30 April 2021

A Killer Elephant and How People Respond to an Acquaintance Writing a Novel

Everyday on page two of the New York Times there appears a feature called “A Headline in History.” It offers a headline from a past edition of the Times with a brief summary of the story, sometimes with follow-up information. I found Monday’s “Headline in History” to be particularly interesting. A slightly edited version follows.

Elephant Kills His Trainer

From April 26, 1901. Big Charley, an elephant weighing over three tons was bathing in a river in Peru, Indiana when he attacked his trainer, Henry Huffman. First, he wrapped his trunk around Huffman and tossed him into the water. The trainer emerged, approached the pachyderm and said, “Why, Charles, I did not think that of you you, aren’t you ashamed of yourself?” The elephant responded by once again grabbing Huffman, then holding him down on the bottom of the river. Men fired rifles at Big Charley to no avail, even shooting strychnine-laced apples. He eventually ate one of the apples and an hour later lay down in agony. “A rifle shot settled him down.”

However, according to the website, Roadside America, Charley had bashed Huffman’s head against rocks before drowning him.The website further claimed that Huffman had been the only person who had any control over the elephant. The trainer had been unable to take Big Charley for a bath during the previous three weeks due to either an injury or an illness and the elephant presumably was angry at Huffman for the neglect.

In an issue a few weeks after the tragedy, the Marion Star published a different account of the events. In it they quoted the circus’ press agent, Harry Hardy (the second HH involved in this story). By his telling Big Charley threw Huffman “fully fifty feet” into the bushes. As the elephant approached him Huffman exclaimed, “Charlie, do you want to kill me? Why do you treat me like this? Come back, I won’t hurt you.” Big Charley then took hold of Huffman again and plunged into the river and held his trainer under the water until he drowned. “Lifting the lifeless keeper out of the water, the elephant looked at him to see whether he was alive or dead. Apparently satisfied with his work, the brute then threw his dead keeper into mid-stream.” After which he took his bath, as usual. According to this account, farmers with shotgun were recruited to slay the animal, though again death resulted from a strychnine-laced apple. An almost identical account to this one appears in the Indianapolis Journal a few days after Huffman’s death.

The Star and Journal accounts would seem to be more reliable as they appeared within days of the incident and quote a source.

Huffman was neither the first nor last wild animal trainer to be killed by his charge. Today many people are more sensitive to the plight of animals and sympathize with them. I join those who feel that wild animals should, with rare exceptions, be left to the wild where they belong and are happiest. I do not feel that the trainer, as some might say, got his comeuppance. The punishment, the loss of life itself, outweighs the crime. This is certainly true in an eye-for-an-eye sense. 

Besides the different versions of the story that I found, I was most struck by the horrible manner of Huffman’s death. Drowning has to be horrible way to go and to know in your dying moments that an animal you trusted is killing, would make it all the worse. Big Charley was killed in retaliation. There’s no way he could have escaped such punishment in those days, nor likely would today. It would have been better for all concerned if Big Charley had been able to live out his life in the wild where he belonged.


I’ve noticed in the past eighteen months how differently people respond when you tell them either that you’ve written a novel or are working on one. Of course most folks are positive and supportive and congratulate you or ask what the book is about. However some people — for reasons I can’t quite fathom — don’t want to know. I had a friend (since deceased) who literally would say nothing if I mentioned my novel or the writing that was keeping me busy. I’m not exaggerating, he’d say not a word. After a long ensuing silence I might bring up another topic or he might. An ex-colleague of mine who I'd been regularly emailing with, has not responded since I told him that my first book had been published. That was over a year ago. I’m dead to him because I wrote a book? Other people will give you a quick perfunctory response but betray no curiosity. It’s as if some people are embarrassed that they know someone who’s written a book. Last weekend I was out for a stroll when I came across another former colleague. In the course of our conversation I mentioned my second book being published. I said it was about Finnish-American reporter in Berkeley in 1941 who uncovers a Nazi spy ring. He had the gall to ask, “wouldn’t the reporter, being Finnish, be sympathetic to the Nazis?” I politely said that such a contention was ridiculous. Finland was at war with the USSR and then the Nazis invaded and Finland was in an the-enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend situation. There were virtually no Nazi Finns and indeed many more Communist Finns. Meanwhile Finns in America were mostly Democrats and certainly not Nazi sympathizers. My one-time co-worker asked nothing else about my book. He was clearly trying to undermine my entire work. (I should here add that this is the same person who once publicly insulted me and by way of apology left me a note that begin, “I’m sorry if I hurt your feelings but…” A note rather than in-person apology, the IF I hurt you and then the excuse. I knew then he was not a man of character.)

I do not tell people about my writings to brag, or to try to get them to read it or to even suggest that I’m this century’s Charles Dickens. All I really expect is for a person to practice social niceties as they normally would. I hasten to add that I do not seek people to tell about my books. It is always people I know and it is usually a way of updating them on my doings. It seems a natural thing to tell people what you've been up to. I should also reiterate that most people are nice about it. I do wonder about the others.

