Lee Daniels’ The Butler: A study in Polarity

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Lee-Daniels-The-Butler-Forest-Whitaker-David-OyelowoHistorical movies are, for the most part,  a movie first and history second. A historical film sometimes offers the viewer a broad stroke of a place and time presenting a character study, showing how choices people make affect humanity.

Clearly, the protagonist of The Butler is the civil rights movement. As the film unfolds, we are witness to one man’s journey from the cotton fields in the deep south to a respected, yet never fully recognized domestic servant at The White House. That’s all well and good, and it was a very good film with strong characters, and inspired performances…..but there is more. The film struck me as a through provoking examination of polarity.

At first glance one might see the confrontations between father and son (Cecil Gaines, the White House Butler and his son Louis Gaines, civil rights proponent and would-be-radical) as a conflict pitting one generation against the other. It’s my belief there is more going on with respect to the process of justice, how polarity fuels change.

Cecil had worked his way up from nothing, escaping the confines of tenant slavery continuing to flourish in the deep south of the 1920s. Now married with two sons, and living and working at the White House, providing for his family, and giving his family more than he had ever imagined. Cecil’s son heads off to college in the 1960s seeking out the Civil Rights movement becoming heavily involved with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. After King is assassinated Louis aligns with the Black Panther party causing so much strain between father and son that almost all communication comes to an end.

Both father and son clearly had the same goals: living as full citizens of the nation, seeking to live their lives in equality, with all aspects of human dignity. Both father and son processed a strong work ethic with Cecil striving to be recognized as a valued domestic servant, and his son Louis gaining his Master’s Degree in Political Science. They are very much alike, but see the world from different polar viewpoints.

More importantly, the film shows the importance of polarity. Motion toward any cause or goal must have opposite ends held in tension with the other in order to spark any kind of movement or motion. A stalemate, when one side of the polarity tries to dominate the other, leads to aggression, and stagnation. Benign tension held in harmony leads to resolution.

As Martin Luther King, Jr. said exactly fifty years ago, “This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism.”


Discovering Le Sacre du printemps: the formation of intellectual synergy

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le sacreAt age 14, I was thumbing through recordings in my High School music teacher’s office when I came across a series of recordings meant to be used as part of a Music Appreciation class. One of the tracks I played was the famous section from The Rite of Spring where the strings perform a series of down bows with the brass accentuating syncopated rhythms. My entire body and soul connected with the drive of the music and I immediately had to find out the name of the work. Shortly after this encounter I went to the public library and checked out the recording of Stravinsky conducting The Rite of Spring. I had never in my life heard music with such power and raw energy. At the conclusion of the work, with musical accents falling on what seemed to be arbitrary beats, I was so startled that I thought the record was scratched and cleaned the needle. I played it over again soon discovering that this was not the byproduct of a dirty record player needle, but the way the music was interned to sound. Seemingly over night my taste in music changed. Led Zeplin and Iron Butterfly had met their match in the name of a Russian composer named Igor Stravinsky. Read More

Coco and Stravinsky

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I first discovered Stravinsky when I was 14 years old, and have studied the life and work of the composer for over half of my life. When I came across a movie which featured the composer, especially when he was younger, and living in Paris,  I knew I had to screen the movie; the trailer is attached to the photo below.

Coco and Stravinsky

The film was based on the novel by Chris Greenhalgh which is based on the “what if” scenario that rumors of a purported affair between the Chanel and Stravinsky were actually true. Read More

Yet Another Queer Bites the Dust

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As I look at my signed copy of a Single Man, autographed by Isherwood, I regret during our conversation I never asked about his vague ending, did George die or did he simply fall asleep – to this day the debate continues. But for me, there is no debate that Tom Ford should not have written the adaptation of a Single Man, calling to mind inexperience as a cinema-graphic director.

As I watched the film I walked into the theater knowing full well that one could not truly adapt Isherwood’s novella, but I had hoped the movie might at least capture the spirit…..there was no spirit other than another Hollywood “Gay” character drizzling the movie audience with pity tears, and melodramatic cliches. Read More

PBS: I hardly know thee . . .anymore

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libertyRecently, out of my collection of videos, I screened the PBS documentary entitled, Liberty, a six hour retrospective telling the tale of the American fight for independence, narrated by actors sharing actual written history taken from letters, diaries, and other documents from people many of us had never heard of. One of the recurring characters is a wood-be soldier who ended up fighting in the colonial army, sharing his life during the 8 year long conflict, another a 16 year old teenager’s tale recorded in her diary as the British attempt to win the war using southern sympathizers. It’s a rich documentary, well constructed, thoughtful, filled with living history presented in such a way that one can truly see the choices people make can and DO effect others which makes history something more than dates, and tired dead facts. Read More

Different Planets

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asterisk.jpgLast night Felix and I watched an American Masters biography covering the life and work of Leonard Bernstein. When the program came to its conclusion I began to wonder if Lenny and I lived on the same planet — from what I experienced from his words; we do not.

