30 October 2011

Busy Me is Back, Perhaps Regularly and Here Writes About Work,Time Travel, Hitchcock's Harry, Burton's Wood and Whale's Monster

I leave the house at 7:00 and walk five minutes to the casual carpool pick up spot. Typically my wait is under a minute before getting into a total stranger's car and riding across the bridge into San Francisco. Then I cram myself onto a bus which is invariably packed with first and second generation Chinese, most either school age or elderly (the bus passes through Chinatown). By 8:00 I'm at the school and 30 minutes later my first class has begun.

I love my job. The students are bright, happy people from all over the world who for various reasons are trying to improve their English. My students and I form a mutual admiration society. Being from other countries they are not used to teachers who are so demonstrative, funny and outwardly enthusiastic. Being from a public school background, I am not used to students who are so polite, cooperative and appreciative.

My co-workers are mostly as eccentric as I am. Their sensibilities match mine. We share insights and yuks. During my lunch break I stroll down to the Bay. With favorable winds its about a 90 second walk. The school is located a half a block from San Francisco's famous Fisherman's Wharf.

The day flies by. At 5:20 (three hours earlier on Friday) I am finished and, unless I get a ride from a co-worker. Make the hour long commute home. Upon entering our humble abode I usually have an about an hour's worth of work to prepare for the next day.

After households chores and begging my wife to make dinner, there is only about two hours left before exhaustion takes hold and my head hits the pillow.

I am quite happy. The work is wonderful and it is a great feeling to be of use to the world. The money is enough to fend off starvation but nothing upon which to build a fortune. My current riches come in the form of a family I love, good health and a rewarding profession.

Of course nothing comes without a price. I'm only making it to the gym twice a week and have little time to indulge my passions for film and writing and especially when the twain meet on this very blog.

I've recently thought it would be good for the soul if I should start to find time. Yes, readers far and wide have enjoyed my prolonged absences from blogging but I have to think of myself sometime.

Speaking of time...I recently read Jack Finney's Time and Again about a bloke who goes back in time to 1882. Time travel is a staple of fiction both in literature and film. I'm a sucker for it. I have many fantasies about traveling back and seeing what "it was really like" in days of yore. There's any number of periods and venues I'd like to see, I have a particular desire to go back to the late 1930s. Mind, I'd not want to live there as some bloggers I've read do. All that cigarette smoke everywhere all the time? No thankee. And I couldn't stand to see my Black, Asian, Hispanic and Gay brothers and sisters in true states of oppression for so long.

One problem I had with Finney's book and many other fictional renderings of time travel is the notion that one must be careful not to alter the future by your actions in the past. Poppycock. If you go back in time you are back in the original time and whatever you do will have already effected the present. For all we know it was a time traveler who screwed the pooch and allowed John Wilkes Booth to kill Lincoln.

I believe that also helps address the Grandfather paradox. This is the assertion that you can't go back in time and kill your grandpa because then you'd never be born. Exactly. That doesn't mean you cannot travel back, it just means if you do gramps is safe. For one thing, who would go back and time and want to kill their granddad? And you couldn't if you tried. Logic, people, logic.

Time and Again is what some call "a good read." To me this is code that its light, quick reading that doesn't really nourish your intellect. I'm atoning now be reading Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment.

I've managed to squeeze in a movie or two every weekend, although the days of mid week movie viewing are in hold. Last weekend I again enjoyed Hitchcock's The Trouble With Harry (1955). It's labeled a dark comedy but I think it really to be about relationship. Sure there is the artist and the young recently widowed woman (John Forsythe and Shirley MacLaine) but I really enjoy watching the old tug boat captain and the spinster (Edmund Gywnne and Mildred Natwick). I also enjoy the shopkeeper, Wiggy (Mildred Dunnock). It's the people and their doings together, both with ulterior motive and out in the open, that give the story its charm. TTWH also is one of the prettiest films ever made, a veritable feature length ad for visiting New England in autumn.

Last night I watched Ed Wood (1994). It is not only my favorite collaboration of director Tim Burton and actor Johnny Depp, but my favorite film of each as an individual. Martin Landau is a scene stealer in his Oscar winning performance as Bela Lugosi, but Depp is perfect as the totally sincere, totally weird and totally wretched director. A lovable loser of the highest order. Indeed the whole cast is wonderful, including Bill Murray. I've been quite disappointed with Burton's work since Ed Wood. He seems too enamored of his own style and it gets in the way of his own story telling. Depp is a terrific actor who takes too many easy star roles. His continual reprising of the Jack Sparrow character has helped his humongous bank account but I believe has depleted his standing as a serious actor. Then there was that silly looking movie he did with Angelia Jolie. The previews screamed "bombs away" and the reviews confirmed it. Wood was a true demonstration of his subtlety and charm as an actor. The role of the real life worst ever director had to be a big challenge and his ability to play it straight and still be so funny is exceptional.

