Reinvention: The Journal of a Dog-Lover, Book-Reader, Moviegoer, and Writer: 02/01/2010 - 03/01/2010

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Illinois Celebrates Animal Volunteers--A Saturday Journal

Movies, current events, Olympics, and other topics for this journal are taking a back seat to animals....and you know what?  I don't mind that they have come out in front one more time!  What better way to slow down and be genuinely yourself, to reflect on the direction of one's life, than in the company of the creatures in our midst.....

For once, Illinois lawmakers have a nice bit of news, and I feel proud to be a small part of it.  It is not a loud proclamation, and I might have missed it had I not received this message from The Buddy Foundation:

"Saturday, February 27, 2010 will be proclaimed Pet Rescue Day in Illinois by Governor Pat Quinn at a ceremony at 11:30am in the Rescue section at the International Kennel Club of Chicago Show at McCormick Place in Chicago, IL. Governor Quinn is issuing this proclamation to recognize, and honor, the many, many people here in the state of Illinois that have so selflessly taken it upon themselves to rescue, foster, rehabilitate and find permanent homes for our states homeless companion animals."
I'm proud to share this proclamation with my friends from outside of Illinois....even fellow residents who might otherwise have been unaware, like me.  I will be unable to attend the ceremony, as I am looking after my "regular" charge, Shayna the Border Collie.  Apparently, there are a number of rescue organizations represented at the Dog Show this weekend, along with Dog Clubs and hundreds of specific breeders.

Of course, this being Illinois, even a good-hearted and uplifting proclamation to recognize animal-lovers and caregivers is shadowed by politics and controversyGovernor Quinn's Republican rival Bill Brady is pushing to introduce a law that will allow any particular facility to euthanize companion animals in groups.  The current lawlets only one animal to be euthanized in a facility at a time.  The story has it that Brady's Senate district operates an animal gas chamber, in which it can take up to 30 minutes for an animal to die.  Quinn strategically publicized this issue, and plans to attend the show himself today.

All the more reason to champion those that seek to care for homeless animals.  We have a long way to go to create a world where no healthy animal need lose its life for want of a loving home.

Please enjoy the following quotes.  If you are able, consider saving an animal.  To those of you who were able, and did, my sincere friendship, and gratitude:

"I think how we treat our animals reflects how we treat each other ... And it's very important that we have a president who is mindful of the cruelty that is perpetrated on animals ..."~Barack Obama President Elect USA

"If there are no dogs in Heaven, then when I die I want to go where they went." ~Will Rogers

"We can judge the heart of a man by his treatment of animals." ~Immanuel Kant

"Animals cannot speak, but can you and I not speak for them and represent them? Let us all feel their silent cry of agony and let us all help that cry to be heard in the world." ~Rukmini Devi Arundale

"I am only one, but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something; and because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do something I can do." ~Edward Everet Hale~

"I looked at all the caged animals in the shelter...the cast-offs of human society. I saw in their eyes love and hope, fear and dread, sadness and betrayal. And I was angry. "God," I said, "this is terrible! Why don't you do something?" God was silent for a moment and then He spoke softly. I have done something," He replied. "I created you." ~The Animals' Savior Copyright Jim Willis 1999

Thursday, February 25, 2010

A Sled Dog, And A Whale...An Animal Journal for Thursday

Animals figured prominently in today's news, bearing witness to the indisputable beauty and tragedy of nature.

My favorite segment on last evening's Olympic Games (and re-broadcast on this morning's Today Show) was a feature about Isobel, a nine-year-old Siberian Husky-malamute mix.  Isobel was a sled dog who lived to run, and who went blind several years ago.  Her retinas detached sometime during a race, the possible result of a virus.  Isobel's veterinarian told her owners, Gerald Azure and Jenafor Ollander, that she may never again be able to work as a sled dog.  They tried to keep her indoors and make her life comfortable away from the sled, but Isobel, deprived of her passion, became derpressed, and stopped eating and drinking. 

Soon, they allowed Isobel to run again with her pack, placing her in the sled team to compete once more.  Isobel came alive once again in the company of the pack members she loved.  Now, years later, Isobel will retire.  Watch her inspiring story in the following video...

My first dog when I was a small child was Bonnie,  a lovely Collie-Shepherd puppy that I will never foget.  She was so easy to train.  When we let her outside she found her spot, and then ran back inside.  At the word "treat",  she would scamper to the kitchen cabinet and sit up for a biscuit. 

Not yet a year old, her eyes quickly glazed over until they were completely blue.  Bonnie had gone blind.  I thought of Bonnie while I watched Isobel's story.  Many people at the time believed that it was cruel to keep a blind dog, and recommended that Bonnie be put down.  Even though, sightless, she could still find her spot, and still beg next to the cabinet for a treat, we eventually took her in to the vet for her final sleep.....

Since then I have known and cared for blind dogs.  Isobel's story produced in me the same guilt and uncertainty I felt for years after Bonnie entered and then quietly left my life.  At the same time, I was warmed by the beauty of Isobel's triumph, which alleviated my characteristic annual Winter Blues considerably. 

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Dawn Brancheau, an experienced trainer who understood the dangers of her job, was killed by a killer whale at the SeaWorld Shamu Stadium in Orlando, Fla., on Wednesday. (Julie Fletcher/Orlando Sentinel/Associated Press)

The news about the death of a veteran trainer at Sea World while working with a Tillikum, a Killer Whale, unsettled me.  I could not pin down my thoughts, which spun wildly from one assumption to another. I will try my best to organize my thoughts, and feelings, here....

We call them Killer Whales because they are fearsome, maybe to give ourselves a sense of accomplishment or dominance at having tamed a beast, maybe to exploit our fears of---and our thirst for---danger.  Then, when the ultimate danger occurs, we become indignant, or don't understand...

