31 March 2014

A Life A Lot Less Ordinary -- Matteo Garrone's "Reality"

Its' as if there is a walled city in which famous people live. Most of us are on the outside trying desperately to look in catching only glimpses.  Sometimes they appear outside and we can bask momentarily in their glory. Many of us know someone who is on the inside. They were once a classmate or a neighbor or a student or are a second cousin. I have three former students living within those walls including Andy Samberg. I used to have a boss whose step brother is Tom Hanks. More commonly we catch sight of them somewhere for a moment. My wife once saw Katherine Hepburn for example and I once walked by Danny Glover. Then French President Nicolas Sarkozy and his entourage jogged past the missus and I in Paris.

We regular folk cherish these moments and share them with others. Everyone has a brush with fame story. Maybe even an occasion when we had momentary access to where the special dwell.

Once you're inside those walls once you've starred in a film had a hit record or been a regular on a TV show you have access to others there too. When the school newspaper I was adviser for got a phone interview with Samberg six years ago he spoke of getting to meet heroes like Steve Martin and Paul McCartney while working at Saturday Night Live. Imagine if you're famous -- you can hobnob with other famous people many of whom you've admired for years. The rest of us schmucks are left with sending tweets to the famous praying for a response (I got one once from Bob Balaban thanking me for a compliment) But we know that we'll never sit down for a meal at a five star restaurant with them.

Part of the lure is immortality. The famous live on long after their deaths and leave behind not only a name that will be remembered but a presence in films or music or literature. Most of us die in relative obscurity and not even that without loving family and friends.

A few movies have explored the frustration of being just one of the masses for those who seek more. None were better -- in an often creepy uncomfortable way -- than Martin Scorsese's The King of Comedy (1992). This is the story of a would-be comic named Rupert Pupkin (Robert DeNiro) who cannot take no for an answer and becomes so desperate that he kidnaps a famous talk show host (Jerry Lewis) and blackmails the TV show to allow him to fill in.

(Actor Delroy Lindo used to occasionally work out at the gym I frequent. I only saw him a handful times but twice I observed people ask if he could look at their scripts. Director Walter Hill appeared for a Q&A at a retrospective of his films at the Pacific Film Archives a couple of years ago and one audience member used the opportunity to ask if Hill would look at his script.)

In Luchino Visconti's Bellissma (1952) Anna Magnani plays a mother desperately trying get her young daughter into show business going to increasingly great lengths to do so. Surely the next best thing to achieving fame and fortune is to have a next of kin climb to the heights.

In some respects the appeal of the gangster film comes from the same source. The successful gangster may not be famous but -- as is illustrated in another Scorcese film Goodfellas (1990) --but he does things on his own terms beholden to no one. The gangster will not be immortal but his (surely using only the masculine pronoun is apropos) time on Earth will not be confined to a nine to five job and playing by society's rules. As mobster Henry Hill says in Goodfellas: "For us to live any other way was nuts. To us, those goody-good people who worked shitty jobs for bum paychecks and took the subway to work every day, and worried about their bills, were dead. I mean they were suckers. They had no balls. If we wanted something we just took it." The movie gangster lives in a fantasy world where he is special, just like the famous.

I was lucky enough to catch Reality (2012) --  directed by Matteo Garrone -- when it spent all of one week in a Berkeley theater last Spring. I watched it again courtesy of Netflix over the weekend. The film tells the story of Luciano a fishmonger in Naples who auditions for Italy's version of Big Brother (sad to say that such reality shows have infected much of Europe). He gets a call back for a second audition and is convinced he has done well and is a shoo-in to get on the show. It's the quick fix. Luciano has a decent job a wife three children and a loving extended family. He is in the full vigor of health and makes extra cash with a victimless scam. But he's ultimately just an Ordinary Joe -- or Gisueppe if you prefer.  Being a regular guy is clearly okay for a lot of people but for those with a modicum of talent it can be the height of frustration. Many people feel they are one lucky break from being discovered. If only someone would look or listen to their audition tape or read their manuscript, they too could live within the walls of the glitterati.

Luciano is a personable guy, very popular, funny and even does some female impersonating. Once he gets a hint that fame and fortune may beckon, his vivid imagination takes over and Luciano becomes convinced he's on his way. A spot on Big Brother would guarantee big bucks and big exposure and winning the whole enchilada would make one set for life. And it is so close. The difference between a life of anonymity and national or even international renown can be a coin flip. Why not me? The idea -- when one gets at all close -- is beguiling and can turn into an obsession as it does for Luciano.

