Eulogy for my Clairebear

Clairebear

Claire

My secret crush on this girl started when I was invited to New York for the announcement of a new film school in the Middle East, in Jordan, to create a generation of world class Arab filmmakers.  The Red Sea Institute of Cinematic Arts.  Claire Naber was the person tasked with putting this project together and she was the organizer of the event where his majesty King Abdullah would introduce the school.  I walked through the doors and saw her smile radiating like sunshine filling the entire conference room.  She welcomed me as if I’d known her my whole life.  Instantly everything in my world flipped upside down.  I knew nothing about this girl, but I wanted to be next to her for the rest of my life.  After the event, we had lunch with the group and laughed like children, then went our separate ways back to our lives.  I lived in Los Angeles, she lived in Jordan, and nothing happened.  Cut to-

Sundance Film Festival – 2008.  I see her again as we premier my first film.  I couldn’t let her go this time.  Every time I saw her, I felt this unstoppable universal force pulling me towards her.  She gave the best hugs in the world.  She was filled with life, laughter, and love.  She was the most beautiful girl on the planet, but she had no idea.  She was just Claire.  A radiant angel walking among us humans.  I had to somehow trap her into my life and steal her away, all for myself.  My angel.  Cut to–

Christmas 2008 – She said yes.  Apparently, many people had tried to capture this human angel with their attempts, but she’d always run away.  Somehow, I was lucky.  My scheme worked.  I had conned her into thinking that I’m worthy of her love.  We got married in 2009, in this church, and created memories together, laughing at the smallest things, traveling, writing, playing with our dogs, and making movies.  We worked hard to build our dream life of creativity. 

Claire and Amin Santorini

Throughout our relationship, Claire’s greatest two passions were writing and building the film school, RSICA.  She was the mother behind RSICA from day one when Samer Mouasher asked her to build a film school in Aqaba.  He was right.  She was the lady for the job.  Claire spent tireless hours, night and day, planning out the year, the brand identity of the school, finding the actual building, interviewing students, hiring faculty from USC, working with the staff putting out fires, and she never asked for recognition.  Just as she was the muse behind the scenes inspiring me with my films, she was the mother behind the scenes at RSICA.  Today, a whole generation of Arab filmmakers exist across the Middle East because of the love Claire poured into RSCIA.  

In the past week, I received hundreds of messages from people who knew Claire and were affected by her presence in their life.  She made everyone feel special, and she cared more about everyone else’s comfort and happiness than hers.  That quality and her infectious laugh made her this human angel.  I’ve been lucky to have her in my life.  

One of Claire’s favorite jokes was “You plan and plan and plan, then God laughs and says, ‘that’s nice, now let me show you how it’s going to be.’  Three and a half years, she battled, and she never lost her sense of humor.    We had soul crushing defeats every time we realized that the cancer came back, but somehow Claire managed to rise up and fight with her optimistic spirit.  She managed to find hope even when the doctors said the chances were grim.  She kept on fighting with her leadership and a sense of humor that inspired us and rallied our whole family of friends around her in the fight. And because of her incredible mother, Donna, who moved in with us in Los Angeles, and took care of her night and day.   

Life is a roller coaster filled with ups and downs.  My journey with my Claire taught me a lot in the past six years.  I’ll try to boil it down to a few gems.  So I’ll leave you with this: 

Live in the moment and laugh at the absurdity of life.
Look forward to things you love.  Do not dwell on the negative.  
If life gives you lemons, make lemonade, and drink it with your friends and the people you love.
Live to love, because without love, there is no reason to live.
Connect with the life around you.  Don’t live in isolation.
Geek out on the things you love.
There’s room in your heart for so much love.  The more you give, the more you have to give.  That was what made Claire so special.  
Last but not least, be kind.  Be kind to everyone.  The strangers you meet, the friends around you, and the family that loves you.

