Monday, August 30, 2010

Meeting The Girl For The First Time

I fell in love with her long before I met her. I cannot tell you if it was from seeing her picture in a book, or my overall fascination with everything coming from the Dutch Golden Age, one of the richest periods in creative history. Or was it Tracy Chevalier’s masterfully crafted book, or the stunning performance of the Girl in the film? All I know is Johannes Vermeer’s painting of “The Girl With The Pearl Earring” became an obsession, something -- and someone -- I had to see for myself.

Fortunately for me, I have been able to travel to Holland several times on the cheap, due largely to my niece and nephew, who always open their home to us, saving us beau coups de bucks. They also are proud of their heritage and love only too well to play tourist along with their guests. Anything we want to see, they will do what they can to make it so.

On our first visit to Holland my mission was to see the Huygenshuis in Hofwijk, the summer home of Constantijn Huygens, arguably one of the most influential personalities pf the Seventeenth Century. His son, Christiaan Huygens, astronomer-scientist-mathematician-inventor, one of my all time heroes, spent his summers there. During that visit to Holland we also toured the fames Amsterdam Rijksmuseum, but “The Girl” hangs somewhere else.

On a later visit, we went to the museum where she lives. It is the Mauritshuis in Den Haag (the Hague), a beautiful Seventeenth Century three story mansion designed by Jacob van Campen, with its construction overseen by none other than Constantijn Huygens. The building now makes for an intimate museum, easily traversed in a few hours without rushing.

We walked from room to room, painting to painting, awed by the diversity of subjects and artists. We entered one large room and our eyes were immediately drawn to a painting on the wall opposite the door. The painting was not overly large, measuring about three by four feet, yet it dominated the wall. It was Vermeer’s “View of Delft.” Once again I was stunned by something I had witnessed before: even among several similar pieces, some stand out with a unique brilliance. Even before realizing it was a Vermeer, I recognized its status as a masterpiece just by looking at it.

But I wanted to see the Girl. I scanned the room, turning back toward the door through which I had entered. And there she was.

She hung in a space near the door that seemed to radiate with its own energy. A small platform rested in front of her so the viewer could step up for a close look. You could touch her -- she rested open and unprotected except for a museum guard positioned in the room. You could practically smell the paint, over three hundred fifty years old. I had never felt such intimacy with a work of art.

Vermeer is known for his sense of light playing against shadow, and for using a camera obscura to help capture the richness of detail his paintings convey. The camera obscura, an early precursor to photography, helped Vermeer create snapshots in oil of the life he knew and saw around him.

I was immediately struck by two things. The painting was small, at 17.5x15 inches much smaller than I had imagined. And yet it was larger than life. The Girl’s enigmatic expression reaches across three and a half centuries to beguile and haunt you with her simple beauty. Only the earring she wears shows any sign that she is an extraordinary person, which, socially, by all accounts available she clearly was not.

But to see her was to see someone as close to immortality as any of us will ever get.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Top 10 Intentionally Funniest Westerns

Great humor bends our perceptions and sets them on end. It can satirize a genre or enhance the base story line of a particular project, but it always serves to underscore deep truths, often indomitable ones, and to confront and conquer our fears. If Westerns are horse opera morality plays, then humor, done right, underlines the point. It is hard to make funny work, harder to make it last. The following films, in one way or another, succeed. Listed by year of release.

Destry Rides Again (1939), directed by George Marshall, is the earliest entry on my list by far. Jimmy Stewart plays Thomas Jefferson Destry, Jr., a brave deputy marshal who recoils at the idea of using a gun, preferring his wits to stop trouble. His town is controlled by evil saloon owner Brian Donlevy and his girl, Marlene Dietrich. Including one of the greatest and longest saloon brawls on film, this picture tweaks every convention popular in Western storytelling, yet provides a satisfying and inevitable finish.

Cat Ballou (1965), directed by Elliot Silverstein, finds a young woman trying to protect her father’s ranch from those who murdered him. To do so she hires a professional gunman, but what she gets is a terrible drunk -- and twin to the head bad guy! Lee Marvin plays both roles while Jane Fonda is Catherine, who becomes outlaw Cat Ballou. Marvin won an Oscar for his work, though he admitted a great debt to his horse.

Waterhole #3 (1967), directed by William A Graham -- who knew that robbery, rape and murder could be funny? In “The Magnificent Seven” James Coburn played a super cool, super quiet, ultra deadly gunman. He began playing against that type for laughs with this film, where everybody is out for themselves and the lines between right and wrong aren’t just blurred, they’ve been erased. As everyone hunts for a hidden cache of gold, Coburn seduces the comely daughter of the local sheriff, who is far from unwilling, but claims rape when he spurns her, in the end, what really matters is love, but getting there is hilarious. And a bit of gold doesn’t hurt. Or, as Roger Miller sings: “It’s the code of the West -- do into others before they do unto you.”

