Poignant Tashi and the Monk Debuts on HBO

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Cecil, the lion, had a family, too.

It’s been a distressing couple of weeks. I’ve been especially disturbed by the media firestorm ignited by two individuals in particular who have money to burn and no idea where and how to best to spend it. One guy seems to think that stalking and shooting endangered animals sheltered in jungle habitats is a reasonable 21st-century pastime.  The other, a Presidential wanna-be, shoots off his mouth and rises in the polls despite (or because of?) his racist and sexist rants.

Cecil, the lion, was illegally poached from his Zimbabwe preserve, wounded by an arrow, stalked for two days, shot dead and decapitated by a man who drills and fills teeth for a living.  His lame defense?  He didn’t know that Cecil was a “known, local favorite.”2015-07-zimbabwe-wildlife-lion-usa

And then there’s the current Republican Presidential front-runner. This media savvy windbag’s performance during G.O.P. debate #1 will be remembered not for any substantive political policy but for the laughs and press he generated denigrating the appearance and professionalism of two women (Rosie O’Donnell and Megyn Kelly, respectively).

It cost “Dr. Chopper” $54,000 to turn poor Cecil into a wall trophy; and “The Trumpster” will soak millions into his campaign to stay one step ahead of those he name-calls “stupid” losers.

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Donald Trump on the stump.

I have a better suggestion for both of them. Donate your time and money to those who are working to find a cure for breast and prostate cancer, Alzheimer’s and heart disease…the four key scourges facing Baby Boomers, the generation in which you are both card-carrying members. Or redirect your testosterone, dental expertise, business and real estate acumen and cash to help build and expand services at pediatric hospitals like St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital; or fund schools and communities for abused, abandoned and orphaned children like the Jhamtse Gatsal Children’s Community in India; or work to promote and protect environmental and animal rights initiatives that will assure your children’s children of a healthy planet for all species.

The mission of the Jhamtse Gatsal Children’s Community founded by former Buddhist monk Lobsang Phuntsok is introduced in a lovely spirit-booster, Tashi and the Monk.  The 45-minute documentary debuts tonight, August 17, 2015, on HBO (8:00 – 8:45 p.m. ET/PT).  I suggest you check it out if you need an antidote to the spate of depressing media fare we’ve been experiencing of late.

Tashi Drolma, the star of TASHI AND THE MONK. Photo courtesy HBO.

Tashi Drolma is a child on the mend in TASHI AND THE MONK. Photo courtesy HBO.

The Jhamtse Gatsal Children’s Community opened its doors in India’s remote Himalayan mountain region in 2006.  Jhamtse Gatsal in Tibetan means “garden of love and compassion.” As showcased in Tashi and the Monk, directed by Andrew Hinton and Johnny Burke, the Jhamtse Gatsal Children’s Community is putting “love and compassion” to the best possible use…by providing a safe, healthy haven, positive life goals and welcoming surrogate family milieu for at-risk children previously destined for a life of dereliction and despair.

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TASHI AND THE MONK explores Lobsang Phuntsok’s mission to found the Jhamtse Gatsal Children’s Community in the district of Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh, India. Photo courtesy HBO.

Lobsang Phuntsok was himself a lost boy. Abandoned by his mother and running wild, he was sent to a monastery in South India and eventually studied under the Dalai Lama, became a Buddhist monk and taught Buddhist philosophy in the U.S. and Canada. Determined to put his teachings to work in his homeland, Phuntsok returned to his childhood village with the goal of creating a community for troubled children much like himself, to give them the childhood he never had.

Tashi and the Monk follows a new young resident as she learns to quiet her temperamental flare-ups and co-exist within her new environment.  The daughter of an alcoholic father, five-year-old Tashi Drolma is a wild child whose often violent, anti-social behavior disrupts life for her fellow residents and teachers and makes it impossible for her to bond with other children in the community.

Tashi Drolma and Lobsang Phunstock. Photo courtesy HBO.

Tashi Drolma shares a quiet moment with her teacher and benefactor, Lobsang Phuntsok, in TASHI AND THE MONK. Photo courtesy HBO.

Phuntsok’s’s tender efforts to teach her to respect and not harm others, to share and to find joy and peace where she previously incited chaos are telescoped to fit the short running time of this film. But Tashi’s challenges and improvement are palpable. By all appearances–and this film is replete with smiling, happy faces and glorious shots of the exquisite surrounding landscape–the Jhamtse Gatsal Children’s Community is doing a good job of nurturing and educating its residents (numbering 85 as of this film) via its “three pillars”: an intelligent mind, kind heart and healthy body.

Tashi Drolma’s transition from an anti-social trouble-maker into a happy, trusting pal is explored in TASHI AND THE MONK. Photo courtesy HBO.

