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Friday, September 28, 2007

Skinny Dip

I just finished yet another pleasurable thriller by Carl Hiaasen, who has once again picked up a rock in South Florida to reveal some nasty critters roaming around underneath. Hiaasen, who has particular ire toward those who are raping the environment for purposes of greed, takes on large-scale farming operations that pollute the Everglades with pesticides and practically enslave their immigrant workers. But he begins the book with a man throwing his wife off of a cruise ship.

The man in question is Chaz Perrone, a biologist who hates nature. Perrone is one of Hiassen's more despicable characters, which is saying something. His wife, Joey, manages to survive the fall, and clings to a floating bale of marijuana until she is rescued by Mick Stranahan (a character who was in Hiassen's novel Skin Tight). Instead of going to the police, she decides to get revenge on her murderous hubbie.

Hiassen's novels are a giddy delight. This one is not a departure from his usual template, with the villains stupid and venal, and the good guys roguish and witty. In this book he does offer a few wrinkles. There's a character called Tool, who is a dim, hairy colossus, but Hiassen allows him to grow over the course of novel in a manner that is rather touching. He has less success with convincing us of how Joey, who is as appealing a female character as you can get, would ever have hooked up with the obnoxious, immature Chaz. Hiassen seems to be aware that it just doesn't work, because he has Joey rationalize it many times, but I just couldn't buy it.

Hiassen aficionados will also be pleased by the appearance of the Captain, the ex-governor of Florida turned exile in the Glades. He is not identified by name here, so if you haven't read any Hiassen, you will want to read the backlist to catch up on this marvelous character.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Hillary Scott

Yes, it's time for one of my periodic tributes to the hard-working women of the adult film business. Let me then praise Hillary Scott from Chicago, who is one of those "anything but children or animals" girls, the kind that make the skulls of guys like me explode.

I don't have too many examples of Hillary's work. She's made over 300 films, but pawing through my collection I could only find about four films of hers that I have. One is prosaically called Young and Anal 32, in which she plays a bratty girl who forces herself on an employee of her father's company. He turns the tables on her by sticking it where the sun don't shine, and by gum, she likes it! In one called Crimes of the Ass, Hillary plays a female convict who wants to play in the shower with her cellmate, but the male guard demands his participation in exchange for allowing this hanky-panky. Only in the gauzy world of porno do female prisoners wear high-heels.

The most interesting Hillary Scott film I have is called Hillary Scott, Cock Star, which would be a G-rated title if it was about breeding Rhode Island Reds, but of course it is not. It's a mockumentary about Hillary's life, and it's difficult to tell how much is mock and how much is real. The adult performers I have known come in many different types, and of course some are flat-out nuts, but most are down to earth people who do their own laundry and worry about the mortgage. In the interview segments, Hillary comes across as very intense and a hard worker (she works every day, she says, and gets 7 a.m. calls because she's known as being punctual). Wearing eyeglasses that give her the air of a small-town librarian, she also occasionally reveals herself as caustic and insufferable of fools, and often refers to herself as a "whore," or "hooker." The use of the word whore, I think, is kind of an empowerment issue, as gays took back the word "queer." Female adult performers now proclaim themselves whores as a badge of honor.

The sex scenes in Cock Star are not for the feint of heart. She engages in some practices that even I find disgusting (and that's saying something). While watching I came to the realization that if I knew her I would probably get a huge, wrong-headed crush on her. She has soft all-American good looks, and unnervingly resembles teen actress Hayden Panettiere. I'm sure she could take me to sexual realms that would rock my world, but also twist me around her finger and make me hate myself.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Under the Blacklight

I liked Jenny Lewis' album Rabbit Fur Coat so much I was interested to get the latest Rilo Kiley album. Lewis is the lead singer and major songwriter for this band, composing ten of the eleven songs and singing lead on the same number. While not as strong as Rabbit Fur Coat, this is an enjoyable disc of music.

Lewis seems to have sex on the mind, or at least a kind of illicit sex that is not all hearts and flowers. The album design includes photos taken at a strip club, and the first video was for a song called The Moneymaker, and featured porn stars. Another song, Close Call, contains the line: "Funny thing about money for sex, you might get rich but you die of it." Another song, appropriately called 15, would send a shiver of fear through any man on the prowl: "She was bruised as a cherry, ripe as a peach, how could he have known she was only fifteen?"

Musically, Rilo Kiley fit comfortable in the label known as alt-country. Lewis has a fine, down-home voice (I said last week that Neko Case was my favorite female vocalist, but Lewis is right there) and many of the songs are old-time country with just a hint of rock and roll. This is especially true of Breakin' Up, The Angels Hung Around, and Silver Lining. They also do a kind of Tex-Mex number called Dejalo, which doesn't quite work, and a throwback to the seventies with Give a Little Love, which is a title that really shouldn't be used anymore. The best songs are the ones that are almost like little short stories, which include 15 and Smoke Detector, about the perils of smoking in bed.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Across the Universe

When I was about fourteen, I used to take my Beatle records and play the songs out of order, crafting a little story in my head to go along with them. It turns out I was a little ahead of my time, as this is essentially what Julie Taymor has done in Across the Universe, except she is working with the entire canon, while I did it one record at a time (Rubber Soul works particularly well, as they are all relationship songs and some are quite nasty). I think, though, that even at that age I could have come up with a better story than Taymor and her writers have.

I had to see this film, despite some pummeling reviews. They have ranged from Roger Ebert's four stars to Robert Wilonsky saying it was "unreleasable." As usual with love-it-or-hate it films, I'm somewhere in the middle. I liked the beginning, as we are introduced to the lead characters: Jude, a working class stiff from Liverpool, and Lucy, a high-school girl of means in the States. I heard Taymor on the radio talking about the Beatles' early popularity with teenage girls, and attributing it to the fact that their early songs were rich with the attitudes of young girls--songs like "Hold Me Tight," "It Won't Be Long," and "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" express a feminine sentiment, and in Taymor's film they are sung by girls. "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" is sung by Prudence, a young Asian girl, as a plaintive lesbian lament from one cheerleader to another, and it works quite well.

