30 January 2021

From the Mailbag, I Answer Reader Questions

Beatrice Angelheart, My Girl Saturday

I’ve accumulated a lot of questions from readers over the past few months and thought I’d answer some of them here. I exclude those questions that are from job seekers or those offering me lucrative deals or begging for my hand in marriage (I’m taken). Due to the high volume of queries that I receive I’m unable to answer them all, of course. My secretary and Girl Saturday (she was my Girl Friday but I’ve promoted her) Beatrice Angelheart, sifted through the many questions and has helped me select a representative sample. We strove to find those questions that I am most frequently asked. Maybe you'll see one of your own.

Question from Mr. Occam Razor : You’ve had a successful, beloved, critically acclaimed blog for almost thirteen years. What's your secret?

Steroids. Show me a law, rule or code prohibiting bloggers from 'roiding up.

Question from Hiram Oxbreath: What do you think was the best decade for American films?

The 1760s.

Question from Jean-Paul Pennybacker: You’ve been teaching ESL for a number of years. What are some of the interesting countries that your students have come from?

Formosa, Indochina, Yugoslavia, Persia, Dutch East Indies, Siam, Prussia, Ceylon, Rhodesia, Republic of Genoa, Mesopotamia The Ottoman Empire and Narnia.

Question from Celine Leon: Do you have a favorite actor?

Why yes, as a matter of fact I do.

Question from Ms. Liina Liepzig: What is your favorite planet?

I’m a big fan of Earth but mostly because I’ve yet to visit any of the other planets, though I do hear good things about Uranus:

Follow-up Question: I beg your pardon?

The planet, not your rectal cavity.

Question from Ms. Charlize Theron: Would you consider having a sexual dalliance with me?

I’ve told you a thousand times I am, and always will be, faithful to me wife. (Psssst…meet me behind the gym tonight at eight.)

Question from Linus Appalling: Where do you live?

On Sunset Blvd. in the Chinatown section of Casablanca, near a Cabaret with Annie Hall (who is A Woman Under the Influence) where I enjoy the City Lights. I used to live in Manhattan, right On the Waterfront where they kept the Battleship Potemkin. There were some really Goodfellas there who would eat Duck Soup with me and my friends Fanny And Alexander. That was after The Great Escape from my job as a Foreign Correspondent when I truly enjoyed the Sweet Smell of Success.

Question from Helga Hootandaholler: How did you get your start in blogging?

I apprenticed under the legendary blogger and master brewer, Heinrich Boll. I then studied blogging at Frostbite Falls University and went on to get an advanced degree at Cambridge. I started with the firm of Heep, Micawber and Trotwood, working my way up to the position of Vice President for Internal Affairs before starting my own blog in 2008.

Question from John Normal-Name: Did you hear that noise? What was that?

I took it to be a radio signal from a distant galaxy. But perhaps it was a fax coming through from 1993.

Question from Charles “Chick” Chicory: Do you have any pet peeves?

No, I’ve never kept a peeve as a pet. Only dogs, cats and walruses.

Question from Gideon Glock: Do you think you’ll ever get any better at this?

That’s exactly what my wife said on our wedding night!

Question from Princess Gladys of Glockenspiel: What is your favorite film about a bumbling idiot?

It’s a Blunderful Life.

Question from Rex Panther, Esquire: What are some sequels that are actually good?

The sequel to The Third Man was good, The Fourth Man. I liked the sequel to Dog Day Afternoon, Dog Day Early Evening. I also enjoyed the sequel to Modern Times, Post Modern Times.

Question from Colonel Nigel Stink-Bottom: I find your weak attempts at humor to be most unfunny.

How about my strong attempts?

Question from Sistine Chapplle: Will you please stop? This is getting tedious.

That's another thing my wife said on our wedding night!

Question from Nestor Pluckfeather: What is your most distinctive feature?

My extreme humility. I’m quite proud of it.

Question from Banzai Nipppleman: Do you know you're a real jerk?

No, but if you hum a few bars I can fake it.

Question from Dean Moriarty: How Much Does the Sky Weigh?

The Earth has a surface area of 197 million square miles. Multiply that by four billion, and you have the Earth's surface area in square inches. With atmospheric pressure being an average 14.7 lbs (6.6kg) per square inch, the sky weighs roughly 5.2 million billion metric tons. Another way of looking at it, according to the United Kingdom's Science and Technology Facilities Council, is in its equivalent to Indian elephants. By that measure, the sky weighs equal 570,000,000,000,000 adult Indian elephants.

Question from Lana Burner: How did you spend your summers as a child?

I worked on my uncle's donut farm. There's nothing comparable to getting up at dawn and picking a fresh glazed off the vine. Of course when you pull off a donut it creates the distinctive hole in the middle.

Question from Max A. Million: How ya doin'?

Pretty well, all things considered. How's about you?

25 January 2021

Gareth and Beth and a Confession and Some Porn -- A Love Story

Gareth told his wife, Beth the following: “I have a porn addiction.”

