know of that is still too painful.  After many unsuccessful attempts to quiet her down, and get her to drink water, she finally lay down in the bed of the truck...and drew her last breath.  They were in the middle of an Iowa farm highway, far from help.

(My mother said it was the only time she ever saw my father cry.  The trauma and the guilt she felt led to many years of emotional challenges.)

When they arrived with the shocking and painful news, it was numbing.  I helped my father drag her dead weight to the nearest vet for an autopsy....which turned out to be gastric torsion.  Large dogs often experience this serious bloat and turning of the stomach. 

(If you own a large-breed dog, you might want to know more about this ailment by clicking here)

We all barely spoke to each other that weekend.  And the eventual homecoming was initially unbearable.

All of the dogs in my life left us eventually, but few under worse circumstances. As happy as she and I were together, I learned to stop thinking about her.  At that age, it was my best coping strategy.  Soon, my parents adopted a new Saint puppy named Cassie..who presented us with her own set of challenges.

Tippy was only seven years old. 

So I have the pictures.  The old pain is gone, but there is a lingering emptiness...Tippy (such a silly name for such a big girl...but she was always a lap dog in her own estimation) had so much life ahead of her....  And we were robbed of some good years.

My passion for dogs started with Tippy's demise.  I always loved these animals, but I had always been haunted by this experience, and like Clarice saving the spring lambs, I felt determined to save the unfortunate among them.  Am I still trying to bring her back?  Still asking her to forgive us for leading her to her premature demise? 

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Joan Rivers' "A Piece of Work"; "Secret of Kells"--Reviews From the Past Week

While our local suburban movie screens are clogged with the likes of "Eclipse" and "Knight and Day" and "Predators", etc. etc., it was liberating to spend time in the city where there are theaters that routinely show edgier, more reflective and non-commercial fare.  The documentary "Joan Rivers; A Piece of Work" and the Oscar-nominated Irish animated film "The Secret of Kells" have absolutely nothing in common except that they were both on Chicago screens last week, and I was lucky enough to have caught them both.  Here are a couple of short reviews....

"Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work"

This is a seething portrait of a complex woman, both brilliant and pathetic, funny as hell but with pain in every laugh, a talented individual who veers from seeming in total control of her world to being out of touch with reality.

It is an always mesmerizing look at the origins of this standup comic genius who wrote her ticket with the endorsement of Johnny Carson, and who never quite recovered from her split with him to host a failed solo talk show, a move which precipitated the suicide of her manager-husband.

It's a look at a woman who is addicted to performing on-stage, who has saved drawers full of thousands of jokes she has written, all catalogued on index cards, someone who needs the approval of her audience, especially the New York audience; ironically, one who holds that audience in contempt.  It is a one-track world we see, much of it of her own making, one of constant hostility and scrutiny, a world of cruel humor and incredible sadness.

Joan Rivers addiction to performing seeks to fill a personal void of acceptance that is bottomless and unfillable; and to maintain an ornate lifestyle that is just as important to her as the satisfactions of pleasing an audience. 

Rivers has undergone plastic surgery in order to feel accepted in this competitive milieu; has degraded herself on Celebrity Roasts and on Trump's apprentice; who wants desperately to be known as an actress, but cannot move beyond the lackluster response to her own self-indulgent play about her own life; who loves her daughter and her close circle of friends and elicits real sympathy as she bares her soul about her losses; only to alienate a viewer with her single-minded pursuit of the high life, often losing her way in vicious comedy.

Does it work as a film?  Very much.  I was not a big fan of Rivers, and the film has me both liking her less, and more. Using a collage of incident with a vaguely chronological structure, the film observes all with a clear and open gaze and does not pass judgment. The pain seeps through, even as you might laugh wildly at the most politically incorrect humor you have ever heard.

For those who have followed Rivers since the '60's it is an illuminating and shocking self-portrait.  To those for whom Rivers has become just an annoying red-carpet presence, there is much to learn, and come to appreciate, about the lengths one will go to stay relevant in the unforgiving hothouse that is show business.

"The Secret of Kells"

A minor controversy ensued last February when this film was among the Oscar nominees for Best Animated Feature.  Not many people knew of this film, and were surprised at its inclusion in the Oscar race.

While "The Secret of Kells" lacks the sentiment and sheer joy of the Oscar-winning "Up", it does feature some of the most beautiful imagery, wedded to a haunting musical score, that I have ever seen. 

