Saturday, March 30, 2013


"And what is the use of a book," thought Alice, "without pictures or conversations?"

I agree with Lewis Carroll's intrepid heroine. Over at Red Room, when writers were recently asked to name our favorite children's adventure, I found I was looking for lots of action, funny, interesting talk, and wonderful images—whether on the page or conjured in the mind's eye.

I suppose I'm expected to cite Peter Pan, since I've just written a novel about Captain Hook, but I've already written a blog about my longtime flirtation with Hook.

I'm also a big fan of The Wizard of Oz, but while I had well-thumbed copies of several Oz books, as a kid, I was more bedazzled by the MGM movie shown on TV every year. Indeed, I wrote a streamlined version of the movie script (in pencil, on lined Jiffy notebook paper) for my 6th Grade class, casting my classmates in all the roles. (Sadly, this epic was never produced, but when my teacher saw it, she promoted me to director of our class play, The Magic Fishbone.)

And I adore all the Harry Potter books, of course, although for this challenge I assumed they wanted us to write about books we read and loved as actual children.

Which brings me back to Alice, the plucky little English girl who enters the gaping maw of chaos and yet maintains her aplomb, eager for fun and adventure, yet ready to speak common sense to silliness at every turn.

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland is great fun, but my favorite Alice book is the sequel, Through the Looking Glass.

The narrative is a classic quest structure, a giant living chess game in which Alice begins as a lowly pawn and travels across many odd terrains in several moves to become a queen—encountering Humpty Dumpty (deluding himself that all the king's horses and men will protect him from any future mishap), the sweetly befuddled old White Knight, and the imperious Red Queen along the way. Not to mention the two epic poems, "The Walrus and the Carpenter," and the irresistible "Jabberwocky!"

Through it all, she is kind and helpful to those who are kind and helpful to her, thoughtful when given a variety of very weird things to ponder, and always ready for an argument when a thing makes no sense—which is most of the time.

We were so enamored of this book as kids that my brother and I used to travel all around our yard, acting out our favorite scenes. I even made this diorama of Alice climbing through a saran-wrap "looking glass" in the 5th Grade (borrowing some of the furniture from Barbie's Dream House.)

The text also provides me with two of my all-time favorite quotes, which I am eager to fling into any conversation to this day.

"It takes all the running you can do to keep in the same place," says the Red Queen. "If you want to get somewhere else, you must run twice as fast as that." What harried, modern multi-tasker can't identify with that?
And this from Humpty Dumpty, which his practically become my writing mantra: "When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less." Amen!

Friday, March 29, 2013


Just in time for the end of Women's History Month comes Sally Potter's thoughtful and involving Ginger & Rosa. Very much a "woman's movie," with its emotional, relationship-driven storyline, it also has a distinct historical setting—London in 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis—as the backdrop before which its two teenage protagonists struggle to come of age. And while the plot may seem a bit far-fetched at times, there's something so touching about the authenticity of these young female voices and their nameless, formless yearning that will speak to anyone who has ever been a 17-year-old girl.

Potter is a highly original filmmaker who can be extremely great (her first feature was the brilliant Orlando) or pretty awful (her experimental Tango Lesson and Yes both self-destructed). With Ginger & Rosa, she is mostly great in getting to the heart of a simple, but potent story about teenage girlfriends, mothers and daughters, and fathers and daughters, and all the ways those delicate balances can be tipped, one way or another, during the perilous dance of growing up.

Ginger (the remarkable Elle Fanning) and Rosa (an affecting Alice Englert) have been best friends since their mothers gave birth to them at the same time in the same London hospital. They practice kissing and smoking together, shrink their jeans sitting in the same bathtub, make out with the occasional, anonymous boy, and do wild-girl things like hitchhike to the seaside for a day of illicit hanging out.

The unsupervised Rosa (her single mom cleans houses) is more advanced; aspiring poet Ginger gets more friction at home from her frustrated, stay-at-home mom, Natalie (Christina Hendricks), and her professor dad, Roland (Alessandro Nivola).

Invoking the Cuban Missile Crisis as a metaphor for the end of the world fits nicely into Potter's storytelling scheme. In fact, Ginger's world is about to end—the world of childhood, innocence, and absolute trust. (Read more in this week's Good Times)

Okay, so nobody wore this long, hippie hair in 1962—it was the era of the bouffant and the beehive. But otherwise, in emotional terms, this movie is right on!

Tuesday, March 26, 2013


Get ready to pray for a fog-free summer this year, when Shakespeare Santa Cruz presents its first ever all-outdoor summer season.

