Remembering Balanchine

This George Platt Lynes study of George Balanchine with School of American Ballet students was on the cover of the School’s brochure scant years after I entered, and I’ve always loved it. (The boy is 10-year-old Edward Villella.)

Only in our dreams would Mr. B. feel the need to work with dancers at our level. This is what I remember from one time that he did.

In a slightly different form, it appeared in the Los Angeles Times, May 8, 1983, just after Balanchine’s death..

Remembering Balanchine

The last thing we expected George Balanchine to be was funny. Actually the last thing we expected him to be was visible. In 1945 as a student at the School of American Ballet, you could count on an occasional harrowing glimpse of Lincoln Kirstein in the elevator to class, well over 6’4” tall and austere, and that was bad enough.

Mr.B. was legendary but largely unseen. I was sure he’d look like one of those George Platt Lynes photographs in Dance Index, with his necktie thrown dramatically back over his coat. Classmates thought he’d look imperious, since half his photographs were taken with his head back like a greyhound. But although we felt his presence at the School we almost never saw him during those long afternoons while we spattered the wooden floorboards with drops of sweat and prayed that somehow, some way we would learn the combinations. Not only learn them but begin to dance them.

Occasionally, a girl from the most advanced class would to drop into C class to work on technique; dancing what we were only holding onto with our fingernails. The one we used to stare at most, covertly, trying not to show our fascination, seemed as close to perfection as we could imagine. She had extraordinarily long legs and arms and she tied her hair back neatly with the narrowest pink satin ribbon, the color which exactly matched the pink flush her cheeks took on as the class work grew progressively harder. It gave her the effect of a porcelain doll, a comparison we suspected she had already noticed, but there was nothing doll-like in the way she covered the diagonal distance of the practice room in three long, low leaps.

There was yet no New York City Ballet company to aspire to, although we had no way of knowing how close on the horizon it was to being born. It seemed as though nothing would change, that classes from these fierce Russian emigres, Anatole Ouboukhoff and Pierre Vladimiroff who gave their directions in French strained through Russian, or from Muriel Stuart who was English and kindly and had toured with Pavlova, would continue forever; that we would learn or not learn each succeeding level of difficulty in a sort of dream-like continuum.

But it all changed one November afternoon. A large group from class, as well as soloists taken from the professional class, were quietly notified: there was to be a school performance at Carnegie Hall with Leon Barzin and the National Symphony Orchestra. Mr. B. would choreograph a Mozart Symphonie Concertante, a Stravinsky Elegie for viola and Stravinsky’s Circus Polka.

And so we began to work with Balanchine. And with our pink-cheeked idol from professional class, Tanaquil LeClercq, who we found was only a year older than most of us, and not aloof but intent. She and another dancer the physical opposite of herself were to do a pas de deux. Most of the rest of us were involved in the Mozart Symphonia Concertante, forming a living background for the serious action, standing, kneeling, posing, changing arms, counting, changing arms again. All in an atmosphere of the greatest concentration. There were, you can be sure, no hysterical mothers, and no worries over costumes either. We were to wear our hideous blue regulation leotards and tie our hair back neatly. And that was that.

But we could watch. So we would line the floor, our backs against the cold mirrors, sit quietly and try not to be noticed while we watched them practice. Balanchine would get two or three dancers into a tangle, their hands linked in a long continuous movement until he ran out of human slack, and had to unknot them as you would unknot a snarled chain. And at these moments we discovered his oblique humor.

Tamara Toumanova had been through New York just then, with, among other things, a peculiar ballet done to the music of Chopin in which the pianist was on stage with her and she was his muse. A white, romantic ballet, it had been choreographed to feature one of her particular aptitudes, spectacular balance. At one moment of inspiration she balanced en pointe at his shoulder, balanced and balanced while the music filled and swelled and repeated and went back and over again until, finally, she had her fill of inspiration and got on with the rest of the dance.

And on this particular Saturday morning on Madison Avenue in this dingy, sacred school, Balanchine, working with three other dancers, had left a fourth girl on pointe as he wandered off a little to the side, head down, to figure out what in heaven’s name he was going to do next. Our eyes were riveted on her. She held her pointe, held it and held it. He had not told her to move. She began to sway. Our heads swayed slightly with her. Finally, noticing his entire room moving like palm trees in a wind, Balanchine looked up and saw her predicament.

“You can come down now, Toumanova.” The corner of his mouth twitched very slightly.

The night before the performance we lined up for one last costume check. Something distressed Mr. B. Scissors were brought. And he personally cut lower the decolletage of each dancer he felt needed it. Twelve year olds, I seem to remember, were not in that group, nor weed-like 14-year-olds either.

To tell the truth, I can’t remember much about that evening. What we had to do we did sturdily enough; it was cold but we barely felt it. A whole orchestra sounded rich to us after a rehearsal piano, and the night was over entirely too quickly. The School gave us each nosegay bouquets. Years later, after a dozen moves I finally lost mine. And cried.

But I remember vividly the morning I read that Balanchine had married Tanaquil. A classmate called me and her sigh was unenvious. “She married him for all of us,” she breathed. And so she had.

This piece came about through the generosity of Martin Bernheimer, the towering Los Angeles Times Music Critic and my next-office neighbor at the paper. When Balanchine died, Bernheimer remembered that I’d had something to do with ballet, or Balanchine or whatever in my past, and asked if I’d write something in the way of an appreciation.

Sometimes panic steadies you. It did me, that day, as I clung to the thought that personal wasn’t necessarily negative.  Besides, it was all I had to bring.  After it ran, panic came back when a warm note arrived. Toumanova had so enjoyed the piece, “Would you like to have tea one day, just me and Momma?”  I declined, polite but aghast.  All I could think was, Didn’t she realize that the joke, more or less, was on her? 

Perhaps. But it was Balanchine’s joke.

Balanchine, Robbins and the Egg McMuffin

PNB Soloist Benjamin Griffiths (left) and Artistic Director Peter Boal. Photo © Angela Sterling

To watch a dancer pass down the details of a signature role, gesture to gesture, body to body can be like watching the flow of electricity. Or an excessively polite family squabble, “On the diagonal? Really??” It can be generous and at the same time carry the faintest sheen of regret. It is never dull.

Peter Boal, Pacific Northwest Ballet’s far-seeing artistic director, has been very, very good about coaxing formidable veterans of New York City Ballet to Seattle to coach PNB’s rising tide of dancers in “their” roles. And about letting the public in on at least one of these afternoons, as history and memory collide.

The sessions that hooked me, permanently, came last year, for a PNB staging of Balanchine’s Jewels. Over the course of a month, Boal lured Violette Verdy and Mimi Paul for Emeralds; Edward Villella with Rubies, and for Diamonds, the irrepressible Jacques d’Amboise, who worked in the plaid shirt and hiking boots he wore the next day on the trails of Mt. Rainier.
Utterly different styles, same knock-out effect.

Of course these dancers would help pass the torch. Peter Boal is one of their own, a full-on NYCB creation. He’d entered the School of American Ballet at the age of 9; he retired after a 22-year career in the company. As one of their Principals, Boal was both a supreme classicist, known for his “transcendent” Apollo, and a dancer with an intriguing experimental side. He was also a deeply gifted teacher. To imagine him shaping his own company? Heaven.

(Not to appear intentionally stupid, I do know the forces that really shape any dance company: its board of directors. I’ve followed company/board imbroglios my long life long, and I still understand their dynamics the same way I grasp the bitcoin. PNB’s board seems elastic enough to embrace Boal’s forays onto the truly cutting edge as well as to appreciate what it means to have the NY Times doughty Alastair Macaulay call today’s PNB “one of the world’s foremost Balanchine companies.” Bravo. Bravos, actually..)

Balanchine hung on to few works from his very early Diaghilev days, primarily Apollo and Prodigal Son. And when he set Prodigal for NYCB, in 1970, he chose Jerome Robbins as the Prodigal and Maria Tallchief for the Siren. (Those of us who saw that pair can still feel the scorch.)

