Posts Tagged ‘San Francisco Symphony’

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Hello again!

A binding contract of lifelong friendship forges when the person across the dinner table chuckles after you say, “Good God; that’s a Hello Again-sized piece of chicken.” Frightfully large chicken brings to mind the frightfully good-bad film Hello Again (1987), featuring Shelley Long as a woman summoned back from the dead after choking to death on a South Korean chicken ball. I didn’t know how else to break the ice and find a way to say hello. You know, again.

The “Closed” sign has been up at The Ticket Booth for some time now; other meddling voices have filled both my head and pen, pulling me in some new and exciting directions. But I began thinking about the booth and missing it, acknowledging the mental nudge that I wanted to open it up again and see how much dust had collected inside. Either sentimental or just a reaction to that dust, I found myself getting a little choked up trying to figure out why I had stayed away for long, and how, or where, I should start?

Shall we jump back in with the last Joan Crawford movie that I watched last week? Familiar butterflies began to flutter during Sadie McKee (1934) when I realized that it was the same film featured decades later in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), another Joan Crawford picture that paired her with Bette Davis. As an actress without any recent successes to her name, both Crawford and her character in Jane sit in front of the television utterly mesmerized by Sadie, a towering and bouncy young lady almost 30 years her junior. T’was a powerful moment on the couch that night – life had all came full circle for me.

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Not in the mood for big JC? I could brag about the trip we took to the San Francisco Symphony, where my family and I did not, in fact, get kicked out of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) for rambunctious sobbing. The evening was a crowning achievement in my family’s history, as the Academy Award-winning score by John Williams generates a flood of nose hair-plucking tears for most of us.

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Maybe you’d like to hear about the Stanley Kubrick Exhibition where Michelle and I saw an Oscar statuette, props and costumes from The Shining (1980), and pleasant letters from religious groups scolding Mr. Kubrick for turning the filthy Lolita (1962) into a film. If I were to steal one thing from a museum, I’d sneak out with one of those letters under my shirt. Read more about the exhibition on Little Magazine.

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Not in a Kubrick mood? I get it; he’s a treat but not for every day. How about the time when I saw Cabaret: The Musical performed on stage, and the Emcee (played by Randy Harrison from Queer as Folk) pulled me up out of the audience to dance with him in front the entire theatre? “Do you have a little German in you?” he asked, and when I told him no, he hissed with smile, “Would you liiiiiiiike some?”

 

Too early for das Kit Kat Club? When I went to visit Dad for a boys’ weekend, I brought him two DVDs – Network (1976) and Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) – so he would never again have to worry about downloading them from those streaming services that tend to stall every three minutes. We ate; we drank; we swam; we barbecued; we teased Mom via text that we picked up KFC and without a coupon.

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Oh, and a few weeks ago, Barbra started her concert with “The Way We Were.” I was there; I heard it; I saw Barbra Streisand perform live . . . no biggie.

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The magic of film illuminates my life (the way your spirit illuminates my soul), but it just hasn’t appeared anywhere in my journals. And why? Because I’ve been sad. Hatred and fear surround us, and the two have joined forces to become what some have led us to believe is a constant threat that bursts into our nightclubs where we used to dance until dawn. It’s driving down promenades where we celebrate with our friends and friendly strangers. It’s shooting out of the guns controlled by law enforcement, and hours later it’s shooting out of the guns controlled by protesters. Hatred and fear surge from the mouths of men and women who are or want to become our elected leaders, and it’s being absorbed, magnified, and projected by their followers. For those of us who worry too much and insist on being in control of all things at all times, an overwhelming hodgepodge of sadness, anger, frustration and all the other googly–eyed emoticons was inescapable, but naturally I added one more fear to the pile – maybe writing about old movies just didn’t do it for me anymore.

Eventually the moment came when I could just about feel Cher’s palm meet the side of my face (we should all be so lucky), and I heard a firm but loving “Snap out of it!” It wasn’t a “snap out of it” advising me to ignore this world that frightened me so, but the time had come to tally up of all of those indestructible new memories and experiences that I just listed above. We have plenty to talk about and will, but before we chat about that new Ingrid Bergman documentary, the upcoming Dolly Parton concert, or the adorable little cat café where I started volunteering, first I just wanted to a quick little hello.

And it is time – it’s time first to acknowledge that sadness, anger, or fear and then release it all like you’re supposed to release a ghost. After that, grab your best (or, in my case, only) Dolce & Gabbana, find a theatre that serves champagne, and go see the new AbFab movie. We’ll talk more soon, because when you finally do snap out of it, you find that chicken balls are quite delicious.

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The battle between laugh-lined adults like myself and their inner child with its flawless skin is at its most predictable on October 31st. This unblemished child begs us to play dress-up and try on modified versions of our personalities that otherwise we keep hidden throughout the year. Hardly a day goes by when I’m not tempted to break out my witch hat and wear it around the neighborhood, so I understand the satisfaction garnered from disappearing into another character’s mind and body for 24 hours. I lived in costume for the first decade of my life, so Halloween was never the special green light holiday that is was for everyone else, permitting extravagant wardrobe choices without the fear of judgment (okay, I do judge the “Sexy Mustard Bottle” people, but just a little). Instead Halloween was simply a day that I didn’t get asked, “So who are you today?” I can still hear the pompous tone that dripped from a relative’s voice when he asked me that question at every family function . . . fortunately we were never forced to gather together to celebrate Halloween, or I may have hit him with my broom.

