Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Summer: Solstice, sunsets and strawberry moons

We are just three days into summer, a time of the year that means happy times and good sunshine. For a northern Californian, like me, it might mean sneaking away for a picnic in Muir Woods or a day at AT&T Park watching the Giants. But, if you're a southern Californian, the choices include tanning on the beach, escaping to Disneyland, or just having fun watching summer blockbusters at the local cineplex. Regardless of where you might be, summers are meant for being happy.

Here are some early summer thoughts I posted on my Facebook page over the past few days, illustrated with some choice photographs that I took:

On the eve of the Full Strawberry Moon.

Summer solstice eve: As the summer solstice arrives on Monday, so, too, does a Full Strawberry Moon – together for the first time in nearly 70 years. Although it is still Sunday night in California, tonight's moon to this casual observer looks to be very full – and beautiful, too.

Summer flowers in our backyard garden.

Thoughts on the official first day of summer: "Summer afternoon summer afternoon; to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language." – Henry James

Capturing summer's first sunset.

Thoughts about sunsets as summer welcomes its first sunset: "Sunset is a wonderful opportunity for us to appreciate all the great things the sun gives us!" – Mehmet Murat idan, contemporary Turkish playwright and novelist.

A colorful Full Strawberry Moon accented by the clouds.

Finally, as the summer solstice even arrived in the San Francisco Bay Area of northern California, so, too, did the Full Strawberry Moon. Despite some clouds, it was a colorful and entertaining full moon, both to look at and as well as to photograph.

Looking forward to a wonderful and rewarding summer.

Photographs: By Michael Dickens © 2016.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Paul Simon: Still creative after all these years

Paul Simon / Feeling groovy late in the evening.

Paul Simon's 13th solo album, Stranger to Stranger, is just out to critical acclaim, and following two recent weekend concerts at UC-Berkeley's Greek Theater, the 74-year-old singer/songwriter stopped by City Arts & Lectures in San Francisco last week for an insightful conversation with Dave Eggers that was a benefit for the writer's 826 Valencia project.

For over 90 minutes, Simon, whom New Yorker critic Kelefa Sanneh recently labeled as "one of the most accomplished overthinkers in the history of popular music," spoke both thoughtfully and haltingly about a variety of things, including: his new album, a series of songs filled with experiments in rhythm and texture throughout its lithe 37-minute duration; his creative process; his approach to writing music and composing lyrics that paint an imperfect world; and the emotional outpouring from singing "The Boxer" on the same night as Muhammad Ali's death, just moments after learning of The Greatest's passing.

As Simon spoke about the physics of sound – "the tone of the universe is a slightly flat B-flat" – he also strummed a faux air guitar, picking at the melody with his right hand and moving the fingers of his left hand up and down his imaginary fretboard. Later on, he reached for a guitar positioned behind his chair to illustrate a chord progression as he crooned the notes to a song.

On Stranger to Stranger, Simon's collaborators include the Italian electronic producer Clap! Clap! and long-dead composer and inventor Harry Partch, whose variety of homemade instruments contributed to the texture and dreamlike ambience of the album.

On "The Werewolf," for instance,, writes: "Warped banjo, hand claps, and intricate down-home percussion are interjected with peculiar invest bursts. Simon soulfully warns of a werewolf's impending approach with some vivid storytelling and irresistible melodies."

Always a storyteller, Simon shared a funny anecdote about a 2004 Simon and Garfunkel reunion concert that he and his former music partner Art Garfunkel gave on the grounds of the Rome Colosseum. He said that while Garfunkel was singing an extended solo, Simon gazed out at nearby residents listening from their apartment balconies while thinking to himself, "I wonder what an apartment like that would cost?" He also talked about his 1986 ground-breaking album Graceland, and waxed about what it's been like being in the midst of a late-career renaissance.

"He has managed to become neither a wizened oracle nor an oldies act, and his best songs convey the appealing sensation of listening to a guy who is still trying to figure out what he's doing," wrote Sanneh in his New Yorker article, "Cool Papa," published last month.

Paul Simon and Dave Eggers / Old friends.
"Ain't no song like an old song," Simon once wrote, and the New York native has been practicing his craft for the past 50 years, releasing a new album about every three years or so. Although Simon said he doesn't keep up with the latest music trends and hits, he remains an attentive listener with a curious mind, one who always is collecting raw ingredients and rhythms for the future. Writing music, he noted, gets harder.

