Thursday, December 31, 2009

Sunday, December 27, 2009

A Moomin of One's Own

"Lill" (aka Laconic Lurker, aka Nancy) sent me a girl Moomin, Snorkmaiden, who arrived on Solstice. She comes with a "Made in Russia" sticker on her. Lill bought her at a holiday fair in Chicago from a Russian guy, who was selling Moomin as hippos but acknowledged their true identities when asked. (Tove Jansson addressed this confusion in one of her cartoon strips: Moomin definitively declares, "I am not a hippopotamus, I am a Moomin!")

The extra charm of this girl is that she walks when placed on a slight incline. Solstice Snorkmaiden that is, not Lill, who walks on all sorts of surfaces. Here's proof, from my little still camera:
Moomin on the Move

Who knew one of the side-effects of blogging is one gets cool toys and presents?
The Sisu candy is from The Finnish Friend;
the dalek it is resting on is from Rebecca & Sascha (S. made it, in consultation with R.);
the Kirk & Spock mug is from Momo;
and Ginga Squid in New Zealand made the felt triffid.

Friday, December 25, 2009

365: Merry Christmas!

From me and Leo, the kittie I'm housesitting--he's the black lump next to me. (I took the photo with the resident Mac.)
A friend is coming over for brunch--on the bus. It's absolutely awful trying to get anywhere outside today--two days of snow are being topped off with near-rain, making for a wet sludge that turns into ice under foot or tire. But I'm feeling jolly, staying in and cooking.
I hope all you darlings are happy and well!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

My Dangerous Life

I don't know what's happening to me. I've always been pretty uninterested in the physical world, especially in having contact with any parts of it that might hurt; but that's starting to change. A bit.

Sign #1: Standing in line at Barnes & Noble the other day, I almost bought a book off the "Under $10 Gifts" table: 501 Dangerous Things to Do.
For myself.
The only reason I didn't buy it is because I figured I could find such lists for free online, or make my own.
I don't recognize myself in this desire.

Sign #2: My demented love for Captain Kirk, poster boy for the physical world.

This morning, The Finnish Friend sent me the youTube link to "William Shatner Saved My Life,". Without even knowing about my little field trip, she suggested this could be the C-KAPE (Capt. Kirk Academy for the Pursuit of Excellence) theme song. I hereby officially say, "Make it so."

(I didn't embed it because I don't like its screencap, so I took this picture of my favorite Kirkglow in the vid. When a man wears eye makeup, you know he's not afraid of anything.)

Sign #3: At an annual Christmas party the other weekend, I asked one of the guests who coaches baseball if he could recommend any sports movies, since I have recently found athletics to be something of an analogy for moviemaking. Movies about team sports, I mean, not the sort of sports movies I've watched, like Chariots of Fire or Breaking Away, which are barely sports movies at all.

This party is attended by lovely people who are generally more oriented toward the physical world than I am.
Soon people were calling out movie titles, one after another. I felt such love, like they were welcoming me to their species.
Now my Netflix queue is loaded with titles like Miracle! and Coach Carter. (Suggestions welcome.)

Even weirder, someone asked me if I'd consider playing a team sport, and I scoffed; but since then I find myself thinking about the possibility...

Sign #4: I faced down a major physical fear yesterday. I gave blood. True, I had to be rescued, and afterward I went to bed with my stuffed toys (below) and talismanic Firefly Jayne hat ("A man walks down the street wearing a hat like that, people know he's not afraid of anything"); but I did it.

I am not afraid of blood, but my subconscious is.
While I'm not in the least particular about germs--I'm of the Julia Child "just pick it up off the floor and brush it off" school of food sanitation--I am squeamish about blood. It's always baffled me that I go all wobbly and pale if people even talk about the stuff.
Naturally, I've never been willing to put myself through the ordeal of giving blood, but I've been wanting to do something in thanks for all the medical help I've gotten this year.
Plus I decided giving blood would count as a field trip for C-KAPE (Captain Kirk Academy for the Pursuit of Excellence).

I planned it nicely--drank liquids, ate red meat, thought about the common good, and then I took my iron-rich, plump-veined and perky self over to the VA hospital.
Everything went fine. I avoided looking at any needles, tubes, and body fluids and instead quizzed the tech about her Christmas plans:
What was she serving for dinner?
Why, her famous shrimp dip, for which she happily shared the recipe.

