Archive for the ‘Childhood Friends’ Category

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March 09, 2013: “Snow Falling on Cedars”

March 9, 2013

Snow Falling on Cedars_banner“Snow Falling on Cedars” (1999) has been on my film viewing list forever. After seeing it today, I feel it is a shame that I waited so long. Judging from reviews and how well it did at the box office, and knowing how Americans might see it as somewhat “messy” plot-wise, I can see why it hasn’t been given it’s due, but for me it was a near perfect cinematic experience.

snow-falling-on-cedars-poster“Snow Falling on Cedars” takes place on an island off the coast of Washington state, in the early 1950’s during a blizzard. A trial is about to take place for the murder of Carl, a local fisherman of Nordic-American descent, by another fisherman resident, Kazuo, of Japanese-American descent. The two men, although friends and fellow workers, were embroiled in a dispute over a tract of land that was deeded over to Carl’s family at the time that Japanese-Americans were interned in concentration camps at the start of WWII. Motive exists, but motive alone does not always guarantee guilt.

To add to the situation, Kazuo’s wife, Hatsue, has a history, since childhood, with a local small newspaper reporter, Ishmael, who is covering the trial. Carl has died under curious conditions by a blow to head, followed by drowning. A coroner has testified that a blow to Carl’s head was caused by a kendo strike. Kendo is Japanese sword fighting, practiced with wooden swords. This is circumstantial evidence against Kuzuo, who has been trained in kendo by his father. Kuzuo’s defender, Nels Gundmundsson attempts to fight the still rampant hatred against post-war Japanese-Americans to find justice for Kuzuo.

snowfallingcedars-0002Part of what makes “Snow Falling…” work so well is the inherent claustrophobia of the situation, from the outside-in: an island is isolated further by a snowstorm. Most of the drama of the present takes place in a courtroom, further narrowing the present-day story to a very select time and place. This frees the story to a series of  flashbacks from the past of each character to flesh out how each of them arrived to the present, presenting clues about each of their lives, as well as those pertinent to the trial. In these flashbacks, we discover the romance between Ishmael and Hatsue from early childhood in pre-war conditions. Hatsue’s mother is against a union between the two youths, and steers Hatsue towards a Japanese match, while Ishmael’s father, himself a newspaper reporter and publisher, advocates the rights of the Japanese-Americans. As war breaks out, Kuzuo’s father is forced to deed his land off before he and his family is forced into internment in California. At the internment camp, Hatsue meets Kuzuo and having told Ishmael that her love for him is impossible, she marries Kuzuo.

Now rivals, both Ishmael and Kuzuo go off to war, but to very different arenas: Ishmael to the Pacific, to (oddly) fight the Japanese, Kuzuo to  Europe (most likely in one of the Nisei units) to fight Germans. Both return wounded: Ishmael almost drowns and loses an arm as well as his heart with Hatsue’s rejection. Kuzuo is wounded by being haunted of having unjustly killed a young German soldier.

Normally, flashbacks in movies are a clumsy device, but “Snow Falling…” does it very well, using sounds and images that trigger the flashbacks of each person, and as such, the movie addresses the very nature of perceptions and memories, and how extremely important both are to witnesses in a trial of law. As Hatsue says, when being grilled by the District Attorney, “Trials aren’t only about truth, even though they should be…”

IshmaelOne reason “Snow Falling…” has not reached popular appeal is because it is hard to classify: is “Snow Falling…” a period piece, a love story, a courtroom drama, a mystery? It actually is all of these. There is also the untidy and unfamiliar character traits (to Hollywood-ized viewers) that the leads have: we want Hatsue to love the “right” man (Ishmael) but her love is in question and consequently she marries Kuzuo. We want Ishmael to follow in his father’s honorable footsteps, but this legacy is questioned even by Ishmael, himself. Even the innocence of Kuzuo is suspect when he admits he did want to kill Carl. In a lot of ways, “Snow Falling…” is most like “To Kill a Mockingbird” in tone and message. but while the “…Mockingbird” story is more distilled down, “Snow Falling on Cedars” is much better produced and much more interesting. Both films address doing the honorable deed for all the right reasons.

As far as courtroom dramas, “…Mockingbird” and “Snow Falling…” are neck and neck. Our courtrooms should be the arena where the best of our laws (and indeed the best of our very natures) should be most evident, yet sadly they are not always. This is shown when the District Attorney sums up his case against Kuzuo,

“Look clearly at the defendant. See the truth, self-evident in him…Consider his face. Ask yourself, each one of you: ‘What is my duty as a citizen of this community? Of this country? As an American?'”

