Four harrowing tales — but worth it

 

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By Caitlin Kelly

 

Whew.

I recently saw a feature film — made by British director Andrew Haigh — called “Lean on Pete”, which is the name of the horse who’s central to the story. It was shot in Portland, Oregon and tells the story of Charley, a young man (played by Charlie Plummer) who’s initially stuck with a deadbeat father, absent mother and MIA aunt.

Here’s the Guardian’s review of it.

It’s a powerful and moving story of how a young man somehow manages to walk, drive and run away from a solo life of misery back to a place of safety and comfort.

I won’t give away all the details, but it’s a searing portrait of what it means to be young, broke, desperate and unconnected to anyone who cares for you. It’s also beautifully filmed and Plummer is fantastic.

There are very few films made today about what it’s like to be poor and alone in the United States — the last one I saw (and I admit, I didn’t enjoy it) was The Florida Project, starring Willem Dafoe as the manager of a Florida motel housing a number of women-led families of very young children.

I found it impossible to like or sympathize with its main female character, while Charlie — maybe being a teenager? maybe being someone doing his best? — was someone I could stick with, even as his trajectory becomes so grim.

LOP cost $8 million to make — and has so far only earned back $222,816 — a terrible return.

I’m not surprised. It’s not a funny, cute, perky escape and box-office catnip.

But it’s a great film and I urge you to see it.

I also just saw First Reformed, which is winning rave reviews for its writer/director Paul Schrader and its lead actor, Ethan Hawke, playing a disillusioned, divorced upstate New York Episcopal (i.e. Anglican) minister.

Like LOP, it’s not an easy film, but also deeply moving and raises essential questions of what we’re doing to the environment.

I recently read Born A Crime, the memoir by South African mixed-race comedian Trevor Noah. Not an easy read and you come away awed by what he survived with grace.

Last summer, traveling alone through Europe with multiple 12-hour train journeys, I dove into another harrowing story, A Little Life, written (!) in 18 months on top of the author’s full-time job at The New York Times.

It won five awards, including being short-listed for the 2015 Man Booker prize.

It, too, is an emotionally tough slog and it’s a doorstop of 814 pages.

The central character is Jude, and his friendships with a small circle of equally educated and accomplished New Yorkers. Jude was abused and injured as a child, and this trauma plays out throughout his life and the novel. (If you’re up on your saints, you know that Jude is the patron saint of desperate and lost causes.)

While it’s a story with much pain, it’s also one with deep and abiding love and sustaining friendships — the kind that those whose families are absent or useless must find if they are to survive this world, let alone thrive in it.

As someone who has turned many times to strangers and friends to replace absent family, these narratives hit a chord in me.

I don’t believe that great art has to make us happy or smile or feel better.

If it touches the deepest part of our heart, it’s done its job.

 

Last Men in Aleppo

By Caitlin Kelly

If you haven’t yet seen this documentary about the White Helmets — a volunteer group that races to the scene of attacks in Syria — it’s a must.

It won the Sundance World Cinema Grand Jury Prize in 2017; Sundance (for those not into film) is considered the U.S.’s most prestigious annual film festival.

I saw it last night.

But it’s not an easy 104 minutes, and I found myself crying this morning as I thought through all the images and sounds it contains:

— a father weeping as his six-year-old son is pulled, dead, from beneath the rubble

— the terrifying sight and sound of a rainfall of incoming bombs

— a car on fire with two civilians in it

— the hammering of an excavator trying to unearth the latest victims

— the challenge of not having enough body bags for all the corpses and body parts they encounter

— the men trying to decide — by looking at a foot they found — whether it’s one of their friends.

It is a searing and unsparing look at daily life in hell.

You can buy it here for $14.99.

And yet, and yet, the director, Feras Fayyad, was wise to also include much laughter and joy, the men singing and even taking a sunny, if brief, day out in the playground, with a bunch of their delighted little kids, to leaven the brutality.

It’s too easy to think we know this place or to not care about it — but here’s a little girl and her Dad going to six Aleppo pharmacies to try to find vitamins because her hands are now weakened by malnutrition. There are none to be found.

Here’s a couple going to get married, in the middle of death and destruction.

Here’s the men buying a bag full of goldfish, perhaps the most unlikely purchase imaginable in what is basically a war zone, combing the city to find enough water and then filling a fountain with fish and water.

With hope.

That’s reporting.

Here’s a brief video clip of Fayyad — who was twice imprisoned and tortured — discussing why he made the film.

To bear witness.

As a journalist in New York, I get invited daily to events meant to promote new products and services, hotels and restaurants. I ignore 99.9 percent of them.

But I’ve long been deeply intrigued by the White Helmets and their work.

Not even sure how I ended up on this press list — as the room was filled with industry folk being asked to vote as Academy members on its merits — but I’m so glad I had the chance to see it, and a brief Q and A in the room with its director, who is now making a second film about a female doctor working there, and having to sneak back into his own country to do so safely.

My father made documentaries for a living, so I’m fascinated — both as a journalist and a lover of film — by how and when these stories are filmed and told.

I’ve read a lot about the war in Syria, and knew of the White Helmets, but never viscerally understood what they do, why they do it and the tremendous physical and emotional toll if takes.

I urge you to see it!

 

 

A gorgeous new doc: The Eagle Huntress

By Caitlin Kelly

Imagine being 13  — and wanting to do something that only men have ever done.

Imagine having to climb a terrifyingly steep cliff to capture an eaglet from its nest.

Imagine living in a landscape of such beauty it defies description.

A new documentary, The Eagle Huntress, must be one of the most beautiful films you’ll ever see, filmed in the Altai Mountains of Mongolia and focused on Aisholpan, a young girl — who daubs her nails with purple polish, who lugs cans of fresh milk from her family’s cows, who lives five nights a week in a dormitory at her school.

Her grandfather and father have long been champion golden eagle-hunters, a sport that requires each hunter to find, capture and train a young eagle to hunt on command. An annual competition, complete with scorecards and stopwatch-wielding judges, determines who gets bragging rights as the best. The event draws men of all ages, and she is the only female.

Imagine the pressure!

Aisholpan is a joy to watch, everything you’d expect of a 13-year-old — and much more. She’s calm, determined, easy-going and brave.

No Ipads or cellphones for her; technology for these ger-dwelling nomads consists of a transistor radio and a portable solar panel.

Her quest to find, train and work with her eagle makes a terrific story, and an unlikely but likeable young heroine, with many obstacles along the way. While the film’s main focus is on the annual competition, it also shows her and her father trudging for miles in bitter cold and through snow so deep their rugged horses struggle to move, determined to have her eagle hunt, capture and kill a fox.

The cinematography is astounding, using everything from a GoPro to drones.

I’ve been wanting to visit Mongolia for years, ever since I did some film research on it. Now I’m even more curious.

Here’s a transcript of an NPR interview with the film’s director, Oxford educated Otto Bell.

Great new film: Certain Women

By Caitlin Kelly

The skies will get you.

Shot in Montana, every frame looks like a painting, with gray clouds and snowy mountains and open fields.

This new film, starring Michelle Williams, Laura Dern, Kristen Stewart and lesser-known Amy Gladstone, is slow, sad, powerful.

The director, a woman, Kelly Reichardt — who also wrote the screenplay from stories by Maile Meloy — made another film I enjoyed, Wendy and Lucy, which also starred Michelle Williams, about a young woman alone on the road.

The budget was $2 million, pocket change for any Hollywood blockbuster.

I liked so many things about this film:

— Michelle Williams, a movie star whose presence is always quiet and contemplative

— Amy Gladstone is perfectly cast as a lonely, shy ranch hand

— The Montana landscapes and sense of place and distance made me want to hop a plane there immediately

— This entire film focuses on three women and their complex lives. They’re not skinny/gorgeous/wearing expensive clothing. They’re facing a difficult client (one is a small-town lawyer), a difficult husband, a difficult life, a job that’s not what one had hoped for.

It’s how so many of us feel so often in life, swimming against a ferocious current in the only stream we’ve got.

— The actresses look like real women. Stewart’s hair is a mess, her eyes deeply shadowed with exhaustion. Gladstone’s open, hopeful face signals so much of what we feel when we’re so weary of being alone and can’t bear it any longer and there’s no one to love. Dern looks worn out.

Who among us hasn’t looked or felt like this?

— I love the moment when the rancher slides open the barn door every morning, her routine unvaried, her horses and dog her only companions, ever reliant on her skill and attention. You feel both the security of that routine, and its burden.

— There’s no tidy resolution to each of these women’s lives. We dip into their worlds for a while, live in it with them and feel compassion for their challenges, but we leave them behind again in the knowledge they’ll likely be just as challenged the next day. What a concept: real life!

It easily passes the Bechdel test — i.e. it’s focused on women and their ideas and relationships.

Here’s the review from The Guardian.

Here’s a recent profile of Reichardt from The New York Times Magazine.

I admit it: I still like The Breakfast Club

By Caitlin Kelly

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THE BREAKFAST CLUB, Judd Nelson, Emilio Estevez, Ally Sheedy, Molly Ringwald, Anthony Michael Hall, 1985. ©Universal Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

This can be a real vote-splitter or relationship dealbreaker.

It’s basically a movie about five white kids in suburban Chicago, detained for bad behavior for a full day in their high school library.

Who cares, right?

Made in 1985, it opens and closes with a great tune by Simple Minds, Don’t You (Forget About Me) and was shot in a set in the gym of a high school closed in 1981.

But it’s really about what it feels like to be a teenager — misunderstood or ignored or bullied by your peers and/or teachers. To feel at odds with your parents, whose lofty expectations of success and prowess — you know, living up to your potential — can feel like an elephant sitting on your chest.

The movie was shot within three months for a reputed $1 million, since earning more than $97 million in box-office receipts. I can’t imagine how many residual checks its actors are still receiving, decades later.

It’s also about something that really never changes, no matter where you live or when you grew up — how you can spend four years in high school and walk past the same people for days, weeks and months assuming you have nothing in common, nothing to say to them or vice versa.

The five students are each a “type” — the criminal, the princess, the brain, the recluse and the jock.

I identify most with the brain, the nerdy kid who geeks out over physics and Latin club. Not that I was so smart, but I definitely didn’t fit the other categories.

I arrived at my Toronto high school halfway through Grade 10, a terrible time to arrive — halfway through the second year?! Even worse, I’d chosen a school in a neighborhood so insular that everyone there had been attending the same schools since their first grade. The lines were well-drawn, the cliques established.

I hadn’t even been in a public school, or in a classroom with boys, since Grade Seven. I had pimples and wore the wrong clothes and was far too confident, (having attended single sex schools and camps where I won every award available.)

I was nicknamed Doglin, barked at in the hallways, a dog bone laid on my desk. It was brutal. I cried every day after school and would crawl into bed with all my clothes on when I got home.

My torturers were all male, a gang of three or four, one a redhead with freckles whose 50s-ish nickname (and this long past the 1950s) was Moose.

I made a few dear friends, which kept me sane, and I made the team, two years in a row, for a high school television quiz show and our team did really well.

It finally got better in my senior year when — yay!!!!! — I even got chosen as prom queen, and will regret forever I have no photo of my gorgeous butter yellow chiffon gown, complete with matching scarf. I’m not sure I ever felt so pretty. Even then, a very long time ago, it cost $125, a bloody fortune.

By the time I graduated, I’d had a really cool boyfriend, sold three photos to a magazine for its cover and another to our school library. I’d rounded up my pals to create a school newspaper that fellow students were glad to have once more.

I still don’t know what turned it all around, but am so glad it had a happy ending.

Then, at our 20th. reunion, I re-met one of my closest friends and we re-ignited our friendship, which has continued on for decades more. We’ve visited their lake-side home in Ontario many times, in every season, and our husbands love spending time together.

Neither of us ever had children.

But our friendship is a joy and a pleasure I thought we’d lost.

How was high school for you?

 

And your favorite films are…?

By Caitlin Kelly

Watch a great movie!
Watch a great movie!

They used to be so long there was an intermission — with a word on-screen saying “Intermission.” One even had an overture, Dr. Zhivago, as if the audience were seated at the opera or a classical concert.

Today we watch movies in the palm of our hands.

My father made documentary films for a living and one feature film, King of the Grizzlies, for Disney. (How do you control a grizzly bear? Jelly donuts and electrical wire lining the path you want him to walk.) So I had been on-set as a little girl and when we went to the movies we usually walked in half-way through. It was years before I saw a film as it was meant to be seen.

You know, from the opening credits.

I also grew up with very little access to television, between boarding school rules and life.

So if I wanted — and who doesn’t? — to disappear visually into another world for a while, movies were it.

The two films then that left the most powerful impression on me were two I still happily re-watch, Dr. Zhivago and 2001.

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Dr. Zhivago, all 3 hours and 20 minutes of it, was directed by the late great British director David Lean (who also directed the classics Lawrence of Arabia and Bridge on the River Kwai) and featured Omar Sharif, Geraldine Chaplin (grand-daughter of the great comic Charlie Chaplin), Rod Steiger, Tom Courtenay and Julie Christie.

It’s the eighth-highest grossing film, nominated for 10 Oscars (and won five.)

There isn’t a thing I dislike about this film. I love its specific color palette — grey, black, white, red, lavender and bright yellow. I love the extraordinary panoramas of landscape (Alberta, Finland and Spain subbing for Russia), the music, the underlying love stories.

Despite one online critic calling it “cinematic comfort food” I still think it’s worth a look if you’ve never seen it.

