Friday, January 25, 2019

The Best Movie of 2018

Yalitza Aparicio and Marina de Tavira in Roma

Spoiler alert: Do not read any further if you have not seen Roma.

Roma: A Visual Prayer

            “Well, my daddy, he was just a stranger
lived in a hotel downtown
well, when I was a kid, he was just somebody
somebody I’d see around…”
--Bruce Springsteen

            Those Springsteen lyrics from “Long Time Comin’” have resonated with me since I first heard them. They speak to the impact that fathers, or more apropos, the effect absent fathers can have on our lives. These lyrics are incarnated in Alfonso Cuarón’s film, Roma. The movie’s title is a direct reference to Roma Sur, a middleclass suburb of Mexico City. These lyrics came to my mind especially though a scene about an hour into the film. “Toño” and his friend, Beto, are at an outdoor magazine stand in the city, and they clearly see Sr. Antonio joyfully playing with his mistress. Toño’s dad and his girlfriend are running, holding hands and laughing. Beto says, “Look, your dad!” However, junior denies it. In fact, he knows it was his father, but, in an act of self-protection, he firmly tells his friend, “No!”  He needs to believe that his dad is actually at a medical conference in Quebec. Believing the lie his dad told the family is better than coming to grips with the fact that his father has abandoned him. Through that scene, and others, the fatherwound is captured perfectly in Roma. Indeed, from this writer’s perspective, the movie is a lot of things, but it is primarily an indictment of the self-absorbed male, the male who cares more about his own pleasure than he does for his family. One thing that makes this film wonderful is that it is not heavy-handed with that, or any message. It doesn’t preach. It simply remembers. It lets us simmer in the harsh personal, social, political, and gender realities of Mexico in the 1970s.

            To me, Cuarón’s Roma is the female affirming film of the year. It is also my very favorite film of 2018, and a very strong contender for the best motion picture of the 21stcentury, thus far. 

            Another musical lyric that has always resonated within me comes from the song, “Stumbling Through the Dark,” by The Jayhawks:

“The men who proceeded us here left only questions and fears….”

            In this opus on memory, maestro Cuarón has provided this moviegoer with a visual representation of that profound Gary Louris line too. As noted above, Toño would have fears, one of them being that Beto would know the truth about his family. As for questions, what could be a more powerful question than the one Sofi will ask her mother about her dad at the end of the film, “He doesn’t love us anymore?” Abandoned herself, Sra. Sofia tries to assure her children, saying, “He says he wants to see you,” but Toño will have another question, “When?” He’s told, “He doesn’t know, but soon.” This is a “soon” that children of an absent father know rings hallow. Questions and fears indeed. For me, my favorite films are usually ones that cut deeply into my personal feelings. As I watched this scene, a later one, which plays out a beachside restaurant, one very reminiscent of the director’s 2001 movie, Y Tu Mamá También, I harkened back to my own mother assuring me about my own absent birth father: “He loves you in his own way.” Later, as I struggled to bridge the gap between boyhood and manhood, I would come to understand that “his own way” meant forsaking his wife and son so that he could place another tally mark on his very literal sexual-conquests-tracking-sheet. 

            The gender issues in Roma playout in many ways, some of them very subtle. For example, early on in the film we see a meal scene at a table. Everyone is present except for the father. It is the grandma, Sra. Teresa, mom, Sra. Sofia, and four children. Additionally, drawing attention to the class differences, we see that Cleo’s friend, another housekeeper, Adela, relegated to eating her food at another table in the kitchen with her boyfriend. The message is clear, Adela and Cleo might be like family, but they are lesser. Likewise, we see that, as the only girl, little Sofi is treated differently than her brothers, Toño, Paco, and Pepe, even by her mother. Little Sofi is called “stupid” by her brothers. When Cleo is sprinkling sugar on their strawberries, Sofi’s own mom, Sra. Sofia, says, “Not for Sofi, she’ll get fat!” The message is clear: In this world, the standards are different for boys and girls, just as they are for men and women, home-owners and maids. Even as a young girl, little Sofi is being shamed.

            Although there are many layers and subtexts to Roma, for me, the primary, and most interesting theme in the film does has to do with these gender issues, specifically how women are treated and why men are culpable. This is a constant through-line in the film. The above image captures Sra. Sofia telling Cleo, “No matter what they tell you, we women are always alone.” This chilling line speaks to the unreliability of men. The image is also a fitting tribute to the two women to which Roma pays tribute. However, the film isn’t only critical of absent men, it also addresses the entitlement of “present” men, as well as the ways in which women have been treated in general. For example, after the family takes a trip to the country, there is a scene during a party in which Sra. Sofia is sexually harassed. She is minding her own business, and Billy walks up and presses up against her, rubbing her in a sexually demanding way. It is a real Trumpian “grab ‘em by the pussy” moment that certainly women from any country or background have experienced. When she resists and sets her boundary, he quips: “What’s wrong with you? I know you need it.” Get that, “What’s wrong with you?” Like she is the one that has done something wrong. When Billy can’t get what he demanded, he then goes low, saying, “You’re not even that hot, comadre!” So, he finds Sofia attractive enough to have sex with, but when he is denied, he insults her beauty. Since he found her “hot” enough to “proposition” in the first place, what does his lie about her attractiveness say about his character, his insecurities? Again, I saw my own father in Billy. When my father took her hand in marriage, he found his second wife quite the catch, but once they broke-up, he would forever replace her given name with the nickname, “Sperm bucket,” eventually shortening it to “SB” and telling me, “If you ever talk to SB again, I will disown you as a son, and write you out of my will.” I always wondered how a “man” could find someone so desirable at one point, but then dehumanize the exact same person later. As I watched Roma, all of these childhood traumas came back to me. I love Roma so much, because, in the same way that it is a very personal film for the director, it became a very personal film for me.

