27 December 2011

For Shame! The Story of a Sex Obsessed Man

I got on the bus late yesterday afternoon and found a seat across from a very beautiful young woman. I started to steal a second glance but it felt wrong. I knew immediately that my reluctance stemmed from having just seen Shame, the new film about a sex addict named Brandon (Michael Fassbender).

Watching pathological behavior is a sure cure, if temporal, for indulging at all. A viewing of The Lost Weekend (1945) would keep a normal person off the sauce for a bit. Director Steve McQueen --

let me just interject here that I think it terribly wrong for this gent to be using the exact full name of the late great actor who only left this world 30 years ago. Talk about too soon. I know its his given name, but how about at least going with Steven or Stevie

-- casts such a long unflinching eye of a sex obsessed man, that the viewer will long to spend a chaste evening in the company of aged aunts.

There is a relentlessness to Brandon in the sating of his copious sexual desires that would be admirable in someone selflessly serving humankind. But as his are strictly carnal pursuits, the story is imbued with the sadness of watching the addicted. There are short term lovers, assignations with call girls, work time jaunts to the john for quick wanks and internet porn aplenty. Anyone with a merely active libido will feel comparatively impotent. But any admiration will soon turn to revulsion.

To make the story a bit more than a character study, we are introduced to Brandon's sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan) who comes to stay with big brother in his New York city bachelor pad. She's no day at the beach either. Her problems are different in nature but in keeping with the sex theme, Sissy climbs into the sack with big bro's married boss.

Sissy needs big brother, for a place to crash, if nothing else. He is a sorry excuse for an older sibling. Not only does he fail to nurture, but he inflicts rages on the poor girl. Her ultimate action will come as no surprise. Of course Brandon can hardly be expected to help his baby sister when he can do so little for himself. He can do sex but love is beyond him. Brandon's one attempt at a normal relationship ends badly, despite the fact that Marianne (Nicole Beharie) falls for him. Any woman would. Brandon is suave and handsome. A real ladies man -- if he could just curb his appetites.

Shame is effective for a number of reasons. Principally among them is Fassbender's performance. He's so effective because he doesn't preen and act like some handsome would be stars, but embodies characters ala Sean Penn. You believe Fassbender because he is not mimicking behavior but doing it. Shame also works because McQueen's direction is a driven and persistent as his film's main character. He never backs off from the story. It benefits from being beautifully shot. It is never pretty, but always interesting to look at. Manhattan at night has looked better on film, but as a back drop for this story it looks just right indeed. The score is appropriate too. It veritably fills the mood of the story; particularly when McQueen uses the Goldberg Variations.

The problem with a film like Shame is where to go with it. The aforementioned Lost Weekend and The Gambler (1974) starring James Caan made very different choices about how to deal with their obsessives. The wrong choice is always a happily-ever-after ending. There is no such thing for the addict, who at best gets a daily reprieve. But one can show the lifetime healing process set in motion. Alternatively we can have the main character spiral totally out of control. Bleak but realistic. Finally we can see that the pattern continues. Life goes on, no telling what will happen next. The functioning addict in constant motion.

I always feel a character's fate must be consistent with what the story has depicted and the tone of that story to that point. Here is where Shame is subject to debate. Upon reflection  I was satisfied with the ending. Others I'm sure will have wanted something more. Or less. I'll not spoil it for anyone who's not seen Shame. I was  pleased with the film as a whole. But Shame is a difficult, if not an impossible movie to love. It is more to be admired. Anyone with personal experience or knowledge of addictions will be reviled by  while oddly understanding Brandon. The whole concept of too much is never enough is at once disturbing and familiar. Shame relates the story of one man's addiction and does so with power and conviction. And there's no shame in that.

22 December 2011

Merry Christmas and/or Happy Holidays, Some Yuletide Thoughts

One Christmas when I was a mere lad of 22 years I wished an acquaintance a Merry Christmas. I was unaware of the fact that the recipient of my seasonal greetings was Jewish. He (figuratively, of course) bit my head off. A few thoughts: 1) I was likely the latest in a long line of ignoramuses who's bestowed a Merry Christmas on him and he'd reached his limit. 2) He over-reacted. 3) Is it so horrible to have someone offer you good cheer for a holiday you don't celebrate? No.

That story now having been related, I must further add that this is the only time in my life anyone has snapped back at the proffering of a Merry Christmas. I have since been careful to go with the sanitary Happy Holidays when there is any question as to whether the other person celebrates Christmas.

American society has done a good job of recognizing that not everyone in this land makes merry on December 25. Allowances are now made for those of other faiths. True, some have gone overboard such as in calling a Christmas tree a Holiday tree. Come on, the only holiday the indoor tree with the trimmings can be for is Christmas. 

Christmas still reigns supreme as the holiday of the year in terms of shopping, decor, ubiquitous music, TV specials, adverts and the like. Yet there are still those chuckleheads at the ever hilarious Fox News that whine incessantly about a War on Christmas. Their primary complaint, of course, being the the re-branding of so many things that are Christmas, like trees and parades, with the word Holiday. At worst the whole deal is a tad silly, but a war? Would that all wars were so benign.

I have loved Christmas from the time I was a small child, through my teen years, young adulthood and now as I approach geezerhood. It is a life long infatuation that has had next to nothing to do with what some call "the true meaning of Christmas" i.e. the supposed birth of the savior. Christmas is wrapped up (no pun intended) in a lot more than Christian beliefs. There is of course the fact that the time of year to celebrate the birth of Jesus was appropriated from the pagan solstice festival. But Christmas has come to have a lot of goodness associated with it that no amount of commercialization can destroy. (And by the way, the first complaints about the over commercialization of Christmas date back well over 100 years.)

There is a spirit of Christmas that doubtless has its origins in Christianity but is largely non denominational. Two of the better examples are Dickens' A Christmas Carol and the classic holiday film, It's a Wonderful Life (1946). Two stories that are timeless, not to mention beautifully told. A Christmas Carol has been made into a whole slew of feature films, several of which are quite good, one of which stars Jim Carrey. It is also been part of TV plots since the birth of the medium. 

In both stories visitations from the dead are required to set a man straight. George Bailey of IAWL doesn't realize how wonderful a life he has and how positive an impact he's made on so many lives. The angel Clarence shows him the light and thus earns his wings. In ACC, visitations by four ghosts (I'm including Jacob Marley) show the, let us say, Scroogelike Ebenezeer Scrooge, that holding tightly to all his monetary gains, especially at the expense of other, while ignoring the plight of the less fortunate, is a morally bankrupt way to live and die. You might say this is the original clarion call of the 99%.

There are hints to the birth of the holy redeemer in both tales, but these are essentially secular stories. Their messages are of loving one another, appreciating who we are and what we have, taking good and proper care of these lives and friends and family that we are so lucky to enjoy.

Christmas, many of us lament, comes but once a year. So too Groundhog Day and Presidents Day Weekend, but no one gets all weepy about their quick departures. Christmas gives us color (the trees and their lights alone) carols, and presents. Yes it is better to give than to receive but that doesn't mean a wrapped box with your name on it is anything to sneeze at.

I conclude with the following wishes to you all: Merry Christmas, Joyeux Noel, Hyvaa Joulua, Feliz Navidad, Frohe Weihnachten Buon Natalie, Lacus non leo and of course...Happy Holidays!

19 December 2011

Tis the Season to See Movies, Hugo and The Artist are Cases in Point

“I also remembered Buddy Willard saying in a sinister, knowing way that after I
had children I would feel differently, I wouldn't want to write poems any more. So I began to think maybe it was true that when you were married and had children it was like being brainwashed, and afterward you went about numb as a slave in some private, totalitarian state.” - From the Bell Jar by Sylvia Path.

Hemingway said that you start with one true statement. And that was it. Long time readers of this blog, which nowadays would appear to be myself and Gladys Kupinchenck of Akron, Ohio (Hiya Gladys, how's tricks?), are  no doubt aware that my writings have been few and far between of late. Annoyingly, I often take up space discussing the paucity of my postings.

I am so sorry.

Now is the time when Hollywood releases it's prestige films. The Oscar buzz movies. The hoi polloi are packing theaters to escape both the cold and families that are congregating in and about their living rooms. Despite my cynical tone, as a film afficiando I revel in this movie season as part of the joy of the holiday season. Seasons greetings.