Paint Your Wagon (1969), directed by Joshua Logan, is a gender role challenging musical western starring Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood as the two men Jean Seberg loves. Marvin? Eastwood? Musical? ‘Nuff said. Still not convinced? Watch the sequence where all that undermining the town for easy gold dust just collapses on itself, or listen to Marvin sing “Wand’rin’ Star.”

Support Your Local Sheriff (1969), directed by Burt Kennedy, stars James Garner as (yet again) a clever and brave man pressed into service as a lawman to tame a town that literally sprang into existence overnight when one of its citizens discovered gold at a funeral. Immediately it becomes a wild and drunken mess. With a gang bent on controlling the town and townsfolk who are reluctant to support their sheriff, Garner and his reluctant deputy (an amazing Jack Elam) -- and the girl whose discovery started the whole thing -- have to face down the gang by themselves. They do it with a cannon, a great bluff, and sheer courage.

Cheyenne Social Club (1970), directed by Gene Kelly. Cowhand Jimmy Stewart inherits a piece of property. Henry Fonda rides all the way to Wyoming with him, for 1,000 miles, and never stops talking. That alone is funny, given that Stewart is the one known for protracted monologues and Fonda better for laconic observation. Once they get there these two relatively innocent cowboys find they have to run and protect a brothel full of heart-of-gold but very sexy women. A sweet, funny film.

Little Big Man (1970). Arthur Penn brilliantly brought Thomas Berger’s novel to the screen, with Dustin Hoffman incredible at portraying Jack Crabbe from a tender age to 212 years old. This film is hard to call a comedy because it is a very serious-minded film that relies on great humor to illustrate its story. Jack Crabbe is not a mover. He is a witness. He is our eyes on the beauty and humor of one culture facing extinction and on the brutality and dark humor of the culture bent on replacing the first. Even so, his mere presence alters the paths of others.

Support Your Local Gunfighter (1971) reunites Burt Kennedy with James Garner and Jack Elam in a very different but equally funny story. This time Garner is a con man who passes Elam off as a vicious gunfighter while Garner tries to amass a fortune playing roulette.

Skin Game (1971), directed by Paul Bogart, is a brilliant film about two con men, James Garner and Ossie Davis, who run a clever con in the 12857 border states. Davis pretends to be Garner’s slave, whom Garner sells. That night, Davis escapes or Garner breaks him free, and the two pocket the money and head to the next town. It gets complicated when one mark refuses to let go. The film relies on humor to challenge our perceptions and preconceptions about race, stereotypes, slavery and racism (then and now).

Blazing Saddles (1974). Many, including my wise brother-in-law David, believe that Mel Brooks’ raucous send-up of the standard single good guy against a mob of outlaws to save the town plot actually destroyed the Western as an American art form. Brooks left nowhere else to go. From having a clever, funny and handsome leading man who happened to be African American and wore a white hat (Clevon Little), to a gunfighter so fast you never see him draw (Gene Wilder) to beans around a campfire, to the crazy fistfight that crosses over into a Busby Berkley musical, Brooks pulled out all the stops. Throwing subtlety out the window, Brooks created arguably one of the funniest films of all time.

If anyone is keeping score, Jimmy Garner appears in three of the ten films, while Jack Elam, Jimmy Stewart and Lee Marvin appear in two each.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Westerns of the Sixties

And now for something in a different mood: How the Westerns of the 1960's reflected the changes in American culture during that turbulent decade:

In many ways, the 1960’s was the Decade of the Western. Some can argue that the 50’s or even the 40’s were the heyday of that typically American medium, while the 60’s saw the art form exported (the Spaghetti Westerns) and eventually depleted. After all, Westerns after the 1960’s became more and more rare, and after Mel Brooks’ “Blazing Saddles” (1974), with a few notable exceptions, virtually non-existent. Still, the Westerns of the 60’s were a pivotal part of the American scene, and reflected the changes that were going on within the country during that turbulent decade.

Five films apply demonstrate the shift. Through them we can see how the Western went from clean cut, Good versus Bad, white hat versus black hat, to deeper, more psychological gray areas, from “The Magnificent Seven” to “The Wild Bunch.” Along the way the heroes of the film went from being peace builders who killed because they had to, to war mongers who needed to kill.