27 April 2021

Comparing Films Not Always Easy, But I Do it With Three Westerns

John Wayne and Montgomery Clift in Red River

In the summer of 1998 I was talking with a friend of mine who’d recently seen an obscure film about Native Americans called Smoke Signals (1998) Eyre. He told me that he liked it better than Saving Private Ryan (1998) Spielberg, another recent release. I found this an extremely odd comparison and was tempted to ask how he thought Smoke Signals compared with Casablanca (1942) Curtiz. Other than the fact that they were new films Smoke Signals and Saving Private Ryan had nothing in common. In some respects it’s akin to saying that you prefer the orange you just ate to the spaghetti dinner from last night.
 They're both food but....

Comparing films, however much you stretch it, is what people do. It is what the Oscars are all about. Five acting performances are nominated, voters compare and pick the one they think is best. Never mind that Anthony Hopkins playing a man with dementia in The Father (2020) Zeller is a totally different process than Riz Ahmed portraying a young recovering addict who has lost his hearing in Sound of Metal (2019) Marder

But surely some comparisons make more sense than others. Comparing Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) Lean with Schindler’s List (1993) Spielberg because they are both set during World War II doesn’t make a lot of sense. You may like one a lot better than the other but more likely you enjoy them for different reasons (or I suppose dislike them for different reasons). Speaking of Saving Private Ryan and the year 1998, I had another friend say he preferred The Thin Red Line (1998) Malick over Ryan, both were released around the same time. Though I disagreed with him, his comparison at least made sense as there were enough similarities to warrant a comparison. 

Certainly comparing Sean Connery as James Bond with portrayals by Roger Moore, Pierce Brosnan and Daniel Craig is valid. Just as are comparisons of the different versions of films like True Grit, 3:10 to Yuma and The Getaway. A Night to Remember (1998) Baker and Titanic (1997) Cameron lend themselves to comparison as they are both about the same event.

Returning to ’98, it would have made more sense for my friend to have simply said how much he liked Smoke Signals and leaving the Spielberg film out of it. If he really needed to compare it to something he could have chosen other films that are about Native Americans.

All this has been a perhaps overly lengthy preamble to allow me to compare some films.

On Sunday I watched Silverado (1985) Kasdan a movie I hadn’t seen since its initial release over three decades ago. I had no recollection of my response to the film and have been meaning to re-watch it for years. I shouldn’t have bothered. It was not only a mediocre film (that’s being charitable) it suffered badly in comparison to the movie I’d watched the day before, Red River (1948) Hawks

I believe it valid to compare the two films because they are both Westerns. 

Silverado is a series of shootouts between very bad guys (why they all weren’t wearing black hats is a mystery) and very good guys (and why didn't they all don white hats?). The bad guys all got killed. The good guys all survived. There were moments of supposed tension but the film was such that one never worried about the outcome. Everything was perfectly predicable up to including an ending that I saw a mile way. But Silverado’s biggest offense was the one dimensionality of its characters. It was a terrible waste of a good cast led by Kevin Kline, Kevin Costner, Scott Glenn and Danny Glover. Not a one of them was nuanced.

Red River is all about character. As Thomas Dunson, John Wayne got one of the few roles he was really able to sink his teeth into and show his acting chops (limited as they were). The Dunson we initially meet is heroic, brave and determined. The man he turns into is cruel, paranoid and dangerously stubborn. There is great complexity to him and his relationship with his adopted son Matt Garth played perfectly by Montgomery Clift. Red River is a western epic with incredible scenes of a lengthy cattle drive from southern Texas to Kansas, replete with bad weather, stampedes, playful banter, conflict and the inevitable Indian attack. 

As Red River reaches its denouement viewers marvel at the incredible journey and wonder at how the central conflict between Dunson and Garth will resolve itself. 

Perhaps I was wrong, maybe you can’t compare Silverado with Red River as there is no comparison.

Paul Newman in Hud
Yesterday I watched a more modern Western, set in the early 1960s, Hud (1963) Ritt. I don’t know that it warrants comparison with Silverado or Red River but if so it far surpasses the former and is in the rarefied air of the latter. 

Paul Newman plays Hud, as self-centered and amoral a character as has ever been on screen. But audiences took to Hud the character and thus the movie. They actually liked Hud, most likely because he was played by one of the handsomest and most magnetic actors of all time. But also because, among his other undeniable characteristics, was cynicism. Cynics make for good film characters because they don’t ask audiences to believe in anything and indeed support their questioning of a lot. Hud is also a maverick and a womanizer and what film-goer can pass on someone like that when played by a blue-eyed beauty.

The cast also includes Oscar-winning performances by Melvyn Douglas and Patricia Neal. The later brings an interesting sort of sensuality to her role as the common but wise maid employed by the three ranchers (Grandpa, Hud and teenaged Lonnie played ably by Brandon De Wilde). Newman was nominated for an Oscar but lost to Sidney Poitier.

The film Hud is ostensibly about a successful cattle rancher who must face losing his entire herd to hoof-and-mouth disease. When the possibility of the herd being infected is first presented, Hud suggests selling off the herd to unsuspecting buyers. That’s his moral compass in a nutshell. And here he expresses it: “This country is run on epidemics, where you been? Price fixing, crooked TV shows, inflated expense accounts. How many honest men you know? Why you separate the saints from the sinners, you're lucky to wind up with Abraham Lincoln. Now I want out of this spread what I put into it, and I say let us dip our bread into some of that gravy while it is still hot.”

