“My knowledge that I will die gives focus and meaning to every day that I am alive.  Were we to live forever, what motivation would there ever be to write a poem?” – Neil deGrasse Tyson

David Bowie. Photo by Jimmy King.

David Bowie. Photo by Jimmy King.

Of course the last opus of David Bowie comes to mind, impeccably released within days of his own death.  Bowie was as much a storyteller as he was a musician, so it is fitting that his last work would be an expression of his final journey.  With the single “Lazarus,” Bowie has written his own requiem:

“Look up here, I’m in Heaven

I’ve got scars that can’t be seen

I’ve got drama, can’t be stolen

Everybody knows me now.”

Bowie kept his 18-month long illness private, which may be why his fans are obsessing over cryptic clues about his death in the lyrics of his songs.

Perhaps the knowledge that we are mortal beings with limited time is what inspires some artists to continue to create until their final days. But why? Is it a means of control? Does it bring meaning to their lives? Is it a way of saying goodbye? Facing one’s death is deeply personal, yet these artists have shared their journey in a public way.

FRIDA KAHLO (1907 – 1954, painter)

Frida Kahlo was one of the most painfully personal artists of the twentieth century, whose work furiously confronted the life and death consequences of her tragic tram accident. Throughout much of her life, Kahlo was tormented by illness and thus confined to her bed. Trapped as she was in a broken body, her paintings often explored the Mexican theme of death as rebirth, which may have represented to her a release from her corporal suffering.

GEORGE HARRISON (1943 – 2001, musician)

Brainwashed liner notes. 2002.

Brainwashed liner notes. 2002.

Though George Harrison’s fight with cancer was not as private as Bowie’s, he did continue to work on his final album Brainwashed even as the cancer spread to his lungs and his brain. After his death, his son Dhani recorded the remaining vocals and instrumentals as Harrison had instructed. The result is a posthumous album that definitely feels like the work of a man coming to terms with the end of his life with lyrics like: “Had no idea that I was heading/To a state of emergency” in “Looking for My Life” and “There’s no escape, can only run so far,” in “Run So Far.”

Rolling Stone reviewed the album upon its release in 2002, “Brainwashed is a warm, frank goodbye, a remarkably poised record about the reality of dying, by a man on the verge. Fear and acceptance run together in these songs, anger as well as serenity. Most important, there are lots of guitars.”

Perhaps the ultimate resolution for Harrison can be found in the liner notes included on the album, a quote from the Bhagavad Gita “There never was a time when you or I did not exist. Nor will there be any future when we shall cease to be.”

OLIVER SACKS (1933 – 2015, writer, neurologist)

Oliver Sacks. Photo by Adam Scourfield.

Oliver Sacks. Photo by Adam Scourfield.

We can never know the true motivation of these artists as they faced the end of their lives, but if anyone can give us a pretty good idea, it’s Oliver Sacks.  Upon discovering that his cancer was terminal, he made it his goal to be as productive as possible.  In this beautiful op ed he wrote for the New York Times “My Own Life,” he writes about his changed perspective with the news of his terminal cancer.  I also highly recommend the thoughts he shared with his friends at RadioLab.

“Now I am face to face with dying. The cancer occupies a third of my liver, and though its advance may be slowed, this particular sort of cancer cannot be halted.  It is up to me now to choose how to live out the months that remain to me. I have to live in the richest, deepest, most productive way I can.

Over the last few days, I have been able to see my life as from a great altitude, as a sort of landscape, and with a deepening sense of the connection of all its parts. This does not mean I am finished with life.

On the contrary, I feel intensely alive, and I want and hope in the time that remains to deepen my friendships, to say farewell to those I love, to write more, to travel if I have the strength, to achieve new levels of understanding and insight.

This will involve audacity, clarity and plain speaking; trying to straighten my accounts with the world. But there will be time, too, for some fun (and even some silliness, as well).

I feel a sudden clear focus and perspective. There is no time for anything inessential. I must focus on myself, my work and my friends.”

Surely, these are words to live by.

“How to Dance in Ohio”  – Review

Marideth Bridges, right, in “How to Dance in Ohio” on HBO.

Marideth Bridges, right, in “How to Dance in Ohio” on HBO.

There’s a story I was told recently about a boy with autism. One summer, his mother took him to the community pool every day, and every day people would avoid him or stop and stare. The mother worried that this would be his life, playing alone at the opposite end of the pool, suffering the gaping of strangers. One day, towards the end of the summer, a girl about eight years old tried to talk to the boy but got silence in return. She marched up to the mother and asked, “Does he have autism?”

The mother replied, “Yes, he does.” With that the girl turned on her heel, returned to the boy and changed her dialogue to make it much more direct. She said, “Get on the float, and I’ll pull you.  I’ll throw the ball, and you’ll catch it.” And for 20 blissful minutes, the mother saw her baby boy laughing and playing with another child for the first time all summer. Joyful, hopeful tears ensued.

It is with this story in mind that I watched the documentary “How to Dance in Ohio,” a portrait of young adults with autism preparing for a spring formal dance.  (Full disclosure, it was produced by my dear friend Bari Pearlman. )  Well-deserved praise has followed the film since its premiere at Sundance this year, and now it is widely available on HBO. Read More

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

With NASA’s announcement of the confirmation of water on Mars, I’m posting a nod to some fiction inspired by our celestial brother.

Mars has long captured the imagination of storytellers since the discovery of the “canals” provoked the idea of ancient civilization on the red planet.