“The Magnificent Seven” (1960), a reworking of “The Seven Samurai.” follows seven American mercenaries as they enter a foreign country (Mexico) in order to help the local population fight off a gang of outlaws. Although the characters are complex, not mere cardboard cut-outs, they are decidedly good, and the banditos are decidedly bad. The lines are clear, and our heroes are caught up in doing what is right. Not only is this John Sturgess film a rousing testosterone-pleasing epic, it is also a morality play very much in tune with America’s image of itself.

In the ambitious “How The West Was Won” (1963), three directors created five “acts” to bring a fifty year period of America’s history settling the West to the screen. The heroes again showed complexity, even reluctance, but always did the right thing in the end, whether it was Jimmy Stewart’s mountain man or Gregory Peck’s gambler, or, central to the morality of the film, George Peppard’s Civil War soldier turned railway man turned lawman. Peppard is the rugged American standing up against the lawless West with little more than his own moral compass, courage, and rifle to tame a savage land and bring peace not just for the territory, but his family as well. Nobility abounds.

The shift comes after. There are several choices to mark the watershed, but I pick “The Hour of the Gun” (1967). In this film, Wyatt Earp (played by James Garner) goes on a vengeance trail against the Clanton gang, who had crippled one brother and killed another. Using a Territorial Marshal’s badge and a handful of deadly companions to make his quest legitimate, including Doc Holiday (Jason Robards), Earp leads what becomes a take no prisoners approach.

There is no more brutal scene in film than the moment Earp finds and confronts Andy Warshaw (played by Steve Ihnat), who protests that he didn’t shoot Earp’s brother, he only watched to make sure no one interfered. When Warshaw confesses that Clanton paid him $50 to watch, Earp becomes enraged and squares off. Warshaw is clearly outmatched, but, desperate, draws. Earp is faster and pumps bullet after bullet into Warshaw, emptying his gun, each shot bouncing the poor man against a fence. It is tantamount to murder. Yet Earp is the hero of the piece and we are asked to accept his rage as reason enough to forgive him. The dead were, after all, all bad men. Even Warshaw, who only watched.

But the lines between good and evil have been blurred. What changed? The answer seems obvious -- the Vietnam War. By the time that this film was being made, Americans were beginning to question their involvement in that war. The Good Guys found that their motives were being questioned, more and more so as the decade and the war continued. It seems fitting that the director of “The Magnificent Seven” also gave us the more ambiguous heroes of “The Hour of the Gun.”

Incidentally, the scene described above is available on YouTube and has had nearly 3,000 views. It is an amazing sequence, even out of context of the rest of the film. Though the bloodletting is tame by today’s standards, the physical scene stands on its own. Type in your search engine: You Tube - Hour of the Gun -Steve Ihnat vs. James Garner and Jason Robards, or if you search for Hour of the Gun the link will appear.

The decade ends with “The Wild Bunch,” Sam Peckinpah’s amazing and ground breaking ode to the end of the West. It is also staged and filmed like a combat film, with more visceral bloodletting than any film before, juxtaposed against almost balletic camera shots that at once make the visual images hauntingly beautiful and desperately brutal. By today’s standards, the blood spatter is tame, but for its time “The Wild Bunch” depicted death by gunshot as a messy business that left bodies scattered and the wounded groaning in agony. In this one, four outlaws at the end of their careers make one last job into their epitaph. This time we have all gray areas to contend with: some of the villains are heroes because everyone is a villain. In a reversal of “The Magnificent Seven,” in this film a gang of outlaw Americans go to a foreign land (Mexico again), with only one real motive, destruction.

The new decade began with a film that many consider an indictment of America’s foreign policy, “Little Big Man” (1970). Once again the lines are clearly drawn, only this time Americans are an invading force while the native Cheyenne and Sioux are the local indigenous population being pummeled into submission by a loosely organized policy of genocide. As great storytelling, “Little Big Man” is one of the finest films ever made in America, with complex characters, timely humor, and sensitivity to a dying people struggling not to die. As a political statement, the film completes the self-depreciation of American motives and actions just as the protests at home against the Vietnam War reach their zenith. It is obvious who the bad guys are, and they are us.

The Westerns that follow these five feature more complex, more ambiguous heroes and anti-heroes. The genre has slipped into a more occasional method for telling often revisionist story lines about America’s past, and by extension, her present and future. If art reflects the extremes of the culture that creates it, then the 1960’s brought moviegoers one hundred eighty degrees from certainty to questioning.

We are questioning still, which I think is good.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Nice Things Happen Even At Work

Sometimes nice things happen on the job.

