Friday, December 30, 2011

IT'S A WRAP


Big surprise: movies about movies shot to the top of the list of films I loved in 2011. Movies about art, writing, and Paris also earned a place in my Top 10, along with the usual assortment of strange bedfellows—Werner Herzog, Almodóvar, Harry Potter. Aside from those films still playing in town (like The Artist, Hugo, and My Week With Marilyn, which you should run out and see on a big screen right this minute), this list should give you some eclectic ideas for your post-holiday Netflix queue.


One caveat: there are usually one or two embarrassing lapses in my annual Top 10 list, due to the deadline necessity of compiling my list before I've seen all the heavy hitters. So, for the record, at presstime I have not yet seen Shame, The Iron Lady, or Albert Nobbs.


Okay, I know the suspense is killing you, so here's the scoop: Midnight In Paris is my favorite movie of the year (that's Owen Wilson's character being abducted into the 1920s by Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald in a vintage Peugeot roadster). Here's the rest of my list.


In retrospect, I would have added The Descendants to my list of Runners-Up, had I had more room.


And just to dole out debit where it's due, what's my candidate for worst Film of 2011? Melancholia.


In Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier's deeply lugubrious allegorical drama, the end of the world can't happen soon enough for these listless, unexplored, largely unlikeable characters. The overall atmosphere of disdain for humanity, a very slight storyline and a fatally slow narrative make this possibly the most aggravating Von Trier film yet.


I don't care how deep and profound other people think it is. If it works for them, fine. But I call it spinach, and I say the hell with it.

Monday, December 26, 2011

LET'S HEAR IT FOR SILENTS!


What a great year it's been for silent movies! First, Laurie King plunged her formidable series heroine, Mary Russell, and spouse Sherlock Holmes, into the midst of a silent film shoot, ca. 1924, in her new novel, "The Pirate King." Next, Martin Scorsese introduced a whole new generation of movie fans to the antic oeuvre of French silent film pioneer George Melies in Hugo.


Now, along comes Michel Hazanavicius with The Artist, which recreates the look, texture, and sensibility of a vintage black-and-white silent film with irresistible fidelity.


Just look at stars Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo in the film's scrumptious Art Deco finale!


One of the things I love most about The Artist is the way Dujardin replicates the broad, gestural style of silent film acting without resorting to spoof or parody. The generous opulence of his performance never seems corny; it's completely ingrained in the character of the silent movie star he plays, and perfectly suited to the era when popular stars like Douglas Fairbanks (Sr) were acting out big stories to thrilled audiences all over the world.



Here's the real Doug Fairbanks in one of his signature roles, The Thief of Bagdhad (1923), showing off the numero uno attribute in his arsenal of charm—his killer grin. (Dujardn is no slouch in this department, either.) But while he could have coasted through stardom on his smile alone, with Fairbanks, you got the whole package: he usually wrote his own scenarios, stage-managed the onscreen action, and, of course, did all his own stunts.


That's why you really can't appreciate Fairbanks until you see him in action. Here's a brief clip from The Mark of Zorro (1920), which gives you an idea of the joie de vivre and sheer physical prowess that made Doug Fairbanks the most popular man in Hollywood—possibly the world—during the 1920s. Do NOT try this at home, kids!


Everybody remembers Gene Kelly splashing around in those puddles in Singin' In the Rain (decked out in that stylish '50s fedora), so it's sometimes hard to remember that that gloriously Technicolor film was also set in the same '20s era as The Artist, during the transition from silent films to talkies. In Rain, Kelly stars as a Fairbanks-like matinee idol in the midst of shooting a silent swashbuckling costume drama, The Dueling Cavalier, when the advent of sound films suddenly renders that mimetic production style hopelessly passe.



In The Artist, Dujardin's character faces the same dilemma; he releases his silent picture anyway and fails. In Rain, Kelly's character decides not only to incorporate the novelty of sound effects into the film (that's Kelly, above, in a telling moment, in the reconstituted film-within-the-film), he turns it into a musical, re-titled The Dancing Cavalier, and it's a huge success.


Things don't turn out so peachy for Dujardin's character (at least, not at first). I loved the dream sequence in The Artist where he's overwhelmed by fear of the clattering chaos sound will bring to films. (And this decades before Jerry "Boom Boom" Bruckheimer, Michael Bey, and Dolby Digital mega-sound.)