But Hud is a multi-layered film as most great ones are (and it is, in my estimation, a great film). It is about family, regrets, hidden resentments and open resentments. Lonnie is in some way the central character. He is torn between an abiding love for his charismatic Uncle Hud and his own basic goodness, doubtless inherited from his grandfather. Lonnie yo-yos back and forth between wanting to raise hell with Hud and do the right thing. He makes his choice at the end of the film. 

Neal’s Alma Brown is also crucial to the story’s arc. She is the oft-bemused observer, offering wry comments while tirelessly supporting the men. Hud and Lonnie both lust after her and who wouldn’t? She is all long legs, bare feet, a lithe body capped by smoldering smiles. 

Hud and Red River are exceptional films centered around complex characters in trying circumstances. Other than being Westerns, they are not easy films to classify. That’s a good thing. 

24 April 2021

Getting to Know Me -- Absolutely True Facts About Me (For Real)

Yours truly and youngest daughter circa 1989.

Last August I wrote a post in which I listed "true" facts about myself. It was a humor piece as anyone with half a brain could tell (thus leaving Republicans quite confused). Today I present "no, seriously" facts about myself. All guaranteed true.

I have dual citizenship, Finnish and U.S.

I completed a two year M.A. program in history in one year and graduated with distinction.

I scored the winning goal in overtime in my sixteen and under soccer team’s state championship victory.

I have never bowled.

In 1991 I met and shook hands with my hero, Muhammad Ali.

As a reporter I interviewed Jerry Brown, Margo St. James, Jane Fonda, Willie McCovey and Pete Rose.

My oldest daughter was born on May 5th (5/5) at 5:05. My youngest daughter was born on December 27 (12/27) at 12:27.

My father was at the helm of a merchant marine ship that was sunk by a Japanese submarine in the Arabian Sea. 

A paper I wrote for a graduate course on the Bay Area response to the attack on Pearl Harbor, was published in the Sunday San Francisco Chronicle-Examiner.

Since getting food poisoning from chicken, I have been a pescitarian, excepting Thanksgiving when I eat turkey.

Most people who have ever gotten to know me think that I'm very funny.

I have poetry blog.

The first baseball game I remember going to was game one of the 1962 World Series between the Giants and the Yankees. I noted to myself at the time that I was seeing both Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle play.

I was at the most famous finish in college football history when Cal defeated Stanfurd in the 1982 Big Game on a last-play-of-the-game kickoff return through the Stanfurd band.

As an ESL teacher I’ve had students from over sixty different countries.

I do not now, nor have I ever, owned a pair of sandals.

On my first visit to Paris I came upon one of my favorite all-time students from my middle school teaching days.

On a trip to New York I came upon another of my favorite all-time students from my middle school teaching days.

On a second trip to Paris I came upon a student who had been an ESL student of mine a few months before.

I’ve had former students go on to all eight Ivy League schools as well as Cal, Stanfurd, Oberlin, the University of Wisconsin and UCLA.

I have two former students convicted of murder, at least one of armed robbery and at least one of rape and kidnapping.

I was a co-founder of the Chico News & Review which was an offshoot of Chico State’s school newspaper. It is still extant. 

I have never had a broken bone and only once have been hospitalized over night.

I worked for one year as Development Director for the California State Students Association which is the student lobby for the nineteen campus California State University system.

I have self-published two novels, have written the first draft of a third and am working on a fourth.

Three of my former students (Andy Samberg, Jorma Taccone and Akiva Schaffer) worked on Saturday Night Live, two as writers and one as a cast member. They are all still active and successful in entertainment and produced, wrote, directed and starred in the successful comedy, Pop Star: Never Stop Never Stopping.

During my soccer playing days I never missed a game due to injury or illness.

I have been to five NFC championship games, seeing the San Francisco 49ers win three of them.

I have been to World Series games, an NBA finals play off game, a college football bowl game, two Stanley Cup play off games, two heavyweight boxing matches, two U.S.A-U.S.S.R track and field meets and two NCAA women’s championship basketball tournament games.

I attended my first English top division soccer match in 1973 and my most recent in 2017.

I do not believe in astrology, tarot cards, palm reading, crystal balls or reading tea leaves.

I have seven grand nieces and nephews.

Two of my best friends died within six months of each other in 2017. They, like my very best friend I've ever had who died in 2002 at age 41, and another friend who died in 2011, all died well before their time. (Two from pancreatic cancer.)

I have loved The Beatles since watching them on the Ed Sullivan show in February of 1964.

I coached my school’s soccer team for eighteen years and coached the girl’s softball team for seven years.

For a few years in college I was known by the nickname, Ace and indeed at least one group of housemates — not to mention many friends — did not know my real first name.

I am a cinephile and have over 250 DVDs, 122 of which are from the Criterion Collection.

When I was sixteen my father sent me to Finland for six weeks, I spent about four of those weeks with relatives and the rest traveling around the country on my own.

