Tuesday, May 31, 2016

SIFF: Fostering community through cinema

The Seattle International Film Festival / A chance to see the world
from a different perspective.

The Seattle International Film Festival's mission is a simple but meaningful one: Create experiences that bring together people to discover extraordinary films from around the world. It is through the art of cinema, it believes, that we foster a community, one that is more informed, aware and alive.

The best of Sweden / A Man Called Ove
It is said that a great film is more than entertainment. It's a chance for moviegoers to see the world from a different perspective.

While in Seattle over the long holiday weekend visiting longtime friends, my wife and I and our friends experienced four extraordinary films from four different countries – Australia, Germany, Sweden and the U.S. – that were most enjoyable.

On Friday afternoon, we began with the 2015 Australian documentary film Women He's Undressed, in which Director Gillian Armstrong pays tribute to Academy Award-winning costume designer Orry-Kelly, a little-celebrated Australian hero of Hollywood's golden age who adorned the stars in such classics as Some Like It Hot, Casablanca, and An American in Paris, and was scandalously linked to Cary Grant as his former lover.

On Friday evening, we turned to the 2014 Austrian film Therapy for a Vampire for laughs. It's a dramatic comedy in which one night Sigmund Freud discovers a new patient on his couch, a mysterious count who has entered therapy because he can no longer bear his "eternally long" relationship with his wife, in this humorous mashup of vampire legend and neurotic obsessions. It was presented in German with English subtitles.

On Sunday afternoon, we sat front and center in the balcony of venerable Egyptian Theater on Capitol Hill, a classic movie house, where we saw Sweden's biggest hit of 2015, an endearing and crowd-pleasing dramatic comedy, En Man Som Heter Ove (A Man Called Ove). Rolf Lassgård stars as Ove, a grumpy, curmudgeonly old man, who finds his caustic view of the world put to the test when a new family moves in next door. The Swedish movie with English subtitles, which was adapted from the best-selling novel by Fredrik Backman, moved me to tears, and played upon the themes of unexpected friendship and love.

An intriguing spy thriller / Our Kind of Traitor
"A Swedish film in an Egyptian theater in America," a Tunisian Facebook friend messaged me on Sunday afternoon. "I like that," she wrote. I liked that, too.

Finally, on Sunday night, we were riveted by the spy thriller Our Kind of Traitor, based on the novel by bestselling author John Le Carré, starring Ewan McGregor and Naomie Harris as a couple who wind up as international pawns in a chess game between the Russian Mafia and the British Secret Service. It also stars Stellan Skarsgård and Damian Lewis, and it is due for a summer release here in the U.S. I highly recommend it.

Each film we attended drew capacity audiences of well-informed and educated film goers – the first at Pacific Place, a modern cineplex in downtown Seattle, and the other three at the Egyptian in the city's Capitol Hill neighborhood, and tickets were reasonably priced at $13 for each film.

This year's festival, which continues through June 12, will present over 400 features, short films and documentaries gathered from more than 80 countries.

Looking back, for the duration of each film we saw, there was a fostering of community. Together, we laughed, we cried, we felt excited, we applauded. Attending the country's largest film festival – with more than 150,000 people attending over the 25-day event – was both special exciting, and I look forward to returning again.




Tuesday, May 24, 2016

SFMOMA – Welcoming an old friend back to the City


Welcome back / The new-look SFMOMA has grown from five to 10 stories.

Last Thursday evening, my wife and I welcomed an old friend back to San Francisco. The San Francisco Museum of Modern ART (SFMOMA) reopened earlier this month after being closed for the past three years while undergoing a massive – and challenging – expansion project by Oslo and New York design firm Snøhetta. The new-look SFMOMA has grown from five to 10 stories. Dropping in on the newly transformed museum after work for a short visit before heading out for dinner and shopping, we delighted in seeing some favorite artworks and architectural features – including some of the gems from the Doris and Donald Fisher Collection, considered to be one of the world's greatest.

