Tuesday, August 30, 2011

A Memorial For A 1979 Aviation Disaster

On May 25, 1979,  American Airlines flight 191 bound for Los Angeles, lost an engine shortly after takeoff, and crashed in a field near O'Hare Airport.  All 258 passengers and 13 crew members, plus two on the ground, were killed.

It remains the deadliest aviation accident ever to occur on United States soil.

I remember driving my sister to a job interview that afternoon.  The office was near O'Hare Airport, not far from our parents' house.  I decided to wait in the car while she was interviewed.  The office was near a large construction site, where an enormous mound of gravel had been deposited.  There was no view around it, only of the sky above it.  (The interview later proved successful; my sister got her summer job.)

All of a sudden I saw a flame rise from beyond the gravel mound.  At first it appeared as though someone's barbecue grill had simply flared up; but as soon as I re-gained perspective, and saw how the flame, and  the black smoke, kept leaping into the air, I knew that it was some kind of enormous fire.  Later, when we heard the news of the crash, I was rendered speechless by the stories of the rescuers' inability to find anything but the charred remains of the people on board, scattered across the field..

32 years later, on October 15, a memorial will be erected in the city of Des Plaines, close to O'Hare, to commemorate those lost in the tragic accident. 

The memorial was made possible by the efforts of a group of sixth-graders from Decatur Classical School in the north side neighborhood of West Rogers Park.  Their principal, Kim Jockl, lost her parents on the flight as they were embarking on a second honeymoon to Hawaii. The students, inspired by Jockl's story and unhappy that the survivors never received a sense of closure for their grief, began a campaign of calls and letters to politicians, the FAA, American Airlines, and victims' families.

(See the full story in the Chicago Tribune HERE)

The memorial will consist of a 2-foot high curved wall, with the names of the deceased carved into it, and surrounded by a red maple and other plants.  American Airlines paid $21,500 for the cost of the memorial.

Although Labor Day is coming soon, this time of year is seeming more appropriately like a Memorial Day.  

This poignant story, about a group of young students who undertook a mission to comfort the survivors of a decades-old disaster, and to remember that event and the lives that were lost, was one worth remembering.  I wanted to make sure I did my small part to ensure that these students, not to mention the victims of the accident and their families, would not be
lost in the shuffle.

Monday, August 29, 2011

US Politics--Bachmann, Perry, and...Karen Armstrong

It's just too easy to poke fun.... The resemblances are far too striking:

A couple of weeks ago, Newsweek magazine published a photograph of Republican Presidential Candidate-hopeful Michelle Bachmann.  The photo, captioned "The Queen of Rage", stirred a controversy.  Critics complained that the photo made her look crazed, and did not reflect her true nature.

I am not so sure...

It is so easy to satirize these presumptive leaders, to turn them into parodies of themselves, to marginalize them and insist that they are simply eating at the children's table of politics, and can never emerge as leaders of the Free World.

(Besides...I think I would prefer to have snarling dogs running our government...At least they are honest about their feelings, and you always know where you stand with them.)

But we need to pay attention to these figures, and what they stand for, in order to understand their unlikely appeal, and to work around the irrationality and misplaced anger of their disenchanted, disenfranchised, and some of them unfortunately ignorant, followers. 

Otherwise, the rest of us might soon have to dance, reluctantly, to their tune.

The main point is that Michelle Bachmann, and her closest current rival Rick Perry, would not in themselves be prominent, threatening, nor even worthy of serious discussion, unless they happened to represent the ideas of a significant number of American citizens.

And that is frightening, unnerving, and sad.

Among other things, I have lately read and heard a lot about the political-religious doctrine called Dominionism, to which both Bachmann and Perry and others, especially among Tea Partiers, are connected. (It is cynically uncertain whether these political hopefuls actually believe in this idea.  Of course, they use it to their advantage.) 

Dominionism is a radical Christian sect that is gaining strength. In a nutshell, it states that their followers are entitled to hold dominion over the world, and will do this by infiltrating political systems, and expel the "demonic" ideas of abortion, homosexuality, and all non-Christian beliefs. Dominionists believe they must do this to bring about the end-times as prophecied in the Bible, to exorcise non-believers and prepare believers for the end of the world.

For more about this idea that is shaping American politics in an ominous way, check out the article by Michelle Goldberg in The Daily Beast.  

NPR's Fresh Air Interview from last week with Rachel Tabachnick, who researches the impact of the religious right and end-time narratives on American politics, was informative (if ominous). Check out also Tabachnick's writing on the web site, Talk To Action.

Best of all, I highly recommend the writing of Religious Historian and Theorist Karen Armstrong.  I found Armstrong's books, and read them immediately following the 9/11 tragedy. She helped guide me out of the darkness of my own ignorance to gain a better understanding of religion, conflict, fundamentalism, and politics.  Her book, "The Battle for God", is a lucid and comprehensive piece of work, well-researched, about why religious fundamentalism takes hold in societies, and why it is a major political force in today's world. (Read her interview on Faith L. Justice's blog HERE)

Armstrong, a former nun and self-proclaimed "freelance monotheist", goes deep but retains a conversational, commonsense approach to her vast and complex subject.

According to Armstrong, pre-industrial societies held to the notions of "mythos" and "logos".  "Logos" were practical , rational, scientific, and logical bases to run societies. "Mythos" was a concept similar to a primitive form of psychology, in which common stories, or "myths" were used to give meaning to peoples' lives. Religion was one form of mythos.  As science grew in spectacular fashion in industrial societies, myths lost their power, and those who clung to them became frightened, and needed some guiding force to comfort them or put meaning into their lives.  Their very existence was threatened until they were able to look up to leaders who assuaged their fears and created new myths.

Soon myths began to replace the rational and scientific bases for a reasonable society...and the battle rages on our political stage today.  Abortion and homosexuality are seen as just the most prominent symbols of a threatening, modern scientific existence.

I highly recommend Karen Armstrong's books, especially "Battle for God".

The rise of the Rick Perrys and the Michelle Bachmanns, by legitimizing and reinforcing the most irrational fears of the citizens who look up to them to lead them out of a world that terrifies them, is similar to the rise of religious fundamentalism. 

Perry and Bachmann and their ilk are successful because people are scared, and the way these political-religious figures exploit that fear is nothing short of demonic.  And these frightened people are also vocal, and also easily led---to the polls.  That's the most frightening of all.

Running mates?

Friday, August 26, 2011

Film Criticism, Inspiration, Trash and Art: 2011 Summer Films, Part 3

"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."--the late Sidney Lumet
Do Film Critics still matter?  In spite of a growing number of films that rake in millions in spite of critics' misgivings; in spite of large segments of the moviegoing public who were raised on mindless cinema, and have fallen prey to the artless and cynical machinations of a film industry that seems intent (at least all summer) on removing the last vestiges of human sensitivity from our movie screens---

Yes!  I do believe film criticism matters.  Good film critics are the stewards of the best that cinema can give us.  They stand defiant against the willful infantilizing of movies, and are a voice of reason in the preservation of a popular art form that thinks it must devolve into a crude, ignorant amusement park to survive.  The words of Sidney Lumet above speak to the universal pleasures of moviegoing.  Good movie critics, deep down, believe Lumet's words in their own way, create their own philosophy, and apply it to their view of what's on the screen.

Here is a final reflection on the state of popular film, and the role of film criticism, in view of an overall lackluster 2011 Summer movie season.

Of course there were a few bright spots, if you were lucky enough to live near a large city, and  able to fight traffic, and ante up the premium ticket prices, for the privilege of watching movies that aimed higher and honored the emotions and intellect of its audience. 

My bright spots: Terrrence Malick's ethereal history of the universe by way of a small-town family; a Korean poet overcoming Alzheimer's disease; a difficult, challenging parable of twins who must honor their Mothers' dying wish; Danish schoolboys learning life's lessons about loyalty and revenge; a dreamy, meditative wonder from Thailand; and of course, a fairy tale by Woody Allen.  Most recently, something crazy, stupid and lovable (a review in an upcoming post).

It is my privilege, also, to have found writers in the blogosphere who not only embrace contemporary trends, and from whom I learn quite a bit; but who also care about great film, and regardless of the era,  find relevance and universal themes and emotional resonance in "classics" (these days, anything older than, say five years). Many novice filmgoers and bloggers dismiss these movies that "appeal to older people" as insignificant, clinging to an immature belief that only technology and noise are cool. 

Mature film critics contribute to the humanities, and struggle to achieve an understanding of the human condition or gain an elevated sense of beauty in all its possibilities. They seek that in all arts, even as they are entertained, and require nothing less from film.  Great critics can appreciate and sometimes enjoy inept or shallow work that is otherwise harmless, but will not stand for portrayals of degradation for their own sake.

The bloggers I follow regularly are true critics in fact and spirit. They have matured in their outlook on film, and its relation to the world in which we live.  Many of these same bloggers express dismay in their inability to find new films that truly interest them.

We all love to go to the movies, especially in the summer. I long for summer days when I am excited every week by one or two films that will stoke my passion for movies that feeds on itself all year.  It saddens me to see writers and movie-lovers with such promise feel depressed about an art form that should be immensely pleasurable.

Good film critics understand their own unique point of view and infuse their reviews with it proudly.  Good critics often stand alone in their observation that, in spite of the disagreeing roar of the masses , the Emperor has no clothes.  Sometimes great critics feel isolated when speaking their truth about films that have everyone else abuzz. First and foremost should be the work itself. Things like awards and cult-followings are snapshots of cultural history, and window-dressing. Critics with integrity know this.

A good, fair critic makes reasonable criticisms and can support them with examples from the work, or an effective rationale for one's feelings based on experience.  Bitchy critics can be fun, but it's too easy to go for the insult, especially as an anonymous reviewer on-line.

Good film critics also champion for films that aspire to show humanity in its highest evolution and give us something beautiful.  Or, if films portray the world's sororow and ugliness, good gritics will praise those that don't simply leave us to wallow, or exploit our baser instincts, but provide the catharsis that cleanses our cluttered life-paths. 

Good film critics try to understand film and its relation to culture, pop or otherwise. They are good students of other arts, and know how to apply that knowledge for a deeper understanding of those films that deserve the comparisons.  They are also are astute vessels of film history, and understand  the differences between homage, update, re-imagining, and rip-off. 

Good critics have fun at the movies. They are able to look deeply into a film and extract elements for discussion, and reflect them back onto the work, apply them to the movement of culture, or take away a life lesson or new point of view.  Great film critics can have a "running conversation" with the film and the filmmakers.

They refuse to fall victim to the exploitations of the Industry, and often can recognize the elements of a film that will not appeal to them (like reading ingredients on a food label and avoiding what one dislikes, or is even sickened by.) 

