Les Blank Dies at 77: Created Sensuous, Lyrical Films of America’s Periphery

Les Blank Dies at 77: Created Sensuous, Lyrical Films of America’s Periphery

Les Blank’s sly, sensuous and lyrical documentaries about regional music and many other idiosyncratic subjects, including Mardi Gras in New Orleans, gap-toothed women, blues musicians and the filmmaker Werner Herzog, were widely admired by critics and other filmmakers if not generally known by moviegoers. Blank died on Sunday at his home in Berkeley, California at the age of 77.

His 42 films mostly depicted slices of folk culture, but his best known, Burden of Dreams, documented director Werner Herzog’s fanatical making of Fitzcarraldo. When Les Blank arrived in the lush, untamed Amazon in 1981 to make a documentary about Werner Herzog’s film, he knew the German’s reputation as a daredevil director. Herzog had chosen the remote jungle locale, plagued by tribal skirmishes and the perils of nature, for authenticity.

Burden of Dreams became a telling portrait of a filmmaker’s mad descent into obsession and raised serious questions about ethics in making movies. In 1982, Blank won an award from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts for Burden of Dreams, which sent shock waves through the cinematic community for its unflinching portrayal of Herzog’s blind pursuit of art while filming Fitzcarraldo.

Read more about the life and works of Les Blank in the New York Times here.

Dry Wood: Creole Life in French Louisiana

Dry Wood (1973) is Les Blank’s fascinating look at black Creole life in French Louisiana, where food and music are the featured elements. The film is awash with deftly framed portraiture, cunningly observed social scenes, beautiful nature photography and the poetic juxtaposition of imagery and sound. Pleasant, slow scenes of rural life are held together by the wild, insistent music of Bois-Sec Ardoin and Canray Fontenot.

Dry Wood: Creole Life in French Louisiana

Lightnin’ Hopkins: The Sun’s Gonna Shine

The Sun’s Gonna Shine (1969) brilliantly captures the great Texas bluesman Lightnin’ Hopkins. In this deeply moving film, Blank reveals Lightnin’s inspiration and features a generous helping of classic blues. The Sun’s Gonna Shine is a lyrical recreation of Lightnin’ Hopkins’ decision at age eight to stop chopping cotton and start singing for a living.

Lightnin’ Hopkins: The Sun’s Gonna Shine (1969)

Gap-Toothed Women: Societal Attitudes toward Standards of Beauty

Gap-Toothed Women (1987) is Blank’s charming valentine to women born with a space between their teeth, which ranges from lighthearted whimsy to a deeper look at issues like self-esteem and societal attitudes toward standards of beauty. Interviews were conducted with over one hundred women, including super-model Lauren Hutton and Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.

Gap-Toothed Women: Societal Attitudes toward Standards of Beauty (1987)

Always For Pleasure: An Intense Portrait of New Orleans’ Street Celebrations

Always For Pleasure (1978) is Blank’s intense insider’s portrait of New Orleans’ street celebrations and unique cultural gumbo: New Orleans has a gut-level mythic quality, a resonance unique among American cities. Always For Pleasure amplifies that resonance with second-line parades and Mardi Gras madness, featuring live music from Professor Longhair, the Wild Tchoupitoulas, the Neville Brothers and more. This glorious, soul-satisfying film is among Blank’s special masterworks.

Always For Pleasure: An Intense Portrait of New Orleans’ Street Celebrations (1978)

Burden of Dreams: A Shocking Portrait of a Filmmaker’s Descent into Obsession

Burden of Dreams (1982) is Les Blank’s extraordinary feature-length documentary about the messianic German director Werner Herzog struggling against desperate odds in the Amazon basin to make his epic feature, Fitzcarraldo. The documentary sent shock waves through the cinematic community for its unflinching portrayal of Herzog’s blind pursuit of art while filming Fitzcarraldo, a film about a man obsessed with hauling a steamship through the jungle to strike it rich in rubber. Burden of Dreams was honored with a British Academy Award for Best Documentary of 1982, and many critics consider it Blank’s most awesome film.

Burden of Dreams: A Shocking Portrait of a Filmmaker’s Descent into Obsession (1982)

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“Beasts of the Southern Wild” Receives Four 2013 Oscar Nominations

“Beasts of the Southern Wild” Receives Four 2013 Oscar Nominations

The nominations for the 2013 Academy Awards have been announced, and it was a huge day for the independent film Beasts of the Southern Wild, which received four Oscar Nominations: Best Director (for Benh Zeitlin), Best Actress (Quvenzhane Wallis, at just nine years old), Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Picture.

