Thursday, May 31, 2012

shuffling through marilyn's receipts

I have been researching Marilyn Monroe for a project I am working on, so have been immersing myself in the iconic Hollywood star's life via a lot of different books. MM-Personal: From the Private Archive of Marilyn Monroe presents the contents of two file cabinets that were left after Marilyn died in June 1962 as a peek into the star's private and professional life. Author Lois Banner and photographer Mark Anderson have reverently presented everything from letters, memos, and telegrams to jewelry that may have belonged to Marilyn, and even items of clothing. Some of the items are photographed placed on rose petals, which is admittedly kind of corny; but page after page of piles of saved receipts, although mundane items, still serve as a touching reminder of Marilyn's brief but compelling life.

There is a bit of a mystery behind how these files and the book came to be. When Marilyn was married to Joe DiMaggio he helped her find a new business manager, Inez Melson, to help take care of her mother, Gladys Baker Eley, who had been diagnosed with schizophrenia, and was in and out of mental institutions most of her adult life. Inez not only managed Gladys but also Marilyn's burgeoning career, helping her with her financial affairs. When the marriage with DiMaggio went bust and Marilyn left California for New York, she soon also severed ties with Inez, apart from her continuing custodianship of Marilyn's mother. But Inez didn't want to lose Marilyn and managed to stay connected through the years.

When Marilyn died Inez was called, and there is some dispute over whether she may have tampered with evidence in the apartment, as far as removing prescription medicine bottles in an effort to protect Marilyn. She did help plan the funeral with Joe DiMaggio. She managed to immediately secure one of Marilyn's two file cabinets, and then bought the other at auction, using her nephew's name for the purchase, even though they both rightfully belonged to Lee Strasberg, the major beneficiary in Marilyn's will.

What Inez did was clearly fraud, but if she hadn't maneuvered getting hold of Marilyn's belongings the contents of the file cabinets would have certainly been tossed or scattered by now. Instead, readers get to flip through these intact, daily records of Marilyn's life. At times it's admittedly a little creepy, like going through her drawers, shuffling through her papers. Drugstore receipts for enemas and colonics tell the tale of quick weight loss methods, common to Hollywood actresses, but did we really need to know that? Marilyn surely wouldn't have wanted to tarnish any mystique she may have had with her public. Some of the items are frankly boring or indecipherable. But some, mostly letters, are interesting, and shed a light on Marilyn's personality, as well as her more familiar Hollywood persona.

- Marilyn wanted Frank Sinatra, not Tony Curtis as her co-star in Some Like it Hot (a terrible idea, as Sinatra just wouldn't have worked and we would have lost the Curtos/Lemmon dream team). She had an affair with Sinatra much later, shortly before her death, after she broke up with husband Arthur Miller.

- In a typewritten (probably by a secretary) note to magazine illustrator Jon Whitcomb, who did an illustration of the actress that appeared on the cover of Cosmopolitan in March 1959, Marilyn's distinctive voice and humor comes through, as she apologizes for the hold-up in their getting together:
"Please forgive the long delay in answering, but I have been up to my derrière in preparation for two movies for the near future… I would love to have the picture from you and I repeat 'at last to be a Whitcomb girl!' .… I am looking forward to meeting with you and I want you to meet Arthur [husband Arthur Miller]."
Her sense of humor also shines through in letters to Miller's son and daughter, which she wrote as if from their dog or cat.

- In a telegram to director George Cukor after she was fired from Something's Got to Give, she blames herself and offers to make it up to him, by cleaning his house, "I can dust."

- The are some intriguing fan letters that she chose to keep, including the offering up of a newborn baby girl for adoption. It makes one wonder if she was seriously tempted to accept the baby.

- One of the more interesting letters is an apology from public relations man Joe Wolhandler in reaction to her anger at a magazine article quoting Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon, and Billy Wilder about how difficult she was to work with during Some Like It Hot.
"As you know, TIME Magazine is, of all the ghoulish press, in a class by itself for unmitigated nastiness and inaccuracy. It has been a "middle-class confidential" for a long period. I don't believe they are quoting Wilder and Curtis accurately. We have asked for a retraction…"
- More poignant is a letter from April 1952 that she taped to her stomach before an appendectomy, begging, "Dear Doctor no ovaries removed - please again do whatever you can to prevent large scars. Thanking you with all my heart, Marilyn Monroe"

- Some of the receipts do tell heartbreaking stories — gifts of roses and a bed jacket from a maternity store from Arthur Miller, given right before two separate miscarriages.

So much has been written about how difficult Marilyn was to work with, with the focus in most biographies on her addictions, men in her life, and instability, but the more and more I learn and read about her this behavior seems to also speak of her quest for power. If she wasn't considered such a valuable commodity to the studio, she would have been fired and replaced, and that would have been that. She used her frequent illnesses and perpetual lateness to protest scripts she didn't like, or too-controlling studio executives. Marilyn used many different methods to have more control of her career and her life, not an easy thing for a woman of her time.

