Posts Tagged ‘Seymour: An Introduction’

Two Good Movies

Tuesday, February 9th, 2016

Meeting the Muse (Diabolo Ballet)

Meeting the Muse (Diablo Ballet) © 2015 David Jouris/Motion Pictures

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser February 2016)

“You must trust and believe in people or life becomes impossible.” Anton Chekhov

Twenty years ago at a party in San Francisco, the host introduced me to a man named Jack and said, “You are both serious film buffs. Have at it.”

A silence fell and I realized Jack was waiting for me to begin, so I said, “I just saw Basquiat. Didn’t believe it or like it, and I thought the paintings of his they chose to show were ill-chosen.”

“Haven’t seen it,” said Jack. “Probably won’t. So what have you liked recently?”

“Nothing much,” I said. “You?”

He reeled off the names of several hyper-violent movies, to which I replied, “You know, I avoid violent movies. My nervous system can’t take it. I have nightmares for weeks after, so…”

“Then you’ve missed all the best films of the last twenty years,” he said, cutting me off.

“I entirely disagree,” I said. “I think hyper-violent movies are a form of pornographic entrapment and entrainment.”

And that was the last I saw of Jack.

Thus the two movies I am about to recommend are not only two of my three favorite films of 2015—the third being Seymour: An Introduction, a documentary I reviewed in a recent article—they are not violent, nor will they be nominated for Academy Awards or play in a multiplex near you. But they are available in DVD and unless your taste runs more along the lines of Jack’s, you will like them and may love them.

Meet The Patels is a movie conceived, written, and directed by Ravi and Geeta Patel, brother and sister Indian-Americans in their early thirties. Advertised as a romantic comedy, the film is really about what it is to be the American children of traditional parents from India for whom successfully marrying off their children to beget grandchildren is far more important than anything else, and what it is to be those traditional parents living in the United States as part of the enormous East Indian community of North America.

The main characters in the movie are Ravi and Geeta and their real-life parents, and though the film purports to be about Ravi and his quest to find a mate who will please his parents, the real stars of the film are the father and mother. Their efforts and struggles and transformations supply the richest moments in the film, the funniest, the saddest, and the most transformative.

Among the many things I love about this movie are the constantly surprising turns of events and changes of heart. Ravi, an actor living with his filmmaker sister in Los Angeles, has many non-Indian friends and is a pan-racial everyman, an ideal foil for his parents and the people he meets in his quest for love, his affect one of aimless good nature. His sister Geeta is shooting the entire film as Ravi’s largely unseen but often heard companion in the quest to find an Indian woman Ravi would like to marry and his parents will approve of.

If you are curious to know more about Indian-American culture, and you enjoy thought-provoking non-idiotic comedies, Meet The Patels is for you.

The other movie I wish to tout is The Second Mother, a Brazilian film with the Portuguese title Que Horas Ela Volta? (What Time Will She Return?) This film is subtle, funny, sad, and masterful, every scene a visual gem—an extremely personal story involving a few exquisitely portrayed characters that reveals much about contemporary Brazilian culture.

I don’t want to tell too much because the unveiling of the mysteries is what makes the movie so compelling. American movies of such subtlety and veracity are almost inconceivable today, which is a pity, but so it goes. It is not that such films can’t be made; they simply would never be distributed for anyone to see.

I’m sure Meet The Patels was deemed fundable because the producers knew millions of East Indians would want to see the film, and thank goodness for that. Thank goodness, too, for The Second Mother and those countries where cinematic art need not always pander to the lowest common denominator.

Written and directed by Anna Muylaert, The Second Mother stars Regina Casé as Val, the housemaid of a wealthy family in Sao Paulo. Val lives in a small room in the large house of her employees, a middle-aged couple and their teenaged son for whom Val has been surrogate mother from the time the boy was little. Having left her own daughter Jessica in the care of relatives so she, Val, could come to the city to earn money to support Jessica, Val has not seen her daughter for ten years when Jessica, now a headstrong young woman, arrives in Sao Paulo to live with Val while studying for a college entrance exam.

As with Meet The Patels, The Second Mother continuously surprised me, not because of plot twists, but because of the unexpected yet wholly plausible transformations of the uncannily real characters. Meet the Patels is rightly called a docudrama, whereas The Second Mother is a brilliant play, brilliantly acted and filmed—Regina Casé a marvel.

As with all my favorite films, the stories and images and performances in Meet The Patels and The Second Mother continued to resonate for days after, and in thinking about why I like these two movies so much, I realize they illuminate many of the same things I explore in my fiction, particularly the individual’s struggle to find meaning and love in a society ferociously intent on fitting everyone into a few unnatural compartments or crushing them beneath the wheel of absurd and outmoded traditions.

Humor, love, generosity, kindness, honesty, acceptance, forgiveness; all of these are modeled so organically in these movies, it wasn’t until the films were over that I became aware of how powerfully these qualities, or lack of them, shaped the lives of the characters. Marcia and I both laughed out loud many times during each of these films, and we cried, too.

