31 October 2014

Sweet Dreams are Made of This


“Dreams, you know, are what you wake up from.” -Raymond Carver.

Woke up again today. And here I was. Day off. Breakfast. Went to gym. Walked in the rain. Crossramp, treadmill, stair master, weights. Home for smoothie. Then to movie. Watched. Stopped at bookstore. Bought. Home again. Dinner. TV.  Now writing. These are the words I’ve written and they come in the wake of thoughts that I’ve entertained.

Now I can hear our neighbor. A relentlessly cheerful young man with three young children. His wife is a very nice woman with an unfortunate nasal midwestern voice. They are leading around a group of small children who are loudly and happily trick or treating. Some people don’t like Halloween or Valentine’s Day or Christmas. They want everyday to be March 18th. The same. Heaven forbid young people go cavorting about in costume enjoying something different. And they call me a curmudgeon.

More trick or treaters at the door. My wife handles the candy distribution. She enjoys it. Me, I’m happy for them to come but I sit out the festivities. The downside to Halloween is all the left over candy that I eat, even before it is left over. Like the overwhelming majority of people in this country today I have a rather sizable sweet tooth.

It’s been a bit of a struggle in recent years to keep myself away from sweet fattening foods. I indulge in ice cream when there is cause for celebration provided by the world of sports. I had a mighty big cause for whooping and hollering and leaping about two days ago when my beloved baseball team, the San Francisco Giants, claimed their third World Series title in five years. As a friend said, it never gets old.

The phrase walking on air best encapsulates how I felt yesterday and that euphoria has only a faded a whit today.

The Giants playoff run lasted almost all of October. That was a solid month of pacing and fretting and fist pumping and dancing jigs. When the World Series made it to a 7th game I was a wreck and could barely watch. When with two outs in the ninth inning a Royal reached third in a one-run ball game I feared the worst. When he popped out I broke into a happy celebration that included lifting oldest daughter perilously close to the ceiling. As much as joy, I felt relief that it was all at last over and that on top of it ending the outcome was perfect. Madison Bumgarner is an amazing baseball player and will live forever in World Series lore.

Sports spectating can be cruel. I have learned over the course of decades of following my favorite teams not to let a loss of any kind ruin my day. I’m pretty good about this now. I don’t throw hissy fits or collapse into depression when my teams falter no matter how excruciating the defeat. (Cal football has provided many tests of my resolve, twice this year alone.) But a World Series run stretched out as long as it is and with games lasting well over three hours each starts to gnaw at one’s nerves no matter that ice water runs through the veins.

Sports has done irreparable damage to players, fans, economies, psyches, budgets and communities. But it has also been a great healing force and a means of enrichment for all of those as well. I refuse to argue sports with people. I refuse to tease or taunt other fans or be teased or taunted and I refuse to be sucked into following every sport and every team under the sun. I reserve my viewing and attending to the Giants and Arsenal — an English soccer team — and Cal’s football and women’s and men’s basketball teams. I no longer follow the NBA, tennis, the NFL or any other college teams or sports. ( I do occasionally check on the San Jose Sharks of the NHL.)

There is far too much else to do.

But I love when sports causes strangers to high five and acquaintances to hug and people to relieve some of the stress of their day and escape into a game. I love the beauty of athletes making incredible plays and teams succeeding through cooperation and spirit. I love the roar of a home crowd.

I've been planning or writing about the best ever film about being a sports fan and promise to do so in November. A month which the calendar tells me will start tomorrow. I may also write about the film I saw in the theater today. It was damn good and well worth scribbling about. Happy days.

28 October 2014

A Nod is as Good as a Wink to a Dead Squid a Blog Post in Three Parts Written Over the Course of Three Days

PART ONE
Written on Sunday
I swear it smelled like someone brought a dead squid on MUNI the other day. I believe the squid was quite recently deceased and the cause of death was a virulent form of dysentery.

I take the MUNI to BART after work. As I’ve previously mentioned the bus goes through Chinatown and many passengers have just been grocery shopping. Some of their purchases are malodorous. Usually the offending odor can be identified as raw chicken freshly killed, or some variety of raw fish. But there’s never been anything as offensive as to the olfactory receptors as the dead sea creature from Wednesday last.

If you had never walked around Chinatown and just rode the #30 through it on a regular basis you could be forgiven for assuming that 90% of all Chinese people are either over 80 or under 18. The other 10% would seem to be people with foul smelling groceries. I don’t know where San Francisco’s Chinese American hide after their teen years and why they don’t come out again until they're octogenarians — except to tote around groceries — but there you have it.