This video is something I made for our One Year anniversary. It gives you a glimpse of how lucky I was to have had this much love in my life.

CLaire Flowers

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Goodbye our boy, Oboe (Aug 5, 2002 – Oct 17, 2014)

It’s been four weeks, and I still can’t think of words. My Oboe, my shadow, my baby boy, my best friend, you’ve been through the highest highs and lowest lows right here by our side in the past 12 years, making us laugh or smile with the wag of your tail and your funny sounds, surprises, and unpredictable ways. Thank you for making every moment count. You’ll be walking next to me wherever I go, till the day I die. Love you, forever.

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My Boy, Cello (2002 – 2013)

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Most dogs respond to the words “sit”.  Cello preferred “Why don’t you have a seat… please?”  That was my boy, the majestic, the aristocratic, Cello the magnificent.

I found him at a fish store, Jack’s Aquarium, in Hilliard, Ohio on June 18, 2002.  He was sitting in a small aquarium, and at 9 weeks old, he was almost the size of my hand. The moment I saw him, even though I had never grown up with a dog, I knew that my life would change forever.  I knew that I was willing to commit everything in me to adopt this boy and make him my soul mate. Being a huge fan of the musical performances of Yo Yo Ma, I decided I would call him after my favorite instrument, “Cello”.

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He was small, but everyday, like something out of a cartoon, when I got home from work, he would double in size.  I had no idea that this little cub would become a 130 pound beast, a hulk that could stand on his hind legs six feet high, so tall that he could smell what I had for lunch.  He once jumped up and caught a bird in mid-air.  He also traumatized me by crushing two squirrels to death.  He was a bear, a hunter, a magnificent wild beast, and he knew it.  If he was to live within the tame confines of a human house, he demanded my respect first.

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Our relationship was completely mutual, 50/50, not master and dog, but truly best friends teaching each other about life.  I set the rules and he showed me how easy they were to break.  I got him a baby brother (Oboe), and he employed him as his assistant.  When Claire came into our life, he took his time before signing off his approval, and then he spent his entire life making us laugh.  He was no ordinary dog.  He had a voice and an opinion, and he made sure it was heard.  When I threw him a tennis ball to catch, he looked at me with ridicule, as if to say “you go fetch it yourself.  Do I look like a dog?”

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He permitted me to take his photographs, and posed, ever so dignified, like a king, while Oboe rolled on his back playing in the grass with his tongue hanging out.

Cello was my protector.  Once, while walking in Hollywood, a group of gang-bangers jumped out of a van with sticks to pull off an initiation on me (thinking I was walking alone), before they came around the parked cars revealing the two giant beasts walking before me.  Cello rose up and growled threateningly, and I kid you not, like something out of a movie, the cowardly thugs backed away and ran back into the van, taking off.  Cello was my monster.

He was also the gentlest creature you’d ever meet.  Around children, he became a puppy again, crouching down, curling up his tail and spinning it like a helicopter blade, giving away his child-like happiness.  When he saw our friends come into our apartment, he ran to his collection of toys and stuffed as many as he could into his mouth, bringing them up as an offering to show that it’s time to play.  When we went for car rides, he would stick his head up through the roof, like Dino on the Flinstones, bringing smiles to people out on the street.

Cello loved to eat from my hand, and I loved sharing my meals with him.  Whenever we sat down to eat, he would diplomatically position himself between Claire and I so he could maximize his pivot range to manipulate us with his soft puppy eyes, putting his chin up on the edge of the couch.  And if we ignored him, he would get up and bark at the neighbors to make us run out after him, and he’d continue a full circle back to the meal awaiting him at the table.  He put us to work, and deep down, we loved it, because he made it all fun.

