Thursday, August 30, 2012

Old Blog: All That A Person Can Remember

Note:  This is from my old blog.  I published it on 16 March 2006.  I thought I posted up here for you guys to enjoy but can't find it anywhere.  Here's the original post, unaltered.

My opinion has always been that memories make us who we are. Without them, we are no one.

(i am on my first plane ride. i am looking out the window and staring in amazement at the scene below: manhattan. the sun is blazing and bright and i am wearing my purple dress, little white socks and my black patent leather mary janes. i am something on the order of 2.5 - 3 years old.  other than the dinosaurs at the natural history museum, i don't remember much else about NYC, not the subway, not the statue of liberty.)

In the movie Blade Runner, Deckart makes the discovery that replicants have a four year life span because of the accumulation of memories. With that accumulation, replicants tend to develop minds of their own, specifically the desire to control their own destinies and to think for themselves.

(i am sitting on a cold linoleum floor in a bedroom. my brother is on his bed. the light on his nightstand is the only light in the room. it seems unnaturally dark, probably because I am around 3 years old and sitting on the floor. against the wall, there is a cardboard box. my dad is there and he and my brother are laughing. inside the box is a duckling whom we christened "goose goose." she is small, yellow and fuzzy. she is peeping. there are some old rags in the box with her so she stays comfortable. i am fascinated by her.)

What happened next, I don't remember, but my Dad tells me I reached out and grabbed the little duckling by the neck. She passed out because she couldn't breathe. My Dad thought for sure I'd broken her neck. She regained consciousness and was fine. I do not remember almost killing her.

When I was four years old, we moved into the house where my parents live now in San Jose. I remember Goose Goose was full grown. All perfect, white with orange feet and bill. She lived a good long time. I never tried to grab her neck again.

I read somewhere that if you can go back to the house you grew up and you crawl around on your hands and knees all these memories you forgot about will come flooding back to you.

(i'm wearing a white dress with red checkerboard trim and leggings. i seem to be trying to stand up and feel very unsteady on my feet. my brother's dog, who is a year older than me, is standing next to me. i reach out my hands and grab his fur to steady myself. i stand up, tottering against him. he is huge with his comforting white fur and trademark brown spot on his backside.)

As I finish writing this last paragraph, I realize with a small shock that this is probably my earliest memory. I've gone through my life thinking that looking down on Manhattan from the plane window and going into the Dinosaur Halls at the Natural History museum while being carried by my Dad are my earliest memories. This one, however, takes the cake for it is here that I am learning to stand up and walk.

My brother's dog, Tinkerbell, was part cocker spaniel, part poodle. He looked more cocker spaniel than anything. He always seemed so big to me until I got older and I realized he isn't much bigger than my current dog is now: medium size. He died when he was 18 and I was 17. Although he was my brother's dog, we had a special bond since he was there when I was born and during all my growing up years.

(the door to the garage in my parents' house had this curious spring loaded feature which caused it to slam shut. we haven't been living in the house for very long when i get my finger caught in the door. the pain was so bad that i don't remember the rest.)

My mother tells me that my finger broke and they took me to emergency room. She tells me that I had stopped crying and had actually watched in fascination as the doctor put a couple of stitches in my finger. My mother got sick and dizzy and had to leave the exam room. I still have the scar from that incident. I do remember being at home later with a splint on my finger and watching my Dad angrily remove the spring from the door.

During our first phone conversation, a friend of mine asked me what my happiest memories were. I couldn't tell him because they involve two people I haven't seen in over two years who were very dear to me. I can't pinpoint one memory. There are several and they all run together as my favorites. They involve watching three movies in one day, the Tactile Dome, A Midsummer Night's Dream, watching The Ring and reenacting the Fish Slapping Dance. Sometimes when I look at my friend he reminds me of them. I'm not sure why. Maybe it's the hair color or his eyes that bring them to mind.

Last night I dreamed of these two people. I was so happy I was finally seeing them. I recall hugging one of them and I could smell her skin for a moment. When I woke up, I was heartbroken that it was only a dream.

The human search for immortality or at least the desire to make an impact and/or leave a legacy in the world is immensely strong. For some people, leaving behind a family who will continue on is enough. For others, making an impact is the only way to go. For me, all I want is that the people I love and the people who move and shake me to my core remember that I feel that way about them. This is all I have ever wanted.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Pray for Shackleton*

I labored through the cold, clutching my scarf closer to my neck.  Why I ever thought that snow would be flat is anyone's guess.  I am crawling in and around sharp hills and soft valleys of deep snow.  Cold. I stood outside the Castro Theatre the other day, line wrapped around the corner, and my friends bitched endlessly about how cold it was.  They don't know cold.  And I don't know endless.  Not yet.

