A Walk Amongst the Tombstones in Laurel Hill Cemetery

Laurel Hill 35

Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia’s East Falls’ section overlooking the Schuylkill River between Kelly and Ridge Drives is one of the oldest cemeteries in the nation.  It houses such pop culture artifacts as Veteran Stadium seats surrounding Harry Kalas’ microphone-shaped tombstone and Adriaaaaaane! Balboa’s fake grave.  It’s also the eternal resting place of numerous historical dignitaries from various wars and the Philadelphia area along with countless family plots dating back to the early 1800’s.  The gardens of the dead there are sprawling, monument-laden and fecund with stories told and untold.  It’s a perfect spot for an autumnal stroll as the towering trees sheading their brightly covered leaves under the waning sun cast a perfect light on the splendid environs.

Below are photos I captured on one such Sunday stroll.

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The Cathedral of Space and Brand Survival in Interstellar

Interstellar 3

Christopher Nolan might not be the incomparable artiste that Paul Thomas Anderson has become, the lyrical poet that Terrence Malick succeeds at being, or the rabble-rousers that the sicko David Fincher and the pop pastiche-aholic Quentin Tarantino are…but damn it, he’s the best Brand there is in Hollywood.  You know what you are getting every time you see a Christopher Nolan film, and unlike, say a Michael Bay, you should be ecstatic you’re getting it.  He’s going to entertain you and make you think while conjuring his own impossible cinematic dreams, attempt (sometimes clumsily but always admirably) to tap into a zeitgeist, dazzle you with his technical skill, twist the plot and up the dramatic ante every time he steps behind that camera.

His sprawling space opera, Interstellar, is no exception.  It is at times wondrously ridiculous and miraculously beautiful in its ambitions

In the not so distant future, food is running out from over-population and environmental calamities that have produced a new Dust Bowl.  There people are forced into farming as society has transformed from one of innovation to one of scraping by that has been branded as “caretaking.”  It is here where the widowed Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) eeks out an existence with his son and daughter, Murphy (played by Mackenzie Foy as a child and Jessica Chastain as an adult), while he dreams of his lost opportunity to be an astronaut after a test flight crash and the disbanding of NASA years earlier.  The boy has already been tested by the school system and found to be a perfect candidate to be a farmer, while the smart-as-a-whip Murphy gets suspended for bringing a book to school that teaches the Lunar landing as a fact and triumph of the human spirit, when the new consensus teaches it was Cold War propaganda (and no one should ever dream of space travel again as growing food is the only noble pursuit).

But strange things start happening.  Automatic technology (drones and plows) begin acting up.  There are gravitational anomalies happening.  And Murphy thinks there is a ghost in the farmhouse trying to deliver her a message.  It all adds up to father and daughter stumbling upon a secret base where, lo and behold, Cooper’s former professor, Dr. Brand (Michael Caine), is leading an underground NASA team that has discovered a wormhole beyond Saturn and is plotting manned voyages to search for inhabitable planets on the other side.  The very survival of the human race is dependent on their mission, and they want Coop to pilot the next one which will be headed by Dr. Brand’s own daughter, the aptly named Amelia (Anne Hathaway). Continue reading

Drinking Wine in the Valley of the Moon

Robledo Winery 3

This is the third in a three-part photo series on my recent trip to San Francisco.  Click here for Killer Views of the City or click here for photos of Muir Woods.

A tour of Sonoma County Wine Country makes for a memorable (provided you don’t drink too much) day-trip while staying in the city.  We opted for Sonoma over Napa as we read it was more bucolic and laid back…and we weren’t disappointed.  Our choice of touring companies was also spot-on.  Green Dream Tours provide guided shuttle services that will pick you up and drop you off at your hotel downtown, stop at scenic overlooks along the way, and take you to family run wineries off the beaten path.  Their shuttles are limited to 14 passengers, and are perfect anecdotes to overcrowded anonymous buses.  They really make you feel like you’re out with a group of friends, and our driver and guide, Dakshina, couldn’t have been more professional, friendly and knowledgeable.

We stopped at three wineries as well as a brief sojourn in the “city” of Sonoma, which for those comparing is a quaint town of about seven thousand people vs. Napa which has swelled to a city of over seventy thousand. Continue reading

Muir Woods: A Cathedral of Trees

Muir Woods 42

This is the second in a three-part photo series on my recent trip to San Francisco.  Click here for Killer Views of the City or click here for photos from Sonoma County..