Stanley Kubrick is better known for his films like The Shining, (which I still haven’t seen!), but 2001 is, for me, a 50 year old film that still offers fresh ideas and stunning visuals. One major difference from later films is its pacing — there are long scenes literally silent or without dialogue — the film’s first and last 20 minutes, for example.

I wonder how many of today’s viewers could tolerate that.

Inside the spaceship -- filmed in a British studio
Inside the spaceship — filmed in a British studio

The film posits the existence of a black monolith that reappears after millennia, its role unknown, and focuses on a space mission to Jupiter controlled by the spacecraft’s computer, Hal 9000. I won’t explain the whole thing (the Wikipedia entry is super-detailed) but I never tire of it, especially the final scenes, filled with dazzling color and a trip to the edge of infinity. (It was made in the late 1960s — very much of its times.)

I’m in awe of the many talents and skills it takes to create a film, from the book or musical (or original screenplay) to the Foley artist, (the geniuses who find and create sound effects), to make-up, hair, lighting and cinematography.

While directors (still overwhelmingly male) and actors get 99% of all our attention (except for cinephiles and Oscar night), making a film is truly a team effort.

My dream movie job? Location scout!

A brief and selected list of my favorites below, which somehow includes no films from the 1930s, ’50s or ’90s.

Some other films I love:

The Devil Wears Prada

So fun! Younger viewers may think the main character is a total bitch. She is, but with a purpose. Older viewers might find her younger assistant a bit whiny, and she is, but she smartens up. I love the snappy dialogue, the astonishing clothes and accessories, the journalistic ambition that underpins the whole thing. Besides, any movie with Meryl Streep and Stanley Tucci gets my vote! 2006

Notorious

I mean the 1946 version, starring Cary Grant and Ingmar Bergman, who travels to Brazil to infiltrate a gang of Nazis. That’s enough for me.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

Paul Newman and Robert Redford, pure eye candy, play these real-life 19th century bank robbers, and Katharine Ross (better known for her role in The Graduate) plays their sidekick. Gorgeous scenes of galloping across Western landscapes, humor and drama and a final scene that gets me every time, partly because I recognize where it was filmed, with the distinctive twin volcanoes that mark it as Mexico. I was living in Cuernavaca then, where it was partly filmed, so there’s some serious nostalgia in it for me. 1969

Three Days of the Condor

Robert Redford again. Nuff said! OK, it’s about a guy working for the CIA who comes back to work to find all his colleagues have been killed — and has to figure out how and why. 1975

Jason Bourne
Jason Bourne

The Bourne films (Identity, Ultimatum, Supremacy)

Crazy, right?

I love how these films create a world where a solo actor, played by Matt Damon, races across the world fleeing execution by the agency that created him as a murderous monster. These films have it all: fantastic scenery (Thailand, Tangier, Berlin), lots of action and insanely complicated chase and fight scenes, and a love story. Not to mention their pure escapism — Damon never does anything vaguely normal and boring, like laundry or grocery shopping or sitting in a cubicle. Nope, it’s one desperate dash to a plane/boat/train/ferry after another.

Casablanca

If you’ve never seen this one, rent it this very instant! Starring Ingmar Bergman and Humphrey Bogart, it’s a love story complete with Nazis, Paris, trench coats, that song (“Play it, Sam”) and flashes of delicious humor and pathos. 1942

Aguirre, Wrath of God

If you’ve never seen any films by the great German director Werner Herzog, make time to explore a bit of his oeuvre. This 1972 film stars the wild man Klaus Kinski as Aguirre, in one of his five (shouting, screaming, exhausting) collaborations with Herzog. Filmed entirely on the Amazon in Peru, it’s a lush, crazed story of a 16th century conquistador. The final scene is unforgettable.

The Motorcycle Diaries

Based on the true story of Che Guevara’s ride around South America with his best friend, a once-wealthy medical student, it shows his transformation and political awakening. Starring Gabriel Garcia Bernal, this 2004 film is moving, beautiful to watch and a powerful insight into a legendary figure in history.

McCabe and Mrs. Miller

This Western film, made in 1971 by American director Robert Altman, was shot in Vancouver and Squamish, B.C., starring Julie Christie and Warren Beatty.  Although it sounds seedy and weird — a pimp sets up shop in a 1902 town — it’s well worth seeing for the plot, characters, cinematography. The final scene…The soundtrack features another Canadian, Leonard Cohen. In 2010, McCabe & Mrs. Miller was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant”.

Spotlight

As a career journalist, I love films that explain what we do and why it still matters a great deal. This fantastic 2014 film — partially shot in my hometown, Toronto — details the true story of the Boston Globe’s investigative team, Spotlight, into Catholic priests’ sexual abuses. Starring Mark Ruffalo, Jon Slattery (of Mad Men) and Toronto actress Rachel McAdams, this is a must-see. I blogged about it as well; here’s the post.

Blade Runner

One of those films whose every visual reference — like 2001 — informs many later works that are better-known. Based on a Philip K. Dick story, this futuristic dystopian love story features Harrison Ford, (long before his breakout roles in Star Wars and Indiana Jones) as a “blade runner”, a retired cop charged with running down wayward replicants. Directed by Ridley Scott, (later famous for his Alien films), it’s a cult classic, with all the Scott-isms we’ve come to know and love — sudden terror, lots of bright lights and dripping water, dark crevices filled with menace. 1982

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Rocky Horror Picture Show

Oh, yes!

“It’s just a jump to the left…” This 1975 piece of insanity stars Susan Sarandon as Janet, lost on a dark road with her fiance Brad. Arriving at a castle filled with (at the time wildly transgressive idea) transsexuals and transvestites, they quickly lose all control. It’s a musical with classics like Time Warp. Tim Curry, in corset, plays Frank N. Furter, with sidekicks like Magenta, Riff Raff and Columbia. You either hate it or love it.

Bridesmaids

Too funny. 2011

The Heat

Even funnier, pairing Melissa McCarthy and Sandra Bullock. A 2013 buddy cop movie, it should be stupid but is funny as hell and occasionally even moving. 2013

Which films do you love most and why?

 

 

The boundaries of journalism

By Caitlin Kelly

The New York Times newsroom
The New York Times newsroom

I recently watched two terrific films — one a feature, one a documentary — that raise interesting questions about when, how, why and where we, (I’ve been a journalist for 30 years) decide we see a story and decide we want to tell it.

Must tell it.

The feature, based on real life, is called True Story, and is quite extraordinary. I remember, even 13 years ago when it happened, the downfall of a then Golden Boy of journalism, Mike Finkel.

It’s a very rare journalist who gets to write a story, let alone multiple pieces all-expense paid to travel to some distant country to do original reporting, for The New York Times Magazine. It’s considered a real pinnacle for ambitious writers — and one I have yet to scale, even as I enviously read friends’ work being published there.

What Finkel did, combining several characters to make one more compelling, is completely taboo in news journalism, which is mean to rely wholly on verifiable, truthful fact.

But the pressures to stay well-paid and widely admired and respected by editors with the power to make or break our careers? Relentless. It’s only worse now in an age of social media, as my friend Karen Ho knows — her recent Toronto Life story about a murder-for-hire has won huge attention and kudos from the toughest editors in the business.

Yet she’s still working, for the moment, for a small and remote news outlet.

Ambition is crucial for a successful journalism career. But so are rigorous fact-checking and tight ethical boundaries — as the editors of Rolling Stone have also learned after the fiasco of a story about rape at the University of Virginia that rapidly fell apart and has resulted in firings and lawsuits.

In “True Story”, which features a chilling performance by James Franco as Christian Longo, who murdered his entire family, the mutual manipulation is quite amazing to see. (Another fine film examining this issue is Capote, starring the late Philip Seymour Hoffman as author Truman Capote.)

One of the many issues I found so compelling about TS is how it lays bare the ravening ego of a writer who’s fallen from grace — and how desperate he was to redeem himself professionally. Like throwing meat to the lions, he calls every editor he knows, all of whom now worry that he’ll just lie to them as well.

It’s also a painfully truthful film for anyone who’s still lusting to reach the higher rungs of the ladder of writing success — which is almost everyone!

You’ve just won a Pulitzer? Your best friend has a Neiman. You won a Neiman? Your college room-mate won a MacArthur “genius” grant or your former intern won a high six-figure advance/Hollywood contract/three-book deal/NYT best-seller list.

It’s a world of insecurity, self-doubt and perpetual status anxiety.

Yet — without credibility — even the most talented and hardworking journalist has nothing.

The documentary, The Wolfpack, is an astounding film, about six brothers — wearing dark sunglasses, waist-length glossy black hair and some very sharp suits — who grew up sequestered in one of the world’s largest cities, Manhattan. The Angulo brothers (they also have a sister) were essentially held hostage by their father, the only person with keys to the door of their huge apartment in a public housing project on the Lower East Side.

The pathology of his marriage to their mother, a gentle, soft-spoken Midwestern woman, is equally mysterious. Only one moment, and it’s brief, hints at even darker issues.

Darker than keeping your seven children locked up for decades?

As one of them tells film-maker Crystal Moselle, they’d leave their home maybe nine times a year — or one year, not at all.

The men are funny, engaging, stylish and blessed with extraordinary imaginations and empathy. It’s hard to even imagine their life before Moselle discovered them, and their story, on a city sidewalk.

From a recent review:

The Wolfpack is mesmerizing but not because it has stunning cinematography or dazzling effects: the footage is grainy, resembling home movies. Moselle’s camera is surprisingly non-judgemental, especially considering that the film’s subject matter screams “child abuse” and “domestic violence.”

Nevertheless, I couldn’t look away, and each cut felt like a cliffhanger, leaving me with questions that I had faith the filmmaker would answer (or at the very least, acknowledge). However, the documentary leaves many questions unanswered, and I couldn’t help but wonder why this family would volunteer to put their life on display considering the legal and moral questions the film was bound to raise.

In a press release, Moselle claims that she never felt the need to intervene, and that she sincerely believed that the children were well cared for. Perhaps the idea that all is well in the Angulo household is more clear to her than to the average viewer — she did spend years with the family — but a little on-camera reassurance (perhaps by a lawyer) would’ve made me feel slightly less uneasy.

It’s the boundary between voyeurism and value, between finding and telling an astonishing story and feeling squeamish knowing — as we do — that “astonishing” often means “bizarre” or “terrifying”.

One of my first national magazine stories
One of my first national magazine stories

Those of you working in journalism may have already heard this:

“Every journalist who is not too stupid or full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.”
Janet Malcolm

I sometimes wonder how much of that is true.

The (once) hidden art of street photographer Vivian Maier

By Caitlin Kelly

20120415141416My photo, not hers!

Have you seen the terrific documentary “Finding Vivian Maier”?

I finally saw it, and it’s an amazing true story of a French woman who spent most of her life working as a nanny for wealthy Chicago families, all the while shooting film and video, as — self-described — “a sort of spy.”

She lived in a tiny French town and in New York City in earlier years, but mostly lived in her employers’ homes as a way to live more frugally and to partake in family life. She never married or had children of her own and, it seems, was not at all close to her own family.

The film traces her history and interviews many of the people who knew her, from the children she cared for (and sometimes poorly) to their parents to a few of her friends. She was intensely private, insisting that everywhere she lived there were multiple locks on the door to her room.

And it all started with an auction, when the film-maker, John Maloof, bought a box of negatives:

After John Maloof purchased his first home and pursued a career in real estate in 2005, he began to get more involved in the community where he lived. He delved heavily into historic preservation and eventually became the president of the local historical society on Chicago’s Northwest Side. Given that this part of the city is often ignored, he came to believe that by writing a book on the neighborhood, he could work to promote awareness of its often overlooked charm. It was this decision to co-author the book Portage Park that would change his life forever.

The publisher required approximately 220 high-quality vintage photos of the neighborhood for the book. To gather enough images for this project, John and his co-author, Daniel Pogorzelski, were forced to look everywhere for any old photographs good enough to make the cut. The result was a nearly year-long scavenger hunt where they followed lead after lead to compile the pictures needed for the book. It was during this process that John visited a local auction house, RPN, to see if by chance, they would have any material for the book up for auction. Sure enough, he found a box of negatives depicting Chicago in the 60’s. Unable to get a thorough look at its contents, he took a gamble and purchased the box for around $400.

As someone who began her career as a photographer, and whose husband is a career photographer and editor, this story was even more compelling to me. Her images are truly extraordinary, and also now for sale — how sad and ironic that this has happened only after her death.

But Vivian’s story also intrigues me because we know someone personally whose trajectory is somewhat similar — a single European woman who nannied for wealthy families and who is also an artist. Even her first name initial is the same.

If you haven’t watched the film or seen any of Maier’s photos, I urge you to take a look.

Powerful stuff — and a sad, mysterious and memorable story.

Stepping — or being dragged — beyond your comfort zone

By Caitlin Kelly

I gave this pin to Jose on our wedding day
I gave this pin to Jose on our wedding day

I enjoyed this recent book review, which the blogger Victoria Best, a former lecturer at Cambridge, admits she found both challenging and beyond her normal taste. Her blog, Tales From the Reading Room is always smart and thoughtful:

(author Susan) Nussbaum was a drama student in her twenties when she was knocked down by a car. Now nearing sixty, she has spent her adult life in a wheelchair with partial function in her arms, working as a playwright and a disability activist. Good Kings, Bad Kings is her first novel and it achieves the wholly admirable feat of giving a memorable voice to some forgotten members of society.

