Friday, July 24, 2009

Of Imperfection

I had a great post planned in my head about near-misses and flawed perfection, about the film West Side Story and how the perfectionist choreographer and co-director Jerome Robbins won an Oscar for this work on the film, ironically, after having been fired for his expensive and meticulous restaging, rehearsals and over-preparation.

At the time of his firing, most of the film had already been shot, but as I learned in the PBS American Masters documentary about Robbins, "Something to Dance About," director Robert Wise did have his former collaborator's notes to consult while shooting and cutting the "Mambo at the Gym" sequence.

This sequence, although beautifully danced, has always seemed an anomaly to me within the film. The largely static camerawork (except for that thrilling tracking shot that follows Russ Tamblyn's partner Velma sliding to the floor and up again), the wide open framing and workhorse editing create a sequence that lacks the dynamism of the film's other dances. Compare "Mambo" to the thrilling opening "Prologue" that Robbins designed and redesigned, to the point that the dancers were getting shin-splints from dancing on the pavement. "Prologue" uses space, storytelling, setting, camerawork, cutting and dance and oh God Bernstein's music in a kind of harmonic perfection we haven't seen in the 48 years since...

Well, writing that post was my plan, anyway, until I came across Lynn Becker's great Chicago blog, "Repeat." Becker, an architectural writer and contributor to the Reader, says all I wanted to say about the flawed "Mambo" and more, here, in a post about the Music Box screening West Side Story in 70mm last December.

Becker also writes about the dead mall looming on Michigan Avenue, the disappearance of Chicago landmarks and other great stuff. Check it out.

Why have I been thinking about musical missteps? In anticipation to our trip to the Chicago Shakespeare Theater to see Disney's Aladdin live on stage. I don't want to say my expectations were low, but Chris Jones was not impressed and I wasn't sure if the stage version would also make a crucial omission that for me keeps the film from greatness.

The rough draft of the film of Aladdin's story took a sharp turn before ending in its current form. Aladdin originally had a mother (!) to whom he sang the most beautiful song never heard in a Disney film, "Proud of Your Boy." Howard Ashman and his partner Alan Menkin wrote the lovely melody and moving lyrics including these lines:

I've wasted time/I've wasted me/So say I'm slow for my age/A late bloomer, Okay, I agree.../You'll see, Ma, now comes the better part/Someone's gonna make good/Cross his stupid heart/Make good and finally make you/Proud of your boy.

That Ashman, who died of AIDS at the age of 41, lived to see the removal of their song, but not the film's release adds another layer of poignancy to this story of a beautiful opportunity lost.

And with Aladdin's reflective moment excised from the film, we are left with a shallower character and less investment in his success. Jackson Pearce, possibly the cutest novelist/writing instructor on the web, points out that nearly all Disney movies include a song of longing from the main character early in the films. Snow White sings "I'm Wishing." Ariel tells us, "I want to walk; I want to run; I want to spend all day in the sun." Mulan wonders "When will my reflection show/Who I am inside?" Etcetera, etcetera.

Jackson Pearce explains, "It's a very clear, cut and dried presentation of what the main character wants....The song sets up without a shadow of a doubt, what our protagonist is after."

I was hoping the Chicago Shakespeare Theater adaptation might bring back Aladdin's important song, as some live productions have, but once the lights dimmed and the show began, any trace of coulda-shoulda-woulda disappeared.

The challenges loomed large for the show. Honestly, how on earth could a live performance compare to the manic magic of the film's lightning speed animation and Robin Williams's quicksilver act as the blue genie? This production's solution? Don't try. Bill Larkin as the genie does a stand up shtick with new and hilarious jokes with a delivery that is more reminiscent of a laid-back Gilbert Gottfried (without the raunch) than Williams. The stage business surrounding the big show number, "Prince Ali," is rendered with giddy silliness rather than trying for impressive spectacle, a much more satisfying choice in the intimate setting of the 300 seat Courtyard theater. The juicy villain Jafar gets new music and great lines, much to our delight.

And the beginning of the song we had all been waiting for, "A Whole New World," is slowed and simplified to emphasize a different quality of the lyrics. The change transforms the song; instead of a thrilling love duet as Aladdin and his princess soar through the clouds, "I can show you a world/Shining, shimmering, splendid," becomes a tender entreaty, a hopeful promise. For me, this new look at an old chestnut almost takes the place of Aladdin's "wishing song" and endears him to me a little bit more.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Cool New Finds

Justin Key is a writer who twitters super short stories. Or they may be mere story ideas, but they are fun to read.

Here at The Second Pass is permission to skip reading a few classics that you've had on your to-do list. And the rationale not to feel guilty.

The riotous art of David Fullarton.

Director Spike Jonze (Adaptation, the upcoming Where the Wild Things Are) has a website, We Love You So, celebrating his influences.

Here and here are compilations of film clips of scenes using poetry. For someone who loves both art forms, this is a great pleasure. But with my second sight of a piece from The Sweet Hereafter, I am hereby retiring that film from my list of all-time favorites. I saw this film once, before I had children, when I had a callow eye that looked at a scene of a couple grieving their only child and could think, "how powerful, how moving." Now I think, "how impossible."

Friday, July 17, 2009

New Biznuss Cards

I had so much fun making these on Zazzle and they were super-cheap, only $16/100. Hopefully I can unload a few of these babies at BlogHer next week.

The Front! And I know nothing about design!
You: Yeah, Cindy, we know.

The Back! That's Jimmy from down the street at Mia's third birthday party one hundred years ago.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

My Dreams ComeTrue Girl

This video from Cass McCombs opens with some pretty but conventional folky-rock/rocky-folk, then ascends to an eerier and more haunting place with the appearance and gorgeous vocal stylings of 70's cinema queen Karen Black. Yes, Karen Black.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Blackbird at Victory Gardens

The lobby of the Victory Gardens Biograph Theater buzzed with excitement last night. Was it the thrill of being so close to the alley where John Dillinger, brought back to life in theaters this week by Michael Mann and Johnny Depp, met his maker? Was it the presence of John Mahoney, Marg Helgenberger and Tony winner Deanna Dunagan in the crowd? Hometown actor William Petersen from CSI returning to the Chicago stage up close and personal? The announcement of no intermission and no late seating that adds a promise of intense intimacy? All this. Add the zing of anticipation over the opening of the play that amazed the London theater community by beating out the favored Frost/Nixon and Tom Stoppard's Rock 'n' Roll to win the 2007 Olivier Award. Throw in the promise of a shocking ending and you've got Blackbird.

What a daring, gripping show. Petersen is strong as Ray/Peter, a dental-supply middle manager pushing 60, but Mattie Hawkinson, as the woman with whom he embarked on an illicit affair when she was a girl, is a marvel. Hawkinson evokes Mary Louise Parker in the delicacy of her features and her stuttery yet impassioned speech, but all comparisons slip away as she mesmerizes on her own terms.

Of all the challenging topics for a playwright, finding an alternative to revulsion when addressing child molestation can't have much equal. And yet, the taboo subject has been brilliantly done. Lolita and How I Learned to Drive peeked into the minds of adults sexually attracted to children and gave us a glimpse of the humanity behind the monstrous actions.

In Blackbird, as the characters work through spirals of guilt, accusation, self-loathing, confusion, longing and rage, I found myself shifting sympathies, even against my better nature. Like an optical illusion that switches from a near kiss to a hard goblet, the two characters seem victim and oppressor in one moment, then ex-lovers in another. It's an uncomfortable process to go through, brilliantly created by the writing and the effortless performances.

When Hawkinson's barrage of questions take a paranoid turn, she transforms into a threatening presence, even as she girlishly adjusts a dress that seems too adult for her. Then more of the past and bits of the present are revealed and her paranoia becomes our own. The simplest questions, "Your shorts?" "Are you a janitor?" and most painfully, "Do you have children?" become the stuff of ambiguity and anguish.

Blackbird runs through August 9.

Here is an excerpt from early in the play and here is the Tribune critic Chris Jones's excellent review.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Pure July

The sour cherries are ripe on the tree next to our porch. What I don't understand is why they aren't picked clean by the birds. I pull one off every time I walk by and they are delicious. Stupid birds.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Tim Gunn, May I Have a Style Consultation Please?

I'm going downtown next weekend for the BlogHer conference and one of the fun extraneous activities in the works is a chance to meet the ever-supportive and savvy Tim Gunn, of the great Project Runway, one of my all-time favorite shows. So to win a conversation with Mr Gunn, I am swallowing my pride and temporarily setting aside my other self who doesn't really give a rat's what others think about her appearance, who 360 days out of the year just reaches for what's most comfortable, to answer the question, "What are you wearing to BlogHer?"

Wrap dress from my favorite little Evanston boutique, Marie Parie, where the owner most often stocks hand-sewn arty pieces. One of kind, but affordable. You'll have to picture this with shoes, makeup, bling and dry hair.

Bodice detail of orange dress above. You can see the fabric is some kind of crazy open weave of orange and khaki threads over a solid nude-colored knit. I love the net trim. Super comfy too.

