Friday, December 30, 2011


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


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


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


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


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


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).)