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."