Monday, December 17, 2007

This thing Bono told me one time

Last week, rumors blew through that both founders of Product (RED) were in K.C. to see all the cards and stuff we created for Hallmark (RED) and celebrate the launch. Well, it wasn't the first time for such rumors, so some people didn't bother to go out to the big pep rally on Friday afternoon at the far end of Hallmark world. I almost didn't, with a deadline to meet on my last day at work for the year. But (RED) was my favorite project of 2007, and I figured, well, at least Bobby Shriver will be there. He's come in before.

It was standing-room only, probably 250 people crammed into the room. And there was Bobby Shriver with the (RED) business people and his own rock-star charisma. And we saw a video montage of the print ad campaign, billboard in Times Square, news coverage and all the media buzz with Oprah, etc., and a slice of the promotional video with my "believe in a thousand impossible things" card. And Bobby et al. spoke about how impressive our creative approach to (RED) has been, and how much it means to have these products distributed in more than 3000 Hallmark stores.

And then freakin' BONO walked in. Singing.

I'm dreaming of a RED Christmas
With every Christmas card I write...
May your days be merry and bright (or something else instead)
And may all your Christmases be RED

And we all went mildly apeshit. Then Bono (cuz we hang out) talked for about 15 minutes, mostly about the effect of the money we're directing into the Global Fund, how it really works on the ground. A couple of stories he told were the kind of thing that put a lump in your throat. He talked about a conversation he'd had with a Holocaust survivor who'd assured him that it wasn't overstepping to compare the AIDS epidemic in Africa with the Holocaust. This survivor had talked about his recurring nightmare of being loaded onto a train as a child, and how the image that kept coming back was not of the camp he'd been sent to, but of the train-loading moment, the bystanders' stares, the looks on the faces of people who felt they couldn't help, watching as the Jews were herded into the boxcars. Bono finished this story by saying that the work we were doing in service of Africans trying to survive was the equivalent of lying down on the tracks to keep the trains from moving. He called Hallmark a "heroic company" for doing it.

Well, you don't get that kind of inspiration every day. And although a lot of people made Hallmark (RED) possible, I insist, again, that it never would have happened without the unflagging effort of fellow writer Sarah Mueller, who started this push to support the Global Fund before (RED) even existed. (Plus, how can I have a post about Bono and not mention his most ardent fan?)

So. I'll post that promotional video again, only this time, I'm pulling it off of YouTube, so it gets the hits there.

It's what my pal Bono would want.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Wind Inside A Letterbox

Hadn’t been out of the house in weeks due to various people’s various stupid illnesses and commitments and my own stupid work schedule, and when we finally got a night out, my darling spousette wanted to see Denzel and Russell’s tete-a-tete in American Gangster, and though I was willing, other movies were higher on my list, so when we excaped later than espected and missed the 4:00 show but could still make a 4:25 of ACROSS THE BLOODY MAGNIFICENT STRAWBERRY FREAKIN’ UNIVERSE, I was willinger still. I’ve been worried that my current movie project might be late to catch a wave of resurgent interest in‘60s culture, what with new anthologies and retrospectives of the lit and music of the time appearing right and left, not to mention documentaries and retrospectives and books of San Francisco poster art and articles on Frye boots and ads with psychedelic leanings and Gus Van Sant optioning The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and the release of this Julie Taymor monster, which I feared might encroach on Drop City territory and I had to know just how much....
Well, the closest thing in it to anything I’ve written is the Merry Pranksters sequence on the bus, with Bono as the acid evangelist. If the photo weren’t so wee, you could see him there, mid-“I Am The Walrus” (a splendid cover, although let’s face it, nobody can out-Lennon John). Happily, this sequence stomps on Gus Van Sant’s material far harder than on the toes of Drop City, in which the bus exodus has been montaged and redacted and deleted and reduxed and Dylanized and wrung through various drafts, and currently is only an oblique moment in a character flash. Our bus does figure, and there’s no way for it not to be prominent when it does, because, y’know, bus. But I felt relieved by this take on it and pretty much everything else, including a group sprawl in the tall grass...

...that seemed obviously influenced by the photo on the Drop City book jacket, viz.:
Um, the influence is more obvious in the movie, where you can actually see the images. ANYWAY. Across the Universe is a work of visual, conceptual, and (obviously) musical genius. Julie Taymor is God. She creates worlds. The screenwriters (Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais) figured out such brilliant ways to use the lyrics of the songs, you laugh and get goosebumps at the same time. Know how it’s always a lesser experience (and often an unbearable one) to hear someone other than the Beatles do a Beatles song? Not here. The voices and arrangements are splendid and so well-conceived as action, dialogue, and mise-en-scene that the songs don’t just “advance the story”—they ARE the story. And the astounding production design, camerawork, and editing push the music-narrative along so you scarcely notice that more than two hours have passed by the time Bono does “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” over the end credits.

I heard somebody whine that it was “a two-hour music video.” Yeah... 30-odd beautiful songs set to mind-blowing imagery, evoking a fascinating historical moment in an archetypal yet personal way. What’s to complain about?

I'm not saying it's perfect. There's a lame misuse of “Revolution” that falls dramatically flat. You don't really get out of yourself and into the movie much, because it's more like theater. And it's not without cliche or sentimental romanticizing of the era. But this is mere carping.

Favorite moments are hard to choose, but I’d put the lilting, surprisingly touching version of “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” (complete with football-scrimmage choreography) right up there, along with a spectacularly imagined “Happiness is a Warm Gun.” And Eddie Izzard’s fabulous “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite” is a supersonic sandwich made of Bread & Puppet Theater, Saul Steinberg, Henri Matisse, the Moscow Circus, and the dream you had last night.

Climb in a seat with your head in the clouds and you’re gone.

Monday, October 22, 2007


A card I wrote for Hallmark (RED) is briefly visible in this nice little video promoting the new line of cards and gifts. The cover of the card says "Believe in a thousand impossible things you've never believed before." So come on, get to it. That's a lot of stuff to believe.

The first time I played it, everything went smoothly. The last couple of times, it's been a bit herky-jerky. The Hallmark site was down briefly today, so maybe there are technical problems. If so, come back tomorrow. It's a nice little ad, and I think you'll only see it on the Internet.

We conclude this message by praising my friend and fellow writer Sarah Mueller, whose refusal to give up on it is the main reason Hallmark (RED) exists. Or (Hallmark) RED. Or Hallmark (Product) Red. Weird, I'm not actually sure what to call it. Anyway, it's good and Sarah is a jewel in the crown. Truly an inspiration for any of us Sisyphusian do-gooders who have ever had the boulder roll back on top of us or ended up with brick-wall marks on our foreheads. Bravo, Sarah!

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

20 Minutes To Blow Your Mind

About ten years ago, a guy named Wade Davis came to speak at a Hallmark leadership conference I attended. He was introduced as National Geographic's "explorer-in-residence." Nothing in that introduction, or in my entire life, for that matter, prepared me for what followed.

The speech he's giving here at a TED conference in Monterey is essentially the same speech he gave then, updated with some new photos from recent travels (and the news of the Canadian government's restitution program for the Inuit). I think this speech is as important as anything that's ever been uttered in a public forum. You can hear the urgency of the message vibrating through the guy. Even when he gets into hard-core science talk (his background is in ethnobotany, the study of plants and their use in indigenous cultures), it's riveting. If you have 20 minutes, just sit back, ignore the sponsoring commercial that frames the thing, and let the magnificence unfold.

After his speech at the Hallmark conference, a small group of us went out for beer and barbecue with him, and he regaled us with yet more amazing tales.

Can storytelling and the awareness it creates change the world? Once upon a time, I believed it. This guy makes a believer out of me all over again.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

And the award for best engagement announcement video goes to...

Ned and Emily (and Ned's sister Joan) made this video for Ned's parents, who were out of the country at engagement time. We open with Joan and Ned talking about the wedding site, where Joan and her husband Lou got married a couple of years ago. I think Lou's running the camera.

No, wait. Emily and Joan never appear in the frame together. So I bet it's Emily doing the two-shot of Ned and Joan. Then Joan takes the camera and puts it on Emily and Ned.

Apparently the sound was no good up there on the windy cliff; hence, the subtitles. But when Emily delivers her great goofy line, I hear her voice anyway.

The whole thing makes me ridiculously happy.

