Wednesday, February 24, 2010

It's Post Time

Perhaps my recent return to Facebook is behind this sudden resurgence of vivid childhood memories. I guess I should have predicted this would be kind of a mind fuck. For several years, I had zero contact with anyone who knew me before age 12 (even then, it was just my friend M; my pal S has known me since I was 14; every other friend met me after age 21). Suddenly I find myself swapping photo comments with people who knew me when I was in the first grade.

Given that I was an unhappy kid, this might seem like a bad thing, but (thankfully) it isn't. In fact, I'm pleased to see that some of the other unhappy kids turned out well, which reminds me that I've come a long way, too. I guess I've also found the strength to look back at those bad old days without bitterness and just see it for the nutty zoo that it was. In the spirit of remembering bizarre stuff from kidtimes, I would like to relate an experience that might seem unusual for someone like me, whatever that means.

From the time I was about 10 years old until I was about 12, I would spend many Sunday evenings at the racetrack with my father. He bet on horses at the Ladbroke Detroit Race Course at least once a week (usually more often) and sometimes he would take me along on the night they let ladies in for free.

I think the most unusual part of this arrangement is that he bothered to bring me at all, because we were never close and he certainly didn't need to. Being the sixth of seven kids, I never required much parental supervision or a babysitter, as there was always someone at home to keep me company. Also, I imagine that, aside from satisfying one of his great extracurricular pleasures, my father's racetrack visits were an escape from our crowded home. So I felt both honored and confused that he wanted to bring me.

This was not the only time that we spent alone together. Sometimes I would join him for an early Sunday morning acccelerated mass for the elderly (20 minutes tops - no homily!). I was totally happy to get up for church at 6am so I could knock out that obligation and enjoy the rest of a leisurely Sunday. Oftentimes on the way home from early mass, my dad would take me to breakfast at a Big Boy or a Coney Island. Going out to eat was a very rare treat (in fact, he discouraged me from telling any of my siblings, which was easy because we got home long before anyone woke up), so I appreciated the opportunity even though it was an enormously awkward experience. We simply had nothing to discuss. Especially in the summer, when he couldn't fall back on the default, "How's school?" I can't recall how we filled that space between ordering and eating. I do remember sipping my tiny can of grapefruit juice in a very slow and deliberate manner.

But the racetrack visits were completely different. For one thing, we weren't always alone - one of my siblings or my mom may have been there. But even when it was just the two of us, my father could spend almost every moment between the races imparting wisdom on how to handicap the horses. It's important to know that for him, this activity transcended mere gambling (and he defintely loved mere gambling). This was his greatest passion. He proudly displayed handicapping trophies around our house. He wrote freelance articles for horseracing magazines. Triple Crown races and the Santa Anita were holidays in our home, each accompanied by a spendy spread of culinary treats rivaled only by Christmas Eve dinner. During those trips to the track, he taught me how to read a form and predict odds. He explained how winning on slimmer odds led to bigger payoffs. He showed me how to place a bet, and then he would give me a little bit of play money and place bets for me.

Other parents took their kids to Chuckie Cheese or amusement parks, but I spent long summer evenings in the company of hundreds of surly, cigar-smoking men. I loved it. My strategy was to place relatively safe bets (pick the favorite to place, for instance), because even a meager three dollar return on my one dollar investment was enough to get me a slice of pizza. And I was allowed to spend my winnings however I wished. I ate a lot of pizza and nachos and peanuts and popcorn and soda. Between races, I would study the form and map each horses's lineage, trying to figure out which ones were half brothers or sisters and imagine what they looked like when they were babies. At least a couple times a night, I would run down to the paddock and pat the horses or just stare at their bright, silky saddle towels.

But that was all just lead-up to the races themselves. I loved the energy of the crowd when the horses came around the bend to the final stretch. It didn't matter if your horse was running first or last, you were more or less obligated to jump out of your seat and scream, "Come on, so-and-so! To the wire!" or something like that. Other than when he was angry or frustrated, which was often, I never saw my father get as excited about anything ever. In fact, I was frightened during my first few races because his yelling voice had scared me for, well, my whole life and I didn't understand that it was a happy kind of yelling. Oddly, even when he lost, he didn't seem to get bummed out. I guess that even a gambling addict understands that losing is an essential part of their supposed "plan".

At some point when I was 12 or 13, I stopped going to the racetrack with my dad. I can't remember exactly when or why. But again, I think the better question is, why did he invite me in the first place? Like I said, we were never close. He wasn't close to anyone. But at that age, I also didn't judge him and I think he may have seen me as an ally. This was at a point in my family's history when all of my older siblings were coming of age and at various stages of rejecting my father's repressive Catholic nonsense. There was so much tension in our house that I used to get blinding headaches and scratch my skin raw. But I didn't blame him. I didn't know what was going on, I just thought god was mad at me or something. Maybe it was pleasant for my father to have a child on hand who didn't think he was a complete jerk. Perhaps that's why my racetrack visits ended shortly after my four oldest siblings moved out of the house.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Up, Up in the Air with My Beautiful Clooney!

(to be sung to the tune of "Up, Up and Away" by The 5th Dimension)

I watched my coworker's screener of "Up in the Air" a few nights ago. It really did live up to all the rave reviews I'd heard from everyone who'd already seen it. What follows is not a review in the sense that it recaps the plot without revealing the ending, but just a collection of thoughts that have been lingering in my head over the past couple days. So in the parlance of, **SPOILER ALERT**

This was the first time I watched a Clooney film and thought, "Wow, he's a great actor." Hot, charming, entertaining - yes, always. He's the consummate movie star. But this time, Clooney made me feel these completely unexpected, bittersweet pangs of pity. I guess I went into the film with certain assumptions about his character, Ryan. He's a layoff artist for hire, traveling from one economically screwed company to the next, firing dozens of workers on behalf of their chicken shit execs. I was afraid this would be another Thank You for Smoking (also a Jason Reitman film; it's a flick so confident in its thoroughly unmerited sense of cleverness that I couldn't make it past the first twenty minutes) and so I expected Ryan to be a heartless corporate shill and "commitment phobe" who just needs a sensitive and beautiful woman to warm his heart and change his ways.

But that wasn't it at all. Okay, maybe I had it half-right. Ryan is transformed by two women, a naive Cornell grad coworker named Natalie (Anna Kendrick) and a slightly older and more mature hottie business lady named Alex (Vera Farmiga). But his character is never heartless. He's actually a rather buoyant and affectionate man who is, unfortunately, capable of only the most shallow human relationships. His standoffishness and wanderlust are work-related survival skills. Any "normal" person with friends and family couldn't do his job, bringing misery to so many fresh victims every day. But he's been in it for so long, he's tricked himself into believing that he does it for the professional traveler's fringe benefits - the frequent flyer status, hotel room upgrades, fancy rental cars, and especially the forced friendly customer service he gets for being a VIP. When Natalie's new business model - videoconference layoffs - eliminates the need for Ryan to travel, his world unravels.

The reason I think Clooney is such a genius in this film is that he tells you everything you need to know about Ryan with his face and his delivery. When he's with Natalie, he speaks in these incredibly cynical monologues, such as his lesson on selecting the best airport security line (avoid getting behind families and middle eastern people; choose Asians instead). The really frustrating thing is that he's right; he's found the most efficient way to move through life, and he's glad for it. It gives him a sense of control that helps him stay upbeat, even though his work is awful. He manages to be callous and good natured simultaneously.

When he's with Alex, he's more vulnerable. Their dynamic is pretty fascinating. They seem to understand each other perfectly at the start of the film - kindred detached souls looking for an occasional hotel room romp - but you find out in the end that they never knew each other. Unlike a typical romantic comedy, she unwittingly breaks through his aloofness, or what she assumes is aloofness. His gragariousness is more obvious to the viewer because we get these marvelously endearing shots of his sheepish smile or twinkling eyes. I think those are actually the most heartbreaking moments in the film, even before you realize that Alex has a whole other "real" life that doesn't have anything to do with Ryan.

