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Saturday, April 27, 2013

Buster Keaton goes to Boston


Buster Keaton lights up with a bomb in “Cops.”

by Hugh Gilmore
Karl Marx famously wrote that history repeats itself, first as tragedy, later as farce. Some events this week convinced me that both tragedy and farce are in the eye of the beholder. Labeling something as comedy doesn’t make it funny to its victims.
This past week of terrible, terrible news began with the Boston Marathon bombings. Such a shocking and gruesome event. I hadn’t been on the computer most of the day nor heard a radio or TV. When I did go online late in the afternoon, my sudden encounter with the headlines and images describing the story was stunning. Graphic pictures of shocked, frightened and maimed people seemed embedded in every news article. I tried just glimpsing but wound up gaping. I wasn’t able to take more than a few minutes of exposure before I switched websites.
Boston? I wondered. Why Boston? If this was an anti-American act, there are so many other cities with much more iconic American targets. And why civilians? Were they what nowadays is called “collateral damage” when a strategic or symbolic target is attacked? Were the perpetrators madmen or terrorists? As did most Americans, I went to bed that night dazed, confused and anxious.
Throughout the day on Tuesday, news poured in. Two bombs. Near the finish line. Three dead. Over a hundred injured. Later news: The bombs had perhaps been left in two backpacks. And filled with bits of metal meant to fly out and maim. Limbs lost. Heroes emerged. And images, images, images.
Life down here in Philadelphia carried on. Our hearts were with the people of Boston – in fact, with our fellow Americans everywhere. But what was there to do but carry on and wait and hope for answers and perhaps the capture of the villains?
Our family went ahead and did what we had scheduled ourselves to do, silly as it sounds after this build-up – we went to the Ambler Theater’s Buster Keaton festival. I don’t really have to justify that; I think most Americans were seeking some relief after two horrible days. From this kind of randomized terroristic act, there seems no real escape. Every day in America is a risky day. We’re all learning to look down the alley before we start to walk through it. Or better yet, avoid walking into alleys. Even though we also know that the bombers or the AK-47 hobbyists may be waiting on Main Street itself.
The Ambler Theater sponsored a very nice program last Tuesday night that included four Buster Keaton short films accompanied by a three-piece band calling itself “The Not So Silent Cinema Project.” Brendan Cooney, a Philadelphia musician with Boston roots created the project. He’s accompanied by Andy Bergman on Clarinet and Kyle Tuttle on banjo. The music had been carefully and creatively scored to fit both the actions and the moods of the films. A pleasant and quite creative evening.
Except: The second Buster Keaton movie was called “Cops.” It was released in 1922. About a third of the way into the film we see a policemen’s parade, with hundreds of marching patrolmen. Buster is hiding from the law under a parade stand. The city officials are shown at the review stand. Then we see Buster again, still hiding. In the next shot, a sudden close-up reveals an archetypical anarchist lighting one of those bowling ball-shaped comic bombs with a long fuse. He throws the lit bomb over the wall. It lands next to Buster. Buster uses the fuse to light his cigarette and then casually tosses the bomb away. It lands in the reviewing stand. It blows up. Everyone runs away, scattering in panic. Comedic panic.
That is, no severed limbs. No bloody, shrieking bystanders. No dead bodies. In comedies, even ones made today, bombs make people grab their butts as though they sat on something hot. Or make them fly up in the air and come down again to the sound of a kazoo before running away. Woooo-up.
At the movie theater I felt my stomach turn. I felt like being angry at the three musicians or the Ambler Theater. But they couldn’t have known. Mercifully, the action changed, the bomb scene ended and we’d moved on. An awkward moment and definitely not a funny one.
That particular bomb thrower, who looked kind of shady and ethnic, was probably modeled on the anarchist bombings that happened in the U.S. in 1919 by the followers of Luigi Galleini. In that case at least 36 dynamite bombs were mailed to government officials. The Galleinists followed that episode up on June 2 by exploding bombs in eight different American cities, targeting public figures.
The anarchist bombings of 1919 were not the only such bombings in American history, but they’re a useful illustration of the fact that by 1922 “the anarchist” had become a stock comic character in film. A funny figure unless you don’t have distance from him. Not so funny for all the people of the world who’ve had bombs aimed at them this year. Same with comic drunk drivers for those of us who’ve lost a loved one to their “funny” way of handling a vehicle.
The Buster Keaton-with-live-music program is really excellent. It will play art house theaters in six more cities, including Doylestown and New York. The tour will conclude in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
If they don’t modify the program by then, however, I don’t think the people of Cambridge are ready to have their recent history seen as comedy.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

A trip through the surreal to see the Dali Museum

It's torture when you don't have an idea of how much time you've got and no way to know it anyway


My wife and I hate flying and enjoy train rides, so last week we boarded Amtrak’s Silver Star and let it carry us down the eastern seaboard to Tampa, Fla. That’s a 24-hour-ride, made much easier by booking a sleeper for Jan and me and a “roomette” for our 26-year-old son, Andrew. In Tampa, a rental car awaited.