Jude comes to America to find his father, and finds him working as a janitor at Princeton (it was a bit strange to be watching this film just a block or two from where it was filmed). He meets up with the student Max, Lucy's dissolute brother, who invites him back to his house for Thanksgiving. Max drops out of school and the two friends move to New York and become part of the hippie scene. Here is where the movie starts to turn, much like old milk. Instead of characters, we start to meet types--Sadie, a bluesy singer (see Joplin, Janis) and JoJo, an angry black guitarist who favors headbands (see Hendrix, Jimi). Prudence shows up (in one of the many winks at the audience, she literally comes in through the bathroom window) and then Lucy, who falls in love with Jude even as she's becoming politically radical.

I can't think of one good movie that captures the counterculture movement of the sixties. There have been some noble attempts, like Milos Forman's Hair, which this film resembles in quite a few ways. Forman also took a bunch of songs and tried to fashion a plot out of it and used a number of stylistic tricks along the way. Taymor, who's past with puppetry and theater is evident in her visual style, certainly keeps things interesting along the way. Some of the musical numbers are deliciously captivating, such as Jude singing "I've Just Seen a Face" to express his crush on Lucy while at a bowling alley, or Max getting inducted to the Army by a phalanx of jut-chinned soldiers to the spooky tune of "I Want You (She's So Heavy)."

But there are moments that are cringe-worthy. The naming of the characters is juvenile; when your main character is Jude it's only a matter of time before we hear the music swell and the cast breaks into "Na Na Nas," and the way they shoehorn "Dear Prudence" in is particularly awkward. The story, which tries to pack in too much (everything from the Detroit riots to the siege at Columbia) clunks rather than hums. Some storylines, like Jim's father and Max's relationship with his parents, are just dropped. Sadie and JoJo have a romance going on, I think, but it wasn't fleshed out. There is the obligatory period of drug experimentation, with Bono, looking disconcertingly like Robin Williams, singing "I Am the Walrus" and Eddie Izzard doing "For the Benefit of Mr. Kite" in a scene that might be trouble for epileptics.

The cast is generally good. Jim Sturgess is Jude, and he looks like quite a bit like Paul McCartney, circa Rubber Soul. Evan Rachel Wood as Lucy looks right, virginal and dewy (although contemplating her off-screen relationship with Marilyn Manson would dissipate the virginal part). Dana Fuchs is Sadie, as I wasn't surprised to read that she's played Janis Joplin in a stage show. Joe Cocker turns up as a homeless man singing "Come Together."

Your reaction to this film will probably be based on how you feel about The Beatles. Certainly their career arc does mirror the sixties, from the innocent feel-good times that carries over from the sock-hop era to the dark angry days of Vietnam, drugs, and civil rights, so this whole concept makes sense. If you love Beatles music, you may enjoy seeing the songs reinterpreted and performed by an engaging young cast. Or, you may be a purist and stew in your chair seeing these songs used in an amateurish story that says nothing about the sixties that hasn't been said a million times before. If you don't like the Beatles, or are indifferent, you may find this film excruciatingly precious and a waste of time.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Eastern Promises

Eastern Promises is perhaps the best movie I've seen so far this year, a gritty, suspenseful immersion into a culture I knew nothing about. Director David Cronenberg follows up his A History of Violence with an even better glimpse into a world that is run by men of violence, in which sprouts of humanity can grow like weeds through asphalt.

Eastern Promises is set in a London that, as with many large cities like New York and Toronto, have large populations of people who are not Anglo, and where many languages are spoken. A pregnant girl who speaks Russian wanders into a Pakistani-run pharmacy, bleeding profusely. The girl dies, but her baby is saved, and the midwife who works at the hospital, played by Naomi Watts, takes a special interest. The girl left a diary, and Watts' character, who is part Russian, gives it to her uncle to translate. Inside the diary was a business card for a Russian-cuisine restaurant, and trying to do the right thing, Watts pays a visit. Big mistake, as it turns out she is about to come in contact with the Russian mob.

The Russian mob has been featured in films before (I seem to remember a film, the title of which is escaping me, which was set in Brighton, New York, which has a large Russian population) but I've never seen an English-language picture go this deeply into the culture. The restaurant owner, played in a menacingly slippery manner by Armin Muehler-Stahl, is the head honcho. He has a son, Vincent Cassel, who is a loose cannon, and relies more on a "driver," a stolid machine of man, played by Viggo Mortensen. When Muehler-Stahl gets wind that the girl, who was only fourteen years old, left a diary, the wheels of violence are set in motion, as it may be evidence which would impact his trafficking in sex workers.

Cronenberg, who has long been admired for creating some of the creepiest films of all time, is a master at making almost every scene in this picture have an underlying tension. Peril and menace infuse every frame. There is a lot of blood spilled in this film, none of it cartoonishly. Toward the end of the picture Mortensen is attacked by two men while he is naked in a steam room, and the fight is one of the more vicious I've seen in recent memory.

Like I said, I know nothing about the Russian mob, but it sure seems authentic in this picture. Muehler-Stahl is terrifically evil, while Cassel is also good as a man-child. Mortensen, however, is great as the stoic enforcer. He may be a stone-cold killer, but something in the back of his eyes tell you there's something more to him, which is borne out by events in the picture. I hope he is remembered when award nominations roll around.

The only quibble I have with the picture is the ending. The film more or less stops. There are implications of a resolution, but I would have preferred to see a minute or two more to let me know for sure. I suppose Cronenberg would allow us some sentimentality, but not a complete catharsis. That objection aside, this will certainly be on my list as one of the best films of the year.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Survivor: China

Okay, so it looks like I'm going to watch this season of Survivor. For a while I was watching every season. I loved the first and second installments, and then kept a diligent eye on the show every year, right up to the All-Star season. The show appeals to my fascination with any sort of story-telling where one person after another gets picked off (which is why I don't care for shows like the Real World, where the behavior is everything).