The largest living wall in the U.S. greets visitors to SFMOMA.
From first glimpse, there's much to like about the new look and space of SFMOMA, including new galleries, expanded exhibition space, better lighting, greater access, art-filled public spaces, six terraces and sculptural staircases, which offer unique views out to the city.

As visitors step outside onto the main terrace, they are greeted by a giant living wall designed by Habitat Horticulture. It is part art, part landscape and it's the nation's largest public green wall of native plants.

Constellation  (1949) / From Alexander Calder: Motion Lab
We delighted in seeing the Alexander Calder: Motion Lab, which highlights Calder's restless innovation in bringing actual movement into art. We viewed About Time: Photography in a Moment of Change, a thematic exhibition which investigates how photography has profoundly reflected, inflected and transformed our perception of time through its 180-year history. We also saw Model Behavior, Snøhetta's initial sketches and models for the expanded SFMOMA building, located in a challenging and prominent urban site on Third Street, just south of Market Street.

A swarm of chaotic energy /
Studying Antony Gormley's "Quantum Cloud VIII"
Finally, upon ascending to Floor 5, we admired British Sculptors, in which more than forty years of diverse sculpture by artists who were born or reside in Great Britain was displayed.

My favorite was Antony Gormley's "Quantum Cloud VIII," a 1999 steel sculpture that was acquired by the Fisher Family in 2000. According to the sculptor, "Quantum Cloud VIII conceives of the body as a swarm of chaotic energy. A human figure seems to alternately materialize from and disintegrate into the cloud of metal bars."

Created between 1999 and 2009, Gormley's Quantum Cloud series reflects on "how the subatomic particles and energy that make up our bodies are integrated with those that compose the universe around us."

Alexander Calder /
Big Crinkly (1969)
There is much to see and enjoy in the 170,000 square feet of exhibition space, and as members, we look forward to going back often to see some of the things we missed during our initial visit. Some of the current exhibits include:

Paul Klee in Color, which includes paintings and watercolors by the Swiss-born modernist Paul Klee (1879-1940) that explore "his intuitive and theoretical approaches to color."

German Art after 1960, which is an overview of leading German artists such as Gerhard Richter, Georg Baslitz, Anselm Kiefer, and Bernd and Hilla Becher.

Typeface to Interface, which features graphic design from the Collection, "a trajectory of iconic type and the evolution of digital tools marking the rapid transformation of graphic design over the past sixty years."

San Francisco / A city that loves art and open spaces.
In its 81-year history, SFMOMA has established itself as a premier showcase for modern art – think Calder, Close, Kahlo, Kelly, Pollack and Warhol. One things certain: There's definitely a new a positive dedication to openness as the museum begins a new dialogue with San Francisco, a city that loves its art.

To read more about what art critics are saying about the new SFMOMA design:
http://www.dezeen.com/2016/05/18/critics-reaction-san-francisco-museum-modern-art-sfmoma-extension-snohetta-mario-botta/

Photos: All photos by Michael Dickens © 2016.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

I cannot live without books, either

More than 200 years ago, President Thomas Jefferson once said, "I cannot live without books." As one of our country's Founding Fathers, Jefferson was onto something – and today, I wholeheartedly agree with his assessment.

While I have a nice living room display and collection of books, it's become increasingly challenging to find and make good time to read books on a regular basis. Mind you, I enjoy reading – even if I have a reading list I will never finish. Every day, I spend time reading The New York Times and I keep up with the newsfeed of my Facebook. Still, I would like to spend more time with books. Doesn't matter if they are hardcover or softcover. A good book is something that's hard to put down.

Fortunately, each time I go to the gym – usually five times a week – I bring a book with me and spend 30 minutes riding a stationary bike with an open book to take my mind off of exercising. After all, it's been said, "Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body."

