Archives for Movie Mentors
Recently I watched a documentary film called Poverty, Inc. It had been in my Netflix queue for a rather long time before I finally watched it. This, to be honest, is indicative of how I feel about the presence of poverty amongst us overall....like it really shouldn't be there, and if I ignore it long enough, it might finally just resolve itself on its own. It goes without saying this approach hasn't been working too well for me or for all the people worldwide who are affected by poverty. And when I say "poverty," please understand I'm not necessarily talking about my own income level (although it has certainly had its moments). I'm talking about the begging men - and occasionally women - who stand on so many street corners in nearly every neighborhood in my home city of 2.2 million people. Some of them have become quite aggressive lately, walking up to our cars and even tapping on the windows if we don't look up. This kind of behavior motivates me to lock my car doors, not open my wallet. A census by the Coalition for the Homeless says we have an estimated 6,876 homeless people (1,525 of which are currently in jail) living amongst us here in Houston, TX. But it honestly seems like there are more than that, which could be true, since another census by the same organization showed that 22,728 individuals requested some type of homelessness service during that same calendar year. I have blogged about this issue before - about how I just can't seem to wrap my head around a way to get involved in helping poor people that doesn't feel like it is simply perpetuating a lifestyle of begging for handouts, while inching me ever close to that same state myself. I say this because I too have had moments in life when I too have had to ask for financial help. Thankfully I have a family who has the means and heart to give when I've needed it (such as after my 2010 abdominal surgery, when I couldn't return to my former profession waiting tables and had to find another job to do while I was still on the mend). But not every person has a family or friends that have the means or willingness to help them if things get too tight. I also remember how it wasn't a good feeling to have to ask for handouts, and how eager I was to begin providing for myself once again. I chose to finally watch the Poverty, Inc., documentary the other night after yet another encounter with a homeless begging man at an intersection near my little neighborhood. When I waved the man away, frustrated at being accosted for the umpteenth time that day, he got belligerent and started yelling at me. I found that scary, of course, and also frankly mind-scrambling. If I go in someone's shop and don't buy anything, it is not typical for the shopkeeper to run after me as I leave, waving his arms and yelling about how I should have bought something.
I will admit I haven't yet seen the new movie "Florence Foster Jenkins" starring Meryl Streep. But I don't have to see it to know she is clearly one of my mentors. Recently, my own longtime mentor, Lynn, and I were discussing our mutual enthusiasm for the film and how eager we are to see it. Lynn mentioned she has listened to some of the real FFJ's musical recordings. So of course I had to hop on over to YouTube and listen for myself. The moment I heard the opening notes on the first selection, I understood why William Meredith, the poet, was quoted as saying: ....what Jenkins provided ... was never exactly an aesthetic experience, or only to the degree that an early Christian among the lions provided aesthetic experience. Nor did I have to struggle to comprehend why the great composer and performer Cole Porter was reputed to bang his cane into his own foot to keep from laughing out loud at Jenkins' musical recitals....yet was apparently unable to stay away from each new Jenkins concert. It would seem she was that bad....and that good.
I was 7 when I first saw "Star Wars." I think I saw it at least 7 times in the months after it was released. For years, I chose "Princess Leia" as my Halloween costume (which thankfully at least kept overall costume costs low in our household). In the interim months and years, my brother and I compiled a massive collection of closely guarded action figures, stored carefully away in our own separate black "Darth Vader" carrying cases. Why? What was the obsession? Why did I have Luke Skywalker posters on my wall instead of Duran Duran? In a phrase - The Force. Ohhhhh how I wanted it. In hindsight, The Force may have actually been my first formal introduction to the concept of "faith"....years before I would learn about monks, meditation and the like. On that note, it seems a rather too fortuitous coincidence that the latest movie episode of Star Wars came out one day before my 45th birthday (December 19, 2015) and less than two weeks before January 1, 2016, which kicked off my Year of Having Faith. Perhaps I thought that if I just kept watching the movies and collecting the action figures, The Force would become real, decide it liked me and show me where I could find my own personal Yoda. On that note, perhaps The Force was also my first real taste of the power of mentoring (about which this blog and, basically, everything else I do is based). Maybe the relationship my youthful self envied - the bond between Luke and his teachers, Ben and Yoda - was what has driven me for so many years to seek out mentors of my own. I also remember how angry I was when after that very first viewing of the original Star Wars.
