Remembering a Friend and Master of Visual Effects: Sunday’s Tribute by The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

February 24, 2015

 

Joe Oscar Tribute

Joe Viskocil

1951 – 2014

“Their work will stand and remind us how lucky we were to have them for a while.”

The words of Meryl Streep, about midway through Sunday’s  Oscar’s award ceremony, introducing the Academy’s In Memorium sequence.

Joe, look at the names next to yours.  Your people. Not bad. Not bad at all.

You’re in the club, kid, right where you belong.

_________________________________________

The full list of those honored with similar portraits on Sunday evening;

Mickey Rooney, Paul Mazursky, Geoffrey Holder, Nadia Bronson, James Garner, Elizabeth Pena, Alan Hirschfield, Edward Herrmann, Maya Angelou, Lorenzo Semple Jr, George L Little, James Rebhorn, Menahem Golan, James Shigeta, Anita Ekberg, Paul Apted, H R Giger, Sanford W Reisenbach, Malik Bendjelloul, Virna Lisi, Louis Jourdan, Gordon Willis, Richard Attenborough, Oswald Morris, Tom Rolf, L M Kit Carson, Ruby Dee, Samuel Goldwyn Jr, Martha Hyer, Andrew V McLaglan, Jimmy T Murakami, Robin Williams, William Greaves, Joseph Viskocil, Rod Taylor, Stewart Stern, Luise Rainer, Dick Smith, Lauren Bacall, Walt Martin, Charles Champlin, Lennie Dupont, Herb Jeffries, Misty Upham, Eli Wallach, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Frank Yablans, Alain Resnais Bob Hoskins and Mike Nichols.


The Network of “The Apprentice” Wants to Remake Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Dekalog? Great. And I’ll Be Touching-Up Picasso’s Guernica This Sunday.

February 18, 2015

Dek2

Well, here’s something to wake some of you up.

A Hunter student has called my attention to the fact that NBC – in an effort to do better with younger audiences – plans to remake Decalogue, Krzysztof Kieslowski’s 10-part masterpiece originally made for Polish television.

According to industry gossip, their focus will be on reshaping the piece to reach both late teens and the still much-valued 18 – 24 year-old demographic. A decaying Boston will stand-in for Poland in the earliest days of the post-communist era.

Deca

I had a funny and completely unexpected reaction when I heard this.

I have always been an appreciative consumer of all sorts of mash-ups and remakes and assorted subversions of the canon. And no one would have blabbed more sincerely about the way that both the modernist and post-modernist impulses made this possible. It’s not that the 20th and 21st century troublemakers paved an easy path for the barbarians to rush the palace gates, or that they protected them from injury and scorn, but the modernists and their descendants did at least bring the bolt cutters that snapped open the lock.

Well, now I find myself in a funny place.

Mr. Subversion just discovered his limits. While I might come to see this remake as something valuable, it would be among the very first remakes I have ever found even minimally acceptable. But I’ve been surprised before.

The lesson for me is pretty obvious:

Art that challenges our tendency to view any aspect of life or art as sacred makes an indispensable contribution to the cause of free expression. Even when one sees a specific challenge as deeply offensive (as I often do) the simple act of heresy is a visible reminder of what one could choose to do if they felt it was important.

This, though, is the first time that the canon they’re proposing to mess with is my canon! And I’m stunned at how protective I feel. I don’t want to overstate my indignation, but when the property being proposed for a makeover is something you believe to be the most profound and revealing film ever made on what it means to be a human being, I don’t want to understate it either.

Dek1

OK, I admit it.

This time it’s my sacred space, and I can’t say that I feel very subversive. I do, though, see more clearly how others must have felt when a work of art or culture that they cherished was threatened by profit-driven commercial interests.

It doesn’t feel so good. At all. Because the network of The Apprentice, The Celebrity Apprentice, The Recently Paroled Apprentice, and The Hobbled By Lower Back Pain Apprentice is going to _____ with my film?

Yup. And now its my turn to be angry, offended and worried about just how bad it will get.


I met Jeanne Moreau singing “Le Tourbillon de La Vie” in a commercial for TurboTax® in front of my refrigerator

February 15, 2015

So you think you’ve had some epic midnight snacks. Fair enough.

Have you ever encountered a vision of Jeanne Moreau singing in front of your open refrigerator in the middle of the night as you check the freshness of a half-eaten tuna sandwich?

I was there. And she sang to me.

