Friday, November 27, 2009


Fellini's Masterwork

I could have made this an Essential Cinema review but if I had it would have been pretty biased. I have often considered this one of my favorite films of all time. I don't want to talk about the film per sae, but what it taught me, and in so doing, why it is such a great film. I started recalling this film recently because there are advertisements circulating for the upcoming release of "9", which is the movie version of the Broadway play "9" which is a musical based on the original film "8 1/2' (Otto e Mezzo)

For those that have never seen or heard of this film, it is generally considered a classic of Italian Cinema and often times makes it onto the lists of most cinema snobs. It is the creation of the Italian Director Federico Fellini and is an autobiographical story about the director and his creative process. In essense, it is a film about making a film.

(For those that don't know the original significance of the title, Fellini considered this to be his 8 1/2 film. He had made 7 films previously and collaborated on one other.)

I first saw this film as a very young man. I was 18 years old and a freshmen at Oregon State University. College is a huge melting pot of ideas and experience. One of the perks of college life was the odd films the student union or some other college club would put on for students in the large auditoriums at night. One day I saw a flyer for this film and was curious to see it. I had heard that it was supposed to be such a good film, so I figured I owed it to myself to go check it out. I walked through the campus twilight to the auditorium and settled into a desk to be impressed by good, cultured cinema.

What I saw, in black and white, on the screen for the next 2 hours made absolutely no sense. As far as I could tell, the film had no plot and was just a bunch of strange random scenes thrown together. I left the auditorium that night feeling as though I had wasted an evening. This was good cinema? I thought not.

Flash forward four years.

I had lived a lot in those four years. Frustration, happiness, lots of college parties, lettered in sports, taken some great vacations, and my time in academia was coming to a close. I was a 'seasoned' student and I knew the ropes of college life.

One evening I was hanging out with some of my college buddies on a Friday night, when we decided to check out a local video store and rent some movies. Video tapes were pretty new things back in the early 1980s and it was like going to your first video arcade or driving in your first convertible. WE could chose what was going to be on TV. Since there were three of us, we decided that we could each rent one film. We browsed the isles looking for what we wanted to watch. My friends chose some action adventure films that I can't recall. But me, I came across a copy of 'Otto e Mezzo' on VHS and paused. I wanted to give it one more shot. I must have missed something the first time around. My companions were not impressed. They looked at my selection and in no uncertain terms indicated that we would be watching my movie 'last'.

We went back to our large, turn of the century, college house and parked ourselves in front of a small black & white television and vegged out on video for the next 4 hours. By the time the first two films were over, it was 11:30pm and my two compatriots headed off to bed. So I was left alone in a dark house with the glow of the small television and my black and white foreign film with English subtitles. I went to the kitchen, got out a gallon bottle of Gallo 'Red' wine and a block of cheese. I returned to the television room and slipped the video tape into the machine.

As I sat there in the dark, I sipped my wine and watched Marcello Mastroianni, Claudia Cardinal and Anok Aimee go through their paces once more. But this time it was different. Gradually, as I watched, the film made sense. Not only did it make sense, it made perfect sense. The directors surreal visions in dealing with his cast, his producer, his writers, his critics and his women were all perfect. I was able to understand exactly what he was feeling and in so doing I was able to learn that others saw the world and felt the same way that I did. It was a revelation. By 2am in the morning, half a gallon of wine was gone and I didn't want the film to end.

I walked back to my apartment in the pre-dawn twilight with visions of the film still running through my mind. The interplay of emotions, visions and memories are in all of us. Fellini found a way to put them all on film so that we can all know that we think and fell the same things. It was genius.

I have watched the film several times since. Most folks I have met that have seen it still don't understand it or don't care for this film. The difference from the first time I saw it and the second time was that I wasn't the same person anymore. When I first saw it, I was still thinking in the rigid terms that I had grown up with as a child. I had been raised to think 'inside' the box. I hadn't experienced that much yet. By the time I watched it again, four years later, my view of the world had changed and my experiences had changed me as well.

