TMI Storytelling was fun and funky

27 Feb

TMI storytellingHalfway through last night’s My Funky Valentine event at La Pena Cultural Center, emcee and host Gina Gold responded to someone’s gasp in the audience that, after all, the series is called TMI for a reason, implying that if honest storytelling isn’t your cup of tea, nobody’s blocking your exit.

Gold is an African American Jewish comedian currently on tour with three other Jewish comics in a show called You’re Funny But You Don’t Look Jewish, but takes time to host this monthly storytelling event, described on its website as “unvarnished and funny looks at incendiary topics.”

La Pena seems an unlikely venue in some ways for a storytelling event. The café was still serving food, and, in fact, some of the audience members were duly holding their order numbers so the servers could find them in the crowd. And because there were no tables there in order to make room for more seats, people were eating from plates in their laps and trying to find places to tuck away their dishes under chairs when they’d finished eating.

When I’d learned that TMI would be at La Pena, I pictured it in the larger, separate space that is next to the eating area, but apparently they were screening an anti-Israel film there while we were listening to stories of love gone wrong. At one point, one of the other members of You’re Funny but You Don’t Look Jewish had us yell a cheerful Shalom, hoping the audience on the other side of the wall could hear us. (I hope they had a sense of humor.)

The evening’s stories were honest and raw and funny with occasional detours to more serious territory, but they all connected to love, dating, or sex.

Some presenters were more professional than others, but I got the feeling that it’s supposed to be a mix of veterans and up-and-comers who are still learning the ropes, which was okay with me. (Although someone should have clued in the young man who mumbles how to use the microphone. I don’t think I was the only one in the back who missed many of his quick one-liners.)

choco penis

How often do I get the chance to use the image of a chocolate penis?

Because the raffle prizes were donated by a sex gear shop, there was extended discussion on each of the items, which included candy nipples, lubricant, and a chocolate penis. (When we awaited the number to be called for the lube, the elderly man sitting next to me quietly offered to give me the lube if he won it, saying that he didn’t use it.) Gold learned that one of the lube’s ingredients was algae and wondered aloud how someone figured that out. Did someone insert algae directly into a vagina to see if it worked? She also wanted to know why the store called its items sex gear rather than sex toys, to which the owner answered that some of her inventory was more in the adaptive category to enable people of all sizes to have pleasure. Gold pressed further—what kind of adaptations was she talking about? Apparently ramps play a prominent role. Of course, references to algae and ramps continued throughout the rest of the show as a huge inside joke.

Gold is one of those naturally funny people who can make just about any situation humorous and it seems very extemporaneous. At one point, she walked onstage, looked down at her cleavage in a pleased and almost surprised way, and remarked that her breasts were looking quite ample in the dress she was wearing, to which we all applauded.

Next month TMI moves to a space with a full bar in Oakland at 3000 Broadway, and the theme is Sex in the City. There may be more opportunities to discuss algae and ramps…

 

Another Oscar Night come and gone

24 Feb

Gold Trophy

Well, I did not see as many Oscar-nominated movies as I’d hoped, but I did see 18 of the movies that were up for awards last night, including all of those that were up for best picture and any for acting.  I saw most of those up for writing awards but only one of the foreign films and one documentary. Luckily, I will still be able to see many of those on Netflix in the coming months.

My predictions weren’t too bad—I got 10 out of 24, but I missed a few of the big ones. I thought Boyhood deserved best picture, but I certainly think that Birdman was worthy.

I’m very happy that Julianne Moore and J.K. Simmons both won for their performances. And I’m glad that Birdman took home the award for best original screenplay and that The Imitation Game won best adapted screenplay. graham moore

The acceptance speech by its writer Graham Moore was the best of the evening. “Stay weird” will be the catch phrase we remember most from last night. We should all be thankful that his suicide attempt at age 16 was not successful.

The big surprise of the evening for me was how beautifully Lady Gaga can sing. She did Julie Andrews proud belting out a medley from The Sound of Music, though I wasn’t exactly clear why that was part of the night’s program.

Neil Patrick Harris wasn’t bad, but I would love to see Ellen DeGeneres back as host. He did throw a good zinger right at the beginning, referring to Hollywood’s “best and whitest,” a clear dig at the lack of diversity represented by the nominations.

Of course Birdman director Alejandro Iñárritu is Mexican, so not all the awards were handed out to white people. And he appealed to the U.S. to treat recent immigrants with dignity, considering we are a nation based on immigration.

