Sunday, May 29, 2011

Week in Seven Words #69

The same sentence can mean a number of different things depending on the context in which it's uttered, the way it's uttered, who utters it, and who's listening. And from a very young age we grapple with all these sources of information - the words themselves, the words in a web of context. Day-to-day, without thinking about it, we perform these mental feats.

When the brain is a pool float, bobbing gently on light blue chlorinated waters.

At the wedding, two guests tie a bunch of cloth napkins into a makeshift rope and start twirling it round and round as a jumprope for the bride. She holds onto the skirt of her gown and jumps, smiling and laughing. Just as she starts to get tired her mother-in-law and then one of her sisters-in-law bounce in, and they hold out for a little while to cheers and shouts of encouragement.

The drive, late on a Sunday afternoon, is a surprising treat. Quiet suburban neighborhoods with deep green lawns give way to gas stations and highways.

To help them prepare for their upcoming visit I send them information about what sites to visit, which neighborhoods to walk through (and which to avoid), and how they can best get around. I'm happy about their visit and also have a proprietary feeling towards the city where I live. I don't always think of this city as home, but in moments like these I feel it's mine.

At the dessert reception a table with marshmallows, melting chocolate, and graham crackers. Guests in formal attire lick their fingers.

Orange creamsicles at the end of a long hot day.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Eloquently idle

Subtle, clever brain, wiser than I am,
by what devious means do you contrive
to remian idle? Teach me, O master.
-- William Carlos Williams

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Worth Watching: Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore (1974)

Title: Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore
Director: Martin Scorsese
Language: English
Rating: PG (though I'd make it PG-13, mostly for Harvey Keitel's character)

Alice Hyatt (Ellen Burstyn) is a widow who plans to move with her 11-year-old son, Tommy (Alfred Lutter), from their home in New Mexico to Monterey, California where she had lived as a girl. Short on cash, they need to stop along the way at different cities for Alice to earn some more money - ideally as a singer (which has always been her dream) but, if necessary, as a waitress too. As she and Tommy meet and tangle with all kinds of people, they find themselves changing their plans.

Ten reasons the film is worth watching
1) Alice is a wonderful, complex character - blunt, goofy, incisive, and self-doubting. Ellen Burstyn's performance is terrific and got her a well-deserved Best Actress Oscar; it never feels like she's acting, but that Alice is in fact a real person. She's the heart of the film.

2) The relationship between Alice and Tommy is well-written, with natural and often funny back-and-forth between them; at the heart of it they're kindred spirits. I liked the kid, mostly because he comes across as a real kid and not a cutesy child caricature.

3) There are memorable secondary characters too, and they're written and acted without self-consciousness; as odd as they sometimes get, their eccentricity just seems a natural part of things and not something that's forced out for laughs. I especially like the two waitresses at the diner in Tucson: Flo (Diane Ladd) and Vera (Valerie Curtin). Flo is tough, brassy, and swears creatively, but there are other sides of her that you discover as the movie progresses. And Vera is just strangely likeable and happily unexplainable.

4) Harvey Keitel also crops up as Ben, a man eight years younger than Alice who knows how to make her laugh, is kind of silly and persistent. Because he's played by Harvey Keitel, grinning like a cat, I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop...

5) There's a romance angle to the film in the form of David (Kris Kristofferson), a lonely clear-eyed rancher. Just like the rest of the movie the romance isn't cute or sentimental. There's genuine chemistry and friendship between Alice and David, along with a few rough patches they need to work through. The scene where they're in his kitchen after making love, and she's telling him about the stage act she used to do with her brother, is one example of how the movie keeps this relationship fresh. It's between two particular people - not a canned Hollywood romance.

6) The film is well-paced with some beautiful camera work. There are several scenes and sequences that stand out in particular, like when Alice is looking for a job in Phoenix. The last time she worked as a singer was before her marriage, and now she's older, her voice is charming but rusty, and she's going in heels and a new dress to all these different bars trying to find someone who will hire her. The pressure and fear of failure are palpable, the scrutiny from others is something that as a viewer you can feel even though it's directed at her, and Alice is a picture of determination and desperation - she not only needs the money, but needs to be able to tell her son (who's waiting for her in a rundown motel room) that she landed a job.

7) It's worth saying again that Burstyn's performance is one-of-a-kind. She also had a lot of creative control over this film, ideas of what it should be like, and selected Scorsese as the director.

8) Strong dialogue and character development in Robert Getchell's screenplay.

