Monday, May 30, 2011

A Memorial Day Tribute: My Favorite Film

Tonight, as a Memorial Day Special, Turner Classic Movies broadcast "The Best Years of Our Lives", the 1946 smash hit and Oscar winner.


Faithful readers here know that if I had to choose, I would pick this as my favorite movie.

America showed some promise then...


I have included a clip from a less-well-known scene. Dana Andrews' parents are reading their son Fred 's citation for one of the medals he earned.  This scene starts at about :35, and following that is a tense sequence as Fred re-lives the horror of his experiences, and then finds a new life for himself.

An eloquent tribute in a rousing and extremely moving film.



"The Color Purple" Revisited

I know there are a lot of people who were profoundly moved by the film version of "The Color Purple".  It was a movie I wanted very much to connect with. But my honest gut feeling kept me from engaging with it, and I wanted to analyze my thoughts and feelings as to why I resisted it.



I left my first screening of "The Color Purple" feeling annoyed, offended even.  Not for the intensity of its subject matter, but for the filmmaker's almost cavalier approach to the suffering of its characters.  The film seemed intent on being a Disney-fied, feel-good experience about incest, child abuse, marital violence, and the debasement and empowerment of women.  It went for slapstick over sensitivity, uplift over honest reflection.

Alice Walker's novel, written as a series of letters from Celie to God, and to Celie from her long-lost sister Nettie, was raw and intrinsically moving. To see Steven Speilberg's film version was like seeing a Rembrandt done in crayons using primary colors; the shadings were gone.

Audiences loved this movie, were passionate about it even.  People around me laughed, cried, and cheered.  The natural arc of the story called for an emotional release. But the film's betrayal of its characters kept me from the release I sought.

I re-visited "The Color Purple" this past week in honor of Oprah's "retirement".  What I found this time was an entertaining ninety minutes (stretched out to 2-1/2 hours), an honestly touching finale, and the same troublesome aspects which I saw more objectively this time, since the distant experience of reading the novel had less impact.

Steven Speilberg delivered this picture soon after his triumph with "E.T."  "The Color Purple" was to be Spielberg's first "serious" film, proof that he could tackle weightier subject matter.  While he handled the mechanics of the movie with characteristic skill, he had no real heart for this story, and resorted to his usual audience manipulation.  In fact, it is the constant uncertainty of tone that is Spielberg's, and the movie's, undoing.



This isn't the actors' fault.  In her movie debut, Whoopi Goldberg is wonderful, becoming even more convincing as Celie ages.  And yet the filmmakers try to make her "cute", and "lovable".  Spielberg's handling of the character turns Celie into this film's "ET", from the slow-tracking low angle shots, to her stricken wide-eyed awe, right down to the odd, finger-pointing curse on her abusive husband Mister.  (Nettie makes the same finger-pointing gesture earlier in the film...a distraction, rather than a reasonable character trait.)  

Goldberg usually triumphs over Spielberg's missteps. She mostly communicates her fear and joy  wordlessly.  Her final scene is undeniably heart-rending. But too often, the script and the director surround Goldberg with broad-comic gimmicks: flying plates; a kitchen contraption right out of "Swiss Family Robinson"; and some old-married-couple shtick with Danny Glover, which all seem to come from a sitcom-land far away from the desperation of Celie's situation. 

Glover, as the menacing Mister, seems merely miscast.  He is there to physically abuse Celie, and hide letters she receives in the mail that would let her know that her beloved sister is still alive.  His "redemption" at the end seems tacked on, and Glover seems lost in the film's unpleasantness, for which Mister is mostly responsible.  It's also unclear what the source of Mister's income is: there are halfhearted attempts at farming, and there are kids everywhere. The house is filled with fine linen and dishes when Celie is there, but it falls apart once she leaves, with farm animals running amok and the shutters falling off.  It's no wonder Glover the actor could not find a handle on his character.

Margaret Avery as Shug, Mister's mistress and Celie's idol, is encouraged to go over the top in her early scenes, chewing the scenery with a shrew's anger and hyena's laugh.  Suddenly, after she entertains  in a juke joint (with her singing voice dubbed), she is bathed in soft light, and dressed and coiffed like an Ebony model, for her big love scene with Goldberg....an interesting sequence, complete with the tinkling of wind chimes.  However, by the time she becomes Celie's confidante and savior, who herself craves the love and forgiveness of her preacher Father, Avery proves to be a strong presence.




Nowhere is the mishandling of a character, and confusion over the tone of the movie, more evident than in what Spielberg does to Sofia, who is beautifully played by Oprah Winfrey.  Sofia is a large, headstrong woman who loves Harpo (Mister's son) and cannot control her fire during a conflict. Oprah gives the character a surprising pathos and honesty, but the film treats her immaturely, forcing Sofia to become the comic relief of the piece.  When Harpo and Mister discuss beating Sofia to control her, even the music treats this as just a bit of whimsy. 



It's ironic that this character, an empowered woman, is set up for laughter.  When her angry eye is turned to the camera, her fist clenches, and she hauls off on someone, it is meant to be uproarious, until her temper lands her in jail, gray-haired and swollen-eyed.  Spielberg really loses his way when Sofia is forced to give her new mistress driving lessons...I was grieving for this character, and the audience around me laughed as a crowd scurried out of the car's way during the lesson.  

It is a relief to see Oprah take Sofia out of her submissive stupor near the end. Oprah's scenes, with her strong delivery of her no-nonsense dialog, are some of my favorite in the film.  I really felt the movie glossed over Sofia's suffering.  The movie betrays this character and Oprah's strong characterization.