There were many calls to release the whale, or put it to death.  I cannot be sure but I suspect the whale did not act out of viciousness.   It was a horrible mistake.  The whale was behaving according to its nature.  Sea World officials will not turn Tillikum loose because it can no longer survive on its own in the wild; and it will not euthanize the whale because it is part of the community of whales at Sea World.

I agree with the decision of the Sea World staff.  I think of one of the dogs at the Buddy Foundation, Harley, a solid brown pit bull, who, through the carelessness of one of the volunteers, began to fight with another dog.  Another volunteer, trying to untangle the dogs, was bitten, and required 25 stitches.

Many would advocate euthanizing the dog.  But the dog acted according to blind instinct.  Harley and Tillikum alike are sheltered in their respective homes.  We could not turn Harley loose to fend for himself.  He cannot be adopted either, so the shelter is the only home he will have. 

At Sea World, the orca shows will be suspended in order to re-evaluate their safety and practicality. I support this too.  Killer Whales should be studied in safe and controlled environments, and it serves litttle purpose to exploit them by teaching them unnatural tricks for human entertainment.  I would feel the same about making Harley the main attraction in a show featuring dog tricks.....

I feel so sorry for the trainer who lost her life.... And at the same time I cannot see placing any burden of responsibility on the creature who caused the death.

The Oscar Ten--A Wednesday Movie Journal

The first thing I did this summer when I heard that Oscar would nominate ten Best Pictures, was to research why the Academy went from 10 down to 5 nominees back in 1944.  I figured that if I understood the Academy's rationale then, for narrowing the field, then maybe there is some precedent in tradition to explain why the field has been widened.

I went on the AMPAS web site, and looked at various critics' blogs, all to no avail.  That's right, not even the Academy's web site had archival information about the accepted numbers of nominees.

Based on what  knew about the movie business, I speculated that, since one consequence of television was a reduction in the number of films that Hollywood produced, it made sense that with lack of volume came a reduced number of quality pictures per studio.  With less revenue coming from fewer pictures, studios could promote fewer movies for Oscar consideration. 

BULETIN: Today, I got a news feed from a blogger who addressed this topic.  Katherine Lee of made these observations:

Ten nominees for Best Picture, really, Academy? Are you seriously saying the caliber of all these movies was so stellar this year you couldn’t narrow it down to five? Why not call it what it is: A gimmick to get people to buy more tickets to see more movies. Because otherwise, the only reason I can come up with is sheer laziness.
The last time 10 films were nominated for Best Picture was 1944, the year of “Song of Bernadette,” the front-runner, and “Casablanca,” the dark horse that ended up winning. The number of films was reduced to five the following year because the Oscars were broadcast live on TV for the first time and was running into the early hours of the morning.

It comes as no surprise that TV may have been instrumental in the rule change in1944 as it is in 2010.  To me, it is an interesting commentary on the evolution of the Oscars and the Academy's attempt to reinvent itself.

I agree with Lee's assertion that the additional nominees will drive movie fans to see five additional films in order to fully participate in the festivities, enter the conversation, and, even, wager intelligently in the office pools. 

So with the Oscar telecast promoting even more movies, the industry box-office bottom line should improve.

Ironically, the wider field of contenders has as much to do with the Annual Broadcast as it does with the movie awards.  The most frequent rationale I have heard for expanding the field this year goes something like this:  "Last year, 'The Dark Knight' was not nominated for Best Picture, but would have been if there were additional slots in the category.  By expanding the list of nominees for Best Picture, it is likely that more popular or genre films will be cited, thus the Television Event will see higher ratings (because the ratings for The Show increase with the popularity of the nominated films.)"  If viewers tune out, then the Oscars lose their relevance.....  And so, it's a matter of survival for AMPAS. 

Therefore it appears that the Academy has as much at stake in the ratings for the Oscar Show as it does in recognizing great achievements in filmmaking. 

My question is this:  How could the Academy be sure its theory would work in practice?  Unless there was some unspoken appeal to voters, in their complicated nomination ballots, to include some "populist" titles among the ten (meaning, films that no one would have ever considered significantly Best-Picture-worthy.) 

How else to account for titles like "District 9" and "The Blind Side" in the running?  Or even "Up", an astonishing film, perhaps my favorite of the ten, so likely to win in the Animated Film category that its mention among Best Picture contenders is almost a wasted nomination?

In any other year, if there were still just five Best Picture contenders, this year's nominees might have exactly matched the Best Director nominees: "Avatar", "Hurt Locker", "Inglourious Basterds". "Precious", and "Up In The Air".  So how was the Academy so sure that the remaining five slots would not go to critically praised but less popular pictures like "A Single Man"? "Broken Embraces"? "The White Ribbon"? "500 Days of Summer"?  "Capitalism: A Love Story"? 

(Although Foreign Language films still have an antiquated category of their own, it has not been unusual for oscar to recognize foreign films as Best Picture nominees:  "Grand Illusion", "Z", "The Emigrants", "Cries and Whispers", "Il Postino", "Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon", "Life is Beautiful", even two hours worth of "The Godfather, Part II".)

But, that's Hollywood, the world capital of illusion, and spinner of dreams....   In an upcoming post I'll handicap this category, and a few others.  HINT: A lot of artificial suspense has been created in order to maintain interest in the Show, and ensure high ratings.  I think the winners will be the same front-runners we expected since the Golden Globes in January....I hope my readers will weigh in and prove this theory wrong.....

The boy in me, the one who fell in love with Oscar so long ago, is giddy for some upsets...and I have my favorites....

Monday, February 22, 2010

A Shelter Happy Ending--So Why Am I So Sad?--Monday Journal

Those who have followed me here for the last month have learned of my new volunteer effort at The Buddy Foundation, a dog and cat adoption shelter, in Arlington Heights, Illinois.

I work a regular shift on Tuesdays, feeding and walking the shelter dogs.

