A photo of Brooklyn Bridge in black and white

The Art of Jumping

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[Names are whatever I want them to be]

I spent much of my youth with a group of boys, which explains why I was such a surly kid. Following church one Sunday afternoon, where the message had been “Good Ideas vs. God Ideas” (your wisdom or God’s wisdom), a group of us gathered at a buddy’s place to hang out and be teenage boys.

From a tall tree in that friend’s backyard, a zip line had been attached that shot across the yard to a patch of grass a dozen or so yards off. This bright summer day, the boys were taking turns riding, but there was a hold out: Dylan. No matter how much the other boys badgered him, Dylan wouldn’t ride the line.

“I don’t think it’s safe,” he protested.

“Well, maybe that’s a good idea,” a kid named Chet intoned, “but is it a God idea?”

It says something about Christian youth that, even as a joke, that line still worked: Dylan climbed the tree. I surmise the jumping off spot for the zip line must have been roughly three stories, though details are fuzzy: let’s say at least 25 feet. By the point Dylan was stepping up to the ledge, at least four or five other boys had already ridden the line.

Effectively goaded, Dylan stepped out of the tree, putting all of his faith in the strength of the line, and immediately dropped. The line snapped. He hit the ground like a rock.

There is an art to jumping out of a tree, and Dylan apparently had forgotten it: Instead of bending his legs and rolling with the momentum, he locked his knees and came straight down on his feet. Following that fall, Dylan spent the next few weeks in a wheelchair, though nothing was broken, only bruised.

When Dylan hit the ground, he went fetal, writhing in pain. The rest of us were frozen in a mixture of shock and awe until Chet broke the silence with the soundest theological statement I’ve ever heard:

“Maybe it was a God idea.”

Meet Cute

I met Sophie the way all New Yorkers meet: outside a Williamsburg coffee shop after attending an independent movie premiere. This short film, about the Manson Family, had been created by a friend and his theater troupe. At 30 minutes, it was an artfully shot re-enactment of rape and murder, a feel good romp if ever there was one.

Sophie, not part of the troupe but involved in theater, had a role in the film. The post-screening party was being hosted at a nearby Starbucks that also served alcohol. When the only two people I knew were otherwise engaged, I wound up outside conversing with a group that included Sophie and another woman, Amy.

With the party unwinding, Sophie, Amy, and I, joined by some guy named Stan, continued our night at Rosemary’s around the corner. As tends to happen with the male of the species, once in a booth, Stan brashly hijacked the conversation and soon the ladies and I were communicating telepathically to make our escape.

After telling Stan we were calling it a night, the three of us regrouped outside and Sophie suggested that we prolong the night back at her Greenpoint apartment. Though late, her place was just past McCarren Park, so we hoofed it. Along the way, spurred by the admission of my Kansas youth, we turned to the topic of climbing trees, as you do.

“Everyone climbs trees in Kansas,” I probably said, because this is factually accurate.

“I never have,” Sophie admitted. Since alcohol was involved, her confession became a challenge.

The London Planetrees lining the park weren’t as sturdy as the cottonwoods I had grown up with, but they’d do. Showing surprising dexterity, I scurried up one and straddled the lowest hanging limb. Proud that I could still get up a tree in my 30s, I jumped out with ease, a height of maybe eight feet. It was Sophie’s turn, now.

We selected a suitable option and with a little assistance from Amy and I, Sophie scampered up the tree’s white tree trunk. As she settled into the nook between its three branching limbs, her expression was a mixture of relief and mild terror.

Reveling in the glorious absurdity of our endeavor, I neglected to mention the most important part of climbing a tree: the dismount. Leaving Sophie in her perch, Amy and I chatted a few feet away when, in our peripheral, we saw Sophie come sailing down.

The art of jumping out of a tree is best learned when you’re a child and your body is made out of rubber. You might start by cautiously sliding your ass along the trunk until you’re on the ground with a scratched up back, or maybe you just take a haphazard leap and limp off the impact. Eventually, having done it enough times, you develop a second nature for it.