Our ultimate destination was beautiful Sanibel Island, but first, we’d drive to St. Petersburg to see the Salvador Dali Museum. Andrew is a scholar of animated films and, since Dali claimed that cartoons influenced his surrealistic style, he wanted to see Dali’s work with his own eyes.

The Silver Star leaves Philadelphia around 12:30 p.m. By the time you board and settle in and read a bit and have dinner, you are well into the evening and getting ready for bed.

About 9 p.m. the train had just left the bright lights of Raleigh, N.C., behind and started plunging through the southern darkness.

Jan went to visit Andrew’s bunk and a few minutes later came back with him. Andrew had tears in his eyes. He then told me what he’d told Jan: He was seeing occasional white, bright light in the nasal corner of his one “good” eye (he has no vision in the other). This was his third day seeing that light. He hadn’t wanted to say anything beforehand and “spoil our vacation.”

That load of bricks, that whole insidious worry we try not to think about, fell on us at once. Andrew has only one good eye because he was born prematurely (2 pounds, 3 ounces) and soon developed retinopathy of the premature. Surgery failed to save his left eye.

At 18, as a college freshman, in his dorm room one night, he felt like a window shade was being drawn down across his remaining eye. At 2 a.m. he decided he’d better call us, but, out of consideration, he waited till 6 a.m. to do so. After he did, we rushed to get him to Wills Eye. A wonderful surgeon reattached his retina.

My heart aches whenever I think of him lying by himself in the dark and waiting for dawn in his sweet, misguided courtesy. Alone and scared. What must that wait have been like for him?

We’ve had no similar scares since then. But we live in constantly suppressed fear that any day, out of nowhere, he may lose his vision, and we may be handed the responsibility of raising a child who is blind.

Now, Andrew sat beside us, having known three days ago he was experiencing a strange ocular sensation, but keeping it private because he knew how much this vacation meant to us. He obviously felt guilty for speaking up, but was fearful of what that light in the corner of his eye might mean. We certainly didn’t know either.

“Oh what a lump in the throat,” I wrote later to my friend Lynn Hoffman: “But we restrained our tears because we needed a plan. We couldn’t just jump in the car and drive to Wills Eye. We were trapped inside a train that was hurtling at 90 mph through rural N.C.”

I went to the porter (a lady) and asked what cities were coming up. The next city with a decent-sized hospital emergency room would be Columbia, S.C., at 2 a.m. That’s where we would go if necessary. The porter was very cooperative and told me to give her the word and they’d have an emergency ambulance ready at Columbia Station, if necessary.

We now had plan of sorts, not that we’d expect a small city hospital to have an ophthalmologist on call at 2 in the morning. But what should we do? The train wouldn’t reach Tampa for another 15 hours. The temptation toward taking action, some action, any action, drives the spirit at such times.

In the meantime, Janet was trying to track down Andrew’s eye doctor, but that’s not a number we keep in our wallets – though I guess we should. There’s no Internet on the train. Cell phone information, 4-blankin’-1-1, was not helpful and quite impatient, the operator sounding like she resented the intrusion on her time, even though we declared it an emergency. Finally, we thought to ask for the number of Philadelphia’s Wills Eye Hospital emergency room. The operator who answered there was mercifully kind. She found Andrew’s eye doctor’s number in Plymouth-Whitemarsh.

And guess what? We called the answering service and they beeped him and he returned our call within five minutes. You can imagine our relief at hearing Dr. Gary Brown’s kind and patient voice coming to us over a small silver cell phone. This as I watched our reflections in the windows, behind which the dark, uncaring foliage rushed by.

I repeated for Dr. Brown the symptoms Andrew described to me, concluding with, “Is this an emergency, Dr. Brown? Do we need to get off the train at the next stop?”

“Stay on the train ’til Tampa,” he said. He did not think Andrew’s condition would worsen in a matter of hours. He gave us the name of a top doc in Tampa, a former colleague. Tell him Gary Brown told us to call.

We tracked down the doctor’s answering service. He called back! We set an emergency appointment for the next day. Worried still, but calmed by having a plan, we sat back and tried in our hearts to brace for whatever fate the next day held.

The train pulled into Tampa’s Union Station at 12:30 p.m. Thursday. Jan and Andrew hopped a cab and went to see Dr. Mark Hammer.

I went to get the rental car. I got to the doctor’s office just as Andrew’s dilation from the drops kicked in. Andrew hates the exam as bright light pains him. He’d even needed general anesthesia last year for his annual. Boy does he yell and fuss. But four adults managed to get him through it.

And gloriously, he’s okay. His retina is healthy. Any number of lesser problems could cause the bright light sensation he’d been having. Make a follow-up appointment with Dr. Brown for when we get back. What a relief.

Dr. Hammer, by the way, went to nearby Abington High school, and we had several mutual acquaintances, most especially the legendary Dr. Allan Glatthorn. We left Dr. Hammer’s office a lot more relaxed than the way we went in.

