Saturday, May 31, 2008

THREE NEW POETRY BOOKS FROM JASON SHINDER, FRANK O’HARA AND WANDA PHIPPS



THE POEM I TURN TO (Source Books Media Fusion), edited by Jason Shinder (with help from Michael O’Keefe and Lili Taylor) is an original idea: a poetry anthology in which the poems are selected by (mostly) movie actors and directors as the poems they “turn to” when looking for the kinds of solace, inspiration and insight that poetry can sometimes offer.

Each contributor was asked to choose two poems, one by a dead poet and one by a living one, and then write a short statement explaining why they chose the poems they did. Not everyone who contributed did all that, e.g. Jane Fonda chose two poems by Rilke and offered no explanation, while Paul Simon chose only one poem, by Stanley Kunitz, and also offered no explanation.

But most followed the format, especially “movie” people you probably never heard of. (Like me, invited to contribute, I chose a poem by WC Williams and one by Terence Winch.)

It’s actually a pretty interesting anthology, the selections not necessarily what you might expect (a lot of Rilke, T. S. Eliot and Shakespeare, but also Lorca, Blaise Cendrars and Paul Celan).

There are unexpected choices (Daryl Hannah’s Cendrars, Mary-Louise Parker’s Kenneth Koch) and surprising choosers (me among them), plus a CD of some contributors reading the poetry they chose.

There’s some obvious movie folks missing, people I know have a deep interest in poetry, like Karen Allen, Alec Baldwin, Sharon Stone, Sean Penn, et. al. But it can’t be easy getting to some of these people nor for them to find time to respond etc.

The late Jason Shinder put this anthology together—a project he devoted a lot of time and energy to despite being gravely ill—as another expression of his love of poetry and desire to share that love with as many people as possible.

I’m grateful to him for that effort, and that he got to see the result before he died, and that he included me in.



FRANK O’HARA SELECTED POEMS, A NEW SELECTION (Alfred A. Knopf) edited by Mark Ford, isn’t exactly the selection I’d make, but any selection of O’Hara can’t go wrong in my book.

What makes Ford’s selection different from Donald Allen’s THE SELECTED POEMS OF FRANK O’HARA (which came out in 1974) is not only that it is more selective, with fewer poems (and one of O’Hara’s plays), but that it makes that selection from more sources, since more poems were discovered after Allen’s SELECTED came out.

Ford seems to think that the previous selected O’Hara was too broad and the collected O’Hara (and following books of poems discovered after the collected came out) included too many minor poems.

For me, O’Hara is like certain creators who never made anything I can’t find reasons to dig. Minor works? For my taste what critics and academics find “minor” I often find emblematic or unique or another “major” work by a master of his or her art.

(A short list of creators whose every work I find worth knowing would include Eva Hesse, the Beatles, and John Lennon without them, Van Morrison, William Carlos Williams, Vanessa Redgrave, Martha Gellhorn, Humphrey Bogart, de Kooning, Rilke, Cendrars, Kurasawa, etc.)

But, if you don’t know O’Hara’s work, or love it and want to turn someone else on to it, this is a fine introduction. It’s also the perfect gift even for old time O’Hara fans like me (which is how I got it, for my recent birthday from poet and friend Terence Winch), not only because it's a beatifully made book, but because it is a new look at O'Hara's work in a new format with new juxtapositions and a new order making it come alive in new ways, the way all classic work always does when re-presented.

For a look at O'Hara reading one of his own poems check this link (thanks to Kevin McCollister, another friend and favorite poet/photographer)




FIELD OF WANTING (BlazeVOX [books]) is a collection of new poems by Wanda Phipps, a poet whose work always reminds me that what the media often reports on as some kind of new revelatory phenomenon, i.e. blogs where people reveal deep secrets of their personal lives and psyches, or “creative fiction” “memoirs” that shock with their candidness, has been going on in poetry seemingly forever, only the revelations are usually deeper and more originally expressed.

As I say in the blurb I wrote for the back of Phipps new book, “…her honesty is refreshing and uniquely personal. It is simply poetry you will find nowhere else.”

I end the blurb by saying her poetry “will seduce you with its clarity and originality. More a voice singing in the rain than crying in the wilderness, even if the rain is sometimes blood red.” ‘Nuff said.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

QUOTES

"There are ruins built of stones but so few ruined stones"
—Ed Zahniser (from 2002 14-line poems)

"All women are beautiful as they rise
exultant from the ruins they make of us"
—Robert Kelly (from "Poem for Easter")

"If beauty does not return
In all cases to the same objects, we must simply be alert and
Find it where it has gone."
—Kenneth Koch (from "On Beauty")

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

TRIAL FLICKS LIST

My friend, poet Bob Berner, emailed me the other night after he watched PATHS OF GLORY and BREAKER MORANT suggesting I do a movie list of films that feature trials.

He added ANATOMY OF A MURDER, JUDGMENT AT NUREMBERG, and INHERIT THE WIND, as well, all of which I dig and hopefully would have come up with on my own. So here’s the list, built on Bob’s initial suggestions:

ANATOMY OF A MURDER, ADAM’S RIB, and THE ACCUSED
BREAKER MORANT
CAINE MUTINY, THE and COMPULSION
DEVIL AND DANIEL WEBSTER, THE (old favorite black and white flick with Walter Houston and Edward Arnold, two old film actors I loved as a kid)
ERIN BROCKOVICH
FEW GOOD MEN, A
GALILEO (not great but not bad screen version of Brecht’s play)
HELTER SKELTER (this may have been a TV movie, but it was great, especially Steve Railsbeck as Manson)
INHERIT THE WIND and IN THE NAME OF THE FATHER
JUDGMENT AT NUREMBERG and THE JAGGED EDGE
KNOCK ON ANY DOOR (Bogie’s the lawyer)
LEGALLY BLONDE (hey, I dug it)
MICHAEL CLAYTON and MY COUSIN VINNY (still works every time)
NUTS (not too many people dug this, but I thought Streisand was great in it)
O LUCKY MAN! (not exactly a “courtroom drama” but it does have a Brit bewigged judge in a crucial scene and one of my favorite soundtracks by Alan Price, the keyboardist from the Animals)
PATHS OF GLORY and PHILADELPHIA
QUIZ SHOW (not exactly a trial, but Congressional hearing is pretty close)
REVERSAL OF FORTUNE
SOLDIER’S STORY, A
TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD and TWELVE ANGRY MEN
U?
VERDICT, THE
WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION (Charles Laughton at his best)
X?
YOUNG SAVAGES, THE and THE YOUNG PHILADELPHIANS
ZOOT SUIT

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

SYDNEY POLLACK R.I.P.

I never worked with him or knew him, but he directed three of my favorite films: THE WAY WE WERE, THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR, and TOOTSIE, all of which not only captured the zeitgeist of an era and its politics (mostly from the perspective of those trying to change things for the better and the resistance they're met with) but did it in a way that was completely entertaining as well as engaging. I can watch any of those three flicks anytime and still enjoy them.

Monday, May 26, 2008

MEMORIAL DAY

Here's the most relevant Memorial Day message I've seen lately.

BUSH-MCCAIN TEST

My friend, poet Harris Schiff is inviting Manhattan based folks who
are free at lunchtime near Columbus Circle this coming Wednesday to join the
MoveOn sponsored "Bush-McCain Challenge". See the sign up link for
full info:

Friday, May 23, 2008

MOVIES AND SHRINKS

Spent last Monday in the city at poet Ray DiPalma’s, visiting with him and L. A. poet and translator Paul Vangelisti and poet and psychologist Nick Piombino (who had to leave early for an appointment with a patient).

The talk was good, about books and poets and authors and Hollywood and movies and art and Shakespeare and Fellinni and Beckett and Joe Brainard and L. A. and Manhattan and Brooklyn and Jersey and Italy and Ireland and all the interests that bind us beyond being close in age and poets.

Before Nick left, he mentioned the David Mamet movie HOUSE OF GAMES and said it was one of the best movies that deal with the field of psychology and wondered what I thought of it.

