In A World Distracted

I was told there would be snacks.
I was told there would be snacks.

Yes, I watched the Super Bowl. No, I don’t care about football.

But I am continually amazed by the peculiarities of my species, and those are on display with extra sprinkles during our nation’s annual rite of roughhousing. Love it or hate it, football is entrenched in our culture, almost as deeply as the beer and cars and snack food whose ads support the whole ritual.

And, I admit, I enjoy critiquing the Super Bowl ads at least as much as I enjoy watching the game. I mean, breathes there a soul so dead that never involuntarily said “aww!” at the first sight of those Budweiser ads with the puppy and the Clydesdale? Come on! Puppies! Clydesdales! United in their appreciation for American beer, even if that company is now owned by a Belgian-Brazilian corporation. It’s still our beer, right?

Well, beer aside, the Super Bowl is over, and now we have to face the rest of February with only Mardi Gras, Valentines day, and the Olympics to distract us from the tiresome work of reality. In Washington, D.C., people pay a lot of attention to the news. And a lot of people in this city are actively involved in trying to change and/or improve the way things work in this country and the rest of the world. There’s always room for improvement. But it’s never as simple as one might hope, it’s rarely easy, and often slow to manifest.

That slowness represents a challenge for us humans. We all want instant results. Lose weight fast. Get rich quick. Dominate the market today.

Yet there’s an upside to a slower process that allows for adjustments, refinements, and perhaps a closer brush with perfection. It’s hard to stay focused on one goal persistently, day after day, week after week. Everyone needs a break from time to time. Thus, some watch football. Others prefer the Kitten Bowl, or the Puppy Bowl.

In a world where the problems sometimes seem too large to manage and the people in charge appear unequal to the task, it’s important not to lose hope. When my spirit sags I turn to movies. This past weekend I watched “In A World,” Lake Bell’s brilliant and funny film about the curious business of voice-overs. The film has a lot to say about ambition, gender issues and perception, but most of all it challenges the notion that we are all stuck “in a world” where things can’t be changed. Bell makes it clear that even when the game is rigged and the odds are stacked against you, you can change the game.

As Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson said in his interview after the Super Bowl, his father always encouraged him to follow his dreams even though they seemed out of reach, saying, “You have the ability…so why not you?”

In a world where the Seattle Seahawks can defeat Peyton Manning and the Broncos, it feels like anything can happen.

Just Rewards

Red carpet royalty.
Red carpet royalty.

I never plan to watch these things. But there I was on Sunday night, sucked into the Golden Globe awards before Tina Fey cracked the first joke.

I’d like to think I was immune to the siren spell of glamorous people in their glamorous outfits with their carefully styled hair and state of the art make-up. Yet when the stars shine, I’m dazzled.

But much as I love watching movies and surrendering my disbelief for a few hours every now and then, the sheer number of entertainment award shows is, to borrow a showbiz term, colossal. Remember when it was just the Academy Awards? One night of the year when movie buffs and cinema snobs could cheer for their faves, and grumble about the injustice of the system? The movies were in their golden youth back in 1929 when the first Academy Awards were handed out. By the time the event was first televised in 1953, it had grown far beyond its humble origins. And its success as a commercial entertainment has inspired a worldwide genre.

In this era of global coverage, I bet you could find an award show to watch almost every week of the year. France, Britain, Australia, Japan, and countless other countries have their own award shows. And then there are the Emmys, Tonys, Grammys, etc. In fact, with so many award shows, and so many memorable moments in each one, doesn’t it seem inevitable that we should have an award show for the best of the award shows?

I can see it now: the categories would include Most Convincing Show of Genuine Emotion for winning an “unexpected” award, Most Thrilling Dress, Most Embarrassing Dress Mishap, Best Acceptance Speech, of course, Most Vindictive Acceptance Speech (Payback Is Hell category).

I would watch this show. I think most of us would be happy to nominate contenders. After all, every award program, from the lowliest local theatre gathering to the Academy Awards gala, is held together by magical filaments of glorious vanity dancing with brave ambition. Some crushed toes are inevitable.

We like to tell our children it’s not how you look that determines how the world will respond to you, that actions matter more than words, that truth is powerful. And these are noble ideas. But in the world of entertainment, you won’t go far if your clothes don’t flatter you. Or if you can’t remember your lines. Or if you tell it like it is to an audience that wants to hear the same soothing lies.

Movies are a remarkable medium. They can educate, enlighten, move and terrify us. Sometimes they can even change the way we see the world. But award shows are all alike. Beautiful people make jokes about each other. Everyone thanks their “team”, their directors, their agents, their families, and God, who, along with being a big sports fan, is apparently is a huge movie buff.

If there were an award for the most gullible I’d be right on there on the stage , clasping my little statuette, thanking all the kind fans who voted for me. But most of all I’d be wishing I were someplace else.

The Santa Particle

Inside, Santa's just a kid himself.
Inside, Santa’s just a kid himself.

If Santa is the answer, what is the question?

More to the point, how did this man in the red suit gain such stature in our collective consciousness? Oh sure, he’s a father figure, a giver, a jolly old soul and all that. But does that explain how Old Saint Nick became so entrenched in our cultural cosmos?

I sometimes wonder if the modern Santa fixation goes back to Pepsi and Coke, our rival libations, who both used Santa’s image and beloved persona to persuade millions of folks that drinking limitless soda was integral to holiday festivity. The Claus the refreshes.

Yet the way the notion of Santa and his whole North Pole crew has percolated through winter traditions suggests that the character resonates with people of all ages, not just children. If anything, I suspect most children start out with a healthy skepticism regarding this old guy and his bag of toys who sneaks into the house and eats your cookies while you’re sleeping. But well-meaning parents (self included) encourage small children to believe in all sorts of impossible ideas – mice that talk, pumpkins that transform into gilded chariots, fairies that live under mushrooms, etc.. I’m not saying those things might not be true in some way, somewhere, but I used to feel a tad irresponsible when I was trying to maintain the Santa charade. I mean, belief is powerful, but if you teach kids one thing and then a few years later say, ‘oh, yeah, about that? Just kidding’, you may inadvertently cast a shadow of doubt that lingers long.

Yet there’s no denying the appeal of the Santa concept. The notion of a selfless soul whose sole purpose is to bring joy to others is deeply attractive. If there isn’t a Santa Claus, why not? And if there is such a person, wouldn’t it be great if each of us shared some of that joy-bringing elfness?

This message powers many of the most enduring Christmas films. Not only the relentlessly aired “It’s A Wonderful Life” and “Miracle on 34th Street,” but some of the more recent yet equally effective holiday films such as “Scrooged” and “Elf.”

Children who learn early that giving is as much, if not more fun than receiving, can grow up with an appreciation for what it is not just to “see” Santa.  In time they may come to treasure the experience of “being” Santa.

And yes, Virginia, I do believe there’s a little particle of Santa in each of us, just waiting to accelerate.

Mind Games

Get a clue.
Get a clue.

What do flightless birds and shy nerds have in common?

Both soar freely in the abstract realm that is crossword puzzledom.

Yes, I know, puzzledom is not an actual word, although if it were you could score a gazillion points with it in a game of Scrabble. But in crosswords points are not the point. Each puzzle is a unique mystery, or rather, a collection of small mysteries bound together in a two-dimensional grid. Not exactly a concept that sings like a winning contestant on “The Voice.” Yet, from its modest, unsung beginning as a novelty item in a December 1913 edition of the New York World, the crossword puzzle has hummed its way into the heart of our culture, converting skeptics from all walks of life.

In this past Sunday’s The Washington Post, crossword puzzle guru Merl Reagle wrote a fascinating article about the inventor of the crossword puzzle, Arthur Wynne, and how his clever idea stormed the country while not earning him a dime. In honor of the enduring popularity of crossword puzzles, the Post is sponsoring a special 100th anniversary contest which features four linked crossword puzzles and some other nifty surprises. The winner will get a thousand dollars, a sum which might inspire even scoffers of the humble word puzzles.

I admit, there was a time when I viewed crosswords as a waste of time, an occupation fit only for those who had nothing better to do. How little I knew. I learned a bit about the mania that crossword puzzle enthusiasts share from watching “Wordplay,” a funny, enlightening 2006 documentary film directed by Patrick Creadon. It features Will Shortz, editor of The New York Times crossword puzzle, Merl Reagle, Jon Stewart, Bill Clinton, Ken Burns and other notable puzzle enthusiasts. After watching that film I decided to give crosswords a try.

I was also motivated in part by the sort of quiet dread of, you know, losing my mind. When it runs in your family, you start to grip the wheel a little tighter as you approach the curves in the road. So, although I was raised to consider doing crossword puzzles a waste of time, I read scientific articles documenting evidence suggesting that mental acuity, like muscle tone, improves with regular exercise. And a crossword puzzle is nothing if not an exercise in cogitation: a ten letter word that means thinking.

