Saturday, May 31, 2008
There's no way to make this sound very exciting, but the film is something of a white-knuckler. In those days long-distance trucking was a pretty risky business, with drivers having to go round the clock on rickety equipment. They buy from growers, and then sell at a profit to wholesalers, who are looking to cheat them. Just watching Conte drive down a dark highway, his head bobbing due to lack of sleep, is nerve-wracking. Then, when he arrives in Frisco and faces the crooked buyer, played by Lee J. Cobb, Conte makes one mistake after another. He is distracted by a prostitute, Valentina Cortese, who has been paid by Cobb. He eventually gets his money, but is almost immediately beaten and robbed.
Dassin, who was unrepentant about his communism sympathies, which cost him a Hollywood career, seems to delight sticking it to the establishment. He did so in Brute Force (but not in The Naked City). Thieves' Highway seems to be a cynical indictment of the capitalist system, showing it to be riddled with corruption, chewing up honest guys like Conte. It's also interesting that of the two women in his life, Cortese, the working girl who has been hired as an adversary, and his bourgeois blonde fiancee, played by Barbara Lawrence, it is Cortese who ends up being most loyal to him.
Thieves' Highway is one of those muscular, gritty B-pictures that show how much more care a studio like Fox had in those days, when even their secondary pictures were done with care, precision and artistry, as compared to the secondary stuff they churn out these days, which is only to make a buck, nothing more.
Friday, May 30, 2008
The fourth season of Lost came to a close last night, and I continue to marvel at how it has grabbed hold of my imagination. I couldn't stop thinking about it until I fell asleep, and was still thinking about it when I woke up in the morning, running the various theories through my head, trying to account for the various plot threads and characters. I've never seen a show that was so incredibly detailed, and makes so many cultural references. The two-hour finale had devotees brushing up on the burial of English philosopher Jeremy Bentham and the time-travelling possibilities via the Kasimir effect.
This season was truncated, as it didn't start until January and was hampered by the writer's strike. But it was the first season of the show since it was announced that it had a definite end (I think there are two more half-seasons of about thirteen episodes). This season carried forward the story only about eight days in real time (plus a week that zipped by, after the helpful graphic "One Week Later") but the plot was pushed forward to the present time by a series of flash-forwards, that ingeniously let on who would leave the island, but not precisely how (and more importantly, who wouldn't leave the island, and not precisely why).
As we leave this season, a few major questions loom: we are told that after the "Oceanic Six" are rescued, bad things happen on the island, which is now being ruled by John Locke (who ends up committing suicide (?) and being the mysterious man in the coffin). What happens, and where the island was moved to (in space, or time, or both) will certainly be key next season. Also, the ongoing war between Ben and Charles Widmore over the fate of the island will go on. Ben has come to be perhaps the most important character in this story, as he is sort of the person who represents the island (and he wasn't introduced until halfway through season two). As played by Michael Emerson, he is a magnificent creation, through both writer and actor.
Other questions abound, such as what becomes of Sawyer, Juliet, and three of the "freighter folk" (one of them, Charlotte, made a mysterious comment about being born there). I'm wondering if we will ever get definitive answers about the significance of the numbers, the statue of the four-toed giant, or what ship called The Black Rock was doing in the middle of the island. I have a feeling The Black Rock is a big piece of the puzzle, but we'll see.
As season four ended, Ben told Jack that they all must return to the island, even the corpse of Locke/Bentham. Given that Kate doesn't want to go, and was warned in her dreams by Claire not to take Aaron, it should make for some interesting drama.
Thursday, May 29, 2008
There's a scene in Almost Famous when William Miller's sister (I think it was Zooey Deschanel wasn't it?) tells him, "Listen to Tommy with just a candle burning and you'll see your future." I've never tried that, but that might be more interesting than synching up Dark Side of the Moon with The Wizard of Oz. In any event, Tommy is one of my favorite albums, and I hadn't listened to it in a long while before this past weekend. I didn't listen to it in the dark with a candle burning, but instead walking outside in the bright sunlight. I gleaned nothing about my future.
Tommy was the first rock opera, or, to be an academic stickler, the first to be called a rock opera, as it really isn't an opera (stuffy academicians would call it a "song cycle.") The impetus behind it, which was Pete Townshend's interest in some guru, isn't very interesting to me, in fact the story isn't readily knowable from just listening to the record; it's been sketched in by the film and subsequent interviews, etc. Of course, it's about a kid who's deaf, dumb and blind, hysterically so because he sees something involving his father, who was thought to be killed in a war, and is told that he didn't see it or hear it. He gets abused by a sadistic cousin and a perverted uncle, takes some acid, and then learns that he can play pinball. Once he gains his senses back he becomes a spiritual leader of some sort, but his acolytes turn on him once he has them cover up their eyes, ears and mouths while playing pinball. Religions have some dumb rituals, but that one might take the cake.
