22 April 2014

And it's One Two Three What're We Fightin' For? Don't Ask Me I Don't Give a Damn Next Stop is Vietnam

"Hell is the impossibility of reason." - From Platoon directed by Oliver Stone

The prologue to my life was World War 11 which ended nine years before I was born. It informed my childhood its memories still crisp in the air. It was the war in which the US vanquished German fascism and Japanese imperialism. There was no question but that we were the good guys. World War II came to be known as the good war. Who could argue with that?

But as my teen years approached, there was a conflict in Vietnam in which the US had become embroiled. As a child I accepted the government's explanations for the country's need to be there risking American lives. It was far away and death and dismemberment were abstractions not given much thought. But increasingly there was an unease about this war. As I grew up the war grew also and so too did cries that this was not our fight that we should bring our soldiers home and should be pursuing peaceful methods to solve conflicts whenever and wherever possible. Anti-war sentiment soon became part of the hip youth culture with -- for example -- The Beatles themselves calling US participation wrong.

Fortunately I was growing up in Berkeley which in my early youth had much of a bucolic Anytown USA quality to it replete with picket fences ball fields and parades down main street. By the middle of the 1960's those parades were anti war marches. As I grew into adolescence it became increasingly clear that the government was not necessarily to be trusted. They were wrong to continue the war in Southeast Asia just as they had been wrong for so many years -- it was now clear -- not to ensure the rights of its Black citizens and to do enough for those in need. The US government, I was learning, was far from perfect.

Long hair rock music drugs and rebelling against the government went hand in hand. I was at the right place at the right time. Power to the people. One of the first questions you asked someone back then was: "are you for or against the war?" It was a litmus test. People for it were not only wrong but they were hopelessly square unaware and enemies of love peace and understanding.

If the nobility of the US rescuing Europe and Asia during the second world war set up my childhood then it was the ghastly mistake of the Vietnam War that ushered in my adulthood. Here was a terrible tragedy in which the United States had not just been fighting the wrong enemy -- as Daniel Ellsberg said -- but had actually been the enemy. Moreover this was a war that my generation had fought in. Almost anyway. I was about two years too young to have ever served in Viet Nam. But that was close enough for me to experience a form of survivor's guilt that afflicted many of my generation. I dreamed about being in combat in the Nam repeatedly over the years and those dreams were never heroic and were usually horrific.

Vietnam has come to be known as the first televised war which is one of the reasons that it has left such a powerful impact on my generation's psyche. There were the moving images often in living color of napalm being dropped, of soldiers entering battle or recovering from it, or coming home from it in caskets. Even then the full devastation on the war -- particularly as felt by the Vietnamese -- was unseen. But in large part due to the war's unpopularity there were the stories of the men who served. Many now came home adamantly opposed to the war they fought in. But still some of the true terror of the war caused by the US remained largely unknown. Films like Platoon (1986) and Apocalypse Now (1979) gave but a hint and cinematically at that.

I did not really begin to understand the war until a week ago when I started reading "Kill Anything That Moves" by Nick Turse. It is the story of the countless atrocities committed by US troops against Vietnamese civilians (including women children and the elderly) ranging from My Lai type massacres to individual killings rapes and torture to indiscriminate artillery and bombing that devastated villages farms animals and innocent human beings. It is a fascinating and depressing read. Clearly any notion that Americans are nobler than anyone else -- were one foolhardy enough to think so -- would be dashed by this recounting of the horror US soldiers visited upon the innocent. Turse's accounts are based on documentary evidence including interviews with witnesses and even participants and government documents some recently declassified.

Sadly it all rather fits in with American history. Slavery, the genocide of Native Americans, atrocities in the Philippines, Japanese internment the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, drone strikes in the Mid East that kill innocent civilians, are all part of the litany of slaughter and torment that the US has brought almost exclusively to people of color.

In the US itself great memorials and soaring tributes and impassioned speeches and dedications are made when any Americans are victims of an attack on US soil. Last year's Boston Marathon bombing claimed three lives with 264 injured. For this there was endless praise for the strength and fortitude of the people of Boston and determination to not forgot the victims. Of course the September 11 2001 terrorist attacks has brought us years of ribbons flags and phony patriotism -- not to mention a war in Afghanistan that still endures today and part of a pretext for the war in Iraq. Americans are so accustomed to victimizing that when they are the victims they howl ceaselessly.

So anyway I watched Platoon on Sunday for maybe the sixth or seventh time but for the first time in several years. It is one of those rare Oscar winners for best picture that actually deserved the award. Charlie Sheen (his dad Martin had starred in Apocalypse Now) starred as Chris Taylor a young private arriving in the Nam in late 1967 to serve with a unit which sees action near the Cambodian border. According to people who have served in wars in general and Vietnam in particular, Platoon captures everything up to the smell of being part of a unit in combat. For those of us who've been fortunate to avoid the military it seems real enough. The contradictory isolation and camaraderie the fear the deprivation the discomfort the permeation of death and the desperation. In war your "buddies" became everything. You live together you fight together you protect one another and depend on one another.