Good Kings, Bad Kings takes place in a nursing home for adolescents with disabilities, a grim institution…

So much fiction is for comfort or escapism, so much is created with pleasing and appeasing the reader in mind, that you have to love a book that has the courage to tackle a really difficult subject…

Books should raise our awareness of the vulnerable and forgotten, we ought to be jolted out of our comfort zones sometimes. It’s one of the things we rely on writers to do, when most of us lack the courage.

Having recently visited a country of head-spinning poverty — average annual income is $1,080 — working for a week in Nicaragua, I’ve been thinking a lot about when, why and how any of us choose to leave or stretch our comfort zones.

The poverty there was stunning; in Bilwi, where we stayed, only 20 percent of people have access to running water. Most houses are made of wood and corrugated metal. Many people do not go beyond a primary school education as it’s not available in their village or they need the income.

It is profoundly — and usefully — unsettling to see how differently others live.

We often choose to create a cozy and familiar world for ourselves and then begin to think everywhere is like that or should be like that.

Just because we know and like it doesn’t mean it’s the best or only way to live, just the one we know and are used to. The one all our friends and family know and are used to.

Our apartment building in Cuernavaca, where I lived at 14
Our apartment building in Cuernavaca, where I lived at 14

I moved to Cuernavaca, Mexico with my mother when I was 14. I had lived my life in comfort in Toronto and didn’t especially want to go.

There, we lived in a simple apartment building with an empty field next door with cows in it. We had no telephone, only a pay phone on the street corner below. We got hot water by lighting a burner in the heater in the kitchen. We had no bathtub, only a shower. The floors were tile, cool and smooth beneath our feet — but not carpet or hardwood, which I was used to.

I walked up a short, steep hill to attend school and sat at a desk with two tall narrow windows facing south. One contained Popocatapetl, an extinct volcano and the other Iztaccihuatl, another. One of my school pals had a brother named Willie, who was suffering from intestinal worms. That, too, was new to me.

I only stayed there for four months before returning to Toronto.

But that experience changed me, for good, in many ways. Living, even briefly, within a wholly different culture — whether literally, or through art or music or design or a great book — will do that to you, if you let it.

My photo, from 1986, of the late Philippe Viannay, who founded Journalistes en Europe
My photo, from 1986, of the late Philippe Viannay, who founded Journalistes en Europe

Just before my 25th birthday, I received word that I’d been chosen, with 28 other journalists from 19 nations, to spend eight months in Paris and traveling through Europe reporting. I would leave behind all my dear friends, a thriving writing career, my dog, my apartment, my live-in boyfriend who wanted to get married. My identities.

I shrieked with excitement when I opened that acceptance letter, but the day my plane left I was weeping in a corner, unable to do anything but toss a few things into my suitcase. I knew, (as it did), that year would indelibly change and mark me.

I dedicated my first book to M. Viannay, shown in the photo above that I took of him on the balcony on Rue du Louvre, in gratitude for this extraordinary experience he created — one that shoved me abruptly out of my comfort zone and into an entirely new set of competences and friendships.

What a gift!

I wish I’d been there when Nijinksy first danced to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, on May 29, 1913, when Paris’ bourgeoisie were well and truly epatee. From The Telegraph:

the Rite is the most over-documented premiere in history, and yet so many things are obscure. Was it the choreography that annoyed people, or the music? Were the police really called? Was it true that missiles were thrown, and challenges to a duel offered? Were the creators booed at the end, or cheered?

There were certainly plenty of good reasons for outrage, starting with the high, almost strangled bassoon melody that begins the work, soon draped with fluttering, twittering woodwind sounds.

It’s often said that the pulsating rhythms of the Rite of Spring are what caused the outrage, but pulsating rhythms at least have an appeal at a visceral level (an appeal certainly felt at the Rite’s premiere, where according to one eye witness one excited onlooker beat out the rhythms on the bald pate of the man in front). It’s more likely that the audience was appalled and disbelieving at the level of dissonance, which seemed to many like sheer perversity. “The music always goes to the note next to the one you expect,” wrote one exasperated critic.

The trick is being open, being emotionally porous enough to allow something new — and possibly frightening — to enter.

Here’s a blog post from Rewireme.com, a website I’ll be writing an essay for soon about my experiences in Nicaragua, about making a major life change.

