02 October 2023

I Can't Believe He Did That, My Favorite Characters From TV Dramas

Observant readers (Mohammad McGillucuddy of Umpqua, Oregon) might recall that last week I provided readers with a list of my top ten favorite sit com characters. The post was met with such widespread joy, acclaim, and praise that I am here providing a list of my top ten characters from dramas. You’re welcome.

Unlike our friends in sit-coms we have more complicated relationships with our favorite drama characters. Some for example, are murderers and in the case of my list, eight of ten are criminals. In some cases we don’t so much “like” them as find them compelling. I note that the characters below all have or had a strong sense of humanity and may have felt a degree of remorse. They are fully three-dimensional characters (in some cases four!) and not cardboard cut-out “bad guys.” Their stories are unique. Their actions often regrettable but occasionally understandable. They often shock us. Their relationships with others are invariably fraught. A ripping good biography could be written about each were they real people. These characters all benefit from great writing and appear on well-directed shows with strong supporting casts.

1. Walter White (Bryan Cranston) Breaking Bad. He was an easy choice for me to top the list. Walter White’s story is one of the best (maybe THE best) ever told on television. The transition from family man and high school chemistry teacher to murderous drug kingpin is an amazing journey and Bryan Cranston gave the performance of a lifetime in realizing this singular character.

2. Barry Berkman (Bill Hader) Barry. Technically Barry the show is a comedy. I’ll tell you what you can do with your technically. Yes there were a few chuckles in the show but less as it progressed. There was nothing particularly funny about Barry (the character’s) story arc. From hit man to actor to — say what the hell was he at the end? Total loon? was fascinating to watch unfold. Hader had already established himself as a comic mastermind and now has demonstrated he was a terrific show runner, writer, director and dramatic actor. 

3. Kim Wexler (Rhea Shorn) Better Call Saul. At the show’s outset she seemed to simply be “the girlfriend.” But she developed into so much more. Utterly unpredictable yet true to her complex character. Obsessive personalities always make for good theater as do intelligent ones and she was very much both. Imagine someone stealing scenes from Bob Odenkirk’s well-established Saul Goodman. But she was that good.

4. Kendall Roy (Jeremey Strong) Succession. Oh my. Strong’s acting alone, his total embodiment of KRoy, his commitment to his craft  made Succession a must watch. Kendall was all over the map but all within his weird and wonderful personality. 

5. Omar Little (Michael K. Williams) The Wire. Not a surprise choice I’m sure because Omar was universally popular. But why? He was a brutal stick-up man who usually robbed drug dealers. He carried a shotgun under his duster and wore a bulletproof vest. But he also whistled “Farmer in the Dell” while about to strike and of all things he was gay. The late Michael K. Williams made something very special out of character who could have been just another thug. Masterful. 

6. Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk) Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul. Across two shows Odenkirk’s Saul Goodman has become a part of high quality TV culture. The ultimate con man. The fast-talker. The winner (usually). He was the ultimate streetwise ambulance chaser but one who made it good. No morals. No compunctions. He put his overwhelming sense of self to the aid of his clients and to win. The chip on his shoulder was massive but what a job he did to chip away at it.

7. Marty Byrde (Jason Bateman) Ozark. He never blinked. No matter if there were guns in his face, if his wife was embodying Lady McBeth, if his son was trying to leave the family, if he was dealing with a dangerously deranged brother-in-law, Marty Byrne was unflappable. In rarely giving in to emotion Jason Bateman put on bravura acting performance as TV’s greatest money launder. Laconic has never been so interesting.

8. Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) Orange is the New Black. I imagine this to be a controversial choice given how many really interesting characters lived in the OITNB world. After all Piper was just the privileged white girl, very much the fish out of water. But she was also the show’s glue, its original reason for being and her struggles to simultaneously be accepted in this strange new world and plant her own flag made for great theater. 

9. Carmen Berzatto (Jeremy Allen White) The Bear. The glue that holds together a great cast. Carmen is in the center of a mad whirlpool of events surrounding a Chicago restaurant. The premise of The Bear never intrigued me but once I started watching the show I couldn’t look away and the show’s lead was a principal reason. He was driven, he was tortured, he was passionate. Mostly he was easy to root for and I think this stems from the utter realness of White’s portrayal. 

10. Paul "Paulie Walnuts" Gualtieri  (Tony Sirico) The Sopranos. The ever reliable sidekick. He would do anything for his boss Tony Soprano and he did with an old school flair. Paulie was the ultimate friend, the consummate mob soldier and because of Sirocco’s past as a gangster, a link between the real world and the fantasy that was the Sopranos. 

A few worthy runners up: Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West) The Wire, Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell) The Americans, Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) Breaking Bad, Roman Roy (Kieran Culkin) Succession, Noho Hank (Anthony Carrigan) Barry and Wendy Byrde (Laura Linney) Ozark.

