Thursday, September 29, 2011

A Two-Faced Cat; A Story Worth Remembering

Louie and Frank.  One cat.  Two faces. A survivor!

I need stories like this  to come around from time to time.  Like animals themselves, they keep me focused on the small, immediate wonders that are right in front of me, and block out the crap that seeps into view all the time, and taints my perspective.

(Click here for the CBS feature)

This rag-doll cat with two faces has just entered the Guinness Book of World Records. The cat, a resident of Worcester, Massachusetts, just turned 12 years old, a rarity for this type of creature called a Janus cat.  Janus, the ancient Roman god of beginnings, of doorways, and of time, is a figure with 2 faces (looking to the future and into the past).

The condition is known as Polycephaly.  It is fairly common in animals, but cats born this way rarely live beyond a few days.

This story has been all over the news today, so there is nothing original about this piece. I only wanted to grace my journal with this marvelous story, to remember it, and to be able to re-visit it. 

It made me uncommonly happy, and a wee bit melancholy, too.  I give much credit and words of love and encouragement to Marty Stevens, the owner who rescued the cat from certain death, and raised it into a healthy, well-adjusted companion. 

Enjoy this terrific AP video. I hope it clears your mind as it did mine. (I loved his growling purr!)

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Why Marilyn? Why Chicago?

This past July 15, a new sculpture called "Forever Marilyn", by pop-artist J. Seward Johnson, was installed in Pioneer Court on Michigan Avenue's Magnificent Mile in Chicago.

The sculpture depicts Marilyn, in high heels, pushing the front of her dress down as a gust of wind rushes up between her legs. The back of the dress is blown up in a panty-revealing canopy.  She stands with her legs apart wide enough for the curious to walk between them and gaze right up her dress.

The 26-foot tall, 34,000-pound likeness of Monroe in that iconic scene from the 1955 film "The Seven Year Itch", was vandalized yesterday for the third time since its unveiling.  This time, red paint was splashed on her right leg, and it dripped down to the base of the sculpture.  24-hour security in the building on the plaza was unable to catch the vandals.

The sculpture has drawn criticism and questions from all over the city.  Local journalists and residents reacted with embarrassment or outrage.  Others found some humor in the work.  Tourists and thrill-seekers flock to the site almost 24 hours a day. There are the usual wits who leer at it, set up silly photos of themselves pushing up her dress, or worse.

But the reactions almost all boil down to two questions: Why erect a statue of Marilyn Monroe now?  And why do so in Chicago? 

Although Monroe is still a pop icon, many people are too young to remember or relate much to Monroe.  For those who remember her, she is as much a tragic figure as a sex-symbol, and so there is something unsettling about the frivolity and aggressive sexuality of the work. 

And the scene depicted took place in Manhattan, not Chicago.  Why not do a sculpture from another iconic movie that has a direct relation to Chicago, "Some Like It Hot", showing Marilyn with her gorgeous sequined dress and ukulele?  It would seem more appropriate, more lighthearted, and less---I don't know--threatening. 

I find nothing especially beautiful in the sculpture.  It seems to invite derision; it certainly doesn't inspire contemplation of Marilyn or her life and influence.

Then, too, there's the feeling of having seen this before, in a context of satire and scorn. And we have.  Ken Russell's 1975 movie of The Who's "Tommy" featured a scene in which Ann-Margret takes her deaf-dumb-and-blind son (Roger Daltrey) to a "church" for a cure.  Likenesses of Marilyn Monroe are idolized, in a heavy-handed but fascinating comment on misplaced celebrity-worship.  A huge sculpture of Monroe is carried down the aisle, and congregants file by to pay homage...The sculpture is even mounted on a mirrored base, all the easier to...well, you get the picture.

Russell's outrageous imagination was all a part of his "art".  It seemed appropriately over-the-top in "Tommy", a fantastical work from 36 years ago, when Marilyn's movies were more fresh in the minds of moviegoers.  Besides, this "spectacle" in the movie "Tommy" was "privately" experienced in movie theaters, not foisted on those simply moving down a world-famous thoroughfare. 

On Michigan Avenue, with tourists and families from the world over, many people either stare in fascination or try to avert their gaze. Even those who spend time looking at every angle, snapping pictures and trying to figure it all out, react with the expected embarrassed laughter.

Why does Marilyn Monroe deserve this now?  It has been 50 years since her death.  An invitation to leer seems sad and out of touch (it's naive not to expect this reaction in such a public venue rather than in a more private museum space).  The sculpture may be good for a momentary gasp, or laugh, even an appreciation of the joy Monroe exuded in some of her performances...But it's a misleading testament to her difficult existence, and the whole thing seems like overkill.  

The sculpture is scheduled to remain until 2012.

If I were not so cynical, I might wonder if Paul Zeller, of the Realty Group that oversees the public art in Pioneer Court, has some direct connection to BBC Films or the Weinstein Company.  Each studio is releasing a Marilyn-themed film this year : "Blonde" (Naomi Watts), and "My Week With Marilyn" (Michelle Williams) respectively.