Will he ultimately get on the show? Will he drive his family figuratively crazy or himself literally crazy as he awaits word on his fate and tries to influence events beyond his control? These are questions best answered by seeing the film yourself. Suffice to say it is worth the time. Garrone is an excellent director whose previous films include Gomorrah (2008) which had a relatively good run in the States no doubt because it was about organized crime in Italy. Garrone lets the story and its characters speak for themselves. His camera work is subtle at no time does he try any trickery instead relying on simple medium focus shots -- although he begins and ends with camera shots from the sky that wonderfully bookend the movie.

Reality stars Aniello Arena who is a story unto himself. Prior to filming, during filming and I write these words, he is serving a life sentence in an Italian prison for a triple homicide. Say what? Marrone discovered him when he visited the prison to see some one of its theater productions. Arena was let out of prison for filming but being a lifer behind bars is Arena's true reality -- albeit as one who got to star in a film. Arena is -- by the by--  quite good and were it not for his incarceration might star in more films. Then again if he'd never gone to prison he wouldn't have gone into theater and been discovered and been in a film and isn't fame interesting?

29 March 2014

Thank You Neil Young For Helping Me Write

"Don't let it bring you down
It's only castles burning,
Find someone who's turning
And you will come around."  -- From Don't Let it Bring You Down by Neil Young
There is some disagreement about whether such a thing as writer's block really exists. Some claim to suffer from it at various times. Others say that it is a fiction created by people who are simply lazy. I know that at times when I try to write there's no there there. This only happens when I have nothing very specific to write about or when I don't have to write. Sometimes -- like today -- I really want to write and indeed feel I need to but the well seems bone dry.

That's when I turn to Neil Young. It never fails. I play some of his early music -- such as After the Gold Rush which I have on now -- and the problem is solved.

This is only my second blog post of the month after cranking out 15 in February all part of my Countdown to 60 series. I have however been quite prolific with my poetry having published 26 poems in March with two more waiting in the wings and maybe another one or two to follow. I have also been putting the finishing touches on my second unpublished novel. I have made steady progress on my third novel which will likely remain unpublished as well. Maybe I'll write a fourth book on how to write unpublishable fiction.

I've been reading a riveting non fiction book called The Life and Times of Charles Manson by Jeff Guinn. It's difficult to write about the experience of reading the book. It recalls the world of the early teen years describing as it does much of the political and cultural atmosphere of the country in the mid and late 1960s even referencing Berkeley and San Francisco. Manson spent a short amount of time in Berkeley when I was about 12 years old. I don't recall seeming him around -- some joke.

Manson's story is utterly fascinating and depressing to me much in the same way I've always been intrigued by Hitler and the Nazis. Humans are pack animals and love a charismatic leader. Of course some individuals and groups are particularly vulnerable to messianic figures who claim to have all the answers and in turn require blind obedience. Hitler found large swaths of a country who would pledge loyalty and Manson built a huge "family" of over two dozen who would submit to his will even to the point of murder. This is a phenomenon that is not going away. Although one hopes that modern industrialized nations don't follow some loony to war (looking at young Putin) or that we don't have murderous cults preying upon the innocent. By the way Guinn's book is excellent and I highly recommend it although I don't review books for Amazon anymore and haven't in almost seven years yet I still get emailed requests to do so. Some of which are for the type of books I wouldn't read if you paid me.

Among the other books I've read recently was an excellent biography of Allen Ginsberg I Celebrate Myself by Bill Morgan. For me Ginsberg has become -- in addition to a favorite poet -- a favorite person. Speaking of Hitler Putin and Manson, Allen Ginsberg was the opposite being so much about peace love and the buddha. I'll set aside the topic for now as I'm thinking of dedicating a longer writing to Mr. Ginsberg but I did want to give him a shout out. Talk about a spirit that lives on....

Melancholy mornings I do go to work and riding the subway trolley walking and coffee and photocopying later I am full of piss and vinegar and spout my happy lessons to legions of students who do upwards learn. Successfully completing a day's work is one of the better feelings that can wash through your body. Like. If only the day did not stretch out so long with scrambling back through an hour long commute to return home still needing to tie up loose ends and then to relax at last taking tie off and eating dinner and watching Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert and reading poetry and sleeping until doing it again blessed weekend comes only to zip by. But I. I. But. Happiness is not minding so much what burdens you carry what cares you care about and there I did it.

