Archive for February, 2017

Little Men

Monday, February 27th, 2017

vito, tood, marcia

Vito and Todd and Marcia photo by Clare Bokulich

“For every complex problem, there is a simple solution. And it’s always wrong.” H. L. Mencken

Marcia and I recently watched Little Men, the 2016 movie written by Ira Sachs and Mauricio Zacharias, and directed by Ira Sachs, and for my taste it was the best American movie I’ve seen in a very long time. By Hollywood standards, Little Men would be called a European film made in America. Character-driven, subtle, no villains, no heroes, ultra-real, and entirely free of violence, the film is about essentially good people caught up in the cruel realities of economics in a capitalist society, and how those realities shape the courses of people’s lives and the lives of their children.

Because the story of Little Men focuses on the friendship of two thirteen-year-old boys, adolescence and emerging sexuality are also subjects of the movie, each handled with marvelous subtlety and sensitivity. I was so touched by the friendship depicted in this movie that for days after I was swamped with memories of my friendships in junior high school and high school, and the events that led to the demise of those friendships.

The movie is beautifully wrought, and Sachs uses exquisite imagery to tell parts of the tale, imagery without dialogue, so the viewer’s imagination and personal experience are invited to co-write the back-stories of the characters in the film. The acting is nuanced, the dialogue never predictable and always believable, and the sensibility of the film deeply compassionate.

In thinking about Little Men, I realize that most of the American films made available for viewing these last forty years do not honor the viewers’ imaginations or intelligence. I think this trend in movies began with the rise of television as a dominating fixture of our culture, and by the early 1980s Aim Low became the ironclad rule of commercial cinema. Now, of course, most movies are aimed at children or teenagers or young adults, a population that has no experience of great literature, and no experience of subtlety or nuance or complexity in writing or music or cinema.

When I was sixteen, in 1966, I saw Zorba the Greek, and I vividly recall how challenging and exciting it was to contemplate and try to accept such a complicated and changeable character as Zorba. Was he a hero or a villain? Both! Neither! Oh how I loved the widow portrayed by Irene Pappas, yet she was not saved by Zorba, but senselessly killed. Or was her killing senseless?

In that same year came the dangerous British movie If, and some of my classmates hated the film, and some loved If more than any movie they’d ever seen; and everyone who saw that movie believed the drama made the leap from reality to fantasy at a different point in the movie; and a few people thought the story was real from beginning to end.

Then for another decade, it seemed that every week another movie would come out that challenged us to think about life in a new way, to question the status quo, to feel the richness and positivity of originality and artistry, to give us the opportunity to revel in the unsolvable mysteries and beauties of life.

Eventually, with very few exceptions, only foreign films and a rare American anomaly provided those kinds of thrills of discovery and challenged us to think outside the narrow box of American culture. American movies devolved into the teen and kiddy junk, much of it ultra-violent, we have today. Now, every October and November, a few so-called serious films come out in time for the awards season, but these tend to be shallow and stereotypical and unwatchable for the likes of me.

I believe there is a direct connection between the devolution of our cinema and literature, and the ascendancy of those who now control the reins of power—for a culture that celebrates complexity and subtlety and a multitude of possible meanings and endings will not easily succumb to infantile simplicity.

How refreshing it was to see Little Men, a movie that made no attempt to wrap things up in a neat little happy ending, but said, as did Zorba the Greek, “Here is an artist examining a slice of life full of real people caught in real dilemmas. How exciting! See what you think and feel as you open to this artistry, this vision, this vivid real-seeming dream.”

Ignorance

Monday, February 20th, 2017

strength for tw

Strength painting by Nolan Winkler

The earwigs are a plague on the garden.

Jonathon—a thickset man with an unruly gray beard—wanders up and down the rows of decimated bean plants searching for surviving leaves, finding none. How curious, and what a disaster for the community. He has been gardening for fifty years, since he was six years old, and he has never experienced such an infestation—nothing even close to this. Only the garlic shoots have weathered the onslaught of the ravenous bugs, and even they show signs of being nibbled.

Having tea with Malcolm, his predecessor at the helm of the abbey garden, Jonathon says, “I went out last night at midnight and there were thousands and thousands of earwigs clinging to every stem and leaf. I’ve scoured the garden for their nests, but except for one small concentration near the old greenhouse…”

Malcolm, eighty-seven, a slender man with boyish dimples, shakes his head. “You won’t find concentrations.” He swirls the tea in his cup to bring out a last burst of flavor from the leaves. “They’re everywhere in the ground.”

“But why this year?” Jonathon gazes at the slice of garden he can see through Malcolm’s open door. “There’s nothing much different about the weather this spring than last. Our methods haven’t changed.”

Malcolm settles back in his rocking chair, a smile playing at his lips. “I must tell you, I’m glad it’s not my worry now. I’d be out there all night picking the buggers off one by one.”

“But what do you think it is?” Jonathon frowns at what he can see of the ruined planting. “We’ll have to start over again. And we’ll have to buy vegetables this year. I feel like such a fool.” He turns to Malcolm. “Can you make a guess?”

