Archive for the 'film' Category

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.


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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.


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

Frank Capra

Cameron Crowe



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.

Culture Mini: Stranger than Fiction

“I just figured if I was going to make the world a better place, I would do it with cookies.” That is usually not what people say when they talk about changing the world.

For one thing, that’s not the answer that will win you the Miss USA title. Or Mr USA. Let’s not discriminate here, people. Cookies are rather commonplace after all, so how could they make a difference?

Still, Maggie Gyllenhaal’s character Ana delivers that line with conviction … in Stranger than Fiction. (That rhyme was accidental, but I’ll keep it!)  In a movie that tries to subvert what we consider culturally significant, the cookies line isn’t a throw-away one.

On the other end of the movie’s spectrum is the accomplished novelist Keren Eiffel played by Emma Thompson. She writes “important” depressing stories that end in death, and she has to decide if she will kill yet another character in her newest book, even if doing so might actually kill someone in reality.

It’s a choice between creating harmful high-art or affirming life with a more modest choice. Like baking cookies, the latter option probably won’t get acclaim but will be more likely to make life enjoyable for the recipients.

How wonderful that a movie like Stranger than Fiction would use legendary actors like Emma Thompson and Dustin Hoffman, not to make a pompous statement about the human condition, but to celebrate the cookie-baking aesthetic.

Usually this is not the kind of movie that features stylized visual effects, but there are some nice ones here. Motion graphics spring to life around Will Ferrell wherever he goes.

Get this, the effects are not essential to the story, but they are there to add texture to (gasp) characterization.  That’s surprising because character moments are usually the first to go in the editing room, so it is quite unconventional to supplement those moments with somewhat-costly effects.

The movie is well acted, innovative, and full of fun, post-modern moments with characters commenting on the story they inhabit, but it is also life affirming and full of unconventional wisdom.

Give it a chance or maybe even a second or third viewing.  It’s worth your time.

Playlist and art for the post:

Photo credit:

playlist: The first song is from the movie’s soundtrack. I picked the rest.

art: Some paintings to peruse presented by Google’s Art Project.


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.

Cameron Crowe: Our Rock and Roll Warrior for Optimism

“There is a good bet that I will erase all of this from my laptop, and you will never read it.  But if you are reading it, and you’re reading it right now, it is only because I was unable to stop.” Those aren’t my words; they’re from the mission statement in Jerry Maguire—you’ll need the special edition to read it—but I can relate.  Cameron Crowe wasn’t the guy who got me interested in filmmaking, but his movies have been a big reason why I’ve kept at it in spite of the heartaches that have come along the way.

It’s hard enough to write about someone whose abilities I greatly admire,  but it’s a whole other ballgame when his work has impacted my life in a deep, sometimes searing way.

Photo credit:


I figured I could either do a polished, impersonal pass at it, or I could tell the truth. It’s an obvious choice if I want to honor the things Cameron Crowe values: the power of telling the truth even when it hurts is a recurring theme in his work.

Some examples to prove my case: “Let us be honest,” are the first words we see Jerry Maguire write in the mission statement I mentioned at the beginning. Writing it changes his life.

In Vanilla Sky, Tom Cruise’s character gets a chance at true love only when he can honestly confront the ugly parts of himself.  William, the Cameron Crowe alter ego in Almost Famous, has to choose between looking cool and being honest.  Like almost every other Cameron Crowe hero, William chooses honesty and takes a beating for it, but he emerges stronger by the end.

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Don’t forget, the first movie Crowe directed was titled Say Anything.   The name comes from an understanding between a father and a daughter that they can say anything to each other as long as it is honest.  When the dad gets caught lying, it destroys their relationship.

OK so we’ll be honest, but let’s get some context before we dive too deep.  “Rhythm,” “dissonance,” and “rebellion” are words you might expect to find in a rock & roll discussion.  But optimism? The word seems a little out of place.  That is, it seems out of place until you throw Cameron Crowe into the mix.

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An accomplished filmmaker, Crowe has earned rock & roll cred by writing for Rolling Stone, where he got to interview and tour with some of the biggest rock bands of the 70s.  Plus, he’s penned liner notes for bands like Led Zeppelin and Lynyrd Skynyrd and  done music videos, and he’s currently finishing up a documentary on Pearl Jam.

Then, of course, there are his movies. Singles and Almost Famous are both grounded in specific music scenes, Seattle grunge for Singles and 1970s rock in Almost Famous.  Along with Nancy Wilson, he  created a fictional band for Almost Famous and then recorded a few of their songs.  His other films have compelling soundtracks that he’s helped to arrange.  He plays music on set to get his actors in the right mood and talks about his movies in musical terms.

With just a line or two of dialogue like the quote that follows, he gives us insightful music commentary but makes it feel like it’s the most casual observation in the world: “So this is what’s become of rock and roll, a smashed guitar behind a glass case displayed in some rich guy’s wall.”  Oh yeah, and he was married to Nancy Wilson, the guitarist from Heart.

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So where does optimism fit in? To hear Crowe tell it, it’s as if optimism and rock & roll were made for each other. In this interview with, Crowe states, “I think if you have an open mind and you aren’t too strict about where the greatest messages in life can come from, and honor the message itself, you’ve got to say rock & roll is a powerful, powerful messenger for goodness-as well as subversive elements that are there in all elements of the world. But I love great music and the transcendent place that it takes you to.”

It was Cameron Crowe who described himself as a “warrior for optimism” in an interview with Entertainment Weekly, and he’s earned the title with his body of work. His movies remind us of why we’ve grown cynical but then conquer that cynicism with sincerity and decency.

Before she meets her true love, played by Campbell Scott, Krya Sedgwick’s character in Singles gets conned by someone who only wants her body.  That makes her a little more guarded.  Steve has his own setbacks to overcome.  He has committed all of his efforts at work to building a monorail.  In most movies he would succeed at his goal, and win the girl in the process.  In this one, his project fails entirely.  Still they make it work by sharing their frustrations with each other.

Pearl Jam, “The Fixer” directed by Cameron Crowe


If you haven’t seen Singles yet, give it a shot.  There are lots of fun cameo appearances.  Some of the guys from Pearl Jam are in it, playing in a band called Citizen Dick. They’re as cheesy as you’d expect with a name like that.  Then there’s Tim Burton who we learn is going to be the “next Martin Scor-ceese.” He makes ridiculously awful dating videos for his clients.

