Sunday, June 19, 2016

Evolving Taste in Cinema

I've been plotting a post for my other blog, but every time I try to compose it, I get bogged down in a kind of preface, talking about going to the movies when I was younger. I decided to take that discussion here, instead, so as not to distract too much from my intended point about live theater. And it has musical accompaniment, if you like:

Background

Something more than twenty years ago, my girlfriend (now my wife) and I realized that both of us enjoy going to live theater much, much more than we like going to the movies. So we cut way back on going to the cinema (though we still would rent videos), to the point that we probably only go once or twice a year anymore, and that only for either a family outing (e.g., "Inside Out") or a blockbuster that needs a big screen (e.g., a "Star Trek" movie, a James Bond, or something of that ilk). We go to a lot of live theater, however.

But there was a time, back when we were in high school, where going to the movies was a critical part of any weekend. Indeed, during our high school and college years, it was pretty rare that a weekend didn't include at least one trip to a movie, and often more.

Some of that is just being a teenager. You want to get out with your friends on Friday or Saturday night, and you need to go someplace. The movie theater is a convenient place to go with a group, so it doesn't have to be a date or anything formal. You get out of the house, away from those pesky adults, and can be yourselves.

The Limiting Factor

The problem is, there just aren't that many good movies to go to. We were pretty lucky, living so close to Berkeley and Oakland, that there were lots of first-run theaters around, and a fair number of second-run theaters that would get the big films after they had gone out of favor and couldn't fill the big houses anymore. So if a movie was relatively recently released, it was playing somewhere nearby. But the truth is, we didn't want to see everything (and for a time, we weren't all old enough to see everything), and eventually movies get expensive. What to do?

The saving grace for us was the next tier of movie theaters: the repertory movie theaters. This, to me, was a true wonder. Before there were video stores (and indeed, before their were home video systems), we had our choice of several theaters that played non-current movies. Some of them were popular films from a few years back, but they'd also play classics.

The Big Cheese

The undisputed king of these repertory cinemas was the UC Theater on University Avenue in Berkeley. Although it had been in earlier years a big, first-run movie house, by the 70s it was a bit run down and unable to attract the big films. So the owner decided to show a different movie (and usually two or three) almost every night. And they were all over the map: art films, classics, popular films, musicals...you name it. And they became known for clever pairings. Some were obvious, such as a movie and its sequel. Sometimes it was a movie and a parody of it, or some other derivative work (such as "Casablanca" and "Play It Again, Sam"). Often it was two works by the same director, or featuring the same actor. But nearly every night it was something different.

The impact of the UC Theater on the local scene was obvious: one feature of just about every home in the area was the UC's calendar, either on the wall or stuck to the refrigerator. It was colorful, showing each night's movies for a couple of months. On the back it had descriptions of all the movies. Heck, it was a movie education just reading the schedule. I know lots of things about movies I've never seen, just from reading those.

But here's the thing: It was cheap. I can't recall exactly how much, but it definitely cost less than the first-run theaters. And everyone was there. Kids, teens, college students,  and also adults: parents and professors. It was nostalgic for some, a chance to see something missed for others, and just a safe, reliable place to hang out for many. It was most definitely a community institution. I had friends for whom it was almost a second home.

My Other Favorite

Somewhat closer to my home when I was in high school, and definitely smaller, was the Rialto Theater, in a converted warehouse on Gilman Street in north Berkeley. They had two small theaters, one of which probably seated twenty, the other more like fifty. Like the UC, they showed lots of movies, often old classics, but they usually ran for several days. I have vivid memories of seeing lots of old films there for the first time, such as Alec Guinness in "Kind Hearts and Coronets" and my first tastes of the Marx Brothers. It was a much more intimate experience, and the screens were small, but the movies were great.

This was probably the closest thing at the time to watching home video or Netflix, though at least the films were projected instead of being on a TV screen.

The Others

There were at least two other little, relatively short-lived cinemas that did similar things: the Telegraph (on Telegraph Avenue, just below Dwight Way) and the Northside, which was on Durant Avenue, in the courtyard next to LaVal's pizza. I think the space is now a Mexican restaurant. I don't have many specific memories of those, but I definitely recall going there.

