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Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Oscar Preview: Best Actress

It's autumn and the prestige pictures are starting to be released, and have seen by many at film festivals. The names of potential Oscar nominees sprout on Oscar-ninny Web sites like bamboo shoots. As usual, this year the Best Actress contenders are fairly easy to call, as there aren't that many. There are some familiar names (but no Cate or Kate this year) and some newcomers on the short-list.

I see three actresses with virtual locks for nominations. They include the most nominated performer of all time, Meryl Streep, for her luminous portrayal of Julia Child in Julie and Julia. It would be Streep's sixteenth nomination, a growing total that is just mind-boggling. She will have twenty-five percent more nominations than her next competitor, Katharine Hepburn, and before the age of sixty!

I also see two new names as being near mortal locks. Carey Mulligan, a young British actress, has been getting all sorts of terrific buzz for An Education. This category is kind to out-of-nowhere actresses, especially those from the British Isles. Her situation reminds me of Julie Christie in 1965 for Darling.

The third sure-thing is Gabourey Sidibe for Precious. This film, about an overweight teenage black girl in the inner city who suffers from parental abuse seems like a natural for award consideration. I'm not sure the film itself will get nominated, as it seems like it may be too gritty for the rarefied air of Best Picture, but Sidibe's Cinderella story-line will surely get her a nomination.

In the next tier are three actresses, two of whom are familiar Oscar competitors. Every five years, like some sort of Hollywood cicada, Hilary Swank emerges with a high-profile picture. She won both times, in '99 and '04, and she looks to be back this year with Amelia, a splashy biopic about the legendary aviatrix. Interestingly, each time Swank wins she beats Annette Bening, who also seems to be on a five-year cycle. She's back this year in Rodrigo Garcia's Mother and Child. If these two don't take the last two slots, it could go to Abbie Cornish, who shines in Bright Star.

Of course there are always surprises, and many times this category has performances in foreign languages. The two actresses who could sneak in are Penelope Cruz in Pedro Almodovar's Broken Embraces or Audrey Tatou in the title role of Coco Before Chanel. As last year's nomination for Melissa Leo shows, actresses from very small indie pictures can also break into this category, and two names getting some attention are Robin Wright Penn for The Private Lives of Pippa Lee or Michelle Monaghan for Trucker.

Speaking of Cruz, she is also in the cast of the musical Nine, one of five women in the cast who are Oscar winning actresses (the others are Sophia Loren, Judi Dench, Nicole Kidman and Marion Cotillard). I would imagine that most of these roles are too small for the lead category, but we'll see.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Roman Polanski

I read a few movie Web sites, and the last few days they've been hot with rhetoric regarding the arrest in Switzerland of Roman Polanski to be extradited to the U.S. Of course he fled the country back in 1978 after copping a plea for having sex with a thirteen-year-old-girl (the original charge was rape) and has not been here since then.

The level of vitriol on both sides of the argument has been extreme, and it's kind of fascinating to examine where the animosity comes from. My opinion is that Polanski should be extradited back to Los Angeles, and then given a commuted sentence. I don't relish the prospect of him spending time in jail, especially since the victim has chosen to forgive him.

However, I'm perplexed by the level of passion for those who are defending him. There are lot of disturbing elements to this. There are those, like journalist Jeffrey Wells, who think that since he's an "art god" (a ridiculous term) he should be cut some slack. There's also the argument that he's already suffered enough, and that his difficult life--growing up during the Nazis, and the murder of his wife by the Manson family--are extenuating circumstances. A phalanx of Hollywood types have signed a petition declaring their outrage over the matter, including being upset that Polanski was nabbed while going to a film festival. Apparently they feel that film festivals should be some sort of sanctuary.

All of this rankles me to no end. In none of their protestations do they acknowledge that Mr. Polanski is a child rapist. His troubles are no excuse for drugging and raping a 13-year-old girl, and time does not diminish his actions. There is no statute of limitation involved--that involves the state filing charges against him, not the distance of time lapsed after his plead. His crime was not victimless--it wasn't a pot bust. There is no moral equivocation here. What he did was despicable and against the law, and he plead guilty for it.

The victim has forgiven him, and I think that means a lot when it comes to sentencing, but it is meaningless when it comes to the prosecution of the case, which is Polanski vs. Los Angeles. I have no beef with a district attorney who feels burned by his flight. They have an open case on the books, and see the guy living the privileged life of a hot-shot director in Europe. I'd want to get him, too. But then we have people like Jonathan Rosenbaum calling this a "lynch mob," which is defecating all over the memory of those who really were lynched (no one is calling for Polanski's hanging). A particularly louche segment of the French elite are also aghast, including Bernard-Henri Levy, who calls Polanski's crime a "youthful mistake." He was 44!