Moreau

Somehow, about two weeks ago,  I found myself standing half asleep in front of my refrigerator at 3 AM, trying to decide between a leftover half tuna sandwich and some cold soba noodles. And while I was deciding (looking quite anguished, the half-tuna sandwich would have told you),  I began  to hum the first tune that popped into my head. And, just as I grabbed for the tuna, I glanced to my side and briefly saw an apparition of a 33 year-old Jeanne Moreau, humming along with me and then singing the same song she sang in Francois Truffaut’s masterpiece Jules et Jim.

Now, that is one heck of a classy midnight snack hallucination. And I’ll bet you may even know the  song she was singing.

It’s called  “Le Tourbillon de La Vie” or “The Whirlwind of Life?” The name might not ring a bell, but you may have first heard it when I did, in Truffaut’s haunting film Jules et Jim  about  a  love triangle involving a French Bohemian Jim (Henri Serre), his friend Jules (Oskar Werner) and Jules’s girlfriend Catherine (Jeanne Moreau).

At first, the French words did not immediately come to mind. They are packed tightly into the melody, and  even if you speak French, they are a bit of a tongue twister. But in a few minutes, just about when I realized that I might need something more than  half  a tuna sandwich, they began to come back to me. By this time, Jeanne Moreau was gone and I didn’t have to worry about her correcting my French as I began to sing:

Elle avait des bagues à chaque doigt,
Des tas de bracelets autour des poignets,
Et puis elle chantait avec une voix
Qui, sitôt, m’enjôla

And I sang.

She sings the song in a scene in which she is accompanied on guitar by the character Bassiak (played by Serge Rezvani, who actually wrote the song).  The lyrics capture the spirit of the film beautifully, and speak of love that comes and goes so quickly “dans le tourbillon de la vie” (in the whirlwind of life).  At first the song suggests pure whimsy, but the context in which it is used in the film (can’t say more , it would be a spoiler) suggests dark clouds on the horizon. Moreau’s voice is magnificent.

I found the scene in the film and started to watch it again:

Then I remembered. There had been a problem.

Years before, this beautiful melody somehow settled in my head and refused to leave. It became my nemesis. I couldn’t shake it. I woke up to it, either heard it in my head or sang it out loud, went to sleep to it, and once, after asking a friend if he liked the song playing as much as I did, he gently  pointed  out that it wasn’t playing. Anywhere.

And then just as suddenly, it picked up and left.

Which leads directly to Turbo Tax. What?

Yup. This song and this story lead straight to TurboTax® Tax Preparation Software. Here’s what happened.

A few days after my vision, I was cleaning up in the kitchen and heard Le Tourbillon de La Vie again. I didn’t turn around, assuming it was on a CD mix I had made, but then I realized that it was being used as the musical theme in  an American TV commercial. Wait a minute. First, Jeanne Moreau sings it as I eat my tuna sandwich and then I hear it again as a commercial. I had to know: for what kind of product would “Le Tourbillon de La Vie” be an appropriate musical choice? So here is what quickly followed on my computer.

My first Google query was much too broad:

Tourbillon Blog Post.24 AM

I should have known that “catchy song” didn’t exactly narrow the field. So then:  

Tourbillon Blog Post.59 AM-001

Ah, two American ad campaigns with a French theme. But not Le Tourbillon. I tried again. And, finally, there it was: a commercial for TurboTax® Tax Preparation Software.

Tourbillon Blog Post.48 AM

It may be a stretch to call this classic film song “The Turbo Tax Wedding Commercial Song.” But here’s the commercial which, I confess in advance, I think is brilliantly conceived and executed.

The song fits perfectly, implying that a disorganized, turbulent life can be tamed into order by tax preparation software.

The commercial as a whole seems to say: We all hate doing taxes. It makes us feel like we’re being asked to show up and  give a full-blown accounting of all the questionable choices we’ve made in a year.

Then comes the solution for  this anxiety:

“So, you think you’re the first person who has ever been thrown off balance by some costly life mistakes? Hell no. And it might happen again. Things come around again and again when we live in a whirlwind.  Why not stop torturing yourself and see life’s ups and downs as inevitable as you move through what is a universal, turbulent game? All you have to do is get off your butt and bring the year to an end by finishing your taxes.

Silly? Of course. But it is knowingly and gloriously silly, done by director Noam Murro with style and barely controlled lunacy. And it wasn’t until a few  hours later that I realized the similarity between the name of the product, Turbo Tax,  and the name of the song, “Le Tourbillon de La Vie.”

And that was that. Jeanne Moreau was gone.

I know we don’t pick our apparitions and that those on my refrigerator visit wish list also have something to say about which refrigerators they visit. Piaf probably has a full schedule and Georges Guétary is almost certainly still going up and down the stairway to paradise.

