Tomorrow: The Margot Adler Memorial Reading

img_20140315_115911890Margot Adler was one of those people whose lives are a marvel. She was known and loved by many people who were part of many different communities: those who worked at and listened to the radio stations where she worked, WBAI and WNYC; the members of the Wiccan community; those who read her books on paganism, Drawing Down the Moon and Heretic’s Heart; and those who read her later book Vampires Are Us: Understanding Our Love Affair with the Immortal Dark Side, and who heard her speak about it. And probably many more.

Originally, I knew Margot’s husband, John Gliedman, as well or better than I knew Margot. He was an extremely smart (actually, quite brilliant), technically knowledgeable, and just plain nice human being who occasionally freelanced as a technical writer. John and Margot lived in a beautiful apartment on Central Park West, and some of my best memories are of meeting them there to talk, watch movies (or the election returns), or just hang out.

John died in 2010. Margot died in 2014. Both died too early. I miss them both.

Tomorrow (Tuesday, November 1st), the first Margot Adler Memorial Reading will be held at the NY Review of SF Readings — appropriately, on All Soul’s Day. It is being curated by Terence Taylor, and features Terence and Sabrina Vourvoulias — two exceptional writers of fantastic fiction. It will take place at 7 pm at the Brooklyn Commons Cafe at 388 Atlantic Avenue.

I hope to see you there.

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The Backstory behind Backstories

Back in February, I was staring at a photo I had taken recently: The impressions that my shopping cart made in damp snow, and it occurred to me that somebody who was overthinking things might think it was left by something or someone other than a shopping cart. Like two flamingoes on bicycles.

flamingos on bikesI posted that on Facebook and thought, well, that was fun. The next evening, I was staring up at the various tschotskes on my mantel, and starting wondering what some of the little plastic Android bots were actually thinking — or doing — as they stood up on the mantel. So I wrote that up, careful to stay within the 140-characters (less, actually, because of the photo) demanded by Twitter, and posted it on Twitter and Facebook. And, I decided at the last minute, on Instagram.

So Backstories was born. Backstories are basically short, ridiculous imaginings of what is going on in the minds of the animals and supposedly inanimate objects around us. After all, they live in our world alongside us, don’t they? Who are we to presume that birds, trees and garbage cans don’t have inner lives as well? And thoughts as wise or as silly as anything that runs around in our human brains?

Currently, I set them to go live at 8:30 am every weekday on Facebook and Twitter; they usually appear on Instagram sometime the night before. On Facebook, they are gathered in an album called Backstories; on Twitter, they can be found in my personal feed; and on Instagram, tagged as #theirbackstories. If you’re curious, please do check them out.

How long will I keep publishing them? As long as I can continue to figure out what the animals and objects around me are thinking, I suppose — and as long as that process continues to be fun. Right now, it is a great deal of fun — to create and, I hope, to read.

Short review of Skeleton Crew at the Atlantic Theater

Skeleton Crew, a play at the Atlantic Theater’s Stage 2 in NYC, is a really fine, moving play by  Dominique Morisseau, a playwright whom I was not familiar with before. It concerns four workers in a Detroit auto plant in 2008, when there was a virtual collapse of U.S. manufacturing. The play opens as there is word that a sister factory has just shut down, and before the first act is over, it’s obvious that this factory is being prepared for the chopping block as well.

As the play progresses, we slowly learn about the lives and hopes of four people who work in the factory — Dez (Jason Dirden), an ambitious and angry young man; Reggie (Wendell B. Franklin), who made it from the factory floor into lower management; Shanita (Nikiya Mathis), a soon-to-be single mother who is proud of her work and her independence; and Faye (Lynda Gravatt), a union rep who is nearing her 30-year retirement. The entire action takes place in the break room of the factory and the actors do an incredible job of bringing the characters to life.

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My mother, who saw the play with me, also thought the actors did a splendid job and liked the play; however, she felt the resolution at the end was a bit pat and somewhat forced. I didn’t have that issue; perhaps because I was so caught up in the characters’ problems and conflicts, both external and internal.

I only do occasional reviews of plays and/or books, but in this case, I wanted to promote what I think is a really excellent slice of life about a group of people to whom attention should have been paid. Skeleton Crew runs through February 14th; if you have a chance to see it, I recommend it.