I love 'em all, but developed a special bond with Cassie, a Beagle (mixed, I think, with a drop of Bloodhound). Cassie was sheltered in the very last pen, and usually curled herself on the round bed provided. She was gentle as I placed food and water in her cage, and allowed me to pet her long ears while she placed her paws on my forearms.

Docile as she was, she was a bullet on a leash, dashing and dragging me left and right, quickly through the snow, sniffing all she could take in; her pent up energy propelled her and forced me to laughingly run along and hang on for dear life.

I was ready to take her home myself, but circumstances were not right just yet.  I was ready to believe that Maggie, my sweet departed basset hound, looked at me through Cassie's eyes, and approved of my choice of Cassie as my favorite dog in the shelter.

Cassie was just adopted.  I am happy she has found a home...Happy someone will love her....  Happy she will have a yard to roam, a world of scents to explore, a real bed, a real home.  And, sentimental as I am, I can't seem to keep my eyes dry.  I will miss that little girl with my whole heart.   

Johnny Weir Elicits Mysogynist Comments from Canadian Journalists:---A Monday Journal

A couple of days ago, I found an article about two sportscasters in Montreal who made what could kindly be called politically incorrect statements about American Olympic Figure skater Johnny Weir.  You can read the brief article by clicking this link.  Below is a brief excerpt:

The remarks came during an RDS (a Montreal French-language sports channel) Olympic broadcast of the men's figure skating competition.

(Veteran sportscaster) Claude Mailhot, a former provincial assistant deputy minister, and (veteran sportscaster) Alain Goldberg, were discussing the skating of Johnny Weir, the flamboyant 23-year-old and three -time U.S. champion .
"This may not be politically correct," Mailhot said during the segment, in which Weir, who is known for his extravagant performances and fashion flair, was shown sporting a semi-sheer, pink-and-black costume he designed himself.
"But do you think he lost points due to his costume and his body language?"

Goldberg replied that Weir's feminine style may reflect badly on other male figure skaters.

"They'll think all the boys who skate will end up like him," he said. "It sets a bad example."

Homophobic, yes.  But at the root of it is, I think, an even more troubling attitude that is so ingrained in many cultures that it would seem impossible to eradicate it even after generations: sexism.

Gender roles and behaviors are so ingrained into a culture...the reasons why many are uncomfortable with effeminate men are complex. In essence it involves long-held biases against women... and the things that a culture holds in high esteem.
If we lived in a matriarchal society it might be different. As it is, we instinctively react with distaste to feminine men because we don't value so-called feminine qualities, preferring traditionally "masculine" characteristics, like strength. (That's why men typically are not so offended by women who behave in more acceptably masculine fashion.)
Maybe these are based on some kind of instinct for survival...I need to read more....
We automatically expect a certain mode of speech, movement, dress, etc., and resent those that breach the "unspoken" social contract. In some cultures, anyway, it is especially difficult on those for whom "gentle" characteristics come naturally....
On the other hand, there is a reaction against affectation, too, which is easier to understand.... in other words, a studied attempt by some gay men to assume the characteristics of the opposite gender as a signal of one's sexual preference, meant as an affront, or a show of some kind of superiority, and that raises people's ire. Often that is the point... Often it is a defense mechanism, which is misinterpreted by the mainstream.
It is complicated, and tangled.  It's also a little pathetic and laughable, the idea that young males can be "influenced" into a sexual preference.  Like Harvey Milk had once said during a public discussion of whether gay teachers could "turn" students gay, if teachers had that kind of influence, then Catholic schools would be churning out a whole lot more nuns.
I have simplified all of this.  But it makes sense to me that aversion to effeminacy is a cultural aversion to female characteristics.  Maybe by looking deep into oneself and acknowledging this possibility, it might be easier to see a photo like this without having an instictive uncomfortable reaction.  Then it becomes easier to accept others openly and without resentment, fear, or malice.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Unsporting: Olympic Musings--A Sunday Journal

While the Olympic competitions are still compelling and worth a look, it appears that the media's coverage has slipped once again into xenophobia.  American audiences are assumed to have no interest in athletes from other lands, and American coverage panders to the taste for celebrity and  medal count that the media themselves have created.

I have a couple of short takes, then, on trends and stories that have given me pause.....


I suppose many Americans take comfort in American domination at the Olympics.  It is an artificial comfort, as though our victories on the world's playing fields signifies that all is well at home, if not necessarily in the world. The attention to medal count takes away from the pure sport, art and competition of the games.... But, for some, the medal count is the whole point.....

As of this moment, according to the latest tally supplied by NBC, the latest count for the top three medal-winning teams is thus:

Team USA-24; Team Germany:-18.  Team Norway-12.

I am not a whiz at math, but my intuition tells me that the more athletes a nation has on its team, the more total medals the team is likely to win.  It wouldn't make sense for Kenya, with its one team member, to have tallied more than 24 medals....but that's just my simple way of seeing things.

There's another way to interpret this.  As a percentage of total athletes in competition, the medal standings are thus:

Team US- 215 Athletes: 11%;  Team Germany--152 Athletes: 11%;  Team Norway--100 Athletes: 12%.
Team Netherlands so far won only 5 medals, but wih only 34 athletes in competition, that's a 14% ratio of medals to competitors.

My point is that I want to ignore the importance of the final medal tally, because it's an inaccurate measure of the strength of a team. 

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I always thought that the judging for the Olympic Figure Skating Competitions has been subjective; but that is only because I don't have knowledge of the nuances the judges seek, nor do I understand the tally process. 
It is not entirely subjective, I assume; there must be some universally accepted criteria for assigning excellence, on top of which, criteria like the judge's personal preference and artistic interpretation round out a final score.  (It is, in many ways, like film criticism....subjectivity applied to accepted criteria that are recognized in the art and industry of criticism.)

