Friday, December 16, 2011

The sourpuss in the middle of this picture is me, 1970, at Christmas time.  I'm 11 years old.

Okay.  Now, let's start with the movie list.

Movies watched in November 2011:

1.) The Parent Trap, dir. David Swift, 1961
2.) Phantom Lady, dir. Robert Siodmak, 1944
3.) Louis Sullivan: The Struggle for American Architecture, dir. Mark Richard Smith, 2010
4.) I Am Love, dir. Luca Guadagnino, 2009
5.) West Side Story, dir. Ernest Lehman, 1961
6.) The River, dir. Jean Renoir, 1951
7.) The Goddess, dir. John Cromwell, 1958
8.) Bridesmaids, dir. by Paul Feig, 2011
9.) Hugo, dir. Martin Scorcese, 2011
10.) The Assasination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, dir. Andrew Dominik, 2007
11.) The Spiral Staircase, dir. Robert Siodmak, 1945
12.) Moneyball, dir. Bennett Miller, 2011

It was a glorious month for movies.  I would say the highlight was "The River" by Jean Renoir.  I've been wanting to see this movie for a very long time, and my mother-in-law gave it to Mulan for her 12th birthday.  We all watched it together as a family, and then we watched all the wonderous extras on the DVD.  Then, on Thanksgiving, we all watched it again along with our dinner guests.  Our friends also have a 12 year-old daughter and I think this film was just the perfect after-dinner experience.  One of the all-time great coming-of-age movies.  It's like watching an epic poem.

I'ld say the next standout movie of the month, for me, was "Bridesmaids." I'm embarrassed I hadn't seen it before.  I know so many of the people in that movie - not really well, but I know them from the comedy world - and specifically through the Groundlings.  I had no idea it was so good.  Kristin Wiig is a master - funny, painfully poignantly funny.  She's the female Bill Murray of our time.  The script was so precise and loose at the same time - just the right combination for maximum laughs.  And the actors - the actors!   This film is my top favorite of all those Apatow-annointed comedies.   This film and "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" are my favorites.  (Well, and "Forty Year Old Virgin.")  It's so satisfying to see a comedy hit a home run.  I think it's the hardest thing in the world to do.  Great script, hilarious women, really damn funny.  I was so astounded - just blown away - that I watched it again immediately!  Maya Rudolph was so good too, and Melissa McCarthy is so versitile and her timing is impeccable.

I loved "Hugo." I cried for fully the last half of the movie.  I'm so happy Scorcese made this movie.  It's absolutely in my top ten of the year.  The best use of 3D that I've ever seen, maybe with the exception (or inclusion) of Zemeckis  "A Christmas Carol" (2009.)

What else really grabbed me???  Oh, oh, oh! "I Am Love" was soooo great. That's another one I watched twice. I also watched all the extras on the DVD.  Lots of great interviews with the entire cast.  Tilda Swinton is such an astonishingly good actress.  It's a fantastic part for her.

"The Goddess" I'd seen a long, long time ago.  I forgot what an amazing actress Kim Stanley was.  A really haunting movie about Hollywood actresses.  Some fantastic performances...

Now, on to books.  I've been reading many motherhood oriented books while I write my book about motherhood. It's been very enjoyable and enlightening.

Books read in November 2011

1.)  Blue Nights, written by Joan Didion.
2.)  Mother Nature: Maternal Instincts and How They Shape the Human Species, written by Sarah Blaffer Hrdy
3.) Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding, written by Sarah Blaffer Hrdy
4.) The Price of Motherhood: Why the Most Important Job in the World is the Least Valued, written by Ann Crittenden.
5.)  Cool, Calm and Contentious, written by Merrill Markoe.

I've obviously been concentrating on books under the theme of "mother" since I'm finishing up writing my book.  I loved the Blaffer Hrdy books - both of them are very good.  But the book which really rocked my world was The Price of Motherhood.  That book had a great and deep impact, along the lines of when I read Robert Wright's "The Moral Animal."  This book yanked me out of my world and my cynical and uninformed views of motherhood.  Ha - I know, big statement, but seriously, it did.  It's hard to paraphrase the ideas in this book without using cliches and hacky sound bites.   In fact, one of the reasons that parenting - mothering in particular - is so discounted in our culture is because it is over-the-top elevated with platitudes and pandering.  For example, I want to write that after reading this book I realized that raising a child is the most important job in the world, but that sounds like we've heard it a million times and now we're supposed to look over to that sweatered, mild, sweetly smiling woman in the corner and gaze at her admirably for just long enough to feel good about ourselves before we rush off to do some "real" work that actually means something, earns something, and gets some respect.

I think I lazily fell into a typical mindset of feeling two opposite things: that women who stay home with their children can't "do" anything really,  and that women who work don't "care enough" to stay home with their children.  Of course, now that I've written that down I am mortified - and I protest, I didn't think that!  Okay, maybe a little bit.  But after reading this book I have such compassion for all women out there - in the trenches.  Also, I realize that my desire to be at home with my kid as well has have a thriving career is what pretty much every woman wants. Idealizing women who stay home with their kids while at the same time allowing our government to discount, overtax, and fail to help support our children is ridiculous at best and sinister at worst.  I found a great website that is active in promoting laws that help mothers and children called:

I'm still digesting everything I've read in all three of these mother books, so I won't go on here.  More in the book!

Now, I read Joan Didion's book, "Blue Nights" and it is extremely well written, and interesting.  But I have to admit that Joan often leaves me impressed, but... cold.  I felt compassion for her situation, and I learned a lot about her daughter, but I have to say, there's no -- well.... not "no there there" but god, I hate to write this but... "no heart there."  Sorta. Kinda.  God, I feel guilty writing that.  Let me concentrate on what I did like - beautiful prose, sparse and elaborate at the same time.  Astonishing writer, Didion.

I have included a book I just finished, so that's cheating, but I have to!  I loved this book so much.  Merrill Markoe wrote another hilarious book, "Cool, Calm and Contentious."  There are so many great essays in this book.  One has the name "Jack Kerouac" in the title and I laughed so hard the book flew out of my hands and my family made faces at me because I was disrupting our reading time.  The stuff about her mother is chilling and funny and insightful.  The chapter called "Bobby" about her relationship with David Letterman - or rather, about what she's had to go through after her relationship and partnership with Dave Letterman, is so funny and awful and gets her point across without being harsh or mean.  That is a difficult line to walk, and she does it.  Did I mention it's funny.  It's fucking hilarious.  Luckily Merrill is a friend of mine so I could tell her all these things.  Some of the essays are so funny they should be in collections of the funniest essays of all.  Merrill should be writing for the New Yorker. GET THIS BOOK.

Okay.  I have to go.  I'm writing away.  I have my last workshop this Saturday and it's going to be a "Best of" so I'm psyched about it.  Then the holidays will engulf me.  I probably won't have read five books in December, in fact, I'll probably be lucky to get through one!

Happy Holidays....

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Anton Walbrook and Glynis Johns in "The 49th Parallel," directed by Michael Powell.

Well, I've been writing more and watching and reading less, overall.  But I suppose, with the glorious Anton Walbrook looming over my blog entry, I will jump straight to films.

Films watched in October 2011:

1.) The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, 1943, dir. by Michael Powell
2.) The 49th Parallel, 1941, dir. by Michael Powell
3.) Remorques, aka Stormy Waters, 1941, dir. by Jean Gremillon
4.) The Trail of the Lonesome Pine, 1936, dir. by Henry Hathaway
5.) The Age of Innocence, 1993, dir. by Martin Scorcese
6.) The Last King of Scotland, 2006, dir. by Kevin Macdonald
7.) Meek's Cutoff, 2010, dir. by Kelly Riechardt
8.) The Fly, 1986, dir. by David Cronenberg
9.) Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay, 2008, dir. by Jon Hurwitz & Hayden Schlossberg
10.) The Conspiritor, 2010, dir. by Robert Redford
11.) Good Hair, 2009, dir. by Jeff Stillson
12.) Three Strangers, 1946, dir. by Jean Negulesco
13.) Big Fan, 2009, dir. by Robert D. Siegel

So many great movies this month.  I don't know if it's possible to choose a favorite.  The one that got into  my dreams - well four of them did: "Colonel Blimp," "49th Parallel," "Meek's Cutoff" and "The Last King of Scotland."  I am so absolutely in love with Michael Powell's films.  And I have recently watched "The Red Shoes" and realized how brilliant Anton Walbrook is, well... was.  Sadly he died prematurely.  But, what a presence.  He plays such an against-type character in "49th" too, he's an Amish farmer in Canada.  Still, when he is onscreen, hardly anyone else is.

