17 March 2017

happy happy

Number 4(?) in an occasional series of reviews of snacks semi-randomly selected from the kiosk downstairs:
Image may contain: dessert and food
These were pretty bad. Opening the package I was overcome by a smell that was difficult to place, but that I finally identified as the exact aroma of Frankenberry cereal. Whatever the white side is supposed to taste like is no match for fake strawberry. In combination with a plausibly chocalate cookie, they reminded me of chocolate fondue, in the way that Pierce Brosnan was a reminder of Sean Connery. 2/10.

04 March 2017

my old school

I was sitting on the southern side of the plane as it descended toward the airport in Columbus. The view that way is as uninteresting as you can imagine.  I wished I had been sitting on the other side of the plane, where I might have looked for the green, faux-copper roofs of Columbus Academy.

With that thought in mind, and wanting stretch the in-between of travel a little longer before arriving at home, I pointed the car through Gahanna toward Cherry Bottom Road. (Yes, yes, it's a ridiculous name; it was even more ridiculous in the context of what was then the Boys' Academy with its insistence on antique and homoerotically tinged terms like Master and Head Boy.) Gahanna was what I remembered and then nothing like what I remembered; shabby strip malls where the McDonald's and Burger King were in the same places they were thirty-five years ago, and suddenly, on Mill Street, one of those pseudo-urban "neighborhoods" that are the current fashion. Cherry Bottom itself  was more crowded with subdivisions than it used to be, but the turns were familiar, leading up to a broad right-hand curve and the low, decorative gate of my old school.

The drive up the hill was the same, minus the anxiety that accompanied me every morning for eight years. The scene at the top was not: a brand new building, carefully recreating the old Academy building when the school was on Nelson Road.  It was handsome enough and the phoniness was reasonably well disguised.

Behind the new old building were the authentically dated architecture I remembered. It's hard to believe anyone ever thought that cupola was a good idea. The upper school building had been carved open, revealing the spot where a mural Matt and I painted had once been. The quad in front of what had been the library was much smaller than it used to be, of course. Walking across that quad was extremely forbidden.
We broke nearly every rule they had, including the time Bobby mooned our French teacher when he was arriving late to work - although, actually, I'm not sure there was a rule specifically prohibiting that. But almost nobody ever crossed the quad. It reminded me of when I was visiting my Exeter classmate Michael Lindsay - the real Exeter, not the New Hampshire one - and he took me to tour his old school. There was a similar patch of grass, and even as a graduate, on a summer evening with the place deserted, he couldn't bring himself to cross it. 

(I remember on that visit I mentioned that my school had just celebrated its 75th year. He laughed. The Merchant Taylors' School was founded in 1561.)

Behind the old administration building and its cupola was another lawn. This one really was smaller than I remembered. They'd closed in the far side with a dining hall a while ago, and extended the backs of the original campus buildings ten feet or so. I looked across to where the art department used to be, above our old dining hall, and the gym. There was a new sculpture. I was walking near the spot of that sculpture when I was told I was gay for the first time. I was not yet eleven and had been at the place for maybe a month, and I had earned the description by putting my arm around the shoulder of a classmate.

I couldn't get in to see the auditorium where I'd played Claggart and Algernon and Petruchio. Near its doors, outside the lower school building that went up when I was a student, I looked to see if the
mushroom was still there. It was a piece of playground equipment that we had designed as an art project. It was made out of reinforced concrete, and had a stem you could climb up and a lobe you could hide under and another lobe you could slide down. The slide didn't work very well, because, well, concrete isn't all that slippery, but you could scale up it anyway. The real thing didn't live up to my imagination when it was finished. Some time later I saw the remarks of a graduating senior, and she referred to it as a touchstone of her early years at the school. It was nice to have that connection. In any case, it's not there anymore; in its place is an ordinary bit of playground equipment.

I hadn't known what to expect. What I found was, mostly - nothing. Memories, obviously, but not much in the way of feelings. There were people I'd like to see again. Teachers, mostly;
not many classmates. It was a place I spent a lot of time, once. It's hard to remember how much it was my entire life.  I took away a good education, in its way, Latin and Greek and Calculus and that. I took away the belief that everybody ought to have the opportunity for that kind of an education, not that I've contributed to any progress on that front. On the other hand, they let me leave without knowing who James Baldwin was, so I didn't go to hear him speak my freshman year at Kenyon. They sent me off, maybe contrary to plan or maybe not, with a strong distaste for phoniness.

03 February 2017


I'm reluctant to write this, because Hollywood needs to make and celebrate more movies about black people's lives, and I don't mean "The Help."  And it needs to make and celebrate more movies about gay people's lives, and it certainly needs to make and celebrate movies about black gay people. But I don't think "Moonlight" is that movie. 