Speaking of the music, about twelve credited musicians contributed to the score. While there are some interesting regional sounds, the music is overbearing sometimes, reminding viewers constantly about how we are supposed to feel at every moment.  I often thought I had wandered into a fairy tale that had nothing to do with the world of this movie.

I may have set the bar too high on this film.  But then, there are such marvelous and inspired moments that I was sorry the movie could not sustain this high level of artistry overall.  Especially exciting and moving is the African sequence, in which Celie reads the letters Mister had hidden from her.  Everything comes together marvelously here, from the editing and photography (using cross-cutting to lend meaning as well as create tension) to the music and narration.  All are top-notch. This sequence, for me, helped redeem the film. 

Another wonderful shot of a railroad crew working in unison is a terrific aesthetic moment, simply there for its own sake. I also loved the train scene, with Celie throwing a handful of chocolates to a little girl who reminded her of Nettie.  That really moved me.  I wanted more of this.

So when Harpo falls through another roof in a running gag, or we are treated to a production number that seemed to be dropped in from "The Blues Brothers", or we endure another one of Celie's abuses, or the plot falls apart near the end and the passage of time becomes hopelessly confused, I wished the project had a different leader, one who kept his eyes on the details of this powerful story instead of stealing glances at the reactions of his audience.

If only Spielberg showed the same sensitivity and honesty and authenticity throughout,  as he did in the film's final scene of reunion and reconciliation. 

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Oprah's Era Ends


It's the end of an era for Chicago and for television.

After 25 years, Oprah Winfrey broadcast the final installment of her hugely popular daytime talk show.

It was an intimate episode---just Oprah addressing her audience, no surprise guests, no huge give-aways.  I missed the earlier "farewell" programs that had been broadcast from the United Center, the house that former Chicago Bulls legend Michael Jordan built.  He appeared, along with an armload of other friends and celebrities.

But the final show was simply Oprah on stage, reminiscing about her guests and lessons learned, thanking her audience, providing her statement of meaning, and giving one last bit of encouragement to her loyal followers.  It was certainly sincere, if a bit preachy, especially in the final 20 minutes.

Considering how rarely I was able to see the "Oprah"  show during its impressive run, it's amazing how much I knew of her.  She seemed to be everywhere.  More than just a chat show, her program seemed to provide an active form of therapy to her viewers, mostly women (if her studio audiences were any indication).  In spite of her enormous wealth and influence, she had a way of connecting with "everymen" and "everywomen", and exuded an empathy and openness of emotion that made people feel welcome with her.



I didn't always agree with her.  I hated her habit of slipping into "ghetto-speak" when making a comic or unpopular statement.  When Heath Ledger and the cast of "Brokeback Mountain" visited her set, she showed a surprising lack of understanding of the film's central relationship, considering that she had long become a fierce advocate for LGBT issues. And the Jonathan Franzen/Oprah's Book Club debacle uncovered an unseemly unpleasantness in the world of popular publishing.

And I sometimes felt that her taking the mantle of spiritual advisor was a bit sticky.

On the other hand, Oprah was well-loved by many, from her millions of fans to a diverse selection of celebrities. She was also generous. Not only did her audience giveaways become legendary, but she did much to promote educational opportunities to the disadvantaged, the empowerment of women, and assistance to many of the abused and troubled guests who appeared on her stage.  

She was an animal-rights advocate.  And she devoted many episodes to LGBT issues.

Oprah's Angel Network and her leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa are among her better-known charitable projects.

And, as evidenced by the final shot of her last show, Oprah loved her dogs, even devoting an earlier show to a pet that had passed away.



Oprah is not going away.  She will keep her hand in show business, and will likely produce television and theater, and continue her giving and humanitarian efforts.

After her final show, I watched "The Color Purple" again.  It was a film I had not revisited in many years, a film that I disliked when I first saw it in 1985. 

In my next post I will re-consider Spielberg's film, which gave Oprah her first major film role and her one Oscar nomination. 

Friday, May 27, 2011

A Dog Comes Home, On Broken Legs

Here's a story  about a remarkable "dog rescue" in Time Magazine that I will want to remember, and come back to.


Near tornado-ravaged Birmingham, Alabama, a family's pet terrier was hiding in the garage when the storm badly damaged their home, and carried the dog away.  The heartbroken family considered little Mason lost forever.


But Mason was not gone.  The tornado finally deposited him on the ground, and as he landed he broke both of his front paws. In pain and limping badly, but propelled by his need to get home to his familiar surroundings and his family, Mason found his way home. He crawled through the wreckage, and weeks later, his family found him waiting on the front porch.


Vulcan Park Veterinary Clinic in Birmingham took the dog in while the family worked to piece together what was left of their home and their lives.  There, Mason received metal plates in his forelegs, and after six weeks of recovery, will be ready to join his family once again.


A few days ago I posted a story about search-and-rescue dogs who arrived in Joplin (and other disaster-ridden areas) to find those still missing in the devastation.   I am now happy to preserve this tale (pun may be intended) of another dog who rescued himself and in the process saved his family from years of regret and mourning.


Enjoy this great video, which I see as a tribute to all of the scrappy and loyal dogs out there...and as an anecdote to life's recent travails.  Life can't be all bad with dogs around.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Because.....

....it makes me smile.... 

I needed this...and wanted to share it....

It has been a challenging Spring...  Sometimes plunging into one's writing is all one can do.... Read on...

Mother

Lately all I feel like doing is sleeping...
Quiet nights together at home, writing, our trips to the city, and some movies, have sustained me these past two weeks.
The following poured out of me....maybe now I can begin to heal myself during this time of uncertainty...
Many thanks to my readers...
----------------------------------------------------------------------

She barely resembles the woman I knew, strapped to that wheelchair for two weeks...

