Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Good Riddance #3

Monday, former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich was found guilty on 17 counts of corruption while in office.   In August of last year "Blago" was convicted on one count of lying to the FBI, and the jury could not reach an agreement on the other 23 charges.  Prosecutors appealed the mistrial counts, and the retrial on a reduced number of charges resulted in this week's overwhelming guilty verdict.

Among other things, Blagojevich was accused of conspiring to use the State Senate seat, vacated by Barack Obama on the occasion of his Presidential election, as a bargaining chip to further his political career and line his pockets.

Since his arrest he has been almost everywhere, on TV appearances and other public venues, in an embarrassing spectacle, in which he used his personal charm to convince everyone that he never did any wrong.  (When Blagojevich told David Letterman "I've been wanting to be on your show in the worst way for the longest time," Letterman dryly replied, "Well, you're on in the worst way, believe me.")

He has appeared on Donald Trump's "The Apprentice", a local Comic Con, and made a commercial for pistachio nuts.  The tag on that one? As he cracks open a nut, a voice-over says, "Rod Blagojevich does it innocently."

I hope the circus has left town.

If there is another appeal, he will most likely need to sell a lot of nuts.

A Few Emotional After-Midnight Thoughts...

I have been away from my journal for a while, owing to our storm and power failure, a nagging cold, and a mild writer's block which was more exhaustion than lack of material....

The momentum returns....

Yes, the word Midnight in the title of this post is a foreshadowing of my next review, "Midnight in Paris", which is long overdue.  The experience has mellowed, and I have grown fond of the movie and cannot wait to share my views and re-view.

My mother is home now, a relief, but a whole new set of challenges, and acceptance of her inability to remember things.  Thanks to those who have given me much encouragement.  I think we're on a good path again....

It was an emotional week for gays in this country, and especially in Chicago.  After the Windy City Performing Arts Pride Concert (See review in the post below), and on the heels of Illinois recognizing Civil Unions for gay couples, New York passed a gay-marriage law. 

What an exciting and symbolic image, to see celebrations outside of the Stonewall Inn, where gay men in 1969 stood up to mistreatment and oppression and encouraged gays to stand with them. Thus the GAY Pride movement was born.

But then, just before yesterday's Chicago Pride Parade, dozens of tires were slashed on floats stored in a South-Side warehouse.  I salute the resourcefulness of the organizers and their mechanics who purchased new tires all over town, replaced them, and got the parade underway.

We missed the parade due to other obligations yesterday.  It was bittersweet.  Now that we feel more connected to Chicago's gay community than ever, we felt isolated in our own activities.   On the other hand, we were glad to be away from the huge pressing crowds.  Until we have a chance to be in the parade itself, as we were five years ago, it might be best to enjoy the highlights shot by our fine Chicago news cameras.

Please enjoy the review below of the June 16 Windy City Performing Arts Pride Concert.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Windy City Performing Arts, and Pride

The concerts of the Windy City Gay Men's Chorus and Aria are among my most eagerly awaited events of the year.  One year ago, Mark performed in his first concert with this group.  Last Saturday, he sang in his fourth, another wonderful, moving and hilarious revue called "Road Trip!"

Artistic Director Stephen Edwards used "Journeys" as his unifying theme for this year's concerts.  Last March the group took us on adventures around the world. For this, the Spring Pride show, the travel was close to home, as a way of demonstrating the beauty and strength of the contributions gay people have made all over America.

In its new venue, the Auditorium at Senn High School, the Chorus had a larger stage, with more room on the risers, leading to a more relaxed performance, and more room for their unique brand of comic mayhem.

The first act was more subdued, with songs that were like wistful reflections on our life's destinations as gay people, the possibilities still before us, and the meaning of home.  Act two was raucous and unbridled, a true road-trip, complete with sing-alongs, a touch of good-natured drag, Broadway satire, sailors and Texas Aggies, Muppets and Madames, freaks and a cheerful declaration of Pride.

The show distilled the hope that is the essence of every Road Trip, and in this case, the very special hope for lives of extraordinary journeys.

"You can take the color out of Colorado,
You can take the Mary out of Maryland...
As John Philip Sousa said
I can't march if I can't hear
The Boys in the Band..."

The sweet voices of the Aria Women's chourus kicked things off with their characteristic wordless vocal arrangement from the Republic of Georgia, "Satamasho", a song which children might sing while playing. A gentle plea from France followed, "Vois sur ton chemin"calling for us to take the hands of lost and forgotten children, to lead them to other tomorrows.  Next, a lovely, quiet version of "Rhythm of Life" from "Sweet Charity" reminded us of the powerful heartbeat of life.

"Everything Possible" was unexpectedly moving, a song that might be sung by a parent to a gay child, filled with love and encouragement for us to be who we are, and pursue the path that feels right to us.  It is a song many of us wish, in fantasy, that our parents had sung to us when we were children.

Mark appeared then, in a small ensemble, for "The Road Home", an emotional double-whammy after "Everything Possible", a song that might be sung by a grown child who cannot return home, and is looking for a new road, an new place to belong.  The beautiful vocalizations suggested, to me, the men's chorus used in the mountain scenes of "The Deer Hunter".

The Men's Chorus assembled then for a trio of Old-English melodies by Ralph Vaughn Williams from "Songs of Travel". 

And in a thrilling departure, the Chorus tore through a wildly rhythmic and energetic "Wedding Qawwali" by Slumdog Millionaire's A.R. Rahman.  This was the most difficult piece of the evening, and it was put over wonderfully, with subtle support from a drummer and guitarist.  The song was also  fascinatingly interpreted by the group's agile Sign Language performer.