And I congratulate John Legend and Common for their win in writing the best song, “Glory.” Despite the few nominations that seemed to value diversity, the crowd loved their moving performance of this song from the film Selma and gave them a well-deserved standing ovation.

Oscar contender: Foxcatcher

23 Feb

Gold TrophyYesterday was my last-ditch effort to see films before the Academy handed out their awards. I had tried to see foreign film contender  Timbuktu on Saturday, but it was sold out! Everyone had the same idea, I guess, because 6 of the movies showing at the Shattuck were sold out. And of course I waited in line for 15 minutes before I found out that it was sold out. Grrr.

So Sunday afternoon I went across town 15 minutes early to the only theater still showing Foxcatcher.  There were plenty of seats.

I was disappointed. The acting was good, but there were gaps in the story, and I felt it was poorly edited.

In addition, it was never clear to me why events happened as they did. Perhaps it’s because it was based on a true story, and the writers didn’t actually know all the facts and motives, since two of the main characters are no longer living. But wrestling scenes were longer than they needed to be, taking up valuable time that could have been spent on character development or plot. The film was a full two hours long, which was at least 20 minutes too long in my opinion.

steve carell

Note the prosthetic nose that transforms Carell into DuPont.

I have to give props to the makeup people, though. Steve Carell was almost unrecognizable as crazy chemical heir John DuPont. Close-up shots on his face never revealed any tell-tale seams, yet DuPont’s schnoz is nothing like the nose that belongs to actor Steve Carell.

It’s a sad story that did pique my curiosity, but I can’t recommend the movie. Maybe I should find the book it was based on…

Oscar countdown: Moore is amazing in Still Alice

21 Feb

Gold TrophyIt’s almost upon us—Oscar Night. So Dave and I went to see Still Alice, despite the fact that his mother’s name was Alice, who had Alzheimer’s disease. So we knew it was likely to be an emotional movie-going experience.

Well, that was an understatement. This film touched me deeply. On one hand, it reminded me of my sweet mother-in-law’s final years. And on the other hand, I have been feeling for the last few years that my memory capacity has shrunk considerably, so I related to the protagonist more than was comfortable.

The movie opens with Alice—a beautiful, accomplished, articulate linguistics professor—celebrating her 50th birthday with her family. Then Julianne Moore skillfully takes us on her character’s painful journey from healthy independent woman to someone who gets lost in her own house and can barely speak. Because Alice is intelligent and highly educated (proclaimed by her husband to be the smartest woman he ever met), the audience feels her loss even more dramatically. And of course the irony that a leading expert on linguistics has trouble remembering the correct word is not lost on her.

still alice

Alice receives heartbreaking news.

It starts realistically as she gives a lecture and hesitates while she tries in vain to conjure a particular word, which she later remembers (lexicon). Her loving—but not perfect—husband (played by Alec Baldwin) responds to her concern the way most people would—we all forget things now and then, particularly as we age. As it progresses, she fails to recognize her surroundings on Columbia campus, where she teaches.

So Alice secretly consults a neurologist. On her first visit, he gives her a simple test, which she almost aces. She successfully spells the word water backward and is able to tell him exactly where she is, but she forgets one of the three items she is told to remember. Her doctor orders an MRI.

I recognized that test because I recently took it when I consulted my doctor, concerned by my memory loss. And I almost aced it too. Like Alice, I quickly spelled a word backward and was able to say exactly where I was. And like Alice, when I was asked to repeat words a few minutes later, I got two out of three. My doctor didn’t see any reason to worry, but he ordered some blood tests to rule out a few possibilities.

Alice and I both received a clean bill of health on the follow-up diagnostic tests. At that point, my doctor said that my condition did not seem to warrant any further testing. Alice’s neurologist, however, ordered a PET scan, which confirmed his suspicion that she had early-onset Alzheimer’s.

This did not give me comfort.

Neither did my husband’s insistence that we all forget things. Did he not see the same movie I did? That’s exactly what Alec Baldwin said!

I provided examples that I found parallel to those in the film, such as the time I found my grocery list in the freezer. Dave did not agree that this was just like Alice discovering her lotion in the frig. He claims that a grocery list in the freezer makes perfect sense. (Perhaps I should be worried about him too…) I have also missed appointments and been unable to recall words, not every day, but it happens.

Watching a woman who realizes she’s slipping rapidly into dementia was frankly more terrifying for me than any horror film, especially when Julianne Moore gives such a stellar nuanced performance. Let’s hope the academy remembers her tomorrow night.