Of course, not all thinking is productive or constructive, but thoughtless action is unreliable in most situations, unless you are a Zen monk. I mean, sure, we can all learn something by trying to figure out “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” But in my life I seem to be confronted more often with questions where the answers are true or false, multiple choice, or none of the above.

The beauty of the questions in a crossword puzzle is that there is always a correct solution. And, if you can’t figure it out, there’s a new puzzle the next day, or the next week. This system offers a soothing contrast to the baffling hydra-headed conundrums of modern life.

So if, like me, you find that neither yoga, nor meditation, nor even kick-boxing delivers the relief you seek from the stress of modern times, you could do worse than to pick up a crossword puzzle and give it a go. Just remember, all emus are flightless birds, but not all flightless birds are emus.

Check Mate

Ain't nothin' like the real thing.
Ain’t nothin’ like the real thing.

In the early 1980’s, when we got our first tiny little desktop computer and my husband wanted to put it in our bedroom, I remember feeling strangely disconcerted. For some reason it struck me as a violation of my personal space. I had no idea.

Back then,  computers were still the stuff of geeks. Ordinary people had little truck with them. Now, of course, even trucks have onboard computers.

But for the generations which have grown up since the 90’s it must be hard to fathom how slowly things happened in the olden, golden days of, say, 1984. Hah. Orwell was close, but no cigar.

Last weekend I watched a quietly droll mockumentary called “Computer Chess” which evokes those awkward yet exciting years in the early ’80s when computers still seemed only dorky tools for the scientifically minded. It didn’t help that most computers then were the size of small refrigerators.

In director Andrew Bujalski’s cleverly understated indie black and white film, released this year, the plot centers around a small gathering of computer engineers in the then-new field of artificial intelligence who compete to see which of them has designed the best chess-playing computer program.

The tone and style of the film mimics a primitive home movie. There are moments of humor, and even suspense of a sort, but the dominant keynote is weirdness, and not simply the “oh aren’t nerds funny” type of easy target humor we’ve grown accustomed to seeing on shows like “Big Bang Theory” (and trust me, I am a fan). Rather, the film sustains a bizarre yet absorbing mood, as if Jim Jarmusch and Neil Gaiman had sketched out a plot together on a napkin in some dark after-hours cafe.

I found it entertaining and thought-provoking, in spite of its somewhat sinister undertones. Kind of the way I feel about computers now.

In fact, when I think back to my initial uneasiness about sharing my bedroom with that sleek little desktop all those years ago, I realize that, in dramatic terms, that sly seductress was no Mac. She was Maxine, a rival in tech clothing, and way too smart for me.

If Music Be The Food of Love…

The official poster hints at the madcap tone of Joss Whedon's film.
The official poster hints at the madcap tone of Joss Whedon’s film.

Play on.

When Shakespeare wrote that line for Count Orsino in Twelfth Night, it was meant to suggest a strategy for ending, rather than prolonging, the pain that love can sometimes cause. Frustrated by his inability to win the love of the bewitching Olivia, Orsino thought to make himself sick of love by feasting to excess on sappy love songs.

Of course, it didn’t work out as he’d planned. That’s the thing about love. Planning rarely helps.

But when it comes to producing Shakespeare’s works, brilliant planning certainly pays, as is evident in last year’s delightful film version of Much Ado About Nothing by director Joss Whedon.

Whedon assembled a cast of veteran actors, most of whom have worked with him on one or more of his earlier successes (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly, The Avengers).  He shot the film in black and white, in less than two weeks, on a miniscule budget. He saved money by using his own home as the set. And he wrote all the music for the film, adding lyrics by William Shakespeare. The result is astonishing.

To my mind Shakespeare is the literary equivalent of Paris. Ideally, everyone should experience it at least once. Even if you don’t understand the language, you can figure out what’s going on.

Sophisticated and modern, yet timelessly classic, Whedon’s Much Ado stands out from some other recent film versions of Shakespeare because Whedon didn’t attempt to dazzle with special effects or dumb down the language to attract the tweeting masses. He simply let the words carry the plot, which is driven by the age old engines of duplicity and desire.

Whedon is a master storyteller. So was Shakespeare. And together, they are really something.

Hook, Line and Thinker

At the salmon ladder at the Ballard Locks in Seattle a ranger explains the salmon life cycle. Photo by Bill Harper

Much as I admire Melville, I’ve never been passionate about fishing.

But I do think there’s something at once mystical and primal about the attempt to catch a creature you can’t quite see.

However, when I recently watched the film version of Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, I wasn’t motivated by any high-minded appreciation of the spiritual dimensions of the sport of fly fishing. I saw that Emily Blunt was in the cast. That was enough for me.