It was just after they’d had their Saturday morning breakfast in the cute little kitchen of the cute little house they’d be renting since their wedding six months before. (They hoped to someday buy their own home.)

“Ewww, Gareth, that’s disgusting!”

Gareth was surprised by his young wife’s answer (she was 21, he was 23). Gareth had expected Beth to be sympathetic and understanding with an offer to help in any way she could. But no.

“Why would you even tell me that? It’s so gross.”

Gareth bowed his head in shame.

“We’re doing it all the time!” Beth was practically shouting. “Isn’t that enough? What’s the matter with you?”

A few tears were making their way down Beth’s face.

Gareth felt sort of like he did when he was a kid and his parents chewed him out. He wanted to dig a hole and crawl into it.

Poor Gareth.

Poor Beth.

“Why? Can you at least tell me why you look at porn? Is it because I don’t satisfy you?”

“God know. That’s not it at all.” Gareth was concerned now that Beth had gotten the wrong impression. He was very much satisfied with the sex he enjoyed with Beth and had been ever since they first started dating four years before.

“Watching the porn is no reflection on you at all,” Gareth added desperately. “I guess, I mean I think, well, that is, I believe it’s sort of like any other addiction like gambling or drinking.”

“How? How the fuck is watching porn all the time like being an alcoholic? Explain that to me, Gareth, because right now I’m pretty confused about all this.”

Beth’s use of profanity — particularly the “f” word — was unusual for her.

Gareth was silent for several seconds as he desperately searched his mind for what to say.

So Beth continued: “I don’t get how you can watch that stuff and get any satisfaction at all. Can you explain that to me?” 

Beth was hurt and confused. She loved Gareth with all her heart.

Hectoring. Gareth remembered the word from some stupid book — a novel, he was pretty sure — that he read in college. He’d had to look it up at the time. Right now he felt like he was being hectored. He couldn’t believe that Beth was being so harsh with him. He felt like he had a problem, not like he was doing something wrong. Maybe the one wrong thing he’d done was share the problem with Beth.

“Look Beth, I’m sorry I brought it up. Let’s maybe just, uh, forget about it. I’ll deal with it. I’ll just stop looking at porn all together. I’ve tried before but this time for sure I’ll quit. You can even check the history on my computer every night.”

Gareth hoped that did the trick. He wanted this over. He wanted to get on with his day. 

“Why couldn’t you have done that in the first place? Why couldn’t you have decided this morning, ‘never again, I’m quitting’ then done it and left me out of it.”

“You’re right, that’s totally what I should have done. But I kind of thought we should share everything with each other.”

“Yeah, sure of course, but not that! That’s what you call —- what is it? — an exception for making it a rule. We get to have some secrets, after all.”

“Maybe you’re right,” Gareth said softly. He wished he could rewind to the beginning of breakfast and not say anything about his porn addiction. It was stupid of him.

“Have you cheated on me?” Beth asked with what Gareth thought was a real edge in her voice. It was a tone he’d never heard from her before and it upset him, just as the way she’d responded to his confession had bothered him.

“God no! How could you even think that, Bethy? You’ll always be the only one for me.” Gareth hoped his voice conveyed how hurt he was by Beth’s question. A question that felt a little bit like an accusation.

Gareth was reasonably certain he’d never cheat on Beth. The pretty new secretary at work was kind of flirtatious with Gareth, but he wasn’t tempted. If he could resist her….

“Well, to me it’s a kind of cheating that you’d look at porn. I mean, don’t you imagine doing it with the woman in the video?”

In truth, Gareth usually did picture himself being the one boinking the women in porn videos. That’s one reason he liked to look at a variety of kind of women. Blondes, brunettes, redheads, African Americans, Asians, Latinas, MILFs, teens, skinny, big-breasted. Through porn he’d been able to sample all kinds of women. In real life he’d only been with five women and two of them just once. They’d all been about the same age and were from the same town and if they didn’t exactly look alike, they were in the same ballpark. Porn had also allowed him to try it rough with some women and be dominated by others and experiment with different positions. While he loved sex with Beth it was all pretty straight-forward stuff. They usually preformed oral sex on one another and then had intercourse in one, two or three of the six basic positions they ever used. Since they’d gotten married all the sex had been in their bed and almost every time had been at night before going to sleep. What little variety there had been to their sex life was already fading. Maybe that’s what Gareth got out of porn.

“Well, do you, do you imagine you’re fucking the woman in the video?”

“No,” Gareth lied. He had to. “I’m just watching.”

“Just watching? Is that actually exciting for you? I mean does that turn you on?”

“Kind of, yeah. I mean it does, for sure. But the truth is that I don’t feel good after watching porn. Afterwards I feel kind of empty inside.” Gareth was surprised he said that about feeling empty afterwards. He’d never really thought about it and here he had said it.

“So why do you watch it if it makes you feel bad afterwards?”

