Monday, February 28, 2011

coulda woulda shoulda

Article first published as A Very Subjective Look at the 2011 Oscars on Blogcritics.

Pre-mommyhood, I used to see practically all the movies before the Academy Awards aired and felt almost as if I had a personal stake in who won. Oscar parties with ballots were also a yearly event. I'm still a movie buff, but now the Oscars are more of a barometer for what I will have to catch on-demand or DVD, because it's just not always possible to go out to see a (grown-up) movie.

The show trotted Oprah out about halfway through to present the documentary award and she delivered the old saw about how when times are tough we go to the movies. But that simply is no longer the case and it hasn't been for quite a while. It's not even a choice between the movies and TV. Or the Internet. It's everything. All of the above. On-demand. Netflix. Hulu. Wii. Some of us still go out to a movie regularly. Maybe even one that isn't IMAX or 3D. Some people even go out and do stuff in the real world once in a while that doesn't require a screen of some kind. So why try to perpetuate the "movies are our great escape" myth? But that out-of-touch air permeated this octogenarian-plus-three Oscars. And the not-so-dream-team hosts couldn't remedy the staleness.

The much-touted James Franco/Anne Hathaway duo seemed surprisingly Little Rascals-ish to me. They didn't help the overall amateur-hour feel of the show. Oh well, maybe next year we'll get Hugh Jackman back. Or Steve Martin. Or apparently, Billy Crystal or a virtual Bob Hope. But if they're smart they'll just get the comedy team of Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law to read all the awards. They were the only fresh moment in the show. Franco and Hathaway really just didn't work. At all. If Hathaway "Whooo!!!"-ed one more time I was going to reach into the screen and throttle her. Note to Anne: whooping like a cheerleader doesn't add freshness to an event like the Oscars.

What people wore has always been a fun part of the show, but last night it was almost the only reason to watch, except for Colin Firth. Just a few quick red carpet and fashion thoughts. Papa Gunn was visibly nervous. ScarJo's dress was granny-hideous. Loved RDJ's white tux shirt and tie with suit. He's always very natty. Colin Firth looked amazing. Natalie Portman's dress was so dull. What happened? Gwyneth looked amazing head to toe. Josh Brolin and Javier Bardem as ice cream men—nuh-uh. James Franco looked tired like most college students, but was it Franco as Marilyn or Franco as Madonna as Marilyn? Why was Reese Witherspoon in practically the same dress and hair as Julia Roberts from ten years ago?

The Oscars are always subjective, and anyone can have an opinion about who coulda or shoulda or woulda won. This particular Oscars held few surprises, but I was able to add to my movies to-see list. I only really cared (as I suspect, did most people) about a few awards, which I'll briefly recap here.

Actress in a Supporting Role with a torture/comedy presentation by Kirk Douglas
Amy Adams may be my very favorite actress these days, but Melissa Leo was a given. Helena Bonham Carter in The King's Speech was my coulda woulda shoulda. I love her when she's with her significant-Burton, but it's such a kick to see her do something "straight," too. Keep stretching, Helena.

Actor in a Supporting Role
Christian Bale winning was so predictable it was interesting to see him a tad flustered. Must be the sheer size of the auditorium, lights, etc. I'm sure he definitely deserved his award, but I still don't really want to see this movie. I wonder what Steven Spielberg was thinking watching Bale give his acceptance speech, who he first directed as a child (Empire of the Sun)? I know that's when I first saw him. Wow. Time flies.

Actress in a Leading Role
I'm totally good with Natalie Portman winning for Black Swan, but had to admit I was rooting for my coulda woulda shoulda Annette Bening.

Actor in a Leading Role
Colin Firth in The King's Speech was my coulda woulda shoulda and the obvious choice. I love me some Jeff Bridges and will eventually catch True Grit, but I'm in no great rush. Ditto Biutiful Javier Bardem. James Franco is also a favorite, but I doubt I will ever spend even two hours watching him gnaw off a leg. Or is it an arm? Don't ever need to know. Colin, I hope you are wrong and that your career hasn't peaked, but continues on its steady rise.

Possibly the biggest surprise for me if the night was when Jill Clayburgh's photo flipped past on the stars we lost segment. I'm not sure how I missed hearing about her. My dad took the whole family to see An Unmarried Woman when it came out. He must have had a big crush on her and my mom and I walked out of there in love with Alan Bates. She was a great actress, very empathetic.

Animated Feature Film
Why only three nominees? Apparently there was Oscar math at work. But I still couldn't help but wonder where the hell was Tangled, Shrek, Despicable Me? Alice in Wonderland was practically an animated film, not that it was a good one. Couldn't that film have helped push the category into a more proper and competitive number of slots?In this half-assed attempt at a category my pick to win was The Illusionist, lacking Tangled and Shrek.

Most of the technical awards were easy to predict. Costume Design went to Alice in Wonderland, definitely the best thing about that mess of a movie. Sorry, Tim & Johnny. I really didn't care about the make-up category, but I do want to see The Way Back and got a kick out of the fact that the silly The Wolfman was nominated—Rick Baker aside, whoda thunk it would actually win? I also loved presenter Cate Blanchett saying what everyone was thinking watching the film clip of Benicio Del Toro's wolf-transformation, "That's really gross." As much as I'm not a fan, Randy Newman said it—only four songs nominated in his category, but five cinematographers in theirs? Must be more Oscar math. And ten movies? It's a crock, people, but still we watch.