The final scoring in figure skating can be assumed to be somewhat arbirtrary, but with a good foundation in basics.  Therefore it is fruitless to try to argue a judging panel's opinion.  Worse yet is when "controversy" is manufactured by media in order to set up a false sense of competition between nations. So it was when America's Evan Lysecek earned Gold at last Thursday's competition, leaving Russia's Evgeni Plushenko, the "favorite",  to "settle" for Silver.

To me, there was no controversy beyond that which the media tried desperately to create....journalists must really miss the Cold War.....   I heard one news-reader say that Russia was "protesting" the decision.  My curiosity about that remarkable statement made me listen on, wondering if a formal complaint was lodged.  However, I simply fell for the bait.  No protest was made other than the reactions of a high-profile Russian skater whose "belligerence" could have been a misinterpretation of cultural differences in behavior, even a reaction to the baiting of journalists, as it could have been  literally a mis-interpreted statement.  Luckily, Lysecek graciously sidestepped the debate, and made low-key, non-threatening statements.  I hope this"fight" has been laid to rest.

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In my next post, I will examine a troubling dialogue by a pair of sports journalists in Montreal over American Figure Skater Johnny Weir, and my assertion that fear of effeminacy in males is due to a more fundamental and disturbing aspect of our culture.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Oscar 2010: My Actor of the Year

With only two weeks to go before the inevitable bestowing of the Academy Awards,  it's time to weigh in on the Oscar films of 2009.  With a month since the announcement of the nominations to provide the proper perspective, this writer, who for most of his life was obsessed with the Academy Awards, will offer opinions on the expanded field of ten Best Picture nominees, discuss the likely winners and rationale for predictions, and the long-promised personal anecdote of the Oscar night in which I truly hated Oscar, and almost gave up on film altogether.  (There....End of Coming Attractions!)

Again, time and perspective, plus the fact that I am essentially a forgiving person, have brought me back to the fold, perhaps not as blindly accepting of the Oscar seal of approval, and certainly more cynical and jaded, but once again interested in Oscar's latest trends, and hoping that my personal favorites are held up for recognition and rightly preserved in the history books.

Much of my cynicism is due to the middling quality of movies in general, and the notion that even mediocre work must be trotted out every year for recognition before it fades again into relative obscurity, the record books notwithstanding.

(Quick Trivia Question: Sing last year's Oscar-Winning Best Song.)

I used to jump on the bandwagon for a front-running movie, even one I could not admit to myself I didn't like, in order to feel like I had a place at the party.  It's poignant in a way, how certain films are championed with such urgency, and praised as though the future of the art of filmmaking were held in the balance, only to be somewhat forgotten as we follow the next year's flavor of the day.

Somehow, (and again time will tell), I believe that a lot of the Oscar-winners of the last decade (quick: name the Best Picture Winners since 2000) will never be regarded with the same affection as the classics of 20, 30 or more years before. 

But still....

Even though I am pretty sure I can tell you this year's winners without watching the show, I still hope for a surprise that will send me out of my chair cheering, as when "Annie Hall" was named Best Picture, or Daniel Day Lewis for Best Actor in "My Left Foot", or Sean Penn for "Milk", or "Il Postino" or "The Red Violin" for Original Score.....  Really, the Oscars are like a slot machine....we keep playing, and putting up with lemons,  in order to experience those rare moments of triumph.

And so, I will be out of my seat once again this year if Colin Firth, a decidedly dark horse for Best Actor, is called to the stage.  I truly lament that the expanded field of Best Picture nominees afforded no space for "A Single Man".   And Firth, great as he is, seems to have very little momentum.

However, I just learned that Firth won best Actor from the London Film Critics Circle, so perhaps there is a glimmer of support for his truly emotional and accomplished work.  (You can, if you like, read my full appreciation of his performance in my review or "A Single Man".)

So, this is my way to pay tribute to an actor in a film which captured my imagination, spoke the language of my own heart, thrilled me with its writing and visual realization, helped me learn about myself and my life through the characters expertly played on the screen, gave me aesthetic pleasure, and inspired me creatively.  These are what I look for in a movie.  Enjoy the following clip, and I hope it encourages you to see this great film.

(By the way, if you've finished the last verse of "Jai Ho", try any one of this year's song nominees.)

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Roger Ebert, And My Lost Film Journal---A Story of Reinvention

Today on our Chicago Public Radio station WBEZ, Eight Forty-Eight featured an interview with Canadian journalist Chris Jones, who just published a profile of Chicago's own film critic Roger Ebert.  Ebert has written reviews for the Chicago Sun-Times since 1968, and pioneered the Television Movie-Critic format with crosstown colleague and rival Gene Siskel in "At The Movies"/"Siskel and Ebert".

This is a brief but essential interview, and the Esquire article is required reading for any film-lover, especially if you have followed Ebert's career in Chicago or on the National stage through his TV appearances and numerous books.

Ebert has suffered the effects of cancer, and the near-fatal operations he endured to remove his thyroid, salivary glands, and jaw.  He can no longer speak, eat or drink, but his "voice" has not been silenced.  Roger still writes, and watches and reviews movies. He has developed various methods of sign language and technology-aided communication.

I agonized when I saw a current photo of Ebert used in the Esquire article.  The ravages of his illness and "treatments" have rendered him so strange to my image of him as a witty, often contentious, always enthusiastic proponent of the movies, that I actually denied that it was him, as though I were in the first angry stages of mourning. 

I grew up in Chicago and followed both Siskel and Ebert in the Tribune and Sun-Times since childhood (until Siskel's untimely death on February 20, 1999).  Since we subscribed to Tribune delivery, I soon became a proponent of Siskel, and thought of Ebert as the "other" home team, the way a Cub fan regards a Sox fan.  I was less familiar with Ebert at first, but soon payed closer attention to him as I read more, and as I watched a local PBS series, hosted by Ebert, on the movies of Ingmar Bergman.

