Friday, July 27, 2007

An Evening With Black Sheep

Last Friday a gang of us ventured into center-city Philadelphia for the opening show of writer-director Jonathan King's Black Sheep. I'd been jonesing to see the movie since we met Jonathan in Wellington two months before; now, it was finally here and we were going to witness the fruits of his labor.

With Tom and Jessica in front, and Jenifer, the Ray Gun Kid, and I huddled in back, we passed through a sunny, jogger-filled Fairmount Park, where I pointed out a surprising monument in Boathouse Row: Einar Jónsson’s elegant statue of Viking explorer Thorfinn Karlsefni.

After parking and pictures by the poster, we walked through Philadelphia's Old City, a livable, historic downtown that was closer in atmosphere to the international capitals I'd visited in the last two years than I thought possible for an American city. We slipped into El Fuego, purveyor of California-style burritos, minutes before closing. I placed our order before experiencing my second non-near-death experience in a year, managing to lock myself in the lavatory. Honestly, I don't know how this happened. (The other fun time involved a kayak in three feet of water.)

My companions are downing their food under the digital thunder and blare of Entourage and I’m screaming futilely for help from within the claustrophobic and very, very orange confines of a chamber of doom the size of a telephone booth. Praying for someone to display the temerity to take a leak before the restaurant closes for the night, I finally jigger the malevolent locking mechanism and stagger back through the dark industrial recesses to our table. I’m momentarily shaken, and wonder if this is the appropriate frame of mind for contending with the horror of a flock of genetically altered zombie sheep.

Afterwards we pause for the sake of digestion and the automated lightshow at Independence Hall before making our way to the theater, the Ritz at the Bourse. This is the kind of place that displays slides of paintings by local artists before the show rather than the typical Sturm und Drang of a Regal Cinema FirstLook infomercial. And then, the film.

Black Sheep is being billed as a horror-comedy. I'm not especially a horror fan, never have been, and until gaining more sense as an adult was not much of a comedy aficionado, either, subjecting my junior-high-school crew to such snappy, light fare as Dune and Firefox. (And no, I still haven't seen—just for example—Caddy Shack or Police Academy—not that I’m equating them, mind you.) So, the category of horror-comedy is not one in which I’m well versed, the only example I’ve seen being Shaun of the Dead.

Black Sheep is a lot of fun. It’s a real crowd-pleaser, funnier than it is horrific, and features solid performances by Nathan Meister as Henry, the jittery co-inheritor of a sheep farm, and Danielle Mason as Experience, an activist turned sheep fighter, as well as cool and creepy special effects by Weta Workshop. And there was something else that was quite unexpected for a genre movie grounded in gore: it’s really charming.

Black Sheep is in limited release, so check for U.S. locations here (it opens in Australia in August and the U.K. in October).

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Tuesday, July 24, 2007

On Writing & Other Things

You need not do anything. Remain sitting at your table and listen. You need not even listen, just wait. You need not even wait, just learn to be quiet, still and solitary. And the world will freely offer itself to you unmasked. It has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet. — Franz Kafka

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Monday, July 16, 2007

You Are Burning Me

A year ago today Jenifer and I returned from Denmark. It was our second trip there, and this time we had also visited Sweden and Finland. We saved Denmark for last, since we had fallen in love with it during our honeymoon, especially its capital Copenhagen. But, as I had written at the time, we were initially less enchanted with the city during our sophomore outing, for two primary reasons: the mystery of its newness was lost, and the city was crowded, expanded by the extra quarter million tourists attending the annual jazz festival.

We tried to detach ourselves from expectations of repeating our earlier experience, and, as is so often the case, we were rewarded when we least expected it. I was washing my clothes in the kitchen adjacent to our fifth-story room when a powerful soprano voice pierced the darkening summer sky, rose up through the neighborhood of Islands Brygge, swelled in the courtyard of our apartment building, and wafted in through the window. With the distant, electric hum of live music, something in the atmosphere shifted. Something in me changed.

We have to go down there, I said to Jenifer, and soon, ice cream cones in hand, we were sitting on the water’s edge. The Faroese singer Eivør Pálsdóttir was performing at the Kulturhuset, a floating stage tied to the edge of the quay. The sound was spare – stripped down to singer, drummer, and guitarist – but intense, passionate, filled with longing. An eclectic blend of sweet folk and scintillating rock rooted in the ancient ballads of the Norse. One song in particular held me utterly in its spell, “Nú brennur tú í mær.” I later learned it means, appropriately, “You Are Burning Me.” Truly magic.

These moments don’t happen often, and not always with the same fateful intensity. Last week, though, we enjoyed another bout of synchronicity. We were in Pittsburgh to attend a housewarming party for Jenifer’s sister, who, oddly enough, had moved only a couple blocks away from my oldest friend, Tony. At his suggestion, we spent the afternoon of the party at Phipps Conservatory. I was happy to go, since I’d never been to Phipps, even though it’s separated from my alma mater Carnegie Mellon only by Schenley Park’s Flagstaff Hill.

We wouldn’t be going for the flowers, though. Phipps was holding a special exhibit, the work of glass artist Dale Chihuly. Jenifer and I were thrilled at our good “luck.” We’ve both had a casual fascination with blown glass, but Chihuly’s amazing works had captured our imagination when we chanced upon a TV special on him a couple years ago.

The rain forest, the butterfly rooms, the desert gardens and Bonzai trees, each was populated by Chihuly’s organic creations, spirals and spindles and balls of brilliant color. Here, embodied in pieces of art, were the manifestations of intentions set long ago, like light from a distant star just now reaching the earth, just now reminding us of our own minds.

When I was in college I had run all over Pittsburgh, and I still know it better by foot than by car. I had raced on Flagstaff Hill and through Schenley Park, down into Panther Hollow and up behind the conservatory to the edge of a dusty bluff. Beyond the gorge rose the tall stone buildings of Oakland, which for me always gave the appearance of an ancient city on a hill. Returning was a strange kind of homecoming, bringing all those imaginings back, and with them the joy of finding something new in an old, familiar place.

Screenwriting is often likened to completing a jigsaw puzzle and, like life, is a process of discovering not only an inherent meaning but the pieces themselves. Sometimes, when you surrender to circumstance, you find what you weren’t even looking for. Sometimes the Universe winks at you, saying, “Pay attention.”

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Thursday, July 12, 2007

The Golden Compass is Coming

Have you found your dæmon? If not, go here.

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Friday, July 06, 2007

Integrate Silence

Sometimes movies (among other things) pop into your life, seemingly by chance, and then persistently bore their way into your consciousness until you have no choice but to submit to the arising. I first read about Into Great Silence in an in-flight magazine on my way to New Zealand, and then Jenifer heard about it somewhere, and then suddenly it was showing at the Colonial Theatre, a local old-fashioned movie house. And thus we ended up seeing a fascinating film that will likely slip under the usual machinery of promotion.

A documentary on Carthusian monks dwelling in the French Alps isn’t exactly the concept you’d want to have to pitch. Indeed, filmmaker Philip Gröning waited 16 years for permission from the order to film its monks for a year. He was allowed to do so under strict dictates: no narration, no music, no artificial lighting. Only ambient sound, along with subtitles in French and German.

The monks of the Grande Chartreuse are known for their asceticism. They don’t speak, except after their weekly group meal on Sundays. They spend much of their time in little cells, leaving only to perform the chores necessary to sustain themselves. The film doesn’t investigate, doesn’t provide answers, only witnesses the contemplative life in action. And yet, even at nearly three hours long, it never fails to be interesting. Transformers this isn’t, but it nonetheless reminds us of the reasons we join together in communal solitude, and that any practice, diligently pursued, can be a spiritual path.