Friday, August 29, 2014

Michael Jackson's Birthday

As he looked after extensive plastic surgery, but not for long.
Michael Jackson was an extraordinary artist, perhaps not appreciated as he grew from an overindulged, overprotected, overpunished, overexposed child to a man of unusual tastes and a life that appeared freakish on the outside. If he had lived, he would be 56 years old today.

I wrote this on my blog soon after he died, inspired by the documentary This Is It, filmed mostly at the dress rehearsal for his last concert:

He was an extraordinary performer, a child prodigy grown to middle age, a transformative pop culture figure who died too young. Like most of us, he was compelled to examine his legacy, and Michael Jackson did it in public with This Is It, the farewell tour concert that he didn't complete. Luckily, there was 100 hours of footage of the rehearsals, and luckily for all of us that footage has been edited and put together into a riveting film that celebrates the life of the enigmatic genius that the eternal boy had become. We see him in rehearsal, holding back a little ("I have to conserve my voice..."), being coddled and revered ("Hold the rail, Michael!" as he's being introduced to the cherrypicker), being the exacting artist and director, and then, best of all, performing. There are charming notes as when they are discussing movements with him and he says, "That's the one the stewardesses do--I love that one, I absolutely love that one!", and that ride in the cherry-picker when he's carefully told, "This is the medium one, you'll be going much higher," and he responds quietly, "You know not to say that to me."

In the film we see a magnificent performer, the consummate professional, working carefully to perfect the show that is never to be. There is something inherently tragic at the same time that the movie is triumphant: Michael Jackson onstage is all that he was ever portrayed to be, and more. He is gentle and tentative offstage as he is commanding, powerful and exciting onstage. I was in a theater with about 25 other people, scattered about all through the house, and there was spontaneous applause at many times during the show. Sometimes we made inadvertent noises--groans, hoots, and sighs. I left the theatre behind two overweight young black women, and I heard one remark to the other, "I wish I had at least met him."

I actually did meet Michael Jackson once. It was after his Jackson Five days but years before Thriller. He sported a big Afro and wore a denim leisure suit. We were at a performance by The Dance Theatre of Harlem, and he was literally hanging back against a wall at intermission. I took the program over to him and he autographed it to my daughter. He spoke very softly and seemed almost embarrassed to be asked for his autograph. I am thrilled to think of that evening now, and to know that I still own that program.

It's hard to think of what the intervening years did to him, but there he is for all to see in This Is It, busting dance moves that he invented and that caused Fred Astaire to call him "the greatest dancer of the century." He was more than a phenomenon. He literally changed the world of dance and turned the world into dancers. He will never leave us, yet he left us cruelly too soon.

If you don't believe me, rent the movie.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Searching for Walt Disney

Tom Hanks, Emma Thompson in Saving Mr. Banks

I've had a lot of experience with Walt Disney in my life. As a child, I wept for Bambi; I feared as if for my own young life when Snow White ran through the dangerous wood to escape the evil queen, guilty of nothing but being so damn beautiful. I giggled at the mice in Cinderella, and was awed by the glorious ball gown and the glass slipper. By the time Alice in Wonderland was done I was bothered by the bastardization of the original Tenniel drawings by Disney artists. I preferred the original Peter Pan, and I could not abide the cutification of Winnie the Pooh, a dignified English gentleman of a teddy bear, made into a naïve infant. I didn't bother to see his version of Mary Poppins. I had long before vowed if I ever had a child he or she would not be taken to Disneyland.

I was, I suppose, a bit like P.L. Travers. I don't think I was ever as nasty as she is portrayed in the film Saving Mr. Banks, but it was not difficult for me to empathize with her. I understood Walt Disney and saw what he was doing, but I didn't have much respect for him. I hated the way he took existing works and cheapened them by dumbing them down, making them sentimental, smoothing them out, and creating a world which was neither magical nor enchanting but false. If I had written a book about a no-nonsense English nanny who knew how to solve problems, I would have great trepidation in allowing Disney anywhere near her.

I expected Saving Mr. Banks to be a whitewash of the whole Disney operation, and to gloss over the prickly Ms. Travers, or, worse, to portray her as being converted by the so-called Disney magic. Emma Thompson as Travers is immune. Saving Mr. Banks is really a biography of P.L. Travers, pitting a tense Englishwoman against an always-amiable American. She bristles at the atmosphere of California--the constant trays of hors d'oeurve, the informality of first names, the sunny, unrealistic atmosphere surrounding the whole Disney enterprise. Walt Disney courts her, in a way, and defers to her where he can. Nothing works. She has the rights to her book and characters, and will not grant them unless he eliminates whimsy and magic from his script. Tom Hanks is a great foil for Thompson, and the conflicts between them are very convincing. But the movie is about Travers, flashing back to a childhood of enormous stress, as we see Thompson coping with memories as she defends her creation. The incessant intrusion of triviality into her hidebound, serious world, rankles her until she can no longer take it. Saving Mr. Banks presents a counterpoint of Ms. Travers' sad memories with the oblivious optimism of the crew plugging away at Walt Disney Studios.

It's a fine movie. It sent me to the Internet to search for what might be true about it (not everything, for certain) and for what Walt Disney and P.L. Travers were really like. What I learned didn't lessen my opinion of Saving Mr. Banks.  It deserves to be around for those of us who might not be in Walt Disney's corner. We might reconsider that as P.L. Travers did. In time, even I might come around a little.  

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Reflections on Roger Ebert

There are movie people and there are those of us who are not. I was almost 50 years old before that dawned on me.

