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Tuesday, October 17, 2017

The Eyes of My Mother

The Eyes of My Mother, streaming on Netflix, is one of the more disturbing movies I've seen recently. It is not for the faint of heart, even though most of the violence is off screen. Maybe that's what makes it worst--we imagine it's far gorier than it could be depicted on screen.

I hesitate to detail too much of the plot, because I didn't know what was happening next. Suffice it to say that it's about a girl who grows up to a killer after witnessing her mother being killed. The girl, who is played as a child by Olivia Bond, is named Francisca after St. Francis of Assisi. Her mother was an eye surgeon back in Portugal. One day a door-to-door salesman comes by and asks to use the bathroom. Bad idea.

As an adult, Francisca is played by Kika Magalhãe. She misses her mother, and then her father dies (I think of natural causes, but I'm not sure). She brings a young woman home for sex, but that young woman freaks when Francisca tells her that she killed her father. In the clever editing the film employs, we see the woman saying she has to leave, and then we cut to Francisca scrubbing blood off the floor, and then wrapping some kind of meat to put in the freezer.

There are also chains in the barn, and the "Eyes" of the title has extra meaning. The film is shot in very stark black and white which makes for some interesting images, such a barn door opening revealing a child holding a teddy bear by the leg in silhouette.

What The Eyes of My Mother could be considered is an art-house Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Approach it with caution, because it should unnerve the most callous horror movie fan.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Harvey Weinstein

I don't know if anyone has ever had a swifter fall from power than Harvey Weinstein. Just a few weeks ago he was one of the most powerful men in Hollywood, and in the course of a few days he was accused of sexual harassment by scores of women, was fired from the company he founded, kicked out of the Motion Picture Academy, and is being divorced by his wife. Even his brother has spoken out against him. In the words of Garrison Keillor, "Wouldn't this be a great time for a piece of rhubarb pie?"

Weinstein has been the focus of the news media (the shooting in Las Vegas is already old news) and collective soul-searching. We have heard from a lot of women in the film business who have had harrowing experiences with the man, from A-listers like Angelina Jolie and Gwyneth Paltrow to actresses just coming up, like Sarah Polley, who wrote an excellent op-ed in The New York Times. She wasn't interested in acting enough to fall for his evil bargain, but how many have?

This has ignited a discussion of sexual harassment, both based on nothing but words (he asked some women to give him a massage or watch him shower) to the ultimate (Rose MacGowan has accused him of rape). Every bit of it was inappropriate, unprofessional, and possibly criminal, but what Polley said in her essay is both eye-opening and, in a sense, unsurprising: Weinstein is not an outlier.

Men who accumulate power, especially men who may not be particularly attractive, counterbalance their sad days in high school by treating women like collectible objects, like stamps or baseball cards. I have no idea what Weinstein'sex life was like as a teenager, but as an amateur psychologist I would suggest it was not stellar. Some guys get girls by learning the guitar, others produce movies, because both industries attract young women who are willing to do anything to get what they want. Of course, I want to believe that not all movie producers are like that, anymore than rock stars are, but when one becomes as powerful as Weinstein, and is treated with such deference, the repugnance oozes out.

Imagine being so powerful you could hit on Angelina Jolie and not be outed? I don't know the particulars, but she was clearly afraid to speak out, whether out of embarrassment or fear for her career. And, of course, that this society, who could have a hung jury in the Bill Cosby case, still is reluctant to believe claims of women who are harassed or assaulted. Cosby was for years a lovable performer--Weinstein has never been lovable, and because of his power more people seem to be willing to accept the truth. He also made a half-hearted confession/apology, blaming it on growing up in the '60s and '70s. Please.

Weinstein has his supporters: Donna Karan and Lindsay Lohan are with him, probably hurting their own careers, because why would any woman want a dress from an enabler like Karan? (Lohan's career is already dead). What remains to be seen is if there are men who years ago enabled Weinstein, like Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. This could make Hollywood sizzle like a cauldron.