Traditionally, one, if not more, of the SSC summer productions in repertoire is mounted indoors, in the Mainstage Theatre. But in this pared down, 2013 season, all three of the plays (including the Fringe offering) will be performed outside, under the redwoods, in the newly renovated Sinsheimer-Stanley Festival Glen.

Watching a live performance in the Glen has always been a high point of any SSC season, with the breeze whispering in the redwoods, above (or the moon and stars peeking through the foliage), and the "groundlings" sprawled at the foot of the stage, with their picnic baskets. Who doesn't have fond memories of the cast of Danny Scheie's original production of A Comedy of Errors  on their tandem bicycle pedaling down the aisles to the stage? Or Paul Whitworth in an earlier production of Henry IV Part I, arriving out of the forest on a motorcycle? Or J. Todd Adams as Puck back-flipping off the stage in A Midsummer Night's Dream?

It all harks back to Shakepeare's era, when going to the theatre was always an open-air experience. Elizabethan theatres were built in a round or octagonal shape (The Rose, sketched above, the Globe, The Curtain, The Swan), with thatched roofs over the tiers of boxes. But the stage in the middle and the groundling area before it were left uncovered; plays were performed in the daytime and they needed all the natural light they could get.

The SSC Festival Glen has living redwoods and banked seating instead of thatch and boxes. It also has a sophisticated electrical lighting system, which can make for some atmospheric, even spooky nighttime effects. (Remember the ghosts and witches popping up out of the foliage in an early production of Macbeth?)

And improvements are being made to the Glen as we speak. Scenic Designer Michael Ganio promises an expanded picnic area down front, and improved sightlines from all angles in the raked seating opposite the stage.

As to what's going on that stage this year, here's the scoop. This season's comedy will be The Taming Of the Shrew, Shakespeare's popular and funny, yet notoriously un-PC battle-of-the-sexes romp.

The drama will be Henry V, possibly the most heroic of Shakespeare's history plays; it's also the final installment of the "Henriad," the three-play cycle begun with Henry IV Part 1 in 2011, and Henry IV Part 2 last summer. Charles Pasternak will return to the role of Prince Hal/Henry.  Follow the links to catch up with the story so far!

Finally, this summer's Fringe production will be a new adaptation of Henry Fielding's 18th Century novel Tom Jones, the sexy coming-of-age tale of a good-hearted young foundling "born to be hanged," and a world of hungry women who have more creative ideas. The show will be staged in the Glen for two performances only by the entire cast of this year's SSC interns.

The SSC 2013 season plays July 23 to September 1. Tickets go on sale Tuesday, April 2. Visit the SSC website for ticket info, and watch a video where Artistic Director Marco Barricelli explains it all for you.

See you in the Glen!

Friday, March 22, 2013


Does it seem odd that women make up at least one half of the global population, yet we're given one measly month out of twelve to celebrate our contributions to history? You'll notice there's no designated Men's History Month. The rest of the year it's all about them.

There's nothing like getting assigned a special month of one's own to let you know just how marginalized you really are. Signaling out women, or African Americans, or gays, or any other alternative color, lifestyle, or nationality, to be recognized for one month suggests it's okay to forget about us the rest of the year. You got your month, what more do you want? Now let's pop a brewski and watch the damn game, already.

Attempts to designate special recognition, however well-intentioned, usually only serve to point out how far the designee still has to go to earn a little common respect. Once upon a time, the Academy Awards designated 1992 "The Year of the Woman" Batting clean-up at that year's ceremony was Clint Eastwood's grimly guy-friendly western Unforgiven, winner of four Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Revival Of A Macho Genre Previously Considered Stone Dead.

Its poster art features four craggy male faces and a large, prominent pistola clasped slightly below the Mendoza line. Nary a woman in sight.

Emma Thompson won the Best Actress award for Howard's End, beating out a fairly lackluster bunch of femmes, but the most talked-about female role of the year was actually played by a man—Jaye Davidson in The Crying Game. It's easy to fling about honorary designations, but the proof is in the pistola.

So while we're all busy celebrating Women's History—and getting all dewy-eyed over Susan B. Anthony, Clara Barton, and Amelia Earhart, all draped in nostalgia, now, like slightly mildewed lace, and safely tucked away in the past—let's spare a thought for a more sobering issue: Women's Present.

While so many women are running around trying to have it all, too many of our sisters at home and abroad are struggling to have any of it. A basic education. A living wage. The right to not get pregnant. (A tough one, since the new boss of the old church is—surprise!—same as the old boss when it comes to banning birth control.)

