jueves, 21 de mayo de 2009

Opera in the Lark

Looks like opera is making its way around the scene again. Started as a sort of elevated popular entertainment in Italy the early 1800s, opera outpaced other entertainments and took Vienna and Paris by storm, finally turning into the highest of highbrow entertainment by the close of the century.

In fact, the form had become so elite and distanced from the popular culture that, through the verismo era, opera’s ‘golden age’ developed ‘exotic’ themes that had a kind of vérité aspect, focusing on the lower classes.

I was at the San Francisco opera recently and was surprised by the number of people who had shown up in sweatpants and jerseys – something I found shocking, and anoying. I myself was not wearing a tux; I’d dressed in sport jacket and tie. I realised that when people no longer bothered to dress for the evening, it was only a natural progression for opera itself to start to shift.

And shift it has: we are now back to the elevated popular entertainment, as opera loses some of its high-falutin’ shine. We’ve seen Opera in the Park. We’ve braved the crowds for Opera in the Ballpark. And now there’s Opera in the Moviehouse. Opera’s gone pop, as multiplexes have started showing simulcasts with all our favorite stars – and in between those broadcasts of live shows from the Met or the SF Opera, we’re able to see ‘encore’ performances – prerecorded shows directed from the booth just as the cameras are directed for the live shows.

The Lark Theater (Larkspur’s small independent) recently had a great opera program going on, and it seems that the Lark filled the seats. We’re glad about that, and we hope you are too.

After an Opening Night Gala to put people in the mood, the Lark showed a lineup to be proud of – from Strauss's Salome to Adams' mindbending Doctor Atomic, the program seemed to try to catch everything in between: Berlioz's La Damnation De Faust, Massenet's Thais, Puccini's La Rondine, Gluck's Orfeo Ed Euridice, Donizetti's Lucia Di Lammermoor, Bellini's La Sonnambula, and Rossini's La Cenerentola. (And when are they going to revive that local story made so 'foreign' by Puccini - La Fanciulla del West [La chica del oeste o La ragazza dell'ovest]?)

At roughly thirty bucks a seat, this isn’t some lowbrow entertainment. But the actual live shows charge far more, so the cost isn’t perceived as astronomical. And, as Hollywood utters fewer films per year – by the latest figures, all studios average about a 40% drop in number of films produced (though the studios, in their need to keep putting out enough films to hold the screens, are picking up many films at festivals for at or near negative cost) – the theater chains need something to pick up the slack.

And opera’s just the thing, apparently. With the appeal of a continental background (and the exotic quality of something known but not fully understood by the mass of moviegoers), opera may be finding its place in the sun… er, or on the screen.

So what’s next, sporting events and horse races at the old Bijou?

David Hakim is an assistant director, producer, and publicity expert who developed campaigns for every major Hollywood studio and handled publicity for the Motion Picture Academy. Find him in the Reel Directory online: www.reeldirectory.com.

All material copyright 2008 David Hakim and may not be duplicated - ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Man Down

This piece was done last year, to mark the passing of a troubled friend. But it has a certain resonance right now, as we are losing another friend, and the process is slow enough for our horde-like family to gather and celebrate before the fact. And, since that was more-or-less the point of the original piece, it seems quite appropriate to put it up now.

Our community has suffered several losses lately, as friends and colleagues continue to pass away. And the philosopher’s words are truth – when one of us dies, the loss belongs to all of us. When that death is a suicide, the loss is felt more keenly, and it does not matter whether that is so because of a young life cut short, or the waste of human potential for love and artistic endeavor and all that makes life human, or because each of us has a secret place for our sorrow and feelings of despair that is touched by the untimely and intentional death of another.

In some rooms, suicide is called ‘a permanent solution to a temporary problem,’ suggesting that the act is like wrecking a car because it has run out of gas. Just keep in the game, this thinking goes, and something will happen to change the play in your favor.

My own take on it is a bit different: suicide is ‘a temporary solution to a permanent problem,’ because – no matter what religion or spiritual creed one follows – we are going to have to deal with the effects of that action… and the lack of diligence in working out the original problem in the first place.

