27 February 2010

"The Ghost Writer" ... New England Noir



There are a couple of suspense films out right now, both set on New England islands. New England Noir, if you will. You have Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island (which is sitting atop the box office two weeks running), and Roman Polanski's The Ghost Writer. Both are said to be in the vein of that great director Alfred Hitchcock, and both are quite good.

For my tastes, though, Shutter Island (Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo and Emily Mortimer), is a bit too on the nose somehow, and as one would suspect, Marty’s efforts (may I call him Marty?) are more graphic. Shutter Island is set inside an insane asylum which isn't exactly the typical location of a Hitchcock film, though he did enjoy prodding the breadth and depths of madness with his sharp cinematic stick seemingly at will. Though I enjoyed the by-the-numbers Shutter Island, Ghost Writer, for my money, is the better bet if you're up for seeing a good suspense/whodunnit feature this weekend.

Ghost Writer is a taut political thriller to be sure, with some ripe filmmaking Freudian projections that anyone with a mere passing knowledge of what has been in the news regarding director Roman Polanski, former British prime minister Tony Blair, and several of those in Bush 43's administration will recognize.

The film opens with Ewan McGregor brought in to replace his predeceased predecessor whose body has washed ashore like some Nicholas Sparks message in a bottle. McGregor’s “Ghost” in effect becomes the ghost of the PM’s first ghost writer (just in case, a ghost writer is the real writer behind the scenes of many political first-person narratives). But, will he himself survive his new gig?

The recently retired prime minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan) finds himself embroiled in a realpolitik showdown as The Hague begins investigating Blair, er, Lang, for allegedly ordering the water boarding of terrorists causing one of their deaths. As a result of this newly discovered political hot potato, an international commission investigation begins, in effect stranding the PM in the States. He cannot return to his country without facing a potential trial and conviction for “war crimes” (*much like an alleged rapist of drunken 13 yr-olds in Jack Nicholson’s hot tub – asterisks can be a nasty lot). He and his wife and their entourage of apparatchiks are holed-up in a post-modern Cape Cod manse owned by Lang's publisher, conveniently situated for New England Noir along a foreboding and eternally windswept Massachusetts strand of beach. The film is a moody piece throughout, with solid acting that keeps you guessing who could be behind the recent and suspicious death of the prime minister's ghost writer.

Hyper-attentive press and their helicopters, protesters animated with a rage against the machine hatred of the PM, mysterious men in shadows who are no doubt ill-intentioned, and the pressure on McGregor's character (who is simply credited as “The Ghost” at film’s end) to finish the tome within a month by his publisher, all drive the pacing of Ghost Writer. Kim Cattrall (Sex and the City), Olivia Williams (Rushmore) are the women in PM Adam Lang’s life. Kim is his aide-de-camp (and mistress), and Ms. Williams is the icy wife Ruth (Hillary Clintonesque), who is the real brains and political passion behind Lang’s conservative years at No. 10 Downing. Tom Wilkinson does a solid turn here as well as a former acquaintance from Oxford undergrad years and current Harvard professor.

The women in Ghost Writer are all strong. And, that’s perhaps Polanski’s greatest homage to the rotund director, Lord Alfred. Hitchcock routinely populated his films with strong women, including loyal housekeepers who have rung a German neck or two in their day (To Catch a Thief), or fired shots from a 9mm handgun at good guy trespassers (North by Northwest). Likewise, the Lang’s have a stout and steely housekeeper who is happy to make a sandwich or change the sheets, but never without a sideways glance, like a viper would its prey before a rapid strike of the Carotid artery. Ruth Lang is equally strong, and as a pragmatist, understands the value of political expediency. She hates the presence of Lang’s mistress, but allows it because her husband needs and values her. Which leads me to our protagonist; would that he were as strong (and smart) as the women of Ghost Writer. McGregor's character is obviously a fairly smart guy, but like in any good Hitchcock film, he's too trusting. We see in "the ghost" a man similar to Jimmy Stewart in The Man Who Knew Too Much or Jimmy again in Rear Window. He's smart enough to figure and decipher the mystery before him (and us) as he goes, but ask yourself, Dear Reader, if you see this fine film, would you make the same choices McGregor's Ghost does. I think not.

