Posted in art, creativity, film, food, human nature, music, writing

pəʊ-teɪ-təʊ, pəʊ-tɑ-təʊ

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Opinions. We all have them.

In the absence of empirical truth, we generally feel comfortable with our opinions, and feel justified in expressing them.

I’m no exception. I can think of a handful of writers, all of whom are regarded as masters of their craft, whose work leaves me cold. Similarly, there are dozens of musical pieces, all standards in the classical repertoire, which make me want to scream, “Make it stop! Make it stop!” As for film, there are those directors whose aesthetic completely escapes me. I’ve sat through every new, critically acclaimed release of theirs ready to give them a fair viewing, only to come away with exactly the same reaction: “Why?” And do I even need to get into art? Please.

The reality is, some creative work will always resonate, trigger the viscerally positive reaction we crave, often for reasons we might never completely understand, and some will not. We will always love some works, yet not others. In fact, there might be those we will hate….


Months ago, I happened to mention a book I loved to a fellow bibliophile. He made a face, then proceeded to give it a critical shredding (some of which rested on a distaste for the characters), which left me feeling like a complete imbecile. Correction: an imbecile with no taste.  I shouldn’t have felt insulted, but I did.

Some time before that, I became engaged in a discussion with a young woman about a particular director’s work. Every time I began to explain why I disliked the films, she interrupted, enumerating all the ways my opinion was wrong. As her argument heated, I understood it was more than a defense of the director’s work; it was an attempt to defend herself.

At that point, I stopped her, “Look. I’m not claiming the work has no artistic value, no worth. I’m just telling you it’s not for me.”

“Oh,” she looked at me, a bit startled. “Then it’s just an opinion.”

I said, “Exactly.”

And she smiled, “I guess that’s okay then.”


I’m always a bit amazed (although I shouldn’t be at my age) by how fragile our egos can be, how heavily invested they are in our critical faculties, and how easily they can be bruised. I suppose the more literate and educated we are, the more we pride ourselves in being able to view creative work objectively, and distinguish what is brilliant from what is commonplace.

But can we truly divorce ourselves from our tastes?

I still recall a conversation with a well-known conductor after another conductor’s performance of a Wagner Prelude. When he asked me what I thought, I said, “Not much.”

He then wanted to know if my opinion of the music was influenced by Wagner’s politics—a natural question, since both of us are Jewish.

I shook my head, saying, “No. It’s his endless sequences. They bore me to tears.”

He nodded, and with a wink said, “I know what you mean. The only way to conduct Wagner is to the end of the piece. You can’t take your time.”

We both laughed, but I couldn’t help but wonder if a better paced interpretation would have made me like the music better. I tend to doubt it.

Sometimes opinions on writing, film, art, and music are not apt to be changed. We often hold fast to our tastes, what pleases, what displeases, and use our training to analyze the reasons for them.


I was going to say it would be nice if we could view differences in artistic taste with the same detachment as we view differences in culinary taste; but then I’m suddenly reminded of a recent disagreement I had with an acquaintance over oysters.

No detachment there. When I said I couldn’t stand them, she went into a tirade.

That’s when I walked away.

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Posted in film, Halloween



Ghosts, aliens, psychopaths, and a few touches of comedy—what to watch on Halloween. Boo.

The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) Dir. James Whale (based on a novel by Mary Shelley)  I have only been able to watch this film twice.  What could be more terrifying than finding your creator has abandoned you? That every chance for friendship and companionship has been stripped away?  That you are too grotesque to be loved? And, that the one creature made especially for you cannot stand the sight of you?

Invaders from Mars (1953) Dir. William Cameron Menzies   The source of many childhood nightmares, this film taught me an important lesson: often the greatest dangers to our humanity and lives are hidden.  Oh, yes, and DON’T WALK ON SAND.

The Bad Seed (1956) Dir. Mervyn LeRoy (based on a play by Maxwell Anderson and novel by Wlliam March)  A devoted mother begins to suspect that her sweet, loving, angelic-looking daughter is a cold-blooded killer.   How can pure evil exist in such an exquisite skin?

“Side Show”  (1961)  Dir. Seymour Robbie   This was an episode in a  short-lived TV series entitled, Way Out, hosted by Roald Dahl.   Some of the episodes have been released on DVD, but, sadly, not this one about a man who becomes infatuated with a woman kept alive by electricity, “who was really very beautiful before she lost her head.”  What can I say? Love can be dangerous….

10 Rillington Place  (1971) Dir. Richard Fleischer  This fact-based film about the British serial killer, John Christie, kept me up for days.  Richard Attenborough is chillingly and deceptively meek as Christie, and John Hurt is sad and broken as Timothy Evans, the husband of one of Christie’s victims, who was falsely convicted and executed for his wife’s murder.  This film was terrifying on many levels, because Christie was able to lure some of his victims to his lair by promising them cures for various illnesses, or safe abortions.  How many of us, I wondered, if desperate enough, could become prey, too?  How many of us, if heartbroken and depleted enough, would confess to a crime we didn’t commit?

The Stepford Wives (1975) Dir. Bryan Forbes (based on a novel by Ira Levin)   Levin’s cautionary tale for feminists seems dated, but its fundamental awareness of the deep anger some men feel over a perceived loss of control, and their desire to get it back, remains relevant, and very scary.

The Vanishing (1988) Dir. by George Sluizer (based on a novella by Tim Krabbe)  A young man and woman, very much in love, are on trip.  She disappears, and years later he’s contacted by her abductor. The original version, in Dutch, violates both the young man’s and audience’s expectations with a truly horrific and unforgettable ending.

Topper  (1937)  Dir.  Norman Z. McLeod  Cary Grant Cary Grant Cary Grant….  Need I say more?

The Uninvited  (1944)  Dir.  Lewis Allen  A composer, a coastal house with a history, a beautiful girl, and “Stella by Starlight”   Sigh…

The Time of Their Lives  (1946)  Dir.  Charles Barton  Atypical Abbott and Costello comedy:  Lou Costello and Marjorie Reynolds are mistakenly branded as traitors during the Revolutionary War, and their spirits are bound to the estate where they were killed. Bud Abbott, a descendant of the man who cursed them, tries to help them. A perfect blend of laughs and chills.

The Ghost and Mrs. Muir  (1947)  Dir.  Joseph L. Mankiewicz  An impossible romance between a widow and the ghost of a sea captain, set to a score by the brilliant Bernard Herrmann

The Innocents  (1961)  Dir.  Jack Clayton  Still the best adaptation of Henry James’s  The Turn of the Screw, with a screenplay by William Archibald and Truman Capote.

The Haunting  (1963)  Dir. Robert Wise  Adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s  The Haunting of Hill House.   Despite changes to the nature of Eleanor’s awakening sexuality, this film is very close in spirit to the book. The mirrors alone are terrifying.

The Shining  (1980)  Dir. Stanley Kubrick  Adaptation of Stephen King’s  The Shining. A visual treat—an isolated, haunted hotel in the dead of winter, blood pouring out of an elevator, Jack Nicholson going insane, and that hedge maze….

The Others  (2001)  Alejandro Amenábar  Toward the end of World War II,  a mother of two children waits in a mansion for her husband to return from battle and begins to sense the arrival of a spectral presence. Imaginative story, sensitively realized.

The Devil’s Backbone  (2001)  Guillermo del Toro  Near the end of the Spanish Civil War, a ghost appears to a boy in a orphanage and makes a dire prediction. Frightening and sad.

Posted in Uncategorized

Artistic Vision

(From Beyond Willow Bend, November 20, 2012)

man in tunnel
Photo by Jan Kroon on

In Shadows and Ghosts, the main character, a filmmaker, is suspected of being mentally ill when she suffers a near fatal heart attack as the result of trying to survive on the same meager rations as the homeless subjects of a documentary she has been making. She doesn’t see her willingness to risk her life for her work as worrisome; she thinks only that she is artistically fearless, and points to her creative output as proof of her stability.  She is brilliant, but she is also teetering on a thin and fragile line….

This line, which exists for a number of artists, is well documented. But, how we recognize it, how we define and interpret it, and how we treat those who struggle to stay balanced, is less clear-cut.

In his short film, “Crazy Talk: What is Mental Illness?” the late filmmaker, Gabriel T. Mitchell approached the question with the visual clarity and artistic vocabulary of one who experienced both sides of that line.

Created in response to a call for short films by “Murdered: De-framing the Frame,” Crazy Talk presents a multifaceted and multi-layered view of mental illness through commentary from mental health professionals and sufferers,  juxtaposed with media images and sound clips.  While these clips illustrate how news sources and various forms of entertainment shape our perceptions of mental illness, they also serve as a pictorial history of how the medical profession has defined and treated mental illness, and the way anomalous behavior of any kind has been misunderstood.  What emerges from this history is an image of a profession that is still groping, discovering, experimenting, and still making mistakes.

There are many powerful and haunting moments in Crazy Talk, but, of these, the most unforgettable one comes at the end, when tiny, distorted human forms, reflected in a Chicago sculpture’s smooth silver surface, become a disorienting swirl culminating in sudden blackness. This is Mitchell’s unique vision—a view of what mental illness looks like, how it sounds, and, especially, tragically, how it feels.

Watch it here.

Gabriel Mitchell (1973 – 2012), was a graduate of Kenwood High School and attended NYU. In 1994 he returned to Chicago, took courses on screenwriting and worked in film production. For several years he regularly attended film classes taught by film critic Michael Wilmington at the University of Chicago’s Graham School of Continuing Liberal and Professional Studies. He began film studies at Columbia College in the fall of 2011, concentrating in documentary film. He has written a graphic novel, three screenplays and numerous songs and poems; he also made abstract drawings and geometric sculptures. Philosomentary, his feature length film, has been shown in several film classes; one of his short films, Crazy Talk, has been the subject of discussion in representations of mental illness. This and his other short films may be viewed on his website,

Additional Reading: “An Artist’s Struggle”