22 November 2014

“Birdman:” On Being Relevant

By: Jon Katz
"Birdman:" On Being Relevant

"Birdman:" On Being Relevant

We went out to see the movie "Birdman" last night, it is an incredible movie,  wonderfully acted and written and technically dazzling. It is the best movie I've seen in a long time, getting amazingly good and well-deserved reviews. It made me laugh and cry and I suppose one reason for that is the theme: our hero, played by Keaton, is a mostly forgotten former superhero looking for a comeback, he puts everything he owns into a Broadway play based on a Raymond Carter book of stories: "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love."

Keaton plays the aging Riggon Thompson, and while I rooted for him every second to pull off his play and his comeback, I should say that he is not a very nice man much of the time, although there is a sweetness buried down in there. If the movie has one single theme, it might be relevance, and this is an issue I identify with strongly, it is also a theme of my life.

I am aging also, and while I was never anything close to being a movie star or superhero, I also used to get driven around in limousines and taken to lavish lunches by my publishers and editors (it is unusual to even speak to them anymore.) I have struggled with relevance in my own life (I am, as you know, organizing my own book tour this year, my publisher didn't come to the party). I have felt the frustration, even rage, that Thompson (who once was "Birdman") feels and worked just as hard to be relevant and successful.

It was interesting to consider relevance after seeing this film. I started the blog to be relevant, published e-books to be relevant, started taking photos to be relevant, have 21,000 likes on Facebook to be relevant. I don't really know if I am still relevant or not, but I want to be and am always working on my transition from being an almost automatic New York Times Bestseller (five times) to an author working hard to get to a small third printing.

Being a relevant movie star in late-middle-age is a lot tougher than being a relevant writer, I think. The character Keaton plays is called "asshole" by almost everyone in his life – his daughter, ex-wife, lover, best friend. He has been unfaithful, dishonest and insensitive, even cruel. But he has never really addressed the nature of his life, or the many problems and troubles he brings to it.

It made me think quite a bit about my different decisions. I realized five or six years ago that I had no real life outside of my work, and I saw that the recession and the collapse of traditional publishing models would definitely affect my relevance. So I decided to get help and change my life, and face up to the many problems I had had for many years, problems that also damaged and hurt other people.

Beyond that, I began to be older in a culture that does not much value age, beyond worrying about how much old people cost. I know a lot of older writers, and all of them struggle with relevance, it is a part of our culture.

I decided that if I were going to be less relevant I would at least have a life I loved to live, rather than one that required becoming a Valium addict in order to sleep and stay alive and in perpetual panic and delusional haze. And so it began to happen, I ended a 35-year-marriage, found Maria, gave up Valium and panic and began to understand the true nature of me. It was not pretty and not pleasant – the people in my love called me an asshole quite often also. But I am better and working at being better still. Nobody has called me a name in awhile.

Still, just as his Birdman-personal gets into his head (he hears voices) and follows him around, so my ego gets into my head and follows me. Will the next book be another big one? Will I be flown around in first-class seats and driven around in big cars? Will I be swamped with requests for TV and NPR interviews ever again? Or are those days gone for good? We will see.

I was successful in at least one thing:  I love my life, am finding love, friendship and connection. Is there anything more valuable in the world than that? These things make the issue of relevance and money much less important. I kept wanting to urge the Keaton character to worry less about his career and more about his shattered personal life.

Still, I want to be relevant. My blog gets about four million visits a year, I am still writing and publishing books, and people are still buying them and liking them,  people ask me to do photo shows. But there is not much TV, few interviews, there are no longer big royalty checks or limousines. Tomorrow, I head to the Wilton, Conn., library  to speak on my own hook, there is a certain freedom and satisfaction in that. I knew my book was in trouble when my publisher passed along the invitation to speak at the library but informed me in a short e-mail that this time, no money had been budgeted for travel, food or gas. Have fun, they said.

I have a new publisher, they say they love book tours.

Okay, I think every time my ego quivers,  time for grace and determination.

Being relevant is important to me, liking myself and my life is more important. Maybe I can have both. We'll see. I am working hard on it. Whether you are relevant or not, I highly recommend "Birdman."

One of the lessons of life is that we will all be irrelevant at one point or another in one way or another. My life with animals teaches me acceptance. If I can't change the nature of life, I can at least be gracious about it.