"I hate you" she said. "You want me to stay here for the rest of my life", she said...
That's the illness talking. 
Depression ate away at her essence. It has been feeding on her, maybe all of her life.
It's hard to look back and say, "Yes, I can see that now".

The shell remains; drawn, disheveled.
Hair and skin dried up from a refusal to drink liquids.
But the person she was, longing for affection and approval, who loved us as best she could, is hidden, or gone.
The reminder is there. And maybe her love remains.  
I come to see her with hope. I remind myself that she needs me, in spite of her irrational anger.


What was she so afraid of?  She has always been so frightened.
She never drove a car. So what?  A charming old-world Italian custom: Women stayed home. Women were dependent.
It was something more...She was scared to death of getting lost, of losing control.


And now she can't move from that chair. 
She is angry now, and she wants to be left alone.
I tell myself she doesn't mean it.
That awful voice inside me asks, "If it wasn't there to begin with, would she say it now?".
"There's a conspiracy against me."  "You're a bastard."
I can't listen. I won't take it to heart.


After weeks of alarming decline, she fell one night, and stayed there for hours.
Until father called the next morning.
The weary doctor had a lot of things to do. 
"Bring her in if you can.  You can't force her if she doesn't want to."
The paramedics and I decided for her.  She had stopped eating. For weeks.
She didn't know what day it was.

Another doctor assured us that the treatment was much less traumatic nowadays.
"Six sessions, and we will see a difference. She won't feel it."
The movies alarmed my imagination...Jack Nicholson's cuckoo's nest... Ellen Burstyn's requiem....  Horrendous images....

A flicker of hope...a cup of juice consumed...a few hours of laughter had returned...
...But then it all wore off...she was not responding...her anger and unhappiness returned.  "Why are you here?" 
If I leave her, she is afraid that the "lights will go out", and she will be alone.
For the first time yesterday, she uttered, "I just want to die."
She won't eat.  Or drink. Or take medication unless forced to.


"You're a bastard".  "I hate you".  It's the illness talking. 

She is like a frightened animal...a dog that bites. 
If I reach out, real pain would result.


After she returned, years ago, from a similar episode, I watched her wave at me from my rear view mirror as I drove away to start a life in Phoenix....and I cried the whole day, all the way to St. Louis, and beyond. 
I cried for being angry with her, because she would not get better for my sake.


She recovered, years later, and we never discussed it when I returned to Chicago.


I'm tired now, and feel no guilt, only profound sadness, and uncertainty.  She has three more treatments....and then...what?

I cannot expect anything from her.  I will give everything I can. 


Mother, for now, is gone.  She may never fully return.  I have to let go. 

Save what I can...Reinvent the rest....

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

In Joplin Missouri, Help Arrives on Four Legs


Life goes on...But...

Tonight, to me nothing else was as important to write about as tornado-ravaged Joplin, Missouri.

About the confusion, devastation, and loss: nothing more needs to be said. 

About the human tendency to snap to, and provide extraordinary assistance in times of dire need, I can only describe it as the rare bit of poetry I find in being human. 

About those that would exploit others in times of loss and sorrow, like the men who looted the remains of a family home while masquerading as first responders, well...  that is humanity's shameful, overwritten prose.
 
While reading about the search-and-rescue for possible survivors, still living within the rubble; or the urgency to account for over a thousand people still missing; one item lifted me from a recurring sense of paralysis.  This paralysis I have experienced too often lately, in the wake of continuous news of natural and man-made terror.



The item I found gave me feeling of comfort, even elation: as I read all about the eager and energetic rescuers of The National Disaster Search Dog Foundation.  Read this link to learn more about the rescue dogs, their teams, and their success stories.

What helped me regain my perspective, and helped me feel more hopefully alive, were these stories about the innocent and boundless presence of our canine friends.

A team of rescuers from this California-based Search-and-Rescue-dog organization was dispatched to Joplin, and have been doing their work with their characteristic energy and concentration.

(Dog teams from Oklahoma City and other neighboring areas are also volunteering to assist.  Kudos to all of them!)

The human/dog teams from this incredibly fine organization have been deployed to assist in disaster searches everywhere from the World Trade Center, to Hurricane Katrina, the Haiti earthquake, the San Bruno CA gas explosion, and the Japanese Tsunami and earthquakes.

Introducing Huck, and Jagger, and their partners Brent Koeninger and Jason Smith. These four are hard at work in Joplin now.

Both of these dogs were themselves rescued from shelters, brought to the training center, and will never need to be rescued again.  The love and care they were shown, and the sense of purpose they have from their training, they are repaying tenfold.

Huck and Brent Koeninger

Jagger and Jason Smith

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Congratulations Cannes 2011 Winners; an Exciting List

One of the films I am most highly anticipating this year impressed the Jury at the Cannes Film Festival.

France, Denmark, Belgium, Israel, Argentina, Ukraine, Turkey, and the United States were among the nations represented in the Winner's Circle tonight.


This year's Festival was especially interesting to me, because the films were unusually intriguing, and seemed to have excellent chances of reaching a wider American audience.  In addition to the winners, there was well received work like Woody Allen's "Midnight in Paris", which is getting Allen some of his best notices in years.



Of the winners, the black-and-white silent film "The Artist" will certainly be on my list of must-sees, for what appears to be a risky yet successful homage to silent films and the advent of sound, not to mention an affecting performance by Jean Dujardin, and a reportedly delightful appearance by a Jack Russell Terrier. 



Also on my list: "Drive", Cannes' Awarded Directorial effort, starring the always watchable Ryan Gosling and Carey Mulligan.



And then there's tonight's big winner, "Tree of Life", a film of purportedly such high ambition, visual splendor, and maddening ambiguity, that its victory seemed inevitable. 

I can't wait. 

