Sun, sand and a menagerie of bashful animals

I don’t do sun and fun. Yet here I am in breezy, easy San Diego, Calif., for a shortish vacation with the extended family — mother, brother, nephew, et al. Seven of us total. 

Why do I shun the pool and the Pacific? I sure didn’t used to, particularly growing up in oceanside Santa Barbara, Calif. There I was like any splash-happy, wave-plunging kid, giddiest reverting to a primal state of fluidity, getting soaked, sandy and sun-baked.

I think I just grew out of it. By my teens, living in the temperate San Francisco Bay Area, I loathed the heat, anything over 75 degrees was excruciating. And it still is. I’m a 40s and 50s kind of guy. Fall and winter are my homies. Jeans, jacket, scarf — the ideal uniform. Shivering is my version of sweating. (Sweat is my kryptonite.) I aspire to be an Inuit.

Against my nature, but not my will, I’ve been cajoled to one of the beachiest places on the planet. Briny water everywhere. The profusion of palm trees — Christ. Boats and bikinis, flip-flops and fish, pink flesh and pervasive pastels. It’s Coronado Bay, San Diego.

203105671.jpg

I actually sat poolside — in the shade, with shirt and sneakers firmly affixed — this afternoon and survived. I had a book (Peter Orner’s new, remarkable short stories “Maggie Brown & Others”) and the laptop (the resort, yes, resort, has spiffy wifi) and a beer and an al pastor taco, so it worked swimmingly, if you will. Then I repaired to my room for some AC time, even though the temps all week are in the mercifully mid-to-low 70s. 

I begged off the beach. The six of them headed out to sit on sand beneath yawning umbrellas and presumably tiptoe into the chilly sea. I had no business there, as much as I love sharks. But the chances of a shark sighting were as good as those of me not being bored out of my skull plopped on mushy sand under a giant parasol. (Instead, I’m writing this. I bet you wish I went to the beach.) 

When many of us think of San Diego, the mega-famous zoo (known as the world’s best) and SeaWorld spring to mind. In other words: creatures, critters, cetaceans, crustaceans. Now, those I can do. Captive animals crack my heart, but at least the respected zoo sustains “natural” habitats and breeds endangered species. And even the ethically iffy SeaWorld has banished its dubious in-park breeding and tawdry theatrical whale shows. (Shamu — rhymes with boo.)  

Today was San Diego Zoo day, and it was about as thrilling as watching a flock of pink, and a few juvenile gray, flamingos stand on one preternaturally long and spindly leg and snooze, or projectile poop, or, in the case of the gray downy youngsters, stumble and wash and act as adorable as can be. When flamingos are a highlight, well …

27845391521_03f8fb4be8_b.jpgBesides being reminded on a double-decker bus tour around the park that hippos are “the most dangerous animals in the world” (for some reason, I find that exhilarating) and that some wolves smell like seething skunk bud, mostly the day consisted of trying to locate animals in their enclosures. Craned necks and dashed hopes were major exertions. It was the land of the empty habitat. 

There’s one alpha gorilla sitting tall and proud, and there he goes, vanishing behind a rock. There’s a sole polar bear sleeping up on a hill, partially obscured. Ah, I spy a pygmy hippo — 90-percent submerged in a pond. And so on. Zoos might be the most exasperating animal experience available. Go to a mall pet shop to see more furry mammalian action. 

But the weather remained agreeable — low-70s — so things meteorologically were dreamy. And they sell beer all over the place. (Wait, $9 for a can of Corona — where are the hippos when I need them?)

I don’t want to complain. I saw frolicsome monkeys and fat pythons and some Chaplinesque penguins, not to mention a guy dressed in a ragtag rhinoceros costume posing for pictures who made legions of unsuspecting visitors uneasy.

But where, I direly wondered, were the real rhinos? And giraffes? And hyenas. And, come on, the platypuses? We spotted, nestled in thick foliage, a koala. It was like seeing a child’s stuffed animal stuck in a way-up tree. It wanted nothing to do with us, the cranky marsupial. That’s what happens when you sleep 22 hours a day.  

A leopard showed its spots — for about 34 seconds. Then there was the funky smelling wolf — a total no-show, just a nose show. The macaques — same. Empty habitats are like unfulfilled dreams, dollar bills set on fire. Enter the gift shop and suddenly the animals are fluffy, smiling, en masse, thriving. A simple magnet of a magnificent mountain lion or a whimsical t-shirt of a rhinoceros (“Save the Chubby Unicorns”) about makes it all OK.

image.png

Japan by mouth

There’s a popular documentary from 2011 called “Jiro Dreams of Sushi.” As I plan a trip to Japan, I also dream of sushi. And ramen. And Sapporo. And yakitori. And sake. And squid. And Godzilla. 

