Tuesday, November 30, 2010




Tomorrow, I will resume my exploration of King George, and Colin Firth.  For tonight, a few unrelated short takes: everything from a nice shelter adoption, to a birthday commemoration, to the passage of a law, to this year's film awards calendar.

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Lulu Found a Home! 

One of my favorite new arrivals at the Buddy Foundation has found a home. This adoption was meant to be.  The five-month old beagle was chosen by an older, widowed gentleman.  The man is retired and will be able to spend lots of time with Lulu.  He's had beagles his whole life.  When it came time to pay for the adoption, he took out his credit card....and on it was a picture of a beagle!  

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A Special Birthday Commemoration

Sam, my maternal grandfather, would have celebrated his 100th birthday yesterday, November 29.  (My grandmother Lucy commemorated her 100th on May 6th this year.)  Faithful visitors here recall that their centennial was my inspiration to study Italian.  Seems like they are still with us, in some way.  I can still hear their laughter, and good-natured teasing and banter. I can still taste the pizza, and the sauce.  This is their wedding picture, taken in August of 1928.

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Illinois House Passes Civil Unions Bill, Senate Expected to Pass, Quinn To Sign

Illinois took a step in a "good" direction today by passing a same-sex civil unions bill in the House.  The bill goes to the Senate and on to the governor for signature, if all goes as expected.  Chicago Mayoral Candidate Gery Chico organized supporters to urge their representatives in the Illinois congress to pass the bill.  I admire Mr. Chico for his support of equal rights for all citizens.  And yet, I bristle when I am told that "we must not let perfect be the enemy of good".  Good thing the architects of this bill are not designing our buildings and bridges.  Because what I hear is "good enough", and a silent order to take what we're given and stay in our place. 

To be sure, civil unions will provide some rights to same-sex couples that now are only available through costly estate planning.  But they do not provide all of the rights of marriage.  Separate but equal?  Not even equal.  Go to the back of the bus and enjoy the ride.  Throw a few rights to the gays and they will calm down..they may not even continue to fight for actual marriage.

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"All they do is give out awards!" (Woody Allen, "Annie Hall", 1977)

Movie fans still take great interest in the outcome of the Academy Awards, which will be handed out on February 27, about three months from now.  In the meantime, a different industry or critic's group will be announcing their award nominees or winners evey few days for three months.  Take a look at the following list and you will understand why, by the time the Big Night arrives, I'm practically wrung out by predictions. It's anticlimactic, and I feel sort of numb by Oscar night, as though I have consumed too much junk food for weeks.

And we miss the forest for the trees; we look at all the new films in terms of how they will be positioned for awards, rather than for the pure artistry or entertainment each work provides.

I wonder how possible it would be to avoid the outcomes of the interminable list of minor awards, and bring back the suspense and fun of the Academy Awards?

Well, anyway, here's the Awards calendar for those who follow all of it, on our way to spending Oscar Night with our talented and charismatic hosts, Anne Hathaway and James Franco:

Nov. 30 Film Independent Spirit Award nominations announced

Dec. 2 National Board of Review announces winners
Dec. 3 British Independent Film Awards
Dec. 3 International Documentary Association Awards
Dec. 11 Boston Film Critics announces winners
Dec. 12 AFI honorees announced
Dec. 12 Los Angeles Film Critics Association announces winners
Dec. 13 New York Film Critics Circle announces winners
Dec. 13 Broadcast Film Critics Association nominations announced
Dec. 14 Golden Globe nominations announced
Dec. 14 San Diego Critics Association announces winners
Dec. 15 Toronto Critics Association announces winners
Dec. 16 Screen Actors Guild Award nominations announced
Dec. 18 Houston Critics Association winners announced
Dec. 19 Satellite Awards
Dec. 20 Chicago Critics Association winners announced

Jan. 3 Online Film Critics Society winners announced
Jan. 4 Producers Guild of America nominations
Jan. 4 Writers Guild of America nominations
Jan. 8 Palm Springs International Film Festival
Jan. 10 Directors Guild of America nominations announced
Jan. 11 National Board of Review ceremony
Jan. 14 BFCA Critics’ Choice Awards winners announced
Jan. 14 AFI Awards
Jan. 15 L.A. Film Critics Association Awards ceremony
Jan. 16 Golden Globe Awards
Jan. 18 BAFTA nominations announced
Jan. 22 Producers Guild Awards
Jan. 25 Oscar nominations announced
Jan. 27 Santa Barbara International Film Festival
Jan. 28 Visual Effects Society Awards
Jan. 29 Directors Guild of America Awards
Jan. 30 Screen Actors Guild Awards

Feb. 2 Costume Designers Guild Awards
Feb. 5 Writers Guild Awards
Feb. 5 Art Directors Guild Awards
Feb. 5 Annie Awards
Feb. 12 Scientific and Technical Awards Presentation
Feb. 13 BAFTAs
Feb. 26 Independent Spirit Awards
Feb. 26 NAACP Image Awards
Feb. 27 Academy Awards

Monday, November 29, 2010

Goodbye, Billy--Monday Journal

It was like seeing a friend move away.  You think maybe you will see him again one day, but you know in your heart that you never will.