No trip to the San Francisco Bay area is complete without a day-trip across the Golden Gate Bridge to Marin County and the famous redwoods of Muir Woods.  Word to the wise: go early (the park opens at 8am) before the throngs of tourists and locals descend and make parking and silence impossible.  We got there around 8:30am on a Saturday, and the timing was perfect for primo parking and thin crowds hiking the paths.  Another word to the wise:  the road up is winding, cliff-side, often without guard rails, and has no bike lanes but plenty of suicidal bikers competing for road space.  Once safely ensconced in the belly of the forest, the trees – amongst the tallest on earth and towering like cathedral spires – are astounding, and I could imagine Terrence Malick coming here to die and be buried so he can forever be under sunlight streaming through treetops.

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San Francisco: City of Killer Views

Marin Headlands View 5

This is the first in a three-part photo series on my recent trip to San Francisco.  Click here for photos of Muir Woods or click here for photos from Sonoma County.

San Francisco is one of those cities that flaunts convention and tempts fate.  The bay, the fault line that promises destruction, the fog, the jutting and tempestuous hills…it’s a city that by normal rights shouldn’t exist (much like two of my other favorite cities: Amsterdam and New Orleans).  But when you’re there, you can see why people refuse to leave and continue rebuild and adapt.  Iconic bridges (with the Golden Gate straddling into Marin County and the Bay Bridge connecting the city to Oakland), impossible hills, beautiful architecture, a temperate quasi-Mediterranean climate, and views to kill for make San Francisco the most beautiful city I have visited in North America to date.  You simply can’t understand the insanity of the views until you see them for yourself…and although I’ve tried…no pictures can really do them justice.  No wonder this is the city where hippies are eternal, the most daring of bicyclists flock, homeless people retire, and real estate prices soar higher than the headlands.

The following spots we found to be the best bets for leaving you gobsmacked:

  1. The view from the Marin Headlands scenic outlooks – just over the other side of the Golden Gate Bridge one can tempt fate and precipitously winding roads to end up at the top of the Marin Headlands (which moved upwards a full 40 feet after the 1989 earthquake) where along the way you can see exposed tectonic plates and once parked can enjoy nose-bleed, windblown-hair views of the bridge, bay, and city beyond.
  2. The view from atop Twin Peaks – right in the city proper not far from the Presidio and Golden Gate Park is this outlook that can be easily reached by car and will shock you with its amazing view of the city spread out below.
  3. The view from inside Top of the Mark – this swanky but laid-back old-school bar on the top floor of a swell hotel will give you the best building-top views in the city and is the perfect spot for a drink at twilight.

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Your Spin: Uber Wagner

Wagner Quote

It’s that time again to put The Spin your hands!  The topic this round: The Greatest Piece of Richard Wagner Music.

As Sam Juliano from Wonders in the Dark so eloquently mused, “Richard Wagner was a racist, an anti-Semite and a bigamist, yet he wrote some of the most extraordinarily beautiful music in the history of Western civilization.”  And it was Sam’s chatter on the facebook that spurred this post.

It got me wondering, not only about all that great music (that lends itself so eerily well to cinema) but also, “What the hell was going on in Wagner’s head?”  His music has spawned men like Adolph Hitler to score their epic and vile plans for world domination, while it left others rapt and spellbound with fevered dreams of those pearly gates.  What did Wagner see when he composed?  What inspired him?  And what lead him to spew hate while also birthing so much aural beauty, bequeathing to us an unrivaled output of operatic art that will last as long as human beings have ears to listen to his work.  There’s something both ominous and serene about his best pieces, moods that swoon to an emotional climax before bringing the listener back down from heaven (or up from hell) to solid ground where the world lays itself out before us in all its mysterious glory.  His is the stuff of both the calm and the storm, the worldly and otherworldly.