History professor Banner frames the bits and pieces of Marilyn's life in biographical sections. Her text jumps around chronologically and at times is a bit repetitive, as the reader is told in at least three separate sections about her infamous stroll from one end of the studio to the other in a see-through negligee. Apparently that exhibition of her sexual power made quite an impression on the author. She even repeats the anecdote in another book she wrote on the star, Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox. There are no major revelations here in the oft-told story of Marilyn's tragically short but eventful life, but some of the items photographed by Anderson and selected by Banner do help frame her life in a more easily relatable and approachable context.

MM-Personal: From the Private Archive of Marilyn Monroe is by no means a definitive text on the star, but it is an interesting glimpse into the actress's life, and it makes one wonder how our own lives might be pieced together by the detritus of our daily lives.
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Wednesday, May 30, 2012


Article first published as Book Review: Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio, translated by J.G. Nichols on Blogcritics.

It is a testament to the brilliance of Giovanni Boccaccio’s story-telling that his Decameron is still an entertaining read hundreds of years later. This new translation by J. G. Nichols is faithful to the original text, while making the sometimes archaic terms understandable to a modern reader.

Boccaccio sets his best-known work during the summer of 1348. Ten young people, seven women and three men, meet in the Basilica of Santa Maria Novella in Florence. They all share fears of the plague that is sweeping through their city, and agree to leave town together to spend the next two weeks in a villa in the country, in nearby Fiesole, to avoid contagion. The seven women are Pampinea, Fiammetta, Filomena, Emilia, Lauretta, Neifile, and Elissa; the three men are Panfilo, Filostrato, and Dioneo.

Decameron, Anonymous, 15th century.
Once there, each evening they gather around a fountain in the garden and spend their time telling stories. For ten days (Decameron means "ten days" in Greek) — each day ten stories are told, for a total of one hundred.

Boccaccio, like Shakespeare, used many sources for the stories in Decameron. As Nichols states in the introduction, "Few if any of these tales were of his own invention, but – this is often said about jokes – it is the way they are told that counts. . . . "

Modern readers will find some of the tales, especially those intended to be moralistic, more than a little dated. But there are also so many great characters and so many stories that are full of humor that there is still much to entertain. Many of the stories are intentionally bawdy, concerning lusty priests and monks, or unfaithful husbands and wives. As misogynistic or sexist as some of the tales can be, there are just as many where the women get the best of the men. It would be wise while reading to keep the time-frame in context. Boccaccio wrote Decameron in the mid-14th century.

Some of the more memorable characters include the trio of Bruno, Buffalmacco, and the frequent butt of their jokes, Calandrino, who appear in four tales. Decameron also features real people from the time, including the painter Giotto, and the Muslim ruler Saladin and King William II of Sicily. Probably the most famous of the tales, and also the last one in the book, is the story of Griselda, a wife whose love and faith is cruelly tested by her husband. This is one of the hardest stories for a contemporary woman to reconcile, but it is also one of the closest in structure to a fairytale; Griselda's husband first marries the peasant girl, a la Cinderella, and then proceeds to torture her by making her think he has killed their children, or taken a new wife (who happens to be their 12 year-old daughter). It's so crazy that the reader can't help but be pulled in, to see how it will all come out in the end.

Griselda's first Trial of Patience (Griseldas' husband takes her child away from her), by Charles West Cope, 1848.
The plague in Florence disappears quickly from the minds of the ten storytellers as well as the reader, as one story quickly follows another. Many are quite short in length, and a reader can dip into Decameron for just a few minutes or much longer, depending on their mood. There are many differences between our current world and that of Renaissance Italy, but some of the same things abound, such as a sense of humor, lust, passion, and the need to hear and tell a good story. Boccaccio's Decameron fills the bill quite nicely still in that regard.
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Tuesday, May 29, 2012

here come the men in black ... again

 A definite summer popcorn movie, Men in Black 3 can't possibly be as fun as the first film, but it also can't be as awful as the second. Luckily, it manages to be maybe not exactly inspired, but at least silly and fun and for the most part, good-natured.

Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones are back as Agents J and K, the mismatched but strangely perfect partners who cruise New York City in the hip product-placed car of the moment. They are part of the Men in Black (MIB), a top-secret force who keep an eye on resident aliens and protect the world from its latest galactic threat. This time around it happens to be an incarcerated monster called Boris the Animal, from K's past, who escapes from his prison on the Moon and travels back in time to seek revenge on K, who foiled him the first time around.

When J wakes up the next morning and finds K not only missing but dead for decades, the new head of MIB, O (Emma Thompson, in a brief but welcome appearance), sends him a little further back in time to stop Boris from killing K and following his original plan, which was the destruction of Earth. This opens up an opportunity for Josh Brolin, who plays a young K, to turn in a wonderful performance and dead-on impersonation of Jones. His delivery and demeanor were so right-on that at times one might wonder whether Jones dubbed his lines.

