Thankful For A Mistake

On this Thanksgiving Day, I’m thankful for not always getting what I want. I know, it’s such a corny, trite statement, and you can probably hear a Keith Richards guitar line in the back of your mind, along with Mick Jagger starting to sing, “I saw her today at the reception …”

But it’s true. In this case—I’m thankful for a little bonsai tree I bought for my wife for Mother’s Day. I ordered a pink azalea bonsai from an online florist, only to have the tree arrive with no pink azaleas. It looked like a dull green house plant devoid of color, and it presented no surprise when my wife pulled it out of the box. An online chat failed to resolve the matter, meaning no replacement or refund, and I had to live with the bonsai.

But then a strange thing happened. I began to care for it—setting it on top of a windowsill, exposing its branches to sunlight, using a measuring cup every morning to pour a generous amount of water on the soil and splashing droplets of water on its leaves with my fingers.

My bonsai tree. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

I gave the plant daily positive reinforcement before placing it back in its spot—saying things like, “You’re doing good. We’re proud of you. We love you. You’re a member of the family.” I also breathed on it, hoping my exhalation of carbon dioxide would help sustain the plant.

And the tree remains alive today. This is quite a feat, considering I’m no plant person. I have no green thumb. I don’t spend my summers tending to a garden of tomatoes, beans and corn in a vast plot of land in my backyard. I’m an urban apartment dweller.

But I am proud that six months after Mother’s Day, the little bonsai is still going strong. I’m grateful that it adds a little life to my drab existence. And I do believe if the bonsai had come with blooming pink azaleas, it would have been tossed out in the trash a long time ago.

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The Real Bedford Falls Documentary Released

I just want to share the news that our independent documentary The Real Bedford Falls: It’s a Wonderful Life is now available on DVD and digital HD. The film was produced by Honest Engine Films and distributed by Virgil Films and Entertainment. It recently won a New York Emmy Award in the category of Nostalgia-Long Form Content. 

Here is the synopsis:

Was one of the world’s most beloved motion pictures influenced by a small upstate New York town? The Real Bedford Falls: It’s a Wonderful Life is an Emmy Award-winning, half-hour documentary that explores the connections between Seneca Falls, New York, and Bedford Falls, the setting of the movie It’s a Wonderful Life.

Aerial image by Chase Guttman.

The documentary examines small-town life in Seneca Falls, captures the excitement of the annual It’s a Wonderful Life Festival, and celebrates the enduring themes of the Frank Capra classic. The film features interviews with Karolyn Grimes (who played Zuzu Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life), Jimmy Hawkins (who played Tommy Bailey), Monica Capra Hodges, granddaughter of Frank Capra, and film critic Leonard Maltin. Former NBC Today show correspondent Bob Dotson provides the narration.

The release of the documentary comes at the right time, as this year marks the 75th anniversary of the release of It’s a Wonderful Life.

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Frankenstein, 1931

On Friday night, I watched the 1931 film Frankenstein, starring Colin Clive and Boris Karloff. And Henry Frankenstein’s creature, called The Monster, played by Karloff, elicited my empathy as he jolted to life in a lightning storm with an abnormal brain incapable of functioning in society. I won’t relay the plot summary since the story is very familiar. And the movie version is much different from the novel it was based upon, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus.

Frankenstein poster

But one scene stood out. In it, Karloff plays a game with a little girl, both of them tossing flowers into a lake. He then picks up the girl and throws her in, and she disappears below the surface of the water. Why? He doesn’t know any better.

Frankenstein movie still.

And the film made me think of my autistic son and about all disabled people. What do we do with humans who don’t live up to perceived standards of normalcy? Where do they go? Are they given a chance to function, to thrive, to pursue happiness, and to find a place in this world? I have no answers—just a desire to express kindness toward every person.

And the movie inspired a short poem.

Halloween Screening:
Frankenstein, 1931

You can’t fault
Frankenstein’s creature
For what he became.

He never had a choice.
He didn’t ask to be born.
He didn’t seek existence.

With an abnormal brain
And cobbled parts,
He can’t be blamed for
The terror he wrought.

He was only acting
According to his nature.
The real monster here
Is the man who
Created the creature.

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About Endlessness

I recently watched About Endlessness, a 2019 film by Swedish director Roy Andersson. It falls in line with other works by Andersson, including You, the Living (2007) and A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (2014).

The film is a series of vignettes that explore the absurdity, tragedy, and loneliness of life. They are comical and fantastical, mundane and realistic, all at the same time. Andersson probes existential themes, and although About Endlessness is a Swedish film with subtitles, it transcends country and language based its universal portrayal of humanity and the raw emotions expressed.

Andersson’s style consists of static scenes composed of single long takes with all action taking place within the frame—like a painting come to life. Andersson’s work exemplifies film critic André Bazin’s theory of mise-en-scène—with composition, lighting, set design, and production design being more important than editing.

And the wide-angle shots by cinematographer Gergely Pálos reminded me of the deep focus cinematography of Gregg Toland in Citizen Kane.

A subdued female narrator describes banal moments, like a woman with a stroller in a train station who loses one of the heels on her black shoes. “I saw a woman who had problems with her shoe,” the narrator explains.

This type of plotless film is not for everyone; it’s aimed for an art house audience. However, Andersson has a good sense of timing. Just when the viewer’s interest in a scene starts to wane, he cuts to something else. And with a running time of 78 minutes, the film does not drag.

A couple of vignettes really stood out for me.

In a crowded market, with fresh fish in the foreground and produce and cheese in the background, a woman with dark hair and a brown coat converses with a man. She then walks away, moving toward the fish station and eventually toward the center of the frame.

A bald man shouts to her: “I could see the two of you had a lot to talk about.” He then slaps her across the face. The other customers look on but do not intervene. He slaps her two more times and then some men step in and stop him. The bald man is wrestled to the ground, and he says to the woman: “You do know that I love you?” And she responds, “Yes, dear, I know. I know.”

Still from About Endlessness.

This realistic portrayal of spousal violence filled me with unease. Yet I couldn’t look away. Putting myself in the middle of that market, I ask myself, “How would I have reacted? Would I have tried to stop the man from hitting his wife? How many slaps would he have connected on before I came to her defense?”

In the second scene I want to point out, Andersson depicts an urban bar/cafe during the evening hours with light snow falling outside the windows. Silent Night plays in the background, and we are unsure if the music is playing inside the bar or if Andersson is using the track as a music bed.

A dentist from an earlier scene has come in to get a drink, and he looks down at the countertop as he holds a glass. He appears melancholy, and the scene conjures an image of Edward Hopper’s painting Nighthawks.

Still from About Endlessness.

A short male customer turns to the dentist and says, “Isn’t it quite fantastic?” When the dentist does not respond, the man turns to another customer and repeats his line verbatim. This time, a thin customer in a black suit says, “What?” And the man who asked the original question responds: “Everything. Everything. Everything is fantastic.” And the man in the suit says, “Well, yes.” And the little man adds, “I think so, at least.”

I believe Andersson elevates the art form of cinema through his portrayal of humanity, his mix of humor and pathos, and his willingness to let the viewer fill in the details or complete the narratives he has set in motion.

To find out more about Andersson check out his Wikipedia page or his IMDb page.

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Walking Commuter Notes

MORNING

I walk to work almost every morning—following East Genesee Street toward downtown Syracuse. Before I leave my apartment building, I usually hang out with my wife Pam and son Colin while they wait for Colin’s school bus to arrive.

Today, underneath a gray sky spitting drizzle, Colin entertains himself by jumping up and down, flapping his hands and pulling his Paw Patrol mask down around his chin.

“Ah, put up your mask when you go on the bus and when you’re inside school,” Pam tells him. He listens and pulls up his mask. Colin is in kindergarten, and he has autism.

He’s dressed in sweatpants and a blue hooded sweat jacket. A maroon and navy blue Fila book bag—packed with the crunchy snacks he likes to eat—is slung over his shoulder.

When it’s time for me to break away, I remove my mask and plaster his face with a couple of quick kisses. Pam then says to Colin, “Ah, say goodbye to daddy.” When his eyes remain cast elsewhere, she holds his face gently and points it in my direction. She holds his hand and helps him to wave. “Come on now. Say bye-bye.”

“Bye-bye daddy,” he says with a clipped delivery.

“Good job,” Pam says.

I start walking on the sidewalk along Genesee, turning my head and waving toward my family, their figures looking tiny while standing under the green awning of the tan, brick building. I see his bus turning onto Genesee Street, and I pray that Colin will climb aboard safely, find his seat up front and remain in place while the bus accelerates.

Then a thought pops into my head. I don’t invite it, but it emerges anyway.

I think: This could be the last time I ever see my wife and son. I realize I am not invincible, that tragedy could strike at any moment and my loved ones could be taken away in an instant.

I look up to the clouds and try to shake the dark thought from my mind, turning my attention to work-related tasks I need to complete.

AFTERNOON

In the late afternoon, I leave the Nancy Cantor Warehouse in downtown Syracuse, walking in a steady rain along Washington Street. I cross State Street and then walk toward Fayette Street. I pass by a standpipe, and I continue on my way. But then I remember Fountain, the ready-made sculpture of a urinal by French artist Marcel Duchamp.

Marcel Duchamp’s 1917 sculpture Fountain.

I backtrack, pull out my iPhone and snap a few pictures—inspired by Duchamp’s iconic still life artwork.

According to Merriam-Webster, a standpipe is a “high vertical pipe or reservoir that is used to secure a uniform pressure in a water-supply system.” I’ve seen the term before, but I never knew the meaning. But I looked it up online as soon as I got home.

Syracuse Standpipe. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

And I guess that’s the beauty of a walking commute in a city—if you pay attention to your surroundings, you can discover things that other people might miss. It takes practice to heighten your senses and elevate your awareness. But as an urban explorer, if I am willing to pay close attention, it seems the universe is willing to reward me with satisfying visual stimuli. In my case, it makes the everyday extraordinary and the mundane magical (forgive the alliteration).

Here are some recent photos from my walking commute:

Squirrel on telephone pole. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

Chair tipped over. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

Fountain. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

Alley. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

University Block Building. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

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Albert Camus: Notebook Prose

I finished reading Albert Camus’s Notebooks 1935-1942. Here’s my previous post about it.

The book is a writer’s journal, and it includes philosophical passages, descriptions of places, and raw narrative material that later evolved into scenes in Camus’s most famous novel, The Stranger. Camus’s prose is lyrical and poetic, and I find myself re-reading many of these entries because I am blown away by their beauty. And I think writers could use some of the passages as fiction or poetry prompts—cracking them open and taking them in any direction.

Here are just a few entries that stood out for me:

“The first almond trees in blossom along the road by the sea. One night has been enough for them to covered with the fragile snow that we cannot imagine standing up to the cold and the rain which drenches all their petals.”

“From the top of the coast road, the cliffs are so thick that the landscape becomes unreal through its very qualities. Man is an outlaw there, so much so that all this beauty seems to come from another world.”

1940

“Evenings on the terrace of the Deux Merveilles. The palpitation of the sea that is sensed in the hollow of the night. The quivering almond trees and the smell of smoke rising from the earth.

The rocks in the sea covered with white seagulls. With their gray mass, lit up by the whiteness of the birds’ wings, they look like luminous floating cemeteries.”

And I’m not sure if this passage made its way into The Stranger or became a scene in another short story or novel. But I found the imagery incredible:

“Lying down, he smiled clumsily and his eyes glistened. She felt all her love flood into her throat and tears come into her eyes. She threw herself on his lips and crushed her tears between their two faces. She wept into his mouth, while he tasted in these salt lips all the bitterness of their love.”

Camus, Albert. Notebooks 1935-1942. Paris: Editions Gallimard, 1962. Ivan R. Dee, Translation, Reprint Edition, 2010.

I plan to read volume two of Camus’s notebooks, which covers the period from 1942 to 1951.

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Birthday Poems

I am celebrating my 52nd birthday today. And with each passing year, I feel the weight of mortality and the footsteps of death encroaching. It’s a presence I can’t escape, like Bergman’s grim reaper in The Seventh Seal.

In reality, though, you don’t need a birthday to be struck by that feeling. An impending sense of finality hits me every morning I awaken. But I also feel overwhelming gratitude when I am granted another morning, another day, another opportunity to create and share time and space and precious moments with loved ones.

A poem by the late poet Mark Strand seems fitting for this birthday and for this moment in time under COVID. To me it expresses the fleeting nature of existence.

Mark Strand, 1934-2014

The Coming of Light

Even this late it happens:
the coming of love, the coming of light.
You wake and the candles are lit as if by themselves,
stars gather, dreams pour into your pillows,
sending up warm bouquets of air.
Even this late the bones of the body shine
and tomorrow’s dust flares into breath.

To Mr. Strand’s words, I add a few poems of my own, all focused on the unavoidable outcome of existence. They remind me to accept the inevitable while still trying to extract meaning out of a life that must cease one day.

Interment

I imagine the coffin lid closing,
the pine box being lowered into the pit,
shovels of dirt hitting the top,
and no one hearing me scream,
“Let me out. Let me out,”
as I realize I’ve run out of time
to make my life count.

What You Get

There is nothing you can do
to avoid becoming dust.
You can try to elongate your life,
but you will expire one day.

And whether cremated
or buried in the earth,
your body will not
survive this world.
Maybe your soul will
travel somewhere else,
but really, who knows for sure?

In this existence,
you are granted only two things:
Right Here. Right Now.
That’s all you get.
So make the most of it.

Awareness

How many people are dying
in emergency rooms
at this exact moment?
Right now, how many people are
exhaling their last breaths?
How many loved ones
arrive too late to say goodbye?

Each day ushers in death—
and while we sleep,
smashed brains, shattered bones,
plugged arteries, faulty hearts,
cancer and other diseases
claim their victims.

We try not to notice.
We try to avoid the truth.
We rush about our lives,
never knowing when
our time will come—
until one day it does.

I can’t live like that.
I can’t avoid the obvious.
I need to face death daily,
to recognize it lurking, prowling,
ready to pounce on me.
This knowledge of death
creeping nearby forces me
to examine my existence
and ascertain if I am useful—
wise with my time or wasteful.

I accept the finite offering
of a limited lifespan—
what little measure
of time God has granted.
It’s up to me to make it count.

Outward Arrangements: Poems by Francis DiClemente (2021).

 

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Glimpses of Existence: A Short Film

Glimpses of Existence, an experimental/documentary short film in the form of video collage, premieres tonight at an online film screening presented by NewFilmmakers New York.

Using poetry and scenes captured with an iPhone—both before and during the pandemic—the film attempts to find meaning in the mundane moments of our lives, seeking the extraordinary amid the ordinary.

Noir Smoke. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

The central focus of the film is my son, Colin, who has been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Despite his condition, Colin finds joy in everyday activities, and through his eyes we recognize the importance of treasuring the tiny segments of life we are granted—minutes, seconds, hours—while being reminded about the transitory nature of existence.

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