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Category: Movies

POEM: The Danger Of Black And White

The Danger Of Black And White

Jean Arthur and Cary Grant are in
an unnamed South American country.
She’s a piano player who just stopped by
on her way somewhere else.
He’s flying the mail over the Andes
with a misfit crew of pilots.
I am back in your parents’ kitchen,
where movies like this were always playing
on a wall-mounted TV.
Your dad would be looking through the paper,
making jokes about the headlines
or pointing out sales.
Your mom would be scrolling on her laptop.
In the early days your grandfather
might be at one end of the table,
a cup of coffee near to hand.
You and I would find our seats,
joining the conversation or having our own,
exchanging glances or a little touch
as one of us got up to put the kettle on.
Meanwhile Cary Grant or Jean Arthur or
Jimmy Stewart or Audrey Hepburn
would be in the middle of a melodrama
or a screwball comedy, and every once
in a while one of us would look up at the TV
and see some character actor
and try to remember
where we’d seen them before.
The others would chime in until we figured it out
or until we had to resort to the internet.
Then the kettle would click off,
the water would get poured,
and a comfortable silence would descend
for a few minutes.

/ / /

17 January 2023
State College PA

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My Project For 2023

I thought a lot about whether I would try to start any year-long project today, such as writing a poem every day as I’ve done in several past years.

I’ve decided to commit to just one project, which is to watch one new-to-me movie each week this year. I’m a regular rewatcher of films but I’m less diligent about watching things I’ve never seen before.

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POEM: The World’s Saddest Lightsaber

The World’s Saddest Lightsaber

In the photo I’m five or six,
holding an inflatable lightsaber
that looks like a bizarre 70s sex toy.
I’m in my footie pajamas, like all good Jedi.
Head lowered, seated on the end of my bed,
I look like I just found out Darth Vader is my dad.
Fast-forward four decades: My cousin asks if I’m OK.
Yeah, I’m mostly OK. Just waiting for the dust to settle,
even though I’m fairly sure the dust never settles —
it just keeps swirling from one place to the next.
That’s OK. I don’t have a lightsaber, but I have some light.
And I hear they make adult footie pajamas, so there’s still hope.

/ / /

5 April 2022
Latham, NY

(NaPoWriMo Day 5)


POEM: Jimmy Stewart On The Tonight Show In 1989

Jimmy Stewart On The Tonight Show In 1989

Jimmy Stewart is talking to Johnny Carson about flying.
It’s 1989. Jimmy is 81. Johnny is 64.
Jimmy is wearing a dark suit with a reddish tie.
His hair looks a little blond, but it could be the lights.
Jimmy tells a story about getting to ride in a barnstorming plane.
As he tells it I’m reminded again of how much I love this man.
Jimmy talks in interviews just the way he does on the big screen.
Not that I’ve ever seen one of his movies on the big screen.
Jimmy has that accent you can’t quite pin down.
He’s from Indiana, Pennsylvania, but I think the accent is his own.
Jimmy gestures with his right hand.
I can’t even tell you why I love him, exactly.
Jimmy reminds me a bit of my grandfather.
And of course I realize he was acting in all those movies.
Jimmy just seems like a good man.
I used to drive by a sign for his museum on the way to a job I had.
Jimmy’s museum is in his home town.
I never went, but I always meant to.

/ / /

31 March 2021
Latham NY

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Paul Simon, Graceland, and the boycott against apartheid

This afternoon I watched Under African Skies, a documentary about the making of Paul Simon’s album Graceland. In particular, the film deals with the cultural boycott against South Africa that existed at the time of the making of Graceland, and explores, via interviews with Simon and many others, the implications both then and now of his violation of the boycott.

Graceland_cover_-_Paul_SimonI love Graceland. It’s one of my favorite albums, and I think it’s one of the greatest pop music albums ever made. It came out the summer before my freshman year of high school, and was a big hit with many of my friends. I also remember repeatedly watching a film of the tour. When I moved to Japan in 1991, one of the first things I bought was a collection of Simon’s music that included a CD of a live Graceland concert in Zimbabwe.

I wrote a poem recently about Bishop Desmond Tutu and the anti-apartheid struggle, which was the first political fight of which I became aware in my life. As I wrote in the poem, my friends and I ordered anti-apartheid buttons from the Northern Sun catalog and wore them to school every day. The fight against apartheid was the very first step on the long path of my radicalization. However, at the time Graceland was released, it never even occurred to me that Simon had violated the boycott. To me, it seemed like a great way to expose more people to South African culture at a time when such exposure was sorely needed.

Many years later I became a professional organizer, and organized a boycott against an anti-union hotel. As anyone who’s ever taken part in a boycott knows, you take it personally every time someone crosses the line and violates the boycott. I was a paid organizer whose own livelihood wasn’t in any way harmed by the boycott. I can’t even imagine how much more intensely the South African organizers of the cultural boycott must have felt each instance of betrayal.

And yet.

And yet, I’m also an artist. I’m a poet and a musician, and music is by far the most sacred thing in my life. (I’ve written about that, too.) As I watched this film, I expected to side with the organizers of the boycott, but I found myself more and more siding with Simon, and even more with the South African musicians who recorded and toured with him. You know their names — Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela (my interview with Hugh), and Ladysmith Black Mambazo. To some degree, particularly in the case of Ladysmith, you know their names because they toured with Paul Simon, unless you were already a student of South African music.

Simon makes a compelling case for art, and for art’s need to resist being co-opted by governments of any kind. In the film, musicians such as Masekela (who was in exile at the time of Graceland) and guitarist Ray Phiri (who lived in South Africa) talked about being punished twice — once by apartheid, and then by a boycott that essentially prevented them from playing anywhere in the world.

Obviously it’s not my place to say whether Simon was right or wrong, and he doesn’t need either my absolution or my condemnation. I think history has largely proven that he made the right choice, or that at least his choice did a great service to global knowledge about the cultural vibrancy of South Africa. As for me, I think this film highlighted for me that my own tendency toward right-or-wrong activism was often too simple. There are more than two sides to most stories. And more ways to victory than are often imagined. And there’s a difference between a hotel boycott and a cultural boycott of an entire group of musicians. Still, if you cross my boycott or picket line, get ready to run. Meanwhile, let’s crank up the music.

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Billy Crystal talks about his friend Robin Williams

Tonight I’m falling down the YouTube rabbit hole, and I’ve arrived at this lovely clip of Billy Crystal talking about Robin Williams two months after Williams died. Robin Williams was the first comedian I ever loved. He’s why I started watching stand-up.

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Review: Obvious Child

I thought this was honest and brave and beautiful. Jenny Slate gives a very compelling central performance, and Jake Lacy is excellent, too. Recommended.

Side note: I wrote a poem inspired by this film, although the poem is related only to some of the visuals, not to the content of the movie. Here’s the poem.

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