“No need to guess,” says Malcolm, finishing his tea. “The same thing happened to me my third year here—forty-four, no, forty-five years ago. And ever after we always dug the compost in deep and never top dressed with young compost that had any wood chips or sawdust in it. That’s just elixir to an earwig.”

“Oh my God,” says Jonathon—awareness dawning in his tired eyes. “The sawdust we got from the mill in January and mixed with the manure.”

“Yes, and you have five new apprentices who don’t know how to thoroughly rake the clods out of the new beds. Those warm little pockets under the clods are perfect boudoirs for earwig orgies.” Malcolm rocks forward and rises from his chair. “But even so you might not have had this plague if there’d been a good freeze this winter to kill off most of their eggs, but it never got terribly cold.”

Jonathon stares in amazement at Malcolm. “How long have you known?”

“All along,” he says, stepping into his garden clogs.

“And you didn’t say anything because I told you not to butt in anymore.” He closes his eyes and shakes his head. “I’m such an idiot.”

“No, no,” says Malcolm, putting a hand on Jonathon’s shoulder. “You’re a fine gardener. We can’t know everything.”

“So what did you do back then to kill them off? Poison?”

“Never.” Malcolm laughs as he steps outside his cottage—his sinecure for fifty years of service to the sangha. “What we did was double dig the ground and make the new garden immaculate. Then we sunk big bowls every six feet along the rows and filled them with beer. Earwigs love beer even more than they love baby basil. That drowned a good many of them, and we were out every night for two weeks picking the rest of the buggers off by hand until the plants were strong enough to fend for themselves.”

“I guess that’s what we’ll have to do,” says Jonathon, relieved to have the mystery solved, however difficult the remedy.

“Have you seen my little vegetable patch?” asks Malcolm, starting up a narrow trail leading away from the main garden. “Up in the old orchard?”

“I didn’t know you’d planted anything this year,” says Jonathon, watching him go. “I’ve been so busy with the expansion of the fields, and the master classes, and…”

“I’ve been fortunate.” Malcolm beckons him to follow. “Not many bugs up there. Might get enough beans and such to see us through until yours come ready. Come on. I’ll show you.”

(This is a story from Todd’s book Buddha In A Teacup. An audio version is also available.)

Pollination

Monday, February 13th, 2017

winter mint

Winter Mint photo by Todd

“When the flower blossoms, the bee will come.” Srikumar Rao

Well, maybe not. With bee populations in decline worldwide and the so-called civilized world in no hurry to eliminate the known causes of these precipitous declines, more and more flowers are going unvisited by those faithful little pollinators.

Fear not. Scientists in Japan recently tested miniature drones equipped with sticky tendrils and were successful in transferring pollen from one flower to another with the little robot copters. Soon, say these triumphant scientists, orchards and vineyards and backyards will be abuzz, so to speak, with millions of little hovering robots doing the work bees used to do.

Somehow I am not reassured. Why not just stop producing and dispensing the pesticides and herbicides known to be decimating bee populations? A silly question, I know. Kin to asking: why not stop producing and dispensing the substances known to cause global warming? The answers are the same. To stop producing pesticides and greenhouse gases would be unprofitable in the short term for the huge corporations who have more power than nations.

“The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination.” Albert Einstein

We recently watched the movie Florence Foster Jenkins, starring Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant. This movie turns out to be a perfect Trump-era movie, for it is about a not-very-bright narcissist with no talent and too much money, and the people who feed off her. I was hoping for something to take my mind off of the over-arching stupidity and insensitivity of the new regime, yet found I was watching a goofy and pathetic drama based on that same kind of stupidity and insensitivity.

For me to enjoy a movie, I must care about at least one of the main characters, and preferably all of them. In the case of Florence Foster Jenkins, I cared about no one and wondered why anyone would want to make a movie about such shallow and uninspiring people, unless it was to demonstrate that much of our culture is deformed by the machinations of such dreadful people.

“There are two kinds of statistics, the kind you look up and the kind you make up.” Rex Stout

Just for fun, I tried to imagine explaining to Donald Trump about declining bee populations, but in every imagined scenario, he kept interrupting to say, “That’s not true. There are plenty of bees.”

I recently saw a film clip of Donald addressing a group of law enforcement officials and telling them the murder rate in America is at an all-time high, though the FBI recently reported the murder rate is at an all-time low. Whenever he is asked about disparities between his claims and the claims of researchers and scientists and government agencies, Donald likes to say we’re not hearing the truth because the media won’t report the truth.

What makes this extra confusing is that the media frequently does not report the truth, so Donald is correct in saying so, but the media does report everything Donald says, whether true or not, and then some parts of the media try to decipher which part of what Donald said was the truth and which part was not true. In the end, vast swaths of media time are filled with this nonsense, all of which adds up to little or nothing, but does leave us mentally exhausted and feeling as if we are trapped in an absurdist nightmare written by Ionesco.

There was something absurd and pathetic about Florence Foster Jenkins, and there is definitely something absurd about the reign of Trump, though it is now obvious that Trumpian absurdity is intended to keep us from paying attention to those men behind the curtains pulling all the important strings the media so rarely tells the truth about.