And let’s not forget our friend Paul Giamatti of Lady in the Water fame.  He plays “Kissing Man,” but he does so much with his few moments on screen.  There is passion but vulnerability.  Ferocious intensity, but also a longing desire to get past the superficial aspect of it all.  It’s like he’s channeling James Cagney and Earnest Borgnine at the same time. OK, I’m just kidding … about the James Cagney bit.  Still it was a good moment for the Giamaiester, and I’m guessing the casting director for Sideways liked his work in Singles enough to give him the keys to kingdom. Anyway…

In Almost Famous, the band does sell out.  They listen to Jimmy Fallon’s promoter and opt to go the route that will get them more money and publicity.  In the process they leave young William high and dry, and they do away with their beloved band bus, nicknamed Doris, to get a jet.   Symbolic of their decision to sell out, the jet literally almost kills them. Eventually, the band members confront their flaws, and Russell Hammond does right by William. Only when the band rediscovers its soul does Doris the bus return.

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Jerry Maguire is inspired to write his mission statement because he notices that “in the quest for the big dollars a lot of the little things were going wrong.”  People at his agency were willing to do anything to make more money, even if that meant lying or putting the health of their players at risk.

Everyone remembers the phrase “show me the money” from that film, but Jerry’s mission statement actually emphasizes putting personal relationships above profit. He wants to be in the business of caring about his clients, of doing the right thing.  That’s why he gets fired.

Oh yes, I do remember when I first saw Jerry Maguire.  I was in London, studying abroad. It was a new city for me to explore, full of history, of drama, of possibility. We were sort of a family, me and all the American kids in my program, but slowly the all-too-familiar feeling of being out of place returned.

How awful to feel that way even in a seemingly magical metropolis. I had to numb myself.  It was the only way I knew to deal with the pain. Doing that sort of thing only hurts when the numbness wears off, but when it does, it is so very hard to get up and fight again.

I didn’t want to get up and fight again. Things did not change for me, no matter what I did or where I went.  I was about to go to sleep, but something told me to turn on the TV.  I did and saw that Jerry Maguire was playing.  I thought, “no way do I want to watch an egotistical jerk shout about getting more money.” Still, the voice insisted. Curious, I started to watch.   Soon the movie got to the part where Tom Cruise’s character realizes that he’s good at business but horrible at intimacy. That got my attention.   It did more than that, in fact.

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On one level, Jerry Maguire is about a man who carves out a new and noble sports business for himself, but on a deeper level it is about a man who learns to love by remembering the notable example of his now-absent father. As he tells us in voice over, Jerry becomes his father’s son again when he writes the mission statement. Then, he bonds with Dorothy’s boy because they both miss their fathers, and the boy wants Jerry Maguire to be his new dad. That brings Jerry closer to Dorothy, which forces him to break through his fears of intimacy and finally arrive at love.

Seeing Jerry Maguire find love made me a little more hopeful that I could someday make things work. My reaction was like that of the kid in Say Anything who hears about how Lloyd Dobler, a financially challenged jock, is daring to make things work with a more affluent girl who happens to be the school’s valedictorian: “This is great. This gives me hope. Thanks.”

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It was Jerry Maguire and the hug of one girl in London that made it possible for me to write my first script. The girl was the first one who ever hugged me in a way that felt like it meant, “I am so very glad that you are here.” I didn’t know hugs could do that.

Back to our director’s films.  It’s not just in Jerry Maguire that Cameron Crowe makes dramatic use of an absent, noble father.  There’s no father in Almost Famous, a dead one in Elizabethtown, an incarcerated one in Say Anything, one who abandons a boy in Singles, and a distant, corporate one in Vanilla Sky.

The absence of a caring father is so devastating to Tom Cruise’s character in Vanilla Sky that he imagines a surrogate father into his life.  Add to that what Tom Cruise the person has shared about his own abusive father, and Vanilla Sky becomes, more than any other film that comes to mind, a sort of cautionary tale about how the absence of a noble father can sour the development of a young man. (There is also a bit of that in the TV show Lost, but you’re in a different category when you have lots more hours to tell your story.)

Photo credit:, 1989


Vanilla Sky is actually a retelling of the Spanish film Abre los ojos (Open Your Eyes).  Both are excellent films, but Vanilla Sky has an added layer that examines celebrity culture.  It comes with the territory of having Tom Cruise in your movie, and his performance consists partly of playing up to our expectations of him as a celebrity.  That’s why it has more of an impact when he also plays against those expectations in the film.

Taking into account Almost Famous, Jerry Maguire, and Vanilla Sky, I don’t think it’s a stretch to conclude that Cameron Crowe has a bit of a love-hate relationship with celebrities. On the one hand, the famous ones are often capable of awe-inspiring greatness, but on the other hand they can be thoughtless in how they treat others. They’re also sometimes enabled to damage the world by those who protect them from the consequences of their actions.

In Almost Famous, the band trades Penny Lane to another band for a case of beer.  When Penny finds out she tries to kill herself.  At first, even Jerry Maguire protects the sports stars he represents from sexual allegations until he gets a change of heart.  Tom Cruise’s character in Vanilla Sky is oblivious to how his actions are hurting others, until it is too late.

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Still, one of the big ideas in Vanilla Sky, as Crowe himself tells us, is the value of being able to take the sweet and the sour that life has to offer. That’s also not a bad way to think about celebrities.

Sure, a band might abuse drugs and women, but that doesn’t negate the joy they spread when performing.  Celebrities like Joan Crawford or Tom Cruise might have their dark sides, but that doesn’t detract from their dedication to their craft or their capacities for emotional honesty.  It is possible and quite healthy to admire others without overlooking their flaws.

That kind of approach has been enormously helpful to me.  It allows me to confront bad behavior even when it comes from people I admire, and for almost everyone there is the sour that goes with the sweet, even for Cameron Crowe.

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He is one of my favorite filmmakers, but I still wince at some of his tendencies.  He does fight for optimism, but his movies also encourage a more casual attitude toward swearing.  It’s not that swear words offend me or that I don’t ever swear myself, but there is something to be said for civil discourse in public.  It bothers me a little more when it’s the young kids in the scene who say the swear words, as happens in Say Anything and Jerry Maguire.

And then there is Fast Times at Ridgemont High.  That’s the one he wrote but didn’t direct.  Prior to listening to that commentary track, I thought his commentaries always added depth and texture to his films. I mean, how can you not admire a guy who includes the perspectives of his mom and his wife in his discussions?

Well, the Fast Times commentary is the only one I’ve ever heard that has made me like a film less.  In it, Crowe explains how he was so excited to hear Sean Penn say “dick” that he would plead for him to say it every time he saw him.  When I heard that, I imagined Cameron Crowe as the kind of  kid who would punch the piñata he carried in celebration every time someone described a girl’s breasts.  Classy.

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Also, he and Amy Heckerling bemoan the mean ol’ ratings board that would not allow them to show erect penises along with the two naked chicks that they already featured, one of them almost showing full-frontal nudity. Crowe laughs off concerns from the critics that they were exploiting teenage girls for their film.  The characters might have been underage he tells us, but the actresses were at least 18, and the girls wanted to go even further with the sex scenes.  If anything, the filmmakers were showing tasteful restraint, Crowe suggests.  What a jerk, I thought.

I enjoy seeing beautiful women as much as the next guy, but it is such a challenge not to get caught up in treating women like sex objects, and movies like that don’t help. Sex is such a big part of our lives, but it can be devastating when we get it wrong, so why make things tougher on the audience by showing them such explicit images?

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On top of that, one of the girls in the movie spends more time deliberating about what dress to wear than about whether she should get an abortion.  In this movie, picking the right dress requires consultation, but getting an abortion doesn’t.  It’s just a matter of finding the right person to drive you to the clinic.

I know that abortion is a tough subject, and I don’t expect every filmmaker to share my point of view, but how disappointing to see that getting an abortion was played as such an obvious choice.

I was actually depressed for a few hours after watching the movie and hearing the commentary.  Why was I admiring the guy largely responsible for such a shallow film?  Clearly he was just like everyone else, and I was so wrong about him, and if Cameron Crowe is like that then why not settle for a shallow existence?  Then I got a nice text message from a friend, and that sent away my sour thoughts.

To be fair, the book version of Fast Times at Ridgemont High, which I read shortly after re-watching the movie, was more enjoyable.  That’s the one Cameron Crowe wrote before he turned it into a screenplay, and it has more nuanced character moments in it.  For example, Spicoli the pothead isn’t just there for comic relief.  He’s trying to cope with his dysfunctional family and his struggles in school.   As to the abortion scene, we actually read about the girl’s feelings of dread and isolation at the clinic.  She asks the doctor, “Does it hurt more to have a baby?”  He responds, “Yes. But you mind it less.” That does change the context a bit, don’t you think?

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It’s encouraging that Crowe’s depictions of sex have matured in his later films. There’s nudity in Vanilla Sky, but it is handled in a more tasteful way.  In his comments about that film, he talks about the merits of not having sex right away and about how casual sex is never as casual as people pretend.  Then there’s the line from Cameron Diaz:  “When you sleep with someone, your body makes a promise whether you do or not.” In Elizabethtown, Kirsten Dunst’s modesty is protected by a few foaming bubbles, and so the scene becomes flirty but not lascivious.

A few days went past before I realized why Fast Times affected me the way that it did.  I had been idolizing Cameron Crowe, and doing that can lead to trouble.  No man is God, regardless of how talented or famous.  Cameron Crowe is a big inspiration, but he’s human just like the rest of us.  He has his virtues and his vices.  I just wasn’t willing to acknowledge that before I started preparing for this post.

That’s why I defended Elizabethtown as a great movie when it first came out.  It isn’t.  It’s a well intentioned film with terrific music and moments of greatness, but it has its flaws.

Instead of allowing the ensuing action to develop from the inciting incident, Crowe tries to expand the story by resorting to attention-grabbing set pieces like an over-the-top wedding party unrelated to the main characters, a TV show about exploding houses, and Susan Surandon doing a comedy routine about boners.  Her routine actually causes a plane-like bird to crash and start a fire.  Subtle realism that scene is not.

He didn’t have to resort to those kinds of tricks on movies like Jerry Maguire or Vanilla Sky.  I’m guessing the problem was that certain aspects of his own father’s death were still too painful for him to explore in a creative project.  Still, the movie made enough of an impression that it inspired me to take a road trip and to seek out some of the cities that the movie mentioned.

Photo credit: Me, road trip 1: Beale St., Memphis.  (Photos from Road Trip 2 are here.)


Anyway, my reaction to Fast Times got me thinking about how people might see me if they only  saw certain moments of my life in isolation.   Some moments might suggest that I’m a monster, others that I’m a saint, but I’d like to think I’m just a guy trying to do the best I can with what I’ve been dealt. I’m still waiting for God to fix the parts in me I can’t resolve.  Someday.

I’ve definitely done things I’m not proud of doing.  I’ve tried to move on, to do better, but sometimes I still stumble.  Meaning well doesn’t change the fact that there are still consequences to the things we do, no matter how much we try to avoid them.

Remember the girl in London I mentioned earlier? Things never work out. At that point in my life I wasn’t ready to meet her.  I was too busy trying to numb the pain, and so I lacked the character I needed to really connect with her. Sad when that happens.

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It’s like Jason Lee explains to Tom Cruise in Vanilla Sky, “You can do whatever you want with your life, but one day you’ll know what love truly is, it’s the sour and the sweet.”  You can’t have one without the other.

The holidays can be a time of celebration, but they can also be a reminder of all the things in our lives that aren’t working.  If you’re hurting, don’t give up.  Actions do have consequences, but to quote Vanilla Sky once again, “Every passing minute is another chance to turn it all around.” What’s done can’t be undone, but it’s not too late to fix the future.

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In Say Anything Ione Skye begs a banker to “be a little decent,” but why be just a little decent? Be boldly, outrageously decent and take that leap of faith. All kinds of interesting things might happen if you do that, but you’ll never know if you never jump off that building.  Good is out there. It’s just a little harder to see in our cynical world.

In a featurette for Jerry Maguire Tom Cruise tells us, “Optimism in many ways is a revolutionary act today. People who are optimistic tend to get battered a little bit in this world at times.”   That’s true even for Cameron Crowe. Elizabethtown, the last movie he made, took a beating from the critics, and his divorce to Nancy Wilson just got finalized this month.

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So, this Christmas lets send our prayers of gratitude and hope to Cameron Crowe: May you stand up once again, like the noble warrior that you are, and lead us bravely into battle once more.  For what it is worth, I’m still fighting, and you’re a big reason why.

Let’s end with a story.  My mom is the kind of person who always seems to walk in on a movie at the most inopportune moments.  One year when I was watching Jerry Maguire at home, she came in during the sex scene at the beginning.  “Why are you watching this trash?” she asked.  I tried to explain that it wasn’t as graphic as it could have been, and that the movie actually had a positive message.  She walked away unconvinced.

Later she came back during the climactic football scene at Christmas.  She studied the screen for a moment then spoke.

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She mentioned John 3:16, as if she had just won an argument.  “What do you mean?” I asked. She pointed it out.   Sure enough there is a poster prominently positioned in the stadium that says “John 3:16.” I had never noticed that before.  At least the movie has something that is right, her words and gestures conveyed.  Yeah. Rock and Roll, Cameron Crowe.

Merry Christmas everyone, and God bless.


To learn more about Cameron Crowe or to read some of the articles he wrote for Rolling Stone, check out his site at

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Giving Thanks for Shyamalan’s Lady in the Water

In this post, I will strive to convince you that M. Night Shyamalan’s Lady in the Water, a film that got nominated for a Razzie, is in fact a masterpiece worthy of esteem.  As you may know, Razzies are awards that acknowledge (or shame) the worst film achievements of the year.

