I’ve been writing a lot about film adaptations lately, so I was thrilled to stumble onto this very cool series at the Guardian which each week is turning a critical eye on a new famous film adaptation. The latest is on Jean-Jacques Annaud’s 1986 version of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose.
1. My animosity toward musicals began in my youth, when I was still in elementary school in the late 1970s. My hatred of the art form stemmed from mother’s love of it. My mother, Carmella, never watched much television and had little interest in the arts. But whenever The Sound of Music was broadcast on television, she would claim the TV set in our house. No matter how many times she had seen The Sound of Music, she would watch it again and again. Mom knew the words to all of the songs, and she would sit on the couch in the basement family room of our raised-ranch home in Rome, New York, a smile plastered on her face, her dark head bobbing to the music as she hummed or sang along to the tunes. Sometimes my father, my sister, Lisa, or I would humor Mom and watch the 1965 film with her; more often Mom watched it alone, drinking her coffee, smoking her cigarettes and munching on popcorn. But although I appreciated the talent of Julie Andrews and felt some affinity for the von Trapp family, I could never make it through a full screening of the movie. Besides being long, The Sound of Music seemed sentimental and geared toward a female audience; as a ten-year-old boy, I was more interested in watching football, baseball, Wild Kingdom and Walt Disney specials. My interest in the musical waned after the opening sequence with Andrews prancing in a meadow and belting out the title track, with the words: “The hills are alive with the sound of music.” If I did sit on the couch next to Mom and attempt to watch the movie with her, I would offer commentary and make fun of the action on screen. “This is so stupid,” I would say. I couldn’t understand why the characters would be talking normally one moment and then suddenly start singing. The gazebo scene with Rolfe and Liesl presents the most annoying example of this “breaking into song.” The two meet in a park and the conversation turns to Liesl’s age. Rolfe tells Liesl, “You’re such a baby.” Liesl replies, “I’m sixteen, what’s such a baby about that?” And then Rolfe begins singing: “You wait little girl, on an empty stage, for fate to turn the light on...” Soon they are dancing inside the gazebo, their figures illuminated by a stylized lighting pattern as rain streaks the windowpanes. It seemed ridiculous to me, and my mother never explained the concept of the musical genre, the goal of telling stories and conveying emotion through dialogue, song and dance. Still, if Mom was watching the movie, I would try to stick around for the song “Maria” so I could sing along loudly, changing the lyrics to, “How do you solve a problem like Carmella?” Mom would become irate and order me out of the family room. One year my father and I escaped the noise of The Sound of Music by hiding out in our mudroom, adjacent to the family room, where we played a game of Nerf basketball while Mom tried to watch her show. But even though the door was closed, we made too much noise, our bodies brushing against the drywall as one of us drove to the rim while the other tried to block the shot. Mom hopped off the couch, marched across the room and banged on the door. “Cut it out in there,” she yelled. I don’t know why I resented the movie so much or felt compelled to disrupt her evening’s entertainment. I should have sacrificed my time and watched the film quietly with her, trying to learn from it and appreciate what Mom saw on screen; instead I made it difficult for her to enjoy the experience. I guess I couldn’t accept her need for the repeated viewing. I would argue with her about it. “Mom, you’ve seen it a million times. Why do you need to see it again?” She would only say, “Because I want to. That’s all.” I didn’t understand at the time the lure of familiar works of popular culture and the comfort they bestow. The Sound of Music touched my mother in a special way and gave her momentary pleasure. For only a few hours one night a year the film made her forget her worries about finances or her unhappy marriage to my father. I have since discovered how we often return to our favorite songs, movies and books, seeking contentment or an escape from our daily lives. For me it’s the 1946 film It’s a Wonderful Life, directed by Frank Capra and starring James Stewart and Donna Reed. I screen it every year during the Christmas season. I know all of the dialogue before it’s spoken, and my family gets annoyed with me over my repeated viewing. But just like Mom with The Sound of Music, I can’t stop myself from watching the saga of George Bailey’s frustrated existence in Bedford Falls -- no matter how many times I have seen it before. One of my favorite moments in the film