In Florence Foster Jenkins, Florence’s sycophants spend most of their energies handpicking the audiences for her truly terrible singing performances so no one will guffaw and point and say, “The emperor is a talentless buffoon.” But in the end, the truth about Florence is revealed to the world via a newspaper review and Florence is crushed.

Alas, the truth never seems to dent Trump, let alone crush him, but washes over him like gentle rain and only seems to make him more certain that whatever he says is brilliant and right on key.

Going Bananas

Monday, February 6th, 2017

going bananas

Going Bananas photo by Todd

In Woody Allen’s movie Bananas, one of Woody’s earlier, funnier films, there is a scene in which the leader of a successful rebellion in a banana republic becomes the new dictator and decrees that henceforth everyone must wear underwear on top of their clothes instead of under their clothes. Watching their leader make this mad decree causes Woody and another of the victorious rebels to finally realize their leader has gone mad with power.

I thought of this scene today when I read one of President Trump’s recent executive decrees. To wit: any federal agency wanting to institute a new regulation must simultaneously revoke two existing regulations. If you want to make it illegal for companies to dump toxic chemicals in rivers, then you must revoke the ban on dumping toxic chemicals in the ocean and in the air.

Another movie that comes to mind at this zany time in our nation’s history is the 1992 Eddie Murphy flick The Distinguished Gentleman. Eddie plays a two-bit thief elected to Congress through an unlikely fluke. When he arrives in Washington, he knows nothing about how government works, but finding he has landed among others of his ilk—criminals—he is soon raking in money from amoral lobbyists and corporate vampires. Since this is a Hollywood comedy and not reality, Eddie’s character is eventually won over by a gorgeous woman with righteous values, starts doing good things for regular folk, clashes with the forces of evil, and prevails. But it is the lead up to his conversion from criminality to decency that gives the movie its zing of veracity.

Then there is the Kevin Kline movie of 1993, Dave, about a nice guy named Dave who has a side job impersonating the President of the United States. Through a fluke even more preposterous than the fluke that gets Eddie Murphy’s character elected to Congress, Dave becomes President of the United States, sort of. The corruption and dastardliness of Washington politics are revealed, and Dave eventually does the right thing after haplessly aiding and abetting the bad guys.

These movies are wishful fantasies about decency and kindness and justice triumphing over greed and avarice and criminality. In reality, emotionally damaged narcissists who rise to power in American politics do not suddenly change their tunes and become decent generous empathic people. They stay damaged and greedy and wreak havoc on our society and our world until they get too old to keep wreaking havoc or until someone or something dethrones them.

“There are lots of people who mistake their imagination for their memory.” Josh Billings

My brother sent the following yesterday. “I watch the news now as if I am back in the Roman Empire, and yes, we have another psychotic, psychopathic Emperor, so let’s see how this one gets taken down, by whom, and after how much harm to everything and everyone else. He certainly has surrounded himself with some of the most openly evil and openly hateful humans ever. The mini-series about the Trump presidency will have SO many parts for sleazy-looking actors.”

Sixty-two million people voted for Trump, so we must assume several million people are thrilled by how things are going so far. I don’t personally know anyone thrilled by what Trump is doing, but yesterday in the Harvest parking lot I happened to walk by just as two burly men emerged from twin gargantuan pickup trucks, greeted each other with High Fives and big grins, and one of them cried, “Old Donny Boy is kicking ass now.” And his cohort shouted, “Yee haw!”

Old Donny Boy? How about Crazy-Person-In-Chief?

Meanwhile, life goes on. The post office is still operating, correct postage propels letters and packages across the country and around the world, the ATM machine at the bank still provides cash for seemingly solvent people, the grocery store still sells food, restaurants still serve meals, beer still flows from taps at the pub, and gasoline remains under three dollars a gallon.

Marcia and I went for a stroll on Big River Beach today, the sun muted by dense incoming fog, the landscape of huge logs and driftwood on the wide expanse of beach much changed by the rain-swollen river in collaboration with super high tides. I happened to be on the beach eleven years ago, my first winter as a Mendocino resident, when a giant redwood trunk, sixty-feet-long and eight-feet-in-diameter came floating down the river and eventually landed near the stairs leading up from the beach to the Presbyterian.

That mighty log stayed there by the stairs, sinking ever deeper in the sand every year for eleven years. Then just last week, the river joined forces with massive storm waves to dislodge the huge log and relocate it some hundreds of feet to the east atop a crest of sand.

The seemingly unmovable has been moved. Something that seemed unchangeable has changed. And this is how I’m experiencing, so far, the reign of Donald Trump, however short or long his reign turns out to be. His madness, characterized by greed and avarice and racism and sexism and ignorance, is a mighty storm that will dramatically change the political landscape of America and the world.

Should we survive his mad attempts to undermine the Constitution and revoke the basic rights of the citizenry, will we elect better people to represent us? Or will we embrace the slightly less crazy people and terrible ideas that brought us to this historic embarrassment: the enthronement of an angry child who knows almost nothing about anything, trapped in the body of a man who has never known the slightest inconvenience, let alone hunger and poverty and discrimination?