Big Birthday Memory #11: Remembrance of Things Past – Tom Jones and So Much More

Albert Finney and Susannah York as Tom and his love Sophie

NOTE: As I approach my 70th birthday, I’ll reprise a milestone post here each day until the end of May. Today – from September 17, 2007.

Not to be too obscure here but think about this: Marcel Proust’s REMEMBRANCE OF THINGS PASTwas inspired by the scent of one cookie (a fancy one called a Madeline.) Sense memory is a powerful thing.

I saw Tom Jones 44 years ago, with my high school “film club.” The club was just 6 seniors and our creative writing teacher. Our mill town high school wasn’t a culture haven but this young teacher was. He handwrote Irwin Shaw short stories onto “ditto sheets” because there was no budget for the books, started a literary magazine (I was the editor, naturally) took us to Shakespeare performances and — started the film club. At first we rented films (screened on a projector in his classroom) and then moved on to evening journeys “downtown” to local art houses. We saw LA STRADA and THE SEVENTH SEAL, SUNDAYS AND CYBELE and SHOOT THE PIANO PLAYER — and TOM JONES. The films were so intelligent, so clearly different from the “movies” we saw on our own; the theaters served espresso andeveryone was smoking. How sophisticated we felt!

This morning as I watched this nearly half-century old film – still funny and charming even though the playful sexual innuendo recalls a more tender time, that 18-year-old girl I’d been came back – all of her. I didn’t know whether to be sad — miss all that I was then – all that’s changed — lost — or just plain passed – or to be grateful for the remarkable kaleidoscope of experiences that my life has been. From the adventure of a 36 year old marriage to the joy of raising two of the most spectacular young men on the planet to presences at royal weddings and presidential inaugurations, travel all over the world and great music experiences to a gentle childhood with talents acknowledged and appreciated to memorable private moments at weddings, bar mitzvahs, graduations and other celebrations with family and friends, a lot has contributed to the wiser woman I am today. I know there’s no way to live the life I’ve lived – or any other – without losing some of the shiny stuff of youth but even so it’s a shock when awareness of those losses lands on you in the middle of an unambiguously optimistic movie 44 years old.

Here’s what I think: there isn’t a person on the planet (despite Edith Piaf) who has no regrets. Recalling days that seem idyllic is a privilege – many haven’t got many to recall. Sadness about the joys of the past emerges only from an accumulated reservoir of happiness that is a blessing in itself. As Auntie Mame used to say“Life is a banquet, and most poor sons of bitches are starving to death.” My sisters and I swore we would live by that.

I’ve tried – and I’m still trying. That’s why this blog is called Don’t Gel Too Soon. Wherever that 18 year old film fiend has gone, parts of her are still part of me – informing and enlivening the person I’ve become. The real challenge in this portion of my life is to hang onto the enthusiasm and curiosity of those years – never freezing in place. The last line in Tom Jones, one of my favorite anywhere, was written by John Dryden – way before movies or even radio. It still works though, and I offer its wisdom for us all. “Happy the man, and happy he alone, he who can call today his own; he who, secure within, can say, tomorrow do thy worst, for I have lived today.”

Big Birthday Memory #8: In Honor of Indiana and Donald Trump (Pigs, Lipstick, Dick Cheney, Sarah Palin And The Movies: “Bob Roberts”, “A Face In The Crowd” And Willie Stark)

NOTE: As I approach my 70th birthday, I’ll reprise a milestone post here each day until the end of May. Today – from September 10, 2008.  This post appears now because it’s about demagogues and politics and the Indiana primary is today.

Of course by now we’ve all seen this.

I wrote much of what appears below without knowing just how to begin it – and those wacky Republicans solved my problem.  The response to this boilerplate Obama statement was to issue a vicious attack accusing him of sexism because of Palin’s convention speech “lipstick/hockey mom/pitbull” quote.  This despite the fact that the metaphor has often been used by Republicans including Dick Cheney – to say nothing of John McCain – look here:

The McCain campaign, not only in its choice of Sarah Palin but in how they use her, is leaning on very scary  tactics that are similar to the successful exploitation of voters illustrated by some of the most memorable characters in American political films.  Watch this trailer for Tim Robbins’ Bob Roberts; see if it isn’t more familiar than you wish:

Creepy, isn’t it?  A demagogue making his way to the top by lying about his opponent and manipulating the alienation of the American people for his own ends.  That could never happen in real life, right?

