Tuesday, December 27, 2016

"Fences" on film: rarely is it ever silent

Fences / Starring Denzel Washington and Viola Davis
A holiday afternoon at the movies is always time well spent, and on the day after Christmas, my wife and I took in a matinee of "Fences," directed by and starring Denzel Washington and also starring Viola Davis. It is a tour-de-force adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning play written by the late August Wilson.

Set in the late 1950s, "Fences" is the sixth in Wilson's ten-part "Pittsburgh Cycle." It's a family drama about a former Negro League baseball hero (played by Washington) whose personal bitterness over being slighted by the Major Leagues prevents his son from accepting a college football scholarship.

"Fences" is very much dialogue-driven and both Washington (whose character Troy is described by The New York Times as "a chop-busting raconteur") and Davis (as Troy's "plain-spoken counterpoint" wife, Rose) give powerhouse performances that are worthy of Academy Award consideration.

Fences / A play by August Wilson
After returning home from seeing "Fences," I wanted to find out more about the movie. Among the things I learned was that one of the key challenges for Washington as director was how to transform a play that takes place entirely in the front yard of "an ancient two-story brick house" in Pittsburgh, as Wilson described it, and make it come alive on film. Wilson is also credited with penning the screenplay. "The words are August's'; where we did them is different," Washington explained, in an interview with The New York Times. In the movie, there are interior scenes in the kitchen, living room and master bedroom, and some exterior scenes in the neighborhood streets.

"Beneath the bombast," wrote A.O. Scott in The New York Times, "'Fences' has an aching poetry." By turns, the film is both funny and provocative, and it is also inspiring and hurtful. Rarely is it ever silent. If it is possible to close your eyes and just listen to "Fences," you would be treated to a dramatic literary experience that is rarely matched.

In Washington's portrayal of the central character Troy, a sanitation worker, first embodied on the Broadway stage by James Earl Jones in 1985, Scott wrote: "There is plenty of brag and bluster in his speech, as well as flecks of profanity (editor's note: there's a lot of use of the N-word) and poetry. He tells tales and busts chops with unflagging energy, at times testing the patience of Rose, Bono and his other friends and relations. But mostly Troy, who makes no secret of his illiteracy, uses language as a tool of analysis, a way of explaining what's on his mind and figuring out the shape of the world he must inhabit."

Fortunately for movie-goers, "Fences" goes beyond being just a filmed reading. We are treated to Wilson's genius for dialogue and his examination of the African-American experience in America "from the standpoint of people intent on defying their exclusion from it," as Scott describes it.

For me, "Fences" was both a remarkable learning – and looking-glass – experience into what it must have been like being black in America in the 1950s, as well as an opportunity to study and appreciate both the brilliance of playwright Wilson and the quality of the acting performances given by Washington and Davis.

Photos: Courtesy of Google images. Video: Courtesy of YouTube.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

The day of joy returns: A prayer for Christmas morning

With Christmas 2016 upon us,
 once again, I would like to share a Christmas Day poem 
by the 19th-century Scottish poet and essayist, 
Robert Louis Stevenson 
reflecting our common humanity:

A Prayer for Christmas Morning
By Robert Louis Stevenson

The day of joy returns, Father in Heaven, and
crowns another year with peace and good will.
Help us rightly to remember the birth of Jesus, that
we may share in the song of the angels, the 
gladness of the shepherds, and the worship of the
wise men.

Close the doors of hate and open the doors of
love all over the world.

Let kindness come with every gift and good
desires with every greeting.

Deliver us from evil, by the blessing that Christ
brings, and teach us to be merry with clean hearts.

May the Christmas morning make us happy to 
be thy children.

And the Christmas evening bring us to our bed
with grateful thoughts, forgiving and forgiven, for 
Jesus's sake.


Wishing kind thoughts for a Merry Christmas. 
Although we are of many faiths,
it is important that our common humanity 
allows us to share a season of peace and goodwill.

Photo illustration: Michael Dickens © 2016.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Beyond black and white: searching for a new equality

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar / A great American thinker.

