“SaltWorks” –Return to the Sea

 

Last Sunday, August 25, the Monterey Museum of Art was filled to capacity.  See the YouTube video clips to get a feel for the community response , both here and in an older YouTube video of Charleston, North Carolina where Yamamoto teaches , if you didn’t get a chance to be there yourself! The line went out the door to see the the closing of the Motoi Yamamoto exhibit SaltWorks”  (see my earlier post dated July 3 for the review of the exhibit).  The participatory experience for those of us who had the opportunity to disassemble the artwork was popular, especially with young children.  Beginning with the new executive director, Charlotte Eyerman, each attendee was able to scoop up a paper cup’s worth of salt (paper cups supplied) and transport it to the sea at Fisherman’s wharf.

It was encouraging to see how enthusiastic local Monterey residents are to be involved in a museum exhibit.  The community really turned out for this event.  Hopefully, future events will have an increase in attendance as well.  I personally brought home the salt and threw it in the fire pit for good luck and to reinforce the Buddhist principle of the impermanence of all existence.   We need more communty involvement in our local arts programs.

 

“We Need to Talk About Kevin”–The Bad Seed

Kevin2

“We Need to Talk About Kevin” is an unforgettable portrait of the baby from hell, and as such this film may not be meant for a lot of viewers.

Kevin comes into the world as a very difficult, “challenging” infant.  The unconditional love between mother–Eva Khatchadourian (played to perfection by Tilda Swinton, a BAFTA nominee for this role) and child (as a teenager by the talented newcomer Ezra Miller) just doesn’t happen.  In the delicate and intricate mother-child bonding requiring a mutuality of response–pick up the crying baby, baby stops crying, mother smiles,  baby smiles –Kevin and his mother struggle in ways horrific and unimagined.

The movie opens with Eva Khatchadourian trying to recover from something the viewer does not know. In an alternating split between past and present action, the flashback and flashforwards  confront the puzzle of Eva’s role as mother and her son’s difficult nature.  Once a successful travel author, she now is employed as a clerk in a travel agency. She lives a solitary life as people who know about her situation openly shun her. The aftermath and consequences of an unknown incident have resulted in an intimidated, damaged woman with no social support.  Her clueless husband, Franklin (John C. Reilly in a small but persuasive part) has consistently sided with their son over his wife, and goes beyond, encouraging Kevin’s typical (?) boy behavior.

The troubled relationship between Kevin and Eva continues until the climax near the end of the film.  Although the first half with frequent flash backs and forwards leaves the viewer unsure of where we are being taken, it all fits in at the end. Questions of parental responsibility, the newborn baby who becomes the child from hell, the culpability of the relationship, and the unraveling of human bonds all come into question in this  unusual and provocative film.  A standout for courage and difficult subject matter!

[Available on Netflix]

 

The Backstory behind “Orange is the New Black”

51Ce4GvkwWL._SY346_PJlook-inside-v2,TopRight,1,0_SH20_With all the buzz about “Orange is the New Black”, I had fun chasing down facts about the memoir of that name by Piper Kerman after binge viewing the huge hit, “Orange is the New Black” on Netflix.  (See my last post for the review of the hit series).

In two separate interviews on NPR’s “All Things Considered”, Terry Gross interviews first Piper Kerman and then Jenji Kohan. It makes for fascinating listening!

To take a few examples:  In the memoir Kerman does not actually experience solitary confinement.  However, to show the desolation and dehumanizing boredom of prison,  Jenji Kohan has the fictionalized Piper spend time in the SHU (solitary confinement).  To show prison at its most extreme.  In addition, the ending of the series is not the same as in the memoir but leads dramatically to the promised second season, when Piper’s experiences will almost certainly deviate further from the memoir and create its own plot and momentum.

The actresses who played the key roles are also brilliantly discussed in NPR’s interview of Kohan.  The transgender actress, Laverne Cox, is seen in  flashback while a male.  But that was not possible with the actress’s female beauty.  Serendipitously, Cox  has a twin brother who played those scenes, unbeknownst to the producer and casting director at the time they cast Laverne.  Another actress (Uzo Aduba) who plays “Crazy Eyes” was not considered quite right for the role she was auditioning for, so Kohan created a new character because she was so impressed by Aduba’s performance.  That character became pivotal to the plot.

Enjoy listening to both NPR interviews!  I can’t wait until  Netflix’s second season, currently in production.

“Orange is the New Black”–Life Behind Bars

Orange is the New BlackThis is a caged beast financed and produced by Netflix: thirteen episodes available on Instant Queue for binge viewing if you are so inclined.

“Orange is the New Black” (filmed on location in a women’s prison in Chino, California) is loosely based on the 2010 memoir by Piper Kerman (now an advocate for women prison reform.)  Piper Chapman (phenomenal newcomer Taylor Schilling) is a privileged Smith College graduate sentenced to 14 months in prison for the crime of smuggling drugs ten years earlier.  Her former lover from that time, fellow drug smuggler Alex Vaus (the pitch-perfect Laura Prepon), is  sent to the same prison.

The question:  How does one survive in an institution that can kill your soul?  Piper is blond, blue-eyed, terrified, but also an outsider because of an upbringing far removed from the world of most of the other inmates, mainly women of color–young, middle-aged, and old–guilty of crimes undeserving of such long prison sentences. Trying to develop some sort of connection with them as well as with the prison guards, Chapman is determined to learn how to survive and, in the learning process, changes in ways both unexpected and welcomed. Her fiancé (Jason Biggs of “American Pie” fame), a journalist, also changes while separated from Piper.

Each of the thirteen episodes flashes on a different inmate’s backstory: her life before prison.  These women’s snapshots interweave with Piper, whose story is the main spine of “Orange is the New Black”.  Moments of comedy morph so fast into dramatic, painfully dark scenes the viewer feels whiplashed!  Each situation has more than one moral choice, and all choices are lose-lose.  And every single inmate has to give up something with unbelievably high stakes. There are narrative arcs and character development to surprise even the most attentive viewer. “Orange is the New Black” is story-telling at its finest.

Riveting, spellbinding, and infused with dilemmas at every turn, this new mini-series–written by the superlative Jenji Kohan of “Weeds”—is, I believe,  one of the very best ever produced for television at a time when there is a fast-growing bounty of high-quality programs.  The opening footage of faces –just eyes and foreheads, then mouths and chins–is like none seen in what Hollywood persuades us to believe human faces are supposed to be like. And the dialog is terse, mesmerizing, and vibrates with nuggets of truth you want to never fail to remember!

“Side Effects”–Warning: Contraindications

Side Effects

Side Effects” opens with Martin Taylor (Channing Tatum) being released from prison after serving a four-year sentence for insider trading.  His wife Emily (Rooney Mara) is frail, severely depressed, and disinterested in Martin’s re-entering her life.  Soon her world unravels as she becomes dependent upon a new, experimental antidepressant prescribed by Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), on the recommendation of Emily’s previous therapist Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones).

The side effects of the antidepressant seem to be the cause for Emily committing a horrific crime and Banks mounts a defense to keep her from being convicted. The crime is bad, really bad. But the question is not who did it but who should be held responsible?  What follows is a dark quest for the diabolical truth of this tragedy. You think you know what’s happening — but you don’t. Almost every character has secrets, lies, and hidden motives.

Rooney Mara is stunning as the wounded woman who seems to have been victimized by the antidepressant prescribed to heal her.  As her counterpoint, Jude Law gives an almost flawless performance as a self-doubting character who struggles with the consequences and repercussions of his actions defending Emily. Both Law’s and Mara’s characters cause the viewer to vacillate between allegiance and sympathy for one over the other in a dizzying set of changing circumstances. The scenes they share are the most arresting in their complexity and ambiguity of the facts.

By releasing only one detail at a time, we are kept wading through interviews, court hearings, false turns, and psychiatrist visits until, finally, everything comes together. The entire film is very subdued, impeccably structured, and intricate in plot.   You will be rewarded in the end as the spiraling momentum towards the conclusion is so unexpected and mostly unpredictable until its final scene. 

 This film is purportedly Steven Soderbergh’s last work before retiring.  Don’t miss it!

 

[Available on Netflix.]

 

 

“Shattered”–aka “Butterfly on a Wheel”

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This intriguing tale of vengeance is centered on a theme found in Alexander Pope’s Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot” (1735) in which placing undue effort on a minor issue is like breaking a “butterfly on a wheel”.  And this first-rate thriller was so named in its British and Canadian release (2007), to be retitled “Shattered” for an American audience.

The story takes place in Chicago, where Neil Randall (played by the surprisingly good Gerald Butler) is an executive of an advertising agency. He is a cunning ad man plotting his path to the top while also a family man with a beautiful and sexy wife, Abby (Maria Bello) and a lovely young daughter, Sophie.  He is living the American Dream.