It is a story of  Brandon, a young man living with his uncle, the Abbott of a 9th-century Irish Abbey.  Brandon embarks on a spiritual journey through a magical forest to wrest the jewel of knowledge from a marauding Viking tribe. The jewel with its mysterious totems and symbols is required to complete a book of hope and inspiration to future generations.  Along on his journey is a sprightly white cat and a forest fairy who can change her identity to that of an animal.

The film is potent in its beauty, visually and aurally.  The word "overwhelming" is aptly applied to the movement of the drawings and the variety of colors, with the frames often looking like illustrations themselves in a mystical book.

"The Secret of Kells" will soon be on DVD, and I highly recommend it to those who are hungry for originality, subtlety, and delicate beauty.  This film transcends our expectations of what animated films can do.  It is funny and poetic, with interesting human characters, and animals that are fancifully realized.  Films that treat the subjects of learning and spiritual growth are as difficult to find as they are to successfully produce.  This is a real treat for the eye and ear, and mind, alike.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Going Down the River ...A Friday Journal With Pictures

Chicago offers many ways to explore its myriad neighborhoods and learn about its history.  By cruising down the Chicago River, you get a perspective unavailable to even the most scrupulous explorer.  

The group on our little boat called the "Ouilmette" (the authentic spelling of the upscale North Shore suburb of Wilmette) had an energetic and informative guide named Mallory. 

For the casual observer, or the budding student of art and architecture ( I filled 16 pages of notes in the 75-minute tour) the experience will give one a conversational knowledge and new appreciation for the Second City.

Among the things I found in my notes just now:

--Chicago is the home of the first skyscraper. It was 10 stories tall.  The introduction of the steel frame made it possible to take the supporting weight off the building's walls.

--The Merchandise Mart has 4.25 million square feet, and 14 miles of hallway.

--The Boeing Building at 100 N. Riverside boasts the tallest double-faced clock tower in the world.  Thirteen floors are actually supported from the top; it was built over the air rights for the railroad, so trains run underneath it.

--311 South Wacker is topped by a reinforced concrete crown standing 105 feet tall. The 5 cylinders are illuminated with 1400 fluorescent bulbs.  The tower was inspired by the engagement ring the architect presented to his fiancee.  (Mark works in this building).

--Behind it (or next door) is the Willis Tower (formerly the Sears Tower).  There is a new skydeck there with a glass can walk out on it and see 1, 454 feet to the street below! 

--"Aida" was the first opera performed at the Civic Opera House in 1929.  Offices in the building wrap around a 3500-seat auditorium.  The back of the building faces east, the architect's way of "turning his back" on New york City, who rejected his lover from singing at the Met for not being good enough. (Shades of Charles Foster Kane!)

There is so much more......  My fascination with the city has always been more "microscopic"....I loved learning about the people there and how they collected into the various neighborhoods that give Chicago its small-town feel.

And now, after so many years, I am determined to learn about its places, its buildings, its art and design.  I hope to continue to share photos, information, and fun on this site.  Who knows?  Maybe a new tour-guide is in the making...or an architectural scholar....does anyone think it's too late?

In an upcoming post I'll share what I promised earlier, about the Tribune Tower, Sun Times Building, Swiss Hotel, and Lake Point Tower.

It is a city that is manageable, but with as many opportunities to find one's niche as any other city in the country.  A well-known musician in town to promote a new musical characterized Chicago as diverse and exciting as New York, but without the stress.

Coming up:  a couple films we saw in the city: "Secret of Kells"; and "Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work".

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Getting to Know Chicago Like a Tourist--Wednesday Journal

This is a lighter, personal post, done to organize my thoughts and material for the next few days of writing, and to share briefly the events of the last couple of days.

Mark and I have just returned from our Birthday trip to...Chicago. 

Instead of traveling out of town, we agreed to play tourist in our own home City. Tourists always know more about a city, I think, than many residents.   Tourists don't have time to take much for granted; residents sometimes lack the urgency to learn, because everything is so accessible that it becomes easy to procrastinate.

Since I began this blog, one of the things I promised I would do, for the sake of re-inventing my life, was to learn more about Chicago and write my impressions. I figure, before you can conquer a city, it's good to learn more about it.  Such high hopes!! 

