29 December 2019

My Top Ten Films of 2019

1. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (Tarantino)
2. Waves (Shults)
3. Parasite (Joon Ho)
4. Little Women (Gerwig)
5. The Irishman (Scorsese) 
6.  Jojo Rabbit (Waititi)
7. Uncut Gems (Safdies)
8. Queen and Slim (Matsoukas)
9. Joker (Phillips)
10. Transit (Petzold)

Honorable Mention: Hustlers (Scarfaria), Diane (Jones), Last Black Man in San Francisco (Talbot), Ms. Purple (Chon), Marriage Story (Baumbach), The Lighthouse (Eggers), La Camarista (Aviles)

Best Actress: Mary Kay Place (Diane). Runners Up - Scarlett Johansson (Marriage Story) Saoirse  Ronan (Little Women) Taylor Russell (Waves)

Best Actor: Joaquin Phoenix (Joker). Runners Up - Adam Driver (Marriage Story) Willem Dafoe (The Lighthouse) Adam Sandler (Uncut Gems)

Best Supporting Actress: Annette Bening (The Report). Runners Up - Jennifer Lopez (Hustlers) Margaret Qualley (Once Upon a Time in Hollywood)

Best Supporting Actor: Al Pacino (The Irishman). Runners Up - Joe Pesci (The Irishman) Tom Burke (The Souvenir)

16 December 2019

In My Take on Some Popular Christmas Carols I Take on Some Popular Christmas Carols

For as long as I can remember I've loved the Christmas season. One of my favorite aspects of it being the sounds. I am an unabashed fan of Christmas music. I was in elementary school so long ago that we sang carols in December during the music portion of our lessons and like many families I grew up with Christmas music in the house. Today I own a batch of Christmas CDs and once December rolls around I have Christmas music on constantly. However, I am not uncritical when it comes to Christmas songs, indeed I'm rather discerning and over the years have developed some serious issues with several yuletide classics. I think it's time I aired some of my objections.

Let’s get the big one out of the way first, the most iconic of Christmas carols, Jingle Bells. It wasn’t even written for Christmas, it was written for Thanksgiving. In fact it should be re-branded as such especially given the paucity of Thanksgiving songs. Indeed I believe the only recognized Turkey Day ditty is Over the River and Through the Woods and it’s not exactly a chart-topper. Needless to say, Jingle Bells doesn’t have a single word related to Christmas in it.

Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire (aka The Christmas Song) is one of our most beloved carols and has been a standard since the late 1940s. I love the song myself. But what I object to is this bit of business at the end:
And so, I'm offering this
Simple phrase to kids from
One to ninety-two
Altho' it's been said many times
Many ways
“Merry Christmas to you.”
It ends at 92? Come on. If I’m still around at age 93 I’m going to refuse to listen to this song and so too should anyone that age or older. Maybe we should all boycott it. Age discrimination, I hate it.

I have always had serious problems with The First Noel. Here’s what’s at issue:
The First Noel, the Angels did say
Was to certain poor shepherds in fields as they lay
Was what to “certain poor shepherds”? You can’t say it was something to somebody without specifying what it was to them. I call bullshit.

Baby it’s Cold Outside makes the list and not because it is supposedly about date rape (it isn’t as I established in a blog post last year). The song is trotted out every year at this time but it doesn’t make a single reference to Christmas or any other holiday. Get it out of here.

Another song that fits into this category is Frosty the Snowman. The story, the book, the televised cartoon are beloved holiday classics. But why? Again, not a single word in the song references the yuletide season. Dismissed. Maybe you can be a January thing when kids need a pick me up while suffering the post-holiday blues.

One very popular carol that sends the wrong message is Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. Please note:
All of the other reindeer
Used to laugh and call him names
They never let poor Rudolph
Join in any reindeer games
Where the hell was Santa or at least some of the senior elves when this bullying was going on? Maybe they looked on and let it happen. That’s terrible. And those bigoted reindeer only accepted someone who was a little different after he performed some heroics? So kids if you’re a little different than your schoolmates you’re going to just have to take all the ribbing they dish out and forget about playing with them on the schoolyard — unless you can pull of some heroic deed. Good luck with that.

