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Tuesday, Aug 28, 2007

We’re so attuned to the immediate quality of the media and the high adrenalin of the big stories—the explosion about to happen, the man-made tragedies and natural disasters—that it goes almost unnoticed that the Internet has been capturing the sweet scrapbook quality of an article clipped and slipped between the pages of a book, because it made someone smile.


New Yorker columnist Adam Gopnik wrote in “Paris to the Moon,” the book he wrote after spending the last five years of the last century in Paris as the New Yorker’s correspondent there: “If there is a fault in reporting, after all, it is not that it is too ephemeral but that it is not ephemeral enough, too quickly concerned with what seems big at the time to see what is small and more likely to linger.”


My favourite form of journalism is the comic-sentimental essay in the form of community news, which has been practiced brilliantly at the New Yorker, from James Thurber from the magazine’s beginnings in the 1920’s, through to Adam Gopnik. In this week’s edition Adam Gopnik writes on community food projects:


Twelve-thirty on a beautiful summer day, and the chicken committee of the City Chicken Project is meeting at the Garden of Happiness, in the Crotona neighborhood of the Bronx. The chicken committee is devoted to the proliferation of egg-laying chickens in the outer boroughs, giving hens to people and having them raise the birds in community gardens and eat and even sell the eggs (“passing on the gift,” as this is called in the project), and thereby gain experience of chicken, eggs, and community—or fowl, food, and fellowship, as one of the more alliterative-minded organizers has said.


The invention of the New York Times permalink has allowed us to create scrapbooks, to clip articles from newspapers and magazines, and over a cup of coffee on a slow day, when looking idly for something to read, they can be casually flipped through. It may seem like a flippant, time wasting activity, but with APEC starting in Sydney this weekend, and the security measures written about in the Sydney Morning Herald starting to read like an episode of the 1960’s television spy-spoof Get Smart, it’s illuminating to re-read the original review of Dr. Strangelove, published in the New York Times in 1964, which now seems more like a documentary than satire.


Stanley Kubrick’s new film, called Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, is beyond any question the most shattering sick joke I’ve ever come across. And I say that with full recollection of some of the grim ones I’ve heard from Mort Sahl, some of the cartoons I’ve seen by Charles Addams, and some of the stuff I’ve read in Mad magazine. For this brazenly jesting speculation of what might happen within the Pentagon and within the most responsible council of the President of the United States if some maniac Air Force general should suddenly order a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union is at the same time one of the cleverest and most incisive satiric thrusts at the awkwardness and folly of the military that has ever been on the screen. It opened yesterday at the Victoria and the Baronet.


Self Portrait with Lox and Bagel by Dayna Bateman

Self Portrait with Lox and Bagel by Dayna Bateman


Dayna Bateman is someone who riffs on articles from newspapers, finding the poetry and charm and ephemeral sweetness in stories, condensing them on her blog—suttonhoo—and running them with her photographs, which she features on Flickr.


A recent example:


we were at
at high mass
on a summer Sunday
in Prague


sitting below
a large bishop
in a swingy skirt
bottomed off
with gold booties


thinking
his moves had
a sort of stripper
quality to them


Found in Justine Hardy’s “Guilt in the Golden City”
in the 25 August issue of the Financial Times.



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Monday, Aug 27, 2007


It was, literally, a Pandora’s Box. Better yet, make that ‘boxes’. Three cardboard crates sitting on the floor of the title address, thirty years of a mother’s private recollections locked deep inside the numerous wire bound notebooks. For still grieving filmmaker Doug Block, the dilemma was severe. Desperate to remain connected to his deceased parent, he was also troubled by a sickening sense that he was, somehow, disrespecting her memory and her marriage by prying into this vault of familial secrets. Block had always suspected there was a rift between his closest kin, an unspoken secret that, for all intents and purposes, manifested itself three months after the funeral. It was during a trip to Florida that Block’s father Mike picked up the phone and informed his adult children that he was marrying his secretary, a whispered about woman named Kitty, from 30 years before. 


Thus began the wave of rumors and innuendo, siblings who thought they had a handle on their father suddenly faced a lifetime of possible lies and imagined decent…except, reality doesn’t always play out like the movies. And as he proves in his brilliant deconstruction of the unusual unit known as a family, Doug Block’s 51 Birch Street bends the rules in order to tell the truth. As a fledgling filmmaker who shoots weddings to supplement his documentary dreams, this director has seen a lot of couples come and go. He can usually predict the partnerships that will last from those that won’t make it past the reception. But he never imagined that when he turned his camera on mother Minn and father Mike for their 54th wedding anniversary, it would be for the last time as husband and wife, parent and guardian, and happy and contented couple. 


As a movie, 51 Birch Street is the creative counterpoint to Capturing the Friedmans. It’s not out to unlock legal woes or cast doubt on an accused pedophile’s guilt or innocence. Instead, this is a smaller, more focused film, a most intimate of looks at how life can throw you crater-sized curveballs just when you think you’ve got everything in focus. The rapid changes that occur in the six months between an idolized parent’s passing and some record breaking rebound nuptials are seismic in their significance. They seem to tell us, the audience, quite a bit about the Block family undercurrent. Indeed, there is a substantial subtext of unease and angst among these relatives. An older sister is startled that dad would disrespect her mother’s legacy so. The other daughter is delighted – though tentative – about her father’s newfound happiness. Caught in the middle is Doug, detached from the only meaningful male presence in his world and wondering what he’s missed.