Some of the winners of this coveted prize include cinematic gems like Battlefield Earth, Freddy Got Fingered, and Gigli.  But, let’s be fair here; Lady in the Water didn’t win the award.  It merely got nominated.  Still, I have my work cut out for me.  That’s all right. I enjoy a challenge.

Stars – Maxfield Parrish, 1926


Since this movie has gotten such a negative reception, I’m going to discuss it in more depth than usual.  I understand this might not be of interest to everyone, so feel free to jump around, either on the page or, you know, literally jump around while reading this. If nothing else you’ll get a good workout.

Alternatively, you could just go and watch the new Kanye West video and then pretend afterwards that you actually read my thoughts.  Still, maybe you’ll find something of interest if you’re patient enough.  In case what I have to say matters  to you though, please do what you can to read all the way through before reacting.  I mean well, but sometimes things get lost in translation. Pray with me that something positive comes through.  With that said, onward we go!

I’ll admit it: Lady in the Water is no Citizen Kane.  Citizen Kane is, after all, lavishly praised by cineastes across the globe.  Even as you’re reading this, there’s quite likely a spectacled professor in northern Latvia who is explaining to his sleepy students that the film is one of the finest ever made.  I’m fairly certain that no film intellectual is speaking of Lady in the Water in similar terms.

I say fairly certain because the fine film critics in the Polynesian island of Tuvalu failed to complete my survey on the matter.  Come to think of it, no one returned my survey. Next time, I’m going to put a little more thought in the stationary I use for such things. I’ve learned the hard way that not everyone shares my passion for embroidered dragons. Alas.

Seriously though, critical acclaim or the lack there of shouldn’t be the sole determining factor of a film’s merit.  Sometimes the critics get it wrong.  I wish I could claim that the story I’m about to tell you is another element of my imagination, but this one’s true:

When I was in college, a philosophical group on campus was hosting a get-to-know-you social.  The event involved coming to the library to eat cookies and to watch a supposedly important film.  (It doesn’t get much better than that, right?)

I don’t remember the name of the film, but it featured the main character in an extensive rape sequence.  It wasn’t a sequence that was designed to show the horror or tragedy of rape. On the contrary, it emphasized the will to power of the “hero.”  The creepy intellectual in charge of the event acknowledged as much in the discussion afterwards.   Some icebreaker huh?

Hansel and Gretel illustration – Gustaf Tenggren, 1942


Believing that the “experts” knew something I didn’t, I stuck it out to the end trying to understand what I was missing. I placed more value on the judgement of others than on my own intuitive sense about things, and so I got led astray. Now I know better.

I never returned to that group, but I might have actually gotten to know the people in it had they shown a film like Lady in the Water.  I’m no scientist, but I have this hypothesis that movies with warmth and heart tend to get people to open up more so than intellectualized rape films.  Maybe that’s just me, though.

Prior to making Lady in the Water, Mr. Shyamalan had made smart thrillers with a twist at the end. Lady in the Water was a bit of a departure from that.  In the special features for the disc, Mr. Shyamalan talks about how the story originated as a fairy tale that he would tell his kids. He also mentions being inspired by how Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel had a positive impact on the world.

(The book he’s referencing is Uncle Tom’s Cabin, one that many historians credit for helping to end slavery in America. It is worth reading not merely for its historical significance but also for its compelling story that showcases the Christian ethic prevailing against cruelty.)

Listening to Mr. Shyamalan talk about the movie, I get the sense that he cherishes it very much and wants to see it find a receptive home in the hearts of his audience.

Goblin Market illustration – Arthur Rackham, 1933


Well that’s all well and good, but we all know what they say about good intentions.   The road to hell is supposedly paved with them.  As a side note, how is it that the people who say such things actually know what the road to hell is like?  Have they actually been there, or were they just part the construction crew that helped to smooth the path? Times are tough, so people take whatever jobs they can, I guess. But anyway, does the film actually deliver?

I think it does.  On the surface level the movie is about a nymph in the pool of an apartment complex who is trying to return to her people.  Spend some time with the movie though, and you’ll discover a beautiful story about the source of inspiration, about finding one’s purpose in the world.

Paul Giamatti plays Cleveland Heap, a man who has lost a sense of connection to the world after facing tragedy.  He trudges through his days doing mundane work until he meets a Narf, a nymph-like creature.  The Narf he meets is called Story, played by the captivating Bryce Dallas Howard who returns to work with Mr. Shyamalan after collaborating with him on The Village.

We learn that Story, like other Narfs before her, leaves the blue world below and risks grave danger so that she may be seen by the vessel, someone who needs her inspiration to do important work.

It is no accident that the Narf is named Story, since this is a fairytale about the power of stories.  Stories come into our lives for just a moment, but the special ones change our lives in ways that we can’t quite articulate, Mr. Shyamalan suggests with that naming choice.

The Frog Prince illustration  – Warwick Goble


When we meet most of the characters, we see them living muddled lives.  Either they’ve isolated themselves from others, or they’re doing unusual things in the hope of becoming unique enough to validate their existence.  Story comes into this world and only then do the characters find their purpose and come together in community.

In the beginning of the movie, characters have conversations with each other, but the camera only shows us one face.  The other person is seen from behind or kept out of focus. Establishing shots or reaction shots are conspicuously absent.

By going against the conventions we’ve come to expect in film, Mr. Shyamalan makes us sense that something is not quite right,  that we are somehow not connecting with the characters.  This is an appropriate way to introduce us to Cleveland’s world, since it reflects the way he feels.  Contrast this with the more accessible group shots at the end of the movie, and you’ll get some sense of the journey that the movie offers.

When Story the Narf appears we see more establishing and reaction shots.  As Story’s influence grows so too does the number of people in the frame and the color saturation.  The colors are no longer muffled and flat but vibrant and soothing.

Alice in Wonderland illustration – John Tenniel, 1865


Also worth mentioning is the significant number of shots that involve something out of focus in the foreground.  Slowly the focus brings clarity, something the characters also discover by the end of the movie.

The idea that Story bring clarity is reenforced by Cleveland’s way of speaking.  He stutters until he meets her, and then his stutter goes away.  It’s sort of like what happens to George Bailey when he gets a visit from Clarence the angel in Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life.  (More of my thoughts on Capra are here.) It’s as if there is something divine about Story that improves all who approach her with receptive hearts.

As far as I know every ancient society had some kind of belief in divine inspiration. Hence the invocation of the muse.  Now days in our industrialized world we’ve moved away from that kind of thinking, but as writer Elizabeth Gilbert suggests in this TED video, maybe that is not for the best.    We have turned away from the mysterious and pursued  rigid structures and scientific methods; Sure, we have more technology, but also more violence and alienation.

What if it wasn’t meant to be that way, asks Lady in the Water?  What if we all have a bigger purpose?  What if we need each other and a rediscovered sense of child-like innocence to discover that purpose?

The Lady Gave her Purse – Warwick Goble


Child-like innocence is an important part of any fairy tale, but in this movie Mr. Shyamalan calls our attention to it.

