Friday, February 24, 2012

Bring on The Red Carpet

I did it. I saw all nine of the movies nominated for Best Picture before this weekend’s Academy Awards. The last time I completed the feat was the year I had my first child. There were only five nominees and the statuette went to Titanic. Since then, the nominees have been upped to as many as ten, which let’s face it, is enough to drown in – even if Leonardo DiCaprio is holding your hand.

But I love the movies. Always have. I remember one of my best days as an investment banker in Manhattan was playing hooky to see a matinee with a colleague. (Of course that act of defiance was weakened when we found ourselves still at the office at 2 am). And Slim and I were at The English Patient with friends the night I went into labor with our first. Yes, we stayed for the whole thing and we had popcorn.

Two hours of entertainment and escapism for an afternoon or evening can’t be beat. (Or morning as the case may be - just ask my kids, whom I made see the 10 am showing of War Horse on Presidents’ Day.)  But movies can be so much more – at their best, they help us make sense of the times in which we live.

This year’s films and their directors and writers say all kinds of things about the world around us. And now it’s my turn to say just a few things about them.

First, if the best picture nominees are any indication, it was not a good year for fathers and fatherhood in the movies. The Artist, Midnight in Paris and The Help can all pass go. But the others, sheesh.

The Descendants opens with George Clooney explaining that he is “the back-up parent” and that he knows very little about his own children or how to parent. Even as an absentee father, I wasn’t buying George Clooney as dad. But the casting of the history and scenery of Hawaii as a supporting actor in the film made up for his weakness.

Admittedly, I was also distracted for much of the movie thinking of the poor actress who must have gotten the “good news-bad news” call from her agent. “Good news, you are playing the part of George Clooney’s wife. Bad news, you’re in a coma for the entire movie. Oh yeah, and you cheated on him.”

Which takes us to Brad Pitt as father – in two of the best picture contenders. Being a father of six himself, no doubt makes him more believable in the role. And being a father of six himself, makes it believable that he would want to do as many films as he could in a given year!

In Moneyball, the storyline of Pitt as divorced dad trying to stay close to his daughter is really just a vehicle to get two of the only three female characters into a (great) movie about baseball statistics and objective and subjective value. The relationship also provides one of the best songs to come out of the movies this year. (With only two pieces competing for Best Original Song – from The Muppets and the animated Rio, at that – how can The Show by Lenka not have gotten a nod?)

Pitt’s role as father in The Tree of Life is far more demanding and complicated. He himself explained the part in an interview, “In the film…the mother represents grace and love, and the father represents nature – but nature as that oppressive force that will choke another plant out for its own survival.”

Which explains why nearly half the movie feels like an IMAX special about the creation of the universe, nature’s destruction and the origin of dinosaurs. Consider yourself warned. The movie does have a gorgeous soundtrack, as Pitt’s troubled character gave up his dream of being a classical pianist to become an engineer. (Like that’s not gonna come back and bite you when you’re dreaming of a future for your own children.)

I saw Hugo and Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close back to back. The first is a visually delectable Brothers Grimm kind of fairytale about an orphaned boy looking for a key that he’s sure will unlock a message from his father who was killed in a fire. The latter is a visual and emotional scavenger hunt through New York City about a boy with a key that he’s sure will unlock a message from his father who was killed in 9/11.

Somebody, please, get these boys together!

I went to both movies reluctantly and they were my surprise favorites of the season.  I don’t do kids movies that aren’t really for kids and I don’t do 9/11. My assumptions were wrong on both counts.

Much of the criticism of Extremely Loud has centered on the movie’s post 9/11 setting. It has been dubbed “Extremely, incredibly exploitative.” It’s unfortunate, because you don’t need 9/11 for a story about fear, courage, family, hope, healing, forgiveness and resilience. By all means go, but plan on a nap and a day or two to recover.

Hugo director Martin Scorsese said that he agreed to adapt the novel-meets-picture book when his wife asked him to make something their young daughter could watch. (It must be completely normal in Hollywood to be 69, married five times and have a 12-year-old.) He succeeded and then some – and he just may be thanking his wife and daughter Sunday night.

Steven Spielberg’s War Horse went the other direction. He adapted a children’s novel into a graphic World War I epic that should be subtitled, “Saving Joey The Horse.” The fact that the movie was released over Christmas, previewed with family movies, and marketed as “a boy and his horse” story perhaps contributed to my confusion thinking it was a kids movie.

During the movie, my own kids kept asking what time it was (never a good sign). And when it was finally over, Thing Two actually said, “I liked Saving Private Ryan better.”  Of course, the sub plot is an alcoholic father who doesn’t have the courage to be a father to his son.

Lest you think the movies were just harsh on fathers this year, let’s finish up with Best Actress nominee Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher. First, having been an ardent fan of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher throughout my teens, I was unaware that not everyone felt this way. Well, the biopic of Britain’s first female Prime Minister is not in the hands of fans.  A friend of the director even said to her, “I made a pact with a friend at university that we would party on the day of her death.”

The Iron Lady excoriates Margaret Thatcher as a leader, colleague, wife, boss, politician, and mother for the full hour and 45 minutes. The movie’s treatment of her as a mother was, to me, the most insidious. Thatcher’s children are shown in silent clips chasing her, grabbing her skirt, her car – anything to touch and have a piece of her. And the movie portrays Thatcher choosing ambition over her children every time.

