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Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Down the Great Unknown

In 1869, a huge portion of the western United States was unexplored and unmapped, including the Grand Canyon. A one-armed Civil War vet named John Wesley Powell set off with a team of ten men in Wyoming to navigate down the Green River and then ultimately the Colorado, encountering roaring rapids and cliffs a mile high.

This adventure is recounted in Edward Dolnick's Down the Great Unknown. It took me a while to get involved in this book, even with Dolnick employing a casual writing style. The prose just didn't sing for me. Later on, though, when Dolnick makes parallels with Powell's journey and the state of the Canyon today, where tourists routinely cover the same ground that was treacherous over a hundred years ago, did the book have some snap.

Part of Dolnick's problem (or mine) is that I had trouble following who the ten men were. Powell is pretty vividly etched, as he was the leader and a bit of a taskmaster. But the other nine men (one of them quit early, and three more left when they faced a horrifying rapid near the end) came in and out of focus. Also, Dolnick makes some side trips along the way. Some of them work, like the description of an ill-fated expedition some twenty years later by a man who wanted to build a railroad through the canyon, but some do not, like a chapter about the battle of Shiloh, where Powell lost his arm. Dolnick writes as if it had never occurred to anyone before that the Civil War was extremely bloody.

I think the best thing about the book is capturing the sense of adventure. These men literally did not know what was coming up ahead of them, and either shot through or portaged over 400 different rapids (including Cataract Canyon in Utah, which some say is tougher than the Grand Canyon). Dolnick has succeeded in one way--I spent a few minutes on the Net browsing through sites that offer guided trips down these rivers. Maybe someday...

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

How About Them Lions?

I have six team that I root for. The pro teams of Detroit: Tigers, Lions, Pistons and Red Wings, and the University of Michigan football and basketball teams. Of those six teams, all of them have won at least one championship during my lifetime, except for one. The Lions. I'm not old enough to go back to the glory days of Bobby Layne and Doak Walker, no, I have memories of names like Greg Landry and Billy Sims. Since the Lions last won a championship in the 1950s, they have won exactly one playoff game (a beat-down against Jimmy Johnson's Cowboys, which led to an NFC championship game against the Redskins. Remember Erik Kramer?)

That's a pretty futile record, although it hasn't been all bad. During the Barry Sanders years the Lions were always getting a sniff of the playoffs, of course going out in the first game except for that one time. Since Sanders left, though, the bottom fell out, coinciding with the inexplicable tenure of general manager Matt Millen, who has managed to put this team into complete disarray. Only an ownership as strange as the Ford family would manage to hang onto a guy who has consistently won only a few games each season, but the Fords have a history of misplaced loyalty, such as hanging on to a fair-to-middlin' coach like Wayne Fontes for so long (fun fact: since the Super Bowl era, the Lions have never employed a head coach who went on to coach another pro team after the Lions, not even Steve Mariucci).

So this year's team is a pleasant surprise, currently at 5-2 and only one game back of the division leading Packers. I'm not sure they're for real--they've swept last year's NFC champ the Bears, but that team is clearly down, and in the Lions two losses they've been pasted. The schedule has been pretty soft, and that will change, as they have two games against the Packers, the Chargers, and the Cowboys coming up. Still, though, this has got to be seen as a breakthrough. Perhaps it is the doing of offensive coordinator Mike Martz, who is using an old pro, Jon Kitna, to quarterback, or maybe it's just a little bit of luck. The downside of this is that it will mean Millen isn't leaving any time soon.

Monday, October 29, 2007

The Darjeeling Limited

Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums are two of my favorite films of the last decade, but after The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou I feared that Wes Anderson had definitely gone off the boil. There have been numerous articles detailing how his personal style had imploded on itself, creating a world that may have been meaningful only to him. I'm happy to say that his follow-up, The Darjeeling Limited, is an improvement over Life Aquatic, though not in the league of those other two films (still haven't seen Bottle Rocket, by the way).

This is still recognizably a Wes Anderson film, no doubt about it. It's full of arch dialogue, slow motion sequences with emo-rock songs on the soundtrack, and a fetish for curious objects. The Darjeeling Limited, though, has a storyline that holds together, and unlike Life Aquatic doesn't seem to be mocking the audience.

It is the story of three brothers, Francis, Peter and Jack (Coppola, Bogdonavich and Nicholson homages perhaps?) Francis, the eldest (Owen Wilson), has arranged a train trip through India for a spiritual journey where the brothers can reconnect after becoming estranged after their father's funeral. He also plans on reuniting them with their mother, who has become a nun in the Himalayas. Of course their journey is fraught with obstacles and mishaps, including Jack (Jason Schwartzman) seducing a stewardess, Peter (Adrien Brody) buying a deadly cobra, and Francis, an obsessive control freak who has hired an assistant to create an itinerary, struggling to keep everyone on schedule.

Some of the metaphors in this film are so obvious they are endearing, particularly concerning their father--they are literally traveling with his baggage, a massive set of luggage that has been divided among them. Also, Francis has been in an accident and has a bandaged face, and at one point he says, "I guess I still need time to heal," a line that would have elicited groans had I read it on the page, but Wilson manages to sell it. The three actors do a fine job of creating a familial relationship that I think rings true--they are brothers, they love each other, but they don't particularly like each other. At one point Schwartzman wonders if they would have been friends had they not been brothers. Brody says probably, but the sad truth is probably no.

The film begins with the well-heralded short film, Hotel Chevalier, which is a prologue with Schwartzman and an old flame, memorably played by a partially-clothed Natalie Portman. The short is essential to fully understanding the entire film, as it is referenced throughout the feature (and includes a quick cameo by Portman in a scene that recalls Fellini's I Vitteloni).

To sum up, this film isn't a classic as Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums are, but I think Anderson is back on good footing, and remains an original and interesting director.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Pam Beesly, Sigh!

I'm not so far gone to have developed a crush on a fictional character, but if I had the chance to make moon-eyes at any character currently on TV, it would certainly be Pam Beesly, the receptionist at Dunder Mifflin on NBC's The Office. Played by Jenna Fischer, Pam is a somewhat meek, artistically-inclined foil for some of the more bumptious members of the ensemble, and now the flame of Jim, the bemused salesman.

The Office is my absolutely favorite TV comedy (to tell the truth, I don't regularly watch any other TV comedies, so the competition isn't very fierce, but I do like this show a lot nonetheless). Pam and Jim have engaged in a series-long flirtation, with the show beginning with her engaged to be married to Roy, a loutish warehouse worker. Pam and Jim have sort of considered themselves the two sane people in the midst of an asylum, giving each other raised-eyebrow looks across the office, or playing pranks on the fussy nutcase Dwight (my favorite--when they convinced Dwight he was receiving faxes from himself in the future).

The show has now taken the risk of getting characters together, which has doomed some shows, like Moonlighting, but not others, like Cheers. So far the relationship is in the rosy stage, but I'm sure they'll hit their bumps sooner or later. The British version of the series may have been wise in having the series end when their version of Jim/Pam, Tim/Dawn, got together.

So what makes Pam so appealing? To begin with, she's certainly very easy on the eyes, in a girl-next-door kind of way. She's attractive, but not a stunner, the kind of girl who usually goes casual but then when she does dress up you're like, "Wow!" She's incessantly good-natured and kind-hearted (she took pity on Dwight when his office romance with Angela fizzled). In an episode last season she announced that she was through being a doormat and would be more assertive, and now things to be going very well with her.

Confusing an actress and her role is a dopey thing to do, but based on her MySpace page, Jenna Fischer would seem to share traits with Pam. Fischer is from Fort Wayne, Indiana, and her solid Midwest values can't be hidden.

So every Thursday night I tune into The Office and enjoy the rich comedy, but I also feel a little pang of regret that Pam isn't real and isn't someone in my life.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Bergman: The Faith Trilogy


Bleak. Stark. Gloomy. Despairing. These are some adjectives that come to mind when many people think of the work of Ingmar Bergman. I think the seed of that can be found in the films that make up the trilogy commonly known as The Faith Trilogy, which Bergman made over 1962-1963. Though excellent films, these are the kind of movies that make you want to hug your loved ones or run into the night screaming.