Yesterday (Sunday), "Billy Elliot", the smash Tony-winning Broadway musical, had its last performance at Chicago's Oriental Theater.  It was an early departure.  It was bittersweet.  It seemed like an invincible show, that might extend its run past the original January end date. 

When I heard in October that the show was ending sooner due to disappointing ticket sales, I knew I needed to experience this breathtaking show once more.  So, this past Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, we attended the matinee among a large and appreciative crowd.

"Billy" still soared.  I liked it even more in my second viewing than the first time, and I raved about it then

According to the Chicago Tribune Theater Critic Chris Jones' article "Hello 'Wicked,' Farewell and Thanks to 'Billy Elliot the Musical' ", the show suffered from a number of external issues and internal challenges.  The weak economy guaranteed that it would not find its audience among a blue-collar crowd that might have embraced it.  Many community groups that often do large bookings and blocs for schools,  found the material (especially the language) too adult for children; and yet the abundance of children in the cast gave those wishing for more serious fare the impression that it was a kid's show.  And the show was expensive, precisely because of the number of children, and their handlers.

And still, according to Jones, "...this Chicago “Billy Elliot” was, on opening night, far superior to the one on Broadway. It introduced discriminating Chicagoans to a group of the most amazing young dancers the city has ever seen. And it was produced and maintained here, with hand and loving care, by a group of international artists for whom quality trumped profitability at every turn. No expense was spared to bring us the best that these artists could manage."

Being in the theater on Friday, I felt like I had entered a world that was very real to me, one that I would gladly visit regularly: Billy's house, with his father, brother and grandmother hamming it up at the kitchen table, and his little bedroom upstairs; the Miner's Association Hall; the boxing gym that doubled nicely as the dancing school; the snowy street on Christmas Eve...

This show affected me like few others have.  I will always remember the intimacy of the duet between Billy and his older self; I felt like I was up on that stage with a mentor who loved me.  I will remember Grandmother's ribald recollection of her late husband as they danced; Billy's mother come back from beyond to tell Billy how proud of him she is; the rousing and masculine choreography of the miners and the police; the joyous humor of the dancing school; the somber plight of the miners on strike, and how well the play incorporates that history while managing to be entertaining, and honestly emotional.

Goodbye, Billy...good luck on your next stop in Toronto!

Honorable Mention to Ben, Who Identified The Quote!

Ben, one of my Fellow Bloggers and frequent visitors, and creator of Runs Like a Gay, successfully identified the quote I used in my recent piece about "Valley of the Dolls". As promised, here is Ben's Honorable Mention!

In my post last week (A Great Time in the "Valley"), in order to explain why a review of "Dolls" was futile in the face of its camp appeal, I cited a quote from another film from  20th Century Fox, made in 1943: "For those who believe, no explanation is necessary; for those who do not believe, no explanation is possible".

That's the post-credit title card that precedes the start of "The Song of Bernadette", a multi-Oscar winner, including Best Actress for Jennifer Jones in her screen debut.  Good job, Ben!

I now officially retire "Dolls" from this blog....until it resurfaces in the news again to delight (and corrupt) another group of excited fans.  To the many readers who will see this movie for the first time after reading this Journal, I don't know whether to say "I'm Sorry" or "You're Welcome"!  I am fairly confident, though, that most of you will have a guilty good time, and for that, I am happy.

And I am also quite certain that no other publication but this Journal has mentioned both "Valley of the Dolls" and "The Song of Bernadette" in the same article!

Sunday, November 28, 2010

David Seidler's Screenplay for "The King's Speech" Written from Experience

This is a wonderful story about life becoming art...about how one can use painful life experience to reinvent one's self....

"The King's Speech" is winning Audience Awards at festivals like Toronto and Aspen, and for screenwriter David Seidler, it is a happy ending to the heartbreak and struggle that inspired this film.

Seidler, now 73, was born in England but was raised in Long Island after his family fled the German bombings during World War II.  He recalls being inspired by the wartime radio addresses of King George VI (played in the film by Colin Firth), with whom Seidler shared the problem of stuttering.  After years of therapy, Seidler "found his voice", turning his self-pity into rage at his condition, and eventually brought the stuttering under control by age 16.

Seidler began his writing career doing TV scripts, as well as propaganda-writing for the Prime Minister of Fiji, before his old college friend Francis Coppola asked him to create a screenplay for what would eventually become "Tucker: A Man and his Dream". The film was finally produced, but released to indifference.  So he continued cranking out a variety of scripts, ranging from the biographies of Aristotle Onassis and The Partridge Family to animated films (The Quest for Camelot).