In order to learn more about Story, Cleveland approaches an Asian lady who has heard folktales about the Narfs.  To hear more of the story behind Story, Cleveland must act like a child to gain the woman’s trust.   Later, Cleveland and his recruits discover that their Interpreter, the one who can interpret all the signs in the story that they’ve experiencing, is actually the youngest boy in the group.  It’s a little Postmodern, but so is everything these days.

Perhaps a few critics were not kind to Lady in the Water due to its depiction of a film critic, played by Bob Balaban.  It’s definitely not a flattering depiction: He’s smug and self-absorbed, he gets everything wrong,  and meets a tragic demise.  Well, here’s the thing: many critics are smug and self absorbed. Too often it feels like they obsess about the wrapping paper of a film (or a book or any work of art really) and fail to open it up and acknowledge the gift inside.

The Tortoise and the Hare illustration – Arthur Rackham, 1912


I do appreciate the thoughtful commentary that some critics bring to the table, but I’m less grateful for the one who go on and on about the genius of an arthouse rape film while heaping contempt upon the movies that bring joy and hope to others.  I truly believe that those kinds of critics are warped and frustrated creatures who seek, consciously or unconsciously, to spread their crookedness into others.

With that said, I don’t think Mr. Shyamalan was trying to critic proof his film.  I think he was trying to protect himself a bit from the critical beating he anticipated.  You see, he gave himself an important, but a very vulnerable, part in his movie.

He plays Vic Ran, the writer that Story has come to inspire.  When we first see Vic, his sister explains that he will do anything, even laundry, to avoid writing.  He’s working on something called the Cookbook, a title that Vic acknowledges is kind of dumb.  A glamorous character this is not.

Again, note the name.  Vic Ran is someone more inclined to run away than do something creative.  That’s actually a very humble role for Mr. Shyamalan to give himself, considering that he is responsible for writing, producing, and directing films that have grossed millions of dollars.  (Lady in the Water hater, when was the last time you produced something that others valued throughout the world?)

Considering his status in Hollywood, Mr. Shyamalan could have given himself  the part of a mighty king who gets all the girls and has ferocious, computer-enhanced abs of steel.  Instead, he chose to play an ordinary guy who becomes inspired to create something extraordinary.  Here’s what Mr. Shyamalan said about the part, “I play Vic who is genuinely an ordinary guy, which is what I feel every single day, but he is someone who is also capable of doing beautiful things, as everyone is capable of doing beautiful things.”

Alice in Wonderland illustration – John Tenniel, 1865


Still, the critics wailed.  “Look at him, playing a writer who is meant to write something important! The vanity! The hubris!  Who does he think he is? Does his work appear in Pretentious Monthly?  Mine does. I write important things about collectivism, and imperialism, and all kinds of isms, and he writes drivel, sheer escapist nonsense for the dirty masses.” No, I didn’t find critics to go on record with those words, but that’s my best guess at their inner  monologues based on their  rather predicable comments about the film.

(OK, that’s a somewhat exaggerated inner monologue.  It’s what I like to call a heroic attempt at humor, so bear with me as I pause for the laughter to subside.  And … pause for the laughter to subside.  I know, I know. Don’t quit the day job, right?  Hmm … such unique tips you offer, my friends.)

To be fair, many critics did response favorably to Mr. Shyamalan’s earlier, more conventional thrillers.   To them, I’m guessing Lady in the Water was a little too different, a little too self aware, and maybe, just maybe, it hit a little too close to home.

Mr. Shyamalan is a pretty sharp guy, so I’m sure he had some sense of what the critics would say.  After all, it’s not all that hard to anticipate the reactions of the smug and the self important. Maybe that’s why he foreshadowed the death of his character.  “Is someone going to kill me because I write this?” he asks Story.  She confirms.

Lady in the Water is not the first film to suggest that the artist might have to die for his art.  In The Red Shoes, the cinematic masterpiece from British directors Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, the performers sacrifice their love and their lives to serve a sinister theater impresario, a monstrous man who values artistic achievement above all else. In Lady in the Water, the aspiring artist approaches his work with an open heart and prepares to sacrifice himself so that others might benefit.  With which kind of artist would you prefer to collaborate?

I can only guess at how anguishing it must have been for Mr. Shyamalan to  see a story close  to his heart, one that grew out of a bedtime story for his kids, get such a brutal reception.  From my own experience and from listening to other creative people, I do know that rejection hurts more when the work is personal.

Little Red Riding Hood illustration – Gustaf Tenggren


The movie Mr. Shyamalan made after Lady in the Water was the Happening, which is in my opinion the worst of his films.  It felt like he lost his way.  My guess is that the pain of Lady in the Water‘s reception made it harder for him to trust his instincts.  Instead he tried to tap into the environmental zeitgeist and make something that he thought others would want.  As far as I know, Mr. Shyamalan hasn’t gone on record about the Lady in the Water‘s unfavorable reception, so that’s just a guess.

Even so, I’m willing to bet that Mr. Shyamalan anticipated the heartache that would come from making the movie.  Yet, he chose to make it anyway, believing that some good might come out of it.  He wouldn’t have mentioned Harriet Beecher Stowe’s book if he didn’t believe that.  That’s heroic, ladies and gentlemen.    I’m grateful for that.

There’s a sense of harmony in the film that comforts me whenever I watch it.  It’s the movie I watch when I feel disconnected from the world or when I feel like my own creative endeavors don’t matter.

East of the Sun and West of the Moon illustration – Kay Nielsen, 1914


The way Mr. Shyamalan put himself into his work in such a vulnerable way has stuck with me even more than the themes of the story. His openness encouraged me and made me want to do the same for others, even when it is uncomfortable for me to do.

I’ve definitely lost several hours of sleep in regards to some of the things I’ve written, but I take comfort from others who strive for a similar strand of difficult honesty, and so I try to pay it forward.  It’s my way of battling the suffocating, my-product-is-awesome! commentary that floods the web.

Is selling widgets or selling yourself so important that you are willing to demoralize others in the process?  Some critics would say yes.  Mr. Shyamalan wouldn’t, at least I’d like to think so.

Since we’re being honest, I will admit that I almost didn’t finish writing this post. Movies like Lady in the Water have prodded me to search for purpose in my own life, and that search can sting when you don’t get the answers quite right.  Mr. Shayamalan acknowledges as much in the movie.  When Cleveland gets purpose wrong, it causes suffering and almost leads to the death of someone he’s come to cherish.

Ballet – Kay Nielsen


I can relate.  Recently, I had come to believe that there was something I was supposed to do in relation to the victories of the New York Giants. I won’t  explain it here, because it will take a while, and it will sound crazy.

