Friday, December 31, 2010

HONOR YOUR ART GODS


Where does inspiration come from? Life? Luck? The Idea Channel? (That's what Art Boy used to say whenever anyone asked him where he got his ideas—until he realized people were rushing home to check their cable listings.) Or is there an element of divine intervention? A deity, an angel, a lyre-strumming muse?

Those of us who toil away in the arts invent all kinds of strategies and/or rituals to keep those creative juices flowing. Especially at this season of the year, devoted to reflecting on the past and looking forward to the future (January, after all, is named for the two-faced god Janus, who looks backwards and forwards), marking the end of the old and the rebirth of the new. What better time to honor the source of creative inspiration—whatever it may be?

On New Year's Eve, just before midnight, Art Boy always burns a painting. No, not in the Farenheit 451, anti-information book-burning sense. It's his annual sacrifice to the art gods, both in gratitude for a productive year and optimism for the future. Sometimes, it’s a more recent painting that he just doesn't thinks worked out, for whatever reason. Sometimes he pulls a vintage piece out of the archive.

Selection is important. He doesn't want to burn a "bad" piece; the whole idea of sacrifice is to give up something of value. He looks for a piece with its own intrinsic soul, maybe a great idea that fell short in the execution, or some quirky, but charmingly rendered piece that just doesn't quite soar. A piece that served its purpose on the evolutionary road toward craft, skill, and style, and now deserves to be celebrated one last time for the lessons it taught along the way. Art Boy dusts it off, we toast it with a glass of champagne, and he puts it on the grate in the fireplace to send it on its new journey. (Fortunately, Art Boy's pieces are small-ish and painted on wood.) At first I thought burning a painting in the fire would be horrible. But in fact, there's something profound and moving and weirdly beautiful about watching a painting turn into ash and smoke and race up the chimney, free at last. It's like actually seeing its spirit heading straight for the art gods.

Of course, I've tried to work this same juju for my writing, over the years, but I've never quite gotten the hang of it. No matter how many juicy manuscript pages I burn, me and the writing gods all know a complete version is still safely tucked away in a Word doc somewhere. Ditto burning an entire bound book; there are plenty more where that came from (just ask my publisher). Burning any kind of tool seems to be out, not to mention a severe eco-hazard, since most writers' tools these days are electronic.

But, come to think of it, maybe I'll try burning a pencil tonight, the tool with which—I kid you not—I wrote the entire original 900-page draft of my first novel. It won't be the exact same pencil, of course, that was worn away to sawdust decades ago. But I always keep a supply on hand, and use them constantly for scribbling in margins and making notes on scrap paper, even while I'm working on the keyboard. Maybe sacrificing this most totemic and beloved tool will create some sympathetic magic, connecting me somehow to that wellspring of creativity I tapped into, once upon a time, when I hammered out 900 pages of fiction in pencil because I just couldn't stop myself.

Because isn't that all any artist can wish for in the New Year? Unbridled creativity and the nerve to use it.

(Top: The Dream of the Poet, or The Kiss of the Muse, by Paul Cezanne, 1859.)

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

A YEAR IN THE DARK


Top 10 Movies of 2010


Yes, the economy still sucks, and universal health care is still a dream, but in one crucial way, things were looking up in 2010: I had multiple 4-star movies to choose from in compiling my annual Top 10 list. (Unlike last year, when I only saw one movie I considered 4-star-worthy, and that was a cartoon.)

Of course, most of the movies I loved this year were small and independent, demonstrating once again the inverse relationship between gigantic Hollywood budgets and quality. These may not have been the biggest, most influential movies of the year, but they're the ones I loved to pieces, well worth tracking down if you'd like to stage your own personal 2010 Film Retrospective.

ALICE IN WONDERLAND
ONDINE
NEVER LET ME GO
NOWHERE BOY
EXIT THROUGH THE GIFT SHOP
TOY STORY 3D
'THE GIRL WHO' TRILOGY
THE KING'S SPEECH
WINTER'S BONE
THE COMPLETE METROPOLIS

Read all the gory details, including runners-up and honorable mentions, here.


TOP 10 MOVIES of the DECADE

The completion of 2010 also gives a compulsive list-maker like moi another chance to applaud the best movies of the decade, according to the highly exclusive and opinionated Jensen-ometer. Okay, there's plenty we'd like to forget about the past ten years, but at least the era produced some truly unforgettable movies. For those of you keeping score at home, here are my favorites:

THE NEW WORLD (2005) Terrence Malick rescues the founding of Jamestown Colony from musty high-school history textbooks and turns it into a visionary stranger-in-a-strange-land epic that teems with hypnotic grandeur, aria-like interior monologues, simmering suspense, erotic discovery, and awed reverence for the natural world.

CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON (2000) From a pulpy martial arts novel, Ang Lee crafts a moral fable of exquisite beauty and pathos.

THE FALL (2008) Part fairy tale, and part coming-of-age drama, this virtuoso performance from director Tarsem combines stunning visual beauty and a beguiling story in an artful homage to both the early days of moviemaking, and the power of storytelling itself.

TITUS (1999—but I didn't see it until 2000) Nobody who loves movies should miss Julie Taymor's riveting adaptation of Shakespeare's earliest and bloodiest tragedy. Taymor blithely mixes eras and genres, anachronisms, violence and unexpected lyricism in a Gothic Moderne visual style that's a feast for the eyes while enhancing the tale's anti-war timelessness.

MEMENTO (2001) Everything you think you know about narrative, chronology and suspense goes out the window in this edgy and audacious neo-noir thriller from Christopher Nolan.

GIRL ON THE BRIDGE (2000) Love, luck and destiny converge in this soulful romantic mood piece from French filmmaker Patrice Leconte, shot in intimate, dazzling black-and-white with wry humor and a touch of magic realism.

RIVERS AND TIDES (2002) Environmental artist Andy Goldsworthy's intoxicating, soul-stirring work captured by filmmaker Thomas Riedelsheimer with all its inspirational grandeur intact. Guaranteed to jump-start your own creative muse.

A VERY LONG ENGAGEMENT (2004) Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s ambitious masterpiece tackles the insanity of warfare and the larger, more complex story of the women left behind, in an intricate mosaic of a movie: droll, magical, heartbreaking and profound.

PAN'S LABYRINTH (2006) Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro's dark, gripping adult fairy tale, set in the grim aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, is a haunting parable about the transformative power of human imagination.

TOGETHER (2003) Chinese filmmaker Chen Kaige is not playing the same old song in this deeply-felt and richly observed coming-of-age tale of love and music in post-Mao China.

Worthy Runners-Up:
GOOD NIGHT AND GOOD LUCK (2005)
NOWHERE IN AFRICA (2003)
WATER (2006)
ATONEMENT (2007)

Performance of the Decade: Heath Ledger, Brokeback Mountain (2006)

Sunday, December 26, 2010

ON, BLITZER!


No, it's not Santa's eighth reindeer. The R. Blitzer Gallery, over on the west side, is the best-kept art secret in Santa Cruz. Occupying a vast, spacious loft area in part of the old Wrigley Building, this impressive space—less than a year old—is a new resource for local art lovers. Genial proprietor Robert Blitzer originally rented the space as a studio for building his own massive metal sculptures, but in recent months he has generously made it available for public art exhibits. Which is great news for the rest of us in a county bubbling over with artists, yet chronically short of designated art spaces.

Some 34 local artists are represented in the current Blitzer show, Art for Art. Originally scheduled as a weekend show earlier this month to benefit the Santa Cruz Artists' Assistance & Relief Fund (SCAARF), the Art for Art exhibit is held over by popular demand for the rest of this year and on through First Friday (Jan 7) in the new year. Now that the first wave of holiday madness is over, if you have some quality time to spare, I suggest you run right out and see it.

Of course, there are strengths and weaknesses in a show of this size, with so many artists working in a variety of media —painting, glass, sculpture, encaustic, ceramics, photography, assemblage and installation. But there's plenty to love, as well. I was mesmerized by Coeleen Kiebert's series of "Scouts" and "Navigators." In these ceramic sculptures, figures with piquant faces in steampunk goggles and gear-studded helmets float through weirdly organic, distressed Art Nouveau-type structures of flowering tubes in metallic colors (copper; patina green) that might be kelp beds underwater (or in deep space), prison bars, or labyrinths of the mind. These pieces pass the first essential test of successful art—they invite you to keep looking, and you find there's always more to see.