Turns out, the Block marriage was a myth, a coming together of two totally divergent personality types that started falling apart almost immediately. Kids kept them connected, as did the prevailing post-War conservatism and restricted suburban sprawl. But one member of the coupling was secretly dying inside. This person hated their new life, and found themselves seeking fulfillment elsewhere. Initially, it came from therapy, but eventually, it required a lover. All the time no one else knew – not the other spouse, not the increasingly cognizant children, not the neighbors, friends, or casual acquaintances. Divorce was discussed, but tradition tripped up any planned separation. It just wasn’t done in those days, and partners frequently feigned happiness for the benefit of their social standing. In the end, it took actual death, and the discovery of some incredibly explicit journals, to shed light on a lifetime of pain and problems.


Who the actual sufferer was remains one of 51 Birch Street’s clandestine delights. Block obviously knew that the audience would draw one conclusion (the situation practically screams the answer), but perspective is not always perceptive, and the second act disclosures regarding adultery and fantasy frustration really throw us, and the narrative. In situations such as these, viewers enjoy playing heroes and villains, and switching sides in midstream stands as quite a trick. It speaks to Block’s ability behind the camera, his attention to detail in both his story and his overall tone. Besides, we are susceptible to the age old standards, and such suspicions are hard to shake, even in this enlightened age. As a result, this documentary does something that’s quite rare, even for the genre. It casts open our own ideas about love and fidelity, and causes us to reflect on the state of our own relationships, and the truth about those around us.


Even deeper, 51 Birch Street, asks us to take the unusual stance of looking at parents as actual people. Because of their part as our initial introduction to the world, we filter almost all our earliest experiences through the lessons and leanings of our Mom and Dad. In addition, society loves to stigmatize certain human facets, taking subjects like sex, drugs, and the suicidal loss of self directly off the table. No right minded adult would pretend to burden their offspring so. But Minn and Mike were different. They were an evolving couple that, one day, decided to simply stick with the status quo. We snicker as Doug’s sisters discuss their ‘hippie’ guardians, partaking of marijuana and contemplating wife swapping, and wonder how they managed to maintain a reasonable relationship while inside a stressful and aggressive set of individual therapies. The answer is obvious – they didn’t. But no one else in the Block family understood that fact. They continued on as if nothing was happening, oblivious to the estranged situation around them.


If there are flaws in this premise, it’s that Block as a narrator, is way too naïve for his 50-plus years. His mother, even in the minimal home video footage we see of her, is a completely measured woman, making sure her son understands that she loves her husband, but only on her terms. Watching Mike respond to his wife’s less than stellar sentiment is like seeing defeat illustrated. Similarly, the distance between father and son is an obvious outgrowth of the boy’s bond with his mother. No dad wants to be the wedge that comes between a loving parent/child connection, and so our forlorn guardian gave up. Now, some five decades into said denial, Block wants to vent, hug, and make up. He wants his dad to share in this emotional epiphany, but at 83, it’s hard to teach this tired old dog any necessitated new age tricks. A sequence with a noted PhD also goes nowhere, since Block’s befuddled questions seem more rhetorical than quizzical.


Yet thanks to the intrinsic intrigue in the slowly shifting storyline, our bond with the Blocks, and the last act denouements which clarify little but clearly bring closure – at least, for some – 51 Birch Street soars. We are touched by this remarkable saga, seeing ourselves and the people we came from in every painful recollection, remembering our own past right along with the filmmaker and his family. It won’t spoil much to say that both Minn and Mike are finally seen for who they really are, and were, by the closing moments of this movie. Similarly, the remaining Block brood size up the situations and resolve to let bygones be just that - gone. As the familiar fish out of water other woman, Kitty seems to sum things up best when she states that, until her golden years, marriage was a pressured rite of passage. She married her abusive first husband because he was blond. Now, she’s with someone who accepts her as she is – flaws and all. Had the first Block marriage began in such a fashion, this film would have never been made. Luckily for us, it didn’t


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Monday, Aug 27, 2007

For someone who’s running a satellite radio station, Lee Abrams has it so backwards that it’s understandable why he can’t figure out that merging his XM with Sirius is something that even the Washington establishment frowns upon.  In his post at the Huffington blog, he tries to make the case about why right now is the worst time for music.  What he actually does, though he doesn’t realize it, is make the case that this might be the best time.


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Monday, Aug 27, 2007

Ever wonder what good blogs are?  Check out this piece by Jay Rosen, one of the most astute media critics around, in Los Angeles Times.  Skip the first part about a wrong-headed NY Times op-ed and take a look at the list at the end to see the important stories broken and tracked on blogs that the dreaded mainstream media lagged behind on.


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Monday, Aug 27, 2007

Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver continues to be one of the best character studies films ever. With Paul Schrader’s great writing and a fantastic cast (Robert De Niro, Jodie Foster, Harvey Keitel, Cybill Shepard, Peter Boyle, and Albert Brooks), it is hard to resist such a movie. It has won the prestigious Palme d’Or and is #52 on the AFI’s “100 Years… 100 Movies” list. Recently, Sony released Taxi Driver: Collector’s Edition, a DVD with an array of extra features to complement one of the greatest films of all time.


Part of a documentary on Taxi Driver:


 


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