Growing up in the valley suburbs of Los Angeles in the 1960s, one of my childhood heroes was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Back then, as Lew Alcindor (his birth name before he changed it after converting to Islam), he was the dominating force in men's collegiate basketball in leading UCLA to three consecutive NCAA championships. I've always been fascinated by Kareem, not only as an athlete but as a human being because he's shown himself to be so much more than a basketball player. He's also a great American thinker.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's new book
focuses on many paramount issues
facing our society, including:
racism, war, death, love, hope
My current reading project is Abdul-Jabbar's latest book, Writings On the Wall: Searching For a New Equality Beyond Black and White. Co-authored with Raymond Obstfeld and published this fall, it's an insightful book that's full of wisdom and conviction and a must read as we transition from eight years of steady and thoughtful leadership by Barack Obama to the chaos-induced "post-truth" presidency of Donald Trump. In Writings On the Wall, Abdul-Jabbar explores how today's America "is a fractured society, sharply divided along the lines of race, gender, religion, political party and economic class." The book is filled with plenty of fresh reporting and serious thinking.

Writings On the Wall focuses on many paramount issues facing our society: racism, abuse of women, why politicians attack the media, war, growing old, death, love, hope. He approaches these issues with both insight and passion and draws upon his life experiences not only as superstar athlete but also as a scholar, celebrity, parent, education advocate, journalist, charity organizer, African-American and a Muslim.

U.S. Senator Bill Bradley, himself a former NBA basketball player, Rhodes Scholar and author, wrote that Abdul-Jabbar "brings his unusual and unique life story to bear on the issues of our day and adds insight for all of us in the process."

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar used his trademark
"sky hook" shot to help win six NBA
championships during his 20-year
Hall of Fame career. 
Abdul-Jabbar is the NBA's all-time leading scorer and a Basketball Hall of Fame inductee. In retirement, he has been an activist and an in-demand speaker, a basketball coach and the author of nine books for adults and three for children, including What Color Is My World?, which garnered the author the NAACP Image Award for Best Children's Book.

As an essayist for such publications as the Washington Post and TIME magazine, Abdul-Jabbar has written on a wide range of subjects, including race, politics, aging and popular culture.

In 2012, he was selected as a U.S. Cultural Ambassador. Last month, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in a White House ceremony.

"My real passion for history is in using it as a critical guide to our future, both personal and cultural," writes Abdul-Jabbar.

"History illuminates the safest path in front of us by revealing the pitfalls of the past. It is a secular bible of cautionary and inspiring stories that distills the wisdom of thousands of years of human endeavor into practical lessons about humanity's morals, politics and personal relationships. It is the ultimate self-help book. And right now, given the political and social turmoil in America, we need all the help we can get."

Abdul-Jabbar integrates a lot of popular-culture references in illustrating his ideas. He's a fan of the many artistic ways that our society chooses to communicate both its darkest fears and its brightest hopes. "Pop culture visualizes the public discourse in myriad ways: through music, movies, TV shows, poetry, comic books, literary novels, plays, YouTube, graffiti and new forms of expression that come along every day," he writes. "It provides the embraceable melody of our cultural song – it doesn't matter how profound the words of the song are if no one wants to listen. Whether Tarantino or Truffaut, all points of view and creative presentations have a place. Popular culture is a language that bridges generations, economic statuses and ethnic backgrounds. It provides a common heritage-in-the-making that brings our diverse community closer."

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar spoke during the 2016
Democratic National Convention.
Why did he write this book? "For me, there would be no point in writing a book like this unless I had some hope that it might help improve life for Americans," writes Abdul-Jabbar. "I don't imagine anything grand, just that some contentious issues might be clarified, that some people might hear a reasonable voice that isn't from the same background as others they listen to.

"Maybe they will become a little more understanding. Mostly, I hope to expand the discussion about what America is and what it means to be an American. Not with waving flags and sentimental speeches but with a return to exploring the document that defines who we are and what we stand for: the U.S. Constitution."

With his book, Writings on the Wall, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
hopes "to shine a flashlight on the path back to the
Age of Reason and the ideals of the U.S. Constitution."
What does he hope to gain? "Many Americans, as evidenced by the 2016 presidential campaign, abandoned these founding principles of reason to voice their fear, anger, frustration and rage. They openly and proudly expressed their racial bigotry, religious intolerance and misogyny as if the past 100 years of history of incremental social progress had never happened.