There are actual good movies on the big screen and the weather is condusive to a brisk walk to the cinema and the cozy shelter of the movie house and its flickering images.

Saw a corker the other day. The Artist. It is a silent film and a love letter to another era and a beautiful one at that. Martin Scorsese's Hugo is also an ode to film history.  Saw that one recently too. Great (and even very good) art often comes from love. As much, even, as it does from suffering. Maybe more, hell I don't know. Suffice to say that art is borne of our deepest, richest feelings. And great art is elevated if it comes from a true expression of those feelings.

You'd be hard pressed to find someone who loves films as much as Scorsese. He has a reverence for the old and has spear headed efforts to restore and protect movies of yore. Hugo concerns a young lad's discovery of the pioneering French director Georges Méliès  portrayed here by Ben Kingsley. The setting is early 1930s Paris, principally at the Gare Montparnasse. Hugo is a gorgeous movie to look at, never mind the story. I suppose I should have seen it in 3D and may yet do so. In regular ole D it's quite the looker. But I was principally taken in by the story, particularly after the title character (Asa Butterfield) and his equally precocious female companion Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz) happen upon a film historian who gives them a brief film study course that I wish had gone on for hours. It features scenes from some of Melies' actual films as well as from other very early film movies. So cool.

The Artist begs the question: why have there been virtually no silent films made for the past 80 years? One has to assume that it is all about the mighty dollar which in the movie world tends to pander. Charlie Chaplin stubbornly continued to make silent features years after every once else went sound. He understood that films are primarily a visual medium and that a lot of dialogue can get in the way of the story. To a far lesser extent, great directors like John Ford tried to minimize dialogue and emphasized sceneary while Bergman focused on faces. Neither one needed a lot of yakking to tell a good story.

The Artist is not done tongue and cheek and it is not a gimmicky movie. It is  the story of a silent film star whose career and life start to unravel as silents give way to talking pictures. There are plenty of laughs and much pathos and the most charming cinematic mutt since Asta. There is also a spectacular performance by lead actor Jean JuDardin. He, like his co-star Berenice Bejo, are stars of the French cinema. Director Michael Hazanavicius and much of the crew are also French, but most of the cast are Americans and the movie was filmed in the states.

If The Artist manages to be a commercial success we may see a few more silent films. This would be dandy provided they came from the spirit of story telling and not capitalizing on a fad. Hey, you never know, sometimes the studios bust out a really good film, and often they hit cinemas in December. Tis the season.

28 November 2011

Life is What Happens When You're Busy Making Other Plans So Plan Accordingly

"Sensitive. That killed me. That guy Morrow was about as sensitive as a goddamn toilet seat." - From Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger.

"The story was writing itself and I was having a hard time keeping up with it." From A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway.

On the bus ride home from the gym there was a young couple speaking an East European language. They were in love and didn't care who knew it. The notion of a time and place for everything had no meaning to them. Ditto the woman towards the back of the bus who was chattering away on her cell phone. Loudly. I couldn't tell whether it was more or less annoying that she wasn't speaking English (Arabic, I think) and decided it was a push. There was an obese woman on the bus taking up two seats. She was fanning herself vigorously despite the fact that it was chilly outside. There were a lot of college students on the bus with suitcases. They were returning from four days back home. Finals are coming up for them.

It had been to crowded for me at the gym. But I got in my workout so who's to complain? On the treadmill next to me was a very, tall slender blonde woman who must have been about 20 years old. She had strong, gorgeous legs and a tight, fairly small ass. I pegged her for a volleyball player. Later I passed by her and saw that she was wearing a tee shirt that said UC Davis Volleyball. Called it! My oldest was a volleyball player, so I spent a lot of time at tournaments and know my female volleyball players.

At home I worked. I miss scratching things out with a pen on a legal pad. Now it's straight to the computer. There's a kinestetic aspect to it that's missing. Get a little bit of that feeling if I'm typing furiously.

Thought some more about the movie I watched the previous night. I'd started to write about it. Guess I'd better finish. Here it is:

Life is full of pain and suffering and misery and for all of us it ends in death. This is a rule absent of any exceptions. It is from this understanding that art springs.

Artists, whether writers, filmmakers or painters, try vainly to make sense of the human experience. Those efforts to create sense often create beauty. Or understanding is never complete -- progress not perfection -- but it brings comfort to feel closer to truth.

Ingmar Bergman's To Joy (1950) is about the death of a spouse. We meet a man at the beginning of the film who is a violinist in a Swedish orchestra, evidently one of some renown. He is summoned home where he is informed of the tragic death of his wife in an accident that has also badly injured one of his twin children.

Most of the rest of the film is a flashback telling the story of the man and wife and how they met and married and loved and hated and separated and re-united and loved some more. It is a rather thick slice of a life. A rich one that most anyone can identify with. Chock full of all that life has to offer. The pain, the joy, the growth, the richness of experiences deeply felt.

Then we are back to the grieving man and the utter desolation of a premature death. But the story does not end as a melodramatic tragedy. I'd rather encourage you to see the film for yourself than reveal the ending. Suffice to say it offers, if not exactly hope, a sense of the spirit that life must go on and despite the worst happening can be appreciated, must be appreciated. Our time on Earth is to be savored, however and whenever and to as great a degree as possible.

Beethoven's Ode to Joy is a way to express and to understand this.

Bergman's To Joy is another.

14 November 2011

Odds and Ends Again? Already? But Ultimately With a Focus on Two Terrific Films: Le Havre and Ivan's Childhood

I overheard a conversation in which one person described being at a party where turducken was served (that's chicken and duck cooked within a turkey). She said it was "sort of a f*ck you to vegetarians." Yeah, I can see that. We've got it coming for sure. We walk around not eating meat all the time. The nerve.

I've come across people who do not own TVs. Bully for them. If you can get by watching movies on your computer and don't give a fig about sports it's doable. But what I find interesting is how many of them watch TV shows, entire seasons of them, on their computers either via Hulu, Netflix instant, the show websites or rented DVDs. So let me get this straight, you're proud of not having a TV but you watch the shows that originate by and for that media.

I was on the bus the other day and I was like hearing college students who were like over using like this one word. They were all like saying like all the time and they were like really getting on my nerves. I was all like please stop, like saying like every other word. If I'd liked actually like said something they'd be all like, whatever.

Hey did you just google me and come across my blog and decide to have a read? There's no mystery about me. Some people you google and there's virtually nothing. But idiots like me with a blog in which we pour out our heart and soul (and the minutia of our day-to-day existence) we're easy to catch up on. Hey, why not shoot me an email? What, we went to high school together? College? We did a stretch in the slammer at the same time? Maybe were in the same mental institution. Maybe we were co-workers. Or your a former students or teacher or lover or hater or rival or doppelganger or dentist or deviant or dog catcher or neighbor or teller.

I watched two terrific movies this past weekend: Ivan's Childhood (1962) a Russian film from director Andrei Tarkovsky and Finnish director Aki Kaurasmaki's latest, Le Havre. Ivan's Childhood is like a rich hearty meal that leaves you sated but somehow wanting more. Le Havre is simpler fare but no less appetizing or satisfying. There is a sensibility to Kaurasmaki's films that I can relate to as a fellow Finn. Yet he has a broad appeal. Kaurasmaki is an internationally recognized director and in fact this latest work is set and spoken in French. There is a decided lack of flamboyance in both his story telling and his characters. Actually that is understating it. In a typical Kaurasmaki film the characters are as emotional as oil paintings, which is remarkable in light of the trying  and sometimes tragic circumstances that constantly befall them. The trials also lead to humor that is of the deadest deadpan you can conjure. To turn a phrase: you chuckle, you frown, it becomes a part of you. It also has the feeling of reality. Not real. Just the feeling of it. Some things that are too real are like rifling through the trash. Kuarasmaki's films are like the best yard sales ever. Le Havre is his most hopeful film. For him it is a veritable romp through the tulips. The first of a projected Harbor Trilogy, it concerns a wise and earnest elderly shoe shiner married to a devoted and stoic wife. He stumbles upon an African illegal trying to make it to London. Our hero aids and abets the refugee with the help of other locals (and his dog). Meanwhile his wife enters the hospital with a seemingly fatal illness. Yes, Le Havre deals with issues of immigration but it is more than that by half. For at the real heart of the film is the heart of people desperate to do their bit in the service of good. They are not heroes, just heroic.

