Sunday, December 31, 2006

Ties to Peace

A temporary war memorial consisting of approximately 3,000 ties was draped over the French sycamores in San Francisco's Civic Center on Saturday the 30th, and it will remain for the duration of the New Year's weekend.

There were a number of veterans' groups involved in the small event...

...but the main impetus seemed to be from American Legion Post 448...

...which is a local gay group named after Alexander Hamilton (click here for their website).

At 4PM somebody started reading the names of the 3,000 soldiers who have been killed in Iraq, accompanied by a small gong after a certain number of names were read.

It was heartening to see that the organizers acknowledged not only the American soldiers lost, but the beleaguered civilian populations of Afghanistan and Iraq, which the United States have been murdering for the last five years.

In a San Luis Obispo newspaper article a couple of days ago entitled "The Toll In Iraq," they listed 2,992 American soldiers dead, 397 coalition soldiers dead, and an ureliable number of thousands of United States soldiers wounded. Nowhere was the loss of at least half a million Iraqi lives even mentioned.

The best and bravest Western reporter in Iraq from day one has been Patrick Cockburn, writing mostly for The Independent in England, and often reprinted on his brother Alexander's Counterpunch website. He just wrote a clear-eyed obituary of Saddam Hussein and the future of Iraq which is highly recommended even though it's an honestly bleak picture (click here).

If the world were fair, George Bush (both of them), Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney would all be swinging at the end of the same noose as Saddam Hussein, since they've all been fellow gangsters responsible for the premature deaths of millions, but we don't live in a world that is fair.

Instead, in this country we are currently subjected to a televised state funeral fit for a Caesar, except that it is for the mendacious mediocrity that was Gerald Ford. Not only did he empower Cheney, Rumsfeld and Bush Senior in the first place, but the man started his career as a cover-up artist on the Warren Commission. On my friend Willie's blog, he calls Ford "a good soldier in the army of evil" (click here for the post).

Also reporting on this event and a later demonstration is Jan over at the happening-here blog (click here), and Chris Floyd at Empire Burlesque (click here) has an interesting discussion of Ford's role in the slaughter of 200,000 people in East Timor along with a couple of heady rants about Saddam Hussein's gangland execution and its coverage in New York's version of Pravda.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Dreamgirls in Cathedral City

For a Christmas afternoon treat, we drove to a bizarre mall in Cathedral City that contained the Coachella Valley's only Imax Theatre...

...along with stores, restaurants, housing...

...not to mention City Hall and the Police Department.

This blog's namesake signage turns out to be over a faux-Moorish/Spanish retail and entertainment complex... the middle of the desert.

The complex was built in 1998 and is some weird new civic planning mutation where the Police Station looked like a cute set out of "Veronica Mars.

The entire complex is dominated by a multiplex movie theatre called the Mary Pickford, which is where we were headed to see the opening day of "Dreamgirls."

The movie was a huge disappointment, particularly after all the hype asserting that the filmmakers hadn't screwed up the material, but had delivered some kind of masterpiece.

The original Broadway musical was always a troubled show, partly because everyone in the production was taking way too much cocaine (that's what people were doing in those days), and Jennifer Holliday identified with the role of Effie White a little too closely. She was reportedly the poster child for an insecure, screwed-up, insane diva who made every performance a backstage drama that was more outrageous than her "And I'm Telling You's" signature aria.

I had the great good fortune to see the show in its original Michael Bennett staging, after the original cast flamed out in Los Angeles just after leaving Broadway. The production was recast and played for a number of months at the Golden Gate Theatre in San Francisco, and to this day it's still one of the handful of great theatrical experiences of my life.

The musical is written as an ensemble piece for six to eight characters and without Ms. Holliday swallowing the show whole, it was possible to see how brilliantly the piece had been put together. The book and lyrics were by Tom Eyen, an old gay avant-garde playwright from the 1960s/1970s being given his first (and last) Broadway gig. The music was by Henry Krieger who wrote a perfectly serviceable score that is in a Broadway showtune style circa 1980s (think Marvin Hamlisch's "A Chorus Line") but that also is fairly clever in its Motown pastiches, and above all allows for improvisation by the singing actors, which tends to characterize great black pop music. The staging by Michael Bennett was probably the most extraordinary of his career, a mixture of the minimalist (no set other than 2 twirling lucite towers filled with stage lights) and the maximalist (huge, simple props whisking on and off the stage like a dream).

The filmmaker should be commended for the casting which is strong from top to bottom, though Eddie Murphy is getting overpraised. James Thunder Early is one of the most interesting characters in "Dreamgirls," and can hijack a performance easily. The character is an unlikely, but fascinating version, of wild man James Brown who is being groomed to be a smooth Nat King Cole crooner for Jewish casino showrooms. His breakdowns, where the "soul" man can't be suppressed, are the heart of the musical.