Beasts of the Southern Wild is the award-winning first feature film directed by Benh Zeitlin and co-written co-written with playwright Lucy Alibar, whose play Juicy and Delicious provides its foundation. Zeitlin created the movie in collaboration with Court 13, the filmmakers’ collective that moved to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Previously, the film won the Caméra d’Or award at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival, the Grand Jury Prize: Dramatic at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, where it premiered, the Grand Jury Prize at the 2012 Deauville American Film Festival, the 2012 Los Angeles Film Festival’s Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature and the 2012 Seattle International Film Festival’s Golden Space Needle Award for Best Director.

Part dystopia and part revolutionary utopia, Beasts of the Southern Wild is a visionary film that celebrates resistance, featuring people living in poverty who come together in interracial, inter-generational harmony. After a flood washes away most of “The Bathtub,” a poor and precarious patch of land south of New Orleans, Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis, five years-old at the time of filming) and her father account for their remaining animals and neighbors, and attempt to survive, rebuild, and repair their world. They band together to create a post-Katrina communal life and they fight the system in a variety of ways to avoid getting thrown into the sterile, controlled environment of a state-funded shelter.

Zeitlin’s earlier acclaimed short film about an imaginary post-Katrina world in New Orleans, Glory at Sea, won the 2008 CineVegas International Film Festival Special Jury Prize, the 2008 New Orleans Film Festival Narrative Short Award, the 2008 Woodstock Film Festival Jury Prize and the 2008 SXSW Film Festival Wolphin Award. Coming off the award-winning “Glory at Sea,” Zeitlin wanted to continue working on an expanded feature film set in the Louisiana bayou and to tell a story about a community making a final stand. The same theme and mythic, poetic feeling of Glory at Sea, which was also created in collaboration with the Court 13 filmmakers’ collective, clearly carries through in Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild. Like Beasts, Glory at Sea, concerned a southern Delta community endangered by a flood and focused on a young girl, who also served as the film’s narrator. Glory at Sea tells a story about the aftermath of the Katrina flood, and a community’s Orpheus-like efforts to keep alive its old traditions and loved ones.

Glory at Sea: A Beautiful Memorial to Mourning the Dead

Every once in a rare, long while, a film appears with such a sweeping gust of rejuvenation that it has the power to restore not only one’s faith in cinema, but in humanity as a whole. Glory at Sea is one of those rare films, an acclaimed narrative short film that has garnered twelve film festival awards, a film that endearingly produces the forlorn feelings that are amassed within the sea of a forever-sunset palette, sanctioning our mourning within its beautiful sorrow. The 26-minute short film follows an unkempt and unruly fleet of heartbroken refugees through the midst of the human devastation in post-Katrina New Orleans. This one and a half year-long collaborative project by director Benh Zeitlin and members of the Court 13 film collective brought forth a narrative film that reveals a rare mutually interactive blend of contemporary dance/movement, cinematography that is richly packed with a grandly sweeping panorama of visual detail and brilliantly subtle interpersonal gestures by the Court 13 ensemble group of performers.

Glory at Sea boldly confronts a monumental tragedy that vividly displays the fact of our human mortality, as well as the inevitable loss of our dreams for the future (the ghosts of loved ones, banished to live underwater for eternity). The raggedy, raucous New Orleans characters in Glory at Sea boldly turn away from their overwhelming of feelings of mortal vulnerability, courageously responding instead with a communal bond to a renewed and feverish commitment to love and hope.

The passionate call for hope and a common cause is expressed by the film’s ensemble through an emotionally inspiring synthesis of a socially important narrative, the performers’ sense of movement that conveys through even the most subtle interpersonal gestures their deep commitment to mutually shared social needs and responsibilities, and fascinating cinematography with an acute attention to visual detail. When a pinch of insanity and an ongoing tone of understated comical irony are added to all of this, one ends up with an experience that is a musically visual delight. An old phrase describes beautiful and appealing speech as “Music to My Ears.” Glory at Sea ends up “Dancing Behind Your Eyelids.” The twenty-five minutes spent deeply engrossed in this narrative is timeless.

Glory at Sea: A Beautiful Memorial to Mourning the Dead

(Best Viewed HD/Full Screen)

An Anthem to Survivors: Beasts of the Southern Wild

Sometimes miraculous films come into being, made by people you’ve never heard of, starring unknown faces, blindsiding you with creative genius. Beasts of the Southern Wild is one of the year’s best films. Winner of the US Dramatic Grand Jury Prize in Sundance, this striking and unforgettable feature-film debut is set in “The Bathtub,” a defiant Louisiana bayou community cut off from the rest of the world. Young Hushpuppy (played by a five year-old force of nature named Quvenzhané Wallis) is devoted to her father, Wink, who frequently goes off on sprees, leaving Hushpuppy to fend for herself in an isolated compound filled with semi-wild animals.

