Maya Angelou was a strip-tease dancer?!

Sweet, pious, beautifully spoken, Mother Teresa-meets-Martin Luther King Jr, “Touched by an Angel” poet Maya Angelou?!

Indeed, Maya Angelou spent a brief four month stint as a strip-tease dancer at the Bonne Nuit Dance Club in San Francisco when her marriage had ended and she was looking for work to support herself and her son. I stumbled upon this little nugget while reading what is said to be considered Maya Angelou’s most deeply personal memoir, Mom & Me & Mom, in which she describes her relationship with her mother and how it shaped the woman she became. While she calls it strip-tease dancing, and although she was scantily clad, Maya never actually took her clothes off on stage for money. In her memoir, Maya mentions how she didn’t want to be known as a strip-tease dancer. She had studied dance most of her life, at that point, and was liberated by it. When she was dancing she felt as if her body “had a reason to be.” But the “prospect of three hundred dollars per week was tantalizing.” She calls her mother and explains her dilemma. To my surprise, and possibly to Maya’s, her mother encourages her to apply for the position. Together, they create a revealing but theatrical costume and Maya hires a drummer to play for her while she dances. Maya quickly becomes the most popular and most sought after dancer in the club with patrons even “turn[ing] their backs to the strip dancers.” She gains regular visitors who come to the club to watch her dance and her performances are even written about by several popular San Francisco columnists who praise her dance skills and  business acumen. A group of her regulars become her future employers, hiring her to star as a calypso singer at their club, the Purple Onion. She goes from making $300 a week to making $750 a week. Her mother tells her, “Now you will see some of the world and you will show the world what you are working with.” This opens up other opportunities to sing as a way to support herself which opens up opportunities to travel and see the world.

I’ve had a specific vision of Miss Angelou, a name she kept because she “liked the sound of it” (from the very marriage whose end drove her to become a strip-tease dancer), for most of my life. I’ve come to realize that my vision of Miss Angelou was skewed yet she is now no less angelic in my eyes. On the contrary, learning more about who she was, where she came from and what she experienced in her life and adding that to what I had known of her in her later years just fills me with even more respect and adoration for the woman. She never apologizes for being human. She shuns this idea of perfection that we all hopelessly cling too and speaks only of love, understanding and acceptance. She does not define herself by her experiences but rather allows relationships to mold her. She embraces the imperfections in herself and, by doing so, gives us hope that we can do the same for ourselves. My vision of Maya Angelou never even came close to capturing what a badass she truly was.

There’s a valuable lesson in Maya’s provocative yet short-lived strip-tease dancing career. I believe Maya’s mother,  Vivian Baxter, said it best; “You are going far in this world, baby, because you dare to risk everything.”

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Nicolas Cage is a Coppola?!

That’s right folks, Nic Cage is a Coppola. If you’re like a lot of people I’ve talked to, you’ve probably always had a love/unimpressed relationship with Cage’s acting. He’s very hit or miss for me but, although he’s not in any of my favorite movies, he is in quite a few movies that I do enjoy, including his acting in them. Some of those movies include Adaptation., Joe, The Wicker Man, Matchstick Men and, most recently, Moonstruck, which was unexpectedly deep. Of course, I did also enjoy Cage in Con Air, The Rock and Face/Off but that was before I had developed a discerning nature in regard to movies – I mean, I was still in high school. You can’t expect too much from teenager me. I still enjoy those movies on a nostalgic level but, you have to admit, Cage’s acting in those movies is effing terrible.I know a lot of you are probably thinking “What about Leaving Las Vegas?!” Well, I haven’t watched it yet but it is on my list! Don’t worry, I’ll get there eventually.

When it comes to art, you develop a type of trust with the artists. Actors and actresses who consistently choose interesting, endearing, believable, difficult movies and roles for themselves are the ones that build trust with you over time and the ones whom you don’t hesitate to go to the theatre for when they’ve come out with a new project. I believe it was Benicio del Toro that said when you choose a role, you are choosing the movie too so you can’t always pick a role you want to play and expect the movie to be amazing even if the character is. Nic Cage just hasn’t maintained that trust with the roles and movies he chooses so I tend to be wary of his art.

