Blog Move

Hi everyone,

This will be the last post on this site.  I’ve migrated my blog to blog.nsavides.com. I hope you’ll stop by.

In case you having noticed, my blog is a little different than much of what is out there.  There is value in the short-form blogs written quickly and updated often. Lots of smart people write those kinds of blogs.  And yet, in our disposable culture, where the new and the quick take precedence over the timeless and the true,  there is something to be said for in-depth writing that emerges from more deliberation. Those are the kinds of posts I like to write, but they do take a little longer to produce.

I aim to have a new post every month, but some of them take longer to write than others.  That’s why I encourage you to sign up to get my posts by email.  You can do that by clicking here.
My blog isn’t for everyone, but it has been meaningful to a select group of creative, thoughtful souls, and I’ve grown as a person by writing it.  I would be honored if you’d join us.
As always, thanks for reading and God bless.

Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged: A Tribute

I once read a critique of Atlas Shrugged that slammed Ayn Rand’s masterpiece for its unpolished prose.  That’s like reading Emily Dickinson and wondering when the explosions will manifest.  If you read Atlas Shrugged in search of flowery phrases, well you’re reading the wrong book there kemosabi.  The book’s appeal is in the heroic treatment it gives the builders and entrepreneurs of an otherwise corroding civilization.  

That’s right.  Atlas Shrugged is a critically acclaimed work of fiction that celebrates business people.  Shocking, right?  I mean, everyone knows that business types are evil, don’t they? It’s so obvious.

Just look at movies like Erin Brokavich, The Verdict, Michael Clayton, The RainmakerWall Street or the vast majority of pop culture that features business people.  Even Lost, one of the most innovative television shows ever made, features an evil industrialist.  Whoa, the industrialist is the bad guy?  No way! Didn’t see that one coming, guys!

Maybe I’m missing an obvious reference, but prior to Atlas Shrugged, I think we’d have to go all the way back to a book like Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables to see a similarly heroic take on the entrepreneur.

As a quick reminder, Les Mis begins as Jean Valjean, a former convict, steals silverware from a kind bishop.   After the bishop discovers the crime, he graciously allows Jean Valjean to escape another prison term.  In exchange, the bishop asks Jean Valjean to promise that he will live an honest life from this point onward.

The narrative skips ahead a few years, revealing that Jean Valjean has indeed kept his promise.  He has become respectable and made his town wealthy thanks to a new manufacturing process he invented for his factory.

Back in Victor Hugo’s time, folks actually appreciated those who brought jobs and wealth to their towns. That’s probably why Hugo uses Jean Valjean’s business accomplishments to suggest that he’s become a model citizen.  In contrast, today we gather up our collective pitchforks  to hunt business people as if they were freakish monsters worthy of death or at least heavy regulation.  With attitudes like that, is it any wonder that the U.S. has the second-highest tax rate in the world?

That anti-business animosity is present even in Atlas Shrugged, and Hank Rearden, one of the heroic entrepreneurs in the novel, struggles to overcome it.  He’s a businessman who has figured out a way to make a metal that is stronger than steel, and he puts all of his energies into building a great company that manufactures his new material.  His competitors cannot deliver anything of comparable quality, so instead they pay off government bureaucrats and give lots of speeches.

Since we’re on the subject, I do admire great orators as much as the next guy, but I’m more impressed when speakers prove themselves to be people of action.

Speech-minded reader, you could do worse than following Teddy Roosevelt’s example.  He too gave speeches, but his speeches were not the sum total of his efforts. They were merely the structural supports.  It’s why he could boldly admonish his listeners to “speak softly and carry a big stick.”

Anyway, many people in Rearden’s society have come to feel entitled to the profits of his business, even though they have done nothing to help it grow.  Ayn Rand calls them the looters, a ravenous mob not unlike a zombie horde.   Seeing an opportunity to expand power, the government satiates the looters by raising taxes and placing more onerous restraints on Rearden and industrialists like him.

Rearden’s competitors use their government contacts to negotiate loopholes for themselves.  That’s Ayn Rand’s way of acknowledging that businesses are not immune to corruption, but that big government tends to enable rather than curtail it.

Cruelty in Perfection – William Hogarth, 1751

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As the novel progresses the government bureaucracy becomes more intrusive and many entrepreneurs decide that it is no longer beneficial to stay in business.  Rearden tries to stay afloat, but as the government takes over more industries it becomes increasingly more difficult to do so.

From the beginning, the novel’s speechmongers had clamored for more government control, but contrary to their utopian claims, society does not improve.  Since no one has an incentive to work hard, the workers opt to do the bare minimum or to drop out of the system altogether.   Gone is the potential to profit from manufacturing parts or excellent service, so machinery deteriorates and accidents increase.  

As the general population becomes more apathetic, the government realizes that it must use force upon its own people to compel them to work.  The doom of civilization lingers, but a few resourceful entrepreneurs like Rearden mount the resistance.

Atlas Shrugged was published back in 1957, but it feels so contemporary: In our world, entire nations and politically connected corporations ask others to finance their profligacy insisting that they’re too big to fail.  Our American government comes down hard on businesses, except those who have contributed heavily to certain political campaigns.  For example, one of Obama’s biggest campaign contributors was Goldman Sachs, a company that did quite well in the subprime-mortgage dustup.

Let’s not forget that the S&P recently downgraded the U.S. credit rating.  That didn’t even happen in the Great Depression ladies and gentlemen, and the very politicians who spend our money at unprecedented rates look us in the eyes and tell us that the government is not the problem.

Simon Fraser, 11th Lord Lovat – William Hogarth, 1746

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The problem, as they see it, stems from the people who protest the government’s encroaching appetite.  Indeed Ayn Rand has become a prophet of our times.

Now please don’t misunderstand.  My goal in writing is not to suggest that businesses can do no wrong.  On the contrary, businesses are run by people, and people come in all sorts of varieties, some good some bad.  If we agree that proper governance helps sustain society, then it follows that some limited government oversight in business can also be useful.

Not every Ayn Rand enthusiast would agree with those presuppositions, so allow me to defend them by quoting from Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, an influential pamphlet during the American Revolution.