Btw, in all the well-deserved kudos being lobbed at The Artist for it's innovation and originality, most critics suggest this is the first attempted silent film since the general switch to sound, about 1929 (or at least 1936, when Charlie Chaplin, one of the last hold-outs, made his last silent film, Modern Times). Not so. Mel Brooks made the comedy Silent Movie in 1976, entirely without spoken dialogue (except for one, single, well-chosen syllable), but it was shot in color and told a contemporary story of a modern producer trying to make a silent film.


In 1989, writer/director/star Charles Lane made Sidewalk Stories, a sentimental Chaplin-esque urban comedy with a message, shot in black-and-white, without dialogue—which was considered radically experimental for its time.


The movies lost a lot of their storytelling power when they learned to talk. Wouldn't it be great if silent was considered a viable option at the movies again? Not all the time, but once in awhile, the way fearless modern directors still occasionally make a terrific film in black-and-white. But, wait, that's another blog.

Monday, December 19, 2011

SILENCE IS GOLDEN


The Artist is a witty, splendid homage to silent film era

You can't say French filmmaker Michel Hazanavicius lacks the courage of his convictions. When he set out to make a movie paying homage to Hollywood's silent era, not only did he film in vintage black-and-white, he dared to shoot the entire movie without audible dialogue, relying only on the occasional tile card, music, and the actors' expressiveness to tell the story. The splendid result is The Artist, in which Hazanvicius wields the classic storytelling tools of the silent film era with fresh new exuberance. It may look and feel vintage, but don't be fooled: The Artist is one of the most original movies of the year.

Set in Hollywood, the story revolves around silent film star George Valentin, played with verve and brio by the wonderful French actor Jean Dujardin. As comfortable onscreen wearing a tuxedo as he is wielding a swashbuckler's sword, or flying a spy plane,George enjoys Douglas Fairbanks-style popularity in 1927 Hollywood. But the new phenomenon of talking pictures will soon make George seem antiquated to a public hungry for the innovation of sound.



It's a starmaking performance for Dujardin, who was previously known as a comic actor in a series of French spy spoofs. He owes as much to Gene Kelly in Singin' in the Rain (which covered the same period of Hollywood history) as he does to Fairbanks, with his megawatt smile and effortless athletic grace.

But don't take my word for it. Take a look at this fabulous trailer right now. In the meantime, give yourself an early Christmas treat and make plans to see The Artist on the big screen at the Nick, when it opens on Friday.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

CHRISTMAS FROM THE KITCHEN


The holidays shouldn't have to be a consumerist nightmare of frenzied shopping and canned Burl Ives songs. Once upon a time, before the Christian Church got hold of it, this season was the Feast of Midwinter, a time to gather together in the darkest, coldest time of the year and share food, wine, and camaraderie.


This can still be achieved without a huge expenditure of cash, especially if you like to bake (like moi) or cook. Instead of spending a lot of money buying people more stuff, consider giving your loved ones something, small, personal, and tasty from your kitchen.


This year, I loaned my venerable fruitcake recipe to my pal, Christina Waters. It's her first fruitcake, and you can read all about her progress over on her blog. I haven't made this recipe in awhile, but back when I was an impoverished college student, I used to bake it for my dad every Christmas.


Even after 40+ years in California, Daddy never got the concept of fresh fruit. The son of Danish immigrants who grew up in the chilly Midwest, his idea of fruit was the dried variety—raisins, dates and prunes. He used to rave about a fruitcake jam-packed with all of the above that his eldest sister, Chris, used to bake for the holidays. My mom, who taught me everything I know about baking, did not do fruitcake, so once when Daddy and I were visiting my Aunt Chris at her retirement home at Leisure World, I asked for her fruitcake recipe.



I was expecting her to produce some cherished, hand-scrawled Jensen family heirloom, possibly written in Danish. Instead, she handed me an anonymous printed recipe obviously clipped out of some magazine. I don't know what became of the fabled recipe of yore that my dad remembered, but this was the one Chris said she'd been baking for years, so that was good enough for me.


I made it pretty regularly after that, baking it in a round tube pan the day after Thanksgiving, wrapping it in a cotton dishtowel inside a Tupperware container, and liberally dosing it with alcohol (Aunt Chris insisted on Manischewitz Blackberry Wine) no less than once a week until Christmas.