But  if Marlene Dietrich happens in the neighborhood, just say the word and I’ll be there with any kind of a sandwich you want. Just sing  “Falling in Love Again” and I’ll pretend to be Emil Jannings.

 


Life Magazine and the End of Innocence: April, 1968

February 1, 2015

 

dickand Jane

Think of every episode of Leave It to Beaver or Father Knows Best that you’ve ever seen.

Think of every stock photo and stereotype about 1950s and 1960s suburban America. Think about Dick and Jane reading books, gingham aprons, milk served in pitchers and cookie jars.

Think about kids lined up for polio shots, Ed Sullivan, and service station attendants wearing well-pressed uniforms.

It was not a complete fiction. I know. I was there.

But also – while you’re at it — think of whiteness, of blocks and blocks of white families doing white things, opening mail boxes to find magazines filled with stories about patio furniture and backyard BBQs and vacations in station wagons. And think of house after identical house, where any internal emotional turbulence or troublesome external social ferment could always be neatly hidden beneath the veneer of Cub Scout meetings, bake sales, and summer vacations.

Think of a whiteness so relentless that it was both everywhere and nowhere, pervasive yet so taken for granted that it could hardly be noticed. Imagine a place where you could come of age without ever seeing a black person in the flesh.

I thought of all these things – suddenly and without warning — in the middle of giving a lecture this Wednesday to 150 undergraduates about the rise of demographics, targeted media, and the death of mass circulation magazines. I talked about bloated audiences who, in their lack of demographic desirability, held no interest for advertisers starting to strategically target their messages. I thought of Life Magazine, on the verge of collapse. And I then I remembered the day that this issue arrived in our mail box.

Martin Luther King had been assassinated two weeks before. The event stunned and horrified us. I was fortunate to have parents who had taught my sisters and I about racial injustice. I still treasure the memory of one of my father’s finest moments when, hearing me utter an offensive racial remark at the age of eight, followed the charming fashion of the day and filled my mouth with a bar of ivory soap.

But we lived where we lived, and this magazine arrived like a live grenade. Martin Luther King, Jr. was dead, and now we had to look his wife straight in the face. We had to see her grief. Even worse, we had to contend with her serenity in the midst of the horror. We had to imagine her husband with his eyes closed, stilled and silenced.

I know that sometimes, in our zeal to construct compelling life narratives, we look back and overstate the significance of events. But I also know that nothing was the same after that magazine arrived. Our comfortable world had been pierced by the reality that rifles could silence a man’s passion and indignation.

There is no dramatic or profound ending to this story.

Nothing magic happened. Miraculous revelations of tolerance were nowhere to be seen. There was no justice and nothing was flowing like a mighty stream. Our neighborhood stayed the same. Most people remained remarkably skilled at maintaining a willful blindness that obscured the anger and ferment brewing in distant places.

But never again could we claim, at least not with a straight face, that we knew nothing of that other world where guns were fired and justice denied. It arrived on the cover of a long-defunct magazine, and somehow we sensed that the dream deferred, festering like a sore yet so invisible in our blindingly white world, would soon explode.


Robert Ripley’s Believe It or Not: Or how to find fun and profit in the grand tradition of gawking at people labeled different.

January 19, 2015

Ripley

Like a lot of kids, I was a huge fan of Ripley’s “Believe It or Not.”  Today it is easy to see just how much Ripley’s searches for curiosities around the world were actually exercises in exploiting and exhibiting the disabled, the stigmatized, and the exotic savage. In fact, I have often thought about the time Ripley’s column (and, many years later, in Ripley’s museum in midtown Manhattan)  featured the allegedly tallest person in the world. We would happily marvel and gawk, all while remaining clueless that what we were really seeing  was a man dealing with the serious and rare hormonal disorder Acromegaly, in which the pituitary gland produces an excess of growth hormone leading to increased bone size, substantial and abnormal increases in height, and excruciating joint, muscle and bone pain.

But this awareness came later, and I can’t wiggle out of the fact that I once found Ripley’s peculiarities  to be entertaining.

Ripley’s “Believe It or Not” was also especially exciting for me because my grandfather, sometime in the 1920s, had worked as an office boy for Ripley, a fact he recounted with enormous pride and a big smile. Many years later, when working as a summer camp counselor, I created and told a series of campfire and bedtime stories recounting my grandfather’s adventures traveling the world searching out the unusual for Ripley’s column. I probably told somewhere between 80 and 100 stories, which might, for example, have been an account of Papa swimming to the bottom of a crocodile infested lake near Tegucigalpa, dodging Piranhas, and grabbing the largest uncut diamond in the world from the mouth of a giant catfish.