While reading a book is like taking a good journey, three books which I have recently read and recommend to everyone are:

Indentured / Joe Nocera and Ben Strauss
The rebellion against
the college sports cartel.
• Indentured: The Inside Story of the Rebellion Against the NCAA by Joe Nocera and Ben Strauss. The authors (one a columnist, the other a contributing writer for The New York Times) have long recognized that there is a widespread corruption that plagues big-time college sports. Indentured grew out of a controversial New York Times column Nocera wrote four years ago in which he asked pointblank: "How can the NCAA blithely wreck careers without regard to due process or common fairness? How can it act so ruthlessly to enforce rules that are so petty? Why won't anybody stand up to these outrageous violations of American values and American justice?"

As millions of high school seniors each year accept athletic scholarships to American colleges and universities to chase their dream of fame and fortune as "student-athletes," sports fans have finally come to realize that athletes in the two biggest college sports, men's basketball and football, "are little more than indentured servants." Their best interests are not being served by the NCAA, notes Nocera and Strauss.

They write: "For about 5 percent of top-division players, college ends with a golden ticket to the NFL or the NBA. But what about the overwhelming majority who never turn pro? They don't earn a dime from the estimated $13 billion generated annually by college sports – an ocean of cash that enriches schools, conferences, coaches, TV networks, and apparel companies ... everyone except those who give their blood and sweat to entertain the fans."

Indentured is a must read book for college sports fans – a real eye-opening drama and a good page-turner – and chapter after compelling chapter, it tells a story of a group of "rebels" – former athletes, coaches, marketers – who decided to fight for justice against the hypocrisy of the NCAA.

Saving Capitalism /
For the Many, Not the Few
By Robert B. Reich.
• Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few by Robert B. Reich is a book that's an intersection of economics and politics, "a myth-shattering breakdown of how the economic system that helped make America so strong is now failing us, and what it will take to fix it." Reich has served in three national administrations – he was Secretary of Labor under President Bill Clinton – and currently is Chancellor's Professor of Public Policy at the Richard and Rhoda Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley, and senior fellow at the Blum Center for Developing Economics. So, he knows his subject matter very well.

In Saving Capitalism, Reich "reveals how power and influence have created a new American oligarchy, a shrinking middle class, and the greatest income inequality and wealth disparity in eighty years." His writing throughout the book is both filled with passion and it's precisely argued.

Reich recalls how in the post-World II outlook, America created the largest middle class the world had ever seen. "Then, the economy generated hope. Hard work paid off, education was the means toward upward mobility, those who contributed most reaped the largest rewards, economic growth created more and better jobs, the living standards of most people improved throughout their working lives, our children would enjoy better lives than we had, and the rules of the game were basically fair," writes Reich.

He continues: "But today all these assumptions ring hollow. Confidence in the economic system has declined sharply. The apparent arbitrariness and unfairness of the economy have undermined the public's faith in its basic tenets. Cynicism abounds. To many, the economic and political systems seem rigged, the deck stacked in favor of those at the top. The threat to capitalism is no longer communism or fascism but a steady undermining of the trust modern societies need for grown and stability."

Robert Reich is one of the best economists in modern American history, according to U.S. Senator and Democratic Presidential contender Bernie Sanders. "He understands that there is something profoundly wrong when the top one-tenth of one percent owns almost as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent. This book is a road map on how to rebuild the middle class and fix a rigged economy that has been propped up by a corrupt campaign finance system," said Sanders.

I'd Know That Voice Anywhere /
By Frank Deford
A collection of his NPR commentaries.
• I'd Know That Voice Anywhere by Frank Deford. The longtime NPR Morning Edition commentator, who is also senior contributing writer at Sports Illustrated and a senior correspondent on HBO's Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel, is one of America's most beloved sport commentators. Since 1980, Deford has recorded over 2,000 commentaries for NPR – "the serious, the foolish, the noble, the idiosyncratic; this game, that athletic." His latest book – his nineteenth – is a collection of literary sports commentaries that brings together a charming, insightful and wide-ranging look at athletes and the sports world.

"Being a writer, I never paid much attention to my voice," writes Deford in the forward for I'd Know That Voice Anywhere. "Since, when it came to interviewing, I was a primitive pen-and-notebook reporter, I rarely even heard myself speak on a tape recorder. ... Then, in the autumn of 1979, through impossibly serendipitous circumstances, National Public Radio approached me about doing a weekly sports commentary, and suddenly I had to direct that run-of-the-mill voice of mine into a microphone. But then, to my utter delight (shock and awe?), I soon found myself being complimented, advised that I possessed a distinct "radio voice." Where did you get that? people asked me, as if you could pick it out at an appliance store."