J and K on the job (Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones)
In 1969 (Josh Brolin, Michael Stuhlbarg, and Smith)
It's no surprise that he majority of the movie's best lines and one-liners belong to Will Smith, who is clearly enjoying being back in the black suit and skinny tie. His trip to the swinging '60s takes him to Andy Warhol's Factory and an Apollo launch as he and K try to stop Boris. The time travel, like in most movies doesn't always make sense, and a twist at the end that was fairly easy to spot may confound audiences, but the general mood is fast and fun, and J's easy rapport with both K's is fun to watch.

Michael Stuhlbarg (Boardwalk Empire) plays a most interesting alien that J and K run across. The same cannot be said for Jemaine Clement, who plays Boris. Not the actor's fault, the alien he plays is one-note, repulsive to look at, and an all-around bore. Why director Barry Sonnenfeld made his bad guy alien physically repellent rather than truly scary I'm not sure. I'm also not sure what the kiddies will think about the weird vagina dentata imagery going on in Boris's hands and other parts of his body. Thankfully Boris is just a small part of Men in Black 3. Rumor has it that Smith and Jones are up for a fourth installment. The films have been paced fairly far apart (MIB came out in 1997, MIB 2 in 2002) in the past. But would they be able to work Josh Brolin back into the mix?
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Monday, May 28, 2012

happy memorial day

Here are some pictures from my dad's World War 2 Coast Guard days.

Joseph Francis Periale & ?
Dad home (on the left) on leave, with a Coast Guard buddy

A picture he must have taken of his buddies on board their Destroyer Escort, the USS Merrill.
Happy Memorial Day!
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Sunday, May 27, 2012

some more veggie thoughts

A recent article in a syndicated column called the "God Squad' recently caught my eye. Its author, the Rabbi Marc Gellman, had some interesting things to say about the Bible and eating meat:
"Eating meat is the low-level ethical choice. It is permitted because animals are lower on the order of creation, but it is not the high-level choice that God intended at the beginning of creation. I agree with God. Killing animals for meat is not murder. Animals are proper food for humans, but they're definitely not the most proper food. 
We can ingest all the protein we need from plants, and we can save animals from the torture of factory farms and save the earth from the depleting effects of raising large numbers of animals for meat. It would be easy to go the next step and claim that eating meat is not ethical, but that would not be true. ... we must always remember that eating meat is a concession to our moral weakness. It is moral, but only barely."

I like that he is averse to saying that meat is murder, but that we shouldn't kid ourselves that it's hunky dory, either. I'm no Bible scholar, in fact I don't care much for organized religion, but I am interested in ethics and I am very interested in doing the right thing, trying to be a better person. I fail every day, sometimes losing my temper, swearing, etc. I'm human. But I try.

The thing that is really striking me in my recent venture to leave meat behind is that eating is now a much more conscious activity. Perusing a menu in any restaurant, low to higher end, requires a lot more attention on my part. Meat is the easy choice, and in this country it seems that we are encouraged to ingest it at every meal. Seems a little crazy to me, standing on the other side now.
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Saturday, May 26, 2012

runaway baby

My favorite song of the moment is Runaway Baby, by Bruno Mars. I like its retro feel, as well as Bruno's bad boy lyrics:

Well let me think, let me think, ah what should I do?
So many eager young bunnies that I'd like to pursue
Now even though they're eating out the palm of my hand
There's only one carrot and they all gotta share it

I love you so
That's what you'll say,
You'll tell me baby, baby please don't go away
But when I play, I never stay
To every girl that I meet here, this is what I'll say,

Run run runaway, runaway baby
Before I put my spell on you
You better get get getaway, getaway darling
'Cause everything you heard is true

I really liked Joshua Ledet's high energy version on American Idol, too.

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Friday, May 25, 2012

how art history ruined how we think about art

I have had some ideas swirling around in my mind recently about art and art history and how art is presented. Consider this a rant of sorts, or how I wish that art wasn't introduced to most young minds as a timeline, a history. There's got to be a better way to teach art.

Art doesn't have to snobbish by nature. It is for the people. Cave paintings weren't done to appeal to the Neanderthal cognoscenti. Of course, there's always a critic, so I'm sure even the artists of Lascauax had their bad reviews. Michelangelo wasn't an elitist. He had a vision and a drive to create. He also had a need to support himself. It is only in more recent times, when writing and thinking about art became almost equal to art-making that it became such an elitist activity, and art a commodity.

Art became expensive, and was commissioned for pharaohs, kings and popes, before the idle rich were able to afford it for their drawing rooms. It was also spiritual, attached to temples, cathedrals, the modern versions of cave walls. It had a bit of magic about it. But when art detached itself from the sacred and became art for art's sake, the historians and artists had to justify their art-making, to try to keep it exalted somehow. Art theory was born. And soon art history, presented as an implied progression, began to be taught in art schools.