Intriguing too are the playful new figurative paintings of D. Hooker. (That's one of her new images, up top, used to publicize the show.) Best known for her close-up portraits of "real and imagined" subjects, her fresh, cheeky mixed-media paintings on wooden boards and cigar boxes, have plenty of attitude and brio. Jenny Morten shows an array of her evocative, sculptural porcelain bowls with their distinctive pinched or scalloped edges, many incorporating subtle citrus colors (lemon; tangerine) to complement her traditional palette of aqua and pale green.



Color and texture pop in Jim MacKenzie's abstract Graffiti series of photographic images laminated onto board. David Fleming offers a selection of loosely rendered, almost impressionistic new landscapes and cityscapes. Assemblages range from Jack Howe's surreal doll-and-found-object pieces to the precise, formalized, monochromatic work of Victoria May. Large installations are contributed by fabric wizard Kathleen Crocetti and Ned Greene. And this is just a fraction of the show. Plan to spend some time and wander around; there's a lot to see.

This is the third exhibit from Art For Art, an organization co-founded and co-directed by D. Hooker and mixed-media photographer Sara Friedlander to curate shows that raise money for the Santa Cruz arts community. Earlier this year, the group lunched SCAARF, a companion organization set up to assist local artists experiencing a career-threatening emergency by providing grants and resources. 20% of all sales at the Blitzer show go to SCAARF. Donations are also accepted at the gallery, and online. Read all about it here.

Then hie thee off to the Blitzer Gallery and check it out. (Here's the map.) Gallery hours are 10 am to noon, and 2 pm to 5 pm. Mon-Thurs this week (Dec 27–30), and Mon-Fri next week (Jan 3-7). The Closing Night reception will be Friday, Jan 7, from 5-9 pm, but trust me, by then it will be way too packed with artists, patrons, and bonhomie to see anything. So, to paraphrase the immortal words of The Moody Blues, if you wanna see the show, darlin', you better go now!

Friday, December 17, 2010

CHRISTMAS CHESTNUTS


I don't know about you, but I have an inexhaustible appetite for A Christmas Carol. For one thing, Charles Dickens is probably my favorite author, and I consider Carol to be the perfect story. It's humorous, dramatically punchy, and fiercely moral, ghostly and Gothic, innovative in its use of magic realism, and brilliant in the simplicity of its concept. It even obeys the classical unities of time, place and action. So I was overjoyed last year when Cabrillo Stage inaugurated a winter season with an annual holiday production of "Scrooge."

Dickens' modest little Christmas ghost story has spawned hundreds of versions on stage, film, video, and TV, over the centuries, and I've lapped 'em up like a steaming bowl of punch. There’s hardly anything even a faintly competent adaptation can do to ruin it — except sing.

It's not that I don't love musicals. But "Scrooge" (which opens again tonight for a two-week run) is a stage version of the old 70s movie musical starring Albert Finney, with indifferent songs by Leslie Bricusse. Last year, the stout-hearted Cabrillo players, dancers and chorus poured their hearts into it; Joseph Ribeiro was an excellent Scrooge, and Benjamin Holck a robust and irresistible Ghost of Christmas Present. But there are some properties that simply do not benefit from the addition of show tunes. At least not these tunes, remarkable in how undistinguished they are. Sample titles: "I Hate People." "I Love Life." "I'll Begin Again." Yawn...

If they MUST do the Carol as a musical, why doesn’t some enterprising person adapt the book from "Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol," the musical cartoon version that used to run on TV every Christmas? Sure, you'd probably have to cut out the bracketing story featuring Magoo himself, but the Carol-within-the-cartoon is perfectly viable in its own right. Yes, the vintage-1962 TV animation is cheap and tacky, but THOSE were songs! The Jule Styne/Bob Merrill numbers include the lyrical "Winter Was Warm," (sung by young Scrooge's heartbroken cast-off fiancee;) the hilarious "We're Despicable," sung by a trio of grotesques—the charwoman, the laundress, and the rag-and-bone man—cackling over the late Scrooge's effects (a pivotal scene that isn't even in the Bricusse version); and the haunting "All Alone in the World" sung by the boy Scrooge, left behind after all the other schoolboys go home for the holiday. (I'm in tears just thinking about it. But don't take my word for it: see for yourself.)

These songs really enhance the action, rather than stopping it dead in its tracks.

Cabrillo's "Scrooge" is better than no Carol at all. Last year, I especially liked the festive touch of old-fashioned sweets for sale out in the courtyard and strolling carolers in Victorian dress to sing us inside. But now's the time to start sniffing out the rights to the Magoo version for 2011…

Of course, the godfather of all Christmas Carol adaptations is the 1951 British version starring the incomparable Alistair Sim as the scroogiest possible Scrooge. Shot in brooding black-and-white, it's both an unsettlingly spooky and foreboding ghost story and a dazzling celebration of Dickensian Yuletide revelry. Stream it, TiVo it, or put it in your queue, but don't miss it; Christmas just isn't as merry without it.

Speaking of durable Christmas chestnuts, the good folks over at the Aptos Cinema Weekend Classics series are getting into the spirit with special daily holiday schedules and programming. Starting this weekend, matinees will play every day through New Year's Eve. And after the fabulous Philadelphia Story (Sat-Mon), things get seasonal. Starting Tuesday, it's Miracle on 34th Street. Liberate Santa from the small screen and see him in all his plus-size glory in this 1947 family classic. Jolly old elf Edmund Gwenn stars as a Macy's department store Santa out to convince disbelieving child Natalie Wood (and her disenchanted single working mom, Maureen O'Hara) that he's the real deal. Matinees play through Friday, Dec 24, 11 a.m.


Starting Christmas Day, the venerable White Christmas takes over for a special three-day run. Bing Crosby (crooning you-know-what), Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen star. Yeah, yeah, we've all seen it six dozen times on TV, but hands up, everyone who's ever seen it on a big screen. I thought not! Trust me, 1954-vintage Technicolor makes those velvet reds and spruce greens pop on a giant screen. And that first snowfall in Vermont is truly magical in wide-screen VistaVision —especially for little California kids in the audience who may have never experienced the real thing. Plays Saturday-Monday, Dec 25 through 27, 11 a.m.

Finishing up the series is a less traditional Yuletide story, The Apartment. Jack Lemmon wants to get ahead in business during the holiday season by loaning out his apartment to boss Fred MacMurray for his adulterous trysts with a wistful Shirley MacLaine in Billy Wilder's incisive, Oscar-winning 1960 comedy. It's in from Tuesday, Dec 28 to Friday, Dec 31, 11 a.m.

In the meantime, gather up the little ones and check out an encore holiday performance of Toy Story 3D, this Saturday (Dec 18) at the Del Mar, 10 a.m., a benefit for the Second Harvest Food Bank. I'm not the world's biggest cheerleader for 3D, as you know if you read my recent column, but you might as well experience it as God intended, in the 1936 Art Deco splendor of the Del Mar's Grand Auditorium with its spanking new state-of-the-art 3D equipment. And what better vehicle than the latest Toy Story, where the lovable toy heroes from Andy's room come back as fresh, funny, and irresistible as ever. And here's the best part: admission is FREE with donation of a non-perishable food item. Talk about the holiday spirit!

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

PARADES AND PRINCESSES


The last time I was in a parade, I won a trophy. I was seven years old, and I won for "Most Original Costume" in the Hawaiian Days Parade in Hermosa Beach, CA. (Actually, my mom should have won the award; she sewed the floral muu-muu I wore, and a matching miniature one for my Shirley Temple doll that I carried in the parade. All I had to do was show up.)

I didn't win any trophies in the downtown Holiday Parade last Saturday, but still, I had the most fun a person can have squashed into the back seat of a vintage Mercedes going one mile-per-hour. My esteemed editor, Greg Archer, invited me and Art Boy to ride in the official Good Times car with him, the aforementioned Merc, recently purchased by GT's Webmaster Jeff, who also drove. Greg sat up on top, perched on the edge of the sun roof, and our intrepid one-man camera crew, Flax Glor, basically trotted alongside, setting up his tripod and shooting, guerrilla-style.

