Saturday, May 21, 2016

Healing and Metamorphosis

By Pamela Zoslov

On a cloudy December day, Shelly Gracon walks through the garden at the Cudell Recreation Center on Cleveland's Near West Side. She is searching for the Madonna sculpture that normally presides, hands prayerfully crossed, over a group of tiny stone children's heads. “Here she is,” Gracon says, relieved. She picks up the toppled Madonna and replaces it gently among the babies.

This is the Butterfly Garden, created in memory of Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old Cleveland boy who was fatally shot by police on November 22, 2014 while carrying a toy pellet gun. It is adjacent to the gazebo where Rice was killed, and was created by and for members of this West Side community to help them heal. “The garden is about creating something beautiful out of something tragic,” Gracon says.

The garden, which will be in full bloom this spring, is part of the Butterfly Project, a program that also included community workshops and a summer camp for children.

Gracon, 40, who is pursuing a master's degree at the Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences at Case Western Reserve University, was deeply affected by Rice's death. At the time, she was an intern with Ward 15 Councilman Matt Zone, whose ward includes Cudell. She recalls the day she heard the news. “My first thought was, Oh my god, a 12-year-old boy! I was in a state of shock. How could this happen?”

The next day, Gracon, who describes herself as “an activist at heart,” went to the gazebo. “I talked with some of the kids who knew Tamir,” she says. He was an artist, they told her. He loved to draw. He had a mischievous sense of humor. “He was so misunderstood by the media,” she says, “which was portraying him as a thug.

"It surprised me that there could be such a narrative, just because of the color of someone's skin.”

Gracon approached Councilman Zone about doing something to help the children handle their grief. At his suggestion, Gracon consulted with Tamir's teachers about creating a public art project and summer camp. With Zone's help, Gracon obtained a $5,000 grant from the city's casino-revenue fund.

Writing the grant proposal and getting approval was an arduous process, she says, but the camp, held at Cudell Fine Arts two days a week in July, was a success. Twelve children, including Tamir's sister, Tajai, participated. They learned yoga, meditation, drumming, and art. They formed tight friendships. They created the artwork displayed in the garden: concrete plaques embedded with buttons, beads and jewelry, and blue posts bearing painted handprints and epitaphs: “Young Black King Tamir,” “RIP,” “Love You.”

The garden was the project's final phase. In August, neighborhood residents and Tamir's classmates planted bulbs and installed the garden's decorative elements. The garden will be crowned by an installation by metal sculptor David Smith, a Buddhist prayer wheel adorned with tiles made by the children.

Shelly Gracon, at the Butterfly Garden she and Tamir Rice's friends and neighbors created in his memory.

The imagery of the butterfly, a symbol of metamorphosis, was Gracon's idea. “It's all about the transformation of trauma and grief,” she explains. The colors, predonimantly blue and white, were chosen by Tamir's mom, Samaria, who, with her family, was actively involved in creating the garden. “The garden was probably the most healing thing to the family,” Gracon says. “There's so much power in creating that sacred space in Tamir's memory.” Latonya Goldsby, Tamir's cousin, called the Project “the most beautiful demonstration of community love and healing I've ever experienced.”

On the first anniversary of Tamir's death, Gracon's teacher, Mandel assistant professor Mark Chupp, helped facilitate a “healing action” session including ritual silence, candle lighting and an opportunity for the Rice family to speak. Mandel students worked with small groups to help the family and community process their feelings and create a collage timeline of events that happened since Tamir's death. 

Nothing can erase the pain of losing a 12-year-old child, but Elisa Kazek, Tamir's art teacher — who recalls Tamir as a boy who was "always smiling" — said those who participated in the Butterfly Project found some healing. “They appreciated the volunteer effort and had a sense of community,” Kazek said, “from building the garden and going on the field trips. There's a sense of bringing the community together for something good."

Gracon's project took her beyond what she could learn from books and journal articles. It also sent her on a difficult emotional journey. “I'm very sensitive by nature, and I take on other people's emotions. There were days when I'd just cry. ” 

Being a single mom of an 8-year-old son informs her activism. “I've been through divorce and a lot of life changes, and I'm very focused” said Gracon, who enrolled at Mandel because she wanted a meaningful career. “I know what's at stake, and I don't want this world for my son.”