Best ensembles: Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul, Succession, The Wire, Orange is the New Black, The Bear.

26 September 2023

They Just Crack Me Up, My Favorite Sitcom Characters

God bless the good sitcom They are sources of endless mirth, they are comfort when we’re stressed, they are reminders of the wonderful cavalcade that life can be. We need them. Imagining a universe without a steady source of chuckles is bleak. Thankfully among the hundreds (is it thousands)? of TV sitcoms produced over the past seventy years are a precious few that we can rely on to tickle our funny bones again and again. When in their first run we eagerly anticipate their next show. Afterwards we revel in their ability on streaming services. They are a joy to behold.

Every once in awhile there’s a comedy that isn't just funny but captures the zeitgeist or basks in eternal truths. And then there are some that do both, comedies like Seinfeld and The Mary Tyler Moore Show that are of their time but will live on for generations. Many sitcoms quickly become dated, characters who seemed fresh and funny at the time are now stale and tired. (Recent viewings of former favorites like the original Night Court and Bosom Buddies proved this.) 

Without exception the best sitcoms have memorable characters who don’t just make us laugh but also make us root them on even when we know they are not meant to win in this world. We love these characters despite their foibles, indeed because of them. They are often people who by rights we should strongly dislike. But…they make us laugh and there are few things more important in this life than that. We come to know these people, they are like family. They are literally important to us.

Here are my ten favorite sitcoms characters. You will notice among them are mostly selfish, egotistical people. But none of them are stupid, none of them are cruel and all of them have within them a basic humanity and most important of all, the capacity to make us laugh.

1. George Costanza (Jason Alexander) Seinfeld. I’ve always found George to be frighteningly relatable (please, don’t tell anyone). He has a sort of everyman quality. Never a total failure but never a great success. His impulse on one episode to start doing the opposite of what he thinks is the correct move speaks to a lot of us. Especially as it made his life better. Jason Alexander absolutely nailed the role of a lifetime and turned a best friend character into a cultural icon. (We're living in a society!)

2. Moira Rose (Catherine O’Hara) Schitt’s Creek. Ms. O’Hara consistently went to the top but never over it. Moira pushes everyone to the limits with her narcissism and flamboyance but there is a humanity to her that is undeniable. Often oblivious to others but somehow still a great wife, mother and friend. O'Hara has excelled in innumerable roles but this is may be her best. Genius. 

3. April Ludgate (Aubrey Plaza) Parks and Rec. She damn well steals ever scene she’s in. Laconic, philosophical, unsentimental and absolutely true to herself every second of the day. April is always the wisest person in the room — and the most cynical. She’s got a super-powered bullshit detector and is thus a great judge of character. 

4. Barney Fife (Don Knotts) The Andy Griffith Show. How can an arrogant, self-absorbed bumbling fool be so damn lovable? Here is the genius of Don Knotts’s portrayal. Everyone is always exasperated by Barney but loves him just the same. We roll our eyes at his antics while rooting him on. Knotts established a template that few have been equal to.

5. Basil Fawlty (John Cleese) Fawlty Towers. Sardonic, smart a schemer and yet a loser, Basil is in many ways the quintessential lead sitcom character. Forever trying to outwit his wife, forever stymied by bad luck, forever frustrated by those bumbling idiots who are merely going about their quotidian tasks, Basil can never win. He can also never stop trying. As much as his work on Monty Python, the character of Basil Fawlty exhibited the comic brilliance of John Cleese.

6. Oliver Putnam (Martin Short) Only Murders in the Building. Well for crying out loud he’s played by Martin Short so how could he not be hilarious and lovable? Frankly I could watch Oliver Putnam read the phone book and be entertained. To watch him team with two comic masterminds like Steve Martin and Selena Gomez (yes, I called Ms. Gomez a comic mastermind, got a problem with it?) is utterly scrumptious. 

7. Rosa Diaz (Stephanie Beatriz) Brooklyn 9-9. There is a hidden warmth and cuddliness to Rosa barely perceptible beneath that steely exterior. What is there about a woman who is as tough as nails that is so appealing? Another character who is always true to her own code. When Rosa shows any vulnerability we love her all the more. 

8. Jim Brockmire (Hank Azaria) Brockmire. There is a brilliant and witty man not so deeply hidden in the character of Jim Brockmire. There is also a raging and ragingly funny alcoholic whose addict’s lust for more, the most and then some more is so relatable to those of us with the same disease. Getting sober was good for his character and didn't stem the tide of laughter he inspired. 

9. Sergeant Ernie Bilko (Phil Silvers) The Phil Silvers Show. The eternal schemer. The fast-talker. The conniver. He always wins yet never gets the big score. Ultimate success is always just out of reach. We should hate him for his self-possession and the way he uses even his closest friends. But the charm of Ernie Bilko is irresistible. 

10. Jack McFarland (Sean Hayes) Will & Grace. Just Jack indeed. We round out the list with yet another ego maniac, but with yet another compellingly cheeky character who beguiles us with the singularness of his personality. Jack lights up every room he enters and we can't get enough of him.

Here are my favorite sitcom ensemble casts: The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Seinfeld, 30 Rock, Community, Schitt’s Creek and Taxi.

21 September 2023

You know how to whistle, don't you, Steve? You just put your lips together and... blow: A Look at the Bogie/Bacall Classic To Have and Have Not

I watched To Have and Have Not (1944) Hawks last night. Here are a few not so random thoughts.

Humphrey Bogart starred in four films that were absolute masterpieces of American cinema: The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca, The Big Sleep and Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Any one of these films alone would cement Bogie’s place in the firmament of great Hollywood stars. But he also was in a second tier of terrific films and To Have and Have Not is among these along with The African Queen, Key Largo, Dark Passage, Petrified Forest, The Roaring Twenties, All Through the Night and Angels with Dirty Faces. Of these I think To Have Not is the best.

Walter Brennan gives a bravura performance as Eddie, Harry Morgan’s (Bogart) alcoholic friend. Eddie is by turns touching, pitiful and funny. “Ever been bit by a dead bee?” But it’s hard to watch Brennan knowing what a virulent racist he was. He reportedly did a jig upon learning that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated. Separating the artist from the man is often a challenge. One of my favorite films of all time is Red River but I wonder if I’d like it even more if I didn’t have to sit through Brennan and the equally  bigoted John Wayne.

To Have and Have Not will always be remembered as the film in which Bogie and his future wife Lauren Bacall met and fell in love. Betty (as she was called) was only nineteen at the time but as her performance indicates, mature well beyond her chronological age. Bogie and Bacall had incredible onscreen chemistry and graced the screen together three more times, most notably in The Big Sleep. They married a little over a year after meeting. In contrast to the reprehensible Brennan, Bacall was a liberal Democrat and proud of it. She once said: "being a liberal is the best thing on Earth you can be. You are welcoming to everyone when you're a liberal. You do not have a small mind.”

Another lovely young woman in the cast was the then 18 year old Dolores Moran. She did not marry as well as Bacall nor did she reach any level of stardom. Moran developed a reputation for promiscuity (she had an affair with director Howard Hawks) in those double standard days. Moran was a stunning young lady who definitely had some acting chops but her career came to nothing and she died of cancer at age 52. Sad.

Marcel Dalio appears in To Have as Frenchy. He had previously played opposite Bogie as the croupier in Casablanca Prior to that he had a not insignificant role in the French classic, Grand Illusion. Dalio was born Israel Moshe Blauschild. A Parisian and a Jew, he barely escaped the Nazis. According to his IMDb biography: “He waited until the last possible moment and finally, with the sound of artillery clearly audible, with Madeleine, fled in a borrowed car to Orleans and then, in a freight train, to Bordeaux and finally to Portugal. In Lisbon, they bribed a crooked immigration official and were surreptitiously given two visas for Chile. But on arriving in Mexico City, it was discovered the visas were rank forgeries. Facing deportation, Marcel and Madeleine found themselves making application for political asylum with virtually every country in the western hemisphere. Weeks passed until Canada finally issued them temporary visas, and they left for Montreal.” I believe there’s a film in Dalio’s story. From 1941 through the early sixties he appeared mostly in American films (at least two more with Bogart) and TV shows. He appeared in such films Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Sabrina and How to Steal a Million, before spending the last part of his career back in France.

To Have and Have Not is one of the many pictures produced during the war that also served as propaganda for the allied war effort. It was the good guys besting the bad guys and there was no ambiguity about who was good and who was bad. Such films managed to be entertaining, comforting and inspiring. In many cases, as here, they were good movies to boot.

One of the delights of To Have and Have Not is Hoagy Carmichael who portrays Cricket, the piano player at the bar that is the film’s primary setting. He had a natural charm and soft, easy, pleasing voice and could really tickle the ivories. His only other really notable film appearance was in The Best Years of Our Lives. Of course Carmichael’s real claim to fame was as a composer, songwriter and musician. Among his compositions were Stardust, Georgia on My Mind, The Nearness of You and Heart and Soul. Not too shabby.

To Have and Have Not boasts an excellent cast (although Sheldon Leonard plays a Frenchman and a German actor with a German accent plays another Frenchman) but also benefits from the direction of Howard Hawks who has to rank fairly on a top ten list of all time great American directors. He was a master at pacing and though not renowned for visual artistry could frame a shot with the best of them. He made this film during his peak years, after His Girl Friday and before The Big Sleep. At the time there was no one better save perhaps Hitchcock.

