Glen Campbell’s ‘A Better Place’

GOTC/GCThe quiet, introspective song “A Better Place” from Glen Campbell’s 2011 album, Ghost on the Canvas, is the subject of this post. The tune, written by Campbell with Julian Raymond, is both prayer and poem.

This is the type of song that lingers depending on one’s context. I’ve listened to it many times and I think it strikes me now because, in the middle of life, I have less time than I used to. I was reminded of this when I recently drove to Las Vegas to see a friend who’d had a major stroke and I had a car accident on the way, luckily without injury. Such traumatic events leave an impression and, from this, one may invoke a thought which may yield an insight. The thought I’ve had, which is not new but is newly relevant, is that making one’s soul means looking within and actively thinking about oneself and what one’s life ought to be. My sick friend, who wordlessly looked into my eyes from a hospital bed, teaches me this lesson. This is my context for “A Better Place”.

Listen to the tune for yourself and watch the video (its own reward) here.

I like that the song is simple and concise. I like that, while it’s in a certain sense outwardly religious, the place to which it refers can also and unambiguously be here on earth. I also like that its economy allows for some sweetness, in the subtle but marked vocal difference between the first “you’ll see”, which ends on a romantic lilt, and the second “you’ll see,” an affirmation which is more refined. It’s a farewell song, but it’s a sacred vow to those from whom one departs. Anyone who reads this blog already knows that I think that what ails the world is the contempt for ideals in a rampant cynicism that redounds to nihilism. It can be tempting to let what matters go. It can be hard to hold on. Glen Campbell’s song exudes the spirit of holding on, beginning with a plain, unadorned admission of failure in the first line, which appreciates how failure seeds success.

Southerner Campbell, a country and western singer who broke through in New Mexico and came to L.A. who is losing his mind from disease, concludes his video with an acknowledgement of “…the people around me that cared enough to help me do my best.” Striving to realize the best in a world without acceptance of a philosophy fit for man often seems damned impossible. Glen Campbell‘s “A Better Place”, like the Serenity Prayer, gently offers the wisdom that being one’s best is, in spite of the horrors of the world, still possible.


Movie Review: A Most Wanted Man

AMWM posterA Most Wanted Man takes place in Hamburg, Germany where, as its opening reminds the audience, the lead hijacker of the worst attack on the United States in history funded, coordinated and planned the act of war known as 9/11 while blending into Western culture.

The movie based on John Le Carre’s novel resembles the spy novelist’s bleak The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, with the late Philip Seymour Hoffman in the Richard Burton role. This intricately plotted motion picture is not about 9/11 or the scourge of Islamic terrorism that has engulfed the world, with an emerging caliphate as history professor John Lewis and right-wing talk radio hosts forewarned, despite its thematic teasing. The film is an interesting if unconvincing and unsatisfying take on the workmanlike spy in today’s modern spy state. Does he act on principle? Does he empathtize with the enemy when saddled by his own bureaucracy? Does he bend to them – or does he make them bend to him – or does he have some higher purpose?

Burton covered this territory with similar results. Though its story is enigmatic, its theme is relatively benign. We’re only human, or something like that, and the surveillance-industrial complex is self-perpetuating. Getting there is half the fun, or drag, depending on one’s viewpoint and tolerance for Le Carre’s winding plots, and Hoffman gives his all as a spy named Gunther who doubles as a chain-smoking barfly who may or may not be a closet idealist. In the context of A Most Wanted Man, which of course could refer to several different characters, this means believing that observant Moslems can depart from the path of jihad and come to know peace without blowing people up. The international (does anyone use that word anymore?) and all star cast – Willem Dafoe, Rachel McAdams, Robin Wright – keeps piling characters on to the plot but in a way that makes sense.

Take a Moslem who preaches that Islam is a religion of peace, a shady Moslem illegally immigrating into Germany who’s been tortured in Turkey and Russia, a Moslem safe house with a boxer and his mother, a left-wing lawyer, agnostic banker, traitors, spies and cops and add such tantalizing subplots as whether it’s possible to change the tortured Islamic radical. What you get is a tense thriller with shaving and bathing Moslems, encircling Germans, Americans and other Westerners waiting to maneuver, bait and pounce and two hours of waiting for a bomb to explode, all while wondering who’s on who’s side. By the time the teasing’s over – fueled by gallons of booze, cartons of cigarettes, freighters, backpacks, prayer rugs and mosques – A Most Wanted Man more or less pays the claim with what its main man most wanted.