Directing was a bit of a surprise, because sometimes they give it to someone whose movie doesn't win any other big awards, but Tom Hooper got it forThe King's Speech, which made things almost a royal sweep. And of course, if you managed to stay awake, and stick with the show to it's conclusion, Best Picture also went to The King's Speech. A month ago I would have predicted The Social Network, but it was clearly The King's Speech all the way last night, ten nominees or not.

Congratulations to everyone. I tell myself every year that this is it, the last one I'll sit through, but then another year rolls around and I usually find myself watching. Here's hoping for a Downey/Law team effort next time out. Really, it could work.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

who hasn't felt that?

Saturday, February 26, 2011

here comes the sun

First day I have felt almost back to normal. Taking it easy so that I stay that way, but we managed to have a nice brunch out, a garden tour and some thrift shopping (and nabbed some cool old book bargains.) So far a pretty good Saturday and the sun is still shining.

Bethesda by the Sea

Friday, February 25, 2011

i wish

How one of the coolest songs ever came to life ...

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Thursday, February 24, 2011


As I get over my tummy bug, I seem to only want to look at photos, not do too much writing. Luckily there are plenty of pictures from our recent vacation to indulge in.

We saw some interesting creatures on our trip, including a tank full of eels.


These unicorn fish were fun, too.

Unicorn fish

But the zebrafish may be my favorite.

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Wednesday, February 23, 2011

today's agenda

stomach bug = Gatorade + saltines


Tuesday, February 22, 2011

meet 'n' greet

With Donald


With LEGO Woody

Monday, February 21, 2011

more birthday goodness



Sunday, February 20, 2011

scenes from a birthday



Saturday, February 19, 2011


The kid is seven.

Lucky number.
Lucky kid.

Lucky day.
Lucky me.

Friday, February 18, 2011

kids will be kids

I'm still thinking about Patti Smith's Just Kids. Not only was it a great read, but it was a trip down memory lane. Not exactly my memories, but I did have a similar New York young artist experience about twenty years later than Patti and Robert Mapplethorpe. Maybe it's something about the city, or just about that time in your life, but the combination of a young kid on the loose in New York always makes for some amazing times.

My New York experience was actually a combination of Patti's and Robert's. Like Patti, I came from south Jersey and was definitely the "country mouse" walking on 14th Street in rubber flip flops while the natives smirked at me. The soles of my feet would be black at the end of the day. Like Robert I went to art school, in my case Parsons—he went to Pratt. I also lived in Brooklyn with an assortment of roommates.

collage - rock and roll
Brooklyn and New York goings-on.
Max's Kansas City was just a memory by the time I hit town. The "in" spots in my day were The Pyramid, Danceteria, Area. CBGB was more about hardcore than punk. But the idea was the same. Go out to see and be seen. I think my friends and I may have had a bit more fun than Patti did at first, because we spent a lot of our time dancing. It sounds like Patti wasn't much of a club-goer, but was accompanying Robert in his quest to be seen. I did see a lot of the same New York celebrities that Patti rubbed shoulders with. My dorm was a building down from Warhol's studio on Union Square and I used to see him all the time, strolling the neighborhood, flanked by two gorgeous blond young men. Mick Jagger rode the elevator up in our building to vist the illustrator Antonio.

Elizabeth, Andy and Robin
At the Warhol opening at MoMA. And no, that's not Andy.
I also worked retail like Patti to pay the rent. I worked at the Museum of Modern Art and met many artists, and got my second art degree just spending my lunch hours in the museum. A bunch of us who worked at MoMA went to the Whitney in 1988 to see the Mapplethorpe retrospective. It was amazing. I had seen his work in the city, but just a few pieces here or there. But seeing the photographs large-scale—a beautiful lily juxtaposed with an S&M couple—it is hard to deny the artist's refined eye. He treated every subject equally, with a glossy and perfect surface. I saw his Patti Smith photos, too, and smiled in recognition at familiar album cover art. I had no idea at the time of their strong link. It was just another celebrity photo in a series of celebrity photos. I keep thinking I saw Mapplethorpe there, too, but in New York you see so many people. I can't be sure.

Robert Mapplethorpe at his Whitney Retrospective, 1988 Copyright © Jonathan Becker / Vanity Fair
The most poignant part of the book is Patti's slow realization that the man she loves doesn't love her the same way. She pulls away, gets angry, gets pulled back in, and decides that they are too important to each other to not stay close. I'll never forget my grandmother telling me when I had been accepted to art school to be careful who I fell in love with. She was in the Parsons Interior Design program, before it was a college, in 1929. She had fallen hard for a man who became her lifelong friend, but also was her first heartbreak. Most of the guys at college in my day were pretty open about their sexuality, so I don't think I could have had Patti's or my grandmother's experience. I did have a brief crush on a guy who wasn't completely out yet, but it was short, because I figured out we liked the same sorts of guys pretty quickly. And then we became friends.

It's interesting that the bohemian experience, whatever the decade, can be so similar. It makes me wonder what my daughter's twenties will be like. As much as I'm terrified at the prospect of even her teens at this point I have to admit to a little excitement for her. Will she, like her mom and her grandma and her great-grandma before her, also want to find herself in New York? Will New York still be the "place to be" for the twenty-something set in another fifteen years? CBGB is no more and the Chelsea Hotel is up for sale, but I guess these iconic joints will be replaced with new ones. Kids will be kids, so a whole new generation of escapades is on the horizon.
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Thursday, February 17, 2011

just kids

Article first published as Book Review: Just Kids by Patti Smith on Blogcritics.

