Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Enter Dancing: The Inexhaustible Erica Brookhart

That's Erica on the left

Erica Brookhart lives for stories. She tells them through dance; she tells them through words; she tells them through video. If you sit down beside her over a glass of pinot noir, you might find yourself sharing lurid family secrets. Thanks to evolving technology, Erica can continue to make her living by running a dance studio for kids, while also churning out children’s picture books (like Chico Learns Ballet) and contributing a deeply-moving documentary to YouTube. I met her in Zumba class, where she’s a twice-a-week mainstay. Being Erica, she has recently turned the foibles of our classmates and instructors into a short comic film, Save My Spot, to tickle the funnybone of Zumba lovers everywhere.

Erica started out in Colorado. At college she majored in journalism, gaining communication skills and learning her way around technological gadgetry. Then, upon graduation, she toured Bosnia, Kosovo, and other European hotspots as a dancer entertaining American troops.  She toted along a small digital camera with which she hoped to shoot footage for a documentary. That didn’t work out, but later she used her skills to record the bout with cancer faced by her close friend and roommate, a fellow dancer. When Ercia started filming Trycia, the plan was to chronicle a survival story, showing how this vibrant young woman beat the odds. Alas, it was not to be. Over the course of five years, Trycia weathered many challenges, living long enough to bust out the dance moves  (along with her new groom) at her own joyous wedding celebration. But Erica’s camera also recorded her friend’s decline, leading to her death in 2012. The result is sad, but by no means somber, showing how to live life to the fullest even after being handed a death sentence. Erica’s finished documentary, Enter Stage 4, has racked up 70,000 views on YouTube. Says Erica now, “I didn’t make the film to make it big, but it’s been helping people all over the world.”

Her most recent YouTube project is a great deal more upbeat. Once she put out the word that she was making a fifteen-minute short, friends stepped forward to offer equipment and services like camerawork and production design. She persuaded her mother and sister to take feature roles, and herself played the bubbly sis of the central character. To skewer the obsessive nature of Zumba folks, she also recruited one of her own teachers, Ali Cesur, to vamp his way through a routine. (Of course he’s an aspiring actor – this is SoCal, after all.) Then she announced in class that she needed Zumba enthusiasts to dress crazy and shake their booties. More than twenty of them showed up at a borrowed gym on a weekend, and stars were born left and right. No, you won’t find me there: I was away on a speaking engagement. But I love seeing my gym rat pals strut their stuff.

You can find out more about the very sparkly Erica Brookhart on her website: http://ericabryn.com/  There you’ll see her dancing onstage with Michael Jackson and performing her Britney Spears tribute routine. (Video has many uses in her life.) And her next big project? Well, she’s about to get married to a fitness instructor-turned-sports-equipment-salesman. His name is Rob Robinson, and so she looks forward to becoming the new Mrs. Robinson. She stays in touch with the parents of her late friend, Trycia, and plans to incorporate fabric from Trycia’s gown as part of the “something borrowed” in her own wedding ensemble. The dancing there should be show-stopping.  

Friday, July 27, 2018

The Sounds of Silence: Poland’s Mesmerizing “Ida”

Pawel Pawlikowski’s 2013 Ida, is not a good film. Which is to say, it’s a GREAT film, the most breathtaking cinematic work of art I’ve seen in a very long time. No wonder that, even in competition with Russia’s Leviathan and Argentina’s delightfully twisted Wild Tales, this import from Poland was awarded the Oscar for best foreign language film.

Ida, set in 1962, reflects what happened to the Jews of Poland during and after the second World War. Its title character is a devout convent-bred novice, on the brink of taking her final vows, who unexpectedly discovers that her dead parents were Jewish. Though Holocaust dramas are sometimes rather cynically seen as awards magnets, it’s narrow-minded to look at Ida solely through its depiction of the murderous treatment of Polish Jews under the Nazi regime. Pawlikowski, a native-born Pole who has long lived and worked in Britain, has even more complicated matters on his mind. In contrasting naïve young Anna with the bitter Jewish aunt she didn’t know she had, he explores the wavering line between religion and politics, innocence and guilt, life and death. Aunt Wanda, the loving sister of Anna’s dead mother, somehow survived the Holocaust, but it’s taken its toll on her outlook. A judge, Wanda spent the early post-war years as a dedicated Communist, one who committed herself to rooting out deviance from the party line. Now, however, she’s no longer certain about the cause she’s championed for so long. The twists and turns of her family story have left her cynical, even angry. That’s why she drinks, chain-smokes, and seeks out casual sexual partners . . .  but the film unearths a secret that explains even further why the past has such a hold on her.