Janson and Gardner are still the chosen texts designed to promote the concept of a progressive timeline of creativity:
Gardner's Art Through the Ages:
"The first edition published in 1926 ... It, like all following editions, was organized chronologically beginning with "The Birth of Art" in the Upper Paleolithic and progressing in a mainly chronological sequence to the contemporary period. ... It continues to be a required text for introductory classes in art history for American students to this day." — Wikipedia

We are sill arguing about how the Great Pyramid of Giza was constructed. Egyptian temples and world museums are full of amazing Egyptian artifacts, but art students were taught that Egyptian artists couldn't depict a figure in three dimensions in a painting, but instead created a stylized presentation of the human body, including a face in profile with the torso in a frontal position. This concept of how Egyptians "saw" in 2D never quite matched other Egyptian artistic achievements, like their architecture and realistic-looking three-dimensional sculpture.

There's is nothing wrong with guiding young minds to look at great art. Or to give them the language to discuss it and to think about it. It's OK to present it chronologically, I suppose, but not as one age inheriting and bettering the next. Artists should also be free to make their own connections; connect to art from any era, and not be made to believe that the Temple of Hatshepsut leads to Greek sculpture, which progresses to Michelangelo, Impressionism, Pollock, and so on.

Artists are definitely influenced by their predecessors, but we shouldn't assume that Degas wouldn't or couldn't exist without classical painting. He would have found his way, even if all he had ever seen were Japanese prints. Why do we tend to believe that we know more now than those that came before us? People have traveled the world for eons. We may do it faster now, and have iPhones and McDonalds and all sorts of other nifty toys and advances, but that doesn't automatically make us smarter or more talented.

We are all creatures of our time. Art in the ancient era may be about different ideas, and come from different a impetus to create, but it is not more primitive.
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Thursday, May 24, 2012

baby steppin' vegetarian

I haven't made any big declarations, but I have slowly, over the past month or so, stopped eating meat. It seems to be a result of a number of things. I've had some tummy trouble lately, and meat seems to aggravate my digestion more than other foods. So goodbye, salami, alas. But I have also been feeling that I need to be kinder and more aware of where my food comes from. While I could catch a fish or shellfish or steal an egg from a hen, I can't envision throttling the chicken. Or plucking it.

I'm not missing meat too much at the moment
This is in no way preaching. I'm not preventing my mom or my daughter from eating meat. But I have mentioned that I probably won't be cooking any for a while. If they want it, they can have it when we go out to eat. My mom isn't going to make any changes to what she likes to eat. With dementia her diet has become more routine; she cycles between a few favorite meals she chooses when we go out. At home I can serve up more variety. My daughter can watch me and decide for herself.

Will I ever eat meat again? Maybe. I'm Italian, and if I make sfincione, it's going to have prosciutto in it. But I have to admit that I physically feel a lot better with my recent dietary changes. And it makes my head and heart feel better too.
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Wednesday, May 23, 2012

oh baby ... a movie ... just as expected

When you're pregnant it seems that everyone has an opinion, advice, or just something to say about having babies. They get an opportunity to relive their own pregnancy experience, or to regale your pregnant self with some birthing horror story. One of the other things that gets shoved down your throat, I mean suggested, are all those baby advice books, and the one at the top of the must-have list is still What to Expect When You're Expecting. I'm not sure if I got that particular baby bible as a gift, or just zombie-like bought it for myself while I was gestating, but I know that I put it aside pretty quickly. I ended up finding some of the pregnancy calendars online a lot more helpful. After my daughter was born I was drawn more to the extremely old school. but down-to-earth advice of good old Dr. Spock, as well as friends and family. But enough about that. I have no intention of boring you with my pregnancy stories. There's a movie for that.

There is a glimpse of the book early on in the movie What to Expect When You're Expecting, and then it is ditched. What is served up instead of advice, or even a plot, is a hodge-podge of pregnancy vignettes, featuring five couples who live in Atlanta. They are all white, all straight, and all going through pretty typical pre-baby travails. And the film is capped off by the highly predictable in-tandem rush to the hospital, as three of the couples give birth simultaneously. Uh huh. Yawn. Grrr.

The dudes group, cruising through the park.
It's a shame, because there are a few hints that the movie may have had some potential to be funny, if it had been in the hands of (dare I say it) someone like Adam Sandler or Judd Apatow. It's clearly trying to flirt with Bridesmaids Kristen Wiig-like humor with its focus on the hemorrhoids and morning sickness that frequently afflict pregnant women. But it plays it safe and serves up too many stories featuring people that the audience is unlikely to care about. Its two highest-marquee stars, Cameron Diaz and Jennifer Lopez, are featured in completely superfluous story-lines. Diaz plays a Jillian Michaels-like television host who is having a baby with a reality dance show star (Matthew Morrison). Lopez is a highly glamorous professional photographer who wants to adopt a child from Ethiopia, and who wears enormous false eyelashes while she travels there to pick him up; she has a doubtful-about-adopting husband (Rodrigo Santoro), who we all know will be a happy big daddy in the end. Neither couple is highly relatable or amusing.

