Monday, March 29, 2010

Fear of Flying with Amelia

I watched the movie Amelia the other night and was totally transported found myself in another time, place, and maybe even another soul.

I didn't expect to like it particularly. After all, we all know the story, and although I've always been as curious as the next guy about Amelia Earhart, I didn't think there was anything transcendent about her. There would be lots of flying, there would be Hilary Swank in another androgynous role, there would be the aging Richard Gere, and then there would be the flight that never returned.

All the same, I love to think about that period--the fashions, the cars, the slang and the pop culture. In those days, my own parents were very young, and I have seen pictures of them in this time frame. I relish the old movies on Turner Classics that are like little time capsules of the day--the wisecracking newspapermen, the women in those tight-fitting hats and bee-stung lips--the sense of American urgency to get out of the Depression and grow up. (That the next step was World War II, the Eisenhower 1950's and the decadence of succeeding generations never occurs to anyone.) It was hopeful; it was innocent. In this movie, it is also lush and beautiful, a landscape of the rich and celebrated. That was the side my parents didn't see.

Even though I know it to be false, I was particularly taken with Swank's version of Amelia Earhart. She came over as extremely feminine, even with her bobbed hair and mannish aviatrix attire. She seemed sexy and soft. She even looked beautiful. I went to the Internet for photos of the real Amelia and, yes, there was an elegance about her. Her smile, which I had always thought of as blandly wholesome, actually made her look authentic and accessible.

It was easy to watch the love scenes (it is always easy to watch Richard Gere do love scenes, by the way). They looked so natural, so comfortable--you might say they looked to be made for each other. And she was just as good with Ewan MacGregor, who played her paramour, Gene Vidal. I loved it when she stated her ideas about independence in marriage and her need to be free. Without the connection to flying, I always felt the same way, and wonder if there are not a number of women who perceive love and marriage in this way. It is never framed this way for us; we are told that men have a need to wander in love and that women on the other hand fall in love and stay there, demanding slavish loyalty "forever." This is a topic that is much discussed, but seldom do the women who don't buy the mythology speak up.

I liked the visuals in the movie, but it was probably the underlying story that moved me most. Earhart was courageous, but we are all as courageous as we need to be. She was one of a kind in her time and place, and if not the only one, at least the most visible and one of the most accomplished. That she was a friend of Eleanor Roosevelt was news to me.

As luck would have it, two days after I watched Amelia, PBS rebroadcast its American Experience segment "Amelia Earhart" for my delectation. From it I learned that the real Amelia Earhart was not so much a pilot as a public relations phenomenon. She came around with the right looks at the right time, a zeal for flying more than a natural gift for it, and there was something about her that caught the eye of the country's foremost promoter, G.P. Putnam. I had seen footage of the real Amelia with this stodgy-looking older man and always wondered what, if anything, she saw in him. With Richard Gere in the role it is much easier to envision true love between them--but in the newsreels of the day the relationship reads as business and finance, pure and simple.

It was not simple and not exactly pure. According to the offspring of one of Amelia's aviatrix rivals, Putnam had a plan to make money off a female flier and offered contracts drawn up heavily in his favor to the selected women who might apply. He was turned down by quite a few before Earhart accepted. He wanted to make a star, and she wanted to be one. Her resemblance to the young Charles Lindbergh was not lost on the brilliant publicity man. She wrote that in the initial interview she attempted to come across as bland a mediocrity as she could. No matter; he saw what he wanted in her and they forged a partnership that would become a marriage.

That the movie Amelia doesn't capture this element of reality doesn't bother me as apparently it did bother the critics when the movie came out. I found the character of Amelia Earhart compelling enough to give the actress Hilary Swank permission to portray her as a heroine, at least of her own story. I didn't think the movie lacked challenge and excitement. There is excitement in her approach to life, in her joy in flying, in her unique grasp of the business of making money to support a passion, in her fearlessness in the face of great personal risk.

