Thursday, September 30, 2010

Wild Parrots--A San Francisco Album, and Film Review

One day while we were climbing up to Coit Tower, a monument to firefighters built in 1933, I was thrilled to see San Francisco's wild parrots.

Soon after my pet cockatiel, Cookie, passed away, I saw the documentary film "The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill".  Although I was predisposed to be moved by this film, I enjoyed it on its own terms as an effective documentary.  Judy Irving directed this story of Mark Bittner, an unemployed and virtually homeless musician, who for several years was allowed to occupy the guest house of a generous couple near Telegraph Hill.  One day he spotted a number of parrots, which seemed to be surviving on their own. With great patience and stealth, he held food out to the birds until they trusted him, and ate from his hands. 

Soon, he was their unofficial caretaker.  His care for these birds gained him international fame, and an unexpected life-change after making the documentary.  The film nicely balances the nature of these fascinating birds with a personal human story of a man at a crossroads, and how he and these creatures helped each other in surprising ways.  Its tone is light throughout, and disarming and moving.  The birds provide humor and melancholy, and  Bittner and Irving build a sly conversation with a giddy payoff.  The warm-hearted surprise ending is one of the many reasons I loved this film.

Our climb to Coit Tower on Telegraph Hill was challenging and thrilling.  We were breathless from the effort but more from the view...  The building is a simple cylinder, the inside first floor completely done in murals funded by a New Deal federal employment program for artists.

We got some beautiful photographs through the windows of the lookout tower.  We met many tourists from around the world; I was able to use my Italian to speak to a young couple from Rome, who, by the time we were through, had invited us to their home for dinner when we visited.

After the ride down the elevator, as we prepared for the bus ride back down the hill, I heard the sound...the unmistakable sound of the parrot flock nearby.  I looked up into a large tree to see a couple of the Cherry-Headed Conures snuggling together. Soon a loud noise startled the flock, sending them circling continuously overhead. 

I was awe-struck, and started to cry at that moment.  These birds, unusual, and not native to this nontropical area, symbolized the diversity that was embraced in San Francisco. In some unexplainable way, they seemed to sense my love for them, and waited for me there so I could catch a glimpse of them.

Monday, September 27, 2010

A Play: "Don't Ask"--A San Francisco Album

While we were in San Francisco, we took a chance on a new play called "Don't Ask",  performed at the New Conservatory Theater Center on Van Ness Ave.

"The mission of The New Conservatory Theatre Center is to champion innovative, high quality theatre experiences for youth, adults and artists, to effect personal and societal growth, enlightenment and change."

We discovered the theater by chance one afternoon as we were making our way back to the streetcar after an afternoon exploring City Hall and the surrounding Civic buildings.  I admit that the advertising postcard inside the theater box office peaked our interest.  The play was part of their Pride series, and since we had a free evening that weekend, we decided to  support this small theater, and possibly have a stimulating theatrical experience in the company of others from the gay community.

The one-act, two character play set in Iraq involves a private and his superior, their dangerous sexual relationship, and the power games and blackmail that ensue. 

It did not directly confront the issue of "Don't Ask Don't Tell" as I expected.  Rather, the playwright, Bill Quigley, tried to set up a situation of deception and betrayal at the rotten extreme of where DADT may lead. I don't think he was entirely successful in drawing a parallel between the central incident (described in monologue) of the brutal "invasion" (assault) of an Iraqi prisoner, with the immorality of the war. And the shift in power between the closeted commanding officer and the delusional private was not given the proper build-up.

Part of the problem was in the direction.  The actors began in their climactic modes, and so what was meant to be a cunning role-reversal never played that way. The actors, Adrian Anchondo as the private and Ryan Hough as his superior, were uneven; Anchondo had the larger role dialog-wise and was the mouthpiece for the playwright's message; Hough was almost too low-key (except in his intense bursts of physicality) and delivered most of his thankless lines in a clenched, Clint-Eastwood glower.

The play itself had many dead spaces, and ended abruptly, albeit powerfully at the blackout.

And yet...I enjoyed the experience, even if the play itself left me lacking.  To have the opportunity to support work by new playwrights, directors and performers is exciting.  There is an added sense of anticipation in such an intimate setting: the auditorium had barely 75 seats.  And even a mediocre play done on this small, intimate scale provides other aspiring writers to turn out even better work.

I felt a great connection to the theater staff and the patrons around us, and in one more way, I imagined myself as truly a part of a community of San Franciscans that would someday welcome me and Mark with open arms.

Click on this link to see some scenes from "Don't Ask".