By the time their TV show aired, they were well-known Chicago celebrities on the brink of national stardom.  I still recall Siskel's walrus-mustache (a '70's relic) and Ebert's portly figure, each occupying a seat in the theater balcony, screening clips, and squaring off on the latest releases, often arguing bitterly, but just as often speaking from the same side of the aisle.  If they liked a film it was regarded as a must-see; if they both hated a film (I remember a notoriously venomous review of "I Spit on Your Grave") it was universally reviled.

Ebert's recent story inspired me to remember an anecdote from my early days as a budding film critic.

I was in what used to be called Junior High School, barely twelve years old, and my passion for the movies was all-consuming.  My heroes did not spar on playing fields, but stared in wonder (or skepticism) at lighted screens, and did their battles on typewriters in newspaper offices.  Siskel and Ebert were my immediate role models.

I kept a notebook, spiral, with a blue cover, of reviews of every movie I saw, at a theater, on television, or in English class.  I never missed a review.  I tried to sound like whomever critic I had just finished reading, and emulated words, phrases, sarcasm, and hyperbole. I turned this notebook in to my teacher every Friday for extra writing credit.  I always got helpful feedback on my word choices, or awkward phrases, and loved the praise I might receive for a well-crafted, nicely built review.

I wanted to do this for a living, some day.  I wanted to be, if not a supreme filmmaker, then a renowned critic.

One Monday, after having written almost 100 reviews that year, my teacher approached me quietly and told me he lost my notebook..looked everywhere....and apologized once, and started the day's class.  I never saw my old reviews again, nor did I ever hear any other explanation for the loss, or any attempts to locate the notebook.

While I continued on my soaring love for the movies, I stopped writing as conscientiously, as passionately, as regularly as before.  Call it discouragement,shock, resentment, laziness.....I let it slip by.

Now, as I have begun to publicly offer my reviews on these pages, and receive kind and helpful feedback from my readers, I wonder if I am re-discovering something true, doing what I was meant to do, reinventing something that was half-invented and abandoned. 

My relationship to Ebert as a reader and a fan can be described as one of angry love.  I respected his writing so much that I resented how often I disagreed with him. I  disliked his wrong-headed opinions, his prejudices, and his influence. I might have identified with him more than other critics, as I could see myself living his career.  I also loved him for his wit and style and focus, and his utter joy at doing what I also loved to do...see and write about the movies.. The love  triumphed...I daydreamed that I was his surrogate Siskel. 

Roger accepts that his life is precarious, and is choosing to invent a new universe for himself to overcome his bleak physical prognosis. I am at a crossroads, and am attempting to create a new life while not abandoning a good foundation.  While the scope of our losses cannot be compared, both affected our  lives on some level.  Ebert is taking his losses in stride and continuing to do what he loves.  I have made peace with my never-to-be-found writing of my youth, and am discovering, in earnest, what I love now.

A story of reinvention, inspired by two guys, boyhood heroes of mine, who duked it out At the Movies.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

An Award-Winner!! A Dog-Gone Tuesday Journal

Move over, Oscar contenders!  Out of the way, all you Olympic hopefuls.  Your moments will soon come.

Tonight, an honor was bestowed on one who merely showed up, and did nothing but be herself.  There was no Acceptance Speech.  No production numbers.  I can imagine, with amusement, the Red Carpet needing to be sent to the cleaners right afterward...And the Nominees Lunch becoming an anarchy of snuffling, licking, howling and chewing....

I'm talking, of course, about the Dogs of Westminster

A victory we all feel good about because it's so pure, and for the winner there is no value other than the sheer joy of appearing..  Among the losers, there is no animosity.  But then, how could any of them have lost?  They are noble, one and all.

Congratulations to the winner of Best in Show at the Westminster Dog Show in New York:   Sadie, the Scottish Terrier...

And since it's an honor just to be nominated, a tribute list of the other Breed Winners:

GROUP WINNERS (listed by their AKC names)

Hound – a Whippet named Starline's Chanel

Toy – a Toy Poodle named Smash JP Moon Walk

Herding – a Puli named Cordmaker Field Of Dreams

Sporting – a Brittany Spaniel named Willowick Talltean

Non-Sporting – a French Bulldog named Robobull Fabelhaft Im On Fire

Terrier – a Scottish Terrier named Roundtown Mercedes Of Maryscot (Sadie)

Working - a Doberman Pinscher named Allure Blazing Star Alisaton

Monday, February 15, 2010

Condescending "The Blind Side" Confirms the Mediocrity of Oscar

"The Blind Side" is "Precious" for polite society.  For those who avoided "Precious" because its grim reality is too uncomfortable, too depressing, "The Blind Side" tells a similar story, but it's sanitized, cleaned up, and a viewer can feel virtuous, just like the character played by Sandra Bullock.  In other words, it's a movie that may find its appeal among (to paraphrase a foul line of dialogue from the movie), people who don't know any Democrats or who would not have a black person in their home. But whereas "Precious" kept its main character rooted in her urban environment and forced us to accompany her on her hellish odyssey of survival, "The Blind Side" supplants its protagonist, the real-life pro-football player Michael Oher, into the white-bread suburban landscape of upper-middle-class Memphis, to be saved by heroic whites.  

Oher is an oversized innocent, a refugee from the inner-city and a drug-addicted mother, who has been passed from school to school and between foster homes, and winds up at a private Christian school at the urging of the school custodian who is a friend of his family.  Actor Quentin Aaron begins by playing Oher passively; I thought at first the character was dim-witted.   Bullock, as Leigh Anne Tuohy, wife of a local Taco Bell Mogul (Tim McGraw) and mother of two (Lily Collins and the jaw-droppingly annoying Jae Head), takes in this gentle giant, and goes through the predictable motions toward his eventual stardom on the football field: shopping for clothes with him, giving him his first bed, hiring him a tutor, and wheeling and dealing to get him a college football scholarship.  I have
not read the original (true) story on which this is based, but Leigh Anne's complete obliviousness to the plight of inner city youth streched my suspension of disbelief.  (And when she visited Big Mike's mother, I kept hearing Mo'Nique's ferocious growl in my head.)

