Posts Tagged ‘Wizard of Oz’

Monday, November 7, 2011

I was twenty-eight years of age when I first explored Francis Ford Coppola’s magnum opus, Apocalypse Now.  Intrigued by the filmmaker’s attempt to elucidate the dark nuances emanating from the nightmare many of my contemporaries knew from personal experience, the Vietnam War, I studied the writer/director’s retelling of Joseph Conrad’s classic Heart of Darkness.  Martin Sheen was thirty-six then, only eight years my senior.  Great actors morph themselves into their characters, Sheen so effectively that when the cameras rolled, he became the deeply disturbed Captain Benjamin L. Willard.  The complete emotional, psychological breakdown written into the script took down the actor, too, in real life, complete with cardiac arrest.  It nearly killed him, right there on the set in Southeast Asia back in the late seventies.  That celebrated performance set a standard for actors to come.  But mainly, it underscored the terror, no, the horror of a war that leaves its imprint to this very day.

Sheen remains eight years my senior.  But Apocalypse Now was a long time ago.  This weekend, I was introduced to a very different version of Martin Sheen.  We have all changed since those turbulent pre-Reagan days.

There have been lots of roles for Sheen since.  Many of us think of him as President Josiah Bartlett, of The West Wing.  Most recently, Sheen appears as Dr. Tom Avery, a California ophthalmologist in a film written and directed by the other son, Emilio Estevez (who did not take his father’s screen name, as did Charlie).  Charlie had no role in this project.  He’s been busy.

If Martin Sheen is the Prodigal Father who had two sons, one would be Charlie, the other Emilio.  While Charlie may readily seem the younger profligate brother in the biblical parable, Emilio doesn’t really fit as the indignant older brother, mainly because of the complete absence of resentment.  On the contrary, Emilio is the good son who has presented his dad with a priceless gift: a role consistent with the father Martin Sheen has been in real life.  (Martin Sheen’s birth name is Ramón Antonio Gerard Estévez.)  When Henry Fonda took his final bow as an actor in On Golden Pond, he and Jane reconciled as father and daughter on the big screen for us all to see.  Here, Emilio handed a script and a storyline to his dad, one that would cement his legacy in our minds.   Perhaps it would put that bedroom scene from Apocalypse Now (in which he breaks a Freudian mirror and collapses in a heap of existential angst) in some sort of distant, thespian context.  Here, he might emerge as the curmudgeonly but likeable, distant dad who, after all, really does care about his family.

At age fourteen, back in Vietnam, Emilio was there on location along with the Sheen family.  The boy battled his alcohol and drug drenched father, as his mother and three siblings watched.  Not long afterwards, Martin, terrified by his capacity to self-destruct, sought out treatment, and cleaned up his life.  He and Janet not only stayed together (they were married in 1961).  They built a life.  This year, they celebrate their fiftieth anniversary.

Now a seasoned actor and director himself, Emilio produced a film that stars his father in the leading role.  He calls it The Way.  For a thousand years, pilgrims have trekked the five hundred mile route from France through northern Spain to the Cathedral at Santiago de Compostela near the rocky Atlantic seacoast – the Camino de Santiago.  In the new film, Dr. Tom Avery (Martin Sheen) drives his son Daniel to the airport.  As they drive, Daniel describes his plan to trace the ancient pilgrimage.  Tom clearly considers the exercise a waste of time and money.  Daniel pleads with his overworked, distracted father to join him.  Tom turns down the offer.  The son grows impatient.  He lectures his father, berating him for his truncated, predictable, comfortable ways.

“That’s life,” says Tom with a shrug.

Daniel replies, “There’s the life we live, and then there is the life we choose.”  It’s a line that will come to haunt the good doctor.

On the golf course, Tom gets an unexpected call from France.  “It’s your son, Daniel. He was caught in a terrible storm in the Pyrenees on the most treacherous stretch of the Camino de Santiago.  He was found dead, too late,” a voice reports with a heavy French accent.

Tom, a recent widower, flies to France to identify and recover his son’s body.  As an uncharacteristically impulsive move to honor his dead son, he determines to complete the impossible trek on his own.  And thus, he proceeds on The Way, toting his boy’s backpack and a silver box containing Daniel’s ashes.

Engulfed by his grief and regret, he has no interest in the others who crowd the ancient pathway.  But something like the Wizard of Oz, three others eventually join him and form an unlikely pack.  It is said that everyone who chooses to leave home and country to pursue pilgrimage has a reason – each unique.  So it is with Tom’s three improbable companions.  One, a gregarious Dutchman named Joost, who just wants to loose weight.  An emotionally wounded Canadian woman, Sarah, joins them, too, claiming that the pilgrimage is her way to quit smoking.  A philosopher, historian, novelist, and Irishman named Jack hopes this journey will cure writer’s block and provide grist for a new book.

