Homesick for Oakbrook

In the past six weeks I’ve seen two exceptional low-budget, independent films. Unless you live in New York, Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago or San Francisco, it’s unlikely that either will be showing at your local Cineplex. I’m sure they will be available soon enough on Netflix, Amazon Prime or On Demand. This is an okay way to see these films, but it’s not optimum. Both deserve to be seen with an audience, in the intimacy of a theatre, cell-phones and other electronic devices turned off and put away for the duration of the screening.

Each film stars an actor that I represented when I was a talent manager during the nineteen eighties. I have great affection for these two artists. I worked with them both when they were in their early thirties and their careers were just beginning to take off.  Now, three decades later they are in their early sixties and are currently doing their best work in years—maybe career best.

As I watched these movies, I was filled with a longing that I haven’t felt as strongly in some time. I didn’t long to be back into show business; I longed to be back in Oakbrook, IL at a CMED reunion so I could introduce these two marvelous films to my friends, colleagues and students, my CMED family.

If anyone has any ideas for another platform for doing film weekends, I am wide-open to suggestions.

I was at the Academy Awards when my former client, Willem Dafoe was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor in 1987 for his performance as Sergeant Elias in Platoon. The film won the Academy Award for Best Picture and Willem’s performance is the soul of the movie. I feel comfortable saying this because I read several drafts of Oliver Stone’s screenplay and found it disturbing and largely lacking in humanity—that’s before I saw what Willem did with his role. There are not many (if any other) actors who can convincingly play Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ and Green Goblin in the Spiderman franchise.  This season Willem is featured in The Florida Project, far and away the best film I’ve seen this year. If any of you are struggling to get a clear handle on the archetype of the Guardian Angel on assignment (fulfilling his Sacred Contract) watch Willem’s performance. I expect him to get an Oscar nod again for this performance. I’m happy as a clam, however, to watch the ceremony at home and fast-forward through the commercials.

I returned to the Academy Award Ceremonies two years later in 1989 and was there to share in the celebration another former client, Geena Davis, received the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance as Muriel Pritchett in The Accidental Tourist. In that film Geena embraced the Wounded Healer archetype expertly stripping away from it any fake sentimentality. If Willem’s performance is the soul of Platoon, Geena’s performance is the heart of The Accidental Tourist.

It’s been awhile since I’ve seen Geena in a movie. She’s on television occasionally but apparently devotes most of her energy to the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. Late this summer she returned to the big screen in a film called Marjorie Prime in which she costars with Jon Hamm (Mad Men), Tim Robbins (The Shawshank Redemption). At the center of the film in the title role is veteran theatre actor Lois Smith reprising the role she originated on stage. You may not know her by name; her face is unforgettably beautiful.

Both The Florida Project and Marjorie Prime speak powerfully and prophetically to the bleak, alienated times we are currently experiencing. Both films are filled with compassion for the present malaise and, almost miraculously, hold out some hope.

The central metaphor for The Florida Project (the code name that the Disney company used while purchasing the real estate and designing Disney World) is a brilliant one. The entire film takes place in the seedy motels (the projects) of Kissimmee Florida, an impoverished and largely itinerant community adjacent to Orlando both a stone’s throw and a million miles away from the “happiest place earth.” A substantial number of the inhabitants are children crowded with their parents or grandparents and all of their possessions into motel rooms with a single queen-sized bed. Stacks of clothes are piled in laundry baskets—there’s no place to put them away. The trash bags that line the walls of the rooms are not filled with trash but with the sparse worldly goods of its denizens.  The residents live like refugees, taking with them only what they can carry or pack into a car if they are fortunate enough to have one. All the while America’s culture of consumption is fed back to them 24/7by the always turned-on television sets that cast a cool eerie light over the proceedings.

The central location of the film is the Magic Castle Motel. All of the motels on the strip have names that just barely avoid copyright infringement lawsuits by the Disney organization.

The paradise that is Disneyworld and its contrast with its downtrodden neighbors reminded me of Elysium (2013), a science fiction movie (or allegory) which starred Matt Damon and Jodie Foster. Damon, like the citizens of Kissimmee is trying to crash paradise, while Foster is charged with denying him entrance. Elysium is an imperfect but highly watchable movie. Star power!

Bobby (Willem Dafoe) explaining motel rules to one of its more colorful guests

Bobby (Willem Dafoe) is the patient, kind, pretty much unflappable, manager of The Magic Castle which is an eye-punishing shade of purple. When Bobby is not mediating conflicts between residents or trying, without much success, to enforce the residency rules of the Magic Castle, he spends his time touching up the purple paint of the building.

The dominant colors of the film seem to be drawn from the old eight color Crayola box. The garish orange juice stand (a two-story orange with a face painted on it) perfectly captures the primary color palate of Binney and Smith, the founders of the Crayola company.

