Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Still The King

I don't imagine there is any way I could get an accurate count of the number of times I have watched "King Kong." I reference the 1933 version here, but I will admit that one of the best ways to sucker me onto the couch for an hour or two is to suggest either in title or by comparison any sort of "Kong-nection." One of the reasons I retain a solid memory of the film "The Stunt Man" is the offhand reference to just how tall King Kong really was. I know that I have seen the Jessica Lange/Jeff Bridges version enough times to be embarrassed by the number. For the record, I didn't cry when Jaws died, but I didn't shed a tear for Dino De Laurentis' Kong, though I maintained a fascination with Rick Baker's ape suit. Peter Jackson's version ran nearly twice as long as the original, but as fascinating as all those computer generated beasties were, it was a remake.
Nearly fifty years after the first time I sat at the foot of my parents' be and watched that RKO gem, I continue to be drawn to it. Twenty-plus years after my wife and I placed Kong and Ann at the top of our wedding cake, I watch it with an eye for every detail that I've read about or noticed in those countless viewings. I have even slowed things down, frame by frame, to watch the ripples in the great ape's fur created by the tiny manipulations by his animators. As a side note, I consider myself lucky to have "King Kong" as a favorite film. At one hundred minutes, I can watch it a couple of times and still have time to catch a little of the making-of documentaries before my mother can take in just one showing of her beloved "Gone With The Wind."
It happened again this past Saturday morning. Carl Denham got Captain Englehorn to steer The Venture into the mists near Skull Island. If it had just been the guys taking the trip, there might not have been any need for trouble. Carl and his men could have gone ashore and made another one of those amusing little films about monkeys and lions. But instead of following the wisdom of Mark Trail, who left only footprints and took only photos, he gassed that forty-foot gorilla, strapped him to a raft and dragged him back to civilization. All for a girl.
It's a love story. It's a story for the ages. If it's on again tomorrow, you'll know where I'll be.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Click Or Treat

Can you believe Jose Canseco lied to us all? Hard to believe a man of such sterling credentials would stoop so low as to perpetrate an Internet hoax. About himself? The ugliest part about this is not how easily I personally was fished in. I wasn't the only one. What strikes me now is just how believable it was for me, and millions of other fish, that Jose Canseco who shot his own finger off might have enlisted such a bad surgeon that his feeble attempt at reattachment resulted in some sort of ugly personal embarrassment. After all, Al Gore's Internet is where we go to confess our sins and weaknesses.
How quick are we to gasp at a headline and click without thinking about what sordid event we may be perpetuating? I was completely guilty of giving Jose Canseco yet another three or four minutes of infamy, long after his shot at Dancing With The Stars had passed by. Still, I can't find it in my head or my heart to make him into the villain. I only have myself to blame for the level of gullibility I choose to maintain. This system of tubes and wires that allow information to fly through them at such blinding speeds is not the culprit. I wanted to click on that morbid little piece of fiction, and what is worse, I wanted to believe it.
That is precisely what is keeping me from delving into the litany of complaints against Bill Cosby. Is it news? It gossip? Is it sad? Is it true? Is it a train wreck in slow motion? I'll go with that last one. As much as everything I know about Doctor Cosby up until the present tells me that this is as real as Canseco's detachable finger, I was completely willing to buy that ridiculous premise. Why shouldn't I believe that this comic genius has more than a few skeletons in his closet. Comic genius. Closet. That juxtaposition is more than a little uncomfortable even now. What should I believe?
I believe that I should refrain from jumping into that information stream. A difficult task, given how fast and full that river runs these days. It's hard not to feel like you're missing out if you haven't seen the latest video or seen the picture where - well, you know. I think I liked Al Gore's Internet better when it was just about the cat videos.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Right To Left

