Wednesday, March 30, 2011

"Bassador" New Retirement Home Mascot--Short Take #2

At the retirement community where Mark's mother lives, they brought in a new dog rescued from a local shelter. 

It is called a Bassador, a mix of Basset Hound and Labrador!

Apparently these hybrids are not new or too uncommon.  And yet, as much as I love Basset Hounds, I had not heard of this breed before Mark told me about "Willie", a 2-year-old Basset/Black Lab mix..

Willie is a permanent resident of the retirement community.  One of the staff members has primary responsibility for Willie's care.  He has his own place, and is there during his waking hours to greet visitors and visit with the residents.

As soon as I have a chance to meet him, I will post a photo. Stay tuned!

Until then, I will look forward to making his acquaintance, and amusing myself with thoughts of how cute he must be, with his long low body, stumpy legs, and Labrador's head.

Here are a couple photos of the breed I found on the internet....(And read more about the breed here.)

Tonight, I chose to remind myself that animals help me maintain perpective, and focus my energies on the important activity of helping the helpless.  Sometimes, the love comes back.  See below for a sweet video about a man and his friend, a goose...

"Maria...I Just Met A Goose Named Maria!"--Short Take #1

In a respite from their undercover exposés, informing us of the horrors faced by farm animals, and encouraging us to save these animals by not eating them, the Mercy For Animals organization brought to my attention a story aired on CBS news in February.

Last May, Dominic Ehler, a retired salesman from Los Angeles, was followed on his walk by a goose.  Maria, as Ehler named the goose, waited every day for Ehler's visit.  Ehler obliged, and walked with the smitten bird whenever he visited.  Maria was protective, or possessive, hissing at dogs and other creatures who sought to get to close to her newly-adopted "beau".

Maria even tried to go home with Ehler, flying alongside of him as he started off on his scooter.

If the sad and horrific stories captured by MFA investigators don't shock us away from eating meat, then maybe these stories about the mysterious bonds that exist between animal and human will convince us.

Some of you may have seen this warm and humorous video on Katie Couric's news last month--
(Click here for the story on the MFA web site:)

UPDATE: During the relocation of the bird from Echo Park for the renovation project, "Maria" was found to be a gander.  No matter....s/he is beautiful by whatever name....

Dominic still visits Maria/Mario at the Los Angeles Zoo, while the bird remains there until the 2-year project is completed.  (Read the follow-up story here in the Los Angeles Times.)

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

How I'll Best Remember Liz

"Lassie Come Home", 1943, MGM

When iconic film personalities pass from us, we all do our own retrospectives in our heads.  We look back at their roles, their best performances, their most notorious missteps, and our personal favorites. 

Lately, I have looked back at the early film roles of Helena Bonham-Carter and Alan Arkin, who are very much still with us, to find new appreciation for their current work.

Now, I have a poignant reason to go back to the early work of a departed screen star, Elizabeth Taylor, to share my appreciation of one of my own favorite roles, and consider the origin of her legendary popularity.

It's surprising to me to consider that Liz Taylor was a contemporary of my parents' generation. Taylor, who died at age 79, was just a couple years older than my mother, who grew up seeing Taylor's movies on the big screen.

When I heard of Taylor's death, the movie that immediately came to my mind was one that Taylor filmed in the middle of her career.  It contains what I think is her best performance, in arguably her finest role, as Martha, in the 1966 "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf".  It won her her second Oscar, and this time she triumphed on the strength of her acting, not out of sympathy for being near-death, as is rumored to be the cause of her victory in 1960's "Butterfield-8".

But since "Virginia Woolf", Taylor never again had a major screen hit.  Not only that, "Virginia Woolf" was the pinnacle of what would become Taylor's persona on-screen (and often off):  Look at her big-screen filmography since "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" in 1958, and you'll see that she built her theatrical film career, from that point on, on characters that were impatient, demanding, angry and somewhat unsympathetic.

Before all those, she was innocent, not yet hardened by life. This was the persona that captured moviegoers' imaginations. Was there ever a lovelier bride-to-be than Spencer Tracy's daughter in "Father of the Bride"? or a more desirable love-interest, in her eye-searing closeups with Montgomery Clift, in "A Place in the Sun" ?

And still, the images that will be forever fixed in my mind are those younger portraits in which her freshness and beautiful energy first graced American movie screens.  I especially loved how natural she was in her youthful roles with animals.  "National Velvet" was a mega hit and gave her her first real marquee role.

But in my personal retrospective, I will always cherish her portrayal of Priscilla in "Lassie Come Home".  I know, I am biased in favor of my love for dogs.  

Her first film for MGM, "Lassie Come Home" was a sentimental Technicolor smash, and she was radiant.   In the film, Lassie's poor owners must sell the dog in order not to starve.  Unhappy to be away from her family(Roddy McDowall, Elsa Lanchester and Donald Crisp) Lassie escapes from her new home to travel from Scotland back to Yorkshire and her beloved caretakers.  Her new friends along the way help her through hair-raising adventures, ending in a heartwarming reunion.

Taylor's tenderness with the dog of the title not only endeared her to moviegoers everywhere, but helped make the Collie one of the most popular American breeds through the 1960's (when  the TV series "Lassie" was a staple on Sunday nights). 

It was Taylor's love for animals, and her lack of fear of dogs that was evident when she appeared with them on-screen, that secured her this role.

The first canine "actor" to play Lassie was actually a male dog named Pal.  Amusingly, Taylor received her first screen kiss in this film:

"Some of my best leading men have been dogs and horses."

