Monday, November 22, 2010


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


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.


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


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


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


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


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.