*      *      *       *       *

I much prefer the work created by Jeff Koons in 1992 titled "Puppy", now located in Bilbao, Spain, and made of a steel structure covered in a variety of flowers.  It is 43 feet tall.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Mini Review: "Capote", Bennett Miller's Previous Directorial Effort

With this weekend's release of "Moneyball",  I realized with surprise that its director, Bennett Miller, had not helmed a film since "Capote" (2005).  I just watched Philip Seymour Hoffman in "Capote", mostly because "Moneyball" (which I have not yet seen) renewed my interest in Bennett Miller.  

Miller's quiet, focused technique in "Capote" seemed at odds with the fast-paced, expansive style one expects from a sports movie.  Nevertheless, "Moneyball" is a film I would like to see very soon.  In the meantime, I went back and looked at "Capote" again.

"Capote" is spellbinding, mesmerizing...even a bit austere, at times.  Miller and his screenwriter Dan Futterman (so cute as Robin Williams' son in "The Birdcage") concentrate on just four years in the life of writer Truman Capote, the creation of his famous docu-novel "In Cold Blood", and his confused and manipulative affection for killer Perry Smith.  Capote interviewed Smith (who, along with Dick Hickock,  perpetrated the tragic murder of the Clutter family in Kansas in 1959) while doing research for the book.   

Did Truman Capote ingratiate himself with Perry Smith because he identified with Smith's troubled childhood? Was Capote in love with him? Did Capote work on Smith's behalf, and delay Smith's execution, so that Smith would remain alive long enough for Capote to finish his book?  The film skillfully balances these intriguing contradictions, and the script goes deep, giving Hoffman descriptive monologues to paint a portrait of Capote's past.  Capote's well-known flamboyance, charm, and talent are shown along with his self-centeredness, his manipulation of others, and his thoughtless opportunism. 

The film needs a strong center, and Philip Seymour Hoffman brings in a performance of uncommon power, creating a portrait of Capote from the inside-out.  Hoffman seems to have diminished in stature, in what is much more than simple mimicry of Capote's eccentric speech and mannerisms.  Hoffman accomplishes the task of showing Capote's outrageousness, while constantly covering up, hiding his motives.  In his final jailhouse emotional breakdown, Hoffman makes us feel the deep regret, the sudden realization of the depth of his feeling for this killer who is about to die.

"Capote" plays like a virtual re-telling of  "In Cold Blood", but with Capote himself in front and center.  It recreates the horrible incident in the Clutter house in the same manner as "In Cold Blood", first showing the aftermath and later forming the climax of the work, and fleshes out the people and environment of that place and time. (Amusingly, Manitoba, Canada stands in for the bleak, autumnal  locations of  late '50's rural Kansas.) An interesting departure from the book is the addition of Capote's supportive long-time friend and fellow author Harper Lee, who published "To Kill A Mockingbird" while Capote researched the Clutter tragedy.  Catherine Keener plays her warmly, confidently.

Director Miller draws us in with deliberate camera movements and long takes,  and along with his skilled crew and cast (including Chris Cooper), gives us an admirable and thought-provoking work. At times, midway into the film, I would have preferred a lighter touch, and a livelier pace, but the consistency of tone ultimately works.  Seen in the perspective of six years, removed from competition for awards (2005 was a particularly unnerving and contentious award year), "Capote" has emerged as a rightful contemporary classic.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Coming Soon: Chicago Film Festival

New York. Toronto. Venice. Sundance. Cannes.  Move over! 

This year's 47th Chicago International Film Festival promises to be one of the most exciting two weeks of film exhibition the city..and the world...will see this year.

I just spent the last two hours browsing the awesome Festival web site, and marveling at this year's offerings. Founder and Artistic Director Michael Kutza deserves high praise for arranging a world-class "orgy for movie-lovers" (to quote Pauline Kael in her review of Robert Altman's "Nashville").

In the weeks leading up to and during the festival (October 6-20) I will offer reflections on upcoming films, a few reviews (I hope!), and a look back at the Festival's remarkable history.

I am so excited to share this with all of you...especially if you are not yet familiar with this event.

Movie lovers from Chicago recognize the evocative logo seen scrolling above, a pastiche of the eyes of silent film stars Theda Bara, Pola Negri and Mae Murray.  Both Charlie Chaplin and Liza Minnelli each believed that this logo had been made from their own cinematic likenesses!

Did you know that the Chicago Film Festival, now in its 47th year, is America's oldest competitive Film Festival?  Here's a snippet from the web page that relates the History of the Festival:

The Festival was started in 1964 by filmmaker and graphic artist Michael Kutza to provide an alternative to the commercial Hollywood movies that dominated the city’s theaters. The Festival opened in 1965 at the Carnegie Theater, where King Vidor, Bette Davis, and Stanley Kramer were honored for their contributions to American cinema. Since then, the Festival has grown to become a world-renowned annual event. The Festival is dedicated to fostering better understanding between cultures and to making a positive contribution to the art form of the moving image.