Several years ago, a film was made here that dealt with that theme – What Dreams May Come – and though the film was not overtly Christian, it still espoused a Christian notion of Heaven and Hell. Not all of us believe in that model of the universe, and some of us believe in kharma and rebirth to work through spiritual issues. And clearly our religions, whatever we may call them and whatever they may tell us about ‘afterlife,’ are giving us the same message: stick it out, deal with it, make progress, and find a happy reward when you are pulled from the game.

I don’t judge suicide – everyone has their reasons for what they do, and perhaps that kind of passage is part of their larger destiny to end their own lives. But I feel the waste and sadness of a life cut short; I feel the same way many of us felt several weeks ago – that I could have, would have done something to help a friend and colleague in pain. The death of one of our community is our loss in common, and my mind and heart goes to what we can do about that situation in the future, before the next time, perhaps to prevent it for some one of our dear friends.

I’ve lost several friends this year, and the older I get the fewer living friends and the more dead ones I have. The last few years have seen a number of old-timers leave our ranks as well, and it’s never easy to say goodbye to friends or loved ones. Some years ago, I lost the last friend I will ever have who was twice my age, and that came as a shock, to realise that people just don’t live long enough to be twice my age. Maybe that’s why I have friends half my age, eh?

So what’s this piece about anyway? What’s my narrative here? Well, I’d like to suggest that we honor each other, doing something now, while the person can know we care and feel the depth of that caring, and perhaps avoid standing in a redwood grove on a foggy morning talking about how we might have helped.

Let’s help now – let’s throw surprise parties or call one another up with invites to spontaneous, wacky jaunts to the racetrack or to inner-tube on the river, or even to go hiking down to the beach.

Or this: inviting friends to watch films we like; we discuss film and the business so much that it would be good to take the time to see a film we like with people we like and afterwards discuss over dinner the film, and life, and all things that make it swell.

We live in a kind of paradise, surrounded by wonderful people, privileged and blessed with things and skills and gifts that 95% of the world envies – so why not show our gratitude and spread a little of the love around before our bus arrives?

Just sayin’.

David Hakim is an assistant director, producer, and publicity expert who developed campaigns for every major Hollywood studio and handled publicity for the Motion Picture Academy. Find him in the Reel Directory online: www.reeldirectory.com.

All material copyright 2008 David Hakim and may not be duplicated - ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.


This is an other golden oldie. I think sometimes of turning this one into a short film, and I have even timed it for a voice-over. But I draw back, because I'd have to build the set, and it will never look like what it looked like then... and who's got the money to reconstruct that old Marketplace?

* * *

Bismillah, I have finished scrubbing the black-bottomed pots and the exotic cutlery in the tiny back kitchen at the Inn of the Mullah Nasrudin’s Donkey. The Inn, spread beneath the gaily-colored canopies on a wide bed of straw, sleepily rests (like the donkey it is named after) at the top of Traders’ Market, where merchants, travelers, gypsies, laborers, dancing girls, peasants and the occasional seafarer come to find shelter or comradeship or romance or excitement. Here, with the fragrant aura of spices and Turkish coffee floating on the breeze, they noisily suck through their teeth the boiling chai or strong black Eastern coffee.

Under the festive banners waving slowly in winds which shake out a fine coat of dust, the sprawl of shanties and tents which border the marketplace is nestled in a serene valley, not far from the highway that leads to the great city. The little valley is watched over by lazily-circling hawks or raucous crows in the daytime and, in the nighttime chill, by the silently swooping owls.

Now, under heaped-up tumbles of clouds, the rolling hills languidly bathe in the sun’s clear light. I can see blue jays slip between the swaying bright mustard stems, stems which seem just barely strong enough to hold the fragile weight of the jays. The low hillocks around are like seas of tall grass, deep greens fading to the tan of dried straw, undulating currents and waves in the breezes.

And in the deserted little tent-town, the hard clay roads around Traders’ Market will grow even more silent in the glowing mantle of twilight. Those of us who stay here between the crowded and noisy market-days, who labor building or repairing, or who feed those who labor or make wares to sell – those of us for whom this Valley of the Owl is now home, even for a little while – we will gather under the wide canopy of the Inn of the Mullah Nasrudin’s Donkey for our evening meal and we shall talk or play music and warm ourselves with the Mullah’s hot drinks.

But that will be much later, and just now, the kitchen having been patiently cleaned and my morning soup finished, I have put on my mirrored skullcap and my wide chain bracelets and I have come to sit in the long back camp off the Inn. The back camp is a wide oval yard surrounded by tented beds under another bright canopy, littered at one end with the tools and brooms and buckets that are used in the Inn. The rest of the yard is more domestic, strewn with the makings of extended camp: bags overflowing with clothing, laundry strung on ropes, the cases of musical instruments stacked haphazardly against a wall, the belongings of the servers and workers at the Inn.

Out across the fields of high grass that drape the low curve of the swelling hills – not so far, though, as the line of dark oaks which seem to stand with unmoving branches even in the strongly gusting wind – a stout young man is working, digging a post-hole for another tent pole, his broad back shiny with sweat, his movements slow and deliberate in the gathering heat. Around me are the sounds of the coffee-house: the slow whisper of the broom as the sweeper makes his way through the empty kitchen, the gentle scrapings of a fiddle being tuned, the ratcheting sound of the cards as the players gossip among themselves, the counterpoints of several hammers striking the notes of different nails.

I am at home here – oddly at home in this travelers’ camp, in the very timelessness of this stopping-off place, this passing-through place, this temporary home of ever-returning happinesses. It is among the changing faces of this host of travelers that I have found a comfort. From wherever it is that they come, on the way to wherever it is that they are going, in the shade of the Inn their paths meet.

To the crossroads of Traders’ Market they come, with smiles or with tears, wise or brash or cautious or cunning, to buy and sell, to trade and argue, to learn and teach, to touch and share and fight and love, each with the other: the merchants in long coats and colored jackets and foreign-looking hats, dancing girls caressed by their veils and bangles and bells, laborers in rough shirts or shirtless with neck-scarves pulled over faces against the dust, the laughing dark-eyed belly dancer with the lotus tattoo on her face, the freebooter who has found his sea-wit more profitable upon the land, jugglers and jokesters who entertain travelers for a few coins, serving-girls looking chastely proper or adventurous and sultry, the artists and musicians who paint or play in the background, adding the gentle spices of their several Muses to our lives.

And late at night the gambling men drink strong spirits with their devil-black coffee, or strong spirits from hand-to-handed bottles between laughs and lies and odd bits of their stories tossed out like stray bets in their games. And in the slow morning, the servers step to the rhythm of the Mullah’s snores… ah, the Mullah – always the Mullah, grand and watchful, a great slow presence amid the busy activity of the coffeehouse.

From my spot in the back-camp, I hear among these sounds the marketplace picking up its pace, seeming to stretch and yawn in the sun as if in preparation for a busy afternoon. I realise that the quiet time will soon end. For in a few days it will be Market Day, and the crowds will come – like faraway thunder approaching, like the horizon’s gathering dustcloud moving ever closer, inevitable, inescapable.

The crowds – foreigners in their own land, it seems, restless and impatient and rude – are foreign to themselves and are foreign to us, who were born side by their sides, who live and love at the shore of their busy world, who speak the same language differently and seek other goals and see other dreams under the same velvet sky of night. And when they come, those crowds – trying to touch another life though their arms are too short and their hearts too hollow, to touch a bit of the life that flows through our eyes and through the tongues of our hearts, through our bonds and friendships – when they come, then shall we don our festal masks and sing them the smells of the gypsy fires, the eerie color of the rose-lipped dawn in the high mountain passes, the lover’s caress of gentle waves in far-off silksanded bays.