"Without even knowing it, they have dragged the American flag through the mud by rejecting all the principles it represents. As cartoonist Walt Kelly said in Pogo: 'We have met the enemy and he is us.' With this book, I hope to shine a flashlight on the path back to the Age of Reason and the ideals of the U.S. Constitution."

Will it work? Abdul-Jabbar is hopeful. "Each generation has to confront these challenging ideas and find ways to incorporate them into their personal belief systems as they go about their daily lives. ... I hope people choose to answer the call and together we ring about the miracle and wonder."

That, I believe, is an American dream worth dreaming.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

'Little orchestra' Pink Martini – "Je dis oui!"

Pink Martini / "Utterly cosmopolitan yet utterly unpretentious."

I am not unabashed by my love of Pink Martini. The internationally acclaimed "little orchestra" from Portland, Oregon, founded by a couple of Harvard classmates, pianist Thomas Lauderdale and vocalist China Forbes, mixes glamour with their style of sophisticated, easy-listening music. After all, what's not to like about vintage French and Italian pop, American swing and standards, Latin jazz with an orchestral twist or classic Hollywood film and musical soundtracks?

Since 1994, the band that the Washington Post once called "utterly cosmopolitan yet utterly unpretentious," has amassed an impressive repertoire of festive songs drawn from around the globe, including many timeless classics and a few rarely heard chestnuts. Each new Pink Martini album and concert tour, I've discovered, pushes the boundaries of language and musical style.

A typical Pink Martini concert is both multilingual and multicultural, and at holiday time it's also multi-denominational. I speak from the experience of having seen the band perform a dozen times over the past decade in a variety of California settings: from a beautiful, summer outdoor evening at the Hollywood Bowl to the intimate, acoustically perfect Weill Hall at Sonoma State University. Above all, a Pink Martini show is inclusive – full of warmth and good cheer – and represents many human experiences. Through the energy and creativity of their music, Pink Martini brings joy to the world in these troubled times – something which should make all of us feel grateful and appreciative.

Pianist Thomas Lauderdale co-founded Pink Martini
with China Forbes in 1994.
"We're very much an American band," Lauderdale once said, "but we spend a lot of time abroad and therefore have the incredible diplomatic opportunity to represent a broader, more inclusive America ... the America which remains the most heterogeneously populated county in the world ... composed of people of every country, every language, every religion."

Pink Martini has performed on concert stages and with symphony orchestras throughout Europe and Asia, as well as in Greece, Turkey, the Middle East, Northern Africa, Australia, New Zealand, South America and North America. I have seen them perform both as a little orchestra as well as in concert with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. When his schedule allows, NPR "All Things Considered" host Ari Shapiro, also a Portland native, joins Pink Martini as a guest vocalist.

Last Wednesday, in the intimate, 842-seat Bing Concert Hall at Stanford University, about an hour's drive from home, my wife and I saw our most recent Pink Martini show. It was part of a two-week California/Nevada "Holiday Spectacular" bus tour that began in San Francisco and included shows in Reno, Modesto, Escondido, Palm Desert, Santa Rosa and concluded in Palo Alto. After playing shows in North Carolina and Virginia over the weekend, the "Holiday Spectacular" tour continues in New York City and Boston this week before wrapping up with a pair of New Year's Eve shows at Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles.

During their Palo Alto "Holiday Spectacular" show, the 12-member band delighted the audience by performing from their expansive catalog of pop, jazz, classical and holiday songs that were beautifully sung in many different tongues: German ("Ich dich liebe"), Spanish "Yo te quiero siempre"), Turkish ("Askim bahardi"), Croatian ("U plavu zoru"), Armenian ("Ov sirun sirun"), French ("Sympathique") Xhosa ("Pata Pata"), Chinese ("Congratulations – A Happy New Year Song"), Italian ("Una Notte a Napoli"), and oh yes, English, too ("Little Drummer Boy"). No matter the language, each song expressed a variety of human emotions – love, pain, joy grief – in an honest feeling.

Je dis oui! / Pink Martini's ninth album
features songs in no fewer than eight different languages.
Recently, the band's much-anticipated ninth album, Je dis oui! (I say yes), was released. It features Forbes and Storm Large sharing lead vocals, and includes Shapiro ("Finnisma Di") plus frequent collaborator Rufus Wainwright ("Blue Moon") along with the Harvey Rosencrantz Orchestra and the Pacific Youth Choir.

"To take in Je dis oui! is to experience a globetrotting victory lap across no fewer than eight different languages – English, French, Farsi, Armenian, Portuguese, Arabic, Turkish and, in a cover of Miriam Mekeba's glorious 'Pata Pata,' Xhosa – all tackled with cosmopolitan sophistication and the playfulness of pop, wrote NPR music critic Stephen Thompson in reviewing Je dis oui!

"Exploring just one language or genre, and doing a whole album like that doesn't interest me," said Lauderdale, during a recent interview with the Hartford Courant. 

Pink Martini's unique vision can be attributed to its inclusiveness of language, culture and religion, musically. The band wants anyone and everyone to feel welcome at its shows and, if they are so encouraged, to jump up and dance along with the music. And many did just that during their Palo Alto show. The evening was complete with an encore performance of the band's signature closing tune "Brazil" in which many in the audience, at Lauderdale's urging, formed a conga line that snaked its way around the stage while others danced at their seats and in the aisles.

If  you think about it, Large once said, "It's really the perfect recipe for 'Peace on Earth and Good Will' we hear about so often during the holidays, but sadly have witnessed quite the opposite in the world of late."

Pink Martini concert photos by Michael Dickens © 2016. Album photo courtesy of Pink Martini website.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Projecting an identity through fashion in flight

Everyday is a fashion show and the world is your runway. – Coco Chanel

Qantas c. 1986 /
Design by YSL
During a recent visit to the International Terminal at San Francisco International Airport, everywhere I looked there were colorful displays showcasing a history of airline uniforms worn by airline passenger-service and safety professionals – once called stewardesses and hostesses, and more recently flight attendants. This distinct type of fashionable attire – from haute couture to comfortable mix and match – has become a part of our popular culture. As I looked over the uniforms and learned more about them, I realized that not only have I been flying as an airline passenger for many years, but it made me nostalgic for travel when flying from destination to destination was fun and exciting instead of a stressful exercise in navigating from Point A to Point B.

Pan American c. 1975
Design by Edith Head
In Fashion in Flight: A History of Airline Uniform Design, on display in SFO's International Terminal Main Hall and the Aviation Museum & Library through January 2017, the seventy uniforms that comprise the exhibition date from 1930 to 2016 and include the work of a veritable who's who of more than thirty designers, including: Bill Blass, Piere Cardin, Oleg Cassini, Halston, Edith Head, Ralph Lauren, Valentino and Yves Saint Laurent. The long list of their clients includes past and present U.S. airlines such as American, Braniff, Continental, Delta, TWA and United, as well as international carriers Aeroméxico, Air France, Cathay Pacific, Japan Airlines, Qantas and Virgin Atlantic.

The vibrant and colorful outfits and accessories in Fashion in Flight are designed to not only "signify a distinct role in the workplace," but they also project a sense of identity for each airline – and they reflect prevailing fashions of the times, too. Through the years as airline fashion evolves and hemlines lift up and touch down, the passenger cabin has become a different kind of fashion runway.

Fashion statement /
United Airlines c. 1968 by Jean Louis.
If style is primarily a matter of instinct, as the American fashion designer Bill Blass suggests, then decade by decade, one notices a transformation from the tailored-suit look of the late 1930s to WWII's military influence, from postwar Paris haute couture to stylish New York designs – even interstellar chic as the 60s space age takes off. With the age of jet travel booming, bringing with it highly expressive uniforms, flight attendant fashion takes center stage. By the late 1970s, I learned, "pluralism and neo-traditionalism are seen emerging" and continuing into the '90s.

Finally, the business-like look of uniforms we see today – especially on U.S.-based carriers such as American, Delta and United – "have allowed greater contrast and noticeability for airlines that continue to engage celebrated designers in order to present contemporary fashion as an important part of the air travel experience."

Cover photo: Braniff International Airways hostess in uniform by Emilio Pucci c. 1965.
Cover photo and United Airlines photo: Courtesy of San Francisco Airport Commission, www.flysfo.com
Qantas and Pan American photos by Michael Dickens © 2016.