(Photographs by Pamela Zoslov)

Friday, August 7, 2015

Movie Review: Irrational Man

By Pamela Zoslov

In 2008, Woody Allen said that he isn't an intellectual. “I'm basically a low-culture person,” he said to a group of film critics, including me. "I'm not saying I'm an insensitive Neanderthal. But basically, I'm the guy who's watching the playoffs and drinking a Beck's. I'm not at the opera. I've gotten a lot of mileage out of people thinking I'm an intellectual." Here is what I wrote at the time:

If fans have mistaken a beer-drinking, Knicks-watchings shlub for an intellectual, it's understandable: Allen's movies are studded with references to Kafka, Freud and Tolstoy, and his filmography includes homages to Bergman and Fellini. But beneath it all, he insists, beats the heart of a comedy writer. During his nightclub days, audiences assumed, based on his bookish appearance, that he was an academic type, and the persona stuck. When he wrote jokes, he says, it seemed funny to drop names like "Kierkegaard." "I learned to utilize the intellectual patois," he says. "It's just a skill. People think of me seriously than I really am.” (Sadly, many people — myself firmly excluded — now have darker opinions of Woody Allen.)

Allen's new film, his 50th by the way, is Irrational Man. It gives voice to Allen's lifelong philosophical questing, while also laughing at itself for doing so. The screenplay doesn't merely drop the names of Kierkegaard and Kant and Heidegger and Nietzsche, it wrestles extensively with issues of ethics, existence, morality and meaning.

The seeker is Abe Lucas, a philosophy professor played by Joaquin Phoenix. Lucas joins the faculty of Braylin, a liberal-arts college in Rhode Island, and his reputation precedes him. Dark, moody and handsome, Abe is said to be haunted by a divorce, or the death of his friend in Iraq, who was beheaded or, alternately, stepped on a land mine. Abe drinks to excess and broods ceaselessly. Jill (Emma Stone), a gifted undergraduate, is particularly taken with the troubled professor, to the annoyance of her boyfriend, Roy (Jamie Blackley). Roy predicts, accurately, that Jill will fall in love with Abe.

Jill, however, has competition for Abe's affections. Rita (Parker Posey), an unhappily married science professor, determines to get Abe into her bed. Rita also wants to run away with Abe to Spain, a destination she considers “romantic.”

Blocked as a writer and as a lover, Abe is too tormented to perform sexually with Rita, who offers to “unblock” him. For a while, Abe even resists becoming more than friends with his smitten student, Jill. The college community witnesses the depth of Abe's gloom when Jill and Roy take him to a party, where he plays a one-man game of Russian Roulette, spinning the cylinder and pulling the trigger not once, but twice.

His behavior is alarming, but it's catnip to Jill. “He's so self-destructive, but so brilliant,” she muses. “There's something about his pain that's exciting. He's truly an original thinker.” Allen winks at the romantic naïvete of young women, but also makes Jill the smartest person in the film, the only one who sees what's going on.

At a diner one day, Abe and Jill overhear a conversation that inspires Abe to consider something radical: committing a murder. With echoes of Crime and Punishment, Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors and Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train, the plan to commit a seemingly motiveless murder rejuvenates Abe. Suddenly he has a zest for life and love and sex and hearty breakfasts. He even wins a prize for Jill at an amusement park (that setting also recalling Strangers on a Train). Like Dostoevsky's Raskolnikov, Abe feels like an extraordinary man, one whose act of killing will make the world a better place. He's thrilled to be making transition from “man of thought” to “man of action.” He stalks his prey, feeling fully alive while planning to take a life. What seemed like genius now looks like madness.

“Murder comedy” is something Allen does well, notably in the Marshall Brickman collaboration Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993). This latest dark comedy is a little thinner, and a bit abrupt in its ending, but it's beautifully made, as always with Allen, whose basic filmmaking craftsmanship is often taken for granted. The plot is brisk and absorbing, the casting is perfection, and the music — classic mid-'60s jazz by the Ramsey Lewis Trio — could not be more apt. 