In a blatant attempt to bring in the youngsters, Chace Crawford and Anna Kendrick play rival food truck owners (talk about trying  to hit all the current trends at once) who find themselves pregnant after a one-time hook-up. They could have and should have been in their own rom-com. The two have some genuine chemistry, and if they were given better material, they could have stolen the movie, but in this silly Valentine's Day-like celebrity cameo kaleidoscope, they are really out of place.

The two couples at the center of the movie are a father (Dennis Quaid) and son (Ben Falcone) whose wives are both expecting (Brooklyn Decker and Elizabeth Banks, respectively). Their storyline gets to the competitive nature of pregnancy, and Banks gets to exhibit all of the stuff that isn't usually rhapsodized about when you're pregnant — flatulence, having to pee all the time, mood swings, etc. Their scenes together are goofy and over-the-top, but at least they are attempting to make the audience laugh. Most of the other plot lines fall very flat.

The only genuinely funny performances in What to Expect When You're Expecting are provided by Chris Rock and his accident-prone toddler. Rock functions as a guru-of-sorts to a local daddy group, who meet for dude time, taking regular strolls in the park with their young-uns. Every time his crew is onscreen is a good time. Paired with Bank's disillusioned mama-to-be, maybe the movie could have really have gone in the direction of pulling the rug out from under all of the "pregnancy is wonderful" stuff we are used to hearing. But it is doubtful that What to Expect When You're Expecting's author Heidi Murkoff would have approved of that interpretation. So what we are left with are some stale baby jokes and the "when I had my baby" stories that people are dying to share, but no one is ever that excited to hear.
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Tuesday, May 22, 2012

at home: a short history of private life

Article first published as Book Review: At Home: A Short History of Private Life by Bill Bryson on Blogcritics.

In At Home: A Short History of Private Life author Bill Bryson takes readers on a tour of his home, a Victorian-era parsonage which was built in 1851. He uses the rooms in it as a starting point to explore the origins of things like stoves and toilets that we take for granted in our daily lives. But his is a very personal tour, and one built on his eclectic interests, not a comprehensive history of the home. That being said, At Home: A Short History of Private Life is very interesting reading, and most won't mind how Bryson may seem to flit from one topic to another as the urge strikes him.

In his book Bryson talks about different times in British, European, and even American history, but the bulk of his musings center around Victorian England, when his house in Norfolk was first built and lived in by Reverend Thomas Marsham. Sometimes his analogies to specific areas in his house seem more than a little forced. In the chapter entitled "The Passage," centered aroung the English downstairs hallway, Bryson goes from talking about the Eiffel Tower and the history of concrete to the excesses of early 20th century Gilded Age Americans:
"Spending all this wealth became for many a more or less full-time occupation. A kind of desperate, vulgar edge became attached to almost everything they did. At one New York dinner party, guests found the table heaped with sand and at each place a little gold spade; upon a signal, they were invited to dig in and search for diamonds and other costly glitter buried within. At another party — possibly the most preposterous ever staged — several dozen horses with padded hooves were led into the ballroom of Sherry's, a vast and esteemed eating establishment, and tethered around the tables so that the guests, dressed as cowboys and cowgirls, could enjoy the novel and sublimely pointless pleasure of dining in a New York ballroom on horseback.”
As long as you're willing to go along for the ride, Bryson has some very interesting stories to tell. But At Home: A Short History of Private Life should be viewed more as a series of entertaining essays which have the home as a common denominator, rather than a complete history of private life. But for readers who like to hear the stories behind why we still have salt and pepper shakers on our dining room tables to the difficult life of a child, rich or poor, in Victorian England, At Home: A Short History of Private Life will provide an interesting, entertaining, and informative read.
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Monday, May 21, 2012

mariko kusumoto

As I mentioned in yesterday's post, one of the highlights of a recent visit to the Morikami Museum was the artwork of Mariko Kusumoto.

Kaiten Zushi, closed and open

There is so much that I love about her work. The attention to detail, the humor, the sheer skill involved, the scale. I could go on and on. There is a suggestion of the early Surrealists, Joseph Cornell, and a dash of Monty Python, as well as her own, very Japanese sensibility. There is also an overwhelming sense of the female about these pieces. I am so glad I was lucky enough to discover her work, as the show was closing the weekend we visited.

The only disappointment was in the museum store. No catalog. The Morikami was selling some jewelry she had created — they were pretty brushed-silver pieces, but nothing like the whimsical pieces in the show. An opportunity missed. Now if they had been selling this clever brooch ...

The artwork was exhibited under glass. They just begged to be played with. Thankfully, there was this wonderful video on display, which helps bring the work to life. I will definitely be keeping track of Kusumoto's work in future.