Much, much earlier in film history, the beloved Andy Griffithplayed one of the scariest public personalities ever in A Face in the Crowd — written by Budd Schulberg and directed by On the Waterfront‘s Elia Kazan.  He’s not a politician but watch the trailer and see if it doesn’t seem familiar.  You have to watch until the end to get the full impact.

It’s so depressing — and enraging — to watch this campaign peddling pseudo-folksiness to win over its public.  It’s time for that to stop working in our country.  Stakes are too high to permit us (or the press) to fall for the most  approachable (and least honest) over the most excellent.

Finally, remember Robert Penn Warren’s remarkable novel, clearly based on Louisiana’s Huey LongAll the King’s Men?  It portrays a politician on his path to becoming a dangerous demagogue.  Yeah, I know it’s melodramatic but does it feel at all familiar?

Clearly we should consider these archetypal characters as cautionary tales; instructive representations of our future if we allow this kind of campaigning to prevail.  Movies are our largest export (unless video games have taken over while I wasn’t looking)  and often reflect, if not our truths, at least our ghosts, shadows and neuroses.  It gave us The Body Snatchers in the 50’s, Easy Rider in the 60’s and Working Girl and Wall Street in the 80’s.  It’s easy to be seductive, to manipulate language and truth; easy to pretend to be one of the people in order to win them. The vicious, craven strategies of this campaign – and Sarah Palin herself – are  perfect examples; John McCain, whom I used to admire, has allowed, no encouraged, this shameful campaigning in his name and surrendered all the positions of principal that he once held.  If we don’t want (another) Bob Roberts (He does remind me of GWBush) or a cynical populist pretender or a MS Wilie Stark as our government, it’s up to use to exercise vigilance and fierce commitment to fight off these transparent manipulations and to ensure that it does not happen.

David Bowie: The Man Who Fell to Earth


There’s a prophetic scene in the 1976 David Bowie movie, The Man Who Fell to Earth; he’s in what looks like a control room with dozens and dozens of screens, each showing something different.  There he is – with his weird, lens-shaped
irises, clearly watching all of them at the same time.  lens

For years I’ve used that scene to describe kids growing up as our own digital natives.  Yesterday I was playing music on my iPad for my 16 month old grandson, and showing him how to do “play” with the arrow and “stop” with the double bars.   When I decided it was time to switch gears and got out a book to read with him he took it from me and began pushing on a big red picture of the sun and sliding his finger, looking genuinely bewildered that nothing moved.  We’ve all heard an apocryphal version of this story but I now no longer need SNOPES to know it’s real.  Digital native indeed.

So the visionary that was David Bowie transcended his amazing music – We Can be Heroes, it seems – and took prophetic risks in many ways in diverse venues.  He was beautiful and gifted and unique; despite his music, for me, it was his presence in this film that demonstrated the astonishing breadth of vision.

Saint Joy: the Agony of a Good Girl

Jennifer face
The commercials for JOY, created by and starring the spectacular crew from Silver Linings Playbook make the film look like a comedy, but that’s not what it is.  It’s a glum story about a much put-upon young woman with a good idea and a family almost as selfish as the siblings in Transparent.

Nobody in her overflowing household can take care of herself, or anyone else. She, along with her divorced parents, ex-husband, grandmother and two children share a tiny house with a big mortgage.   Each of them depends upon Joy for everything,  not just financial support but also plumbing repairs, accounting for the family business — and dinner.

She’s sacrificed what we have learned are her great engineering and creative potential as well as her crack at going to college to stay home and help her ridiculously self-occupied and soap opera-obsessed mother deal with her divorce.  Everything sucks.

