Strange Magic

Dreaming of spring, the mind turns to flowers, butterflies, fairies and… bugs? Well, yes, if you life in southern Maryland. Although it’s been frozen into silence lately, we have a buzzingly diverse ecosystem here in the coastal plains and wetlands, rich in the insect life that supports the abundant bird and fish populations we’re known for.

But fairies? for those, I still have to turn to the world of fantasy. And recently I saw a remarkable film, one that was clobbered at the box office, so you probably didn’t even notice it opening and closing at your local moviehouse.

Which is really too bad, because it is the product of at least a decade’s dreaming by George Lucas and many others in his talented sphere. The movie is Strange Magic,  a love story for pre-teen girls that uses popular culture love songs (thus the title!)

Strange Magic is a sound and vision feast directed by Gary Rydstrom, winner of 7 Oscars and 17 Academy Award nominations for sound mixing and editing.  Gary is also the son of friend-of-a-friend, and so we go to see his movies even if they’re a genre we would otherwise ignore.

The design of the Bog King is based on the praying mantis and the cockroach

Starting with Lucas’ vision, the creatives borrowed from the insect world for creature design, which includes not only the colorful and bright fairies and elves, but also the creepier denizens of the Dark Forest.

The story has delightfully modern twists: you’ll find no delicate princess here. Marianne, our heroine, doesn’t grieve lost love for long. And the ultimate hero is a surprise, upending the old ‘dark verses light’ clichés.

While it’s probably too late for the cineplex, check it out on DVD or streaming when you get a chance. It’s a gem.


Don’t Blame Eve, or the Snake

From the movie Noah comes this retelling of the Genesis creation story, which warms my earth-loving feminist heart, as it doesn’t demonize either the Serpent or the Woman. What is forbidden is the Knowledge of Evil, there’s no telling the gender of the fruit-picker. But those who carry out the murder of their brothers appear to be not-women.

I doubt neither Darren Aronofsky or I really seek to blame men for violence, but for me, it’s important lift the burden of sin off of our foremother Eve.

In the narrative of the film, the snake’s skin becomes a sacred symbol of inherited wisdom.  One critical Christian web site called it ‘the skin of satan.’ Noah uses the skin in his son’s initiation, when he tells him the creation story. He wraps the skin around his arm and it merges with him, turning to a spiral energy pattern that looks an awful lot like DNA.

In the Wiccan philosophy, the Serpent is a wise and simple creature, one that sheds her skin when it is outgrown, and begins again. The snake biting its tail, the Ouroborus, is an ancient symbol of infinity and the cycle of life.

So I for one was thrilled to see a version of the story that didn’t blame the woman or the snake.

Holiday Blues and a White Christmas

I love the movie, and the song,  White Christmas  beyond all reason. The film stars Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney, Danny Kay and Vera Ellen,and I think I watched it with my grandfather every year, curled by the fire.We laughed and sang the songs together,  and  knew many of the lines.

trainWCThe movie is ridiculous. (go watch it, NOW) Crosby and Kaye are terrible cross-dressers. Vera-Ellen needs to eat something. Who bursts into song on the train? And how on earth does that rustic little inn have the soundstage for those dance numbers?

None of this matters. Somehow, this confection, conceived in sunny Hollywood with a hit song written by a Jew manages to evoke the most perfect nostalgia and longing for the perfect Christmas that never was.

I’m home snuffling with a cold/flu thing, looking at my one string of lights and missing all my bygone family, who would be getting on my nerves if they were here, and feeling all these pangs of longing for home. Of course, it’s been a big year for me,  moving  beyond the householder’s life and embracing a new simplicity. With it comes freedom and a lightness. Out goes the tree and the three boxes of ornaments.

I heard composer Rob Kapilow describing what makes the song so great, on the Kojo Nnamdi show the other day. It was a hoot to hear Nnamdi say “I grew up in Guyana and never knew what snow was, and this song still gets to me. Thank you for explaining why.”

Rob Kapilow is known for his talks and performances of “What Makes it Great?” which is now also a book. He’s brilliantly enthusiastic about music, and believes that everybody loves music, given a chance to really listen and understand it. In this video he attempts to explain the genius in Irving Berlin’s song. “You can just feel the pang of memory!”