In I'd Know That Voice Anywhere, Deford muses everything sport from our continued love affair for Joe DiMaggio to the similarities between Babe Ruth and Winnie the Pooh. He rhapsodizes about how football reminds him of Venice, and even offers Super Bowl coverage in the form of a Shakespearian sonnet. Deford waxes poetically about the most popular sports of yesteryear such as boxing, golf and horse racing, and compares the Olympics to an independent movie comprised of foreign actors you've never heard of.

"Sports is, on the one level, mere amusement, but it is found in every culture," notes Deford, "and while it's not an absolute necessity for us, as eating and drinking and procreation are – sports is a card-carrying part of the human condition, in the same league with religion and drama and art and music. You can ignore sports, just as  you might choose not to care about other of those optional devotions, but sports does have a hefty place in our world, and I'm pleased to have been its troubadour on NPR. To voice sports may well be the next best thing to being out on the field itself, playing. And there's no risk of concussions."

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

"My name is Sadiq Khan and I'm the mayor of London!"


Sadiq Khan / I'm a Londoner, I'm European, I'm British, I'm English,
I'm of Islamic faith, of Asian origin, of Pakistani heritage, a dad, a husband."

London began the week with a new mayor. Meet Sadiq Khan. Not only is he the first Muslim to lead Britain's capital city, he's the first Muslim head of a major European capital.

"I'm a Londoner, I'm European, I'm British, I'm English, I'm of Islamic faith, of Asian origin, of Pakistani heritage, a dad, a husband," said the newly elected, 45-year-old Khan in a recent interview with The New York Times.

Khan, a Labour Party leader, succeeds two-term Conservative Boris Johnson, who was London's mayor since 2008. He was officially sworn in as London's new mayor last Saturday during a ceremony at Southwark Cathedral, and was immediately greeted with cheers and applause.

Sadiq Khan / The first Muslim leader of an important
western city.
Born in Tooting, South London, Khan is the fifth of eight children whose parents immigrated from Pakistan. He grew up in the 1970s in a public-housing project – known as a council estate – where his father drove a London city bus and his mother was a seamstress.

"My parents came here because they saw London as a beacon," Khan told The Guardian. "A place where they could create a better life."

Following a bitter Conservative campaign of personal attacks that was dominated by anxieties over his religion and ethnicity, Khan won a striking and historic victory over Tory candidate Zac Goldsmith, gaining a broad acceptance from the London electorate who supported him with 44 percent of first preference votes (56.8 percent of the vote overall) in a crowded field. His election brushed aside attempts by Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron's government to link Khan to the threat of Islamist extremism and, perhaps, it signaled "a broad acceptance by voters of London's racial and religious diversity just months after jihadi terrorist attacks in Brussels and Paris," wrote the Financial Times of London.

"Sadiq Khan's election as mayor of the British capital – making him the first Muslim leader of an important western city – is a historic moment that will be scrutinized around the world, particularly in other European cities struggling to integrate Muslim communities," wrote the Financial Times. "The victory of the Labour party candidate reaffirms London's multicultural image at a time of rising populist fervor in Europe and the U.S."

Khan has said he hoped that Donald J. Trump – the presumptive Republican Party presidential candidate who has called for barring Muslims from entering the U.S. – "loses badly."

As mayor of London, Khan will have power over transport, housing, air quality and policing. He's promised to make 50 percent of new homes affordable. He takes charge of one of the world's great cities, "a vibrant metropolis where every tongue is heard," wrote The New York Times. "In his victory, a triumph over the slurs that tried to tie him to Islamist extremism, Khan stood up for openness against isolationism, integration against confrontation, opportunity for all against racism and misogyny. He was the anti-Trump."