She was a role model in her day, and remains so even with the questions she left. There is much we will never know about the real Amelia, but we know that she was larger than life and the choices she made will always be subject to interpretation. That alone does not necessarily make fodder for big, beautiful romantic movies. But it supplies us for substance for any number of books, films, documentaries, and even one glorious fairy tale. I don't know about you, but I love to think about reality after I've been drenched by romance.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Me and Hoboken Against the World

There was a meeting of the condo owners in my building a few weeks ago. We had 100 per cent attendance--but that wasn't difficult because there are only six owners. At the meeting we discussed the little crises in the building, the management, and the fact that now that a couple have bought the last apartment we now literally own the building and are going to have to take matters in our own hands from now on.

It was a genial group. The new couple consists of a chef and a therapist specializing in trans-gender issues. He (the chef) asked if it would be all right, once we get the back yard common space cleaned up and planted, if he roast a pig on a spit for a party. This caused great celebration. I'm hoping it's all done in time for my birthday, so I can have the party to end all 70th birthday parties, with roasted pig, slaw, salad, booze, beer, wine and dessert.

Afterward I thought how lucky I am to be in a little building like this. Luck? I don't know. I always choose the smaller place, a little out of the way, a little scruffy--and full of interesting people. I had no way of knowing who might be living in this building, but, without thinking about it I should have known that it would not be anyone stuffy or conventional.

I grew up in an out-of-the-way town, went to the unorthodox school, drifted from church to church trying to find one that really spoke to me, and never really found one. My first job was as a copy girl on the Mobile Register and my dream was to become a movie star and always have writing to fall back on. I married a very unconventional guy who loved opera and wanted to become an impresario. When we got to New York, I took a job on a trade newspaper and fell in with a like minded crew of offbeat, artsy types. I left the first husband, married an actor, ditched him eight years later, and a few years after that married the man who had just been named Director of Public Affairs and Advertising for DuPont Europe--and moved to Switzerland for six and a half years. To my mind, I never did quite make it in the corporate wife mold, but had a wonderful time in Geneva, made lots of friends--and started an amateur theater company that played to full houses and lasted for ten years after I left.

There's a pattern of me-against-the-world here. Not necessarily against, but at least on the outside trying to entertain the troops. Maybe that's why I was such a good fit in Hoboken. In Hoboken we look at the city, get there as often as we please, and travel back and forth, around the country or the world as we like. There is a beauty about being able to do that. And if I didn't do it here, I'd be doing the same thing somewhere.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Alice and Holden

Alice in Wonderland was always a favorite book of mine. I first read it when I was about 13, and was fascinated by the word-play and the situation of the little girl inadvertently experiencing changes in her own body and encountering a bizarre world of creatures giving her conflicting messages.

A familiar literary figure, the child or adolescent looking at the madness that is life as a grownup, was embodied years later in the character of Holden Caulfield. Taken on the surface, one might think of Alice and Holden as cut of different cloth, but we are aware of them both these days with the Tim Burton movie version of Alice in Wonderland and the recent death of J.D. Salinger, author of the ground-breaking The Catcher in the Rye in the 1950's.

The Catcher in the Rye, read as an adult, does not hold up as well as Alice. A friend of mine confessed to re-reading it 30 years after the first time and wondering what all the fuss was about. I can understand that, and I can understand why it leaves 12-year-olds cold too. It is too often assigned as required reading for that age group, which further bolsters my feeling that too often the educational establishment doesn't know what it is doing. The Catcher in the Rye is a book for people in their 20’s, looking back at their adolescence, reflecting on the agony of making big decisions with so little equipment.

In its day Catcher was astounding. Unlike anyone writing at that time, Salinger captured the kind of urban interior monologue a 17-year-old boy might actually use in describing his life. Adults of the 1950’s were shocked at the raw language coming from a well-bred, upperclass boy, but anyone under the age of 30 related to it. A college professor when I was a freshman assigned it to upperclassmen, and, flatteringly seeing me as precocious enough to have a valid reaction, lent me a copy and asked my opinion of the book.

I would say it was almost life-changing to me to read prose like that, and I shared it with friends who agreed. The word around campus was that our prof’s superiors were definitely of two minds about his teaching this book; it was not considered good literature, much less a classic. Be that as it may have, it made that teacher something of a hero to me and my cohorts.

