Monthly Archives: July 2016

A Tale of Two Conventions

After watching two weeks of political conventions. My head is not spinning. I have a plethora of thoughts but they seem pretty clear.

  • It was the best of conventions: it was the worst of conventions. I confess I plagiarized and paraphrased that.
  • I enjoyed seeing Paul Simon and Carole King while flinching at hearing them. Gettin’ old sucks.
  • The Trump family is lovely to look at – sans pere.
  • One of the things I enjoy about traveling is hearing languages and accents I rarely hear in Lexington. It humbles me a bit (always useful in my case) and reminds me I’m part of something bigger than the blissful bubble Janie and I live in and cherish.
  • In his late eighties, my grandfather was taken hunting by one of my cousins. When they emerged from their hunting ground, they were confronted by a game warden waiting by their car. He asked for my grandfather’s hunting license and in the ensuing confusion about the existence of such a document (not to mention any relevant emails, birth certificates, or tax returns), the warden said he would need to have my grandfather’s gun/rifle/bazooka/whatever. My grandfather responded by cocking his gun/rifle/bazooka/whatever and saying “I don’t think so.” I think my mom had to bail him out on that caper.

I relate this to point out that I, like many of us, come from a culture of personal weaponry that is not even in the same area code as rational thought. I, like most of us, would like to see some improvement in the number of weapons of mass destruction currently in the hands of dangerous people (toddlers and terrorists alike). But I also think this is one of the two “third-rail” issues in US politics today. This issue will be tough for Democrats.

  • By the way, the other “third-rail” issue is Social Security. Republicans might want to tread warily here. This geezer would respectfully suggest/bellow they get offa my lawn.
  • A wall. Really? A wall? Didn’t Russia try that in Berlin? If we’re gonna build something, let’s RE-build our infrastructure. Bridges, roads, and airports – yes! Wall – not so much.
  • I’ve witnessed history-making things in my lifetime.
    • Humans bounding on the moon.
    • Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech.
    • John F. Kennedy’s assassination.
    • Barack Obama’s election to the presidency.
    • Hillary Clinton’s nomination for the presidency.
  • I’ve also seen a good many balloon drops in my lifetime and I always like’em. Yesterday’s Democratic Convention balloon drop was the best.

Finally, I’m watching a couple of films by Danish director Carl Theodore Dreyer. In his film GERTRUD, one of the characters advises;

“Two things have been and still are more important to me than anything else. These two things are love and thought. You’ve spoken about love. As far as thoughts go, we should have courage to think good thoughts for the good thoughts bring us to the summit of truth, and truth is the only thing worthwhile.”

Michelle Obama might have said that more succinctly; “When they go low, we go high.”

No, my head’s not spinning…I’m goin’ high.

Magical Legends & Legumes

Movie night!

INTO THE WOODS.

I liked it…a lot.

Meryl Streep is impossible to look away from – nothing new in that. I am always amazed at the energy, imagination, and range of Ms. Streep in the projects she chooses. Hell, I think I was the first one standing at the opening night of the film version of MAMMA MIA at the Kentucky Theater. It was a brave choice and I loved her performance.

The songs in this show are engaging and clever – nothing new in that. It’s Stephen Sondheim.

The stories Sondheim mashed up to create the narrative of INTO THE WOODS are some of the most exciting stories ever told…and told and told. Again, nothing new here. Giants, witches, philandering princes, magical legumes, senior-citizen-devouring wolves; this is the stuff of legends. Oh wait, they are legends.

I will watch this film for the rest of my life, perhaps in bits and pieces as I stumble across it while channel-surfing, but I’ll watch it from now on and happily so.

But let’s be honest. There’s nothing new here. Nothing has been added to the luster of Meryl Streep, Stephen Sondheim, or Little Red Riding Hood. It’s simply cultural comfort food.

And I’m OK with that. I watch old films over and over, and indulge in cutting-edge speculations as to what Frank Capra could have done with a Godzilla film. But I also wonder what would happen if Mr. Sondheim wrote something totally new…specifically for film…specifically for Meryl Streep. That, for me, would be wandering into a woods wonderful and unknown and scary and thrilling.

I’d like that…a lot.

The Provocatively Obtuse

They have always been among us – the provocatively obtuse.