Even though it is unlikely to connect with a mass audience, it still seems to have more popular appeal than the last 2 Palme d'Or winners, Germany's "The White Ribbon" and Thailand's
 "Uncle Boonmee...", both of which I was privileged to have seen this year.

Now, before we jump the gun and start the Oscar oddsmaking (or mudslinging), it's worth noting that only one time did a Palme d'Or winner win a Best Picture Oscar: "Marty", in 1955.  And Terrence Malick's film will no doubt polarize some viewers and prompt millions of disparaging words on-line between now and February.  The well is already being poisoned, and the film hasn't even been released in most cities yet. 

Congratulations to the following winners, with best wishes that all of them find appreciative audiences:


—Palme d'Or (Golden Palm): "The Tree of Life" by Terrence Malick (United States)



—Grand Prize: Shared between "The Kid with the Bike" by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (Belgium) and "Once Upon a Time in Anatolia" by Nuri Bilge Ceylan (Turkey)
—Jury Prize: "Poliss" by Maiwenn (France)
—Best Director: Nicolas Winding Refn for "Drive" (Denmark)
—Best Actor: Jean Dujardin, "The Artist" (France)
—Best Actress: Kirsten Dunst, "Melancholia" (film from Denmark, actress from United States)
—Best Screenplay: Joseph Cedar, "Footnote" (Israel)
—Camera d'Or (first-time director): "Las Acacias" by Pablo Giorgelli (Argentina)
—Best short film: "Country" by Maryna Vroda (Ukraine)

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Judgment Day, and Alfred Hitchcock's "The Birds"


I am still here.  Here on earth, that is.


My body did not ascend into the heavens today.  So either I am damned; or else the publicized prediction that Judgment Day would occur this evening at 6pm was, predictably, a hoax.  Was there really any doubt?  (About the latter, I mean.)

(Discussed here two weeks ago: "Are You Ready For the End of the World on May 21?")


When we walked into a coffee shop in Chicago's Andersonville neighborhood tonight, the staff, in a spirit of wicked fun, played  Mozart's "Requiem Mass in D Minor" over the house speakers to celebrate the "rapture". 


As I adjusted to the fact that I was not one of the charmed or chosen, and as I contemplated the wonder of my continued ability to walk the earth, my mind naturally turned to the movies!

Alfred Hitchcock described his 1963 thriller, "The Birds", as his "vision of Judgment Day".  And, as movie Judgment Days go, it is probably one of the most creepy, haunting, and unforgettable (even if Mr. Hitchcock held tongue firmly in cheek in stating this: After all, he described "Psycho" as a big comedy).


I love that scene in the diner, in which frightened adults and children are trying to make sense of the chaos and to derive comfort from one another.  Here, Hitchcock introduces two characters in brief and indelible appearances.  First is a bird expert, who does her best to interpret the accepted evidence that birds would not attack at random. Second is a drunken buffoon, who is as certain of his interpretation of the Apocalypse as the folks who insisted on tonight's rapture (and yet continued to take donations).  He keeps repeating: "It's the end of the world!"



Unfortunately, in "The Birds", the guy at the bar seemed to be right.

My inner 12-year-old still thinks this movie is pretty cool.  My more "mature" reading of the film finds the mystery intriguing and chilling; the terrible tragedy visited upon regular people by creatures we all assume are benign, is horrifying.


Most of us are familiar with the terrifying scenes of bird attacks on the quiet coastal town of Bodega Bay. Nothing seemed to provoke them.  They amassed with murderous intent, picking off (or pecking off) the residents haphazardly, until the chilling finale, when the battered and conquered protagonists slowly, tentatively drive into a horizon bathed in heavenly light.  It is an interesting image of the raptor  rapture. 

All silly remarks aside, I do happen to think that Melanie and Lydia's reconciliation, and Cathy's insistence on bringing the lovebirds (in a strangely calming symbolic gesture), and the car's slow movement, with the threat all around them, with no explanation offered...  is one of the most awesome apocalyptic movie finales I can think of.



Thursday, May 19, 2011

When Film Critics Are Baffled by Art, and Originality, and "Life"


While reading about this year's Cannes Film Festival, and the violently diverse reception given to some of the new work on display, I reflected on the essays and reviews of one particular film:


"...(It) reached its initial audience slightly in advance of their expectations; acceptance of the film’s radical structure and revolutionary content was slower to come....  While seeing a new use of film, (critics) reacted with responses geared to conventionally shaped films...."


"...The most common complaint of early press reviews ...was its long length and slow pace...."


"...a “crashing bore...”


“...morally pretentious, intellectually obscure, and inordinately long...”


“...a thoroughly uninteresting failure and the most damning demonstration yet of (the Director's) inability to tell a story coherently and with a consistent point of view...”


“...trash masquerading as art....  monumentally unimaginative...the biggest amateur movie of them all...”



No, these are not the critics' comments about Terrence Malick's highly anticipated "Tree of Life", which prompted a round of "boos" along with a chorus of cheers and applause, after its premiere screening at Cannes.

Rather, these are from the original essays and reviews from 1968's "2001: A Space Odyssey", Stanley Kubrick's masterpiece, to which "Tree of Life" has been compared.   Not only that, but these are from critics that I respect, and regard as mentors for my own film criticism; people like Joseph Morgenstern, Andrew Sarris,  Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., and even Pauline Kael.

Kael's dismissal of this ground-breaking work is especially surprising, given her championing of another classic that was highly misunderstood in its initial release: "Bonnie and Clyde" (1967).  Kael's defense of "Bonnie and Clyde" heralded a new openness to cinematic innovation and risk-taking from within the ranks of professional film critics.  She helped save the film from early obscurity, and defined a new way of considering cinematic art.