~Elizabeth Taylor

Thank you for the great roles and memories, Ms. Taylor, and especially your love for your canine co-stars... 

Must publish now, my readers will not tolerate my being 15 minutes late.....

Monday, March 28, 2011

"God of Carnage"--A Play Review

Saturday's production of Yasmina Reza's 2009 Tony-winning play, "God of Carnage", at the Goodman Theater was commendable for efficient direction (Rick Snyder), a beautiful minimalist living-room set, and good performances by energetic actors who were appropriately over-the-top.  Moreover, an evening at the Goodman is comforting, enveloping one in art and enlightenment in the company of open-minded guests within an intimate and friendly surrounding.

And there was the excitement of the promise of a world-class, award-winning comedy by a renowned international playwright. 

Unfortunately, I had major reservations after this play was over, and felt at odds with what appears to have become an inviolable darling of Broadway.  I was roundly disappointed, even annoyed, by Reza's work.  At first I thought I was missing something, but ultimately decided to trust my instincts.

Although Reza writes good, crisp, often amusing dialogue, and understands pacing and the construction of a deliverable monologue, her ideas come off as glib and unoriginal.  That didn't seem to bother the scores of theatergoers around me who howled with laughter.  I wondered if they were honestly reacting to what was unfolding before them, or to the reputation that preceded this production.

True, context is everything.  But is the sight of a woman spewing vomit on rare art books anyone's idea of a witty evening at the theater?  Are stories about cruelty to helpless animals, (in this case a monologue about one character's abandoning a pet hamster to die in the street), funny in any context?  Does a character's obsession with his cell phone automatically make the work Timely and Relevant? 

It is a simple premise.  Two eleven-year-old boys have a fight at school and one of them has some teeth broken.  As the play begins, the parents of each of the boys have gathered in the apartment of one of the couples to determine how (and if) they can intervene for a resolution to the conflict. 

Their blistering and rambunctious sparring, self-revelations, and constantly shifting loyalties comprise the play's 70--yes, 70--minutes,, not enough to treat any of the dozen or so issues with any depth.  But 70 minutes was enough to shake me up, and send me out without having too many honest laughs.

I think Reza intended to shake up her audience, but I wasn't with her on this one.  I resented "God of Carnage."

The injured boys parents are Veronica (Mary Beth Fisher), a high-functioning Type-A, who is writing a book on the crisis on Darfur, believes in the ability of people to co-exist, and is proud of her appreciation for art and home-baking; and Michael (Keith Kupferer), a housewares salesman, seemingly liberal in deference to his wife, and whose mother may be suffering harmful side effects from a prescription drug.

The parents of the violent son are Annette (Beth Lacke), who is a placator with the weak stomach but strong opinions about pain and marriage; and Alan (David Pasquesi), an attorney who is obsessed with his work, believes that the human condition is essentially primitive and cruel, and may be defending the drug that has made Michael's mother ill.

In short order, the carefully constructed facades and veneers of civilized behavior are stripped away, the schoolyard fight is all but forgotten and unresolved, and the couples descend into venomous farce and slapstick, wounding each other in so many different permutations one's head spins.  It is played loudly and rapidly for laughs, but why? This could be the bleakest "comedy" ever produced.

Problem is, as drama (without the laughs) I got the point in the first 10 minutes...BEFORE Amanda vomits to demonstrate Reza's notion that underneath our exteriors we are all bile and filth.  I get it.  But I wanted to be dazzled with words, not a teen-flick gross-out. 

I think it is the playwright's duty to translate ideas into words that can be spoken naturally by actors, whose task it becomes to use their skills in voice and movement to bring characters to life, under the direction of one whose mission is to create a technically sound and artistic environment for this expression.  Theater is not, I think, primarily a visual medium, and I bristle at the recent introduction of motion-picture visual effects in what is essentially a medium of words and character.

Reza has material here for a lot of plays, and she almost successfully weaves humanity's flaws with global issues and philosophy.  During the churning segment in which the characters clean up the vomit and try to save some rare books with a hair dryer and perfume, we get an inkling of an idea about how we have too many "things'.  But it is dropped in favor of gender roles, the savageness of the human animal, the impossibility of coexistence, the minefield of marriage, the breakdown of loyalty, the heartbreak of raising children, and that ill-fated hamster.

We get build-ups to interesting ideas, only to be constantly interrupted by the cell phone.  Yeah, I get that too, the irony of technology cutting off communication. But I really wanted these characters to come to some original points, without the tired interruptions. 

Just when I was resolved to accept this as a type of theater of the absurd, the playwright seeks to wring emotion from the poor hamster and one of the children's reactions to its demise.  As a symbol reminiscent of George and Martha's "murdered" son, it was simply unnecessary and unpleasant.

"God of Carnage" had potential to mix up some wicked ideas in a comic brew that left audiences thoughtful and wanting to come back for more.

As it is, all one is left with are some empty laughs and nasty spectacle, and the upcoming film version, directed by Roman Polanski and starring Jodie Foster and Kate Winslett, would not seem to hold anything new.

The play sure didn't.

~   ~   ~

Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Film Version of "Maurice": Second in the Forster Trilogy

Preface: A few weeks ago when our Border's bookstore had its store-closing sale, I picked up a 2-DVD version of "A Room With A View", owing to a renewed interest in the work of Helena Bonham-Carter.  This was the film that first introduced me to her.   After I watched it again, and reviewed it here recently, I was motivated to have a look at the Ismael Merchant-James Ivory-Ruth Prawer-Jhabvala trilogy of films based on E. M. Forster novels.  In 1987, a year after "A Room With A View" was received with critical and popular acclaim, the team filmed Forster's controversial "Maurice", and in 1992, they released hugely successful film version of "Howard's End".

