Monday, January 26, 2015

Superman, On and Off the Silver Screen


My initial reading of Still Me, the autobiography of competitive sportsman, A-list actor, Emmy-nominated director, producer and screenwriter, passionate activist, and author Christopher Reeve was immediately following its 1998 release, three years after he was thrown headfirst from his horse during the Memorial Day, 1995 horse jumping competition that left him unable to move or breathe—a time when I, along with almost everyone in the civilized world, was still reeling from the irony of the fact that “our” Superman would never walk, or do anything under his own power again, much less fly. I needed to read it again recently as research for the book I am writing that I hope to publish in the autumn of this year—a novel in which one of the main characters is paralyzed from his chest down by a bullet wound to his spine.

                I searched every nook and cranny for my pristine, hardback, first-edition copy of Reeve’s autobiography, and to my horror realized that in a harrying period of downsizing nineteen months ago, I donated it to a local public library, apparently. I remember weighing the pros and cons of holding on to it, and I was sure I decided in its favor—but…oh well. I have experienced this same gut-wrenching regret over the donation of other precious books that held places of honor in my formerly extensive library. Oh, the awful things life too often forces us to do! I ordered another copy of it, and my second reading of it reminded me of what a good and important book Still Me is. I will state at the outset, just to get it out of the way, that its only drawback that I can see is its title. As explained in the book, the title derives from Reeve’s wife Dana’s assurance to him following the accident that despite everything, he was still the same person, and she would be with him forevermore. Regardless, from the moment I first heard the title, it also suggested to me a double entendre on Reeve’s “stilled” condition. No matter the motivation behind it, it is an unfortunate title, in my opinion. However, it is the first and last mistake in this significant, well-written, non-fiction book.

                Reeve begins his life story with the following: “A few months after the accident I had an idea for a short film about a quadriplegic who lives in a dream. During the day, lying in his hospital bed, he can’t move, of course. But at night he dreams that he’s whole again, and is able to do anything and go everywhere. This is someone who had been a lifelong sailor, and who had always loved the water, and he had a beautiful gaff-rigged sloop. Not like my boat, the Sea Angel, which was modern and made of fiberglass. In the story the boat is a great old wooden beauty, whose varnish gleams in the moonlight…In his dream he sails down the path of a full moon, and there’s a gentle breeze, perfect conditions—the kind of romantic night sailing that anyone can imagine. But by seven in the morning, he’s back in his bed in the rehab hospital and everything is frozen again…” He goes on to relate the entire idea, and then says“…But the way out is through your relationships. The way out of that misery or obsession is to focus more on what your little boy needs or what your teenagers need or what other people around you need. It’s very hard to do, and often you have to force yourself. But that is the answer to the dilemma of being frozen—at least it’s the answer I found.”

                Throughout the book, just when the inner workings of the agonizing daily routine of his “frozen” existence as he describes it, is in danger of treading territory too heartbreaking for the reader to bear, Reeve turns to lighter fare. He embarks on a spellbinding, often funny, always moving, treatise of his life before his disability, including his bittersweet childhood as a product of divorced parents, his triumphs in sports, his first-rate college education, his advocacy for funding of the arts, his seemingly anointed pathway to acting, for many years on stage, both in classical and contemporary productions, and then in films, with his role as Superman skyrocketing him to stardom. The breadth and diversity of his acting career was a revelation to me, so attuned was I to him as Clark Kent in Superman, to the romantic lead Richard Collier in the cult film Somewhere in Time, and to the American Congressman Jack Lewis in the British film The Remains of the Day. He takes us into his ten-year relationship with the mother of his two older children Matthew and Alexandra, teenagers at the time of the release of the book. And then to Dana, and although his beloved, his commitment issues threatened to sabotage their love. His humanity came through most clearly with his admission of that weakness in himself, but true to the pattern of his life, he set out to rid himself of that flaw. He sought counseling, and it worked. He and Dana married and bore their son William. For the first time, he was happy in his personal life, for the first time as well, gave it precedence over his career and sporting life. The accident occurred only three years into their marriage.

                His disability ceaselessly tugged at him to be told, however, and with flawless timing and immaculate taste, he returned to the subject of paralysis as a result of spinal cord trauma, interspersing his personal trials and triumphs pertaining to it with a generalized discussion of spinal cord injury, its modes of treatment and its ramifications. An in-depth review of his new life is included—his return to his film career, and his use of his celebrity to become an ambassador for all victims of the disability—fund-raising for the American Paralysis Association, and other such entities, as well as a consistent program of lobbying Congress for funds devoted to research, for insurance reform, among other things. His speaking itinerary was so full that his previous life seemed almost static by comparison. In this way, he continued his financial support of his family. His crowning achievement was the foundation he and Dana formed—The Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation, Paralysis Research Center which is dedicated to raising funds for medical research of and—ultimately—a cure for spinal cord injury paralysis—Toll Free (800) 539-7309; International Callers (973) 467-8270 – Matthew and Alexandra serve on the board of directors of the foundation.  