Paine writes,”For were the impulses of conscience clear, uniform, and irresistibly obeyed, man would need no other lawgiver.”  In other words, if we were all perfect we wouldn’t need government; We would naturally live in harmony with each other.

Since that is not the case, we need a system of laws to preserve the social fabric that allows for civilization.  Businesses too need some regulation to ensure fair play, to prevent unethical business types from doing anything to make a quick buck.

Besides, without even the most limited amount of regulation, porn shops and drug dealers would be everywhere.  Do you really want to live in that kind of society? I don’t.

With that said, we need to get rid of this harmful notion that every societal problem is due to the nefarious machinations of conniving, greedy businessmen.  By and large, successful businesses make things better, not just for the stockholders and their employees but also for their customers and their communities at large. 

If they didn’t, why would people continue to work and buy from them?  Remember, businesses don’t have standing armies to coerce participation. Governments do.

Then there’s the whole notion of being able to advance based on merit.  We take that for granted, but it wasn’t always a given.

Imagine what it would be like if your status was almost entirely dependent upon the family to whom you were born or to which you joined in marriage.

Not so keen on the medieval way?  You could always live la vida loca like the Soviets did, by bribing government officials just to increase your odds of survival.     I’d say the oft-maligned businessman is starting to look downright friendly in comparison.

You wouldn’t know it from popular culture, but a lot of folks actually have strong affectionate feelings toward businesses.  I’m one of them.

Working for Canon has expanded my technical abilities, increased my confidence, and brought more stability to my life.  No charitable outreach has done the same for me.

Plus, Canon equipment is among the best in the market.  All my recent freelance projects have been shot with Canon gear, and I wouldn’t go that route if I didn’t have the highest respect for Canon engineering.

Don’t just take my word for it though.  Visit Canon USA’s Facebook page, and you’ll notice that the vast majority of comments are positive, effusive ones.  But why stop at Canon?  You’ll find similar things if you check out the feedback for companies like Apple, amazon.com, IKEA, Chick-fil-A, Volkswagen, Target, Whole Foods, Starbucks, Zappos, Walt Disney, and the list could go on and on.

These are all businesses that have made life better for millions of people,  and you don’t make life better for millions of people by merely focusing on profit.  That is a foolish anti-business fallacy.  You get there, first and foremost, by being useful, even delightful, to others in an excellent way.

In Atlas Shrugged, it is the bureaucrats who compromise and sell out to advance themselves.  Rearden, in contrast,  sacrifices prestige and short-term wealth so that he might produce something truly exceptional.  To aim for anything less even when the entire world encourages you to do so is not to be fully alive, Ayn Rand suggests.

Like Hank Rearden, the entrepreneurs who produce excellent, profitable businesses are heroes of our modern world, but when was the last time a movie, a music album, or a novel conveyed as much?  Atlas Shrugged is one example, but we need more.

In the book Microtrends, author and researcher Mark Penn tells of a recent survey he ran where an alarming number of kids expressed interest in becoming snipers when they grow up.  He speculates that data spike is due to the attention snipers get in news coverage, movies, and video games.

Now you tell me, would you rather have a society full of aspiring snipers or entrepreneurs? Do you want your next creative project to inspire the next Columbine shooter or the next Steve Jobs?

The Delivery of the Keys – Pietro Perugino 1481–1482

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If you chose the latter options, then maybe it is time for you do something about it.  Reading Atlas Shrugged is a good place to start (you can listen to it as an audiobook if you prefer), but if you don’t have time for that, would you at least stop suggesting that every business person is evil?  Can you stop relying on the government to solve all your problems?

While you’re at it, don’t be content just to consume. Produce. Give back.  Building a great and virtuous business is as good of a way as any to do that.

 

If you appreciate my writing, why not write a comment or share the post with a friend? It would encourage me to keep writing and sharing bits of my heart with you.

Please consider signing up to get my posts by email.  You can do that by clicking here.  I don’t write every week.  If I did, I wouldn’t have the time to write the kinds of posts I prefer to write.
I only write if I believe I have something worth writing and after I’ve spent some time finessing my thoughts.  If you’re following along by email, you’ll know right away when I have a new post waiting for you.  It is very easy to unsubscribe, and you won’t receive anything unrelated to my blog. 
As always, thanks for reading and God bless.

Renewing our Cities by Renewing Each Other

I recently did a series of videos about how people in Hampton Roads, Virginia renew their cities.  The videos were initially done to help promote the Renewal Art Show that is produced each April by Symphonic, the church I attended while in Virginia.

I wrote a few articles about the Renewal videos for altdaily.com, a fine local source of news and culture, but the piece I wrote for the last video was by far the most personal, and so it was the hardest to write.

Manuel Osorio de Zuniga – Goya, 1784-1792 

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I thought about deleting it several times during and after the writing process.  Repeatedly I’d ask myself, is it really all that wise to be deliberately vulnerable in public, and do I really believe all those fancy-sounding things I am writing?

I’d say yes to both, but only when I’m at my best, when I’m under the influence of good friends.  My default sensibility is to be wary of others and go it alone, so it’s a battle to get past that.

Overall the edits that AltDaily did to my last piece made it more coherent, for which I am grateful, but the nuances of a small, but important, point I made got lost in translation.

Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters – Goya, 1797

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I initially wrote that two discouraging incidents I faced were probably the results of past abuse or supernatural manifestations of evil.  The edit did away with the possibility of abuse, making it sound like I am prone to see demons at work in many of the challenging circumstances I face.

Actually, I am more inclined to see problems as the consequences of human selfishness, poor design, or prior trauma, but I do believe that spirits, good and bad, exert influence in our world.  After considering the AltDaily article as it currently stands, I realized that it is still true to how I see things, but the demons I’m thinking of are not necessarily scary spirits.

There are scary ones too, I’m sure, but most of the ones we encounter on a daily basis are more like lingering relics from the past that prevent us from becoming whole, sort of like how the brilliant cartoonist Lynda Barry portrays them in her book One Hundred Demons.  (As it happens, that book is available for free on Google Books. Pretty neat, but the book has such a tactile aspect that you might want to consider the printed version.)

Little Hobgoblins – Goya, 1799

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Put differently, demons are often like irrational bits of code that cause us to self-destruct, to doubt ourselves and others, to go against the very things that we claim to value, to override our inherent programming if you will.  (Yeah, that’s the Matrix creeping into the discussion.)