Don’t expect nonstop excitement, as this is not to be confused with anything featuring Jason Bourne. Hoffman portrays a character that, like Burton’s jaded drunk in need of redemption, is on one long binge toward death, frankly, sucking in nicotine and alcohol and daring reality to take him down, down, down while waging a private war for people to act up. This may be why the picture, which has the courage of its convictions if not exactly the necessary facts in evidence, opens with an image of a single wave bringing up dirt and grime in Germany. A Most Wanted Man will not change the audience’s minds about whether Islam means peace, or whether would-be Mohammed Atta types can be persuaded to turn from faith toward reason, and it’s not entirely designed for that purpose. This is not Hoffman’s best performance (it is too incessant and mannered) but he dominates the picture, takes the lead and follows through to a stunning if not entirely surprising conclusion. The plot boils. Philip Seymour Hoffman keeps firing up along the way.

My Blog is Six Years Old

scott-holleran-logo-live51Today marks six years for the blog, which I created as an advertisement for my writing and informal outlet for thoughts on arts, culture and ideas. This continues to be a work in progress, with fewer categories than when I started, a larger archive and additions such as children’s literature, product and app reviews, and more tags to accommodate those looking for specific facts and analysis.

Though I still write about controversial issues and topics, most posts concern movies, books and TV with occasional updates on my classes and writings. Look for new posts this year on newspaper, magazine and online articles, conferences, customers and workshops and, as always, announcements. New writing assignments include features, fiction and an exclusive interview with broadcasting pioneer Phil Donahue. I’m finishing studies in a general writing class by Leonard Peikoff. I’ve also been asked to teach a nine-week course on social media this fall.

As I announced last summer, the ‘Donate’ button exists for those who gain value from the blog and want to donate, tip or otherwise sponsor my progress (read the post on donations here). My readers and patrons offer excellent criticism, corrections and thoughtful feedback and I know that I’m fortunate to have the best general readers. Please know that I am grateful, too. Here’s to six years of writing about the world as it is and ought to be and to posting on what matters in the future. Cheers.

James Garner: 1928-2014

JGJames Garner, who died on July 19 at the age of 86, was quintessentially modern (in the best sense of the term), masculine and American.

His screen persona was easygoing, strong and resolute, whether portraying a player in TV’s Maverick or opposite the indomitable Doris Day in The Thrill of it All and Move Over, Darling (both 1963). His dark Indian handsomeness perfectly fit heroic, military roles in The Great Escape and The Americanization of Emily and Garner exuded masculinity without coming off as brooding, tortured or macho like some of his tough guy peers. He conveyed the sense he could knock an adversary out with a single punch while equally portraying a subtle quality that he’d only do so upon his own independent judgment that taking a swing was warranted, was his decision alone and that he would do so almost always as a last resort.

Blending comedy and drama and making it look seamlessly integrated, the Korean War veteran kept his most challenging roles grounded in reality with an intensity rarely seen among actors of his type, caliber and range. In The Children’s Hour, he plays a doctor in love with one of the female teachers accused of lesbianism in Lillian Hellman’s story of friendship and persecution, yet he does so deftly without overwhelming the tale and all while adding depth to every scene. It’s a small, serious and crucial role which delivers an early glimpse at his ability to play men of the mind.

He played off forbidden sexual orientation again in 1972′s They Only Kill Their Masters with June Allyson and fabulously as the object of Julie Andrews’ sexual impersonator’s affections in Victor/Victoria (1982) after returning to television as the title’s reformed criminal character in NBC’s successful crime comedy-drama The Rockford Files. By then, his charisma, dry wit and physical attractiveness were a tonic for troubled times and became popular in the culture, parlaying into an endorsement deal for a commercial series about Polaroid’s cameras featuring Mariette Hartley.

James Garner’s humor was always sharp, not snide. His persona was a bit jaded, not cynical. He was never depraved. His characters were always smart, attuned to reality and ultimately interested in achieving some higher value, whether helping a troubled friend on Rockford or stepping up to help the helpless, as he did in trying to rescue Donald Pleasance’s blind man in The Great Escape, a role which capably demonstrates his skill in combining the qualities of a big and tall friendly U.S. soldier with a modern sensibility to be the non-conformist who is confident to take on a task no one else will dare attempt and to do so with humor, grace and kindness. Garner played some variation of this unique mixture in many dimensional performances; in Grand Prix (1966), Skin Game (1971), Murphy’s Romance (1985), the CBS medical drama Chicago Hope, Space Cowboys (2000), Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood (2002), and, of course, as Duke in The Notebook (2004). He was like a more modern, enlightened version of Clark Gable or Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.

James Garner had the movie star looks, charm and larger than life heroism. But he possessed a distinctly American characteristic of wanting to do what’s right even when doing what’s right is not obvious. With his body, eyes and tone of voice, he expressed an attitude of ‘to hell with what others think’ in each climactic scene with just the right degree of Devil-may-care and heroism to make the conflict resolution seem jovial, serious and never without the top value clearly at stake – with the dilemma never taken lightly, unseriously or undertaken as a trivial or reckless gesture. That he acted with an exact balance of ease and self-confidence is why his death is widely impacting people who live in an age when men of action, reason and joie de vivre are especially rare, particularly in pictures.

He wrote his memoirs with Jon Winokur a few years ago (read my review here) and capped off a remarkable career with the equally remarkable story of triumph in his personal life over an evil stepmother who physically, sexually and in all ways abused the Garner children. That James Garner chose to come out and speak up is an honest, strong testament from an amazingly talented and entertaining artist. Now that he is gone, it is perhaps better known that he also embodied the virtues of characters he portrayed. This makes watching his screen performances more rewarding.

May James Garner rest in peace.

Movie Review: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

DOTPOTA posterLike its rebooted predecessor, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes offers more of the same exciting, escapist fare. These pictures are, like the original 1968-1973 films for 20th Century Fox, designed for mass entertainment. At their best, they provoke thought with thrills.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is more visceral than the 2011 movie. Taking place years after the simian flu spread and wiped out most humans, the apes and their clans have returned to the forest similar to where they once came from when they were brought for experiment by man to civilization. They live amongst the trees, swinging from the start as they did in the first movie, traveling in herds and memorizing slogans that “ape shall not kill ape.” As we see when Dawn commences, civilization has nearly dimmed to nothingness, save for a band of rogue human scientists and adventurers who seek to enlighten what is left of humanity by setting forth into the forest and restarting a great dam built by man.

The apes know nothing of this plan and the first half of Dawn shuttles back and forth between good apes, such as leader Caesar (Andy Serkis) and intellectual Maurice (Karin Konoval), and bad apes, such as Koba (Tony Kebbell), and the equivalent good and bad humans. It’s as much a dichotomy between nature and civilization as between ape and human and as the humans are drawn into the woods, the apes are transformed by what remains of San Francisco and various factions face off in relatively predictable ways. Multiple subplots and themes – tribalism versus individualism, primitivism versus civilization, barbarism versus rationality – play out as they did in the previous Fox Apes‘ series (exempting the godawful Mark Wahlberg reboot in 2001, which merits not a single further thought), with nothing especially deep or challenging but enough to think about along racial and class themes and what passes for ethical treatment of animals.

Even the worst humans and apes, such as Koba and a nasty human who smokes – smokers are always portrayed as nasty, aren’t they? – have a point. Humans, led by Keri Russell, Jason Clarke and an idealistic young artist (Kodi Smit-McPhee), earn ape trust while Gary Oldman tends to fortress San Francisco and Koba hasn’t really changed since he first appeared. When the battle begins, it’s easy to see where the collectivism, militarism and power-lust will lead and, as anyone who recalls Charlton Heston’s famous line from the 1968 original can tell, the prospect of man versus ape versus ape versus man dimming the lights to the point of extinction is never far from possible. This new Fox series is exciting and challenging enough to entertain while asking what breaks the ties that bind and bonds the broken ties.