Monday, June 26, 2006

If You Were Scoring My Life

There's a scene in the movie The Lake House where Sandra Bullock and Keanu Reeves characters actually meet and exist in the same time (like that ever happens and maybe just maybe why this movie has to be filed in the "fantasy" category). They are strangers, having met at Bullock character's surprise birthday party. They are alone, underneath the stars and they hear music coming from the house so they begin slow dancing.

The song playing is Paul McCartney's "This Never Happened Before" and it's the perfect song to capture the mood of the moment. (Yet since McCartney released the song in 2005 and this meeting moment is supposed to be occurring in 2004- there seems to be a time/space problem with the song choice that only enhances the movie's message).

Usually I'm not too big a fan of movie and TV scenes where the dialogue ceases and the music swells and we get a montage backed by a song. Often this is a sign of poor writing as if the writer of the scene couldn't find a way to express the emotion necessary so the director uses music- the best emotion expressing art form that exists - to get across what written words and actors acting their hearts out can't. But this particular scene works. It's great to hear McCartney's voice struggling to hit the higher notes. This imperfection underscores the uncertainty the characters are facing- trusting a complete stranger in a random romantic moment.

The mood of the scene reminded me of one of the beginning moments with my favorite person in the world. She told me she used to have a theme song. That song was "I Can See Clearly Now." Once she told me that there was little else I needed to know about her. If you're going to pick a theme song for your life that one might as well be it. It seemed like a far better choice than what was the theme song of my life at that time, Michael Jackson's "Man in the Mirror."

There are other movie and TV musical moments that have over the years stuck inside me like a bad burrito. Remember the scene from the TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer where the lesbian couple Tara and Willow break up and other characters in the show have personal crisis' going on leaving much of the cast in a sad place? What did Joss Whedon choose to well up the emotion of the places his characters found themselves in? Michelle Branch's "Goodbye to You."

Now I'm not the biggest Michelle Branch fan in the world. Maybe I should be but I just haven't had the time. But her performance at the Bronze in this Buffy episode makes me cry every time I see it.

"It feels like I'm starting all over again/The last three years were just pretend/And I said goodbye to you/Goodbye to everything that I knew/You were the one I loved/The one thing I tried to hold on to..."

If someone out there was kind enough to put together a soundtrack for my life this song would surely have to be on it. It's time to move on.

Then there's the scene from the movie I've seen more times than any other- The Karate Kid. Daniel finds himself a stranger in a strange place and he's blaming his mom because she didn't exactly give him a choice on whether he wanted to uproot himself from New Jersey to move out west and start all over again. As he struggles to make friends there's a montage where Bananarama's "Cruel Summer" plays in the background. Is there a better song that's ever been sung? A better song that could say all that needs to be said about being lost and alone?

Listening now "Cruel Summer" takes me all the way back to 1984. I'm soaking my hands in pickle juice to make them tougher for all the karate chops that are needed. Of course I couldn't soak my head in the same juice and it would be a long time before I could pickle my heart leaving me to ask a question I'm still asking. Where do I go from here?

Monday, June 19, 2006

Sandra and Keanu Reunite Via Magic Mail Box

The last time I had a conversation with the Duluth seamstress was in September 2001, nearly five years ago. The previous time we had a conversation was over a dozen years before that. Yet in all honesty hardly a day has gone by in all that time that I haven't talked to her. She seemed honored when I told her that during what was probably the last conversation we will ever have.

I mucked up that friendship mighty fine but her love and friendship will never leave me. She was the one following my hospitalization for head problems, when all seemed lost, who did the one thing no one else in my life seemed capable of doing anymore: she made me smile. Just as importantly I found a long lost side of me through our friendship. I found my sense of humor again. In a time it seemed impossible, whenever I was around her I felt like myself again for the first time in a long time. I don't know a bigger compliment that I'll ever be able to give to another person.

Thus the timing of meeting her was important to what she came to mean to me. Likewise if my head had been where my heart was (in a better place) at the time I think our relationship might have lasted a whole lot longer.

I tried to put the Duluth seamstress behind me by fictionalizing her. She was a major character in the great unpublished novel that has only gathered dust in my bedroom closet. There were times that tact was successful- I wasn't entirely sure I hadn't made her up in some desperate dream.