comes when George proclaims to Mary Hatch (Reed): I’m shakin’ the dust of this crummy little town off my feet and I’m gonna see the world. Italy, Greece, the Parthenon, the Colosseum. Then, I’m comin’ back here to go to college and see what they know. And then I’m gonna build things. I’m gonna build airfields, I’m gonna build skyscrapers a hundred stories high, I’m gonna build bridges a mile long. But George never left Bedford Falls, becoming trapped by having to run the Bailey Building and Loan business after the death of his father. Growing up in the small city of Rome, tucked in the Mohawk Valley in central New York state, I could relate to George’s desire to flee the provincial setting of Bedford Falls, to explore the world and to pursue his ambitions. I recognized the same theme in Thomas Wolfe’s autobiographical, coming-of-age novel Look Homeward, Angel, as the protagonist, Eugene Gant, sought to experience life beyond the hills of Altamont, a fictionalized version of Wolfe’s hometown of Asheville, North Carolina. I carried the same urges as George and Eugene when I left Rome on a cold October morning in 1994 -- my used, silver hatchback loaded with my possessions -- and drove southbound to Florida, where I would stay with a friend of my aunt’s and search for a job in journalism or the Sunshine State’s burgeoning film industry. I had received my master’s degree in film and video a year earlier and wanted to travel the U.S. while starting my professional life. When I was a bachelor in my twenties and thirties, It’s a Wonderful Life provided emotional succor when loneliness consumed me at Christmastime; George Bailey gave me hope that it wasn’t too late for me to fall in love -- that I could find my own version of Mary Hatch, get married and start a family. This didn’t happen until much later in my life, but the movie always lifted my spirits and helped me to withstand the hard times while I remained unattached. And the enduring lessons about the importance of family, friendship and faith make It’s a Wonderful Life worthy of repeated viewing. Clarence, George’s guardian angel, sums up the movie’s theme with his inscription in a copy of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer -- left behind for George to read -- “Dear George: Remember no man is failure who has friends.” 2. After my mother remarried, and before lung cancer claimed her life in 2011, I watched The Sound of Music with her at her new home with my stepfather, Bill. My sister and I had bought Mom the DVD for Christmas or her birthday one year, sometime in the early 2000s. I kept quiet while I sat on the couch next to Mom, glancing over at her occasionally, like when Christopher Plummer and the von Trapp family sang “Edelweiss.” Even though so much time had passed, the joy on Mom’s face resembled the delight she had exhibited when I was a child. Her face still looked the same while watching the movie, and this time I didn’t spoil her happiness.
I’ve read Anna Karenina countless times, published articles, and dedicated two chapters in my book Understanding Tolstoy to the novel. So it is particularly exciting for me when an adaptation comes along that allows me to see the novel in a fresh light and even stirs me to tears over moments I thought I knew by heart. That happened to me a number of times while watching Joe Wright’s 2012 adaptation of the work. Which is why I was disappointed when the movie was nominated for Oscars in what amounts to the consolation prize categories, the ones having to do more with the style than the substance of the film: Cinematography, music (original score), costume design, and production design. But then, I’m not surprised. Most criticisms of the movie have focused on the idea that it’s long on style, short on depth. Robert Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times writes, “This is a sumptuous film -- extravagantly staged and photographed, perhaps too much so for its own good.” “Visually stunning, emotionally overwrought, beautifully acted, but not quite right,” claims Betsy Sharky of The Los Angeles Times. And yet, I would argue, that it is precisely by means of its stylistic prowess that Wright’s film captures the deeper truths about Tolstoy’s novel as successfully as any other adaptation I’ve seen. One of the most controversial aspects of the movie is the filming of the whole thing in a dilapidated theater. In making “the radical artistic choice to tell the story as if it were being enacted by players on a stage,” writes Lisa Schwartzbaum of Entertainment Weekly.com, “Wright falls passionately in love with his own fanciful artifices.” Maybe, but he also gets at one of the novel’s central ideas: that this is a spectacle society concerned more about show than substance, with tragic consequences. Two thirds of the way through the novel Anna goes to the opera. By this point, she’s deep into her affair with the juicy cavalry officer Vronsky and has left her