The Learning

What I realize, looking back, is that my taste evolved over time from seeing the big films in the big theaters to preferring older films in a more intimate environment, surrounded by people who were more interested in the film than in the flash and glitz. In those dumpy little theaters, we really got a taste of what movies can be, the range of experiences. And even before the rest of the world had their choice of movies at their fingertips, we had a lot of options and a lot of movies.

And ultimately, I think this is what informed my later preference for live theater, in venues large and small. There is nothing like going to a little performance space and experiencing real people doing real stuff, right in your face (or in your lap, sometimes!). And it turns out, there are lots and lots of choices available there, too.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

My Little Town(s)

A few years ago, my wife bought Fitbit trackers for the family. Basically, she wanted one, and figured that if we all had them, we'd support her use of one. I was pretty skeptical about it at the time, but almost from the first day using it, I was hooked. From an exercise standpoint, it's mostly about mindfulness: the number on the tracker lets me know when I'm being a slug, and I feel guilty and move around. And the competitive aspect is somewhat motivating.

So I get more exercise, I'm in better shape, etc. All good.

But what's most surprising to me is how having and using the tracker has changed my perception of my world: the cities where I work and live, as well as places I visit. In short, my view of what's walkable is completely different than it used to be.

For example, I work in San Francisco, near the civic center or mid-Market areas (basically at the intersection of Market Street and Van Ness Avenue...lovely). And I go to a fair number of Giants baseball games at AT&T Park. From the time the park opened, I thought nothing of walking there from BART. We'd come over from the East Bay, get off at Embarcadero, and walk the mile or so along the waterfront to the ballpark. It's lovely, and it's good exercise.

But when I went to a game after work, I would hop on a Muni train at the Van Ness station and ride it down to the park. (Sometimes I would only take the train as far as BART, often to meet someone, then walk from there.) Then one day I just decided to see what it would take to walk to the park from my office. Surprise! Google Maps told me it would only take about 40 minutes, meaning it's about two miles. So I started walking. Truthfully, it doesn't take much longer than riding the subway, since that's quite a roundabout route. And it's good exercise. And I do it pretty often. I will admit that a wrong turn one day taught me the real meaning of the term "wrong side of the tracks," but otherwise, it's been great.

Similarly, my wife and I fairly often find ourselves needing to go somewhere, either here at home or when visiting cities such as New York, London, or Sydney. And instead of assuming that we need a cab or a subway, we now pretty much assume we can just walk most places. It's great, because we get to see a lot of those cities. And we literally find ourselves walking across town: from the Financial District to the Maritime Museum in San Francisco, from Rockridge to Jack London Square in Oakland, from the Upper West Side, down the High Line to the Meatpacking District in NYC. And it goes on. Ultimately, I've concluded that the world is much smaller than I used to think it was.

The other revelation that came along with this realization is that we're capable of walking much farther than we thought. We often hear or see a recommendation that one should walk about 10,000 steps a day to keep healthy. So at some point my wife and her brother were speculating about how many steps one really could cram into a day. My personal best at the time was about 33,000 (a very busy day at Disneyland!), and hers was closer to 40,000 (her steps are shorter than mine). This ended up in a commitment that the next time my brother-in-law came to town, we would all head off on an expedition to see how far we could walk.

Which ended up being Boxing Day last year (December 26). We started off from downtown San Francisco, walking around the Embarcadero toward the touristy end of town. Luck was with us, as we had a break in the rainy weather, and the day was clear, warm, and pleasant. And we walked around past Fisherman's Wharf, Pier 39, Crissy Field, and Fort Point, then past the Golden Gate Bridge, down the coast toward Ocean Beach. Down around the Cliff House we reversed, and headed back up toward the bridge, and walked across the Golden Gate into Marin County, then down into Sausalito, ending up at our favorite seafood restaurant (Fish).

When all was said and done, we had each done well over 60,000 steps and exceeded 26.2 miles. We walked a marathon! I would never have imagined I could do such a thing. My feet were awfully tired, and if I were going to do it again, I would make sure to change shoes during the day, but overall, it was an amazing time, and again, really changed my perception about how big San Francisco is and what I can do when I set my mind to it.

Saturday, July 07, 2012

Good Theater and Great Food

In our annual attempt to determine whether it is possible to see too much theater, I am scheduled to see eight plays over four days this trip to Ashland. As I write this, I've made it through six, and although all have been good, nothing has really knocked my socks off as have at least some plays in recent years.

