Monday, July 26, 2010

New York Stories, Part IV

October, 1996. A twenty-seven year old white male is observed repeatedly bashing an innocent plastic phone receiver against the keypad of a phone booth near Lincoln Center. He had reached the end of his tether, and doing violence to public phones was his only catharsis. There were others about, but to the young man's knowledge, none paid him any mind, a second glance. Such displays are/were commonplace in the City. What brought this guy to such a breakdown?

It was a combination of unfortunate experiences. Lack of success finding a better job, place to live. We'll start with the latter. He had spent a month living in Astoria, Queens with two friends of friends he had met back in Florida at the Burt Reynolds Institute for Theater Training. This was after he had lived in a dump in Washington Square, deep in the northern trenches of Manhattan. That place was very old, not well maintained, and rat infested. The landlady was a shifty Dominican who was not above making advances to/hooking up with her tenants on a regular basis. She was not exactly a volumptuous specimen, either. In one large apartment, she had squeezed in 5 tenants. The poor guy did not like the apartment or the neighborhood, though he had to admire the cultural diversity of it. He dreaded nights as he rode the 9 subway train well past Columbia University and watched as the train emptied with each stop, leaving usually only vagrants and half blind drunks. To be fair, there were the occasional families.

The apartment in Queens was a blessing. Through a friend, he reconnected with the BRITT folks, both taking a stab at making it as actresses in the Big Apple. Great Greek neighborhood, clean, friendly. The two gals with whom he lived were very cool, just like he remembered them. But there were debits. He slept on their couch and listened more than once to one of them being brought to orgasm in her bedroom just feet away. To amuse himself, as sleep was impossible during these trysts, he would try to identify certain sounds. One bizarre slapping noise, to this day, baffles him. While he lived there, he meanwhile tried to find an affodable place. It wasn't happening. Try after try, something would always be amiss, something would fall through. By the end of the month, the 2 girls were no longer friendly, just, awkward, speechless. A bad place for a houseguest. He had to lower himself to see if there was a spot in his old Washington Square apartment. Yes, but to his horror, the landlady had split one of the bedrooms in half, in an effort to rent out another space. A shoe-boxed sized hovel was all that was left. Having no other options, he...

Friday, July 23, 2010

Msr. Schorr, R.I.P.

Any regular listener of National Public Radio knows the voice. The slightly garbled, muffled semi-growl of longtime journalist Daniel Schorr. His segments were always fascinating, his editorials always prompting food for thought. My favorite piece was his reminiscence of the early 1970s, as he was reporting on the Nixon White House. That administration issued a list of "troublemakers" in the media, and Schorr was assigned to read that list on the air. He had not seen the list beforehand, and was quite stunned to find his own name there. His latter day commentary on this was revealing. He will be missed.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Words Fail

Me, and also one Basil Marceaux, running for governor of Tennessee. If you thought the film IDIOCRACY was just a silly fantasy, well, er........

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

New York Stories, Part III

Memorial Day weekend in NYC 2010, as I said before, was a sort of homecoming. I had not been in the city since the summer of 2001, mere months before 9/11. That alone gave me much to chew on. Within 1/2 hour of landing, I rode right past Ground Zero. I felt a chill for a moment, but I suspect it would've been much more significant (at least in feeling) had I been back much sooner. Does that mean I'm numb? No, but time has a way of dulling the edges of pain, if not always memory.

My wife and I and family were in and out of Manhattan all weekend. We spent a lovely afternoon at Prospect Park in Brooklyn-an amazing site, bigger even than Central Park, I was informed. We hit pubs and restuarants, the usual events. Some really amazing cuisine. But, indeed, one can also have a bad meal in this world class city. Even me, an often realistic, cynical type, had forgotten this through romanticized memories. Korean spot, 1992, there were eyes floating in my broth! I do not make a practice of identifying eateries by name that disapoint me, but I have to say that just because you have great ambience, a cool name, and great aromas does not preclude a bad entree (I learned this in Seattle last year, too). I also had probably the worst dessert ever at an otherwise fabulous vegan place in Lower Manhattan. Note to the wise/curious: if "kanten" or "agar" are ingredients in your sweets, beware.

Late night wanderings around NYC years back was a dicey thing. Exciting but fearsome. That fear of whatever lurked was part of the energy. I would expect muggers to lurch out of every shadow. I was fortunate. Never attacked. Harrassed, panhandled, yes, but never touched. My mother's uncle once handed me a beat-up wallet with a $5 bill inside. "What's this," I asked. "Keep it in your front pocket, case you get mugged. You have something to give 'em." This was during my first solo visit to the city when I was in my early 20s. The crazy New York I had remembered from childhood was still there. On this trip, there was still the energy, but the dread was absent. It felt downright safe.

Actually, it has for awhile. I've often said I feel safer in New York than I do in parts of Miami. I still stand behind that. NYC just seemed mellower to me. Maybe the city was irrevocably changed after Sept. 11. When I said as much to my wife's cousin (longtime Queens resident) on this trip, she shrugged and said, "Nah. Maybe things quieted down for 2 weeks after, but it's been business as ususal since."

Maybe it was because fewer people were in town for the holiday weekend. Maybe I'm just not as spooked by things as I once was. But NYC was a very different animal this time. After a disastrous attempt to live there in '96, I almost completely fell out of love with it. I'm happy to report that while we're taking it slowly, we've decided to occasionally date again.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Bon Appetit!

More culinary delights.......

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Toy Story 3

Can it be that 15 years have passed since the multidimensional adventures of Woody, Buzz Lightyear, et al first delighted our senses in TOY STORY? I still fondly recall the first time I saw its trailer. I was astounded. The film did not disappoint. My love affair with Pixar would begin.

All these years later, Andy, once a little boy who delighted in the company of his beloved playthings, is now off to college. His mother isn't the only one weeping and concerned. Nor are certain audience members, but we'll get to that. Woody, Buzz, Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head, and all those who survived the yard sales over the years foresee a dim future in a musty attic. Left alone until, maybe, if/when Andy has children of his own and hauls out these relics (yes, even at this point Buzz's once futuristic accoutrements seem quaint) to share. Or worse, toosed into a trash bag, landfill bound.

Andy eventually begins sorting, retrieving only Woody for his college box, the rest left for the attic. Through a series of misunderstandings, Buzz and co. end up on the curb, garbage truck visible in the distance. Woody again saves the day, but then all of them end up at an impossibly cheerful day care center, where they are greeted warmly by a strawberry scented pink bear named Lotsa and a scores of toys you may recognize from your own youth. All seems bright and promising: kids play with toys all day long! When they get older, a new batch of kids come. The toys will never again be neglected. Woody is the only one not sold on this supposed dream scenario, but then, he was the only one Andy selected, after all. The others are bitter and jaded, supremely disappointed, and all too happy to embrace this new phase. Woody remains devoted to Andy and escapes after a difficult parting with his comrades.

I'll stop here, and refuse to divulge any more of the plot. You'll expect there to be narrow scrapes, peril, cheeky gags, pop culture refs, hissable villany, assorted whimsy and warmth. It's all there, in spades. TOY STORY 3 is a grand old time at the cinema: great, great fun. I would've been satisfied even if those Pixar geniuses had coasted with this finale. They don't. Their creativity is beyond full bloom here, using their talents to evoke laughs and tears without ever seeming to pander. Nothing seems gimmicky or contrived. Even when vintage Fisher Price toys are integral to the story, or when that pull string, spinning animal sound ("the cow goes 'mooooo'") toy is ingeniously utlized as a poker table for some of the bad guys. It's quite amazing that a series that has so many real, name brand toys do not seem merely like 90 minute commercials. Each toy has a, dare I say, fleshed out personality. They are so realistic that once again, I will be unable to look at toys as dormant inaminate objects any longer. I'll keep catching a quick glance around the corner to see if they're talking.

We've met the leads before. Woody (Tom Hanks), Buzz (Tim Allen), Mr. Potato Head (Don Rickles), Rex (Wallace Shawn), Jessie (Joan Cusack), and others. All have distinctive traits and behaviors we've come to adore. Things are a bit more poignant this time out, as old friends like Etch-A-Sketch and Po Beep did not make this entry, their absence alluded to early on when the characters question their own futures. To say that this third movie is about pressing on would be quite obvious; it's a theme strongly proclaimed in Pixar's previous film, UP.

TOY STORY 3 exemplifies all the elements we usually see in children's stories: sticking together, never giving up hope, never leaving your comrade, remaining optimistic even in the most dire circumstances (check that harrowing scene at the landfill, with its hellish trash compactor and incinerator). Having these themes, exploring them, does not a good film make. You've doubtless seen many trite, insulting and gaggingly sweet movies that turn these qualities into pap. Never happens here, or in any Pixar, for that matter.

What also struck me this time was the somewhat sad story thread of how these toys with lives of their own will fall flaccid when humans are around. Completely subservient to the (not always gentle) hands of children (check the amusing sequence when our heroes spend their first day at the day care in the claws of energetic preschoolers). It isn't like the comic strip Calvin & Hobbes, where Hobbes comes to life when only his grade school buddy is around, suggesting not only that Hobbes' personality is a mere product of Calvin's active imagination, but also that adults are unable to see certain forms of magic. In the TOY STORY world, these objects' very purpose is to serve their children, to bring them love and joy. Think on that a bit.

The screenplay is knowing in many senses: knowing in pop culture in-joking (check the Barbie and Ken scenes, quite hilarious), knowing in how to stage a comedic ballet (when Mr. Potato Head becomes Mr. Tortilla Head, or when Buzz undergoes an, er, cultural switch, I was reminded of the clowns of silent films) but also knowing in the facts of life we all face in one form or another. So poignant it's hard not to get misty. Recall the brilliant life montage in UP as it touched on many of life's bitter (and not so bittersweet) inevitabilities. This film also forces us (and Woody and friends) to grow up and move on, to, if you will, deny self and serve others. Check the finale. I was speechless and a mess; good thing I was behind two sets of glasses.

P.S.-We saw a 3-D showing of this movie. It was unobtrusive and never flashy or in-your-face. Thus, whether you see the film in two dimensions or otherwise will likely not make a huge difference.