Friday, September 14, 2007

My daughling darter's getting married

Here's my firstborn, Emily, with her fiance, Ned.

The photo's from their trip to India last summer. Emily's lovelier than that, but I still dig the photo. It suggests standing before the vista of the future and turning back for a moment to commemorate togetherness and include others. A metaphor for a wedding...

which will take place next summer in western Colorado on the edge of a cliff. Can't wait. Pen and I are thrilled. We'd hoped Ned might be The One ever since we first met him.

Imagine, if you will, that your kid grew up into one of the finest human beings on earth, and then fell in love with another utterly splendid person, and then they decided to get married. And you thought about it and realized that you couldn't wish for anyone or anything better to happen to your beloved child. Imagine how your heart might vault out of your chest and go skipping around the room. That's how this feels.

Just knowing such a great couple--even if one of them weren't my daughter--would be a good, positive thing. But Emily IS my daughter. And knowing her past, the pain of divorce that was a big part of her childhood, and some of the struggles and fears she's worked through as an adult, this happy news feels hugely redemptive. It's indescribable, really. Because of Emily and Ned, I have this enormous, irrational hope for the whole wide world.

Love wins after all.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

I'd Rather Be At Burning Man

Monday was day one at Burning Man 2007 in Black Rock, Nevada. My son Oliver’s out there for his third year, this time with a group of San Francisco hippie-hop musicians. Maybe next year I’ll pack up Jonah and some survival supplies . . . we’ll have to determine what we’re contributing to the scene, though. It’s not a spectator sport.

If you don’t know about Burning Man, it’s hard to sum up in a single sentence. Call it a temporary community of tens of thousands (40,000+ this year) stranding themselves in the desert for a week to interact on the basis of artistic and ritual self-expression rather than economic and ritual self-interest. Art created for the festival focuses on a particular theme every year. And every year, at the end of the week, an enormous sculpture of a human figure goes up in flames.

This just in: In the wee hours of Tuesday morning, somebody apparently set premature fire to the Man. A guy was arrested, and a big crew set about the two-day task of rebuilding the effigy and its support structure.

Further update: A young man apparently committed suicide on the last day of the festival. Stories vary, and given the circumstances, I'm not even sure how they determined that it wasn't an accident, but the guy (20-25 years old, thin build, light brown hair--yikes--I know it's not Ollie, but if it were, that's probably how they'd describe him) was found hanging from the poles supporting the top of a two-story tent.

Life and death on the playa. It's not the first casualty ever at Burning Man--given what goes on there, it's surprising how seldom anything goes seriously wrong. Still, it gives one pause. But pause, too, has always been part of the deal.

Over the past few years, a post-burn ceremony has developed in which about a quarter of the population sits and meditates as the theme temple is destroyed. Oliver says this is the most moving event of all. I don't have any photos of that, but the idea of 10,000 people kneeling and crying in the desert is fairly clear and awfully compelling to my pagan mind.

It’s just a big, wild party for some.

For others, it's a place to perform.

Put your genius on display.

And your bod. (I'd post more bods, but you can go to the Burning Man site and ogle for yourself.)

Push for change, advance the social contract.

Simply connect.

For many, it’s a religious retreat, a profound spiritual experience, charging the batteries of hope in a world that generally feels hopeless. A chance to turn the fear trap into the hope flower.

The lengths to which people go in order to create this countercultural aesthetic are extraordinary. The stuff they haul there, the stuff they build, the stuff they wear, how much energy and time they give to it.

You can’t just drive a car around this vast yet teeming desert space. If you’re driving, you're in an art car registered with the Burning Man DMV.

Otherwise, you’re on a bicycle...

or on foot.

If you were making this stuff up for a movie, how would you pitch it? It's The Wicker Man meets Dr. Seuss. No, it's the Old Testament translated by William Gibson. No, it's Julie Taymor's Tibetan Book of the Dead, a musical starring Timothy Leary and one of those egg-pod things from Aliens, except when it opens, it spits flames.
One thing it isn't...
is carbon-neutral.
Not yet, anyway.

They've recently developed a carbon offsets program. This year’s theme, The Green Man, is the first environmental theme I’m aware of in the 20-or-so-year history of Burming Man. Many themes have touched on ecological concerns indirectly, though, and there’s certainly a contingent of green thinkers on the playa every year. Someone apparently has figured out how to run engines on fuel made from port-a-potty sludge, and then to trap the exhaust from that engine and use it to grow blue-green algae. Nice loop if you can get it.

Participants commit to leave behind no trace of the week’s worth of creation and destruction, not even a cigarette butt--which is more than you can say about hippie circuses like the Rainbow Gathering. But it was never just a hippie circus, never just one countercultural flavor. It’s got a big gearhead constituency, a lot of pyromania, and enough mechanical ingenuity to make Buckminster Fuller sit up from his grave and take notice.
A ship of magnificent fools.

Can't wait to hear from Oliver. He’ll have some tales to tell.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Day 1, Grade 1

What ever happened to summer? Jonah started school on August 16th. Something has gone terribly wrong.

On the other hand, the kid looked swell, sporting his Lego backpack with Darth Vader and Chewbacca zipper pulls. Penny took the picture in the front yard. The maple tree that died this summer is back there behind him, the day before it got taken down. What a beautiful tree it was, a big ball of gold every fall, with a spherical crown oversized for its slim trunk. It had personality. And now its absence feels ever-present. I was surprised at how emotional we all got about it, the day it went down.

Two arborists tell me that the pecan tree in the back needs to come down, too, that it's rotting from inside. It's probably 60 feet tall. Bids have ranged from $1000 to $1900. I want to go back in time.

back to when August was summer,
back to when fall was aflame
with a mapley syrupy cloud of gold light
where no two leaves were the same

i want to retreat to the cave of the past
where the wall-shadows look pretty good
they may not be perfect, but that is deliberate
the way i'd go live in the wood

i want to go forward, but just in reverse
so a tree comes to be from a log
and the days are for dogs and summertime frogs
and my verse doesn't bog down my blog

Just as I wrapped up that stanza, there was a huge clap of thunder and it began to rain. The doggerel days of summer be magic.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Vacations we have squandered

The creature from the lagoon is Jonah, who vacations like a champ. He really knows how to have a good time. The lake is in upstate New York, in the middle of nowhere. There's a movie star on the dock back there, but Jonah can upstage even the bigs. We were there on a day when thunderstorms came and went, as did snakes in the water. In memory, the day has a slow feel, even with a six-year-old in the mix. We also had a Jack Russell terrier who went crazy for the snakes. Later, he threw up a frog.

In the main, however, it was an unrestful vacation. I planned the trip around three locations with three different groups of family and friends, driving from Boston to Maine, down to New York near the Pennsylvania line, and back up to Boston. My darling does not suffer road trips gladly. Plus, the middle stretch was work-related, so my brother and I disappeared into a basement for days, with breaks to eat and deal with various crises. The last such was the losing of the rental car key.

I advise against losing rental car keys while in the country, especially these new keys with microchip remotes that occasion the reprogramming of the car's ignition system as well as getting a new key made. The brave new world is unkind to bucolic key losers.

But the bucolic world is kind to young readers. Here's Jonah in the hammock on the farm, midway through "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban." The kid reads like a vacationing champ and doesn't care that he's four books behind the times.

And here's Jonah with his best friend, Gabriel, who just moved to Maine. The beach was at Reid State Park, south of Portland. We also went to Popham State Park in the same area--beautiful spots, where the tide goes out thousands of feet and leaves you with a beach you can walk to nearby islands on. We built sand castles, which are heavily metaphorical.

In Boston, we saw a Shakespeare in the Park production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream." It was marvelous and inventive, and somewhere near the beginning of Act III, Jonah said, "I don't like this play." But later, he remembered some funny bit of action that Bottom performed during the play-within-a-play.

We also saw a beautiful film about Jane Goodall, and Jonah now sleeps with a chimp (stuffed). At the Science Museum, he also got to put a baggie on his hand and squeeze the heart and lungs of a sheep (dead).

Boston is Joytown to me, my sis having lived there for some time. She and her partner, Pam, have been married a couple of years now and have three lovely daughters. Joy and Pam are exceptional hosts, the most human of Boston baked beings.