18 March 2014

Seven of the Films I've Watched of Late Some Were Okay Others Great

Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) I liked it a lot it was swell. I grinned from ear to ear from opening credits to closing credits and for several minutes thereafter. There's not much better a recommendation one can give a film. I suspect there are some who don't appreciate director Wes Anderson and his unique visual style and quirky characters. That's there problem. Anderson doesn't so much make movies as he creates worlds. This is the essence of story telling. This story is a doozy set as it is in a fictional European country in the 1930s and replete with all manner of character from the lovable to the detestable to the hilarious to the bizarrely eccentrically weird. The cast features over a dozen Hollywood stars many in very small roles indeed. This would suggest that actors are chomping at the bit to get into Anderson's films and who can blame them? Ralph Fiennes Tilda Swinton and F Murray Abraham are among the more prominently featured but the real star is the previously anonymous Tony Revolori as Zero the lobby boy. One suspects we'll be seeing a lot more of him and desperately hoping to see a lot more from the mind of one Wes Anderson.

Blue Jasmine (2013) on DVD Blanchett still amazing as anyone can see. I'm much more a fan of directors and am infinitely more likely to watch a movie because of who directed it rather than who starred in it. The few exceptions are with older films that star people like Cary Grant The Marx Brothers Humphrey Bogart Marlene Dietrich and Barbara Stanwyck. If I love a movie its probably because of my appreciation for the director's work than for an actor's. Rarely do I rave about actors. Blue Jasmine was written and directed by Woody Allen and in both roles he did his usual excellent job. However this is a Cate Blanchett film. Rarely does a performer so embody a role -- Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) Kristin Scott Thomas in Il y a longtemps que je t'aime (2008) Sean Penn in Milk (2008) and Bette Davis in The Letter (1940) are other examples. This was my second viewing of Blue Jasmine having seen it when it hit theaters last Summer. Knowing "how it ends" I could better focus on Blanchett and marvel at her immersion into the character. I also noted how strong the supporting cast around her was particularly Sally Hawkins and Alec Baldwin. It's an Allen film but al hail the great Cate.

I Confess (1953) a Hitchcock film among his best. This is a criminally underrated Alfred Hitchcock movie. Montgomery Clift hears a confession of murder and is subsequently the chief suspect in the same murder. Of course he can't reveal what he was told in confession even though the murderer is a scoundrel (as most are) so for that matter is the victim. Meanwhile he's tangled up with a woman -- Anne Baxter -- who knew the victim and it's all rather complicated or would be if it weren't for the fact that Hitchcock was the director and he had a way of making complex stories accessible and understandable without dumbing them down an iota. I suppose I Confess just gets lost in the shuffle among all of Hitch's great work but in my mind its great in its own right.

The Human Comedy (1943) here is a movie I never again want to see. Just preceding and after US entry into World War II Hollywood cranked out a lot of thinly disguised propaganda films meant to stir public ire against the Axis and stimulate patriotism. Surprisingly a lot of these ended up being damn good films even a classic or two such as Casablanca (1942). However the Human Comedy directed by Clarence Brown and starring Mickey Rooney was not among them. To call it sentimental pap would be an insult to sentimental pap everywhere. Spoiler alert: at the end of the film Rooney has just found out his big brother Marcus has died in the war. On his way home to tell the family a friend of his brother who served in the army with him shows up. He's been injured in the war. The film ends with Rooney entering the house where he tells ma and siblings that "the solider has returned". The end. Of course the family will expect that Marcus will walk in. Not only will it be a stranger instead but they'll then learn that Marcus is dead. Utterly ludicrous. Up until then the film is just a study in unrealistic sentiment. The ending is just intellectually insulting.

The Black Power Mixtape (1967-1975) (2011) a very good documentary and that't the truth, Ruth. When I was in high school we took a field trip to Black Panther Party headquarters in Oakland. Later I briefly dated Huey Newton's sister-in-law. I was enamored of the Panthers and the black power movement growing up as I did in Berkeley during their heyday. Both the Panthers and the black power movement took some wrong turns but their principal impact was to make the civil rights movement relevant to a younger generation and teaching that turning another cheek wasn't the only response to virulent racism. This documentary was culled from Swedish TV documentary and news programs of the period. It is excellent. It offers a fine overview of the time and from a fairly neutral perspective though truth be told most Northern European nations couldn't help but be sympathetic to the struggle for black power in the US. Were I still teaching US History I would use large section of the Black Power Mixtape.