Here's what I love about Santa Cruz: the sheer variety of participants in this hands-on, hometown parade. We had everyone from the little mermaids in this Save Our Shores float to the Santa Cruz Derby Girls, from Cub Scout troupes to the sexy Salsa Rueda dancers, to the KUSP "Geek Speak" brain trust cheerfully broadcasting live from their open truck in the rain, under a plastic tarp. And of course, my personal favorite, the Santa Cruz Public Library Book Truck Drill Team (their book trucks festively painted red for the occasion).

Unfortunately, when you're actually in the parade, you don't get to see much of the other groups, floats and marchers. What we mostly saw from inside the parade car was the crowd outside, lining Pacific Avenue. ("Throw candy!" one little girl yelled eagerly, no doubt mistaking us for a Mardi Gras parade.) And while perfecting my Queen Elizabeth wave, here's what I learned about crowds: if you smile at someone and wave, guess what? They wave back! I'm sure that about 90% of the onlookers (and 100% of the kids) along the parade route had no idea who we were, tucked away in the back seat of the car, but they waved back, nonetheless.

You too can experience our insiders' view of the Holiday Parade in this You Tube video Jeff shot on his phone while driving. (Don't try this at home, kids.) Those are the lovely hoopsters Heather and Mary marching along in front, priming the crowd with their hooping skills. Greg and Flax are also assembling a short film to be posted on GTV before you know it. Check it out if you missed the parade, or if you were one of the bystanders waving at the camera, hoping for your 15 minutes (okay, seconds) of fame.

And speaking of seasonal films, what would the holidays be without a new Disney feature cartoon? In Tangled, an entertaining riff on the Rapunzel tale, the studio is in full "Disney Princess" mode—you know, the line of femme-centric fairy tale movies designed to market Mattel dolls, outfits, and accessories to little girls. A marketing ploy made all the more obvious when the movie is animated via CGI (as Tangled is), and all the characters already look like plastic dolls, with their smooth, unlined skin and dimensional shading.

Since Tangled is a milestone—Disney's 50th cartoon feature—let's take a moment to consider the history of the brand. At least since the revisionist '70s, we've all been yammering on about the evolution of Disney's cartoon heroines, but I think it's interesting to see how they've reflected their times. Snow White was sort of a neutered '30s chorus girl (Betty Boop, without sex), with her bobbed hair and baby-doll voice, pining for her prince to come. Cinderella was the obedient '50s drudge, sublimating her own desires, and Sleeping Beauty was the poster girl for passivity; her most dynamic action was to fall asleep for 100 years.

But since the resurgence of fairy tale princess movies that began in 1989 with Ariel in The Little Mermaid, Disney heroines have become more resourceful, spunky, and (oh please, don't make me write "pro-active," but you know what mean) in taking charge of their own lives. (And more ethnically diverse—grudgingly—if you count Mulan and Jasmine from Aladdin, although it took 72 years for Disney to introduce its first black cartoon heroine, Tiana from last year's The Princess and the Frog.)

But now let's take a look at the evolution of the Disney cartoon hero. Seriously, does anyone even remember the bland, boring, cookie-cutter "Prince Charmings" of those earlier films? The first one to distinguish himself from the pack was the magnificent Beast, in 1991, and even he morphed back into a (yawn) prince at the end. But finally, finally, the folks at Disney are starting to perceive that this new breed of plucky heroines deserve better, maybe a male counterpart with, you know, a personality. This sea change first became apparent last year with Frog Prince Naveen, a charming wastrel with a line of corny, yet good-natured patter; unfortunately, he spent most of the movie disguised as a frog.

Which brings us to hero Flynn Rider in Tangled. For the first time in "Disney princess" history, he's not even a prince, but a thief and a rogue (notice how he looks a little like Jake Gyllenhaal) who hides out in Rapunzel's tower while on the lam from the palace guard. Sure, the rascal hero is as old a cliché as the bland prince, and if wisecracking Flynn were a live-action hero, he'd be pretty obnoxious (although good-hearted enough to redeem himself). But as a new kind of Disney hero, fit for a princess, he has his points. Flynn's cheeky narration frames Rapunzel's story, but never overwhelms it; her character is equal to his in grit and chutzpah. And it's interesting to watch as the Disney tale-spinners labor to create more evenly-matched romantic figures, characters who grow and endure trials together, and end up together because they deserve each other, not just because they're the only prince and/or princess in the movie.

Looking for something a little more grown-up at the movies this weekend (or just want to practice your Italian)? Don't forget the Dante Alighieri Society's monthly Italian Neo-Realism series, presented at the VAPA Art History Forum Room 1001 at Cabrillo this Sunday. This month's classic is La Strada, by the great Federico Fellini, a filmmaker more often associated with lush spectacle than gritty realism. But Fellini does Neo-Realism his way in this 1954 allegorical fable, one of the most acclaimed and heartbreaking of his early films. It's set in a circus, where brutish strongman Anthony Quinn buys winsome, simple-minded waif Giuletta Masina to work in his act. But complications arise in the person of clown/trapeze artist Richard Basehart. Presented in Italian with English subtitles. Showtime is 7 pm, Sunday only, and it's free!

Thursday, December 2, 2010

PRE-HOLIDAY SPIRIT



Good grief, it's December already—panic in the streets! And as usual, there's way too much going on in Santa Cruz. As the Red Queen says to Alice, "It takes all the running you can do to stay in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run twice as fast as that!" Boy, that's the story of my life.

For starters, our monthly First Friday Art Tour returns this week, with art of every description by local artists on view in a staggering variety of venues countywide—cafes, home design shops, beauty salons, a bank, a tattoo parlor, a winery, Loudon Nelson Center, and even a few designated art galleries, like the Santa Cruz Art League, Felix Kulpa, Artisans, and the MAH. (That's "Christmas Tree," by veteran local artist David Fleming, who's showing new work at the Center Street Grill, along with Kathy Cheer.) Get a complete list of exhibits and venues at the First Friday website, and don't forget to bundle up, cuz, baby, it's cold outside!


Speaking of art in frozen climates, the annual Art in the Cellars holiday art show takes place at Bargetto's Winery in Soquel this weekend. Art Boy and I had the pleasure of presenting our wares at this event a few years ago (back when I was making my "Weird Sisters" line of fabric dolls, like my "Infinite Jester" icon over there in the menu column). It was a fun show to do—lots of interesting art tucked into the nooks and crannies between the wine barrels, live holiday music, and plenty of bonhomie. But, ye gads, was it chilly in there!


It has something to do with keeping the vats at a consistent temperature as the wine ferments, and heaven knows no one wants to interfere with the delicate alchemy by which grapes transform into festive libations. But here's a word to the wise: pack a down jacket and mittens as you prepare to go spelunking into the cellar. (It's actually a warehouse adjoining the parking lot, but it might as well be subterranean). Still, local artists like printmaker Liz Lyons Friedman (above), photographer John Gavrilis, and many others are well worth the trip, and whats a little cold, anyway, at this wintry time of year? Nothing that can't be cured with a glass or two of Chaucer's Mead. Drop in Saturday or Sunday, from 11 am to 5 pm.



Still looking to jump-start the holiday spirit? Forget Black Friday, Cyber Monday, Ruby Tuesday, Wingnut Wednesday, or any other artificial, media-contrived shopping frenzy. Instead, how about opting out for a slow, scenic drive up the Slow Coast to Davenport for a Holiday Open House this Sunday at La Sirena Antiques & Gifts?

You'll find an eclectic mix of goodies, with a special emphasis on French country antiques, international textiles, and hand-crafted ethnic beads from around the world. In keeping with the spirit of the season, you'll also find a groaning board of cookies, nibblies, and Yuletide cheer of the bottled variety set up in the courtyard to welcome you in from the cold. Hours are 2-5 pm, Sunday afternoon, at 500 Highway 1.