The sun tinged everything blue and clean.  My eyes are either in a state of white blindness or immersed in oily darkness.  Either way, I can't see clearly.  As I labor along I wonder if I've ever been able to see at all.  What have my inadequate eyes beheld?  My eyes could never be a scientific instrument, precise and objective.  The damn things don't even work on a normal basis, take too long to focus.

My breath drifts before me in milky clouds.  The tip of my nose hurts.  And my quads are screaming.  None of this matters.

I am walking away from this place and I don't look back.  Not at my previous companions, not at the place where I came from.  I'm moving forward with my blinders on, reaching out with both arms for something not in this world.  Ahead of me the orange sun, which looks so warm and restful, sits on the horizon.  The sun is the pause, the nanosecond before the nuclear explosion.

At least I will be warm again even for a few moments.

The water, all frozen (ice)bergs, stretches out around me.  I feel the ice shift as the bergs move.  Winter is here so everything should be frozen solid and there should be no danger of falling into a crack and into the watery grave of the Weddell Sea, or rather watery grave for me.  It's not a grave for the creatures that live there.  I think about this for a while.  One person's grave is another creature's heaven and home.  Perspective?  Natural History?  I don't know.

The most important part of this post is not the next paragraph.  The important part is the end.

Sometimes the only way changes are going happen is to have your goddamn heart broken.  And sometimes, sometimes nothing happens.  Your life just keeps going on with you as a speck and even with all that insignificance, your heart breaks anyway.  Sometimes you feel like you're dying from pain (and maybe the cold) but maybe that's the time you feel most alive.  Maybe that's when you feel like you have the most clarity.  In your insignificance.

Of course, there's a fine line between masochism and awareness but truly that line and the places where I regularly cross over are my business.  I chuckle as I stumble around some ice.  This little mental exercise would probably fall under the pain-lover side of things.  The ice is both soft and jagged in places.  I should pray for Shackleton but I have gone on alone and left both man and beast far behind.  I am exposed and it's getting colder.  The sun is almost gone and the deadly night will come.  If it starts to snow I am done for.

Hell, I'm already done for and I'm glad about it.

*On 14 July 2012, I saw the silent film "South" which is a documentary of one of my favorite true  stories, The Endurance Expedition.  I've read "South" and seen many of the photographs but had never seen the film.  Sir Ernest Shackleton and his men went on an expedition in 1914 to become the first team to cross Antarctica from one end to the other but their ship, The Endurance, got stuck in the ice and had to be abandoned.  The men, having been marooned on the ice in the middle of winter, had to work together to survive.  One of the centerpieces of the story is when Shackleton picked five men and made a 800 mile journey by sea from Elephant Island to South Georgia Island to get help.  The men used a 22 ft wooden lifeboat from The Endurance to make their voyage.  When the sea water hit the boat, it was so cold that it froze.  It took them four weeks and during the voyage, they were caught in a gale with massive waves.

"Scott for scientific method, Amundsen for speed and efficiency but when disaster strikes and all hope is gone, get down on your knees and pray for Shackleton."  -Attributed to Raymond Priestly.

Since I first learned about this true story, I have literally at times in my life prayed for Shackleton for the most amazing thing about this survival story is no one died.  These men were marooned in the most inhospitable environment possible and managed to stay alive.  And Shackleton, nicknamed the Boss by his men, never gave up.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Five Tom Waits Songs That Always Make Me Cry

Tom is one of my top three favorite musicians.  Many people don't like his gravely, just-swallowed-a-broken-beer-bottle voice and some of his music can be difficult to pin down but he's a superb songwriter and storyteller.  His lyrics are rich with descriptions of down and out people, seedy places, and the night, just to name a few of his favorite subjects.

There aren't many songs that make me cry, much less cry every time I hear them.  Below is a list of such songs:

5.  Invitation to the Blues - Small Change (1976).  This song doesn't make me cry each time but it's one of the few songs that when I hear it, I can't believe I'm alive.  It's about a man who walks into a drug store/diner while on his way out of town and falls in love with the beautiful waitress working there.  The song is an entire story capsulated in little over 5 minutes.  This isn't a sad song but it's marvelous storytelling and the narrator is a wonderfully fleshed out character who comes up with a comprehensive backstory for this woman who looks "like Rita Hayworth" as he watches her go about her job.