The community is a resilient and joyous one, but there is a growing sense of inevitable destruction. At school, Hushpuppy is taught about natural selection, global warming and the ecological shifts that have placed them in a perilous position. Things come to a head when Wink comes down with a debilitating illness, a massive storm hits, the ice caps melt and destructive prehistoric beasts are released who descend on “The Bathtub.” Little Hushpuppy has to find in herself the courage and heroism to survive the catastrophe and re-instill a sense of community. Fusing recent history and environmental concerns with a mythical quality, Beasts of the Southern Wild defies easy classification or description, instead forging a new path that firmly establishes director Benh Zeitlin as a bright new cinematic talent. Reviewers are speculating that both Zeitlin and young Quvenzhané Wallis could be nominated for Academy Awards.

An Anthem to Survivors: Beasts of the Southern Wild (Official Trailer)

Beasts of the Southern Wild: Official Featurette

Beasts of the Southern Wild: “Once There Was A Hush Puppy”

Director Benh Zeitlin and composer Dan Romer perform the theme to “Beasts of the Southern Wild” at LACMA

Beasts of the Southern Wild: “Once There Was A Hush Puppy”

Super Soul Sunday: Why Oprah Loves Beasts of the Southern Wild

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Truman Capote: A Sentimental Christmas Memory

Truman Capote: A Christmas Memory

Truman Capote Reading “A Christmas Memory”

Truman Capote Reading “A Christmas Memory” (Full Version):

Truman Capote: A Christmas Memory (1966)

Truman Capote: Other Voices, Other Rooms

The brain may take advice, but not the heart,

and love having no geography, knows no boundaries: weight and sink it deep,

no matter, it will rise and find the surface: and why not?

any love is natural and beautiful that lies within a person’s nature;

only hyprocrites would hold a man responsible for what he loves,

emotional illiterates and those of righteous envy, who, in their agitated concern,

mistake so frequently the arrow pointing to heaven for the one that leads to hell.”

Truman Capote’s Early Years: A Spiritual Orphan

Originally named Truman Streckfus Persons at the time of his birth in New Orleans in 1924, he was the son of Archulus Persons, a nonpracticing lawyer and member of an old Alabama family, and of the former Lillie Mae Faulk, of Monroeville, Alabama. Years later he adopted the last name of his stepfather, Joe Capote, who was a Cuban-born New York businessman. Truman’s mother was not, according to her own testimony, emotionally capable of motherhood. Living with her husband in a New Orleans hotel, she sent Truman to live with relatives in Monroeville when he was barely able to walk. She eventually committed suicide.

For the most of the first nine years of his life in Alabama, under the supervision of female cousins and aunts, he was like a spiritual orphan. During that period of time, he said years later that he felt “like a turtle on its back.” ”You see,” he said, ”I was so different from everyone, so much more intelligent and sensitive and perceptive. I was having fifty perceptions a minute to everyone else’s five. I always felt that nobody was going to understand me, going to understand what I felt about things. I guess that’s why I started writing. At least on paper I could put down what I thought.”

Truman often returned to New Orleans during the summers, staying for a month or so. He went on trips up and down the Mississippi with his father aboard the riverboat on which Mr. Persons worked as a head steward. Truman learned to tap dance, he said, and claimed that he once danced for the passengers accompanied by Louis Armstrong, whose band was playing on the steamboat.

Many of his stories, perhaps most notably A Christmas Memory, in which he which paid loving tribute to his old cousin, Miss Sook Faulk, who succored him in his childhood loneliness, were based on his recollections of life in and around Monroeville.

A Christmas Memory

Imagine a morning in late November. A coming of winter morning more than twenty years ago. Consider the kitchen of a spreading old house in a country town. A great black stove is its main feature; but there is also a big round table and a fireplace with two rocking chairs placed in front of it. Just today the fireplace commenced its seasonal roar. A woman with shorn white hair is standing at the kitchen window. She is wearing tennis shoes and a shapeless gray sweater over a summery calico dress. She is small and sprightly, like a bantam hen; but, due to a long youthful illness, her shoulders are pitifully hunched. Her face is remarkable—not unlike Lincoln’s, craggy like that, and tinted by sun and wind; but it is delicate too, finely boned, and her eyes are sherry-colored and timid. “Oh my,” she exclaims, her breath smoking the windowpane, “it’s fruitcake weather!”