*      *      *      *

There is speculation that the novel "A Room With A View" was Forster's veiled story of a homosexual man who defied a traditional arranged engagement with a woman, and found love in the arms of the man who stirred his passion.  When Forster completed his novel "Maurice", an honest account of homosexual attraction in 1920's England, he deemed it too dangerous to publish in his lifetime, owing to harsh public and legal attitudes toward homosexuality.  The book was finally published in 1971 after Forster's death.

Maurice (James Wilby) and Clive (Hugh Grant) form an intense attachment while they are students at Cambridge, circa 1917.  Maurice wants a genuine romantic coupling with Clive, who at first encourages Maurice's impulses and tries to break through his defenses.  But Clive soon recognizes the threat to his own person and his position in a society in which homosexuality is scorned and criminalized.  Clive marries a woman and lives an unhappy charade, while Maurice, heartbroken, soon becomes fascinated with Clive's groundskeeper, Eric Scudder.  In spite of their class differences, Maurice and Scudder share an intense and fulfilling physical relationship, with the suggestion that they will find their way together in a hostile world.

The film version is typically sumptuous, intelligent, and passionate.  Ruth Prawer-Jhabvala's screen adaptation of the novel is faithful to the ominous undercurrents of the story, while fleshing out the characters and their motivations.  There is not one uninteresting line of dialog in the whole piece.  Although I might have tightened the scenes involving Ben Kingsley as an unscrupulous hypnotist, he does deliver one of the film's best lines from the novel:  "England has always been disinclined to accept human nature." James Ivory's direction is well-observed and sympathetic.  As a gay man, Ivory was especially sensitive to the emotional subtelties of each character.   

However, the film version of "Maurice" was not as popular as the other two films in the trilogy.  Even in the 1980's, audiences were squeamish about forthright portrayals of gay romance.  Also, the film was released during the developing AIDS panic, so the timing was unfortunate for a gay-themed film that did not deal with the epidemic.  A story about society's oppression and one man's rebellion against the forces that sought to keep him in the closet was not deemed relevant.

It's a more demanding film than "Room With A View", too, and not as warm.  Even so, the adaptation of Forster's work was once again expertly handled.  As a portrayal of a society in which it is dangerous for gay people to live openly and honestly, the film is both a cautionary tale, completely relevant to our current divisive and regressive political hate-mongering; and a model of the triumph of honest love against innuendo and ignorance. 

Special mention should be made of the three top-billed performers here.  James Wilby exudes tentativeness and playfulness equally well.  While he sometimes overdoes the stiff-upper-lip, he nevertheless ages convincingly as his character gradually finds the courage to follow his desire.  Hugh Grant is surprisingly good in the early Cambridge scenes, and reminds us how charming and intelligent a screen presence he was before selling out to generic romantic comedies.  And Rupert Graves is darker here (both physically and emotionally) as the brutish, earthy groundskeeper.  Graves does a complete turnaround from his silly, playful Freddy in "Room..." and his acting seems richer, his screen persona dangerously appealing. 

(By the way, Helena Bonham-Carter makes a cameo appearance in this film during the cricket-match scene.  She is the only actor to make an appearance in all three films of the trilogy, and is a nicely appropriate on-screen thread that ties the films together.)

Forster's novels were perfect material for the talents of the Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala team: intelligent stories about love, self-discovery, self-deception, told with humor and intelligence in gorgeous surroundings.  "Maurice" is a surprising and mature transition between the satiric and gentle romance of "Room With A View" and the stunning, penetrating look at class barriers to love and friendship of their masterpiece "Howards End".   

*    *    *    *
Postscript: I miss this filmmaking trio (Ismael Merchant died in 2005).  Their films were unmatched in visual splendor (with impossibly small budgets), intelligence, and identifiable characters.  Director Tom Hooper had been criticized for making a career out of period-piece, costume-drama "award bait" (John Adams", "King's Speech", and the new film musical "Les Miserables").  Maybe if Hooper teamed up consistently with the right producer and screenwriter, he might help fill the void left by this brilliant team of artists.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

"Алан Аркин"--A Look at Alan Arkin's Film Debut

NPR recently interviewed the great screen actor Alan Arkin, whose memoir, "Improvised Life", has just been released.

Arkin has entertained movie audiences for over 45 years.  Many contemporary viewers only know Arkin from his more recent, "curmudgeonly" roles like his Oscar-winning Grandpa in "Little Miss Sunshine", and others such as "Gattaca", "Sunshine Cleaning", "Edward Scissorhands", "Get Smart", "City Island", and "Marley and Me" and many TV appearances.

But I think to fully appreciate Arkin as a screen performer, one must go back to his early roles which made him an icon of the bemused, and a brilliantly skilled character actor.

Try to find "The In-Laws", or "Catch-22", or the scary "Wait Until Dark", or (a favorite) "The Heart is a Lonely Hunter" in which he plays the deaf border of a troubled Southern household.

And, especially, the film I will look at below, his debut, "The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming."

In the interview, Arkin looks back at his childhood dream of acting, his boyhood passion for the movies, and his risky move from New York to Chicago in 1960 to join the now-famous Second City Comedy improvisational troupe.  Arkin thrived on improv, although at first he thought he was terrible and would be fired. 

