Motti, Lazzaro, and Django

The Awakening of Motti Wolkenbruch (Swiss, 2018) is a coming of age story, Motti’s single marital status of existential concern to his mother, who tries to set him up with any number of, for Motti, unsuitable but available girls whose mothers are equally concerned about the marriage status of their daughters. But Motti has his own ideas about attractions and family values, even as his young and tender heart is yanked from his body by the carefree girl he falls off a cliff for, and a parental sponsored trip to Israel banking on his finding a girl the family can approve of only makes matters worse. Expect much laughter, and crying, out loud, with actors speaking German, Yiddish, and Hebrew. The Awakening of Motti Wolkenbruch is about the surprise of life.

Happy as Lazzaro (Italian, 2018) is another coming of age story. Lazzaro does, literally, fall off a cliff, but not for love, and his heart remains surreally whole, inviolate, even as his body is bruised and abused. He’s a static character, the same at the end as at the beginning, even as life around him changes dramatically. The dwelling settings, country and city, are brutal but beautiful. The lives of the sharecroppers, under imprisonment and later emancipated but just as poor, still captives of poverty, illustrate that poverty is protean, affecting both the poor and the wealthy.

Django (French, 2017). A dramatization of the life of the guitarist Django Reinhardt and his family during World War II. The Nazis persecuted the Gypsies, many of whom tried to flee to relatively safe zones, joined the resistance, or were caught, killed on the spot, or transported via train to the Nazi concentration camps. The film focuses on Django’s one attempt to escape France, and while he did try to escape to Switzerland, according to the book Django: The Life and Music of a Gypsy Legend (2004, Michael Dregni, Oxford University Press), Django spent most of the war in Paris, where he was allowed to continue playing his music because by then he and his music had become so popular. But he had to play for the occupiers as well as for the locals, his safe treatment thus coming at the cost of a kind of debt bondage. From the book:

“Hitler bore a deep hatred for Gypsies…From 1933, German Gypsies were doomed. The Nazis barred Romanies from cities, shuttling them into settlement camps. Nazi doctors began sterilizing Romanies as early as 1933. And German Gypsies were required to wear a brown triangle sewn on their chest marked with the letter “Z” for zigemer, German for “Gypsy” – a precursor of the yellow Stars of David pinned to Jews (168)….Yet in Paris, Django was flourishing. Never did he have so much work or live in such sumptuous surroundings. Just as the Germans permitted jazz in Paris, they allowed Romany musicians to continue to play – and paid to come hear them every night” (169).

Still, Django worried for his family and for his own life, and if some considered him a hero, others thought of him as a conspirator: “Being in the spotlight saved him from the fate awaiting other Gypsies, but Django began to sweat under the glare” (182). Django takes off with his pregnant wife and his mother. They get caught and are imprisoned, but then, in the absurd way these things seem to happen, Dregni says, “A miracle arrived in the unlikely form of the German kommandant. He was a jazz fan, and when he came to question his new prisoner, he was astonished. ‘My good Reinhardt,’ he said, ‘whatever are you doing in this fix?’ Django promised not to try to escape again, and was freed” (184).

Django the film is must see for anyone interested in Gypsy jazz. But it’s also just a classic film – the acting, the setting, the timing, the war, the family and country drama and suspense. It features much magnificent music, including the organ “Mass” piece Django created. Django the book by Dregni should also be read. Django never learned to read or write, save at a most rudimentary level, and that late in his life (he died age 43). The book reveals a deep history of jazz music in Europe, particularly Paris, including stories of the many Black American musicians who traveled through Europe, most stopping in Paris, many playing with Django, following both World Wars. It covers the business of music and recording and performance management, popular success and failure, the changing style of jazz as musicians work to assimilate new music experienced from new exposures.

Dinner Walk & Theatre

The Willamette River flows north through the Valley roughly parallel I-5, and after making the turns near the Falls at Oregon City, moves through Portland before joining the Columbia on its way to the Pacific Ocean, but no worries, this isn’t going to be a geography lesson.