Oscar countdown: Whiplash is a brutal experience

21 Feb

Gold TrophyWhiplash is nominated for Best Movie and Best Adapted Screenplay, and J.K. Simmons is up for Best Supporting Actor for his role as an abusive conductor at prestigious Shaffer Conservatory.

I have to admit that it was painful to sit in the audience and watch the constant abuse hurled onto promising young musicians who no more deserved it than a puppy deserves a beating for barking. I would dismiss such behavior as unrealistic and over the top if it weren’t based loosely on writer/director Damien Chazelle’s experience in a high school band. Although the screenplay was not an autobiographical film, I’m curious to find out just how far his former teacher and bandleader went to inspire the actions portrayed in the movie.

I was squirming in my seat as I watched Simmons embody the loathsome Fletcher, who not only threw a chair at the film’s protagonist, the ambitious drummer Andrew, but adeptly wielded mental cruelty whenever possible.

For instance, early in their relationship, Fletcher asks Andrew about his parents under the guise of trying to explain his natural talent. Caught off-guard, Andrew innocently reveals that his mother left him and his dad when he was quite young. That tidbit later gets flung in his face in a public shaming meant to break him.

Occasionally Andrew catches a glimpse of something more humane in the bandleader, which unfortunately gives him enough hope to stick around, enduring still more abuse at Fletcher’s hands. The audience breathes a sigh of relief when outside forces end the destructive relationship. But Andrew, still wanting to believe that Fletcher has a soul, gives him another chance despite their history and agrees to play in an upcoming performance.

J.K. Simmons’s acting lifts the movie to greater heights. The writing was fine but not, in my opinion, Oscar-worthy.

One scene particularly strained credulity. (Spoiler alert #1) Andrew is due at an out-of-area competition, but his bus breaks down. Undaunted, he rents a car to complete the trip. (Of course my bullshit alarm went off because I know that car rental agencies don’t lease to 19-year-olds.) And of course because he’s speeding and texting (the quintessential modern cautionary tale), his car gets broadsided by a semi. Shortly after impact, we see our bloody hero crawl out from under the wreckage and run the rest of the way to the concert hall. That was when my disbelief ended its suspension and snapped.

whiplashBut the moment that most disturbed me happened at the very end. (Spoiler alert #2) The audience has watched this monster in a position of authority screaming epithets at young impressionable music students for most of the movie, undermining and belittling them at every turn with sometimes tragic consequences. Andrew recovers from yet another manipulative blow to play in front of an audience that can make or break his career.

Now, there may indeed exist music lovers who might actually appreciate extended extemporaneous drumming, but I found myself checking my watch halfway through his performance, however skilled it may have been.

Nevertheless, that wasn’t the downfall of that scene. On top of being subjected to the world’s longest drum solo, I was struck with what I thought was a horrible message—because Andrew worked hard, persisted, suffered endless abuse, and literally bled for his craft, he finally got Fletcher’s faint nod of praise. No doubt there was great satisfaction in proving to himself and to the assembled music critics that his talent could shine through despite Fletcher’s treachery. But ending with Fletcher’s much-sought-after approval, the movie seemed to me to condone his methods. Was that the point?

Hoping to gain insight on the writer/director’s implicit message, I read interviews with him in the L.A. Times and Variety. Chazelle claims that he wanted to make a movie about music that was like Raging Bull, to show the punishing side of an artist’s life and depict how much he is willing to go through to achieve his goal.

Fair enough. But that’s not enough payoff for the audience, who is suffering along with him. For the struggling artist to be a sympathetic character, his aim needs to reach beyond his tormentor’s belated validation; his goal needs to be producing something beautiful or bettering himself.

If, in the final scene, Fletcher had looked beaten at his own game, or if he’d become an alcoholic has-been, if he’d gotten what he deserved—he would not be smiling. I, for one, wanted the vicious music instructor to meet with a dark end in addition to our hero rising victorious.

But maybe that’s just me…

Focusing questions for a writer

20 Feb

happy typewriterAlthough there are not enough hours in the day to check out as many blogs as I’d like to, I occasionally read something from someone who follows my blog because I figure we probably have common interests.

Today I read a post from the Happy Typewriter, which had straightforward questions intended to focus one’s writing. Being one of those all-over-the-place writer, I was intrigued. So I answered the questions myself.

Q: What do you want to write about?

A: Ordinary people put in extraordinary circumstances

Q: Do you want to do fiction or non-fiction?

A: That’s a bit of a Sophie’s Choice for me, but if I absolutely have to pick one over the other, I’ll go with fiction.

Q: What genre do you enjoy writing the most? 