A quote from the interview that summed up the experience will inspire young performers:
"Even so, the unpredictable nature of improvisation meant Arkin had to learn to accept that not every sketch would be a hit — and that bombing onstage wasn't necessarily a bad thing. 'It's improvisation, and some are terrific, and some are terrible' he says. 'The ability to fail was an extraordinary privilege and gift. ... You don't learn anything without failing.' "

You can listen to the entire interview, and find a transcript, by clicking this link:

In spite of winning a Tony Award in 1963 for "Enter Laughing", Arkin developed a dislike for the stage, calling it boring, and "torture", having to play the same role the same way night after night.  And so, when Norman Jewison saw Arkin in the Broadway production of "Luv", Arkin jumped at the chance when he was called to screen-test for a new film.

In the screen test, Arkin had to improvise the role of a Russian Secret Police Agent traveling with the Bolshoi Ballet, with Jewison off camera.  Arkin's improv chops, and his skill with dialect, landed him the role of Lt. Rozanov, a Russian Submarine officer whose ship runs aground on a New England island, and soon throws the residents into a panic, in what would become the hugely popular "The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming".

"The Russians are Coming..." (1966) became Arkin's film debut and his first Oscar Nomination.  (His second came two years later for "The Heart is a Lonely Hunter", and he waited 38 years for his next nomination, and win, for "...Sunshine".)  It's a film that has been sort of neglected these days, but is so bursting with good humor and wonderful character insights, that viewers should gladly re-discover it.

The film was a raucous satire reminiscent of screenwriter William Rose's "It's A Mad Mad Mad Mad World".  His script here was more focused, and plausible, and the timing could not have been better.  The Cold War gripped the country.  Moviegoers laughed nervously at "Dr. Strangelove", about nuclear annihilation, just two years before.  America was in a space race with the Soviets.  American schoolchildren were conducting Atom bomb drills.  There was mistrust all around.

This comedy reflected and neatly lampooned the paranoia, misinformation, and ignorance on both sides, made us laugh at our outrageousness, and left a feeling of hopeful coexistence, even friendship. Looking at it now, we recognize the misinformation that still plagues us, the distortions that spread like wildfire, and the foibles we still share as humans.  It is a comedy with a gentle poke, and it is amazingly relevant, even if the filmmaking style is 1960's sitcom.  Here, that comfortableness works.

Arkin shares the lead with Carl Reiner (a great comedian and writer and Rob's dad).  Arkin's amazing facility with the Russian language, his humorous use of accent in his English dialog, and his wild swings from calm to outburst, which were hilarious and original, put Arkin in the pantheon of superstars.

Reiner, as "Whittaker, Walt"  heads a wonderful cast of comics, including Jonathan Winters, Brian Keith, and Paul Ford (all staples of 1960's movie comedy, and all funny people in their own right).  Eva Marie Saint, still popular a decade after her turn in "On The Waterfront", plays Reiner's wife, and voice of reason. 

Ben Blue, a famous silent film star, plays the Town Drunk, trying to run after his uncooperative horse, so that he can ride to to save the villagers,  in one of several madcap subplots that occur simultaneously during the one Sunday the film takes place.  These are all directed for utmost comic effect, and edited for maximum energy and laughs.

Truly, the sequence which finds Reiner tied up with the town's telephone operator, trying to escape by hopping together with her, is one of the biggest, most sustained laughs in the film.  In fact, sight gags abound amid the sharpness of the satire, and the humor softens the blow, but does not diminish the message.

John Phillip Law is appealing as Arkin's fellow sailor who develops a romance with the Whittaker family babysitter.  The babysitter herself was not a trained actress, but was found doing an ad for American Airlines, as a "stewardess".  

Arkin holds the picture together as mayhem explodes all around him.  In an impressive feat of writing and direction, the climactic moment finds the townspeople and the Russian submarine pointing their firearms at each other in a protracted moment, filled with suspense, which captured the cold war in all its mistrust and fear. 

The film even gives us an honest-to-goodness cliffhanger, a precursor to the spirit of the disaster film:  A little boy, a church steeple, and a human pyramid save the day, demonstrating that people pulling together in a crisis can learn to live together and even like each other.

Before this resolution, we have laughed at panic all around: Russian soldiers, dressed in "American" clothes they swipe from a dry-cleaner, move in a pack and speak (heavily accented) English in unison; the elderly postmistress and her friend terrorize the deputies by tearing down the street in their scooter; the hawkish townspeople try to "get organized" while the bartender opens the tavern providing everyone pays cash;   Riener tries to find help on an old two-wheeler bike and winds up rolling around the floor tied to the phone operator.... 

But why go on?  You have to see for yourself. 

Director Norman Jewison, in an interview on the DVD, tells a tremendous story about his experience watching the film in Moscow, as the crowd burst into applause and tears.

Alan Arkin in his career created unforgettable characters, but none in a film with as much heart and laughs, and pointed satire and clear-eyed reflection of American foolishness.

I thank him for having honed his improvisational skills to land a role in this landmark comedy.

Libya: Humanitarian, But Questions Linger

The Western military action in Libya, ostensibly to protect civilians, destroy Libyan military sites (but NOT kill Gaddafi), and support a "rebel coalition" of disparate tribal groups, has raised a lot of questions and has generated millions of words of heated debate on web sites. 

How can we support the rebels, and a Democratic revolution, without ousting Gaddafi (dead or alive)?  How will Gaddafi remain in power and not resort to civilian slaughter?  How do we justify civilian casualties in a "humanitarian" military action?  Why not intervene in other regimes with well-known, long-established human-rights atrocities?  

Who is arming the rebels? (While some news outlets provide closeups of "plastic guns", I saw plenty of grenade launchers in the same reports.)  Is there something else behind this sudden revolutionary spirit among repressed Middle Eastern and African regimes? 
 Can our economy afford this?

Most of the words being written, and most of the debates, are from people (like me) whose entire knowledge of the situation comes from the press.  Where will I find the trustworthy information that will answer these questions for me?

I wanted badly to support this effort as a purely humanitarian one.  I was becoming comfortable with those who felt this was the right thing to do, that even though we have not performed as quickly (or at all) in similar global situations, does not mean we should also ignore this one.

But then, like a grain of sand inside a comfortable shoe, earlier this week a quote from former Illinois Congressman and now U.S. Senator Mark Kirk, nagged me with uncomfortable doubt about our altruism in saving Libyans from their dictator...

A bit more hawkish, Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., a Naval Reserve intelligence officer, said Monday in Chicago that this country is now in a "shooting war" with Gaddafi's forces - and the goal should be to end his regime.
If that goal is achieved relatively quickly, Kirk said, it would help stabilize the region's oil markets and help lower the price of gasoline. However, the Illinois senator said he regarded the no-fly zone over Libya as an act of war - and that Congress should have an opportunity to endorse that action. Kirk said  (he hoped that Obama will formally seek congressional authorization for the use of force later this week.
Oil markets and gas prices...nagging at my intuition over this whole turn of events....

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Tomorrow: Alan Arkin--in a Memorable 1966 Debut



Pardon the one-day delay in my essay about Alan Arkin, as promised yesterday.

It's just that today, life intervened... 

But tomorrow, I will link to the NPR interview from earlier this month, in which Arkin discusses his improvisational theater project, his career highlights, and his recent memoir. 

Also, my look back at Arkin's film debut, in a farcical and topical movie that lampooned the cold-war paranoia of the 1960's: "The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming".  The film gave Arkin his first Oscar nomination, and the film itself, which was considered then quite important in spite of its sight gags and satire, competed in the 1966 Oscar race against a completely different cinematic experience, "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf". 

If you have never seen "The Russians are Coming...", I hope you will be excited to find and watch it after tomorrow's post.  Stay tuned...

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

A Weekend Mishap; An Act of Kindness--Wednesday Journal

...For Carlos...Wherever you are...

Here's a memorable follow-up to my previous post about Saturday's Concert.  What could have been a ruinous finish to our weekend of music and good fellowship became just a minor mishap, with a restorative act of kindness.

To eliminate several trips between Mt. Prospect and the City, Mark and I took a room in Evanston for two nights.  It was a cultural mini-vacation.

Sunday morning, after the concert, it was cold and rainy.  We were dragging to pack and leave for home, a 45-minute drive.  The previous night's after-party celebration got us to bed well past midnight.

As Mark finished packing, I grabbed some bags to begin loading the car, which was parked in a garage near the hotel.  I intended to be back in five minutes to take the remaining bags.

Another man and his wife, loaded down with luggage, were leaving the hotel at the same time.  With a free hand I held the door for them.  As I approached the parking structure's short-cut side entrance, I heard the couple lugging their bags behind me.  Realizing that they had found the short cut, they followed me me inside and thanked me for saving them the extra distance to the main door.  I held the doors again, and we exited the elevator together on the same floor.

After I unloaded my bags in the car, the man, who I learned later was named Carlos, told me he was about to ruin my day.  He pointed to the car, noticing what I didn't: my left rear tire had gone flat, after having gone over a nail, which was still embedded in the tire.

"I'll help you fix it," he said.

So he delayed his family's journey back to New York to remove the bad tire and install my spare.

We shook hands, and he refused at first to allow me even to buy breakfast for him and his wife;  he eventually, graciously, agreed.

I write frequently about wonderful people who show kindness to animals, but I rarely experience the caring help of a random individual myself.  

I held the doors.  He changed my tire.  He saved our weekend.

Thank you Carlos--and all of you who have no reason to help a stranger, but do. 

(Tomorrow: Alan Arkin as a Russian Sailor.   Friday: The film "Maurice" looks at a world of past oppression we must not forget.)

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

A Thrilling Voyage with Windy City Performing Arts

This past Saturday, the Mayne Stage Theater in Chicago's Roger's Park rang out with the sounds of sea voyages, sailors, world-wide ports of call, drinking songs, lullabyes, humor and poetry, the inexorable flow of the River, and solace for a troubled time.

Chicago's Windy City Performing Arts, comprising The Windy City Gay Chorus (WCGC) and the women's chorus Aria, successfully culminated two months of hard work, comradeship, and a lot of sly fun.  Finally, after hearing Mark rehearse his tenor part since January, the numbers came together with the full choir, and the sound was effortless, pleasing, and exciting.

The chorus members have opened their arms wide to Mark, who timidly auditioned exactly one year ago.  He was quickly accepted and is now considered a vital member of the chorus, providing his conscientious effort, perfect attendance (!), humor, and friendship.  

Our inclusion among this amazing group of talented, diverse and, yes, mischievous performers has given both of us a sense of excitement and belonging that goes missing in our quiet, remote suburban existence.  I am honored to be a welcome presence at their events, not a "groupie", and I thank all of the terrific people who I am proud to consider my friends.

