Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Jonathan Gording, OD: Eyes on the Prize

So Guardians of the Galaxy is once again at the top of the domestic box office. I’m someone who generally prefers artier films (like the dark but fascinating Calvary). But every once in a while I need my popcorn-movie fix, and Guardians certainly provides that. For one thing, it’s a visual treat: this is a galaxy in which nearly everyone has a spectacularly off-kilter look. In one of the earliest scenes, when Djimon Hounsou opened wide his powder-blue eyes, I couldn’t help thinking about my optometrist, Dr. Jonathan Gording.

Dr. Gording, who did some minor work on Guardians of the Galaxy, has an award-winning sideline crafting contact lenses for Hollywood. The walls of his office are full of posters from big-name movies like 127 Hours (for James Franco he made lenses that simulated pink eye) and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. He’s something of a Tom Cruise specialist, having worked on Interview with the Vampire, Vanilla Sky, and Minority Report.  For 2011’s Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol he joined with an SFX team to concoct a video camera embedded in a contact lens and supposedly activated by blinking. But his real expertise is in the realm of the supernatural. He’s the go-to guy for zombie and vampire eyes, on such shows as The X-Files and True Blood. Southern California is a land where delis and drycleaners decorate their walls with autographed headshots of their celebrity clientele. But Jonathan Gording, OD,  has on his wall a wooden stake, a souvenir of the 100th episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Naturally, for Hollywood creative types, it’s all about the look of Dr. Gording’s lenses. But as a optical professional, he puts much effort into ensuring cast members’ comfort and eye health. When I mentioned a well-known star who had a terrible time adapting to the full-eyeball yellow lenses required for one fantasy production, Gording made clear that if he’d been charge, the lenses might have caused far less problem. But he also emphasized that this particular star – who’d been fitted by Gording on his breakout film – was a chronic complainer, rarely satisfied with any aspect of his costumes and makeup.

Working with Hollywood folk, it seems, is a big challenge, for reasons that have nothing to do with the medical. Just recently Gording had to help an award-winning but now elderly actress turn into a zombie. When he showed up, she was already notorious on-set for stripping off her top to reveal what he delicate calls “her womanly wiles.” When he went to do measurements on her eyes for “zombie lenses,” she announced she was a 36 and threatened to prove it. The skewed priorities of showbiz types also give him pause. He remembers getting a Monday morning call from an assistant director, “Dave,” who had signs of a detached retina. In this critical situation, Gording urged Dave to come to his office immediately. Then Dave started stalling, citing a heavy workload. Eventually he accepted a Wednesday appointment. On Tuesday, though, he was carted off to the emergency room.

When Gording decided to pursue a Hollywood career, other optometrists in the biz gave him the cold shoulder. But he enjoyed a warm welcome from the late Dick Smith, whose prosthetic work on such films as The Godfather and The Exorcist revolutionized the field of movie makeup. The gentlemanly Smith told him he’d have a ball. Which, of course, has been quite true.
Leaving his office one day, Gording cheerily told me, “I’ve got to go torture someone.” Yes – someone needed his eyes propped open on CSI

For those who appreciate things that go bump in the night, I’ll be speaking on Roger Corman’s screen adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death at the Weird Weekend (featuring screenings, a storytelling competition, and other fun) sponsored by the Historical Society of the Upper Mojave Desert. The dates are September 12-13 and the place is Ridgecrest, California. More info awaits at 760-375-8456.    

Dr. Gording (he's on the right) and friend from Buffy 


Friday, August 22, 2014

Covering Syria: From Page to Screen

When my colleague Howard Kaplan first published The Damascus Cover back in 1977, I imagine he gave some thought to his book’s movie potential. After all, he’d written a fast-paced spy novel full of intrigue, betrayals, and narrative twists galore, set amid Syria’s bloody byways. I doubt, though, it ever occurred to him that Hollywood would come calling in 2014.

Well, not Hollywood exactly. There’s British money involved in this modest indie production, now called simply Damascus Cover, which is slated to begin shooting in Morocco this fall, with James D’Arcy and Abigail Spencer in major roles. But writer-director Daniel Berk (who once helped connect John Travolta with Quentin Tarantino, and has also served as the Senior Envoy for Cultural Affairs at the Israeli Consulate in Los Angeles), shares Howard’s fascination with the Middle East. Berk enlisted a second screenwriter, Samantha Newton, to deepen the film’s central romantic relationship and otherwise up the dramatic stakes. Some of Howard’s own story suggestions were taken, but he’s the rare novelist who seems delighted by the changes that have been made to his original work. With both Syria and Israel all too prominent in the news of late, it seems high time to make a film that follows an Israeli spy who’s gone undercover in Damascus, masquerading as an ex-Nazi businessman while striving to carry out a dangerous mission.