Lobsang Phuntsok is, however, believably torn by his inability to accept all of the troubled children who come his way.  He is stymied by insufficient housing and staff, which, of course, translates into the need for more funding. You’ll no doubt be inspired to help him out after you watch Tashi and the Monk  debuting tonight, August 17, 2015, on HBO, 8:00 – 8:45 p.m. ET/PT. Check listings for additional HBO playdates throughout August, as well as its availability via HBO On Demand and HBO Go.

Visit  http://www.jhamtsegatsal.org/   to find out more about the Jhamtse Gatsal Children’s Community and how you can donate your time, money or even sponsor a child in-residence.  And, just in case you missed it, check out Jimmy Kimmel’s monologue about Cecil, the lion @ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p0q_u2ttR3s  –Judith Trojan

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Packed in a Trunk: The Lost Art of Edith Lake Wilkinson Debuts on HBO

Jane Anderson returned her Great Great Aunt Edith's artwork to the Provincetown, Mass., art community where she painted it almost a century before. From PACKED IN A TRUNK. Photo courtesy HBO.

Jane Anderson returned her great-aunt Edith’s artwork to the Provincetown, Mass., art community where she painted it a century before. From PACKED IN A TRUNK. Photo courtesy HBO.

It wasn’t easy living in America, circa 1924, if you were a woman with exceptional artistic talent, showed signs of emotional fragility and unorthodox sexual proclivities.  Without a supportive family or like-minded community (the ex-pats in Paris, for example) to protect you and nurture your talent, you were an easy target for nervous Nellies and ruthless opportunists who were only too eager to stifle your rogue spirit.

Such was the case with artist Edith Lake Wilkinson (1868-1957), the great-aunt of Emmy® Award-winning screenwriter, director/producer, playwright and artist Jane Anderson. Anderson’s eclectic dramatic credits run the gamut from The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom  (as executive producer and co-writer) to her most recent Emmy® nominee, Olive Kitteridge (as executive producer and screenwriter). Her new documentary, Packed in a Trunk:  The Lost Art of Edith Lake Wilkinson, debuts tonight, Monday, July 20, 2015, on HBO, 9:00-10:30 p.m. ET/PT.  Check listings for additional HBO playdates in July, as well as availability via HBO On Demand and HBO Go.photo collage packed-in-a-trunk-1024

Jane Anderson never met her great-aunt in person–Edith Lake Wilkinson died alone and forgotten in a state mental asylum in Wheeling, West Virginia. But Anderson grew up surrounded and captivated by Edith’s artwork:  Anderson’s mom stumbled upon trunks filled with Edith’s paintings and drawings in a family member’s attic. Daughter Jane credits this artwork, subsequently hung on her childhood walls, with the blossoming of her own creative spirit and evolution as a fine artist, as well as her coming out as a lesbian.

Jane Anderson (right) and her spouse, producer Tess Ayers, search for clues to great-aunt Edith Wilkinson's backstory in PACKED IN A TRUNK. Photo courtesy HBO.

Jane Anderson (right) and her spouse, producer Tess Ayers, search for clues to great-aunt Edith Wilkinson’s back story in PACKED IN A TRUNK. Photo courtesy HBO.

To honor her muse, Anderson has dedicated more than 35 years of her life to fill in the sizable gaps in Edith’s personal back story, solve the mystery of her confinement and, most especially, draw wide attention to her exquisite artwork. Anderson takes center stage in Packed in a Trunk, which she produced and co-wrote with director Michelle Boyaner. The film and a companion Website document Anderson’s exhaustive efforts to bring her great-aunt’s sizable legacy out of the shadows and into the sunlight, a feature that Edith so loved to explore a century ago in her paintings and portraits.

At 19 years of age, Edith bravely snubbed convention and left her home in West Virginia to settle in New York City where she studied at the Art Students’ League and earned a degree at Columbia University.  She met and mingled with noted artists of the day, including William Merritt Chase, and moved in with a woman named Fannie who would become her longtime companion.  Edith also ventured to Europe and often to Provincetown, Mass., where she summered, painted and studied with like-minded talents. As revealed in her paintings, sketches and innovative block prints, Edith’s life at that time seemed to be filled with joyful exploration and promise.

Artwork by Edith Lake Wilkinson. Photo courtesy HBO.

Artwork by Edith Lake Wilkinson. Photo courtesy HBO.

Sadly, by the time she turned 57 in 1924, Edith’s plans to sail to Paris after her parents’ sudden death were derailed by her family’s estate lawyer.  While systematically embezzling her inheritance, he managed to secure her admission to several hospitalizations in mental asylums, where she eventually died, artless and forgotten at 89. Her artwork and possessions ended up in her nephew’s attic until Jane Anderson’s mother found them.

Packed in a Trunk casts Jane Anderson as an eager, sincere and adventurous sleuth, and brings her great-aunt’s artwork and sexuality out of the closet with some degree of closure. While she essentially shares a common bond with the filmmakers of Finding Vivian Maier http://judithtrojan.com/2014/04/04  and Living with Lincoln http://judithtrojan.com/2015/04/13 , Anderson’s personal issues and energy at times tend to eclipse Edith, her artwork and milieu.

Anderson seems to have found her most revealing resource in the dusty records, memories and warm welcome she received from the artistic community in Provincetown, Massachusetts. Some of the most fascinating sequences in the film cover the history (via personal reminiscence, period footage and photos) of the Provincetown art and gay community.

Jane Anderson and her spouse, Tess, at Edith's graveside. Photo courtesy HBO.

Jane Anderson (right) and her spouse, Tess Ayers, at Edith Lake Wilkinson’s graveside. Photo courtesy HBO.

Packed in a Trunk leaves unanswered questions regarding Edith’s family history and back story (her lovers, her actual importance in the Provincetown art community, the reasons for her institutionalization); and the questions that are answered raise even more questions. Late in the film, Anderson telescopes her frustration by visiting psychic Lisa Williams, who supposedly connects instantly with Edith and Fannie, who, in turn, have a lot “to say” from the great beyond.

Much time is spent on the parallels between Edith and Jane, their shared creative talent, free-spirited lifestyles and lesbianism; but while Packed in a Trunk:  The Lost Art of Edith Lake Wilkinson is a tad self-indulgent on Anderson’s part, I think you’ll find what there is of Edith’s story and artwork to be quite intriguing and worth exploring.  You can watch it tonight, Monday, July 20, 2015, on HBO, 9:00-10:30 p.m. ET/PT. Check listings for additional HBO playdates in July, as well as its availability via HBO On Demand and HBO Go. And you’ll find an informative timeline and lovely examples of Edith’s work at   http://edithlakewilkinson.com .–Judith Trojan

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American Experience Shines a Light on the NYC Blackout of 1977

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Photo courtesy of WGBH Educational Foundation.

Thirty-eight years ago, on July 13, 1977, New York metro area residents were sweating through a scorcher. New York City was on the brink of bankruptcy: Cops and firefighters and hundreds of city workers faced layoffs, afterschool services were being cut, residents and commuters lived in fear of squeegee men and a serial killer dubbed the “Son of Sam.” City streets, sidewalks, walls and subway cars were littered with garbage and graffiti.  In short, the city was a mess.

American Experience recalls those dismal days in stirring fashion in Blackout, airing tonight, Tuesday, July 14, 2015, on PBS (9:00-10:00 p.m. ET, check local listings for air dates in your region).

Fuses were short and about to blow… in more ways than one.  And blow they did, literally, during a severe thunderstorm that evening. Lightening struck a power line in Westchester County (NY) spurring a cascading series of power outages, some of which were mishandled by Con Edison engineers as they futilely attempted to short-circuit a total meltdown in their antiquated system.  They failed and the lights went out, leaving seven million city dwellers in the dark  and without electricity for 25 hours.

The NYC skyline from Queens during the power blackout of 1977. Lights glow in a midtown Waterside Con Ed plant as traffic passes on East Side Drive. Photo: Dan Farrell/NY Daily News via Getty Images.

The NYC skyline as seen from Queens during the power blackout of 1977. Lights glowed from a midtown waterside Con Ed plant as traffic passed on East Side Drive. Photo: Dan Farrell/NY Daily News via Getty Images.

People dined under the stars on Upper East Side rooftops, partied in the streets and at tony watering holes where bartenders offered free champagne. In the dark and in short supply were Good Samaritans who helped direct traffic, mend wounds, put out fires and short- circuit looters.

In disadvantaged neighborhoods downtown, uptown and in the boroughs, residents were fed up with being forgotten. Lawlessness ensued as storefronts were smashed and merchandise stolen.

People flooded hospital emergency rooms, bloodied from broken glass and with limbs fractured from dragging heavy refrigerators, bulky TV consoles and other large appliances through the streets and up flights of stairs to their flats.  Others suffered from smoke inhalation, burns or worse from the more than 1,000 fires choking the streets. When the power was restored and the smoke finally cleared, 3,700 people had been arrested for looting more than 1,600 businesses.

Trophies by Syl was looted on July 13, 1977. Its co-owner, In AMERICAN EXPERIENCE: BLACKOUT, Elzora Williamson, recalls the devastation and consequences she and her husband Syl faced. Photo courtesy Elzora Williamson.

