12 November 2019

I Don't Now What to Say About The Irishman, But I Try


It’s been 24 hours since I saw Martin Scorsese's The Irishman and I’m still feeling somewhat overwhelmed by the experience. My youngest daughter has wanted so share thoughts on the movie which she saw the day before I did. But I'm finding it difficult to write or articulate feelings about it.  To some degree this is a function of the film's length -- three and half hours -- but more precisely just how rich a cinematic experience it provides and how meaningfully and deeply it reveals the life of one man.

I could trot out the usual cliches that one does for great films but in this case they seem empty.  I hasten here to add that I don’t know that I’m ready to call it a “great” film or otherwise label it. My daughter texted me a one-word review after seeing it: "incredible" and I concur. But how and why it is "incredible" is not so easy to unpack. Though it is many respects a rather conventional bit of cinema (the computer techniques to make the actors look younger or older aside). Somehow The Irishman is unique and here again I’m stuck for saying exactly how.

It is a somber film. One critic compared it to Scorsese’s masterpiece, Goodfellas (1990), noting that while the characters in that 1990 classic were having a great time, there is a gravity and sorrow to many of the lives and stories depicted in The Irishman. This is natural given that many of the characters are shown in old age, looking back, not nostalgically but almost mournfully and certainly unromantically. Robert DeNiro’s lead character, Frank Sheeran, a hit man, is forced to reflect on the many people he killed at the behest of his bosses in the mob. The wages of sin. There may not be regrets but there is little celebration in a life comprised of so much violence. His life is the centerpiece of The Irishman.

Scorsese’s use of music is thus subdued as his use of such trickery such as stop action and steadicam shots. As I alluded to earlier it is a very straight forward story. But what a story.

The Irishman is rich in US history from the ‘50s through the ‘70s. Of course the infamous Jimmy Hoffa, who everyone knew about in those days, is a central figure in the film, and he is brought to life by yet another in a long line of bravura performances by the incredible Al Pacino. There are also the Kefauver hearings, the Kennedy election, the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the JFK assassination, Vietnam, Nixon, Watergate and famous mob figures like Joey Gallo. All these events helped form the backdrop to my youth. There is — and this is important — also Americana from the time period. The foods, the cafes, the cars, the clothes, there was simply no way Scorsese was going to make this gangster epic and not get the period detail just so.

Themes abound in The Irishman. As with many good gangster films, loyalty, duplicity and revenge are crucial to the characters and thus the story. These are men who love one another, hate one another and rarely anything in between. This is one aspect of the gangster genre that is so satisfying, grey areas don’t exist, rules are clear. Step out of line and you get whacked. You are trusted and loved and protected until you cross a line and then you are simply dead. Justice is unambiguous and swift. There are no legal niceties involved. Except, of course mobsters, rely on their own shrewd lawyers when dealing with the inevitable pressures applied by the government. Of course, you can take the 5th unless your lawyer has uncovered that technicality that will get you off. Ray Romana as just such a lawyer is one of many standouts in the cast.

These are also men of great appetites. Yes, literally many of them eat copiously but they also hunger for more power and after that still more power and for more money and after that still more money. There is no amount of power or money that is sufficient for a mobster. Like the corporations and banks  that gobble small businesses and hard-working taxpayers mortgages as if they are flakes of cereal, the gangster lives to consume. Woe betide those in their wake.

What makes a film like The Irishman ingratiating is that we cleave to certain characters while hating their foes. We take sides. We love to see people win while outside of standard conventions, rules and laws. There is a wonderful appeal to those brave enough to eschew the nine to five and live on the outside, like frontiersman of old. We all rooted at one level or another, for Walter White (Bryan Cranston) in Breaking Bad because he was not just beating the system, he was kicking the living shit out of it. We live vicariously through our movie and TV gangsters.

Again like the best of gangster films (the aforementioned Goodfellas and The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather: Part II (1974) being prime examples, although there are earlier examples from American cinema like White Heat (1949), The Roaring Twenties (1939), The Public Enemy (1931) and the original Scarface (1932)) there are brilliant performances highlighting the show. In addition to the — and he really needed to be — over the top performance by Pacino, there are the two other leads, DeNiro and Joe Pesci (blessedly out of retirement for the film) who give much more restrained, nuanced performances than in, for example, Goodfellas. This is not the erratic, maniacal Pesci of Goodfellas, here he is thoughtful, patient and calm. Mastering this kind of performance is perhaps more difficult but Pesci is, if anything, an underrated actor. Bobby Cannavale and Stephen Graham were highlights of the HBO show Boardwalk Empire, each playing gangsters. They brought their talents to The Irishman. Cannavale’s Felix ‘Skinny Razor’ DiTullio, a steak-loving mobster who helps get Frank started in “the business” is much mellower than the homicidal Gyp Rosetti of Boardwalk. Graham portrayed Al Capone in Boardwalk, as famous a gangster as ever lived, in The Irishman he is Anthony Provenzano (Tony Pro) a noteworthy if far less well-known crook. Graham is a Liverpudlian but he can play an American crime boss with the best of them.

So one could go on for many, many paragraphs about the cast and their excellence. Just as there is much to say about the editing by the preeminent film editor and long-time Scorsese collaborator, Thelma Schoonmaker or the cinema photography of Rodrigo Prieto or the musical score by Robbie Robertson, all were terrific. There’s so much to say about so much of what The Irishman accomplishes. But though I’ve just passed 1,000 words I feel like I’ve said nothing and will need to see it again, -- and again after that -- to be fully prepared to explore the film to my own satisfaction. (Note: yes, the movie is long, but it never, ever drags and I can’t think of a scene I would have cut or shortened.)

It has been useful exercise to write these preliminary thoughts about The Irishman. From them I learned that maybe I don’t yet love the movie so much as revere it. The film represents so much that can be good and right and beautiful and intellectually stimulating and meaningful about cinema and I’m simply going to have to get to know it better before I feel that we’re on intimate terms. I will, however, reiterate that it is, "incredible."

31 October 2019

Another Trip to New York, Another Fabulous Time

The George Washington bridges seen from the Cloisters.
Just got back after spending nine days in New York. The highlight of the trip and always the primary reason we (the wife and I) go to the Big Apple is to visit youngest daughter. She's working full time as a social worker while also getting her MSW and -- like her older sister -- making her dad very proud. She soaked us for four dinners, a brunch and a theater ticket but it's worth ten dinners, seven brunches and five theater tickets to hang with her. My late great father would be enormously proud of my children and my brother's four young 'uns. I have two nieces and two nephews who are among planet Earth's finest citizens. Enough boasting about my family....

Our first day we went to the Brooklyn Museum where we especially enjoyed an exhibition of the photography of Gary Winogrand. Most of the photos were the '50s and '60s and while most were taken in the New York area, there were shots from other parts of the US as well. He's got a Diana Arbus vibe to him which I really enjoyed. I liked the Brooklyn Museum which I thought of as a kind of "people's museum." Not as ostentatious as some of the other great museums in the New York area and feels like it caters to the hoi polloi. The day marked our return to the labyrinthine New York subway system where you can see all manner of people. Most qualify as "normal" looking individuals engaged in "normal" subway travel but a few of whom are dressed or posed as if pieces of performance art. The subway is dirty, confusing and often overly crowded but it can get you anywhere. I'd hate to commute in it everyday but as a tourist it's damn convenient.

Central Park.
On day two we went to the Museum of Natural History which is to me more noteworthy for the structure itself then anything in it. On this my second visit to the museum I was struck by how run down the place has become. There were placards that were difficult to read, some exhibits were poorly lit and some of the descriptions of the Native Americans need to be updated to be in line with modern sensibilities. From the museum we crossed the street and strolled through Central Park and lemme tell you Autumn is the perfect time of year to meander through the biggest municipal park in the US. It's not exactly the Vermont countryside, but the foliage is still striking. Temperatures were in the low 60s, ideal for a long walk.

On Friday we had lunch at Katz's Delicatessen which owes a great deal of its fame to a scene in When Harry Met Sally. We got to the Deli at about 11:15 and immediately got a table. By the time we  left there was a line for seating stretching out onto the sidewalk. Timing is everything. The cuisine was fine but one comes for the atmosphere which Katz's has in spades. Far too many individually owned delis, cafes and restaurants across the country have closed in the last few decades to be replaced by chic, hip and stylized eateries that have flash but no character. Berkeley has lost two classic eateries in the past few years that had histories stretching back decades. The missus overheard two old geezers at a nearby table lamenting the many fine delis in New York that are no more. Katz's walls are festooned with photos of celebrities who have patronized the place, everyone from Joe DiMaggio to Leonardo Dicaprio. Next we took in the Tenement Museum which you can only enjoy via one of their many tours. I went on one called Hard Times in which we were taken to a tenement and shown rooms once occupied by particular families of immigrants. Our guide was a young lady who knew her stuff. The museum does an excellent job of preservation and research to accurately depict the immigrant experience from the mid 19th century through the 1930s and to a lesser degree, until today. The museum also boasts a kick ass gift shop. (I love museum gift shops, though I rarely purchase anything from them.)

Saturday we went to the Top of the Rock which is, of course, the top of Rockefeller Center. The views are spectacular, although I preferred my visit last year to the top of the Empire State Building.
In the evening we took in a hot and controversial play, The Slave Play. It has apparently made many a theater goer uncomfortable -- including some in our audience  -- because of its frank and vivid representation of interracial relationships -- not to mention relationships in general -- and its uncanny ability to connect racial tensions of today (even those hidden within a romantic relationship) with the legacy of slavery. It also lampooned group therapy and all the jargon and tropes that go with it. For this is a play about using role playing set in the antebellum south as couples therapy. The actors are almost as brave and bold as the playwright Jeremy O. Harris.

People enjoying a Jackson Pollack painting
The next day we enjoyed brunch with youngest daughter then navigated a downpour to go to MoMa, aka the Museum of Modern Art. This is one of my favorite museums in the world and it did not disappoint on this rainy Sunday. There was the works of Edward Hopper, Jackson Pollack, Man Ray, Salvador Dali, Georgia O'Keefe, Picasso, Andy Warhol, Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo and many more. What an absolute delight to spend time with the work of some of our greatest artists. There was also an exhibition of one of my favorite poets, Frank O'Hara, who was also and artist and a curator at the museum. There's nothing that can lift a mood like being surrounded by great efforts by great artists, it restores one's faith in humanity.

Monday's visit to the Cloisters was nowhere near as exciting but still enjoyable and the location affords some magnificent views especially at this time of the year. It was preceded by a stop at Columbia University where my mother did her graduate work and where my favorite writers, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg met. We also stopped by Tom's Restaurant the exterior of which was used as a stand-in for Monk's Cafe in the greatest of all TV sit-coms, Seinfeld. You may have heard of it. Later we took a second stroll through Central Park.

On our last full day we made a second pilgrimage to Zabar's where I had a bagel with lox, a sticky bun and tea. Zabar's has been seen or mentioned in dozens of movies and TV shows. The cafe and adjoining store have been a going concern since the 1920s. We also popped into the New York Public Library which to my surprise has a gift shop and indeed it is a terrific gift shop. Our visit provided one of the highlights of the trip as they currently have a JD Salinger exhibition and boy what an exhibition. On display were the author's typewriter, passports, pipes, reading glasses, book contracts, the original manuscript of Catcher in the Rye (!!!!) along with correspondence and family photos. Fantastic.

Yesterday we flew across the country and boy are my arms tired (rim shot).


09 October 2019

I'm a Joker, I'm a Smoker, I'm a Midnight Toker I Sure Don't Want to Hurt No One


I don't see these types of movies. No superheroes for me. No Marvel universe. No inter-galactic space battles. No franchise films. But I was drawn to Joker because it starred the great Joaquin Phoenix in a story that was said to be devoid of CGI, booming soundtracks and promises of many sequels to come. I understood that it was a stand alone film that was more about character than action sequences.

The physicality of Joaquin Phoenix in his portrayal of the title character in Todd Phillips’ Joker was the most compelling aspect of the film. He was not merely athletic but fluid. It was thus not surprising to learn that in preparation for the role he studied the great dancer Roy Bolger, particularly his Old Soft Shoe performance. Phoenix didn't just channel the classic tap dancer, there was something balletic in much of his movement. At times, he also looked like an athlete, particularly when running. The Joker is all about movement and not just Phoenix’s body, but his face as well, which is often contorted into laughter both uncontrollable and calculated. Laughing. There is a lot of it in Joker though it is generally uncomfortable or more often painful and definitely compulsive, even pathological.

There is violence in Joker. I read that it was excessive. Indeed there has been a lot said and written already about Joker as critics have been polarized in their views of the film. It is always a big weight to carry into a movie theater to know that there are strong and conflicting views about a film. I found myself constantly checking in with myself as to how I was reacting to Joker, rather than just absorbing the film. (I’ve often found that the less I know about a movie before watching it the purer the movie-going experience. I always try to read as little as possible about a movie before seeing it, only wanting to know enough to decide that I will like it.)

Joker has a lot of violence though I've seen much worse. It is also very much about isolation and mental illness and urban decay and the proverbial theme of man’s inhumanity to man. It is thus a story very much for our times and also for many other times as well. I thought a lot about New York in the 1970s which seemed to be an inspiration for the time and place of Joker. The film was also quite clearly inspired by the work of Martin Scorsese, particularly Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy. Phoenix’s character, Arthur Fleck, is an out-sized kind of Travis Bickle, less in control and in more desperate straits. Fleck is also a violent version of Rupert Pupkin. It’s no accident that Robert De Niro is in Joker where he plays a successful talk show host, Maury Franklin, the very type of person Pupkin aspired to be. (Perhaps I shouldn’t assume that everyone knows that De Niro played both Bickle in Taxi Driver and Pupkin in the King of Comedy. If you’ve not seen either film do so posthaste.) While Joker is an homage to Scorsese it is also -- though perhaps inadvertently -- a nod to a recent Phoenix film, You Were Never Really Here which was directed by Lynne Ramsey and is more violent than Joker.

The same city can be viewed in myriad ways by different people. For the wealthy, New York is a city rife with opportunity and an endless array of activities available from theater to sports to museums to fine dining to carriage rides in Central Park. To the very poor New York is a cold, heartless place full of crime, drugs, rats and looming violence. Joker's fictional city of Gotham (which you’ve heard of if you know your Batman) is similarly two-sided, although it is at a point where the ugly underbelly is getting more exposure — a garbage strike helps see to that — and is spilling into rampant violence and mob-led protest. The antics and actions of Arthur Fleck have inadvertently led to this. He has captured the zeitgeist of the city’s trauma and made it writ large. Simultaneously he has been “discovered” by Franklin and is about to enjoy his designated 15 minutes of fame. Or is he?

Critics have complained that Joker is not only about nihilism but seems to celebrate it, that it is empty, cynical, that it celebrates victimhood and fails to make its points. I’m not sure what it says about me as a cinephile, but I rarely like movies that take such critical beatings (to be fair Joker has a sizable number of critics championing it as well, indeed more critics like it than not). But I think critics are asking the wrong questions of Joker or looking for things that they want to find rather than what the film actually offers.

Joker is a brilliantly choreographed dance with an exceptional artist as its lead. The story’s point and focus take a backseat to the manner in which it is presented. In this respect it reminds one of Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood which was so enthralling for its composition — colors, music, recreation of time period — rather than for the narrative itself.

I always wonder about people who are obsessed with storyline and points to stories. Do they read poems to see how they end? Would they rather spend their spare time diagramming sentences or reading them?

Surely though Joker is about something. It’s about a lot. It’s about pain and how we deal with it and overcome it or how it deals with us and overcomes the better angels of our nature. There is a lot of substance to Joker. It also explores that helpless feeling that only through retribution can solace be found for the downtrodden. That sense that playing by the rules only works for those for whom the deck is stacked. But ultimately I found it mostly to be damn good entertainment. A great actor giving a virtuoso performance in a film unafraid of itself that is willing to pull no punches and even throw a few -- not necessarily gratuitously. Mostly it passed the entertainment test. It kept me awake and aware and watching and wondering and smiling and grimacing and admiring. And what I mostly  admired was Phoenix's tour de force performance.

What a dance!

04 October 2019

Today I Re-Learn The Lesson That You Can't Go Home Again

View from the school in SF

For the first time in seven months I went back to where I worked for seven and a half years. You can’t go home again. I had lunch with Sendy, my former boss and the best boss I ever had. She’s leaving the school next week. The school director is leaving soon thereafter. Half the people who were there when I left have gone. The schedule has been changed. The school has gotten a fresh coat of paint. Tables, desks and shelves have been moved. None of the students who were there when I left are still at the school. It's the exact same place I left in March only totally different.

The school is right by Fisherman’s Wharf. That area hasn’t changed much in seven months — nor in seven years, for that matter — but it looks different, feels different, smells different, from when I worked there.

The school was full of ghosts. Including mine. Ghosts of teachers who entertained, bored, inspired, impressed, depressed, edified and mollified students since the school opened 12 years ago. Only one person working at the school when I arrived there in July, 2011 is still there. ESL schools are transitory. Students come for no more than a year, most for no more than six months and many for as little as two weeks. Teachers and staff come and go too. This is especially true in places like San Francisco where people soon figure out that you need a substantial income to live in the city.

When I was a young man I was a newspaper reporter and having the time of life. I seemed made for the work. I was excelling at it and happy. Then I got a stupid idea of leaving journalism to work in Sacramento for the student lobby. I wasn’t cut out for the work and left after a year and began wondering, flailing around in life easing my journey through drugs and alcohol. After six aimless years I went into teaching and there found a career. I was a public school teacher, in a middle school no less. I was happy again although the pressure was enormous, the pay barely adequate and the slings and arrows stung. Eventually when administrators seemed to turn on me, I couldn’t take it anymore and segued into teaching ESL to adults. The first permanent job in the field I landed was, for much of the time, heaven on Earth. The students were nice and liked me, my bosses were nice and liked me, my co workers were nice and liked me. It was all grand fun and to top it off I was damn good at it. The only drawback was the hideous commute that grew worse and worse with each passing year then with each passing month then with each passing week and at the end with each passing minute. I was at retirement age anyway so last March I said my farewells.

I look back on my time as a reporter as one of the best and certainly most fulfilling periods of my life but I suffer horrible pangs of regret when I contemplate how I abandoned it. So i my tenure teaching ESL in San Francisco is the only work experience that I look back on with fond memories. It was a job to be sure but it was so damn much fun to show up there and be greeted by darlings from all over the world. I took the job seriously and one aspect of it that I took seriously was that it should be — while students improved their English — damn good fun. For students and for me. I found that students learned better and I taught better if we were having a few yuks along the way. Students bought into it. My classes were big happy families. Meanwhile I was working for people who respected and supported me. These were people who were on my side and not incidentally they knew how to have a good time too. Who wouldn’t miss that?

I was very happy to see the school again as well as a few of the people I worked with, most especially my boss. But it made me wistful and a little sad. Something was gone. When we return to old haunts or visit old companions there is a melancholy mixed with the cheer. Nostalgia tinged with sorrow. It’s never the same. Parts of that experience have died, others have changed. There are people and places that we will never see again. Ever. And there people and places that are unalterably changed.

Last June I took a part time at a nearby ESL school teaching one class in the mornings. It’s a 15 minute walk from home, so there’s no commute to deal with. Teaching one class is easy. The school is small so the classes are small and thus there are few papers to grade. My part-time gig takes up just a few hours a day and the money earned goes to future travels. My work in the Summer funded a forthcoming trip the missus and I are about to take to New York.

The job is nice. The people there are nice. The students are nice. It’s an easy gig. It’s not the same as my time in SF but it’s okay. I’m never going to get too attached to the school which is good, because it means I’ll never have to deal with being sad after I leave it.

Goddamn, I was lucky to work at a place that today is making me feel plaintive. Damn lucky. I guess that's what you take out of "going home again" you can see how good you once had it.

11 September 2019

I'm About to Have a Procedure, I'm Writing Another Novel, I'm Teaching and I Rant About Films


I'm hungry. And thirty. My colonoscopy is scheduled for just under three hours from now. I haven't had  anything to eat since 1:30 yesterday and my last sip of water was over an hour ago. I'm also tired because my sleep was interrupted by trips to the toilet and I had to get up at 5:00 to drink a batch of the liquid -- tastes like cherry cola -- that cleans out the intestines. This my second colonoscopy. The first was ten years ago. Like that one, today's will include an endoscopy. Of course a patient is out the entire time so there's never any sensation of an object going down one's mouth or up the area where the sun don't shine. Thank god for that. It's one of those deals were you go on and put yourself in the hands of professionals. In that sense there's nothing to it. I've maintained excellent physical health all my life and am hoping that in the aftermath of today's procedures it'll be another case of no news is good news.

Did I mention that I'm working on another novel? The damn thing is just writing itself. It started as a short story but kept on going. I sit down put my fingers on the keyboard and the magic happens.  Weird how that works. Walking to the gym or work I'll find myself thinking about it and creating scenes or dialogue, some of which I end up using and some of which I don't. Meanwhile I've got another book that is in the hands (more accurately it is in the emails) of agents and publishers. So far two have said "thanks but no thanks." All I need is for one to say, "yes, please." The novel I sent out late last Winter has now officially been rejected by everyone I sent it to and it is in the shop for repairs. I think I can make something of it yet but it'll have to wait until I finish my newest venture.

I've been teaching one class a morning (Monday through Friday) since the beginning of June at a school walking distance from my humble abode.  It is a very small school but students are just as wonderful. Teaching ESL has restored my faith in humanity. To see all these people from different countries getting along so well, making life long friends, helping one another, sharing adventures and being good classmates helps offset the horrors that emerge from the daily new cycle. It's been over eight years of teaching ESL and of course I still face the same kind of mistakes. Spanish-speakers who use the word "history" to describe what we call a story. Brazilians (and others to a lesser extent) who pronounce ever word ending in ed with the hard ED sound as if the endings of the words ended and danced were pronounced the same. Apparently they were in days of yore. But now of course we give the t sound ending to words like danced, laughed, hoped and the straight d ending to words like pulled, called and cried. Students from all over the world want to constantly use the word moment. (I've not idea where this comes from.) As in: "in this moment I am thinking about going to a university." I am forever writing the word moment on the board, drawing a circle around it and then a diagonal line through it. Students also say yesterday night, ask "how can I spell this word?" say that a person has 24 years instead of is 24, say all the people instead of everybody and say make a party instead of have a party. And yes I could go on and on. Same stuff over and over and I really don't mind correcting them, it's my job and I enjoy watching them improve.

Sunday after watching Federico Fellini’s La Strada, I wondered if filmmakers who saw the movie when it was released automatically threw up their arms and said, “well, shit, we can’t do anything near as good as that, we might as well give up.” It would have been an understandable reaction. It's a a damned great film. But movies have continued to be made and Fellini himself equaled or bettered La Starada a few times with such classics as Nights of Cabiria, La Dolce Vta, 81/2 and Amarcord. Others have persisted in making movies with considerably less success. For example there have been eight Fast and Furious movies (really, I looked it up) and there’s a ninth scheduled for release next year. This proves the old adage that if you can’t beat ‘em, join em and if you can’t join em, make some really awful shit that you can foist upon a public that doesn’t know good art from an Nintendo. Really, there have been eight of those goddamned movies and more coming. Never underestimate....

Those geniuses at Hollywood have become grand masters at developing a franchise (this is not to be confused with the actual art form of making an original film) and cranking out an endless stream of movies from it, most of which are sequels but some are prequels, still others are reboots along with the eventual spin offs. These movies even have their own “universes” such as the Marvel universe. Gawd.

People eat this crap up. They start dining on it at a young age and become addicted. It's like that chain pizza like Domino's that is heavily salted so that people crave it. Many film goers have no experience seeing movies made by the likes of Fellini or Bergman or Tarkovsky or Malle. (Like some people have no experience eating really good pizza.) They also have never seen anything made prior to Star Wars and very little from around that time period (late seventies) that isn’t also in the action/adventure genre. Of course people who flock to their local cineplexes to be bombarded by surround sound and special effects, occasionally take in other types of films such as raunchy or romantic comedies or raunchy romantic comedies.

So there you have it. I started off writing about my colonoscopy (now two and half hours away) then had a nice bit about teaching and finally another angry tirade about the current state of cinema. Pretty typical for me.

If you don't hear a report from me about the procedure just remember that no news is good news.

28 August 2019

Reflections on Dog Day Afternoon and Some of My Usual Miscellany


Midway through Dog Day Afternoon, Sonny (Al Pacino) says: "I’m a fuck up and an outcast and that’s it." Yes, yes he was. But he had the attention of New York city that night. His story was carried live on TV as he held bank employees hostage and waited for his demands -- an airplane to take him and his partner (John Cazale) to Algeria. Sonny got more than his 15 minutes of fame and it was loud and brash and splashy and the residue of that day (August 22, 1972) kept him in the news until his death, just as the film has kept his memory alive onto this day.

It is Sidney Lumet's direction of the brilliant film and Al Pacino's bravura performance that will ensure that Sonny lives forever -- or at least until the effects of global warming drown humanity for good and all. 

Today was perhaps my sixth or seventh or maybe even eighth viewing of the film, the first one was when it first hit the silver screen in 1975. Today during the famous cinematic moment when Pacino's Sonny starts chanting "Attica!" I actually and truly got choked up. It is not a sentimental moment by any stretch but it is a moment of cinematic virtuosity that confirms Dog Day's place among America's pantheon of great films. At that point in the film Pacino was in the midst of giving one of cinema's greatest portrayals. His Sonny is the ultimate loser -- or fuck up and outcast -- a man who robs a bank to fund his wife Leon's (Chris Sarandon) sex change operation. As the story unfolds Leon is in a mental hospital, driven their in part by Sonny's erratic behavior. His other wife is an obese woman who has born him two children. She loves Sonny but has also been plagued by the mercurial Sonny. We also meet Sonny's mother who loves her son unconditionally but partially expresses her love by hectoring him.

So why did I get choked up, really? Great art, which film can achieve, is moving. Two great artists -- Pacino and Lumet -- had combined (with the not insignificant help of cast and crew) to transcend movie-making and created something not just memorable as a meme, but illustrative of the masterpiece they had created. It touched me.

Sonny is astute about a lot of things in the course of the robbery and hostage situation, including bank procedures. When the limo comes to take him and partner and the hostages to the airport, Sonny wisely surrounds himself with the hostages as they leave the bank, not leaving himself to be a target for the innumerable police sharp shooters. But he can't win in the end. The Sonnys never do. His swagger, his antics, his sensitivity, his patience, his cunning are not enough to make up for the central core of what he is, "a fuck up and an outcast and that’s it." However, unlike most losers he gained infamy without opprobrium. 

I wrote about Dog Day Afternoon five years ago, including the story of how my wife met the real Sonny.

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Speaking of Dog Day Afternoon, there are no actual dogs in the film. There are no cats in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. There is no lion in The Lion in Winter. There are no horses in They Shoot Horses, Don't They? There is no elephant in Gus Van Sandt's Elephant. There is no tiger in Save the Tiger. There are, however, lots of Birds in the movie of the same name.

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I had a medical appointment this morning scheduled for 9:45. Two days prior I received a courtesy call from the office reminding me of the appointment, but also telling me to arrive 30 minutes early to fill out paperwork Why was the appointment made for 9:45 if I was supposed to be there at 9:15? When not just make the appointment for 9:15 in the first place? Here's the kicker: the paperwork took me less than five minutes and checking in and making my co-payment consumed about two minutes. I didn't even need to get there ten minutes early, let alone 30. I'm old enough neither to be surprised nor frustrated by any of this.

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I'm currently going through withdrawals as I have stopped taking (after tapering off) the medication that ostensibly was a mood stabilizer that would keep mean, nasty old depression from bothering me. Suffice to say that this magic elixir did nothing of the kind and joins the pantheon of meds I've taken to brighten my mood that have had zero effect. For all I know some of them have made things worse. Anyway I've been having to put up with brain zaps which is one of the hardest phenomenon I've ever tried to explain. The best I can do is say that they're like little electric shocks to the brain. They don't really cause any problems or prevent me from doing anything, but they are an awful nuisance. Other withdrawal symptoms for this particular drug include: "agitation, anxiety, depression, dizziness, fatigue, headache, insomnia, irritability, itchiness, mood swings, muscle spasms, nausea, panic attacks, sleep changes, suicidal thoughts, vomiting, vivid dreams and weight changes." The only ones I've had besides the brain zaps are vivid dreams and depression although I have vivid dreams and depression pretty much as a matter of course (never together) so they are not necessarily associated with going off the drug. Trust me, the brain zaps are enough.
I love science.

16 August 2019

All About Curtis -- A Wife Talks About Her Husband...In the Aftermath

“Curtis likes to have sex pretty much every other night. Sometimes we’ll do it in the afternoon too, usually on weekends. I wouldn’t say he was a sex addict or nothing. Hell, I like to do it about as much as he does. He says the reason he likes to fuck a lot is 'cause he was in the military for four years — he was fightin’ in Afghanistan, ya know — and there was a lot of that time when he wasn’t getting any.


“He’s pretty conventional about sex, no rough stuff or kinky stuff, just all pretty straight forward which is fine by me. I’ve been with guys who like to do all kinda weird shit and while that might be fun for a change every now and again, I’m just has happy to have regular intercourse. Curtis don’t even like to talk during sex nor afterwards, not that he talks a lot at all. And outside of sex he isn’t much for affection. Never holds my hand or nothin’ but he does give me a quick kiss goodbye when he heads for work.

“Curtis, he’s been working for three years now at the truck garage. He don’t mind the work and the money’s good. There are some fellas there he gets along with okay and a few he’ll have beers with after work. He especially likes to have beers on a Friday and sometimes will get home as late as eight o’clock or even nine. He’ll be drunk but not real sloppy drunk. I don’t mind. He earns it and I’m pretty darn sure he don’t cheat and never would. After all he gets all the sex he wants outta me and I’m not a bad cook and keep the house real clean. Curtis ain’t really the type to cheat no way.

“I worked for the first two years we were married as a checker at the local supermarket but when Curtis got his promotion and raise at the garage why he said I could quit working if I wanted to and I figured why not. Being a checker is okay work but I’d druther stay at home. I guess the way things are now I’ll have to go back to working at the grocery store if they still have any checker jobs after the way they started automating so much.

“You asked about hobbies. Curtis tried golf once or twice but didn’t care for it. He found it kinda boring, he said. Curtis had played football in high school — he was a linebacker and made all league — and sometimes says he misses playing. There’s a garage softball team that Curtis plays on. I go watch the games. Seems Curtis always either strikes out or hits a home run. They put him in right field, which he don’t like, but I guess he weren’t no good at fielding. We bowled a few times but that was mostly just a chance to socialize and drink beers though the truth is that Curtis has never been what you’d call a very social person. He is as polite a man as you’ll ever meet and especially to mom and my sister and anyone else in my family.

“Anyway I don’t think you could say Curtis has any real hobbies. He does like watching TV and movies, mostly action stuff. He’ll watch one of the comedies I like every so often but they rarely make him chuckle. He don’t never like watching the news, says it just makes him mad. Curtis don’t trust politicians and says they’re all a bunch of crooks and they don’t care nothing for regular people, just want to make as much money for themselves as they can or take our money and give it to lazy poor people and immigrants.

“I don’t know what all he does on the internet. He spends an hour or two most nights at the computer but never talks about what he looks at or does and I don’t pry. Ya see Curtis is a real private person, even with me, which I don’t mind. I come from a family of gabbers. Why each person in my family be it mom, or my sister or my dearly departed father or grandma or any of my aunts or uncles or cousins loves to talk and you can can hardly get a word in edgewise at family get-togethers. On Thanksgiving and at Christmas everyone is fighting to talk next. The only thing that shuts up a person in my family is eating. So it’s nice that Curtis is just the opposite. I don’t need to hear his opinion on every little thing or for him to tell me every last detail about what happens at work or hear boring stories about when he was a kid. It’s nice to sit with Curtis and just be kind of quiet. Course I take after the rest of my family and chatter away but Curtis don’t seem to mind, least he never says nothin.’

“So about his childhood and upbringing I don’t know a whole lot. His parents divorced when he was a kid, I think nine maybe eight, I’m not sure exactly. He mostly lived with his mom and his little brother and big sister. I don’t know that anything so special happened in his childhood. His dad lived in the same town and would take him fishing and when he got to be a teenager his dad would take him hunting and he kind of liked that. Like I say he played football in school and once told me he was never much of a student though he never did flunk a class neither. I asked him once did he ever get in any kind of trouble in school and he said only little stuff like once getting in a fight and a few times for playing pranks but he made a point to say that as boring as school was he never cut a class and didn’t show up late. Curtis is always on time for everything. It can drive ya nuts that he’s ready to go 15 minutes before you need to leave the house and gets all impatient if you ain’t ready to leave when he is. There’s worse habits though.

“From what I remember from what Curtis said there was a year between him graduating high school and going into the military. Curtis, he didn’t go to college and only would have if he’d gotten a football scholarship which I guess he wasn’t good enough for. The local community college coach wanted him for the team real bad but Curtis didn’t think it was worth it to play football for some dumb junior college and have to take boring classes to be eligible. He tried a few jobs but didn’t care for them. I know one was working at a filling station and I think another was custodial work. So he joined the army. He did tours in Afghanistan I guess he saw some awful stuff but he won’t go in no detail about it to me. I’m pretty sure he shot some of the enemy, at least he shot at them. He said he hated being there but when he’d get back home he wanted to go back. That was always just so weird to me. I mean how could you wanna go back to a place you hated being at? But that’s what Curtis said.

“He was finally discharged and it was right after that when I met him. We was both in the same bar. He’d only been out the army a couple of days. He was sitting at a bar stool and I hadn’t even really noticed him when I accidental bumped into him. I said “excuse me.” At first he looked real irritated then the all of sudden smiled and said ‘why I don’t guess I mind being jostled by such a pretty girl.’ So then we got to talking and I guess I was flirting with him’ cause he was a handsome fella and still is. He was a real gentleman and didn’t try nothing but we made a date for the next Friday. We’ve been together ever since. Just hit it off and all. He’s four years older’n me but that don’t amount to much. I was 21 when we met. We married almost exactly a year after we met. We don’t never fight. Oh sometimes I’ll pout about something like a lot of girls do and sometimes Curtis he’ll get a little pissed off about something. He’s hit me just a few times but never too hard and I can tell he’s felt real bad afterwards.

“I’d say overall Curtis has been a real good husband although I guess cause of what happened the other day it’s all in the past now. I’ve been talking like we’re still together but the most that’ll happen from now on is me visiting him. I just know deep in my heart that I can’t do that for very long. I love Curtis but ya know it has occurred to me that he’s not the love of my life. I’m going to have to move on and meet my one true love. Someone who will want to have children. Curtis never did want kinds and it made me sad. 



“It was awful what happened and I’m sorry for everyone and their loss and I’m just as shocked as everybody else that Curtis would do such a God awful thing. Those poor people and the families, my God. There weren’t no signs that he was like that or would even think of doing such a thing. But it works out for me in a strange way because like I said I’ll get to meet someone else who’ll be better for me and I can have a regular family. How'd it ever have worked out in the long run with him not wanting kids? I don't know what I was thinking.

“One other thing, I never knowed that Curtis even had an AK-47. He musta kept in his truck. It’d raised some questions for me if I’d ever seen it. He kept a pistol in the house and one in the glovebox of the truck for protection and he even taught me how to use ‘em but the rifle I knew nothing about and I'll swear to you on that.

“I’m sorry if I’ve gone on too much or too long or whatever but you said you wanted to know all about him and also like I said earlier I come from a family of talkers. You have any more questions I’ll do my best. I really doubt though that I can give you any help in figuring why Curtis done when he did. Maybe he’ll talk about it some day. I doubt it. But maybe.

“That stupid son of a bitch.”

08 August 2019

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and Other Excellent Films that Evoke the Sixties


Among its other virtues, Quentin Tarantino’s brilliant new film Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, meticulously recreates Los Angeles in 1969. Tarantino has always been obsessive about details and never more so than in Once Upon a Time. Shooting in 35mm Tarantino here uses light, colors and palettes to suffuse Once Upon a Time with a sense of place. He is also a director who perfectly utilizes contemporary music (ala Martin Scorsese) as he did in Jackie Brown. In Once Upon a Time it is not just the songs that imbue the film with a sense of period, but the use of AM radio and its chatter and commercials. Kenneth Turan in the Los Angeles Times wrote of Once Upon a Time: “Things like character moments and quirks of personality as well as detailed specifics of popular culture, whether they be from film, TV, music or commercials, are not window dressing to pass the time until the plot kicks in; they are the essential reason “Once Upon a Time” exists.” So if you want to know what 1969 looked and felt like in California and particularly LA, you couldn’t do better than this film.

In his best films (Inglourius Basterds, Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown) Tarantino doesn’t so much tell a story as invite us into one. They are escapes into a different time and place among some wonderfully eccentric and fully realized characters. When the credits rolled after Once Upon a Time I felt as if I was waking up from a perfectly vivid dream in which the reality of past events (as in Basterds) had been happily perverted. This is not surprising as there is a dream like quality to Once Upon a Time with its muted colors and surreal vignettes. Speaking of which, the scene in which the fading TV star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) chats with an earnest and precocious 8 year old co-star (Julia Butters) was for me a highlight of the film. Also Margaret Qualley as Manson girl, Pussycat looks, talks and acts like so many young women I saw and often lusted after in my youth. Casting is everything in Tarantino's better films from the extras to the leads. Margot Robbie was an excellent choice to play Sharon Tate and is a joy to watch whether she is dancing and ironing to Paul Revere and the Raiders or watching herself in a movie (the real Sharon Tate is on screen) or being squired around by Roman Polanski. DiCaprio and co star Brad Pitt are letter perfect as two buddies (Pitt plays Dalton’s stuntman) who are clearly misplaced in the emerging counter culture but through perspiration and inspiration survive and prosper all the same.

I saw Hollywood at a time when I’ve coincidentally been watching a lot films set in the Sixties, a decade of extreme beauty, violence, change and cultural revolution that fashioned the person I am today and transformed society more profoundly than any other recent ten-year period. For people too young to remember the Sixties or other old fogies who want a reminder of what it was like, you can certainly learn a lot through some excellent films and enjoy hours of entertainment in the bargain. In addition to Once Upon a Time Hollywood I present here some other movies that in different ways explore or reveal what the Sixties were like or look at key figures or events of the decade. Many were made in the Sixties or shortly thereafter while some like Once Upon a Time are from decades later. This is not meant to be a complete list, but I believe it to be a damn good start.

If…. (1968) Anderson. Over 50 years old and it hasn’t aged a day. If.... perfectly captured the zeitgeist of the time, it’s premier was surrounded by some of the signature events of the Sixties revolution. Malcom McDowell was the perfect person to play the protagonist, Mick Travis. Neither classically handsome nor muscular he had a Sixties everyman quality, sardonic, intelligent, witty and stoically defiant. If…ostensibly took on British classism and boarding schools but to audiences everywhere it was an attack on the establishment and cry for individuality and equality.

Harold and Maude (1971) Ashby. Both the young Harold and the aging Maude were a pair of lovable anti establishment avatars in this dark, somber yet uplifting film by Hal Ashby. There is nothing uniquely 1960s in the narrative but the film itself captures the rebellious nature of the time and the desire for non conformity. As a teenage boy I, like millions of others, related to Harold’s defiance of the social order in a much more profound way than I did The Graduate’s Benjamin Braddock. It was also a singularly different love story.

The Strawberry Statement (1970) Hagman. This is the worst film I love. While it is a disjointed movie directed by a hack it manages to embody the fractious nature of university life and the protest movements of the Sixties. I revere it so much in part because it brings me back not only to the time in depicts but to the time I saw it, a time when I felt emboldened to be part of the change I sought in the world. Strawberry Statement romanticized the protest movement and illustrated the idealism of youth.

Hearts and Minds (1974) Davis. There are a lot of good fictional films about the Vietnam War but your one stop film for really understanding the war, it’s victims, its warriors, its exploiters it opponents and its supporters is in this documentary, my favorite documentary of all time.

Monterey Pop (1968) Pennebaker. You could just as easily go with Woodstock but I think this documentary on the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival (especially the full version available through Criterion as opposed to the short theatrical version) is better quality and explores a mood and growing trend in music rather than a moment in time. There are many great acts in the films such as Jimi Hendrix, The Who and Janis Joplin but there are important and less remembered performers such as The Association, Ravi Shankar and Canned Heat. While the concert footage is superb, the film also explores the attendees providing an excellent look at fashion and mores of the time.

Medium Cool (1969) Wexler. It tells a story set in Chicago in 1968 that is very much a Sixties tale. A particularly powerful scene depicts the central character (a young Robert Forster who later co-starred in the aforementioned Jackie Brown) being confronted by a group of angry African Americans who insist their voice and perspective be heard. But what makes Medium Cool such a powerful film is that its culminating scenes were filmed during Democratic Convention and the protests outside of it. Characters intermingle with actual Chicago police actually beating actual protesters. It is a tour de force of cinema verite meets neo realism. For this conceit alone Medium Cool is worth a look.

Magic Trip (2011) Ellwood/Gibney. A documentary that features actual footage of The Merry Pranksters traveling across the country in their bus, Further, having a jolly good time and tweaking "the man." The characters include Ken Kesey (who with Sometimes a Great Notion and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, wrote two of the great novels of the Sixties) and the legendary Neal Cassady. There are also glimpses of Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and Timothy Leary. Some credit the Pranksters’ antics and LSD use as catalyses for the counter culture movement of the Sixties. At the very least they were, in 1964, forerunners of it. The film is comprised of footage of the pranksters and adds subsequently recorded commentary from various members of the group. Great fun.

Malcolm X (1992) Lee.  Spike Lee’s film on the great black activist has no peer among movies depicting MLK or the Civil Rights movement. Denzel Washington is brilliant as Malcolm. While much of the film takes place prior to the Sixties it is highlighted by Malcolm’s later years and shows the rising of black consciousness that played such an integral part in the decade.

JFK (1991) Stone. There’s a lot to unpack in Oliver Stone’s epic look at the assassination of John F. Kennedy and the myriad complexities surrounding it. There are some wrong turns and some misdirections but there’s a lot of truth packed into this compelling film. It has inspired many to go down the rabbit hole of reading about the assassination and the endless conspiracy theories it has spawned. If nothing else it helps put a lie to the ludicrous official notion that there was a lone assassin (Lee Harvey Oswald). The Kennedy assassination was a pivotal moment in American history and its meanings reflect on the darker side of American politics.

Others recommendations:  The Landlord (1970) Ashby; Zabriske Point (1970 Antonioni; Platoon (1986) Stone; Hair (1979) Forman; A Hard Day’s Night (1964) Lester; Black Panthers Vanguard of the Revolution (2015) Nelson; Woodstock (1970) Wadleigh; Getting Straight (1970) Rush; Inside Llewyn Davis (2013) Coens and That Thing You Do! (1996) Hanks.

One to pass on: Easy Rider (1969). Many lists of Sixties movies would include this highly popular film. Mine will not. I recently watched it again and was struck by what a god awful movie it is. What you can learn from the film is that Dennis Hopper was a terrible director and that he and Peter Fonda should not have improvised their lines. Jack Nicholson took the trouble to memorize his and not incidentally was the only decent part of this mess. The movie has no point, goes nowhere and says nothing. 

25 July 2019

Wherein the Author Takes on Words and Expressions, the Cliches and the Misused



Hey guys, How have you guys been? As I write this there are some guys painting a neighboring house. There were just some other guys who walked by but I don’t know anything about them. There were some guys at working talking about the Mueller hearings today. I saw a little bit of some guys questioning him. I think Mueller is a decent guy. He’s the kind of guy who takes his work seriously. I think some of the guys on the Republican side didn’t care about the facts of his investigation. I don’t like those guys. I like guys in government who care about the other guy. As you guys might have noticed I’ve been trying to make a point about a particular word that a lot of guys use all the time. Some are teachers who always say things like, “okay you guys get out your worksheets.” I never call my students guys. In fact I try not to use the word guys at all. I’ve seen tweets (On twitter — duh!) In which the “author” starts off by saying, “guys…” sometimes with the word “hey” in front of it. Enough with the guys. Am I right? Let me know what you guys think.

Another grossly overused word — maybe I’ve mentioned this one before — is “grab.” People grab something to eat or specifically grab lunch or dinner or breakfast or a snack. People grab a coffee. Sometimes you’ll hear something like “we’re about to have our meeting, will you grab Bob for me?” Of course people also grab things like papers, books, magazines, you name it. At the gym once I heard someone say that they were going to grab a shower. Really? Better than that was hearing someone say that they were going to go outside and grab some sunshine. Enough with the grabbing. I grew up being told grabbing was rude. Stuck with me, I guess.

You know what else irritates me? Pre-planned and forewarned. Unless there is post-planning and being warned after the fact I don’t know what’s wrong with saying something was planned or someone was warned. Come to think of it, I’ve also read and heard “planned in advance” which is far better than if you, say, plan a party after having it.

Speaking of planning, one of my least ever phrases is when you propose a plan and someone replies, “sounds like a plan.” When asking a question does anyone ever respond, “sounds like a question.” When you make an announcement does anyone ever say “sounds like an announcement.” Imagine if after General Eisenhower had laid out the details of the D-Day invasion some idiot colonel had said, “sounds like a plan.” He’d have been courtmartialed.

I just read a famous novel in which a character “thought to himself.” I’ve read many books, fiction and non fiction alike, and numerous articles of different kinds in which someone relates having “thought to myself” or tells of someone having “though to himself” I suppose to “herself “ too. I’m about 100% sure that one can only think to oneself (excepting, of course, those with mental telepathy). How about if instead of writing: I thought to myself that it was a strange thing to say, people write: I thought it was a strange thing to say.

This isn’t a complaint but a question: you’ve heard people say, “he gets on my last nerve” haven’t you? So have I. I wonder if getting on someone’s last nerve is worse than getting on their first one or on one of the middle ones. Also, how do people know which order there nerves come in? Speaking of nerves, you’ve probably heard people say, “you’ve got a lot of nerve saying something like that.” Isn’t having a lot of nerve a good thing? I believe it to be the opposite of being hesitant, nervous, scared. Yet people complain about others having it. Weird.

What’s up with the word up? It is frequently added to words to create a phrasal verb -- this is all well and good. But often the addition of an up is redundant. The word throw needs the up to create a term for vomit, throw up. The word look needs the up to create a term for finding something in a library or on-line, look up. To describe a competition that could go either way one has to add up to toss to create toss up. However….The up in meet up is unnecessary. You can simply meet someone you don’t need to meet up with someone. There is no need to link up two things when you can just link them. To clean up one’s room is no different than to clean other than the superfluous use of up. Other examples include: heat up, wait up, eat up, coach up, fill up, hurry up and yes I could go on (and often do). But one more thing: something fairly new is lawyer up. It always sounds like something a yokel would say. “I hear Bud is going to lawyer up.” Sounds better to me just to say that “Bud is going to get a lawyer.” Anyway, whose name is Bud anymore?

Speaking of books….You ever see this on a book jacket quote from a critic or fellow author, “a real page-turner.” Frankly I’ve never read a book that did not require me to turn the pages (never used Kindle, never listened to an audio book). I dare anyone to try reading a paperback or hardcover book without turning pages. So telling me I’ll have to turn the page is no selling point. Another quote frequently used is: I couldn’t put it down. Here again I’ve never read a book that I couldn’t put down. When I’m exhausted and have to get up the next morning I can put a book down with no problem. Likewise when reading on a bus or subway I easily put books down when I get to my stop. Also, if I’m hungry and am told dinner is being served I again gladly put down a book. In all cases I may not want to put the book down, but I sure as hell can. Then there’s tour de force. Can we stop with that one already? It’s been done to death.

Thus spoke Zarathustra.