Noah: A Film Review

NoahSomewhere in Darren Aronofsky’s more than two hour film is a great movie. With an almost impeccable performance by Russell Crowe as Noah – although not quite Oscar worthy, and a riveting performance by Ray Winstone as Tubal Cain, the film is part The Tree of Life and part Transformers. This schizophrenic coupling gives the movie an unsettling aspect. Fallen angels as stone monsters grapple with more lofty ideals of honor and responsibility to God and family.

Seeing this at the Museum of the Moving Image, the audience and I gave it quarter-hearted applause as we slunk out in the dark during the credits. Said to be a compilation of a three-hour Director’s cut and a shorter studio cut, both of which the target audience didn’t like, this released, and more comprehensible, version will probably please no one.

And yet, as I writhed in pain last night over two herniated discs and an incipient cold, both of which allowed me only fitful sleep, I couldn’t get my mind off the movie. Is there a god, and if so, why doesn’t he speak to us? Or, if he does why is it so difficult to understand him? In this movie, Aronofsky’s unseen God is definitely a “He,” an unyielding, terrorizing, Old Testament God, who gives people no slack, only the rope to hang themselves. Yet the ending anticipates more the God of the New Testament. Is this a redeeming value, or only a way to end an otherwise depressing movie?

As Noah struggles to understand what he thinks his God wants, Tubal Cain struggles with a God he wants to hear but who has abandoned him because of his wickedness. Tubal represents modern man who must struggle in the absence of divine revelation, but as the descendent of Cain, he has already lost that struggle. Nevertheless, his attempts to conquer the world and put it under his dominion is a Sisyphean undertaking in light of the more powerful divine and natural forces that dominate this film’s world.

Turkey: The Country not the Bird

My wife and I recently returned from a cruise in the Mediterranean where we saw the sites of Italy, Greece and Turkey. I had thought that Erdogan’s Islamization of Turkey would have made it a very repressive country, and that Attaturk’s vision of a secular Turkey was as dead and buried as he was. I also thought that Italy and Greece were mostly western countries in the mold of Western Europe. What I found was the opposite.

While I loved visiting Italy and Greece once again, the impression I received was one of vibrant Third World countries that didn’t use credit cards — I constantly had to change dollars into euros in Rome and Athens – and countries that would be more at home in Eastern Europe. However, the museums were fantastic — even though you don’t know when parts of them will closed at weird hours for lack of money. The ancient Roman and Greek sites made it feel as if Rome and Greece still ruled the world, but those days are definitely millennia passed.

I expected Turkey to be similar, and it was in regard to credit cards, but it was much stranger than Italy or Greece. Arriving in Istanbul, the first thing you notice are the mosques, hundreds of them adorning the cityscape. I felt as if I’d arrived in an alien world where the mosques almost seemed as if they were flying saucers that had temporarily landed.

Istanbul, Turkey

One thing the government under the General Directorate of Foundations is trying to do is to reconvert museums and churches into mosques. There are no shortage of mosques, and according to the locals, one does not need a mosque to pray. Those that have been reconverted include the thirteenth century Haghia Sophia Church in Trabzon. As another example, after an earthquake in Istanbul in 1999, the sixth century Church of St. Sergius and Bacchus was restored by having its Christian-themed walls covered up, its floors ripped up and a dome added so it could become a mosque. The present Islamic government of Turkey has a choice to make. So far, they seem to be making the wrong one.

Once you acclimate yourself to the ever present mosques, you will notice how western the city of Istanbul really is. You feel you could be in Belgium, England or even the US. The people we met, especially the younger generation were decidedly modern and anti-Erdogan. They appreciated western values and didn’t want to give them up. Even one religious young man who was trying to find his place within Islam didn’t want to give up the freedoms his generation has sampled. While Erdogan may wish proudly to lead his people back to the seventh century, the modern generation is more than happy to remain in the twenty-first, and some of them are willing to fight for their freedoms. Attaturk may not be dead after all.