I didn't get to watch a season for the first time a few years ago, because of my job at the movie theater (that was the one that Tom the fireman won). I did watch the season that the tribes were mixed by race, and thought that was pretty good, but the last one, set in Fiji, I gave up on. It seemed like the show was getting tired, and trying to add new wrinkles to make it interesting but failing. I guess I'm not the only one who thought so, because even host Jeff Probst said he didn't like that season.

I think I'm going to watch this time, though. For one thing, NBC has graciously moved The Office, my favorite TV comedy, to nine o'clock, so I have no conflict. And, after watching the premiere episode last night, I think this one has some promise. It's not overly populated with mactors (model/actors), and has a generous portion of real people. Of course there is eye candy for both men and women: a WWE wrestler, Ashley Massaro, posed for Playboy this year, and a Louisiana gravedigger named James has one of the most impressive physiques I've ever seen. He looks as if he were drawn by a superhero comic-book artist.

Ashley almost went first, because she got sick for a day. I would imagine the two rings in her lips and her absurdly inflated breasts won't endear her to everyone on her tribe. But she dodged a bullet because Chicken, a farmer from Virginia, was the first to be booted. It's kind of a shame, because he was a real character, as if played by Walter Brennan. He got caught in a classic Survivor bind, though. He knew how to live in the woods, but was reluctant to throw his weight around. Then, when his input was needed, he was afraid he'd be seen as a leader and demurred. He was probably in a no-win situation. Also, he was quite a bit older than anyone on his tribe, and old folks have a tendency of being immediately removed.

As for the rest, many contestants didn't get any face time. I did acquire a quick loathing for Courtney, a New York City waitress who was rolling her eyes at everyone else, and Leslie is on shaky ground with me. She's a Christian radio host who didn't have the courtesy to go through a Buddhist ceremony. She said she's not religious, but at the same time said she has a personal relationship with Jesus. Uh huh. I don't have a favorite yet, though Jaime the student who did not wear a bra could be, as well as the grave digger, who is worried about his lack of social skills. I guess in that job you don't really need them.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

The 756 Ball

As many baseball fans know, the sale of the ball that Barry Bonds hit into the stands at Pac-Bell park, which broke Hank Aaron's record for career home runs is over. It went to a fashion designer named Mark Ecko for roughly $750,000. Now Ecko, in a move that is both an expression of democratic spirit and self-aggrandizement, is deciding the fate of the ball based on an online vote. There are three options: to give the ball to the Baseball Hall of Fame, to brand it with an asterisk and then give it to the Hall of Fame, or to blast it into space.

It is certainly tempting to question Ecko's motives. I'd never heard of the guy before this, so his little gambit has certainly paid off in the fame department. But I must admit I admire his brio a little bit. It could have gone to a collector who would put in his basement, never to be seen again. That there is a two-in-three chance that it will find a place in the appropriate venue for those who care about an artifact like this is encouraging.

There are those who think this whole thing stinks to high heaven. I was watching Pardon the Interruption the other night and columnist Mike Wilbon thinks the ball should go in the trash. But a thing is worth whatever someone is willing to pay for it, and one man's trash is another man's treasure. I voted to send the ball to the Hall of Fame unmarked, and I encourage every one else to do so as well, because then people who actually value the damn ball will be deciding how it is displayed. I'm no fan of Barry Bonds, and I think he has almost certainly benefited from banned substances, but like it or not, this ball is a bit of Americana and deserves to be handled by the proper authorities. The site for voting is here.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007


Challengers is the fourth New Pornographers album. I have all four, and I think this one is closest to matching the brilliance of their first record, Mass Romantic. It's like honey laced with whiskey--it goes down smooth, and has a strong kick.

A.C. Newman has composed most of the songs, and they flirt with different genres of pop, but mostly adhere to the kind of indie, alt-country style of rock and roll. Neko Case returns as a sometimes vocalist, and it's not surprising to me that her two songs on the record are among my two favorites. I have to say she's my favorite female vocalist working today, and I would rapturously listen to her sing the ingredients on a bottle of aspirin. Fortunately the two songs she sings--the title track and Go Places, are a bit more profound, particularly the latter, which contains the line, "A heart will always go one step too far." True!

Other songs I particularly liked are All the Old Showstoppers, which has a honky-tonk beat to it, Fail Safe, which was still running through my head when I woke up this morning, Myriad Harbor, which has a bit of funk to it, and Entering White Cecilia. I don't know what that song is about, but I imagine it is not a sequel to Simon and Garfunkel's Cecilia. At least I hope not.

The record ends with two mournful ballads, Adventures in Solitude and The Spirit of Giving, the latter having a bit of a religious air to it, mentioning both St. Christopher and Mary.

Any record with Neko Case singing on it is worth getting, but fortunately this album has a lot more to offer, and reveals the New Pornographers to be hitting on all cylinders.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

True Romance

The first time I saw True Romance was on TV, and I'm not sure I even saw the whole thing. I remembered pieces of it, so I rented it over the weekend. It was interesting to look back on Quentin Tarantino's first script to see the nascency of the man who would kick-start American film during the 1990s. Most of the building blocks are there--in the first five minutes his alter-ego, Clarence Worley (played by Christian Slater) professes a love for Elvis Presley and Sonny Chiba (in fact, he says he would fuck Elvis, if a gun was put to his head and he had to fuck a man).

True Romance is full of the kind of stylized dialogue and violence that would mark Tarantino's work ever since. It has also has an almost endearing amateurishness. Here we have Tarantino's stand-in, a lonely comic-book store clerk (Tarantino was clerk in a video store) living out the basic and most ludicrous of male fairy tales--he has made a prostitute fall in love with him. If prostitution is the oldest profession, than certainly this is the oldest male fantasy. This is the kind of writing that the socially awkward have been banging out for years, probably on the hopeful belief that if something is written down, it will come true. So we have Clarence, meeting a prostitute at a Sonny Chiba film festival, and after one night of connubial bliss they are in love forever. Only in the movies, folks.

The fantasy doesn't stop there, as Clarence and Alabama (of course she would have a colorful name like Alabama, simply Susan or Carol wouldn't suffice) get involved with a stolen suitcase of cocaine that leads them to interact with the mob, the police, and a Hollywood producer. This is like Tarantino's bedtime story come to life. Through it all we hear the kind of dialogue that sounds like film noir squeezed through the filter of the the miasma of American pop culture, as well as Tarantino's philosophy of what good movie-making is. When Clarence/Tarantino tells the movie producer (who was probably modeled on Don Simpson) that the movies that win Oscars are bullshit, he probably couldn't have dreamed he would one day win an Oscar.

This film is also fun to watch because it is cast with a menagerie of actors who pop up in these kind of movies all the time, like Gary Oldman, Tom Sizemore, the late Chris Penn, Michael Rapaport, and of course Dennis Hopper and Christopher Walken, who act out the memorable scene in which the ancestry of the Sicilian people is examined. Add to that faces that would end up becoming famous, like James Gandolfini as a hit-man and Brad Pitt as a stoner, and this is the kind of film where you can have fun going, "Hey, that's Brad Pitt!"

Even if this in an absurd fantasy, Tarantino knows that, he's tipped us off with the title, as True Romance was a pulp magazine series that had about as much truth to it as it did literary value. There are sorts of "wait a minute" moments, such as why Gary Oldman and his crew aren't armed, to the end, when a man with a head wound and a suitcase full of cash isn't stopped at the Mexican border. But they, this is a fantasy, and Tarantino would develop as a writer.

Monday, September 17, 2007

The Brave One

This has been an interesting decade to watch Jodie Foster at work. She's an actress whose greatest asset is intelligence. Even when she's playing uneducated characters, her obvious smarts can't help but shine through. So lately we've been getting to see how she handles formulaic thrillers like Panic Room, Flight Plan, and now what is basically a remake of Death Wish inexplicably called The Brave One.

Foster is Erica Bain, who has a show on public radio that details how she loves New York City and it's fading history. She's about to be married to a hunky doctor, Naveen Andrews, and is picking out her wedding invitations. Even if a person walked into this movie after being on the space station and knew nothing about it, it's apparent this couple is doomed, and they might as play Chopin's Funeral March on the soundtrack. Sure enough, while walking their dog in Central Park, they are attacked by thugs. Andrews is killed and Foster is briefly in a coma.

At first Foster is afraid to even leave her apartment, overcome by fear, which is a terrible thing to happen to someone who previously walked the city for fun. Soon, though, what she refers to as a "stranger inside" emerges, and she buys a gun. We basically have here a combination of two of the more sensational New York crime stories of the past twenty-five years: it's as if the Central Park jogger turned into Bernhard Goetz.

This is one of those films that takes a subject like vigilantism and asks us to be thoughtful about the subject and analyze it while at the same time letting us wallow in the visceral pleasure of it. It's sort of like those exposes on the news during sweeps week about taboo topics like pornography--"Isn't this awful and degrading and disgusting, and let's look at this clip one more time." I'm the kind of person who wants nothing to do with guns, yet I admit they can be very sexy, and other than Mahatma Gandhi, who wouldn't feel a twinge of satisfaction watching a scuzzy mugger get blown away by an avenging angel, especially one as cute as Jodie Foster? But this film, try as it might, can't transcend it's B-picture origins. This is Death Wish, instead it's a with a woman and it feels guilty.

Despite all that, I liked this movie. It's well directed by Neil Jordan, looks great, and is suspenseful. It's only after leaving the theater that doubts flash across the mind. The acting is fine. Foster, teeny thing that she is, makes a dashing gun-toting heroine, who even gets an Eastwood-like quote "I want my dog back!" I've read that it was her idea to make the character a public radio host, and it's a perfect choice, because who projects civility more than public radio? Foster's performance is a familiar one, it's full of the little tics we've seen for years, like her squinting, pursing her lips, and having her voice break into a whisper, but she's still effective. Also effective is Terence Howard, as the detective who eventually realizes what she's up to (she breaks one of the cardinal rules of murder--don't return to the scene of the crime) and struggles with his own conscience. For comic relief Nicky Katt is a caution as Howard's partner.

To sum up, enjoy this movie as a standard, lurid crime drama, or squirm in your seat at a film that has pretensions about being about something. I can understand both responses.

Friday, September 14, 2007

On the Road

This month marks the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Jack Kerouac's novel On the Road. Written in three weeks on one continuous scroll of paper in 1951, the book revolutionized literature in America and made the "Beat Generation" a household word. I first read the book back in about 1985 or so, and I remember my co-worker at the time saw the book in my hands and asked, "Isn't that a little dated?" Of course, great writing is never dated, and I can't imagine what she would think if she knew I was rereading it now, but I don't care. This book is terrific.

For those who don't know, On the Road is about Kerouac's alter-ego, Sal Paradise, a veteran and would-be writer who lives with his aunt in Paterson, New Jersey. He runs with a crowd of disaffected youth in New York City who would one day be known as Beats. Some of them became quite famous, particularly Allen Ginsberg, who in the book is called Carlo Marx. Sal meets a charismatic wild man named Dean Moriarty (who was based on Neal Cassady), who lives in Denver. Sal is inspired to hitchhike across the country to visit him. He doesn't get off to such a good start, hitching in the rain near Bear Mountain and unable to find a ride. He gives up and takes the bus to Chicago.

The book follows Sal through four major trips: that trip to Denver, and eventually on to San Francisco and then Southern California, where he falls in love with a Latina and ends up picking cotton; a trip across the south and eventually New Orleans to visit Old Bull Lee, who is based on beat hero William S. Burroughs; another trip to California and back with Dean, and then finally a drive down to Mexico, also with Dean. These trips are far more interesting than they would be today, as it is in the late forties and early fifties, when there was no interstate. Hitchhiking was common, unlike today, when no one in their right mind would hop into a car with a stranger.

Kerouac, who ended up a hopeless drunk, writes with incredibly clear and poignant enthusiasm. Sal and Dean and all their cohorts look on each trip as the ultimate adventure, with wide-eyed optimism and heart-tugging humanity. They look upon each person they meet as a new friend, without prejudice, and Sal seems to be self-aware of his life unspooling as some sort of romance. Consider this passage: "Soon it got dusk, a grapy dusk, a purple dusk over tangerine groves and long melon fields; the sun the color of pressed grapes, slashed and burgundy red, the color of love and Spanish mysteries."

The allure of the road is very American, perhaps because since our founding everyone has been pushing on to someplace better, usually westward. Also, the U.S. is a large country and most if it easily traversable by car, so after World War II, when the car culture really came into bloom, it was an irresistible notion to be able to hop in a car, on a bus, a train, or stick out your thumb, and be in a completely different climate in just a few days. "Whenever spring comes to New York I can't stand the suggestions of the land that come blowing over the river from New Jersey and I've got to go. So I went" writes Kerouac as Sal, and who among us hasn't felt that at some time or another?

Now, On the Road does have dated aspects. Even though written only a few years after the events took place, it has an immediate sense of nostalgia, of a time lost that will never come back. Also, the depiction of women is hardly enlightened. Sal and Dean have that duality that enrages many women--they put women up on a pedestal, and long for the bliss of matrimony, yet run around with other women without too much thought. Dean, in particular, would make an interesting Dr. Phil show. During the course of the book he has three different wives, and bounces back and forth among them as if choosing neckties. Of course, why these women took him back is interesting, but perhaps that's because Dean is irresistible to either men or women. Kerouac puts it this way: "Suddenly I had a vision of Dean, a burning shuddering frightful Angel, palpitating toward me across the road, approaching like a cloud, with enormous speed, pursuing me like the Shrouded Traveler on the plain, bearing down on me. I saw his huge face over the plains with the mad, bony purpose and the gleaming eyes; I saw his wings; I saw his old jalopy chariot with thousands of sparking flames shooting out from it; I saw the path it burned over the road; it even made its own road and went over the corn, through cities, destroying bridges, drying rivers. It came like wraith to the West. I knew Dean had gone mad again."

If you can get past the fact that these beats were not proto-feminists, you can just sit back and enjoy the ride. There are some memorable tales, such as their visit to a Mexican whorehouse, where they have the owner play Perez Prado records, their visits to jazz clubs, hearing George Shearing or Charlie Parker (Kerouac wrote brilliantly about music), the sense of community when the friends just stay up all night, drinking and bullshitting, and making you think about the friends had when you were young and anything seemed possible.

Kerouac and the Beats have had a lot of backlash. "That's not writing, that's typing," Truman Capote is supposed to have said about Kerouac. To that I say nonsense. Certainly as a movement it, like most movements, cannibalized itself and became self-indulgent twaddle, but not On the Road. It still shimmers as it did 50 years ago. It's not too many books that close in such a lovely fashion: "So in America when the sun goes down and I sit on the old broken-down river pier watching the long, long skies over New Jersey and sense all that raw land that rolls in one unbelievable huge bulge over to the West Coast, and all that road going, all the people dreaming in the immensity of it, and in Iowa I know by now the children must be crying in the land where they let children cry, and tonight the stars'll be out, and don't you know that God is Pooh Bear? the evening star must be dropping and shedding her sparkler dims on the prairie, which is just before the coming of complete night that blesses the earth, darkens all rivers, cups the peaks and folds the final shore in, and nobody, nobody knows what's going to happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing old, I think of Dean Moriarty, I even think of Old Dean Moriarty the father we never found, I think of Dean Moriarty."

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Damn Yankees

As the baseball season winds down, I'm beginning to make peace with a Tiger-less postseason, but a shred of hope remains. They are 5.5 games behind the Indians in the A.L. Central, but the way the Indians are playing I'm not counting on a division win. No, the realistic expectation is the wild card, but the front-runners in that position, by 4 games, are the dastardly Yankees.

The Yankees seemed dead in June, struggling to be a .500 club. They are on a roll now, ripping off seven straight, beating the teams they should be able to beat. I had much more hope after the Tigers took 3 of 4 from the Yankees a few weeks ago, capping it off with a 16-0 drubbing. Watching that game was almost as good as sex. But the Tigers dropped their next two games to the Royals!

The Yanks have a pretty soft schedule down the road. They have a big 3-game series against the Red Sox (hopefully the Red Sox will bury any chance of a Yankee division win) but then play no one but Blue Jays, Devil Rays, and Orioles. The Tigers have to play home-on-home series against the Indians and Twins. It doesn't look good.

The bugaboo this year has been injuries to the pitching staff, and this is just one of those things that happen in baseball. Last year they got through the season without major injuries, but this year, ow! Rogers, Robertson, Bonderman, all hurt at one time or another, and even the Triple-A call-ups got hurt. The bullpen was decimated by injuries to Rodney and Zumaya, and Todd Jones blew a few games in spectacular fashion (I'm sure I could go through the season and find games the Tigers led by a good margin and then lost that would make up those 4 games). But, what are you gonna do?

Miracles have happened, as recently as twenty years ago, when the Tigers were down to the Blue Jays by six with a week to go. The Blue Jays lost all six games while the Tigers did the opposite, culminating in a winner-take-all game on the last day of the seasons that the Tigers won 1-0 behind Frank Tanana. The problem this year is that the Tigers do not play the Yankees anymore, and relying on Tampa and Baltimore to do their dirty work seems futile.

Oh well. At least this October I won't be staying up all hours, watching games while chewing on my thumbnail, afraid to move position lest I jinx the team. Instead I will be rooting for the Indians, Red Sox or Angels to dispose of the villainous Bronx Bombers and then go on to win the Series (nothing against the NL clubs, but I usually root for the American League in the Series, unless of course it is the Yankees).

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Stick Fly

One of the characters in Lydia Diamond's play, which opens the season at Princeton's McCarter Theater, is an entomologist, and she explains how a common house fly moves so fast that scientists need to glue it to a stick to get a good look at how its' wings move. This is an apt metaphor for this play, because we as the audience are in the role of observing scientists, watching a group of six people, some family and some strangers, interact in one weekend, their lives changing entirely.