Trophies by Syl in Brooklyn was looted on July 13, 1977. In AMERICAN EXPERIENCE: BLACKOUT, the shop’s longtime co-owner, Elzora Williamson, recalls the devastation that she and her husband, Syl, faced. Photo courtesy Elzora Williamson.

Locals who lived through this mayhem share their recollections of the blackout of ’77, including a firefighter; a cop; reporters; a medical student who volunteered in a darkened, under-staffed hospital emergency room; a steward who served wine at the famed Windows on the World restaurant on the 107th floor of One World Trade Center; neighborhood shop owners who were set upon by criminals, as well as their looting friends and neighbors; and two Con Edison System Operators who had their hands on the switch on that fateful day.  More than one of these survivors compare the 1977 meltdown to its kinder, gentler predecessor:  the blackout that affected the entire Northeast and parts of Canada on November 9, 1965.

Directed by Callie T. Wiser, American Experience: Blackout meshes her engaging witnesses with murky, chaotic footage taken on the streets and indoors during the 1977 blackout. An original music score by Gary Lionelli effectively underscores the drama of this inglorious period in New York City history.  Watch it tonight, Tuesday, July 14, 2015, 9:00-10:00 p.m. ET on PBS (Check local listings for air dates in your region).   It will make you feel good about how far we’ve come…or have we? –Judith Trojan 

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Liz Swados Takes the High Road in My Depression on HBO

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Elizabeth Swados. Photo courtesy HBO.

Born in 1951, Elizabeth Swados was a wunderkind, given the range of talents she enjoyed to great success while still in her twenties: composer, performer, music conductor, writer, illustrator. Then regarded as avant-garde, her creative spirit proved to be as natural as life itself, for it was from everyday life–the chatter on a New York City street corner, cars whizzing along a highway, birds chirping–that she extracted her music. She also made innovative use of ancient languages and such found works as Brazilian sambas, poetry, and African folklore. The combination was electrifying.

“At one point, I was offered six plays a week for six straight weeks,” she said, reveling in her youthful role as Broadway’s “It” girl”…or so it seemed.

A 40-minute celebratory film “collage” made by Linda Feferman and released in 1977 by Phoenix Films, Elizabeth Swados: The Girl with the Incredible Feeling was as inventive and eccentric as its subject.  Bits of cabaret performances, recording sessions and rehearsals appeared in snatches throughout the film. Much was made of her travels to Africa, her work with director Peter Brook, and her upbringing (home movies of her parents and Swados as a child were widely used in this film).

One of the loveliest and liveliest segments of the film was based on a juvenile picture book, The Girl with the Incredible Feeling (Persea Books), that Swados wrote and illustrated.  In the film, the book’s illustrations were animated and the narrative was read with incidental music.  It tells the story of a girl who is blessed with a special knack for seeing the unusual and beautiful aspects of daily life.  Her gift–personified as a “spirit”–is discovered by a greedy entrepreneur, merchandised, weakened, and almost lost until she realizes her folly and is reunited with it once again.

Jump ahead almost 40 years, and Elizabeth Swados’ story continues in My Depression (The Up and Down and Up of It), a 30-minute animated film based on her 2005 book, My Depression:  A Picture Book (republished by Seven Stories Press in 2014).  My Depression debuts on HBO tonight, Monday, July 13, 2015 (9:00-9:30 p.m. ET/PT) and adds a new and daunting twist to the saga of Swados’ “spirit.”

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Voices of disapproval and impatience seem to make matters worse in MY DEPRESSION. Photo courtesy of HBO.

In My Depression, Elizabeth Swados (voiced by actress Sigourney Weaver) follows the trail and accompanying travail of her lifelong struggle with depression, depicted as an ever-present black cloud. The cloud, much like her “incredible feeling” in the earlier film, sticks with her and follows her everywhere she goes; but this time, there is no joy, music, or color to be found in her immediate surroundings.  She examines the cloud (of depression) that slowly dampens her relationships with friends, family, colleagues and even her dog, and turns her into a self-loathing, bedridden, reclusive mole.

This is not a happy journey, although Elizabeth Swados makes it clear upfront that she’s grateful for the rich, full life that she has been afforded despite her depression.  Swados’ spin here is to educate and provoke self-recognition in her audience.  Her exploration contrasts depression with the normal down times we all experience (as teenagers, college students, working stiffs and aging adults) as we tackle challenges incited by puberty, love and loss. A lot of people don’t really know much about it,” said Swados.  “But I think it could be helpful to learn what people go through.”

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There’s a black hole where a silver lining should be in MY DEPRESSION. Photo courtesy HBO.