"Meek's Cutoff": I've been waiting to see this movie for so long. I'm a fan of Kelly Riechardt - I loved "Wendy and Lucy" and "Old Joy."  When I heard about the topic for Meek's I got very excited.  I think every western ever filmed (and I am a western fan, and there's been plenty of great ones) should be redone through a woman's eyes.  This is what made me curious and excited to see "Meek's."  Reichardt, you have to hand it to her, she does not pander to a mainstream audience.  This film is slow, hypnotic, and doesn't tell you how to react.  I think my favorite moment was when Michelle Williams loads a gun - it's realistic, takes an absurd amount of time, and barely has any authority over anyone once it's loaded.  I actually let out a big laugh at the end - not because it was funny, but because Reichardt has such guts!  Jesus!  I am a huge fan of this woman.  I cannot wait for her next movie, "Night Moves" which is in pre-production.

I really loved "The Last King of Scotland," too.  James McAvoy is so good, he should have been nominated for an oscar too, along with Forest Whitaker.

I was so happy to see "The Fly" again.  When I saw it the first time,  I was so moved by it, I could not stop crying at the end.  I wanted to see if I still felt that way.  Wow, it was even better!  God, Jeff Goldblum is so sexy, so funny, and so perfect in this role.  And Geena Davis is great.  I had a laughing, cringing, crying good time seeing it again.  The extras on the DVD are pretty good too.  Lots of interviews with people recently about their memories of making this film.

I'd been wanting to see Chris Rock's documentary, "Good Hair," for a long time.  It was directed by a fellow Spokane, Washington native: Jeff Stillson.  It was really good - Rock is great at making a topic funny and serious at the same time.  I learned a lot too.

I felt "The Conspirator" (about the plotters to kill Lincoln) was so underrated when it came out. Why wasn't it nominated for tons of awards?  Redford directing, a great historic epic, fantastic acting (James McAvoy again!  It's my James McAvoy month!)   I was surprised I hadn't seen it before or read more about it.  Robin Wright was so good in her part as Mary Surratt.  Why wasn't she nominated for an oscar? The part was really demanding and difficult and she pulled it off well.

I was glad to finally see "Big Fan." I'm a huge fan (and glad to say friend) of Patton Oswalt's and yet I ahd never seen this film.

Books read in October 2011.  Only one. Yes, only one.

"A Visit From The Good Squad," by Jennifer Egan.   It was brilliant.

But before that, I have to confess: I got off the book treadmill.  Wait, that's not the right way to put it. I imposed these restricitons on my reading about two years ago and it's had the most fantastic results. Unfortunately it requires some discipline.  My self-imposed reading rule was: only one book at a time.  Take the book with you everywhere, christen it - it's the book you are currently reading.  Stick with it until the end.  Read at least an hour a day, then and only then can you move onto magazines and other reading material.  This might sound sort of silly, these self-imposed rules, but it had dramatic results. You see, I was really lazy and promiscuous about my book reading. I would read a third of this book, lose it in the house, and then move onto a third of another book. It never added up to anything and I wasn't finishing anything.  It all gave me this unfinished feeling that I did not like.  There were tradeoffs, mostly in terms of The New Yorker.  I wasn't reading it as much. I wasn't reading the paper as much.  Nor the New Scientist, or Mother Jones, or any of the other magazines I like and subscribe to. But it felt good overall. I was reading the way I enjoy reading, the whole book, diving in and seeing it through.  But then, this month, I lost a book I started, and then I grabbed another and lost it somewhere and then I bout "Goon Squad" and began it and I have to say it really took some force to get me to read it all the way through.

Partly this is because the book is non-linear. It's a set of linked stories that draw you closer to a big set of characters.  The chapters jump around in time and fling themselves into far-off characters you don't expect to know.  It's really good - God the writing is astonishingly good, but the book itself has the feeling to it that I usually get from my haphazard reading style of yesteryear - a chapter here and there.  So it was difficult to see it through. The book almost wants you to put it down. Except I didn't because I was laughing and gasping and digging into these people.  It was a really good book.

I'm doing a bit better now, but more on that in November's entry...

In the meantime, I am not travelling, I'm hunkering down, and writing my "Mother" book.  I've been doing the workshops on Saturdays.  It's helped me, the workshops. I can see where I get stuck in the same old themes.  But it's also excrutiating and I often wonder why I'm doing it.  This week I'm going to read something I'm working on for The Guardian and a piece about nanny's.

My new assistant Pam (oh how I love saying that) lent me a couple of DVDs, it's of a series on Showtime that I've not watched before: "Episodes."  There are seven esisodes of "Episodes."  I've watched four.  They're so damn funny. I acutally woke up last night thinking about them.  If you can watch get hold of them, please watch them. Matt LeBlanc stars.  It's hilarious.  So funny and well written.  I think I'll watch the final three today.

It looks like it's going to snow today.  Here we go....

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Michael took this picture when we visited the Chicago Botanical Garden a week or so ago.

It's raining right now.  It's getting colder.  And I say hurrah.

We've had ten days of startlingly perfect weather.  A mid-western Indian summer, warm dry days and cool nights.

And yet, a small voice inside me has been yearning for cold and wet.  I think the outdoors (in which I walk for at least an hour a day) is a place simultaneously stimulating, invigorating, and then, possibly, overwhelming.

I've read that Catholics distrust nature, and maybe a bit of that seeped into me.

However, when it's cold and wet, suddenly, the inside of my house is much, much cozier.  There's a reason to stay inside.  There's a reason to go to the basement and watch a movie, or read a book by a fire in the living room.  When thinking of wet, cold, or snowy weather, my instant physical sensation is: relief.

Maybe part of it is that to brave inclement weather, a greater effort is required.   Walking my dog, Arden (still alive, coughing incessantly, but active and tail-waggingly-enthusiastic for each day) in rain and snow is simultaneously more of a chore and more enjoyable.  When I come in the door I feel I've accomplished something. And it's something not everyone would do!  Ha.   So, you see, my need to feel superior is massaged by an arduous walk.

My husband might note that the dominant force is more accurately an overly-active martyr complex. Hmmm... touche.  Yes, and that's perhaps another vestige of my Catholicism.

What is true: martyr complexes emulsify nicely with a feeling of superiority.

On to other things:

I am grudgingly and yet hopefully back to my usual support of Obama.  I think I might have been too hard on him last month.  I like the jobs bill.  I wonder if our government is too broken for anything substantive to get passed given this Senate and House.  I am watching the Occupy Movement with a thrill.  If I weren't so damn happy to stay inside, I would be there.  It's very exciting.

But let's get to the books and movies of Sept. 2011, shall we?

Movies first!

1. Daisy Kenyon, 1947, dir by Otto Preminger  saw it twice
2. 3 Godfathers, 1948, dir by John Ford
3. The Invention of Lying, 2009, dir by Ricky Gervais & Mathew Robinson
4. Marely & Me, 2008, dir by David Frankel
5. Shine A Light, 2008, dir by Martin Scorcese
6. Cyrus, 2010, dir by Jay & Mark Duplass
7. She Wore A Yellow Ribbon, 1949, dir by John Ford
8. Seeing Other People, 2004, dir by Wallace Wolodarsky
9. Gates of Heaven, 1978, dir by Errol Morris
10. Out of Africa, 1985, dir by Sydney Pollack
11. Rope, 1948, dir by Alfred Hitchcock
12. Harold & Kumar go to Whitecastle, 2004, dir by Danny Leiner
13. The Secret Garden, 1993, dir by Agnieszka Holland
14. Dr. Zhivago, 1965, dir by David Lean
15. Fiddler On The Roof, 1971, dir by Norman Jewison
16. Wagon Master, 1950, dir by John Ford
17. Heat Lightning, 1934, dir by Mervyn LeRoy
18. The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara, 2003, dir. by Errol Morris
19. The Tom Lehrer Collection, various dates, TV footage

Wow. I saw more movies in September than I thought.  Here, already halfway through October, I can predict I won't get the time for as many.  Poop.

September was a great month for movies.

Top of the list: She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and Wagon Master.  I am an uneducated fan of John Ford, and my friend Richard T. Jameson (RTJ) keeps sending me DVDs to watch, and this month I was completely knocked out.  Yes, I did appreciate and enjoy 3 Godfathers, but I was so deeply moved by She Wore - I actually cried - and then seeing Wagon Master - my mind was blown.   Wagon Master is so much like a Coen Bros. movie - very existential. The movie wanders with the characters who are all wandering!  It's simultaneously focused and unfocused.   And it really works: hallucinatory and riveting.

Daisy Kenyon was another surprise.  It was another movie RTJ sent me.  This film so easily could've been a superficial soap-opera, and it wasn't AT ALL.  Henry Fonda, and Joan Crawford in a great role, and Dana Andrews, all three wonderful actors in a romantic triangle.   I loved it so much, that a couple of weeks later, when I had some friends over for dinner, I suggested we watch it.  They all thought it was great.   I highly recommend it.

I really enjoyed hypnotic Shine a Light - the Rolling Stones concert doc by Scorcese.  Wowza, it's really been a Rolling Stones year for me.  And ohmygod, Harold & Kumar!  I laughed so hard - really really hard.  So hard that I think Michael became slightly disturbed by how funny I thought that movie was.  I have Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanomo from Netflix and will watch it this month some time.