A Nazi enclave in Syria decades after the close of World War II? That’s the kind of historic detail on which Howard Kaplan thrives. He’s a student of Middle Eastern history, one who spent several years living in Israel, speaks fluent Hebrew, and has contacts of all persuasions in the region about which he writes. During his student years, he made a brief, clandestine visit to Damascus, then enhanced his knowledge of this teeming, fascinating city by studying detailed maps as well as every memoir and travel book he could find. As he puts it, “God bless the Brits, who go everywhere and write about it.”

Howard’s enthusiasm for cloak-and-danger stories was primed in the early 1970s when he made two trips to the Soviet Union. On the first, he successfully smuggled out a dissident's manuscript on microfilm. The second time around,  he was arrested and interrogated for several days by Soviet police before being expelled from the country. (This incident contributed to the plot of his second published novel, The Chopin Express.) To flesh out The Damascus Cover, he read widely about the Israeli spy Eli Cohen who, explains Howard, “had been highly placed inside Syrian Intelligence before the Six Day War and provided Israel with much of the intelligence to allow them to take the Golan Heights from Syria in that war. He was uncovered and hung publicly in Marjeh Square in Damascus.” In addition, Howard steeped himself in the writings of  Somerset Maugham, Eric Ambler, Graham Greene, and especially John Le CarrĂ©, whose espionage novels benefit from his real-life experiences in British Foreign Intelligence. He’s also been inspired by Ken Follett, who early in his career wrote a vivid novel about Afghanistan without once having set foot in that troubled land.

Howard prides himself on his even-handedness, which comes from decades of researching both Israeli and Arab points of view. His objectivity on thorny Middle Eastern matters has been noted by many reviewers. He also knows how to spin a good yarn. Bestselling author Clive Cussler is a fan, saying, “Kaplan is up there with the best.” Let’s hope the movie version of The Damascus Cover lives up to expectations, and sheds light on what’s happening in the Syria of today. 

The movie poster, as of now 

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Of Poor Doors and Balconies

As racial and social tensions mount in Ferguson, Missouri, I’m also struck by a new phenomenon that’s perhaps unique to the two coasts: the “Poor Door.” It seems that some pricey residential towers in Manhattan and at least one luxury property in West Hollywood have been trying to do a bit of fancy footwork around local zoning ordinances. Developers are often given certain valuable concessions when they promise to offer a fixed number of affordable “below-market-rate” apartments along with costlier units in the same building. In order to separate the haves from the have-nots, their new dodge is to create entrances that are separate but hardly equal.

Apparently, this sort of thing is a matter of course in London, where class snobbery is nothing new. But a construction project in New York that routes the occupants of the cheap flats to a much more modest door around the corner from the building’s posh entry hall has understandably raised a hue and cry. I was surprised to learn that something similar was recently proposed in West Hollywood, a SoCal city that has long been dedicated to gay rights and the protection of renters. When WeHo housing officials learned that the developers planned to build separate entrances, and also to bar low-income folk from their new project’s pool and spa, they cried foul. Quickly backpedaling, the project’s backers solemnly promised that their building’s amenities (including its main entrance) would be open to all.

In following the controversy, I can’t help thinking about segregation, and its impact on our nation’s movie houses. Veteran TV and movie producer Romell Foster-Owens grew up in San Diego, as part of a large, close-knit African-American family. The weekly ritual for Romell and her siblings was to spend Saturdays at the movies, munching on snacks from the concession stand and generally hanging out. Then, when she was a boisterous eleven-year-old, the family drove cross-country to visit relatives in the Deep South.  It was in Warner Robbins, Georgia, a sleepy town near a large military base, that she learned about life’s realities. She was so excited about seeing Flipper at the  local cinema that her parents let her run in ahead of them. As she recalled to me: “I’m in the lobby and I’m wanting to buy popcorn. And the lady’s telling me, in this very strange accent to me, that I had to go around the back. And I didn’t understand what she was saying, and I’m still being persistent: ‘I would like to get some popcorn and a drink.’ And she’s saying, ‘Nope. Can’t help you. You have to go around the back.’” 