For my dad's birthday a few weeks ago, we took him to see Johnny Depp's new mobster flick, "Black Mass." The film's focal point, one James "Whitey" Bulger, has kept me thinking and pondering for the last few weeks. After making several wrong guesses, I had to hunt a bit before finally learning what the film's title, "Black Mass," stands for. Turns out that a Black Mass is the opposite of the traditional Catholic mass where everyone dresses in white and addresses God. In the black version, well, you can probably visualize what everyone wears and who is being worshipped. This aside, what I find perhaps most intriguing is what Depp has said about Bulger (through archival research only, since Bulger refused to meet with or speak to Depp and has now panned the film he hasn't seen). Depp states: There's a kind heart in there. There's a cold heart in there. There's a man who loves. There's a man who cries. There's a lot to the man. Families who lost loved ones to Bulger's violence are angry about this statement. They say there is only one side to Bulger - the cold-blooded killer.
I'm not sure how it slipped my notice for this long that one of my favorite movies, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, had a sequel. But suffice it to say that, the moment I learned this news, I promptly went out to rent The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Did I find it to be as entertaining as its predecessor (which I happen to own)? Not really. Was I glad I watched it anyway? You bet. Not only am I a huge Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Richard Gere and Bill Nighy fan, but there is something about watching folks older than me still wrestling with questions I also have that I find oddly reassuring. For instance, take this quote (spoken by Evelyn, played by Dench): I don't know whether I'm excited or terrified. Sometimes it seems to me that the difference between what we want and what we fear is the width of an eyelash. I don't know about you, but I can TOTALLY relate.
I'll just say this up front - it is awfully hard for me to admit I liked any movie that made me cry this much. And while sometimes I need "a good cry" as much as the next person, I didn't on this particular day. Yet even with all this stacked against it, "I'll See You in My Dreams" turned out to possess that rarest and most ephemeral of all cinematic qualities - total authenticity at the heart of a tale of fiction. As I grow older (45 this year - wow!) I find I have less of a craving for that famous quality provided by so many films - total escapism. I think this is because, these days, I have lots of ways to escape if I want to....and a correspondingly reduced desire to escape in general as I realize more than half my time here has likely already flown by! So the outcome is that sometimes what I crave most in a film experience is something much less easy to come by - the affirmation of what is real. And by this I don't mean knowing answers to common trivia questions or being able to recollect my multiplication tables (I had a hard enough time remembering those on the first go-round!) What I mean is the affirmation of a realness of life that is both totally messy and totally worth it. What I mean is a map pointing towards the intersection of grief and gratitude, tears and smiles, complete with instructions for how to find it again from, well, anywhere. What I mean is a dip into the depth of a totally worth-it life being fully and well lived...that also just happens to be BYOB and ends in approximately 120 minutes.