That's why many of us have had that lonely, left-out feeling during the 2011 Summer Season.

A great critic writes well.  He or she can use words to do what is often only possible in sound and image: describe their unique experience of the film, and make the reader "see" the movie as though for the first time.  Whether you agree or disagree with a film critic, you will always come away with vivid images and feelings from the movie.

Those mature film essayists that are able to rise above the babel that on-line movie-writing has become, can influence the kinds of films that eventually get made or distributed. Or, at least, can convince reasonable moviegoers to think differently about the films they see, and the moviegoing choices they make.

Great film critics enhance one's enjoyment of being a movie-lover.  They help us see differently. They can also confirm our own views, and articulate them almost better than we can.  They also help us give voice to our disagreements with them, and thus strengthen our points of view.

Sometimes a great work of art hangs on a gallery wall, available for all to see, and does not always get noticed, or understood by a common viewer. But one who is touched and moved by that work has experienced an aesthetic pleasure for a lifetime.  Film criticism can create its own aesthetic.  It is an art form unto itself.  Good critics matter. They must keep on, and elevate movie making and moviegoing to the highest levels of honesty, entertainment, and enlightenment.

I want to close with another tribute to my all-time favorite critic, Pauline Kael. In 1968, she wrote a 40+-page essay called "Trash, Art, and the Movies", which influenced professional critics and amateur moviegoers for decades. 

When I  despair of ever becoming an influential critic, or give up on all hope of movies ever being great, I am inspired by some of Kael's words here. Of course, I violently disagreed with a lot of the essay.  But she made such a good case that I was able to create my own manifesto, which evolves regularly. I will come back to this essay in the future, as I struggle with the art of film criticism. For now, I leave you with these words from Kael:

"A good movie can take you out of your dull funk and the hopelessness that so often goes with slipping into a theater; a good movie can make you feel alive again, in contact... Good movies make you care, make you believe in possibilities again.  If somewhere in the Hollywood-entertainment world someone has managed to break through with something that speaks to you, then it isn't all corruption.  The movie doesn't have to be great; it can be stupid and empty and still you can have the joy of a good performance, or the joy of just a good line... Sitting there alone or painfully alone because those with you do not react as you do, you know there must be others perhaps in this very theater...or surely in other theaters in this city, now, in the past or future, who react as you do.  And because movies are the most total and encompassing art form we have, these reactions can seem the most personal and, maybe the most important, imaginable...

"If we've grown up at the movies, we know that good work is continuous not with the academic, respectable tradition but with the glimpses of something good in trash, but we want the subversive gesture carried to the domain of discovery. Trash has given us an appetite for art."
~from "Going Steady: Film Writings 1968-1969", Pauline Kael

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

A Brief Intermission: If You Want To Sell Me Something....

... let animals make the pitch!
This might be one of the funniest ads I have ever seen.... short and very sweet....

The mellifluous hound is especially suited for a nightclub gig!

Tomorrow I will return with more on the 2011 Movie Season...
(Coming soon: American Politics: Bachman, Perry, and fundamentalism...)

Monday, August 22, 2011

The 2011 Summer Movie Season PART 2--Other Views

Sometimes I think that maybe it's just me....

I love movies, and I have loved them since as far back as I can remember.  I have spent a lifetime watching them, thinking about them, writing about them, and reading reviews and other movie-related articles.  Slowly over time, I have built up my own aesthetic, supported by the opinions of professional critics I have loved and followed, honed by discussion and debate with friends and other movie-lovers, and borne out of a growing confidence in my own critical tastes and instincts.

And of late, it all seems irrelevant.  Is my kind of film becoming extinct?   Has my feast become the few rich crumbs the film industry condescends to throw my way? Has my cup of tea dried up? 

Actually, millions of film-goers might disagree with me.  For them, moviegoing is supposed to be fun, that's all, and they have voted with their time and pocketbooks for the kinds of movies they want to see.

It wasn't always so.  Mainstream movies, while always meant to entertain, had during my formative years also become experiences of great aesthetic pleasure, artifacts and reflections of history past and present, and a way to look at and make sense of the troubled eras that produced them.  These films played on screens all summer long. And teenagers and college-aged students attended again and again and made them hits.

Does anyone else feel that something has been amiss with the summer movie season, especially this summer? Am I the only one feeling left out? Is it just me? 

Well, after doing some reading in various journals and on-line publications, I discovered that I might not be as alone as I thought I was:

--On August 9th, local NPR station WBEZ aired a brief interview with Kim Masters, journalist with the Hollywood Reporter.  She discussed a paradox this Summer: While box office was up, actual attendance was down.  She explained that the reason could be both the cost of tickets and the lackluster quality of movies overall.  When given a choice audiences are choosing the 2-D over the 3-D version of the same films.  The old "franchises" that have spawned numerous sequels are becoming tired.  Only three movies were mega-hits, which may account for the inflated box-office figures: "Transformers", "Harry Potter", and "Pirates of the Caribbean".  As Masters put it, "You notice there aren't a lot of smart movies for grown-ups to talk about this summer."

--Leslie Stonebreaker of the New York Press broke down the season by film, with each film's budget and box-office to date, and brief representative clips from reviews of each film.  By her count, the big movies, defined as having opened in over 3.000 US theaters and had budgets of over $100 million, included: "eight...action films, six...sequels, four ...based on comics, and three.. animated."  She goes on to comment, "Most haven’t yet made back what was invested in production, and few will be remembered by the end of August. Was it worth it?"