THIS YEAR'S HIGHLIGHTS include appearances by Director Simon Curtis and Screenwriter Adrian Hodges (after a screening of their film "My Week With Marilyn" with Michelle Williams and Kenneth Branagh); conversations with actor John C. Reilly and superstar Cinematographer Haskell Wexler;

AND THE MOVIES!! from countries like Norway and Cuba, Argentina and Hong Kong, Sweden and Japan...just for STARTERS...and more.

Check 'em out!!

Some of the Special Screenings of the Fest include David Cronenberg's Freud-Jung Melodrama "A Dangerous Method"; Ralph Fiennes' "Coriolanus";  a Documentary about French Director Claude Lelouch ("A Man and a Woman") and his latest, his 43rd film "What Love May Bring"; the new Italian comedy "Habemus Papam (We Have a Pope)"  Tilda Swinton in the film version of Lionel Shriver's award-winning novel "We Need to Talk About Kevin";  Anton Yelchin in the romantic Drama "Like Crazy"; Lars von Trier's intriguing "Melancholia", with Kirstin Dunst in her Cannes-Award-winning role; "Martha Marcy May Marlene", the story of a girl who escapes a cult  lead by John Hawkes; Werner Herzog's Documentary about death-row inmate Michael Perry "Into the Abyss"; and the highly anticipated valentine to silent cinema, France's "The Artist".

Stay tuned!

Friday, September 23, 2011

War Movies, Gays and the Military, and a Sorry Show of "Patriotism"

I do not want to give heartless, opportunistic politicians too much sought-after publicity.  But I have to comment on what caused a big stir at last night's Republican Presidential debate.  Just a day after"don't ask don't tell" law had been lifted, a question was asked, via video, by a gay American soldier (Steven Hill).  Hill, who is serving in Iraq, was booed by some members of the Fox News audience.

And the question, which was given to hapless candidate Rick Santorum to answer, was this: whether the candidates, and the Republicans, would work to circumvent the repeal of the discriminatory law that forbade gay personnel to be open about their sexuality. 

Santorum began with:
"I would say any type of sexual activity has no place in the military."  Which is exactly the place in the military.  And sexuality should not be made an exclusionary matter either. 

It makes me crazy that the party that wants to abolish government controls entirely, supports the most intrusive government controls when issues block the narrow view of the world they want to see.

*   *   *   *

I have always had an ambivalent attitude toward the military.

My father was in Germany right after WWII to assist in the reconstruction, just before he went to college on the GI bill.  He speaks with affection of his year in Munich.

My attitudes about war and the armed forces were shaped in part by images from the movies.  Everything from "The Best Years of Our Lives" and "The Longest Day", to "Patton, "MASH", "Coming Home", "Apocalypse Now" and "The Deer Hunter", among others, wrestled for my heart and mind.

Of course it wasn't that simple: Context was everything.  Unless you know the social climate and political environment that produced a work like "Hair", for example, you would not understand the deep emotional chord that is struck within those who absorbed the anxiety of the time.

Those movies did not look too closely, nor raise the possibility that any of their characters might be gay---except, of course, in a derisively satiric way (like Painless the Dentist in "MASH").

And so I adopted a vast array of opposing thoughts and emotions about military service, about honor and camaraderie and, later, about the suffering and madness of war.

I learned to respect the hard work of earnest people who honestly believed they were defending the lives, and the best ideals, of America.  I also began to question, and then disdain, the hypocrisy, bureaucracy and outright dishonesty practiced by the military, which some of these movies sought to portray.  I ceased to buy in to the heroics, the unquestioning patriotism that was the order of the day in early Hollywood war pictures.

And so I had a personal tug of war with the issue of gays serving in the military.  Of course, I loathed the reasons that gays were banned from service, and then allowed to serve as long as they lied about their lives and loves (while straight boys were encouraged to make vulgar displays of their heterosexual "prowess"). These same reasons were used as arguments against allowing a racially integrated military, or allowing women in combat positions.

But while I wholeheartedly supported the rights of gay people to serve openly, I also questioned why gay people (for whom I retain a romanticized, even stereotyped view as especially intelligent and sensitive, ) would want to be a part of an organization that reduces thinking people to blind obedience, preserves a culture of macho violence, and asks its soldiers to risk injury or death on often dubious pretexts.

I would not dream of denying anyone their life's passion or fulfillment, and if serving in the armed forces provides that, then one should pursue that path.  However, I think there would be poetic justice if gays suddenly, deliberately, boycotted military service. 

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Guardian Angel Basset Rescue, and the Annual "Waddle"

Someone should make a movie out of this....

Every September, in the little town of Dwight, Illinois (75 miles southwest of Chicago, population: 4260), hundreds of Basset Hounds and their owners march down Main Street.  You can hear the happy rumble of owners, and the distinct sound of basset hound feet smacking the pavement en masse.  A few older or tired dogs are pulled in blanket-filled wagons.  Many of the dogs sport bonnets, or other costumes.

Everyone is smiling.  Since the dogs are already in their "pack", there is very little to howl about...they have already gathered for "the hunt", in this case the hunt for the end of the parade route, which is only several blocks long.

It would be an episodic movie filled with characters who share a helpless love for this photogenic breed.  There are a number of interlocking stories that all come together on the big day....  There would be laughs and tears galore...mostly laughs, though... 