After Intermission, we got some lighthearted pieces that many remembered from their childhoods, the Muppets' "Movin' Right Along", and "Ease On Down The Road" from "The Wiz".  With that, the road trip was underway!

"You can't take the sissy out of Mississippi
He's there and he's going to stay!..."

Aria came back with that staple of '60's Easy Listening radio, "Route 66", followed by an homage to the open road, "Wide Open Spaces".

A quartet of especially zaftig good sports hammed it up in size 12 pumps and "Maude"-style dresses for a round of "Let's Get Away From It All". 

What's a road trip without a sing-along in the car?  So, the group decided that the Lesbians would rock out to Four Non-Blondes' "What's Up" ("I said hey---What's going on?"), and the Gay Boys would channel their inner Cher ... with four of her biggest hits. All of these were presented with projected lyrics, and the audience had a blast.

In an Oscar-worthy departure for the Men's chorus, "The Aggie Song" from "Best Little Whorehouse...", almost had me convinced that these were all horny young football players on their way to get "made" at that famous Texas establishment......

"You can't kick our asses out of Massachusetts
Or subtract the ten percent from Tennessee
Utah could never be the beehive state
If the hairdressers went absentee..."

Not to be outdone, Aria offered their own special Broadway number, a version of "There is Nothing Like A Dame" from "South Pacific", that worked extremely well, without changing a word of the song!

Perhaps in the funniest, most original number, a bitchy and inclusive Pride anthem that might have been written by the Steel Magnolias or Golden Girls themselves, the Men's Chorus belted "Color Out of Colorado", from the 1996 Broadway comedy revue "When Pigs Fly", parts of which I have been quoting throughout this piece:

"Chicago without chic
Would be boring in a week
And you cant have New York City without.................Queens!!"

And to keep the energy and hilarity high for the finale, the whole Company joined, in home-made costume, for "Freak Flag", from the Broadway musical "Shrek".  In it, Pinocchio is afraid others will discover he's not "a real boy", and everyone from the Three Pigs to the Wicked Witch convince him to "let your freak flag fly", that being a "freak" is not so bad, and can be celebrated.

It was a special evening of two concerts. Our friends Jillian and Phillip joined us for the first show, and their presence and show of support meant a lot to us.  Especially poignant for Mark was that his youngest son came home from college for the weekend just to attend the show.  He loved it.

So now, the group is off for the summer (barring any special-request appearances) and will re-group again in September to rehearse for the ---dare I say it???---Holiday Concert.

Another Bravo to my friends of the Windy City Performing Arts.

"You need us
To make the U.S.A.!!"

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

We Interrupt This Blog....

Heavy winds have dominated our lives since Tuesday night, and caused an interruption to this Journal...

Last night as I was feverishly writing my reviews of "Midnight in Paris" and the Windy City Gay Men's Chorus Pride Concert, all of the power went out.

We were not the only ones to lose electricity in our home:  ours was one of about 300,000 to be left in the dark.

Early in the evening, heavy dark clouds hung on the horizon over the high school football fields.  Lightning stabbed the darkness and the air hung as hot, heavy and humid as a jungle.

Then the wind began to blow.....

We lost out lights, Internet, TV, refrigerator, radio, stove, everything but our hot water and our phone.  We had one lantern flashlight. The clothes I had just taken from the washer and put in the dryer, were now simply wet and immobile in the dryer. Much of our food in the refrigerator would go to waste, so we donated it to my parents, in exchange for the use of their clothes dryer. 

It seemed like the whole world just stopped, without our electricity, save for the horrifying winds pummeling the front of the house, bending the nearby enormous pine trees to their breaking points.....

I felt a kinship with our ancestors, who had nothing but fire as the darkness surrounded them. They began to tell made-up stories, so as not to be consumed by the fear of darkness, or driven insane with inactivity.

This morning we listened to the radio in the car as we drove through town at 6am to get coffee.  Storms downed trees all over the suburbs.  Wind gusts measuring 80MPH were measured.

We could not even believe what we saw driving down our neighborhood streets.  I have never seen so many broken  branches, limbs and trunks.  It was unsettling seeing our neighbors, stunned as they tried to drag heavy branches to the parkway where the Village workers could remove them, or attempt to axe or saw big logs, some of which had damaged the gutters, roofs, and windows of their houses.

It is especially sad, these large magnificent trees stripped of their branches and their dignity, some completely damaged, others looking wounded, waiting for their jagged and torn parts to be cleanly cut. 

Mt. Prospect is a "Tree City USA".  You can tell from the photos what the town has lost.  Mark got some pictures of the storm-ravaged neighborhood, all within a 6-block radius surrounding our home...Check them out below...

It was disclosed by the National weather Service later this evening that Mt. Prospect was hit by a small tornado, of a 5-minute duration, traveling a path about 200 yards wide over two miles.

We heard from the Mayor of Mt. Prospect say on the car radio that due to the unusually heavy damage, power may be out until Friday morning, or even Saturday in some areas. 

Our house--our whole street--was spared the heavy damage.  Ironically, with the field across from us, we had less to barricade us from the wind.  Apparently, the tornado or microburst was well behind us...but not far enough to prevent the power outage.

Tonight I am writing from a hotel room in Evanston... Tomorrow, after work, I will look for a comfortable place with wi-fi, and post my long-overdue reviews....

Monday, June 20, 2011

"The Exorcism": Our Super-8 Masterpiece

In my previous outing, I tried to describe what it was like for us to make Super-8 movies back in the 1970's (see post below).  I am more anxious now to see the movie "Super-8", even though I suppose I'll have to endure a lot of modern-day action, while the charm and nostalgia of kids making movies will take a back seat.