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Lady Gaga Confounds: Gay Rights vs. Compassion for Animals?

When someone tries, sincerely, to support you and defend a dearly held belief, but in the process does something else that offends you, how do you respond?

I was torn by the recent appearance of Lady Gaga in Portland Maine, delivering a passionate (even strident) speech calling for the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell.  Because of her huge popularity, her influence on pop culture, and her undeniable creativity and talent (whether or not you are inspired by her music or outrageous grabs for attention),  I was happy to hear her verbalize my feelings against this policy, and turn up the heat on the issue. 

But her speech came soon after her appearance on the MTV Video Awards, where she wore an abominable dress made of raw beef.  In her speech in Portland, she compared American rights to choice cuts of meat, to Prime Rib.  She argued that gay people have not been entitled to the Prime Rib of American rights, and asked (rhetorically, I think) "Doesn't everyone deserve to wear the same meat dress as I do?"

When I saw her on the Video Awards (and also her cover on Vogue), draped in the flesh of an animal who died for her self-promotion, all I could think of was the undercover video I saw in May (and posted here) in which cows on a dairy farm in Ohio were terribly abused**. The dress looked like the thoughtless flaunting of some animal's suffering.

Lady Gaga said she meant no offense; she may have sincerely believed in the comparison she was making.  But it made me uncomfortable, and in spite of agreeing with her position on Don't Ask Don't Tell, I was embarrassed to be associated with her message; I didn't want to wear her "meat dress",  and if she sought to convince those who could make repeal happen, I thought she was doing more harm than good.

I was conflicted and confounded. 

To deal with my confusion, I sought clarity from the very organization that moved me to change my thinking about livestock, Mercy for Animals.  I sent an email of inquiry to Nathan Runkle, Executive Director of the Organization.  He responded immediately and heroically, with a link to his own blog, in which he posted a letter he sent to Lady Gaga applauding her stance on Don't Ask Don't tell, yet explaining the disappointment of the message sent by her grisly attire:

"My heart also sang Sunday night as you made a bold and powerful statement on behalf of gay rights...taking a thoughtful stand against “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” I sincerely admire your dedication to pursuing justice on behalf of those of us who are still marginalized for simply being who we are. For that, I am sincerely grateful.
...Your work on behalf of gay rights is truly helping push our society out of the dark ages and into a more enlightened time.
Yet, as someone who has dedicated over half my life to advocating on behalf of animal rights, as well as gay rights, my heart sank Sunday night when you revealed “the meat dress.” Although you explained that your intention was “not to offend vegetarians or vegans,” the unintended consequence of this “fashion statement” was the promotion, and glamorization, of cruelty and violence toward animals.
As a style icon, your attire has entertained and inspired countless fans. And, in such a position, I hope you would agree that fashion should be fun and creative, not fatal and cruel...."
(See Nathan's entire letter here)

It took courage and integrity for Nathan Runkle to speak his heart and disagree with a high-profile individual whom he admired.  I appreciated the position taken by Nathan and Mercy for Animals, applauding Lady Gaga's support for an important social issue, while taking exception to, and seeking to correct assumptions about, displays of careless cruelty.

Even Ellen Degeneres, a well-known vegan and animal rights (and gay rights) advocate, appeared uncomfortable with LGG's dress, and her explanation of it: that if we don't stand up for our rights, we will have as few rights "as the meat on our bones".  To her credit, Ellen diverted discomfort by offering an alternate garb to make a statement: an outfit made entirely of kale:

Lady Gaga tries hard--maybe too hard in this case--to convince her fans that she is truly behind them.  If she wants to be politically relevant and not simply shocking; if she would use her influence to persuade naysayers to her point of view, rather than simply preach to the choir; then, perhaps she can channel her passion through her strong voice and considerable songwriting talent.  She has the ability to use her music in powerful ways she may have yet to imagine.  And she is influential enough to put it over.

She is a generous and abundant performer, strikingly, visually voluptuous.  With her fashion instinct, her imagery conjured from a cauldron of her and her designers' unconscious, her sense of fun, and her incidental Italian background, she could well become the Fellini of modern popular music.

And I hope she takes Nathan's letter to heart, and uses her considerable influence to join celebrities like Ellen to help protect the truly helpless creatures who depend on us 100%.

In any case, where Don't Ask Don't tell is concerned, she needs a new metaphor. 


