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Archive for the ‘At the Movies’ Category

“Life Pop”- Now at the Principle Gallery


“Optimism is a strategy for making a better future. Because unless you believe that the future can be better, you are unlikely to step up and take responsibility for making it so.”

― Noam Chomsky


I thought I would focus on being optimistic today.

It’s hard these days but it’s a necessity if you want to ever live in the future of your own desires. Planning and preparation are acts of optimism, carried out with the belief that you will be able to have a say in that future.

I have to admit though that my own optimism, my own capacity for looking and planning forward, has lessened over the course of this year. The future just didn’t seem so sure on most days. 

At least, a future with which I was comfortable and at least somewhat satisfied.

But like the words above from Noam Chomsky point out, you have to have some belief that you can shape the future and make it better, even if only in the smallest way.

This sort of optimism is a statement of responsibility.

It says, “I will.”

And that short phrase is enough to begin the process of moving toward that desired future.


Note: Speaking of planning ahead, a film from one of my favorite creative teams, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, is on TCM tonight at 10 PM. It’s The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, from 1943. It’s a film I wrote about here back in 2009.  Like all of the Powell and Pressburger movies, such as The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus, it’s beautifully crafted and thought provoking. The beginning sequence is ahead of its time, feeling like a modern music video. Worth a watch.

Have a good day.

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“But what they find most amazing and despicable is the insanity of those who all but worship the rich, to whom they owe nothing and who can do them no harm; they do so for no other reason except that they are rich, knowing full well that they are so mean and tightfisted that they will certainly never give them one red cent during their whole lives.”

― Thomas More, Utopia, 1516


It might have been written in 1516, but Sir Thomas More sure understood human nature and our ever mystifying adulation for the rich and powerful.

Some things never change.

I am going to leave it at that but do want to add one more thing on the subject of Utopias.

This Saturday evening on HBO premieres the Spike Lee film  America Utopia, which is a performance of the recent Tony-winning Broadway show of the same name from David Byrne. It was one of the shows that I would love to have seen. Of course, the pandemic has brought live performance to pretty much a halt. But at least there’s a film to celebrate this show. The trailer looks great.

Here’s that HBO trailer for America Utopia followed by a performance from the Colbert show from Byrne and the rest of his talented crew. Enjoy and try to have a good day.

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One of the very few surviving drawings from the Warsaw Ghetto


“Zog Nit Keynmol (Song of the Warsaw Ghetto)”

Never say that you have reached the very end,
When leaden skies a bitter future may portend;
For sure the hour for which we yearn will yet arrive,
And our marching step will thunder: we survive!

From green palm trees to the land of distant snow,
We are here with our sorrow, our woe,
And wherever our blood was shed in pain,
Our fighting spirits now will resurrect again.

The golden rays of morning sun will dry our tears,
Dispelling bitter agony of yesteryears,
But if the sun and dawn with us will be delayed,
Then let this song ring out to you the call, instead.

Not lead, but blood inscribed this bitter song we sing,
It’s not a caroling of birds upon the wing,
But ’twas a people midst the crashing fires of hell
That sang this song and fought courageous till it fell.

So never say that you have reached the very end
Though leaden skies a bitter future may portend
Because the hour which we yearn for will arrive
And our marching step will thunder: We survive!


I like history and am a fan of World War II movies. Now when I say that, I don’t mean the combat films, though there are many fine examples. My favorites are those that focus on the people who fought as Partisans against the fascist forces of that time. Movies like Hangmen Also Die!, The Seventh Cross and Watch on the Rhine are such examples and favorites of mine. Casablanca, at its core, is also such a film.

There is something in these films that goes beyond the horror and stupidity of war and brings a very human element into the conversation. For me, it is the portrayal of common people fighting for their freedom and dignity in any way they can against brutal and overwhelmingly oppressive forces that I find so appealing. They often band together in covert underground organizations to form a network that attempts to stymie their oppressors expansive desires.

Many of these groups of partisans had rallying songs that they used to unite themselves and to shore up their strength and courage. In Watch on the Rhine, one of my favorite characters in all filmdom, a Resistance leader played to perfection by Paul Lukas, sings a song that he sang as a German soldier returning from WW I that had been adapted as a song of resistance to the Nazis. Very powerful stuff.

The song below (with lyrics above) is such a song. It is Zog Nit Keynmol which is sometimes called The Song of the Partisans or The Song of the Warsaw Ghetto. It was sung during the siege of the Warsaw Ghetto and is still sung today as an anthem of defiance and perseverance.

And survival.

Most versions of this song are in Yiddish or Hebrew but I am sharing the version of this song from the great Paul Robeson that integrates both an English translation along with the original Yiddish lyrics.