As rebuttal, the defense lawyer, Gundmundsson (played wonderfully by Max von Sydow) tells the jury,

“‘Look at his face,’ the prosecutor said, presuming that you will see an enemy there…Now, our learned prosecutor will have you do your duty as Americans…You may think that this is a small trial, in a small place. Hmm? Well. It isn’t. Every once in a while, somewhere in the world, humanity goes on trial. And integrity. And decency. Every once in a while, ordinary people just like you, ladies and gentlemen, get called on to give the report card for the human race!”snow-falling-on-cedarspreview

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June 22, 2012: “Lost in Place” by Mark Salzman

June 22, 2012

I love finding books at the library that just sort of jump off the shelf at you. Such was the case, last week, when I found “Lost in Place” by Mark Slazman. Mark is a Renaissance man after my own heart. I know of him from a previous book he wrote: “Iron and Silk” about his travels through China while teaching English and learning kung fu at the hands of Master Pan Qingfu. One of my former students knew I was a big fan and generously bequeathed a rare signed, hard-bound copy of that book that I cherish. I also own the indie film of the same name which stars Mark as himself. Mark Salzman is an author whose autobiographical stories are rich with experience, characters, humor and honesty, so I knew what to expect when I picked up “Lost in Place” What I did not expect to find, was hope for the youth and parents of our time.

I do have a slight problem with the full title of the book “Lost in Place: Growing Up Absurd in Suburbia” which feels like a publisher is putting a label on Mark’s book to make it more palatable to American readers. This is kind of missing the point. Mark’s life is far from “absurd.” “Unique”…sure, unconventional”…maybe, but “absurd”…no. Without a doubt, the story of Mark’s life, while having its genesis in probably the most mundane environment possible…suburbian Conneticut, is far from traditional. Truly an artist, as a teen Mark had pursuits of music (the cello) and martial arts. Choosing probably the most awful martial arts teacher imaginable (one who swears at and beats his students, drinks and smokes pot during class, and just generally acts like a total jerk) Mark’s perseverance and success in martial arts say more about himself than any guidance he had at this point of his life. His mother is a concert musician and so offers some guidance to his music, but typical of American youths, Mark rebels constantly against her. It seems parents could be the worst people to aspire to be a muse to their young, when it comes to music. She does inspire Mark however, and he searches for that muse in others. It is that searching for inspirational teachers carries Mark through not only his college years, but also later in his travels through China in “Iron and Silk.”

The youth of today may not like “Lost in Place” although it is one that would be beneficial for any teenager to read. They might not like it, because the book addresses a teenage experience from one of their parent’s generation. It’s funny that “Romeo and Juliet” gets re-made almost every year, and that is not a problem, but maybe the distance of fated 14C. teens is more easily swallowed than those of the last generation. Mark’s book has all the pain, insecurity, challenges and desires of modern teens, but most important, the book manages to convey that these experiences are not unique, that others have gone through this before…and ulimately can come out OK.

I can easily imagine parents grinding their teeth at Mark’s story also. Where were the parents when Mark was choosing this lame-ass instructor? Were they oblivious to the abuse Mark suffered at his hands? It is clear that Mark’s parents gave him enough slack to allow him to make his own decisions, and this by itself, is a laudable parenting move. The most important thing is that they seem to be always there when he needed them…and in the most loving way imaginable.

“Lost in Place” does not shy away from the travails of the teenage experience. It addresses drugs, bad decisions, bad mentors, bad friends and ultimately, great loss. It also encourages teens to follow their hearts and passions. I can’t think of a book better suited for an American family to read together, if such a thing is possible. I think Mark’s story would offer a vehicle of discussion between generations. Most of all, the book gives the important idea to both teens and parents: “Others have traveled down this path. You are NOT alone!”

As for Mark Slazman, all’s well that ends well for him: a successful author, Yale graduate, skilled martial artist, cellist, linguist and calligrapher, he may have been lost in place at some point in his past…and the road goes forever onward…but his experiences have led him…well, hopefully to be found by you at the next trip to the library!