So, in the days ahead, you'll find some posts about the following:

--The stories behind some of the city's most famous buildings, and a little about their architectural styles: the stones in the wall of the Tribune Tower; the triangular shape of the Swiss Hotel; what the Sun-Times building was originally used for; how the architects of Lake Point Tower cheated with their location....

--The amazingly diverse activities at Navy Pier on our lakefront, and some of the antics we perpetrated there (There is everything from a Shakespearean theater to a miniature golf course; a tropical year-round garden, and a museum of stained glass...and oh, an amusement park...!)

--Two Film Reviews: the first, a surprise Oscar nominee last year ("The Secret of Kells") and second, a current documentary that tugged me in many directions ("Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work");

This week I'll begin my weekly look at what's happening around my fellow bloggers' sites; and the promised posts about the things I found before I moved, and the stories from my long-ago past they have inspired (a family tree; some hilarious personal photos; and yes, that Betamax machine.)

And a story about a Saint Bernard in my life....which reads like fiction.....

Coming Soon: A Review of my most highly anticipated film of the year: "The Kids Are Alright".

Monday, July 5, 2010

"Toy Story 3" and Lost Childhood--A Review

(This post may contain a spoiler or two unless you have already seen "Toy Story 3", or the 1946 film "The Yearling")

Toyland, toyland
little girl and boy land
when you dwell within it
you are ever happy there!

Childhood toyland
mystical merry toyland
once you pass it's borders
you can never return again...
(Words and Music by Victor Herbert )

Even now, well beyond the age of playing with childhood toys, when I am in a nostalgic state of mind around the holidays, the song "Toyland" gives me pause.
What affects me about the song is not the remembrance of a particular toy. It is the idea that we can never return to childhood again, can never again see the world with the same wonder or innocence, once we move across the border into adulthood.

The lyrics, and the highly sentimental tune, efficiently deliver a concentrated emotional punch.

It's the same chord within me that is struck even more profoundly by 1946's "The Yearling", in which a boy loses a living creature, a fawn, he has grown attached to, actually killing it to ensure his family's survival, and is at once torn away from his innocent boyhood and thrust into a stark world of adult toil and disappointment.

 The new "Toy Story 3" is a busy, creative, visually splendid film, that nonetheless pummels its audience to the same emotional response. Although I personally did not identify with a college student who  maintains emotional connections with his boyhood toys, the idea of growing up and leaving innocence behind was intriguing, and I looked forward to a new and contemporary working of this theme.  
About halfway through, the tone darkens, the film attempts too much, and almost completely loses its way.
I enjoyed a lot of this movie, especially the earlier sections in which we are re-introduced to our "inanimate" friends and to Andy, the boy who has breathed life into these toys from the start of the series. Andy, who is now grown up and leaving for college, must either relegate his old toys to the trash heap and certain destruction, or remove them to the safety of his family's attic.

After a series of mishaps, the toys find themselves on the curb, ready to be trashed. The movie is their colorful odyssey of escape and survival, of sticking together and letting go, and the pain and excitement of beginning lfe anew.

We have come to expect an intelligence, cleverness and attention to detail from Pixar, and the filmmakers and hundreds of artists and technicians on "Toy Story 3" have once again delivered. Taken on that level, it's a terrific work of animation, with great dialog and well-realized characters (many of the toys have individual personalities rendered with loving care and voiced to perfection), and is often very funny, and suspenseful.

I think, however, the film takes a huge misstep by introducing another level of danger into the mix. There is so much potential in our toys making a break from a hilarious day-care center, that a subplot involving evil toys is a bit jarring. With so much going for it, this manufactured peril seems unnecessary, and does little to reinforce the films gentle message about loyalty and friendship. It also adds about 20 unneeded minutes, and causes the latter half to drag.

Most viewers are there to have fun and marvel at the careful detail in the filmmaking, and maybe to shed a nostalgic tear. There are surely many better ways to elicit sentiment and excitement without subjecting these animated creatures to a terrifying ride toward an incinerator. While most of us correctly assume that it will all end up pretty well, even so this plot development felt terribly manipulative.
The miscalculation cuts two ways.  First, the movie successfully brings these toys to life, and we empathize with them and do not wish to see them destroyed, so the fun drains out, and the images seem to suggest something deeper than the subject of the film can support.   On the other hand, we may question giving the toys the same emotional weight as a sentient being (animal or human) who is placed in grave, even fatal, danger.
The movie sometimes compensates for this foray into darkness with an abundance of noise and activity, as though this were an extended commercial for something (quite possibly, for "Toy Story 4"). Occasionally, it suffers from overconfidence, like it assumes that it is so well-loved that it can do no wrong.....sort of the way I feel lately about Tom Hanks himself, who once again supplies the voice of the beloved cowboy Woody.