 

Thoughts on a series: Faith (or The Great Doctor)

Faith2012-posterI’ve never been one for soap operas or outright romances – science fiction or mysteries with a touch of romance as icing have always been my preferred escape mechanisms. However, I found myself fascinated by a Korean drama series recently that makes no logical sense, has plot holes you could drive a snow plow through and doesn’t have many surprises — but which I thoroughly enjoyed.

Spoilers (if they matter) follow.

The 2012 television series is called Faith or The Great Doctor (according to Wikipedia, the title in Korean can mean either). It is about a rather flippant plastic surgeon named Yoo Eun-soo (she became a plastic surgeon because she wasn’t earning enough as a surgeon) who is kidnapped by a warrior from 900 years in the past; he is named Choi Young and looks like a rather serious-faced pop star. He is there because the new queen of Goryeo (later to become Korea) has just been seriously wounded, and Choi Young is told that if he passes through a magical portal, he can bring back a doctor from the heavens to save the queen’s life.

After a good deal of resistance, Eun-soo is finally told that if she saves the queen’s life, she’ll be escorted back through the gate. Unfortunately, the king, a rather insecure young man named Gongmin, decides that having a doctor from heaven is too handy to let go, and orders Young to hold on to her until the gate closes. So she’s stuck. And through 24 one-hour episodes, Eun-soo and Young go through a variety of trials and tribulations while slowly falling in love.

The series can’t seem to decide whether it’s science fiction or fantasy. On the one hand, Eun-soo spends a good deal of time regretting the lack of any kind of modern equipment and researching equivalents, and the “gate to the heavens” can be explained away as some sort of science fictiony time portal.

But then there are the bad guys: the leader, a rich and powerful lord who can kill through some sort of magical touch; his brother, who has long white hair, abnormally acute hearing and the ability to kill by playing his flute (on purpose; he’s really not that bad a musician); and a sexy sister who can burn with her hands or create small fireballs. Everybody else seems to take their abilities as just a part of life, even though nobody else seems to be able to match them.

In the end, you just have to sort of shrug and let it go.

And there are the historical aspects: King Gongmin, Queen Noguk and General Choi Young were real people, and the storyline is careful not to violate the historical record. Which means we know what’s going to happen to them — as does Eun-soo, who spends most of the series trying to avoid changing history (and then, near the end, decides she doesn’t care any more).

All that being said, I found it a delicious fish-out-of-water saga. Eun-soo is a bit irritating in the beginning — compared to the people of Goryeo, who are dealing with life-and-death issues, she seems selfish and a bit silly. However, as the story goes on, and as she begins to understand more of what’s at stake, she becomes more of a player and less of a pawn. (And her breezy nonchalance about the privileges of rank in an extremely class-conscious society is a very funny.)

Choi Young, in the meantime, starts as a humorless warrior who hates his job and and doesn’t care much about his new king, and wants to run away to anonymity as soon as he can. We know (at least, those who’ve studied the history of Korea know) that’s not going to happen, but it’s fun to watch his frustration and slow self-discovery as he deals with Eun-soo’s 21st-century attitudes.

In the end, Faith/The Great Doctor (which is available on Netflix) was addicting, often touching, and simply a huge amount of fun to watch.

One note: The English captions are not the best translations I’ve ever seen, sometimes resulting in rather funny combinations of formal and informal  (as in “Those punks are the ones who attacked the Queen!”). But once you get used to it, the meanings seem clear.

Thoughts on a play: The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner

Most people who know, or at least have heard of, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, know it as a 1962 film starring Tom Courtenay, who played Colin Smith, a working class young man who escapes his bleak situation by long-distance running. The film started as a 1959 short story by Alan Sillitoe; its latest incarnation is an adaptation by Roy Williams that is playing at Atlantic Theater 2. It’s only playing until Feb. 9th, so if you get a chance, go.

The play has been tweaked to fit today’s issues: Colin is now the son of African immigrants dealing with the same problems of poverty, misunderstanding and disaffection that his previous incarnation suffered in the early 1960s. However, his problems stem less from the class issues that were still lingering in British society in the late 1950s/early 1960s  than modern racism; there are continual references to the London riots of August, 2011.

The cast is, I have to say, superb. Sheldon Best as Colin turns in a wonderfully nuanced performance in a very difficult role — he is onstage constantly, and makes many of his more important speeches while moving or jogging (much to admiration of much of the audience, judging from the conversation in the ladies room afterwards). Charles Isherwood of the New York Times expressed disappointment that Best didn’t turn in the moody, introverted performance that Courtenay was justly celebrated for, but this Colin comes from a different background and lives in different times, and his lively interpretation of an intelligent, confused and rebellious young man is as legitimate and searing.