She’s always there – to pull up a couple of boards and stop a leak in the pipes, pack lunches, cook dinners, make money, raise the children, act as her mother’s therapist, her ex-husband’s landlord (for free) and her father’s refuge (also for free) when his second wife throws him out.

At the same time, she manages to invent “the Miracle Mop” – a truly ingenious product that she knows other women will want because she could sure use it at home when she’s cleaning the bathroom floors.  (Did I mention that she also does all the cleaning?)

The film is the story of her victory over these enormous odds, even when her father sells her out to please his rich girlfriend.

When we walked out of the theater, I was angry — trembling.  It took a while to figure out why.  The film closes with a description of all that happened to Joy after we left: big house, great business, loyal friends, generosity with aspiring entrepreneurs she meets.  It then goes on the tell us how this virtuous, long-suffering woman, as she always had, continued to love and support her family — faithless father, feckless sister and hangers-on despite the fact that they even tried to sue her to steal her company.  As far as we know, except for her ever-loyal ex-husband, her best friend and supporter and her kids no one related to her in biology or spirit was worthy of her kindness.

Forgiveness and love are important – and the fact that she “continued to love” this grotesque crew is understandable.  What the narrator describes, though, is the classic “good girl” doing everything she is supposed to do no matter what.  She may have had the strength to build her dream and fight for her vision, but she couldn’t ever say “‘Enough’ – go take care of yourselves you blood suckers” to those who betrayed her.

 

 

Leia and Rey: The Ancient Grief of Women, Turned on its Head

Leai hanRey cry

 

 

 

 

One of the most important scenes in The Force Awakens does not appear anywhere on the Web – not as a film clip or a screen shot or even a publicity still.  I know why, I think.  Its power rests largely in its unexpected, heartbreaking,  surprise.  You know what it is: that desperate, grieving embrace between General Leia Organa and the pilot-scavenger Rey.

Since time began, women have mourned the loss of loved ones in battle.  Since time began we’ve stayed at home waiting, worrying: Penelope, Catelyn Stark, Mrs. MiniverSisera‘s mother, the women of WWI

Through the window she looked forth, and wailed,
The mother of Sisera, through the lattice:
“Why is his chariot so long in coming?
Why are the hoofbeats of his chariots so delayed?” — The song of Deborah,  Judges 5: 24-31 s

“[I] wondered if he was looking up at that same moon, far away, and thinking of me as I was thinking of him.”— Vera Brittain (Chronicle of Youth: The War Diary, 1913-1917)

But these two brave warriors, forced into battles that would steal their loved ones — their grief is different.  It is the grief of fellow soldiers, not docile ladies-in-waiting.  It is also a passing of the torch – literally and figuratively – between two powerful, wise women: one a grand figure from the last generation, the other an emerging power in the present one.

The loss of Han Solo, lover of one, father figure to the other, at the hands of Kylo Ren, his (and Leia’s) own son, and the near death of Ren himself in his battle with Rey, brought a grief shared by two warriors at opposite ends of the war against the Dark Side.  Despite the pain of loss – and near loss – Leia comforts – and seeks the comfort of — of a younger version of herself.  The battle between Rey and Kylo Ren in no way inhibits the joining of their pain and loss.  It’s similar to the reality male soldiers have described so often: the loss of a beloved buddy in battle.

For women though, that loss has usually been at a distance, learned of and mourned far after the death itself.  Now, just after the United States military has granted women soldiers access to the same combat duties and responsibilities as their brothers, and even as it portrays the generational legacy, the Star Wars tale depicts the same parity.  These preservers of The Force fully share it all as, now, do our own soldiers – and equally know loss as battlefield comrades.  Consider this, too:

I hate war as only a soldier who has lived it can, only as one who has seen its brutality, its stupidity.  — Dwight David Eisenhower, 1946

 

Sons and Brothers — and Star Wars

Star_Wars sized

“I was raised to do one thing but I’ve got nothing to fight for.” —  Finn – a Storm Trooper*

My sons are 40 and 36 and they’re going to Star Wars opening night together.  It took some avid site refreshing and one wildly committed wife as deputy but they have tickets.  I love knowing that they like each other enough to share this. The first films hijacked our family – much to our delight.