Although based on a true story, the movie treats Oher like an alien---he's "ET" from a strange land dropped into a suburban surrounding: slow, tentative, dependent, and with a specific ability to protect and save his team, or his caretakers.  It's a condescending treatment, and Aaron remains fairly passive throughout.  I wondered how black audiences would sit for this film (the audience at the theater I attended was all-white, and responding loudly, joyfully).  Big Mike cannot respond to the prodding of his coach, but listens like a loyal pet to Bullock's instructions. He is yawning, bored, as Bullock's young son speaks on his behalf for a parade of college coaches (even borrowing a line from "Jerry McGuire").   When Bullock's character reads the children's book "Ferdinand the Bull" to her son and this hulking adolescent in her bed, I expected viewers to giggle in nervous embarrassment.....but viewers are respecftfully buying-in to this condescension.

Sandra Bullock is all pluck and perk and high-minded resolve.  She's Erin Brockovich by way of "Crash".  While Bullock does what she can with the character as written, she never has an opportunity to soar.  Her work here is serviceable but not extraordinary.  I cannot understand the heaps of praise for her performance; I assume it's a matter of audiences identifying (or wanting to identify) with her character's selflessness. Still, during the emotional climax, when Bullock is required to threaten her charge with castration if he impregnates a girl in college, one is at a loss to work up any feeling for the character, or the perfomance. 

Bullock has her Kate Hepburn "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" confrontation with her ignorant friends, and stands up to the thugs in her search for Michael, and shows pride as she bulldozes everyone around her; and her recklessness is meant to be applauded.  Football is held up as a virtuous institution with the power of salvation.  Family values are worn like a badge, and there are no other black faces except in the poor side of town.  Attending this movie is like the worst aspects of living in the suburbs; you soon have the uncomfortable feeling that a lot is being assumed about you, and you are powerless to protest, unless you move away (or flee the theater).

As far as Academy Award Best Picture material, I have seen movies I have liked less that have received a nomination ("Midnight Express", anyone?) or even won the award (just about all the winning films since 2005), but I have rarely seen any that have been so baldly manipulative, so lackluster and mediocre.  But it knows its audience, and how to push that audience's buttons, and the film has been rewarded with huge box office success. Sitting there, I felt as though I were the alien.

Notwithstanding my general dislike for this movie, I did find a few redeeming qualities.  Tim McGraw was a natural in his role as Bullock's husband, and held the screen without grandstanding.  Aaron, after he is given the opportunity to function as an intelligent sentient person, handles his emerging gratitude and confusing anger quite well.  I enjoyed a subplot that hinted at romantic feelings between Mike and Bullock's daughter (which I suspect was scissored out after test screenings); and Bullock herself on occasion overcomes the material in some fine quiet moments.

On the whole, though, this Hollywood-ized premise was hard to swallow; so in order to alleviate our cinematic indigestion, Mark and I immediately followed up with a second screening of "A Single Man", which hit us like a sweet and crystalline symphony of technique and intelligence.  Nothing was lost in the repeat viewing.  It redeemed our afternoon.

Earlier this year I held on to the image of a stylish photo of Meryl Streep with Colin Firth in Oscar's winner's circle, a throwback to the glamour that was the original appeal of the Oscars.  I am afraid that image has changed, and instead of glamour, we'll have a stock-car winners circle, if front-runners Jeff Bridges and Sandra Bullock prevail.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Joni Mitchell, The Opening Ceremonies, and a Moment of Grace

Many of Canada's most treasured musical artists were represented at last night's Olympic Opening Ceremonies.  In particular, k.d. lang's interpretation of Leonard Cohen's "Alleluia" was a lovely and powerful collaboration between an effortless voice crying out a haunting, emotional, poetic tune. 

During the program a thought occurred:  how fitting it would be if another of Canada's musical treasures, Joni Mitchell, had been invited to perform.  Almost at that moment, as the wonderful young aerialist and √ącole nationale de cirque student, Thomas Saulgrain, began to run, and then "fly", over golden fields, the arena was filled with Joni's deep, resonant, mature voice,with a song she had written and performed 40 years before, "Both Sides Now". 

It came together in a performance of such delicacy: the benevolent voice and sweeping orchestra, conferring a benediction on all, a fitting tribute to the stark beauty of the Canadian landscape, to the eager purity of the solo young performer, and to the athlete whose life had been cut short. 

The lyrics are perfection....visionary...a girl's innocent contemplation of clouds; a budding young lady and her thoughts on love; and the mature woman's wise and world-weary look back on life. Three phases of life are condensed in a poem of great efficiency and imagery.  There is the reassuring acceptance of the possibility that what we know may be an illusion after all, and that we always have a lot more to learn.  

I have included two video versions of  Joni Mitchell performing her masterpiece.  First, in 1970, the girlish woman showing promise as a mature writer and performer:

The second video is the version heard at the Opening Ceremonies, Joni's live performance in 2007, a venerable artist in complete command of her craft and her audience, giving an entirely appropriate, melancholy yet hopeful rendition of the song before an appreciative crowd.

I have nothing but admiration for her talent with words and melodies, her intimate delivery, and her consummate understanding of the human heart and the world around her.  More than any other contemporary artist, Joni Mitchell makes me feel better about myself and my capacity as a creative human being.

Her accompaniment of that young man at the Opening Ceremonies was, in itself, a perfection, a beauty, a pure moment filled with grace.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Vancouver Olympic Kickoff--Friday Journal

A few thoughts tonight about the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.  I feel an excitement this year that I have not sensed surrounding the Games for a very long time.....