Her parents quickly yanked her aside and explained that she’d have to enter through a side door and climb to a “Colored Only” balcony. Half-way up the stairs there was a niche where she could purchase refreshments. They tried hard to make her balcony seat seem like a cool adventure. Nonetheless “I’m still upset, because I’m sitting up in the balcony, and that’s not where I want to be. And that was probably one of the first times I felt like second-class citizenship.”

Romell Foster-Owens will always remember Flipper, not for the antics of the friendly dolphin, but because of the anger that consumed her that day: "After all I had the same money and had to pay the same price for my ticket as anyone else." But Warner Robbins was hardly unique: virtually all Southern cities relegated blacks to the rafters, and I suspect some Northern ones did too. (Anyone have any detailed info on that?) And it wasn’t just movie theatres. Check out this courtroom scene near the end of To Kill a Mockingbird.

(This is Thalian Wall in Wilmington, North Carolina, where Africa-Americans were relegated to the top balcony. There they sat on unpadded fold-up seats. Hardly separate but equal!)

Friday, August 15, 2014

Back-to-School: Sir Dares You to Go Up the Down Staircase

For me it’s shorts-and-sandals weather, so it’s hard to imagine young people going back to school. I’m sure that most adolescents would much rather head for the movies. But of course movies about unruly students—and the teachers who try to tame them
are a genre unto themselves. The year 1967 featured two: Up the Down Staircase and To Sir, With Love.

The former, a gritty low-budget black-and-white feature, somewhat parallels To Sir, With Love, with Sandy Dennis assuming the Sidney Poitier role as a brand-new teacher who walks into a tough situation. Adapted from a best-selling novel by the late Bel Kaufman, it understands that a public school is a bureaucracy run amok. Shot in an actual New York City high school and incorporating non-professionals into its cast, it is one of the most convincing movies ever made about secondary education. Within its student body, some are hopeless and a few are dangerous, but others remain capable of making progress. The film does an honest job of showing both the risks and the rewards of being a classroom educator.

Up the Down Staircase earned only a third as much money as To Sir, With Love. The obvious explanation is that Sandy Dennis is no Sidney Poitier. Yes, Dennis was much admired for this performance, even winning the Best Actress prize at the 1967 Moscow Film Festival. (Rumor has it the film was submitted by the U.S. Department of State to counter Soviet propaganda that all American schools are racially segregated.) Yet Dennis’s spirited but vulnerable Sylvia Barrett is no match for Poitier’s suave, charismatic Mark Thackeray. The marketing campaigns for the two films tell the tale. In one prominent ad, a well-dressed Poitier is shown standing behind his desk, his hands splayed out flat on its wooden surface. He’s leaning forward, and his face is grim. Clearly, he’s a man who means business. This fact is reinforced by the words scrawled on the blackboard behind him: “You’ve got to make them cool it and call you ‘Sir’!” What To Sir, With Love is promising is a powerful hero, one who scores an almost-military victory (note the emphasis on the word “Sir”) over the young roughnecks who threaten to bring him down. Audiences were clearly pleased: the film was a major hit.

Many newspaper ads for Up the Down Staircase contained a full-length image of Dennis, carrying books and a large tote bag; she looks slightly disheveled, and also wary of the leers she’s getting from the teens loitering in her path. Other ads featured a male hand, complete with snake tattoo, writing boldly on the chalkboard, “DEAR TEACH—THE THING I LIKE BEST ABOUT YOU IS YOUR LEGS.” Above this implicitly sexual taunt, there’s a glimpse of Dennis’s anxious face. Though much of the marketing for Up the Down Staircase contains in small print a line clearly intended to be inspirational—“The year’s #1 best-seller picks you up and never lets you down”—all visuals emphasize the leading character’s feminine fragility. Poitier represents the teacher as victor, as someone who, despite his air of refinement, is tough enough to tame classroom hoodlums. Dennis, by contrast, is the teacher as potential victim. Nonetheless, the fact that a movie is devoted to a female whose dilemma is professional rather than romantic, and whose concern for her students’ progress is not to be confused with maternal softness, shows a rare and welcome respect for the idea of a woman finding her place in the world of work.

Here’s to teachers – and their students – everywhere!