(**POSTSCRIPT: The Ohio dairy farm worker who was accused of the abuse of the dairy cows seen in the undercover video pleaded guilty to six misdemeanor counts of cruelty to animals.
He was sentenced to eight months in jail, ordered to pay a $1,000 fine, and is barred from contact with animals for three years. He must also receive counseling through a program that specializes in treating individuals involved in animal abuse cases.
The conviction was a victory of course...but wow....this kind of mistreatment is considered only a misdemeanor....)

Thursday, September 23, 2010

"The Subject Was Roses" and Patricia Neal--A San Francisco Album

Thank goodness for theaters like The Castro in San Francisco and The Music Box in Chicago.  They keep alive the exhibition of classic and nearly forgotten films, on a big screen, projected lovingly the way they were originally intended to be seen.

It was fortunate that we arrived in San Francisco the only night the Castro showed  "The Subject Was Roses".  It was part of a small tribute to actress Patricia Neal, who died on August 8.  Neal won an Oscar in 1963 playing opposite Paul Newman for her brief but impressive performance in her role as Alma, in "Hud".
In 1968 Neal was one of three actresses who lost in the Best Actress Category; she was a nominee for "Roses" when Barbra Streisand ("Funny Girl") and Katharine Hepburn ("The Lion in Winter") won in a tie. (Added trivia: Joanne Woodward was also in the running that year in a film directed by Newman, "Rachel Rachel". Vanessa Redgrave, in "Isadora", was the third also-ran.)

I had wanted to see "The Subject Was Roses" all my life.  I saw it once on a very poor-quality VHS tape, and I missed a lot due to the video "noise".

It was a special thrill to be there at the Castro Theater on a Thursday night with a handful of serious film buffs, to see an Oscar-winning film from 1968, (Jack Albertson picked up Supporting Actor).  I had that vague boyish thrill of the forbidden, when going to the movies on a school night was a rarity, or when I was allowed to attend a movie that was more adult in nature.

"The Subject Was Roses" is adapted from what is basically a three-character play, set just after WWII.  The son of an aging middle-class family returns from the service, and opens up old resentments between son and parents, and between mother and father.

It is a gentler but no less a wounding treatment of family dynamics and deception as "Virginia Woolf".

Albertson plays the more difficult role of patriarch John Cleary, who seeks an opportunity to rekindle a loving relationship with his wife. His is an unlikeable, inflexible character, but Albertson skillfully navigates the screenplay's last-minute attempts to make him more appealing. His John Cleary deftly embodies the stoic masculinity of countless fathers who came of age in the 1930's.

A young (and very attractive) Martin Sheen plays Timmy, the prodigal son, caught in a tug-of-war of affections and allegiances between his parents.  It is Timmy, who learned too well how to preserve the illusions of his parents and divert the conflicts under the surface, who precipitates the film's main crisis with the titular bouquet of roses.

Neal, as Nettie Cleary, is mesmerizing, compelling, powerful and remarkable.  She manages to communicate the seething self-conflicts with amazing and subtle reading of her dialogue, and commands the screen in searing closeups. Nettie achieves the broadest character arc in the film, going from an almost incestuous attachment with her son, and jealousy of her husband's attachment to him, to an odyssey of self-discovery and eventual resignation.

The film offers the experimental flourishes and the muted,  "realistic" lighting and color I loved in '60's films like "In The Heat Of The Night" and "Midnight Cowboy". 

After an intense emotional argument, Neal's Nettie leaves the house all day, and causes concern in her household.  Without dialog, Nettie simply "goes downtown, walks around", has dinner, and reflects on her life.   It's a lovely interlude, a montage of her meandering activity, scored to a haunting ballad by the wonderful Judy Collins.

Upon her return home, Neal delivers the most important words in the film, summing up the motivation of millions who choose not to go beyond the familiarity of their lives.  For a sensitive viewer, I think this brief dialog could change one's life, and sums up my own significant fear as I try to understand the process of reinvention:

Nettie Cleary: In all my life, the past twelve hours are the only real freedom I've ever known.

Timmy Cleary: Did you enjoy it?

Nettie Cleary: Every moment.

Timmy Cleary: Why did you come back?

Nettie Cleary: I'm a coward.
With the death of Patricia Neal, I hope more people will seek and re-discover this movie.  Frank Gilroy wrote a play about a particular family that has become universal over the years.  And Jack Albertson, Martin Sheen and Patricia Neal have given us characters from a bygone era that still can tell us something about how we live now. 

I will always equate the great satisfactions of "The Subject Was Roses" with the very special surroundings of the Castro Theater and the circumstances of my finally seeing it as it was meant to be seen.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

A Shelter Update-- Wednesday Journal

For those of you who kindly followed my Buddy Foundation Shelter Stories, I have an update: Oliver, the sweet beagle puppy who I fell in love with, found a home, fortunately.