During the height of my passion for all things movies and filmmaking, I was becoming fascinated with "The Exorcist", a film that I had not yet seen (and would not see for quite some time). But I read the novel, and two versions of the screenplay (William Peter Blatty's first draft would have made a nearly 4-hour film).  I thought it would be cool to do a version of my own, with sound and music and makeup and special effects.

Not only did I learn a lot about adapting another work into screenplay form, I learned how difficult it was to create atmosphere, to find ways to create effects under the strict supervision of nervous parents, and the thrill of exhibition and critical kudos, and even winning awards.

My poor sister was always my leading lady.  At two years younger than I, she pretty much agreed to whatever I asked of her.  In our movie called "The Exorcism", she was to play both Chris McNeill (the mother), and the little girl Regan, who would be transformed from a sickeningly sweet child to a pun-spewing monster.

My two best friends from school, Dan and Jim, agreed to play father Karras and Father Merrin.

The cast would be made up and costumed (fake cardboard priest collars, black shirts, and our fathers' overcoats and hats for the "priests", a nightgown for Regan, and a few smart blouses for Chris.) To make her look older, my sister wore my mother's wig.  I don't know why, but women wore wigs a lot then as fashion statements. Her hairpiece got a great workout that summer.

My version was to be played for laughs, not chills. We would set up a scene for a chilling payoff, and end it with a punchline instead of a scream.

I worked on the script during science and history classes. 

I retained the prologue, but instead of a big demonic statue, our befuddled Father Merrin would be hit on the head with a "devil doll" falling from the sky, an old teddy bear with "horns" attached. 

The setting was a typical suburban house; the basement doubled as a living room, doctor's office, and rectory. My bedroom was where the "fun stuff" took place.  Regan would be a sweet thing, until her transformation during the party scene, in which the only "extras" were my sister's best friend and our grandmother.

The possession occurred quickly, and then the priests would be called in to perform an uproarious exorcism ceremony.

We had a load of fun with the "demonic" stuff.  An alarmed neighbor almost called the police when Father Merrin walked down our street in a heavy winter overcoat and hat (it was a 90-degree day) carrying a "bible" and a suitcase with stickers from Disneyland and the Wisconsin Dells.

Regan's first sign of possession was doing "sit ups" in fast motion on the bed.  It is much funnier than I can describe.  Soon her face was covered in "hideous" lipstick sores and green lips.  She said the most "evil" things to "herself", mostly eye-rolling jokes and puns meant to induce mild nausea in the viewer (but no swearing...)....  During the possession scenes, we animated letters forming on her stomach that said "oh hell", and she only could levitate half-way, by raising her legs in the air (because "the forces of evil on the other side of the room are keeping her down".)

Soon Regan was cured, and hugged her mother (my mother with the wig on, filmed from behind.)  After Chris' final line and "moral" of the story ("There's a little bit of devil in all of us") I needed shots of the cast spinning their heads.  I filmed several scenes of each person turning their head in one direction, then reversing their shirts and filming the same motion from behind. I cut them to make it appear that the head had gone all the way around.

We were restricted form doing anything too messy, and spewing green bile was forbidden.  So I filmed a shot of Regan opening her mouth like she was going to spew.  When I got that film developed, I projected it onto a translucent glass screen, projecting it a frame at a time.  I animated some green goo (dish washing liquid) on the glass, and filmed it from the opposite side, frame by frame.  It turned out pretty well!

I edited the film in increments, after each cartridge was developed.  After the film was finished, we shot the credit sequence, which was so ridiculously long for so few actual cast and crew names that it created laughs on its own. 

We dubbed the sound through the projector. I found the album by Mike Oldfield called "Tubular Bells", a small portion of which was used in "The Exorcist".  A small piece edited for radio was a big hit.  We used a lot of the music from this album, a new-wavey, jazzy 30-minute instrumental piece.  Regan's voice was my own, recorded at fast speed to sound comically deep slowed down to normal playback speed.

During the filming, we had few histrionics, but we still learned a lot about each other.  My sister was a tireless performer, and was better than she even expected she would be.  My friends were great sports and very supportive.  I was very shy in school and knew few people. I was unprepared for the acclaim and recognition "The Exorcism" would bring my way.  And I enjoyed it!

When word got out that the film was finished, I was invited to show it in a few classes. Soon I had to get permission to leave several classes to show the film, always to roars of laughter, always to applause and questions from classmates who rarely spoke to me before.

At the end-of-the-year Academic Awards ceremony, I was stunned to find my name called as the recipient of the English Award.  Before my name was called, the school Principal introduced me as "The guy who would have become famous for 'The Exorcist', but Hollywood released their version while his was still at the Fotomat."

Some day I will upload this epic on this site.

Thank you for coming with me on this journey of a once-aspiring filmmaker,  who had huge dreams,  before life intruded....

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Recollections of a Super-8 Filmmaker

I want to share some stories about my own experiences making Super-8 movies years ago.

First a disclaimer: I have not yet seen the new J.J. Abrams film "Super-8". At first, I wasn't sure I wanted to;  I felt certain, based on the reviews I read, that it would completely miss the wistful charm of creating movies on this format, with a few friends, limited budget, and lots of heart and imagination.

But then I heard an NPR interview with J.J. Abrams, whose story retained some of the hilarity of what kids would do to get a scene right, and the pride of fooling your friends and family with home-made special effects.  Abrams even recounted an anecdote about how Dick Smith, the makeup artist, mailed him the black tongue worn by Linda Blair in a demonic sequence in "The Exorcist" and my feelings of fellowship were complete...because my High School Masterpiece was a satire based on "The Exorcist."

