30 January 2020

Depression and The Great Debate are Discussed, a Book is Recommended

James Baldwin at the Cambridge Union debate
It is curious how intellectual I have become about the whole thing… [about] what I apparently am. My unhappiness has become a steady, calm quiet sort of misery. It is always with me and when for a moment something or other stirs me from its immediate ravages (thank God that is still possible) — I wonder at its absence. - Lorraine Hansberry* on her depression.

That was Hansberry’s view of her depression and it mirrors my own. Depression is a relentless beast that, when it doesn’t have you in its claws, can be sensed behind you, ready to pounce.

The best thing I have going for me in life is a plethora of distractions available. Films are a distraction, sports can be a distraction, the company of others, particularly children. Work keeps the depression at bay. Sometimes a TV show or something of interest on the internet will do the trick. But none of these are solutions, they are like pain killers that eventually wear off.

The best of these distractions is vigorous exercise. It not only distracts while I’m doing them but it keeps the depression at bay for hours after as I bask in the glow of released endorphins.

I am pessimistic about the future of my depression. I’ve accepted that it is one of my life partners. I doubt that a sudden financial windfall or publication of one of my novels would do more than provide temporary relief. Part of the problem is that I’m about to turn 66. Physically I’m in great shape for a person of any age and although I’ve begun to be a bit more forgetful, my mental faculties are okay — for now. But time does march on and there’s no telling if I’ll still be in full vigor 20 years from now, let alone whether I’ll still be a sentient being. These matters can wear on a person. My father lived 91 healthy years until a freak fall caused irreparable damage. Maybe if I avoid such a fall I can hit the century mark. I’m not betting on it. Actually, why not a wager? If I lose, good luck collecting.

There are, of course, many thing for even the happiest person to get depressed about. Here are some examples: global warming, Donald Trump, possible interference in the 2020 US elections, Trump’s rabid supporters, nationalism, anti-vaxxers, the proliferation of fast food, the concentration of wealth among the richest 1%, politicians who have been bought (admittedly, most of them), cell phone addiction and goodness me the list could go on and on. I’d be remiss if I did not here add that there are reasons aplenty for great optimism and hope for our future. Many people all over the world are fighting the good fight and in the end that’s all you can do. That’s also what you have to do. Giving into despair will not do the job, believing in your cause and your compatriots and taking steps everyday are key to peace of mind and the possibility of victory.

Last weekend I completed a fantastic book called The Fire Upon Us by Nicholas Buccola. Its centerpiece is the debate on Civil Rights between James Baldwin and William F. Buckley at the Cambridge Union in February 1965. Of course there is far more to it than who said what and how people reacted. The bulk of the book is about the two men’s lives leading up to the event, including their childhood and early successes. Here you have two Americans, born around the same time, who could have hardly come from more different backgrounds and have developed more divergent philosophies. People on the left, sickened by Trump and his minions, long for the days when conservatives were like Buckley which is to say rational, civil and articulate. Surely, they say, Buckley would not tolerate — as George Will and Bill Kristol haven’t — the likes of Trump today. I agree with this notion and do miss conservatives with whom you could have a dialogue with, but Fire has convinced me that Buckley is no one to be championed no matter how favorably he compares with the Mitch McConnells of the world. The Buckley we meet was appalled by the virulent racists — ala Bull Connor — who reviled and beat Blacks. But Buckley was an ardent supporter of the mechanisms that help create and maintain institutionalized racism and a strong opponent of the Civil Rights Movement or any other attempts to dismantle racist institutions. I don’t think Buckley hated African Americans, but he was surely no friend to them and was hopelessly ignorant of their struggles or those of anyone below the upper middle class. He came from entitled money and it permeated his world view.

Baldwin, on the other hand, solidifies his place as an American hero in Fire. We see a person of imperfections (as are all of us) but one who was unmatched as an intellectual or writer. The debate is by no means the highlight of the book and serves mostly as its reason for being, a focal point. Fire recalls a time, a struggle, two significant figures and a rapidly changing society. One small flaw in the book which pulsates like the proverbial sore thumb is when author references the assassination of John F. Kennedy and gratuitously goes on to say that Kennedy was slain by Lee Harvey Oswald and him only. It’s mind boggling that anyone would believe that Oswald acted alone (if he acted at all) and its stupefying that he went out of his way to repeat the canard when it was not relevant to the rest of the book. Weird.

You can find the debate on YouTube.

Now I’m reading Ta-Nehisi Coates' first novel The Water Dancer, just recently published, and if I later choose to write about it here I’ll most likely be heaping it with praise. I’m about 130 pages into it and am enjoying it.

*For those of you who unfamiliar with Lorraine Hansberry, she was a playwright and author who was the first African American female to have a play performed on Broadway. You may have heard of it — A Raisin in the Sun. She also wrote openly about her homosexuality, a rare thing for her time. She lived from 1930-1965, dying from pancreatic cancer.

23 January 2020

An Unwelcome Review, Sometimes a Cigar is Just a Cigar and On the Waterfront Evokes My Childhood and as a Bonus a Poetry Book is Recommended

From On the Waterfront
I was asked today what I thought of the film 1917. I replied that I had found it entertaining and a technically outstanding film but was not at all moved by the movie which I thought had no emotional impact and too many cliches. (I set a maximum of one cliche per film). The questioner seemed surprised and hastened to point out that the film had garnered a number of awards and was nominated for several others including the Oscar for best picture. “I’m well aware of that,” I responded, perhaps a bit impatiently, “I’m just giving you my opinion, which is what you asked for.” If he wanted me to rhapsodize about 1917 he should have told me so in advance. Or he could have qualified his question by saying, “please, nothing negative.” Maybe when he told me the film was an award-winner he reckoned I’d say, “well damn it, I must be wrong, I guess it’s a fine picture after all.”

Oh well.
As I’ve discussed at great length on a number of occasions on this blog, I have had life-long struggles with mental illness (mostly my own). I bear no shame in sharing my experiences especially as I am able to proudly point out that I’ve managed to lead not only a normal life, but a rich one that includes a successful marriage and two children. I have been seeing psychiatrists, psychologists and counselors since I was a teenager (and dinosaurs roamed the earth). Last September I terminated my relationship with my latest shrink. This was, as I explained to him, no reflection on him, I thought he was an excellent doctor, but more a result of my belief that I’d gone as far as I could in the process. I occasionally reflect on some of my sessions with this doctor and others and contemplate some of the insights gained and lessons learned. But I recently remembered an occasion that was all too typical of my sessions with this and other members of the psychiatric community. It happened when I discussed my love of running. (Up until last Spring I used to run regularly but had to quit due to irreversible ligament damage. I now rely on other forms of aerobic exercise such as fast walking, the stair master and the elliptical machine.) The doctor speculated that perhaps I was “running away from something.”

Sounds great doesn’t it? Profound even. I’m running physically because I’m mentally — deep in my subconscious — trying to escape something, perhaps a hard truth about my life. But when you break it down it’s a rather sizable load of crap. I ran to stay in good physical condition, I ran to keep the excess pounds off, I ran because it was meditative, I ran for the endorphins. And what might I be running away from? I was in analysis for chrissakes, you don’’t show up once a week and talk about yourself if you’re trying to avoid facing something. You don’t look your past and all the demons that lurk there square in the eye if you don’t want to face something. It was a ridiculous statement, further given the lie by my continuing to vigorously work out even when I couldn’t run. (Maybe when I’m on the stair master I’m trying to climb away from something.) But it is the easy sort of thing that psychiatrists do in order to justify all the time they spend sitting across from you nodding in stoic silence. Head shrinkers are always trying to conjure up connections where they don’t exist. Perhaps, my doctor once suggested, I had a panic attack because of the particular street I was on, never mind that I’ve had panic attacks on many different streets and that I always have them in the early afternoon when facing a bright sun.

I would not discourage anyone from going to a psychiatrist, but I would caution anyone going to a shrink not to let sessions get bogged down by their doctor looking for false equivalencies. It can be a bad misdirection of time. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.
Earlier in the week on this very blog I wrote about watching A Face in the Crowd (1957) directed by that notorious squealer, Elia Kazan. Though I’m no fan of the man I do admire some of his films, none more than On the Waterfront (1954) which I watched that evening. On the Waterfront serves as social commentary and yet has a film noir quality to it. It is also a vehicle for some of the finest acting performances you’ll see in a film, most notably Marlon Brando as Terry Malloy whose character, unlike Kazan in real life, snitches against bad guys to good guys in a good cause.

Because it depicted working class stiffs, the film got me to thinking about my roots. My father was a skilled blue collar worker and a proud member of the carpenter’s union. My nearby uncles included another carpenter and a machinist. My maternal grandfather was a carpenter and in fact virtually every adult I grew up around was in the working class (the women were almost all housewives including my mom). In my house the union was sacrosanct. Unlike the corrupt union that Malloy helped expose, it was always on the level and took care of its members. My dad made enough to support a family of four, own a home and invest. We were never without.

It was a big deal in our world when someone bought a new house or had one built. It was a big deal when someone bought a car or a boat or took a long-distance vacation. These were important events that everyone shared. Of course it was especially significant in my family, extended family and family friends because, like my dad, everyone came from Finland and a hard knock early life (the times they have changed and indeed practically reversed). Great books were not discussed. (Newspaper were thoroughly read, as were a few magazines such as Life and National Geographic). No one went to plays, few adults took in movies and when they did it was never to see an art house film. Philosophical discussions were limited and on a pretty basic level and while everyone was a Christian and many went to church (at least the women did) religion was not discussed. Political issues were bandied about, usually as they directly related to lives. Most everyone was a Democrat and voted the straight ticket though not a lot of our circle went into much depth on most issues. The status quo was not challenged or questioned (excepting Republican presidents, governors etc.) and the Civil Rights Movement was looked at askance as it seemed to be questioning the very systems that had made these immigrants so successful. The Vietnam War was accepted as a necessity since the government said it was.

Most of my contemporaries among the Finnish working class families were good lads and lasses who said “yes sir” did their chores, got passing grades and went into conventional lines of work, eschewing entirely or only having a dalliance with a college education. Then there was me. I was an ingrate and a loud mouth. I loved my dad and all my other relatives but I was not going to toe the line. I not only listened to that crazy new music coming out of England, I believed in it and reveled in it. I embraced the Civil Rights Movement, protested long and loud against the Vietnam War, grew my hair long and didn’t settle for getting drunk, I experimented with drugs. As much as I loved my dad and other older relatives I thought that they were all hopelessly square and unenlightened. They were relics of a dying age and I was the latest and the greatest. I was tolerated first because I was cute, later because I was funny and finally because I was a soccer superstar. It didn't hurt that I was whip smart and despite my bohemian views and ways could still turn on the charm.

I didn’t know how good I had it. I never fully appreciated how my dad let me be who I wanted to be. He may have fought with me over my long hair, he may have bristled at my radical politics, he may have winced at my rock music, but he loved me unconditionally and never denied me anything. I was a spoiled brat.

The working class had it good back then, unions were strong and there was no question but that while the government would take its fair share of taxes said taxes would be invested back into communities and for the general welfare and that the economy would remain robust for everyone. No one needs to tell me -- life long student of history that I am -- that there was vast corruption in those days, the government was supporting heinous actions by the military and the CIA all over the world, that while legal discrimination was being dismantled it was still being practiced — and not just in the South. But there was then a respect for unions and workers and both were proud of themselves and their country and grateful for the well-paid work and benefits packages. The gap between the poor and the obscenely rich was nowhere near what it has become today.

I looked at my dad and other working class stiffs as simple people. I never realized that there can be beauty in simplicity and these hard-working souls were happy — really happy. Their parties, their barbecues, their picnics, their camping trips, fishing trips, hunting trips, frequent visits to all manner of sporting events, their family gatherings and holiday celebrations were a testimony to how greedily they supped from life. They were happy and knew why. That’s plenty right there.
I've recently been reading -- for the first time -- the poetry of Robert Pinsky. The preceding sentence compels me to add: what the hell took me so long? I'd like to recommend his works and since the particular book I'm reading is Robert Pinsky Selected Poems, I'll recommend it. You can thank me later.
A sample:
When I had no roof I made
Audacity my roof. When I had
No supper my eyes dined
A second sample:
The forgetting I notice most as I get older is really a form of memory
The undergrowth of things unknown to young, that I have forgotten
A Final Sample:
Air an instrument of the tongue,
The tongue an instrument
Of the body, the body
An instrument of spirit
The spirit a being of the air

20 January 2020

A Blog Post in Which Both Dr. King and the Film, A Face in the Crowd, Are Discussed