[You take 1 package of Philadelphia cream cheese--not the low-fat kind--and mix in 1 can of Campbell's cream of shrimp soup and a package of thawed frozen shrimp--the little kind.
The thought of what this must look like is not to blame for what happened next.]

I'm a good bleeder: after only 6 minutes, I was done. The tech unhooked me and I'm thinking this is not bad at all, when she--otherwise very kind and thoughtful--plunks on the gurney right in my sight line the bulging baggie of my dusky purple blood and starts to squish it around (to mix in the anticoagulants, I guess).

My innards began to flutter like an octopus in motion, I bloomed a pale sweat, and my head went twirling off. Luckily I was already lying down, and after a few minutes of kind ministrations and reassurance that this happens all the time, I got up and toddled over to get my restorative juice and cookies.

I sat down at the table with an elderly fellow donor who proudly told me he had now given a total of 1 gallon of blood... a whole bucket!
Why, that's wonderful, I'm saying, when the octopus come fluttering back and it seems a good idea to put my head on the table.
A nearby attendant said, "Oh, dear," rang a little brass bell, and a couple workers rushed over like firefighters. I could barely stand up, so they sort of hoisted me onto the gurney and wheeled me away.

I felt like a big dweeb. Yes, I did.
But, turns out, if you're donating blood, no one minds if you're a wuss. I felt better when a tech told me that the worst is the Red Cross drives they hold at high schools.
"It's a domino effect," he said. "One of the kids vomits and then they all get started..."
And he gave me a sticker that says "Be Nice to Me: I Donated Blood."

P.S. Fear of Blood

This morning I feel absolutely fine. I'd googled "fear of blood" (hemophobia) last night and read that it may result from a traumatic physical experience.
But I've never had a bloody injury, I thought.
So silly: After a night's sleep, I woke up remembering that the summer I was five, a cat bit me in the head! (I'd picked him up in the middle of a cat fight in our driveway, to save him, and he immediately tore into my temple.)
Wow. Yeah.
I remember well being drenched in bright red sticky hot blood. My mother clamped a towel to my head and rushed me to the ER, where I lay on a gurney, terrified I would have to have stitches. Turned out, copious blood notwithstanding, it was a shallow wound, and they sent me home.

I still have the scar.
I wonder if remembering this event will make donating blood easier next time. At least I'll be prepared.

I certainly do want to try again, anyway.
Last night I felt kinda icky, and I got worrying that maybe draining off blood when I'm still a bit whoozy with vertigo wasn't such a great idea. Then I remembered why I did it. My little bit of discomfort is nothing compared to how people who need that blood must be feeling.

Friday, December 18, 2009

A Very Herring Christmas

PLOT (as described on youTube): "A Finnish curmudgeon's careless comment at Christmas casts two Baltic herring into an existential dither." The Fly Off The Wall Films production of this 2-minute Christmas message was meant to be a breeze; but it turned out to be waaaaaay more work even than potato print Christmas cards. Still, with massive editing effort on bink's part, we find the result to be a pleasing light romp, with none of the disturbing onscreen violence of our Easter flick, Peeps Blow Up. A huge thank you to the many people who helped create this flick. Best wishes to everyone at Christmas. And Happy Solstice! As Goethe said (on his deathbed), "More light!"

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Turned-Down Page

"Try to Praise the Mutilated World" (text below) is the poem I'd dog-eared in the poetry book I'm flipping through, in the previous post. I wouldn't mark it now, but it expressed how I felt when I was working for several years on a string of geography books about Zimbabawe, Sudan, Uganda, Congo, El Salvador, Myanmar (Burma), and other mutilated countries. (And try and find any place on Earth that hasn't seen some mutilation.)

I've always thought it was odd that after my mother's death I ended up working on countries with so much devastation in their recent histories. It's only this morning, as I read this poem again, that I remember I chose those countries.

I've always felt that any belief in god or human goodness has to square with the historical reality of the Holocaust. Working on these books, I hammered out a belief in the face of the worst things we can do to each other---and as Carolyn Forché says, there is nothing one human will not do to another. The thing is, that works both ways--there is also nothing beautiful one human will not do to another.