Poor Papa. A guy who in those days probably had trouble coming up with the change to take the subway to Midtown Manhattan. No chance he was ever going to Tegucigalpa.

I share this because the PBS series American Experience is now streaming a documentary about the life of Robert Ripley. There was nothing particularly noble about Ripley. He was shy and awkward and very much a loner. He also, for all the acclaim that came his way and his considerable talent as a cartoonist, was completely reliant on a staff member behind-the-scenes, Mr. Pearlroth, who was never publicly acknowledged as the person who planned and researched almost all of what Ripley “discovered.”

But there is another reason that I recommend the documentary: It seems that every generation has its version of the circus freak show — books, shows, museums, newspapers, broadcasts, and other sites where people can stare at the unusual, at human bodies of shapes and sizes outside the boundaries of what is considered normal. Nothing hits the spot  quite as well as something or someone who — virtually tattooed with the  label  “peculiar,” someone consigned to loneliness on society’s margins — provides us with the opportunity to say out loud  what we already know but can never hear ourselves  say enough:

“Yes, I’m normal!  I really am normal.”

The film reminded me just how much this gawking that can seem at one moment so hilarious and entertaining is often revealed, years after the fact,  for just what it was, an exercise in ridicule in which self-proclaimed normal people label abnormal people and put them on display for profit, as if the exhibited person was not actually a living, breathing, fragile human being. The most recent generation of Ripley’s discoveries may not be quite so insensitive, but it’s not unfair to note that the whole enterprise essentially rests on gawking.

I may wish that people didn’t find pleasure by stigmatizing those labeled “peculiar,” but I’m afraid that every generation seems to have had its version of the sideshow, and – if you doubt it – check out any of the tabloid television talk shows that cynically transform the suffering of poor and stigmatized people into popular entertainment.

Who knew that those trashy talk-show shouting matches had such cultural significance and were actually doing so much more than simply staging fights between the two possible fathers of a child. In fact, they were contributing to what has been a timeless and historic tradition of ridiculing fragile human beings for substantial profit.

At least there’s one thing we won’t have to worry about: we won’t be the guy  who some time in the future shows up at the pearly gates and, when asked what he did during his life to show compassion for his fellow human beings, mumbles while trying to quickly sneak through the gate unnoticed:

“It’s really too hard to explain. Besides, Gabriel, there’s no way you’ve ever heard of something called the Jerry Springer Show, is there? Is there? Wait. Wait. You have seen it? Oh no, not the “Uncles who never shower before coming scantily clad to Thanksgiving dinner” episode? You did?

Wait. Where are you taking me?  No. Please. No. Hot weather gives me rashes.”

 

 

 


La Môme Piaf. Maintenant et pour toujours.

December 26, 2014

Édith_Piaf_-_éternelle

December 19, 2015 will be the centennial of Edith Piaf’s birth, although the details of the “Little Sparrow’s” life are shrouded in so much mystery that the precise date may or may not be accurate.

This definitely calls for a celebration.

La Môme Piaf.

Maintenant et pour toujours.

 

 


It Was Almost 50 Years Ago Today. Nothing Like it Before or Since. The Beatles at Dodger Stadium. August 28, 1966.

December 6, 2014

I have no idea why, sitting inside in the midst of  a typical cold, dreary, rainy vile New York/New Jersey  pre-winter (disgusting weather being the only aspect of life in my wonderful adopted east coast home to which this SoCal beach kid has never adjusted)  I flashed on a night almost 50 years ago at Dodger Stadium.

It was the warm southern California night of August 28, 1966, and my sister and I were in the stands watching The Beatles live in concert. The only video I could find of that event is this raggedy 8mm silent film taken by one of the concert-goers. Their excitement is evident in their inability to keep their hands still.

You will note in the brief film that the letters advertising the sponsoring LA radio station — KRLA — is more prominently visible than the group singing. This was in the day when radio stations were the make or break powerhouses that determined the fate of rock and roll acts.

If you ask my sister, I think she would agree that — while it was virtually impossible to hear the music — the excitement almost certainly represented the most visceral and intense experience we had had up to that point in our lives. I still have the program and ticket stub.

My sister may not remember this (I only did moments ago) but  our beyond-wonderful Mom surprised us with the tickets at least partially as a reward for a pretty difficult tonsillectomy I had undergone earlier that summer.

I’ll never, ever forget it.

This was the set-list.

Now, to share what a first-rate live Beatles concert was like in a non-stadium venue, look at this excerpt from a Paris concert, my fave of many that can now be found on YouTube.


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