Tuesday, September 1, 2015

"Love and Taxes"

Four years ago, I was pleasantly surprised to find myself sitting next to Josh Kornbluth on a flight from Chicago to San Francisco. I recognized Josh as the protagonist in the playful independent comedy “Haiku Tunnel,” parts of which had been filmed in my neighborhood. 

I introduced myself as an (until-then) anonymous Facebook friend and asked Josh what he was working on. He mentioned a new movie called “Love and Taxes,” which he hoped to have wrapped up by tax day, 2012. 

As a devotee of the creative process who devours liner notes and DVD extras, I was full of questions about the new movie—specifically Josh’s collaborative dance with his brother Jacob, the director—but let it go. Josh was polite, but I could sense that he was eager to review the movie clips in the Mac resting on his upright tray.

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of seeing the finished project. I arrived 20 minutes before show time expecting to get a good seat, only to find a line from the box office half a block long. “Love and Taxes” was being shown on Josh’s home turf—the California Theater in Berkeley, where he has lived since 1997—at the Jewish Film Festival. The screening of this shoestring-budget, indie movie was an event.

The story begins in the office of Bob, a likable tax attorney who is as mild-mannered as his name suggests. As Bob’s secretary, Josh (a thinly fictionalized version of the real Josh Kornbluth) digs through obscure legal statutes from the early 20th Century in search of tax loopholes. The droll terms used for these tactics—the reverse double-dummy maneuver, the shotgun provision—and the enthusiasm with which he carries them out make the dry field of tax law seem fun and almost cause us to overlook the societal impact of corporate tax evasion.

In his free time, Josh performs a comic monologue at the Marsh, a small theater in the Mission District of San Francisco. During each performance, he riffs on the fact that he hasn’t filed his taxes in seven years, though his boss is a tax attorney. One day at work, Bob mentions that he’d seen the show and prods Josh to file. When Josh asks for help, Bob says, “I handle artificial persons. You’re a natural person,” and refers him elsewhere.

Josh sees a consultant who claims, in woo woo Bay Area spirit, to have a “holistic tax practice.” Josh doesn’t have a tax problem; he has a “tax symptom.” In psychoanalytic fashion, the consultant asks what his first memory of taxes is. 
A flashback takes us
Josh on the couch with his holistic tax consultant
Manhattan, circa 1964. Josh’s father, a committed communist, tells his young son that he won’t file his taxes because he refuses to fund wars and handouts to corporations. Josh’s father is strong and principled, wrapping his son in the protective gauze of the “Floating Socialist Republic of Kornbluthia.” He is also manifestly outside of the system, setting a precedent that Josh follows up to the moment he steps into the tax office.

From here the movie deftly pivots between fictional scenes that build the dramatic structure and humorous snippets from Josh’s (real) “Red Diaper Baby” concert monologue which fill out the context. 
Josh wrestles with whether or not to file and falls in love with Sara, a woman who has “complementary neuroses” and decidedly different views about the system. He receives a movie option on his stage show from an agent (played by Harry Shearer) and goes to Hollywood to write the screenplay, but feels like a fish out of water. He instead shoots the indie movie “Haiku Tunnel” with his younger brother in 18 days; it later premieres at Sundance. Josh files, but doesn’t pay his enormous tax bill. 

With his father’s anti-establishment words ringing in his ears, Josh visits the prominent D.C. tax lawyer Sheldon S. Cohen (played by former U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich), during the Bush Administration, and re-visits the question of whether or not he should pay taxes when so much of our money is being wasted on pre-emptive wars and tax cuts for millionaires. Sheldon’s answer, which is not what one would necessarily expect in such a cynical time, steers Josh in a new direction and explains the use of the word "love" in the film’s title.

Though the plot of “Love & Taxes” isn’t exactly incidental, the real enjoyment is in the moment-to-moment texture of the movie, driven by the main performance—Kornbluth’s
Sheldon Cohen: We're all in this together
warm, childlike, nervous energy is endearing—and the light, quirky vibe that doesn’t become precious or stylized, an affliction of too many independent movies. Though clearly on the side of economic justice, the movie makes its points with subtlety and humor, rather than ideological bludgeons. As one of Josh’s patrons says of his “Haiku Tunnel” monologue, “You take these chaotic life situations and make them streamlined.”

After the viewing, the filmmakers did a Q & A. It came out that during the seven years “Love & Taxes” was in production, the director (Josh’s brother Jacob) moved from Los Angeles to the Bay Area, married his roommate, had two children, started a non-profit, made another movie—the documentary “Inequality for All”—and slowly crafted this little movie that could by “scraping together” enough local actors to film scenes on weekends and holidays.

Jacob had left L.A. to create the movies he wanted to make, not with formulaic storyboards and dollar signs in his eyes but with love, care, and humanity, and it shows. “Love & Taxes” is a DIY production that was worth the wait.