And as long as you're up there, stop in at the New Davenport Gallery (450 Highway 1) and check out the December "Metal Is Magical" show. This hit parade of local metalworkers includes everything from massive sculptures by Fred Hunnicutt, Jamie Abbott, and Holt Murray to precious metal jewelry by Lynda Watson and Lynn Guenther, to name just a few. That all these creative, talented artists live and work right here in our little corner of the world is enough to put anybody in a holiday mood.

And while we're on the subject of overflowing talent, the Santa Cruz Film Festival is hosting an "Open Projector" event tonight (Thursday, Dec 2), from 5 to 8pm at the Vino Tabi Winery in the Swift Street Courtyard (334 Ingalls St. SC). Aspiring filmmakers are invited to bring your movie in DVD format, 10 minutes or shorter, for a public showing before a discerning crowd of film enthusiasts. First come, first served; no prizes, no pressure. And it's free! What could be more festive?

Monday, November 22, 2010

WILD ABOUT HARRY


Yes, I'm still wild about Harry Potter, even though the latest film in the franchise, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1, is far from the best. Since it's only the first half of the last book in the series, it's very much a middle act, lining up the players and setting the stage for the inevitable final showdown coming next summer in Deathly Hallows, Part 2.

But while we're all waiting for the other wand to drop and the saga to finally reach its climax, I thought it might be fitting in this most thankful time of year to revisit what we love about J. K. Rowling's fantasy series and the values it embraces—love, friendship, justice, and especially family, whether actual or surrogate. Beneath the spells, hexes, and magical hi-jinks, it's all about the friends and supporters Harry earns and the choices he makes on his progress through childhood, adolescence, and life, en route to his destiny.

As I wrote about Rowling and the Potter universe in a 2005 column, Potter Familias,

"Like any phenomenon whose perpetrator makes oodles of money and buys herself a castle in Scotland, the expected chorus of naysayers and detractors has risen up like Voldemort's dreaded Dark Mark to debunk J. K. Rowling's work as, you know, not all that great. Book critics who were orgasmic a few installments (and a few billion dollars) ago that Rowling was actually prying kids away from their Gameboys and reading books, now carp about the finer points of her prose style. I say, who cares about prose style? Rowling's books are, in a word, ripping—fast, thrilling reads over considerable thematic terrain that create a witty parallel universe of magic from which to observe the perils and absurdities of the world we all know. Rowling has done her homework; she knows every whistle stop on the classic hero's journey and depicts them with relish and imagination." (Read more)


(Can you believe the Harry Potter movie kids were ever this little? Watching them grow up in real-time onscreen has been terrific fun; it also illustrates Rowling's central theme of growing into the destiny one deserves.)

So enjoy your holiday and be thankful for the family with whom you share it, whether bonded to you by blood or choice. I'll meet you back here next week.

(Above: Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint & Emma Watson in HP and the Sorcerer's Stone, 2001.)

Friday, November 19, 2010

LIKE A ROCK


The story of Aron Ralston is a real-life thriller. An experienced young rock-climber and "canyoneer" from Colorado, Ralston was on an impromptu weekend trek into the remote Utah outback in April, 2003, when a freak accident left him stranded at the bottom of a deep crevice with his right hand pinned between the rockface and an immovable boulder. As the days wore on, hallucinating, and at the end of his single thermos of water, Ralston had to make an impossible decision: lose his arm or lose his life.

A lone man immobilized in a narrow crevice for five days may not sound like promising material for a moving picture. But trust inventive filmmaker Danny Boyle to ramp up the suspense and make something wildly kinetic out of Ralston's harrowing experience in 127 Hours…aided enormously by the charismatic James Franco in the starring role, capturing not only Ralston's up-for-anything cockiness, but his stoic resolve as well. (Read more)

Santa Cruzans interested in learning more about Ralston are in luck. For the next few Fridays, Community TV will be rebroadcasting a 2004 appearance by the real-life Ralston at Bookshop Santa Cruz. A year after his (literally) do-or-die moment in Blue John Canyon, near Moab, Utah, Ralston was on a book tour to promote his non-fiction memoir, "Between a Rock and a Hard Place." When he came to BSC, intrepid local videographer Peter McGettigan recorded the event.

Live, in front of an audience, Aron Ralston is quite the showman. It's said that when Charles Dickens was on tour, he thrilled audiences with his dramatic readings of sensational scenes like the murder of Nancy in Oliver Twist. Ralston takes it to another level: a funny, articulate speaker, he never reads a passage from his book at all. Instead, he re-enacts the story of his hike into the canyon, and his five fateful days trapped in the crevice. We know how it all comes out—he's standing there right in front of us—yet we are breathless with suspense the whole time.

Indeed, there's almost something shamanistic in his ritual storytelling. His performance is harrowing, emotional, wryly self-deprecating, and definitely not for the squeamish. (When he warns that three people have fainted during the course of his recitation at other bookstores, believe it!) He's also an impressive motivational speaker, spreading the gospel that we ordinary humans have the courage to do extraordinary things, encouraging each of us to confront whatever personal boulder is creating an impasse in our own lives.

Catch his act for the next few Fridays at 7 p.m. on "Book TV," (local cable channel Comcast 25/Charter 71) and streaming at Community TV.)


(Here's a self-portrait of the real-life Ralston back in 2001)

I waited until after I saw 127 Hours before I watched the Ralston video, and it's interesting to compare the two. The filmmakers replicate his outfit and gear perfectly, right down to the headphones, and Franco captures the engaging, devil-may-care chutzpah of the younger Ralston. Lots of scenes in the movie (including dreams and hallucinations) that might have been artistic invention figure in Ralston's real-life talk, as well. (Not so surprising, I guess, as Ralston was a consultant on the film.) But it's interesting that the most climactic moment in Ralston's presentation, and his greatest epiphany (let's just say it has to do with a decision he makes regarding the bones in his dying arm) is not actually in the movie—at least, I don't remember it. Director Boyle must have thought there was no way to explain to the audience what was going on in Ralston's head, and so preferred to—er—cut to the chase. No matter; the movie is plenty exciting as it is.

THE PETER PRINCIPLE

And speaking of Community TV, let's hear it for Peter McGettigan, the unofficial archivist-laureate of Santa Cruz pop culture. Name a concert, festival, art opening, public affairs meeting, or anything else going on at any given moment in Santa Cruz, and chances are Peter's there, recording it for posterity. Not everything Peter shoots makes it onto the air, but it's the principle of the thing—Peter hates to miss an event! In the meantime, he's amassing quite an archive of local events online.

Among the most recent additions to Peters online archive is a video of the First Annual Morton Marcus Poetry Reading a few weeks back, at the Cabrillo Recital Hall. Robert Hass was the featured poet, with Joseph Stroud, Stephen Kessler, and emcee Gary Young all reading from Mort's just-released final book, "The Dark Figure In the Doorway: Last Poems."

Of course, nobody can read Mort's poems with as much vigor, drama and music as Mort did himself. Still, it was an impressive launch for an exciting new local poetry event. If you missed it, check it out online at Community TV.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

TO-DREWE LIST


What happens when you cross Thomas Hardy with the modern (feminist) graphic novel? If you're lucky, the result will be something sharply observed and acerbically funny like Tamara Drewe. This serial graphic novel from veteran cartoonist Posy Simmonds ran in weekly installments in The Guardian newspaper of London in 2005-2006.

Set in Hardy country (rural Dorset), it's a sly, updated riff on Far From the Madding Crowd, with a luscious heroine pursued by three obsessed men: a sexy, stoic young gardener, born on the land, the wealthy landlord next door (here transformed into a pompous crime novelist presiding over a rural writers' retreat), and a surly alt-rock star, standing in for the dashing soldier of the original.

Which doesn't mean that I'd ever heard of it before last week, when a new movie version directed by Stephen Frears was press-screened for local critics. I loved the movie, but the opening date has now been postponed to December 10, so I can't write about it just yet. But in the meantime, check out the original strip, archived in its entirety at the Guardian online. (I devoured the first 27 episodes at full-tilt!)