In many ways Istanbul is a modern city, it is a hub for international business and a modern cosmopolitan city. Even in the nineteenth century spice bazaar, you can get your Turkish Delight candy specially cut for you and then have the box shrink wrapped for freshness and to go easily through customs. But it is also pays attention to its traditional side in the care it takes to present its time-honored Mediterranean cooking. Its vegetarian tradition is beyond compare. In short, Turkey has the best of the old and the new. My wife and I liked it so much that we are thinking of going back in the spring. With the warmth of its people, its western and eastern flavors and its marvelous ancient archaeological sites, Turkey is a better than Disneyland because it’s all real. If its government can avoid wrecking it, Turkey will remain a wonder of the ancient and modern world.

The Extraordinary Tale of the Bermuda Petrel and the Man who Brought It Back from Extinction

Book Review:

Rare Birds: The Extraordinary Tale of the Bermuda Petrel and the Man who Brought It Back from Extinction by Elizabeth Gehrman

Rare Birds: The Extraordinary Tale of the Bermuda PetrelCrazy, eccentric curmudgeon or self-sacrificing saint? David Wingate, who almost single-handedly resurrected the near-extinct cahow, a type of petrel, is both. The Bermuda native has devoted his life to assuring the survival of a creature once so docile, abundant, and unfortunately for them, delicious, that early visitors to Bermuda, standing in one spot, easily killed four thousand in a single night.

Gehrman’s fascinating and thoroughly researched account describes how Wingate frequently risked his life on the tiny, jagged islands that compose Bermuda, fighting rough seas, hurricanes, rocky shores, and even the U.S. military, to study the cahow, long thought to be extinct. Wingate constructed artificial burrows, warded off predators, and replanted vegetation by hand, all in the name of reviving a species that was nearly wiped out in the early 1600s.

As a teenage birder in 1951, Wingate was present when American ornithologist Robert Cushman Murphy and Louis S. Mowbray of the Bermuda Aquarium discovered the first living cahow seen in 330 years, on a tiny islet called Inner Pear. At that point Wingate was hooked and became determined to restore the cahow to Bermuda, no matter what the cost. Personal discomfort meant little to him. He often spent cold, wet nights without shelter on uninhabited islands, studying the nocturnal seabirds, trying to figure out how to turn 14 birds into a viable population.

After earning a degree in zoology from Cornell University in 1957, Wingate returned home to tackle the problem of helping the cahow survive by creating devices that prevented other types of birds from getting into the cahows’ burrows. Along with their revival, Wingate came up with the idea of restoring an abandoned island called Nonsuch to its precolonial state, including, he hoped, breeding grounds for the cahow. In 1962, Wingate, his pregnant wife Anita, and their toddler moved to the island, which had few modern conveniences, making daily living quite a challenge.

There was as yet no dock at the protected north beach, so everything the young family needed – furniture, tools, books, food, clothing, and diapers; blocks of ice, since there was no refrigerator; lanterns, since there was no electricity; eighty-pound propane cylinders to fuel the stove; five-gallon cans of gas for the generator that started the pressure system to pump rainwater from the cistern to the house – had to be dragged over the beach, past the bones of cedars, through the scrub, and to the compound, three hundred yards away and uphill every step.

Wingate stuck it out on the island, hand-planting native habitat and destroying invasive species, despite horrific family tragedy and inane government bureaucracy, until finally forced to retire and leave Nonsuch in 2000. By then, three times as many breeding cahows and three times as many fledglings existed on various islets in Bermuda versus when Wingate began his work in 1962. However, he had yet to see them return to nest on Nonsuch. Finally, on a rare night visit to the island in 2011, Wingate saw about 10 cahows fluttering above him, a thrilling culmination to his astounding life’s work.

This review originally appeared in the bimonthly newspaper Happy Valley Animals.

The Power of Transformation: My Day in the Movies

TransformationUsing Craigslist, my wife and I volunteered to be extras on a movie filming in the New York City area. We submitted a photo and our measurements. We both expected to play tourists visiting a restored nineteenth century village that uses costumed re-enactors. While she did portray a tourist, my fate was different.