The pressure is enormous. One mistake can cost a life or lives one of which may be your own. Rage boils below the surface and the victims of that rage are not always the enemy. Sometimes -- often in Nam -- it is the innocent. It can also be those "buddies" you are otherwise so protective of.

War is both a natural and total unnatural state for man. As boys we are conditioned to compete and often fight but the insanity of war in which the competition and fighting are constant and death is ever present twists and bends the mind in horrific ways. The greatest torture of war is to the human soul which never escapes unscathed. This has become especially true during modern wars where the bodies are the same as they've always been but the weapons of destruction so much more lethal. Add to that situations where the identity of the enemy is so ambiguous and you have a recipe for acute psychological destruction.

Platoon not only accurately depicts combat but also the terror that Americans brought to villagers. Anyone could be a suspected Viet Cong and thus subject to summary executions not to mention torture.
Ultimately Platoon's story of Chris is an allegory for what young American lads like me went through. Dedicated to the cause, believing in the rightness of the country, only to yield to bitter disillusionment and anger in the face of the reality of a wrong war. Chris was not even a draftee or from a poor family. He was that extreme rarity a volunteer who had other options. He enters a crusader and leaves bitter.

Platoon is one of those films that is so good it transcends genre. There is plenty of the action that typifies war films but it is neither gratuitous nor exciting. It always feel like what it derives from and causes: fear desperation and death. Mostly Platoon serves as another way for Americans of any generation to look into our collective souls and wonder at what this country has wrought and if it can ever tame the wild beasts that lurk within.


19 April 2014

I Buy Groceries With the Missus I Run Eight Miles and I am Happily Baffled by Under the Skin -- A Saturday in the Life

This morning started like most others in that I woke up. Always a good first step. Went to the grocery store with the missus which I somehow always really enjoy unless the aisles are overrun by voracious college students buying up everything in sight. But it was early enough to beat the crowds. Indeed early enough to give the crowds a good thrashing. No screaming toddlers either. No bumping carts with people on cell phones we were just filling up our basket. Lovely.

It is a satisfying feeling to come home with bags of groceries and fill up the fridge and cupboards with sustenance to last the week or more. It must be a primal instinct to store food and doing so must release endorphins of some kind.

With the food put away I preceded to take some back out for purposes of filling my belly. This was especially important as I had a trip to the gym planned and never dream of going without having eaten first. Actually maybe I have dreamed of working out on an empty stomach but it would have been in the form of an involuntary nightmare -- not that there are ever voluntary nightmares mind you.

After eating I set up my third blog which is dedicated to showing pictures of my student's shoes and is thus named My Students' Shoes. I don't believe it requires any sort of explanation. There is no higher noble purpose to it no artistic intent no political social or economic commentary intended and it is certainly not about fashion. All I know about fashion is to wear the clothes the missus picks out for me after I've pointed out what I like and she has rejected the choices that would make me look like a bigger idiot than I actually am. Anyway the new blog is up and running and it wouldn't hurt you to check it out I'm not making a dime out of it same as this one and the poetry one.

Youngest daughter is in town for the weekend having made the hour train trip from university to hang out here and enjoy her mom's cooking and -- I like to think -- her dad's company. She could do worse.

By late morning I was off to the gym where I ran on the treadmill for eight miles which took me a scant one hour one minute and 23 seconds. My best time since I was a young whipper snapper (and dinosaurs roamed the Earth). Upon completing the run I felt as though I could run another eight miles or at least one or two. But I really couldn't afford the time. Maybe in a week or so I'll go for nine.

After a hot sauna and a cold shower I enjoyed a pleasant stroll home. The walk provided a post run cool down and more time for contemplation retrospection rumination and out and out fantasy not to mention wool gathering. Back in the abode I made one of my patented fruit smoothies then sipped -- okay slurped -- away while catching up on world events via the magic of the internet. Then I was off again to the movie theater and a look at Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin.

In her previous film Scarlett Johansson mesmerized without being seen in Her. In Under the Skin she mesmerizes with nary a word uttered. She is -- suffice to say -- an amazing actress. As for the film itself...

I'm always amazed how sometimes the second a film ends when the credits have just started you can sometimes hear someone turn to the person they're with and ask: so what'd ya think? When the missus and I see a film together we usually wait at least until we've left the theater before discussing it. In the case of some films it can be a few hours. I could wait days and still not be ready to talk about Under the Skin. Yet here I am trying to write about it.

You don't see it looking at your screen but there's been a rather long pause since I wrote that last paragraph and another will likely follow the completion of this sentence....And there was......I suppose the best reason for the film's title is that it gets under the skin of the audience and into the brains. It wraps itself around the cranium attaching itself waiting patiently living off brain cells.

It's worth it.

Under the Skin has been classified as a sci fi film. Well maybe. It's also been called -- by critics that is -- artsy erotic a thriller and impenetrable and undecipherable. I do not feel compelled to penetrate or least of all to decipher a film. Movies are not codes to be broken. There is something elemental about being told a story and if the telling is particularly good I don't really need to solve its deeper meaning. Some films are obviously allegorical and bully for them. Others are subject to interpretation and vive la difference. But very few are like Under the Skin which has few things obvious about but a lot that is strange unusual wonderfully different and baffling. Baffle me I'm yours.