The love for this film, and song, lives on. The song is covered again and again but it will always belong to Crosby. The film gets trotted out every year, shared with new generations. It’s in the mash-up culture: here’s Vera Ellen dancing, brilliantly,  to Run DMC:

Watch the original 50’s jazz music version

We Birth Our Future

Cloud Atlas, the remarkable book by David Michell and cinematic  gift from Lana and Andy Wachowski (creators of The Matrix), didn’t last long in the cinema, the ideas it raises will carry it on. This post from Ekostories highlights important themes, including Change Through Connection, Music and Storytelling, and the Unpredictable Power of Stories. Even if you have no interest in the film, please have a read, because the story of stories within the project are rich and beautiful.

“Our lives are not our own.

From womb to tomb, we are bound to others, past and present, and by each crime and every kindness, we birth our future.”

– Sonmi 451

Thus sums up the core premise of Cloud Atlas, one of the more polarizing movies in recent memory and my personal favourite film for 2012. Spanning six stories over five centuries, many people found the movie slow, jarring, and difficult to follow. While I understand and accept some of these criticisms, they in no way diminish the sheer vision and ambition of this sprawling and profoundly human epic. If there ever was a film where the sum experience becomes more than its parts, Cloud Atlas is it.

Keep reading Change, Choice and Cloud Atlas

Review of Tinker,Tailor,Soldier, Spy

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy , the latest film from Swedish director Tomas Alfredson of Let the Right One In, is a carefully detailed slowly tightening trap of a tale, wreathed in cold-war gloom. I’ll recommend it if you like films which demand close attention, and if you have an interest in the machinations of government and an appreciation of fine British actors, then it’s a must-see.

My first surprise, being largely ignorant of the book or previous series, was that the story unfolds in 1973.  That’s the year I graduated high school, when the world felt fresh and exciting. I’m often shocked at what the 70’s look like after nearly 40 years; there is not a whiff of  ‘fresh’ and ‘exciting’ here, unless you count the pitch-perfect de-romanticization of the spy thriller.

Benedict Cumberbatch as Peter Guilliam

It’s a story that seethes with distrust, and so, much of the action is watching and being watched. Certainly not a thriller in the big box office way, the film is none-the-less riveting for it’s subtle and relentless unfolding. Gary Oldman is spell-bindingly inseperable from his character, George Smiley. He appears to do nothing. I’ve never seen so many talented poker-faces in one film. Mark Strong shape-shifts from agent to tourist to teacher. Firth is the charmer among his creepy colleagues played by Ciaran Hinds, Toby Jones and David Dencik. Tom Hardy’s sexy dishevelment and Benedict Cumberbatch as the earnest Peter Guillam add a bit of refreshment.

I always love London the city-as-character, but this version is so grim as to be barely recognizable. Think of how distinct the city performs in Sweeney Todd,  or Mary Poppins, or Love Actually. Well, here’s another one:  here the city is both antique and coldly new, with slabs of  ominous orange and gray office decor, creepy technology, and a hangover of victorian charm that might feel warm if not viewed through smudged windows or a sticky haze of cigarette smoke.

Framing of shots is intelligent and careful: so many scenes are viewed through layers, like windows that grid the world or constrict like portholes. Doors and entryways seem to tighten around you, heightening the sense of danger. Even the  scenes on location in Budapest and Istanbul are carefully composed evoking the suffocating nature of the spy’s world. Thank god for Smiley’s new glasses; without them, it would have been difficult to keep track of flashbacks.

I’d love to hear from fans of the novels of LeCarré and 1979 series: how did this compare? Since the book and series were presenting a contemporary situation, how is it different to see it as history? Please share your thoughts!

We Reach for the Firmament – thoughts on the film Third Star

“[Third] star to the right and straight on till morning.” from Peter Pan

Being a big fan of BBC’s Sherlock, I made a point to see Third Star, a film by Hattie Dalton, on the one night it was playing in DC. Sherlock star Benedict Cumberbatch plays James, the central character in this beautiful, quirky drama.
(Be forewarned, this post contains major plot spoilers!)

I found the opening moments mesmerizing. One watches whirling bits of fibre, green and spun gold,  disoriented by a tilting camera and blurry ground. In time this becomes identifiable as flying grass hurled by a spinning weed trimmer.  As the camera pulls back  the edge of a gravestone comes into focus. Benedict’s beautiful baritone tells us it is his birthday, and he knows he won’t live to see the another.

This tiny scene, a  minute or so, and from a worms-eye view, contains so much: fresh green blades are lopped off and sent spinning in to the cosmos, making a swirling cloud. The plant fibre seems to go golden as soon as its mixed with air, a fragrant honeyed cloud. I can smell the sweet hay.