Here I am, trying to model my "business" card distributing skilz (the card's actually from Randy's dentist - my real ones arrive from Zazzle this week) while my little subject matters won't let up with the poking and the giggling and the looking up my skirting.

Back waist detail of LBD pictured above. I was trying to show the interesting crisscross waist straps in the back of the dress, but all I can see in this photo is the desperate need for AN IRON, STAT!

Like the merry glass of Chardonnay I'm faking with iced tea? I am so damn proud of finding this dress on sale for $8.97! Target! I think it was marked down because the fringe on the belt (that also looks cute worn as a scarf) had tangled up in one of the tiny belt loops and was pulling the dress all out of shape when I first tried it on. Once I figured out the scarf/belt, I began loving this thing. Soft as jammies. Very forgiving in front, but a bit of a booty party in the back! Which shoes, do you think? Red (right) or shiny patent black (left)? You're thinking the black, aren't you?

Bling detail of dress above with additional cleavage accessory provided by Dear Husband who wouldn't stop clicking pictures as I marched up to retrieve my camera.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Dodgeball at The Violet Hour

What I've eaten today: A few sips of water and watered-down grape juice. A bowl of applesauce, brought to my bed by Jojo the cavalry-sitter. Half a Starbucks strawberry-banana smoothie, that tasted too warm to soothe. Ten or so Mickey-D fries with ketchup and a few much more refreshing sips of iced tea. A turtle sundae at Margie's Candies because I had to give the girls this experience and was feeling much better, thank you. More iced tea from the Italian café on Damen, a guilt purchase since both girls needed to use the bathroom within five minutes of each other.

Now that I am feeling much better, I am actually feeling MUCH better because a brush with danger can heighten the senses, but evading more than one bullet can send you on a gratitude trip through circles of gladness.

"You're doing Matrix kind of bullet dodging," says Jojo.

You'd think yesterday was enough.

I did nothing, of course, about my hinky feeling caused by the girl coming out of the fitness center locker room wearing wintery clothes and carrying no bag. Just grabbed my purse out of an unlocked locker and went home. The credit card company called a couple hours later to ask if I had spent $800 at Best Buy or $70 on cigarettes at the gas station this morning.

The lucky part? The girl took only one card, the one I never use, so the company knew to call right away. She left my drivers license and another credit card. "Long blonde hair and a long sleeved sweatshirt?" asked the police officer on my porch an hour later, who had already checked the gas station video.

Could have been so much worse. It was all over in a couple of hours - card cancelled, fitness center alerted, police on the chase. The story was almost an afterthought when I told Kerry and Pam a few hours later at The Violet Hour. There were so many other things to talk about - our kids, summer books, old and new work gossip, and of course, the incredible setting for our conversation - behind an unmarked door, down a pitch dark corridor, beyond a tall velvet curtain, a stylin' cocktail bar with clusters of high-backed seats - backs so tall, that you feel enclosed in a tiny private compartment, huddled over your candles.

But the main point was the drinks - oh these drinks. Complexity, depth, fragrance and so delicious. I had a "Hush and Wonder" with Matusalem Rum, lime and grapefruit bitters and an edge rubbed with violet. Preceded by a Pisco punch we shared out of white ceramic punch bowl - felt very Dickens - and followed by some kind of muddled blackberry concoction that was one past my limit.

"Dear God, it's eleven o'clock!" we laughed and went on talking, although talking doesn't quite capture the speed and volume and staccato rhythm of our bursting out ideas and sudden important memories recalled with near violence. God, you can't take me anywhere. I point fingers at my dear friends and make inaccurate personal pronouncements, vehemently argue points I've barely considered, and make up shit that I try to dress in authority while getting slurrier and sloppier by the minute.

Didn't notice my keys were missing til we stood to leave. Didn't really mind, I was feeling so good. We stepped out into the fresh summer air, walked down to my car, found a ticket but no keys, went back to the bar to leave my phone number, then hugged goodbye after a cabbie said he'd take my unstolen credit card. It's a very, very good thing I did lose my keys because if I had not, I may have spent a few idiotic moments actually contemplating driving home.

I woke after five hours of sleep with the words "Get 'er done," in my head but even with all that intention, little got done today (no daycamp) but the minimum of parenting and retrieval of the car I left in Wicker Park last night.

First things first: dry heaves in the bathroom followed by cool tile next to my cheek. The funny thing was that the usual self-loathing that follows a night of my stupidity went missing this morning - another bullet dodged, probably because I've been administering the world's greatest anti-depressent this summer - a daily walk or swim. I could tell myself, "this is temporary," "I love my liver," "the girls are fine," and "babysitter's coming soon" and I believed it all.