The format of the book is spot-on. Reeve merged his past and present seamlessly. It is like a father and son gently lobbing a ball back and forth, or a duet between Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga—divergent in every possible way other than the matched quality of their voices and their mirrored urgency to tell their individual versions of the same story.

                   I wish I had known Christopher Reeve—I wish I had been his associate, his pal. His was a purposeful life—a life well-lived.         

Monday, January 12, 2015

Jillian Cantor's Novel--Artful Amendment of The Diary of Anne Frank

Author Jillian Cantor’s Margot, an ambitious “what-if’ story worthy of studying by writers and savoring by readers follows a trend among some contemporary writers of offering a new “take” on a time-honored history/story. Recently, I came upon an internet discussion by a writer who has authored a modern-day love story based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet—and my author friends K. R. Hughes and T. L. Burns, in their What She Knew, propose an entirely different version of the tragic death of actress Marilyn Monroe. These are only two examples among many others. The revised history in Margot is that of the esteemed true story The Diary of Anne Frank, the vivid impressions in the form of a diary, of Anne Frank, a thirteen-year-old Jewish girl in Amsterdam, Holland, who with her mother, father, and sister Margot, as well as the family of their friend Peter Pelt, were forced into hiding on an upper floor of an office building for two years during the Second World War to evade capture by the Nazi Gestapo. Published in 2013, Cantor’s Margot posits that Anne Frank’s sister Margot Frank (the book’s protagonist) did not go to her death in the Nazi Concentration Camp Bergen-Belsen along with her fellow members of the household, all but her father, as reported, and instead, through a series of propitious circumstances, escaped to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States of America, which is the setting of the book.

                The story opens on Friday, April 3, 1959 on the heels of the release of the acclaimed motion picture of the famous diary, a feature film at a movie theater in the Center City, Philadelphia neighborhood where the protagonist lives. Working in a Jewish Law Firm as a legal secretary under an assumed identity of a Gentile named Margie Franklin, Margie/Margot lives a circumscribed life—a near recluse in a studio apartment “…containing only a blue couch, a wooden table with two chairs, a single bed, and the tiniest of kitchens,” a wall to wall area spanned by just ten of her compulsive paces, and shared with her only steady companion, an over-weight tabby named Katze, a tiny parcel of space in which she holes up every evening and weekend to partake of her only indulgence—a study of law books in her quest to become a paralegal, a mission set forth at the suggestion of her employer, attorney Joshua Rosenstein.  

Margie/Margot’s workmate and only friend Shelby does pry her loose from her furled way of life. Now and then, she acquiesces to accompany Shelby to a local establishment for a drink, “…even though I don’t drink alcohol…Last month Shelby dragged me to see Some Like It Hot…I thought the movie was fine, but I did not laugh at the places Shelby did, at Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon’s antics dressed as women. I still do not fully understand the American sense of humor. Hiding is hiding is hiding. What’s so funny about that?...Shelby wears a short-sleeved cotton blouse and full green skirt today, because it is April and the sun is warm enough to be without a sweater. But I still have my navy sweater on. I wear a sweater always, no matter what the temperature, so the dark ink on my forearm remains hidden, unseen.”

                This particular close-of-workday-Friday, Margie/Margot dodges Shelby’s appeal to accompany her to the movie theater to see the film version of The Diary of Anne Frank, an account “of another time, another place, one which I never wish to go back to in my mind.” She enters her apartment and visits for a while with her cat on the blue couch. “Friday nights, I always light a candle at sundown and say a silent prayer. Barukh ata Adonai Eloheinu melekh ha’olam…Words repeat themselves in my brain, even though Margie Franklin, she is a Gentile. My Friday prayer, it is not a religion, it’s ritual.” She fingers her unopened copy of her sister’s diary. “No I haven’t read it. I don’t want to,” she says in her mind to an imaginary query on the part of Shelby. “I put the book back on the shelf, and I reach for the phone on my small kitchen counter. I turn the dial to o…’Operator,’ a woman’s voice says on the other end. I open my mouth to ask for him. Peter Pelt, I want to tell the operator. I need to talk to Peter Pelt.