The red makeup of past Halloweens still lingered on my shower curtain. Its glue somehow still had the strength to keep a silver eye jewel posted proudly on my bathroom medicine cabinet. And that black leather tie purchased only for the purposes of a Halloween costume found itself into the regular rotation. Surrounded by this mini-museum of Halloween personalities, my core began to shake. The pressure was building in my toes and advancing towards my eyeballs. Something new was about to erupt, and my lack of control was both frightening and intriguing.

A few party invitations had come my way, but they remained in my Inbox, unopened. As October evolved into a month-long celebration of baseball, Halloween, and public drunkenness, San Francisco overflowed with a sea of pleasure-seeking hooligans. “Throw a stone; hit a Mr. Hyde” became the town motto, while back at my laboratory, it was a poor, suppressed Jekyll striving to burst from within me. The white-collar shirt was pressed; the grey tie with its pale red stripes met the belt of the black trousers; a maroon cardigan and a long, black overcoat guarded against the cold that still hovered after the day’s rain. The most petrifying costume of my years frightened only one person, and he was staring back at me in the mirror – this year I dressed up as an adult for Halloween. At times Dr. Jekylls may feel unwelcome in this city, but no matter; I was taking him to the Symphony.

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The stage was completely bare, save for the tremendous organ that was front and center. Had I looked closer at the website when I purchased my ticket, I would have noticed that the evening’s film was not to be accompanied by the entire San Francisco Symphony but by only one man and his organ. And yes, had I looked closer, I would have used the word “only” with a bit of an eye roll, a disrespectful snafu over which my cheeks redden when I think about it now. Indeed it was but one individual who sat below the movie screen at Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco that Halloween night. Who knew that inside one man lurks the mystical power of many? After a grand overture that included “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” for the nostalgically rambunctious Giants fans, I sat mesmerized for 80 minutes, as organist Todd Wilson danced alone with John Barrymore.

Music truly functions as the railroad tracks of silent film. The actors may board the train looking impeccable with their black eye makeup and perfectly pursed lips, but without the music, that train would have nowhere to go. First published in 1886, Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, found its way to the large and small screens as well as the stage and radio. In 1932 Fredric March received an Academy Award for his portrayal of the curious doctor; in 2007 James Nesbitt frightened BBC fans in the miniseries adaptation that followed Dr. Jekyll’s only living descendent; and in 1920 John Barrymore stepped into the man’s . . . um, men’s shoes. And goodness, that Barrymore face was a natural treasure. During Jekyll’s first transition into Hyde, the makeup was minimal, relying on the actor’s ability to do his job and do it well. The screen time for both hair and makeup increased as did Hyde’s, and title cards guided those audience members who were less familiar with the story. Surprises were in store for those around me, and I recalled the Symphony’s performance of Psycho (1960), when I found myself gasping at the gasps of the audience. Apparently my Jekyll is a tad snooty when it comes to old movies.

Captivating are Barrymore and his title cards, with their deliciously evil illustrations, but it was the mood swings of the live organ on stage that brought these characters to life. Perfectly timed to the movements of each actor, the ripples and shakes of Mr. Wilson’s organ emerged faultlessly as improvised, allowing every shadow hiding behind every corner the opportunity to jump out at his audience during their most Jekyllish moments. As I sat hypnotized by every moment of the film and its organ escort, perhaps a couple of temporary laugh lines became permanent, as my Jekyll cackled at his escape into the darkness of the theatre, an escape from the Hydes outside dancing down the streets.

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Add Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde to your queue.

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Time goes by so slowly . . . at least this week. In a few days one of my closest of the close friends flies in to join me at my beloved San Francisco Symphony. Once again I took the liberty of freelancing for the Symphony’s marketing department and convinced an out-of-towner to join me on my third viewing of The Wizard of Oz (1939). Convinced that someone should write a children’s book about our friendship, my friend and I constantly exchange movie quote texts and articles from The Huffington Post that put a “cheer up, Charlie” spin on our days, hiding the deep sadness that life has put 1,500 miles between our cities of residence. Yes, we measured; we’re that close.

Showing up on my Internet machine recently was an article posted by a publisher that I happen to work with during my nine to fiver. Although I could appreciate both its style and content, deep inside of me was the ornery old businessman who stubbornly kept my mind in the office. This grumbly old man refused to let down the work wall and appreciate a clever little article about Mary Poppins and her former employer. In place of humor, the sight of the publisher’s name only fueled my fury over how habitually they missed deadlines for the selling season on which my team was already working. I began to wonder how on earth I would be able to slot their titles into a Children’s catalog that has already been paginated or how many months it would be until they sent cover images that we could feed to Amazon and Barnes & Noble. From a harmless article sent to me with the best and most loving of intentions, I felt nothing but work frustration – the flower in my lapel had been torn and withered in my coat. My top hat had been punched and placed back on my head. Over time I had let this publisher turn me into Mr. Banks.

Ever close your eyes in an attempt to banish a thought from your mind? It doesn’t work.