This weekend's program, "Bon Voyage", combined an unlikely mix of weighty  compositions,  international pieces, popular melodies, and camp.  The theme of the show was The Sea and World Travel.  Stephen Edwards, the Artistic Director, believed in these selections, and shaped the mix into a breezy and energizing two hours. 

In a good stage move, Aria performed most of its numbers first, followed by the WCGC, minimizing the number of regroupings that created some pauses in the last two programs.  Aria's opening set brought a spiritual dimension to tunes about anchored souls, sea lullabies, and the mysteries of rivers. 

Next there was an unusual Serbian piece, a bawdy jingle about women going to the bathouse to kiss ("Niska Banja").

To lighten things up in a more familiar vein, a small combo of two trumpets, a clarinet, and drum joined the grand piano in a lively "Boogie Woogie Bugle Girl of Company B."  (Amusing side-note: the original song, a hit for the Andrews Sisters  and later a huge success for Bette Midler, was written for a 1941 Abbott and Costello comedy called "Buck Privates".  The song was nominated for an Oscar!)

And it wouldn't be the Gay Chorus without some good-natured drag, featuring that uninhibited good sport Carlos Rios as Princess Pupule and her Papayas.

Their set ended with a reflective reading of a  poem and musical interpretation of it, "Still I Rise" by Maya Angelou.

In an interlude during Aria's set, a select ensemble of performers (Mark among them) sang "Passage" from a segment of Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass" (the one that contains the phrase
"O Captain My Captain").  The theater was still during this quiet and powerful tribute to Abraham Lincoln .  The "ship" refers to America, and "Captain" is Lincoln himself. 

The men took the stage for a rollicking medley of travel tunes beginning with the Oscar-winning melody from "Around the World in 80 Days" (1956).  A lighthearted barbershop quartet crooned "Old Cape Cod", followed by the 1930's art-deco stylings of "Allegheny Moon" in a nice solo by David Harvey.

The boys traveled to France for an impossibly fast version of "Vive L'Amour".  I smiled in amusement at the talented sign language interpreter (G. Michael Roberts), who gamely kept up with the
ever-increasing tempo until I thought his hands would just fall off.

Homesickness, tranquility, and lusty drinking were captured in the next trio of songs. One of them, "Shenandoah", I heard was so difficult for the group to get the numerous starts timed properly, that it was almost cut from the show.  I'm glad it wasn' was well done!

A fun couplet of songs by the unusual pairing of The Beach Boys and Enya was performed by a limber quartet as they amused the crowd with their "shipboard" tableaux.

Then the guys triumphed in their most complicated number, the famous Sailor's Chorus from Wagner's Opera "The Flying Dutchman".  This familiar tune was difficult to memorize as most members of the chorus speak no German.  Caleb Dubson's brief, strong solo punctuated this song, which exuded much energy, and obvious pride in knowing it was being delivered right.

For the finale, both choruses joined for an uptempo, contemporary version of Simon and Garfunkel's "Bridge Over Troubled Water."  In a way, the lyrics spoke to the challenges and anguish experienced by many of the members as they established themselves in an often hostile world, and the number held special meaning for this group whose members provided love and support to one another. I can't see how anyone would fail to be moved by this fitting climax to a marvelous show.

Monday, March 21, 2011

A St. Joseph's Day Italian Movie Marathon

Poor St. Joseph always seems to get the raw deal. And this year, I'm guilty too, of ignoring the March 19 commemoration.

Last March, a year ago to the day, I posted some interesting and amusing facts about the Feast Day of St. Joseph, which occurs soon after St. Patricks Day, and often gets lost amid the Irish festivities.  It's like having your birthday on Christmas. (St. Joseph's Day---Food, The Color Red, and Real Estate--March 21, 2010).

But in the more traditional Italian communities, St. Joseph's Day is still celebrated by wearing the color red, and cooking special delicacies like St. Joseph's Pants (cookies filled with sweetened ground fava beans).

So to give St. Joseph his cinematic due, and to give a nod to the Italian festival, I give you an Italian movie marathon.  It will be shorter than last Thursday's Irish film festival (because the holiday has already passed).  Also, I am leaving off the list a lot of extremely popular Italian-themed films like "The Godfathers" and "Goodfellas" because this is a celebration.  Good as these films may be as cinema, they have become a tired cliche of an Italian way of life that, frankly, isn't worth celebrating. 

What follows is a more representative sampling of films that are closer to my experience growing up with my Italian relatives.  Sentimental?  You bet.  But that's how we were....

"Moonstruck".  Of course. A warm homage to the extended family, and the comedy of the loud-talking, hard-eating, hand-waving joy that rises naturally from these humorous characters with hair-trigger tempers and love to spare.  The old man with his dogs is the quintessential grandfather, the one that  gentle Italian men eventually become.  Olympia Dukakis is the cynical wisecracker who knows who she is, and suffers through lovers complications and Vicki Carr records.  Vincent Gardenia is the perpetual bad boy who imagines he runs the household but knows he has to answer to his loving wife.  Danny Aiello is the superstitious mama's boy who believes in miracles.  Cher and Nicolas Cage are the impetuous lovers with the matching bedroom eyes.  Intoxicating, and not as exaggerated as one might think!

"Amarcord".  Federico Fellini's look at boyhood in a small Italian town during the reign of Mussolini.  Broader in scope than "Moonstruck", Fellini orchestrates a symphony of an entire town's antics, lusts, fantasies, and characters, all tinted with the forgiving light of memory.  More caricature than character, the movie still zings us with surprising emotion.  We are moved by the magical appearance of a peacock in the snow, or an impromptu dance of lonely schoolboys to the wonderful melodies of Nino Rota.  Laughs are plentiful, and so are the family arguments, naturally.