In the end, I came to the boring realization that at ground level, economics is probably more of, or at least as much as, an influence as culture. Or, at any rate, they go hand in hand. Not to say the richest countries and people are the most beautiful and benevolent. Not at all! But it's hard to praise the mutilated world while you're dying of cholera from dirty water. Sorry--I don't mean to be preachy here, it's just that I used not to factor plumbing into my thinking about humanity and goodness at all.
Dostoyevsky said, "Beauty will save the world," and I used to think that meant culture, as in art. I don't know what he meant, but now I'd say clean water is beautiful.
When you have clean water, you get more years to read and write. So, as Mother Teresa used to say, let's do something beautiful.

"Try to Praise the Mutilated World"

by Adam Zagajewski

Try to praise the mutilated world.
Remember June's long days,
and wild strawberries, drops of wine, the dew.
The nettles that methodically overgrow
the abandoned homesteads of exiles.
You must praise the mutilated world.
You watched the stylish yachts and ships;
one of them had a long trip ahead of it,
while salty oblivion awaited others.
You've seen the refugees heading nowhere,
you've heard the executioners sing joyfully.
You should praise the mutilated world.
Remember the moments when we were together
in a white room and the curtain fluttered.
Return in thought to the concert where music flared.
You gathered acorns in the park in autumn
and leaves eddied over the earth's scars.
Praise the mutilated world
and the grey feather a thrush lost,
and the gentle light that strays and vanishes
and returns.

Translated by Renata Gorczynski

365: Flipping a Book

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

365: Going Out at Night in Winter

It's cold.

It was -4 degrees F (-20 C) this morning. I need to put plastic film over my windows; but in the meantime, the frosted glass pleases me.

The Pivot Questionnaire

It was so fun to hear Mike Nichols answer these questions asked at the end of every Inside the Actors Studio interview, I looked them up.
They originally came from Bernard Pivot, host of a French series, Bouillon de Culture, a variation on the Proust Questionnaire, which I posted last year.

I haven't seen this as a meme, but I invite you all to answer the questions, if you like, in the comments or on your blog.
As much as possible, answer as if you're being interviewed, off the top of your head:

1. What is your favorite word?
2. What is your least favorite word?
3. What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally?
4. What turns you off?
5. What is your favorite curse word?
6. What sound or noise do you love?
7. What sound or noise do you hate?
8. What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?
9. What profession would you not like to do?
10. If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?

Here are my answers:

1. What is your favorite word?

2. What is your least favorite word?
no [said to me]

3. What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally?

4. What turns you off?
certainty (the bombastic kind)

5. What is your favorite curse word?
"fuck" is the one I use the most, but my favorite, which I never use, is "bugger"

6. What sound or noise do you love?
planes taking off (from inside one, I mean)

7. What sound or noise do you hate?
pets slurping themselves

8. What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?
um... what is my profession?
adventure guide

9. What profession would you not like to do?
adventure guide!

10. If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?
[with delight] It's you! Well done.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Humor & Horror: Mike Nichols, My Mother, and the Subconscious

Right: Mike Nichols & Elaine May

This morning I watched Mike Nichols interviewed on Inside the Actors Studio (1999, clip below). It interests me that he is such a champion of the subconscious.
And I love his subdued sense of humor. Mostly he's not funny in this interview--he certainly doesn't try to get laughs; it's more like humor is his substratum. For instance, in talking about the subconscious, he says, "You love your subconscious because it has the same sense of humor you do."

Interesting too that he says he thinks all the time about how in 1939 he came to the United States as a little German Jewish boy, arriving two weeks before the Saint Louis, the ship of Jewish refugees that was refused landing and turned back to Europe. That's another substratum.

I spent most of this past weekend delving into the work of Elaine May and Mike Nichols, together and separately. Only listening to Nichols today did it occur to me that without intending to--subconsciously--I've been touching the memory of my mother. (Today is the 7th anniversary of her death, her suicide.)
It was she who loved the Nichols & May comedy team, and then May's whack-o deadpan humor in A New Leaf, which she took me to see when I was ten.

I'm sure she saw herself in May's brilliant but socially inept heroine. My mother was raised to be a Southern belle, and her social graces were impeccable. Underneath, however, she was an oddball who could play the game exquisitely, but only at a high price to herself.
She pulled further and further out of the social game because it didn't recognize or nurture who she was. The opposite in fact: it rewarded all the bright surfacey things that she was good at but resented and even despised. She was like a chameleon who didn't want to change colors but didn't know how not to.