I've been saddened to see women on my Facebook page write #me too; some of them I've known for almost forty years and I didn't know about it. It just makes me embarrassed to be a man.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Certain Women

I've seen almost all of Kelly Reichardt's films and enjoyed them all, but they will never be mistaken for a Fast and Furious film. Her films are slow and contemplative, but nonetheless gripping because the situations are fraught with emotional tension.

Certain Women, a 2016 film, is based on three short stories by Maile Meloy, all set in Montana. The three stories are played out consecutively, with short codas at the end. They intersect only briefly, but are all set in the same world.

Each of these stories end with a whimper, not a bang. If you've been raised on typical Hollywood films you might expect more vivid endings, but they are not, and the message here seems to be that if you're lonely, deal with it, and life goes on.

The first story features Laura Dern as an attorney representing a man (Jared Harris) who wants to sue his employer for an injury. She's been telling him that he can't, because he's already accepted an insurance payment. When a man tells him this same thing, he accepts it, but tells Dern he's going to shoot up his workplace. Instead, he takes one man hostage, and Dern is called in to talk him out.

The middle story has Michelle Williams as a tense woman on a camping trip with her jovial husband (who we saw having an affair with Dern) and her sullen teenager. She wants to buy a huge pile of sandstone from an old man (Rene Aubernojois), and butters him up, while the husband (James Le Gros) undermines her efforts.

Finally, in the best story, Lily Gladstone plays a lonely horse rancher who seems to have no regular human contact. On a whim she attends a class at the high school, that turns out to be school law, taught by a lawyer, Kristen Stewart. Stewart has a four-hour drive, both ways, while holding down a full-time job. Gladstone becomes smitten with her, having dinner with every night after class and giving a ride on a horse. But when Stewart quits the job due to the long drive Gladstone is determined to see her one more time.

Certain Women is a display of the little things in life that we deal with. Granted, Dern's story is more dramatic, and involves a gun, but the other two stories are simply wrought, with simmering emotions--there's more going on in what isn't said that what is.

The performances are terrific. Harris, an Englishman, does an American accent for the first time I can remember and it took me a while to recognize him. Gladstone, who won some awards for this performance, acts mostly with her face. There is a long scene in which she drives away with her last encounter with Stewart. Will she break into tears? What's written in her face speaks volumes.

Reichardt is not a director that is likely to tapped to direct the next Marvel film. She makes small, delicately filigreed films that don't make a lot of money (this one made more than a million, her highest grossing). But they deserved to be seen.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life

Most Americans, especially if they went to high school, know Shirley Jackson for her story "The Lottery," one of the most famous short stories in 20th century American literature. But did you also know she wrote eight novels (including one of the best ghost novels ever written, The Haunting of Hill House), and wrote popular domestic comedies about her four children, a precursor to Erma Bombeck? She also had written in her biography on a book jacket that she was a practicing witch.

Jackson, whose centennial was last year, receives a scintillating biography, subtitled A Rather Haunted Life, by Ruth Franklin. Based on her correspondence, Franklin has pieced together a full portrait of a writer who remains underrated, perhaps because she was not glamorous and died at the age of 48.

"Jackson’s brand of literary suspense is part of a vibrant and distinguished tradition that can be traced back to the
American Gothic work of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe, and Henry James. Her unique contribution to this genre is her primary focus on women’s lives," writes Franklin. Indeed, almost all of her work is seen from a female point of view, and are about women who feel like outsiders, as she did. She was born in California, but moved to Rochester, New York, as a teenager. She was awkward and overweight. After a short stint at the University of Rochester, she transferred to Syracuse University, where her writing talent started to blossom. She also met Stanley Hyman.

"Stanley closed the magazine demanding to know who Shirley Jackson was. He had decided, he said, to marry her." Hyman was a Jew from Brooklyn, and would go on to be a well-known critic and academic. He would also be far less than a perfect husband. He had frequent affairs. "Stanley had already made it clear that her recriminations were useless. The more she expressed her jealousy, the
less he paid attention." Yet, "she already believed that she could only love a man whom she found superior to her in every way."