I came back into the office after completing my rounds on Thursday to be greeted by my supervisor. "Mr. Blokker!"

I'm used to being addressed so formally at work. It's part respect, and part kidding, since I am now one of the oldest postal carriers in our office. But, still, when someone in authority practically shouts my name, I begin to wonder what I did wrong. Trying to be cool, I said, "Hi, Glen."

Glen raised his voice even louder, firmly saying, "Everyone here! Listen up! Mr. Blokker got a compliment from a customer that's been posted on the USPS national web page!"

One of my fellow carriers asked him what it said. Glen explained, "The customer says she has never before had such consistent, accurate and friendly service."

It happened that several supervisors were in the office at the moment. Each one congratulated me in turn. Then I went back to checking in so I could go home. I was thinking that you always hear it when you do badly and it's good to hear when you've done well.

Another carrier congratulated me and asked, "What did you do?"

I smiled and said, "My job."

Monday, August 9, 2010

Losing Weight

If I had known it would be this easy to lose weight I would have done it long ago. But it was never easy before; my head was in the wrong place, firmly embedded in pizza, beer, mayonnaise and peanut butter.

You see, hiding within a rolly poly Santa look-alike was a slender, decent looking, flirtatious man. I did not want to let him out. I was afraid of what he might do with only the slightest encouragement from anyone of the female persuasion. Having promised fidelity to my bride, it was easier for me to be flirtatious and fat, with no worries that I would ever be encouraged to break my vows.

Temptation became food, and food became temptation, and I was safe.

I did not realize how safe I had become, that its, how fat. It sort of snuck up on me. I recently saw a photo of myself in March 2007 and literally wanted to cry. Even in deep hiding, I didn’t want to look that bad, or be that unhealthy.

Slowly, over three years, I began to turn my obsession with food around. Diane did the same. But the weight loss was small and painfully achieved. Over that same three year period I realized that women liked me anyway and that my female friends were much more valuable as friends than they ever would be as lovers -- and more permanent. I learned that I was in no danger of breaking that promise to Diane and it was okay to lose the weight. For her. For me.

Diane reached the same point at the same time. It seems all our stars are aligning at once. And it became easy. Oh, it’s work. It’s vigilance. But my psyche is no longer battling me on this front. And the other fronts are, likewise, lining up.

I don’t miss mayonnaise or peanut butter. Someday, I might have a bit of pizza again, but I am in no hurry. Beer is an occasional indulgence, well planned for, as is a good straight shot of single malt. And I still cannot believe I get to eat this much food and still lose weight -- or that I went from a size 44 pants, tight, to a 36 in four months.

So thank you, Diane, for working with me and letting me follow your lead. And thank you, Me, for being ready when she was, for being willing to start over, rebuild, and change what needs to be changed.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Gay Marriage Ban Overturned

The biggest headline yesterday had to be the federal judge’s overturning of the controversial California Proposition 8 passed by a 52-48% margin in November 2008. It has raised controversy once again, with comments ranging from an attack on traditional marriage to about time to “too soon.”

I have a few observations.

First, to anyone who thinks that once a majority voles for a proposition it must become law, I offer case after case of terrible and cruel laws passed and later overturned. Just because it is popular doesn’t make it right -- laws that isolated Jews throughout Europe leading to the Holocaust should be all that we need recall. A law can be good or bad; but courts have the obligation to review and decide.

For those who argue that marriage is a sacred estate between a man and a woman, I would remind them that marriage as we know it is a human construct from the Middle Ages when women and children were property, so that a man could be fairly certain his progeny was in fact his and entitled to any titles and inheritance he might hold. The other major reason for a marriage was to link two families together, to make each one stronger, and love had nothing to do with it. In other words, modern marriage was created out of greed. Male greed.

As things evolved, a monogamous relationship tied the woman to the man, while the man still was free to carry on affairs without impunity. This makes marriage sound particularly advantageous to the males of society.

For those who say that a child needs to know his or her mother AND father I would ask why so many children do not have a father to help raise them, because he left the building, and yet most of those children turn out functional with only one struggling parent to raise them.

And if marriage is so sacred, what is divorce?

I like traditional marriage, it works for me and has done for going on 36 years, but it works because my wife and I have made a promise to try to keep it going, to not stray, to work our problems out without throwing up our hands and walking away. I also have the distinct advantage of having married my best friend, and we’ve maintained that friendship even through our times of trouble. Bit it is so easy to give up, to quit, to dissolve.

I suggest we redefine marriage as a commitment before the community of men and women between two people who love each other, to try to build a life together.

It seems breathlessly simple.