By 4 p.m. that afternoon we were checked into La Quinta Inn outside St. Pete’s. Our nerves were overwrought. Our bodies still hummed from two days of rocking travel. The hotel reeked terribly of odor-cloaking fluids. My eyes were smarting and my nose burned from the terrible chemical smell.
Physically, I was miserable. But, unlike last night, our son wasn’t being threatened with imminent blindness tonight.

Tomorrow morning, I thought, we’ll go to see the Salvador Dali museum.
“See” it – how precious the word.

And we did.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Philip Roth has kindly stepped aside and offered you his place in line

President Obama removes Mr. Roth's medallion to make it ready for you...You!
Philip Roth, at 80, has announced his retirement from the literature scene, so there’s a big opening now for aspiring writers to jump through. Perhaps the gap would fit two or three new authors. Should now be the time for you, dear reader, to leap forward and stake your claim?

I imagine you might pause in fear and wonder what it would be like to assert yourself. To hurl your hopes into the great pond...perhaps only to hear a very small splash. One not as far from shore as you hoped? And you stand with your toes in the water, barely sensing a few faint ripples before the water stills. Could you stand that? How would you feel if you knew ahead of time that was all the reaction you would get? Would you go ahead anyway and try on Mr. Roth’s toga? Compose your song, or rhyme your poem, paint your canvas, or tap out your epic? Would it matter to you if you worked hard and all you got for it was the story, or poem, or song you created? Would you need a guarantee of monetary success, or an Oprah appearance before you started?

I was thinking those thoughts as I sat in my ponderer’s chair in the sunny living room this Saturday past. I was “killing” time (or should I say it was killing me?) as I sat waiting for the time when I’d need to jump up and rush to where I had to be. Time-wise, I live on the verge of late – as usual – but exactly on time – as usual. A compulsion towards punctuality is a great inducer of tension. Especially when one applies that notion to his career, his dreams, his life.

Where I was headed was Musehouse. That’s not a metaphor. It’s a literal place. But it works well as a metaphor also. If you don’t know it by now, that’s unfortunate, but not uncorrectable. The building stands at 7924 Germantown Avenue in the Chestnut Hill neighborhood of Philadelphia, but its essence lies in the loving hearts and minds of Kathy Sheeder Bonanno, the founder/director, and her wonderful staff of teachers and volunteers. Musehouse sponsors literary readings, including open mic nights, several times a week. They offer classes and workshops nearly every day (into the night). Most of all, they show care and openness toward all who want to say what is in their hearts through the medium of words, spoken or written.
            I was going there Saturday night, March 30, to be part of a celebration of the debut of The Musehouse Journal, Volume one, Number one. The journal is a juried magazine and the standards for selection were high. Many of the poets and prose writers who appeared in the magazine were there Saturday to read their selected pieces aloud. I was fortunate enough to be one of two story writers appearing in this inaugural issue. I would read a selection from a memoir I’ve nearly completed.

 I felt honored to be included, but worried that the sound of my stone in the pond would be lost amidst the plunks of so many others. And I wondered who would ever read the journal after Saturday night. And I worried that what I had written was too personally revealing. And I suspected that my speaking voice could never do justice to the emotions I wrote about – four short scenes from my childhood. I had rehearsed with a tape recorder numerous times in the previous days, but the playbacks never sounded like the voices I heard while writing the story. Did that matter? A writers’ words have to do the magic on their own. I guess. In my case, perhaps not, but one of my favorite quotes is Machiavelli’s “fortune favors the bold.”

 I’ve been talking about myself, last Saturday night, but still haven’t forgotten those of you who want to write but don’t have time. Those who want to speak, but don’t know if they’ll ever find the words. Those who wonder, What’s the use? Reasonable questions. But....

Well, if you were expecting the Big Reveal here, there isn’t one. If you feel you have something to say, just go ahead and write it down. There’s no reason not to.

If you need a guarantee: the only certain one is that you’ll certainly get nowhere if you don’t start. Of course, there’s no guarantee you’ll “get anywhere” if you do. But is that what you want to unlock your heart for? Riches? Is that why you have lived as long as you have, and survived the awful things you’ve seen and heard? Fame? Or the beauties you have witnessed and never given word to before? Listeners? Oh, well, that’s a different matter. That might be worth while.

I sat there on my folding chair Saturday night, waiting my turn, thinking as each person came up to the microphone: My goodness, you never, ever, can predict what another person is carrying around in his/her, heart. Or the experiences they’ve had. Such surprises I heard.
When my turn came, I felt like I was offering my part in a collective prayer against those imagined gods who wait to mock our hopes and dreams.
Thank you, Kathleen Sheeder Bonanno, Musehouse, and my fellow writers from Saturday night.

Musehouse is easily Googled. I'm now on Facebook. My latest book, the quirky romance/twisted family story of “Last Night on the Gorilla Tour” is available in both ebook and paperback formats on Amazon.com.