Friday, December 29, 2017

Goodbye / Hello

I don’t know why you say goodbye / I say hello.
                                                            The Beatles, 1967

So long 2017; yes it has been so very long. How did we ever
get through this first year in the reign of Trumpdum? It has been a great year for Ignorance, Greed and Mendacity. For buying the second yacht or seventh home or leaving a billion to that good-for-nothing son.

I am left with T.M.J. from gnashing my teeth. I lost a molar which I shall not replace. My tongue enjoys the cavern too much. My blood pressure went up twelve points. And now I am either losing my hearing or all my friends have conspired to talk softer and mumble. I‘m scheduled for an audiogram in a few weeks and probably a hearing aid. Maybe my ears have been numbed by Trump-trash. It can be said with certainty that as I approach eighty-five all my body parts are also eighty-five and out of warranty….. no longer returnable even at Costco.

But we’re still here. Americans have witnessed a decline in civility, compassion and decency while cringing, and reaching for new adjectives to describe the menace. We disown the man who speaks from the Tower, not in our name.

The Dow-Jones bubble grows larger and thinner and we wait for crumbs to drop, off-shore money to return along with those factories in China.  We say hello to the upcoming election; may it be momentous.

We said Hello to the record rainfall which painted the desert floor with wildflowers galore. And more recently Goodbye to the fires and floods. Hello, climate change. Hello, darkness my old friend.  Hello, Robert Mueller, let us hear from you.

It has been the year of women's voices raised exposing perverse male behavior. Goodbye Harvey, Roy, Matt et al. Yet the Predator-in-Chief still presides.

Hello, new movies: Phantom Thread, Loving Vincent, The Post….my favorite English language films of the year. Best foreign: Foxtrot (Israeli), The Insult (Lebanese) and Loveless (Russian). Hello also to the great newly found streaming site called, Kanopy. (It’s free…with a Los Angeles library card) which provides access to hundreds of movies including documentaries.

Hello to new poems from Peggy whose muse has taken permanent residence. She sees vividly into the opaque, overhears conversations in the next booth, raids the inarticulate, sends tendrils of connectivity to disparate species and strikes the dark air for music. All this visits her in a divine frenzy and creative burst. A gust of wind fills the room which sustains my blogs.

Goodbye to fallen friends whose absence is deeply felt. Hello to orchids unfolding which I'm counting on this spring, more birthdays and to the wonder of it all.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Humbug, Home-Coming and Ho, Ho, Ho

I’ll be home for Christmas / You can plan on me / There’ll be snow and mistletoe / and presents by the tree.

Hallmark provides the answer to all the dread of our times. The company has been producing cards for over a hundred years reminding us of those white Christmases we ought to have had. They also churn out their own made-for-T.V. mushy movies whose theme seems to be the perpetuation of the Norman Rockwell canvas. Warm hearth and good cheer with frost on the window and presents galore. There is usually a heartless Grinch around the edges who just doesn’t get it. He is probably one of those urban sorts who has lost his way unlike the real Americans in the rural heartland.

Humbug is a forbidden word. It is practically subversive to resist the monetizing of the holidays or the family traditions associated with it. Somebody once said, tradition is the illusion of permanence, but he has been gagged with duct tape and deposited in the basement for the duration of the season. I have come around to accept many of these family rituals as serving a valuable human need. In these days of social upheaval and divisiveness the agreed-upon customs shall prevail. They cut across tribal tents, even joining coastal with fly-over America for the last two weeks of the calendar.

As for Christmas childhood memories I have none. My mother declared it a goyish holiday and Chanukah hadn’t much traction with us either. I worked in a Christmas tree lot one year in Forest Hills but didn’t return when my nose fell off into a cup of hot cider. As a designated Listener in elementary school I was consigned to the last row as the (mostly Jewish) class sang about Baby Jesus born in Bethlehem. Why not? It’s all part of the package.

Absent any snowmen or sleds here in Southern California there is still the coming-home of grown sons and daughters. The home, the haunt. That word, haunt, originally meant to visit or appear frequently or as the noun... an old haunt. Nothing haunts us like memory. So we return hoping to recover shards of it which is to say, to recover our youth as it might have been but probably wasn’t.

In Greek mythology Agamemnon returned from the Trojan War and got a short, sharp shock in his kishkes by his wife, Clytemnestra. Ulysses took his time. After bouncing around for ten years he assumed a disguise before revealing himself to Penelope. Take note, prodigal children. Being expelled in Greco-Roman times was the closest thing to capital punishment. Ovid was exiled and never heard from again.

Peggy and I are celebrating our 33rd holiday time together. The shower of presents has been abolished; we’ve also given up the tree. What’s left is my step son and extended family of two more generations. We feast, we giggle, we wow at the tree, remember absent members and marvel at the new. All illusions of permanence we happily endow another year.

My brother was never at home in this world. He returned after three years in the army and remembered why he had left. Within a month he was gone again in the grip of his haunts.

My life is haunted by visitations. Not spooks but good spirits hovering. My three daughters are thousands of miles away yet they feel close to me, in this room. We are singing off-key in our separate versions of what was, exchanging the gift of ourselves and our amazing journeys.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Winter Solstice

Darkness is descending over this land. Deep shadows are falling. But enough about Trump.

No, Virginia, there really isn’t a Santa Claus. Get over it. Chanukah and Christmas are pagan (peasant) celebrations and that’s good enough for me. Our ancestors were the ancient star-gazers in awe of the diminishing light. Who knows what they thought as December 21st approached with its early sunset and late sunrise? 9 1/2 hours of sun, 14 1/2 hours of dark. It could be the end. We better make a fire and sacrifice a goat or chant until the sun reappears.  

Our Judeo-Christian holidays are magnificent metaphors; festivals of candle lights and ornaments to compensate for all that is gone. Drag a tree inside, ever-green, gift-wrap our eyes. We have an urge for renewal, a child maybe with a fabulous back-story.

It’s all good. It works every year. The unconquerable sun will inch northward granting us shorter nights and longer days. We’re good to go for another round.

Ignorant armies clash(ing) by night* … might cease and find their commonweal. Might all the Ebenezers among us pause and dare open their hearts and wallets to care for the Tiny Tims in our midst? Words, dormant all year can be heard… jolly, merry, good cheer. Memories of winter scenes that never happened come to mind. Choirs will carol familiar songs to the waiting choir.

As for St. Nicolas and paraphrase the poet**, Over golden groves unleaving / It is for childhood you are grieving. We believe in Santa until we become him finding within us that gift of giving.

Will it last as days lengthen, candles go out and the tree withers? Can we remember that brief peace, generosity and the will to do good…and what we have bequeathed to our newborn? The peasant in me says yes we must. In the end, that’s all we have.

·                 * Mathew Arnold’s,  Dover Beach

 **Gerard Manley Hopkins, Spring and Fall 

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Living History

It is splendid to be a great writer, to put men into the frying pan of your imagination and make them pop like chestnuts. -Gustave Flaubert

We’ve been served an inordinate number of bio-pics this past year. I’ve seen or read about films depicting the highfalutin and erudite like Albert Einstein, the Austrian writer, Stephen Zweig and Srinivasa Ramanujan (The Man Who Knew Infinity), plus Emily Dickinnson (A Quiet Passion) to the low-falutin Tonya Harding (I, Tonya). We were served two Grahams from Gloria (Annette Bening) who didn’t quite die in Liverpool to Katharine (Meryl Streep) who rescued the Washington Post by publishing the Pentagon Papers.

Last year Bryan Cranston popped out of the frying pan as Lyndon Johnson and this year Woody Harrelson took his turn as LBJ. It seems like all chubby British actors get their licks as Winston Churchill. Albert Finney was followed by Toby Jones in past years and this year we were well-served by Brian Cox (Churchill) and Gary Oldman (Darkest Hour). Sir Winston is getting to be as popular as Hamlet; everyone wants to give it a go. I almost expect Meryl Streep to step into his cigar in 2018.

A bit of hokum is to be excused for dramatic purposes as long as it doesn’t come from the fake news fabulists of Breitbart whose fidelity is to their delusional narrative rather than to the actual.

Sally Hawkins made a great Maudie as the real-life naïve folk artist while Vincent Van Gogh was played by the Polish actor Robert Gulaczyk in a most dazzling display of painterly animation.

(Back in the day we kids thought Don Ameche invented the telephone and Spencer Tracy was Thomas Edison. Maybe in times of upheaval folks need their heroes to cling to. I was so confused I imagined Tracy picking up his light bulb and saying, Hello?)

Who am I forgetting? Oh yes, there was Marshall (Thurgood Marshall), Victoria and Abdul, The Crown, Billy Jean King and Bobby Riggs (Battle of the Sexes) which I found unwatchable. I also saw the story of Mark Felt who was known to Woodward and Bernstein as Deep Throat. His leaks led to the ignominy of Richard Nixon who left the presidency uttering, I am not a crook.

We live in an age of rapid news cycles with executive tantrums, blurts and exposes; skeletons are falling daily out of closets. Yesterday’s news is already regarded as stale and ready for the history books. People hunger for a good story and everybody has one, which can be rushed to the big screen with a bit of doctoring and embellishment.  

