Monday, December 30, 2013

A QUOTE STILL RELEVANT FOR OUR TIMES

When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a Communist."  —Archbishop Helder Camara (he made this comment in the in the 1960s or '70s, but it still holds true, and you can replace "Communist" with socialist, or liberal, etc.)

Sunday, December 29, 2013

AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY

I missed Tracy Letts' play on Broadway, highly recommended by many friends. But I watched the movie of it on my computer tonight (new thing this awards season is downloads rather than DVD for many of this year's movies) and wished I'd seen it on stage, where I think the melodramatic elements may have been less obvious.

Don't get me wrong, there's a lot to praise in this flick. Especially Julia Roberts' performance and Meryl Streep's as well. Chris Cooper, as always, doing an impeccable and impressive job in an almost thankless role. Everyone was good, really. That's a tribute to John Wells' direction (full disclosure, I knew him in my Hollywood years, and always liked him).

But I would have cast several roles differently if I'd had the chance. Julianne Nicholson does a beautiful job as Ivy, performance-wise, but casting her as the pushing-fifty old maid of the trio of daughters, well, I ain't buying it. And though Abigail Breslin has proven her acting chops, oh what a young Juliette Lewis would have done with that role.

Though as the third aging sister Lewis is devastatingly good. But the dysfunction of this family and the ways in which plot points are strategically doled out was just too much for me. I was moved by a lot, but ultimately disappointed when the credits rolled. Though I won't be surprised if Tracy Letts gets nominated for Best Screenplay Adaptation (from the play) because most Hollywood folks I know love this kind of over-the-top emotional bloodletting stuff.

But I'd still like to see Roberts, Streep, Cooper and Lewis get nominated in acting categories. Something tells me it'll only be Streep and Roberts.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

HARRY E. NORTHUP SCORES AGAIN

My friend and fellow poet Harry E. Northup scores another hit with this video reading of one of his poetic homers (gotta listen to the end):

Friday, December 27, 2013

OUT OF THE PAST

Probably the tenth or twelfth time I've watched this maybe greatest of all film noir flicks. Mitchum is impeccable in it. Jane Greer has been the ultimate movie bad girl ever since she made this. No one has topped her yet in my book. Kirk Douglas as the ultimate bad guy is pretty interesting. And the rest of the supporting cast are pretty much perfectly on the mark.

I've written about it enough, and I'm sure already on this blog. But I watched it from beginning to end (the end still pisses me off but that's part of its unique impact) tonight and once again loved every minute (except for the end, which I still loved as movie making just not as the outcome I ever want to see…). If you've never seen it you're in for a treat.

I'm so grateful for TCM! (And I have to say, OUT OF THE PAST has become a favorite holiday movie, and there's not a holiday in it.)

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

AND TO ALL A GOOD NIGHT

Me and Jamie Rose, best friends for thirty years, at another best friends' house (Sue & Jeannie's in Milburn NJ) earlier tonight, Xmas eve 2013. How lucky am I, and all of us, to have best friends and Xmas eves. Always so much to be grateful for.

Monday, December 23, 2013

YUSEF LATEEF R.I.P.

Sad to see him go, but he had a good long life, playing music that touched so many. This recording was made around the time I first was digging him. Lex Humphries is on drums, someone I met a few times that year (1961) and dug, Barry Harris on piano and Ernie Farrow on bass.

Lean, crisp and straight ahead version of one of the great movie themes (Spartacus), seemingly made for jazz (Ahmad Jamal and Bill Evans interpreted it beautifully as well). I first heard Lateef live on sax and flute, but here he is on oboe (and a few years later my first wife, Lee, and I named a stray kitten we took in Yusef! You remember, Willy?):

AH YES

I always appreciated the cleverness of the music and lyrics, and the set up etc. but happening on this scene again tonight on TV was the first time I actually began to identify with the characters! Quite moving for this old post-brain-op dude. The song comes in around two minutes in, but this is the best selection because it gives you the set up in case you never saw it or don't remember.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

HMMMMM...

In the 20s two days ago, 60s today, expected to be in the 70s tomorrow and back down to the 20s two days from then.

Just like when I was a kid at the end of Decembers.  NOT!  NEVER!