And this is a biggie—protection from rape, violence  and abuse. And freedom from the fear that a rape won't be considered "legitimate" enough to earn those protections.

At the recent UN Commission on the Status of Women, the Catholic Church played footsie with Iran & Russia in opposing tough global standards to prevent violence against women and children that didn't consider "religion, custom or tradition" a mitigating factor. (Tradition that does not recognize assault by a spouse or partner as "rape," for example.)

It took the US Congress a year and a half to grudgingly renew the Violence Against Women Act, protections that had already been in place for years and had been cited as reducing domestic violence  against women by as much as two-thirds. Meanwhile, an estimated 19,000 sexual assaults occur against women every year by their colleagues in the US military.

And even if a rape is considered legitimate enough to prosecute—even earn a conviction—that doesn't mean the rapist(s) won't earn more public sympathy than the victim. Last week, after two star players on the high school football team in Steubenville, OH, were convicted of raping an incapacitated teenage girl—repeatedly, while other teens recorded, tweeted, and texted the fun to share online—thinking people everywhere were outraged when a trio of CNN reporters, including two women, spent more air time maundering over the tragically blighted futures of these poor young men than on the fate of the girl whose life they had ruined.

The real tragedy is that none of these guys had any sort of internal moral compass—as men, as football players, as sons or brothers—that suggested that what they were doing was wrong at the time.

Here's a news flash: the mere fact of being female is not a legitimate excuse for getting raped, no mater how much you've drunk or what you are wearing.  Hey, she was walking around with a vagina—it's HER fault.

But what can you expect from a culture that considers Viagra a miracle drug and the Pill the work of Satan?

We may have a month to call our own, but we still have a long, long way to go, Baby.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013


Ideas vs melodrama in meandering beat odyssey 'On the Road'

There are about 45 minutes of a great movie in Walter Salles' adaptation of On the Road, the thinly fictionalized Jack Kerouac novel/memoir that helped define the beat generation of the early  1950s. These occur mainly at the beginning of the film, informed by the writer protagonist's narration, when the characters are first meeting up and hanging out, pinging ideas, dreams, and creative energy off of each other like random electrical charges, and in the final reflective scenes, when the writer lets go of his last illusions and starts hammering out Kerouac's spontaneous "bop" prose on the typewriter.

Which is to say the film is most effective when it sticks to Kerouac's voice, his thoughts and observations on the generation his book came to symbolize. In between these two poles of interest, however, lies the bulk of Salles' film, an increasingly frantic and pointless gallop back and forth across continental North America.

Yes, it successfully mimics the characters' headlong charge in pursuit of experience (i.e.: sex, drugs, jazz, and alcohol), but the more of the book's physical territory Salles covers—New York City, Nebraska, New Orleans, San Francisco, Denver, Mexico—the less focused the film's ideas become. Without the transformative power of Kerouac's words, we're stuck watching repetitive scenes of frenzied partying, which soon pales as a spectator sport.

Aspiring writer (and Kerouac alter-ego) Sal Paradise (Sam Riley) is living with his French-Canadian mother in New York City when mutual friends introduce him to wild man Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund), a thinly-disguised version of Neal Cassady. Sam is quickly spellbound by Dean and his teenage bride, Marylou (Kristen Stewart), their freewheeling lifestyle of booze, dope, and sexual ménages. (Read complete review in this week's Good Times.)
The real-life Neal Cassady and children Jami, John and Cathy

Meanwhile, if you can't get enough of the beats, plan to attend the 7 pm show of On the Road at the Del Mar on opening night, this Friday night (March 22). After the show, there will be a Q&A with the real-life Neal Cassady's daughter and son, Jami Cassady Ratto and John Allen Cassady to discuss their father, the legacy of Kerouac's seminal book, and the influence of the Beat Generation on the Santa Cruz cultural landscape.

Check out the Nick/Del Mar website for the real lowdown.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013


How did the Witch of the West get so wicked? If you know Gregory Maguire's novel, Wicked, or the stage musical, you know one version of the story of the magical land of Oz before Dorothy touched down in her flying house.

And now that the Disney corporation is buying up the rights to every fantasy property ever conceived (from the Pixar animation studio to the Star Wars universe), it's offering its own take on the material in the lavish Oz the Great and Powerful, which imagines the witches and the wizard of Oz in their heedless youth.

