Category Archives: Film & Television

Dangerous Gems: The Subversive Music of Thomas Newman

Some film score composers have styles so distinctive that one can tell from hearing just a few measures of one of their compositions exactly who wrote it. Danny Elfman’s bold, busy, occasionally bombastic scores for Tim Burton’s movies have a particular power and energy, and it’s hard to imagine Alfred Hitchcock’s films without Bernard Herrman‘s sweeping, urgent orchestral pieces. Randy Newman’s scores usually have a bit of his trademark ragtime shuffle somewhere, and sometimes a touch of Aaron Copland to them, and Randy’s cousin, the fellow film-score-composer Thomas Newman, has his own compositional quirks that often make his work especially compelling and recognizable. His penchant for odd instruments, time signatures and percussion make his compositions unlike anyone else’s.

The scores of Thomas Newman are distinctive in their use of unusual time signatures, heavily percussive instrumentation and unrecognizable sounds created by his collection of rare instruments, all layered together in rich and unexpected ways. His scores have included the sounds of the zither, hurdy-gurdy, psaltery and hammered dulcimer, aboriginal chants, and even the chirping of cicadas. He weaves synthesizers and lush string arrangements in among the more organic sounds, and alters his sonic findings to create aural oddities that nobody has heard before.

Newman’s theme to the groundbreaking HBO television series Six Feet Under was created primarily with recognizable instruments—strings and reeds, for example—that are overlaid with washes of dissonant, shimmering, zithery sounds that remind one of harp glissandi but aren’t. They are then warmed by melodic oboe lines and set off by strange background sounds similar to the low squeaks one accidentally makes when rubbing wet wine glasses in a tub of suds. For the film WALL•E, Newman collaborated with Peter Gabriel to create the Oscar-nominated song “Down to Earth,” a perfect melding of synthesized, metallic, otherworldly sounds and rich, earthy, very human voices. The song sounds at once very much like Newman while being perfectly in sync with Gabriel’s body of work, and is a delicious auditory morsel that’s quite an appropriate accompaniment to the story of the film.

Newman has worked extensively with the innovative director Sam Mendes, and his haunting and anxiety-provoking scores provide powerful backdrops for all but one of Mendes’s angst-filled films. These include Spectre, American Beauty, Road to Perdition, Revolutionary Road, Skyfall and Jarhead. It is also hard to imagine the moody and intense Frank Darabont films The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile without the oppressive sonic blankets that Newman created to press down on us and make us feel the fear and claustrophobia inherent to prison life.

Often Newman draws out discordant musical phrases and refuses to resolve them, leaving us feeling perplexed, nervous and worried. His theme to Revolutionary Road is a simple, repetitive piano tune layered with cymbals and repeating string lines that serves to build a deep reservoir of pain that cannot be released, just as the film does. Hopeful woodwinds peek up among the swirling strings at times, like a drowning swimmer trying to rise up for air before sinking below the surface one last time. The piece “Road to Chicago” from the intense and underrated Sam Mendes film Road to Perdition also begins with a simple piano motif, but then it hums with danger as washes of strings begin to press down on the piano tune. We wait for the chords to resolve but they only recede, pulling us far down a lonesome road, fading like the lights on a car driving into a dark, cold night.

The score for Jarhead brims with the intensity and violence of war, jolting the audience to attention with discordant Middle Eastern-sounding motifs played on stringed instruments mingled with synthesizers and insistent percussion, the unrecognizably altered sounds stirring fear in our hearts and melting our brains like waves of heat in the deserts of the Persian Gulf.

Born in 1955, Newman is the son of legendary composer and conductor Alfred Newman, who was the composer of scores for over 200 films and the winner of nine Oscars, an achievement that no other film composer has ever matched. Thomas has himself been nominated for (but not won) twelve Oscars and has won two BAFTAs, six Grammys and an Emmy. While he is best known for his film work, he was first interested in musical theater, just as his father had been, and while he was at Yale young Thomas was mentored by Stephen Sondheim. He then moved to Hollywood to follow in the footsteps of his father and his celebrated uncle Lionel Newman, another major player in Hollywood history who himself composed scores for over 200 films as well as a number of classic TV show theme songs. Another uncle, Emil Newman, was also an accomplished Hollywood conductor of long standing.

Newman’s work, like that of his frequent collaborator Sam Mendes, is as unsettling as it is beautiful. Both are intended to push us out of our comfort zones, nudging us to see something stylish and beautiful among the shadows and ruins. Mendes’s work uncovers the sinister forces lurking near us and sometimes within us, and his films ask us to stare uncomfortably at the black cracks in our own psyches. Newman’s music is like the dark music that rises from those cracks—haunting, frightening, altogether new yet somehow familiar. His music and Mendes’s films also present to us a painful yearning and loneliness that can seemingly never be filled. That hollow, empty quality is what makes their darkest works so frightening yet so brilliant, so recognizable and unfathomable all at once. They are dark masters and their creations are dangerous gems.