It was during the 1980's that Seidler began his dream project about King George and his Australian speech therapist Lionel Logue (played by Geoffrey Rush).   While developing the project, he located Logue's last surviving son Valentine, who agreed to lend his father's notebooks on the condition that Seidler obtain permission form the Queen Mother (played by Helena Bonham-Carter) to tell the story.  She refused immediate permission explaining that the story was still too painful.  She granted permission to complete the work upon her death-- at age 101, 28 years later!

Seidler, under guidance from Director Tom Hooper, created about 50 drafts of the screenplay, in an effort to eliminate any sense of theatricality or inauthenticity. 

During his research of the notebooks, Seidler learned that the "cure" was effected through Logue's amateur Freudian-style analysis, which he practiced successfully on traumatized Australian soldiers.  In a coincidental development, which strengthened Seidler's connection to Logue and the King's story, he found out that his own uncle, also a stutterer, took the cure from Logue as well. 

At the Toronto festival this past September, as an audience of two thousand rose to their feet to applaud the film at a gala performance, Seidler "was overwhelmed.....there I was blubbering, the mucus and the tears coming down! This has been a very cathartic experience!"

David Seidler is, to his amazement, a hot property.  After channeling the frustration and difficulty he experienced in his early life into the creation of screen characters, based on actual historic figures, with which he shared an intimate understanding, it now looks as though Seidler has, shall we say, written his own ticket.  At 73 years old, he has a newly-invented career ahead of him.

The movie has since received 8 nominations for the British Independent Film Awards.

In an upcoming post, I'll look at the actual speech the King delivered that moved the world, along with a look at an early Colin Firth performance in a delicious 1988 thriller.

Check out the trailer for "The King's Speech" below. 

Colin Firth and King George VI--Coming Soon

Of all of the new films coming to theaters in the next month to qualify for Academy Awards, one which I anticipate with great excitement is "The King's Speech".

Period costume dramas about actual historical figures, who overcome personal obstacles and achieve greatness, are no longer favored, and are rarely produced for the big screen any more.  When a movie like "The King's Speech" emerges with excellent notices, achieves popularity with audiences at festivals such as Toronto, and boasts top-notch writing delivered by actors of proven excellence (also including Geoffrey Rush and Helena Bonham Carter), it feels like a winner. 

Maybe it's the Colin Firth factor. As his career matures, the films he makes carry an aura of importance.  I thought "A Single Man" was the best film I saw last year, and Firth's performance was brilliant, the best work he had ever done.  Now, his attachment to a film makes me pay attention.  Firth's involvement in a film has become something like the Meryl Streep stamp of quality.

To prepare for my eventual review, I will offer a short series of posts here about King George VI: the stammer that caused him embarrassment, and difficulty addressing the public; the therapy which forms the central drama of the film; his heroic speech to England on the eve of war; and the special identification the screenwriter had with the King.

I hope the film lives up to its early praise; it would be great to have a "prestige" costume drama become a crowd-pleaser that has a fighting chance against pre-packaged blockbusters at the Oscar derby.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Giving Thanks: For Animal Caregivers

I am grateful for anyone who cares for animals, whether they be the pets in their homes,  homeless shelter animals, helpless farm animals subject to abuse, or even the wild creatures in their back yards.  You all know who you are.  And I think you are wonderful.

Mother Teresa once said, "We can't do great things...We can only do small things with great love."

I agree that each animal we care for is an accomplishment on a small scale.  However, I would say that each life we save, or make more comfortable, IS a great thing....

The world seems like an alien place to me sometimes.  Hearing about the political contention, pervasive corruption, injustice, cruelty and pain, seems that this world is not a place that I want to be a part of.  In darker moments, I wish I had the courage to find a way out of it.

But then, I spend time with some good people who love the dogs at the Buddy Foundation;  I have a new friend there, Lulu, a 5-month-old Beagle.  She will, no doubt, have a new home very soon.

Or I read a remarkable story about a woman in South Barrington Illinois who cares for abused and abandoned horses; She took in an emaciated 5-month old that was to be euthanized.  The foal had only one eye from being kicked by another horse.  With patient and gentle care, this foal is now the "princess of the sanctuary".

Or I visit the Cosley Zoo in Wheaton.  This is one of several working farms in the Chicago suburbs whose mission is to preserve wildlife and promote conservation and education about native creatures. 

Or I see an article about a sanctuary in Peoria that cares for cats, dogs, and any wild creature, like wounded robins or pigeons.  Oh, there are countless examples right here in Illinois, let alone around the country.

I realize then that there is great work being done, and yet to be done.  So, rather than despair about belonging to a world that is capable of hurting the innocent, I can, in a small, great way, be a part of the world that helps to alleviate suffering and makes life better. I can, along with so many caring, self-effacing and admirable people, find meaning in the care of these creatures.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

A Great Time in the "Valley"

As expected, Saturday's special showing of 1967's "Valley of the Dolls" at the Music Box Theater was a wallow in shameless fun.  Among the fellowship of hundreds of others who share this guilty pleasure, this screening was a safe place to be.