Having never climbed a tree in her youth, Sophie wasn’t practiced in this particular skill. Landing firmly on her ankles, she crumbled to the ground. Amy and I raced to her side and helped her up. Attempting to put weight on her right foot, Sophie yelped in pain.

“I think I broke my foot,” she fretted.

Imbued with the confidence of manhood and alcohol, I replied, “I doubt it. You probably just bruised your ankle.”

Though she was in evident pain – just how much, I didn’t realize at the time – we continued walking to Sophie’s apartment, she directing from the rear. Once there, we poured more drinks while Sophie elevated her leg. Removing her boot proved a struggle as her foot had ballooned inside. Now a discolored rainbow, I nonetheless surmised with my expert medical opinion that it was a minor injury. With enough ice, she’d be fine in a day or two.

A little later, I passed out on the couch while the two women talked. In the morning, Amy urged Sophie to see a doctor, but she was reluctant and I was still confident that it was unnecessary. However, since Sophie was struggling to walk and Amy had to go to work, I volunteered to hang out for the day. It was Friday morning, I didn’t work again until Saturday afternoon.

We whiled away the hours conversing and watching television on her couch. We ordered Chinese food for lunch. When the dog needed to go out, I walked him. There was such an easy, natural tempo to our conversation that we never hit a lull, whether we talked family, politics, or art. We delved into our pasts, those dark passages that few others ever saw. The sun rose and fell across her apartment’s bay windows.

It was almost dusk and the progression of the day had brought us together, our legs touching as I argued with myself whether or not I should kiss her. It seemed a foregone conclusion, but I’d been wrong before.

Glancing at me sideways, Sophie inquired, “So… is it wrong to fuck a cripple?”

I laughed.

Friday became Saturday. I made a few half-hearted efforts to exit throughout the morning, eventually leaving some time after noon to return to my Bed-Stuy apartment and get ready for work.

In my absence, a worried Amy returned and brought Sophie to urgent care. That night at work, I received a text:

My foot is broken.

I’d been in Brooklyn for eight months.

Jay Street Train

Flashback

New York City couldn’t possibly live up to my fantasies, to the extended nine year tease I had put myself through; and yet, in many ways, it somehow did. Every free afternoon, I walked the borough, barely scratching Brooklyn’s 97 square miles. There was art and music and the quintessential melting pot of diverse residents. My first full weekend in the city, I saw Spoon play a rollicking concert in Central Park while the sun set over the treetops. Purely cinematic.

Shortly after my arrival, I attended a rooftop party at my apartment and met a young French photographer studying in the city for the semester. We had a brief, caustic affair and then she returned to Paris. Meanwhile, I served tables in Park Slope, one of the many neighborhoods in Brooklyn where the locals will proudly tell you how it had once been a much different, rougher neighborhood. Now, their dog walkers make six figures a year.

Naturally, New York tried to kick my ass. That’s what it does. It’s impatient and unkind, expensive and exclusive, unimpressed by anything you’ve ever done. The city doesn’t need you or want you, thank you very much; although, it’ll gladly have another meal.

And this is the easy version of New York City. Most everyone will report with nostalgia how much harder – and better – this city used to be. Nothing will ever be greater than the past.

Montage

Sophie’s broken foot complicated matters. She could no longer continue her theater internship, her main reason for being in the city. A job was out of the question and she was essentially immobile, Brooklyn being hostile to the hobbled. When not working, I was invariably with her.

After a few weeks, we attempted a visit to my apartment, a fourth floor walk-up. Our collective restiveness induced Sophie to push herself – and her foot – sooner than she should have. Every time Sophie thought her cast could come off, a new complication extended her recovery. As the weeks turned into months, my guilt grew exponentially, her every grimace a reminder that I had played an active role in her agony.

Sophie was immensely frustrated by her lack of mobility and her inability to take advantage of New York City’s lucrative theater network. She sought other avenues for pursuing her artistic ambitions. Having no great affinity for the city, no reason to chain herself to New York, she figured “why not?” and applied to numerous graduate schools, most of them in England where she had spent much of her childhood.