When Jojo, the girls and I finally made it back to Damen Avenue around 6:00, I was just happy to find my car unstolen, unsmashed and boot free. That was happiness enough, and the girls were all buckled in, ready to go home but a niggling thought had me ask Jojo for five more minutes. I walked up the sidewalk toward the stoop where I had sat last night after searching fruitlessly for the unmarked entrance to the bar. My cell had had a text from Pam with the magic words "it's behind a white unmarked door w/a black painting" and now I had a feeling I may have put down my keys as I read it.

The stoop was in front of Psycho Baby which had their closed sign hanging. I knocked anyway and the woman who kindly unlocked the door answered my question with "Are you Cindy?"


A woman at a store across the street had found them, then brought them over to Psycho Baby when they opened this morning. Gratitude. No one deserves such luck, but don't we all?

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Summer Confessions

I've stopped combing my six year old's hair. She cries and complains when I try to pull the brush through her thick and wavy strands, so I've started pulling it up in an elastic ponytail and leaving it at that. The sun has turned her hair a shiny dark gold and it hangs around her face like that of a pre-Raphaelite maiden.

My four year old went to a birthday party last Sunday wearing a dress and no underpants. When Mia whispered the news in my ear while Nora bounced around in the inflatable castle, I fretted for a fraction of second then just laughed. Aw, what can you do? I wasn't going to pull her out of out the bouncy house. Her dress was long enough for a Mormon. The girls had a great time.

The garbage man and I shared a little sexy wiggle to "PYT" grooving at full volume out of his truck radio the morning after Michael died.

I don't really mind that we were roused out of sleep last night by the girl screaming in the street. I guess we're not the only imperfect family on this street. I thought she was out partying with her friends and briefly thought of calling the cops to ask them to drive by and scare her off, but by the time I finished that thought, I was asleep again. In the morning Randy, who got a more clear earful, said she had actually been fighting with her mom, who tried to hush her and get her inside the house. "A taste of things to come," he said, as Nora lay with her head on my belly and Mia flipped through a book on our bed.

For dinner one night last week I made myself a dip with canella beans, rosemary from a pot on our deck, smoked paprika, olive oil and sautéed garlic. I whipped it in the tiny food processor and spread it on tomatoes. Four year old Nora got store-bought baba ganoush out of the plastic container with pita triangles and carrot sticks. We put our feet on each other's chairs and ate off each other's plates. We may not even have bothered with plates, come to think of it. I just dipped my carrot sticks in the food processor.

Barely qualifies as "dinner" but Mia was off on an extended playdate, Randy was working as always and this was a positive feast compared to the corn dinner we had a couple of weeks ago. That night I had pulled a bunch of jars and bags off the shelves with lots of good intentions, but the only food that Randy and the girls ended up eating was boiled corn on the cob with butter and salt. And they weren't very happy about it.

Over our baba ganoush dinner, I watched Nora cram another piece of pita into her mouth and I thought, "Nancy."

It would impossible for me not to compare my daughters to my sister and me. Nancy and I were similarly close in age. Only a year and nine months separated us, while Mia was two years and four months old when her little sister was born. When I hear them play their elaborate imaginary games from another room, when they fight viciously, I remember my sister, my nearly constant companion for nine years of my life. I've carried her loss for so long and the girls are so fresh and immediate and funny right here in our house that the frequent memory of my dark-haired sister that is stirred up by the antics of my children most often makes me nostalgic but not terribly sad.

Tonight, however, I was not thinking of Nancy because my daughter reminded me of her; I thought of my sister because Nora felt like her. Here was a moment of companionship, out of the hundreds we share every day, that pushed me farther back to the wordless pleasure and complete comfort of a childhood sister.

My conscience flashed a yellow signal I willfully ignored. At that moment, I did not care if placing my tiny child into a hole in my heart is not fair to her. Perhap Nora was my little mnemonic device, but she is most fully my daughter and her own person. If I feel closer to her because she reminds me of someone I loved dearly long ago, it is only one small part of what makes her adorable.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Rock And Roll!

When we're driving, Mia's stuffed elephant asks for rock and roll music on the radio so he can dance and make kung-fu moves on her lap.

I flip the channels, past talker after talker, until I hit a folky pair of singers with an acoustic guitar.

"This isn't rock and roll," says Mia.

I find Whitney Houston's "How Will I Know?" and the back seat is satisfied.