Sadly, it was not with me.

I was giving serious thought to asking the shelter to hold him for a week, and a friend at my office told me she would gladly take Oliver to her house for the week, if I adopted him before my trip to San Francisco.

As I expected, Oliver's sweet nature and adorable face appealed to a kind soul who took the little guy home right away.

We have more travel to do, Mark and I.  Our San Francisco trip has given us the motivation to seek a new home in the friendlier and more open surroundings of the North Side of the city, or even to a coastal town. 

Either way, we are getting closer to the inevitable moment when a dog grabs our hearts playfully in her teeth and defies us to chase her to retrieve them...!

Life in the Castro--A San Francisco Album

If we had stayed anywhere else but the Castro neighborhood during our San Francisco visit last week, we would have wanted to go there all the time.  It turned out that we didn't spend most of our time there anyway, and so in that way, it felt more like a home base.  Staying in a Victorian house in the middle of the Castro was as close to an authentic experience of living there as I could have hoped for.

That first afternoon Mark and I conditioned our legs on the hills as we walked around a six-block radius of the commercial district, Castro St, 18th St. and Market St.  Right away we encountered Harvey Milk's Castro Camera shop, which is vacant now, but in the windows are posters that describe the significance of the storefront, and Harvey himself.  In spite of "Milk", I suspect that many younger residents don't get that special feeling of belonging just sitting there on the window ledge, looking out at Castro Street as Harvey might have seen it.  Me?  I was inspired.

We visited local shops and read menus for the many cafes, for future dining adventures.  We also purchased our weekly BART pass...the public transportation system....which allowed us on to streetcars, buses, the subways, and the Registered Landmark Cable Cars.  Along the way we stopped in the Human Rights Campaign store, and were greeted by Colton, whose friendly inquiries and sincere interest made us welcome. 

The Village Inn looked just like any house you might find in the neighborhood.  A locked front gate took us to a 12-step staircase, and as we first entered the front door, Duke, the owners' Basset Hound-Golden mix, greeted us with wagging tail and busy nose.  To the left was the Mix Bar, a lively neighborhood hangout, and Up Hair, much quieter, but the proprietors were outside a lot, and friendly.  To the right was Poesia, a charming newer Italian restaurant with a Poetry Lounge and a wall on which Italian movies were projected. 

The lobby of the inn was decorated by owner Paul, in an eclectic mix of Victorian furniture and colors and European vases and paintings and other artifacts. Deon, his partner, did the day-to-day management of the rooms and public areas.  Both of them were warm, interesting people who have become new friends. Our room was to the back of the second floor. It was rather plain but cozy, and well away from the noise of 18th street, although the dull roar of patrons at the Mix lulled us to sleep.

In the afternoon, the front of the building was in shade, and one afternoon I sat on the top step with my journal and recorded what I saw, and what I thought about it.  As the warm breeze embraced me, I gazed down at the traffic and the variety of people who passed by and barely noticed me writing furiously.  There was a noisy but manageable buzz in the air, the sound of anticipation of fun yet ahead on a Saturday night.

The historic Castro Movie Theater beckoned right around the corner.  On our first day as we walked past, the marquee told us that a tribute to the recently-deceased actress Patricia Neal featured a series of her films.  I stopped in excited surprise..That night only, they would show 1968's "The Subject Was Roses".  Mark kindly agreed to go to the movies that night so I could have the experience of viewing on a big screen a movie I had never properly seen, and view it in the confines of a city landmark with much significance to the gay community.  I'll write more about the film very soon....


Tuesday, September 21, 2010

"Dunces" A Remarkable Novel...Possibly My Favorite

I first read "A Confederacy of Dunces", by the late John Kennedy Toole, in its initial release in 1981.  I knew nothing about the book or the circumstances surrounding its then-recent publication.  I barely knew what a Pulitzer Prize was, but since the cover proclaimed it a Pulitzer Winner, I decided it was the type of highbrow fiction I was craving at that particular time.

It turned out to be the funniest, most sustained comic writing I had ever read.  Still, thirty years later, it maintains its unique place in my literary experience. It still makes me laugh out loud, and remains my favorite novel.  I have never read anything like it since (although "Catch-22" comes closest to the general air of absurdity, bordering on tragedy, that "Dunces" has in its very fiber).

Since then I have read it many times, and for a period of years I read it annually.  Each time, it yields more devastating laughs; and each time, more of the tragedy of Ignatius Reilly (who I believe is a monstrous caricature and confessional of the author himself) bleeds through.