There was lots of stuff, of course.  We had action figures and Death Star Space Stations, LandspeedersTie Fighters,  Millennium Falcons, Light Sabers, Lego versions  and about a billion little weapons all over the floor of their room.  All the time.  It was wonderful watching the two of them and their friends imagining all sorts of adventures as the toys carried them into battles between good and evil.

Once when he was around ten, I asked my older son, what he really wanted to do when he was older.  He replied, with growing agitation, “I want….  I want…. I want to fight The Empire!  

And there it is.  Deep inside the battles and light shows and Yoda-isms is the simple truth that informs most wonderful stories: a battle fought for honor, justice, family, love, or even peace.

Is it any wonder why that nearly 40 years later, the fever has reemerged, the joy and anticipation like new?

It is with gratitude that one watches a child find joy in a story or a song, from Little Bear to Harry Potter.  But Star Wars — well, that’s not just a wonderful tale, it’s the gift of a dream – something to fight for connected to the best parts of each of us, of hope, and courage and love.  I’m grateful that it exists and that my grown kids still love it and I’m really really grateful that the person each wants to revisit that world with is his very own brother.

*A trained warrior desperate to escape his past, Finn is plunged into adventure as his conscience drives him down a heroic, but dangerous, path.”  From the Official Star Wars Databank  

 

ISIS, Nazis, Trump and Dr. Caligari

 

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari - "Original German One-Sheet"
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari – “Original German One-Sheet”

These are scary times. A terrible sense of vulnerability has enveloped all of us. Is my son safe at his Jewish preschool? Should I still ride the bus? Continue to refuse to own a gun? Most importantly, trust my neighbors?

Worst of all, in the ramp-up to the Presidential election, can I continue to vote my hopes and ideals, not the base instincts of fear and distrust that Donald Trump evokes so skillfully?  Here’s what TV host and former Hill staffer Chris Matthews said about Trump the day that he challenged President Obama’s patriotism.

For those who applauded him today, cheered at his insinuation that the President hides himself as a defender of Islamist terrorism, I can only say this,You should be ashamed. None of us should applaud this 21st century McCarthyism, this cheap insinuation against a fellow American backed up by nothing but hate.”

Matthews described a “21st century McCarthyism;” perhaps there are even stronger parallels with the Germany’s Weimar Republic, which ruled during the desperate years between the end of WWI in 1918 and 1933, when Hitler was elected — and with the legendary film “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” released in Germany in 1920.

Considered the “first horror film,” it is the tale of an insane hypnotist who uses a somnambulist to commit murders. Its protagonist, Dr. Caligari, according to Siegfried Kracauer in his remarkable From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film  “stands for an unlimited authority that idolizes power as such, and, to satisfy its lust for domination, ruthlessly violates all human rights and values”*. The somnambulist,  (sleepwalker) Cesare is meant to be ordinary man, conditioned to kill.

There is much to connect our time with those Weimar years.  Some of it is a reach – but some of it is not.  The Harvard Film Archive describes the Weimar Republic as  “A period of great political and economic instability – of rampant inflation and unemployment.”  I remember learning about times when Germans needed a wheelbarrow of money to buy a loaf of bread, of hunger and sometimes even starvation, and about a deep resentment that the money that might have eased some this misery went instead to pay reparations to France and other victors.

The impact of this humiliation, along with deep resentment of Germany’s changed role in the world, is considered to have supported the response to Hitler’s message and his subsequent rise.  Kracauer late wrote:

Whether intentionally or not, [CALIGARI] exposes the soul wavering between tyranny and chaos, and facing a desperate situation: any escape from tyranny seems to throw it into a state of utter confusion. Quite logically, the film spreads an all-pervading atmosphere of horror. Like the Nazi world, that of CALIGARI overflows with sinister portents, acts of terror and outbursts of panic.

Familiar?

