27 February 2020

The Best Four Films In a Row By Any Director is....

I saw a tweet today that suggested that the best four-film-run of movies by any director was by Francis Ford Coppola with The Godfather (1972), The Godfather Part 2 (1974), The Conversation (1974) and Apocalypse Now (1979). I immediately took this as a challenge and looked for any director that has put out four consecutive films that could match or surpass Coppola’s output. The short answer is: I couldn’t. Several directors had four great films out of five or six, or had three great ones in a row. (Disclaimer: My criteria for a film being great is that I love it, therefore, of course, this is totally subjective.) For example Andrei Tarkovsky would have been a very close second to Coppola with Ivan’s Childhood (1962), Andrei Rublev (1966), The Mirror (1975) and Stalker (1979), but he had Solaris (1979) mixed in there and it is to me his weakest film.

Below I have compiled some runners up to Coppola’s fab four which I have put in order. At the top are four by Michelangelo Antonioni’ which came within a whisker of equaling Coppola’s quartet, followed by four from Stanley Kubrick which was also very close. You will note that there are two foursomes from both Alfred Hitchcock and Woody Allen. It is interesting to note that I couldn't find four in a row that rated from such luminaries as Martin Scorsese, Howard Hawks, Akira Kurosawa, Billy Wilder, Francois Truffaut, Louis Malle, Jean-Pierre Melville, Rainier Werner Fassbinder or my favorite director, Ingmar Bergman.

From Michelangelo Antonioni 1961-1964:
L’Avventura (1961)
La Notte (1961)
L’Eclisse (1962)
Red Desert (1964)

From Stanley Kubrick from 1968-1980:
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
A Clockwork Orange (1971)
Barry Lyndon (1975)
The Shining (1980)

From Hal Ashby from 1970-1975:
The Landlord (1970)
Harold and Maude (1971)
The Last Detail (1973)
Shampoo (1975)

From Charlie Chaplin from 1925-1936:
The Gold Rush (1925)
The Circus (1928)
City Lights (1931)
Modern Times (1936)

From Preston Sturges from 1941-1943:
The Lady Eve (1941)
Sullivan’s Travels (1941)
The Palm Beach Story (1942)
The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1943)

From Alfred Hitchcock from 1958-1963:
Vertigo (1958)
North by Northwest (1959)
Psycho (1960)
The Birds (1963)

From Woody Allen from 1975-1979:
Love and Death (1975)
Annie Hall (1977)
Interiors (1978)
Manhattan (1979)

From Aki Kaurismaki from 2002-2017:
The Man Without a Past (2002)
Lights in the Dusk (2006)
Le Havre (2011)
The Other Side of Hope (2017)

Also from Woody Allen from 1984-1987:
Broadway Danny Rose (1984)
The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985)
Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)
Radio Days (1987)

From Federico Fellini from 1955-1963:
Il Bidone (1955)
Nights of Cabiria (1957)
La Dolce Vita (1960)
8 1/2 (1963)

Also from Alfred Hitchcock from 1940-1942:
Rebecca (1940)
Foreign Correspondent (1940)
Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1941)
Suspicion (1941)

From the Coen Brothers from 1996-2001:
Fargo (1996)
The Big Lebowski (1998)
O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)
The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001)

From Lynne Ramsey from 1999-2017:
Ratcather (1999)
Morvern Caller (2002)
We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011)
You Were Never Really Here (2017)

26 February 2020

Little Reggie Polk -- A Day in the Life

The following is excerpted from a novel I am currently writing.

Reggie kept picking up the ball and throwing it. First in one direction, then after walking over to pick it up, in another direction. He was mindful of not throwing the ball near his mother and baby sister who were sitting in a lounge chair. Reggie was also being careful to avoid his father and big brother who were constructing a tree fort. He had started the morning helping his dad and brother Jerry — or at least trying to — but handing them tools or holding something for them or fetching them a glass of water was no fun, so he began playing with the ball. Reggie’s sister, Lisa, was only two years old, he loved her and liked to spontaneously hug her or hold her hand while they walked, but she wasn’t much fun to play with. Right now mom was reading her books. It seemed that when she wasn’t doing chores around the house or cooking, Reggie’s mother was always reading. Sometimes she read to Reggie, sometimes to Lisa and sometimes she read books herself, ones without pictures in them that seemed incomprehensible to Reggie.

Reggie finally got bored with throwing the ball to no one and went over to watch his dad and Jerry work on the tree fort. If you asked him straight out Reggie would have said he loved his father and brother. They were big strong men who helped make him feel secure. He liked sitting in his father’s lap and watching TV and enjoyed rough-housing with Jerry. However Reggie felt a little bit of distance from the two older men. Neither was tender with him. Neither gave him warm, affectionate hugs or cooed “I love you” to him like his mom did. Nor did either of them make him laugh or feel special. Reggie was only six years old and didn’t have the words for it but if he did he would have said that he seemed more like a fun accessory to his dad and Jerry than a real person. But Reggie’s mother made him feel like he was a special person worthy of all the love she could give.

Bored watching Dad and Jerry work, Reggie walked over to his mother and Lisa who were about to start his favorite book, Green Eggs and Ham. Mom made room for him on her lap and as she did so Lisa leaned over and kissed Reggie on his cheek. Because Lisa was forever kissing him on the cheek, Reggie didn’t give it a thought but he reflexively wiped the wetness away. As Mom started the story, Reggie checked to make sure his father wasn’t looking in their direction, he was pretty sure Dad would have admonished for joining Lisa on Mom’s lap. Dad was increasingly trying to get Reggie to act more like a grown up man. “Start being a tough guy, Reggie, you’re not a baby anymore,” he’d say. Reggie wanted to please his father but he was confused by exactly what he wanted. It seemed like Dad wanted him to act all grown-up like Jerry, who was eleven. But Reggie didn’t feel ready. He liked sitting in his mother’s lap, he liked playing with his sister, he liked playing with kids his own age and he liked the freedom to play unsupervised sometimes while still being able to run inside and get cozy with his mom. 