Just Kids, Patti Smith's beautiful book about her youth with Robert Mapplethorpe, who she calls "the artist of my life" is a celebration, an elegy, a memoir, and a fascinating slice of life of New York City from the late sixties and seventies. It's also a study of two very different artists, with very different sensibilities.

Patti was very bohemian. She came from a poor background, with a loving family. She never finished college, but was well-read, especially in Symbolist poetry and her hero, Arthur Rimbaud. Patti spent most of her twenties trying to find herself. She wasn't focused on being a star, but an artist. Generous of spirit, she wanted at first be a muse, then an artist in her own right. Seemingly having little or no ego, she wanted everyone she met to succeed. She must have had a healthy ego to become a rock star, but it never seems to be of a competitive nature. She was the quintessential hippie.

Robert, on the other hand, was obsessed with becoming a successful artist, a star, from the get-go. He was also willing to do whatever it would take to make the big time—hanging out at the right places, hustling, befriending the rich and famous. He wanted to be as big, or bigger, than Andy Warhol. When Patti met him he was already a serious artist, with a strong work ethic, secure in his own sensibility and the themes he wanted to explore. He was less secure in his persona, his sexuality, and how he presented himself to the world. Or maybe it wasn't that he was less secure, but he was just less forthright.

Both kids grew up with fairly strict religious backgrounds, but their experiences with the church had different effects on their lives and work. In Patti it seemed to deepen her work and give her a place to start from—especially when she could pray her own way, "I was relived when I no longer had to mouth the words If I die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take and could instead say what was in my heart. Thus freed, I would lie in my bed ... mouthing long letters to God." Mapplethorpe may never had made peace with his Catholicism, which was partially responsible for his at-first hidden sexuality. "His dual nature troubled me, mostly because I feared it troubled him. ... His Catholic preoccupation with good and evil reasserted itself, as if he had to choose one over the other. He had broken from the Church, now it was breaking within him."

Robert was the perfect boyfriend and lover for Patti—for a short time. She may not have cottoned on for a while to why they drifted apart physically, but he did encourage her creatively, and while maybe not her true love(r), he was undoubtedly her soul mate. Patti slept on stoops and in Washington Square Park when she first arrived without a cent in New York city in the mid-60s. She experienced first-hand the effect drugs had on her friends and idols. She was in the middle of a whirlwind of unrest and change, but she was still a naive kid from the suburbs. The early deaths of 60s musical superstars and the more public emergence of gay literary and cultural figures like William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg were a part of her day-to-day life. Patti was young and naive, but she was also a part of her time. She might not have been so oblivious to Robert's sexual orientation or as pure in her artistic pursuits if her story took place twenty years later. Patti's was a different time and a different New York than today, but many young people did and still do have the New York experience Robert did. Willing to do anything in order to become a star in whatever art form they are pursuing—painting, music, acting.

The Chelsea Hotel was their Montmartre, their source and hotbed of creativity. For every young artist, young person, there is a time and place that is almost sacred. It's where and when they found their true peers, had their first deep personal and artistic experiences, were independent. For Patti it was the Chelsea Hotel. While she lived there with Robert she met her idols (Janis Joplin, William S. Burroughs), contemporaries (Sam Shepherd, Todd Rundgren) and really felt a part of something. She watched from afar so many of her idols die—Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Brian Jones, Jim Morrison. No matter how many deaths of young artists  send her in a tailspin and reminded her of her hero Rimbaud, she and Robert never considered it could happen to one of them.

Patti brings that time and her experience of being a young artist in the late 60s and 70s to life. She has a real sense of New York history, and when she mentions that she went to a club to do a reading of her poetry she also mentions that the building once was once a saloon frequented by Lillian Russell and Diamond Jim Brady, or some other historical figure and anecdote. As much as things change in the city, its history is constant and pervades. 

Patti may not have wanted to acknowledge how her relationship with Robert had changed, or even how others perceived their relationship, but she was the first to realize that she needed something else, something more. No matter how different Robert's goals were, or how far they drifted apart, Patti never judges, she just loves. And you get a sense that Robert, even if he was a little jealous or disapproving of her latest boyfriend, also never judged her. They encouraged each other, egged each other on. She told him, "You should take your own pictures," when he complained that images he cut out of men's magazines just weren't right for his latest collage. He told her that she should sing songs, not just write and read her poetry. They are true to each other. Peas in a pod. They practically lived in each other's pockets for 8 years.

They eventually must grow apart, their art and their lives diverging. Patti started to find success with her band and went on tour. Back in New York, with the help of a wealthy lover and patron, Robert concentrated fully on his photography, and imbued all his subject matter, whether it was a stunning flower, socialite, or naked male torso, with an exacting, brutal elegance. Patti may not always have related to his subject matter, but she understood and appreciated why he did. "Robert was not a voyeur ... he wasn't taking pictures for the sake of sensationalism ... he never felt his underground world was for everybody."

The book ends with their last days and conversations, as Mapplethorpe died of AIDs in 1989. It's clear that he will always be important for Smith. She took a vow to protect him when they were just kids and she is still taking care of him, eloquently sharing his legacy through her evocative memories and stories.

Book #10 in reading challenge Cannonball Read 3, sponsored by Pajiba

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Wednesday, February 16, 2011

detectives don't wear seatbelts

Article first published as Book Review: Detectives Don't Wear Seat Belts: True Adventures of a Female P.I. by Cici McNair on Blogcritics.

