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Archive for December, 2009

Monday, December 21, 2009

When I make a movie pick, Carolyn goes to the reviews to check on what others are saying. She especially likes the reviews that assign a grade – like B- or C+ or whatever. Carolyn looks for B+ or higher. Our movie watching decisions are usually collaborative; you learn that sort of thing after all these years.

Both of us picked up on the high marks, well – thundering raves – that a little independent movie is getting all over the airwaves and in print. A solid “A.” Probably best that I didn’t know that it was an Oprah pick before I got to the theater. I knew about the unlikely star; an unseemly obese young woman from the mean streets of the city named Precious. Well, that’s her middle name. It’s also the name of the film. Precious is the primary character from a gritty novel, Push by Sapphire. Her full name is Claireece Precious Jones. (For young actor, Gabourey Sidibe, it’s her first role.)

So I was aware of the critical acclaim, and the extraordinary size of the film’s protagonist, but I was not prepared for the dark descent into an oppressive living hell. (Warning: the film is disturbing and earns its “R” rating.) I know there is a world not all that far from our little pleasant community where hopelessness reigns; a Darwinian, cruel world. But we rather efficiently block out the messy details. We avoid those neighborhoods. One reviewer called it shocking; but it only is shocking for those of us who live in cozy isolation from the harsh brutality of a neglected neighborhood devoid of hope.

It is a raw exposé of life in the ‘hood. In public housing with forgotten, underfunded schools, abusive, absentee fathers and ever-present violence, Precious gorges on deep-fried. Her feckless mother, Mary, occupies a couch where a color television set blares banal game shows. It is expected that Precious will be a young mother, too. At sixteen, she is pregnant with her second child. The father is her mother’s husband, and her father, too.

The root causes of out-of-control obesity become clear. Precious’ only retreat is her rich fantasy life, in which she imagines laughter, glamour, color, dancing and romance. Her mother treats her like an indentured servant, which she has become. In the mother’s hell-bent pursuit of self-annihilation, she is determined to take Precious and her children right along with her.

Social workers drop by from time to time to verify continued qualification for the subsistence check. Precious’ mother proves to be up to the task, maintaining the charade of innocent victim. Precious is as illiterate as she is fat, but she is street smart.

So when a teacher emerges who sees past the grim exterior, she arranges to put Precious into a class of needy peers; a collection of young women none of whom are candidates for upward mobility. She presses them to journal. No rules of grammar. No spelling requirements. Just write. Tell your story. Every day. We will write. Write. Write. Ms. Rain pushes and pulls and laughs and cries until the girls begin to discover their own capacity for self-discovery. It is no bromide. The victories do not come easily.

It is when Precious’ mother, Mary, terrified that she might lose some of the benefits accrued by illegitimate children that she presses for custody. To win the case, she must state it in the presence of a social worker, Ms. Weiss (Mariah Carey). As precious listens to her own mother’s sick version of life at home in the dank, musty hallways of unimaginable horrors, something new is born in Precious.

It is understated, but powerful. She quietly declares her independence.

This is no Remember the Titans, with the crowd cheering the big victory in the final seconds. This is deep seeded transformation. Precious has every reason to check out. Bail out.

But as the film fades to black, with a myriad of unanswered questions, you know she has found something. Her two children are in her arms.

They are on their way to a new life.

When I was little, and my parents took me on that non-negotiable trip to church on Sunday morning, they taught me a song. It echoed in my mind as Carolyn and I walked out of the theater.

Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight.
Jesus loves the little children of the world.

“Precious in his sight.”

The Precious in this film is unlovely. We would turn away. We would find someone else. We would predict the worst.

But not Jesus.

Why not us?

Copyright Kenneth E Kemp 2009

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Monday, December 14, 2009

Two events jump-started our Christmas.  It is our “off” year.  The kids will all spend Christmas day with the “in-laws.”  This is one of the adjustments to this new world of ours.  It’s a life stage thing.