But it was through some real fiction that the "she's only a character" strategy dissolved into the watery stuff that flows from the eye ducts. When I saw Sandra Bullock play a bit part in a Sylvester Stallone sci-fi movie I was immediately struck at how much she somehow reminded me deeply of the Duluth seamstress. I wasn't exactly sure what it was about Bullock that made that watery stuff start flowing uncontrollably during the unintentionally comedic Demolition Man. Was it her eyes? Her eyebrows? Her smile? Her face? Her voice? Her down to earth sense of humor? I've never been able to answer that.

Since Bullock became a star with Speed, I've made it a point to try and see each and every one of her movies if not on opening day, then shortly after. I'll be the first to confess it is a pathetic effort to feel like I'm going to a movie again with my all time favorite movie going partner. During our chat in 2001 I asked the Duluth seamstress if anyone had ever told her she reminded him/her of Sandra Bullock. "Only about a thousand times," she said. "In fact this guy carding me at the liquor store this morning said that." I couldn't help but think throughout this last conversation that she not only seemed a bit freaked that I called, but she also seemed a little sad about what happened between us.

Bullock's latest film, The Lake House, reunites her with her Speed co-star, Keanu Reeves. The Lake House couldn't be anymore different than Speed. It doesn't have any flying buses or wild chase scenes or wall to wall action. Most of the movie takes place with Bullock or Reeves' character reading a letter to the other. (This latter film does have a couple of references to the earlier film- there's a bus accident that plays a major role in the plot; both characters' dog is named "Jack"- the name of Reeves character in Speed. Indeed The Lake House's plot reaffirms what Bullock's character repeated over and over to Jack in Speed: that relationships that begin under extreme circumstances seldom last.)

The Lake House is a remake of a Korean movie called Il Mare and its complicated (and almost fairy tale like) storyline seem foreign to an American movie and almost standard for films made in other countries. Both characters live in the same house only two years apart. Through the magic of a mail box, the characters are able to communicate with one another.

Not much happens in the movie other than two people fall in love. The beauty of The Lake House is that the movie well understands that two people falling in love happens every day but it still doesn't happen nearly often enough.

Given the story's unique plot device one has to suspend logic in order to be able to enjoy The Lake House. I'm not even sure given the rules of the world in the movie that the ending makes sense. But still this isn't a movie like any I've seen before and by the end I was blubbering, a sniffling wreck of a human being. And this time around I don't even think this emotional state had anything to do with my odd affection to Sandra Bullock. By the end of the movie I truly cared what happened to the two characters, wishing despite the odds and the circumstances that they would end up together.

The Lake House tells a convincing (albeit odd) story about how timing has as much to do if not more, with our place in the world in whether a relationship will succeed or not. The movie contains my favorite Keanu Reeves performance. He hits all the right notes as a decent, yet damaged architect. There's a scene where Bullock's character gives Reeves' character a gift, a book from the future that contains a very personal photograph, and given some difficult circumstances, Reeves begins to weep. It's a perfect scene. All the right emotions are expressed through his acting and verbal cues and not a word, and no music are needed to make it all work.

Likewise in many ways this is Bullock's best movie yet. Her character is sad and lonely, quite aware of how her withdrawal from the world into her work and how her relationship with Reeves only adds to what is in a way wrong with the woman she has become. Bullock has shown in every one of her movies (except for the dreadful Miss Congeniality duo) that she understands that playing a role understated is often more effective than going over the top with something flashier. The Lake House features her most understated performance to date. She is sad and it isn't the absence of her smile that she uses to convey it. It's her body language. She looks weary here and even the events from a magic mail box doesn't seem capable of shaking her back to life.

The day before I saw The Lake House I happened to watch Charlie Chaplin's last silent film, the brilliant Modern Times for the first time. There isn't a whole lot of similarities between the two movies yet both left me with a similar feeling of a re-energized, if still reserved hope of going out and facing the world again.