One of the more interesting analyses of how moviegoing has changed, and why that change has made the big films underperform was written by Darren Franich of EW.com's PopWatch. He describes the change as a "culture of leaks".  At one time movies like "E.T." would appear in theaters, and people would go, and talk about them a year later.  Now, official, stage-managed "leaks" by ComicCon and others, or accidental, unofficial leaks (by paparazzi, TMZ, etc.)  give movie fans so much minutiae about films before their release (he discusses "Dark Knight Rises" as a current example) that the result is that  the movies hit the screen,they are duly attended, and that's the end of the conversation.  Enthusiasm is already hot for next year's summer blockbusters, rolled out in the trailers.

According to Frainch, "This is why the blockbuster season of 2011 has felt so particularly uninspired. It’s not that the movies are necessarily worse than they were 10 years ago (although nothing released 10 years ago was even half as bad as Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides). It’s just that very few of the movies were even half as interesting as the chatter that led up to their release."  Studios must realize that there is so much built-in attention to these movies before release, that there is little incentive to create something memorable, because interest in them naturally falls off once they hit the screens. Or, as Frainch states it, "...It helps to remember that, in a weird way, the biggest movies of summer 2011 aren’t coming out until 2012."

Finally, there's a fascinating debate by two tech-savvy members of the "golden demographic" (once again, Darren Frainch, film loyalist, and Adam B. Vary, videogame supporter,) who, in another awesome EW.com PopWatch essay, debate the future of movies, and whether video games are already supplanting movies as THE pop-culture art-form.

The essence of this debate is something I have noticed for years, most evident since the release of "Lord of the Rings":  Movies are trying to look more like video games, and video games are trying to adopt the realism and storytelling aesthetic of movies.  Here's a fascinating quote by Vary, who defends the future of videogames, as he comments on the satisfactions of "old" movies vs. current ones:

"...if you press me to stack up my favorite videogames against my favorite movies, not only would the movies pile be much higher, just the act of stacking them would cause me to get misty...
But you know what else is true about the films in that pile?...  A lot of them are really old.   (But) I... am talking about the movies of today. What big, non-Pixarian film of the past three or four years could you honestly add to your Favorite of Favorites?

Of course, there are small films like The Kids Are All Right or Beginners that still captivate me. But if I’m being brutally honest, even a movie as satisfying as Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — Part 2 is still a shadow of the experience of reading the book it is based on. I feel like such a fusty crank saying this, but the vast majority of mainstream movies today truly are just sound and fury, signifying nothing. They are racing to see which one can be the most like, well, a videogame.  

Videogames today, on the other hand, are in a really interesting place. Yes, they are imperfect. ...But I can see them striving to give us something we’ve never experienced before, to hook us into a big story, and to reinvent how we absorb that story. In some ways, they feel like the movies of 100 years ago, as early filmmakers figured out what the visual grammar of cinema would be. So, really, videogames are trying their damnedest to be more like movies."

What Vary is championing is the aesthetic satisfaction of old movies, satisfactions he sees are being infused into his favorite games. He laments the insignificance of today's films.

I believe the motion picture industry, while trying to pander to viewers like Vary, (who willingly empty their wallets for the sake of thrills, peer pressure, or habit), is actually harming itself.  By not crafting the kinds of films that used to provide artistic and intellectual excitement (while remaining entertaining), Vary and his peers will continue to turn to videogames...which I believe can never replace the unique pleasure that a great film can deliver.  Hollywood can manage the "leaks" with quality films, and get future film-buffs interested.

And when young viewers become disenchanted with the fare they are receiving at their local theaters, Hollywood has forever lost a loyal base of film enthusiasts for future generations.

Film critics can be a big part of the solution...in my Part 3.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

The 2011 Summer Movie Season PART 1--An Introduction

"Scream 4," "Thor," "Bridesmaids," "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides," "The Hangover Part II," "Kung Fu Panda 2," "Fast Five," "Green Lantern," "Cars 2," "Transformers: Dark of the Moon, "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2," "Captain America" , "Cowboys and Aliens," "Conan the Barbarian," "Super-8,"  "The Change-Up," "The Smurfs," "Final Destination 5," "Spy Kids in 4-D"!, "Friends With Benefits,"  "Mr. Poppers Penguins,"  "X-Men First Class", "Horrible Bosses," . . .

"The American movie industry has finally become a playground for the infantile, the creatively-bankrupt, and the mentally stunted techno-geeks and businessmen who run it." 

That was my first thought after once again perusing the local movie listings, and finding screen after screen that offered the following: amusement park rides, superheroes, sequels to amusement park rides and superheroes (and sequels to THOSE), animated kiddie fodder, humor aimed below the waist, (front and back), robots, creatures, fantasy-worlds, self-absorbed romantic morality comedies, and a small sprinkling of serious-minded films (one or two of which I had already seen,weeks ago) that will almost certainly be pulled from release before I have time to see them.

("Tree of Life", "Midnight in Paris", "Cave of Forgotten Dreams", "Crazy Stupid Love"...and some interesting international fare...were available, if you could find them, or travel to see them.)

Now, I maintain that there is room, from the "blue" list above, for any and all of these on our movie screens.  The problem is, these days, that is about all we have from which to choose. 