The layers of this film are many, and in the very beginning of the film when McGregor’s character is hired by the publisher, he and his editor walk to the London street below. He doesn’t know what it is, but there is something "not quite right," says the editor putting lean finger upon pensive lips as McGregor runs into the street hailing a cab. The ending of The Ghost Writer is shot exactly from this same spot, confirming our highly skilled book editor’s innate sense of wrongness with what little he’s been given to read. In life, as in this film, we often come full circle, our political and personal realities come back to face us like a wayward book flap that won't keep our place. Polanski now knows this all too well, and after a day or two of thinking on this fine film, I have seen that the director that touched me so deeply with Chinatown, is once again at the top of his directing game.


24 February 2010

Mountain Tops and Malibu Canyon


We’ve all had those wonderful moments of being away from home and literally finding ourselves encamped in some (fairly) remote mountain top respite where neither work nor ex-spouses, bill collectors or pressures from law school, can intrude upon our time, sanity, and personal space. It’s being in that new (or familiar) place overlooking the valley of the shadow of stress that allows one to recharge the ole battery and gray cells and to rethink the current (or lack of) direction of our lives. Sometimes we’re ensconced in a luxury pied a terre, and other times it’s the cozy quarters of a 2-person tent. Sometimes God takes us there, (“Er, Moses, let’s you and I have a chat”) and sometimes we find the nearest peak and climb to its apogee because, like Sir Edmund Hillary (woops!) George Mallory said, “it's there,” sitting in the midst of our vista, and we thought, “sod it all; I’ll have that finished before my afternoon cuppa.”

The mountain top experience offers a new perspective to those now ant-like problems (and people and cars) waaaaay down below. We can look at those pressures and problems anew, with a step-back, one-two-cha-cha move that gives us a new rhythm and quick step to looking at nagging problems or problem people who nag. With renewed vigor we make those tough decisions about leaving certain relationships behind and move onward toward tomorrow where each day is no longer filled with the same fights over the same issues. With fresh ideas from that great new book we finished in Lake Tahoe we attack work with the giddiness of a new-hire out of grad school. The mountain top is a good place (I’ve never had a bad experience above 5,000 ft -- unless of course you count a Southwest Airlines cattle car 3-stop at 35,000 ft.) and the mountain-top experience is usually a good thing.

Some mountain top experiences do stink, however. When I was a 9-yr old kid, I can remember Marlon Brando coming to my neighborhood to give away a large parcel of land to a local American Indian tribe. I hiked/pushed my bike around the rim of the canyon that over looked our housing development in the Santa Monica Mountains and from my lofty perch spied the news vans that drove from the freeway off ramp -- waaaaay over on the other side of the canyon -- as they meandered through the tract to finally line up with the other news wagons and vans replete with all sorts of cameramen and news guys and gals pulling on garish gold and brash blue jackets (the ones with 7’s or 4’s or 2’s on lapels indicating station and channel no.). After a quick check of a mirror hung on an open van door inspecting hair, teeth, and lipstick application, they were preening for the “important” news conference where Mr. Marlon Brando was announcing his “gift” to the American Indians.

In the crowd, if memory serves, were Robert Blake and also Iron Eyes Cody who did some commercials with a tear running down his cheek, crying over the horrible white people trashing “his” America. Even as a child I saw the hokum of this sort of PSA, though to this day I have a visceral reaction whenever I see anyone throw trash out a car window (especially a moving vehicle, where trash lands atop tasseled moccasins). In the 1940s, thirty years before and one mile away, Iron Eyes Cody was at another ceremony, where a Polish immigrant constructed a rather large, 10-ton cement statue sitting atop “Mt. Estrella” (which was actually a smallish rocky hill, a crag really), sculpted with flowing headdress. To this day, the statue of “Chief White Eagle” stands overlooking the 101 freeway (which was just a 2-laner back then). I wonder if ole Iron Eyes had any reservations about that ceremony as well? Either way, his hand and foot imprints are said to be at the base of the mini monument. I haven't been up there in 20 years, but I'll climb up there with my sons to confirm.

