Saturday, February 25, 2012

"The Help," The Oscars & Movies Set in the South

On Oscar night, I doubt The Help will win Best Picture. It was a page-turner of a book and, all told, a pretty good movie, one I'm sure I'll watch again at some point. For whatever reason, though, it's not among my most favorite movies set in the South.

If there were an Oscar for Best Southern Picture of All Time, I'd nominate the following:

* A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) Tennessee Williams (playwright) and Elia Kazan (director) were a combustible combination on Broadway, and this film (set in the French Quarter of New Orleans) captures their powerful collaboration at its best. Although this famous play's subject matter was slightly white-washed to suit Hollywood censors, there's no denying the sweaty, claustrophobic, jazzy, sexy, raw-nerves aura of this movie. Sixty years later, Marlon Brando is still magnetic (and mega hunky, even by today's standards). Vivien Leigh is a bit campy at times ("Stella, run out and get me a lemon Coke with chipped ice"). But oh man, that final scene? I can see it anytime in my head without having to watch the movie. If you love this movie, read When Blanche Met Brando, a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at the making of the play and film. 

Big Fish (2003) One of my favorite Tim Burton movies, it's an ode to Southern Gothic storytelling--which is usually long on entertainment value and imagery and mostly devoid of actual facts. The large cast includes Albert Finney, Ewan McGregor, and Jessica Lange, all at their best. Warning: The final moments pack an emotional wallop. 

Loggerheads (2005) A little-known gem I caught at a San Francisco film festival, Loggerheads tells three different but interlocking stories, all set in North Carolina. Tess Harper, Bonnie Hunt, and Michael Learned are among the strong cast. The stories involve a young gay man who loves loggerhead turtles and his adoptive and birth mothers. I'd tell you more, but I think this movie is best experienced without a lot of upfront explanation and backstory. 

* Junebug (2005) This independent feature filmed in North Carolina gets the local atmosphere and accents right--there's even a mention of Cheerwine, as I recall. Plus it co-stars a charming Amy Adams in her breakout role. 
* Body Heat (1981) This is the kind of sexy film noir thriller Hollywood would have made in the 1940s had it not been for all that tedious, Hays Office/studio censorship. Set in Florida during a heat wave, this movie isn't particularly Southern in flavor (other than all the sweat). But it's a hugely entertaining showcase for Kathleen Turner as the ultimate femme fatale and William Hurt as her not-so-bright man toy.

* The Little Foxes (1941). No one did evil better than Bette Davis, and she was rarely better than when she was directed by William Wyler, who directed this film adaptation of the Lillian Hellman Deep South melodrama of greed. If nothing else, this movie is a showcase for black-and-white "deep focus" cinematography. Need an example? Watch the scene in which Bette, in the foreground, waits expectantly as her dying husband, in the background, crawls up the steps to retrieve the vital medication she has cruelly denied him. Both the foreground and background subjects are in clear focus--something you just don't see in color films. Gregg Toland, the cinematographer, also did the camera work for a little movie you may have heard of called Citizen Kane. BTW, as much as I love Bette Davis in the role, Tallulah Bankhead originated the part on stage and was said to be a sensation. Would she have overpowered the screen? Maybe. I'd still like to have seen her do the role. 

And the Oscar goes to: A Streetcar Named Desire. It's still a knockout of a movie.

Others that could have been contenders (to paraphrase Marlon Brando): 

Fried Green Tomatoes (1991). I didn't add this to the main list because a) it's such an obvious candidate and b) it's rather schmaltzy and sentimental. Even so, it's funny, touching, and absorbing. It stars Jessica Tandy, always a treat to watch and Kathy Bates, in one of her first great performances ("I'm older and have more insurance!").

* Steel Magnolias (1989) Sally Field in the cemetery scene is reason enough to watch. 

* Norma Rae (1979) Once again, I loved Sally Field, especially when she stood on top of a table holding that "Union" sign. She had some great lines, too. When Rob Leibman, as a Yankee unionizer, trips and falls onto a cow pie and is all undone, Sally just sighs and says reassuringly: "It's only grass and water."

Others I used to love but frankly, my dear, I'm kinda tired of: 

* To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) I know, this is practically everyone's favorite Southern movie. I loved it as a kid and for many years after. And I still find it admirable and nicely acted. But here's a little secret: The book is even better. And if you think you don't need to read it because you've seen the movie 12,000 times, think again.

* Gone With the Wind (1939) I'm sure if someone sat me down in a movie theater and this movie began to unspool, I'd find it difficult to leave. But left to my own devices, I'm not ready to devote another four hours of my life to this film anytime soon. Then again, I can't resist Mammy, especially when she accuses Scarlett for waiting for Ashley Wilkes "just like a spid-ah."