Seeing Other People was another lovely, surprising movie.  It stars Jay Mohr and Julianne Nicholson and they play a very funny couple, they give very realistic, nuanced performances that are also highly comedic.  I thought it would be too broad for me but it was not too broad, it was delightful, ahead of it's time in my opinion. I wish Mohr and Nicholson would get together again and play a couple, they are perfect together.  Some of the reviews, which I try to read only after I see a film, claimed it was too sit-com-y.  I dunno, I laughed a lot. 

Didn't like Dr. Zhivago at all.  I'd seen it a million years ago.  Thought it was all style and no substance, but of course Omar Sharif is always sweet to look at.

I thought Cyrus was a perfect movie.  Pitch perfect. Yes, I did.  I loved every frame of that film.  I loved the tone, especially.  I was constantly surprised and I felt people behaved just like people do.   And yet the story had great suspense and movement and best of all the film was delightfully ambiguous.  I felt it was up there with An Education for me in my personal hierarchy of great films that I think I could possibly try to emulate in my own writing. Anyway, Cyrus, I really tickled by that film.  Jonah Hill was great - in fact the whole cast was exactly right.

Rope is a failure, but still great to watch. The interview with Arthur Laurentz - which is on the extras on the DVD - is very insightful.  It caused me to buy two of Laurentz's memoirs, which I hope to get to this month or next.  Laurentz mentions that the dream casting had been James Mason in the Jimmy Stewart role, and Montgomery Clift in the John Dall role.  I thought Dall was perfect - and was hankering to see Rope ever since I watched Gun Crazy.  On the other hand, Rope REALLY would have been a much better movie if it had had Mason and Clift and if Hitchcock had not insisted on basically stunt shooting the thing in long takes, which I could see deeply constrained the performances and the sense of movement.  Laurentz says Stewart is sexless, like a dopey oblivious uncle, and not the character he had envisioned for the professor.  Once he said this I realized immediately how right he was and how far the film had fallen by casting Stewart in the part - who apparently was completely unaware of the gay themes in the film.

Errol Morris is such a genius. I really loved Fog of War - very disturbing, that film.  We go to war for the such silly reasons which are sold by only a few people, people who are usually acquiescing to some paranoid fear raging inside of a couple of other people.   And it's going to happen again.   It's happening now.   OOOOkay....   Not going there.   Oh, I loved Gates of Heaven too.  Michael and Mulan and I visited a pet cemetery (the film is all about a pet cemetery in California) in San Francisco this past summer.  A pet cemetery is simultaneously poignant and ridiculous.  Morris got that combination of feelings perfectly, I thought.

Books read in Sept. 2011

1. The Myth of Free Will, Revised and Expanded Edition, written by Cris Evatt
2. The Givers & the Takers, written by Cris Evatt
3. The Wizard of Lies, written by Diana B. Henriques
4. One Good Turn: A Novel, written by Kate Atkinson
5. When God is Gone, Everything is Holy, written by Chet Raymo

Well, where to begin...  The Myth of Free Will was pretty good. I am just beginning my deeper reading on the subject of free will.  I guess I'm convinced that we don't have it, but I'm unsure - so far - how this acceptance effects my behavior and judgement. It's a tricky thing.  How do you parent when you don't believe in free will?  Surprisingly, it makes me much more compassionate.  Also, it makes me more accepting of my own attempts to shape my child.  This is what I keep thinking: new information is an event, like any other event.  It has effects, like weather, war and strokes of great luck and serendipitous random occurrences.  Therefore understanding that I have no free will is also an event. I guess what I'm saying is that I realize my own actions, driven unconsciously by forces I have no control over, still - obviously - have an effect on the world around me.  Those effects also drive unconscious forces in other people who will respond whatever way or however way they are going to respond.  It's simultaneously empowering and dis-empowering.  Okay, I'm not explaining this properly - partly because I have only a limited grasp of the concepts myself and how I digest them into my own psyche.  So, I will stop for now, but this is an ongoing idea that I continually turn over in my thoughts.  Evatt's book is a breezy, and dare I say light?, a summary of the leading thoughts on the subject of free will.  I read another one of her books too, The Givers & The Takers, which divides the people of the world into one or the other.   It's over-simplifying things, to be sure, but there were some good take-aways from it.  For example, "Give to givers and take from takers."  I've kept that in mind and it's been helpful.

I enjoy Kate Atkinson's books.  There are three books in this mystery series, and One Good Turn is the second in the series.  She's such a delightful, funny, surprising writer.  I'm in love with her protagonist, Jackson Brodie - an ex-cop, ex-detective, divorced-dad who is so endearing and hapless and intelligent.  I often laugh out loud while reading Atkinson.

Now, I must say the Bernie Madoff book, The Wizard of Lies, was FANTASTIC.  Ohmygod, you must read this book.  Diana Henriques is a fair and exacting writer.  I never really understood exactly what was going on with the Madoff case. I mean, I understood it was a big ponzi scheme, but I didn't pay close attention to the details.  It's heartbreaking.  I want to see the movie. I want Aaron Sorkin to write the script.  The whole story is mind-boggingly compelling.  I drove Michael crazy, after every page I had to tell him what was happening.

Lastly, and I feel bad that I'm running out of gas here because I have so much feeling for these books - I love Chet Raymo.  I want to meet this man.  We are so similar - Catholic, appreciative of the culture - or at least parts of the culture, but ultimately non-believers.  When God is Gone, Everything is Holy was like a meal I'd been waiting to devour.  The book is mostly chapters musing on this and that.  My criticism is that the book should have added up to more, but it's meant to be written in a non-linear and wandering fashion.  On the other hand, I agreed with almost everything he wrote and felt so similarly.  I love this guy. I really appreciated this book. I want to read his other books, now.

Well, today I'm heading over to Space, to do the first of eight workshop performances for the book I'm writing: If It's Not One Thing, It's Your Mother. I'm going to read three chapters I've written, and riff on three story ideas I may write up.  I'm going to tell stories I could not tell in my book, and it's going to be very casual and I hope fun.  I also hope there are a few people there.  This is what I did when I began the process of writing Letting Go of God.  I went to the Knitting Factory (a club in L.A. that was supposed to be like the one in NYC) on a late afternoon every week for several weeks and just plowed through what I was working on at the moment.  It was extremely helpful.

I have a new assistant and she just started this week.  I haven't had a helper in a long, long time.  Her name is Pam.  I'm looking forward to working with her, we are really clicking.  She'll be there today at the show.

Well, for this month (sadly, two weeks overdue) that's all folks! 

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Mulan sings along with "Oklahoma!" in the basement home theater. 

It was a hot, happy, and somewhat harried August.

Here are the movies I watched in August 2011:

1. Pitfall, Andre DeToth
2. To Kill A Mockingbird (twice), Robert Mulligan
3. They Won't Forget, Mervyn LeRoy
4. Young Mr. Lincoln, John Ford
5. It's Always Fair Weather, Gene Kelly & Stanley Donan
6. The Edge of the World, Michael Powell
7. Vera Drake, Mike Leigh
8. Gun Crazy (twice), Joseph H. Lewis
9. Sweet Land, Ali Selim
10. A Canterbury Tale, Michael Powell & Emeric Pressberger
11. Contraband, AKA Blackout, Michael Powell
12. Ballerina, Bertrand Normand
13. Oklahoma!, Fred Zinnermann
14. Bleak Moments, Mike Leigh
15. A Passage to India, David Lean

It was a very enjoyable film-watching month.  I actually happily appreciated every single movie, well - perhaps with the exception of "Sweet Land."  That film was just glaringly underdeveloped, in my humble opinion.  Oh, and also - surprisingly, "A Passage to India."  I'm sure the book was better, but jeez.  Yeash.  I wanted to yell at the screen: When characters behave in unbelievable ways, it does not make them complicated!  It just makes them unbelievable!!!!!!  How could Mrs. Moore have left India?   Maybe the book makes it clear, I dunno...

The highlights, if I had to parse them out, would be seeing "Gun Crazy" for the first time ever - and then, after almost losing my mind over how great this film is, I forced Michael to watch it with me.  In a period of six hours I'd seen it twice.  The long tracking shot in the car while they start their bank robbing spree - the parking lot, the feeling of claustrophobia and fear and titilation are incomparable.  I liked it better than Bonnie and Clyde (heresy!)   The scene where they meet each other - at the carnival, c'mon.  Very hot.   Funny, and actually steamy too.  Fantastic.  God, you just have to see it!  I was laughing out loud from sheer delight and excitement!

I got "Gun Crazy" from Netflix, but I didn't listen to the commentary, so I think I might send for it again.

We watched "To Kill a Mockingbird."  Mulan promptly announced that was the best movie she'd ever seen.  I was surprised, since I hadn't seen the film since I was a kid  - at not only how great it was - but how iconic its been for me my whole life, and without me being completely aware of this.  Boo Radley is such a potent character, one I've been inspired by in my own screenwriting.  Of course Atticus and Scout and Jem and Dill - the whole world of it.  It was so good, we (Michael, me and Mulan)  were all three crying by the end.   The image that arrested me most surprisingly was the scene when Atticus sits on the top of the jail house steps (with the standing, crook-necked lamp next to his wooden lawyer's chair) and quietly reads, attempting to protect Tom Robinson who's inside.  Just the sight of Atticus sitting there - before the crowd of angry men arrive, and then the children - just that single image of Atticus so alone, so calm, and so clearly doing the right thing, made me get a lump in my throat.  I didn't realize that this image has always been with me, I see it when I read certain stories in the paper, when I see decency and courage and quiet all wrapped up in some person.  That lamp and that chair have unknowingly become for me a symbolic screen-shot of justice and protection.