I spent some time Friday with a psychiatrist who listens to people all day.  I was ranting about the dangers of feeding fear and anger, encouraging blanket discrimination and even violence.  “We need someone to address our better angels, not our untrammeled fears.”  said I.

His response: Never, ever had things been like they are in this country at this moment, when no none knows what to do.  Every one of his patients, he added, described feeling some sort of real anxiety, if not abject fear.

I responded pretty much as Chris Matthews had.  In his limited sample, my friend replied, Trump was the only candidate who felt to patients like a “strong American.”  It was that impression that led them to feel such a strong affinity for him.

So here we sit.  Certainly not Weimar but unsettled and seeking a “stronger” leader and allowing a man (whose qualifications. — beyond his brilliant ability to read a crowd) are questionable, to suggest that we ban Muslims from our shores.

We need to decide whether we are willing to be sleepwalkers.  If we’re not, we’ve got to wake up everybody else.

 

 

NABLOPOMO Winds Down; Writing Struggles and Ta-Nehesi Coates

November posts sized
The sun has set upon Shabbat; now we need a Saturday post.  Today is the 28th; Monday is the last day of November and also of NABLPOMO.  I’ve managed every day except one Shabbat that I forgot to set up in advance, and have been glad, each day, of the commitment.

It’s so easy to let things go; just look at my very embarrassing WordPress chart: gaping holes all over the place. June is a little better than the rest because we were traveling and my blog is always lively when we’re on the road, but basically it’s a portrait of an undisciplined writer.

Then November rolled around, and with it the opportunity to accept an external structure.  I made a promise; it wasn’t a case of writing when I felt like it.  I would write every single day.

I love the process, once the idea comes.  Of course with most posts I am certain what I’m posting sucks, no matter how often I edit it.  Usually, when I read it later, it’s better than I’d thought.  Always there’s room to improve, sometimes there’s also real potential.  My favorite posts for the month:

Abortion and Olivia: Prison Has Many Forms and So Does Freedom

The War for the Souls of Orthodox Jewish Women (and Men) and Why It Matters

“Truth” and “Spotlight” and the News

Good Girls Revolt — When Men Were “Mad” and Women Were Researchers

Author Ta-Nahesi Coates, whose amazing Between the World and Me has informed (and transformed) much of my perspective on our country today, described his own labors toward writing, and writing “breakthroughs,” here.  It has been very helpful to me this month and, I suspect, will continue to be.

The only way to write something is to face down that blank page.  Whatever comes out can be altered and edited and re-thought or even rejected.  But if it isn’t there, it isn’t there.  Every day there’s a decision: shall I make myself sit down here or not?  It’s awesome and scary and frustrating which is why the opportunity to pledge a steady month of writing is so valuable.  Now I have to figure out how to keep going.

 

“Truth” and “Spotlight” and the News

Cate Blanchett as Producer Mary Mapes, Robert Redford as Dan Rather
Cate Blanchett as Producer Mary Mapes, Robert Redford as Dan Rather
Spotlight_(film)_poster
Rachel McAdams, Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Lev Schreiver, and Brian D’arcy James as the Pulitzer Prize winning Boston Globe team

The ultimate goal of every great reporter is to find a terrific story that nobody else has, and report it.  Right now, released almost simultaneously, are not one,  but two movies about journalism and how it works.  In one, eagerness to tell the tale combined with politics to destroy the story, and several stellar careers.  In the other, universal caution and the power of the establishment combined in efforts to do the same.  Based on true stories, Truth and Spotlight portray, with fierce and sometimes heartbreaking commitment, the professional, ethical and political challenges every good reporter faces.

Each features a wonderful cast:  in Spotlight, Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, and Stanley Tucci; in Truth, Cate Blanchett, Robert Redford, Topher Grace, Dennis Quaid, Elizabeth Moss, Bruce Greenwood and Stacy Keach.  They’re all great.

Both stories beautifully illustrate the adventure, pain, excitement, drudgery and teamwork required in the service of a seriously reported story.  Although Spotlight is a far better film, the familiar TV-ness of Truth, as Dan Rather and his 60 Minutes production team, pursue the “George W. Bush Went AWOL from the National Guard” story made it particularly heartbreaking for me.  I emerged agitated and halfway out of breath.

It’s was just so sad to witness great work sidelined not by corporate politics or even overt censorship but by small decisions made in service of a great story and a tight deadline.   All good journalists understand the importance of this: “If you don’t have time to check one more way, or listen to the person who still has reservations, the story shouldn’t air; if it’s about the President of the United States, even airtight isn’t good enough.”  Eager to get on the air and armed with several good pieces of evidence, Mapes insisted the story was ready though – and so it aired.

In this case, although the story was never proven to be false, challenges to errors or lack of clarity in several small details (which were indeed careless or at least a product of selective listening) provided enough ammunition to cost both Rather and Mapes their jobs.  In each case the removal was deeply humiliating.   Knowing what was coming, it was agony to witness, especially when the entire editorial process was so familiar and the problem elements stood out so clearly.

Spotlight, again drawn from a true story, followed reporters uncovering the child sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church, revealed by the Boston Globe’s investigative unit the “Spotlight” team at the Boston Globe.  In this case, the adversary wasn’t the White House and all the weapons at its disposal,  Rather, it was one of the few institutions with more power: the Catholic Church and its hold over Boston and the Globe, whose readers were 56% Catholic as were much of the editorial staff.

Piece by piece, through roadblocks and threats, the team pulled the story of the abusive priests together, with victims on the record, only to be confronted by their new editor, who wasn’t satisfied that this information alone would bring change:

Show me that the church manipulated the system so that these guys wouldn’t have to face charges. Show me they put those same priests back into parishes time and time again. Show me this was systemic, that came from the top down.”

So they did.  And their story rocked the Church worldwide.  Literally.

To arrive there though, team members had to deal not only with the pain of the victims and horror of the story but also with their own relationships with the Church.  That wasn’t just deep connection or lapsed faith, but also an emotional and spiritual system internalized by these longtime-Boston journalists as they grew up their very Catholic hometown.

In this case though, a combination of fierce commitment and great editorial guidance allowed them to resolve any questions that might arise before their initial story ran.  They ended up writing hundreds.  And won the Pulitzer Prize.

So.  Two news movies.  Both worth the time and money it will take to see them. Together they bring us perfect lessons: this is what happens when newsgathering doesn’t live up to the tough standards required of the profession, and these are the remarkable things that can happen when it does.

 

 

Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Cancer, Courage and Rage

Cancer has taken so many people I’ve loved and admired. This new interview with two hugely admired and much-loved celebrities reminded me of how deeply it affects us all .  We know, in our heads, that the presence of beauty, courage, fame and an amazing marriage and family can’t keep the monster at bay.  Neither can being the most respected broadcast journalist of the past 30 years; Tom Brokaw had cancer too.  So did my husband, by the way.  Thankfully, they are still with us.  But it’s a roll of the dice, not fame or fortune, or even education, that’s made it so.

So why are we not all enraged?  Why do we refuse to keep this plague at (or at least near) the top of our agenda?  We face so much right now: attacks on women, racial tension, income inequality, climate change, declining education systems and infrastructure – fill in your own particular blank.  But no matter how we feel about any of these issues, we all grieve for those we’ve lost to cancer; we all long for their presence in our lives and know that it is just a lack of knowledge that took them from us.

No family is untouched; the lucky ones face it among older members but so many lose loved ones — family and friends, well before they’ve seen their children grow up, or get married or find their way in the world and before they’ve exhausted the gifts that brought so much to all of us.  I’ve been thinking about them a great deal recently, and have felt, for some time, a need to honor them once again here.  Many died before there was an Internet but I’ve added links where I could.

We were young journalists together:

Margot Adler

Mary Halleron

Mark Harrington

Joan Shorenstein

Teachers, mentors, friends:

Ed Bradley

Ed Hornick

Eden Lipson

Maggie Morton

Susan Neibur 

The Dearest:

Laurie Becklund

Bob Squier