Gareth was starting to get sick of the way his wife was talking to him. He felt like he was being cross-examined in some big criminal case. Gareth was starting to feel like telling Beth to shut the hell up.

“I don’t know,” Gareth said wearily. “The whole thing is hard to explain. I suppose it’s like how an alcoholic has a hangover and feels real bad the next morning but then that night they drink again.”

Beth finally recognized that her husband was feeling rotten. She loved Gareth with all her heart and since about their third or fourth date had been sure that he was her one true love and they’d be together — as she told her best friend Ruthie — “forever and always.” They’d had maybe five or six arguments ever and always over little things. Gareth was sweet to her and a good lover and everyone — including her family — liked him a lot. He had a good job at an insurance company where there was plenty of room for advancement and she was working as a checker at a grocery store and would continue to until she got pregnant. Everything had been just great. Now when he finally had a problem and opened up to her about it she’d reacted badly.

“I’m sorry, Gareth, honey, I’ve been really mean about this. I truly am sorry. Obviously this is something you didn’t have full control over and its made you feel bad and you want to correct it and you needed to confide in me. I guess I was just taken by surprise is all. Anything I can do to help, I’ll do it.”

Gareth was overwhelmed with relief. Beth had redeemed herself to him. It had seemed for awhile that she was an unsympathetic shrew. That was hardly the case after all.

“I love you, Bethy.” He said.

“I love you too, honey. One thing, I’m glad that it was porn you were addicted to and not booze or gambling, that would have cost us money.”

“For sure.”

“Wait, you didn’t spend any money on the porn, did you?”

“No, all the sites give you free videos to look at. More than enough, trust me.”

“Gareth, I was a hundred per cent honest that I’ll help you in any way I can but on the other hand I want to know as little as possible about porn. That stuff turns my stomach. Oh I don’t hold anything against people who do it. People got to make money how they can. In fact I had a friend in high school, Clarice Simpkins, who moved to LA and does porn under some name — ”

“Cherry Stone. That’s her porn name.”

“Oh god, that’s right, you knew Clarice too.”

“I’m not sure you’ll want to hear this, but I looked at some of her videos.”

Gareth immediately regretted sharing this information with his wife. But was pleasantly surprised by her response. 

“You did? Show me! I can’t believe I’m saying this but I’m curious as hell about what that mousy little girl looks like naked with some stud screwing her.”

Gareth was once again surprised by his wife.

“I’ll get my laptop,” he said cheerily.

A few minutes later they were watching Cherry Stone (nee Clarice Simpkins) in “Nerd girl gets fucked hard by two jock studs.”

Cherry Stone was slender, with small breasts, a milky white body with no tan at all, a small but curvaceous ass; she wore glasses in all her videos. 

Gareth had watched the video many times before.

Beth watched in stunned silence.

Cherry Stone had fellated both men who then took turns, in various positions, fucking her, after which they both ejaculated on her face.

“Oh my God!” Beth exclaimed when the video ended with her old friend smiling into the camera with ejaculate covering her face.

Gareth asked Beth if that was the first porn video she’d ever seen.

“Once in high school at a party I watched a minute or so of one but I was pretty drunk and don’t remember it so well. Tell me, do they do that a lot? I mean cum on a girl’s face.”

“Yup, that’s a regular feature of porn videos.”

“That blows my mind. You better never want to do that to me.”

In truth Gareth had very much wanted to but could never figure out how to suggest it to Beth, especially since he was 99 per cent certain that she would say, absolutely not.

Gareth poured his wife another cup of coffee. Then he poured himself another cup. They sat in silence for a minute, each lost in their thoughts.

Gareth was glad that things seemed to have worked out and he promised himself that he would never look at porn again. He looked around the kitchen and thought that maybe, as Beth had suggested several times, he would paint it. He also thought that this might be a good day to work on the bathroom door which was squeaky.

Beth decided that she wasn’t going to be bothered by the fact that Gareth had looked at porn. She figured that most men did and it was a good sign that her husband had confessed. She was also curious about porn and what kind of videos there were. She was also blown away by seeing Clarice getting screwed. Beth sipped her coffee and wondered why her coffee wasn’t as good as her mother’s. She thought about maybe dropping by her parent’s house and looking at the spare towels and sheets mother said she could have.

Gareth ended the silence with a question: “What are you going to do today, Bethy?” 

“I think I’ll visit my folks for a bit. Mom said she had extra towels and sheets we could have. We don’t have enough towels and it would be nice to have an extra set of sheets. How about you?”

“I’m going to finally get to the bathroom door. There’s also a game on I want to watch. Ya wanna go to a movie tonight?”

“Maybe,” Beth answered. “It depends on what’s playing.”

They were silent again for a little while they drank their coffee. Then Beth said: “To tell you the truth, Gareth, I…..” Beth stopped talking, not able to finish what she was about to say.

“What, what is it?” Gareth was curious — especially because of the previous conversation.