If Jiro, a wispy 90-ish sushi master, merely dreams of sushi, I fully rhapsodize about sushi. (OK, I exaggerate. I only think about sushi, mm, twice a week. But it excites in ways other foods do not: Its silken, room-temperature raw-dacity; glistening, quivering slipperiness; palate-dancing umami-ness. Does that make me a sushi master? I think it does.) 

Jiro poster
Sushi swirls around the dreaming Jiro’s head. He dreams of sushi. He swims in it. He wonders: Why so much sushi? He dreams of retirement.

What I’m saying is I will ingest gobs and globs of raw fish during my 12-day fall journey, to the point of possibly getting mercury poisoning, which would be one hell of a souvenir. Sushi, that artisanal seafood delicacy, isn’t cheap, one reason why I eat it sparingly. Another reason is that where I live fine sushi is as rare as Rodan sightings. And mediocre sushi, like a half-ass steak, makes one ponder existence darkly. 

Therein lies the miraculous ingenuity of Japan’s conveyor-belt sushi (kaiten-sushi) — not amazing, not bad, but invariably cheap and gratifying seafood that winds through the restaurant on exactly that, a conveyor belt, like an assembly-line of deliciousness. Its brilliant utility blots out its majestic absurdity.

Round and round the little plates go, each saucer’s cargo a slab of prepared-before-your-eyes nigiri, circling a seeming mile on a tiny conveyor belt, waiting for you to snatch it at your desire as it rattles by. Each plate or piece costs about a buck-fifty or less, so a meal, for me at least, ranges a not-bad $10-$15.

Yo-Sushi.jpg
Conveyor-belt sushi, like a buzzing food factory.

But why not try Jiro’s sushi shrine, the tiny 10-seat Sushi Jiro, a Michelin three-star establishment/closet located in Tokyo’s Ginza subway station? For one, it’s $300-plus a meal, no exceptions. Two, it is nigh to impossible to net a reservation, though I did spot the so-called Jiro Dreams of Sushi Jiro Dinner & Luxury Tour at a fee of $1,500 per head. This one’s for Jiro cultists/completists and FOMOs only. Plus, men have to wear a blue or white shirt and a blazer and we know that’s not going to happen.

b4eizl4ezm49wqtayhat.jpg
Edo-style sushi

So I’ll go back to school. Namely Sushi University, a two-hour tutorial pig-out in which you learn while you nosh at a fine Tokyo sushi restaurant. The pitch:

“How would you like to sit at an authentic, Edo-style sushi counter, enjoying sophisticated conversation with the chef? Each excursion includes a skilled interpreter who joins you from start to finish, allowing you to experience the culture and history of sushi as well as learn about the chef’s specialties and style of the restaurant.”

(Smoking and the wearing of perfume are forbidden lest they corrupt the delicate fishy.)

If I’m not a sushi master by now — though I think we’ve established that indeed I am — then surely I will be one after graduating Sushi University. Hai!

On my two prior trips to Japan I was gastronomically rudderless, lost, quite pathetic. I just ambled about, making impromptu eating choices based on whatever looked yummy and inviting in the neon-soaked Shibuya and Shinjuku areas where I stayed. I’d duck into an inevitably minuscule and packed yakitori place or busy conveyor-belt sushi joint, or simply grab some street food. (I ate whale. So sue me.)  I must say, I did eat fine.

Structure is the operative word this time. And learning (see: Sushi University) is part of it. Hence the Sake Tasting and Lecture I’ve enrolled in, aka Signature Sake-Tasting Course, a 10-plus glass sake tasting including sake snacks (or tsunami) and a lecture in English. It’s conducted at one of the most famous members-only sake houses (izakayas) in Tokyo, or so they say. (It could be a bar owned by the instructor’s cousin Rocco.) I don’t even like sake. But I am going for liquid enlightenment, to open my buds and brain. By course end, I will be a sucker for sake, otherwise I will upend the table and demand a refund. And then I’ll probably get roughed up and tossed to the curb.

maxresdefault.jpg

My Tokyo hotel is smack in the thwumping heart of kinetic, cornea-cooking Shinjuku, famous for its oceanic bar scene, insomniac nightlife and seedy red-light district — and for sucking up half the world’s electricity in hyperactive signage. I want to dig in with a little help from my friends, so I’m taking the Tokyo Bar Hopping Tour in Shinjuku — Explore the Hidden Bars in Food Alleys. I beg it’s as bulging as that unwieldy title, as our small group weaves through itty six-seat pubs and sake houses of the Golden Gai for food and drink and, I hope, staggering wisdom. Keep your tawdry Love Hotels. I’m not playing around. I’m here for elucidation and libation. Now where in hell do I get a stiff whisky? 

nightlife-shinjuku-tokyo-japan-one-s-business-districts-many-international-corporate-headquarters-located-here-40973672.jpg
Shinjuku — batshit.