It is understandable that even astute movie reviewers and critics were lost, when the critera they used to define greatness proved ineffective when analyzing and evaluating a wholly original work like "2001".

Here is a film that entered the consciousness in unfamiliar ways; visually of course but not linearly...it aroused a sense of ambiguity and awe, and was so well-controlled, that sensitive viewers were inspired. 

It unreeled on the screen like poetry on the page.  And, like poetry, it was impervious to a literal interpretation. 

And after the movie haunted viewers, and had a chance to settle; and as the implications of it began to come into focus, the resulting exhilaration---and repeat viewings---guaranteed its classic status.

Film poetry, done well, is rare.

That excitement of connecting to a film's ambiguity, to understand it first of all in your gut, and then later in your head, is an experience I live for at the movies. 

Altman's "Nashville" was like that for me.  And Bergman's "Persona".  David Lynch's "Mulholland Drive".  "The Red Balloon".  "Fellini Satyricon".  Terrence Malick's "Thin Red Line".  Most recently,  "Black Swan" and "Uncle Boonmee". And of course "2001."

I am not in the habit of "reviewing" a movie that I am anxious to see before it's even released. It's not fair to the film, and prevents me from going in with an open mind.  But wow, I am really excited about the release of "Tree of Life".

Let's just say that I am grateful that there's one film artist out there whose work will be unlike the typical plastic Hollywood output.  That there's at least the promise of a summer moviegoing experience that will stimulate the creative juices, and be concerned with matters of heart and mind first and foremost.  Directors like Terrence Malick, even when they fail, deserve support for their originality, wisdom and ambition, from movie-lovers like yours truly!

And, like "2001", there will be the bafflement of professional critics who are not moved by it, or whose criteria to define greatness are rooted in fantasy, or in action that is spelled out and explained...without those, they have nothing at which to Marvel...

I will come back to "Tree of Life" after I screen it in June.  I hope it proves to be half as exhilarating as my anticipation of it. If not...guess I'll have even more to write about, to understand why. 


Wednesday, May 18, 2011

"Hasta la vista, Baby!"--Wednesday Journal


I don't mean to be glib.  It would be too easy to make a lame joke about just how long it took him to return at night when he said, "I'll Be Back". 

The breaking story of Arnold Schwarzenegger fathering a child with a household employee, ten years ago while married to Maria Shriver, is embarrassing, painful, and any more, almost blase.. 

The innocent members of his family, close associates, and public supporters of Schwarzenegger, are feeling the pangs of betrayal.

Most families caught in similar circumstances can adjust, heal, and carry on, outside the spotlight of media scrutiny.

But there's little sympathy left in me for privileged people like Arnold, ostensible role-models, leaders who make decisions that affect the private lives of millions, who are exposed as hypocrites.  I might be more forgiving if they didn't condemn such behavior in others, holding themselves as the standard-bearers of "moral" living.  I hate it most when revered pop-culture icons and politicians behave this way.

Arnold happened to be both. 

Are they all that way?  Am I that naive?  I will give myself some benefit of the doubt...

Arnold, in the balance, caused much pain to his family.  In the grand scheme, I find his behavior only a little less reprehensible than transgressors like Mel Gibson or Newt Gingrich, people who either build their careers on self-righteous ideology or who spew their venomous hate in public.  Arnold made some grave errors, and he has lost the public trust (for a while) and he has a hard road to repair. 

But as voters, we sort of have to blame ourselves for the leaders we elect.  Why can't Americans stop voting for B-movie actors, career politicians, and unctuous glad-handers to represent them as their statesmen?  When will we demand better from the leaders who represent us? 

It will be interesting to follow Schwarzenegger's reentry into a movie career.  As far as I'm concerned, he's "Terminated".

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Era of Rahm


I would not be a true Chicagoan if I did not make some mention of  the era of Rahm Emanuel,  the city's new Mayor.

The Daley Dynasty has ended.  I guess you have to be from here to understand the significance of that, and the mixed emotions inspired by the absence of a Daley (Senior or Junior) from office.

During his tenure as President Obama's Chief of Staff, Emanuel was a divisive figure. Known for his quick temper and expletive-laced language, Emanuel's impact on the Administration on issues like Obama's health care plan, the closing of Guantanamo Bay, and the Eric Massa scandal, have been controversial and never very clear.

And then, almost on a whim, Emanuel resigned as Chief of Staff, with Obama's blessing, and returned to Chicago to re-invent himself as the Mayor of the country's third largest city.  It is a story that should inspire me, and much of Emanuel's achievement does just that.  At times, though, I give pause at the almost impossible rapidity of this achievement, and his almost railroading into the office.  I still believe his residency arguments were just off-center.

On the other hand, Emanuel has a quick mind, a clear vision, and the will to get a lot of things done at once.  He published the "Chicago 2011 Transition Plan", a wildly ambitious--or maybe even foolhardy--blueprint for his desired accomplishments in office.  I listed below a digest version of the "55 Promises" Emanuel lays out in his plan, courtesy of Eric Zorn in the Chicago Tribune. (For a detailed explanation of the 55 items listed below, click here for Zorn's blog article.)

Emanuel has promised a 100-day progress benchmark and a Year One goal.  Unless he staffs his office with extraordinary multitaskers, it would seem impossible to tackle what comes out to be just over one item on the list per week.

By his own admission, Emanuel is "not a patient man".  He also comes off in media appearances as headstrong, a poor listener, and unlikely to deviate from his plan even if it proves unworkable.  He might be a quick study, but he strikes me as a little slippery, and quick with a well-honed excuse.  I hope the press is just as impatient with him, in order to push him to be more transparent, (which he did promise on his web site), and force him to talk to these points and be honest about their success.