The climate patterns have changed, drastically, as we all know and either are in denial about it, have decided to ignore it, or are fighting those who have contributed and continue to contribute to it: i.e. oil corporations et. al.

Drastic times require drastic measures.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

THE BIG LEBOWSKI

Would you believe I never saw this until a few nights ago?  Now I know what all the fuss is about.  A fun ride.  But the best thing about it is Jeff Bridges.

From the first time I saw him in a film I kept telling friends he was the greatest movie actor of his generation.  And he has proven it over and over again since then, leading to a lot of other people agreeing.

He makes this flick work. Otherwise it would just be another "quirky" independent film with eccentric characters etc. But instead it's a classic.  All the acting is good.  But Bridges is great. The dude does abide.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

ME & ME

This is a shot the incomparable Jamie Rose took of me standing in front of a shot Gus Van Sant took of me a few decades ago. Aging's a trip. Cool shot though.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

HOMAGE TO HORACE

There was a notice of Horace Silver's death yesterday going around the Internet that turned out to be false.  But it made me realize how much his music meant to me when I was a young musician trying to make my mark as a jazz piano player.

I would have told you back then, and since, that my main influences and jazz piano icons were Thelonius Monk, Bill Evans and Ahmad Jamal.  I would have left out Horace Silver (and I later realized Errol Garner) who impacted me equally but because Silver (and Garner) were such low key nice guys, (Silver I know for certain, Garner I'm guessing) and I was a troubled young cat, they didn't register in the way say Miles did with his self-designed suits and shades and cool image etc.

But Silver was and is a giant of jazz, as those of us ho care have always known of course.  And I wanted to say thank you to him as a fan and admirer and appreciator of all he not only brought to jazz but to my young manhood.

And here's one of my favorite tracks from back then.  Listen to the whole thing, but especially when he begins to solo around three minutes in and with tact and taste swings the tune off its hinges with seemingly no effort.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

JIM HALL, RAY PRICE R.I.P.

The great jazz guitarist, Jim Hall (leaning on piano above with Bill Evans at the keys) will always be associated with Bill Evans for me. His recordings and gigs with Evans were where I first discovered Hall and was knocked out by his understated genius on his instrument. Like Evans in many ways, only less troubled and thereby long lived. The great thing is his music lives on.
Come on. Who hasn't been impacted by Ray Price's musical genius. "Make the World Go Away" would be enough to put him in any musical pantheon I had anything to do with. But that's just a drop in the bucket of his many knockout songs. Another one who beat the odds and had a long and productive life. And his music too will live on.

Monday, December 16, 2013

JOAN FONTAINE, PETER O'TOOLE AND BILLY JACK R.I.P.

Maybe best known for Rebecca, and deservedly so, she was most luminous and sympathetically beautiful to me in her smaller but necessary role in The Women.  Starred in movies in the 1930s and was still acting on TV in the 1990s!  Almost made it to a hundred.  Good for her.
Looked that good and could still act, though he could also overact. Lawrence of Arabia is of course what everyone is referring to in his obits and tributes. But amazingly, my favorite performance and I think in many ways his best was just a few years ago in Venus, playing an aging matinee idol at the end of his life. His most understated and for me most powerful performance.
Tom Laughlin created Billy Jack. Though not as great an actor as the two above, he made as strong a mark on his generation of movie goers, or I should say mine. The first action movie hero to stand up for hippies and peaceniks getting the brunt of the violence in the 1960s, despite revisionist histories trying to make it look like the other way round. The movies were low budget and looked it, the acting often stiff or unrealistically "natural" etc. But revolutionary in their stance and message. John Wayne types can fight for lefties too!

Thanks to all three and what they gave me as a movie lover.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

MOST RECENT FAVORITE QUOTE

"How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?"  —Pope Francis (from Evangelii Gaudium)

Saturday, December 14, 2013

STEPHEN SONDHEIM'S FINISHING THE HAT AND SIX BY SONDHEIM

The other night I watched SIX BY SONDHEIM, an HBO documentary about the lyricist/composer who's had more of an influence on modern musicals than anyone. Like all his own work, the documentary was a mixed bag. But the best part of it for me, as is often the case in docs about individuals, especially creators, was his own words.