A young child can't really appreciate the works of Vincent Van Gogh. They seem like rudimentary finger paintings at first. It is only after you understand the torment of Van Gogh's life and what he went through, that their true meaning comes through. This film is the same way. It takes all the frustrations and experiences in our lives and paints them on a canvas that is both whimsical, beautiful and profound. And in so doing, makes everyone that watches it realize that their lives can be just as beautiful and profound. It is all in our perception.

It is cinema like this that makes me seek out other films that show me the same thing. The most recent example that I can think of are 'American Beauty', 'The Shawshank Redemption' and 'Snow Falling on Cedars'. Works that show, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that cinema can be much more than just moving pictures on a screen.

(P.S. Bonus points for anyone that has seen the film or is interested enough to give it a shot. What do the words "Asa Nisi Masa" mean, and after watching the film.....what do they mean to you?)

I will be astounded if anyone actually answeres this question.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Find My Fantasy

Painting ONLY the Rosey Picture

I was watching the semi-finals of Dancing with the Stars last night. I don't really care much for the show anymore, but my wife still loves it. Since I love her, we watched it. Besides there isn't much better on television anyway. One of the perks of watching the 'big' finale shows, is that the network will sneak in previews of their next big show (oww whoo...the next Bachelor is an Airline Pilot!) or they will follow the finale up with some new show that they want the audience to latch on to. Such was the case last night, when the premiere episode of "Find My Family" came on after 'Dancing With The Stars'.

Now from the get-go, I had grave doubts about this whole concept. Given my generalized contempt for the media, I watched the show just to see if my suspicions were correct. Needless to say, I walked out of the room after the first 15 minutes.

If you haven't caught a glimpse of this show, here is the premise. They find a parent that has lost a child due to adoption, or vice versa, an adopted child that is searching for their birth parent. They do the obligatory background stories on each, then reunite them under a big 'tree' in the middle of nowhere (Family ..... Tree .... get it?). There are hugs and kisses all around and the emotion just oozes out of their glands as the multiple cameras, some mounted high up IN the tree and some being held by the teams of steady-cam operators capture every good tear soaked second.

My first thought was, who is the idiot network CEO that green-lighted this concept? The target audience is going to be limited. Namely adopted children or original birth parents. Granted, there appears to be a huge segment of the American population that will watch ANYTHING that ends in crying and group hugs, but is this really the demographic you want to push Chevys and Viagra too?

Then there is the 3000lb gorilla in the room. My job entails working with a lot of children in foster care. A majority of these children will be severed from their birth parents and put up for adoption by the state. Why? Well, mostly because the birth mothers are crack whores and they would rather turn tricks to buy more meth than buy baby food for the bouncing bundle of joy that was an 'accident'. Trust me little adopted boy or girl, you DON'T want to find your birth parents. There is a good chance they are incarcerated or they died in a drug house knife fight. But for some reason, I don't think these story lines will make it onto "Find My Family". This is a hugs and tears show, not a "we found your mother's grave, she died from a heroin overdose 3 years after giving birth to you" show.

This is another in a long line of network television reality shows designed to 'manufacture' drama and emotion and play to a basic emotional need in the under-educated populace that only knows how to operate a remote control and not much else. My general faith in the intelligence level of the American public will raise or fall depending on how long this show lasts on the air. I am guessing it won't last the entire season. If it gets renewed for a second season.......I am moving to Canada.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Tree House

The Dome Project and Recollections of Youth

If you have followed this blog for any length of time, you know about my adventures at the Burning Man Festival. Recollections of past burns can be found here and here and here. Attending Burning man is a hardship. You have to really want to go there to attend and you have to use your wits and persevere to reach the final goal of really 'burning'.

I realized this in 2009 when I attended for the second time. It wasn't a matter of just showing up and going, wow...geee-whiz, what a cool place. After my first journey there in 2007, I knew I had to DO something if I went back a second time. I had to push myself.

The Dome Factory In My Garage

The project I gave myself was pretty straight forward and logical. My first stay at Burning Man was in a tent, which proved to be a bit inadequate against the 40mph winds and dust storms. So the second time around I resolved to build myself a geodesic dome. This has been a dream of mine that I have had on the back burner for a number of years. I have hopes of building one someday to live in, and this was the first logical baby step. Build a small one and take it to Burning Man.

I researched the project and found plans on the Internet. It would be made out of cardboard and wood, constructed in my backyard, dissembled, hauled to Burning Man, erected, and when it was all over, we would tear it down and burn it. It took a lot more planning than I thought and was complex in ways unforeseen and easier in ways that I had not imagined.

Half Dome - The Dream Takes Shape

The hardest part was finding the sheets of cardboard. Cardboard boxes are easy to find, sheets of unfolded cardboard are not so easy. After doing a lot of research and collecting all the needed material, I started to work on the project a month before the Burn. A bit late per my schedule, but I was determined to make a go of it. After about 2 weeks, I had assembled the various panels that would make up the structure. Making them was easy and I figured out an assembly-line process to do it. Erecting the dome was another project entirely. Domes are extremely rigid when complete, but putting them together isn't that easy.

By the time my wife had helped me assemble the structure in our back yard, a few things became pretty clear. It was a lot bigger than I thought it would be. I mean, you can live in this thing rather comfortably. You could easily stand up in the center of it. It was 12 feet in diamter and 6 feet tall at the middle. I also realized that cardboard and wood, when assembled correctly, make a pretty darn solid structure. Properly secured to the ground you could ride out a Class 2 hurricane in this little building.

Full Dome - The Neighbors Were Starting To Wonder

After the initial erection, to make sure it would fit together, I disassembled it and started on some of the other detail work, like making a door for it, cutting up some discarded carpeting to create a soft floor for it and purchasing a portable generator. The generator took me way over budget, but was worth it. The generator was used to power the portable air conditioning unit for the dome and run some electric lights inside of it. It also was used to power up various devices like cameras, cell phones and iPods.

So when the big day finally came, we packed up everything and hauled it 2,000 miles to Burning Man where we managed to erect it without a hitch. By the end of the first day, I had a rigid structure that was carpeted and air conditioned, in the frickin middle of nowhere. I was the envy of most Burners within a mile radius. The dome had no windows, because I wanted to use it as a dark room to load film and sleep in.

"The Bio-Hazard Wine Dome Erected At Burning Man 2009

The first night I stayed in the dome a feeling came over me. A feeling that I had not had in years. Not since I was a small child, before all the cynicism and realty of adulthood sank in. This was my little house. I built it. This was the extension of the cave I made under the bed sheets on a cold winters night, the tree house I had when I was in grade school, the secret cave down by the river that only me and my friends knew about. It was my little space. I had made it. Outside in the night, the winds whirled around the dome but inside there was silence and solitude. It was a warm feeling. A feeling of success and security. It was something good. Something I had lost somewhere between paying taxes and the endless commutes to a cubicle in a glass tower. I was a child again, at the age of 52.

The 52 Year Old Child

Many of my friends can't understand why I would want to make the trek to Burning Man and endure all the hardships to get there. I suppose this is the answer. We have to push ourselves sometime, to rediscover the wonderment we have lost.

Friday, November 6, 2009

First Friday Flashbacks

Fading To Black.....

We often times forget about the experiences that really define our lives, until the universe tapes us on the shoulder and forces us to remember

First Published on December 1, 2005

[A special note, the images are tombstones from the Arizona Memorial Cemetary here in Phoenix Arizona. I used to go there a lot for inspiration and reflection.]

Arizona Memorial

I got sick last week during the Thanksgiving holidays. Don't remember much of it. Actually, Sue got sick first and then after 36 hours the bug made the leap to a new host. The price I pay for loving her, but hey, it is worth it.

This was a good bug. Not that it was a mild illness, it was anything but that. This germ really kicked my ass. Haven't had my mind, body and soul worked over like this since I got a 104 degree fever in high school. When I have no arguments about going to Urgent Care and waiting for 2 hours to fill out paperwork just to get some antibiotics, you know I have thrown in the towel.

Arizona Memorial

While there was not a lot of pain involved with this illness, there was a lot of coughing, running nose and some extreme muscle weakness which made just getting out of bed to make it to the TV almost a triathlon event. So the predominant thing that that I did for 72 hours was sleep for about 60 of them. And brother, let me tell you, that is all I wanted to do.

With this sort of extreme exhaustion and fever, the things that go through your mind are not really under your control. I recall trying to lie down and think about things, but my thoughts eventually ended up on some really weird subjects as I lapsed in and out of consciousness for 10 hours at a stretch.

My overly analytical brain had enough power left to speculate that this is what the start of the 'final journey' must be like. That slow descent into the afterlife as the present life slowly drains from your body. There isn't a lot of fear or pain here. It is pretty much the most relaxing thing you can do. I recall struggling to crawl between the sheets just so I would not have to tax my brain to keep my balance anymore and the relief I felt after getting all cozy and just letting gravity do all the work once I was laying there.

Arizona Memorial

All the thoughts that kept running through my mind were some sort of bizarre "life passes before your eyes" movie with no particular order or reason and with a Fellini-like twist of surrealism. Inside the womb of the bed, I was relaxed, tired, and had this strange catalog of video memories that seemed to be stuck in the 'random view' mode. These were not visions of material wealth or great accomplishment, they were recollections of emotions and what had caused them. It was that whole sort of life's lesson movie that Frank Capra tried to teach us in 'It's A Wonderful Life'. All that stuff about virtue and value and the things you leave behind that can't fit in your coffin / urn because they are intangible.

In a way it was almost enjoyable (except for the hacking and the sweating, not to mention the inability to eat anything). These scenes from marriage, childhood and work would float through my mind and then I would cock an eye open and look at the alarm clock by the bed. It read 2:37pm, and I thought I should get up and get something to drink. After 'thinking' about getting up for about 12 minutes, I dozed back into the movie theater of life for another 25 minute screening. I was finding it enjoyable to be able to be totally exhausted and totally content in that bed and let my deeply stored subconscious just play away.

Arizona Memorial

I was thankful that this was a holiday week since I was not missing much work and could just let this virus run its course.

It has been over a week since that fun filled and fever induced experience, and I am still not quite over this thing. The concrete that formed in my sinus is still being chipped away at with medication and deep breaths still make me cough, but I am getting back to normal slowly. I guess sometimes, Mother Nature has more than one way of forcing you to slow down and re-examine things.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Paying For My Sins

Burdened with Guilt?

This seems to be the season for the intellectual post. After seeing fellow blogger The Verdant Dude pick apart the artist and his art via Roman Polanski, I thought I would dust off a blog that I have had in waiting for a few weeks.

Last week I was standing at the bus stop in the early evening twilight when I spied the sign pictured above. It is for Arizona's version of the United Way campaign where they ask state employees to contribute part of their paychecks to help the needy by pooling all their money together to help the less fortunate.

As I stood waiting for the bus in order to save money on gas, which is a luxury I can't afford these days, it sort of dawned on me that "I" was one of the less fortunate! Where was my slice of the pie?

First of all, I am not against charity. Just like I am not against religion. However, whenever middle men start to step in to take their 'cut' of the good deeds of others, I start to get a tad bit annoyed. Organized charity, just like organized religion tends to lead to the dark side. Remember, there is money to be made in other peoples suffering. Something that plaintiff attorneys in this country are well acquainted with.

So I stand there waiting for the bus, thinking that I have been asked to donate to this cause, when I am in danger of losing my job to budget cuts because this state is 4 billion dollars in the red due to miss-management. Something just does not seem right here.

Add to this, the fact that in the past I have actually been on committees that helped distribute some of this charity. When we went to see one of the 'less fortunate’s' home, we found a color TV, an X-Box video game, a Chevy in the driveway, Fruit Loops and Captain Crunch in the kitchen and a single mother with 6 children, all from different fathers. Less fortunate suddenly seemed to be more like bad decision making. How did this less fortunate person qualify for this charity? She applied for it, just like a job interview.

As I continued to stare at the sign in the gathering darkness of the bus stop, it sort of dawned on me that this was all about guilt and not wanting to get our hands dirty. Many folks 'feel' for the less fortunate, but they don't want to actually get their hands dirty and 'do' something about it.

They could make sandwiches and hand them out to the homeless in the park on Sunday. They could offer rides to a limping transient trying to get to the homeless shelter. They could offer to pay for an all day bus pass for a homeless person. But they don't. Instead they will donate $50 to some bureaucratic charity to do it for them.