Capping my Tokyo culinary explorations is an obligatory trip to the famed Tsukiji Fish Market for an early morning, 3.5-hour “food and culture” walking tour at the outer part of the massive market. Here’s some copy that’s as canned as Chicken of the Sea:

Rub shoulders with Michelin-starred chefs as they shop for ingredients at this sprawling, 80-year-old market for all things aquatic. Investigate the various stalls selling fish, shellfish, and everything in between, and sample Japanese favorites such as sushi, dried bonito, fresh oysters, and sake. Eat and drink like a Japanese local.”

Exactly. I want to eat and drink like a local, not a western bobble-head boob. That’s the point of this Edo-education and sake schooling — to figure how it’s done and cultivate an experience of maximum authenticity. I’m more about learning the history and culture than the language, though I do know three words in Japanese. Maybe four. No. Three.

shutterstock_1061193218.jpg
Tsukiji Fish Market. Looks disgusting. Tastes great.

At this point, I’ll be full up to the gills in raw fish, sake and sundry seafoods. I will have relished a moveable feast, an embarrassment of fishes. I will have been transported, spirited away. Jiro, that old master chef, will have nothing on me. I will have dreamed of sushi, and worlds more. I will at last be sated, and ready to start all over again. After you …

Seeing SeaWorld with moral clarity

The last time I was at SeaWorld in San Diego, epochs ago, an elephantine walrus sprayed a vast and violent spume of water at my mom, soaking her in spit and salt water and leaving me half aghast, half in giggles. It was a splashy public display — a decent crowd circled the creature’s enclosure — and mom was not overjoyed. Harpoons danced in her head.

This was the revenge of the pinniped, a blubbery brown Jabba the Hutt that seemed to be broadcasting to us all, “Stop taunting, gawking and pointing at me and my helplessly oppressed prison mates. Enough! Sploosh.

3831424696_c9a7ba4813_b

If only all the park’s captive marine animals — penguins, dolphins, seals, sea otters, orcas, sharks, florescent fishies — could speak so eloquently, so mean and to the point. Because these swimming, jumping, barking, glowing creatures are not happy campers. They are abductees, held against their natures, highly evolved wildlife reduced to playthings, ogled objects, effectively slaves. They should hold a hunger strike, or incite a riot, or at least sign petitions.  

I’m returning to SeaWorld this month with a hard gulp of guilt. First, there’s the raping of my wallet: the standard entry fee is a leap-off-a-bridge $92. Surely at that price I can ride a killer whale and feed a Great White and take home a baby otter. (But, uh-uh, I can’t.)

But more importantly I am guilty about all those animals, many of which have heartrending backstories. It mostly plays like this: The animals are snatched from their mothers on the open sea and dropped into a tiny, concrete, chemical-laden pool for a torturous eternity of crowd-pleasing antics, frozen fish food, disease and premature death. Did I note that the mothers from which they are snatched are often slaughtered? There’s that.

D6JAryUUYAExLOo

Despite meager improvements — SeaWorld, under tremendous public pressure, ceased its orca shows in 2017 — the new documentary “Long Gone Wild” reveals a “wildlife trade that includes capturing orcas from the wild and selling them to the exploding marine theme park industry in China, and points to the hardships orcas experience in captivity, such as collapsed fins, broken teeth, and severe boredom and depression.”

I have little doubt the remaining killer whales at SeaWorld are borderline suicidal. 

And why did SeaWorld San Diego halt its theatrical killer whale shows? It’s thanks in large part to powerful agitprop, particularly the 2013 documentary “Blackfish,” which follows a performing killer whale’s cruel treatment in captivity and its resulting swath of destruction, killing several people while in captivity.

(As for swimming with dolphins, that exotic brand of blissful exploitation: also reprehensible. See HERE and HERE.)

So off to SeaWorld I go (it’s a family thing). I can bring money, I can bring empathy and sympathy and an overall spirit of goodwill. I can look a dolphin in the eye and whisper, “Dude, hang in there. You can do this.” I can tell a walrus to chill and enjoy his prison comrades, before he loogies in my face and tells me to go to hell.

I can’t free Willy, but I can instill in him and his sea-park pals dignity and self-worth. It won’t be easy — those flapping, clapping sea lions look thrilled to be there, despite yelping like they’re being run over by a Range Rover. Yet with rectitude, altruism and a soupçon of soul, the animals might know we’re out there, and that we give a damn.

shutterstock_68472997.0.0

  • For more on the ethical iffiness and ickiness of SeaWorld, go HERE and HERE.