Back to Brando. Turns out that Marlon was actually unloading a crappy piece of land, that was for the most part, undevelopable as it had a mortgage of several hundred thousand dollars, plus there were some back taxes owed as well. Knowing the reputation of Brando, I have no doubt that he figured he’d give the land away, land some nice national pub for his efforts, and then let the banks and/or tax authorities try to take legal action against the tribes. Talk about your real definition of Indian giver; Brando embodied the ultimate tool who decided to hang an albatross around the necks of our native peoples with an indebted real property imbroglio. Jackass says “what?” “What?” That’s what I thought, Marlon.
Some mountain top experiences are long overdue; about a century overdue. Not far from the Brando fiasco, stands the formerly named “Old Negro Mountain.” This week the LA Times reported the mountain has been renamed in honor of the man who settled there in the late 1800’s, from whence it’s racial slur nickname was derived. Mr. Ballard, a former slave, first came to Los Angeles in the mid-1800s after getting his freedom from the Commonwealth of Kentucky. After successfully setting up a business and working in L.A., he finally settled in the Agoura area, and he and his daughter homesteaded two fairly large contiguous parcels of land. These weren’t Spanish Land Grants, mind you. But, to have a 2,000 foot mountain named after you is pretty cool, nonetheless. His descendants, some of whom were in their 80’s, made the trek out to the Seminole Hot Springs area in Agoura and participated in a ceremony that saw this mountain renamed to Ballard Mountain.

There are two main canyon roads that lead down to the Pacific Ocean and each have tunnels. Ballard Mountain is located right near the first tunnel off of Kanan Rd. On the first tunnel on Malibu Canyon is the former home to another local legend: "the Pink Lady." She was painted by a female artist above the entrance to the tunnel, and for a few days her naked visage caused traffic jams on Malibu Canyon road the likes of which haven’t been seen since. She was eventually painted over by the county, and even today there is still a pink hue atop that tunnel reminding us of her birthday suit strut.

"The Pink Lady" and John Ballard. Marlon Brando and 10-ton “Chief White Eagle” (they are sometimes confused one for the other). These the few colorful individuals that make up part of the history of a sleepy little burb nestled in the Santa Monica Mountains near some canyon leading to Malibu. Bonus points if you visit the area and can find two of the three, Dear Reader.

14 February 2010

I Loathe Valentine's Day


To be honest, I am a loather of Valentine's Day. I've never been fond of the commercial contrivance that it represents (damn you, Hallmark!). But, I do love love, dear friend. With your kind indulgence, a few random thoughts on the various iterations of amore:
  • I love a good suit, well-made, and not ill-fitting. Nothing like a good suit. Makes one feel good. Solid. Confident. Yup, the sartorial side of me loves a good suit.
  • Of course, I love my sons (gawd, I love those kids), and my parents who are approaching 80, and I especially love my brothers (all six of 'em) and the friends I am blessed to have. I am a lover, when I'm not being a jerk.
  • Romantic love: I guess you could say it's the first thought that popped into the first person's dumbstruck mind on our planet when he saw the second person on this big blue ball (who just happened to be a woman) sashaying toward him: "Oh, there you are ... and look at you!" It's a perfect joining of two halved people who didn't know they weren't whole. Once complete it sure is tough to be without this thing called love. Can I get a witness?!
  • Love of puppies and kittens is great until they grow into big stinky fur balls leaving messes for us (their humans) to clean up. But then puppy love becomes love of big lovable dogs and cats that greet us at the door, and lick our faces and sleep on our pillows (and our heads), and patrol the rooms of our children and our backyards looking for unwanted interlopers or scraps from the day's BBQ. You know this love is real when these furry family members leave us after 3 or 7 or 16 years, and all that's left is a big hole where only unconditional love for us once sat on a doorstep sleeping that wonderful afternoon nap until it heard us driving up the street, setting its tail wagging once again. This is a shout-out to all my bitches, like, "Patch," and "Punkin", and rapscallions "Mr. Beeb" and "R.D."
  • Love of music is, well, it's the soundtrack of our lives. Name a tune from the last 10 or 30 years and it makes you feel exactly what you were feeling once upon a disco or hip-hop or jazz time. Music rocks our lives and gives us a push when we're driving home at night. It helps us clean the house on Saturday morning, and it makes baking cookies in the winter all the more enjoyable when Ella sings "Oh, the weather outside is frightful" for me with that certain swing. Music sets a mood with a certain lighting and a certain couch or back seat and a caress and a nibble. No wonder our parents' parents hated rock-n-roll or R&B or northern soul. Hearing losses be damned, music makes life better. I SAID, ...!
  • Love is: driving your own car to follow your girlfriend in her car to make sure she makes it all the way back home safe and sound at 2am.
  • Love is: giving your daughter your ice cream cone (the one you reallllllly wanted) after she dropped hers on the sand at the beach. I witnessed this first-hand recently. Very sweet. And, soon tears and boogies and a messy face were all cleaned up and chubby little hands were once again holding that frozen goodness that makes all babies cry for more when it's all gone.
  • Love is: giving in to the temptation to falling in love again. And, again.
  • I love a great film, the kind of film that surprises you, and makes you hold the hand of the person you're with 'cuz you're just all of a sudden happy. Er, sorry about that, Bob and Joel.
  • And, don't get me started on books. Man, I loves me some books. But, you know what I love even more than a great book. I love the fact that (apologies to Strunk and White) both of my boys love to read. It is an absolute joy to behold my sons lugging around a copy of whatever in the car, or to church, or to their uncle's, just tearing up page after page of their latest wonderment.
As Louis Armstrong opined long ago, what a wonderful world we live in. Don't you think, even when things are total bollocks, this life gives us a terrific place to find something to love. Everyday is a good day, indeed, to remind us to appreciate the agape-ness of it all.