The image of this mixed-up kid hoping he can spend his life rescuing children from falling off a mythical cliff in a mythical field somewhere—based on his own misreading of a song about crossing the Rye river in Scotland—said volumes about the neuroses and missteps of adolescence. He is struggling with his fear of the loss of his own innocence as well as that of his beloved little sister and every child on earth. He stokes his anger as everything seems to turn against his resolve to stay unsullied forever. His mind races from obscenity to obscenity as he confronts an obscene world about him.

In an almost-similar way Alice is the only sane person in a crazy world. When we meet her she is bored, as any child might be bored trying to read a book without any pictures or conversations in it, and follows a white rabbit down his hole, curious about his having a pocket watch as well as a pocket to keep it in. Right away, she is more an active participant in her adventures than Holden, whom we meet when he has been expelled from school and is wandering around New York City in a cross-current of his own conflicting impulses. Alice meets an array of characters, amusing, frightening and mad, but she retains her equilibrium and seems always to be the voice of reason no matter how bizarre her world. Holden, on the other hand, is an exposed nerve, a breakdown looking for a place to happen; and the characters around him only prove what he already feels—that growing up is synonymous with selling out.

Is Catcher in the Rye a classic? Its depiction of the insecurity of having unconventional thoughts in a conventional era certainly ignited a generation and was probably a forerunner of the chaos that was to come in the 1960’s and 70’s. Salinger’s proficiency with slang as a means of expression was ahead of its time, and his style as well as subject matter influenced writers and young people for years to come. It’s passé now, but stands, like Alice in Wonderland, as a time capsule and window to a bygone day, as well as a reflection on the eternal agony of growing up.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

St. Patrick's Day

Because it's you-know-who's day and all that, and because Hoboken takes it upon itself to celebrate the day beginning two weeks in advance, I am driven to record some stuff about Ireland and the Irish. In Hoboken, they may even need to be reminded that this is actually St. Patrick’s Day.

The many aspects of Irishness give us a magic lantern to illuminate our lives with a glimmer of poetry and the distant chime of music. There is that haunting wistfulness in our somewhat Irish hearts that prompts an elegant turn of phrase. It was Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who, upon learning of the assassination of Robert Kennedy, said, “You’re not Irish if you don’t know your heart’s meant to be broken…”

I could praise Ireland’s homely, soul-filling food like corned beef simmered for hours with cabbage and potatoes or caraway-scented soda bread, or its heart-wrenching characters like those portrayed in the classic film The Quiet Man (rent it if you haven't seen it yet).
Ah, there are many beautiful movies that transport us to the Emerald Isle -- Once is still on my must-see list. I could say something about walking about in chilly Dublin on a rainy April day in 1971 -- please don't remind me you weren't born yet -- and finding a beautiful restaurant-pub called where the Irish coffee warmed us to our toes and changed our bleak impression of the gritty, grey little city. (I could also tell you of our immense disappointment at both the offerings we saw at the Abbey Theater that year -- a student production of Synge's "Deidre of the Sorrows," which we forgave because it was indeed a student production, and the unforgivably poor mounting of The Playboy of the Western World the next day.)

Even world renowned institutions stumble from time to time.

Since the turn of the last century, the English-speaking stage has been sparked by the talents of Irish writers. From John Millington Synge and Sean O'Casey (and those with Celtic roots, like Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw) through today's Brian Friel, Hugh Leonard, and Conor McPherson, we have the Irish to thank for many evenings of unforgettable theatre. At my own theatre in South Alabama, Jubilee Fish, many remember our haunting productions of Da, and the poetic Sea Marks by Gardner McKay, presented in the 1990’s.

This was before I appeared in Fairhope’s Theater 98 production of Dancing at Lughnasa, playing the role of Kate, the elder sister. This one was directed by a man whose name is quite similar to Sean Thornton, the John Wayne character in The Quiet Man.

When left to their own devices, the Irish have lots to give us besides potatoes and shamrocks. Just writing this, I am hearing the lilting Gaelic music that has become so popular in the last ten years, and I think of all the Irish singers of Irish songs over time.Hollywood celebrated generations of Irish tenors, including Dennis Morgan, who, it turns out was actually of Swedish descent, with the real name of Stanley Morner. But there is his lilting voice and open face that spoke of Ireland to us nonetheless.