Imagine a young Patty Duke belting out an impossibly circular tune called "Impossible", and as she swings her body in a most groovy fashion, her double-strand of beads loops around with her, one strand surrounding each of her sweater-clad breasts.  That image, and the howls of derisively approving laughter and applause, sums up the whole experience, for me.

A review of "Valley of the Dolls" is beside the point.  To quote a line from another 20th Century-Fox film, "To those who believe, no explanation is necessary; To those who do not believe, no explanation is possible."  (A special Honorary Mention will go to anyone who can guess where this line originated.  Big hint: the film was made in 1943.)

It is filled with unintentionally hilarious dialog, jaw-dropping set pieces, and shrill overacting only a drag queen could love.  So what?  it's why fans love it.

The best part of the event was the special appearance by Neely O'Hara herself, Patty Duke, who gave an emotional account of her time on the set at the age of just 20, and her relationships with Judy Garland, Sharon Tate, Susan Hayward, and the talentless director Mark Robson, who bullied Duke to give the shrill, over-the-top portrayal that haunts Duke still.

She is getting more comfortable with the camp factor of the whole affair, and graciously told the audience at the Music Box that she enjoyed OUR enjoyment of her dubious work.

Most poignant were Duke's recollections of Judy Garland's insecurities on the set before she was unceremoniously fired; and Sharon Tate's fragility and inner beauty.  Duke herself hammed it up with actors in the opening stage show, and led the crowd in a sing-along of some of the film's most memorable tunes.  Later, our friend Steve shared a brief personal exchange with Duke, and got a great photo of the still-youthful and attractive actress.

It was an unforgettable day, a prime example of how an originally horrible movie has been reinvented over the years into a strange and wonderfully nostalgic bonding experience, something we all survived, and looked back on lovingly and with laughter, and anyone who shared it is an instant friend.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

"Ted Casablanca is NOT a fag....."

".....And I'm the dame who can prove it."

If you immediately laughed with recognition at this (in)famous line from the 1967 classic "Valley of the Dolls", congratulations! You are a true member of the fan club.

Today, this flamboyant and beloved cult soap opera will screen at the Music Box Theatre in Chicago, followed by a Q and A with Neely O'Hara herself, Patty Duke in person.

You can be sure I will be there, along with a packed house of mostly gay fans, ready to laugh and cheer and gleefully recite lines like this and many others, and cheer affectionately at the misguided direction, scenery-chewing, and unintentionally funny set pieces fans have grown to love over the decades.

The movie was a sensational hit in 1967-68, mostly because it promised a hothouse of sex, nudity and drugs. It delivered that, along with some incredible dialogue, and mind-boggling performances (not to mention a few unforgettable musical interludes). It played like an inept "All About Eve" or a bad gay party in drag: faux-glamorous, bitchy, and hyper-dramatic.

Gay fans, and many of the stars of the film, have come to embrace this so-bad-it's good movie, that, in a curious way, works on its own terms, if you're in the right mood for melodrama. Good sports all of them, stars like Duke, Lee Grant, and Barbara Parkins have all given their blessing to this "best and funniest bad movie ever".
(Sadly, the appearance of another star, Sharon Tate, a victim of the Manson murders, lends an eerie glow to every scene she is in. Ironically, she probably comes off better than anyone else in the cast.)

I will be back with a report and a review later, along with a look at Patty Duke, a respected actress, mother of a Hobbit, and loving caretaker of a schnauzer, two dachshunds, two shih-tzus and an Irish wolfhound.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

National Book Award Winners: A Long Shot and a Sentimental Favorite

Award Season continues with the announcement of The National Book Awards Tuesday of this week.

Awards like this help draw attention to literary works that would otherwise go unnoticed by the general reading public.  While an award is no guarantee of unimpeachable artistic quality, it helps define the cultural and artistic preferences of the moment, and I think literary awards like NBA and the Pulitzer (in April) at least attempt to recognize something lasting and universal. 

This year's winners in the Fiction and Non-Fiction categories are notable.

The Fiction Prize was awarded to Jaimy Gordon for her novel about the world of cheap horse racing, "Lord of Misrule."  Gordon was considered the darkest of dark-horses, so to speak.  She herself felt she was a long-shot from the start.  Gordon's publisher pushed her to finish her tale of lowlifes, losers, and one remarkable woman who loves horses, in time to be submitted for nomination for the Award.  Gordon thought he was crazy.  Finish she did, and was surprised to be among the five finalists...and the eventual winner.  The book is starting to gain a solid critical reputation. 

(Other Fiction finalists were: Peter Carey, "Parrot and Olivier in America"; Nicole Krauss, "Great House"; Lionel Shriver, "So Much for That"; and Karen Tei Yamashita, "I Hotel".)

The Non-Fiction Award went to artist, performer and punk icon Patti Smith for "Just Kids", the story of her friendship with gay photographer Robert Mapplethorpe.  The book has been widely praised, and is definitely on my short list of must-reads.

Smith gave a heartfelt, tearful thank-you to nearly 1300 attendees, as reported in the story on NPR:
"I have loved books all my life," she said, reminiscing about her time as a clerk at New York's Scribner bookstore. "I dreamed of having a book of my own, of writing one that I could put on a shelf."
Smith also...gave a teary defense of the book as a physical object. "There is nothing more beautiful than the book," she said. "Please don't abandon the book." The applause in the room after her speech was close to thunderous...and Smith seemed to win two awards at once: an NBA medal, and the room's heart.
(Other Non-Fiction finalists were: Barbara Demick, "Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea"; John W. Dower, "Cultures of War: Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima, 9-11, Iraq"; Justin Spring, "Secret Historian: The Life and Times of Samuel Steward"; and Megan K. Stack, "Every Man in This Village Is a Liar: An Education in War".)

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Gays Should Fight for their "Seat on the Bus"--Wednesday Journal

This week, the gay advocacy group Lambda Legal sent me a message, asking me to support Illinois' Civil Unions ballot measure.  At first, it appeared like a victory for committed gay couples seeking legal recognition and protection in Illinois.

But then I became impatient. Once again I had to ask:  Why throw so much energy into what amounts to a consolation prize when there is momentum for the real thing? Why not fight for the institution of marriage itself?

Why is it that gay people still have to compromise their most fundamental rights as human beings?  And how can America claim to be the world's moral watchdog on gay rights when we cannot reach a reasonable national consensus about our own gay citizens, one devoid of fear and misinformation?

Yes, civil unions allow for some of the same legal protections as marriage. (The bill even allows for civil unions for heterosexual couples...Really?  That would be like choosing to sleep on the cold ground when a warm bed is available).  

But Civil Unions do not provide all of the rights that are entitled to married couplesClick here for a good summary of the differences between civil unions vs. marriage, including:
•Marriage: Over 1,049 federal and state level benefits (see list)
•Civil Unions: Over 300 state level benefits. *No federal protection (see benefit example)
•Marriage: Couples can file both federal and state tax returns jointly.
•Civil Unions: Couples can only file jointly in the state of civil registration.
•Marriage: Partners can make emergency medical decisions.
•Civil Unions: Partners can only make medical decisions in the registered state. Partners may not be able to make decisions out of state.
Rosa Parks, in 1955, refused to give up her seat to a white passenger and move to the back of the bus.  Had Civil Union proponents been around then, would they have told her, "Go to the back Rosa.. you are still on the bus, and you will still get the benefit of the ride."  --?

In Uganda, it is likely that the "kill the gays bill" will be voted into law.  Once it becomes law, it will provide for life imprisonment or execution, simply for being a homosexual.  Click here for a recent article about the origins of the bill and its current status. It was after March 2009 workshop organized by three American Evangelical Christians that the "kill the gays" movement began.

In the un-civil political climate we are in, it is not out of the question for a bill to be introduced here some day.....  Will we fight then?

Unless we wake up and do the reasonable and moral thing, and allow gays in America their basic rights to marry their partners (or to openly serve their country), we would seem to have no footing in our stance against oppression elsewhere.

So I reluctantly withhold my support of the Illinois Civil Unions Bill.  I can't compromise my very being any more. We can do better. 

Monday, November 15, 2010

Lapping vs. Sucking.... A Monday Journal #1

(Now that I've drawn you in, you might find this short piece to be an amusing relief...)

A study was just published in the online journal of Science that reveals the secret of how cats drink.  After 3 years of observation, inspired by the cat of one of the team of four scientists, it was found that cats are able to suck the liquid through a complex mechanism of gravity and inertia.

A dog actually bends the tongue like a backward J, not forward, as it enters the water bowl, and they use that backward scoop like a ladle to bring liquids into their mouths.  This is repeated in a lapping motion:

After close observation, the cat's tongue also bends like a backward J, but only the soft surface of the tongue touches the surface of the liquid. The rapid movement draws a stream of water up to the cat's mouth, and the cat is able to close off its cheeks and suck in the stream of liquid before it falls back into the bowl:

If my adventure in reinvention allowed me to change my entire way of living, I would become an animal scientist, to observe and solve mysteries of everyday animal behavior.  (On the side, I would write provocative headlines for blogs and other articles.)

Another Communication Revolution? Monday Journal #2

Facebook is launching a new messaging system that will integrate
e-mail, instant messaging and live chat, and will, according to founder Mark Zuckerberg, replace e-mail.

Apparently, e-mail is too slow.  I fear that blogging is the new pony express.

The new system is supposed to integrate several types of on-line communication, so that users have a choice as to how they will receive and respond to text- and web-based messages.

It is daunting.  I had mastered the telephone call, and its sidekick the witty voice mail message.  Fax was meant to save postal time in business transactions.  Then e-mail came along to replace it all, and became an unobtrusive but comprehensive way to stay in touch with scores of people; you could even send pictures! 

Now, in order to be sure that I have covered all my bases in attempting to connect with people, I must send emails, facebook messages, texts, live chats, tweets, web-log comments, and linked-in messages.  Letters in US mail are no longer.  Even phone calls are fewer and further between.

One quote, found today in several on-line publications like Sify, unintentionally betrayed users' impatience with the cumbersome nature of so many types of communication choices now available:

"....Zuckerberg said: 'It's true people are going to be able to have Facebook.com email addresses but this is not email. Email is one way people are going to use this system, but we don't even think it's going to be primary way that people use this system. He said that he did not think there would be an overnight e-mail exodus but that young people have 'suddenly shifted towards real-time communications' and he had to respond...."

Real-time communications was once known as the telephone.  Is that where we're headed?  Has the pendulum has swung the other way?

Perhaps if something is reinvented often enough, it cycles back to its original form? 

"Hereafter" Honestly Moved Me: A Film Review

Clint Eastwood's "Hereafter" treads a delicate line.  It's slow-paced and reflective, it juggles three stories that converge very late in the film, and it's theme is about how we perceive death.  Yet the film is done with such confidence in the material, and treated with just the right touches of sensitivity and objectivity, that it is mesmerizing, visually splendid, and honestly moving.  I really liked it.

Matt Damon's character (George) is smart and lonely. He has psychic ability, so that by grasping the hands of  willing subjects, he can connect with their deceased friends and relatives, and relay messages from the beyond. His brother (Jay Mohr--when did he turn into Jim Belushi?) wants to exploit  George's "gift" for profit, while George wants to leave behind this "burden" which is the reason for his solitude. 

Marie (Cecile de France),  a French journalist and reporter, suffers a near-death during a tsunami, and becomes obsessed with her experience. After receiving a concussion from being swept away by the massive wave, she "sees" visions of lights and human figures, similar to George's "readings".   

Meanwhile, Marcus, a London lad (Frankie and George McLaren) with a drug-addicted mother, loses his twin brother Jason in a shocking street accident, and cannot accept the tragedy.  He embarks on an odyssey to find someone who can communicate with Jason and falls prey to charlatans.

In building these stories about the desperation and loneliness of these survivors, Eastwood and his screenwriter, Peter Morgan, must incorporate supernatural elements into a basically realistic and poetic rumination on death and survival, and keep it believable.  The simplicity of the filmmaking, and the intimacy between characters, allow them to pull this off and draw us in.

Regarding Eastwood's directorial efforts, I am usually hit or miss.  I hated "Unforgiven" and felt "Million Dollar Baby" was manipulative; yet I enjoyed "Bridges of Madison County", feeling it was authentic in atmosphere and emotion.  I guess I appreciate the sentimental Eastwood more than the darker one.  "Hereafter" is both dark and romantic, and is a brilliant directorial effort.  I was glad to see Eastwood stretch his boundaries, to tell a global story with such a sense of beauty, without bloating it.

I will remember the film for a number of compelling scenes from all three of the stories (Damon's segments are most amazing), and for the feelings of melancholy and hope the film left me with at the end.

The tsunami early in the film is an example of movie special effects at their finest.  Not only is the scene shot and edited beautifully, but the effects are clearly meant to serve the story and support a greater theme. The scene works both as spectacle and as material for contemplation.  It is a thrilling segment.

Damon is natural and believable as a man of surprising contradictions (he escapes to a blue-collar existence but indulges in his passion for Dickens) who has a "sixth sense", if you will, but is frequently shown attending to his other senses, like hearing, and taste. 

George listens to audio books, and joins an Italian cooking class.  There, he partners with an infatuated young woman  named Melanie (a wonderful Bryce Dallas Howard), who falls for him. She develops second thoughts after she urges him to do a "reading", in which he learns a painful secret about her past. 

The depiction of their budding romance includes a remarkable sequence during their class, as they take turns blindfolding each other for an exercise in guessing the foods that they feed one another, to discern the flavors and colors.  The instructor plays a beautiful opera in the background, to enhance the sensual experience, as George and Melanie quietly get to know each other.  Their subsequent break puts in motion the action that will eventually draw George into the lives of Marie and Marcus.

Little Marcus is placed in a foster home until his mother responds to treatment, for her addiction and her grief.  He finds a picture of Damon on the internet as he searches for ways to cope with his brother's absence, seeking advice from "spiritualists" and other experts. 

Marie, who enjoyed a position of fulfillment and fame as a reporter, turns her attention to a research book about the moment of death shared by those who survived the experience.  She loses her job, her fame, and her lover, but completes the work that is her passion, and in a nice turn of events, is approached by a publisher. Camille de France is particularly good here, forceful and natural as Marion Cotillard, and as down-to-earth as Juliette Binoche.