Bergman was the son of a pastor, a rather strict man, and for much of his life he was conflicted about his religious upbringing. Peter Cowie, who provides analysis on these three films (and excellent commentary for many of the other Criterion Bergman releases) describes this trilogy as Bergman ridding himself of religious baggage. In the first two films, characters contemplate the meaning of God, while the third has a complete lack of Him. This was filmmaking as psychotherapy.

While faith is the over-arcing theme, there is a strong parallel theme running through each of these three films, and that is communication, or more precisely, the lack of communication between people.

Also, these films are also described as "chamber" works, involving very small casts and limited locations. Sven Nykvist shot all three (his first pairing with Bergman was on The Virgin Spring, and they would go on to work together for twenty more years) and he uses only natural light. This is used to astonishing effect in Through a Glass Darkly, the first film in the trilogy, which is shot on the island of Faro in the Baltic Sea (Bergman so fell in love with the stark beauty of this place that he ended up living the last thirty years of life there). It involves a family of four on holiday: the father, David (Gunnar Björnstrand), who is writing a novel, his daughter Karin (Harriet Andersson), her husband Martin, a physician (Max Von Sydow) and a teenage son, Minus (Lars Passgård). All appears initially to be quite pleasant, as the four frolic in the surf. But it soon becomes apparent that there's something wrong with Karin--she's a schizophrenic, and Martin has been told that her condition is incurable.

Karin has hallucinations about a group of people waiting for the arrival of God. Her father, an ineffectual man who has been away from his family on long trips, feels a terrible guilt because he is using Karin's illness as a plot point in his novel. When she reads his diary and finds out, a turning point in the family takes place. Also, there is a hint of an incestuous relationship between brother and sister. When Karin finally cracks up, God is revealed to her, but it is as a monstrous figure.

God is also referred to as something monstrous in Winter Light, the second film (the title in Swedish is roughly translated as The Communicant, or one who takes Communion). The unity of time is even tighter in this film, as it covers three hours in the life of Tomas, a pastor (again played by Björnstrand) who is having a spiritual crisis. He deals with two things over the course of these three hours--counseling a man who has thoughts of suicide (Von Sydow) and the woman who loves him, a needy schoolteacher played by Ingrid Thulin. Tomas grieves for his dead wife and despairs at "God's silence." But then a parishioner discusses scripture with him, and says that he doesn't think Christ's suffering had to do with pain, but with the feeling of being forsaken by God, and Tomas gets a fresh perspective on things.

The final film is The Silence, and if one views these movies as a triptych (as Bergman intended), the title refers to the silence spoken of in Winter Light, as God is not present. It is the deceptively simple story of two women, sisters, traveling by train. One of them, Anna, (Gunnel Lindblom) has a small son, the other, Ester, (Thulin) has an illness. She is too ill, in fact, to continue traveling, so they stop in an unspecified country and take up residence in an opulent but nearly empty hotel. The country would seem to be an Eastern bloc nation, with tanks roaming the street.

This film is notorious because of its shocking (for the time) sex scenes. Cowie mentions that is the most-attended Bergman film of all time, for precisely this reason. Early on we get some uncomfortable vibes when Anna takes a bath and has her son scrub her back, and then they nap together while she is nude. Oppressed by the heat, she goes out to look for anonymous sexual encounters, while the boy wanders the hotel, meeting a troupe of dwarf acrobats. Ester, meanwhile, remains in the room, smoking, drinking, masturbating and working (she is a translator). Her illness is unspecified, but it could be grave, as she mentions that she does not want to die away from home.

Like I said, God and faith are never mentioned in this film. In fact, the only mention of religion is when Anna tells Ester that she picked up a stranger and had sex with him in a church. Instead, this film is more focused on the difficulties of communication. Ester is a translator, but she does not speak the native language, so her encounters with a waiter are done in pantomime (although they do connect while listening to Bach, music being universal). In a pre-shadowing of Persona, Ester and Anna are like two halves of one person, with Anna representing the physical, carnal attributes, and Ester the intellectual.

Though these films can be rough sledding (there are no light-hearted moments in any of them) they are exquisite filmmaking. Marvel at Bergman's sense of composition, at Nykvist's photography, and the brilliant acting. There are some startling scenes displaying Bergman's gift as a writer. In Through a Glass Darkly there is a stunning scene on a boat when Martin blasts his father-in-law for his callousness. In Winter Light there is a remarkable scene in which Tomas reads a letter from Thulin, in which she categorizes how he is tormenting her. Instead of using voiceover, Bergman has Thulin reading the letter in a closeup, looking straight into the camera. It is a six-minute monologue, in one take. No one had seen anything like it.

Bergman also is a master of sound. Through a Glass Darkly uses a minimal score, a melancholy cello suite by Bach, while the other two films have no score at all. As Tomas sits in his office, the loud ticking of the clock resonates like a funeral bell. The Silence, true to its name, has frequent stretches when there is absolutely no sound, but then will be punctuated by moments such as the blaring of a siren.

Though these three films can be derided as being too depressing, it is interesting to note that all three end with hope. In Through a Glass Darkly, after Karin is helicoptered to a hospital, Minus has a conversation about God with his father, and he is happy because his father has actually spoken to him meaningfully. In Winter Light, Tomas goes through with the afternoon mass, even though there is only one person in attendance, a symbol that even one person can carry on hope, while in The Silence the boy reads a letter from his aunt, in which she teaches him some foreign words, a sign that communication barriers can be broken.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Rox vs. Sox

It's finally time for the World Series to start. Back when I was a lad, when it was simply AL champ versus NL champ, the World Series was over by mid-October, but as baseball does its best to seem more and more like the NBA, we get a marathon that could last as long as November. The teams have been set: the Boston Red Sox, who came back from a 3-1 deficit to vanquish the Cleveland Indians, and the Colorado Rockies, who wrapped up their ticket over a week ago and have been cooling their heels ever since.


It should be an interesting series. On paper, the Red Sox are a clear favorite, with big-time post-season heroes like Manny Ramirez, David Ortiz, Curt Schilling and Josh Beckett, while the Rockies are full of no-names. But a lot of sports wags are talking about momentum. The Rockies have won 22 of 23, but have had a nine-day layoff, while the Red Sox have won three in a row with their backs against the wall. Momentum is one of those intangible things that clueless sportswriters toss around probably because they can't name more than a few Rockies players (I know I couldn't until the playoffs started). Momentum, it seems to me, is something you have until you don't have it anymore, and as the old saying goes, it's only as strong as your starting pitcher.


The Red Sox starting pitcher for Game One will be Josh Beckett, who in a short career has established himself as one of the great post-season pitchers of all time. If, however, the Rockies can beat him, they will have a huge emotional lift and could well be unstoppable. I think Beckett will win tonight, though, and the Sox will win in six.

As for who I'm rooting for, well, that's always complicated and sometimes I don't know until I watch the game, and sometimes it changes mid-series. I was rooting for the Indians in the ALCS, because they are now the sad sacks of the American League (inheriting that mantle from the Red Sox). I will root the Red Sox vs. the Rockies, though. I have always liked the Red Sox, probably because they are the mortal enemies of the hated Yankees. As for the Rockies, it is a great story but there's something that rankles me about it. Baseball should not be a sport where a team can play middlin' for months and then get hot and win it all, the season is a five-month slog. This shouldn't be basketball or hockey. The Rockies just haven't earned it.

Also, I was troubled by news stories that the Rockies clubhouse was full of super Christians, who had banned rock music and Playboy from the locker room, and led their general manager to declare that the winning streak was divine providence. The fastest way for me to root against a team is for them to suggest that God is on their side. If there is a God (which I don't think there is) surely the exploits of grown men playing a game in tights would be far down the list of His interest. An article in yesterday's New York Times clarified the issue, though, stating that players of all faiths and creeds are welcome on the team. Players of high moral fiber are sought for, and there's nothing wrong with that (this started when a high-paid free agent, Denny Neagle, got kicked off the team after getting busted for soliciting a prostitute). Music of all kinds can be played in the clubhouse (even Black Sabbath?) but there was no clarification on whether Playboy is still contraband.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Fit to Be Tied

From now until the end of February I'll be focused on one of my more curious obsessions, the Princeton women's ice hockey team. Actually, the obsession pretty much exists year-round, but gets kicking hard when the school year starts and the practices begin (yes, I even observe some practices). The season itself began on Friday night with the Tigers hosting Boston College, and then on Sunday hosting Quinnipiac. Both games ended in a tie.

This is my eighth season attending these games. In all that time I have missed two home games (the last one five years ago) so I'm pretty much a maniac on this subject. I never played hockey--I don't even know how to ice skate--but I enjoy watching hockey in person because it's fast and exciting. The women's game does not allow checking, so passing and strategic play are far more important. And, with the intimacy of the spectators to the game, it's easy to strike up acquaintanceships with the coaches and players. I'll never forget the first time I had a chance to speak to the coach, Jeff Kampersal. I had gone up to the University of Connecticut to watch them play. He recognized me from the many games I had watched and came over and said hello. You don't get that kind of stuff from a major league sport.

For a couple of years I covered the team for USCHO.com, a college-hockey web site. Haven't done that for a couple of years because the site has not had a women's editor, but I'd be ready to do it again. It was fun playing sportswriter (it was a completely voluntary gig).

As for this year's team, well, the two ties have left completely different after-tastes. Boston College is a top-ten team, so to come away with a tie in Princeton's first game (a lot of teams have a few games under their belt--the Ivy League always starts later) was a positive sign. But the tie against Quinnipiac was a letdown, because Princeton dominated the game and should have won easily. The Tigers lost a lot of scoring to graduation, and this team has had a history of winning with defense and goaltending, not tending to get a lot of scoring.

I'm not sure I'll get to any road games this year, as I'm trying to maintain some fiscal sanity, but there will be twelve more home games from now until the end of February, and hopefully some home playoff games in March. It's been a lot of fun for me over the last seven years.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Gone Baby Gone

I'm not quite sure when Ben Affleck became a national joke. It was probably after the spectacular flops Jersey Girl and Gigli, combined with being part of a celebrity romance with Jennifer Lopez. And the vague feeling that he probably didn't really write Good Will Hunting, for which he shared an Oscar with Matt Damon (who didn't get tarnished with the same brush). In any event, I've always thought Affleck was a decent actor, and he makes a decent directorial debut with Gone Baby Gone, a thriller set in Boston's mean streets.

Based on a novel by Dennis Lehane, who also wrote the source material for Clint Eastwood's Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone doesn't have the magisterial sweep on that picture, but it has its moments of effective crime-drama angst.

The story surrounds a missing child, a four-year-old girl who vanishes from the home of her mother, who is memorably played by Amy Ryan. The police are on it, especially the captain in charge of a unit assigned to crimes against children, played with typical gravitas by Morgan Freeman. The girl's aunt, though, Amy Madigan, hires a pair of private detectives, Casey Affleck and Michelle Monaghan, who are also a romantic couple, to augment the investigation. After some initial hesitation, they take the case and work in close proximity with two detectives, Ed Harris and John Ashton. Casey Affleck, as Patrick Kenzie, has the advantage of being from the neighborhood, and goes to the seedy bars and back alleys to interview the skels he grew up. Soon he has a lead which takes him to a local drug lord. Predictably, there is a story twist or two.

Ben Affleck's greatest achievement in directing this picture is his making the neighborhood a character. It looms over every shot, whether it's a menacing bar or an abandoned house where a grisly discovery is made. His failure in this film is in tight storytelling, particularly in the script, which he co-wrote with Aaron Stockard. There are clumsy scenes of bald exposition, and some of the characters are underwritten, particularly that of Monaghan as Angie Gennaro. She looks great but seems to have a perpetual scowl on her face, as if she woke up on the wrong side of the movie. One suspects that a reading of the novel would let us in on the dynamics of her relationship with Kenzie, but it's not in the movie.

As for Amy Ryan, she becomes a strong candidate for an Oscar nomination as the mother. She is a foul-mouthed drug addict, and is so vivid in her part that it makes the film's ending ethical question that more pertinent. I would imagine there are going to be several heated exchanges between moviegoers as they walk out of the theater, contemplating the decision they would make if confronted with the dilemma that Casey Affleck faces in the film.

As for Ben's brother Casey, fortunately this bit of nepotism doesn't hurt the film. Admittedly the youth of Casey and Monaghan does give the film a kind of Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew feel, but Casey manages to invest in the part a sound foundation upon which the entire movie must rest. You really can see him thinking during the film's final sequence.

Ben Affleck, who's portrayal of George Reeve in last year's Hollywoodland went a long way in resurrecting a serious acting career, has taken another positive step with this film. It's not a great picture, but a satisfying one.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Ill Met By Moonlight

Here's the thing with me and sci-fi/fantasy novels. The back cover always turns out to be more interesting than the actual book. In principle I always think I will like these books, but I have some sort of chip in my head that always switches over while I'm reading them that makes me think how silly they are.

This book, which had been on my Amazon wish list for years, seemed promising: it supposes that William Shakespeare wrote A Midsummer-Nights Dream out of personal experience. Now that's a grabber. Shakespeare, as an eighteen-year-old schoolteacher, has just recently married Anne Hathaway (whom he calls Nan) and they have a baby, Susannah. One day he comes home from work and they are gone, and he eventually finds out they have been kidnapped by "the people under the hill," or elves and fairies. There's a power struggle going on among the fairyfolk, with a usurping king and a brother who enlists Will in his attempt to overthrow the crown.

Through the book, written by Sarah A. Hoyt, there's lots for fans of Shakespeare to savor, perhaps too much. The brother, called Quicksilver, has a nifty trick of being able to change sexes, and Will comes to know the female version as the "Dark Lady," a nod to the muse of the sonnets. There's also shreds and patches from many of the plays, including plot points, character names, and even whole sections of dialogue, such as a verbatim inclusion of Mercutio's death speech from Romeo and Juliet. I realize this is all in the public domain but I still find it cheeky that Hoyt so blatantly lifts the stuff. Maybe it's because when she writes her own dialogue it's very stiff romance novel blather.

Though I'm a very big fan of Shakespeare I'm not the demographic for this book because all this fairy dust stuff leaves me a little cold. Shakespeare himself avoided this pitfall in A Midsummer-Night's Dream, creating a magical world without making anyone want to roll their eyes, but Hoyt is not up to the challenge of pulling that off.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Bergman: International Acclaim

This is the second in my series of posts on the films of Ingmar Bergman, which I'm either revisiting or finally getting around to seeing (nothing like the death of someone to light a fire). This time I'll be discussing his landmark films of the 1950s, which made him an international sensation and went a long way in establishing the reputation that would stick with him always. I'd seen three of these films before, all while I was at college. A large tip of the hat goes to the kids who ran Tuesday Night Flicks, which was a film organization at SUNY-Stony Brook that showed mostly art films on Tuesday nights (I believe the charge was fifty cents). I got quite a film education from their efforts.

The first film to launch Bergman on the international scene was Smiles of a Summer Night, a thoroughly charming romantic comedy. Most people don't associate Bergman with comedy, but he made more than you think, and this was his best. It has four different couples spending the evening at an estate in turn-of-the-century Sweden, and some of the people end up with different people than they started with. It is the basis for Stephen Sondheim's A Little Night Music (which gave the world Send in the Clowns) and is clearly the inspiration for Woody Allen's A Midsummer-Night's Sex Comedy. The film is irresistibly delightful, particularly because, in the context of seeing Bergman's entire career, it plays like a self-parody. Amid all the frolicsome buffoonery, there are a couple of stern wet blankets whom he sends up as pompous fools. Consider this line, by Madame Charlotte, wife of an equally absurd military officer: "Men are shallow, vain and arrogant...and have hair all over their bodies."