Friday, March 20, 2015

"He Didn't Have No Weapon"

On Friday afternoon, March 20, people slowly trickled by the Parkwood Grocery store in Cleveland's Glenville neighborhood, where Brandon Jones, 18, was shot and killed by police early Thursday morning after a reported theft. Standing next to a makeshift utility-pole memorial, his aunt, Michelle, talked of the pain of losing her nephew, and the shock of learning of his death. "My family were all screaming and crying, saying, 'It's him!'"

"He was wrong," she says of the young man who was known by his middle name, David. "But they didn't have to kill him. He didn't have no weapon." Her children are missing their cousin. "How do I tell my kids? They keep asking, 'Where's Dave? Where's Dave?'"

(Photos and text by Pamela Zoslov)

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Movie Review: The Wrecking Crew

Coming of age in the '60s meant experiencing a lot of disillusionment. Cigarettes, it turned out, weren't good for you. Leaders weren't murdered by lone gunmen. Nobody attacked our ship in the Gulf of Tonkin. A president, despite his denials, was a crook. And, your favorite bands did not all live together in a house, and they didn't play on their own records.

Anyone over the age of nine knew that the Monkees, the made-for-television group, didn't play the instruments they mimed on TV, but what about the Byrds, a group revered for its musicianship? Wasn't Dennis Wilson banging the drums on the Beach Boys' “Good Vibrations”? What about the Association, Jan and Dean, the Mamas and Papas, Simon and Garfunkel and Herb Alpert's Tijuana Brass?

The truth is complicated, and has more to do with the record business in the '60s than with the bands. Time is money, and producers, rather than herding the squabbling, less experienced band members, would hire the top studio session players, who not only could play the music brilliantly, but could also improvise and arrange, adding that catchy bass line, for instance, that would ensure a hit song. (Think of “Windy” and “The Beat Goes On.”) The practice harmonized with the music business' migration from New York to L.A., the land of swaying palm trees and illusion.

The top players, an anonymous crew of about 20 versatile virtuosos, became known latterly as the Wrecking Crew, supposedly because it was said their rock-and-roll playing would “wreck” the music industry. The group included some future solo stars: guitarist Glen Campbell, who played on “everything,” and keyboardist Leon Russell, who says playing on demos earned him $10 a song, which meant “I got to eat that day.” The talented session players are the focus of The Wrecking Crew, a marvelously entertaining documentary by Denny Tedesco. The film was completed in 2008 but delayed from general release because of record companies' exorbitant fee demands for the song excerpts.

Tedesco is the son of the late guitarist Tommy Tedesco, and the film is in part a tribute to his father, a humble, affable fellow shown in home movies giving funny musical talks about his session-playing days. Tedesco, known as the “King of L.A. guitar soloists,” had a long career even after the Wrecking Crew days, playing music for innumerable TV shows and films. His son's film features illuminating interviews with the musicians (many who have since died), producers and recording artists. Like Dorothy's Toto, it pulls back the curtain on the cynical machinery behind popular music. It is a companion piece to the documentaries Standing in the Shadows of Motown,  about the Motown house band the Funk Brothers, and 20 Feet From Stardom, about backup singers.

No one should be surprised that singing groups like Sonny & Cher, the Righteous Brothers or the Fifth Dimension were backed by studio musicians on their records, but with rock bands, there was sometimes wounded pride. Cheery Micky Dolenz, an actor before being recruited for the Monkees, always recognized that the group was a TV act, but Peter Tork, a musician, was disillusioned when he showed up at a recording session with his guitar and was told to sit in the corner. He was naïve then, Tork admits, adding that now he would do exactly what those producers did. (The Monkees did eventually learn to play their own live dates.) The Beach Boys were a chimera that might be better described as “The Brian Wilson Project.” Wilson relished working with the Wrecking Crew players, who could execute his visionary arrangements. When he was just Jim, the Byrds' Roger McGuinn was a session player, and he loved playing with the facile Wrecking Crew on the Byrds albums. That's Glen Campbell, by the way, playing the distinctive solo on “Mr. Tambourine Man.” 