I couldn’t remember if I’d seen it or not. Mamet’s movies often hit me that way, their intricacies sucking me in and leaving me a little bewildered and wondering about them and what I think of them and then, not long after seeing them, they disappear into the recesses of my brain and I can’t remember what they were about exactly (with the exceptions of GLENGARY GLENROSS and STATE AND MAIN).

But I thought I hadn’t seen it at first, and Nick was passionate about it and about getting my take on it when I did. When Nick finished raving about it, I looked at Ray and knew we both had the same idea, that my next alphabet film list should be of movies with psychiatry or psychoanalysis as an integral part of the story.

So last night, unable to sleep because I ate too much chocolate too late in the day and it was playing my nervous system like “Johnny Ramone” played guitar, I came up with one (which includes HOUSE OF GAMES as I now remember that I did see it, but will have to see it again to be able to comment on Nick’s reaction to it, and could have included every Woody Allen movie but I controlled myself):

ANNIE HALL and ANALYZE THIS
BIRDY
CLEAN AND SOBER and CRUMB (this documentary on R. Crumb doesn’t specifically involve psychologists or psychiatrists on screen as I remember, but the need for some help—and the reference to misused or not enough help—with mental problems is overwhelming)
DAVID AND LISA (the original black and white early 60’s documentary style independent flick proposing a different take on teenage mental problems other than the 1950s’ lock’em up solution)
EQUUS (Richard Burton as the shrink makes watching this at least once worth it)
FREUD (ditto Montgomery Clift)
GIRL, INTERRUPTED (ditto Angelina Jolie)
HOUSE OF GAMES
I NEVER PROMISED YOU A ROSE GARDEN (wasn’t crazy about this, but couldn’t think of any other “I”)
J?
K-PAX (one of my top all time favorite actors, Jeff Bridges as the shrink)
LARS AND THE REAL GIRL
MUMFORD
NOW, VOYAGER (soapy but one of Bette Davis’s most fun performances as her shrink helps her break out of her ugly duckling spinster image and blossom into the glamorous Bette!)
ORDINARY PEOPLE
PRESIDENT’S ANALYST, THE (pretty silly but fun)
QUILLS (not exactly dealing with Psychology in the modern sense, but this well told tale of De Sade;s imprisonment in an asylum shows how far we’ve come, or haven’t)
REIGN OVER ME (worth it just to see Liv Tyler play the therapist), and RAMONA! (at least that was the last name I saw it under, a very independent flick c.1990 in which I play a crooked, tennis playing, Bevery Hills bad guy shrink!)
SPELLBOUND (the surreal dream scenes in this Hitchcock flick haunted me as a kid)
TRULY MADLY DEEPLY
U?
VERTIGO (the therapy is minimal but the aftermath is maximally engaging)
WHAT’S NEW PUSSYCAT? (not great, but pretty accurate satire of certain ‘60s tendencies)
X?
Y?
Z ?

Thursday, May 22, 2008

INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL

Last night I took my ten-year-old son to a screening of INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL. On the way there, I kept calling it “the new RAIDERS” and he kept correcting me.

But that’s what it is. It’s so great to see “Marion Ravenwood” (Karen Allen) back on the scene in this series that it’s worth the price of the movie (full disclosure, she’s one of my best and oldest friends, but as everyone who knows me knows, that doesn’t keep me from telling the truth as I see it).

In fact, for my taste, she elevates the movie to almost the level of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK with her spunky character and beautiful smile. Pretty much the way she is in real life. My little guy said afterwards: “Karen’s always got a great attitude in movies,” referring mostly to RAIDERS and the new one (we watched RAIDERS together a few days ago, so he’d be prepared for THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL).

As for the story, it gets a little too complicated at times, a mistake often made in sequels trying to keep in touch with the original movie and yet make it all new at the same time. But also a result of the time it’s set in. RAIDERS dealt with the seemingly simple (at least in retrospect) good vs. evil dichotomy of the WWII era.

KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL is set in 1957, a time not as easily rendered in simple strokes, “The Cold War” being a lot more complicated and nuanced, since actual military fighting was done mostly by proxy nations and groups, and a lot of the direct encounters between the Soviet Union and the USA had to do with atomic bomb chest thumping, spying and other clandestine activities, and propaganda presented as reality.

The movie tries to touch on most of these topics and does a great job with a lot of it (the sight of a mushroom cloud done so well as a special effect actually thrilled my little guy, never having seen anything like it in a movie before), including McCarthyism, the homegrown right wing movement that accused the guilty and the innocent alike of working for the “enemy” (a convenient way of using fear for political purposes and also eliminating rivals, sound familiar?).

But the nuances of such subtle political realities are too difficult to capture in a movie image or scene or two, as this movie tries to do, and so I suspect will be lost on the younger members of the audience and not played fully enough for the older ones.

As he did in RAIDERS and other films, Spielberg uses movie shorthand to convey a lot of the complicated issues of the period, including direct references to Marlon Brando in The Wild Ones. But he also pushes the envelope of real possibility with non-English speaking Russian military, as well as KGB agents, running around creating havoc in small town 1950s “America.”

It’s a movie, and one based on old movies rather than reality in the first place. So that kind of thing is acceptable, but like I said difficult to pull off for this period, especially for me, since the 1950s is an era I feel like I own. And yet, the movie won me over, thanks in part to the great actors cast in it.

Seeing Shia LaBeof as the Marlon Brando WILD ONES character, your first reaction might be, “I knew Marlon Brando, and you sir, are no Marlon Brando.” But LeBeof is so obviously imitating a movie image initially, before he reveals his endearing side, that you give in and accept it eventually and are rewarded with a masterful performance, as usual with this young actor who always strikes me as someone I am not going to accept in whatever role he’s playing and then always wins me over with his ability to not only come across as a likeable every kid, but as the character he’s playing in the circumstances he’s playing it in.

He does the same here and rescues the movie from any fustiness it might have had after the twenty year absence since the last installment. Him and Karen Allen.

It’s so refreshing to see a grown woman playing opposite a grown man in a movie that it almost seems revolutionary or avant-garde or something similarly upending. Harrison Ford is obviously old(er), (my age I suspect) and looks it. He and Speilberg are smart enough to make use of that by making him not quite as movie star handsome and capable, but at the same time pretty super human in his capabilities with a whip and pair of fists.

And the presence of his first love from the original Indiana Jones story in RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, helps us accept that this old guy can still boogie with the best of them, as she too proves to be just as tough and tender, sometimes at the same time, as the original Marion Ravenwood from Raiders, while also allowing the character to be obviously older as well.

The rest of the cast is just as good, including the chameleon-like Cate Blanchett as the Russian villain, the always great Jim Broadbent and Ray Winstone, and one of the greatest film actors of our times or any times, John Hurt in a caricature of a role that he makes real and relevant in ways only he can.

And the special effects are pretty terrific as well, with a few scenes as shocking and/or overwhelming as some in the first movie were when it first appeared. In the theater where we saw it, the Loews on Broadway a few blocks up from Lincoln Center, the sound was so intense that a few times I thought it was going to lift my body out of my seat and throw me around a little.

If you go in looking for some fun, along with some resolution of some fond memories of the first Indiana Jones movie, you’ll have a blast. If you go in looking for a consistent and thorough rendering of the complications of “The Cold War” and/or the oversimplified unrealities of recent comic book super hero flicks, you might be a little disappointed, but I bet you still find yourself laughing out loud several times and at least internally going “ooh” and “aah” a few times, and leaving with a smile on your face. As I did.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

QUOTE FOR THESE TIMES

"The Census Buereau has tracked the economic fortunes of affluent, middle-class and poor American families for six decades...these tabulations reveal a wide partisan disparity in income growth. The real incomes of middle-class families grew more than twice as fast under Democratic presidents as they did under Republican presidents. Even more remarkable, the real incomes of working-poor families...grew six times as fast when Democrats held the White House. Only the incomes of affluent families were relatively impervious to partisan politics, growing robustly under Democrats and Republicans alike."
—Larry M. Bartels from "Inequalities" in The New York Times Magazine (4.27.08)

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

END OF THE CENTURY/ THE RAMONES

Finally caught the Ramones documentary, END OF THE CENTURY. I stumbled on it the other night as I was surfing channels and it had just started.

I was living in NYC when the Ramones hit the scene at CBGB’s. I remember assuming they were four Italian brothers.

I didn’t dig everything they did at first, but I did dig some of it, and eventually most of it. There was a point when all the downtown scene bands felt like emblems of the spirit of the city in the ‘70s, when New York seemed broken in many ways, but as a result, also exciting because rents were still cheap in many areas (I lived with my kids in supposedly “illegal” lofts that rented for 200 a month and under), and so was a lot of other stuff (I partly furnished them with old office furniture bought on Canal Street for cheap) including second hand clothes and furniture and meals in nearby Chinatown and at Indian restaurants on 6th St.

The Ramones were outer borough kids, from Queens, and, it turned out, not related nor named Ramone, which everyone found out almost immediately as soon as they started getting noticed.

I had a chip on my shoulder back then about not getting enough recognition for what I thought was my influence on various scenes and styles and movements, quite arrogant and mostly unfounded, though with an element of truth in a few cases. So I resisted falling completely under their spell as many others did at first.

But I got the power of the music and it’s return to the basics of what made rock’n’roll so revolutionary initially. I bought their records and didn’t bother to find out anything much more about them other than the rumors of drug use and intra-band abuse.

So watching this documentary was both enlightening and saddening. “Dee Dee Ramone” came off like Gregory Corso (the “Beat” poet), with almost the same accent and facial expressions in articulation (and inarticulation) of their little tough guy street savvy if not street smarts (i.e. able to survive intact and healthy the negative influences of street life etc.), and so deep into their personas it seems difficult to discover the real man and mind behind some of their flashes of brilliance.

I didn’t learn anything from the documentary about him I didn’t already know or sense, but he’s still fascinating to watch wiggle around and out of queries and attitudes he doesn’t want to reveal and reveal those he does.

“Joey Ramone” was the most interesting subject of the film. I had no idea, or very little, about his struggles with what they now call obsessive-compulsive disorder and other personality and mental burdens that he’d been carrying around since childhood. It explained some of the unconscious sympathy I always felt for him, and I suspect a lot of others did too.

The triumph over his “geekiness” is the real story of the Ramones for me, and this documentary explores and exposes that in a pretty straight-forward and unexploitive way. In fact, the film has the feel of the band and the times they started out in, those ‘70s city days when “punk” became a major influence on music and style and international youth rebellion.

“Tommy Ramone” is the most normal and therefore seemingly least interesting. But in fact he comes across in many ways as the “smartest” and most honest. He was the drummer and early spokesman and in many ways the organizer that helped keep them together and going forward, as well as the producer in more ways than one of their first recordings. But he was replaced relatively early on as drummer, and later as producer/engineer. His comments though helped ground the film, as his presence seems to have grounded the band early on.

“Johnny Ramone” is the real enigma of the group, and deliberately so. I never liked the guy from the beginning. His anger seemed forced and phony at times to me back when. Maybe I was just projecting my own onto him and feeling more authentic in my proprietary attitude about having labeled myself a “punk” in my poetry (from the taunts adults and others had given me growing up) and gone back to my early ‘60s too tight pants and been writing angry street poetry for many years before he came along with his strange stage pout that looked like one of those blowfishes or whatever they’re called that go from slim to fat in a nanosecond.

The film spends a lot of time on him, and rightfully so since in many ways he was responsible for the band’s creation and survival. He revels in his “rightwing” perspective, as he himself calls it, and often comes off like a spoiled brat without a clue. After being portrayed as someone who was constantly abusive and disrespectful to others, he complains at one point at how abusive and disrespectful Phil Spector was to him when the band made their album in L.A. that Spector produced.

How the band survived the dynamic of “Johnny” and “Joey” being at opposite ends of the political and emotional and personal spectrum, let alone feuding over the girl who became “Johnny’s” wife, is part of the fascination of the documentary.

It’s not as brilliant and original, but it did remind me of one of my all time favorite documentaries, DOGTOWN AND Z-BOYS, another moment in the history of youth group innovation that impacts future generations and embodies a seminal turning point in our collective cultural history whether we know it or not. The Z-boys were actually inventing something totally new, and the movie captures that moment and its influence almost as originally as the Z-boys defined forever the possibilities of skateboarding as an art form.

END OF THE CENTURY isn’t as original, just as the band wasn’t inventing anything entirely new, buty they were taking the relatively undefined dreams of not privileged youth and turning them into if not a new art form than certainly a new version of an older one. And almost at the same moment in time. I think they’d make a killer double bill. They balance each other out in many ways, both expressions of triumph over adversary and originality being born of a youthful imperative to get what’s inside out before it destroys you, though in some cases it destroys you anyway. But DOGTWON AND Z-BOYS is exhilarating and inspiring, where, as I said, END OF THE CENTURY is saddening.

And the saddest moment, if I saw and heard it right (it was pretty late by the time it ended) was when the Ramones are inducted into the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame, and no one mentions Joey when they accept their award, Joey having died of cancer before he got to see that vindication of his successful overcoming of the outsized odds against him.

Monday, May 19, 2008

JOE WEIL AND ME


Yesterday’s reading with Joe Weil was a gasser, as my friend Selby (and Louis Armstrong and a lot of other older hep cats) used to say. Especially for me, since it was held in a gallery in the community center in my old hometown, in a renovated room with white gallery walls on which hung digitized photographs taken by artists around the world trying to capture in one shot their idea of “New Jersey.”

This same room when I was a kid was old and funky with fading institutional-color painted walls (the color of which was always difficult to discern, was it some shade of brown, or orange or yellow or green?) with a couple of pool tables in it and a bunch of surly teenage boys.

Joe and I have a bunch of things in common, starting with our Irish Catholic ancestry and “neighborhood” sensibilities, as well as a generally straight ahead approach to “the problem of the poem,” as they (or someone anyway) used to say.

Given all that and more, we decided to “trade tens” (each reading for ten minutes at a time, then trading back and forth for three ten minute sessions each). I had some poems I meant to read, but shifted that plan to response mode after Joe started us off and really cooked.

He’s a great reader, an impressive presence, a unique personality, and a really fine poet, so the combination had the audience hanging on his every word, applauding after his every poem, and mixing outbursts of raucous laughter with the solemn soaking in of his more poignant lines (some of which I meant to quote here, but after exchanging books, I somehow left his behind and now have to either find it or get hold of another, and when I do I’ll write about it on this blog again).

As in jazz when musicians “trade fours” (i.e. four bars of music, each musician improvising on the chord changes in those four bars of the tune they’re playing) it raises your game because you don’t have a long time (a whole chorus say) to show your stuff, so you have to play sounds that are grounded in what the tune is about and at the same time display the originality of not only your improvised melody over the changes, but of what you can do with the playing, i.e. mess with the tone, texture, emotional feel, intellectual commentary, etc.

It was a terrific exchange, for my taste, and we were asked for an encore, for which Joe did what I’d heard he often does at readings, he sang a song. This time one his departed mother used to get a kick out of when he sang it as a boy, an Irish tune about, yes, drinking, but also so much more. It was poignant and funny at the same time, much like Joe’s poetry.

Afterwards, we both sold a lot of books, which means people liked our reading. Some even said it was “the best reading” they’d ever attended (someone was supposed to record it, but that didn’t happen, which is fine, because I’ve learned no recording, whether audio or visual, can ever capture the excitement of live events, or at least of poetry readings, in my experience anyway, it’s almost always a case of “you had to be there.”

And afterwards, at a pizza tavern in nearby town (I wished I had invited everyone, but it was a last minute decision with only a few of us still hanging around) the crac (as the Irish call good conversation and hanging-out times) was great as well.

Hopefully, we’ll do it again somewhere sometime, and when we do, I’ll let you know about it.