If you need to shore up your own courage and strength in the iffy days ahead, give a listen. Powerful stuff, indeed. Have a good day and stay aware.


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The film Jojo Rabbit premiered on HBO over the weekend, which made me very happy. It hits a lot of sweet spots for me.

A great cast and a script filled with a beguiling mix of dark satire and tragic poignancy. Strong visuals. Big laughs and plenty of tears. Ridiculous (but still scary) Nazis.

Hitler eating a unicorn.

Yeah, you read that right.

There’s even some poetry from Rainer Maria Rilke as the film ends, a snippet from his poem Go to the Limits of Your Longing, which is shown at the top. Words that seem applicable to this time, for sure.

It also uses its soundtrack brilliantly. It begins with the Beatles singing their German version of I Want to Hold Your Hand over archival clips of Hitler’s adoring fans at huge nationalistic rallies that are chilling in their magnitude and fervor. Images from the infamous Nuremberg rally always puts a knot in my stomach. The film ends with the German performance from David Bowie of his always rousing Heroes.

Filmmaker Taika Waititi also makes brilliant use of the song Everybody’s Gotta Live. It’s a song from 1972 from a band of that era, Love, that is very underappreciated. Led by the late Arthur Lee, it was an interesting group, a multiracial group that dabbled in folk rock and psychedelia a la the Byrds. Their 1967 release, Forever Changes, is on the Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Rock Albums and was added to the Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry in 2011.

Even so, I am sure most of us haven’t heard much of their work. But it shines in Jojo Rabbit and is certainly worth examining further.

Here’s a video with the lyrics and images from the film just to give you taste. If you get a chance to see the film, I recommend it highly. But be forewarned, that it is art and, as such, is a subjective thing. What I love may not move you at all.

Take a look and give a listen then have a good day. We all deserve one.

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It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

— A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens

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It seems like this current period of time, this year we call 2020, might be memorable. It definitely falls somewhere among those terms that Dickens set out in the opening paragraph of his A Tale of Two Cities.

I’m still waiting for the best of times part but maybe it will eventually show its shining face at some point this year. Got my fingers crossed on that one.

The painting at the top is part of my Social Distancing show that opens 4 weeks from tomorrow, June 5, at the Principle Gallery in Alexandria. As I was working on it, further into the process it felt like it was acting as a marker in some way of this year. It certainly reflected the social distancing in the show’s title.

But there was something more than that to it, something more like the Dickensian ( finally got to use that word!) words above. Perhaps best of times, worst of times sort of stuff.

Season of light and season of darkness, definitely.

I think it’s a fitting piece for this period with its fractured sky and darker, ominous tones set against the light from the sun/moon(?) and the sturdiness of the house.

It is neither optimistic nor pessimistic. Not fearful either nor foolishly filled with hubris. The word I might use is enduring.

Kind of like the final speech from Ma Joad ( played brilliantly by Jane Darwell) that ends the film version of The Grapes of Wrath:

“I ain’t never gonna be scared no more. I was, though. For a while it looked like we was beat. Good and beat. Looked like we didn’t have nobody in the world but enemies. Like nobody was friendly no more. Made me feel kinda bad and scared too, like we was lost and nobody cared…. Rich fellas come up and they die, and their kids ain’t no good and they die out too, but we keep on coming. We’re the people that live. They can’t wipe us out, they can’t lick us. We’ll go on forever, Pa, ’cause we’re the people.”

That speech always moves me because it speaks so strongly to my own survival instincts. There have been times when I wanted to give up but this same drive that Ma Joad describes kicks in.

You take the beating today but you keep plodding forward, doing whatever is needed to see the next day.

Because maybe that’s where the answer will be.

That’s what I see in this painting. Enduring. Resilient. Good time, bad times, fight through the darkness and look for the light. Just keep going on and not giving up.

I am calling this painting, which is 20″ wide by 30″ tall on wood panel, In the Year 2020.

It was somewhat borrowed from the old Zager & Evans 1968 hit In the Year 2525. That time 50 some years back felt as apocalyptic as this moment seems now. I am sure there was a lot of use of the best of times, worst of times at that point. But we did somehow endure the turbulence of that time. There might be much more ahead of us now that we will have to struggle past but we will most likely endure and look back at this year with mixed feelings someday, remembering the awfulness along with the goodness we discovered alongside it.

Here’s a video of that Zager & Evans song set to visuals from the 1925 silent futuristic dystopian classic from director Fritz Lang, Metropolis.
Have a good day and stay strong.

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Watch on the Rhine- Bette Davis and Paul Lukas, 1943

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In Praise of the Fighters

There are men who struggle for a day and they are good.

There are men who struggle for a year and they are better.

There are men who struggle many years, and they are better still.