Better yet, wait for the film, then catch up with Simmonds' splendidly sketched and pointedly written original. What's lost (or added, or transformed) in translation is provocative indeed. Meet me back here next month for the download.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

NO PLACE LIKE "HOME'


Time to get your fringe on with Nobody's Home, a marvelous new touring stage production playing one more weekend only at the West End Studio Theatre (WEST). Workshopped in London by Santa Cruz native and now London-based director Ailin Conant and her intrepid two-person cast, this dynamic and affecting drama details the most compelling quest for getting home since Dorothy clicked her heels and E. T. grabbed a phone.

Inspired by the most famous road trip in literature, Homer's The Odyssey, the play makes mythic the interior journey of a young soldier back in the states after three tours of duty in an unnamed Middle-Eastern war zone. Technically, he's already "home," back safe in the house he and his wife are remodeling together, but mentally and emotionally, he's still lost at sea, grappling with fearsome monsters from within his own troubled psyche. He spends most of his time locked in the bathroom, playing video games, struggling with his demons, and trying to figure out how to reconnect with his loyal, but despairing wife, Penny.

The idea of fringe theatre is to make up in imagination what may be lacking in financial resources, and to reinvigorate the craft and the process of making theatre. This innovative production shows you how it's done, a concentrated, one-act, single-set pas-de-trois for two characters and a bathtub that becomes an entire dramatic universe. Kudos go to Otto Muller's masterful sound design, along with a few key props (including the most provocative use of an onstage watermelon since Gallagher).

Will Pinchin holds things together as psychically wounded soldier Grant, onstage every minute, and riveting in his elliptical shifts from tragedy to comedy, goofiness to grief. Dorie Kinnear plays basically everybody else, and what a virtuoso performance it is.



Besides the patiently waiting Penny, and a cloaked Muslim girl, Kinnear appears as a shrink with the Cyclopian headlamp who wields a hand saw to attack the "root" of Grant's psychic problems (a scene both uproarious and horrifying), a hybrid creature with a menacing pig's head, the ghost of a dead comrade with a patter of shtick and an electronically stimulated voice-box, an undulating siren of nameless, yet unattainable desires, and "mighty Poseidon," roiling the turbulent mental waters (a vivid effect achieved with a pair of long, fluttery scarves and simmering offstage percussion).

The production team calls their style "Lecoq-based Physical Theatre," in which the actors are credited with "devising" the story and dialogue in rehearsals. I admit I was skeptical going in at the idea of a play that was not written (or at least guided) by an actual playwright, but however they did it, Nobody's Home could not be more heartfelt, complex, and hypnotic. Catch it this Thursday, Friday or Saturday evening, 8 pm, or Sunday at 3 pm. Visit WEST for details.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

JUST SAY 'NO' TO NANOWRIMO


Seriously? NaNoWriMo?

Surely you've heard about this aberrant mass literary experiment; it's all over the media lately. That cryptic cypher stands for National Novel-Writing Month. The idea is for aspiring authors (which is, let's face it, everyone) to hunker down and spend this month finally writing that novel they have buried within them. Yes, one month. C'mon, you can do it, organizers exhort us. All we need is the permission to pull this crazy stunt, and all the other factors will magically fall into place.

When I first heard about NaNoWriMo last year, on the Red Room writers' website, my Inner Editor couldn't stop laughing (albeit in that sinister, Ming the Merciless sort of way). She knows I am completely in thrall to her, and I will always do her bidding, no matter what.

But I must admit, doing an end run around the old Inner Editor and spewing forth prose—and plenty of it—directly from the id is awfully appealing. I pine for that kind of spontaneity! Somewhere in the store of writerly tips squirreled away in the olde curiosity shoppe that is my brain, I once accumulated the advice to write a thousand words every day. Maybe it was a reference to the famous work habits of Anthony Trollope, or a prompt picked up from an article in a writing magazine. The idea was, even if a lot of what you wrote was drek, something great was bound to emerge eventually in the sheer volume of verbiage.

Well, if you give an infinite number of rhesus monkeys an infinite number of keyboards, sooner or later one of them might write Hamlet, but you could waste a lot of lifetimes waiting for it to happen . Oh, I was all afire to try it out, at first. I started getting up at 6 in the morning (no small commitment in the middle of winter, when it's pitch-dark and freezing; even the cats are still sleeping, generally on top of me), so I could get in my thousand words before the rest of my "real" day started. But while I dutifully churned out my thousand words of drek every day, greatness remained elusive. In my haste to meet the word count, I never had time to stop and consider the shape of the story, the focus and point of the narrative, the well-chosen word or phrase, or where it was all going.

So when I hit a road block in terms of plot, I found myself filling in with a bunch of boring minutiae on some extraneous detail or other, of no interest to anyone, including me, just to make my daily word count. After awhile I had to switch to a different project, one that seemed more vital, although the thousand-words-of-drek theory soon took care of that. I finally had to give up the whole idea, lest this helpful tip run amok like a virus through all the rest of my precious ideas, leeching the life out of them.

Who doesn't embrace the romantic idea of cranking out genius in a fever of reckless abandon? But as the author of five complete novels, I have to add this caveat: the sad fact is, writing takes work. There are no shortcuts, and powering to the finish line is not the same thing as creating something worth reading. To all the intrepid Wrimos out there, I salute you. Write on! But when you get to "The End," know that the serious craft of writing has just begun.

Monday, November 1, 2010

THE WITCHING SEASON, PART 2


And why exactly is this the most witching time of the year? In times of yore, the spaces between the quarters of the year (marked by the changing seasons) were reckoned the most uncanny, when the mystic portals between this world and the otherworlds were ajar, and the fair folk and spirits of the dead could squeak though to wander abroad. During the hours between May Eve and May Day, you were most likely to find fairies out running amok and creating havoc, as spring transitioned into the ripeness of summer.

But this time of year, the festival of Samhain in the old Celtic calendar, was the most uncanny of all. This was the season when the spirits of the dead walked the Earth and fires were burned to chase off the more mischievous among them. (And don’t ever let a Wiccan hear you say they were lit to scare off witches! The pagan priestesses were the ones out there lighting the fires for the protection of the common folk.)

Trust the Christian Church to muscle in and co-opt the festivities in the name of All Hallow's Eve (the eve of All Saints Day, November 1st). In fact, in pagan lore, this season was more like New Year's Eve. The old year was dying out with the end of the autumn/harvest season, and the new year about to begin with the gestation of winter, to be followed by the rebirth of spring and the next turn of the life cycle.

These days, the Mexican and Latin American celebration of Dia de los Muertos is more in line with the original spirit of Samhain. Unlike our Halloween, it's not a time to be scared of ghouls, ghosts, and zombies. Rather, in observance of All Souls Day, November 2, it's an opportunity to welcome back the spirits of the beloved dead in their brief return to our world, and show them they are still remembered, and loved.


This is the week to honor your departed love ones by leaving a token of something they loved in life on one of the Dia de los Muertos altars around the county. A few years ago, while my mom was visiting Santa Cruz, she and I left a photo and a yellow rose on the altar in the atrium of the MAH in memory of my dad. (He always brought Mom yellow roses for every festive occasion.) This year, I'll go and leave a token for my mom, who left us this past February. I'll take her a yellow rose, if I can find any on my rose bush that aren't too waterlogged by the recent rains. (Or maybe I should just leave a handful of popcorn and an old VHS of The Brain That Wouldn't Die.)


And speaking of the beloved dead (and the portals that separate their world from ours), take a look at Clint Eastwood's new movie, Hereafter. Three poignant stories converge in this thoughtful and absorbing meditation on life, death, and what may follow. With a solid script by Peter Morgan, it stars the poised, lovely Cecile de France as a Parisian TV newswoman whose near-death experience alters the course of her life. Matt Damon plays an ordinary guy who drives a forklift for the Port of San Francisco who's "cursed" with the ability to communicate with the dead. Frankie and George McLaren make an impressive collective debut trading off in the role of a working-class London schoolboy coping with loss and searching for answers.

Eastwood directs with grace and authority, allowing the story and characters plenty of room to take root and transport us. It's a remarkably nuanced and deftly-paced film, especially when you consider that Eastwood is 80 this year. He's obviously been paying attention for all these years; everything he's learned about movies and moviemaking during a lifetime of on-the-job training is put to good used in this film.

