Escaping the election (intermittently)

In this political season, we're happy when anyone even partially keeps a promise. That's what the Weather Channel is doing today (Election Day), until midnight ET,.

The channel promised a "election escape"; for nine hours, it would have nothing but pretty nature pictures and soft music.

Well, sort of, It still has the "local on the 8's" weather reports... and packs lots of commercials around that. But the rest of the time does, indeed, having nothing but soothing sights and sounds. As this nasty election ends, we really need that.


Election Day -- a cheery thought

It's Election Day now, a time for optimism to return and a cloud of campaign rage to fade. My own spirits were boosted on Friday, when I cast my absentee ballot.

Sitting in the spot next to me was a woman who is 99-and-a-half years old. I don't know how she voted, but I do know this: During the first 4 years of her life, women didn't have the right to vote; now she had a ballot in front of her that included a woman as a major-party candidate for president.

What I do know is that the person at the township clerk's office asked her, as required, if she is 60 or older. She seemed quite pleased with the question; also, it was the first time in a while that she's been required to show some ID.



Silenced? What doesn't kill you makes this "Stronger"

By Mike Hughes

Fate suddenly
introduced Jasmine Spiess to the notion of silence.

That's not her
natural state. Still, she said it helped her acting. “It makes you
a better listener.”

Proof of that comes
with “Stronger,” a beautifully acted short at the East Lansing
Film Festival. One actress (Juliet O'Brien) talks furiously, the
other (Spiess) says nothing; both project passionately.

Actors often fall
into two extremes – quick and personable or quiet and inward.
Spiess clearly is the former, as she demonstrated at a film-festival

She grew up in a
small Wisconsin town near Janesville and tried a musical-theater
career. “Then New York just happened to me,” she said.

And the music? “I
still sing,” she said. “I do a lot of opera; I do Venezuelan folk
songs – don't ask.” Twice, she was even in a group singing David
Letterman's top-10.

Then vocal surgery
left her with two weeks of silence ... which could have complicated
her acting-class exercises. A classmate, Juliet O'Brien, suggestes
“The Stronger,” a one-scene play.

That was written in
1889 by August Strindberg. (“So you know it's going to be a
feel-good story,” Spiess jokes.) Accidentally meeting at a cafe are
two women who have had a past and a romance in common. One ranges
from charm to rage; the other has increasingly pained silence.

The story has become
an opera, several filmed shorts and a portion of Ingmar Bergman's
“Persona.” And after the class went well, the actresses decided
to film it again.

Victor Kaufold, a
playwright married to O'Brien, created the 12-minute adaptaton; Chris
Coats directed skillfully. The actresses returned to their extreme
characters. “Between scenes, I would be talking all the time,”
Spiess said. “She was the opposite, very quiet.”

Well, it's a taxing
role, leaving you wondering which character is really the stronger.

-- “Stronger,”
one of eight shorts shown at 9 p.m. Monday (Nov. 7) at Studio C in

-- Another package
of eight shorts is at 4 p.m. Monday.

-- This is the
second showing for both at the East Lansing Film Festival, which
continues through Thursday; see previous blog for more details and a
glance at documentaries




Want a good yarn? Try "Yarn" or "Obit" or more

By Mike Hughes

I don't really go to
many Icelandic movies. Or movies about knitting, Maybe that's a
personal flaw.

But there I was at
“Yarn,” an Icelandic film about knitting. There were only three
other men there, along with lots of women, some of them knitting
while they waited. And I enjoyed myself.

That was at the East
Lansing Film Festival, which now goes into its second phase. One
portion (campus screenings at Michigan State University) is done, but
another (at the Studio C theaters in Okemos, plus an extra screening
in East Lansing) continues through Sept. 10. I'll include the key
info at the end of this blog.

The festival is
strong on documentaries, founder Susan Woods said at the filmmaker
forum, and they're not like ones in the old days. “They used to
have a lot of talking heads – and they were dull.”

Not any more. Two
films that particularly impressed me – and will be shown again --

-- “Yarn,” which
travels to five countries to see knitting at its extreme. We see a
“yarn graffiti artist,” a pop-up protest gallery, a giant knitted
play structure; we even see a knitted mermaid suit go underwater in
shark territory. Mixed in are gorgeous pictures, Icelandic music,
catchy animation, beautiful closing titles and author Barbara
Kingsolver's elegant essay on knitting.

-- “Obit,” which
has less visual flair, but great content. It's a fascinationg look at
the people who brilliantly mold the New York Times obituaries when
someone dies ... and, often, prepare preliminary versions long before
that. One such advance was done for a daring, 18-year-old stunt
pilot, when people were sure she would die; she did ... 78 years

There have been lots
of other documentaries at the festival. During the forum, Woods
chatted with three regional filmmakers:

-- Jordan Mederich,
whose feature-length “Church of Felons” looks at my home state's
leadership: “Wisconsin is the most addicted state in the country,”
he said. His film ranged from alcoholism to a meth raid. “They told
me, 'Just stand behind somebody in body armor.'”

-- Troy Hale, an MSU
faculty member who made the 22-minute “Missing Moon Rocks.” It
all started, he said, when he learned that many of the rocks simply
disappeared. “One ended up in a landfill.”

-- John Otterbacher,
whose “Officially Limited” started as a look at movie posters and
expanded to a look at copyrights and more. Along the way, he decided
that a strictly journalistic approach isn't what a documentary film
is about. “It's about perspective; it's about character arc.”

What's left at the

-- Studio C, $10.50,
$8 for seniors and matinees, $5 for college students.

-- “Yarn” is 4
p.m. Tuesday (election day, Nov. 8); “Obit” is 4 p.m. Thursday.

-- Other
documentaries: “Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise,” 4 p.m. Sunday
(Nov. 6) and 6:30 p.m. Tuesday; “Harry & Snowman,” 6:30 p.m.
Sunday and Wednesday”; “House Without Snakes” and “Why Can't
I Be a Sushi?” 2 p.m. Sunday; “Jackson,” 4 p.m. Wednesday;
“Equal Means Equal,” 9 p.m. Wednesday; “The Last Laugh,” 9
p.m. Thursday.

-- And a few
scripted films: The splendid “Call Me Crazy,” 9 p.m. Sunday; the
Oscar-nominated “Embrace of the Serpent,” 6:30 p.m. Monday;
“Ceresia,” 9 p.m. Tuesday; and “A Man Called Ove,” 6:30 p.m.,

ALSO: One screening
has been added, at an alternate site. The involving documentary “Walk
With Me: The Trials of Damon J. Keith” was sold out as the festival
opener; now it will be repeated at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Hannah
Community Center, 819 Abbott Road, East Lansing. Tickets -- $8, $5
for students and seniors – go on sale at 6.

At 94, Norman Lear savors a victory lap through the TV world he changed

Norman Lear's impact on TV has been enormous. He turned a timid medium into a place for big emotions and strong ideas. And now, at 94, he's enjoying it. PBS' "American Masters" special is -- like his autobiography -- smart, entertaining and well-crafted. Here's the story I sent to papers: 

By Mike Hughes

Norman Lear grew up
in a world of big dreams and broken promises.

“My father ... was
going to make and have a million dollars in 10 days to two weeks, all
his life,” he recalled. “And, of course, he didn't come close.”

His father kept
chasing dreams that were impossible ... except that Lear surpassed
them. He's “a television hero,” said Michael Kantor, whose
“American Masters” profiles him. He had:

-- Business success.
For the 1974-75 season, the Nielsen ratings put Lear shows at No. 1
(“All in the Family), 2 (“Sanford and Sons”), 4 (“Jeffersons”),
7 (“Good Times”) and 9 (“Maude”).

-- Social and
industry impact. The timid TV world was suddenly talking about
bigotry, war, abortion, drugs, religion and the widening generation

All of this comes
from someone who didn't have a successful role model.

His father, he said,
kept spinning grand promises. He “believed it and he leaned into
life that way. He lied. He cheated ... But he was alive and I loved
that lust for life.”

Lear was 9 when his
dad went to prison for selling phony stocks, 12 when his dad got out,
instantly promised the boy a year-long vacation for his bar mitzvah.

Instead, Lear often
supported himself, holding three jobs on Coney Island. He left
college to fight in World War II, then became a press-agent in
New York. Ed Simmons, a family friend, wanted to try writing and
asked Lear to join him; they clicked quickly.

“I was doing live
televison,” Lear, 94, recalled. He was "there from Day One of
the Martin-and-Lewis 'Colgate Comedy Hour.' We did Jack Haley .... a
Bobby Darin special, Danny Kaye special, Jack Benny special .... We
did an Andy Williams variety show. Everything we were doing was

Those didn't bring
big money, though. Then a friend told him about profits from “I
Married Joan” reruns. Lear's response: “I said, I gotta do a
situation comedy.'”

That's when someone
showed him a British show about a right-wing guy whose left-wing
son-in-law was living with him. The characters were funny ... but
nasty. “I wouldn't wish to work with totally unlikable characters,”
Lear said.

So his Archie and
Edith Bunker – as played by Carroll O'Connor and Jean Stapleton –
had warmth.

Still, there was
hesitance. “ABC made the pilot .... They owned it for two years
(and) asked me to make it again. I made the same script, ... the same
leads, but the two young people were different.”

That remake – now
with Rob Reiner and Sally Struthers – was still rejected by ABC.
CBS took over ... hesitated about which episode to air first ... and
then did it Lear's way.

“All in the
Family” would spend its first five years at No. 1 and three more in
the top 12. Lear kept adding more shows ... which complicated things
for Rachel Grady, as she crafted the “Masters” film.

“I think he did
over 1,000 hours in the '70s,” she said. It's “an embarrassment
of riches.”

And then Lear walked
away from it. With six shows on the air – and working constantly --
he put someone else in charge. He spent time with his family and on
social issues. He created People For the American Way; he bought and
toured with one of the first copies of the Declaration of Independence. “I
think of myself as a bleeding-heart conservative,” he said. “As
early as I can remember, ... I was in love with those things that
guaranteed freedom.”

Lear did return to
TV, with mixed success. But now comes his victory tour –
celebrations of the man who changed television. “Norman is
incredibly busy,” Kantor said. At 94, “he's done more events in
the last year than I think I've attended my whole life.”

And he savors it. As
the title of his book (Penguin Press, 2014) says: “Even This I Get
to Experience.”

Masters: Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You,” 9-10:30 p.m.
Tuesday (Oct. 25), PBS