Though we were simpatico on most every level, our nights occasionally flipped from romantic to adversarial seemingly on a dime. We shared ideals, but some conversational tangents could splinter us, as tends to happen with any two headstrong people. Scotch might have been a factor.

Everything between us felt emotionally charged, whether discussing our pasts or our ill-defined futures, during physical intimacy or a heated argument. She challenged me, as a writer, as a thinker, as a man. She could infuriate me – and I her – but conversations with her never ended without me questioning my assumptions, and that’s a rare talent.

She was just as talented as a writer. Every grad school she applied to, most of them prestigious, accepted her. She had her pick of the litter. She was to be in England by September.

At the end of July, not even three months after we met, and less than a week after having her cast removed, Sophie flew to Washington to spend time with family before her next journey.

I don’t suppose either one of us thought we were built for the long-term. We’d both been nomads. So much of the fire between us was in the immediacy, the sense that neither one of us had ever known permanence – maybe we never would – but at least for a few hours together the outside world’s beckoning wasn’t so loud.

I would have taken more time with her, but she couldn’t stay. New York City wasn’t where she belonged; it wasn’t where she was going to make her mark. And she’ll make her mark. She’s a resolute woman, audacious in her convictions. She was always going to jump; I can’t wait to see her land.

Like few others, Sophie’s voice continues to ring in my ears. It’s the voice of my conflicting internal monologue, challenging my opinions and making me step back from my preconceptions. It’s telling me to listen more, speak less. I’m still debating with Sophie in my head, and she’s still winning.

The Final Reel

Emily in SilhouetteFor the final week of 10 Cities/10 Years, as my first year in New York City came to an end, I hit the road with Emily. She was moving back west, from Boston to Los Angeles, after graduating from nursing school. Our route this time took us through Kansas where we spent a night with my family before continuing to see her brother in Flagstaff and on to Long Beach.

I stayed with Emily’s family for a couple days and revisited Costa Mesa where I met up with Selene who’d recently moved back home. After all the cities, all my experiences over the past decade, it felt like the pieces were being reset with the project’s conclusion. Maybe there would be nothing to show for the effort. No matter, that’s life.

On the last Saturday of August, I returned to New York to be alone.

There’s one detail I left out of Dylan’s story. Another kid didn’t ride the zip line that day: Me. I was just as scared as he was; more so, because not even God could get me up that tree. No one ever called me a particularly adventurous child, which is why I’m sure it surprised more than a few people when I embarked on this journey.

Ten years of constant uncertain, of impending financial ruin and personal angst – of being out on a limb – and I am no less afraid than when I set out. Anxiety still roils my gut when I enter an unfamiliar social situation, whether it be a new job or a packed bar. The self-doubts, the fear, it never abates.

I live with that fear every day, and I always will. It’s my main reason for climbing trees: so I’ll have to jump.

Read from the beginning

Why You Should Watch ‘The Great Gatsby’ on Opening Weekend

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

The Great Gatsby Movie Poster

On May 10th, Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (in 3D) will release in theaters.

It promises to be many things, though perhaps a spectacle above all else. Every one of the trailers has put the emphasis on the visual and stylistic beauty of the film, which is no surprise coming from the director of William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet, Moulin Rouge and Strictly Ballroom. Each of those films has their critics and champions, but no one would ever claim that Luhrmann fails in his visuals. The most common critique of his films is that he is all flash, no depth.

Many of the naysayers who are already sharpening their axes in order to chop down Luhrmann’s version of Gatsby are starting from there: They say the trailers are clearly showing a movie that’s all glitz and glamour, ironically missing Fitzgerald’s criticism of the dangerously shallow excess of the 1920s and, particularly, the moneyed class. How can this film be any good if it doesn’t get the fundamental message of the book?

Well, let me blow your minds for a second and argue that The Great Gatsby‘s defining theme is not the fatal excess of the rich. Now, before you wannabe English Lit professors have an aneurysm, let me say that, yes, that is a message in the book. It’s one of the messages, but it is not the central one.