Even after I moved away permanently to Santa Cruz, I would divide the recipe into smaller loaves and send one down to my dad in Hermosa Beach, and another one to my brother, Mike (nobody else in the household would eat it). This was not doorstop fruitcake, either; it was rich and gooey and luscious!



Daddy and Aunt Chris are both gone now, but just thinking about fruitcake brings them both back to me. Of course, Christina has put her own stamp on the recipe, and it will be interesting to see how it comes out. Stay tuned!


Btw, my Aunt Chris had a fairly wild life. That's her looking very demure up top, Anna Augusta Kirstine Jensen at about age 18 or 19, ca. 1920. This is also her riding a motorcycle in Sioux City, Iowa, at about the same, when she hung out with the boys—most of them police officers—in the local motorcycle club.


Eventually, she married one of them, Tom Brown, and their move to California in the early 1940s launched the clan exodus that resulted in the next generation of Jensens (like my brothers and me) being born here on the Left Coast.


Your aging relatives have surprising stories too, I bet. Why don't you ask them to share some memories at your holiday gatherings? You'll give them an enormous gift of pleasure, and it won't cost you a dime.


(Top: illustration of Mrs. Cratchit and the Christmas Pudding, by Arthur Rackham, from a 1915 edition of A Christmas Carol, as seen online at Project Gutenberg.)

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

CELLULOID DREAMS


Hot on the celluloid heels of Hugo, a cinephile's movie if ever there was one, comes another chance to see one of my all-time favorite movies about the movies: Cinema Paradiso. Lucky for us, the Dante Society of Santa Cruz will be screening Giuseppi Tornatore's seductive 1989 love letter to the movies this Sunday, as part of its Winter Italian Film Series, "Set in Sicily," and if you've never seen it on the big screen (or even if you have) give yourself an early Christmas gift and go.


Anyone crazy enough about movies to remember the first one he or she ever saw on a big screen will find Cinema Paradiso irresistible. Set in a postwar Sicilian village, it's about a small, fatherless boy named "Toto," who attaches himself to Alfredo (the great, irreplaceable French actor, Philippe Noiret), the irascible projectionist at the village movie house, the Cinema Paradiso.


Movies rarely reach the public unscathed in Toto's village; each is pre-screened by the priest, who whimpers in dismay and rings a censorious bell whenever he sees something he wants Alfredo to snip out—like kissing scenes. (What becomes of that snipped-out footage is the film's most exhilarating surprise.) Nevertheless, little Toto, and the community at large are bewitched by the magic of movies. When the crowd threatens to riot because they can't all cram into the theater at once, Alfredo angles the glass door over the projector lens to throw the magical image out the window onto a wall in the square below. Teaching Toto to run the projector and handle film stock, Alfredo philosophizes about life, love, and sociology with dialogue he's memorized from the films of Spencer Tracy and John Wayne.



Alfredo has been a love-slave to the moving image ever since the days of hand-cranked projectors. Yet, as Toto evolves from boy to lusty youth to an old man on a last sentimental journey home, it's Alfredo who's the most constant advocate for Toto leaving the village and making a life for himself out in the real world. In its own wise, elliptical way, Cinema Paradiso celebrates movies not as a substitute for real life, but a conduit for dreams—the dreams we all need to build our own lives.


Cinema Paradiso plays one night only, this Sunday, December 11, at Cabrillo College (VAPA Art History Forum, Room 1001). Admission is free, so get in line now.


So, what was the first movie I ever saw in a movie house? Green Mansions, starring (I think) Audrey Hepburn as Rima the Bird Girl (I must have been six or seven years old). Who knows what the heck it was about? It was big and lush, and I thought it was just about the coolest thing ever, to go into a dark room and enter a completely different world. Still do.


What was your first movie?

Thursday, December 1, 2011

HAND-MADE FOR THE HOLIDAYS


Santa Claus has his elves. Here in Santa Cruz, we have artists and craftpersons, many of whom have been working as feverishly as their North Pole counterparts to create unique, original handmade gifts for all your holiday shopping emergencies.


