Movies in 1999

My mind got drifting back in time today to an amazing period for American movies, which was the entirety of the year 1999.

I was 29 years old and recently divorced in that tumultuous year, and even more significantly, I was living alone in Texas, far from my family, and working as the city editor of the Sherman Herald-Democrat, in charge of the editorial output of 11 reporters.

I went to the movies that year – a lot.

Some incredibly creative and challenging films came out that year. Everything seemed edgy and new; movies seemed willing to step out where they had never gone before, questioning the status quo, suggesting new ways of living, rewarding protagonists (and even antagonists) who tried shaking things up. Sometimes this meant plunging characters into worlds never before seen or imagined; sometimes it meant putting them in contact (quite literally) with the dead. Sex was also a big topic, especially for one of the greatest living filmmakers, who died shortly before the release of what would be his last movie.

Heck, there was even, for the first time in almost 20 years, a new “Star Wars” episode on the big screen, but that turned out to be one of the least of the year’s offerings.

“American Beauty” won the top Oscars for Best Picture, Director and Actor, and while I loved it Back in the Day, today I am less of a fan. Kevin Spacey gave a funny, brilliant portrayal of an ordinary guy who figures out that life isn’t what he had it cracked up to be, but there were so many other performances that had just as much energy and depth. I’m thinking of Al Pacino in “The Insider” (my choice for best picture), Bruce Willis in “The Sixth Sense,” John Malkovich in “Being John Malkovich,” and Brad Pitt in “Fight Club.” None of these actors, in these particular roles, was even nominated that year, which should indicate the strength of the year overall.  (I haven’t even mentioned Tom Hanks in “The Green Mile” or Tom Cruise, emotionally constipated in Stanley Kubrick’s similarly unacknowledged “Eyes Wide Shut”.)

I could go on. You had Keanu Reeves’ Superman impersonation in “The Matrix,” Ed Norton’s frightened Narrator in “Fight Club” and Terence Stamp, ferocious in “The Limey.” What a stellar year for great acting.

On the female side of the equation, there were many great performances. Helena Bonham-Carter was fantastic as the suicidal Goth in “Fight Club;” Nicole Kidman, intelligent and sexy in “Eyes Wide Shut;” Catherine Keener, snarky in “Being John Malkovich,” and Toni Collette, so vulnerable and scared for her son, in “The Sixth Sense.” Best of all was Annette Bening in “American Beauty,” whose irritation with her husband turns potentially lethal as she succumbs to all the materialism in late-20th century America. Her journey from overbearing cheerleader mom to gun-toting monster was something to see.

It was a crazy year in which anything could happen in any film. Keanu Reeves discovered he could be a superhero by swallowing a blue pill in “The Matrix,” which changed cinema as we know it. Spacey realized – fatally – that he could tap into his unexplored potential by banging a blonde teenager in “American Beauty” (more on that later). Ed Norton found out he could beat insomnia by transforming into a brawler in “Fight Club.” John Cusack discovered a new revenue stream and creative outlet by crawling into John Malkovich’s brain. And a little boy discovered he could communicate with the dead, and save the soul of a lonely ghost, in “The Sixth Sense.”

These stories – met with varying degrees of success at the box office – were all weird but thoroughly committed to their weirdness. We often didn’t know the true nature of what was going on until the very  end – just like many of the characters. This was the year in which the directors truly took control of their material. They weren’t just churning out product – there’s not an “Independence Day” or an “Armageddon” in the bunch – but making artistic statements that were also deeply personal. Even George Lucas took this route with the much-derided “Phantom Menace.” Love it or hate it, it was his story and he told it the way he wanted, with an irritating alien named Jar-Jar and spectacular CGI scenery.

Many films were rooted in reality with one foot in the supernatural. “The Matrix” got there first, with its office-bound desk worker, John Anderson, unearthing his Neo personality and engaging in a war against the Machines. In “The Green Mile,” uniformed authority figure Tom Hanks realizes the newest inmate on Death Row has Christ-like powers. In “Phantom Menace,” run-of-the-mill Jedi Qui-Gon Jinn realizes his young charge, Anakin Skywalker, has the makings of a truly extraordinary Jedi. In “Being John Malkovich,” Cusack’s manipulative puppet master reinvents his life when he discovers a supernatural portal into the brain of a great actor. All of these characters, and others, suggest that the way we are living is wrong – that there’s another great universe next door. It’s hard to remember a time when more films seemed to stem from the same basic idea.