Hollywood has skewed the banquet:  instead of offering so many great savory "dishes" that we hardly have any room for dessert, we now serve up sweets as the main course, and so there's little taste remaining for something substantial, that is emotionally and intellectually "nourishing".

Those who make millions of dollars serving up these overheated "leftovers"  know that the "golden demographic" of moviegoers, mostly teen and pre-teen (the prime target of most movies today) will eagerly consume a steady diet of sweets and junk food if it is the only thing offered to them.  And when this audience buys millions of dollars worth of tickets, like lemmings, the Movie Pushers justify making more of the same because "it's what makes money."  And they DO make money...however the tide seems to have turned, as I shall explore later.

Meanwhile, audiences' critical "teeth" are slowly rotting, and although viewers have had their fill, they are starving and don't know it.  By the time there is the realization that there is something more sustaining in movies that is no longer readily available to us (but which used to be found commonly in "old" movies), it's almost too late to break the addiction to what is practically the only choice available on movie screens to consume.

The movies, which can provide a cultural touchstone, stir emotions, and inspire the creative impulse of the average viewer, are now seen as a disposable experience, with no more relevance to building art or moving lives than the average Happy Meal.

By not balancing the choices, by not creating and promoting substantial, "adult" fare with the same fervor by which we push the warmed-over, overblown junk that audiences are made to feel they must love, we  deprive young moviegoers of a potentially stunning summer moviegoing experience that they will discuss, study, and revisit for the rest of their lives.  

We are also losing an audience of loyal moviegoers from decades past that still attend thoughtful, original films if they're offered ("Midnight in Paris" is a huge success relative to its budget),  and we destroy the foundation of Cinema in the future.  

We have the technological "tools" but not the materials to create lasting work. 

(Perhaps moviemakers can't be all to blame.  The New York Times Best-seller list, which used to be a goldmine for movie properties and scripts, is now almost all devoted to detective series, supernatural franchises, and the like.  Broadway, which gave us our most beloved movie musicals, is now turning to old movies for their newest productions.  Still, someone with creative and financial muscle can certainly greenlight strong, original screenplays, and market them to so that people feel the need to see them.  Can't they?)

Finally, we're depleting the art of Film Criticism, which not only feeds on cinema but in turn can become an entertaining, informative, and provocative aesthetic all its own.  Today the art and industry of film criticism is starving too.  Many publications have cut their full-time critics. Old-timers like Mr. Ebert stay "relevant" by gamely adjusting to the changes in the industry, but must be crushed at heart or at least feel overqualified (he has already released two books of his bad reviews; never seen that happen before from any critic!) 

And the rest of us, the novices, the serious students, or those that simply love "the movies", feel dissatisfied, stranded.  Based only on the bloggers I follow regularly here, we have some excellent movie writers in our midst. We have the makings of the next Vincent Canby's, John Simons, Pauline Kaels; yet there's nothing for these folks to do, for nine months out of the year, but to accept the swill that Hollywood maintains is great filmmaking, and to do their best to work up some enthusiasm for it.

And so, many of us are left to re-visit films from years past.  It is testament to the richness and staying power of these "older" movies that they have transcended generations and still provide much to think about, discuss, debate, and yes, to love. 

The older movies us bloggers still love and write about (by older, say, anything prior to the internet era, say 1928-2001), rarely had a years' worth of minutiae-buildup from the studios, rarely had cult-followings BEFORE release (for the most part), maybe even reached us through a haphazard TV broadcast, or DVD viewing.  We didn't talk them to death before release (they were already in our midst, each of them with an archive of great writing available to those who were interested).  The movies became part of the conversation, not the end of it.

So...what about this summer movie season?

In Part II I'll offer a brief survey of items I have read and heard in the media.  For the most part, the sense of dissatisfaction is not only expressed by the professional movie-writers, but by the "golden demographic" themselves.  We'll look at box office receipts vs. attendance, the immediate gratification of current audiences, studio "leaks" and the "talking to death" of upcoming films, an odd debate about whether video games are replacing movies for good, and my own take on what critics (starting with myself) might do to get "smarter" films during the summer, and all year.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Readers Guessed the Movie Quote

Congratulations to Walter and Andrew for guessing the origin of Tuesday's quote:

"You kill your film several times, mostly by talking about it. A film is a dream. You kill it writing it down, you kill it with a camera; the film might come to life for a moment or two when your actors breathe life back into it - but then it dies again, buried in film cans.

"Mysteriously, sometimes, in the editing room, a miracle happens when you place one image next to another so that when, finally, an audience sits in the dark, if you’re lucky -- very lucky - and sometimes I’ve been lucky - the dream flickers back to life again..."

These were, of course, the opening lines of the 2009 musical "Nine".

(I watched "Nine" again the other night, and unlike most reviewers who found much to dislike, I actually liked it more... Perhaps just having returned from Rome, I felt, among other things, that "Nine" captured a certain Italian mindset.... And the spirit of Fellini was most strong.  "Nine" holds a musical prism to Fellini, and Fellini's humor and visual generosity show brightly. 

See "8-1/2" and then watch "Nine".  I think "Nine" is a worthy contemporary rendering of [and companion-piece to] a masterwork of one of my cinematic idols.)

The quote sets up the central crisis in the film; creative malaise. In the character Guido's case, he is blocked by his conflicting cultural expectations, experiences, and fantasies.  "Nine" is a concoction borne of Guido's psyche and mind.  It is Guido's ninth film, an ambitious exploration of the country itself titled "Italia". Guido cannot articulate his dream, which is fully formed inside his mind.