Friday, May 16, 2008

PEOPLE I’D LIKE TO HAVE SPENT SOME TIME WITH LIST

Here’s another alphabet list that helped me fall back to sleep last night after being woke up by neighbors arguing. This one’s of people I never met who I would love to have spent time with having long ongoing conversations.

ASSISI, FRANCIS OF
BEHAN, BRENDAN
CENDRARS, BLAISE
DOLPHY, ERIC
EINSTEIN, ALBERT
FRANKLIN, BEN
GELLHORN, MARTHA
HESSE, EVA
IVES, CHARLES
JEFFERSON, THOMAS
KING, MARTIN LUTHER
LINCOLN, ABRAHAM
MILLER, LEE
NAZARETH, JESUS OF
O’HARA, FRANK
PARKER, CHARLIE
QUINN, ANTHONY
ROBINSON, JACKIE
SMITH, DAVID
TSE (OR TZU), LAO
UNITAS, JOHNNY (maybe not a lot of conversation, but I’d still love to have met him)
VOLTAIRE
WHITMAN, WALT
XXIII, POPE JOHN (hey that’s the way his name was written, my favorite pope and a great human)
YEOH, MICHELLE
ZAPPA, FRANK

Thursday, May 15, 2008

"DEFENDER OF DEMOCRACY"

Here's part of a recent MoveOn message:

"John McCain says he's a defender of democracy. But the folks running his campaign have been playing for the other team.

Two of John McCain's senior campaign staff were forced to resign this week after revelations that their lobbying firm was paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to represent Burma's brutal military dictatorship.1

And it gets worse—turns out this goes all the way to the top. Charlie Black, McCain's campaign chairman, ran a lobbying firm that represented brutal dictators like Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines and Mobutu Sese Seko in Zaire—along with terrorist rebel Jonas Savimbi in Angola. Together, these men have been responsible for massive human suffering.2

And for good measure, Charlie Black has represented war profiteer Blackwater Worldwide and Iraqi fraudster Ahmed Chalabi.3"

...

"P.S. McCain's campaign staff have too many connections to dictators to list in this email. It's unbelievable. But the non-partisan reform group Public Campaign Action Fund created a great fact sheet laying it all out:

http://www.firethelobbyists.com/facts.html

Sources:
1. "A Lobbying Firm and Its McCain Ties," MSNBC, May 12, 2008
http://www.moveon.org/r?r=3654&id=12651-3436740-mNRbiW&t=5

2. "John McCain's Lobbyist Connections," Public Campaign Action Fund
http://www.firethelobbyists.com/facts.html

3. Ibid.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

ROBERT RAUSCHENBERG R.I.P.

Speaking of "the infinite possibilities of art" (see my last post) Robert Rauschenberg's work epitomizes that idea. One of the reasons he's one of my alltime favorite artists.

Besides his use of materials no one had put into a painting, or on one, or made into a sculpture/collage he called "combines" before (my favorite back when I first saw it was his cot size mattress and bedcltohes from the floor of his studio hanging on the wall and painted on etc.), he also created a foundation after he got wealthy to help poets, since poets never make the kind of money successful artists do. And one time in the late 1970s, when I was hurting for rent money and money to pay other bills to support my two older children (who were kids at the time and I was raising on my own in NYC), his foundation gave me enough to pay those bills for a couple of months.

He was not only one of the greatest innovators in the history of art, or culture in general, his art was like Bob Dylan's singing. It gave permission to a lot of people who might not have had the nerve to try it, because their voices, or what they wanted to try and do with them, were too far beyond what had always been considered acceptable for singing, or in Rauschenberg's case to use materials and techniques not used before (Ray DiPalma reminded me of how the poet Steve Shrader turned Ray onto Rauschenberg's technique for soaking newspaper pages, in Ray's case the funny papers, in lighter fluid and then placing them face down on paper (or any surface in Rauschneberg's breakthrough works) and rubbing the backs of them hard with a pencil to get a result not seen before Rauschenberg invented the technique, or at least made it widely known.

I took my ten-year-old to see the Rauschneberg retrospective of mostly his "combines" at the Met two years ago, and he didn't want to leave. Powerful impact in person, those breakthrough works. Which is why he's one of the greats. The world changed its ideas about what art could become, and what could become art, because of him. Can't undo that. And no matter what you think of his art (and I didn't love everything he did, just most of it), that's a pretty impressive accomplishment for anybody. In this case, Robert Rauschenberg.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

WALTON FORD, TOM BURCKHARDT AND THE INFINITE POSSIBILITIES OF ART

My old friend Hubert Selby Jr. used to always remind me to “remember the infinite possibilities of life.” I was thinking of that last Thursday evening when I attended the openings of two art shows in Chelsea, as I passed galleries where other shows were going on and compared in my mind the two shows I was interested in, I thought of how great it is in these times that we can be exposed to the infinite possibilities of art.

I also thought of how much I hate the partisanship that this variety of approaches seems to produce, various "schools” of painting or poetry or musical styles etc. vying for attention and rewards by putting down rival schools of etc. And me, often being put down for digging almost all of it. But I don’t think I’m the only one, nor that it’s na├»ve, to dig this variety we are privileged to enjoy.

I mean through the internet and other media conduits we can experience and make use of just about any period in history and its styles, not just in the arts but in its politics and daily life, its spirit and ambitions, etc. I love variety, (obviously, take a look at my own creative output) and the Walton Ford and Tom Burckhardt shows exemplify why.

They are both artists who employ historic approaches to “painting” but in new and original ways

I have “painting” in quotes because actually Ford's art is mostly watercolors on paper and Burckhardt is also a kind of sculptor, though his sculptures involve, or incorporate, or essentially are, paintings. I mean first and foremost, he’s a painter. Sort of. The easier designation is they’re both “artists.”

But that too requires at times quotes because the English language is so difficult. We use “artist” to describe rappers and “painters” was often used to describe family members and others who worked in my father’s home maintenance business primarily when houses needed painting.

But what Walton Ford does is exactly what we used to mostly mean by “artist” and “painter,” that is to say, he paints [watercolors, gouache, ink etc.] “pictures” on canvases [actually canvas size paper]. Not abstractions (like Burckhardt, though Burckhardt’s abstractions initially seem more ironic—and therefore contemporary—than heroic like the original abstract art did) or concepts (as in “conceptual art,” though in fact Ford’s paintings are of “concepts” in the broader and actually more specific original sense of the word), etc.

To keep it as simple as I can, Ford paints figures and scenes on canvas [watercolors gouache ink etc. on paper]. In his latest show the canvases are very large, what is often called “heroic.” (What abstract painters in the 1940s and ‘50s did was called “heroic” for many reasons, including the originality of their approaches and the psychological depths they often had to probe to create, but just as often “heroic” was used because of the large size of some of their paintings.) As in the one used on the invitation to the show, a painting several feet high and even more wide, filling almost one whole wall of the gallery, in which the rhinoceros is probably life size.

The central figure in a typical Ford painting is an animal engaged in an act that seems as clinical and objectively rendered as Audubon’s paintings of birds or Henry Carter’s illustrations for Gray’s Anatomy.

But when you look closer, there is always something unusual, or unexpected. Sometimes it’s the inclusion of an historic reality that was left out of these kinds of "paintings" throughout history, like the prize bull's enormous testicles, or the black bears burned to death hanging from a tree, while in the corner of the painting is a tiny scene in the distance of human figures, who have treed several live black bears, setting fire to the tree to burn these bears alive too.

As in these examples from the current show, the reality Ford’s realistic renderings seem to celebrate, or at least illustrate, is often cruel and/or sexual, either overtly or indirectly. So his "paintings" engage the viewer in more ways than one.

Foremost among the several ways they catch the eye and hold it is simply as an expression of incredible artistic control. The figures are always perfectly rendered, down to the tiniest detail, and yet all placed on the "canvas" as on a page in a 19th-century illustrated encyclopedia.

But not your typical 19th-Century, or for that matter 20th- or 21st-Century, illustrations, but rather illustrations of rarely, if at all, officially illustrated animal realities. Which is another way Ford’s "paintings" impress, as historic truths revealed, ones we may not have known before or avoided, the knowledge of the natural world that has been kept hidden or ignored for centuries, or longer.