Cici McNair's Detectives Don't Wear Seatbelts is a fun and fast read. You careen along with the author through her exotic travels and attempts to become a female private eye in a profession mainly inhabited and ruled by men. When I think of a detective it's the brilliant yet introspective Sherlock Holmes, or the laconic hero of a noir classic like Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep, or the fast-talking private eye who won't let anyone stop him from getting to the truth about who killed his partner—like Bogie again in The Maltese Falcon. So it's refreshing to learn how a woman was able to join the ranks of this traditionally masculine profession. McNair's writing fits the fast-talker detective profile to a T. She decides one day to become a detective and sets off full-steam, without a clue, but with energy and desire to spare.

She is definitely fearless, whether it's stepping off a plane countless times in some remote location, or stepping off a creepy dark elevator in a New York counterfeit handbag factory, wearing a wire and with a hidden camera, to spy on the goings-on. But even with all her rapid-fire anecdotes we never fully understand why she has gone on her latest journey or taken on yet another part-time job. Is it because she couldn't sit still for long? Or is she running from her dark family secrets?

As she becomes a crack investigator, McNair realizes that she loves hanging out with the boys and sketches their colorful personalities, while never resorting to caricature. And that's no mean feat, as some of the detectives seem to court caricature, or at least have modeled themselves after Bugs Bunny's Bugs and Thugs version of a tough-talking private eye, "Bugs Bunny, Private Eyeball—Thugs Thwarted, Arsonists Arrested, Bandits Booked, Forgers Found, Counterfeiters Caught, and Chiselers Chiseled."

I think it's because she has a great affection for her colleagues, and an almost photographic memory of spending time with them, even after working with some for just a few short months. While I was reading, I tried to remember all the interesting and unusual folks I have crossed paths with in short-term jobs I've held over the years. It's not that easy. McNair not only has a great memory, but also must feel a duty to do everyone justice. She does and she's also pretty funny while she's doing it.

McNair talks about her childhood and abusive, distant father, but somehow leaves a mystery in the air—did he really try to murder her mother and her? What about her other siblings? She has quite a few and they don't seem to have much of a part in her life or have experienced the same upbringing and issues—she does mention briefly that one brother committed suicide. She seems devoted to her octogenarian mother, but maintains her distance from her and her Mississippi roots.

She is observant and diligent when it comes to detecting. Why does she avoid the obvious hints from a local Mississipi private eye that investigating her father's life might help answer many of her questions and put some of her issues to rest? McNair's whirlwind travels around the world, multiple relationships, and avoidance of marriage seem to always be tied back to the one big relationship in her life—her parents' marriage. That's a book I would have liked to read—her in-depth investigation of her parents' past. It might be intrusive, even creepy, to investigate one's family, but wouldn't a true detective also find it irresistible?

McNair does bring up the emotional debris that comes with taking a peek into others' lives. Although her investigating does seem to help many—she reunites lost relatives, helps innocent and impoverished people avoid jail—she doesn't always get to see how their story ends. She may produce all the facts that a person needs to contact their lost relative, but she has to hand over the paperwork and leave before the final scene is played. Did the client eventually contact their missing family member? McNair usually never finds out.

Detectives Don't Wear Seatbelts is a memoir, but it also reads as a bit of a mystery. For all of its author's desire to take us along on her breakneck pace through her life, the reader never gets to go too far below the surface. Maybe that's how McNair wants it. Like the boss of the detective agency who she never really gets to know with the assortment of different hats for undercover work—cowboy, baseball, fedora, etc.—it probably isn't in a born detective's nature to want to reveal too much of themselves. They are in the business of staying in the shadows and turning up facts about others.

Book #9 in reading challenge Cannonball Read 3, sponsored by Pajiba

Full disclosure: This book was sent to me to review. I'm very thankful to be considered a critic of books, movies and other pop culture and I will continue to be fair in my reviews.

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Tuesday, February 15, 2011

which Doctor Who?

Article first published as Which Doctor Who? on Blogcritics.

As a single mother of a young child, it's a rare occurrence for me to do things when I want to—like catch a movie, take a nap, or watch a television show first-run. But movies come around on cable rotation, I sometimes nod off after dinner, and the bonus to not seeing a show when it's first aired is that I don't have to deal with all that pesky suspense—waiting from week to week to see what will happen next. After I tuck the kid into bed I can indulge in a mini-marathon of whatever is my "it" show of the moment.
The Doctors, from top to Bottom: Tom Baker 
(4th Doctor), Christopher Eccleston (9th Doctor), 
David Tennant (10th Doctor), Matt Smith 
(11th Doctor)
Take Doctor Who, for instance. But first you'll have to figure out which one. The Doctor has got to be one of the all-time lovable, exasperating, interesting and annoying characters ever on television. And he's been on television a long time. I've caught different Doctors through the years. I remember some '60s movie that I watched after school one afternoon, Dr. Who and the Daleks,with Peter Cushing as Doctor Who. It was corny and silly, but I liked the time machine/police telephone box. It intrigued me. It was years later before I learned it was called a TARDIS. I got more of a sense of the character when the Doctor Who series ran on PBS in the '80s and my mom, who had a crush on Tom Baker and his ever-present scarf, would watch faithfully. I couldn't really make heads or tails of the plots, but it was my mom's show, so I probably wasn't really paying too close attention.

I didn't independently watch a Doctor Who series until he was inhabited by Christopher Eccleston. I was surprised at how his shows seemed darker, more action-oriented, then what I expected and had seen previously from the Doctor. I liked them a lot. It really felt like my kind of sci-fi.