"Nine" is actually the film Guido will succeed in creating at the end of the film.

The idea of creative panic does not seem to trouble the creators of much current popular cinema.

This tendency for today's popular filmmakers to plumb old ideas, and their assumption that the "magic demographic" of moviegoers will keep buying tickets, is just one of the elements that are troubling today's movies, and disappointing those who believe there is a place on the local multiplex screens for stories that reflect what's happening today, in this world,  something more closely approaching the pleasures of art and literature.

The quote from "Nine" is a good place to begin my discussion, over the next week or so, about what role film criticism plays in today's movie landscape.

I hope you'll be back to discuss this with me.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

A Movie Quote-- Name That Film

Here's a quote from a fairly recent film.  See if you can remember the name of the movie (hint: they are the first words spoken in the film):

"You kill your film several times, mostly by talking about it. A film is a dream. You kill it writing it down, you kill it with a camera; the film might come to life for a moment or two when your actors breathe life back into it - but then it dies again, buried in film cans.

"Mysteriously, sometimes, in the editing room, a miracle happens when you place one image next to another so that when, finally, an audience sits in the dark, if you’re lucky -- very lucky - and sometimes I’ve been lucky - the dream flickers back to life again..."

Can you guess?  (I'll reveal the answer tomorrow unless one of you does first!)

Most of all, do you agree with it? 

First, to all of you who engage in a creative process (most of you do) as writers, filmmakers, graphic artists, stage performers, designers: Do you feel some of your inspiration drains away when you tell about your work before it's finished?

Second, do we somehow "kill" a film when we discuss it in such detail before it is even released?  I'm not talking about a simple anticipatory essay. I mean a virtual dissection of almost every aspect of the movie, including the cast, crew, behind-the-scenes, even the screenplay, and its award chances, before any of us has even seen it? 

I have found in the blogosphere, that these days a lot more writing is devoted to most movies before they are released. After the opening weekend, if a film is still worth writing about (aside from the inevitable cult-worship and box-office performance), it is often less about the film itself, and more about it's standing in the year-end awards sweepstakes.  (And then the critical claws really come out.)

It is hard to be a movie-lover today, especially if we are writers about film.  We have so little material to work with.  Many of the films arrive with a splash, and fade to home video within six months.  Most of these have no substance about which serious film-lovers and critics can discuss, ruminate, debate, compare, and arrive at some consensus as to its status, classic or otherwise. 

Distribution patterns don't allow us to form an attachment to many films; and without that relationship to a film, its resonance and deeper meaning, its relation to culture and its place in film history, are rarely teased out.

Of course, so few films are worthy of this kind of discussion..But we write about them as though they were, because we must write..and we love film....

But we movie lovers deserve better than what we're getting.

Tomorrow I will re-visit my earlier theme of the relevance of film criticism.  I will develop this topic in greater detail with help from some lucid writing by professional film critics I respect.

I want to explore what happened to this summer movie season, and why so few of us are satisfied with what we are seeing.  Instead, we're doing reviews of old classics, resurrecting old Oscar contests, looking for some nugget of something worthwhile in the trailers, anything but the kind of analysis of current releases that a true-blue critic lives for.

I will also further explore whether film criticism is still relevant today; and if it is, how so many critics have dropped the ball.  I'll offer my take on how good film criticism not only evaluates movie aesthetics, but performs a greater good. 

Meanwhile--Any guesses on that quote?

Out Of Barren Ground...Beauty Grows

After a trying day, I took some comfort in a photo I shot this weekend.

This image spoke to me..... Some time while we were away, a petunia took root between the cracks of our patio, and grew and blossomed.

Chances are, if we had been home, we would have pulled the young shoot, thinking it was a weed, never knowing its true nature, and never enjoying its full-grown beauty.

I find the strong plant, thriving against bad odds and a seemingly inhospitable environment, poignant.

What do you think?  Is my inspiration well-founded, or am I projecting too much into a natural phenomenon?

Are we too quick to stifle growth? Do we often ignore potential?

Does this remind you of a time when you overcame a struggle, or defied an environment that told you you were not good enough, not smart enough, not strong enough, not man enough, not woman enough, not worthy, not welcome--but found your beauty in spite of it?

Monday, August 15, 2011

Roxy--A Weekend Canine Visitor

Our home is still dog-less. 

With travel, challenging family responsibilities, and our work schedules, finding a new dog to join our household has been badly delayed.

We do discuss it a lot.  Of course, we discuss it less often during extreme February snowstorms and the severe thunderstorms of June and July. When the weather is as rare and perfect as it has been last week, the topic comes up more often.

This weekend we had a chance to do a "test run",  to see how we would adjust to once again giving our home over to a dog, who in turn would graciously allow us to occupy the space!

My co-worker asked Mark and I to take their Jack Russell Terrier, named Roxy, into our home for the weekend.

Roxy is a little character!  Constantly moving, unless she is sleeping (and she sleeps hard), she showed us lots of affection, and guarded the house almost too well.  Roxy hated other dogs, which made it interesting to leave her out in the yard with the neighboring dogs. 

And the poor people who walked their dogs in front of our house got a full symphony of snarling and barking.  This was unfortunate; I think, given some time and patience, I could work with Roxy to calm her fear.

 Roxy, for all of her fierce posturing, weighs only about six pounds. 