If I made a movie called "Super-8", there are certain elements that would have to be included.  First, I would devote a humorous and loving tribute to the format and the equipment we used.

For those who are not familiar with what super-8 refers to, it is the width of the film in millimeters.  Most independent film and advanced amateur movies were shot on 16-mm film, and of course theatrical films were usually made on 35mm. 

8-millimeter film was the first format for home-movies, created during the Depression, as a cheaper alternative to 16-mm.  After a few years, the technology evolved to allow for the "sprocket holes" (what the projector "teeth" used to pull the film through the projector) to be smaller, and the actual image area slightly bigger.  Film stock with this enhanced image due to smaller sprocket holes was thereafter known as "Super-8", created in 1965.

Super-8 film came in cartridges that ran about 3-1/2 minutes.  So a lot of cartridges would have to be purchased, exposed, and developed, to make a film of substantial length (if not depth). It took at least 3 days to develop a cartridge into a spool of film ready for editing, and projection.

Kids like us (and I would guess in the world of the movie "Super-8") would need a good allowance, or an understanding parent, to purchase a constant supply of film cartridges, not to mention a camera, and if you were sort of serious, an editing bench.

These were hand-cranked. You spooled the film through the viewfinder and you could watch the movie frame by frame.  There was a marker which punched a hole into the frame where the film was to be cut.

Then, the two ends of the film would have to be joined together.  There was a special "splicer",  which used either a special editing tape (with sprocket holes) or cement.  With cement, the emulsion (printed portion) of the film had to be scraped off, then the cement applied, and the ends joined together, overlapped slightly.  The cement actually melted the film for a stronger joint.

The splicer often cut one extra frame from each end of the film before scraping, so an editor had to mark each end of the film with an extra frame remaining.  It was a tedious and scary process, especially if you were editing your only print (copies were EXPENSIVE).  A wrong cut forced me to re-think the whole sequence!

And I loved it!! There is nothing like editing a film by hand, the satisfaction of getting the cut exactly on action, seeing a rhythm develop.  Editing my blog provides similar satisfactions (and it's a lot easier), but sitting at my bench with a mountain of "spaghetti" around me waiting to be shaped by my hands...it was one of the happiest activities of my life. 

Super-8 film was shot silent...we could not afford any sync-sound recording equipment, so we invested instead on a sound projector.  A finished film would be returned to the lab so that a magnetic recording strip could be added to the edge.  The projector doubled as a "tape recorder" with a microphone and a stereo input.  Music and sound effects were laid in first, and then voices were dubbed while we watched the film on the screen.

This is what my projector looked like:

Kids like us had heroes who were movie directors, editors, etc.  My heroes were Bob Fosse and David Bretherton, L.B Abbott, Stanley Kubrick...and I wanted to imitate them. 

If I made a movie like "Super-8", the kid behind the camera would obsess about his favorite movies and would attempt in a loving way to recreate the look and the effects.  ("Super-8" was set in 1979 and had a huge Spielberg influence and homage; I wonder if the kids in the film made a deliberate attempt to emulate actual movies?  In my film, they would).

We had to be creative.  We did our best to be "realistic", but sometimes we understood the charm of a certain amount of artifice.  As I got more comfortable with cutting my exposed film, I shot more...as much as our budget would allow.  We started to do more takes, more angles.  It sucked when the cartridge ran out in the middle of a perfect take. 

Interior shots were tough, because low-light film was grainy and poorly balanced for color. Plus, we had not experimented a lot with lighting, and had one flood light, which cast awful shadows.  We preferred the natural light of outdoors, and developed our material accordingly.  Also, our parents would have killed us if we re-arranged a room or created a set like Abrams did in his youthful movies.

And it was a process sometimes shrouded in secrecy because we didn't want to spoil the surprises of what we were doing.  Sometimes, though, we were ostentatious, because we felt so important as budding young filmmakers, and we wanted to be noticed.  We thought it might be our ticket to the big-time, to 35millimeter!

In my movie entitled "Super-8", I would remember.....

...Mounting the camera on a tripod and creating my first animation...credits forming out of Lego blocks.  What a thrill to see it actually work on the finished film

...Attempting to turn the basement over a la "The Poseidon Adventure", as I "animated" my sister in a chair sliding along the floor as I shot frame by frame and turned the angle of the camera slightly each time...Of course, we only managed to have her slide off the frame, as we were not allowed to drop furniture, etc, from the ceiling...

...Our first narrative film....my sister coming home from a vacation and everything going wrong, with Chaplin-like slapstick...

...Painstakingly cutting hours of footage of intramural football games, and using the "Clockwork Orange" soundtrack for a score, the synthesized Beethoven's 9th Symphony making a perfect background to rapidly paced runs and tackles, cutaways to a tense sideline audience, and a crescendo of quick cuts with the symphonic finale at the end....

...Editing many of my films, even vacation movies, with shock cuts and arresting angles, like Fosse did in "Cabaret"....

...Directing 15 school chums in a riotous chase film in the style of "the Sting".... costumes and everything, and taking over downtown to the amusement of passers-by.

...A "mood" film, which is what aspiring filmmakers did when their friends weren't available to appear as on-screen talent... I was just awakening to films from Sweden, turning on to Ingmar Bergman as taught by Roger Ebert on a show on our local PBS station before he got famous on "Sneak Previews.....Lots of light filtering through trees, slow panning shots, tracking shots achieved with the cameraman (me) sitting in a Radio Flyer wagon while a colleage pushed me....

Some day I will convert these vaulted films to digital format, and post them here....

And best of all, our summer re-doing "The Exorcist"...which was a huge hit in school, and even won an award.....

More about that in an upcoming post!

Friday, June 17, 2011

Coming Up: Super-8 Memories, and Paris in the 1920's

With the release of the heavily-publicized new film "Super-8", it will be fun to share with my readers my first-hand accounts of making Super-8 movies. 

I have not seen the film. But if I were to make a movie titled "Super-8", there are a few things I would have to include.  That will form the basis of my next two posts: how we made movies then with the spare and simple equipment, and the saga of our masterpiece, a satire on "The Exorcist" called, of course, "The Exorcism".

Speaking of looking back into the past, my  review of Woody Allen's "Midnight in Paris" is coming soon.  In short...Witty and Terrific Fun.......

See you all this weekend....

A Commercial Stirs Up Memories of Missed Pets

Every time it comes on TV it makes me want to cry a little.

It's that "Trouble" ad, for an insurance company, featuring that expressive little white dog who wants to protect his prized possession, a rawhide bone.

The soulful theme song, and the effective narrative in which that  rascal is sleepless with worry, stirs up primal feelings in me. 

It reminds me of my belief that dogs must never worry. It reminds me that one of my best purposes in life is to make a comfortable world for our animal companions.

No matter...The world always, always, takes these friends from us.  Canine, feline, avian... they are with us for such a short time...  And they are gone in spite of our love, and our best efforts to keep them with us forever.

So many animals have been a part of my life.  The ad causes me to think of those times when I helped my beloved animals out of their troubles: my St Bernards, Tippy and Cassie; my cockatiel Cookie;  and all of the other dogs and cats I cared for, past and present.

I mourn for for the creatures that we have all loved, and inevitably lost.

I miss our basset hound Maggie, and how she would dig a hole in the garden with her front paws, drop in her bone, and cover it  by pushing the dirt back over it with her snout.  She would always dig it back up a few minutes later.

I laugh thinking about how she would lay in front of the couch and whine, until we moved the couch to find a little piece of kibble, which she must have flung across the room weeks ago until it lodged there.

Her comfort and safety always came first.

When she ran away once, Mark was frantic, until he found her across the street, sitting with a bunch of kids as they all watched a soccer game. 

When she was bothered by her digestion, or itchy ears, or allergies, or arthritis in her bent little legs, we were consumed by healing her. When July 4th fireworks frightened her, we tried all kinds of comforting remedies, from tranquilizers to distracting play, until we discovered that her beef bone kept her pleasantly oblivious.

She was never mean, never snapped at us, but if we came too close to her bone, she only picked it up and ran from us a short distance.

No matter how much we loved her, it still came down to her last day, and the impossible task of saying goodbye.

And when I see the little white dog in the ad, with "Trouble" on the soundtrack, and his profound little worries, I regret all the trouble Maggie had in her life.

She would not see it that way, of course.  In spite of her having forgiven us (I am convinced), the ad still makes me a bit melancholy.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Weiner and Watergate

The endless coverage of Congressman Anthony Wiener "uncovered" says more about American prurience and American journalism than it does about the actual harm Wiener has done.

It's a strange coincidence: while this "scandal" plays out in the media and in the halls of our Government, the infamous Pentagon Papers, the history-shaking documents about the Viet Nam disaster leaked by Daniel Ellsberg in 1971, have just been declassified.  An unlikely connection between these two events has occurred to me.

When a conservative blogger got hold of some compromising photos, which Anthony Weiner allegedly took of his own undressed body and Tweeted to a number of females who are not his wife, a firestorm began.  Confronted with the as-yet unidentifiable evidence, Weiner compounded his immature mistake by at first lying about it, and then admitting the truth of it later in a humiliating press conference.  As irresponsible as I thought Andrew Breitbart's leak of the photos was, Weiner's fumbling dishonesty, to me, did the most damage. 

Soon, politicians from both parties reacted with self-righteous indignation, temporarily absolving themselves of their responsibility to work together on the economy and other issues pressing on a desperate American public. They provided a hungry press with all of the sound-bites and sanctimonious statements it needed to get a "story".  And then, these politicians boldly claimed that Weiner himself was the distraction.

Weiner must have been out of his mind to think he was invincible enough in his position to  continue on this path and get away with it.  To my mind, based on what I've read, his was an action of stupidity that was hurtful to his family.  He betrayed the trust of his constituents by not owning up to this mistake and explaining and apologizing at the outset, but it was not irrevocably damaging to his skillful ability to champion for his constituents' concerns. 

And yet, the media has insisted that this is big news.  Why?

Because Weiner exposed his body.  And because there is a public attitude that the human anatomy is naughty, shameful, taboo, and automatically salacious.

Again, I believe Weiner acted stupidly and badly misused social media. And yes, as Mr. Obama reasoned in an NBC interview yesterday, Weiner's photos are evidence that Weiner, a public servant, was himself distracted and not concentrating on the hard work he was elected to do.  For that reason alone, this should have been an internal matter, one between himself and his superiors, where he would have to account for himself, and have the hard conversation about his ability to serve. 

The real story here is his personal problem, of initiating or encouraging questionable social and sexual relationships, and the terrible repercussions that would have for his family and his professional life.  THAT would justify his retirement from politics. 

But it should never have become a big headline for three weeks, with government statements and appearances, just so the media could find more reasons to air pictures of Weiner's body.

It is we, the public, who are mostly to blame, for buying this stuff.  If the public could stop treating the human body as something taboo;  if we can stop turning the sight of a person's body (especially in private between consenting adults) into a scandal; if folks could get over their pre-adolescent sniggling over human anatomy; then items like this would become non-stories.

