Sunday, August 28, 2016

A BRIEF (AND PERSONAL) HISTORY LESSON

I joined the military when JFK was president. But I didn't see the leaflet above until I was stationed in Texas, then Southern rural Illinois, then South Carolina. This kind of stuff wasn't on TV in those days, or even radio, though in rural "America" sometimes the ubiquitous (in rural "America") newscaster Paul Harvey would repeat some rightwing myth as reality (in my memory).

So, I was shocked when I saw this, and the anti-Semitic and racist and anti-Catholic, and anti-immigrant etc. lies that would appear on flyers in my barracks or guys would try to give to me. I was freaked out by it at first, finding it totally creepy as well as crazy.

This was before the Goldwater wing of the Republican Party gained influence and eventually morphed into something even more rightwing and creepy under Reagan and the deregulation of TV networks and radio frequencies so that anyone could say anything and not have to back it up with facts: the birth of Rush and Fox et. al.

I like to tell younger people that when I was a kid, of course there were people who still believed the world was flat, but they didn't get air time on radio or TV let alone their own shows or networks!

Saturday, August 27, 2016

JOEL LEWIS'S MY SHAOLIN

As you can see from the subtitle, Joel Lewis's MY SHAOLIN is a book length poem about Staten Island, or more specifically about Staten Island's history and present and Joel Lewis's observations and adventures during his commute from Jersey through Manhattan to and from Staten Island.

Book-length poems are rare and ones that work to sustain my interest even rarer. There are some brilliant exceptions, like William Carlo Williams's PATERSON, Louis Zukofsky's "A", Nazim Hikmet's HUMAN LANDSCAPES FROM MY COUNTRY (a novel in verse, as he called it), Gary Snyder's MOUNTAINS AND RIVERS WITHOUT END, or my own OF (I know, immodest of me, but it's still one of my favorite book-length poems along with my book-(but-a-very-short-book)-length MARCH 18, 2003) and probably others I can't think of right now.

MY SHAOLIN (Shaolin being the Wu Tang Clan's name for Staten Island) seems to have been inspired more by W. C. Williams's PATERSON than the others mentioned. But it is uniquely Lewis's creation. Separated into several sections, and each of them further separated into smaller sections representing where that part of the poem was written (or the poet's perspective is). Lewis uses ferries, subway trains, buses and walking as part of his commute, and little drawings (silhouettes) of a bus or subway or ferry or pedestrian etc. head each smaller section.

Reading this poem/book is like joining Lewis in his adventures going to and from Staten Island and his recording of his experiences while there and that of others throughout the island's history. I highly recommend this book, especially as a gift to any friends with any connection to Staten Island, but also to lovers of any of the long poems I've mentioned.

I'll leave you with two short excerpts to give a tiny taste of MY SHAOLIN:

The bomb-sniffing dogs are sleeping side by side,
Whitehall Terminal filling up with sunshine.
Woman next to me in the elevator hums along to earbud gospel.
The 7:45 AM boat empties, passengers walking downstairs
underneath a king-size patria mia American flag.
"All the days in the world
don't add up to opera," says a gabardine-suited man to his
pal in the IBEW poplin jacket
across from the Pizza Plus counter.
The margarita stand is setting up.
This morning seems a remake, but with better data.




Off the boat, down the pedestrian walkway
then stop at Richmond Terrace waiting
for green light. A woman in white blouse,
              black bangs and onyx-lens sunglasses
approaches me with this seasons' must-have: a clipboard

"Excuse me sir, are you a registered Republican?"

"Only in my nightmares."

"Well, thank you for your time, have a good day."

Thursday, August 25, 2016

ONCE UPON A TIME

Last movie I "starred" in before joining SAG in 1979 and having to add my middle name "David" for acting gigs from then on. This movie got a name change too, they added "DRACULA'S" before the title. [you have to click to enlarge to actually be able to read my name...]

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

STEVEN HILL R.I.P.

I want to start by saying Steven Hill was well liked and admired as an actor and a person. I didn't know him as a friend, so my sympathies go out to his family, friends and fans.

But I did work with him on an episode of LAW & ORDER. Met him on set, and on our first take I felt like I was actually intimidating, or at least surprising him, and then he "went up" on his lines, i.e. seemingly deliberately flubbed them so the director would have to yell "Cut!" Which he did.

He seemed to be studying me while we got ready for the next take, and that time he made me feel intimidated or surprised, and I didn't dominate like I had intended to (which I thought my character would be trying to do).

It went back and forth like that, with the director telling me to loosen up, then tighten up, the producers chiming in. Way too many takes were done. Probably more than I ever did on any TV show or movie. During the whole encounter, Hill just kept staring at me with those intense eyes.

I have to admit, after a while I started doubting my choices and abilities. Finally they gave up and we moved on, but I haven't watched my work on that thing since. Just wasn't happy with the whole experience. With the exception of the lead female actor in the show at the time, Angie Harmon, I found almost everyone I encountered while working on that episode unfriendly.

I didn't work with Jerry Orbach but ran into him at the crafts services table and was happy to have the opportunity to tell him how much I dug his performance in the Broadway musical Chicago that I'd seen him do a few years earlier, and he gave me a look like I was aggravating him and walked away without even saying thank you.

Maybe there was something going on those days I worked on the show, or maybe it was always like that. I don't know. I know I sat around between takes with Angie and Sam Waterston and she was a delight, chatting and sweet, while he never said a word to me, in fact, acted as if I wasn't even there, which I thought might just be his being in character or something.

It was my first acting job in New York after almost two decades of working as an actor in L.A. I'd just returned back East. Made me wonder what I'd done.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS & WAR DOGS

Movies that their makers think will be nominated for awards usually don't come out in the middle of August.  Big franchise action movies, comedies and kids' movies come out in summer. Movies that their makers think will be nominated for awards are usually serious flicks, often based on true stories, saved for late Fall.

FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS and WAR DOGS are both based on true stories that certainly have some pretty serious aspects to them, and they've both come out in the middle of August. So the expectation is that they're being dumped into that time slot because they aren't very successful.

But that turns out to be an incorrect assumption. Both of these movies, though not grand works of art, are small works of art, successful at what they do. Despite being based on serious stories, they've been written and directed as comedies that happen to have very serious moments, as well as suspense and, in the case of WAR DOGS action, and that's partly why they work so well.

Meryl Streep as FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS pulls off playing a frumpy aging matron who presents herself as a great classical singer but actually is pretty awful. She has moments that cover the spectrum of human emotion in ways that range from hilarious to poignant. Hugh Grant as her mate and Simon Helberg as her piano accompanist (an actor who actually is also a concert pianist), add their own powerful performances. The movie sticks close to the facts and yet Stephen Frears' direction makes it an entertaining fable.

In WAR DOGS, Miles Teller and Jonah Hill play two guys in their twenties who stumble into arms dealing that gets out of hand. Also sticking pretty closely to the actual facts, Todd Phillips's direction turns a mini-tragedy into a mini-comedy, but one that becomes totally engaging, mostly because of the lead performances and an extended cameo by Bradley Cooper (who also produced it).

Both these films are about, and create, unlikely heroes who endear themselves to us despite their obvious flaws and self-delusions. And maybe helping us to face our own flaws and self-delusions with a little more acceptance.