After catching a few syndicated reruns recently on the Syfy Channel, I was eager to watch more of Doctor Who. But I haven't so far been able to watch a complete story arc, or even the escapades of just one Doctor. At first I was a little put off by watching Doctor Who on-demand—I'd been recording shows and then catching one or two when I get a chance. It's not at all like getting a DVD and immersing oneself in a series or a season like I used to do with shows I'd missed on their first time out. I'm watching the Doctor Who episodes, and also the Doctors, out of sequence. I might see David Tennant try to save the world from Miss Hartigan and the Cybermen in Victorian garb and powering a gigantic robot in "The Next Doctor"—a very steampunk, very fun episode—and then the next episodes on the DVR might be ones introducing Matt Smith's Doctor, only to be followed by a familiar favorite featuring Eccleston. It's at times a bit confusing, but that only seems right, where the Doctor is concerned.

I'm finally getting to see what all the fuss was about with the latest Doctors: David Tennant and Matt Smith. Tennant's Doctor is as quirky as he should be, but he has a dark side. He wants to help people, but frequently thinks that he is the only one who knows how to do that, sometimes with disastrous results, as in "The Waters of Mars," where his manipulations to alter history have some very serious consequences. I am still wading through his shows, but his incarnation of the Doctor has all the fun and high spirits of how I remember my mom's Doctor, Tom Baker, with a dash of Eccleston's more melancholy, darker Doctor. Matt Smith's Doctor takes his predecessor's enthusiasm and brings it up a notch as he races through time and plots, always two or three steps ahead of his companions and the audience. He seems a bit more light-hearted, but I've seen fewer of his shows than Tennant's.

Watching this Doctor Who 9th, 10th, and 11th Doctor mash-up has actually enhanced my appreciation of the series and showcased the continuity as well as the differences in the actors' and show creators' approaches to the character. I will definitely have to go back and start these Doctors' stories from their beginnings, but at the moment I am enjoying not knowing which Who I wlll experience next. I recommend jumping around in time, and in sequence, with Doctor Who. I recently noticed that our local library has some early B&W Doctor Who episodes on DVD. I hadn't realized how many more Dr. Whos there were to discover. This could take my television time travel up another notch.
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Monday, February 14, 2011

♥♥♥♥ you

No matter who got the awards at the Grammys last night, this was the song and performance of the year for me. How can you not smile watching Cee Lo and his crew? Gwyneth may be goopy at times, but she is the best thing about Glee this year, and if Cee Lo likes her she's OK with me. Plus, muppets.

So silly, and such a better earworm than the dreadful Lady Antebellum song. But it's Valentine's Day and I'm full of love, so Lady Antebellum I'll forget you and keep Cee Lo on repeat.
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Sunday, February 13, 2011

in good company

At the Four Arts Garden

Saturday, February 12, 2011

no swimming

Between my still-healing recently broken toe, the shark and man-o-war sightings, and the colder weather, I haven't been doing as many beach walks and wading recently. This wooden screen from the Norton Museum of Art reminds me that toes heal, sharks and man-o-wars move on, and it will be warmer soon.

Wooden screen
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Friday, February 11, 2011

i want a frittata ... made by Stanley Tucci

Article first published as DVD Review: Big Night on Blogcritics.

I just rewatched Big Night and it is as wonderful and heartbreaking and inspiring as ever. There is so much to love in this film, from the fabulous soundtrack of songs by Louis Prima, Rosemary Clooney and others, to the great ensemble cast of Stanley Tucci, Tony Shalhoub, Minnie Driver, Ian Hom, Isabella Rosselini, Allison Janney and Campbell Scott—to the amazing food, food, food. I still have yet to attempt the signature dish timpano, but this movie makes me want to try.

The movie was written by Tucci with Joseph Tropiano and directed by Tucci and co-star Campbell Scott. Like the infamous timpano, the film is a labor of love in how it portrays the difficulty two Italian immigrant brothers find in adapting to their new country, while at the same time wanting to hold onto and share the culture of Italy and their family with their new friends. Older brother and chef Primo, played by Shalhoub, is in despair that diners at the brothers' restaurant want Italian-American fare—a side of spaghetti with everything. Rival restaurant owner Ian Holm is more than willing to give the people what they want. Restaurant manager Tucci just wants to succeed in his new country and provide a showcase for his talented brother.

The movie builds and builds its momentum, with the viewer and every character in the movie wanting the brothers to succeed on their big night—a chance to cook a feast for popular Italian-American bandleader Louis Prima and his band. Images like the burning wrappers of the amaretti give the viewer clues along the way, but the final scene, my favorite, says so much without the actors saying a single word. Food, love, life is what matters to these brothers—as Shaloub's character Primo says, "To eat good food is to be close to God."

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Thursday, February 10, 2011

raise your hands

Two of the highlights from our visit to the Norton Museum of Art the other day.

In sculpture and in painting, these ladies are both reaching for the skies.

Raise your arms

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Joe Public vs. Joe Strummer The Future is Unwritten

Article first published as DVD Review: Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten on Blogcritics.

Why do some find the need to make rock star bios? The recent and dreadful Lennon Naked added absolutely nothing to what anyone knows or has thought or felt about the Beatles and Lennon—if anything, it took away from the man, made him quite unlikable. Walk the Line didn't do much for Johnny Cash, or for me. Val Kilmer did a great Jim Morrison impersonation in a not-great-at-all film. Gary Oldman was a fantastic exception as Sid Vicious in the great Sid and Nancy. What all this is leading up to is that there is a film biography of musician Joe Strummer rumored to be in the works, Joe Public. There's not much to be known about it yet, except there is the desire to make the film. And I'm not exactly excited about the prospect.