“Actually, I’d like to take a look some more of that porn. It’s just that I’m curious.”

Gareth was stunned and — though he would never admit it (even to himself) — pleased.

“It’s not that it turns me on or anything,” Beth said realizing that it kind of did.

“I understand,” Gareth said. 

There was an awkward silence.

“Well?” Beth asked.

“Oh, so right now?”


“What do you want to see? I mean what kind. There’s a lot of different kinds.”

This hadn’t occurred to Beth before. “Show me one you like.”

Gareth decided he’d show her a straight-forward conventional video of a man and woman having normal sex. He also decided it would be best if both participants were white. Gareth searched for Star Bloom, a porn star he liked because she was much prettier than most. She tended not to be in kinky videos.

“Okay, here’s one.”

It was called “Star Bloom has passionate sex with a stranger.”

Beth and Gareth sat next to each other and watched the seven minute and twenty second video. Gareth found Star Bloom to be incredibly hot and loved to imagine being with her. He tried to watch it more dispassionately with Beth sitting right there next to him. Beth was intrigued by the video. The couple seemed really into it and used four different positions. She recognized that the woman was attractive and saw why any man would like her. She noted that the camera pretty much ignored the man’s face. Beth loved his long, muscular body and how well-hung he was. 

If Gareth imagines himself doing it with the woman, I sure can imagine myself doing it with the man, she thought.

When the video was over, Beth had Gareth give her a tour of some of the other types of videos. She didn’t like the rough sex or the three-ways or some of the silly scenarios they made up. She was intrigued by all the inter-racial sex and surprised by how many featured teens, or at least girls who were supposedly teens. That some of these girls were with much older men disgusted her.

Finally Beth said: “Okay, that’s enough. I’ve seen plenty. A life time’s worth. I can’t believe just how much there is of that stuff.”

“And I never even showed you the amateur stuff.”

“Amateur? What’s that?”

“Kind of what it sounds like. People who aren’t paid. They make their own. Sometimes the man films it or someone else does, without the woman knowing.”

“That’s just wrong.”

“Yeah, it is.”

“So you’re done with all this? You think you can stop looking at it from now on?”

“I promise you, Bethy.”

Later that day Gareth fixed the bathroom door and made plans for painting the kitchen. Then he watched the game he’d been looking forward to. Beth went to her parents house and visited for a bit and got the spare towels and sheets. On the way home she did the grocery shopping.

Beth and Gareth went to a movie that night. It was a comedy that they both enjoyed.

Before going to sleep they made love. For Gareth it was as good as always. For Beth it was somehow better. She laid in bed after wondering why. Gareth started snoring and Beth realized that this would be one of those night in which she’d have trouble sleeping.

She went into the living room, opened her laptop and searched for porn. Beth watched porn videos for two hours. When she saw it was 3:15 she said out loud, “oh shit.”

22 January 2021

Visions of Normal Life Dance Tantalizingly in my Mind

Amanda Gorman at the inauguration 

I don't flinch when I my phone pings with a news alert. 

I don't go to Twitter or news sites fearful of what horrible thing has happened now.

When I think about the future of the country I don't sink into despair.

There's hope.

I get an email on inauguration day evening from a cousin in Finland who expressed relief at the swearing in of the new president and offered congratulations to the United States. This reflected the feelings of many around the world and in the U.S. I watched the ceremonies and it felt like the nation had awakened from a nightmare.

I got choked up when Kamala Harris -- the first woman Vice President and the first Vice President of color -- was sworn in. Change is slow but most welcome when it arrives. I loved the poem by that lovely young woman, Amanda Gorman, who has become instantly famous.

Earlier this week drought-stricken Northern California suffered well above average temperatures, dry conditions and fierce winds. Beyond depressing. Today it is cold, we've had scattered showers and it looks as if more is to come. Thank you, President Biden.

In a couple of hours I'll have my annual physical which I do every year and once every twelve months. I had my blood work done last month and if anything was amiss I'd have already heard (one supposes) I've got no terrible aches or pains to report so I'm anticipating a routine visit. My weight is probably a little too much owing to gyms being closed and me not being able to do aerobics. I do work out at home six days a week and take long walks so I'm not morbidly obese. Plus my diet is good. On the other hand there is my emotional state which, given severe depression and occasional anxiety, is far from perfect. But I haven't contemplated jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge and have yet to run down the street naked, waving a meat cleaver, so I'm getting along all right. 

It has come to my attention that I get older everyday. This was of little consequence when I was ten years old or twenty-three of thirty-six or even fifty. But for the last ten years it's something that I think about -- far too much. I've not come up with the a solution to this getting older business nor the fact that it inevitably leads to death. The idea of being no more is a difficult one to comprehend but we all face it. I suppose the key is how we face it. Needless to say living each day we have to the fullest is a highly recommended approach. I am not altogether successful at this. Many days I barely live at all if depression has a firm grip. But even on my worst days I usually manage to watch and enjoy a film, read a bit and take sustenance. Many people are much worse off. We're now heading into the direction of counting one's blessings which should be done right along with living to the fullest.

It is of great comfort to be able to write and not be awful at it. Today I wrote the first draft of a short story and am writing this, of course. For much of the week I've been working on novel number four. I manage to write every weekday and most weekend days as well. Thank the heavens for that.

There's no escaping the fact that coronavirus is still with us and many more will die from it. It's odd to think that much of what the missus and I have done these past ten months has been centered around merely staying alive. Wearing masks, maintaining social distances, avoiding particularly crowded orgies and the like. As a decrepit old man I won't have to wait long to get the vaccine. That'll be still another great relief. Visions of normal life dance tantalizingly in my mind. The new administration in Washington will help facilitate that in countless ways.

Cheers, everybody.

18 January 2021

Ten Lists of Ten Films For Your MLK Day Enjoyment

His Girl Friday

Regular readers of this blog (Jezebel Jabberwocky of Weed, CA) may recall that last Memorial Day I provided ten lists of ten films in various categories. Much to everyone's chagrin this has become regular holiday feature. Subsequent installments have appeared on this site on Independence Day, Labor Day, Indigenous Peoples Day, Veteran's DayThanksgiving Day and most recently on Boxing Day. A ninth installment will be posted on President's Day. Meanwhile, please enjoy my Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday lists. 

My Ten Favorite Films of the 1940s

1. His Girl Friday (1940) Hawks

2. Rome, Open City (1945) Rossellini

3. Casablanca (1942) Curtiz

4. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) Huston

5. Foreign Correspondent (1940) Hitchcock

6. Sullivan’s Travels (1941) Sturges

7. It’s A Wonderful Life (1946) Capra

8. The Third Man (1949) Reed

9. The Talk of the Town (1942) Stevens

10.The Grapes of Wrath (1940) Ford

The Lady Eve
My Ten Favorite Films Starring Barbara Stanwyck

1.The Lady Eve (1941) P. Sturges 

2. Double Indemnity (1944) Wilder

3. Meet John Doe (1941) Capra

4. Christmas in Connecticut (1945) Godfrey

5. Ball of Fire (1941) Hawks

6. Baby Face (1933) Green

7. The Furies (1950) Mann

8. Banjo On My Knee (1936) Cromwell

9. Sorry, Wrong Number (1948) Litvak

10. Remember the Night (1940) Leisen

My Ten Favorite Films Featuring  a Best Actor Oscar Performance

1. The Lost Weekend (1945) Wilder— Ray Milland

2. Hamlet (1948) Olivier — Laurence Olivier

3. Stalag 17 (1953) Wilder — William Holden

4. Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) Lean — Alec Guiness

5. The Godfather (1972) Coppola — Marlon Brando

6. Network (1976) Lumet— Peter Finch

7. Raging Bull (1980) Scorsese — Robert DeNiro

8. Philadelphia (1993) Demme — Tom Hanks

9. Milk (2008) Van Sant — Sean Penn

10. Manchester By the Sea (2016) Lonergan — Casey Affleck

City Lights
My Ten Favorite Films Directed by Charlie Chaplin

My Ten Favorite Films Starring SNL Alums

1. Groundhog Day (1993) Ramis — Bill Murray

2. Trading Places (1983) Landis — Eddie Murphy and DanAckroyd

3. Animal House (1978) Landis -- John Belushi

4. Palm Springs (2020) Barbakow -- Andy Samberg

5. Skeleton Twins (2014) Johnson — Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader

6. Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997) Roach — Mike Myers

7. Elf (2003) Favreau — Will Ferrell

8. Punch-Drunk Love (2002) P.T. Anderson — Adam Sandler

9. Mean Girls (2004) Waters —  Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Tim Meadows and Ana Gasteyer

10. Stripes (1981) Reitman — Bill Murray

Ten Terrific Films With Great Portrayals of Real People

1. The Aviator (2004) Scorsese Katharine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett)

2. Raging Bull (1980) Scorsese Jake LaMotta (Robert DeNiro)

3. Milk (2008) Van Sant Harvey Milk (Sean Penn)

4. Amistad (1997) Spielberg John Quincy Adams (Anthony Hopkins)

5. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood Sharon (2019) Tarantino Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie)

6. Dog Day Afternoon (1975) Lumet Sonny Wortzik (Al Pacino)

7. Zodiac (2007) Finchner Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.)

8. All the President’s Men (1976) Pakula Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman)

9. Malcolm X (1992) S. Lee Malcolm X (Denzel Washington)

10. Downfall (2004) Hirschbiegel Adolph Hitler (Bruno Ganz)

2001: A Space Odyssey
My Ten Favorite Films With a Number in the Title

1. 2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick)