13 February 2010

"Great kid, don't get cocky!"


"Great kid, don't get cocky!" These the hard-earned, oh-so-wise words of Han Solo shouted down a transfer tube to Luke Skywalker in Star Wars. Don't. Get. Cocky. Indeed. Han Solo had seen a thing or two in his day, and knew that when people gloat about a nice kill shot (as Luke had just fired off at an enemy ship), they tend get taught a lesson fairly quickly. It's a He who lives by the laser canon, shall likewise incinerate by the laser canon sort of thing.

We all know that "pride cometh before the fall." I think of the many wives or husbands who have looked down their noses at their fellow man (or woman) who were suffering the cuckold curse of marital betrayal, snickering with their friends over lunch or drinks ("Oh! Did you hear that Shelby's husband Rick was seen hoofing the walk-of-shame at 6am from her esthetician's condo?") only to walk in one afternoon to discover their own husband in high heels and white nursing hose bent over an ironing board with some tall blonde semi-nude, jackbooted Swede male-model whipping him with various kitchen utensils whilst their Pomeranian runs around in circles beneath yapping up a storm (wearing a doggie sweater that says, "little bitch"). This is what I'm talking about.

How many times do we catch ourselves thinking we're "all that"? Probably not enough times, I'll venture. I mean we're all of us in the gutter as Mr. Wilde says, and we need to remember that more often. Just this week I had an investor fly into L.A. for discussions to finalize a business relationship we've been discussing since I started a new company a few months ago. He'd like to put some money into this business and jump into the fray to help it grow -- all of which is great and terrific, and very much needed.

You might find this interesting, Dear Reader, that this investor was in fact once-upon-a-time my boss at a firm I worked for out of Austin, Texas. We were both down-sized along with about 21 others in 2009. And, now 9 months later, he is coming to work for me (actually, I just liked writing that, but not really. We'll be partners, and I can't even begin to tell you how much value he'll add to this company!). Sometimes it seems that when God closes a door, He throws you out the window. This is what I like to call "divine defenestration." And, that's what it felt like to me, and several others I am very close to during 2009. Free-falling with no net and mother earth fast approaching; and her arms are not outstretched to catch you. Tough times when you're out of work -- as many of you know personally -- and yet still have so very many payments to make ... and yet you can't.

I keep thinking to myself, "don't get cocky, kid!" and I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop, for the bubble of good news and wonderful possibilities to pop. So, on a day when I waited for Dan Aykroyd's dad to cross the parking lot (with Dan watching concerned and waiting nearby), several of us went out to dinner at a hip little joint on Sunset in Beverly Hills (our new partner's treat, thank gawd), and we continued discussing the real value of this business.

The consultant that I invited to join us gave some very blunt opinions about what is the sine qua non or the essence of our business. Granted these were merely his opinions, but I invited him to join us because I valued his expertise and candor, and I received both for my troubles. I was a bit overwhelmed, but kept my cool throughout. We had, well, we had several drinks to lubricate the talks and then appetizers and dinner (including more drinks -- this was business after all) and heated conversations that lasted for 5 hours. Enough time for me to occasionally spy Oscar-winning Martin Landau enjoy his French cuisine curbside each time I went outside to take a deep breath and chat up the lovely British hostess that had befriended me earlier. Did I tell you I like to multi-task? Or is that my ADHD kicking in? Anyway, wait, what?

Oh, yeah, "don't get cocky!" is now my mantra. I am the antithesis of cocky. I am ... I am the embodiment of flaccidity. Keep moving! Nothing arrogant to see here! Proverbs says "Humility and fear of the Lord bring wealth and honor and life." That's exactly what I want: to stay humble and try to do good. I'll take whatever comes after that as a blessing!