I remember in high school, in every class, there were always one or two kids who would answer “five!” (I believe the exclamation point is important here) to the question “What is two plus two”. Everyone in the class (sans the teacher) would be amused, the provocateur would bask in his/her 14.5 seconds of attention and then the class would move on to the real work at hand. As a group, even then, we instinctively understood we shouldn’t allow ourselves to be long distracted from proven and useful truths. There’s real adult work to be done, real progress to be made. The provocatively obtuse are fun, but not to be taken seriously and not to be called upon too often for serious answers.

Until now.

Cable TV and the internet and this election cycle have congealed into a “perfect storm” for the provocatively obtuse. When polled on candidates and issues, they yell “five!” and their answer is duly recorded, tabulated, and reported as if it were something more than an attempt to amuse and attract attention. AND with a voracious 24/7 news cycle, un-fact-checked viral memes, and candidates more than willing to repeat gruesome legends on national TV, the provocatively obtuse are being called upon more and more often for their nonsensical answers. All in the name of being “fair and balanced”.

This can’t be a good business plan.

I would suggest not calling on those children anymore. Thus, the rest of the class could move on.

If you find yourself near someone who avers; “I’m not a scientist”, accept their word for it and don’t look to them for a scientific opinion. Go find a scientist. Listen to them about scientific things. Hey! That’s how we got to the moon!

If you find yourself near someone who says; “Facts lie”, …………just flee.

The provocatively obtuse; whether they’re in your high school geometry class or running for elective office are hungry for attention. Starve them. You have better and more important things to do.

A Quietly Extraordinary Afternoon

40-plus people gathered in a room in an historic neighborhood in Lexington. The people brought food. They brought wine. They brought minds and hearts questing for a higher dialogue than we endured in Cleveland last week. They were promised Beethoven. That was the lure that brought them out on an insufferably hot Central Kentucky afternoon.

A word about the room itself.

It’s located on New Street; no more than an alley inaccurately named, since it’s one of the oldest streets in town. The room was designed with this afternoon in mind. As our pianist declaimed; “It’s not a living room, it’s a musical salon.” The walls of the room are ornamented with musical instruments – real musical instruments with individual histories of performance. The room is strewn with photographs that document the personal saga of our hostess performing the words of Thomas Merton with John Jacob Niles.

Indulgent Side Note.

Playboy 02

  • My first show at the University of Kentucky was J. M Synge’s “Playboy of the Western World” in 1969 (pictured above). I had been a student at UK for about four weeks when the show opened. I initiated the show by slowly pushing a center stage door open, peering straight out at the audience, and timidly inquiring; “Where’s himself?” On opening night, I pushed the door and peered straight into the whiskered face of John Jacob Niles. I wasn’t quite sure if I should say my line or simply sit down on the floor and wait for him to pull out his dulcimer and sing. Understand, I would pretty much be in heaven with either choice. My fellow actors, the rest of the audience, and probably Mr. Niles himself were lucky that I chose to move on with the play.

End of Indulgent Side Note.

Our hostess this afternoon is Jackie Roberts, a remarkable singer and teacher who has nurtured and continues to nurture several generations of Lexington musicians. When I arrived early this afternoon to set up the chairs for the concert, she had already completed the task herself and “hoped that was alright.” We sat and chatted. She told me with a pride I could only envy from afar that one of her young students had just been cast in this October’s production of “Ragtime” by the University of Kentucky Opera Theatre.

The crowd, the food, and the performers arrived.

The musical program was superb.

Dr. Tedrin Lindsay’s introduction to his performance of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata #2 to open the afternoon placed us in the time and spirit of the piece. I felt as if I was sitting, turning pages for, and peeking over the shoulder of Beethoven as Tedrin played. It was not a performance tethered to today. It was adrift in time. We could have been in a room today, a room in Tedrin’s early years (he played today from his sheet music as a youth), or a room in Vienna in 1796. And the Rondo ended with the sigh Tedrin promised, closely followed by my own.

Then Dr. Lindsay introduced Janet Scott, a gifted local actress. I’ve worked with Janet in two productions by On the Verge Theatre; Lillian Hellman’s “Little Foxes” and Shakespeare’s “Much Ado”. Tedrin and Janet were featured last year in Athens West Theatre’s “33 Variations” by Moises Kaufmann. Janet and Tedrin performed several selections from that play which features Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations. Janet’s diction in this material is as precise and pleasing as the music. Her character’s initial striving for logic decays into a longing for more time…more variations…and the music ends as of course it must…teasing us with the suggestion of the perpetual existence of more music…but no more time. Bravo Beethoven! Brava Ms. Scott!