I wish him well...if he succeeds, it will only be a boon for Chicago.  And it will provide Emanuel with a terrific resume for a future Presidential run.

1. Cut $75 million immediately
2. Implement budget reform
3. Reform [Tax Increment Financing]
4. Initiate ethics reform
5. Set high standards for open, participatory government to involve all Chicagoans
6. Simplify the structure of government
a. Internally, by centralizing and coordinating services
b. Through partnerships with nonprofit organizations and other governments, to strengthen the effective delivery of services
7. Simplify fees, regulations and inspections
8. Centralize, professionalize, and reform procurement
9. Integrate public performance targets with service delivery and cost effectiveness standards
10. Invest in the health and well-being of City workers and their families
11. Ensure that worker safety is a top priority
12. Introduce a consolidated, comprehensive capital planning and management process
13. Take action to address gun violence
14. Reduce summer violence, especially among youth
15. Reintegrate policing with the needs and priorities of communities
16. Coordinate public safety efforts more effectively
17. Eliminate food deserts in Chicago
18. Improve street safety
19. Place more police officers on active street duty
20. Create a strong public health agenda for Chicago
21. Create a strategic and comprehensive response to the foreclosure crisis
22. Address the safety risks of vacant and abandoned buildings
23. Make Chicago’s accessibility code the most progressive in the nation
24. Launch Citywide recyling
25 Create a world-class bike network and increase cycling
26. Improve water efficiency, water quality, and water infrastructure
27. Conduct a review of City-organized festivals and cultural programming
28. Increase access to public space
29. Increase instructional time for all students
30. Recruit, support and retain high-performing school leaders and principals
31. Recruit, support and retain high-performing school teachers
32. Transform early childhood education to reach more young children with quality programs
33. Increase the number of non-selective, world-class schools in every neighborhood
34. Give parents and families the tools they need to demand high-quality schools and for their children’s education
35. Overhaul Chicago’s public high schools
36. Set a bold postsecondary completion goal that accelerates degree attainment
37. Foster an aggressive approach to innovation in Chicago education
38. Ensure that Chicago’ immigrant community can access available support and services effectively and that we deliver to Chicago’s youth the promise of the Dream Act
39. Provide more options for youth that have dropped out of school
40. Integrate economic development planning with the City’s business and financial management
41. Eliminate the head tax
42. Improve and expand Chicago’s transit system
43. Prepare people for jobs that businesses need to fill
44. Develop job growth strategies for targeted industries
45. Promote innovation and entrepreneurship
46. Develop bus rapid transit
47. Support transit-oriented development
48. Accelerate infrastructure projects that are critical to regional growth
49. Increase broadband access
50. Develop a new cultural plan for Chicago
51. Develop a strategy for creating and supporting cultural hubs throughout Chicago
52. Refocus the Chicago Climate Action Plan on economic impact and jobs
53. Promote energy efficiency and retrofits to reduce energy costs and drive job creation and new funding
54. Promote development of underutilized buildings and vacant land
55. Build vibrant communities through development of local assets and institutional anchors

Monday, May 16, 2011

"Stage Kiss"


Imagine ending an intense love affair years ago.  Then imagine you are an actor who has just been cast in the romantic lead of a new play.  Now imagine that your stage partner is your ex, with whom you must share a number of passionate kisses.


Could you play these scenes without old feelings intruding?  Would you draw on these old feelings to make the play authentic, even if it endangers your real-life marriage, family, or relationship?  What if old love was rekindled?




That is the intriguing premise of "Stage Kiss", a new play in the Goodman Theater series, written by Pulitzer nominee Sarah Ruhl ("In the Next Room or the vibrator play", "The Clean House").  It succeeds as farce, deftly weaving the actors' reality with their stage persona in the first act, then digging deeper in act two for a darker tone, and a resolution to the intrusion of their art into their lives, and vice versa.

Act One is definitely the more successful.  In fact, it's a breezy and affectionate satire on theater. We meet She (Jenny Bacon) during an appropriately embarrassing audition, with a stand-in (Jeffrey Carlson, who is wonderful in multiple comic characters) and a director (Ross Lehman) who is comically inept.  The play-within-the-play is a long-forgotten 1930's bedroom comedy, and She is required to play a socialite who can sing.  Soon, she meets He, her male lead and lover of years past (Mark L. Montgomery), and the old passions and conflicts immediately resurface. 

During a slapstick rehearsal period, in which their stage characters provide us a glimpse into the relationship that once was, we learn about who they are now (She is married with a daughter, He is a Peter Pan moving from girlfriend to girlfriend).  The play they're in allows them to rekindle their affair, with their characters providing enough fantasy to cloak the truth of their infidelity.

From the giddy, romantic one-upsmanship of the leads, to the bit players' bumbling and upstaging; from hilariously Bad Dialogue to wobbly backdrops that keep threatening to fall down; Act one gives us the pleasures of an old-fashioned comedy with an original premise that is not at all far-fetched. 

The small cast skillfully plays broad physical comedy, and charm us with their mischief, as Ruhl's dialog and impossibly goofy situations unfold rapidly like a live-action version of "Purple Rose of Cairo".  Bacon and Montgomery find the right nuances in their "real" characters, so that they are recognizable as they inhabit their stage "characters".  The audience is brought right into the middle of the fun, and while we're laughing, we have time to consider the dilemma of these two flawed and likable beings.  The job of Acting allows a certain dispensation to play out one's fantasies, and in a situation filled with real emotion, the opportunity is delectable.