By the time Green Eggs and Ham was finished Lisa had fallen asleep. Reggie climbed off his mother’s lap as she carried the little girl into the house and put her down for a nap. Reggie stood outside wondering what to do next. He thought about re-joining his dad and brother but the thought made him a little sad. Maybe instead he’d play with some of his outdoor toys like his truck and bulldozer. But he knew this would involve dirt and that he’d get all messy and that might annoy his mother because Grandma would be coming over soon. Reggie always got excited when Grandma came over. It made the day special. Two years before Grandpa had died of a heart attack and everyone had been real sad for a long time, especially Grandma who always seemed to have a sad expression and tears in her eyes. Grandpa had been sixty years old when he died which still seemed like a huge number to Reggie, but everyone talked about how young he was and what a tragedy it was that he had died just before retirement. Two years on Reggie could barely remember his grandfather.

Grandma was as nice to Reggie as his mom was. She always brought him and his siblings a present or candy and when they went to her place she always had a gift and cake or ice cream waiting for them. Grandma never had a harsh or angry word for or about anyone and now that she was used to Grandpa being dead, she was smiling all the time again and seemed happy. Reggie remembered his mother saying to Dad something about how she was relieved after selling all of Grandpa’s businesses and his holdings. Reggie had no idea what it meant but it sounded complicated and unfathomable but he was glad it made Grandma feel better.

Ultimately Reggie decided not to play with his outdoor toys. Clouds had suddenly appeared and blocked the sun and the nice breeze they’d been enjoying turned into a strong wind. So now it was cold and Reggie thought he’d go inside and play there. First he checked on his mom who had started getting lunch ready.

“What’s today, Mom?”

“If you mean what day of the week, it’s Monday. If you mean what occasion, it’s Columbus Day.”

“And Columbus was the man who found America so that’s why there’s no school today?”

“Well yes, Reggie. Actually, Columbus didn’t discover America, there were already a lot of people. The Indians, you know who I mean by Indians.”

“Sure I do. But why do we have a holiday for Columbia if he didn’t do anything?”

“It’s Columbus, sweetie, not Columbia. Columbia is the name of a river and of a university back East. But that’s an excellent question. Columbus, you see, was the first European to come here and because of him many, many more people came from Europe and before you knew it the United States was born.”

“Oh.” Reggie said flatly. He wasn’t entirely clear on any of it, least of all why there was no school because it was the birthday of a person who hadn’t even discovered anything. Reggie decided to change the subject.

“When’s grandma going to be here?”


“She’s not all sad all the time anymore like she used to he, huh?”

“That’s right sweetie. Well, she is sad still that your grandfather died and always will be, but she’s able to be happy a lot of the time. It helps her a lot to see you and Lisa and Jerry.”

“And you too, huh, Mom?”

“Yes and me too.” Esther Polk patted her son on the head and feeling that wasn’t enough bent down and gave him a hug.

Reggie strolled around the house aimlessly, even though they’d live in their big house on Oak Street since he was two, Reggie was still awed by the size of their home. There were so many rooms to explore. He wandered into his parents’ bedroom which was at once the most boring room in the house — there was, after all, nothing fun in it — but still the most comforting. If he had a bad dream he could always come into the room and get into bed on his Mom’s side. The room was the safest place on Earth to Reggie. His brother’s room was scary because if Jerry ever caught him in it he got very angry. His sister’s room was full of girl’s stuff like dolls and teddy bears, nothing he was ever interested in. Reggie loved his room because all his toys were in it and if he ever felt like it Reggie could spend hours in his room and never get bored. There were bathrooms both upstairs and downstairs. The one downstairs didn’t have a bathtub, just a toilet. Downstairs were three other big rooms, the kitchen — where his Mom spent a lot of time — the dining room — where they ate dinner — and the living room — where they watched TV or sat around and talked or read. Reggie loved the kitchen because it was the source of food and the intoxicating aromas of meals being prepared and cookies, pies or cakes being baked. The dining room was kind of boring with the big table and straight back chairs and not much else. It was the room where you got to eat but you always had to be extra polite in the room, especially if company was over, like Grandma. Reggie didn’t like all the rules that were enforced in the dining room and it seemed like he was always committing a faux pas of one kind or another like putting his elbows on the table, or talking out of turn, or using the wrong utensil. The living room was the most relaxed place in the house. There you could sprawl across one of the sofas or lay on the floor. The TV provided hours of entertainment, especially when cartoons were on. His dad usually sat there and read the paper or a fishing magazine. Reggie’s mom would knit or read. She rarely paid attention to anything on TV. Lisa sometimes looked at the TV but she usually played on the floor. Jerry didn’t spend much time in the living room, except sometimes to watch sports with his dad. Reggie was getting to like watching sports too, it was fun to watch grown-ups play a game. Reggie never ventured into either the basement or the attic, both were crowded with totally uninteresting objects and were dark and scary. He’d been warned about rats in both rooms and Jerry had told him that there were ghosts in the attic and a goblin in the basement. Reggie wasn’t sure what a goblin was but it sounded like something best avoided. 