We arrived on set at about 11:30 am and signed in with a bubbly young woman who was coordinating the extras. She told us she would try to have us in and out expeditiously. Of course, we waited and waited. We had been told there would be air conditioning, but as the outside temperature approached 100, all we had was two medium-sized electric fans for at least one hundred extras. We therefore decided to go out on the terrace, where the temperature felt at least ten degrees cooler. I had an inkling that something was about to change, when the extra wrangler approached us and told us to come inside and sit near her. She then told me I looked like “The Mayor.”

The wardrobe mistress fetched me and took me to a room where I had two choices of nineteenth-century-style wool jackets whose sleeves were a little long on me, one top hat that mysteriously fit perfectly, and a black cravat. She then sent me back to the hot-box holding room.

A half hour later she came for me again, gave me my clothes, and told me to put them on. A half hour after that, the make-up woman did my face. I was now officially “The Mayor,” clad in three layers of clothing, trying to adjust to the heat. Then I was on call for what turned out to be the next five hours.

Putting on the costume metamorphosed my shy self into an outgoing, talkative personality. When I looked in the mirror, I appeared a little like Abraham Lincoln. The staff started calling me “Mr. Mayor.”  Other extras asked me to pose for pictures with them. One star-struck guy wanted to know what other movies I had been in. A little girl kept giving tea and lemonade to “The Mayor.” Another extra who had brought his own outfit looked like Stan Laurel of the Laurel and Hardy comedy team of the first half of the twentieth century. He was a voice impersonator with a spot-on Bullwinkle and Yoda, and said he had been in more than 100 movies. The SAG-AFTRA actors, normally aloof from the non-union extras, treated me like one of them, sharing their stories with me. One sweet looking young woman had been an international karate champion and had qualified for the Olympics.

Finally, at about 6 pm, those in period costumes took a van to the outdoor area where filming was taking place. Everybody seemed to know my character, including the co-director and her assistants. I was “The Mayor.” I had my picture taken by an official set photographer and by an assistant director. My actual part was fairly small. I was to wave, tip my hat, and greet visitors entering and leaving the park. While I assumed we were filming a comedy, I actually have no idea if my assumption was accurate. When the two stars passed by me, one of them started exaggeratedly bowing to me, which I returned in kind. Through the five takes, it became a game between us.

As we were returning to holding, all the extras, including my wife, were told they could go, except for those dressed in period costumes. The staff at holding hadn’t gotten the message, however, and some told us we could leave as well. I had to inform them we were asked to wait. Finally around 8 pm as the sun was starting to set, all of us, including my wife who had to stay because of me, were summoned back to the set for the last scene to be shot at the park.  My job was similar to the first scene, except I was to thank people for visiting. Because of the lack of time almost no one was able to exit and I would be surprised if I were in frame in the scene.

In most movies the stars are off limits to the extras. You’re not supposed to talk with them or have any contact with them, including eye contact. This time was different. The two stars, who are household names, graciously allowed their pictures to be taken with some of the extras. As “The Mayor,” I was allowed to cut in line to do so with one of them.

I didn’t want to give back my costume, as it had somehow made me other than I was. I had been magically transmuted into a different person and energized. All in all, it was a pleasure for this usually skeptical observer of life, who is now smitten with the acting bug. In this one area, my wife is now more skeptical than I am about looking for more jobs as extras.

Ten Ways To Tell if You’re an Anti-Semite (with apologies to David Letterman)

10. You’re careful to specify that you’re not an anti-Semite, only anti-Zionist.

9. Your definition of a non-violent protest is one in which the Palestinians only throw rocks and Molotov cocktails.

8. You think Israel is a racist state because it’s mainly for Jews, but you don’t think the 52 Islamic states are racist because they’re mainly for Muslims.

7. You think BDS (Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions) just wants Israel to go back to its 1967 borders (that are in reality the 1949 Armistice lines).

6. You believe that the Mavi Marmara, one of the six ships sent from Turkey to break the Israeli blockade of Hamas-run Gaza, was just carrying aid to the Palestinians.