husband Karenin, who refuses to give her a divorce, making it impossible for Anna to remarry legitimately. A woman without social standing, Anna is the talk of the town, and, apparently, the main attraction at the opera that night. A woman sitting in the box next to her makes a scene after the woman’s husband exchanges a few polite words with Anna. Here’s what Wright does with that moment: A hush comes over the theater and all eyes turn from the stage to Anna, illuminated by a spotlight as she sits there in her light-colored gown of silk and velvet with a low-cut neck, in her glittering necklace, with expensive lace in her gorgeous, black hair -- and utterly humiliated. That shot says it all: There sits the real diva of the night, the grand dame of Petersburg high society whose titillating story of adultery, self-destruction, and pariahdom those leering theater-goers thoroughly enjoy from behind their lorgnettes. That they, too, may be complicit in Anna’s sad tale is a possibility none of them bothers to consider. But if Wright doesn’t demonize Anna, nor does he glamorize her, as is so often the case with filmmakers and readers alike. When Tolstoy first started working on the novel, he envisioned Anna as a kind of empty tramp, but the more he wrote, the more sympathetic he became to her plight. Still, at no point does he absolve her of moral responsibility for her own decisions, as some readers are too apt to do. Anna is a tragic figure, not merely because she is an emotionally deprived woman in a loveless marriage surrounded by empty hypocrites. She is also a victim of her own her romantic illusions, of making, in Tolstoy’s words, “the eternal error people make in imagining that happiness is the realization of desires.” By giving herself over to the fantasy of complete liberation, Anna becomes a slave to her passions, a star in a tragic story partly of her own design. She is a stark illustration of Tolstoy’s belief that one of the central problems of modern social life isn’t just that we’re all playing roles on a stage, but that those roles often end up playing -- and destroying -- us. Wright (and Stoppard) might have made a safer bet by focusing exclusively on the sexy Anna-Vronsky plot, as other movies have done, but they instinctively understood this to be counter to Tolstoy’s intention. Anna and her tragic story reflect the truth that broken families, ungrounded passions, and human isolation are central to the modern experience. It is against these realities that the autobiographical rural landowner Levin, with his questing spirit and commitment to higher ideals, must fight. He belongs to a minority in his time -- as he would in ours, which is why his story is vitally important today. Levin strives for meaning that neither the social artifice, the reductive scientific world view, the moral relativism, nor the pseudo-religiosity of his era can provide. Dostoevsky called him one of those “Russian people who must have the truth, the truth alone, without the lies we unthinkingly accept.” The director’s choice to film the Levin scenes at his estate in the countryside in a realistic as opposed to a stage setting is actually quite brilliant in communicating the impression Tolstoy gives in the novel that Levin is one of the few characters in his world who is connected to something real and authentic. Then there’s Karenin, whom Wright correctly senses is a lot more like Levin than most readers ever suspect, at least when it comes to his uncompromising belief in ideals and principles. Wright doesn’t reduce him to the mean-spirited, rational machine so many filmmakers have made him out to be. Karenin is a deeply principled man who is simply incapable of accessing or expressing his emotions. But they’re there, all right, and Jude Law makes us feel them. When Karenin is sitting alone at the front of the stage before the dimming flood lights, having just learned that Anna is pregnant with Vronsky’s child, he turns slightly towards his wife (and the viewers) and says, “Tell me what I did to deserve this.” That heartbreaking moment reveals all the depth of his confusion. Like everybody else in Tolstoy’s novel, he has been thrust into a tragic situation beyond his capacity to understand. Do I think this is a perfect movie? No. Keira Knightley is a little too young-looking and too thin for Tolstoy’s voluptuous, 28 year-old Anna. The movie could have made the connection between Anna’s and Levin’s storylines even more explicit, as Tolstoy does when he has the two meet near the end. There are moments here and there where the acting doesn’t quite ring true, as in that scene when Vronsky reacts to the news that Anna is pregnant with his child. And maybe the British tabloids had a point when they wondered why Wright decided to turn the dark-haired Vronsky into a blond. But to criticize is easy. To create is hard. And Wright has shown himself to be every inch the creator, not on the level of Tolstoy, of course, but certainly on the same emotional and philosophical wave length. A literary adaptation, in my view, shouldn’t be an imitation, but an interpretation. And a good interpretation, as any literature teacher or literary critic knows, is one that doesn’t cover a book, but uncovers it. For me, Wright’s film did that. The power of this movie isn’t merely in the fact that the director has willfully re-shaped Tolstoy’s classic according to his own bold, wacky conceit, but that in his very stylistic quirkiness he has actually brought us surprisingly close to the philosophical vision of the original work. For that even the most dedicated Tolstoy aficionados can be grateful. The Academy should have looked a little bit deeper.
Writers often make cameo appearances in films based on their stories. Occasionally, they play themselves in movies. Some playwrights, by nature of their proximity to actors and the theater, are almost better known for acting than for their writing (Wallace Shawn and Sam Shepard, for example). There are writers, however, who act in films that have nothing to do with their own writing. Who are some of these authors, and how do they fare on the big screen? 1. Calvin Trillin – Sleepless in Seattle (1993) In his debut performance as Uncle Milton in Nora Ephron’s romantic comedy, Calvin Trillin can be called subtle. The author of Tepper Isn't Going Out and About Alice is doing one of the things he does best: eating dinner. He is also relatively avuncular, if your uncles are, like mine, the sort who basically ignore you. (You can catch most of his performance here starting at 1:05.) Trillin followed up his Sleepless in Seattle performance with a role in another Nora Ephron film, Michael (1996). As the sheriff who throws the eponymous archangel and his entourage in jail, Trillin has a few lines, but he appears acutely conscious of the camera -- and determined to turn away from it. How like a writer. 2. George Plimpton – Lawrence of Arabia (1962) The late editor of the Paris Review auditioned for the role of himself in Paper Lion (1968), based on his book of the same name, but the part went to Alan Alda. However, Plimpton brought his transatlantic honk to many movies. He made his film debut as a Bedouin running across the desert in David Lean's epic and went on to make 18 more big-screen appearances. He donned a cowboy hat in Howard Hawks' Rio Lobo (1970) and partied with club kids in Whit Stillman's The Last Days of Disco (1998). He logged bit roles in The Detective (1968), L.A. Story (1991), and Good Will Hunting (1997), among others. 3. Jerzy Kosinski – Reds (1981) George Plimpton appeared as an editor in Reds (1981), which also featured writer Jerzy Kosinski as Grigory Zinoviev, the Russian revolutionary-turned-bureaucrat. Kosinski's portrayal of Zinoviev is cold, furious, and authentic. Before filming began, Kosinski also convinced director Warren Beatty that the latter was having a panic attack. Beatty says, "I found that for some reason my feet were sweating profusely...Kosinski was hiding under the table pouring hot tea into my shoes very gradually." Plimpton and Kosinski also had cameos in A Fool and His Money (1986). Plimpton played God. Kosinski was a beggar. Literary Brat-Packer Tama Janowitz made a brief appearance as a talk-show host. By all reports, the film is terrible. Pre-Speed Sandra Bullock had a small role. She is featured prominently in the re-cut trailer. 4. Maya Angelou – Poetic Justice (1993) Poetic Justice was directed and written by John Singleton but Maya Angelou supplied the poetry recited by Justice, played by Janet Jackson. Angelou also had a small role as June, one of three sisters whom Justice encounters at a family reunion. Angelou also played a woman named May and read her poem "In and Out of Time" in Madea's Family Reunion (2006). The writer is comfortable on camera, impressive and sonorous. Really, though, Maya Angelou plays Maya Angelou, even when she's ostensibly a character named after a month. 5. Martin Amis – A High Wind in Jamaica (1965) A very blond, 13-year-old Amis appeared in the film based on Richard Hughes' 1929 novel. The story has been described as The Lord of the Flies meets Peter Pan. British children who are being sent to England for schooling find their ship commandeered by pirates. The pirates prove juvenile, while the children find their blood lust awakened by the plundering and pillaging. Amis describes the making of the movie in his memoir, Experience. Puberty hit the future writer during filming, forcing filmmakers to overdub Amis' voice with that of a young girl's. 6. Salman Rushdie – Then She Found Me (2007) In the film based on Elinor Lipman's book of the same name, the author of The Satanic Verses and Midnight's Children plays physician to a pregnant Helen Hunt. The film is filled with off-puttingly familiar mugs: Matthew Broderick, Bette Midler, Colin Firth. Most distracting of all may be Rushdie's. He tries his best, but let's face it: SALMAN RUSHDIE, fatwa survivor, ex-husband of Padma Lakshmi, plays an obstetrician who is not using enough gel while operating an ultrasound machine. Disbelief has not been suspended if the audience* starts yelling, "Use more gel, Rushdie! Use more gel!" *Okay, I was watching it alone in my living room. Still. 