Georgia O’Keefe and Dole Pineapple Juice

Catchy title, you say? What in the world does renowned artist of the American southwest have to do with Dole Pineapple juice?

The Seattle Art Museum’s new curator of American art, Theresa Papanikolas, gave a really interesting lecture about O’Keefe, and the Museum will mount of show of O’Keefe’s work in spring 2020. Most of us know O’Keefe in the geographical context of the southwest, where much of her most famous work was done. Many of us might know that she and her husband Alfred Stieglitz, renowned American photographer, were partners in love and in life.

Famous though they are, and were, artists have to make a living. Creative work doesn’t pay well, or if it does, it’s usually not until the artist is long dead. In 1970, shortly before her death, struggling photographer Diane Arbus sold limited edition boxed sets of 10 photographs for $1000 each box. I think she did ten sets, and only three sold. Most recently, Christie’s auctioned a single box for just under $800,000.

O’Keefe went to Hawaii because Dole paid her to create two paintings for print ads featuring pineapple juice, and she needed the money. She was free to paint whatever she wanted for the nine weeks she was there, as long as she delivered the two paintings to Dole, which she did. The ads appeared in Vogue and the Saturday Evening Post. According to curator Papanikolas, the paintings  no longer belong to Dole but are now in possession of a private collector.

If you’d like to see the paintings O’Keefe made for Dole and hear more of the story, click here.

Most artists have to do something more mundane to pay the bills, or they have a patron. Arbus did fashions shots for high end magazines. Novelist Mary Gordon taught English at Barnard. O’Keefe did ads for commercial magazines. Interestingly her paintings for Dole were no less gorgeous than any of her other work, even with a glass of pineapple juice plunked in the middle and the Dole corporate logo down below.

Seattle International Film Festival: Yomeddine

“Yomeddine” is Arabic for “judgment day”, and is the title of the Egyptian film I saw on Friday as part of the Seattle International Film Festival. This is a roadie film, as badly disfigured leprosy sufferer Beshay leaves the colony in the desert where he has lived since boyhood and sets out in a donkey cart to find his family. His mentally ill wife has died. A young dark skinned orphan, who goes by Obama after “the guy on TV”, hides in the cart and is determined to accompany Beshay on his quest.

Everything that can go wrong does. The boy is injured trying to help Beshay fix the cart when the wheel fails. Carrying the unconscious boy into a town, Beshay is thrown in to jail when villagers grow agitated at his appearance and the chance that his leprosy is still contagious. While the cart is unattended, Beshay’s small stash of money is stolen. Both the boy and Beshay escape, but the cart eventually fails for good. The donkey dies. The boy falls ill.

They find comfort and help among other outcasts, sharing a fire and food under an overpass. The town is where the original orphanage of Obama’s early years is located. The building is closed and abandoned, but they find what might be Obama’s records. His name might be Mohammed. His parents might be dead. One of the outcasts asks a friend, a truck driver, to take Beshay and the boy to Beshay’s home town. They find his family, a brother who thought Beshay had died when they were both children..

The most moving part of the film for me is Beshay himself. We are introduced to him first by his badly deformed hands, seeking small treasures in a mountain of garbage near the leper colony. Gradually, we come to know his badly disfigured face, his foreshortened body, his smile, his kindness to the boy, his perseverance, his resilience in the face of daunting odds. We hear his cry, “I am a human being.”

People still get leprosy, or Hansen’s disease. Now, if caught early, it can be cured. But not then, not in a developing country, not for Beshay. Yet he builds a life, painful step by painful step.

The title Yomeddine, judgment day, comes into play twice. The first is early in the film when the donkey Harby dies. A weeping Obama asks Beshay if Harby will have to stand before God to be judged, like people. Comforting the boy, Beshay says Harby has gone straight to heaven. The second time we hear of judgment day comes near the end of the film, when Beshay kneels before his elderly, infirm father, the one who promised to come back for Beshay when he was cured and never did.

Rebuilding Notre Dame

The debate about how to rebuild the roof and spire of Notre Dame in Paris goes from the sublime to the ridiculous.

How about a swimming pool instead of a traditional roof, in the shape of a cross and guarded by statues of the 12 apostles? Really.

Parisians don’t have to put the renowned cathedral back just the way it was. I’m all for a blend of old and new. But I’m not a fan of silly season. No rooftop swimming pools, please. Can you imagine tourists traipsing through this magnificent cathedral with their oversized bath towels and flip flops to reach the cathedral’s highest point?