2. The 39 Steps (1935) Hitchcock

3. 8 1/2 (1963) Fellini

4. Three Days of the Condor (1975) Pollack

5. Seven Samurai (1954) Kurosawa

6. Slaughterhouse-Five (1972) Hill

7. 12 Angry Men (1957) Lumet

8. Stalag 17 (1953) Wilder

9. The 400 Blows (1959) Truffaut

10. Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994) Newell

Ten Favorite Films in Which a Main Character is a Teacher or Professor

1. Election (1999) Payne -- Matthew Broderick

2. Animal House (1978) Landis -- Donald Sutherland

3. Half Nelson (2006) Fleck --  Ryan Gosling

4. Dead Poet’s Society (1989) Weir -- Robin Williams

5.  Rushmore (1998) W. Anderson -- Jason Schwartzman

6.  Manhattan (1979) Allen -- Michael Murphy

7.  A Serious Man (2009) Coens -- Michael Stuhlbarg

8.  Mean Girls (2004) Waters -- Tina Fey

9.  Wonder Boys (2000) Hanson --  Michael Douglas

10. Notes on a Scandal (2006) Eyre -- Cate Blanchett

Do the Right Thing
My Ten Favorite Films for Black History Month

1. Do the Right Thing (1989) Lee

2. Malcolm X (1992) Lee

3. Glory (1989) Zwick

4. Boyz N the Hood (1991) Singleton

5.  Amistad (1997) Spielberg

6.  12 Years a Slave (2013) McQueen

7.  Moonlight (2016) Jenkins

8.  Blindspotting (2018) Estrada

9.  Get Out (2017) Peele

10. Mudbound (2017) Rees

Ten Great Films Featuring a Character Who’s A Drunk

1. Holiday (1938) Cukor — Lew Ayres

2. Stagecoach (1939) Ford — Thomas Mitchell

3. Leaving Las Vegas (1995) Figgis -- Nicholas Cage

4. City Lights (1931)— Harry Myers

5. The Lost Weekend (1945) Wilder— Ray Milland

6.  The Philadelphia Story (Cukor) — Roland Young

7. The Verdict (1982) Lumet — Paul Newman

8. The Way Back (2020) O'Connor — Ben Affleck

9. Arthur (1981) Gordon — Dudley Moore

10. Days of Wine and Roses (1962) — Jack Lemmon


14 January 2021

Ten American Films That Capture The Soul of America

Wild Boys of the Road

The premise is simple. I here present ten American films from the last ninety years that in their own way reveal aspects of the American zeitgeist. As both a visual and oral story-telling medium, cinema is uniquely qualified to mirror society and its ever-changing norms and shifting ideals and concerns. Between them the films I've selected do not capture every aspect of this country’s culture, but they do represent different times, different moods and different places reflective of the American experience, spirit and soul. The films I selected are:

Wild Boys of the Road (1933) Wellman

The Grapes of Wrath (1940) Ford

On the Waterfront  (1954) Kazan

The Great Escape (1963) J. Sturges

The Last Picture Show (1971) Bogdanovich

Taxi Driver (1976) Scorsese

Do the Right Thing (1989) S. Lee

The Ice Storm  (1997) A. Lee

Mean Girls (2004) Waters

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019) Tarantino

I don’t pretend that this is a definitive list. One could easily include another dozen or more films (I’ve got examples at the end of the post) and other people would have selected some very different movies for the same task. But I believe these films, from nine different decades and ten different directors, provide an introduction into an exploration of the American soul through film.

The first two films on this list are both set during the Great Depression which effected nearly every American — most adversely. The Depression wasn’t just a devastating economic event that dominated political discourse, it insinuated itself into the culture. Early on movies did two things with the Depression: try to make sense of it and try to distract people from it. These two films stared the Depression in the eye.

Wild Boys of the Road follows a group of teenagers who’ve left home to take their chances on the road. The main protagonist Eddie (Frankie Darro) has done so to ease the financial burden on his parents. It is an unflinching look at the hardships everyday Americans faced, particularly those who “rode the rails.” We see the brutality of those enforcing the law, whether city police or railroad bulls. There is a rape, a boy is maimed and children are arrested. Despite this, Wild Boys of the Road is not a pessimistic film. It is imbued with the spirit of can-do American youth and the belief that everyone is entitled to an even break. Wild Boys is also not sentimental. The ending is hopeful, not sappy. The kids are plucky and determined, unwilling to bow to the enormous obstacles that have been put in front of their pursuit of the American dream. It is a classic of the pre-code era directed by William Wellman,  arguably the greatest director of the pre-code era. In addition to Wild Boys he directed Heroes For Sale (1933) which is another hard look at the Depression, The Public Enemy (1931) and Midnight Mary (1933).