Re: their being married... at the penguin exhibit in the New England Aquarium, I asked about same-sex pairs. The guy wading around in the big penguin enclosure said he'd heard of same-sex pairs nesting and tending eggs, but that these particular penguins seemed to confine their same-sex pairings to grooming, preening, and crapping on rocks together--in other words, he hadn't observed any actual homosexual mating--"even though this is Massachusetts." That got a good laugh from the crowd. Massachusetts is hip.

Here's Jonah, with Joy's daughter Grace, and a couple of dixie-cup frozen pop thingies at the end of a long day. Grace is ten, taller than Penny, and a sports nut, just as my sister was in her youth. I think this was the last night before flying back home on Tuesday.

Anyway, upon my return, I note the absence of beaches in Kansas City. And I note that midsummer is gone, that school starts in exactly two weeks, that a vacation is but a play-within-a-play. Our castles are crumbling. Lord, what fools we mortals be.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Fan Letter Campaign

The few fan letters I’ve received as a writer have meant a lot to me. I’ve always enjoyed writing letters myself. And I admire so many people for their creativity, originality, and integrity. Why have I been so reticent to send them fan letters?

Why didn’t I send Beverly Sills anything like what was in that last post? And did I ever tell Ruth Gordon what Harold & Maude did to me at age 16? No. Did I write to Marlon Brando? Peter Sellers? Frank Zappa Janis Joplin Jimi Hendrix John Lennon Dizzy Gillespie? John Ford Robert Altman Francois Truffaut? Nestor Almendros? Gordon Parks? Eugene G. Smith? Saul Steinberg? Spalding Gray? No. And now they’re gone.

I didn’t even write to Stanley Kubrick, who actually let me infiltrate a scene in “Full Metal Jacket.” I never wrote to Samuel Barber to thank him for the sublime “Adagio for Strings,” which I’ve probably listened to more often than any other single piece of music—unless it might be the entire “Kind of Blue” album, for which I never thanked Miles Davis.

I did write to William Stafford, and got a lovely letter back. See? A good fan letter gets results.

So. I think it’s time for a campaign of correspondo. Many of the people I’d write to already get scads of fan mail, so if my letters are to cut through the pile and mean something instead of simply pre-empting my own imagined regret, they need to be good. I think it’s about offering specific context and being entertaining about it.

First, I’ll write the ones who are getting on in years--if I’m going to do it, I should do it now. My starter list:

Bob Dylan: I’ll be seeing him in concert on Monday, so maybe that’ll inspire the letter.

Paul Simon

Paul Newman

Clint Eastwood: Mostly for Unforgiven

Robert Duvall: I’ll tell about channeling him when I wrote my favorite speech in Big Bad Love—which Michael Parks kind of screwed up, so I wish Duvall had been available.

Sidney Poitier: Without whom there’d be no Morgan Freeman.

Morgan Freeman: He really is God.

Bernardo Bertolucci: Stealing Beauty, for one. The Sheltering Sky for another.

Woody Allen: Almost impossible to imagine my teens and twenties without him.

Jean-Luc Godard

Sir Ridley Scott

Sir (Lord?) Richard Attenborough: He put my daughter into a scene in “Shadowlands.” It got cut. Hmmm, maybe this isn't a fan letter...

William Goldman

Tom Wolfe

Norman Mailer

Robert Bly: Not just for the poems, but for Iron John. The guy changed my life. I met him once and was too tongue-tied by hero worship to say anything coherent.

Mark Strand: His poem “The Tunnel” made me want to be a poet.

Charles Simic: He’ll be 70 next year. Still writes like a wunderkind.

Ned Rorem: In college, the choir I sang in did his amazing settings of Shakespeare, Dryden, Blake, and Edmund Waller. I get goosebumps just thinking about it.

Elliott Carter: Ditto, except it was Dickinson, Spenser, and Stephen Vincent Benet.

Oscar Peterson: 1977, that double album with Joe Pass. Unbelievable.

Bill Cosby: My dad used to plug a reel-to-reel into the cigarette lighter of our car and we’d laugh at Why Is There Air? and Wonderfulness all the way across the country.

James Hillman: Thanks for the greatest insights into the human psyche since Jung.

Marie Louise von Franz: Ditto. I wonder if she's dead already. Update: My God, she died in 1998, the year after I went to the Jung Institute in Switzerland.

George McGovern: My first political hero, my first political rally. I think my fan letter will mention that I felt up my girlfriend while we were standing there in the crowd at Union Station, listening to soft-spoken George denounce the Vietnam war and Nixon’s corruption. Where is today’s McGovern? I want to feel that again (the hope, not the girlfriend...well, mostly the hope...).

A rather male list. My second wave of letters will go out to slightly younger cultural heroes:

Joni Mitchell: Wait, she should be on the first list. Her lungs aren’t likely to last another decade.
Stephen Stills: Ditto his liver and heart. Maybe I’ll send him my blog write-up of “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” to display my keen sense of the obvious.
Sir Paul McCartney
Springsteen! (Thanks, Molly...)
Patti Smith
Laurie Anderson
Tom Waits: Thanks for writing two great songs for Big Bad Love. I’ll have to restrain myself to stay on message.
Nicolas Reyes: What do you say to the world’s most soulful singer?
Paco de Lucia: What do you say to the world’s greatest guitar player?
Mark Knopfler: Ditto?
Sting: What do you say that you didn’t already try and fail to say when you actually met the guy?
Peter Gabriel: We have a mutual friend, if he’s still friends with Rosanna A. He appeared in her music documentary, but he didn’t look happy about it. Might not be able to play that card.
Christopher Alexander: One of my top ten books is “A Pattern Language.”
Robert Redford
Katherine Ross
Warren Beatty: I won’t go on and on about his artistic integrity.
Julie Christie
Robert Downey, Jr.: Younger than me, but seems to have a good chance of not getting old.
Roberto Begnini
Robert Parker: Thanks for making a wino out of me.
Terrence Malick: He need never have made a movie besides “Days of Heaven” to be my fave writer/director of all time.
Jonathan Demme
Ang Lee
Ian McEwan: Thanks for three of my favorite novels
Mark Leyner: Thanks for "Smelling Esther Williams"
David Mitchell: Just to ask him how in the world he wrote “Cloud Atlas”
Campbell McGrath: Ditto, “Road Atlas.” I think he’s only in his forties. It can wait.
David Sedaris: Have I ever laughed harder? I don’t think so.
Camille Paglia: I did write her once, when she had that advice column in Spy magazine. It got published, but that's so impersonal. Even though it was about sex.
Annie Liebowitz
Al Gore
Bill Bradley
Steve Jobs

I'm sure the list will grow. A lot. I'll try to post a few photos to make all this text less tedious. Meanwhile, who do you truly admire? If you came home and found a letter in your mailbox from somebody you'd written a fan letter to, who's the person you'd most like it to be?

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Beverly Sills, Higher Than Ever.

Beverly Sills died last night. She was 78, and besides Tony and Carmela, the only soprano who ever really moved me. I’m vowing today to stop letting chances go by to tell people I admire how much their work has meant to me.

I had nearly 30 years to tell Beverly Sills how she blew my mind one night, back when I was a 21-year-old college dropout whose favorite singer was Tom Waits and who mostly listened to Miles Davis, Oscar Peterson, Chick Corea, and The Beatles. And I never sent her that letter. I wonder what it would have said? Before I played the aria for a group of Hallmark word people at our annual coffeehouse last year, with a backdrop of a huge outer space photo--stars, galaxies, nebulae--this is part of what I read:

This song you’re going to hear is a silver arrow that hit me, pierced me, left me slain, in the rain of my own tears, in my bachelor pad, in a towel, just out of the shower, which was just a bathtub where I dumped water from a plastic bucket over my head — and now this music pouring down on me like light. Was it an arrow, or was it light? Or was I just so young and vulnerable, an open groove for the needle to slip into, record turning, world turning, needle of diamond, stars of dust wheeling above me, who will love me, 21, in a towel on the third floor of a big red house, dumbstruck, starstruck, gooseflesh rising, eyes blurring, everything I had ever lost returned to me, everything I would ever love already leaving, all that was impossible made suddenly real by this unreal voice.

How does a human voice become a willow tree and the bird in it by day, the stars in it by night? Both dark and light, particle and ray, longing and longed-for, everything and void. How can a voice waver on either side of a note but hold the note so true? And isn’t light that same vibration, too? How does music do this to you? What place inside does the bird find to light, the star to flutter and flicker its way to us? I don’t have a clue.

