Saturday, February 20, 2010

Lost Treasure

Steely Dan were a fussy couple of maestros named Donald Fagen and Walter Becker. I posted a series of entries about their career trajectory some time back (part of the stalled "Wiseacre Duos" series, which, btw, will resume soon) and you can read 'em to learn about their fascinating journey. You'll also see the common thread of their perfectionism. Many songs were recorded and then discarded, often for reasons known only to the composers. One of them, "I Got the Bear", an outtake from their 1980 album Gaucho, is so good I just can't understand its exclusion. It is a funky, dark tale reminiscent of so much of their best work. Really unique piano bridge and bass, too.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

It Happened by the Lake

I probably wouldn't have watched a second of Super Bowl XLIV if I hadn't been down at the Chapel by the Lake in West Palm Beach that night. That's a beautiful outdoor ampitheater by the Intracoastal Waterway that seats over 1,500, built in the 1960s. It is an underused venue these days.

When I attended the associated church, First Baptist of WPB, the CBL was better utilized. Back in the 70s and 80s, what were known as CBL Crusades came every summer. Each night for one week, a well-known Christian musician or preacher would take the prow. I have vivid memories of Lisa Welchel ("Blair" from the TV series "The Facts of Life") walking with the pastor down the aisle before she gave her testimony. She was very short.

I also recall there being films shown after the Sunday evening service when I was very small. They scared the shinola outta me. Not just those rapture dramas where a spouse wakes up to find her mate gone, but also lurid stories about alcoholism and other ills. Be a hoot to see one of them now, in all their scratched 8mm glory.

On a personal note, the Chapel has been a nice refuge, a place where I've retreated on many an afternoon to just think on Life. You can stroll down the sloped concrete aisles and down to the seawall, very scenic. Once upon a time, you could go there after dark and gaze at a fat moon from the cool grass. Church security will politely ask you to move on these days. Seems many church youths and college students over the years have ruined it by using this tranquil spot for other activities.

The later years? Occasional concerts and outreach events. My current church, Christ Fellowship, for the second year has partnered with FBC to provide free meals, toiletries, and clothes for anyone who needed them, while the Super Bowl plays out on a screen perched in the same spot where those old movies played 30 + years ago. We were unable to attend last year as my wife-to-be was very ill. This year we manned the clothing station, giving out every imaginable donated garment to the homeless on a chilly night (many blankets, too).

It was a blessed time. I met many folks who described life in rehabs, halfway houses,on friends' couches. Many stories, many depressing. Some seemed fabricated, but you never know. I'm as jaded as anyone regarding the homeless who approach you in the parking lots and hold cardboard signs at intersections. I've given food to them, only to turn around and watch them dump it in a garbage can. It's frustrating, but someone who calls him or herself a follower of Christ should be ready to give to "the least of these" without concern of the recipient's response. This sort of discouraging behavior by recipients was illustrated by a handful at the Bowl party, who complained that the commercials were not shown (people took the stage and talked about Jesus!), and that they did not like the selection of garments. Love on them, regardless. Many are thankful and will be very open to your example. Perhaps it may even be appropriate for you to tell them why you display such love......

Saturday, February 13, 2010

The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus

How I adore the darkly mysterious vortex that is a Terry Gilliam film! The one-time animator/Monty Python troupist has created a truly vibrant, eccentric collection of cinema, each denoted by far more than the actual images. For all of the creativity we see onscreen, there are volumes more that our own mind's eye conjures. You might say that a Gilliam movie fires the imagination, not merely a flicker or spark, but rather a lit match tossed into a fireworks store.

What we do see usually involves a manic burlesque of misfits, forging on some grand quest of imposing magnitude. Everymen (BRAZIL, TWELVE MONKEYS) and unusual creature (THE ADVENTURES OF BARON MUNCHAUSEN, FEAR & LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS) alike are mired in figurative and often literal labyrinths of mystical opposition before the catharsis is reached. It is not always a happy ending. For that and many other reasons, a Gilliam film will not appeal to everyone. Many may be initially lured by the cartoonish imagery and atmosphere, but will bolt as they realize that the films themselves are often as whacked as the protagonists. A fractured point of view makes many a filmgoer perplexed or uncomfortable. For many others, a Gilliam film is an unpleasant experience because one is almost tangibly subjected to the same madness. Like someone is physically toying and/or torturing you. Truly a vicarious ride. Watch FEAR & LOATHING and tell me differently. It was one of the few times I felt the need for a vomit receptacle while seeing a movie (I suppose I should review that movie separately; I can tell you now, that won't be pretty).

THE IMAGINARIUM OF DR. PARNASSUS fits nicely in the Gilliam ouvre. It contains all the elements that make his films so distinctive. I thought of every other of the director's works while I watched it. Perhaps that was the idea. The titular main character, wonderfully played by Gilliam vet Christopher Plummer, is a dreamer who lives to spin amusing yarns for whomever will listen. Most of the time, that audience number can be counted on one hand. Remind you of anyone? Dr. Parnassus travels London town in a ramshackle truck fit with a stage and crampled living quarters. His daughter, a dwarf, and a young sprite are his accomplices, nightly dressing up and offering a low rent cabaret to passersby. The truck stops in front of bars, lonely alleyways, grocery store parking lots. A few coins land in the tattered hat. Most pay the whole affair little mind. But there is a mysterious mirror on the stage, one where the curious may tread.....