If it weren't so magnificent in so many other respects, it probably wouldn't bother me as much. I wouldn't fixate on this one little hitch in the proceedings if it wasn't surrounded by so much awesomeness. It's the fly speck in what is some pretty amazing ointment, and it may be the thing that was left in the mix to keep the gods from getting angry. What could possibly be so special that this tiny aggravation keeps me from relaxing and enjoying it for precisely what it is: an American classic. And why can't I say that the fact that Benjamin Braddock is driving the wrong way on the Bay Bridge when he is racing to Berkeley to meet up with Elaine?
I can't dwell on this now because Mike Nichols is gone. He died last week and he can't go back and fix that little glitch. We're stuck with a flawed masterpiece. Why am I stuck, staring at the tiny flaw that can hardly obscure one of the brightest lights in cinema history? Probably because "The Graduate" was the first film that I studied intensely. I had been watching movies repeatedly, but never considering the finer points of plot, character and underlying themes. That was the kind of thing I heard my older brother talking about, and I was listening. By the late seventies, I was getting a sense of just how complex a conversation one could have about a movie. Mike Nichol's "The Graduate" was my entree into that discussion.
Was Benjamin going from right to left on the moving sidewalk at the opening a conscious choice? How about his use of a cross to keep the angry mob inside the church while he and Elaine escape? Of course they were. These weren't just accidents or circumstance. They were planned and executed in order to give the viewer another layer to think about: subtext. Dustin Hoffman, Anne Bancroft, Katherine Ross, Buck Henry, TV funnyman Noman Fell, and even the blink and you'll miss it second film appearance of Richard Dreyfuss.
I have been in love with every frame of that film for all the years since I saw it first, but I would have liked to have the chance to ask Mister Nichols, about that whole Bay Bridge thing. I can negotiate an answer from the reality around me: It makes most sense to film the hero on the top of the bridge, since heading to Berkeley in reality would make that nice helicopter shot pretty unnecessary. That's what art does sometimes. Mike Nichols made a lot of art. Some of it was on stage. Some of it was on record. He made some great movies in addition to "The Graduate." Some not quite so much. There wasn't a real stinker in the bunch. I know because I have seen them all. I enjoyed them all. But "The Graduate" is the one that I won't turn off, even if I'm going to regret staying up to watch.
And now, Mike Nichols, I forgive you for that touch of artistic license. You stomped on the Terra. Aloha.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Common Ground

I do read other people's blogs. Sometimes it's my wife. Sometimes it's one of those featured in my documentary debut, "Friends We Haven't Met Yet," like "The View From Farview Farm." The truth is, maintaining a daily presence on Al Gore's Internet tends to keep me from reading someone else. There are so many clever, interesting voices out there, sometimes I have to put my hands over my ears and go "nanananananana" until I can be sure that they all go away long enough for me to hear myself.
Then again, sometimes it's nice to know that all those voices in my head are not my own. I do like it when those voices that I choose are harmonious with my own. I read some sports blogs, but mostly the ones that will tell me what I already know. I read some film blogs, but generally those that sound like reviews I might have written myself. Reading opinions other than my own tends to confuse me or make me upset, so if I get through those first few lines and I find myself rolling my eyes or gritting my teeth, I move on. I find that reading the words of other educators or parents can be a dicey thing. Sometimes I get sucked in by the story, only to find that it is actually a propaganda piece for some new program or curriculum that aims to save our next generation from the missteps of the one preceding. I read one last week that made me feel like I was pointed in the right direction: "Dear Parent: About THAT kid..." If you don't feel like reading the whole thing yourself, I can tell you that it is about how we, teachers, have to juggle when it comes to talking to parents about "that kid." The one who seems to be in trouble all the time. The one who bothers every other child in the room. The one who makes them cry by poking or prodding or pinching or cursing or just making the learning stop.
We, teachers, can't tell parents all the reasons why "that kid" is making education such a daily challenge. We can't tell them confidentially of otherwise all the ways that this child has struggled to make it to this point. We understand that it is our job as head of the classroom to make sure that everyone is in their places with bright shining faces, ready to learn. "That kid" is not. But that doesn't mean "that kid" won't be ready. Soon. And we want to be there when that magic moment occurs. Sometimes it takes a year. Or two. Sometimes "that kid" finds their way out into the world and you, as a teacher, get to read about "that kid" in the local news. And when you do, you remember the good things. By contrast, I've been happy to greet "that kid" upon their return to our school, after years at this middle school or that high school, to find "that kid" found a path that worked for them. Some teacher along the line got to them. An afterschool program helped them get into some sport or activity that gave them an outlet for all the ya-yas they couldn't use up in second grade. Or fifth. Now they return to say "how's it going?" but what they're really saying is "sorry about that part when I was crushing crayons into the carpet. I wasn't at my best." That kid won't say it, but I'm always happy to see them.
By the way, I don't agree with everything Miss Night has to say, but it's nice to have that common ground.

Friday, November 21, 2014

What's Love Got To Do With It?