I confess that for years I used this piece of music as a litmus test of soul. If I played it and it didn’t move you, you were dead inside. It was alright if at first you laughed or fidgeted, because almost all of us come armored against the full-throated blast of old-time art-as-religion that is opera. But if by the end the music had not broken through your defenses, broken you down, opened you up at least a little, you were less than human.

I was young and stupid. I didn’t yet know that there are no litmus tests, no absolutes, no one true faith or song or voice or love. Coleman Barks had yet to translate Rumi, so I hadn’t heard of the hundred ways to kneel and kiss the ground. I adored Tom Waits, but had yet to hear his anecdote about the first time someone played him the aria “Nessun Dorma” from Puccini’s Turandot. He said, “It was like giving a cigar to a five-year-old. I turned blue and I cried.” I hadn't heard much of anything, really. I certainly hadn't heard anything like this, a song debuted ten days before the day that I was born. It had been there, my whole life, and I had not known. I wept like a willow in my bachelor pad, the first place I called my own.

So that scene is set.

The scene for the aria is this: Leadville, Colorado. 1880. Elizabeth “Baby” Doe, “the miner’s sweetheart,” first woman ever to work in a U.S. silver mine, has her eye on silver magnate Horace Tabor. Both married to other people. Can't end well. Doesn’t matter. It’s destiny, and when she picks her moment, sits at a piano and sings where she knows he will overhear her, the song does to him pretty much what it did to me. If he’d been wearing a towel, it would have dropped right there. Or maybe she’d have torn it off him after his beautiful baritone reply. Anyway, it’s love at first song for Horace Tabor. And so it was for me.

Ladies and gentlemen, the “Willow” aria from The Ballad of Baby Doe, by Douglas Moore and John Latouche, sung by the stratospheric Beverly Sills...

Then there was a little coda I'd written to wrap up with, but after I played the music, there was no point in reading it.

If I knew how to load the iTune on here so you could just listen, I would. That old footage isn't great. But who can deny the power of that big D (I think it's a D) she hits shortly after the video does that skippy little flutter? It still takes the top of my head off. I could tell that a few Hallmark people were knocked out, too, when I forced them to listen to it. But it's opera, man. Hardly anybody wants to kneel at that altar.

Why did I never send her a thank-you note for cracking me open enough to let a little light in? I still don't care for most operatic voices (can't stand Wagnerian opera, which seems preposterously self-important and repetitive to me), but every so often, I’ll hear something that gets through, thanks to Douglas Moore, John Latouche, and this amazing woman who put the color in coloratura.

She had a deaf daughter, an autistic son, and she finally saw her husband through the last stages of Alzheimer's last year. Through it all, she radiated joy, served her art, and took humanity higher, literally.

I just listened to the final aria, sung right before Baby Doe dies. Beverly Sills holds a note at the end that seems impossible. It’s still going. It will never stop.

Getting a little misty here. I'm just glad I got through that without calling her "Bubbles."

Next post: a list of people who are going to get gushy, big-ass fan letters from yours truly...

Friday, June 22, 2007

A Mighty Fine Mike Was He

The day after Penny and I celebrated our 12th anniversary, I learned that Mike Rokoff had died. He was only 68, and (everyone who knew him would agree) one of the swellest, happiest, most human of beings. I've been obsessively bummed out about it ever since.

Mike was one of those solid, soulful, heart-of-gold guys who should live forever. Absolutely authentic, goofy, and good down to his bootsoles. He never tried to be anyone but who he was. He loved everyone for who they were. That last sentence sounds over-the-top, but I've never known anyone who could empathize even with pain-in-the-ass people the way Mike could.

I sat next to him for the better part of a decade. Much the better part. He shepherded me through a new job, when I became his creative partner in Hallmark's foray into pre-Internet electronic media in the mid-1980s. A couple of years later, he saw me through a divorce, inviting me to move into the spare bedroom at the house he and his wife Donna had opened up to so many over the years. And I did. It was during that month, as I hunted for apartments and tried to keep my sanity, that I began to learn the secrets of Mike's legendary happiness:

Take a bath every morning.

Draw cartoons on a little over-the-tub desk as you take a bath every morning.

Laugh loudly at the cartoons you draw.

Make fun of the morning news, adding word balloons to newspaper photos of national figureheads.

Always be checking out new music and lending recordings you've made.

Smoke a pipe, and look good doing it.

Be a Cubs fan--always good for laughs.

Travel all over the place, and have goofy misadventures to tell people about later.

In addition to loving your wife, admire her. Express your admiration all the time.

Never miss a chance to make a ridiculous pun.

Celebrate the stupid stuff that happens to you (Mike's post-hernia-operation party became an annual event).

Revel in the personality quirks of your kids and your friends.

Try any food at least once.

Listen more than you talk.

Love animals.

Retire before you have to.

Move to the woods to live deliberately.

Build your dreamhouse. Live in it with your darling. Invite everybody over.

Laugh, laugh, laugh.

And when you do yet another good thing for yet another person, and the person wants to pay you back, just say, "Pass it on."

Man, I'm gonna miss that guy. The last time I talked to him, early this year, he was feeling good, having survived a heart attack the year before, and having gotten Donna through a cancer scare. They were back to their lives, starting to plan trips and get-togethers. He sounded great.

The first time I called Donna after the memorial service, I got the answering machine. Mike's voice was still on it. I just about fell over. He had such a deep, rumbly, warm smile of a voice. It instantly reminded me of sharing an antique church pew with Mike in the office living room at staff meetings. When he spoke, his voice would vibrate through the wood of the bench and I could feel it in my bones.

Mike resonated. Best vibes of any friend I ever had. He made the life of everyone who knew him better. I still can't believe he's gone.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Ciao, Sopranos

Look. Anybody who has problems with the ending of the final episode of The Sopranos either Just Didn't Get It or is working too hard to interpret it (and wouldn't have liked any other ending either). I heard some nitwit on NPR psychologizing David Chase, how the success of the show caused its creator to resent the audience, so the ending was just a big fuck-you. No.

The ending is perfect. Here's why:

1. Ambiguity. Gotta have it. To wrap things up clearly and neatly would be a betrayal of the entire series. Our last image is Tony looking up from his onion rings as the door to this little Jersey diner opens. Did Meadow just walk in? Is the front door the only door opening? Or has that suspicious-looking guy re-emerged from the bathroom like Michael Corleone in a Members Only jacket? Who are those other guys who came in before? Who, or what, is Tony looking at?

2. Family. It's about the mundane details and tensions of family togetherness. This has always been the heart of the show. Not the Mafia, not the idea of a gangster in therapy, but Tony and Carmela and their kids.

3. Dread. It's about how all those quotidian details play against a backdrop of peril. Who can honestly say, however annoyed or momentarily confused you may have been by the sudden blackout, that your heart wasn't pounding at the end of that sequence? It was masterfully written, acted, shot, and cut. That mounting sense of dread, where every moment, every move, seems to portend something--how often does television pull that off? Roughly never.

4. The Blackout. What's the beef about this, really? That the suspense wasn't resolved? This isn't the last episode of 24--for that matter, it's not The Godfather III. It's the last episode of a show that took no prisoners, that never pretended to some moral apologia for its conflicted characters. It was ruthlessly existential. Remember when Bobby and Tony had that conversation about getting whacked, how you probably don't even hear or feel anything? (I wonder how many references to numbness there are in the show? There's a thesis in there somewhere.) The blackout is an argument for Tony's final comeuppance. BUT. If it's just Meadow finally arriving for dinner, and the guy in the bathroom is just some guy, it's just as good an argument that this family's life, the dread surrounding it, Tony and Carmela and all their unresolved issues, the kids' journeys...don't stop. Life goes on.

5. Don't Stop. As a comment on a previous Sopranos post reminded us, this show had the greatest music, the smartest use of music, of any TV show ever. Some of it is Tony's music--the classic rock and '80s pop music that he and Carm grew up on. Here, Tony flips through the tableside juke's selections, passing up Sinatra for Journey, "Don't Stop Believing," a smarmy little romantic tale set to overproduced guitar & synth. The lyrics are deftly interwoven with the scene so that the "small-town girl" line coincides with Carm's arrival, and the "city boy / born and raised in south Detroit" line gets overlaid with dialogue and doesn't distract. The song builds. The scene builds. Little references seem to apply variously to the Members Only guy, Meadow trying to parallel park and run across the street into the diner, etc. But mainly it's the feel. The way they use songs on this show, even when the lyrics offer a pointed message, the feel is really the thing.