Act Two puts She and He into another awful new play, and this time it stirs up recollections of  what caused them to break up.  By the end, we may be charmed by the resolution, marriage is preserved, and everyone ends up in their rightful place; but it strains credibility, even within its farcical logic, and gets just a wee bit moralizing.  The thing is, I liked She and He.  I wanted the play they were in to provide them with a second chance to get their love right this time.  I didn't see either of them as the whore or the asshole the play labels them (even in jest) at the finish.

Even so, Act Two has some amazing physical movement and fight choreography (again. played for laughs), some screamingly funny 1970's "urban" costumes, and fine performances.

I think, with a few revisions, it might even play in New Haven. (You had to have been there.)

Sunday, May 15, 2011

A Close Call Last Friday--A Sunday Journal

A number of personal incidents this past week have caused me to reflect with some urgency on the challenges of just getting through the day.  For now, I want to record my thoughts and feelings about just one of the incidents, if for no other reason than to give myself some comfort, and to exercise the narrative writing muscle....


Before long, (maybe even later tonight), I will return to what I know and enjoy best: views on visual and literary arts; recommendations (or condemnations) of the most recent films and plays; looks back on older works; political rants; and stories about our animal friends.


~     ~     ~     ~     ~



A truck driver with 50 previous traffic violations and citations crashed his truck into a Metra commuter train last Friday morning.


The accident occurred just minutes after leaving the station in Mount Prospect, our home town suburb, where Mark catches the train to work every morning, and where I often board the train to the city.


Fortunately for Mark, he just missed being on the crashed train, having boarded the one previous to it.


(For movie fans, the Metra is the train system involved in the recent film "Source Code". )


Accidents and close calls happen frequently. Often, what happened Friday was the result of stupidity and bravado, when drivers speed across the tracks after the gates are down the alarms are sounding, and all precautionary signs are flashing.  Too often, they win this game of "chicken".  Unfortunately, the perpetrator of Friday's mayhem was unable to outrun his fate. He was killed on impact.




Trouble is, a lot of innocent people were injured, and many more were inconvenienced. The conductor was seriously injured.  The second car burst into flames, and the violent pitch of the train sent bags, work papers, books, and other personal items slamming against the walls of the train.  Many passengers had to kick out the windows for emergency escape.  No passengers died.


Trains were unable to run back on that line during the afternoon rush hour. Hundreds of people were left stranded in the city.  Fortunately for Mark, he was able to take an alternate line to Evanston (home of Northwestern University) and I was able to drive there to meet him and bring him back home.


Had Mark been on that train, and if something unspeakably serious occurred, I just don't know how I would react, and bear up under that. 




Illinois has had a long shameful history of putting dangerous drivers back out on the streets.  Former Governor George Ryan is in prison for a license scandal that resulted in the deaths of a vacationing family with a van filled with children.


It is sort of natural to try to avoid the constant fact of how fragile life is, how quickly it can change forever.  I suppose I have to give up the naive notion---I used to call it trust, and hope--that when you kiss a loved one goodbye before work, you can count on seeing that person again at the end of the day. 


On the other hand, it's best not to dwell...  Just give it its due....   Nothing in life is safe...But then not every activity will result in tragedy.


Saturday, May 14, 2011

Blogger Went Down; And I Rediscovered my Writer's Addiction

I will have to explore my writer's addiction.   I discovered it the first time as a youngster, writing movie reviews in a notebook , when one of my teachers offered to read it, and then lost it; and I re-discovered the strange anxiety again this week when I was unable to post on this blog.

For the last two days, the server that hosts the Blogger site was down due to a malfunction of an update. So it was impossible to post, to comment on other sites, to reply to my own comments. Worse yet, out posts from May 11 had all disappeared, along with comments written to us and those we left for others.

Losing my work with no certainty that it would ever return brought  back that utter disappointment from my High School days....  Fortunately, my piece on Kate Hepburn came back (see below), but the comments I had received earlier, from Eric and Ben, are gone for good.....

When I was not able to write on the blog, I felt something like a physical agitation....an irrational fear that I might disappear...  an itch to connect with my readers, known and unknown, and go up to my elbows in words....

Fortunately I was able to take comfort in free-hand writing in a notebook, which I still do for my fiction, and other pieces....But the blog format, with it's immediate connection and feedback, and the satisfaction of publishing it and offering my best effort, and editing to near-perfection, has turned into a craving.

Anyone else feel something like this?

Coming up: a train wreck; a new play review; the HBO film "Temple Grandin"; and more about dogs....

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

"Let's Watch A Katharine Hepburn Movie"

This post is at the invitation of Andrew at Encore Entertainment.  Andrew, whose all-time screen idol is Katharine Hepburn (a good choice), is keeping the torch burning for her by celebrating her birthday on his blog tomorrow.


He asked fellow movie-lovers to select our favorite Kate Hepburn performance, and send him a few lines, or create a post of our own.


There are so many great Hepburn moments, and favorite roles.  But the choice, for me, was an easy one.  If my friends suddenly said, "Let's watch a Kate Hepburn film", I would immediately select "The Lion in Winter".



This is my favorite of Hepburn's performances in one of my all-time favorite movies.





This is Kate's crowning achievement, her ultimate role, which combines the best of her talents with unforgettable ferocity and vulnerability.  Kate's phrasing and command of her presence on-screen lends dramatic weight to her role as Eleanor of Aquitaine.  Her emotions well up with such ease, and she has deep resources of anger and pain. She is able to summon these, sometimes all at once, for very complex readings that tug at our conflicting emotions while our minds are being engaged, and challenged.  Hepburn has complete mastery of her character and the history of the period. 

All the while, a blazing intelligence pervades her, especially in the intensity with which she regards her co-stars with her eyes.  Even when she is playing ruthless, we are always with her, hanging on every word.  Hepburn has always been both funny and no-nonsense, both sympathetic and harsh, and "The Lion in Winter" was the perfect vehicle for her great talent.