The film profiles the individual Wrecking Crew musicians, many of whom are on hand to reminisce. There is Carole Kaye, the ensemble's only woman,who is one of America's most talented, prolific and least known bassists. She started out as a bebop jazz musician and contributed her genius to scores of records by the Beach Boys, Frank Sinatra, Joe Cocker, Barbra Streisand, Ray Charles, Frank Zappa and many more. Think of her when you hear her distinctive bass line on “Wichita Lineman,” a song she says “meant a lot to me.”

Saxophonist Plas Johnson, a New Orleans-based jazz player, was recruited by Capitol Records in the mid-'50s after backing B.B. King and Johnny Otis, and played on countless records and movie soundtracks (that's him on the “Pink Panther Theme” and “The Odd Couple”). Guitarist Bill Pitman, now 95, a session man discovered and brought into rock and roll by Phil Spector. Pitman is known for the distinctive ukulele on “Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head” as well as his work on numerous rock albums, TV shows and movies. Drummer Earl Palmer, an influential New Orleans jazz musician with a low regard for rock and roll, backed Fats Domino, Little Richard and other NOLA artists before joining the Wrecking Crew, playing and recording nonstop during the ensemble's heyday and going on to work continuously in film and TV. (Palmer died in 2008.)

Life on the Wrecking Crew had its  benefits, including steady work and high pay; Carole Kaye recalls that at one time, “I was making more money than the president of the United States.” But the nonstop session work also wreaked havoc on family life, leading to divorces and children rarely seen. Then there was the record companies' cupidity. A great many instrumental albums of the Wrecking Crews' music were released, bearing the names of fictional groups like The Marketts. The session musicians received no liner credit, and the album jackets featured photos of clean-cut young men purported to be the artists.

The revelations of studio legerdemain might be surprising, but the essence of the hit song is the song -- the gorgeous lyrics of the Byrds' Gene Clark, Jimmy Webb's transcendental poetry, Brian Wilson's aching yearnings for eternal summer. The studio polish just enhanced their expression. Many of the bands of the era were accomplished players -- just not up to the one-take perfection producers demanded.

The early '70s were more artist-driven, and such fakery was no longer acceptable. Musicians began bringing their own sidemen to recording sessions. The golden decade of the Wrecking Crew came to a close. “It was never meant to last, this magical bubble,” songwriter Jimmy Webb says wistfully. -- Pamela Zoslov 2015

Friday, March 28, 2014

Back Issues: The Hustler Magazine Story

Michael Lee Nirenberg says he had no idea his dad, Bill Nirenberg, had been “a pornographer.” The senior Nirenberg worked for many years as art director of Hustler magazine, and is one of the sources for Michael's excellent documentary, Back Issues: The Hustler Magazine Story, playing this weekend as part of the Cleveland International Film Festival. The film provides a riveting history of Hustler's raunchy empire, from a four-page black-and-white newsletter to a multimillion-dollar media enterprise, and an insiders' view of what it was like to work for the mercurial, volatile and very shrewd Larry Flynt.

Nirenberg has asssembled many of the prominent players in the skin-mag trade to reflect on Hustler and Flynt, including porn star/mogul Ron Jeremy, photographer Suze Randall, friendly competitor and collaborator Al Goldstein of Screw magazine, a slew of former staff artists, writers and editors, even the Cincinnati prosecutor who brought Flynt to trial on obscenity charges in 1976 and still thinks the 25-year sentence Flynt received – since overturned – was fair. A news clip of anchorman Tom Brokaw contemptuously pronouncing Flynt a “smut peddler” is retrospectively amusing.

The speakers provide interesting insight into what made Hustler, the unreservedly crude, calculatedly tasteless magazine, unique. Ron Jeremy provides this assessment: Playboy models represented “the girl next door,” who the average male reader considered unattainable; Bob Guccione's Penthouse featured the “rich bitch” fashion model, also unattainable; and Hustler proffered a “raunchy, horny,” more down-market girl, who might be at home on the back of a motorcycle. “I got a shot with this girl,” thinks Joe Average, the one-handed reader.