J.D. Salinger made it with (Rebel in the Rye) along with Tupac Shakur (All Eyez on Me), and P.T. Barnum (The Greatest Showman). Why bother with the latter when we have his incarnation sitting in the oval office elected by the mobocracy of Suckers born every minute.

All of this makes for a sort of living history for those born after World War II, Vietnam or Watergate. The generations following Baby Boomers seem to have a remarkable disdain for antecedents so all these movies might whet their appetite to investigate what really happened and how we got to this sorry state.

I expect more of the same in 2018. I’m sure the Harvey Weinstein story is going through final drafts along with accounts of the Al Franken / Roy Moore debacle. But the grand prize must go to the decline of the presidency from Barack to Donald, the most precipitous fall in American history since Mrs. Lincoln’s moving van pulled away making room for Andrew Johnson to sleep on Abe’s pillow.

You can’t make this stuff up, this absurd tragi-comedy script unfolding daily. There is no fiction that rivals the dystopic horror movie we are living in, each of us with cameo roles popping like chestnuts.

Monday, December 4, 2017

At A Theater Near You

I have written close to ninety blogs this year and they are all tied for first place….which is to say they’re also tied for last place.

So it is with movies. Each one gets a full page ad in the newspaper proclaiming it the year’s best. Curbing their enthusiasm is not what these critics are being paid for. December is the time of the year to dust off and drag out those hyperbolic adjectives. Compelling, brilliant, spell-binding, riveting, fierce, impeccable. Leaves you breathless, soaring. The last four are part of a full page ad for a movie roundly condemned by just by just about every critic.

If you see no other movie this year you must….After watching 
that one I may not want to see another. Movie criticism has become part of the fake news industry.

Soon the Golden Globes will bestow their honors foretelling the Oscars….or not. We will root as if it mattered yet I can’t remember which film won the Academy Award two years ago. In fact the most enduring and endearing ones seldom get the votes. Instead we get the one with the biggest splash often with low satiety. Think of Donald Trump on Mt. Rushmore. 

In 1943 Casablanca got nosed out at the Golden Globe by the now unwatchable, Song of Bernadette. The Oscar went to How Green Was my Valley over Citizen Kane in 1941. This was a personal snub of Orson Welles. Vertigo, Grapes of Wrath and The Graduate were also overlooked in their respective years. Hollywood spends over half a billion bucks in promotion for the grand prize. Only six of the top twenty all-time best American movies (according to the A.F.I.) won an Oscar. The prize seems to go to the one with the biggest buzz in the weeks leading up to the event, testimony to our low attention span. God help a movie released in early spring.

Art abhors a hierarchy. At least among the worthy. Why not just honor those approximately dozen works for their excellence and let it go at that? The chances are several would be exemplary of the craft in far different ways. Comedies, which are generally shunned, may receive their due. Musicals, as well. A serous dramatic work operates by different standards. Performances likewise. The comic genius of a Charlie Chaplin should not have been in competition against Fred Astaire or Spencer Tracy nor should one have to choose between Liza Minnelli and Meryl Streep.

Imagine Matisse going against Picasso for the grand prize or 
the pianist of the philharmonic vying with the first violinist.
It all has the whiff of the huckster. Oscar night is an occasion for a celebration of the marketplace not the art of cinema. Foreign and low-budget independent films with no inclination or means for a massive advertising campaign, are ignored unless word of mouth becomes a loud chorus.

I expect to be reaching into my bag of adjectives watching this year’s contenders.  If the short list follows previous years I’ll be muttering vacuous, insipid, juvenile, mind-numbing, inert, cacophonous and stilted dialog. Any sense I have of being out of touch with the popular taste will be confirmed.  

It has been said that everyone in the theater sees a different movie owing to what they bring to the viewing. Maybe my jaundiced eye is just a bad fit for the fourteen year-old sensibility which seems to be pervasive these days. There must be a number of us who have outgrown comic books and don’t wish to pay money to have our nervous system strung out. Nor do we require an obligatory vomit scene and a pile of corpses torn apart in close-ups. In the name of authenticity the Special Effects department presents us with a version of life in extremis leaving little to the imagination. The net effect prepares our psyches for gratuitous violence and gore.

The struggle between the art form and the bankers is inherent in the medium; what we eventually get to see is a collaborative concession, the reconciled negotiation between the integrity of an artistic vision and the financial backer looking for a return on investment.

Now that I've emptied my spleen I don't want to end this piece on such a sour note. In fact I have seen a few films so far this year to which other adjectives apply such as incisive, soulful, visually transforming and imaginatively daring. Pass the popcorn.