If you follow me on Twitter, you might have more of an idea of what I’m talking about. (If you go all the way back to the beginning of my updates and check the dates, then maybe you will conclude that I’m not as crazy as you first thought. Doing that is more than I could stomach though, so I won’t recommend it for most of you.)

Anyway, there were enough moments that happened just so to convince me that I was going in the right direction.  Then, the Giants lost and to the Cowboys of all teams.

I felt so foolish and so wrong about everything.  My initial reaction was to numb that irksome inner voice into oblivion so that I would never again hear it to prod me toward a supposed higher purpose.  Either I was wrong about something that seemed so right at the time, or I did something along the way to change the outcome.

Neither possibility is very comforting. There is also the possibility that I was meant to do something that would fail and cause me more anguish.    That is the least comfortable possibility of the three.

It might have all been wishful thinking, and yet why did all the circumstances come together as they did?  What about my moments of defiance where I sensed that making certain choices might jeopardize the outcome I wanted, and yet I went ahead with those choices?

The ironic thing is that my moments of defiance  were my ways of dealing with the stress of doing something that felt, at the time, like something daunting that I was meant to do.  Why then would I be asked to do something beyond my capacities to handle gracefully?

Enchanted Prince – Maxfield Parrish


If I’m never able to answer these questions with some sense of satisfaction, then I probably won’t trust my instincts to the same extent as before.  Still, if I really believed that searching for purpose is an entirely stupid endeavor, then I wouldn’t be able to publish a favorable piece about Lady in the Water, a movie that so strongly embraces the search for purpose.

I started writing this a week before the Giants lost, but I didn’t have time to finish it until now.  I don’t think I would have taken on the subject had I waited until this week to start it.

In spite of the additional lack of sleep that this post will probably bring me, I’m going to finish it because I still believe that things happen for a reason and that trying to make sense of purpose is a worthwhile pursuit.  The risk of getting things wrong isn’t unsubstantial, but the sense of fulfillment and harmony that can come from getting things right is worth the cost.

It hurts to say, but I’m still grateful to Lady in the Water for encouraging me to look for purpose.  Give the movie a chance, and maybe you too will be grateful for its existence.

In this season of Thanksgiving, let us of course remember the men and women who choose to risk their lives in combat so that we can live in freedom and security. Theirs is often the ultimate sacrifice.  But, let us also remember the entrepreneurs, the artists, and the dreamers, the people like M. Night Shyamalan who risk their careers, their creativity capacities, and their well being in the hopes of producing something special for us.

Good Luck Befriend Thee – Warwick Goble


Lady in the Water is no Citizen Kane, but that’s a good thing.  A work of art should stand on its own, offering a unique gift to the world.  Whatever the movie may be, I still cherish it.  Thank you for making it, M. Night Shyamalan.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone and God bless.


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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, whether that’s next week or a month from now.  It is very easy to unsubscribe, and you won’t receive anything unrelated to my blog.  As always, thank you for reading.

Director Frank Capra: My Great American Hero

It’s not just that  Frank Capra is a great director or that his movies are a big part of why I want to make movies. Both points are true, but it goes beyond that.  Ever since I saw his films as kid, there was a part of me that wanted to somehow find my way into the Capra world. I didn’t realize this until a few months ago, at least not consciously.  Until then that wish was hiding somewhere in the back of my mind,  subtly influencing my choices throughout the years.

Time Magazine cover: Aug. 8, 1938.  (Cinema: Columbia’s Gem, written as You Can’t Take It With You was coming to theaters.)

To those of you who are already starting to fidget in your seats, I see you! Well, I don’t, but I’m imagining that I can, and it looks like you might spill your coffee if you keep it up, you impatient cinema enthusiasts, you.

Not to worry, I am going to talk about Frank Capra’s movies.  I went back and watched as many of them as I could find, including the documentaries.  I read his interviews and his autobiography. I even read his critics.  But, I’m also going to talk about how his movies affected me.

Art is meant to have an impact on its audience, after all, so why try to sterilize the subjective experience out of the discussion?  If you prefer straight analysis, I suppose you could read Cahiers du Cinéma or something equally pretentious, I mean prestigious.

Poster for It Happened One Night, 1934


With that said, what are some of the qualities that make Capra’s films so special?  There’s  playfulness for starters.  Mr. Capra began his career writing gags for the silent-era comedians, and he’s carried that comedic training into the films he directed.   Some comedy-oriented performers and directors dismiss the value of what they do.  Not Frank Capra.

“Comedy is fulfillment, accomplishment, overcoming.  It is victory over odds, a triumph of good over evil,” he explains.  He saw great merit in making people laugh, and so he worked diligently at his craft.  Maybe that’s why his screwball comedy It Happened One Night was the first film ever to win an Academy Award for both Best Picture and Best Director.

Photo credit:, 1909


In the Why We Fight series of documentaries that Capra directed during World War II, prominent Nazis and Japanese adversaries are described as being “humorless men.” Them’s fighting words, at least to Capra; To be humorless is to be villainous in Capra’s movies.

Consider: Mean ole Mr. Potter in It’s A Wonderful Life doesn’t bother with jokes. He’s too busy with financial concerns.

In Hole in the Head,  Frank Sinatra plays a fun-loving gambler who struggles to take care of his son.  He makes mistakes, but we’re meant to root for him. Sinatra’s more responsible, but sullen brother, played by Edward G. Robinson, is the antagonist.  About his reckless brother whom he has spent most of the movie condemning, Robinsson finally concludes, “he’s broke, but he’s not poor. We’re poor.”  The ending leaves some hope that even the uptight brother will learn to love and play.

Indeed, rediscovering playfulness is essential for any Capra heel who wants to turn good. In Riding High, the dad is the humorless business tycoon who stands in the way of the young lovers getting married, but he eventually grows tired of being the stuffed shirt.  With previously unseen jubilation, he tells his guests that he’ll be running away with the young couple. Then he dances triumphantly to their car.

An even better example is found in You Can’t Take it With You.  This time Edward Arnold plays the baddie who happens to be—wait for it ladies and gentlemen—another heartless, money-minded man.  He puts the squeeze on a hard-working family, but in the process he gets to know the father of the house.

Arnold eventually reveals that he used to once play the harmonica, Capra’s way of telling us that he wasn’t always such a bad guy.  When he’s moved by the strength of character that he sees in the family,  Arnold renounces his selfish ways.  That happens shortly after he receives a harmonica as a gift.  By the end, Arnold is all smiles, playing music with the rest of the family.

Photo credit:, 1917


To prepare for this post, I even forced myself to watch Frank Capra’s made-for-TV science documentaries. I remember the awfully boring science videos I was shown in school, and I was not keen on re-experiencing them.    I looked for something potentially more exciting to do … like flossing.  If I skipped the videos I could do quite a bit of flossing, after all, and that way, for the first time in my life, I could go to the dentist without being embarrassed when the flossing questions come up.