She reveals the hereditary link to her own depression (her mother was diagnosed with severe clinical depression).  And because she experiences just about every symptom that could possibly define depression, many will find this film relatable and, at times, even unsettling. The animated musical interlude entitled “Suicide Mobile” (voiced by actor Steve Buscemi) is especially over-the-top and could upset more fragile viewers.

The film, directed and written by Robert Marianetti, David Wachtenheim and Elizabeth Swados, provides a light (albeit not sugar-coated) at the end of the tunnel, via medication and therapy.  For Swados, as for most people, these solutions are not foolproof.  It took her three years of trying various meds to find “something that really worked.” And the search for a therapist that fit was also littered with false starts, but one worth taking.

While I found the tone and style of the animation to be a tad tiresome and cute overall, the animation does work especially well to pinpoint the symptoms of depression and to clarify the frustrating jabberwocky confounding the ideal mix of meds and therapy.

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It’s hard to measure up and fit in when there’s a black cloud overhead. From MY DEPRESSION. Photo courtesy HBO.

Going forward, My Depression (The Up and Down and Up of It) would best be used with audiences of teenagers and young adults and middle-agers through senior citizens in individual and group therapy settings.  With her black cloud under wraps, Elizabeth Swados, the prolific “girl with the incredible feeling,” continues to flourish: She’s found an international audience for her work on stage and in print and garnered five Tony nominations, three Obie Awards and a Guggenheim Fellowship in the process. Young creative artists in a wide variety of fields–from music and art to drama and literature–will find a soul mate in Swados and, women of all ages will find much to relate to here as well.

My Depression (The Up and Down and Up of It) debuts on HBO tonight, Monday, July 13, 2015 (9:00-9:30 p.m. ET/PT).  Check listings for additional HBO playdates throughout July and August, as well as availability via HBO On Demand and HBO Go.–Judith Trojan

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Jane Aaron (1948 – 2015) Trailblazing Indie Animator

Jane Aaron on a panel of "Independent Women" fimmakers at the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival.

Jane Aaron on a panel of “Independent Women” filmmakers at the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival. Photo: Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images North America.

“Light is thrilling for me.”Jane Aaron.

On June 27, the animation community lost a trailblazer.  Jane Aaron’s untimely death at age 67 is a heartbreaking loss for her family and for those of us who’ve enjoyed her whimsical animated films, her ABC’s and 1-2-3’s on Sesame Street, and her children’s book illustrations over the years. Her passing will also leave a hole in the heart of animation circles where her talent, vision and resilience continued to inspire young animators, most especially women, to follow their dreams… and transform the light.

Thirty years have passed since I interviewed Jane Aaron during my stint as Editor-in-Chief of Sightlines magazine.  At that time, circa 1985, she was a rising star and one of only a handful of women who challenged and surmounted gender barriers in the world of animation. 51RR5V2W5WL

By the age of 37, in 1985, animator Jane Aaron had already produced six independent, personal films; and she had some educational film and TV credits under her belt as well.  She illustrated Oralee Wachter’s groundbreaking best seller, No More Secrets for Me (Little, Brown; 1983), which teaches kids how to avoid being sex abuse victims. And Aaron re-teamed with Wachter for Close to Home, a similar preventative book about child abduction published in 1986 by Scholastic.

Aaron’s Traveling Light was screened at every major international film festival in 1985, from Telluride to London. The two-minute film follows the play of light as it dances through interior space. In the end, the true identity of Aaron’s “light” is cleverly revealed to be tiny bits of paper, carefully arranged to mimic light.  Traveling Light made a splash in the U.S. at the 23rd New York Film Festival, where it was programmed with Steaming, director Joseph Losey’s film about women who bonded in a bathhouse.

In my interview that follows, conducted on October 24, 1985 (condensed from the original interview published in Sightlines magazine, Winter 1985/86), Jane Aaron discussed her innovative animation technique, her commitment to the independent film scene, and her dreams of big bucks, mainstream venues and music videos.

Judith Trojan:  Did you study animation in film school?

Jane Aaron:  I never went to film school; I studied drawing and sculpture in college.  I think, in my case, it was an advantage because I never knew the right way to do it. There are things that I do that I would not imagine I would do if I had traditional film or animation training.  My first film, A Brand New Day (1974), was shot traditionally on an animation stand. It was done with the basic technique of repeating drawings. I learned how to do it from a friend.  It ended up taking about a year; and, by the end of that year, I was committed to animation.

Is it a donut or the letter O? Illustration by Jane Aaron.

Is it a donut or the letter O? Illustration by Jane Aaron.

Trojan:  How would you define your particular kind of animation?  Is there terminology to describe it?

Aaron:  I don’t think there’s any general way to describe it because I don’t know of anyone else who’s doing it.  I actually take the drawings and go to the location and shoot them in the live setting.  There’s no optical work involved at all.