The person to whom she is speaking is myself. I am seven; she is sixty-something. We are cousins, very distant ones, and we have lived together—well, as long as I can remember. Other people inhabit the house, relatives; and though they have power over us, and frequently make us cry, we are not, on the whole, too much aware of them. We are each other’s best friend. She calls me Buddy, in memory of a boy who was formerly her best friend. The other Buddy died in the 1880’s, when she was still a child. She is still a child. “I knew it before I got out of bed,” she says, turning away from the window with a purposeful excitement in her eyes. “The courthouse bell sounded so cold and clear. And there were no birds singing; they’ve gone to warmer country, yes indeed. Oh, Buddy, stop stuffing biscuit and fetch our buggy. Help me find my hat. We’ve thirty cakes to bake.”

It’s always the same: a morning arrives in November, and my friend, as though officially inaugurating the Christmas time of year that exhilarates her imagination and fuels the blaze of her heart, announces: “It’s fruitcake weather! Fetch our buggy. Help me find my hat.” The hat is found, a straw cartwheel corsaged with velvet roses out-of-doors has faded: it once belonged to a more fashionable relative. Together, we guide our buggy, a dilapidated baby carriage, out to the garden and into a grove of pecan trees. The buggy is mine; that is, it was bought for me when I was born. It is made of wicker, rather unraveled, and the wheels wobble like a drunkard’s legs. But it is a faithful object; springtimes, we take it to the woods and fill it with flowers, herbs, wild fern for our porch pots; in the summer, we pile it with picnic paraphernalia and sugar-cane fishing poles and roll it down to the edge of a creek; it has its winter uses, too: as a truck for hauling firewood from the yard to the kitchen, as a warm bed for Queenie, our tough little orange and white rat terrier who has survived distemper and two rattlesnake bites. Queenie is trotting beside it now.

Three hours later we are back in the kitchen hulling a heaping buggyload of windfall pecans. Our backs hurt from gathering them: how hard they were to find (the main crop having been shaken off the trees and sold by the orchard’s owners, who are not us) among the concealing leaves, the frosted, deceiving grass. Caarackle! A cheery crunch, scraps of miniature thunder sound as the shells collapse and the golden mound of sweet oily ivory meat mounts in the milk-glass bowl. Queenie begs to taste, and now and again my friend sneaks her a mite, though insisting we deprive ourselves. “We mustn’t, Buddy. If we start, we won’t stop. And there’s scarcely enough as there is. For thirty cakes.”

The kitchen is growing dark. Dusk turns the window into a mirror: our reflections mingle with the rising moon as we work by the fireside in the firelight. At last, when the moon is quite high, we toss the final hull into the fire and, with joined sighs, watch it catch flame. The buggy is empty, the bowl is brimful. We eat our supper (cold biscuits, bacon, blackberry jam) and discuss tomorrow. Tomorrow the kind of work I like best begins: buying. Cherries and citron, ginger and vanilla and canned Hawaiian pine-apple, rinds and raisins and walnuts and whiskey and oh, so much flour, butter, so many eggs, spices, flavorings: why, we’ll need a pony to pull the buggy home.

But before these Purchases can be made, there is the question of money. Neither of us has any. Except for skin-flint sums persons in the house occasionally provide (a dime is considered very big money); or what we earn ourselves from various activities: holding rummage sales, selling buckets of hand-picked blackberries, jars of home-made jam and apple jelly and peach preserves, rounding up flowers for funerals and weddings. Once we won seventy-ninth prize, five dollars, in a national football contest. Not that we know a fool thing about football. It’s just that we enter any contest we hear about: at the moment our hopes are centered on the fifty-thousand-dollar Grand Prize being offered to name a new brand of coffee (we suggested “A.M.”; and, after some hesitation, for my friend thought it perhaps sacrilegious, the slogan “A.M.! Amen!”). To tell the truth, our only really profitable enterprise was the Fun and Freak Museum we conducted in a back-yard woodshed two summers ago. The Fun was a stereopticon with slide views of Washington and New York lent us by a relative who had been to those places (she was furious when she discovered why we’d borrowed it); the Freak was a three-legged biddy chicken hatched by one of our own hens. Every body hereabouts wanted to see that biddy: we charged grown ups a nickel, kids two cents. And took in a good twenty dollars before the museum shut down due to the decease of the main attraction.

But one way and another we do each year accumulate Christmas savings, a Fruitcake Fund. These moneys we keep hidden in an ancient bead purse under a loose board under the floor under a chamber pot under my friend’s bed. The purse is seldom removed from this safe location except to make a deposit or, as happens every Saturday, a withdrawal; for on Saturdays I am allowed ten cents to go to the picture show. My friend has never been to a picture show, nor does she intend to: “I’d rather hear you tell the story, Buddy. That way I can imagine it more. Besides, a person my age shouldn’t squander their eyes. When the Lord comes, let me see him clear.” In addition to never having seen a movie, she has never: eaten in a restaurant, traveled more than five miles from home, received or sent a telegram, read anything except funny papers and the Bible, worn cosmetics, cursed, wished someone harm, told a lie on purpose, let a hungry dog go hungry. Here are a few things she has done, does do: killed with a hoe the biggest rattlesnake ever seen in this county (sixteen rattles), dip snuff (secretly), tame hummingbirds (just try it) till they balance on her finger, tell ghost stories (we both believe in ghosts) so tingling they chill you in July, talk to herself, take walks in the rain, grow the prettiest japonicas in town, know the recipe for every sort of oldtime Indian cure, including a magical wart remover.

Now, with supper finished, we retire to the room in a faraway part of the house where my friend sleeps in a scrap-quilt-covered iron bed painted rose pink, her favorite color. Silently, wallowing in the pleasures of conspiracy, we take the bead purse from its secret place and spill its contents on the scrap quilt. Dollar bills, tightly rolled and green as May buds. Somber fifty-cent pieces, heavy enough to weight a dead man’s eyes. Lovely dimes, the liveliest coin, the one that really jingles. Nickels and quarters, worn smooth as creek pebbles. But mostly a hateful heap of bitter-odored pennies. Last summer others in the house contracted to pay us a penny for every twenty-five flies we killed. Oh, the carnage of August: the flies that flew to heaven! Yet it was not work in which we took pride. And, as we sit counting pennies, it is as though we were back tabulating dead flies. Neither of us has a head for figures; we count slowly, lose track, start again. According to her calculations, we have $12.73. According to mine, exactly $13. “I do hope you’re wrong, Buddy. We can’t mess around with thirteen. The cakes will fall. Or put somebody in the cemetery. Why, I wouldn’t dream of getting out of bed on the thirteenth.” This is true: she always spends thirteenths in bed. So, to be on the safe side, we subtract a penny and toss it out the window.

Of the ingredients that go into our fruitcakes, whiskey is the most expensive, as well as the hardest to obtain: State laws forbid its sale. But everybody knows you can buy a bottle from Mr. Haha Jones. And the next day, having completed our more prosaic shopping, we set out for Mr. Haha’s business address, a “sinful” (to quote public opinion) fish-fry and dancing cafe down by the river. We’ve been there before, and on the same errand; but in previous years our dealings have been with Haha’s wife, an iodine-dark Indian woman with brassy peroxided hair and a dead-tired disposition. Actually, we’ve never laid eyes on her husband, though we’ve heard that he’s an Indian too. A giant with razor scars across his cheeks. They call him Haha because he’s so gloomy, a man who never laughs. As we approach his cafe (a large log cabin festooned inside and out with chains of garish-gay naked light bulbs and standing by the river’s muddy edge under the shade of river trees where moss drifts through the branches like gray mist) our steps slow down. Even Queenie stops prancing and sticks close by. People have been murdered in Haha’s cafe. Cut to pieces. Hit on the head. There’s a case coming up in court next month. Naturally these goings-on happen at night when the colored lights cast crazy patterns and the Victrolah wails. In the daytime Haha’s is shabby and deserted. I knock at the door, Queenie barks, my friend calls: “Mrs. Haha, ma’am? Anyone to home?

Footsteps. The door opens. Our hearts overturn. It’s Mr. Haha Jones himself! And he is a giant; he does have scars; he doesn’t smile. No, he glowers at us through Satan-tilted eyes and demands to know: “What you want with Haha?

For a moment we are too paralyzed to tell. Presently my friend half-finds her voice, a whispery voice at best: “If you please, Mr. Haha, we’d like a quart of your finest whiskey.”

His eyes tilt more. Would you believe it? Haha is smiling! Laughing, too. “Which one of you is a drinkin’ man?

It’s for making fruitcakes, Mr. Haha. Cooking. “

This sobers him. He frowns. “That’s no way to waste good whiskey.” Nevertheless, he retreats into the shadowed cafe and seconds later appears carrying a bottle of daisy-yellow unlabeled liquor. He demonstrates its sparkle in the sunlight and says: “Two dollars.”

We pay him with nickels and dimes and pennies. Suddenly, as he jangles the coins in his hand like a fistful of dice, his face softens. “Tell you what,” he proposes, pouring the money back into our bead purse, “just send me one of them fruitcakes instead.”

Well,” my friend remarks on our way home, “there’s a lovely man. We’ll put an extra cup of raisins in his cake.”

The black stove, stoked with coal and firewood, glows like a lighted pumpkin. Eggbeaters whirl, spoons spin round in bowls of butter and sugar, vanilla sweetens the air, ginger spices it; melting, nose-tingling odors saturate the kitchen, suffuse the house, drift out to the world on puffs of chimney smoke. In four days our work is done. Thirty-one cakes, dampened with whiskey, bask on windowsills and shelves.

Who are they for?

Friends. Not necessarily neighbor friends: indeed, the larger share is intended for persons we’ve met maybe once, perhaps not at all. People who’ve struck our fancy. Like President Roosevelt. Like the Reverend and Mrs. J. C. Lucey, Baptist missionaries to Borneo who lectured here last winter. Or the little knife grinder who comes through town twice a year. Or Abner Packer, the driver of the six o’clock bus from Mobile, who exchanges waves with us every day as he passes in a dust-cloud whoosh. Or the young Wistons, a California couple whose car one afternoon broke down outside the house and who spent a pleasant hour chatting with us on the porch (young Mr. Wiston snapped our picture, the only one we’ve ever had taken). Is it because my friend is shy with everyone except strangers that these strangers, and merest acquaintances, seem to us our truest friends? I think yes. Also, the scrapbooks we keep of thank-you’s on White House stationery, time-to-time communications from California and Borneo, the knife grinder’s penny post cards, make us feel connected to eventful worlds beyond the kitchen with its view of a sky that stops.

Now a nude December fig branch grates against the window. The kitchen is empty, the cakes are gone; yesterday we carted the last of them to the post office, where the cost of stamps turned our purse inside out. We’re broke. That rather depresses me, but my friend insists on celebrating—with two inches of whiskey left in Haha’s bottle. Queenie has a spoonful in a bowl of coffee (she likes her coffee chicory-flavored and strong). The rest we divide between a pair of jelly glasses. We’re both quite awed at the prospect of drinking straight whiskey; the taste of it brings screwedup expressions and sour shudders. But by and by we begin to sing, the two of us singing different songs simultaneously. I don’t know the words to mine, just: Come on along, come on along, to the dark-town strutters’ ball. But I can dance: that’s what I mean to be, a tap dancer in the movies. My dancing shadow rollicks on the walls; our voices rock the chinaware; we giggle: as if unseen hands were tickling us. Queenie rolls on her back, her paws plow the air, something like a grin stretches her black lips. Inside myself, I feel warm and sparky as those crumbling logs, carefree as the wind in the chimney. My friend waltzes round the stove, the hem of her poor calico skirt pinched between her fingers as though it were a party dress: Show me the way to go home, she sings, her tennis shoes squeaking on the floor. Show me the way to go home.

Enter: two relatives. Very angry. Potent with eyes that scold, tongues that scald. Listen to what they have to say, the words tumbling together into a wrathful tune: “A child of seven! whiskey on his breath! are you out of your mind? feeding a child of seven! must be loony! road to ruination! remember Cousin Kate? Uncle Charlie? Uncle Charlie’s brother-inlaw? shame! scandal! humiliation! kneel, pray, beg the Lord!

Queenie sneaks under the stove. My friend gazes at her shoes, her chin quivers, she lifts her skirt and blows her nose and runs to her room. Long after the town has gone to sleep and the house is silent except for the chimings of clocks and the sputter of fading fires, she is weeping into a pillow already as wet as a widow’s handkerchief.

Continue reading A Christmas Memory here.

Remembering Truman Capote

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Weary of Hurricane Sandy? Watch This Cute Tiny Boat Weather the Storms!

Little Boat: A Bittersweet Tale of Persistence and Adversity

Little Boat is a bittersweet, sometimes heartbreaking minimalist five-minute animated short film by CalArts student Nelson Boles. After Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in September 2005, Boles enrolled in the Teen Program at The Animation Academy in Burbank. He was a 16 year-old young man from New Orleans, a refugee from the storm. Later, when things got back to semi-normal in New Orleans, he returned home.

Boles’s Little Boat is an inspiring story of adventure and perseverance, starring a surprisingly expressive little dinghy. The short film went viral a while back, charming thousands of viewers and winning a number of festival prizes, but it feels particularly relevant while people all up and down the East Coast braced themselves for the onslaught of Hurricane Sandy.

Little Boat imbues life into an obstinately mundane object, as the little red the dinghy steadfastly pushes forward through storms, floods and wars. One shot, at the 2:10 mark in the film, shows the little boat resolutely thrusting forward upon the stormy seas, only to have its mast shattered in half; it’s as heartbreaking a moment as anything that could happen to a more conventional animated character with eyes, hands and legs.

The deceptively simple animation contains lots of surprises, so make sure to watch it full screen with the sound turned up; half the story is in the audio.

Little Boat: A Bittersweet Tale of Persistence and Adversity

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An Anthem to Survivors: Beasts of the Southern Wild

An Anthem to Survivors: Beasts of the Southern Wild

Beasts of the Southern Wilds is the award-winning first feature film directed by Benh Zeitlin and co-written with playwright Lucy Alibar, whose play Juicy and Delicious provides its foundation. Zeitlin created the movie in collaboration with Court 13, the filmmakers’ collective that moved to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. The film won the Caméra d’Or award at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival, the Grand Jury Prize: Dramatic at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, where it premiered, the Grand Jury Prize at the 2012 Deauville American Film Festival, the 2012 Los Angeles Film Festival’s Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature and the 2012 Seattle International Film Festival’s Golden Space Needle Award for Best Director.

Part dystopia and part revolutionary utopia, Beasts of the Southern Wild is a visionary film that celebrates resistance, featuring poor people who come together in interracial, inter-generational harmony. After a flood washes away most of “The Bathtub,” a poor and precarious patch of land south of New Orleans, Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis, five years-old at the time of filming) and her father account for their remaining animals and neighbors, and attempt to survive, rebuild, and repair their world. They band together to create a post-Katrina communal life and they fight the system in a variety of ways to avoid getting thrown into the sterile, controlled environment of a state-funded shelter.

Zeitlin’s earlier acclaimed short film about an imaginary post-Katrina world in New Orleans, Glory at Sea, won the 2008 CineVegas International Film Festival Special Jury Prize, the 2008 New Orleans Film Festival Narrative Short Award, the 2008 Woodstock Film Festival Jury Prize and the 2008 SXSW Film Festival Wolphin Award. Coming off the award-winning “Glory at Sea,” Zeitlin wanted to continue working on an expanded feature film set in the Louisiana bayou and to tell a story about a community making a final stand. The same theme and mythic, poetic feeling of Glory at Sea, which was also created in collaboration with the Court 13 filmmakers’ collective, clearly carries through in Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild. Like Beasts, Glory at Sea, concerned a southern Delta community endangered by a flood and focused on a young girl, who also served as the film’s narrator. Glory at Sea tells a story about the aftermath of the Katrina flood, and a community’s Orpheus-like efforts to keep alive its old traditions and loved ones.

Glory at Sea: A Beautiful Memorial to Mourning the Dead

Every once in a rare, long while, a film appears with such a sweeping gust of rejuvenation that it has the power to restore not only one’s faith in cinema, but in humanity as a whole. Glory at Sea is one of those rare films, an acclaimed narrative short film that has garnered twelve film festival awards, a film that endearingly produces the forlorn feelings that are amassed within the sea of a forever-sunset palette, sanctioning our mourning within its beautiful sorrow. The 26-minute short film follows an unkempt and unruly fleet of heartbroken refugees through the midst of the human devastation in post-Katrina New Orleans. This one and a half year-long collaborative project by director Benh Zeitlin and members of the Court 13 film collective brought forth a narrative film that reveals a rare mutually interactive blend of contemporary dance/movement, cinematography that is richly packed with a grandly sweeping panorama of visual detail and brilliantly subtle interpersonal gestures by the Court 13 ensemble group of performers.

Glory at Sea boldly confronts a monumental tragedy that vividly displays the fact of our human mortality, as well as the inevitable loss of our dreams for the future (the ghosts of loved ones, banished to live underwater for eternity). The raggedy, raucous New Orleans characters in Glory at Sea boldly turn away from their overwhelming of feelings of mortal vulnerability, courageously responding instead with a communal bond to a renewed and feverish commitment to love and hope.

The passionate call for hope and a common cause is expressed by the film’s ensemble through an emotionally inspiring synthesis of a socially important narrative, the performers’ sense of movement that conveys through even the most subtle interpersonal gestures their deep commitment to mutually shared social needs and responsibilities, and fascinating cinematography with an acute attention to visual detail. When a pinch of insanity and an ongoing tone of understated comical irony are added to all of this, one ends up with an experience that is a musically visual delight. An old phrase describes beautiful and appealing speech as “Music to My Ears.” Glory at Sea ends up “Dancing Behind Your Eyelids.” The twenty-five minutes spent deeply engrossed in this narrative is timeless.

Glory at Sea: A Beautiful Memorial to Mourning the Dead

(Best Viewed HD/Full Screen)

An Anthem to Survivors: Beasts of the Southern Wild

Sometimes miraculous films come into being, made by people you’ve never heard of, starring unknown faces, blindsiding you with creative genius. Beasts of the Southern Wild is one of the year’s best films. Winner of the US Dramatic Grand Jury Prize in Sundance, this striking and unforgettable feature-film debut is set in “The Bathtub,” a defiant Louisiana bayou community cut off from the rest of the world. Young Hushpuppy (played by a five year-old force of nature named Quvenzhané Wallis) is devoted to her father, Wink, who frequently goes off on sprees, leaving Hushpuppy to fend for herself in an isolated compound filled with semi-wild animals.

The community is a resilient and joyous one, but there is a growing sense of inevitable destruction. At school, Hushpuppy is taught about natural selection, global warming and the ecological shifts that have placed them in a perilous position. Things come to a head when Wink comes down with a debilitating illness, a massive storm hits, the ice caps melt and destructive prehistoric beasts are released who descend on “The Bathtub.” Little Hushpuppy has to find in herself the courage and heroism to survive the catastrophe and re-instill a sense of community. Fusing recent history and environmental concerns with a mythical quality, Beasts of the Southern Wild defies easy classification or description, instead forging a new path that firmly establishes director Benh Zeitlin as a bright new cinematic talent. Reviewers are speculating that both Zeitlin and young Quvenzhané Wallis could be nominated for Academy Awards.

An Anthem to Survivors: Beasts of the Southern Wild (Official Trailer)

Making of Beasts of the Southern Wild: Part I

Making of Beasts of the Southern Wild: Part II

Super Soul Sunday: Why Oprah Loves Beasts of the Southern Wild

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Remembering Hurricane Katrina: Portraits of Tragic Loss

Remembering Hurricane Katrina: Portraits of Tragic Loss

Photography by: Chris Jordan

Today, the mayors and governors along the Gulf Coast issued dire warnings about Hurricane Isaac. Seven years ago, Katrina slammed into New Orleans on Aug. 29, 2005, as a strong Category 3 hurricane with sustained winds of 125 mph. More than 1,800 people were killed, most of them in Louisiana. On Tuesday, the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami said Isaac had become a Category 1 hurricane with winds of 75 mph, which could get stronger by the time it’s expected to reach the swampy coast of southeast Louisiana. The latest projections showed Isaac making landfall at or near New Orleans late Tuesday or early Wednesday.

This week marks the seventh anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s ravages of New Orleans, a city that not long ago appeared to be completely lost. Only seven years have passed since rotting corpses were floating through the city’s streets, since hundreds of thousands of survivors sat in hotel rooms and shelters and the homes of relatives, finding out from news coverage that they had been forced to join the ranks of the homeless. The unbelievable devastation of New Orleans is almost beyond human comprehension. The virtually complete destruction of the entire city by Hurricane Katrina, the loss of huge numbers of lives, the ruination of the property and lives of so many, especially the poor and disadvantaged, is a tragedy of historically monumental proportions.

Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast with devastating force at daybreak on Aug. 29, 2005, pounding an area that included the fabled city of New Orleans and wreaking large-scale damages on neighboring Mississippi. In all, more than 1,700 people were killed and hundreds of thousands of others were displaced. Packing a terrifying punch of 145-mile-an-hour winds when it made landfall, the category-4 storm left more than a million people in three states without power and submerged highways even hundreds of miles from its center. The hurricane’s storm surge pushed a 29-foot wall of water ashore when the hurricane struck the Gulf Coast, which was the highest level ever measured in the United States. Levees failed in New Orleans, resulting in political and social upheavals that continue a half decade later.

Damage, costing billions of dollars, has made Katrina one of the costliest storms on record. In New Orleans, floodwaters from the breached levee rose to rooftops in the poorest neighborhoods, and in many areas residents were rescued from roofs of homes that had become uninhabitable. The hurricane’s roaring winds stripped 15-foot sections off the roof of the Superdome, where as many as 10,000 city residents had been forced to take shelter. An exodus of hundreds of thousands left the city, many becoming refugees, finding shelter with nearby relatives or restarting their lives in states as far away as Massachusetts and Utah.

The New Orleans Times-Picayune newspaper is maintaining detailed Hurricane Katrina Anniversary coverage, as well as an extensive archive of historical news coverage and photographs about Katrina, which can be accessed here.

After Hurricane Katrina: The Ghost Town

A Photographic Essay: In the Wake of Katrina

Slide Show: A Remembrance of Katrina’s Wake/Portraits of Tragic Loss

(Please Click Image to View Slide Show)

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The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore Wins 2012 Oscar for Best Animated Short Film

The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore Wins 2012 Oscar for Best Animated Short

The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore is an award-winning animated short film by author/illustrator William Joyce and Co-Director Brandon Oldenburg at Moonbot Studios, which won the Oscar for Best Animated Short Film last night at the 2012 Academy Awards. Drawing on inspirations from Hurricane Katrina, The Wizard of Oz and Buster Keaton, the amazing and inspirational short film combines a variety of animation techniques to tell the story of people who have a passion for books.

Moonbot Studios also created the best-selling, interactive Morris Lessmore iPad app, which is available on iTunes in the App Store.

The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore

Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore: 2012 Oscars Acceptance Speech

Oscar Nomination Announcements: Moonbot Studios, Shreveport, Louisiana

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