Which movies would you nominate for Best Southern Picture of All Time, and why? I'd love to know. 

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Learning How to Lie to My Mother -- Again

As a teenager, I frequently lied to my parents, especially my mother.

"No, that wasn't a bag of pot you found in my jeans, Mom; that was oregano. My girlfriend and I were cooking spaghetti at her house."

"Yes, Mom, I have a girlfriend."

"No, Mom, I'm not gay!"

In my 20s, I decided not to lie anymore to my parents; it was too painful. This meant telling them I was gay. To be more precise, I told my mother but not my father. I was too chicken to tell him, too afraid of his disapproval. I figured she'd tell him anyway.

Being honest (within reason, of course) has many rewards. It deepens relationships, gives you a satisfying sense of integrity and authenticity. Over the past few years, however, I've had to forfeit those rewards. I've had to start lying to my mother again.

Ruth, my mother, has Alzheimer's or some other form of dementia (it's rarely easy to know unless you do an autopsy). She's forgotten I'm gay. And so, in almost every conversation, Ruth asks, "Do you have a girlfriend?"

I wrestled with this at first. I hate lying to her; but does it really make sense to 'come out' again to my mother, especially when she won't remember it the next time I call? So I've developed a pat answer: "Yes, Mom, I have lots of girlfriends," which is true.

"Good!," she always says.

Sometimes she'll ask if I'm ever going to get married. "I'm working on it," I lie. Truth is, Nick and I are married.

The day my sisters and I had to move Ruth into an Alzheimer's facility, she was fixated on my marital status. I decided to take it a step further that day and show her a photo of me with Natalie, one of my best 'girlfriends.' My mother was thrilled.

While I've developed some routine 'white lies' as answers, as have my sisters, Ruth still throws questions at me that I'm not prepared for. Too often, in the past, I've told her the truth, which only upset her.

My conversation with Ruth yesterday was a turning point.

I could tell at the beginning of our conversation that she was more confused than usual. "I haven't seen your father in a while, I wonder where he is?"

My father died in 1993, and in the past, I might have reminded her of that. "He's always working late," I responded, without missing a beat. "You know how hard he works."

"I think he wrote a book or something," Ruth replied.

"Yes, it's a book of his photographs, of downtown Greensboro over the years," I lied. "I'm so proud of him."

"Me too!," she answered. "I don't know where the children are either."

"I think they're upstairs, probably playing hide-and-seek," I lied.

"When are you comin' to see me?" she asked.

"I'll be there tomorrow," I lied.

And so, at long last, I was able to easily play along in this excruciatingly painful game. One thing sustained me throughout our conversation, however. With her husband still at work and her children upstairs playing, I hadn't heard my mother sound so happy in years.

Ruth and me, July 2010, Greensboro

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Wherever I Go, There I Am

You can leave your hometown, but you can never escape it.

That's one of the themes of the National Theatre of London's production of Travelling Light, which I saw yesterday in a movie theatre broadcast in San Francisco. (If you're a theatre buff, you should catch one of the National's broadcasts; they've all been excellent.)

It's a story line with which I strongly identify. As a kid and teen, I couldn't wait to leave my hometown of Greensboro, N.C. The homophobia I encountered at the time was a particularly strong motivator for getting the hell out of Dodge. But there was more to it than that. I was enamored with the idea of living in a Big City (particularly one on a coast), and I knew Greensboro could never deliver.

In my 20s and 30s, I traveled as often and as far as possible. At 29, I moved to San Francisco, about as far away as you can get from Greensboro (geographically and psychologically) and yet still live within the continental United States.

And then, in my 40s, something curious began to happen. I realized the majority of my travels were no longer to Big Cities and other lands. Most of the time, I was flying back to Greensboro and sometimes spending a full week there. Even more surprisingly, I discovered that I often looked forward to those visits.

It wasn't the sights and sounds of Greensboro that compelled me back; it was spending time with family and reconnecting with old friends. (Of course, the Cheerwine, Chick-Fil-A, and Stamey's Barbecue didn't hurt, either.) Finally, I'd stopped dismissing Greensboro for what it wasn't and appreciated it for what it was, and what it offered me.

I guess that's what happens to most people as they mature. We discover the truth in that old cliché, "No matter where you go, there you are."

(c) Carol W. Martin
By the way, the photo above of downtown Greensboro in the late 1950s was taken by my father, Carol W. Martin of Martin's Studio. Originally from Roanoke, Virginia, he once told me that as a young man, he'd never intended to stay in Greensboro; he'd only gone there for a job on the newspaper. My father had originally set his sights on living in a bigger city, just as I did years later. But then he fell in love with a beautiful young woman named Ruth, married, had five kids, and had built a successful business. Did he regret never making it to a more exciting, bigger city? I've often wondered that, but I believe he found contentment in his adopted town. And ultimately, isn't that what most of us want?