Bergman followed this film with probably his most famous, The Seventh Seal, which is in the pantheon of the greatest films of all time. Even people who have never heard of Bergman might be familiar with the image of a man playing chess with Death (the scene has been parodied in everything from a play by Woody Allen called Death Knocks, in which a man plays gin rummy with Death, to Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure. My favorite reference is in the film Diner, when an uncomprehending Steve Guttenberg says, "I've been to Atlantic City plenty of times and I never saw Death on the beach").

In the film, Max Von Sydow plays Antonius Block, a knight who has returned from the Crusades to find his homeland ravaged by the bubonic plague, which killed about a third of the population of Sweden. He is in torment, a devout man who questions the suffering of man and struggles to find meaning to existence. Belief, he says, is suffering, like "loving someone in the dark who never answers." In contrast, his squire, Jons, is an agnostic, and has some very clever, sardonic lines. People who haven't seen this film might be surprised to find how funny this film is at times, particularly the death scene of Skat, the womanizing actor, who climbs a tree only to look down and find the black-hooded Death patiently sawing at the trunk.

Gunnar Bjornstrand plays Jons, in one of the better supporting performances I've ever seen. He was a Bergman regular, also appearing in Smiles of a Summer Night and Bergman's next film, Wild Strawberries, which told the story of one day in the life of an old professor of medicine as he makes his way across country to receive an honorary degree. This film is about old age and confronting one's mortality, and features as good an acting performance as you're likely to see by Victor Sjostrom as the old professor. He was a major figure in Swedish theater and silent films.

The film begins with a dream sequence, always a tricky thing in movies, but this one is genuinely spooky. For one odd thing it's in bright sunlight, which is a bit of a switch, because Bergman detested bright sun and thought it oppressive. The professor ends up dreaming that his own corpse is pulling him into a coffin. He then awakes and drives to the university in Lund to receive his degree, accompanied by his daughter-in-law. He revisits the summer home where he spent his youth and finds a wild strawberry patch. Summers are very special to Swedes since they are so short, and wild strawberries are symbolic of summer. He sees the people of his youth, especially the first girl he loved, played by Bergman regular Bibi Andersson, who also plays a teenager hitchhiker that he picks up along the way. The film is very moving and expertly crafted.

I'll end this post discussing The Virgin Spring (the other major film of Bergman's this period was The Magician, which is unfortunately not available yet on U.S.-format friendly DVD). Bergman called this film an anomaly, and disappointed many of his admirers, particularly in France, but it was popular in the U.S., and won the first of Bergman's three Best Foreign Language Film Oscars. The commenter on the Criterion disc speculated that it is because the U.S. is a "Christian nation" (I'll bet Jefferson and Franklin would be appalled by that, but she's essentially right) and The Virgin Spring has heavy religious overtones. It's a story that juxtaposes paganism with Christianity, and evil and innocence, in adapting a medieval ballad about a girl who is killed by goatherds, who in turn suffer the vengeance of the girl's father. The film was adapted by of all people Wes Craven for his early slasher film, The Last House on the Left.

This was the first time I had seen the film, and it is quite powerful. The attack on the girl is very brutal, considering it was released in 1960, and the scene of vengeance, although tame by today's standards, is still ferocious in its intensity. There is a scene involving a boy that is particularly hard to watch. Von Sydow plays the girl's father, and he prepares his vengeance by felling a birch tree and beating his naked body with the branches, a ritual that is almost surreal.

All four of these films are terrific, and are all available as Criterion discs, with accompanying commentaries. The Wild Strawberries disc has a long interview for television Bergman did about ten years ago.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Hair


Forty years ago today Hair, the "American Tribal Love-Rock Musical," opened at the New York Shakespeare Festival's Public Theater. It was an instant sensation, and opened on Broadway the following April. It ran for 1750 performances and spawned some hit songs. It was the first Broadway musical to use rock and roll music, and it set the conventions of that medium on its ear.

The book and lyrics were written by two actors, Gerome Ragni and James Rado, who also played the leads, George Berger and Claude Bukowski. The music was written by a Canadian named Galt McDermot. Nothing anything of them would do from then on would come close to the lightning in a bottle they captured with Hair.

When I was in high school, I joined one of those record clubs where you buy a certain number of records for a penny and then promise to buy more. One of the initial records I got was the Broadway cast recording for Hair, which I played over and over again. As I've written in other posts on this blog, I have always been attracted to the sixties counterculture, which I missed by about a decade. Recently I picked up the CD version of the recording, which includes songs that weren't on the vinyl, but except for that listening to it again was like taking a trip back to the past. I have ingrained almost every note in my subconscious.

What made Hair work, in addition to being shocking for its time, was that the songs were incredibly catchy. They cover quite a few genres of rock, but mostly fall comfortably into what we would think of pop. Aquarius, the opening number, became a big hit for The Fifth Dimension, while Good Morning Starshine, Easy to Be Hard, and the title song also became big hits. There are also forays into more mind-bending rock, such as the drug anthem Walking in Space and the anti-war song Three-Five-Zero-Zero. But mostly the music is finger-snapping pop.

I have never seen a production of Hair. There was a brief revival in 1977 but nothing since then, although it is still performed by amateur groups. This is easy to explain, because though the songs are timeless, the gestalt of the thing is incredibly dated, and can only be produced as some sort of curiosity. When I was in college, I was the assistant director of a production that never really got off the ground, mostly due to the director, a woman who was way over her head.

What is the story of Hair? If you've seen the Milos Forman movie, made in 1979, don't be misled, that was a complete reinterpretation. The book is pointedly referred to as a non-book, as there is no real story. As with the film, Claude has just been drafted, but he and all the other members of the Tribe are hippies living in a park in New York. After Aquarius is sung, George is introduced by singing the hard-rocking Donna, a song of unrequited love about a sixteen-year-old tattooed virgin, while he swings on a rope over the audience. If that weren't enough to shock the first-nighters used to Rodgers and Hammerstein, a character known as Woof sings the following: "Sodomy, fellatio, cunnilingus, pederasty. Father, why do these words sound so nasty? Masturbation can be fun, join the holy orgy, Kama Sutra, everyone!"

This is the first of a series of songs that establish the characters by the means of a list. Hud, a black hippie, sings Colored Spade, which is a list of every derogatory name for blacks you can think of. Then the whole tribe encapsulates everything with IRT: "LBJ took the IRT down to Fourth Street, USA. When he got there what did he see? The youth of America on LSD." Hair has songs that touch on most of the hot button issues of the day, including air pollution, the war, gender identity and miscegenation, with the Black Boys/White Boys number, with women of the opposite race extolling the virtues of jungle fever (on Black Boys, the voice of Diane Keaton, the one cast member who became a major star, can be heard). The first act ends with Be-In, which is the Hare Krishna chant while some of the cast disrobes. This became a shocking sensation, and drew theater-goers armed with binoculars to see what all the fuss was about.

Hair was also part historical pageant. Portions of My Country 'Tis of Thee, the Star-Spangled Banner, and Thomas Paine's Common Sense are heard, as well as a not-really mocking tribute to Old Glory called Don't Put it Down. In the second act, the Gettysburg Address is recited during Happy Birthday, Abie, Baby, a tribute to the sixteenth president that would have certainly tickled Lincoln (although one wonders how we would have liked the line, "Emancipator of the slaves, yeah yeah yeah, emanci-motherfuckin'-pator of the slaves.") There's even some Shakespeare, with a portion of Hamlet sung ("What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason") and Hamlet's last words, "the rest is silence," is used prominently in Let the Sunshine In, the closing number of the show.

