Tuesday, February 25, 2014

A Year That Still Packs An On-Screen Punch For You

From Sunday's TIMES and NEWS-STAR

Time is so strange. For a couple of reasons, I’m suggesting today that you use some available technology and watch a few movies that were released in 1969, which was a wonderful year for theatergoers and also 45 years ago right now.

But, time is an odd concept to grasp because me asking you to do that is like somebody in 1969 being asked to go back and watch a movie made in 1924. And who would have done THAT?

Time is a funny thing.

So, you’ll have to trust me here; 1969 had some game.

A couple of weeks ago, my uncle called to tell me a Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid documentary was moments from airing on public television. It was a 12-seconds conversation as he was hurrying to hang up and watch and I was almost pulling a muscle reaching to turn on the television set. Me and Uncle Bill are big Butch and Sundance fans.

If you get a chance to go to American Experience on the PBS web site, you will not be disappointed with just about anything you watch. The documentary Uncle Bill and I wept with joy over while watching on TV is batting leadoff on there now. It will tell you of one of the West’s greatest legends, of a holdup of the San Miguel Valley Bank in Telluride, Colo., on June 24, 1889, of the birth of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, and of the deaths of Butch and Sundance down Argentina/Bolivia way.

Naturally, that led my mind to “Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid,” the hottest movie of 1969, both my favorite Western and favorite movie of alltime. Research proved that it had plenty of company in the “timeless” department.

“Midnight Cowboy” won the Oscar for Best Picture: it was X-rated. I wouldn’t be today. It could probably run on network television, uncut. I am a bigger fan of “The Wild Bunch,” which was originally X-rated. (The rating was dropped to an R; they must have agreed to cut the Ernest Borgnine topless scene.)

On Westerns alone, 1969 is a Hall of Fame movie year. There’s also the vastly underrated “Support Your Local Sheriff” with James Garner and the classic “True Grit,” which gave us one of the most memorable characters in American cinema in U.S. Deputy Marshal Rooster Cogburn as played by John Wayne. It has to make your all-time Top 10 Westerns List -- if you can get past Glen Campbell being in this movie. Without his guitar.

“Anne of The Thousand Days” is not normally my cup of tea but this movie and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (from 1966, before my real movie-going days) proved to me that Richard Burton was more than just Liz Taylor’s boy toy. Rascal can act up a storm.

“They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” is a short novel I’m reading at home now. While it sounds like a Western, it’s not. It’s about dance marathon, and it stars Jane Fonda before she started exercising or acting odd, but after she started being pretty.

“Paint Your Wagon” is different and unexpected and good. “Hello, Dolly!” was a smash, with Walter Matthau as a bonus. “Easy Rider” is a low-budget classic. And watch “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” if you want to see Maggie Smith of today’s “Downton Abbey” when she was just developing her fastball. (Watch “Murder By Death” or “California Suite” to see her in her prime – which she is still in at age 79: they make her look older for “Downton.”)

“The Trouble With Girls” is Elvis’ final movie; it came out in 1969 right before “Charro!,” which starred Elvis and Ina Balin, and I have to assume that the exclamation point in the movie’s title was more because of Ina than for Elvis, even though Elvis was the king and all that. Speaking of exclamation points, a pre-Bob Newhart Suzanne Pleshette starred in “If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium,” which you should see, and Raquel Welch starred in “100 Rifles,” which you can probably skip as it falls several rifles, cannons and tons of TNT short of being good, not counting the movie poster. Exclamation Point.

Remember, we are no longer at the mercy of cable TV, as wonderful as the movie channels are. Because of Netflix and ITunes and the like, we can actually watch these movies most any time we please. It will take you a few months to get through 1969 alone. I plan to try, as soon as somebody teaches me how to work any of the electronic devices required. For some of us, it is, in a lot of ways, still 1969.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

The Shapely Essence of Eternal Elegance

From today's TIMES and NEWS-STAR

In Athens, Ga., late autumn of 1988, butter was growing on trees.

At least that’s what it looked like. I had never paid attention to ginkgo trees. Ginkgo leaves, to be more specific. Had never seen this many together at one time. But in Athens, they stood in quiet golden efficiency from street to street, singly in rows or grouped in bands of three or four, and they lined the University of Georgia campus like expertly spaced co-eds, striking individually and overwhelming as a whole, with locks of butter-blonde.  

My eyes caught them the weekend before their leaves fell, all at once as they do, leaving around the trunk a puddle of maple yellow. I caught them just before their fall, and hope I never forget the sights of that mid-November day, of all that glowing yellow against a sky blue as a baby blanket.

Investigation suggested the ginkgo to be a fascinating life form in more ways than its beauty: botanists say it’s the only living species of its kind to have survived for the past 250 million years. A ginkgo fossil from then looks like a ginkgo leaf from last fall. It’s a survivor; I like to have survivors around.

Finally this year I bought one, and planted it in our back yard two weeks before Christmas. It’s only 10 feet tall, and bare. Its backdrop has been mostly gray and cold. But I’ve waited 25 years; I can wait a few more months. No one cares anyway, except me.

Or that’s what I’d thought.