Modern Times has a lot of great things going for it. There's Chaplin's sheer genius for physical comedy. (There's a scene where Charlie's character has accidentally ingested some cocaine while in prison and as he tries to march back to his cell with the rest of the prisoners after dinner, he does these snappy little twirls that are a delight.) There's also a spellbinding performance by Paulette Goddard (as the "gamin") whose joy and energy simply radiate off the screen. My favorite moment of the film though is when Charlie's character is coerced into accepting a job as a waiter and part of that job requires him to do a song for the restaurant patrons. Since talking movies were the wave of the future and Chaplin's silent skills all of a sudden were a thing of the past- the challenge for the character seem to be Chaplin's way of answering anyone skeptical of his ability to survive in the movies if he chose to do so (he didn't). The character is shy and nervous about singing in public for the first time and Chaplin plays this for all it's worth. And yet when he does finally sing it's a wonderful performance. It's the greatest cinematic middle finger gleefully ever given.

Ironically Modern Times has proven to be timeless. It's the story of the might and weakness of labor unions and the corruption of power in a world devoted no matter what to technological advances despite the human costs. Watching the movie is like having the ability to reach into a magical movie mail box to another time to not only appreciate the history of what once was but also understand how what once was has made this world a better place after all.

Likewise The Lake House given many critics' scorn and indifference will likely disappear as one of many failed summer movies of 2006. Yet I can foresee a time a couple of years from now when someone discovering this movie will unexpectedly be transported to another time and another place. That's the beauty of a good movie- it can take us to a place where we've never been before and yet still returns us to where we've never been quite able to leave behind.

Monday, June 12, 2006

The Singing Scooterer

"The sad irony of love is how seldom you feel it/Yet it's all you dream about night and day..."
-Jim White

Maybe I'll get out of bed this week. Maybe I won't. For me, life is more and more like that great Jim White song: "They say it's better to be blessed than it is to be clever but I don't care./'Cause I got 10 miles to go on a 9 mile road and it's a rocky rough road/but I don't care./For life's nothing if not a blind rambling prayer/You keep your head held high a'walking and a'talking/'til the power of Love delivers you there."

During a normal week if you're lucky (or blessed) enough to live in the Como Park area, or anywhere between Minneapolis and St. Paul, you might open up your drapes and windows one morning and happen to hear the warbling of an aging Asian fellow wearing a great big white helmet scooting by your home.

Those familiar with scooter riding know that the A-number one thing to keep in mind at all times is "safety first." Thus no matter how tempting it might be to plug in one's iPod underneath that great big white helmet, ears, hearing, and listening are needed for other things like keeping track of the traffic around you.

To make up for the lack of music, I've taken to singing. Singing my lungs and heart and spleen out. I don't care what looks I get. I don't care if the car next to me is bouncing up and down from the woofers and bass and blaring rap music. I don't care if there's someone standing waiting for a bus that can in all likelihood hear me. Along with my kitty blog, and this weekly column, and little else, singing on my scooter is my outlet, my forum.

My scooter singing song selection isn't varying much these days. I just watched (and re-watched) the musical episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Every time I see it I marvel at how effectively writer Joss Whedon demonstrates the art and power of music by how well he is able to capture the place each and every cast member was at at that point in time in the series' impressive flowing fluid storyline.

My secret wish is that somewhere in the near future some smart and creative and in tune high school drama teacher will choose "Once More with Feeling" as his/her choice for the fall or spring musical stage presentation. I truly believe that the Buffy musical would make one hell of a terrific high school stage show The music is great and the emotion of the story and music ranks right up there with my favorite plays, Oklahoma, The Sound of Music, and West Side Story.

So there I am most mornings scooting down the streets of the Twin Cities, just waiting for an inattentive driver to hit me, and still able to feel a lot of joy and pleasure in all the fresh air and fresh scenes. And I wonder, why is it that I can so relate to Buffy's big songs? In the musical having been pulled by magic down from heaven Buffy is feeling quite dead inside, a feeling only made worse by the cold harsh reality of this world.

"Still I always feel the strangest estrangement/Nothing here is real, nothing here is right..." "I've been going through the motions/Walking through the part/Nothing seems to penetrate my heart..." "I can't even see/If this is really me/And I just want to be alive..."

"Life's a song you don't get to rehearse/and every single verse/can make it that much worse/And still my friends don't know why I ignore/the million things or more/I should be dancing for/All the joy life sends/family and friends/All the twists and bends/Knowing that it ends/Well that depends/on if they let you go..."

I've also featured in my repertoire for my involuntary audience Xander and Anya's risqué retro-ditty (did Rock Hudson and Doris Day ever break into song?) "I'll Never Tell."