Yes, there are plenty of red states out there. More than there were just a few weeks ago, but the interesting trend to me is that in spite of this tide, there is an even more impressive spread of rainbow. Across this great land of ours, it's getting easier and easier for men to marry men and women to marry women. I know I've been a but of a Grumbly Gus when it comes to the accomplishments of our President lately, but I will have to give him credit for a good deal of Hope and Change on this particular account. In thirty-three of fifty United States same-sex marriage is legal. And speaking of legal, there is all kind of litigation still in the works in hopes of moving off that sixty percent mark and moving into a solid one hundred.
This makes many people nervous. It makes some people scared. Mostly it makes people want to change the subject. Those who are determined to continue the debate tend to turn directly to the "wild animal defense." It's the one that comes pretty soon after the one about how same-sex couples can't have kids, which is news to Elton John, and Melissa Etheridge and countless others who have been creative or simply adopted. The bestiality defense of traditional marriage is the one that suggests that as soon as we start letting men marry men and women marry women, the door is kicked wide open in to a world where we will be encouraged to wed any and all of God's creatures. Usually something smelly. Or with sharp teeth. "Next I suppose we should legalize marriage to wolverines!"
Well, not so fast there, pointy-headed one. That's not what we're suggesting, but if it would bring in some sort of unforeseen tax break or incentive or cause us all to become more responsible gun owners, why not? See how easy it is to fall into that trap? Okay, I'm not really going to suggest that making marriage to large, ill-tempered weasels legal is a good idea, but then there's this: Charles Manson was issued a marriage license last week. He and his twenty-six-year-old paramour have plans to tie the knot within the next month. Eighty-year-old convicted murderer Charlie Manson is legally allowed to marry anyone? What is up with that? He can't have a driver's license. A fishing license won't do him much good, since there isn't a lot of good casting to be done from his current housing situation. License to kill? Revoked. I would like to think that some goodhearted animal shelter employee would think twice before issuing him a dog license. But Charles Manson can get married. Okay. Then I'm guessing that whole wolverine thing seems just a little less ridiculous. Or crazy.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Son Set

Saturday evening, before we found our way into the theater and our seats, my son paused just past the snack counter. He took out his phone, which he was using as a camera at this instant, and set up carefully to take a picture of the sunset that was occurring just outside the window. I felt my usual tug to get inside and find a seat, but stopped and marveled at the care my son was taking with his composition. I was also aware of his intent: he was trying to capture the beauty he was seeing around him. I made a mental note of this because I could not remember him ever uttering that word, in any of its various permutations: beauty, beautiful, beauteous. It is not a word found in your standard seventeen-year-old boy's lexicon. Unless that seventeen-year-old boy happens to be Doug or Bob McKenzie.
His first shot included a flash, which reflected off the window, and while he re-calibrated his shot, I considered how we found ourselves in this particular moment. Not the part where we went to the movies. We've been doing that all his life. I was more interested in his new-found fascination with the beauty of the world around him. I knew that he and his friends had made a plan on Halloween to meet at the top of a nearby hill to watch the sun go down. Back then, I had assumed it had more to do with the coming of the spooky night rather than the picturesque end of the day. I had not imagined that he and his friends might have been gathering in appreciation of the sunset, something that reminded me of a youth spent watching sunsets with my mother and father, who used that opportunity to rate them. It was my father's insistence that there was no such thing as a "10."
When I went to Key West for the first time, I found a sunset that would disagree with that scale. While I was there, I saw a number of them. It was there that I did the same thing my son was doing. I took a photo through the window on the top floor of the Holiday Inn. I wanted something to take away from that moment. The problem with snapshots is that they can't take up the sky. They don't stretch to the horizon. They are reminders. All the photos of all the sunsets my family has ever taken are dull asterisks to footnote the experience. We have a lot of them. But that doesn't mean I want to discourage my son from taking his share. Let him make and album, post them to Reddit. I don't mind. It's what we do.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

What's It All About?

I'm not sure if this is a sports-related blog entry, but it does concern the antics of one professional athlete. It could be a social commentary, since professional athletes often provide us with examples both good and bad of behavior off the field. On the field, this gentleman distinguished himself initially by beating the heck out of baseballs for the Oakland Athletics. It turns out that one of the reasons he was he was able to generate so much offense for the A's was because he was, in his own words, "Juiced." Jose took steroids to make himself a better athlete. The drugs he took may have made him a better player, though there is some debate about exactly how good a baseball player he ever was. What is certain is that while the drugs may have improved his athletic performance, it probably didn't make him a better human being.
Recent events remind us of the perils of looking to professional sports for role models, but if we're looking for examples, Jose Canseco might be best suited for the "bad" category. That whole cheating and then bragging about it business aside, he might still make the Darwin Awards short list for shooting off his own middle finger while cleaning his gun. There may be some poetic justice in the seemingly coincidental obliteration of his middle digit, since that seemed to carry a good deal of his attitude toward the rest of the world. Imagine then how the relief he must have felt when surgeons were able to reattach Canseco's bird to its flipping mechanism.
Until this past week. Jose's surgically reattached finger fell off during a poker tournament. Fell off. What was Jose's reaction? He tweeted about it. A number of times. Ha, ha. More funny stories for the fans. Maybe not "funny-ha-ha," unless you happen to be pointing a finger at him, preferably one that had not been hastily stitched back on by a doctor whose skills may or may not have been enhanced by steroids. How else could it be explained? Maybe a lack of fingers would eventually limit Mister Canseco's access to social media. So maybe this blog entry turns out to be one about responsible use of social media. One thing is certain: steroid use does not promote decision making skills nor does it appear to help in the regeneration of missing body parts. So this one, it appears, is all about science.