Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Philip Seymour Hoffman

Celebrities, as humans will, die. Generally when such a person passes, I observe it with sigh and a nod; their time had come; and mark it as yet another milestone on the road we're all on... for whom the bells tolls; etc., etc.

Every once in a while, though, comes one that truly strikes me as out of joint. Wrong. Not just unfortunate, but actually a kind of a violation. That something that was due us as a society has been torn from us far too soon. Over the years I've personally felt this about John Belushi, John Lennon, River Phoenix, and Kurt Cobain. Now there's Philip Seymour Hoffman to add to the list.

The first time I saw Hoffman, he was playing the frenetic Dusty in Twister. At the time, he and I were both in our late-20s. The next time was in Magnolia, where he played a compassionate palliative care nurse. The range between these two roles was nearly was wide as the alphabet, and despite the fact I hadn't seen him in anything in three years, I immediately recognized him. I realized quickly he'd be someone to watch.

Over the years I saw him in a number of roles, but the one that captivated me, as well as the Oscars committee, was his portrayal of the lead in Capote. I left the theatre feeling almost literally as if I'd been in the presence of Truman Capote... a sensation evoked again by Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln. This is the measure of the man as an actor, to me. And this is at the heart of it.

I've enjoyed the range of different characters Hoffman took on and mastered. He was truly the peer of Day-Lewis, and I don't credit many of those. So I was looking forward to another 30 years of challenging work taken on by this man. What would he show us? Who would he be? What roles would he grow into at 50? 60? 70? Well, now we'll never know. And the worst of it is, it was so needless. It wasn't cancer, or someone T-boning his car, or something like that. It was simply stupid, careless self-medicating. Same old, same old. He deserved better. So did we all, I think.

I can't be too critical. I don't know what pressures and stresses Hoffman was dealing with that all went away for a while with the press of a plunger. I just know it didn't have to be like this.

I read that not long after John Belushi was buried, there appeared a note on his grave that read, "He could have given us a lot more laughs, but noooo...!"

Ditto; or words to that effect.

Saturday, February 01, 2014

That Witch I Used to Believe :)

Boy, yeah, I know I haven't been around here much in a long time. The two or three of you who actually read this thing from time to time must be wondering. Quick explanation: still unemployed... or rather, unemployed again. Maybe I'll blog about that next. But the upshot is, while I haven't really been down in the dumps majorly, I just haven't felt all that effusive.

But every now and then something comes up and I think, yeah, I should say something about that... if not for the sake of people who may, or may not, still be interested in dropping by here, then for myself to smile and nod at in future years. And so... The Witch's Catalog.

When I was a kid our school, probably like virtually every other elementary school in North America, used to hand out these monthly folded brochures of books on offer from Scholastic. Remember those? It amazes and delights me now to think back to how that used to light up the classroom. Kids would pore over them excitedly and circle the ones they wanted to read and own; compare notes, and prepare their pitch for when they got home to the parental money press. A month later, a big box would show up with the manifest, and books were handed out by the handful. Not library books, but possessions! You got to keep these. These went into your own personal library. They become totems that were carried around, became well-worn and ripped and stained, and if they were loved long and hard enough, maybe even fell apart.

I wonder if kids still get as keyed up about books these days. I sure hope so.

Naturally I long ago lost, traded, or just plain threw out the books I got that way.  As I drifted into middle age, and the internet gave us eBay, I often thought back to the books I'd particularly loved and started looking for them, and getting them back here and there. One that has a special place for me is The Witch's Catalog by Norman Bridwell (probably best known for Clifford the Big Red Dog). It's out there, but it's so rare and expensive I just balk at pressing the button. But someone scanned the pages and put them online, and snagging those was free.

The book came out about the time I was eight, so I would have been in grade two or three at the time. The book purported to be a catalog of magical objects kids could order with the form at the back. I got the book at that strange juncture in everyone's life when imagination and utter credulity are being scoured away by reality... but not quite completely yet. I was still most of a year away from having the guts to ask my mom point-blank if Santa wasn't real. It was also an age of fantastic scientific wonders, and when you're new to the world, it's hard to say for sure what's possible and what isn't (I'm still often amazed... "3D printing"?!). What I remember about the book was thinking, initially, that it was full of neat ideas, but that magic wasn't real.

...Or was it?

The thing that really fascinates me now is that over repeated readings, I actually got myself to the point that I was ready to believe. I was on the verge of accepting that this just might be possible. It didn't help that in the mid-70s, TV was full of shows about scientific gadgets that gave their owners incredible abilities, and it all seemed just around the corner. Things like invisibility cloaks and teleportation and weather control and time travel were the weekly fare of shows like The Six Million Dollar Man. So... why not magic?

I was right on the verge of ordering a handful of items and I read the order chart that instructed you to rub the thing in bat fat and stick it in a tree. I stewed on that for a while and somehow decided that no, the world really didn't work that way, and the book probably wasn't genuine after all. I have the impression I kept trying to find the right thread to pull to realize it all, but it was really a slow climb down to reality over the next several days. But I'll never forget my brush with magic. The last moment I might have believed.

One day, I'd like to find a copy of it, reasonably-priced. I don't care if it's beaten up. I just want to hold it, leaf through it again, and smile at what once seemed so plausible. But until then, let me present some of the leaves from the book, for your perusal.

P.S. The one I really wanted to get was the inexhaustible pop tap. :)