Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Two Little Gems: Movies I Loved


The La Costa Film Festival, in its fourth year the fall of 2016, was right in my own backyard so I promised myself I'd go this year and soak up some of the indie beauties and documentaries typically featured at festival venues.  My daughter, Amy, who shares my passion, joined me on the Sunday afternoon closing day. We had no trouble choosing two films that appealed to both of us -- Birds of Passage, a poignant story about the friendship between two girls, one disabled, and Pickle, a quirky documentary about a married couple with an odd assortment of rescue animals. Both were little gems for completely different reasons.

In the Belgian film (French subtitles), Birds of Passage, by Yves and Olivier Ringer, ten-year-old Cathy receives a fertilized duck egg in a tiny wood incubator for her birthday. Her dad explains that she will be the first person the duckling sees when he hatches out, so he'll think she's his mother. Cathy's friend, Margaux, confined to a wheelchair, attends Cathy's birthday party and hides in Cathy's bedroom during one of the games. In a surprise twist, the yellow duckling cracks through its shell and sees Margaux first. Cathy tells her she's now the mom and should take him home, but Margaux's parents are having none of it. They are already stressed caring for a child with special needs.

Discouraged but not defeated, the girls decide they will take the duckling to an island where he can join dozens of ducks swimming in the water at the end of a long land mass. Margaux sits in her wheelchair with the duckling as they cross a river in a small boat. On land, she sinks into a cart attached to Cathy's bike so they can wheel along dirt trails to reach their destination. Like a heavenly body, the pastoral setting wraps them in a cocoon of hope and safe keeping. At one point, they abandon the bike to enter the water with their precious charge while frantic parents back home report them missing and a search party sets out to find them.

Told from Cathy's point of view, the film captures the magical thinking of ten-year-old girls who wear blinders to the stigma and limitations associated with handicapped people. Without preaching, this message underscores every scene to give the story wings. From the urban apartments where they live to the sunlit countryside where they travel, Cathy and Margaux bond to a higher calling, to deliver their darling duckling to a community of feathered friends, so he can float in peace and harmony all day long.

Birds of Passage was named Best Film at the 2015 Montreal International Children's Film Festival.


The second film is a documentary by Amy Nicholson titled Pickle, about an engaging couple, Debbie and Tom, who collect an odd assortment of animals with bizarre ailments on their chicken farm.  Rescue animals include a variety of fowl, i.e. a hen with bumble leg (staph infection), a deformed fish from the river, and a damaged possum from the highway.  

In the case of Pickle, the fish, well...he was in quite a pickle because he had a fish head and tail, but no body -- a condition called stump body. After Tom caught this little guy, he wanted to throw him back in the water, but Debbie begged him to keep the good natured Pickle. Tom propped Pickle up with a piece of sponge so he could live in an aquarium and eat the food they dropped to him

The possum was injured and diseased when they brought him home, so Tom built a custom skateboard that allowed him to cruise around the house. In addition to these creatures, various fowl and ducks found their way to the farm but, unfortunately, many provided food for predators. The sweet little quail were an especially sad loss.  

Sitting on a white love seat in a luxurious home, decorated white on white, the couple shares an attachment and whimsical appreciation for their menagerie, accepting that most animals live short lives. Tom's dry sense of humor and Debbie's winsome personality and warmth give the homespun tales a sense of ying and yang that makes for irresistible storytelling. The film looks at the value we place on animals and the lengths we go to for their benefit.   

Total running time is 15 minutes: Pickle

A film by Amy Nicholson, the documentary received a total of 12 awards on the festival circuit including a Grand Jury Prize at the Florida Film Festival that qualified it for Oscar consideration. 

Friday, March 3, 2017

Elvis Presley: A Complicated King Vol. II

The second volume of the critically acclaimed Elvis Presley biography by Peter Guralnik is titled Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley.  While I wanted the whole story, I wasn't eager to delve into this book. Elvis was a sympathetic, even inspirational, character in Volume I and I wasn't sure how much I'd like him when I learned more.