5. You believe that suicide bombing against Israeli civilians is okay, but you’re horrified at the Boston bombing.

4. You believe that Palestinians can do what they want to Israelis, but any counter measures by the Israelis are automatically war crimes.

3. You’re willing to speak out and volunteer for the Palestinian cause, but you wouldn’t do so for the Tibetan, Cypriote, Kurdish or other causes.

2. You feel that because you’re against many of the things the West does, including capitalism and intervention in Third World countries, that you automatically have to be against Israel, the invention of the West.

1. After reading the above nine reasons, you still think you’re only anti-Zionist.

Free Comedy of Errors Swings into Central Park

ShakespeareIf there’s one thing I hate, it is Shakespeare in modern drag. All these presumptuous directors think they can do Shakespeare one better. So, when my wife suggested we get free tickets to the Public Theater’s “The Comedy of Errors” at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, my first thought was I didn’t want to go. My second thought was that a 1930s version of twins lost and found was probably worth the ticket price: exactly nothing. At least, I thought, our chance of getting tickets was practically nil. So when my wife excitedly announced we had two tickets, I resigned myself to a night of tortured transpositions.

When we entered the theater at 8:10 pm (start time 8:30), I was thinking about why I don’t like updated Shakespeare. In this case, it’s because it’s too much of a jump from a 16th century staging, with the play taking place in Ephesus, Turkey, to a 20th century one in upstate New York, without some sort of bridge between them to help suspend disbelief. Also, when directors try to modernize a Shakespearian play, so many of them get it grievously wrong. It’s usually either clunky and/or risible. Yet here, when we sat down, rather than facing a normally empty stage, surprisingly, several actors were hanging out at a dance hall. When they started to dance, with their swing-inspired moves, I was hooked.

Between scenes, the dancers also entertained, so the energetic pace of the show never wavered, nor did the audience’s enthusiasm. In fact, the dancing was so infectious that I was able to suspend disbelief over a 400+ year jump in the date and place of the setting. Through the dancers, the bridge across time and place was easily crossed, drawing us into 1930s upstate New York, complete with a Hopperesque set, an expanded version of the Edward Hopper work “Early Sunday Morning,” painted in 1930, and now on view at the Whitney Museum. In Central Park, there’s a statue of Shakespeare done by John Quincy Adams Ward that Hopper painted. It appears that the Public Theater is returning the favor and completing the homage.

Often when a director updates a play it appears awkward, but here, as in the recent update (2011) of “The Merchant of Venice” starring F. Murray Abraham, it works because of the dynamism of the actors, the staging and the nuance and insight of the director.

I am now a convert to modern staging of the Bard. Director Daniel Sullivan has won me to the cause. Even Shakespeare would have been proud. Hamish Linklater as the Antipholus twins and Jesse Tyler Ferguson as the Dromio servant twins steal and steel the show. The noble twins are the straight men, while the servant twins are the comedians. The slapstick works and works well, with more laughs in this version of the play than in any other I’ve seen. Perhaps Shakespeare was the Mel Brooks of his time, but it took a director like Sullivan to show us this.

What’s Wrong with the New Star Trek Movie?

Star Trek: Into DarknessComing into the movie theater, my wife said, “I’ll only like it if there’s a tribble in it.” She liked it. I guessed the key plot element when I saw the cute, furry ball. I liked it less.

“Into Darkness,” the new Star Trek movie directed by J. J. Abrams, is recycled, but plays well, at least some of the time, with the teenager in all of us. With the whole universe to toy with, literally, Abrams can only give us a rehashed, refried-bean sort of plot, or is it tri-fried? As in “Super 8,” Abrams gives us bits and pieces of other movies, or in this case, mostly Star Trek movies and TV shows.

The opening sequence, a high-action chase scene, whether derivative or an inside joke, is eerily reminiscent of Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), in which Indiana Jones is chased by South American Indians. While an obviously expensive scene to film, the aboriginals’ faces here look like five and dime store paper mache masks.