8. Norman Mailer - Cremaster 2 (1999) Mailer acted, directed, and wrote many films (including Maidstone , in which Mailer's character's fight with his brother, played by Rip Torn, turns into a real-life brawl). But Mailer also received good notices for his role in Ragtime (1981), based on the book by E.L. Doctorow, in which he portrayed architect Stanford White, and as Harry Houdini in artist Matthew Barney's Cremaster 2 (1999). Barney's avant-garde film was loosely based on the story of Gary Gilmore, who claimed to be the illegitimate grandson of Houdini, and was convicted of killing two Utah gas station attendants. Gilmore was also the subject of Mailer's 1980 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Executioner's Song. 9. Gore Vidal – Gattaca (1997) In 1971, Norman Mailer headbutted Gore Vidal in the greenroom of the Dick Cavett show (the on-camera portion of the spat can be found here). Clearly, the two writers shared a sense of theatricality which might explain their attraction to the cinema. Vidal enjoyed turns in Tim Robbins' political satire Bob Roberts (1992) and the comedy Igby Goes Down (2002), among others. Vidal also had a supporting role as the sinister head of a space agency in the dystopian thriller, Gattaca, which also starred novelist Ethan Hawke. 10. Anita Loos - Camille (1926) This 33-minute silent film loosely based on Alexandre Dumas' La Dame aux Camélias, probably shouldn't qualify for this list -- it's essentially a home movie of a drunken party -- but the cast is completely insane. Paul Robeson! Clarence Darrow! Charlie Chaplin! Loos, writer of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes fame, played the title role. Essayist H.L. Mencken, and novelists Theodore Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis, and W. Somerset Maugham made appearances. Publisher Alfred Knopf also had a cameo. 11. Extras N+1 editor Keith Gessen had a minor role in Andrew Bujalski's mumblecore Mutual Appreciation (2005). Beat writer William S. Burroughs appeared in Drugstore Cowboy (1989). Essayist and This American Life contributor David Rakoff acted in Capote (2005) and Strangers With Candy (2005). And finally, novelist and professional egoist Ayn Rand, an uncredited extra in Cecil B. Demille's The King of Kings (1927), probably spent her life wondering why she wasn't the star. Image Credit: Wikipedia
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There are two new documentaries that add to the rising chorus – of filmmakers and journalists, writers and artists, even businessmen and politicians – who are proclaiming that the same old song about Detroit is played-out. It's time for a new tune, these people are saying, one that goes beyond the tired cliché that the Motor City is nothing but miles of abandoned factories, boarded-up houses, and empty prairie. The first of these documentaries, American Revolutionary, opens with a shot of a little white-haired lady pushing her walker up to the massive Packard plant in Detroit, an abandoned auto factory in a state of such rococo decay that it helped spawn a lurid genre of photography known as "ruin porn." "The devastation is so fabulous, so incredible," the woman says, gazing at the rotting factory with a mixture of awe and horror familiar to anyone who has been to Detroit in recent years. "This is a symbol of how great things fail. It's obvious that what used to work doesn't work anymore." The woman's name is Grace Lee Boggs, the documentary's 98-year-old title character, a Detroit-based activist and writer who lived through the city's glory years and its long decline and now, in the twilight of her life, is still busy nurturing and enjoying the undeniable signs of its rebirth. "American Revolutionary" is the work of Grace Lee, a Korean-American filmmaker who first met Boggs while making The Grace Lee Project, her 2005 documentary about women who share her oppressively common name. The Grace Lees of this world, according to Grace Lee the filmmaker, are "thousands of interchangeable drones." If so, Grace Lee the activist is the exception who proves the rule. Born into a middle-class Chinese American family, she first became aware of discrimination against African Americans while living in Chicago. Her urge to unite workers led her to Detroit, where she fell in love with and married a black autoworker from North Carolina named James Boggs. Together they began to agitate to revolutionize American society – pushing for workers' rights, civil rights, and, eventually, women's rights. And so Grace Lee Boggs became that rarest of insiders, an Asian