How common is this, mowing the lawn: the relentless grass, abruptly decapitated, never hesitates to grow toward the light. Grow, be cut down. Grow, be cut free. Grow. Be severed from your roots, and fly.

benedict as james
Benedict Cumberbatch in Third Star

James  sets off with his childhood friends on a journey to his favorite place, Barfundal Bay on the coast of Wales. They’ve built a cart to act as wheelchair: part bicycle, part sled, and so off they go, full of boyish glee and irreverence.

The further they travel, the more their habitual, patterned communication falls away. In time, conversations chafe, rub raw, and truths are spoken. Beards grow, scowls too. Bitterness, critique (unrequested), disappointment are revealed.

Objects are lost, damaged, cast aside. What is thought to be important changes. Something is getting refined, sharpened. They are resourceful, stubborn, determined. Loyal. James must get to his bay, the place he sees every night in his dreams, and more and more in his morphine visions.

They come to a channel crossing, and the ferryman is an odd bloke: gruff, weathered, and wearing eye makeup. He keeps asking them “single or return? single or return?”  Then he insists on charging for the cart. “Single, or return for the cart?” he asks, and you wonder if he’s daft.

You don’t yet know that the cart will be dashed on the rocks. But by now you may be beginning to suspect that James will not make the return trip.


That whirling opening scene has all the earmarks of a powerful abstract painting: a pattern and an energy that is vaguely familiar but unplaceable; a portrait of the energy, not of the thing.

While the mind is searching the imagery for ‘What is it? What is it?” grasping for a label, a ground, the soul speeds up, drinking in more and more data. When ‘ground’ is finally found, it is the grave.

As a painter, I watched this film and noticed scene after scene composed with great care, shining with beauty, and unlike a fixed canvas, arising, cresting and falling away like waves, supported by the music and moving the story forward, a mirror of the character’s quest. In my admiration I quailed: How can a meer canvas hope to achieve this vivid purpose?

Joan Mitchell PaintingBut of course, the canvas endures, and the filmic moment dissolves like a soap bubble into the next idea, and the next, carrying you onward whether you wish to pause and contemplate or not. The painting will hold an energy in apparent stillness, for a while, decades, centenia perhaps.

Could I make that whirling gold grass, frenzied, hopeful, chaotic, gruesome, inevitable. On a canvas? Could I make you feel the vibrating universe in it ? I have seen paintings that approach this. Joan Mitchell comes to mind.

But what of the ferryman, the fool who only seems wise in retrospect?  Could a painter show for who he is? Certainly the artist could leave hints about the Ferryman, pointers to his mythic role. Yet nothing competes with film for this purpose: the foreshadow, clever joke perpetrated by the storyteller on us unsuspecting viewers.

I found so many painterly moments in this film: the four friends cresting a hill, bright light before them dissolving the hard edges of their forms; lighting fireworks which then consume their tent; the cart lying dashed on the rocks in the surf; James lying on the forest floor in dappled light.


One could say his is a youthful romantic death, to sink beneath the slate colored waves in his beloved place. Yet James does not romanticize his longing to be enfolded in the sea. He speaks of the pain of salt water in his lungs without illusion.

His friends protest, they cannot allow him to do this. “I promised your mother!” one pleads with him. A difficult night ensues, when he runs out of morphine and they witness his raw experience When the morning comes, after this night when they have cried together, they honor his intention to determine his own death.

Despite his courage, James tells his friend Miles, who has swum out with him, “I’d rather not be alone.” Miles sinks down with him,  holds him,  holds his eyes, while he drowns.
What love. What profound love. This was all I could think.

As they drew his body back up onto the beach, I realized I was willing James to breathe again, to gag and spit sea water and laugh, and make all his friends smile and shake with relief. There’s the grass in me, reaching for the sun.

Once upon a time I was a young traveler in Scotland, who wandered alone from sacred site to standing stone, troubled, lonely and brimming with life. One day I visited the clifftops at Yesneby, on Orkney, where I danced on the cliff’s edge, heedless of the warning signs. I was reckless, half suicidal. In that moment I didn’t care if the rock gave way beneath me, or even if I fell. The wind was so strong it felt like it was holding me up, pushing back.

Some time later I realized that wild girl wasn’t trying to destroy herself. She wanted to fly. Not die, but soar.


green grassStubborn grass; it grows toward the sun, despite its fate to be beheaded, scythed, severed and stunted. Reach, grow, be cut down. Grow, stretch toward the sun, and the blade will come again, and again.

In the sparkling green of the forest, sun prickling through overhead, James rests his head back, staring up. Rising into the firmament. Wanting to fly.