Excerpting bits of interviews from throughout his career, the director James Lapine, Sondheim's main directing collaborator on his musicals, was able to edit together bits of explanations and stories about Sondheim's creative process, personal history and influences. Sondheim is one of the most honest, articulate and at times eloquent artists you probably will ever hear explain their own work.

As those who read this blog know, or even just my last post, anyone doing their best to create any work of art is appreciated by me. And when what they create is good it's a bonus. And when it is original in any aspect, I'm overjoyed. Sondheim, of course, not only does all that, he hits the highest goal for my taste, and that is creating something that changes the game in any art.

The documentary had interviews with others, as well as the subject, and several production numbers (must have been six, I guess) that were, like his work, highly original but a mixture of satisfying and almost aggravating, or at least disappointing. His work, for me, lifts the spirit with the genius he displays in his craft: the melodies he creates and the words to go with them, or vice versa.  But at the same time challenges any possible joy with a bit of cynicism and disappointment that can almost taste bitter.

The triumph is in the overcoming of life's disappointments, or maybe just outliving them, as in his song "I'm Here," which is delineated and examined from every angle and then given a production number that is in your face obvious and weirdly unexpected at the same time. The song was written for an older female character as a proud but sad declaration of survival despite the vagaries of life, but was sung cabaret style, more or less, by a man of indeterminate age [Jarvis Cocker mostly in shadows or dim lighting] with many in the on set cabaret audience older and elderly women heavily made up and looking either proud or deeply saddened by their reality reflected in the song. [Just found out that number was directed by Todd Haynes!]

I should have written this earlier when I could be more articulate about what I mean, but hopefully you get the idea. That production number left me both moved and confused, which often seems Sondheim's objective. But to hear him talk about how he structures his lyrics was such a pleasure for me. I love to hear artists who are able to clearly explain their process. It not only enlightens me about how others work, but delights me in ways it's hard to explain, partly because of the joy it gives me to hear someone describe strategies I've used (and thought I discovered), and partly the sheer pleasure I get from the commitment to the work that ends up bringing so much to so many.

I'd already read what is one of my favorite books about creating works of art, Sondheim's own recent (well, a few years old now) book Finishing The Hat, Collected Lyrics (1954-81) with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes. A title worthy of Sondheim.  The main title comes from one of the songs in his Sunday in the Park with George. My favorite musical of his, even though I'm not crazy about the second act and think it doesn't live up to the promise of the first. But even that act is better than most other creators' efforts.  But the first act.  For a while in the 'eighties I  would insist women I was dating watch the DVD, or listen to the CD, of that musical with me and their response would determine if I wanted to keep dating them or not.

I was so moved by it, because it's about that commitment to the work, that drive and necessity to create something you can never be sure anyone will even get, let alone appreciate, and yet you do it anyway, with all your heart and soul. So many have experienced that and ended up with so little appreciation and recognition. Including me at times, and many I know and whose work I find among my favorites and feel everyone should love though sometimes very few do.

There are terrific poems being written and read all over this country, all over the world, at this very moment, and most of them will never be seen or heard by more than a few people. Just as there are all kinds of books and plays and paintings and sculptures and songs and etc. that anyone of us would be proud to have created and yet may never be seen or heard or etc.  Sondheim captures what that means in Sunday in the Park with George, and makes, I think, an audience feel it, whether they've ever tried to create a work of art themselves or not.  That's a hell of an accomplishment.

Although Sondheim now feels the lyrics he wrote to Leonard Bernstein's melodies for Westside Story were not what he would have written if he controlled the story and music, those lyrics changed my life. I was a teenage boy who'd never been exposed to a Broadway musical or play and thought of the live theater as some rich peoples' boring high fallutin' elitist exclusive nothing-to-do-with-my-reality jive.

But then at a rich girl's house whose parents brought her to Broadway plays I heard the cast album to Westside Story, which hadn't been made into a movie yet, and I was shocked at how relevant the lyrics were to my life and how I felt, and the lives of friends and our reality. I thought, oh wait, this is what art can do?  I want more. And I want to do it.  I was already writing poetry and playing piano and fantasizing about acting in movies, but I had no models for what I was trying to do 'cause all the poetry and music and movie acting I knew, even when I dug it, never fully represented who I was and where I came from and was coming from.