Reggie eventually made his way back outside and looked on as his father and brother worked on the tree fort, even as it grew darker, colder and windier. Reggie didn’t want to be cold, so he went back inside.


George Polk was putting the finishing touches on the platform for the tree fort that he’d been promising his two sons for months. He was glad for something to keep him occupied because this was one of those days when his mind was enveloped in darkness. These types of days had begun to increase lately, to the point where he was experiencing them several times a month. He paused and looked at the skies and reflected on how they mirrored his mood: dark, cold and bereft of promise. George loved his wife and children but he was finding it increasingly difficult to be affectionate with his sons and he didn’t even like holding Lisa for too long. He knew it was wrong but for some reason touching them or even talking to them became uncomfortable after awhile. It was easiest to be with Jerry who was getting older and was quiet by nature. George could relax and be himself with his oldest boy, without having to listen to a lot of silly chit chat. George was still able to show affection to Esther, although it was usually in the form of routine pecks on the cheeks or quick hugs. When he was horny enough, love-making was no problem. But George Polk went to great lengths to avoid having long conversations with his wife which wasn’t too hard given how busy she was with the children, her job at the library and all the volunteer work she did. Now his mother-in-law was coming over and George knew he’d be expected to make at least a modicum of small talk with her. Fortunately she generally spent most of her time talking to Esther or fawning over the children. George reckoned he’d make it through the day well enough, after all he was duty-bound to be a good father and loving husband. He was at least determined to have a happier home life than he grew up in, which was not exactly a difficult task given what a living hell his childhood was. George’s father beat him and his siblings, especially when he was drunk — which was most of the time. When he was nine George had seen his dad touching one of his sister’s private parts and later learned that he had similarly touched his other sisters’ privates. George’s mother was little better. She was an uncommonly lazy woman whose idea of dinner preparation was heating something out of a can. She only rarely cleaned house, leaving such tasks to the older children and when their father was away — he was a truck driver — which was often, she would sometimes get sloppy drunk and entertain men in her bedroom. Compounding his misery, George didn’t get along with most of his siblings, many of whom beat him regularly for no reason that George could understand. When he joined the army and said goodbye to his family he knew he would never see nor have any contact with them again. He only ever missed his sister Willa, who had always been nice to George. She died of leukemia weeks before George left. George figured he’d been through the worst possible circumstances growing up and was determined that his children should experience a normal, happy upbringing. 


Jerry Polk liked doing stuff with his father. He thought of his dad as the strongest, smartest, toughest man in the world. His dad could build things and fix things, he knew all about hunting and fishing and was able to help him understand football. Jerry figured he’d grow up to be like his old man although he wasn’t sure he wanted to bother with a wife and certainly not with kids. Jerry resented his younger siblings. They detracted from the attention that used to be directed solely to him. He didn’t much care for Reggie or Lisa anyway. They were too young and immature to spend any time with and he didn’t like that they always wanted to hold his hand or hug him or any of that other stuff he thought of as girly. Jerry liked his mom a lot. She was a terrific cook who always had food ready for him and she kept the house clean and washed his clothes and bought him whatever he needed. Jerry was too old to be mushy with his mother anymore and he sensed that she was disappointed that he no longer liked to be hugged, but after all he was becoming a man now. The only real problem with his mother, though, was that she was always asking questions about school and what he learned and what he was interested and Jerry did not like talking about the kind of stuff. Right now Jerry was focused on the tree fort. He was sure excited about it and thought it would be keen to play in it, though he supposed he’d have to share time in it with Reggie, which could spoil the whole deal. Most of all he was happy to be working on it with his dad, especially since his father gave him things to do like hammer a few of the nails and saw wood. As it got colder and darker Jerry knew that rain was coming and that his grandmother would be at the house soon and they’d have to stop for the day. It made him sad. A lot of things made Jerry sad although he never talked about them with anyone. He tried to ignore the sadness and do things that made him happy. It wasn’t easy but he tried.


Half an hour later Reggie’s grandmother, Elizabeth O’Toole, arrived and as usual had gifts for her grandchildren. Reggie and Lisa crawled all over her but this time their grandmother said, “Reggie you’ve gotten to be too big a boy for your old granny’s lap.” Reggie felt a mixture of sadness at not being able to perch on his beloved Grandma and pride that he was getting to be a big boy. 

“Yes, Grandma,” he said dutifully. Esther’s heart ached for her younger son and she invited Reggie to sit by her. 

At Esther’s prodding, Elizabeth regaled the family with stories about coming to the United States from Ireland when she was a little girl and how confusing and exciting and frightening and dramatic New York seemed to her at the turn of the century. Soon she fast forwarded four years to the family’s move west and the seemingly endless train ride across the country. Then she zipped ahead to when she was a young woman and met her future husband Patrick O’Toole, who was as Irish as Elizabeth, though born on U.S. soil a month after his parents emigrated. 

Reggie didn’t understand all of his grandmother’s stories but he loved to hear her talk and he loved how happy it made his Grandma to tell stories and he loved what obvious delight his mother took in her oft-told tales. Had he bothered to look in his father and big brother’s direction and studied their faces he might have been disappointed to note that they were sitting stoically, seemingly listening to Elizabeth out of sense of obligation with no apparent enthusiasm. But Reggie did not look in their direction and he did enjoy Grandma’s storytelling and he was a very happy boy.

23 February 2020

The Mystery of the Empty Pitcher, More Reflections of Sobriety

Friday night I was at a sports bar eating a veggie burger and fries before going to a basketball game. I was seated at the end of a large communal table. At the other end of the table were two couples. About two-thirds of the way through my meal I noted that the pitcher of beer they were sharing had just been emptied. A few minutes later I noted that no one had gone to refill the pitcher, two of their glasses were empty, one was a third full and the other a quarter full. No one was moving on the beer situation. They were chatting and seemingly in good spirits. But the beer….