It didn’t hurt that Ewan McGregor was also in the film, playing a socially challenged Scottish fisheries expert. I went into it expecting a modestly entertaining film and was pleasantly surprised. I even learned a bit about salmon, a thing I wouldn’t have thought possible after my years in Seattle.

The somewhat far-fetched plot revolves around a project financed by a fabulously wealthy Yemeni sheikh whose dream it is to make salmon fishing possible in the Yemen.

If you are like me, your knowledge of the exact location of the Yemen is sketchy at best. But if you guess that it’s mostly hot and dry, that’s close enough to be getting on with the movie version. The film ripples along, bubbling smoothly over the bureaucratic and logistic hurdles of the proposed project, and casting a wry light on the cynical political posturing that goes on far from the salmon beds.

I enjoyed the movie so much that I promptly went out and read a copy of the novel by Paul Torday on which the film was loosely based. Operative word: loosely.

The first half of the novel is more or less faithfully followed in the screen version. Yet as the plot becomes more complex, and the shadows lengthen, the novel winds up with a significantly different outcome. Not altogether bad. But not the soft-focus, convenient dramatic turning point, uplifting emotional payoff that typifies the usual indie rom-com. Instead, the novel ends with an air of possibility. It’s like a Zen exercise in faith.

The charismatic Sheikh Muhammad whose philosophical conversation is reminiscent of the cryptic stylings of Yoda, remains the calm center in spite of  the gathering storm of media nonsense. Among the many truisms he utters is: “Without faith there is no hope and no love. Faith comes before hope, and before love.”

I thought about that one for a long time after I closed the book. I’d like to think that inside every devoted fisherman there is that element of faith that precedes love. But then, maybe that’s just the fisher in me dreaming of salmon in the desert.

Rounding the Curve

Got to keep your eyes on the ball, at all times.

I watched Trouble With the Curve over the weekend. The Nats were having a night off, but at this point in the season my mind is so tuned to the rhythm of baseball that I fill in the off-nights with something game-related. Thus the recent Clint Eastwood film came to the plate.

And I enjoyed it. It’s always nice to watch a story where things work out the way you want them. Where players don’t get left on base inning after inning. Where closers close. Where fluke bobbles and bad hops don’t turn what should have been a close game into a rout. But such is real baseball. Sometimes it’s painful to watch.

The love-suffer paradox of baseball is something every fan understands. Everyone loves to watch their team win. Only the true believers can stand to watch when the wheels fall off and the wagon hurtles towards the collision.

Such has been the story for much of the Nats season this year, a year that started out with understandably inflated hopes and perhaps more than the usual illusions of grandeur. After winning a National League East title last season, this year the Natitude was writ in bold print, with all the drama of prize fight hoopla. Yet now, with more than two-thirds of the season behind them, and the humbling list of injuries and missed opportunities still growing, the team is struggling to climb back to .500. A wild card would have to be pretty wild for them to qualify for the kind of thrilling post-season they gave us last year.

Last week, after a drubbing from the Mets, Bryce Harper delivered a public plea to his team to pull themselves together and play with “heart.” At 20 years of age, Harper is still so young. I wonder if he ever saw “Damn Yankees,” the classic musical in which a fan makes a Faustian deal with the devil in order to secure a winning season for his team, which, as it happens, was the Washington Senators. The song “Heart,” sung by the entire team to the young phenom Joe Brody, claims that talent and smarts are fine as far as they go, but without heart, no team can go all the way.

I would have loved to hear Bryce break into song. But that would have been a clown move. Not his style.

But I applaud him for trying to remind his team, including the managers and handlers, that all the talent in the world can only take a team so far. Luck and heart—or call it crazy determination if you like—is essential to get through the grueling 160-game season, the ups and downs, the curves and swerves.

Eastwood’s baseball movie has a simple, satisfying conclusion, but the plot also touches on serious issues such as aging, gender discrimination, ethnic prejudices and bias. It’s an old fashioned movie about values. It doesn’t rely on an overly dramatic sound track or special effects (though Amy Adams’ hair could qualify as a special effect—it has enough curve, curl and movement to confuse any hitter.)

But the point of the movie goes beyond baseball. Like a good pitch, life comes at you pretty fast, and your at-bat can be over in a blink. So it’s important to make the most of every moment. And to watch out for the curves, because soon enough we’re all headed round the bend. Enjoy the game while you can.

I think that’s what Bryce was trying to say.