I think.

Dr. Lindsay closed the afternoon with Beethoven’s Piano Sonata #18, an excellent choice after the first two selections and a favorite of mine. It sounds so modern, so purposeful, so energetic (but energetic with a plan). This is not a young person’s damn the torpedoes idealism. It’s a celebration and exhortation of what’s possible if we’ll just get up and do it.

The room was rapt.

There was no fear in the room.

There was art in the room.

And we all participated.

And we were all made great again

…as we always are when art is in the room.

This happens with frequency in Lexington. We should recognize it and celebrate it every time it does.

Pre-Ernest Musings

I had the great good luck to be about the same age as Jim Varney which means I’m old and any reminiscences I might relate about Jim would have to be a ragout of truth, legend, wishful thinking, the haze of decades, and a heavy dose of; “this is how it shoulda been”. To quote singer/songwriter Mitch Barrett; “I ain’t lyin’, I’m just tellin’ you a story.”

I met Jim when we were both in high school. I was participating in the State High School Drama Festival. It was held that year in a cavernous theater on the Eastern Kentucky University campus. I had performed the day before and was sitting in the house watching that day’s performers when Jim came loping up the aisle. At that time he was legendary as a high school actor and was already developing riffs and routines that would evolve later into his standup comedy routines and, of course, Ernest. He stopped where I was sitting, squinted, stuck out his jaw and drawled;

“I’m Jim Varney.”

I snappily replied; “Yes, you are.”

“You’re Roger Leasor.”

“Yes, I am.” (striving to maintain the high level of repartee).

He then took us to a higher place and purpose; “I can spell ‘antidisestablishmentarianism’ – on my hands!”

I hurled the gauntlet; “Then do it.”

He proceeded to flop his hands about like a cross between a birthday party magician, a seal asking for a fish, and Ted Cruz giving a speech.

When he completed his charade, I took a wild shot and pointed out; “You left out ‘dises’.”

He squinted harder and said; “Well, goddy-dam, that’s closer’n I usually get.”

He sat down next to me and for the next two hours I wept with laughter and shame as he eviscerated each performance he didn’t like and grunted at each performance he admired.

Jim was good company, but he “was not a tame lion” (thank you C. S. Lewis).

Rowdy and Petulant

Movie night!

One of the commentators on last night’s broadcast from this week’s political convention described a speech as “Clint Eastwood without the chair”. That prompted me to pull out PLAY MISTY FOR ME for the 384th time.

My experience with Clint Eastwood begins with his rowdy and petulant portrayal of Rowdy Yates in the TV cowboy series; “Rawhide”. He had a great squint even then.

Later, I loved his spaghetti westerns; A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS, FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE and the monumental and rambling THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY. Mr. Eastwood’s character in these films had no name so I just assumed it was an older Rowdy Yates in need of a shower. I wore a poncho myself for several years. I’m not proud of that but I did shower regularly.

Then he created Harry Callahan in the “Dirty Harry” films; talk about rowdy and petulant! But this time, he packed a lot more firepower. For you conspiracy fans, notice that Dirty Harry and Rowdy Yates have the same number of letters in their names. Hm-m. A clue?

The 1992 flick; UNFORGIVEN is a great western. In it, Mr. Eastwood’s character is once more rowdy and petulant, but now also older and slower. He’ll either break yer face or break yer heart – you choose.

These films make me feel as if I’ve watched Rowdy Yates’ entire adult life in movies and enjoyed the hell out of it.

PLAY MISTY FOR ME is not part of that experience. This character (Dave) is not rowdy and petulant, he’s selfish and bewildered.

Random synapses firings from MISTY;

  • It strikes me how similar Clint Eastwood’s radio show in the film is to “Chris in the Morning” on the TV show; “Northern Exposure”. Of course there’s a degree of difference – about 70 degrees of difference.
  • I also wonder if Adrienne Barbeau’s radio show in John Carpenter’s THE FOG might be inspired by Mr. Eastwood. In my travels by car around Kentucky, I’ve caught myself scanning radio channels searching for Clint, Chris, and Adrienne. A little poetry on I-65 would relieve the pounding of the semi convoys.
  • Donna Mills is luscious in her cuter’n-pup-turds pixie haircut. But I cannot get her “Knot’s Landing” character out of my head and I keep weighing who’s truly more dangerous; her or Jessica Walters?
  • I have the similar issues with the amazing picture postcard shots of the Monterey Peninsula director Clint Eastwood employs in this film. Yes, the images beautiful. Yes, I’ve visited the area AND read Kerouac’s tone poem in BIG SUR and know for certain the beauty of Monterey is not a trick of movie-making, it’s there. But the cumulative effect of these shots keeps summoning the croonings of Rod McKuen recordings…not so good in a film of terror.