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George Goes Imax: New Screen For The Forss Theater Of The Arts

By: Jon Katz
New Screens

New Screens

My friend George Forss, the world famous photographer, has gone Imax in his "George Forss Theater Of The Arts," he was driving along Route 62 and he saw a giant screen (left) with a "free" sign on it in front of a house. He pulled over and grabbed it, and he repaired it, more or less. It only shows films in yellow, but George believes in small steps Today's theater showing was a documentary on the last Yiddish Theater in New York City. Once there were a score or more, now there is one.

George loves this documentary, it touches his artistic heart and soul in so many ways. He called me up to invite me today, he says he loves the movie show much he is showing it for two consecutive weeks. I came over for a sneak preview, I couldn't stay for the whole documentary this week, I will be there next week at 2:30. The public is welcome, and George serves water and popcorn, and if the crowd is big enough, turns on the heater (not so lucky today.) I love the three screen affect and George uses a shepherd's crook (above) to turn on his speakers, there are fourteen, all salvaged from dumps and garbage cans, that form George's wall of "Surround Sound," as he puts it.

One of the many great things about George is that he couldn't be happier with his theater if it were Lincoln Center. His art is for him, he is as pleased if I am the only attendee as if there were a million people.

I love George, he calls every morning but I am often out doing farm chores or writing, so we connected and agreed that we missed each other. I think I'll take him to see "Interstellar," he might be able to make sense of the plot. The George Forss Theater Of The Arts grows and evolves every week. A major cultural institution in these parts.

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Beautiful Portrait, Ma. Life Itself

By: Jon Katz
Beautiful Portrait, Ma

Beautiful Portrait, Ma

I apologize to anyone who might be disturbed by this somewhat graphic portrait of Ma, just a few seconds after her death. I decided to put it up on my blog for several reasons, even though I mostly put up photos that I believe will touch and inspire.

First off, it is, to me, a beautiful portrait. The color of the blood was startlingly red – I did not enhance it in any way, and so, in her own way, was Ma, more beautiful in death, perhaps, than she was in life.

Secondly, because there is a great schism in America between people who have pets and people who own animals. As I have both, I often write and photograph on the boundaries between the two worlds. I take endearing and hopefully beautiful photographs of dogs and cats, but also grittier photographs, those that show the real lives of real animals.

People often write me and say I have a perfect live, they want to live on a farm, and a farm is a wonderful thing to have, but it is, of course, not a perfect life, there is no such thing and I would not want one if there were. A farm is life itself, and that means death itself as well. Mortality is not a remote and surprising thing here, we learn about it all the time.

If more people understood the real lives of horses, for example, the New York Carriage Horses would not be in peril, threatened with removal from their safe and secure lives because so many people do not understand what their lives are really like, or that work for them is a salvation, not a torture.

And finally, because I am a writer and an artist, and I feel compelled to share what touches me. I am not casual about killing things, especially the animals in my care, but I have come to see and believe that killing is sometimes the most humane and compassionate thing an animal lover can do. I think of all those dogs kept alive for months and years in pain because of the selfishness of their humans and I think of those dogs who spend years confined in crates because people use them to feel good about themselves. So this photo touched me, especially since I was the one who did the killing here.

There is this troubling idea in the animal world that one shows their love of animals by keeping them alive at all costs and by any means, and this morning, we showed our love for Ma by releasing her from days and weeks of pain simply because it would have made us – perhaps others – feel good. For me, that is not compassion, it is more the narcissistic arrogance of human beings dealing with animals.

I showed this photograph to Maria and others, and they all suggested it might make people uncomfortable, did I really need to put it up.? Yes, I did need to put it up, it turns out. Something inside of me told me so.

We need a wiser and more mystical understanding of animals and this morning, once again, Maria and I talked with an animal on the edge of life, and knew what we needed to do.

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Back To Nature

By: Jon Katz
Back To Nature

Back To Nature

Animals do not need the rituals and ceremony of humans, as Ma was being unceremoniously loaded into Jack Macmillan's truck, her lamb and the other sheep were already off grazing. By this evening, she will have never existed for them. Still, they were attached to one another in their own way. Animals are our partners, they share the joys and travails of the earth. We prefer that our animals be returned to nature, Ma will feed a lot of animals out in the deep woods, where Jack Macmillan took her. I started to help lift Ma, but was chased off. People don't quite yet accept that I can lift pretty much anything

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Maria’s Goodbye

By: Jon Katz
Maria's Goodbye

Maria's Goodbye to Ma

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