There is also the ambivalence of how ironic and/or didactic are these paintings meant to be? So see for yourself if you're anywhere near Manhattan before the show ends on July 3rd (at Paul Kasmin Gallery at 293 Tenth Avenue, on the Southwest corner of 27th Street, and here's a link to it, since I couldn't manage to upload the image from the invitation).

Tom Burckhardt’s show is an entirely different matter. I’ve known him since he was a teenager on the St. Mark’s Poetry Project scene, mostly through his father, the photographer (and painter) Rudy Burckhardt.

But I’ve been a fan of Tom’s art since I first saw it, and even more so a show he had in 2006 that grew out of his frustration over a lack of inspiration or new ideas until he got one to recreate an artist’s studio only using cardboard and black paint (I assume paint, but it was handled with such a variety of techniques that sometimes it seemed more like tar and at other times more like ink).

The faux studio was an environment you entered and experienced almost as you might the real thing, except everything was made of cardboard, down to the minutest detail, including used paint rags and brushes, cans and a potbelly stove, a messy single bed, bookshelves with books, a cluttered desk and the bulletin board hanging over it, with cardboard and black paint replicas of various postcards “tacked” (the “tacks” were painted) to it, including familiar shots of musical icons like Billy Holliday or reprints of paintings by various artists, including one by Philip Guston which I bought, figuring it’s as close as I’ll get to owning a real Guston or one of the vastly more expensive Tom Burckhardt paintings (the cardboard artist’s studio was sold piecemeal and the postcards were some of the cheapest things in it).

His new show (which I also couldn’t manage reproducing an image from, so here’s a link to the gallery) is called “slump” and consists of his past kinds of almost cartoony “abstract” paintings, only their frames have been designed to seemingly curl at the bottom (there’s actually just two bends towards the bottoms of the frames to create the illusion of a curve) and instead of hanging from the wall are propped up on paint cans and shipping crates etc. (which are meant to be part of the art) and lean against the walls.

It’s both funny and sad, as if the paintings were either very tired or a little depressed.

Burckhardt’s art often includes what appears to be ironic commenting on the art of “art” or of “the artist,” but his nature is un-ironic and therefore I suspect, as in most of the “products” of the creative imaginations I like, is actually meant to express a sincere attempt to engage the creative process and its inspirations, obstacles, rewards and pitfalls.

In the show he did after the cardboard studio one, he exhibited ink drawings meant to evoke classics of the genre, including Asian screen paintings, only a digital reproduction of himself before a canvas on an easel was inserted into them, making it self referential but also humorous and expressive of the challenge of artistic creation in the post-modern context.

You can find lots of images from Burckhardt’s various art shows, besides the one I have above, as well as images of Ford’s art (which is sometimes reproduced in The New Yorker, where some of you have probably already seen it). Check them out, let me know what you think.

(For full disclosure, I know Walton Ford too. He and I met a few years ago at a party at which, during a no-small-talk introductory conversation (I just don’t do small talk very well, a hindrance to the “networking” aspects of a “career”), we discovered we both knew “Indian Larry,” the motorcycle designer who died not long ago. Ford worked with Larry before either of them became famous (Larry mostly through his TV show, as an artist in his own right, only his canvas was motorcycles which he custom built or rebuilt into functional works of art). They worked together in a Brooklyn pipe factory. I knew Larry through our mutual friend Bobby Miller, when Larry was living in the city with Bobby and needed a place to store his motorcycle while he worked on rebuilding it. I lived in an illegal loft in “Tribeca” (a real estate term I hated, so usually called the neighborhood what it was known as before that horrible label, Washington Market) with my two older children when they were young and lots of space for only two hundred a month (oh the seventies in the city) so Larry stored his bike at my loft and came over most days to spend hours working on it while I rattled the keys in my old typewriter or went off on auditions in my new role, then, as a movie actor. But, as they say, that’s another story.)

Sunday, May 11, 2008

THIS WEEK'S QUOTE

"People think it's easy to write simply. It is not. It is much easier to write in a way no one can understand." —Alaa Al Aswany

WHO IS RACHEL SCHUTZ?

Last night I went to a concert in Great Barrington, a beautiful New England town in the Berkshire Mountains of Western Massachusetts—one of my favorite places in the world. (Someday I’ll have to make a favorite places list.)

It was held in an old movie theater, one of those classic ones, with a raked balcony from which you can see the stage perfectly from any seat, and those mini-balcony box seats running along the sides between the balcony and the stage. The kind where in old movies royalty sat, or the politico bigwigs, or those two old coots on the old Muppets TV show who were constantly heckling the performers or making loud jokes at their expense.

Yeah, a classic old movie palace, and in this case one restored to something very close to its original glory, after being saved from the wrecking ball and some boxy modern building being put in its place.

I went to the concert because my oldest child, my daughter, is a singer in the Berkshire Bach Society’s choral group. I saw her perform last year with them, a terrific concert that made me very proud, as her singing, and just about everything else she’s ever done, always has.

But this wasn’t a choral concert. Instead it was a very early opera, by Christopher Willibald Gluck, based on the Orpheus legend, but in Italian—ORFEO ED EURIDICE.

There were three soloists who played the three leads—Orfeo, Eurdice, and Amor, the goddess of love. The chorus sang all the other parts—the shepherds and shepherdesses who lament Euridice’s death, the Furies who at first deny Orfeo entrance to the underworld but eventually give in to his pleading song, the blessed spirits dancing in the Elysian Fields, the Shades who bring Euridice to him, the friends who celebrate the return of Euridice and Orfeo from the underworld and death.

There was a small but instrumentally complete orchestra, and the first thing my older son and I responded to, giving each other looks of pleasant surprise, was how competent it was, as good as any I’ve heard anywhere else over the years.

The singer with the toughest job was Teresa Buchholz—not just because she has the most singing to do and has to convey the emotions of a grieving lover moving from sadness to anger to resolve to pleading to etc., but also because she’s a woman playing the part of Orfeo lamenting the death of his wife and his determination to bring her back from death.

The role was originally written for a castrati, but now has to be sung by a woman since they don’t castrate singers anymore to get men with that high a range. And Buchholz sang it well. As did Claire Weber in the part of Amor.

Along with the chorus, Buchholz and Weber sing all the music in the first act. During the intermission my son and I talked about how surprised we were by the level of excellence of all the musicians and singers. We were both having a great time, feeling completely impressed and entertained and captivated and moved by every aspect of the performances so far.

The chorus, made up of ten sopranos (of which my daughter is one), ten altos, nine tenors and eight basses, filled the theater with the richness and volume of their voices. And coupled with the amazingly full sound the orchestra was getting, with a handful of violins, one cello, one bass, a harp, two English horns, two trumpets, several flutes and oboes, and a percussionist, we felt we were actually experiencing the opera the way it was meant to be, at least musically.

I felt so happy for my daughter, and for me and my ancestors, that one of ours had achieved what one thread in our clan had always aspired to—to be a strong and accomplished part of this kind of classical creative intelligence manifested in one glorious performance. My son, who is an accomplished musician himself, and myself, a one time musician, and both lovers of music, had come to see his sister, my daughter, expecting talent and competence, but not necessarily at this level. It was seriously contending with the best of whatever we’ve both experienced in New York or L. A. and other centers of creative activity.

And even though the Berkshires is known for its culture, across the spectrum, from popular to the most esoteric, and this region is full of amazingly talented people, including many whose names are household words, and many more whose names are relatively unknown but shouldn’t be, still, this was an exceptional evening so far.

And then the second act began, and soon Euridice made her appearance. Played by the young Welsh-born soprano, Rachel Schutz, the entire evening was transformed from one of being delighted by the high level of artistry on display and the wonderful musical experience of all these competent performers coming together and doing work even they might have been surprised at, into one of those handful of most memorable nights of your life as part of an audience at plays and concerts and the performing arts in general.