I never forgot Sondheim's name and the impact his lyrics in Westside Story had had on me.  But I was often disappointed by him in later years because so much of his work seemed cold or bitter or like I said cynical. But in this documentary and book so much is made clear about the reasons for that. His mother's cruelty (she wrote him a note the night before she had open heart surgery that said she only had one regret: giving birth to him!) and as revealed in an interview when he was old, he fell in love for the first time when he was sixty!

I don't know who besides Sondheim fanatics, or those with a deep interest in the creative process, will bother to work their way through his book, Finishing the Hat, or even the documentary Six by Sondheim. And there's a lot in both that can disappoint. But the rewards, the good stuff, the revealing and moving and inspiring parts, make the effort well worthwhile.

I'll leave you with one of my favorite quotes that I have kept above my desk for decades now, from lyrics out of Sunday in the Park with George:

"Stop worrying if your vision
is new.
Let others make that decision—
They usually do.
You keep moving on."
        

Friday, December 13, 2013

ANOTHER NIGHT OF CREATIVE WONDER

Just got back from Brooklyn to see my friend the writer William Lannigan read a piece of a memoir focusing on Prospect Park in Brooklyn.  The evening was a reading by over a dozen finalists in a contest for the best short nonfiction about Brooklyn. Most of it about a Brooklyn that once was.

Bill's piece knocked me out both as written and read. In many ways it was one of the most challenging pieces of the evening because he put himself out in a way that was so personally honest about race and ethnicity and changing concepts of both that made some of the other attempts to address that seem almost generic and over sentimentalized.

But all the writing was good, some of it brilliant, and the variety of approaches to Brooklyn and the writers'  personal relationships and histories with Brooklyn was almost as varied as the borough itself. Though the evening would have worked better had it been broken into two evenings, or even three.  As it was it tried the patience of a large crowd that showed up despite the sub freezing weather.

But most of the audience stayed with it and engaged with the offerings and responded warmly to them. I came away juiced by and grateful for the commitment to the creative urge that led these various writers—old and young, Jewish and Irish and Italian and Caribbean and Asian and African and more—to do the work necessary to make it to being a finalist among some pretty terrific writing.

Don't you just love all the creativity in the world there is to engage with and be rewarded by?  I do.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

MEMORIES

Anyone who's read any of my work knows I care a lot about getting history correct, at least as I've lived it and witnessed it.  But whenever I do more research, I discover new evidence for the need to correct something I thought I knew well.

Photos can be like that too.  Someone sent me this photo through the Internet earlier today, Colleen Halsey, a friend from my L.A. days who I met through her twin sister, Jo An Kincaid.  It was taken at her wedding to Richard Halsey, and that's me standing with Bob Chartoff with the glass in his hand.

I almost didn't recognize myself.  Partly because I'm wearing an oversize oil slick pattern suit coat I thought made some kind of absurdest statement about style constrictions.  (Possibly influenced by David Byrne's giant suit STOP MAKING SENSE period.)

In this shot it makes me look like I weighed a lot more than the 150 pounds I've weighed since I was fifteen (and still do) except for a brief period when another L.A. friend talked me into working out and building another ten or fifteen pounds of muscle. Which the ladies seemed to dig but made me feel extremely uncomfortable.

Anyway, there I am, in a shot I almost thought was someone else. In a moment in my personal history looking like I wouldn't have remembered if I hadn't seen this photo. Not only because of the brain operation and aging in general, but because candid snapshots like this often surprise with their this-couldn't-be-me unexpected reality.

Memories. Almost as good as making new ones.

Friday, December 6, 2013

VIVA LA DIFFERENCE

So, think there's no difference between the left and the right, between Dems and Repubs?

Try to remember that most on the right opposed the release of Nelson Mandela (including some praising Mandela now!) and sanctions against apartheid.

It was the left, and initially exclusively Democrats, supporting Mandela's release and the sanctions against South Africa that ended apartheid and led to Mandela's freedom.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

FRED HAMPTON R.I.P.