"Life is Beautiful".  A fairy-tale-turned-horror-story, few films in memory gave us a character with a head so full of opera and romance.  He exudes the best of what I have noticed about the Italian spirit: an almost naive happiness, and a fierce determination to protect his loved ones during bad times.  While Don Corleone protected his children by having the family "enemies" murdered,  Roberto Benigni's Guido helps his little boy survive a concentration camp, no less, by reducing it to a game of survival.  Narrated by the boy as a young man, it is a lovely tribute to the love of a parent.

"Marty".  Paddy Chayefsky had a perfect ear for the banalities of everyday Italian conversation, the automatic references to the Catholic Church, to family loyalty, and a kind of guilt that, combined with love, cements families together.  The butcher Marty is surprisingly eloquent (a "professor of pain"), which is a humorous counterpart to his friend Angelo, whose constant refrain of "So, whaddaya wanna do?" neatly sums up the modest aspirations of a particular community.  If you want to eavesdrop on one of those bungalows with the lace curtains and the constant aroma of tomato sauce, drop in on this film.

"8-1/2" and "Nine".  These must be seen together for full appreciation. Fellini's complex exploration of creative and romantic dissipation is nicely captured in Rob Marshall's contemporary musical vignettes.  Nothing can replace the depth of Fellini's dreamlike visions, but Marshall's musical has been unfairly reviled by those who either are unfamiliar with the original, or who are closed off to any re-interpretation.  "8-1/2" is Fellini at his most ambiguous and breathtaking, and the film is almost too fast-paced to catch it all in one viewing.  "Nine" I think accurately recognizes the Italian character, and is remarkably faithful to the idea of movie director Guido's macho dilemma and creative roadblock.

Feel free to bring a print of your own favorite "Italian" film to my marathon.... 

Sunday, March 20, 2011

A Preview Of The Week In Posts!!

A memorable weekend has helped to restore the creative juices....

A change of scenery... A great choral concert and time spent with many wonderful and talented friends... Rain, and even a flat tire (more this week) have all conspired to put me back in the "writer's seat".  That, and the support of my blogging friends like  Ben, and Tom, and others who checked in this weekend. 

Even since Friday, when I darkened these pages to fill the pipline, world events have become more dire, with the conflict intensifying over Libya....So now there's another story about which to learn more, and form an opinion.

But I have determined that I won't let that paralyze me again.  So here's an itinerary of some of the items coming up on this Journal:

  • The Windy City Performing Arts and their Spring concert, "Bon Voyage" this past Saturday.  This is the third of their musical events I have attended, and the group triumphed over some complex and beautiful material.  I will provide a breezy description of the program, and a personal reaction to the music, the people involved, and the events of the weekend including a mishap...
  • After enduring my marathon of Irish films for St. Patrick's Day, I must give St. Joseph's day equal time with a marathon of films that celebrate the Italian experience (therefore some big titles will go unmentioned).
  • A look back at some clasic films: First, after hearing a great interview with Alan Arkin on NPR, I went back to re-visit his introduction to movie audiences in his first oscar-nominated role, "The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming";  Then, the second of the Merchant-Ivory trilogy of E.M. Forester adaptations, "Maurice".
Reviews of new films will be delayed until there's something that seems promising, and original.  "Jane Eyre" is somewhat appealing...

Plus I'll try to make sense of the escalating conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa.

On to the week ahead....

Friday, March 18, 2011

When The Muse Fails--A Friday Journal

It happens to all writers...the desire to say something, to write something meaningful...and nothing comes.

I'm sitting in a coffee shop in the Andersonville neighborhood of Chicago, with all kinds of topics lined up, but lack the creative spark to do them justice... 

Chalk it up to Friday night, and the desire to hibernate after a troubling week....

I have to remind myself that sometimes it's all right to say nothing... That being quiet doesn't mean that my writer's light has burned out for good....

It's hard to accept that the blogosphere will not collapse if I can't contribute to it for a night, or two...

I can also blame the failure of my muse on the need to relax the mind.  Finding a compelling topic each day, one that is interesting enough to research and to do justice in the writing, and one that others find worth reading, requires a lot of mental energy.

I want to write about the abominable behavior of our congressional "leaders"; the "controversy" over taxpayer funding of NPR, as unscrupulous muckrakers are lauded as heroes, while other whistle-blowers (with important public information) are mistreated in prison or brought up on ridiculous charges; the ongoing abuse of the environment and its living creatures; the endless pontificating about our educational system while children fail; an ignorant culture that idolizes a pathetic sitcom actor, while thousands around the world face homelessness, nuclear disease, military annihilation, and political terror...and on and on. 

But, apart from my desire to be profound, nothing comes. 

I want to immerse myself in the arts for solace, to remind myself that there is another culture that reveres beauty and aesthetic pleasure.  I long to make an original statement about a work of art, or the perfect interpretation of a film or book, or piece of music, or painting....Or to just have fun as I find creative ways to discuss the movies I love, the musicians that inspire me, and all the rest...

But tonight seems too ordinary, or too shadowed by the frustrations of an absurd world.

When the mind and heart are overloaded, sometimes the best response is repose....  Leave the heavy lifting for the next day, after the batteries are recharged.

Reinvention is a journey, a road trip, that  requires occasional rest stops. 