The magazine built its notoriety on “pink,” the spread-legged, gynecological photos the “classier” magazines wouldn't run, as well as the tasteless but admittedly funny cartoons. (A former staffer aptly describes Hustler as “National Lampoon with more titties.”) One reason Hustler could publish these pictures, as well as bold political exposés, gross and violent imagery, nude pictures of Jackie O., and scabrous features like “Asshole of the Month,” was that Flynt eschewed mainstream advertising, relying almost entirely on adult ads and newsstand sales. He also refused cigarette ads, so was free to print sharp ad parodies like the one that read “Welcome to Marlboro Country” over a photo of patients in a cancer ward.

There is much ground to cover in the story of Larry Flynt, and Nirenberg puts it together in a swift package, interspersing the revealing interviews with fast flips through Hustler's back pages, as well as the many headlines accrued by the notorious Mr. Flynt, Hustler's seemingly immortal clown prince. We hear about Flynt's conversion in 1978 to evangelical Christianity, under the auspices of Ruth Carter Stapleton, in 1977; he remained “born again” only briefly, later declaring himself an atheist. In the film, he says he has bipolar disorder.

There is his marriage to his much-loved fourth wife, Althea, a former stripper who ran Hustler with an iron fist while Flynt was recovering from injuries suffered from an attempted assassination, and died in 1987 of AIDS. Flynt, partially paralyzed, has required a wheelchair since the 1978 shooting. He was in almost constant pain for years, which caused him to become addicted to painkillers; multiple surgeries finally eliminated his pain, but medications caused him to suffer a stroke, which has made his speech slurred. There were insane, coke-fueled years at the magazine, vividly described by former staffers, insane, wildly extravagant photo shoots, explosive editors who threw things at employees. There was Flynt's short-lived run for President. And there are many more astonishing episodes in the life of Flynt, some only glancingly touched on in this film.

The most interesting chapter of Flynt's life concerns his emergence as an unlikely First Amendment champion. His high-profile legal battles made him the subject of famous Constitutional law cases. One argument resulting from the Cincinnati prosecution reached the U.S. Supreme Court, and became the subject of the movie The People vs. Larry Flynt, starring Woody Harrelson. Another legal triumph was Hustler Magazine v. Falwell, in which Jerry Falwell sued Hustler for libel over a parody ad that described the evangelist as having lost his virginity to his mother in an outhouse. Though the page was clearly labeled “ad parody,” Falwell sued, and the Court held that public figures cannot recover damages for emotional distress based on parodies, an important Constitutional precedent that is still, as Flynt points out, taught in law schools today. (Interestingly, Falwell and Flynt later became friends.)

There have been several films, fiction and non-fiction, about Flynt, but Back Issues provides a unique behind-the-scenes view of the stressful day-to-day workings at Hustler — not, save for the “pink” and the fake excrement, so different from other magazines. "It was a lot of fun and a lot of pressure," says Bill Nirenberg, who went on to do other things but, he says, "nothing as exciting."

Late in the film, the interviewees provide a wistful lament for the way things used to be, before the Internet made pornography so easily accessible, and people could still be shocked. “We were lucky,” says photographer Suze Randall, “to have taboos to break.”

Sunday, March 16, 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel


By Pamela Zoslov

“Love/hate relationship with Wes” and “Can't stand quirky for quirky's sake” are the titles of two contentious comment threads on the movie website Participants in these conversations vociferously debate the merits of director-writer Wes Anderson, who is known for his quirky, stylized films, the eighth of which is The Grand Budapest Hotel. Set in an aging, once-elegant hotel in the mythical Republic of Zubrowka, it is perhaps the apotheosis of Anderson's stagebound, confectionary style. And, like the Courtisane au Chocolate, the fancy pastry that figures in the movie's Byzantine plot, it may be too cloying for some.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Typecasting: "Populaire"

By Pamela Zoslov

The clack-clack-clack-ding! that punctuates Régis Roinsard's Populaire sets off pleasant waves of nostalgia, if, like me, you miss the satisfying sounds and feeling of a manual typewriter. A stylistic and thematic hommage to American romantic comedies of the late 1950s, the movie tells the story of Rose Pamphyle (Déborah François), a shy young woman from a Normandy village who, tired of working in her father's general store and unwilling to marry the son of the town mechanic, dreams of being a secretary. She practices tirelessly on a portable Triumph typewriter. According to Rose, “A secretary means being modern.”