She enjoyed naps....And at night, sprang into bed, and burrowed deep under the covers, like it was a tent!

And she played hard...but knew just how hard to chew (or else I would have lost my entire chin...) 

And she was a very loving little girl....I would catch myself thinking about having Maggie in the house.  How I would get annoyed when her water bowl got in my way, until that day when we didn't need to put her water bowl out any more....

I missed the innocent and enthusiastic play-time, and cute, sloppy gestures of affection....

It seems that I didn't lose my touch for dispensing treats...Roxy preferred baby carrots..

I was reminded how dogs, helpless as they are, demand our focus on their present moment; and in the process, we forget about the stress of the day, at least for a while.

I satisfy my need for canine companionship with my frequent dog-sitting, and my volunteer work at the Buddy Foundation.

Some day, though, we need to fill that empty space, not to replace the irreplaceable, but to provide us with an object of sweet, raucous, forgiving love.  Stay tuned.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Arrivederci, Italia: Some Parting Thoughts--A Sunday Journal

I have enjoyed re-creating our visit to Italy, on these pages, through journal entries and original photographs, and having readers come along on this special journey.

Coming to the end of this series has left me content, but wistfully heavy-hearted; I don't want to say goodbye again.  I could not hold back tears as we prepared to board the van for the airport in Florence.

The visit was capped by our consummate experience in cooking (see post below); but even that precious idyll was but a small part of what we had just been through. 

Although the big-picture perspective of Italy lingered, that picture alternated in my thoughts with the small things we encountered at every step.  Like one of the vast and intricate mosaics in St. Peter's Basilica, it offered an overwhelming impression of beauty, which compelled me to look closer and marvel at the small moments and anecdotes that produced it.

Sort of like a glorious spray of wild caper plants growing from an ancient stone wall which, upon closer inspection, reveals the most beautiful little caper blossoms, not visible from far away...

I don't know yet all of the ways the trip has transformed me.  But I do know that the experience has changed me, even in small ways.

Transformed? Yes indeed, in various subtle ways.

First of all, I have seen a whole new style of serving and eating food. Wine, too, will make more frequent appearances at our table.

Being surrounded by wonderful pieces of art and artifacts has soothed me, at least for a while, and helped me re-gain much-needed perspective on the annoyances and outrages of everyday life.  Alas, these have not gone away...but instead, in a sense, I have.

I have always believed in the power of language; so communicating in unfamiliar tongues has confirmed that belief.

In one respect, the transformation may not be to my benefit....While Italians have their share of social and economic problems, their ways of life, perfected over centuries, still seem more full, more meaningful, than what America purports to offer. And so, my discontent is becoming greater here.

Mostly I am ever more impatient with American ignorance of world issues, the American obsession with trivial things, with technology for its own sake, for a certain sterility of imagination that pop-culture pundits and taste-makers insist is the wave of the future.  We willfully forget the traditions that make pop culture simply a necessary diversion, not the basis for our economy or our existence.

I have always had an appreciation of the way my grandparents thought and lived. Being in their native land, I felt their presence in the very air around me.

Best of all, I am a different person by virtue of the many people we met. I asked almost everyone where they were from. I had some nice conversations that way.  We met folks from South Africa to Portugal, London to Spain, Holland to Maryland, and many others.

In particular, I will never forget a family from Oslo, Norway we met on a boat cruising between the coastal towns of the Cinque Terre.  The two parents and young daughter occupied the bench in front of us, and their son, 18-year-old "O.J.", or so he was known by his friends, sat beside us.  He spoke English very well and seemed to enjoy the company of us Americans, telling us about his role as a youth-leader and mountain-climber, and his proud love for American horror movies.

My encounter with this family occurred just a couple of days after the tragic massacre in Oslo that took the lives of dozens of young people. I was glad OJ and his family were away from Norway during that chaos, and were not among the unfortunate victims.

After all of the Italian phrases that I used (and misused) for over a week, perhaps my most treasured language acquisition was the 4-word phrase O.J. taught me in Norwegian:

Hyggelig å møte deg.
I'm happy to meet you.

From time to time I may return to these pages to write about a memorable incident or fleeting image from Italy .  For now, I plan to re-read the journal entries below regularly, until we have the opportunity to visit Italy once more. 

Saturday, August 13, 2011

A Tuscan Paradise..Serenity, a Dog, and a Cooking Class

The final night in Italy...our group spent an evening in the Tuscan countryside. Together, we learned how to prepare a meal, under the guidance of a most pleasant and accomplished teacher.  We enjoyed our final dinner, and tried to forget about leaving Italy the next morning....

It was exactly two weeks ago tonight...

"Bon appetit!"

We arrived at the 12th-century stone house of Stefania Balducci late on Saturday afternoon.  Stefania conducts cooking classes in her modern kitchen in the cozy and contemporary interior of her home.  We stepped off our van, having made the trip to the little village of Montefioralle in the Chianti region, midway between Florence and Sienna.
We were greeted by the tranquil beauty of the surrounding hills and vineyards. 

Stefania's hospitality and openness made everyone feel as welcome as if we were home.
From her web site, www.pastaalpesto.com :

"In Italy the kitchen is the heart of the house.  Everything passes through it. This is where history, memory, communication, identity, love, culture, play, alchemy, fantasy and joy all come together. And this is the essence of our cooking !"