Ignatius J(aques) Reilly is an obese, gross, pompous man-child, a highly educated genius who rails against the perversion and obscenity of the current era, longing to live according to medieval rules and structure. He is a walking time bomb, alienating everyone around him with his impenetrable opinions and philosophy.  Living in New Orleans with his long-suffering mother Irene, he is forced to emerge as a contributing citizen, and the book speeds off from there. What ensues is an eloquent, clever, and intricate series of progressively absurd and hilarious events.  The characters surrounding Ignatius are as bawdy a lot you will ever read, all rendered perfectly by Toole's understanding of dialects, his astonishing imagination, and intimate knowledge of the people about whom he writes.  

I will not divulge the incredible subplots and scenarios that culminate in giddy and inventive resolution.  In spite of the cartoonish characters that nevertheless emerge as comically flawed and human, the novel is ultimately about a reject who armors himself against pain by lashing out at everyone and everything, and especially those who could truly love and appreciate him....Ignatius does not suffer fools...or anyone...gladly. His lack of political correctness is part of the wicked fun.

I don't quite know how to go on without a spoiler warning here...

The story of the publication of this book is as interesting as the novel itself, and no doubt contributes to moments of profound sadness amid the breathtaking lunacy of Ignatius and his lot (the title comes from a quote by Jonathan Swift...that true genius is evident in one's midst because the dunces are in confederacy against him.)

Toole completed the manuscript in the early 1960's.  Much of the draft was completed during his service in the army, stationed in Puerto Rico.  Like Ignatius, Toole worked in a pants factory and was a street vendor for a time.  Toole was also a brilliant scholar with a masters Degree who taught English.

His suicide in 1969 at age 32 is still a mystery.  But I think the clues to Toole's despair can be found in his brilliant novel. 

After his death, his mother tried for a long time to have the book published.  It finally fell into the hands of novelist Walker Percy who recognized its genius, and persuaded Grove Press to publish it from the smeared carboned manuscript without any editing.  It hit the shelves in 1980 to thunderous acclaim, became a cult hit (a statue of Ignatius stands in New Orleans) and won the Pulitzer Prize for Toole posthumously in 1981.

What a visionary work.  In comic fashion, Toole takes his hero through the sexual revolution, Civil Rights (he encourages Black factory workers to riot), recruiting gays in the military world-wide (who would then be so busy throwing cocktail parties that there would finally be world peace), and the ennui of consumer culture....years before these became high-profile issues!

In spite of his seeming lack of touch with reality, ironically everyone whom Ignatius encounters gets fair resolution to their plights, or at least some measure of justice. The plots fall into place like an elaborately designed line of dominos.

Yet if you look closely, there are moments when Ignatius' troubled past starts to explain his grotesque awkwardness and alienation of those around him.  He is a Freudian nightmare, stuck in an arrested development of both oral and anal stages (his constant eating, his obsession with his "valve").  He expresses his warped affections for his "girlfriend" Myrna in suggestively lewd and aggressive writing and behavior.  Glimpses of his childhood reveal moments of utter shame and abandonment. The turning point seems to have been the death of Ignatius' boyhood dog, Rex, and the local priest's refusal to say a funeral mass for the poor animal.

By the end of the book, when Ignatius' fate seems inevitable, and his mother tells him "I love you", it cuts through the outrageousness to pure emotion.  One can only imagine the anguish of Toole's mother when she found and read this manuscript. 

Finally, many incidents point to the possibility that Toole, through his monstrous creation Ignatius, felt the need to come to terms with his own sexuality, and the rejection that being gay in the pre-Stonewall 1960's might have caused him. This is purely speculation on my part.  A close reading of the book provides many clues to what must have been Toole's ultimate despair.  But the book is so funny that Toole successfully distracts from speculation about his own part in the characterization. One keeps reading to find out what will happen next, so it requires another reading (at least) to discover how truly wonderful the writing is.

I highly recommend this unusual, funny, and groundbreaking work.  It's unfortunate that Toole did not live to write more....

Sunday, September 19, 2010


It has been nearly a week since Mark and I returned from six days in San Francisco.  The extra-ordinary geography transformed me in much the same way that I imagine the original terrain, with its impossible hills, was slowly transformed into a languid and vital place to live and visit.

Whether we managed to find the places and the experiences we were predisposed to enjoy, or whether they mysteriously found us, the fact is that we were constantly in love with whatever the moment had presented to us, wherever we happened to be.  It was as though the city prepared itself especially for us.  A brief sketch of a few of these things reads like a list that might describe us:

-The little dog who greeted us as we first arrived at our B&B;
-Our sparse but cozy second-floor room next to a busy bar, whose muffled rumbles of voices and music lulled us to sleep at night;
-The couple who ran the place, one a retired architect and musician, the other a Russian art collector and film buff;
-The famous Castro movie theater around the corner that showed, for one night, a movie I have wanted to see all my life;
-The Italian tourists I met and befriended, who patiently allowed me to speak haltingly in their mother tongue;
-The Italian restaurants (especially the one right next door that projected Fellini films on its wall);
-A long-running musical-comedy revue that welcomed me with numbers from "Hair" and "Nine";
-Architecture of the residential homes and the commercial buildings that pleased me on a deep unspoken level, as if I belonged within those spaces;
-Macondray Lane, the inspiration for Armistead Maupin's Barbary Lane;
-City Lights Bookstore, whose atmosphere was effervescent with the spirits of Jack Kerouac and Alan Ginsburg and Ken Kesey, and which had the best Film Book section anywhere; 
-Harvey Milk's camera store, vacant now, conferring a blessing on us and a hearty welcome to enjoy it all; 
-The ease of getting around without a car; and walking everywhere, with our camera at the ready;
-The best coffee I have ever had, anywhere;
-The flock of wild parrots of Telegraph Hill made famous in the book and documentary.... and the sea lions, squirrels, and many, many dogs....

What I realized is that, although I can no longer consider myself "young and impressionable", I still am at least "impressionable", and hope never to lose that trait, that openness to awe, to allow one's life to follow wherever beauty and compassion might lead it, tempered with wisdom, informed by history. 

That gets harder with age....but it's a necessary ingredient in reinventing a life, changing an attitude, overcoming a flaw....

As I start Year Two of this journal, there will be a new Series, the San Francisco Album, with short essays and original photos of the experience.  The city needed to reinvent and rebuild itself after the1906 Earthquake, and several times since then....I hope personal re-invention will not require as seismic an incident!  

Plus...the usual re-views, of movies and music and theater, and the outpouring of heartfelt opinion on anything from animal shelters to gay rights, from political absurdity to healing humor.

Welcome back!  

Wednesday, September 8, 2010


"Reinvention..." has reached a milestone...a One-year Anniversary. 

On September 7, 2009, I wrote and published my very first post.  It was, in fact, Labor Day one year ago.  I wrote about a little amusement park in the Chicago area that was closing. 

I looked back at this significant place from my childhood, and from there, sought to explore the future while understanding what had gone before.

And this journal was born.

Not a day has passed in the past year when I have not thought about, agonized and labored over, or pondered what has transpired here.  To some, the process of a blog is simply an everyday activity.  To me, it is a legacy, an exercise, a way to reach out, a quest for understanding.  I know that words can change lives, and in turn change worlds.  I hope that my readers have enjoyed, learned, questioned, and were encouraged by what they found here.

Have I succeeded in "reinventing" myself?  Better yet, have I finally defined that term?  What has it been about my love of dogs, passion for movies, quest for new books, and search for meaning in a chaotic world, that has made me a different person from a year before?  

Mostly, it has been the process, the thinking, and the inspiration to see my personal loves and activities through a lens with which I have attempted to record my point of view, and put it out there in hopes that others will see the world as I see it.

Have you gained a new perspective? Shaken your head in disbelief?  Rallied to my cause?  Struggled along with me in my confusion?  Did the fog lift sometimes for your own clarity?

I followed my heart,, and mind, and interests....Sometimes I let the world dictate the topic.  Mostly, it was a need to resolve something, or share a laugh, or display my pride and expertise in a distinct world of film in hopes that someone else would be as excited as I was.  Or maybe it was a need to seek or to provide comfort, or cry, as dog stories usually require.

Anyway, I thank all of you for reading, and for becoming a friend to me. 

I am putting the blog away for a very brief time, in search of new adventures, to explore a new area, and to fill the pipeline for Year Two of shared stories, Movie Reviews, and shelter antics.  Will I put my Italian to practical use?  Will I finally adopt a dog?  What will I think of the latest films?  Why are some old favorites still so important to me?  Will Oscar be golden? Will I finally write the Great American Short Story?  Will I leave behind a Classic Novel?  Will I one day accept a Screenplay Oscar of my own? 

Be well....keep reading...and writing.....I look forward to getting back, in a week, or so.

If we stop reinventing ourselves, we stop living.  Hope you'll join me in the effort!


Monday, September 6, 2010

"The Tillman Story" and American Mythmaking.

This is a great documentary, essential viewing, and a necessary addition to the archives of American political and military manipulation of American public sentiment.