Baader Meinhof Complex (2008) a German film with a lot of violence and a little sex. I'll grant you this was an excellent history lesson for anyone and it is an engaging story that maintained my interest for its entire two hour plus running time. BMC is a fine introduction to the radical left movement that employed violence in the 1970s. But there is no center to it and very little way in character development and is ultimately superficial as cinematic art. It was good enough to preview its subject matter but not good enough to make me want to explore it. Meh.

La Vie de Boheme (1992) a film so great I want to scream. I have never purchased a film for my DVD collection without first having seen it and loved it. So it was quite a surprise that I put La Vie de Boheme on my Amazon wish list. It was quite a delight that the missus gave it to me for my birthday. Why such confidence that I would love the movie? In large part because Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki has yet to make a film I didn't at least really like and everything I read about LVDB as the good folks at Criterion previewed its coming release convinced me that this was one of his best. It is. LVDB is set in Paris and centers around three struggling artists -- a musician a writer and a painter. One finds love one finds some success they all find that life and love are often to be endured. It is as beautiful and honest a film as you'll ever see and indeed proof that honesty in art often equals beauty. In glorious black and white.

08 March 2014

The Wind Blows at Midnight a Non Sequitur in Three Parts

"...the crash inside my soul when you think of babyhood..." - from Tristessa by Jack Kerouac

On the trolley going to work yesterday reading Ginsberg poems large butted Pacific Islander woman wearing a pound of make up on face sits next to me plays games on smart phone. I sigh. I read. I get to work. I work. I head back to Berkeley. BART trains not moving due to police action. Announcements thank me for patience but I never get to say you're welcome. Delay amounts to 30 minutes equivalent to half an hour. (Later discover this police action was due to suspected kidnapping that wasn't. Gee thanks.) Meet wife downtown Berkeley have pizza go to play at Berkeley Rep called "The House That Will Not Stand." I stand at end to give ovation of the non sitting variety.

This morning watch my favorite British footie team win match (The Arsenal!) and am happy. Go to Telegraph Avenue. At Moe's buy book of William Carlos Williams poems. Sit in Peets sipping freddo (not the weak brother in The Godfather. The caffeinated beverage). Three young men look college age sit at nearby table. One is upset others comfort him. Looks serious. Looks like friends taking care of friend. This is good.

I walk home. The mail has arrived and it consists of one unwanted catalogue. Yawn. Next will watch a movie. Perhaps one I got on DVD for birthday last week. (Had a nice birthday. Dinner with wife daughters two nephews a niece great nephew and others. Any day holding a baby is a good day.)

Have not written here about movies much lately spent last month counting down to the aforementioned birthday. Also been working and sleeping and commuting and reading and a few times sneezing and looking at clouds. Clouds are nice. They offer shade and sometimes carry rain and can even be in different shapes and sizes and sometimes -- sometimes -- they come en masse and cover the sky. They can change a sunny day to a dark one. Many people object to this but not me. Differences.

So when will I write about movies again? Was going to now but jus' not feelin' it. Y'all. Happens. For me writing is important but the subject isn't always. As long as I'm releasing words from wherever they store up inside me -- heart? soul? brain? -- so I don't get literature constipation. Same reason to run. The sweat brother (you too sister).

Sometimes it is impossible to write about a movie because the experience of watching it and listening to it and making an experience of it is too much to put into words without a compelling reason like someone is going to give me money for it (who would do that?). I can't just muddle through a mediocre writing of a great film and justify it to myself. Not even. Also some films are such transitory experiences of the fashion that you don't want to bother with reliving them. And then there's laziness.

From pharmacy to bookstore I walked past the middle school where I labored for some 20 years. Hadn't set foot on its grounds for over five years. Nor even walked by. I gazed upon the earth and asphalt upon which I trod so often in so many moods after so many happenstances and with so many opinions and feelings and ideas and in so many conundrums and dilemmas and carrying so many burdens and joys.

Twas like I never left and like I'd not been there in this life. I realized that I will always have been there and I have will always be there and am in there now/then/later and it is all as one and there is no more a today than there was a yesterday or that there will be a tomorrow. There just is a flickering moment seen from light years away and it has no meaning and all meaning encompassing as it does everything. That is nothing.

We are all so reactive. We never let things be or see them as they are. They must be interpreted and viewed through a prism. Staring aggressively our eyes searching for meaning and ideas that aren't there and were never meant to be and we are so certain of how they are. Thus anger and resentment and longing. Instead of being. Least I think so.