 

Child of the Sixties

Laura in GG Park, March 1969

The author in Golden Gate Park in the late 1960s

Among my childhood photo albums are pictures of me wearing daisy chains and sitting on the grass in Golden Gate Park. I have vivid memories of spending time with my father and his friends in the park and in the adjoining Haight-Ashbury district when I was a very little girl. I was tiny, but I remember San Francisco, the epicenter of the hippie movement, during 1967’s legendary Summer of Love and in the years thereafter.

Though I grew up in the suburbs, I often visited what people in the Bay Area refer to simply as The City. All my life I have felt a special pride in my connection to San Francisco. My mom gave birth to me there, in a hospital just a few blocks’ walk from the famous intersection of Haight and Ashbury Streets. My dad (whom I only lived with for the first few months of my life, and only saw occasionally from babyhood onward) brought me to various hippie happenings there during his visits with me from the time I was about three years old. He hoped to make up for what he saw as the soulless bourgeois childhood I was supposedly experiencing in the Bay Area’s eastern suburbs.

The PBS American Experience documentary on the Summer of Love shows a San Francisco very much as I remember it during that time, albeit from about three feet off the ground. As a young child, I found San Francisco’s hippies often scary and off-putting. Even as a very little girl I had a sense of the importance of personal space and a desire that things be done safely, with purpose and according to plan. I was much more of a cautious goody-goody than even my mother, a high school teacher whom my father denigrated for being too suburban. I followed rules; my father and his friends generally did not. My dad hated authority, rules and The Man, so he and his friends would take joy in challenging the establishment whether or not I was with them.

I was always the only child present on visits with my father, and was usually ignored, so I spent a lot of time in watchful anxiousness, hoping not to be put in harm’s way. I was frightened by his and his hippie friends’ lack of concern with their actions or with me; they were lackadaisical, careless, loudly vulgar and sometimes stoned, so I felt ill at ease and unprotected with them.

People often talk about how loving and peaceful hippies were, but I saw also an enormous amount of anger directed by them toward rules, history and authority. That anti-establishment anger was often channeled for good in such campaigns as the fight for full and equal rights for African-Americans, women, Native Americans and homosexuals, among other downtrodden groups. The often strident and unpleasant but necessary challenges to the entrenched establishment gave young people in particular the courage to question the wisdom of their leaders and force their government to justify its wars. They gave the populace the courage to stand against unjust laws and corrupt political practices. It was this movement that eventually gave journalists the courage and necessary establishment backing to bring down a powerful sitting president during the Watergate scandal just a few years later.

While the nation often benefited from the outspoken challenges of those who had felt stifled by government, big business and the limiting social mores left over from the 1950s, there was also an upsurge in more generalized antisocial behavior. The rise of the hippies led not only to social activism, peace and love, but also to huge numbers of (mostly) young people breaking rules just for the hell of it. Many wrapped their destructive or selfish behavior in a cloak of righteousness. Some took advantage of the new social openness to examine their psyches and motivations honestly and to try to relate to others in more direct and healthy ways; others just found this newly socially acceptable preoccupation with self an excuse for narcissistic behavior.

The ensuing decade of the 1970s was dubbed “The Me Decade” with reason. During the 1960s, modesty had lost favor while self-regard and constant awareness of one’s own needs and desires became viewed as positive things. Exuberant self-expression and in-your-face sexuality went from being shocking in the early 1960s to being surprisingly common within a decade. In the early 1970s, when I visited the high school where my mother taught (and which I would later attend), obvious bralessness was very common not only among the students but even among teachers. Some of the younger teachers wore hot pants to school. Overt sexuality was, however, considerably less evident in high school teachers’ fashions by the time I myself entered high school later in the seventies.

To be fair to those who were part of the laissez-faire San Francisco hippie culture of the 1960s, I saw plenty of self-absorption and self-aggrandizement even among more establishmentarian suburbanites during that time and in the decade that followed. Social boundaries were not well respected in general in the late 1960s; millions of people (not just hippies) were sharing their formerly private thoughts (not to mention their bodies and lots of adult-themed talk and media) with great abandon and carelessness, and we kids were often exposed to too much knowledge too soon. Those of us who appreciated having some boundaries in our lives were often ignored or denigrated by people who felt superior because of their mod, carefree sensibilities. Some, like my father, mistook the desires of others (like his young daughter) to follow laws, keep order or avoid conflict or offense as being necessarily conservative traits. They are not.