She talked a lot about the Holocaust, when I was growing up. I think she felt trapped like a concentration camp victim, except the camp was the world.
She was rotten at protecting herself in any way but by withdrawing. She withdrew more and more over the last dozen years of her life. But, you may know, this can be a false protection: in withdrawing, she crumbled inward. So, she withdrew entirely, into death.
(Of course there's more to it than that...)

She left so long ago, I slowly got used to her being gone. But it wasn't a gentle process. The flip side of the Southern Belle was one of those Southern mothers out of Tennessee Williams: without nurture from the larger world, they suck the life out of their children. I feel like the son in The Glass Menagerie, who got out, saving his life but full of regret.

The other day, I wondered for the first time what my life would have been like these past nineteen years if she had been able to stay present, stay alive. Perhaps unexpectedly, humor was the substratum of her life too, and we had the same sense of humor. When hers eroded away, which it did, its absence honeycombed my life too.
The question is like asking, what if Blanche DuBois had been a happy resilient person (like Mike Nichols appears to be)? Ridiculous, and unutterably painful to contemplate.

Below is Part 2 of Mike Nichols talking on "Inside the Actor's Studio", the section in which he talks about working with Elaine May.


He's an interesting guy--it's also worth watching the whole 2-hour interview: start at part 1 on youTube, and all the other parts are linked on the "related videos."

One of my favorite bits comes in the Q&A at the end. Someone in the audience complains that his subconscious works best at 3 a.m.
Of course it does, Nichols responds. And further, "The most unacknowledged factor in our work is downtime." You have a problem you can't solve, he says, and you go away and leave it alone, then come back to it and you can solve it.
I've experienced that so often, I've come to trust that my brain will deliver...but only if it's given time. Empty time. Probably nobody's going to give that to you but you.
P.S. Hm. I just looked Nichols up on Wikipedia. He and my mother share a birthday, though he was born three years earlier than she was. She'd have liked that.


For more info on suicide prevention or help if you are struggling:
"The Lifeline provides 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress, prevention and crisis resources for you or your loved ones, and best practices for professionals."

Elaine May in Small Time Crooks

Elaine May in Woody Allen's Small Time Crooks (2000)
Unfortunately the sound is out of synch on these clips, but I loved Elaine May telling off Woody Allen's character, here:

...and making small talk out of the weather report, here.

From the review of Small Time Crooks at
"It's Elaine May as Frenchy's cousin, a chatterbox simpleton, who walks off with "Small Time Crooks" in what is the funniest performance you're likely to see this year or the next. She's simply flabbergasting. Groucho Marx once said that Margaret Dumont was so good because she didn't get the jokes. May, whom Bill Murray once described as having "a major coconut on her shoulders," acts as if she doesn't get the jokes. She seems to be beaming in from some universe of her own devising, so far inside her character's addlebrained confusion that everything she says (often in a slightly slurred accent that suggests George Jessel) is funny."

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Working Together: Elaine May and Mike Nichols

LEFT: Photo by Richard Avedon, 1960, from the cover of An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May, Mercury Records 1960

Go to this post:
Four Dialogues 4: On Elaine May.
Scroll down to this album cover. Right underneath is an icon of an audio speaker, with an arrow.
Click on it.
You will hear my favorite Nichols and May recording: the two of them cracking up while working on a routine together. *

I'm intrigued with partnerships between performing artists. Or working partnerships between other artists, like the married design team of Charles and Ray Eames, but their process is not on display the way the work of musicians and comedians is. I've mentioned liking the movie Music and Lyrics: the lyricist (Drew Barrymore) and the musician (Hugh Grant) fall in love because they work so well together.

It's extra intriguing to me when the partners are not in sexual relationship with each other: without the sexual, the erotic nature of the work comes through even more clearly.
(I'm intrigued, but I haven't actually looked closely at this phenomenon, so these are working notes, not conclusions.)