The last scene shows an aged Thatcher looking out her kitchen window. She smiles as she hears birds and the laughter and voices of children playing. She tells her maid she’s not going out because she “has nowhere to go.”

Hmm. If the director wants me to believe that Margaret Thatcher blew it and has regrets about motherhood, I’m not buying it. I am certain the former Prime Minister has places to go. And so do I. I’m hoping to catch an early screening of 21 Jump Street.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

One Life To Live... Many To Read

I finally finished reading the Steve Jobs’ biography. My boys gave it to me when it was released on my birthday. (Coincidence? I’m not so sure.) Fascinating, inspiring, insightful, and provocative. I don’t expect to ever read a more current biography. It was as if the final chapters were being written when I laid the book on my nightstand. And had I been reading it on an iPad, I almost would have believed it to be true.

That said, three months to read about one life is a long time. But let’s remember there was Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s tucked into that quarter. And let’s remember that  Steve Jobs – the analog version between two hardback covers – weighs over two pounds.

So, for stints on planes, trains and automobiles, I opted to travel with lighter fare - by all definitions. But after watching the puzzle pieces of a familiar life unfold so dramatically in that book, I was drawn to other biographies – particularly those of contemporary lives. First up was Tina Fey. I mean really, how can you not read a book named Bossypants? Or for that matter, listen to a song called Little Miss Can’t Be Wrong? Or follow a blog titled Playgroup With…?

After Bossypants and all of its delights, I moved on to Coal Miner’s Daughter, the autobiography of Loretta Lynn. I’m not really a country music fan and can’t even say I’d listened to any Loretta Lynn. But after hearing her leave NPR’s Terry Gross nearly speechless more than once in an interview (find the link here), I knew I had to read it.  And it did not disappoint.

It wasn’t until my next book that I noticed a pattern developing. Slim and I were reading in bed. (If that surprises you, then you’re obviously a new reader – welcome.) In a pattern that was cemented probably not long after the honeymoon, he reads aloud the titillating bits from The Economist and asks me what I’m reading.

“Um, Stories I Only Tell My Friends,” I said behind the anonymity of my blue pleather Kindle cover. But Slim pushed for more.

“It’s Rob Lowe’s autobiography,” I admitted.

“So Bossypants was too demanding?” he asked.

And perhaps that was it. I didn’t want demanding. My stack of someday reads includes biographies of Charles Dickens, Ronald Reagan, Charles Darwin, Flannery O’Connor, Louis Armstrong, a second volume on Theodore Roosevelt, Alexander Hamilton, Etta James, and Rudyard Kipling.

But I didn’t choose any of those. I went for three contemporary lives. I wanted to read about people that were if not of my actual era, bios that were of the stories and experiences I was living. I was drawn to books that were perhaps more about the living of a life than the achievement of a given life. 

Maybe it's because I've taken myself off of the achievement merry-go-round that I feel an outsider to the men and women doing, leading, innovating, and giving their TED Talks on making a difference. But I know that much of real living happens in the pauses, commas and spaces in between the achievements.

I remember when I had babies, my mother told me about the biography of then Secretary of State Madeleine Albright that had just been published. She apparently taught herself Russian while breastfeeding her twins. I wasn’t sure I could even hold a book while I breastfed.

Biography as a genre goes all the way back to the Epic of Gilgamesh etched on clay tablets in 18th century BC. The stories advanced to include powerful members of the church, then royalty, and then Renaissance artists. The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin is considered the first American contribution to the field.

The earliest published female life story is harder to find. But the lists are littered with familiar names and achievements – Abigail Adams, Joan of Arc, Clara Barton, Susan B. Anthony and The Autobiography of Alice b. Toklas by Gertrude Stein (explain to me how that one works?) Of course the oft-cited best selling and most widely read of all female biographies? Anne Frank’s The Diary of A Young Girl.

I am sure that each of these women led remarkable lives and made incalculable contributions to history. But some days you don’t want to read about what it’s like to be a teenager living in a secret annex in Amsterdam. Some days you want to read about what it’s like to have a teenager living upstairs in the suburbs.

And that’s the box a well-done contemporary biography or memoir can check. These are people leading fantastically colorful lives – and yet they struggle with the social pressures of parenting, the anxiety of a child with a driver’s license, and pursuing their own goals all the while trying to quiet the unrelenting internal debate, “Am I doing it right?” and its close cousin, “What did I @#!* up today?”

Tina Fey, Loretta Lynn and Rob Lowe write as much about the parts of their lives that are universal as those that set them apart. Loretta Lynn talks about finding a quiet place to write – away from her babies – leaning against the outdoor toilet. Rob Lowe talks about the challenges and charms of parenting his own sons, who are now the same age he was when he starred in The Outsiders.

And this bit of parenting angst is courtesy of Tina Fey:

I thought that raising an only child would be the norm in Manhattan, but my daughter is the only child in her class without a sibling. Most kids have at least two. Large families have become a status symbol in New York. Four beautiful children named after kings and pieces of fruit are a way of saying, “I can afford a four-bedroom apartment and $150,000 in elementary school tuition fees each year. How you livin’?

In their classic guide about how and why we read, How To Read A Book, Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren describe the genre. “Biography, like history, can be a cause of practical, moral action. A biography can be inspiring. It is the story of a life, usually a more or less successful one – and we too have lives to lead.”

And we too have lives to lead. 

Hmm. So I’ve got bios of Charles Darwin and Andre Agassi queued up next. I wonder which one I will Open?