Black Friday is SO last week. But this weekend, festive holiday sales of locally produced art and crafts are popping up like bubbles in a flute of holiday champagne, in venues all over town. (And you don't have to line up at midnight outside the mall with the rest of the sheep to participate.)


Kick off the weekend on First Friday (Dec 2) at Artisan's Gallery downtown. Their current group show, "Home For the Holidays," features a dozen local artists whose work reflects local places and scenes. To commemorate this show, Artisans has compiled a 2012 calendar featuring an image from each artist, on sale at the gallery. (Check out the thumbnails, below.) Reception for the artists 6 to 8 pm, Friday. Click here for more info, or visit Artisan's Facebook page.



Btw, while you're downtown for First Friday this week, check out the Open House at the new offices of the Cultural Council, in the building formerly occupied by University Extension (above Bike Dojo; where Ford's used to be, for all you old-timers). Art Boy and I got the sneak preview tour a couple of weeks ago, when everything was still in boxes; can't wait to see this enormous space all moved-into and decorated for the holidays. The charming, whimsical bird paintings of Chris Miroyan will be decking the halls as well, along with student artwork from the SPECTRA and Mariposa Art programs. Open House/Reception hours are 5 to 8 pm, Friday night.


Speaking of checking out new spaces, bop over to The Tannery on First Friday for a preview of the "Art Hang" weekend holiday exhibit and sale. D. Hooker curated the show, in the new co-op studio she shares with Stephanie Heit and Anita Elliot. 20 local artists—from Faye Augustine to Laamie Young—will be showing gift-worthy pieces in the newly opened Tannery Studio, space # 110. Reception hours are 5 to 9 p.m., Friday. Holiday exhibit continues 11 am to 5 pm, Saturday and Sunday.



One of the county's most venerable holiday art gift shows, Bargetto's "Art in the Wine Cellars," in Soquel, returns for its 20th anniversary this weekend. Art Boy and I had a booth together at this show years ago (back when I was making my fabric art dolls, called "Weird Sisters," like the one at the top of this post), and it is quite the celebration of art, wine and the holiday season, complete with twinkling lights and strolling carolers. It can get nippy in the wine cellar, but nothing that an extra layer of warm clothes and a couple of tots of Chaucer's Mead at the tasting bar won't fix. Here are the 30 artists involved. Hours are 11 am to 5 pm, Saturday and Sunday (Dec 3 and 4). Wine tasting available with the purchase of a $10 Festival Glass.


The Aptos Saturday Farmer's Market at Cabrillo College is also getting into the spirit. Their Home and Hearth Holiday Fair features a rotating group of local artists and craftspeople exhibiting at the market every Saturday through Dec 17. Market hours are 8 am to noon, so plan to pick up something fun and gifty while shopping for your holiday meals.


The 4th Annual Local Artisans Hand-Made Gift Sale features work guaranteed to ring up at $25 or less. It's a moveable holiday feast this year, Saturday only at the old Velvet Underground building, downtown Santa Cruz, and Sunday only at the Art Factory in Aptos' Redwood Village. Hours both days are 10 am to 5 pm.


And on Sunday only, the 17th Avenue Studios collective in Live Oak presents its Winter Show of artwork and gifts. Seven resident artists and four guests will be showing their work; here's who they are. Exhibit hours are 11 am to 5 pm, Sunday only, Dec 4.


Whew! Still standing? I don't advise anyone to shop til they drop, especially during the holidays. After all, this is the season to pause and reflect; it was never meant to be an endurance marathon. But if you want to treat someone you love to some special, hand-made memento, consider any of these venues as a fine way to shop locally AND support the arts in one grand holiday gesture.


("Yule Columbina," Weird Sisters doll by Lisa Jensen. "Decorating With Style" by Liz Lyons Friedman, who will be showing at both Bargetto's (Dec 3 and 4) and the Aptos Farmers Market (Dec 10 and 17).)

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

BOOK NOTES


Local authors are doing it for themselves this week, meeting the public at a couple of choice book events.


Robert Sward, a longtime fixture on the Santa Cruz poetry scene, will be reading from his new book, "New and Selected Poems, 1957-2011"," on Tuesday, December 6, at the Capitola Book Cafe. Robert has taught at Mt. Madonna School, Cabrillo College and UCSC. He calls this new collection from Red Hen Press (his 20th book) "my life's work, really."