"But harder is fine. It's not like harder is the opposite of fun."

By night's end, Simon broke out an acoustic guitar and sang "The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feeling Groovy)," which served as a nice bookend. He left to a standing ovation from the mostly Baby Boomer audience at The Nourse.

It all made for a memorable and enjoyable evening.

Photos: By Michael Dickens © 2016.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

At Roland Garros, Djokovic and his quest both embraced

Novak Djokovic / Kissing the Coupe, basking in the glory of tennis history.

What more could you ask for – No. 1 playing No. 2, Novak Djokovic versus Andy Murray. At stake was an opportunity for one player to be the first in 47 years to hold all four Grand Slam titles at once, while for the other it was a chance to be the first British male player since Fred Perry in 1935 to be champion of Roland Garros. Neither had won the French Open before. On Sunday, one of them would win, and when they did, they would get to hoist the Coupe de Mousquetaires, one of the great and exciting moments in tennis.

Pour le gagnant va la Coupe. À votre santé!

At Roland Garros, the Parisian crowd
loves to embrace its winners.
As evening began to fall over Court Philippe Chatrier, it became apparent to everyone witnessing the spectacle in person as well as to a world-wide television audience that this Grand Slam was Djokovic's to win. After losing in the final three of the last four years, Djokovic finally had reason to feel joyous. He finally got to experience the thrill of victory instead of the agony of defeat when he beat Murray, 3-6, 6-1, 6-2, 6-4, to win the title.

When the last point had been played, Djokovic became the eighth man to complete a career Grand Slam in tennis – and the first since the iconic Rod Laver of Australia in 1969 to hold all four of the Grand Slam singles titles at the same time – when he won the 2016 French Open. Call it a Djoker Slam, if you wish. Soon, he used his tennis racquet to create a heart in the clay, then promptly lay down inside of it spread eagle, happy, and smiling all the while.

"It's a very special day, perhaps the biggest moment of my career," Djokovic, a 29-year-old from Serbia, said in French to what New York Times tennis columnist Christopher Clarey described as "the tough-to-conquer Parisian crowd that had gradually come to embrace him and his quest."

In witnessing Djokovic's historic four-set victory over Murray, Clarey wrote of the World No. 1: "He is quite a conundrum for the opposition with his elastic ground strokes, big serve and world-class returns. He can make a tennis court look dauntingly cramped as you face him across the net."

Gracious in defeat, Murray, the No. 2 seed from Great Britain, said of Djokovic: "This is his day today. What he's achieved in the last 12 months is phenomenal. Winning all four of the Grand Slams in one year is an amazing achievement. it's something that is so rare in tennis. You know it's not happened for an extremely long time, and it's going to take a long time for it to happen again. Everyone here who came to watch is extremely lucky to see it."

The champion and the Coupe / Djokovic enjoys
the day after in Paris.
Each year in late spring, the French Open in Paris serves as a grading period – a report card if you will – for professional tennis. It's the second of the year's four Grand Slam events – the others are the Australian Open in January, Wimbledon in late June and the U.S. Open in August near the end of summer  – and all the big names in men's professional tennis except 17-time Grand Slam winner Roger Federer, seeded third, who pulled out with a back injury, came to famed Roland Garros to complete for the Coupe.

Soon after, No. 4 seed Rafael Nadal, himself the owner of 14 Grand Slam titles – including nine at Roland Garros – pulled out just before his third-round match with an injury to his left wrist that he developed coming into the tournament. His status for Wimbledon remains uncertain. So, it was left to Djokovic and Murray, among the Big Four, to carry on the fight to the end while dodging many rain delays – and worthy opponents, including last year's champion Stan Wawrinka – along the way during the second week of the fortnight. To the amazement of many, both the men's final as well as the women's final the day before, won by Garbiñe Muguruza of Spain in a huge upset over Serena Williams of the U.S., went on as scheduled.

"In the beginning, I was not glad to be part of their era," Djokovic said in reference to Federer and Nadal. Now, with 12 Grand Slams to his name, tying him with Australian great Roy Emerson for fourth on the career list and putting him within of Federer and Nadal, his attitude has changed. He said: "Later on I realized that everything happens for a reason. You're put in this position with a purpose, a purpose to learn and grow and evolve."

Photos: Courtesy of Google Images, 2016; Official Roland Garros poster art by Marc Desgrandchamps, 

Wednesday, June 1, 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.