I can’t either.

Film Review: Diane

“Diane”, a slow moving film by Kent Jones, is either the most depressing movie I’ve seen in a long time or a stunning work of art and a deeply moving portrait of human resilience. I go back and forth.

Here’s an excerpt from a review by film critic Peter Travers for Rolling Stone:

Get ready for Diane, the first narrative feature from Kent Jones, the noted film critic, historian and director of the New York Film Festival — it has the power to sneak up and floor you. The title role is played by the magnificent Mary Kay Place (The Big Chill, The Rainmaker, Manny & Lo) in her finest two hours on screen. If you want to understand what nuanced acting is, study the quiet miracles Place performs here. Her woman on the verge is in a race with time. The years won’t catch up with Diane (she’s 70), not if she can outrun them. And this widowed retiree is doing her damnedest. From her home in rural Massachusetts — you can almost feel the winter chill — Diane gets in her car and drives to where she’s needed, which is practically everywhere. One minute she’s serving food in a soup kitchen, the next she’s in a local hospital visiting her cousin, Donna (Deirdre O’Connell), who’s losing a fight with cervical cancer. Mostly, she’s barging into the apartment of her son Brian (Jake Lacy), a thirtysomething slacker who lies around in an opioid/heroin daze when he’s not cursing his mother for trying to get him up and functioning.”

Mary Kay Place is the kind of actor you know you’ve seen in a lot of TV and film productions — you’ll recognize her face immediately — even if you can’t remember right off which ones. Her supporting cast, mostly women of a certain age, is fabulous.

The narrative takes place in a beat-up forgotten small town in western Massachusetts, although I pegged it for rural upstate New York. Apparently it was actually filmed in New York. The location could have been a lot of out-of-the-way places, which is, I imagine, the point.

There are some funny scenes, as when Diane’s drug addicted son Brian replaces heroin with smarmy overbaked religion, which he tries to foist on Diane when she comes over to join him and his prayerful wife for dinner. Praise the Lord, Diane calls bullshit when she sees it. But there’s a lot of death in the film too. People around Diane keep falling off — which actually rings true of life from 70 and beyond. Our social circle grows smaller, as our best friends reach the end of their lives.

The film did grow on me. I saw a 29 year old Aretha Franklin in Amazing Grace a few days before I saw 70 year old Diane, and the feelings evoked are entirely different.  I’d go see Aretha again in a heartbeat, and I’m not sure I could sit through Diane a second time. But it may be because the latter film cuts too close to the bone.

Aretha Franklin

I had a choice on Thursday night to watch Anderson Cooper on CNN and Rachel Maddow on MSNBC, or go to SIFF, our independent film theater here in Seattle, to see a documentary about a young Aretha Franklin. I chose the latter.

The documentary Amazing Grace, which shows Franklin performing at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Watts, Los Angeles, in 1972 is described by reviewers as “transcendent”, and indeed it is. The film, recorded by director Sidney Pollack, sat in the can for all these years due to technical problems with the original recording. Pollack failed to synchronize image and sound, making it impossible to watch the film. Contemporary digital technology allowed correction of that original error, and now, all these years later and months after Franklin’s death, we have Amazing Grace.

If you want to see the Queen of Soul singing black church music at the height of her vocal power, unadorned by a glitzy set and with a community black gospel choir as her backup, this is your film. I don’t know if it will be in wide distribution, but go wherever you need to. This is an incandescent experience.

One of the reviewers commented on how tired Aretha Franklin looked, in that hot church, singing her heart out. She did look tired. She was just thirty in the documentary. She was the single mother of four children, on tour, already a Grammy winning vocalist, already with the title Queen of Soul. This album took her back to her church roots. When she sang Amazing Grace, title song of the film, the backup choir was beside themselves in ecstasy. Reverend Cleveland, who was accompanying her on the piano, slid into a chair, put his head in his hands, and sobbed.

In case you’ve never been to a black church worship service, they are all in with gospel songs. Black church singing is a whole body and soul experience. That’s what you see here.

Don’t miss this.

If you can’t see Amazing Grace, at least revisit Franklin at the end of her career, at the Kennedy Center Honors in 1994.