  • War of the Worlds, HG Wells (1897)

Equally compelling are the stories about the colonization of the planet.

  • Red Planet, Robert Heinlein (1949)
  • The Sands of Mars, Arthur C Clarke (1951)

Colonization breeds imperialism, a theme that was especially prevalent in works from the 1950s, a hot topic on this planet.

  • The Martian Chronicles, Ray Bradbury (1950)
  • The Sirens of Titan, Kurt Vonnegut (1959)

Most recently, I enjoyed The Martian (2011) written by Andy Weir, which Ridley Scott has adapted for the big screen. The verisimilitude of surviving on the surface of Mars is remarkable. Sticking to the science of human space travel, once again the story reflects the times in which it was written.  Today a journey to Mars could happen in the next 15 years.

Thoughts on “Listen to Me Marlon”

“Listen to Me Marlon” Showtime, 2015.

“Listen to Me Marlon” Showtime Films, 2015.

Last month I broke my own rule – only comment on storytelling that moves me in some positive way –  to write about what I see as a dangerous trend in documentary filmmaking: when unprecedented access to a subject veers into exploitation.  Just because filmmakers have “never before seen” footage, it doesn’t mean that they need to use all of it.  Exercising a little restraint is not only respectful of the subject matter, it makes for better storytelling.

In the case of “Montage of Heck” and “Amy,” documentaries about the downward spirals of Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse respectively, I felt both films were irresponsible in their capitalization of tragedy.  With “Amy” in particular, the use of very disturbing self portraits left on Winehouse’s personal computer, crossed a line, in my opinion.  As I wrote earlier, I highly doubt that Winehouse would have wanted to share those private photos with anyone, much less the public at large. By including them, it was an invasion of her privacy, and it made me as an audience member complicit in that invasion.  I mention it now as a segue to another recent biographical film with unprecedented access that actually gets it right.

Listen to Me Marlon” is a biography of Marlon Brando, one of the most influential film actors of all time, as told uniquely in his own words.  Commissioned by Brando’s estate, director Stevan Riley had access to over 300 hours of audio tapes recorded by Brando himself over the course of his life.  Musings on his childhood, his conflicted feeling about acting and the business of Hollywood, his involvement in civil rights during the sixties, and later his desire to remove himself from the spotlight are woven together to create an intimate and layered portrait of the enigmatic man.  Though it’s not a perfect film, it is wildly creative with its use of animation, giving the effect of the actor speaking beyond the grave.  Brando recorded these audio tapes for the purpose of a future biography, so in a sense, this film, which was blessed by the family, is posthumously authorized.

“Listen to Me Marlon” is being shown now in select theaters in New York City and Los Angeles and will air on Showtime after its theatrical run.

Thoughts on “Montage of Heck” and “Amy”

Kurt Cobain  (Kevin Mazur/WireImage).         Amy Winehouse  (AP Photo/Matt Dunham).

Kurt Cobain (WireImage/Kevin Mazur). Amy Winehouse (AP Photo/Matt Dunham).

Let me begin by saying that music docs are my favorite form of story telling when they explore the creative process, the complicated dynamics among talented people, and how life influences the music.  “Some Kind of Monster” is a remarkable look at the inner workings of Metallica as the aging band records a new album and struggles with the pressure to exceed the expectations of their fans.  “I’m Trying to Break Your Heart” chronicles the making of the band Wilco’s fourth album and the subsequent break up of two long-time collaborators.  In my favorite film of all time, “Gimme Shelter,” the audience rides along with the Rolling Stones during their 1969 US tour and is not only privy to intimate moments in the studio with the band but also bears witness to the exact moment the free-loving hippie sixties ended.

That said, I’m having a problem with the alarming trend of posthumous documentaries about troubled artists.  Last week I watched both “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck” from director Brett Morgen and “Amy” from director Asif Kapadia (who also did the terrific “Senna” doc in 2010) about Amy Winehouse.  Watching these films back-to-back, the paths of the two subjects are undeniably similar.  Both Cobain and Winehouse were extremely talented young artists who wrote songs that were intensely personal.  Both defined success as being able to play music for a living, and both shunned the media machine that thrust them in the spotlight.  Both suffered troubled childhoods and addictive personalities, and as a result, neither had the tools to properly insulate themselves from the stress of celebrity.  They both slid into the depths of drug abuse as a way to escape the clutches of public eye.  Tragically, both died at the age of 27.

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Betty (January Jones), Peggy (Elizabeth Moss) and Joan (Christina Hendricks), Mad Men, AMC.

Betty (January Jones), Peggy (Elizabeth Moss) and Joan (Christina Hendricks), Mad Men, AMC.

The cultural phenomenon Mad Men ends its seven season run tonight May 17 on AMC.
 
Last week the creator, Matthew Weiner, talked about the end of the series on the Nerdist podcast.   For him, at the crux of Mad Men is the idea that everyone wants the life that was promised in the ads – the idyllic expectation of life that is based on a cultural fiction that we’ve all agreed upon.  “In America in particular, the heroic myth is always a myth.”
 
Over the course of the series, one of the most blatant cultural fictions that the women of Mad Men have confronted is the American dream itself.  Hard work both at home and at the office very rarely pays off in the sexist era of the 1960s.  My favorite character by far is also the one I find most tragic: Joan, who bought into the ethos that betrayed her.  Modeling herself on the Marilyn Monroe archetype and attaining the top position in the secretary pool, Joan thought she had her own trajectory figured out, and for as long as the 50s lasted, she did.  

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