The film is very loosely based on a novel by Ernest Hemingway. I read the book and it has about as much to do with the film version as does the Pirates of Penzance. The screenplay was written by William Faulkner although much of the dialogue was improvised. So while it is true that two Pulitzer Prize winning authors contributed to the screenplay, they ultimately had little to do with it.

Final thoughts: A damn fun movie, even if you have seen it numerous times, as I have. Between the three Bs (Bogie, Bacall and Brennan) you’ve got all you’ll ever need out of a cast. There is action, adventure, comedy, music, romance and people with high ideals winning over a me-first cynic. Jolly good.

18 September 2023

Take a Break From the War and See a Movie, a Look at the Films that got Americans Through WWII

Sullivans Travels

Americans did not suffer anywhere near as much during the second world war as did people in such countries as Russia, England, France, Germany and Poland, to name but a few. Indeed those were horrific times for many nations with constant bombings, enemy occupation, horrible deprivations, mass arrests, executions, the destruction of homes, torture and displacement. In the U.S. there was rationing, restrictions on travel and the sadness of loved ones going overseas to fight, many never to return or to come back maimed. You could also be one of those slated to serve in battle zones, waiting anxiously waiting deployment. Or you could have recently returned living with horrible memories or perhaps permanent injuries.

Family and friends were a necessary solace in such times as was entertainment in various forms, most affordably, movies. (Movies were about 25 cents in those days, the equivalent of just under $5 today). While the United States was making war planes, ships, bombs, weapons and all other necessary materials of war at a rate that stunned the world, it was also still making movies and good ones too.

So if you’d spent a busy day as a Rosie the Riveter or were worried about a family member off at war or were enjoying a short leave before shipping out, or were just stressed from following war news, what better way to relax than at the local theater? This was a time when you could enjoy a double feature, newsreels, cartoons, shorts and travelogues. But would the feature presentation be worthwhile? Let’s have a look at what you could see.

December 1941

Write after the attack on Pearl Harbor and the declaration of war, four terrific films were released. Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels starring Joel McCrea and Veronica Lake, which is to me one of the great films of all time hit theaters shortly after the U.S. entered the war. It was followed by a classic screwball comedy from Howard Hawks, Ball of Fire starring Barbara Stanwyck and Gary Cooper. If you liked horror films then you could enjoy The Wolf Man with Lon Chaney Jr. and Claude Rains.

1942 was a terrific year for U.S. releases. For example: Casablanca, Talk of the Town, To Be Or Not to Be, Palm Beach Story and Now Voyager. You’re getting Bogie, Ingrid Bergman, Cary Grant, Bette Davis a classic Lubitsch and another from Preston Sturges. For icing on the cake there was also All Through the Night with Bogie taking on Nazis in New York, This Gun For Hire with more Veronica Lake this time with Alan Ladd and The Magnificent Ambersons directed by Orson Welles. A banner year.

By 1943 the releases were all made after the war started. Look at what you got: Shadow of a Doubt, one of Alfred Hitchcock’s greatest films, the wild and wacky Arsenic and Old Lace with Cary Grant and a supporting cast that included Peter Lorre, Raymond Massey, Jack Carson and James Gleason (plus the adorable Priscilla Lane). There was yet another gem from Sturges, The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek. The highly diverting Cabin in the Sky with Lena Horne. The heavy and powerful Ox-Bow Incident with Henry Fonda. A comedy about the war time housing crunch in Washington D.C., The More the Merrier featuring Jean Arthur and Joel McCrea. And there were some good pictures about the war such as Destination Tokyo (Cary Grant again) Five Graves to Cairo an earlier and excellent directorial effort by Billy Wilder. Air Force directed by Hawks, a criminally underrated film and Fritz Lang’s powerful Hangmen Also Die. Meanwhile Jean Renoir had gotten out of France and directed This Land is Mine set in a fictional Nazi-occupied town, starring Charles Laughton and Maureen O’Hara. Finally for more chuckles there was another from Lubitsch, Heaven Can Wait with Gene Tierney and Don Ameche.

1944 didn’t produce quite as much but there was still good quality. Sturges came through again with his classic satire on hero worship and politics, Hail the Conquering Hero. Bogie was back this time with Lauren Bacall in To Have and Have Not ("You know how to whistle, don't you, Steve? You just put your lips together and... blow.") Hitchcock struck again with Lifeboat. Fritz Lang released another thriller, Ministry of Fear starring Ray Milland in one of his better roles. There was also noir as Dick Powell played Philip Marlowe -- surprisingly well -- in Murder My Sweet. To top it off you had Ingrid Bergman again, this time with Charles Boyer in George Cukor’s Gaslight. The movie title that created a verb.