We watched a screening of the film on a college campus that overlooks the Getty Museum in Brentwood and then listened in as Martin Sheen, his son Emilio Estevez and several others, including my friend Scott Young, discussed the filming and the script that took us all on that Camino de Santiago pilgrimage.  Scott sees this as a coming of age for the man who came undone in the making of Apocalypse Now and now emerges with some semblance of wholeness in The Way.  We learn that this transcendent journey means much more than losing weight, quitting bad habits like smoking, curing writers block or, for that matter, bringing a lost loved one back.

It is about something else.  Something much more profound.

Don’t take my word for it.  Check it out.

Copyright Kenneth E Kemp 2011

CBS Interview | Trailer

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Monday, August 23, 2010

Ira Glass, the perennial soothing voice on Chicago’s This American Life, pointed it out.   You’d think by now I had noticed it myself.  But I hadn’t.  It came up in a conversation with his sister, who is a producer at Disney films.  Ira reviewed the 1937 film, Walt Disney’s first full length animation, and complained that Snow White was more like a Broadway musical than a motion picture.

“Ira,” she corrected, “that opening song…  it’s the archetypal wish song.” And then she explained that all those great movies open with the “wish song.”  It’s the hook.  It connects you with the character, and launches the story line.  So when Snow White looks into that reflecting pool and sings, “I’m wishing (I’m wishing – echo) for the one I love to find me today; I’m hoping (I’m hoping) and dreaming of the nice things he’ll say,” she establishes the entire plot line and draws the audience in to the character.  We sympathize.  We empathize.  We care.  Those lyrics pull us in like a powerful magnet.  In the hearing, we are wishing right along with her.  We wish for her dream to come true, and maybe ours, as well.

With that idea planted, all those other familiar wish songs came to Ira’s mind.  Like Tevye, the Fiddler on the Roof: “If I were a rich man, Ya ha deedle deedle, bubba bubba deedle deedle dum.  All day long I’d biddy biddy bum.  If I were a wealthy man.  I wouldn’t have to work hard…” and Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady, “All I want is a room somewhere, Far away from the cold night air. With one enormous chair, Aow, wouldn’t it be loverly? Lots of choc’lates for me to eat, Lots of coal makin’ lots of ‘eat.  Warm face, warm ‘ands, warm feet, Aow, wouldn’t it be loverly?”

Don’t forget the Little Mermaid as the film opens, “…I’ve got gadgets and gizmos aplenty, I’ve got whozits and whatzits galore, (You want thingamabobs?  I got twenty)  But who cares? No big deal – I want more…”

Then there is Quasimodo in the Hunchback of Notre Dame, who sings from his tower hideaway, “Safe behind these windows and these parapets of stone, Gazing at the people down below me, All my life I watch them as I hide up here alone, Hungry for the histories they show me.  All my life I memorize their faces, Knowing them as they will never know me.  All my life I wonder how it feels to pass a day… Not above them… But part of them…”

Maybe the most famous wish song of all is Dorothy’s.  Trapped in a black and white Kansas, dreaming of anywhere but here, over that horizon on the edge of the big sky over the flatlands, she sings, “Somewhere, over the rainbow, way up high.  There’s a land that I heard of, Once in a lullaby.  Somewhere, over the rainbow, skies are blue.  And the dreams that you dare to dream… Really do come true.”

So it should be no surprise when our kids decide that it’s time to explore that world beyond the one we introduced them to.  It’s painful, hard to let them go.  We want to be their interpreter and guide.  We think we know better then they about what they’ll find out there and what they must avoid and the dangers that lurk in the shadows.  We want to steer them and advise them and warn them not to step on the landmines that got us back when; and the pitfalls and potholes we tripped over and fell into, we’ve got plenty of insight.  But off they go.  On their own.  We bought them the videos, read them the stories and took them to the movie theater and theme parks.  All those wish songs.  Should we be shocked?

Longings are powerful, maybe more powerful than logic or rules or boundaries.  We know some of those yearnings can get us into trouble.  They need to be checked.  But when the capacity for longing is extinguished, well, the dark clouds form over a life.  The absence of longing may well be a prime symptom of depression.  It signals despair.

So Ira Glass tries his hand at writing his own “wish song” for his radio show, which he performs.  “I only wish these stories will be gripping and special… you’ll remember what they said, and mention them at dinner… bring on the conflict!  Make the people speak!  It’s radio!  I wish for decent stories on the radio!”

Well, it’s not Rogers and Hammerstein, but we get the point.

So today, what are your yearnings?  For what do you pine?  What colors your hopes and your dreams?  Hollywood has known for nearly a century that tapping into those longings will build an eager audience every time.  We can dismiss it as manipulation.  But what do you really care about?  Care about so much that we can call it a longing.

I remember those longings that made Carolyn an obsession back when I was a twenty-one year old with hopes and dreams that could hardly be contained.  It got us to the altar.  That was forty-one years ago today.

And the longing is still alive.

Copyright Kenneth E Kemp 2010

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