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Today is a federal holiday set aside to honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Many holidays are in name only. On Memorial Day there is lip service given to those Americans who have died while “fighting for their country," while on Veteran’s Day lip service is given to those Americans who have served in the military but did not die “fighting for their country.” President’s Day is a bit confusing. We used to have Washington’s birthday and Lincoln’s birthday, but now they’re packaged together and some people seem to think we are honoring all our past presidents (Warren Harding? Andrew Johnson? Richard Nixon?). Thanksgiving, Independence Day, New Year’s Day and Christmas are holidays that — to varying degrees — Americans actually recognize for their intended purpose. As for Dr. King’s birthday, there are speeches, marches, and writings on this day that seek to give voice to and honor Dr. King’s messages. But mostly he is an avatar for the Civil Rights Movement, a way for all but the most bigoted Americans to feel good about the defeat of Jim Crow and the passage of Civil Rights legislation. Americans pat themselves on the back for — supposedly — ending the 100 plus years of the suppression of African Americans that followed slavery. What has been lost and generally goes unacknowledged is Dr. King’s real legacy, most particularly his belief in non-violence.

Dr. King was passionate believer in non-violence. He said: “The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy, instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate.” The United States remains today a country riddled by violence, with mass shootings a daily occurrence, police beatings of citizens (usually Black) still common and military actions including drone strikes and assassinations perpetrated (always on people of color) in the Middle East.

Dr. King’s message became more radical in the years after the 1963 March on Washington. Today he would be chastised by the right as a socialist as indeed many of the proposals he made for curing what ailed society were straight out of today’s Socialist Democratic playbook. He also became a vocal critic of the Vietnam War and would undoubtedly today be vociferous in his opposition to this country’s military adventures in Third World countries.

Madison Avenue has done a lot to co-opt the image and legacy of Dr. King. They have sanitized him and made him an icon and diluted his message. And part of the proof of it is that his birthday is, for the vast majority of Americans, merely another three-day weekend.

Speaking of Madison Avenue….A few days ago I started a task that will take months. I am going through every post I’ve written on this blog in it’s nearly 12 years of existence and cleaning up typos, misspellings and bad punctuation. I am also removing posts that are just plain awful or are heavily reliant on links or videos that are no longer extant. Wish me luck. Anyhoo, one of the old posts I saw today was about the Eliza Kazan film, A Face in the Crowd (1957). I’m sure I haven’t watched it since I wrote the post in July of ’08 and I recall that back then it was my first viewing of the movie. I’d been thinking of revisiting Face and sure enough it’s on the Criterion Channel so I had my second viewing earlier today.

Andy Griffith in A Face in the Crowd
First of all it’s always difficult to watch a Kazan film given that he was a rat who named names to the House on UnAmerican Activities Committee (HUAC) back in the early Fifties. Then again by denying oneself of all his films you’re losing out on A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) and On the Waterfront (1954) something I’m unwilling to do. If I can watch movies that feature John Wayne, Walter Brennan or Charles Coburn I can certainly stomach a Kazan feature.

A Face in the Crowd is one of those movies that provides endless talking points. It is about a heavy-drinking drifter who is plucked out of an Arkansas jail and given a radio show. He has an exuberant folksy charm and can spin a yarn, make you laugh and — oddly enough — influence you. Larry ‘Lonesome’ Rhodes is endlessly appealing to the masses and wins over so many followers in northeast Arkansas that he is snatched up by a Memphis TV station and is so successful there that he lands a network TV job. It would be a typical rags to riches story if Lonesome didn’t amass so much power and become, as another character calls him, a demagogue in denim. Why he’s even got a national politician who’s running for the presidency under his sway.

While the people love Lonesome he’s not so keen on them. They are the pawns he uses in his efforts to gain increasingly more power and influence.

This larger-than-life character is portrayed by Andy Griffith who in three years would become known to the world as Sheriff Andy Taylor on his eponymous show, The Andy Griffith Show. Andys Taylor and Griffith were nothing like Lonesome being more charming and lovable than charismatic. Griffith is so associated with the Andy Taylor character (and to a lesser degree to the character of Matlock on the show of the same name) that is weird if not down-right unsettling seeing him play a combination of Huey Long, Arthur Godfrey, Will Rogers and Hank Williams. Indeed he calls to mind national figures of more recent times, notably our current president.

Patricia Neal gives a bravura performance — equaling her later Oscar-winning turn in Hud (1963) — as the woman who discovers him and unwittingly helps create the monster he becomes. Anthony Franciosa is the slick Madison Avenue agent who builds the Lonesome empire and Walter Matthau is the cynical writer who sees right through him. (I was surprised to discover that not only did Face not win any Oscars, it didn’t even garner a nomination and further that it was not particularly well-received by critics. One can only surmise that its message was well ahead of its time.)