Thinking about Hair forty years later raises a few thoughts. One is the heavy influence of the drug culture. Many of the songs are about drugs, and they sound hopelessly naive. Walking in Space is a paean to acid trips, while during Donna Berger sings, "I'm evolving from the drugs that you put down." Drugs, of course, ruined whatever was good about the sixties. No less an expert on this is rock musician David Crosby, who said, "We were right about the war but wrong about drugs." Also, it's interesting that rock music has never really gotten a firm foothold on Broadway. It pops up every once in a while, with the Who's Tommy and jukebox musicals with the music of Billy Joel, Abba or the Four Seasons. But those have all been exercises in nostalgia. Very few Broadway musicals have attempted to do what Hair did, and that is put the music of the moment on stage for the bus loads of tourists who come in for Wednesday matinees. Lightning in a bottle indeed.






Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Oscar Forecast: Best Actor

Last year the Best Actor race was remarkably skimpy, the kind of year when a young actor from a little-seen indie like Ryan Gosling could sneak in. That scenario seems unlikely this year, because at this point the race is a free-for-all, dominated by a bunch of ex-winners.

I see four men as currently leading the pack, all of whom have won before. Daniel Day-Lewis is earning raves for those who have seen him in P.T. Anderson's This Time There Will Be Blood, a film about the early days of the oil business. If Anderson's films aren't universally loved by the Academy, he has shepherded actors from his films to nominations. George Clooney certainly will be in the mix for his title role as the conflicted lawyer in Michael Clayton, and Denzel Washington, as a Harlem drug kingpin, seems a good bet for American Gangster. I'm not quite as sure anymore about Tommy Lee Jones as the father of a murdered soldier in In the Valley of Elah. The film has underwhelmed, and it's not a flashy role, but he certainly stands a good chance.

If those four are in there are numerous guys fighting for the fifth spot. If it goes to a relative newcomer it might be James McAvoy as falsely accused man in Atonement, especially if the film lives up to expectations as a major nomination grabber. Or it could be Emile Hirsch as the young man looking to live in nature in Sean Penn's Into the Wild.

But there are no shortage of candidates: Benicio Del Toro in Things We Lost in the Fire, Mathieu Amalric in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Academy voters seem to be impressed by those playing people with disabilities); Phillip Seymour Hoffman in either The Savages or Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (or a supporting nod for Charlie Wilson's War). Speaking of that film, after seeing the trailer, I doubt Tom Hanks gets a nod, the role seems a bit too jokey. Also seeming less likely is Joaquin Phoenix for Reservation Road, since that film seems to have left early viewers unimpressed. Of course, there's always Gosling again for Lars and the Real Girl ,or Johnny Depp, who will sing for his supper in Sweeney Todd. And if the voters want to get really obvious they can nominate Jack Nicholson's treacly turn in the comic weepie The Bucket List, but then there may be a terrific hew and cry.

This leaves some deserving people out in the cold, like Viggo Mortensen from Eastern Promises and Sam Riley, who is playing Ian Curtis to high praise in Control. I doubt there's too many fans of Joy Division in the ranks of the Academy, but you never know.


Monday, October 15, 2007

Michael Clayton

I've never been a fan of titles that are simply someone's name. It seems to me a real lack of creativity. That is the last criticism you will hear from me of Michael Clayton, which is easily the best film I've seen yet this year. Written and directed by Tony Gilroy, Michael Clayton is a taut and insightful look at a man who is at frayed ends who struggles to redeem himself. This is an old subject for a film, but this film is so well written, acted and shot that it makes the whole thing seem fresh.

George Clooney plays the title character, a lawyer who is forty-five years old, but has not made partner. Instead he is utilized to clean up other people's messes. "I'm a janitor," we hear him say with disgust. He is also broke, after going in with his dissolute brother on a bar that has gone belly up. Even after sellng all of the assets he still owes $75,000 to some folks who aren't exactly lenient about late fees. "Find a treasure map and start digging," he's told.

So Clooney isn't exactly in the best of moods when he has to rush off to Milwaukee. The senior litigating partner, played by Tom Wilkinson, has had a breakdown at a deposition and chased a plaintiff through a parking lot wearing nothing but his socks. If this isn't enough of a problem, the case Wilkinson was working on is a three billion dollar class action suit against an agricultural conglomerate for manufacturing a weed killer that also gives people cancer. The company's general counsel, Tilda Swinton, is understandably disturbed and wants some answers. Clooney thinks it's simply a matter of Wilkinson, a manic depressive, going off his meds, but after a while we learn that there is something more sinister afoot.

The plot of the film, which involves a hushed-up document that proves the company's guilt, is really a kind of Hitchcockian McGuffin, and isn't exactly a classic mystery. What's really going on here is the salvation of a human being. Clooney is excellent in showing us a man with many layers. He comes from a family of cops, and worked as a district attorney, but now is a shadowy figure in a white-shoe law firm. Just what happened? He's divorced but has a good relationship with his son, and more problematic relationships with his brothers, one a cop and the other, as mentioned, a recovering drug addict who led him down the primrose path with a failed business opportunity. The firm's senior partner, played by Sidney Pollack, clearly values Clooney's ability to put out fires, but not enough to make him partner. There's a lot more going on underneath the surface.

Gilroy, who is best known as the screenwriter of the Bourne films, knocks one of out of the park in his directorial debut. The film is lit mostly in blues and grays, with nary a ray of sunlight peeking through. Clooney is always in his uniform of a dark suit and tie, ready at a moment's notice to do the firm's bidding. Gilroy even gets a chance to flex his Bourne muscles with a cat and mouse car chase toward the end of the film, which is exceedingly well done.

Clooney, Wilkinson and Swinton are all terrific, and should all be in the hunt come Oscar time. Swinton, in a role that could have been a standard villain, is given extra depth with scenes showing how terribly insecure she is, and how deeply over her head she gets. Wilkinson is particularly scintillating as a man who finds clarity in his madness. He gives a classic line reading when Clooney tells him that he's the senior partner of a top law firm. "I am Shiva, the god of death," Wilkinson replies, in all seriousness.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Pageant Place

Several weeks ago I confessed that I viewed, with inappropriate interest, the Miss Teen USA pageant. Now my insanity has taken an extra step as I tuned in to Pageant Place, a reality show on MTV. This show gives the viewer a behind the scenes glimpse at the winners of the Miss Universe, Miss USA, and Miss Teen USA pageants (all owned by Donald Trump) as they share a New York apartment. Like Athena being born from the forehead of Zeus, this show would appear to have been created straight from my fevered fantasies.

I thought the show might be a more chaste version of The Girls Next Door, which chronicle the three bimbos that call themselves the girlfriends of Hugh Hefner, sybarite and Playboy magazine honcho. Mercifully, though, Trump is not banging (or even pretending to bang) these girls, he was a minor presence on the first show. Instead this is more like a Real World with beauty queens. In the first show, Miss Universe, Riyo Mori of Japan, has just won her crown. She moves in (and gets the biggest bedroom because she has the most prestigious title). Miss USA, Rachel Smith, is constantly reminded that she lost to Mori (as well as falling on her ass during the evening-gown competition).

Miss Teen USA is Katie Blair, who got involved in the scandal that almost cost the previous Miss USA, Tara Conner, her title. Turns out that Blair thought Conner was hitting on her boyfriend, so she turned her in for doing coke. This all happens in the first five minutes, and I was surprised that Trump has chosen to exploit every canker in this set-up, instead of promoting it as all sunshine and rainbows. Of course, a show about girls getting along famously wouldn't make very good television, even if they are skimpily attired.

To make the show even more juicy, Trump has decided to keep Conner in the fold and use her for public appearances, which puts Smith and Blair both on edge, as Smith feels her year is being infringed on, while Blair thought she was done with Conner for good. Conner, now out of rehab, is ready to get back on the horse, and as the first show ends, she's knocking on the door of the apartment, while Smith huddles under a quilt, unable to rise to greet her.

While waiting for this show to come on, I watched the last few minutes of the Real World, the show that inspired all of these copycats. I've never been a fan, even if they do cast hot chicks. These shows (such as The Hills, which I've heard a lot about but never seen) seem to be predicated on the notion that whenever girls are put together in close quarters they will inevitably squabble over boys, and apparently this is interesting to people.

