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.

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.

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.

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.