I finally saw the 2019 Oscar nominated film Roma, and was enormously moved by it. The film is slow moving; I can understand the criticism that “nothing happens.” Actually, life happens, but much of life is not dramatic or fast paced. Life is kids coming home from school, a trip to the movies, getting dinner on the table, cleaning up after the dog, having a minor accident on the crowded streets of Mexico City — interspersed with an unwelcome pregnancy, a husband leaving home, and other momentous things.

The film is set in 1970-71 Mexico City, in the home of an upper middle class family with servants, and is seen through the eyes of an indigenous young woman, Cleo, who cleans and cares for the children. Her story is Gloria’s story, for those of you who have followed the blog and know the history of my Panama family. In Roma, the children come rushing in from school and drop their things on the floor for Cleo to pick up. Gloria entered service for a wealthy Panama City family at the age of 16. She remembers the kids doing just the same thing, and when she asked them to hang their coats up instead of dropping them on the floor even the youngest said with disdain, “It’s your job. You pick it up.”

The film depicts several things: the fact that when the upper class step out of their gated homes they are in the midst of the chaos and confusion of crowded city streets just like everyone else. The poor, who are the servant class, have a life of their own which takes place beneath the more gilded lives of their employers, and of which the employers are largely oblivious and totally indifferent. The servants spend more time with, and are deeply caring, of the children in their charge, yet are uniformly treated with disdain — except when the children are sick or injured and run to the servant for comfort. Poor women have a much harder life than poor men, because poor women can get pregnant. Poor men can walk away.

The cinematography in the film is gorgeous, especially the scene where pregnant Cleo confronts Fermin, the father of her baby, on the athletic training field.

The film gots lots of Oscar nominations; perhaps it should have had more wins. In any case, the film tells a story of people whose voices are rarely heard. If you are interested in a subtle and nuanced depiction of social class difference, this is your film. On Netflix.

Two thumbs up.

Book Review: Gilead

Gilead, a 2004 novel by Marilynne Robinson, is a quiet meditation on leading a moral life. The narrator is a 77 year old pastor, still preaching to a waning congregation in his dilapidated church in the small town of Gilead, Iowa, speaking to the 7 year old son he will never see grow up, hoping to share a reflective life. My sister in law Jeannie recommended the book to me; she said she’d found it profoundly moving and thought I might too. If you know Kent Haruf’s work, the quietness of Marilynne Robinson’s novel will remind you of that.

By happenstance I was reading Gilead just as the college admissions cheating scandal broke out, just as young Miss Olivia Jade Giannulli, a beneficiary of the scam, was on YouTube pronouncing herself uninterested in her USC education, just in the tailgating and parties and lucrative social media opportunities that are now hers as an “influencer”. College students haven’t lived long enough to have complex moral lives, but the particular vacuousness of this young woman is breathtaking.

Gilead made me think of Ana, Minga’s daughter. Ana is in her mid-60’s. She’s raised five children to adulthood. She and Raul have had their fifteen year old granddaughter Miley since infancy, raising her too. And for the last year of Minga’s life, Ana devoted herself to her mother’s care, getting up at 3am three days a week to launch her household into the day before getting Minga to dialysis on the bus well in advance of the sun coming up. Last November I asked Ana how long she could do this exhausting and emotionally draining schedule, and she said without a shred of self-pity or complaint “As long as my mother needs me.”

Ana and the narrator of Gilead share much in common: they lead richly moral lives in quiet, out of the way places with recognition from no one and little by way of financial reward.

One of the reviews of Gilead suggested that you need the underpinning of an observant Christian life to really understand the book. I don’t think so. I found the book a little slow to start, but then I got into the rhythm of it. This is the rhythm of my Iowa grandparents and aunts and uncles who gathered on the farm for Sunday dinner after church. Nothing much happened, after the hard physical labor of the week. Sunday was the day to rest, to be present, to share a meal, to honor each other’s good and decent lives.

I wish Olivia Jade could get off the USC trustee’s yacht in the Bahamas and into a book like Gilead, which they might even teach in an English Lit class at the university, were she to bother attending.

Gilead isn’t a new book, but it’s available on Kindle. Highly recommend.

Choosing Green Book

I can understand why Spike Lee was incensed that the vanilla version of race relations in Green Book was chosen Best Picture over Lee’s grittier BlacKkKlansman. James Baldwin, he of If Beale Street Could Talk fame, would have been incensed too if he were still with us.

I thought both BlacKkKlansman and If Beale Street Could Talk were searing, powerful, humbling, frightening. If we  moviegoers are going to seek out a cinematic window into black experience, maybe we should make room for the black writers and directors who can give us that window firsthand, and not go for the Driving Miss Daisy version just because it’s easier for white people to swallow.