            Billy and Sr. Antonio are not the only derelict males in this film. Perhaps the starkest example is Fermín. He is Cleo’s boyfriend and a clear representation of toxic masculinity in the film. In a chilling scene, Fermín offers up an indictment to Cleo. After literally threatening to kill her: “And if you don’t want me to beat the shit out of you and your ‘little one’, don’t ever say it again, and don’t ever come looking for me again.” Don’t ever say “it” with the “it” being, “The little one’s yours.” His parting insult is “Fucking servant!” However, the joke will be on Fermin, as, bringing to mind the words of Jesus Christ in Mark 10:43, “Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant.” It is actually Cleo’s servanthood that will ultimately elevate her to greatness. We see signs this greatness, indeed, her special uniqueness, in a scene where Professor Zovek, played by Latin Lover, is leading a field of men at a training camp, in a pose that appears to be teaching the power of mind over body. Zovek declares, “Only the Lamas, martial-arts masters, and a few great athletes have been able to master it.” The master then tells the crowd of young men to close their eyes, and strike the pose: arms above head, standing on one leg. Nobody in the crowd, except for Cleo, is able to keep their balance. Again, I recalled Jesus’ words in John 15:20, “Servants are not greater than their master.” But, the visual image of Cleo successfully striking the pose, gives us a clear message: Cleo is a master. Moreover, later she will literally become a savior, rescuing Sofi, the child, in the car ride home tells her, “I love you, Cleo” and places her head on the servant’s shoulder. Indeed, Cleo is the ultimate symbol of love in this film, even the biblical example of love. In John 15:13, Jesus talks about real love: “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one's life for one's friends.” In what I think is the most incredible film sequence of 2018, the beach scene, this is precisely what Cleo did. Given that the remarkable, and now Academy Award nominated actress, Yalitza Aparicio, herself cannot swim, the ocean rescue scene is all the more illustrative of Jesus’ definition of real love.
Balancing Act: Yalitza Aparicio as Cleo

            Roma is a very personal film, yet it is simultaneously universal, even political, hitting on many bigger, far-reaching themes. At its heart though, the movie is a tribute to the women who raised Cuarón: his mother, grandmother, and their live-in nanny, Cleo. In fact, this film is mostly a tribute to Cuarón’s actual nanny/housekeeper, whose real name is Liboria Rodríguez. Now 75 years old, Rodríguez, who goes by the name, Libo, cared for Cuarón when he was a boy. Supporting this fact, the film is dedicated to Libo. On November 4, 2018, at the DGA in Los Angeles, Cuarón spoke to his friend, director Alejandro González Iñárritu about Libo, stating that Libo “comes from a very, very, very, very, very poor background, I would say extreme poverty.” Second, she is a woman. Adding to that, he noted, “On top of that, she has an indigenous background.” In Mexican society, he charged, Libo had been hit with a “triple whammy of disadvantage.” He concluded by observing that “this perverse relationship between class and race permeates the whole world.” I do agree that this film is universal in the sense that it fosters empathy for the characters, causing the viewer to think about class, race, and gender on a very large scale, in this case, the backdrop of Mexican politics, but like the dog poop that lays on the floor of the garage, the politics are merely there. They are simply part of the day-to-day reality. They’re part of the reality, but not the point of the movie. For example, you’ll see a “LEA” on a hillside, a reference to Mexico’s President, Luis Echeverría Álvarez, the PRI leader who held office from 1970-1976. Cleo will witness the Corpus Christi Massacre, an actual historical event which involved the death of over 100 student demonstrators. Incidentally, during this political unrest, Cleo will come face to face with Fermín again. It was not lost on me that Fermín, gun in hand, and pointed at Cleo, is wearing a “Love is…” (amor es…) t-shirt at the time. This was a comic strip from Kim Casali, which was very popular in the 70s. For those that are curious, Fermín’s shirt translates to “Love is remembering your first kiss.” This is, of course, an extremely ironic placement on Cuarón's part. By the time this happens, Fermín has firmly been established as a character who, at best, has a warped definition of love.

Jorge Antonio Guerrero as Fermín

            This violent personal encounter with Fermín notwithstanding, the political unrest is handled like everything else in the film: with no judgement. In an interview with John Horn, for KPCC’s The Frame, Cuarón describes the camera as “almost like a ghost that was observing, looking at the past.” It would be this same cinematic ghost who would haunt me ever since I saw Roma on November 24, 2018. I found that said “spirit” would drudge-up in me memories that would bring me to tears. I must confess that I actually ended up having loud, bawling convulsion style sobs in the theater. It was Cleo’s birthing scene that did me in. For me, this was personal as it brought up memories of the birth of my first daughter in 2002. For all intent and purposes, she was born dead, totally purple, not crying. Unlike my other three children’s births, our doctor didn’t even offer me a chance to cut the umbilical cord. Instead, my limp, silent daughter was abruptly taken over to a cart where they did CPR. In what were surely the longest minutes of my life, I sat there in shock until my daughter gasped her first breath of life. Her name is Zoey, Zoë, or Ζωη in Ancient Greek, means “life” by the way. Fittingly, Roma is a life-affirming movie. This entire hospital sequence is my second favorite scene of all 2018, with the first being the aforementioned beach sequence. By the time Cleo gets to her great confession some 20 minutes later, “I didn’t want her” – I was completely laid-out, and I never recovered. My own memories were far too powerful. Honestly, it was probably the sheer number of tears I cried that made me name Roma my number one favorite film of 2018. I enjoy feeling deeply.

            Despite the tears, though, I also had beautiful, positive feelings of extreme gratitude which also, like a fountain of life, sprung-up inside of me. These feelings involved a realization of how many random humans I love. When it comes to love, people are the key. And, in this sense, this film is about the existence of people, and the importance of relationships. The director himself said, “It’s just such a mysterious thing, existence. In the sense of there’s just no easy answer for anything, but at the same time it was this thing: How existence puts people together. You know, because time and space limit us, you know they create the boundaries that we cannot transgress, but sometimes they put people together, and it was this thing, ‘How the heck did this woman, who is kind of like my mother in many ways, and there’s this bond of affection, when she comes from a completely different microcosm, a complete different universe than mine?’” This concept of how time and space randomly places people together was yet another gift Roma gave me, I am still reflecting upon it. Cleo isn’t a blood relation to the children of Roma, but she is immensely more important, more valuable to them than their own father, their own blood who abandoned them. As I thought about my own life, and the specific people that time and space allowed into my path, I began to well-up with joy and gratitude. The names poured through my heart. Many of these names are names of women who were randomly placed into my life and, like Cleo, became the embodiment of love. Holly, a young woman who is like a daughter to me, came to mind. How did we find each other? Why? I was going to mention all of them by name, but I became worried about leaving someone out, but these non-blood relations matter. Really matter.