I currently have thirty three years and eight months clean and sober. 

I am on the bi-polar spectrum, have PTSD from being an abuse survivor, suffer from Acute Panic Disorder, am prone to severe depression and am a recovering addict/alcoholic. Yet I have been teaching for over thirty four years, have had a long and happy marriage and have raised two successful daughters. 

I consider myself one of the luckiest people in the world.

19 April 2021

My Very, Very, Very, Very Late Top Ten Films of "2020"

Normally my top ten films of the year list appears at the end of December or early January. However, as you may be aware there’s been the small matter of pandemic that has thrown a monkey wrench into many aspects of “normal” life including film releases and going to theaters. It has taken until past mid April for me to catch up with all the year’s releases and technically some of these films may have come out in 2021. The two factors I used to determine eligibility for this year’s list were if the film was released in 2020 and/or was deemed eligible for this most recent awards season. Anyway, better way late than never.

(I happily point out that women directed three of my top four films.)

1. Promising Young Woman (Fennell)

2. Never Rarely Sometimes Always (Hittman)

3. Mank (Fincher)

4. Nomadland (Zhao)

5. Sound of Metal (Marder)

6. The Assistant (Green)

7. Palm Springs (Barbakow)

8. I'm Thinking of Ending Things (Kaufman)

9. Judas and the Black Messiah (S. King)

10. One Night in Miami (R.King)

Honorable Mention: The Dig (Stone); Minari (Chung); Yes, God, Yes (Maine); First Cow (Reichardt)The Trial of the Chicago Seven (Sorkin) and The Father (Zellar).

Best Actress: Carey Mulligan Promising Young Woman. Runners Up, Frances McDormand Nomadland and Julie Garner The Assistant.

Best Actor: Gary Oldman Mank. Runners Up, Anthony Hopkins The Father and Steven Yeun Minari.

Best Supporting Actress: Olivia Coleman The Father. Runner Up, Olivia Cooke Sound of Metal.

Best Supporting Actor: Sacha Baron Cohen The Trial of the Chicago Seven. Runner Up. Leslie Odom, Jr. One Night in Miami

16 April 2021

Great News! It's Another Edition of Trivia Fun! Yaaaaay!!!!

Snow White and the seven dwarfs.

Snow White was originally conceived as a police procedural.

When running low on food, pioneers on the Oregon Trail often stopped for Dim Sum.

According to the Bureau of Erroneous Statistics, fox hunting is America’s favorite recreational activity.

Biblical Scholars believe that Jesus used a teleprompter for the Sermon on the Mount.

Emma Goldman and Mother Jones enjoyed co-hosting Tupperware parties.

The most asked for Christmas gift in 2019 was riding crops.

Due to a clerical in 1889 a few lepers were accidentally sent to a leopard colony.

There is an un-aired episode of Leave it to Beaver in which Wally and Eddie Haskell smoke reefers.

According to the AMA, summoning spirits can contribute to acid reflux.

Since new regulations were imposed in the 1980s, prospective chimney sweeps are required to earn advanced degrees.

According to federal regulations, to qualify as an aerospace engineer, you have to be able to walk on your hands for two minutes.

Spittoon sales went up 500% in 2020.

In 1878 Rutherford B. Hayes became the first president to host an orgy in the White House.

While he was on trial, Charles Manson guest hosted The Tonight Show for a week.

The first product advertised on the internet was a ball peen hammer.

In the late 1940s Rogers and Hammerstein collaborated with Albert Einstein on a musical about the theory of relativity. It was never produced.

At the end of World War I, Kaiser Wilhelm explained that it had all be a misunderstanding.

Oddly, Wilt Chamberlain was terrible at dunking donuts.

Ancient Phoenicians were enthusiastic limbo dancers.

Before the invention of scissors, people would play rock paper. Anthropologists have been unable to determine why anyone ever went with rock.

The number of exorcists who employ press agents has risen by 12% in the past twenty years.

Six-time World Yodeling Champion, Albert Lumbago was said to actually do his best yodels in the shower.

New York Police Department regulations stipulate that a plainclothes officer can be terminated for wearing a loud jacket.

14 April 2021

It's Time Again for A Look at the Day's Headlines, April Edition

That's a gun on the left and a taser on the right.

Since July, I have occasionally been posting headlines from various news sources and writing comments about them that are either pithy, snarky, wise or brilliantly on point (or a combination thereof). The response has been so overwhelming (thank you, Gadzooks McCoy of Ketchum, Idaho) that I have made this a regular feature -- to enthusiastic acclaim. Here then is the latest edition of this much beloved  monthly feature.

From the New York Times:

Police Officer Who Shot and Killed Daunte Wright Was Training Others

Okay so if he was training them in how to fill out reimbursement forms that's probably fine, but if he was training them on the difference between a gun and taser....Seriously, this ass clown couldn't tell that he'd pulled out his gun and not his taser? A man is dead because of his incompetence? I'm more inclined to think that he knew what he was doing and is just another racist cop not averse to killing black people.