I especially liked the suggestion of a "conspiracy of silence" from entrenched organized religion about the true nature of the afterlife. (Although when De France's character is seen to amass a giant dossier of evidence from the other side, I was, er, dying to know what was in it!) And the storytelling is a great pleasure throughout. I loved the subtle, playful eroticism between Damon and Bryce Dallas Howard at a blindfolded food-tasting in a SF cooking class. And the spectacular staging of a rogue tsunami will just knock your socks off. Unlike 98% of the movies coming out of Hollywood these days, this one leaves you wanting more.

Friday, October 29, 2010

THE WITCHING SEASON, PART 1


Did you love monster movies as a kid? I know I did. Lucky for me, my mom was a big fan of all kinds of movies. Our family watched all the classics on TV, via The Late Show, Million Dollar Movie, The Fabulous 52. But it was mostly Mom and me who curled up together with a bowl of hot popcorn to watch Saturday afternoon monster movies.

The misunderstood monster heroes of the '30s and '40s were our favorites—The Mummy, The Wolf Man, The Bride of Frankenstein. Bela Lugosi's suave, courtly Dracula probably had the all-time greatest single line of monster movie dialogue: invited to join an unsuspecting guest in a toast, the silky old bloodsucker demurs, "No thank you. I never drink … wine." But the one we loved best was dear old Boris Karloff as the Frankenstein monster. No other actor who ever strapped on the bolts and the boots ever brought the same measure of poignant heartbreak to the role.

Not that we only watched the classics, not by any means. Probably our single favorite movie, ever, was The Brain That Wouldn't Die, a no-budget, 1962 sci-fi epic of such resounding idiocy, it's kind of endearing. It's about a rogue scientist who keeps the severed head of his girlfriend alive in the lab while he haunts strip joins and beauty pageants to find her a hot new body. It's just so wrong, on so many levels (the closing-titles credits even misidentify it as The Head That Wouldn't Die), that we could never get enough of it; we had to watch it again every time it was on.

But monster-loving kids not fortunate enough to grow up with my mom had no one else to turn to in their addiction but Forrest J Ackerman. Longtime editor of "Famous Monsters of Filmland Magazine," the monster movie bible, "Forry" not only ceaselessly promoted the genre, he amassed a personal collection of some 300,000 items of monster movie memorabilia in his lifetime of fandom.

At this most witching time of year, it's appropriate that Santa Cruzans Al Astrella and James Greene have just published a book about Forry's amazing collection, "A Forbidden Look Inside the House of Ackerman" (Midnight Marquee). Read their story here, and plan to drop by Atlantis Fantasyworld from 2-5 p.m., this Halloween Sunday, where they will be signing copies of their book. Come in costume and receive a special treat!

(Top: Munsters memorabilia from the Al Astrella collection.)

Monday, October 25, 2010

STONE FREE


Remember Mudzimu? It was a tiny, beautifully landscaped little art gallery across the street from Salz Tannery (before it became "THE Tannery"). Its proprietor, longtime Santa Cruz resident Braden Coolidge, specialized in stone sculpture in the Shona spirit by contemporary artists in Zimbabwe, often paired with the 2-D work of local artists like Melinda Baker, Anna Oneglia, Kent Perry, and James Aschbacher (infamous in these posts as Art Boy). Far more than just an art dealer, Braden traveled often to Zimbabwe, developed close friendships with individual artists and their families, and worked tirelessly to import and show their work in the States.

But Fortune turned her wheel, lovely little Mudzimu was bulldozed to make way for a storage locker, and Braden moved on to galleries in Carmel and Santana Row. But he continues his relationship with the artists of Zimbabwe, most recently in setting up the gorgeous new exhibit, Celebrating Nyanhongo: A History Carved in Stone, at Gallery i Fine Art on Cannery Row in Monterey.

Claud Nyanhongo was a pioneer in the sculpture revival that began in the late 1950s. No less than five of his extraordinarily gifted offspring are featured in the Monterey show: Gedion (whose work has been widely shown and collected in Germany, France, England, Hong Kong, Africa, and the States), his sisters Agnes and Marian, and brothers Wellington and Moses.

We've always loved Gedion's work, but we may be prejudiced; not only have we had the pleasure of getting to know him over the last few years, during his frequent visits to Santa Cruz, he and Art Boy once swapped artwork. James did a painting of Gedion's family, and the next summer, Gedion brought us a portrait he'd carved of us in rich, black serpentine. We were thrilled! We met Moses for the first time last year; one of the youngest members of the clan, he's already doing remarkable work. Both Gedion and Moses were down in Monterey on a grey, rainy afternoon last weekend for the opening of the Nyanhongo show.


Gedion (above, with the tools of his trade) has described his sculpting as a process of setting free the spirit that's already alive within the stone. To wander among the dozens of pieces in the Monterey show, figurative, animal or abstract, is to revel in the spirit of Shona culture and tradition. Mothers cradle babies, fish wriggle up out of the stone, birds preen, lovers coo and spark. Many of the figures are strong females, declaring their pride or poised for flight.

Carved from native Zimbabwe stone (serpentine, opalstone, green serpentine, springstone), the pieces offer a visual symphony of color and texture. Some are smooth, polished to a sheen in tones of black, green, copper or grey, others feature much more of the rough natural stone. The most interesting pieces combine the two.


Look at my favorite, Moses' "Crazy In Love." (Thanks for posing, Moses!) The lovers' rough-hewn clothing and the detailed texture of their hair sets off their polished, glowing faces, joined in a kiss. But it's those wildly expressive hands, gesturing off in all directions at once, that tell the rest of the story!


And feast your eyes on James' favorite, Gedion's haunting, provocative "With My Treasure." From her transported face, we can see what comfort and solace she gets from running it through her fingers. But what exactly is her treasure? It could be grain or sand, or diamonds or gold, or the spirit of life itself flowing out of the heart of the stone.

This is an irresistible show, even within the strict confines of a gallery setting—white walls, hard edges, slick glass surfaces. But these sculptures are like beautiful pedigreed animals in a pet shop: each one needs to go to a loving home to be lived with, so its true spirit can emerge and thrive. In the meantime, you can take a virtual tour of the show right this minute, but you owe it to yourself to cruise down to Monterey (685 Cannery Row), and experience these pieces in person, in all their sensuous, tactile glory.

Friday, October 22, 2010

FRIEND WITHOUT A FACEBOOK


Jesse Eisenberg gets to erase his genial nice-boy image in David Fincher's The Social Network. As Harvard undergrad Mark Zuckerberg, on the brink of founding the facebook phenomenon, he's snarky, sarcastic, and rude, peering out a the world with cold-eyed reptilian disdain. A narcissist unable to shift the conversation away from himself for two minutes at a time, and arrogant as only the deeply insecure can be, he belittles his girlfriend for not keeping up with his mercurial monologue. No wonder she dumps him, and when she does, all he can think of is rushing back to the dorm to go online and have his revenge. Nowadays, we call this online bullying. In 2003, it was the birth of a $25 billion empire.

I have no idea whether this portrait of Mark Zuckerberg is in any way true or accurate. But I must confess I've always found something a little creepy about the Borg-like stealth of facebook and the way everyone needs to plug in, hook up, and drop out of real life. Resistance is futile, all right; every time I delete one invitation to join out of my inbox, six more pop up in its place.

Maybe it's because I'm just not much of a joiner. Groucho Marx, once famously said that he refused to join any club that would accept him as a member, and that goes for me too. When Santa Cruz used to hold its own First Night celebration, reports of 20,000 people thronging downtown were reason enough for me to stay home. The virtual crowd on facebook is something like 500 million.

Set aside for a moment, the Big Brother implications of everyone plugged into the same "social network," where any competent hacker can locate, steal, use, or spread your most private and intimate information. (Or monitor your Friends, your purchases, and your political affiliations.) The larger point is, as a society, we're already vastly over-stimulated. Who needs more input? My inner hermit requires a lot more downtime than I'm getting now just to rattle around inside my own brain for awhile and see what's there. Space is at a premium in there; I don't want it so cluttered up with the random chatter of the Borg, I can no longer hear or identify my own thoughts.