And the press would be forced to do its more important work...


In 1969, former Marine commander and high-level Pentagon official Daniel Ellsberg got hold of a 7,000-page document titled, "United States-Viet Nam Relations, 1945-1967: A Study Prepared By the Department of Defense."

Also known as "The Pentagon Papers."

Proof that several U.S. Presidents knew that Viet Nam was a quagmire; evidence that the U. S. Government systematically lied to the American public.  After immediately sending a photocopy to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, his conscience told him in 1971 to leak the entire document to 18 newspapers, including the Washington Post and the New York Times, which began to publish them.

This was Wiki Leaks without the Wiki.  This was a big, big deal then.

Another firestorm ensued, over press freedoms, over Presidential power, over truth.  Ellsberg turned himself in and was charged with treason.  To cast aspersions on Ellsberg's reliability, to show that he was "crazy", president Richard Nixon sent a team of henchmen to break into the room of Ellsberg's psychiatrist at the Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C., in order to steal documents to prove Ellsberg's incompetence.

This incident, along with allegations of illegal wiretapping, was doggedly pursued by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, which ultimately led to the publication of "All the President's Men", and began the disgrace and downfall of Richard Nixon, and his resignation from office in 1974.

Ellsberg was finally aquitted of all 12 felony counts on the grounds of government misconduct against him. 

(Read here for a riveting recent CNN interview with Ellsberg as he speaks about the recent declassification)

Since the Pentagon papers and the Watergate affair, American journalism enjoyed unprecedented freedoms and a global presence unimaginable in 1971.  The New York Times won a legal appeal against the Attorney General's order to cease publication of the Papers:
On June 18, 1971, the Washington Post began publishing its own series of articles based upon the Pentagon Papers;[3] Ellsberg gave portions to editor Ben Bradlee. That day, Assistant U.S. Attorney General William Rehnquist asked the paper to cease publication. After it refused, Rehnquist unsuccessfully sought an injunction at a U.S. district court. The government appealed that decision, and on June 26 the Supreme Court agreed to hear it jointly with the New York Times case.[17] Fifteen other newspapers received copies of the study and began publishing it.[3]
On June 30, 1971, the Supreme Court decided, 6–3, that the government failed to meet the heavy burden of proof required for prior restraint injunction. The nine justices wrote nine opinions disagreeing on significant, substantive matters.

"Only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government. And paramount among the responsibilities of a free press is the duty to prevent any part of the government from deceiving the people and sending them off to distant lands to die of foreign fevers and foreign shot and shell."
—Justice Black[18]   (From Wikipedia)
So now, how is the press and media using this freedom? Where are the crusading Woodwards and Bernsteins? Who is going after those who destroyed our economy, pursuing and exposing the truth with such fervor as to topple the powerful?  Who is revealing the real issues behind our current activity in Afghanistan and now Libya, the unbridled use of drones, the circumvention of Constitutional Power, the lining of Contractor's pockets? Who will find sources to tell us who is donating millions to the campaigns of politicians who base their political careers on the exploitation of the helpless and the pandering to the hateful and ignorant? 

Now the press spins the whistleblowers into the culprits.  Now the leak of a few pathetic photographs is big news.  Compared to the impact of the Pentagon papers--- No.  There is no comparison.  Only a sad connection.

Yes, there are much more important ways the press can serve the public.  I want to see the return of journalists as responsible investigators and attack-dogs.  Are those days over?
How will another look at Anthony Weiner's bare chest benefit anyone?

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Tony Love--Tuesday Journal

I loved, loved, loved Sunday's Tony Awards broadcast.

Jillian joined Mark and me as we gathered in our living room, surrounded by veggie pizza, shrimp, salads, chips and hummus, and Jillian's homemade cupcakes, for our Third Annual Tony Award party.

As Neil Patrick Harris launched into his opening number about how Broadway is "Not Just For Gays Anymore", our spirits were high and remained there for the whole evening.

I enjoy the Tony Awards more than any other award show. Even though I feel more personal stake in the Oscars, for pure enjoyment and creative inspiration nothing beats the Tony telecast.  I love to learn about the newest plays in New York, and my anticipation of their eventual arrival in Chicago increases my interest.  Sure, I make mental picks and predictions; this year I was especially fascinated by what I read about "The War Horse". 

But since I have never seen any Broadway production before the Tony's were presented, I don't have the same anxiety as I do for the Academy Awards.  So I relax and simply enjoy whatever happens.  I have the same giddy feeling I had when I started watching the Oscars as a kid, before I became fiercely protective of the movies I hoped would win.

And the Tonys are beautifully focused on the shows and performers. It's great to see old masters like the graceful Vanessa Redgrave as well as young talents like the agile Daniel Radcliffe.  The "clips", or live scenes from the nominated shows, draw me in and make me feel like I'm part of the theatrical effort, part of this theatrical community.  The feeling of being included is inspiring, empowering.  I almost believe that I can still make it in this arena someday.

Harris was as witty and refreshing as a host could possibly be. Actually, if the Tony producers next year decided to have two co-hosts, Harris and Hugh Jackman proved that they would be absolute dynamite sharing the hosting duties.  Are you listening, Oscar?

Along with his mischievous and hilarious opening number, Harris stole the show again with his "rap" wrap, delivering an amazing summary (written during the show by Lin-Manuel Miranda, one of the writers of "In The Heights") with aplomb.  He just might be my new hero.