Johansson plays uh, er, um. Funny thing none of the characters has a name. Least none we know of. Anyway she plays an alien life form that takes the form of a beautiful woman who travels around Edinburgh, Scotland and its environs luring random young men into her van then to a house where....Let's just say they meet a fate that is undecipherable and impenetrable. Then again so does our main character who by the way is in cahoots with a guy riding a motorcycle hither and yon and he's presumably an alien and later it seems he's got some underlings.

Never mind the damn plot points anyway. Under the Skin works so wonderfully -- well for some people like me -- because it is subject to such varying possible interpretations as I noted when perusing reviews (most quite favorable) after getting home. It therefore demands something of it audience members and that's one of the things I love in a movie and I can say that I honestly loved this movie.

Director Jonathan Glazer just did his darndest to create an interesting story told in a fascinating way and trusted viewers to make intelligent decisions about what they had seen -- or experienced. For one I appreciate it.

So this has been a damn good day and as I write these words it's still got another four hours to it. Cool.


13 April 2014

When it Rains and Pours and When it Pours for 40 Days and Nights You've Got Noah


No considerate God would destroy the human mind by making it so rigid and unadaptable as to depend upon one book, the Bible, for all the answers. For the use of words, and thus of a book, is to point beyond themselves to a world of life and experience that is not mere words or even ideas. Just as money is not real, consumable wealth, books are not life. To idolize scriptures is like eating paper currency. - Alan Watts.

Saw Darren Aronofsky's Noah today at a plastic temple selling plastic foods and liquids. There were plastic previews of plastic movies about a Spiderman and a Hercules and real live Bears presented in such a way as to make them plastic and unknowable. Plastic ads and plastic warnings about cell phones preceded and followed the trailers and finally the movie was shown. It being a very early showing there were only a few people in the theater many coming and going to dispense plastic waste or fill up on more plastic consumables or answer plastic messages on plastic devices.

The film was interesting and most of my yawns were because of an unsatisfactory night of sleep and not a reflection on what was taking place on the screen. I went in part because I've liked most of Aronofsky's previous films and I was pleased to have learned that this was not a biblical epic selling any religious orthodoxy and in fact had ticked off the religious right which is so often wrong. Right.

The character of Noah (Russell Crowe) comes off as something of a religious wing nut himself ready as he is to kill babies in a misinterpretation of the creator's wishes. That he is complicated makes him real and interesting as humans tend to be. Overall the cast is quite good and I particularly liked Anthony Hopkins as Methuselah who just wants to eat some berries and don't we all. Emma Watson is Noah's daughter-in-law and I've really grown to like her and were I half my age would have the biggest crush on this wonderful person/actress. Jennifer Connelly plays the long suffering wife and suffer she does.

Such a film demands some very special special effects indeed and they are delivered. Pairs of all manner of animal are required and none were used as CGI providing the critters none of which were harmed of course. The flood the dreams the battles were all spectacular and haven't we gotten used to technical wizardry in film? I know I have. It's all about story for me and there is one mixed in with all the pomp and noise -- although I'd have liked more. This one also leans a little bit to heavily on action as films often do with predictable fight sequences. Bible stories are a useful tool for asking questions and pondering meanings. They also should not be taken literally but try telling that to someone who is a believer in every word of it. I was sent to Sunday school as a child and loved the stories. They tickled my imagination quite nicely. As soon as I graduated to regular church at age 14 I lost all interest. It was the Lutheran church which is the white bread of church going experiences. Just as interesting and meaningful. I had a brief flirtation one summer with an evangelical church when I was heavily into booze and drugs. In sober moments I realized what a crock it all was and how foolish it was of me to participate. I've since eschewed religions of all stripes and  consider my current interest in Buddhism to be strictly spiritual and soul enriching and not at all religious.

When people use faith and belief to contradict knowledge and empirical fact the world is in trouble and my goodness people do an awful lot of that and have for centuries. There's less of an excuse for it today but there it is and here we are and all the rest of us can do is continue to speak truth and meditate and hug. That Christianity has held such sway in political life in the history of this republic is quite sad and quite detrimental (excuse my adverbs). Especially when many of these religious groups would have us believe that Jesus would condone gun toting capitalists bent on making whatever coin they can in this world whether they can take it with em or not.

Aronofsky has proven to be a director who defies categorizing having now made a bible picture to go along with one about a ballerina a wrestler a drug addict and math genius. Can't wait to see what he comes up with next.


12 April 2014

Delicate Balances --Like the Mind and the Wind and the Consciousness

“Are we fallen angels who didn't want to believe that nothing is nothing and so were born to lose our loved ones and dear friends one by one and finally our own life, to see it proved?” From Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac.

Beyond all reason there is hope and if you look around you can see it out there. Often clinging desperately persistently to the shirttails of desire. And I sometimes long for the days that I didn't know this or anything else. When I was a young boy surrounded by my imagination whirling about great backyards and playing fields and parks and play rooms. Seeking not an escape from reality but an entrance to a better world that was not confined by rules and obligations and social norms. Hungrily I sought something I could not name nor even understand.