But there are those who struggle all their lives:

These are the indispensable ones.

Bertolt Brecht, The Mother,  1930

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I came across this short poem/song taken from the play The Mother written by Bertolt Brecht and was reminded of one of my favorite movies, Watch on the Rhine, which featured one such indispensable fighter. I was reminded, as well, of the path we are hurtling down as a nation, especially in the light of the events here of the last few days and weeks. The transformation is accelerating as all guide rails that have protected us in the past are smashed aside. The parallels between what is happening here at the moment and the formation of other authoritarian/fascist regimes in the past century are haunting.

But this short verse and this movie favorite of mine remind us that in almost all of these other regimes, they have been opposed and often defeated by people of great strength and resolve. They were Anti-Fascists or Freedom Fighters who put aside concerns for their personal benefit or safety and devoted their lives to opposing, in every possible manner, the cruelty of fascist rule.

You might read this and shake your head and think that this is an overstatement of what is taking place, that things are not so dire as I might see them and that we are light-years away from fascism.

I hope you’re right.

But I remind you that in all of these past regimes there were large numbers of their citizens who thought just that same thing, that such a thing was inconceivable. It can’t happen here. But authoritarianism creeps up on you, taking hold little by little. Then, when there is a window of opportunity for it to impose its total will on the citizenry, it accelerates at a pace that exceeds the ability of normal response to restrain it.

It may be too late beyond that point but for these people who stand in brave opposition. The fighters.

I urge you to see Watch on the Rhine if you get a chance or at least read the original play. The film was made in 1943, adapted for the screen by Dashiell Hammett from the prize-winning play written by his wife, Lillian Hellman. It concerns a well-heeled family in the Northern Virginia area across the Potomac from Washington whose daughter ( played beautifully by Bette Davis ) returns home from a war-torn Europe for the first time in many years with her husband and children. It is set, and was written, in the year or so before before our entry into World War II.

Her husband is a German freedom fighter named Kurt Muller who is a fugitive leader in the underground movement against the Nazis. He is played by Paul Lukas in a magnificent performance, one that won him the Academy Award for Best Actor that year over Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca and Gary Cooper in For Whom the Bells Toll. Yes, it was that good.

His Muller is the common man who finds himself in the role of the selfless hero willing to give up everything– his career, his family, his life– in order to stand against evil. Muller did not seek this task but knows that it is one he must shoulder. His words are simple, direct and powerful.

Lukas, who also originated the part on the Broadway stage, is brilliant. Whenever I see this movie, I am haunted for weeks afterwards by Lukas’ performance. The power of it thrills me but I find myself questioning my own strength and beliefs as a human. Thankfully, to this point, I have never been put into a situation like that faced by Kurt Muller and hopefully never will.

But would I be able to stand with even a fraction of the grace and courage of Lukas’ character?

I really don’t know.

There is a different first line of Brecht’s song at the top of the page taken from another translation of the verse from its original German: Those who are weak don’t fight.

I sincerely hope I don’t fall into that category if the situation ever presents itself at my door.

And I worry that it is coming up my walkway even as I write this.

 

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Thought I’d share the film that won the Academy Award last night for Best Animated Short Film. It is titled, Hair Love, and was written and directed by Matthew A. Cherry, and co-produced with Karen Rupert Toliver.  I saw it yesterday morning on CBS Sunday Morning and thought it was absolutely charming and sweet.

I think we need both of those two things and the humanity they represent, even if it is only for the 7 minutes of this short film.

I didn’t watch the Oscars last night. Since I don’t see many movies at the theater these days, usually waiting until they move to streaming services, I am usually not in any position to root for any one movie. In fact, of this year’s crop of Best Film candidates, I have only seen one, Jo Jo Rabbit, which I thought was marvelous. Both laugh out loud funny and moving, it is one of my favorite films in many years.

But I look forward to seeing the others, particularly Parasite, the Best Film winner from South Korea and the first to ever win as a foreign language film, and 1917, set in WW I. Seems like quite a good crop of films this year.

But for now, from Sony Pictures Animation, take a look at Hair Love. Hope it gets your week off to a good start.

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Actor/Producer Kirk Douglas turns 103 years old today. As the last of the Hollywood’s Golden Era stars, it would be easy to simply point out the highlights in his long and fabled career. For god’s sake, he was Spartacus. That in itself might be the headline for most people.

But he starred in and made so many great films in so many genres that to focus on one seems to short him in some way. There is the anti-war classic Paths of Glory, the great boxing film Champion and Out of the Past, a film noir gem. He played a modern cowboy out of step with the ever changing world in Lonely Are the Brave, a rising jazz star in Young Man With a Horn and the epic hero Ulysses in the film of the same name.