I didn't realize that when I first came to know about Obama, I had that image in my mind too.  I think I must have thought he was a kind of modern Atticus Finch - his careful speech and deliberate manners.  I guess we are all hoodwinked by our fantasies.  I used to think that conservative Republicans who didn't care for Obama must have thought he was conjured up magically, the perfect Democrat in every way.  I've tried hard to look the other way in poor choice, and sad unnecessary compromise again and again, thinking there was some master plan that I just didn't know about.  I thought I really knew and trusted Obama, especially after reading "Dreams from My Father."

But now, after so many disappointments - the capitulation on the debt ceiling and the latest scrapping of the proposed EPA regulations on smog and oil drilling - those two things being just a couple in a long list of bad moves.  I know he's being strangled by an inept and clearly stupid Congress, but I think he can do a lot more.  I don't think he has to give in constantly even before the fighting starts.  I just don't get it.  Seriously I'm baffled.  I have lost the sense that Obama personally cares about doing the right thing, even if it's impossible to accomplish.

I'm really finding it hard to see the difference in Obama's policies and Bush's, and now I'm wondering if Obama isn't just a magical conjured person dreamed up by Republicans!  Okay, I'll say it:   I think I'm ready to jump ship.  I don't feel I'm capable of supporting him.  It would require blind faith and I have run the gas out on blind faith in Obama.  No, I don't want Rick Perry (or Mitt?) to scare me into voting for Obama.  But I have to admit that I'm completely depressed and disillusioned by this current administration.  I could go on - I won't for now, but it's very very sad to me and causes me a lot of distress.  (I'm beginning to not-secretly wish that Bernie Sanders would run for president.)

Frankly, I'm still livid over the fact that Bin Laden was not captured and tried in a court of law.  And I guess I bring this up here because seeing "To Kill a Mockingbird" again, after so many years... well, I see how far we've come when even our Democratic president abandons the process of law.   I remember when I was a kid and saying to my Dad something about some hateful dictator - I said, "Why don't we just go and kill him?" And my dad said, "That's against the law.  Because that is wrong.  There are international laws in place, and even the most heinous person must be allowed to defend himself in a court of law."  I really felt that the world - the United States - had made that leap into civilization.

God, what a joke that is now.   Jeez.  The truth is we did just what Bin Laden was wishing we would do, (which he blatantly said, in recorded audio release again and again and again) and draw the U.S. Military into countless Middle East wars and bring our nation to bankruptcy.  

Enough.  Breathe.  Slowly now...

I need to take a walk around the block.

I'm back.

Okay.  So...

At the end of August, my mother and my two aunts (my mother's two sisters) came for a long weekend visit.  There was really only time for one movie.  Mulan insisted we watch "To Kill a Mockingbird" again.   The extras on the DVD are excellent - very good interviews with all the main players and a making-of doc that's well done.  When I read later that when Gregory Peck died, Brock Peters (who played Tom Robinson) gave the eulogy at the funeral - well, that gave me tingles.

What other film highlights?  "Pitfall" is a long-neglected film noir that is very well done and hard to see now.   "Young Mr. Lincoln - of course I had seen that before but a long time ago.  I remembered liking it a lot.  But this time, I realized it was even better than I recalled.  Henry Fonda is soooo good.  This movie shows that in the hands of a master like John Ford, even a straight flattering bio-pic can have style and punch and substance, even leave you with a sense of having watched something profound.

"Oklahoma!" was fun, and Mulan is now constantly singing all it's songs.  In the last two weeks, I often hear her singing "Oh What a Beautiful Morning" in the kitchen while she's making her breakfast.  God, that is so funny to me.

After watching "Vera Drake" I was up all night, going over this scene and that one.  I'm on a Mike Leigh jag and want to see everything he's ever directed.  Leigh's good.  There is just nothing like his films.  Long improvisation and character development with actors pays off.

"It's Always Fair Weather" is my favorite musical.  It has a real adult, complex story and fantastic singing and dancing.  Should we just say, categorically, that Cyd Charisse has the best body ever on film?  Maybe ever in the history of women?  I think so.  I think she's the best dancer too.

I'm also trying to catch up on all the Powell-Pressberger movies.  "The Edge of the World" was made before their partnership was cemented - by Powell, but it really haunted me.  It takes place on some Scottish Islands - or are they Irish?  I don't remember, but it feels like a book I read - it has that kind of feeling that gets under your skin. You feel you've lived it.  Oh! And "A Canterbury Tale" - the Archers collaboration - so good.  Incredibly odd plot and yet uncanny in it's deceptively meaningful story.  I read that there's a yearly hike along the route of the film in England. I want to make that some year.

 Books read in August, 2011:

1.) Anthill, by E.O. Wilson.   Jeeezhus.  Is there nothing this man can do?  I guess I had low literary expectations, but he's not only a great scientist, he's a good writer too.  It's a compelling and well-written story.  And I learned a lot about ants.  The Ant Chronicles are the main characters master's thesis and they comprise about a third of the middle part of the book.  Really funny and scary and good.  I agree - we have no free will.

2.) The Devil in the White City, by Erik Larsen.  I still have about a quarter of the book left.  Larsen is a terrific writer.  I know that the Architecture Foundation here in Chicago has a tour of the sites from the book.  I think I'll go this weekend.  The book's about the 1893 Columbian Exhibition and a serial killer named H. H. Holmes.  It's so sad, bone-chillingly creepy, shocking, and then - with Burnham, the architect and leader of the exposition - he is really human and deeply inspiring.  And Olmstead!  God what a great character come to life.  I've surrendered my mind to this book.

Two Architecture Tours Twice in August:  Went on the Chicago River Architecture tour twice with two sets of guests, then did it all again as we did a Sunday bus tour of Highlights of Chicago.  I could go on both of those tours a few more times before I'd be tired of it.  Great tour guides.  I'm going to start trying to go on two architecture tours a month now.  This month my goal is: Calvary Cemetery Tour (where my great grandmother and grandfather are buried along with several other relatives) and the Devil in the White City tour.   I am feeling so lucky to be living here right now.

I went to New York City for four days in August, and I took Mulan with me.  We went to two Broadway shows together:  War Horse, which was very schmaltzy but very enjoyable.  Mulan loved, loved, LOVED it.   I guess Spielberg is making the film.   The stage craft is very good.  We also saw the Book of Mormon.  I think it's genius.  I bought the soundtrack.  I love the songs, they're still in my head all the time.  I could tell that "The Invention of Lying" and Monty Python's "The Meaning of Life" were big influences.  But it was great.  Funny and it got better as I thought about it.  Really top-notch.  Mulan didn't like it!  But she knows nothing about religion. She kept tugging my sleeve and asking things like, "What is a baptism?"  Lots of explaining.  Wow, my kid has no religious knowledge whatsoever.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Monarch Caterpillars Pupating

We planted two different kinds of milkweed in our backyard to attempt to attract Monarch butterflies.   It worked.  Now Michael has transformed the dining room into a Monarch nursery and has begun taking lots of pictures and making little films.  The video is of two Monarch caterpillars becoming pupae.  The pupae are so beautiful, a light green with a golden rim and highlights in a deeper gold.  They would make fabulous earrings.

On to the movies watched in July 2011:

1. Cimarron, Anthony Mann
2. You and Me and Everyone We Know, Miranda July
3. White Light/Black Rain: The Destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Steven Okazaki
4. Helvetica, Gary Hustwit
5. 2 O'Clock Courage, Anthony Mann
6. Pick Up on South Street, Sam Fuller
7. Burden of Dreams, Les Blank
8. Topsy Turvy, Mike Leigh
9. Another Year, Mike Leigh
10. The Searchers, John Ford
11. Whip It, Drew Barrymore
12. E.T., Steven Speilberg
13. Spartacus, Stanley Kubrick, Anthony Mann (uncredited)
14. Laurence of Arabia, David Lean
15. The Lincoln Lawyer, Brad Furman

This was quite a delightful movie-watching month.

The clear highlight was three days watching two epics, absolutely stoned.

Well, on Benadryl.

Mulan came back from camp and told us how everyone had gotten sick, just before the end.  She proudly announced that she did not feel sick.  I immediately did feel sick.  I don't know if that's how I got it, but that's the story that makes sense. In any case, I got a terrible cold in the middle of a horrid heat wave.  I was delirious and had trouble sleeping and had trouble not sleeping.  I was in a daze.  I took a lot of Benadryl and drank a lot of tea.  Somehow it seemed right the right moment to watch "Spartacus," which I had never seen, and "Lawrence of Arabia,"which I had seen so long ago that I only had a dim memory of it.

