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Thursday, May 31, 2007

Documentaries

I have now seen all five of the films nominated for Best Documentary Feature at last year's Academy Awards. My reviews of An Inconvenient Truth and Jesus Camp are already available. A few months ago I saw My Country My Country, and didn't get a chance to write about it, and then this week I viewed Iraq in Fragments and Deliver Us From Evil.

When Jerry Seinfeld presented the Oscar (to An Inconvenient Truth, it turned out), he joked about all the films being depressing. He probably didn't even know what they were about--documentaries seem to have a rap of being bleak films about desperate people or situations. And this year's crop was pretty close. Two films are about the mess that is American-occupied Iraq, two are about religion run amok, and the fifth is about a looming global climate crisis.

When judging a non-fiction film, I think that often it is the cause espoused that is judged as much as the filmmaking technique (and a good box office doesn't hurt, at least not anymore, since the committee was revamped). An Inconvenient Truth had a hot button political issue that Hollywood lefties could get behind, as well as the star-power of Vice President Al Gore. But was it the best film of the five?

Before I choose the winner, I am confronted with my attitudes about non-fiction films. I'm certainly not an expert on the subject, but I've noticed that there is a distinct difference between the documentaries that are celebrated and the kind I'm used to, the sort that were shown to us in school or are still made today for outlets like the History Channel or PBS. These typically have a narrator (keeping people like Edward Hermann and David Ogden Stiers working), a slew of academics or other experts used as talking heads, and slow-panning over photos and documents, a style best exemplified by Ken Burns. None of the five films in this crop fall into that category. An Inconvenient Truth is a filmed lecture/slide-show, with some biographical material about Gore (narrated by Gore himself). Both My Country My Country and Iraq in Fragments are free of narration, and have the camera simply observing behavior, the same with Jesus Camp. Deliver Us From Evil is the closest to a conventional documentary, in that it has the participants of the events depicted giving testimony, as well as experts, though there is no narrator.

Of the two Iraq films, Iraq in Fragments is more dynamic. My Country My Country follows a Dr. Riyadh and his family. He is a Sunni physician who runs for office in the first Iraq elections following the ouster of Saddam Hussein. He is both hopeful and cynical about the process, The film is very dry, the kind of thing you might see on an Iraqi version of C-SPAN. Only one sequence really kicks into high gear: a cousin of Riyadh's is kidnapped by insurgents. There is a tense moment when the boy's father negotiates with the kidnappers on the phone, and makes a mistake by making an aside without covering the receiver of the phone. It's like something out of Hitchcock, but it's really happening.

Iraq in Fragments tells three stories. The first is from the viewpoint of an eleven-year-old Sunni boy in Baghdad, who is raised by an uncle who is alternately kind and cruel to him. He goes to school, but doesn't learn much. All around him men complain about the occupation. "They came as liberators, but now they are occupiers," we hear. They are happy Saddam is gone, but are not thrilled with being occupied. It's reminiscent of the line from the Who song: "Meet the new boss, same as the old boss." The second third deals with the Shia radicals in the south, who follow Mohammed Al-Sadr. They are into self-flagellation and rounding up anyone suspected of being blasphemous. Finally, the Kurds are represented in the third segment. The Kurds, who were long mistreated by those in power, are the most hopeful about the U.S. involvement, and hope to have their own country.

A certain amount of knowledge about the situation is needed to appreciate this film fully. I try to keep up with the news, but even I was lost in some scenes, and was filled in by the interview with the director, James Longley, in the supplemental material. However, Iraq in Fragments is the most interesting visually of the five films. Longley, who was a one-man camera crew, captures some beautiful images.

If I had a vote, I would have probably cast it for Deliver Us From Evil, which was directed by Amy Berg. I think it's the most gripping of the five and has the best structure. It tells the harrowing story of a priest who molested hundreds of children, but was moved around from parish to parish by a diocese that knew what he was doing, but did nothing to stop it, and still resist any efforts to confront the huge problem the church has right now. Berg interviews a few of the victims, who are emotionally scarred by the events, as well as their families. It's heartbreaking to watch as a father relates how he confronted his daughter and learned she was raped by the priest when she was five years old. These parents know feel a horrible guilt over letting this monster into their lives. As one mother puts it, "He was the wolf, and I was the gate-keeper, and I let him right in."

The priest, Oliver O'Grady, was finally arrested, convicted and deported to Ireland, where he now roams free, without anyone in Ireland knowing his past. He participates in the film, but he's not the real villain, and as he admitted to his crimes thirty years ago. The film has bigger fish to fry--the bishop who turned a blind eye (he is now the Cardinal of Los Angeles) and even the current Pope, who was the head of the Vatican office that deals with this sort of thing (President Bush, at the request of the Vatican, made Pope Benedict immune from any prosecution, a news item I somehow missed).

The film is not anti-Catholic, it is anti the hierarchy that has made for this kind of institutional nightmare. There are theological experts who comment on the causes that has led to this. Certainly the medieval insistence on having celibate priests will always lead to those who are sexually aberrant toward the calling. And this insistence is not found in the Bible, in fact, the opposite is true: in the Book of Timothy, the ideal qualities of a bishop include being married. It was not until the fourth century that the new rule was invoked. One expert speculates that it's because priests with children bequeathed their property to their sons, but if priests were unmarried, the church could get all the property back. So it's once again all about money.

The film suggests sexual molestation by priests is a huge problem. Over 100,000 cases have been reported in the U.S. alone. I think this image has forever stained the priesthood. I can't look at a priest without wondering if he's a pedophile. Who in their right mind would trust their children in the care of a priest? But the church hierarchy continues to do nothing.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Army of Shadows

Army in Shadows is a 1969 film by French director Jean-Pierre Melville, that was only released in the United States last year. It is now on DVD, and I had a chance to look at it over the weekend.

This is the first time I've seen a Melville film. He was a precursor of sort to the New Wave, heavily influenced by American films (he wore a cowboy hat while directing). Army in Shadows is a very personal film, adapted from a novel by Joseph Kessel, and dealing with the French resistance during World War II, which Melville was involved with.

It is perhaps the quietest espionage film you will ever see. Much of the violence is off-screen, and one of the killings that takes place on-screen is when an informer is strangled to death with complete silence, the camera never moving away from the victim's face. It is a very chilling scene.

The film concerns Gerbier, played stolidly by Lino Ventura, as a resistance operative. He gets captured a few times, escapes a few times, and never wavers from his purpose. He manages a small cadre of operatives, including Simone Signoret, who is lauded for her abilities but may have too soft a spot for children, and Jean-Pierre Cassel, who seems to be in it for the adventure, but then makes a huge sacrifice.

The film has an episodic structure that initially put me at arm's length, but eventually drew me in. There are a number of remarkable set pieces. In addition to the informer's execution, there is another chilling scene in which Gerbier is a prisoner of the Gestapo and is given a chance to out-run machine-gun bullets. If he does, he will merely be included in the next round of condemned men. Another terrific scene is when Signoret attempts to break one of her confederates out of prison by masquerading as a nurse.

The film, long out of circulation, was restored from a shoddy VHS copy. The cinematographer, Pierre L'Homme, did the restoration, and it masterful in bringing back his original vision. Though this film is in color, it is all in cool tones, blues, blacks and browns, with no reds, yellows or oranges. The sky seems to be perpetually overcast, which must have been the mood in France at that time. The film is also pointedly unsentimental--if you didn't know the outcome of the War, you'd have no idea the Germans were ultimately defeated by the ending of this film. Instead there is only a reminder of the occupation, summed up perhaps in the opening scene, with a military parade of German soldiers goose-stepping past the Arc de Triomphe.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Away From Her


Away From Her is not the type of movie I usually go out to see, as on its face it appears to be a disease-of-the-week movie, of which there are countless on TV. But two things drew me: one, the performance of Julie Christie was getting raves, and even at this early stage of the year she was being touted for an Oscar nomination, and two, I was interested in seeing the directorial debut of Sarah Polley, who is an interesting actress and was bound to give this well-worn genre an interesting spin.

The disease in question here is Alzheimer's. Christie is a woman, still glamorous in her sixties, who is starting down the slope. At first she does small things, like putting the frying pan into the freezer. But when she wanders off while cross-country skiing, she and her husband both realize she needs institutional care. She is admitted to a fancy care center with an officious staff, but their policy is that after admission, the patient is to receive no visitors for thirty days. The husband, Gordon Pinsent, is dismayed that after the thirty days is up, Christie seems to have forgotten who he is, and has instead formed an attachment to a male patient.

Polley has adapted a short story by Alice Munro, which I have not read. Munro is Canadian, as is Polley, and this film is distinctly Canadian, with its wintry silences. The subject matter is quite grim, but Polley doesn't allow sloppy sentimentality do enter her script. She doesn't let her actors chew the scenery, which is common in a film about a debilitating illness.

Though Christie is getting a lot of attention, I was particularly impressed with Gordon Pinsent. He plays the doting husband with an interesting combination of hope and world-weariness. As one of the nurses correctly guesses, he wasn't always the doting husband, and he and Christie had their difficulties in the past (in one of the few laugh-out-loud moments, Pinsent remarks that Christie's long-term memory is quite good when she recalls one of is indiscretions). The burdens he carries can be seen in his craggy face, his eyes like pinpricks in snow.

I always admired the performance of Olympia Dukakis as the wife of the patient that forms an attachment to Christie. Dukakis and Polley team to make the character avoid falling into the pit of cliche.
Away From Her is a bit slow-going, but is a clear-eyed look at aging, disease and the devotion formed during a long marriage.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Detroit vs. Cleveland

There's some big games involving professional sports teams from Detroit and Cleveland coming up. The Pistons and Cavaliers are already in the midst of the NBA Eastern Conference finals; the Pistons are up 2 games to none following their victory over the Cavs last night, 79-76, which was also the score of their victory in game 1. I wish I could tell you more about it, but I watched none of these games. My interest in NBA basketball has almost petered out entirely, as it is an almost impossible game to watch. I can name some of the players, but as I wrote about a few weeks ago, the days when I watched every second, as I did with the Bad Boys back in the late eighties, are long gone. I still hope they win, though.

The Tigers and Indians of Major League Baseball meet for the first time this season. They are neck-and-neck atop the American League's Central Division. The Tigers are in the midst of a tough stretch, facing division leaders Boston and Los Angeles (or Anaheim, or whatever), but have still managed to find themselves in a precarious one-half game lead over the Indians. Sorry to say that here on the East Coast none of these games will be televised (I get Phillies-Braves instead). The Tiger bats are thumping, and Magglio Ordonez has moved ahead as the A.L. RBI leader and is a legitimate MVP candidate.

Detroit and Cleveland would be natural rivals, due to the relative proximity of the cities. Back in the fifties, the Lions and Browns were major rivals, playing in a few title games. Both of these teams have been down so long (the Browns even disappearing altogether for a few years) that that rivalry is unlikely to ever be reborn. The Tigers and Indians could get a nice mutual hatred going, though. However, I think this may be the first year they've ever been both good at the same time. The Indians had been long fallow until the mid to late nineties, when the Tigers were in a decade-long funk. Here's hoping a bitter yet friendly rivalry heats up, with Indian fans ultimately suffering disappointment (The Tribe has not a World Series since 1948. Only the Cubs have better excelled at futility).

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Lost, Third Season Finale

SPOILER ALERT!!!!

Lost's season three came to a stunning end last night, a reminder of how much I love this show. The third season got off to a bumpy start in the fall, focusing on the Others, the mysterious and creepy faction that had kidnapped Jack, Kate and Sawyer. When the season continued in February, it was firing on all cylinders providing about a half-dozen excellent episodes, such as finding out how Locke got paralyzed, and Sawyer exacting revenge on the man who ruined his family. The only real clunker was the Paolo and Nikki episode, which still had its moments of perverse fun.

Last night, though, the whole Lost world got stood on it's ear. Almost all of the episodes have contained flashbacks for the characters, both the plane-crash survivors and the Others. Last night's episode seemed to be that way, showing Jack in a particularly bad spell. I assumed it was right after he had spent time in Thailand, perhaps grieving over his broken marriage. But at the very end of the episode (Here is a big spoiler alert!!!) we find out that this was a flash-forward, showing us Jack's life after being rescued. Or at least it appears that way. It also could be something like an alternate time line. But it's clear that it's Jack, it's post-plane crash, and he is upset about someone who died, someone who got no visitors at their viewing. Who is that, and what has happened to Jack from the moment he called for rescue on a satellite phone to the moment when he is ready to jump to his death from a bridge? This is the cliffhanger leading to season 4.

A lot of great moments in last night's two-hour finale (frequently interrupted by commercials): Locke, thought dead, awakens, and is saved from suicide by an apparition of Walt. Hurley riding the VW microbus to the rescue. Rousseau reunited with Alex, her long-lost daughter, and the first she says? Want to help me tie him (Ben) up? Jack beating the bejeesus out of Ben, a moment a long time in coming and certainly one that must have had Losties everywhere cheering. Charlie's brave and poetic death, in fact the whole Looking Glass portion of the episode, from the two chicks interrogating Charlie to Desmond shooting Mikhail with a spear gun, to Charlie learning the code was the tune to Good Vibrations, was inspired.

The next episode of Lost will be in February 2008, so a child conceived last night could to through a full gestation and be born before then. It's a long layoff, but fortunately last night's show set the hook deeply, and I'll be there when it airs.



Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Scarlett Johansson

Scarlett Johansson regularly is near the top of polls of sexiest female celebrity these days, and I'm not about to argue. She manages to look both kittenish and voluptuous at the same time, and her smokey voice gives her an air of sophistication. She also is an actress of some reputation, unlike say, Jessica Alba, who is the other woman who tops these kind of lists. However, lately Johansson's career has been making some missteps, in my opinion. I've just finished watching a half dozen of her most recent films, as well as visiting her best performance, which was one of her first.

I think there may be two factors at work. One--she needs vocal training. Yes, her voice is sexy, but she isn't in full command of it. Two--she needs a strong director who knows what to do with her. Both of these are apparent in The Prestige, in which she is very ill-used. As a magician's assistant who manages to get involved with both rivals in this Christopher Nolan film, Johansson is asked to do impossible things and does them badly. First, she is asked to an English accent, and then she has to play a wronged woman, which she does shrilly. The role is somewhat similar to her part of Nola in Woody Allen's Match Point, but here I think she is better used. First of all, though the picture is set in England, Allen doesn't ask her to be British (he probably used an American actress to further emphasize her "otherness") and he tapped into what was interesting about her. Though the character played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers is a fool for getting involved with her, we can understand why he does, because Johansson plays a beguiling character.

Allen doesn't do Johansson any favors in Scoop (which I reviewed earlier on this blog). Here she is asked to do screwball comedy, and plays the role that Diane Keaton would have played thirty years ago, and the comparison isn't favorable to Scarlett. On a second viewing, though, I liked her a little better, and saw that she was making some interesting choices and at least was trying something different.

Where directors may make the biggest mistake, though, is regarding Scarlett's look as being period, when she is best suited for contemporary material. She has a timeless look, and no doubt she was cast in The Black Dahlia (also reviewed earlier on this blog) because without too much effort she looks like a film noir siren. But she is just lost in this film, trying to inhabit a character with a very disturbed past. It's a bit like watching someone play dress-up. She is better in A Good Woman, an adaptation of Oscar Wilde's Lady Windermere's Fan, moved from Victorian England to the Italian coast in 1930. Here Johansson wears the vintage dresses, but instead of playing the femme fatale, she is the ingenue. As with Match Point, though she is surrounded by European actors, she plays an American.

Last night I saw The Island, Johansson's foray into blockbuster territory. A spectacular flop, Johansson plays a clone who is being harvested for organ transplant. It's not a role that asks for much other than looking worried and running a lot. The interesting thing about this film, which is standard summer popcorn fare, is how closely it hues to a B-film from the seventies called Parts: The Clonus Horror, which turned up in a Mystery Science Theatre 3000 episode. The plot is almost exactly the same, just dressed up with Michael Bay bombast.

Johansson's best performance continues to be in Ghost World, which I watched again the other night. It was her first role as an adult, as one of a pair of disaffected high school graduates. One girl, played by Thora Birch, does not want to enter society, and prefers to associate with oddballs. Johansson's character faces adulthood more realistically, getting a job, renting an apartment, and shopping for for functional, kitsch-less items. It's very rewarding to watch how two friends, faced with deciding their future, drift apart.

Johansson has two more films coming this year. One is The Nanny Diaries, a sort of Devil Wears Prada type film about a put-upon young woman playing nanny to some rich New York people, and The Other Boleyn Girl, in which she plays the sister of English queen Anne Boleyn. I hope she's worked on her English accent.



Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Mark Twain Tonight!

"Chaucer is dead. Spenser is dead. Milton is dead. Shakespeare is dead. And I'm not feeling so good myself." So begins Hal Holbrook's legendary one-man show, in which he brings to life Mark Twain in a reproduction of the famed writer's lectures. The setting is 1905, when Twain was 70, five years before he died, and age is on his mind. "I'm on the verge of being an old man," he says.

Holbrook has done this show for over 50 years. He is now 82, a dozen years older than Twain actually was at the time. He has played this show thousands of times, in many places, and the other night he stopped at Princeton's McCarter Theater for an appreciate full house.

More a concert than a play, the program lists several possible stories that Twain may spin, but they are changed every night. It's almost like the Rolling Stones changing their set list. Holbrook chooses what might be most relevant to an audience of folks a hundred years later than the actual time, and partly due to Twain's prescience, a lot of it is relevant.

The show I saw was particularly hard on Congress. "The only native criminal class in America is congress," Twain says. "Let's pretend you were an idiot. Or let's pretend you were a member of congress. Oh, I've repeated myself." I imagine Twain would not be pleased, but also not surprised, that 100 years later things are pretty much the same.

Old age is also a recurring theme. Twain describes a trip he took to the baths at Marienbad, where he drank "cemetery water." He also takes some shots at doctors, and in a Princeton audience, there were probably many physicians in attendance. "To be a sucessful doctor you need a combination of ignorance and confidence," Twain says, to a roar of laughter.

Holbrook also does some readings from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, taking the parts of Huck and Jim, including a quite moving passage as the latter when he discovers his daughter has gone deaf from scarlet fever. There is also some amusing business when Twain tries to light a cigar. A few of the transitions seemed a little ragged, making one wonder whether Holbrook is deciding what stories to tell on the spot. Nevertheless, it's a marvelous evening of entertainment, and a reminder of the genius of Mark Twain.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Waitress


Waitress is a fine film, funny and tender, with a terrific performance by Keri Russell, but it is also coated with a patina of melancholy. The writer, director and co-star, Adrienne Shelly, was murdered shortly before it premiered at Sundance. As I watched the film in a nearly full house, I wondered how many of my fellow audience members knew that, and I sort of envied them if they didn't, because I would have liked to have judged this film without that knowledge.

The film is structured as a fairy tale, with Russell as a heroine not too far removed from Cinderella. There's a villain, a handsome prince, even a fairy godmother. And while it is a comedy of sorts, there is an undercurrent of profound sadness, even without the real-life situation intruding. Russell plays Jenna, a waitress at a pie diner (I must admit I have never come across an establishment of this sort) and something of a genius in inventing pie recipes. She is trapped in a loveless marriage to an ogre played by Jeremy Sisto, who has a strangehold on her financially, making it difficult for her to leave. She hides some of her wages, hoping to save up to leave him in the dust. Things get complicated, though, when she learns she is pregnant. They get even more complicated when she falls for her handsome obstetrician, Nathan Fillion.

As played by Russell, Jenna is seriously depressed, finding comfort only by palling around with her co-workers (Shelly and Cheryl Hines) and making pies, some of which are created for her particular moods, such as I Hate My Husband pie, which is chock full of bittersweet chocolate. She is kind of like a whipped dog around the husband, rotely complying with his pathetic attempts to gain attention and approval. It is only when she begins her affair with the doctor that the character blooms. There is a terrific sequence when Russell carries a look of supreme perplexity on her face, which eventually yields to a thousand-kilowatt smile. Russell, who is probably too pretty for this role, still manages to sell the character's desperation. I cringed along with everyone on screen everytime Sisto appears.

As with any debut screenplay, Waitress has its problems. Sisto's character is without any redeeming quality. He does show vulnerability and would be a prime candidate for a therapist's couch, but things are just too deeply stacked against him. Each of the other waitresses have a sub-plot, but they aren't well explored. Andy Griffith is the crusty codger who owns the diner and befriends Jenna, and he is close to being a cliche, though Griffith is a gifted enough actor to avoid that pitfall.

At the end of the film, we see the child Russell eventually gives birth to grown to toddler age. She is played by Sophie, Shelly's child in real life. There is a moment when she waves bye-bye to Shelly's character, and an otherwise deeply emotional scene is made even more so.

Friday, May 18, 2007

The Madonna of Las Vegas

This is a strange, intermittently gripping novel. It is a literary novel that is structured as a genre book--this time the noir mystery. It is when the book most closely hews to the mystery conventions that the book works best; when it flies off into metaphysical realms and theological history, the wheels fall off.

The book is about Cosmo Dust (an unfortunate start--this kind of oddball naming hasn't worked well since Dickens), an artist who is working on painting a replica of Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling in a Las Vegas casino. He is a lost soul, because his wife, whom he loved deeply, died after eating a chocolate Easter egg that had been filled with cyanide.

As it is approaching the end of the millennium, Dust gets acquainted with a cocktail waitress, whom he invites up to his suite at the hotel, which is being comped to him by the owner, an organized crime boss known as the Pope of Las Vegas. When the cocktail waitress turns up murdered in his bathtub, he becomes the number one suspect. He then ends up teamed with the "Pope's" daughter and the waitress's baby, who may or may not be the new messiah.

The author, Gregory Blake Smith, has an obvious interest in liturgical history. There's stuff in here about the Kenotic messiah, the possible conspiracy theories surrounding the death of Pope John Paul I, and gnosticism. Smith seems to enjoy contrasting this weighty stuff with the crass commercialism of Vegas, a city which has become such a metaphor these days. The fictional casino Dust works in is called the Golden Calf, but real casinos, especially the Venetian, are settings in the book, surely to explore the bizarre notion that beautiful places around the world are reproduced as tourist meccas in the middle of a desert.

About halfway through the book the action of the book slows down and gets tangled up in issues of identity and duality, and my eyes glazed over a bit. The conclusion doesn't offer much of a solution to the mystery and is ambiguous. That was okay, though, because I really didn't care about the main characters at that point, so their fate isn't something I'm worried about.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel

Continuing my quest to read the ten books selected as the best of the year by The New York Times, I finally finished The Collected Stories, by Amy Hempel. This is a one-volume collection of her four previously published slim volumes of stories, 48 in all.

Hempel is frequently termed a minimalist, or miniaturist, in the same ballpark as Raymond Carver. It is true that her writing is spare, and the stories frequently are quite brief, most lasting no more than three or four pages. Her sentences are very well crafted (in Rick Moody's introduction, he begins and closes with "It's all about the sentences."), but they manage to pack a wallop.

Many of her stories have two concurrent themes: they are about damaged people, either in hospitals or institutions, or recovering from heartbreak, and there are also many dogs. I don't think this is coincidental. Dogs, as well as other animals, are said to provide healing qualities to people in pain. Almost all of her stories have a dog in them somewhere, either prominently featured, or just on the periphery. It is no mistake that Hempel is posing with a dog on the cover of the book.

The first volume, Reasons to Live, contains many very short stories, most no more than a page or two. This has an odd effect on this reader, sometime I felt like I had been dropped into something already happening, as if they were snippets from something larger. A couple of stories stand out: Nashville Gone to Ashes, about the widow of a veterinarian, and In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried, about a woman in a hospice.

It is in the second volume, At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom, that the stories become more rounded. Consider The Harvest, one of the best stories in the collection. Who could resist a story that starts this way: "The year I began to say vahz instead of vase, a man I barely knew nearly accidentally killed me." The story then documents a woman recovering from a car accident. Once we have learned the facts, though, Hempel takes the story on a 180 degree turn halfway through in a bit of metafiction, as the character announces that everything is a lie. It's been a while since I felt a bit of literary whiplash like that. That story is followed up by the thoroughly charming The Most Girl Part of You, about a teenage friendship that is burgeoning into romance.

The third volume, Tumble Home, is dominated by the title story, a novella and leaps and bounds the longest work of Hempel's career. It is told in epistle form, a letter written by a woman in some sort of mental institution, to a man from her past. She has an interesting menagerie of fellow patients, and alludes to her mother's suicide.

The last volume, The Dog of the Marriage, contains the most pointed story abouts dogs, the title one. In one section of the story the narrator trains seeing-eye dogs, in another she befriends a stray beagle who has been abused. There is a story called Jesus is Waiting, about a woman at loose ends who seeks comfort from non-stopping driving, always listening to Al Green singing Jesus is Waiting, and the shortest story in the whole collection, Memoir, which I can quote here in its entirety: "Just once in my life--oh, when have I ever wanted anything just once in my life?" My favorite story is The Uninvited. A fifty-year-old woman, who may be pregnant from a rape, details the plot of the ghost film called The Uninvited. It's an effective interpolation of pop culture in a literary form.

This book took me a while to read not because I wasn't enjoying it, it's just that books of short stories are usually read by me piecemeal, a bit here, a bit there. I had the opportunity to read a few of these stories outside: Tumble Home was read sitting on a bench at the Princeton train station, and The Uninvited while in a wildlife reserve on Princeton's edge, with no sound around except for brushing leaves and birds chirping.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

The Gilmore Girls

For a time I was a regular watcher of the WB's (now the CW, or something like that) Gilmore Girls. Initially I was drawn to it because I saw a picture somewhere of Alexis Bledel, who plays the precocious teenage daughter in the show. I quickly learned that Lauren Graham, who plays her mother, was equally as fetching, so the show energized mother-daughter fantasies everywhere.

So I came for the eye candy, but I stayed for the writing. The show was created band written y Amy Sherman-Padillo, who it would appear was nurtured on screwball comedies. The dialogue in this show was frequently amazing, specifically the patter between Graham and Bledel, who both spoke as if they feared the world would end before they finished their sentences. I imagine the scripts were twice as long as a normal one-hour show, because so many bon mots were packed into each hour.

Ostensibly, the show was about a mother who gave birth to her child as a teenager, and became estranged from her snooty parents (deliciously played each week by Kelly Bishop and Edward Hermann). When the daughter turns out to be academically gifted, the mother goes crawling back and asks her parents for tuition help to send said daughter to a prep school. Meanwhile, mother and daughter live in a picturesque New England town that is populated by lovable oddballs.

Last night was the series finale, after seven seasons on the air. I had stopped being a regular viewer, both because during my stretch as a movie-theater worker I was away from the TV set on Tuesday nights, and also the show made a wrong turn when they had Rory (the daughter) fall in with a bad crowd at Yale, and she and her mother stopped talking. Their interplay was the best part of the show, so to have them grumpy with each other was just too much of a downer. It was also somewhat tedious to have the show turn into another "will they or won't they" soap opera, as Graham and hunky diner owner Luke (Scott Patterson) went from friendship to love affair to back again.

I will have fond memories of the show, though. It was great to watch a show that celebrated erudition, and the pop culture references, reaching from the highest to the very low (who will forget the episode where the cast members watch the film version of Pippi Longstocking) were dazzling. The long-form TV series is an interesting art form, because a viewer becomes invested in characters for years at a time, and to see them sign off for good does elicit emotions that a film or book can't duplicate. So long, Lorelai and Rory Gilmore, I wish you both well.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Wincing the Night Away

When a character played by Natalie Portman in the film Garden State tells another character that listening to The Shins will change your life, that's a lot of pressure. Who would want to contradict Natalie? And granted, the song she's talking about, New Slang, is one of those most ethereally catchy songs I've heard in the past few years. I'll admit I put in my CD player and hit 'repeat'. The Shins new album, Wincing the Night Away, doesn't have a song that good, but it's certainly consistent with their first two albums.

I made a mistake, though, listening to it the first time. I followed along with the lyric sheet. Not only is the lyric sheet designed so the lyrics from a song spread over two pages, meaning you have to turn the pages back and forth while reading along. The lyrics for the songs on this album are, to be charitable, inscrutable. They seem to be a scramble of words, selected for the sound they make rather than any meaning. Consider just a sample: "Frozen into coats, White girls of the North, Fire past one, fire the one, The are the fabled lambs, A Sunday ham, The ancient snow," or "Undaunted, you bathed in hollow cries, The boils were swollen, sunburned eyes, A reward for letting nothing under their skin, So help me, I don't know, I might, Just give the old dark side a try." These are by James Mercer, who it seems to me is either some kind of intense, twisted poet or simply a noodler, pulling words out of the air to fit the notes. In either way, it might as well as be Urdu.

Listening to this album and not caring about the words elicits a better response. There are some pleasant, catchy numbers, including three songs in a row: Phantom Limb, Sealegs and Red Rabbits. I put it on Saturday while sitting on my little patio and it was a nice experience.

Of course, what do lyrics matter in a rock and roll record? In my experience, they can add to a record, but unless they are aggressively stupid, they can't detract. I mean, we've had hit songs that say little more than Sh-boom, sh-boom, and hits like Louie Louie have impregnable lyrics. Perhaps if I had some sense of what Mercer is trying to say my life would be changed, but I'm sorry to say all I can offer is a shrug.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Good Times for Detroit Sports Fans

It's nice to be a fan of Detroit's sports teams these days. Last night, the Pistons went up 3-0 on the Chicago Bulls, to take a commanding lead in the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals of the NBA. Also yesterday, the Tigers beat the Mariners, putting them half a game in first place in the American League Central. Tonight, the Red Wings begin the Western Conference Semis of the NHL, taking on the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim. As for the Lions, well, they are currently undefeated.

The baseball team, after an April of fits and starts, has gotten into a groove, winning 9 of their last ten. Mostly it's because the bats have awoken. Placido Polanco and Magglio Ordonez are leading the charge, both among the league leaders in hitting. Gary Sheffield, the major acquisition over the off-season, got off to a horrendous start, has come around, although he's still only hitting in the 220s. The pitching has done enough to get by, although the bullpen is worrisome. Joel Zumaya will be out for three months following surgery to a finger, which means that the ancient Jose Mesa will be integral in set-up work. This makes me extremely nervous, as does any appearance by Fernando Rodney, who has already lost 4 games this season. He retired the side order yesterday, so maybe he's righted his ship.

Tonight starts a key series in Minnesota. The division is a tough one, with the Twins, Indians and White Sox all in the mix. Given the Yankees' slow start, it's highly probable that the wild-card winner will come from the Central, and arguably it's the best division in all of baseball.

As for the Red Wings, after a few years of going out in the first round, they have won two rounds, polishing off Calgary and San Jose, and are now one step from the Stanley Cup finals. My relationship with the Red Wings is probably not all that unusual: I pay almost no attention to them during the regular season, but do try to watch them during the playoffs. It is then I reacquaint myself with who the players are. Fortunately, they've had some players for years, like Chris Draper, Niklas Lidstrom, Tomas Holmstrom, and Chris Chelios. Other guys, like Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg, are young and take some getting used to. The Yzerman-Federov-Hull days are long gone.

When it comes down to it, I think hockey is my second favorite sport. The problem is it is hard to find on the TV dial. But I don't think anything matches it for excitement. To me, there is nothing in sports that is as gripping as sudden-death overtime in hockey, especially if it's in the playoffs. I think back to Steve Yzerman's goal in game seven against the St. Blues some years ago, and the bedlam that ensued. It is true that hockey is a game best appreciated in person (which is a contrast with football, which is a game best served by television), but if a person knows what to look for, hockey on TV is very exciting.

As for the Pistons, they have marched right along in this year's playoffs, winning all seven games they have played. I have watched almost none of it, and I don't remember whether I have watched any of their games this year. NBA basketball has very little appeal to me anymore. It wasn't always this way. Back when the Pistons had the Bad Boys I hung on every dribble, and even went to a playoff game back in 1986 when they played in the Silverdome, taking on Larry Bird and the Boston Celtics. I watched every minute of their first championship against the Lakers. But somewhere along the line I lost interest. It might be because the game itself is flawed, as it seems that a fourth quarter can last an hour, with a parade of time-outs and foul shots. Or maybe it's the players, who all seem to specialize in thuggish, anti-social behavior. When the Pistons won an unexpected championship three years ago, I hardly noticed.

I certainly wish them well this season, and if they get to the finals (they would have to get past the Cleveland-New Jersey winner to do that) I may pay attention. It's an easy team to root for, put together by Joe Dumars, one of the original Bad Boys. They are a team without big stars, and play together like a unit.

For a city like Detroit, which has little else to recommend, it's important for the sports teams to do well. If only the Lions could take a cue from the other teams (admittedly, the Tigers were in the wasteland for a decade) and get their act together.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Mrs. Packard

In 1861, a woman named Elizabeth Packard was abducted from her Illinois home and placed in an insane asylum. This was requested by her husband, a strict Calvinist minister who thought his wife's ideas on theology were too liberal and wanted her committed. At the time, the law did not require her to be judged insane. If a husband wanted his wife locked up, it happened.

This is the true story told by Emily Mann in her play, Mrs. Packard, which is the last play of the McCarter Theater season. It is certainly a chilling tale, not only because of Mrs. Packard's wrongful imprisonment, but because of the deplorable state of mental health care at the time. Patients were simply locked up and offered no treatment, and the living conditions were beyond imagining. Some women were kept in wards that were in a complete state of filth, unbathed and no waste facilities.

This makes for keen outrage, but is it compelling drama? In this day and age, it would take a complete troglodyte to agree with how women were treated by their husbands and the law (it is interesting that the play takes place at the same time as the Civil War, when blacks became emancipated but women had a long way to go). But it seems to me that such an open and shut case doesn't make for a gripping play. As played by Kathryn Meisle, Mrs. Packard is emininently sane from her first entrance. There should be no doubt in any of the audience that she is being put away due to very minor differences in theological doctrine, and that she is a very intelligent, if headstrong, woman. So the play becomes a kind of nightmare, with the only suspense whether she gets out or not. A quick look a the program gives that away, so what we end up seeing on stage is a kind of documentary. A fascinating one, but the kind that preaches to the choir.

If this play had been written and produced a hundred years ago, it would have been a sensation, but today it is merely a history lesson. It is well staged and acted, particularly by Dennis Parlato, who plays Dr. McFarland, who Mrs. Packard thinks is her ally until she questions his opinions. Meisle is frequently brilliant, but at times (perhaps because it was a preview) seems to get lost in her lines. She is onstage almost the entire time, so it is a demanding role.

Despite any misgivings, this play is worth seeing if only to raise questions about how the mentally ill are treated today, and whether women have fully achieved the equality that a woman of Mrs. Packard's time couldn't even fantasize about.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Spider-Man 3

Well, the critical consensus, I'm sorry to say, is pretty accurate: Spider-Man 3 is a bit of a dud. It was sporadically entertaining, and the climax appealed to the 12-year-old in me, but this film is loaded with script problems, and it's too bad, because the themes of forgiveness and altruism are noble, but the approach is hackneyed.

Number 3 begins with Peter Parker uncharacteristically happy. He is ready to propose to Mary Jane, who has a part in a Broadway show. But then the wheels start to fall off for everyone. Harry Osborn still blames Spider-Man for the death of his father, The Green Goblin. Mary Jane, who shouldn't sing without the aid of a karaoke machine, gets axed from her play. A rival photographer is edging Pete out for a staff job at the Daily Bugle. And a pesky bit of glop from outer space turns Spidey into Mr. Hyde. Oh, and then there's The Sandman.

It seems that superhero franchises can't get past the third-film curse. It happened to Superman, Batman and now Spidey. I thought the first film was a joy, the second was great, but this one is just all over the map. I knew going in that I would see the Green Goblin, Jr., the Sandman, and Venom, which is what the nasty bit of glop turns into, but that's way too much weight for any film to carry. Venom doesn't appear until the movie is over half-over. But for all those supervillains, we still get long stretches of mind-numbing scenes like Mary Jane and Harry doing the Twist while making omelets, or a forced bit of comedy with a French-accented maitre 'd (played by Raimi regular Bruce Campbell). There's also interminable scenes between Peter and Mary Jane (not particularly well-played by either Toby Maguire or Kirsten Dunst, who seem tired of the whole thing). I just wanted to tell both of them to shut up.

Of the villains, only The Sandman is interesting. He is a thief who might have gone straight if we had a national health care plan, and gets his powers from an industrial accident, one of the major ways of getting such powers (the other is gamma rays, which can sometimes come from an industrial accident). Thomas Haden Church gives the character some dignity and pathos. Topher Grace is Eddie Brock, the photographer who ends up as Venom. Grace is now specializing in playing young assholes, such as in Traffic and In Good Company and here. He might have fared better had he not been the afterthought villain. The less said about James Franco as Goblin Jr. the better.

The script also includes some clunky plot devices like amnesia and the biggest whopper--the glop from outer space attaches itself to Spider-Man through sheer randomness. Out of six billion people, an asteroid from space just happens to land near a guy who is a superhero? Every serious Spider-Man fan knows that he got the black suit when he took part in the Secret Wars, and it was his own hubris that got him in such a mess (and by the way, Secret Wars would make an awesome movie, undoubtedly the most expensive ever made).

If there is a Spider-Man 4 (we still haven't seen Parker's professor, Dr. Connors, turn into The Lizard yet), keep it simple. One or two villains at the most, and have Parker give Mary Jane the boot for Gwen Stacy. Try to remember what was good about the first two films, and get a script doctor, stat.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Marlon Brando

I watched the TCM documentary on Marlon Brando this week. It was loaded with clips and information, and many interviews with those who knew him. It was more informative than captivating, but any chance I get to think about movie stars of the past is a good thing.

I don't know if Marlon Brando is the greatest movie actor to ever live. I do know that in my opinion, his performance in On the Waterfront is the greatest piece of film acting I've ever seen, and that in Last Tango in Paris he gives the most emotionally naked performance anyone is likely to give. It is also very evident that he changed the nature of film acting. As one person said during the documentary, "There is before Brando, and after Brando."

Brando seems to have had a complicated relationship with his father. By all accounts he hated him, but also employed him in his production company. There is a priceless clip when Brando Junior and Senior are on the Ed Murrow program, and Senior says some disparaging thing about Junior. Young Marlon gives his dad a look that would wither a cactus, and then a supposedly playful grab of his dad's foot, when it is likely he would have rather strangled him by the neck.

As a young man, Brando took New York City by storm with a series of Broadway performances, highlighted by Stanley Kowalski in Streetcar Named Desire. As many have put it, he wasn't acting, he was behaving, and this was a revelation. He studied under Stella Adler, who taught Stanislavsky's method, but what exactly does that mean? Al Pacino, when asked, can't define what the method is. All I remember about it from my acting classes was that it uses one's own memories and experiences to illustrate the character. It sought to blur the line between pretending to be someone and actually being them.

Brando then made the switch to films. His first six films--The Men, Streetcar Named Desire, Viva Zapata, Julius Caesar, The Wild One, an On the Waterfront, are considered by some to be the best six films anyone has ever made in a row. His performances in Streetcar and the Wild One are iconographic (I was told that Tennessee Williams hated that a paperback edition of the play had Brando's picture on it--he thought the play was about Blanche). Even before I knew who Brando was, I knew that there was a famous line from a movie in which a guy yells "Stella!" In The Wild One, he seems to be summing up a whole generation as the biker who replies, when asked what he is rebelling against, with "Whatdya got?"

Even Shakespeare couldn't conquer him. The idea of him doing the Bard was amusing to some, who couldn't imagine this "mumbler" mouthing the poet's great words. But Brando was mesmerizing as Mark Anthony, holding his own against the likes of John Gielgud. Gielgud wanted to direct him doing Hamlet on stage, but Brando was done with trodding the boards.

Then came On the Waterfront. Just thinking about it now I can conjure up so many magnificent moments. Of course, the best remembered scene is the cab ride with Rod Steiger, in which he says "I coulda been a contender," but there's so much more, such as the way he fiddles with Eva Marie Saint's mitten, or the way he tells off Lee J. Cobb: "You're nothing but a cheap, lousy, dirty, stinking mug!"

After that, Brando's performances were wildly inconsistent. The consensus from those who knew him was that he hated acting, or at least didn't take it seriously. After he became a megastar he could just phone in some performances, but occasionally he still shone. It was interesting to hear Martin Scorsese relate that DeNiro's "You looking at me?" scene from Taxi Driver was inspired by Brando's mirror scene in Reflections of a Golden Eye.

It's hard to realize now how much of a comeback it was, then, for him to do The Godfather. He was back in prime form. Just watch him in the opening scene, playing with the cat while hearing favors asked of him, or his weary tearful shrug when given the news of Sonny's death. His co-stars, James Caan, Robert Duvall, Pacino, were all awed by him. He then provided Academy Award watchers years of talk by sending an Indian woman to refuse the Oscar he won. Sacheen Littlefeather, the woman in question, was interviewed for the documentary, probably the first time in ages she's been on television.

Brando's private life was a mess. He was involved with a series of Polynesian woman, fathered a slew of children, and bought a Tahitian island. After The Godfather and Last Tango he was reduced to making expensive cameos that ranged from brilliant (his turn in Roots as Nazi leader George Lincoln Rockwell) to ridiculous (Superman, The Island of Dr. Moreau). He made many friendships with the new generation of actors, though, who revered him (Johnny Depp, John Travolta, Edward Norton).

I think his friend Quincy Jones said it best, in considering him a great artist of the 20th century. Jones compares him to Pablo Picasso and Miles Davis, because they all broke the rules. He didn't add, though, that they were all very difficult men, and very larger than life.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Mother Night

"We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be." This is the moral of Kurt Vonnegut's second novel, Mother Night, published in 1961. After his death two weeks ago I was spurred to read one of his books that I have laying around the homestead that I hadn't read yet, and this one turned out to be appropriate, as another moral of the book is: "When you're dead, you're dead." Vonnegut himself spells these morals out in an introduction.

This is the autobiography of Howard Campbell, Jr., an American boy who grew up in Germany between the wars. He becomes a popular playwright and marries an actress, Helga, whom he loves deeply. In the days before and during World War II, he became a mouthpiece for the Nazis, broadcasting incendiary monologues about the inferiority of Jews and others in an attempt to sway the American mind. What no one but three other people knew, he was also an American agent, using those broadcasts to transmit information to the Americans. Because he was such a secret, his life has become a lie. His wife is missing , presumed dead.

Captured at the end of the war and sentenced to hang, the American government arranges to have his life spared and relocated to New York City, where he lives a drab existence. He has become a hero to the fascists, and an evil entity to those who remember his broadcasts, including the soldier who captured him, who has sworn he will finish what the government couldn't. When Campbell is discovered by a small group of fascist pamphleteers, who wish to rescue him, the mechanisms of the plot spring forward.

Mother Night is a melancholy book, full of regret and sadness, but with the distinctive Vonnegut touch. Only he could write about despair with such a light tone. There is also a distinctly anti-jingoist nature to the work. At one point Campbell draws an American flag, a Swastika, and a hammer and sickle on the dust of his window, and points out that each represents the meaning of patriotism to, respectively, an American, a Nazi and a communist.

Campbell is writing his story in an Israeli jail, awaiting trial for war crimes. How he gets there is the meat of the story. He briefly meets Adolph Eichmann, and is amused when Eichmann believes that the "I was just following orders" excuse is original. He also comes to an epiphany about the nature of hate: "There are plenty of good reasons for fighting," I said, "but no good reason ever to hate without reservation, to imagine that God Almighty Himself hates with you, too. Where's evil? It's that large part of every man that wants to hate without limit, that wants to hate with God on his side. It's that part of every man that finds all kinds of ugliness so attractive."

Amen.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

A Dirty Shame

I'm not too well-versed in the films of John Waters. I've seen a few, like Cry-Baby and Hairspray. I had a chance to see Pink Flamingos back in college, but heard that a character eats dog feces, and I decided I really didn't need to see that. It seems that lately Waters' films have been more sweet-natured, although still celebrating bad taste. I took a look at A Dirty Shame yesterday.

The thing about John Waters is that he's a very entertaining personality. I'd rather watch him be interviewed for an hour and a half that watch his films. He's a throwback to all those interesting people who used to be on chat shows, like Oscar Levant or Truman Capote. While A Dirty Shame has its heart in the right place and a gleeful sense of debauchery, it's not a very good film.

As usual with Waters, the film is set in Baltimore. Tracy Ullman is an uptight housewife who gets whacked on the head, and she becomes a sex addict (specifically, she becomes a "cunnilingus bottom"). Her daughter, played by Selma Blair, is also a sex addict, and has to be kept locked up, lest she run wild and resume her identity as stripper Ursula Udders, complete with comically enlarged breasts. When Ullman's inner whore is released, she falls in with Johnny Knoxville and his apostles, all of whom are sex addicts with some particular fetish. Meanwhile, Ullman's mother, amusingly portrayed by Suzanne Shepherd, attempts to lead a decency campaign to rid the area of perverts.

A Dirty Shame has a nice message about tolerance--it's even spelled out at one point: as long as the sex is between consensual and doesn't hurt anyone, anything goes, but I think does a disservice to real sex addicts, who are tortured people. The characters in this film are like cartoons, constantly getting whacked on the head and changing from nymphos to puritans, so there's no semblance of reality here, but the lampooning of twelve-step programs, which have helped so many people, felt wrong.

In a very long behind the scenes on the DVD, Waters discusses how he did research on various fetishes. In my position as smut editor, this is something we did all the time, too, discovering fetishes that probably no one has. Waters amusingly defined such things as "felching" and "plate-jobs," and speculated that no one has ever actually done those things, but it's amusing to think about.