I haven’t even mentioned yet two of the biggest, weirdest, loopiest films: “Magnolia,” by Paul Thomas Anderson, and “The Blair Witch Project,” by Myrick and Sanchez. There’s simply nothing else out there like them. They defy all expectations and create new ones. “Magnolia” is a sprawling epic about easily a dozen equally important characters who meander their way through a meteorologically bizarre day in southern California. It’s grounded by a sympathetic performance from John C. Reilly as a compassionate cop, and a hilariously snarky one by Tom Cruise as a sexist self-help guru. Cruise should have won an Oscar for this, hands down, but the fact is, he makes too much money, and in Hollywood, money is its own reward. If the film had won Best Picture and Best Director, there would be justice in the world, but again, it’s weird, and weird doesn’t always translate into popular. Nonetheless, if any movie defines 1999, it’s this one.

“The Blair Witch Project” was the most horrifying, suspenseful and flat-out WTF movie in a year FULL of WTF movies. Establishing the “found footage” horror genre, “Blair Witch” scared the shit out of audiences everywhere, and I went to see the film three times, recognizing it as the most fun rollercoaster ride out there. It never explains its mysteries, and indeed never really tells us anything, but proves that a few well-placed sound effects and a genuinely panicky and terrified cast can force our imaginations to work overtime. It made a hell of a lot of money, and a backlash developed, but this thing still holds up today as a frightening trip into the true heart of darkness.

My favorites of the year were: “American Beauty,” “The Insider,” “The Sixth Sense,” “Three Kings,” “Being John Malkovich,” “Magnolia,” “The Blair Witch Project,” “Eyes Wide Shut,” “Fight Club,” “Toy Story 2,” “The Iron Giant,” “The Green Mile,” “The Limey” and “The Matrix.” Even the trash was great: “The Mummy,” “Deep Blue Sea,” “The Haunting,” and the infamous (yet still entertaining) “Wild Wild West.” I’m putting “Star Wars: Episode 1 – The Phantom Menace” in its own category, for its own reasons. There are so many great directors on this list: Stanley Kubrick, David Fincher, Paul Thomas Anderson, Brad Bird, Steven Soderbergh, M. Night Shyamalan, Michael Mann, David O. Russell – and let’s not forget that even George Lucas and Martin Scorsese (“Bringing Out the Dead,” unloved by me), had films out. It was the best year ever, and it helped keep me entertained … and sane.

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A Day with the Cubans

I accompanied a delegation from Southern Arkansas University – and the University of Artemisa in Cuba – to Little Rock today, where the presidents of the two universities signed an agreement for an academic exchange, then toured the Clinton Library and the Heifer International Center.

The signing ceremony was an official event well-covered by Little Rock media outlets. I had not had an opportunity to do any photography in our State Capitol, so I enjoyed grabbing a few images of the edifice itself before and after the ceremony. Our group then reconvened at the Clinton Library, a truly impressive structure made of “green” materials, glass and steel, overlooking the Arkansas River. We ate lunch in the 42 Cafe (named for the consecutive order of Bill Clinton’s presidency), a four-star restaurant where our university president introduced the visiting to Cubans to a former state attorney general and the former mayors of Little Rock and North Little Rock. We then toured the museum, which was every bit as spectacular as I remembered it.

From there we journeyed the short distance to Heifer International, a major charitable concern that has based its $17-million building in LR within sight of the Clinton Library. A volunteer tour guide explained to us that the Heifer building is (like the Library) built of green materials, powered by solar thanks to its unique architectural “footprint.”

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The State Capitol in Little Rock

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Rotunda of the State Capitol

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I took a selfie in the reflective glass behind which boxes filled with Bill Clinton’s presidential papers are displayed.

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The Clinton Presidential Center and Library. The building is designed to resemble a “bridge to the future” spanning the Arkansas River.

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The replica of the Oval Office inside the Clinton Presidential Center. No photography or video is allowed in the office, which exactly duplicates how Bill Clinton had the Oval Office arranged and decorated.

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Two floors of the Clinton Museum. That’s our group from SAU in the foreground, exploring exhibits of gifts that were given the Clintons during their tenure in the White House. The tall bookcases all contain Clinton’s presidential papers.

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This beautiful mosaic, gifted to the Clintons, is made entirely of small, hand-painted tiles, and is one of my favorite displays in the museum.

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The ground floor of the museum

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Bono wrote and signed this personal letter to Bill Clinton. It has been displayed in the section on the “Irish Troubles” for at least the past 10 years.

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Glorious photojournalism is on permanent display in the Clinton Museum. In the main photo, Al Gore arrives at the Governor’s Mansion to accept Bill Clinton’s selection of him as his vice-presidential candidate. How I wish we could go back to those days in 1992.

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The Heifer International building, a unique architectural design

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I liked this Photoshop treatment of a photo I made of stairs in the State Capitol.

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My boss, Aaron Street, pointed out this magnificent photo opportunity, taken from the third floor of the Heifer International building. The curvature of the structure allows for the windows to contain its own reflection. That’s the Clinton Library reflected in the foreground window.

Perdido Key, Family Vacation 2017

We are here on the lovely Gulf Coast for our annual family getaway, staying at Perdido Key, a white stretch of beach separating dry land, where I normally reside, from the Gulf of Mexico. This is not a complete trip report, obviously, but a quick post as I take a momentary break from the action (due in part to the pain of two sunburnt feet). We were here exactly two years ago (though not staying in the same condo) and are doing pretty much the same thing, which is, spending lots of time on the water’s edge. Today I practically dove into the chilly Gulf waters, bouncing and bobbing and generally getting swallowed up by waves. I’d forgotten how powerful those waves could be! There’s no feeling quite like getting swept along by a force beyond your control. I had also forgotten how incredibly awful seawater tastes, but got an unwelcome reminder. The ocean makes an eternal stereoscopic roar, and the wave pound incessantly, creating a never-ending playground for travelers like us who’ve enriched this place with our tourist dollars. We drove 14 straight hours to get here and most everybody else is like me: we’re going to soak up the sun and get our money (and hours’) worth. Here are a few photos.

NIkon Cow, our official trip mascot, hurtles east on an interstate in northern Louisiana, bound for Vicksburg, Miss., and the Gulf Coast beyond.

This has become one of my favorite destinations: the visitors center at Vicksburg, and this view of two bridges spanning the mighty Mississippi. I’m always inspired to go back and read Mark Twain after visiting this spot.

A different view of the twin spans.

This awesome barge was moving downstream, a reminder of the fact that commercial traffic does regularly use the Mississippi, the same as big trucks use the interstate system. This thing moved very fast and, from my vantage, silently.

My view coming into downtown Mobile, Ala., on I-10. To our right was Mobile Bay, and in the dock was a massive Carnival Cruise ship, easily 10 stories tall and God knows how long, visible for miles. It took us quite a few minutes for us to figure out we were looking at a ship and not some kind of massive wall rising up out of the bay.

The tunnel underneath Mobile Bay is a natural photo opportunity; I shot in continuous burst mode from one end to the other. Note the light at the end of the tunnel.

Just a lovely view of sea, sky and clouds.

Beach scene

 

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That’s my nephew, Zachary, in the lower left hand corner of the frame holding the fishing rod. He’d just spotted a stingray in the water, and would later tell us he saw something that looked like a shark about four feet long.

 

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I liked this view of the fence along the beach with sea oats and our condo in background. This scene has always reminded me of the movie “Jaws” and its opening sequence, with the fence line and vegetation along the shore. (Full disclosure: there are sharks in the water here, some as long as 10 feet!)

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The view from our third-floor balcony. I enjoy how a public beach is laid out in strips: from the no-man’s-land of sea oats, to the part of the beach you walk on, to the part where sunbathers lay out beneath blue parasols, to the actual water’s edge. (Note: my camera lens was actually fogged over in the transition from our cold living room to the 85 degrees that greeted me on the balcony.)

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Nikon Cow approaches the Mississippi River at Vicksburg.

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Another view of our beach.

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The ever-changing sky over the Gulf was a constant source of beauty and inspiration. This was the view from our stretch of beach on the next-to-last afternoon of our stay.

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Christa poses on the shoreline on a day that was perfect for photos. The air was a soft blue, the skies cloudy, the Gulf choppy.

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Christa and me.

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Seething foam breaking on the shore.

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The beach at sunset. Everything was a soft pastel color the entire time we were there.

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Storm clouds brew over the Gulf. I took this photo from our balcony.

Well, we just got back from Beach Trip 2017. This  year’s trip wasn’t much for photos, though we tried. Two crises hit, neither of which could have been avoided or foreseen. (Well, maybe one, but who thinks to have their battery tested?)

On our second night in Perdido Key, my mother-in-law, Marilyn, came down with a mysterious stabbing pain in her abdomen. She’d been fine all night, enjoying a nice meal with all of us at Lambert’s Cafe, one of our dining destinations, but about 3 a.m., Christa and her dad had to rush her to the nearest emergency room, which was 25 miles from our condo. Turned out, she was suffering from a kidney stone, one that was too large for her to simply pass on her own. She required an outpatient procedure. However, the fact that the date was July 4 meant the procedure had to be delayed for a day. So, Marilyn spent three full days in the hospital – a devastating blow to her husband and kids.

Christa spent two nights by her mom’s hospital bad; I spent one of those nights with her. Brother-in-law Larry took care of their dad, who was, I think blaming himself and feeling overly responsible for everyone’s good time. There were some tense moments, and the whole situation was compounded by the unfortunate fact that Marilyn felt terribly ill and was in a lot of pain.

So, a good 24 hours of my trip was spent in hospital, or en route to the hospital, all while trying to have some semblance of a vacation. (This was true for everyone.) The kids did manage to have a good time, swimming and tanning and gathering shells and staying up late. Two of the grandkids did catch small sharks swimming in the Gulf. And we did the usual eating and shopping.

Sunburn is a constant concern on the beach, and I managed to burn the tops of both feet. Christa also received a nasty burn on her back. We don’t know what happened; we both soaked each other in sunscreen. One of those things. For much of the time, I was literally hobbled.

We enjoyed Fourth of July fireworks on the beach, though everyone’s good time was muted by Marilyn’s absence. We were able to see the fireworks display at Flora-Bam (a honky tonk straddling the state line, where Christa once got hit on by a woman), and farther west, at Gulf Shores. Both were spectacular, but too far for me to make photos.

I spent four or five hours total in the water. It’s wonderful swimming in the Gulf. I love the weightless sensation, the waves, the feel of warm sand underfoot. My nephew snagged a big fish that brought the attention of a guy on the beach who claimed that that fish would fetch at least $20 in a restaurant. I held it by the tail before we released it; it was slimy and unappealing. Zachary caught at least three other fish, wading out hip-deep in the swelling surf to cast his line. The dude is an excellent fisher. I was surprised to learn that mostly what you catch along the beach are catfish.

We visited Lulu’s, another favorite restaurant. It is owned by Lucy Buffett, sister of Jimmy. We heard that the CEO of Apple had visited the restaurant just the prior week. I bought Jimmy’s Tales from Margaritaville in the gift shop, and ate the cheeseburger in paradise, which was topped with a grilled pineapple slice, crispy bacon and, yes, creamy pimento cheese. The “French-fried potatoes” were amazing.

We also dined at a beach joint called The Hangout, which was too crowded for my taste. We had to wait three hours for a table, during which time we mostly just …. hung out. Fortunately, the house band rocked, ripping through a setlist ranging from Journey to Pearl Jam to Prince to, yep, Lynyrd Skynyrd. (Journey itself also played in concert that same night, but we missed getting tickets.)

Marilyn was released from the hospital on Thursday but was too weak to enjoy the beach, and her husband, of course, stayed right with her at all times. There was some talk of leaving a day early  which sparked some controversy. We took family photos on a beautiful afternoon on the beach – the sky was perfect and we had plenty of crashing waves, providing interesting backgrounds. Christa was happy with many of her images; I felt that my own photography was somewhat stagnant and predictable. I didn’t get to shoot many of the things I wanted to simply because, unavoidably, there wasn’t much time for it.

On our last night, we all piled into my and Christa’s Toyota Highlander to head out for Adventure Island, where we played putt-putt golf until midnight, and when I turned the ignition, the engine wouldn’t crank. It took four tries to start her up. Shit. It seemed like the battery. We managed to do all that we needed to do, but the car was clearly having problems – the last thing we needed to have happen.