9 best films of 2019 (so far)

In no particular order, the movies I’m excited about at the year’s half-way point …

Climax-Banner.jpg

“Climax”

Puckishly sadistic, Gaspar Noé and Lars von Trier remain cinema’s great pessimists, glib nihilists and gleeful provocateurs. Look, without flinching, at Noé’s masterwork “Irréversible” or von Trier’s “Antichrist” and you’ll see my point. With the head-spinning, hallucinogenic swirl of body (and camera) movement that is “Climax,” Noé takes his visual and thematic tics past the edge of woozy chaos. When an extraordinarily talented dance troupe’s party is ruined by a bowl of LSD-spiked punch, hell uncorks with fury. What was a glorious pageant of writhing bodies becomes a descent into a violent nightmare of screeching, thrashing individuals trying to relocate reality. The camera rides a liquid wave of neon hues, racing and corkscrewing down halls and weaving through rooms. Frequently indulgent and meandering, with no real characters or story, just sensation and electro-shock, the film is pure immersion, a sustained climax. I didn’t say it was pleasant. But it is novel, and queerly riveting. And purely Noé. Watch the trailer HERE.

last_black_man_in_san_francisco_ver3.jpg

“The Last Black Man in San Francisco”

At once arty, elegiac, poetic and tough-minded, this is a tale, a beautiful reverie, that strikes on topics of race and class and gentrification with sparks and lyricism and primary-color Spike Lee sizzle. It’s something singular, and it slowly intoxicates with its emotional and sociological depths. Following Jimmie Fails (played by the actor of the same name — he’s as charismatic as a young Don Cheadle) as he presses to reclaim the giant Victorian home of his grandfather, the film is both a call to honoring blood bonds and a plaintive hymn to a troubled city. Joe Talbot directs (and co-writes) with soaring vision and intense feeling. The result is dire, daring, dreamy. Trailer HERE.

honeyland.jpg

“Honeyland”

In this gorgeously observational documentary, weathered, middle-aged Hatidze lives in the rocky Macedonian mountains, where she cares for her ailing mother and tends to several beehives that produce honey for a tenuous livelihood. A large, rowdy family moves next door and decides to try beekeeping, but without expertise, they flail and almost comically get stung more than they harvest the sweet goo. Tensions arise between the neighbors, but this achingly humanistic look at an exotic if seriously impoverished way of life is mostly a portrait of Hatidze, a steely, lonely woman who has as much soul as those mountains can contain. The doc won a record three awards at Sundance 2019, including for its ravishing cinematography. Trailer HERE.

mustang.jpg

“The Mustang”

Breaking a horse is a bitch. Triple the challenge if it’s a rearing, snorting wild desert mustang. That’s what Roman (Matthias Schoenaerts) is tasked with as a violent criminal in a Nevada prison program in which convicts break mustangs for auction, preparing them for work in law enforcement. “We’re not training these horses for little kids’ birthdays and pony rides,” growls Bruce Dern’s crusty bossman, who knows both man and horse require an especially prickly strain of tough-love. If Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre’s feature debut falls into a formulaic groove — the apex of the depiction of trust-building between human and wild horse remains Carroll Ballard’s 1979 “The Black Stallion” — the film doesn’t flinch from gritty, violent twists. The dangerous dance between Roman and his horse Marcus retains tension, as the two captives, both scrappy and obstinate, circle each other in a face-off that could end in injury and defeat, or mutual respect and friendship. Roman’s frustration boils — “Just fucking listen to me!” he snaps. “I’m not going to hurt you! You hear me, you stupid animal!” — and it’s no surprise the horse is listening. Trailer HERE.

her smell.jpg

“Her Smell”

Elisabeth Moss’ performance in this shambolic punk-rock portrait is as athletically interior as it is exterior, spiked with physical fits and spasms like a lunatic child in a druggy tantrum. In my favorite performance of the year, Moss plays Becky, volatile front-woman of a female punk band she’s struggling to keep together between coke binges and flame-throwing hissy fits. The actress stirs up a cackling, hand-flinging cauldron of Courtney Love, Blanche DuBois, Charles Manson and Gena Rowlands in “A Woman Under the Influence.” It’s all raw-nerve, and Moss commits to her anti-heroine in a self-immolating blaze. She’s as shattering as this ballsy, surprisingly sensitive film by writer-director Alex Ross Perry. Trailer HERE.

Booksmart-Movie-2019-900x506.jpg

“Booksmart”

Barreling forth with raunchy vigor and unbridled zest, this breakneck coming-of-age comedy, actress Olivia Wilde’s impressive directorial debut, screams fun. Almost literally: There’s a lot of screaming — in surprise, horror and explosive joy. An amplified spin on school-days greats — “Dazed and Confused,” John Hughes’ oeuvre and last year’s “Lady Bird” and “Eighth Grade” — “Booksmart” piles on twists with a sharp, knowing eye that zooms in on the timely and topical, from female power and LGBTQs, to bullying and the corrosive effects of cliques, and, duh, the liberating if daunting pull of sexual exploration. Starring a terrific Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever as boundary-pushing besties, who learn, in a fleeting haze, that maybe bongs are as fun as books. Trailer HERE.