One fateful evening as the troupe trudges toward their next performance, a young man named Tony (Heath Ledger) is discovered hanging by a noose under a bridge. Funny, that's what the card in Dr. Parnassus' deck just revealed. Funny also that about this time, we keep seeing a dark figure called Mr. Nick (Tom Waits), malevolently whispering to the old doc. In fact, we learn that Parnassus and Nick are both very old, with a centuries perpetuating tete-e-tete that will figure prominently in the story. Tony is found to be still alive and rescued by the motley crew. Before long, he is part of the road show, becoming quite valuable as he has a knack for persuasion. Soon droves of folks (mostly fawning women)rush from their errands to watch the actors prance around and spout profundities. Tony brings new vitality to the proceedings, perhaps something that is also foretold, somewhere.

Then there's that mirror. All customers who dare enter find themselves in another dimension, a place erected out of their own desires. Pub crawlers find a tempting saloon. Middle-aged, overly lipsticked matrons find themselves in a land of high heels and young gondoliers. This inner world reminds the viewer perhaps of Willy Wonka's funhouse, especially as there is always some nasty trap to reward gluttony and avarice. There to collect on the hefty tab of sin is none other than Mr. Nick. Seems the man always infiltrates Parnassus' domain. Perhaps one of the old souls cannot exist without the other?

The tug of war between Nick and Parnassus involves the collection of souls, and the mirror is a portal through which the harvesting occurs. To describe more, the wondrous visions which await the comparatively few viewers who see PARNASSUS, would be a sin, indeed. What happens on the other side of the glass will reveal true identities, motives, the basest of the underlying. The subconcious (or "unconcious" as the more academic among us like to call it) will unfold in glorious Gilliamity. We'll also discover how the director was able to employ the likes of Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell to step in for Ledger, who passd away mid-production. Aiding and abetting on the screenplay is Charles Mckeown, who also co-penned earlier Gilliams like BRAZIL and MUNCHAUSEN. More than just Baroque art direction is shared with those earlier films.

The implications of the storyline- of fate, mandate, the divine and the downtrodden perhaps once divine, will be a field day for those seeking allusions in their art. Theologians, for starters, will find much to connect. Plenty of Old Testament evocation here. Some of the fantastic stories in the OT do share a bit with Gilliam's visions, come to think of it. Generous dallop of Job here. Folks familiar with contemporary British politics may see some curious parallels. There is also a starting point with the very name, "Parnassus", both a mountain in Greece and a mythological god namesake ("Parnassos"). There was a mighty flood associated with Parnassos. Ah....

Some have criticized the director for concocting movies that work more intellectually than emotionally (especially BRAZIL and TWELVE MONKEYS). I always find, conversely, a great howl of pain behind each Gilliam protagonist. FISHER KING's Parry, BRAZIL's Sam, and many others fight personal demon and external evil alike in their fight for sanity and peace. The antagonist may be a bureacracy, a sword wielding assassin, a virus, but it is just as often the protagonist himself (apparently, TIDELAND's protagonist is a girl but I've yet to watch that one). The films' plots are often twisty roads, sometimes with very little linearity (FEAR & LOATHING). But always heartfelt, even if the chilly winds seem to wash over everyone when the credits roll. As if (seemingly) evil wins out. Check: TIME BANDITS, BRAZIL et al.

Does that happen this time? Not saying. But behind the scenes, there was great heartbreak at the loss of the amazingly talented Ledger. In fact, in a move quite uncharacteristic for someone known as an artist autocrat, Gilliam credits this film as, rather than "A Terry Gilliam Film," instead, "A Film From Heath Ledger and Friends".

Thursday, February 4, 2010

On Being a Maestro

I met Allen Stafford over 20 years ago at Palm Beach Atlantic College (now University). We both took Ms. Caldwell's creative writing course at the time. It was an auspicious and appropriate beginning, as we were both fond of conjuring words for creative bidding. I recall standing outside the Administration Building after class one afternoon, chatting about another passion: film. He was the first person I met in college who had as aggressive an interest as I did in it. I clearly remember talking about Martin Scorsese, possibly because THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST fracas was still raging across campus.

My senior year, he asked me to play the male lead in his stage adaptation of Katherine Anne Porter's Rope for his directing class. Each student was to direct a one-act that would be presented over three nights at the end of the semester. At that point, I had not acted in anything since junior high school. It was daunting, yet exhilirating. As the story had only 2 characters, I had quite a bit of dialogue to memorize. Scary. Allen was also quite particular in his stage direction: one rehearsal involved my repeating a single line with different inflections for what seemed like hours. My experience on Rope could fill many entries. The performance itself (on a VHS I have stored somewhere) was also eventful, almost a NOISES OFFish affair. Memorable. Later, I even won the theater department's award for Male Lead in that, my last semester at PBA.

Post undergrad, Allen and I hung out, collaborated on a few things, saw lots of movies, and visited New York, him for the first time. It was exciting to see the city through new eyes. Allen would move there in 1995, and there he remains. That last point leads me into the real purpose of this post, to highlight Allen's most recent gig at Casellula, an eatery in Manhattan's Clinton (er, Hell's Kitchen) district. This is a choice interview, one which offers a good sampling of Allen's wit and great taste.