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I expect a huge audience for tonight's Olympic Opening Ceremonies, continuing a trend I have recently observed. Lately, the big TV specials, like the the Golden Globes and the Grammy Awards,  and the Super Bowl with its historic ratings, are commanding big viewership. I wonder--is it because we are feeling our isolation, lost as we are in all of the many technologies that allow us to "connect", without having to see or touch a real human being, our gazes fixed as they are on our electronic screens?  Are we craving a shared experience more than ever, to deal with the sobering events of the world, and a future so difficult to predict?  Is it just an extreme case of cabin fever after a punishing winter across the country?

If any event is worthy of attention, able to provide a pure community experience we can share with friends and strangers the world over, the Olympic Games is it, giving us a focal point for our need to reach out and enthuse over the efforts of eager, talented people.  Winners win and take the stage, losers are not voted out of the village, or humiliated by a disinterested celebrity judge.  Except for the occasional brass of media intrusion, it is a pleasure to stand with people from other lands, some of which we grow up believing are hostile to us, and yet we feel relieved,  blessedly free of animosity.

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Of course there is a sense of pride in the home team.  We thrill to the athletic competition, and there is a feeling of fellowship in that....Only the media tend to frame the Games in terms of rivalry, in which it is our patriotic duty to take sides, to pay more attention to the gold medal count and to manufactured celebrity, instead of allowing viewers to 
breathe, and enjoy a rare feeling of personal connection to athletes of many countries.  Team America has my admiration, but not to the exclusion of the other teams; so this time I want to learn more about the unique indivduals from around the world, and their stories. Maybe the networks will find the time or inclination to enrich their coverage in this way  .

The Olympic Web Site provides excellent information about all of the events, competitions, and best of all, the athletes and the countries represented in the competition.

For example, I'm looking forward to learning more about the following:

--The six athletes from Iran, all in skiing competitions, one of whom is female(the story of her achievement, and her experience as a woman traveling with a predominantly male team from a male-centric culture, could be interesting);

--The lone young man representing Pakistan in the Alpine Skiing competition; 

--Chinese Taipei (Taiwan's) sole team member in the Luge event, and how his little contingent had to negotiate, or capitulate, to mainland China (for example, the flag they were "allowed" to carry during the parade of countries);

--The tiny country of Andorra managing to pull together a team of six, in Alpine Skiing and Snowboarding;

--India's Luge team member, Shiva Keshavan, who almost missed his fourth Olympic Games because his sled broke during practice, and how the Supreme Court of India personally contributed about $10,000 to replace it;

--The Games' oldest athlete, from Mexico, Hubertus von Hohenlohe, 51 years old, an Alpine skiier.

There are many more.

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Nodar Kumaritashvili, a Luge competitor from Georgia, was killed in a practice run.  He was 21 years old. The camaraderie of the world's young athletes was sealed with this tragedy.  In his or her own way, each athlete's competition will be dedicated to Nodar.  We will hear more soon about the excessive speed of the track.  For now, a cloud will hover over the Games.

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Does anyone feel like holding back a bit from the celebration, knowing that half a world away, Haitians are still suffering?  Are we uncomfortable that the story of the earthquake has faded, and is in danger of being ignored, in favor of the two-week competition and party that is the Olympics?

Thankfully, there is a connection between the Haitian Relief Effort and the Olympic games.  At tonight's Opening Ceremonies, plans were underfoot to premier the new version of "We Are The World", recorded just after the Grammy Awards, with the video directed by Paul Haggis, and with the participation of musicians contemporary and classic.  "All proceeds from "We Are the World" singles and video sales will go to the newly formed charity We Are the World Foundation LLC and will then be distributed to Haiti relief efforts"...

(Postscript:  I missed this segment of the show, and will seek the video on line tomorrow. I  have noticed mixed reactions on-line so far, so I am anxious to see it for myself. ).


Various Musings From The Heart

Sometimes I get caught up in the details of everyday living and don't realize that I've stayed the course in my quest for reinvention.

Although it appears that I have dwelled on the past in many of my latest posts, it's often nice--and always essential--to see where one has been, and how one's life has been useful, to understand what new ways we can continue to be so, to maintain one's integrity, and continuity, and still be something new, in a world that won't sit still.

As much as I have truly enjoyed creating these posted items and working on getting the words and visuals just right, I have also enjoyed reading and commenting on many of my friends who have done some great work on their blogs, and have kindly noticed and encouraged my efforts. 

I thank you, once again!

Tonight I'm taking a breather from a focused topic, on my way to more substantial writing over the weekend and next week.

 In the days ahead I will be working on some posts that I'm anxious to share with my readers:

  • --Colin Firth, his well-deserved recogntion for "A Single Man", and the pinnacle of my series on Christopher Isherwood;
  • --Anecdotes about my maternal grandparents.  Sounds photo-album-ish and "cute"...but I think you will enjoy geting to know them.  Had they lived today, they would both have turned 100 years old this year.

  • --Reviews of books such as "The Botany of Desire" (have plants manipulated human desires in order to help them evolve?); and Ted Kennedy's Memoirs (his presence is still strongly felt in today's politics).
  • --My take on Academy Awards 2009, my views on upping the Best Picture category to 10, and how the performers and films rate, in my estimation. ALSO: The story of my lifelong love-hate relationship with Oscar.

Plus, new forays into opera, tales from the city of Chicago, the latest from the world of art and politics (from my own bemused point of view), news of interest from and for the gay community, my study of Italian, and, in March,  pages from my Arizona notebook.

Not to mention Stories from the Animal Shelter.  Tuesday, the dogs loved romping in the snow, burying their snouts deep into the powder to unearth whatever treasures lie beneath, and, shivering upon going inside, pressed themselves against me, and drew upon my warmth and love, which they gave back in their singular way. Also there are five  new Black Lab puppies, oozing out of their room like an oil slick when I opened their door to feed them...and then oozed right back in again to follow me, their "leader".

Time to sleep now.... I look forward to being back here this weekend!

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Oscar Nominees Interview: and Why I Miss Pauline Kael

(REVISED on Feb 10--to correct errors brought on in part by an exhausting day....)