Also there to greet us as soon as our feet hit ground was Demo, the most gentle and friendly Border Collie, who whined with excitement at the prospect of making seven new friends.  She enjoyed the attention of everyone there:

While we had raucous fun while learning a lot in the kitchen, Demo remained pleasantly bored in the peacefully beautiful and rustic Dining Room.

 In less than three hours, we learned to make the following menu items:
Ravioli (from scratch) filled with ricotta and chopped zucchini;
Homemade pesto sauce;
Roasted vegetables
Pork loin stuffed with plums, Pine Nuts and Rosemary, simmered in milk;

Our anecdotes, some of them hilarious, will become legendary among us: how we mixed a simple dough of egg yolk and flour with our hands; created the long strips of pasta by cranking the pasta-maker; chopping zucchini as finely as possible; soaked lady-fingers in coffee and mixed the marscapone cheese and egg whites; how we dropped eggs on the cutting board; poked the "air" out of the ravioli; and watched the pork loin brown in olive oil before adding the milk.

And of course, there was wine, and grappa! 

All of it was consumed voraciously, and I can state with pride that it all came out tasting superb!   

In spite of the hard work and laughter, there was a serenity at the heart of it all.   

And then we took our final ride together, down our last Italian  country road..... 

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Italia--Steeped in Art; Overwhelmed By Art

In Volterra and Pisa we had a wonderful guide named Vincenzo.  He provided the most sensible and beautiful explanation of the early purposes of Renaissance painting, and connected it to modern forms of art.
Painting, especially religious painting, was created to help common people, who were unable to read, understand the formative stories and legends of their culture, especially Biblical stories.  The story of the Assumption, for instance, in which the Virgin Mary was visited by an angel and proclaimed the mother of God, was painted and repainted countless times.

The compositions and characters were similar in each "version" of the story in every painting, even though the depictions changed according to accepted cultural norms.  But the stories were the same, and by using iconic imagery, they could be passed down through the generations.

In a similar way, said Vincenzo, essential stories, from fairy tales to Shakespeare, are re-told many times; and our evolving forms of art, like graphic novels and 3-D movies, provide contemporary culture new modes of delivery for familiar stories that are the foundation of our artistic traditions.

I was consumed by sculptures, frescoes, paintings, and other forms of visual expression.  It is no wonder so many in Italy seem to grow up inspired to develop talent in visual arts. 
The art around me was overwhelming.  Here is just a sampling of the artifacts and images I managed to capture on my camera... I tried to do them justice....

                                  The Vatican--St. Peter's Square and one of many amazing obelisks.

A detail of one of thousands of paintings covering almost every wall and ceiling surface in the Vatican halls.

The dome of St. Peter's..Surrounded by lush green, a perfect compliment to its formal beauty and perfection.

The Gallery of Maps at the Vatican, and the breathtaking golden ceiling...

The Ponte Vecchio (Old Bridge) in Florence was the only bridge in Italy purposely not destroyed in WWII by enemy explosion. The exterior of the bridge appears to be a small villlage. Inside on the the well-traveled walkway are a number of jewelers.

The Opera Museum on Rome. An interesting edifice flanked by angelic sculptures on the bridge that leads to it.

Inside the Colosseum there is a mural that depicts the common activities that took place there at the time. Men would gather to talk politics, play board games, sleep, relax, as well as witness the violent games in the "arena", from the Latin word for "sand" which was spread on the floor to clean the blood from these spectacles.  "Gladiators" were named for the Latin word "glateus", the short heavy sword they used in their staged battles.

A look at the dome in the pantheon, a famous ancient cathedral with a hole in the top of its dome.  It is conjectured that the design was patterned on the movement of celestial bodies, and the light coming in was carefully modulated because of it.

Just one of the stunning design structures and arches on the site of the excavated Forum.  One can spend weeks here for serious study of this site.

Paintings, mosaics, and murals like this appeared regularly above doorways all over Rome.  This was on a small church. 

Some of the fourteen medieval towers that fortified the medieval town of San Gimignano, that look something like a hi-rise skyline from the distance.  For this reason the town was dubbed "the Manhattan" of Tuscany".

ANIMALS were a welcome inspiration for beautiful artifacts, from the most ancient times:

A simple iron horse-tie still affixed to a wall in Sienna. 

Part of a massive fresco on a wall in the burial hall in Pisa.  I love the expression in the horses' eyes, and the little dog curled in the arms of its mistress.
(I learned that Frescoes are so fragile because they are painted on wet plaster, which dries very quickly.)

A Vatican sculpture of the goddess Diana, goddess of the hunt, with a faithful dog at her side.

Even the common lamp-posts in Florence had leonine feet!

This print was hanging in our room in Florence..at the hotel Caravaggio, naturally!

A Cathedral bedecked with all sorts of awesome white scupltures...Closer inspection revealed a lone angel with black wings... Maybe just needs some restoration? It was haunting anyway.

A detail of the famous Duomo in Florence.  My photographs could not possibly convey its magnificence.

From the terrace at the famous Uffizi gallery, near the Accademia (home of the "David"), and which contains the renowned paintings of Botticelli among others.  Just an "artsy" composition to showcase the layers of beauty.

A replica of David in the square next to the Uffizi. (In the sculpture to the right, what is the kneeling man gazing at so intently??)

Modern Art is also highly represented.  Outside of the Pitti Palace and Boboli Gardens in Florence was this startling and unusual piece, which I believe is by sculptor Robert Barni.