6. Respect. It's the opposite of a fuck-you to the audience. It's the kind of ending that makes people leap up out of their seats. I looked over at Penny, and she was all Home Alone: hands to her face, mouth open. We both said, "Oh My God." What a thrill. Did the blackout really confuse people into thinking their cable went out? The music cue seemed to make it obvious: We stop on the line "don't stop." And then we don't stop, because we get to make up the rest for ourselves. In my version, the guy comes out of the bathroom and he's nobody. Meadow sits down. The family has dinner. They have a conversation, probably at least one argument. And then they go back to all the rest of their problems. And because Tony is who he is, the anxieties don't stop.

I hear they shot two other endings. I wonder if that means they shot them with different songs, like a Sinatra version? Maybe Tony gets hit in one, or maybe it's a mess that leaves a leatherette booth full of Sopranos shot full of holes? Or maybe the feds show up, just as the family's ordering...

A feast of possibilities. Greatest show on earth. And it's over. Boo-hoo, and bravo.

(Oh, can you imagine how bad this show will be, cut up and dubbed to rebroadcast on Bravo? Yeesh...)

We return now to our regular programming. Despite my interest being somewhat piqued by John From Cincinnati (great writing, superb casting--is that surfer kid splendid as an emotionally-cramped 13-year-old, or what?), I think I'll be getting more writing done on Sunday evenings. And that's a good thing.

Monday, June 04, 2007

An Odd Dozen

Today, my dahlink and I mark 12 years of wedded bliss. What I really like about this photo is that it shows what a knockout Penny is. It’s a good picture, if you ignore the other half of it. Why do photos of me so often suggest a guy who pulls a groin muscle when he smiles? The seam of my t-shirt under that weird collar-up number I’m wearing makes it look like my arm has been artificially attached to my shoulder. Which it has. I’m actually one of those jointed paper dolls -- two-dimensional, put together with brads.

What a weird, winding, wonderful, alliterative twelve years we’ve had. How about a thumbnail history, year by year? Shortly after learning that I was remarrying, my ex decided to marry a guy she’d known for only a few weeks, which meant that...

Year 1: My older kids (16 and 13 at the time) moved to Idaho. This was the first big hurdle Penny and I had to clear. She wasn’t ready to be a full-time mom, and I was practically hysterical trying to keep my kids from moving 1600 miles away to live with a guy who, by the time the move was underway, I would meet once and get the creeps from. It was a mess. By the end of the school year, that all fell apart, the ex moved back here completely broke, and the kids moved in with us. Also that year, Penny took a big trip to Israel and came back a vegetarian. And we bought a new bed.

Year 2: Adjusting to life with kids in our little house on the prairie. Oliver lived in the basement, Emily in the refurbished attic, and Penny and I spent a lot of time in psychoanalysis. Don’t get me wrong: I loved having the kids with us full-time instead of just weekends. But, as Penny will attest, she simply didn’t know what she was getting into. It was a year of shattering all the illusions she’d had about marriage. And if I still had any, I guess mine were shattered, too.

Year 3: Emily off to college, and Oliver moving back in with his mom, which was a big blow for me. I’d really wanted him to stay with us. I didn’t have time to stay depressed, though, because just as Emily went back for her sophomore year...

Year 4: Penny went through the windshield of her car. This whole year was about recovery from a serious head injury, starting with five days in the hospital and Penny not even knowing who people were, to staying at home with her and walking her around the house until she could get her balance, to aphasia-addled conversations that began with questions like, “Is there a bathroom in this bathroom?” She spent months in a program at the Rehabilitation Institute, relearning how to do all kinds of things. We have pictures of her holding dozens of get-well cards from friends at Hallmark. No idea what I’d have done without all the support.

Year 5: What a weird one. Against steep odds, my brother and I make a deal on “Big Bad Love,” which I’ve been working on for several years. Against even greater odds (and just as my parents move back to town), Penny gets pregnant. Oliver graduates but decides to take a break for a year. He and I go off to Mississippi to make the movie. So I essentially abandon Penny for two months that include a brief birth-defect scare. Turns out to be nothing, but still. She still makes fun of me for ditching her. Then more scares, and total bed rest for the last month of 2000...

Year 6: and the first month of 2001, which culminates in Jonah. A two-hour labor and voom! He arrives, just barely, thanks to the life-saving work of Dr. Brenda Smith. Big Bad Love debuts at Cannes and gets picked up by IFC. Jonah gets picked up by me every night and walked around the house until he falls asleep. Penny picks up a contract with Hallmark, having quit her job to write from home. Oh, and Oliver’s off to college, the towers come down, and we’re at war.

Year 7: Still not much sleep, and as a bonus, still no sex, due to various post-baby complications, but that’s none of your business, and Penny will kill me if she reads this. Jonah already shows signs of weird genius, but doesn’t walk until almost 17 months. Oliver quits school two weeks into his sophomore year. Emily with a B.A., living in Chicago. Penny loses her grandma. Our cat dies. We get through it all. I make Penny an anniversary present that’s more elaborate than anything I’ve done before or since.

Year 8: I confess, it’s all a blur. At some point in here, I had to learn how to write a TV movie. This was “Dawn Anna,” for the Lifetime channel. Among other salient events in this story, our heroine has a brain condition that means she’ll have to learn to walk again. Like I’d know anything about that. Meanwhile, Penny is doing amazing things with Jonah, bringing him out of a social and emotional shell that seemed perilously like what we’d read about Asberger’s. Man, the kid is bright -- and now, socially engaged, picking up emotional cues, the works. I really do give Penny the credit for this.

Year 9: “Dawn Anna” is the #1 cable program (exluding pro wrestling) for its week. Wow, an actual audience... and then it gets one Emmy nomination. Other than that, it’s more blur, but if Jonah is three, this is the year he asks me, “When will all these days end?” Meaning, when will life be over? Good question, three-year-old. Welcome to adulthood.

Year 10: When will all these Bush-era days end? My brother and I get a couple of movie projects simmering, both of which comment on the current mess. Penny and I get swallowed whole by various home renovations and the relentless routines of work and kid. We look up, it’s been ten years, we have no idea where it went.

Year 11: I turn 50. Jonah off to kindergarten. Penny working on book concepts with illustrator friends. I convince the filmmaking faction of the family to option T.C. Boyle’s “Drop City,” and proceed to spend every spare moment trying to put this monster into the cage of a screenplay. By fall, we have a sprawlingly hefty but truly thrilling draft. Bob Berney, having moved from IFC to Picture House, loves it and is shopping it around. We’ll see...

Year 12: Jonah trajecting toward first grade. Emily still teaching in Chicago. Oliver now studying music in Fairfax, CA. Freed from her Hallmark contract, Penny's now writing for about a dozen other companies and concerns. I’m still head over heels for her. We buy a new bed. It’s about time.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

An Earful of M & N's, and coupla O's

I hit this great alphabetical run of songs starting a ways into the M’s of my iTunes library:

Measuring Cups (Andrew Bird) My daughter turned me on to this guy. Sings, plays violin, guitar, and whistles as if his last name were literal. This tune doesn’t feature his whistling, alas, but if you go to his web site, there’s video. It’s a tweet. Plus, he’s a great lyricist.

Message In A Bottle (Police) What a great idea for a song. If you haven’t heard it in a while, the propulsive speed of it may surprise you. And if you’ve never seen Sting do it live, he usually does a slow, solo version, and the chorus turns the crowd into one gigantic choir.

Missed The Boat (Modest Mouse) One of the catchiest songs I've heard in years. You get the big chiming rhythm guitar and the wiggly, fluid lead, one of which is Johnny Marr, formerly of The Smiths—I had no idea he’d joined the band. I’ve always admired the songwriting, but not the singing, of Isaac Brock. He sounds pretty good on this. And the guy can write. A great anthem for corporate drones, or for a fecklessly failing government.

Mistaken For Strangers (The National) Do you know this band? The big sound and song structures remind me of Coldplay and, every once in awhile, Simple Minds. But the singer’s like the love child of Mark Knopfler and that guy from Crash Test Dummies. He’s a mumbler and doesn’t have much range, but the lyrics are full of odd details. This is from a CD called “Boxer.” The drummer is mighty.