Of course you have to be careful when writing about people of a particular age, nationality, sexuality, ethnic group, religion or with a handicap — I mean special need. Anything you say about anyone in a group can cause you to be marked as a crypto fascist. You can even lavish a group with praise and be called out for gross insensitivity. Try saying that Asians are mostly all good at math and note how many pitch fork bearing howler monkeys come for you. Oh god I typed howler monkey. There’s no telling how that can be misinterpreted. If nothing else the Anti Howler Monkey Defamation League is bound to be up in arms.

I have been at the forefront sensitivity, tolerance and inclusiveness all my life (well not when I was a toddler, I mean, come on). As a teacher I have preached the value of these noble traits long and loud. But as a society we have gone way too far and a by product of this is that those knuckle dragging conservatives sometimes have a point when they complain political correctness and the consequent diminution of free speech. There is a fine line between exercising free speech and being hurtful and hateful. Unfortunately learning to walk it seems beyond most people in our society.

Salt mines, not where I work
PART TWO
Written on Monday
So now I'm resuming this post a day later and a day dumber. It's nearly ten pm. At one point in the day I thought of some really brilliant stuff I wanted to write about. I had the exact wording and it was clever thought provoking and original. I've since forgotten every word. No clue even to the topic. My Monday's at the salt mine are brutal (its not so much as salt mine as an international language school but you get the picture). I followed my work day by paying the gymnasium a call and proceeded to make myself sweat profusely. This felt good. I then came home to be yelled at by the wife. She didn't actually yell she was really quite pleasant and usually is. Imagine being pleasant to a misanthrope like me on a daily basis. Takes all kinds. I made a fruit smoothie and watched a Simpsons episode then caught up on work. Too much. So I guess I can be forgiven for completely forgetting the best writing since the Gettysburg Address that I was going to produce right here on this blog.

Yesterday included a trip to youngest niece's house to celebrate her first born's first birthday. She and her husband are two marvels of creation as they are more incredibly sweet and smart and fun then can be imagined. Their son is in a good place. (I now boast three young grandnephews ranging in age from two to 18 months and a grandniece who recently turned five years.) There were a lot of people at the gathering. Some of them a I knew including a few who I know quite well as they are kin. But there were a lot of people I didn't know from Adam or even from Eve. And still others I'd seen around before and maybe been introduced but couldn't tell you their name or anything about them for $50. This is not my favorite situation and I figured out why.

I grew up going to large gatherings of Finns, most had been born in the old country. I was comfortable with this and not just because I'd grown up around them. Finnish people just have a way in social settings that I'm comfortable with. There is a pace to the gatherings and a way of serving or getting food and talking or not talking to people. I can't really explain because its just in my DNA. It's clearly no better or no worse than the way any other ethnic group gathers and celebrates we're all different after all. After moving from home I continued to go to social gatherings and did quite well because of course I was lubricated with massive amounts of alcohol. I was a real charmer, unless of course I'd had one or twelve too many in which case I was loud, obnoxious and your very best friend or lover for life whether you knew or liked me or not. Anyway I got through all manner of party or celebration by greasing the wheels, so to speak. When I went off the sauce I had nothing. I didn't -- and still don't -- feel comfortable talking to people who I don't already know and like. Yesterday I spent more time petting and talking to a golden retriever than I did any theretofore unknown human beings. I'm cool with children, the younger the better. I'll chat up a storm with a baby and get along swimmingly with a toddler. Unknown adults however I shy away from.

PART THREE
Written on Tuesday
Strange. I was just in a conversation with a co-worker who I highly esteem discussing a topic of mutual interest. Suddenly she just took over the conversation and ran roughshod over everything I said oblivious to my words, actually being down right rude. Too much coffee? Jealous of my more intimate knowledge of the topic or of my including one of my daughter's in the story? Masking some problem she is having through word diarrhea? I dunno. I've never known her to do it before. Usually when a person is a rude conversationalist its a consistent pattern and I steer the hell away from talking to her or him. This was an anomaly. Just strange.

I really like people. I love my students, for example and am very nice to them. In my evaluations they comment on this. I suppose I just don't like engaging in meaningless blather, small talk. I like big talk, silly talk or no talk at all. Oh I'll have idle banter about the weather and weekends with intimates but I never participate for too long and its just to fill the time before more meaningful conversation. In some cases I care what a person is doing over the weekend but for the most part.....Yawn.