9) If you're a fan of Jodie Foster, she's here too as a guitar-playing tomboy. Not a large part, but she's got some funny moments as Tommy's new friend in Tucson. (A few years after this film she appeared in Scorsese's Taxi Driver as a 12 year old prostitute exploited by Harvey Keitel's character, Sport, who lounges around in doorways grinning like a cat.)

10) The film shows Scorsese's range. No mobsters, no urban underbelly; the setting is the southwest US. He makes a movie about an interesting woman, her dreams, losses, loves, her choices good and bad, her friendship with other women (some great scenes between Alice and her friend Bea at the start of the film in New Mexico, and then her relationship with Flo). What she's like as a mother, a lover, a person on her own and among other people. A warm, funny and unsparing character portrait.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Week in Seven Words #68

In the potted shrub by the doors of the hotel there's a bird's nest where the chicks are cheeping, clamoring for food from their harried parents.

The purple, pink, and periwinkle ponies are prancing.

Sometimes you can hop back from what you did and undo it to some extent; other times it feels like you're walking the plank, and the ocean is stirring hungrily.

They watch a video of themselves when they were younger. In the video one of them is a two-year-old with a skeptical frown and piping voice, a love of books and balloons; the other is a newborn – swaddled, sleepy, the oblivious center of attention.

Pigeons in the station underground, strutting single-mindedly.

Though he gets how to play Chutes and Ladders he doesn't seem to mind the setbacks - he enjoys making his game piece go down those long fun colorful slides.

It's not the first time we've seen Star Wars. We know what happens. Yet there we are side by side on the couch, eyes riveted to the screen as we track Luke Skywalker's progress along the trench in the Death Star.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Worth Watching: Modern Times (1936)

Title: Modern Times
Director: Charlie Chaplin
Language: English
Rating: Not Rated

After suffering a nervous breakdown, a factory worker (Charlie Chaplin) deals with mishaps, misunderstandings, jail time, and general absurdity as he tries to put his life back together. Along the way he meets an orphaned street urchin (Paulette Goddard), and the two start to look out for each other.

Modern Times poster

Ten reasons the film is worth watching
1) Chaplin's character, with his rubbery body and resilient spirit, is pretty inspiring. Hit with nonsense, indifference, and brutality he keeps bouncing back.

2) Paulette Goddard's fierce eyes, and the energy and expressiveness she brings to her character. A sharp and memorable performance.

Street urchin

3) There's an innocence to the relationship between Chaplin's laid-off factory worker and Goddard's street urchin. He's an adult, she's a girl who appears to be in her late teens, and what comes across when they're together is a loving loyal friendship. In a couple of scenes they're like children playing house together. But their yearning for a home and for a life with dignity is not just a childish fancy - it's a real hunger, serious and deep. I like how the film blends innocence and humor with frustration and darkness.

4) The nervous breakdown in the factory is another example of how good Chaplin is at mixing funniness with pain. Chaplin's factory worker, holding a wrench in each hand, turns into an out-of-control machine (and at one point becomes a part of the machinery, getting sucked into its belly).

5) No matter how dehumanizing the crowds, the factory work, the poverty and prison life get, the two main characters see each other as people; the way they care for each other and stick together is an antidote to every impersonal institution and interaction out there. A lot of the beauty in the film comes from this (and I love these words: Buck up - never say die. We'll get along!)

Dreaming of dinner

6) Laughter is also an antidote. I first saw this movie when I was a kid, and watching it again more recently I had some foggy memories of the funnier scenes (like the one with the malfunctioning feeding machine) - I was happy to rediscover all of it and laugh again. Great use of physical humor.

7) The film is mostly silent (using title cards), but there is some audible speech and singing - what's interesting is the choice Chaplin made for what to keep silent and what to make audible. Also the music Chaplin wrote for this movie is full of whimsy and drama; it goes wonderfully with the action.

8) Ever dream of what it would be like to stay overnight at a department store or mall? The film has some fun with that. Chaplin is fantastic on roller-skates.

9) Ever wonder how someone high on cocaine could stop a prison breakout?

10) Ever worry about what you'd do if you forgot the words to a song and your audience was getting restless?

*All images link back to their sources (Flixster (community) and

Good Short Fiction: The Sentinel (Arthur C. Clarke)

Title: The Sentinel
Author: Arthur C. Clarke
Where I read it: Adaptations: From Short Story to Big Screen (edited by Stephanie Harrison)

One member of an exploratory expedition on the moon spots a strange and glittering object in the mountains overlooking the Mare Crisium (Sea of Crises). It's probably nothing - just a rock. But he can't help thinking that it's something else entirely.

Some reasons to read it
  • Clarke conveys the epic possibility of outer space. He invites us to consider the scope of the universe and the life it possibly harbors. Even the moon, which is close and superficially familiar to us, becomes a mysterious place with a rich unknown past.
    We had crossed a hundred miles of it in a week, skirting the foothills of the mountains along the shore of what was once the ancient sea, some thousand million years before. When life was beginning on Earth, it was already dying here. The waters were retreating down the flanks of those stupendous cliffs, retreating into the empty heart of the Moon.

  • He mixes some light humor and prosaic details (making sausages for breakfast aboard the exploratory tractor) with passages of unearthly discovery.

  • The lyrical lunar names (Mare Crisium, Oceanus Procellarum), which are a part of the poetry of space exploration.

  • Suspense builds throughout the story: what is that glittering object spotted among the cliffs and mountains? How did it get there, and what is its purpose?

  • The ideas and events in The Sentinel were part of the inspiration for the novel and movie, 2001: A Space Odyssey (however The Sentinel is very different in scope and content - regardless of what you think about 2001, this story is worth reading).

Other stories from this collection include these three, these four, and these three.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Week in Seven Words #67

We have the table near the fish tank, and over sushi and beef dumplings we tell funny stories and clink our glasses in a toast.

On a blue breezy day we scramble among the rocks that overlook the lake.

A moment after I step out of the elevator, they emerge from another one. It's a wonderful surprise; they were on their way to meet me, and now I get to see them even sooner than I expected.

Candles at one end of the table, and in the window a rose pink sunset.

It's a gift-wrapped day, an oasis in a week that's mostly desert. I spend the day with people I love - walking, exploring, reading, talking.

Also called bone-headed dinosaurs, something that makes us giggle as we read through the dinosaur book.

In my arms he fidgets, grumbles, sucks on the lapel of my jacket and cries when it fails to nourish him.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011


Someone sent me this video today:

Violin maker Amnon Weinstein painstakingly collected and restored violins that were used by Holocaust victims, and here they're played at a 2008 concert in Jerusalem; one of the victims was a 12 year old boy who smuggled explosives in his violin case - these explosives were used against German troops in Eastern Europe.

Hatikva ("The Hope") is the Israeli national anthem. The melody is based on a Renaissance era Italian song, La Mantovana - from the Renaissance onwards this melody appeared in a number of different folk songs across Europe from Scotland to Poland; it was also used by the 19th-century composer Smetana in his piece, Vltava or Die Moldau - one of a group of several symphonic poems he wrote in tribute to Bohemia, his homeland (the Vltava is a river that runs through Prague).

Think of the music played on these violins prior to the Holocaust - klezmer and other folk music for instance; their owners might have once played the melody of La Mantovana on them in one form or another (or if they were classical musicians, maybe they performed Vltava in a concert hall). In any case these instruments, which were in pieces (at least one of them found buried in a concentration camp) are whole again, a legacy from the people who owned them and made music on them.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Week in Seven Words #66

At the bookstore the four-year-old boy keeps asking his mom to buy him books that are geared towards young teenagers and older elementary school children. After saying 'no' for the dozenth time, his mother finally makes him an offer - "Read one page from any of those books and I'll get it for you." The kid opens a book, stares at it, then says loftily, "I don't feel like reading now. How about I read it when we get home?" His mother laughs but doesn't relent.

As if I'm plucking petals off a daisy, but instead of saying "He loves me, he loves me not" it's "I can do this, no I can't."

Children spill into the cafeteria, squashing ten to a table, swiping at brownies and slices of pizza, sending up a cloud of chatter that their chaperones attempt to shout over.

I've walked past this building many times, but I go inside now and take delight - clerestory windows, doors with leaded glass, a giant ornate clock, stairwells curling up past stacks of books.

The joy of making someone laugh so hard they have to slap their hand over their mouth to keep crumbs and pieces of cheese from flying out.

Throughout the meeting I'm on edge. Some of what we discuss seems helpful, but I'm not sure. I don't want to be misled.

I appreciate their encouragement and advice so much. I'll need to let them know.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Book sculptures

Click on the image to find out more about Brian Dettmer (the "Book Surgeon"), an artist who takes out-of-date books and crafts them into something like this, using only the illustrations and text that already exist in the book:

Eating a carrot

More of his book sculptures at the link. What he does with them is extraordinary, though I did squirm a little at the thought of old books getting cutting apart, however delicately.