After Balanchine’s death in 1983, when it fell to Robbins to coach a new Prodigal, he picked the young (and even younger-looking) Peter Boal, as his headstrong innocent. Now, with Prodigal Son on PNB’s 2015-16 opening program, it was Boal’s turn, in a mirrored classroom, with a small audience, to tutor two Sons and two Sirens. And also to revisit, dryly, some of the heart attack moments from the Jerry and Peter show, all those decades ago.

Robbins had plunged into their session abruptly:

What did you have for breakfast?”

In the pause that followed, Boal picked honesty as the best route around a non-sequitor.

“An Egg McMuffin.”

Robbins’ eyes swept the heavens. This was going to be worse than he’d imagined. Much much worse.

“What did THE PRODIGAL have for breakfast? What time did he WAKE UP? What time did his FATHER wake up? What did his FATHER have for breakfast? What have you heard about the SIREN over the mountains? How much MONEY do you have?”

Okay. That was Robbins’ approach: dancers as actors (and not incidentally athletes), directors as Intimidators in Chief. A prickly approach, but one that worked for him from ballet to Broadway and back to ballet again.

Not Boal’s style. In soft shoes, soft pants and a T shirt, he works quietly, giving a reason as he corrects. The Prodigal passes a large wine jug to one of his two friends. “He just bought it, it’s heavy,” Boal says. Now it is, so full it almost sloshes. He changes the angle of the Son’s face just slightly; now it shows his father – not his friends – that he’s leaving.

One of the Sirens enters, at the mercy of her yards-long red plush train.
“I’m not an expert on Sirens,” Boal says, “but. . . “ he had been able to watch an 8-hour tape from WNET of Balanchine working on Prodigal with Baryshnikov. “They began in English, then quickly switched to Russian, which I don’t speak, but it was. ..” He shakes his head at the memory.

In any case, as he works with one Son and one Siren, and she buries his face in her chest, Boal fixes the boy’s expression to show the audience that this gesture was not the Son’s idea.

He moves along to the overwhelming ending, although the tall dancer playing The Father hasn’t been called for this session. Boal fills in. “I could never play the Father, “ he says, sotto voce, “I’m too short ” Still, what crosses his face as he sees his destitute, humbled, grief-wracked Son, is everything we need to know about forgiveness, majesty and wisdom. And Peter Boal.

Peter Boal in 1970s Prodigal Son, choreographed by George Balanchine © The George Balanchine Trust. Photo © Paul Kolnik.

Peter Boal in 1970s Prodigal Son, choreographed by George Balanchine © The George Balanchine Trust. Photo © Paul Kolnik.

“The Citizen Kane of the digital era. . .”


That’s not me talking. That’s what the great editor (great friend) Dov Hoenig said about  Birdman the other day, as his wife Zoe and I were trying to shorten the distance between London and Seattle over the phone.

My enthusiasms you can take with a giant grain of salt.  Dov’s you should take very very seriously.  The secret in the IMDb listing of his 40+ films, abroad and crucially with Michael Mann, is that it spans movies shot on film (Thief, Manhunter, Last of the Mohicans) and digitally (Heat, Collateral Damage) and he knows the virtues and frailties of both.  Never heard Dov — impassioned but also measured and serious — be this swept away before and this seems the time to share his fervor.

What particularly revved me up was seeing Birdman a second time last week. I’d forgotten just what a deckle-edge comedy it is, with all its soulfulness.  I think it’s a reflection of my inner Olive Kitteridge that I’ve held fast (for 3 months!) to not just popping in the screener so that my husband could see what I’ve been hyperventilating about, but insisting on a dark quiet theatre, so he could see it as it should be seen, in its full wonder.  Worked, too; he has come back to moments from it, again and again.

I wasn’t much help, have to say, when he asked what it was about, (his second favorite question after “What’s the running time?”) because it’s not about any two-sentence summary.  Fox Seachlight and New Regency are doing a full court press currently in Los Angeles, showing all of director Alejandro G. Inarritu’s films, with a section of “themes ” from Birdman added each night  (Risk, Respect, Love, Honesty, Truth.)