A slice of life, a seriocomedy, a character study, one that charms us with surprising observations that reveal universal truths, about life and nature and the world, about the cruelty, compassion, and boundless wonder of human beings.....Because this, if we look closely, is what dogs are are here on earth to help us understand....  (Note to self...Must start a screenplay soon!)

This goofy, happy spectacle is part of the Dwight Fall Festival, and the Basset Waddle is the main event. 

Sponsored by The Guardian Angel Basset Rescue, the waddle attracts dogs and their owners from all over Illinois, Indiana, and surrounding states.  Its main purpose is to find homes for the abused, abandoned or otherwise discarded hounds that have been rescued and fostered by members of the organization. 

Other activities, like a car raffle, are offered to raise money for the GABR.

This year 15 lucky Basset Hounds found permanent homes through the Waddle.

Since 1997, over 3,900 Hounds have been rescued.

Bassets are cute, extremely lovable, and amusingly stubborn.  Their noses can lead them astray, as their powerful sense of smell was bred into them for hunting rabbits.  They are difficult to housebreak.  They shed. They have long ears which are susceptible to infection if not cleaned almost daily.  They are prone to arthritis.   Their claws must be trimmed regularly. 

And, best of all (!) their anal sacs need help to be emptied.  Yes, you get the picture.

But there is not a more loving, loyal creature in all of the world.  When a Basset Hound gazes at you with  soulful eyes, and you place your hand on top of its round, beautiful head as it reaches with its snout to lick you on the nose, and that white-tipped tail wags furiously, you forget how much it takes to care for your comical friend, your sad clown...

No, you would do all of that and more....Sure, you laugh at her sly, "innocent" antics, but with a lump in your throat, as her sad gaze reminds you that, one day, she may not be there....

See below for a brief clip from the 2011 parade.

Bassetts On Parade (See Story Above)

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

End of an Era: Gays Can Now Serve Openly in US Armed Forces

At 12:00 this morning (September 20), "Don't Ask, Don't Tell", the US military policy that prevented gay and lesbian personnel from serving openly, officially ended.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Navy Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, will discuss the repeal of the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" law today at a news conference

More here in subsequent posts.  (Read the Reuter's article here.)

Monday, September 19, 2011

A Political Rant On Tax Hikes, Deficit Reduction, and American Voters

President Obama is now adamant about reducing the deficit by at least 3 trillion dollars in 10 years. He unveiled a plan at the white house to cut spending and ask the most fortunate citizens to increase their fair share in tax revenue.

I had some random thoughts about Obama's new strategy, and his chances for getting elected for a second term, considering the state of our electorate.....

--As far as the tax hikes, there have been many articles about what Obama's administration is calling the "Buffett Rule". It is named for Warren Buffett, the billionaire investor, who is tired of the rich being coddled with lower tax rates than most middle-class Americans.... 

--Obama made the tax-the-wealthy plan one of the planks of his election.  His vehemence at this particular time has caused many pundits, even his supporters (even Jon Stewart) surmise that he is merely campaign posturing.

Stewart had a great editorial a week ago about "Campaign Obama" (click HERE). 

--Ah, education...I could go on and on.  As Bill Clinton said this morning on the Today Show, many American voters adopt an ideology, even when it has no basis in fact.  And these Americans cast their votes accordingly.  I totally agree, in the eloquent statement made by a friend and fellow writer, that "ignorant, and naive voters probably do best by staying away from the polls..."

--Ironically, politicians, in spite of what they say, do not want an educated electorate.  For one thing, the current method of campaign advertising would not work among a high-functioning, thinking and reasoned populace.

--The Republicans have co-opted many of the disenfranchised and disadvantaged, and have appealed to their fears about issues that have little to do with their best interests.... 

--The "tea partiers" seem to be those who are comfortable with regimentation, who prefer to take orders, and WHO DO WHAT THEY ARE TOLD...which is why they look for a a "parental" leader, a "priestly" leader, even a "militaristic" one (follow orders, don't question them). These voters are easily led, are uncomfortable with logic, and vote "en masse", like lemmings.

--They can feel good about exercising their "patriotic duty" without having to take personal responsibility for their choices.

--Democrats have a harder road, in general.  They trade in abstract ideas (like civil rights. justice, etc.) which are ambiguous, not concrete.  Their voters require a thoughtful internalization of ideas before accepting them, and then they can take action.  For this to occur, these voters should be better-educated.  Democrats find it harder to appeal to the emotions of their core constituents.

(And politicians are a prime example that you don't have to be intelligent to be wealthy...)

Enjoy the Jon Stewart video..

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Transformer - Campaign-Based Economy
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical Humor & Satire BlogThe Daily Show on Facebook

Sunday, September 18, 2011

"Tree of Life" Second Viewing

(Please play this music while reading. YouTube courtesy of Geode121)

Last night I experienced Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life" for the second time. (My previous review here)

Since my first viewing I have read with interest the excellent reviews of fellow bloggers, including Andrew at Encore's World of Film and TV... and Ben at Runs Like a Gay 

This difficult but brilliant film is now showing on only one cinema screen in all of metropolitan Chicago: the Glen Art Cinema, in the Chicago suburb of Glen Ellyn, Illinois.  It was worth the half-hour drive, the $7 admission fee, and a slightly scratched print.