I loved "Spartacus" so much, it moved right to the top of my list of epics made about Rome.  Kirk Douglas was so good, I forgave him for his shameless appearance on the most recent Academy Awards.  (Actually I blame others, it felt like a creepy form of elder-abuse.) In any case, here Douglas was, in his glory, at his height of physical beauty and a damn good actor in a movie he really made happen from the start to finish.

Then, on to "Lawrence of Arabia," which I watched over two days, and then on the third day watched all the making-of extras on the DVD.  I also spent my time, while not watching the actual movie, googling the history of this time, and the man on which the story is based, and reading all about the production.  I loved this movie too - so hypnotic.  I appreciated that we have a home theater in the basement like never before.  I don't know how you'd watch "Lawrence of Arabia" on a television set and get any sense of it's grandeur.  It was so dark in the basement, and the desert was so big and all- encompassing.  I felt like I had been on another planet afterwards.

I think - seriously - that watching those two movies in that state of mind and body were one of my life's greatest movie watching extravaganzas and experiences.   See, getting sick can pay off.

Another great epic I watched during July was "The Searchers." I have probably seen this movie five to eight times before, but as I get older, I just appreciate it even more.  Also, just having read, in June, the book about Cynthia Parker's abduction, (Empire of the Summer Moon) on which the story for the film is based, my appreciation for "The Searchers" was enhanced.  Even though it doesn't matter if the story is true or not - it just works.  I wonder if there is a more perfect film.  Seriously, I do.

Other wonderful film experiences included "Pick Up on South Street" - another movie I've seen a few times, but probably over twenty years ago.  My god, it is terrific. Better than I remembered.  Richard Widmark and Jean Peters are so good. There are extras on the DVD which are fabulous, including an interview with Richard Widmark about doing the film.

On the documentary side of things, Okazaki's "Bright Light, Black Rain" stays with me still, the images of people who survived the atomic bombs.  Let me just say, you think you know what happened, but really you probably don't.  This film takes you a long way towards understanding the real effect those bombs had on people who survived.  Chilling. And really well made.

I loved both Mike Leigh films, especially "Topsy Turvy."

On the sad side of things, I felt "Cimarron" was nearly unwatchable.  It was so terrible.  I felt for Anthony Mann.  I read he walked off the film when it was nearly over because of disputes with the studio.  It's so awful.  I was embarrassed for him to have his name on that movie.

Now, books read during July 2011:

1.) The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris by David McCullough.  I read this book slowly. Savoring each chapter.  Allowing myself the time to look up this painter and that, this doctor and that, this politician and that.  There are pictures in this book, but they are limited.  I was enthralled with the story of Samuel Morse, inventor of the telegraph and the Morse Code.   My imagination was ignited by John Singer Sargent, and I had to look up this portrait and that online, over and over again.   In fact, I was into Sargent, that the next book I read was an art book, but with very good text.

2.) John Singer Sargent, by Carter Ratcliff. I read every word, like it was a novel.  Sargent's life is a feast of the imagination.  He was the child of middle income, American, but European smitten parents who never lived in one place too long.  He had the kind of childhood I think most of us wish we'd had - no formal schooling, tutors in Italy, England, Spain, etc.  A mother taking him to museums and hiring art teachers.  Friends who were equally loose-footed.  He lived the best life, although he was never concerned with the poverty on the edges of his life.  Never stirred by the politics which raged with extremity during his time in Europe.  Great book with a great overview.

3.) The Stein's Collect: Matisse, Picasso, and the French Avant-Garde by Janet Bishop, Cecile Debray, Rebecca A. Rabinow, Emily Braun, Gary Tinterow, Martha Lucy, Claudine Grammont, Carrie Pilto, Helene Klein, Isabel Alfandary, Edward M. Burns, and McD Robert Parker.    Whilst in San Francisco... (I've just read Russell Brand's fabulous commentary on the London riots in The Guardian and can't get "whilst" out of my vocabulary, read it for yourself at: UK riots: Big Brother isn't watching you | UK news | The Guardian)

Anyhoo - whilst in San Francisco, I went to a really wonderful exhibit on the Stein family, including Gertrude - and their art collections. The exhibit was at the SFMOMA.  I was so overwhelmed by the delightful nature of this exhibit that I couldn't take it all in in one visit.  Even though I was only in San Francisco for four days, I had to go again.  It was even better the second time.  The exhibit moves from San Francisco to New York, (to the MET,)  and then to Paris.  If you have a chance to go, I recommend it.  I fell into the Stein world and couldn't get myself out.  The book that goes along with the exhibition is very good.  I got it at SFMOMA, but I see it is on Amazon for half the price I paid.  No matter, it is a great book that I'm already very happy to own.  Included in the exhibition are not only the story of this remarkable family and their collections, but pieces of furniture that were in their homes.  I wouldn't have guessed that this would make me so happy - to see old desks and dressers, but it did.  It felt like you could touch history.  My biggest surprise: realizing that I probably would  have preferred the company of Michael and Sarah Stein to Gertrude and Alice. And realizing that I preferred the Matisses to the Picassos.  Great art book, in my humble opinion.

4.)   A Planet of Viruses, by Carl Zimmer.  I love Carl Zimmer so much.  I devoured Parasite Rex, and Evolution: the Triumph of an Idea.  I hope Carl Zimmer lives a long, long time so we can get more and more books from him.  Viruses; they are scary, it's debatable whether they are truly alive or if they could be defined as an animal, they are terrifying and will take over the planet in bad ways - surely they will - even while we are just acknowledging how they participated mightily in the instigation of life itself and that viruses, partly, made human beings human beings.  It's a short read - under 100 pages, but intense and well explained.

Now I have started E.O. Wilson's "Anthill." his only book of fiction.  It's good. But I'm not done yet.  More on it next month.

This last month I really got derailed, the trip to San Francisco, then got sick, then we went camping in Door County, Wisconsin (want to go again, it was so beautiful - Cape Cod right in the mid-west!) and then house guests and then a short trip to New York - but now I'm getting into August.  So, I will wait and post again at the end of the month, properly - and not two weeks late.  Thanks of the comments on last month's post.  I really appreciated them.

As for Arden, thanks for those who expressed concern over him (my dog, who has a tumor, who has an unspecified amount of time to live.)  He seems pretty much okay! He still goes on his long 3 mile walk, he still chases rabbits and squirrels.  The truth is, that tumor (which is between his lungs and heart) could have been there, growing very slowly, for a long time.  On the other hand, he has a weird and getting-weirder cough.  It's odd to spend so much time around a being who is terminally ill and has no idea.  For now,  his morning walks are moving to a first place on my daily to-do list.  And I'm letting him stop on our walks, and smell the pee for a longer amount of time.  Also, where we walk: down this block or that, crossing this way and that - well, I give him more say, it's more serendipitous all around.

I shoulda been that way a lot earlier with him.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

It's July 2011

I will never run for political office.  Okay, I guess never say never.  But I seriously doubt I would ever run, for many reasons, mostly because (aside from my inelectibility and my inability to do a good job) I am not temperamentally suited to such a task.  

But I will admit, I occasionally think about my platform.  Yes!  How I would do things if it were Sweeneyland.  It's a fun game, figuring out what I would do if I were suddenly in power.  Therefore, it being July, and the day after the 4th, I thought I would begin to reveal my opinions.  No, many aren't novel.  Many are ridiculous.  None will ever happen.  But still, it's something to think about and to wish for.   

One reason I like to admit to a specific point of view is because then that view can be tipped up and back, defended and reignited and maybe changed.  The whole balm I get from settling on a point of view    helps me veer away from the constant feeling of being a curmudgeonly skeptic, and sadly a helpless observer.  

If I were Queen, I would institute these changes:

1.) Flat income tax with no deductions.  I'm guessing between 15 to 25%.  No nifty accountants, no discount for being poor, no deductions for children, or interest on house loans, or even medical expenses, and no increased tax for the rich. I know it seems like the rich should pay more, but I think they pay so much less now -- than even poor people do -- because of all the deductions they take.  I think this is a fair start. Maybe increase the tax rate on the rich as we see how things go.

2.) Mandatory conscription.  Everyone has to serve two years.  It can be in the military but could also be building infrastructure in the U.S. or aid, Peace Corps like, outside the U.S.  This would also help create a more cohesive American culture.  To me this is important because I think the need for culture is great and religion swoops into the vacuum.  Additionally, if people from the wealthier classes had to send their children off to war, there would be fewer wars.  Duh.  Also, people from different classes would mix together.

3.) Universal health care.  Medicare for all.  Untether health care from jobs.

4.)  Universal and equal education.  Remove the correlation between property taxes and school budgets.  Children of people who are not high-income expensive-home-owners should not have to go to schools of any less quality because of their parents situation.  Parents in rich areas have a greater resource of available at-home parents who can volunteer and this is allowed.  This will inevitably cause a discrepancy in the schools, but this I will allow.  (Yes! I am QUEEN! This is fun!)   Religious private schools are outlawed.  Private alternative learning schools are allowed, as long as the basics are taught.  This subject is added to the curriculum: Religion.  Not teaching religion, teaching children about religion.  The Bible is mandatory reading in school.  Are you shocked?  I do believe we would have much less fanaticism, fundamentalism, and influence by the religious right if everyone were forced to just simply read the Bible as literature, as a historical document, as a window into religion itself and not the word of god. I would still allow religions to exist (aren't I tolerant?) and kids could get religious schooling after their regular school if their parent chooses this.  

5.) Charity Schmarity.  No tax deductions for churches or any non-profit organizations.  None.  People will still give money to charities even if it's there is no tax benefit, this has been proven time and again.  Churches rake it in and have little to report about it.  Other charities do too, it drives me nuts. 

6.) No inheritance.  You can't transfer wealth to those who are over age 21.  (Okay, this idea is impossible, hell, they're all probably impossible - but this one really REALLY is.  Still, I like the idea that wealth cannot be transferred to those who did not earn it unless they're children.)

7.) Eliminate special states rights.  State lines should evolve over time to simple cultural and geographical delineation's.  No special business tax havens in Wyoming, for example.  State taxes would also be set at a flat rate and every state would have the same rate.

8.) Lobbying is made illegal.  Sure there will still be lobbyists, but it will be clandestine and when rooted out, prosecutable.    

9.) Electoral college abolished.  One person, one vote.  I would go with the necessity of picture identification cards at the polling places. 

10.) Eliminate tax subsidies to any business that is profitable or even possibly profitable.  Eliminate tax subsidies to any business that creates pollution. (I'm thinking how angry I get over oil subsidies.  OIL, we give money to OIL COMPANIES!)

11.)  Marijuana decriminalized.

12.) Other drugs also should be decriminalized, but they can only be done if you're not a parent and in a safe environment and not driving.  If you're out of your home (which cannot have children in it) you have to be with others doing the same drug.   Basically I would set up drug houses where, if you want to do drugs, that's fine, you can go there and do it.  But you have to stay there until you're off of the drug or dead.  I guess that means we will also provide the drugs.  All right, fine.  But no leaving until you are dead or not high anymore.   (HA! This is really fun!)   

13.) End-of-life rights, or assisted suicide rights guaranteed, equal marriage rights for gays, prostitution decriminalized, and regulated. 

14.) "Under God" taken out of the pledge.  In fact, let's toss the pledge.  Why do we have to pledge?  "In God We Trust" replaced with the historical, original "E Pluribus Unum" on money.  Let's not toss the money. 

15.) Our influence in the world limited to defending a Universal Bill of Rights.   Forget about bringing democracy everywhere.  A solid Bill of Rights is more important than democracy. 

16.) Online poker is legalized. 

17.) Palestine has a right to exist, Israel and settlements out of the Gaza Strip.  Jeez!  Let the boats in, for crying out loud.

18.) State Fair's are mandatory.  State's cannot vote to de-fund them.  (Michigan?! are you listening?)  They are too much fun and add to state pride and understanding.  

19.) Abortions are free.  Anyone who wants one can have one.  No questions asked, no waiting period.  Also, babies born with really severe disabilities can be euthanized in the first three months, of course only if the parents want it.  Yes, I said it.  I'm with Peter Singer on this one.  I know it's a tragedy.  These things happen.   While I'm on the subject, birth control is also free. 

20.) Cash payments for going to the gym.  I'm not sure how this will actually work but somehow you get $20 in cash for every time you go work out at the gym or go to yoga.  Only one event per day.

21.) High school students must graduate with a certified skill.  It could be hair cutting, electrical apprenticeships, copy editor apprentices, marble cutters, sous chefs - something - a skill that can be learned in a year, which has enough basics for a job,  and is certifiable.   

22.) (added 7-6)  YES!  Corporations are not persons!  They are corporations!  You can say whatever you want about them.  How could I forget that one?

All right.  That's my platform so far.  Wow, that was fun.  I feel a little giddy.  I may have indefensible ideas, yes - I like to read and mull.  I change and morph.  But right now, this is my dream.  I don't want to turn this blog into a big debate about them (not that it would, I'm just sayin') but I am interested in other's platforms.  Or comments.  Let's all create our own platforms!  

Oh dear, and now I'm thinking about shoes.  Well, I guess that is as good a transition as any. 

Now I will list the movies I watched this month, followed by books read.

Movies watched in June, 2011

1.) "Becoming Jane" Julian Jarrold
2.)  "Even The Rain" Iciar Bollain
3.)  "Back Beat" Ian Softley
4.)  "American Quilts" Laurie Gorman
5.)  "Sullivan's Travels" Preston Sturges
6.) "The Baron of Arizona" Sam Fuller
7.) "Objectified" Gary Hustwit
8.) "Salesman" Albert & David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin
9.) "The Talent Given Us" Andrew Wagner
10.) "Beginners" Mike Mills
11.) "The Beatles, The First U.S. Visit" Albert & David Maysles, Kathy Dougherty and Susan Fromke
12.) "A Dandy In Aspic" Anthony Mann
13.) "The Virgin Suicides" Sofia Coppola
14.) "Bamboo Blonde" Anthony Mann

As I look over this varied list of movies, it's interesting what stands out now.  The biggest one-two punch was watching "Salesman" one day and "The Talent Given Us" the next day.  I really loved "Even the Rain" right after I saw it, but then I haven't thought of it since.  Funny how that goes. 

I was deeply affected by "Salesman" - a documentary about Bible salesmen from Boston, working in Florida.  The footage was shot in 1966-67.  It was so raw and realistic - I mean, hell - it was real.  But I couldn't get over how natural everyone was - like they didn't realize a camera was there. The main guy - (or, the person who turns into the main guy, I should say)  is a Willie Loman-like, sweet and manipulative person who's hitting the ceiling on his abilities to sell and keep himself together.  The salesmen are mostly Irish Catholic and I think that may have influenced my attachment to this film.  This movie is deeply haunting.  I found it very sad and poignant and surprisingly funny.  It's a view of the world in 1967 that is discombobulatingly authentic and visceral.  I was practically unable to walk for a day or so, after seeing Salesman.  I'm still thinking about it day to day to day.  

But then, unwittingly kicking it up a notch, I viewed, "The Talent Given Us."  I'd put this film in my Netflix queue because I'd enjoyed "Starting Out In The Evening" and I wanted to see Andrew Wagner's first directorial effort.  He had his family act in this first feature film of his. He wrote the screenplay too, but it appears to be suspiciously close to his own families true issues and experiences.  It blew me away. The shocking thing is that in the first third to first half of the film, I was thinking of bailing and turning it off.  It's very uneven and the performances are sometimes painful.  

It's a story about his parents (excuse me, characters much like his parents) driving across country - from New York City to L.A. to visit him (I mean, a character who is a screenwriter who is played by him.)

The scenes he has with his parents, well, some are really sexual scenes. It was so shocking he would film his parents this way.  I don't consider myself a prude, but knowing that it was his real mom and dad, watching his real mother (playing a character - okay, okay) saying, "I want to fuck" to his dad and being openly sexual with him, as well as pretty raunchy...   Well, for this viewer, it was a bit dizzying.   Yes, the movie was really sweet and believable, but also infuriating and I will admit it made me squeamish and uncomfortable, but then,  I really appreciated that Wagner was manipulating his audience (and clearly me, too) that way.  

This film led me to wonder about so much - how his family felt playing these "characters" and how it is now, having made this film a few years ago.  My jaw was literally falling open for minutes at a time as I watched this movie.  I told several people they had to see it.  I'm eagerly awaiting another Andrew Wagner movie.  IMDB does not have any new project for him, but he really, really has been given a lot of talent.  Not that I believe in talent (see last month's book postings.)  

I don't have any big insights into any of the other movies, except I do want to say that I enjoyed "Becoming Jane" a lot more than I thought I would, and probably a lot more than I had a right to.  I found myself unexpectedly crying at the end.  I thought Anne Hathaway was really good in it. 

Books read in June, 2011

I only read two this month, and am in the middle of the third.

1.) Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, The Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History, written by S.C. Gwynne.  Oh! Oh! Oh!  You have to read this book.  It's so compelling, heartbreaking and breathtaking.  Beautifully written.  I didn't know about the Comanches being special - everything I knew about the Comanches I learned from John Wayne, watching "The Searchers."  Which reminds me that it's time to rewatch that movie.  Their territory was mostly in Texas - parts of Oklahoma and Northern Mexico too.  The Comanches were real hunter gatherers.  I didn't realize that what truly did them in was the systematic and deliberate destruction of their food source, the buffalo.  What I mean is, I didn't know it was so calculated.  And Quanah Parker should be known by all Americans as an amazing person with a completely unique life in all of history.  This book is so good!  