I appreciate the film's ambiguous ending. Is Ryan finally cashing in those ten million frequent flyer miles for a trip to anywhere-but-work? Is he still doing the layoff circuit? It doesn't matter. You can tell by his desperate expression that he's become self-aware. And while self-awareness can be a very painful state of mind, ultimately it's good for you. I guess you could call it a happier ending.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Theater

I just recently discovered that theaters make me giddy, which is funny considering that I managed a theater for five years. I suppose when I worked at the Michigan I felt compelled to put up the front of being a major film or music buff, because that seemed cooler than being in love with a building. But for as many instances of aesthetic bliss that I ever experienced in that place, there have been ten times as many glorious moments of solitude, where all I watched was the sweep of the ceiling or all I heard was an organist practicing in the dark. I don't need much to be happening in a theater to be very happy sitting in one.

But the best experiences are those in which stunning art and architecture meet and mesh. It doesn't happen that often. But if either the auditorium or the performance is worthwhile, I consider myself lucky. The following is a list of my top experiences inside theaters in the last year, in chronological order ~

Ypsi Youth Theatre presents "A Midsummer Night's Dream" at St. Luke's Episcopal Church, April 2009

My friend B. invited me to see her eight year old neighbor play a fairy in this production. The theater at St. Luke's charmed the pants off of me (not literally; this was a kids' show, after all). It's in the third floor of the church hall, in a long room that feels like a barn. Walking in there was like finding a secret garden in my backyard as I'd had no idea that there was an auditorium just a block from my house. Okay, so maybe "auditorium" is a bit generous as the seats are just old leftover church pews, but if they all face a stage, I'll call it a theater.

The performance itself was very good, if a bit long. I guess that's Shakespeare's fault, but it's also hard for little kids to keep their energy up for the entirety of the show. The nine year old girl who played Puck was hilarious. She made everyone in the audience laugh out loud. The teenage girl who played Oberon was so fiery and proud that she really melted into the role and I forgot she was a young woman. At her age (at any age, really) that's pretty brave. I would gladly pay to see the two of them perform again, especially in that particular venue.

Roosevelt University Fall 2009 Commencement at the Auditorium Theatre in Chicago, December 2009

As long, dull ceremonies go, I like commencements. I'll take a graduation over most weddings, and definitely prefer it to other religious ceremonies. Also, we were all excited for cousin J. and her big accomplishment. Not having graduated from college myself, I found it quite inspiring.

Oh, and the theater is the most beautiful I have ever seen! Here's a picture of it

Notice the opera boxes along the lower tier and the mural running along the top of the proscenium. There are similar murals on the sides of the balcony depicting winter and spring. If this place were church I would feign belief just to go every week. I would never tire of staring at the walls or the ceiling or running my feet along the plush red carpet.

"A Puppet History of Ypsilanti" at the Dreamland Theater, December 2009

The Dreamland is about the most bare bones theater I've ever encountered, and it will always be special to me. There can't be more than 20 seats in this dingy little storefront. There's a stage with a brightly colored patchwork curtain (like the one from The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson) and a back lit projection screen to the right. I believe that the ticket seller was also the sole puppeteer. Performing along with a prerecorded soundtrack, he used shadow puppets to enact the first part of the story, then continued the narrative onstage with three dimensional wooden puppets that replaced their shadow counterparts. It's a pretty sweet little operation.

The story itself was a bit sloppy and uneventful, but I did learn that Phyllis Diller came from Ypsi. The recorded soundtrack started skipping about halfway through the show, which was a relief as some of the voices had started to grate on me. Dan thought the production was pretty janky, and I suppose it was, but I loved it anyway. I appreciate that someone bothered to make their vision of a one man puppet show theater real, and across the street from a strip club, no less. I love Ypsi.

A screening of Cold Souls at the Burton Theatre in Detroit, January 2010

The Burton Theatre is a Detroit-lover's fantasy come true. This new independent film venue is situated in the auditorium of an abandoned elementary school. For once, "someone" actually did something with that beautiful old building that shouldn't be left to rot. Also, an art house theater in the center of the city is a cultural blessing. Granted, the Detroit Film Theatre offers an excellent program, but this one operates year round and includes goofy cult titles in addition to popular indi cinema (which isn't really the DFT's bag).

I fell in love with the auditorium, with its hardwood floors and stage. I could imagine all of the Christmas pageants that ever graced that space. It reminded me of my elementary school and others like it in metro-Detroit - solidly built in the early twentieth century with tall windows and an eye toward aesthetics. Surprisingly, the sound quality and projection are excellent, even though the room wasn't built for this purpose.