Ivan's Childhood is one of those coming of age stories. You know, the kind where you come of age during WWII and your lost innocence transforms into blood lust born of a desire to seek revenge to those who....Anyway. This was my introduction to Tarkovsky and suffice to say I'm hooked. With IC he tells a non linear story wrapped in dreams and not so much the fog of war as the mists. For such a brutal, sad tale it is beautifully told. The cinematography, in glorious black and white, is sumptuous. This is a film in which Bergman meets Antonioni and Kurosawa drops by. There is nothing beautiful about war, but there can be and is in this kind of exquisite film. 

02 November 2011

Yes, It's Time Again for Odds & Ends

Can I get everyone's attention, please? 
Thank you. I'd like to get us together on a few things. Please, no more saying "these ones" or "those ones." You sound like a little kid when you say either of those. A simple "these" or "those" will suffice. Also, and this is important, the word is anyway. There is no s at the end of it. When you put the s at the end you sound like a middle school kid. A poorly educated one at that.

I'm trying to sort out what it is about those people in the early 20s who are so totally self absorbed. You know who I mean? People who share their opinions on everything and  never hesitate about stating their preferences and sharing stories of their "experiences." Their favorite topic is themselves and they almost never shut up. I believe that they suffer from terrible insecurity. They're at the tail end of their college days or done completely. They have become aware of who they are and how they fit into the world. They have just started venturing out into said world to forge a career. They are scared shitless at this prospect. They thus find security by wrapping themselves within the cocoon of their own egos. By always talking they never have to face the horrible silence.  They don't have to look squarely into the face of destiny if there's mouths are going non stop. So us older folks are stuck listening to them prattle on endlessly. The only relationship we can have with them is as a sounding board. Maybe if they had to work in a coal mine for a few years they'd come back humble and quiet....

Hey that whack job Ann KKKoulter said that "our blacks are so much better than their blacks" referring to conservative African Americans by the possessive pronoun. She is often excused by those who assert that she says these things for shock value and to sell books. What, so that makes it okay? Of course her comment, indeed her very being, exemplifies the growing chasm between the left and right in this country. She's the type of blowhard who makes political divisions solidified. The whole mentality has changed from two groups with different views of how to improve conditions for everyone to us versus them. They bad we good. Fox News has contributed mightily to the notion that "the other side" is bad and our side is good. Compromise is seen as weakness, not a staple of politics. Good luck getting anything done, America....

I'm going to cop to the fact that sometimes after a long hard day of work I will flop on the sofa and turn on the idiot box. Fortunately 30 Rock re-runs are all over cable these days and likely will remain so for eons to come. 30 Rock is one of those extremely rare sitcoms that actually makes you LOL. (Aren't you sick of the way people will use LOL for things that barely make them titter, let alone laugh out loud? Me too.) The shows "work" because of the unbeatable combination of a great cast and great writing. The humor is timely, wise and non-stop. A disturbing trend afflicted sitcoms starting in the 1980s. I speak of the dramatic storyline ala will they get married? Will they break up? Will he quit his job and become a trappist monk? That sort of diversion is fine as long as laughs remain the priority but not when there are long periods of out and out drama. You never saw Jackie Gleason, Carl Reiner or Bob Newhart bog down a show with a lot of tension. You don't see it in 30 Rock either. The show will be producing new episodes again in January. Can't wait....

30 October 2011

Busy Me is Back, Perhaps Regularly and Here Writes About Work,Time Travel, Hitchcock's Harry, Burton's Wood and Whale's Monster

I leave the house at 7:00 and walk five minutes to the casual carpool pick up spot. Typically my wait is under a minute before getting into a total stranger's car and riding across the bridge into San Francisco. Then I cram myself onto a bus which is invariably packed with first and second generation Chinese, most either school age or elderly (the bus passes through Chinatown). By 8:00 I'm at the school and 30 minutes later my first class has begun.

I love my job. The students are bright, happy people from all over the world who for various reasons are trying to improve their English. My students and I form a mutual admiration society. Being from other countries they are not used to teachers who are so demonstrative, funny and outwardly enthusiastic. Being from a public school background, I am not used to students who are so polite, cooperative and appreciative.

My co-workers are mostly as eccentric as I am. Their sensibilities match mine. We share insights and yuks. During my lunch break I stroll down to the Bay. With favorable winds its about a 90 second walk. The school is located a half a block from San Francisco's famous Fisherman's Wharf.

The day flies by. At 5:20 (three hours earlier on Friday) I am finished and, unless I get a ride from a co-worker. Make the hour long commute home. Upon entering our humble abode I usually have an about an hour's worth of work to prepare for the next day.

After households chores and begging my wife to make dinner, there is only about two hours left before exhaustion takes hold and my head hits the pillow.

I am quite happy. The work is wonderful and it is a great feeling to be of use to the world. The money is enough to fend off starvation but nothing upon which to build a fortune. My current riches come in the form of a family I love, good health and a rewarding profession.

Of course nothing comes without a price. I'm only making it to the gym twice a week and have little time to indulge my passions for film and writing and especially when the twain meet on this very blog.

I've recently thought it would be good for the soul if I should start to find time. Yes, readers far and wide have enjoyed my prolonged absences from blogging but I have to think of myself sometime.

Speaking of time...I recently read Jack Finney's Time and Again about a bloke who goes back in time to 1882. Time travel is a staple of fiction both in literature and film. I'm a sucker for it. I have many fantasies about traveling back and seeing what "it was really like" in days of yore. There's any number of periods and venues I'd like to see, I have a particular desire to go back to the late 1930s. Mind, I'd not want to live there as some bloggers I've read do. All that cigarette smoke everywhere all the time? No thankee. And I couldn't stand to see my Black, Asian, Hispanic and Gay brothers and sisters in true states of oppression for so long.

One problem I had with Finney's book and many other fictional renderings of time travel is the notion that one must be careful not to alter the future by your actions in the past. Poppycock. If you go back in time you are back in the original time and whatever you do will have already effected the present. For all we know it was a time traveler who screwed the pooch and allowed John Wilkes Booth to kill Lincoln.

I believe that also helps address the Grandfather paradox. This is the assertion that you can't go back in time and kill your grandpa because then you'd never be born. Exactly. That doesn't mean you cannot travel back, it just means if you do gramps is safe. For one thing, who would go back and time and want to kill their granddad? And you couldn't if you tried. Logic, people, logic.

Time and Again is what some call "a good read." To me this is code that its light, quick reading that doesn't really nourish your intellect. I'm atoning now be reading Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment.

I've managed to squeeze in a movie or two every weekend, although the days of mid week movie viewing are in hold. Last weekend I again enjoyed Hitchcock's The Trouble With Harry (1955). It's labeled a dark comedy but I think it really to be about relationship. Sure there is the artist and the young recently widowed woman (John Forsythe and Shirley MacLaine) but I really enjoy watching the old tug boat captain and the spinster (Edmund Gywnne and Mildred Natwick). I also enjoy the shopkeeper, Wiggy (Mildred Dunnock). It's the people and their doings together, both with ulterior motive and out in the open, that give the story its charm. TTWH also is one of the prettiest films ever made, a veritable feature length ad for visiting New England in autumn.

Last night I watched Ed Wood (1994). It is not only my favorite collaboration of director Tim Burton and actor Johnny Depp, but my favorite film of each as an individual. Martin Landau is a scene stealer in his Oscar winning performance as Bela Lugosi, but Depp is perfect as the totally sincere, totally weird and totally wretched director. A lovable loser of the highest order. Indeed the whole cast is wonderful, including Bill Murray. I've been quite disappointed with Burton's work since Ed Wood. He seems too enamored of his own style and it gets in the way of his own story telling. Depp is a terrific actor who takes too many easy star roles. His continual reprising of the Jack Sparrow character has helped his humongous bank account but I believe has depleted his standing as a serious actor. Then there was that silly looking movie he did with Angelia Jolie. The previews screamed "bombs away" and the reviews confirmed it. Wood was a true demonstration of his subtlety and charm as an actor. The role of the real life worst ever director had to be a big challenge and his ability to play it straight and still be so funny is exceptional.