Well, okay, if you say so; I’d never disrespect the publicity arm that has brought this film to so many podiums and Best Of awards thus far. Still, highlighting themes does sort of tear up the — sorry, but there’s no better word —  soaring quality of the film. The camerawork of  Emmanuel Lubezki (Gravity) appears to be one pell-mell, hurtling, breathless single take, following Michael Keaton’s character, Riggan Thomson, indelibly stamped as the alter-ego of Birdman, a very dead franchise, as he dares to transform reclaim himself one last time — on Broadway.  (More about Keaton’s unsparing brilliance to come — as they say.)

I did like it Saturday night, when the beautiful Inarittu (below) won the Directors Guild  Award, and someone had to ask him flat-footedly What It All Means. Full of the moment, and translating from inside his head, the ebullient director answered,

“The actor as the representation of every human man who has a creative process. It’s about anyone with ambition, anything we feel; we try and fail, we question, we go deep then we rise up again.  I wanted Birdman to be an extension of that state of mind that every human being has [had] in his life, embodied in an actor.”

(Thank you Deadline Hollywood.)

I think of all the awards this shimmering film has accumulated  — and the uber-reliable IMDb logs them at 139 won and 163 nominations, excluding its 9 at the Academy Awards* — the one that truly took me aback was winning Best Film from the Producers Guild.  Until I thought about that for a long minute.

Yes, of course that Guild could be considered the bastion of old Hollywood.  I don’t even want to look at the stats on its lily-whiteness or average age or how many women are members.  But Inarritu’s words stuck in my mind:  he made his beautiful film for anyone who has a creative process, who has ambition, who tries and fails, goes deep and rises up again.

How could it not have struck a chord with Hollywood’s producers — very possibly the biggest risk-takers in the business? .

* Let’s celebrate every single nominee:

Best Motion Picture of the Year
Alejandro González Iñárritu
John Lesher
James W. Skotchdopole

Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role
Michael Keaton

Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role
Edward Norton

Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role
Emma Stone

Best Achievement in Directing
Alejandro González Iñárritu

Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen
Alejandro González Iñárritu
Nicolás Giacobone
Alexander Dinelaris
Armando Bo

Best Achievement in Cinematography
Emmanuel Lubezki

Best Achievement in Sound Mixing
Jon Taylor
Frank A. Montaño
Thomas Varga

Best Achievement in Sound Editing
Aaron Glascock
Martín Hernández


Wait, wait! First the Golden Globes, THEN the Oscar nominations.

I know, I know: old and slow. My only possible defense is that we have either been guests or had guests since December 23rd, a sojourn involving passports, dear distant family, dear semi-distant friends and a last emotional good-bye at the airport yesterday. The cats barely know what lap to turn to, while I’m summoning up all my reserves to turn up in two  matching shoes.

To get to those Globes: they were just Sunday and I know I’m behind on the newspapers, but where’s the outrage? Or even the irony over the results of the Globes TV Movies or Mini-series category I’m talking about the sublime Olive Kitteridge, anchored by the unsparing eloquence of Frances McDormand, being beaten by the TV show Fargo. Let’s be honest, the initial good will of  Fargo-the-miniseries would never have existed without our collective infatuation with McDormand’s singular character in, ummm, Fargo-the-film. (Just the memory of the actress’s back, squared in rectitude as she marched up to get her Fargo Oscar in 1997 is enough to kick off a smile.)


Following that, in an act enough to make our Fran swear off getting all dressed up forever, she lost — a seeming impossibility –in the Globe’s Best Actress category, to Maggie Gyllenhaal as The Honorable Woman, running, running, running as she brought peace, sex and swell clothes to the deadly Israeli/Palestinian cats-cradle.

Did the assembled Hollywood Foreign Press see Olive Kitteridge?  Did its essential Yankee-ness not play well with them, or just not as well as a semi-optimistic middle-East melodrama?  Unlikely that we’ll ever know, but the double loss is as stunning as it is opaque.

HBO put together a pretty representative trailer for Kitteridge, for those outside the HFP who missed it. (You can find it at the IMBd listing for the film.)  I’m especially partial to it because it opens with McDormand and an actor new to me, Cory Michael Smith, who seems to positively glow with potential (as well as a darting sense of humor.)