Thursday we tried to go to Morning Glory for brunch, but they said the wait time was over an hour, so we hiked across town and got a relatively quick table at Brothers' instead. The family got reacquainted with the cheese blintzes, and I had a more-than-passable chorizo and eggs and one of their signature scones.

Thus fortified, we headed off to see Romeo and Juliet. Very interesting setting of the play, in Alta California in the 1840s. I thought that worked quite well. Solid performances throughout. We took our daughter, who is 11, to see it. Though it was pretty intense, she liked it. We hadn't originally planned to take her, but got the opportunity when we found extra tickets available for that show and also for another play later in the trip that had been sold out. Anyway, good, solid Shakespeare.

Our friends arrived to spend the rest of the week/end with us, and we had dinner reservations at Smithfield's, a meat-centric restaurant that opened since our last visit last year. Oh, boy, was that a treat! Hanger steaks, pork chops, duck confit cassoulet, all excellent. In fact, we liked it so well that we canceled our reservation elsewhere for Friday to do another meal at Smithfield's, as well as booking Saturday brunch. I have to say, this is the best food I've found in Ashland, truly outstanding.

In the evening we all went to see "As You Like It" in the outdoor theater. That was really good. Again, nothing particularly spectacular, but a good introduction for our friends. We went to the Preface before the show, and got some good insights for things to look for.

Friday began with pastries from a local bakery, followed by the daily stroll to town, but early for a backstage tour. Although parts were repetitive from previous tours, we got a new perspective from a younger actor on the moving part of the tour. Definitely a good time.

We dropped the kids off at the Science Works hands-on museum, which they enjoyed, while the adults saw "Troilus and Cressida" in the small indoor theater. Terrific performances, though I have to say the material is far from Shakespeare's best. The play is ultimately pretty unsatisfying. Not a criticism of the performance or the staging, which was all very good. But the text pretty much leaves one hanging. One big plus was the part of Thersites, a tiny character in the Illiad, blown up here and performed in a kind of Dennis Hopper-ish, over the top performance by Michael Elich.

Then the Preface for the evening's performance of "Henry V," followed by a second dinner at Smithfield's.

Henry V completes the three-year, three-play sequence following the growth and maturation of Prince Hal and his pals in the two parts of Henry IV. John Tufts continues to amaze me in the role. He has obviously worked very hard at it, and gives a wonderful, nuanced performance. The preface was really good and helpful, too, helping to tease out the issues of lineage and claims to the throne of both England and France, among other things. So far, I'd say this is the highlight of the trip for me, being both an excellent standalone performance and the culmination of the three-year odyssey.

Now then, off to brunch! And more theater!

Thursday, July 05, 2012

Independence Day and Theater!

We decided to squeeze our annual trip to Ashland for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival into the Independence Day holiday season, so we'll get four days of theater with only two days off work. We drove up last night after work, and had a quick, easy drive.

This morning we learned that the house where we're staying is practically at the starting spot for the Ashland Independence Day parade, so we headed out to watch that. It was great fun, in a small town celebration sort of way. Pretty much the whole town seemed to be out. By the end, since we were about halfway to the Shakespeare Festival, we just walked the rest of the way into town, grabbed a quick lunch at one of the booths serving food (tasty gyros), and then split up for the afternoon, with me going to watch "Medea/Macbeth/Cinderella" with my mother-in-law, and the rest of the family checking out the rest of the celebration in Lithia Park.

The play was about as strange as the title implies. They are literally performing (most of) three plays simultaneously on the same stage. The point is that they have some similarities of both structure and theme, but truly, I think it's a bit of a reach. There are some very clever moments and some good performances, so it was a worthwhile afternoon.

For dinner we had hoped to go to Caldera Tap House, but they had closed for the holiday. So we checked out the Standing Stone Brewing Company instead. We had tried it a few years ago and weren't that impressed with either the beer or the food, but this visit was better. The beer was still just OK, but the food was quite good. The key was letting the server list their extensive specials for the day, which included a fish burrito, a crab cake salad, a local bison burger, and a filet mignon. We had the burrito and the burger, and were quite pleased.

Evening we again split up. I went with my daughter to see "Animal Crackers," which she found quite delightful (and which I enjoyed a lot, too). My wife and her mother went to see "The Very Merry Wives of Windsor, Iowa," which I will see later this trip (Saturday, I think) while they see Animal Crackers.