Facing a 10 a.m. deadline the next morning – we had to vacate the condo exactly on time or get locked out and charged an extra day – I hustled another 45 miles up the road to the only Walmart Supercenter with an auto center. Sure enough, the battery died just as I parked at the garage. They managed to replace the battery within an hour, and I got back to the condo by 9:30. By 10 a.m., we were on the road again. About 11 hours later, we were back in Magnolia. And here I am.

 

Fun shooting

John Miller and I went out and about in my hometown of Prescott, Ark., today getting the hang of his new Nikon D500 DSLR, which is truly a remarkable camera and a big step above my D3200. This is a professional-grade camera with a lot more bells and whistles than either of us is used to (the manual is 400 pages), but I had a great time applying my basic knowledge of the settings and layout of my entry-level Nikon to his D500. I don’t think either of us would ever actually use 1/10th of the features available on this camera, but I can say that it was fun to use, surprisingly versatile in spite of the added weight of the extra battery compartment, and matched well with my 35mm and 10-24mm lenses. We shot in Prairie DeAnn Cemetery, where I have kin folk buried, and in downtown Prescott, primarily the burnt-down remains of … well, half a city block. Prescott is old, in disrepair, running out of viable businesses, and run by a government that seems incompetent at best, careless at worst. Still, burnt-down buildings can make for some great art, what with their rough textures, exposed wood, etc., and we felt we were able to capture some of the desolation and (John’s words) “I give up” attitude of the city fathers. I also took a quick tour of an interesting old alley.

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Observation, and a clear night photo

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This photo was taken LITERALLY in the dark of night (about 9:00 p.m.), in the Science Building parking lot at Southern Arkansas University, as members of the Engineering Department set up telescopes to observe Jupiter and its moons. We got to see the planet, and it was a sensational sight, but I was most pleased with this photo grab of mine. I used my 35mm f/1.8, wide open, with the ISO jacked up to 3600 and my exposure compensation dialed up to 1.0. A very nice result.

Rural church cemeteries

Christa and I took an impromptu photo safari into Nevada County tonight, ahead of projected heavy rains tomorrow. I’d spotted a barn in a rural area that I wanted to photograph, and we got there just before sundown. After photographing the barn from the side of the road (actually, from inside the car, after we saw somebody’s dogs coming down a nearby driveway), we stopped at a couple of nearby churches for some photos. I like the idea of photographing small churches and these looked like just the ticket. One of them, Mt. Moriah, is a former family church home of mine; my grandmother and her sisters all attended in their youth, and in fact, I have an aunt buried there in the cemetery.

We found an intriguing cemetery in back of the second church as well as what appeared to be a “pet cemetery” in the trees beyond. Christa photographed it. We hope nothing weird happens.

This old barn is about 6 miles south of Prescott, Ark. It reminded me that my grandfather, when he was alive, always talked about photographing barns around Nevada County. He never got to; I think it’s a fine idea for a project.

We found this small grave site adjacent to a larger cemetery at a church in rural Nevada County. No, we weren’t really snooping, we were just looking for something interesting to shoot. We found it. You can kind of make up your own story about this place.

Church, Nevada County, Ark.

Mr. Moriah Church, Rosston, Ark.

Cemetery plots can make for interesting photos, as, hopefully, this one shows.

I’m guessing this object is a dreamcatcher at a gravesite near Rosston, Ark., though it resembles no other I’ve seen.

On the trail

While in Arkadelphia – city of my birth, as well as the birthplace of my daughter and both grandchildren – I took a minute to visit one of my favorite places, Feaster Trail, a woodsy path winding its way from Baptist Medical Center on the city’s west side to the Ouachita River on the east. It’s a great 25-minute walk and I used to take it every day, at least once a day. Mill Creek runs peaceably alongside it, and you’re likely to encounter people you know getting some exercise. It’s one of the few places I had left to photograph since seriously getting into photography three or four years ago. This morning found the trail largely empty of joggers/walkers/cyclists, allowing me to enjoy the song of the birds and the burbling trickle of the creek. I can’t say it’s the most photogenic of locales, but I did make a few nice images that capture the essence.

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