Trojan:  You don’t use any opticals? That’s surprising, given the look of your work!

Aaron:  No, only rubber cement, scissors, and masking tape.  I just take the drawings outside and shoot them the same way you would on an animation stand.  It takes a couple of hours to shoot 30 seconds of film.  What happens is that the real landscape or setting becomes distorted and gets speeded up, while the animation takes on real time.

Trojan:  Would this be considered pixillation?

Aaron:  Pixillation is time-lapse–shooting at intervals of time. My work is a combination of pixillation and animation.  I create the movement through the drawings, and the background is pixillated.  But it happens at the same time.  It’s not like I pixillate and then do the drawings.  In Interior Designs (1980), I took the drawings and the camera into a bedroom and shot them there.  The drawings were small and situated so that they only took up part of the frame; and the room was all in.  I changed the drawings and the room stayed still.

Trojan:  Why not use opticals?

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Three pears. Illustration by Jane Aaron.

Aaron:  I’m interested in doing the work in a much more direct way. When you get involved with opticals, you talking about a lot of laboratory work and communication with the lab, and lots of weeks of testing; that part doesn’t interest me.  I truly enjoy being outside.  It’s difficult and frustrating when it suddenly is windy and you can’t hold anything down; but there is something about getting the piece of paper out there, getting the character out in real space. It’s being affected by the light that’s there. There’s a scene in Remains To Be Seen (1983) where there’s a close-up of a head, and it’s totally wrinkled.  It was a windy day, and I ended up recording the sound of paper wrinkling in the wind to reinforce the fact that it really was paper.

Trojan:  You seem to be fascinated with light.  It plays a big role in your films.

Aaron:  I definitely do have a passion for light.  It’s a very emotional thing.  Light is thrilling for me.  That’s why Traveling Light (1985) was very satisfying; it was a way to deal with that passion directly.

Trojan:  How has your technique evolved over the years?

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The letter J by Jane Aaron.

Aaron:  I feel that my films now are a continuation of the first film that was shot on an animation stand. When A Brand New Day was finished and up on the screen, I felt that only a small part of the environment was represented; for me, there had been much more: my coffee cup in the window, and so forth.  So, I brought the camera back and started to reveal what was around the drawings.

That was one of the initial impulses that led to In Plain Sight (1977). In In Plain Sight, there was a stationary camera and stationary artwork.  I wanted to get the artwork to move through the environment, so I started experimenting with ways of integrating them more. With Remains To Be Seen, I was interested in creating artwork for a specific location. The film I’m working on now (sic), Set in Motion (1987), is actually quite a bit freer.

Trojan:  How about Traveling Light?

Aaron:  Traveling Light was a very precise film to make.  I tried different approaches to represent light.  We would shoot about four seconds a day, just moving those little pieces of paper around in real environments.  We went to a real kitchen, a real living room.  I don’t think anyone else would think to do it.

Trojan:  Where do you get your ideas?

Aaron:  They truly come out of experimenting.  When I start a film, I don’t have a storyboard.  That’s probably the hardest aspect of it for me.  It’s really difficult conceptually because I start by getting involved with some images, just kind of to solve a problem.  As it starts to grow, I begin to see what form it might take, and add another element and then try to continue on.  I don’t start with a storyboard; but probably halfway through, I have more of an idea of how it is going to be.  It isn’t like when the last shot comes in, then I suddenly realize I am finished.

Illustration by Jane Aaron.

Illustration by Jane Aaron.

Trojan:  Your films seem to dwell on extending or restructuring space. It’s a very sculptural concept–jumping from three-dimensional to two-dimensional space and back.

Aaron:  And even some of the systems that I use to shoot these films are sculptural in themselves.  I  have to build lots of things.

Trojan:  Because your work is so unique, does the technique have any drawbacks?

Aaron:  There are two things that I do that I haven’t seen anybody else do–I shoot outside, and I use life-sized, animated characters in real space.  So, it becomes expensive. I have the high cost of animation, which is labor intensive–doing all of the work–and I also have some of the high cost of live-action–we go on-location, which necessitates per diems and car rentals.  Most animators don’t have these costs; they stay in the studio.

Trojan:  It doesn’t seem very profitable.  Why not branch out and do more commercial work?

Aaron:  I went through a period of being disgusted, but now I feel quite committed to making my own films. Among other things, I think it’s continually challenging not to repeat yourself.

Trojan:  Have many women animators dropped by the wayside due to financial pressures?