I've also been re-watching some of Finnish director Aki Kaurasmaki's films and they get better with repeat viewings. I've been promising myself that I'd dedicate an entire post or two to my fellow Finn, so will say no more for now. Perhaps after I see his next film, Le Havre, which comes to our town in a fortnight.

Lastly I've recently re-watched one of my all time favorite films, The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) a rare case of a sequel out doing the predecessor. It is a miracle that director James Whale fit so much into a 70 minute film. The Monster (Boris Karloff), the Doctors, Frankenstein (Colin Clive) and Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger) and the bride herself (Elsa Lanchester) along with the many screams of Una O'Connor. It is all campy fun but so superbly done and with such a lot of story in it.  B of F is also an example of the economical style of directing so prevalent in the 1930s. Full rich stories were often told in well under 90 minutes.

Of course the B of F serves as a wonderful lead in to tomorrow, Halloween, a night that Dr. Pretorius might say is for "Gods and Monsters!"

08 October 2011

The World is Not in Black and White, Examples From Serpico to Politics

Single-minded determination is a great virtue that can have terrible consequences. Illustrations abound. In the film Serpico (1973), the title character is relentless and unwavering in his determination to root out corrupt cops in the NYPD. Al Pacino gives the real life character heaping portions of passion, piled on to his rigid belief in the sanctity of honesty. This earns him a bullet in the head but also a gold badge and the knowledge that his efforts have helped clean up the police force.

There is a wonderful purity to Serpico the character, a man who wouldn't accept a nickel from a crook. But within there is a complex soul. Taking his war against crooked cops into his personal life he drives away the woman who loves him. Just as he is at war with evil, he is at war with himself, unable to compartmentalize a life overrun by his lofty ambitions. Here is someone on the path to as a career cop -- one who embraces ballet, opera and fine wines, while eschewing the rough and tumble bonhomie of fellow cops who want nothing more complex from their personal lives than football strategy. Oh and they want their payoffs too.

Sidney Lumet was the director who brought Serpico's story to the screen. Peter Maas wrote the book upon which the film was based and the screenplay was penned by Waldo Salt with an assist from Norman Wexler. Of course Pacino interpreted the character but Lumet re-recreated Serpico's world and stories, bringing to life the underbelly of New York police and their work in circa 1970.

Serpico the character, as with his real life embodiment, is unscrupulously honest. About as much as a human, inherently a flawed being, can be. This kind of devotion to an ideal is admirable, not to mention rare. Think how much trouble you can get into by only playing by the rules and speaking the truth at all times. It can be a quick ticket out of many jobs, certainly the death knell to a political career, and hazardous in forming personal relationships. The last thing people want to hear is what you really, honestly think of them.

But Serpico was doing battle in a cesspool of police corruption. Here was a person who did not deal in subtlety in the best of circumstance. The man could not and would not bend. His efforts led to investigations and a tidying up of the NYPD.

Certain forms of unblinking thinking can lead to trouble that does not have a silver lining. We see it today in our national discourse where discussion points have hardened into battle lines. Anything one side says or does is wrong (because, remember, we're all divided into sides: red/blue, right/left, democratic/republican, and even if we eschew such labels they're assigned to us anyway) and what our side is quite naturally correct. Opinions are abundant, though seldom backed by either facts or reasoned thinking. These opinions are used like sledge hammers to bludgeon the other side. Nuance is dead.

Zealotry has always found a home in religious dogma and we all know that countless millions throughout the ages have suffered immeasurably as a result. Unshakable beliefs are the devil's workshop.

A few mornings ago I rode into San Francisco with a driver who had one of those all news AM radio stations on. There was a report from New York about the Occupy Wall Street movement. The reporter said that many of those involved, and here's a shocker, "are ordinary people."

I was stunned. You mean these people are not all extraordinary? They are not -- every last one -- special or irregular, or aberrant, or exotic or singular or outre or bizarre? Not all resemble three toed sloths or have magnifying glasses embedded in their foreheads or walk upside down on stilts or speak in tongues or have donuts for middle fingers?


All you ever heard about the Tea Party Movement is how they are ordinary, salt-of-the-earth Americans. This would presuppose that Americans are bigoted simpletons who are easily taken in by their corporate overlords. Not hardly.

But people who protest against corporate abuse are naturally assumed to be some amalgamation of crack pot commie, fascist latte drinkers who want to finish the work of Al Qaeda and bring down America. Conservative commentator Ann KKKoulter likened the Occupy Wall Street movement to the events leading to the French and Russian Revolutions and to the rise of Nazi Germany. How she left off the Spanish Inquisition is beyond me.