American woman deeply involved in a movement dominated by black men. As the civil rights and Black Power movements gained momentum in the 1960s, she evolved from a hard-core Marxist into a hard-nosed pragmatist. She was initially partial to fiery Malcolm X over mellifluous Martin Luther King Jr., but, like so much of her thinking, this changed with time. One of the most telling shifts in her thought was her revelation about what the civil rights movement was all about. "I realized that black people did not want to become equal to whites," she says. "They wanted to become equal to their idea of themselves." Whether she was writing books, lecturing, forming political parties, or helping young people plant gardens and paint murals, Boggs, to her credit, never abandoned some of the core beliefs she shares with so many black Detroiters. On camera she tells a stunned Bill Moyers that by the 1960s the Detroit Police Department had become "a white occupation army." And what happened in Detroit in July of 1967 – a conflagration that scorched great swaths of the city and left 43 people dead – was not a race riot. It was, Boggs says, "a rebellion." That rebellion helped make Detroit the first black-controlled city in America In 1974 a former union organizer and state senator named Coleman A. Young was elected the city's first black mayor – or "Mayor Motherfucker," as he liked to be called. He would rule the city with an iron grip and a salty tongue for the next twenty years. Though it didn't ignite white flight – Detroiters had begun moving out to the suburbs in the early 1950s – there's no denying that the summer of 1967 accelerated the city's decline. Coleman Young, depending on your point of view, either greased the city's skids or did everything in his limited power to apply the brakes. Detroit's demise, as Boggs sees it, can't be pinned on any one event or any one man. It was a collective failure to change after the seizure of political power by blacks. Instead of coming together, people split into warring camps: blacks vs. whites, city vs. suburbs, management vs. organized labor. "A rebellion is an outburst of anger," Boggs says, "while a revolution is an evolution toward something greater. Just being angry and resentful does not constitute a revolution." She adds wistfully, "Changing was more trouble than not changing." That may be changing, at long last. People are discovering what Boggs has known for half a century – that there's more to Detroit than crime, ruin porn, racial strife, and economic woe. The city's music scene has always been unkillable, and now alongside it there is a proliferation of start-up businesses, urban gardens and farms, a growing creative class, a booming downtown and a healthy auto industry. Let's not forget abundant cheap real estate. As the city struggles to emerge from bankruptcy, everyone agrees that the good old days are not coming back. As Boggs puts it, "It's time for a new dream." Among the ashes, there are enough sprouts to suggest that the time just might be at hand. If it is, it will be because of groups like the Navin Field Grounds Crew, the subject of a new documentary called Stealing Home by Jason Roche, a professor at the University of Detroit Mercy. The film is an homage to a crew that could come together only in Detroit: people who took it upon themselves to maintain a vast patch of grass at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull near downtown – simply "The Corner," in local parlance – the field where the Detroit Tigers played baseball from the late 19th century until 1999, when they decamped to a shiny new ballyard downtown. The powers that be then went about demolishing the grandstands of the stadium – originally Bennett Park, then renamed Navin Field, Briggs Stadium, and, finally Tiger Stadium – one of the most cherished pieces of the city's soul. The Navin Field Grounds Crew is headed by Tom Derry, a native Detroiter who grew up going to ballgames at The Corner. After the demolition was complete, he cajoled a group of fellow Tigers fans to spend their weekends picking up trash, pulling weeds, raking the infield dirt, and mowing the outfield grass where Al Kaline and Willie Horton used to roam. "Something happens to you when you're here – a tingling," Derry says, trying to explain the allure of a place he regards as "sacred ground," but which the city sees as a nothing more than a parcel that might one day become the site of a big-box store. Despite the city's hostility to their cause, the Grounds Crew has gotten media attention from ESPN The Magazine, the New York Times, even Australian TV. In keeping with the If-you-mow-it-they-will-come mantra popularized by the movie Field of Dreams, tourists now come to The Corner from all over the world to play pickup games, snap pictures, and swap memories. Stealing Home is not flawless. Though I love baseball and have been a Tigers fan since I was in short pants, I have to admit