In the weeks ahead, I will offer an occasional opinion, essay, rant, etc., about this year's Oscar nominations.  Tonight, I want to share how an innocent round-table discussion among actors made me yearn for the writing of one of the best film critics this country ever produced.

The latest Newsweek (February 8) featured an interview and  discussion with six of this year's Academy Award Acting Nominees: Morgan Freedman, Sandra Bullock, Jeff Bridges, Woody Harrelson, Gabourey Sidibe, and Carey Mulligan.

It was a lighthearted and entertaining discussion, designed to personalize these performers and give Oscar-watchers a good feeling should any of them eventually take home the gold. 

Among other tidbits, we learned that Sandra Bullock is the daughter of opera singers/voice teachers; that Jeff Bridges is a proponent of motion-capture filmmaking (used in his upcoming film, a remake of Disney's "Tron"); that Woody Harrelson got his start by doing Elvis imitations; that Morgan Freeman is often mistaken for Samuel L Jackson, and calls "Avatar"  "a bit faddish...really cartoons..."; that Gabourey Sidibe blew her audition for a Huggies commercial (as a tot) for crying too much; and that Carey Mulligan wanted to act since age six (and has flexible toes!!)

Then I read the following exchange and realized that something has been missing from the film industry, and the art of film criticism, perhaps never to be recaptured:

NEWSWEEK: Morgan, how did you feel when you were 50 years old to read the opening line of that famous Pauline Kael review of Street Smart: “Is Morgan Freeman the greatest American actor?” Do you remember that?
FREEMAN: Of course I remember that.
NEWSWEEK: Gabby and Carey, do you know who Pauline Kael is?
[They both shake their head no.]

Even though I understand that these young performers are of a new era, I can't help but wish that somewhere in their education, on their way to working in the industry, they had some familiarity, some understanding, of one of the voices that influenced their profession. 
Critics of the arts define their eras. Pauline Kael defined a period in which I came of age, learning about the art of movies and filmmaking.  Kael was the primary film critic for The New Yorker from 1968 to 1991.  She was smart, idiosyncratic, and brought with her great knowledge of literature and music and theater, elevating the art of film by connecting it to universally accepted and venerable art forms. At the same time, she wrote as a fan, her intelligence shaping her style.  Her love for movies of all kinds, and her sharp eye and wit, always were convincing, even if a reader did not always agree.

I admire her story.  The daughter of Polish immigrants, her family moved to San Francisco when they lost their family farm.  She did a number of jobs (including that of seamstress). By her mid-thirties, she was writing film reviews for City Lights magazine, and running the Berkely Cinema Guild, programming movies for a 2-screen art house (similar to our own Music Box Theater, Chicago's answer to the Castro in San Francisco).  Her capsule reviews, written in a personal style and cutting verbage, were considered collectors items even then.

She approached movies head-on, proclaiming an unabashed love for writing and acting, and a distaste for pretension.  She disparaged moguls, businessmen, and pseudo-artists alike.  She appealed to the childlike wonder of educated filmgoers who were insecure about their love of movies as an art form.  It became acceptable, under a steady diet of Kael, to connect with a movie, to feel as though you could change your life after a work of emotional and cinematic power, but you didn't have to know a lot about "film grammar" to have the experience.

One of my favorite quotes, which sums up her critical philosophy, and one that I think is vanishing from the art of film criticism, is: "The critic is the only independent source of information. The rest is advertising.”

In 1967, after writing for numerous and high-profile publications, she was hired as the film critic of The New Yorker, and her inaugural review, an in-depth and impassioned rave of "Bonnie and Clyde", vaulted her to national recognition.  That was the beginning of the American Film Generation, the American New Wave.  She admitted that her writing was best at this time because the movies offered so much.  She raved about pictures that became some of my favorites: Cabaret, The Godfather, Nashville. She also went on flights of fancy, and went apart from the crowd. She was true to her views, and while I often violently disagreed with her, I always came away from her reviews feeling as though I had just had the experience--or had the renewed experience--of seeing the movie about which she had written.

That, in the best sense of the word, is a re-view.

She created a new aesthetic: the movie review as an art form in itself, that entertained and informed readers independently of their knowledge of the film under scrutiny, but which added a deeper appreciation  of all of the movies she discussed.

Many critics and filmmakers cite Kael as an influence in their own creative work: Roger Ebert, Quentin Tarantino, Wes Anderson, A.O. Scott, Elvis Mitchell, Michael Sragow...many other critics, often referred to as "Paulettes" due to their "homages" and imitation of her style.

And myself..she influenced me and my way of "reading" and appreciating a film, and my way of trying to capture the experience in my writing of them.

I have read all of her books, many of the titles deliberately sexually suggestive (movies were a sensual experience to her, always).  Titles like "I Lost it at the Movies", "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang", "Deeper Into Movies", "When the Lights Go Down"...I have read them all, many times until some of them have lost their covers....

She won a national Book award for "Deeper into Movies", the first time a book of film criticism ever won such a prestigious literary award.

I wonder what she would have liked today.... I think she would have loved "Avatar" and "A Single Man" both.

She died on September 4, 2001.

“Trash has given us an appetite for art”. Another characteristic quote...she believed that movies rarely achieved the status of art, and so to love movies at all, we need to find an appreciation for trash.  I go back and forth on this one....

Tempestuous, opinionated, informed, funny, able to recapture a film and do it justice, good or bad....Champion of artists and craftsmen, writers (especially!) and performers that really did have a sincere desire to change the landscape of cinema while entertaining us and making us think (like Altman, Scorsese, Bertolucci, DeSica,  Mankiewicz)......Essayist of an incomparable personal style, who missed nothing, who was unashamed of her own guilty pleasures, who cast herself in each review in the role of the consummate film-lover, who didn't care a bit if you agreed or disagreed but wanted to share her enthusiasm with you all the same.....

I miss her.