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The story of P. L. Travers and her frustrated efforts of transitioning Mary from page to screen have become well known through the film Saving Mr. Banks (2013), for which Emma Thompson should have received an Oscar nomination. Yes, that evening I would have sent Cate Blanchett home with the gold for Blue Jasmine (2013), but a Thompson nomination was deserved and would have been kindhearted of the Academy. Seriously, bring the Kleenex for that ending. I am no expert on the history of Ms. Travers and Mr. Disney’s relationship, so I can’t speak to the film’s accuracy, but for me it provides a broad background for those who are unfamiliar with Disney’s struggle for a film adaptation. An added bonus was Emma Thompson’s Travers finding Tom Hanks as irritating as I do these days, hence my ruffled Oscar feathers. If you have never seen Mary Poppins (1964), first please send me your parents’ phone number so I can have a little chat with them – and don’t give me that “we didn’t rot our brains with television” hogwash – and then please stop reading. The ending of Mary Poppins is an incredibly sensitive subject for those of us who idolized both the character and the actress that sang her to life. You have been given your spoiler alert, and you may now choose for yourself. I’ll be here when you get back, and Mary, who celebrated her 50th anniversary this year, certainly isn’t going anywhere. Why would she leave? What possible reason would Mary have for abandoning us?

Let us begin with the end. Mary Poppins (1964) was the first unhappy ending to crawl across my screen and slap me with the cold, cruel hand of disappointment. Mary arrives gracefully dancing on the wind like she owns it and breathes both life and magic into the Banks household. Successively Mr. Banks becomes a devoted father and husband; his children, with the help of Mary and Bert, come to have a new understanding of their father’s demons; and Mrs. Banks . . . well . . . no major changes for Sister Suffragette, but her daughter’s daughters will adore her. Happiness could not possibly reach greater heights for the Banks clan in the film’s finale, while, only a few blocks away, Mary prepares to open her umbrella and fly over the kites of familial love that decorate the London skies. To rational adults and perhaps the more mature younger viewers, this ending is indeed a happy one, as a family is united, a father’s cold heart is melted, and otherwise ignored children are flooded with the love of now attentive parents. As an inarticulate six-year-old, all I could think is, “Happy shmappy.”

My blue umbrella had a handle that somewhat resembled a cat (or was a squirrel?), and in no way did that shade of 80s blue couple with the purple plastic beach bag in which I placed a scarf, a hand mirror, and Mom’s black pumps with the little bows. I would not have the guts to wear red until I was out of college, so the scarf was a blue that absolutely conflicted with the umbrella, but no matter – I knew what my $1.99 drag queen outfit represented, and with no competition surrounding me, not only was I secure and confident in my Poppins accouterments, I also had no misgivings of Mary’s guaranteed approval, if only she could see me. However strong my devotion to wardrobe and attempt at mimicking the elegant accent of Ms. Julie Andrews, alas I could not change the course of events. A happy family, a mended kite, an outraged umbrella head – this extraordinarily powerful woman who donned the sass of a villain but the hat of a hero had changed the winds and left the Banks children forever. I’m sorry . . . she what?!? I should have dressed up as that umbrella head, since I agreed with his every word. If I had been more athletic, I just may have thrown my cat umbrella handle (good gravy, or was it a squirrel?) at the television. Choosing their parents over the woman who took their hands and jumped into chalk drawings? The woman who led and won a carousel horse race? The woman who chaperoned tea parties on the ceiling and a chimney-sweep dance party on the roofs on London? That’s gratitude for you, but that’s as it should be – those magical people who float into our lives and change us for the better may one day catch the next wind that takes them 1,500 miles away. But if we’re lucky, the very thought of them makes us smile and laugh at inappropriate moments, slaying the grumbly old man inside us.

Only minutes ago, as I watched Michael yell “Now!” while Mr. Banks tossed the mended kite into the sky, I felt the flower in my lapel perk up slightly, perhaps absorbing a tear or two. I can’t say for sure, but it feels like the winds are changing.

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Academy Awards for Mary Poppins (1965): Best Actress in a Leading Role, Best Original Song (“Chim Chim Cher-ee”), Best Original Score, Best Film Editing, Best Special Visual Effects

Add Mary Poppins to your queue.

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Life has been brimming with theatre. Both March and April have chaperoned me to plays, films, live concerts, the beautiful pipe organ of the Castro Theatre, and that man on the street attempting to cover “You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feeling.” One lesson that I carry with me from a high school drama history course is that when one has nothing else to cheer, one applauds the performers’ courage to walk out on to the stage. My sister and I attended a local production of Evita, a soundtrack and film that we hold near and dear to our hearts. The matinée performance was perfectly fine, but regrettably Evita is cursed, and my ear expects those glorious songs to be performed in a certain way by a certain woman. That stubborn ear of mine triumphed over the logical “give it a try” attempts of my mind, and following the lament, courage was politely applauded . . . goodnight and thank you.

An equal, if not greater, challenge would be straining to hear another woman sing “Cabaret” or “Maybe This Time.” If my friends are unfamiliar with the film Cabaret (1972), fortunately they are familiar with the name “Alan Cumming.” When I sing the praises of Mr. Joel Grey and his Oscar-winning, Godfather-besting performance as the Emcee in Bob Fosse’s Cabaret, my body would shut down if I entertained the thought of another man playing that role with such wizardry. And then I think of Alan Cumming – the man whom I would consider stalking if stalking was a tad less creepy and a tad more legal. Cumming has returned to the Kit Kat Klub for a new run of Cabaret, and a few nights ago, I think I convinced a chum of mine to join me on a “Life is a Cabaret” trip to New York City. But again I was thinking, “Who else could possibly play the role of the Emcee? No one could top Joel Grey, not with all the rehearsal time in the world. Oh . . . wait . . . yes, Alan Cumming could do it. Alan Cumming, and maybe Tracey Ullman.”