With its recycled plot, “Into Darkness” is still exciting but not awe inspiring. If I could speak with J. J. Abrams, I would tell him he needs to show us the wonder of the universe as well as the foibles of its inhabitants. If Star Trek doesn’t boldly go where no one has gone before, it’s a dud.

With the villain’s superhuman strength and brains, you would think he would be a more complex character, one with a depth of feeling and understanding, yet he is little more than a shadow puppet. A couple of times it appears our déjà vu villain is about to become interesting, but the director always reels him in.

In this attempt, Kirk is the arrogant young man who knows it all; Spock is the monotone hybrid Pinocchio, while Bones is the man of feeling. Uhura is emotive and sexy, so why does she like Spock? Scotty is bland, while Sulu grows a pair when necessary, but the other characters are mostly cardboard cutouts. If their names weren’t called out when they appear, you wouldn’t know who they are.

There is a great movie in there somewhere, but it doesn’t get a chance to develop. If Abrams is going to direct another Star Trek movie, he needs to speak with, and I say this in all humility, someone like me. Star Trek movies need excitement and humor, but they also need awe, irony and blowback.

That is not to say the movie is bad. In fact it’s quite good and highly exciting at points, with great sets and decent 3D effects. Yet, it disappoints. Abrams appears to still be writing for 13 year olds, like in “Super 8,” but some of us have grown up. We want a little wonder with our popcorn and soda.

Model Christy Turlington Burns Says Childbirth Deaths Are Avoidable

Christy Turlington BurnsShe’s on the cover of the June/July 2013 issue of Harper’s Bazaar. She’s one of Fast Company’s most creative people of 2013. And she’s determined to stop women from dying in childbirth.

Every day, roughly one thousand women die from the complications of pregnancy or childbirth, yet most of these deaths are preventable. That’s the message of model and activist Christy Turlington Burns’ documentary “No Woman, No Cry.”

The first-time filmmaker’s own experience with post-partum hemorrhaging after the birth of her daughter, Grace, and a 2005 visit to El Salvador, her mother’s homeland, inspired Turlington Burns to document maternal mortality worldwide.

“It’s a global tragedy,” she said at a screening of the film in New York City, so she decided to tell the stories of women in four different countries.

Turlington Burns first takes us to Tanzania, where a very pregnant Janet must walk five miles to reach a small clinic. She has no food with her, and the clinic provides none. Because her labor has not progressed enough, the health care worker sends her home. When Janet returns to the clinic, she’s so weak that she’s told she must now get to a hospital, a one-hour drive away. The van to take her costs $30, more than one month’s income for Janet’s family. Turlington Burns provides the money, and Janet gives birth to a healthy boy.

Tanzania lacks adequate health care facilities and medical personnel, as do most developing nations, with only one obstetrician for every 2.5 million people. With more and better facilities, women like Janet don’t need to die, as she surely would have if the film crew had not been there.

In Bangladesh, the issues are different. Health care facilities are often close by, yet most women will not use them because of the social stigma attached: it’s considered shameful to give birth outside the home. With proper education, however, attitudes can change. When a health care worker counsels Monica, who is ashamed to seek medical help, she finally agrees to have her baby in a hospital, leading to a happy outcome – the birth of a son.

In Guatemala, Turlington Burns encounters yet another issue. Abortion is illegal, even in cases of rape and incest. So when a young woman becomes pregnant as a result of rape, her illegal abortion almost kills her; it takes nearly six weeks of hospitalization for her to recover. Changing religiously based norms is probably the toughest challenge regarding maternal health, but it can happen, Turlington Burns argues.

Although 99 percent of childbirth-related deaths occur in the developing world, the United States has vast room for improvement, ranking 50th in maternal mortality. Women of color are especially vulnerable, as are those who have no health insurance.

“Being uninsured and pregnant is a disaster,” said Jennie Joseph, a Florida midwife featured in the film.

Ironically, the only woman who dies of childbirth-related complications in the documentary is an American woman who succumbs to an amniotic fluid aneurism. Turlington Burns shows the toll her death takes on her family with sensitivity and compassion.

Two years in the making, “No Woman, No Cry” can be purchased on iTunes and Amazon.