Other "Truth and Beauty" film reviews:

"Honest Abe Makes Sausage" (about "Lincoln")

"Errol Morris Strikes Again" (about "Tabloid")

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Back in Time

The highway heading north was long and barren and straight as a board. Up ahead water mirages formed and dissipated in the summer heat. Sealed inside the air conditioned chamber of glass and steel, I wondered what I was about to see and how it would feel when I got there. 

After two hours on the endless monotonous road, my accelerator foot edging into numbness, I took an exit that led to the outskirts of my destination. Eyes toggling between the Mapquest directions in my hand and the traffic around me clipping along about 30 MPH, I drove for a few miles before coming across the locks that divided the small town I was visiting from the smaller town adjoining.

Instantly I knew where I was and where I was going, my point A-to-point B focus giving way to curiosity and an inner light on high glow. In one of those synchronicities that almost makes me think there's an order to the universe, Cream's "I'm so Glad" came on the radio as I looked left and right at stores and shops and restaurants I hadn't seen in 33 years, since I'd moved away in the 7th grade. 

Soon I came across a familiar car dealership. As a kid of 10-11-12 I was fascinated by cars and roamed this lot with a notebook, documenting features and prices; to this day I can identify American models from the late '70s and early '80s on sight. The continued existence of this lot was a sign of how little things had changed since I'd left, a balm to my life review.

I turned off the main road into the neighborhoods, 
my old stomping grounds. Helped along by sunny 
and warm May weather and the verdant plant life all 
around, I was transported back to the idyllic Midwestern
summers of my youth, a sharp contrast to my current life in the
Bay Area which was filled with big lots, open spaces, abundant tree 
cover and scant traffic that allowed me to drive slowly and take it all in at my 
own pace, as if I were moving freely through a still life painting. Able to pull over
 just about anywhere and park, I stopped outside of the school I had attended in 1979. 

The fence on the right, above, encloses the elementary school and accompanying lot where I learned to figure skate and played baseball with friends on weekends. In a vivid dream a few years ago I walked along the sidewalk on the left, at night, observing the school and the space and remembering many of the incidents that had happened there, my subconscious trying to make real the space I'd traveled many times in my daydreams. 

One of my favorite spots growing up was the park pictured next. Driving on the perimeter 
of the park, it occurred to me that there had been a way down from the 
back. This time, my memory was right. Here we a have a 
view of the sneak route from the top looking down, 

here a view from the bottom looking up,

along the way big fallen logs that slept soundly in the still forest.

This park has the remains of the board I learned to dive off of and

the mound from which I pitched one scoreless inning 
against the best team in the league, the Realtors, before 
gravity asserted itself in the second inning. With one out
 and two on base I fell behind in the count against a long 
ball hitter and gambled on throwing a strike. He took my 
fastball down the middle over the fence and effectively 
ended my Little League pitching career, though I didn't 
know it at the time. Nearby were better associations of 

the pond that winds through the park, 

perfectly framed by the luxuriant surroundings of

a summer in full bloom,

some of the tableaux so exquisite that the photos took themselves...

I closed this leg of my journey by way of the hill road I always used to race 
down on my ten speed, being back then oblivious to injury or mortality
or just how slight this seemingly steep gradient was next to 

the colossal  San Francisco hills I would climb later in life.

Sports was my main interest as a kid. Around the age of 12, 
I gave up baseball for tennisHere is the court where 
I first learned the game, not far from 

the field where my dad taught me how to play Frisbee, 
a perfect spot due to its flatness and lush, well-maintained grass 
where we had the space to throw big distances, which was ideal for long,
slowly descending tosses you had to chase down and try to nab on the run like a fly ball. 

Off to the side was this solitary bench and

at the end of the line of sight was a road that includes the house below. Often the settings of my dreams are rooms I was in once or twice many decades back, the brain-locked images hazy, undisturbed by concrete visuospatial definition. This house appeared in a dream though I was never in it and never knew who lived there. In the dream the house was smaller, perhaps half the actual size, and closer to the road, at a drop-off of a few feet. No one else lived in the house and it belonged to me, like the selective memories I had of it.

More familiar houses figured prominently in my journey around town. Here is my 
home from 1979 to 1981, where I remember lying in bed looking up at the ceiling 
 imagining what it would be like to walk on the ceiling, the world upside down. 

Directly across from my parents' house was a side yard 
my friends and I used to cut through often, without 
second thought. As I drove around I sought out 
these old shortcuts and wondered if 
kids were still using them.

My history teacher and music teacher were just 
up the street.  Mrs. McCormick painted Jimi Hendrix 
as some kinda freaky man from Mars as she told the class of how
he had stuck tabs of acid under his headband before he went onstage.

I can see her face as she told this story, her eyes wide with 
amazement, and ultimately what I remember most of my 
time in this small town is the people I was close to. 

My good friend Jay lived just a few blocks away. His 
distinguishing feature was ribald sense of humor; I 
remember him slyly placing my Star Wars figures in 
compromising positions before he went home—leaving 
me to take the blame when my mom discovered Han 
and Boba Fett in flagrante delicto on the kitchen  table. 
Jay's parents still live in the house he grew up in, below.