"He snores/She wheezes/Say housework and he freezes/She eats these squeazy cheeses that I can't describe/I talk, he breezes/She doesn't know what please is/His penis got diseases from a Shumosh tribe..."

Or how about the relevance of Giles and Tara's duet, "Under Your Spell"?

"Believe me I don't want to go/And it will grieve me because I love you so/But we both know/Wish I could say the right words to lead you through this land..."

It's been a lifelong dream that just once every one around me will break out into song and that life would be like the one I've on occasion witnessed in the dark, on stage with clean resolutions and meanings. Since that doesn't seem to be happening I guess my scooter riding singing will have to suffice. Wouldn't be a kick if once, just once someone would join in the song? If nothing else that spontaneous music would make me feel again and make whatever feelings I should be feeling a shared experience once more.

Monday, June 5, 2006

At the Hot Corner

It was over ninety degrees Memorial Day Eve. Hotter than an empty can of Dr. Pepper thrown and discarded on a newly paved road with its tar melting away into a pungent vapor. So hot that I finally put my wallet away and turned on the AC for the feline population I'm living with, the ones with fur coats and panting from the hot air.

It was the day when my family had a little get together at the cemetery where Mom is and isn't. My brother-in- law, Dan who is a minister by trade and faith, conducted a nice service where he asked us to share some things we remember about Mom. I would have said something but it really isn't in my nature and I know Mom would have been the last person to expect that I would say something. If I had I think I would have said something about one of the last coherent conversations Mom and I had before the morphine she was taking for the pain her cancer was causing caused her mind to space out. Mom told me that she really wished she had saved some of my not to be broadcast radio shows I taped as a kid.

This memory came to me listening to Bob Dylan's XM Satellite Radio Show, Theme Time Radio Hour, particularly the second show played during the week of Mother's Day, a show dedicated to music about mothers. What I thought about saying at the cemetery was what Bob said to open this installment of his show. How moms are the only people in the world that can divide their love equally among ten children and yet each child has all her love. I liked that.

It's hard to believe that it's been nearly six years since Mom died. Things have gone by fast, things that don't mean much, things that mean everything. During the sad moments I wish Mom were still around because I know she'd make everything just a little bit more bearable. During the happy moments, those few and far between, I wish Mom were around because there was no one better to share happiness with, no one who rooted harder for me to be just a little bit happier but didn't push it in any way.

The moments are there. There was a moment on the way home from a friend's graduation party when I was stopped at the stop light at the corner of Lexington and Grand Avenues in St. Paul when an attractive middle aged couple exited the Lexington a fancy restaurant my Mom ate at once, a place far too rich for me and my friends. I happened to overhear this couple's conversation that began as a red Mini-Cooper drove on by. The woman told the man that she wished she could drive one of those. The guy pointed to my scooter and told the woman that she would be happier with what I was riding on. I wanted to interrupt them and point out that I have both and that either choice would be a good one. But I didn't, I just smiled and waited for the light to turn green. (It usually does.)

Mom probably would have frowned at my scooter riding, having forbade all us kids from getting a motorcycle. One of her few steadfast rules. But the episode by the Lexington reminded me of the joke I learned from J.D. Salinger about what one wall said to the other. "Meet you at the corner!"

Mom would have laughed. She would have also would have chuckled at the latest installment of Dylan's Theme Time Radio Hour that featured songs about baseball and included a wonderful opening where Bob sang a smile inducing acapella version of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame."

Speaking of happiness Mom loved the late Max the Cat almost as much as I did and not only because he was a great cat, but because she knew how much I loved him and that was good enough for her. Thus I think she'd also be quite fond of the three cats who keep me company, keep me entertained and keep me from slipping off into the darkness for too long a time. Mom would have loved how Thompson, the three-legged cat who has had issues of trust, undoubtedly since the accident where a trap cost him his leg and nearly cost him his life, will take a step forward in trusting life once again even if later he'll take a couple of steps backwards. The way he deals with each day is enough to forget at how unfair life can be. It's a struggle but one he manages.

Mom would have also loved how Theo, the youngster, loves to launch himself into my arms and how Diego-san is the best cuddler since Stephanie Jane (not that I remember or knew). I didn't say any of this at the cemetery but hopefully Mom heard anyway.