Against all odds, Wanda and Anna forge a relationship based on their common bonds. It’s one that takes the film in an unexpected direction, one that I won’t betray. Suffice it to say, though, that Anna (née Ida) turns out to be more surprising than we might have predicted. She may have been raised to know nothing more than convent life, but her brush with the outside world makes its mark. Not—I hasten to add—that she exactly chooses a modern path. We’re left, finally, with more questions than answers.

In the service of his characters, Pawlikowski has chosen filmmaking techniques that are highly unusual. The film is shot in stark black and white, using an old-fashioned aspect ratio that often reduces characters to a small speck in the bottom corner of the screen. Moreover, from scene to scene his camera shows virtually no movement. So what we’re seeing, as we cross rural Poland,  is fixed pictures, in which the characters are merely blips inside their all-encompassing environment. Many years ago, Roger Corman instructed me to read Siegfried Kracauer’s Theory of Film. It’s a long, rather ponderous book, but it makes the point that the magic of cinema is all in its visuals. This film illustrates Kracauer’s belief system in a way that’s not ponderous at all, but rather powerfully dramatic.

Not only is Ida visually static, but it’s at times almost silent. Dialogue is next to nil: by contrast, it’s fair to say that most Hollywood films -- dependent as they are on bright verbal exchanges -- seem downright obstreperous. Often, watching this film, we know what’s happening through what is not said. It’s a method that draws the viewer into the film, making us pay close attention to nuance, to facial expression, to glimpses that we may or may not have seen. Bravissimo.  

Here's a link to a very smart New York Times review of Ida

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

A Heart (and Stomach) of Gold

L.A. is in mourning. Jonathan Gold, Pulitzer Prize-winning food critic for the Los Angeles Times (and the first food writer ever to receive this honor), has just passed away. Not long ago, he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. It’s a cruel disease, painful and unstoppable. Gold heard the bad news a mere three weeks ago. Now, at the age of 56, he is gone.

Not many critics inspire movies. When they appear as characters, they are usually snobs and snots, though sometimes they’re redeemed by the final fadeout. I’m thinking particularly of the stuffy food critic, Anton Ego, voiced to a fare-thee-well by Peter O’Toole, in Pixar’s animated Ratatouille. Ego’s over-educated palate leads him to sniff at haute cuisine that is less than perfection. But one of the film’s key twists comes when Ego is served a simple eggplant dish that reminds him of his mother’s long-ago kitchen. Suddenly he’s a boy again, savoring the flavors of home.

Jonathan Gold, though a discerning gourmand, was far from being a snob. He could appreciate lavish top-drawer cooking, but he gave his heart to the mom-and-pop eateries of ethnic Los Angeles. In fact, he’s been credited with inventing a whole new style of food reviewing, one that involved ferreting out those neighborhood cafes, strip mall bistros, and food trucks that bring to the hungry public the joys of authentic cuisine from SoCal’s many cultures. Roaming the L.A. basin in his gas-guzzling old green truck, he was a welcome presence wherever he went. Small-time restaurateurs loved him, and he loved them back. What he possessed more than anything was an appreciation for the ways in which food—cooking it, eating it—brings communities together.

Gold was a big man, with long, scraggly, greying locks. His larger-than-life presence made him a natural on a movie screen. The only other real-life critic I can think of who starred in his own movie was Roger Ebert, whose man-of-the-people approach to film criticism (along with his heroic acceptance of his own mortality) led to a 2014 documentary, Life Itself. Ebert’s populist inclinations are probably what made movie fans identify with him so passionately that a film was warranted. Likewise Gold was the star of City of Gold (2015), a cheerful tribute to an oversized sprite who is seen happily roaming the streets of his native city in search of his next unexpectedly great meal. Though City of Gold features on-camera appearances by some giants of the food world, all of them praising of Gold’s dedication to his craft, the soul of the film is his interplay with the foreign-born chefs whose native flavors he samples with such gusto.

In the course of City of Gold, we’re also introduced to the wife and kids who lovingly support his food obsessions. From everything I’ve heard, their loss is immeasurable. This morning I was treated to a KPCC-FM interview with Gold’s brother, Mark, who teaches environmental science at UCLA. Clearly the household in which Gold grew up was a place of intense enthusiasms of all kinds. Mark described how he once was treated by Jonathan to a foodie jaunt back to their parents’ birthplace, Chicago. In the name of journalism, they sought out and sampled the homey restaurants their parents had once loved, and also spent a glorious afternoon at Wrigley Field, cheering on the Cubs. In Mark’s words, the trip was an adult version of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

I’m also both cheered and saddened by Mark’s memory of Jonathan’s final days, when friends and family saluted him with pastrami sandwiches from Langer’s Deli. Alas, he couldn’t join in.