Like any great artist, he saw the world through a different mode, a lens filtered through an alternative perspective; this perspective is something in which we can relate, but at the same evokes a sense of awe. Read More

Chris & Don : A Review

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Movie Poster: Chris & DonMuch like a rich deeply flavored stew, a good work of art as it simmers brings up to the surface flavors, and bits of ingredients which may have remained in the bottom of the stock pot. The documentary, Chris & Don, is a fine rich stew which works on many different levels. It is a story of two individuals, and how these two individuals met on a beach in Southern California during a summer in the 1950’s. It is a story of a complex writer (Isherwood) who by this stage in his life was comfortable with his own formed psyche, and a very young man of 18 (Don Bachardy) who was not yet fully formed, and like most people of this age today, seeking to find out who he was in his public life, as well as the emerging person from the inside.

Through the use of home movies, the documentary speaks on a particular sociological level, a microcosm of life in Hollywood, it speaks of two men out of the closet in a point in the entertainment industry when homophobia was clearly a byproduct of well paid public figures living dual lives. This duality was a way of life (Pre-Stonewall), yet here was Isherwood taking his 19 year old lover on location of Dr. John Ford, known as a director of films which spewed heterosexual testosterone. Don & Chris exposes their intimacy of a couple who’s 33 year relationship was not without its ups and downs yet were able to remain committed to one another by the use of their pet name persona; the younger man as a cat, and Isherwood being the old horse. What they would not share as humans, they were able to communicate as their favorite pet – their alter egos. Read More

Chris and Don

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Movie Poster: Chris & DonI recently attended a lecture by Ishwerwood and literary scholar, James Berg who shared insights into the formation of his current book, Christopher Ishwerwood on Writing. The book is a reconstruction of notes taken from lectures Isherwood had given at various institutions of higher learning in Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, and UCLA.

I enjoyed listening to someone discuss Isherwood as I went through my Isherwood period during my mid twenties slowly making my way through almost everything I could find in print. One my my pleasant memories was meeting Isherwood, in the early 80’s, at the now gone A Different Light bookstore in Silverlake in which I was able to have him sign his masterpiece, A Single Man, and his current book, “October”, a series of diary excerpts from the month of October interspersed with drawings by his long time life partner, Don Bachardy.

What sparked my interest, outside of basic information Dr. Berg offered; a sketch of the famed creator of the Berlin Stories (which eventually became the musical Cabaret) was that a new documentary had been created to share the love story of Chris & Don. Read More

Earle H. Hagen

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From the Los Angeles Times:

“Earle H. Hagen, the Emmy Award-winning television composer who wrote the memorable theme music for “The Andy Griffith Show,” “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” “I Spy” and other classic TV programs, has died. He was 88.”

If you know anything about TV, or have an ear for TV show themes, odds are you heard this man’s work. I’ve always been one who reads the names of people behind the screen, and even when I was first caught up in my own personal discovery of music, the name Earle Hagen stood out, as well as his music. I was at one point interested in film scoring and bought his new book which explained the tricks of the trade, long before computers became involved –in those days it was called a click track..what this guy did with a click track was simply amazing.

Follow the link to the LA times, you can read about his career, and there is also a link to his oral history which he provided for the Archive of American Television.

Abby Mann, Thank you

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It was reported today that screenwriter Abby Mann had passed away. One of the most important films he made was the Stanley Kramer epic, Judgment at Nuremberg. According to the Los Angeles Times:

During his more than 50-year career as a writer, producer and director, Mann built a strong reputation for his issue-oriented, thought-provoking projects. A multiple Emmy winner, Mann was especially critical of the inner workings of the American criminal justice system. He was known for creating complex characters and was scrupulous in his investigative research.

The movie version of “Judgment” brought him to Hollywood, where he went on to write 1963’s “A Child Is Waiting,” directed by John Cassavetes, a drama that dealt with mentally challenged children, and the 1965 adaptation of Katherine Anne Porter’s novel “Ship of Fools,” which was directed by Kramer and brought Mann a second Oscar nomination.

I invite you to click on the scene which represents the power of using words to express a sentiment so strong that is speaks to us today; this is the use of language which surpassed the time in which it was written, or even the context for which it was intended. It also helps to have a powerhouse like Spencer Tracy deliver the words in such a way that truth is brought to life.

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