This weekend: I'll be back to highlight the new Windy City Performing Arts concert; a nod to movies for St. Joseph's day; and maybe a word or two about the absurdity rampant in the news.

Thank you for reading about my inability to come up with anything to say.  

Thursday, March 17, 2011

An Irish Movie Marathon

Welcome to St. Patrick's Day and this Journal's personal favorite movies for the occasion.

In recognition of the day, I took a closer look at  movies about Ireland, or those that feature Irish characters transplanted to America.

Were I to program a marathon of Irish-themed films, there is a really good number of movies from which to choose.  As far back as the 1930's,  Americans have loved movies set on the Emerald Isle, or about Americans of Irish descent.  For a great listing of these films, check out a web-site called The Irish In Film: An Annotated Database.

As I researched these movies, I found a surprising few titles about St. Patrick himself.  Only one notable title came up, "St. Patrick: The Irish Legend",  made for television in 2000. It stars Patrick Bergin, Alan Bates, Susannah York, and Malcolm McDowell.  

Unfortunately, the old holy snake-herder never did get the big Hollywood treatment himself.

So, if you were to venture to my private screening room to honor the Irish holiday, I would offer you the following slate of nine for my marathon.  Remember, these are my personal favorites. Some may not exactly be the most authentic depictions of the Irish experience.  And I am not a huge fan of films about Irish gangs (sorry!).

"The Quiet Man"  No list of Irish films is complete without this classic with John Wayne in one of his rare Oscar-nominated performances.  A lusty and funny clash of Irish and American cultures, directed by Sean O'Feeney--better known to us as John Ford.

"Ryan's Daughter"  David Lean's earnest and sweeping tale of an illicit affair between a small-town Irishwoman and an enemy soldier. It was a critical disaster, and some of the exteriors were shot in South Africa, but Sarah Miles heads a cast of convincing (if somewhat cliched) villagers. Suspend your disbelief for 3-1/2 hours and indulge in old-fashioned Irish romance and intrigue. 

"My Left Foot" An Oscar-triumph for Daniel Day-Lewis as the physically challenged artist and writer Christy Brown, who used his title appendage first to communicate and then to achieve fame.  Lots of passion and drinking and brotherly camaraderie, plus a brawling and loving family held together by Brenda Fricker.

"The Crying Game" A mind-bender of a romance, as Fergus escapes his service to the IRA and keeps a promise that he will look after a doomed prisoner's girlfriend named Dil.  A mysterious and shocking love affair ensues.  Irish filmmaker Neil Jordan captures the nuances of character with a terrific script. BIG SPOILER (if you HAVE NOT seen this movie yet, cover your ears and go "la-la-la")...When I saw this the first time, when the infamous "moment" occurs and the packed house gasped in nervous laughter, I whispered to my friend, "That woman has a p----!" 

"Finian's Rainbow"  An odd, "mod" cinematic treatment of a musical about leprechauns, pots of gold, and racism in the American South.  Directed by that ultimate Irishman, Francis McFord O'Coppola.  But with Fred Astaire, Petula Clark, and lilting melodies like "How Are Things in Glocca Morra?" and "Look To The Rainbow," it's irresistible.

"Bloody Sunday" A riveting docu-drama about civil-rights strife that erupted in the deadly riots of January 1972.  Directed with amazing realism by Paul Greengrass ("United 93"), the tragic chapter in Irish history was captured by U2 in their song "Sunday Bloody Sunday" (not to be confused with the Glenda Jackson-Peter Finch love story, which was very British). 

"The Commitments" A lively musical examination of the same working class that populated "Bloody Sunday", as a group of decidedly Irish young musicians strives to become a bona-fide soul-and-blues band.  Some terrific covers of artists like Otis Redding and Sam and Dave, and director Alan Parker's grubby images of Dublin.

"Veronica Guerin" The always-excellent Cate Blanchett in a true story about a Dublin journalist who came dangerously close to the criminal element she covered.  Her crusading efforts ultimately changed the Irish judicial system. Actually, the movie is 100 times more entertaining than I just made it seem, credit to Blanchett, who I think is this moviegoing generation's Glenda Jackson. 

"Going My Way"  Mentioned here just two days ago.  This is the Old-Hollywood traditional depiction of Irish-Catholic priests, complete with brogues, old mothers from the Old Country, and a little nip now and then to keep the "cute" factor high.  But it works, at least to this viewer, who found it's buoyant, "Swingin' On A Star" hokum charming, and succumbed to the mother-son-reunion finale with the appropriate sentimental sobbing.

So...what would you include in an Irish-themed St. Patrick's Day Movie Marathon? 

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Two Dogs Survive the Tsunami--A Wednesday Video Journal

A small bit of good news out of Japan, which I wanted to remember, and share with my visitors.

While the barrage of stories and images of the disaster continues, (of family members grieving over the bodies of their loved ones, of thousands of dead washing up on shore, of damage that may take years from which to recover, of the unknown dangers of radiation from power plants)....I heard about a minor miracle.

On the deepest personal level, even small losses can cause great pain.  In the scheme of things, with horrendous human loss, the loss of family pets may seem minor.  However, to the people who unquestioningly love these creatures as members of their household, the disappearance or uncertain fate of their animals is devastating.

So I was happy that I found the following video offered by the Wall Street Journal. Two dogs, abandoned so that the children in the home could be rescued, were presumed lost.  Incredibly, they escaped their tethers, and moved to higher ground, to be found later, alive and excited, by their owners.

Enjoy this video, as a respite from the catastrophe, and as a small hope that others, human and non-human, may yet have pulled through.