You may suspect I have a modicum of Irish blood myself. Have a cup of Irish coffee today and think of me. Friday night my friend Cristina, who is from Colombia, is having a St. Patrick's Day party with corned beef, cabbage, and boiled potatoes. Sounds good to me!

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Finding It at the Movies

I have a few friends who are indifferent to the movies. They wouldn't say that, they would say the love movies, but they don't have a clue what it is to love movies. Kinda like a picky eater who claims to love food.

It wasn't until this Oscar season that I realized I had a full-blown obsession with the movies. I had been called a cinema buff, which I took as a compliment of sorts, and thought of myself as a cineaste, which is a highfalutin word for the same thing. But I hadn't acknowledged the extent of my involvement with the movies, maybe to the point of powerless-and-my-life-had-become-unmanageable. I don't watch the Oscars with the objective of seeing who wins so much as seeing the Hollywood animals in their native habitat. I watch movies all the time, go to the latest ones in the cinema palace and rent two or three a week. Added to those I find commercial-free on Turner Classic Movies and those I stumble into on the cable channels, it turns out that movies are like wallpaper in my life. I like silly romantic comedies with pretty people in them and dark violent murderous ones with sweaty guys shooting each other's faces off (as long as there's a woman around somewhere). I like mysteries, a smattering of science fiction, relationship movies, and even occasional animated cartoons.

How many movies do you have to see before you admit your addiction? I'm not sure. I'm still in denial here--I'd like to say I'm movie-dependent rather than a movieholic. But the line draws closer all the time.

I have adored Jeff Bridges since The Last Picture Show and The Great Lebowski, but had not seen Starman until I rented after the Oscars. (Yeah, I loved it.)I especially liked him in The Contender and The Door in the Floor, both of which I suggest you rent if you haven't seen.

I love Meryl Streep as much as even movie non-lovers do. She is classy and enormously gifted in both comedy and drama, with that uniquely chameleon quality that transports her spirit while channeling that of someone else. Whether she wins an Oscar or not is irrelevant at this point. She is Hollywood's reigning queen, and she carries that mantle superbly. I can't wait to see what she does next.

My interest in the art form is not so much related to the technical achievements as it is in its transformational component. I like to leave the movie house feeling like a different person from the one who went in. I even have known this phenomenon when watching a rented movie in my own home. It's the magic of the writing combined with the magic of acting--both of which I do myself, so it's interesting that I can be transported by the work of others. Sometimes I'll say to myself, "Good scene!" at the end of a good scene, or even "Great line!" and at others I am just transfixed at the performance of the actor who just delivered the great line or good scene. This does not even mean I wasn't able to suspend my disbelief--I can be totally there while the critical half of my brain is doing its work to disarm the inner child who is living life up there among the pretty people performing. In watching The Matrix I experienced flying with the characters, and it was awesomely familiar. I knew I had done that in my dreams. Had I had the foresight to see the Imax version of Avatar I'm sure I would have had similar out-of-body experiences.

Something keeps me coming back to movies, always hoping that some little moment will take me out of myself and put a smile on my soul. In more cases than not, it happens. It's mind expansion and heart expansion, and, man oh man, it can be addictive.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Escaping St. Patrick

You and I both know that St. Patrick's Day is a week from Wednesday, but if you live in Hoboken you are well aware that in this town the event was celebrated yesterday. Why, if you don't live in Hoboken you may well ask. I think the answer is at least twofold: The parade must be on a Saturday, and it must be as early as possible to avoid conflicts with neighboring communities which might want the same marchers, bands, and celebrants.

We get them first, or at least among the first. Bars open at 9 A.M. and potential drunks line up outside them to get an early start on the revelry.

I watched the parade the first year I was in Hoboken. It was crisp and grey, and one by one I saw the participating high school musicians, marching police and firemen, politicians and local luminaries in convertibles and on foot. Not like the Mardi Gras of my hometowns Mobile and Fairhope, this parade, without expensive floats and revelers aboard them tossing candy, beads and Moon Pies to the screaming crowds, still attracted the kind of brain shift that seems to accompany anybody watching a parade. (Nobody asks, "Are we having fun yet?" but everybody wants to force a little joy from somewhere and vocalize it.)