I'm not sure I could stand to watch someone "play" Joe Strummer in a film. I was just finally able to make myself watch Joe Strummer The Future is Unwritten. I was a huge Clash fan growing up, and an even huger Joe fan. Some kids growing up love comic books and idolize superheroes. I had a few posters of singers and the New York Yankees on my bedroom wall, but I never really had a teen idol phase like some of my girlfriends. But when I put the first Clash record on my parents' stereo in suburban southern New Jersey, my world changed. I took London Calling with me to art school and Joe & Mick & Paul & Topper were the soundtrack of my college years.

The Clash were different from any other band or music that I had ever heard. Their lyrics made me think, exposed me to issues and people previously unknown (Sandinista).

But how could we know when I was young
All the changes that were to come?
All the photos in the wallets on the battlefield ("Something About England" Sandinista!)

They created an aural collage—straight-up rock and roll, punk vocals and values, Allan Ginsberg reading ("Ghetto Defendant"), lines from cult movies like Taxi Driver ("Red Angel Dragnet"), pop culture references galore. Plus, you could dance to it. Joe Strummer was my first and maybe only idol. I looked up to him. He was an artist who made me glad that I was an artist.

It's sometimes hard to meet your idols. It can be very disappointing, which was why I had been avoiding Julien Temple's film. But I finally sat down and watched it and was impressed. It wasn't just a rock star rise and fall story, although there are those aspects to Joe's career (and anyone's life after a certain age.) It wasn't just about the Clash. It didn't sanctify or trash Joe, although it didn't shy away from showing some of his less-than-stellar moments. It was as honest and hyper-kinetic and three-dimensional as the man.

For Clash fans it confirmed, through Joe's own words and interviews with Mick Jones, that not only did Joe break up the Clash, but he broke Mick's heart when he fired him from the band in 1983. But it also showed more clearly than any other film about a band that maybe there really is only one pattern for rock stars—walk over everyone and work your ass off to get to the top, get addicted to drugs on the way, clean up, finally get to the top, find out that success isn't so great when you get there, freak out at the inevitable slide down (all except possibly the Rolling Stones who never seemed to notice their slide and are as happy as they could be, to be where they are.) As Joe says when he the Clash have made the big time, playing before huge crowds at Shea Stadium, "I couldn't believe we turned into what we tried to destroy." Boys together are great until the boys grow up to be men.

Elevator! Going up!
In the gleaming corridors of the 51st floor
The money can be made if you really want some more ("Koka Kola" London Calling)

Joe was brought up all over the world, which definitely was a factor in the world-view politics expressed in his art. He also experienced the typical English boarding school environment, hardly seeing his parents for his formative years. His brother David, a year older, was a lost soul—he joined the National Front, became more and more alienated from his family and eventually committed suicide at the age of 19. Joe went to art school, "The last resort of malingerers and bluffers and people who don't want to work" (as an art school graduate I adore that quote), and eventually found a group of like-thinking hippies and squatters who also were musicians. He soon chucked art school and dove into music full-time, deciding that he wanted to be a rock star. This led to the 101ers, which had some wonderful rockabilly-influenced songs such as "Keys to your Heart" and "Letsagetabitarockin."

But Joe always had his eyes on the prize and it was a short hop to the future by dumping his old friends and old life when he met Mick Jones—he "grabbed the future by its face." The film interviews Joe's friends from his college years, and although they acknowledge how hurt they were when he walked away without a second glance, they don't seem to have hard feelings about it. It was very punk rock of him, after all. And considering what everyone is like in their me-oriented 20s, we can probably all come up with some similar examples of callous behavior from our pasts.

Anything I want he gives it, but not for free
It's hateful
And it's paid for and I'm so grateful to be nowhere
This year I've lost some friends
Some friends? What friends?
I dunno, I ain't even noticed ("Hateful" London Calling)

When Joe first started playing with Mick he was clearly in awe of him, "Mick can hear chords and the bass, make arrangements in his head." Mick was the man with the music, Joe brought the words. Joe chopped off his hair and threw himself full force into the punk ethos, but he was always still a bit of the hippie, and held on to his rockabilly style with his ever-present slicked-back locks and modified pompadour (even with the mohawk) that is an heir and homage to Elvis. Joe never completely tossed his hippie "love everybody" beliefs. He may have perfected a punk snarl with hapless interviewers, but when it came to playing music in front of a live audience, Joe wanted to share the experience fully, "We were one with the audience. You should never put yourself above anyone." He wanted the Clash to be the people's band. "Without people you are nothing, that's my spiel."

This is a public service announcement
With guitar! ("Know Your Rights" Combat Rock)

What really makes the film work for me is that so much of it is narrated by Joe himself, culled together from interviews and his radio program, London Calling, from the 90s. Joe is always honest and frequently funny. When asked why the son of a diplomat who went to boarding school had a famously dentally-challenged look early in his career, he says offhand, "I never brushed my teeth."

I'm so glad I conquered my fears of toppling my idol and watched Joe Strummer The Future is Unwritten. It brought back some of the spirit, some of the rawness that was life in the 80s. Or maybe that's just life when you're young. Joe never lost his love and interest in life. Post-Clash he played with the Pogues, Mick Jones's Big Audio Dynamite, and formed Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros. He also wrote music for films and did some acting, working with filmmakers Alex Cox and Jim Jarmusch.

A.M., the F.M., the P.M. too
Churning out that boogaloo ("The Magnificent Seven" Sandinista!)