Against this backdrop the film focuses on the childhood adventures of a six year-old named Moonee and her two friends Jancey and Scooty.  Moonee lives at the Magic Castle with her single mother Halley, a multi-tattooed feral creature with green streaked hair (again Crayola) who herself seems barely out of her teens.

Moonee and her mother, Halley, in The Florida Project

Scooty, Moonee and Jancey in The Florida Project

The glory of the film is that these children, at least for the present, thrive in this environment. Their adventures and mischief making are endlessly inventive and often hilarious. Bobby seems always to watch over them. In one telling scene, Bobby spots a sexual predator moving in on these children. Bobby gently guides the predator away from the children until the kids are out of earshot and then brings down the wrath of hell on the would be perpetrator. Willem moves with the grace of a dancer; there is also something dangerous and unpredictable about him, and he employs these qualities majestically in this performance. With the exception of Dafoe all of the actors are amateurs. The performances that director Sean Baker elicits from them are astonishing—in particular those of Mooney (Brooklyn Prince) and her mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite).

The film’s unexpected and exhilarating ending left me in awe of the resilience of children. I exited the theatre both shaking and smiling.

Jon Hamm and Lois Smith in Marjorie Prime

If The Florida Project is about the resilience of children, Marjorie Prime is about making peace with the unavoidable limitations of aging. It is a sly masterpiece of film making that explores our experiences of our parents, spouses and children both as they were and as we would like to remember them. It’s an almost contemplative meditation on the loneliness of loss and the longing for do-overs. I can’t describe the plot without spoiling its surprises, so I won’t. Most of the film takes place in one location, much of it shot in close-up. The performances offer a master class in the art of fearless and ego less acting. This film is as muted and subtle as The Florida Project is lurid and in your face and it is every bit as powerful. Make sure that you are wide awake and attentive when you watch this film; the shifts in tone and plot are subtle and seamless thanks to the skills and talents of director Michael Almeyreda.

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Quality Time

I could easily write “The Idiot’s Guide to Emergency Rooms,” I’ve found myself in so many over the past 20 years.

There was the ER in Cusco, Peru, where I was delivered by helicopter after falling off of the Inca Trail at Machu Pichu, breaking my right ankle and spraining my left.

I was carried out of the jungle on a makeshift stretcher (heavy blankets tossed over what seemed to be a short ladder) by four Peruvian jungle rangers armed with rifles. Peruvians are, in general, short and built close to the ground. The five-foot long stretcher reflected the difference between my 6’1” height and that of the Peruvians. I was unable to stretch out on the stretcher—either my head would fall off of one end or my injured ankles would dangle precariously off the other. I sat erect on the stretcher as I emerged from the jungle and was borne across the ruins. Fellow travelers took pictures of me as I exited from the wilderness; I could think of nothing else to do than to wave at them in the manner of Queen Elizabeth II. A few people formed a ragtag procession and followed the jungle rangers as we made our way to the infirmary. I was, of course, in shock, so I can’t swear to the fact that a weeping Caroline Myss rushed toward me much like St. Veronica encountering Jesus on the road to Calvary. That said, the memory, hallucinatory or not, remains vivid all these years later.

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Turner Classics – May’s Medication

Recently I’ve noticed a series of public services announcements promoting “device free dinners.”

They put me in mind of my double-bill for May’s Pick(s) of the month: “I Remember Mama” and “Meet Me in St. Louis.” The disappearing ritual of family dinner is central to both films.  All movie schedules are for Turner Classic Movies.

I REMEMBER MAMA: MAY 14, 8:00 EDT

MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS: MAY 9, 6:00 PM EDT

Both films take place in the first decade of the 20th Century; before the United States became a player on the world’s stage. Both celebrate family life in an era before Sigmund Freud pathologized parents; before John Bradshaw pathologized childhood (contemporary pediatricians would have a field day diagnosing and prescribing for Tootie, the youngest child in Meet Me in St. Louis); before peculiar relatives were branded as dysfunctional instead of being lovingly accepted as eccentric; and before the phrase “family values” became a politically divisive cri de coeur.

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Turner Classic Movies – My Pharmacy of Choice

After spending the last two weeks writing about Appalachian poverty and the mediocrity of Paul Ryan, I was increasingly irritable and somewhat depressed.

So I’m turning this week to, what for me is, a fool-proof anti-depressant: Turner Classic Movies (link to schedule).  *To the best of my knowledge all of the recommended films are also available on DVD.

As I lost myself in the schedule of up-coming films my irritability and depression evaporated so I plan to use the last blog of each month to preview the best of TCM’s up-coming selections. There is such an abundance of great classic films each month that there isn’t enough room to write about them all—and I’ve seen them all, multiple times—really I have!  Several are easily worth an annual visit. In choosing the films for each month, I’ve chosen to go with the ones that may not be as well known.