But Sally Bowles? How could the universe possibly allow room for another Sally Bowles?

On the 28th of March, Fortune decided to smile upon the Bay and brought back the 68-year-old Liza Minnelli to San Francisco. Taking my cue from Fortune, I hopped online and put a dear friend and me in Liza’s second row. I was going to make eye contact with that woman if it killed me. Immediately I prepared the syllabus for my prosperous friend’s Minnelli education, and by sundown a mixed CD was in her hot little hands. Hours before the concert, it warmed my heart when she told me at dinner, “I hope she sings ‘Ring Them Bells’ tonight.” She did. Devoted to her audience, Liza managed to get not one, but two standing ovations after performing “Cabaret” sitting in a chair. No, she was not running around, reaching a bedazzled hand for the skies; Liza was parked comfortably in an extra wide directors chair that she dragged all over the stage. When she finished the hallowed song, predictably the San Francisco audience erupted into applause, many of us unaware that our initial clapping had catapulted us to our feet. When we calmed down to take our seats and our breath, Liza turned to her soul mate of a piano player and asked if she could try that last note again – she knew she could get closer to the bull’s-eye of “Cabaret,” and hit it she did. We were back on our feet and had a divinely decadent evening in that second row of Davies Symphony Hall.

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For years I’ve been trying to get on the San Francisco Symphony’s payroll. Ever since I was first enchanted by their performance of The Wizard of Oz, I have returned for Casablanca, Psycho, and Singin’ in the Rain. Somehow they managed to work The Matrix into their rotation, I imagine in an attempt to attract the younger audiences. They don’t seem to have a problem selling out, but if only the Symphony would give me a phone, a desk, and a laptop (okay, I don’t really need the desk), I guarantee that I can get those young kids in there for the classic films. It is my mission in life to keep these films alive, so, dear Symphony; I insist that you help me help you help me with said mission. Why, it was only last weekend when I helped you fill four seats, two of which were from out of town.

My last three birthdays have been spent somewhere in the Pacific Northwest. My 33rd was celebrated in Seattle with another old friend from college who could whip my derrière in a game of movie trivia. When I gushed over the San Francisco Symphony’s past performances of film scores, she insisted that I let her know when the next performance schedule was posted. In the moment I figured it was one of those times when people say, “Yes, let’s do it!” just to humor me and perhaps soothe my overenthusiasm. A few years ago I underestimated a buddy of mine when discussions led to our taking a road trip to Dollywood, and I underestimated my friend in Seattle just the same. When I discovered that the Symphony was planning to perform Charlie Chaplin’s classic, City Lights (1931), the website link was on its way to an Inbox in Seattle. A couple of months later, a plane carrying my friend and her mother was on its way to San Francisco . . . for underestimating you, dear friend, I apologize.

Each and every experience at the San Francisco Symphony has been nothing short of radiant, but on this windy April night, it was a silent film that left us absolutely speechless. Every February Academy Award winners inundate my Netflix queue, and after the seats for City Lights were safely secured, I rented Wings (1927), the first film ever to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. Although a tad lengthy, this historic feature was a new and enjoyable experience for me, as my silent film exposure is pretty limited to the world of Norma Desmond, roaming around her mansion on Sunset Boulevard. It is the music that pilots these films, pulling the strings of the actors’ every movement. When it comes to the magic of City Lights, however, we know there’s only one person back there pulling the strings of the strings.

We join the musicians in saluting Charlie Chaplin – actor, writer, director, composer, genius, control freak. And once again we solute the musicians of the San Francisco Symphony, whom we applaud for much more than their courage to walk out on to the stage.

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Add City Lights to your queue.

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There’s a dainty little café in the Hayes Valley neighborhood of San Francisco where often I make an attempt at writing. It took me about three visits to discover they had an outdoor patio in the back, and that small courtyard has become one of my favorite spots in the city. Usually it’s pretty packed out there, and I’m lucky just to find a seat, let alone an entire table for myself. The only one there with a journal, a pen, and my one Apple device resting cozily and silently in my bag, I’m able to concentrate in that outdoor space and form full thoughts on occasion without much distraction.

One day during a large music festival that I passed on this year, I was over the moon to find the back patio completely deserted. Like a bachelor on a game show, I had a lineup of fine-lookin’ tables, but the burden of choice receives no pity. Minutes after I sat down and dove into sketching an outline for my next ode to old movies, a woman approached me and asked if I was in the middle of anything important. I thought, “Well, I’m writing about Florenz Ziegfield with an actual pen in an actual journal, so, my dear madam, would you kindly name something that you would classify as ‘more important’ than that?” But I decided to hold back on the sass, since the woman had a genuinely kind smile and didn’t look like she was after my wallet (she’d only walk away with three bucks and my blog business cards, but hey, maybe the Hayes Valley pickpockets have some connections!). I answered with a courteous smile, “No, I’m just doing some scribbling.”

I’ve mastered the “stranger in a café” banter by now, so I assumed the woman was going to ask me to watch her bags while she used the little girls’ room or grabbed some coffee. Maybe those of us who write in journals radiate a similar we-won’t-steal-your-wallet-or-laptop vibe. But no, as soon as I assured her I was far from reaching an important stage of writing, the woman sighed happily and said, “Oh good; I just need to test something quickly.” She opened a small case and pulled out a few shiny objects that within seconds banded together to become a flute. A few notes turned into a giddy little tune, and for two minutes she had an audience of one, while I had my own private outdoor concert.