It’s unfair, really to single out Smith, when each of Kitteridge’s actors seems the inevitable. . irrevocable choice, top to bottom: Richard Jenkins as Olive’s husband, against all odds, in for the long haul; Zoe Kazan as “the mouse” at his drugstore and in his life; Peter Mullan as Olive’s singular fellow-teacher, a man with a passion for, among others, John Berryman; John Gallagher Jr., as Olive’s deeply put-upon adult son, Martha Wainwright’s lounge singer extraordinaire.  Clearly I cannot run through each actor and character, there isn’t a wrong player in this chamber piece, you’ll just have to meet them for yourself. You will, won’t you?

OliveK_Fran & RJ

Watching it again, post Globes, was the chance to pick up on more of its almost throw-away snap and edge. To notice the way Jane Anderson’s canny adaptation of Elizabeth Strout’s multi-prize-winning novel lingers here and pares there to fit into 4 hours (even though, as McDormand said — channeling Olive — “Could have been 6.”)  To consider the ways in which Lisa Cholodenko has bloomed as a director (from her blazing opener High Art.) To remember the startling collaboration of actress and director once before (Laurel Canyon), as Cholodenko pulled out usually hidden facets of McDormand, which have deepened into this portrait of the prickly, wounded, complex Olive. Mostly, the fun of a second viewing came from watching all the interactions, delicate or blunt, among this pitch-perfect cast, and to luxuriate in the story’s deep humanism.


And then I simply wanted to sit on the floor and howl in outrage.

Well, time to pick myself up and make a note or two about the Oscar nominations. Plenty to celebrate — and howl about — there. Helluva way to observe Martin Luther King day, Academy. .


The remarkable Mr. Champlin

It’s rare that you can say that one person changed the trajectory of your life, and for the better. Charles Champlin, who changed mine in every way, died on Sunday. He was 88, and at the end he had Alzheimer’s but the earlier deviltry was that in 1999, he’d developed age-related macular degeneration that left him legally blind.

That must have been purgatory for someone whose life had been the graceful  consideration of books and films, films and books. As the writer that he was, above all else, he wrote about his AMD too, in a sliver of a book, “My Friend, You Are Legally Blind.”  Purportedly, it’s about ways to get the better of the disease; it’s really a look at lifelong  gallantry.

The persona that Champlin presented to the world: a man foursquare as the aviator glasses that became his trademark, wasn’t all of him, not by a Hammondsport mile. The essential Champlin who could shift among a half-dozen settings and arrive intact and unruffled at each one, was compound-complex.  He’d have to be; he was functioning as an editor, an essayist, a critic, most certainly a teacher, a lecturer, a sometimes author and a card-carrying devotee of the hurly-burly of Cannes. And, somewhere in all that, he and his extraordinary wife Peggy were raising a family of six.

Television, which can bring out the worst in the most surprising people, brought out Champlin’s warmth and curiosity; he drew the audience in as close as his guests. He was unparalleled in conversations with filmmakers of every stripe, on television or over a companionable Scotch. They loved him, and why wouldn’t they? They got smart, deep, appreciative conversation without a knife in sight.

Harvard may have given him his humanistic grounding; or perhaps his faith. It may have come from his being wounded during the war, or from finding his way up the ladder at Life magazine or when he was an arts writer in London. Anyone’s guess.Truthfully, it’s innate.

Surprisingly, the one thing Charles Champlin couldn’t — or maybe wouldn’t —  do was color nicely inside the lines. He had a flair for the unpredictable, or perhaps for great escapes. How else to explain his presence at the tiniest of events, a Critic’s Choice Sunday in Marin County, where he brought his almost-favorite film, Beat the Devil, to talk about with as much joy as though he’d made it. (This was the end of the 70s, before film festivals mushroomed after every rain.)

Catalysts can be pretty damn mysterious.

Beat the Devil performed as expected, Champlin probably better, his pleasure was expansive and infectious and he loved a good audience. Every other part of the evening was a disaster.