2.) Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See Smell and Know, written by Alexandra Horowitz.  This book was really good, too.  I like reading about dogs.  It was particularly poignant to read this book right now because I have just learned that my dog, Arden, has a tumor in between his lung and heart. He has trouble breathing and it's unclear how much time he has left.  It could be a terrifically slow-growing tumor.  Right now he seems pretty much fine.  In any case, reading this book was particularly meaningful because I'm feeling very close to Arden and enjoying every minute I have with him.   Most of the things I learned from this book, I already knew, but enjoyed being reminded about.  Like how much more a dog can smell and why they lick people's faces (wolf mothers regurgitate food into pups mouths, and this behavior seems to be a remnant of that) and of course I love how Horowitz teases people who treat dogs like people.  For example, as I heard just this morning on my dog walk, a woman saying to her dog: "Max, get in the car, we have to go home to see Aunt Mary who's just flown back from China!"  It's really astonishing how many people think explaining things helps a dog understand what's going on.

3.) The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris, written by David McCullough.   I'm halfway through this book and oh, do I want to move to Paris.  I'm really enjoying it greatly.  He's a very good writer.  It's very systematic and logical and clear writing, and yet it's lyrical and inspirational too.  

Okay, that's it for this month.  Until August ---

Monday, June 06, 2011

Spent two days going through old pictures.  I'm not a good scrapbooker.  In general, I have a love-hate relationship with photographs.  A lot of time with friends and family has been momentarily ruined, in my opinion, by someone insisting on taking a picture as it tears people out of the moment.  I think the photographer has a two-pronged and equally shitty effect - to make everyone look at him or her, while simultaneously making them self-concious about how they look, how their expression will be viewed again and again.

Generally, I don't like pictures of people looking into a camera.   On the other hand it's awkward to begin taking candid pictures of people while they are unaware.  I have a few friends who take many pictures, and none of them posed.  I've just gotten used to it.  I like their pictures more than staged ones.

I have gone up and back on this.  When I became sorta, a little bit famous, people wanted pictures taken with me and I obliged.  I sometimes asked other people I admired for pictures with them.  But always with a note of embarrassment, regret, self-hate, aware of how the moment with that person was disrupted.  And I mean a "note" in that last sentence.  Not completely, not enough to stop myself or anyone else.

I also have a somewhat extreme relationship with how I look in pictures.  I care a lot, and I don't care at all.  If I cared more, I would care more to look better. I don't care but I have bad feelings about myself if I don't look good.  Good mostly means thin.  I try to relax and broaden my outlook and sometimes I succeed, but mostly I don't.  I exasperate my mother when she wants a picture.  She has many pictures of me looking into the lens with resigned compliance and a dash of resentment.

I have not put together books of memories.  I thought I would start when I became a mother.  But apparently, I didn't.  Well... I did a small album here and there.  Weirdly, the more easily pictures were able to be taken and stored -- meaning when it all became digital -- I took even less pictures.  Mulan's childhood pictures are bursts of ten pictures of one situation, and then nothing for a long time.

Back when I got pictures developed, I threw them into one of three large plastic boxes, and this is what I'm going through.

My friend Gino takes a picture every day.  He's done this for over ten years, wait --  maybe fifteen years.  One picture a day.  Just an image that reflects that day.  Millions do this on facebook now, but I like the private way he does it, just for him.

I might try to do that.  I don't know,  half of my pictures are of scenery.  Screw scenery!   (Especially when you are not a good photographer!)  Why do I have all these pictures of scenery?  I travelled around a lot in the two years before I adopted Mulan and for the most part, I was alone.  Sometimes I joined a friend, and I often took a Backroads trip.  Backroads is this "active travel" company - mostly I took bike trips with them.  Often I was the only single person along with eight or so other couples.  I didn't mind it.  In fact, I remember always feeling so happy that I got to go to my own room, alone, at the end of the day.  But these couples often wanted a picture of the two of them in some spectacular place - the Galapagos, Machu Pichu, the Swiss Alps, Bhutan, Nepal - the list goes on and on.  I would take their picture.  And then they would say, "Uh... Thanks.  Do you want us to um... take a picure of you?"

I didn't care if I had a picture of me in that far-away place.  But it felt weird to say "no."  Like I was judging them for wanting their own picture, or maybe they felt I was sad about being alone.  So the easiest thing to do was to say "Okay."  In any case, I have loads of pictures of scenery, and me by myself in exotic places, and pictures of other people on bikes.  In the pictures of me, my expression is reigned compliance, but not with the resentment I add to my mother's pictures.

I began to throw away pictures.  I threw away two large garbage bags full of pictures.  I had to develop a criteria.  It was: people who I love, keep.  Mulan.  Family, if they look good and would want me to have this picture of them in this way.  Me, if I look good.  Yes, I admit it. If I look particularly good, even if I don't know who I'm standing there with, I will keep the picture.

I began to wonder if this wasn't just ridiculously narcissistic.  Why am I doing it?  So I can remember I looked good in that moment?  I guess.  I dunno.  I think I want Mulan, in the future and when I'm long dead, to look back and rewrite the images of me with sweat running down my blotchy red full face while I ask her to pick up her room and insert an image of me with some unknown person, but looking fantastic.  I guess that's my strategy.

Forget it, those pictures are going in the trash too.

A scary moment was when I came upon some pictures of a wedding.  I didn't know anyone at this wedding.  Were they even my pictures?  Were these friends of Michael's and they somehow got into my box of pictures?  I didn't recognize anyone, even among his friends.  Then I came upon a large picture of the whole wedding party sitting down and looking in the camera - about twenty five people.  Huh.  I didn't recognize anyone, anyone at all.

Then horror of horrors,  I spotted myself in the picture.  And I was sitting next to the bride!  Who the hell were these people?  Was I getting dementia?  Is this how it starts?  My god!

A long while passed, and I was feeling seriously discombobulated.  Then, I remembered that on a bike trip in Burgundy in France - when I didn't know anyone at all in the group - one of the couples decided to spontaneously get married.  And that's who it was and why I was  there.


The picture project is going to take me all summer working on it here and there.

Okay, here is my list of movies watched in May 2011:

1.) The Heroes of Telemark, Anthony Mann
2.) My Neighbor Totoro, Hayao Miyazaki
3.) The Great North, IMAX movie, Martin J. Dignard & William Reeve
4.) Side Street, Anthony Mann
5.) Border Incident, Anthony Mann
6.) Everlasting Moments, Jan Troell  (saw it twice this month)
7.) The Tin Star, Anthony Mann
8.) Gladiator, Ridley Scott
9.) Inside Job, Charles Ferguson
10.) Raw Deal, Anthony Mann
11.) Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin' About Him?), John Sheinfeld
12.) Spirited Away, Hayao Miyazaki
13.) Harvey, Henry Koster
14.) High School Musical 2, Kenny Ortega
15.) Midnight In Paris, Woody Allen
16.) Serenade, Anthony Mann
17.) Blue Valentine, Derek Cianfrance

Once again, I spent the month - emotionally - with Anthony Mann.  So many great movies.  And some of his mediocre efforts were moved to Great Efforts simply by watching other people's movies.  A case in point: Gladiator.  I enjoyed Fall of the Roman Empire - but wow, did it get a whole lot better after I watched Gladiator, which I thought was a horrible mess.  I cannot believe Gladiator won best picture.  What a boring, yet splashy bowl-of-porridge that movie is.

I have a deep and great affection for My Neighbor Totoro - it's the third time I've watched it.  I want to go to Tokyo and visit Studio Ghibli.  I truly adore Hayao Miyazaki - he is the animator reincarnation of Yasojiro Ozu, but with a lot more action.  Later in the month Mulan and I watched Spirited Away again as well.  The first time Mulan watched this film she was too little and it scared her deeply.  Now she is exactly the right age.  She enjoyed it, mentioned it again and again for days.  And I appreciated this movie even more than I did before.

Of all the Anthony Mann movies I watched this month, I think I give top marks to The Tin Star.  No, Side Street (with Farley Granger!  So good.)  Wait, no.... The Tin Star - yeah, I like it better.   Anthony Perkins in the perfect role - in his early twenties: nervous, unschooled, ambitious, frightened, all those emotions that only Anthony Perkins can mix up just perfectly.  Henry Fonda was a delight - I might even prefer him to Jimmy Stewart in Mann's westerns.  I know!  Heretical statement.  One of the big moral dilemmas of the movie was whether to allow the bad guys to get killed when they're captured, or to make sure they get a proper trial.  I wish the Obama administration, as well as Obama (!) had watched this film at the White House before deciding to just shoot Osama Bin Ladena without a trial.  

I watched Border Incident again with my friend Cindy who was in town and had a flight delayed.  We had just enough time for a 90 minute movie and we chose this one.  It was better the second time, and that's saying something.

Two disappointments:  Blue Valentine and Inside Job.   I guess I had a lot of expectations for both of those movies.  I did not think Inside Job did a very good "job" explaining the financial melt-down.  I hated the music which vascillated wildly between nice and evil depending on who was being interviewed.  Very slick movie - too slick. I think Planet Money on Public Radio did (and does) a much better job explaining how things went down.  Blue Valentine - gosh I really thought I would like this movie.  I lerve (see - Woody Allen reference!)  Michelle Williams.  But I felt the movie had that indie-condescension of working class people.  Look at them - they buy alcohol in gallon jugs at the liquor mart and go to cheesy theme hotels!  I didn't buy them as characters and I wondered if the writer or director had any real understanding of these people  But this movie got rave reviews.  I just don't get it.  The only director I've recently watched who really does her homework is Debra Granik.  The Blue Valentine movie team should have watched Down to the Bone by Granik first.