I'd always assumed Nichols & May were married. Reading up this weekend, I discovered they were, but not to each other. (Whether or not they had an affair early on is beside the point--a sexual partnership was not their primary bond.)
Such intimate but not sexual pairings seem common enough in comedy duos, like Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis (Lewis even subtitles his book about the duo A Love Story), Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders... And of course, in music (John and Paul, Gilbert and Sullivan, etc.)
But how many exist between a man and a woman, I wonder? I mean, equal partnerships, like that of Nichols and May.
Brother and sister teams come to mind--Fred and Adele Astaire, Karen and Richard Carpenter.
I don't know. I'll have to research and think more on this.

Anyway, "Elaine May in Conversation with Mike Nichols"
(2006) is a great glimpse into how the two personalities interlock, even forty-plus years after they stopped working together. As I'm reading along, it becomes clear May was the dark pessimistic one and Nichols has a sunny outlook--sort of like Nimoy (dark) and Shatner (sunny). I suppose it often comes down to that old yin/yang energy balance.

Here's a good example. Elaine May is going on about how hard it is for moviemakers to get their movies shown on a big screen, and how bad and sad that is, while Nichols agrees with her but takes a much more expansive view:
MN:There’s a dozen ways to see a movie now, including on your computer or in the backseat of your car.

EM: But it’s not as good as a theater.

MN: It’s not as good as a theater, but it’s another way. And there’s something very nice about everything disintegrating, and this is certainly a time when you might say that. More things are possible.

"...there’s something very nice about everything disintegrating...."
I love this line. Probably because I've said the same thing myself.
* You can hear Nichols & May's deadpan final dish, "My Chosen Career," here, along with a lot of other audio clips.
I found that link at Isn't Life Terrible, with links to more Nichols & May clips too.
For me, glimpsing the process behind comedy is more interesting and sometimes funnier than the comedy itself. Maybe because I'm not much of a fan of stand-up comedy--I want to see the inner workings of a person, and comedy seems highly deflective.

A Smidge More Ishtar

LEFT: Elaine May, director, from her bio at the Jewish Women's Archive

So, I did indeed watch Ishtar (online at Netflix) yesterday, for the first time since it came out in 1987. And I stand by everything I wrote yesterday:
It's very funny, in parts, and it's such an un-American story--celebrating losers and bumblers, and depicting the CIA as murderous manipulators in the Middle East--I think it rubbed some people wrong. It almost feels blasphemous, or treasonous, in the refreshing way.
(Woody Allen's wonderful Broadway Danny Rose, from 1984, also celebrates schmucks, but offers no social commentary, cutting or otherwise.)

Julian Myers, in "On Elaine May", expresses a similar point of view:
"I have a theory about why critics found Ishtar so intolerable. It has to do with Top Gun, in whose wake Ishtar is meant to be a blockbuster, and Ishtar is among other things a military espionage film with requisite 1980s missiles and helicopters.
And of course Top Gun was populated by these new, healthy, phallic, charged military characters. And here are Beatty and Hoffman, these big stars, are playing talentless schmucks (here’s more Yiddish—and indeed there is a hysterical riff in Ishtar on the word ‘schmuck,’ which Beatty’s character, like Beatty a gentile, can’t pronounce properly). It drove people crazy."
The politics hold up incredibly well--you would hardly have to change a thing if you remade it today. Except the joke about Gaddafi of Libya making a pact with the USA doesn't work anymore, because that has in fact now happened.

Because the humor about the main characters, the likable loser songwriters, is itself not specific to the time, it still works too--at least for people like me. Warren Beatty comforting the suicidal Dustin Hoffman by praising him, "You'd rather have nothing than settle for less", is dear to my heart.

Interesting to realize these actors were already interconnected with May. Mike Nichols directed Hoffman in The Graduate (1967), though I don't know that May & Hoffman knew each other. Warren Beatty, who produced Ishtar, starred in Heaven Can Wait (1978), co-written by May.

And Paul Williams's and Elaine May's songs are godawfully painful, and the worst of it is, they're catchy! You can listen to them at the Ishtar site. Don't. Like those commercials Barry Manilow wrote ("you deserve a break today"), they stick in your brain, and you can't get them out.

[photo from American Masters: About Elaine May]

The songs are truly bad, and that takes some doing.
I admire original, imaginative badness.
Most bad stuff is dull and repetitive. The most common kind of bad writing is made up of cliches. There's nothing original in it at all. True badness comes from an imaginative mind. It requires a kind of genius. It's just ... bad genius. So, to make a good movie about bad genius, that's, well... that's Ishtar.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Permission to Fail

I. In Praise of Shambling

"If only we were allowed to be in shambles more, to fail more, we might all produce a body of work that has a lot of good stuff in it—even if people dismiss some of our shambles as the biggest catastrophes in movie history."
--Jill Dawsey, "On Elaine May" (2009), discussing May's movie Ishtar (1987), the famous failure that tanked May's shambling but brilliant directing career

I saw Ishtar when it came out twenty-some years ago. I loved it. The two heroes, played by Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty (left), are mediocre middle-aged songwriters. Worse than mediocre: they stink. It takes a kind of genius to be truly bad, and they have it.

(Pop-songster Paul Williams wrote the atrocious melodies, as well as some of the lyrics with May. Williams wrote the Carpenters' hit "Rainy Days and Mondays", so he was well qualified.)

In the same article, above, Julian Myers points to one of Ishtar's great moments:
"Hoffman is on the ledge considering suicide. His girlfriend, played by Carol Kane, has just left him, with the killer line, 'If you never see me again, it’ll only be one time less a week than you see me now!' Beatty’s character comes out to save him, and consoles him by saying, 'Hey, it takes a lot of nerve to have nothing at your age.'"

Instead of the American/Hollywood myth of heroes who go West and make good, these guys in Ishtar go into the wilderness (a music gig in the Middle East), get involved a CIA tangle, and come out the same musical mediocrities.
But happier. Which is, of course, a kind of success.

I remember a hysterical note to the critics' negative reviews. Not to say Ishtar's a great movie, but it's got charm and is no worse than many flawed comedy films, which tend to be spotty anyway.

Even at the time, though, when the movie came out, I thought maybe some of the rancor toward it came from how contrary it was to the popular mood.
It was 1987, the heydey of Ronald Reagan.

Right: Iraqi President Saddam Hussein shakes the hand of Donald Rumsfeld, then special envoy of President Reagan, in Baghdad on December 20, 1983. (from the National Security Archive)

Some of us might have approved of Ishtar mocking CIA meddling (at this time, the USA was supporting Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq War); but the movie also celebrates failures. Which was heresy, even to the "alternative" folks I knew, who were busy visualizing prosperity.

The '80s schtick, as I recall it, was that if you follow your bliss, you'll manifest your brilliance, or some such thing.
But what if you do what you love and you stink at it ...forever?
Who wants to watch movies about that?

II. My Shambling Life

I can't say I felt good about having nothing when I was in my twenties and saw that movie. But I didn't see any alternative that didn't involve doing stuff I really, really didn't want to do. Like get a full-time job.
It seemed my best option was to shamble along--or just to stall, like the blind camel in Ishtar that refuses to move.

I feel a lot better about it now.
When my mother killed herself seven Decembers ago, I spent many evenings sitting in the dark. Mostly stunned, but also taking stock of my life.
"I have nothing," I thought.
No career, no house, no car, no lover, no prestige...
It was weirdly freeing. Like, hey! I've succeeded: I've held out so long, the war for My Success is over. Now I can come out of the fox hole and have the place to myself.

It took a few more years before I had the emotional energy to use the freedom that comes with Nothing. It's like a "do what you want" permission slip.

Looking back at this past year, I see I really called on that freedom in making my first movies.
When I first started making Orestes and the Fly in the fall of 2008, the most misguided advice I got was that it was too ambitious for a first-time project: I was likely to fail and should start with something smaller.
But if you're already a failure, failure's not a problem!
Why not start big, if you want? And I did want.

I made sure to shore up that freedom by telling everyone that my first film was likely to be a total mess--and I meant it. Why wouldn't it be? In fact, it still surprises me that it came together at all, much less as well as it did. It's a bit of a shambles, yes, but I'm happy with it.
Happiness. That's the opposite of nothing.

III. Screwing Up [Courage]

When I was a kid, I thought it'd be great to live in a garret, be poor, and make art.
At mid-life, I live in a garret, I'm poor, and I make art.
By those standards, I'm a success.

Not to be too glib here. Having nothing is scarier when I think about getting old and sick, which feels more real since I've had some health problems this year.

