Saturday, February 28, 2015

Remembering Naomi


She was my first friend in California. I was newly married that summer in 1954. My ex-wife met Naomi on the City College campus and we joined her in the Labor Youth League…. a progressive social action group.

Naomi and I spoke the same language …. from Woody Guthrie’s Talking Union to Paul Robeson’s songs of the Lincoln Brigade. As Tom Lehrer put it, We lost the war but we had the best songs. We also shared the same lost causes against injustice and suffered the same illusions.

By the mid-sixties we started an encounter group and brought in 4-5 other couples. It was the fashion the day…. lay yourself emotionally bare and take on the frontal attacks. Such fun.

I’m remembering Naomi’s answering machine message, direct and simply put…You know what to do. So do it. As if to cut through all the excuses, hesitations, ambiguities and conundrums of life. It was, at once, an expectation, demand, wish and invitation. Looking back I might take this as her philosophy of life. She had no patience for the niceties and frills of convention. 

If she was talking to a friend she told you what she thought. She had her complaints and let you know them, from sending food back in restaurants to demanding the air-conditioner be turned down in theaters. If she was addressing the society, at large, the government in fact didn’t know what to do but they did it anyway or they did know and didn’t do it.

Every time we went to a restaurant or movie with Naomi she would spot a friend in the room. She was a sort of visionary. She invented social networking before the Internet, B.Z….. before Zuckerberg.

For about a dozen years Peggy & I hosted what we called our Sunday Salon. Naomi and Roger were part of the group we gathered to show and discuss a documentary film. Naomi was one of our most staunch supporters. She hung in until she could no longer manage the stairs because of a hereditary disease resulting in muscular weakness that would eventually incapacitate her.

The common denominator of all this was her love to be in social groups. That was her joy. Whether it was politically based, psychological or aesthetic she simply enjoyed the company of others.

I last saw Naomi less than a week before she died.  We were a table of eight in a noisy deli. We could hardly hear each other but it didn’t matter. Naomi was in her element awash in the decibels.

I want to think she died surrounded by family and friends in her dream life. Ultimately she may have addressed those words to herself, You know what to do. So do it. Given her degenerative condition she did. She let go. To the extent we have a say over the way we leave this world I can think of no better way to exit.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Cinema as History

Imagine having to write your life as a movie. Most of us are too busy living it. But if set to the task or even in collaboration with a filmmaker it could be one of those now infamous, based on the compelling story of

I expect it would generate a few grumbles, aha’s and perhaps disbelief from the cast of co-stars and supporting cast with all those omissions, embellishments and the juggled time-line. At best it would be one version of the truth.

We seem to be saturated with biopics these days. Each movie has prompted articles pointing out how it really was. Sadly many moviegoers come away accepting the drama as History itself. I can recall, as a kid, relying on Hollywood's adaptation of Dickens' Tale of Two Cities for my understanding of the actual French revolution. The phrase, based on, gets lost

Is it just my imagination or are Millennials and those who preceded them our least informed generations about world history? Teacher friends tell me that some of their students think Aristotle was contemporaneous with Lincoln and Churchill with Julius Caesar. Anything that happened before they were born falls into the same trash bin. Maybe this is a corollary to the wireless world in which reading is scant and deemed so very Yesterday. It’s as if today’s population invented the universe and all else is irrelevant.

Great poetry requires great audiences, wrote Walt Whitman. The same might be said about any art form. A certain sophistication is needed to delineate the art of cinema from the document of historical fact. Liberties are taken for dramatic effect; a certain concision and scrambling of the chronicle may be part of the process. If done to serve the aesthetic I accept it.

However when an actual event is depicted falsely as in LBJ’s role in the Voting Rights Act or the erasure of rabbis in the front line locking hands with MLK in the film, Selma, the choice seems less in the service of the art than in advancing a political agenda. More’s the pity. Cherry-picking the events severely diminishes the credibility of the narrative and leaves the audience with a false account of those times.

