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Archive for the month “June, 2014”

Sound and Fury American style -albeit no longer on the big screen

It seems that Leonardo di Caprio has a talent for playing the icons of the American dream: Gatsby and not too long ago Jordan Belfort in the Wolf of Wall Street. Let me begin by saying that he is great, well as great as a one-trick pony can be. Sadly the depiction is a symbol of America in the 20th and 21st centuries- all hype, glitter and excess in a film that runs excessively long with excessively obnoxious characters, again sadly based on real people in real situations.

He is the Willy Loman salesman in extreme born with a talent to sell, dazzle and make money- lots of money. He is the motivational speaker who hypnotizes. And like Blaise Pascal in Les Pensees (17th Century) who expiated the penchant for the quest, Belfort screams the passion of the hunt and all the perks that accompany that rush into adventure. Unlike Loman however, the glittering journey suffices more than nicely. Maybe the drugs keep Belfort from falling into self-awareness when plans go askew. Disparaging the failed FBI agent who hounds him, Belfort mocks the agent’s “sweaty balls” on his lonely subway ride, representative of the life the man is doomed to lead because of his desire for justice, not flamboyance. Belfort earns a mere 3 years in an exclusive tennis-playing jail facility, triumphing that he has been able to screw the system, maintain his dishonesty, and demonstrate his lack of remorse. Great lessons for the youth of today.

American Hustle contrasts Wolf nicely as it is a slower film, one for the boomers with stories reminiscent of the tales our parents once retold and affectionately ruminated on: the Damon Runyon-types that dwelled in humorous and sentimental gamblers, hustlers, actors, and gangsters in a variety of dicey situations, spouting colorful dialog with names such as Benny Southstreet, Big Jule, Harry the Horse. In American Hustle, Di Niro’s mobster is a study in tension. A look can pierce any façade.

Both Bale, the protagonist in Hustle, and di Caprio have mistresses on the side, lavishing them with material goods, both doublecrossing their arch government nemeses, and both attempting a loyalty to friends. Bale is no angel, in spite of a quieter and more thoughtful performance, perhaps appealing more-only in contrast to the more obnoxious out there di Caprio. Superficially the films are incredibly similar, yet the times only several decades apart are truly night and day. The underpinning is the same; both men are deplorable guys whom society should disparage, yet both wind up being heroes to the young: guys who are smart enough to get away with bad things and succeed.

Years ago when I taught Grade 9’s I would always ask who their heroes were: inevitably it was their moms or sports figures, usually baseball stars who made obscene amounts of money. My generation would have responded to the same question with John F. Kennedy, who at least was admired for his leadership and Peace Corps innovations. In truth, he was also an icon of good looks, aristocratic demeanor, Harvard smarts. But the money-thing that he tried to play down was not the reason he was lauded. And yes, there were mobster-links and women and the Ratpack. But to us kids in the 60’s , there was a message beyond greed. Pierre Trudeau also offered this optimism and sophistication even as we chortled at “fuddle-duddle” and gasped at the Pierre Laporte situation in Quebec. Both Kennedy and Trudeau stood for something.

With Nelson Mandela now gone, the last shimmer of goodness feels dissolved in the golden temptation of goods and naughtily provocative hijinks, leaving the poor, the garbage men and firefighters as in their portrayal in Wolf of Wall street as easy marks, schlemiels who trust in telephone solicitors, 419 schemes and easily gamble their pensions away to Nigerian conmen and Madoffs of the world-who was at caught-. The working class is decried as fools for trusting, given the finger and shown as deserving of being bilked of retirement funds, Belfort and his cronies dance, cajole, engage in sexual hijinks that speak to adolescent immaturity. Alas, the working stiffs of the world deserve being played by the smoother, classier and cleverer of the world. We are Elmer Fudd for fodder.

Belfort has the power, but the people who buy his line, thumping their chests as primordial savages are worse than the duped working folk. They allow themselves to be lead- no conscience, no thought, only the throb and shriek , the noise that follows charismatic men like Hitler, the Swengalis of the world, the uncaring and driven of the world who play with the people’s hearts and minds, rendering them victims to victimizers. Sadly, these are reality truths, short of morality. Theirs is

“… a tale/Told by an idiot full of sound and fury/Signifying nothing” (Macbeth, Act V, Scene v, 17-28.)

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A Place to Bond: Post-Father’s Day

I never could understand why after years of being exposed to art and architecture of museums,churches, and art galleries in Europe, paint and pastels, why my son would defer to sports whenever he had a choice. As a boy, he fantasized in castles in the Loire, was the first to spot the Mona Lisa in the Louvre, and the saddest to leave the culinary delights in Paris. From ramparts at Carcassonne to Michelangelo’s Pieta, his education was brimful of aesthetics. I disparage to accept that some boys prefer boythings, of dash, and competition and stats: and that something whirling and clashing and magical and more desirable than all things art emerges when The Steelers meet The Giants or Roy Halliday throws a perfect game. So enamored was he of sport that he named his son after a baseball player. Fortunately not Hank or Casey.