Directed by Sam Raimi from a script by Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire, the film is a prequel to L. Frank Baum's classic novel, and the beloved 1939 MGM movie. The mood and texture of Raimi's film, along with the extravagant production design by Robert Stromberg (Alice in Wonderland; Avatar) are heavily influenced by the earlier Oz film.

Despite some slow-going in the script, some dubious plotting, and an unresolved strain of moral ambiguity, the cheeky dash of Raimi's film, and its obvious affection for its source, makes for a mostly entertaining trip down the yellow brick road.

Once again, we begin in drab, black-and-white Kansas, ca. 1905. Oscar Diggs, called "Oz" (James Franco), is a stage magician in a cheesy traveling carnival. His tricks are all flash powder and illusion, but he delivers the thrills onstage; more fraudulent are his cavalier seductions of women, while his brusque treatment of his assistant (Zach Braff) suggests a mean streak. Being "good" doesn't interest Oz as much as his hopes to one day do something great.

Like Dorothy, he's swept up in a twister which deposits his hot air balloon in the vibrantly colored landscape of Oz. (Why does he have the same name as the magical place? Um, who knows, it's never explained.)

He's soon having close encounters with three sisters who are definitely not your father's witches: lovely Theodora (Mila Kunis), the equally ravishing Evanora (Rachel Weisz) and the radiant Glinda (Michelle Williams.)
Which witch becomes the woman scorned?
 The good vs great theme is hammered home a tad too often, and some long, talky stretches would require more than Franco's toothy grin to keep the audience invested. The various witches' powers tend to come and go at the whims of the plot (with Glinda often completely helpless).

And while it's interesting that a woman scorned by the feckless Oz becomes the heartless, green-skinned Fury we all know as the Wicked Witch, he never has to atone for it in any satisfying way. He may go over the rainbow, but his superficial character never takes enough of a journey.

Still, much is redeemed in the finale; instead of the expected bloody battle, Oz employs all the various non-warrior peoples of the land to build massive stage illusions to drive out the evildoers. There's a fun steampunk feel to the creation and manipulation of these devices. (Read complete review)

Tuesday, March 5, 2013


Aaron Walker and Jerry Lloyd
Performances highlight JTC Sam Shepard revival 'Horse Dreamer'

Now in its eighth season, Jewel Theatre Company continues to produce quality professional theatre right in the heart of downtown Santa Cruz. Spearheaded by Artistic Director Julie James, and making use of an ever-expanding gene pool of directors, performers and stage technicians, the company keeps local audiences intrigued with its lineup of often challenging, unexpected material.

Case in point is the new JTC production of Geography of a Horse Dreamer, a lesser-know drama by the iconic Sam Shepard that considers the plight of the artist in a world of commerce, the vagaries of luck, and (as usual, for Shepard) the spectacle of men behaving badly.

Geography of a Horse Dreamer was written in 1974, in the early middle of Shepard's long, prolific career, but still years before his most celebrated work like Buried Child and True West. It feels like a younger man's play, in that it's percolating with ideas, although its themes are not completely thought out or resolved. But it sparks with wit and energy, and offers opportunities for memorable performances and stagecraft, which this production exploits with JTC's usual panache. It's a short play staged with cohesion and clarity by director Nigel Sanders-Self, in which mobsters abduct a hapless young sheep rancher (Aaron Walker) with a "gift" for dreaming the winners of upcoming horse races.

In an excellent cast, Jerry Lloyd is flamboyantly great as the mob boss. But Jackson Wolffe steals the show as his enforcer, The Doctor, with his silky diction and malevolent aplomb. (Read more)

Monday, March 4, 2013


Catch some serious aloha spirit at the Hula and Tahitian Dance Celebration this Sunday at Aptos High School Performing Arts Center. What's the occasion? It's the 15th anniversary of Santa Cruz's own, locally-grown Te Hau Nui School of Hawaiian and Tahitian Dance. (Te Hau Nui means "forever peaceful" in Tahitian.)

To celebrate, director and dance instructor Lorraine Kalei Kinnamon is staging an extravaganza of Polynesian culture and music. More than 50 dancers will perform traditional Hula, Tahitian and Maori dance. Live music will be provided by the Ho'omana Hawaiian Band, and beloved steel guitar virtuoso Patti Maxine, with traditional drumming by Kaili Francisco and friends jetting in from Kauai.