The Academy missed by a country mile on this one, trying to soften the story for its still majority white audiences.

Edie Falco’s Greatest Act

I don’t watch a ton of TV, but I loved the mob drama The Sopranos, now celebrating the 20th anniversary of its completion on HBO. Part of it has to do with the fact that many of the mob scenes were filmed in my home town of Kearny, New Jersey. Tony’s family scenes were in the more upscale suburb of North Caldwell. Satriale’s Pork Store, the site of many mob meetings and the early-in-the-series murder of Emil Kolar — whose name Christopher pronounces as “Email” — is right next to my grandmother’s house on Kearny Avenue. When the camera angle was right, I could see her house, three identical flats one on top of the other, and St. Cecelia’s Church up the street and the firehouse right next door. The Sopranos feels to this day like my home-town drama, and it’s the biggest thing Kearny ever had going for it.

This complex moral drama had a host of powerhouse actors, including James Gandolfini as Tony, Lorraine Bracco as Dr. Melfi, and Edie Falco as Tony’s wife Carmela. According to Lizzie Feidelson, writing for the New Yorker, Edie Falco takes the prize.

Falco’s performance as Carmela Soprano, the sharp, bejewelled wife of the mobster Tony Soprano, had a wholeness and an independence to it; it was never defined by Gandolfini and her other scene partners, however excellent they were. Especially when crying, Falco was virtuosic. I recently rewatched “The Sopranos”—as many fans were inspired to do as the show marked its twentieth anniversary, this January—and I was struck again by Falco’s ability to make herself, through fleeting expressions of sentimental piety or grief, the linchpin of the show’s explorations of moral frailty.”

I first saw Edie Falco in the 1999 Indie film Judy Berlin. The Sopranos began on HBO that same year, January 1999, and ended in June of 2007. Falco’s subsequent major role as Nurse Jackie on Showtime ran from June of 2009 until June of 2015.  Since then she’s been on Broadway, and won another Emmy nomination for her role in Law and Order: True Crime. This is a hard working actress.

I thought all of the acting in The Sopranos was incredible, and so did the people who give out things like Emmy, Golden Globe, and SAG awards. But I have to agree: Edie Falco is brilliant. Her best work was in The Sopranos, and if you don’t yet know Carmela Soprano, you should.

Reading Michelle Obama

For Christmas a friend gave me Michelle Obama’s new book Becoming. I didn’t take it to Panama, as it’s the hard cover print edition and weighs a lot more than my Kindle. I’m deep into in now, and relishing the read.

Atlantic reviewer Hannah Giorgis has a phrase about Michelle Obama that encapsulates our former First Lady’s entire life: conspicuous excellence.

Barack Obama chose politics and the minute scrutiny and public judgment that follows. Michelle Obama didn’t. But she took the conspicuous excellence of her life up to that point and created an iconic model of what a First Lady might be. Hard not to contrast the rich family life and warm public welcome to the White House that the First Lady created with what we have now: a pinched, angry president roaming the White House alone and Melanie barely to be seen. No cultural events. No welcoming school children, or speaking up for the education of girls around the globe. No anything, really.

I am continually amazed that the Republican family values crowd loves the morally vacuous Trumps, and was withering — and often overtly racist — in its criticism of the Obamas. Remember the West Virginia woman who called Michelle Obama an “ape in heels”? Or the Wisconsin Congressman who said Mrs. Obama had a “big butt”?

The Obamas were and are surrounded by a strong network of family and black professional friends. I always thought that part of what enraged the people who became Trump’s base was the Obamas’ ease with who they are. They don’t try to act white or pass or get along in white culture. One of my Iowa relatives included me on an email chain that derided Michelle Obama as “uppity” — until I asked firmly to be taken off my cousin’s distribution list. The Make America White Again crowd tolerates, barely, blacks who signal subservience and a desire to fit in. People like my cousin, a woman you’d find gracious and lovely if you met her, are infuriated by the slightest whiff of whatever constitutes “uppity” for them.

I hope we haven’t seen the end of Michelle Obama’s public life, although I’m sure it won’t include a run for public office. I hope she keeps on being uppity, out there, speaking up and speaking out. I’ll be fascinated to see how she and former President Obama, who are still quite young for a post-presidency, yet again create new lives.

And I hope she writes another book.