A Face in the Crowd is not a cautionary tale because clearly its message has not been paid the slightest attention to as evidenced by the rise of Trump. But it is a film worth exploring. It has of course a relevance to today but I daresay any sort of remake set in modern times would focus on social media rather than just TV. There’s a lot going on this excellent film including, obviously, populism and demagoguery and a look at American culture, especially as it was in the mid 20th century. Kazan’s direction is, as always, excellent and the cast is wonderful.

17 January 2020

Muhammad Ali's Birthday, Goodbye Columbus, The Stupid Oscars -- I Don't Think I'll Call these Journal Entries Anymore

(Please note: I've decided to scrape the whole Journal thing. From now on these are just regular old blog posts.)

Happy Muhammad Ali’s birthday. The champ would have been 78 today. Ali, like The Beatles, has been a hero of mine since before I was even a teenager and has thus been a huge influence on me.  Here are some adjectives that only began to describe The Champ: brash, colorful, exciting, powerful, out-spoken, brave, resilient, charismatic, profound and the greatest. Ali was magnificent both inside and outside the ring. He could make the brutal sport of boxing seem almost elegant. Muhammad was quick with his fists and fast on his feet, could deliver terrible punishment and do it with a wink. Outside the ring he defied the US Government and refused to fight in the immoral war they were waging in Vietnam or participate at all in the military-industrial complex. He called out the nation’s racism and its disregard for the poor and oppressed. Ali was in many ways as important a figure in his time as Dr. King and Malcolm X. Ultimately he was accepted by the very “establishment” that he challenged. His wisdom and bravery recognized and his exploits celebrated. Muhammad Ali was an extraordinary man (as a middle school teacher I always made a point of telling my students just how extraordinary he was) and one of the great privileges of my life was shaking his hand.

Last night I watched Goodbye Columbus (1969) a film based on the novella by Philip Roth. It has just been released on DVD and I’m going to take the opportunity presented to me by having a blog to recommend you — in modern parlance — check it out. Like The Landlord (1970) which I alluded to on here earlier this week, it is very much of its time. It too holds up well after 50 years. Richard Benjamin stars. He was a big thing in the late Sixties and early Seventies, perhaps most notably for a TV show called He & She that he starred in with his wife, Paula Prentiss. His star faded rather quickly although he had numerous directing, writing and co-starring credits and is well-remembered today by old fogies such as myself. He had a nice career.  Benjamin’s co-star in Goodbye Columbus was Ali MacGraw, then an absolutely gorgeous 30 year-old on the brink of short lived stardom (the fact that she wasn’t a terribly gifted actor limited her career). She followed Columbus with the mega hit, Love Story (1970), a terrible film if wildly popular, then starred opposite Steve McQueen in The Getaway (1972), a terrific film. She subsequently was married to McQueen for five years. After the Getaway she had only 11 more acting credits, four of which were in television and none of which were in notable films.

But Benjamin and MacGraw had it going on in Columbus which was an unusual love story about a young man from The Bronx who is content to work at a public library and his love affair with a Radcliffe student from a well-to-do family. It is a funny, charming movie with hints that things could get very dark and you’re better left to see it yourself to find out whether their love flourishes or collapses. Best of all Goodbye Columbus is a surprising, quirky movie with a very different look at young love.

Greta Gerwig directing Little Women
Speaking of films, the Oscar nominations were announced a few days ago and as usual a lot of people are getting their panties in a bunch because one of their favorite films or performances failed to secure a much-deserved nomination. There are a few things to remember if you find yourself raging about an Oscar injustice. 1) It’s a goddamned awards show and therefore is a subjective process that in the general scheme of things is not important and shouldn’t effect your love for a film or your blood pressure. 2) In acting categories there are only five nominees and for best picture no more than ten, this inevitably means that some favored movies and performance are left out. It's math and again, it’s no big deal. 3) You’re going to take the Oscars seriously? For the loving of god do you know the academy’s track record? Here are some samples: They gave best picture awards to Crash, the King’s Speech and Slumdog Millionaire (and those are just injustices from the last 20 years). The gave the best picture award to How Green Was My Valley over Citizen Kane, Going My Way over Double Indemnity, An American in Paris over A Streetcar Named Desire etc. etc. etc. Consider too that the following directors and actors never won a competitive Oscar: Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, Charlie Chaplin, Howard Hawks, Federico Fellini, Ingmar Bergman, Sidney Lumet, Peter O’Toole, Cary Grant, Richard Burton, Robert Mitchum, Claude Rains, John Cazale, Max Von Sydow, Montgomery Clift and Orson Welles -- to name but a few.