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May 16, 2012: Truant

May 16, 2012

While I am pleased as punch to have an acceptable access to the entertainment technology that the 21st C. offers, I can’t help but think of how drastically different my life would have been if I had all the stuff we have today: internet, DVDs, UTube, video games, IPods, etc., in my youth. Sure, we had TV, but then it was only three channels, no remote, and I’d like to see you jockey for your favorite show competing with nine other family members on a single set! My parents were pretty cool. If we did our work during the week we were allowed Friday nights to watch our shows. Our family dubbed Friday as “Popcorn/Soda Night” because those snacks went along with our entertainment. I think this was pretty good parenting: we worked hard for our weekly reward, and thoroughly enjoyed the treat. Still, we are talking a couple of hours of TV during the whole week!

Filling the Void

So, without all the trimmings of the 21st C. how did kids from the 60’s entertain themselves? Well, for one thing…we got outside more than most kids these days seem to. The 60’s parenting norm was to chuck a child outside after school until dinner and then after, the kids hit  the books until bedtime. Sure, this tactic worked pretty well for the parent: they got a few hours to themselves preparing dinner and enjoying the obligatory pre-dinner cocktail so prevalent in the 60’s, but it also got the kids tons of exercise and forced us to socialize via outdoor games. In short, without distractions of the spoon-fed, electronic ilk, we were forced to use our imaginations, intelligence, and our bodies to make up for the entertainment shortfalls.

A Partner in Crime

My childhood friend was Johnny B. He was actually my closest child neighbor, living only two doors down. Slightly older than I was, we were friends since I (literally) could first remember. I once saw a super-8 that  Johnny’s parents took of him as a toddler and I, in baby carriage, meeting for the first time. Johnny was different from me in almost every way: physically, he was thick and bullish to my lithe smallness. Socially, he was extroverted and chaotic as a foil to my quiet thoughtfulness. What brought us together was our imaginations, art, and our habit for getting into trouble! And here…people who know me now, will think to themselves “When did Steve ever get into trouble?!!!” Well, folks, I got most of my trouble out-of-the-way very young, the worst being my altar-boy/cub-scout days. Much of this trouble was in Johnny B.’s company. I don’t want to lead you to believe that Johnny was the sole instigator in these events (it was about 50/50) or that we were “bad” in any real (criminal or evil) sense, it was just that the ideas that we came up with (at least to our minds) were just too good to not make a reality. This draw towards trouble gave us many adventures, including, but not limited to: firearms; first love; physical dares; courting; drinking; cruising; sports; pranks; pyrotechnics; camping; really strange home movies; injuries; hunting; brawls; sex, drugs, and rock and roll…and Mary Ann Semonelli’s missing bra.

Skipping School for a Really Lame Meal

…oh…and lest I forget…a single count of truancy! I think it was Johnny’s idea to skip school, but rebels without a clue that we were, we had no plan what exactly to do with our free day. Earlier that week, one of my sister’s had done a decent job making Shrimp Newberg, so to my mind at least, making this dish seemed like an interesting and somewhat exotic way to spend the day. I remember Johnny shrugging and I suspect now that he wished that he had spent a little more time on thinking the whole event through, but he finally acquiesced. Needless to say, my sister was a few years ahead of me, culinary-wise, and while I think I could do a bang-up Shrimp Newberg these days, back then it was waaaay out of my league. Oddly enough though, this dismal failure put me onto an early track to improving my culinary skills. I started paying closer attention to my sister’s culinary successes and how they attained them.

The Hunger of the High-School Heart

So, to my childhood friend: thank you for all the fun, adventures, imaginings, as well as the bumps and bruises to our bodies and hearts…and for all that time spent cruising. Here is a word that has forever left American social life…cruising. In those days before IChats and Facebook, socializing was done  out in the open, but perhaps with the same embarrassment and sad desperation that haunts todays teenagers. Cruising, in the 60-70’s was driving a car up and down the fast food strip of the local town. It sometimes led to taunts, races, occaisionally fights, and rarely…that teenage Holy Grail…the glimpse of that perfect babe, cruising just like you…to be (hopefully) met at the next party!

No one has quite captured the unique American social activity of cruising like David Wilcox, in his song “Saturday They’ll All Be Back Again

Johnny’s out cruising down the fast food strip
He rides his high-wheeler Ford
Down here every evening since the school let out
An ordinary man would be bored
Johnny’s got the hunger of the high school heart
And a tank full of minimum wage
So it’s six lights down, six lights back
Pacing like a lion in a cage…
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