What a load of crap We Wish You a Merry Christmas is. I submit as evidence the following:
Oh, bring us some figgy pudding
And bring it right here
We won't go until we get some
What the hell kind of guests are these who make demands of their hosts and refuse to leave unless their demands are met? This is terrorism not Christmas.

Santa Baby is a lovely song, especially as preformed by Eartha Kitt. But enough with the greediness. She’s asking for a sable, a car, a yacht and that’s just for starters. She also wants a platinum mine! It’s the season of giving. Show a little class and ask for something for those less fortunate. I suppose in its way Santa Baby is really about capitalism run amok.

It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year is a jaunty little carol that truly expresses the joy many people feel during this festive season. But I take issues with certain lyrics. To wit,
There'll be scary ghost stories
And tales of the glories of
Christmases long, long ago
Scary ghost stories? At Christmas? I guess parts of Dicken’s A Christmas Carol — notably the visit by the ghost of Christmas future — are a little frightening, but I'd hardly classify the classic Christmas yarn as “scary.” And the song says “stories” what the hell other Christmas stories do you know that can put a fright in people? And why the hell are you focusing on them? I also wonder about the line regarding glories of Christmases long ago. My problem being I have no idea what you’re on about. What glories during what Christmases?

Then there’s the mystery of Here Comes Santa Claus. I make reference to the following:
Here comes Santa Claus, here comes Santa Claus right down Santa Claus Lane
Where is this Santa Claus lane you speak of? I’ve not heard nor read a word of reference to such a “lane” from any other source. Surely if there were really a “Santa Claus lane” it would much celebrated and not merely mentioned in one damn song.

Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town has been attacked for the whole business about Santa knowing when “you’re  sleeping” and “when you’re awake.” I got no problem with the big fella keeping an eyes on the kiddies to make sure everyone gets what they deserve. If you can't trust him then all is lost. But what does bother me is this:
You better watch out
You better not cry
You better not pout
You’re really going to tell small children not to cry? Why? If you take a nasty spill or someone socks you in the jaw you’re entitled to spill a few tears. Plus particularly bad news can move one to tears and so too, for that matter, can really good news. It’s a bad message to send to children that crying is a deal-breaker for getting presents, especially boys who get too much of that macho message. Lighten up.

I’m not even going to deal with Blue Christmas or any song like it that is someone’s sob story. Not what we want to hear at Christmas. Save the blues for March.

The 12 Days of Christmas is such a mess I don’t know where to begin. Whoever the shopper is has gone way overboard to the extent that I think there’s some mental issues they’re not dealing with. Perhaps obsessive compulsive disorder. The excess here staggers the imagine. Ya know what? Instead of five golden rings, how about just one, okay maybe two, having one as a spare is probably a good idea. But five? Get real. Then there are all those damn birds, French hens, calling birds, turtle doves….and not just one of each. I mean does the recipient even have an aviary? And what could a person possibly want with eight maids a-milking? You do realize that means eight cows. So this is farm? The lords a-leaping, the ladies dancing, the pipers piping, the drummer drumming I can see for a party, but is there a practical reason for keeping all these people in your house? Can the recipient afford to feed these people? Be real, buddy. Give her a ring, throw her a party and be done with it. Spend the rest of the dough on the needy.

Okay so I’ve ragged on a lot of beloved Christmas songs. Sue me. But I would like to give shout outs to some of my favorites that are not tainted by any unfortunate lyrics. They are: Deck the Halls, A White Christmas, Having a Wonderful Christmas Time, Jingle Bell Rock, Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree, So This is Christmas, I’ll Be Home for Christmas, Christmas Baby Please Come Home, It’s Beginning to Look a Lot like Christmas and Up on a Rooftop.

Please note I omitted virtually all of the holiday songs I think of as Christmas hymns such as Silent Night, Away in a Manger, Joy to the World, O Little Town of Bethlehem etc. You don’t wanna get me started on those which are strictly for your devout Christian types.

Anyway, Merry Christmas everybody! Or if you’d prefer Happy Holidays or even Season’s Greetings, whatever.