Around the corner was a junction where three of my friends lived
 in close proximity. John's dad was a baseball coach. The family 
members were kind, civilized people with a well-appointed kitchen 
that has popped into my dreamscapes a handful of times. I can't 
remember anything else about the house other than that 
there was a glass table with a canopy in the backyard, I think.

Joel was across the street from John. This is where my group of friends 
spent the most time, perhaps because Joel's parents were gone a lot. 
Joel had handheld electronic football games that everyone wanted 
to playFootball I, at first, which had only running plays, 
then Football II, which added passing plays. 

One time Joel and I were hanging with his older sister and 
her boyfriend, who were "babysitting" us. As we sat in the 
living room, the boyfriend pulled out a pot pipe and told me
story about being a kid and promising a man who was getting high 
in his presence that he wouldn't tell anyone what he was witnessing, how he had 
maintained his silence and wished me to do the same, a promise I kept until this moment.

Phil lived next door to John. I was only in his house a few times 
but have many memories. His older brother spreading tools and car parts 
all over the floor in the basement and charging me three dollars to tape record 
"Dream Police." His dad, an august Italian man in a wheelchair who reminded 
me of Marlon Brando in "The Godfather." And Phil himself, a character with 
a distinct inner fire that went out, I was shocked to discover, when 
he'd had a heart attack a few years back around the age of 40.

Phil's father managed a facility where my friend Chris's dad worked. Like 
the boys we were, Chris and I played Pong in his basement, which had pine 
wall paneling and red carpet. More importantly, he introduced me, at the ripe 
age of 12, to interests that have become cemented in my sensibility: Frank Zappa and progressive politics (ever-precocious, Chris was lambasting Reaganomics before 
had  the faintest idea what it was). The second floor of his house (pictured below), added
 after Chris moved to the Twin Cities, was one of the  few changes I saw on my trip.

The street in front of Chris's house was the scene of one of my deepest 
memories: a bike accident in which I got a deep cut on my hand that formed 

an upside down v-shaped scar (not unlike the Starship 
Enterprise uniform insigniawhich I still have today. 

The last house I visited was home to my friend Tom, a 

scholar-athlete who was the youngest member of a big family. 
I remember being in his kitchen and his mother gently 
mocking my last name, singing 

Bimbo, bimbo
What you gonna do-y-o?

and Tom smiling, telling her she was being 
rude, asking her to stop, though I didn't mind
it was harmless fun that clearly gave her enjoyment.

As I fueled up for my ride home a few blocks from Tom's
this grand 1954 Buick Century came into the gas station. 

The driver was generous when I asked if I could snap a few photos, and

when he came out of the convenience store after 
paying for his gas, he had a bouquet of flowers 
and a big smile on his face, a bright 
light that perfectly capped 
my nostalgia trip.


                                                     Other Truth and Beauty photo essays:

eye-catching architecture, and miscellaneous city scenes 
in a stroll from the Mission to South of Market to downtown

"Crystal Blue Persuasion" is a walking photo tour of San Francisco from the Bay to the Ocean (and a golden sunset) on a pristine sunny day just before Xmas

"Gone but not Forgotten" is a tribute to a friend who left this world all too soon 

"A Sunny* Monday in San Francisco" is a day tour of the city, 
from Mission Street to the Pacific Ocean

"On a clear day you can see forever" explores Noe Valley, Ashbury Heights, 
the Inner Sunset district, microclimates, and street art on a pristine September day 

"Random San Francisco" has 46 photos which range from 
ornate architecture to vistas to murals to sidewalk messaging

"California in November" captures deep fall natural splendor

Sunday, July 12, 2015

The Wheel of Emotions

Opinions differ about the depiction of emotion in fiction. Some writers feel that the most important action takes place in characters' hearts, and see the protagonist's emotional growth as an essential component of the narrative arc, perhaps even the main story line. Other writers, whether out of skepticism about the human capacity for change or a preference for plot movement on the physical plane, focus more on occurrences in the external world than internal reactions to those occurrences. I fall somewhere in between, filling in more emotion for characters who are in touch with their feelings and less for characters who keep things close to the vest (or are just plain shallow); some characters—like some people—are simply less knowable.

Wherever one falls in this discussion, the Wheel of Emotions, or The Emotion Wheel (courtesy of the The Writer's Circle group on Facebook) can be a helpful tool. The wheel provides a comprehensive taxonomy of emotion, from deep core feelings (fear, anger, happiness) to more particular manifestations (anxious, frustrated, joyful) to distinct forms of those manifestations (overwhelmed, irritated, ecstatic), all of which is handy both for writers trying to effectively convey their characters' inner worlds and for anyone who wants to know what makes human beings tick.

                                     More pieces about writing on Truth and Beauty: 

             "Magic A is Magic A" and other elements in the Periodic Table of Storytelling
                                  Charles Bukowski: So You Want to Be a Writer?

                                                First and Last Sentences

                                                The Emotion Thesaurus

                                                    * Follow Dan Benbow on Twitter