As Michigan G.O.P. Plans Voting Limits, Top Corporations Fire a Warning Shot

Imagine that, corporations being the good guys. That's how low today's Republican Party has sunk.

N.C.A.A. Responds, Tentatively, to Transgender Athlete Bans

What goes through the mind of the neanderthals that want to ban transgender athletes? How hateful do you have to be? How much do you have to pervert whatever religion you follow? The NCAA is no bastion of enlightenment but it appears they can be persuaded to defy those states who propose banning transgender athletes. Let's hope.

From CNN:

Women detail drug use, sex and payments after late-night parties with Gaetz and others

Matt Gaetz is a sleaze bag, pass it on.

What Black drivers are doing to protect themselves during traffic stops

I read this story and it is terribly depressing. Driving while black sounds like a nerve-wracking experience. It's been documented that African American drivers are pulled over at a far greater rate that whites and are, of course, infinitely more likely to be arrested on bogus charges, man handled or even shot. In the 21st century in the United States. I swear that it in the 1970s I was not alone in naively thinking that racism was on the wane. Jim Crow seemed a sad part of the country's history. Maybe some day.

Las Vegas is set to come out of Covid-19 better than ever

If I had the power to choose who would come out of the pandemic unscathed I can guarantee you that Las Vegas and its casinos would be near the bottom of my list. As it is, the Vegas community will continue to reap obscene profits. I say: double their taxes!

From the BBC:

Daunte Wright shooting: How can you mistake a gun for a Taser?

(See photo above.) You could be a complete idiot. You could be an infant. You could be drunk and tripping on acid. You could be from a tribe that has forever been isolated from civilization. You could be a racist cop. Other than that, I don't know.

Afghanistan: Biden to call for end to 'America's longest war'

Listen buddy, it's way, way, way past time. This has been a disaster in so many different ways. For example, the cost in resources to the U.S., the cost in deaths, maimings and PTSD to U.S. soldiers, the manner in which it has spawned more terrorism. I would hope that this country would learn its lessons, but when it comes for foreign policy, the U.S. never seems to learn. It's always the bull in the china shop approach.

Why 'stay-at-home parent' is a job title

I was a a stay-at-home dad for a year with my oldest daughter and it was one of the best years of my life. I wouldn't trade that experience for anything. I don't know that I'd consider it a job so much as a great pleasure.

From The Washington Post:

Trial resumes with judge denying defense’s motion for former officer’s acquittal in death of George Floyd

Those m-----f-----s had the nerve to ask for acquittal after everyone heard the prosecution's case? The unmitigated gall, the temerity, the effrontery, the nerve, the audaciousness of white people, sometimes. My God.

How White fears of ‘Negro domination’ kept D.C. disenfranchised for decades

That's right, D.C.'s failure to have representation in the Senate is a legacy of Jim Crow, just as the electoral college is a legacy of slavery. We've got to dismantle these racist institutions and policies if we are ever going forward. You cannot tell me that Wyoming (population under 600,000) deserves two senators and Washington D.C. (population of close to 700,000) doesn't.  If you try, you're a racist.

Senate poised to advance rare bipartisan measure aimed at hate crimes against Asian Americans

That's right, in addition to the daily discrimination African Americans are subject to in the United States, Asian-Americans are subject to an ever-increasing number of hate crimes. Yes, and people still extoll this as "the greatest country in the world." As if.

11 April 2021

A Post in Which I Look at the Seven Most Recent Films I've Watched

Promising Young Woman (2020) Fennell. Every male between eighteen and eighty should see this movie. It has a message that needs to be understood. Now. PYW boasts a clever screenplay, but more importantly one that has a powerful message to convey. Happily this message is heavy-handed (as it needs to be) but deftly done nonetheless. Hats off to writer/director Emerald Fennell. Carey Mulligan stars and what a wonderful career she is having. Ms. Mulligan has been appearing in a variety of different films and has made them all better. PYW is about….Hmm, that’s not an easy one, it would be a simple matter to offer a plot summary. But it’s not an easy plot to summarize without giving away certain elements that are best discovered by the viewer. Perhaps better to mention the themes, specifically date rape. More specifically those odious men (and they comprise a significant portion of the adult male population) who take advantage of intoxicated women, sometimes themselves fueling that intoxication. Mulligan’s character is out for revenge, for both the general problem and for a specific incident. The rest is for you to discover. PYW is an important film both for its message and how damn effective it is at conveying that message. I’m surprised and delighted that the Motion Picture Academy nominated it for best picture.

Pulp Fiction (1994) Tarantino. I remember well what a thrill it was to see Pulp Fiction in a theater shortly after it came out. The sheer inventiveness of the story-telling along with audacious scenarios, bravura performances and a letter perfect soundtrack made Pulp Fiction the type of film that stayed with you for days. That fresh luster has worn off but only a bit. Tarantino’s first masterpiece (I would include Jackie Brown (1997), Inglorious Basterds (2009) and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019) as his others) is still thoroughly entertaining. As in his other great films, it is Tarantino the screenwriter as much as Tarantino the director who is the real hero. He is a master of dialogue, creating characters and developing scenes for those characters to really come to life. It's a film that has not aged a day in over twenty-five years and likely won't for another twenty-five. For me the scenes between John Travolta and Samuel Jackson are the highlights, but it is such a rich film with so much to choose from.