Of course, when you have a show where a camera is following someone around during what normally would be private moments you have to wonder about the verisimilitude. How many times do they need to restage moments? Are they coached to behave certain ways? Will there be any shots of them in bikinis? All important matters to consider.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Bergman: Early Works


When Ingmar Bergman died on July 30, it was of course a great loss for the world of cinema. It was also a time to reflect on my own experience viewing his films. I have seen most of his major works, but I haven't seen them in a long time, and when one considers he made over 60 films, I haven't scratched the surface of his entire body of work.

So I loaded up my Netflix queue with all of the Bergman films available (except for
Fanny and Alexander, which I rented last year).

First up was a collection, put out by Eclipse, of five early Bergman films, before he was an international sensation. He directed four of them, writing the screenplay for the other. All of them are tense little melodramas, full of anguished characters that would mark his later work, but they also owe a lot to the style of Hollywood films at the time. That being said, he was much freer than any Hollywood director, who was under the yoke of the production code. These films are remarkably frank in discussing topics such as promiscuity and abortion, and there's even a bit of nudity in one of them.

The first film is Torment, which was directed by Alf Sjoberg with a screenplay by Bergman. It is the story of a student who is bedeviled by a sadistic Latin teacher. When the student becomes involved with a tobacco shop girl who might be termed "easy," his world gets even more complicated, and then when he realizes the girl and the Latin teacher are intimate, well, let's just say this situation makes my high school years seem placid in comparison. It's a fine film, with the teacher occupying a long line of brutal educators like Dickens' Squeers.

Bergman's directorial debut came in Crisis, which on the surface seems deceptively benign. An eighteen-year-old girl lives in a very small town with her adoptive mother and an older man who pines for her. Her real mother, who runs a beauty salon in Stockholm, comes to claim her. The girl, much to her adoptive mother's heartbreak, goes with her real mother, and gets involved with the new mother's self-loathing stepson. The realities of big-city living corrupt the young girl. One might think that Bergman is saying small-town living is better than the big city, but life in the small town is depicted with warts as well, as if spirits are crushed by existing in a place where nothing happens. There are some well-done scenes here, especially when the stepson crashes the small town's shindig and arranges for some boogie-woogie to be played while a boring old soloist sings a moldy oldie.

Thirst is a strange picture. A married couple are returning from their holiday in Italy by train, passing through post-war Germany. Flashbacks reveal their somewhat sordid pasts. The woman is a ballerina, who at one time was the mistress of a military officer. When she gets pregnant he dumps her, and the abortion she undergoes makes her unable to have children. He was involved with an emotionally unstable woman who gets tuberculosis, and there is an unsettling scene in which she is examined inappropriately by a psychoanalyst. This same woman then has a bizarre encounter with one of the wife's old ballerina colleagues, in a surprisingly frank depiction of lesbianism. This film contains some inklings of what Bergman would do with shifting narrative focus in films like Persona and Cries and Whispers.

Port of Call is more conventional, but another very frank film. A sailor has been at sea for many years, and he decides to stay put for a while and gets a job on the docks. He meets a girl and falls in love, but boy does she have a troubled past. She was put away in a reformatory for her loose behavior, but is out on a work furlough. Her mother figures out that she's sleeping with men again and threatens to have her put away again. Meanwhile, she tells the dockworker about her past and he struggles to deal with it. Also, the girl's friend gets a back-alley abortion and suffers the medical consequences. I thought this was a very good film, and ends rather hopefully.

Finally, To Joy is the story of two violinists in an orchestra who meet, fall in love, and marry. The title, which might seem strange for Bergman, refers to Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, and the film begins and ends with this piece of music (for my money, the greatest piece of music ever written). The fellow in this film is a real pill, and it's difficult to garner any sympathy for him. Early on he says that one must be unhappy to create great art, and he prefers to be unhappy, which I think Bergman agreed with. So his long suffering wife puts up with his immature behavior, and he outwears his welcome pretty quickly.

Taken as a whole these films are instructive not only in providing a glimpse at the genius that was to come, but also, for an American like me, to see the films from a country like Sweden that one wouldn't normally see. Most films in languages other than English from the old days that are regularly circulated are out-and-out classics, so it's interesting to see the kind of mid-level output that wouldn't otherwise get any play here.

Over the next month I'll post more on Bergman's films, with my next post covering the films of the 1950s that made him an international superstar.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Tartuffe

Last night I saw the McCarter Theater production of Moliere's Tartuffe, directed by Daniel Fish. Tartuffe is a much-produced chestnut of French theater, which I first read back in my freshman year of college. I think this is the third production I've seen over the years.

The play is about religious hypocrisy, which is always a relevant issue, not just in the 17th century, when it was written. The character of Tartuffe is a con man, taken in by the gullible Orgon. Though Orgon's family and servants see Tartuffe for the hypocrite he is, Orgon believes him to be a pious man, and follows his advice to the letter. He even goes so far as to break off his daughter Mariane's engagement to a man named Valere and instead offers her to Tartuffe, and eventually signs over the deed to his property to the man.

All of this is written in charming comedic couplets. There are a lot of humorous set pieces, such as when Orgon inquires of his maid, Dorine, what has happened in his few days absence. Dorine describes how Orgon's wife, Elmire, suffered from a bout of illness, but all he cares about is Tartuffe. Then there is Valere's scene when he confronts Mariane about the engagement being broken. The actor, Daniel Cameron Talbott, has a field day, erupting with anger and doing an almost complete striptease. Then there is the famous scene when Elmire convinces Orgon to hide under a table and hear for himself what a con man Tartuffe really is.

It's hard to mess this classic up, but Fish has done his best. A lot of the play's plot hinges on eavesdropping, which I imagine is the reason Fish has employed a video monitor in the action. The set is constructed with a bedchamber off to stage left, which is not visible from all points in the theater. But a woman holding a videocamera skulks about, shooting what we can't see so it is broadcast on a large monitor on the back wall of the stage. This sounds interesting, but the result is terribly distracting. The video design is credited to Alexandra Eaton, although it is unclear if that is the woman holding the camera. Whoever it is, the video is frequently choppy and not focused on the proper person, and the whole thing feels at times like The Blair Witch Project. The woman is also dressed in contemporary clothes, so she looks like an interloper who has leaped uninvited onto stage. This is lessened somewhat as some of the characters in the play change into more contemporary garb (Valere ends up in a track suit, and Tartuffe in a bowling shirt). I suppose this is Fish's way of insinuating that there are Tartuffes in all ages, including this one, but I'm always unsettled by inconsistency in period details. Either make it contemporary dress or not.

The acting is generally good, particularly the aforementioned Talbott and Sally Wingert as Dorine, who does best with the language. Zach Grenier is Tartuffe, and I couldn't help but feeling he was modeling his performance on how Kevin Spacey might play it. Andy Patterson makes the most of his small performance as a bailiff. I would have liked to have seen this cast perform the play straight, leaving the video equipment in storage.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Into the Wild

It took me a while to get into Into the Wild. I'm an unabashed hedonist, who considers a two-star motel roughing it, so it was hard for me to understand the motivation of Chris McCandless, played by Emile Hirsch. After graduating from college he gives away his life savings to charity and hits the road, sleeping under the stars and trying to live the kind of life written about by men like Thoreau and Jack London. Though he doesn't have a lot of knowledge about living this kind of life, he manages a hardscrabble existence, occasionally taking jobs.

But, as the film wore on, I understood what it was about, at least in the interpretation by writer and director Sean Penn (I have not read the source book by Jon Krakauer). McCandless' primary motivation seems to be a hatred of his father, who is a violent blowhard, played to stuffed shirt precision by William Hurt. The ironic thing is that McCandless runs into a series of parental figures, who seem to be seeking a child figure rather than the other way around. He meets a pair of aging hippies (Brian Dierker and Catherine Keener)--she has a long-lost son. He works for a while as a combiner for Vince Vaughn, who loves having someone around to spill his philosophy of life. And then me meets a lonely retiree, touchingly played by Hal Holbrook, who lost his wife and son in an automobile accident years before.