Stick Fly is set on Martha's Vineyard, which has a long history of being a vacation spot for upper-class African-Americans. The summer home of the LeVay family is the set. The Levays are overachievers. The patriarch is a neurosurgeon, one son is a plastic surgeon, the other has many post-graduate degrees, but has disappointed his father because he has turned to writing fiction. This son, Kent, brings his fiancee home to meet the folks for the first time. She is Taylor, the entomologist. Kent met her at the funeral of her father, who was a groundbreaking cultural anthropologist, although she was estranged from him and hardly knew him. She's nervous about meeting his family, especially since she's from the middle-class and has feelings of inadequacy.

The other brother, Flip, the plastic surgeon, is also bringing home a new girlfriend. She's Kimber, described as "melanin-challenged," i.e., white. She's an African-American studies grad, a do-gooder with white liberal guilt, who is constantly accused of dating a black man simply to be shocking. Also in the house is Cheryl, the daughter of the family's long-time maid, who has just graduated high school and is filling in for her sick mother. The last character to arrive is the father, who is mysteriously without his wife.

The plot unfolds and characters have some secrets that will be revealed over the course of the evening. Some of them are a bit too coincidental and another is right out of General Hospital, but Diamond sells it by virtue of the skill of her dialogue. I was particularly rapt during a scene in which Taylor tells off Kimber. It's a great awkward moment that happens in families all the time, and was really authentic.

The ensemble cast is good, directed by Shirley Jo Finney. At times I found Michole Briana White, who plays Taylor, a little grating. She's so nervous and hopped up, bouncing around the set like the flies she studies, and it was a little wearisome. Julia Pace Mitchell, who played Cheryl, embodied the youthful surliness of her character perfectly, though at times the script had her change attitudes on a dime.

In one of the collateral brochures, McCarter Artistic Director Emily Mann says one of the reasons she was drawn to the play was because the upper-class Black experience is rarely seen on stage. That may be true, but it has been seen by millions on television, in such sit-coms as The Cosby Show and The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. Compared to Stick Fly, though, those shows are idealized fantasies. This play tackles some ambitious issues: race, gender and class. While at times the play slogs through academic double-speak, at least it didn't treat these issues in a facile manner. Stick Play is quality entertainment and quite thought-provoking.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

The Places in Between

This is book nine on my quest to read the New York Times Book Review 10 Best of 2007, and concludes the non-fiction half. The Places in Between is Rory Stewart's account of how, in January 2002, just weeks after coalition forces had driven the Taliban from power, he walked across Afghanistan, from Herat to Kabul. Certainly this was an enterprise that most right-thinking people would never dream of attempting.

Stewart, a Scotsman who speaks Arabic and Persian (including Dari, a dialect of Persian spoken in much of Afghanistan), is an expert on the history of the region. He had already walked across much of Asia, through Nepal, India, Pakistan and Iran. Afghanistan was the missing piece of the puzzle. He wanted to follow in the footsteps of Babur, the sixteenth-century Indian Moghul. Problems: he is doing it in winter, through mountains where drifts of snow can get to be nine feet deep. There are many wolves. The political situation is tempestuous, at best. "You will certainly die," he is told by an official at the beginning of the book. Yet he has an unshakable desire to do this, in the great tradition of others from the island of Great Britain, including one who said, "Because it is there."

This is a tantalizing subject for a book, but I must say I was a bit underwhelmed. Of course, reading a book because it is on a best 10 list sets one up for disappointment. I didn't think it was bad or uninteresting, but it didn't exactly sweep me into a state of intoxication. Stewart's writing style is very terse and unemotional. We don't learn much about him, only that he is driven by some inner demon to do this thing, and by his own terms (at one point he takes a short ride in a truck over a river, but then goes back to retrace it so he can say he walked the whole thing). He is pretty much agnostic about the politics. I read elsewhere that he once worked for the British field office, but there is no jingoism in his writing. He is very respectful of the history, landscape, and people he meets, but not in a golly-gee way.

What we get instead is something of a journal of visits to one mud-hut after another. The chapters are very short, some only a page or two, which contributes to a chopped up feeling. For the first week or so he is accompanied by three men assigned to him by the government, and we get to know them as characters and get some insight into what it's like to be an Afghan in that time period. But Stewart wants to travel alone, and eventually does, and when he arrives at village after village the circumstances seem to blend into one. Some villagers are kind to him, others are threatening, but unless one has a fairly encyclopedic knowledge of Afghan terrain, it's difficult to put the whole thing in context.

About half way through his journey Stewart is given a retired fighting dog, a mastiff-wolf hybrid who he names Babur. The story then becomes dangerously close to one of those books about a guy and his dog, and tugs a little more at the heartstrings (it's interesting to note that Stewart talks about how the plight of a lion in the Kabul zoo raised more money than the plight of its human citizens).

In summing up, this book is an interesting, fairly brief read, but I can't join the chorus of hosannas that hail it as a classic. I think an evening at a pub with Stewart, hearing about his trip, might be far more enthralling.

Monday, September 10, 2007

3:10 to Yuma

I've loved Westerns since I was a toddler, so I'm always up for a new one. The iconography of the Western--the long duster coats, the image of a group of horsemen riding into town, the sparse yet elegant dialogue, the windmill slowing creaking, all get my movie juices flowing. So I was looking forward to 3:10 to Yuma, a remake of the 1950s film (which I have never seen) based on a short story by Elmore Leonard (which I have never read). Sorry to say, I was disappointed with the result.

3:10 to Yuma ploughs familiar Western ground. A rancher, played by Christian Bale, has hit hard times because the local bigwig wants his land for the railroad. He lost his leg in the Civil War, and his oldest son thinks he's a coward for not standing up to the thugs who are trying to force him out. He and his boys witness a stage robbery by the gang of notorious outlaw Ben Wade, played by Russell Crowe. Wade, due to a weakness for female green eyes, is captured, and Bale offers to assist Pinkerton agents escorting him to a nearby town, where they will put him on the titular train to prison and then the gallows. Of course Wade's gang, led by flamboyant hothead Charlie Prince (Ben Foster) will try to rescue him.

It's a nice simple plot that owes something to High Noon, Once Upon a Time in the West, and Shane, but is never as interesting as those pictures. We are led to believe that Crowe comes to admire the decency in Bale, but I didn't buy it for a second. There are also scenes that are directed by James Mangold as if he were blind, full of a confusing series of closeups. I don't know if I've ever seen such mangled shootouts in a Western before. I also can't remember a Western where the landscape plays such an insignificant role. Along the way we get reminders that we're in the West, such as an ambush by Apaches and a visit to a railroad camp, complete with Chinese workers, but this just seems like tacked on verisimilitude.

I did like the acting. Crowe is effective as a philosopher-bandit, almost making this character seem believable, and Bale is very good as the rancher. Ben Foster is dynamite as the sociopathic baddie, but I'm not sure it was necessary to insert a line that casts aspersions on his sexuality. I also enjoyed Peter Fonda as a grizzled old bounty hunter. But some of the characters in this film do things that are beyond the pale. There's a scene toward the end of the film when Wade's gang rides into town while Bale has Crowe in a hotel room. Bale has a clear shot at Prince, but for some reason doesn't shoot him. I mentioned this to the manager of theater when I walked out--"Why didn't he shoot him?" and the answer, quite correct, was, "Then they don't have an end for the movie." The ending is wildly unbelievable, and I won't spoil it here, suffice it to say Crowe does something that goes against the grain of everything he's done for the entire movie. I was tempted to boo the screen.

I think I've seen all of James Mangold's films: Heavy, Copland, Girl, Interrupted, Identity and Walk the Line. I've liked them all, though found none of them great. He seems to be a kind of workmanlike director, not really an auteur, flitting from genre to genre. I hope he doesn't do another Western, though.

Friday, September 07, 2007

The Wind That Shakes the Barley

Last year I went on an Irish kick, absorbing some drama, literature and film from that island. In particular, I revisited a film called Michael Collins, which dealt with Irish history following the Easter rebellion of 1916 through the independence movement and civil war of the early twenties. It was right about then that the new Ken Loach film, The Wind That Shakes the Barley, was in film festivals and in April it had a brief period of release in New York City, but didn't get out to the suburbs. Now it's on DVD and I caught it last night.

This film tells much the same story as Michael Collins, only from a different point of view. While the earlier film dealt with the leaders of the resistance, Barley is the story of those on the ground, common men and women who have had enough of being brutalized by the British. In particular, they are aghast at the thuggish tactics of the "black and tans," British soldiers who terrorize the countryside, assaulting and murdering the citizens and burning their homes. A young doctor, played by Cillian Murphy, is about to head to London to teach at a hospital, but he finally has enough, and joins up with his brother and a ragtag group of resistance fighters.

A lot of drama has been mined out of this period, including the plays of Sean O'Casey and many other films. Much like the American Civil War, this period of Irish history is especially heartbreaking, because it turned brother against brother, friend against friend. When a young farmhand is forced by the British into giving up the name and location of the leader of the resistance, the group makes the difficult choice of executing him for treason. Murphy, a man who has studied to heal people, finds himself in the role of executioner, and hopes that the end result is worth it. When the Irish parliament ratifies a treaty with the British that requires the Irish to still swear allegiance to the British, the group flies even further asunder. Murphy maintains that that is not what he was fighting for, while his brother thinks that the treaty is necessary to prevent more bloodshed. This disagreement leads to tragedy.

This is the first Ken Loach film I've seen. I know that he is well regarded among cineastes for his looks at the lower and middle classes, and the highly improvisational nature of his films. This film is tightly plotted, but still is quite effective at capturing the moods and attitudes of what it's like to be oppressed by another country for 700 years and finally having enough. At times the political arguing is a bit dry, though probably necessary, even though it's a bit of a history lesson. This film, coupled with Michael Collins, would give a person about everything they need to know about this sorrowful time.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

The Godfather, Part III

I'm a huge fan of the first two Godfather films. They are both in my top ten of all time. So, when the Godfather, Part III was released in December 1990, I went on opening weekend and sat upright in my seat, as if I were about to see a reunion of the Beatles. I thought it was a pretty good film, certainly not equal to the first two, but fun none the less.

I hadn't seen the film since then, almost 17 years, but a few Christmases ago I got the Godfather DVD set, which includes this film. I watched it again over the weekend (I re-watched the first two films as well, over the previous few weeks) and was struck how pale an imitation this was of the original magic. If ever there was a film that should have never been made, it's this one.

It's almost as if the film weren't directed by Francis Coppola, and instead by some new guy who was just trying to copy him. But Coppola did direct it, at a time when his powers were diminished. Maybe his heart just wasn't in it. I watched the DVD with his commentary running alongside, and it seemed he was interested in the project--the only complaint he had with the studio was the title, as he wanted to call it The Death of Michael Corleone.
What's most irksome is that he uses his template from the first two films and falls vastly short. We get the opening scene set at some sort of ceremony (a wedding in Part 1, a first communion in Part II), this time Michael is receiving an award from the Catholic Church for charity. During the party we are introduced to the characters and there is some backroom skulduggery. We also get the murder during a festival of some kind (the baptism in Part 1, the murder of Fanucci during San Genaro in Part II). In Part III, Coppola re-uses the San Genaro fest for the murder of Joey Zasa, with the absurd spectacle of the hooded bearers of the Madonna whipping out machine guns. There is also the equally absurd helicopter attack on the commission in Atlantic City.

Also troubling are the characters. The character of Michael seems to have made the same changes as Al Pacino. It just doesn't seem like the same character. And with all the family members running around, it doesn't seem likely that Vincent, Sonny's bastard son, played by Andy Garcia, would rise to the top. Coppola notes that the character of the bastard is very Shakespearean, which is true, but this stuff isn't remotely as good as Shakespeare (while the first two films are--Part I is kind of like Hamlet, Part II like King Lear).

Then there is the Sophia Coppola problem. I'm glad that she has gone to be a screenwriter and director of some note, so that this role isn't the thing she is best known for any more. Coppola speaks frankly about his decision to cast her, and says he doesn't regret it (she replaced Winona Ryder, who dropped out at the last moment). But clearly it pained him to see how she was universally criticized, and compares the plight to the characters in the movie, saying that it was her they came after, not him. He doesn't own up to the responsibility that he cast an actress who was not ready to play the part.

The film has some good parts--the ending death scene at the opera is very moving (though the coda, with Michael keeling over, the ubiquitous orange of death at his feet, seems tacked on). But the film did sort of come across like a Beatles reunion might--men who were once on the very top, now older and slower and not as relevant, going through the motions.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Someone to Drive You Home

It's time for one of my periodic attempts to catch up with the current music scene and take a chance on some albums based on their critical appraisal. First to get a listen is Someone to Drive You Home, by a band from Sheffield, England called The Long Blondes. One of the reasons I got this record is the cover art, which evokes a neat pulp novel, film noir feeling (and turns out to have been painted by the band's lead singer, Kate Jackson).

The Long Blondes are a bit of a throwback to sixties' pop, but also are very reminiscent of Pulp, since it was produced by Steve Mackey, bassist for that band. They also have a bit of a punkish, new wave sound. I thought they sound a bit like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs crossed with Sleater-Kinney. The songs are all very catchy, with heavy bass lines.

What is perhaps most intriguing are the lyrics. Ten of the twelve tracks were written by Dorian Cox, the lead guitarist and a male, but sung by Kate Jackson, a female. This gives the album a kind of pansexual flavor. The opening track, Lust in the Movies, shouts out affection for 1960s' film icons Edie Sedgwick, Anna Karina, and Arlene Dahl, but when sung by a woman it takes on a different connotation. The same is true on the following track, Once and Never Again, which is a rollicking number but about the singer advising a young woman: "Nineteen, you're only nineteen for god's sake, you don't need a boyfriend." Turns out that the girl is being emotionally abused by the boyfriend, and the singer wants to make a move: "I know how it feels to be your age, Oh, how I'd love to feel a girl your age." Given the lyrics written by a male/sung by a female angle, the album could come across as something of a lesbian manifesto, but not knowing enough about who the band members are that could be over-analyzing.

The sexuality of the lyrics aside, this is a terrific record. In addition to those two songs I liked Separated by Motorways, Heaven Help the New Girl (about a woman warning any future women about her ex), and Madame Ray, which is about the photographer Man Ray. The songs are smart and infectious, and I'll be listening to this album quite a bit.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Angels in America

I had a long weekend with nothing special to do, so I rented from Netflix both discs of Angels in America, the HBO film based on the Pulitzer Prize winning play by Tony Kushner. It was stunning.

I gave up HBO several years ago, figuring it just wasn't worth the money, and I really don't miss it much. I have to back out of any Sopranos discussions, and I probably would enjoy Deadwood, but the DVDs are always there for when I'm retired. Angels in America is about six hours long, though, manageable on a holiday weekend.

The story concerns a group of characters in New York during the mid-eighties, when the AIDS crisis is in full swing. Louis and Prior are two young gay men. Louis is a Jew working at the courthouse, Prior is a WASP who can trace his lineage back to the Norman conquest. When Prior tells Louis he has AIDS, Louis panics and decides he can not deal with it, and leaves him. Meanwhile, Joe Pitt, a Mormon lawyer, clerks for a judge in the courthouse. His wife, Harper, is emotionally unstable, rarely leaving the apartment and gobbling Valium by the fistful. She has hallucinations, usually involving a travel agent, who promises her he will take her to Antarctica.

When Joe runs into Louis in the courthouse men's room, Louis instantly sizes him as a closet case. Over the course of the film Joe comes to realize he is indeed gay, and phones his mother back in Utah to tell her this. Eventually Louis and Joe get together.

This is all backdrop, though, to the bigger picture: Prior is having visions. He is visited by heralds, spectral figures who are his ancestors, who announce the coming of an angel. At the end of the first half of the film, she does arrive, in quite grand fashion, and tells Prior he is a prophet and there is great work to be done. I've also saved for last the dominant character of the piece, the real-life figure Roy Cohn, the despised lawyer who worked for McCarthy during the communist witch hunt days and prosecuted the Rosenbergs. Cohn, has AIDS, but instructs his doctor to tell everyone it is liver cancer. He is also mentoring young Joe. But when his illness becomes severe he begins to see the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, come back to watch him in his misery.

The film is directed by Mike Nichols, and is not typical Nichols. It is full of verbal flourishes, betraying its theatrical origins, and this is a usual trait for Nichols, but the film also is very visual, with many special effects, particularly the arrival of the angel (who is played by Emma Thompson). While this must have been quite stunning on stage, on film it's just another effect (sort of like the chandelier falling in Phantom of the Opera). But even though it's old-hat special effects, several images are quite striking, including when Prior visits heaven to renounce being a prophet (turns out God abandoned heaven after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake).

Kushner's script grapples with some pretty heavy issues, and it's almost impossible for me to wrap my mind around them. On the surface it's a little domestic drama about a few characters in New York during the AIDS crisis. But the inclusion of Cohn as the lynch pin of the piece opens it into new vistas. We really see an analysis of Cold War America, as well as the nature of God and heaven. At one point Louis says that there are no angels in America, but the film begins and ends at the Bethesda fountain in Central Park, which is topped by a statue of an angel (it moves slightly--a lot of statuary in this film tends to move, which is pretty creepy). Prior's ex-lover, Belize (brilliantly played by Jeffrey Wright, who also plays Harper's travel agent), is the nurse attending to Cohn, and provides a counterbalance to many attitudes expressed in the film. He hates America for the collection of racists that it is, and despises Cohn, but for reasons he can not fathom he offers Cohn important advice.

Al Pacino is Cohn, and it allows him to be in his fully hammy glory. This is truly a larger than life figure, a raging man full of hatred and self-importance. Meryl Streep plays a variety of characters, including Joe's mother, Ethel Rosenberg, and surprisingly a very old rabbi. I didn't realize she had played that part until the closing credits. But everyone in this film is great, including Mary-Louise Parker as Harper, Patrick Wilson as Joe, Ben Shenkman as Louis and Justin Kirk as Prior. Angels in America requires an investment in time, but is well worth it.