And one or two will come out of the crowd, will be able to hear our hearts’ songs and know something of our thoughts – and some of us will talk with them and smile openly and friendships will be born. And around that little scene of happiness in the crowded and noisy Traders’ Market, others of us will sell our wares and sing our songs and pocket the coins of our labors.

After the revel is ended, when the drinking and dancing and buying and trading is done, then back to the near-empty marketplace shall we meet again – here, it will be here in this quiet Traders’ Market that we shall gather. And in the long hot afternoons, under the breeze-kissed canopies, those of us who live here will share our coffee or chai and gossip and tell of what has passed on Market Day. And once again, beneath the gliding hawks, the sounds of quiet labor will echo in the Valley of the Owl.

Yes, today is quiet, the thunder and dust of the crowd is far away and my prayers are all said, and the long-handled coffee urns and the bright slick knives have all been cleaned with care, ma’ashallah.

David Hakim is an assistant director, producer, and publicity expert who developed campaigns for every major Hollywood studio and handled publicity for the Motion Picture Academy. Find him in the Reel Directory online: www.reeldirectory.com.

All material copyright 2008 David Hakim and may not be duplicated - ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

The Strength of a Man

So this essay is one that I want to make into a film - preferably a documentary with dramatic overtones. I have no idea how to turn this completely internalised event into an externalised and even-remotely-artistic event, but I am working on it... sort of Chien Andalou crossed with My Dinner With Andre, perhaps. Ok, that was a joke, but this blog ain't.

* * *

On a day like any other – it could have been any day – a minor complaint prompts a question. An inquiry. An examination. . . and suddenly nothing is the same. The things which were big things become small, and all that had been small things disappear. You feel the curtain falling, you see clearly the weakness of living, in an instant you recognise the fragile skin of life. Closing, the eyes truly open – and the turning world continues.

Life holds a moment when the silence drowns out everyday sounds and a man’s fears are suddenly terrifying. For me, that moment came in a small examination room, while a white-coated doctor described a Texas-sized tumor inside my chest.

With the sweat came the realisation that it’s in there, and you can’t get it out. But now the man’s talking numbers: survival rates, percentages, things only measured long after the deal is done, when you’re either laughing in Aruba or rotting in Pleasant Acres.

The patient faces the doctor – recently met, now with the egregious duty of informing this stranger that his life may be over – and stutters out a request to repeat the words. The wife cries quietly, seeing the future more clearly than her husband. Soon, with any luck, this man will know all about patient, as doctors prod and lead and jerk him around in a display of human frailty that is remarkably life-like. But now he’s too stunned to notice her silent tears, and she is too consumed with a single idea: he must somehow survive.

* * *

My mental list of what it takes to be a man: A man doesn’t cry, is always prepared, doesn’t complain and bears his pain quietly. A man protects himself and those around him. He won’t exploit, depend, or take his friends for granted. I’d taken at least one side and had held it all my life. I owned and would not lose the strength of conviction; I was strong and could fight if I had to. And it became clear that I had to fight – fight the cancer, fight to stay alive. Of course, I was to also learn some distinctly different lessons in the months to come.

* * *

A delightful irony: at forty-five, I was stricken by a young-people’s disease. Most Hodgkin’s patients are 18 to 24. And Hodgkin’s is neat, clean and imminently curable – I was puzzled when they called it the ‘good’ cancer.

The tumor was pressing on both my heart and my lungs, causing me to have poor circulation and extreme shortness of breath. Again, the ironies: as an educated man, I could not help but recognise that the tumor struck at the center of our collective notion of courage (from the Latin for ‘heart’). Moreover, the tumor attacked my lungs, where I breathe (spirit comes from the Latin for ‘breath’). How often in life do we hear these words matched up with our notion of manhood: “That fighter’s got a lot of heart;” “He has the spirit to win this one.” With these two areas so compromised, how was I to defend myself against this threat to my life?

And the effects of cancer weren’t merely philosophical. I was physically weak, I couldn’t work for more than a few minutes at a time, and could not sleep. I had lost twenty pounds to land at a feeble 160 and was tired all the time. The tumor was consuming almost everything I ate, leaving the rest of my body to starve. My life had turned around, and I wasn’t liking the direction it took.