On assignment in Germany after his mother's untimely death, Elvis strived to be one of the guys with his Army buddies and to put his music aside, but fans flocked wherever he went. He stayed in nice hotels with his own entourage and eventually rented a house for all of them, which set him apart from the other soldiers who couldn't afford such luxury. But he always reported on time for duty and participated as one of the guys, which led them to accept him without resentment or criticism.

Before the military, when Elvis traveled to other cities, he brought the same group of eight or more buddies along and, frequently, his dad, Vernon, joined them as well. In Germany, everyone was in tow, including Grandma and Vernon, a couple of cousins, Memphis pals, and new friends he met along the way. The male groupies ran through hotel hallways in Germany, had balloon fights, and later, would return to the states to hang out at studio lots, Graceland, and the ranch Elvis would buy in Alabama. They acted more like a gang of teenagers than grown men who were assigned jobs, with the added benefits of free room, board, travel and a small salary. Vernon managed all the finances and expenditures associated with Elvis' career and traveling entourage, which got out of control over the years and created a mountain of challenges when funds were low.

Shortly after he settled into the house in Germany, Elvis brought a local girl home and announced she would join the payroll as a live-in secretary with a bedroom next to his. She slept with him when he was lonely. For hours on end, they discussed music, family, his work, whatever he wanted to talk about. She also kept Grandma company and helped prepare food for the houseful of rambunctious men. Like other girls who got close to Elvis, she learned he wasn't monogamous. Before long, she could hear him in the next room with other girls who spent the night. She found it hard to move on, because he was exceptionally charming and sincere when they were together, and nearly always kind. He'd repeat this pattern throughout his life, perhaps seeking the love and comfort of the mother who left.

Priscilla Beaulieu, the beautiful daughter of an Army officer in Germany, met Elvis when she was 14-years-old. One of the guys spotted the teen beauty around town and asked if she'd like to meet Elvis Presley. He was 24. The same day, Elvis called and invited Priscilla to come by the house. He talked to her parents, too, and reassured them he'd respect their daughter and have her home at the set time.

Elvis sent a car to pick her up. When Priscilla walked through the front door, she was a vision of a beauty queen with long black hair in the bouffant style of the day, a flawless complexion, and dark eyes, lashes and eyebrows. Elvis was stunned. The attraction was the same for Priscilla. The two of them spent a great deal of time together at the house, in his room, and cruising town. He refused to consummate the relationship and told her the time would come for a full relationship later, which happened after Elvis left Germany.

During her senior year of high school, Priscilla threatened to run away from her parents' home and fly to Memphis to be with Elvis. Her dad talked to Elvis and they reached an agreement. Priscilla could move to the states if she lived with Vernon and his new wife and completed high school.

By the time Elvis returned to his career, he'd acquired two new hobbies that would remain with him for the rest of his life -- amphetamines and karate. The prescription drugs were given to the soldiers to keep them awake and alert during night field maneuvers. Elvis felt so energized and strong on the drugs he shared them with the guys and Priscilla, who questioned their safety. He assured her they were fine. The drugs allowed the whole gang to party all night and sleep during the day.

Like the amphetamines, karate also became an obsession. Elvis took lessons from master karate instructors in Germany and practiced daily, encouraging the guys to do the same. When they returned home, it was not uncommon for one of them to suffer a broken bone while slamming boards and performing other karate moves. During the last years of Elvis' life, he would wear karate garb in his Las Vegas act and incorporate karate moves into the show. One of his most revered karate teachers would become a love interest for Priscilla after Elvis insisted she stay at home in Memphis while he traveled, performed, and pursued other women.