"The Tree of Life" offered up new insights on second viewing.  Since I knew what I was about to witness, there was none of the mystery, none of the anticipation I had brought in with me the the first time.  I did not have to work as hard to decipher the patterns or to understand the direction in which it moved.  I could relax, and concentrate on the images and sounds.  I was better able to observe the visual and aural connections between shots, as well as the thematic connections. 

I continued to "converse" with the film in my head, to struggle with questions I had the first time, and to let the ideas and feelings, images and music, settle into my consciousness to become part of my way of seeing. 

For example, I still resisted the Mother's idea that man can follow only one of two paths (either the way of Nature or the way of Grace).  However, I was more impressed this time by how the characters played by Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain embodied these two ideas, while remaining fully human, often idealized, sometimes demonized, with flaws and all.

(I even wondered if Mother had a change of heart near the end...coming to terms with Nature...willing to let go...and simplifying her philosophy to one word, "love".)

I also discovered that the film's point of view shifts fluidly between characters, often cued by their whispered voice-over narrations.  Some of these voice-overs were still difficult to hear, but now I think I better understand their necessity as clues to the film's shifting points of view.  How a character is seen during the film often depends on whose memory, or viewpoint, is working a the time.

To whom are the voice-over questions appealing? God? The deceased son/brother?  I think it could be either, at various points...

I enjoyed the almost constant slow movement of the camera.  This was not haphazard, shaky "documentary"-style cliche, but a patterned, dreamy, fluid movement that kept drawing the viewer in, and was consistent from sequence to sequence.  Water is such an important motif in "The Tree of Life", that I understood the film to be "flowing", like a body of water. We are unable to linger on any one point for too long, but must move along with its carefully-purposed flow.

The Creation-of-the-Universe sequence, and the New-Age after-life finale, I  understood, almost by instinct, were framing devices, meant to represent the unknowable and cataclysmic "consciousness" of what occurred before we were born, and what might happen after we die.  

The film's centerpiece, which is the family story, I think is just a fleeting "moment" in the enormity of time.  The fact that the bulk of the film's running time is devoted to this ethereal narrative gives importance to that "moment", to all of our "moments".

This family narrative is almost rapturous in its observation of everyday detail. It means to answer the question "What are we to you?" by showing that the birth of one child may be as significant as the creation of the universe, and that life is as at once mundane and profound.  

The film suggests that we need not feel desolate in the uncertainty of our importance in this vast, unknowable universe; and that nature and grace wrestle inside all of us,  in our seeming everyday insignificance.
The story of this family still plays like a dream, a memory.... Almost completely drained of expository dialogue, we hear just enough to maintain some narrative movement.  What remains are the impressions, the emotions, that are the bittersweet residue of all memory, which is just enough, and yet never enough...

Because it is a film that insists on appealing to the far reaches of our thinking, it is often confusing, because we WANT to be moved emotionally. The images are sometimes so achingly beautiful (along with the music) that we almost NEED the release of tears.....Instead, viewers are left hushed, and thoughtful (at least, those in the audience who are not bored, confused or outraged). 

If it is not an overtly religious experience (and I sensed no dogma in Malick's piece,  just a matter-of-fact statement of one artist's philosophy), "The Tree of Life" is a rare "mainstream" film that tries to touch a purely spiritual element; or, at least, it tries to appeal to us from the waist up, and  to send us out with a new "lens" on the world, if we choose to accept it as such.

The final image, of a bridge, is beautiful and true.  A connection between Nature and Grace?  I could think about the possibilities this image offers for a long time.

And the music...  Rarely has the marriage of music and image been so mysteriously RIGHT in a mainstream full-length motion picture.  I am inspired to become familiar with all of the music in this film, to identify those pieces that I still don't know, so that future viewings will carry even more resonance.

(The piece in the video at the top is "Funeral Canticle" by John Tavener (1996) and is used at least twice: in an early sequence during Jessica Chastain's quiet soliloquy; and later, it soothes us like a balm after an intense argument between Mother and Father. )

I will be looking at "The Tree of Life" many more times in my life...until I know it well, and will speak of it with as much fluency as I do of my favorites from the '70's.  The Blu-Ray/DVD is scheduled for release on October 11.

I look forward to the impressions of other repeat viewers.

Friday, September 16, 2011

"Girls Like Us" and A Joni Inspiration

Sheila Weller's 2008 triple-biography titled "Girls Like Us" is an ambitious, successful attempt to recreate the 1970's era of social and artistic ferment, as told through the life stories of three musicians who achieved their greatest success at that time: Carole King, Carly Simon, and Joni Mitchell.

Weller's book reads like an episodic novel with three completely realized female leads.  Each of their life stories are vastly different from one another, yet complement each other.  The book alternates and weaves the three stories into a "tapestry" (pun is intended) about the creative process, the sublimation of hardship to art, and the way music reflected and influenced the changing gender roles and cultural expectations of a generation.

It is a marvelous read.  As I make progress, I hope to record my impressions, and share passages that especially stimulated and moved me.

Joni Mitchell's story is especially interesting to me.  I regard her with some reverence, for her lyrics stand alone as poetry apart from their tunes, but together they make a potent statement about love, loneliness, creativity, and the machinations and the yearnings of the heart and mind.  

I am listening to Mitchell's 1970 album "Ladies of the Canyon" as I write this, around midnight in Chicago on a cool, crisp autumn Friday evening.  This album introduced listeners to her pop classic "Big Yellow Taxi" ("....they paved paradise and put up a parking lot..."), and her anthem to a milestone event, "Woodstock", performed as a mysterious and dreamy ballad (in contrast to the classic rock-and-roll  version recorded by Crosby, Still and Nash).

Mitchell's music and poetry constantly refresh me,  put me in touch with my creative energy, amaze me with their intelligence and soul-baring emotion. 

Joni lived a life that I would love to turn into a screenplay: a small-town Canadian girl from a conservative family, who discovers her passion for music and painting, fights polio, and hits the road to sing and write music.  Alone, and pregnant, with little to sustain her but her talent, she gives her baby up for adoption, becomes an iconic member of the Laurel Canyon folk-rock scene, and earns the respect of musicians and artists through a stormy but brilliant career.  As her voice mellows and matures, her music takes more chances, and her art and talent find new adherents.  Eventually, dramatically, she is reunited with her daughter.....

It has always been a dream of mine to hear her in concert; but I don't think that will ever come to pass.  Joni seems to have retired from the "cesspool" that she calls today's music business, but her absence from the scene is mainly due to her suffering, from a rare and strange nerve disorder called Morgellon's Disease.

As a guy who is trying hard to lay a claim to an artistic life, and offer the world something interesting and original, who is feeling his way through a process of reinvention, I have been inspired by few artists as completely as I have been inspired by Joni Mitchell.

I have occasionally travelled through a "blue" landscape these days, but it is true that sometimes "there's comfort in melancholy, when there's no need to explain." * 

Joni has articulated her own journey with uncompromising honesty and grace, and in her lyrics I find words of understanding.

The final song on "Ladies of the Canyon" is a classic about maturing and accepting the bittersweet cycles of living.   It is called "The Circle Game".

I will devote more pages in this journal in the coming weeks to Joni, and her influence on my humble work and my world-view.

Here's a video I found from a 1968 Canadian Broadcasting Company program, featuring the one-two punch of "Both Sides Now" and "The Circle Game".  Take the lyrics to heart.  Enjoy.
...So the years spin by and now the boy is twenty
Though his dreams have lost some grandeur coming true
There'll be new dreams maybe better dreams and plenty
Before the last revolving year is through

And the seasons they go round and round
And the painted ponies go up and down
We're captive on the carousel of time
We can't return we can only look
Behind from where we came
And go round and round and round
In the circle game

(*From her song "Hejira")

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Animal Rescue Images--A Personal Wednesday Journal

This was another one of those "I need a sad movie to help me cry" days....

Images of family members, as I remember them...words like "depression" and "psychosis" and "dementia" and "heart tumor"....  and an uncertain future, no matter how we dream, or make plans....

As always, I found some solace in the company of animals...or, at least, in the images of animals and the kind people who devote themselves to raising them, loving them, rescuing them, and keeping them from harm.

I have been humbled to volunteer with homeless dogs, and am resolved to step up my efforts to care for these creatures, and try to help make their lives bearable. 

In the meantime, I found a little video that reaffirmed my belief that the animals in our midst, and the people who love them, make it worthwhile to get up another morning if I must. (Along with a special few who I am lucky to number among my friends)

If you are not crazy about the music in the background (no disrespect to Sarah McLachlan), do what I did, and enjoy the images with the volume turned down.  Of course, if you need an emotional release, keep the music on.

More animal inspiration later this week...with a smile, as I look at a little town called Dwight, Illinois, and their annual Basset Hound Waddle.

Tomorrow....getting musically inspired, with another visit to my favorite musician, Joni Mitchell....

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Mini Review: "Charly", Cliff Robertson's Oscar Role

"Charly" (1968) is a thoughtful science-fiction film about a retarded man (the late Cliff Robertson) who undergoes a mysterious operation to make him intelligent. With the help of a group of scientists, a spunky laboratory mouse named Algernon, and a sympathetic teacher, Alice Kinnian (Claire Bloom), Charly's intellect grows to genius proportions. He moves through an adolescent phase, falls in love with his teacher,  drops out for a period of "youthful" rebellion, and finally achieves the cynicism of a learned man, before discovering the sad truth about his condition. 

"Charly" is based on Daniel Keyes' seminal, still-popular novel "Flowers for Algernon".

Director Ralph Nelson combines elements that would not seem to work at all, and which fix the production firmly in the late 1960's: split-screen, psychedelic montage (with drug use), documentary-style scientific sequences with hand-held camera, a soft-focus romantic segment, a startling near-rape scene, and an incongruous score by Ravi Shankar. However, it comes together in an unlikely, sentimental whole.  The objective critic in me could find flaws, but I think the film is fascinating and watchable, and emotionally satisfying.  It is a love story, a 1960's mood piece. It is cinematic comfort-food-for-thought. 