Today I meditate on this and the incredible gift of being part of this mad whirl. But I also reflect on where I've gone in my mind and how it hasn't always matched where I meant to be. Places are ephemeral only consciousness is permanent.

I ran eight miles today after watching a football (soccer to you Yanks) match on the telly in which my beloved Arsenal emerged victorious. It was an FA Cup semi final match which means the lads are in the final next month. I love/hate sports. Sports are the cause of so much pain/joy/indifference. I am long past the stage in my life when I let the results of an athletic event ruin my weekend but I'm not above letting victory bring me happiness. It has taken many decades to reach this point.

Last night I was at a baseball game. I used to go to two or three dozen Giants games a year. I don't know exactly how I managed that. Today I prefer to go to a play where I don't have to listen to idiot teens cursing or watch as people spend exorbitant sums on nachos.

You know I turned 60 some six weeks ago and yet I'm not getting older. I'm just getting to be someone.  My mind is growing and wondering and searching and causing great leaps of wonder and curiosity. Meanwhile my body is just fine. Did I mention I ran eight miles today? I'm sure I did. I take any occasion to tell people of my running. I'm allowing myself pride in accomplishment while trying to repress ego for self's sake. Delicate balances.

I was saddened though not surprised by David Letterman's retirement plans. He has been a major influence on me as anyone who has seen my teach can testify. That I've enjoyed some success as a teacher while conducting myself in the classroom as a Lettermanesque educator might be baffling to some but there is much to be baffled by in the world today and this should not be the most perplexing notion a person faces in a day. I don't give it a lot of thought myself. I am more now of one who merely does and is. Reflection rumination and contemplation have their places but they are not part of everything.
I is I am I was I will be and always this is true at the same time.

Within a few days it was announced that Stephen Colbert would replace Dave and this has brought me great joy. While I will miss the Colbert Report it is getting time for him to move on from constantly being in character and get to be himself on television. I am certain that we will all be pleased watching the "real" Colbert. He is not only insanely funny but quite intelligent.

I have been studying the Buddha of late and for that matter of early and of now. I find this personally edifying and enriching and wonderful. I could use inner peace in part to prevent innards in pieces. There is a wonderful simplicity to Buddhism that is....

But the study must

Go on.

I'm so excited to have been here to write these words and hope to continue at a later time to peck away at my MacBook Pro putting thoughts on..I want to say paper but this is all out there in some vast untouchable region like the mind and the wind and the consciousness.

I do like being happy. Don't you?

31 March 2014

A Life A Lot Less Ordinary -- Matteo Garrone's "Reality"

Its as if there is a walled city in which famous people live. Most of us are on the outside trying desperately to look in catching only glimpses.  Sometimes they appear outside and we can bask momentarily in their glory. Many of us know someone who is on the inside. They were once a classmate or a neighbor or a student or are a second cousin. I have three former students living within those walls including Andy Samberg. I used to have a boss whose step brother is Tom Hanks. More commonly we catch sight of them somewhere for a moment. My wife once saw Katherine Hepburn for example and I once walked by Danny Glover. Then French President Nicolas Sarkozy and his entourage jogged past the missus and I in Paris.

We regular folk cherish these moments and share them with others. Everyone has a brush with fame story. Maybe even an occasion when we had momentary access to where the special dwell.

Once you're inside those walls once you've starred in a film had a hit record or been a regular on a TV show you have access to others there too. When the school newspaper I was adviser for got a phone interview with Samberg six years ago he spoke of getting to meet heroes like Steve Martin and Paul McCartney while working at Saturday Night Live. Imagine if you're famous -- you can hobnob with other famous people many of whom you've admired for years. The rest of us schmucks are left with sending tweets to the famous praying for a response (I got one once from Bob Balaban thanking me for a compliment) But we know that we'll never sit down for a meal at a five star restaurant with them.

Part of the lure is immortality. The famous live on long after their deaths and leave behind not only a name that will be remembered but a presence in films or music or literature. Most of us die to relative obscurity and not even that without loving family and friends.

A few movies have explored the frustration of being just one of the masses for those who seek more. None were better -- in an often creepy uncomfortable way -- than Martin Scorsese's The King of Comedy (1992). This is the story of a would-be comic named Rupert Pupkin (Robert DeNiro) who cannot take no for an answer and becomes so desperate that he kidnaps a famous talk show host (Jerry Lewis) and blackmails the TV show to allow him to fill in.

(Actor Delroy Lindo used to occasionally work out at the gym I frequent. I only saw him a handful times but twice I observed people ask if he could look at their scripts. Director Walter Hill appeared for a Q&A at a retrospective of his films at the Pacific Film Archives a couple of years ago and one audience member used the opportunity to ask if Hill would look at his script.)

In Luchino Visconti's Bellissma (1952) Anna Magnani plays a mother desperately trying get her young daughter into show business going to increasingly great lengths to do so. Surely the next best thing to achieving fame and fortune is to have a next of kin climb to the heights.