It was a fun first day, and we managed to get more exercise than we usually get here. Never even took the car out at all. Good stuff.

Tomorrow we get breakfast instead of a parade, and some friends will be flying up to join us for the remainder of the trip. Somewhere along the way we checked and found there were a few tickets available for one of the shows that had been sold out when we ordered, so we added another play. I think somehow I will end up seeing eight plays in four days. Yow!

Monday, May 07, 2012

Creative Funding for Creative Efforts


A couple of my wonderful, talented friends, Laura Goodin and Houston Dunleavy (whose individual blogs are over in the friends list) are collaborating on a new opera that sounds really cool. It's based on Laura's story called "The Dancing Mice and the Giants of Flanders." And they're trying a creative new way to fund it, using crowd funding. They want to raise $2,000 to stage a concert workshop of the opera, so they've set up a project on Pozible.

If you can help them out, you'll be doing a good thing for the arts as well as supporting a couple of very creative (and nice) individuals.

Thanks for any help you can give!

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

One More Daisey Update

I'm going to give this one its own post, mostly because I doubt anyone is taking any notice of the other updates I've been slipping into the original post.

I just read Yet Another Commentary on the Mike Daisey/Apple/Foxconn/NPR controversy. I like this one because it not only gets into the metadiscussion of journalistic ethics and such, but also suggests some ideas about the role of narrative and story in forming public opinion:
But facts are not truth. Facts do not, in and of themselves, have meaning. Facts only add up to something — literally make sense — when they are embedded in some kind of framework or narrative that fits into our cultural identities and ways of seeing the world. That’s how humans are built to learn, going back to the Stone Age. So “telling a greater truth” is a thing of real value, not some theatrical pretense. Helping people understand and contextualize events, work through the meaning and resonance of the facts, is a humanistic endeavor, and in today’s fraught and complex world, there’s never been a greater need for it.

Much of the mainstream media seems to have forsworn that task. But “just the facts” is a pretense. There is no such thing. If the story, the narrative framework, isn’t explicit, it’s implicit. And if it’s implicit, it usually reflects status quo interests. I see no particular nobility in that.

So a lie isn’t OK in service of telling a greater truth. What is OK? How do we value the benefits of storytelling — meaning and resonance — relative to the benefits of precision and rigor? There are endless fuzzy borderline cases, bits of approximation, generalization, interpretation, or poetic license. It’s too easy to say there’s no tension.

He then goes on to discuss the specific issue of climate change, and why change deniers feel more strongly about the matter (he posits that it's because they've been given a coherent story). Since that one is near and dear to my heart, I thought I'd pass it along. I like the notion that storytellers are important.

Theme Park Madness

I think I have recovered from the extended family vacation enough to write about it.

Don't take that the wrong way: It was a great trip. But there was a lot of it. A whole week with the extended family in the Greater Orlando Area. Which means theme parks, mostly. A lot of them. I suppose it was fortunate that it was late winter, so the parks weren't open terribly late and we could actually sleep and recover.

I'd been to Orlando before, but never for recreation, so this was my first chance to experience the plethora of parks available. We managed to hit a different park every day, which was pretty cool. Here's the overview:

Sunday: Universal Studios Florida. I had been to the California version of Universal Studios many years ago, but this seemed much more developed, both thematically and in the overall detail of the attractions. Unfortunately, it was a windy day, so the one big roller coaster was not operating. Most of the rest of the rides are variations on "motion simulators," basically moving seats with immersive movies. I quite liked the Disaster ride, which is set in San Francisco, but the most impressive ride overall was the Simpsons ride. It's long and funny and very true to the show.

Overall I have to say this park appealed more to the older members of the crowd, but everyone had a pretty good time.

Monday: Universal's Islands of Adventure. Quite a variety here, ranging from stuff for the little kids based on comic strip characters and Dr. Seuss stories to adventures like Jurassic Park and the Lost Continent and the thing people really wanted to see, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. I was really impressed with the attention to details in all of the areas. We managed to score early-admission tickets, which enabled us to get to Harry Potter first, before the lines got long.