"Freakishly addictive," a character in the movie says of the fledgling facebook. What freaks me out is the pack mentality involved, that adolescent need to do everything your friends are doing (and nothing that they aren't).

In the Harvard milieu of the movie, we see a busload of strippers shipped in for a boozy frat party, idiot pledge rituals (involving sub-freezing temperatures and live chickens), the public humiliation of coed girls ranked online for their relative hotness, the vindictiveness of boys who can't get laid. This is "the total experience of college" the movie Zuckerbeg is so eager to capture online? Who wants to stay in college forever? Remember when they used to tell us the best years of our lives were in high school? Only for the extremely unlucky. The rest of us grew up and moved on.

There aren't many of us left who are still not on facebook. Very soon it will be like not having a microwave, or a cell phone, or an iPad. (Oh wait, I don't have any of those either.) I'm all in favor of community, and I'm grateful for anything that brings people together rather than dividing them, but I still prefer to socialize with real friends, offline and in person. (Preferably over a nice bottle of merlot.)

(Obscure Movie Reference: My title is in homage to the wonderful 1958 British sci-fi cheapie, Fiend Without A Face, whose genetic-mutant creatures were malicious brains, propelling themselves about on their rotating stems.)

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

RETURN OF THE ITALIAN FILM SERIES


How's your Italian? If it can stand a little brushing up, I'm pleased to announce the return of the monthly Italian Film Series presented by the Dante Alighieri Society of Santa Cruz. Dedicated to promoting Italian language and culture in Santa Cruz, this group lost its film venue last year when the Vet's Hall downtown was unceremoniously shuttered. But now they're back with a new Fall Film Series in a new home at the Cabrillo College arts complex.

In the new series, "Directors of Italian Neorealism" (presented under the auspices of Istituto Italiano di Cultura, San Francisco) a classic film from the Italian postwar Neorealism movement of the 1940s and '50s will be spotlighted every month. A genre devoted to the human condition in stories of ordinary people struggling to survive in a radically changing world, Italian Neorealism was often shot guerrilla-style in the streets, often with non-professional actors instead of stars. The series launches this Sunday (October 24) with Roberto Rossellini's seminal 1945 classic, Open City (Roma, Citta Aperta); the film will be introduced by Dr. William Park, Faculty Emeritus, Sarah Lawrence College. As always, the film will be shown in Italian, with English subtitles. Showtime is 7 p.m., Sunday, in the VAPA building 1000, Art History Forum room 1001, Cabrillo College.

Speaking of the Dante Society, my friend Marta raves about the immersion Italian language classes she's taking through the society. Informal classes take place in the private home of one member or another; instead of formal lessons, the participants immerse themselves in the culture and language, mostly by making like Italians—eating, drinking wine, and talking!

It must be paying off: Marta and her husband, John, just returned from Sicily, where she had a high old time haggling—in Italian—in the marketplace.

(Above: Dante e Beatrice sul Ponte di Santa Trinita a Firenze, by Henry Holiday (1883) From the Dante Society website.)


Meanwhile, there's more movie news from the Santa Cruz Film Festival. Director of Programming Julian Soler announces the creation of a new competition award. The Spirit of Action Prize will be awarded to the competing festival film that best advocates a call to action around a significant and relevant issue.

Five to six films will be accepted in competition for the Spirit of Action Prize. Narrative and documentary films that meet the criteria will be considered. Submissions will be accepted through February 25, 2011. Visit the SCFF website for details.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

THE FUNNIEST MOVIE EVER


The hits just keep coming at the Aptos Weekend Classics movie series. Run, do not walk this weekend to see the inimitable Marx Brothers in Duck Soup. It's ranked #5 on the AFI's list of all-time comedies, but #1 on the far more exclusive and reliable Jensen-ometer of funniest movies ever made! (Narrowly edging out The Producers—the original version, with Zero Mostel—Annie Hall, and Monty Python and the Holy Grail.) Freedonia's going to war, and who better to lead the country straight to Hell than Groucho Marx as shyster politico Rufus T, Firefly, batting his eyelashes at Margaret Dumont whilst pondering how best to plunder the treasury. "If you think the country's bad off now, just wait 'til I get through with it!" he sings jauntily at his inauguration to the office of High Chancellor.

Although the film was made in 1933, with Hitler on the rise in Germany, allusions to American politicians of more recent vintage are, sadly, as timely as ever. But expect laughs, not polemics, in this hilarious satire of war, politics, jingoistic patriotism, and military machismo. 68 minutes of pure comedy bliss, and I better not find out you missed it! (Plays Saturday and Sunday, 11 a.m., at Aptos Cinema, on a comedy double-feature with Mae West in She Done Him Wrong.)


Speaking of four-star movies, the cool thing about the very excellent new John Lennon drama, Nowhere Boy, is that it's not about The Beatles. That hallowed name is never even mentioned. At the end of the film, John (played with sass, heart, and deadpan bravado by Aaron Johnson, above) is about to go off to Hamburg with his band, and his Aunt Mimi dismissively remarks that she's forgotten their new name. (Up to this point, they've called themselves The Quarrymen.) John replies only with a teasing, "Do you really care?"

No, she does not; it's all the same to her what his band is called and who the current members are. But it wouldn't have been the same to us, or to history. Nowhere Boy got me to thinking that despite the conventional wisdom of the day (or this day), it wasn't just a blithe, random conjunction of timing and luck that made The Beatles what they were. In the film, we see John recruit his first band through a haze of ciggie smoke in the boys' loo: anyone who owns an instrument is in, no proficiency required. As the band acquires its sea legs at neighborhood fairs and school dances, personnel come and go, like the rotating icons on a slot machine. It's hardly ever the same lineup twice as the band self-prunes and re-invents itself.

But when John meets Paul McCartney in the film, something clicks, like a pair of oranges (or should I say Apples) synching up. After the initial sarcasm from John, the would-be Teddy-boy with the smart mouth, he drops his pose to soak up everything he can learn from the younger boy about guitar chords and musicianship. When Paul's mate, George Harrison, makes a late-inning appearance toward the end of the movie, another apple clicks into place; a few more peripheral band members will rotate in and out, but the three of them remain the core of the band, all the way to Hamburg and the destiny that awaits them there.

So, no, The Beatles were not just any garage/skiffle/rock band. There was alchemy at work when these boys first clicked and sparked. John had the drive, the dream, and the showmanship, Paul the innate musicality, the looks, and the voice, George the technical chops. They honed their style, substance, and subversive wit in the tough, steamy clubs of Hamburg, grew up together as musicians and men, and emerged two years later as The Beatles. And it couldn't have happened any other way, or with any other guys.


Btw, at the press screening for Nowhere Boy last week, I was shocked, shocked, to learn that two of my esteemed fellow scribes were completely unfamiliar with the backstory of John Lennon and The Beatles. For those of us who grew up in the '60s, Beatle bios were Chapter and Verse; we devoured them in 16 Magazine and other fan mags, and in the plethora of biographical books, authorized and otherwise, that flooded the market to cash in on their fame. That's why I was so impressed with Nowhere Boy; it gets the tone of that postwar, working-class setting and era just right.

(Above: George, John and Paul, ca 1958, as seen on www.beatlesebooks.com/)


Just a reminder, Santa Cruz's favorite free film event, the Pacific Rim Film Festival, kicks off tomorrow night at the Del Mar with a gala premiere of The Chef of South Polar. (Scroll down for my mini-review, a couple of posts back.) Music, food, dance, traditional folkways and eco-politics are spotlighted at this year's fest. Now in its 22nd year, this popular event once again offers viewers a cinematic voyage of discovery around the Pacific Rim of Asia and the Americas. In a program of 18 drama and documentary films, transporting viewers to such diverse locations as Nepal, Bolivia, Korea, New Orleans, and the Marianas Islands, this cinematic sushi bar invites us to sample the exotica of other cultures, while reminding us how much we have in common, despite our cultural differences.

This year's six-day event unspools Friday, October 15, through Wednesday, October 20, at three countywide venues: the Del Mar, the Rio, and the Cabrillo College Watsonville Center. All films are presented free to the public, except for the closing-night benefit, and many screenings will be followed by a Q&A session with the filmmaker.