I do recall a monologue by Billy Crystal where he relates that he and his dad would go to Yankee Stadium and he never felt closer to his father than at those moments. And I suppose I can acknowledge that it is exciting as people jump up to perform the wave and there is tempting junk food not allowed at home and it is special to be permitted to be a small child in an adult venue where usually you would not be in attendance, especially at late hours. And likely you’ve played tee-ball or skated on a rink or thrown a ball so you all ready have a basic understanding of the games.

Last night ( remember the germ of this blog was begun several months ago, but polished just before publishing), as my husband is a staunch follower of all events sports, so, alas, we were at the Knicks and Raptors game and I have to admit, my mind was wandering. I noticed first that there seemed to be a very different crowd to the one at the baseball game. True, there is a lot of diversity but somehow it differs here: more shiny bald men and more big-haired women in a variety of risqué tops and faux leather bottoms stretched tight. At the end of our row is a very flashy blonde lady with false eyelashes, sparkly things on her hands, the highest heels possible, hair that falls close to her waist and considerable endowments on top. Last night she wore leopard tights. Usually she has a woman friend seated beside her and before the end of each half, she disappears. People seem to know her as she mounts the stairs or venders with whom she converses respond to her respectively: maybe she is a girlfriend of a player or owner. She holds herself aloof and becomes very annoyed should you have to pass by her en route to the bathroom. Although more than once, I think I may have hit her in the face with my puffy coat—not on purpose, of course.

But last night I was noticing a kind of hierarchy at the game. The players and owners are at the top of the heap, but below them- outside of the audience- are the rat pack dancers and then, the in-seat servers along with the individual food sellers of candy floss, ice cream, popcorn and such. All dress in black with a logo on their backs.

Several times I have noticed a woman who serves our particular section. She carries herself more aloof from the rest. She is tall and haughty, up and down, up and down the flights of stairs she goes. She seems to me someone who believes herself out of place and perhaps one day, she will be discovered and restored to her rightful situation on earth. She delivers her glasses of beer or pizza politely, with a frozen smile, but I get the feeling she imagines herself somewhere else. She must feel herself watched as her job requires her to please the crowd and bring them food, yet as I compare her to the other servers, dashing to meet the demands of the hungry, those looking haggard, hair falling over eyes, or even the rhythmic bounce on the stairs, she stands alone. She has a patrician nose, hair returning to its normal shade of brown from its blondish ends. It is her demeanor, her bearing that speaks to me. I wonder if she has a boyfriend, a husband or if she hopes that like in some romance novel, a man with big rings will suddenly fall under her power and whisk her away from this life of servitude.

More than the servers are the unfortunate dancers. When I worked at OCT and criticized their performances, a colleague snakily replied, “ Oh you’re just jealous”. But truthfully I am not and I feel rather sorry for these lesser Las Vegas strumpets. The costumes are the least attractive I have ever seen with red stretchy stuff in bizarre designs that do not flatter. In spite of several changes throughout the night, they are rarely complimented by these uniforms that although snuggly fit do not possess much pizazz or interesting design value. The routines too remind me of the artist Willem De Kooning as he often could not decide whether he wanted to paint sexy women, thrash them across the page or hurl them into in pure abstraction. It is the same for the dance routines that are gawky, part elbow, part hump and grind, part coy: a mixture of trite and trash.

Once we found ourselves besides the mother of an ingénue dancer who confided that she had no idea why her daughter who worked at a successful dance school and was paid much more as a backup dancer to a small rock group tolerated the demands of this job: not permitted to eat anything during the day of the performance, required to follow strict rules and regiments and practice, practice, practice incredibly hard for not great pay. But she did. I admit to preferring the grace of ballet or the sexy sophistication of the strippers at the Bally in Vegas.

I do figure drawing so I’m no prude, but the whorl of hair as prop and the thromp-thromp, pound-pound, insincere smiles of pretty girls trying so hard in crummy circumstances is pitiful. The response of the crowd often seems uncaring: lovely lampshades on awkward poses, small titillation. Although I admit I do note the leering eyes of some fellows. and the hard eyes of other sweaty men no doubt fantasizing. “Quick Change” at half-time or the racing dogs as the half-time garners more respect

Yet back at Skydome, there is a kind of nostalgia on Friday nights under the open dome and the crowds are into it. Still for me, it lacks the warmth of the old CNE stadium on a summer’s night. But, at least this year, the jumbotron has synced up the colours so that the blue of the players’ uniforms on the screen almost matches the real thing.