that the sight of middle-aged guys riding sit-down lawnmowers doesn't always make for riveting viewing. And the documentary sometimes has a high quotient of gas, such as one guy likening baseball to Homer's Odyssey, and another, a "mythologist" no less, proclaiming that all humans share "an irresistible longing to connect to their roots." Fortunately, Roche has also woven in archival footage that takes us beyond the bromides and the outfield wall – images of bustling auto plants, civil rights marches, and the bloody summer of 1967. The last word belongs to a member of the Grounds Crew, who sums up the movie's message nicely: "This shows what Detroiters can do when we come together." Indeed it does. The Navin Field Grounds Crew is emblematic of what's happening in a broken city where a lot of people have come to the realization that the old ways are gone forever and the only way to get some things done is to do them yourself. And so Detroiters pamper an old ballfield, they spruce up parks the city can't afford to maintain, they patrol neighborhoods the city can't afford to police, they turn entire neighborhoods into works of art, they plant gardens, start businesses, renovate houses that haven't slid beyond salvation. In a word, they figure out a way to endure. The current DIY ethic was explained to me in 2012, when I was in Detroit on a newspaper assignment and wound up talking to George Royce, a waiter by day and a rock 'n' roll drummer by night, who had recently moved from upstate Michigan into a downtown loft. "There's a bizarre combination of things here in Detroit," Royce told me. "Exquisite grand architecture and other buildings that are broken down. Extreme wealth and extreme poverty right next to each other. The people who live here usually have something going on. They're artistic, they're handy, they're self-starters. People who are finicky don't come to Detroit You've got to have self-sufficiency." Yes, but why do they come here? "They come," Boggs says, "to be part of this new world." Only a true Pollyanna would try to minimize Detroit's staggering problems. But buying into the dreary old ruin-porn narrative is, in its way, as myopic as rosy optimism. Despite their many differences in approach, subject matter and tone, these two documentaries arrive at the same conclusion, one that may hold the key to the salvation of Detroit and countless other troubled American cities. The conclusion, in Boggs's words, is this: "The changes are not going to come from the top." No, the changes are not going to come from governments or corporations or philanthropists; the changes are going to come from the below, from the street, from individuals and small groups who believe that what they do can make a difference. Even if what they do is as humble as fixing up an abandoned house, or showing kids how to plant a garden, or taking care of a patch of sacred ground. Image via davescaglione/Flickr
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The film has provoked both praise and criticism from Chinese viewers, who see parallels between the movie's plot and one of the nation's most prominent social issues: the forced removal of Chinese citizens from their homes for government development projects.
My mom watched Oprah from the very beginning, back in the mid-eighties, when her hair was Tina Turner-in-Thunderdome-huge and her wardrobes and sets were a rainbow of pastel. Mom was a sucker for daytime talk shows of that era. Not Geraldo or Morton Downey, Jr.—they were a little too vulgar—but definitely Sally Jessy and Donahue and later on Montel. She'd get home from her job as a Social Security clerk around five, turn on the TV and start cooking dinner. I'd be in my spot on the living room couch. I was in grade school. I thought those shows were dumb. But we only had one TV in the house and watching something was better than watching nothing. Plus Donahue racing around the audience was always funny. This was way before DVRs. Since Oprah was on at four o'clock, Mom would record it using the timer on the VCR. She'd watch it after dinner, when I was doing my homework and Dad was doing the dishes or paying the bills. Dad divorced Mom in the summer of 1993. That spring, at age forty, she'd graduated from nursing school, having quit Social Security and cashed in her pension to pay the tuition. A couple months before Dad left, she'd started working for the city's health department. The job was exhausting—mentally and physically. All day she'd drive around the poor parts of Akron checking on kids who'd suffered lead poisoning or had congenital defects, taking their vitals and drawing blood, making sure they were keeping up with their meds. Then when she got home she'd have a bunch of paperwork to do. But she still taped and watched Oprah every night. Though Mom never admitted as much, I don't think I'd be wrong in saying she looked up to Oprah as an unmarried, career-oriented woman. After