I think I may watch it now!

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Risky, Tony-Winning "Next To Normal" Burns Up The Stage



I was fortunate to catch the breathtaking contemporary musical "Next to Normal" at the end of its one-week run in Chicago last weekend. It is the best night I spent in live theater since "Billy Elliot", which gave this musical some real competition for the 2009 Tony Awards. While "Billy Elliot" nabbed the majority of awards that year including Best Musical and Best Book of a Musical, "Next to Normal" was a supremely worthy contender, earning the wonderful Alice Ripley a Best Actress Award, as well as a Tony for Original Score, and a tie with "Billy" for orchestrations.


"Next to Normal" is definitely the more challenging of the two, and especially meaningful to audience members who have tried to care for loved ones who struggle with mental illness.


Before I go on I must say that "Next to Normal" is not maudlin or depressing, but extremely entertaining, moving, and musically exciting. The show takes a big risk in its subject matter: clinical depression and anxiety, delusional behavior, and electroshock therapy.  It succeeds in creating a visual and musical representation of the troubled mind of the victim, and the emotional toll this disorder has on family and friends. And it's sad and funny in appropriate measure.



For me, this was more than a theatrical experience, at times holding me in a spell similar to that of Freudian therapeutic psychodrama. I had to hang on to every development, searching for the closure and certainty that I am unable to find in my own struggles with family mental illness.


This is a story about a nondescript middle-class family whose wife and mother, Diana (Ripley)is suffering deep depression. The play renders the "normalcy" of this unit in the ironic opening number "Another Day", which introduces Dan, her husband (Asa Somers), and teen-aged son and daughter, Gabe and Natalie (Curt Hansen and Emma Hunton), who are dealing with the tribulations of young adulthood while trying to make sense out of the sudden, frightening and confusing change in their family dynamic.


As a foil to the high drama, a "normal" relationship develops between Natalie and a boy in her class (Henry, played by Preston Sadlier). The scenes between them form a mini play-within-a-play, and stand on their own as entertaining and charming.



In an early scene in Act One, as birthday cake is lighted and carried onstage, the play pulls the rug out from the audience, when something is revealed about a character that spins the play into a whole new direction; in effect, creating a feeling of disorientation not unlike what the suffering woman must experience.


So many elements: Diana's psychiatric treatment; the clinical jargon incorporated into honest but humorous lyrics; the parallels between Diana and Emma's lives and personalities; Dan's pathetic attempt to salvage their crumbling marriage; Gabe's physical, sensual movement through each scene in an almost seductive encouragement for his mother; and an unresolved trauma in the past; all of these come together to form this kaleidoscopic and beautiful work.


The staging is complex and amazingly fluid. A three-level set of the family home is done in chrome and wood and translucent surfaces, with strong lighting, and graphics done in dots resembling newsprint up close.  It successfully depicts a cold, uncomforting world, and suggest Diana's hyper-reality and her sensitivity to light and detail.



The story moves seamlessly between levels of the stage, and from past to present. Actors move furniture during transitions and the effect is almost invisible. Credit must go to Director Michael Grief for keeping the show moving briskly and keeping the energy high even in more reflective moments; and to Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey, whose lyrics and music keep us laughing, while  the characters' thoughts and feelings are clearly communicated. During scenes of desperation and resignation, they allow us moments of catharsis. Both deservedly picked up a Pulitzer Prize for their work here.

This play is an actor's dream, and the cast is flawless.  Each one is provided his or her big musical moment, and every one brings on with heat and passion, never grandstanding but always in service to the character.  Ripley is amazing in a demanding role, Asa Somers is heartbreaking as the helpless husband, and all of the young performers held the stage admirably.  I will look for all of them in future work.


Anyone who has seen a mother or other loved one deteriorate due to depression, anxiety, or other forms of mental decline, knows that there needs to be a time to mourn the person who once was, and who is unlikely to return. The progression of the disorder, and the changes in behavior and personality of the loved one, makes it seem as though the person has died.  The remaining physical presence keeps the survivors from doing the emotional work necessary to cope and to adjust to a new reality.


In a few stark scenes, some of them musical interludes, "Next to Normal" offers a look at characters caught in this process of non-mourning, which can turn into resentment, and then unbearable regret.  It also offers us a glimpse at healing.  A scene between Mother and Daughter, where both are pleading for understanding from each other, with the mother apologizing, and the daughter unsure about being hurt again, set me to silently sobbing...The poor man behind me must have thought I was having a seizure, until I heard him, too, sniffling unashamedly.


But then, earlier, I enjoyed one of the biggest laughs of the year, in a sequence in which Diana first meets her new Psychiatrist, Dr. Fine (Jeremy Kushner)and their sudden mutual attraction is captured in imaginative bursts of heavy metal  and colored concert lighting and politically incorrect doctor-patient physicality. The effect was surprising and delightful, and very, very funny.


It was probably an ingenious idea to allow Diana's character to relate to an imaginary character, one who represents her inability to grasp reality, in a private hell of wondering what might have been. At times, I wondered what the play might have been if this character had not been ever-present.  I thought at times that the play took an easy way out with this "explanation".



In the end, even my occasional impatience with the reappearance of the character (NOT the performer, who was attractive and athletic and sang the part well) worked for the show.

I would have created a final scene in which Diana actually talks to this character, and says goodbye.  But I know now that it would have been wrong.  To leave this part of  "Next To Normal" open-ended was the most honest and realistic way to go. It honors the uncertainty of diagnosis, the uncertainty even of the success of treatment, and reminds us that we have to be aware of the private worlds of mental illness, in order to truly understand, and care.

If "Next to Normal" plays near you, don't hesitate.  See it and send me your comments.