Unlike Rowdy Yates, this film doesn’t age well, but I love it.

Wild Strawberries & Wild Egos

Movie night!

Some of my friends find these to be cynical and unhopeful times. Imagine that.

  • People are voting against their interests.
    • Poor counties in my home state that receive hugely larger amounts of help from the federal government than the taxes they pay are solidly and repeatedly voting for candidates dedicated to drastically reducing that assistance.
    • My state has over 400,000 people who now have medical insurance because of the Affordable Care Act and yet they elected a governor who campaigned clearly and openly on a promise to put an end to their newly acquired insurance.
    • These things don’t affect me personally except for the accelerating diminishment of my hair as I scratch my head in wonderment.
  • Intelligence increasingly is being scorned as undesirable. Legislators are using the phrase “I’m not a scientist” to refuse to listen to scientists…with pride for their cleverness.
  • Extreme defensive shifts are damaging major league baseball. That one’s only a concern of mine. My friends are not really bothered by this.

These are disturbing signs. I join my friends in worrying about where this all might be heading.

But I don’t think it’s the end of times.

They’re just different times.

Tonight’s flick is Ingmar Bergman’s WILD STRAWBERRIES. In it an old professor leans out his nocturnal window to receive professions of affection from three young people as they leave him to live their lives. He then lies down to dream of his parents waving their affection for him as they live their lives. He is blissfully nestled in these generational boundaries.

I think that’s relevant…and soothing.

They’re just different times. I’m OK wit’ dat.

BUT I think it would be wise to swallow our egos and listen to scientists and other smart people…and our dogs – we should always listen to our dogs.

AND…the batters have got to swallow their egos and hit the ball the opposite way!

Plastic Cowboy Hats or Iguanas?

Movie Night!

What are my choices this evening?

Political junkie that I usually am, I could lock-in on this week’s political convention (red shirts, plastic cowboy hats, interminable plagiarism discussion loops, and conventioneers I suspect have spent a bit more time at the hotel bar than is advisable before strutting before cameras announcing numbers to millions of viewers – whoop!), or I could skip along the cultural high road with director Riccardo Freda’s giallo classic, THE IGUANA WITH THE TONGUE OF FIRE.

Pass up a title like that? I think not.

I can think of two movies with “iguana” in their titles. What are those odds? The other film is NIGHT OF THE IGUANA based on a story by Tennessee Williams. You may be asking (as I did); “What’s so special about iguanas?” That led me to recall a story by British speculative fiction writer J. G. Ballard. Mr. Ballard is best known for his novel; EMPIRE OF THE SUN, upon which the award-winning film was based. But in his novel; THE DROWNED WORLD, the Earth’s protective ionosphere has been decimated by solar flares and the planet has devolved into a ubiquitous, dank, fetid, swamp. The planet’s cities have decayed. Many buildings now harbor amphibian creatures living in the darkness of the buildings’ long missing windows and doors. For Ballard, these creatures are clearly representative of atavistic impulses and desires that lurk within us all waiting to be triggered and released by drastic changes in the conditions that restrain them. I think that may also true for both of our “iguana” flicks.

There is, of course, a chasm of difference in performance quality between NIGHT OF THE IGUANA (Richard Burton, Ava Gardner, and Deborah Kerr) and THE IGUANA WITH THE TONGUE OF FIRE (Luigi Pistilli, Dagmar Lassander, and Anton Diffring), but not in one performance.

I have not seen many performances by Valentina Cortese, but I’m impressed by what I’ve seen. Her Oscar-nominated performance in Francois Truffault’s DAY FOR NIGHT is a thing of wonder. In THE IGUANA WITH THE TONGUE OF FIRE (made two years before), Ms. Cortese has a heart-wrenching scene that transcends the tawdriness of the film.