But back to the music.  I’ve left out his most recognizable pieces to the layman…The Lohengrin Bridal March  – yes, the wedding march used at almost every wedding – and Ride of the Valkyries – used so devilishly in D. W. Griffin’s hate mongering Birth of a Nation and overused since then to death.  And, yes, I’m trying to bias the vote by putting my pick at the top.  But without further adieu…the nominees: Continue reading

Movies are Life Itself

Thumbs Up! says Roger Ebert for Benji the Hunted

Thumbs Up! says Roger Ebert for Benji the Hunted

Throughout the touching and surprisingly heavier than expected bio-doc of Roger Ebert, the editors intersplice narrated snippets from some of his most potent reviews along with the inevitable scenes of arguments with Gene Siskel from their classic TV show I grew up watching.  One great sparring was from an episode where they reviewed Full Metal Jacket and Benji the Hunted.  Siskel was appalled that Ebert was giving the Kubrick film a thumbs down while recommending the Benji flick.  Ebert expertly argued (and even went as far as shaming Siskel) that you can’t compare the two.  They have to be reviewed in their own context…Benji the Hunted as a kid’s film and Full Metal Jacket as a KUBRICK (for crying out loud, one that he thought wasn’t up to snuff with the master’s best output).  I remember going to see Benji the Hunted in the theaters as a kid, and you know what…Ebert was right about the context.  I liked the Benji movie back then.  And later in life when I watched Full Metal Jacket, I loved it, but I will admit…it might be a lesser Kubrick, and I respect those who may not have connected it with it as a work of art.

And that’s what was great about Ebert and Siskel – they could argue and disagree, and it was okay…in fact, it was hoped for.  The point of going to the movies was not just to be entertained, but to get a glimpse into another person’s point of view (a director’s, a character’s, a place and moment in time alien to your own) and to find those moments of empathy…and hopefully give you something to talk about with other people.  Whether through blogging or in person with the people I experience the films with in the movie theater, talking about films (and sometimes passionately disagreeing about them) is a favorite pastime.  It’s a way to connect…to get to know yourself and hopefully someone else. Continue reading

Dave Goes Irish Part 2: Glendalough and Wicklow Mountains

Wicklow County Ireland Map

Ah, the Emerald Isle of rolling hills, bucolic villages and ancient ruins.  Away from the bustle of Dublin City, this is the Ireland most know and dream of visiting.

While visiting Dublin I took a day tour on a bus out to County Wicklow on a beautiful clear-skied sunny day (the only sunny day during my stay in Ireland) – the timing and weather was perfect.  Over the years I’ve become a mountains and lakes kind of guy…with upstate New York and western North Carolina being my favorite stateside haunts.  Ireland’s County Wicklow is like some fever-dream version of those verdant visions…the shapes more dramatic, the sheep fluffier, the lakes darker, the tall tales spun there taller, the ghosts older…full of something more ancient and fecund…and land so inspiring I couldn’t help but be touched as a wicked little short story (perhaps even a novella?) was born in my mind as I strolled the trails of Glendalough (which ooze a peacefulness coupled with that eerie sense of “other” hidden in the woods and the hills) and heard a stray sheep bleating unseen lost in some bush.  The monastic ruins in Glendalough (dating back over a thousand years) were like nothing I’ve ever seen in person and spoke of a thousand ghosts and stories.  It’s not surprising that County Wicklow has become a popular filming location with TV shows like BBC’s classic Ballykissangel and The History Channel’s The Vikings and films like The Quiet Man, Ryan’s Daughter, Saving Private Ryan, Michael Collins, Excalibur, Braveheart, and P.S. I Love You (whether actually taking place in Ireland or not) having made appropriate use of the photogenic environs.  Marvel at the mountains and lakes, the turf cutting through peat bogs and the trickling source of the River Liffey, and dream of all the stories told and untold that haunt the space. Continue reading

Dave Goes Irish Part 1: Dublin City

Dublin Map

“I wanted real adventures to happen to myself. But real adventures, I reflected, do not happen to people who remain at home: they must be sought abroad.”   – James Joyce, Dubliners