Cliff Robertson (who passed away this week) played the role of Charly in a 1961 television drama called "The Two Worlds of Charly Gordon", and then bought the rights for the film as a vehicle for himself to play Charly. I have and always will connect Robertson with "Charly".  His Best Actor Oscar was mildly controversial, well-received by many, while others felt the Award was as much for the effort he made to get the film produced as for his portrayal. Today's audiences may find Robertson's early scenes a bit forced, but as his character matures into an intelligent and observant man, Robertson is especially strong. 

Late in the film, Charly is brought on stage to be scrutinized by a theater full of scientists, who regard Charly as little more than an experimental subject. As they question him, he stuns them to silence with his assesssment of "things as they are, and what they are becoming".  Charly also reveals his discovery of the tragic side-effect of his operation.   A portion of that dialogue is below.  It is Robertson's finest scene, and the film's.  "Charly" is one of my personal favorites.  I am grateful for Cliff Robertson, and the character he brought to life on screen.

Convention speaker #1: Mr. Gordon... how do you feel at the present moment, about your development?
Charly Gordon: Grateful, sir.
 Convention speaker #1: You are happy about it?
 Charly Gordon: Yes.
 Convention speaker #2: Why?
 Charly Gordon: Because it has allowed me to... see.
Convention speaker #3: To see what?

Charly Gordon: The world.
 Convention speaker #4: And what do you see in that world?
 Charly Gordon: Well... my eyes are new, doctor, I...
 Convention speaker #4: And what do they see, Mr. Gordon?

Charly Gordon: Things as they are.
 Convention speaker #4: And?
 Charly Gordon: And what they are becoming.
 Convention speaker #5: Can you give me an example Mr. Gordon?
 Charly Gordon: [quickly] No sir, you give me one.
 Convention speaker #5: Very well...
 Charly Gordon: Very well.

Convention speaker #5: Modern science.
 Charly Gordon: Rampant technology, conscience by computer.
 Convention speaker #1: Modern art.
 Charly Gordon: Dispassionate draftsmen.
 Convention speaker #4: Foreign policy.
 Charly Gordon: Brave new weapons.

 Convention speaker #1: Today's youth.
 Charly Gordon: Joyless, guideless.
 Convention speaker #6: Today's religion.
 Charly Gordon: Preachment by popularity polls.
 Convention speaker #3: Standard of living.
 Charly Gordon: A TV in every room.

 Convention speaker #4: Education.
 Charly Gordon: [agitated] A TV in every room.
[more laughter]

 Convention speaker #1: The world's future, Mr. Gordon.
 Charly Gordon: Brave new hates, brave new bombs, brave new wars.
 Convention speaker #7: The coming generation.
 Charly Gordon: Test-tube conception, laboratory birth, TV education, brave new dreams, brave new hates, brave new wars; a beautifully purposeless process of society suicide.
Charly Gordon: Any more questions?
Cliff Robertson, 1923-2011

Monday, September 12, 2011

In the News: "Pass This Jobs Bill Now!"

Last Thursday, President Obama gave his long-awaited speech before Congress.  In it he outlined a bill, which he has just submitted to Congress, to create new jobs in a variety of industries, generate tax revenue (especially by increasing the contributions of "job creators"), and grow the economy.

Our friends in the UK printed the full text of the speech, with a video, in The Guardian.  You can read and see it here.

Already, as expected, there is push-back from Republicans in Congress. Even though the resistance doesn't seem as heated as in early August with the "debate" over the debt ceiling, there is still a marked reluctance to give full support to this bill.

To me, Mr.Obama's speech was impassioned, stirring, and sensible.  If the bill he described is the bill he is asking Congress to pass immediately, I see no reason why reasonable people should not champion for it, and vote it into law.

My view?  Republicans should pass it, all of it, right now.  They should pass it for their own survival, if nothing else.

Much of the deadlock in American Government has been a result of a blind refusal by conservative Republicans to hand Mr. Obama anything that looks like a victory, even when these same Republicans have rallied for the same ideas Mr. Obama has proposed.

In other words, it is possible that Republicans may block this bill in spite of their support for many of its ideas,  BECAUSE THEY BELIEVE  IT MIGHT WORK, and might be the right bill for this moment in history.   And to let Mr. Obama claim credit for an economic victory would, for some Republicans, be akin to political suicide. Otherwise, I see LITTLE REASON why ANYONE would be reluctant to vote for this particular bill.

The bill seems no worse than anything else put forth so far by our political leaders.  Nothing else has worked, and there is very little time before the next election.  And people are hurting, as is our infrastructure and our economy in general.

IF REPUBLICANS FEEL THIS BILL IS GENUINELY THE WRONG SOLUTION TO OUR ECONOMIC WOES...All the more reason they should pass it, all of it, and right away.  If they feel that strongly about the bill's ineffectiveness, they should play the noble enablers, give Mr. Obama enough rope, as it were, and then say "we told you so" later.  If the bill does nothing to promote job growth or economic recovery, then Republicans will have an issue on which to hang their campaign; and the White House...and Congress...will be theirs in 2012.