During Elvis' Army service, RCA executives released 40 hit songs and four albums which were recorded before he left for Germany. They ensured fans would remember him while he was gone and give him a warm welcome when he returned. A master at promoting his client, the Colonel (agent Tom Parker) negotiated tough new deals with recording companies, television networks and shows, Hollywood filmmakers, Las Vegas hotels and local venues where Elvis performed. Unfortunately, he didn't consider the quality of films offered, just the quantity. His goal was to keep Elvis in front of fans and to produce albums from each of the films. The steady stream of income from movie and album sales supported Elvis' lavish lifestyle and the Colonel's gambling habit.

The Physicians Desk Reference became Elvis' bible for prescription drugs, which he considered perfectly legitimate, unlike street drugs. To ensure a steady supply, he went to doctors in Memphis, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles, frequently faking a problem to acquire more drugs. Partying with the guys became a way of life. All-nighters and endless girls were the norm. To be part of the group, one had to learn the rules or risk the wrath of the guy in charge. Elvis had first pick of the girls and could become jealous if anyone attempted to date a girl after he tired of her. He also played games to pit the guys against each other for Elvis' attention, which meant everyone had to be on their toes to anticipate what would keep him happy. It was inevitable that some of them would eventually leave the erratic nest to find more sane lives and relationships in the real world.

When Priscilla found herself in this alternative universe, she was initially confused, but her devotion to and love for Elvis persisted until she became part of the group. When she exercised her authority, to provide a healthier home and lifestyle for Elvis in Los Angeles, Las Vegas or Memphis, the guys resented her. By the time Priscilla and Elvis were engaged, he was experiencing second thoughts about marrying her. He wasn't sure he could remain faithful to the wedding vows. With reassurance from the Colonel, who was eager for him to settle down, Elvis and Priscilla married and Lisa Marie was born the first year.

In the meantime, the Colonel's deals tied Elvis to a haphazard course of B-rated films and few hit songs. Luckily, fans still turned out to see him perform at local venues, but numbers were waning at the box office. Elvis felt indebted to the Colonel and allowed him to stay in the driver's seat, making all the decisions on future commitments while Vernon managed the blizzard of bills. Elvis had a deep desire to become a respected actor, but the inferior material wasn't taking him in that direction. It was designed to shoot fast, cut post-production and all other costs, and move on to the next film. It begs the question why Elvis didn't stand up to the Colonel and other people who were using  him. Perhaps his mind was too fogged by the drugs and unhealthy lifestyle to take control.

To get a better grip on his life, Elvis was drawn to metaphysical topics and books, and developed meaningful relationships with gurus. A hairdresser, Larry Geller, introduced Elvis to  spiritual topics and traveled with him. Elvis frequently talked about the loss of his twin brother and mother, apparently to understand why they were taken from him. The homeboys had no use for metaphysical discussions and the new guy, since Elvis wasn't as much fun when he was around.

The drugs weren't satisfying whatever emotional or spiritual yearning Elvis experienced and his health was starting to fail when he sought the guidance of another guru, Daya Mata, who lived in the hills above Los Angeles. He told her he was ready to leave his career behind to focus on spiritual development, which he may have viewed as a quick fix for all that was wrong.

Around the same time, there were threats on Elvis' life, which added to his angst. One message mentioned an attack during a Las Vegas performance. He didn't understand why someone would want to harm him or his musicians. His heightened anxiety led him to collect guns and badges and visit law enforcement officers. These were new obsessions which stayed with him until he died. It wasn't unusual for Elvis to carry a gun on stage, and require his musicians and entourage to do the same. On more than one occasion, at home or in a hotel room, he fired his gun and put others at risk of injury and death.

In what appeared to be a semi-psychotic episode, Elvis visited President Nixon in the White House and expressed his intolerance of drugs among the youth. He offered to help with the anti-drug campaign and showed the president a collection of police badges he carried in a pouch. Before he left, he asked for an FBI badge. Nixon granted his wish but refused his calls in the future. This particular visit was turned into a major motion picture by Amazon in 2016: Elvis and Nixon.