Dear Dublin,

You’re my kind of town and you’re full of contradictions.  You’re immensely walkable and compact yet your streets make no sense (at least to Americans bred on city grids) as they meander like tangled spider webs from the city center, and you’re lucky if you find any signage on the building edifices at round corners.  Thank god for the River Liffey, dividing the North and South sides and giving pilgrims their bearings for centuries.  You have no skyscrapers, the outline of your cityscape stooping to great visitors while spiked spires of churches and monuments point to the heavens.  You’re grimy and gritty and often overcast, yet when the sun makes an appearance it casts a lovely sheen on your hidden beauty.  Overall I wouldn’t cast you as a beautiful city (you wouldn’t want to be called that either), yet there are breathtaking medieval churches around every corner (topped in population only by your orgy of pubs) and heading out towards the suburbs and heather-strewn mountains of Wicklow you boast Georgian-era streets whose artfulness put Philadelphia’s Society Hill to shame.  You seem to want to jam in as many shops, pubs and whatnots into as tightly packed tenement-style spaces as possible (with only Jervis and Grafton Street shopping districts gentrified with wide boulevards), yet you luxuriate in the tranquility of St. Stephen’s Green.  Never have I seen more buses (both touring and commuter), your car traffic is thick and wicked (rivaling the “get the f*** out of my way” rudeness of NYC and where bikers dart to a fro at their own risk unlike in Amsterdam where bike lanes are the norm), and your pedestrian throngs would indicate a city three times your size, yet you claim to be a small city with a laid-back, friendly vibe (which is also true).  You have monuments and markers for everything and everyone of note spanning your over thousand-year history…for saints and writers, patriots and politicians, Vikings and Celts and Brits, beheadings and crownings, history and myth.   You love your bloody history as much as you love your sweet elixirs of whiskey and beer brewed in waters from that “black pool” from which the Vikings gave you your name.

Dublin…you’re a city so bursting with inspiration and things to do, one could never do you justice in just one trip.  I was with you long enough just to get to know you a bit, to see the hints of your charms amongst the slivers of your faults, and I saw enough to know that one day I would want to see more, more that I could never fully have because you belong to everyone and no one, to Joyce alone and to all the world.  Is it any wonder that James Joyce said, “When I die Dublin will be written in my heart”?  For was it not you that made him immortal?  Once touched by you, we all become Dubliners.  I’ll be back, my dear.  I consider myself warned.

Sincerely, Dave. Continue reading

Book to Film Adaptations I Would Love to See

2014 marks the year two of my favorite novels will finally reach the silver screen:  the oddly still kept under wraps adaptation of Ron Rash’s Serena (from Oscar-winning director Susanne Bier and staring Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper), and Saul Dibb’s Oscar-baiting adaptation of Irene Nemirovsky’s Suite Francaise (well- cast with Michelle Williams and Kristen Scott Thomas).  Which made me think…what other recent or favorite reads are ripe for cinematic plucking?

Heart of a Tiger by Herschel Cobb -

Ty Cobb Sliding

A young boy in the 1950’s struggles to find hope and happiness under the harsh shadows of his rage-fueled father and alcoholic mother.  In his loving grandfather he finds refuge and meaning in life.

Sounds like a trite, sachrine, run-of-the-mill, triumph over child abuse tale…except for one thing.  That loving grandfather was none other than Tyrus R. Cobb – statistically speaking the greatest baseball player of all time; American myth; and generally regarded as a world-class mean-spirited son-of-a-bitch who drove his baseball spikes into opponents, beat up fans in the stands, and was a racist, alcoholic hell-raiser.  Part of his scandal are the tall-tales that have been taken as fact, and most people seem to forget that his savvy business mind (he was a great investor in the early days of Coca-Cola) allowed him to, in old age, be a great benefactor to many good causes – from giving no-strings-attached monetary gifts to down-and-out former teammates to a scholarship fund for impoverished Georgian kids that to this day continues to fund higher education for thousands of children.  He also apparently took a shining to the children of his loose-cannon son after the son died of a heart-attack.

Herschel’s Cobb memoir is colored through the lens of a kid who loved his grandfather, so yeah, there’s a bias, but a clever screenwriter could intertwine the uplift of the book with the more colorful moments from Cobb’s legendary playing days, maybe even glimpses into Ty’s own childhood – layers upon layers, flashbacks upon flashbacks – that could weave an epic character arc of a multi-faceted man who saw the darkness in himself, recognized the cruelty of others, and attempted to rescue his grandchildren from it all and stop the cycle of abuse.  Baseball, nostalgia, dysfunctional families, tortured childhoods and redemption – it’s the stuff of great drama.  Take an up-and-coming director like Jeff Nichols who is no stranger to the themes, put some make-up and a Southern accent on Michael Shannon so he can take the lead role, and voila…you could have a gritty, sentimental barn-burner on your hands.

I mean, c’mon, wouldn’t you love to see Michael Shannon utter this famous Cobb quote to his grandson?

“I had to fight all my life to survive. They were all against me… but I beat them and left them in the ditch.”

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