And the risk of failing in public still makes me feel sick.
I've had to face that all over again with the recent herring film, which bink is almost done editing.
It's the fourth little video I've conceived of, and it's the least coherent. It was meant to be a comedy sketch, and what do I know about that? Comedy is, I think, the trickiest, most delicate art, and one I've never practiced. The raw footage shows that.
I don't see any way to learn it, though, except to do it.

Right: "Mike Nichols and Elaine May," by Richard Avedon, 1960. From the back cover of the album An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May, Mercury Records, 1960.

In a 2006 conversation between Mike Nichols and Elaine May, May said about the many mistakes she made as a first-time director (on A New Leaf),
"There’s no way to know unless someone teaches you or you screw up."

I usually opt for the "screw up" option. I don't know if the herring film will be a total shambles or not. Of course I hope bink manages to pull something charming together, but in a way, it won't matter if it's a failure. I'll make film #5 anyway.

Yeah, it does take a lot of nerve to have nothing at my age. But I trust that I'm building up a body of work--or a life--that might have some good stuff in it. Or if not--no guarantees--godwilling, I'll be happy doing it.

[So far as I can see, Ishtar still hasn't been released on DVD. Just recently, however, it's become available to watch online at Netflix. I wrote this post without having watched it again, so I'd better do that.]

Friday, December 11, 2009

Brief Encounter: Ludicrous, Laughable, Perfect

Could it be that one sign of a good film--a film with good bone structure, I mean--is that it can stand up to parody--and that people want to parody it?
Brief Encounter certainly passes that test.
Directed in 1945 by David Lean, written by Noel Coward, it's a quintessentially English film that people, including me, love, and love to mock.

The movie is a melodrama about two married people who meet at a train station, when he, a doctor, takes a piece of soot out of her, a wife and mother's, eyes. They fall in love; but for the sake of their children and spouses, they choose to part.

Half the film takes place in an enclosed train station, and most of the rest in other dark, enclosed spaces that look perpetually damp and chilly, the opposite of Lean's later Lawrence of Arabia. If the Arab shiek played by Alec Guiness had seen Brief Encounter, he wouldn't have wondered to Lawrence about the British loving the desert.

Brief Encounter is a good, almost perfect, movie--in David Mamet's sense of being constructed so that every scene serves the purpose of the whole.
And the whole movie works to serve another purpose too, to reflect the mood of the day: the elation of winning World War (falling in love) is made excruciating by the awareness that, nonetheless, you still can't have a box of chocolates. Or is that reading backwards, knowing now that continued rationing was going to keep Britain in a dark, enclosed space?

Having posted a movie poster mashup of Brief Encounter the other day, I went looking for my favorite scene in The History Boys, when two students act out the movie's end. A poor quality clip, but watchable.

(The History Boys is a sweetie of a movie--it's Alan Bennet's anti-Lord of the Flies.)

The famous (?) Eliane May & Mike Nichols's comdedy sketch of Brief Encounter in the dentist's chair isn't on youTube, but here's one of their skits about a couple parting... (Again, sorry, the quality's not great.)

And here's the movie's real ending, for compare and contrast.

Brief Encounter is such a wonderful movie, it wasn't until I watched it for the fifth time or so that I realized how ludicrous it is. But it can bear the weight of the ridiculous because there's substance underneath. You can mock the movie all you want--it deserves it--but it truly does capture the pain of doing the right thing, the utter misery of carrying on without chocolates--and surely nobility is often laughable.

I can't remember which screenwriter it was, but one of them said that he and a group of movie friends had agreed that Fred and Laura's marriage--the boring middle-class one the woman goes back to--is the only marriage on film that they could imagine still being happy and intact twenty years after the film's end.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

A Prayer for Shabbat

Where the world is dark with illness,
Let me kindle the light of healing.
Where the world is bleak with suffering,
Let me kindle the light of caring.
Where the world is dimmed by lies,
Let me kindle the light of truth.

(We prayed this Jewish prayer during Advent when I was working at the Catholic Church.)

Art by Lucinda Naylor

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Little Animal Theatre Troupe Presents True Blood

WARNING: This is funny (I think) and cute, but also sick and wrong. Not suitable for children.

OK, so, the other day, an Anonymous Friend [April 2017: it can now be revealed: it was bink] came over and was telling me she'd watched the first two episodes of a vampire show, True Blood, on the recommendation of an 18-year-old woman who loves it.
Anonymous Friend was shocked, saying the show is basically a graphically violent Harlequin Romance snuff film, starring a gentleman vampire and a telepathic virgin.