Harold Lloyd (left) in Milky Way
The Milky Way (1936) McCarey. This was the first time I can remember seeing Harold Lloyd -- great comedian of silent films -- in a talkie, though I know he made several. Here Lloyd plays a milquetoast milk man who is mistakenly believed to have knocked out the middleweight boxing champion during an argument. He is set up with a series of fights in which his opponents take dives so he can get a title shot against the champ and said champion’s promoter, played by Adolphe Menjou, can clean up on side bets. It’s a workable premise and the writing, direction and cast all are fine and The Milky Way ends up being a nice way to wile away ninety minutes. Of course Lloyd has “a girl” and there a predicable plot twists and it all works out in the end. To the surprise of no one. Ably directed by Leo McCarey who knew his way around a comedy.

Wuthering Heights (1939) Wyler. I was greatly surprised at how bad a film this was. It’s a particular crime when you have the brilliant cinematography of Gregg Toland (earned him an Oscar) and the acting legend Laurence Olivier in the leading role. The biggest problem was Merle Oberon as Cathy. I’ll never understand how she became a star. As a bit player Oberon would do nicely but she was incapable of carrying a film and was not up to playing opposite Olivier with whom she had no on-screen chemistry (nor, evidently, any off the screen). Emily Bronte’s novel of the same name was butchered in order to fit the standard one hundred minute running time. I suppose the story could have been crammed into less than two hours, but director Willam Wyler and the writing team were not up to the task. I will mention a nice performance from Geraldine Page and bemoan the fact that the studio choose Oberon over Vivian Leigh. Talk about mistakes.

Flying Down to Rio (1933) Freeland. The first pairing of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers and the one that spawned their cinematic partnership. As with a lot of musical extravaganzas of its time, the plot is woefully thin, but there is entertainment aplenty mixed into the confusion. In addition to Astaire and Rogers tripping the light fantastic, there are scattered chuckles and the lovely Dolores Del Rio. The Mexican born actress plays a Brazilian without a Brazilian accent but if you’re looking for rigorous accuracy here it’ll be a futile search. The plot contrivances are silly but if you accept that and just enjoy the ride you’ll have a nice enough time. I did. Gene Raymond stars and he's a nice enough bloke and fine actor but better as the second fiddle.

Fight Club
Fight Club (1999) Fincher. It’s a film that not only doesn’t pull any punches, it throws a few haymakers in the bargain. (Pun not intended.) For that we are grateful to the source material, Chuck Palahniuk's novel of the same name, which is here faithfully adapted by director David Fincher. Fight Club was controversial at the time of its release and doubtless remains so today among a certain variety of fuddy duddy. It dares to explore certain dark sides of the male experience and does so with as much sentiment as a crocodile. There is a sixties rebel-against-authority vibe to Fight Club coupled with more modern sensibilities and a bit of nihilism. Edward Norton, Brad Pitt and Helena Bonham Carter are perfectly cast as the three leads. Fight Club is now twenty-two years old and like the aforementioned Pulp Fiction, hasn’t aged a day.

Minari(2020) Chung. Like Promising Young Woman, I’m both surprised and delighted that this excellent film got an Oscar nod for best picture. It’s the type of movie the academy usually ignores. There are no big stars, no big name director, no character with a mental illness or drug addiction or who is famous. Minari is about a Korean-American family starting a farm in rural Arkansas in the 1980s. Not your usual Oscar fare. It is an earnest film that has a simple story (that addresses complex issues) with relatable problems and people. There is domestic discord, a small — often bratty — young boy with a heart problem and there is the vagaries of starting your own small farm with so many odds stacked against you. There are ample opportunities for cliches to come along and wreck the film, but these are avoided. Instead director Lee Isaac Chung opted for honesty. The story is based on his own experiences as the boy.

08 April 2021

Different Strokes for Different Folks, The Variety of Teaching Styles

Having been a teacher for over 30 years I’ve met a lot of my fellow educators. A surprisingly high number of them have been, in so far as I could tell, excellent at their jobs. Bad teachers tend to either be weeded out or among their many who quit early on. Most teachers who survive the first few years end up being lifers. Veteran teachers are usually quite good, with the obvious exception of the burn-outs you run across now and again. Burn-outs are the worst because they no longer posses the main ingredients necessary to be a good teacher: passion, inspiration and an ability and willingness to adapt and learn. They are old dogs that have no interest in new tricks nor anything else other than their forthcoming retirements. Thankfully they are, again in my experience, few in number.

So what kind of people become teachers?

Many teachers commit to the career while in college and some even before. They have the calling. These are people who usually end up being dedicated, hard-working teachers who often become department heads, mentors and members of all manner of committees. Some with the calling don’t make it. The disciplinary issues that can plague particular schools prove too much for them and they either leave the profession entirely or sink to the very bottom and teach in private schools.

There is an offshoot of this kind of teacher and that is the individual who in college sets out to study a particular field in-depth, such as in the natural or social sciences, with an aim to do graduate work and pursue a career in research or academia. They enjoy their field of study but may find it too onerous or time-consuming or they see how competitive and crowded their field  is and decide to use their love of a particular subject to become a teacher. It’s not what they originally had in mind but it will do, offering as it does reasonable hours, decent pay and benefits. Some of these folks find a passion for teaching and become whiz bang teachers and some quit or are fired within a couple of years either because their love of the subject matter far exceeds their desire and patience to teach it or because they never really had their heart in teaching.

Then you have the dreamers. Those are people who started off pursuing a dream career, usually in the arts, such as acting, writing, being an artist or musician. At some point they give up on their dream, usually owing to a combination of constant rejections and/or mounting debt. Sometimes they merely have a desire to settle down and perhaps raise a family. Their skills were all associated with their dream career and they didn’t want to go into the private sector and feel like a cog in a wheel. They turn to teaching in part because they can teach in their area of expertise and passion. Failed musicians became music teachers, failed novelists became English teachers, failed artists become art teachers. There are also failed athletes who teach P.E. These individuals can find a new life and a new source of inspiration in teaching, plus the time to hone their particular craft in off hours. They can become great teachers. They can also be instant flame outs, ill-suited to handle the daily grind of teaching and accompanying discipline issues.

Another kind of teacher is the second career person. Unlike the dreamers, they succeeded in their initial pursuit, be it in business, social services, the military or anything else. But they want something more. They want to give back. They want to help young people. They want to share their wisdom. They quit their jobs, get a teaching credential and with great zeal go into education. For many of them it is a shock to see the realities of teaching. The discipline, the constant meetings, the paperwork, the bureaucracy, the pressure. They are likely to run screaming back to their old job in a nano second. But they are also likely to have found just what they were looking for and become happy and dedicated and not incidentally, excellent teachers.

In addition to people who take different paths into teaching there are different types of teachers. For example there is the craftsperson. This is someone who plans, meticulously  putting together — if you’ll excuse the inadvertent pun — textbook lessons. These are teachers who take notes at in-services, workshops and staff development days. They read the latest literature on teaching and study the newest educational research. They are by-the-book teachers who present proven lessons designed to reach all manner of student and learning styles. On paper they are excellent teachers and usually are in reality too, but many of them are dry as dust and despite their efforts bore their young charges to death. A well-crafted lesson presented by a robot is only going to reach certain students, usually excluding those who need it most. They are revered by administrators, if not so much by students.

At the other end is the performer. Their lessons can be threadbare on material and may defy convention. Their lessons don’t come straight out of a teacher’s guide book and don’t include pre-made handouts. But they can be entertaining and inspiring to students. The performer is invariably a captivating speaker with a vivid imagination who concocts innovative lessons. Sometimes, however, these lessons fail spectacularly or are much heavier on fun than on actual learning. If the performer stays on long enough they usually learn to cut down on the razzamatazz and bring a little bit more method to their madness. They often run afoul of administrators, but can be very popular with students.

The innovator is a cross between the crafts person and the performer. Here is a teacher who will take your basic pre-fab lesson and breath life into it. These are generally the best teachers in any school. They adhere to the state curriculum and reach all variety of learner and utilize given materials but they spice it up with liberal dashes of creativity. Administrators are satisfied and students are usually pleased. 

There are also different types of disciplinarians. Some teachers are martinets, they have strict rules which are rigidly and ruthlessly enforced without exception. Such teachers inspire more fear than respect but then again students toe the line. Administrators love this kind of teacher — provided they don’t go too far. Some teachers practice tough love, mixing compassion and counseling with a strict enforcement of the rules. While not letting students cross certain boundaries, they also offer encouragement and rehabilitation to their errant charges. Assuming their blend of toughness and kindness is adequately and equally administered they can find favor with administrators and students alike. Some teachers paradoxically find administering discipline and undisciplined students to be too much of a bother. Their hope is that the excellence of the lesson will distract students from wanting to act out. This often leads to frustration as the teacher can neither tolerate nor affectively combat unruly students. Their classes can be a mess. Students often like these teachers but don’t respect them. Administrators are eternally frustrated by them. To be good at discipline a teacher must neither be a softie or a hot head.

Teachers tend to be more humble than people in a lot of other professions. I've rarely come across a good teacher who was arrogant or bragged about their success with a particular lesson, class or student. This is in part because teaching is a daily grind. If you nail a lesson during first period on Tuesday you've got second period coming up not to mention the rest of the week. There's no time for patting oneself on the back. Good teachers are also too pre-occupied with the the success of their students to massage their own egos. 

All variety of teachers are aware of one salient fact: there are all variety of students too. Perhaps that's a topic for another post.

04 April 2021

The Tenth and Final Edition of Ten Lists of Ten Films, This One is for Your Easter Enjoyment

All Quiet on the Western Front

Welcome to the tenth and final edition of ten lists of ten, a regular feature on holidays over the past year. Here are the previous installments that have appeared on this site: Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, Indigenous Peoples Day, Veteran's Day, Thanksgiving Day, Boxing Day, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s Birthday and President's Day. Thank you for the incredible outpouring of love, support and praise this feature has received.