Money (Pink Floyd) How did this song become a radio hit at six-and-a-half minutes and with a word that had to be bleeped? By kicking ass, that’s how.

Morning Glory (Chrissie Hynde, a cover of a Tim Buckley song) From the anthology “Bleecker Street: Greenwich Village In The ‘60s,” full of contemporary artists interpreting folkies of the era. This is a weird one. It seems allegorical, and the particulars of the story aren’t really clear, but the feeling comes through. What’s the feeling? I guess I’d call it loneliness.

Muskrat Love (America) Well, a glitch along the way. I listened to it anyway, and thought, I guess it’s whimsical, but what the hell? Acquired during a Sound Card project. And, just now, thrown in the trash.

Mustang Sally (Wilson Pickett) I should do a list of my favorite singers. I’m pretty sure Wilson Pickett would make the top ten.

My Back Pages (Marshall Crenshaw covering Bob Dylan) Not my fave Dylan song, but I love this arrangement of it. Jonah, at age four, asked me how somebody could be “so much older then” but be “younger than that now”? So I had to explain how the more you know, the less you know. My dad didn't have to explain that to me until I was 14. Kids these days.

My Favorite Mistake (Sheryl Crow) What a great piece of writing. “When you go, all I know is, it’s the perfect ending / To the bad day I was just beginning.” If art is clear thinking about mixed emotions, Sheryl is a bona fide artist. She may be too strident about toilet paper, but her songs are no shit.

My Sharona (The Knack) OK, I admit, I like it. It makes me think back to when Winona Ryder was sublime, dancing in a convenience store, a rare moment of exuberance in a movie that took its title literally and avoided reality for fear of its bite.

Myxomatosis - Judge, Jury, & Executioner (Radiohead) We conclude the M’s with this blast of polyrhythmic synthy-cism. I never know what Tom Yorke’s singing about, but I never doubt that he does.

Nettie Moore (Bob Dylan) This is probably my fave from “Modern Times.” It thumps right along, and Bob keeps going and going. Some of his phrasings are just superhuman.

No Count Blues (Sarah Vaughan) Sissy’s amazing scat vs. a muted trumpet. You can smell the cigarette smoke.

No Regrets (Tom Rush) One of the great, lesser-known singer-songwriters of the ‘60s and ‘70s, with one of the great, lesser-known, end-of-the-affair songs ever. I could have done without the big production, but the song can’t be denied.

Oh You (Greg Brown) “With your heart-shaped rocks and your rocky heart / With your worn-out shoes and your eagerness to start / With your mother’s burden and your father’s stare / With your pretty dresses and your ragged underwear / Oh you...” Nobody piles up lists in a song like Greg Brown. This is on “Milk of the Moon,” recent enough that he probably wrote it for Iris Dement.

Ol’ Man River (Screamin’ Jay Hawkins) Well, he was no Paul Robeson. If hearing sad songs comically trashed is your thing, this one’s for you. Screamin’ Jay autographed my draft card at the premiere of Jim Jarmusch’s “Mystery Train.” Then my wallet got stolen. Man, I coulda sold that draft card on eBay for at least a buck-fifty.

Old Man (Neil Young) An absolutely unique artist in American music, and quite a guy. Who else was laying a banjo into a pop song back in, what, 1972? Or for that matter, singing about an old man? I remember listening to the Harvest album over and over while making leather belts to sell at head shops. Then we'd switch to Harry Chapin or It's A Beautiful Day. Then we'd run out of pot.

Open (Bruce Cockburn) Speaking of Old Man, shortly after my 50th birthday, I saw Bruce Cockburn live in upstate New York, and he opened with this. Glorious.

Our House (Crosby, Stills & Nash) One of the great cohabitation songs, written by Graham Nash for Joni Mitchell, so they say. I love the internal rhymes and the la-la-la.

Our House (Madness) Less a song than a music video, but I’d forgotten how catchy it is. Jonah loves to riff on it in a British accent. "Owah the middle of my tush, Owah House...with some flowahs on a bush, Owah House...with the cats in the yahd..." He gets the two songs confused. The kid has no sense of rock history.

Over The Rainbow (Judy Garland) End with a broken heart.

The floor is now open for great iTunes mix lists. Don’t cheat!

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Tony Gets His Button

I feel compelled to say three things about The Sopranos:

1. It really is a Greco-Roman myth. The characters embody attributes of human consciousness that are universal, undeniable, horrifying, touching, and self-revealing, which is why they stick with you and make you wonder about them, as if they existed not just in your imagination but in life. They feel more real than many people you actually meet. I never dreamed I’d say that about a TV show.

2. It still has the capacity to shock, after seven seasons of brutality and venality. Anyone who watched the last episode knows what I mean. The big event, only seven minutes in, makes you catch your breath, even though it feels inevitable. In this sense, it’s more real than the news. The Virginia Tech murders were horrible, and I’m not trying to diminish their importance or impact. But my gut response to that carnage was somewhere between knee-jerk revulsion and “ain’t that America,” followed by muted empathy (and then, as media vultures made a mockery of it all, disgust and ennui). We look at the absurd images of the killer and can only wonder why so little was done, how the same society that denied him decent mental health care could so blithely supply him with guns and armor-piercing bullets. It happened out there, and we’re still safe here. But we see in Tony Soprano the primal, practical, dead-eyed sociopath we all could be, if the circumstances of his life had been handed down to us. What a shock, as he knocks out the window of a wrecked car, decides not to call 911, and finishes off a piece of grim business. And it is business. But it’s also personal. It’s revenge. It’s defiance of fate. It’s mythic, a god eating his children. And it’s hands-on. The violence isn’t shied away from, but it isn’t glorified, either. At rock-bottom, the show is deeply moral. It never flinches.

3. The freedom of its storytelling is astounding. Nobody (not even David Chase) could have predicted, back when the show was in its infancy, that its final season would find Tony in the Nevada desert, high on peyote and having a laughing, crying epiphany as he stares into the sun. “I get it!” he cries. I don’t, exactly (is he still lit up by his roulette experience?—“same principle as the solar system”—or has he just grokked the whole Christopher situation in some druggie way?), but I feel the evanescence of his exultation. Drugs have done pretty well by Tony, but he’s still “Comfortably Numb,” as the brilliant music cues have suggested. And we know no epiphany of his will lead to model citizenry or a happy ending. Even as the show takes a breath, with all that slow, expansive quiet stretching off under the desert sky, we can feel the story closing in, ratcheting down, closing off all heroic possibilities.

Plus, Sarah Shahi. Oh, my word. Chalk another one up for the dark, diminutive deities of drama. If this doesn’t launch her out of TV into movie stardom, I don’t know what will. When she brought out the peyote buttons, I could see some of what was coming: Tony would puke, and then have the eyes of his eyes briefly opened. But man, how beautifully the actors played it. Watching her watch the roulette wheel brought the whole stoner phase of my life back like the smell of an old girlfriend’s hair. If you’ve ever done psychotropics, you know how true to life that whole sequence was. And if you haven’t, I bet you still know, which is all the more amazing.

When they first drift into the casino and Tony stares at that slot-machine image of the devil, I had a thought. It’s way too cheap an idea for this show, but not for me, Alice In Wonderlandkind that I am:

What if Tony actually did die last season, and this whole season is him in Hell? So Hell is just being comfortably numb, killing your friends, cheating on your wife, going to funerals, hanging out in casinos, and still having to deal with the mundane details of your job—dumping asbestos in a pristine marshland, for instance, and haggling over a rival boss’s percentage. Hell is just life, except you don’t get out.

OK, they won’t pull that on us. What’s the end? I told Bighead Needleman that the father-son arc must be fulfilled, so A.J. either dies, does something that causes Tony’s death, or somehow gets drawn into the life, becoming the new Christopher. If A.J. kills Tony and ends up blind, we’ll know which myth we’re in. Otherwise, we should probably retreat to Goldfinch’s and look up Zeus and Hera. Somewhere in the stories about them is the story of Tony and Carmela. This one can't possibly end well. Predictions?

Thank heavens for smart, creative, thought-provoking entertainment. Without Jon Stewart and Tony Soprano, how would I have survived these ghastly first few years of the new millennium? Lame as it sounds, and essentially lucky as I know myself to be, sometimes I think they’re all that’s kept me sane.