All of these people offer McCandless a home life, but he moves on, his goal to move to complete isolation in the Alaskan wilderness. He is dangerously ill-equipped for this adventure, even though going in the summer. He manages to find an abandoned bus to live in, but disaster would seem to be right around the corner.

Before seeing the film I thought it would be similar to Werner Herzog's Grizzly Man, also about a man foolishly taking on the Alaskan wilderness. But the grizzly guy was a lunatic. McCandless isn't necessarily crazy, he's just misguided. I doubt Thoreau would have gone to such links (Walden Pond was only a mile or two away from Concord, and he had constant human contact), but through Penn's screenplay and Hirsch's portrayal we can at least understand where's he's coming from. Of course, most of us can only sit there and cringe as he tramps off into Alaska, especially if we know already how it will turn out. Also, it was hard for me to empathize with a guy who passed up the hippie community, especially since there was a girl, played by Kristen Stewart as the ultimate hippie-chick fantasy, who wanted to jump his bones. Saying no to that must have taken a lot of willpower.

This is certainly Penn's most accomplished work as a director, following the bleak Indian Runner and The Crossing Guard, although this film does have a meditative approach that will put off the most restless of viewers. The songs by Eddie Vedder are appropriate, and the location photography is at times breathtaking (especially on McCandless' paddling down the Grand Canyon, where he meets an enthusiastic pair of German tourists). This is a very fine film.

Friday, October 05, 2007

The Outsiders

This year marks the fortieth anniversary of the publication of S.E. Hinton's novel The Outsiders, a landmark in the history of what is known as "young adult fiction." I read the book when I was probably about ten or so, a copy ordered from the Scholastic Book Club no doubt (it used to be a big occasion for me when we get those order forms in school, and I would order some books and then receive a package some weeks later). I remember liking it a lot at the time, but sometimes things that I become reacquainted with lose their aura with the cynicism of age. However, reading this again, close to thirty-five years later, was a rewarding experience.

Hinton was a teenage girl when she wrote this book (she used her initials because the publishers did not want boy readers to know she was a woman). It tells the story of aimless youth in mid-sixties' Tulsa, Oklahoma, from the viewpoint of Ponyboy Curtis, a fourteen-year-old "greaser." Greasers come from the wrong side of the tracks. They wear their hair long and greasy, tend to carry knives and get in trouble with the law, and prefer Elvis to the Beatles. They are in constant conflict with the "Socs" (short for society or social), who are affluent and drive Mustangs and wear Madras shirts. Ponyboy lives with his two brothers: Soda, who is a few years older but has dropped out of school and works in a gas station, and 2o-year-old Darry, who is in the parental role since their parents were killed in a car wreck. The Curtis boys hang with a group of guys, most notably Dally, who is a hood, and Johnny, Ponyboy's meek friend who is even more skittish after getting viciously beaten by some Socs.

During the course of the story, there will be tragedy in pointless Greaser vs. Soc wars, and Ponyboy will meet a girl Soc, Cherry Valance, and will learn that people are the same all over. If this sounds a little like West Side Story I imagine Hinton was influenced some by that, but The Outsiders exists almost entirely on its own. Hinton was from Tulsa (and still lives there, I believe) and was writing about people she knew. What was shocking at the time is that it was the first book for adolescents that dealt with frankly with troubling issues. These boys smoke, drink, and break the law with impunity. Some of them are indifferent about school, and most have almost a complete lack of parenting. There is also the subtlest hint of a teen pregnancy. For this reason the book has been banned by many school library systems. Characters who are "bad boys" usually come to bad ends, but these characters are not vilified, nor are they particularly heroic, they are treated objectively as victims of an endless spiral. As Ponyboy mentions several times, if people are going to treat him like a hood, he might as well be one.

The language of the book is very interesting. Yes, it has characters smoking and getting into knife fights, but there is no profanity, so it's amusing for tough-guys to say things like, "Blast it!" At times Hinton writes that they do swear, we just don't know what the words are. The writing is very simple and concise, as it should be for adolescents, which only makes her descriptions of shocking subjects come across even more brutally.

In conjunction with reading the book I rented the film that was made of it, by Francis Coppola in 1983. It's most notable now for having several performers who would go on to be famous: Patrick Swayze, Rob Lowe, Tom Cruise, Diane Lane, Leif Garrett, Matt Dillon, Ralph Macchio (who is particularly chilling as the beaten-down Johnny) and Emilio Estevez (even Coppola's daughter Sofia turns up in a cameo). The film is lit in very nostalgic golden hues, and sticks extremely close to the novel.

I have twin nephews that just turned thirteen and I wonder if they've read this book. If not, I just may get it for one of them for Christmas. I think it's an important book for kids that age, even if it is a little dated (the first line of the book makes reference to Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke, who would have been a hero to disaffected youth of the sixties--now he's a salad-dressing salesman).

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Oscar Forecast: Best Actress



As the leaves begin to turn it's time to look into Oscar's crystal ball and speculate, sometimes wildly and hopelessly inaccurately, on the favorites for taking home the naked little gold man. A few weeks ago I took a look at the playing field for Best Picture, and that's already changed some, as some films come out and underwhelm, while others come out of nowhere to high acclaim.

Best Actress is generally fairly easy to handicap, due to the scarcity of genuine contenders, which hasn't changed much in the 80-year history of the award. Although it is imprudent to use the word "lock" at this time of year, I think there are a few safe bets. Marion Cotillard, who played French songbird and drug addict Edith Piaf in La Vie En Rose, would seem to be the safest, even though she is in a foreign-language picture (they always seem to keep room at the table for at least one of these). That the woman who looks like this (she's pictured here) could transform herself into the gnomish Piaf may be all that she needs to impress the nominating committee.

Another safe bet is Julie Christie, as a sufferer of Alzheimer's in Away From Her. This despite the early release of the picture, and that it's a small Canadian film. Christie has been nominated three times before, and won way back in 1965 for Darling. She would nab the "esteemed older actress who still looks great" slot, as well earning points for playing someone with a debilitating illness (and yet still looking great).

On the next tier we have Keira Knightley in Atonement, which has built up a head of steam with great early reviews. If Atonement gets a passel of nominations, expect Knightley, who would nab her second nomination at only 22 years of age, to get swept along for the ride. Also speaking of youngsters, the name Ellen Page has been tossed into the ring for her role as a pregnant teen in Juno, which would seem to be the indie that sits at the grownup table. Page would be the "who?" nominee, which happens with some regularity.

As for the fifth spot, these are the candidates: my bet would be on Angelina Jolie, for A Mighty Heart. Some have dismissed her chances because the film came and went with barely a whisper, but box office is pretty meaningless when it comes to Best Actress (I don't think Blue Sky, which earned Jessica Lange a win in 1994, made even a million dollars). Personality can rule the day, and Jolie did the wig and makeup thing while playing a deadly serious role after kidding around with Tomb Raider and Mr. and Mrs. Smith. Also in the running are Laura Linney for The Savages, who seems to be a placeholder until people actually see the film, Halle Berry for Things We Lost in the Fire, and Jodie Foster for The Brave One, but I'm dubious about her because this film was designed as a box office winner and it has underperformed, as well as being pretty much a routine action film.

Finally there is Cate Blanchett, who seems to be inheriting the mantle that Meryl Streep has occupied for years. No matter what film she is in, Oscar geeks seem to think she will get a nomination. This year she is in two films, Elizabeth: The Golden Age and I'm Not There, the avant-garde Bob Dylan biography. I'm guessing the latter will keep her in play for Supporting Actress, but the former has received some pretty scathing reviews. I think she gets nominated only if some of the above fall by the way side. Of course, Streep herself is in several films this year, as well, most notably in Lions for Lambs.

If Jackrabbit Slim were omnipotent, Keri Russell from Waitress would get nominated, but sadly, this is not the case.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Special Topics in Calamity Physics

It took me about nine months, but I have read all ten of the books that the New York Times Book Review decreed were the best of 2006. I finished with Marisha Pessl's debut novel, Special Topics in Calamity Physics.