Kinnamon is promising "the biggest Polynesian event ever held in Santa Cruz" (except for the Outrigger canoe races, whose dance troupe, she points out, is not local). Her Te Hau Nui dancers, community members whose age range is roughly "5 to 55" have performed locally with the likes of Taj Mahal, and Kinnamon herself has toured the world performing Polynesian dance. Te Hau Nui classes are offered at the Santa Cruz Dance Company, Capitola Jade Street Community Center, UCSC, and the Tannery World Dance and Cultural Center.

There will be two complete performances on Sunday, March 10, 1-3 pm and again at 5-7 pm. Advance tickets are available at Pono Hawaiian Grill, Element Home Furnishings, and Island Home and Garden. Check out the Te Hau Nui website for more info, or visit their Facebook page.

Friday, March 1, 2013


In The Hours, there's a scene to gladden the heart of any writer. Nicole Kidman plays Virginia Woolf going into her study one morning in 1923 to begin a new novel. She snuggles into an armchair with her feet propped up on a footstool and a writing board across her lap, dips her pen in ink and begins scribbling in longhand on a sheet of paper—and the opening sentences of her landmark novel, Mrs. Dalloway, spring  complete onto the page, without false starts or corrections. Ah, we writers think, THIS is the way it's supposed to be!

I love movies about writers and writing, and since my friend Sally recently asked me what my favorite movies-about-writing were, now's my chance to share a few titles. There are enough of them out there to constitute a little movie sub-genre of their own—odd since the act of writing is one of the least cinematic activities you can imagine. Basically, you have a person staring a piece of paper (or a monitor) while all the action takes place inside the person's head. Not exactly what you'd call the money shot.   

Movies about writers fall into two categories: those based on novels or stories whose protagonists are thinly-disguised versions of the novelist, like My Brilliant Career, and those that purport to contain biographical information about real-life writers, like The Hours or Wilde. Of course, the more flamboyant a writer's personal life, the more likely it will be commemorated on film—and the less likely it is that the film will bother showing any actual writing. As Oscar Wilde in Wilde, Stephen Fry spends most of his screen time dallying with pretty boys and tossing off witticisms. We never catch him writing; we see him attending premieres of plays that are already a fait accompli.

We do see Joseph Fiennes' Will Shakespeare sit down to his writing desk in Shakespeare In Love. This charming bit of humbug is certainly no biography, but it contains a fanciful image of creative voodoo as Will rubs his palms together and spins around before sitting down to transform an unwieldy and much-rewritten, "Ethel, The Pirates Daughter" into "Romeo And Juliet." In the same spirit, that entertaining pastiche A Knight's Tale gives us Paul Bettany as Geoffrey Chaucer, not yet the mature author of The Canterbury Tales, but a young, vagabond huckster who proclaims, "I'm a writer. I give the truth…scope!"

But few writers will buy a ridiculous scene in Julia, in which 1930s playwright Lillian Hellman (Jane Fonda) is having such a bad day at the typewriter, she grabs the cumbersome machine and throws it out the window. Now, an old upright typewriter is no laptop; it takes a serious amount of strength and determination just to lift the damn thing up. In real life, a writer in a paroxysm of creative frustration might rip the page out of the machine and tear it into tiny pieces. But it's unlikely that a professional writer—in the middle of the Depression!—would throw the means of her livelihood out the window. It's a lame Hollywood ploy to make the boring craft of writing look exciting.

In my favorite writing movies reality and imagination merge in a fever of creative dementia. The fine Japanese film The Mystery Of Rampo imagines a story about real-life '30s mystery writer Edogawa Rampo. Obsessed by a woman whose life mirrors one of his thrillers, Rampo starts writing a new novel to shape her life, and the vibrant melodrama of his fiction plays off against his grey, repressive real life in eye-popping and spellbinding ways.

In adapting William S. Burroughs cult novel Naked Lunch, director David Cronenberg expands the delusional-junkie narrative into a wicked study of the nature of the creative urge: periodically, the writer protagonist's typewriters morph into large, wisecracking cockroaches with unholy appetites. (What writer can't identify with that?)

Probably my all-time favorite is the absorbing biographical memoir The Whole Wide World, about pulp writer Robert E. Howard, creator of Conan the Barbarian. In the film whenever Howard (played by Vincent D'Onofrio) is dreaming up one of his plots, or when anyone opens up a magazine to one of his stories, ambient noise fades out of the soundtrack replaced by the low grumble of distant prehistoric battle, the muted clank of swords, a fluting of ancient pipes and far-off screams. The viewer is lured to the very brink of chaos—the chaos of the unfettered imagination. For me, that's the closest the movies have ever come to portraying the authentic delirium of the writing life.