Hearing Brando

Marlon BrandoSurprisingly overlooked in the feature documentary category at this year’s Academy Awards is an unforgettable depiction of the man considered the greatest American actor of the 20th Century — as told in his own words, and culled from private audiotape recordings that served as a therapeutic escape for one of the most complex and fascinating personalities to ever appear on a movie screen.

Listen to Me Marlon (which David Edelstein of New York magazine has called “the greatest, most searching documentary of an actor ever put on film”), is directed and edited by Stevan Riley in mesmeric fashion, complementing the jarringly personal narrative of Brando’s often stream-of-consciousness thoughts with rarely-seen video footage perfectly in sync with each moment.

The film begins amid scattered scenes of the lonely refuge that was the actor’s Los Angeles home, and Brando’s voice describing himself as a “troubled man, alone, beset with memories, in a state of confusion, sadness, isolation, disorder…” Brando, who died in 2004, was speaking in the years after his son, Christian, was convicted and sent to prison for manslaughter in the death of his half-sister’s lover. (Cheyenne, Brando’s second child, herself committed suicide just a few years later.) Facing the press after the Christian incident, a shaken Brando sadly commented, “Misery has come to this house…”

The emotional turmoil that tore him apart in his later years was epilogue to the psychological trauma suffered throughout his youth at the hands of a physically abusive father and an alcoholic mother. In tapes that he labeled “self-hypnosis,” he drifts back to his early childhood in Omaha, Nebraska, attempting to recapture “the state of peace of the boy you remember, watching the elm leaves coming down…” The reality was far harsher. “When what you are as a child is unwanted…you look for an identity that will be acceptable.”

Marlon ShowtimeThat identity found its form in acting, and was largely shaped by the legendary teacher Stella Adler, whom Brando hooked up with at the Actors Studio after arriving in New York in the ‘40s (“with holes in my pocket, holes in my mind”). Adler’s espousal of what was known as “method” acting, based on the theories of Constantin Stanislavski, was a perfect fit for the young thespian’s talents. After beginning work with Brando, Adler presciently told him, “The world is going to hear from you.”

Which of course it did, and quite loudly, but even worldwide fame and acclaim don’t always win you accolades from those whom you want them most.

In one of the most striking scenes in the documentary, the newly lauded actor (at the time, he was the youngest to ever have won the Oscar for Best Actor, for On the Waterfront in 1954, a record he held until 1978) is shown in a television interview with his father, who’s asked, “I can imagine you’re just a bit proud of your son right now, aren’t you?” “Well,” answers the elder Brando, “as an actor not too proud, but as a man, why, quite proud.” The son’s reaction is priceless, a subtle mixture of ‘huh?’ and WTH that justifies a description of his old man as someone with “not much love in him.” (When Christian was born, Brando swore he would never let him near his child.)

It’s not all about unhappiness. Listen to Me Marlon (which can be seen on Showtime) features remarkable footage of a joyous and unfettered Brando at his most liberated, in the place that he loved best: Tahiti. On the 12-island atoll, Tetiaroa, which he bought in the ‘60s, he was free to be himself and revel in the people whom he said “just took love for granted.” “It was everything I longed for,” he recalled. If he ever felt “closer to a sense of peace, it would be there.”

In the end, after the countless words and analyses that have pondered what lay at the heart of Brando’s genius, it’s also refreshing to learn that the artist himself did not see it as all that complicated. “Acting is just making stuff up. But that’s OK.”

We hear you, Marlon.

Rebel Rebel

[A repost of a piece I wrote about David Bowie in 2014. A visionary musical hero and artist who never ceased evolving, a singular and revolutionary influence whose talent impacted so many aspects of the creative arts — what a void he leaves. Good night, Sweet Duke.]

david bowieI don’t know where I’m going from here, but I promise it won’t be boring.
— David Bowie on his 50th birthday, 1997

The amazing creative ride that’s been the half-century career of David Bowie, now celebrated in what promises to be the blockbuster David Bowie Is exhibition at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art, spectacularly proves – as if further proof were needed – how the cultural icon has always been remarkably true to that promise.