There are so many others that I could go on and on but I want to focus on one film. It was his portrayal of Vincent Van Gogh in Lust For Life that that really hits for me. It’s a beautifully made film from director Vincent Minnelli with lush colors shot in locations in France that lend it an air of authenticity.

Douglas plays the artist to what feels to me like perfection, capturing Van Gogh’s manic passions and frustrations as well as his fragility. You feel like you are watching Van Gogh and feel his sense of self epiphany that comes from the creation of many of his paintings. It is a performance that is a mixture of strength and vulnerability, much like you see in a Van Gogh painting.

There are a lot of fine films that wonderfully portray artists but this remains a favorite of mine. It’s one of those movies that I can tune into at any point and immediately engage with just because of Douglas’ portrayal and the the beautiful visuals of the film itself.

Like I said, there are tons of films to talk about with Kirk Douglas but there is much more to celebrate with Kirk Douglas’ 103 years on this planet. He has the ultimate American biography. Son of immigrants, raised in a very poor family, worked since he was a child to help his family, talked his way into college, served in the Navy during WW II, became a stage actor ( he was the original Randle Patrick McMurphy in the Broadway production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, which he also produced) and then a real movie star.

Plus, he had severe stroke back in 1996 and has flourished in the years since.

It’s been a big life. To make it through all that to be 103 years old, he must have, like Van Gogh, a real lust for life.

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Fear’s a powerful thing
It can turn your heart black you can trust
It’ll take your God filled soul
And fill it with devils and dust

Bruce Springsteen, Devils & Dust

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Very late getting around so I don’t have time to say much. How much do I really ever say anyhow? But I had this song in my head that seemed to be setting the tone for my day and maybe my week. Maybe my month. I thought I’d share it.

The song is Devils & Dust from Bruce Springsteen‘s 2005 album with the same title. It’s a song that wasn’t really a hit but received some critical acclaim including several Grammy nominations. Even so, I believe it’s a song and album that I think is very much underrated in the Springsteen canon. It’s an adult album, as it should be, from a man forty years removed from the youthful exuberance and anthemic nature of his early work.

I always pay attention to this song when it comes on my playlist and it never fails to bring on a few moments of quiet rumination. A tone for this moment, as I said.

Give a listen. For you keen eyed readers, the image at the top is the dining room of Mrs. Haversham from the great David Lean adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, a book and film that is very much a favorite of mine.

Have a good day.

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It’s fitting that on the day of the annual Academy Awards that this week’s Sunday morning musical selection be taken from a movie, a scene from a film directed by the great Stanley Donen, who died yesterday at the age of 94.

Unless you’re a big fan of films you might not know the name but you most likely know his work. It started back in 1949 with his direction of the musical On the Town with Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra. He went on to direct some of the greatest musicals of the 1950’s– Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Funny Face, The Pajama Game, Damn Yankees and Royal Wedding, the film that had Fred Astaire dancing on the walls and ceiling of a room. I note this because Donen  directed Lionel Richie’s Dancing on the Ceiling video 35 years later with many of the same effects.

In a long and interesting career, he also directed non-musical films that I have really enjoyed over the years, films like Indiscreet, The Grass is Greener, Charade, Arabesque and Two For the Road. He even directed one of my favorites, the 1967 cult classic Bedazzled with Dudley Moore as the hapless fool who strikes a deal ( and is constantly baffled by his end of the deal) with the devil played brilliantly by Peter Cook.

But more than any other film, Donen is known for his direction of Singin’ in the Rain from 1952, often called the greatest movie musical of all time. It’s a film I could watch time and time again, always finding something new to focus on- the fantastic dancing, memorable songs, fast paced comedy, and beautiful production with those saturated MGM colors that always excite my artistic senses. I am showing two clips from the film both from a fantasy segment, Broadway Melody, featuring Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse.

The first, Gotta Dance, has the up and coming Kelly running into and immediately falling for gangster’s moll Cyd Charisse. I love this scene for the rough set design and color employed with the dark reds of the backdrop making Charisse’s brilliant green dress shoot off the screen. That and the sensual dancing between her and Kelly. Just a great scene.

The second is the Broadway Melody Ballet. Kelly after earlier encountering Charisse has gone on to stardom and comes across her and her gangster boyfriend again. It transitions into a dreamlike ballet sequence with a surreal set design that has always fascinated me. It has steps that are camouflaged with colors that appears as soft strips that converge in a vast soft pastel desert. I actually used the concept and color in a few early pieces. Also notable is Charisse’s transition from the hardened moll into a softer dream figure in the sequence.

Take a look if you like. Sadly, you won’t see this kind of thing again but thanks to Mr. Donen and others this great work is still there to be enjoyed.

Have a good Sunday.


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