My Ten Favorite Films that Won the Academy Award for Best Picture

1. All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) Milestone

2. Casablanca (1942) Curtiz

3. Hamlet (1948) Olivier

4. On the Waterfront (1954) Kazan

5. The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) Lean

6. The Godfather (1972) Coppola

7. The Godfather Part 2 (1974) Coppola

8. Annie Hall (1977) Allen

9. No Country For Old Men (2007) Coens

10. Birdman (2014) Iñárritu

My Ten Favorite Films from the OOs

1. Inglourious Basterds (2009) Tarantino

2. Match Point (2005) Allen

3. No Country For Old Men (2007) Coens

4. Requiem for a Dream (2000) Aronofsky

4. Y Tu Mama También (2001) Cuarón

6. Zodiac (2007) Fincher

7. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) Gondry

8. Mean Girls (2004) Waters

9. The Man Without a Past (2002)  Kaurismäki

10. Habla Con Ella (2002) Almodóvar

My Ten Favorite Films Directed by Martin Scorsese

1. Goodfellas (1990)

2. Taxi Driver (1976)

3. Raging Bull (1980) 

4. The Aviator (2004)

5. King of Comedy (1982)

6. Mean Streets (1973)

7. Age of Innocence (1993)

8. Shutter Island (2010)

9. Gangs of New York (2002)

10. Kundun (1997)

The Roaring Twenties
Ten More Films I Wish I Could Fit Into My Top 100

1. The Roaring Twenties (1939) Walsh

2. Double Indemnity (1944) Wilder

3. Psycho (1960) Hitchcock

4. The Exorcist (1973) Friedkin

5. I Knew Her Well (1965)  Pietrangeli

6. Schindler’s List (1993) Spielberg

7. Notorious (1946) Hitchcock

8. Paths of Glory (1957) Kubrick

9. California Split (1974) Altman

10. Christmas in Connecticut (1945) Godfrey

My Ten Favorite Films Starring Marlene Dietrich

1. Blonde Venus (1932) von Sternberg

2. Morocco (1930) von Sternberg

3. Shanghai Express (1932) von Sternberg

4. Witness for the Prosecution (1957) Wilder

5. Touch of Evil (1958) Welles

6. Destry Rides Again (1939) Marshall

7. The Scarlett Empress (1934) von Sternberg

8. Knight Without Armor (1937) Feyder

9. The Blue Angel (1930) von Sternberg

10. Dishonored (1931) von Sternberg

Ten Wonderful Films in Which a Main Character Plays a Sport

1. Raging Bull (1980) Scorsese (boxing)

2. Bull Durham (1988) Shelton (baseball)

3. The Wrestler (2008) Aronofsky (wrestling)

4. Horse Feathers (1932) McLeod (football)

5. I, Tonya (2017) Gillespie (figure skating)

6. Bringing up Baby (1938) Hawks (golf)

7. Ordinary People (1980) Redford (competitive swimming)

8. The Way Back (2020) O'Connor (basketball)

9. Strangers on a Train (1951) Hitchcock (tennis)

10.Bend it Like Beckham (2002) Chada (soccer)

Barry Lyndon
My Ten Favorite Films From 1975

1. Barry Lyndon (Kubrick)

2. Dog Day Afternoon  (Lumet)

3. Nashville  (Altman)

4. The Man Who Would Be King  (Huston)

5. Three Days of the Condor (Pollack)

6. Jaws (Spielberg)

7. Shampoo (Altman)

8. The Mirror (Tarkovsky)

9. Love and Death (Allen)

10. Monty Python and the Holy Grail (Gilliam/Jones)

My Ten Favorite Films With a U.S. State in Their Title

1. My Own Private Idaho (1991) Van Sant

2. California Split (1974) Altman

3. Christmas in Connecticut (1945) Godfrey

4. Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) Spielberg

5. The Florida Project (2017) Baker

6. Paris, Texas (1984) Wenders

7. Nebraska (2013) Payne

8. Nevada Smith (1986) Hathaway

9. Gangs of New York (2002) Scorsese

10.Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri (2017) McDonagh

In the Mood for Love
Ten Great Films Featuring Marital Infidelity

1. In the Mood for Love (2000) Wong

2. Ice Storm (1997) A. Lee

3. Sunrise (1927) Murnau

4. The Last Picture Show (1971) Bogdanovich

5. Midnight in Paris (2011) Allen

6. Match Point (2005) Allen

7. Citizen Kane (1941) Welles

8. Blonde Venus (1932) von Sternberg

9. Jules et Jim (1962) Truffaut

10. Shampoo (1975) Ashby

My Ten Favorite Film Adaptations of Shakespeare Plays

1. Macbeth (1971) Polanski

2. Hamlet (1948) Olivier

3. Richard III (1955) Olivier 

4. Julius Caesar (1953) Mankiewicz

5. Romeo and Juliet (1968) Zeffirelli

6. Henry V (1989) Branagh

7. A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935) Dieterle, Reinhardt

8. Much Ado About Nothing (1993) Branagh

9. Henry V (1944) Olivier

10. Richard III (1995) Loncraine