Even so, there are great pleasures to be had here, if one doesn't take it as seriously as the movie seem to want us to. The artwork and animation are uniformly fine.  The voice-over work is terrific, especially from Joan Cusak, Wallace Shawn, and Don Rickles. The script seems to have been fashioned with some care, even if it could have been edited somewhat before production began. And, as demonstrated in "Up",  Pixar is masterful at drawing and animating dogs.  Andy's old dog is a delightful rendering.  (I would love to see Pixar do a story exclusively about dogs.)

And it does move people, pretty deeply, judging by the reaction of those around me, and comments I have found on several reviews of the film.

If only the filmmakers had listened the song "Toyland", or screened "The Yearling", to show that audiences can be stirred to a fond nostalgia and catharsis over lost childhood, without imposing artificial terrors.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Dog Stories: Four Short Takes--A Saturday Journal

Tonight is a good night to catch up some canine stories, past and present: 

--I am dog-sitting, and thinking a lot about animals today.  My heart still breaks for the injured and dead pelicans and other animals in the Gulf, and for the rescuers there who try their hardest, yet still cannot save all of the creatures who are crying out for help.  In the midst of somber reflection, I am comforted by thoughts of animals in my life, past and present, who have provided meaning in an often absurd world; and by thoughts of heroes who care for the world's creatures....from those who have washed an oiled bird, to those who've donated time or treasure to an animal organization, and (especially) to those who perform the simple kindnesses of feeding, petting, and loving a cat or dog...

--On this Saturday night, I find myself in the quiet company of Shayna, a Border Collie for whom I have provided care for many years while the family has travelled.  Shayna is a rascal--playful, intelligent, wily, and affectionate.  Now, she's slowing down. I noticed her halting gait and lack of energy, where normally she would be jumping with excitement, when I arrived early this morning.  Her tail, though slower than usual, still waved in constant rhythm, and she expressed her love by cleaning my face as pictured here.  We took a walk.  I kept her pace, which was a crawl, until a young squirrel caught her eye--and then, the old Shayna was back, briefly, to attempt a chase.  She didn't eat when we got home, another unusual behavior; and she found quiet and remote corners for her nap...just as Maggie did for a time, as she approached her sunset..... 

--What a wonderful story I saw Friday on the Today show!  Zak Anderegg, of Utah, rescued an 8-month-old puppy from certain death at the bottom of a deep canyon near the Arizona-Utah border.  Zak is a recreational canyoneer, and happened upon this little guy (they named "Puppy") at the bottom of a crevice over 350 feet deep. With conviction,  and sacrificing the rest of his vacation, Zak fed and watered this unfortunate animal; and when told by the local Fire and Police departments that they had no resources to help, Zak secured a cat carrier from a local vet, and went in again to save the dog.   Like many who commented on this story, I was overwhelmed by the happy outcome....although I tried to avoid thinking about the mentality of one who would place an animal as sweet as this at the bottom of a canyon (the dog showed no injuries associated with having fallen in.) 

For the complete story and Today Show Interview with Zak, wife Michelle, and Puppy, (and I think you'll really like this one) click on the video below:

--Last Tuesday I fell in love twice at the Buddy Foundation:

Sadie is an 8-month-old combination of two of my favorite breeds: Dachshund and beagle.  After a walk, and treats, and holding her so she would stop her puppy whining, I hated to walk away.  She will no doubt find a home quickly.

Berta is a puppy too, a big, sloppy friendly St. Bernard.  She is still growing, so I was glad she displayed the characteristic gentility I had come to know from my own St. Bernards growing up.  Operating strictly by instinct, I opened her cage up and went right in, with absolutely no fear, where she sat and enjoyed my  petting, and drooled happily.
Soon, I will share with you the story of Tippy, my own St. many dog stories, it is funny, warm, and ultimately heartbreaking...fair warning!

Tomorrow: Toy Story 3.