When she finished, I asked her if she played for the San Francisco Symphony, as it was only a few blocks away from the café. “Oh gosh, no,” the woman replied. “I play in that park up the street. The kids and the dogs love it.” She said she used to dream of playing professionally, but apparently a house of kids and a day-job that has completely consumed her life never allowed her the time. Before I could gather the words to give her the pep talk that everyone has been giving me in the last few weeks, the woman packed up and thanked me for allowing her to interrupt my day. A brief moment permitted me to tell her it was a lovely non-interruption, and we said our goodbyes.

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Overall my taste in the arts tends to mimic that of a 70-year-old Jewish woman, so we’re all safe in assuming that I’m unfamiliar with current music. Any discussion about music that involves me and a close friend is prone to have “oh, do you know who that is?” as its second or third sentence. Lest I be accused of not knowing the words to any song released after 1989, I present as Exhibit A my love for the British duo known as Goldfrapp. Accompanied by musician Will Gregory, Alison Goldfrapp has a soothing voice that I’ve enjoyed over the years, and I’ve been fortunate to see her perform live three times. Yet she has never performed what’s been my cream-of-the-crop song from the 2008 album Seventh Tree, a song that I have had on constant repeat for the last few days. Goldfrapp has told me repeatedly to dream, dream, because it’s not too late. I should take my time and see the signs on the road to somewhere. The song “Road to Somewhere” is a beautiful song with a beautiful title, but after 20 or 30 plays, still I can’t seem to listen.

A few days ago, another fine company turned me down for a job . . . a job that had an online listing lifted directly from the pages of my résumé. If you choose to believe such things, the universe is undoubtedly guilty of sending us mixed messages. I’ve come closer than spitting distance (um, ewww?) to new jobs, but as the rejections begin to pile up, my friends and a few strangers, bless their hearts, have all begun telling me the same thing: “You’re doing everything right.” I’ve heard this sentence at least four times in the last month, because they all know how much I hope to learn and evolve and challenge myself in a new work environment. With potential employers, I’ve made it from emails to phone calls to second phone calls to in-person interviews to second in-person interviews, but the time for change is not right yet.

We’re a generation stuck at a dirty truck stop alongside the road, somewhere near the three cities of “Yes,” “No,” and “Get Your Hopes Up.” But hey, at least the car stereo still works and there’s a pretty great album in the armrest. This week’s lesson: when life throws lemons directly at your head and you can’t find a juicer, try to find a cheerful flautist – she may know a few bars of Goldfrapp.

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A few weeks ago Dad and I went to see the San Francisco Symphony perform the score of The Matrix (1999). A rattling experience quite different from the soothing soundtrack of Casablanca (1942) or the cheery tones of The Wizard of Oz (1939), we reached a point of exhaustion that I imagine could be topped only by the musicians themselves. At one point early in the film, one character asks another if he believes in fate. “No,” the second man answers. “I don’t like the idea that I’m not in control of my life.” Coincidence, fate, destiny, a cosmic sense of humor – all convenient concepts appropriate for when life is extremely fantastic or painful and gruesome. Setting aside my feelings about the actor and his range, I must give some credit to the character he’s trying to play, for I never could answer such a question. Belief in fate may force me into a terrifying surrender of control, or it could push me into a relieving surrender of responsibility.

If everything in life is a choice, then I choose to surrender nothing, unless I’m told to by black smoke written in the blue sky.

Early one morning I was walking to my car when I saw $40.00 on the sidewalk. There was no one I could designate as the poor soul who dropped it, so I put the money in my pocket, said the words “thank you” out loud to no one in particular, and kept walking to my car. After a few giddy steps, I was filled with absolute certainty that something had happened to that Honda of mine. I felt as sure as a legitimate psychic must feel when the Energies of Prediction surge through her veins – the message was clear, because it arrived not in words but in knowledge. Perhaps the window had been smashed again; maybe the car had been stolen and taken on a joyride to the East Bay; it’s possible the neighborhood artists who work only in the evening decided to give it a new paint job with their spray cans. My crystal ball was telling me that although those 40 bucks had been destined for my wallet, the exhilaration they brought was to last for seconds, not minutes. I turned the corner, and there was the car, parked right where I had left it with its windows intact and the silver paint its usual silver. Absolutely nothing was wrong, I had no future career as a psychic, and thank god that wasn’t my side mirror lying there on the pavement . . . oh . . . ehhh, crap. Well, so much for that Barbara Stanwyck boxed set.

The night before the universe decided to do its here-smell-this-flower-before-I-squirt-you-in-the-eye thing, I watched Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train (1951) for the first time. If I had to take a stab at it, I would imagine it’s the eerie performance of Robert Walker that causes many to single out Strangers on a Train as their favorite Hitchcock film. Already familiar with a plot adapted from the novel by Patricia Highsmith, my popcorn and I were ready to follow a tale of two men who meet on a train and discuss the possibility of swapping murders. Having no past or future ties to one another, the two travelers would go through the rest of their lives legitimately as strangers, and it would be impossible for authorities to track down either man. Hitchcock would never forgive those who revealed any details, but we’re all willing to bet, say, $40.00, that eventually something is going to derail this plan.

