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Archive for the ‘At the Movies’ Category

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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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Before nodding off last night, I began watching the 1942 movie Casablanca for what might be the the nine hundred and fifty first time. It’s one of those films that is easy to jump in and out of because there is always something to relish at any given moment– a memorable scene, shot, line or piece of music. It is chock full of small pleasures that totally add to a greater whole.

Perhaps the greatest of these pleasures is the performance of Dooley Wilson who plays Sam, the star performer at Rick’s Cafe Americain. His musical performances light up the screen, most notably the song As Time Goes By which has taken on legendary status.

Watching and listening to it last night made me think about how it was a fitting song for the end of the year, a wistful looking back as the clock marches on.

The song was written in 1931 by Herman Hupfeld for a Broadway show, Everybody’s Welcome, that had a short run. It went on to have modest success as recording by a number of record labels and orchestras. Herman Hupfeld was a minor songwriter of the era who you wouldn’t think would be the composer of a song that would turn out to be one of the great classics of the American songbook. He wrote some popular songs of the time that have long faded into the dustbin of history. I’ve included one at the bottom just to give you a taste.

As Time Goes By almost didn’t make it into the movie. The musical director, Max Steiner, was opposed to its inclusion but was overruled by the movie’s producers. Then in post-production they considered dropping it but because star Ingrid Bergman had already cut her hair for another part, they couldn’t possibly reshoot the scenes that already contained the song. So, it remained and became one of the most memorable parts of a true classic.

I wonder how the the film would have felt without it.

So, for this New Year’s Eve day, here’s the original along with that other Herman Hupfeld classic, , When Yuba Plays the Rhumba on the Tuba. Have a good New Year’s eve.


 

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Another gray, wet, cold Sunday morning here in paradise. The sun lately seems like a stranger who, on those rare occasions when it appears, I have a vague recollection of once seeing. It’s grim and has me gazing out my window, hoping that the ghost of Tom Joad, like he had somehow stepped right out of The Grapes Of Wrath, might emerge out of the darkness set against the distant pines. This weather puts me in that mood, that grim feeling of that we need somebody to stand against the darker forces of this world.

Tom Joad, as dark and ill-fated a character as he seems, still gives me hope that there are still people out there who won’t turn a blind eye to injustice and inequality. People who haven’t been numbed by their own self-interest and comfort. They don’t have to be heroes, just plain people with a sense of decency and an unwillingness to turn their back to the wrongs they witness.

We sure could use some more Tom Joads.

Here’s my Sunday morning music. It is, of course, The Ghost of Tom Joad, from Bruce Springsteen. Have yourself a day– good, bad or indifferent– and if you see Tom Joad, tell him I am looking for him.

 

 

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Once the object has been constructed, I have a tendency to discover in it, transformed and displaced, images, impressions, facts which have deeply moved me.

–Alberto Giacometti

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There is a film out currently called Final Portrait which is about the writer James Lord, played in this film by Armie Hammer, sitting for a portrait with artist Alberto Giacometti, played in the film by Geoffrey Rush.

Taking place in 1964, a couple of years before Giacometti’s death, the sitting is initially supposed to last for a few hours but stretches for weeks as Giacometti agonizes and constantly alters the painting. The movie is based on Lord’s perspective, one that has him confused and frustrated until at last seeing how Giacometti has transformed his image into something beyond what he himself saw in it.

I haven’t seen it but imagine it to be a quiet but intense film. I’ve had some fascination for Giacometti’s work and writings for many years, intrigued by the singularity of his vision and his dedication to bringing it to light. I find myself often nodding in agreement, as I did with the quote here at the top, when reading his words from interviews and his writings.

Here’s a short film that the Christie’s auction house put together several years ago about the painting of this portrait when it came to auction, selling for nearly $21 million. It’s provides the basis for Final Portrait.

 

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