The prospect of Christmas Eve and Christmas Morning without children or grandchildren at this point in our lives would otherwise be a handy excuse to leave the boxes of Christmas stuff unopened and stacked out in the garage.  It’s not like we give up altogether on the off year.  This is not the first one.  We’ve learned from experience that a quiet Christmas Eve, just us two, is nothing to be dreaded.  It is actually pretty nice.

The first event was Andrea Bocelli with David Foster in high definition and surround sound – the highly advertised PBS Christmas extravaganza.  Foster’s “Carol of the Bells” may be my all time favorite version of the traditional piece.  It’s big.  Really big.  Best enjoyed with a serious full-throated subwoofer.  My sister made us a CD of her top picks several years ago, which included this orchestral rendition.  I snatched it for our Colorado Christmas video that year.  The highly edited amateur fifteen-minute digital recording still stands as my finest achievement in home spun entertainment.  The sunset over the rocky peaks from a frozen lake with snow laden pine branches in the foreground as our kids frolicked on ice skates to Foster’s Carol of the Bells has yet to be matched.

So Foster opened the show highlighting the full orchestra and all the glitz and excess that unlimited staging budgets can allow with that same Carol, and I was hooked even before Bocelli showed up with his rich Tuscan tenor voice.   The two hours flew by and when it was over, I was ready to unload those boxes.  Put up the lights.

Then we had another date night, that second event, on the occasion of Carolyn’s birthday.  We acted our age, arriving for the late afternoon showing before five, claiming our senior discount.  The IMAX Theater must have a thousand seats.  And right up to show time, it was just us two, donning our clumsy 3D glasses.  We laughed like a couple of high school kids in the empty hall.  Maybe the projectionist heard us.  No one else.  It was OK when five or six wandered in just as the feature began.  But it was just us.  Disney’s new A Christmas Carol in IMAX 3D was a knockout.  We cherish Dickens’ lines, and they were all there.  If it was Jim Carrey, it was hard to tell.  He found a convincing miserly voice, maybe even more compelling and riveting than George C. Scott’s.  “Are there no prison houses?”   “… decrease the surplus population!”  “Bah, humbug!”  Never better.

Scrooge’s conversion always gets me.  I’ve read the book to the kids.  I’ve seen it on stage, and in a half dozen adaptations.  I know that turnabout is coming.  But it still gets me.  Maybe because at this time of year when the days grow short, and the cold settles into my chest and the coughing interrupts my sleep and the darkness closes in and the pressures mount, maybe in the dead of winter, I need to be converted, too.  Sometimes the ghosts from Christmas past, haunting the present and predicting a dark future appear in my dreams, too.  Regrets are hard to shake.  Even with eternal security.  I need a rebirth.  From the cold hard realist, cynical, spouting rules, predicting doom, noting the dire consequences of irresponsibility with precision, scoffing at the antics of public servants and other notables, counting pennies, unmoved by the plight of the rest of the world to, well, an openhearted, dancing Fezziwig.  If it can happen to Ebenezer, it can happen to me, too.

So Bocelli and Carrey, Foster and Ebenezer, both new productions got me this year.  The fly-bys over 1850 London in 3D were spectacular, with St. Paul’s on the horizon under a fresh fallen snow. Bocelli’s rendition of Silent Night; snowflakes drifting down right on stage.  Light the candles.

I worked on a script this year.  It’s the story of an uncle who donates a part of his own liver to save the life of his five-month-old nephew.  Thanks to Stephen, little Liam will be with us this Christmas.  And the doctors believe he’ll live out a full life.  It will be a video short for four Christmas Eve services this year.  The house will be packed.

I am a sentimental man.  But the layers of harsh reality get me, too.  I’m quite capable of missing it.  Missing the whole thing.  Including the Manger.

When I caught our four-year-old grandson jumping merrily on our bed this weekend, I almost scolded him; as though he was doing some sort of irreparable damage.  And then I remembered Scrooge jumping up and down on his.

So I smiled.  And let him jump.

Copyright Kenneth E Kemp 2009

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Monday, December 7, 2009

Tiger Woods takes the phrase to a new level.