46084844_685873568460655_5249823622087835648_n.jpg

“Gloria Bell”

A glowing Julianne Moore — is there a more radiant actress? — assumes the title role in this sweet, ebullient, slightly melancholic snapshot of a middle-aged divorced woman seeking love and connection in modern Los Angeles. A touching remake of the 2013 Chilean film “Gloria,” by the writer-director of that movie, Sebastián Lelio, the movie follows its wise, free-spirited character onto her favorite place, the dance floor, where she finds romance with a nice guy (a fine, empathetic John Turturro) and all the attendant delights, complications and disappointments of love. No matter how sore things get, Gloria’s joie de vivre stays infectious. Trailer HERE.

NON FICTION.jpg

“Non-Fiction”

French writer-director Olivier Assayas‘ dramedy is a tireless, tonic gabfest that had me speed-reading the flurry of subtitles more than drinking in the warm faces and colors of the bustling scenes. That’s no complaint. The profusion of words — intelligent, eloquent, biting — brim with ideas, humor, pain and pathos, for an enveloping artful experience. You want to know the fork-tongued characters, led by an enchanting Juliette Binoche, because of the literary, arty cosmos in which these writers, editors and actors orbit. It’s heady and human: They’re just people, with all of our people-ly problems, and it’s more exciting than you think. Part tart publishing-world satire, part feast of infidelity, part anatomy of midlife crises, “Non-Fiction” is light on plot, more enmeshed in ideas about love and life, loyalty between friends and lovers, and, in a topical concession, a pointed conversation about new media vs. the printed word. It’s like a Gallic Woody Allen comedy, without the tootling clarinet and stammering, gesticulating neuroses. Trailer HERE.

souveneir.jpg

“The Souvenir”

Not an easy film, Joanna Hogg‘s elusive, divisive relationship drama is boobytrapped with qualities that repel people from the arthouse. It’s glacial, elliptical, remote. It makes you work with loosely hanging scenes, a jagged structure and oblique characterizations. I broke a small sweat trying to solder the plot together, identify with the actors and figure out where Hogg was taking me. The entry point is young film student Julie, played with winsome diffidence by Honor Swinton Byrne. Julie’s lover Anthony (Tom Burke) is a heroin addict, a secret until it’s not, which inevitably snarls their relationship. The story is mostly scenes of the couple muddling through their unconventional, occasionally off-putting upper-middle-class affair. With drugs. And spats. And sex. And dinner parties. And the making of a student film. And an IRA bombing. Somehow, Hogg’s disparate elements crazily fall together. Trailer HERE.

What’s in a name? Lots apparently

“When you’re a white, blonde-haired, blue-eyed woman named LaKiesha, life can get complicated.” 

So begins an excellent CNN.com story that continues: “Strangers burst out laughing when you tell them your name. Puzzled white people ask what your parents were thinking. Black people wonder if you’re trying to play a bad joke.”

190609180750-lakiesha-francis-super-169.jpg
LaKiesha Francis

The story’s headline is “What it’s like to be a white woman named LaKiesha,” and what follows by reporter John Blake is a probing, provocative account of life for a very white LaKiesha Francis in small-town Ohio because of her exotic birth name, and what it means when a white person has a “black” name and a black person has a “white” name. 

“We hear a lot about what are known as ‘black-sounding’ names these days,” Blake writes. “What LaKiesha has discovered is that the names of Americans are as segregated as many of their lives. There are names that seem traditionally reserved for whites only, such as Molly, Tanner and Connor. And names favored by black parents, such as Aliyah, DeShawn and Kiara. … But when you move through life with a name that violates those racial and ethnic boundaries, LaKiesha has found that people will often treat you as an imposter.”

unnamed-file.jpgFurther proof of name prejudice and name politics is this 2006 ABC report on “whitest” and “blackest” names:

“Studies of résumés found that people with black-sounding names are less likely to get callbacks. ABC put 22 pairs of names to the test, posting identical résumés except for the names at the top. The résumés with the white-sounding names were actually downloaded 17 percent more often by job recruiters than those with black-sounding names.”

Toxic and pernicious, let’s call this what it is: flagrant racism. Both of these articles are so powerful and troubling on their own — do click their links — that I have little of substance to add to them. My reactions are as visceral as intellectual, and putting them into words would likely be messy.