It’s only fair to mention that I too struggle with my own personal demons.  When I’m on my own, they win more than I care to admit, and I don’t like the person I can become when that happens.  I am more likely to prevail when providence brings me people who help me stay the course.

La famille de l’infant Don Louis – Goya, 1783

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With that said, here is the AltDaily article:

http://www.altdaily.com/features/arts/video-how-we-renew-our-city-part-iv.html

Below I’ve included all the Renewal videos.  They are longer than many YouTube videos,  but most people who’ve seen the videos have found them worthy of the time commitment.  I hope they will inspire you, just as they inspired me when I made them.

Part I:

 

Part II:

 

Part III:

 

Part IV:

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If you appreciate my writing, why not write a comment or share the post with a friend? It would encourage me to keep writing and sharing bits of my heart with you.

Please consider signing up to get my posts by email.  You can do that by clicking here.  I don’t write every week.  If I did, I wouldn’t have the time to write the kinds of posts I prefer to write.
I only write if I believe I have something worth writing and after I’ve spent some time finessing my thoughts.  If you’re following along by email, you’ll know right away when I have a new post waiting for you.  It is very easy to unsubscribe, and you won’t receive anything unrelated to my blog. 
As always, thanks for reading and God bless.

Revisiting Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robot

“I thought I was smart. I thought I was right. I thought it better not to fight. I thought there was a virtue in always being cool.”  So begins Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robot, the classic album from the Flaming Lips.  The song goes on to talk about how being a man means being willing to fight for the important things, if necessary, even when you’re not prepared to do so.

 

 

 

What a revelation it was to hear those lyrics when I first discovered the Flaming Lips in college.   Until then, I assumed that just seeming cool was the whole point, at least for bands.  This was something different.  My expectations about this buzzed-about indie band were thwarted right from the beginning.

The album came out in 2002, so there’s a good chance that you’ve heard it by now.  Even if you haven’t, you might guess from the title that it deals in some way with a fight against the robots.  You are right!

Time travel is in there too, but so are reflections about what it means to be human, to love and face mortality.  That’s not the kind of thing you find in a lot of albums.

 

Photo credit: Sebastianlund

 

 

I like the Beatles as much as anyone, but “I am the walrus” only does so much to help me navigate through life.  This is because, as far as I know, I am not a walrus.  (Yes, yes, the Beatles have depth too.  Just a quick example folks.)

I enjoy that music for what it is, a whimsical auditory snack, but sometimes I hunger for more substance, so it’s reassuring that there are albums like Yoshimi out there.

I’ve listened to it many times, but I still find new things to discover when I give it my attention.  It was one of the first albums that made me realize albums could examine, in an interesting way, the bigger questions and mysteries of life.  Plus, it subtly shaped my interactions, encouraging me to appreciate the short time that we have on this earth with each other.

 

Wayne Coyne at SXSW 2006. Photo credit: birzer

 

(Incidentally, the Flaming Lips documentary The Fearless Freaks also had an impact on how I treat people.  Lacking pretense, the band frontman, Wayne Coyne, walks down the street in his neighborhood and greets a few strangers.  He’s not selling merchandise.  He’s just trying to make people smile or participate in his quirky projects.

Similarly the band does all kinds of crazy things at their shows to make them memorable.  Whatever the venue, the Flaming Lips are maniacally focused, not on being cool, but on creating engaging moments for those around them.)

 

Music video for “Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots Part 1″ The joy that Wayne conveys in playing and being around his fans is not standard indie-rock fare.

 

I wouldn’t hesitate to call the album a great work of art, and by great art I mean a form of creative expression that takes skill to produce and has a memorable, enriching impact on how we see the world.

That’s my working definition anyway.   I’m constantly revising it.  I might elaborate on that definition in a later post, but for now notice the subjective aspect of it.

Art is a personal experience both in its creation and its reception, so there is bound to be some variation in what has an impact on us.  Yoshimi would easily make my list of most influential albums, but I don’t expect everyone to feel the same way.

 

Photo credit: Profound Whatever

 

Even so, there is something to be said about work that has a timeless quality, that can transcend cultural differences and moments of time.  It’s too early to say, but Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robot might become that kind of classic.  It was widely celebrated by the critics when it was released and continues to be well regarded.

Wayne Coyne at SXSW 2006. Photo credit: birzer

 

The other Flaming Lips albums don’t have the same magic for me.  I haven’t heard them all, but the bits I have heard have been a little too experimental and psychedelic for my tastes. (To be fair I haven’t given the new stuff much time.)

That happens sometimes.  Just a few artists throughout history have been able to produce a lifetime of masterpieces.  Usually artists are lucky to have even a small fragment of their work survive time’s winged chariot.

People change, relationships sour, and beauty fades.  “It’s hard to make the good things last,” the Flaming Lips remind us.  It’s an album filled with cosmic mysteries, robots, and hypnotism, of love and lingering sadness, but it ends with the reminder that “all we have is now.” That’s about right, so let’s make the most of it.

 

 

Flaming Lips at Cornell – April 18. 2010. Photo credit: .reid.

My apologies for the delay between posts.  I have a few video and photography projects that are keeping me busy, and I will be moving to Baton Rouge, Louisiana in less than a month.  Besides, if I were to write more consistently, then I would not be able to spend as much time writing each post.  

That’s why I recommend that you sign up to get email updates for this blog.  You can do that by clicking here.  I don’t write every week.  If I did, I wouldn’t have the time to write the kinds of posts I prefer to write.

I only write if I believe I have something worth writing and after I’ve spent some time finessing my thoughts.  If you’re following along by email, you’ll know right away when I have a new post waiting for you.  It is very easy to unsubscribe, and you won’t receive anything unrelated to my blog. 
As always, thanks for reading and God bless.

The Fight to Canonize Director George Stevens

His movies have won Oscars for himself and the people with whom he collaborated, and the American Film Institute recognizes his films A Place in the Sun, Woman of the Year, Swing Time, and Shane as being among the best movies ever made.  He has credit not just as a director, but also as a cinematographer, producer, and writer. Stephen Spielberg lists him as an influence.  Yet, for whatever reason, George Stevens does not get the same respect and film-school shout-outs that guys like Scorsese and Tarantino command.  I would like to help correct that oversight.