Bowie’s assorted artistic personas, from The Thin White Duke to Ziggy Stardust (outrageously androgynous at a time when the concept was still considered exotic) defined reinvention in a time before Madonna. But what really put him in a league of his own, beyond his ever-nonconformist individuality, was his extraordinary impact on so many fields beyond music – fashion, film, and the graphic arts among them.

Just because, I’ll throw in some fun facts I was unaware of (or didn’t remember) about Bowie that I ran across as I read about the exhibit. He changed his real name, David Jones, in 1965, to distinguish himself from Davy Jones, later of the wildly popular group, The Monkees. (“Bowie” came from the knife of the same name.) “Space Oddity” was actually timed to coincide with the 1969 landing on the moon. (Written, incidentally, when he was only 22.) And he also played The Elephant Man on Broadway in 1980, to much critical praise.

Beyond the trivia, and back to the music, I thought about my own favorite Bowie album, Station to Station, and particularly, its two alliteratively titled arias, “Word on a Wing” and “Wild is the Wind” (the latter originally recorded by the crooner Johnny Mathis in 1957). In truth, relistening to the album in 2014 shows how far ahead of the pack Bowie was in 1976, at a time immediately prior to those lost years of pop music known as disco.

Possibly only Bowie could take the melodramatic lyrics of “Word on a Wing” (“Lord, Lord, my prayer flies like a word on a wing”) and send them soaring into art-rock territory. But he goes into full chanteuse mode with the intentionally over-the-top cover of “Wild is the Wind,” his vocal making you forget the mawkishness of such sentiments as “You touch me, I hear the sound of mandolins.” It is strangely unforgettable.

Though perhaps not the most famous tracks on Station, which also includes the chart-topping “Golden Years” and the classic “Stay,” the ballads are emblematic for me of Bowie’s chameleon-like talents – and reminders of what a versatile singer he truly was.

In another lyric from “Word on a Wing,” Bowie wrote: “I’m ready to shape the scheme of things.”

Which pretty much sums up his incredible career.

[David Bowie Is runs through January 4.]

Shifting Focus

new year's day new yorkNew Year’s Day #4580

(New York City, 2002)

Photograph by Bill Jacobson

Carly Close Up

boys-in-the-trees-cover
“Boys in the Trees: A Memoir”

FANS OF CARLY SIMON are probably over the moon that the quintessential ‘70s singer/songwriter has finally gotten around to penning her long-awaited autobiography, about a third of which lays bare her marriage to another rock legend, James Taylor, in vivid detail. Along the way in this intensely self-searching, if sometimes overwrought, memoir are plenty of scintillating tidbits about other celebrated male figures who intersected with her life — Mick Jagger, Warren Beatty, Cat Stevens, and Sean Connery among them.

Read the full review at Blogcritics.org

On the Street with JR

JR street artHis “name” may be more associated with a famous soap-opera villain of long ago, but the mysterious street artist who goes by the initials JR has already become a legend in photography circles. I first ran across his work in a stunning mural he produced in conjunction with the New York City Ballet last year, and more recently many others were exposed to his imagination via the incredible piece, shown above, that appeared on the cover of the New York Times Magazine in April, for a theme issue titled “Walking New York.” A massive image of an Azerbaijan immigrant named Elmar, pasted on the Flatiron Plaza in New York City, and made up of 62 supersized strips of paper and more than 16o feet long, it was photographed from above by JR (talk about meta!) via a helicopter, so the awe-inspiring expanse of the project could be appreciated.

Barely out his twenties, and determinedly anonymous, JR has already been called “the Cartier-Bresson of the 21st Century”; the photographer himself calls the world of the street “the largest art gallery in the world,” and his work is now celebrated in a recently published retrospective which asks the question, JR: Can Art Change the World? Much as in the case of his visionary (and equally enigmatic) contemporary Banksy, the short answer is most definitely “yes.”