Two weeks after I planted it, I opened the “Photo of the Month,” a mass email from Neil Johnson, one of our favorite photographers. A working man. Neil cares as an artist will, and sometimes Neil will even write a story with the photo, to say “how” it happened. In detail. Those are my favorites. I enjoy knowing how people did stuff. “How did he DO that?” Now and then, Neil will tell you.

A ballerina. A soprano. A landscape or an armadillo. Shapes and shadows, light, and sometimes movement in the stillness.

But not so often will he have a photo of a single leaf. But he did on this day, the early stages of a frostbitten winter. He had a picture of a single leaf. A single leaf from a ginkgo tree. (Yes!)

It made me feel better then because it was cold and I’d just planted and THAT was what my tree was going to look like. THAT leaf. Times a few hundred. A tree and its leaves, worth the wait.

It makes me feel better today, a month later, only now it’s not the photograph but the words. We’ve lost a lot of good people since Christmas, here in the cold, all of a sudden and all at once, friends of ours. I miss them. It feels all wrong that the leaves should fall.

But they do.

“This leaf symbolizes to me the end of the year, now history with only its memories remaining,” Neil wrote in December, the yellow ginkgo leaf a little velvet street light above his words. “I may pull up to park at my leafless ginkgo tree for a short while, but the tree will not be dead. It will only be resting. Soon, new leaves will pop out and the tree’s growth will continue. Life continues. Hope remains very much alive.

“2014 presents new opportunities, new ideas, new experiences, new projects and new challenges. Time is both a straight line and a circle. We move from birth to death while we witness the cycles of nature. We hold on tightly to earth in an annual ride as the planet once again orbits the sun.

“In the earliest days of photography, some people feared the camera, thinking their spirit would be transferred to the captured image. I photographed this leaf at the moment before it and its last few brethren fell from the ginkgo tree to die. But this was no ordinary leaf. There was no fear in it as it proudly faced my camera at the end of its life.”

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Has Anyone Seen My Conegliano? Anyone ... ?

From Sunday's TIMES and NEWS-STAR

For the past three generations, books and movies, documentaries and museums and oral histories have told and retold -- still tell us -- of World War II.

But sometimes it takes a celluloid soldier – George Clooney comes to mind! – to get us to really pay attention. Or to hear of it at all.

Thank you George! You can never replace the original Father of Our Country, but you have never been more George to me than you are right now. I just hope your movie’s good.

Clooney directs and obviously had plenty to do with bringing to the big screen a WWII story few have known anything about until recently. “Monuments Men” opens Friday with a cast star-studded – Damon, Blanchett, Goodman, and even Bill Murray, in his first war movie since “Stripes,” unless you count “Ghostbusters II.” Plus George!

This is not a “shooting” movie. There will be some, but such was
Europe in the 1944. The movie will be souped-up, not true to the book, but the premise and the history lesson will be the same.

“Monuments Men” is the story of soldiers, roughly 350 men and women, who worked to find, recover, save and return billions of dollars’ worth of hundreds of thousands of items stolen by the Nazis during WWII. This ultimately included everything from wedding rings to fine china to furniture to Raphael’s “Portrait of a Young Man,” which remains at large, last seen in Poland in 1945.

The movie is based on the 2009 book “Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History,” by Robert Edsel. I bought it three years ago, then lost it for two -- much like Jan Vermeer’s “The Astronomer” was lost, along with train car loads of other works, compliments of Hermann Goring. But it was found two weeks ago; I’ve finished it. Until now, I’d never known, and sadly had never thought of, any of this.

But then, neither had most anyone else. 

The job description of the Monuments Men was, as described by Edsel, simple: “…save as much of the culture of Europe as they could during combat. These men not only had the vision to understand the grave threat to the greatest cultural and artistic achievements of civilization, but then joined the front lines to do something about it.”

These men and women were from 13 countries. Most of them were historians, architects and curators, and most volunteered in the newly created Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives section, or MFAA. When, after miles of red tape, they showed up in Europe in groups of 2’s and 3’s, or alone, they didn’t even have a typewriter or a Jeep.

In their own way, they battled. They marked maps so Allied aviators could avoid culturally important sites. They inspected sites as soon as sites were liberated, and soon the regular soldier caught on that what was being saved in canvas and marble and parchment was “worth something.” They searched for clues and discovered stolen treasure, everything from Monet to Michelangelo, in castles, in nondescript storage areas, in massive underground caves, all confiscated by the Gestapo, and most transferred by rail to the Motherland so that Hitler, a failed commercial artist, could one day build the world’s most majestic cultural museum and town. He had it all planned.

Makes you wonder if any of this would have happened had he not been rejected as a young man by the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna. Couldn’t he have simply applied the next year? “Seems instead,” one of my cultured buddies said, “he took ‘disgruntled’ a bit too far.”

After the war, the Monuments Men worked to return as many recovered artifacts as possible to their owners or their countries of origin. They received little acknowledgement, then or thereafter. Even those in today’s art community knew little of what their former curators and directors had done to, in Edsel’s words, “preserve the world’s cultural heritage.” Congress didn’t even officially acknowledge their contribution until the 63rd anniversary of D-Day.

But that’s because, as they had quietly performed their jobs at war, they returned and quietly performed their jobs at home. There’s an art to that. 

·       The National WWII Museum in New Orleans plans to open its Monuments Men gallery in 2016 as part of the museum’s new Liberation Pavilion.