Isn't this like paying someone else to sit in traffic court for you if you get a speeding ticket. Isn't this like 19th Century England, were the aristocracy could 'pay' for someone else to sit in prison for them when they were convicted of a crime. It just defers social responsibility with money.

Here in Phoenix, Arizona, they air about 500 Accident/Injury Lawyer advertisements a day on television. All these commercials assure the viewer that the attorney is working to protect their legal rights in the event of an accident. Bullshit, they are offering to be professional insurance claim collectors and want 33% of your pain and suffering. If they really cared that much, they might be doing pro-bono criminal law to put the drunk driver that hit you behind bars. Yeah, that is going to happen!

So the bus finally arrived and took me home, where I made my nightly martini and sat on the front porch, just happy I have a nice home, wife and job. But the notion lingered that we are just not a responsible society anymore. We pay others to do thing that we should be doing ourselves. Somewhere back down the line, we placed way too much emphasis on the use of money to solve all our problems.

Is it just me? Or am I being way to cynical here?

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Burning The Temple - Part 4

A Fictional Recollection in Four Parts

The Man burned brightly, and he burned for almost an hour. A huge bonfire that light up the desert and the thousands of followers that had come to witness it. Scout watched from the front rows, the heat from the Man was so intense that he had to shield his eyes from the flames. The same heat bathed Bliss' face as she stood among the thousands.

The partying went on well into the wee hours of the morning as some revelers went all out on their last night in paradise. Others slowly started to disassemble their camps to leave for what they called the 'default world' the next morning. Scout wandered the Playa well into the evening hours, thinking and contemplating. He had so little time to do any of this in the world he had come from.

Sunday dawned with many of the adjacent camp sites empty as a long line of Burners made their way out of Black Rock City. Wandering the Playa the previous night, Scout had decided to stay until Sunday night. He wanted to take it all in and see what the last gasp of the event would be like. He had nothing to run back to. He was in no hurry and there was still one last thing he had to find out.

The Temple was the last structure to be burned. All throughout the day, there were raging bonfires along the avenues as Burners set fire to the remains of their camps. Columns of smoke rose into the air throughout the day as wood and fabric were consumed in the giant steel cauldrons that were placed around the Playa. As dusk approached, Scout walked to the Temple, in order to arrive before it was finally closed to prepare it for consumption. As he approached the entrance, he saw a woman adorned in furry knee high boots, bright orange bikini bottoms, a low cut t-shirt and multi-colored dreadlocks that flowed down her back. Across the top of her bare chest was written the word 'Bliss' in bright orange finger paint.

"Miss Bliss, I presume?", Scout inquired.

"Boy Scout.", replied Bliss with a smile, " made it."

The two walked up the incline into the interior of the Temple. They spoke at ease about their experiences of the past week, and their impressions of the art and the burning of the Man. They maneuvered their way through the crowds that were looking at the inscriptions on the Temple walls one last time.

Bliss turned to Boy Scout and asked, "So, do you think you know who you are now?"

"I am not sure", replied Scout, "...but I am starting to figure it out."

"Yeah, Burning Man will do that to you."

Bliss leaned against the railing and looked out at the 6 o'clock Avenue toward the site of where the Man had stood. Scout leaned forward next to her and surveyed the world that they had known together for the past seven days.

"Glad you could make it.", she said with a smile.

Bliss glanced over at Scout and saw him scribbling something on the railing. He stuffed the pen back into his pocket and smiled at Bliss.

"I'll be back.", he replied..

Bliss and Boy Scout left the Temple at 6pm and walked together back toward where the Man had stood. Half way there, they turned to see flames rising up from the Temple, as all of the thoughts, prayers and hopes that were inscribed within it were consumed.

Burning The Temple - Part 1
Burning The Temple - Part 2
Burning The Temple - Part 3
Burning The Temple - Part 4


Writers Note: The imagery and some of the events represented in this work of fiction were taken from my recent trip to the Burning Man Festival in 2009. To see more of my photographs from the event check out my Flickr Collection. To view my video documenting our trip to Burning Man, check out my You Tube channel. You can also check out the Burning Man Video Guide on my You Tube Channel as well. If you want to learn more, visit the Burning Man Website.