11 December 2019

A Look Back At Television, Plus My Favorite Shows of 2019

I admit it. There have been some points in my life during which I’ve watched too much TV, mostly when I was a child. Much is made of the fact that the vast majority of what is aired on televisions sets is dross. There is no arguing with this point. It has been true since the day the first idiot box was first turned on in the first living room in America. Without question television has played a large role in the dumbing down of America although it does not bare sole responsibility. I very much doubt anyone reading this (Mrs. Eartha Kindlebrook of Muncie, Indiana for one) is unaware of how fatuous and repetitive most of TV is.

But I hasten here to point out that there are, among the mounds of trash, nuggets to be found. There are, in fact, certainly more good television shows today than there were when I was growing up in the Sixties (1960s, smart ass, not 1860s). This is not surprising considering how much more television is currently produced. When I was growing up we had the three major networks (CBS, NBC, ABC) an independent local station and PBS. Compared to today there was a pretty slim pickings. The nice thing was that if you and your friends enjoyed a particular show you could talk about it the next day because no on was going to say, “I haven’t watched it, I DVR’d it.” Of course the bad thing was that if you missed a show you couldn’t catch up with it on line, your only chance was to see it again was when it re-ran in a six to nine months. Also if you liked two shows that were on at the same time you had to choose. There was no recording one to watch later.

Of course none of us knew of the bounty that was to come with cable and then the internet; we were all happy with our TVs (in my senior year of high school we got our first color set, by this time about half the people I knew had one, also by this time a second independent station had been added to our line up). The idea that there could be literally hundreds of channels to choose from plus a lot of shows you could “stream” on your own personal computer would have sounded absolutely absurd. If anyone had further suggested that you could someday watch TV shows on your telephone we would have thought that person was a lunatic.

So yes, now there are — geez, I don’t how many channels creating new content. I was going to say dozens, then hundreds but I’ve really no clue. Many TV shows don’t even originate on TV but come to us via streaming sites such as Netflix, Hulu and Amazon. The choices are endless and even though perhaps 90% of what’s available ranges from mediocre to bad, given how much is available that leaves more good shows available than I’ve got either the time or inclination to watch. One has to be choosy.

Many shows today are able to dig deeper into character and story lines because they are not inhibited by the strictures of network television. Away from the networks, shows are also not subject to censoring and can thus let characters swear, be naked and have sex if the story calls for it (yes, sometimes this privilege is abused). Shows are also less easily classified, the boundaries between comedy and drama are not always strictly drawn as is the case with some of my favorites noted below.

Here are the TV shows (and I suppose one uses the term loosely these days as not all originate from TV channels) that I enjoyed most the past year.

1. Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. It has won a slew of Emmys and has deserved every one of them. Oliver is a perfect host as he is personable, witty, clever and he keeps his ego in check (he never boasts about the Emmys and he is never self indulgent). LWT always touches upon a few of the bigger stories in the news and then delves deeply into one main issue. Many of the subjects are heavy but Oliver is a master at injecting humor when and wherever appropriate. LWT is educational and hilarious and in my opinion the best thing on television.

2. Barry. Bill Hader stars as a contract killer who wants to become an actor — in other words the usual fare. Hader has already proven to be singular impressionist and skit performer on SNL, here he displays his acting chops. Henry Winkler co stars as an acting teacher and this is his most notable role since he was the Fonz. Barry is revelatory, never predictable, often funny and occasionally sobering.

3. Better Call Saul. Okay I’m cheating here because the most recent season of BCS aired in the Fall of 2018 and the upcoming season bypassed 2019 entirely and will not air until the coming Spring. I nonetheless count it as it is an ongoing show. This spin off of Breaking Bad is, like Breaking Bad, a product of the brilliant Vince Gilligan. Bob Odenkirk is masterful as the titular character and as with Bryan Cranston in BB he has the wherewithal to be the center of a powerful drama and he also benefits from strongly defined and interesting supporting characters. Gilligan’s great gift is to make us care about so many different characters and leave us wondering at what motivates and inspires and enriches the human mind and spirit.

4. Brockmire. A recent discovery of mine. A lot of people type LOL (God, I hate that) to indicate something was funny or amusing but rarely do they actually “laugh out loud.” Well I do indeed laugh out loud at the antics of Hank Azaria’s baseball radio broadcaster. The word irreverent only begins to describe the character the famous voice actor (Simpsons). It’s good dirty, raunchy fun with enough drugs and sex for the whole family.