I met the new lady in Fairhope who was going to be in charge of an arts committee and we were having lunch. At that point there was one place out in the strip mall that had excellent soups and sandwiches that was so popular my friends referred to it as "Elaine's" after the NYC joint everybody who was anybody went to. I think that's where we were when she blithely said, "I'm not a movie person," after I brought up the latest flick I wanted to critique with her. I was stunned. I thought everybody who was alive was a movie person; the movies had defined me since as a toddler I had wept for Bambi and, a few years later hid behind the seat in the row ahead of me while Lon Chaney Jr.'s hair all over his body grew, turning him into a bona fide werewolf.

I watched all kinds of movies, from the MGM musicals where pretty people danced down streets to be greeted in song by butchers, bakers, and other townspeople--to the wrenching, soul-killing melodrama of Northern troops setting fire to Atlanta. My first husband, also a movie person, took me to Ingmar Bergman black and white dramas and the ever-so-happy Never on Sunday, which we both agreed we wanted to see for the first time again somehow. My second husband was an actor who preferred the dark European films, bloody with gruesome scenes and ambiguous outcomes as much as he did the circus phantasmagoria of Fellini. All movies mattered to me, whether I liked, loved, hated, or was confused by them. They were at once my great escape and my great medium for self analysis.

Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel were a part of the wallpaper of movies in my life for a period of some ten years. I respected their opinions and enjoyed their television back-and-forth even though I didn't always agree with both at the same time. However, if both gave a thumbs-up I was pretty sure to like the movie. If only Roger did, I usually did too. I liked his intellect. His pervasive, almost unconditional love of the movies struck home for me.

The new documentary about Roger Ebert called Life Itself tells the story of the superbright kid who grew up in Illinois and found he could write about the movies and its stars as well as just about anybody. He went on to edit the college newspaper, and from there to the movie desk at the Chicago Sun-Times, turning himself into the traditional hard-drinking raconteur Chicago newsman as depicted in some old Ben Hecht movie.  Until the night he almost killed himself, had an epiphany, and joined AA. He says that he never took a drink after his first meeting and never wanted to. That in itself is remarkable.

The movie shows interviews and testimonials from old friends, co-workers, and fans. Gene's Siskel's wife documents the testy relationship the two shared, and gives Gene's side of the story. When Roger married the brilliant attorney "Chaz" Hammelsmith, he went from a lost-lone-ranger-type movie lover to a lover of life itself, and the 20 years they had together were extraordinary. Her strength of character was put to the test when he was diagnosed with cancer of the esophagus and and salivary glands, and had to have a large portion of his face and throat removed. He went on to write eloquently of his philosophy, his thoughts about the meaning of life, and even about what it was like to live without the possibility of eating or drinking anything again. He was a truly superb writer, with a big heart and a commitment to live to the fullest extent he could, no matter the circumstances.

I was thrilled by his story, although I found it difficult to look at the grotesque distortion of his face in his last years. He could only communicate by writing and by the look in his eyes. He still loved and managed to review movies, but was ably abetted by a team of writers of his choosing, as he moved to the Internet rather than television and the lecture halls at film festivals. His courage and endurance made him an exemplary human being--larger than life in more ways than one--and his love for the movies made him that much more accessible to the rest of us movie people. Life Itself brings that home in a very real and personal way.


Saturday, August 2, 2014

Real Estate Porn

Watching television makes buying a home, renovating, living in it, and selling it, easy and beautiful. There is something so seductive about the shows that inform us that a New York apartment, (probably within memory available for $400 a month or less rent, has been "updated" and now sells for a million and a half or more--or can be rented for $20,000 per month. Looking at such real estate is mesmerizing and can be expensive, if you don't keep reminding yourself that it is not really the way things is the essence of television--that is to say, it is pornography for consumers.
The renovated kitchen of an apartment featured in Selling New York

There are attractive realtors and renovation experts who make the process look a breeze, even if it involves an expensive renovation and all that is left of the original property is a shell that has been deconstructed and rebuilt to retain nothing of its character. There are realtors who can find us a replacement for the home we chose years ago but whose quirks no longer charm us.
Twins Drew and Scott, one of whom (guess which) is a realtor.
There are contractors who ambush buyers at the "home improvement store" and take over the project of remodeling that they were only thinking of maybe doing eventually. There are the genuine "old house lovers" who buy and restore properties...and there are the flippers who have figured out how to monetize the crash in the housing market by buying low, making changes, and selling high. All this makes the face of "reality" on television a bit suspect, but when you're actually thinking about a move, as I was six months ago, the shows are more and more convincing and the rewards seem that much more delicious. I am a fan of houses built around the turn of the 20th century, maybe because I grew up in one, and hate to see them demolished and replaced by the pasteboard Disney version so prevalent in today's world. When I find a TV show that celebrates antiques, yard sale finds, and the restoration of a dilapidated wreck of a house, I am hooked. It doesn't hurt if the host is cute, male or female.
Nicole Curtis, hostess of Rehab Addict
Now that I'm three weeks into the renovation of the Victorian in Kingston, I've got the television set to the channels that feature these shows. I am compelled to check them out and compare notes, I know not why, as I never find one that matches what I want to achieve here. So much of my house is usable as is, and all that is being completely redone is the kitchen and the bathroom--standard for any home purchase in this day and age. I want to keep the 1890 character in both rooms although of course those are the rooms which need modernity in order to function at all. And I don't want this house to look like either "Grandma's house"--which of course it is--or a museum. I've saved bits of decor from so many homes that it's an autobiography of a house. And I'm having fun filling it with new stuff that fits and doesn't look as if it was bought by a designer. I hope.