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I had seen and enjoyed a few of George Stevens’s films, but I didn’t take interest in him as a director until I saw some talking-head footage of an elderly Frank Capra. Capra’s face lit up when he mentioned Stevens, declaring that he would look him up when he went to heaven so that they could work on more pictures together.  Frank Capra is a huge source of inspiration to me, so that made me wonder, “Who is this George Stevens guy, and why does Frank Capra like him so much?”

For one thing, he was a partner at Capra’s Liberty Films production company.  As it happens all four of the partners in that company had gone overseas to help the war effort during World War II.  Like Frank Capra, George Stevens went over at the height of his career, sacrificing all the comforts that come with success to serve his country.

Before he packed up his bags for Europe, George Stevens had worked with A-list actors in critically acclaimed productions, generated huge box office, and had his movies nominated for best picture awards.  One of the nominated pictures was The Talk of the Town, made in 1942, just before Stevens committed himself to the war effort.

This is not a trivial point.  To state the obvious, an Oscar nomination gives someone a lot of buzz, which can translate into more power and creative freedom.  From a business perspective, that is one of the worst times to step away from the limelight, to take a pay cut in the name of your ideals.

Still from Triumph of the Will – Leni Riefenstahl, 1935

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Yet, that’s exactly what George Stevens did.  Why would he do that? According to first hand accounts of those who knew him, he saw the German propaganda film Triumph of the Will and felt compelled to do something about it.

Confronted by evil, Stevens did not merely write a letter to an editor or buy US Treasury bonds; he put everything on the line to oppose it.  He left a career that almost anyone would envy to document the struggles of our troops in dangerous situations.

In the process, he was one of the few people to capture the horrors of the concentration camps, photographing the piles of bodies lingering in the fields as if they were just piles of rubble at a construction site. That footage did much to convince the world that the horrors of the camps were not propaganda lies but real, devastating atrocities.

World War II recruitment poster

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Truly George Stevens earned his place in the Greatest Generation.  Would the people in our generation be able to rise to the occasion in a similar manner?  I do not know, but I have my doubts.  We’ve grown decadent as a society, fueled by powerful entities who feed our basest instincts in the name of profit and entertainment.

George Stevens never stooped to that level. His filmmaking style is steady and deliberate, a little slower in pace than other filmmakers, but he still holds our attention. If you can fill the screen with the size of someone’s character, you don’t need to resort to fast cuts and cheap gimmicks. It’s like Norma Desmond said in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.”

Still from A Place in the Sun, 1951

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That’s not to say a Stevens picture lacks sexiness.  It’s just that he’s a skilled enough craftsman to do more with less.  You get such a sense of intimacy in the way he stages the kisses between Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor in A Place in the Sun, sometimes cutting off even parts of their faces out of frame, that you don’t need to watch an explicit 10-minute sex sequence to get the idea.

In Swing Time, there’s a clever door gag that prevents us from seeing the couple kiss at all, but the scene is still sexy in the way Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers relate to each other.  Actually, sometimes it’s more alluring when the details are left to our imaginations.

Swing Time movie poster, 1936

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Speaking of details, let’s look at some of George Stevens’s films and  recurring themes.  While he had done other feature-length films, his breakout production was Alice Adams, his first chance to work with a rising star, in this case Katherine Hepburn.   The film was well received, getting nominated for best actress and best picture.  In it we see two preoccupations that Mr. Stevens will revisit throughout his career: the battle of the sexes and the efforts needed to make domestic life work.

Men and women in conflict are also notable parts of Annie Oakley, Woman of the Year, Shane, and Giant. Sometimes the woman’s outlook prevails, as in Annie Oakley and Giant.  Annie is literally competing with a man, the guy she happens to love, in one sharpshooting match after another throughout the film.  In Giant, the dramatic question is whether Leslie will bring about change to the Benedict ranch or whether it will stay set in its ways.  She changes it by influencing her husband to finally take a stand against racism.

Woman of the Year movie poster, 1942

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Sometimes it is the masculine  side that prevails, like in Shane.  In Woman of the Year it is more or less a draw.  Sure, she cooks for him in the end, but Tracy Spenser had to play the part of a subservient house wife for much of the film.

Taken as a whole, Mr. Steven’s work does not come down in favor of one side or another.  The differences between men and women are delineated, but they both seem important to Steven’s concept of a happy, civilized existence.  In the world of George Stevens, both sides have to sacrifice something to make the relationship work, but the relationship is worth it.

Giant movie poster, 1956

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Some filmmakers cut out the chores that their characters have to do in their day-to-day lives.  (That way you get to the explosions faster!) Not so in Steven’s films.  We watch the details of ranch maintenance in Giant, the struggle to pull up a tree root in Shane, and the small indignities that come with trying to make ends meet in I Remember Mama.  These details usually aren’t there to advance the plot, but to reveal the effort that the characters expend to sustain their environments and their relationships.

Yeah, commentary about chores.  That’s how I keep my readers engaged!  Before you start thinking that this is a chore to read, or that you’d like to get back to your cherished collection of Tarantino films consider this: I’ll be giving a away a free TV to the first 5 people who can prove that they made it to the end! That’s right, what better way to experience the glories of George Stevens’s Giant then on a magnificent big-screen television!

Thanks to the tireless efforts of our partners, we’ve managed to put questionnaires under the seats of all our readers.   So, right now I want you to look under your seat. Seriously. Right now, look under your seat.  What do you see?

Probably just a few screws and bolts and other chair components.  Maybe dried gum, if you’re that sort. What can I say, my partners and I like to think big, but we’re still trying to get the execution right, and when I say partners I’m being optimistic and talking in the future tense. Still it would be a nice promotion to do some day, so check back in like 20 years.  Or something like that. It’s hard to get the date exactly right when you’re talking in the future tense.

Gunga Din movie poster, 1939

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Back to the films. I discovered Gunga Din when doing research for this post, and what a great action film that is.  Set in 19th century India, the story follows the adventures of three British soldiers, one of them being the ever charming Cary Grant, who seek treasure while battling the sinister, Kali-worshiping natives.

With its masterful blend of adventure, humor, and supernatural elements, Gunga Din set the stage for contemporary action-adventure films like Indiana Jones and Romancing the Stone.

The battles in Gunga Din happen on an epic scale and the action still holds up, impressive because they didn’t have the technology to fake it back then.  Those are all real horses, real extras, real stunts.

Even though this is a light-hearted swashbuckling adventure, we still see Stevens’s values shine through.  This quote from Sgt. Ballantine as played by Douglas Fairbanks Jr. sums it up nicely, “The trouble is you don’t want a man for a husband! You want a coward who will run out on his friends! Well, that’s not me, never was, and never will be. I don’t care how much I love you! And I do very much. I’m a soldi… I mean I’m a man first!”

World War II recruitment poster

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Doing one’s duty, that is to say doing the things that aren’t enjoyable but that need to be done, was an important concept to George Stevens.  He didn’t just put it in his movies to gain appeal. He lived it by getting involved in the war effort.

When abroad I’m sure he witnessed some horrible, evil things. I’ve never witnessed anything like the horrors of war, but I have encountered evil on a smaller scale. Even then, it takes effort not to let that influence how I treat people.

On occasion I’ve failed at that and hurt others because I could not rise above the hurt that others had done to me. My point is that it would have been disappointing, but understandable, if George Stevens came back from war and made cynical, jaded films.

The Diary of Anne Frank movie poster, 1959

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That’s not what happened.  Yes, some of the humor went away, but it was replaced with a heightened moral vision,  and he made his most regarded films after the war: A Place in the Sun, Shane, Giant, The Diary of Anne Frank, and The Greatest Story Ever Told.  I will discuss these films in more detail, so you might want to watch them before reading further.

A Place in the Sun is the most ambiguous of the lot.  It’s a fine piece of filmmaking but a bittersweet pill to swallow: George Eastman, played with depth and passion by Montgomery Clift, gets sentenced to death simply because he did nothing to save a girl from drowning, a girl that he once planned to murder but then decided against it when the time came.  She falls out of the boat by accident.  Not being able to swim, she dies.

A Place in the Sun movie poster, 1951

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Eastman initially considered killing the girl, his former sweetheart, because she got pregnant and was interfering with his attempts to romance a stunning society girl, played by Elizabeth Taylor.

Was he doomed for being tempted to murder or for overweening ambition? For getting his girlfriend pregnant? For not being honest? Because society wouldn’t allow his girl to get an abortion? A lesser filmmaker would have hit us over the head with the message, but Stevens keeps it open to interpretation.

My take: Eastman was guilty because he did nothing.  He knew that his former girlfriend couldn’t swim, but when the boat overturned he ignored her and chose to take care of just himself.

Not counting On Our Merry Way, an uncredited film he helped to direct with three other directors, A Place in the Sun was only the second film George Stevens made after the war, so my guess is that it was his way of working out his feelings toward the Germans who saw Nazi horrors but did nothing to stop them.

On a technical level, watch how Loon Lake changes in its associations throughout the story. First it is a place of optimism, of a budding romance, then it foreshadows tragedy, then creates suspense, and later reinforces guilt.  Genius.

Giant movie poster, 1956

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Another genius thing that George did was guide the film Giant to greatness. That’s right ladies and gentlemen, there is rarely a situation that cannot be improved with a smattering of alliteration thrown into the mix, applied with discretion.  I stand behind that statement.

To demonstrate, I ask you to consider the Middle East.  Does alliteration abound there? No. Are there lots of problems? Yes. (A probable note from Nick’s future partners: kindly do not take Iran and Iraq into account. It is not fair to count them, because if you do that then you discredit the illustration we are trying to make. Also, these TVs we’re giving away look amazing!)

Thanks for being patient folks.  I know this is a long post, but I’m just trying to do justice to Mr. Stevens, a severely underrated director.  Besides, George Stevens is known for making long films, so the length is not entirely inappropriate.

Giant publicity still

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Anyway, the movie Giant really was a gigantic undertaking.   The production team actually constructed the facade of a Victorian home on location in Marfa, Texas, and the house was built to scale from what I understand.  Think about how much easier it would have been to build a smaller replica of the house on a studio backlot, but that wasn’t how George Stevens did things.

George Stevens Jr. recalls this statement from dad when he asked why they had to spend so much time finessing the details: “Just think of how many man hours people will spend watching this film over the years.  Don’t you think it’s worth spending a little more of our time working to make it a better experience for them?”  What an unselfish outlook.  The emphasis is not on what is most profitable for him, but what is most beneficial to us.

When we see the house stand in proud defiance of the otherwise flat landscape, it gives a sense of scale to the surroundings and a heft to the unfolding story.  Not a bad payoff for all that work.

The film spans decades which means the main characters have to play young and old versions of themselves.  In doing so, Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, and James Dean give some of the best performances of their careers.

The astonishing part is that they were all under 30 at the time. Surely some of the credit to their believability as adults beyond their years must go to George Stevens. Someone else must have thought so too: the film earned Stevens an Oscar.

Still from Giant, 1956

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Let’s take a closer look at James Dean’s character before moving on to the next film. He plays Jett Rink, the outsider looking in.  He discovers oil and finds success but not character, and so he withers into demise, not standing the test of time in the way that the Benedict family does.  Although Jett evolves into a villain, Stevens still allows him moments of sympathy, triumph, and charisma.

That’s Stevens’s affection for the outsider talking.  Notably, some variation of the outsider figure, the character who doesn’t quite belong but yearns to do so, also appears in Alice Adams, Annie Oakley, Gunga Din, Shane, The Diary of Anne Frank, and the Greatest Story Ever Told. (It’s not too much of a stretch to claim that Christ might be the ultimate outsider.)

Oh man. We’ve made it this far, and I haven’t even discussed Shane in detail yet.   I suppose I’ll save the 28 pages of analysis for when I’m really trying to make a good impression. Nothing like sharing a glass of merlot while deconstructing the mise en scène of a film, right ladies? Still, Shane is one of my favorite films, so please indulge me for a few paragraphs as I expand upon it.

Shane movie poster, 1953

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The story centers around the home of Joe and Marian Starrett and their little boy Joey. Joe and Marian were married on July 4th, Stevens’s way of suggesting that there is something quintessentially American about the family.  They are homesteaders working diligently to maintain a small place of their own out in the wilderness.

Mostly, they are a self-reliant bunch, but they partner with other homesteaders to help preserve the common good.  That small community of homesteaders is threatened by Ryker, a rapacious rancher looking to expand his territory by any means necessary.  As fate would have it, that’s when Shane, a stranger, an outsider, comes to the Starrett home.

Shane is a former gunslinger with a mysterious past.  He was planning to stay at the Starrett home for just a short time, but then he comes to admire the family and realizes that they are in danger. Reluctantly, he takes up his gun again to defend them.

Marian doesn’t want her son exposed to guns, but Shane rebukes her by saying, “A gun is a tool Mariam. No better or worse than any other tool, an axe, a shovel or anything.  A gun is as good or as bad as the man using it.”

World War II propaganda poster – Royal Typewriter Company

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There’s that sense of duty again. This time it’s to preserve a family’s way of life that Shane himself may never know.  He sees the inherent decency in the Starrett family and feels compelled to defend it, even though it might cost him his life.  That’s the iconic sensibilities of a soldier on display, ladies and gentlemen.

There are hints throughout the film that Shane and Marian are attracted to each other, but when the treacherous Ryker tries to buy his loyalty by offering him anything, even Joe Starrett’s wife, Shane gets angry. He doesn’t pause to consider.  He doesn’t waver in his response, calling the rancher a dirty old man.

That’s the kind of man Shane is.  He refuses to take what isn’t his, regardless of his feelings.

Throughout the film, George Stevens uses young Joey to help shade our perception of Shane.  We first see Shane when Joey spots him approaching the house.  At first, Joey is bewildered by the strange man, but then he comes to admire him.  “I just love Shane,” he tells his mom.  “He’s so good.”

Wherever Shane goes, Joey is not far behind, quietly observing him and making sure that Shane is still worthy of his admiration.  He stays enthusiastic about Shane until Shane fights his dad, and then his tone changes.  “You hit him with your gun. I hate you,” he wails at Shane.

Shane production still, 1953

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The issue is not that Shane picked a fight with his dad but that he didn’t play fair, since the dad was unarmed.  Concluding that Shane could not possibly be good if he doesn’t play fair,  Joey is devastated. Only later does the poor little guy  realize that Shane hit his father to protect him, to prevent him from facing Ryker’s gunman.

Relieved, Joey rushes to catch up to Shane, and gets there just in time to help Shane stay alive.  When Joey watches Shane leave he does so both with admiration and sadness, acknowledging the departure of a good man.  Those of us in the audience who cherish the opportunity to see a truly good man in action share Joey’s sentiments.

You don’t need razzle-dazzle effects when you can get your performers to convey that kind of character.  There’s another moment in Shane that relates. It happens when one of the homesteaders is thinking about leaving town to avoid facing Ryker’s men.  Joe tells him he can go but then adds that he would be mighty disappointed if he left.  Hearing that the man stays, willing to put his life at risk so as not to lose the esteem of Joe Starrett.

That’s the kind of man Joe is, and when we watch Van Heflin deliver those lines in his quietly authoritative way, we believe he can have that kind of impact on others. There’s no way a director lacking in character would ever get that moment right.

World War II propaganda poster

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On to the Diary of Anne Frank. Yet again we see George Stevens’s interest in the nuances of domestic life and the pressures that come when different types of people share a confined space.

The fully realized set helps to convey the subtleties.   Seeing a photo of George Stevens on that set was supposedly what first got Spielberg to dream about becoming a director.

The film is beautifully shot and beautifully acted, and it features one of the first prolonged sequences of a Hanukkah celebration captured on film, but the film’s power comes from Anne Frank’s famous quote: “In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart.”

Some critics complained that the film did not show what happens to Anne at the concentration camp and suggested that her statement and the limited perspective of the film is naive. They got it wrong. She says the line after she has a nightmare about a concentration camp, after hearing the sounds of gunfire at night.

That line shows up again in the film’s conclusion.  The movie ends with a shot of Anne’s father reading from her diary.  He survived the concentration camp.  Anne did not.

We hear her quote again, this time in voice over, and it brings him to tears.  “She puts me to shame,” he cries. Then we see a shot of birds flying in the sky, similar to one that opens the film, as if to suggest that Anne found a way to fly above the fray, to transcend the cruelty that surrounded her.

Like Anne Frank, George Stevens saw the evils of war, but instead of getting tainted by what he saw, he grew stronger in his capacity to see the good around him. The Diary of Anne Frank is his victory anthem.

World War II propaganda poster – Alexander Liberman, 1943

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The Greatest Story Ever Told was the second to last film that George Stevens made.  I won’t go so far as to say that it is the best movie ever made.  Much of it feels like a snapshot of Sunday-school lessons rather than a fleshed out story.

It comes with the territory of approaching a subject  that is regarded with such reverence by so many people.  There’s enormous pressure to live up to other people’s expectations, and so it becomes very difficult to tell the story in a personal, dramatically inventive way.

Still, there are some exceptional bits.  The cinematography plays up the struggle between light and darkness, becoming almost a black and white film at times.

Just like in a Western, the good guys are in white and the bad guys in black. Christ and most of the townspeople are draped in white garments.  Only the religious leaders and the people in power wear black, providing more insight into how George Stevens sees the world.

The Lazarus resurrection sequence is stirring, but the moment that resonates most with me is when Sidney Poitier  emerges from the crowd to help Christ carry the cross.  It is as if Sidney Poitier is saying without words, “I too am an outsider.  I too have known sorrows. Let me help you.”

George Stevens’s sense of duty exposed him to the worse in mankind.  Not letting evil overcome him, he kept his films focused on things nobler than himself and the cruelties he witnessed, and he did so in a meticulous, larger-than-life way. That’s what made him a great director, one of the best.

I salute you, Mr. Stevens, and I do hope you’re up there making more pictures with Frank Capra.  If you see my dad, tell him I say hello.  You two share the same name.

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If you enjoyed this exploration of George Stevens’s films, you might also enjoy my posts on these filmmakers:

Frank Capra

Cameron Crowe

Pixar

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If you appreciate my writing, why not write a comment or share the post with a friend? It would encourage me to keep writing and sharing bits of my heart with you.

Please consider signing up to get my posts by email.  You can do that by clicking here.  I don’t write every week.  If I did, I wouldn’t have the time to write the kinds of posts I prefer to write.
I only write if I believe I have something worth writing and after I’ve spent some time finessing my thoughts.  If you’re following along by email, you’ll know right away when I have a new post waiting for you.  It is very easy to unsubscribe, and you won’t receive anything unrelated to my blog. 
As always, thanks for reading and God bless.

(Mostly) Modest Thoughts on Modern Art

Normally, I don’t do this sort of thing.  I plan ahead, so that I can deliver a quality post for you guys, but this time it’s going to be a little different.  Here’s what happened: When visiting San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art, I came across a piece that so astonished me that I felt compelled not just to write about it, but to bump up this story to the front of the line.

That means you’ll have to wait a little longer to read my take on the Flaming Lips, George Stevens’s films, or other such topics. I know waiting is hard, but I think it’ll be worth it, and if there is anything that I’ve learned from my audience surveys, it’s that you all are a resilient bunch.

Well OK, technically I haven’t done any audience surveys, but that’s what I imagine you all are like when I’m conducting management meetings about this blog … with myself.  It’s a very effective way of doing a meeting, actually. There’s lots of common ground for one thing, so you know, give it a try.

By now you may be wondering what artwork was it that made me veer off course. Or, maybe you’re wondering if I’ll ever get to the point.  Both worthy things to wonder.

We’re almost there.  I just wanted to get you ready for the experience by properly setting the stage.  I will make some rather abstract points, but stick with me, and I’ll tie it all together at the end.  So with that said, here it is:

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The piece is called “Blue Smudge,” and it is created by Mel Bochner.  Right away with the title, the artist is hitting us with a powerful juxtaposition.  Blue is a very distinct color, while a smudge is by its nature amorphous, lacking a concrete form.

In a sense then, Mr. Bochner is giving us definitive ambiguity.  What a scrumptious paradox!  Note too how the smudge in question actually bears a striking resemblance to a key element of the cultural icon colloquially known as the frowny face.

Mr. Bochner could have chosen any color, but it’s significant that he chose blue.  In the parlance of times, feeling blue conveys sadness, a world-weary ethos, depression. Is it too much of a stretch to say that feeling blue is in fact a smudged state of being? I think not.

Let’s take a closer look:

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This enlarged view really lets you see the subtle gradations of texture that the artist uses to make his point.  (Thanks Photoshop!) When does one hue of blue end and another begin?

It is not unlike the philosophical endeavor to determine where the domain of one soul ends and where another begins. The granular nature of chalk is the perfect medium to call attention to this inherently human quest for boundaries.

The colors also remind us of the Greek flag, hinting at the gift of democracy that ancient Greece gave us, but let’s take a moment to look at the world today.  It doesn’t take a rocket scientist, or a rockin political scientist for that matter, to conclude that we sometimes squander this gift on frivolous pursuits, and in that sense Mr. Bochner’s smudge cries for that wasted potential.  Look at the piece long enough and you really start to feel the pathos of the … OK, I can’t go any further.

Everything I said about the painting, except for the title and the name of the “artist” is complete rubbish.  Speaking of rubbish I would encourage the SFMOMA to do the right thing and recycle that puppy.

I know. It’s supposed to be conceptual art, and it’s about the idea, about provoking a reaction.  Etc.  In my humble opinion though, this is merely a way of justifying half-hearted effort and incompetence. It’s the art equivalent of the signs held by panhandlers on Fishermans’ Wharf that say, “Why lie, I need a beer.”  I’m not going to high-five those guys for being lazy. Nor am I going to  give  Mr. Bochner respect for his “artistic achievement.”

More art on display at SFMOMA.

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Can you imagine a baseball player who builds a career by blinking his eyes and signing “peace” in American Sign Language instead of, you know, actually swinging at the  ball? What about a plumber who addresses a leaky pipe by painting it with earth tones and calling it Yellowstone?

We wouldn’t put up with such posers because we still value the pursuit of excellence in most fields, but in the art world we’ve allowed a few pompous hipsters to hijack the standards we use to determine accomplishment.  As Jon Bon Jovi might say, you give art a bad name, Mr. Bochner. Shame!

As it happens the most compelling art I saw in San Francisco was not at the museum but in the city’s exceptional art galleries.  We’ve been conditioned to expect that museums, being non-profit organizations, are superior in quality to for-profit galleries, but just like in the world at large that’s not always the case.

It makes sense.  San Francisco is one of the biggest art markets in the world, so apparently it is not unusual to see original Picassos, Miros, and Chagalls on display at the high-end dealers.

At the Weinstein and the Martin Lawrence Galleries on Geary Street, the dealers spent a bit of time chatting with me about the art on display, even though I made it clear from the beginning that I was not looking to buy anything.  They were still eager to share their passion for art, and they didn’t treat me in a condescending way, which sometimes happens when the proprietors conclude that you’re not a paying customer.

I’m grateful to them for that, so if you are looking for art, and you’re in the San Francisco area, look those galleries up.  They’ll treat you right.

The Martin Lawrence Galleries had a particularly strong collection of Marc Chagall paintings.  Mike, one of the associates there, talked to me about the painter.  When he realized my admiration of Chagall’s work, he took me upstairs to show off the paintings valued at over a million dollars.  One of those paintings was the one below:

Bouquet Jaune sur Fond Bleu – Marc Chagall, 1981-1982

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Mike didn’t just show me the painting.  He unmounted it from the wall and showed me Chagall’s signature on the back that demonstrates authenticity.  Then, he did something I’ve never seen before. He took that million dollar painting and casually tossed it in the air and caught it upside down.

He wanted to demonstrate that Chagall’s paintings are still enjoyable to view even if the orientation changes. Stunned, I complimented Mike on his bravery.  Playing million-dollar catch is a little bit out of my price range, you know, but Mike made his point.

Chagall wasn’t painting to impress stuffy critics and art intellectuals.  He was painting with love, and that’s where the vitality of his work comes. Mike compared Chagall to Picasso, noting that Picasso has a very analytic approach and painted women in a way that suggests an underlying misogyny.  Chagall’s work is more tender, celebrating the joyful harmony of togetherness.

I’m not a hundred percent sure about this, but I think Jon Bon Jovi might react to Chagall’s style by saying something like, ” We’ve got each other and that’s a lot. For love – we’ll give it a shot.” (Hey, I told you guys I’d try to tie it all together in the end!)

Lovers and Flowers, Marc Chagall

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Anyway, even when the relationships in my life aren’t working so well, it makes me feel a little better to know that out there somewhere is love like that.  Whenever possible, try to be more like Chagall and less like Bochner with the things you do, whether you’re an artist or an accountant.  The world will thank you for it.

If you appreciate my writing, why not write a comment or share the post with a friend? It would encourage me to keep writing and sharing bits of my heart with you.

Please consider signing up to get my posts by email.  You can do that by clicking here.  I don’t write every week.  If I did, I wouldn’t have the time to write the kinds of posts I prefer to write.
I only write if I believe I have something worth writing and after I’ve spent some time finessing my thoughts.  If you’re following along by email, you’ll know right away when I have a new post waiting for you.  It is very easy to unsubscribe, and you won’t receive anything unrelated to my blog.  As always, thanks for reading and God bless.

Music Videos and Other Miscellaneous Matters

I wrote an article for altdaily.com about music videos. In that article, I gave 15 videos that influenced my perception of what a music video could be. That article is here: http://www.altdaily.com/features/music/a-directors-favorite-music-videos.html

The article came about because of a conversation I had with the editors about whether they could mention the screening we were doing for our music video.  The music video was one I directed for an instrumental rock band in Virginia called Long Division.  Initially we were going to do a private screening with just the band, the people who helped make it, and a handful of the most loyal fans.

On the day of our screening, we got snowed out.  What a disappointment that was. It rarely snows in Virginia, at least in our neck of the woods, so it felt like an unfortunate turn of fate. Some of the band members were leaving for an extended trip to China, and it looked like we might not get to do the screening for a while, if at all.

The concept art I did for the music video.

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It might seem like a small thing that we had to cancel our screening, but it felt like one more setback in a series of unfortunate events. On the shoot itself, just to give one example, one of our model rockets ended up torpedoing into a nearby roof, even though we were, from what I remember, at least 200 yards away from the closest house.

I had to pay to fix the family’s roof myself.  It was my shoot, so I take responsibility for any damage that’s done.  Fair enough, but still discouraging, and I was frustrated about other things as well, so the cancelled screening had a compounding effect on me.

As it turned out, the guys weren’t gone as long as I expected.  Andrew Lane, one of the band members who went to China and a key creative partner on the video, talked about the possibility of turning the screening into a show.  Together we put on an event where we screened the video, had artists share their work, and heard a few bands play.

We got such interest in the event that it became clear a week before it happened that we would have to turn people away.  Altdaily hadn’t confirmed that they would run my article, but I asked them to delay it until after the screening if they were still planning on printing it.  I didn’t want too many people to get sent home in disappointment.  A good problem to have, right?

Bison performing at our “alone in space” show. Photo credit: Parthena Savides

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What seemed like a setback was actually a blessing in disguise. The “alone in space” show and the press that came with it were the best possible outcomes for us, and neither would have happened if we got our initial screening.

I’m writing this at a time shortly after facing another seemingly devastating setback, so it is encouraging to remember the way things unfolded with the music video.  That’s not to say that every setback will inevitably lead to something better.

After all, free will couldn’t exist without the freedom to fail. (Interesting that so many contemporary governments make it a priority to isolate their citizens from failure. That can get expensive, but it’s not a bad price to pay for a little more control, at least if you are a control-minded government. Maybe not such a hot deal for the actual citizens though, at least for those who value freedom over comfort.)

A video promo I made the “alone in space” show.

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There are so many tragedies and horrors in our world, and I don’t know why things happen the way they do.  Nor do I know the scope of the tragedies you’ve faced, noble readers.  I don’t have all the answers, and I’m not a perfect person, but I do believe that things happen for a reason.  There is good out there, bigger than us. Some people, myself included, call that God.

I know that music videos are mostly disposable commodities, but still maybe you can find some small encouragement in the way things unfolded with ours.  At the very least, writing this has helped me to get back to a sense of dignity and grace. What a marked contrast to my state of mind just a day or two ago.  I couldn’t do that on my own, folks.

Here’s the video in case you haven’t seen it yet. We got more views on vimeo, but YouTube compression has gotten better, and I figured I’d give it another chance:

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Only a few weeks after I made the video did I realize one of the reasons I made it. It relates to a play I wrote a while ago.

I didn’t write it just for recognition or for something to add to my portfolio. There’s nothing wrong with getting recognized for something of merit that benefits others, but sometimes recognition is easier to chase than the driving force behind a personal creative project. (I don’t promote my work all that much compared to others, but some people still take issue with any attempts at self promotion.  To those people I say this, “It’s called trying to make a living. Try it for yourself someday.”)

I couldn’t really articulate this at the time, but I wrote the play primarily in the hope of reconciling things with my dad.  I had a sense that I should share it with him, but I didn’t.  I thought he would hate the story.  A few weeks later he died, and our relationship was never fully restored.

Somehow it felt like the story had found a way to undermine my very reason for writing it, and so I lost my inclination to write stories after that.  It was the last full-length story I finished.  I’ve attempted to write others since then, but they’ve all withered in development.

Props and art from the “alone in space” show.  Photo credit: Parthena Savides

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The play was my helmet.  One of these days I’ll pull it out of the closet  and breathe new life into it. But not yet. Not quite yet.

Once again the unexplainable thing, the tragedy gives way to meaning. It just took time to see. It always does.

If you appreciate my writing, why not write a comment or share the post with a friend? It would encourage me to keep writing and sharing bits of my heart with you.

Please consider signing up to get my posts by email.  You can do that by clicking here.  I don’t write every week.  If I did, I wouldn’t have the time to write the kinds of posts I prefer to write.
I only write if I believe I have something worth writing and after I’ve spent some time finessing my thoughts.  If you’re following along by email, you’ll know right away when I have a new post waiting for you.  It is very easy to unsubscribe, and you won’t receive anything unrelated to my blog.  As always, thanks for reading and God bless.



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