She started to tell me about it--I love when people relate the plots of stories that I don't want to read or see myself--and I said, "Wait! wait! Why don't you act it out with little animals? I'll film it!"
So she did, and I did, and here it is.

[If the video keeps stalling, click on "HD" in the lower right corner of the screen, to turn High Def off.]

I hope to get The Anonymous Friend to retell Charles Dickens's Bleak House next. It's got spontaneous human combustion!

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

365: What's "safe"?

That's me, far right (in the striped scarf and blue jeans), surreptitiously aiming my camera at the security videocam in my local McDonalds. It was about 7 p.m. last night, and I was waiting for my eggnog milkshake--only on sale at this season.

I don't think all McDs have security cameras, do they? But my neighborhood is full of economically challenged people who might get desperate for a Big Mac. I've bought a few, over the years, for people lingering outside, asking for change. They're always happy when I throw in fries too.

A while ago, on a warmer night, a brash young man stopped me on the street near my place and asked,
"Is it safe here?"
Sarcastically, "Is she safe?" gesturing back at a scared-looking pretty blonde woman in tow. Like he was demanding to know because she was being ridiculously chicken.

I was confused and asked if they were thinking of moving into the neighborhood.
No, he said, they were just looking around. It seemed he'd driven in from the 'burbs and was getting a kick out of wandering around this "bad" neighborhood, and part of the kick was dragging his girlfriend along.

I said was that it was safe enough, but they might get approached and asked if they wanted to buy or sell something (drugs or sex).

Now I wish I had told the woman that if she wasn't comfortable, she should go home, because, in fact, they could have been wearing targets:
hepped up young guy with a fight-club attitude, dragging along a terrified white girl.

I'm afraid the person she had the most to fear from, though, was this guy she was with, who thought it was fun to humiliate and control her in the guise of comforting and entertaining her.

Our Climate: The Deadly Years

Have you seen the Greenpeace posters in the Copenhagen airport, for the climate change conference that opened yesterday? Obama and Merkel here, but there are several others too.I think they got the idea from the Star Trek episode, "The Deadly Years," where the ship's officers start to age rapidly. Here's Spock and friends, working on the formula to go back in time and save Earth's polar bears.

Also time-traveling to surgically alter Mr. Obama's ears at birth. Was he born in the USA? No way, he was born on Vulcan! Like Tuvok, the Vulcan first mate on Star Trek: Voyager.

[Sorry, another image I saved long ago without noting its source. Very bad of me. I think I'll use these right away, and then they sit so long, I forget where I found them.]

Monday, December 7, 2009

What we can expect, now the UK has shut down its UFO hotline

On December 1, the UK's Ministry of Defense closed its UFO hotline, saying,
"The MoD has no opinion on the existence or otherwise of extra-terrestrial life. However, in over 50 years, no UFO report has revealed any evidence of a potential threat to the United Kingdom."
But wouldn't such a slackening in attitude be exactly what the aliens were waiting for before swooping down and eating all the scones?

[Very bad of me. I didn't save the link to where I found this mash-up poster, quite a while ago. Will hunt for it.]

While searching, came across this rather funny post:
"Top 5 Unexploited Film Sequels to Brief Encounter", none of them, however, employing UFOs (wait! there is one in the comments).

OK, can't find it, but I think it's from one of the movie mashup challenges on Went looking again and found a nice crop of stuff celebrating Steampunk instead, including this take-off (by hype) on the Turner painting I'd posted a while ago.
(Surely everyone knows? That's a Star Wars "AT-AT" vehicle stomping on the Fighting Temeraire.)

Sunday, December 6, 2009

365: Turn on the Pink Light

Still not feeling bloggy, but just to keep my hand in, here's a nod to the beautiful, glowey early evenings we've been having. Cold (20 degrees F, -6 C), but lovely for walking around and seeing what people have put on their lawns for the season. I suspect some of the people with tasteful light decor must cringe at their neighbors' musical inflatable Santas; but I like them all.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

On Shore Leave

The Captain Kirk Academy for the Pursuit of Excellence is on break this week.Spock: "After what this ship has been through in the last three months, there is not a crewman aboard who is not in need of rest. Myself excepted, of course."