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He was my best friend and my teacher.  He taught me how to love completely.  I never knew I had this much in me.  Despite all pretenses of being the proud lion that he is, his puppy love instincts always betrayed him.  As soon as I would come home from wherever I was, he would be waiting for me at the door, eager to play and share hugs.  And quite honestly, is there anything happier than rolling on the ground with your living breathing Teddy Bear?  Image

He taught me how to be present and live in the moment.  Because of him, I became compassionate towards animals, and gave up my treasured hamburgers and chicken (I became pescatarian).  Because of him, I had my awakening to life, I moved from Ohio to California to pursue my dreams of filmmaking, and he was with me every step of the way.  He acted in one of my early short films, and when I was in film school, he patiently waited at home for me.  He was beside me when I wrote Captain Abu Raed, and even slept on the editing room couch when we were cutting in post.  And lastly, I had the good fortune to share a cameo with Mister Cello in my last film, Strangely In Love.

My Lulu kept me balanced and reminded me that no matter what success or failure, the most important thing in the world was that we go for our walks every day.  Nothing else really mattered, and quite honestly, nothing could be more true.

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My greatest fear throughout our eleven and half years together was that I would lose my boy.  He was my anchor.  My home.  But now looking back, I couldn’t have asked for more.  We’ve experienced life’s happiest memories together.  From the snow of Ohio to the canyons and beaches of California, to camping in the woods together and hiking Runyon everyday.  From the single life to married life.  Making movies, celebrating with friends, and going through the private tough times too.  He was especially there for those.  Right by our side.  In his final days, he lost control of his hind leg due to a tumor growing behind his eye. I had to carry him with my two arms for his last ride up the steps to our door, as I did when I brought him home in Ohio. I hurt my back, but I was happy to have my boy completely in my arms, like a giant baby, one final time.  Cello was my universe.

He was born on April 9, 2002 and left this world on October 10, 2013, sleeping on our bedroom floor, surrounded by Claire and I, after a good night where all his friends came and bade him farewell, playing him music, kissing his giant head, combing hands through his thick double-coated fur.  I miss him beyond words, yet somehow, though our apartment has now become all too quiet, I feel him everywhere I go.  I carry him with me, in my heart and in my mind.  His spirit is in my spirit.  We are one, till the day I die.

There are millions of dogs in the world, but there will only be one Cello.

My boy, my son, I love you forever and ever.  You made me a better human being through your doggy love.  No words will ever do justice to what you signify to me, but I will honor your memory by loving the way you loved, and smiling every time I feel the pain of your loss in my heart.

Your person,

Amin

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Happy Birthday Oboe!

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Yesterday, Aug 5, 2013, my little giant fur ball, Oboe Matalqa, turned 11.  I got Oboe on Sept 23, 2002 when he was only seven weeks old, and felt so much reluctance at the end of the day because Cello, who was five months at the time, kept trying to eat his head.  He was jealous that I’d brought another puppy into our lives.  We found him at a farm in Grove City, Ohio that had posted an ad in the newspaper.  Oboe (born Sammy Joe VIII) was the first puppy to come play with us, and I decided to bring him home. 

It seemed impossible to convince Cello that this was now his little brother and he must love him.  I had to separate them, and by the end of the night felt that I had made a mistake in bringing this fragile little guy home (though he did stand up for himself).  I called the lady I bought him from and asked if I could return him, for his own safety.  She said it’s only natural to have sibling rivalry.  Just give them a chance. 

I kept them separated while I was at work, and Cello refused to make eye contact with me for two weeks.  I had betrayed our inseparable bond, man and his best friend.  What the hell was this pet doing in the middle of it all?  He wanted him returned as soon as possible.  Eventually of course, Oboe started throwing himself at Cello, jumping at him, and they started playing together, chasing one another like Tom and Jerry, and they would soon realize that this was the deal:  Amin, Cello, and Oboe, until death do us part. It would turn out to be the deepest friendship of my life.

The amount of laughs our little Oboe has brought into our lives, and all the warm and fuzzy moments, are impossible to capture with words.  All I can say is how grateful I am to not have returned this little guy that night.  He has taught me that all the stress of work and transition and uncertainty doesn’t matter, as long as you can take a simple walk and flip upside down on the couch. 

Thank you Oboe for being our teacher and my eternal bear.

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This is South Korea

I want everyone in the world to see what South Korea is getting away with.  It is an embarrassment and a stain on the people of Korea that their government still allows the torture and cruelty of 2 million dogs a year.  That is not a myth.  It is a hard fact.  Here is a video that will educate anyone who denies it.  Please don’t look away.  Do something and let the world know that this is South Korea.  Until they stop what is going on, we MUST SPEAK on behalf of these poor dogs.  Beaten, tortured, boiled alive, electrocuted.  I am trying to contain my anger, but I would rather use it to fuel positive action to fight back.  I hope you will join all the voices rising against dog torture.  Here’s the video:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QTqUGTBgUWU&feature=youtu.be&t=4m38s

Michael Kamen’s Concerto for Eric Clapton

 

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This past Monday, April 15th, would’ve been Michael Kamen’s 65th birthday if he’d still been with us.  Well, he’s still with me.  Last night I went for a long walk down the streets of LA and I put on one of my all-time favorite pieces of music.  A piece that is so good, it’s almost sacred.  This is the holy grail of concertos, Michael Kamen’s Concerto for Electric Guitar, which he wrote for Eric Clapton in 1990 and performed live on their 24 Nights tour with the National Philharmonic Orchestra.  

Tragically, before they could record it in a studio, Clapton’s 4 year old boy Conor fell to his death from the window of a 53rd floor suite he was staying at in New York.  Clapton put his electric guitar away and only sang the blues after that.  And they never recorded the concerto properly in a studio.

In September 2003, just a couple of months before Michael passed away, I spoke with him on the phone, and he said they were going to get back together, he and Eric, and finally record the concerto properly (Michael had done a great but different recording with Japanese guitarist, Hotei, and the Seattle Symphony Orchestra in 1997). The world lost Michael too soon.  Way too soon.  His unique musical voice was a gift that only a handful of Hollywood composers possess.  

To me, the Concerto for Electric Guitar, as performed by Eric Clapton in this live recording, the final night of the tour, is on par with Beethoven’s 3rd, or 9th.  It’s on par with Rachmaninoff’s 3rd.   And I don’t say this lightly.  This is one of THE GREATEST pieces of music ever written.  The emotional arc contained within the journey of these three movements is so powerful and deep that I hope you will only listen to it actively (not as background music while you’re checking facebook).  Put this on your ipod and take a walk in the city, or blast it at home in a dark room where your senses are only tuned in to your ears and heart. Or take it with you to the gym and see how you feel when you go on that run.  It is an emotional journey to bliss!  This is Michael Kamen’s greatest achievement, and I want to share this very rare recording with everyone in the world. 

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Bolt by John Powell

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Now shooting towards the top of my favorite films is Bolt.  What a masterpiece of art.  The film, the score, the heart, the comedy, the action, and the journey across America.  It’s a perfect film for anyone who loves animation and anyone who has that connection with their dog.

Bolt is a testament to the genius of John Lasseter and his team at Disney. For one thing, the animation blends modern CGI techniques with old school hand-painted Disney backgrounds (later rendered into 3D models).  You can watch this film over and over to dig deeper into appreciating the level of artistry, love, and perfection behind it.

And here John Powell delivers one of his best scores (alongside How to Train Your Dragon).  What’s so fun about this score is the way it jumps between high octane action and sweet heartfelt moments driven by the simple piano melody that’s later played by a big brass section and swelling strings. 

The film has so many high points, like when Bolt discovers that he’s not who he thought he was, or the moments of disappointment when he realizes he’s been replaced.  Heart-crushing, but in the end you will be left with tears of joy reminding you of the beauty of a dog’s unbreakable loyalty to their best friend. 

Here’s a journey through the score in ten minutes. 

Salmon Fishing in The Yemen by Dario Marianelli

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Right next to Life of Pi, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is the other Best score of 2012.  One of my very favorite composers of the last five years has been Dario Marianelli.  He writes beautiful lyrical scores with class, elegance, and emotional depth.  Atonement and Pride & Prejudice are both excellent results of his collaboration with director Joe Wright.  This Lasse Halstrom film starring Ewan McGregor and Emily Blunt was an unexpected surprise.  I loved both the film and the score, which evokes a bright sun and a cool breeze mixed together.  Best of 2012. 

Get the full score on iTunes

Superman by John Williams

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This weekend marked the great John Williams’ 81st birthday.  So it’s fitting to dive into my favorite of his scores.  But where do I start?  There are too many.  Well, okay, anyone who knows me knows that my favorite movie theme of all time is his Superman.  But that’s not only why this magnificent score is so rich and meaningful.  To me, it’s because of the journey that it takes until we arrive at the fulfillment of this timeless three note motif, which by the way Williams derived from the same three notes starting Richard Strauss’s famous Also Spracht Zarathustra (which most people know from the opening of 2001 A Space Odyssey) in which Nietzsche introduced the concept of the Ubermench (the Super Human). 

To me, the best stuff is in the first half of the Richard Donner film.  It’s the dark material that starts at Planet Krypton as it approaches destruction, baby Supe’s journey to Earth, followed by the Coplandesque Americana music as he grows up, and then the atonal writing that takes us through the Fortress of Solitude. Only after that whole experience are we finally rewarded with the Superman theme. The moment it finally explodes, you feel like you just want to zoom up into the sky.  

There’s one more thing that has resonated with me ever since I was a little boy.  It’s the Helicopter Rescue scene, where after a suspenseful sequence where Lois is hanging off the top of the building about to fall off with the helicopter, Clark Kent walks out of the Daily Planet building and he notices everyone on the street looking up at the disaster about to happen, and here Williams pulls off one of the greatest movie music moments of all time.  Ta ta tum.  Ta ta ta, ta ta tum.  The hint at that Superman motif comes as Clark looks for a spot to change into Superman.  And you feel the goosebumps rise up, and then finally he opens his shirt as he runs towards camera along with the theme which finally goes into full blast as Supe saves Lois and the falling chopper. 

Here’s the full soundtrack album on iTunes

The Count of Monte Cristo by Ed Shearmur

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One of my favorite books and movies is also one of my favorite scores of the past ten years.  This film was directed by Kevin Reynolds (who also made Robin Hood).  Ed Shearmur delivers the full adventure in this emotional, dramatic, and action-packed score. It’s been copied in scores like Pirates of the Caribbean and Avatar, but this is the real deal.

One of the many highlights is Escape from the Island.  Shearmur underscores the inner drama and suspense so perfectly.  Beat by beat, the music builds, starting with Edmand Dante lamenting the death of Abbe Faria.  The moment he figures out how to escape, everything winds down and the celli make a perfect entrance hitting Dante’s inner thoughts in a classic moment where camera, performance and music work together in harmony for a an unforgettable cinema moment.  I would encourage anyone interested in film scoring to look at that whole sequence and how it’s scored.  The orchestra starts growing with a delicious interplay between crispy brass jabs and string arpeggios as the prison guards carry Dante’s body out and throw him over the cliff into the ocean.  There’s a suffocating struggle under water until finally the breath of air is inhaled with the reintroduction of Monte Cristo’s noble and innocent theme on French Horn and then trumpet, which we haven’t heard since he was first taken prisoner. The metaphor of course is his rebirth as a new person when he emerges from the water.  This is film music at its best.

Anyway, I’m focusing on a small section in a perfect whole.  The album is a great listening experience, especially if you’ve seen the film.  I recommend this to anyone who loves a good classic. 

Here are a couple of tracks on YouTube:

Betrayed

Training Montage

Retribution