The artist's bio from the Morikami:
"Mariko Kusumoto is a mixed media artist known for creating elaborate collages of miniature interactive worlds in metal boxes with unique metalsmithing techniques. Her work is imbued with her memories in Japan and of growing up in a 400-year old Japanese temple, where her father was a Buddhist priest. Ms. Kusumoto is skilled in a variety of art media. She studied oil painting and printmaking at Musashino Art College, Tokyo, and in 1995, received an MFA in printmaking at the Academy of Art College in San Francisco. Her works have been exhibited in numerous museums and galleries. She has been featured in over 15 publications and conducted workshops and lectures at various venues."
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Sunday, May 20, 2012

scenes from (last) weekend

We spent Mother's Day at the Morikami Museum, a beautiful local museum and Japanese garden. We had a bento box lunch after waiting an hour to get seated — luckily we could peruse the art galleries while we waited for a table, and saw a fantastic show by metal artist Mariko Kusumoto — more on that later. The gift shop was also a blast, as the kid got a Totoro t-shirt, which she had to don immediately, and I got a cat-bus wallet. If you haven't seen Hayao Miyazaki's brilliant My Neighbor Totoro (or any of his other films) than you won't understand our geeky thrill, and you should rectify that situation immediately.

Totoro shirt, Morikami Museum
"Totoro, To-to-ro!"
At the Morikami Museum
At the Morikami

The history behind the Morikami, from its website:
"In 1904, Jo Sakai, a recent graduate of New York University, returned to his homeland of Miyazu, Japan, to organize a group of pioneering farmers and lead them to what is now northern Boca Raton ... they formed a farming colony they named Yamato, an ancient name for Japan. ... Ultimately, the results of their crop experimentation were disappointing ... By the 1920s, the community, which had never grown beyond 30 to 35 individuals, finally surrendered its dream. One by one, the families left for other parts of the United States or returned to Japan.
George S. Morikami in his pineapple field — Delray Beach, Florida, from Florida Memory
... One settler remained. His name was George Sukeji Morikami. A modest farmer, George continued to cultivate local crops and act as a fruit and vegetable wholesaler. In the mid-1970s, when George was in his 80s, he donated his land to Palm Beach County with the wish to preserve it as a park and to honor the memory of the Yamato Colony. ... With the opening of The Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens, a living monument was created, building a bridge of cultural understanding between George Morikami’s two homelands."
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Saturday, May 19, 2012

reading is fundamental

Remember the television campaign for RIF, "Reading is Fundamental?" Apparently RIF is still going strong.

As I was driving the kid home from school the other day I noticed she was quiet — or at least quieter than usual. She was reading. The car is one of the places that she likes to read these days. As we pulled into the garage she announced that she was already on page 70-something of Diary of A Wimpy Kid, that we just picked up at the library. or I should say, one of the libraries at her disposal.

Nils by Ingri & Edgar Parin d’Aulaire ~ Doubleday, 1948, from other stuff my kid loves

At her school library she can take out two books a week. A block from school there is the Four Arts Children's Library, which has a wonderful selection of books old and new, and doesn't seem to mind if we miss a due date. Across the bridge there is the state-of-the-art Mandel Public Library, where she got this book, which she seems to be close to almost finishing.

I have always loved libraries, and I'm thrilled that she does, too. I guess what is really blowing my mind is how quickly she has learned to read. She seems to have gone from sounding out words, to reading Dr. Seuss, to these chapter books in record time. I'm not packing away The Cat in the Hat anytime soon, but I can't help but feel that we are crossing another threshold. If I cast my mind back to my own long-ago second grade school library, I think I was reading d'Aulaire, Dr, Seuss, and lots and lots of fairy tales. A life in books.

The kid's current favorites:

Magic Treehouse series
Judy Moody
Any book about dogs and cats
Henry and Mudge
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Friday, May 18, 2012

"cheese and rice"

If you ever happen to catch Wedding Crashers on television — but not a premium cable station, you will encounter one of the more amusing and creative substitute curses. Vince Vaughan can repeatedly be heard to exclaim, "Cheese and Rice!" instead of "Jesus Christ!"

There's something about the wack-a-doodle family that Vaughan and Owen Wilson's characters are visiting in the movie, and Vaughan's general comedic presence, that make me think that he should adopt that phrase and use it for real in his next film. I usually don't like edited movies, but somehow the beleaguered Vaughan yelling "Cheese and Rice!" multiple times makes for an even funnier scene in a pretty damn funny movie. I mean, darn funny movie. Oh, shut the front door.
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Thursday, May 17, 2012

animated pirates, yo ho ho!

Aardman Animation has created a wonderful stop-motion animated movie, The Pirates! A Band of Misfits, which proves that CGI is not the be-all and end-all of animation these days. Based on the equally enjoyable comic novels by Gideon Defoe, The Pirates! An Adventure with Scientists and The Pirates! An Adventure with Ahab, the film is not just funny, but actually beautiful to behold.