When Strangers on a Train gets a little spicy and I move into the unconscious oral-manicure phase of watching a Hitchcock film, I wonder if our old friends Fate and Destiny decided to show up for work that day. Were these two men destined to meet one another on that train and fated to have these horrific, terrific, and life-altering experiences? Or maybe Fate and Destiny both called in sick that day, and everything unraveled when Coincidence had to cover for both of them. The Hitchcockian universe never promises a happy ending, but isn’t an ending happy only when we don’t know what Fate has in store for us? They all lived happily ever after, until five minutes later when they opened the truck found a dead body rotting inside.

I guess 40 bucks doesn’t go as far as it used to . . .

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Add Strangers on a Train to your queue.


“One Saturday morning in 1942, Mother and Rosalie took me to the Capitol Theatre to see a movie called Casablanca. We all loved it, and Rosalie was mad about Humphrey Bogart. I thought he was good in it, but mad about him? Not at all. She thought he was sexy. I thought she was crazy . . . Bogart didn’t vaguely resemble Leslie Howard. Not in any way. So much for my judgment at that time.” — Lauren Bacall, By Myself and Then Some

Who better to introduce Casablanca than Lauren Bacall? Luckily for Bogie, she decided to marry him three years later, and all he had to do was whistle . . .

I thought that eventually writing about the monumental classics would no longer intimidate me or my pen, but I admit there are still some from which I shy away. The pedestal on which so many of these are placed is bulldozing enough, but finding something new to say that hasn’t been said is equally paralyzing. If you’re on the hunt, you’ll find hundreds of books that will summarize, analyze, babble, and gabble about Casablanca and its history. . . I’m tempted myself, but I found that regurgitating this background information (however fascinating) was a bit too easy, not to mention overdone. When I finally approached this member of classic royalty, it was the re-experience itself that was on the tempting edge of indescribable.

Experiencing a movie at the San Francisco Symphony has been one of my favorite annual events in the Bay Area. These talented musicians provide the score for a well-known film as it plays on a large screen above them, and each time I find myself enjoying a film more than I already did. Failure to recall anything I was supposed to learn in Music Appreciation 101 has limited my knowledge a bit, but when I’m happily forced to pay attention to the music of a film, a new form of appreciation emerges. It’s amazing how much I learn about something when I’m not being tested on it! The first time I fell in love with this unique combination of film and music was when they performed the blustery score of The Wizard of Oz, a production I assumed would remain unbeatable. A year later, however, the symphony checked itself into the Bates Motel and Bernard Herrmann’s piercingly musical showers. Hitchcock’s Psycho at the San Francisco Symphony was more-than-qualified competition for the sounds of Oz‘s cyclone and wicked skywriting.


The Warner Bros. logo and theme music has welcomed me into a number of Bogie’s films, but I jest you not . . . when the San Francisco Symphony played it right in front of my eyes and ears, I could have left then and there with plenty to brag about the next day. But no one walks out on Bogie or Bergman! I had to see if they were going to add a piano for this performance and stand in for Sam, the café’s nightly entertainer. Fedoras off to the symphony for stepping back and instead allowing Ingrid Bergman to conduct Sam’s original piano playing to her liking. Understandably three-time Oscar winner Max Steiner created a score for Casablanca that is more subtle than, say, a savage cyclone or a shower slaughter. Despite how upset I get when the beautiful Ingrid Bergman emerges from the car in her “she’s-getting-on-the-plane” hat, Casablanca at the symphony was a wonderful and relaxing experience . . . well, for the most part.

Woody Allen’s character in Annie Hall (1977) doesn’t know how lucky he is to just stand in line near a jabbering nincompoop — at least when he goes into the theatre he can sit as far from that guy as possible. Unfortunately I found myself next to one of those guys with an elbow-patched jacket who just walked out of Art Garfunkel’s hair salon. My dear sir, you don’t need to say the line along with the characters . . . you can think the lines as loudly as you’d like, but out of respect for Bogie, Bergman, and those sitting around you, kindly set up a roadblock somewhere between your mind and your mouth. Let’s commit it to memory and get it right, shall we? “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world . . . she walks into mine.” It’s not a line that one should blunder, mister!

Luckily Mom switched seats with me at intermission and shushed Mr. Elbow Patch not once but twice. A few seconds before Rick and Louis affirmed the beginning of their beautiful friendship, Mom gave this gabby guy her “don’t-even-think-about-it” look that hushed him right up. Delivering the line along with Humphrey Bogart is bad enough, sir, since you’ve now run the risk of your date comparing you to Bogie — I can guarantee she’ll ditch you immediately, and your night won’t amount to a hill of beans! The only form of audience participation I found acceptable was when two folks stood up during the singing of “La Marseillaise.” Since they were in the balcony and therefore not blocking anyone’s view, I’ll refrain from sending Mom over.

One paragraph or one thousand, I’ve yet to find a piece of writing that does justice to this untouchable film. Small screen or silver screen, surround sound or symphony, all I can say is play it . . . play Casablanca.

Academy Awards for Casablanca (1944): Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Writing (Screenplay)

Add it to your queue.