4.  Jersey Girl - Heartattack and Vine (1980).  I know, I know.  This song is strongly associated by Bruce Springsteen but Tom wrote and performed it first.  I like The Boss' version but it doesn't come close to this one.  Tom perfectly captures all the longing and tenderness that goes with being so much in love with someone that he can't help but shout it out to the world.

3.  Soldier's Things - Swordfishtrombones (1983).  The meaning isn't entirely clear in this song.  It's about a yard sale where a soldier's things are being sold.  Some people think the soldier is the one selling the items but I've always thought the seller was his mother or wife and the soldier is deceased.  A quiet song, very moving, with a beautiful piano accompaniment.

2.  Martha - Closing Time (1973).  Tom was in his mid-twenties when this debut album came out but Martha is one of the truest, most perfect love songs I've ever heard.  An old man, Tom Frost, calls up Martha and asks to meet her for coffee.  They haven't seen each other in 40 years and spend time getting caught up, talking about their spouses and kids, and their lives in general.  Tom and Martha were lovers all those years ago and he is still desperately in love with her.  You can practically feel the old man trembling as he sits at that tiny wooden table in some coffee shop, staring at the women who has haunted his days and nights for so long.

1.  Fish and Bird - Alice (2002).  Alice is my favorite Tom Waits album, not surprising for its Alice in Wonderland elements.  This song is a KILLER!  It's about a small seabird and a whale who fall madly in love but can't be together because of their inability to live in each other's environment.  The story is told by a sailor.  The first time I heard it, I bawled my head off and after the second time I couldn't listen to it for a long time.  This little fable of a story consistently grabs my heartstrings and practically tears them out.  Obviously, it speaks to me on a very deep level.

Whew!  *wipes eyes*  Really enjoyed writing this post.  Hope you enjoy reading it.

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Art Post: The Merode Altarpiece

Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC

How about an art history lesson?  The above piece is the celebrated Merode Altarpiece by Robert Campin (or more accurately, his workshop).  Painted in 1427-1432, this rather small but thoroughly captivating masterpiece is my second favorite Annunciation.  Robert Campin is one of my favorites of the so called Flemish Primitives, that is painters from the low countries (in and around modern day Belgium) who were active in the 15th and 16th centuries.

Let's start with the subject.  Paintings were commissioned and the only folks who could do that were wealthy patrons (individuals) or institutions.  Consequently, many of the paintings depict religious scenes or were portraits.  This altarpiece was commissioned by the two wealthy individuals on the left side panel called "donors."  Donors would commission works of art as a way to increase their chances of getting into heaven.  No lie.  Hmm.  Makes me think of Martin Luther and his objections to indulgences.

Right Panel - Joseph
The central panel is, of course, the Annunciation.  An Annunciation depicts the archangel Gabriel showing up at Mary's house to tell her she is going to bear the Christ child.  In most Annunciation scenes, Mary is seated in a domestic setting, often reading a book.  There are usually lilies, which represent her purity, sometimes Gabriel's wings are rainbow colored, and there's usually a tiny crucifixion near the window to symbolize the immaculate conception.  Sometimes Gabriel's speech is shown as latin phrases upside down, a kind of early speech bubble, but not in this painting.

The panel on the far right is very, very cool.  That's Joseph and he, being the carpenter, is building a mousetrap.  The mousetrap symbolizes how Christ will "trap" and defeat Satan.  This kind of symbolism isn't used very much and we are very lucky that Campin chose to include it.

These types of religious paintings are packed with other symbolism which I'm not knowledgable enough to write about but most everything depicted in the painting usually has some kind of meaning or reference.

When I was in NYC last time, I was by myself and determined to see many of the things I missed on previous visits.  One of them was going to The Cloisters, a branch of the Met, which is located at the north tip of Manhattan in Fort Tryon Park to see their splendid collection of Medieval art.  I was really looking forward to seeing this painting in person and doing some sketching.

When I saw the painting for the first time I was struck by how small it is.  Barely four feet across and only 2 feet high.  The second thing is all the marvelous details in the painting.  Flemish Primitives are known for their almost microscopic details and this lovely domestic scene is packed full of them.  I was also struck by how fresh the painting the looks.  The paint still looks like it's wet!  Shimmering, luminous colors with layers of depth.  The photos don't do it justice.

After staring at it for a while, I pulled out my sketchbook and began to draw.  I was intimidated as hell about drawing anything from this incredible piece but had settled on her hands.  I'd never drawn hands before but I was determined to do it anyway.  Sometimes great art inspires you to try crazy things.  You can see my efforts below.

A screen shot of the original so you can see what I was aiming for.