Aaron:  Women and men.  A lot of people have become disillusioned with it as a field because the recognition is small compared to other fields, and the money is ridiculous. Even when animation plays on television or gets sold, people buy it by the minute.  And we may be talking about a five-minute film.  It doesn’t matter if it was a two-year endeavor. So, you can never get back the cost of production.  I’ve come to terms with that; I don’t really expect wide distribution.  …. I attract clients who are interested in an unusual approach. … I like it when my films are programmed with features.  That’s my favorite way to show them, rather than on a program of short films. People come out of having seen 10 animated films, and they vaguely remember liking one, or can’t really remember one from the other.  SL

Guys in a landscape. Illustration by Jane Aaron.

Guys in a landscape. Illustration by Jane Aaron.

In addition to her independent film career, Jane Aaron went on to channel her vision “in more mainstream ways” to reach “bigger audiences,” a goal she shared with me back in 1985 during our interview.  She forged a successful career on MTV, Nickelodeon’s Nick at Nite, the PBS reading series Between the Lions and, of course, on Sesame Street, where her talent for whimsy was a perfect fit.  She produced and directed more than 150 animated shorts for Sesame Street.  Aaron also adapted and animated her own children’s picture book series, Sometimes I Feel… (Golden Books), for HBO Family; and she recently completed six shorts entitled Just Wondering for HBO Family as well.

Animator, illustrator and children’s book author Jane Aaron leaves behind her husband, filmmaker Skip Blumberg, a son, three siblings and an evergreen body of work.  Her “bigger audience” encompassed “kids” from toddlers to centenarians.  And her gift was priceless:  She enabled us to see things we normally take for granted–ordinary things–in extraordinary ways.  She will be sorely missed. –Judith Trojan

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The Lion’s Mouth Opens on HBO

In THE LION'S MOUTH OPENS, actress/filmmaker Marianna Palka takes us on her personal journey to discover if she's inherited Huntington's Disease from her father. Photo: Moet Hashimoto.  Courtesy  HBO.

In THE LION’S MOUTH OPENS, actress/filmmaker Marianna Palka takes us on her personal journey to discover if she’s inherited Huntington’s Disease from her father. Photo: Moet Hashimoto. Courtesy HBO.

For many of us, May is a month rife with promise and new beginnings… trees and flowers are blossoming; days are brighter and longer; nights are balmy. Summer beckons.  If your only problem so far this year was sneezing and coughing through May’s stepped-up allergy season, then you are truly blessed.

May is also Huntington’s Disease Awareness Month.  This degenerative brain disorder is passed on through families genetically.  It is so far incurable and traps individuals in the prime of life with progressive mental and physical disabilities that are almost beyond comprehension. Legendary folk singer Woody Guthrie is probably the most notable celebrity victim of the disease. His son, folk singer Arlo Guthrie, dodged the genetic legacy of his dad.  But 32-year-old Scottish actress/filmmaker Marianna Palka may not be so lucky.  Her dad and his mother died of the disease. Marianna’s sister and cousin carry the gene mutation as well.Wittie-Huntingtons-Disease-side-bar-what-is

The Lion’s Mouth Opens, a 30-minute documentary co-produced by Ms. Palka, debuts tonight, Monday, June 1, 2015, on HBO (9:00 – 9:30 p.m. ET/PT) in the shadow of Huntington’s Disease Awareness Month. The film tracks the aftermath of Ms. Palka’s decision to be tested for the gene mutation.  The film’s title originated in a 1963 poem written by Bob Dylan for his muse, Woody Guthrie.

The statistics reported in this moving film by Oscar® and Emmy-nominated director Lucy Walker are quite staggering: Approximately “30, 000 Americans have been diagnosed with Huntington’s Disease, and 200,000 others, whose parents were diagnosed, have a 50/50 chance of developing it.  Less than 10% of those at-risk choose to take the genetic test.”

Ms. Palka shares memories and home movies of her dad’s life and decline–she was only eight years old when he became symptomatic.  Her mom, the love of his life, describes what it was like to watch their idyllic life crumble. Also interspersed at one point are clips (difficult to watch, albeit brief) of others afflicted with the disease.

As her friends–including her former boyfriend, actor Jason Ritter, and actress Bryce Dallas Howard–gather around her for support, Ms. Palka explores her reasons for taking the test, and her hopes and fears for the future. Ms. Dallas Howard and another friend then accompany her to the hospital to find out the results.  I assure you, there won’t be a dry eye in the house during this touching climax.

Friends gather round as Marianna Palka awaits her test results.  From left: Jason Ritter, Bryce Dallas Howard, Seth Gabel and Marianna Palka. Photo: Nick Higgins.  Courtesy HBO.

Friends gather round as Marianna Palka awaits her test results. From left: Jason Ritter, Bryce Dallas Howard, Seth Gabel and Ms. Palka. Photo: Nick Higgins. Courtesy HBO.