Insider tip: Don't miss Old Partners, an incredibly moving Korean docu-drama about an 80-year-old farmer, his 76-year-old wife, a treasured ox, and vanishing traditional folkways. You will weep like a baby. Also, check out A Village Called Versailles, an inspiring short doc about a Vietnamese settlement in New Orleans that celebrates how a community can band together for positive political action.

Read my GT PRFF preview for a complete schedule of films and showtimes.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

ADVENTURES AT OPEN STUDIOS


In case you've forgotten how much creative energy is percolating around in our county, taking yourself off on the Open Studios Art Tour is a great way to fall in love with Santa Cruz all over again. Since Art Boy and I had last weekend "off" (he'll be open again for "Encore" next weekend), we spent Saturday and Sunday visiting other artists on the tour. Some are veterans we've been fans of forever, others are brand new discoveries (at least to us) that I can't wait to tell you about.

We got a jump on the weekend Friday night with a preview party at the home of dynamic mother-daughter duo Beth and Allison Mae Gripenstraw. Long beloved around town for her fun, festive bird and animal-print ceramic table settings, and her more recent series of whimsical watercolor paintings, Beth has now joined Allison in a new venture, Cold Heart Company. Heart-shaped hair clips, ceramic cocktail rings and resin tile bracelets in brightly painted patterns are the specialty of the online shop, along with an eclectic mix of lidded pots, trays, and paintings; red hearts, black ravens, peacocks, and poppies are among the recurring themes. Charming miniature ceramic tea sets (complete with itsy-bitsy sugar spoons) were also part of the OS display, as well as a selection of Allison's extreme stiletto high heels with a kick—hidden paintings under the instep (hearts, Dia de los Muertos, even the Frankenstein monster and his Bride). If you've ever been to Beth's house, you can imagine how spectacular it looked. "Alice in Wonderland" was the theme of the night, and if you know why a raven is like a writing desk, please do let her know ASAP!


Under blue and sunny weekend skies, we joined the crowd at the rambling Victorian homestead of pastel artist Mary Offerman and oil painter Lance Sims. The rustic setting (chickens, fruit trees, vegetable gardens) hidden in the heart of the Seabright area, is a delight, and the rural theme continues in Mary's warm, evocative pastel landscapes and still-lifes with fruit. My favorites are the rural villages in vibrant colors nestled like jewels in the green French countryside (where Lance and Mary have taught many painting and pastel workshops). And yes, they will be open for Encore weekend.

Across the street from Mary and Lance, we found printmaker Melissa West. Her medium is linoleum block prints in both open and limited editions, and her subjects include a fanciful series on martyred saints, like her winsome piece in the Art League show, "St. Christina the Astonishing." She also has a far more eerie series (in stark black-and-white with touches of blood red) based on that most spooky and suggestive literary genre, children's fairy tales. Her work comes in a variety of sizes, including some sweet little 1 1/2" x 3" original linos of cats and owls. Drop by next weekend and take a look.


It's always fun to visit the workshop/home of fabric sculptor Susan Else. Her house on Escalona Drive is absolutely amok with her lively quilted 3-D figures, caught in the act of scurrying about: they dance in the corners, lounge over the fireplace, even climb ladders in her various wall pieces. Her piece de resistance is a five-foot tall rotating Ferris Wheel (created in honor of the 100th anniversary of the Boardwalk), with her figures—parents, children, gawkers, necking lovers, camera-toting tourists— occupying every seat. And don't miss the giant fabric chessboard in her workroom. All the pawns on one side are babies; all the other pawns are stretching, preening cats. I was so taken with all those quilted kitties, I didn't even notice what kind of creatures the larger pieces are, so if you go check it out on Encore weekend, please do let me know!


And how is it that I've lived in Santa Cruz since dinosaurs roamed the earth, and never before crossed paths with Peggy Snider? Her hand-crafted ceramic sculptures are poetic, inspiring, wry and wonderful, from large, shamanistic totems (with mysterious faces, animal heads, moons, stars, haphazard stairways and intriguing doors) to elegant female figures cloaked by the sun, or by ocean waves, or dancing on the earth, to her smallest, most poignant little creatures. Wandering through Peggy's hilltop garden aerie at the end of Meder Street, you'll find work that celebrates community, the human spirit, and the rhythms of nature and the cosmos. The wise-woman faces with their clear, steady gaze that decorate so many of her pieces suggest the wisdom and healing of time.

I realized I'd seen one or two of her pieces in the sculpture garden at Sierra Azul down in Watsonville. But meeting Peggy for the first time and her delightful extended "family" of work made me a collector on the spot. Although Art Boy joked, "My wife wants to buy your cheapest piece," it wasn't the insanely reasonable price tag that drew me to my treasure; the little half-figure in a rough, matte white finish with turquoise highlights, unfurling its wings to the heavens, spoke to my heart. There are plenty of treasures left if you go see Peggy on Encore weekend, and don't miss Arin Duggins' beautiful beadwork jewelry on the way in.


Over at the Tannery, Fanne Fernow is showing an eclectic mix of vintage and new work. Long beloved around town for her big, bright, graphic paintings of dogs, houses, lips, even dancing salt-shakers, accompanied by wise and witty snippets of text, Fanne has segued into the far more demanding medium of encaustic. Her new work is all about color and form. Her visual mantras of monochromatic squares perforated with neat, even rows of tiny dots invite the contemplative gaze. In her companion "Monkey Mind" series, the patterns of dots swoop and swirl about through geometric shapes in beautiful, subtly shifting colors, like a hyperactive brain that can't rest. Fanne is showing both styles of work through Encore weekend, along with a recent series of Mary/Madonna icons. (Here's the one Art Boy and I fell in love with last year (above); she blesses our kitchen every day.)



It was after 4 p.m. on Saturday, with less than an hour to go in the event, before we made it over to see Katharina Short on Stanford Avenue. As always, it was a pleasure to stroll through her backyard garden with her detached, hobbit-house studio. Tina opted out of OS last year, busy with the raising of her twin boys, but she's back this year with lots of new work. In addition to her trademark large, winsome acrylic paintings of floating couples, families, gardens, and animals, she has some lovely large decorative pieces based on floral and seed motifs, as well as new, smaller work.

We've loved Tina's work for years, but, well, let's just say that part of the deal when you choose to make a living (and a life) as an artist and a freelance writer is resisting the urge to spend money. On this afternoon, however, when I came round a corner and found a small, sweet little triptych called "Life Boat," the urge became a lot more insistent. It pictures a couple nestled together under the stars in the central panel, a tiny house and decorative tree rooted to the earth on one side, and a little boat on the sea sailing off on life's adventure on the other. Art Boy liked it too, and the price was reasonable for its size, but a Libra and a Virgo do not make snap decisions, so we said our wistful goodbyes and headed out for one last studio.

At about ten minutes to 5, heading back across town from the West Side, Art Boy suggested we stop in to see if Tina still had the painting. It would make perfect karmic sense if she did not, we knew, since we're always advising our OS attendees to claim what they like (or at least put it on layaway) right away; chances are it won't be there if they come back later. Nor were we encouraged to see a little knot of visitors standing appraisingly before the wall where "our" painting still hung. But wait: they were looking at the beautiful bird painting above it! Art Boy obligingly took the bird painting off the wall and carried it over to another wall where the other collectors could get a better look; meanwhile, I stood in front of "Life Boat" the way a passenger might be dispatched to stand in the last parking space in a free lot downtown while the driver hastily maneuvers the car around.

Fortunately, no one challenged me. I divulged our plan to Aaron, Tina's husband, and when the other collectors had gone, Art Boy asked if Tina and Aaron would be interested in trading for an Aschbacher. To our delight, they said yes! To sweeten the deal, he offered to do a commission just for them, in exchange for "Life Boat." So now, they get to decide what they want in their personal Aschbacher, and we have a week (until they bring us the painting during our Encore weekend) to decide where it will live in our house.

Meanwhile, my Peggy Snider piece already has a home—on a square of turquoise tile above my kitchen sink, where it greets me every morning with a speculative rustling of its feathers.