Five minutes in - less than that - I realized: poverty porn. And let me be clear, it is reasonably effective poverty porn. Ten minutes in, I was ready to leave the theater and burn the whole world down. To be fair, I feel that way most of the time in early 2017, so I'm not sure that's a major achievement, but it's not nothing. I don't know how anyone else might have felt, of course. Maybe there were black folks watching the movie with me who were glad to see their lives on film, on the screen. Or maybe everybody in the theater with me was thinking, "Oh, look at them" like we were on some higher class version of the Jungle Cruise. I don't know what other people think. 

So I'm sitting there moved to anger at the movie and moved to anger by the movie, and some of that anger because the pain of Little was so familiar. And because the sudden, unexpected discovery of joy, of a life that seemed like it belonged only to other people, was so familiar. 

And that isn't nothing, either. "Moonlight" has a few shining moments, transcendent moments, and it would be unfair to give those short shrift. It takes work to achieve that. You have to be doing something right in the rest of the film, poverty porn or not, for those moments to land. And they really did land, the scenes on the beach, or certainly the climactic moment at the school, which reminded me of "Marty," a movie that ranks high among my favorites. They were the sort of moment you go to the movies hoping to see. 

And yet: they arise out of, and submerge back into, a sea of bad cinematic choices. Some - the decision to make Little's mom a crack whore rather than a waitress or hotel maid, or the implausible post-climactic third act, seem driven by the desire to make the story As Dramatic As Possible. Others lay somewhere between laziness and ineptitude; the script is devoid of poetic ambition, until the clumsy moments it decides it needs a few poetic ambitions that the poor actors have to gamely clank their way through. Against this lack of ambition stand ostentatiously arty direction and cinematography and especially score. Which all contribute to the sense of high-class poverty porn. 

Which, you know, would be ok. But two things. 

First, the ending, which is genuinely lovely - but which, coming as it does after ninety minutes or so of film whose main redeeming quality is that it made me want to burn down the whole world - it is an ending that, as Richard Wright wrote of his own  work, would allow bankers' daughters to cry. It's a beautiful conclusion, and it suggests that the filmmakers had none of the courage of their convictions, or more likely never had those convictions at all. Which just makes the whole thing a waste. 

Second, though: all those Oscar nominations. This is the part that I'm reluctant to write. But here goes: I once went to an exhibit of Elijah Pierce's work at the Columbus Museum. Pierce was an African-American woodcarver, self-taught, a naive artist if you will, who became known in Columbus and maybe in the wider art world. It was a fantastic exhibition. But I remember comparing the cards explaining Pierce's work to those explaining the other artworks throughout the museum. The others' were about technique, composition, the use of light and shadow, that sort of thing. Pierce's cards were about content. They explained the subject matter depicted in his works. 

It was as if, for me, Elijah Pierce wasn't a real artist. He was a woodcarver, and a storyteller, but apparently it wasn't worth considering his artistic choices, why he used the colors he did, how he arranged his subjects, how his technique developed over the decades. And I thought, either you think he's a real artist, and you hold him to the same standard, and describe him in the same way as you do Bellows and Cadmus and every other artist in here - or this whole thing is a bit patronizing. 

It's hard for me, having seen "Moonlight," to think all those Oscar votes aren't about content: here's a Film about Black, Gay, Poor People, and we must recognize it. Have I mentioned I'm reluctant to write this? I don't know what was going on in those Oscar voters' heads. And, to be fair, Oscar has never really been, despite the color of those trophies, a gold standard. But "Moonlight," isn't a best picture caliber film, in my mind, and neither is its direction or score (which is mostly the absence of a score; admirable restraint, I suppose, but not usually what gets you an award.  Maybe it should, for that.)  It all has the sense of giving an award to the cripple so we can feel a little better about ourselves. 

Three standout performances, however (none of them nominated): Jharrel Jerome as the teenage Kevin, and Andre Holland as the adult; Holland in particular brings an affecting vulnerability to every moment onscreen. And Ashton Sanders is a kind of wonder as the teenage Chiron; his performance will haunt me for a long time. If it means we get to see more and more of him in the years ahead, then those nominations will redeem themselves.  

06 January 2017

black bourbon

#3 in an occasional series of snacks semi-randomly selected from the kiosk downstairs. These were the best find so far. The taste is a reasonable facsimile of ice cream sandwiches, but with crunchy wafers (an improvement). Like all these snacks, however, too sweet when paired with masala chai. Might go better with actual bourbon. 7/10.
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