There was a middle ground in which people challenged the status quo more gently; they didn’t want social anarchy but still believed strongly in the promise of liberalism. Yes, many San Franciscans, hippies included, sought peaceful, meaningful, respectful social change and worked hard for it. But from my own perspective, as a very young person, I saw measured, realistic and inclusive social activism in the suburbs, too, even among those whom my dad and his friends found so hopelessly square.

Benedict Cumberbatch as Hamlet

Since I learned that Benedict Cumberbatch would play the title role in Britain’s National Theatre production of Hamlet this autumn, I’ve sought a way to justify another trip to London to see him on the stage. Happily, this week I was able to do the next best thing: I attended a special video presentation beamed from the Barbican Theatre in London to 1,400 sites around the world. The production wasn’t strictly live—I saw it delayed by a few hours to accommodate the time difference between London and Seattle—but it was exciting to know that it was a very fresh and special event.

The National Theatre’s staging of Shakespeare’s most popular play been a hugely successful one thanks to the justified popularity of Benedict Cumberbatch, who attained superstar status for his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes in the BBC’s exceptional Sherlock series, shown in the US as part of PBS’s Mystery series. This week’s initial showing of Hamlet in cinemas around the world drew the largest global audience for a live broadcast day of any title in National Theatre Live history;  more than 225,000 people around the world saw the production in cinemas on the first day. More showings had already been scheduled in cinemas over the coming two weeks, but the first showing was so extraordinarily popular that more cinema presentations will be added during November.

I quite enjoyed the production, which also featured the compelling, charismatic Irish actor Ciarán Hinds (Mance Rayder in HBO’s Game of Thrones; Julius Caesar in HBO’s ROME; Captain Wentworth in the splendid 1995 film version of Jane Austen’s Persuasion) as Hamlet’s uncle/step-father, Claudius. The video created and shared around the world this past week will be repeated in several Seattle cinemas over the next two weeks as well as in other locations around the world, so if you don’t mind sitting for 3-1/2 hours (including a 20-minute intermission) in a cinema, this is a beautiful production, well filmed.

There are quirks in this production that are entertaining or interesting to watch, but can be distracting in their oddness. Benedict Cumberbatch dressed like a soldier and playing at being at war in his oversized dollhouse flanked by giant toy soldiers is an unexpectedly lighthearted moment, and is fun to watch. Yet it is strange, and it feels not only out of character but like a maneuver meant to distance the audience from the action—this production has many anachronisms and bits of folderol meant to throw the audience off guard and to play up the staginess of the production instead of allowing us to enter Hamlet’s world and even his head, as productions of this play tend to do. It is the most introspective of Shakespeare’s plays, so to play it in a way that constantly underlines its very falseness and inauthenticity is at odds with the desires of the productions we are used to. But being shaken out of our complacency and surprised by theatrical antics is one of the things that live theater does best, so there is room for a production of this old chestnut that leaves us a bit confused and off-center. Hamlet is himself imbued with many awkward and uncomfortable traits, after all, so it makes some sense that his story should be similarly discomforting and confusing.

When Hamlet’s murderous step-father, Claudius, connives and justifies planning Hamlet’s destruction in Act IV, windows and doors blow in and the entire set becomes covered in what look like black flecks of decay, or leaves, or even shredded tires—who can say? There is no explanation, and the black bits overtake Hamlet’s world and remain on the stage for the rest of the play, in every setting, inside and out, with only small sections of stage swept clean at various points during the ensuing drama to create pathways or patches of light.

As the production wound down, Cumberbatch arose from the ground for his curtain call, bits of the mysterious dark schmutz still clinging to his face, neck and clothes. Did the particles symbolize doom, or Claudius’s corruption (and perhaps Hamlet’s, since he takes an innocent life and leads others toward death), or general decay? Something is indeed rotten in the state of Denmark, but what exactly it is that overtakes the land is not clear.

Of all the strange and original conceits incorporated into this production, the willful and inconsistently applied anachronisms are the most noticeable and, to me, off-putting. Shakespeare’s plays are often adapted to take place in other time periods than the Elizabethan era, and such variations can be very effective. My favorite case in point is the excellent film adaptation of Richard III starring a stunningly malevolent Ian McKellen which took place in an alternate version of 1930s Britain overseen by fascist dictatorial rulers. In that case, setting the story in a historical period which is so recent and freighted with so much fascistic horror and menace made it feel particularly vivid, real and emotionally accessible.