Plus, like Billy Crystal if sports offers a place for men to bond, I’m all for it. ☺

Clutter

I’m not sure why certain books or sayings lodge in our brains. I often say I’ve got Teflon brain because not much seems to stick; having said that, there are things that I think I remember clearly and one in particular is lodged from a first or second year French class at U of T ( University of Toronto).

We were studying La Nausee by Jean-Paul Sartre, likely the translation back in the 70’s, that imprinted on me. I recall Sartre saying that we keep objects around that we have had relationships with- that our teddy bears and even our hairbrushes speak to us. The connection between the object and our consciousness of it reasserts our identities because it connotes who we were at a particular time and in a particular place. It extends the “I think, therefore I am” of Rene Descartes, as our selves are reasserted by the toys and paraphernalia with which we engaged once upon a time. I shouldn’t be surprised that many of the great philosophers such as Descartes, Spinoza, Leibnitz and others were well versed in the magic of mathematics and science, going deep beyond numbers and ciphers to contemplate an “otherness “ that stood for something more.
Think of how the word “Rosebud” and the role it played in the film “ Citizen Kane”, supposedly based on William Randolf Hearst, the newspaper magnate. Interestingly the film was praised by Jean-Paul Sartre so he must have admired the connection between word to evoke a life story.

I recall a Friday night dinner at my parents when my son was a small boy. He paused peering over the edge of his chicken soup and queried, “Maybe I am just a thought in someone else’s mind. “My mother guffawed, “ Jordan, just eat your soup”.

But in terms of “rosebud,” and the precious trinkets we feel unable to pitch, I’m not referring to those who hoard like my Auntie Marion whose library was overflowing with books or magazines she was unable to discard. We had to navigate through piles of past newspapers even in her livingroom to reach a chair in her house. She recalled Dickens’ Mrs. Haversham to many of her nieces and nephews.

I am talking about those objects we keep around us that do remind us of events, people or specific times. As I sit here by my kitchen window at my computer mid- December I glance at the 10 or more cards on the granite island from my husband’s birthday (July 31) and even our last anniversary (July 2). I even spy one from past Valentine’s Day. Besides what I rationalize is an informal art arrangement, this impromptu exhibit provides colour, design and texture to a room that holds pots of orchids, my recent paintings, a corner full of my grandchildren’s pursuits such as Mad Libs, markers, puzzles and stacking bears…. Yes, I admit “clutter”.

However, my table is a place where my family gathers and where I paint and write. There used to be a birch tree outside that practically cradled the house, but recently it had to be cut down. An outsider arriving here might wonder at the carefully arranged chaos and only realize it is a kitchen because of the stove and frig.

I absolutely need these props. Birthdays, celebrations, bric-a-brac or photos that speak to my life filled with significant events that fill me with happiness and establish a barrier to the bad things that creep into my mind and torment me with worry. They are a shield, a panacea of love and establish balance.

I am an admitted worrier, although as my husband points out, worrying does no good and neither stops what might occur. Superstitiously I reflect that worrying is an amulet that will outwit bad events from unfolding. After all, Jews believe that if you give a sick person a new name, the Angel of Death will fly over him or her unrecognizable and hidden by a fresh moniker. However, I can think of many times, I did try to think good thoughts, but they failed to stave off the inevitable onslaught of trials and tribulations.

I think I am not alone in my penchant to surround myself in good vibes. Many of us cherish our photographs: usually group shots of families, vacations, trips that remind us, make us feel lighter, happier. And how many holocaust victims rudely forced from their warm beds and permitted few possessions did not grab for a photo? I once read a book about the inmates in concentration camps maybe Ravensbruck or Terezin who curried together scraps of paper, and cut into bits of leather recipes from their former lives that were resplendent with memories of warmth, love and family. Some dreamed of the aromas, felt the press of their children’s bodies or re-envisaged the smile of mother: all evoked by the words “ cream… butter…”.

I have been called a cynic but for most of my life I actually naively expected people to behave honorably, but for the most part, have been disappointed.

That is the miracle of Nelson Mandela. In spite of an excruciating hard life, separated from his family and home along with the daily punishments and bonebreaking work, he did not lose his optimism. In deed the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa in 1996 where murderers, arsonists, rapists were given amnesty when they admitted their crimes was a miracle of belief in the power of forgiveness.