Khan, married and the father of two daughters, comes to his new leadership post following a career as a human rights lawyer. He was a Labour councillor in Tory-held Wandsworth for 12 years. He entered Parliament in 2005 and in 2010 his orchestrated Ed Miliband's winning Labour leadership campaign. He ran Labour's London campaign in the 2015 general election.

Sadiq Khan / "Proud that London has today chosen
hope over fear and unity over division."
As an observant Muslim, Khan seems well placed to tackle extremism in a city known for its tolerance and respect of each other. Although Britain has not sustained a major terrorist attack since 2005, it's worth noting that unlike France, Britain's Muslim population is well integrated, and one in eight Londoners identify as Muslim. During the campaign, Khan openly proclaimed his Muslim faith and declared that he was "the British Muslim who will take the fight to the extremists."

Still, Khan's election as mayor comes at a time when Europe is struggling with an increase in Islamaphobia, "riven by debates about the flood of Syrian migrants and on edge over religious, ethnic and cultural disputes," wrote The New York Times.

http://www.nytimes.com/video/world/europe/100000004391820/londons-new-mayor-gives-victory-speech.html

During Khan's acceptance speech, he noted that London's mayoral election "was not without controversy," but said he was "proud that London has today chosen hope over fear and unity over division."

He added: "I hope that we will never be offered such a stark choice again. Fear does not make us safer, it only makes us weaker and the politics of fear is simply not welcome in our city."

Photos: Cover photo: Courtesy of Sadiq Khan Facebook page. Others: Courtesy of Google Images. 

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Independent bookstores: A glimpse into the soul of a city


Contributing to the cultural fabric / Powell's City of Books, Portland, Ore.

The comedian Jerry Seinfeld once said that a bookstore is "one of the only pieces of evidence we have that people are still thinking."

Thank goodness for bookstores. Thank goodness we are still thinking, too.

Visiting independent bookstores are always a treat because they offer something unique. Whenever I travel, I try to seek them out. They offer a glimpse into the soul of a city and a sense of a pretty cool place to buy a book.

Despite the shuddering of nationwide chain Borders a few years ago and the bland sameness of Barnes & Noble stores throughout the U.S, we can be grateful for the colorfulness of independent bookstores across the country. In cities such as Portland, Ore., independent bookstores like Powell's City of Books – which covers an entire city block and offers maps for its customers – not only are thriving, they contribute to a city's cultural fabric.

READ / Window display outside of
Elliott Bay Book Company, Seattle.
A neon READ sign in a window display greets customers as they walk by Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle's Capitol Hill neighborhood. It's a sign I never tire of photographing each time I visit the bookstore – and I've been coming to Seattle for more than 20 years. With over 120,000 titles to browse, and a spacious interior that includes original fir floors, a beamed ceiling with skylights, and an in-store café, Elliott Bay Book Company is always on our list of places to see – and to buy a book – when we visit our longtime Seattle friends.

Last Saturday, Independent Bookstore Day was celebrated across the United States. It brought to mind the many wonderful and unique independent bookstores I've visited over the years and willingly patronized. A few of them come to mind:

Book Passage in San Francisco's Ferry Plaza Building; Mrs. Dalloway's Literary and Garden Arts in Berkeley; Powell's City of Books in Portland, Ore.; Books & Books  in Coral Gables, Fla.; Lemuria Bookstore in Jackson, Miss.; Faulkner House Books on Pirate's Alley in New Orleans; Common Good Books in Saint Paul, Minn.; and my favorite, Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle.

Bought a good book lately? Remember: Support your local independent bookstore. READ!

Original fir floors, beamed ceilings, plenty of
 books inside Elliott Bay Book Company, Seattle.

Tomes Not Drones / Timeless commentary
at Common Good Books, Saint Paul. 

Eat Sleep Read Dig / Window mantra
at Mrs. Dalloway's Literary & Garden Arts,
Berkeley, Calif.

We Recommend ... / Good books,
great atmosphere at Book Passage,
inside the Ferry Plaza Building,
along San Francisco's Embarcadero.

All photos: © Michael Dickens, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016.