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Ross Island, from the west bank of the Willamette River, south of Portland (Mar 2016)

After passing under the Sellwood Bridges (there are two currently, the old one and the new one, side by side), the river wraps around Ross Island, across from the Old Spaghetti Factory’s rococo restaurant – where we met friends last night for dinner before heading up river to the Headlee Mainstage of the Lakewood Center for the Arts, tickets waiting at the Will-call window, to see Spencer Conway play Hugh in a live production of BULLSHOT CRUMMOND: THE EVIL EYE of JABAR and THE INVISIBLE BRIDE of DEATH.IMG_20160320_172520

The four of us shared a carafe of house Chianti and ate lasagna, pasta with clam and tomato sauces, fresh oven hot bread, salads and minestrone soup. We sat upstairs, at a booth in the bar area, paying scant attention to the river slooming below about sixty feet to the east. After dinner, we took a short, giddy walk along the river and paused for a few silly, group selfies with the island in the background.

After the short, after dinner walk, we hopped into one car and drove upriver to the theatre and picked up the tickets with still time to lengthen our river walk down to the local historical park to check out the 19th Century iron smelter.

We had seen Spencer Conway a couple of years ago in NOISES OFF at Portland’s downtown Newmark Theatre. All acting is, in a sense, a physical activity, and Spencer excels at employing his entire body in his work. When, for example, as Hugh ‘Bullshot’ Crummond, Spencer is hexed by a magnetic trance and becomes a human magnet, or slips into a parachute prop of sand, or rides the magic carpet, and more, he’s as good at physical acting antics as the great Jerry Lewis.IMG_20160321_093427I had not heard of Bullshot before last night. The form is satire, not quite farce, since there are targets – a causal argument of British colonialism reduced to buffoonery via the vehicle of a B movie on stage. Using inventive props in what seemed a record number of scene changes, the cast and production hands succeeded in creating the stage magic that allows the audience to suspend for a couple of hours and float effortlessly down the drama river. Rick Warren was perfectly cast as the evil Otto Von Bruno. Stephanie Heuston and Kelley Stewart each created original replays of B film vixen and heroine. Andrew Harris and Burl Ross filled out the cast, each frequently quick changing costumes to play multiple characters throughout the laugh-out-loud play.

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All the world is a smelter.

A New Denouement Comes to The Eidolon

A moon rose pure placebo the day
the dismantlers came to The Eidolon.
A puppeteer hidden in a hard hat
worked sticks and wires from a crane,
his rude yellow wrecking ball
a scraping bald knuckle
-hyphenating-
the yore tony a la mode pink marquee:

I

D

O

N

They hadn’t seen a movie there in years.
Instinct drove to the location
now hairy with graffiti and wounded windows
boarded up. “Turn left there,” she pointed ahead,
and here in the V of what used to be
a local lemony clichéd Hollywood and Vine
hung the vertical sign of rainbow chasing lights
popped and glum, now a moon at noon.

-OW -LAY-N-

The wrecking crew worked amid yarns,
a thrilling tale of piracy, or chivalric ennui,
beach tar and feathers and a damsel tied to a rail.
Though no one was actually tied down,
back in the days of pretend, when make-believe
waved sun and sea of the bottle bags of beggary,
and kids danced to the possibilities of being free.

SW-P -EE-

They drove across town to watch the razing
crew with crowbars and heavy metal
tear down the slumping palatial playhouse,
where teens once held hands,
listening to rock and roll bands,
and before them, kids spent summers in buttery
fingered and fizzy toothed afternoons
matinee rapt in spinning film,
a veteran vaudeville player changing reels.

-HIS SAT-R–Y

Nothing could save now the last-gasp plight
of this episodic imperilment, and the moon fell.
The two cold cats sat on the bus stop bench
across the street from the deconstruction,
a couple of stoned Cupids deprived of sleep,
sagely reminding one another to be brave
and behave, lest they be kicked out again
like the day they adlibbed Beatles
and lit bee dough up in the loge.