The entire cast is excellent as well, including Zainab Jah as Colin’s exasperated mother, Joshua Nelson as his best friend, Jasmine Cephas Jones as his girlfriend, Patrick Murney in the double role of a prison bully and a tough policeman, and Todd Weeks as a paternalistic social worker. The director, Leah C. Gardiner, deserves kudos as well for assembling them into a very effective whole.

To tell you the truth, the movie version of The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner is one of those films where I recognized the high quality of the production without being touched emotionally. I can’t say the same about this production. It is both excellent and affecting.

Thoughts on a film: The Little Giant (1933)

The LIttle GiantThe Little Giant is a just-under-the-wire pre-code film that I’d often heard about, but never actually seen. I had assumed that it was one of those earnest, violent mobster films, but it’s actually a light comedy — and not a bad one, all told.

The story

Bugsy Ahearne is the head of gang of mobsters who has been running a lucrative illegal beer running operation during Prohibition. (He’s known as the Beer Baron of Chicago.) He’s not a bad guy, signalled by the facts that his gang is very loyal to him and that he dealt only in beer and not harder liquors.

It’s 1933, FDR has just won the election, and Prohibition is about to end. Bugsy decides that the ride is over and he’s pulling out while he’s still got a large bankroll.

Now that he has to go straight, Bugsy wants legitimacy; he dreams of hanging out with the upper crust. He and his best buddy Al Daniels go off to Santa Barbara, California. After some unsuccessful attempts to infiltrate the high life, he falls in love with Polly Cass, whose family has made its money by swindling people into investing in their fake bond business, and who accepts his marriage proposal so that Bugsy will invest in her family’s business, after which she intends to call it off.

In order to impress her, he buys a huge estate, formerly owned by the down-to-earth (but very pretty) Ruth, whose father was swindled out of his fortune by the Cass family.

The end (highlight following paragraph to view)

When the Cass family finds out who Bugsy really is, they haughtily break off the engagement. Rush tells Bugsy what the Cass family did to her father. Bugsy calls in his mob, they force the members of the board of directors of the company (all of whom are in on the swindle) to cough up enough money to pay back those they’ve swindled, and Bugsy realizes he really loves Ruth.

How it’s pre-code

Not much overt sex here, but on the other hand, sex before marriage is not terribly shocking either. Bugs makes it clear that while he’s never proposed marriage, he’s had a number of lady friends for whom marriage wasn’t an issue; when he says goodbye to the last of them, she is portrayed as being a good sport and generally nice person.

There’s also a somewhat startling drug reference: One of the gangsters says of a modern painting that he hadn’t seen anything like that “since I stopped using cocaine.”

T’aint funny, McGee (offensive segments)

Bugs is upset that he’s been bamboozled by the upper-crust family and refers to them as “fags.”

My verdict

This was a pleasant-enough comedy and I enjoyed it well enough, but it’s not a film that I’d necessary go back to. The filmmakers are so intent on making Bugs likable to the audience that you don’t believe for a moment that he spent years as the head of a bootlegging gang (even if they were only dealing in beer). The humor is gentle and the story enjoyable; the moral, as in many early Depression-era films, is that good sense and morality trumps wealth (even if you have to beat somebody up to do it).

I also thought that the whole plot reveals some fairly wishful thinking on the part of the filmmakers: That when Prohibition ended, the organized crime syndicates that it engendered would disappear as well. Unfortunately, as we all know, the mobs simply moved on to bigger – and worse — things.

In honor of St. Crispin’s Day: 4 versions of Shakespeare’s speech

Today is St. Crispin’s Day — not a day that I would usually celebrate, being neither Christian nor English. But I do love my Shakespeare, and one thing I really enjoy is how the same speech can be interpreted in a variety of ways by different actors. So here, in honor of the day, are four different interpretations of the well-known St. Crispin’s Day speech in Henry V — all interpreted differently depending on the actor, the director, and what was going on at the time the scene was filmed.

1944 with Laurence Olivier

1989 with Kenneth Branaugh

1997 with Mark Rylance (at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre)

2012 with Tom Hiddleston (only a portion of the speech)