In one of the script's contrivances, George, Marcus and Marie find themselves at the same London Book Fair.  They are there for different reasons, and the plot strains to create connections between them.  But as the characters come to terms with their experiences with death, the coincidences slide into place, and we accept them.  For some viewers, the conclusion may feel too tidy, too forgiving of the real pain and horror of death and survival.  For me, the fairly upbeat resolution of each story preserved some mystery and wonder, and gave pause to consider life in a new way, removed from the constant fear of what death will be.

I read a critic's rave on a poster from another film currently in release, that said it made one glad to be alive.  I have not seen that film but I believe it will become a huge hit, because millions of viewers want a barrage of movement and images (to say nothing of the sight of  a man cutting off his own arm).  "Hereafter" will not appeal to that kinetic crowd, and thus will suffer the fate of most art film distributed in the States.  But I urge viewers to give it a chance. I can't assume it will make one glad to be alive, but it may at least provide a feeling of hope of living in less fear of death's unknown.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Toulouse-Lautrec Painted...A Bassett Hound! (Thursday Art Journal)


I made a brief trip to the Art Institute of Chicago today, and relaxed among Renoir's sisters and water lilies, and Henri Toulouse-Lautrec's Moulin Rouge settings.

Later, while searching the web for more information on these works, I was surprised to learn that Toulouse-Lautrec is known for a painting of a Bassett Hound, "Tete de chien courant" (1880 (which translates, sort of incorrectly, as "The head of a foxhound"):

I love the way he captured the little knob on top of its head, which makes me want to gently cup my hand over that vulnerable spot; and the texture of the folds on its face and under its eyes, conveying the somber and mischievous expression.  The ears just look so soft, making a gentle frame around this noble face....

"At The Moulin Rouge", on permanent display at the Art Institute, has always fascinated me. I immediately notice the weirdly-lighted woman in the right foreground, and the different planes of light and action in the background.  I always find something new; and it tells a story in my head.

There's an informative and interesting page on the AIC Website, which described this work.  I have excerpted it below.  (I was not aware that Toulouse-Lautrec lived to be only 37 years old.)

The study of art and literature, music and philosophy, dance and architecture, will provide the education of a lifetime, and deepens my hunger and appreciation for greatness in the art of film. 

... Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec ...frequented the Moulin Rouge, a famous Parisian nightclub named for the red windmill on its roof; here, he depicted many of his friends and favorite entertainers.

In the background, La Goulue, the Moulin Rouge’s reigning dance star, adjusts her red hair while the dwarfish Toulouse-Lautrec and his tall cousin, Gabriel Tapié de Céléyran, walk toward the left. The glum assembly of characters seated around the table includes writer Edouard Dujardin, entertainer La Macarona, photographer Paul Sescau, winemaker Maurice Guibert, and another redhead, perhaps entertainer Jane Avril. The woman with the green face illuminated with artificial light is May Milton, another popular dancer of the day.

...The eerie green light of the interior evokes an unhealthy atmosphere. The artist then added to the visual drama by utilizing different lines, such as the curving silhouette of La Goulue fixing her hair, the collar of Avril’s coat, and the outline of Milton’s sleeve. These lines contrast with the strong diagonals of the banister and the floorboards, which rush forward toward the viewer, enhancing the lively mood of the decidedly worldly setting.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Mark Twain Honors Tina Fey--A Wednesday Journal

It is my opinion that Tina Fey has done more to shape the political landscape of the country than any elected official, politician, or pundit.  Her embodiment of then-Vice-Presidential Candidate Sarah Palin scared voters out of their complacency.  Convinced by Fey's dead-on impersonation that there was imminent threat of handing the country over to a genuine buffoon, voters mobilized, and an historic election ensued.  At least for that election cycle, cooler heads prevailed.

It is for that, as much as her multiple-Award-winning work on NBC's "30 Rock", that Tina Fey has recently received the Kennedy Center's Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.

The Ceremony for this 13th Annual Award, which was given to Fey on November 9, will be broadcast on PBS on Sunday, November 14.  Let Award Season Begin!

The Kennedy center recognizes outstanding work in many of the arts, including opera, jazz, theater, ballet, and  modern dance, as well as many types of musical performance.  In 1998 the Center established the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor,  to honor humorists who have had an impact on American society. Twain was known for his observance of culture and for his social commentary.  His quote is an inspiration for the Prize:  "Against the assault of laughter nothing can stand."

In accepting her award, Fey acknowledged her resemblance to Palin, as well as Palin's odd voice, that provided Fey with unforgettable material for hilarious and devastating satire.

Fey is the youngest recipient of this award.  

The proceeds for the ceremonial event support Kennedy Center Programs. 