Yes, this was driving me crazy. I’ve not had a drop of alcohol in over 32 years but still can’t understand how people can let a beer pitcher remain empty and how people can nurse a drink — especially a beer -- seriously, nursing a beer?

I recently heard a co-worker say that she had met someone for a couple of drinks. I gathered from what she said and what I know of her that they literally had a couple — that is, two — drinks. And that was that. How?

If you’re in a position where you can have two drinks you can have infinity drinks and if you can have infinity drinks, why don’t you? I’m totally mystified by the way non-alcoholics “drink.” For the love of god they actually stop before they are blind drunk or passed out or incapable of lifting a glass. How?

Okay I’m guilty of a bit of hyperbole here. There were occasions during my drinking days when I had two beers or just a few glasses of wine with dinner. But these were exceptions. Especially towards the end of my drinking days when one led to two which lead to dozens. It only made sense to me. I’ve had many a conversation with others in recovery about the bizarre “drinking” habits that most people practice.

The truth is that I very well could go to a bar tonight and have just two drinks and come home and be fine. I might even get away with it a second night. But surely by the third (likely sooner) I’d be off and binging. How, you ask, can I be so sure? Believe me, I’m sure. I can feel it, not necessarily in my bones but coursing through my body. No doubt.

What if, you might ask, you could take a pill that would cure you of your alcoholism? Would you take it and would you then enjoy having just a couple of beers or glasses of wine? Answer: I might take the pill but I wouldn’t take the drinks. That’s over. There’s no point in going back there. Even if I knew that I would never take that third drink I couldn’t enjoy the first two. They would recall a bygone era that is important to always remember but only through memories and not through my taste buds and olfactory senses.

I’m very happy not to have any more alcohol. I had to go off coffee too because of my panic attacks and get my daily stimulus from my morning cup of English Breakfast Tea. Maybe two or three times a year I’ll have a second cup.

After 30 years of sobriety I braved drinking non-alcoholic beer. I’ve been very pleased to find NA beers to be refreshing and tasty and a real treat. But even here I am cautious. Except on Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve, I have never had more than one a day and I rarely drink one on consecutive days. (Since I mentioned my favorite tea by name I will here mentioned that my favorite NA beer is St. Pauli.) I noted at the beginning that drinking an NA beer did not make me want to have a regular beer nor did it make me one to have more NA beers right away.

People occasionally point out that most NA beers do have a trace of alcohol in them. By my reckoning it would take about four to equal a regular beer and one regular beer is not enough to give one a buzz, so I am perfectly safe. If NA beers had given me a buzz when I first indulged I would have stopped forthwith. I was extremely cautious when I tried NA beers (as evidenced by the fact that I waited until I had 30 years of sobriety under my belt) and as noted from my previous comments I still am.

An NA beer provides the same taste and refreshment I enjoyed from my first couple of regular beers but without that nasty business of alcohol to cause havoc in my addictive brain.

I was quite fortunate to have gone to AA when I did. A few weeks after I got sober my wife informed me that she was pregnant with our first child. I was also just embarking on my teaching career. I was able to raise my children and teach without life being interrupted (and ultimately destroyed) by the ravages of alcohol. I can’t imagine ever trying to teach or hold a crying baby when in the throes of hangover.

Of course sobriety didn’t make me a good person or cure all my ills. However it has allowed me a path to navigate life and try to be a better person. Sobriety is never an end to itself, it is instead a means to enjoy one’s life. So far so good.

But I still can’t believe those people didn’t finish that goddamned pitcher.

17 February 2020

Labor Strife, Butter, Dinner Party and a Long Walk, the Films I Watched this Weekend

I watched four movies in the preceeding two days. In between I ate, slept, went to the gym, did chores, hung out with the wife, watched two football matches from England, wrote a short story, read poetry and fantasized about time travel. But my focus here will be on the aforesaid four films which I will discuss in the order in which I viewed them.

Matewan (1987) directed byJohn Sayles. Anyone who studies history, as I have for many decades, spends a lot of time being angry at the rich and powerful and the way in which they have exploited the poor and weak. I used the perfect tense and wrote “have” because this is a practice that continues onto this day. Matwean climaxes with a historic event, the 1920 Battle of Matewan between local coal miners and members of the Baldwin–Felts Detective Agency in Matewan, West Virginia. The gun battle was the culmination of an effort by coal miners — one of the most horribly exploited workforces in US History — to unionize. The movie pays virtually no attention to the mine owners who represented a true evil empire. Instead we see their surrogates, the detectives who act as would-be strike breakers. One of the saddest aspects of the exploitation of workers is the aiding and abetting done by hired hands, who, for a good day’s pay, will brutalize hard-working, well-meaning men should they dare challenge the powers that be. If they are people of color or hyphenated Americans, all the better for the true hired thug who is invariably a racist and a xenophobe. Bigotry is the mother’s milk for the rapacious corporate power, it's way of separating the people and consolidating their own power. Matewan stars a young Chris Cooper as the idealistic but realistic union man sent to help the coal miners organize. His job was monumental what with the powers-that-be stacked up against the worker. Labor struggles are a ubiquitous fact of America’s history and the bad guys, with brute force and the support of the government, usually prevailed. It took the Depression, FDR’s election and the creation of the National Labor Relations Board before the good guys started enjoying success. Matewan is a story of the bad old days and the spirited efforts of those who sought fairness and justice.

Last Tango in Paris (1972) directed by Bernardo Bertolucci. I last saw this controversial film sometime in 1973 when I was a mere lad of 19. Watching now 47 years later I can’t help but wonder what the hell I thought of it back then. I remember seeing it and even what theater I saw it in but have no recollection of how I reacted to it. It would have been the most sexually explicit film I had seen to date with the most nudity — virtually all in the person of the the then 19 year old Maria Schneider. I can well imagine that I must have developed a huge crush on Ms. Schneider. Heaven knows what I thought of anal rape and the use of butter, not to mention Brando's character asking to have fingers shoved up his anus. Although not a virgin I was still then fairly innocent about sex having to date just practiced the fundamentals, so to speak. But I also wonder how I reacted to the film as a whole which dove into issues more varied and complex than just fucking. I’m sure it largely went over my head or confused me and may have at times bored me. I ordered my copy of Last Tango from Netflix under the mistaken impression that it was not a well-received film that became noteworthy for how explicit it was and for another great acting turn by Marlon Brando. I also guessed that later controversy around it grew because Ms. Schneider expressed her feelings of having been badly used by the director and star who told her nothing of the “butter” scene before it was shot. However before I sat down to watch Last Tango I learned that it had won considerable critical acclaim and remains a much appreciated film. Brando plays a man in great pain at the recent suicide of his wife who tries to sublimate his anguish through a form of anonymous sex (no names, no personal histories) with a beautiful young Parisian woman. Schneider’s character is engaged to marry a young light weight (Jean-Pierre Léaud) who is drawn to the mystery and magnetism of this strong American. Ultimately the two get everything and nothing from one another and the affair turns tragic when the American can’t let go. Scandalous sexual shenanigans aside, it explores weighty themes and after watching it this weekend I can say it succeeds on many levels. But for the life of my I can't imagine what my naive teenage self made of it all.

The Exterminating Angel (1962) directed by Luis Bunuel. On the surface it’s a one trick pony. Upper class guests cannot leave the room where they have just enjoyed a late night dinner party. There is no logical explanation for their inability to leave, no physical force confines them. But what a trick it is and what a story it makes for. Bunuel was a master of skewering the bourgeoisie, taking on false manners, pretense, artifice and indulgence. In Angel he does not stop at the skewering as he goes on to slice, dice and pulverize. What happens when society’s conventions are eliminated? In fact only one such convention has been eliminated. Everyone is able to perform their roles in society. Everyone is “civilized” and polite and keeps their own counsel about things that really matter. But with a basic foundation removed they go into a free fall. Rules don’t apply. Anarchy reigns. Exterminating Angel is subject to interpretation. It is to be admired for the questions that it asks and more for the hypotheses it supposes.

La Notte (1961) directed by Michelangelo Antonioni. Jeanne Moreau wanders the streets of Milan, just as in Louis Malle’s Elevator to the Gallows (1958) where she wonders the streets of Paris. There something beautiful, enchanting yet haunting about watching Moreau, head held high, walking — seemingly aimlessly — through city streets. The Moreau of La Notte, like her co-star Marcello Mastroianni, is an unhappy person. There is loss in her life as a good friend is about to die of cancer. As he will enter the void a void is created in her life. Why are she and her husband so melancholy? He is a successful author, she is rich, they are young and beautiful and healthy. They seem comfortable together but not happy together. Why? At a party held by a wealthy industrialist they go off separately. Both encounter “another.” Moreau ultimately balks at cheating on her husband. Maybe it’s the wrong man or she’s just not ready or her she clings to the idea of her marriage. Mastrioni has found the lovely daughter of the industrialist (Monica Vitti) and flirts shamelessly but is ultimately rebuffed. La Notte is part of Antonioni’s trilogy (between L’Avventura (1960) and L’Eclisse (1962)) of alienation. People who feel an emptiness and a lack inside. Perhaps they want something more, a meaning or a purpose that proves elusive. They are not destructive or self-destructive, just lost. Lost in their ennui. La Notte is a beautiful film to watch, as are most of Antonioni’s. And, like his other films, it is a beautiful film to ponder. It had been maybe two years since I watched La Notte, which seems a shame, because it can be watched again and again and more can be found it. Perhaps one day I’ll find a meaning to Moreau’s meanderings. If not, they are at least enchanting to watch.

15 February 2020

Kendall Remembers

Kendall Jenkins was a tall, handsome woman in her mid sixties. She had just returned home after grocery shopping. Her husband was napping in the bedroom. She made herself comfortable on the sofa with a cup of tea while she waited for him to wake up. Their cat, Curtis, curled up next to her. Kendall closed her eyes and was visited by a clear memory of when she was six years old sitting cross-legged on the living room floor in front of the family’s huge television console. She remembered she was holding a Raggedy Ann doll that she had been playing with. She clearly recalled looking up to see her dad standing in the doorway. It was a warm mid September Saturday and her father was wearing short pants a plain dark tee shirt, thin white socks and loafers. His pipe was in his mouth. Kendall’s father had scrawny legs and what her Mom called knobby knees. But as a six-year- old Kendall thought her Dad’s legs were perfect.

Kendall remembered saying, “hi Daddy,” cheerily and her father narrowing his eyes into what seemed like tiny slits and staring at her before finally saying, “and what precisely are you up to, pumpkin?” He said it in a serious sounding voice but Kendall knew it was meant to be light-hearted. Daddy was a sweet man and was always nice to Kendall’s older brother Ted and her baby brother Pete and especially to her.

“I’m playing with Annie!” She answered happily.

