Saturday, September 26, 2009

Red Jacket: A Poem For My Mother

Kathryn Edmund Savides: September 23, 1915 - January 26, 2004
(Happy Birthday, Mom)


She was borne away by an engine ornate, fiery and black
on a rescue mission: to oversee an uncle's burial.
Huge Uncle Bill had been the King Kong
in our family fairy tale, bolting rows of sweet corn
and inhaling ingots of butter at Reunions,
beer bubbling out of his ears, Snickers bars up his nose,
his roaring beefy tongue popping with hotdogs
and Scottish curses, a new wife
sitting on his hand every few years.
Suddenly he'd exploded, his football-sized pigskin heart
split at every seam,

and our mother's calmness was frantically summoned
by the hysterical fourth wife.
Mom rode to the rescue on a dragon-black train,
bolt upright and pushing it all the way. Once there
she ordered the special, jumbo casket,
she blessed the giant's exploded corpuscles
with a gentle veil of white flowers,
dignified his furry pagan paunch in a kingly suit of black.
She directed when cables would lower his bulk,
heavy as a crusader in full mail, to the inner earth
where seethed gobs of minerals, and his ancestors' lacy bones.
Old wives' and young wives' cupid's-bow kisses
colored his big ornery face
ravishing shades of rose.
At the funeral lunch, the peach-fed oils of Mother's baked ham
soothed mourners' torn nerve endings.
The precise rectangles of her bar cookies
made them feel they could go on.

At home we shivered in coldest eclipse,
for she was the queen
of our tribe of dwarves.
At five years old
I fought my baby instinct to stroke her red jacket
in the closet where it glowed.

Finally one midnight the dragon brought her back.
Finally we could breathe her warm air again.
But I'd heard that corpses were green,
and rotten-bellied with fear
still had to ask.
Yes, she said, Uncle Bill had been a little green,
but he was now shining in Heaven,
silvery with Grandma and Father Abraham.
She believed it, too.
When she looked up, all of her beloved dead
were sparkling in the constellations.

My hard little coconut head
processed her words. I looked up
suspiciously at those stars, privately had my doubts:
then looked into her gentle face and decided
then and lifelong,
never to tell her.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

My Favorite Movie Dance, Bar None

In general, I detest movie musicals. When actors begin to dance and sing in a mob, I just wish they'd sit down and shut up. It's probably a genetic thing. My grandfather deeply loved classical music, but if male ballet dancers in tights began doing scissors kicks to Stravinsky across the TV screen, he'd turn it off. My aunt rose and stalked out of the theater during SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS. She claimed she'd been offended by the broad Morning After grins of the Brides. Later, she admitted that the sight of all those actors caroling and prancing around "was enough to make me throw up twice." An uncle has said he can endure THE WIZARD OF OZ, but is waiting for the non-singing, non-dancing version. As for me, over the years I've sighed loudly, gossiped, shredded Kleenexes, devoured Milk Duds, and griped my way through other musicals which friends insisted I see.

But every once in awhile, a song or dance arises so spontaneously in a NONmusical that it's lodged like a sweet ember beneath my ribcage before I even know what hit me. Take Rudolph Valentino's smoking hot tango toward the beginning of the great old silent FOUR HORSEMEN OF THE APOCALYPSE. He awes the murderous drinkers in a cutthroat cantina with his coldly sexy moves, hurling his little monkey-woman partner all over the floor. Ninety years after that scene was shot, it still reduces a female audience to infatuated silence...and a good portion of the male. Or there's that moment in GODFATHER II when the little Vito Corleone, child of a murdered father and murdered mother, completely alone, friendless and quarantined in a foreign country, sits up in his pauper's nightshirt and sings his Italian folk song--in an unwavering voice.

And then there's this movie dance, my all-time favorite....

The film is Jim Jarmusch's DOWN BY LAW, and involves the escape of three prisoners who rush into a swamp for concealment. The most eccentric fugitive is played by Roberto Benigni (of course), and when the trio happen upon a young woman (Nicoletta Braschi), she and Roberto instantly fall in love. One minute they're strangers, and a few heartbeats later you sense they'll never willingly be parted. It's a wonderment, something like watching a car go from zero mph to 1000.

At the breakfast table next day, the fugitives are eating their bacon and eggs. Roberto says casually, "Let's have some music." He turns on the radio and we hear Irma Thomas's slow, lovely, funky version of the blues song "It's Raining." Roberto and Nicoletta begin to dance. Gradually it turns into the sweetest, most intimate and sensual dance you ever saw. There's no showy choreography, nothing especially graphic, just chemistry and true love. And it doesn't hurt that you know Roberto and Nicoletta are married in real life.

You can see it on YouTube, and if you haven't, don't wait another minute:

Down By Law - It's Raining

I'd write it in gems if I could.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Moving Actor: "Whoa, Look At You Go!"

Actors fight, dance, leap from great heights and even walk better than you or I do. They may be privately shining with sweat from the effort of making these moves, but up on the screen they're dusted with stars. We've spent many a happy hour admiring them in the dark. Here I'm going to concentrate on several of my favorite actor-walks (although, just to break it up, I'll include one demented little jig.)

l. John Travolta owns the best walk in the business, and he shows it all in his street-strut through the credits in SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE. He steps out strong in his pointy-toed red shoes which match his flare-collared red silk shirt. The infatuated camera admires him from the ground up, lingering on the billowing cuffs of his black polyester slacks. He's also carrying a paint can, but is way too cool to care. That whole white-suit/dancy-dance nonsense he gets up to later is pallid by comparison.