What's so good about Tommy is the music. It could be about knitting and it would still be enthralling. The Who were always primarily about the musicianship, whether it be Townshend's guitar, John Entwhistle's thumping bass, Roger Daltrey's soaring vocals, or Keith Moon's barely contained insanity on drums (he gets my vote for greatest rock and roll drummer of all time). The Overture which kicks things off is a four-minute masterpiece, letting us know that we should pay close attention to what comes next, and is also great driving music, which I can attest to. On a drive down to Florida I put Tommy on as I was leaving a motel in Georgia one morning. What better music to listen to to start the day?
There are several other nuggets of gold on this album, particularly "1921," in which Tommy sees either his father getting killed by his mother's lover or vice versa (depending on whether it's the film or the Broadway show), "Christmas," in which Tommy's parents worry about his salvation, and the underrated "Underture," an over-ten minute jazz-like composition that accompanies Tommy on an acid trip courtesy of the Acid Queen. Of course there is Pinball Wizard, which was a hit for Elton John when he was on the top of the pile, and how I first became aware of Tommy (that's not strictly true--I dimly recall some commercial using the "Tommy can you see me" refrain, but for the life of me I can't remember what it was for).
The suite ends with "We're Not Going to Take It," which, coupled with "We Won't Get Fooled Again," forms a stingingly defiant dyad. Townshend was never one to keep his cards close to the vest.
I saw the film many years ago, and have no burning desire to see it again. As usual with Ken Russell, it goes way over the top (I remember Ann-Margret writhing in beans) and plays to worst excesses of rock culture. I never did get to see the Broadway version, which earned Townshend a Tony Award. For some reason I just didn't feel it was necessary. I guess the best way to experience this phenomenon is just to listen to the record, whether in the dark or not.
Wednesday, May 28, 2008
Just the other night I read an article in The New York Review of Books by Michael Tomasky. He's reviewing three books by those who beg to differ with the media-created perception of McCain as some kind of straight-shooting truthteller. His background, beyond the well-publicized stay in the Hanoi Hilton, is largely unknown. He is the son of an admiral, of course, but managed to get into politics in a series of fortuitous circumstances. First of all, his second wife, Cindy (his first marriage ended because of his tomcatting behavior) wed him to a large fortune from a beer distributor and put him a state he had never lived in before that had a propensity for electing Republicans, and was adding a congressional seat after the census. The seat added was in Tucson, which did him no good, but the Phoenix congressman conveniently retired. McCain beat back challenges from competitors who called him a carpetbagger with this: "Listen, pal, I spent twenty-two years in the Navy...We in the military service tend to move a lot....I wish I could have the luxury, like you, of growing up and living and spending my entire life in a nice place like the First District of Arizona, but I was doing other things. As a matter of fact, when I think about it now, the place I lived longest in my life was Hanoi."
Tomasky points out this wasn't exactly true (McCain lived longer in northern Virginia) but point well-taken, and it's one that has served McCain well over the years. Tomasky refers to McCain's career as being "thoroughly laundered in mythology," but there's no argument that he was heroic by enduring a horrible experience as a prisoner of war. But there's also no argument that this experience, whether or not McCain has played the card, has helped his image in the media. Some of McCain's critics explain it as a reporter being charmed by McCain, a very amiable man, and not being able to avoid thinking that while he was sitting in a cell with broken bones they were at Woodstock.
This led to McCain's being something of a hero to the press, and got him the maverick and straight-talk express labels. Covered up to a great extent have been his ethical lapses, such as being one of the Keating Five, and his at times obnoxious displays of temper, such as a time when he called his wife a cunt (in front of several witnesses). Worst of all, though, has been his shameful flip-flopping in an attempt to pander to the Republican base.
Shall we list them? Let's start with the legislation that McCain is best known for--McCain/Feingold, campaign finance reform. Earlier this year McCain announced "he would not abide by primary spending limits he had previously accepted." McCain rarely mentions campaign finance reform anymore, perhaps because the conservatives hate it. Tomasky lists some more flip-flops: the Bush tax cuts (formerly against them, now for them), Roe v. Wade (was against overturning it because it would lead to back-alley abortions, now says it wouldn't bother him, and has praised the appointments of Roberts and Alito, coded language that he would appoint pro-life justices), and no longer supporting rape-and-incest exceptions to the GOP platform plank. McCain's position on abortion is about as strong as Sam Brownback's. Petulant liberal women who say they will vote for McCain instead of Obama as payback for Hillary's defeat should run this around their brains a few times before carrying through that foolish decision.
Finally, McCain is softening on the issue of torture, which he bravely stood against with his own experiences as a backdrop. He has stated he is "satisfied with the infamous Military Commissions Act, which contained provisions that prevented prisoners from challenging the basis of their detention. The bill gave the White House the power to ignore the Geneva Conventions if it wished to."
What McCain is doing, of course, is walking a swaying tightrope: he is trying to woo distrustful conservatives while simultaneously hanging on to independents who were enamored with him since 2000. Like Janus, McCain is presenting two faces and trying to be all things to all voters who might cast a ballot for a Republican. This is particularly tricky considering the lack of popularity that President Bush has. It's currently at twenty-nine percent, but McCain can't win without those twenty-nine percent, so we get comedy like the fund-raiser that barred photographers (McCain and Bush were seen together for a forty-seven seconds, about forty-six seconds longer than McCain would like, I'd warrant).
Tuesday, May 27, 2008
A 1947 release, Brute Force, directed by Jules Dassin, is a tense, no-nonsense prison drama. The prison genre was a common one from the beginning of films, as we learn in the interview done with a criminologist, featured in the extras on the Criterion Collection disc. In the 1930s alone there were over 70 prison films, but not so many after World War II (they morphed into the prisoner-of-war film). Commonly, films featuring prisoners as antagonists were allegories for society at large, as there's not much an audience member likes to see more than someone sticking it to the system, and a prisoner vs. a sadistic guard or warden is one of the easier forms for this to take (perhaps the most recent example is The Shawshank Redemption).
The difference between The Shawshank Redemption and Brute Force, though, is that there is nothing innocent about the prisoners in Brute Force, whereas Tim Robbins was an innocent man in the former. They are, though, gulity of mostly non-violent crimes. The focus is on a group of prisoners in one cell. We get a glimpse of most of them when they were on the outside. One is a mild-mannered accountant who cooked books so he could buy his wife a fur coat. Another was a soldier who ended up killing a civilian in Italy, another is a stock market swindler. Burt Lancaster is their leader, who was a hood but fell in love with a handicapped girl who knows nothing about his life of crime. He wants to get out of the stir so he can be with her when she has an operation.
The antagonist in this picture is a guard, played by Hume Cronyn, and what an antagonist. Cronyn gives a terrific performance of pure sadistic evil. He's quietly menacing--never raising his voice, a meek countenance, but he rules the yard with an iron hand. While he kisses up to a visiting politician who is putting pressure on the spineless warden (Cronyn wants his job) he is also not above planting weapons on prisoners, sending sick ones to work on the "drainpipe," where they will surely die, or giving false information about loved ones to prisoners (in one case this leads to a suicide). The kindly prison doctor, who spends most of his day soused, sums it up when he tells him to his face that he gets drunk on power, and that he doesn't use intelligence or imagination to rise to the top, he merely uses brute force. His most chillin scene is when he turns up the volume on a Victrola playing classical music while he beats a prisoner with a hose to get information out of him. The other guards, cowed by him, listen anxiously outside his office, playing cards and dreading what they have become.
Most of the film follows Lancaster and his comrades planning a breakout, and the last third of the film or so is a white-knuckled playing out of the plan, of course ending with a direct confrontation between Lancaster and Cronyn.
This is a first-rate film, well written, directed, photographed and acted. Look for Yvonne DeCarlo, TV's Lily Munster, in a small role as an Italian woman.
Monday, May 26, 2008
It was perfect weather for a visit to a very pretty part of the country, right on the Hudson River. The Roosevelts had lived in the house they called Spring Wood since 1867, when FDR's father James bought it. In 1882 Franklin was born to James and his second wife, Sarah Delano. It was always his main home, the place that meant the most to him over the years, and it was his idea to open a library on the grounds to the public, which started a tradition that continues today.
The library and museum, perhaps because it was the first one, is on a relatively modest scale, considering that FDR was president for twelve years. Most of the artifacts from his youth, including a bassinet and baby clothes. There are lots of photos, and it's immediately apparent that FDR greatly resembled his father. Once he's president you can zip right through, with a few exhibits on the depression and World War II (including an interactive screen asking you what to do about aiding Great Britain during the blitz). Also, the exhibits are very frank about his disability, as well as mentioning two of the blackest marks on his presidency: the court-packing plan and the interment of Japanese citizens during the war.
The home, Spring Wood, is done by guided tour, and you hear the story of the Roosevelts. Franklin and Eleanor (and Fala the Scottish Terrier) are buried in the rose garden. Out back of the house is a beautiful view of the Hudson Valley.
After leaving there I drove the two miles to Val-Kill Cottage, which was Eleanor Roosevelt's home after FDR died. She never felt comfortable at Spring Wood, perhaps because she was under the thumb of her mother-in-law while she was there (Sarah died in 1941) so after his death, she and the children decided to give it to the government, and she moved to Val-Kill. When I got there wasn't going to be a tour for over an hour, so I decided to move on and save the eight dollar admission fee.
Sometime later this summer I hope to visit another presidential site that I've never gotten to--the Theodore Roosevelt home in Oyster Bay, New York.
Sunday, May 25, 2008
Saturday, May 24, 2008
Friday, May 23, 2008
Thursday, May 22, 2008
Dassin is, sadly, probably best known for being the victim of the blacklist. He was unrepentant communist and was exiled to Europe, where he found some success with films like Rififi, Never on Sunday, and Topkapi (which I hope to view in the next few weeks). But before he was derailed by anti-communist hysteria, he made a few gritty crime dramas: Brute Force, Thieves Highway and The Naked City.
The Naked City, from 1948, is not a noir film, although I'm sure it's been labeled such in convenient bagging. Noir usually takes the viewpoint of an outsider--a criminal or private eye, and owes its style to German Expressionism. The Naked City is the flipside--it is a police procedural, being told from the point of view of the cops, who represent orderliness and comforting blandness, while the criminals are seen as the aberrant viruses that infect a city. And the style is reminiscent of the Italian neo-realists, who used the streets as their soundstages. The Naked City, as we are told in the opening voiceover by producer Mark Hellinger, was completely shot in New York City, which at that time was a novelty.
The film opens with Hellinger telling us we are seeing a different type of film, which is clear when the credits are spoken rather than presented graphically. After some shots of typical New Yorkers going about their day (including the characters we will end up focusing on) a murder is witnessed: a young woman is drowned in her bathtub. The detective assigned to the case is played by Barry Fitzgerald, with his typical Irish twinkle, and he's assisted by Don Taylor as a young detective. Most of the film is devoted to the considerable shoe-leather expended by the cops as they chase down leads. One of their prime suspects is a young man played by Howard Duff who has a habit of telling whopping lies. Eventually they find their man, and things wrap up after a spectacular chase across the Williamsburg bridge. The film's most famous line is its last one: "There are eight million stories in the naked city. This has been one of them."
As police thrillers go, this is a good film with some wobbly moments. Fitzgerald, who is certainly a capable actor, really pushes the leprechaunish qualities of his character. It is interesting, though, that he is not some Sherlock Holmes super-sleuth. In fact, two of the biggest leads they get he initially tells his men not to pursue, but after they press him a bit he gives in, suggesting that every man on the force has a say. We also get some humanizing scenes, such as when Taylor goes home and his wife urges him to give their son a whipping for running out into the street, but he is reluctant to do so. Perhaps because violence can be part of his job he would rather not use it at home.
The action drifts into overripe melodrama every once in a while and there are some extraordinary coincidences, such as when the cops are searching for an acrobatic man who plays the harmonica, and Taylor wanders into a wrestling gym and after asking "Do you know anyone who plays the harmonica?" being told, "Sure! Willie the harmonica player!" I'm also not so sure that it was so easy then, or even now, to immediately identify jewelry as being stolen by merely
checking a list on a piece of paper. Though the murder in the opening scene is rather brutal, the rest of the film has a kind of fuddy-duddy stuffiness to it, the kind of pseudo-documentary style common to industrial and educational films.
Still, there's no questioning the skill in the photography, by William Daniels, which won an Oscar, or the direction by Dassin, who keeps things moving with the pace that led to the phrase a "New York" minute.
Wednesday, May 21, 2008
Tuesday, May 20, 2008
As the title suggests, this is the story of the Hollywood division of the LAPD. Wambaugh follows about a dozen cops on the beat, their kind-hearted sergeant, and a handful of detectives in episodic fashion. It is apparent that Wambaugh has collected weird tales over the years and thrown them into a literary soup. His favorites seem to be about Hollywood crazies, especially those character who lurk outside Graumann's Chinese Theater. We get bizarre instances such as a guy in a Darth Vader costume pulled over on his bicycle, a fight between Batman and Spider-Man, and a homeless man who can defecate at will.
The cops are an odd assortment. There are surfing patrolmen who are known only as Flotsam and Jetsam, a female cop who has to use a breast pump on breaks, another who aspires to become an actor, and another who is a serious hypochondriac. They all feel besieged by the climate of the times, when they are under suspicion by authorities for racial profiling and corruption, and feel they can't do their jobs. It's tough to be too sympathetic of LA cops while the Rodney King video is still a memory, but Wambaugh does present cops as interesting characters with foibles just like anyone else.
The one plot threading through the book concerns a pair of Eastern European jewel thieves and a pair of "tweakers" (crystal meth addicts). Wambaugh is a little too fond of milking laughs out of the thieves' Boris-and-Natasha syntax, and the tweaker is one of the more foul characters I've read about in a while, with literally no redeeming qualities. Wambaugh edges into Carl Hiaasen territory with his villains, making them stupid and comically inept.
For the most part, though, this is a breezy read with some nice laughs and a satisfying conclusion. The all-knowing sergeant, nicknamed the Oracle, describes police work as the funnest job possible, and while I can't quite imagine that's true, Wambaugh does his best to convince me.
Monday, May 19, 2008
This year Philip Roth turned 75, and was feted at one of those "congratulations on living that long" ceremonies. His first book, a novella titled Goodbye, Columbus, is almost fifty (in an essay in the New York Times I read that it was published in 1958, but that appears to be in error). Roth is the most awarded living American author, starting with his debut, which won the National Book Award. I read it again last night.
It is the story of a summer romance told from the viewpoint of Neil Klugman, a college graduate who is biding time in a boring job in the public library. He lives in Newark with his aunt and uncle who are "old world." One fine day, as his cousin's guest at a country club, he meets Brenda Pitimkin, the pretty daughter of a successful dealer in kitchen sinks. The Pitimkins have roots in the Jewish neighborhood in Newark, but with financial success they have moved into the affluent suburbs, or as Neil describes it, one-hundred-and-eighty feet higher in elevation, where the summers are cooler.
Although on the surface this is a bittersweet love story, looking deeper reveals themes that would mark Roth's future work, namely, his examination of the assimilation of Jews in American society. Throughout the book Neil and Brenda, though hot for each other, have a mutual suspicion of their upbringing. Neil can never quite get over the lifestyle of the Pitimkins, most pointedly expressed with Brenda's brother Ron, who was a basketball star at Ohio State. One of Ron's prized possessions is his "Columbus record," which he got upon graduation. It is one of those cornball evocations of midwestern campus life: "The leaves had begun to turn and redden on the trees. Smoky fires line Fraternity Row, as pledges rake the leaves and turn them to misty haze." To Neil, who lives in a city where people sit on the stoop, it must seem like the moon.
Eventually the book turns on some sexual politics. Neil wants Brenda to get a diaphragm, which was a dicey proposition for a single girl in the fifties. This is for Neil's pleasure, which he makes no bones about. Well, Roth has never been accused of being ahead of the feminist curve. Brenda protests, but eventually gives in, but in a bit of passive-aggressiveness leaves her telltale evidence of non-virginity in her dresser drawer, where her mother finds it, dooming the relationship.
As with most of Roth's work, there is a thread of comedy through the entire thing, in the tradition of Jewish humor that goes back to tummlers and up to Lenny Bruce and Woody Allen. The hard consonants of Jewish names have always provided fodder for humor (as discussed in Neil Simon's The Sunshine Boys, with the explanation that words with a K are funny). "Brenda among them was elegantly simple, like a sailor's dream of a Polynesian maiden, albeit one with prescription sun glasses and the last name of Pitimkin." There is also a very funny sequence when Neil is babysitting Brenda's ten-year-old sister, who is allowed to win all games. He decides to bury her in a game of ping-pong.
The most notable comedy is the Yiddish-flavored syntax of Neil's Aunt Gladys, who is something of a forerunner of the mother of all Jewish mothers, Sophie Portnoy. Gladys is one of those Jewish woman of literature who implore young men to eat and stick to one's own kind, and anyone putting on anything approaching airs incurs from her a "fancy schmancy."
Another thread of the book is a young black boy who visits the library to repeatedly look through a book of Gaugin's paintings. A co-worker with casually racist sentiments is suspicious of the boy, and frequently mentions how expensive the book is, but Neil has a more liberal attitude, and encourages the boy. They look at the paintings together, of Tahitian maidens frolicking in the surf, and the boy succinctly puts it, "That's the fuckin' life." Neil can only agree.
Sunday, May 18, 2008
Each kid has particular cross to bear. Will is a member of a strict religious community that is something like the Amish, in that he is not allowed to watch TV and is discouraged from participating in anything worldly. He does, however, go to a school that has all sorts of kids, and meets Lee Carter, who has no friends and is constantly in trouble. Lee lives with his older brother, since his mother is off in Spain, but the brother barely pays attention to him except when Lee has to wait on him hand and foot. Lee's passion is movies, and has his eyes on winning a film contest for young people. He engages Will as his stuntman, even though he seems to have never seen a movie before he watches Lee's bootleg copy of First Blood. Will, who has a hyperactive imagination (he has drawn pictures on the pages of his Bible and makes flip-books) is bitten by the bug and lies to his mother to help Lee make his film.
Soon, with the arrival of a French exchange student who all the English kids think is maximum cool, the project gets too big, and Lee resents that control is slipping out of his hands. The two friends get estranged, and Will is continually getting into trouble with his mother.
The film, for the most part, is charming and sweet. It never really moves into high gear, maintaining a slight presence that seems designed to not offend more than to entertain. The comedy veers from British drollery to slapstick, which is problematic when the kids are actually put into danger toward the end of the film. I did smile at how some of the kids seemed to be naturals for the film industry, saying things like, "Hurry up, we're losing light!"
The two leads, Bill Milner and Will Poulter, are engaging child actors, and do an effective job of expressing how imaginations can assuage the normal horrors of adolescence. This film would have succeeded more I think, had the screenplay not been so formulaic and had some more of the whimsy from the kids it was about.
Saturday, May 17, 2008
Friday, May 16, 2008
Very often I hear, especially from people in neighboring states, of the oddity that in New Jersey you can not pump your own gas. Along with Oregon, we are the only people in the country who can not do that, and I'm frequently at a loss to explain why. I had that conversation again today with a co-worker who lives in Maryland, so spent some time online trying to find out why.
Turns out the law was passed way back in 1949, when it might have made some sense. But why in god's name hasn't this law been ashcanned years ago, like laws against buying liquor on Sundays? There seems to be a passionate resistance to it, and it's kind of baffling. There is an organization called the New Jersey Gas Retailers that is deadset against it, and have two arguments, both of which define the word specious. One, it's for safety reasons, and two, it saves jobs.
Safety reasons? Anyone who can not figure out how to use a gas pump has no business operating a vehicle. It's easier than operating a dishwasher. The spokesman for the gas retailers says that people may pump the gas in the wrong hole. What other hole is there? The tailpipe? And as for safety, is there a rash of people going up in flames from dropping a cigarette into a puddle of petrol in the other 48 states? This is infantilizing at its worst.
As for the job issue, well, I suppose that could be true, but how many tears were shed when elevator operators and switchboard operators lost their jobs due to technological advances? Besides, there's a way around that. How about offering both self and full service? Many states do this, and have to by law because of people with disabilities. If you want someone else to pump your gas because it's cold out or you just don't feel like getting out of the car, you can choose full service, but if you'd rather get in and out quickly and have mastered the complex steps required to pump your own gas, you could that too. The price for both should be the same. Just because some people like to be catered to like pashas shouldn't rule out the possibility that those of who want to help ourselves shouldn't be able to.
I would always choose to pump my own. When I'm driving out of state and fill up it's a treat, like getting a substitute teacher who doesn't have a severe set of arcane rules. From my reading, though, neither New Jersey or Oregon are likely to switch, even if it meant lower gas prices. That's just nuts.
Thursday, May 15, 2008
Wednesday, May 14, 2008
Tuesday, May 13, 2008
Monday, May 12, 2008
Bolano is a writer well-known in Latin American circles. He died in 2003 at the age of fifty, and founded a movement called infrarealism. Slowly his works have been released in the English-speaking world, and The Savage Detectives is considered by many to be his masterpiece.
The book has an unusual structure. It is bookended by the diary entries of a young man in Mexico City. He is a sometime student who becomes enamored of a circle of poets who call themselves the "visceral realists." The two ringleaders are Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima. This section is a lot of fun, as the narrator has some erotic adventures and the Bohemian slackers argue about poetry, drink, and sell dope. The section ends with Belano and Lima rescuing a streetwalker from her murderous pimp and heading into the Sonora desert to find a female poet who was in a similar movement some fifty years earlier.
The middle section, which is some 400 pages long, is a quilt of oral histories from dozens of characters describing their encounters with Belano and Lima, covering twenty years. The witnesses' accounts range from Mexico to Barcelona to Paris to Israel to Liberia. Some of these accounts are short stories unto themselves, such as an Englishwoman remembering driving across Europe in a van full of hitchhikers, or a woman professor in Mexico City hiding out from a campus siege by police in the ladies' room, or an attorney with a fondness for Latin recalling Belano when he was a camp attendant rescuing a child from a crevasse, but would end up having an affair with the lawyer's daughter. Some of these are quite funny, such as the story about Belano challenging a critic to a duel, and the two clash swords on a beach as their incredulous seconds look on, and some of them are dramatic or sorrowful, such as the experiences of journalists in war-torn Africa.
The only two characters we don't hear from are Belano and Lima themselves. Instead we form our perception of them through others. It's sort of like the five blind men and the elephant, only in this instance it's forty-some people. If the similarity of the name isn't enough to give it away, Belano is based on the author himself, and Lima on his best friend Mario Gonzalez. They are like the Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty of Mexico, and this sprawling narrative does recall the best work of the Beats.
The third portion of the book resumes the diary, as Belano and Lima track down the poetess in the desert while the pimp is on their tail. It certainly is no coincidence that the first names of the two characters, Arthur and Ulysses, are names from literature of characters who on quests, as these two are wandering in the desert in search of something without knowing quite why, although when they find it it ends up saving them.
The translation is by Natasha Wimmer, and it is masterful considering how difficult it must have been, given the vernacular and also the excessive use of poetic terms of art. It should be noted that a working knowledge of Latin-American writers would help, as at times they are listed for several paragraphs. I wasn't quite sure who were real and who were fictional, although I was helped by knowing who Octavio Paz is (the Nobel laureate is the kind of poet the visceral realists hate).
This is not a book for the beach (unless it is a Mexican beach), as it takes a considerable amount of attention, trying to keep all the characters straight. It wouldn't do well to stop this book and try to start it again some days later. In fact, the best way to absorb this book would probably be to read it twice, but that's something most people don't have the luxury to do.
Sunday, May 11, 2008
Kazan had already made Gentleman's Agreement, but wanted to prove he could be a visually interesting director and not just a stage director working in film. He studied Orson Welles and John Ford films, and from the opening scene it's clear that he has stepped up to the plate: the camera pans from a night shot of rain-soaked streets (a noir staple) to a balcony, with music in the background. A man stands on the balcony, wiping his head. We then cut to a poker game (a foreshadowing of A Streetcar Named Desire, also shot in New Orleans). What follows is a series of impeccable scenes, including one extremely long take involving men chasing a man across railroad yard, complete with a train passing, that doesn't end until the chased man is shot to death.
If you ever see this film, pay attention to how many long takes there are. Kazan shoots them in two ways--moving the camera, or having it sit stationary in a room and letting characters wander in and out of frame, or move from background to foreground and back again.
All of this is a bit more interesting than the plot, which involves Widmark realizing that the man killed in the opening scenes has plague, and warns the police that the killers must be found before the disease spreads. He is teamed with a crusty police captain, played by Paul Douglas, and of course the two men come to a begrudging respect for each other. Also of note in the cast are Zero Mostel and Jack Palance (here billed as Walter Jack Palance, in his film debut) as the two hoodlums on the loose, and Barbara Bel Geddes as Widmark's wife. Fans of the old Lassie show will recognize Tommy Rettig as Widmark's son.
In the grand scheme of things this was a minor picture for Kazan, a transitional one, as the commentary track describes it. It doesn't really have a political agenda, and coming between Gentleman's Agreement and Streetcar, it can be excused that it's not particularly well-remembered. But it does show sings of what was come in both Streetcar and On the Waterfront.
Saturday, May 10, 2008
After seeing the film it’s easy to see what Mamet was going for–his main character embodies much of what has characterized Mamet’s career as a director. Chiwetel Ejiofor plays an instructor of ju-jitsu who is a purist, unconcerned with the glitz of the fast-growing mixed martial arts world. He follows the code of the art, like a modern-day samurai. I know practically nothing about ju-jitsu or mixed martial arts, so it was interesting to take a tour of those worlds. Mamet must have been lured by the concept of the integrity of the sport butting heads with the gaudy media show, much like the sordid world of boxing, that it’s become.
Ejiofor’s character, Mike Terry, is a great creation. He teaches at an academy that struggles to remain afloat financially. His wife, Alice Braga, her eye on the bottom line, is losing her patience. When Ejiofor comes to the rescue of a Hollywood star (Allen) in a barfight, he is rewarded with a job as a co-producer on a war picture. But Mamet, turning a gimlet eye on Hollywood, shows that dealing with Hollywood types is like dancing with the devil, and Ejiofor finds himself in a situation where his way of life comes to a severe test.
This is a terrific picture, smartly-written and well-performed, especially by Ejiofor. At a certain point toward the end I felt my admiration ebbing, as it appeared it was going to surrender to the conventions of the sports film, but Mamet and his stand-in character had more surprises for me. The very ending was a little over the top, but satisfying.
Mamet uses many of his stock company, such as Joe Mantegna, Ricky Jay, Rebecca Pidgeon and David Paymer. He effectively uses Tim Allen, who’s probably made more bad films than anyone in recent memory. I also liked Emily Mortimer as an emotionally fragile attorney who allows herself to be tutored in the ways of ju-jitsu. But it is Ejiofor who is the emotional center of this film. Coincidentally, I happened to see the film Serenity last night, in which Ejiofor plays a villain who kicks ass with flying fists. How interesting that this actor, who was so good in Dirty Pretty Things, among other films, would also seem to be the kind of guy you’d love to have accompany you on a walk through a bad neighborhood.
Friday, May 09, 2008
Thursday, May 08, 2008
I start, of course, with Kiss of Death. This was Widmark's star-making turn, for which he received an Oscar nomination and spent much of the rest of his career trying to live down. He memorably inhabited psychotic killer Tommy Udo, who had a hyena-like cackle and a penchant for pushing wheelchair-bound old ladies down staircases.
Kiss of Death is a solid if unspectacular example of film noir directed by Henry Hathaway. As with many films of the age, it is awash in sociology. Victor Mature plays Nick Bianco, a career criminal who has two small children. When he's pinched after a jewelry-store robbery, he's offered a deal by the well-meaning D.A. (Brian Donlevy) if he gives up his compatriots. Bianco, however, lives by the code of omerta, and goes to jail. While incarcerated, though, his wife commits suicide and he rethinks his allegiance to the mob, who had promised him she would be taken care of.
Bianco is pushed by the D.A. to get the goods on the sinister killer Udo, whom he had befriended while in Sing Sing. This leads to a showdown in an Italian restaurant, with Bianco ready to make the ultimate sacrifice to save his kids.
Hathaway has crafted a few excellent scenes, particularly the robbery that opens the film, when the thieves are making their escape by taking an elevator, sweating as it stops on each floor. There's also a great scene in the restaurant in the end, when Udo spots Bianco through an opening in a curtain and approaches with a kind of leopard-like stealth. Some of the script, perhaps because it is ham-strung by the production code, takes a soggy approach toward Bianco, giving him religious overtones and tilting the contrasts a little too much toward black and white when the story asks for shades of gray. However, the most famous scene in the film, when Udo pushes the old lady down the stairs, remained and is justifiably memorable. Even today it is a jarring example of sociopathic behavior.
The film was shot largely on location around New York City, including the Tombs, the Chrysler building, and Sing Sing prison. A few other things of note: it is narrated by a woman (Coleen Gray), which was a rarity for noir films and a young Karl Malden plays a police detective.
In addition for being known as Widmark's striking introduction to film audiences, it also is one of Victor Mature's finest performances. Mature would go on to be something of a joke in Hollywood, starring in sandal-and-toga pictures as a muscleman. This film and his turn as Doc Holliday in John Ford's My Darling Clementine are evidence that he was a better actor that his legacy suggests.
Wednesday, May 07, 2008
There's certainly nothing wrong with the inclination. The Cherry Orchard has been done with black actors in the roles of serfs. But what Mann has done here takes some hubris. Let's face it--for all of Mann's gifts, she is no Chekhov, and something has been definitely lost in translation. I reread the play today after seeing the production last night and some suspicions were confirmed: the magic and poetry of Chekhov's language got left by the side of the road.
Tuesday, May 06, 2008
Of course I am old enough to have been around while McCartney was still a Beatle. My dad was hip enough (he's only twenty years older than I am) to bring home a few Beatle records, and I played those incessantly and even bought a few of my own, but that was after they had called it quits. My dad also bought a copy of one of McCartney's first solo efforts, Ram (my dad loved Uncle Albert, as do I). I also got a copy of Red Rose Speedway for Christmas one year, and though that record is pretty awful in retrospect I didn't know any better and I played it over and over again.
When I started buying records in earnest, about 1974, it was in the forty-five format, and the first one I remember buying was the single Band on the Run. That was a huge seller for McCartney and Wings, and the album had several memorable songs, including Jet. He also had recorded the theme song for a James Bond film, Live and Let Die, and that was one of my early purchases (the combination of McCartney and Bond was quite an elixir for me, those were two of my greatest passions). Interestingly enough, I never did buy that album, though I did get a forty-five for Jet, which is still one of my favorite songs from the decade.
In those days, with no Internet, I had no idea what records were being released or when. If I got wind of a new McCartney record it was akin to being given a jolt of electricity--I had to go out and get the new record. I remember reading about his next upcoming release, Venus and Mars. By now I was buying albums, and I didn't waste much time in getting it. Again, in the rearview mirror of thirty years this was not a good record, but back then it might as well have been Mozart to me. This album was shortly followed by Wings at the Speed of Sound, which had two big hits: Silly Love Songs and Let 'Em In (my mom used to love to sing along to that one when it came on the car radio).
The next release after that was Londontown. By now Wings was just McCartney, his wife Linda, and Denny Laine. I was about seventeen, and starting to realize that Paul's best work was far behind him. I remember distinctly being at a party and talking about the Beatles with some girl that I liked. She was a big Beatle fan but was openly disdainful of the direction McCartney had taken. She sneeringly intoned the overly catchy "With a Little Luck," which was the hit single from Londontown, clearly indicating she thought it was drivel. Classic rock was giving way to new wave and punk. Wings was bubblegum pop.
Londontown was the last new McCartney release I would ever buy. I guess he's had quite a few records since then (I know his latest was some sort of Starbucks-related venture) but I got off the train that day in Christie Rimbach's basement when my childhood infatuation with him succumbed to the harsh realities of adulthood. I do have a copy of Wings Greatest Hits, which is a joy to listen to, and includes Band on the Run, Jet, Live and Let Die, Uncle Albert, Another Day, Silly Love Songs and all the other hits that are firmly rooted in my adolescence.