Yet I have my own modest story about appropriating a so-called black name. A long time ago I bought a white and ginger pet rat. I named her LaShonda for no greater reasons than I thought it was cute and cheeky. And fitting. Like her, it was adorable, full of spirit.

But then I started second-guessing the name. What would vets and their receptionists think when I brought in a white rodent named LaShonda? When I told friends her name the response was usually laughter. What had I done? Was I making fun of a black name? Or, as I believed, was I giving my pet the coolest name I could think of? (I thought of changing it, but LaShonda mysteriously died in her cage after only three weeks.)

P1010172.jpg
This is actually Tammy the rat, but she is practically a twin of the late LaShonda.

Would LaShonda have faced the same backlash LaKiesha Francis does? Would she have been treated as an imposter, her job applications put at the bottom of the pile because of her exotic moniker? Would she have been bullied by other rats? Would she have legally changed her name to Carol or Gertrude? Would she have resented me for putting so much social pressure on her?

“It can be exhausting constantly explaining yourself to white people, even though you’re white,” writes Blake. I believe it. LaKiesha and LaShonda “sound” black, but expectations are upended, confusion reigns and mockery and resentment are possible outcomes.  “A name isn’t just a name, according to history and social science,” Blake says. “Give someone the wrong name and it can become a burden.”

Funerals in the forest

I’ve talked here before about how to dispose of my body after I croak. I have particular, peculiar, deeply secular ideas. First, do not bury me; I am not landfill. Second, do cremate me; you can put my ashes in a curvy hourglass, a swirling snow globe, or a Magic 8 Ball to be shaken for answers to imponderable cosmic queries, such as, “Does Suzy like me?”  

These are some very real alternatives, as well:

* As I’ve written here, Washington State is considering allowing human remains to be disposed of and reduced to soil through composting. It works like this: Decomposing bodies crumble and decay into soil and are dispersed to help flowers and trees thrive. There’s no coffin, no chemicals, no pricey cemetery plot and none of the fossil fuels used in cremation. Eco-ecstasy.

* In another post I described the underwater reef ball, an eco-friendly, reef-building sphere of cement in which your ashes are placed and then sunk to the bottom of the sea. First you’re cremated. Then your ashes are stirred with concrete and shaped into a hollow, hole-pocked reef ball. Resting on the seafloor, its goal is to provide a teeming marine habitat for fish, coral and other sea critters.

image.jpg

Now there’s another option, which I saw in the Times. “Could Trees Be the New Gravestones?” the headline asks. It’s a bit cryptic, but read on and it’s all about forest funerals. The first thing that popped to mind was hiding a corpse in the woods, throwing some leaves over it, and running. 

But no. This is about a respectable body receptacle, a burial place for human (and pet) ashes deep among towering trees, verdant ferns and Chia-lush moss, a sylvan Eden of mist and dew, deer, butterflies and half-men, half-goats. You want to be buried in beauty, this is your spot.

Better Place Forests, a Bay Area start-up, is “buying forests, arranging conservation easements intended to prevent the land from ever being developed, and then selling people the right to have their cremated remains mixed with fertilizer and fed to a particular tree,” the Times says. (Fed to a particular tree — Mother Nature’s bottomless buffet chomps on.) vc_insidersguidetocaliforniasredwoodcoast_st_rm_ea6f8r_1280x640.jpgIt sounds a lot like Washington State’s human composting proposal, but Better Place Forests seems to have this thing up and rolling with a tree-specific blueprint. The company emailed me this simplified explanation of how its “memorial forests” work:

  1. You choose a tree in one of our private, permanently protected forests.
  2. Under this tree, you spread ashes of family members and pets for generations to come.
  3. Our forests are easy to reach. Your family can visit your tree at any time.

Along with flowers, bring a backpack, picnic spread, bottle of rosé and bug spray.

So far, only two forests are taking cremains: one in Point Arena on the ocean-sprayed coast of Northern California and the dense Santa Cruz Forest, where 6,000 trees are available on 80 acres. Spots in Seattle, Denver, Portland and Flagstaff are in the works.

Dying is easy; paying for it is hard. What’s your budget? What kind of tree do you want to be eaten by? Some of the nitty-gritty (boldface mine):

“Customers come to claim a tree for perpetuity. This now costs between $3,000 (for those who want to be mixed into the earth at the base of a small young tree or a less desirable species of tree) and upward of $30,000 (for those who wish to reside forever by an old redwood). For those who don’t mind spending eternity with strangers, there is also an entry-level price of $970 to enter the soil of a community tree. (Cremation is not included.) A steward then installs a small round plaque in the earth like a gravestone.”

I don’t know about you, but I’m not doing “a less desirable species of tree” (sorry, pine) or the community tree, which smacks of a pauper’s grave — fine for Mozart but not moi. I’m going for it — 30K to snuggle up to an ancient, majestic redwood, a barky skyscraper that kisses the clouds and tickles the sun. That sounds lovely. I’ll be dead, but still.

How strange to be sprinkled at the base of a giant tree in a vast shadow-dappled forest. Will an impish fox come dig me up, uprooting the whole rest-in-peace thing? Might a small-bladdered hiker use my tree as a makeshift urinal? Even stranger, could a fern sprout where my ashes are buried like in the book “Where the Red Fern Grows”?

That would be deliciously nuts — what color would my fern be? — and as surreal, incomprehensible and amazing as death itself.

Now, where do I sign up?

(The company’s video pitch is HERE.)

merlin_155601582_ab30cd88-747a-4c47-852f-f6b4d0b79d11-superJumbo.jpg
“A small round plaque in the earth like a gravestone.” They’re not kidding. That looks to be about the size of a silver dollar.

Good movies right now

Before summer’s prequels, sequels and tweak-quels bombard us, I offer this eclectic spread of late-spring cinema surprises, all worth a look:

booksmart.jpg

 “Booksmart”

Barreling forth with raunchy vigor and unbridled zest, this breakneck coming-of-age comedy, actress Olivia Wilde’s impressive directorial debut, screams fun. Almost literally: There’s a lot of screaming — in surprise, horror and explosive joy. It’s damn near contagious.

An amplified spin on school-days greats — “Dazed and Confused,” John Hughes’ oeuvre and last year’s “Lady Bird” and “Eighth Grade” — “Booksmart” piles on twists and layers with a sharp, knowing eye that zooms in on the timely and topical, from female power and LGBTs, to bullying and the corrosive effects of cliques — and of course the liberating if daunting pull of sexual exploration.

Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever play best friends Molly and Amy, super-nerds at their high school who are maligned for their almost pathological goodie-goodie-ism. They’re all books and no bacchanal and are certain that’s the only way to make it through college and life.

Molly, who has a crush on an unattainable pretty boy, and Amy, who has a crush on a scrappy skate-girl — sort of the story’s dual heroes’ journey — recklessly decide to shed their image and go all out on the night before graduation. The upshot is an epic party-hopping misadventure festooned with the silly, surreal and psychedelic, aided by riotously inspired side players who should get their own movies (including Carrie Fisher’s daughter, the scene-stealing Billie Lourd).

“Booksmart” radiates the crazy anarchic spirit of party-hearty teen classics like “Superbad,” and indeed “crazy” might be the movie’s one-word elevator pitch. Hang on for the insta-classic “doll scene.” It’s a little bit Barbie, a little bit “Team America,” and all warped genius.

In theaters. Watch the trailer HERE.

*nonfiction-actual-final-poster.pngNon-Fiction”

French writer-director Olivier Assayas‘ new dramedy is a tireless, tonic gabfest that had me speed-reading the flurry of subtitles more than drinking in the warm faces and colors of the bustling scenes.

That’s no complaint. The profusion of words — intelligent, eloquent, biting — brim with ideas, humor, pain and pathos, for an enveloping artful experience. You want to know the fork-tongued characters, led by a ravishing Juliette Binoche, because of the literary, arty cosmos in which these writers, editors and actors orbit. It’s intoxicating and deeply human: They’re just people, with all of our people-ly problems, and it’s more exciting than you think.

Part tart publishing-world satire, part feast of infidelity, part anatomy of midlife crises, “Non-Fiction” is light on plot, more enmeshed in ideas about love and life, loyalty between friends and lovers, and, in a topical concession, a pointed conversation about new media vs. the printed word. It’s like a Gallic Woody Allen comedy, without the tootling clarinet and stammering, gesticulating neuroses (though there’s plenty of neuroses to go around). 

Assayas, one of our most talented and inventive living filmmakers — like Michael Winterbottom and the late Kubrick, he’s a virtuoso of versatility — has made a comedy of manners that has more in common with his wonderful, verbose family drama “Summer Hours” than his masterly supernatural genre-buster “Personal Shopper.” Like the best of his movies, it’s brightly observant and conspicuously literate — as rich as a great novel, kind of ironic for a picture titled “Non-Fiction.”

In theaters. Watch the trailer HERE.

*

p16607639_v_v8_aa.jpg

“The Souvenir”

Not an easy film, Joanna Hogg‘s elusive, divisive relationship drama is boobytrapped with qualities that repel people away from the arthouse. It’s glacial, elliptical, remote, woolly. It makes you work with loosely hanging scenes, a jagged structure and oblique characterizations. I broke a small sweat trying to solder the plot together, identify with the actors and figure out where Hogg was taking me. (“Hogg,” writes one critic, “has the courage of her incoherence.”) Mostly I succeeded, finally granting this vaguely experimental flick a shaky B+.

The main entry point is young film student Julie, played with winsome diffidence by Honor Swinton Byrne, daughter of indie eminence Tilda Swinton, who has a small role as, who else, Julie’s flittering mother, her face a pinched mask of imperious disquiet.

Julie’s lover Anthony (Tom Burke) is a heroin addict, a secret until it’s not, which inevitably tangles their relationship. The story is mostly scenes of the couple muddling through their unconventional, occasionally off-putting upper-middle-class affair. With drugs. And spats. And sex. And dinner parties. And the making of a student film. And an IRA bombing. Hogg’s disparate elements somehow fall together.

There were two huffy walkouts at my recent screening, and online reviews are tetchy. “I found this film to be tedious and unrewarding,” one gripes. “I want my money back,” harrumphs another. And this: “The only movie I’ve ever walked out of in my life. I’m amazed I stayed awake and endured it for over an hour.”

With a giggle, I take those as good signs — chance-taking auteurism is always encouraging — more reasons to stick with this exacting film and reap its chilly virtues.

In theaters. Watch the trailer HERE.

*

WhatsMyName_Ali_KeyArt_lreb.jpeg

 “What’s My Name: Muhammad Ali”

Eyes wide, mouth agape, a fist pounding the table, Muhammad Ali is unleashed, free-associative verse tumbling from his unstoppable maw. Harnessing vainglory and the gift of gab, Ali is showboating, again, his audience of press and promoters rapt and laughing. And then he winds down, admitting exhaustion, the pugilist at rest.

The sudden calm is a rare state for the heavyweight champ, self-anointed The Greatest, whose taunting poetic prattle — “I’m so bad, I make medicine sick!” — earned him both infamy and adulation. “He talks too damn much! Put your fist in his mouth!” Ali recalls a ringside heckler shouting in this HBO documentary, a transfixing, rap-rattling trip through the fighter’s professional life told almost exclusively in his own words. It’s a beautifully edited stream of vintage press conferences, TV and radio interviews, with ribbons of color from managers and trainers, magazine covers and newspaper headlines.  (“He could never keep his big mouth shut,” reads one.)

The two-part, near-three-hour film, directed by Antoine Fuqua (“Training Day,” “Southpaw”) and co-produced by LeBron James, whomps with exhilarating fight footage, and so much more. If Ali was a raving icon in the ring, he was perhaps more of one outside it. He used his supersize personality and cascading eloquence to speak out for civil rights and Islam and against segregation and the Vietnam War. This keen portrait of social decency and athletic supremacy is also a voyage through late 20th-century history and culture, in which an African-American became an international hero.

On HBO and HBO GO. Watch the trailer: HERE. 

*

8f516a76-5047-42a5-9337-be30f22332c4.jpg

“The Biggest Little Farm”

If John and Molly Chester learn a few things while building their farm from the sun-baked dirt up, it’s that birds decimate crops, pigs get sick, coyotes feast on chickens, organic eggs sell crazy-fast and manure is magic.

Stars of this inspiring, sometimes harrowing auto-doc, thirty-something couple John and Molly chronicle what happens over seven years when they ditch their tiny Santa Monica apartment for 200 neglected acres an hour outside L.A. to miraculously conjure a working, biodiverse farm. It’s a quixotic, back-to-the-land quest made of heedless ambition and fashionable enlightenment.

“Everyone told us that attempting to farm in harmony with nature would be reckless if not impossible,” says John, this enchanting film’s director and narrator.

Well, almost impossible. John, a wildlife cinematographer — blame him for the movie’s plush nature imagery — and Molly, a chef and food blogger, seek purpose via this sustainable farm. Molly yearns to grow everything she cooks in conservational fashion, as if from a “traditional farm from the past,” dutifully echoing the Earth-friendly ethos of the likes of chef Alice Waters and responsible-foodie manifesto-writer Michael Pollan.

Over years battling pests, drought and the elements, the Chesters’ apparent folly assumes the mantle of glorious accomplishment. (How they pay for it is another question entirely.) Through toil and struggle, heartache and heartbreak, they cultivate a luminous idyll, a practically paradisiacal spread bounding with life, joy and abundance. You almost can’t believe your eyes.

In theaters. Watch the trailer HERE.

*

0a78b0b4cb26ac831ac16ac5d7e6cceada6c69ee.jpg

  • Bonus pre-summer movie: I haven’t seen it yet, but I know a masterpiece when it has a barrel pressed against my head: “John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum. Taciturn and hitman-cool, the Keanu Reeves vehicle has been called bloody, balletic, exhilarating and “a refresher course, and a liberating one, in the nature of escapist entertainment.” If you haven’t caught the first two John Wick flicks, you have my sympathy. The trailer’s HERE.