My favorite of John Ford’s films is Grapes of Wrath which explores a different aspect of the Depression, the Dust Bowl and the migration west from it by the people who came to be known as Okies. Based on the Pulitzer Prize winning novel by John Steinbeck, the film follows the fortunes of the Joad family, specifically Tom Joad who we meet after he’s released from prison after serving time for manslaughter. Tom is a sort of everyman, despite his time behind bars (after all it was self-defense). Through him we discover the devastation that has been visited upon the Great Plains by the combined might of Mother Nature and banks. Farms have been lost, families displaced and some people have given up or gone mad. The Joad family embodies the spirit of a people who push on, dreaming of greener grass on the other side — in this case California, where there are supposedly jobs aplenty. Upon arriving in the promised land they are confronted by the hard truth that this is no eden after all and the competition for menial jobs is stiff and the bosses are greedy and uncaring. To organize is to court trouble. Strike breakers are a vicious enemy as are — sadly — the police. Grapes of Wrath is a beautifully filmed and filled with brilliant performances (Henry Fonda, Jane Darwell, John Carradine to name a few) and in my mind one of the best films in the American canon. Part of its brilliance stems from — like Wild Boys, only more poetically — it’s realism. Again this is a film without sentimentally but one with a sense of hope. A cynical movie about the Depression would be cruel. Grapes of Wrath is no joyous romp but it does reflect the power of the American spirit.

On the Waterfront
On the Waterfront is a compelling film on a lot of levels. It is about working men, it is about corruption, it is about organized crime, it is about unions, it is about the often very fine line between truth-telling and betrayal, it is about the power of the group and the power of the individual. Set in the docks of  New Jersey in the 1950s, Waterfront was a star vehicle for Marlon Brando who portrayed the conflicted longshoreman, Terry Malloy. Malloy is a simple working class stiff who coulda been a contender as a boxer but has had to settle for the dreary nine-to-five routine. He is protected by a strong union (albeit a corrupt one) but is also at its mercy. A crime commission is investigating the union and others like it and stool pigeons are being dealt harsh mob justice. It is a classic story of how far loyalty goes and the heavy price of being honest. It was also a story ripped from the day’s headlines and thus resonated with audiences. Waterfront looked at American brotherhood and its corruption by evil forces. Another dichotomy of the American Dream. Lee J. Cobb, Rod Steiger, Karl Malden and Eva Marie Saint also feature as part of one of the best casts ever assembled. 

The Great Escape was a phenomenon in the early and mid 1960s. It had an all-star cast led by Mr. Cool himself, Steve McQueen. It was set during the “Good War” when Americans were unquestionably the good guys. It was a true story. It had action. It was smart. It was beautifully shot. Americans have always loved war pictures of all kinds and have made scads of them, from the jingoistic and racist to gritty dramas with strong character development to the fantastical explosion-laden adventure story, to the faithfully told true story. Stars ranging from John Wayne, to Humphrey Bogart, to Brad Pitt to Clint Eastwood to Lee Marvin, to Cary Grant to Henry Fonda to Ben Affleck to George C. Scott to William Holden have featured. Casablanca (1942) Curtiz, can be safely considered the most popular of WWII films, as well as one of the most critically esteemed. But the Great Escape — the true story of a mass escape from a German POW camp during World War II — symbolized American derring do in the form of McQueen’s character Virgil Hilts. He was an individualist, thumbing his nose at the hated Nazis and he did it with verve, as encapsulated by his vain attempt to escape through the Alps on a motorcycle. The British were our allies, they were good, disciplined, smart people, but to American audiences they lacked the panache of Yankees like Hilts. Hilts was a one-man case of American exceptionalism.

The Last Picture Show shone a very bright light on small town America, Texas style. It’s cast of characters included lonely housewives, carousing youngsters, grizzled and wise elders, dashing playboys and the mentally challenged. It is at heart a sad story of emptiness and loss and the great efforts people make to escape their doldrums, without physically leaving. Sex is an escape. Drinking is an escape. The movies are an escape. Sports are an escape. But only a character who joins the army really gets away (and that to the confines of military life). This is an America rarely depicted in films but one that tens if not hundreds of millions have lived in. Life offers small rewards, sparingly doled out. Despair lurks around the corner for most, yet hope is a constant — whether justified or not. The Last Picture Show avoids being depressing; it has compelling characters whose stories are relatable and engaging. When a teenage boy psychologically wounds the middle aged women with whom he’s had an affair, we feel her rage just as we sympathize with the young man. They are all victims. America would not have been ready for The Last Picture Show anytime before it’s premier, but it came at a time when — with an unpopular war raging in Vietnam and cultural values shifting -- introspection and self-critique came into vogue.

Taxi Driver
Taxi Driver takes us into the heart of the big city — indeed America’s biggest — and it is not a journey for the meek of heart. Our guide is one Travis Bickle (Robert DeNiro) a disaffected taxi driver, war veteran and loner who — when he can’t find love — looks for meaning. But his is a damaged mind and his quest ends in bloody massacre and this after he nearly assassinates a presidential candidate. Taxi Driver explores the underbelly of the American urban experience and the deranged individuals there formed. Yet is it a poetic film and like all great cinema is never depressing -- in large part because it is so honest. It is also about the loneliness of the big city and how easy it is to get lost deep in the recesses of your own mind. Bickle is hardly an American everyman, but he is a product of a culture that over values individualism. Bickle is, in his own way, also a crusader whose ultimate goal is to do the right thing.

American cinema has largely shied away from issues of race but a major exception can be found in Spike Lee’s seminal 1989 film Do the Right Thing. The tension is palpable, the violence as if from a documentary, the issues are timeless. It’s set in New York but could just as easily be in any other large American city. There are types of people but no stereotypes of people. These are strong, well-crafted characters who as an ensemble reflect much of the joy and pain of being an other in white America. Do the Right Thing climaxes in a confrontation between the white owners of a pizzeria and its black customers. Into this scene comes a character who is restrained by police officers  — as if the story was ripped from headlines from the future —and is  killed in the process. A riot ensues. No one wins. There’s a harsh message right there. No one wins. Like many great films, DTRT asks questions rather than feeding audiences easy answers. It thus allows — nay, insists — that viewers do their own thinking, examining both the state of American race relations and their own feelings on the topic. Lee has made much of the fact that many viewers are more concerned with the destruction of the pizzeria than they are with the death of a character. DTRT can thus be seen as a kind of American racial litmus test.

Ice Storm is simply the best representation of suburbia ever committed to film and not incidentally a clever look at the 1970s and the upper middle class. The wise ones here are the teenagers who variously pursue love or find meaning in comic books our follow the latest news on Watergate. The adults go to key parties for a sad, perverted form of the sexual revolution and incidentally cheat on each other in less open, totally dishonest ways. Truth is spoken by the teenaged girl whose offering of grace at Thanksgiving is an attack on American consumerism and the theft of the lands from Native Americans. This is a decadent America that has lost its values. It is a prettified suburban version of The Last Picture Show. Ice Storm is an exposure of desolation of hearts in a soulless land of cocktail parties and banality. Remarkably we don't come to hate nor necessarily dislike any of the characters, that would be too easy.

Mean Girls
I’ve long championed Mean Girls as not only a cultural phenomenon but, a great film. On the surface it’s a light teen comedy that satirizes the high school experience, but it’s — perhaps despite its own intentions — far more than that. It is wise and witty and revealing of the cliques, social hierarchies and peer pressure that make the high school experience a fraught one for many. High school can be a walk in the park for some students while a race through a land mine ridden field for others. Other teen films — including those set in high schools — tend to focus on boys and how they will be boys. As the title suggest Mean Girls has a primarily female cast and given the struggles and triumphs and dramatic ups and downs of its main character, Cady (Lindsay Lohan) it can be seen as post feminist. Hierarchies and status are based less on merit and more on wealth. Beauty is extolled over intelligence. Social standing trumps academic standing. There are a lot of aspects to the high school experience that are universal, but still others that are unique to the United States and Mean Girls is adept at portraying them. The films journey to a happy ending is a fraught one with obstacles aplenty. Along the way viewers are guided through socialization American high school style.

I don’t know that any other film has captured the time period it depicts better than Quentin Tarantino’s OUTH. The sights, the sounds and even the colors of late Sixties California are so vivid as to be transformative. It is also a film rich in themes and ideas and history. It is about celebrity, about the film and television industry, about an era, about cults and about the struggle to stay relevant and popular in a competitive world. As he did in another of his great films, Inglorious Basterds (2009), Tarantino re-writes history and again it feels like the right thing to do for the story. In addition to reflecting a time, place and a mood, movies are good for occasionally taking us away from reality and if creating a new one is necessary, so be it. But the broader point about OUTH is its exploration of a given time in which the U.S. underwent the mad melding of the hip new counter culture with the tradition bound. Some people fully embraced the hippie movement, others adapted aspects of it such as longer hair or experimenting with drugs or listening to rock music. The late Sixties were a time when squares like Dean Martin and cool cats like The Beatles were competing in music’s top forty. The establishment’s Bob Hope and the counter culture’s George Carlin were both making American’s laugh. The establishment was providing jobs and financial security at the same time it was benefitting from institutionalized racism and sending young men to die in Vietnam. Meanwhile the counter culture was offering exciting alternatives in everything from music to fashion to gaining awareness at the same time it was producing the Manson Family and drug overdoses and runaways. OUTH gets it all and through the mores it explores provides a uniquely American kaleidoscope.

Other films I considered for this article were: Heroes For Sale (1933) Wellman, My Man Godfrey (1936) LaCava, The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) Wyler, Rebel Without A Cause (1955) Ray, Midnight Cowboy (1969) SchlesingerShampoo (1975)Network (1976) Lumet,  Ashby, Platoon (1986) Stone, Boyz N the Hood (1991) Singleton, The Truman Show (1998) Weir, Milk (2008) Van Sant, and Get Out (2017) Peele. I highly recommend them all.