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Two Hungry People in San Diego, One of Them a Jerk

Last week, walking from the San Diego convention center to my hotel, I passed a homeless woman. She was sitting on a low-lying brick retaining wall, not far from Petco Park. I didn't think much about her then--but she has been on my mind almost every day since.

That's because I was a jerk to her, though she didn't know it.

I'd been attending an online marketing conference. As a conference attendee, I was entitled to a free boxed lunch every day. That afternoon, my intention was to get the food, take it back to my hotel, and eat it poolside. It was a cloudless, warm afternoon, and I couldn't wait to absorb the sun.

En route to my hotel, I saw the homeless woman. She was in the same position I'd seen her in when I passed by her that morning, except now she held a plastic bag up to one side of her face to block the sun. Next to her was a small cart of assorted belongings. She took no notice of me, and I gave her only a quick glance.

And yet, in that moment, my instinct was to stop and offer her my boxed lunch. Instead, I second-guessed myself (an expertise of mine). Giving homeless people food and money only encourages them to stay on the streets, right? Since I give money to homeless organizations every year, I shouldn't have to surrender my sandwich too, right? And how do I know she hadn't eaten? How do I know she would trust food from a stranger?

In my hotel room, I opened the box and suddenly had absolutely no interest in it. It was the same conference-quality sandwich I'd eaten the previous two days. So I dropped the sandwich in the trash and proceeded to the pool.

To my dismay, I discovered the hotel wasn't offering food or beverage service at the pool, nor could you have room service deliver lunch there. Instead, I had to go to my room, find the hotel restaurant menu, call in my order, have the restaurant call my cell phone when it was ready, then go down and pick it up.

How ridiculous and unaccommodating the hotel was being, I thought, irritated. And then it hit me: This wasn't just an inconvenience. This was payback time, a life lesson. I was having to work for the food I wanted, and rightly so, because I hadn't even bothered to offer the food I didn't want to someone who probably could have used it. Instead, I had callously discarded it.

I'm not proud of this, by the way. However, I'm glad I realized what I'd done, and I decided to start making amends right away. Before checking out of my room, I left a large tip and a thank-you note for the maid. I realize this wasn't the same as offering food to a homeless person. But it was a start. And it's my hope that in the future, I won't second-guess any act of compassion.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

State Fair Foods - Hey, That Pound of Butter Really Looks Like You!

"What would you like for dinner tonight, sweetie?"

"Oh, I don't know. Something simple. How about a Krispy Kreme cheeseburger?"

"With fried Coke?"

"You betcha. And for dessert..."

"Deep-fried Twinkies!"

"Took the words right out my mouth!"

I don't know if such a conversation has ever occurred. I certainly hope so, and preferably, it was between two elegantly attired people in the back of a long black limousine.

The aforementioned delicacies are what's known as "state fair food," which, if it isn't indigenous to the South, has certainly been perfected there. My sister Mimi, who writes a delightful blog entitled Messy Mimi, forwarded some links about state fair food to me recently, after she read my blog posts about Paula Deen.

Strictly in the spirit of research, I visited a few web sites and blogs Mimi recommended. Among the things I discovered:

* Chicken-fried bacon -- an award winner at the Texas state fair.

* A deep-fried latte (another award contender at the Texas state fair), which is actually a fried pastry topped with cappuccino ice cream, instant coffee powder, caramel sauce, and whipped cream.

* A butter bust. Just in case you haven't completely turned into fat after eating these foods, you can have a bust made of yourself in butter at the Minnesota state fair. 

I've not been to a state fair in years, though I've certainly overindulged in the calorie department from time to time. (The recent dinner of lasagna sandwich, chocolate cake and ice cream comes to mind.) What's the biggest calorie bomb you've consumed, and why on Earth did you do such a thing to your poor body? Please share your stories. Defibrillators are standing by. 

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Finding an Iguana in an Airplane Seatback Pocket