Nancy wrote Jump as “one massive attempt to help you disengage from your inner stalemate and make the best decision you can.” She helps you do this by breaking the process of change into ten steps:

  1. Admit to yourself what you already know.
  2. Tell the truth to someone safe.
  3. Imagine yourself free.
  4. Make one different choice.
  5. Set your new boundaries.
  6. Ask for help.
  7. Honor your resistance.
  8. Jump!
  9. The graceful exit.
  10. Say yes…and then say it again…and again.

– See more at: http://www.rewireme.com/journeys/learning-jump-nancy-levin/#sthash.Wd1QKsAf.dpuf

Nancy wrote Jump as “one massive attempt to help you disengage from your inner stalemate and make the best decision you can.” She helps you do this by breaking the process of change into ten steps:

  1. Admit to yourself what you already know.
  2. Tell the truth to someone safe.
  3. Imagine yourself free.
  4. Make one different choice.
  5. Set your new boundaries.
  6. Ask for help.
  7. Honor your resistance.
  8. Jump!
  9. The graceful exit.
  10. Say yes…and then say it again…and again.

– See more at: http://www.rewireme.com/journeys/learning-jump-nancy-levin/#sthash.Wd1QKsAf.dpuf

I recently watched Australian film director Baz Luhrmann’s 2013 version of The Great Gatsby. Much to my surprise — as I love the 1970s version with Mia Farrow as Daisy Buchanan, (much better cast than Carey Mulligan) — I really enjoyed it, even though it’s crazily over the top, as he usually is; my friends’ reactions on Facebook were interesting.

Some were appalled by the film and shocked that I liked it. Because, harrumphed some, it wasn’t true to the book. He had thoroughly messed with their expectations.

When did you last leave your comfort zone?

What happened — and what happened after that?

 

Starting 2014 by seeing “2001” — a classic from 1968

By Caitlin Kelly

There are films you see once and never forget, their images locked inside your head for decades to come.

If you’ve ever seen Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” it’s unlikely you’ll forget it.

It opens with a blank screen and long minutes of music. The first word of dialogue is 20 minutes into the film.

It’s unlike anything I’ve seen since, and I watch a lot of movies.

Close up of satellite model used in 2001 a Spa...
Close up of satellite model used in 2001 a Space Odyssey (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For those of you who’ve yet to see it — and it was recently playing at IFC in Manhattan — it’s a science-fiction film of almost three hours, shot on sound stages in England at a total cost of $10.5 million — a staggering sum in those days. It also arrived in theaters 16 months late, premiering in D.C. on April 2, 1968.

I love this film, but it’s definitely an acquired taste: little dialogue, extremely slow pace, focused mostly on visuals and music.

The "centrifuge" set used for filmin...
The “centrifuge” set used for filming scenes depicting interior of the spaceship Discovery (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s fascinating to see what — in the mid 1960s — a filmed notion of 2001 might look like: space stations (yes); “picture phones” (Skype, yes); liquid and mashed-up foods eaten through straws (hello, juicing!)

2001: A Space Odyssey "Picture Phone"
2001: A Space Odyssey “Picture Phone” (Photo credit: Dallas1200am)

And to see what didn’t last — the sleek Concorde jet (gone) with the Pan Am livery (gone) ferrying passengers to the space station.

The sleek white interiors and stunning Djinn chairs in hot pink wool still look gorgeous. The flight attendants, with their bulbous white helmets, are both elegant and weird. But the guys still wear suits and carry briefcases.

My favorite part of the film is the final one, long minutes of astonishing beauty — yellow and magenta and turquoise and orange shapes and landscapes, (the Hebrides and Monument Valley), flashing past us, re-colored, at dizzying speed. You have no idea where you are or what you’re seeing. but you’re dazzled.

The "Star Gate" sequence, one of man...
The “Star Gate” sequence, one of many ground-breaking visual effects. It was primarily for these that Stanley Kubrick won his only personal Academy Award. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s interesting to see how dated the film is in some ways — the final scenes feel like an extended psychedelic drug trip (very 60s) — yet how timeless the themes and questions are: Where does human intelligence come from? Are we alone in the universe? What would it be like to travel to Jupiter (and beyond) and what would we find there?

Elements of the film will be familiar to viewers of the television series “Lost” — like earlier scientists offering counsel via pre-recorded video and to fans of the “Alien” films, whose every voyage ends up (as here) actually being a secret mission, with technology that kills off all the crew but one, leaving us to cheer on a lonely, terrified explorer left unaided to face unknown dangers in the deepest reaches of space.

Does it get much scarier than that?

Over the years, the film has grossed $56.9 million in North America and $190 million worldwide.

I’d see it again — even though the young guy beside me snored for the first half, then left at intermission. (Some movies in the 60s had intermission.)

Have you seen it?

Loved it? Hated it?