Despite Hyman's successes, he would get lost in her shadow, as she sold many stories during the 1940s, mostly to The New Yorker (Hyman would be an occasional contributor for years). "The Lottery" would appear in that periodical in 1948, and would earn more mail that any other story they ran, most of it hateful. The story is about a ritual performed in a bucolic town square that has someone being stoned to death to please God and make sure the crops come in. People had never read anything like it.

Jackson would go on to write eight novels. Her last two are the most famous, The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle, which was published in 1962. After that she struggled with agoraphobia and could not write, but had begun writing a new novel when she died of a heart attack.

Jackson and Hyman were part of the literati, despite living most of their married lives in North Bennington, Vermont, where Hyman was a professor. They were good friends with Richard Wright and Howard Nemerov, and enjoyed parties, eating and drinking. Jackson had four children, though she loathed housework. This led to two books, Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons, that were comic essays about her family. Many people couldn't reconcile the writer who explored the dark parts of the soul with the light touch of her domestic books. She also wrote a book, fittingly, on the Salem witch trials, which earned her quite a bit of money. Her view of witchcraft, as it is today generally accepted, is that it represents female power and the male fear of it.

Franklin describes Jackson as someone besieged, either by Hyman or her mother, who after Jackson receive a good review in Time wrote to her how bad she looked in the photo. Jackson wrote a scorching retort, but never sent it. "Even at this point in her career, with six published novels and two popular memoirs, Jackson still felt she had to prove her worth to her parents. She never missed an opportunity to emphasize how successful she had become, reporting back to them on just about every lecture, reading, and conference."

This is a terrific biography, even if you haven't read any of Jackson's works. It is almost a dual biography of Hyman, who gets his own chapter, but it would be hard to separate them. I must say, though, that I still don't know who Jackson really was, emotionally speaking. I don't think this is a fault of Franklin, but that despite her letters and unfinished material, Jackson was a hard nut to crack. I suppose, given the mysterious nature of her writing, that that is appropriate.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Lust for Life

Lana Del Rey's new album, Lust for Life, dares to pinch a title from Iggy Pop, but the result is such a luscious, complex record that I'm sure Mr. Pop won't mind. The album is so layered that I gave it two weeks in the car, rather than my normal one.

I must admit that part of the reason I liked listening to this album over and over is that it's sexy. You could add this to your collection of music to be played during concupiscence. The title track has Del Ray breathily pleading, "Take off your clothes, take off all your clothes."

Del Ray co-wrote all of the tracks, most of them with Rick Nowels. There are sixteen in all, for 71 minutes of music. Normally an album that long would put up red flags, but I don't dislike any of them.

Most of the songs, as the title suggests, are about love. One of them "Cherry," also lifts from "Scarborough Fair" with a lyric "rosemary and thyme," but does substitute "cherries and wine" instead of parsley and sage. One of the better songs is "Coachella--Woodstock in My Mind," which is about her being at the festival in California while tensions were escalating with North Korea:

I was at Coachella
Leaning on your shoulder
Watching your husband swing in time
I guess I was in it
'Cause baby, for a minute
It was Woodstock in my mind
In the next morning
They put out the warning
Tensions were rising over country lines
I turned off the music
Tried to sit and use it
All of the love that I saw that night"

A similar sentiment is expressed in "When the World Was at War We Kept Dancing."

"Boys, don't forget your toys
And take all of your money
If you find you're in a foreign land
Boys, don't make too much noise
And don't try to be funny
Other people may not understand"

There are many guests on the record--The Weeknd, Sean Lennon, who sounds disconcertingly like his father, and Stevie Nicks, who certainly must be an inspiration for Del Rey. Their song is called "Beautiful People, Beautiful Problems."

"But we're just beautiful people
With beautiful problems, yeah
Beautiful problems,
God knows we've got them"

Those lyrics are a bit in tongue and cheek, as are those to "God Bless America--and All the Beautiful Women in It."

In another bit of artistic theft, Del Rey includes a song called "Heroin," which Lou Reed used fifty years ago. This is one is not about her taking the drug, but someone she cares about.