Speaking of odd segues...movies. I watched a few over the weekend and can recommend them all. Midnight Mary (1933) directed by the criminally underrated William Wellman stars Loretta Young at age 20 when she was as beautiful a human being as you've ever seen. It's a pre code film and is thus honest about sex, crime and the ways of the world. Young played the title character, a poor waif who through a variety of misfortunes finds herself in juvenile hall, later in prison and with gangsters. Later she finds love with a rich young lawyer Franchot Tone. The film begins with her murder trial and then we see her story in flashback. Wellman directed many of the best pre code films including Wild Boys of the Road and Heroes for Sale. This ranks right up there with those two.

I also took my first look at Gia Coppola's directorial debut (you may be familiar with her grandfather) Palo Alto which is based on some short stories by James Franco who features in the film. There is no plot, per se, which is fine with me. Traditional story structure can place artificial endings or elements to a film. There are several interconnected characters most of whom are high school students. What impressed me most about Palo Alto was -- as with pre code films -- its honesty. It is a very matter of fact depiction of disaffected suburban youth trying to grow up too fast. The performances are excellent and Gia Coppola has clearly inherited the director's gene. I noted that on the Rotten Tomatoes website Palo Alto did far better with critics than audiences. I suspect that a lot of people went to the movie expecting the usual teen fare and were taken aback by the film's bluntness and unflinching look teen's in perils.

John Ford's My Darling Clementine (1946) was another film I enjoyed over the weekend. More like loved. Sometimes the recent experience of watching a film is difficult to write about because it was so special. This was such a case. It's  a meticulously made story beautifully shot (in Monument Valley) and centered around a typically strong performance from Henry Fonda as Wyatt Earp. It's one of the reasons that I like to own DVDs of my favorite films so that I can watch them anytime.

Okay. Started this post Sunday morning and here it is Tuesday afternoon and I've got work to do before my next class. So.....








22 October 2014

I Go From Sounds Like a Plan to Dead Poet's Society With Stuff About Joking Around in Between

Just got off the phone with the doctor's office. Was trying to arrange a time to come in for a flu shot but I ultimately I had to tell the receptionist that I would have to look at my schedule and call back. "Okay," she replied, "sounds like a plan."

You know what? It is a plan. That's the thing about plans, they generally sound like plans. You could argue that it's superfluous to say of a plan that it sounds like a plan. After all, it is a plan. I told someone once that when Eisenhower outlined the D-Day invasion to his generals one of them said, "sounds like a plan" and Ike shot him. The person who I said this to replied "really?" This person was not previously known to me to be an idiot, but there you go.

I have told the following to a lot of people over the past 20 years. "Mohandas Gandhi used to be a boxer who fought under the name of The Fighting Mahatma. He got a title shot against Rocky Galvano in Madison Square Garden but lost in a controversial split decision. It was such a bloody fight that Gandhi quit pugilism and became a pacifist." The vast majority of people I said this to believed me. People aren't dumb, I must seem so trustworthy and serious.

Just yesterday I was telling someone that Vladimir Putin's brother Craig lives in San Francisco and that he's into organic gardening, hiking and restoring old vans with his partner Horace. "He's a real down to Earth unassuming guy," I added. The person believed me.

I give up.

I guess I'm just really good at making up and especially telling utter nonsense. I had someone believing that I was a paratrooper during World War II (I don't look that old, do I?). It's a gift or a curse and I take advantage of it. I suppose its a good way to fill the time and have fun. Usually I reserve it for people who are going to "get it" and maybe even play along.

Of course there is a downside. Sometimes people don't believe you when you tell a true story. The other day I related the absolutely true story that I once worked with someone whose name was Henry Mary and 20 years later I had a student whose name was Mary Henry. The person I told this to was sure I made it up. That's insulting. I can make up much crazier stuff than that. Sometimes people don't believe you when you relate the details of a dream. Come on. You can't make up stuff you dreamed. Well, you could but what would be the point? Dreams are crazy and random enough as it is.

The other problem is that when you spin a yarn a person may accuse you if lying. This is rude and insulting. Lying is a serious offense, it is an intentional effort to deceive someone, to obscure the truth.  Making up a ridiculous story about how you used to date Beyonce is not lying, its telling a silly story. (Actually its not in my case because Beyonce and I used to be an item until I let her go and set her up with what's-his-face.)

My checker at the market the other day was a former student from my time teaching middle school. She remembered my name and the fact that I claimed to go out with Beyonce. I hope she also remembered something about the U.S. Constitution or Lincoln or Native Americans or the importance of history.