On this day, Dec. 4th, in 1969, Fred Hampton, the young Black Panther leader in Chicago, who I loved and admired, was shot to death by the police while he was sleeping in his bed with so many bullets it made the ending of Bonnie and Clyde look like a picnic.

Originally claiming they were only returning fire, it was immediately clear by the evidence that the only shots fired had been from the police, though of course they tried to cover it up.

I wanted to type up a poem I wrote on the day it happened, but it was only published in one of my smaller books (Stupid Rabbits I think), the only copy of which is in my archives at the NYU library and I don't have easy access to it at the moment.

So let me just say, it was one of the most egregious displays of the misuse of the police and the FBI ever in this country. But also a perfect example of what happens when the police—local, state and national—are used for political ends rather than for what they are meant for, to protect and serve.

This wasn't like more recent murders of young black men by police, where the police were simply too frightened and ill-trained and dumb to recognize the mistake they were making. This was a planned assassination.

Hampton did nothing but help people. He was a really sweet cat, and young. Only 21. I met him when he was 19, and he was just an intelligent, caring and gentle soul in my experience. He remains one of the unforgettable martyrs for peace and justice, an icon of my 1960s, and a reminder that no matter what, we have to stay alert to injustice and fight it as much as we are able.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

NEW QUOTE

"One well-established fact is that polarization in Congress maps onto one measure better than any other: economic inequality. The smaller the gap between rich and poor, the more moderate our politicians; the greater the gap, the greater the disagreement between liberals and conservatives. The greater the disagreement between liberals and conservatives, the less Congress is able to get done; the less Congress gets done, the greater the gap between rich and poor."      —Jill Lepore (from "Long Division" in The New Yorker Dec. 2, 2013)

Monday, December 2, 2013

TWO ICONS

Billie Holiday of course, and Martin Luther King. two giants in my personal iconography.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

THE SEARCHERS

Caught this for the eighth or tenth time last night on TCM's "Essentials" with Robert Osborne and Drew Barrymore.  I knew Drew a little back in my Hollywood days when she was still a teenager. An incredibly bright, mature and competent person even then. Watching her grow as a film commentator on TCM's Saturday night showcase for movies Robert Osborne and her select as "essentials" has been a treat.

Last night particularly because Osborne for the first time (in my perspective) was reacting to aspects of THE SEARCHERS, which as he pointed out is considered by many critics and the American Film Institute as the greatest Western film ever, like a kind of grumpy old fogey. For instance saying he didn't like the technicolor and preferred the way the director John Ford shot the same locale (Monument Valley I believe) in black and white in his other Westerns.

He said that in response to Drew's enthusiastic response to the deep and bright primary colors in the film. Osborne also objected to Natalie Wood getting movie star credit and then not appearing in the film until very near the end which he felt distracted from the story and more or less predicted the outcome for her character.

But Drew again said that was one of the things she liked most about Wood's character, though hardly on screen Wood gave the character a kind of depth and fullness just with her movie star presence and stature. Only Drew said it better.

THE SEARCHERS is definitely high on any list I used to make (pre-brain op when I constantly made lists) of favorite Westerns and movies of any genre. But like the majority (probably more than ninety percent unfortunately) of Hollywood movies set around the time of The Civil War, this one three years after it, the ex-Confederate soldier is always cast as more noble, a better warrior and battle strategist, more honorable and more dependable and braver than anyone else and the Yankees, especially the soldiers are either shown to be fools or devils or slobs or unreliable or devious or incompetent or cowards etc.

It's despicable and partly came from early movie people sympathetic to the South, like D. W. Griffith, and partly from the post-Reconstruction period's attempt to placate the losers' bitterness and revenge fantasies by capitulating to the myth of the supposed honor and nobility of their cause. But in fact their cause was the perpetuation of an evil, the institution of slavery, and the facts show that more Union soldiers showed nobility and bravery and honor than their enemy.

TWELVE YEARS A SLAVE should be required viewing after any of old Hollywood's movies that mythologize the Confederacy and its defenders (as John Wayne's character is in THE SEARCHERS). But that major caveat aside, THE SEARCHERS is still a pleasure to watch for everything else about it, including the vibrancy of its technicolor and the beauty of Natalie Wood's cameo performance and presence. As well as the entire cast of great Hollywood character actors.