Other moments I loved:

--The exciting choreography in the segments from "Anything Goes" and "How to Succeed in Business...".
--The resurrection and triumph of "The Normal Heart" as Revival of the Year.  I read this play years ago, along with other work by Larry Kramer (and I adored his screenplay for the 1970 film "Women in Love").  I know he is a sort of controversial figure, but his acceptance speech was gracious and moving.
--Ditto Ellen Barkin, another winner for "...Heart", an actress I first loved in "Tender Mercies" and "Diner". 
--Joey, the "horse" from "War Horse", almost made me cry, as the puppetry so perfectly captured the heart of this animal.
--The number from Stephen Sondheim's "Company", a special musical production with Jon Cryer, Patti LuPone, Neil Patrick Harris, Stephen Colbert, Martha Plimpton and others, slated to open in movie theaters for a limited run starting this weekend in select cities.  Great fun, excellent music, performed and filmed live with the New York Philharmonic.

--Frances McDormand, seemingly dressed in character in her win for Best Actress in "Good People".  For some reason her casual garb seemed appropriate.
--The South Park guys lauded for "Book of Mormon"..although I hoped the number performed from the show would be more uproarious.  Maybe there were censorship issues.
--The announcement that "Spiderman" would open after---what? six months of previews? And of course, the question on everyone's mind....will it figure in the Tony Awards of 2012?

Here's a clip showing the creation and rehearsal of the closing rap number that summarized the whole show. Enjoy!

Monday, June 13, 2011

What Makes a Movie “Good”?


Everyone who goes to a movie has an opinion about it. Expressing one’s like or dislike of a movie, talking about a scene we found most funny or disturbing, comparing it to a movie we liked better (or worse), quoting a favorite line of dialogue, or dishing about the appearance of an actor or costume, goes back to our first experiences with moviegoing, and our first taste of what could someday develop into true film criticism.

Most of this post-movie chat is subjective. We don’t really need to explain WHY a movie made us feel a certain way. But woe to anyone who disparages a film in front of a friend who holds it in high esteem! Casual dismissal of a well-loved film, without a reasoned argument or explanation for one’s subjective opinion, will cause at least a few heated discussions, and at worst a certain amount of ostracism.

But sometimes, we lack the language or background to explain why a movie really shakes us, or brings us to a new level of happiness, or moves us, or gives us a spark of creative energy. Or worse yet, why a movie annoys us, makes us suspect we were witness to something dishonest, or even damaging. Those few energetic or sensitive souls who struggle early on with these explanations will someday write film criticism.

And those who seek out and read intelligent film critics who write about difficult movies, in order to test their own theories and give voice to their feelings; those that make exciting connections between the literature they read and the storytelling methods on screen;, those that truly study and understand the unique way cinema can make us see the world differently, will, if they follow the path, become great critics.

Some moviegoers, who have never taken a film class or made a film, or even studied literature, theater, art, history or philosophy, feel qualified to write movie reviews. Most of us would not put much trust in any “experts” who never worked in their stated area of expertise, let alone studied it, or any other subject likely to deepen our understanding of it.

Still, some of us take an inexperienced but zeitgeist-y reviewer to heart, even jump on the bandwagon, without considering the source, or without listening to our own hearts and minds. Some of these critics can be very contentious, and draw a line in the sand rather than invite reasoned discourse. We want so much to be part of a conversation, that we can forget our personal credo, and abandon those hard-won criteria that we learned to evaluate works of art, even in an art form as commercial as popular cinema.

Does anyone else sometimes think that Hollywood is listening to these contentious taste-makers, while ignoring those that want something better? True, it’s harder to live up to that standard, but where are the deep thinkers in Hollywood, the readers of great literature? (There are a lot of books written in the last 50 years that would make excellent, relevant films…books without cartoon illustrations, that is).

No, don’t answer that… I know that the industry has changed, and to lament that fact will only isolate me on my porch-swing of nostalgia. But I suspect I’m not alone…

(More power to the blockbusters and special effects. But why invent the technology to make movies seem more “realistic” when we are only applying that technology to “fantasy” which has no resemblance to the world around us? )

Anyway, I think it’s necessary for me as a film critic to step back and re-evaluate those criteria that I use to judge a film. It won’t do simply to proclaim how “cool” something is, or that it held my interest. I have to move beyond my childhood subjectivity and make a case for my subjective feelings. The more I’m willing to become well-rounded in arts and history and current events, the better my writing becomes, and the more trustworthy and convincing I can be as a critic.

So that even when we strongly disagree, you can look at my dissenting opinion and say, “Yes, I can see perfectly well how this film can be seen in this light, even though I have a perfectly reasoned view to the contrary.”

What makes a film “good”?  I would like to think that there is a universally-agreed upon set of characteristics, but for now, I will stick to my personal manifesto.

No one summarized my own thoughts better than the late Sydney Lumet:

"While the goal of all movies is to entertain, the kind of film in which I believe goes one step further. It compels the spectator to examine one facet or another of his own conscience. It stimulates thought and sets the mental juices flowing."--Sidney Lumet
1. A good movie should be competently made. A great film uses cinematic language to tell a story, create meaning, make the heart soar, make it weep, and make me want to create something as soon as it’s done.

2. The subject matter should appeal to me in some way. This is perhaps the most subjective criterion of all. I have seen many films on the recommendation of trusted critics that I would not have seen otherwise. Many times I am glad I left my comfort zone. More lately, however, I have noticed that what you see is what you get. Comic-book movies just don’t do it for me, no matter how they try to pretend they’re something more. I’ll hold out for something original, something that deals with some recognizable human condition, even if it’s comedic, or fantastical. I am also more likely to champion for a film if it appeals to me on a basic level, because I understand it better.

