731. Thoughts on The Florida Project

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A couple weeks ago my husband and I went to see the new film, The Florida Project. When I first saw the film’s poster in our local theater months ago, I had made a quick mental note to see it. Being as I grew up in coastal Florida, I imagined that because it was a story of Florida, it would no doubt feature the white sand and beauty of the ocean, which I miss. By the time we went to see the film, though, I knew that it was about something else entirely.

The story follows the lives of small children and their mothers or, in one case, a grandmother, who live in motels along Route 192 near Disney World, all caught in poverty, bad decisions, some form of abandonment, and hopelessness. There's not a single beach scene. But the story line also follows that of Bobby, played by Willem DaFoe, the manager of The Magic Castle, the budget motel where the film’s primary child and mother live on a weekly basis. For all the reasons to see the film based on the story line and the outstanding performance of the 7-year-old Floridian, Brooklynn Prince, whom we will no doubt be seeing more of in years to come, it’s the story of Bobby that most captured my attention.

The film’s director, Sean Baker, had been on Charlie Rose in mid-October talking about his film. He described how he had researched for the film by talking with people in the area where it was shot. In particular, he spoke of a motel manager he met:

"We would go and see who was interested in telling their stories or giving us information about the Route 192, which is where this was shot. And this was—this involved us speaking to residents at the motels, the small business owners, some the motel managers, and some the agencies that actually provided social services to people in need in the area. And there was one—there was actually one man in particular, a motel manager, who really opened up his world to us. In a way, he was our passport in. He wanted—he felt that this was a story that should be told, … and he was actually managing one of these budget motels directly across the street from the Magic Castle Motel where we shot. And he was in a very tough position when he was actually working there. It has since closed. But he had compassion for the families and the kids who were there. He understood the struggles they were going through. And, yet, he, you know, had a job. He had to hold onto. And he knew that perhaps any night he might have to evict one of these families and put them out on the street if they couldn't come up with the nightly rate. So, it was a tough position for him. I could see this obvious—this compassion, but I also saw a distance that he would keep from them. And it was like a reluctant parental figure in many ways. I saw it not only with him but a few of the other motel managers we met. And I think it very much inspired our Bobby character."

DaFoe’s character captures an aspect of work that I tried to describe in Finding Livelihood: that of doing one thing, for which you’re paid, but that may be far from what you most want to do or feel “called” to do, while at the same time also doing something far bigger on another plane, maybe all the time and all along or maybe only for a moment, participating in a for-such-a-time-as-this sort of thing. Parallel realities. Bobby kept the books, he kept the rules, he kept the place clean. Job description met! But he also kept his people safe, he guided and cared, he gave hope, he loved. If you missed the movie trailer, hyperlinked in the first sentence, take a look now and you'll get a hint of what I'm talking about.

683. Make stuff, learn stuff

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Film director Pete Docter gave something back to the audience in his acceptance speech for Best Animated Feature for Inside Out at the Academy Awards last Sunday. If you haven’t seen Inside Out, it’s a wonderful film about an 11-year-old girl who becomes miserable after a cross-country move.

Here’s what Docter said:

“Anyone out there who’s in junior high, high school, working it out, suffering — there are days you’re going to feel sad. You’re going to feel angry. You’re going to feel scared. That’s nothing you can choose. But you can make stuff. Make films. Draw. Write. It will make a world of difference.”

Adults were listening too.

It reminded me of advice given by Merlyn the magician in King Arthur’s court as told in The Once and Future King by T.H. White.

The best thing for being sad,” replied Merlyn, beginning to puff and blow, “is to learn something . That is the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then—to learn. Learn why the world ways and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the thing for you. Look at what a lot of things there are to learn—pure science, the only purity there is. You can learn anatomy in a lifetime, natural history in three, literature in six. And then, after you have exhausted a million lifetimes in biology and medicine and theocriticism and geography and history and economics—why, you can start to make a cartwheel out of the appropriate wood, or spend fifty years learning to begin to beat your adversary at fencing. After that you can start again on mathematics, until it is time to learn to plough.”

~~~

[Photo: taken from a back car window of the Brooklyn side of the Manhattan Bridge.]

654. Thoughts on the Amy Winehouse documentary

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Last night I saw the film Amy. It’s a documentary about the life of Amy Winehouse, the jazz singer from London who died of alcohol toxicity at the age of 27 years. I knew little about Winehouse before I went, and so what I know about her now is largely what I learned in this film. I learned enough to weep inside at the tragic trajectory of her life. It could have been otherwise given her verve, her voice, her giftedness for music and lyrics. See for yourself, here, in this recorded video with Tony Bennett.

The 2-hour film is nearly exclusively live shots and video from her life. The footage covers it all from the innocent excited moments of her first gig to her spiral downward into drugs and alcohol. Lots of the footage probably came from the paparrazi who relentlessly followed her when she became a superstar, but lots of it also was from her own camera and that of her friends. This is not the Ken Burns effect, where a single picture zooms in and out only to move to the next one. This is the era of selfies and by the film’s end, I couldn’t help but feel as if she was someone I knew even though she was so very different from anyone I know.

Yes, while making her music she made her own terrible choices. But also yes, the adults in her life, with the exception of her paternal grandmother, failed her from the time she was child; her boyfriend-turned-husband manipulated her and pulled her under, even bringing her heroin while she was in rehab; the people who made her albums and planned her tours chose money over her well being; we, the public, laughed at jokes the late-night TV stars told about her and wanted pictures on magazine covers and online of her spiral downward.

Leaving the theater last night and waking up this morning I kept thinking of the writing in Dorothy L. Sayers’ The Mind of the Maker about how the creator of a literary work loves the creatures he creates and sometimes must watch them do and become things on the page or on the screen that he had never intended. I kept thinking about the scene in the Gospels where Jesus speaks – and I imagine him choking back tears while he does so – of his beloved Jerusalem, saying how he had longed to gather its children under his wing.