I've also been re-watching some of Finnish director Aki Kaurasmaki's films and they get better with repeat viewings. I've been promising myself that I'd dedicate an entire post or two to my fellow Finn, so will say no more for now. Perhaps after I see his next film, Le Havre, which comes to our town in a fortnight.

Lastly I've recently re-watched one of my all time favorite films, The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) a rare case of a sequel out doing the predecessor. It is a miracle that director James Whale fit so much into a 70 minute film. The Monster (Boris Karloff), the Doctors, Frankenstein (Colin Clive) and Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger) and the bride herself (Elsa Lanchester) along with the many screams of Una O'Connor. It is all campy fun but so superbly done and with such a lot of story in it.  B of F is also an example of the economical style of directing so prevalent in the 1930s. Full rich stories were often told in well under 90 minutes.

Of course the B of F serves as a wonderful lead in to tomorrow, Halloween, a night that Dr. Pretorius might say is for "Gods and Monsters!"

08 October 2011

The World is Not in Black and White, Examples From Serpico to Politics

Single-minded determination is a great virtue that can have terrible consequences. Illustrations abound. In the film Serpico (1973), the title character is relentless and unwavering in his determination to root out corrupt cops in the NYPD. Al Pacino gives the real life character heaping portions of passion, piled on to his rigid belief in the sanctity of honesty. This earns him a bullet in the head but also a gold badge and the knowledge that his efforts have helped clean up the police force.

There is a wonderful purity to Serpico the character, a man who wouldn't accept a nickel from a crook. But within there is a complex soul. Taking his war against crooked cops into his personal life he drives away the woman who loves him. Just as he is at war with evil, he is at war with himself, unable to compartmentalize a life overrun by his lofty ambitions. Here is someone on the path to as a career cop -- one who embraces ballet, opera and fine wines, while eschewing the rough and tumble bonhomie of fellow cops who want nothing more complex from their personal lives than football strategy. Oh and they want their payoffs too.

Sidney Lumet was the director who brought Serpico's story to the screen. Peter Maas wrote the book upon which the film was based and the screenplay was penned by Waldo Salt with an assist from Norman Wexler. Of course Pacino interpreted the character but Lumet re-recreated Serpico's world and stories, bringing to life the underbelly of New York police and their work in circa 1970.

Serpico the character, as with his real life embodiment, is unscrupulously honest. About as much as a human, inherently a flawed being, can be. This kind of devotion to an ideal is admirable, not to mention rare. Think how much trouble you can get into by only playing by the rules and speaking the truth at all times. It can be a quick ticket out of many jobs, certainly the death knell to a political career, and hazardous in forming personal relationships. The last thing people want to hear is what you really, honestly think of them.

But Serpico was doing battle in a cesspool of police corruption. Here was a person who did not deal in subtlety in the best of circumstance. The man could not and would not bend. His efforts led to investigations and a tidying up of the NYPD.

Certain forms of unblinking thinking can lead to trouble that does not have a silver lining. We see it today in our national discourse where discussion points have hardened into battle lines. Anything one side says or does is wrong (because, remember, we're all divided into sides: red/blue, right/left, democratic/republican, and even if we eschew such labels they're assigned to us anyway) and what our side is quite naturally correct. Opinions are abundant, though seldom backed by either facts or reasoned thinking. These opinions are used like sledge hammers to bludgeon the other side. Nuance is dead.

Zealotry has always found a home in religious dogma and we all know that countless millions throughout the ages have suffered immeasurably as a result. Unshakable beliefs are the devil's workshop.

A few mornings ago I rode into San Francisco with a driver who had one of those all news AM radio stations on. There was a report from New York about the Occupy Wall Street movement. The reporter said that many of those involved, and here's a shocker, "are ordinary people."

I was stunned. You mean these people are not all extraordinary? They are not -- every last one -- special or irregular, or aberrant, or exotic or singular or outre or bizarre? Not all resemble three toed sloths or have magnifying glasses embedded in their foreheads or walk upside down on stilts or speak in tongues or have donuts for middle fingers?


All you ever heard about the Tea Party Movement is how they are ordinary, salt-of-the-earth Americans. This would presuppose that Americans are bigoted simpletons who are easily taken in by their corporate overlords. Not hardly.

But people who protest against corporate abuse are naturally assumed to be some amalgamation of crack pot commie, fascist latte drinkers who want to finish the work of Al Qaeda and bring down America. Conservative commentator Ann KKKoulter likened the Occupy Wall Street movement to the events leading to the French and Russian Revolutions and to the rise of Nazi Germany. How she left off the Spanish Inquisition is beyond me. 

25 September 2011

Where Have I Been? Where am I Going? What Have I Been Watching? You Ask, I Tell (It's the New Policy)

“Frank, we don’t amount to much. I don’t know we go to the trouble of having opinions, Henry says. “It puts off the empty moment. That’s what I think.” -- From The Sportswriter by Richard Ford
Where have I been and what have I been doing and why haven't I kept up this blog? Working, for one thing and starting tomorrow I'm teaching an extra class so time is going to become even more precious. (I teach English as a second language at a school in San Francisco. My students are mostly between ages 18-30. They represent countries from all over the world and are in the U.S. for anywhere from a couple of weeks to a year. Also they are, virtually without exception, absolutely delightful people. The same can be said of my co-workers.)

I've also been kept busy by a long term writing project (guess) that is now done. This leaves me in the uncomfortable position of trying to market the damn thing so others may enjoy the fruits of my creative labors. I also feel compelled to start on another such project soonest. Meanwhile I want to resume my studies of French. All this has left me with little time to blog though I've squeezed in some time recently for watching films which, as my legion of readers know (both of us), is the primary subject of my posts.

I've been thinking of just declaring that I'm on hiatus from blogging, but aside from the fact that no on would care I'm not sure what it would actually mean. I'm liable to pop in at any time and write about a new release I've recently enjoyed or an old one I've discovered or re-visited. I've had a few ideas for those list type posts that some people have enjoyed in the past but I generally feel that they're more in the manner of work than they are products of my fertile (fecund?) imagination. So we'll see. I'm just letting people who are interested know why I've been posted so sporadically of late and why prospects are for more of the same in the months to come.

I suppose it would be good and proper to employ some of the time I've set aside to be here to discuss a few of the films I've enjoyed of late. So here goes. I once wrote that I didn't think I could like anyone who didn't care for The Big Sleep (1946). I could just about say the same thing about Band of Outsiders (1964). So yes I love it. It's of course from Jean Luc-Godard who has shown an amazing capacity to make both great and terrible films. This is clearly in the former category. What exuberant, quirky fun. How utterly senseless and sensible. You can watch the film while in any mood or to create any mood. It's overcast Sixties Paris with a trio of young anti heroes planning or not so much planning a heist. And doing a dance together, out of nowhere, mind you, that is one of my favorite film scenes ever.

La Dolce Vita (1960). Federico Fellini made several of my favorite films of all time including this. There are maybe two or three other directors ever who would have dared make such a rich, sumptutious, potpurri of a film. You put Marcello Mastroianni as the lead, as cool as anyone this side of Steve McQueen has ever been and surround him with the good, the bad and the beautiful. Swedish film stars, kids seeing the Virgin Mary, the goddammned paparazzi, whores and pimps, the filthy rich and Steiner. What a mystery are Steiner  and the cause of his fate. Bravo, Federico, bravo!

Saturday Night Fever (1977). Confession: I used to love going to discos. Here's why: I had fun. The music was awful if you sat down and listened to it ("do a little dance, make a little love, get down tonight") but when you'd had a few and were with a pretty young thing on the dance floor, it was one helluva a good time. To tell you the truth SNF only touches on it. Anyone who revisits the film after a long time or sees it for the first time, seems to say the same thing: I was suprised at how dark it is. Really. While you get John Travolta and partner boogying to the strains of the Bee Gees (and the dancing really is top notch), you've also got same damn depressing "real life" type of scenarios playing out. A slightly better script and a few improvements in casting could have made this one of the great films of all time. As it is, SNF is a film that ages quite well and is worth repeat viewings -- and not just for the dancing.