Tuesday: Disney Magic Kingdom park. It's kind of disorienting for a group like ours that's very familiar with Disneyland, because it's similar, but different enough to be a bit confusing. It was a big treat to ride Space Mountain again, and we rode Pirates of the Caribbean several times. Big Thunder Mountain was closed, though. And there's no Matterhorn! On the plus side, they have the old Carousel of Progress ("There's a great big, beautiful tomorrow....") and the Country Bear Jamboree. Good memories.

Wednesday: Break from theme parks for a day. Some of the party went fishing in the flats on the Atlantic coast. The rest of us slept in, then headed over to Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge where we had a nice nature walk and went to see some manatees at Haulover Canal. Then off to the beach for a bit and dinner at the famous Dixie Crossroads restaurant in Titusville, where we ate a LOT of shrimp.

Thursday: Disney Animal Kingdom park. This is a fun park, very different from the Magic Kingdom, and at least partly aimed at a wider age spread (i.e., a little older). First thing in the morning we ran to ride Expedition Everest, which is a very good roller coaster. My daughter and I hit that four times in a row before there was any line to speak of. Good stuff! Nice animal exhibits. We had a good, full day here.

Friday: Epcot. I have kind of mixed feelings on this one. It's meant to be sort of a future-oriented simulated world's fair. Unfortunately, it's pretty hard to make anything futuristic that doesn't get out of date really quickly. I did quite like Spaceship Earth (the big golf-ball thing), and the Energy Adventure was a really interesting ride. Most of the other rides were fairly unimpressive, and the Test Track really didn't do much for me at all.

Saturday we only had part of the day before flying home, so we hit Islands of Adventure again to get a farewell cup of butter beer and enjoy some of the bits we had to rush through before.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Retraction

Since I've mentioned Mike Daisey and his appearance on NPR, it's only fair that I point out today's development:
The public radio program This American Life on Friday announced it was retracting the entirety of an episode it aired on the reportedly deplorable working conditions at a Chinese factory owned by Apple supplier company Foxconn, because the episode “contained significant fabrications.”

The original episode, “Mr. Daisey Goes To The Apple Factory,” which aired in late January, featured the supposedly firsthand account of American theatrical performer Mike Daisey traveling to Foxconn’s factory in Shenzhen, China.
Pretty stunning stuff. I look forward to hearing more about this.

Daisey has a response on his own blog, too:
I stand by my work. My show is a theatrical piece whose goal is to create a human connection between our gorgeous devices and the brutal circumstances from which they emerge. It uses a combination of fact, memoir, and dramatic license to tell its story, and I believe it does so with integrity.
While I'm on the subject, here are a couple of recent articles discussing the notion that Apple could make its spiffy devices either in the U.S. or at least while protecting workers. One is from The Nation, the other from Grist.

I'm pleased that people are at least talking about this stuff now. Too bad it has to be so contentious.

Update: Lengthy piece from The Atlantic discusses how Daisey's behavior has damaged his cause. I have mixed feelings. Certainly the situation is bad enough that the case for change can stand on its own. If Daisey's show were the only source of information on labor abuses in China, it would be far more serious. But plenty of independent investigation has also pointed to the issues. So yeah, it's bad to promote your cause with untrue information, but if anyone dismisses the issue because of that, they are also making a mistake.

Update 2: Tom Tomorrow cites a NYT piece on the controversy today.  They venture into the question of what constitutes journalism, among other things. The discussion gets interestinger and interestinger. Everybody is coming down hard on Daisey, but no one seems quite sure how to treat This American Life.

Update 3: Commentary from an actor who has performed Daisey's show about Steve Jobs and Apple. All interesting, but particularly this:
But let’s get a hold of ourselves. Should we really be discussing “the abuse of the performer-audience relationship” in the same breath as the real, tangible abuse of Chinese factory workers? Shouldn’t This American Life feel just a little bit silly devoting a solid hour, full of probing research and revealing details, to both of these abuses equally?

The brief piece on Marketplace could have been followed up with a footnote on the TAL website, and perhaps an audio insertion at the top of the original piece, and everybody would have been happy.

But to drag Daisey into a studio and grill him for four hours about what he did actually see and what he didn’t– it’s called “burying the lede.” For apparently hell hath no fury like a public-radio storyteller scorned, especially when he’s got the huge, sanctimonious club of “journalistic ethics” at his side.
I'm glad to see all the discussion. This is the first contribution I've seen that seems to grasp some of the larger facts here.