I loved the movie, too. When I read the description (Paul Giamatti plays himself, gets his soul removed and finds out that it's a chickpea), I thought, "Oh, boy. Here we go again." I'm done with Charlie Kaufman and his ilk. I suppose my friend C. was fair in describing it as "the poor man's Being John Malkovich," though I liked it way more than that film. I would actually like to watch Cold Souls again. Unlike BJM, it's an endearing and philosophically interesting story, as opposed to a flashy gimmick that makes you feel a little dirty. It was the perfect fit for my first visit to the Burton Theatre, where the popcorn's extra buttery and discounts are given to those who bike or walk. The best word to describe the art and architecture would be... warm.

Forever After Productions presents "Singin' in the Rain" at the Village Theatre in Cherry Hill Village, January 2010

The Village Theatre is a funny foil for the Burton. While the latter was built out of a forgotten space in a once great city, the former was purposely built to be the center of a town that never actually happened. Cherry Hill Village is a nine year old development that is only half-occupied. The houses range from modest to McMansion in a variety of creepy pastel hues. I find it spooky, but I also appreciate that the developers included a walkable downtown, though it is as hollow as the surrounding neighborhood.

Still, their theater hosts a vibrant program of events and I eagerly awaited the first title that would strike my interest. It took a while, but I finally made it a few weeks ago. The theater itself is quite deluxe. This particular production demonstrated all of its technical capabilities - great lighting, backdrops, miking, projection and actual rain! The seats were plush and comfy, the concessions stand served beer and wine, and the semicircular lobby was quite elegant indeed.

Okay, it was not a great performance. It was pretty bad, really. It doesn't help that the film Singin' in the Rain is, well, perfect and that I know it by heart. I even know the rhythm of the taps, just from listening to the soundtrack hundreds of times. So I understand that a teenage Don Lockwood isn't going to dance (or look) like Gene Kelly and that this Cosmo Brown will not be running up walls and flipping over. But then you have to wonder why anyone bothers.

Well, I will say that the mere reminder of something as beautiful as the film was enough to make me weep. Then again, I weep during any live performances. In this case, architecture definitely surpassed art, but I'm hopeful that I'll see a great performance at the Village Theater yet.

The Burns Park Players present "Guys & Dolls" at Tappan Middle School in Ann Arbor, February 2010

My friend S. took me to see The Burns Park Players' production of "Annie Get Your Gun" last year, which absolutely floored me. If you think that all community theater is along the caliber of Waiting for Guffman (or Ever After Productions, for that matter), I urge you to check out the next BPP show. The quality of the sets, costumes, musical arrangement, and especially the singing and acting went way beyond my expectations.

But that experience in no way prepared me for the days of post-show glee that I felt after seeing the dress rehearsal for "Guys & Dolls," which, I have decided, is the perfect stage musical. With its enchanting songs and story, there are no dull moments (except in the 1955 film version, which is all dull moments, save those in which Stubby Kaye is singing and Sinatra and Brando aren't there to ruin it). It's pretty hard to make this show unpleasant. But this version featured very clever and colorful set design and costumes, great choreography, and four wonderful leads.

Unlike the Burton, this auditorium is more modern and institutional. It's exactly the sort of beige and uncomfortable space you would expect to find in the middle of a cinder block monstrosity that strongly resembles a prison. But the production made me forget my surroundings completely. I wept several times, from "The Fugue for Tinhorns" all the way to the curtain call. Then I went back the next week for another performance. I guess that sitting inside this theater when it's empty wouldn't make me giddy, but I could probably watch a Burns Park Players show in a landfill and still have a wonderful time.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

"Pretty good getting for a gal that came up the hard way"

- Sugarpuss O'Shea (Barbara Stanwyck) from the 1941 film "Ball of Fire"

Barbara Stanwyck is my new all time favorite actress. Sorry, Katharine Hepburn, you've been displaced. Some would claim your range is greater, but could you play a lovable stripper, or perform stunts that involve you getting dragged by a horse, or appear in an Elvis film without looking like a complete loser has-been? No, I didn't think so.

My recent Stanwyck kick began with a holiday viewing of "Christmas in Connecticut". I had dragged Dan to a screening and I guess he enjoyed it because he surprised me with a Stanwyck biography for Christmas. The book focuses mainly upon her films, with bits about her personal life sprinkled in between. Yet what little I could glean about her upbringing and journey to stardom (as well as her career decline in middle age) inspired me, just as much as her wonderful performances in films like "Ball of Fire", "The Furies" and "Double Indemnity".

Barbara Stanwyck had a miserable childhood. Her father abandoned the family and died at sea. A drunk knocked her mother off a moving streetcar, making Barbara an orphan at age 4. After years of foster care and sleeping on various floors all over Brooklyn, she graduated from school at age 13 and went to work.

She toiled at odd jobs for a few years, and at age 16 fibbed about her age so she could became a chorus girl at a nightclub. This eventually led to a Broadway break at age 18. She found even greater success a year later in the 1927 production of "Burlesque".

Stanwyck moved to Hollywood with the hope of recreating her "Burlesque" role on the big screen, but that didn't happen. In fact, she found the transition from stage to film quite difficult. She became frustrated and began to lose hope, which led to the unfortunate occasion when she stormed out of an audition with director Frank Capra, shouting, "Oh, hell! You don't want any part of me." Fortunately, Capra gave her a second chance which led to a five film collaboration, including the Gary Cooper classic "Meet John Doe".

Like so many other directors, Capra loved working with Stanwyck because she knew her lines, worked hard, and neither threw fits nor picked on less experienced actors. Stanwyck insisted upon performing her own stunts, even into middle age (she did that getting-dragged-by-a-horse stunt when she was pushing fifty).

But they also loved her for her talent. Capra noticed that she tended to do her best work in the first take, so he would make everyone else rehearse without her. As soon as all the other actors were ready to finally nail the scene, he would bring her in to get it done in one take.

She had a magnetic presence and an honest grit that made even her most ridiculous characters seem real. For instance, in the film "Roustabout" she portrayed a feisty carnie who hires Elvis to be the star of her traveling stage show. Aside from being dumb, this is a remarkably boring film. Presley's love interest, played by Joan Freeman, is a total snooze. They have no chemistry. The music is unmemorable. Yet Stanwyck's scenes are so mesmerizing that you could edit the film down to her 30 minutes and have a thoroughly entertaining film. If any 56 year old woman is going to play a salty carnie who puts a perpetually pouting Elvis in his place, it may as well be a spry, silver-haired pro who can render inane dialog believable. And she still looked totally hot, too.

When Stanwyck had a great script in her hands, she made unforgettable films. I first saw the film "Ball of Fire" when I was 14 years old and wasn't able to get it on DVD until a few years ago. I was thrilled to find it an even better film than I'd remembered. In another pretty ridiculous scenario, Stanwyck played Sugarpuss O'Shea, the stripper girlfriend of a vicious mobster. Just as she's looking for a place where she can hide out from the district attorney, she meets Gary Cooper, a nerdy English professor who needs help with the slang portion of his encyclopedia. Sugarpuss later shows up on the professor's doorstep, much to the delight of his elder bachelor colleagues. Billy Wilder's hilarious script is perfect fodder for Stanwyck and her gaggle of old men (Wilder intended it as a demented "Snow White and the Seven Dwarves"), an ensemble of the very best character actors of the 1930s and '40s. Again, Stanwyck made a ridiculous character tough, sympathetic and real, maybe because she understood her better than most movie stars could.

Despite her four nominations, the Academy never recognized Stanwyck for a specific performance, though they did present her an honorary Oscar in 1982. In accepting the award, Stanwyck gave special thanks to the crews and especially the stunt people who taught her so much throughout her career. She'd had decades to consider that speech and who she might thank, and her choosing to recognize a group of people who rarely receive even passing thanks in most other Oscar speeches was a testament to her thoughtfulness and class.

And that's just another reason why Barbara Stanwyck has become my newest artistic role model. When I get discouraged because I can't think of what to write, or how to say it, or why I bother in an era where so few people read, using a medium that makes the act of reading unpleasant, I think of Barbara Stanwyck. I think about her terrible upbringing and her early trials, and I remind myself that she worked very hard and very smart. And as much as I would want to emulate her fortitude, I would also want to be as gracious. Whether or not I have a shred of that innate talent she possessed, I don't think I can go wrong by aiming to be the kind of artist she was.