“Say this is Saturday, why no cartoons?” Her father asked as if it was a most important matter.

“I’ve already finished watching Saturday mornings and so have Ted and Pete.”

“And where are your brothers?” This time Daddy was not being playful, just seeking information.

“Ted’s outside playing with Ronald.” Ronald Burgess was their next door neighbor. He was born the same year Ted was and they were in the same fourth grade class. “I think Mommy put Petey down for a nap.”

“A nap at this time of day? I wonder whatever for.”

Kendall shrugged and kept looking at her father, hoping he’d have more questions, or better yet have something funny to say or an offer to read to her.

“What are you doing, Daddy?

“Oh I was just a little confused. I had woken up thinking that I had a football game to go to but then realized the season starts next Saturday. I guess I stayed up too late last night.”

Kendall knew that her parents had gone to something called a cocktail party the night before and Grandma and Grandpa had come over to babysit. She also knew that when Daddy and Mommy went to a party they sometimes didn’t feel very good the next day. Kendall found it strange that going to a party at night could make you feel bad the next morning. It was one of those grown-ups mysteries that she figured she wouldn’t understand for awhile, not that it was all that important.

“Maybe I’ll sit down in my easy chair for a bit and smoke my pipe. It might help with this awful headache I had.”

Headaches. That was one of the things her dad often had the day after a party.

“You like football a lot, don’t you Daddy?”

“I do pumpkin. I love to see the Bears play, even when they’re not very good. Gotta support your alma mater and Cal is mine.”

“What’s an amla marter?”

“It’s alma mater. It’s just a fancy name for a school you went to. Like right now you’re a kindergartener at Jefferson but when you finish the 6th grade, Jefferson will be your alma mater.”

“Did you play on any football teams, Daddy?”

“Oh no, pumpkin pie, your dear old dad has always been too skinny and too slow to play football. I’ve always been pretty good at tennis. though.”

Kendall had watched her father play tennis on a few occasions and thought it fun to see her Dad do something that was essentially playing a game. She knew it had to be fun for him too because everyday except the weekends he had to drive to an office wearing a necktie and he always came home complaining that he was tired. He’d greet everyone cheerily, then flop in his easy chair, take off his shoes, loosen his tie and Mom would bring him an adult drink called a martini.

“Can I go to a football game with you?”

“Someday pumpkin, you’re a little young yet to appreciate it. Ted is going to come with me once or twice this season. He’s about ready.”

“No fair!” Kendall spat out, sounding a little pouty and a little angry.

“No pumpkin it’s perfectly fair. I don’t want to drag you out there for you to be bored and fidgety like you were when went to the baseball game last Summer.” Dad and Grandpa had taken her and Ted to a Giants game in July. She loved eating a hot dog and drinking an orange soda and had enjoyed the atmosphere and the game itself — for a little while. She’d soon lost interest in the game, and grown increasingly bored.

“But that was different Daddy, that was baseball. This time it’ll be football and the Bear will be there and the band playing and all that other stuff you talk about.”

“Now pumpkin, it’s not a real bear, it’s what’s called a mascot named Oski. But the point is that games goes on for over two hours and you don’t have the attention span for it yet. You’ll just have to trust your dear old dad on this one."

Her father lit his pipe and Kendall focused on her doll, creating an imaginary conversation for the two of them to have inside her head. Kendall guessed she was finished talking about going to a football game. Playing with her doll was suddenly of greater interest anyway. Meanwhile her father began puffing away at his pipe.

They sat in silence together for five minutes when her father spoke again: “I guess your mom is going to get after me about mowing the lawn soon. How ‘bout after I finish I take you and your brothers to get an ice cream cone?”

“Yay! That would be fun.” Kendall’s whole world seem to brighten up. But then she had a thought which she shared with Dad. “What if Mommy won’t let us?” Kendall’s spirits sagged at the idea that her mother would have some reason for them not to go get ice cream, like company was coming, or it was too close to dinner time, or they'd already had too many sweets. Mommy was mostly really nice and a lot of fun but sometimes she could spoil things.

“I’m sure it’ll be all right. You’ll probably have lunch while I’m taking care of the lawn, so it’ll be like a midday dessert.”

As if on cue Kendall’s mother shouted from the kitchen, “Kendall honey, come have some lunch, I made tunafish.”

Oh boy, thought Kendall, she loved tuna fish and the idea of having ice cream afterwards made her especially happy.

“I guess that’s my cue to wage war against tall grass.” Kendall was pretty sure that what Daddy just said was a funny way of saying he was going to mow the lawn.

A minute later Kendall was at the kitchen table with her big brother and their neighbor Ron, eating a tunafish sandwich. An hour after that she was in the car with her Dad and brothers on the way to get ice cream.

Kendall opened her eyes, amazed that she remembered that day in such great detail. It was a happy day not long before a sad time began. A few months later, just before Thanksgiving, her father had been diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Disease. It had not been discovered until at an advanced and he died a year later. His death devastated Kendall, her mom and brothers.

Four years later her mother re-married and was much happier. But her step father was cold to Kendall and her brothers and when drunk was downright nasty, on occasion hitting Mom. They finally divorced when Kendall was in high school. After the divorce Kendall’s mother started suffering from severe depression and had trouble looking after her children. While Kendall was in college, her mother crashed the car into a wall and died instantly. Her blood alcohol level had been well over the legal limit. There was strong suspicion that it was suicide.

Kendall thought back on the first 20 years of her life and the sad fates that had befallen her parents and marveled that she and Ted had managed to lead such successful, happy lives. Pete had not been so lucky. He had become a heroin addict by the time he was 21 and died of complications from the HIV virus during the AIDS crisis of the mid 1980s.

Kendall held Curtis tightly to her bosom and sobbed. The cat sensed that he was needed and didn’t struggle to free himself. Tears splashed onto his fur.  It had been a long time since Kendall had cried about her parents or Pete. Finally Kendall composed herself and went to the bedroom where her husband was just waking up. She suggested they go for an ice cream cone.

07 February 2020

A Novel and a Film Get Me Thinking and Writing About Slavery

Theresa Harris
I was thinking about the lives of American slaves after reading Ta-Nehisi Coates new novel, The Water Dancer. There were approximately four million slaves in the United States at the start of the Civil War which would mean there were four million Americans who suffered from PTSD. Imagine, if you will, being subject to actual whippings. Being subject to constant verbal abuse. Imagine being regarded as property with little to no control over your destiny. Imagine having had a loved one, possibly a parent or a child or a spouse, sold away from you. Imagine having been sold yourself. Imagine living with the threat of being sold away from your family. Imagine being a woman who had been raped — with no chance of preferring charges or having any sort of justice — and being subject to further sexual assaults. Imagine being told that you are less than as a person by virtue of your skin color. This had to have caused serious PTSD to every single one of those four million people. The type of slavery practiced in the United States and colonial America was a particularly cruel variety as should be remembered whenever conservatives try to excuse American slavery by saying that it has been practiced for centuries including in Africa from whence American slaves were kidnapped.

I also thought of the horrible lot of slaves the other day when I watched the film Jezebel (1938) directed by William Wyler and starring Bette Davis in an Oscar-winning performance. Jezebel is an excellent film which I especially liked after this most recent viewing, my third. According to Merriam-Webster a jezebel is: “an impudent, shameless, or morally unrestrained woman.” That nicely sums up Bette Davis’ character who flouts society in antebellum Louisiana as she pursues marriage with a fellow Southern aristocrat, Preston Dillard (Henry Fonda). Jezebel takes place in 1852 and ’53 and the film’s final half is set against the backdrop of a yellow fever epidemic that ravaged New Orleans and its environs. Jezebel features one of Ms. Davis’ many great performances and an excellent supporting cast. The pacing and style of Wyler’s direction is immaculate, the story is engaging and the costumes and set designs are examples of Hollywood at its best. As must be the case in such a film, the cast includes a number of slaves, two of whom, Eddie Anderson as ‘Gros Bat’ and Lew Payton as Uncle Cato, have prominent roles. (The lovely Theresa Harris also appears. Ms. Harris was one of the most striking women in Hollywood at the time and a fine actress but because she was African-American she was reduced to small roles, often as a maid.)

The slave characters in Jezebel serve to give a touch of realism to the film in much the same way the costumes reflect the era. There is a total absences of field slaves. There are no vicious overseers, no whippings, no slave auctions, just contented house slaves devotedly serving their masters.

It’s odd to realize that such a film couldn’t be made today. You can no longer make a film with a half dozen African American characters all of whom are docile slaves. I don’t mean to suggest that this is either right or wrong but surely a modern version of Jezebel, or any other film set in the antebellum south, would have to have at least one strong black character.

There are a wealth of great films from the ’20s through the early ‘50s but only a minuscule minority of them include African Americans characters with prominent roles or who have any dimension at all and that includes some of the films like Cabin in the Sky (1943) with all black casts.

Worse than what you don’t see from Hollywood’s Golden Age is what you do see and hear. In addition to blacks in submissive roles you have many played for fools in comedies. You also have white characters in showbiz roles wearing black face (Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney, Bing Crosby, Eddie Cantor to name a few). You also hear expressions such as: “I’m free, white and 21,” and “that’s mighty white of you.” Diversity did not exist in Hollywood until….okay maybe it’s only just now getting better but it was downright nonexistent in the first half of the 20th century.

I’m now about to read David Blight’s critically acclaimed biography of Fredrick Douglass, the escaped slave turned abolitionist, writer, orator and social reformer. Douglass’ life has been a source of inspiration for generations of Americans, black and white.

Who we are is who we were which makes understanding slavery, the Jim Crow Era and the Civil Rights Movement so critical in our understanding of the United States today. A lot of people want to sanitize the story of slavery. There is both a desire to make it not seem so bad and to look away from it. As a middle school history teacher I matter-of-factly told the story in all its horror to the best of my ability. For the most part students were fascinated that such a travesty existed and they were appropriately appalled. When discussing slavery I could always count on a steady stream of questions, many of them quite thoughtful. Yet some of my colleagues wanted to spare their students the details (which is like talking about war without mentioning that people were killed and maimed). A few African American parents didn’t want their children being taught about slavery, objecting to the idea that their ancestors had been held in bondage. I found this bizarre. For an essay question about slavery one student wrote that her ancestors weren’t slaves at all but “were princes and princesses.” I seriously doubt that her family did any genealogical research that revealed this as fact and it seemed unlikely that her ancestors were royalty who immigrated from an African country. So I found her response to be sad. It is no easy thing to know that your forebearers were slaves but it is no use denying it. There’s certainly no shame in it as there would be if you were the descendants of slave owners.

Despite decades of studying and teaching history I still have a difficult time wrapping my mind around the fact of slavery in this country (or anywhere else for that matter). I ache for those who were victimized by it and wonder at those who perpetrated it and in a very different way ache for them too. Imagine wallowing in the kind of ignorance in which you can accept racial superiority.

Adding to the gloomy tale of slavery is the years of oppression and segregation that followed and compounding that is the fact of a racist president aided and abetted by racist politicians and citizens.