A: Right now it’s plays.

Q: Why?

A: Writing for the stage has been so satisfying because when one of my plays is read aloud or performed by others, I get to hear it from the audience’s perspective. (The best part is being in the audience and hearing others laugh at my jokes!) In addition, my poetry and novels have reached far fewer readers, and I don’t get to be there when the reader is experiencing it (except in my critique group), which means it’s not as fun for me.

It would be interesting to pose these questions again in a year to see if I’m still in the same place…

Now I pose to my writer friends: how would you answer these questions?

A lesson from my dream

19 Feb

testI dreamt last night that I had taken some sort of aptitude test, in which I’d stated my career of choice as writing. At a graduation luncheon, announcements were made as to who would be doing what. Except for me and my friend, who were supposed to see the teacher afterward to discuss our futures.

My friend had submitted too many possible occupations and had therefore made a mess of the test results. She resolved to consider her choices more carefully and winnow them down.

I was told that my test result didn’t support my only choice and was therefore inconclusive. Apparently the results meant that it was unclear what I should be except that I should not be a writer.

I was crestfallen. I had been so cocky. I already knew what I was going to be—the test was a mere formality in my judgment. I began to gather my belongings and was wondering what was next, when I came to a realization—it didn’t matter what that test or that teacher or anyone thought. Nobody could tell me I couldn’t be a writer. Only I had that power.

Then I got pissed and adopted a rebellious attitude. My heart was racing as I walked out of the building (that vaguely resembled my high school gym). I would show them! What right did they have to decide for me? None whatsoever.

I awoke angry but resolute. But of course when I considered the circumstances of my waking life, I quickly concluded that no such barriers exist. go-away-i-m-writing-mug

So it was important for me to write today, as it is every day, because I am a writer. And not just in my dreams.

Oscar countdown: Live Action Shorts

17 Feb

Gold TrophyThe best way to celebrate Presidents’ Day is by going to see a movie, especially because Presidents’ Day is 6 days before Oscar Night!

In my attempt to see all the Oscar-nominated films before stars begin walking those red carpets, I saw the five nominees for best live action short film. (Thank you, Shattuck Theatre, for screening these every year.) I feel so lucky to live in Berkeley, where I am able to see them.

 

The five films up for the award came from Tibet, Ireland, Switzerland, Israel, and the UK.

“The Phone Call,” from Great Britain had two big names in its cast. Sally Hawkins plays Heather, who works at a suicide hotline and talks to a distraught widower, voiced by Jim Broadbent. Heartbreaking and realistic, this film packs an emotional wallop. We listen to a man who feels there is nothing to live for and watch Heather, who is helplessly watching the clock, hoping to get the information she needs to send an ambulance to the suicidal man. As bleak as the subject matter is, the film does end with a life-affirming message.

Dave’s fave was the entry from China and France called “Butter Lamp,” directed by Hu Wei. This charming glimpse of a small Tibetan town is all shot from one camera angle as people move in and out of the frame. A traveling photographer shoots family portraits with a variety of cheesy fake backgrounds. Once all the photos are taken, the backdrops are rolled up, revealing the actual scenery—a breathtaking view of the Himalayas behind a road under construction that is sure to change life forever in this quaint hamlet.

bugaloo & graham“Boogaloo and Graham,” directed by Michael Lennox, features an Irish family in which the impulsive father brings home two baby chicks for his rather wild young sons. Full of good-natured (if somewhat immature) humor, this short was the most lighthearted of the nominees, although the threat that at any moment the chickens might become dinner gave it a slightly darker edge.

Set in Israel, “Aya,” directed by Oded Binnun and Mihal Brezis, was quite engaging, mostly due to the actress who played the main character and the suspense that builds during the long car ride to Jerusalem. But there were too many unanswered questions for my taste, and the disappointing ending left me feeling as if the writer had run out of steam rather than bringing it to a satisfying conclusion.parvaneh

Although we don’t know why the teenaged title character in “Parvaneh” is alone seeking asylum in the rural Swiss Alps and is responsible for sending money to her family  in Afghanistan, it’s clear that she is in over her head and has very limited options. Directed by Talkhon Hamzavi, this film takes a few surprising turns as we watch Parvaneh take a train to Zurich and navigate unknown territory in her attempt to wire money via Western Union. But an unlikely friendship gives the film a hopeful twist that views humankind as more good than evil.

I enjoyed all five films—each deserves praise. But I think I was most taken with “Parvaneh,” if only because, as a mother, I worried about a young girl on her own in a strange city and I wanted to protect her.

Go see these wonderful short live action films if you get the chance!

 

 

 

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Midlife Mixtape Knows How to Party!

13 Feb
midlife mixtape

Our free pins and the 80s bandanna I wore

 

Last night Dave and I went to the perfect dance party for middle-aged folks. The deejay spun dance tunes from the 80s (which were our college years) at the Cat Club in San Francisco from 7-9. That’s right—we were home in bed by 10:00!

It was the brainchild of Nancy Davis Kho, who writes the blog Midlife Mixtape, whose tagline is “For the years between being hip and breaking one.” She figures—and rightly so—that the over-forty crowd is less likely on a weeknight to venture out to San Francisco clubs, where the party doesn’t really get going until after 10:00. Plus, listening to tunes from my college days, I felt a little younger. (For some folks there, it was tunes from their high school days, but we could all relate.)  I channeled my 19-year-old moves on the dance floor and had a blast!

Except for a Smith’s tune (which I nonetheless like), it was very danceable music. Lots of the usual suspects filled out the playlist—Depeche Mode, the Go-gos, Billy Idol, Violent Femmes, David Bowie, and the B-52s. And I even enjoyed the songs that I didn’t really like all that much back when they were popular (e.g., Tommy Tutone’s “867-5309″ and Hall & Oates’ “Maneater”).

It was only a $5 cover charge, and Nancy even handed out door prizes! I hope there’s another one soon.

Check out Nancy’s blog http://midlifemixtape.com/

Oscar countdown continues: Finding Vivian Meier

31 Jan

Gold TrophyA few weeks ago, I pledged to see all Oscar-nominated movies (at least in the categories that I cared about) before February 22, when the winners will be announced. Since that promise, I’ve seen American Sniper, Two Days and One Night, and The Judge. And today in bed with a cold, I watched Finding Vivian Meier.

I had heard about the mysterious photographer a few years ago when I saw a short film about her as part of a rare visual performance by my favorite radio show, This American Life.

But Finding Vivian Meier is a full-length documentary that delves into the life of an artist and just goes to show that people are not always who they seem to be. Filmmaker John Maloof had to do some serious detective work and go through mountains of documents in order to put together a timeline for this reclusive woman. And by documents, I mean boxes and suitcases full of receipts, newspaper clippings, negatives, and undeveloped film. A hoarder, she also kept all manner of doodads that she picked up in pawn stores and dumpsters.

VM self portrait

One of Vivian Meier’s many self portraits

The padlock she kept on the door to her room hid away not only evidence of a life spent taking photographs but also stacks of newspapers that she always meant to read. It appears she never threw anything out. After her death in 2006, the contents of her storage locker were auctioned off in pieces, which is how John Maloof discovered that first box of negatives. After he saw what he had, he tracked down as much as he could of the rest of Vivian’s belongings. By this point, he not only wanted to print her photos and get them into public view, he was also curious what kind of person could take over 100,000 photos without sharing them with the world.

Vivian made her living primarily as a nanny, and the film features interviews with many of her now-grown charges as well as some of her employers. And although everyone agreed that she was an extremely private person who took photographs all the time, they had different perspectives based on what little Vivian revealed to each of them.

VM woman

One of Meier’s street photographs

For instance, some people were sure she was French, and one man thought she was either Austrian or from Alsace, but in reality, she was born in New York.

One woman claimed to be her friend but knew very little of her circumstances. Some of her charges had positive memories, but some of the stories they told about her as a nanny portrayed her as cruel. One woman illustrated for the camera her singular walking style, stomping loudly in what she called “army boots” and swinging her arms. Meier was called “eccentric,” “crazy,” “mean,” “very opinionated,” and “a nice lady.”

Perhaps depending on which persona she wanted to project, she alternately used variations of her name that included the more casual Viv to the formal Miss Meier, but when forced to leave a name at a shop where she wanted them to hold something for her, she left only the name V. Smith.

Recollections from a few who spent time with her point to a past of abuse, most likely at the hands of a man (or men), judging by her reactions to males and her warnings to little girls to stay clear of men because they only wanted them for sex.

But even with Maloof’s exhaustive research, we will never know exactly what shaped the secretive and enigmatic Miss Meier. She never married, had children, or sustained any lasting relationships, as far as anyone knew. Her only remaining living relative is a distant cousin who never met her.

VM contact sheet

one of her contact sheets

But her legacy is her body of work, which has prompted many in the art world to declare Meier one of the greatest street photographers of the twentieth century. Hers is a fascinating story told artfully in this documentary.

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