O how I love Harry Nilsson.  I listen to him constantly.  I love his song, "Good Old Desk," which I often play just before starting to write in the morning.  I enjoyed this documentary and I learned a few things.  I wish they'd had a more in depth interview with his last wife.  She married him when she was 20 and he was much older.  They describe the wedding - Ringo Starr had to hold Nilsson's arm up to help him put on his bride's ring because he was so high and drunk.  There was story after story about Harry carousing, and showing up at friend's houses and then going off with them for three days on a big debauchery-ridden drunk.  What did she think about that?  They had five or six children together...  What was she thinking?  The film does not go there.  I wish it did.  Still, Harry Nilsson is a compelling and complicated character.  Friends describe the time when John Lennon and Harry Nilsson decided to basically wreck their voices together.  They began screaming and screaming until their vocal chords were bloody, which is so heartbreaking.  Two of our greatest singer song writers destroying their instruments.  Harry's voice was never quite the same after that, he had a lot of trouble.  It made me think of that concept from evolutionary psychology - where there is "intra-sex competition" (?)  and individuals show their fitness by being or doing dangerous things, flirting with death to show superiority and excessive sexual fitness.  So, we have two peacocks: Lennon and Nilsson, pulling their feathers out of their backsides -  one-upping each other.  Risking it all.  Very disturbing and poignant.  (Anthony Weiner, is that what it's about?)

Harvey.  I'd never seent his movie but had heard so much.  It was excrutiating to watch.  One joke.  Barely one joke.  He has an invisible rabbit friend!  He wants to introduce the rabbit to people!  He's a nut!  Harvey makes It's Pat seem like Citizen Cane in complexity.  The screw-ball comedy was so forced and fake.  I spent the whole time wondering if Koster had seen any Preston Sturges, a guy who knows how to do screw-ball comedy.  Harvey was so much more horrible than I thought it would be.  I looked it up on IMDB and found that Steven Speilberg is remaking it with Tom Hanks!  HA HA HA.  How perfect!   Wow.  I do not have high hopes for that remake, on the other hand - maybe Speilberg can reinvent it.  I doubt it, however.

I watched Everlasting Moments and was just bowled over by it.  It's a Swedish movie about a woman at the turn of the nineteenth century who is stuck in a fairly bad marriage and having kid after kid.  She learns photography and this art elevates her life.  I had such affection for this movie that I insisted a group of friends come over and watch.  They liked it, but I think they thought the film was extremely sad. When I watched for the second time, I realized how incredibly depressing (and long) this movie was.  I have to say, this is a common experience for me.  Me loving a movie, and not realizing how dark it is because to me it's mournful and beautiful.  Then I watch it again through my friend's eyes and the whole time I'm thinking.... "Oh... Yeah... I guess this is... really extremely, breathtakingly, debilitatingly and totally sad.  Oh, and long."

Now, Woody Allen.  Where to start?  I went to college with a one-sheet poster for The Front which I put up above my bed at my sorority.  At that point, and I swear that this is true - I had never met a Jewish person before. That's how white Spokane Washington is.  I vividly remember seeing Annie Hall for the first time.  It played at the State Theater downtown (now the Bing Crosby theater where Jill and I just performed.)  I went alone to the movie, and I remember that part so well that it might have been the first time I did that.  It was the summer before I started college.  I think I had actually seen The Front already.  But I remember sitting in Annie Hall and being so blown away by this movie.  Not just the film making, but the environment.  Woody Allen, Diane Keaton - New York City.  I could barely stay in my seat I wanted to move to New York so badly.  The whole movie I kept thinking, Okay, this is it.  I want to live in this world. I want to be in Manhattan. I want to be around funny and witty and smart and quirky people.  Woody Allen is some kind of comedy god.

Then of course, everything - life - happened.  I did move to New York.  Woody Allen became a creep.  Worse than that his movies began to suck.  I wondered if his movies were ever any good.  I stopped going to his movies.

But Midnight in Paris promised to be different.  And I have just recently fallen in love with Paris.  So Mulan and I went on Memorial Day.  As soon as the credits - that font -- that Woody Allen font - came up on the black screen -  I felt this chemical shift in my body.  I wanted it to be good. I wanted to feel the way I used to feel.  And the truth is, the movie is not a masterpiece.  It is not Crimes and Misdemeanors (my favorite.)  But it is enjoyable.  His characters are all very one dimensional and broad.  His characterizations of Hemmingway and other famous writers have the depth of a bad sitcom.  His characterizations of Republicans and rich people in L.A. are completely off.   But y'know what?  I really loved it.  I enjoyed every minute of it.  It's gorgeous.  It's fun.  It's a night with an old friend that you'd written off, but is somehow still around.  That's how it felt.  

And now, books read in May 2011.

1. Talent Is Overrated, by Geoffrey Colvin.   Wow.  This book had a big impact.  Not as big as the next book I read, but still. It caused me to rethink and review certain work endeavors of mine in the past - rethink my behavior now, and influence how I advise and raise Mulan.  So, that's a lot for one book.  According to this book, talent is not only overrated, it may not actually exist.  It may not be innate - although there is debate whether "deliberate practice" is enhanced by certain biological factors.  The point is, it's all about "deliberate practice" which is defined as: Engaging in highly structured activities to improve performace and overcome weaknesses.  I realized that I have not practicied much with the precision necessary to master the skills I wish I had.  What I have mastered, I realize I have done so practically accidentally.   I did a lot of sketch work at the Groundlings, and I've been working for years telling stories on stage.  But I am not organized about it - not focusing all the time on ways to improve.  I cannot stand to hear my own voice so I do not record myself.  All those things I've watched other people do, many of whom have really soared professionally. I have not really applied myself.  Of course now I am old.  But old people can still practice deliberately!  So I've started working more systematically on writing, and I've even begun to read and watch movies with more deliberate desire to learn.  When it comes to music, the book shows how ability is related tightly to how much one has practiced.  It takes about 1200 hours of practice to be merely proficient on an instrument.  7500 hours to be good.  10k or more hours to master it.  This caused me to encourage Mulan to focus on one instrument and aim to be proficient on it.  She takes violin, piano, and up till last year, guitar.  But now she is focusing mostly on piano.  We will see how it goes.  My favorite thing about being a mother right now is that my daughter is old enough to understand when I tell her these things.  I honestly don't know if I had known this - especially at her age - I would have applied the knowledge.  But still, it's advice she can take or discard. As for me, I am thinking about things differently - even going to yoga.  Making an effort to get better.  Making comparisons to other practice sessions.  It's a small psychological shift - but has had an effect.

2. Your Brain at Work, by David Rock.  I am so blown away by how insightful and useful and brilliantly laid out this book is that I said to Michael, "If Scientology had all the levels they currently have, and you moved up and up through the system, and when you got to the top - instead of telling you about the god Zenu they handed you a copy of this book, I would say it was all worth it."  Rock takes all the brain science we currently know, organizes it in story form - as in a play with two characters (the best way for us to understand information) and shows how understanding how your brain works can dramatically change your life - even though you are making very subtle changes - there is potential for big results.  I really have used the information in this book.  I understand when my neocortex is overwhelmed with emotion (often) and how I cannot think straight when that happens. I understand how I can't think of more than a couple of things at once, how the stage of the neocortex is very small.  I have a lot more respect for my brain because of this book.  I've been giving Mulan little bits of information from it here and there and she's hungry for more.  I wish I'd read this book many years ago.  I don't want to say more, I just completely and totally recommend it.

3.) Case Histories, by Kate Atkinson.  This was my only fiction for the month.  I adore this writer. I cannot wait to begin the sequel to this, One Good Turn, the next book in the series that features Jackson as the investigator.

4.) Sin in the Second City, by Karen Abbott.  I had a very good start with this book, and then it went downhill.  I was excited to read it because I (think) I am related to Hinky Dink Kenna - an alderman in Chicago for many years at the turn of the century (19th to 20th.)  My grandmother suggested Kenna was a relative, but now she's not around to ask about specifics.  In any case, Hinky Dink Kenna helped my grandmother's family after her father died and left her mother with seven young children to support.  The book describes a very salacious period of Chicago history, and the Everleigh Club - a fancy brothel run by two sisters.  But the way the book is written - very over the top, filled with scenes that Abbot cannot possibly have known about - too much intrigue and no footnotes and it made me wonder.

4.) The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry, by Jon Ronson.  Well written, funny, insightful, sad.  Can you see I am running out of steam here on my blog?  Ha.  That's too bad, because this is the one book I read this month that I insisted that Michael read.  You should too.

I am too tired. I have to post this and get back to work.  No - to my "deliberate practice."  I'm not going to post music I use on the treamill.  Next month.   I got some good music suggestions from people writing here - thank you!  All right, until next month....