I suppose the creator might argue that she is reaching for a greater truth than the actual. I respect that. Certainly the several marches from Selma to Montgomery are a defining moment in American history. Sacrifices might be in order to drive home the force of the drama. However getting it right only strengthens the point. Getting it wrong is either laziness or deliberately misleading. Jewish activism in the Civil Rights movement and the subsequent Black / Jewish divide is a story in itself.

There are factual errors in The Imitation Game as well. The accomplishments of the code-breakers at Bletchley Park were not made public until the early 1970’s, 20 years after Alan Turing’s death. There is a strong case to be made that his death was accidental rather than a suicide. Again the distortions are troubling.

Such a nuisance when reality doesn’t conform to the emotional thrust of the story. There you are on the big screen and they got it not quite wrong but not altogether right either.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Sniper as Hero

Tricky business being a hero. On the pedestal one day and under it the next. In 1941 Sergeant York won the Oscar with Gary Cooper playing the, aw shucks hero of World War I. He was a Tennessee mountaineer who gulped his way into the trenches. Ever humble, he killed 32 and captured well over a hundred Germans and received a hero’s welcome as the great American sharpshooter. As a reward he got Joan Leslie and some fertile bottom farmland back home.

Seventy odd years later we are presented with another real-life (real-dead) American hero, Chris Kyle, who bagged 160 Iraqis, confirmed. Clint Eastwood has moved the cowboy overseas allegedly protecting us from an invasion of our frozen yogurt shops. Bradley Cooper’s Kyle comes home damaged, a self-described warrior and ends up himself a victim of friendly fire from a PTS buddy. Whether the movie is an anti-war statement or a celebration of it is up for debate. I suspect one leaves the movie reinforced in either direction.

I wonder if the 1918 German and 2007 Sunni Iraqis also had snipers as their heroes. As long as we de-contextualize it, killing is killing. Hardly heroic in my book. Eastwood never questions why we were in Iraq thus perpetuating the lie that our devastation of that country was somehow connected to the 9/11 attack. The real Sergeant Alvin York out-lived his movie by 23 years. In later-life he wondered what his war was all about.

People seem to need their heroes. I had mine growing up. Most were athletes, the idealized self. The notion of the hero comes out of innocence and a reluctance to enter the complex world of flawed human character. There is also an element of self-promotion around those crowned as heroes. Perhaps we are all heroes having survived the vicissitudes of childhood, tedium, infirmities and an ever fractured society.

Certainly there are those in history whose story compels us to take notice. And it doesn’t hurt to see them in totality. Thoreau was a hermit and also the life of the party when he danced the jig. He chose an austere life (for one year) close to Nature. Yet he brought his dirty laundry to his mother and sisters. He was an abolitionist who, heroically and at great risk, escorted slaves to safety. He owned a pencil factory. He went to jail in protest over the Mexican-American war. The closer we look at anyone the more complex his life.

Emerson thought great thoughts on his way to his friend's Walden Pond cabin to chat. His father got rich by ill-gotten gains in the Chinese opium trade, as did FDR’s maternal grandfather, Warren Delano. Alfred Nobel invented dynamite. His two brothers ran oil wells on the Caspian Sea in Baku. By 1900 this city produced 50% of the world’s oil. It was also one of the filthiest cities in the world with impoverished workers dead by age 30 on average. Now we know Nobel by those prizes bestowed in his name as we remember Carnegie by his libraries and Frick by his museum. As Balzac said, Behind every great fortune there is a crime. Their philanthropy feels like compensation or possibly atonement.

Back to movies- The Oscar list pits, among others, the sniper against those afflicted with disease (ALS and Alzheimer's) and the shame of the British for their tragic dim-witted policy that may have shortened the life of a war hero who killed no one but himself… against the true American hero, Martin Luther King, who led the Civil Rights march, and was then slain by an American sniper.