Tuesday, January 5, 2016

The Danish Girl and Spotlight

This weekend I saw two fine films at the old-fashioned movie house in Athens, Ohio. The first, The Danish Girl, starring Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander, imaginatively retells the story of Einar and Gerda Wegener, Copenhagen painters from the 1920s. Einar adopts the persona of a woman he calls Lili Elbe and gradually comes to realize that he is, in fact, a woman trapped inside a man's body. He becomes one of the first transgendered people after undergoing sex-change surgery in the early 1930s.

Gerda sketching.

Though based on a real story, the movie displays as a fantasia. Every scene is gorgeous, often filmed with the faint haze of an Impressionist painting or backlit by a golden glow. Copenhagen, with its fishing boats and tiled roofs, is unutteraby lovely, as is marbled and chanderliered Paris. The people in the movie look beautiful and appear in opulent clothes as they float through parties and art openings dressed in velvets, sequins and silk scarves with beautiful prints. Breathtaking art nouveau designs fill the rooms, along with exquisite white tulle ballet gowns and half finished canvases. Downton Abbey looks pedestrian in contrast (of of course has a "downstairs" of servants and at least superficial bit of toil).

 If the filming is lush, the film's characters are also drawn unabashedly bigger-than-life, reminding me of Peter Jackson's daring in depicting heroism in his Lord of the Rings trilogy. As a love story, The Danish Girl reminded me too of lyrical 1940s Hollywood dramas.

Stills don't entirely capture the cumulative effect of the lush, beautiful filming.  Gerda remains bigger-than-life in her  loyalty to her transgendered husband. 

Einar poses for Gerda, perhaps clutching the ballet gown with too much longing.

Like Jackson's trilogy--and Downton Abbey for that matter--this movie works, because its animating vision is clear, consistent and sustained throughout the film, and the acting quite good. I found myself caring about the bigger-than-life characters and despite myself, was moved, though it occurred to me at times that while Einar might have shed his male identity, he never, ever shed his overwhelming sense of male entitlement. Nevertheless, I craved a costume drama and this entirely satisfied that urge. I appreciated the movie for being so unabashedly the gorgeous fantasia it was. I found it not entirely escapist either, as it raised hard and intelligent questions about identity and gender, as well as the condundrums posed by art, identity and pain: in the movie, Gerda achieves depth as artist only when she begins painting Lili, whose emergence is the catalyst for the destruction of her domestic idyll, while as a woman, the talented painter Einar/Lili abandons his art and becomes a shop girl in a department store, apparently happily.

The real Lili beside the filmed version, played by Eddie Redmayne.

After The Danish Girl, we watched Spotlight, a film aiming to realistically recreate how the Boston Globe broke the story of Roman Catholic Church's systemic 40-year cover-up of  priests who sexually abused minors. Although we know how it all turned out, the blow-by-blow depiction of the story's unfolding was riveting. The movie also compellingly illustrated the damage the cover-up did, as priests the church knew to be pedophiles were allowed to continue to victimize the innocent. I would say the movie is only somewhat realistic, however, because as a former reporter I realized that the film, to combat tedium, made the reporters' tasks (drudgery) seem much easier than they would have been.

The Spotlight team--the investigative reporting unit of the Globe--meet to discuss the unfolding sex abuse story. It could be jarring to see faces familiar from tv, such as  John Slattery from Mad Men and Rachel McAdams from True Detective. 

The film pointedly questions the news media, making it clear that the Globe had the story in its hands--that is to say, pluckable--for at least decade and never bothered to put the pieces together. It was all there, hidden in plain sight, but, the film strongly implies, nobody wanted to see it. Given the extent to which corporate profit taking since 2001-02 (the time frame of the movie) has decimated, if not destroyed, many newsrooms, one can only long for the kind of funding and patience that in the end made breaking this story possible--and wonder what rampant corruption might be going on undetected today.

The story hiding in plain sight also reminded me of my Bonhoeffer research, which likewise uncovered a story hiding in plain sight. I imagine this happens more often than we think: I see it in Jane Austen studies too. As Nietzsche pointed out, we often see only what we have already decided is there; we fit our facts to our frame, not our frame to our facts.

Both these movies impressed me for their willingness to develop characters, raise difficult questions and work from an ethical framework.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Richard Menustik: Artist and people lover: 1963-2015

In late September,  my brother John called with the news: Richard, our younger brother, had been diagnosed terminal lung cancer. After the initial chemo went badly, and knowing the prognosis was dire, Richard opted out of treatment. The disease ravaged him, and he passed away on December 17, 2015.

This issue of Richard's comic book, clean dirt, merged his love of comic with his love of dinosaurs.

From an early age, Richard loved dinosaurs, comic books, and drawing. Our mother saw his artistic talent and made sure that as a child he had art lessons at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore. Our father would take him most weekends to Geppi's, a local, hole-in-the wall comic book seller: the real deal. I like to think this support and affirmation laid a foundation that helped formed the person Richard became.

Richard's dinosaurs and sense of humor.

In 1972, our family moved to Ellicott City, Maryland, to Grosvenor Drive in the brand new neighborhood of Somerset, and there Richard, called Ritchie at the time, made many lifelong friends. His friend David Cooke remembered that on first moving near us (our house faced his block) in 1974, Richard and John came to meet him. Among the first words out of Richard's mouth were: Do you have any comic books?

Richard is the little boy third from the left in the back row of this fourth-grade photo from Northfield Elementary School. 