Spoiler Alert — If you’ve never seen Psycho, I must insist, out of respect for Mr. Hitchcock, Mr. Perkins, and Miss Leigh, that you read to the end of this paragraph and then call it a day. About two months ago, I began to think about how best to tackle such a masterpiece as Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. This was primarily because I had invited my family to come visit the Bay Area, as the San Francisco Symphony was going to perform Bernard Herrmann’s score for the film. We had gone to see the San Francisco Symphony do The Wizard of Oz (1939) about a year ago, and it is a truly remarkable experience. The musicians sit below a large movie screen that shows an entire movie with its dialogue only. The symphony provides the film’s full score, and trust me, when performed live, the Wicked Witch of the West’s theme music provided me with some wonderfully familiar smiles. So when I discovered that the beloved San Francisco Symphony was planning to do Psycho, I knew I had to get the family up here. As with The Wizard of Oz, I assumed the audience was pretty familiar with Norman Bates, his mother, and their motel showers; perhaps all moviegoers can’t recite the film from memory like a certain crazy film blogger, but I really believed that the majority of the audience knew in which direction certain scenes were headed. And if not, they at least knew how the film came to its wonderful close . . . I was wrong. The startled reactions that consisted of gasping, screaming, and even a kick or two were, in turn, what startled me — it never even entered my mind that Psycho’s storyline would surprise anyone these days. A part of me was a wee bit jealous of those who were experiencing (or re-experiencing) it for the first time. When it was first released in 1960, Mr. Hitchcock demanded that movie theatres refuse admission to those who showed up after the film had begun — oh, how I wished I could do the same when I worked at Beach Blanket Babylon in San Francisco. So again I beg you on behalf of all those who helped make it the masterpiece that it is, stop reading for now, pop yourself some corn, and treat yourself to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho from the very beginning . . . I’ll still be here.

If you’ve moved beyond my spoiler alert (there’s still time!), I’m guessing I don’t need to supply much of a plot summary — Marion Crane steals $40,000, hits the road, and stops at the Bates Motel for some rest, a meal, and perhaps the world of indoor plumbing’s most celebrated shower. Marion’s sister, boyfriend, and a private detective attempt to track her down and stumble into the Freudian world of Norman Bates and his mother. Originally stemming from a book by Robert Bloch, the idea to move from page to screen came about via Mr. Hitchcock’s weekly readings with his secretary of the New York Times Book Review. Joseph Stefano — who later battled the censor’s office over the film’s use of the word “transvestite,” not to mention the appearance of the first flushing toilet in film history — wrote a script that focused much more on the character of Marion (“Mary” in the book) than on Norman. When Mr. Hitchcock told Stefano that Alma read part of the script liked it, Stefano must have known it was going to be a success — from what I’ve learned, it was Alma Hitchcock who gave the last word on almost everything her husband brought to the screen.

After reading the story’s new treatment, Mr. Hitchcock felt certain that he could get a star to play Marion; he knew that since the poor girl is killed off about 45 minutes into the film, this would definitely throw even the sharpest audience off its game. According to her book, Miss Janet Leigh was the first actress to receive a copy of Robert Bloch’s book along with a definite offer from Mr. Hitchcock. Mr. Bloch’s original Norman Bates in an overweight, balding alcoholic, a character for whom the filmmakers did not believe audiences would feel sympathy. A few tweaks here and there allowed for the slim, young, and boyishly handsome Mr. Anthony Perkins to step into the role that, for better or worse, came to define his career.

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My first memory of Psycho is actually by way of another childhood classic . . . that is, a classic according to my family. My parents had taped the movie Meatballs (1979) off of TV at some point, and it became another regular in our loop of “Over and Overs.” Like The Wizard of Oz and our beloved Soap, the VHS of Meatballs had some wonderful commercials from the late 70s and early 80s. Naturally my favorite was the “Where’s the beef?” Wendy’s lady (whose husky voice convinced me that she was actually a man — my first drag queen, perhaps?). Two of those commercials stand out as some of my most terrifying childhood moments, along with Bette Davis as Baby Jane and Carol Burnett as Miss Hannigan. The first commercial was for a late showing of The Birds (1963), and I can still remember a scene with a group of children running from Mr. Hitchcock’s winged killers. The other commercial, in what must have been part of a delicious marathon, was for Psycho and showed Miss Janet Leigh screaming as her shower curtain was flung open. All that combined with the deep, dark voice of the station announcer (unless it was really the “Where’s the beef?” lady) was enough for me to put Psycho on the back burner for years. Thankfully I grew old enough to reach that silly burner and move Psycho to its deserving spot up front.

Evidently there are only two required elements that make up a truly terrifying moment on-screen — water and music. Steven Spielberg’s malfunctioning shark would not have kept me out of a pool’s deep end without John Williams’ brilliant score for Jaws (1975). The vulnerable freedom that water provides, be it in the ocean or in the shower, is truly terrifying even in the absence of sound. But when those music notes sliced through the shower curtain or burst up from below the ocean’s surface, I imagine movie theatre owners across the globe discovered how best to remove urine stains from their cushioned seats. The seven days that Miss Janet Leigh spent shooting in that shower certainly paid off. The 70-odd takes were pieced together with Mr. Herrmann’s score in a beautiful marriage of music of murder, and 15 years before John Williams and that shark dragged their first victim below the surface, Alfred Hitchcock and Bernard Herrmann showed us what it really meant to be afraid of the water. When Mr. Hitchcock finally found the perfect stunt double for Miss Leigh, it turned out to be a melon. Apparently he was hunting for something that would provide the perfect sound for when the poor dear is fatally stabbed. When the blue-prize melon was chosen, what else could it bleed but chocolate syrup, and that’s what we see running down the shower drain. Why Hollywood later chose to remake this movie in color, I’ll never understand.