Schutz not only sang brilliantly, looked beautiful, and fit the role of Euridce perfectly, she acted the role so incredibly well, beyond almost anything I’ve experienced on the opera stage or even in musical theater, or for that matter, nonmusical plays.

It was like one of those epiphanies, when you’re watching someone perform a feat that is beyond normal human capabilities, like a dancer taking regular rhythms and movements past what you would think any human could do, or a singer hitting a note higher or holding a note longer or executing an inhumanly difficult musical passage with seeming ease.

It was like that, only more. Even not understanding Italian, and I suspect even not knowing the story of Orpheus and Euridice, there was no missing her anguish at thinking Orfeo won’t look at her because death has robbed her of her beauty and he no longer loves her. Her voice quavering exactly the way it would were she truly feeling that kind of anguish, the depths of her despair was so real, I felt the wetness on my cheek before I realized I was crying.

And as often happens in moments like this, her amazing performance raised everyone else’s game. Suddenly the chorus sounded even more perfect, more rich, more dramatically engaged with the story, as did Buchholz as Orfeo and Weber as Amor when she returned.

When Buchholz and Schutz did their Third Act duet, the emotional current running between each of them and the other, as well as between both of them and the audience, was so electric, I wanted to stand up and shout.

I have no idea how the rest of the audience was experiencing all this, but I assume many if not most of them were sharing my reactions. I know my son and daughter-in-law were having an experience close to mine, and my daughter later told me how she and many in the chorus and even the stage manager or someone behind the scenes commented on how extraordinary the performance was.

This is a production with minimal stage props and movement and set design, with the chorus having rehearsed only with a piano up until days before the concert, and only a few times with the three lead singers. It had nerve-racking last minute cuts and putting the show up without it ever having totally clicked perfectly and then Bam! A night to remember.

The key for me was Rachel Schutz. Like I said, I have rarely been moved so completely and impressed so greatly by any stage performance of any kind. It ranks right up there with the greatest I’ve seen (another list for the future) and is the reason the creative arts have so often saved my life.

If human beings are capable of creating something as beautiful as what I experienced last night, then there will always be hope for us. And if Rachel Shutz doesn’t get the fame her talent warrants, like many amazingly talented people I’ve been exposed to in my life never did, at least after last night she will forever be one of the greatest revelations of the capacity for human greatness I’ve ever known.

[PS: Now I know how Maria Callas opera fanatics felt. I have only seen a few operas in my life, and this wasn't a full production, and Rachel Schutz may have had the best night she'll ever have (though I doubt that) but I am a fan for life (as I already was of my daughter's). I would attend more operas if I knew Schutz was singing in them. But rereading this post after having written it at the end of an exhausting day made me realize I missed what I'm sure a lot of the audience (including my son) felt was the most dramatic and singular aspect of this concert. Not only did Buchholz have to play a man, and she did her best to move and posture and emote like one, though that didn't work as well as it might (my daughter-in-law found it distracting and I found it not totally successful, until the arrival of Rachel Schutz who, like I said, elevated everyone's game), Buchholz also, as the climactic moment of the production, had to kiss Schutz on the mouth. Certainly nothing we haven't seen in popular culture, but I suspect a rarity in "high" culture. I didn't find it surprising or distracting, but like I said, others did and I can see why. The singing had effected me so strongly I accepted the unconventional way of fulfilling this romantic ending convention, and I also was expecting it, surprised it didn't happen earlier, when Orfeo turns to finally gaze upon Euridice and they embrace and in most productions kiss before she dies again. At that point in this production they embraced and kissed each others cheeks, so I thought maybe they didn't want to stir up any controversy, though in the Berkshires, they're not kissing may have stirred up more. But in the end we did get to see these two powerful women not only embrace like lovers, but kiss like ones too, and it seemed at once both not surprising and unexpected, a pretty clever way to end a show. And, I also forgot to mention James Bagwell, the man who not only runs and rehearses and conducts the Berkshire Bach Singers, but conducted the orchestra as well as the chorus in this production and directed the whole show. Not to mention he's married to the lead singer, Teresa Buchholz. He's responsible for bringing it all together and obviously made a lot of right choices leading up to the performance, so kudos to him as well, and if you see him conducting anywhere near you, check him out. But above all, keep your eye out for Rachel Schutz.]

Friday, May 9, 2008

AH HA

It turns out, as my old friends just emailed me, that "In God We Trust" is on the new dollar coins, just smaller and in a different spot.

So this whole right wing campaign, touting another new example of how our government is trying to "remove God from the public life of our nation" is bogus! (I don't have any of the coins so wasn't able to verify either of these things.)

And yet there will be plenty of people who got the original e mail—which was pretty sophisticated in terms of graphics and size and momentum and how widely it has spread—who will continue to believe the original lie and go to the polls this Fall believing it. That's how "the big lie" technique works. Usually it appears in front page stories, or on Fox News or other right wing venues, and then is picked up by the mass media in general even if just to comment on it's happening, and whether sides are taken or not it snowballs into becoming general "knowledge" even though it isn't true.

Like Obama's not being patriotic because he supposedly doesn't wear a flag lapel pin. When the truth is he sometimes wears one and sometimes doesn't. exactly what McCain does. But McCain gets away with it, and Obama doesn't, because the Democrats and their supporters don't make an issue out of it, because they know it isn't an issue. The powers that be on the right know this too, but they also know a lot of people will believe it's an issue if they use the big lie on it.

Like I've said before, Lee Atwater, who perfected this kind of big lie campaign for the right wing of the Republican Party, before it totally took over the party, admitted his responsibility for introducing a lot of these tactics into Republican campaigns and on his death bed expressed his regret and sorrow over what he had done and pleaded that future generations not follow his path but instead take the high road and make campaigns about real issues and the truth.

Obama and McCain have both promised to do that, but I suspect the same rightwing groups that backed things like the swift boat ads will be at it again as soon as the general campaign starts in earnest.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

RENDER ONTO CAESAR

I recently received an e mail pass-along-message from old friends who are not right wingers nor fundamentalists, but nonetheless thought it worthwhile to pass on to their friends a circular about how we should all refuse the new dollar coins because they don’t have the words “In God We Trust” on them.

The message implies, or actually outright says, that this is part of the whole ongoing attempt to remove God from public life in “America” and concluded that if America turns its back on God, then God will turn His back on America. It totally bugged me.

I love my friends and know they only mean well. But I felt compelled to respond anyway.

This is an edited version of what I wrote back to them:

If God turns God’s back on a people for not putting God’s name on their coins, than that isn't the God I learned about in school and the Gospels.

Jesus made his famous statement about rendering onto Caesar what is Caesar's and God what is God's, using a Roman coin as an example. He didn’t say Caesar should put my father’s name on his coins.

My God is interested in me helping people who need help, in loving others as myself, and in fact the Jesus I dig says in the Gospels he came to replace the old laws with one new one: love your neighbor as yourself.

This campaign to refuse to accept or use the dollar coin is one of those divisive issues that distract people from the real political issues that truly affect their lives, and to distract them from the true message of the Gospels.

It also helps the fundamentalist preachers earn millions by stoking people's fears that this country—which has a higher percentage of citizens who believe in God than anywhere outside of some Arab nations—is somehow forgetting about God.

I always wonder why these same fundamentalist preachers, whose version of Christianity has only been around for little more than a century, always insist on following the ten commandments and having them inscribed on walls in government buildings, but never ask to have the beatitudes put up in public, which are their spiritual leader’s own words, who they profess to follow.

They sure do love that Old Testament religion. I think it's called Judaism. Except in the Jewish religion there is no set-in-stone text, or interpretation of the text, unless you're one of their fundamentalists, which have also only been around for little more than a century, though there have been different versions of that kind of thing in the past in all religions.

Jesus confronted that literal, fundamentalist, follow-the-rules-and-add-more mentality that has been the cause of so much death and destruction in the world and continues to be.

That’s about all I said in my email response. But I’d like to add that this idea many Christians have that they are a victimized minority in this country, and that the government and other public entities are out to destroy them, or at least suppress and marginalize them, is mind bogglingly absurd.