An audience and critical favorite on the film festival circuit, The Lion’s Mouth Opens debuts on HBO tonight, June 1, 2015, 9:00 – 9:30 p.m. ET/PT. (Check listings for additional HBO playdates throughout June, as well as availability via HBO On Demand and HBO Go.) Going forward, it will be a welcome discussion catalyst in university, medical and family counseling sessions dealing with Huntington’s and other genetic disorders. For more information on HD, check out the Web site of the Huntington’s Disease Society of America at http://hdsa.org/  –Judith Trojan

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Queen Latifah Is Red Hot as Bessie Smith on HBO

bessieposter“I’m looking forward to people finding out who Bessie Smith is, if they don’t know about her already.”–Queen Latifah.

You may come to HBO’s latest bio-pic, Bessie, knowing little or nothing about blues singer Bessie Smith (1894-1937).  But by the end of two hours, while you’ll depart with many unanswered questions about Smith’s life and career, you’ll definitely be inspired to further explore Smith’s biography and to listen to her recordings.  More importantly, you’ll have deepening respect for the talents of actress/singer Queen Latifah.  Bessie debuts tonight, May 16, 2015, on HBO, 8:00 – 10:00 p.m. ET/PT. (Check HBO On Demand, HBO Go, and listings for additional playdates in May and June.)

Queen Latifah, in a gloriously bold performance, will definitely not be ignored come Awards season. She transcends a screenplay co-written and directed by Dee Rees jazzed by a string of evocative bio-vignettes devoid of much-needed expository back story or cultural context. Latifah plays “The Empress of the Blues”– from penniless dancer and street performer to sassy vaudevillian and bejeweled recording star who toured the country in a custom railroad car — as a quick study and a mass of contradictions.

Smith was haunted by the ghosts of childhood abandonment and abuse; she faced racial and sexual degradation at every turn; yet her instincts led her to cultivate a relationship with the “Mother of the Blues,” Ma Rainey (played here by Mo’Nique), who became her mentor and eventually, it’s implied, much more than just a supportive friend and mother figure.

Photo: Frank Masi/HBO.

Bessie Smith (Queen Latifah) traveled the country with her troupe in a custom railroad car. Photo: Frank Masi/HBO.

“Bessie really needed love and missed her mother, who died when she was young.” says Queen Latifah. “Ma came into her life and filled that role.”

A hard-as-nails contract negotiator, Smith cleverly fought for fair pay and challenged segregation in the hardscrabble honky-tonk circuit in which she and her troupe performed and toured. Yet, she craved a fine home, husband and kids, so she married her lover/manager, Jack Gee (Michael Kenneth Williams), bought the home and maybe even the kid who became her son, yet she never lost her sexual appetite for lovers of both sexes. That her most tender and brutally honest sexual and professional relationships are shown here to be with women depicts Smith as liberated and a feminist years before those terms were coined.

“I think Bessie, in her own way, was a radical feminist before there was a name for it,” says director Dee Rees. “Bessie wasn’t actively trying to be a feminist, but she just loved who she wanted to love. She had relationships with both men and woman, and I wanted to show that she took everything case-by-case, even the people that she loved.”

Photo: Frank Masi/HBO.

Queen Latifah pulls out all the stops as Bessie Smith in HBO’s BESSIE. Photo: Frank Masi/HBO.

Queen Latifah was approached to do this project more than 20 years ago, but what began with a story by playwright Horton Foote under the Zanuck Company banner evolved from a traditional bio-pic to a more expressionistic project eventually realized by director and co-screenwriter Dee Rees and Queen Latifah.

“I didn’t know who Bessie was when this movie came to me in my early 20s,” Queen Latifah recalls. “I did some homework and realized how influential she was and what amazing things she accomplished. For example, when you find out what an influence she was on Billie Holiday, it brings her importance into focus.”

Queen Latifah grew up to own this production, as co-Executive Producer and star; but she is ably matched by Oscar® winner Mo’Nique, who tears it up as Ma Rainey, and Michael Kenneth Williams, who brings surprising emotional depth to Bessie’s bullying lover/husband/manager Jack Gee.

Bessie Smith Album cover2Lacking sufficient biographical context, the film leaves you with a lot of unanswered questions.  But two things are certain: You’ll definitely want to become acquainted or reacquainted with the life, milieu and music of Bessie Smith, and you’ll be convinced  that Queen Latifah is one of the most talented and fearless actress/singer/social activists working on the planet today.

A gritty, explicit film that will work well in college and university programs dealing with the history of music, women’s roles and racism in America, Bessie debuts tonight, May 16, 2015, on HBO, 8:00 – 10:00 p.m. ET/PT. (Check HBO On Demand, HBO Go, and listings for additional playdates in May and June.)  –Judith Trojan

 

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