It was a night of out-of-gas rides from the airport, a missed dinner, a missed early flight home and — as it turned out — an honorarium paid with a bounceable check. Don’t look at me. I was certainly part of the critical melee, but mostly I was on hand because I was the only one of the gang who knew what Champlin looked like.

At the point when he’d missed the early LA flight, Champlin’s urbanity kicked into overtime. He stood us, his shell-shocked hosts, to a round of drinks.Then a second one. And at that moment, eying his briefcase bursting with Loyola students’ papers, I asked if he’d look at some of my stuff, because after 3 years at the Pacific Sun, my great editor had left and I was adrift.

Believe me, no sensible person agrees to read reviews and interviews by the second-string writer on a hippie Marin County weekly, at the end of a semi-disastrous night. For that you have to credit  Champlin’s streak of unpredictability.  

Forever searching for the father/uncle/teacher who knew best, I honestly hoped that he’d point out where I’d gone off the tracks or ask why I hadn’t picked up on Hitchcock’s influences. Did I have the vaguest idea of a critic-editor’s life at a major newspaper?  Please!  I knew. I’d seen The Front Page.   

Still, I was in no way prepared for Champlin’s voice on the phone, many weeks later, saying with no preamble, “Why aren’t you doing this for us?” In some perverse way, it wasn’t what I wanted to hear, except that it was.

I wanted a teacher. I got a mentor. He put me to work as a stringer for that terrifying mensch Irv Letovsky, who edited Sunday Calendar and implanted in me the rule I still use for sticky details:  “Write around it! Write around it!”

I came down the next successive summers to review during Kevin Thomas’ vacations. Then I came home to Mill Valley, to my girls, my cats, the intriguing man I had met. Everything seemed in perfect balance, until the afternoon in 1980, when Champlin, on the phone as always, told me that, since he was moving over to Books, he wanted me to take over his chair as the film critic.

That is not predictable behavior . It’s not corporate (certainly not LAT corporate), it’s barely comprehensible, but it is exactly how my life changed, and who changed it, coloring outside the lines in bold zig-zags.

Did we spend the next decade in perfect professional accord?  Don’t be childish. Did he hire me because I didn’t seem exactly. . .assertive? I have no idea. I do know that, more than once. I wrote something that royally pissed off some of the very old guard, causing him no end of tidying up. It was something we never talked about. I’m sure he had to stand up for me, more than once. Learning by doing can be tricky, and mentorship isn’t all roses.  Did we spend long lunches, talking about books and movies, about people in them, and how best to write about them?  Do you have the vaguest idea of a critic OR an arts editor’s life?

What I know absolutely is that Charles Champlin’s humanity or curiosity or both, let him take a huge risk and because of it, my life expanded like some stop-motion flower, one astonishing layer after another.

Thankfully, I was able to tell him that, in time. But it can’t be said enough:  thank you, dear companionable, singular Chuck, for the riches of my life.

Errors, omissions and general hilarity: it’s Awards nomination time again

Appalling to discover what it takes to get me back here, isn’t it?  Nominations morning. Kiss and cry time.  So much real, consequential stuff came down during the last months of 2013, yet, mostly, I hung back from writing.  Omit a few names on the Academy Award ballot and I’m fired up, ready to go. I fear it’s simply the mark of the beast, so better get to it. The less frivolous stuff is TK, I swear. .

First the outrage, then the love.. It seemed to me that three actors absolutely held their films together and at least two of them, Robert Redford (All Is Lost) and Joaquin Phoenix (Her.) did the best work of their lives. Unfortunately, the Actors branch didn’t agree.(Churls among us might even call it Redford’s first unmannered performance, but you know churls.) 

I would have put Tom Hanks in Captain Phillips as the hard pressed, resourceful freighter captain on that list too, except that, idly, I started to watch Philadelphia on TCM the night before the nominations, and after Hanks appeared, I couldn’t stop. No matter how that film sits with you, then or now, watching it cleared up one thing fast for me. Captain Phillips isn’t a career best for Hanks, it’s simply what he’s been doing all his acting life, working with a strength, integrity. delicacy and — within limits — range that has only intensified with time.