Ciao, Christophuh.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Mendacity of Show, Litany of Woe

Four years ago this week, an unelected president strode across an aircraft carrier in an unearned Navy flight suit for an expensive photo op beneath a banner proclaiming “Mission Accomplished.” I’m trying to think if I’ve ever witnessed a more insulting, absurd image of a U.S. president. Hoover with his fat-cat cronies during the Depression? Pretty bad. Nixon’s V-for-victory exit from office? Cartoonish enough to laugh at, and good riddance. Carter's interview in Playboy magazine? Foolish, but he seemed human. Bush the first’s Japanese vomit? At least it was vomit of necessity, not choice. Reagan fumbling his way through a remark about trees causing air pollution? OK, he was already losing it. Clinton’s “I did not have sex...” posturing? Doesn’t even come (so to speak) close.

The fake flyboy strut. It’s like an x-ray of Bush’s psyche. Who do we see? A privileged juvenile delinquent acting out in a mendacious show-off stunt to prove himself half the man Daddy was. It’s as undeveloped an idea of leadership, masculinity, and adulthood as I’ve ever seen.

And the media served it to us like ice cream. And a lot of people slurped it right up. If you ever want a clear picture of just how bad American journalism has gotten in the 21st century, look back at the response to the Mission Accomplished moment. It’s horrifying. The right-wing media practically creamed its Sans-a-belt slacks. And few in the mainstream press held Bush to account.

Since that clueless display (remember, we paid for the aircraft carrier to turn around so the shoreline wouldn't show?), think of what has taken place:

Iraqi Army disbanded, left to its own devices (mostly IEDs) to create the insurgency

Weapons storage facilities left unguarded, emptied by insurgents

Unsecured borders allowing thousands of jihadists, mercenaries, and fun-loving terrorists into Iraq

Oh, and the denial that the White House had anything to do with that Mission Accomplished banner...
and then the retraction of the denial when expense reports showed that Karl Rove’s office paid for it

U.S. soldiers in combat without proper equipment, armor, etc.--and now with less training than ever

Rumsfeld’s “you go to war with the army you have”

No WMD’s after all--ooops, my bad!

Turns out Wolfowitz was wrong about oil money paying for reconstruction, too

Fallujah becomes a template for how NOT to take a city

The rise of Muktada al-Sadr and other fundamentalist elements

U.S.-soldiers-rape-Iraqi-civilians case

Alberto Gonzales murky torture-condoning memo
Abu Ghraib
Rumsfeld "forgot to bring" chain-of-command chart to Abu Ghraib hearings
Scapegoating of grunts for the scandal

Scott McFuckingClellan

Richard Perle and other administration war profiteers resign due to conflict of interest

No-bid contract scandal
Billions in reconstruction money go missing
Huge cost overruns by Halliburton, KBR, and other contractors found to be misappropriating funds
Pentagon hiring private soldiers of fortune who earn vastly more than U.S. military salaries

Denial of CIA black sites in Europe and Asia...
and retraction of denial!

Dick Cheney, ever the brilliant analyst: “The insurgency is in its last throes”

Dissenting voices in administration (Richard Clarke, Colin Powell, etc.) silenced or marginalized
Dissenting military commanders (e.g., Zinni, Shinseki) fired or sidelined
George Tenet and J. Paul Bremer bought off with Medal of Freedom

Fake stories planted in the press to make Jessica Lynch a hero
Fake stories planted to make Pat Tillman a Christian martyr and Bush loyalist
Fake journalists planted in press briefings

Fake Maliki government by 2007 has failed to secure a single province

Govt report finds DOD's Douglas Feith developed bogus intelligence to link Iraq and al Qaeda

Condi Rice, having ignored pre-9/ll intelligence about Osama, fails upward into Sec. of State job

Continued denials from Cheney et al. that it’s a civil war...
and finally a recognition that it’s a civil war

Iraq Study Group convened
Iraq Study Group recommendations ignored
The surge
McCain and others walk Baghdad in body armor with huge security detail and proclaim the streets safe
Iraqi parliament bombed

Taliban resurgent in under-resourced war in Afghanistan

New study shows seven out of eight “finished” reconstruction projects either relapsing into unusable state or still awaiting equipment, construction, etc.

Saudi Arabia and other Mideast allies begin to defy U.S., with Prince Bandar about as reliable as Chalabi was in lead-up to war

Military allies (what few we had) peeling off and pulling out

Pushing toward 3500 American dead
Tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians killed

J. Walter Reed scandal
Tours of duty extended
Repeat tours increased
Veteran disability benefits slashed

Prisoners held for years without charge or legal recourse

Osama still at large

And Bush talking shit about Iran

I consulted no published lists to arrive at this godawful pile of national shame. It’s not ordered or comprehensive, just what I could pull off the top of my head as a reader of the news. I’m sure there are many other events that should be listed here. Feel free to contribute.

Fine, throw in the election (see note on the fake Maliki government) or Saddam (whose botched execution compounded our international PR problem). Why put lipstick on a warthog?

When I go down that list, I feel fury boiling up. I’m just so disgusted by these short-sighted, greedy ideologues who looked at the post-9/ll world and decided it was a ticket to empire, while lacking the imagination, skill, and integrity to manage even the first fraction of the effort. Killing, maiming, spending us into oblivion, all the while ignoring the needs of our own citizens. Think of all we might have done here if if not for the time, money, and energy spent there. And for what?

My friend Kristin says, don’t hate them, because then you’re at their level. You have to love Bush and Cheney and Rove, she says. You have to hope for their evolution as human beings.

I know she's right. But all I seem capable of is loathing and despair. I hate what’s been done to my country, by my country, in the name of my country. It’s going to take years and years to undo it. And they’re not through yet.

Friday, April 27, 2007

All’s Well: A List of Great Movie Endings

I came up with what I think is a superb final image for a script I’m working on, but Herr Direktor thinks otherwise. So I’m thinking about endings. Why are some endings so perfect. and others not so much? Here’s my endings theory: Good endings feel like an Inevitable Surprise. Bad endings are either too inevitable (you saw it coming, so it’s a letdown), too surprising (you feel tricked)—or perhaps I should say, surprising in the wrong way—or else they just try too hard and you can feel the strings being yanked on, and you resent it. Inevitable Surprise. Surely someone has said this before. But I’m claiming it as my pet theory. And I need a pet theory, now that we’ve given up on guinea pigs.

Inevitability implies that the ending is prepared for. Because movies run the storytelling gamut, a “happy ending” is only occasionally inevitable. Among my favorite movie endings, only a handful are what anyone might describe as happy. As I thought of endings to add to my list, each seemed to fall into one of four categories:

1. Uplifting
2. Chilling
3. Bittersweet/Ambivalent/Poetic/Melancholy/Mysterious
4. Perfect Bummers

So. Let’s get the UPLIFTERS out of the way:

1. Cinema Paradiso: Just one of the greatest endings ever. If the middle section of the film weren’t weakened by a lame actor playing Our Hero, this would be one of my top ten movies of all time.

2. A Room With A View: Love triumphs over Edwardian repression. Yay!

3. The Game: Michael Douglas is only good at playing arrogant pricks, but this role at least gives him some interesting psychological texture. It’s great to watch him get broken down to his real humanity. As iffy as the ending is in terms of what seems realistically possible, it’s completely satisfying, inspiring, even funny. It's Finchery.

4. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: This would have been in the Bittersweet/etc. category if Charlie Kaufman’s original ending had survived. He says that when Joel and Clementine decide to give it another go, the original ending makes it clear that they’ve done this (erasing their memories of each other and then trying again) not just once before, but over and over. I have to say, I like it better that they’re not stuck in an endless loop. A little more hope.

5. High Fidelity: It’s a real feel-gooder, after all that narcissistic dithering and getting dumped and failing to grow up. It should be a cardinal rule of filmmaking: If an upbeat ending is called for, just get Jack Black to sing Marvin Gaye.

Honorable-mention Uplifters:

The 40-Year-Old-Virgin: Let the sunshine in!
Napoleon Dynamite: Both endings qualify.
Flirting With Disaster: One of my fave movies from start to finish.

Next category: great CHILLERS:

1. Seven: Yikes, what’s in the box, we know what’s in the box, aaaaaaaah, jeez....

2. Easy Rider: This could as easily be in the Perfect Bummer category. But it seems to resonate with all the disappointment of post-‘60s America, taking on a big chill. (Hmmm, does The Big Chill have a good ending? I can’t remember.)

3. The Godfather: Ooooh, look at Pacino through that doorway, becoming The Godfather. Look at Diane Keaton absorb the fact that her life is FUCKED. Look at them shut the door in her face... Oooooh.

4. Apocalypse Now: The horror.

5. Dr. Strangelove: Weird, how a movie this funny, and a song so light and sunny, can feel like a megatonny of grim, chilly-willy ice-cubes down your back.

Honorable-mention Chillers:

Sunset Boulevard: Maybe “creepy” is a better word for this one.
Silence of the Lambs: It’d be chillier if we didn’t actually want Lecter to kill the guy. It’s more Chiltoning than chilling. But still.

Next category: Bittersweet/Poetic/Ambivalent/Melancholy/Mysterious

1. Days of Heaven: My favorite film of all time. Mind-blowingly beautiful, utterly sad.

2. A Map of the Human Heart: Transcendent, yet melancholy. Yet glorious.

3. 2001: A Space Odyssey: What the hell does it all mean? I don’t even care.

4. Children of Men: Too heavily symbolic, maybe? Nah. God, I love this movie. I just got the DVD and watched it again. Splendid extra features about the production.

5. Witness: Nothing like star-crossed lovers for the bittersweet. As Our Hero is leaving, he passes his romantic rival coming the other way and his brake lights go on, just for a moment. Perfect.

6. Local Hero: This used to be on my Top Ten list for movies, period. I wonder if it still is? Anyway, a great ending, with that lovely twinge of yearning.

7. Oh, yeah. Casablanca.

I feel like there should be a dozen more in this category. A few Honorable Mentions:

Big Bad Love: Actually ineligible for ranking due to conflict of interest. But I like it.

Raising Arizona: One of the best last lines in movies.

The Graduate: A very influential movie. If it had never been made, how would the next one have ended?

Say Anything: Ding!

Next category: PERFECT BUMMERS

1. Citizen Kane: The whole movie is a perfect bummer, really. The ending just gives it a wistful twist. I mean, a twistful wist.

2. Thelma & Louise: By the time they actually go over the edge, it’s no longer a complete surprise. But it’s just enough of one to balance out the inevitability.

3. Memento: I’m trying to think of another ending that forced me to watch the movie again. I know there’s another obvious one, but this is a prime example of the effect, because the ending of the movie is actually the beginning of the story. You only understand what you’ve seen when the ending/beginning clicks in.

4. Raiders of the Lost Ark: Coming out of the theater, I was still elated by the movie as a whole, so the bummer-ish ending wasn’t a letdown. It still seems like a great, if disenchanting, surprise. Yet inevitable.

5. The Wizard of Oz: I’m sure some people find it heartwarming or uplifting, but I think “The next time I go searching for my heart’s desire, I won’t go any further than my own backyard” is one of the saddest lines ever delivered by a teenager. Especially in Kansas.

OK, and here are a couple of great endings that probably deserve their own category. Maybe we should just call it EASY TO SPOIL. These are endings that may be inevitable, but mainly, they’re surprising. One answers a question we really needed to have answered, and the other comes out of nowhere to hit us upside the head:

The Usual Suspects: I watched this again on cable recently and got bored. But the ending was still great. It’s the editing that does it, really.

The Sixth Sense: Oh, this is the other ending that made me go back to see the movie a second time. But after the second time, I need never watch it again.

What else should go on this list? Since my categories derived from films I love, I wonder if I’m missing a whole category. I’m sure I’ve missed some movies. Make me slap my forehead in inevitable surprise.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

To the left, to the left

Why do the arts lean leftward, politically? Back when I was more of an ideologue, I just figured: the arts are good, so naturally, artists tend to be on the side of good, and that's the left side, of course. You get older, things get less black & white, and you begin to wonder. Why do most writers, musicians, visual artists, filmmakers, dancers, performers in general, tend to be progressives rather than conservatives? The place of art, at least in modern culture, has often been at odds with repressive powers that be (hence the image of Trotsky's pals Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, godparents of this post). Why do contemporary American artists who express opinions about politics and current events almost unanimously deplore the current administration's policies?

First, what's left and what's right? I'm saying that the extreme left end of the political spectrum is anarchy; the extreme right is a police state. More toward the center, liberalism favors equality and social freedom; conservatism favors hierarchy and social order (and the free reign of capital). Is the most balanced view simply moderate, down the middle? I don't think so, because power and wealth tend to reinforce each other, concentrating in institutional elites, so the right’s laissez-faire attitude toward power and capital is only balanced out by moving farther leftward, constraining the abuse of that power. If you have a big fat bossy kid on a seesaw, it’ll take several kids on the other side to get him off the ground. Or you could lengthen that side of the lever away from the fulcrum in the middle and place one underfed lefty on the seat.

Do the assumptions behind my first two paragraphs really hold up?

1) I think so. The arts do lean left. A cursory survey suggests that it’s overwhelmingly disproportionate, and going deeper just amplifies that, exceptions proving the rule. For every Ezra Pound defending Mussolini, a hundred poets from Whitman to Neruda to Szymborska spend their lives writing in the other direction. For every John Milius reactionary fantasy there are scads of films celebrating liberal values or satirizing the fecklessness of the powerful. For every Ron Silver strutting and fretting on behalf of the Iraq war, five hundred other actors run lines of leftist dialogue against it. And among musicians, well, the left claims pretty much everybody but Toby Keith and his ilk. Rock & roll is about rebellion, so you don’t get much right-wing apologia in popular music, other than country & western.

2) Maybe. I first started thinking about this when my freshman-year political science prof put communism on the left end of a spectrum and fascism on the right. It doesn't make sense. Communism is an economic construct, and in real life, it’s turned out to be state-run capitalism. If the spectrum is a truly political one, I think it goes from absolute freedom, which doesn’t really exist, to absolute order, which ditto (though not for lack of trying). It makes more sense to have governments like Stalin’s, Mao’s, Hitler’s, and Pinochet's on the same end of the spectrum. So the brief flirtations American artists have had with communism have always been more about reacting to fascist right-wing tendencies in the U.S. than embracing the Party line. Artists who got blacklisted in the ‘50s ended up nearly as disenchanted with communism as they were with McCarthyism.

Maybe there’s a reverse angle on this, looking at why people on the left tend to support and defend artistic freedom (and government-funded grants for artists, art programs, museums, etc.), while people on the right tend to try to rein in artistic freedom and place limits on expression and the public forums for it, dismantling the NEA while they’re at it. The left certainly has embraced minorities in a way that the right has not, and artists themselves are a minority. Minorities are disproportionately represented in the arts, especially music.... My mind is starting to fritz out. I can’t keep these ideas framed to look at them straight on.

Maybe I’m suggesting that artists are more interested in self-expression than in submitting to authority, a naturally progressive mindset. Is the need to submit to authority conversely stronger in conservatives? I haven’t really addressed what draws someone to the right. In America, often as not, it seems to be either a single issue (say, abortion) or a cluster of such issues coded as “family values,” tied to a conservative Christian belief system (hence, James Dobson up there, damning me to hell). The most vocal advocates for this POV are almost always vocal critics of artistic expression, busily banning books, decrying obscenity in film and song lyrics, etc. When left-leaning politicians reach for conservative votes, it’s usually in this parent-friendly way, demanding warning labels and ratings and cultural crash pants. Conservatives support all these limits, especially where sex is concerned.

That may be it right there. Artists are sex maniacs (or at least like to depict it and talk about it out in the open)--and the left is more sex-friendly, less repressed? Could this alone be the key to the whole question? Freud might say so. But I think Jung would demur. Jung (who was NOT, as Tom Cruise asserts, some big Nazi) would probably say that creativity is linked to the Shadow, and then go back to screwing his patient. And I say, but Herr Doktor, what does it mean if I dream of Susan Sontag launching fireworks from her crotch into the skies over Paris? Which I did. Last night.

Maybe it’s this simple: Artists are aesthetes, and there’s more beauty in progressive politics. Is there? How can I defend that? Start with what makes something beautiful: balance and strangeness. The balance comes from paradox, irony, making opposites one. The strangeness, which keeps something beautiful from being merely pretty, is the unique stamp of the artist’s personality. Does the left have better balance, more uniqueness? Maybe it better balances individual rights with the needs of the collective. And maybe it’s more tolerant of the kind of eccentricity and diversity that make uniqueness possible.

My brain is a swarm of hornets. I leave it to you to explain it all to me.