We close with 1945 which was the weakest by far of the war years with very few really good films released (although as the war was winding down there were some terrific films coming out in Europe such as Rome: Open City, Brief Encounter, I Know Where I’m Going, Children of Paradise.) In the states the Yuletide classic Christmas in Connecticut was released — in the summer? There were also The Southerner, The Story of GI Joe and The Picture of Dorian Gray. Not much. Might be interesting to figure out why the paucity of films in ’45. To be fair there were a few good ones released after hostilities ceased, namely: Mildred Pierce, Spellbound and The Lost Weekend. That’s still not a lot.

The war was not a terrible time to be a cinephile. It just sucked to be a soldier.

12 September 2023

Death, Existential Angst, Aging Are All Discussed in a Surprisingly Upbeat Post

The author as a young father

You don’t have to think very hard to realize that our dread of both relationships and loneliness, both of which are like sub-dreads of our dread of being trapped inside a self (a psychic self, not just a physical self), has to do with angst about death, the recognition that I’m going to die, and die very much alone, and the rest of the world is going to go merrily on without me. I’m not sure I could give you a steeple-fingered theoretical justification, but I strongly suspect a big part of real art-fiction’s job is to aggravate this sense of entrapment and loneliness and death in people, to move people to countenance it, since any possible human redemption requires us first to face what’s dreadful, what we want to deny.
— David Foster Wallace

There was a time that I didn’t think about death. I was young and morality was a vague concept. It was something that happened to other people in other families in other circles. I knew my father was going to die someday thought at times I doubted even that. He seemed indestructible in the same way I’ve often thought of myself recently. He’d gone on so long and stayed so healthy that it was almost impossible to imagine a world without him. Eventually a freak fall did him in but not until he was past ninety. 

I’ll be seventy on my next birthday — less than six months from now. Have I got another twenty good years? What guarantee is there that there going to all be “good”? I suppose I should adopt a one-day-at-a-time mantra as one learns in twelve step programs. I should be enjoying the hell out of today, it being all I’ve got. I spend too much time in the past often re-living bad moments. Those times I did the wrong thing, failed to say the right thing, didn’t see what should haven been obvious, made the wrong choice. If you’re going to live in the past, stay in the happy moments, those times when everything was clicking, when you seemingly had it all together. They existed and they were good. Why wallow in past miseries?

I’m adopting a new program — actually a revitalization of an old one — in which I assign myself writing 500 words a day — minimum. It’ll be good for me. Good for my writing, good for my brain, good for my soul. 

Writing used to be a lot easier. Nowadays I need a topic and a damned good one at that. I also need to be in the right mood in the right place with no distractions. That’s ridiculous. You’ve got to be able to write under any circumstances. Still, maybe 500 words a day is overly ambitious. But I’ve got to try.

I remember coming home when I was a kid and hesitating at the front door before opening it because I didn’t know what awaited me on the other side. What was Mom going to be like? She could perfectly fine doing her cheery June Cleaver bit, asking about my day. Or she could be a raving loon, yelling at light fixture. If it was the latter would she break character for a minute to acknowledge me or would she go on nonplussed or would she turn her ravings toward me? It was the uncertainty of the moment that was so horrible.

The hesitation was always momentary. I had to face whatever music was playing. If it was really bad I’d retreat to my room or quickly make a u-turn and go outside. Thankfully I had a vivid imagination and could lose myself in it. Reality was too difficult to bear.

It was a difficult way to grow up — boy that’s understating it. I normalized it. I knew none of my friends were going through the same sort of shit but I also knew I was better off not thinking about. How did this affect me? What peccadilloes of mine can I attribute to this bizarre and horrible upbringing? Did it lead to my alcoholism? Did it lead to my crankiness? My anxiety? My panic attacks? My variously mistrusting or overly trusting people? My misjudgments? How exactly did it fuck me up? Who would I be today had my mother been perfectly sane? 

Perhaps the more important question at this point is: why trouble myself with these questions? I’ve done the whole therapy bit — many times. Better not to look back and wonder. Better to look ahead and wonder. After all I’ve got a new novel that I finished that I believe is quite good. There’s much to look forward to including another European vacation in the spring. 

Tomorrow will mark thirty-six years clean and sober. It’s amazing that I’ve been a sober alcoholic longer than I’ve been alive as anything else. I can barely remember what intoxication was like. I’ve got a sense of what having a bit of a buzz going was like. I’m a lucky man to have gotten sober when I did — just weeks before my wife found out she was pregnant with our first and just as I was embarking on my teaching career. Lucky.

I’ve got blessings to count. I’ve got bright days ahead. Depression can go fuck itself.

05 September 2023

Is there Sculptor's Block? Bottoms, a Documentary and Depression all in under 600 Words

From Bottoms, in theaters now

Do painters get painter’s block? Do sculptors get sculptor’s block? Do potters get potter’s block? If they do I’ve never heard tell of it. If they don’t, why the hell not? I’ve heard people claim that writer’s block is a myth. This is said by people who either don’t write or can’t imagine anything that is not within their own experience. In other words they lack imagination.

Lacking imagination does not merely mean you cannot conjure stories, it means you lack empathy. You cannot conceive of things outside of your world. This is a common affliction among conservatives in the United States. They are cold-hearted precisely because they have no empathy and they lack empathy because they have no imagination. Their thinking is stilted, stifled and stuffed.

I have no segue to introduce the fact that I saw a new film called Bottoms at an actual movie theater on Sunday (Berkeley’s last — theater, not Sunday). It was an absurdist comedy centering around two lesbians in high school who form a sort of fight club. Their motives are not necessarily pure but like a latter day Mean Girls there is a redemption arc and a helluva story in the bargain. There are also many laughs some courtesy of former Cal and NFL football player Marshawn Lynch who plays a teacher named Mr. G. He starts one class by saying that the holocaust was real and it all stemmed from the Treaty of Versailles and he wants his students to act out said treaty. That’s some innovative teaching. Marshawn improvised a lot of his lines and that was a really good call by the director. Bottoms was great raunchy fun with much to say about high school, sexuality, masculinity and friendship. I look forward to more from the young director, Emma Seligman.

Last night I watched Turn Every Page: The Adventures of Robert Caro and Robert Gottlieb, courtesy of the Criterion Channel. It is a documentary about the great biographer Caro and the even greater editor, Gottlieb who are still working in their late eighties. Caro rocketed to fame with his 1975 bio of Robert Moses, The Power Broker and has since produced four volumes (when the hell is the fifth coming?) of a biography on Lyndon Johnson. Meanwhile Gottlieb has edited over 700 books including Catch-22, True Grit, all of Toni Morrison’s oeuvre and books by the likes of Michael Critchon, Bill Clinton, Ray Bradbury, Lauren Bacall, Salman Rushdie, John Cheever, John le Carre and many, many more. The film is about both men as individuals and also on their long collaboration. They are extremely admirable individuals whose contributions have been incalculable. It was moving, inspiring and thought-provoking. Lizzie Gottlieb, one of the subject’s daughter, directed.

For reasons too complex to get into I have today off. It is my pleasure to be writing here now. It is also my sad lot to be as depressed as hell. Merciful heavens but does life feel grim and awful and full of foreboding and terrors and heartache and pain and anguish and do I feel worthless and hated and a complete failure. I’ve experienced this enough to know that it won’t last but I can’t FEEL that it won’t last. It feels forever as obvious and ugly as death. It’s not the worst level of depression, If it were I’d not be able to write. How terrible to think I’ve suffered worse than this. How grateful to be writing and alive and healthy. There’s tomorrow.

28 August 2023

Hey Ziggy, We Did All Right; On Changing Language and Culture and Being Cool

Ziggy played guitar.

It’s one of those times in my life where I don’t know if I’m here or there, sad or happy, me or you, making it or faking it. But it doesn’t matter because I’ve got David Bowie playing on, in and around my headphones.

Dig it.

In my youth we said things like, “do your thing,” “it’s your bag” “funky” (I love the word funky — you jive ass turkey). We also said — well not me, but some people — my head’s in a weird place right now (for fuck sakes get it out of there!). We used to “trip” and “go through changes” and we were worried about someone “hassling” us or “messing” with us (the jive ass turkeys). Some of the shit people said was silly like “when is the meeting happening?” But at least no one forgot anything, they merely “spaced on it.”

I was young at some amazing times. It was when we stuck it to the man, took to the streets and grooved and got down and boogied. There was the fucking war in Vietnam and it was just so fucking obvious that that shit was messed up and we protested the hell out of the war. That was a damn good thing and was accompanied by our belief in equality and racial justice.

I’d grown up trying to be keen and boss but then it all became about being cool.

Young, man. That was a trip. Tripping man, they could be trippy. Course we tripped on acid (LSD to y’all). That was heavy. Messing with your own mind. Enlightenment. We were all about that shit. 

We got stoned, loaded, wasted, fucked up, shit faced, bombed out of our minds.

We went through some serious changes — dude.

Dude was a word that looped around in weird ways. Changing a lot and do the young people still use it, my dude? There were no fellas and very few guys. But dudes -- yes.

Females were chicks to some. Gays were queer, and queers were gay. Even the young and the hip were still processing homosexuality. That was new to us but in keeping with new and enlightened times we were accepting — eventually.

There was a time that our Black brothers and sisters were Afro Americans. I liked that term but it went away and was not my call. 

Ziggy played guitar jamming good….

Love and peace were serious themes. Do we talk about them anymore? I mean we were serious about them both. They were what it was all about. Give Peace a Chance and All You Need is Love, said the Beatles. They were the main spokespeople of our generation, hell, they pretty much formed our goddamned generation. 

Course there were others: Hendrix, Joplin, The Doors, The Who, Marvin Gaye, Bowie, Stevie Wonder, the Jefferson Airplane, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Neil Motherfucking Young. Even the Beach Boys — Pet Sounds, y’all. Yeah, we had our voices and they were cool beyond words. Rhythm. We danced like crazy and the dancing was CRAZY. But you knew that.


But some shit was nasty like Charlie Manson and the poor saps he hypnotized. Murdering bastards. Totally uncool.

Vibes were super important. You wanted good ones.

The Black Panthers were at the vanguard. 

But there were serious enemies. The pigs. Hoover and the Fucking FBI. The CIA. The Military. Nixon, Reagan. Mayor Daly. So many. The uncoolest.

We were right, though, ya know. We had it together. We were right and righteous. It was our time. We changed the world. No, not so much the U.S. power structure, it looks like rich, corporate, militaristic bastards will always hold sway. But we created the culture man. We made movies, and music, and TV and literature and art and liberated teens, and sex and language and clothes and hair. Hair, man.

We did a number on that. 

People should totally thanks us.

Ziggy, out.

21 August 2023

Pain, Godland My New Novel and More Oppie, All in One Post!

From "Godland"

Pain hurts.

I’ve had a lot recently owing to a foot infection which stems from the surgery I had last month.

Sharp, biting, stabbing, throbbing pain. It comes suddenly. Sometimes one sharp jolt. Other times waves.

I’m on antibiotics. 


This is my second round. I was better now it’s back.


Sometimes I mix the pain with anxiety. At least I’m not currently depressed. Like I was last week. 

If it’s not one thing….

It’s another.

On Friday I taught a class while in excruciating pain. Not optimal. You do get a certain amount of adrenaline and are able to carry on — maybe an occasional wince — and while engaged can ignore the pain. 

Today is much better. I can feel the effected area but so far no jolts. There’ll be some in the course of the day but they’ve been diminishing and I’ll be right as rain soon. One assumes....

Meanwhile the novel is about a month away from being ready to send out to perspective agents and publishers one of whom will surely see it for the best selling classic it is destined to be. 

Here’s a little bit about it: “The Blood of Love is the story of David Trentwood and his great love, Cordelia McKenzie, set against the backdrop of massive social change and political unrest in Berkeley during the 1960s.

It is a kaleidoscopic look at the Sixties, the demonstrations, the counter culture, sex, drugs and rock and roll. It invokes the spirit and passion of the time as characters explore new found freedoms and take to the streets to protest the Vietnam War. David is at once a witness and a participant. The story is told in his voice which is fresh, irreverent yet sophisticated. David’s story is told as it happened, unfolding for the reader as it did for him. As David says in the book’s foreword: ‘This will be my story but it will also be about those times. Most of the eight years described took place within the crucible of Berkeley, California, then an epicenter of the student movement, a place where the cultural sea changes were always evident.’” Sound good to me....

Watched an extraordinary film yesterday, Godland (Pálmason). It is the best new movie I’ve seen since Drive My Car. Visually stunning replete with the dramatic vistas of Iceland. It is an engrossing story about a priest sent from Denmark to start a parish in the wilds of Iceland. It is man against nature, man against religion, man against man. I believe it was in theaters in the Spring and now it can be found on the Criterion Channel. Don’t know that it’s currently available anywhere else. Pity because it deserves a wide audience.....

Been reading American Prometheus the biography of Robert Oppenheimer that inspired the film currently raking it in at the box office (deservedly so). I enjoy reading about complex characters and Oppie was certainly that. Yes he helped fashion the atomic bomb that so devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki but he came to abhor his creation and worked towards keeping it from being unleashed again. He was liberal, an ardent anti-fascist before the war who “flirted” with the Community Party. Actually he’s very difficult to label — which is a good thing in a person. He was admirable, deplorable, kind and cruel, progressive, thoughtful and the pioneer of the bomb. He was never dull nor was his life. Amazing character. Brilliant book. 