Travolta also delivers a hugely satisfying moment when he climbs stairs in a busy restaurant to vent justice. In GET SHORTY he's been insulted by a wannabe-tough henchman standing on a landing. Wrong move, goon! Travolta heads up the stairs with that brisk can-do set of his shoulders. He's unhurried, with a confidence so staggeringly complete he doesn't even look cross. He collects the nasty guy like a bad debt and heaves him down the stair rungs like manure off a pitchfork, all without missing stride. Travolta is the Walk King of his generation.

2. In my opinion, Richard Gere is never convincing in good-guy roles. Maybe it's too much of a stretch, who knows? But he did surprisingly well in INTERNAL AFFAIRS as a cheating, lying, betraying, fornicating, murdering bad guy. He was also very effective as a shameless sleazebag of a celebrity lawyer in PRIMAL FEAR (although outgunned, I'd say, by Ed Norton's jaw-dropping debut performance). And years ago he was also good in AMERICAN GIGOLO--avaricious, social-climbing, amoral and sexy. All of which brings us to his walk.

Maybe it's not his fault. After all, human babies learn to walk around a year of age. But Richard Gere walks like a tart. He walks as if he's thinking about his hips more than men usually do. There's a crisp little hitch in his get-along, to put it mildly. This fits in with his dark and ambiguous roles, but is one of the reasons we can't believe him in the saintly ones.

3. John Wayne walks with his whole bulky body, something like a sasquatch would, as if he were holding the sky up on his big shoulders and the earth down with his feet, and plowing ahead no matter what the plague or disaster. In THE SEARCHERS, for five long years he never ceases to search for his kidnapped niece, by sunlight, moonlight, firelight, through storms and floods, under attack and threat of death. He searches mostly by horseback, but also in large part by the almost demented concentration and unstoppable forward impetus of that walk. We never doubt he'll find her, and he does.

4. Now for a dance: Donald Pleasence is an English actor known for his extreme style, which reached its height when he played Mike Myers' unfortunate doctor in the HALLOWEEN series. In the Western WILL PENNY he's a wicked psycho/preacher who's trying to force a virtuous widow (Joan Hackett) to marry one of his heart-stoppingly hideous, homicidal sons. There's a moment when he seems to have won, and in sudden celebration he does an evil little jig with such vile delight that he almost puts his foot through a chair. We hate him, but the moment still has a satanic glow.

5. For me, the most endearing walk is that provided by Roberto Benigni in IL MOSTRE (THE MONSTER). Through his usual series of disastrous misunderstandings, Roberto's character Loris is under suspicion of being a mass murderer. Nicoletta Braschi is the tough-minded undercover detective assigned to his case. She shadows Loris constantly, and gradually becomes fascinated by the wildly eccentric little man.

Now, the walk: in an early scene, with typical Benigni reasoning, Loris has decided he'll avoid the notice of his landlord, to whom he owes money, if he crouches down and walks like a duck below the man's line of vision. He does this more or less successfully, but rather sadly. There is something very lonely about a man who is walking like a duck all by himself. But Nicoletta sees this ruse of his. By this time she's realized that, evidence to the contrary, he's an innocent at heart. She gently crouches down beside him, and as they duck-walk away together, his face lights up with a shy man's happiness. It's a fine moment.

Friday, September 4, 2009

"In Praise of Aging". Photographs by Sandy Wojtal-Weber. Poem by Gerda Lerner.

This beautiful little book might just as well be called "In Praise of Living" because to use Lerner's words it is about "celebrating what is/ what still is..."

Sandy Wojtal-Weber is an accomplished photographer with an instinctive skill in seizing images from the natural world, with tenderness and grace, at just the right moment. It is no surprise to learn that she particularly admires the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson. In this book, her pictures illustrate the lines of Gerda Lerner's poem "In Praise of Aging." Many of the photographs were taken at Parfrey's Glen, in Wisconsin, as well as other far-ranging locations. The two sunflowers were taken from her garden.

Essentially, Lerner's poem is about living life mindfully, with both gravity and joy, in a way that moves us naturally to an acceptance of the end of life. For example, on an early page Lerner writes "On that path, step by step,/we must give up something forever..." Wojtal-Weber's accompanying picture is of a rocky, steep, and difficult climb through heavy woods. At first glance, it might almost signify Gethsemane. Yet the texture of the stones and mossy boulders, the green beauty of the woods, show the indestructable loveliness that accompanies us through hardship.

Wojtal-Weber's pictures are fully true to the object or scene in her lens, and sometimes something more: an homage. The two pages of glorious sunflower budheads--"discovering the pleasure of the modest particular/Growing awareness of purposeful seeing"-- for the first time made me think the words "Powerful! All-seeing!" about a bud. Her color photographs are often sumptuous, her black and white winter scenes impeccable. Although her work is the furthest thing possible from sentimental, the viewer's sense is that she has captured these images with respect and love.

There is a great deal to admire and enjoy here, not least the last picture. It shows a curling green frond, with behind it a huge, veined green leaf and the words "and grace." But perhaps my favorite image of all is of the bird--with fragile limbs and delicate beak, but mighty wings--flying straight up into a storm so threatening it looks like the bottom of the sea: