Saturday, June 19, 2010

At Lake Wingra Friday night, a rainbow for Tom Joad and "The Grapes of Madison"

Swan Lake with Rainbows
Or so it seemed when I awoke this morning. My mind was still awash in a confused jumble of sensory impressions and pop cultural allusions from two separate encounters last night with Lake Wingra: Tom Joad, The Grapes of Wrath, Swan Lake, Judy Garland singing "somewhere over the rainbow" -- they all knocked around in my dreams during the night. The rainbow (view larger) was part of the second encounter.

Tom Joad Practicing His Lines Along the Shore of Lake WingraThe first took place during the standing-room-only screening at the Sequoya library of "The Grapes of Madison," Ben Reiser's satirical short comedy about coping with unemployment (view larger).

People have been known to react to unemployment by grasping at straws, and the sheer escapist nuttiness of the protagonist's plan to launch a new career by auditioning for the role of Tom Joad in a production of "The Grapes of Wrath" gives the film an inspired loony energy. (Unlikely as it sounds, the plot also echoes the experience of the filmmaker, who decided to pursue a lifelong dream of making films after he was laid off, and who made the movie with the help of friends and neighbors).

My favorite scene takes place at the dock on the lake, not far from where the swan boats now are docked at Wingra Boats. Steve (Steve Tyska, who won an award for his performance at this year's Wisconsin Film Festival), the totally inexperienced but hopeful nouveau thespian, is rehearsing Tom Joad's famous "I'll be there" passage with his friend Alberto (Alberto Cordero), declaiming his lines with more enthusiasm than talent to the ducks and fishes -- and eventually, a group of neighborhood children who gather around. After Steve decides he's nailed it, the two buddies wander off slowly through Wingra Park in search of refreshment.

After working so hard, should they treat themselves to frozen custard? Or beer? Or both? They're happy to realize they don't have to choose, because Michael's Frozen Custard and the Laurel Tavern are right next to each other on Monroe Street. They could get everything in one stop. A perfect Wingra Park moment.

It was raining as we left the library, and the sun had almost set, obscured by clouds and trees. When we got home around eight, the sky was glowing with reflected light, a strange, lurid shade made up of an uneasy alliance between orange and magenta. We went down to the lake because I wanted to take a picture of the swans at Wingra Boats against the otherworldly sky. By the time we got down to the lake, the rainbow(s) had appeared. It seemed to last a long time. It kept raining, with occasional lightning, and it got darker and darker. But that radiant arch just kept glowing in the unbelievable sky. I think the spirit of Tom Joad would have been pleased.

Historical Footnote: The image of a rainbow has long been linked to a yearning for something better, especially during Tom Joad's Great Depression, when it was forever associated with that era by Judy Garland's voice filled with heartache and longing singing "Over the Rainbow." Also, Kris Kristofferson's song, Here Comes That Rainbow Again, was inspired by the lunch counter scene in Chapter 15 of "The Grapes of Wrath."

Thursday, June 17, 2010

It takes a village to paint a mural: Sharon Kilfoy and her Willy Street work of collaborative art

It Takes a Village: Sharon Kilfoy and Her Willy Street Mural
There's a nice story by Esty Dinur in today's Isthmus about artist Sharon Kilfoy, who created the Willy Street mural titled Toward Revolution -- 1970's Vision in collaboration with numerous volunteers.

It Takes a Village: Sharon Kilfoy and Her Willy Street MuralThis was one of my more enjoyable recent photo assignments. I enjoyed meeting Sharon and learning more about the mural and its history. Of all the photos I took, the one above was my favorite, but the one on the right was my runner-up, and that's the one Isthmus used on the first page. On the next page they used one of the wide-angle photos I took earlier on an overcast day when there wouldn't be any shadows on the mural.

The article quotes Sharon on the collaborative nature of her work.
Born in 1950 in Chicago, Sharon Kilfoy is a Willy Street resident who has enlisted volunteers, children and adults alike, to create numerous murals in Madison and Dane County — in schools, public spaces and community centers. In Kilfoy's world, anyone can work on a mural, whether they draw, paint or think up ideas. The beauty of the finished product is only half of the deal. The other half is what happens to people through the process.

In school, kids make art in isolation and competition. But when it comes to working on murals, Kilfoy says: "We'll take everybody's ideas." She has developed ways of making children collaborate — one kid gets the light green and another the dark green, and they have to paint the leaves together. Adults, too, do things according to their abilities. "You plug them in, in a way that'll give them some success."
For more photos, including images of the mural in its entirety, go to this Flickr set.

Oil spill: Catastrophic failure of imagination

BP Oil Spill: Failure of Imagination
Imagination: The oil blob drawing I made the other night to overlay on the TV picture of President Obama giving his Oval Office address. My imagination fell far short. The reality is so much worse.

It wasn't just my imagination that failed. A catastrophic failure of imagination on the part of BP, the government and our entire society paved the way for this disaster to happen and, indeed, made it damn near inevitable.

We've become complacent because oil drilling in much shallower waters -- despite the occasional nasty spill -- has never resulted in anything as disastrous as this. Drilling in 300 feet of water on the continental shelf is almost like drilling on land in comparison to real deep-water drilling. The pressures -- thousands of pounds per square inch -- and the unknowns escalate exponentially underneath a mile of water. You might as well be drilling on Jupiter.

Nobody wanted to think about what was obvious with even a layman's knowledge of physics and engineering and just a bit of common sense. Plenty of people warned that drilling at that depth was potentially disastrous, that we did not have the systems in place to ensure that failure could not happen, or could be controlled if it did happen. Nobody paid attention.

As a society, we wanted to continue our addiction to fossil fuels, no matter the cost -- and if it required drilling in places where our existing technology would be stretched to the breaking point, so be it. Besides, how bad could a spill be, way off shore like that? Ditto, BP and their concern for their bottom line. Ditto, Barack Obama, who proposed resumed Gulf drilling when he campaigned as a compromise that would build support for his energy reforms by meeting the "drill, baby, drill" crowd halfway. I know I wasn't immune to this kind of thinking. When the Obama campaign advocated new Gulf drilling, it was an eyebrow-raiser for me. I didn't like it, but I could see where he was coming from, and, besides, it would probably be okay.

Nothing puzzled me as much about his Oval Office speech as these words:
A few months ago, I approved a proposal to consider new, limited offshore drilling under the assurance that it would be absolutely safe –- that the proper technology would be in place and the necessary precautions would be taken. That obviously was not the case in the Deepwater Horizon rig, and I want to know why. The American people deserve to know why.
We know why, Mr. President. That's what's so sad.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Obama Oval Office address: Not so much blah blah blah as glug glug glug

Obama Speech: Not So Much Blah Blah Blah As Glug Glug Glug
Something must have been wrong with my TV during President Obama's first Oval Office Address to the nation about the oil spill. I could hear him but I couldn't see him very well. Something black and viscous and eerily iridescent was spreading across the screen from bottom to top, obscuring the president. Big, huge ugly bubbles of toxic glop. And you know how when you stare at something long enough, it seems to reverse direction? After awhile, it no longer seemed that the bubbles were rising, but rather that Obama was sinking into the very oil spill that threatens to engulf his administration if he can't get ahead of the crisis and start offering real leadership instead of PR and reassuring platitudes. I could almost hear the oil go glug glug glug as he sank deeper and deeper.

View Larger and Oilier

Don't miss the free screening of "Grapes of Madison" at MPL's Sequoya branch Friday night


Quick -- if someone told you that you had two weeks to prepare an entry for the Wisconsin Film Festival and you hadn't even started, what would you do?

Ben Reiser threw a party. The director of the award-winning "The Grapes of Madison," described his unorthodox creative process in Isthmus last March.
I send out an email to a list of friends and neighbors inviting them to a Monday night brainstorming session at my house. Drinks and snacks will be provided.

I am surprised at the turnout. Basically everyone shows up, though I quickly realize that the prospect of free liquor on a Monday night is perhaps the primary motivator here. My next door neighbor Alberto suggests that I film the meeting, but I pooh-pooh the idea. I don't want to make a meta-movie about making a movie. Note to self: listen to Alberto from now on.

The session quickly and crazily devolves into a drunken shouting match among eight people. Fisticuffs almost break out over a disagreement about Marcel Duchamp. It's that kind of night. To my amazement, everyone has come with ideas for a movie, although style, subject matter and length vary wildly.

We basically have two weeks to write, shoot, and edit a movie that we hope will be good enough to get into the festival. No one is optimistic, everyone is loaded.
Starting with this anarchic beginning, Reiser and his friends pull together a satirical feature about the aftermath of being laid off, drawing on Reiser's own personal experience. He mails it off just in time. It ends up being one of the local hits of this year's film fest, and snagging a best actor award for one of the amateur actors.

Free Showing of "Grapes of Madison" Film at Sequoya Friday NightI was sorry we missed the premiere at the film festival. Now it looks as if we'll finally have a chance to see the movie. I came across this combination shrine and marquee at the Madison Public Library's Sequoya branch. It was promoting a free showing of "The Grapes of Madison" this Friday night, June 18, at 7:00 PM. Judging from the excerpt above, it's pretty funny. And it's free. Note: If there are too many people to accommodate in the first show, the library will have a second screening immediately afterward. Director Ben Reiser will be there to present the film.