I'm running out of time. The second season series premier of Boardwalk Empire is starting soon. Oldest daughter and I finally caught up to the first season on On Demand last month and were both enthralled.

Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) from the master himself, Woody Allen. Here is a film that is deadly serious and quite funny. It has the cheek to be about a lot of things and of enough depth that college philosophy classes show it. Jules et Jim (1962) from Francois Truffuat is important enough to me to be in my DVD library. My impulse after my most recent viewing was to start it all over again. Melvin and Howard (1980) I saw for the first time since its initial release and can recommend as a kind of slice of Americana. It's the mostly true story of the man who claimed to be in a will Howard Hughes' trustees mysteriously left him. Hughes had left him a bundle for a random act of kindness. Jonathan Demme directed in one of his earlier efforts, Jason Robards had a memorable cameo as Hughes, and Mary Steenburgen's then 26 year old bare and perfect caboose is on display for a few seconds and I've remembered those seconds fondly lo these three decades. I also watched another Fellini film, I Vitelloni (1953) that I only liked a lot the first time I saw it and loved this time. Also I recently breezed through the novel The Sportswriter by Richard Ford and can't recommed it enough. I'm now reading the Pultizer Prize winning sequel, Independence Day. Yes, I always have time to read.

See ya on the flip side.

11 September 2011

Ziggy Played Space Alien Jamming Good with Humans and the Bizarre From the Earth

I've been missing The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) for 35 years. Until today. Somehow it got another brief theatrical release so I got to see it on the big screen. In a theater replete with pop corn munchers, talkers and chair kickers. Well.

Despite the film's presence on this planet for all these years I'd managed to accumulate virtually no knowledge about it. Except: David Bowie plays a bloke from another planet who walks the Earth in human form. Just a few days ago I read that he was an alcoholic alien. But of course.

So I went in fairly cold. And I write this without having poured through the plethora of reviews, critiques and comments that the film has engendered these past three and half decades. This then is my thinking on the just-viewed movie without influence from other voices.  Goodie.

Isn't it odd that we try to quantify the experience of watching a film? Give it a 7 out of 10 on IMDB. Three stars of five on Netflix. Tell a friend that a film was terrible or okay or good or a classic with the bare minimum of additional comment. A word, a number to sum up two hours of cinema. Still it can be and is done. But in the case of TMWFTE, I could no more assign it a number or phrase than I could the feeling of pulling a muscle during love making.

I really li-lo-ha-dis-?-!-@-#-hmm-ed the movie.

For one thing it jerks about like a spastic howler monkey. It is deep and profound and silly and trite and beautiful and amateurish and avant garde and hey there's a spider on the wall. I was bored at times and enthralled at others and I guess -- no, I know -- there's far worse things one can say about a movie.

The Man Who took a tumble from another planet and landed on this one is a curious piece of 1970s cinema. It has some of the classic Seventies elements such as paranoia and you can't trust THE MAN. It is particularly odd as science fiction, being so liberal with science that it thumbs its nose at it. The fiction it's got down to a science, if you'll excuse me saying so.

The Seventies, you know, were the high water mark of American cinema. There was experimentation yes but it was remarkably restrained and successful and trend-setting. Experimental movies have a tendency to be unwatchable for those who aren't addicted to narcotics. TMWFTE is forever dipping its toe into experimental waters but never really takes the plunge. And at the same time it gets mawkish trumpeting the virtues of family in other solar systems, particularly in comparison with corporatized America and its decadent TV soaked culture.

There are, for that matter, some pretty strong sentiments expressed about TV. But I'll be damned if I could make heads or tails out of them.


The faller to Earth was played by David Bowie, a rock star among rock stars, a bit of casting that was inspired. I mean risky. That is to say catastrophic. He was as good a choice as any for a film that was saying ten things at once. That he did not go on to enjoy a critically acclaimed career as a thespian says everything and nothing about his performance, strange as it was, in TMWFTE. Yes he had other film roles but this was the rock star as alien. Beat that.

This is just one of the imponderables about movie that mixed in our alien's ability to see into the past seemingly for the hell of it. There was also stuff about elevators, gin, religion (I know, right?) and a horny prof.

You know I can't even tell if any of the sex or nudity was gratuitous, although I'm damn sure I could have done without seeing Rip Torn's pecker. Buck Henry was in the film too but remained fully clothed at all times. Candy Clark was quite naked. So let's see we had a cast that featured Rip, Buck and Candy. Sounds like a porno movie.

I generally don't like doing plot summaries, you can always look it up on IMDb which I link to every film I mention. A plot summary of THWFTE would seem utterly ridiculous anyway. Alien trapped on Earth, starts a corporation that builds a space ship but....

Never mind.

The Man Who Fell to Earth is kind of like Blade Runner (1982) for tripped out hippies who've been listening the Dead all day. The Man Who Fell to Earth is is like ET (1982) replacing cutsie with Bowie, Drew Barrymore with a slattern and a John Williams score with what you hear while driving to Idaho. The Man Who Fell to Earth is like Shadows (1959) if John Cassevetes was an acid head.

It's as much about mood and feeling and reaction as it is about plot. More so even. It's as if Terrance Malick and Jackson Pollack co-directed a movie.

It may be an allegory about Jesus or it may be that director Nicholas Roeg just got drunk in the editing room and had at it.

I liked the film. What, you couldn't tell?

Let Us Remember

On this, the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on U.S. soil, there is much to remember, in addition to those innocent Americans who lost their lives on that terrible day.

Let us remember the tens of thousands of innocent civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan who have died as a result of U.S. military action in those countries.

Let us remember the billions of dollars and incalculable resources in time and energy the U.S. has squandered on a futile war on terror.

Let us remember the loss of American lives in this war as well as those Americans who have been maimed and suffered traumatic psychological damage, in some cases leading to suicide.

Let us remember the increase in hatred towards the U.S. spawned throughout the Arab and Muslim worlds as a result of this war.

Let us remember this from Pakistani journalist and author Ahmed Rashid: Perhaps the greatest promise made after Sept. 11 by President George W. Bush and the British prime minister, Tony Blair, was that the West would no longer tolerate failed and failing states or extremism. Today there are more failed states than ever; Al Qaeda’s message has spread to Europe, Africa and the American mainland; and every religion and culture is producing its own extremists, whether in sympathy with Islamism or in reaction to it (witness the recent massacre in Norway).

Let us remember that the ultimate act of patriotism need not be serving in the military. Patriotic also are those who heal, cure, teach, aid, support and enrich the lives of their fellow citizens, particularly those who live in unfortunate circumstances.

Let us remember that wrapping oneself in the flag is not patriotism but showmanship that does not serve what that flag symbolizes.

Let us remember that the United States is not now nor has it ever been "the greatest country in the world" but just one nation among many.

Let us remember the violations of basic American rights that have been enacted as law in the United States in the wake of the terror attacks.

Let us remember that one of the basic precepts of the United States is religious freedom and that this is no more a Christian nation than it is a Jewish or Muslim one.

Let us remember that September 21 has been declared an international day of peace.

I close now with this from writer, interviewer, comedian, wit and blogger Dick Cavett:

Have you, perchance, decided — as I have — not to spend the weekend re-wallowing in 9/11 with the media? Aside from allowing Saint Rudolph, former tenant of Gracie Mansion, to trumpet once again his self-inflated heroism on that nightmare day, the worst feature of this relentlessly repeated carnival of bitter sights and memories is that it glamorizes the terrorists.

How they must enjoy tuning into our festival of their spectacular accomplishments, cheering when the second plane hits and high-fiving when the falling towers are given full-color international showcasing for the 10th time.

Who wants this? Surveys show people want to forget it, or at least not have it thrust down their throats from all over the dial annually. It can’t have to do with that nauseating buzz-word “closure.” There is no closure to great tragedies. Ask the woman on a call-in show who said how she resents all this ballyhooing every year of the worst day of her life: “My mother died there that day. I’m forced to go through her funeral again every year.”

Is all this stuff a ratings bonanza? Who in the media could be that heartless?

06 September 2011

The Indefatigable Wendy and Some of the Days of Her Life

I forgot what I was going to look up on the internet awhile ago so I walked away. Suddenly -- there was free time -- it was later. Just like that. Had I known to snap my finger, I would have. Swear to God.

