wet earth

A Personal Theory of the Movies

I am three years old.  My sister and brother aren’t born yet.  I’m with my parents, inside my father’s black Chevrolet Rambler, at a California drive-in theater, somewhere in the San Fernando Valley.  It’s the 1960s and we are watching “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” the three of us: father, mother, and little Kevin.  Little Kevin is scared—the dark woods, the gleaming apple filled with poison, the malevolent queen—yet he’s also aware of a red-and-black checkered wool blanket that covers and protects him and smells of home and safety, a familiar, slightly scratchy veil separating him, just enough, from the moving pictures, vast and terrifying, on the tremendous screen that looms high in the night, high and illuminated over the Rambler’s curving windshield.

“Snow White” was my first movie, and one of my earliest memories.  The film, the night, all of it was red and black: the apple with its dark poison inside, Snow White’s red lips and her black hair, the red taillights of all the cars, lined up in rows, the evil queen’s dark cape.  My father’s black car.  The red-and-black blanket.  My three-year-old eyelids slid downward before the film’s cheerier middle section, so there is no memory of that.  Instead I imagine the pale red images flickering, shadowing across the skin of my closed eyes as I slowly fell asleep.  There would be no happy whistling, no seven dwarves for me.  No rescuing prince.  My eyes were shut: I’d seen enough.

I’ve been thinking a lot about movies lately, and the strong feelings they seem to provoke, in myself and others.  When I saw “American Hustle” and was hotly disappointed, it felt urgently necessary to vent my feelings on Facebook, just as I could not stop talking about how much I loved “Frozen.”  Why the intensity?

My personal theory is that movies are about love and betrayal.  When I enter into a movie theater and the lights dim to a womb-like darkness, I submit to an experience I do not control.  All the pores of my mind, body and spirit are open to receive what is on the screen.  And when I feel let down by the movie, as I was by “American Hustle,” the feeling for me is not unlike having had sex with the Wrong Person: I let someone into my body, past my defenses, past my boundaries, and it was a mistake.  And I feel betrayed.

Some people carry thicker armor than me, and are able to see images that I would consider completely appalling and unacceptable, and then go outside afterward and enjoy a pizza—no harm done.  Certainly when I was younger, I saw plenty of scary movies.  I also rode roller coasters, had sex with strangers, and drank too much.  Now those choices don’t work so well for me.

I distinctly remember the movie that made me question my identity as a moviegoer: “Cape Fear,” starring Robert DeNiro.  In that movie, there is a brutal scene in which DeNiro’s character strangles a man with a piano wire.  That night, and several nights thereafter, I had vivid nightmares—clearly, seeing part of a piano, an object as inherent to my identity as my own body, used a a violent weapon, had struck a chord, one I never wanted to hear or feel again.  After that, I grew more careful about my moviegoer choices.

Today, the movies I like display those same qualities I look for in a friendship, and try to cultivate in myself: sincerity, vulnerability, honesty.  I have no time for the sour taste of cynicism, the sad self-puffery of snark, though clearly there is an enormously profitable market for these dubious pleasures, which I gladly I leave to others.  I will never be Hollywood’s prime target audience.

Recently I saw the film “Her,” written and directed by Spike Jonze, and starring Joaquin Phoenix.  Oh, how I love this movie!  Its subject is male loneliness, and the hunger to connect and feel loved and seen and known, and the temptations of isolation, and the common male tendency to retreat into anger and distance instead of feeling what is there to be felt.  But through the brilliant script, direction, set design, and performances, the film is in fact a gentle tutorial into the art of feeling.  So many films shout, gesticulating wildly—Look at me!  Instead, with quiet confidence, “Her” whispers.  And because it whispers, I am seduced, and not betrayed, and this is the second part of my theory, that films can also be about love, and a reminder of what pure love first felt like.

Who loved us first?  Who betrayed us first?  No wonder the feelings are so strong.

I think a great many films are loud and violent and snarky and cynical because they allow us to numb or deaden or ignore or deny those feelings that derive from childhood, feelings like grief and rage and bottomless pain.

What do you do with pain?  I don't know, but I do know that, for me, tenderness and kindness are a good place to start.  And there are films that I experience as tender and kind, which is not the same thing as sappy-sentimental—some of the favorites that come to mind at the top of my head, at this moment, are “Central Station,” “You Can Count on Me,” “Parting Glances,” “Lost in Translation,” “Moonstruck,” and “Working Girl.”  Just thinking about each one of these movies opens up a little place of joy in my heart.

With a friend, with a lover, I want tenderness.  I want kindness.  I want movies that welcome my trust, the openness I bring to that darkened room, movies that whisper into my ear stories of real life, real feelings, enveloping me with softness, the better to softly press against those places in the heart that still hurt.

I believe that art is a delicate balance of innocence and skill, naivete and craft.  Given the thousands of compromises and decisions, collaborative or top-down, that it takes to get a single movie on the big screen, one that manages to capture that feeling of tenderness without falling into sentimentality is, for me, nothing short of a miracle.

I recently took one of those Internet quizzes that asks you “Which [fill in the blank] are you?”  It turns out that, among Disney’s roster of princesses, I am Snow White, described by the quiz as “gentle, loving and trusting.”  Perhaps too trusting—I must be careful about what I let into my body, be it what I eat, whom I make love to, or what I watch.  I appreciate the skill and dedication it takes to make a film like “American Hustle” or “Wolf of Wall Street” (which I choose not to see), but I know myself well enough now to say that such things are not for me.  I’m a man now, not a three-year-old boy anymore, yet if I slow my breath and relax my mind, I can still feel that boy inside me, holding on to the red-and-black checkered blanket, closing his eyes to the fearful witch on the screen.  That boy has seen enough evil already; the next time I take him to the movies, it will be to enjoy a movie that makes his heart sing.


On Knowing Where to Stand, Part 2

It was the death of a cat that prompted me to join Facebook.  The year was 2009, eleven years after I had adopted Misha from a colleague in Seattle.  Misha was large, regal, glamorous, a big-hearted, spirited tortoise-shell a friend of mine dubbed the Marquessa. I had moved twice and lost touch with the colleague, a woman named Suzanne, and I wanted to tell her that Misha had died, and also how much this cat had meant to me. When I googled Suzanne, the only contact information I found was through Facebook. So, reluctantly, I created an account.

I was reluctant because I had the sense that Facebook would be a huge distraction in my life and a waste of time. But I really did want to send some words of gratitude and shared mourning to Suzanne.  So I sent my first Facebook message.

A month passed, I never heard back from Suzanne, and I deactivated my account.

I reactivated it four years later. I was heading to Los Angeles last summer for an LGBT writing retreat, and some weeks before the retreat started, I learned that a Facebook group for the retreat’s participants had been created.  I have struggled all my life with feeling like an outsider, and I have also done a lot of work to overcome that feeling.  I knew I didn’t want to feel left out or excluded, so I joined the group, got drawn into the kaleidoscopic world of Facebook, and the rest is . . . a continuing experiment in how I choose to spend my time.

This is my first Arts Alive blogpost in several months.  When I created this blog in February 2012, it was, in part, in response to my frustration that the local daily newspaper, which had been regularly publishing theatre reviews by me and others, had made an abrupt budget decision, essentially eliminating any meaningful coverage of the arts. Over the course of over 70 posts, I reviewed plays, art exhibits and music events, conducted interviews with local artists and writers, as well as national figures like Pulitzer Prize winning composer Kevin Puts, whose works are a favorite of Chamber Music Monterey Bay.  For over a year, I kept up a steady stream of weekly posts, ranging from dance performances to Harold Pinter, and Aimee Bender to Louise Erdrich.

After my summer of writing conferences in 2013, I decided to focus more on my own writing.  By that time I was also posting regularly on Facebook, so Arts Alive got moved to the back burner.

One benefit I have noticed from participating in the culture of Facebook is an increased willingness to speak my mind.  Growing up gay and scared undoubtedly contributed to habits of secrecy and privacy, in thought as well as deed.  Some people blast out of the closet with the force of a cannon, and once the smoke has cleared there is no mystery about where they stand.  For others, like myself, the process is slower.  I’m still learning how to be an adult, to speak my mind, to feel unafraid of the opinions of others.

My intention for 2014 is to renew my commitment to publish Arts Alive blogposts, widening my focus to include not only the arts in Monterey County but other issues that inspire me to share my thoughts.

Lately, for instance, I have noticed having strong opinions about movies.  I’ll say more about that in a future post, but for now I will reveal that my favorite movie of 2013 was Frozen.  There, I said it.  A year ago I probably would have been too embarassed to share that, but the truth is, I don’t really care any more.  Frozen is beautifully made, with gorgeous songs and orchestral music, and a feminist story that upends the entire Disney tradition of a princess defined by the prince who saves her.  The two hugely talented lead performers are active in LGBT activism (one is also a strong animal-rights advocate), it has the voice of the dreamy Jonathan Groff, and the gayish snowman sidekick is not incidental but plays a key role not only in the unfolding of the plot but also in the film’s message of service to others.  There are other current films that, obviously, are of more intellectual and cultural and historical import, but I persist in believing that a prime function of art is to provide pleasure.  And at this moment I am just not interested in spending my money and time on seeing indulgently-long movies about the destructive lifestyles of immature, greedy people.

This is a longer post than I am accustomed to writing, and my sense of pacing is whispering at me to stop, but I have one more thing to say.

A significant part of my personal growth is thanks to the Monterey Peninsula College Drama Department, where I conquered my fear to stand on a stage in front of an audience.  When the local paper stopped running theatre reviews, it felt like an assault on a community that not only trains actors, directors, and stage crew, but also gives people of all ages a safe and creative place to develop skills for life.  Recently, the MPC adminstration proposed a huge budget cut to the Drama department, so huge it would have eliminated their ability to mount productions.  Department Chair Gary Bolen, my first acting teacher, has managed to negotiate a painful deal that will keep the department running, though at a high cost of losing two full-time positions.  It is VERY IMPORTANT that everyone, AND I MEAN EVERYONE, who cares about the arts in Monterey County come to a public meeting to discuss the future of the Drama department, which will be held on Wednesday, January 22, at 5 pm, at Lecture Forum 103 on the MPC Campus.  The Adminstration and the MPC Board of Directors need to see clearly and definitively how wide, deep, and passionate this community feels about local theatre, and the arts, and an irreplaceable tradition of deepening our sense of being alive.

The Juilliard String Quartet in Carmel

“Slow it down.  Take your time.  Listen, really listen.” Much of the wisdom and coaching offered yesterday by the esteemed Juilliard String Quartet to local students at Carmel High could be boiled down to those basic principles.  It was riveting and incredibly satisfying to watch the students—who performed admirably well—soak in the wisdom offered by the quartet, and, with each repetition of a phrase or passage, get closer to excellence and a deeper musical expression.  I think what impressed me most about the quartet’s coaching was that they did not speak down to the students, but treated them as equals, as fellow travellers on the path of musical discovery.  The students had clearly worked very hard for this day and they deserved and received the appreciation and respect of the quartet and the audience.

I was also struck by the advice to allow the bowing arm to move freely of its own weight, instead of through pushing or forcing, which has the effect of jamming the music into the instrument, rather than letting it flow and emerge out from it.  That is applicable to many activities in life, musical and other.

When the Juilliard last appeared in Carmel, a few years ago, I was less than enthusiastic about their performance, which I found dry and uninspired.  But since then they have acquired a new first violinist, Joseph Lin, and a new violist, Roger Tapping, and the change in the group’s energy is palpable.

Tomorrow, at Sunset Center, they will perform quartets by Haydn and Beethoven, as well as a new work by the rising young American composer Jesse Jones (b. 1978), whose piece, “Whereof man cannot speak...” was commissioned by the Juilliard.  Jones writes, “[each of the quartet’s five movements will reference] a certain poetic text, and will explore the spiritual and literal dimensions of religious mysticism and symbolism, as embodied in certain poetry: Yeats, Aquinas, Lamartine, etc. To achieve this, I intend to wed musical aspects of these texts with luminous microtonal harmonies, in hopes to create a sonic embodiment of their unspoken, spiritual ‘meaning.’  In other words, I intend to create a sounding board from which the sentiments of the texts, without actually being spoken, can freely resonate in the listener.  For this I plan to transcribe and orchestrate samples of the human voice—inflected speech, sighs, and song—so that the music flows directly from the sinew of genuine human expression.”

This promises to be a wonderfully auspicious start to Chamber Music Monterey Bay’s 47th season.

The Juilliard String Quartet, Saturday, October 26, 8:00 p.m., at Carmel’s Sunset Center.  Call 831-625-2212 for tickets or visit http://www.chambermusicmontereybay.org/