Can you imagine discovering a baby iguana in the seatback pocket of an airplane?
It happened—but not to me, thankfully, or I wouldn't be alive to tell this tale. 
At dinner the other night, an airplane pilot friend was talking about his former pet iguana. He explained that after a plane landing, a member of the cleaning crew had discovered a live, baby iguana in a seatback pocket. Apparently someone had intended to bring the exotic pet with them to the plane’s final destination, thought better of it at the last minute, and abandoned the reptile.
The pilot thought it would be cool to have a pet iguana and took the creature home. The iguana lived with the pilot and his partner for several years—until the beast bit down on his arm one day. The pilot showed me the circular scar on his forearm.
Did I just hear you faint? Or was that me?
Anyhow, during his stint as a hideous houseguest, the iguana had free reign of the pilot’s home. Sometimes they’d find the iguana in a bookcase, for instance. The iguana was particularly fond of running water and would often join the pilot or his partner during their showers.
Is there still such a thing as smelling salts? If so, where can I buy some?
One day, the pilot and his partner had a houseguest. She was staying in their home while they were away. She knew they had a pet iguana and wasn’t particularly thrilled at the idea, even less so that the reptile was uncaged. So imagine her reaction when, unexpectedly, the iguana joined her in the shower. The screams that resulted were reminiscent of the shower scene in Psycho.
Hang with me, y'all, I'm almost done with the horror parade.
The pilot then told a story about how, during a cocktail party at their home, the iguana made an unexpected appearance. One of the guests, whom the pilot said was “a nelly queen,” took one look at the beast and bolted for the doorway.
Let me just say that had I been there, I'd have beaten that nelly queen out the door. Despite my attempts at alligator hunting with cocktails, I have a morbid fear of reptiles—especially one that might show up unexpectedly without a leash and has two penises. (Yes, it's true; iguanas have two thingies.)
As a boy in Greensboro, my earliest memory is discovering a garter snake in the driveway. I shrieked for so long, so loudly, that a concerned neighbor appeared with a hoe. To stop my screaming, he chopped the snake into two. When both pieces of the snake continued to squirm, my shrieks blew out every window on the block.
Geckos used to make me jump every single time. Finally, I came to terms with them (more or less) when I realized they like to visit the same places I do—especially warm, tropical islands.
But iguanas? I can barely look at a photo of these prehistoric prowlers without wanting to flee. (In fact, you may have noticed this post has no photo of an iguana. This was not an oversight on my part.) 
I know I’m not alone in this. One day years ago, my friend Bob and I were walking along a San Francisco street on our way to a movie. There was a homeless guy on the corner with a pet iguana on his shoulder. I turned to remark upon it to Bob, but he was no longer there. Almost immediately, I heard car horns honking and tires squealing. Bob had dashed into the street with little (if no) regard for the traffic in order to reach the opposite side of the street as quickly as humanly possible.
After my recent Night of the Iguana with the pilot, I was sure I’d go home and have horrific nightmares. Oddly enough, I had no memorable dreams whatsoever. Could it be that I’m getting just a teensy bit less fearful of cold-blooded creatures?
Probably not. From here on, when I’m on airplane, you can be certain that my hands will not venture inside a seatback pocket.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

25 Years as a Southerner in San Francisco

The day I arrived in San Francisco to start a new job, it was cold. The rain was monsoon-like. I picked up a rental car at the airport and drove directly to the office where I’d be working.
“Welcome to sunny California,” a co-worker greeted me.
That was 25 years ago today, on Feb. 2, 1987. And although the flight from Atlanta that day was bumpy due to weather, it was nothing compared to the turbulence I’d experienced in the months before my move from Atlanta to San Francisco.
Let’s quickly rewind to August 1986. Nick and I were living in Atlanta and came to San Francisco for vacation. I loved the city's spectacular hills and bay, its quirky culture, and how different it was from anything I'd experienced on the East Coast.
Less than one month later, my boss told me of a job opening in the company’s Silicon Valley office, just south of San Francisco. Was I interested?
The thought of such a huge move was fairly terrifying. And yet, Nick and I had grown bored with Atlanta. So with trepidation I told my boss “yes,” and soon enough, the job was mine.
I wasn’t looking forward to telling my parents about the move. My mother, never one to hide her feelings, said, “I feel like you’re moving to the moon!” She despaired over never seeing me again; I assured her I’d be home every two or three months. My father, who rarely showed his emotions, simply said, “I suspected you’d end up in New York or California one day.”
The next big hurdle was the gnawing fear, which escalated the closer we came to moving. What in the hell were we doing, moving all the way to San Francisco? What will happen to our friendships back in the South? Can we really afford to live in San Francisco? What if we get there, hate it, and can’t afford to move back? What if there’s a huge earthquake? These questions were on our minds every night as we struggled for sleep, every morning when we awoke, and practically every minute in between.
Fast forward to today. Those particular anxieties I carried with me to San Francisco on that cold, rainy Monday in 1987 are gone. New ones have taken their place, of course. Can we still afford to live here when we’re elderly? If we can't, where in hell would we go? What if there’s another huge earthquake? 
I’m a bit of a worrier (in case you haven’t noticed). No matter where I live or what I do, I’m usually anxious about something. But by moving to San Francisco, I didn’t give in to those worries. I made a bold move. And my goal is to continue making bold moves for the rest of my life. Without them, there is only worry and boredom. Life becomes stagnant.
On this morning, 25 years after arriving in San Francisco, I’m looking out our dining room window at the city skyline. It’s sunny and mild, and I’m grateful to be a Southerner in San Francisco.