            On November 4, 2018, at the DGA in Los Angeles, Cuarón’s friend, director Alejandro González Iñárritu, concluded his interview of the Roma filmmaker by avouching: “For me this is a dream, and a memory, and part of your heart. I don’t think this is a film. I think you just used film as a medium to give us, and to land, and to impregnate your dream, your memory, and your heart with us. I think I will not want to call this a film. We will have to invent some name for this film because it is not just a film.” At first glance, one might think this was hyperbole; however, I would tend to agree with Mr. Iñárritu. Indeed, I spent some time thinking of which term might best describe Roma. I came up with the phrase “visual prayer” to describe Roma. The reason I think this describes Roma so well is because it brought to mind a piece of writing by a thinker I admire. In writing about Prayer and its relationship to compassion, Henri Nouwen wrote:

Many people tend to associate prayer with separation from others, but real prayer brings us closer to our brothers and sisters everywhere. Prayer is the first and indispensable discipline of compassion precisely because prayer is also the first expression of human solidarity. Why is this so? Because the Spirit who prays in us is the Spirit by whom all human beings are brought together in unity and community. The Holy Spirit, the Spirit of peace, unity, and reconciliation, is constantly revealed to us as the power through whom people from the most diverse social, political, economic, racial, and ethnic backgrounds are brought together as sisters and brothers of the same Christ and daughters and sons of the same Father.

You might want to read that Nouwen quote again. I really do think it captures the heart of what Roma did for me. Roma is a visual prayer for me because it is an expression of human solidarity. It is a vehicle that brings the viewer closer to their fellow humans and the human experience overall. Even more than that, Roma is first and foremost a window into the litmus test that Jesus put forth as the bellwether for his followers: Love. He said so in John 13:35. This film oozes love.

            As mentioned before, Cleo is the ultimate symbol of this love. At the end of the film, as she ascends the metal stairway to the roof, we see an airplane above in the heavens, reminding us of a much bigger, a much higher perspective, something that transcends what we are doing here on Earth. And, for this viewer, I heard again heard the words of Jesus, in John 13:35 this time, “It is by your love that the world will know you are my disciples.” I thought of Fermín’s shirt, “Love is…” I thought: “Love is picking up shit. Love is doing laundry. Love is rising above. Love is staying.” Love is Roma, a true love letter to Cuarón’s mom and nanny. They stayed.

            I wish I could have ended my essay there, with “They stayed.” However, you may have noticed that I have yet to say anything about the actual filmmaking in Roma. This is because, even without the masterful filmmaking, and it is masterful, I would love Roma for what it made me feel, emotionally. Nevertheless, making one random person powerfully feel isn’t enough to make a film great. Only the craft itself can make a piece of cinema stand the test of time to hold its place in the canon of motion picture history. We’re talking movies like Lawrence of Arabia and Schindler’s List. Yes, Roma is like one of those films. Across the board, its below-the-line crafts are outstanding. Having my first viewing in the theater, I was struck by the sound of the film. Both its sound mixing and sound effects editing are remarkable. Because the movie doesn’t actually have a score, the sound production becomes even more important. Think about that for a moment: a movie with no score! Talk about about confidence! There was no soundtrack to manipulate how I felt, the visual prayer did that on its own. The everyday sounds, bird chirps, barking dogs, breaking waves set the tone for this exercise in memory. It was powerful. Production design and art direction in Roma are fantastic too. The way the look of 70s Mexico was recreated is breathtaking. In my second viewing, seemingly unimportant scenes, like the one below, with three motorcycles in the foreground, took my breath away.
The production design in Roma brought authenticity

The cinematography, screenplay, editing, and directing, all done by Cuarón are topnotch. Shot in stunning black and white, the film is a visual masterpiece. Case in point, in a truly original directing feat, early in the film there is a 9-minute scene which simply, yet in a very suspenseful way, “only” involves parking a vehicle. I say “only” because the scene in which Sr. Antonio arrives home in his Ford, Galaxie 500, is laden with symbolism. The automobile’s emblem displays a crown, announcing, “The king has arrived to his castle.” Additionally, the ridiculously narrow garage is like a canal being penetrated in a show of male domination. Finally, there are the actors. Marina de Tavira, as Sra Sofia, and Yalitza Aparicio, as Cleo, give compelling, natural performances. Widely considered long-shots for Academy Award nominations, both of them were nominated, Marina de Tavira for supporting actress, and Aparicio in the leading actress category. In all, Roma received 10 Academy Award nominations, all of them well-deserved. In fact, my biggest disappointment with the Oscar nominations this year is that Roma did not receive one for editing! Whether or not Roma can become the first subtitled film to take home both Best Foreign Language Film and Best Picture remains to be decided, but, ultimately, it doesn’t matter. The technicals, as awe-inspiring as they are, don’t make this my favorite film of the year. When discussing what makes me love a movie, I often say that I like to have my heart ripped out, I like a good sucker-punch to the gut. Roma did that to me, and more. It opened my eyes, it made me grateful, it fostered compassion, and it made me cry. In my opinion, Roma is far and away the best movie of 2018.

Wednesday, August 02, 2017

Meeting Cameron Crowe

I have had several requests to hear the story of me meeting Cameron Crowe on Tuesday, July 25, 2017. I decided to put this into a longer post because it is too lengthy for a simple comment on Facebook.

First, let me get this out of the way now. I met Cameron Crowe once before! Yes, I know, weird, why “need” to meet him again then? I’ll get to that in a moment. Quite some time ago, 18 years ago actually, in 1999, my friend, James, had the opportunity to be on location for the filming of Cameron Crowe’s film, Almost Famous. He worked for a company that was involved in lighting, and he was inside the Hollywood Palladium when Crowe was filming a Stillwater show for the film. If you’re interested, in the movie, the show that takes place in Cleveland is actually shot at the Palladium. At that time (and, I still am) the biggest Jerry Maguire fan. It was my favorite film of 1996.