All in “Jest”

adams absolute jestThere’s a rather oversized hint of an elephant in the room in the fanciful cover art for the world premiere recording of Absolute Jest by John Adams. His name is Ludwig van Beethoven.

Recorded live at San Francisco’s Davies Symphony Hall in 2013, Absolute Jest, written in 2012, features the San Francisco Symphony led by Michael Tilson Thomas, along with the St. Lawrence String Quartet. The second piece, Grand Pianola Music, from 1982, was conducted by Adams himself earlier this year. Both are fascinating examples of a contemporary artist’s absorption of classical themes into a modern vernacular that is imaginative, witty – and original.

                                       Read the full review at Blogcritics.org

In the Still of the Now

tolle stillnessStillness is the only thing in this world that has no form.
But then, it is not really a thing, and it is not of this world.
— Eckhart Tolle

Those familiar with the writings of Eckhart Tolle have often referred to the transformative effect of his dual bestsellers, The Power of Now and A New Earth. Consider me a convert.

Having read more than my share of books devoted to the journey of self-discovery (often convoluted offerings that may inspire initially but whose impact soon dissipates once you’ve finished reading them), both Power of Now and New Earth are works you actually return to – over and over – as boosters to a philosophy that is both amazing in its simplicity, as well as its depth.

I recently learned of the Tolle books, first published in 1999 and 2005 respectively, thanks to my “Irish-twin” brother (we’re less than a year apart), not expecting the profound effect that they would have on my approach to life and insights into areas that previously defied answers. I realized there was something very different going on here, as I encountered paragraphs that would stop me in my tracks, demanding to be pondered, asking questions that I never realized lay just beneath the surface.

Tolle’s belief is that everything converges in the moment, in the Now, and that understanding this lies at the core of “consciousness,” and more specifically the “presence” that is necessary to free oneself of old hurts (what he calls the “pain-body”) as well as those obsessions about the future that keep us from realizing our truest potential. I’d venture to say Tolle’s discussions of the ever-hungry pain-body, which feeds on destructive emotion – anger, resentment, regret — are infinitely more perceptive than years of therapy.

Perhaps most transcendent are his thoughts on “stillness,” and the idea that the ineffable center that lies at the core of our being is actually at the very essence of the cosmos itself:

“And the greatest miracle is this: That stillness and vastness that enables the universe to be is not just out there in space – it is also within you. When you are utterly and totally present, you encounter it as the still inner space of no-mind.”

It is the pesky mind — with its intrusive thoughts and rigid form structures that make-up what Tolle terms our “egoic” selves — which requires constant vigilance if one is to forge a path towards the ultimate goal of inner nonresistance.

There’s an absolutely wonderful anecdote about how Tolle was once sitting in a park watching ducks on a lake when a fight broke out between two of the creatures (territorial encroachment or what not). When it was (quickly) over, they both vigorously flapped their wings, as if to shake off any remaining negative energy, then serenely glided off in separate directions as if nothing had happened.ducks

“If the duck had a human mind, it would keep the fight alive by thinking, by story-making,” Tolle writes. “This would probably be the duck’s story: ‘I don’t believe what he just did. He came to within five inches of me. He thinks he owns this pond. He has no consideration for my private space. I’ll never trust him again. Next time he’ll try something else just to annoy me. I’m sure he’s plotting something already…’ And on and on the mind spins its tales, still thinking and talking about it days, months, or years later.

“You can see how problematic the duck’s life would become if it had a human mind. But this is how most humans live all of the time. No situation or event is ever really finished. The mind and the mind-made ‘me and my story’ keep it going.”

It’s a powerful example taken from nature, which Tolle often alludes to as a guidepost to understanding the Now in action, and the quiet force of stillness in all its manifestations.

Time to heed those ducks.

Photo/top: Gladys Triana