Monday, November 29, 2010

We Need Leslie Nielsen, a Hero for These Challenging Times

Okay, so I was in an airport in Boston maybe 30 years ago, waiting for my plane. I had gone for a job interview, and when it was over, I called my wife, Marie, and told her how it went.
When I got off the phone, I was wandering the concourse when I looked over and saw a crowd of people staring at a man who was sitting alone. He was tall, grey-haired and pretty handsome. It was Leslie Nielsen, star of the movie Airplane! and the TV show Police Squad.
People were just looking at him, poking each other and not doing anything in particular. But no one was talking to him. I thought What the Hell, and I walked up to him and stuck out my hand.
"Mr. Nielsen, I know you have no idea who I am, but my name is Pat Rocchi, and I just wanted to tell you how much I enjoy your movies and how much pleasure you have brought into my life."
He was taken aback at this. I don't know if it was the audacity I had to just walk up to him and tell him how much I liked him or if it was the frank admiration of his work. He gathered himself for a moment before he rose and said, "Well, thank you; thank you very much.'
He paused for a moment and, groping for something to say, he told me, "You know we have a new Police Squad movie coming out." He was referring to his then-upcoming film, The Naked Gun.
Being a movie buff and a fan of the TV show, I was aware that it had been in production. "Yes, I was aware that you were working on it. How is it?" (Such a small-talk thing to say, as though he would respond with, "It sucks. Don't go see it.")
His eyes lit up. "It's very funny, very funny. I think you'll enjoy it." In fact, I did. It is still none of my favorite comic movies of all time, just for the sheer silliness of it.
I had to ask him about his foray into comedy at a later part in his career. "Mr. Nielsen, I remember you as the Swamp Fox (an old Disney show about the American rebel, Francis Marion), and you were always so upright and serious. How do you like this new role in comedy?"
With that, he broke into a big, broad, absolutely sincere smile. "I love it," he said, quickly adding with a sly wink, "I like being dumb and stupid for people!"
We exchanged a few more pleasantries and, not wishing to overstay my welcome, I shook his hand and thanked him for his time. But one thing disappointed me. "You know, I just got off the phone with my wife, and she is also a big fan. She will never believe I met you."
He thought for a moment and then said, "Well, let's see if we can convince her." With that, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a handful of change. I was thinking, "Will he give me a quarter, and I must tell Marie that it came from Leslie Nielsen?" But he poked around the objects from his pocket, and pulled out a lapel pin that was a replica of the badge he wore in his TV show, Police Squad. He handed it to me and said, "Here. Give that to your wife, and she will know that you met me."
I was incredulous, gratified and delighted, all at once. I shook his hand again, laughing, and said, "Well thank you very much, Mr. Nielsen. I will always treasure it."
And I have. Never more than I do today. I wear it occasionally to an event just as a conversation starter, and the story never fails to get a laugh, as well as some appreciation for Mr. Nielsen's graciousness that day. He really has given me a lot of enjoyment over the years through his work, but that little encounter with me, an average fan of no particular import, makes me remember him very specially. I'm glad we had him, and I will miss him. Thank goodness for the permanence of film and video.
By the way, if you can, I suggest you search for the six-episode series of Police Squad on video, either streaming or by purchasing the DVDs. As my personal friend Leslie Neilsen told me, "It's very funny, very funny."
Leslie Nielsen died on Sunday, November 29, 2010, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., of complications from pneumonia. He was 84 years old.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

127 Hours -- More Than a Disarming Film

Many years, someone I knew who had seen The Deer Hunter, Michael Cimino's Oscar-winning film allegory on Vietnam, was asked what it was about. "Oh, it's about a soldier who blows his brains out," was the succinct reply.

Well, actually no, The Deer Hunter was about much more than that, if one cared to analyze it beyond the obvious. But many films over the years have become known for a single aspect or scene (think "Bob&Carol&Ted&Alice" or "Portnoy's Complaint"), overlooking the work's deeper attributes.

There is a similar shorthand about a film currently on the local screens. Danny Boyle's 127 Hours tells the story of Aron Ralston (shown above), an adventurous hiker and outdoorsman whose arm is pinned between a canyon wall and a rock. He is trapped there for several days until he rescues himself in a most agonizing, courageous and unthinkable way.

I will skip the obvious story detail for now. I want to tell you instead about how the film begins, with Ralston's hurried exit from his job and his home to go off into his own little world, the outside world of rocks and trails and pools of water. In this beginning, Ralston encounters a couple of young women hiking the same Utah rock formations that he is. Ralston introduces them to a shimmering underground pool that they would not have found without him. Yes, this is Aron's world, a world that exists only in the exterior. The pool is cool and deep. Aron, on the other hand, appears to be quite shallow.

Soon after leaving the girls, Aron fins himself in his dilemma. He climbs into a deep crevice. He first tests the footing of a rock at the entrance. It seems secure under his feet -- after all, as he had observed earlier, these rocks had been there for millions of years. But as the poet Robert Burns noted, the best-laid plans of mice, men and climbers gang aft agley. The rock falls into the crevice and improbably traps him against the wall by his arm. He is stuck there for days, facing a seemingly certain death, until he frees himself by cutting off his arm -- as it turns out, ingeniously so -- with a painfully dull knife.
This is the plot turn that everyone seems to know. However, if you go to see this film -- and I heartily recommend that you do -- jus for this spectacle, you may overlook the real genius of Danny Boyle's film-making. Boyle's masterpiece and best-known work, Slumdog Millionaire, took viewers on a breakneck view of life in the slums of India. In 127 Hours, Boyle instead takes us on an inward journey of a man who had focused only on the Great Outwards. With his subject confined to a single space, the camera and the screenplay are forced to look at Ralston and his somewhat self-made jail. We learn from Ralston's ruminations about how he has neglected others in his life: The mother whose phone message he ignored. The ex-girlfriend who presciently said that he would be a lonely man one day. The co-worker who was only a blip on Ralston's self-absorbed radar. Ironically, his self-centeredness helped trap him, as other people may have known where he was if he had only reached out to them.
Ever-resourceful, Ralston uses his tools to survive and perhaps even document his ordeal. He records his travails on his video camera, creating a message to his parents, telling them (perhaps for the first time?), that he loves them, just in cse he doesn't survive this ordeal. He scratches his name on the canyon wall, perhaps believing that he would indeed escape this situation.
The smallest conveniences become a treat for him. He comes to appreciate a daily 15-minute does of sunshine on his leg as though he is feeling it for the first time. He looks forward to the daily flight path of an eagle, one of his few companions even over his head. All of these reactions are captured in James Franco's nuanced portrayal of Ralston, a performance that is a revelation of this talented young actor.
But when he rewinds his video camera, Ralston gets a glimpse of what he may have been missing in his life. The girls left a message for him at the pool on his video camera, and he learns that they could see through him almost as soon as they met him. It is an insight he himself has never had.
The actual escape scene is enthralling. Yes, many of us have heard that people fainted in theaters at the sight of Ralston's amputation. However, it is entirely tasteful and artful. Through the use of prosthetics and the craft of film-making (the sound of Ralston's escape may shock you more than the sight of it), Boyle tells you all you need to know about the amputation.
Roger Ebert in his own review that 127 Hours is "an exercise in conquering the unfilmable." That is true in so many ways. While Boyle captures the vast beauty of the expanses of Utah, he also narrows his focus to the small space that Aron Ralston occupies, and then goes even more deeply into the soul of a troubled man who finds his way out of more than one confinement. It is a breath-taking cinematic achievement.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Where Have I Been?

Wow! It's nearly two months since my last blog post. I have been beset mostly by overwork since then, and it raises a reverse important philosophical question: If a Blogger doesn't make a sound, is it because s/he got lost in the forest?
Seriously, I have been much more productive in my work in 2010, having help guide a health care organization through its messaging, contributed to a hospital system's accreditation application, served as COO of my acappella singing group, and in the course of all this, I produced ONE QUARTER of the posts that I did in the previous year. Does this mean I have less to say, and therefore less to contribute?
I have to admit that the answer is yes. Put simply, I am not thinking as much as I had. I have reflected less on all the issues that surround all of us. Oh, some things bubbled to the surface. I was absolutely outraged by the way Andrew Breitbart ambushed Shirley Sherrod. The mid-term elections were shameful in their cacophony, and the bullying of gays and others upset me very much, as it reminded us of how defenseless we all may be. But mostly, I was too preoccupied to feel that I had much to contribute.
I also forgot the mantra for all writers: ALWAYS BE WRITING! I had lost my discipline (or my energy?) to put something, ANYthing down on paper or the ether just to stay in the practice of writing. Sure, I was doing that for my clients, but not for you, dear friends, and I missed it. (I HOPE you also missed me.)
I promise that 2011 will be different. I have a few things on my docket that will give me the opportunity to stay in touch. For example, I hope to finish my second book in the new year, and that will be on organizational communication. Second, 2011 is the centenary of Marshall MacLuhan, probably the greatest communication philosopher of all time. I intend to honor him throughout the year.
Finally, I plan to return to Italy to visit my family. That means brushing up on my Italian, which I learned only a few years ago (and even then, I was speaking on an elementary level). That should contain more than enough fodder on communication.
In retrospect, I am happier that I didn't just babble on these last few months just for the sake of writing. I believe that I will have much more to say that is worthwhile.
Just promise you'll let me know if I'm incorrect. ;-)