5. Schitt’s Creek. While Eugene Levy along with his long time professional partner Catherine O’Hara are two of the stars and the marquee names behind this Canadian-based comedy, it is Eugene’s son, Daniel who created the show and co stars along with Annie Murphy. An excellent supporting cast is headed by veteran funnyman Chris Elliott. Schitt’s Creek has romance and a hint of drama but there is no shortage of laughter. A cast this great guarantees that.

6. After Life. This is one of the best things Ricky Gervais has ever done and I’m referring to the man responsible for Extras, the original Office, many great stand up specials and the best hosting job of the Golden Globes one will ever witness. This is also a rare case of melodrama and comedy mixing to good effect. It takes someone of Gervais’ genius to pull that off. There is pathos aplenty as he plays a small town newspaperman who is mourning the death of his long time love.

7. The Deuce. Sadly it’s run ended this year after three seasons. It was produced by David Simon the genius behind The Wire (one of the greatest TV shows of all time). The Deuce was entertaining and educational exploring New York in the Seventies and early Eighties, particularly the area around Times Square and the then burgeoning porn industry, prostitution, the rackets and eventually the AIDS crisis. James Franco played twin brothers and Maggie Gyllenhaal co-starred as a hooker turned porn director. As typical of a Simon production, realism was key to the show which meant it could be at times heart-breaking, infuriating, frightening and always illuminating.

8. Orange is the New Black. After seven wonderful seasons it’s over. It was sad to see it go but also it was time. Like many of the best TV shows they knew when to close shop. It is amazing to think that a show centered around women in a federal prison could even be made let alone be popular. But credit creator Jenji Kohan and the show’s writing staff for developing so many compelling story lines and characters. There was always so much going on in every episode and there were so many clearly-drawn characters to root for or against.

9. The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. The show is indeed marvelous. As I write this the missus and I are enjoying the third season. Racheal Brosnahan stars as Mrs. Maisel a housewife turned comic in the early 1960s. Like every good show it has a strong lead character and a terrific supporting cast, in this case Tony Shaloub and Alex Borstein foremost among the latter group. Mrs. Maisel the show and Mrs. Maisel the character are both hilarious. The costumes, set designs, musical scores are all top notch and the writing is superb.

10. Brooklyn Nine-Nine. This is the one network TV sitcom and only one of two network shows to be included. The day of the great network sitcom seems gone forever and there were some really good ones in days of yore ranging from The Honeymooners to the Mary Tyler Moore Show to Seinfeld to 30 Rock. But Brooklyn maintains the tradition having a great ensemble cast (an eclectic one at that), sharp writers and a strong emphasis on comedy without the dramatic story arcs that have bogged down some sit coms.

11. The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. Colbert’s geeking out over the Lord of the Rings, Star Wars and the Marvel Universe has gotten tired and his ego is still out-sized but his monologues are right up there with talk show legends and he is salve to the psychological wounds our current president is inflicting. Colbert will likely never be another Carson, Cavett or Letterman, but he’s the best of the rest and the show keeps getting better.

12. Russian Doll. Natasha Lyonne stars in this story of a woman who — ala Groundhog Day — keeps re-living the same day. In her case it is the day she dies. Weird. Sad. Funny. Interesting. Endlessly entertaining. Lyonne, who featured in OITNB (see above) proves here that she can carry a show. I’m excited for season two as there is no telling where the story line is headed.

13. The Last O.G. Any show that stars Tracy Morgan and has Cedric the Entertainer and Tiffany Haddish in the supporting cast is off to a terrific start. The show is as funny as one would expect but it also explores the life of a someone recently released from federal prison and the challenges such a person faces. The Last OG mixes drama among the chuckles but is never maudlin or sentimental.

04 December 2019

A Visit to a Doctor and Waiting Rooms Inspires a Light-Hearted Post

Photo from my visit to the doctor's office today.
Went to a medical specialist today for the first time and had to fill out forms before I was seen. I’ve always liked filling out forms and telling sheets of paper all about myself. It feeds my ego, centers me and reminds me of who I am. Like that I’m a male, married, no allergies, no history of heart trouble, have an address and a phone number and my missus is my emergency contact.

All three forms asked me for today’s date and on two of them I had to write it twice. According to my rudimentary math that’s a total of five times that I wrote 12/04/19. The weird thing is that after I proudly turned in the forms and collected my just copied health insurance card and photo ID I had a seat (the doctor would be with me in just a minute) and my first thought was: what’s today’s date? Oh yeah, the fourth. Maybe that’s not so much weird as it is a sign of early senility.

As I pondered the mysteries of my brain I was summoned by the nurse and directed to a room where — and stop me if you’ve heard this one before — my blood pressure was taken. You walk into a doctor’s office to settle a bill and they’ll take your blood pressure. People in white frocks really get their jollies from taking blood pressure. Hell I could tell them what mine is. They trusted me on my height and weight but blood pressure, no sir, they need to see that for themselves.

I did not have an interminable wait for the doctor. This is not the usual state of affairs. This specialist was an older, shorter gentlemen who looked for all the world like a retired accountant. Looks aren't everything. He took a look at the area of my body that was afflicted, probed, examined, speculated, asked questions and diagnosed. I go back in three weeks to see how things are going. So it goes.

I’d originally gone to my primary care physician two weeks ago to have this seen about. My appointment was right after lunch, 1:30. Despite the fact that I was the first appointment after lunch I was not led to a room until five minutes had passed and despite the fact that I was the first appointment after lunch I waited another fiver in the little room. What’s up with that? Are they required by law to make you wait? I was the first appointment of the day a few months back and had to wait. One gets used to it, but still. It would be nice just once to be whisked right in and have the doc waiting for me.

Here’s a question I’ve pondered.  Doctor sees you and — irrespective of your particular issue — asks you that friendly, how are you? Do you just give them a, “fine” and then when prompted give the reason for your visit which will reveal that you are not in fact “fine?”  Is the how-are-you just an extension of, hello, or is it meant to be taken seriously? For the many years I visited psychiatrists I noted that they never started with the how-are -you because the point of the whole session was to talk about how you were. They would usually just nod. I don't mean to sound all Holden Caulfiedly but shrinks are great goddamn nodders, lemme tell ya.

Speaking of waiting (which we just in fact were) I had a doozy of a wait at the dermatologist’s office a few months back. They were instituting a brand new check-in system and a new way to store patient information that was going to make your every visit so much more efficient. Hah! People of all ages were struggling with the iPads we were issued as we checked in. Making heads and tails of each section of our medical history and insurance information was like a five year old learning excel. Staff had to come out into the waiting room and give tutorials and trouble shoot and lend CPR to patients having heart attacks over the damn things. Meanwhile the receptionists were struggling with their own computers and there were two tech people working their asses off to help them. Isn't it great when people modernize?

By the time I was seen it was 45 minutes past my scheduled time. The nurse said, “thank you for waiting.” I tried not to sound snarky as I replied, “I didn’t have much choice.”

Frankly, I’m sick and — you guessed it — tired of being thanked for waiting or for being patient — especially when I haven’t been the least bit patient at all. As long time readers of this blog (I’m looking at you Mrs. Manicotti of Seacaucus, New Jersey) know I’m semi-retired and teach one morning class at an ESL school a short walk from my abode. One morning a colleague and I arrived before either of the school administrators so we had to cool our heels outside the building for a few minutes. When the school director arrived with the keys he said, “thanks for waiting.” What? Did he think it would have been reasonable for us to have turned around and gone home? What the hell else were we going to do but wait? I’d have preferred a “sorry I’m late.” But, hey, that’s me.

As I write these words I’m typing on my computer (but you knew that) and I’d just like to thank anyone who bothered to read this all the way to the end. I’m about to read it but I have an excuse: I’ll be proofreading this and with a fine tooth comb extracting any and all typos.

By the way, what the hell is fine tooth comb?

25 November 2019

Glory, Glory Hallelujah

Cal head coach Justin Wilcox holding up the Stanfurd Axe
On Saturday Cal ended a nine-game losing streak to their bitter rivals from Stanfurd with a thrilling last minute 24-20 victory. I was there and went through all manner of emotion, many of them were very dark. At times, particularly in the 4th quarter it looked as if another crushing defeat was in the offing. I've seen enough to know. But I also know that things can change quickly and I -- and most importantly the Bears -- never gave up. Glory was to be ours this day. Quarterback Chase Garbers scampered for a touchdown with just over a minute left to give the Bears their first lead of the game. The defense then held and the celebrations began.

This was my 42nd Big Game -- my first was in 1964 -- and ranks in my top ten, squeezing in at the number five position.

A lot of people obsess about sports and take it far too seriously letting the results of a game ruin their mood or make them testy and even angry (my late great father was one such person). Very few sports events effect me for more than a few minutes or a few hours after they are completed no matter how long I've spent anticipating them. But Saturday's win is the kind that will linger with me in most positive ways for a few more days yet -- maybe weeks.

Photo by author, immediately after game
Cal football is in my DNA. My mother went to Cal and attended games as a student. She took me to my first Big Game. I went to Big Games with my father, some cousins, many friends over the years, my wife and my oldest daughter. I've made friends through Cal football. In some respects this devotion has been difficult because the Bears have not exactly excelled at football for the last 60 years, with only a few years of consistent glory. But in other respects the love I feel for the team is easy and natural. After all the team represents the number one institute of higher education in the world. The band is always excellent, the spirit songs are inspiring, the setting for home games is stunning. The traditions are meaningful and inspiring and the mascot, Oski, is my higher power. Most importantly the Bears have been part of the backdrop of my life since, well virtually since birth. Like Christmas I've loved the Bears as a small child, as a cynical teen, as a hard-drinking young adult, as a sober young father, as a matured middle aged man and now as senior citizen.

Loyalty is love practiced. I am and will forever be loyal to the Golden Bears and the biggest part of that loyalty is rooting the Bears on against their hated rivals. To lose to them year after year this past decade has been excruciating. To be relieved of that pain with such an exciting win is not just cathartic but invigorating.

Author with Jaylinn Hawkins, a Big Game hero
When the last seconds had ticked off I looked to the heavens and exclaimed loudly "that's for you, Kevin!" thinking of my great friend Kevin Lindsey who I had attended so many Big Games with including the last one the Golden Bears had won. On my way to romp on the field I high-fived the drum major of the Cal band and he hugged me. I did "snow angels" on the field. Patted players on the back and got my picture taken with a few of them. I literally skipped with joy. Some people might find the notion of doing a jig in celebration of a sports victory to be a bit silly. I would agree with them but then add, so what if it is. I've suffered enough depression (not just from Cal losses) over the years that I'm going to take any opportunity I can get to be happy and make the most of it.

Damn but I'm happy now. Go Bears!

(With special thanks to Chase Garbers, Nikko Remigio, Evan Weaver, Cameron Bynum the Cal O and D lines and everyone else who suited up on Saturday and thanks to coach Wilcox and his staff and thanks to Mom and Dad for making me a Cal fan I sense you up there looking down on me and smiling and saying, "Go Bears!")

12 November 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

31 October 2019

Another Trip to New York, Another Fabulous Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


09 October 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What a dance!

04 October 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The job is nice. The people there are nice. The students are nice. It’s an easy gig. It’s not the same as my time in SF but it’s okay.

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

11 September 2019

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


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

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

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

Sunday after watching Federico Fellini’s La Strada, I wondered if filmmakers who saw the movie when it was released automatically threw up their arms and said, “well, shit, we can’t do anything near as good as that, we might as well give up.” It would have been an understandable reaction. It's a a damned great film. But movies have continued to be made and Fellini himself equaled or bettered La Starada a few times with such classics as Nights of Cabiria, La Dolce Vta, 81/2 and Amarcord. Others have persisted in making movies with considerably less success. For example there have been eight Fast and Furious movies (really, I looked it up) and there’s a ninth scheduled for release next year. This proves the old adage that if you can’t beat ‘em, join 'em and if you can’t join 'em, make some really awful shit that you can foist upon a public that doesn’t know good art from an Nintendo. Really, there have been eight of those goddamned movies and more coming.

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

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

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

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

28 August 2019

Reflections on Dog Day Afternoon and Some of My Usual Miscellany

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

16 August 2019

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

“The stupid son of a bitch.”

08 August 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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