Drawing The Virgin's hands was not easy.  See that small but exuberant note on the bottom left of my sketchbook page where I mention how happy I am?  I was so excited to be seeing this piece of art and I was excited that my sketch actually looked okay.  I mean, it's not anything close to the original but it kind of looks like it.

The other thing I was learning to sketch during this trip was folds of fabric.  It took a while to get comfortable with drawing heavy drapery but I enjoy such drawings now and sometimes fall back on drawing folds of fabric when I've worn myself out at the end of a museum/sketch visit.

Sketching parts of paintings has been really instructive.  When you try to copy a masterpiece you learn so much about the artist and yourself.  You have to really look at it and you learn about line, shading, and color.  You can sometimes spot small details that aren't immediately apparent such as this one:

See her eyes?  You can see how they've shifted ever so slightly because Gabriel has just landed in the room.  This is the moment of transition which symbolizes the shift that's coming.  In her life, in the world, and in most religious lives.  A monumental moment captured so subtly by this master.

I spent a long time staring at this altarpiece and pondering what it would be like to be able to see it all the time.  Must be amazing.  As it is, I have my sketch to remind me, and now this blog post.

Friday, August 03, 2012

Movie Musings: Opening Sequence to The Testament of Doctor Mabuse

How about if we spend this post taking a look at one of my favorite film opening sequences of all time? Opening sequences are a lot of fun to look at and can set the stage for a great film.  Some other favorites:  1) Raiders of the Lost Ark, 2) The Matrix, 3) The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, 4) Star Wars, and 5) A History of Violence.

About the Film

The Testament of Doctor Mabuse is a 1933 German film directed by Fritz Lang and was the penultimate film I watched during my Weimar Cinema film survey.

The film was scheduled for release in March 1933.  Hitler acquired power in January and appointed Joseph Goebbels the Reich Minister of Propaganda.  Goebbels viewed the film and banned it, stating the film "showed an extremely dedicated group of people are perfectly capable of overthrowing any state with violence." (Wikipedia)

The story is the police inspect a series of crimes that fit the m.o. of Doctor Mabuse, a criminal mastermind who is in a catatonic state in a mental hospital.  Trouble is, he's in solitary confinement so they don't know how he's able to communicate with the criminals to carry out the nefarious deeds. Inspector Karl Lohmann, who was also the inspector in Lang's brilliant film M, must wind his way through insane asylums and the criminal underworld before finding out the disturbing truth behind the crimes.

The first time I saw it I was struck by how timely this film was. 9/11 was still fresh in my mind and this film is not only about the difference between criminal violence and violence for the sake of inflicting fear and subjugating people for a specific purpose (terrorism), it's also about how the ideology behind such acts can be kept alive and, therefore, continue on even if the originator of that ideology is no longer part of the equation.  Powerful stuff.

The Opening Sequence

Hofmeister (Karl Meixner), who isn't even the main character in this film, is trying to get out of a dangerous situation:  He's been found out and is trying to exit the building without being seen. There's no speaking in this part; the only sounds are the very loud, regular percussive sounds of printing presses making counterfeit money.  We don't see the machines at all.

I love the way he moves through space with a kind of deliberate grace that belies his scruffy appearance. There's a slow-fast rhythm and echos in his posture that tie the sequence together which are  further enhanced by the regular pounding of the unseen machines. The camera moves into the room, taking care to move slowly enough so we can see the objects shaking from the vibrations of the presses, runs smack into the wall then shifts suddenly to the floor where we see him hiding behind the large wooden box (1st picture). After some men come into the room, notice he's there, then leave, he slowly comes out from behind the wooden box (2d picture), walks deliberately to the door (LOVE his slumped posture! 3d picture), quickly turns and leans against the door in one motion to listen (4th picture), pauses for some refreshment before quickly opening the door and pausing in case someone is standing there (5th picture), then looks to his right, steps forward to look to the left around the door, walks out, turns around to face us, then leans very slowly over the side of the banister (6th picture).  Contrast his slightly slumped posture in the third image with the upright, foot forward, shoulders back posture in the fifth image, and the leaning against the door in the fourth image with the leaning over the banister in the last image.

I'm a big fan of parallels and enjoy using them in my writing as well.  This opening sequence shows the movement parallels that Hofmeister goes through, all without saying a word.

You can watch the entire sequence here.  It's over four minutes long.

The DVD and the Images

I have the two-disc set from Criterion which is marvelous.  The film has been beautifully restored as you can see from the images above.  The commentary is outstanding and the documentaries are excellent.  I created the images above by taking screenshots and then painstakingly arranging them in my Notebook program.  I then took another screenshot of the entire sequence and uploaded it here.