"I'm flying to the moon again
Dreaming about heroin
And how it gave you everything
And took your life away"

I feel like I've just scratched the surface talking about this record. Her voice, the production, the lyrics, all of them are great, and listening to it put me in a very pleasant state of mind.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Return to Red River

Some might find it audacious for Johnny D. Boggs to write a sequel to Red River, the classic 1948 film starring John Wayne and Montgomery Clift. Actually, he has written a sequel to the book that it was based on, and it's a solid, old-fashioned Western that could have been written in 1948.

The book picks up with Matthew Garth, who was played by Clift, as he manages the ranch he inherited from Thomas Dunson (who was played by Wayne). It's twenty years later. He married Tess Millay, the prostitute (although that word isn't used in the film or in this book) and has two sons, Lightning and Tom. The secret is that Lightning is not their natural son.

Garth, like Dunson twenty years later, is short on cash, and has to drive his cattle across the Red River and into Kansas. The book takes a little too long setting this up--I think the drive starts about halfway into the action.

"Longhorns. Some of these, no, probably almost every last one of them, a descendant of the first cattle brought to Mexico by Gregorio de Villalobos back in 1591, after Christopher Columbus had deposited some in Santo Domingo back in 1494. Around 1690, a herd numbering roughly two hundred had been trailed to a Texas mission near the Sabine River. Now Mathew Garth had to get these cattle to Dodge City, Kansas." This kind of stentorian prose and research is to reading like macaroni and cheese is to food. It's not great, but it's comforting, especially to those who like old Westerns.

The cattle drive, of course, is fraught with danger--a stampede, a fire, and someone following them. It may be Jess Teveler, wanted by the Texas Rangers, and who has something against the Garths. The ending provides the traditional showdown and gunplay.

Every once in a while a read like this is a great switch from literary fiction. Boggs is clearly a student of this genre. And any book that can have a passage like this is fine with me: "For more than five weeks, they had been wet, and they had been dry. Baking underneath a broiling sun or freezing in their soaking clothes after a cold rain. Mostly, they had been bone tired, aching, miserable. Awake before sunrise, then in a saddle till noon, a quick bite of food washed down with coffee, a fresh horse, and back in the saddle."

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

The Little Mermaid

In an odd but successful trend, Disney is taking their classic animated movies and turning them into Broadway musicals (or, making them into live-action movies, or both). One of those was The Little Mermaid, the 1989 film that revived the moribund animation department, and the first of the Howard Ashman and Alan Menken scores.

The movie was delightful, and the stage version is, well, okay. I saw it at the Smith Center on Sunday night, and there were many children in attendance, and it was geared more toward them, or the child within us all.

The production design and lighting are great at depicting an undersea world, and there are many characters who are flown on cables to make them look like they're swimming. In some cases it looks like the actors leave stage and are instantly harnessed--I hope they're safe.

The story is based on the fairy tale by Hans Christian Anderson, but with a happy ending. However, if you read into the story on a social and psychological level, it's about a girl who wants to deny what she is and become something else. She is Ariel, a mermaid who is fascinated by humans. Her father, the King of the Sea, Triton, hates humans, because he thinks they killed his wife.

Ariel has fallen in love with a human prince, whom she saved from drowning. She makes a deal with Triton's evil sister, Ursula, a sea witch with tentacles and two electric eels as henchman. If Ariel can get the prince to kiss her, she will be human forever. If she doesn't, she becomes Ursula's slave.

As usual with Disney, the most interesting characters are the supporting ones. In The Little Mermaid it's Sebastian the crab, played as a Jamaican Rasta man (in this production by Melvin Abston). He gets the two best numbers: "Under the Sea" and "Kiss the Girl." (Both songs were nominated for Oscars, "Under the Sea" won). There is also a seagull who has a problem with pronunciation (played by Jamie Torcellini). And Jennifer Allen is a hoot as Ursula, playing her as a campy diva.

The leads are fine. Diane Huey is Ariel, and she has a fantastic voice, and Eric Kunze is suitably bland and handsome as Prince Eric.

The production was beautiful to look at, but seemed to lack a spark. A slapstick number with a French chef, "Les Poissons," fell flat, and I just couldn't get into the story, since the message seems so retro. Also, other than those two Sebastian numbers, the other songs are pretty forgettable.