3. A good movie is honest in its intentions and the way it’s done. Maybe I’ve seen so many movies that I can tell pretty quickly when a film is moving in an intriguing way, or if it’s merely a commercial enterprise that will be as forgettable as a happy meal. I trust my instincts, especially when I think I’m being sold something or pandered to….and I work hard to try to describe this in my writing. I don’t use movies like video games. I avoid movies that sell themselves like a drunken party…for cheap laughs and a queasy guilty feeling afterward.

4. Technology can be awesome in the service of telling a story or developing a theme, but tiresome when it’s all that is there. I can appreciate the effects-work to create a tsunami in “Hereafter”; I recognize how amazing it is at the same time it functions as a chilling plot development. Much of the work in “Lord of the Rings” trilogy was truly astounding; but at least an hour’s worth of battle-scene overkill could have been deleted with no harm to the three films.

5. A good movie exists on many levels, and is comfortable with ambiguity if the work demands it. One of the most wonderful multi-layered works that I will never tire of is “Cabaret”.

6. Good movies exist like other great works of art in that there is always something new to see, something to re-consider, or, like time spent with good friends, the promise of a delightful, thought-provoking, or emotional experience. 

7. Good movies can deal with any kind of subject or imagery. As I get older, though, I more seriously question the need for certain depictions of cruelty, expulsions of various bodily fluids, and reliance on pyrotechnics and destruction. Movies that claim to require these, I hold to a higher standard. 
(I dislike censorship; but I appreciate the discipline of a filmmaker who thinks hard before throwing a taboo subject or horrendous image on the screen, and does so with a deeper artistic intent.)

8. Certain elements can elevate a good movie into greatness, like terrific performances, a wonderful music score, the creative use of montage and editing (not always rapid-cutting), movement within a scene, or even complete silence and stillness, beautiful lensing and lighting, and not the least, excellent writing.  When I can identify with well-developed screen characters, directed with wisdom and sensitivity, I can work through my personal psychodramas, even if I have nothing in common with those characters.

9. Good, even great movies, can challenge us, but are never boring. What some see as “boring” can be fascinating to someone who brings more into the experience. One should use the word “boring” sparingly, or never. We all appreciate some great films that would hold no interest for many average moviegoers.

10. A good, even great movie, ultimately gets me in touch with the best part of my humanity, either by eliciting an emotion, inspiring me to creative and practical action, or stimulating thought to effect a more sensitive way of seeing some part of the world around me.

Of course, we all have our guilty pleasures too, which I will discuss in an upcoming post.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Temple Grandin and "Temple Grandin"

I do not subscribe to HBO, so I usually catch up late with their acclaimed films and series.  "Angels in America" and "Six Feet Under" have been two of my favorite works of film in any medium.  Now I can add "Temple Grandin" to this list.

I knew nothing of the real Temple Grandin until I picked up and read one of her books, "Animals in Translation".  In this candid and brave story, Grandin describes her struggles with autism and the way her disability altered her ways of thinking and perceiving the world.  As she discovered her affinity for animals and her ability to "think" like they do (in images) and empathize with their behavior, she completed an advanced degree, developed into an animal advocate, and re-designed a less cruel existence and end for farm animals that are raised for food. 

Sinclair Lewis and "The Jungle" aside, many holding pens and slaughterhouses are still terribly cruel places for animals who make an ultimate sacrifice for human consumption.  Even in the best of conditions, many feel that the idea of animal slaughter is upsetting, distasteful, and unnecessary. Grandin took a practical approach, accepting the fact that as long as these animals are still being bred and raised for food, she encouraged and championed for a more humane end to their lives. 

However, even an organization like Mercy for Animals, which leads a growing movement to completely end the slaughter of animals in favor of vegetarian and vegan lifestyles, recognize her expertise, calling her "the world's leading expert on farmed-animal welfare... (and) an associate professor of livestock behavior at Colorado State University and an animal welfare advisor to the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the meat industry".  Her letters condemning the horrible conditions and animal treatment at many livestock farms are frequently published on the Mercy for Animals web site. (Here's another link)

I started reading Grandin's book because I love reading about animals and animal behavior.  When I finished, Grandin had become sort of a personal hero of mine, overcoming her disability, which was little understood then, educating herself and using her unique passion and understanding of animals for a greater good.

Claire Danes captures Dr. Grandin's mannerisms and speech patterns in the HBO film "Temple Grandin", but this is much more than an act of mimicry.  Danes found deep reservoirs of anger and fear and courage to reveal Grandin's passion and single-mindedness from the inside out.  Scenes from Grandin's early years are especially compelling and entertaining.  Danes wins us over to this difficult yet inspiring character, and helps us feel her rages and extreme bouts of panic, which she learned to alleviate with her invention of a "squeeze machine".  By discovering that cattle calmed down when held tightly in place and "hugged" by the walls of their holding pens, Grandin used her incredible skill to engineer and build her own device for her school dorm room. This is an especially ironic and creative incident in the film, as we understand Grandin's terror of human physical contact.

From her school days to her work with the department of agriculture, "Temple Grandin" is well-paced and authentic in every detail.  Director Mick Jackson uses cinematic language to suggest Grandin's weird and wonderful perceptions of the world.  The film is carried by Danes with terrific support from Julia Ormond as her perplexed mother, Catherine O'Hara as her understanding Aunt, and David Strathairn as a sympathetic and forward-thinking professor who believes in Grandin and mentors her through her education.

This film was the deserving recipient of seven Emmy Awards, a Golden Globe Award, an Eddie (film editor's guild) award, a Screen Actors Guild Award, a Director's Guild Award, and a Peabody Award. 
I urge you to see it for inspiration, information, and understanding.  It's unlike most films you've been likely to have seen, and it's one you will feel better about yourself having seen.