For some reason, ever since I heard the movie was coming out, I have had a real eagerness to watch "American Sniper." If I'm being honest, this reason probably had a lot to do with Bradley Cooper (who is - in my opinion - both uncommonly talented and uncommonly good-looking). But as I started watching the film, I was captivated by much more than just its star. In fact, the moment I knew I was hooked was a scene early on, when Chris (Bradley Cooper), his younger brother Jeff, and his folks were all sitting at the table eating. Jeff was getting picked on at school, and Chris had intervened. At first, the boys' father misunderstood. He thought they were just beating up on others because they could. So he took off his belt, and told them a story. There are three types of people in this world: sheep, wolves, and sheepdogs. Some people prefer to believe that evil doesn’t exist in the world, and if it ever darkened their doorstep, they wouldn’t know how to protect themselves. Those are the sheep. Then you’ve got predators, who use violence to prey on the weak. They’re the wolves. And then there are those blessed with the gift of aggression, an overpowering need to protect the flock. These men are the rare breed who live to confront the wolf. They are the sheepdog. Their dad went on to explain that he wouldn't tolerate any sheep or wolves in his household. When the boys explained what had occurred - that Jeff was being beaten up by bullies and Chris intervened - their dad asked Chris, "Well, did you finish it?" Chris nodded. That was the end of that. As I was popping around here and there online while writing this post, I realized this story resonated with lots of viewers. I am glad. I too want to be a sheepdog....even on the days when I feel like a sheep, and even on the days I desperately wish I was a wolf instead.
So I finally got to watch "Cutie and the Boxer." At first, I was hesitant. The title sounded....ominous (just substitute "Big Bad Wolf" for "Boxer" and you'll see what I mean). Then I found out one of the lead characters paints with boxing gloves. "This I've gotta see," I thought to myself. Very quickly, I realized the boxing, like most everything else in the film, is like a Buddhist koan, or paradoxical statement, that so intrigues and distracts the mind the heart can finally pop through to nab its own five minutes of fame. Sort of like what happens when you realize that the film about art you are watching is really a film about love....and the most challenging sort of love at that. I LOVED this film! I mean - loved it. What is not to love about a love story that feels so real it could be your own?
Yup. Former career-minded musician that I used to be, I finally watched the movie "Whiplash." I had been told to watch it because I might be able to relate from my own years of intense musical practice. In this, my best friend in particular warned it might have a "few scenes" I might find disturbing. After about five minutes, I assumed she was referring to all the scenes. I loathed this film from the start. I hated everything about it - from the inaccurate portrayals of drumming and musicianship, to the seeming decision by screenwriters and producers alike to skip over meaningless steps like fact-checking jazz history, to the gratuitous displays of vile meanness that are already so prevalent in society today. However, in the midst of all this, one important actual fact did stand out. In the opening scene, we meet the main protagonist, first-year aspiring jazz drummer Andrew Neyman. Neyman desperately wants to rise above the mediocrity he sees in his family and those around him. To achieve this, he practices until his hands literally bleed. His drive attracts the attention of the story's main antagonist, Shaffer Music Conservatory conductor and bandleader Terence Fletcher. As a teacher and mentor, Terence Fletcher is as vicious and abusive as it gets. He quickly singles out Neyman for special attention. At first, young Andrew seems to fold under the pressure. But then he surprises us (or at least me) by coming back for more....and more....and more. Somewhat late in the development of Andrew's story, a minor character named "Sean Casey" is introduced. We don't ever actually meet Casey...this is because he is dead by the time we first hear his name.
On Saturday, May 23, 2015, John Nash & his wife, Alicia, were riding through New Jersey in a taxi. They had just returned from the Abel Prize awards ceremony in Oslo, Norway, where Dr. Nash had accepted his prize from the King of Norway himself. For those of you who may not know this, I dedicated a whole chapter and several more pages of my first book, "Beating Ana: how to outsmart your eating disorder and take your life back," to Dr. Nash's story. Even though I consider him one of my longtime mentors, we never met, but he and his wife were instrumental in stabilizing me in recovery nevertheless. From Dr. Nash, I learned there really is such a thing as "mind over matter" (at least my personal matter, that is), and that it can be life-saving. In this, he helped me increase my daily practice of "putting my mind on a diet," a regimen he credits with helping him overcome the effects of paranoid schizophrenia. And reading and watching his story (through Sylvia Nasar's biographical book, "A Beautiful Mind," and then the Ron Howard movie by the same name), forever cemented my commitment to keeping my own counsel - about my chances for a successful recovery AND a successful life. My whole life is better because John & Alicia Nash refused to listen to anyone who claimed he could never overcome his mental illness.