My wife drove me to the infusion center for chemotherapy every two weeks, because the treatment wiped me out too much to walk, much less to drive. Working from graphs which told the maximum I could take without dying, brisk professionals put poisons into my veins as I watched – and waited – for the effects. At the infusion center, they gave me palliative drugs for nausea and other side effects, but I hated taking them. I quickly reduced my intake of these additives to a minimum, resigned to pull in my ears and bear the physical discomfort.

We attended, respectively, a “survivors’ group” and a “caretakers’ group” - learning new things about chronic and catastrophic disease in America today... and about the politics of disease.

* * *

It’s a hard thing to wake each day into the sickness again, without relief, to see yourself in the mirror more debilitated and feeble each time – the constant reminder of failing health, to know that you are not what you were, that in fact you are so much less than you were, that you are constricting, shrinking each day in your movement, in your strength, in your already-severely-limited abilities. And added to that are the difficulties of relentless treatment. If the sickness is pernicious, the treatment itself is vicious.

You must make all those minor and major adjustments, you must acquiesce and compromise, you must accept that your life probably will never be as it was. You can accept it with grace or you can fight it. But this is the real deal, pal: you can’t stay the same.

And of course, that’s what life is all about, at the end of the day. Forget the illusion of a continuing arc of achievement until we die in the lap of luxury. For most of us, that will never happen – our present success won’t help at the end. The smaller office, the less-luxury car, downsizing, painful joints, the ex-wife, the hated retirement, estranged kids, move to a furnished room, calendar filled with medical appointments, assisted living, the catheter or colostomy: a series of minor adjustments, compromises, large and small acquiescences, rationalizations. We can only hope that we won’t find ourselves on the downward slope of the hill without ever having enjoyed the summit. We will age until we become too weak to feed and care for ourselves, and we’ll hang on until one day we just . . . die.

* * *

As I watched people disappear from my survivors’ group, I began to feel like Barabbas, delivered from mine enemies – but at what cost? Some other cancer patient filled the statistical spot that might have been meant for me under the title: “Annual Deaths from Cancer.” The analogy of Barabbas haunted me – the thief chosen by his people to be free, the committor of seemingly ‘small’ crimes, yet whose sins are greater than those of he whom was punished. The shrink at the infusion center had asked me whether I thought that cancer was a punishment (it turned out that, given the Judeo-Christian ethic, many people do). I looked at him as though he had asked me whether winning at the track were the Reward to the Faithful, and said, “Of course not – it’s just the luck of the draw.”

But my insomniac mind spun with these ideas, having little else to think about but my failing health and my business, which had faltered as a result of my absences. There was no religious significance attached to the idea of Barabbas and redemption, hardly any moral to be learned and little philosophy – only the irony of one man’s trial being greater than another’s, and that being the guy with the light end of the load seemed sometimes hard to take.

Of course, the light end of this particular load was still heavy indeed. I would live on, bearing the complications and having opportunities to change aspects of my life, trying to become happy at last. Is that how Barabbas reacted? Did he walk down that long hill in the light rain amid sunny patches, renouncing his thieving ways and resolving to live a truly happy life for a change, after a long-deserved vacation over in Hebron?

* * *

Interesting phenomena began to occur when the chemo really started to stack up in my body. The nature of most chemotherapies is that they are progressive and cumulative – the further down the line you go with them, the more they remain in your body and therefore the more they’ll affect you. I was getting my ass kicked with some true sincerity from the third through the eighth day – five or six full days of rat poison flowing through my system, twisting every human response into something quite unpleasant and scary, most accurately described as having a corpse shoved into your skin along with you.

I watched the slow progression, as the man who lived in the mirror lost his thick head of hair, then his beard. And then one day his mustache fell off. His features became harder and more severe, and I was reminded of a description of an old cavalry officer by George MacDonald Fraser: “He was a tough old file with a flinty gaze.” And that was who looked back at me from the mirror – a tough old file, one I couldn’t recognise.