If there’s an irony to Hanks’ lack of recognition, it’s in the supporting actor nomination for the terrifyingly good Barkhad Abdi as Captain Phillips’ chief adversary among the Somali pirates. Guess who Abdi is shoulder to shoulder with for 90% of his scenes? You have to have flint to strike sparks.

Before we leave Captain Phillips, its editing nomination (for Christopher Rouse, in his third film for director Paul Greengrass) seemed virtually inevitable, but how could there not be one for Greengrass himself?  Shades of Ben Affleck and Argo, although that didn’t turn out too badly, if anyone can remember back to the 2013 Awards.  

I am going to hold the fierce good thought that Fruitvale Station’s complete shut out for director Ryan Coogler and actors Michael B.Jordan and Octavia Spencer only gives Independent Spirit award voters a clear sense of what they can do to right some big oversights. The Indie folks love stuff like that; it makes them look less like panting wanna-bees and more like Spirit voters.of old, free thinkers who gave Best Director awards to Lodge Kerrigan, Everett Lewis, Whit Stillman, Nick Gomez, Carl Franklin and, oh yes, David O. Russell. Those were the days.

L. to R.: Michael B. Jordan, Octavia Spencer, director Ryan Coogler

And while we’re in Omissions vein: I really hope it didn’t look too much like Jonestown over at the T Bone Burnett scatter Thursday. To call attention to Burnett’s immaculate round-up of folk songs which gave the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis its very backbone, CBS Films sent prospective voters everything but an Inside Llewyn Davis scratch ‘n sniff. You may have noticed the double-truck ads. For this massive effort they got two nods, for Bruno Delbonnet’s rapt, incisive cinematography and for the trio who did the sound recording. Entirely worthy but well short of high CBS hopes. Harsh, Academy, truly harsh.

What might be called the Inside Llewyn Davis Situation has not gone unnoticed close to home, either. Tucker and Lily feel keenly the lack of recognition for their orange brethren (all 3 of them) who gave character, attitude and certainly legs to Llewyn Davis himself.

Before we leave film music, you won’t hear more heartfelt American bluegrass than in a gem hidden among the five Best Foreign Film nominees. The Broken Circle Breakdown, from Belgium is a stunner, an intimate contemporary love story whose brilliantly fractured narrative carries a genuine gut punch. It may take a minute to adjust to a bluegrass lead  singer whose other mode of expression is her artful and ever-expanding tattoos, but this is a case where her ink is beyond decorative, it’s her message to the world. (Great good news: Scarecrow,Video, invaluable and essential as ever, tells me that Broken Circle has a March 11th DVD release.)


We should all have known Sally Hawkins (a supporting actress nominee for Blue Jasmine) years ago, after her effervescent, many-faceted Poppy in Mike Leigh’s Happy Go Lucky (2008).  As I remember (a dangerous phrase), a broken collarbone on another shoot, before Happy Go Lucky’s U.S. release kept her from doing the intense NY publicity push Leigh’s film needed. Her performance became a cherished, “minor” prize-winning open secret. She picked up awards from stateside critics’ groups, a first at Berlin, even a Golden Globe during that group’s more louche era, but for Academy voters she might not have existed. As of Thursday morning, she does. She’s in one of the most densely packed major categories, still. . .she’s there, at long last. (And what did Hollywood find for Hawkins first, for her quirky, lean-in-closely unique fizz?  Godzilla.)

I’m glossing over armloads of favorites mainly because, with the exception of Gravity, which mercifully I saw before House Arrest began, I’ve watched almost everything else on screeners. Each time I do, I imagine sharing the room and the moment with the film’s director, sleepless after weeks balancing the sound, correcting the color, getting every finicky detail tuned to perfection. . . . Oh the horror, the horror!!!

Now that they’re rushing so many films back into theatres,  I am looking forward to getting my fill of repeats on very big screens (12 Years a Slave, Gravity — Yes again. And again —. perhaps even another fling with The Grandmaster) before they all go away, March 2nd, and only the winners survive.  .

Let me finish with a Kite Day update. First: I can say absolutely that I walk better than Bruce Dern.  I always did.  As of last week, however, I can now get up the stairs to our bedroom — and all my clothes, and while you might not want to see my knife-work from up close, I’m cooking again.  Next is our car’s stick-shift, which is still a bit beyond me, although the day can’t come soon enough in some quarters. My husband has taken to calling me Miss Daisy. He says all he needs is the cap.

The Quilt Room — and beyond

More than high time for some fresh news, clearly it’s Fall.

Fall in Seattle 2013 Made it to the second visit to the Orthopedic Clinic in our own car.  Everyday stuff for you, I know. You weren’t along for our first Yellow Cab wheelchair van experience, where a strong and patient driver helped Herman lock and load me into the very back of his van. Barring the part where both arms came off the wheelchair as both men tried to lift it, I’d say it went well.

Herman was in the van’s middle seat and I was behind him, in the well created to hold wheelchairs. And, I noticed, whatever hadn’t been chucked out from the past few meals, stuff I could see because I was wearing my glasses. So I was able to watch the progress of a roach which appeared on my husband’s headrest, and sat there for a minute, judging whether it could make the leap into the back of Herman’s thick hair.

You wouldn’t believe how quickly someone will move, at the hissed syllable, “Roach!” It moved my husband into the safety of the middle of the van and gave me time to watch the large-ish spider which popped up next. Spiders!  Pffft! As nothing, compared to relocating a roach. Don’t know which one of us the spider clung to, but once we got to the nice shiny white floor of Treatment Room 2, he decided all was safe, and started across the floor.  Splat! End of our wildlife saga.

So, that was Visit 1.  Visit 2, under our own power, was bliss. For this, I learned to go down three steps to get me out, via the garage, and into the alley and our car.  God-like surgeon doesn’t want to see me for 3-4 more weeks (we chose 4); new bone growth in the shoulder doesn’t yet showed up on the new x-rays, but he’s confident that it’s beginning.  And so we settle in for the wait.

We’ve moved into the Quilt Room right on the ground floor.  Usually it’s where we put up   two guests: bathroom right next door. My office at the end of the hall. Cozy. Companionable, I’ve always thought, since there’s a main bed and a trundle below that can be pulled up to nestle next to it, or separated, as we have things now.

The bookshelves here are floor-to-ceiling along one wall and its corner. (“Books!” a visitor once commented, facing this collection in Los Angeles. “Such good sound bafflers!”) Lying on the trundle, trying to square myself away for a night of lying with as much movement as a tomb effigy at Westminster Cathedral, I line myself up so I’m at a crisp right angle to the books. It seems to bring a little order to the randomness of our days now.

The cats, who hang out here a lot of time anyway, seem agreeable to sharing. Lily now owns the utterly unused wheelchair each night; I can barely break the news that it’s going back any minute now. Tucker likes my husband’s bed, but he ‘s good about sharing when I unexpectedly crash…

Tuckerand SB on bed

I adore this room, especially its pumpkin colored walls which make the small space glow, but truthfully, I don’t usually come in here to read. I head for a small chair with lots of natural light, at the end of our long, railroad car of a house. As a result, I’ve almost forgotten some of the stuff on the Quilt Room walls.

At the time when, like Jane Austen ladies, “we” were all beavering away doing handwork of one generally useless kind or another, I made this timid box. The main reason it has survived is that each one of the three daughters has forbidden me to chuck it.

Collage soloI am painfully aware of its deficiencies, but there is one bit in there which has also kept me from heaving it.  It’s this postcard, written 102 years ago and postmarked on my birthday..  It was sent from Pearl, in Dell Rapids, South Dakota, to her sister, Minnie (Mrs. Minnie Herrick, in Onaga, Kansas.)

Pearl wrote:

Dear Sister:

I got your letter together with Edward’s. I went to Episcopal Church tonight and to the Catholics last Sunday.  I wanted to know what some other people believe.  I certainly  found out last Sunday night.


Now I ask you, with all its searching mystery, could you have thrown it out?

More, when there’s more to tell.  Thank every single one of you who have hung in there and stayed in touch. You cannot know what it has meant. And you can see for yourself how well things are going:

SB selfir