This version of Hamlet is the first Shakespearean production I have seen that sticks to no particular time period but instead chooses to be willfully and inconsistently anachronistic, beginning with Hamlet listening to Nat King Cole’s haunting “Nature Boy” (which was recorded in 1948) on a record player in what seems to be the late 1940s or early 1950s. Hamlet is greeted by a modern hipster version of Horatio, complete with backpack, pegged jeans and body-covering tattoos; his clothes and glasses seem like they could possibly be contemporary with the Nat King Cole music, but the backpack and tattoos take him to the modern realm. Ophelia in her slouchy sweatshirts and high-waisted pants seems to be dressing in clothes from the 1980s or 1990s, while Hamlet’s mother Gertrude and her new husband (and former brother-in-law) Claudius are clothed in garb contemporary with the song by which Hamlet is captivated (and the strains of which return repeatedly during the production, acting almost as a theme song). The acting troupe to whom Hamlet gives acting lessons are dressed in 1970s gear, and Hamlet himself is often in more timeless, neutral clothing, except for his David Bowie “Aladdin Sane” T-shirt and a handpainted punk overcoat.

The anachronisms delighted my daughter, who felt they underscored the timelessness of the story and emphasized the point that Hamlet as we have come to know him is a man out of time. I see her point, yet I found that the anachronisms often jarred me out of being able to suspend my disbelief, which is something I crave in theatrical experiences, so I found it less immersive than I would have liked. Aside from that, however, I found Cumberbatch very skilled at making me feel that he was in the moment and experiencing life as Hamlet, and the sets, direction and music were very effective.

If you enjoy Cumberbatch, Hines or Hamlet, this is a worthy and thought-provoking production.

Tom Hardy Is Right: Celebrities Have a Right to Privacy

Photo by Fred Thornhill, Reuters

Photo by Fred Thornhill, Reuters

The big buzz around talented and ever-modest movie star Tom Hardy this week centers on his refusal to be bullied into talking about his private life by pushy interviewers. An excellent interview in The Daily Beast titled “Even Celebrities Have a Right to Privacy” touches on that, but it goes far beyond that contretemps.

As Hardy himself said in the Daily Beat interview, “What  [Daily Xtra reporter Graeme Coleman] had to talk about was actually interesting, but how he did it was so inelegant. And I appreciate that I could probably have more grace as a human being, but I’m just a bloke. I’m just a man. And I’m just a man doing a job. I’m not a role model for anyone, and you’re asking me something about my private life in a room full of people. I don’t want to discuss my private life with you. I don’t know you! Why would I share that with a billion people? Also, if you felt it was so important for people to feel confident to talk about their sexuality, why would you put somebody on the spot in a room full of people and decide that was the time for them to open up about their sexual ambiguity? There’s also nothing ambiguous about my sexuality, anyway. I know who I am. But what does that have to do with you? And why am I a part of something now that, however legitimate, I haven’t offered my services for? It’s not about what he and his publication stands for, none of that is offensive, and on the contrary, it’s very admirable, and an important issue. But how I was asked was incredibly inelegant, and I just thought it was disrespectful and counterproductive to what he stands for.”

Hardy is a thoughtful, articulate, well-spoken man who often plays taciturn, difficult or broken people. (See (“Mad Max: Fury Road,” “The Dark Knight Rises” and “Legend” for examples.) In the Daily Beast interview, Hardy expresses beautifully how frustrated he was to be grilled about his sexuality in what he called an “inelegant” fashion because he sees nothing wrong with people embracing who they are and sharing their truth about their sexuality in their own time and in their own way, but only if and when they wish to. Mr. Hardy felt the interviewer who pushed his own agenda undermined his own worthy cause by refusing to recognize actors’ rights to privacy. I agree with him.

The interview is full of fun tidbits, such as Hardy’s love of dogs’ sincerity and stories about going to drama school with Michael Fassbender. Hardy is a feminist and supporter of strong roles for women in film, and is also a noted animal lover and anti-poaching advocate, and the interview touches on these aspects of his personality briefly.

Despite Hardy’s huge success in film and on stage, he seems surprisingly humble when comparing himself to other actors with whom he has worked and studied. upcoming dual roles as London’s notoriously murderous twin brothers Ronnie and Reggie Kray in “Legend”  and as Elton John in a biopic about the musical icon both promise to be exciting. I look forward to watching his career continue to bloom.

Star-Lord, You Had Me at Hello

One of the best character introductions in the history of film has to be the title sequence in “Guardians of the Galaxy.” Though we meet young Peter Quill in a scene just before the title, when we first meet grown-up Peter (alias Star-Lord) he’s walking through a forbidding, bombed-out landscape conjuring holographic ghosts of the past before entering an enormous, dank ruin. Then he presses play on his Walkman, his hips start to sway, the title pops up and he joyfully spins, dances and splashes his way past skeletons, uses a hissing lizard-rat as a microphone and hops up a stone stairway to the strains of Redbone’s “Come and Get Your Love.” In two minutes you learn so much about his character: he’s a goofy badass, a joyous loner, a playful rebel. I’ll say one thing about Chris Pratt’s characterization of Star-Lord: it’s perfect.