She says of her husband;

“His Excellency has returned to Switzerland and I am alone…as always. How do you expect me to say it? It’s the truth. Behind this façade you are looking at there is the most terrible…unbelievable…emptiness…between me and my children, between me and my………husband.”

The camera never leaves her face. It would be criminal to do so. Score one for director Freda.

Oh yes, this was a much better choice than those ersatz cowboy hats. Whoop indeed!

…born in the gutter, but…

We are a strange species.

We can and have successfully built a machine and sent it on a nine year journey to the farthest planet in our solar system and now added a machine to orbit and transmit pictures of Jupiter. What vision! What will! What faith! We should be so proud. These are things we did.

Yet, on our own planet we can’t seem to see past the next news cycle, the next p/l statement, or the next paycheck.

Now we’ve built an ark to deceive and entertain our children. I’m not as upset by this effort as most people seem to be. After all, we build “Magic Kingdoms” to demonstrate talking mice and mermaids and we spin webs of Easter Bunnies and Santa Claus. Yes, this insistence on the veracity of these otherwise useful fables can possibly damage the future credibility of parents who later suggest with similar fervor that drug usage and casual sex might be a poor decision, but these entertainments are part of the blessing/curse of living in a free land, and as long as public schools are not scheduling field trips to visit and public tax funds are not supporting them, I guess I can sleep tonight. I have to confess however, I wish the ark was in another state, not mine. That’s my problem…I’ll survive.

We allow ourselves to be distracted from all the needed and right things to be done…by flags…and which shade of skin and/or country of origin produces the most rapists or Rhodes scholars…or whether there is so much love rampant in the world that we must put limits on it. What foolishness, while our bridges collapse and Florida sinks below the waves.

As a child, I dreamed of becoming an astronaut to get closer to the stars. I wonder if the children of today might still be dreaming of becoming astronauts, but now it’s to escape the folly down here…or because there might be Pokémon on Mars.

Today’s pictures of Pluto and Jupiter declare differently. We can and have done great things; things that don’t include walls to further divide us.

We should not be pining over the passing of the “greatest generation”. We should not waste time scratching our heads wondering what happened to the baby boomers. We should be building on the successes of those generations and learning from their failures. That’s what thinking, UNDISTRACTED people do. Others tank up on stories about the Kardashians, Bruce Jenner, and Honey Boo-Boo.

Let them.

They have always been with us.  There’s no need to consult them until they’re ready to participate as informed adults. Let them amuse themselves. It’s OK.

The rest of us need to move on. There’s work to be done – good work. There are great and needed things to be done. They probably don’t include arks and talking mice.

I have to confess again; I still dream of becoming an astronaut. I’ll be in my back yard tonight, looking up. There’s a full moon and I think Mars will be high in the sky…with or without Pokémon.

“We are all born in the gutter, but some of us look up at the stars.” – Oscar Wilde.

Worst. Fistfight. Ever.

Movie night!

Victory Pictures Studio could always be counted on to deliver a quality product (well no, they couldn’t) and AMATEUR CROOK (1938) proves it (well…No! It doesn’t.).

AMATEUR CROOK was worthy enough in someone’s eyes to be released under two other titles; JEWEL THIEF, and CROOKED BUT DUMB. If I read CROOKED BUT DUMB on a theater’s marquee, I’d give it a try.

I can’t truthfully say I recommend viewing many of the films I cite. A goodly number of them are awful in spite of the affection I may feel for them. But if you stumble across AMATEUR CROOK, an hour of your time will be rewarded with tawdry wonders.

  • A diamond as big as a chicken egg is pawned by a wealthy man who has clearly never required the services of a pawnbroker previously. He does this for no discernible reason except to provide a “McGuffin” for us to follow for sixty minutes.
  • Former Olympian Herman Brix (before he morphed into Bruce Bennett) plays a starving artist. He gives one of his classic deer-in-the-headlights performances. This was during his deer-in-the-headlights period which lasted for much of his career.
  • Mr. Brix participates in the worst screen fistfight I’ve ever witnessed. Worst. Fistfight. Ever.
  • Mr. Brix’s character in one scene improvises instantly a most brilliant plan for escaping the police. He exclaims; “I’ve got it! Let’s go out the back way!!”
  • Then, later in the film, he repeats the same plan. Hey, if it ain’t broke…
  • And yes, it works both times. Police work has improved greatly since 1938.
  • Did I mention; Worst. Fistfight. Ever.

I loved it.