In the late 1970s, as both John and Richard began attending Centennial High School, a group formed in the "Menustik basement." My parents gladly allowed all comers into the hangout, thinking how nice it was that kids enjoyed getting together to play games (Dungeons and Dragons) and talk. They had no idea that a party scene flourished in the paneled basement with the brown tiled floor. Life carried on one side of the basement door, in a harvest gold kitchen with classic 1970s dark wood cabinets and a shag-carpeted family room, and life down below, never the twain to meet.

Richard worked on his zombie dinosaurs all of his adult life.

Friend Jenny Wall remembered the basement as a place where teenagers found acceptance, friendships and a space to explore who they were becoming.  For David Cooke, the basement became a haven, the spot that made a transition to a new neighborhood OK, and probably the reason he stayed in Howard County for the rest of his life. It was a magical and transformative time for the people in the group, young, alive, full of energy, searching for identity, seeking and finding friendships that would last a lifetime.

During this era, John and Richard, who were exceptionally close, and others became avid Frank Zappa fans, attending many, many concerts together. They also began to embrace science fiction, especially Balticon. They loved metal and the then-vibrant Baltimore punk scene. All through this, Richard kept drawing.

John and Richard on August 1, 2009 at Merriwether Post Pavilion.

In the early 1980s, Richard attended the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) for one year, where at least one of his comic strips was published in the school paper. Then, wanting a more robust art program and art scene, and being told by his friend Curt Kronlage that Virginia Commonwealth University was a happening place, he transferred there, completing a bachelor's degree in fine arts. He moved to Baltimore for a few years after graduating, and then back to Richmond, working for M-2 Marketing.

One of Richard's comics appeared in the Retriever, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County newspaper, in the early 1980s. 

Many friends came up from Richmond for the memorial service and remembered Richard as a mainstay of the Richmond music and arts scene. He sang for a punk rock fusion band called Spooge. His college roommate became part of the metal band Gwar and Richard had some connections with the group. One friend remembered that if friends said they would come out to hear a band perform, Richard was always the one you could count on to really show up--and cheer you along the whole time. Others recalled how important he was to their lives in connecting them with other people in the Richmond art scene--or with like minded people in general. He spent his life building bridges, helping people to find community in an increasingly atomized world.

Richard worked as an extra in Steven Spielberg's period drama, Lincoln, shot in Richmond, an experience he most enjoyed.

Richard also continued art projects he had begun in college: a comic book, meticulously hand drawn, called Clean Dirt, and dinosaur illustrations that included zombie dinosaurs and a series called Dinosaurs in Richmond that put dinosaurs in various familiar spots in the city. One friend remembered the day in 1988 Richard threw a copy of Clean Dirt on the Zappa stage during a concert, and Zappa, though not prone to audience interactions, picked it up and read the title aloud.

One of Richard's Dinosaurs in Richmond series. All his life, he meticulously hand drew his work.

In spring of 2012, M-2 Marketing closing, Richard moved to Ashton, Maryland, near Howard County, and lived in a rounded silver 1960s trailer on Curt's property. He helped Curt with his landscaping business, worked at Demspey's restaurant and continued with his art. He also made friends and connected with people, and at least one remembered the silver trailer as a second home. Curt and his partner Missy and their two children became a family for Richard.

Mr. Grindstone was familiar to family and friends, appearing on t-shirts as well as playbills. 

In March 2014, John and Richard visited the Smithsonian Museum's dinosaur collection, familiar to them since earliest childhood, before it closed for a renovation. John described it as a perfect day where the weather was good and every part of the trip went smoothly. As they were leaving, Richard asked when the dinosaur exhibit would reopen: John told him 2019. Richard, as if knowing something was not right, said that he wouldn't be alive to see it.

Richard  made a deep  impression on my three children, Sophie, Nick and Will. Will and Nick are now metalheads because Richard and John gave them metal CDs--and because of Richard's enthusiasm for all things metal. Will started a metal band at Earlham College called Abdominal Residue that he hopes to resurrect, after having been a semester away in India, as Bog. At the memorial, Sophie remembered staying at John's condo one Christmas season to work at Heavenly Ham, and having a long, solo discussion with Richard in which she felt total acceptance from a person she knew she could count on for support. It became one of those magical moments of connection that come so fleetingly into life. Another friend, Beth Gilbert, noted that she and Richard talked on the phone every week.

John and Richard in the last week of Richard's life, in hospice. Richard, on morphine, is a little out of it. 

Others, including me, remember a person who never got angry at other people, though he did get angry injustices and the political system. He was an upbeat person who saw the humor in most situations, and one who accepted his death with a courage that I have never before seen. He never once complained. He told people not to mourn his passing because he had lived a good, full life on his own terms. As one person at the memorial put it, he burned his candle brightly and fast. He cared about people more than material possessions. He cared about art more than money. He lived according to his own lights. In a world not overflowing with kindness and compassion, he was one of the rare good souls, never grasping for himself but instead pouring himself out for others.

Our cousin Susanne, on the left, pictured with her mother, our Aunt Betty, attended the funeral and spread word to our ancestral village of Vrboce in Slovakia about Richard's death. They will say prayers for him there. 

John remembered after the service Richard saying about 20 years ago that he wanted Zappa's "Watermelon in Easter Hay" played at his funeral, so here is hoping for a commemorative listen to his favorite song. A 1988 version can be found at Youtube:https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=B9DqykUsqRY.

Zappa performs "Watermelon in Easter Hay"

 I invite people to add their thoughts, their corrections, their additions. This is post is only the beginning, I hope, of remembering Richard's life.