Happy Shakespeare Day

To celebrate Shakespeare’s birthday, let me share this delightful bit of his work (if he was indeed the author of the plays attributed to him). This performance is by Mark Rylance, who is considered by many to be the world’s greatest living Shakespearean actor—Stephen Fry believes him the best stage actor alive today.

Rylance, who has won Olivier, Tony and BAFTA awards for his acting, became the first director of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London in 1995. It could have become a kitschy tourist attraction but he turned it into a true powerhouse of a theatrical company in the decade he spent at its helm. He is now the star of “Wolf Hall,” the BBC’s excellent production of the story of Tudor political genius Thomas Cromwell‘s tussles with King Henry VIII. The  series is currently showing in installments on PBS in the U.S. (If you’ve missed the first few episodes you can still stream them online for a short while.) Rylance is famed for his simplicity and naturalism; he’s not showy, and this performance isn’t the rousing, bold performance you might expect if you’ve seen Kenneth Branagh or Laurence Olivier deliver this speech. I thought I’d give you a more subtle taste of the Bard of Avon. (Interestingly, Rylance and fellow Shakespearean great Derek Jacobi don’t believe Shakespeare wrote “Shakespeare’s plays.”)

The Kindness of Strangers

Every large city has parks or plazas where people in difficulty congregate. Some go there to commiserate with others who feel down and out; others go there looking for escapes from their pain. Drug deals clearly take place in these parks; it’s not unusual to find drug paraphernalia scattered around in some of them. Of course, not everyone who frequents such parks goes to them to break the law; people who gather there are looking for different ways to feel connected with others, to pass the time, to lessen their boredom or frustration or pain.

I rarely see women in these parks. It is easy to imagine that the men who spend their time there often feel disenfranchised and powerless, so when they gather in parks or plazas they often posture in front of others, commenting on the women who pass through their midst, calling out to females in the cars that drive past and generally making us feel, if not unsafe, then at the very least uncomfortable. There is a noticeably macho atmosphere in such places, so showing respect to women is less common there than are displays of sexual attention and bravado.

In Seattle, there are several downtown parks like this where a woman walking alone during daylight hours might feel uncomfortable. When I walk past them I don’t feel endangered, just conspicuous. When women walk by, all eyes turn to us. The men there make comments when I walk by, just as they do to most women who pass within a half block.

Last weekend I was in the part of the city that gave the world the term “skid row”—what is now Yesler Way in the Pioneer Square neighborhood of Seattle was originally a “skid road,” a path along which timber workers skidded logs in the 19th century. This part of town boasts many attractive Victorian buildings converted into art galleries; it also has many bars and missions that serve the large numbers of homeless and poor people in the area. While I was in a Pioneer Square building, I became flooded with difficult memories. I was so overcome that I needed to walk outside to avoid drawing attention as my face crumpled and tears began to well up in my eyes. There was no nearby alley to duck into, no public restroom, no bench to sit on or doorway to enter that wouldn’t expose me to strangers who would notice my distress. But there was a park a half-block away, and I walked toward it in hopes of finding an open bench where I could sit for a few minutes until I regained my composure.

This park is an open plaza without much in the way of benches since public seating tends to encourage homeless people to look for a place to sleep, and city governments tend to discourage such behavior. The only place I could find to rest that wasn’t taken was a large flowerpot with a rim big enough to lean against. I saw that there were clusters of men in the plaza but I assumed that if they saw me with my head down they wouldn’t bother to speak to me. I was wrong. One tried to make conversation with me from a distance but I didn’t look up from my handkerchief. He sounded slightly offended when I didn’t respond, as if he thought I’d entered his territory and then hadn’t had the courtesy to acknowledge him. He came closer and made another comment, this one about my looks. It was not unkind but not what I wanted. I realized that I’d entered his turf and I was the odd one out in that situation, and that if I didn’t respond in some way I might attract more attention or hear negative comments about what might be seen as my arrogance or contempt. So I wiped my eyes and looked up.

I said, “Sorry, I’m having trouble today.” With that, he and another young man walked up to me and immediately said how sorry they were, and how they hated to see me crying. One walked close to me, and as he spoke I saw that he was missing his two front teeth. He couldn’t have been more than 25 years old; the other, taller man was about the same age. The toothless man said to me that he wished he could cry, but that he couldn’t anymore; he had clearly seen so much pain that he felt all cried out. I wiped my eyes and told him I was so sorry that he was hurting. He thanked me and nodded. I said, “There must be a lot of pain in this park, huh?” And he and his friend nodded and said, “Oh yeah, a lot of pain.” Then he said that I needed to know that things were going to be getting better, and that there were people who were going to be there for me, and he spread his arms wide, swooped in and gave me a big hug. I told him I wished things would get better for him soon and that I hoped he’d find comfort. Then he smiled and walked away, and his tall friend came closer. He said that he could see that I just needed to have faith, and that he could tell that things would be better for me soon, and he blessed me. I said “Thank you, sir, for your help. Bless you, too.” He said he was glad he could be there for me, and he wished me well as I walked away.

I keep thinking about those exchanges, and how for those moments in time, our ages, our races, our genders, our economic circumstances made no difference to us. These young men saw me hurting and came to comfort me. I acknowledged that their attention was kind, and they gave me respect and courtesy. They treated me not like an outsider who didn’t belong but as a human being who deserved dignity and help. In many places in this country they would be reviled and assumed to be thugs or criminals because of their appearance, but the men I spoke with were gracious and gentle. They’d seen trouble and understood sadness, and they didn’t judge me or assume that my difference in personal circumstances made me undeserving of sympathy. Our exchange was all about honoring the humanity and dignity in each other, recognizing that we have no right to judge what causes others pain, and that we can all do something to help others to bear their burdens. I felt a little embarrassed showing pain in their presence because it’s not hard to imagine that the circumstances of their lives have brought them more suffering and frustrations than I am ever likely to know. But not for one moment did I feel that they judged me unworthy of their compassion, nor did they ever show the slightest bit of disdain or outwardly assume that my troubles were less pressing than theirs.

These young men showed empathy in its purest form. They didn’t ask why I was sad; the reason didn’t matter. They didn’t need to figure out whether I was worthy based on my situation. To them I was worthy of help simply because I was a human being. They gave me, a total stranger, the most beautiful gifts they could: honor and compassion. Merely acknowledging the people around me in a public park elicited such kindness from them. I’m grateful that they were there for me and that they reminded me that my troubles were temporary, and that there are good people all around us.

At the end of Tennessee Williams’s play A Streetcar Named Desire, Blanche DuBois descends into madness, and as she is being led away to the insane asylum, she famously, pitifully says, “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.”

Don’t we all?

Even those of us in penthouse suites or gated communities, ivory towers or walnut-paneled boardrooms depend on the social compact to keep strangers from breaking down our doors or threatening us on the street. To stay safe, warm, well-fed and employed and to get around and go where we must we depend on strangers not only to avoid harming us but to go out of their ways to help us do what we need to do. We worry about violence and tut over stories of criminal behavior that we hear on the news, but for most of us, being a victim of crime is an uncommon occurrence. We are sheltered, we are lucky, we are, most of us, trying hard not to hurt others or be hurt ourselves. We all depend upon the kindness of strangers. We just don’t realize how much effort is made by others every day to make room for us in a world that is more theirs than ours. We are each only one of seven billion, after all, and nearly all the others in this world have less invested in our health and happiness than we do. Yet, we we live alongside each other and make way for the needs of strangers every day.

This weekend two kind strangers proved how much invisible goodwill surrounds me. I was humbled by their kindness, but also elevated—by looking up into their faces I became part of something greater than myself. I felt disconnected and hollow when I walked into their park; they reminded me that even on Skid Row, one can find connection, beauty and mercy.

Only the Shadows of Their Eyes

I just watched the last 15 minutes of Midnight Cowboy, a movie I have admired for decades and seen a half-dozen times, but which brings me pain each time I watch it. It’s one of those films that I cannot turn away from if I happen to run across it while changing channels, so powerful are the performances and so unflinching is the focus on captivating yet repellent characters.

Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight are natural, believable and awkwardly honest in their roles (which are among the finest performances of their careers); John Schlesinger‘s direction is unflinching and powerful. Schlesinger was unwilling to turn away from the sorts of intimate, painful moments that other directors tend to cut away from in order to soothe audiences and tie up loose ends. He avoided palliative measures, trusting his audiences to handle the pain and unfairness at the heart of his characters’ worlds and sit with their devastation and disappointment even as the final credits rolled by.

The film begins with what sounds superficially like an upbeat tune with an ambling gait, the song “Everybody’s Talkin‘” sung by Harry Nilsson. The song, which won a Grammy and was a million-selling single in 1969, is deceptive; listen to the lyrics and you’ll see it’s about an overwhelmed man who can’t handle or comprehend the needs and conversations of the people around him  and longs to move far away to a place without cares, “somewhere where the weather suits my clothes.” He sings:

Everybody’s talking at me
I don’t hear a word they’re sayin’
Only the echoes of my mind

People stopping, staring
I can’t see their faces
Only the shadows of their eyes

It’s easy for the casual listener to notice only the upbeat qualities of the song and the positive fantasies of the young man as he imagines himself moving lightly through the better life that awaits him:

Banking off of the northeast winds
Sailing on a summer breeze
And skipping over the ocean like a stone

The song suits the story of handsome but none-too-bright young Texan Joe Buck (played by Jon Voight) who leaves Texas in a hurry and moves to New York convinced that he’ll be a big success as a gigolo wearing his cowboy hat, boots and pretty-boy grin, and as he walks around Times Square in his fringed leather jacket he seems to be just a sweet, overgrown, oversexed kid. And he is, at first. Full of hope and confidence but leaving a disturbing and misunderstood past, he soon becomes overwhelmed like the man in the song. He longs to escape his life, first running to New York, then to Florida with his friend Rico (played by Dustin Hoffman). But in this story, there is no easy, rambling way through life or around trouble, and there’s no way for Joe to stop the cascade of horrible lessons that come with being too trusting, hopeful and needy while living among broken, wary people.

Midnight Cowboy is an exceptional film which captures the disturbing power of the fine novel by Leo James Herlihy upon which it’s based. Indeed, the movie, the only X-rated Best Picture Oscar winner ever, was a huge critical success despite its reputation for grim, mature subject matter, and it won Oscars for best picture and best direction. While the story is gritty, it isn’t by any means pornographic; the X rating was misleading. But the story is adult in nature, ultimately cynical, tragic and hopeless. The main characters are hustlers, professional liars at the bottom of society who are not very bright and are willing to take advantage of people in pain. Yet the story is told in such a way that, although we cringe when the principal characters harm themselves and others, we cannot help but feel our own hearts break as we watch their hopes go down in flames.

So why do I come back to this film, and why do I love other devastating Schlesinger films about unrequited love and loss (like his beautiful, faithful adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd and the 1971 drama Sunday Bloody Sunday with its exquisite performances by Peter Finch and Glenda Jackson) and of moral decay (like Marathon Man) so much? I suppose it’s because Schlesinger was a masterful storyteller who managed to focus  on difficult, broken and fearful people, people on the edges of society, people who are willing to live in shadows. He let us watch them lash out at others in desperation, flail and grasp for meaningful connection with other people, and then have to live with their losses and failures. There are few redemptions in Schlesinger’s stories, but there is great humanity. Schlesinger helped viewers get under the skin of his characters and understand their pain without whitewashing their behaviors or putting them on pedestals. He loved flawed people and stories full of heartache, and he made a career of getting the intelligentsia to peer more closely at and care for stories about the very people those same people might cross the street to avoid in their daily lives.

Schlesinger, who was gay, incorporated homosexual themes into several of his films and teleplays, sometimes portraying gay men as self-loathing (as he did in a disturbing scene in Midnight Cowboy) but also including one of the first depictions of a successful, honorable, well-adjusted professional homosexual man in modern cinema (in Sunday Bloody Sunday). He treated his characters’ sexuality with the same straightforwardness he showed toward their other characteristics; it was simply another facet of their lives. This matter-of-factness, which made Sunday Bloody Sunday particularly advanced for its time, was part of a wave of naturalism in film also seen in the work of other important directors of the late sixties and seventies such as Martin Scorsese, Mike Nichols, Robert Altman, Francis Ford Coppola, Sidney Lumet and Peter Bogdanovich.

It may seem odd that some human beings (like me) seek out stories of loss, failure and emotional pain like this one both as forms of entertainment and as cathartic experiences. Such films shine a light on the human condition and help viewers like me to understand and empathize with the misbegotten and seemingly cursed people of the world in a way that feels especially visceral and real. Films like Schlesinger’s are, however, at enough of a remove that film lovers who appreciate a good dose of angst with their drama can feel safe sidling up to the misfits, losers and dangerous people who inhabit the underworld that Schlesinger created. There’s a voyeuristic thrill at getting so close to the people and emotions that scare or excite us, followed by a shock when we realize how close they are to ourselves.

Sans Douleur: Camille’s Song “Your Pain” Brings Pleasure

If you watch Saturday Night Live, you may have seen Emma Stone in a skit called “Les Jeunes de Paris” (“The Youth of Paris”). In it, Stone and other young Parisians dance in a Left Bank café and speak only French while listening to “Ta Douleur,” a song by the French pop singer Camille. The song, the title of which means “Your Pain,” was inspired by French New Wave film director Jean-Luc Godard’s 1964 film Bande à Part (Band of Outsiders). Camille’s song is so arresting and appealing, one can see why Emma was inspired to dance.