But there’s no use giving in to despair. There are a lot of good folks out there fighting for positive change — one such change would be placing a sane and competent anti-racist in the White House. There are also books like The Water Dancer which, despite its focus on slaves, is more about the underground railroad (Harriet Tubman is a character in the book) and as such is an inspiring story. There are also films like Jezebel. True, it white washes (pun not intended) a part of history, but if one goes into viewing it with that understanding it is possible to view it on its own terms and enjoy it and learn about the times in which it was made.

Remember, truth and beauty are out there and they can nourish your soul and fire your intellect.

02 February 2020

Ronstadt, Free Stuff, My Mom, Gym Machines and Jerks

Linda Ronstadt
I know that people have different taste in music and I respect that but I also think that if you don’t like Linda Ronstadt there’s something wrong with you. I also imagine it’s been discouraging for young female singers to hear Rondsadt. How many, upon listening to her sing, have said, “fuck this,  I’m out.” Must be a lot. Her brilliance doesn't need a documentary to be obvious but there is one nonetheless called Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice which was in theaters last Fall and was aired on CNN recently. It is also available on DVD. What comes across is not only a supreme talent seen from her early years to the present, but a perfectly charming and delightful person. She was a brave performer who sang in many different genres, all successfully. There are interviews, a lot of concert footage and the story of one of the singular performing artists of our time. The best thing I can say about the documentary is that has inspired me to listen to her more often and it has increased my appreciation for her.

Most anytime you walk more than a block or two in a city— and you often needn’t go that far — you’ll see an old computer, or clothes, or books or kitchenware or — well, the list goes on —  by the side of the road. People don’t throw things away or donate them to goodwill anymore, they leave them for others to pick through. One man’s junk is another man’s treasure. Or woman for that matter.
What I find interesting is how often people will leave a sign next to the discarded items that says, “free.” This is really helpful. How often have you noted junk on the sidewalk, seen something that interested you and said, “I’d really like this but I’ve no idea how much it costs,” then looked around for a salesclerk to help you out? It can be damn frustrating. But when there’s a sign telling you that everything is gratis, your worries are over. Thank you people leaving junk on our city streets, for providing this information

Today is the 100th anniversary of the birth of my late mother, Gertrude Marie Hourula (nee Kurki). Her first name, Kerttu, sounds much nicer in Finnish. I’ve written about mom before, particularly in this blog post. The poor woman became a paranoid schizophrenic in adulthood. She went untreated and it ruined the remainder of her life (she lived to be 81) and shattered my father’s (remarkably he recovered and re-married). I have permanent scars from my childhood with her. It was a terrible tragedy for all concerned. In the years since her death the decades long hatred I felt towards her (I was a victim of emotional abuse) has gradually dissipated and against all odds I have forgiven her — realizing that she was a victim too — and I've managed to occasionally think of her fondly, remembering some of the lucid and loving moments she had with me. This change in my attitude toward her has been a good thing for me but in truth the anger has been replaced by depression. Thinking about her as I have today has made me sad and what makes me sad often, as today, triggers my depression. Life is harsh.

Earlier today I was at the gym where I had — as usual — an excellent workout. Except for having to tolerate the idiots who think gym time is really yak on their cell phone time, I love my visits to the gym, which come every other day. However one thing that annoys and amuses besides cell phone users (when did phone conversations become so important?) is a feature of the stair masters and treadmills I use. They all have TV screens on them. Fair enough, some people like looking at a screen when they’re exercising (personally I think it’s a bad thing to do as it breaks the mind and body connection you should have while exercising and it can in no way enhance your workout). I of course do not watch TV while working out and when I come home I do not work out while watching TV. But the strange -- and aggravating -- thing about these screens is that they try to decide for you. The second you get on the TV comes on, you turn it off, then when you’ve entered all the pertinent information  and start to move, the TV comes back on and so you turn it off again and then what happens? It pops right back on as if to say “you don’t seriously want to work out without looking at me, do you?” So you turn it off a third time. If for some reason you have to pause during the workout the TV comes back on when you resume — “surely,” it is saying, “you must want to watch me now.” No, I don’t, I really don’t. I swear I don’t. Who designed these machines to be so persist and why? Irritating.

Speaking of irritating, I have the misfortune of knowing  a person who can best be described as…let me see I want to be careful here, I’m going to go with total jerk. Although complete asshole would do nicely. Mind you I'm acquainted with many, many other people and about 95% of them are either fantastic people, nice people or perfectly tolerable people. This dickhead is none of the above. I’ve never met a person who was so cynical and negative and had such great difficulty conjuring up pleasant things to say about any topic or failed so miserably to observe basic social niceties.  Recently — for a second time — he felt compelled to go to great lengths to convey his disdain for the sport of soccer (as you Yanks call it). First of all, no one asked. Secondly, why? What is the point? He knows full well that I am a huge fan yet feels compelled to deride the game. Again, why? He even quoted a friend of his (he has friends?) who had said, “soccer is sport for people who hate sports.” Mind you, soccer is the most popular sport in the world. Literally billions follow it. But we are dealing with that nasty American combination of ignorance and arrogance combined with dickishness. You may toss in hypocrisy too because my loathsome acquaintance asserts that he roots for the US Men’s National Soccer Team. Of course. The US is full of people who don’t understand the game and even hate it but root on the national team with boisterous chants of U-S-A!

Here’s a tip if you do not like a sport, particularly because you are largely unfamiliar with it and grew up playing and watching other sports, shut the fuck up about it. Accept that while you don’t like it others do and leave them alone about it. Thanks for letting me ventilate on this topic.