Robert gave a private reading for a houseful of enthusiastic well-wishers a couple of weeks ago. Now it's time to launch this collection of new and vintage poems for the public at large. Join the celebration Tuesday, 7:30 pm.


(Btw, that cool book jacket features the painting, "Words, Words, Words," by Robert's wife, artist Gloria Alford.)



Also at the Capitola Book Cafe, Monday, Dec 5, plan to catch local authors Thad Nodine, reading from his new novel, "Touch and Go," and Claudia Sternbach, reading from her memoir, "Reading Lips: A Memoir of Kisses." Besides being SC locals, Thad and Claudia also have a publisher in common, the small literary press Unbridled Books. A third UB author, Katherine Kindred, will also be at the Book Cafe event, reading from her memoir, "An Accidental Mother." Reading begins at 7:30 pm.

Friday, November 25, 2011

MARTIN LOVES GEORGES


Even if you think you don't know anything about French film pioneer Georges Melies, chances are you've seen this iconic image from his best-remembered film. In A Trip To the Moon (La Voyage Dans le Lune) (19-0-TWO, thank you very much), this is how the Man in the Moon reacts when those upstart Earthlings shoot a rocket at him. And it just gets wilder, funnier, and crazier from there.


I love it that Martin Scorsese's new family-friendly film, Hugo, is such an unabashed valentine to Melies. (Read my review here.) It takes its time getting started, as the pacing stutters along in the first half, but when the movie finally settles down to focus on the elderly Melies and celebrate his past as the irrepressible wizard/court jester of early silent films, well, it's just irresistible.

The story concerns the orphan boy, Hugo, who lives in hiding in a Paris railway station, ca. 1930, whose life changes when he meets a crusty old man who runs a toyshop at the station. This is Georges Melies, forgotten by a more sophisticated film industry that's passed him by. The movie is based on the novel, "The Invention of Hugo Cabret," written and illustrated by Brian Selznick (himself a descendant of movie royalty; his distant cousin was David O. Selznick, producer of Gone With the Wind, among many, many others).


Hugo himself is a fabrication of Selznick's ripe imagination, but what I love about the story (and Scorsese's reverent film) is that all the details of Melies' life are actually true. He really did run a shop for mechanical toys in the Gare Montparnasse in the late '20s. Here's what it looked like:



And here's how the shop is reimagined in Scorsese's films. (That's Ben Kingsley as the elderly Melies).



Melies started out as a stage magician who loved creating illusions. After he saw one of the first "cinematographe" presentations by the Lumiere Brothers in 1895, he was hooked on the new medium. In flashback, the film shows us Melies and his muse/mistress/actress Jeanne d'Alcy (who later became his wife) building a production studio made of glass for the creation of movie magic; it housed a working stage, complete with flats and trapdoors for Melies' onscreen illusions. This studio was actually built outside Paris in 1897; here's Melies himself (left, foreground) painting sets within its glass walls.



Scorsese goes into loving detail, showing how Melies and company produce their giddy short films, chock-full of dragons, mermaids, moon explorers and chorus girls. We learn how Melies created depth shooting into layers of sets, added color by hand-tinting each frame, and created special effects by pioneering the stop-motion technique, or snipping out frames of film with a scissors.


This is what the glorious excesses of Melies' unfettered imagination looked like onscreen at the turn-of-the-century:



And here's Scorsese's evocative homage in Hugo:



Best of all, what seems like a Hollywood ending in the film actually happened to Melies. With or without the intervention of a plucky little orphan boy, Melies was discovered at his toy kiosk by a film journalist, ca 1929. When a cache of some of his supposedly lost films (he made over 500 shorts, in his day) was discovered and painstakingly restored, Melies was feted with a retrospective in Paris, and awarded the Legion d'Honneur for his body of work. What's more (it being civilized France), he and Jeanne were granted a pension and moved into a country chateau for cinema veterans for the rest of their days.