I understand that the culture at large is full of elements that either seem willfully sinful or at least contrary to the Old Testament rules. Like rap videos that are all about bling and objectifying women and their body parts to the point of being more sexist than the good old days many fundamentalists often seem to be nostalgic for (even if those days included racism and sexism and poverty etc. on a scale young people wouldn’t even recognize if they encountered any of it).

But the elements in popular culture that really go against the spiritual leader they profess to follow are the wanton violence and the violation of people’s basic humanity, and the exploitation of children and the poor and bewildered and uneducated and fearful and stressed out, and so much more.

And to think that the government deliberately removed “in God we trust” from the coins because there’s some kind of governmental conspiracy to remove God from public life, when this administration is headed by an avowed born again Christian who has filled the government with fellow born agains, including all those graduates of evangelical colleges like the ones in the Justice department who graduated from that new fundamentalist evangelical college and had no experience in the law or in government nor even a very good education. Or the armed services where Christian fundamentalism has become part and parcel of military life, and where troops who don’t join in prayer circles and prayer meetings are ostracized and held back from advancing in rank and even discharged!

There’s certainly more Christianity in public life at anytime in my lifetime. When I was in the service it was still like the old Hollywood movies where the guys represented every faith and ethnicity that makes up what they used to wishfully call our “melting-pot” of a nation, but now, we have commanders in all the services professing that ours is a Christian nation and that this war is a crusade and that anyone who doesn’t believe in their God the way they do is not saved and is not to be respected and worse.

The Supreme Court justices who dominate with their conservative opinions and handed Junior an election he lost and continue to be “activists” for conservative causes and issues are all Chirstians, the cabinet is mostly Christians, and the few exceptions still believe in a God.

Can these frightened people who think their religion is being somehow suppressed in this country name one atheist in government in any prominent or important or authoritative or decision making position?

Give me a break. Atheists are the ones whose perspective is suppressed in the public life of this country. And if the culture is polluted with values that Christians see as against their religion, blame that on corporate greed, not some government conspiracy.

But I suspect this email some folks are passing around the internet is one of many indirect ways of making this election about “values” again instead of issues, and creating an “us and them” mentality with I’m sure the avowed Christian Obama being cast as the anti-Christian, if not the anti-Christ (have you noticed that Hagee, the fundamentalist preacher who endorsed McCain, has not had the youtube loops repeatedly shown on TV of him professing far worse beliefs than Rev. Wright including his onw version of "the chickens coming home to roost" when he claimed Katrina was God damning New Orelans for its sins, or that journalists have let McCain get away with accepting his endorsement and appearing in public with him, even though this same preacher has called the Catholic church “the whore of Babylon” and the popes, not just this one, the anti-Christ and has already implied that Obama may be the new anti-Crhist).

Thank God there are Christian preachers in the USA today who are beginning to preach Jesus’s words and teachings about feeding the poor, sheltering the homeless, visiting those in prison, taking care of the earth, and rendering unto Caesar what is Caesar’s.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

TEEN GANG FILM LIST

I think I may have done a list like this before, but after I watched THE YOUNG SAVAGES the other night, it got me thinking. So here’s a list of my favorite movies about teenage gangs (I couldn’t remember enough titles for too many letters to make another alphabet list, so I did my second favorite listing device, triplets):

THREE FROM THE PERIOD I EXPERIENCED MOST CLOSELY:

THE COOL WORLD (Shirley Clark’s 1961 masterpiece and my all time favorite flick, worth it for the jazz soundtrack alone or the lingering shots of real street scenes in Harlem c. 1960, though I still can’t find it on DVD)
THE YOUNG SAVAGES
BLACKBOARD JUNGLE (worth it just for the young Sidney Poitier; overdone in some scenes but a mostly realistic period and location feel)

OLD HOLLYWOOD CLASSICS:

DEAD END (as old Hollywood as it is, it’s still one of the best)
ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES (the Dead End kids with Cagney, how swell)
KNOCK ON ANY DOOR (old-style Hollywoodized adaptation of the great Willard Motley novel which introduced the line “Live fast, die young and have a good-looking corpse”)

FANTASIZED VERSIONS BUT STILL GREAT:

WEST SIDE STORY (the white gang was mostly miscast, but even so it’s a great adaptation of Shakespeare to 1950s New York gangs)
THE WARRIORS (from the Sol Yurick novel, a fantasy but with some very realistic scenes and location shooting around New York)
THE WANDERERS (mostly realistic, e.g. there really was a Bronx gang known as the “Baldies,” but Richard Price must have been beaten up by one or more Irish kids when he was growing up because his fantasy gang of zombie-like, soulless midget “Danny Boys” is a pretty mean spirited take on the Irish, if he’d done a similarly offensive take on the African-American gang or the Asian-American one, or even Italian or Latino ones, there would have been an uproar, but still worth it for a lot of the acting, including Karen Allen in one of her earliest film roles)

EARLY TAKES ON WHAT WE HAVE NOW:

BASTARDS OF THE PARTY (great HBO documentary about the origins of the Crips and Bloods)
MENACE II SOCIETY (stone brilliant)
BOYZ ‘N THE HOOD

HISPANIC VERSIONS:

LOS OLVIDADOS (Bunuel’s most realistic flick—though with surreal dream sequences—was shot in Mexico in the 1950s)
MI VIDA LOCA (from the Latina perspective)
AMERICAN ME (the gang starts out as teens but then they grow older and so does the gang, though still including teens and those even younger—it’s one of the most realistic of Hollywood “gang” movies)

NOT QUITE TEEN GANG FLICKS BUT CLOSE ENOUGH:

ON THE WATERFRONT (though a very small part of the film, the gang Brando’s character started plays a pivotal role, and the kid who leads them is more real than any other white movie gang kid because he wasn’t an actor, but a local kid from Hoboken)
QUADROPHENIA (the great Brit flick about the whole Mod thing actually has some of the most realistic “gang” fight scenes, pre semi-automatic times, ever filmed)
KING CREOLE (Elvis’ most realistic flick, with elements of “teen gang” culture)

HONORARY MENTION:

GANGS OF NEW YORK (it has flaws, especially in the casting, and the gangs aren’t exactly “teens”—but a passionate attempt to tell the story of the original gangs in the USA)

Monday, May 5, 2008

ANOTHER INTERESTING STATISTIC

According to TIME magazine:

""About six people die in shark attacks annually."

"26 million
Number of sharks killed annually by humans."

Sunday, May 4, 2008

ACCOMPLISHMENTS

My old (and unfortunately rightwing) friend Jim left a comment on one of my recent posts asking if any Obama supporters who read my blog could list any accomplishments of Obama’s, who Jim is convinced has never accomplished anything, as opposed to McCain, who he is obviously convinced has.

Obama has co-sponsored many bills in Congress, and unlike Hilary has never offered a bill sponsored only by himself, and has had Republican co-sponsors for many he has put forth. You can go to the Congressional Record and get the details.

Same for the Illinois Senate, where he was known, and is still being supported, by many of the Republicans in state government as someone who not only reached across the aisle but worked consciously to secure as much bi-partisan support as possible for measures he backed.

And then there’s his record as a community organizer, which has been questioned even by some further to the left, but which is still clearly more than most people, and almost all politicians have ever done, get down on the street level and organize for improvements in the lives of people mostly forgotten by politicians and governments and the media.

But his greatest accomplishment is simply his run for the presidency and his doing so well at it, because he has inspired so many young and new voters, as well as independent and even Republican voters, to believe in his message of a better way of doing business in Washington.

Maybe if he’s elected he’ll turn out to be like all the rest, but his campaign hasn’t been like all the rest, which is partly why it’s been so successful despite the obvious bias in the media and in a minority of voters toward anyone who speaks so idealistically and often eloquently about not the usual deliberately distracting side issues like flag lapel pins and guilt by association, but instead talks about moving this country beyond the old arguments and straw men and into the future which will not just look more like him than Hilary or McCain, but which will need to rise from the wreckage of the past several decades of partisan feuding that has led to more destruction and dismay than to constructive solutions for our problems and hope that together we can make those solutions happen.