Other mark Twain honorees inlcude:  Richard Pryor (1998), Jonathan Winters (1999), Carl Reiner (2000), Whoopi Goldberg (2001), Bob Newhart (2002), Lily Tomlin (2003), Lorne Michaels (2004), Steve Martin (2005), Neil Simon (2006), Billy Crystal (2007), George Carlin (2008), and Bill Cosby (2009)

Monday, November 8, 2010

"Hannah..." Revisited--Woody Allen and Reinvention: A Monday Journal

I wanted to turn my life into a grand opera...  But I think I will have to be content with a tone poem.

When I sought to "reinvent" myself, I had a vague notion that I wanted to achieve some great things.  Perhaps I would develop my life experience into playwriting, or create some novels.  I would add to my collection of short stories.  Maybe I would teach, and preserve the legacy of classic film and literature.  Or I would use my words to champion for helpless animals.

I channeled my myriad activities--reading, learning what I could from radio, Internet, and immersion in the culture of Chicago, travel, and widening my circle of interesting people--into a blog, and into other writing.  I became involved in learning a new language, and taking care of homeless dogs and supporting animal advocacy in many forms; in between my duties as a partner, a son, an employee, and a colleague.

It was easy at first, the broad-based approach, because it allowed me to rotate among a variety of activities.  While it took me longer to sharpen my focus, I was at least not bored.

Soon, time and the world seemed to cast an early shadow on my dreams. Time was running out before I could create my legacy.  I had far too many obligations to take the necessary time to lose myself, to endure the painful birth of my creativity.

Like yesterday:  we still had a glimmer of Daylight Saving Time, but overnight it seemed that days were growing shorter, and darkness came more suddenly.

It felt like I was leaving the party before it got started.  It felt a little like discouragement.  It felt impatient; like there was nothing new here, and I had to rush to an unknown horizon to find who-knows-what.

I questioned everything...and did not like what I saw of the larger world, the politics and corruption and pain....I even wondered if I had seen too many movies to keep my mind open...and it started to bleed into my work, so that the pure enjoyment was diminished.  Was it merely the end of naivete?  Can one dream and not be naive?

And soon, for a couple of hours, art was imitating life:

I re-visited Woody Allen's "Hannah and Her Sisters", which has been one of my favorite films, not just a favorite Woody Allen film. It's a sentimental story, beautifully woven and written, character-driven, and very funny.

I call it an epic of the intellect.  Allen's characters are like great, sweeping landscapes of ideas, each filled with treachery and beauty and humor.  "Hannah and Her Sisters" is a story of marital love and infidelity, the meaning of art, the fulfillment of performance, the search for spirituality.  Each character is looking for something; each life is ripe for change, usually involving the potential for loss and sacrifice.

Michael Caine is married to a warm and giving Mia Farrow, but wants to create a life with one of her sisters, Barbara Hershey.  Hershey's character has been molded by the attentions of  an older artist (Max Von Sydow), but feels suffocated, and needs to spread her wings and risk alienating her sister.  Farrow senses the alienation all around her, and begs for understanding that she is a woman of enormous needs.

Diane Wiest, the neurotic other sister, can't find her identity, and haplessly turns to drugs, auditions for impossible stage roles (she can't sing), competes with her poised and intelligent best friend (Carrie Fisher) for the attentions of an intriguing and romantic architect (Sam Waterston), and tries to write a play.

All of these actors reach career highs in this film, none more than Wiest.  Last week I watched her in "Bullets Over Broadway" and I was delighted by her portrayal of Helen St. Clair, the Broadway diva with the throaty voice and booming delivery ("Don't SPEAK!").  This was Wiest's masterpiece, made even more remarkable by her contrasting, mousy complexity in "Hannah".  (Wiest remains the only actor to win two Oscars in films by the same director.)

Most complex of all is Woody Allen's character, divorced from Mia Farrow after learning that he is "sterile" and can't father children with her, a hypochondriac who is certain he is dying of a brain tumor, a Jew who seeks life's meaning in other forms of spirituality.  His "conversion" to Catholicism makes for some of the film's biggest laughs.  Slipping into despair, he decides that life has no meaning whatsoever.  He buys a rifle.  He ineptly bungles his own suicide.

Wandering the streets in a panic, he finally ducks into a movie theater.  There, with the antics of the Marx Brothers unfolding before him, Allen decides that even if the worst is true, and life has no meaning, that it is still an experience to be a part of, and that it isn't all a drag.  In the presence of zany humor, he begins to enjoy himself.

Somewhere, a person in the throes of melancholy may encounter "Hannah and Her Sisters", maybe for the first time, or maybe for the tenth.  That viewer may, like Allen did with the Marx Brothers, find comfort in its humor and in its encouragement to find enjoyment in whatever pleasures life may offer (be they movies, or books, or dogs, or writing?)  Maybe, like Allen he will be surprised to find, some time later, that his life is not "sterile" after all....