                And so, the tale begins to be revealed. By way of the author’s clever plot devices—“hiding is hiding is hiding;”…the perpetual sweater to keep “hidden, unseen” the despised tattoo; the hemmed-in habitation; the stereotypical lonely-woman’s cat; all of it works so well toward this theme of concealment. The interplay of various psychological mechanisms—survivor’s guilt; sibling rivalry; self-imposed isolation and estrangement from her father ingrained through habit and fear; low self-worth due to wrecked goals and dreams and a detoured natural life-course; despondency; grief; loss—are handled subtly, but effectively, and on a rather high key. The author somehow avoids a maudlin approach, as the subject-matter would suggest, and builds a “what-if” conclusion much more palatable and humane than the “real” history. This is an interesting read, especially for lovers of historical fiction. It is also a quick and easy study for writers of the plot techniques stated above.      

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

A Story Lost in the Author's Love Affair With Words

This posting will launch a series of reviews of books I have read, books that in large part will concentrate on that pantheon of writers considered great and from whom lesser-known writers have much to learn. I begin with the book I just finished reading this evening:  Lie Down in Darkness by William Styron

American author William Styron was a world-class wordsmith in league with F. Scott Fitzgerald and William Faulkner. But unlike Fitzgerald and Faulkner, his love affair with words often over-shadowed his story in Lie Down in Darkness, his critically acclaimed first novel, published in 1952 when he was 27, the work that launched him as a major American author.

I found the story to be so abstract, wearying and needlessly drawn out that I had to force myself to stay with it—I persisted only because this is the author of Sophie’s Choice (which I have read and loved) and The Confessions of Nat Turner (which I plan to read soon), for which he won the Pulitzer Prize. I also stuck with it because Styron was a devotee of complexity of thoughts and feelings, and a master of unique and creative metaphors and descriptions. This book qualifies as a good primer for writers who wish to study how magnificent the English language can be at the hand of a genius of its usage.

I don’t always see eye to eye with professional literary critics, and this is just another case where I differ in my opinion as to the worth of a book. The way I see it, this book deserves five stars for the majesty of its prose, but no more than three stars for its story.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

A Prayer for the New Year

One of my favorite Facebook sites is the Nighthawk's Spiritual Works administered by Dennis Binns.
The following is just one of the daily prayers published by this special man. If you are hungry to begin your year with spiritual inspiration, you can't do any better than logging onto Mr. Binns' site. It is a perfect place for a daily meditation, too.   

Great Spirit, Almighty Healer and Creator of all things, it is with humbled hearts that we gather together to offer up many thanks. We thank you for the sacredness of the soil we walk upon, as it holds the blood of those that have come before us. We thank you for the wisdom that comes to our hearts through the experiences we encounter, as well as when we receive them from our ancestors. We thank you for the strength found in the wind as it swirls in circles, and the gentleness of the breeze as it touches our cheeks. We thank you for the cycles of the seasons that show us how life also moves through cycles. We thank you for the wisdom found in the trees when we learn to empty our minds and listen intently to the words they speak. We thank you for the snow that will soon blanket the ground as it prepares it for its slumber.

We ask for healing for those that are enduring great suffering through diverse diseases and disorders. We ask for comfort and peace for those that have lost loved ones. We ask for strength and courage for those that have moved on to the Spirit World. We ask for a greater spiritual reawakening so we may become a greater voice that will not falter throughout the four corners. We ask for an end to the hatred that further destroys us. We ask instead for an era of peace where all become truly equal. We ask for an end to greed and materialistic desires. We ask instead for closed eyes to see and hardened hearts to soften so we may begin to understand the destruction we have made and the task that lies before us. We ask for freedom for all that have been incarcerated over crimes they did not commit. We ask for veils of secrecy to be lifted and closed doors to open so we may better understand that which has brought so much evil into the world. We ask for protection for the defenseless. We ask also for protection for all of our animal friends that are being killed for sport or wall trophies. We ask for an end to domestic violence and abuse and protection be given to those that must suffer through them. We ask for an end to all hostilities and war that further feeds the hatred that divides us. For those that have been abducted, we ask for your strength be granted and for their safe return. We ask for patience when we tend to rush into things before we think.

We thank you for our Elders and the wisdom they provide. May those that are deserving be given the respect they need. We thank you for our children that will build upon an unbreakable foundation this generation lays before them. We thank you for the many trials we endure in order to strengthen our spirit. We thank you for our relations that provide insight when it is needed. We thank you for the rains that come to bring growth and purification to the areas of need. We thank you for the precious gift of life and the magnificence of the beauty that surrounds us. Emenv
Painting: The Witness by Linda Lee Greene - website: