The eye is keen. The mind is thoroughly grounded. The goal is to maintain a sense of intellectual honesty while exploring the culture of criticism and evaluating creativity in all its glory.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

It’s Time for Your Close-up

I sat in the dentist’s chair this morning waiting for my turn with the tooth man, when the assistant asked if I’d like a magazine to read.

“No, thanks.”  I said.  “I’ve read all in the rack.”

The selections were rags about Outdoor Camping (as opposed to what? Indoor?) and How Things Work. Pretty simulating reads for a dentist’s visit and interesting enough three months ago. She said she had a new magazine in her car and proceeded to fetch it for me. It was People. Sorry, but I think that is some of the most boring dribble out there and I’m too old to begin to appreciate the faces on the pages. I really don’t know any of the modern ‘stars’ and I don’t watch TV. I go to the movies about once a year for a reason. I like to buy DVDs after the newness wears away and they cost what they are worth. I like to watch my movies at home with the volume set at a place that doesn’t rattle my brain. I like to fast forward through really bad previews that I’ve seen again and again. I like my popcorn fresh with real butter on it (not too much), with a cup of perfectly warm coffee on the side, and chase that with icy cold and yummy water. I like movies that are well written and played, especially stories about exceptional people in extraordinary situations ... I don’t care about special effects or who’s the ‘hotty’ of the day. I’m an old dork, actually, and I’m ok with that.

None the less, there I sat with People, thumbing through the pages and catching glimpses of terribly dressed and apparently famous young people with names I do not know, feeling incredibly aged and out of date. There was the Sandra Bullock story, er ... Jesse James story, but I don’t care how he feels at all.  I like Sandra’s acting and think he has too many tattoos. But, who cares how he feels? Not me. I was only happy that I actually recognized those two people in that People magazine. I found myself more fascinated with the advertising, honestly. At least those felt creative so I kept on thumbing through. Then, just a few pages from the back, I came across an advertisement for an HBO movie that’s soon to air. I recognized Michael Sheen’s face right away and immediately snapped to attention. I like Michael Sheen. A lot.

The film advertised is called The Special Relationship and it is about the friendship between Bill Clinton and Tony Blair. Sheen, naturally, plays the part of Blair. It is the third major film in which he performs that character and I’m wondering how long it will be before Americans actually believe he is Tony Blair.  He looks very similar to the politician, and plays him so believably well. The part of Clinton is portrayed by Dennis Quaid, which has me a little concerned but, by the photo in the ad, Dennis pudged up a bit, grayed his hair, and if he pulls off the Clinton speaking style then maybe I’ll believe enough that it’s him.  Maybe.

After catching the actors and the general subject, I read that this film was written by Peter Morgan. That, right there, is the reason I will make a point to find this movie once it comes out on DVD. If you do not recognize Morgan’s name, you may be familiar with some of his work. Two of my all time favorite films were written by Morgan, and both of those starred Michael Sheen.

The first was produced in 2006 and Helen Mirren won an Oscar for her performance as The Queen. Sheen, naturally, played the part of Blair. The plot reflects an intimate, behind the scenes struggle between HM Elizabeth II and Prime Minister Tony Blair after the death of Lady Diana in 1997. The Royal Family wanted to keep the tragedy private, while the public demanded an overt display of mourning. Most of us know the story well. Most of us remember the week after Diana died. Few remember that Blair had been Prime Minister for only three months and the handling of public relations would set how the world perceived the man, and modern Royalty for that matter.

The story isn’t what I liked about the movie. I’d seen several others regarding Lady Diana and Prince Charles and found them tired and tedious. This film had a freshness about it, an authenticity that lead me to believe I really was peeking in on their world. Helen Mirren was fabulous as Elizabeth. Combine solid performances with Peter Morgan’s story telling style and you end up with what feels somewhat like a documentary. And, I don’t mean that in a negative way at all. I mean it in the sense that it’s an honest documentation of real and specific events. Watching the movie brought back many memories of the week Diana died and I just wanted to say one more ‘amen’ for her at the end of it. That was a nice feeling after a movie like that.

The second Morgan film taught me that what was special about The Queen was equally true for Frost/Nixon (2009). I almost didn’t buy this film because I hate the way Hollywood portrays Richard Nixon. It’s not that I love Nixon, or that I’m saying I agree or disagree about whether he was the worst president ever or that he was he overly villianized. I simply don’t like it when a movie and it’s performers tilt a story to make me believe it their way, and when they present Nixon they generally make a goon out of him. I’m not interested in seeing Nixon the goon ... I’ve seen enough of that already. I want to know what really happened.

I was 16 years old when Nixon sat down for an interview with David Frost and I remember well the moment the former President broke.

“I let the American people down. And I'll have to carry the burden the rest of my life."

I wanted to thank him for saying that back then. I wanted to thank David Frost for finally getting someone to sit down and talk about the chaos our politicians had delivered. Because, after that interview, it seemed America could finally move on and we did, and that was that.

What prompted me to buy Frost/Nixon  was knowing that Peter Morgan wrote it, which led me to hope it would be as honest as The Queen, and Ron Howard directed it (No matter what you think of Ron Howard’s politics, you must admit his movies are entertaining and pretty honest). And Sheen, naturally, plays the part of David Frost. I was hoping for a little insight not about the Watergate scandal (that’s another subject that’s been over-done and worn out), but about what prompted Nixon to sit down for hours of taped interviews with a British jet-setting playboy. When watching the original airing of the interview I did sense the battle of wits going on, and the moment Nixon uttered those truthful words we all understood his political career was over. He gambled, and he lost. Just as Frost gambled, and he won.

Morgan, just as he did in The Queen, interweaved actual archived news footage from the time period and wrote his script in an almost word-for-word narration of the real thing. Both he and director Howard let the actual events speak for themselves and that really was refreshing to see. I did learn what drove the interview. Sheen played Frost so well I quickly forgot Tony Blair, and Langella delivered the essence of Nixon so well that when that final interview brought the lingering close-up, I grinned in remembrance of the moment Nixon realized it was all over for him. Even knowing the story and remembering the infamous line, the time spent with this film felt like a pay-off well worth it.

Political films are beasts I generally try to avoid, unless there may be some truth in them that is free from political agenda. The two mentioned above are examples of the best sort of docudramas out there. I have high hopes for The Special Relationship. Again, I’ll be watching some history from my time, with characters and events I followed as they were happening. The media, as media does, tried to sway my opinion then by feeding limited and sterilized information. The ‘other side’ tried to persuade by outrageous claims and accusations. I have my sense of the truth about it, but do look forward to verifications and enlightenment.  For sure, I’ll already be inclined to believe what I see, simply because Peter Morgan is so darned authentic.

And that’s what I learned at the dentist today.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

There is No Crying in Baseball!

As I was looking over the news the other morning I was caught by the headline  “Player portrayed in 'A League of their Own' dies.”  I really did enjoy that movie but, more than that, I enjoyed the portrayal of women who stood in the face of criticism and followed their dreams. In their day there wasn’t much opportunity for that but it seems like when opportunity did arise, some gals went beyond just being good at something ... they excelled. It’s true, the movie was a fictional account, but the characters in the film were composites of real ball players living through real incidents. One must still understand that the original players who consulted for the film, or who spoke in interviews later, all agreed that Dorothy Kamenshek was the main inspiration for Dottie (played by Geena Davis).

Dorothy was the clear superstar of the real women’s league and was chosen as one of the Top 100 Female Athletes of the Century by Sports Illustrated. She played first base (in the movie she played catcher position) and was a slugger of a batter who could hit with power, or bunt gently when necessary. She was a smart, tough, player who stole 109 bases in 1946, and was so beautiful that she did wind up on the cover of Life magazine.  She would perform stunts (like doing the splits when catching a ball) and that helped drive the popularity of women’s professional baseball to the point of tens of thousands of folks filling the stands as the women played.

The evening after I read that Kamenshek passed I dug out the old dvd and watched the movie again. I wouldn’t have thought a film like League of Their Own would hold up so well over time, but it does. It is kind of sentimental storytelling, and sitting through anything with Rosie O’Donnell and Madonna is a tough concept to anticipate. Still, both were likable back then and the story of women’s strength is powerful as ever. It is funny and thought provoking and those are wonderful traits in any film. Actually, this movie was well cast and if you read about what was removed for the sake of time, you’d probably agree that editing was superb.

I often wonder how young women today feel about characters like Dorothy and her team-mates. Is there any concept of the strife and pain the gals faced? Of the physical and mental demands? As a female who grew up in the middle of women’s movement, I was ‘first’ girly in a ‘man’s’ job and was picketed by folks who objected.  I had things thrown at me and was taunted daily about how I should stay in the kitchen and make babies. Today, young women can work pretty much anywhere they want, and their wages closer reflect what the male counter-part makes for the same sort of work. Like it or not, women such as Dorothy Kamenshek made that possible.

There were more than Dorothy, though, and many of them are nearly lost in hubbub of our fast-paced entertainment industry. I’m going to introduce to you a woman who performed well in the Sport of Kings – who helped open the doors for generations of girls with a dream. She had the strength of character to ignore the taunting, to perform through broken bones and spills while she kept flashing that winning smile, appearing in commercials for Lady Clairol, Dutch Masters Cigars, A&W Rootbeer, and Burger Chef.  She was also featured on To Tell the Truth and What’s My Line and was written about in popular magazines including People and Sports Illustrated. It seems especially notable that in the dirty world of sports it is important for the Powers That Be to include and promote the pretty ‘girly’.

When this lady was tops in her sport she was known as Donna Hillman, and was one of the first generation professional female horse jockeys. As it was for all women racers, she struggled to get mounts and traveled from track to track until, in Atlantic City, she had the leading win percentage of all riders. In Jamaica, during three months there, she rode twelve races a day and won many daily doubles, earning her the nickname “Double Donna”.  In 1973 she represented the USA in the Inaugural International Ladies Race in Australia. Hillman rode professionally from 1971 through 1976, and is justly being recognized for her efforts in an upcoming feature length documentary titled Jock, which is about the first generation of female jockeys who, in the late 60's and early 70's, fought for the right to ride professionally.

To get a little perspective on the importance of someone like Hillman, one must realize that in 1968 horse racing was the most popular American sport.  It attracted more attendance than football, baseball, or auto racing. Most notably, it’s long history and traditions precluded women from ever becoming professional jockeys. They were considered the weaker sex. A director of the Jockey Club said, “They’re not strong enough to be good riders. They’ll freeze. They’ll panic.”  Another trainer continued “ ....  all women are like housewives. If you watch a woman at a stop-light, she’s the slowest one to accelerate because her reflexes aren’t as good as a man’s.”  It took a lawsuit regarding sexual discrimination to change that pompous control and in early 1969 the Sport of Kings became fair game for either gender.

The United States became the first nation in the world to allow women professional status as horse jockeys and to run against men. Of course, the male ego was threatened and they boycotted. They threw rocks and bricks at the ladies. They held back opportunity and mounts. But ... it was only a matter of time. Those pioneering women who blazed the way tolerated the intense pressure that they stay in the kitchen and played by the rule that they had to be better and more perfect than any man. As gals, we need to tip our hat to them.

Surely, there are those asking, “What does this have to do with creativity?” The answer is simple.  As I stated in a previous post, I’ve met a lot of different kinds of creative people – one thing they have in common is an intense desire to be the best they can be. They don’t follow the normal rules set up by those that run the society ... and those that run the society seem to believe that the more creative we are in our thinking, the worse off society would be.  Well, I don’t agree with that at all and I think our general urge to be creative and different is something that struggles for realization all the time. Pay attention to the traits you find in creative people and look for any relationship that ties perfectionism and purpose to creative product. Music. Movies. Writing. Painting. Performance. What you will find as relationship is worth understanding.

In the case of Donna Hillman, let’s first call her by the name she is known by today. It is Donna Walsh and she is a good friend of mine. I love to talk racing days with her but, beyond all that, we enjoy discussing painting (both hers an mine) whenever we can. Donna began her relationship with horses through her love of art. She, at the age of 14, sold her first two paintings and bought a horse, which lead her to the race track, and on and on. That is not normal behavior for a 14 year old kid. But, Donna did not grow up with normal boundaries of society. Her mother was a movie starlet in the ‘30s and ‘40s known as Joan Barclay. As typical, creativity for Donna didn't fall far from the family tree.

When Donna retired from racing she devoted her energy and time to painting. Over the years she’s developed a style that is charged with passion, holding a delightful grasp on that most wonderful thing known as value. In laymen’s terms, her sense of dark to light is strong and exercising that quality in a controlled manner does give each two dimensional work a delicious sense of depth. I would wish for everyone to meet Donna on those days when she emerges from her studio, still smeared with paint from head to toe and pacing almost nervously as she chats on about whatever is exciting her at the moment.  You can see her brain working, feel the energy of a person who is bursting with desire to express charges that are racing through her mind. When she focuses that energy to accomplish an end, it’s powerful.

Over the years it has been my job to meet artists, help them become better at their craft, critique their handiwork, seek inspiration, and explore ways to self-promote. When I consider all that I’ve met, I have to say that Donna is the most tenacious, always eager to drift in another direction if it appears a better route. I know she understands very well that there are many paths up that proverbial mountain, and the view from the top is still the same. She will do whatever needs done to get there.  Most importantly, she constantly works on fine-tuning her skill with the brush so every painting she makes seems to be better than the last.  That is the ideal state for an artist.

When I view Donna’s body of work I find I am drawn to two paintings in particular.  One, called Hawg Dawg is an oil showcasing her dog, Peetie, looking like he’s ready for a ride on across country.  Her love of animals is evident in many of her works, but this one brings that notion home just a little bit stronger. Her point of interest is in our face, and I like that.  I’ve met Peetie.

The second work that strikes me as prime is a piece she calls Horsing Around. Lighting in this, as well as Hawg Dawg, is supreme and well controlled. A level of nervous energy emits from both, too, by means of confident brush work and design. When I see these art works, I see Donna’s persona shinning through. That is how it should be in art.

I know there are many who like to believe that we painters should be reflecting what is happening in our society .... I think that is more like social journalism and nothing more than reporting what is outside of ourselves. Then there are those that believe we painters should be simply searching for expression that is not recognizable by representational things – few can paint that way successfully, I think. Those sort of artists must be a chaotic mess of expression to reflect that in a painting (previous post Jackson Pollock is a perfect example of that concept). When I study the timeline of art and honestly search the human element of painters and personalities, I’ve come to believe that our art works really need to reflect who we are as individuals. As people. As thinking and feeling beings. Some of us love beauty and struggle to express it. Some seek perfection. Some are inventive with expression and explore unique approaches of application. The best of them all are honest with themselves.

Donna Hillman-Walsh is honest with herself and worries about her work being misunderstood. She never wants to come across as a fool, though if you see her at any public function you’ll marvel at her level of confidence and never see the apprehensions she probably feels as you look over her intimate paintings. Knowing her, I do believe we are watching the training her previous career has given. Think long and hard about the difficulties she stood up against back in the racing days and realize her drive is a trait every one of us should possess.  As I told my girls many years ago. Never give up. Never surrender. Never say die. Be the ball. It is true you must be twice as good for half the recognition. That was reality in the early-girly horse racing days, and in the days of Dorothy's baseball momma-drama. It’s doubly as true in the world of art today. Let’s tip our hat to Donna and Dorothy for blazing trails many years ago, and especially to Donna for honestly sharing her drive with all of us today. Beautiful art is a beautiful thing.

To view Donna Walsh’s work online:

To follow the production of the movie Jock, visit: