25 November 2008

These Are Not Turkeys -- Five Films For Your Thanksgiving

There are months worth of Halloween appropriate films and almost as many for the Christmas season. In between we've got Thanksgiving and the pickings are as slim as Friday's turkey. But don't despair there are five quite good movies for your Turkey day.

Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987) The ultimate Thanksgiving film and a rollicking road trip comedy to boot. A pair of comic geniuses feature, Steve Martin and the late great John Candy. The two star as a pair of fellow travelers trying to get back to their Chicago homes from New York in time for Thanksgiving. A series of mishaps and travel complications throw the strangers together. Indeed, try as they might they can't seem to go their separate ways. The result is one of modern screen's great comedies. But there's more. This is also a very touching story that ultimately captures the true meaning of Thanksgiving.

Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) This sprawling New York-based story from Woody Allen covers several years in the lives of three sisters. The film is bookended by two Thanksgiving with one more mid story for good measure. It's another great Allen cast featuring Mia Farrow, Barbara Hershey, Dianne Weist, Michael Caine, Max Van Sydow and Allen himself, to name a few. Allen's characteristic wit highlights the story as does romance, family and a sentimentality that's never sappy.

Home for the Holidays (1995) Holly Hunter stars as a single woman who loses her job on the eve of returning home for Thanksgiving. Charles During and Anne Bancroft are wonderful as her eccentric parents and even better is Robert Downey Jr. as her gay and madcap brother. Jodie Foster directed this tribute to the endurance of love and family. The film is a testimony to the many kinds of family experiences and family members we can at once suffer and love.

Pieces of April (2003) A pre Tom Cruise Katie Holmes stars as April, a free spirited if not entirely happy young woman who invites her estranged family to her most humble New York apartment for Thanksgiving. Oliver Platt is wonderful as her father but it is Patricia Clarkson who steals the movie as the mother slowly dying of cancer. The film follows April's struggles to put together a Thanksgiving feast (particularly when her oven goes on the blink) and her parent's journey from suburbia to the big city where April lives. There are laughs mixed in with a powerful look at the struggles families often have in healing old wounds.

Scent of a Woman (1992) Al Pacino won a Best Actor Oscar for his performance here. It was one of those deals were the academy said: "We've overlooked some brilliant performances from you in the past so please accept a statuette for this role." Paul Newman received a similar Oscar for Color of Money. Anyhoo it was in fact a typically outstanding Pacino performance. Pacino plays a retired Army officer and he's blind, he's suicidal and he needs a "babysitter" for a Thanksgiving weekend in New York. Enter Chris O'Donnell as a prep school student in need of cash to accept the position of babysitter. It's something of a coming of age story for the young man and reawakening for the bitter Pacino character. The story works on many levels driven as it is by the force of Pacino's performance and the subtlety of O'Donnell's.

24 November 2008


As a rather twisted service to my readers I'm going to give away the endings of some well-known films. This will be valuable to those of you who've never seen the movies and likely never will or have seen them but forgotten how they ended. This post really only need be avoided by people with no sense of humor.

The Sixth Sense (1999) It turns out the kid (played by Donnie and Marie's younger brother Haley Joel) was alive the whole time!

Alien (1979) The vicious alien kills all on board. Feeling much remorse he takes on a human form vowing to mend his ways. He moves to Boulder, Colorado and assumes the name Mork. He meets a young woman named Mindy and falls in love.

It's Wonderful Life (1946) The Baileys figure out that Potter pocketed the dough. They gather a posse and lynch the old bastard.

Downfall (2004) Hitler escapes from the advancing Russian army and vows revenge. Clips are shown of the forthcoming sequel, Downfall 2: Revenge of the Fuhrer.

The Importance of Being Ernest (1952) Turns out it's not so important to be Ernest after all.

A Night at the Opera (1935) Alan Jones is deported to Italy. A grief stricken Kitty Carlisle takes her own life. Groucho, Chico and Harpo are unemployed and homeless.

Gone With the Wind (1939) Zzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

Crying Game (1992) Someone we thought was one thing turns out to be another thing as indicated by the presence of a thing -- if you know what I mean.

Casablanca (1942) Seriously you've never seen the end of Casablanca? What's the matter with you?

Citizen Kane (1941) As if Nazi book burnings weren't bad enough, the United States sponsors sled burnings.

Planet of the Apes (1968) Charlton Heston totally loses it when he sees the Statue of Liberty realizing the NRA had taken things too far. (You might say he went ape.....)

22 November 2008

Good Triumphs Over Evil!

The University of California Golden Bears, representing all that is good and moral in the universe, defeated the forces of darkness and wickedness today. The final score, 37-16.

Symbolizing this rapturous event was Cal's repossession of the Stanfurd Axe. Kudos to Jahvid Best scorer of three touchdowns; field general and QB Kevin Riley, a patchwork offensive line and a stellar defense led by sackmaster supreme, Zach Follet. Hats also off to coach Jeff Tedford and his staff. Of course, all glory really goes to our Lord and Master: Oski.

Shout outs to a few fellow Bear fans and great people, Kevin Lindsey, Tim Moellering and Carol Olsen.

Our sturdy Golden Bear,
Is watching from the skies,
Looks down upon our colors fair,
And guards us from his lair.
Our banner Gold and Blue,
The symbol on it too,
Means FIGHT! for California.
For California through and through!


18 November 2008

Novel Writing 101

You want to write a best-selling novel? What's that you say, you're not a literary genius? Hey, who is these days -- am I right?

I've got a simple formula that's worked for many hack novelists over the years. I'm providing for you, absolutely free of charge my "Guide to the Modern American Novel." (Disclaimer: this style of novel writing may work for men only.)

Your book is not only guaranteed to sell big but might be developed into a film or HBO mini series. Upon successful publication of your novel you will immediately be offered a six figure bonus to write another. Best of all your subsequent books need not be nearly as good as the original. Write that first one and you can coast on your reputation.

Here you go:

Start with a main character, male middle aged. Give him a name like Fannigan. Whatever it is refer to him by his last name only. (You'll be writing in the third person, if you don't know what that means your especially qualified to write a book.)

Your opening sentence should set the tone for the book. Something like this: "Fannigan hated his new hat." Or, "Fannigan hated his daily commute to work."

Readers must be able to relate to Fannigan. Having him be world weary, morose and self deprecating are excellent ways to create a bond between your writing and the reader. After all, we're all world weary, morose and self deprecating.

Okay now you've got to give Fannigan a wife. You have two choices, a horrible shrew who nags the poor bugger incessantly, or a smart handsome woman who is infuriatingly right about everything and is endlessly tolerant of Fannigan.

You'll also be giving Fannigan a couple of children but don't waste too much time on them. If they're one dimensional cultural stereotypes that's fine, they're just background anyway.

Now give Fannigan a best friend. He's got to be a wit who makes wry observations. It's perhaps best if he's divorced or an alcoholic or maybe both. Readers must like him and he must like Fannigan. Meanwhile Fannigan will seem sometimes ambivalent about his best buddy, but in a resigned sort of way.

For scenery provide Fannigan with the following, a flirtatious but nonthreatening secretary; a gruff but lovable boss; an eccentric house always in need of work but big and comfy; and a loud mouthed, meddling neighbor.

Okay now you'll need flashbacks to Fannigan's childhood and lots of 'em. He has to have been a perfectly ordinary kid trying to make sense of quarreling but loving parents and troubled but talented siblings. Throw in lots of coming of age stuff filled with paper routes, athletic pratfalls, nervous first dates and a first sexual encounter story that readers will howl about for days. Don't be shy about including a lot of masturbating, a few bullies, a kooky but wise teacher and a flatulent pet. Also have one of the characters from his childhood return as an adult as a totally different person, like the school bully now being a gay violinist. Oh and that whole childhood stuff doesn't really need to relate or explain Fannigan or anyone else as an adult, you're really just pretending it does. And don't give Fannigan any exceptional talents, that's way too complicated for the modern American novel.

And remember you want a lots of cheap laughs, think of it as literary slapstick. But don't get too caught up on this whole business of literature, you're trying to sell books here. People who read this type of book want to feel smart without actually having to be smart. If you give them some chuckles they'll appreciate it.

I know what you're thinking, what about the hoity toity crowd, those intellectual New York Review of Books types. How am I going to appeal to them? That's simple. Your characters, Fannigan in particular, spend an inordinate amount of time in introspection, philosophizing and rumination. I know, I know, it's unrealistic, but your characters have to think and talk through everything. The corduroy jacket crowd will eat it up. It's the real secret to stretching a 250 page story into a 485 page best seller.

As for plot, denouement and all that other pretentious stuff, I wouldn't worry too much about it. Just have Fannigan make some life affirming decision toward the end of the book. You can always resolve some made up crisis or maybe kill someone off. Of course if you need to get rid of a character at any point car accidents are great so is cancer but with accidents you can get a two- fer.

I've saved one rule for last because I need to stress this. All characters should follow strict routines. That makes it easier for you and your readers. They do the same frickin' thing everyday at the same time. Trust me, readers will welcome this. You don't want to challenge people who pick up tour book. Life's hard enough, your novel needs to be simple. "every night at six Fannigan would walk the dog to the park and sneak a cigarette." Oh and for God's sake keep Fannigan in the same town he grew up, moving people is way too complicated. Up state New York is good.

Okay, now get cracking. This shouldn't take long. Once you've got the first draft done dial up an agent and you're good to go. Oh I almost forgot, you can save yourself some time if you picture the actor who's going to play Fannigan as you're writing. It's nice to get in good with the casting director.

Good Luck!

17 November 2008

Mean Streets

I'm subbing at in East Oakland high school today. Many people would refer to it as a ghetto school. I've got no statistics at my finger tips but I'm quite sure that the dropout here roughly equals the graduation rate.

It's a pleasant enough building with well supplied rooms replete with a lot of updated materials, computers included. The neighborhood is one I'd avoid at night and I've never been one to scare easily.

No one I've encountered among the staff or students has been especially unpleasant but neither has anyone been particularly welcoming. Students are quite clearly not academically inclined. The teacher in this room has grades posted (no names ID numbers instead) in each class Fs outnumber all other grades combined.

Judging by appearance most of the students come from lower middle class or downright poor families. Two students were taken out of this classroom and word is they were arrested. No one felt this was an extraordinary occurrence, likely because it wasn't.

In the course of a conversation one girl said, and this is nearly verbatim: "If I get jumped I get jumped, if I get shot I get shot. Don't people know what I've been through already in my life? Don't people know what my home life is like? I'm not scared of nothing." Sadly I believe this 10th grader was speaking honestly.

These young people are lost. They live for the day and perhaps a party or holiday in the near future. Life after high school is an unknown to them. They'll take it when it comes, if it comes. They don't seem depressed. There is a sorrow about them, along with varying degrees of anger but they're too young to sink into depression. Many doubtless have hope, whether realistic or not.

By my estimate 90% of this school is either African American or Hispanic. That doesn't surprise you, does it? The achievement gap has grown, and not just by a little bit, since I was in school. Even with the ascendancy of the country's first African American president this is a topic rarely brought up in public discourse.

Poverty, crime, drug use and high school drop out rates are way out of proportion among people of color. Some people, some schools, some programs are making a difference. But all of these, as worthy and important as they may be, are not part of a systemic or widespread change.

Clearly there are huge issues in education, jobs, drug treatment and other areas that need to be addressed. Otherwise we will continue to have young girls accepting the possibility of their own murders.

16 November 2008

There's Nothing Like A Dame Part 2

In my post of Tuesday November 11 I wrote of my love of women in general and women in film in particular. I rhapsodized about how lovingly and accurately women have sometimes been depicted in film. That was followed by ten examples spanning over 70 years of great female film performances. I tried to find ten representative performances. Clearly I merely scratched the surface. So here’s another ten.

Joan Crawford as Mildred Pierce in Mildred Pierce (1945). In some ways it's the ultimate woman’s role. Mildred is a working girl who wants to be her own boss. She juggles family, lovers and work on her way to the top. Mildred’s such a loyal mother she’ll even take the rap for her bratty daughter. Mildred Pierce would have been the role of a lifetime for most actresses, for the great Joan Crawford it was merely the cream of a bumper career crop.

Bette Davis as Mary Dwight Staruber in Marked Woman (1937). Davis had any number of performances that warranted inclusion on this list. I selected this one because in addition to being one of her best its one of her most underrated. She’s one of many call girls in the employ of a nogoodnik crime boss. But she has the courage to say no to him and yes to the crusading DA who wants to slap the bum in irons. She’s brave and steadfast and heart breaking.

Giuletta Masina as Maria Ceccarelli in Nights of Cabiria (1957). It’s the last shot of her that does it for me. It sums up the heart of an utterly indestructible woman. Regardless of how many lemons life dishes out you can still make the lemonade. Cabiria starts of feisty and fun. She rides ups and downs and pushes on. A great film heroine. If you’ve never seen this film rent it at your earliest convenience. You’ll enjoy the whole film but you’ll really savor those closing seconds.

Frances MacDormand as Marge Gunderson in Fargo (1996). Can a woman cop be in an advanced state of pregnancy still track down the bad guys? You betchya. Marge was doing that whole Sarah Palin a dozen years before the Alaska Governor besmirched the national scene. This quirky cop proved that a woman could balance career and impending motherhood.

Audrey Tautuo as Mathilde in A Very Long Engagement (2004). Patience is a woman. Persistence is a woman. Resourcefulness is a woman. Faith is a woman. Love eternal is a woman. Mathilde is a woman with all these qualities and more. Her intended is missing and presumed dead in the trenches of World War I. Our gimpy beauty ain’t buying it. No matter how long it takes she’ll find him and love will be served. Tres bien!

Danielle Darrieux as Comtesse Louise De... in Madame De... (1953). Conniver, schemer, cheater, she’s all of these things and more. The Madame, whose name we never learn, is going to live life her way. By hook or by crook Madame generally gets what she wants and sacrifices nothing along the way. Darrieux was never a big name in the US but based on this captivating performance alone she should have been.

Norma Shearer as Jerry Bernard Martin in The Divorcee (1930). Cheat on her, will ya? She’s got a way to repay you and in spades, buddy. There were a lot of great performances by actresses in pre code films. Shearer delivered many of them. This was one of the best as a wife who proves that’s what goes for the gander is good for the goose.

Janet Gaynor as Kay Brannan in Small Town Girl (1936). Every list has to have at least one offbeat pick This selection is one. The title tells you a lot about the film. This is a young lady who could easily settle in to a comfortable life in her hometown with the affable young telephone line worker Elmer Clampett (Jimmy Stewart) as her mate. Her cozy and lovable family, their store and big home are wonderful sources of security. But Kay, sweet little Kay is a dreamer who yearns for excitement. When it comes it comes suddenly and emphatically in the person of a very wealthy, handsome and sophisticated big city dwelling doctor (Robert Taylor) she jumps at the chance. In the face of numerous obstacles and rejections our plucky friend proves to be as tough as she is cute. It’s not just a charming performance, but an inspiring one for all little women who dream big.

Claire Trevor as Dallas in Stagecoach (1939). Life has dealt Dallas some nasty blows. The stuffy and huffy women of a an old western community literally send her packing. “Proper Christian” folk don’t want her type around. She remains unbowed and proud. She proves that woman can recover from a morally questionable past and find love and happiness. But you’ve got to be tough -- great stuff.

Sigourney Weaver as Ripley as in Alien (1979). Can a woman be the last man standing in battle against a voracious alien killing machine? You better believe it. Ripley was brave, resourceful and clever in fighting for survival. But this was no cartoon character, this heroine showed real human fear. Not incidentally, Ripley was a knockout.

13 November 2008

Synecdoche, New York A Real Place, Not Really, Yes It Is, No You're Not, We Are Three

Dateline Synecdoche, New York. Have you ever wished on a star? Carried moonbeams home in a jar? Or do you want to be a fish?

I saw Synecdoche, New York the film today. Wait, it was a movie, wasn't it? Whatever it was answers the question: What would happen if weirdo screenwriter Charlie Kaufman directed a movie? The answer to that questions: something completely different.

You've got to know that the brain that brought us Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2002), Adaptation (2002) and Being John Malkovich (1999) would come up with something that, like it or not, is for the ages.

I read Roger Ebert and New York Times critic Manohla Dargis' reviews. They prove one thing: if you truly appreciate this movie you can't fashion a straight forward review of it. I believe they'd be the first to admit it.

So let's see...Philip Seymour Hoffman stars as a theater director married to an artist played by Catherine Kenner. As the movie begins time is moving by leaps and bounds. Weeks pass as Hofmann's character eats breakfast. Also he is coming down with all manner of ailments and...See this won't do at all. I mean once I mention that Hoffman appears in the cartoon his daughter is watching on TV or that Samantha Morton's character buys a house that's on fire... Yeah, forget it.

Remember this: If you're going to see it once and you like it you'll be needing to see it again. There's a lot to sort out and decipher. I only began the process in my virgin viewing (what was the deal with the four year old author of a book about a neo Nazi?).

Synecdoche, New York is a film that requires a bit of effort. This is not a John Ford cavalry movie. Such a film experience can be off putting for a lot of people. We like to sit down and be told a story. No muss no fuss. A bit of symbolism is one thing. Wall-to-wall symbolism is quite another. And by the way, are some parts just plain silly or does everything in this movie mean something?

It took me awhile to realize that I really liked (wow that seems a terribly pedestrian word for such an unconventional film) Synecdoche, New York. In the course of watching the movie I was figuratively pushed, shoved and jostled. I was made pleasantly uncomfortable. I was delightfully flummoxed. I was blissfully baffled. I was poignantly perplexed.

I was reminded of just how damn many ways there are to make movies.

Ostensibly we’ve got the story of an artist aspiring to some sort of immortality. Someone who’s creative juices blend with his real life for a powerful cocktail. We’ve got the lines between reality and fiction blurred. At least those are a few ways of looking at the film. You’ll find several dozen others I’m sure.

Kaufman the writer has found in Kaufman the director someone best able to tell his stories. He was aided by a wonderful cast that in addition to Hoffman, Keener and Morton included Hope Davis, Diane Weist, Tom Noonan, Michelle Williams and oh my God I didn't even notice that was Jennifer Jason Leigh.

Or would you rather be a mule?

11 November 2008

There's Nothing Like a Dame

I love women.

I find women, on average, far nicer to look at than men (sorry, guys). I also find females endlessly fascinating. The clothing, the smell, the voice, the walk. Very nice. But it's not just sex or sensuality. Women are more at peace with the world. They are by nature nurturing and sensitive.

I think so highly of women I married one. As an extra blessing of that union I fathered two daughters.

I now confess that most of my friends over the years have been males. Us guys speak the same lingo. The vast majority of women wouldn't dream of wasting time blathering about linebackers or the Stanley Cup.

Thankfully movies have done an excellent job at various times of celebrating women. Some would says films have often idealized women. Balderdash! They've merely represented them. What follows is ten examples of ten very different women in powerful roles that I believe represent some of the finer qualities of women. I tried to include a variety of types of women. I admittedly leaned to more physically striking women.

Barbara Stanwyck as Jean Harrington in The Lady Eve (1941). She's a high class grifter who falls for a mark Charles Pike (Henry Fonda), the scion of a beer fortune. Stanwyck's seduction of Fonda is the hottest G-rated scene you'll ever see (see picture, above). Who wouldn't melt in her arms? But Harrington is also tough. When alerted to Harrington's past, Pike drops her like a bad habit. Hell hath no fury, folks. But Harrington doesn't just get mad, she gets even. What better revenge than to make the poor sap fall for her again? Stanwycyk as Harringon is tough, smart and beautiful. The ultimate triple threat. It's a man's world? Not where Jean Harrington is concerned.

Sophia Loren as Cesira in Two Women (1960). Women can endure far beyond the capabilities of your average man. A woman with a child can endure beyond anything the world has ever seen. Witness Loren as the mother of young teenage daughter in war torn Italy. Yes she's strikingly beautiful, but the real beauty radiates from within this extraordinary character. What she goes through you'd not wish on your worst enemy and Cesira is a woman you'd want as your best friend. Cesira's courage throughout is one of film's most powerful tributes to womanhood.

Pam Grier as Jackie Brown in Jackie Brown (1997). The power and the glory of a seemingly ordinary woman. Jackie is a stewardess and a smuggler for one bad mutha of a crook, Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson). When Jackie is busted she's given the chance for freedom if she sets up Robbie. She agrees. But our Jackie has had enough of being used whether by her bosses both legit and illegitimate, the cops or society. This is a tough middle aged black woman who's going to use her toughness for a big score, even if it meets triple dealing. Jackie betrays vulnerability and fear but nothing that will stop her. Grier was given the role of a lifetime and made full use of it creating an indelible character who finds a way out of the urban jungle.

Greta Garbo as Queen Christina in Queen Christina (1933). We go from modern day L.A. to 17th century Sweden and its royal court. Garbo plays a very different sort of Queen. One comfortable in bed with either gender! But it is a man who she falls for, a Spanish emissary no less. The Protestant queen in love with a Catholic? Here's a real scandal! Christian seduces Antonio (John Gilbert) and they share a room -- in an inn! Yes, this is a movie that earned a lot of exclamation points. Mostly because our heroine doesn't let being the ruler of a powerful European country stand in the way of sex or love with the partner of her choice. A women not shy about flouting convention can be fascinating, especially when played by Garbo.

Elizabeth Taylor as Gloria Wandrous in BUtterfueld 8 (1960). The story of a high class hooker may not seem fitting for such a list. But forget what Taylor's Gloria does and focus on how and why she does it. This is not a particularly good film but Taylor is magnificent in it. At the beginning of the movie she's leaving an evening's assignation with an expensive... shall we say, souvenir. Gloria takes as good, if not better than she gives. Sure she's forced by circumstance into men' beds but Gloria is in charge of what Gloria does. The movie and most of all Ms. Taylor's performance deserved a better more satisfying ending. Ultimately this is the story of a woman who made some poor life choices, yet managed to remain true to herself thoguhout.

Marlene Dietrich as Helen Faraday in Blonde Venus (1932). My God she even looks fantastic in a gorilla suit. Women can be complicated and they can screw up just like men do. Dietrich's Faraday makes her share of mistakes. But Faraday is one of the most devoted mothers of film and a good wife too. When her husband goes to Europe to seek a cure for radiation poisoning, Faraday the housewife returns to the cabaret in a nightclub act for the ages. Why? To fund hubby’s trip. Trouble ensues when she falls for a wealthy young man played by Cary Grant. When her husband (Herbert Marshall) returns cured and outraged at the betrayal Faraday takes to the road, son in tow. Ultimately she hits the skids losing it all. Only to bounce right back to the top. Faraday encompasses more strength, talent, beauty, vulnerability and capacity for love than even any woman could dream of, let alone three men in one. What a dame!

Diane Keaton as Annie Hall in Annie Hall (1977)
>. There are so many great lines, so many memorable moments in this landmark film that its easy to forget Keaton's transformative performance as the title character. As much as anything else this is the story of one woman's growth. from insecure, fumbling, giggling innocent to smart, talented sophisticated, self-assured Manhattanite. Director Woody Allen has an amazing capacity to direct women in brilliant performances (Keaton, Mia Farrow, Diane Weist, Scarlett Johannson, Penelope Cruz, Mira Sorvino). In Annie Hall Keaton is everything from cute to sexy, from naive to knowing from novice to star.

Katherine Hepburn as Susan Vance in Bringing Up Baby (1938)
. What's this? You say. Hepburn was nothing but a ditzy broad in this film. Seemingly yes. But what did Vance want and what did she get? Yes, like many women she set her sights on a target and gets him or it. In this case it was Dr. David Huxley (Cary Grant). She fumbled and bumbled her way to this ultimate goal and tickled our funny bones along the way. Some people (aka idiots) don't think that women can be funny. They've never seen this movie. And speaking of idiots, Vance is not one. She may be a bit eccentric but she's a smart, good-looking woman who knows what she wants.

Asia Argento as Vellini in The Last Mistress (2007). Speaking of knowing what you want...She can't have him, want get him. Not happening. She doesn't stop. Really this pick is about the ability of some women on screen to just make us guys melt into a useless puddle. Argento is physically stunning. She plays a woman who would seem to be quite skilled in the art of making love. In some circumstances throughout history that's all a woman has had and Argento's Vellini knew how to use it in this tale set among the aristocracy of 18th century France. Argento does what great actresses have done throughout film history: seduce audience members.

Jane Darwell as Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath (1940). Obviously women do not have to be young and beautiful to succeed in the world or on screen. Witness Darwell's unforgettable performance in this John Ford classic. As the matriarch of an extended family of Midwestern farmers displaced by the Dust Bowl, California-bound Darwell is as emotionally strong as Goliath was physically. Unlike Goliath there was no David to slay her. She kept on no matter what. Ma Joad was not just strong but wise. She understood reality and faced it head on. And never mind wants. She dealt in a world where can and will were all that mattered.

That was hardly enough was it? No Bette Davis character. Nothing from Jeanne Moreau, Joan Crawford, Kate Winslet, Jean Simmons, Norma Shearer, Simone Signoret or Faye Dunaway. This'll obviously have to be part one. Look for part two in the weeks to come.

09 November 2008

The Hope for Some Audacity

Here in Berkeley, California everyone is happy about Barack Obama's election. The only time Berkeley experiences more collective joy than what we saw and heard here on election night is after a Cal football victory. People have been positively beaming to one another; sharing hopes and dreams for a country that they despaired had permanently lost its way.

The election seems to be one of those transformative moments in our country's history. As with 9/11 and the Kennedy assassination, we'll start marking events as pre Obama election and post. November 4, 2008, a demarcation point. Of course, the whole thing could go rather badly. History teaches us to take nothing for granted. But I suspect that, at worst, a whole new generation will have come to believe in the possibilities of our political system and have hope. People without hope are defeated. The hopelessness that permeated much of this country has suddenly been replaced by belief. Most of the rest of the world shares our joy. This may or may not be the greatest country in the world but it surely is the most important. The rest of the world understands that and sees that we've taken a turn in the right direction.

It also appears that the current brand of neoconservatism is dead in the water. Young voters came out in force for Democrats. Surely conservatives will raise again like Lazarus, trying to prune government and bolster business. Meanwhile, there is an opportunity to use government for good and all, not for oil and the privileged few. The cynical politics of division can be set aside for a time and the Constitution restored. Hopefully the new form of conservatism will disengage from the religious right and hateful zealots like Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh. I grew up when the Republicans were the loyal opposition of the likes of Nelson Rockefeller and Everett Dirksen. Even Barry Goldwater was a straight shooter. There was none of the Rovian slash and burn campaigning. Goodness, imagine if someone had suggested tried to Swift Boat..er, PT Boat, John Kennedy.

Obama's victory has inspired me to read the latest biography of another seminal political figure, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. This one is a A Traitor to His Class by H.W. Brands. It has been, after all, months since I last read an FDR bio. In the immediate aftermath of Obama's victory I've been struck by the similarities between him and Roosevelt.

Both Obama and FDR come to Washington at times of economic crisis. Both follow an incompetent predecessor at the White House. Like FDR, Obama will be trying to fashion a bi-partisan and diverse cabinet and will be seeking bold government action to meet a crisis. Perhaps the most significant parallel between the two is that they inspire hope among the masses.

Roosevelt knew how to talk to the people, to make them understand, to calm them. Obama can do the same. It's not a joke to say that Bush could hardly talk at all. His mangling of the English language ceased to be cute in short order and betrayed a vacuous mind. Americans deserve, and again will have president with a great intellect. Obama's impressive educational pedigree, like FDR's and JFK's, bespeaks a mind able to deal in nuance and complexity. It's a positive boon to have a president skilled in oratory. But it's not just that FDR could and Obama can inspire with speeches. It's talking clearly and intelligently to people, not down to them. I remember as a little kid the shared excitement in my house when Kennedy would hold a press conference. We marveled at his verbal skills and skillful sparring with reporters yet understood what the deuce he was talking about ( a touch some intellectual Democrats like Adlai Stevenson and Al Gore never had.)

I hope Obama duplicates Roosevelt's and Kennedy's calls for sacrifice. Bush sent Americans off to war and asked nothing of the American people. Not so much as a victory garden. If asked, Americans will serve, sacrifice and give. Indeed the more government can ask of the people the less the government will have to do. Republicans have tended to ask nothing, do everything, run up deficits and continually bemoan "big government."

Reducing government power is usually not done in the interests of the people but at the service of big business. As a famous president once said, our government is of the people by the people and for the people. People derive power from the oversight provided by that government which they comprise and by overseeing that government. Privatizing former government institutions and responsibilities reduces the peoples' power. (If I sound like a damned socialist it's because I am.)

So President-elect Obama, please don't hesitate to ask. Remember that when JFK called for a Peace Corp he had thousands of applicants before the agency was even formed. And remember the thoughtful decisiveness of Roosevelt, the willingness to ruffle the feathers of the high and mighty at the service of the meek.

Yes, like tens of millions of other Americans, I have hope today. It's been awhile. I'm sure this is how many Americans felt after the 1932 election. Now if you'll excuse I think I'll get to that book I mentioned.

07 November 2008

A Move About What We Value

What are our values? The answer to this question is at the core of what each of us is as a human being. A society's values determine what kind of world we live in. If we are at odds with our society's values then there is conflict.

Frank Borzage's 1940 film The Mortal Storm explores just such an issue. It's a look at the consequences of how a society's shift in values impacts a small village, especially one family.

The setting is southern Germany starting in 1933. The family is Jewish. The film starts on the 60th birthday of the family patriarch, Professor Viktor Roth who is portrayed by Frank Morgan. Dr. Roth is a wildly popular professor at the local university. We see him feted at work and later at home. But this happy occasion is interrupted by news of Adolph Hitler's ascension to the position of Chancellor of Germany. We see some at the party celebrate, will others betray doubts.

Among those who immediately enlist with the Nazi cause are Roth's stepson, played by Robert Stack, and his daughter's fiance, played by Robert Young. (Yes TV's Elliot Ness and Marcus Welby once played Nazis.) Margaret Sullavan is the daughter, Freya and Jimmy Stewart a family friend, Martin Brietner. He is also yet another suitor for Freya. (Sullavan and Stewart had just finished making The Shop Around the Corner together.)

Needless to say the family is torn asunder. As was the village and as would be all of Germany and Europe. At the time of the film's release the proverbial manure had hit the fan and France was about to fall.

Mortal Storm is rife with tragedy, excitement and Borzage's patented melodrama. But it ultimately succeeds on two levels: one, as an expose of how the Nazis royally screwed up Germany, destroying productive lives and communities; and secondly as look at the importance of our values. Professor Roth and Martin both extol freedom of thought as being central to human life. Indeed to them its importance matches that of food, water and other essentials. A person holding such values is automatically at odds with a Nazi philosophy that demands conformity. When such a value is sincerely held one cannot bend to the will of a totalitarian regime. Only escape, death or perhaps underground resistance are options.

How seductive the Nazis proved to be to those who did not value the individual. It was so easy to become part of. Joining the party meant acceptance, protection and group identity. All others were outsiders and to vilify, even beat them, imprison them or kill them only enhanced one's position and security within the group.

As The Moral Storm demonstrates, the Nazis preyed upon those whose core values either did not include a strong sense of self-determination or who could easily sacrifice such notions. Those who had loudly cheered Professor Roth on the occasion of his birthday later shun him as a Jew and or who having taught that no blood is superior or inferior to another. In reality it happened just like that. In Nazi Germany some people went from revered to reviled seemingly overnight.

The Mortal Storm is not sentimental. Characters we want to like turn rotten. Others we do like are killed. Given the time of its release it was obviously a strong anti-Nazi propaganda piece (I've got no problem with that). But it did not merely beat the drums to fight this accursed evil. The Mortal Storm aspired to more than that. It remains powerful today because of its exploration of timeless themes.

Stewart is wonderful as the hero of this story. Morgan, who audiences usually immediately identify as the man behind that curtain in the Wizard of Oz (1939) is excellent as the intellectually strong, highly principled professor. It is especially through his character that we can explore what makes us tick, those truths that we hold as self-evident, and how passionately we cling to them.

This is what many good movies aspire to. Having us explore our own essential truths.

06 November 2008

God Grant Me the Serenity...

I like movies with recovery and self identified addicts and alcoholics in them. In some ways it's like having my own story told. Us 12 steppers are part of an extended family. Black, white, old, young, rich, poor we're all equal in our campaign to keep ourselves and one another clean. So seeing one of us on screen is akin to seeing someone from the neighborhood or a relative or old friend.

I saw Rachael Getting Married today. Anne Hathaway stars and despite my advanced age I have a huge crush on her (my wife understands). However as Kym the recovering addict she is beautiful but in a sort of oh-by-the-way manner. When a person is a self involved junkie trying to stay clean and dealing with myriad other attendant issues you have a hard time drooling over those gorgeous gams.

All this is to say that Hathaway is damn convincing. Her sister is about to get hitched but she makes herself the center of attention. For most drunks and users that's what its all about, even into sobriety. Look at me! (Syd's rambling all-about-me toast at the rehearsal dinner was excruciating to watch.)

Syd is on a pass out of rehab to attend her sister's wedding which will take place at the family's large Connecticut home. If you've ever wondered what diversity looks like check out this wedding. We've moved so far from Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967) America that the interracial wedding isn't even really a sidebar to the story. All these people of various backgrounds and colors are just different looking people. No big deal. Seeing this on the heels of Obama's election makes me think we're really making progress in this country (now if we can just stop trying to deny full legal rights to homosexuals we'll really be on to something).

The wedding and especially all the people involved and the build up to the big day are as much part of the story as Syd. In a sense she's just the most obvious character to focus on. After all given her horrific past and shaky present Syd is a real wild card. While the whole veneer is wonderful, you know there's always some ugliness lurking underneath. The character of Syd makes it as obvious as a slap in the face (my use of that phrase is relevant, as you'll see). How she sticks out and maybe more significantly, how she blends in is crucial to the story. All the other characters, are like Syd, fully drawn. Bill Irwin as the dad is especially good. Director Jonathan Demme did a wonderful job of moving the camera and allowing background characters and their reactions to register.

Syd manages to attend a few 12 step meetings and they have, I can vouch, an authentic feel to them. You should see the faces at an AA meeting. People sit there wearing their fear, anxiety, courage, serenity and whatever else is going on in their world. There's nothing to hide and no filters necessary, not if a person is sincere.

I won't tell you if Syd has a slip during the story but I'll tell you I was damn conflicted watching the story unfold. On the one hand Syd using again could be effective for dramatic proposes. On the other, you just hate to see it happen, especially if you've been there. Rooting one way or another is futile. Even in real life you've got to let go of a newcomer at some point.

Addiction is, as we say, cunning, baffling and powerful. You're in the check out line at the grocery star behind someone buying a six pack of beer and you think, "that's all? not much of a party." You watch people at a party nurse a drink and think, "finish the damn thing off already and get another." We just don't get this whole business about going out for a drink and actually having just ONE DRINK. How do you people do that? Recovery allows us to live life on life's term, that ultimate gift. Whatever comes our way, good or bad, we can experience it and deal with it. It's not an easy road, as Syd's story helps illustrate.

Rachael Getting Married was an endlessly fascinating movie -- until the last ten minutes or so. The story just petered out at the end. But maybe that's appropriate. After all, celebrations, weekends, vacations, they all end and usually not with a grand climax. More like the air slowly escaping from a balloon.

In some respects watching the movie was, for me, like going to a meeting. It got me in touch with the program, with another person's story (albeit fictional) and thus my own addiction. That's a pretty cool thing for a movie to do.

I can't say how the movie would play for "normal" people. But I'd recommend checking out Roger Ebert's review if you're at all curious about whether you'd like it or not. Here's a link.

And Anne, you were really, really good. I speak with some authority on this one.

04 November 2008

This is For You

To all my African American brothers and sisters, perhaps especially all my former students, this is not a dream. Barack Obama has been elected president of YOUR country. Yes, this is your country too. We are moving to what the US Constitution calls a "more perfect union." Obama even won Virginia, the capital of the confederacy. Many people now have real reason to be proud of this country who could not before.

03 November 2008

It Was All Right

A few movies are classics, some are excellent, many are good, some are bad and a few really, really stink. But there are also quite a few that are just okay.

What is it that makes them mediocre? Some are essentially weak films that benefit from strong performances or dazzling special effects or a toe-tapping musical score. Some are stronger overall films marred by plot holes or unsatisfying endings or one dimensional characters. Some simply fail to live up to months of build up and anticipation. Still others are comedy or action films that are fun but instantly forgettable.

We are less tolerant of mediocrity if we've shelled out full price at the theater. Indeed the missus and I often identify some films in advance as future rentals not worthy of current cinema prices.

Another variable is a movie's length. A mediocre movie clocking in at two and half hours is going to be considered a bomb, while a similarly average 90 minute movie is going to seem okay..

Couple of days ago I watched an extremely mediocre film, Moliere (2007). A French film about...well guess who. There was much to recommend it. Some fine performances including Romain Duris in the title role, Laura Morante as the lovely "older woman" love interest and the sumptuous Ludivine Sagnier. Therein was one of the problems, Ms. Sagnier is a huge asset to any film and in this one she was vastly under-utilized. Much of the story revolved around an older man's infatuation with her and yet she was hardly on screen. Good films take advantage of their talent.

Moliere had a few chuckles in it, but not enough. The sets and costumes were grand, but then in such a film if they're not you're dealing with a real stinker. The story and its overall execution was just fine but rather conventional. Honestly I don't think I yawned or day dreamed throughout it but neither was I inspired.

A really good movie about Moliere would have had me much interested in the man and his works. Didn't happen. I was amused but not moved. Actually one need not make a case for why a movie was okay. If you're going to say a movie was great or horrible than I believe it incumbent to explain yourself.

I suppose what an individual would consider bad films vastly out number ones we'd really like. However most of us are clever enough to avoid films we wouldn't like. Thus we rarely see what we'll ultimately consider a bad movie. Mediocrity is in huge supply and we're running across it all the time. Lunch was okay. We had an okay day. The game was okay. The song was okay. In fact, in reading over this post, I'd have to say it was just okay.