It's Scorsese's recreation of the Melies retrospective at the end of Hugo that really knocked me out, when a lengthy montage of real, vintage Melies footage fills the screen. For a few moments, we can imagine what it must have felt like for a moviegoer of that era to enter into the fantastical Melies universe for the first time. I saw the movie in 3-D, which I don't necessarily recommend (although the 3-D process at the Del Mar is the best I've seen in town). I don't think I would have missed anything seeing Hugo in 2-D—except for the thrill of seeing the Melies footage on the giant screen in the Grand Auditorium. Which is where Georges Melies so richly deserves to be.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

FAMILY MATTERS PART 2


As we know here in Santa Cruz, no one is "immune to life"—not even in Paradise. This is well understood by Matt King, a Hawaiian-born lawyer and father on the island of Oahu facing a particularly thorny patch of life in The Descendants, Alexander Payne's incisive, entertaining, tender and life-sized family drama. Shot on location in the luscious Hawaiian islands of Oahu and Kauai, it's a tale of a family in crisis, a culture in flux, and the issue of legacy between the generations, told with wry humor and honest emotion.


Adapted by scriptwriters Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, from the novel by Hawaiian author Kaui Hart Hemmings, The Descendants revolves around the King family. George Clooney once again proves himself one of the most watchable and subtle of actors in the role of beleaguered father Matt, who has evidently pursued a successful law career while neglecting his duties to his thrill-seeking wife, Elizabeth, and their two daughters. But he gets a big dose of payback when a boating accident lands Elizabeth in a coma.


It's up to Matt to pull the family together, even though he calls himself "the back-up parent, the understudy," who has no idea even how to talk to his girls. (Read more)

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

FAMILY MATTERS


Take a wild ride with a post-modern family in local author Thad Nodine's wry, compassionate new novel


There may be none so blind as those who will not see, as the old adage goes. But in Santa Cruz author Thad Nodine's bracing debut novel, "Touch And Go" (Unbridled Books), there is also no one more perceptive than the blind narrator/protagonist, Kevin Layne. In a patchwork, largely dysfunctional post-modern family related by need, not blood, on an ill-conceived cross-country road trip, blind Kevin is the one with the surest grasp on (and empathy for) the desires and compulsions that motivate the others' actions—motivations they often keep hidden, even from themselves.


It takes a certain amount of audacity—not to mention skill— for a sighted author to write an entire novel from a blind character's, er, viewpoint. For one thing, there are no elaborate visual descriptions to fall back on—interiors, city streets, the changing landscape on the road, not even the characters' faces. None of which daunts Nodine, who makes a vivid sensory feast out of everyday activities as Kevin relates his experience of the physical world. ("Footsteps spat across concrete at odd angles. A stroller nearly clipped me...I blustered across alcoves as the heels of my Western boots echoed the recesses.") From Kevin's perspective, Nodine's descriptions of the other characters are so alive—the emotional pitch of voices, how a shoulder or elbow feels to the touch, a fleeting scent of perfume, or sweat, or chlorine, fidgety hands, intimate confessions—the reader may not even realize he doesn't know what they actually look like. (Read more)

Monday, November 21, 2011

PRE-HOLIDAY CHEER


Let the Revels begin with delightful new SSC holiday production



You don't have know the "Frog and Toad" series of children's books by Arnold Lobel to fall in love with A Year With Frog and Toad, the new holiday production from Shakespeare Santa Cruz. In a fleet, satisfying (and very child-friendly) 70 minutes—sans intermission—this lively production keeps kids and adults rapt with jazzy songs, inventive design, good humor, and heart. They might as well tie a giant red ribbon around the UCSC Mainstage Theater, this production is such a big, happy holiday gift to the community.


Adapted from Lobel's books by brothers Robert Reale (music) and Willie Reale (book and lyrics), A Year With Frog and Toad received three Tony nominations on Broadway in 2003. Staging the SSC show is Art Manke, who directed last summer's rip-roaring Three Musketeers in the Festival Glen. Manke tailors the play to the intimacy of the Mainstage, and keeps the action moving briskly, abetted by a hard-working, nine-person acting company who will steal your heart.


But the show belongs to its stars. As Frog, Nick Gabriel has a lovely singing voice and a warm-hearted sense of fun, maintaining a perfectly froggy stance and gestures in every scene. As Toad, Mike Ryan delivers yet another endearing, uproarious comic performance that can make you weep on a dime. They are enormous fun to watch; round up a couple of kids and get your tickets right now. Why are you still sitting there? (Read more.)


(The SSC production, A Year With Frog and Toad plays through December 11 at the Mainstage Theater, UCSC. Click here for ticket info.)


(Above: Mike Ryan and Nick Gabriel. Photo by rr jones.)

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

MORT: THE ARCHIVE


Just a reminder that the 2nd Annual Morton Marcus Memorial Poetry Reading will take place this Sunday, November 20. Pulitzer Prize-winner and recent MacArthur Fellow Kay Ryan is the featured poet. And don't forget the change of venue and time: this year, the event will be held at the Music Recital Hall up at UCSC, 3 pm. (The idea is to switch venues between co-sponsors Cabrillo and UCSC on alternate years.)


And while you're up there, stop by the exhibit of material from the new Morton Marcus Archive, to be unveiled on the afternoon of the reading. From noon to 3 pm, Sunday, the public is invited to visit the Mort exhibit in Special Collections at UCSC's newly revamped McHenry Library. Mort's widow, Donna Mekis, has been working with Special Collections curators for weeks furnishing the exhibition cases with personal mementos from Mort's study, where he was wont to prowl around in the middle of the night, working on new poems.


Not that Mort couldn't write anywhere, at any time. On the first trip to France we took with Mort and Donna and the McDougals, after a few days in the countryside, haunting the village boulangerie, Mort disappeared into his room for an hour or so one morning. When he emerged, he read us all the first draft of the poem, "The Baker's Wife," with its wry, yeasty sensuality. (It's now in his collection, "Pursuing The Dream Bone".)


But Mort did most of his writing in his upstairs study, surrounded by his books, his cigars, his Buddha, and the other objects he loved. Donna has tried to capture the spirit of his writing environment in the Specia Collections exhibit, so come early and check it out on the way to the poetry reading. (Donna also suggests a stop at the new Global Village Café, operated by the Hoffmans, located in the atrium of the new Library.)


The Morton Marcus exhibit will be on view from noon to 3 pm, Sunday, November 20, in Special Collections at the McHenry Library. The Kay Ryan poetry reading, with guest readers Shirley Ancheta and Jeff Tagami, introduced by Santa Cruz Poet Laureate Gary Young, begins at 3 pm. Doors open at 2:30, and admission is free, but seating is limited (first come, first served), so plan to get there early.


(Photo of Mort Writing, as seen on mortonmarcus.com.)

Thursday, November 10, 2011

MAD LOVE


There are moments when Pedro Almodóvar's new movie, The Skin I Live In (La Piel Que Habito) will make you squirm. It has sex and violence—often at the same time—and some very strange relationships, perverse even by Almodóvar standards. In terms of storyline, it's a weird mix of Pygmalion and Frankenstein, with echoes of vintage mad scientist horror movies from the '30s to the '50s. (You could even make a case for this film paying a sort of bizarre homage to my favorite grade-Z '50s horror movie, The Head That Wouldn't Die).


But this is one of those rare movies that gets better and better in retrospect, as the viewer begins to appreciate the scope and intensity of its themes. Very loosely based on the hard-boiled novel, "Tarantula," by the late French author Thierry Jonquet, it becomes, in Almodóvar's expert hands, an outrageous, yet smart and compelling meditation on gender and identity, and how much each depends on the other. Almodóvar asks: what makes us who we are inside? Is it how we look, the surface or skin on the outside? Or is there some unassailable core of identity that determines one's selfhood, no matter what?


These questions come whipped up into a typically lush and spicy Almodóvar cocktail of sex, obsession, gunplay, haunting secrets, merging personas, dubious parentage, and maternal devotion. At the center of it all is Antonio Banderas, making a welcome return to the Spanish auteur's stable of players after a 21-year hiatus.

(Read more)

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

MAJESTIC CON JOB



Anonymous is that rare movie from action director Roland Emmerich in which nothing blows up—except the crackpot theory that Edward DeVere, 17th Earl of Oxford, wrote the canon of plays and sonnets historically attributed to William Shakespeare. This hothouse melodrama of Tudor intrigue, sex, and politics, scripted by John Orloff, is based on the most controversial "Oxfordian" theories.

It's all sheer humbuggery, but still an entertaining spectacle: the costumes are exquisite, the overhead shots Elizabethan London are breathtaking, and it's populated by a bunch of attractive young actors on their way up.