The crew hits port, L-R: Albino Pirate, Pirate with a Scarf, Pirate Captain, Suprisingly Curvaceous Pirate, and Pirate with Gout.
Hugh Grant turns in a stellar vocal performance as The Pirate Captain, a man with a luxuriant beard, but feeling a little out of the loop in the pirating world. He loves his crew, but is unable to remember their names, so they go by monikers like Pirate with a Scarf (Martin Freeman), Albino Pirate (Russell Tovey), Pirate with Gout (Brendan Gleeson), and Suprisingly Curvaceous Pirate (Ashley Jensen). His devoted crew supports him in his desire to compete for the Pirate of the Year award, against rivals Black Bellamy (Jeremy Piven) and Cutlass Liz (Salma Hayek), and they embark on an adventure which takes them to Victorian England where they encounter Charles Darwin (David Tennant), Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton), the Elephant Man, and other luminaries.

Kids will love the goofy characters, especially Darwin's "man-panzee" Mr. Bobo and the Pirate Captain's "parrot" Polly. Like Defoe's books, there is plenty of anachronistic and sophisticated humor to keep the adults entertained as well. Anglophiles will be amused to see a Pirate's yell being described as loud, louder, and Brian Blessed. Taking the joke even further, Blessed himself is on hand to provide the voice of The Pirate King.

Hugh Grant and his alter ego
But in-jokes aside, what truly makes the movie worth seeing is the amazing animation. Aardman did use computer graphics to enhance the look of the film, chiefly in backgrounds of the ocean and other scenery. Their attention to detail is evident in the stylized characters, their ship, and settings like a pirate's port and tavern, Darwin's house, and Queen Victoria's secret lair. Many hours went into creating the film:
"The first Aardman stop-motion movie shot in 3-D ...  a process that required 250 puppets, dozens of CGI backgrounds and an ornate, 770-pound plywood pirate ship with a bumper sticker on the back that reads 'Honk if you’re seasick.' 
Stop-motion is a notoriously arduous process that requires animators to manipulate a puppet’s movement frame-by-frame — a typical pace for the 33 animators on The Pirates! was to shoot six seconds of footage a week. 
'No one’s amazed by anything anymore,' said [co-director Peter] Lord. 'This slightly old-fashioned idea of stop-frame somehow brings the wonder back.'" — Kansas City Star
And a wonder it is. Happily there is already talk of a sequel. The characters in The Pirates! Band of Misfits are wonderful, and Defoe will soon release his fifth book in The Pirates! series, The Pirates! An Adventure with Romantics, so there should be plenty of opportunities for the Pirate Captain and his crew to go on many more adventures together.
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Wednesday, May 16, 2012

aargh!!! pirates!

Article first published as Book Review: The Pirates! Band of Misfits: An Adventure with Scientists and An Adventure with Ahab by Gideon Defoe on Blogcritics. 

The completely silly but highly enjoyable book The Pirates! Band of Misfits: An Adventure with Scientists & An Adventure with Ahab by author Gideon Defoe is the perfect tie-in to the recent animated adventure The Pirates! Band of Misfits from Aardman Animation (Wallace and Gromit, Arthur Christmas, Flushed Away, Chicken Run). The book includes the first two novels in The Pirates! series by Defoe, An Adventure with Scientists and An Adventure with Ahab, which also formed the basis for the movie. Defoe has also written The Pirates! In an Adventure with Communists, and The Pirates! In an Adventure with Napoleon. His fifth book The Pirates! In an Adventure with the Romantics is due to be released soon.

Readers who like their humor along the lines of Monty Python will love these two short novels, which feature the intrepid Pirate Captain and his crew running up against historical figures in anachronistic adventures. In the first novel, after a false lead on some booty from rival pirate Black Bellamy, the luxuriantly bearded Pirate Captain attacks Charles Darwin on the Beagle and the pirates find themselves on a quest for loot and fame in Victorian London. They school the young Darwin in a little show biz razz-ma-tazz and help him introduce his "Man-panzee" Mister Bobo to scientists and the public. The Elephant Man also makes an appearance. Throughout the book Defoe pokes fun at traditional views of pirates and just about anything else he can think of:

"[The Pirate Captain said] ... 'I was looking at the nautical charts, and there’s a dirty great sea serpent right in the middle of the ocean! It has a horrible gaping maw and one of those scaly tails that looks like it could snap a boat clean in two. So I thought it best to sail around that.’ 
FitzRoy [captain of The Beagle] frowned. ‘I think they just draw those on maps to add a bit of decoration. It doesn’t actually mean there’s a sea serpent there.’ 
The galley went rather quiet. A few of the pirate crew stared intently out of the portholes, embarrassed at their Captain’s mistake. But to everyone’s relief, instead of running somebody through, the Pirate Captain just narrowed his eyes thoughtfully. 
'That explains a lot,’ he said. ‘I suppose it’s also why we’ve never glimpsed that giant compass in the corner of the Atlantic. I have to say, I’m a little disappointed.'”
The Pirate Captain can't remember the names of his crew members (except for Jennifer), which leads to some amusing names, like the pirate with a scarf, the pirate in red, the albino pirate, the pirate with a nut allergy, and the pirate with gout. The crew unconditionally loves their captain however, going so far as all getting tattoos of his face on their arms.