Seymour

Tuesday, December 15th, 2015

Cat and jamming

The Piano Lesson photo by Marcia Sloane

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser December 2015)

“If you play an instrument or sing, you will no doubt agree that life’s experiences influence the way you practice. But has it ever occurred to you that the opposite may also be true: that the skills gained from practicing—namely, the refinement and control of your emotions, your thoughts, and your physical responses—can influence your life?” Seymour Bernstein

Last night Marcia and I watched Seymour: An Introduction, a documentary about the pianist and piano teacher Seymour Bernstein, who was eighty-five at the time the film was made and is eighty-eight today. The film, directed by Ethan Hawke, the actor, is certainly about classical music and pianos and playing the piano, but the movie is also a fascinating and ever-surprising portrait of an extremely thoughtful person with an extraordinary talent for teaching.

The previews for the film made me worry that Ethan Hawke would be too much in the film, but his presence is minimal. Most of the film brings us into intimate closeness with Seymour, who is delightfully erudite and eccentric. I felt we were having a visit with a favorite uncle, and whether I agreed with everything he said or not, it was big fun hanging out with him.

A most unlikely veteran of the Korean War—and there is a great segment of the film devoted to his military experience in Korea—Seymour grew up in an entirely non-musical family, but began playing the piano when he was five, having begged his parents to buy a piano. His disapproving father used to say, “I have three daughters and a pianist,” but Seymour was born indivisible from music and so was not deterred by his foolish father.

At one point in the movie, Seymour is in the piano rental room downstairs in the Steinway building in Manhattan, working with a brilliant young pianist on technique, and the young pianist says, and I paraphrase, “Everything in my life is about music.” And we see Seymour responding to the young man’s pronouncement with a look that says, “Yes. You are a younger version of me.”

Several scenes in the film take place in this Steinway rental room—Seymour looking for a grand piano to use for the recital Ethan Hawke has scheduled for the denouement of the film. As a piano player, these scenes made my mouth water and re-ignited my lifelong desire to have a super duper grand piano—not that there’s anything wrong with my trusty upright. But when one hears those bass notes played on a superlative grand piano, and one’s entire body begins to hum along, well…

Seymour goes from grand piano to grand piano, looking for one that sounds good to him even when played softly. He plays a few chords on one piano and crows, “Horror of horrors!” and then dashes away to try one he declares “not bad”, until at last he finds a piano he proclaims the finest he has ever played, and this from a man who has undoubtedly played hundreds of the finest pianos in the world.

My favorite scenes in the movie are when we get to watch Seymour giving private lessons and master classes, all of his students accomplished pianists. Again and again, we hear these pianists play parts of pieces that sound wonderful, and then we watch Seymour adroitly help them noticeably improve their playing of the part, either by explaining the music to them in a way they have not considered, by demonstrating what he wants them to do by playing for them, or by physically taking hold of them and altering their postures as they play. And everything he does and says is freighted with love for the music and for the musicians. Inspiring!

Hawke decided to film a number of conversations Seymour has with a variety of people: two pianists, a British guy claiming to be a mystic, and a man in his fifties who has been Seymour’s student since he was five-years-old. The self-proclaimed mystic struck me as entirely superfluous to the film, and I had the feeling Seymour thought so, too. The two pianists are useful echoes to some of Seymour’s ideas about practicing and self-discipline, and his middle-aged student poses a question that made me want to smack the guy, but Seymour handles the question with equanimity.

The guy, peeved that Seymour gave up performing when he was fifty, says (and I paraphrase), “Don’t you think someone with your extraordinary talent has an obligation to overcome his aversion to performing in order to give your gift to the world?”

Seymour’s answer is, “I poured my gift into you.”

And really a large point of the movie, and apparently the main reason Ethan Hawke wanted to make this film, is that Seymour is indivisible from his art, and this indivisibility is what he models for his students. Seymour’s bliss, if you will, springs from helping others become the best musicians they can be, regardless of their level of talent or whether they will ever perform for anyone other than themselves.

In his youth, Seymour did concert tours and wowed the critics, but none of that for him compares to the joy he feels in exploring music on his own terms, including composing, and helping others overcome their obstacles to playing better.

At one point, Hawke is shown trying to elucidate why he feels so conflicted about himself as an artist and a person. He says his best work as an actor is often not successful, and his largest successes, in terms of money, are his worst work. Seymour, who has lived in the same little one-room apartment for sixty years, suggests by everything he does and says that the solution to Hawke’s problem is to stop making crappy movies and make good movies instead. In making Seymour: An Introduction, Hawke has certainly taken Seymour’s advice.

It may also be, that like Seymour, Ethan will eventually discover his greatest gift when he ceases to take roles to make big money and gives his all to the art of acting, perhaps as a teacher.