Stories have always floated around about how Janet Leigh rarely (or never) took showers after filming Psycho. If there was no other way to bathe, Miss Leigh would make sure the doors and windows of whatever building she was in were locked, the bathroom door remained open, as did the shower door (or curtain, heaven forbid,) so she could have a clear view of the bathroom. Once in the shower, she would always face the bathroom door, despite the location of the shower head. I imagine the floods that must have built up on the floor were a greater hazard than any other physical danger, but we all have our meshugas. However accurate these tales of Miss Leigh’s bathing habits are (a part of me is slightly suspicious), she claimed that they set in after she saw the completed film, not during production.

Watching Marion come to the end of the road during her soul-cleansing shower leads me easily into a brief examination of movie violence. When film blood and guts are shoved in my face, my imagination is held back from creating a frightening image of its own — and those are the images that keep me up at night. Film violence that’s a bit more withheld stays with me and creeps into my head much more than when it’s handed to me on a bloody (s)platter. In reference to both the violence and sexuality of Psycho, Miss Leigh said that Mr. Hitchcock “allowed the audience to create what they thought they saw,” and using this explanation was a perfect tool for arguing with the fools in the censor’s office. I love to imagine him saying something like “you didn’t see a breast; you only thought you did.” We never actually see the Bates kitchen knife make contact with Marion’s body; the camera cuts (ha-ha) are so fast that for me, it’s actually the music and the melon that bring the murder scene to life. The music that lines up so perfectly with the cuts of the camera proves to me every time I watch it that the graphic violence isn’t always necessary — all I need for good old-fashioned movie fright is some violent music and the sound of the right fruit.

When the audience at the San Francisco Symphony saw “Phoenix, Arizona” flash across Psycho’s opening scene, the hissing darted from row to row, immediately followed by laughter. Arizona has recently left a bad taste in our mouths due to silly immigration laws, and yet after the hissing, we smiled over the one thought we all shared: “Oh San Francisco. . . !” Our evening at the symphony allowed me an opportunity for another one of my favorite thoughts — “I forgot how good this movie is!” Triggered by Bernard Herrmann’s score (which consists only of strings), my heart gets goose bumps — you know those times when you’re sitting still, and then suddenly it feels like you’re on a roller coaster that just took a sudden dip? That’s what I call a goose-bumped heart, and there it was again, only two chords into the film’s opening credits. It reminded me of the only scientific thing I can remember from college; a word I always loved but could never get off my tongue’s runway is “synesthesia,” (when normally separate senses are not separate but instead cross-wired — sight may mingle with sound, for example). If I controlled the dictionary, the more fitting definition would be “Bernard Herrmann’s score for Psycho,” music that I can’t help but feel when I hear it. Mr. Herrmann more than deserved an Oscar for his score, but apparently he was too good for even a nomination, goose-bumped hearts be damned!

Like so many before me, I could go on and on dissecting the shower scene, but really I don’t know enough about the technical side of film production to be of much use. I’m sure I can dig up a few books of quality for your reading pleasure. But I must move to the other side of the shower curtain and pay respects to dear Mrs. Bates and her son. Another performance that was just too good to even receive an Oscar nomination was that of Mr. Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates. Everything from his little-boy body language and stutter to his graceful facial expressions give Norman Bates the frightening charm that forever associated Mr. Perkins with Hitchcock, showers, and movie murders. As wonderfully creepy as he is, I think Mr. Perkins adds so much to the fright of the film with the realistic bits of humor that are thrown in by the Bates family.

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In this, one of history’s greatest suspense films, are some lines that do nothing but crack me up. When Marion first arrives at the Bates Motel and overhears Norman arguing with mother, Mrs. Bates informs her son, “I refuse speak of disgusting things, because they disgust me!” Since Mr. Hitchcock did not want audiences putting the pieces together too early, Anthony Perkins did not supply Mrs. Bates with her voice. Some reports explain that it was a combination of actors and actresses, and elsewhere I’ve heard it was only one woman. Because sometimes I laugh at uncomfortable situations, and other times I laugh when cranky old women are funny (especially when they’re really men), Psycho and its sprinkling of humor are not to be overlooked! When Norman goes to tell Mother she needs to hide in the cellar, Mrs. Bates screams at her son, “No! I will not hide in the fruit cellar. Ah-ha, y’think I’m fruity, huh? I’m staying right here!” Because he forces us to imagine what this conversation looks like, as we only hear it taking place, again I believe the power of Psycho lies in what Hitchcock decided to withhold from us, be it violence, humor, sexuality, or psychotic behavior.

So after all that, why should you watch it again? The more I write, the more I come to realize that “just because it’s a classic” is not an acceptable reason for me — that reason led me towards a number of films that I found less than enjoyable. Psycho, however, is one of those wines that only gets better with age (or do all wines do that?). It still makes me want to shout “For the love of God, don’t get in that shower,” or “Whatever you do, don’t go up to that house!” I must extend enormous thanks to the San Francisco Symphony for reminding me of Psycho’s ability to decorate my heart with goose bumps after all these years. From the overall beauty of a black-and-white film and its chocolate syrup blood to Mr. Hitchcock’s masterful skills that force me to shift sympathy from a victim to her murderer in a matter of seconds; from violence that, by modern standards, is only hinted at but sparks my imagination to no end, to the mesmerizing performances of Mr. Anthony Perkins and Miss Janet Leigh — these are just a few of the countless reasons why I recommend Psycho to you all. I hope you do watch. You’ll see . . . you’ll see, and you’ll know, and you’ll say “Why she wouldn’t even harm a fly . . .”

Add it to your queue.