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Making the Poor Visible

“Obamacare replacement hits Trump voters hard. Some of the biggest losers in Republican plan are in counties that supported him”

Headline in the Los Angeles Times, Sunday, March 12, 2017.

In the late 1990’s someone published a business motivational book called, “Who Stole My Cheese?” It remained on the NY Times best-seller list for almost five years.

My take away was that the difference between rats and people is this. There are five tunnels; only one of them has cheese. Both rats and people will, soon, after discovering the tunnel with cheese, return to it repeatedly. However, if the cheese is moved from, say tunnel two to tunnel five, the rats will return to tunnel two a few times until they realize there is no longer any cheese down that tunnel. Then, the rats will begin to explore the other four tunnels until they find cheese. Human beings, on the other hand will go down tunnel two until they starve because it is the right tunnel.

I was reminded of this business fable several times as I read the NY Times best-seller, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture and Crisis by J. D. Vance. The book, which many critics have hailed as a key to understanding the “Trump voter,” follows Vance’s life through a harrowing boyhood and adolescence amongst his hillbilly relatives to his enlistment in the United States Marine Corps to his undergraduate studies at the University of Ohio until, finally, his graduation from the Yale University School of Law. His story is more than a little bit Dickensian.

The book is well-written, reportorial and compelling. It more than likely fulfills the criteria of Joseph Campbell’s “hero’s journey.” I recommend it highly; like James Baldwin’s books it, too, is a guide for pilgrims who are willing to make the journey to an unfamiliar world. I underlined so many passages that it might be easier to pick out the passages that weren’t underlined.

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Confessions of an Unrepentant Out-of-the-Closet Chick Flick Lover

In the February 3, 2017 issue of the New York Times, the estimable Gloria Steinem published an Op-Ed piece called “Women Have Chic Flics; What About Men?”

I say estimable because I have long admired Ms. Steinem. I first became aware of her, not from her article about being an under-cover Playboy bunny, and my respect for her predates the publication of MS Magazine’s inaugural issue. It was her 1968 interview with Pat Nixon.

In 1968, newly transplanted from Denver Colorado to New York City, I became (and still am) a regular reader of New York magazine. Shortly before that year’s presidential election, the magazine published Ms. Steinem’s interview with the notoriously press-wary, Mrs. Nixon. After Mrs. Nixon responded to one of Steinem’s questions by saying that the woman she admired most was former first lady, Mamie Eisenhower, Steinem reports:

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Learning to See As Another Sees

“Seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognizes before it can speak.

 

“But there is another sense in which seeing comes before words. It is seeing which establishes our place in the surrounding world; we explain that world with words, but words can never undo the fact that we are surrounded by it. The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled.”

 

–John Berger, Ways of Seeing

When I am asked what it is exactly that I teach, I say that I teach people to see. I use archetypes, myth, metaphor, and mostly film, to teach people how to see symbolically and impersonally.

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Best 2016 Movies Part 2: Round-up

Hidden Figures & Fences

hiddenfiguresThe year brought a jackpot of outstanding films about people of color. In addition to Midnight, Loving and Queen of Katwe, there are Hidden Figures and Fences.

Don’t miss Hidden Figures! It is an old-fashioned (in the best sense) movie that will have you on your feet and cheering at the end. Writer/director Theodore Melfi (St. Vincent) uses a tried and true formula, one that the film’s distributor 20th Century Fox has used countless times since the 1930s: take three ambitious and talented women and intercut their stories as they pursue success in a particularly macho man’s world—NASA in the 1960’s. All three women are working mothers, two of them are married; one is a widow. In their fight for opportunities commensurate with their abilities, the three heroines don’t just have to battle sexism, but racism as well. The performances of the three leading women, Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and singer/musician Janelle Monae (also in Moonlight) are righteous, infectious and altogether jubilant. They are reluctantly supported by gum-chewing NASA program director, Kevin Costner. Kirsten Dunst and Jim Parsons are terrific as the heroines’ condescending antagonists and Mahershala Ali (also in Moonlight) is fine (as in “He’s So Fine”) as the persistent suitor of reluctant widow, Henson.

More about Hidden Figures

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Nostalgia Really Isn’t What it Used To Be

My cousin, Michael, and I don’t have occasion to interact very often—weddings and funerals, mostly.  I saw him last summer for the first time in several years at a mini family reunion that my sister hosted in honor of my 75th birthday and in honor of Michael’s older brother, Pat, an Oblate missionary priest in Africa, who was home on vacation.

Michael is a really good man. He and sister, Jane, have been, and continue to be, pillars of strength for their immediate and extended families throughout many heartbreaks, losses and tragedies that would have broken people of frailer character.

Michael and I are casual FB friends. His FB posts mostly tend toward nostalgic pictures from websites like the Good Old Days and Do You Remember the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s? My sister Mary posts pictures from these websites, too. They are occasionally funny, but in no way give me any desire to re-live those decades. Or the 50’s either!

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Artists, Saints and Prophets

hamiltonmusical

In the days immediately following Mike Pence’s attendance at the Broadway musical “Hamilton,” a friend of mine posted an article about the elegance of actor Brandon Victor Dixon’s address to the vice-president elect.

One of her friends replied that the address was inappropriate, rude and disrespectful. Another decried the lack of hospitality toward Pence: “people pay money to attend the theatre to relax and be entertained. They don’t go there to be made to feel uncomfortable.” I have a Master’s Degree in Theatre Arts and no instructor I ever had said anything remotely like that.

I replied to her post: “In the play “Inherit the Wind” a character based on legendary journalist, H. L. Mencken says, ‘It is the duty of a newspaper to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable’. This is also the duty of art and artists and saints and martyrs. Early in the week the same friend who posted the article about Hamilton had posted a photo of a birthday card which featured a quote from Pope Francis, “Have courage! Go Forward! Make noise!” I referred to the card in my post, adding “that it seemed to me that this is exactly what the cast of Hamilton did.”

Comfortable art! Even “The Sound of Music” reaches its climax with Captain Von Trapp singing “Edelweiss,” and thereby risking his life to sing truth to power.

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Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

Jimmy Stewart in the 1939 film Mr. Smith Goes To Washington

Jimmy Stewart in the 1939 film Mr. Smith Goes To Washington

JEFFERSON SMITH – “Why don’t you people the truth for a change? People in this country pick up their papers and what do they read?

DIZ MOORE (a reporter) – “Well, this morning they read that an incompetent clown had arrived in Washington parading around like a member of the senate.”

JEFFERSON SMITH – “If you thought as much about being honest as you thought about being smart—“

DIZ MOORE – “Honest! We’re the only ones who can afford to be honest in what we tell the voters. We don’t have to be re-elected like politicians.”

I couldn’t have been more than 10 years old the first time my parents took me to see Frank Capra’s great film, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

The film was originally released in 1939, two years before I was born. We didn’t yet have television, let alone VHS, DVRs or Turner Classic Movies, but each year The Rocky Mountain News in collaboration with the Vogue, a small theatre in South Denver, sponsored a sort of film festival. The newspaper published ballots and readers could vote for the films they most wanted to see: the Marx Brothers, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, W. C. Fields (with Mae West) and Frank Capra’s movies (Mr. Smith, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and You Can’t Take it with You) always received enough votes to be screened. And my parents took me to see them.

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Archetypal America

In honor of the release of  the Archetypal America workshop recordings, I offer this post on one of my favorite films, Stagecoach. The course recordings can be purchased as a digital download here: https://gum.co/archetypalamerica

“The main American theme, I think, is freedom. It’s about individual freedom in opposition to or in tension with collective freedom.”  -Ken Burns, documentary film maker, “The Civil War”

Throughout American history the archetypes which populate our myths and legends and capture our imagination are the Rebel, the Revolutionary, the Liberator, the Scout, the Pioneer, the Cowboy, the Explorer, even the Outlaw: all of them perpetually moving forward in pursuit of their idea of freedom, both on behalf of the common good and at the expense of it. While many of these archetypes appear from the very beginnings of our history, the conflict between the various notions of freedom—personal and collective—solidified in the American psyche in the years leading up to and following the Civil War. They continue to impact us and our ideas of ourselves to this day. Few films capture these American themes and tensions as well as John Ford’s masterpiece, Stagecoach.

stage2

Stagecoach is high on my list of the 10 Best Movies of All Time. I’ve seen it at least 20 times, probably more. Without fail, something about it captures and holds with every viewing, so much so I save it on my DVR, along with Singin’ in the Rain and a few other films, so I can view them again whenever the mood strikes me.

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Guest Appearance: Archetypal Tarot Podcast

2015_ATP_Icon_Green_Twitter_ProfileI was thrilled to sit down with my good friend Julienne Givot and discuss archetypes, movies and more for her popular show, The Archetypal Tarot Podcast.  You can download the show for free on iTunes or listen online at the bottom of this page:

http://archetypaltarot.podbean.com/e/the-tower-embracing-the-grace-of-change/

A Conversation with Jim Curtan

This conversation is between Shane M. Nygaard and Jim Curtan on September 14, 2015, as part of the Minnesota Jung Association’s 2015-2016 season of event.

More information on Jim’s Workshop – Archetypal America October 23rd and 24th, 2015 in St. Paul, MN

SN:      Since you haven’t been in front of the Minnesota Jung Association (MJA) audience before, to help people get to know you a little before your visit, can you share a bit about your background?

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