Time Travels

We are all adrift, bound for unknown shores.

Of all the genres in all the fictional universe there’s only one that has never persuaded me to cast my doubts aside and surrender. Stories about time travel leave me cold.

So when I heard the buzz about the 2012 indie film “Safety Not Guaranteed” I remained skeptical, in spite of my admiration for its star, Aubrey Plaza, a girl with a million dollar scowl.

Plaza, whose deadpan sarcasm keeps the sitcom “Parks and Recreation” from succumbing to lethal sweetness, brings just the right blend of cynicism and vulnerability to “Safety Not Guaranteed.”  The plot begins with a lackluster Seattle reporter (Jake Johnson), who finagles a road trip with a couple of office interns, one of whom is Darius (Plaza), to investigate a curious classified ad seeking a willing participant in a time travel adventure “safety not guaranteed.”

I have to confess that one of the things that got under my skin about this film was the setting. It was shot in Ocean Shores, Washington, where the water is always too cold to swim, and the interface between reality and make-believe is a misty curtain easily shredded by the intrepid. The entire film has a kind of funky Seattle-esque vibe that reminded me of why I stayed there so long.

Through the actions of the three reporters, the film explores the uncertain terrain between belief and doubt. In other hands this kind of material could have devolved into slapstick or the kind of crude buddy routines that have become the substandard for directors aiming for blockbuster revenues, but director Colin Trevorrow keeps the film quick witted and light on its feet.

“Safety Not Guaranteed” is true to its title. This small budget film subverts expectations and draws you in. At least it drew me in. I still don’t give a damn about time travel—having drunk deeply from the Star Trek well, I know that no good can come from pulling at the loose threads of Time’s sweater. Yet no matter how we try to get on with our lives, we are all two-headed—always looking forward or looking back, and the tendency to wonder “what if?” is part of our DNA. It’s part of what makes us great, even while it has the potential destroy us.

As Kenneth, the seemingly crazy guy who placed the ad which sparks the story, Mark Duplass conveys that mesmerizing blend of genius and madness that is the hallmark of so many remarkable characters. Duplass has an off-beat style and edgy demeanor that come across as comic one minute and surprisingly affecting the next. The chemistry between him and Plaza is terrific.

Big Beach, the company which produced “Safety Not Guaranteed,” has been responsible for a number of exceptional independent films, including “Little Miss Sunshine” and “Sunshine Cleaning.” On the company’s website they describe their goal thusly: “Big Beach strives to create meaningful, life-affirming projects that inspire, engage and entertain.”

Mission accomplished.

I still have reservations about time travel, but I’m ready to book a ticket for the next film from Big Beach.

Not Like The Others

Hushpuppy adrift in a wild world of her own.

In my Sesame Street years, a brief window when my children were preschool age and we lived within range of a television signal, some things rooted in my memory. Among them was a regular feature on the show that revolved around the idea that “one of these things is not like the others.”

That’s a concept to which I can relate, having always felt a bit out of synch myself.

Last night, as I sat through the hours of predictable puffery and praise that fill most Oscar shows, I mused on the always curious mix of contenders for Best Film. I had seen only two of the nine, so I was in no position to judge their relative merits, but I had read and heard a lot about most of them, and I had a pretty good hunch about how the night would go.

My friends have been raving about “Lincoln,” and “Zero Dark Thirty.” “Les Mis,” and “Silver Linings Playbook” also seemed like sure bets. And, having read the “Life of Pi,” and being a great admirer of Ang Lee, I was prepared to see him holding an Oscar before the night was over. Eight of the nine contenders could be defined by genre: historical drama, magic realism, quirky romance, tear-jerking drama, over-the-top theatre musical.

But, while all the films nominated for Best Picture were admirable, I didn’t really care much about which of them won. I was certain that the one that had stolen my heart had no chance in hell of winning. In fact, it’s kind of a small miracle it got nominated at all.

The small miracle at the heart of “Beasts of the Southern Wild” is its six-year-old star, Quvenzhane Wallis. Hers is the enchanting voice that tells the tale, part folklore, part dystopian fantasy, of a little girl living on the edge of the Louisiana Bayou, a watery wasteland beloved by its recklessly independent community. The only love story in the film is that of the child and her father, who is wasting away from disease.

The forces of the modern world seem to be lined up against this small band of misfits, yet there is much joy and lyrical beauty and a kind of epic poetry in this film.

In the long history of the Oscars, from time to time something altogether “not like the others” finds its way into the final Best Picture list. This year it was “Beasts of the Southern Wild.”

It ain’t Sesame Street.