His wife Abby hires a babysitter so that she and her husband can spend the weekend at the CEO’s country house, presumably to cultivate even more political points to becoming his successor.  Without giving away too much of the plot, all I will say is that a mysterious intruder, Tom Ryan (the exceptional Pierce Brosnan) turns their world upside down. While keeping the couple under his total control, he makes it clear that his overriding intention is to destroy Neil’s perfect life.

“Shattered” is paced to perfection.  What unfolds rapidly is a cat-and-mouse game in which the clues and menace are only hinted at, but always cleverly hidden.  There are so many curves along the way, that even when viewers think they have figured out motivation and outcome, with a plot this peppered with red herrings, the vast majority will be thrown off track.

Once again, we get to see that Pierce Brosnan is not just another pretty face, but capable of remarkable acting in a role contrary to those he has played in the past.  Maria Bello is often unrecognized even though she consistently is outstanding, as she is here.  And Gerald Butler is perhaps featured in his only respectable role to date, revealing that he really can act.

“Shattered” should have received major distribution, great fanfare, advance hype and viral marketing, as well as viewer recommendations.I wonder how such a gem flew under the radar. Perhaps a little more effort should have been placed on this edgy little sleeper of a movie.

“The Page Turner”–Notes to a Thriller

The Page Turner

A French cinematic sleeper (2006), “The Page Turner” is a thriller as subtle as a sonata, fine-tuned and intricately composed.

The story opens with young gifted pianist Mélanie Prouvost, the ten-year-old daughter of a butcher, methodically practicing for an entrance exam to a prestigious music conservatory.  She and her parents have high expectations and she is determined to be one of the students. Beginning the audition in top form, Mélanie is thrown off balance by one of the judges Ariane Fouchecourt who, rather oblivious to her performance, signs an autograph, distracting Mélanie with devastating consequences.   She waits ten years, plotting her revenge on Ariane who, she feels, sealed her fate never to play again.

Mélanie soon becomes a legal secretary for Ariane Fouchecourt’s husband and rapidly insinuates her way into the lives of those whom she considers her targets–the Fouchecourt family.  At their estate Mélanie soon becomes indispensible: as a nanny to their young son, and more importantly, as the perfect page-turner for Ariane who, although famous, aspires to be at the top tier of pianists with recording contracts.  Shattered dreams and a lopsided dependency propel the pretty Mélanie to become so much more than a page-turner to Ariane and her son.  The husband needs Mélanie also, so he can continue as a highly successful, peripatetic corporate lawyer.

A psychological thriller and tale of vengeance, “The Page Turner” reveals, thread by thread, the web Mélanie weaves, entrapping the Fouchecourts with her charm, efficiency, and musical aptitude. Mélanie assumes the sweet taste of revenge will be hers.  As viewers we do not know what to expect.

The genius of “The Page Turner” is how everyone is blindsided by Mélanie’s corrosive plan for revenge.  The film ripples with the relentless logic of a set of calculus functions.  The younger woman baits the older like a calculating spider. It’s a cold but undeniably mesmerizing page-turner!

 

“Endeavour”–A Prequel to the Inspector Morse Series

Endeavour

“Endeavour” is the much-anticipated mystery series currently on Sunday evenings on PBS’s Masterpiece Mystery.  A testament to the beloved long-running Inspector Morse series (1987-2000), this series is the back story for young DC Morse before he became the curmudgeonly middle-aged Chief Inspector Morse.

Set in Oxford in 1965 Endeavour Morse (Shaun Evans) is a rookie in his late twenties, a Detective Constable (DC) freshly minted from Oxford to assist Inspector Fred Thursday (the awesome stage actor Roger Allam), a rational, insightful policeman who sees Morse’s potential and gives him the latitude to explore unconventional methods for solving a crime.  Inspector Thursday’s superior does not feel the same way about Morse and frequently tries to demote him to a desk assignment.

What makes this series thrilling is the way the middle-aged Morse can be seen in the flashbacks to the younger man. The roots of his moodiness and taciturn nature are evident at every turn–“an old young man”.

But this young DC Morse is not simply a clone without idiosyncrasies.  He has a toughness–an alloy of innocence, determination, and guile.  DC Morse has a life of his own in solving each murder with more convoluted turns than the classic Inspector Morse mysteries. Last Sunday night’s episode, “Girl”, was a finely crafted and intricate tapestry of clues tightly woven and carefully laid out so the attentive viewer could follow the puzzle-solving system of Morse’s mind with cryptic clues, unbreakable codes, wordplay, and obscure literary allusions.

Japanese Art as Metaphor: “Return to the Sea” and “Hanga Reinvented”

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Japanese contemporary art can be a wonder to behold, as evidenced by the current exhibit at the Monterey Museum of Art.  These two ongoing exhibits are not to be missed.  The first is a 300-pound salt installation that covers  1800 sq. ft. of the gallery floor, now roped off so that the observer doesn’t inadvertently step on the salt. Motoi Yamamoto’s lovingly created artwork is a commemoration of his sister’s death almost twenty years ago.

Table salt has been painstakingly drawn with a needle-nosed bottle to create a lacy, macramé-like image of two typhoons, resembling a labyrinth of string or lace spiraling delicately into a meditative vortex.  Traditionally used for purification rituals to send the dearly departed to the afterlife, salt (or sand) is a Buddhist symbol for the ephemeral nature of life and materialism.  Yamamoto’s work is similar to the Tibetan Buddhist sand paintings, involving painting a mandala, then  sweeping the work and transporting the containers of sand to a river to be washed away.  So too Yamamoto’s “SaltWorks” installation will be swept into bottles,   transported to Fisherman’s Wharf , and returned to the sea.  The public is invited to participate on August 25 at 1:00 pm.  According to the artist, returning the salt to the sea is a healing process, a rejuvenation and experience of  a happier time.  [See the video clip of the installation at: http://vimeo.com/68486340].

The second exhibit focuses on Japanese late 20th century woodblock and screen prints.

Fukita Fumiaki
Fukita Fumiaki

These hanga (lit. “prints”), part of the museum’s permanent collection, feature a break from the traditional pre-20th century ukiyo-e, a highly stylized process of woodblock carving and representational subject matter.  The contemporary hanga exhibit utilizes not only woodcut but also silkscreen and etching techniques.  These prints have a vivid abstract format with brilliant colors, bold geometric compositions, and experimental use of negative space.   My personal favorites are Yukio Fukazawa, Fukita Fumiaki and Kiyoshi Saito: some of their work is not available for viewing even online.  A sheer visual thrill for all art lovers in the Monterey area!

Yukio Fukazawa
Yukio Fukazawa

 

News as Political Agenda: Whatever Happened to Cronkite?

Cronkite2

Our news programs have become promoters of a political agenda, no longer a broadcast of both sides of a position.  But isn’t that what Walter Cronkite did–present both sides?  Instead we watch Fox News or MSNBC, Bill O’Reilly or Rachel Maddow, hardly ever both.  When did our news become so one-sided? When did we start choosing which news to watch based on our predilections?

It seems to date back to the landmark repeal by both Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush of the Fairness Doctrine, first in 1987 and then again in 1991. The 1949 Fairness Doctrine had required all TV news coverage to present opposing viewpoints.  Once it was repealed, newscasters could push a political agenda.  Websites who cover current events often follow suit, with video clips to support their views. The media lesson was straightforward: News is not about the truth. It is about viewership aka advertising dollars.

News coverage is indeed evolving…and rapidly. All we need is a smart phone.  With the iPhone we become our own broadcasters. Think of Cairo’s Tahrir Square. The photos and video may not have the polish of a professional news organization, but they capture the uncensored immediacy of the event.  Live, instantaneous news feels truthful  even though it precludes previewing the content to verify its authenticity .

We’re now able to take people quickly where they couldn’t go before. Take the Arab Spring, for example.  Or Mitt Romney’s muffled comments. It’s changing news one smart phone at a time. This is a milestone. But is it journalism? In some ways, it is the best of times and the worst of times.

Social media increasingly shapes what constitutes newsworthiness. Competition for viewers’ interest has never been more intense. Viewers have always voted with their eyeballs. While the Fairness Doctrine was in effect we voted on whether to watch Cronkite or Huntley and Brinkley.  We chose who delivered the news not which news to deliver. Now it is in the media’s commercial interest to try to match active social media participants’ desires. It is not so difficult to see how an issue which is a major story to one television station or one major blog can be ignored by others: if  the story doesn’t match the participants’ desires. And it is not so difficult to see how the same set of facts can be reported on so differently: “facts” are aligned with the beliefs of the viewers.

And with top priority placed on news events that affect  Americans, some foreign news is completely absent. Compare BBC America or Al Jazeera with CNN or Fox and you will wonder if you are on the same planet.

What has happened to our news?  Opinion dominates, but not necessarily in a transparent way. Should news seek to be objective or skewed to appeal to a targeted audience? How are we to be informed about the world-at-large if our news is one-sided?