Pessl threw down a challenge to herself in her first sentence: "Dad always said a person must have a significant reason for writing out his or her Life Story and expecting anyone to read it." The character writing that statement is Blue Van Meer, a precocious freshman at Harvard, who then proceeds to tell us all about her senior year in high school, when she met a bewitching teacher who, as we are told in the first few pages, hung herself, with Blue finding the body.

The voice of Blue Van Meer dominates this novel like a hurricane force. She is an extremely well-read teen who has traveled the country with her father, an itinerant professor of political science. He teaches at third-rate colleges, and usually only for a semester, before pulling up stakes and moving to the next town. For her senior year, though, he has decided to stay in one place for the whole year--Stockton, North Carolina, where Blue attends a posh academy called St. Gallway's. Right away she is recruited into a small band of snobbish but brilliant students called the Bluebloods by their mentor, the film studies teacher Hannah Schneider. Since we know from the outset that sooner or later Blue will find Hannah swinging from an electrical cord around her neck, there is a sense of mystery and dread leading up to that point.

The early part of this book reminded me of The Secret History, by Donna Tartt, which is also about a group of super-smart teens who end up in a tragic situation. But while Tartt's book was much more serious in tone, Pessl's book is infused with a comic spirit. Blue is a beguiling narrator with an exhaustive knowledge of culture, both high and low. The references come at a shotgun pace, and when one would suffice she gives us three. The structure of the book is set up like a college course curriculum, fully annotated (though usually with completely fictional sources) and each chapter is titled after a work of literature. It becomes kind of a parlor game to see how the chapter will live up to its title.

While the book is engaging and breezy, Pessl occasionally writes as if paid by the word. She doesn't seem to have met a simile she didn't like, almost every sentence containing one. The book also has a few rookie mistakes, such as making declarations like, "This was the day when everything changed." I don't think it's necessary to announce something is about to happen, it should just happen. Perhaps she does this because her narrator is seventeen, but it's still annoying.

About four-fifths of the way through, the book takes a sudden turn, as Blue endeavors to solve the mystery of Hannah's death. It's like being on a merry-go-round that suddenly turns into a roller coaster with a steep drop and hairpin turns. It was quite a page-turner, but a bit over the top, and left some things unresolved (though Pessl includes a final exam at the end where some questions are answered).

On the whole, I recommend this book even with its flaws. I always enjoy reading about academics and advanced-placement students who can rattle off references to Nietzsche, Jane Eyre and L'Avventura. Just make your sure your seat-belt is tightly buckled when you step into the ride.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Anybody But the Yankees

The 2006 Major League Baseball regular season is over, and the eight team tournament is set to begin. In seasons like this one, where the Tigers are not involved (which is most seasons) I slip into a mode which roots for any team but the Yankees. The Indians, who were the rival of the Tigers all season long, thus by default becomes my favorite team, for the moment.

The action really got started last night, with the Rockies winning a thrilling come-from-behind victory over the Padres in a one-game playoff to beat the Padres. I watched until the eighth inning, and with the game tied at six and my eyelids getting heavier and heavier, I baled. I woke up this morning to learn that the game went 13 innings, with the all-time save leader, Trevor Hoffman, blowing the game, allowing the Rockies to score three times in the bottom of the frame and earning the wild card. They will now play the upstart Phillies in one round of the NLDS, while the Cubs will take on the Diamondbacks in the other. I don't have a particularly strong rooting interest in either series. The Cubs certainly are due--they haven't been in a World Series for sixty-two years, and haven't won it all in 99, an unprecedented stretch of futility. I suppose they could surprise the Arizona club, but I don't see it happening, and will pick the D-Backs in four. Maybe after 100 years they'll turn the trick.

The other series, featuring the Phillies and Rockies, are two good feel-good teams (unless you're a Met fan). I'd be fine with either team winning this one. I think the Phillies have the pitching to shut down the Colorado attack, and will win it in five.

As for the American League, the hated Yankees will take on my newly beloved Indians. The Yankees won all six from the Tribe this year, in dominant fashion. As we saw when they played the Tigers last year, that can all go out the window, though. There are some Yankee players who tend to hibernate in recent Octobers, and it will depend on them to get past this round. The Yankee starting staff is suspect after Wang and Pettitte. I can see them getting past the Indians, who have no playoff experience, with smoke and mirrors, though. The Yankees (sadly), in five.

The other series features experience on both sides, the Red Sox and Angels. I have a soft-spot for the Bosox (the enemy of my enemy is my friend) so will root for them here, and I think they'll win this one in four. The Angels didn't play well down the stretch and are a little banged up.

Looking back, in my predictions last year I only got one out of four series right, so my track record is highly suspect. If you are a wagerer it is probably wise to take what I say and go the opposite. Play ball!

Monday, October 01, 2007

In the Valley of Elah

I'll start by saying what this film is not: a devastating excoriation of the U.S.'s involvement in Iraq. The names Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld are never mentioned, neither is Abu Ghraib or any of the other inflammatory touchstone words that have divided this country in the last few years. This came as something as a surprise to me, since before I saw the film I heard writer/director Paul Haggis interviewed on NPR and he described himself as "left of Mao."

What this film is: a well-made, somber whodunit, that tells us how tough if it is to be a combat veteran. I admired this film, but it didn't exactly move me, because it isn't telling us anything new about the psychological damage from war that films going back to The Best Years of Our Lives haven't told us. Haggis, of course, is an incredibly obvious filmmaker. Million Dollar Baby, Flags of Our Fathers, Crash--all scripts that have varying degrees of success, but all about as subtle as a sonic boom.

In the Valley of Elah (the title comes from the Biblical story of David, and is an incredibly forced metaphor) tells the story of Hank Deerfield, played by Tommy Lee Jones. His son is just back from a tour in Iraq, and has gone AWOL. Hank was in the service as well, an MP back in Vietnam. He drives from his home in Tennessee to the base in New Mexico, leaving behind his wife, played by Susan Sarandon. No one on the base seems to know where the son went, so Jones reaches out to the local police, in the person of Charlize Theron as a detective. She tells him it's the military's jurisdiction, but everything changes when his son is found dead--burned and mutilated.

The rest of the film is a rather stale mystery, as Jones and Theron sift through clues to find out what happened to his son. There are a few red herrings, and the standard device of unfolding clues, as a phone expert salvages videos from the son's cell phone. The resolution of the mystery isn't anything more dramatic or clever than a typical episode of NCIS, but admittedly Haggis has bigger fish to fry, and I suspect a crackerjack whodunit was not his primary goal.

Instead Haggis wants us to see the events of this film as a result of the senselessness of war, and here he fails. Like I said, this has been told many times before. All Quiet on the Western Front, the Best Years of Our Lives, Grand Illusion, the list goes on and on. War sucks, we all know it. He's tried to stack the deck by making Jones' protagonist a military man, who probably had no problem supporting the war in Iraq (although he is given no dialogue to indicate that). He's the kind of man who sees a flag flying upside down at a public building and stops to explain to the maintenance man the error of his ways. Jones is very good in this role--his picture could go next to the definition of "taciturn" in the dictionary. Instead of words Jones does remarkable work with his facial expression. In the scene where he finds out what happened to his son, Jones' face is completely devoid of color, withdrawn and haggard, without anger but with profound sorrow. Of course, I'm sure he was aided by makeup and lighting, but I thought it remarkable anyway. An Oscar nomination would be well-deserved.

I think the most interesting character in this film, though, is Theron's detective. Haggis has created a subplot for her. She is a single mother and is constantly belittled by her male colleagues, who accuse her of sleeping her way into the job. She is dedicated, but not a superwoman (she tells her superior, smugly played by Josh Brolin, that she doesn't have a career, she has a job). Theron, who seems to want everyone to forget that she is one of the world's most beautiful women, again deglamorizes herself, her hair a natural nondescript brown, wearing utilitarian clothes from Target. It would be easy to scoff at a glamorous woman going grunge, but I have to admit she's a fine actress and does excellent work here. If this were a mystery novel I would be interested in seeing her character reappear in a series.