Breaking Bad in Stromboli

Breaking Bad in StromboliI walked down to meet Susan on Hawthorne late afternoon but arrived early and when I passed Nick’s and noticed baseball on the screen I ducked in to wait at the bar for a text asking my whereabouts. I ordered a glass of milk and a coffee chaser and the bartender asked me if this was my first visit to Nick’s. The game was in the 8th inning, a 3 to 3 tie, the Dodgers against the Cubs out spring training in sunny Arizona. A group of young folk occupied the north end of the bar, but I alone watched the game. The tables were all empty. The balls were breaking late, bad, away. The Cubs scored in the bottom of the 8th on a sacrifice fly to take the lead 4 to 3, and the Dodgers in the top of the 9th could not break away. My first taste this year of spring training TV was bad for a Dodger fan. I like the Cubs, too, and hope they do better than last year’s cellar close. Edging the Dodgers 4 to 3 yesterday marked the Cubs first win in seven games this spring training season. It’s still early, but the Cubs are off to a bad start. Cub fans are a forgiving bunch. Dodger fans live in baseball paradise at Elysian Park. But baseball and paradise broke bad some time ago, came the summers of our discontent, baseball breaking away.

One of modern baseball’s design problems, as McLuhan explained, is that it’s a poor fit for television. Baseball is not pixel friendly. McLuhan saw how vaudeville moved to radio and radio to television, where there will never be enough channels, the need for distraction being what it is, even though all channels do the same thing and distract in the same way. But he did not foresee vaudeville being rekindled by Lady Gaga and Madonna in the Super Bowl arena where the camera is now a drone following the collective unconscious eye of the audience. Meantime, the living room remains the electronic middle class mosh pit. The form of television is its art; the channel hardly matters.

Yet some said that “Breaking Bad” was television finally or finely elevated to art. The art of the installment, the fix, waiting for the next episode, the episodic adventure induced by Walter who like Fagin in Dickens’s “Oliver Twist” lives and thrives in a world of children. Is breaking bad an occupational hazard of teaching resulting from classroom isolation from the real world? Or “Breaking Bad” might have been titled “Death of a Teacher,” Walter White the Willy Loman who lives on TV fantasy to avoid the existential question imposed by being crushed beneath the wheels of contemporary financial, job, metaphysical, and medical malaise. We interrupt this post to bring you a full disclosure: I never saw a single “Breaking Bad” episode when the series was running. I did read a few reviews. I recently watched the first three episodes, borrowed from the library. I was thinking I might try to see the whole thing through, to its conclusion, and angle a post off it. But I don’t want to watch any more “Breaking Bad” episodes. Predicament may harden the romantic heart in all of us.

For one thing, the premise of “Breaking Bad” seems algorithmic. A high school Chemistry teacher with experience and talent gets an existential kick in the butt when he discovers he has terminal cancer. He sees an opportunity in the two years he has left to make some quick money as a meth chef and improbably takes to a life of violent drug associated street crime. Various critical reviews suggest something philosophical going on. His street name is Heisenberg, and it’s probably true that nowhere in contemporary life are things more uncertain than out on the street, certainly not in the living room, watching television. So the existential predicament is the close proximity to death, not to be confused with the close proximity of television. But everyone dies and knows they will; why wait any time at all to break bad and kill the TV? Most people break indifferent. No life is longer than the one spent in moiling drudgery.

Then I watched Roberto Rossellini’s “Stromboli” (1950). Essentially, Ingrid Bergman’s Karin’s existential predicament is similar to Walter White’s, though even more absurd, because she’s saved but ironically condemned to live in a place and with a man she believes she’s entirely unsuited for, which comes with the surprise of the epiphany. The island of Stromboli is a Mediterranean volcano. Life is harsh. Karin was expecting something a bit more pleasant, romantic, colorful. Life on Stromboli is inescapable sun or impervious shadow. The people on Stromboli live under the constant threat of volcanic eruption. Their values are kept immutable by the impossibility of change. Unlike the Mario by the end of “Il Postino,” Karin can’t see any beauty on her island or in the fishing life. It doesn’t take her long to realize she must break bad. But Karin breaks bad differently from Walter. She frantically climbs the volcano that Walter pedantically runs from.

Note: No commas were mistreated in the writing of this post.