But there it is. A part of your day. We all have them. We have days and we have parts to them. Moments. Some are incandescent. Others pile up like so much debris. So much is too much but all of it is never enough when the waning hours of your life start slipping away. Saw my dad struggle to hold on to those last magic moments of life.

There's your word. Life. Hard to let go of but hard to hang on to. Hard to know to understand to decide on to work out to sort through and my God to appreciate. But we should. So trivial sayings abound and give comfort like a warm day spent idling in the garden not really reading that book or hearing the birds sing or the CD player or the smelling the flowers just there. Without a care. The warmth so cool.

There are days within a film called Wendy and Lucy (2008). None of which include explosions or chases or sexual acts (gratuitous or otherwise) or conspiracies or mysteries. Or.

There is a young woman name of Wendy who for reasons unknown to us is heading from her Indiana home to a job in Alaska. She is with her dog Lucy. They are stuck in  Portland, Oregon because Wendy's car has gone kaput. Cars do that. Best laid plans laid to waste.

Some people have a vision of a cruel God who laughs when people make plans. Why would God do that? If God wanted a chuckle isn't Fox News enough? I ask you.

Wendy is not well to do. Movies are simplified when the protagonist is wealthy or comes a cross a wealthy person who would like to help, or to marry or stake. Or when wealth is come across. But outside of the film world it is pretty rare for instant wealth to happen along. In this movie...however....someone at some point gives Wendy $7. Yeah, that ought to do her.

This is an authentic indy type of film which means there is the potential that it will be to bleak to bear. It isn't. Let us thank Michelle Williams who plays Wendy. Really she is too pretty to play what is supposed to be a very plain looking woman. But good acting and an absence of make up or showering or changing clothes can do wonders for that too sexy little number you want to palm off as ordinary.

Yeah so Wendy she's in a fix. Money is leaking away, the car's in bad shape, and Lucy disappears. But she abides. My does she. These are the winners in life. Those plucky folks who persevere, persist and plug away. Indefatigable. That's her all right.

I like the simplicity and honesty and directness that Kelly Reichardt employed in making this movie. No miss fancy pants stuff. No one "acted." I mean people don't "act" as a rule in life. They just are. Wendy and Lucy is full of people who just are. There are also no plot contrivances. Things happen. La de dah. Sometimes things don't happen. Yup.

I recently had a day that included watching this picture. It felt less like watching a movie and more like watching someone from afar. Intimate. Vittorio De Sica would have appreciated this film.

It's not a cozy story. Not like a TV show. Not like a romp in the park. Not everything is so cuddly and fun. That doesn't mean it isn't worth being with, experiencing. There's a lot in life that we should look at and remember and treasure for what it tells us about who we are.

Anyway, I don't know why not.

Happy Freddie Mercury's Birthday Everyone!

He would have been 65 today.

04 September 2011

It's Kind of a Really Good Movie

Is this the real life?
Is this just fantasy?
Caught in a landslide,
No escape from reality
Open your eyes, Look up to the skies and see,
I'm just a poor boy, I need no sympathy,
Because I'm easy come, easy go, Little high, little
Any way the wind blows doesn't really matter to
me, to
- From Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen

You trying to tell me that those people in suits I ride into San Francisco with every day, the ones who walk into tall buildings and ride elevators and sit at desks all day and go to meetings and check emails and wolf down lunches and talk on the phone and write memos and attend more meetings and then go back to their suburban homes to eat plastic meals and watch TV that those people are the sane ones?

Do you further mean to tell me that the people who plan wars that result in death and maiming and mental anguish and widows and orphans and cost billions of dollars that those people are sane too?

And you expect me to believe that those men who run for president and say things like creationism is as valid as evolution and that two people who love each other should be barred from marrying because they are of the same gender and that corporations should decide for themselves if they want to pollute our air and water that those people are sane?

I see people sitting on street corners in ragged smelly clothes without a penny to their name and they mumble things I can't understand nor could most people but those are the crazy ones.

Sanity is subjective.


Yeah there can be kind of a glamour to "mental problems" especially among the young. You know that whole suicide is romantic bullsh*t. And then the vibe about drugs to treat depression and other "ISSUES" that can be some craziness that serves to line the pockets of pharmaceutical companies. But, dig, anyone who hasn't had to "see someone" about their stresses or fears or anxieties is someone I don't trust. If you've had it all under control you're whole life you haven't been paying attention. Seriously man all you've got to do is to take a peak into your psyche and it will totally freak you out. But then if you're lucky they'll be some really bodacious clarity to groove on and that's a good thing. Damn good. Plus if you have the slightest awareness of what goes on all over this planet you'll have a deuce of a time holding onto your wigs and keys. It's crazy out there, man and to deal with it with any kind of awareness will stir some demons within or your just mentally dead. So says I.

But if you want to pretend you're fine...go ahead. That insistence on sanity will ultimately drive you bat sh*t crazy. No lie.

So I was really taken by this film It's Kind of a Funny Story (2010) because it's set in the psychiatric wing of a hospital. Our young hero Craig (Keir Gilchrist) gets his 16 year old self admitted because he's self aware enough to be suicidal. He's got all this dad-imposed pressure and societal pressure and the worst kind too -- self-imposed. Gotta stay ahead of the pack, got to be able to get in to a "good college" set yourself up from there for the good job, the good life, the nice memorial service. That's some more crazy thinking but you do know that it locks up a lot of young minds. Oh not incidentally he's at that age where (s-e-x) becomes molto importante. And check this out: his crush (Zoe Kravitz, bet you've heard of her mom and dad) is his best friend's girl. Ouch. That whole dating and romance and losing virginity deal is another mind f*ck. Like anyone needs another when they are in high school. Or anywhere else in life.

There are characters on this ward like Bobby who is played by Zach Galifianakis whose name is even harder to spell than say. Like a lot of people who started in comedy, Zach G is a very good actor who has channeled the genius of his comedy into drama (though the guy he plays gives us a lot of winks and giggles). Many of Craig's other fellow patients are further out of touch with reality. It's really cool and quite healthy to stray as far as is safe from reality but if you're gone to long or wander too far it can be hard getting back. That's why some LSD users are no good to anyone anymore.

We know that Craig is a bit of all right because none of these people freak him out. He doesn't condescend and you know "sympathize with their plight." No. Craig accepts them at face value. Good on ya, son.

There is boy meets girl element in the story but at least its set in a mental ward. The girl is Naomi (Emma Roberts) who reminds me of so many troubled teens I've seen and known. But the kind who you know are going to sort it out. I was frankly worried about the cute girl element of the story but Ms. Roberts pulled it off nicely.

At first Craig does kind of freak and want out but once he's told he must stay the minimum five days he goes with the flow. (There's a trip, deciding when to hop aboard the flow and ride and when to book.)

The movie was co-directed and co-written by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck. Had I realized this sooner I'd have seen the movie much sooner, like in theaters, because I'm a fan of two previous films of theirs' Half Nelson (2006) and Sugar (2008). They did a nice job here because they respected the characters and while there are a few yuks they didn't play it for laughs. This is not a comedy, not a love story -- no schmaltz. It's a very honest coming of age story. One helluva lot of people come of age through dances with insanity and perhaps more should.

It's the kind of a story that could have made for a "charming" movie. That would have been okay but there are enough already of the charming, empty films. There is a basic honesty in the film and how it explores the utter madness of living in a world where the legally sane are so damn nuts. We don't see some of the real consequences and behaviors of the supposedly insane but that's not what the movie was trying to do.

Finally it's kind of about choices. How crazy it is to deny ourselves them. March in lockstep in a direction long ago mapped out. Not exploring, not risk-taking but following the herd. This is what leads to real madness. That's what happened to Craig. He realized that his own inexorable march to oblivion in a world where wars rage continuously and the economy is in tatters is not something he's happy with. Gotta make change, bro.

So maybe it'll work out for him. it's a step and that it's an important thing in life. To take steps. To not is crazy.

28 August 2011

Sometimes Just a Notion is Great, Especially in Art

There was a day spent at a beach that felt all pink. It looked that way too. There were puffy white clouds with pinkish tints and pink cherubs running about worrying their Moms to death. The waves crashed against the breakers sending up a pink hued froth. Seagulls swooped for crumbs and swallowed them down their pink mouths. Kisses were stolen and responded to with giggles and playful slaps and return smooches that all felt as pink as the day. It was just like that and I can't tell you why. It just was.

I was talking to a friend one day and said that perhaps there's someone living in Belgium who, if he were born in the States could have been the greatest quarterback ever. I added that maybe there was someone born in the 16th century who if he had been born 600 years later would have become a more renowned basketball player than Michael Jordan. My friend said how that with such and so considerations, and because of this and that and the other and due to other arcane factors, my supposition just didn't hold water.

In other words he got all literal on me. Soaked in facts and details and science he was being realistic. Yawn. I very much would want a doctor who was about to perform surgery on me to maintain a similar philosophy to work. Mathematical certainty has a very important place in our society. Such rigor is essential in many fields. But it can sure screw up a good story. Or haven't you ever heard the words: "that would never happen." But it did. Right there in Dickens' David Copperfield there were all manner of events and coincidences that defy the laws of probability. Despite or perhaps because of this, Copperfield is great literature, great art and great fun.

I do not use logic nor do I parse when experiencing art, especially perhaps films. One of my favorite movies of all time in Antonino's L'Eclisse (1962). I loved it from my first viewing and yet had not a clue what the director was saying. Nor did I care. Later viewings would sort that out, I just felt good seeing it.

Felt good seeing it. Why? Why describe a kiss or an orange sherbet? 

Yes, there is a point at which you express why something is so wonderful. But never strain yourself. Please!

I recently read Kesey's Sometimes a Great Notion and by God I could find you some themes there. But I'd druther not. Really, I just liked the words and the characters and the way people talked and a lot of what they said felt real. I related to Lee Stamper in a lot of ways in others I didn't. The book was a fabulous time. It was one of those deals where afterward everything else I picked up to read seemed amateurish. I then watched the film version, released in 1970, which I'd seen previously, a lifetime ago. 

Guess what I did? 

I didn't compare the two. I just watched the film and thought it was good in a whole different way. Hell, you get to see Henry Fonda and Paul Newman occupying space in the same movie. Beat that! There was also a lot of the Oregon coastal countryside. I've spent a lot of time there and can attest to its beauty. Nice seeing it with a story occupying it's trees and rivers and such. I wasn't gaga over the film or anything but I sure enjoyed the time I spent looking at it. Instead of letting it's omissions from the book get under my skin, I felt glad to be reminded of the novel.  

I'm all in favor of general themes, feelings, impressions and suggestions. They're more sensual than the cold hard facts. 

A movie has got to feel good. So does a novel. You knew that about music, I'm sure. People will love a song well before learning the lyrics. Dissect it later, if at all. Movie, same thing.

All too often movies are released for the sole purpose of making money. They're pretty obvious. They have formulas. They are cynical. They don't feel good. Least not to some of us. I think they feel good to a whole lot of people because they fit those comfortable formulas. They don't push or prod or ask us any questions. Sometimes they try really hard to be liked and don't have an identity. Movies should have identities. (It just occurred to me that some people are like that. They lose their real selves to be popular. And perhaps they even are popular at a superficial level. But they lose whoever it is they are and we miss the unique experience of getting to know them. We meet their veneer and are impressed at their dazzling ability to make small talk.)

I think I've said all I've got to say on this topic for now. I don't have a space or word limit for my posts. This is really nice because I can write just a little bit or go on and on and on as I see fit. Anyway, the length of any writing should be just enough to say what needs be said. Ya know, what feels right.

20 August 2011

I Think I Write, I Write About Thinking I Think About Writing and Black Swan is Prominent in the Ensuing Words


It all begins with a single word. And it's your choice. Every time.

I walked down to the local high end bookstore but it smacked of desperation. So I barely browsed before making my way back home.

Earlier I'd watched Black Swan (2010) which I'd previously seen in theaters right after it's release. I wrote about back it then and I have kindly linked this sentence to that post. Neither oldest daughter nor the wife would watch Black Swan with me. I couldn't even dig up the cat, who you think would at least give it a chance, but I guess she too had heard things.....Maybe I should ask them all why they don't want to ever see it. Maybe not. The little woman generally likes the same type of films I do. (Given that she is taller than I am, if she is in fact the little woman I must be the tiny man.)

I just had a thought....There, it passed.

But seriously, what if this post is some reader's introduction to my blog. They'd likely never come back. Actually that wouldn't make them any different then all the other poor saps who've chanced upon my musings. Amusing.

At one point in the Black Swan there's a knock at the door and Barbara Hershey says: "Who could that be?" That's a question that is posed far more often in films and on television than it is in...well, I was going to say "real life" but I hate referring to anything as "real life" as much as I do calling any part of our existence the "real world." It's all real. People in college are always being told about going out into the "real world" as if a university is the set of some Disney film and they're Peter Pan or Tinker Bell. It's all real, I tell ya, every second.

Obsessed characters often make for terrific films. As in Black Swan. Or Zodiac (2007) or Vertigo (1958) or JFK (1991). After all who wants to watch a film starring a perfectly happy well balanced individual who manages work, family and a hobby in perfect harmony? Obsessive personalities are often creative geniuses, or great athletes or detectives or of course total lunatics. In films you can have a combination genius and lunatic for a most heady brew. It has been said that there is a fine line between genius and insanity. I suppose. But there is just as fine line between raving mediocrity and insanity. Hell no, there isn't, there's no line at all.

I liked Black Swan again. I made the choice going into viewing number two that I wasn't going to look for meaning in it. Sometimes some people (me for instance) spend too much time analyzing a film. The experience derived from spending the hour and forty minutes should suffice. If you find your mind continually drifting back to the movie, I'd say that's a very good thing indeed. But you needn't force it. That is making artificial the organic experience of cinema. I was sitting in a theater once and a person behind me asked the gent she was with what he had thought of Dreamgirls (2006). He replied: "I don't know I haven't finished deconstructing it yet." Oh my, was all I could think. Oh my, oh my.

Darren Aronofsky directed Black Swan. He's a man whose film I'd not seen until last December. Having now viewed them all, I am a fan. If you're reading this Darren -- and why wouldn't you be -- I'm sure that sentence has made it all worthwhile.  He does not rely on half measures to tell stories. But he never crosses the line that do so many directors who subsume the story within their own ego or technical mastery. Peter Jackson comes to mind. He's the bloke who took the King Kong story and turned into a video game for 14 year olds.

Natalie Portman won the Best Actress Oscar for Black Swan. I thought Jennifer Lawrence in Winter's Bone (2010) was far more deserving, but whenever someone has been known to put in a lot of training and weight reduction or gain into a role they get serious extra credit with the academy.

Again I was really impressed with Mila Kunis. (That's of pic of her in the film to the left of this sentence.) Besides being a real dish she's a damn good actress and did as much as possible with her role. My ex celebrity crush Winona Ryder got a lot of mileage out of her role as the washed up ballet star too. And since I'm saying such nice things about performers.... Vincent Cassel was (please feel free to insert your own laudatory adjective).

It's foggy, breezy and cool outside (inside there is no breeze or fog and the temperature is quite comfortable). I find this weather condusive to reading, film watching, writing and chasing my poor beleagured wife around the house. It's also nice for drinking tea and feeling quite all right about the world which I do right now. I'm not doing summersaults or popping champage corks, but the world seems a nice enough place to live in. What a wonderful alternative to say Venus or Neptune, neither of which serve ice cream or show movies or have soccer games or Mila Kunis.

Ya know, I just can't figure out whether words are vastly overrated or underrated. Hmm.

15 August 2011

Separating Justice and Law in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

There's a starman waiting in the sky
He'd like to come and meet usBut he thinks he'd blow our mindsThere's a starman waiting in the skyHe's told us not to blow itCause he knows it's all worthwhile- From Starman by David Bowie

Justice is a concept, really. The law can be written and defined and debated but justice is an ideal that is not always served by enacting or enforcing laws. Some people get away with murder, literally and figuratively. This makes us ache. Some people will employ extra legal measures before or after the fact. It's a slippery slope when individuals "take the law into their own hands." Those hands become dirty. Sometimes.

Eighteenth and 19th century Americans saw themselves as good people bringing civilization to a savage land. This was at the heart of Manifest Destiny and the "taming" of the West. They made the same law that they brought. They defined and enforced it. Yet curiously and clearly justice was not always served. The history of America's western expansion is, as the cliche goes, written in blood. Fair enough, but the blood of so many innocents and on so many occasions done within the law and well outside any concept of justice.

There's a movie that does a superior job of exploring this whole idea. It was directed by John Ford and is called The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). Yes it's a good old western starring John Wayne and James Stewart with a supporting cast including Strother Martin, Lee Van Cleef and Andy Devine, none a stranger to the genre. It also features Lee Marvin as the title character. He is walking, talking evil, right down to his whip and six gun.

But this is a film that has deep meanings and I do not refer merely to the famous "print the legend" line or its explanations. 

Stewart plays the lawyer, Ransom Stoddard, who moves out West with high and noble ideals but a stunning naivete about life in the territories. He reckons that law trumps violence and criminals and should be the basis for correcting injustice. But the law can't and won't get its hands on Valance who reeks havoc at will, often in service of rich land owners who are trying to stymie statehood for their own gain. There there is Tom Doniphan (Wayne) who is as good a man as Stoddard but ten times tougher. He has no illusions about the capacity of the law to serve justice in the face of Valance and his ilk.

What we have here is a fascinating dichotomy. At stake is the struggle between the rule of law and frontier justice. One is the basis of a civilized society and the child of high ideals. The other claims reality on its side, it has its principle the idea of fighting fire with fire. Stoddard and Doniphan are allies concurrent with being bitter enemies and rivals. They are very different sides to the coin of the realm. Oh yes, they are also in love with the same girl (Vera Miles).

One could read ambiguity into the resolution of this film. But that supposes a full color world in which all answers come in black and white. When we meet him years later, the man of the law is a former Senator, Governor, Ambassador to England and now again is a Senator. He's long been married to the girl. But what propelled him to this lofty status? Was it his erudition and grasp of the law? They helped. But it is the gunning down of an evil man that set his course. Ironically, a slaying he did not actually commit.
The man of the gun has died forgotten and as the movie begins and ends, is in a simple wood coffin, stripped even of his boots.

What are we to take from this story? Well as with any other tale we are at liberty to see what we choose. Certainly TMWSLV is widely open to interpretation. For many it's just a ripping good yarn from the Old West, replete with colorful characters. I wrote about it as such three years ago.  But for those looking for deeper meanings they are there. The ascendancy of the lawyer over the gunmen as the closing of the frontier is evident, as is the enduring power of myth. There is certainly a serious question raised about how the West, or for that matter, any wilds are won. The point of a gun? The rule of law? The victory of justice no matter the method? Certainly many answers lie in between the questions.

The great man said: justice delayed is justice denied. And he said this in the name of fighting unjust laws. So perhaps it really comes down to morality and seeing to the primacy of a group conscience over the tyranny of the minority.

It's not just another old Western, is it?

07 August 2011

Trippin' With Some Far Out Cats -- Kesey and Isherwood in Documentaries

Love lost, such a cost,
Give me things
that don't get lost.
Like a coin that won't get tossed
Rolling home to you.
From 'Old Man' by Neil Young

A long strange trip. Life is. We hold these memories to be self evident that all people are created and then up and die some day and yes...so it goes. Papa there it is.

Yesterday was documentary day for me in that I saw two of them. One in the theater one off Netflix Instant. Both in the instant theater of my mind, man. One was a recent release being seen by me for the first time. T'other was a film I saw when it hit theaters -- bam! -- three years ago. Second go round, this was, brother. Very different stories but both centered around a favorite author...of mine!


Magic Trip (FAR OUT!!) is about the incredible journey of the Merry Pranksters. You've got to understand that the Sixties (PEACE) did not begin on January 1, 1960 any more than your adulthood starts on the day of your 18th birthday. Arbitrary stuff I can do without. Out with. See the Fifties didn't end until Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963. Till then it was Leave it Beaver America. There was a brief purgatory for the era thing until early '64 when The Beatles (YEAH YEAH YEAH) hit American shores -- bam! -- and a few months later when the Pranksters hit the road, going all Jack Kerouac on America's ass. (TRIPPIN'!)

The Pranksters were led by author Ken Kesey (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Sometimes a Great Notion). Kesey in turn was led by LSD and that trip was part of the Prankster trip because taking LSD is called taking a trip. Or dropping acid. Work with me here people.

The Pranksters were all about.....uh, something, I'm sure. Maybe love, acceptance. Nahhhhhhhhhhh!!! More like freedom. Enlightenment. Grooving (GROOVY!) on love and life and all the wonders of doin' your own thing and to hell with corporate button downed Amerika and all that jazz.

Magic Trip uses a teensy bit of the 40 hours of footage shot -- bam! -- on the Prankster trip and a little bit of their audio recordings which were not in sync with the film -- damn it all. The Pranksters were on this converted school bus that they painted all psychedelic and named Further (like, what else are you going to call it and say have I finally found my voice?). The Pranksters included a bunch of people you likely never heard of unless you read The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe. Except of course for Kesey and the man who manically drove the bus east, Neal Cassady. Yeah the one and the same who was the inspiration for the character of Dean Moriarty in On the Road. That was one wild ride, I mean being Cassady. Being around Cassady. Hell's bells watching him is a ride and half. He was known to take hits -- bam! -- of speed now and again and again and again. And brother he could and would and did talk and talk and talk and it was like so totally rapid fire and stream of or really river of consciousness and went all over the map and under it and in it and you get the picture sure.

So the documentary shows footage and you hear later interviews of the Pransketers and see other scenes of America circa the early Sixties when all these changes were exploding -- bam! -- all the hell over the culture that would have reverberations that are still reverberating. So cool. And you do know they really popularized the whole acid dropping (that's taking LSD, you square) thing along with Timothy Leary who was -- dig this -- too straight laced for them. So in some of the movie you see them on acid and how do you convey that? They did a really good job, take it from my mind (it's such a mind mind that has me searching for my heart of old and I'm getting gold or words to the effect).

Yeah I liked the movie. What's not to like? This was the era that defined so many of us  of the baby boom -- --boom! -- and made us what we aren't today. Defining moments and all that rock and roll and protests and peace movements and liberation fronts and love and awakenings and long hair and sex (mmmmmmmmm).

Then last night it was Chris and Don. A Love Story(2008) which the love story of my life who is my wife had not seen but like I said I had. This centers around the love between two men (Gay maybe?) Don Bachardy the still living artist and Christopher Isherwood the late great author. First time I saw the film in question I'd never read anything of his. In the past six months I've pretty much poured through every novel he penned. Yes, I'm a fan. So this time maybe I appreciated the movie a tad more, but just a tad. Really the love story is what's all about and to a lesser extent the amazing lives they led and the people (My God the PEOPLE!!) they met and hung out with. If you're interested you might check out what I wrote about the film after I first saw it. But actually I liked it more the second time because it's so damn good. Gooooood.

This time I really tripped off the fact (you ever trip off facts?) that this is movie that some of those sexual bigots who claim a God hates some his children because they lay with people of their own gender, that those assh*les should see this. Is it not love? Not the Newt Gingrich get divorced twice and cheat on your wife on her death bed kind of love but the kind with real commitment and honesty and caring for one another kind of love. You watch this and you still hate these people or their love and you are one f*cked up person. Seriously.

Other thing: this is a superbly constructed documentary. One of the best.

Isherwood and Kesey. Kesey and Isherwood. Writers extraordinaire. Very different lives and milieus and backgrounds and tastes. Vive la difference. I don't get liking just one type of anything. Gimme genres aplenty. Types and styles. Give me Isherwood and Kesey and I'll have some F Scott and Dostoevsky and how about some Kerouac and if you don't mind a bit of Flaubert. Don't forget my poetry too. Ginsberg, Eliot, Neruda, Giovanni please. Cheers.

Point is....Oh do I really need a point? It was just a lovely day. More exposure to great minds and that I don't mind. Off doing their own things. Committed to their art and all and by God aren't we glad to have reminders of why all the pain and suffering is endurable for the moments of artistic vision, truth and clarity. Bam!