Soon after the disaster in New York on 9/11, Pat Tillman, rising star of the Arizona Cardinals NFL Football Team, felt like he wanted to make an important contribution to his country.  In 2002 he left the team, enlisted in the Army, where he joined an outfit of Rangers, and was deployed to Afghanistan.  During a mission in which his team was split, an "ambush" ensued, in which Tillman was shot and killed.  The military, learning that Tillman's death was the result of friendly fire, sought to spin the story, exploiting Tillman, and his family's grief, as a tool for recruitment and support for the war.

Director Amir Bar-lev tells this story with effective use of archival footage, photographs, redacted documents, and recent interviews with family members and colleagues.  As a film,it is as compelling as some of cinema's best political dramas like "All The President's Men" and "Z".  As a chronicle of loss, deception, and misguided mythmaking, it is evenhanded and clear-headed, the anger seething but never boiling over into sanctimony.  

The film chronicles Pat's life, his relationships with parents and brothers and childhood sweetheart (who became his wife), his disillusionment with the war in Iraq, the incident that killed him, and the attempts by military and political figures to hide the truth and "create a heroic myth" for an unsuspecting American public.

We learn about the human being that was Pat Tillman, so our identification with his grieving, angry and questioning family is complete on the most basic emotional levels.  Tillman's integrity, openness and intelligence runs counter to the stereotype for the privileged athlete.  He had heroic qualities to be sure, which were co-opted and misinterpreted for political reasons.   The film does not attempt to avoid Tillman's flaws, and so the narrative built around his athletic purity and unflinching patriotism and sacrifice tears viewers in several directions.

Some (like me) will bring some questions and assumptions into the theater.  Would we have even heard of Pat Tillman had he not played professional football?  Was Tillman accorded some special treatment?  Should Tillman's motivations be questioned any less (or more) than any other enlistee?  How could the American public blindly accept the myth that was being forced upon it?   The movie effectively lays to rest some of these preconceived resentments and questions, and presents its facts for maximum emotional impact.  Viewers will have much different reasons for being angry, and will have  renewed encouragement to cast a very cynical eye and ear to mainstream media and military pronouncements.

Tillman was also involved during the "rescue" of Jessica Lynch, another incredible re-working of the truth in order to placate American sensibilities and reinforce the fraudulently exploited narrative of the American hero. 

An essential companion piece to this film is Susan Faludi's book,  "The Terror Dream: Myth and Misogyny in an Insecure America", which includes an in-depth chapter on the Lynch incident and an exquisitely detailed explanation of how and why Americans still cling to its frontier myths.  This is a fabulous, important book, which many in Congress, the military, even Hollywood, would wish you would ignore.

Two days after seeing "The Tillman Story" , the most vivid image is still that of Tillman's face....I have not been able to forget that face, and my appreciation for him, flaws and all, and my regret for the family still trying to get official acknowledgment of the truth and to hold those to blame responsible.  Looking at that face, in its many angles and ages, the honest gaze and ready, exuberant smile, I realized that while I watched this film I had engaged in a private conversation with it, and I asked questions that the film attempted to answer, and motivated me to learn more, and gained an understanding beyond the boundaries of the movie itself.  That's what great documentaries can inspire one to do. 

Friday, September 3, 2010

A Guilty Pleasure; An Old Favorite--Thursday Journal

Two recent viewings from my personal DVD Vault:

The 2007 thriller "Disturbia" appealed to me on many levels, to my complete surprise, and delight.

Those who check in here regularly know that my taste in film is toward more esoteric, obscure, retro and socially significant works.  I generally avoid films that are marketed as mindless social lubricant to a more frivolous mindset.  Some may find my own favorite films irrelevant....or that I'm out of touch for scorning the latest technologies.

But in spite of its obvious pitch to the sex-and-horror teen market,  I found "Disturbia" a really effective mix of the standard teen love-and-buddy story and stalker-thriller. 

What sets "Disturbia" apart is its heart.  It finds human relationships important, and honestly explores the troubles and psyche of an extremely likable, good-hearted, sometimes goofy teen named Kale (Shia LaBeouf) who suffers the painful loss of his father and finds himself confined to house arrest after assaulting his teacher.

In a clever mix of "Rear Window" and "Silence of the Lambs", this kid enlists the help of his best buddy and the new girl-next-door to expose and thwart a possible serial-killer  who lives across the street.  It's all absurd, but the screenwriter mines it for its human elements, and creates some wonderful set-pieces in the romance and action departments.

(I was completely won over when Kale expresses admiration for his girl Ashley (Sarah Roemer) by confessing the beauty he found in her while "spying", including the fact that she reads books, not just fashion magazines, but "substantial books.")

The direction is smart and effectively keeps the action within the house and the boundaries within which our hero must restrict himself to or be arrested.  Credit to the art directors for creating a detailed and authentically suburban milieu within the house and outside of it; to the cinematographer who covers the action with lots of movement and elaborate, seamless lighting design; and the film editor for achieving clean pacing and using exquisite closeups.

Shia LaBeouf is also terrifically watchable, and won me over with his mischievous boyishness and surprising depth of emotion.  Carrie Ann Moss is so believable as a reasonable mother coping with her husband's death and the repercussions felt by her son.  Moss is so straightforward that we never doubt her love for her son.  And David Morse radiates the evil of Hannibal Lecter, alternately bland and sinister.

The violence is cartoonish and startling but not explicit, and elicits the gasps of the funhouse.  It's a solid little movie that will not go into the annals of the classics,  but will be worth bringing out again as Halloween approaches.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *  *   *
Next evening I reveled in Martin Scorsese's "Mean Streets", and remembered what it was I found exciting about Scorsese so many years ago when he (and I) discovered the possibilities in the medium of film.

This was a product of the early 1970's when movie audiences accepted a film that was content to observe human behavior and needed no artificially imposed plot, no pandering or lame jokes or tidy endings.

Scorsese was experimental in his camera movements and film speed, color and ambient sound and music.  The score, in particular, has a bite that "American Graffiti", blandly nostalgic, lacked.  "Mean Streets" plays like a dry-run for the more polished "Goodfellas".

Robert DeNiro burst into stardom with this film.  (A year later he would win an Oscar for his portrayal of a young Vito Corleone in "The Godfather Part II".)  It is so clear, watching this, that Scorsese could push his own boundaries and turn up the intensity when he had DeNiro as a collaborator.  They brought out each others best strengths, and enhanced them, to maximum effect.  DeNiro's appearance in common comedies and weak dramas, and Scorsese's reliance on the puppyish Leonardo DiCaprio, make me long for the old dynamic duo and the horrific magic they created together, unforgettably, in this film, "Taxi Driver", and "Raging Bull".

When I first saw "Mean Streets" I was, at the time, shooting and cutting my own movies on Super-8 Film stock--the same kind used in the credit sequence.  Still one of my favorite credit sequences, and a highlight of "Mean Streets".  Enjoy!

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

"The Movie Lover"...An Idea for a Work of Fiction

It is early, early morning on September 1, and I have to be up and out of the house in a few hours.  I'm meditating, in a creative zone, about a work of fiction I have begun.

An extended monologue, it is a first-person narrative told by an adolescent who is alone in the madhouse of his suburban schools.  He's too smart for his own safety, obsessed with creating his own little super-8 epics, and always anxious.

He lives in a small and over-protected household with tightly-wound parents and a series of dogs who are adopted and then casually given away.

In his energetic stream-of-consciousness narrative, he frames the world in terms of his favorite movies, or those he longs to see if he were old enough.  The story moves him through the terrifying years of his youth, in which he retreats into (and finds strength from) a mosaic of images, daydreams, original stories, fantasies about the boys he admires, his hilariously feverish sexual awakening (alone), and his fear of never being "normal". He memorizes the nuances of Beethoven in the music from "A Clockwork Orange", dreams he can fall in love with a girl like Sally Bowles, and gets a heated aesthetic thrill from watching the coming attractions for "Easy Rider" and "The Wild Bunch".

In college he continues his monologues which are peppered with references to hundreds of the back of the book, each film mentioned gets a capsule review AS WRITTEN BY THE NARRATOR. 

It is at this point in the story that he "falls in love" with a lesbian who breaks his heart, forms a lifelong bond with a kind and athletic dorm-mate, and finds recognition through his own filmmaking, inspired by heroes named Fosse and Bergman and Kubrick.

It's all about education in America, finding life's meaning in the movies of the '60's and '70's, the fascination and ultimate disillusion with pop culture, curing depression by keeping a dog illegally in your dorm room,  the outlandish ways a closeted gay boy navigated the demands of his body, heart and mind in the disco-drenched sex-soaked culture of "Goodbar" and "Cruising",   and how an eccentric like Annie Hall can mend a broken heart.

He will thrill to how all is connected in life, if he can just observe it as carefully as Altman observed Nashville.

And it will be funny.  And romantic.  And it will be a revel for lovers of movies.

So I must sleep work is laid out for me.