McCain meanwhile has been responsible for some of the most mind-boggling position switches outside of Mitt Romney’s. And as far as I’m concerned his biggest and most despicable accomplishment this year was helping to defeat a G. I. Bill that would have provided Iraqi War veterans with the financial and educational and health benefits given to WWII and Cold War vets (like me) and which they so rightly deserve.

Anyone who says McCain’s talking straight when he votes against bills to benefit his fellow veterans who don’t come from the wealth he does or marry into, as he has (and CNN had the nerve to run a chart showing which candidates were financially best off putting McCain BEHIND Obama because they only counted McCain’s Senate salary and personal income and not his wife’s 100 million dollar plus fortune!).

Obama is still our best hope for changing not just the way politics is practiced in campaigns and in government, but for finally getting us past the arguments of the 1960s (which my friend Jim replays constantly in his comments, intentionally or not, as do his inspirations Rush Limbaugh, Fox News, et. al.).

And speaking of accomplishments, Obama, as has been pointed out again and again though not in the mass media, has almost exactly the same record as Abraham Lincoln did when he ran for president the first time. Republicans should be falling over themselves to vote for him, if it weren’t for the dirty truth that they love to haul old Honest Abe out as a symbol for their not being as mean spirited as their actions prove they have been (from Nixon through Reagan to Junior) but if old Abe were running today, they’d probably vote for Hilary.

THE YOUNG SAVAGES

Just watched THE YOUNG SAVAGES. The 1961 black and white film about a teenage gang killing in New York City, based on the Evan Hunter novel A MATTER OF CONVICTION, which was inspired by the “capeman” killings around that time.

I remember when THE YOUNG SAVAGES came out, the impact it had on me when I first saw it [I've mentioned this before I think]. I thought it was one of the most realistic depictions of what I knew about gangs at that time that I’d ever seen. I was on my way to joining the service and starting a life far away from my roots, and writing what I thought at the time were realistic depictions of those roots that I’d rarely if ever seen in books or on film. So when I saw anything that seemed closer to reality then other movies, I dug it. And this was one of those times.

Not that I grew up in the slums of New York, but I’d been hanging around them for a few years by then and had friends who did and who ran in some of the more notorious gangs of those times.

Part of what made this an exceptional film was the caliber of the actors in it, especially the grown up leads, Burt Lancaster, Dina Merrill, and Shelly Winters.

Winters, who plays the sad sack single slum mother of one of the accused murderers, hadn't become a caricature yet. And Burt Lancaster, who plays her old boyfriend now a prosecutor in the D.A.'s office charged with convicting her son, was still physically magnificent as his de rigueur shirtless scene proves. While Dina Merrill does her usual great job of playing the beautiful conflicted blonde WASP (a “Vassar girl” as Lancaster’s character calls her).

The killers belong to an Italian street gang and the victim is part of the Puerto Rican one. The hairstyles and clothes styles are pretty true to the times, for the most part, especially in the case of the Puerto Rican gang.

There’s the usual social worker slant to the film, which may seem overdone by contemporary standards, but at the time seemed sincere and accurate. At any rate, it kept me watching long after I meant to turn off the TV and do some reading before bed. And for me that’s always a good sign of a personal classic.

I’ve probably seen it once or twice since it first came out, and yet I sat there and watched it through to the end again. I was impressed also with some of the young actors, most of whom I don’t remember ever seeing again, especially Luis Arroyo, the leader of the Puerto Rican gang, and Pilar Seurat, who plays the victim’s sister beautifully.

Chris Robinson, who plays the leader of the Italian gang does some very interesting work as well, and the young actors who play the alleged killers are all good too, though John Davis Chandler, who plays the most twisted and nasty of them, does his usual over the top sneeringly deranged evildoer which he did in several films back then, and though he did it well it now seems a little overdone.

Neil Nephew and Stanley Kristien as the other two alleged murderers do a good job too. Nephew looks familiar, so I may have seen him in other roles, but Kristien I don’t think I ever saw again either. A lot of these actors don’t look correct ethnically, including Vivien Nathan who plays the victim’s mother supposedly born in Puerto Rico and not fluent in English, but she still has some powerful moments.

THE YOUNG SAVAGES brings back a time when the reality about gangs and the news stories about them was that the worst of them, or the most notorious that did the most damage, were identified more by ethnic group—either Italian or Irish, or the Puerto Ricans just beginning to make a splash.

What would later be called “black” gangs were almost never in the news, and were still in the minority. A combination of upward mobility, a heroin epidemic, and what became known as “the ‘sixties” (really the late ‘sixties and early ‘seventies) ended most of the bigger “white” gangs outside of prison.

THE YOUNG SAVAGES in many ways marks what in retrospect was their death knell. Worth watching I think, if you haven’t seen it.

Friday, May 2, 2008

QUOTE FROM THE KING

Handwritten note written and signed by Elvis:

"Philosophy for a happy life.
Someone to love
Something to look forward to
And something to do.
E.P. 1972"

Thursday, May 1, 2008

SPEAKING OF BEAUTY—YIFEI LIU

Took my ten-year-old son and his buddy to see FORBIDDEN KINGDOM. With Jackie Chan and Jet Li.

It’s kind of a martial arts version of THE WIZARD OF OZ, but without Judy Garland. A major omission. The lead, Michael Angarano, is one of the recent crop of young male actors who look like they’re in so over their heads they don’t even seem to know it.

This kind of stumbling, hit-and-miss acting sort of works early on in this film, since the lead is supposed to be one of those semi-nerdy teens who’s at sea in the world (no father naturally) and facing unrealistic gangster bullies (supposedly Boston “Southies” though they come across more like something out of a bad teen movie from decades ago, and would be an insult to South Boston's Irish if they weren't so campy and unidentifiable except as typical bad-teen-movie, over-the-top bullies).

But as the movie progresses, he’s supposed to become a hero, only because his acting chops are limited (after the movie my ten-year-old and his friend were making fun of the scene where he finally gets mad and makes his angry face) he’s not believable.

It’s a fantasy film, so a lot of leeway is allowed, but it’s like the kid who played the young Darth Vader in the last STAR WARS films, his lack of acting skill and star power diminished the story even as fantasy.

Angarano works hard, he just doesn’t pull it off. And part of the problem is he has no screen charisma, which may work in realistic films about teens like him, but not in hero fantasies or romances.

The Asian actors, in contrast, are all terrific, even when they overact for the sake of the story and the fantasy. They carry the film, and if there really had been an actor as talented as Judy Garland playing the lead teen boy, this might have been a minor classic. As it is, it already seems like it was made in the 1980s with a teen star we no longer remember.

I’m being a little harsher than usual, but it really is a shame. The special effects in this flick are pretty good and fun to watch, and the location scenes set in China are extraordinary on the big screen.

And Jackie Chan and Jet Li are their usual humorous and powerful screen presences. But the real discovery is Yifei Liu, who plays the young Asian beauty. It’s almost incomprehensible that she would fall for the lead actor, she’s so ethereally beautiful (If only the role had been played by a young Orlando Bloom, who’s proven he can act as well as look worthy of the love of great beauties like Keira Knightly).

What is it with the women in Asian martial arts movies that makes them so beautiful. The lighting? The make up? Their natural God given beauty? Probably a little of all three and more, but whatever it is it works.

Dandon Song and Ziyi Zhang in HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS (not to mention the male lead, Takeshi Kaneshiro), and Ziyi Zhang with Michelle Yeoh in CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON, and now Yifei Liu in FORBIDDEN KINGDOM.

It’s worth the price of admission to see their faces on the big screen, as it was once to see the young Elizabeth Taylor or Ava Gardner, Sharon Stone or Halle Berry.

There’s all kinds of beauty, and beauty in all kinds of things, but the kind that lights up a movie screen through the face of a star—be it Johnny Depp or Keri Russell, Takeshi Kaneshiro or Yifei Liu—is a pleasure all its own to behold.