Of course, if it passes, and the economy shows signs of coming back...Well, then the Republicans can at least have the satisfaction of having done something for the good of the economy and the country... A naive view on my part, as most of these leaders reside on a self-made plane of existence, far removed from the citizens they purport to represent. 

A very smart speech on the part of Mr. Obama, and an interesting quandary for the Republicans as a result....

Sunday, September 11, 2011

September Eleven Eleven

Some brief musings on the day, today and ten years ago....
*           *           *           *           *

On September 11 2001, I drove to work on a gently warm, cloudless sunny day... a morning just like this one... I heard on the radio about an accident that occurred in New York...a plane had crashed into one of the Twin Towers.... At the office, everyone was abuzz with trepidation...  we went into the break room to watch on TV what was unfolding.... Our boss was clueless, and forced everyone back to work...As the implications became clear, and some of us were able to find the news on our desk computers, little work got done that day.... 

*           *           *           *           *

When you live near a major airport, you begin not to notice the almost constant rumble of planes flying in various altitudes overhead...That afternoon, and for several days after that, planes stopped flying, and the noise stopped... It was more silent than I could ever remember, a deathly quiet....

*           *           *           *           *

I recall feeling like I knew nothing of a world that was suddenly very menacing... I knew I could not help change a world I didn't understand... So, I began reading, again, in earnest....

*           *           *           *           *

It is noon as I write this.  They are playing taps across America.  We hear it from the television broadcast at Soldier Field, as the Chicago Bears began their season.  A 100-yard-long American Flag is unfurled across the field. A deafening roar of the crowd while tenor Jim Cornelison sings the Star Spangled Banner.

*           *           *           *           *

Hollywood and 9/11:  A few days ago I read a Huffington Post essay by New York journalist Saki Knafo (Filming the Unfilmable: Hollywood's Attempts To Chronicle 9/11).

It occurred to me that the late Robert Altman might have been the ideal filmmaker to make the definitive 9/11 movie. His collaborative style of filmmaking, his painterly directorial eye, and his skill with large casts would have allowed him to treat the politically controversial subject matter, and catastrophe, through interlocking human stories.   He would have done this with respect, and with wry observation, without dogma, and would have built his scenario to a stunning conclusion.

And then it hit me with a jolt that Altman already made his 9/11 movie---"Nashville".  Although released in 1975, decades before 9/11; and though it took place, not in New York, but in the American South; still, his uniquely American story of politics and pop culture was politically and emotionally prescient. 

The finale at the Parthenon was like a microcosm of the shattering disaster that occurred twenty-six years later. The scene, in which a shocking incident is followed by the reaction of a crowd, is profound in its simple ambiguity, and is at once inspiring, chilling, infuriating, and exhilarating....

Americans responding to tragedy: resilient? misguided?  Watching "Nashville" today, Altman's orchestration and observation of human behavior applies in a strangely prophetic way to 9/11.

*           *           *           *           * 

San Francisco Opera presented the World Premiere of "Heart of  a Soldier" to commemorate a tragic hero of the day of the attack.

The opera tells the story of Rick Rescorla, "a British-born adventurer who fought in Vietnam before settling in New York as head of security for a brokerage firm based in the World Trade Center. On 9/11... his extraordinary courage and calmness in a crisis paid off: Rescorla led all of the 2,700 people under his care to safety—literally singing them down the stairs—before heading back into the burning building for one last check. He never emerged."

The opera stars renowned American baritone Thomas Hampson.

NPR recently interviewed Rescorla's widow Susan, who related the bittersweet story about how she and Rick found each other after their respective marriages had failed. Both in their 50's, they discovered in each other the love of their lives.

Maybe small, human stories are the most effective way to make sense of what happened in 2001. 

Friday, September 9, 2011

Taking the Weekend Off....To Catch Up With All Of You

To complete my personal, low-key celebration of 2 years and 500 posts (still cannot believe that!!) I am taking tonight and tomorrow off from the new posts....

Instead, I plan to catch up with all of you, comment on some of your recent and incredible writing, and respond to your kind comments from the last week or so.

So now, you have more time to enjoy reading from the list of Movie Reviews found in yesterday's installment! (see below).

*       *       *       *       *

Sunday, I may be back with a short series of small personal thoughts on the meaning of the passage of ten years...September 11....

*       *       *       *       *

Next week:
--A sudden idea I had regarding Mr. Obama's Jobs Speech last night;
--Some ideas I have for features as a way to structure my blog (Mini-reviews; Guilty Pleasures; In the News);
--a WELCOME to some new followers.

*       *       *       *       *

By the way: to Andrew, Luke, Cheryl, Jose, Stan, Eric (all of whom I never mentioned in my last two milestone posts), as well as Tom, Ben, and Walter.... Thanks again for being there, and always renewing your subscriptions! 

And to Mark... Who inspired a lot of my writing, and left me to it, even as I kept the lights on half the night....Thank You!!

And to the others who visit here regularly...You know who you are....and I appreciate you.