Having seen it once I learned that most citizens of Hoboken vacate the area and leave the town to the invading hoard of college kids who sport green tee-shirts and funny hats. Last year I just stayed home, but I could hear parties in nearby apartments and backyards, on into the night. This year I live on the ground floor, in a condo with its bedroom on the street side, so I had an idea there would be noise all day and all night.

When I arrived on March 1 from a month in the South, I had no idea St. Patrick's Day would be Saturday. I booked a seat at a matinee of A Behanding in Spokane, the surreal comedy with Christopher Walken which is in previews on Broadway. This gave me the perfect escape from the Hoboken chaos of the day. When I left for the PATH train at 10:30 A.M., the streets were already crowded with young people and cops and everybody looking forward to a big day.

Getting into the subway was the hardest part of my day, as so many were coming out that it was difficult blazing a path through their determined young bodies. On the platform I said to the young man awaiting a train, "Well, it's good we made it this far," or something like that. We struck up a conversation which lasted the whole train ride and ended with exchanging business cards and me telling him about this blog.

I had an hour or two to kill in New York--a lovely dilemma--and spent it window shopping in Macy's and eating a light Mediterranean repast at my favorite pre-theatre Italian restaurant. I was warm and cozy when I got to the play, which delivered its promise of strangeness, profanity and offbeat hilarious comedy.

I decided to take the bus home, and, wonder of wonders, the bus had been diverted to the Willow Avenue route, presumably because of the Washington Street crowds. This is more convenient for me, and I've never been able to find a Willow St. bus in my two+ years in Hoboken. I still had a few blocks to walk, and it was only 4 P.M., so I had to weave my way through the noisy inebriants, but soon was home in my little condo and happy to be there. Yes, there was a little noise in the night, but I slept well and woke to find that St. Patrick's Day in Hoboken has come and gone until next year.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Re-Entry, March 2010

I arrived at 4 P.M. two days ago. The weather, which seems to be all I talk about these days, cooperated so I was able to get on a plane between storms and arrive to tolerable temperatures and snow just in a few piles alongside the streets and sidewalks. I slept like a baby Monday night and spent yesterday reacquainting myself with Hoboken life.

I made my way to the main post office to get the mail they'd held. There was a long line--no surprise, there always is at that PO--and it was slow, but I was able to gather and sort my mail and still have time to buy groceries before lunch. I went to the gourmet grocery on Washington Street, which was redolent of the kind of food I'd missed in Alabama--spicy, fruity, intriguing. There was a warm atmosphere and I browsed the shelves for interesting treats like baked salmon spread and pear yogurt with grains, from Canada. This is a good place for fresh fish, so I bought a filet of lemon sole for lunch and some greens for a salad.

At home I went through the mail, put aside the catalogs and sorted what I would need to take to my tax accountant next week. I played around with Facebook a little and caught up on some blogs. I tried to remember the right numbers for my favorite tv channels and resorted in some cases to the Guide on channel 100. Now I've got it all straight, but I missed Roger Ebert on Oprah because I'd gotten the impression that the channel she was on had been pulled by the cable provider in a dispute similar to the one in January with the Food and Home and Garden channels (which left us without those networks for about four weeks). I was mistaken about that this time.

Cold and rainy today, but I did get to the gym. It was nice to see it was almost empty--it is huge and has a magnificent view of the NYC skyline. I did my full workout. Have a dentist date tomorrow, the accountant next week, and mid-month will have lunch with old friends and a visit from out of town. At some point I'll be dodging the revelers of St. Patrick's Day, but I'm in shape for that, having dodged similar ones in the Mardi Gras celebrations of Lower Alabama last month.

Back on Netflix, and expect to receive two in the mail today. I ordered about seven more so I'll see a lot of movies. Thought I'd take in a matinee on Broadway today, but won't make it. I may go Saturday. I want to see Christopher Walken at a preview of the play with the unfathomable title A Behanding in Spokane.

I'm back in the swing of Hoboken, my spirits are high, and wondering what is just around the corner in my life. If it's more of the same, that'll be fine with me.