Films such as Cry Freedom that give voice to Steve Biko’s tortures, Dry White Freedom, or The Power of One deplore apartheid. When I developed my Post-colonial classes at Northern, these movies taught the students more than I could. Most contained montages of images that dramatized moments that were fraught and composed in the pain of the people in South Africa,1976. Imagine my delight when visiting the Hector Pietersen Museum in Soweto, South Africa and discovering the images in the films were the real stuff, actual saved documentation used in the production of the movies. A film is, of course, a distribution of images that can endure and together form a work of art. Fortunately someone decided these pictures were worth saving to record the past.

So I am back to my perpetual theme of art, a clutter of things that holds meaning for me-or for you. That clutter that reaffirms what we find important, what we treasure and hold close, what we maintain that encourages us to continue on, persevere.

It is however, the Nelson Mandelas who are so much more than the scraps that surround us in our daily ventures. The Nelson Mandelas who stop time, who do not allow us to linger in the past and drone on about the good, bad or particularly ugly old days. And yet, it is all paradox for without the past, the memories, the photos, the mementos that evoke a former me or you, we could not forge on, and we could not hope to change what has gone before, resurrect what has been good, human and worth preserving.

Hardly beautiful

My dear friend Anne tells me she wants beautiful. This is now my mantra as well.

At this point in my life, I passionately want it. I’m not just thinking rich embroideries, silk, soft to the touch or pretty pictures by Picasso and Matisse; or even cheerful stories than end with heroes riding off into the sunset with faces turned towards the twinkling stars. Beautiful becomes a mental shield, a metaphor for what is good and sustaining in life as well as a place to rest one’s mind and heart in the midst of turmoil and crises.

For example, I am so sick of that stupid Rob Ford debacle. In my oil painting classes, in the press, on street corners, everywhere I turn, someone has something to say about that useless creep. Before he was elected, my husband and I happened to be in the small plaza at the corner of Bathurst and Lawrence, and Howard pointed out this fellow, standing by himself, alone, shunned, a Willy Loman type in a shapeless beige overcoat. We chortled a bit, thinking this is no man for the mayor of our great city.

Obviously the laugh was on us.

I used to find Mel Lastman and his pants-pilfering wife an embarrassment, but Ford makes Lastman look like a debutant. Besides Ford’s abusive behavior as he carelessly knocked over Pam McConnell in City Hall chambers, the drivel that comes from his mouth: not only the gravy train slogans and his excuse for apologies that are really not apologies at all – are all slobber. I will never forgive Jimmy Kimmel’s kindness when he interviewed the hulking excuse of a man, Ford, well rehearsed so he appeared not-so-bad.

No surprise that Ford’s attitude towards the arts is a nightmare. I shutter to think that Lord Associates based in Toronto is working on Chicago’s arts in schools and on promoting art on the streets there while our city is bereft of that necessary support. There is no place for art or culture here unless it is football, in Ford’s life. His attitude towards Gay Pride is clearly evidenced by his avoidance of the parade. And there is so much more, so un-beautiful, bullish about Ford and his brother. I cringe to think of Ford’s attitude towards the 14 year old who waited till early in the morning at City Council to plea for maintaining library services. The only person unmoved was Ford.

Recently Dougie in his car as he exited a parking lot almost ran over Howard who retorted that Dougie should slow down. The response: a finger pointed upwards. Seems the finesse runs in the family, but we all ready knew that.

But now I have become one of those I have deplored who has wasted even a second’s thought on the lout, giving Ford space and time in my life.

This is exactly why I want and need beautiful, a place to rest my head from the discrimination in India, the Putin power takeovers, the plea for Christmas dinner for poor children, the federal payoffs to people like Duff and Wallin, the senseless murders by gunfire on the streets, the corruption in Quebec, the impossibility of banning firearms, Sandy Hook: one could go on endlessly, targeting the lack of care and morals and self-satisfied politicians and false facades that circumscribe our world. No wonder we become Scrooges, crying out Humbug! and feeling helpless and powerless in a sea of awful :what is the point.

Last weekend we babysat Grandchild #1 and watched the Boris Karloff animated Grinch who stole Christmas created by Dr. Seuss (Ted Geisel). In spite of feeling overcome with the lack of beautiful in the world, we had to smile at the Grinch and why his heart grew two sizes. Simple and clear, the idea of giving was beautiful. Similarly, as we lit the Channukah licht (candles) , chanted the prayers and observed the glowing dance of flames illuminating our grandchildren’s faces, we had a moment where the pure and truly beautiful shone out.

We have to believe that somewhere there is light in this muck of the world, that there is beautiful : otherwise what is the point?

Please note that I develop a germ of an idea and write throughout the year, but edit these blogs when I publish them, therefore, the reference to December’s Channukah. As well, Ford is finally in Rehab as I review this. Well, maybe he is and the province although deep into election slogans has replaced one kind of noise for another.

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