several years with the city, Mom got used to the workload and was able to have more of a life. She started exercising and traveling more, regularly visiting me in New York, where I'd moved after college. Even then, she watched Oprah almost daily. In September 2006, Mom had a heart attack. For the next fourteen or so months she was hospitalized, primarily at the Cleveland Clinic—the result of congestive heart failure, lung cancer, stomach paralysis, ventilator dependency, innumerable pneumonias and infections, and a bunch of other complications. I moved back to Akron and spent almost every one of those 447 days by her side. And every afternoon at four, I'd switch the TV of whatever room or curtained-off bay she was in to Oprah. For the first few months in the Clinic, when Mom was in intensive care, she usually wasn't conscious, either because her blood pressure was so low or because she'd be sedated from being disoriented and pulling at her IVs and trying to get out of bed. But I'd turn on Oprah anyway, just in case Mom could hear her voice and take comfort in its familiarity. Just before the New Year, Mom was stable enough to be moved to a unit that specialized in ventilator weaning. Except for a few brief trips back to the ICU, she'd remain there till mid-October 2007. Every afternoon, I'd sit there holding her hand and we'd watch Oprah. We weren't the only ones. I'd walk down the hall to get a nurse or a bucket of ice in which to cool the washcloth Mom always liked to keep on her forehead and in nearly every room you could hear the show. Anybody who's spent any prolonged amount of time in a hospital knows the importance of TV. It's both a distraction from pain and misery and a connection to the world outside the hospital. Of all hours in the day, four o'clock was the worst for TV. TBS didn't start showing good sitcom reruns like The King of Queens or Seinfeld till five—at four you were stuck with Yes, Dear or According to Jim. On most other cable channels was some obnoxious news or sports talking-heads show. Ellen was way too cheery. The last thing you want to see when your loved one’s fighting for their life is somebody dancing around to Pink's "Get the Party Started." That's what made Oprah the perfect hospital show. It mirrored the hospital experience. Some days it was lighthearted and inspirational, others grave and despairing. Of course, there are those who'd argue it was too grave, that Oprah was no less sensational or lurid than her neo-Nazi-baiting contemporaries. There was a time when I'd have been the one to make this argument. All those episodes devoted to murderers and pedophiles and cheating husbands. But once you've encountered some truly horrific things—blood gushing from your mother's neck as a doctor struggles to insert a central line, for instance—your definition of lurid changes. In fact, things you'd formerly have deemed mundane—grocery shopping, laundry—those become lurid. That was another thing that made Oprah so endearing to the hospital viewer. Her poor upbringing, sexual abuse, teen pregnancy: She'd suffered, too. And it was apparent in everything she did, even the extravagant audience giveaways. Especially the extravagant audience giveaways. The episode I remember best from those months was when Michael Moore was on to discuss his new movie, Sicko, about the country's health-care system. Mom agreed with him that the system was broken. She couldn't talk because of the tracheal tube in her throat but I'd gotten good enough at reading her lips. "There's no excuse," she mouthed during a commercial break. "There's absolutely no reason why everyone shouldn't be covered." She was receiving arguably the best treatment for her condition in the world, treatment which in the end totaled $2.4 million but for which we only paid a few thousand dollars, her insurance picking up the rest. "It's not right," she mouthed. "It's not ethical." After finally getting free of the vent, Mom was transferred to a long-term care facility. The hope was that through rehab she might get strong enough to endure chemotherapy. A few weeks later the cancer was discovered to have metastasized to her liver. She was transferred to hospice and died a few days later. I was cleaning out the house, getting it ready to sell. In a basement cabinet I found dozens of blank VHS tapes. Using a small combination TV/VCR I'd had in my room in high school, I fast-forwarded through every minute of every tape. I was hoping to find home movies of Mom and I. On one tape I did—a trip we took to Virginia Beach when I was six or seven. Most of the rest, though, were old Oprahs. I won’t be watching this afternoon’s finale. Just knowing the show is at an end makes me sad enough, as this somehow emphasizes the permanence of Mom being gone. However, I can’t imagine there’s a single hospital TV that won’t be tuned in. Who knows what they’ll watch tomorrow. (Image: oprah doesn't understand from nayrb7's photostream)