Far too often, with our vantage point of history, we tend to adopt an interpretation of art that the artist never intended. Knowing that the Crash of 1929 was just around the corner (well, 7 years around the corner from the setting of the book), it’s easy for us, in hindsight, to read the book as a prophecy of the fleeting nature of wealth. However, Fitzgerald wrote the book between 1923 and 1924 and published it in 1925, well before the Great Depression. Because the novel, and Fitzgerald’s own personal arc of history, mirrors the boom and bust of the 20s/30s, it feels all too natural to view the book through that lens, but it’s an optical illusion.

So, if wealth’s fragility is not the defining theme of the novel, what is?

Our inability to escape the past. Throughout the novel, references to time come up again and again. In “The Authorized Text” edition (if you own a copy, odds are good this is the one you have), Matthew J. Bruccoli explains that in the novel, Fitzgerald uses “some 450 time-words, including 87 appearances of time.“¹ Every single one of the characters in the book is trying to either re-invent themselves or escape their past in some form. Gatsby is obvious, but you also have Tom and Daisy who have run from Chicago after a car crash shed light on one of Tom’s many affairs, and then there’s Jordan Baker, the golfer who was accused of cheating but managed to weasel her way out of it. Even Nick, the narrator, is trying to escape his life back home, reinventing himself as a bonds dealer in the mythical East.

(Minor characters are just as trapped: When Wilson finally gets up his nerve to force his wife Myrtle to leave New York, it leads to the climatic tragedy of the novel, fate maintaining a kind of stasis.)

There are other major themes in the book (the shallowness of excess being one of them), but Fitzgerald’s focus is most definitely on identity and its rigidity. The author was plagued by a desire to reinvent himself, and eventually did, transforming from an Irish Catholic in a Midwest middle class family into a member of the Protestant First Class. But just like his characters, that transformation would prove false and, ultimately, fatal.

What does this have to do with Luhrmann’s seemingly all-flash movie interpretation?

What the kneejerk critics don’t seem to get is that the flash is absolutely vital to the story. The dreadfully dull Robert Redford and Mia Farrow adaptation reveals what happens when you try to make a version of this book and strip it of all its youth and excitement. We’re talking about a book that pretty much defined the Jazz Age, the rebellious, youth-fed phenomenon that set the pattern for Rock n’ Roll, Disco, Punk, Rap, Grunge and every other youth movement since. As Fitzgerald famously said, he was writing “for the youth of his own generation.”

Yes, The Great Gatsby is a great work of American Literature and it deserves its place in the pantheon, but that doesn’t mean it exists in a museum. It’s a book of folly and youthful indulgence. Let us not forget, the narrator turns 30 during the events of the novel, and Gatsby is only a little older. The author was 28 when it was published.

f scott fitzgerald

Okay, fine, maybe the movie will be good, but why should I see it this weekend?

I’m so glad you asked.

Have you read this? Hollywood will always look for the easiest, cheapest and fastest way to churn out a sure-fire hit (or, if it’s cheap enough, a sure-fire meh). I’m very happy that The Avengers was the huge success that it was, because while it was a summertime popcorn flick, it was well-acted, well-written, and, most importantly, well-directed. I’d rather it was Joss Whedon ruling the summer movie roost than Michael Bay.

Still, the success of summer tent-pole movies is a given, and has been since Jaws. The zeitgeist when it comes to summer movies won’t change all that much, give or take a smart Inception-type blockbuster. Some years the superhero/giant robot/alien attack movies will be good, some years they won’t. That’s just the way the summer works.

Hollywood really only pays attention when a true anomaly breaks through. What could be more anomalous than a hyper-stylized (3D even) period piece based on a classic novel that dispenses with notions of redemptive, everlasting love? A movie like that becoming a huge success throws a wrench in the system. Computer programs can’t predict that sort of thing.

Now, I’m not naive. I realize that if Gatsby is a huge success, it won’t be because of it’s dark themes or classical literature pedigree. It’ll be because of it’s flashy trailers and soundtrack featuring Jay-z and Beyonce and Fergie. Well, good! I can’t think of anything more fitting than slipping a work of literature into the mass consciousness via the Trojan Horse of flash, spectacle and Pop music.

I don’t know about you, but I sure like the idea of a movie producer calling in his lackey and saying, “How can we get in on this great literature trend?”

The only way, though, that such a bizarre reality can come to be is if The Great Gatsby is an out-the-gate success. I mean, a huge success. Again, I’m not naive enough to believe that this film will open to Iron Man 3 numbers, but it doesn’t have to. If Gatsby breaks the $50 million mark in its opening weekend (a feat that wouldn’t even put it in the top 100 of all-time opening weekend records), that would be spectacular (it’s projected to hit in the mid to high $30 mils) and also a huge flag for studio execs.

“You mean, we can make character- and story-based movies that actually sell? Who knew?”

Look, I know there are some people who have already decided this movie is going to suck. Maybe you hated the previews, or you’ve hated everything Luhrmann’s ever done, or you just hate anything that’s popular. Well, go see the movie this weekend anyway. I mean, if you want to be able to intelligently criticize the thing, you’ll have to see it, eventually. Might as well get it over with as soon as possible so you don’t sound like a pretentious hipster-doofus for the next few weeks. And then you can go back to listening to your vinyl.

I am fully optimistic that Luhrmann gets the book and Fitzgerald and will produce a film that is not only true to the spirit of the novel, but the spirit of the age, both the 1920s and the 2010s.

But even if the movie ends up disappointing, I’d rather Hollywood try its hand at interesting, experimental adaptations of intelligent source material than yet another movie about a toy. So I’ll be there at the midnight showing Friday morning.

I hope you’ll join me.

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1 Fitzgerald, F. S. (2003). The Great Gatsby. New York: Simon & Schuster Inc.

5 Underrated (or Under-seen) Great Films

A list like this probably gets made every 5 seconds online.  I’m not going to say these are the greatest films of all time, or films you must see if you’re a cinephile.  These are merely movies I love and think more people should be aware of; and if you’ve seen these movies, maybe you should watch them again.  Enjoy:

5. The Ice Storm (Directed by Ang Lee.)

In college I stumbled across this movie on AMC one afternoon when I was probably skipping class.  When I turned it on, I assumed I was catching the last 5 minutes, so I kept it on to see what was on next, only to end up watching the whole movie.  This was about the time the first Spider-man had come out, so when I saw Tobey Maguire it caught my attention.  Well, besides having a great cast and amazing direction (Ang Lee’s filming of the titular ice storm is gorgeous), it was just a compelling story.  Imagine “American Beauty” set in the 1970s without the overly sentimental bag blowing in the wind motif and you’ll get an idea of what this movie is about.

Plus, key parties.

And the always beautiful Joan Allen gives a killer performance, so what’s not to love?  Definitely worth a rental if you’ve managed to miss this one.

4. Pleasantville (Directed by Gary Ross)


(Okay, so not the trailer, but I love the song and this video conveys the movie pretty well, too.)

Two movies in a row with Tobey Maguire and Joan Allen, but I don’t have an obsession.  I swear (well, not with Tobey, at least).  This is just a great movie, one that even I dismissed when I first saw it (at like 14 or 15).  But it has grown on me over the years, not least of which because it holds up so well.  I realize this movie isn’t probably ‘under-seen’ as many people have watched it, but I think people need to re-watch it.  Even if you loved it when you first saw it, it’s worth a second (or tenth) viewing just because it completely works from beginning to end.  People who would dismiss this movie for a seemingly simple message (like I did originally) should go back and re-examine it, because there’s a lot more going on underneath than just a simple “We’re not really worse off than we used to be” message.

But forgetting all the ‘message’ stuff, it’s just a clever movie with a great premise and excellent execution.

Also, any movie that has Etta James’ “At Last” and Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” in it is automatically a cool flick.

3. The Three Amigos (Directed by John Landis)

As quotable as any 1980s comedy, for some reason this movie doesn’t have the devoted fan following that Ghostbusters or Caddyshack has.  Again, it’s not so much that this movie is underseen or even disliked, but rather that it isn’t so much bigger in the common consciousness of the general public.  I’ve probably seen this movie a hundred times in my life (not an exaggeration), but it still can make me laugh.  It’s one of those few comedies that walks the balance of dumb and smart, slapstick and musical, clean and dirty.  Besides, any movie with Steve Martin, Chevy Chase and Martin Short (seriously underrated comedian) in the days before they all went soft is clearly going to be worth your time.

If nothing else, who doesn’t love  a singing bush:

2. The Fountain (Directed by Darren Aronofsky)

Having worked in a Music/DVD section of a Barnes & Noble, I noticed an odd phenomenon with this movie.  A lot more people bought the soundtrack than the actual movie.  With good reason, as the soundtrack to this movie (by Clint Mansell with the Kronos Quartet and Mogwai) is one of the most powerful and affecting scores I’ve ever heard.  Even if you’ve never seen this movie (for shame), you should have this music.

But let me not sell the movie short.  The Fountain is an amazing work, gorgeously filmed, brilliantly acted (say what you want of Hugh Jackman, but he’s got talent; and Rachel Weisz is both an incomparable actress and stunning beauty who is high on my list of celebrities I would sleep with, even while in a relationship) and thick with meaning and ideas.  I know people who have seen this movie have been turned off by its seemingly New Age message and confusing structure, but good art requires that you delve in.  Sure, not every movie has to be an enigma wrapped in a conundrum wrapped in a used condom, but occasionally you want to see a movie that challenges your intellect and spacial thinking while you’re watching it, and this is it.

There is a cornucopia of film tricks throughout this movie to sate any cinema nerd, not least of which is the fact that the space scenes are done with an absolute minimum of CGI, and mostly consist of filming chemicals in a petri dish, creating truly stunning and original footage that looks far more beautiful than anything James Cameron or Michael Bay have ever shown us.  Added to that are the repetition of shots and visual cues and what you have is a movie that’s almost more a poem than a movie.  Still, don’t dismiss this movie as psuedo-spiritual hooey, because at the heart of this film is scientific wonder for the creative force of nature and evolution, where the death of a star is really just the beginning of new life.  College theses could be written on the deluge of symbols in this movie.

But I’ll restrain myself.  See this film.  Be blown away.

1. October Sky (Directed by Joe Johnston)

Listen to some music from this film:

I love this movie.  Unabashedly.  It’s not the greatest movie ever made.  It didn’t deserve an Oscar and it certainly didn’t set itself apart as a cinematic masterpiece.  Really, this movie is nothing more than one of those Underdog Sports movies that comes out about 6 times a year.  Except, this movie isn’t about a ragtag football team.  It’s about kids in a coal mining town who want to use science to make an escape from what seems like their inevitable fate in the mines.  And for that alone, this movie ends up in my DVD player 2 or 3 times a year.

This movie exhilerated me as a kid, and even now I find it affecting.   There are very few movies out there that emphasize the kind of profound effect a love of science can have on a person’s life.  Like Homer Hickam in the movie, science wasn’t exactly my strong suit in school (I was great at math, but I never had any real passion for biology or chemistry), but, again, like Homer I had a moment in my life when I saw the illuminating power of science and fell in love with the many facets of it.  His moment was seeing Sputnik fly overhead; mine was sitting in a General Psychology class and seeing how the chemicals in the brain work.  From there, the whole world of biology, chemistry and physics opens up.

I realize that the movie takes plenty of liberties with the true story of the Rocket Boys, as all movies ‘based on a true story’ do, but that’s beside the point.  It’s uplifting and joyous and even a cynic like me can enjoy a movie with no ‘bad language’ or overtly sexual scenes (usually the only 2 things I look for in a movie).  It’s just a simple story with solid performances from everyone involved, including a great performance by Chris Cooper (one of my all time favorite actors).

And, again, I love the music in this movie, both the score  by Mark Isham and the assortment of great 1950s rock n roll.

Do yourself a favor, rent this movie and feel just a little bit better about life.