After all was said and done over a few intense days of meetings, we're moving forward to correct the (turns out) minor glitch and are still heading toward our new business with fresh ideas and (very soon) an infusion of cash to get this thing really off the ground. Keep ya posted, Dear Readers. It appears I'm attempting one more business fraught with the perils of failing, and am reminded of Jules Renard's spot-on quote:

"Failure is not the only punishment for failure; there is also the success of others."

Fate favors the bold, y'all. Here goes!

06 February 2010

finger on the button ... thank you.

One year ago today I sent out -- to a few dozen friends -- the first email regarding FatScribe.com. I had published a few placeholder "thoughts" in January, but my first "hey, look at me!" guerrilla style, viral marketing (i.e., emails to friends) began twelve months ago. I was asking if anyone else wanted to publish/post/present some of their writings to the public in general as I was about to do.

Blogging for me was literally only for one reason: to see if I could still write (it had been about 10 years since grad school). FatScribe gave me the venue to have some fun, and to use some of the skills I honed in business consulting and starting LuxeMont.com, to just write and to vent and to gauge how far-gone my love for putting words on a page had atrophied.

FatScribe was and is simply a place to hone some very worn writing skills -- if they ever existed. So, one year later, and I must confess that like many other bloggers, I have frequently considered the nuclear option: flipping the red cap (the one that reads, "Do Not Push Unless You Have Thought This Out Long and Hard") and mashing the red button beneath to delete all articles published herein. I mean, if we're being truthful here, some of this stuff has just been pretty lame and awful and full of me-me-me's. But, if we're still having an Oprah moment, you and I on this white leather couch of FatScribe, some of it was decent, and many of the Dear Readers who came along for the ride with me, were gracious to say so. I even had one or two conversations (actually three or four) with "real" publishers who were interested in my work.

So ... I'm still going to publish an article or two on specific newsworthy events, just to add my two-cents a couple of times each month. But most of my efforts (the ones that take place from 9pm to 1am) will be to actually publish the novella I've been working on for Crookshank as a gift for my boys (pictured above in younger days). I'm polishing it up now, and will keep you posted if something happens with it in 2010!

One year of FatScribe was fun, and time flew, and frankly, it was fun to see almost a hundred countries and over a thousand cities visit the ole porkster. I still don't know why they did. It has been great getting to know the dozens of other bloggers that I've exchanged emails with and encouragement, and even a few disappointments and life-changing, heart-breaking events. You guys are so talented, that it was actually depressing to see how bad my "stuff" was compared to how good yours is. The blogosphere has shown me one thing: there are VERY good writers and creative, talented professionals from all walks of life, and we are ALL better for these efforts. For their sharing their dreams, and avocations, and their bleats about liberal lunacy and conservative creepiness. For the fashionistas showing off their wares and their design inspirations. For the future real estate moguls posting pictorals with page-turning narratives attached. Even the blogs that focus on their kids and trips to the country store never cease to make one smile, or one blog that snaps photos of their feet whether at the beach or at the club or in the shower. If FatScribe has added one bit of value to the overall enjoyment that we all share each morning or late at night when surfing the Net, then I'm glad I invested 365 days toward this project, even if I never posted a single photo of my feet in a shower.

"Pleasant words are a honeycomb,
sweet to the soul and healing to the bones."
-- Proverbs 16:24

God bless y'all. And, remember, if you have something to say or write, and don't, intellectual obesity sets in. Don't be a fatscribe! Writers, write. Now, go write some sweet words, and start your own 365 day me-me-me journey. You never know, you might discover you're as good as the likes of these blogs listed to the right --> Scroll through some of them to be inspired ... ;)

Jg.

04 February 2010

but two wishes ...


if i had but two wishes, i would give them to you, my two sons, my lovely boys.

would that you'd think of me, when i'm gone and with our good God, and you're sitting on your giant wrap-around porch in some southern clime, with your brood in the yard playing their favorite games, with voices rising sweetly toward sunset.

and when you feel a warm summer breeze on your faces, would that you'd think fondly of fat, squishy, bald dad and turn to give your little ones your wishes -- a baton of blessing -- golden wishes that see the best in everything, and forgive easily, and work hard for good things for family, friends, and those in need as our faith dictates.

if i had but two wishes, i wouldn't have to wish because i already have them in you, my boys.