Oxford (Rhys Ifans) has penned his plays in secret, ever since he was fostered into the Puritan household of Queen Elizabeth's counselor, William Cecil (an unrecognizable David Thewlis), where poetry was forbidden. However, the dashing young Oxford (Jamie Campbell Bower, in flashback) charmed the lusty, poetry-loving young Queen Bess (Joely Richardson).


But now that the queen is in her dotage (Vanessa Redgrave, playing the formidable Bess as dotty and girlish), Oxford starts leaking his plays to the Globe theater company to influence public opinion (or "the mob," as all the nobles call them) in the matter of the queen's heir. Elizabeth's court is evidently teeming with her bastard children, including the young earls of Essex (Sam Reid) and Southampton (Xavier Samuel), whose doomed rebellion is portrayed as a patriotic attempt to retain the English crown for the English Tudor bloodline.

Refusing to claim authorship of the work because it's simply not done, or something, Oxford tries to get playwright Ben Jonson to front for him. But when the first performance of Henry V sends the crowd into an ecstatic frenzy, Will Shakespeare, a buffoonish comic actor in the company, sneaks in to put his name to the unsigned manuscript—a charade Oxford finds it politically expedient to maintain, bankrupting himself to buy the upstart Will's complicity.


This portrait of Shakespeare as a smarmy, boorish, scheming illiterate is irksome (although Rafe Spall plays him with vivid comic brio); so is the elitist idea that only a nobleman could possibly be capable of such brilliance. It's hard to believe that Oxford (or anyone) could have written A Midsummer Night's Dream at age 12, as is suggested here. And would the canniest monarch of her age farm out such a litter of bastard children among the noblest houses of England to be manipulated later by her enemies?

Meanwhile, the filmmakers cheerfully massacre the facts of English history and the allegorical meaning of the plays themselves, in a vain attempt to fit their idle speculation. I disliked the portrait of Christopher Marlowe (Trystan Gravelle) as an oily, conniving malcontent (especially since Marlowe was long dead by the time events in this movie take place). Ifan's mature Oxford is anonymous indeed; circumspect and elegant, but lacking in passion or presence. (Sebastian Armesto's courageous Ben Jonson emerges as the hero.)

Still, for all its faults, the film conveys the Elizabethan era in all its messy splendor, and backstage glimpses of the Globe in its heyday and snippets of the plays in performance are often thrilling.


It's too bad such majestic production values are wasted on such a hopeless con job. If you must fool around with Shakespearean history, I much prefer novelist Elizabeth Bear's audacious Stratford Man Duology, in which Will Shakespeare succeeds Kit Marlowe in weaving magical spells into their brilliant verse for the protection of the realm—after Marlowe has been whisked off to eternal life in the land of Faery. It's far more imaginative, and plausible, than the fairy tale of Anonymous.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

ART AND SOLE



Feeling shoe-ish? Why not hotfoot it down to the Sockshop in downtown Santa Cruz this Friday night (November 11) for the Sockshop and Shoe Art, Wine and Shoes Benefit. Back by popular demand (they initiated the first event of this kind back in 2009), it's a celebration of art, shoes, and wine, built around a silent art auction to benefit the Homeless Services Center.



And we're not taking about just any old art auction. It's all about the shoes, with all donated work from local artists revolving around everyone's favorite fetish object. Printmaker Liz Lyons Friedman offers a giclee of her popular linocut, "Change Your Shoes, Change Your Attitude." As usual, James Aschbacher (aka Art Boy) has a slightly different take on the subject in his original painting, "Good Taste In Shoes."




In addition to art about shoes, the auction also features some pretty amazing artwork painted ON shoes. Check out the Santa Cruz Patch page on this event, and be sure to look at Judi Oyama's slideshow of shoe art being featured in the auction. Don't miss Jimbo Phillips' rad, hand-painted "Santa Cruz" surfer Vans, and his companion painting of a mermaid on the rocks near Lighthouse Point.



Other shoe art painters include Kori Thompson, Danny Sun, and Joey Vela. Much of the artwork is on display for your perusal at the Sockshop right now, so go check it out. The event is scheduled for 6 to 9 pm, Friday evening, November 11, at the Sockshop, 1515 Pacific Avenue. (In the old ID Building, for all you old-timers.) Food and drink will be provided by Chocolate; music provided by Blake Redding. Be prepared for a festive evening of art and sole.