14 August 2023

Movies I've Watched Lately, Some of Which I Liked Greatly

Stefania Sandrelli in I Knew Her Well

Dog Day Afternoon (1975) Lumet. I’ve written about DDA numerous times on the blog so long time readers (Mary Ellen Moskowitz of Bismarck, South Dakota) know of my deep affection for this film. I refer you to this post for more. A truly great film only gets better with time. I’ve got some complaints about the casting in some of the films mentioned below but you couldn’t begin to imagine anyone better in any of the cast of DDA. Of course Al Pacino as Sonny gives a master class in acting in one of his greatest roles but John Cazale, his blinkered partner in crime, Charles Durning, the New York cop in charge, Penelope Allen, the lead teller, Sully Boyar, the bank manager and Chris Sarandon one of Sonny’s wives couldn’t have been improved upon. Sidney Lumet’s direction deserves plaudits and this is one of the best edited films you’ll ever see thanks to Dede Allen who also edited such films as Reds, Bonnie and Clyde, The Hustler, Wonder Boys, Serpico and Little Big Man — not too shabby.

Traveling Saleslady (1935) Enright and Make Me a Star (1932) Beaudine. Two from Joan Blondell. The former is everything (almost) that you want out of Blondell picture. You get Blondell, a woman who was simultaneously cute and sexy as a perky young woman wise-cracking her way through life getting the better of any man who crosses her path. Blondell plays the daughter of a toothpaste company owner (ably played by the always reliable Grant Mitchell). She strikes out on her own when Dad won’t give her a job, working for a competitor and becoming an incredible success. The only problem was that her leading man was played by William Garage (who?) a fine supporting player but no romantic lead. Fredric March would have been perfect and others such as Robert Montgomery or Joel McCrea would have done nicely. Make Me a Star was a terrible film. The missus and I can’t figure out how we managed to watch a full half hour of it before calling it quits. The pacing was….well, pretty much non-existent. Under the incompetent direction of William Beaudine, the film had all the pep and excitement of a funeral. Blondell was billed as the lead but the main character was played by Stuart Erwin who could better carry a boulder than a film. His acting perfectly fit the film’s ponderous pace. What a dog!

Mirror (1975) Tarkovsky. This was my fourth viewing and I still have trouble making heads or tails out of much of it. I love it all the same. Like Stalker, another favorite of mine from the great Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky, Mirror is not exactly inaccessible but it is hard to unlock. This only enhances the joy of watching it. It’s a challenge but one well worth taking on because of the stunning and mysterious visuals. It is ostensibly the story of a dying man in his forties remembering moments in his life. Margarita Terekhova as his young mother is utterly beguiling, as is the film.

The Strange One (1957 Garfein. It’s the name of the film and it describes it as well. The Strange One is set in a military school where a sadistic upper classman browbeats freshman and sets up a major’s son for expulsion. Ben Gazzarra in his film debut is magnetic in the lead role as we quickly come to despise him. It’s a compelling story and yet an unpleasant one and by the end one is left wondering what the point was. Do we learn anything from this story of cruelty and the fate of the main character? Are their lessons for our or its time? Not obvious ones. I’m not sure what to make of The Strange One. It was like watching a nasty argument, but one you couldn’t turn away from.

I Knew Her Well (1965) Pietrangeli. This under appreciated (at least in the U.S.) gem from Italy tells us the story of an aspiring young model and actress. She is on the cusp of fame but reaching the highest heights is a big leap requiring a lot of luck. Will she make it? We see her life in a series of vignettes in which we both learn about the difficulties of achieving stardom — the disappointments, the embarrassments, the sacrifices and the joys of being young, beautiful and talented enough to draw attention. Our protagonist goes to nightclubs, works in movie houses, models during boxing matches, attends lavish star-studded parties, goes on dates. She also languishes in her apartment listening to an endless string of .45s. We see her as a pratfall prone naif but also as a sweet and caring young woman, perhaps too sincere for the world she seeks to enter. The movie’s ending hits hard but is somehow inevitable. The then 19-year-old Stefania Sandrelli stars and she is an utterly enchanting delight who it’s impossible not to fall in love with.

The Goddess (1958) Cromwell. We end with yet another disastrous bit of casting, and in the lead role, no less. Here the great stage actress Kim Stanley plays a woman who emerges from humble and unhappy beginnings to become a beloved actress and sex symbol. Stanley plays Emily Ann Faulkner from ages 16 through 31. The problem, especially in the early scenes, is that Stanley was 33 at the time and looked closer to 43. Couldn’t they have at least tried to make her younger? Perhaps more significantly, Stanley was no great beauty and there’s never any hint of sexuality, smoldering or otherwise, in her performance. And we’re supposed to believe she’s worshipped by fans the world over? It might have helped if they’d shown her acting. Adding to this, Stanley and some of the other cast absolutely chew up the scenery whenever given a big scene. The screenplay is perfectly fine which is not surprising given that it was written by the great Paddy Chayefsky. But director John Cromwell was not up to the script and whoever was in charge of casting the film was an idiot.