Satisfactus: “Charlie is My Darling”

Charlie Is My Darling at The HollywoodThe new, old Rolling Stones film, “Charlie Is My Darling,” played at Portland’s Hollywood Theatre this past weekend, and we joined a mellow crowd of folks carrying beers and popcorn into the main auditorium, most of us probably able to claim that we had been raised on the Stones.

The Rolling Stones of 1965 were born before the outcome of World War II was certain. Mick was born the week of Operation Gomorra, the Allied bombing of Hamburg, Germany, the firestorm that literally sucked all the oxygen from the air, killing 40,000, injuring another 40,000. Keith was born that December, the week Eisenhower was named the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe.

Time was on their side, and ours too, as we settled into the revamped seats to view the revamped film. But time for what? One thing that seems to have died in the war was the notion of patrimony, if only temporarily and sporadically, that one might be born with guarantees, warranties. In its place would come a new wave of egalitarianism. It bartered with time, but still, what to do with it? Over in France, the question was considered existential, but for the Stones of “Charlie Is My Darling,” touring Ireland in September of 1965, the question hardly seems to have created a crisis.

“I am not a musician,” Charlie Watts, the drummer, and Bill Wyman, the bassist, both insist. But that’s a simple argument of definition, for what is a musician? They certainly were not musicians in the sense of the classical pieces tied to their seats in a symphony orchestra. But “I just play music” is the rejoinder of the actor, the musician who takes the stage in front of an audience wanting to feel real time, feel alive and in motion. Thus Mick says he’s acting. Music becomes an act, and part of the act is the audience. There’s a scene in the film when a small crowd takes the stage, and an Irish boy grabs Mick’s microphone stand and takes the helm. But he’s not acting, or is he? It’s today a funny scene, full of dramatic irony, for we know what they don’t. It seems almost staged, improvised, but expected, at the same time. What does the audience want, the Stones are asked. To get close, to touch, to be part of the moment. To be in time with the band.

Time is tight, sometimes, but as time goes by, we don’t always feel so constricted, but nor do we feel time “creeping in [its] petty pace,” taking its leisurely time, but still we feel we’ve time “to wonder, “Do I dare?” and, “Do I dare?,” and time to wonder if blogging isn’t such a waste of time, but time can be impatient with us, or we with time, like the bartender in Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” who simply wants to go home, and calls out repeatedly: “HURRY UP PLEASE ITS TIME.”

The HollywoodTime is real. What to do? Rock around the clock.

The film release comes in time for the Stones 50th anniversary year. It would be fine if their 50th anniversary tour gigs were as simple as the ones in “Charlie Is My Darling,” the stages low and thin, the instruments and amplification unhyped, the audience small and close, the band members close to one another, no catwalk for Mick’s jagged moves, playing venues like The Hollywood Theatre.

Alas, too much time has passed, and with it, too much innocence.

In the film, though 1965 does not seem like some ancient time, one is startled to see how young the Stones look and how old things seem. They travel by train, and the camera captures some splendid Irish countryside. When they do fly, it’s in a prop plane. The audiences are young, of course, but casual and quick interviews with bystanders show they were well-known, if not popular with everyone. There’s a fun and impressive scene where sequestered in a small hotel room with a piano Mick and Keith imitate Elvis and Fats Domino. Charlie pounds a bit on the piano, too. They had all gone to school on this stuff. And there’s another instructive scene where Mick and Keith are shown making up a song, the others following the process, getting it as they go – yeah, not musicians, though; they just make up songs. Mick downplays the lyrics and intellectualizing any of it. Maybe, but this too is all part of the act. What is their audience not satisfied with, Mick’s asked. Being controlled by the older generation, he says. And why do they feel that way? Because they’re dissatisfied with it.

CharlieThe thin stages, the notable riffs, Mick’s antic catlike, moody body language, the minimal amplification and Charlie’s simple drum kit, were all easily enough to activate and satisfy the audience’s rock and roll impulse, both in the film and in the Hollywood Theatre. This could be the last time. Every time, any time.

What to do, and why not a few songs, an hour upon the stage, or in front of the stage, or, years gone by, in an old movie theatre? Susan sat next to me, I could hear her softly singing, and I could feel her chair rocking.