I was shocked and upset when I heard that he died at the age of 50 of a congenital heart condition in 2002. But I didn't experience that tragic feeling you get when someone too young has left this world. Joe was too young, definitely, but he also lived a full life, at full tilt, and left a great legacy. He is no James Dean or Buddy Holly or Heath Ledger. As someone says near the end of the film, "He sang every word like he meant it." He did, and I can still listen to his music today and get meaning from it, get inspired by him. Will some fictional biopic be able to do that? Not very likely. Mick Jones and Paul Simenon are also reported to be producing a film about London Calling. Hmmm. At least Joe Strummer The Future is Unwritten is chock-full of Joe's voice and words, with some great film and music clips. It's a worthy glimpse into a punk rock and roll idol's life.
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Tuesday, February 08, 2011

the afflicted girls

Article first published as Book Review: The Afflicted Girls by Suzy Witten on Blogcritics.

The Salem Witch Trials have always held a fascination for me. I've had a hearty dislike for Cotton Mather ever since reading The Crucible in junior high. It's difficult for me to relate to a learned man who can be forward-thinking in relation to disease, by encouraging inoculations against smallpox, but be so backward-thinking when it came to witchcraft in Puritan New England. It's hard not to think that there might have been a misogynist angle to his attitudes, as Mather called one of the accused, Martha Carrier, "A rampant hag" and reporting the trial of Bridget Bishop in his Wonders of the Invisible World, he wrote "John Louder testify'd, that upon some little controversy with Bishop ... he did awake in the Night by moonlight, and did see clearly the likeness of this woman grievously oppressing him; in which miserable condition she held him, unable to help himself, till near Day. He told Bishop of this; but she deny'd it, and threatened him very much. "

Mather is just a shadow figure in The Afflicted Girls, but the petty neighborly conflicts that Mather took such copious notes of that were at the root of a lot of the evil goings-on in Salem Village in the late 17th century are well-described in this fictional account. The author, Suzy Witten, takes her time building up the very large cast of characters and their layers of history, jealousy, and petty grievances in the daily life of Salem Village, and does it well. She has done her research, incorporating the threats of disease, Indian raids and poverty that also were factors in what happened. A real sense of the hard choices facing a young woman, no matter what social strata she belonged to, is also well-delineated. A daughter of a prosperous merchant or gentleman may not have to perform the menial household tasks of an indentured servant, but she had about as much freedom as did Mercy Lewis in the male-ruled Puritan society.

Witten takes an interesting tack, even a risk, in making her protagonist nineteen year-old Mercy Lewis. Thanks to the internet, the Salem Witch Trial transcripts can be read, and original documents even viewed. One can quickly learn that it's a big departure from history making Mercy a heroine, as she was one of the most frequent and vocal accusers of witches in the trials. I had a real shock of sadness and excitement when I discovered last year that I was actually descended from Sarah Averill Wildes, who along with Rebecca Nurse, Elizabeth Howe, Sarah Good and Susannah Martin, was hanged as a witch in Salem on July 19, 1692. Since I found our Salem connection I have been cruising the internet, visited Salem and its environs, and read quite a few books on the subject, fiction and non-fiction, to try and learn as much as I could about my ancestor. One of the things I discovered was that Mercy Lewis was one of the accusers of my ancestor, Sarah Averill Wildes. But no hard feelings. I don't mind the author's angle, and I liked Mercy as a character in this book.

House of Ann Putman Jr, Off Dayton Street, Danvers, MA, where Mercy Lewis was indentured, ca. 1891

The real Mercy Lewis lost her family to an Indian raid when she was just a child in Maine. In fact it is believed she may have seen them all killed and carried that gruesome memory with her to Salem. An orphan, the only way she could survive was to be indentured as a servant, first to the Reverend George Burroughs, who was also executed in Salem as a witch, and later the family of Thomas Putnam, where she met Ann Putman, Jr. (Lucy in this book). She had virtually nothing and could only survive on her wits and her employer's good graces until her term of indenture was over, which typically lasted seven years. She would have no prospects for marriage until she was free. If she had a child while indentured, her length of term would be increased. Witten endows Mercy with herbalist and midwife skills and introduces the possibility that what happened with those crazy Salem kids might have been drug-related (from a hallucinogenic plant). It's not a bad twist to take. Her hypothesis may be right or wrong, or possibly partly the truth. Why Salem still fascinates—it's about human nature—the not-so-nice side of people. It didn't take much for fear and accusations to take root, whether drug or mischief-fueled.

I had some major historical questions and quibbles while reading The Afflicted Girls. Witten changed the most well-known of the accusers, Ann Putnam, Jr.'s, name to Lucy—maybe to differentiate her from her mother, who also was an accuser? But it actually made it more confusing for me, waiting for the real Ann jr. to show up. Also, a scene at Gallows Hill had a cherry-picked assortment of the people who were accused, not as they actually died. And there was a daring jail escape was beyond fictional, but in the realm of fantasy, considering how meticulously she had tried to depict the Village in earlier chapters. The author's note stated that the book started as a screenplay, so some of these changes may have been made in that light, to bring her most flamboyant "characters" together in one big scene. In fact, sometimes it felt as if there were parts that were written for the book, and scenes which were put in to sex things up.

Deposition of Mercy Lewis v. Susannah Martin

Which brings me to my major bone of contention with the novel. It's probably easiest to use the movie Tim Burton's Sweeney Todd as a similar example. Sweeney Todd had beautiful music and great acting by Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter, but that was all but drowned out for me by all the endless, repetitive decapitations — one after another after another after another. The sex scenes had the same effect in The Afflicted Girls. It's not bodice-ripping romantic novel sex. It's repeated, multiple scenes of rape and unpleasant coupling by unpleasant people. Salem Village surely had its share of horrible men and women, but were they all sexually messed up or predators? Witten may be trying to comment on the Puritan ethic and attitudes toward sex, but the reader is the one who gets degraded too many times along with poor Mercy. I'm not sure it would have been appropriate to make her a feminist hero, either, but she is victimized or sexualized by basically every man who meets her, and she doesn't become much more than a victim, buffeted about by the claustrophobic and brutal world she inhabits.

Unsavory sex aside, there are some interesting aspects to The Afflicted Girls and I definitely felt like I was back in Salem Village, it's just not a nice place to be.

Book #8 in reading challenge Cannonball Read 3, sponsored by Pajiba

Full disclosure: The author sent this book to me after reading another book review I had written for The Heretic's Daughter, also a book about the Salem Witch Trials. I'm very thankful to be considered a critic of books, movies and other pop culture and I will continue to be fair in my reviews.
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Monday, February 07, 2011

who do you think you are

Article first published as TV Review: Who Do You Think You Are - Season Premiere on Blogcritics.

There is something about the show Who Do You Think You Are? that hits an emotional chord and makes the viewer really connect with the discoveries made by the featured celebrities searching for their ancestors. I guess it's that history is so much more interesting and affecting when you hear the stories of individual lives. Most of our ancestors have had an impact on history and participated in events we may or may not have read about while in school, but we never knew their names or their stories. That's why I love genealogy—I might get a chance to uncover some of these untold stories.

This long-form advertisement for had this geneaology geek front and center. I enjoyed the first season, which featured producer Lisa Kudrow, Emmitt Smith, Matthew Broderick and Sarah Jessica Parker, whose quest led to the discovery of a family participant in the Salem Witch trials.

I went on my own journey to discover my family's roots last summer, after I found out that one of my ancestors, Sarah Averill Wildes, was one of the first people tried and hanged as a witch in Salem on July 19, 1692. I came across this unknown bit of family history while searching on Some interesting stuff can be found on the website if you're willing to go on a hunt. To access most vital records, is not free, but hiring a professional researcher or genealogist isn't either.

My grandmother hired a genealogist to help her trace her roots in the '60s. To become a member of the Colonial Dames she needed to perform extensive family research to prove and document our connection to a Revolution-era ancestor. But she didn't need to go as far back as the 1690s, so she never found out about this more infamous slice of our history. Parker's Salem ancestor had like mine been accused of witchcraft, but had a better ending. The court of oyer and terminer was dismissed before she could go to trial, so Parker's relative escaped execution.


The new and second season of Who Do You Think You Are? started off with Ugly Betty star Vanessa Williams, who wanted to go farther back on her father's side of the family. What she was able to find was pretty amazing. Luckily for Vanessa, her family lived in the same area of New York for over 100 years, so she was able to start her search in a cemetery which included headstones of many generations. Her great-great-grandfather from Oyster Bay, NY was married to a white woman, which in itself was interesting and unusual for the time, mid-1800s. He had been born a free man, or, as he had written on one of the documents she found, "Never a slave." He enlisted in the Union Army in 1864 and received a bounty of 300 dollars for serving in the colored regiment, which he immediately invested 200 of to buy land for his family. What is even more lucky is that her search to find out what he did in the Civil War unearthed a tintype photograph. A find like that must have been unbelievably thrilling for her and her family, and also proved that good looks ran in the family.

As if that weren't enough, she followed another line on her family tree and found that her other great-great-grandfather was a schoolteacher, justice of the peace, and also one of the first black legislators in Tennessee, serving from 1888-89. Another American history lesson for me—from 1888-1965 no more blacks served elected office in Tennessee. As a Civil War/reconstruction backlash, the KKK and Jim Crow laws squeezed out blacks from public life in the early nineteenth century. Williams discovered her forebear's pioneering and proud history, but also how his strides were almost negated by the not-so-proud history of segregation in the South. Stories like her family's definitely led to the civil rights movement and Williams's own triumph as the first black Miss America in 1983.


The show may gloss over all the hard work involved in tracking down one's ancestors. But it does mange to capture the obsession that grips folks once a connection to the past is made. Vanessa Williams's episode did show the enormous amount of travel and all the different individuals—archivists, librarians, local government employees—that a person might need to consult to really find out details about their own family tree. All of these people can help a person researching their family and what's more, would like to, if you're interested enough to ask. I've had an ongoing correspondence with an archivist in Connecticut to help me dig a little deeper into one of our lines; who is always on the lookout for something that might help take me a step further in my search.

So many more of these records are now available via the internet, where before a researcher might have had to travel and book time at a library or archive to wade through roll after roll of microfilm. is a good place to start on an internet genealogy search. Whether a viewer decides to start digging into their own family's past or not it's hard to resist getting hooked on the fascinating stories that are uncovered on Who Do You Think You Are? I'm looking forward to seeing the next show in the series and going on a vicarious journey with Tim McGraw as he searches for answers to questions he has about the past. Who knows what he might turn up and what little bits of history might be learned along the way.
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Sunday, February 06, 2011

monkey with ball and chain

We went to the Norton Gallery of Art today and saw a load of interesting stuff, but what really still stands out in my mind are two paintings from the European gallery, both featuring "fettered monkeys."

Monkey with ball and chain

According to the Courtauld, "Fettered monkeys, like this one, are traditionally used to symbolize man entrapped by earthly and sensual desires." and that "The monkey shown here ... would have been an object of curiosity and wonder in his own right. He is thus as "collectable" as the ... portrait ... that stands nearby."

Monkey with ball and chain
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