Grey Sparrow and Noctua–“Not for the Birds”

Grey Sparrow, Winter 2013
Grey Sparrow, Winter 2013

Grey Sparrow and Noctua Review are both digital and print (hybrid) publications featuring new artists and writers (both short story and flash fiction).

Because of the expense of producing print media or “hard copy”, the proliferation of digital journals allows new writers and artists more venues than ever before.  Journals such as Grey Sparrow and Noctua Review offer both, with the “hard copy” delayed but also available for those who are not quite used to reading almost everything online or in e-book format,  or who just need something for the coffee table.  For those who still believe that printed journals exude more “legitimacy” or “credibility”, some literary and art journals are going through a transitional phase by offering both formats.

Rethinking the way we receive information that used to be exclusively through magazines and newspapers is an exciting venture:  brainstorming new ways to distribute the pleasure and value of reading fiction and appreciating art.  I view them as complementary–almost mutually dependent–in presenting new ways to digest ideas.

The experience of each format is different, both physically and cognitively.   Print is less brilliant in terms of light and “glow” on the eyes and inert when it comes to interacting with the reader. In contrast, digital is bright, interactive and instructive in terms of displaying images, referencing literary illusions, background information, and posting comments.  I enjoy both the “touch and feel” of the paper version as well as the immediacy, interaction, and archival nature of digital media.

For me as a writer and artist, the two-way feedback allowable on the Internet, is an overwhelmingly positive tool to refine my work for a broader audience.  It allows the creator/crafts person to be more democratic in inviting comments and suggestions. The ease, low cost and immediacy of digital distribution is erasing the economies to scale needed for print distribution, once the exclusive providence of large national media channels.  Now we can all compete for viewers.  As content providers/ creators all of us can get potential worldwide distribution that was previously almost impossible.

I invite you to take a look at these two journals which are both digital and print  to see some new work in fiction and art, using the digital and print media distribution channels.  I have my artwork in both journals (Grey Sparrow, Winter 2013) and Noctua Review (June 18, 2013).

“The Big C”– Memento Mori or “Remember You Shall Die”

Big C 2The last stages in the cycle of life and death have finally attracted film and movie producers. I am talking about the formerly taboo twin topics of aging and death.  Perhaps as we baby boomers and our children, the “echo boomers”, see that the inevitability of death needs to be part of our cultural conscience, movies that sympathetically but unflinchingly portray aging and death have been increasingly gaining mainstream audiences and awards.  To name a few:  “Departures”, “Away From Her”, “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”  “Hope Springs”, “Quartet”, “Amour” as well as books such as “The Year of Magical Thinking”.  Is this is a societal flashpoint which marks a cultural change only beginning to take place? The subjects of aging, the changing of the landscape of relationships and friendships, the glibness of those who are trying to offer comfort have never been portrayed in such starkness.

And now the award-winning Showtime television series, “The Big C”,–“C” is for cancer– just finished its four-part special finale to close its four-season run.  The story is Cathy’s (the remarkable Laura Linney):  a middle-aged high school teacher with terminal cancer who wants to be happier with her husband (the subtle actor Oliver Platt),  more involved with her  teenage-son (newcomer  Gabriel   Basso,  a mentor to her college-aged friend (Gabourey Sidibe of “Precious” fame,) and a moral support to her brother (the unforgettable John Benjamin Hickey).   She wants to enjoy her last days with those around her –with a powerful energy to embrace what life she has left. The first three seasons celebrate the joy of fulfilling one’s bucket list and preparing for death with acceptance and positive control over how one chooses to die.

Fearless in its honesty about cancer, people who have to deal with a loved one’s cancer, and the broader topics of death and dying, the final four episodes of “The Big C” are riveting. The viewer cannot look away–even if the uncomfortable connections between life and death seem unbearable. “The Big C” portrays the balancing of living and dying, since death is the most uncertain certainty we know. Cathy decides to die alone: for her a death with integrity and with respect for her family.

Cancer is perhaps the most frightening medical diagnosis one can receive.  It is also, metaphorically, a mutiny of one’s self in which the death of the body is an attack on itself.  Life is savagely unfair at times, and Cathy faces this with triumph, dignity, and uncommon grace.  The horror is not minimized, although I could quibble about the ending not being as bold as it could have been. Nonetheless her journey in the face of death assumes mythic significance.  Dissertations could be written on the beauty with which this unforgettable program deals with the ineffable.