“Tell me, Mr. Savides, when was the last time you flossed?”  “Just yesterday.” “I see. And how long did you floss?”  “Two and a half hours.”  That would shut him up, don’t you think?  It could have been a glorious triumph for me, but it was not meant to be.  I watched the Capra documentaries, and consequently I am still embarrassed by flossing questions.

My flossing sacrifice was not in vain, however.  While my dentist might disagree, I think I made the right choice.  The science videos were not just informative but personable, imaginative and even amusing.  The one I enjoyed most was “The Strange Case of the Cosmic Rays.”  It features puppet versions of Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Dickens,  and my favorite, the intoxicated Dostoevsky presiding over a mystery-writing contest.

Debonair scientists make a case that their scientific inquiries about cosmic rays should be up for consideration.  They show cartoon sequences to explain their research, while my boy Dostoevsky pours himself more vodka and struggles to stay awake.  I learned more science from those videos than from several humorless, strictly academic lectures that I’ve endured throughout the years.

Photo credit:


Another aspect of Frank Capra’s work that I admire is his love of America.  He was born in Sicily, and he came to America as an immigrant.  His family was poor, and I imagine even discriminated against, but Capra never lost sight of how good we have it here.   His affection for America is sometimes revealed by a subtle reference to a national pastime like baseball.    In some of his best work, though,  (films like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Meet John Doe, Why We Fight, and It’s a Wonderful Life come to mind) defending what’s right about America is a central preoccupation.

I still get chills whenever I hear some of the speeches from Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.  Here’s one of them: “Just get up off the ground, that’s all I ask. Get up there with that lady that stands for liberty, take a look at this country through her eyes if you really want to see something, and you won’t just see scenery—you’ll see the whole parade of what man’s carved out for himself after centuries of fighting and fighting for something better than just jungle law, fighting so’s he can stand on his own two feet—free and decent, like he was created—no matter what his race, color or creed.  That’s what you’ll see. There’s no place out there for graft or greed or lies or compromise with human liberties.  And if that’s what the grown-ups have done to this world that was given to them we’d better get those boy’s camps started fast and see what the kids can do, and it is not too late because this country is bigger than the Taylors, or you or me, or anything else.  Great principles don’t get lost once they come to light.  They’re right here.  You just have to see them.”

Photo credit:, 1888

Some of Capra’s critics accuse him of creating a sugar-coated view of the country.  They sneeringly describe it as Capracorn, but their critiques are unfair.  Capra shows the bad along with the good.  In State of the Union, one politician in power spots one of the good guys and asks his friend, “”How did he get in here?  He’s honest.”   Sure, Mr Smith Goes to Washington showcases idealism, but that idealism is put through the fire and mocked by the film’s gaggle of world-weary cynics. It prevails only after battling to survive.

In fact, that film was met with outrage and protest when it was first screened in DC.  The politicians and press representatives were displeased that it portrayed their professions as being susceptible to corruption. Capra didn’t turn a blind-eye to America’s flaws, but he still believed in and celebrated its potential. As proof of that, he named his production company Liberty Films, and used the Liberty Bell as the logo.

I wish more of today’s hipsters would show gratitude for the freedoms their country provides, even as they address some of the problems they see in America.  Unfortunately, these days it’s basically uncool to talk about love of country, especially if you’re an aspiring creative type.  Be that as it may, Frank Capra offers a reassuring example that you can be both an engaged patriot and a successful artist.

What’s more, Capra didn’t support his country with just empty words.  At the height of his success as a director, right when the US began fighting in World War II, he contacted the Army to help with the war effort.

He committed to making several films to show his countrymen why they had to fight the German and Japanese oppressors.  That meant giving up a significant amount of time that could have been spent doing more profitable or prestigious projects.  When was the last time you heard of a contemporary celebrity doing something like that?

Photo credit:, ca. 1905-1910


If my imagination is right, then you’re starting to look a little too serious, diligent blog reader. Well, I guess it is serious stuff, and you’ve been reading for a while without encountering  any more attempts at humor.  (Depending on your perspective, that might be a blessing.)

However you may feel about the matter, I want to do something about it. That’s why I hired a few mimes to help me with the jokes.  But you know, it’s not working out so well; they’re not saying anything.  Maybe next time.

In my defense, I guess I could mention that my dog ate my jokes, at least the funny ones.  I don’t have a dog, but if I did, I’m sure he would have eaten pages of jokes by now. Assuming that these jokes in question involved some thought, which is admittedly a big assumption, then the theoretical dog would be in the unusual position of having thought for food.  I’m not sure what that means, but presumably there are philosophers out there trying to find out.  For now, let’s just keep on marching.

Poster for It’s A Wonderful Life, 1946


Think back to the scene in It’s a Wonderful Life where a desperate George Bailey goes to Potter to borrow some money.  Uncle Billy had misplaced $8,000 dollars, but when Potter interrogates, George takes full responsibility for the mistake. I recall thinking something like, “Oh, so that’s what it looks like when a good man is facing a crisis.” I don’t often get to see intimate displays of integrity in the real world, so I’m captivated whenever Capra gives me the opportunity to do so in his films.

Essentially, a Capra hero is a man of character who faces the temptation of giving up his ideals, of selling out in the name of convenience. George takes a cigar from Potter before deciding not to yield.  In Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Jefferson Smith’s mentor Senator Paine pleads with him to compromise for the sake of advancing his career. When Longfellow Deeds is betrayed by the city gal he tried to help in Mr. Deeds Comes to Town, he questions his small-town values and considers giving in to the vultures who want his money.

Promotional material for The Strong Man, 1926


The absence of just one man of principle is enough to turn a charming Capra town into a vice-ridden slum. That’s what Bedford Falls would be without George Bailey.  We see hints of that even in Capra’s silent film The Strong Man, which stars the wonderful, vastly underrated Harry Langdon.  In that film, the town hall becomes a decadent vaudevillian house when the local authorities accept bribes.  A title card explains: “Justice and decency had fled before the new law — money.”  Only the minister refuses to sell out; he leads the town in opposing the gangsters.  Eventually order is restored and the town hall becomes a place of justice once again.

It’s not an accident that the minister is the restorative force.  There is an undercurrent of faith throughout Capra’s work. Jefferson Smith is encouraged to look to a higher power when he despairs.  In both It’s a Wonderful Life and Meet John Doe, the hero is rescued from tragedy on Christmas day.  As if that weren’t symbolic enough, the dialogue in Meet John Doe goes so far as to associate the hero with Christ.

Photo credit:, 1942


The Why We Fight documentaries set up two opposing worlds, the free world vs. the slave world,  similar to how St. Augustine sets up two opposing cities in his theological masterpiece City of God.   In the free world,  leisure-minded men and women care about each other, order their own lives, and worship God as they please.   In comparison, the slave world deprives its citizens of choice and aims to “take children from the faith of their fathers and teach them that the state is the only church and the head of the state is the voice of God.” (What is a modern-day example of a political leader who gets the messianic treatment from his followers, whose image is plastered everywhere as if it were a religious icon?  It does sound familiar…)

In his autobiography, The Name Above the Title,  Frank Capra talks about how being director means that he has the opportunity to talk to millions of people in the dark for hours at a time.  Dictators kill for that kind of access, and so he feels a strong responsibility to make it count for good.  “My films must let every man, woman, and child know that God loves them, and that I love them, and that peace and salvation will become a reality only when they learn to love each,” he writes.   Wow, thanks for that Mr. Capra.

Photo credit:


Maybe that’s why I’ve never been demoralized by watching a single Capra film. I can’t say the same about many of today’s contemporary artists, but they probably don’t share Capra’s esteem and affection for his audience.

To be fair, this is an issue I struggle with as well. Looking back, I’ve acted in one or two shows where my character had  more swearing than I’d prefer.  I didn’t think about it at the time, reasoning that the story had some merit and that I needed to get  experience,  but maybe I influenced some of the audience to be less civil with their speech.   This is not to say that artists should avoid any questionable material, but there is something to be said about considering how your work will affect others.

The tricky thing with drama is  that it deals with vice and human frailty.  If you don’t show it at all, then you aren’t telling the truth.  But if you show it in such a way as to glamorize it, then you risk corrupting the audience.  Somehow Capra found a way to deal with corruption, violence, sex, despair, deceit and greed without losing a sense of innocence, but it’s not an easy thing to do.

Harry Langdon and Joan Crawford in Tramp Tramp Tramp (directed by Harry Edwards), 1926


What if you’ve already lost your sense of innocence, though? You’re not alone.  At the beginning of this post, I mentioned how I secretly wanted to inhabit Frank Capra’s cinematic realm.  Who wouldn’t want to be a part of a world where most characters radiate folksy charm and goodness, the mothers and fathers love each other, the kids are rambunctious but cheerful, and everyone knows each other by name, even the maids and taxi drivers.   The only problem is that I knew even as a youngster that Capra would not have cast me in his films.  I was too tangled up inside.

My family did the best they could, but there was a bit of screaming when no one else was around, and I didn’t handle it well.  In school,  I was the chubby kid who didn’t know how to defend himself, so people picked on  me to the point where I’d come home crying and count the number of days left in the school year.  (I’m better at defending myself now.  If possible I’d prefer not to fight, but I don’t fear conflict.)

Photo credit:, 1941


Anyway, I chose to let those sour ingredients ferment inside my heart, and slowly I grew up a little crooked.   I tried to hide the things in my soul that weren’t as they should be by being a good student and striving to get the outward appearances right.  Sometimes, I even tried to be earnest like Capra’s actors,  but I came across as muddled and disingenuous. When you can’t even be honest with yourself about who you are, then it’s much harder to convince others of your sincerity.

Lamentably, there are still things I do on occasion that don’t mesh with the Capra ideal.  I’m doing the best I can to live better, but it still stings to admit that.  Now and then when I’m confused about how to handle a challenge in my life, I’ll ask myself, “What would Capra do?”  To admire someone but to know that you probably don’t live up to all of his standards is a conflicting experience, to say the least.  Still, I have reason to think that I wouldn’t be entirely scorned by Capra.

Meet John Doe and State of the Union both feature men who sold out but who are struggling to redeem themselves.  Lest you think I’m reading too much into the films, consider Spencer Tracy’s quote from State of the Union, “I sold out to them, but get this straight, I am no lamb led to the slaughter.  I ran to it.”  Still, just like Gary Cooper in Meet John Doe, Tracy gets to set things right after he acknowledges his errors.  Capra believes in second chances.

The last movie Capra made was Pocketful of Miracles, which is a remake of his earlier Lady for a Day.  The story involves a gangster who is given the chance to help a beggar lady by getting his goons to act like high class people.

Getting lowlifes to appear cultured can be part of a director’s job as well, and maybe that’s why Capra liked the story enough to revisit it. (If you don’t know what I mean, try spending a little more time around actors!  I’m saying that as someone who has, on a few rare occasions, gotten paid to act.)  It’s possible, though, that Capra connected with the story because it offers even a gangster the chance to become a decent person.

Photo credit:, ca. 1929-1932


The decisions Capra characters make in the past aren’t nearly as dramatically significant as the choices they make in the present. I’d like to think that is Capra’s way of offering hope to those of us who have already lost our sense of innocence but are trying to rediscover it.

In the course of preparing for this post, I ran into another instance where I found myself wondering what Capra would do.  It came after watching Glenn Beck’s speech at the Lincoln Memorial.  After seeing it and hearing about the criticism he received, something inside my heart told me I should defend him.  I did not wish to do so.  Every time I speak out politically I threaten my ability to work in the film industry, since a strong majority of filmmakers think differently than I do.

I’ve spoken out before, but this time it felt like there was more at stake.  This time I had a sense that I was close to attaining something very dear to my heart, something I’ve pursued for months and even years of my life, and that I might ruin things by speaking up.  Maybe it was just my imagination.  I don’t know, but the things I sense tend to have some connection to reality.

Angrily, I pushed the idea of defending Glenn Beck away, but a voice in my head kept asking me what Capra would do.  The only way to avoid that question was to give up on this post.  I tried that too, but I kept coming back to the same question.  Avoiding the question in the name convenience is not the Capra way, after all.

Finally, I answered: Capra would do the right thing because it was the right thing to do, regardless of the cost. But I still had a way out: I wasn’t entirely sure that defending Glenn Beck was the right thing to do.  I asked God to make it clear if I should speak up, and God made it clear (at least as clear as anything can be that involves divine revelation, which is to say that there is still room for doubt and that pressing forward still involves faith, but I got more than what was statistically probable).

I did defend Glenn Beck, and I don’t know what will happen because of that, but I might not have made that decision if it weren’t for the influence of Frank Capra, a man I’ve never met. As Clarence Oddbody the Angel might say, “Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives.”

Photo credit:, 1945


I’m still praying that things will work out.  If you’re up there reading this Mr. Capra, then I could use your help.  I’m not Catholic, but I’ll campaign to get you sainted, if the secret wishes in my heart come true in part because of you.

Since Frank Capra preferred the popular over the pretentious and liked to end his films with a stirring bit of music,  I think these lyrics from Lee Ann Womack’s song are a fitting way to end this Capra tribute:

“I hope you never fear those mountains in the distance

Never settle for the path of least resistance

Living might mean taking chances

But they’re worth taking

Lovin’ might be a mistake

But it’s  worth making

Don’t let some hell bent heart

Leave you bitter

When you come close to selling out


Give the heavens above

More than just a passing glance

And when you get the choice to sit it out or dance

I hope you dance.”

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons, 1943


Thanks for reading, and God bless.

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