In recent years people have — justifiably — complained about women and people of color not receiving Oscar nods. (When you consider that Spike Lee’s brilliant, Do The Right Thing (1989) was not even nominated in the year that Driving Miss Daisy was named best picture and that last year Green Book beat out Lee’s BlackkKlansman for the award, you can see that this is neither a new nor a rectified problem). However the bigger issue — much, much bigger — is the lack of women directors and directors of color and the lack of good roles for women over 35 and for people of color. This year — like many others — there’s not a lot to choose from. Also people sometimes get it wrong when — very very justifiably — complaining about Greta Gerwig not getting nominated for best director for Little Women, they also add all the other good films directed by women. Yes they are right, several other good films were directed by women but only Gerwig was a realistic choice for a nomination (the failure to nominate her is yet another example of how little credence the Oscars should be given).

The gist of it is, screw the Oscars, they’re not worth the aggravation. 

15 January 2020

Journal Entry for January 15, The Third in Maybe a Series Discusses -- Among Other Things -- Two Films From the Thirties

The terrible Barthelmess and the brilliant Bette in the Cabin in the Cotton
Okay don’t look at me like that, I told you from the beginning (Sunday) that this wasn’t going to be a daily thing. That should have been clear. Plus it’s not like I didn’t write at all yesterday. In fact I composed a poem and put in a solid hour on the latest never-to-be-published novel.

I had my annual physical yesterday as I do every year. I’m as fit as a fiddle — whatever the hell that means. I had my prostate thoroughly examined, I mean that finger was really doing some serious digging in there. Most of my prostate exams have been done by women as I have a female doctor (same one for over 30 years) and the nurse practitioners are almost exclusively female. Frankly I don’t care who sticks their fingers up there as long as they don’t find anything untoward. Some people get in and out pretty quick which suits me fine. After the prostate exam came the thrill of the testicular exam (mind you, I did not study for either of these exams). Some nurses actually pass on this particular exam, most do it and get it over with pretty quickly. But I was dealing with Nurse Thorough yesterday and she took her sweet time. I stood there and took it. It is a weird feeling to have someone fiddling about with your testes in a non sexual way and by the way the only ways to do in sexual way are very, very softly. At least she didn’t give the area a pinch.

I’ve been given to understand that some men don’t cotton to the idea of a woman giving them a physical. How 19th century of them. These women are professionals so what does it matter? An unenlightened man might find himself thinking that it'd be different if the woman is attractive. It’s not and shame on you for thinking that way. Standing there wearing nothing but one of those backless gowns and your socks while being probed is not going to turn a man on — well, not a normal man, anyway. When I went to physical therapy a couple of years ago and had the area around my knee rubbed, well that could have been different if the therapist had looked like Samantha Robbie. She didn’t, it didn’t and if she did it would have been wrong to enjoy it too much, in other words in such a way as that enjoyment was obvious to others. Nuff said.

Last night I visited my good friend of nine months, the Criterion Channel (you should def check it out, great films galore — plus extras, so many extras!) where I watched The Cabin in the Cotton (1932) directed by Michael Curtiz. It was my second viewing and I enjoyed it as much as one could given that the film starred Richard Barthelmess was one of the worst actors to ever trod the boards. (He likely stomped on 'em.) It’s amazing he had a film career at all, let alone that he starred in a few features. Dull as dishwater with a stilted voice and an awkward posture. Did he have a steel rod up his spine? Was his voice put through a machine that neutralized emotion? Did he know where the bodies were buried, hence is getting 80 film credits (to be fair the vast majority of his roles were during the silent era when his flavorless voice could not be heard, but how did he get roles once people could hear him?). The only way to offset having some stiff like Barthelmess as a leading man is to have a legend (in this case a legend-to-be) opposite him. Enter Bette Davis. The then rising star played a rich planter’s daughter who tried to use her feminine wiles to seduce Barthelmess’ Marvin Blake (she succeeded in the short run as one black out scene indicated in a classic pre code scene). It took all of Davis’ acting chops to pull of the role as — by her own admission — she was a virgin at the time. Davis delivered one line that I dearly loved: "I’d like to kiss you but I just washed my hair.” I loved the line so much that I paused the movie and posted it on Twitter -- to defeating silence. (My Twitter followers are too sophisticated to engage in such nonsense as re-tweeting, liking or reading my tweets.)  Come to find out that not only did I like the line but Ms. Davis herself cited it as the favorite of her long and illustrious film career. Great minds.

