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.

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