While addictions played a major role during the last sixteen years of Elvis' life, the impact of his talent was undeniable. Throughout the two-volume biography, Guralnick meticulously deciphers the history of recording sessions and live stage performances to describe both highs and lows. He includes the comments of musicians who participated. Like many outstanding artists with critically acclaimed work, Elvis aspired to perfection and called the shots. Most of his recording sessions started later in the day and went through the night, repeating the same song until it worked one hundred percent. There would also be songs that just never worked and were never released. Closure usually occurred in the wee morning hours. Late in his career, as his health failed, Elvis sometimes failed to show and eventually recorded from Graceland.

Rehearsals for live performances were less structured and less frequent. When Elvis was on, all agreed he transported them to another level of artistry. He poured his heart and soul into the music, and among those who experienced this in a recording session, many said they had never seen anything like it, and never would again. A similar sentiment was expressed by those who witnessed a live performance when he was at the top of his game. He left the stage wringing wet with sweat, because he threw himself into the music and emotions of the moment. The audience responded in kind.

Elvis' generosity with gifts and charitable organizations was also legendary. Whether it was a car for a new girlfriend or policeman he befriended, the guys, or the many Memphis charities and family members he supported, Elvis always gave from his heart. He remembered what it was like to be poor. March of Dimes, cancer ograniztations, Memphis hospitals, and the USS Arizona Memorial are a few examples of groups that benefited from his donations, performances and publicity photos.

Priscilla was especially devoted to Elvis and admired him for his big heart, but the chaotic lifestyle became unbearable. When she left after six years of marriage, Elvis started to unravel. He trained her and the other women in his life to be there for his every whim and didn't understand why Priscilla left. He had to be reminded that he'd abandoned her to pursue others. He was angry she'd taken off with the karate instructor, whom he swore he'd kill at one point. Eventually, they found a way to continue a close, friendly relationship. They held hands in the Santa Monica courthouse where the judge declared the marriage dissolved, but said it felt more like a wedding to him, not a divorce. Elvis remained devoted to Lisa Marie, who lived with her mother in California but was a frequent visitor at Graceland.

There were career slumps before Priscilla left, but they increased with her absence. The Las Vegas performances toward the end of his career became bizarre caricatures of earlier shows, with karate chops, rambling, nonsensical chatter with the audience, and forgetting lines to songs. Musicians didn't know what to expect when Elvis went off the planned program. During one concert, four men rushed the stage and Elvis delivered a karate chop to knock one of them back into the audience. Afterward, all he could talk about was his heroic karate move. His weight soared and his health suffered, with ongoing intestinal problems and bloating as well as psychological issues caused by the drug abuse. He was hospitalized several times, with dedicated nurses who cared for him like a son. On at least one occasion after he left a Memphis hospital, his nurse followed him to Graceland and cared for him at night.

In the end, all the doctors, hospitals, and the best care medicine had to offer weren't enough. Not even Lisa Marie was enough for him to find a healthy balance in his life. Elvis' story arc is one of a rise from poverty, insecurities and loss, to fame, fortune and drugs. Many attempted to intervene and help, but this was someone who grew up at the center of his parents' world, was lauded the king by the rest of the world, and always ran the show. He ran it to the end. When he died in 1977, found in his bathroom at Graceland, he was 42 years old. Every year on August 16, the date of Elvis' death, Graceland opens its doors to fans for a memorial celebration and candlelight vigil. Several events are held during the week long celebration called Elvis Week.

As I feared, the second volume of Guralnick's biography was harder to read. Elvis was a naive genius who rose from the dusty roads of the south to claim his place in the lofty towers of music history. Thanks to Priscilla and Lisa Marie Presley, Graceland has been developed with a mind-boggling collection of artifacts to pay tribute to the King of Rock 'n' Roll, whose voice serenades visitors through the many buildings and displays.

The last song Elvis performed in 1977: Are You Lonesome Tonight