In some respects the appeal of the gangster film comes from the same source. The successful gangster may not be famous but -- as is illustrated in another Scorcese film Goodfellas (1990) --but he does things on his own terms beholden to no one. The gangster will not be immortal but his (surely using only the masculine pronoun is apropos) time on Earth will not be confined to a nine to five job and playing by society's rules. As mobster Henry Hill says in Goodfellas: "For us to live any other way was nuts. Uh, to us, those goody-good people who worked shitty jobs for bum paychecks and took the subway to work every day, and worried about their bills, were dead. I mean they were suckers. They had no balls. If we wanted something we just took it." The movie gangster lives in a fantasy world where he is special just like the famous.

I was lucky enough to catch Reality (2012) --  directed by Matteo Garrone -- when it spent all of one week in a Berkeley theater last Spring. I watched it again courtesy of Netflix over the weekend. The film tells the story of Luciano a fishmonger in Naples who auditions for Italy's version of Big Brother (sad to say that such reality shows have infected much of Europe). He gets a call back for a second audition and is convinced he has done well and is a shoo-in to get on the show. It's the quick fix. Luciano has a decent job a wife three children and a loving extended family. He is in the full vigor of health and makes extra cash with a victimless scam. But he's ultimately just an Ordinary Joe -- or Gisueppe if you prefer.  Being a regular guy is clearly okay for a lot of people but for those with a modicum of talent it can be the height of frustration. Many people feel they are one lucky break from being discovered. If only someone would look or listen to their audition tape or read their manuscript they too could live within the walls of the glitterati.

Luciano is a personable guy very popular funny and even does some female impersonating. Once he gets a hint that fame and fortune may beckon his vivid imagination takes over and Luciano becomes convinced he's on his way. A spot on Big Brother would guarantee big bucks and big exposure and winning the whole enchilada would make one set for life. And it so close. The difference between a life of anonymity and national or even international renown can be a coin flip. Why not me? The idea -- when one gets at all close -- is beguiling and can turn into an obsession as it does for Luciano.

Will he ultimately get on the show? Will he drive his family figuratively crazy or himself literally crazy as he awaits word on his fate and tries to influence events beyond his control? These are questions best answered by seeing the film yourself. Suffice to say it is worth the time. Garrone is an excellent director whose previous films include Gomorrah (2008) which had a relatively good run in the States no doubt because it was about organized crime in Italy. Garrone lets the story and its characters speak for themselves. His camera work is subtle at no time does he try any trickery instead relying on simple medium focus shots -- although he begins and ends with camera shots from the sky that wonderfully bookend the movie.

Reality stars Aniello Arena who is a story unto himself. Prior to filming, during filming and I write these words, he is serving a life sentence in an Italian prison for a triple homicide. Say what? Marrone discovered him when he visited the prison to see some one of its theater productions. Arena was let out of prison for filming but being a lifer behind bars is Arena's true reality -- albeit as one who got to star in a film. Arena is -- by the by--  quite good and were it not for his incarceration might star in more films. Then again if he'd never gone to prison he wouldn't have gone into theater and been discovered and been in a film and isn't fame interesting?





29 March 2014

Thank You Neil Young For Helping Me Write


"Don't let it bring you down
It's only castles burning,
Find someone who's turning
And you will come around." From Don't Let it Bring You Down by Neil Young
 

There is some disagreement about whether such a thing as writer's block really exists. Some claim to suffer from it at various times. Others say that it is a fiction created by people who are simply lazy. I know that at times when I try to write there's no there there. This only happens when I have nothing very specific to write about or when I don't have to write. Sometimes -- like today -- I really want to write and indeed feel I need to but the well seems bone dry.

That's when I turn to Neil Young. It never fails. I play some of his early music -- such as After the Gold Rush which I have on now -- and the problem is solved.

This is only my second blog post of the month after cranking out 15 in February all part of my Countdown to 60 series. I have however been quite prolific with my poetry having published 26 poems in March with two more waiting in the wings and maybe another one or two to follow. I have also been putting the finishing touches on my second unpublished novel. I have made steady progress on my third novel which will likely remain unpublished as well. Maybe I'll write a fourth book on how to write unpublishable fiction.

I've been reading a riveting non fiction book called The Life and Times of Charles Manson by Jeff Guinn. It's difficult to write about the experience of reading the book. It recalls the world of the early teen years describing as it does much of the political and cultural atmosphere of the country in the mid and late 1960s even referencing Berkeley and San Francisco. Manson spent a short amount of time in Berkeley when I was about 12 years old. I don't recall seeming him around -- some joke.

Manson's story is utterly fascinating and depressing to me much in the same way I've always been intrigued by Hitler and the Nazis. Humans are pack animals and love a charismatic leader. Of course some individuals and groups are particularly vulnerable to messianic figures who claim to have all the answers and in turn require blind obedience. Hitler found large swaths of a country who would pledge loyalty and Manson built a huge "family" of over two dozen who would submit to his will even to the point of murder. This is a phenomenon that is not going away. Although one hopes that modern industrialized nations don't follow some loony to war (looking at young Putin) or that we don't have murderous cults preying upon the innocent. By the way Guinn's book is excellent and I highly recommend it although I don't review books for Amazon anymore and haven't in almost seven years yet I still get emailed requests to do so. Some of which are for the type of books I wouldn't read if you paid me.

Among the other books I've read recently was an excellent biography of Allen Ginsberg I Celebrate Myself by Bill Morgan. For me Ginsberg has become -- in addition to a favorite poet -- a favorite person. Speaking of Hitler Putin and Manson, Allen Ginsberg was the opposite being so much about peace love and the buddha. I'll set aside the topic for now as I'm thinking of dedicating a longer writing to Mr. Ginsberg but I did want to give him a shout out. Talk about a spirit that lives on....

Melancholy mornings I do go to work and riding the subway trolley walking and coffee and photocopying later I am full of piss and vinegar and spout my happy lessons to legions of students who do upwards learn. Successfully completing a day's work is one of the better feelings that can wash through your body. Like. If only the day did not stretch out so long with scrambling back through an hour long commute to return home still needing to tie up loose ends and then to relax at last taking tie off and eating dinner and watching Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert and reading poetry and sleeping until doing it again blessed weekend comes only to zip by. But I. I. But. Happiness is not minding so much what burdens you carry what cares you care about and there I did it.

18 March 2014

Seven of the Films I've Watched of Late Some Were Okay Others Great

Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) I liked it a lot it was swell. I grinned from ear to ear from opening credits to closing credits and for several minutes thereafter. There's not much better a recommendation one can give a film. I suspect there are some who don't appreciate director Wes Anderson and his unique visual style and quirky characters. That's there problem. Anderson doesn't so much make movies as he creates worlds. This is the essence of story telling. This story is a doozy set as it is in a fictional European country in the 1930s and replete with all manner of character from the lovable to the detestable to the hilarious to the bizarrely eccentrically weird. The cast features over a dozen Hollywood stars many in very small roles indeed. This would suggest that actors are chomping at the bit to get into Anderson's films and who can blame them? Ralph Fiennes Tilda Swinton and F Murray Abraham are among the more prominently featured but the real star is the previously anonymous Tony Revolori as Zero the lobby boy. One suspects we'll be seeing a lot more of him and desperately hoping to see a lot more from the mind of one Wes Anderson.

Blue Jasmine (2013) on DVD Blanchett still amazing as anyone can see. I'm much more a fan of directors and am infinitely more likely to watch a movie because of who directed it rather than who starred in it. The few exceptions are with older films that star people like Cary Grant The Marx Brothers Humphrey Bogart Marlene Dietrich and Barbara Stanwyck. If I love a movie its probably because of my appreciation for the director's work than for an actor's. Rarely do I rave about actors. Blue Jasmine was written and directed by Woody Allen and in both roles he did his usual excellent job. However this is a Cate Blanchett film. Rarely does a performer so embody a role -- Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) Kristin Scott Thomas in Il y a longtemps que je t'aime (2008) Sean Penn in Milk (2008) and Bette Davis in The Letter (1940) are other examples. This was my second viewing of Blue Jasmine having seen it when it hit theaters last Summer. Knowing "how it ends" I could better focus on Blanchett and marvel at her immersion into the character. I also noted how strong the supporting cast around her was particularly Sally Hawkins and Alec Baldwin. It's an Allen film but al hail the great Cate.

I Confess (1953) a Hitchcock film among his best. This is a criminally underrated Alfred Hitchcock movie. Montgomery Clift hears a confession of murder and is subsequently the chief suspect in the same murder. Of course he can't reveal what he was told in confession even though the murderer is a scoundrel (as most are) so for that matter is the victim. Meanwhile he's tangled up with a woman -- Anne Baxter -- who knew the victim and its all rather complicated or would be if it weren't for the fact that Hitchcock was the director and he had a way of making complex stories accessible and understandable without dumbing them down an iota. I suppose I Confess just gets lost in the shuffle among all of Hitch's great work but in my mind its great in its own right.

The Human Comedy (1943) here is a movie I never again want to see. Just preceding and after US entry into World War II Hollywood cranked out a lot of thinly disguised propaganda films meant to stir public ire against the Axis and stimulate patriotism. Surprisingly a lot of these ended up being damn good films even a classic or two such as Casablanca (1942). However the Human Comedy directed by Clarence Brown and starring Mickey Rooney was not among them. To call it sentimental pap would be an insult to sentimental pap everywhere. Spoiler alert: at the end of the film Rooney has just found out his big brother Marcus has died in the war. On his way home to tell the family a friend of his brother who served in the army with him shows up. He's been injured in the war. The film ends with Rooney entering the house where he tells ma and siblings that "the solider has returned". The end. Of course the family will expect that Marcus will walk in. Not only will it be a stranger instead but they'll then learn that Marcus is dead. Utterly ludicrous. Up until then the film is just a study in unrealistic sentiment. The ending is just intellectually insulting.

The Black Power Mixtape (1967-1975) (2011) a very good documentary and that ain't no jive. When I was in high school we took a field trip to Black Panther Party headquarters in Oakland. Later I briefly dated Huey Newton's sister-in-law. I was enamored of the Panthers and the black power movement growing up as I did in Berkeley during their heyday. Both the Panthers and the black power movement took some wrong turns but their principal impact was to make the civil rights movement relevant to a younger generation and teaching that turning another cheek wasn't the only response to virulent racism. This documentary was culled from Swedish TV documentary and news programs of the period. It is excellent. It offers a fine overview of the time and from a fairly neutral perspective though truth be told most Northern European nations couldn't help but be sympathetic to the struggle for black power in the US. Were I still teaching US History I would use large section of the Black Power Mixtape.

Baader Meinhof Complex (2008) a German film with a lot of violence and a little sex. I'll grant you this was an excellent history lesson for anyone and it is an engaging story that maintained my interest for its entire two hour plus running time. BMC is a fine introduction to the radical left movement that employed violence in the 1970's. But there is no center to it and very little way in character development and is ultimately superficial as cinematic art. It was good enough to preview its subject matter but not good enough to make me want to explore it. Meh.

La Vie de Boheme (1992) a film so great I want to scream. I have never purchased a film for my DVD collection without first having seen it and loved it. So it was quite a surprise that I put La Vie de Boheme on my Amazon wish list. It was quite a delight that the missus gave it to me for my birthday. Why such confidence that I would love the movie? In large part because Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki has yet to make a film I didn't at least really like and everything I read about LVDB as the good folks at Criterion previewed its coming release convinced me that this was one of his best. It is. LVDB is set in Paris and centers around three struggling artists -- a musician a writer and a painter. One finds love one finds some success they all find that life and love are often to be endured. It is as beautiful and honest a film as you'll ever see and indeed proof that honesty in art often equals beauty. In glorious black and white.


08 March 2014

The Wind Blows at Midnight a Non Sequitur in Three Parts


"...the crash inside my soul when you think of babyhood..." - from Tristessa by Jack Kerouac

ONE
On the trolley going to work yesterday reading Ginsberg poems large butted Pacific Islander woman wearing a pound of make up on face sits next to me plays games on smart phone. I sigh. I read. I get to work. I work. I head back to Berkeley. BART trains not moving due to police action. Announcements thank me for patience but I never get to say you're welcome. Delay amounts to 30 minutes equivalent to half an hour. (Later discover this police action was due to suspected kidnapping that wasn't. Gee thanks.) Meet wife downtown Berkeley have pizza go to play at Berkeley Rep called "The House That Will Not Stand." I stand at end to give ovation of the non sitting variety.

This morning watch my favorite British footie team win match (The Arsenal!) and am happy. Go to Telegraph Avenue. At Moe's buy book of William Carlos Williams poems. Sit in Peets sipping freddo (not the weak brother in The Godfather. The caffeinated beverage). Three young men look college age sit at nearby table. One is upset others comfort him. Looks serious. Looks like friends taking care of friend. This is good.

I walk home. The mail has arrived and it consists of one unwanted catalogue. Yawn. Next will watch a movie. Perhaps one I got on DVD for birthday last week. (Had a nice birthday. Dinner with wife daughters two nephews a niece great nephew and others. Any day holding a baby is a good day.)

TWO
Have not written here about movies much lately spent last month counting down to the aforementioned birthday. Also been working and sleeping and commuting and reading and a few times sneezing and looking at clouds. Clouds are nice. They offer shade and sometimes carry rain and can even be in different shapes and sizes and sometimes -- sometimes -- they come en masse and cover the sky. They can change a sunny day to a dark one. Many people object to this but not me. Differences.

So when will I write about movies again? Was going to now but jus' not feelin' it. Y'all. Happens. For me writing is important but the subject isn't always. As long as I'm releasing words from wherever they store up inside me -- heart? soul? brain? -- so I don't get literature constipation. Same reason to run. The sweat brother (you too sister).

Sometimes it is impossible to write about a movie because the experience of watching it and listening to it and making an experience of it is too much to put into words without a compelling reason like someone is going to give me money for it (who would do that?). I can't just muddle through a mediocre writing of a great film and justify it to myself. Not even. Also some films are such transitory experiences of the fashion that you don't want to bother with reliving them. And then there's laziness.

THREE
From pharmacy to bookstore I walked past the middle school where I labored for some 20 years. Hadn't set foot on its grounds for over five years. Nor even walked by. I gazed upon the earth and asphalt upon which I trod so often in so many moods after so many happenstances and with so many opinions and feelings and ideas and in so many conundrums and dilemmas and carrying so many burdens and joys.

Twas like I never left and like I'd not been there in this life. I realized that I will always have been there and I have will always be there and am in there now/then/later and it is all as one and there is no more a today than there was a yesterday or that there will be a tomorrow. There just is a flickering moment seen from light years away and it has no meaning and all meaning encompassing as it does everything. That is nothing.

We are all so reactive. We never let things be or see them as they are. They must be interpreted and viewed through a prism. Staring aggressively our eyes searching for meaning and ideas that aren't there and were never meant to be and we are so certain of how they are. Thus anger and resentment and longing. Instead of being. Least I think so.