What is “The American Dream” anyway? Generally, it involves a house, a car, job security, a family, a neighborhood, a good reputation, social standing and physical wellbeing. The order of priority would be a matter of personal preference, I suppose. In general, spiritual wellbeing is not even part of the equation; not, at least, in the public square.

The old quandary for gift givers (what do you buy for the man who has it all?) would certainly apply in the case of Tiger. What would you buy?

When you ponder the question of achieving the American dream, thirty-three year old Tiger Woods would certainly be a candidate.

I have gone on record as being a fan. I’ll admit once more that I am one of the myriads of viewers who checks in mid-week to see if Tiger’s name is on the tournament roster. If so, then I’ll set the DVR. An open Saturday or Sunday afternoon is just that much better in high definition when Tiger is on the prowl on one of those picturesque courses made for wide-screen. Just the way he gets himself in and out of trouble keeps me coming back for more.

Maybe it’s the opulent houses, the choice of cars, the corporate jet, the picture perfect family, the access and the admiration of his peers. The rest of the guys on the tour gave up on catching him a long time ago. They all seem to have come to terms with the reality. Tiger Woods plays golf at a different level. He’s from a different planet, they’ll tell you. Our media drenched culture has rewarded him handsomely.

Sure, the opulence stirs the imagination of any one of us capitalist consumers. But my personal admiration has more to do with the game: that trademark performance under pressure. It’s hard enough for me to hit a shot when the other three guys are watching at the tee box. I can’t imagine striking a ball straight toward the pin while enveloped by a throng of eager admirers measuring every movement, just inches away. Then there are those cameras; the long lenses catching every subtle nuance, every inch traveled by a rolling white ball with the Nike logo. And on day four, when hundreds of thousands of dollars hang in the balance with every stroke of the club, every putt – the focus, the mental toughness, the eye-on-the-prize, the set up, the address and then the execution – it’s my kind of Sunday afternoon.

But now, Tiger is one more name on the long list of guys who by all appearances has it all, but doesn’t. Not really. Not anymore.

Which begs the question – what does it really mean to “have it all”? What is missing? And maybe that is a spiritual something after all.

There is lots of irony here. Who would have imagined that a one-hundred-sixty-three dollar traffic citation would mark the turning point? I have to admit it, I found myself in a state of denial as the news dripped out. “Not Tiger,” I said more than once and meant it. “No way.”

Way.

So now the one-liners are floating around like fireworks. Puns are back in vogue. With a name like Tiger, the possibilities are endless.

Maybe I just care about the guy. Not to let him off the hook or to excuse the inexcusable; but I’m just sappy enough to hope that in the crucible of this crisis, he figures some things out. Maybe it’s all those prayer meetings. Back in the day, we called this sort of thing an “unspoken” request. God knows. But we really shouldn’t talk about it. Not out loud. Not in mixed company.

Unspoken, unspecified requests are pretty well out the window anymore. Seems to me like the tabloid press has pretty well taken over the scene. Yellow journalism is print media’s last best hope. In the ratings game, Edward R. Murrow and Helen Thomas are relics of a distant, forgotten past. The media experts call for full disclosure – now. Sooner not later. We don’t have time to wait for film at eleven.

I hope that the Internet buzz has it wrong. The idea that Tiger can somehow buy silence or worse, buy back his stunningly beautiful Swedish wife, the mother of his two children, with massive bank deposits and a beefed up pre-nup misses the mark entirely. It will take considerably more than that if he wants Elin to stay with him as she has up until now.

They like to talk about Tiger as though he is a “brand.” He’s not a person in this view, he’s a publicly held corporation.

But there are some signals, however faint, that there is more. He seemed a little closer to it when he employed the ancient concept of “transgression.” Someone told me that he even used the word “sin.” I am hoping that maybe he’ll grasp other concepts like repentance. Remorse. Humility. Atonement. Rebirth. Forgiveness. Trust.

Transformation can happen. Even for the man who has everything.

Copyright Kenneth E Kemp

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