Early in the school year -- again in my incarnation as a middle school history teacher -- I used to take my class for a short walk to this huge oak tree. I said it was the tree of liberty and that the trunk of the tree was the constitution that kept it standing and I spoke of its three big branches as the branches of government and so on. It was pretty effective -- if I could keep the little buggers quiet. I've had a couple of former students tell me that whenever they walk by that tree they think of it as the tree of liberty and remember what it represents. Pretty cool.

Speaking of inspiring teachers, last weekend I watched Dead Poet's Society (1989) for the first time in ages. It had been near the top of ye olde Netflix queue when Robin Williams died at which point a put it up top where it lingered as a "very long wait." For months I waited. Anyhoo it came. It's  better than I remember it being and it actually influenced my teaching, coming out as it did near the beginning of my brilliant career, well my career anyway. Most films about inspiring teachers make me ill. They are generally sentimental nonsense like Goodbye Mr. Chips (1939). The worst was Mr. Holland's Opus (1995) which caused me uncontrollable retching and horrible stomach cramps and a desire to do myself bodily harm. On back to school nights around the time it came out, parents would gleefully ask me if I'd seen it. I would put on my best forced smile and whilst suppressing the rising bile say that indeed I had. If pressed I would even pretend I liked it and then change the topic to anything else at all. My favorite film about a teacher is Half Nelson (2006) in which Ryan Gosling starred as a middle school history teacher and sports coach (sounds like me so far) who is not incidentally also a drug addict (hey, at least I'm just a recovering one).

But back to Dead Poet's Society. There is a reality to it in that it depicts the kind of teacher who believes that inspiring students and firing their imaginations is central to the profession, if not the be all of it. Said teacher also comes into conflict with tired old brain dead administrators who view teachers as assembly line workers whose function is to shove facts into students' brains. Williams gave an excellent performance as the English teacher with the unconventional methods. That whole business about students standing on a desk to see things in a different way....I used that too. Unlike other inspiring teacher films, DPS is never maudlin and is even somewhat dark. But most importantly it focuses on the students and how they are effected and shaped by a teacher.

For the most part our society devalues teachers (a look at our paychecks will bear that out) and often scapegoats us and any unions we may have. At the same time we constantly see one dimensional depictions of teachers as clueless morons constantly outwitted by clever students, or as wise, aging, self sacrificing souls who live off their memories. Hogwash.

I suppose I should further explore this topic at some later date. Hey, that sounded like a plan!



21 October 2014

Sometimes a Stroll Down Memory Lane Takes You Into a Small Room Where You're Really High and a Maniac With a Huge Knife is Keeping You Captive

It really should have been a clue.

You’re in a small room with a friend and two bad guys. A transaction for cocaine has just been completed. You’ve got the the slick well spoken bad guy named Ray who you met once before and have connected to via a mutual friend, Jerry. Then there’s the other guy. He’s what you would call a crazy motherfucker. There’s no doubt that he’s done time. He’s huge, well over 6’4’ and made of muscles. He could squash your head with his hands. He is not a smart man just a dangerous one. The don’t-give-a-fuck type. He’s liable to do anything at anytime, you just don’t know. Worse, he’s got a knife in his hand. A very sharp hunting knife with which he could take off your hand with two whacks, maybe one. You’re also pretty sure he’s got a gun. So there’s that.

You’re with Jake who you don’t know that well, just gotten high with him several times and you’ve come along on this deal as a favor and so that you can get some free blow. Jake is nervous. It’s his money.

The coke and money have been exchanged. It’s time to book. But this monstrous asshole doesn’t want anyone going anywhere just yet. “This ain’t like no regular guys in suits business. We sit, we talk we have a drink we get to know each other a little first. Maybe we find we wanna do business again.” Ray, the dealer, he just sits and nods to this like whatever.

So big dummy pulls out this bottle of tequila. And then four glasses. Not just small shot glasses either. Like regular drinking glasses. Now you can’t even remember where the fuck you are. Oakland maybe. Jake drove. More like weaved. And you’re in this tiny room in these wooden straight backed chairs with one big window looking out on a parking lot. The table is metal. You sit next to Jake and across from Crazy. “What the fuck is this place?” You wonder and realize you’re pretty high already and that’s not a good thing right now. Or its the best. Meanwhile Jake is very nervous and you wonder if this is going to make things worse or is he nervous because he knows what’s coming.

You don’t really think about dying or even getting hurt. You can’t get that far in your thinking. You’re just feeling trapped in this room with some big maniac who has a hunting knife and probably a gun. Like what the fuck did I do to deserve this? Oh yeah I came along on a drug deal, dummy. See because is not you it’s me. Or was me.

The big palooka pours the tequila. “To life!” he says and I know as he upends his glass down his gullet that I’ve got to make a game effort to drink as much of the tequila in my glass as I possibly can in one swallow.

I do.

Glasses hit the table hard. The soft burn works its way up from my stomach. A few seconds later my head jimmy jacks around and I feel god damned good. Then I kind of shake my head and I’m still in the room and so don’t feel so good.

“We really need to get going,” Jake says, his voice coming from some other galaxy.

I endorse this notion and start to get up. The big ape puts a paw on my shoulder and slams me back down. “There’s no fucking rush!” he shouts. Oh hell, now he’s angry. But that passes quickly too and he smiles.

The other guy says “calm down, Snake, take it easy. No need to shout, the boys ain’t goin’ anywhere yet. Right boys?”


We nod but all I can think is: Snake? Seriously? That’s when I notice the snake tattoo on his arm. It just seems too fucking obvious. It may seem a bit funny but his size and strength is no joke. Me I'm about 5'7" and as an ex athlete I'm in decent shape but don't match up so well against Snake. As for Jake he's my size only really skinny and doesn't look like he ever so much as played checkers let alone lifted a weight. So the two of us together are over matched by Snake. By a long ways.

“We have another round!” Snake proclaims. At this rate I’m going to pass out before we get to the car and Jake is going to have none chance of driving.

Thankfully Snake doesn’t fill the glasses all the way this time. Maybe half way. We drink to life again. There’s conversation now and I’m part of it. But my consciousness is deep in my brain and all the words are echoing and I don’t know exactly what I’m saying and sure as shit don’t know what anyone else is saying. But I see myself there. Talking nervously about some shit. I wonder for a second if Snake maybe will kill us and take the money back. If so is he just fucking with us now? But Snake is telling us what fine men we are. How cool and stand up we are how he likes us and feels we're trustworthy. We're like real men. "You're not a couple of pussies like I thought you'd be." Gee thanks, I think and can't imagine how we've earned such praise. Meanwhile he keeps fiddling with that knife. He loves the sucker. And Ray over there sitting as cool as you please seemingly bored by it all. Will he save us if Snake turns on us or let him slice us to bits? Ray just doesn't seem to care what happens. He's on a whole other high where earthly matters are of no concern.

Jake has to pee.  Ray leads him to a toilet and I’m left in the tiny room with Snake. I wonder what Snake does for fun. I wonder if he has a girl. I wonder about his parents. I wonder what Snake was like as a little kid and if he’s killed anyone and if he finished high school and if plays the violin. I don’t know why I wonder about the violin. Maybe because I’m an idiot. I have to be an idiot to be here.

Snake talks the whole time. No idea what he said. The single light in the room glistens on his perfectly bald head.

I decide that Snake is a complete moron and that it sucks worse than anything that I’m totally in his power.

Ray and Jake come back. Ray looks really scared. Or is that my imagination or the tequila or what I was drinking earlier in this evening when I was safe in sound in Kip’s -- a Berkeley bar -- waiting for Jake and thinking there was nothing to going to a coke buy.  Of course the coke we sampled when we got here may be playing a part in my paranoia. Not as much as Snake’s knife but still.

“I don’t feel so good.” Jake says.

“You mean like your stomach?” I ask. Now I’m worried on another level. There are levels of worry I’m dealing with. Along with outright paranoia and mild concern and pure terror and stark raving fear. It is raving, boys.

“Maybe we should go,” I say.

“Stay!” Snake hollers.

Ray says: “You ain’t gonna be sick in here are you?”

Jake looks in his lap and shakes his head no.

I have no fucking idea what’s going to happen next.

“This’ll help,” says Snake and pulls out — from where I don’t see — the biggest blunt I’d ever seen.

“This shit’s for real, man. Panama Red.” He proclaims.

Ray closes his eyes and nods like there's mellow jazz playing in his brain.

Panama Red is some nasty weed. It has much more of a kick than regular grass. We’re fucking in for it now, I think.

Snake lights the fucker up and we’re all toking away following Snake’s lead by taking deep long drags.

Now my head is all over the place bee bopping around the room. He stabs me with that knife I won’t feel a thing. But I’m scared shitless just the same. I detest Snake with every fiber of my being and like him like an old friend. I’m hopelessly devoted to Snake because the only way out of this room is to make nice with him. Fucking Stockholm Syndrome.  God, or whatever is out there, let me out of this and I’ll finish my goddamned masters degree. Be a boy scout all the way.

Now Ray is babbling like a maniac. On and on about women. I want to go home. I want out. My sphincter is inhaling and exhaling and has a life of its own and I’m not 100% sure its still part of my body. Jake looks so far out of it that I doubt he can ever be brought back to Earth from whatever part of the solar system his brain is occupying.

I fantasize about snatching Snake’s knife and cutting his throat. I fantasize about a field of daisies. I can’t tell if my right hand is still part of my body. I look at it in wonder. At least Snake hasn’t cut it off.

Snake. He is the worse human being in the world. And when he reaches over and hugs me and holds my head in the crook of his arm I am willing to do anything he asks. Because I’d have to. I’m totally enraged and servile and a baby rabbit in a tiger’s maw. Help me, god or whatever.

He releases me and it feels like a reprieve but I also he realize he can grab me again and this time twist. But then…

“Man I gotta go. I need to find me some bitches.” The speaker is Snake and this feels like the happiest moment of my life. The volatile behemoth has suddenly remembered the farer sex and wants to defile some poor woman.  My relief is indescribable but is tempered by the feeling that he may insist we join him or he may change his mind or he may kill us before he leaves or maybe Ray is going to shoot us. Who knows.

Snake no sooner stands up then he collapses into a heap on the floor.

“That motherfucker could never hold his shit, man,” Ray says. “You put any amount of booze and weed in him and the big asshole folds up like a cheap tent. Shee-it.” Ray stares at him with disgust.

“I better get Jake home, he’s about to go himself,” I say. Ray barely looks at us as we go out the door.  I keep expecting a bullet in the back as we walk out into the cool night. We’re in the industrial part of Oakland. It takes us 20 minutes to find where we parked even though its just half a block away from where that tiny room was. We are in a panic the whole time. Jake constantly seems about to cry and I want to squat and shit right there. Out of bald faced fear.

I don’t know how the hell Jake drove us back to Berkeley. But he did. So what we do? We went up to Kip’s and drank until closing time. And man I still had another four years of drinking and using ahead of me. Imagine that.

18 October 2014

Just in Time for Halloween Polanski's Venus in Fur

It was a dark and stormy night.

After my second viewing of Roman Polanski's Venus in Fur I am convinced that what the great director has created in this film is a classic horror story. Witness the beginning of the movie where he telegraphs his intentions. It is the prototypical horror film opening. Thunder, lightening rain along with an appropriate jaunty but ominous soundtrack. The camera leads us down a Paris street and into a theater. There is but one man in the theater talking on his cell phone He has bad a most frustrating day that is thankfully coming to an end. Soon he will be back home. Warm and cozy. Despite the man's frustrations it is all a perfectly ordinary experience and quite innocent. So starts many a horror film.

Enter a woman. She seems fairly normal though somewhat eccentric in speech and manner and perhaps a bit lower class. This contrasts with the man who is a sophisticate. Indeed he is the adapter and director of a play and his frustration stems from an inability to find its leading lady. The woman is there to audition though she is much too late and anyway he can see that she is quite wrong for the part. However we can quickly tell from their ongoing conversation that this is going to be one of those cinematic gambits where one character insists upon something and the other resists but you know that second character will eventually relents. Then it gets strange.

Gradually we discover certain things about the woman. For example her name is Vanda which happens to be the same as the character whose part she is reading for. Also Vanda has mysteriously gotten a hold of the entire script. The adapter/director, Thomas, is surprised by certain of Vanda's revelations but he is also taken by how well she reads for the part. Has he at last found his leading lady? Vanda has come very very well prepared not only knowing the play backwards and forwards but having brought costume changes for the audition.

Thomas and Vanda read together. Not just a scene but several. And Vanda doesn't just know Thomas' play, she has a story -- a seeming concoction -- about knowing his fiancé. There actually is no doubt she has met her, but the details of the meeting seem preposterous. This only adds to the mystery. It is a part of how their reading mixes the story of the play with the story of Thomas and the relationship he is forming with the ever more mysterious Vanda.

Just where and when they are reading the play and where and when they are taking to one another gets confused. We delight in this confusion. It is spooky great fun. Their relationship is fascinating series of twists and turns.

And what of this play? It is based on the novel by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch whose name has given us the term masochism. And in fact the play and the relationship of Thomas and Vanda are concerned with a masochistic man and the woman he loves and loves to be servile to.

The lightening and thunder continue to strike at various times always to accent the action in the theater. That all the action is between these two people in a theater does nothing to diminish how compelling a story we are watching. Venus in Fur is a masterpiece of intellectual drama. It is constant battle of wits between two people, one of whom is unarmed. Vanda holds all the aces.

Just who she is and how she comes to posses so much information is a fascinating mystery but of secondary importance to the manner in which she wraps poor Thomas and -- not so indirectly -- us, around her little finger.

I'll not spoil the ending, of course, but suffice to say it is satisfying in its consistency with the story as a whole. There are no cheap tricks here. Just mind games.

Emmanuelle Seigner is Vanda and Mathieu Amalric is Thomas and they are both up to these meaty roles. I've no doubt that Polanksi himself would have played Thomas had he made this film when he was younger but Amalric is an excellent actor who should be familiar to film goers.

Venus in Fur is a film that positively begs for repeat viewings and for me twice is not nearly enough. For one thing I haven't even begun to sort it all out although I will contine to try and won't mind failing at the effort. It will be well worth the time. Venus in Fur now available on Netflx Instant and I can't recommend it enough particularly if you're looking for some spooky yet intellectually challenging viewing for your Halloween season.

08 October 2014

The Skeleton Twins Two Peas Outside the Pod


“We are stupid, stupid — that’s the main thing about us. We don’t doubt enough, we, form too many convictions, like idiots we live by them.It’s far better that, instead of perfecting our attitudes, or perfecting our position in the world even, we would spend time perfecting doubt — develop a perfection of doubt.”  - Jack Kerouac in letter to Allen Ginsberg August 26, 1947.

Life can be a bitch. Dreams very often do not come true. People let us down. We make mistakes that can't be undone. And sometimes figuring out what we want is nigh impossible. It's a bloody miracle that it works out as well as it does for some people. Some.

Many of us press on in the face of crushing disappointment and ceaseless uncertainty. Usually its because we have a support system. Loving family or a devoted spouse or true friends can make all the difference. Of course some or all of the these types of people are no guarantee of a smooth ride. The road of life is riddled with potholes. Some of which sport teeth.

Few recent films have done a better job of exploring the vagaries of modern life than The Skeleton Twins. Directed by a relative newcomer in Craig Johnson, it benefits greatly from terrific performances from Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader. The two are Saturday Night Live alums who are, of course, best known for the comedic talents. Actors who do comedy routinely step into dramatic roles and give brilliant performances. Bill Murray, Robin Williams and Jim Carrey are a few examples. Wiig and Hader are allowed to flex their comedic chops in a film that wisely mixes humor with dark themes such as suicide.

Wiig and Hader play siblings Maggie and Milo who have not seen each other in ten years. Maggie is married to a perfectly amiable chap Lance (Luke Wilson) the quintessential super nice guy. He's active, fun and able to get along with anyone and everyone. He easily takes to Milo who comes to stay after an unsuccessful suicide attempt. Milo is gay, which always adds its own special drama to family dynamics and life in general. Maggie loves her husband but not quite enough to have a child with him.  Plus there is that uncertainty. Her love seems genuine but is not deep. That's good enough for some people but not someone like Maggie whose thinking is so uncertain she needs absolute clarity whenever possible.Milo has not succeeded in his quest to become an actor. He seems to have had a failed romance too. He's been a waiter in L.A. and like a lot of people who had or has big dreams is having a hard time coping with reality. Meanwhile Maggie is a dental hygienist. That's okay but while it is satisfying and pays the bills it doesn't help a seeker find answers.

Wilson's Lance is a wonderful contrast to the twins. Everything is cool with him. He takes life at face value. He asks few questions as he wolfs down a frozen waffle or ice cream or drinks a beer or watches TV or works or plays or talks. Lance is the kind of guy who has a lot of friends. He's who everyone else refers to as "a great guy." Life is fun and easy for Lance. He's like a loyal puppy dog for Maggie. Unquestioning, cute and loving.  Lance is in so many ways the mirror opposite of his wife and brother in law. Without him The Skeleton Twins would just be skeletons rather than the fully realized characters they are. And what they are is full of doubt.

Doubt often creeps into the minds of people who did not have ideal childhoods. Without providing spoilers, suffice to say that Maggie and Milo were not blessed with idyllic formative years. Like many of us they find refuge in humor. Here is where Wiig and Hader's comedic backgrounds pay off. But fortunately The Skeleton Twins does not divert its story with easy laughs instead letting the yuks come naturally.

The humor is critical because it helps the film's harder truths go down easier. There is the touching, wrenching story of Milo's first love that raises some serious and even disturbing questions about romance and the rules of relationships.

Maggie and Milo have fun with each. They fight with each other. They confide in each other. They need each other far more than they consciously realize. They are a delight to watch because they reveal so much and their story gives us so much room and license to think to wander to doubt. The Skeleton Twins has many gifts for audiences. Of that there is no doubt.




04 October 2014

A Tale of Two MUNI Rides: Ghosts of Beat Writers and We're Having a Heat Wave

Burroughs and Kerouac.
He wasn't that old and he didn't seem all that insane. Mild insanity isn't such a big deal ya know. He didn't smell and he was carrying a few bags of groceries that I couldn't but think that he'd just purchased the contents of -- maybe he was given them, I don't really know. He was hunched over in a manner that gave him an odd and sad appearance. His clothes did not suggest that he was poor or anything else about him for that matter. Nondescript I believe is the word. He shuffled onto the bus and stood. There were empty seats he could have had but he choose to lean in the nook between the front and back of the bus reserved for wheelchairs. I was sitting right near him.

He spoke to me. I was just finishing a game of Words with Friends on my iPhone that I'd started while waiting for the bus. He asked about it. His voice must have been exactly what William Burroughs sounded like on his deathbed. I don't imagine Burroughs' voice faded all that much even at the end, though I can really only guess, not having been there.

There was something in the man's manner and the way he asked the question that made me shy away from responding. The bus was noisy enough and there were enough people around that it wasn't extraordinarily rude of me to ignore him. I simply didn't feel like engaging with him. Sometimes after working all day and being at the beginning of an hour long commute on a hot day you don't feel like exchanging pleasantries with some old kook. And kook he was for my failure to answer his query did not deter this gentleman from talking what they call a blue streak.

He went on and on about this and that and then about that and this, oblivious to the fact that not a soul was responding let alone listening. I can't tell you what he was saying because I'd move on from my iPhone to a book that I'm quite enjoying (The Blue Star by Tony Earley, if you must know). His chattering was just more of the background noise one grows accustomed to on busy city busses.

After only a few blocks he got off seeming to have no trouble with his groceries or with keeping his running monologue going. I kind of liked him actually. He was different. Really how many people who are talking to themselves carry bag of groceries? How many look as ordinary as he did? And how many sound like Burroughs?

At the time the bus was in the general vicinity of North Beach and City Lights Bookstore and thus the general area that the Beats of the San Francisco variety congregated. So Burroughs' voice kind of fit in. I just wish Kerouac or Ginsberg had been with me so that I could have compared notes with them about the guy's voice. They heard Burroughs up close and in person.

I always like when the bus goes through North Beach. I can feel the presence of the Beats and I thus long to be pounding out novellas on an old Royal typewriter taking breaks to listen to jazz with Jack and Allen.

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The hottest recorded temperature that a human being has ever survived was on a crowded MUNI bus.  MUNI does not do heat. San Francisco does not do heat. I do not do heat. Riding the 30 through North Beach and Chinatown on a day of record breaking temperatures is as comfy as wearing a hair shirt in a sauna, only this smells worse. Some passengers in Chinatown take it upon themselves to bring fresh kill from local markets on the bus with them. I believe someone was transporting a recently slaughtered zebra yesterday. Needless to say there is no air conditioning on buses. Unless one counts a slightly ajar windows that let in hot air and flies.

The bus yesterday had a wonderful combination of high school students, tourists, the elderly and infirm, the homeless (who bring their own special aromas with them) and the recently deceased -- or so it seemed. I swear there were a few cadavers on this bus, not to mention a several others who died en route.

On a hot bus ride there is absolutely no doubting that an enormous person whose waist measurements are in triple figures will sit next to me. If by some miracle this does not happen it will be because that space is occupied by a person who is fundamentally opposed to bathing. Of course yesterday I hit the jackpot and a 400 pound behemoth who eschews all manner of soap wedged himself next to me. My joy was complete.

To make it a perfect ride, the driver was passionately in love with the breaks and delighted in slamming them every few seconds. Bodies flew about the bus and backs were thrown forever out of alignment. When the bus arrived at my stop I knew who POWs feel when the armistice is signed. I was free at last to navigate the hot streets of San Francisco in a mad dash to get to BART and a train home.

I zig and zag from near Union Square to the BART station passing through all the construction going on and the shoppers and workers and dealers and schemers and tourists. The BART station was nice and toasty but fortunately the train was not long in coming and felt fairly arctic relative to where I'd been. Almost home.