28 February 2014

"We Have Lift Off I Am Officially 60" The Conclusion of My Month Long Autobiographical Series - Countdown to 60

My big bro and I some years ago.

"I'd like to say thank you on behalf of the group and ourselves and I hope we've passed the audition." - John Lennon after The Beatles rooftop concert their last live performance.

The best time to be happy is right now. And I am.

If I had to do it all over again...well I don’t and neither does anyone else. It’s rather the point of this whole exercise. We get second chances at certain things but not the whole thing itself. This life business. We have to make do with what we did do.

Someone recently asked me if it was difficult to write some of what I’ve described here. The answer is no. Some of it was difficult to live through but writing about it after the fact is a stroll around the block.

I was a shortstop in Little League.
Some people I know claim that their lives have been wonderfully free of any serious problems or turmoil. How dreadfully dull. Of course one shouldn't look for heartache and strife and I hope that my children avoid it but it is through the hard times the misfortunes and the upsets that we learn and grow and become. We can't always control what happens to us but we do control how we respond. In given situations sometimes we crumble or tumble and other times respond and grow and grain strength.

I’m not entirely certain what this exercise of living on planet Earth for however long we get is all about. Many pretend to know and to that end they create entire religious beliefs that in turn sometimes get into conflict with people who have different belief systems. These conflicts have resulted in the premature deaths of tens of millions of people over the millennia. Rigid belief systems have caused irreparable damage in other ways too. Limiting self expression oppressing groups of people and stifling creativity are just a few examples. I find myself much happier acknowledging that I don’t know what its all about but continually trying to understand what I can and never stopping in my pursuit of enlightenment.

My approach to life has been to lower my shoulder and forge ahead. It has served me well as an employee. I show up and put in a day’s work for a day’s pay. Meanwhile I find pleasure in the arts principally films literature and music and by getting as many yuks in the course of a day as is possible. I also keep fit which is and end in itself. Long hard runs feel really good at the time and create euphoria in their immediate aftermath. I subsequently enjoy not having a protruding belly. Of course the primary ingredient to a happy life is love. To love and be loved are the greatest experiences one can hope for in life.

It seems I’m heading in the direction of giving advice so I’ll go ahead and get on with it.

Richard’s Tips For A Happy Healthy Life

Have a high fiber diet. No details just trust me on this one.
Plenty of sex. I assume there are no questions here.
Develop an appreciation for the arts. This can include sports as well but principally I refer to arts in the traditional sense.
Stay fit. It’s not so much a matter of living longer but so that you can be healthy and thus enjoy the time you have. Exercise helps you emotionally as much if not more than physically.
Never stop learning. If you do your intellect atrophies. Warning the more you learn the more you'll want to learn.
Accentuate the positive. There is more than enough to be negative about and it is important to shine a light on all the horrors and annoyances of the world but for goodness sake live in what is positive.
Have positive obsessions. Obsess about things that make you happy or at least leave you feeling fulfilled. To act contrarily is to get eaten alive by resentments.

Chico News & Review staff 1978. As usual I manage to be the
center of attention.
Vote for and support the champions of the oppressed and unfortunate. If you’re looking for a political figure or party to back why not settle on those who fight for the poor the voiceless the forgotten and the needy. Any party or person who exists to keep the rich and powerful entrenched needs strong opposition.
Don’t brood over your mistakes. Learn from them and move.
Find work that you love so that it doesn’t feel like work. I was asked not long ago when I planned on retiring. Why would I retire from a job I love so much? It’s like asking someone when they’re going to stop eating pizza. Only when I have to.
Have the serenity to accept the things you cannot change and the courage to change the things you. Having the wisdom to know the difference is good too.
Laugh. Whenever possible. It’s really good for you.

So here I am at six zero (I refuse to preface with “the big”). I still feel like a kid and unless I’m around small children I always feel like one of the younger ones in a room full of people. When I was a kid older people were grown ups or adults. They were people of an unimaginable age who knew better and did things like pay bills and work at jobs and they could be mean and were hopelessly square. Supposedly I became a grown up at some point as I worked and paid bills and knew better and could be mean too but I don’t think I was ever hopelessly square and never felt fully mature or old. Maybe I’m all screwed up in this respect or maybe I’ve got it together. In either case life’s worked out pretty well. I keep expecting to some day feel like a grown up but I’m not losing sleep over it.

I’ve had some bad breaks and made colossal mistakes and made bewildering decisions along with outright stupid ones but I wouldn’t trade places with anyone else. I’ve learned the importance of humility. Suffice to say that I’ve figured out that to find my own worst enemy all I need is a mirror. I can also find in that mirror a pretty decent guy who never meant any harm and may have made a small contribution to the world. Oh and if I’m looking in that mirror today I hope I’m seeing someone who is going to be around a lot longer. Life is just getting to be really fun.

(This series is dedicated to my mother Gertrude Marie Hourula (nee Kurki). Mom, I’m sorry we never really got a chance to talk.)