The Cabin in the Cotton is more that just about Bette Davis trying to bed someone who resembled a bed post, it was a then-timely story of the relationship between planters and sharecroppers in the South. Some relationship. Planters raked in all the dough while the workers did all the work. The film tries to present a balanced picture of the two sides but in its objectivity it makes clear that sharecroppers received the very shortest end of the stick and any chicanery and thieving on the part of said workers was understandable if not entirely justified. It’s a movie with a heart and a brain — all it lacked was a leading man with same.

Last week I watched another film on The Criterion Channel from the Thirties that had a social message. This was Black Legion (1937) starring Humphrey Bogart. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: disgruntled workers blame immigrants for all their woes and shadowy organizers of the All American groups stir up hatred and make bank in the process. So yeah, this movie speaks to today maybe more than it does to 83 years ago.

I was surprised at how brutally honest the film was (especially as it was made after the production code was in full force) and how unflinchingly it exposed xenophobia and the “legitimate” forces that rile it up. For a modern version of Black Legion just turn on the news.

Okay so that’s it for me today. Now remember, don’t go expecting me to write everyday and especially don’t expect  to post something everyday. Hell, this whole thing could fizzle out anytime. But for the time being I’m enjoying sharing my thoughts, of which I have many. I think.

13 January 2020

Journal Entry for January 13, The Second in a Possible Series and in it Poetry -- Among other Things -- is Discussed With a Mention of Frank O'Hara

Frank O'Hara
My New Year’s Resolution this year was to read and write more poetry. These are two related practices that I have fallen out of recently — much to my detriment. Reading poetry is for me similar to going to a museum. I don’t have to remember anything about the experience and I don’t have look for meaning or any of life’s answers, yet I always feel intellectually sated. Wiser.

Today is the 13th and I finally got around to reading some poetry, whether I later getting around to writing any today is a different matter. I read from Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems. (When we art the Museum of Modern Art in New York in October there was an exhibition of O'Hara who had been a curator at the museum -- swell guy.) They are some of my favorites. Favorite poems, I mean. I don’t recall any specific ones, in fact I rarely remember the names of particular poems. I have nothing against memorizing poems or reading them so much that one can recite them by heart, I just don’t feel compelled to. Remembering lines from a poem would for me be like enjoying a day at the beach and remembering specific waves. I’m sorry if that doesn’t make sense but it accurately describes how I feel.

Oh to be an angel (if there are any!) and go
straight up into the sky and look around and then
                                                     come down
not to be covered by steel and aluminum
glaringly ugly in the pure distances and clattering and
                                              buckling, wheezing
but to be part of the treetops and the blueness, invisible
the iridescent darkness beyond,
                      silent, listenting to
the air becoming no air becoming air again
- From the poem Three Airs by Frank O'Hara

I also like to quote poems as I’ve done on my blog frequently. I admit it, it makes me feel smart. Or maybe more accurately it makes me look smart (which takes some doing, believe me).

It’a all a process. Everything. Nothing concludes except life itself. Everything is like a river and trying to compartmentalize it or divide it into time periods is….gee, I don’t know what to call it. I was going to a  write fool’s errand but that somehow doesn’t seem right. Well the point is you can’t sectionalize a river. The shore yes, but not the water. It flows.

I spent a lot of my youth looking forward to the time when I would have it all figured out. Enlightenment. Everything’s done, it’s all settled, questions answered, time to sit back and relax. Well cuz, it just don’t work that way. I figured that out pretty quick. It’s kind of like the more you learn the less you know. I’ve learned so much over the years that today I’m truly ignorant. But I show up for more.

Well I seem to have run out of steam here. I’ve got several things to do so I’d better get on it. One thing I’m doing these days is reading a biography of Napoleon. The sucker is 810 pages long. I’m enjoying it and it's filling in some gaps in my historical knowledge but damned if it can’t be frustrating to read a long book as it occupies so much of your reading time. In the past I’ve read a non fiction book and a novel at the same time but I prefer focusing on one. What’s frustrating about reading a long book is that all the books I have that are waiting to be read keep calling out to me asking for their turn. I have a new biography of Frederick Douglass waiting to be read and it’s a weighty tome as well. But it’ll have to wait. No way am I diving headlong into another biography after I finish with this Bonaparte chap. I’ll read a novel or two or three before I get to Mr. Douglass.

Okay, so this is two days in a row I’ve written a journal entry and I reckon for the second straight day I’ll put it up on ye olde blog. This can’t last, but then it doesn’t need to. Nothing does.

12 January 2020

Journal Entry for January 12, 2020, The First in a Possible Series and Hal Ashby's The Landlord is Discussed

So I’ve got this idea about keeping a daily journal and putting it up on my blog. Two things: I’ll never actually manage to do it everyday and I won’t end up posting every journal entry. I have managed to do today’s and by virtue of the fact that you’re reading it (I refer to my loyal reader Mrs. Stepoluckeenavitch of Poctatello, Idaho) I’ve obviously decided to post it. Who knows, maybe you’ll never see another one of these bastards and maybe I’ll churn them out at a rate of six times a week.

Somewhere around now — if not sooner, then again maybe a little later if I hand’t brought it up just now — you’re wondering what the purpose of these journal entries is, particularly the business about posting them. I’m wondering the same thing too. But I think it will serve a lot of purposes. One is to deal with my depression (if you’re unaware of my depression just leaf through the pages of this blog — metaphorically speaking, of course). I already write for an hour every morning but that’s always on one of my many unpublished novels (some day, some day). Writing is good for my soul and makes me happy so additional writing will help fight of the miseries and will also be a way of examining some of the issues that might contribute to my melancholia and more importantly highlighting some reasons why I should not be suffering from the blues. I could envision this as being a type of gratitude list that is commonly done by people in twelve step programs (raise you hands…). As to the purpose of posting them, well I always hope my writing will entertain and maybe enlighten but most importantly might help a fellow sufferer. (I know, you suffer just having to read this nonsense.)

What exactly will these journal entries be comprised of, you ask. (I know, nobody asked, but just stick with me here.) Surely I’m not just going to be whining about how miserable life my life is or desperately trying to cheer myself up. Of course not. There’ll doubtless be a pinch of that, but I’ll also be touching on affairs of the day, teaching, films I’ve just watched and whether I think the rain will hurt the rhubarb. I‘ll probably include links to interesting things I’ve read or sites worth checking out or YouTube videos.

See? This could be a lot of fun!!! (Yeah, maybe not, but it’s worth a shot.)

The length of posts will vary although as I’ve got other things I’m doing during the course of the day, they’ll tend not to be very long and some may be quite short.

I’ve already written a fair amount for today but since I have your attention (hello? hello?) I wanted to talk about a movie I watched today. The Landlord (1970) directed by Hal Ashby (he cranked out some beauties during the seventies, starting with this one) was a big favorite of mine when it came out. I was in high school and I don’t believe that movies have effected as profoundly since then.

I didn’t see The Landlord again until a year or so ago when I discovered that it was available on YouTube. This Fall it appeared on the Turner Classics Movie channel (and I’ll save a rant about TCM for another time) and I DVR’d it and only got around to watching it today.

The Landlord is about the scion of an uber wealthy family who gets it into his mind to buy a brownstone in what was then a poor and predominantly African American section of Brooklyn. He subsequently meets, confronts, engages with, learns from, falls in love with and struggles with the tenants. It is a story about gentrification, white privilege, culture clashes, racism and love.

Beau Bridges stars as Elgar but he is truly just one of an excellent ensemble cast that features Louis Gossett Jr., Pearl Bailey, Lee Grant and the lesser known Diana Sands and Marki Bey who are both excellent (why neither became bigger stars is a mystery to me although one would imagine race had something to do with it).

The Landlord is the type of film that I’m sure would be watched very differently by a black person than how I watched it. I sympathized with Bridges’s character and rooted for him to win over his tenants and make a go of it. I think an African American viewer would be more cynical of his actions.  We meet a very naive Elger at the beginning of the movie and by the end see a young man transformed. Part of that transformation was developing a social consciousness.

In addition to tenants who range from wary to hostile, Elgar also has to deal with his eccentric and disapproving family which includes a reactionary father, three goofball siblings and their spouses and a conflicted mother.

The Landlord is very much of its time and watching it evokes the late Sixties and takes a bloke like me down memory lane. But it’s a good film on its own terms and its themes are still relevant today. If you’ve a mind to check it out it is linked here and I here also provide a link to the film's trailer if you’d prefer to see that before committing to it.

I hope that someday soon it get’s the DVD release it so richly deserves

Thus ends my first blogged journal entry. You’re welcome.