So here I was, in the middle of my fifth cycle (having received chemo nine times) and the effects were just pounding me into the ground. I’m told that it’s something like a woman’s period . . . and so much more. I don't know if the effect can be blamed on hormones, but the wash of emotions I experienced was frankly stunning. Profound feelings of hopelessness, despair, fear, weakness, dependence, cowardice – all the things which my life had supposedly girded me against – would overwhelm me at odd moments and set me spinning to a snappy little dance number played by Death’s soloist himself.

There were times that I could hear my Uncle Ironhand’s voice floating through the long tunnel from my childhood, repeating a joke he liked: “I tell you: first I was afraid I would die. Then I was afraid I wouldn’t!” I’d find myself longing for death as a way out of the pain, then I’d chide myself for such silly thoughts. There was logic lost there – I was, after all, undergoing this pain to avoid death. But the mind does funny things. On certain days, in certain hours, it all just seemed too big to cope with. I was reduced to the outlook of a little boy – a scared and vulnerable little boy, stripped of the years of training in becoming a man, in hardening himself to the difficulties of life. I was a little boy who felt no shame in crying.

And in those moments, somehow, I learned what strength is – not what we believe it to be, or what big-screen heroes show us, nor what we want it to be or need it to be – what it actually is. Strength is forever allied with faith: the faith that we can get through, if we can just hang on. The child can believe, and persevere, perhaps because he has not had all that training in becoming a man.

And then the realizations start to come. A clarity takes over which peels away all the happy horseshit and the clichéd beliefs we spoon-feed ourselves every day. A man can look at the bare face of life and learn his lesson, without fanfare – and, if he’s lucky, without regret.

To really accept being the essence of a man relates back to several archetypes, one of them the failing father, the man looked down upon by the son for not being as good as the son has become. But how could he be? How could the father – over and over throughout time – consistently be better than the son? First, nobody would like the effects of that. Objections would be raised. And more important, it defies evolution. Each generation must improve, if a species is to survive. Sons must become more – and better – than fathers.

And we can’t forget the partner and the mentor, both archetypes with very necessary social functions. There is more to mating than the act of procreation. The joining of two lives involves a variety of small relationships stacked into a larger, more penetrant and encompassing relationship with the same person – the partner. And the mentor is a friend and teacher, one who guides the younger person into and through the confusing labyrinth of social and natural relationships. These facets of adulthood – and, by extension, of manhood – are secondary to the relationship with self, but they are crucial for an individual’s healthy functioning.

There is also the laudable trait of just being there, a solid post in the community to lend a hand when needed, or perhaps to merely be a witness – the good neighbor, another often-overlooked archetype.

The truth is that we don’t need as many heroes as we need men to admire them. And why do we admire heroes? Because we’re ordinary. As special as each of us might be, compared to heroes we are only ordinary. So be it. The descent into ordinariness is another facet of strength.

Yes, we admire heroes because we’re ordinary. The true strength is this: We go through our lives, learning our lessons and taking our knocks, often never realising that this is all there is. No redemption, no third act, no flashing moment of enlightenment: just more of the same. Just our own ordinariness, the diminishing strength, our incipient weakness, until we fade or fall away.

And that’s being a man. That’s where a man’s true strength – his real beauty – is found: To keep pushing forward, knowing that there are no more big kills, no awards or golden moments, no endless summers. To accept that, and to stay focused on just reaching the goal when all the glory is behind you, to keep showing up, suited up, long after you haven’t got a double-play left in you – that’s the strength of a man.

Nothing flies for long without coming to ground, and to glide gently in with grace and élan makes a much better story than to crash and burn, a million biker tattoos notwithstanding.

David Hakim is an assistant director, producer, and publicity expert who developed campaigns for every major Hollywood studio and handled publicity for the Motion Picture Academy. Find him in the Reel Directory online: www.reeldirectory.com.

All material copyright 2008 David Hakim and may not be duplicated - ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.