“Ta Douleur” was a hit in Europe when it was released in 2005 on Camille’s album titled Le Fil (The Thread). One thread that binds  all the album’s songs together is a low-level drone in the background; another is the album’s emphasis on the human voice above all. The album’s constant droning note, a B, is barely detectable in “Ta Douleur,” but the song is quirky and surprising even without that gimmick. The entire album is an exploration of the versatility of the human voice with very little actual traditional instrumentation, just a bit of percussion and some bass to back up the beat boxing, raspberry blowing, humming, scat singing and other vocal pyrotechnics. Odd though it may be, “Ta Douleur” has a very catchy melody and intriguing rhythms.

Camille’s original video for the song features the singer in an ever-escalating battle with a ball of yarn. It becomes a self-knitting hat that creates itself around an unwilling naked woman. It then forms itself into a raveling dress, a womb, perhaps even a shroud for the woman caught within it. The yarn behaves like an invasive, inescapable, parasitic entity. The lyrics, when translated from the original French into English, are a bit cryptic but they definitely relate to pregnancy. While some listeners have expressed a belief that the singer of the song is talking about the pain of her upcoming labor, it seems more likely that she is considering an abortion.

The official video portrays the yarn as a menacing force that seems intent on taking over Camille’s body and the lyrics show hostility toward the fetus growing in her womb. Videos of Camille’s live performances of the song are captivating, too, despite not involving her being naked or fighting a losing battle with a willful ball of blue yarn. The song takes on a surprisingly bitter and poetically serious message for such an upbeat tune. Consider this translated excerpt:

Now who’s this gatecrasher
This storm before the summer
This little bitch of a sister

I’m going to take everything away from her
Her darts and her whistle
I’m going to give her a proper licking
Send her away during break
I’m going to take your pain
But who’s this heiress
Who’s bathing, who is hiding
In the lukewarm water of your loins

I’m going to take the desert away from her
Make her eat dust
Of those who are not hungry anymore
I’m going to take your pain

Chef: A Rare Treat from Jon Favreau

Chef

If you’re looking for a heartwarming, fresh and funny little film to give you a boost over the holidays, I highly recommend actor and director Jon Favreau’s delicious comedy Chef, which is now on DVD. This charming road picture features talented chef Carl Casper (Favreau), a man who has given up expressing his creativity in the kitchen in order to cook for an unimaginative restaurant owner (Dustin Hoffman) with diligence but without inspiration. After receiving a bad restaurant review, Carl vows to show what culinary magic he can work in order to salvage his reputation, but things don’t work out as planned. The fiasco forces Carl to start his life over, returning to his roots and focusing on creating simple but perfect food for the masses. This leads him to a closer, more reciprocal relationship with the young son he drifted away from when he let go of his passions and his greatest gifts.

The film has a leisurely pace and many thoroughly enjoyable scenes of preparing and devouring great meals. We go for a long, funny, often moving ride in an old food truck along with Carl, his son (played with great skill and warmth by young actor Emjay Anthony), and his loyal sous chef (played with gusto by John Leguizamo). Along the way we see the U.S. with new eyes and recognize that meals, like relationships, don’t have to be expensive and fancy to be exceptional and memorable.

The movie is essentially a love letter to food, family and friends, and Favreau, who is himself a skilled chef and gourmand, takes the time to show delicious-looking food prepared lovingly and authentically as part of the film’s exploration of preparing and sharing meals as a metaphor for sharing art, love and meaning. It’s  well crafted, beautifully paced and so authentic in tone that each time I’ve seen it I’ve come away feeling like I just hung out with generous old friends who invited me to share something rare and meaningful with them.

Jon Favreau directed such crowd-pleasers as Elf and the first two Iron Man pictures, but he’s also a talented actor who got his first big break in Doug Liman’s very funny 1996 indie comedy Swingers. Favreau wrote the script for Chef in just two weeks and called in a few superstars (Robert Downey Jr. and Scarlett Johansson) to fill small roles, but the three key actors (Favreau, Anthony and Leguizamo) have such chemistry and take such genuine delight in each other that you hardly know or care about the big-ticket actors.

Often feel-good comedies have a manufactured, by-the-numbers feel to them. I don’t like being manipulated by a director who wants to spoon-feed me my emotions; I want a film to earn my respect and authentic responses. Chef made me feel as if I’d been drawn into something special and intimate. I hope you’ll find it as sweet and satisfying as I did.