So is Effie, the fictional mixture of the Supremes' Flo Ballard and the self-destructive, still-surviving Etta James, and her usurpation by the prettier, "whiter" Deena/Diana Ross. I just wish somebody besides the writer/director Bill Condon had been put in charge of the project. Moving a camera in a 360 degree circle while somebody is trying to sing a musical number is mildly interesting the first time, annoying the second, and excruciating the fourteenth iteration. The musical direction is also awful, making everything sound alike, when the entire point of the score is the black/white/rough/smooth contrasts and how they work in both art and the public marketplace. So, nice try, Mr. Condon, you didn't fuck it up egregiously like the movie version of "A Chorus Line" but I'm afraid you didn't do the material justice.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Tahquitz Canyon Winter Solstice

Tahquitz Canyon lies just off the main drag of Palm Springs in the San Jacinto Mountains.

The canyon is under the jurisdiction of the very wealthy Agua Caliente tribe of the Cahuilla Indians...

...who closed it down to visitors in the late 1960s after thousands of hippies congregated there after a rock concert.

This prohibition didn't stop people from using the canyon as a homeless shelter, party spot or a make-out location...

...and over the next 30 years the graffiti and trash mounted up into an unsightly mess.

Finally, in the late 1990s, the tribe took some of its local casino earnings and hired naturalists to clean up the canyon...

...which they opened to visitors for paid guided tours in 2000.

I went on the two-mile hike in 2001 and was astonished by the beauty of the place...

...but the "interpretive" tour by the "Native Tribal" ranger, a young blonde man from Minnesota, was "Disneyesque" as one writer put it at, filled with groan-inducing puns interspersed with the natural history.

Hoping that we would snag a different guide five years later, a trio of us were delighted to find that the policy had changed in the intervening years...

...and that we were free to take the two-mile hike up the canyon unaccompanied... a waterfall that was featured in the 1937 movie version of "Lost Horizon."

The canyon is named after a powerful Cahuilla Indian shaman ("witch doctor") who supposedly went bad and who continues to harvest the souls of the unwitting.

It seems that the energy is bad enough from this spirit that some Cahuilla Indians refuse to enter the place.

It's strange that one of the major streets in Palm Springs is named after a villain, Tahquitz...

...but it's oddly consonant with the naming of other major boulevards in the Coachella Valley like Bob Hope Drive, Frank Sinatra Drive, and the Gene Autry Trail.

My friend Willie remarked that the hike felt like returning to the womb and going up the birth canal, and the metaphor seemed apt.

There are also legends concerning earthquakes and how a roaring can be heard at the mouth of the canyon before a major temblor begins.

Small quakes have been shaking with some frequency lately in both the San Francisco Bay Area and the Coachella Valley, where there was a 4.1 last night on the 23rd.

Maybe the evil shaman Tahquitz can warn us, possibly by appearing as a burning bush (the above image was not Photoshopped by the way).

Friday, December 22, 2006

Gore Vidal

Gore Vidal has just written a slim memoir covering the second half of his life called "Point to Point Navigation," and buying a copy at the Peppertree Bookstore in Palm Springs gained one an invitation to an interview and a book signing with him. The event was held on a freezing cold Wednesday evening at a local arthouse movie miniplex called the Camelot that has a full bar in its mezzanine, and the audience was mostly elderly gay men.

Vidal arrived for the first visit of his life to Palm Springs in a wheelchair, either from a recent "titanium" knee operation or from diabetes complications.

In any case, the 81-year-old author was looking frail and beat-up, though his brain was as sharp as ever.

He wasn't helped by an upside-down microphone, or a bad interviewer in the person of George Englund, an old producer/director of crappy 1960s movies like "The Ugly American" and "The Shoes of the Fisherman."

The memoir is mostly a rumination on death, including those of his beloved aviation pioneer father Gene Vidal and Howard Austen, who was literally Gore's "domestic partner" since they lived together for 50 years while having separate sexual lives.

The interviewer George Englund kept trying to probe into Vidal's secret heartbreak over living with an alcoholic mother who married a succession of rich and/or famous men, but Gore wasn't having any of it. He referred to his recent move from Italy to the Hollywood Hills to finish out the "Cedar Sinai Hospital period" of his life. "It's only in Los Angeles, I've noticed, that you can hear ninety year old women whining about the mistreatment they received at the hands of their parents. Ninety years old!"

Englund didn't get the hint, and continued, "how did it really make you feel being a stepchild in all those families?" to which Vidal replied, "well, it was an easy way to acquire a lot of interesting relatives quickly." Englund pushed on, "but how were you treated by your stepfathers?" and Vidal replied, "They treated me with deference and distance as they could see I had very sharp teeth."

The memoir indulges in gossip about everyone from Garbo to Frederico Fellini to the assassins of JFK, and there's a few last-minute score settlings with the late Randy Shilts of the "San Francisco Chronicle" and Fred Kaplan who recently wrote a bad and inaccurate biography of Vidal.

However, there is not an ounce of self-pity or bitterness in the man and there never has been. It was an honor to see him in person again before he moves "graciously, I hope, toward the door marked Exit."