Side note, despite being a huge lover of Say Anything and Singles (and, of course Fast Times at Ridgemont High, but Cameron wrote, not directed that one), I stupidly wasn’t initially into seeing Jerry Maguire at all. In one of my more embarrassing stubborn moments, when my wife, Chrisy, picked Jerry Maguire on a date, I whined and said, “I don’t want to see a sports movie. I don’t like football.” She pushed hard, and we saw it. I ate my foolish words and pride. Take note: This wasn’t the first or last time she was right about a movie or television show. In the case of Jerry Maguire, as I sat there and Bob Dylan’s “Shelter From The Storm” played at the end of the movie, I was a sitting there in a euphoric state of emotional bliss. I am going to pinpoint this as the very moment in which I truly became a serious, enduring Cameron Crowe fan.

Back to 1999, at that point, I would have told you that Jerry Maguire was my favorite Cameron Crowe film. Since then, however, I have a new theory, and one that I was able to share with Mr. Crowe himself when I met him for the second time a couple days ago. This is a well-honed maxim that I refined with my son. As I stated it to Cameron himself: “Our favorite movie of yours is the one we most recently watched.” Knowing how much I loved Jerry Maguire, James was kind enough to give me a heads-up. He even voluntarily offered to take my original Jerry Maguire poster and attempt to get it signed. Being a fellow child of the 80s, James, as much as me appreciated Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Say Anything, and Singles. In fact, we’d both go so far as to consider them “classics” and we had been known to quote from them, especially, Fast Times, especially anything from Damone’s advice to Rat, like “….whenever possible, put on side one of Led Zeppelin IV.” In fact, James has an incredible, signed Fast Times poster, with autographs from both Cameron and Robert Romanos who played Mike Damone.
I digressed. So James took my Jerry Maguire poster to the set, and, in fact, he did meet Cameron Crowe! James used his brief encounter to tell Cameron about his friend, me! He told him how much I love Jerry Maguire, that I love everything about it, and that I was 100% all-in on KWAN, Rod’s word, “….it means love, respect, community…and the dollars too. The package.” Cameron loved that I loved it, and James brought me back one of the best autographs of all time! The writer/director himself drew a dialogue bubble to show Jerry saying, “Doah! I hereby declare you The King of KWAN…Very Best, Cameron Crowe 99” It was epic! It remains one of my favorite artifacts. Yet, there is something about not having obtained an autograph yourself that is unsatisfying, especially if you truly adore the person, and, in the years since then, I have, in fact, come to adore him even more. With Cameron Crowe, especially from the years 2001-on, my admiration has grown into something that even the word “adore” doesn’t capture. It’s more like he’s become a reliable fount of joy, in the spirit of Old Faithful, a dependable life companion. I don’t want to get into it in too much detail here, but since my wife’s diagnosis of multiple sclerosis in 2013, his movies, especially Elizabethtown, have become something much more important to me, a source of strength, hope, an anesthetic from life’s hardships.

Almost Famous came out in 2000. This movie cranked-up my love of Cameron Crowe to a whole new level. Jerry Maguire was a masterpiece, and, well, Almost Famous was too. At this point, it would be like trying to rank early Elton John albums, I mean, which is better, Madman Across The Water, Tumbleweed Connection, or Honky Chateau? It depends on the day or at least season, right? As much as I loved Almost Famous, it hit my buddy James on an even deeper level. Actually, I’m not sure how one quantifies the extent in which a film impacts someone’s inside. I mean, in all fairness, I cried when they all sang Tiny Dancer in the bus. Who am I kidding? I still cry when they sing Tiny Dancer in the bus. Okay, fine, when my family plays Tiny Dancer in the car, and we sing it, and I start thinking about the Tiny Dancer scene in Almost Famous, I cry. That said, I will still give the edge to James on this one. He was obsessed. I had purchased an official Jerry Maguire poster, and James purchased an Almost Famous poster.
I feel like this is somewhat poetic, honestly very Cameron-Crowe-ish in terms of heart, and putting good juju into the atmosphere, I offered to get James’ Almost Famous poster signed for him in the same way he got my Jerry Maguire signed. So, I went down to the Century Plaza Hotel on the Avenue of the Stars in Century City to the 53rd annual Director’s Guild of America (DGA) Awards ceremony. Let’s stop right there.  For the film calendar year of 2000, Mr. Cameron Crowe was nominated for a DGA Award for Outstanding Directing of a Feature Film. The nominees that year were as follows: Cameron Crowe – Almost Famous; Ridley Scott – Gladiator; Ang Lee – Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; and, get this, Steven Soderbergh – both Traffic and Erin Brokovich, what the heck!? And, in a moment, that, had this awards show been televised, would have caused me to throw my shoe at the television, Ang Lee won the top prize that year! Just to be clear, I have nothing against Ang Lee, in fact, The Ice Storm, Sense and Sensibility, & Brokeback Mountain would be my top three Ang Lee films, in that order. I wanted Cameron Crowe to win so badly. Cameron has only been nominated for a DGA twice. He was up for Jerry Maguire and lost to Anthony Minghella for The English Patient! What crap! Double Crap now. Let’s take a moment to rejoice in the fact that Cameron did win the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for Almost Famous though! Also, he directed Cuba Gooding, Jr. to the Oscar in Jerry Maguire!

Thus, it was outside of the Century Plaza Hotel on March 10, 2001, when I met Cameron Crowe the first time. The only thing I had for him to sign was James’ Almost Famous poster. I had my Jerry Maguire signed, so I didn’t need to be greedy. In the same way James had spoken to him mostly about me, I spoke to Cameron mostly about James. I said something along the lines of, “Mr. Crowe, if James were here, he’d explain that this movie isn’t a favorite, it’s more like a piece of his body, an appendage. While other guys had dates, James just sat on his bed listening to Quadrophenia over and over.” I also explained that it was for this reason the concept of the “uncool” that Lester Bangs bestows upon William resonated so strongly with James: “….they make you feel cool, and, hey, I met you. You are not cool….the only true currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone else when you’re uncool.” Mr. Crowe was so gracious. We pulled away from the crowd by a planter, and he gave me his attention. The autograph was flawless: “To James, We are the Uncool—Here’s to you, Cameron Crowe.” As a bonus, to support Cameron, Penny Lane herself, Kate Hudson, was there, and I got her to sign the poster as well for my friend. She was hilarious, saying to me, something like, “Hey, it’s my ass. If I wanna sign it, I will.” This encounter with Cameron ends up being the genesis of my wanting to meet Cameron again. I walked away from the Century Plaza Hotel quite giddy, super excited to give James his poster, but, almost immediately I had the thought, “I love this guy. Why didn’t I ask to get a photo with him?” I had a regret.
The years between my first interaction with Cameron Crowe in 2001 and the second meeting in 2017, would change a lot. Not only would my love of Say Anything, Singles, Jerry Maguire, and Almost Famous grow stronger, but he would make four films that mean the world to me. They are: Vanilla Sky (2001), Elizabethtown (2005), We Bought a Zoo (2011), and Aloha (2015). To a film, I love these movies, no exceptions. Of note, Vanilla Sky is a remake of Alejandro Amenábar’s film, Abre los ojos (Open Your Eyes), which is a great movie in its own right. Cameron did write the screenplay for Vanilla Sky, but it is a rare one that isn’t “from scratch” for him. Honestly, one day I need to just write a long blog post about how important Vanilla Sky is.

When I said earlier that my favorite Cameron Crowe film is the one I most recently watched, that is pretty much true. Despite the so-called public perception that Elizabethtown, We Bought a Zoo, and Aloha are somehow not as good, I do not agree with “the inimitable, collective them,” to borrow from Claire Colburn. In fact, although my dictum holds true, and I indeed do tend to love whichever Crowe film I just rewatched, if I had to rank them, I would rank even Aloha and We Bought a Zoo higher than Singles or Say Anything. A new Cameron Crowe film is an event for me now. When We Bought a Zoo was released, the youngest of my four children was now 7 years old, so we began making it a family affair. On opening night, we had the entire family sitting in a row of the theater watching the movie together. We did the same thing for Aloha. None of us were even slightly disappointed. Quite the opposite, we love those films!

As I said, although I am also a huge fan of Vanilla Sky, it was Elizabethtown that rocked my world the most. Now, I have already previously done an entire blog post about Elizabethtown when I named it The Best Movie of 2005. I’m not going to add anything else to those praises right now. However, suffice it to say that, this film, and that year is what crystallized my appreciation and brought my admiration of Cameron Crowe to a whole other level. I think what makes Cameron my favorite director is that his films are so personal. Although that was obviously true of Almost Famous, I feel like it was Elizabethtown that he really showed us his heart. I loved the film so much that I bought an original Elizabethtown poster. I mean what 36-year-old buys an Elizabethtown poster? I’m him. The fact is, I knew the minute I bought that poster, I knew I wanted to meet Cameron Crowe again, but, more than that, I wanted a photo with my favorite writer/director. I wanted him to sign the poster. I wanted the best encounter. I wanted to tell him everything his movies made me feel!

I guess the fact that I held on to that poster for 12 years without getting it signed is a bigger surprise than is the fact that, at age 48, I trekked out to Los Angeles to get it autographed. All that time, I was just waiting for the right opportunity, something that seemed as close to “guaranteed” as possible. The opportunity presented itself when, earlier this summer I saw that Pearl Jam lead guitarist, Mike McCready would be doing a promotional tour in support of his new book, Of Potato Heads and Polaroids: My Life Inside and Out of Pearl Jam. I saw that McCready would be “In Conversation” with none other than Cameron Crowe! This would be taking place at the concert hall/theater, The Regent, in downtown Los Angeles. This made sense. Crowe and McCready are friends. They go way back to at least Singles, and, of note, McCready (not Billy Crudup) was the actual guitar player for Stillwater’s Russell Hammond in Almost Famous. Even though I like Pearl Jam, they don’t mean to me what Cameron Crowe means to me. The event quickly sold out. I had no intention of going in anyway. I also figured that anyone who was looking to get an autograph that night would likely be there for McCready. For instance, I wasn’t going to go to the red-carpet premier of Aloha to meet Cameron because everyone would probably want to get him to sign there. I figured this was my moment to get that photo I wanted. Months ago I put it on the calendar: Tuesday, July 25, doors at 6:00, show at 7:00, meet Cameron Crowe.

What sealed the deal that I would actually be making the 50-mile trek to Los Angeles was that my son, Wes, said he would like to join me! He likes to check-in with me, and I suggested we use this as a hang-out night. I said, “We’d have tons of time in the car to talk, we will stand around waiting for Cameron to come in the venue, and then, perhaps after we could go to Carneys on Sunset for dinner, make a night of it?” Wes was in! At least now, if I somehow failed to see Cameron going in, or, if he didn’t stop to sign, I wouldn’t have to feel like such a loser because, at the very least, I had time with my son.

This now became an event. I loathe driving to Los Angeles. To help with this, I arranged a ride to work that morning so that I wouldn’t have a car at work. My work site is in-between home and L.A., so Wes came to pick me up right when I got off at 3:00. I hopped in the car and we got on the road immediately. We got to the parking lot near the Regent by 4:15, and we walked over to the Regent to scope it out. Usually the back, artist’s entrance is pretty easy to find and not that hard to access. Not so at the Regent. The Regent sits on Main Street. Main Street runs south/north. Directly behind the regent is an alley. It’s technically Werdin Place, but it’s known as Indian Alley, and it is not accessible to the public. Indian Alley, runs parallel to Main. Blocking it off to any public access are thick, tall, black iron gates. We couldn’t get back there. We walked to the front of the Regent and saw a small line already, since we couldn’t get directly behind the Regent, we began wondering if Cameron might just walk in the front. Seemed unlikely. We closely investigated the back alley. The west end of the alley ended at Winston Street, this would have been the closest to what looked like the back entrance to the Regent. This gate/fence had both a pedestrian door and a swinging double gate to open for automobile access; however, it looked like it was completely bolted shut and not easily opened. Thus, we went to the other side of the alley, which ended at E. 5th Street. Turns out that this gate was on an automatic system, and was periodically being remotely opened so that cars coming out of an apartment complex right next to the Regent could pull out of their garage and onto 5th St. Given that this side looked nicer and was more easily opened, not to mention, it didn’t require manual assistance as the other gate did, we decided to camp out there on the corner of Indian Alley/5th.

I told Wes that it was my best guess that Cameron Crowe would be arriving between 5:00 and 6:00. This was based on the fact that it said the show was at 7:00, and doors were at 6:00. As the minutes ticked by, I was thinking our only hope was going to be that he was driving in at this gate and we’d have to spot him. Yet, as the time ticked by, no Cameron Crowe. No Mike McCready either. At 5:10 Wes said he wanted to go around front to check the scene to see if there was any indication that he went in the main entrance. A few minutes later, having seen nothing out front, he decided to go to the other end of the alley again, and right then, Mike McCready pulled up and a single fan was having him sign a bunch of Pearl Jam stuff. Wes called me and told me that McCready was there, and I was most definitely on the wrong side. Just in case Cameron showed up right then, I sprinted around the theater, and McCready was still signing from his car. During this time, the security from the Regent were working on opening the gate that I thought was immobile so that Mike’s car could get through. At this point, I told Mike, “Congrats on the book Mike.” He said thanks. He drove into the alley. Just then, a professional photographer pulled up. His name was Joe, and he called Mike back over to the fence because he had a gift for him. Mike was happy to come over. Joe gave Mike an envelope of a bunch of Temple of the Dog photos he had personally taken himself. Mike loved them. I asked Mike if Cameron was in yet, and, of course, he had no idea because he hadn’t gone inside yet. At no point did I ask McCready for an autograph. I did mention the Pearl Jam/Neil Young San Francisco show I saw. The reason I didn’t ask him is that, although I totally respect him, I don’t want autographs for autographs’ sake. Rather, I wanted a photo with Cameron and his autograph on Elizabethtown because his work had touched my soul. Mike went in at 5:15.

Long story short from 5:15 to 6:45 was a dead zone. Mind you, I had told Wes we were going to meet Cameron Crowe between 5:00 and 6:00 with doors at six, it was looking grim. Joe the photographer hung out a long time because he was also hoping to meet Cameron, but he also had a ticket to the show, so he needed to go in. Joe, Wes, and I spoke a lot about Bruce Springsteen. Joe had shot several of Bruce’s tours, even getting some photos in official tour programs! Joe had two tickets to the event and offered Wes and I one of them for free, but there were two of us, so we declined. Joe gave up on meeting Cameron and went in around the time that doors were opening. During this time, more and more people with Pearl Jam albums showed up trying to get Mike McCready, but Wes and I kept telling them he went in and they missed him. They decided to hang out anyway. One of the guys who showed up was an aspiring director, Gary. Well, he is a director, but he is also aspiring to be a famous, money-making director. Gary was devastated that Mike was already in and that he couldn’t get his stuff signed. He decided to stick around and see if Cameron Crowe would sign his Pearl Jam CD for the heck of it. We talked to Gary for a long time. We spoke about Cameron Crowe films. He wasn’t a lover of Elizabethtown by any stretch, but, once I started quoting Jessie Baylor, “Ruckus. Keep going. Keep going. Right below the reggae tribute,” and he started thinking about Ruckus playing Freebird, it seemed he liked it more than he remembered. More autograph hounds arrived, many with a large stack of stuff for McCready, they looked like “sellers” to me. Despite that, the overall vibe was friendly. Well, more than friendly as our conversations with Joe and Gary were the kind of conversations that make moments like this all worth it.

By 6:30 Wes and I really started to tell ourselves that Cameron must have went in the front door. We missed him. I told Wes, “Once it hits 7:00pm, we’re done. No way we’re hanging out until this thing is over.” At some point around this time, a guy pulls up on a motorcycle and his face was covered, I was half thinking it was Mr. Crowe himself, but it wasn’t. Turns out it was Steve Jones from the Sex Pistols though. They let him in the gate. Gary the director yells, “Jonesy!” No Cameron through. Around this same time, McCready reappeared outside, but he didn’t respond to people’s calls to come back to the gate.

Around 6:45 a guy walks through the single, pedestrian gate and out to where we were. He walked over to me and said, “Where did you get that shirt?” This is a good time to explain that I was wearing my “Did I miss 60B?” shirt. This is, of course, a quote from Elizabethtown. When I was deciding what shirt to wear for this adventure, I first thought of this shirt, but promptly thought, “Naw, that’s a bit ‘too much’ probably” and I thought about wearing my Wilco shirt. I ended-up thinking, “Heck with it, I’ll wear my heart on my sleeve tonight.” So, this guy asks where I got it, and I said, “I had to find it on-line. I really sought it out. Pretty cool, huh?” He said, “Yea.” I told him, “Look at this…” But, before I could even hold up, let alone unroll my poster, he quickly said, “I already saw your E-town poster.” Wow! He recognized it when it was rolled-up! I started talking to him, “Yea, this is my favorite film. I’m the ultimate Elizabethtown apologist.” He shot back, “You don’t need to apologize for it man. It’s actually making a resurgence, and gaining more love over the years.” I said, “True. I shouldn’t have said it that way, I named it my favorite film the year it was released, and I stand by that.” 

I decided to declare that, “I love all Cameron Crowe’s films, even Aloha, man people really misunderstood that film!” He said, “You got that right.” I explained, “I mostly like to feel in a movie, and that movie made me feel, like when Ng and Gilcrest are walking in through wilderness to see the King, that entire sequence was pure joy, I was just sitting there grinning, happy.” I started bringing up We Bought a Zoo, and quoting from all the movies. He was shooting back with his own insights. Finally, I smiled and extended my hand and asked, “What is your name?” He told me it was “Greg.” I asked, “What do you do? What’s your thing?” He said, “I’m Cameron Crowe’s assistant.” What!? Of course, I formally introduced myself and my son Wes. I told Greg that I was a teacher, married, four kids, and drove all the way from Orange County just to meet Cameron. I confessed that I wasn’t even going to see the show, just wanted a photo and my poster signed.

After the personal introductions, I started to ask, “When are we gonna get…” and he cut me off with an answer. He knew what I was going to ask. “Soon,” he said, “I’m working on the Elizabethtown Blu-ray now.” He also told me some of the things that they are considering putting on as bonuses. For example, I didn’t know that Heath Ledger actually went for the part of Drew Baylor. Well, they have some footage of him reading for the part! I made my suggestions too. “Cameron should do a commentary. His commentary for Vanilla Sky is amazing.” Greg, “Maybe.” “You ought to get Alec Baldwin talking about Phil at the beginning of the film. How classic is Alec Baldwin in that opening?” I said we needed more Jessie Baylor stuff because Paul Schneider was incredible. Even Gary the director jumped in at this point, and was raving about how he’ll never forget when Ruckus played Freebird in Elizabethtown, and the bird catches on fire, and they are still playing! Greg told us that he literally got cut on his leg from having that bird in their office! I mentioned, “How weird is it that Paula Deen is in this movie?” Greg said, “And, Loudon Wainwright III too.” I wanted more stuff on the Blu-ray from that skewed guy Rusty (“Learning to Listen”) blowing up the house too! We had such a wonderful conversation about all things Cameron Crowe. Then, out of the blue, Greg the assistant turns to me and asks, “You have your Sharpie ready?” I pulled it out. Greg says, “He’s coming.”

Greg goes to the side of the street, and turning right off Main comes a car. Cameron was driving himself. The Regent guys opened the huge swinging gates so that he could drive into the alley. They shut them quickly. Despite the fact that it appeared I was the only one really there to just see Cameron, the 20 or so people started saying, “Cameron! Cameron! Cameron!” I did note that one guy which a bunch of Pearl Jam stuff also had a Fast Times album. Greg walks over to Cameron’s car, and as soon as the door opens, he leans into the car and Wes and I can hear him telling Cameron: “There’s this guy over here with his son. He’s got a 60B shirt on, and a poster, drove all the way from Orange County to get it signed, not even going into the show…” Cameron pops up and, literally with open arms, loudly asks, “Where is he? Let’s do this!”

As soon as Cameron saw me, he pulled out his phone and said, “I need a picture of that shirt!” He started taking a photo through the iron bars. I had a moment of boldness (“Just literally twenty seconds of just embarrassing bravery, and, I promise you, something great will come of it.”)! I said, “Mr. Crowe, thank you for doing this. Although I did bring my poster, it’s truly a dream of mine to get a photo with you.” With his phone still pointed at me, he said, “You do look like you’re in jail from this angle.” Let’s do it. Right then, the security for the Regency looked at me, looked at the crowd, and then looked at Crowe’s assistant, Greg, and Greg said, “Just him and his son. That’s it.” So, they unlocked the mini-pedestrian part of the gate, and with the security’s hand kind up like “back off!” style, he was telling the other folks, you’re not coming in. They ushered in me, and then Wes, to the alley where now it was just 5 of us: Cameron Crowe, his assistant, one security guy, Wes, and me!
Wes took two perfect shots of Cameron Crowe and me with my phone! This remedied my short sidedness of not asking for a photo 16 years earlier at the DGA Awards. Honestly, even though Elizabethtown is my favorite film, had I already gotten a photo with Cameron, I likely wouldn’t have schlepped down to Los Angeles in the off-chance of getting my poster signed. But, here we stood, against all odds, with the event starting in just a few minutes, having the golden boy treatment with my favorite writer/director! Golden in the sense of, I was thinking, “Why was it just us who were allowed back here to get a no-bars-in-the-shot-photo with Cameron?” Side note: unbeknownst to me, Gary was taking photos of us in the alley. As you can see from one of the photos here, there is the big black iron gate that everyone else was behind. They were calling, “Cameron, Cameron!” Asking for a signature, but he was lazer-focued on just Wes and me. I took advantage of this. I was talking, and talking, and talking. I would guess we had 5 minutes with him.
During this encounter, I pretty much got out all I wanted to say to Cameron. As I unrolled my poster, I explained to Cameron that this was my favorite movie, which was saying a lot because, in reality, I explained, that my son and I had come up with the aforementioned truism: “Our favorite movie of yours is the one that we just finished watching! If we just finished Jerry Maguire, then Jerry Maguire is the best! If we just finished We Bought a Zoo, then that’s the best one.” That said, I explained to him why Elizabethtown meant so much to me. I asked him if he would be willing to personalize the poster to the Lynds, and if he would be willing to write, “If it wasn’t this, it’d be something else,” on there. This, of course, was a quote from the movie, something Drew, his mom, and his sister mention that Mitch Baylor said all the time, something that was written on a sign across the stage at the memorial service for Mitch. Cameron seemed to light-up when I asked him to write that, he said, “Absolutely,” and then he revealed something I didn’t know: “That is actually a line my dad said a lot. That was his thing.” Wow! I knew this movie was personal, but I didn’t know he was quoting his father. The autograph was perfection, the best autograph I now own. It read: “To The Great Lynds!! If it wasn’t this it would be something else! Your friend, Cameron” He also signed our Blu-ray copy of Vanilla Sky for Wes. It reads: “To Wes from your fan Cameron”! I think it is interesting that, unlike my 1999 autograph or the one I got for James in 2001, the autographs we just got were not signed “Cameron Crowe” and I can only assume that the more familiar, first name only signatures are a reflection of the very sincere encounter we had. It couldn’t have been a time thing, because Cameron gave us tons of time and a lot of attention. In fact, I was able to give him a copy of a CD mix that I made for my friend, Cassidy, a few years ago. It is called “Cassidy’s Save Me Mix” and I made it for her when she went on an extended trip to Africa. I told Cameron this story, and how I wanted him to have a copy because it shows him just how much he is intertwined into our normal, daily lives. What I didn’t tell him was that throughout this CD there are clips of his writing, characters in his films speaking, film clips, and then, following the clips, I play a song that was used in that movie. The fact that Cameron has that CD and will listen to it gives me great pleasure.
Our meeting still wasn’t over. I continued to let on how much Elizabethtown meant to me, saying something like, “The amount of brilliance you put into Claire’s mouth is just unreal. So many nuggets there. So many things to live by.” He thanked me, and seemed genuinely flattered. I honestly meant this too. I think I conveyed it too. However, what I should have told him was about this reoccurring thought I’ve had. I’m not sure how many of you remember this, but in 1989 Robert Fulghum had a very popular book called All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. I honestly want to write a book called All I Really Need to Know I Learned from Claire Colburn. I think I could too. One of the things I am most proud to have told him was, “Your movies are such a source of joy, right now, in this country, we need your movies more than ever.” I told him I loved Aloha and how lovely it was. I told him how we quote his movies, “I’m so jacked for today, sir!” “All you need is twenty seconds of insane courage,” and, so on. I went on about his perfect use of music in his films. I told him that I “got it” and I saw everything he was up to when in his films. I referenced specific examples like the Tiny Dancer bus scene in Almost Famous, but also less obvious ones, like when Dylan is suspended in We Bought a Zoo and Tom Petty’s “Don’t Come Around Here No More” starts playing. It was around this time that Cameron told me, “You are exactly the guy I am making my movies for.” It was just moments before 7:00pm, show time, when Cameron said that to me. He told all the people at the gate, “I’ll have to get you guys after.” His assistant, Greg, said, “He’s really running late.” Greg told me to email him. Security let Wes and I out. It was then Greg the director told me he took photos of the encounter, and he texted them to me.
I was on Cloud 9 when we left. So was Wes. We both agreed that our encounter exceeded even my most optimistic scenarios of meeting him, getting a photo, and saying what needed to be said! We finished off our night by going to Carneys on Sunset for a chili-cheeseburger, fries, root beer, and chocolate covered banana for dessert. Exactly where my uncle John would take me in my youth when we’d go get autographs. 
The next morning, I emailed Greg as he suggested. I emailed him to say a huge thank you for making the encounter happen, for giving us the special treatment that nobody else got. He responded very quickly, saying it was his pleasure and that he has always been able to spot a “true fan” like me over an eBay autograph seller. He also asked me for my home address because he wanted to send me something. Four days later, a big box arrived on my porch from Cameron’s Vinyl Films company. In the box was a mint Elizabethtown hat, a Chuck and Cindy “Lovin’ Each Other 24-7” coffee cup prop from the film, as well as eight different fantastic t-shirts from Elizabethtown, Say Anything, and Cameron’s Showtime TV series, Roadies! Honestly, the best care package ever! I’m still in awe of the generosity. This was an unexpected end to an already dream scenario. The kindness shown from both Cameron Crowe and his personal assistant, Greg, is the kind of grace and serendipity that I find prevalent in Cameron’s movies; it is the kind of loveliness that this world needs now, more than ever. Thank you, Mr. Crowe. Thank you, Greg. For everything. “I say make time to dance alone with one hand waving free.”

Thursday, December 08, 2016

Lennon Slain - 36 Years Ago

On December 8, 1980, I was 11 years old. I also had a paper route with the San Gabriel Valley Tribune. As such, I had to wake up bloody early in the morning. The 9th that year was a Tuesday morning. Thus, the night John Lennon was murdered, I went to bed early (on time), so that I could ride my beach cruiser and deliver papers before I headed off to 6th grade and still be somewhat attentive. My morning ritual as an 11-year-old boy was always the same: go straight out to the very end of the driveway where it met the black asphalt and grab the large bundles of unfolded papers that were bound by a thick plastic band. I would carry those into our garage, the old-school kind that wasn't attached to the house. It was an awesome garage, right next to the washing machine, we had a large basin sink, and next to the sink we had a shelf that housed my radio, something larger than a small transistor radio, but smaller than a stereotypical 80s boombox. I would plop the papers on the floor, and promptly turn the radio on. It was always tuned to 94.7 FM KMET. It was there, in the wee hours of Tuesday morning, December 9, 1980, with my back leaning against the cold metal of the washing machine, and my butt sitting on the even colder hard concrete floor, with my hands just beginning to turn black from the ink, that I first heard the news that John Lennon was dead. He was gunned down the night before. You need to know that this isn't hindsight nostalgia. Quite the contrary, no, this was the end of the world for a kid who, on that morning, had the walls of his room decorated with multiple posters of The Beatles and the four (then cardstock) photos that came from inside The Beatles White Album. I owned Beatles buttons that I would routinely pin to my jacket or backpack. This was a kid that had already bought the cassette version of Double Fantasy prior to its post-death popularity of 1981. Before the horrible shooting, I had been acutely aware that I was blessed to be living in a time where two of The Beatles had songs out. Heck, I was even in the fanboy mindset that Paul McCartney’s “Coming Up” and Lennon’s “(Just Like) Starting Over” were better songs than what were likely much more quality hits from the likes of Queen, Pink Floyd, Michael Jackson, Blondie, and even Bruce Springsteen that year! You must remember that, in December of 1980, Reagan had not yet even taken office, and, especially with the exuberant hope of an idea like starting over, this then-11-year-old, was still operating within the mindset that full-fledged Beatles reunion was still possible. I mean Ringo Starr and George Harrison were still putting out records too, not that year, but they were active, Harrison’s “Blow Away” from the previous year was a fantastic song. Yep, I was certain that the Fab Four would one day make new music together. But, that morning, as KMET informed me, a deranged gunman ended all that. Born in 1969, I had only heard the history of atrocities like the slaying of JFK in ‘63 as well as MLK and RFK in ‘68. However, I had not lived through them. Until now. In 1979 two things happened that profoundly shaped me. First, in July, at a Jimmy Buffett concert, I had my first exposure to drugs. That wouldn’t have been a big deal, except that it was my father smoking marijuana in the seat next to me. I was confused, mom said drugs were bad, my dad used them. Which was it? Second, one night at a drive-in movie theater, during a double feature of The Eyes of Laura Mars and Alien, my dad exposed me to one of his adulterous affairs for the first time. While he was enjoying himself in the backseat, I was left to contend with the betrayal of the woman I had accepted as a second mother, all on my own. Sworn to silence on both incidents, to borrow from a Kink’s song from 1983: I was in a state of confusion. So, as silly as it may sound to some readers, that cold December morning, sitting there all alone, hearing back-to-back Lennon records on The Mighty Met, had a profound impact on me. The manner in which the author of Give Peace a Chance had been taken out, said something about the world I was inhabiting. Heroes, in the case of my father, were incredibly flawed. Heroes, in the case of John Lennon, were vulnerable. The DJ’s announcement that Lennon was dead was the final nail in the coffin that contained my innocence.

"Should feel happy, should feel glad.
I'm alive and it can't be bad,
But back on planet Earth they shatter the illusion,
The world's going 'round in a state of confusion."
--Ray Davies