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.