In the second novel, the Pirate Captain's boat is falling apart, so he strikes a bargain with the fearsome Cutlass Liz for a new ship, the amazingly appointed Lovely Emma (complete with swimming pool, ornamental garden, and cannon covers made from ermine and pressed swans). The only trouble is that the pirates have no doubloons to pay for the vessel, and the violent Cutlass Liz is anxious to collect. The Pirate Captain hatches a variety of schemes to come up with the loot, including sailing to Las Vegas (to perform, not gamble), and trapping the great White Whale (for a price) for the obsessed Captain Ahab, who they have met along the way.

Both books feature illustrated maps of the pirates' adventures and humorous footnotes, which explain everthing from piratical terms and history to completely off-the-wall ephemera. As stated in the brief author bio at he beginning of the book, readers "could be forgiven for thinking [Gideon Defoe] is a bit of a one-trick pony." He very well may be, but The Pirates! books are entertaining and amusing, and this reader is looking forward to whatever the Pirate Captain and his faithful crew will get up to next.
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Tuesday, May 15, 2012

the best exotic marigold hotel

The brochures for the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel in Jaipur, India may be a bit misleading — the hotel doesn't quite match up to the photoshopped advertising. But the previews for The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel let the audience know exactly what they are in for — a charming, if predictable film featuring some of the best British actors out there. A lot of the film's joys are in its predictability. We want to see Judi Dench, Bill Nighy, Maggie Smith, and the others as fish out of water who are forced to re-imagine their golden years. Directed by John Madden (Shakespeare in Love, The Debt) the film follows its characters as they are forced to downsize their lives and find themselves in their new lives as ex-pats.

Evelyn (Judi Dench), Graham (Tom Wilkinson), and Douglas (Bill Nighy) stroll through the city.
Evelyn (Judi Dench), "Nothing here has worked out quite as I expected." 
Muriel (Maggie Smith), "Most things don't. But sometimes what happens instead is the good stuff."
Once the group gets to India the screen absolutely bursts with color and confusion, as the audience is immersed in the culture of Jaipur as abruptly as its main characters. When they reach their destination it's more than a little bit of a disappointment. Clearly not as advertised, the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is rundown, with no working phones, doubtful plumbing, and an overall ramshackle appearance. But its proprietor Sonny (Dev Patel) is so full of charm and enthusiasm that most of the group decide to make the best of their new surroundings. They soon begin to tentatively explore the area, each person finding a way to connect to the culture:
Evelyn (Judi Dench), a recent widow who has never held a job in her life, finds work at a call center and starts a blog about her new life in India. 
Graham (Tom Wilkinson), who grew up in India, has returned to find an old love and seek forgiveness. 
Douglas (Bill Nighy) and Jean (Penelope Wilton) react to their new home in decidedly different ways, Douglas immersing himself in the food and culture and visiting local temples, while Jean won't even leave the confines of the hotel and dreams of returning to England at the first opportunity. Their marriage is far from healthy, as Jean lets him know, "When I want your opinion, I’ll give it to you." Wilton (Downton Abbey) seems to be the go-to actress when you want someone uptight, rigid and annoying.
Madge (Celia Imrie) and Norman (Ronald Pickup) have both come to India looking for love — but not with each other. 
Muriel (Maggie Smith), has come to India for a hip operation. She is at first not just resistant to the culture, but decidedly racist. Her connection to a young maid at the hotel has a positive effect on her.
Muriel (Maggie Smith) is at first doubtful of her surroundings.
Sonny's vision of a home for the "elderly and beautiful," so wonderful that they will “refuse to die” is infectious for most of his residents, but doesn't impress his no-nonsense mother, who wants her third favorite son to give up his dream, sell the hotel, move back to Delhi, and settle into a marriage she has arranged for him. Never mind that Sonny loves the beautiful Sunaina (Tena Desae), who works at the same call center as Evelyn. Sonny's idea of "outsourcing old age" is an interesting one, and many issues of aging and clashes of culture come up in subtle ways throughout the film, as each member of the group acclimates to Jaipur.
Sonny, "Everything will be all right in the end . . . if it's not all right, then it's not the end."
What could be a better metaphor for aging than Sonny's catchphrase, which he says a few times in the film? The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is not only entertaining, but a depiction of hope for the future. There are many more dreams to be dreamed, adventures to have, and goals to be reached, even after one has reached "a certain age."
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