Back to my point, according to IMDB and Wikipedia, Nic Cage, born Nicolas Kim Coppola, changed his name early in his career to avoid the appearance of nepotism. Nicolas, or as his Moonstruck co-star Cher calls him, Nicky wanted to make his own path in the acting world. For those of you still asking yourself why this matters, let’s talk a little about Francis Ford Coppola, Nick’s uncle on his father’s side. Francis is an Academy Award winning screenplay writer and director. You may know him for movies like the Godfather Parts I, II and III, Apocalypse Now, The RainMaker and Patton. He’s part of what is considered the New Hollywood wave of filmmaking where the film vision was the director’s rather than that of the studios. Without the pioneers of this movement, we’d have a lot less of the movies that move us and a lot more Face/Off-type movies. Big Hollywood studios had their specific genres that they tended to gear their films toward and their main objective was sales rather than art. With the directors at the helm of their creative vision, rather than the studios, we started to hear more individualized voices coming from Hollywood in addition to the churning of the Hollywood movie machine which, I believe, a lot of us are learning to or have already been ignoring in search of movies that we see ourselves in. Movies that really touch us rather than just entertain us.

Also familiar to me, and maybe I did pay attention to her at first because of her name, is Sofia Coppola, Francis’ daughter. Sofia is known for her Academy Award winning screenplay for the comedy-drama Lost in Translation. Of course, there is also Jason Schwartzman, Sofia and Nic’s cousin, who is frequently involved in the beloved Wes Anderson’s films and is one of the stars in, one of my personal favorites, Steve Martin’s Shopgirl.

I totally agree that winning Academy Awards is not the definition of being a great artist and Nic himself is a Best Actor winner for Leaving Las Vegas. It can also be argued that not everything Nic’s relatives put out there is gold but the caliber of most of Cage’s movies, especially ones he’s known for in the ’90’s, are not quite up to par with a lot of the art being created by some of his family members so when I read that he was part of the Coppola family, I was a little – okay a lot – taken aback. I respect a variety of Nic’s role choices especially in more recent years and I have to give him props for intentionally striking out on his own to see what he was capable of. We can all learn a lesson from his choice to go after what he wanted in the face of uncertainty. That being said, I still won’t be watching more than half of the movies he’s made and I watch A LOT of movies.

“You’re very pretty but you’re shallow beyond belief.” – Dell, Comet (2014)

Comet (2014)

Rated R Sci-fi/drama

Writer and Director:  Sam Esmail
Cast: Justin Long, Emmy Rossum
Cinematographer: Eric Koretz
Music: Daniel Hart

We only get to watch a movie for the first time once. Comet is, for me, now one of those movies that, while I’m grateful for the experience of this “time-based art”, it’s an experience I wish I could recreate as a new experience every time I watch it.

Although characters not uniquely driven by their fears and desires, sometimes catching fleeting glimpses of happiness possibilities, Kimberly and Dell are honestly and refreshingly flawed – even equally so. So often we see the story and growth of just one primary character while Comet affords us the satisfaction of experiencing the growth of both primary characters.

We experience this growth against a, usually, subtly surreal backdrop that allows us to remove the constraints that we would normally impose on these two, and on our own perspective, as they move throughout their world. Their world is familiar but different enough to allow for freedom from assumptions. The landscape is breathtaking and even brought tears to my eyes in moments when it was suddenly thrust into the foreground as an integral part of our characters’ stories.

Many of the dialogue scenes were shot in such a way that made me feel like I was watching a stage play – as if I were sitting right on stage with the actors, intimately observing both their joy and their turmoil and even feeling as if, like the landscape, I were participating in it. It reminded me of a monologue; even though you are aware that there are many beside you, you feel as if that character were speaking directly to you, beckoning you to see yourself in them.

And that’s really the point, right? Art beckons to us the same way that love does; to see ourselves in the other and to love and accept the other the way that we love and accept ourselves or, for many, to love and accept ourselves the way we love and accept the other.

We see ourselves in the highs and lows of Dell and Kimberly’s struggle to find the balance within so that balance can also be felt without, with the other. We seek out and hold on to tiny moments of true connection with another and, hopefully, like in the case of Dell and Kimberly, observe  growth spurts within ourselves through that connection. Complacency and criticism come so easily and expectation, negative or positive, distorts the beauty of reality, displacing the peace that exists in the here and now. Choose now, not five minutes from now.

For my Netflix friends, Comet is streaming as of today.