Sunday, November 30, 2008

The Chosen Ones

Hannukah is just a few weeks away. Celebrated by Jews around the world, the Festival of Lights commemorates the so-called miracle of the consecrated oil when the Second Temple of Jerusalem was rededicated in the second century BC.  At the time, there was only enough consecrated olive oil to fuel the temple's eternal flame for one day -- and yet, miraculously, the oil continued to burn for eight days (the length of time needed to press, prepare and consecrate fresh olive oil).

Today, some nations maintain an eternal flame to honor their war dead.  The eternal flame which honors President John F. Kennedy is the first instance in which an eternal flame was used to honor an individual as opposed to an unknown soldier.  The thought of one's memory burning bright -- long after that person has left us -- kept rolling around in my mind this weekend as my attention focused on two charismatic and iconic Jews.

Some of our friends and heroes have been eternal flamers throughout much of their lives. Though they no longer walk among us, their memories are so vivid, their impact so strong, that people still refer to them as if they were close friends or brothers.  The mention of the first names of these two men -- Harvey and Lenny -- is all that is required for listeners to know exactly who is being referred to.  Not only did their lives burn brightly, their contributions to the world continue to inspire millions long after their deaths.

On Sunday afternoon I joined some friends for a showing of Gus Van Sant's powerful new biopic, Milk, at the Castro Theater.  The atmosphere was very much like what one experiences during the annual Frameline Festival.   The house was sold out (1400 seats for a  4:00 p.m. screening on the Sunday of Thanksgiving weekend ain't bad in this economy).  

The audience was a cross section of the people Harvey Milk reached out to:  young, old, straight, gay, black, white, Asian -- the entire crazy cornucopia of humanity to be found in San Francisco.The musician at the Mighty Wurlitzer theater organ was playing a medley of classics like Harold Arlen's Over The Rainbow, George Gershwin's "But Not For Me" and, of course, Bronislaw Kaper's "San Francisco."  

If only he could have been there, Harvey would have loved it.  

But as we all know, Harvey was assassinated (along with Mayor George Moscone) 30 years ago in San Francisco's City Hall. Although the self-proclaimed "Mayor of Castro Street" long ago achieved international martyrdom (Rob Epstein's 1984 film, The Times of Harvey Milk, won the Academy Award for best documentary), his spirit remains very much alive in van Sant's new film --  especially as embodied in a truly remarkable performance by Sean Penn.

Not only does Penn capture Harvey's impishness, intelligence, and painful insecurities, it shows him in quiet personal moments when he is the conscientious gay man reaching out to someone else -- even in a moment of great personal triumph or drama -- because that other person is a gay man suffering in pain and loneliness who desperately needs a message of hope.

Although screenwriter Dustin Lance Black intentionally omitted any references to the Jonestown massacre which occurred just one week prior to the dual assassinations, I was thrilled to see the film start with archival black-and-white footage of gay men being handcuffed during bar raids in the 1950s and 1960s, rounded up and put into police paddy wagons.  That's a part of gay history that needs to be seen by the people who don't understand why gay rights are civil rights.  

Special mention should be made of Josh Brolin's fiercely dysfunctional portrait of Dan White, a stunning achievement in digging deep into a psychotic drunk's twisted psyche to explore the kind of self-righteous hatred, political naivete, and ugly stupidity that can be wrapped in the buff body of an All American Irish Catholic policeman/firefighter who remains stubbornly convinced that he is one of the "good guys."

For those of us who knew Harvey (he and I were both writing for the Bay Area Reporter in 1977 and 1978) and who lived in San Francisco at the time, van Sant's film offers many tender moments of nostalgia, some made even more poignant by the sight of Harvey's surviving political friends appearing as extras in various crowd scenes.  This is an extremely powerful piece of cinema which often feels like a cinematic textbook in community organization -- kind of a cheat sheet for the people behind Barack Obama's Presidential campaign.

This is also a film which, considering this year's unfortunate victory by the folks supporting Proposition 8, should be seen with friends, relatives, and anyone you might consider to be a part of your extended family.  In fact, it's a very good film to share with someone you've just come out to.

* * * * * * * *

In 1971, Leonard Bernstein had been invited to become the Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry and spend a year living on campus and counseling students at Harvard University.  On Monday night, the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco offered a free screening of one of the famous lectures that Bernstein taped in the fall of 1973.  

This first lecture, in which Lenny tried to explain the importance of interdisciplinary values as a means of showing how certain basic elements of music could be identified and codified by their similarity in every culture and civilization, tried to explain the concept of monogenesis as well as key elements which help to form an international grammar of music.  Following the lecture (and a video of Lenny conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra in a performance of Mozart's Symphony No. 40 in G Minor), Bernstein talked candidly about what had happened during the taping of that particular performance.  

A bomb scare had forced an evacuation of the recording studio and yet, on a cold night in Boston, a surprising number of attendees waited outside for the performance to resume. Lenny's sadness and disgust at the way the performance had been interrupted had nothing to do with his own ego but was, instead, focused entirely on the question of what an insult this action was to the genius -- and the continuity -- of Mozart's music.

Bernstein's daughter Jamie claims that her father should really have been the poster boy for a liberal arts education.  In her charming essay (which describes why her father was a born teacher) she explains how, through the New York Philharmonic's Young People's Concerts and innumerable other teaching moments, her father inspired millions of professional musicians as well as ordinary people, by giving them permission to like classical music.  The zeal Lenny felt for all kinds of music, his compulsive need to teach, and the sheer ecstasy he experienced whenever he was making music no doubt had a profound impact on his protege, Michael Tilson Thomas, who recently was quick to align himself with the YouTube Symphony Project. 

Had he lived long enough to experience the wonders of the Internet, Lenny would have fallen head over heels in love with this use of modern technology.  Here is a clip from one of his lectures at Harvard:

This year, as professional musicians, cultural institutions, and music lovers around the world celebrate what would have been Lenny's 90th birthday, testimonials from all kinds of people reveal the intense impact Lenny had on their lives.  Here's one of my favorites:

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