I'm also fascinated by the Polanski defenders who are women. I'm not saying that all women have to tote a party line, but when Awards Daily's Sasha Stone comments on how the young girl should have been more careful, I really have to wonder what's in Ms. Stone's head, and recommend she watch The Accused again. Thankfully there are feminists who see this much more clearly, including Kate Harding, who wrote forcefully on Salon and Jezebel.

Again, I have no axe to grind against Polanski. I have seen some of his movies since 1978, and have no problem with him winning an Oscar. I just think he should be treated the same as anyone else. Actions have repercussions, and his standing in the film community shouldn't count for anything. He hasn't paid for what he has done, and he should.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Bright Star

Bright Star, which tells the brief story of the romance between poet John Keats and his neighbor, Fanny Brawne, gets off to a stuffy, Masterpiece Theater sort of start, but the accumulating emotion, centered around his untimely death, crept up on me, and made the film a very rewarding experience.

Written and directed by Jane Campion, the film is set in the years 1818 to 1820. Keats (Ben Whishaw), in his early twenties, struggles with poverty as he pursues his calling as a poet. He relies on the generosity of his friend Charles Brown (Paul Schneider), also a poet. Brawne (Abbie Cornish) is from the middle-class, with a younger brother and sister, and excels as a seamstress. The act of stitching, whether of Brawne's threads or Keats' words, is a prevalent theme throughout the film.

Keats has limited renown and less money, so a marriage with Brawne is out of the question. Brown and Brawne share a mutual disdain, which makes their housing situation difficult when the Brawne family move into the same house with Brown and Keats. The center section of the film sags a bit when we get different iterations of how unfair it all is that though they love each other, it's just not to be between our two lovebirds.

The final act, though, is very moving. When Keats stumbles in after getting soaked in the rain, the savvy viewer will get that "uh-oh" feeling, even if they don't know their literary history. Watching the principles come to grips with the inevitable is exquisite drama, and when Fanny's mother (Kerry Fox) acquiesces to their engagement it would take a stone heart not to be affected.

Given that her movie is about a poet who used vivid natural imagery, Campion's film is something of a visual poem. There are exquisite scenes from all four seasons, with abundant uses of natural beauty (the first line of Keats we hear in the film is "A thing of beauty is a joy forever"). There are some remarkable shots: a servant in a kitchen, looking like something out of Vermeer; Fanny leaning back on her bed, flush with the excitement of love, a curtain billowing out of a window before her; a room full of butterflies; a long shot of three figures stalking angrily across a meadow. Full credit should be given to the cinematographer, Greig Fraser.

Cornish dominates the film. At first she is like a Jane Austen heroine, bristlingly ahead of her time, but then playing two basic notes: pining for John Keats, and grieving for him. Despite these limitations, she excels. She reminded me a lot of Charlize Theron, but without the self-consciousness. Her scene of anguish after learning of Keats' death is draining to watch. She will certainly be on the short list of Oscar hopefuls.

Whishaw is also fine, playing a consumptive genius without sentimentality and fully-shaded. One can really believe he is a poet, too. There's a great moment for English majors when he's called upon to recite a poem and responds with "When I have fears I may cease to be," and then can't remember it (this was at a time when people recited poetry for amusement, a charming thing that almost makes up for the abysmal health conditions). But the best performances may be by two supporting players, Schneider and Fox. Schneider, almost unrecognizable from his current role on TV's Parks and Recreation, plays Brown as a brash, bearish man who is protective of Keats but lacking in tact. When the arc of his character is complete, and he realizes he has failed his friend, Schneider nails the scene brilliantly. Fox, who has less to do, is an integral player in that it is she that sets the tone of John and Fanny's relationship, and when she changes the film changes with her.

A final note to complain about boorish movie audiences: over the closing credits Whishaw recites "Ode on a Nightingale." Nevertheless, patrons at the theater I attended stood up and put their coats on, chatting loudly, their rudeness on full display. And these were not teenagers, but respectable Princeton citizens of a certain age. Another reason why I'm watching more and more films at home.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Abbey Road

This week forty years ago (September 26 in the UK and October 1 in the U.S.) Abbey Road was released. It was the last album that the Beatles recorded (Let It Be, though released later, was recorded earlier). My father probably picked it up very quickly upon its release, and I still have the vinyl disc, and of course a CD version (but I do not have the remastered one--my pocketbook dictates I have to draw the line somewhere). How many times have I listened to it? Could it be a thousand?

Gun to my head, Abbey Road is probably my favorite rock and roll record of all time, though it isn't laid out that way. It doesn't have a multitude of hit singles, and instead is dominated on side one by a strange and eerie John Lennon composition, and on side two by a series of medleys, snatches of song that together add up to a brilliant conclusion to the Fab Four's recording career. After the rancor of the Let It Be sessions, the boys wanted to go out in the old style, and they succeeded magnificently.

For one thing, Abbey Road has the best contributions by George Harrison and Ringo Starr of their Beatle careers. In fact, it isn't pushing it too hard to say that Harrison's "Something" and "Here Comes the Sun" are the best two songs he ever wrote. As for Starr, his charming "Octopus's Garden" is by far his best Beatle song, an easy victory in that he only wrote two songs (the lamentable "Don't Pass Me By" is the other). "Something" only trails "Yesterday" as the Beatle song with the most cover versions, and no less an authority that Frank Sinatra called it the greatest love song ever written (even if he did err and also call it the best Lennon and McCartney composition). "Here Comes the Sun" remains one of the most uplifting songs from the rock era, a joyous celebration of life from the most spiritual of Beatles.

Lennon's contributions include the opening track "Come Together," which has many interpretations but it is probably simply a typically acerbic and sardonic self-portrait. His most daring song is the one that closes side one--"I Want You (She's So Heavy)," a dirge-like explication of lust that borrows from acid-rock styles and includes a chilling vocal, spooky synthesizer effects that suggest wind from the caverns of Hades, and a sinister guitar riff that continues on until the song reaches well over seven minutes--and then it stops, suddenly. I remember talking to a guy way back in high school who said he would listen to the song with his head against the speaker, and when the song ended he felt like his brain had exploded.

McCartney offers his typical style on side one with "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" and "Oh, Darling." The former is one of his retro music hall songs (Lennon disdainfully referred to them as "granny music," and refused to participate in the recording of "Maxwell"). A cheerful ditty about a homicidal maniac, it was a big favorite of mine when I was eight, but no so much anymore, but it's still irresistible. "Oh, Darling" is a pastiche of New Orleans' blues, with McCartney successfully employing his screaming vocal technique learned from Little Richard.

Side two, after "Here Comes the Sun," is basically a long medley, starting with "Because," which Lennon wrote using chords from Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata. That segues into "You Never Give Me Your Money," which I find to the richest composition on the record. McCartney starts it off with a nursery rhyme-type complaint about finances, but it morphs into something else, with enigmatic snippets of lyrics that are strangely moving: "One sweet dream/Pack up the car, get in the limousine/Soon we'll be away from here, step on the gas and wipe that tear away/One sweet dream came true today."

After "The Sun King," with its amalgamation of Spanish and Italian (plus a Liverpudlian phrase, "chick-a-ferdy"), comes two songs Lennon later referred to as "crap I wrote in India": "Mean Mr. Mustard" and "Polythene Pam." They are cartoonish profiles but toe-tappingly pleasing. Then comes the final medley, a sweeping end to the Beatles' career. It starts with "Golden Slumbers," a lullaby with lyrics by English poet Thomas Dekker. This segues into "Carry That Weight," a song McCartney wrote with pointed lyrics, if one considers the context (both Lennon and Harrison thought it referred to the weight they would carry by deciding to break up). And then, appropriately enough, comes "The End," the last song all four Beatles recorded together. It is almost an encapsulation of their career, with the simple mantra, "Love you," hearkening back to the Beatlemania days, and then including instrumental solos (including Ringo's only drum solo) and finally McCartney's poignant farewell: "And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make."

But of course that wasn't the end. In one of the first examples of a hidden track, fourteen seconds go by before there is one last twenty-three second song, "Her Majesty," a throwaway ditty of McCartney's. The story is that originally it was to be included between "Mean Mr. Mustard" and "Polythene Pam" (the opening chord of "Her Majesty" is the end of "Mean Mr. Mustard") but McCartney didn't like it and told the recording engineer to burn it. A prime directive of never throwing anything out from Beatles recordings existed, and it ended up spliced to the end of the album. McCartney liked the way it sounded (I've heard the other Beatles did not agree) and the rest is history. Perhaps it's appropriate that the record ends with a bad joke.

In addition to being a musical masterpiece, the album cover is one of the most iconographic in all of rock. It contains lots of Paul is Dead clues, and made a tourist destination out of a typical London zebra crossing (when I visited, I made the pilgrimage as part of a Beatles tour, and somewhere in a photo album in my closet is a picture of me crossing that road). The car on the cover (with the license plate number of 28IF, which any Beatle fanatic worth his salt knows) is in the Volkswagen museum.

Friday, September 25, 2009

1959: The Year Everything Changed

Here were are in 2009, and as we Americans are wont to do, eyes turn back to years in multiples of ten. I'm certainly guilty of that on this blog (it's an easy way to come up with ideas), and I'm not alone. Witness this book, by Fred Kaplan, who posits that 1959 was a pivotal year in the shifting of culture and politics in the U.S.A.

He's got a point, and he lays it out in brief, easily consumed chapters that cover everything from the space program to jazz to modern art. There was a lot going in that year--in January, the Russians launched a capsule that was the first object to leave Earth's orbit. Fidel Castro was victorious in the revolution to topple Batista in Cuba. The microchip was invented. The FDA granted approval for the birth control pill, the most important element in the evolution of feminism. Berry Gordy founded his first record company. Miles Davis released Kind of Blue, and John Cassavetes made the first American independent film of note--Shadows. Naked Lunch, by William S. Burroughs, was published, and the courts decreed that D. H. Laurence's Lady's Chatterly's Lover, long censored, could be released.

That all may be true, but Kaplan is constantly moving the goalposts to cover that not everything he writes about fit in the calendar year of 1959. For example, he devotes a chapter to Allen Ginsberg's poem Howl, but it was not written in 1959. Instead he keys on a reading Ginsberg gave of the poem in that year. He writes a great deal about Jackson Pollack, who stubbornly died in 1956. And John Kennedy, who is a frequent topic, declared his candidacy for president on January 1, 1960. Oh, but for 24 hours!

I think that any clever writer could take any year in American history and make a case for it being pivotal. 1959 does seem like a good time to have been a hipster. The Beats were active, jazz was cool, Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl were in the nightclubs, and R&B was just starting to get popular. As great as all that sounds, much of this culture was in the fringes, though. Kaplan doesn't spend much time on what was popular in that year, whether on TV, in the movies, or on the pop charts. The truth is that America was a homogenized slab of white bread, and the artists Kaplan writes about are akin to the small mammals that were darting around while the dinosaurs roamed the Earth. They would have their day, but not for a long time.

As engaging as this subject is, the book is not very well written. It reads like a college paper based on research from Wikipedia. Kaplan uses some lazy adjectives, such as describing an appearance by Bruce on The Steve Allen show as "lame," or Lucien Carr's arrest for murder "horrible." Also, the Mercury 7 astronaut was Deke Slayton, not Duke, an error made more egregious by Kaplan's revelation in the acknowledgements that he was fascinated with the space program as a kid, and had memorized all the astronauts names.

Kaplan writes about music for Slate, and its in his chapters on jazz that he is most effective. There is a chapter about Miles Davis and another about Ornette Coleman, and how they revolutionized the use (or non-use) of chords. It's all Greek to me, but Kaplan explains it well for the non-musical.

But I think Kaplan makes a mistake in his opening chapter by equating 1959 to this year, and the ascension of Barack Obama. The late fifties were a time when the seeds that would flower in the sixties were sewn, and I would love to see something like that happen again, but you can't really compare the eras like that. The way culture and media are distributed is so different. We may well be on the verge of another cultural revolution, but wishing alone, or the convenience of a half-century anniversary, won't make it true.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Goodbye Solo

The film begins in mid-stride. A cabbie and a passenger are coming to some sort of arrangement, and in a deft bit of exposition by screenwriters Ramin Bahrani (who also directs) and Bahareh Azimi, the plot is laid out: an old man (Red West) wants to be driven from the city of Winston-Salem, North Carolina to a place called Blowing Rock, about two hours away. The cabbie (Souleymane Sy Savane), is happy to receive the fee, but since West doesn't want a return trip he's concerned the old man is going to jump.

Since the day of the trip has been scheduled for a week or two ahead of time, there's plenty of time for Savane, who is a friendly sort who can't stop talking, to worm his way into West's life, where he is not wanted but ultimately tolerated. West is an old biker, with years of hard-living etched on his face. He takes cabs to the movies, where he is overly friendly with a teenage ticket-seller. Savane is tired of driving a cab, and wants to be a flight attendant, but his pregnant wife discourages him, wanting him home.

A plot contrivance that is a bit clunky leads Savane to bunk with West in the old man's motel room, and this allows Savane more chances to try to figure out just what is going on with West. The tension between the two characters, an odd couple if there ever was one, propels the film along at nice clip, leading to the fateful and vertiginous day at Blowing Rock, where the wind is so strong that an object thrown from the edge can go straight up.

This is essentially a two-person story, and because the characters are so sharply drawn and well-acted Goodbye Solo is a pleasure. But I think Rahmani's greatest move is to resist sentimentality. While Savane worries about West's motives, there is no third-act miracle that could be found in a Hollywood film. Each character is true to his nature, and the ending is inevitable, without being predictable.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009


Gigantic suffers from indie-itis. A small-budget film from earlier this year, written and directed by Matt Aselton, it has some name actors who are engaging, but the film just doesn't quite hang together, instead succumbing to what many films of its type do--turning into a long string of eccentric characters doing quirky things for no apparent reason.

The film centers around Paul Dano, who plays the type of character who always seems to be having awkward moments. This might present a problem in his job, a high-end mattress salesman, but he seems to do okay at it (and do New York City hot-shots really buy $14,000 mattresses out of cavernous lofts?) His dream is to adopt a Chinese baby, even though he is unmarried. He comes from a family of eccentrics, especially his father, Ed Asner, who seems stuck in the 1950s (he's amazed that Dano does not have a doorman--"Who cleans your shoes?" he wonders).

When Dano sells a mattress to another eccentric, John Goodman, he ends up meeting the man's daughter, Zooey Deschanel, in another of her patented kooky girl parts. Goodman is filthy rich--he offers Deschanel a grand if she will drive him to his doctor's appointment--but I'm not sure we know how he earns his money. He's one of those straight-talkers, who uses expressions like "don't jew me," then says he can say it because he's half-Jewish. Deschanel and Dano click, or at least we are led to believe they are, because at one point she turns to him and says "Would you like to have sex with me?" If only that happened in real life.

Threading through the relationship drama between Dano, Deschanel, and their respective families is a bizarre bit involving a homeless man who seems to be stalking Dano (he's played by Zack Galifianakis in a silent role, an interesting casting choice considering he's a stand-up comic). These sequences are so weird and unsettling, and reminiscent of Fight Club, that they turn the film into something else entirely, and should have been left on the cutting-room floor.

I wanted to like this film. It has a nice dry comic sensibility, opening with an image of rats treading water in a tank (Dano's buddy, a scientific researcher, gives us a metaphor about some rats choosing to give up and drown while others fight to live), and ending with Asner creating a pinata that looks like Muammar Qaddafi. But good will isn't enough--these things just don't coalesce into a whole, and start to seem random, as if generated by an indie-film wheel of fortune (spin it and let it land on garrulous old man, or sex-obsessed best friend, or possibly pyschotic brother). And would a single, 28-year-old man really be given a baby girl?

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Alien Trespass

Alien Trespass, a film from earlier this year, has a conceit: it is supposedly a long-lost sci-fi epic from 1957, that the studio head (a Mr. Goldstone) shelved because of a contract dispute with the star. This gag is hammered home frequently in the DVD extras, which include a fake interview with the star by an Edward R. Murrow type. In actuality, of course, the film was made in Canada by contemporary people, including the star, Eric McCormack, and the director, R.W. Goodwin, who was a key member of the creative team behind The X-Files.

What we have here is pretty much an inside project, an affectionate homage to flying saucer B-films of the 1950s. To that end, Alien Trespass fulfills its promise. The plot combines elements of several of those cheesy classics, concerning a flying saucer that crashes in the California desert, unleashing a rubber-suited monster that feeds on human flesh and the heroic alien who tries to stop him (he compares his role to that of a marshal, and his name is Urp--Marshal Urp, get it?) There is good-natured hammy acting, lots of fifties' decor, from a diner to tail-finned cars to saddle shoes, and a score that prominently features a Theremin.

The larger question, however, is why? If one loved those old films, as I do, why would I be happy with a modern knock-off when the old ones are readily available to be seen? This is like an art student painting in the style of an old master--it may be instructive to him, but it means diddly to those who look at his work. Goodwin probably felt good about making this film, and the cast may have had fun performing in it, but in the long run it's an empty exercise.

The film does look right, though. The colors are a little too sharp to be from the fifties, but otherwise it could pass for a sci-fi movie seen at a drive-in. It's also very self-referential, with the monster showing up at a movie theater during a screening of The Blob, during a scene in which the monster shows up at movie theater. McCormack shows some deft comic timing, and Robert Patrick, the only other easily recognizable actor in the cast, has fun with his role as a bellicose cop.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Silent Light

The title of this film, written and directed by Carlos Reygados, is very Bergmanesque. The two words of the title are featured in two of Bergman's "faith" trilogy, Winter Light and The Silence. It turns out that not only the title suggests Bergman, but the plot and structure of the film do as well, not to mention that faith is the theme at the core of things.

Reygados, a Mexican filmmaker, sets the film in his country, but it is about outsiders--specifically Mennonites who farm in the state of Chihuahua and speak German. They are not the strictly orthodox that we associate with Lancaster, Pennsylvania, in that they drive cars and wear wristwatches, but they are austere people. We meet our main characters, two parents and seven (I think) children before they eat breakfast. The camera lingers on their faces as they are in silent prayer, and only eat when the father (Cornelio Wall) says "Amen."

When Wall, left alone by his family after they finish eating, breaks into sobs, we sense something is up. Turns out he is in love with another woman. His wife (Miriam Toews) knows all about it. Wall, despite knowing he is hurting his wife, can not stop the affair. When he seeks counsel from his father, he is told it is the work of the devil, but Wall thinks that it is instead the work of God.

Wall has another assignation with his mistress, Maria Pankratz, (in an interesting twist she is older and plainer than Toews), and when he confesses it to Toews tragedy ensues. But as with Bergman films such as Cries and Whispers and Fanny and Alexander, not is all as it seems, and the film ends hopefully.

This is a very slow-moving film. It clocks in at over two hours, but has perhaps a half an hour of what could be called action. The rest is very long takes of the days and nights just passing by, including a long opening shot of a sunrise (which is counterpointed at the end by a sunset). It takes a while before a person accustomed to films with scenes lasting an average of five seconds to get in rhythm with a picture where takes can last minutes. We see long shots of people just walking across a field, or a car driving down the highway. It's as if Reygados is saying, "Relax, what's your hurry?" which is kind of bold in this day and age. Reygados also favors a still camera, allowing the actors to move in and out of frame (and sometimes he points it away from them, so they are speaking out of frame).

Because there's so little action and dialogue, when things do happen they stand out. Toews, when told by Wall of his latest indiscretion, simply mutters, "Damn whore," which in this film is equivalent to a plate-throwing screaming fit in another film. At another point Panklatz, who tells Wall that their affair is over, says, "This is the saddest time of my life, but also the best," an incongruity that in the context of this film makes perfect sense.

This film does not suffer impatience, but I found it to be moving and beautiful nonetheless, with some excellent naturalistic acting (particularly by the children). I would advise you to watch it wide awake, though.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Informant!

You never know what you're going to get with a Steven Soderbergh film, and with The Informant! you're not even sure as the closing credits roll. I think it's a psychological drama masquerading as a comedy, but it might be the exact opposite. Some critics, specifically A.O. Scott, write that this genre-bending is part of the film's genius, but I'm not so sure. This film may be as bipolar as its main character.

Viewers can be excused if they swallow this film as nothing more than a comedy in the Coen Brothers tradition, from the exclamation point at the end of the title, to Matt Damon's cheesy moustache, to Marvin Hamlisch's bouncy score, which recalls the canned music from 1960s sit-coms. Damon plays Mark Whitacre, a bioscientist who has made VP at agricultural conglomerate Archer Daniels Midland. He comes to his bosses with a story about a Japanese rival looking to extort money in exchange for information on a saboteur, and in turn the FBI is brought in (primarily in the form of agent Scott Bakula). This, though, is just the start of a slippery slope of misinformation, as Damon goes to work as a mole for the FBI, gathering information on price-fixing.

What starts as a film about corporate malfeasance that any liberal could love, Soderbergh slowly twists it into something else entirely. Whitacre, it turns out, is entirely unreliable, and I won't say more in order to avoid spoilers. Suffice to say that the film is really about a pathological liar, and the destruction of a man's life. It gets harder to laugh at the more the movie progresses.
But there are plenty of laughs. Soderbergh frontloads the film with manic comic energy, and also peppers the cast with stand-up comedians (including cameos by both Smothers Brothers). I found the funniest bits to be Damon's running commentary of stray thoughts that come in his head, even as he's meeting with FBI agents or his bosses, about things as meaningless as neckties or how polar bears hide their black noses when they hunt ("How do they know they have black noses?" Damon wonders).

Whitacre is an inspired creation. This is based on a true story, but I have to believe that everything we see of Whitacre is Matt Damon alone. He plays the man as an overfed, seeming well-meaning Midwesterner who is over his head, but as the movie progresses darker and darker layers of Whitacre emerge, and Damon, while hilarious through most of the film, also can be chilling in his pathology.

I think this film edges around greatness, but never gets there, and I left the theater underwhelmed. I'd give it an uninspired B-minus, but will expect Damon to be in conversation when it comes to Best Actor nominees.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

John Barrymore Silents

John Barrymore is generally proclaimed as the greatest American actor of the first half of the twentieth century, and perhaps of all time. However that's tough to support, as much of his great work was done on the stage, and went unrecorded. He did make quite a few films, though, many of them during the silent era. Kino has put out a collection of four of his silent films, and I Netflixed them over the last ten days. They are direct evidence of his abilities as an actor.

To start chronologically, in 1920 he appeared in Robert Louis Stevenson's tale Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The lead role, the bifurcated character of the altruistic Dr. Jekyll and his bestial alter-ego, Mr. Hyde, is catnip to actors, but in this case even more than usual, as Barrymore uses little makeup effects in his transformation from Jekyll to Hyde. Mostly he just contorts his face in a rictus-like grin. I read somewhere that no makeup was used, but this is not true, as Hyde is given a pointy-head and some god-awful fingernails.

The film was directed by John S. Robertson with an appropriate atmosphere of gloom. As with many silent films, the director does manage to use color, even in a black-and-white film, as different scenes are tinted to reflect mood (mostly sepia or a cool blue). Barrymore seems to be having a great deal of fun has Hyde, particularly in the scene where he murders Carew--Barrymore moves about like a marionette, knocking the old man to the ground and beating him with a cane as if he were a pinata. This would be a fun movie to show on Halloween.

Sherlock Holmes, directed by Albert Parker, is from 1922, and for many years was thought to be lost. It was pieced back together and restored (with financial backing of Hugh Hefner, for one). Because of this, the film at times doesn't make sense, as I gather there are missing scenes. But it's a largely enjoyable slice of the immense Holmes filmography.

Barrymore plays the great detective. The film begins with a prologue, when he and Watson (Roland Young, who went on to play Topper) are in school together. Holmes is given to dreamily wandering around, observing things and jotting them down in notebooks (he makes a list of his strengths and weaknesses--for literature he has nil, but chemistry is immense) and meets a young woman (Carol Dempster, a staple in D.W. Griffith films, and also his mistress) with whom he is instantly smitten. He comes to the aid of a fellow student, a prince, and clears him of a robbery charge.

Years later he is the great man of London, and battles with his nemesis, Professor Moriarty, who is first shown in the film superimposed over a spider's web (the Professor is played by Gustave von Seyffertitz, which sounds like the name of a Holmes villain). The whole thing involves letters that Dempster has that could ruin the prince, and Holmes wins the day, and in a surprise, ends up engaged to Dempster. In the entire Conan Doyle canon, Holmes never shows romantic interest in a woman, save for the time he is beaten by Irene Adler, whom he forever after refers to as "the woman."

Barrymore is terrific as Holmes, which is saying something, because the character is usually so verbal that for Barrymore to capture the essence of such a well-known character with only facial expression is remarkable. So many people think of silent film-acting as over the top that it's interesting to see how subtle Barrymore was--he could express so much with just a slight change of expression or nod of the head.

A few interesting casting notes: also in the film in supporting roles are Hedda Hopper, who would go on to be a notorious gossip columnist, and the first appearance of William Powell.

The Beloved Rogue, from 1927, is a joyful comedy-adventure, directed by Alan Crosland. Barrymore plays the real-life fifteenth-century poet and vagabond Francois Villon, who was sort of a French Robin Hood. Villon is only interested in writing poems and drunken revels, and the people of Paris love him, crowning him king of fools. He is loyal to King Louis XI (played with arachnoid creepiness by Conrad Veidt), but the king barely tolerates him.

The story has the King involved in a turf war with the Duke of Burgundy. His astrologer (shades of Nancy Reagan) tells him to be friendly toward the Duke. When the Duke comes to Paris, Villon insults him, so the King, to be diplomatic, banishes Villon. Since Paris is everything to him, Villon is crushed, and there's a lovely scene as he weeps, imagining never setting foot in Paris again.

Of course he ends back in Paris, rescuing the King's ward (Marceline Day) from an arranged marriage to the Duke's flunky. There's lots of acrobatic fighting and daring-do, as well as a lot of slapstick comedy, especially with Villon's sidekicks, Slim Summerville, Mack Swain, and a dwarf played by Angelo Rossito. Barrymore shows off his physical skills as an actor, rivalling those of Douglas Fairbanks. The sets, by legendary Hollywood designer William Cameron Menzies, are most impressive.

Lastly is Tempest, from 1928, directed by Sam Taylor. This is the most conventionally melodramatic film of the quartet, a historical drama set just before and during the Russian Revolution. Barrymore is a sergeant in the dragoons, a man of peasant stock, who is trying to earn a commission as an officer. This is a rarity, as officers are almost all of noble birth. Through the help of a kindly general, he gets his commission, but he becomes fixated on the general's daughter (Camilla Horn) who is beautiful and cruel. Why this poor sap throws away everything for a woman who won't give him the time of day is a bit perplexing.

Barrymore is sentenced to prison after he passes out drunk in the daughter's bed chamber following a party (watching Barrymore chug a full stoop of wine is interesting, given that the man would die a hopeless alcoholic at the age of sixty). World War I breaks out, but he is left in prison alone. All through the film he is visited by a peddler, who foretells the coming revolution. Finally, the Bolsheviks take over, and Barrymore gets his revenge, but he can't convince himself to harm Hull, who now shares his love (it's about time). The peddler, Boris de Fast, is now a commissar, and Barrymore learns what we know from The Who--the new boss is same as the old boss.

Tempest is a curiosity but not a great movie. The anti-communist propaganda would have pleased Joe McCarthy, as the peddler is given bad grooming habits and no sense of humor. There's much too much cutting between close-ups of characters--the movie is 111 minutes, but could have been twenty minutes less. But Barrymore is once again terrific, as are the sets by Menzies, who would win the first ever Oscar for art direction.

Barrymore would go on to make sound films, most notably Grand Hotel and Dinner at Eight, but would die in 1942. He may be best known today as being the grandfather of Drew Barrymore, but it's good to remember that he holds a far more important role in the history of American acting.

Friday, September 18, 2009

A Wild Sheep Chase

I knew nothing about this book when I checked it out of the library, and almost instantly I was hooked. A Wild Sheep Chase, by Haruki Murakami, is I think the first book I've ever read by a Japanese author, but it is universal in its style and theme, and reminded me of Western authors, most notably Tom Robbins, Kurt Vonnegut, and Raymond Chandler. It is a difficult book to summarize--let's just say it's a cosmic mystery.

Murakami's narrator is nameless. In fact, none of the characters in the book are named. Some are known by nickname, or a first initial, but most are referred to by some sort of title. This gives the book an existential flair, and also makes the book less Japanese, even though the settings in the book are specifically of Japan. The narrator is something of a pathetic shell of a man. He is getting over a divorce, and works as an advertising copywriter, with little enthusiasm. One day he receives a letter from an old friend (known to us only as "The Rat"), which includes a picture of a flock of sheep in a meadow. The narrator puts that picture in an advertisement, which sets off a series of events that finds him hunting for an unusual sheep with a star on its back.

Like much of Vonnegut's work, A Wild Sheep Chase has a realistic setting, but very unusual things happen. For instance, there is his somewhat psychic girlfriend (when the phone rings one day, she tells him quite correctly that it will be about sheep) that he has chosen because of her beautiful ears, which she only shows occasionally. There is also a ghost, and a man who dresses as a sheep (he is, quite naturally, known as "The Sheep Man"). Also, as in much of Vonnegut, there is a sense that mankind is not in charge of his own destiny. I think of the Tralfamidorans, who told Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse-Five, that of all the worlds in the universe, it was only Earthlings who spoke of such a thing as free will.

What made me think of Tom Robbins was the exquisite similes Murakami spins. A couple of my favorites: "He spoke as if running a white-gloved hand over a tabletop," or "Before I knew it, the limo was in motion, like a washtub gliding over a sea of mercury." Murakami constantly displays a dry wit, and his hero is buffeted about by unseen forces, similar to Chandler's sleuths in his detective stories (the only thing missing is the hero is never beaten up). The dialogue isn't as snappy as Chandler, but it's got a brooding sense of world-weariness. Consider this passage, in which the narrator resists going on this absurd quest: "What have I got to feel threatened about? Next to nothing. I broke up with my wife, I plan to quit my job today, my apartment is rented, and I have no furnishings worth worrying about. By way of holdings, I've got maybe two million yen in savings, a used car, and a cat who's getting on in years. My clothes are all out of fashion, and my records are ancient. I've made no name for myself, have no social credibility, no sex appeal, no talent. I'm not so young anymore, and I'm always saying dumb things that I later regret. In a word, to borrow your turn of phrase, I am an utterly mediocre person. What have I got to lose?"

When he mentions that he has no name for himself, it references the fact that none of the characters have names, which one almost forgets from time to time throughout the book, but is brought into sharp focus at other times. At one point he confesses that he has never named his cat, figuring it's useless as it wouldn't come when called anyway. A helpful limo driver gives it a name, and thus the feline becomes the only being in the novel that is bestowed a given name. At another point, the narrator is paged in a hotel bar: "A built-in ceiling speaker called my name. At first it didn’t sound like my name. Only a few seconds after the announcement was over did it sink in that I’d heard the special characteristics of my name, and only gradually then did it come to me that my name was my name."

There are even more layers to the novel when one considers the time and place of the book. Written in 1989, the book takes place in 1978, when the narrator is on the verge of his thirtieth birthday. A flashback occurs eight years earlier, at the end of the sixties, and specifically on the day that Yukio Mishima , an esteemed Japanese writer, committed ritual suicide out of protest for Japan's cultural takeover by the West. This aspect will be far better appreciated by a Japanese reader, but this book, with its fatalistic humor and gentle spirit, can be appreciated by anyone of any nation.

A couple of weird things: my library copy had, inserted inside, a card advertising a pyschic that a previous reader used as a bookmark. Given the nature of the book, I almost called the psychic, but have somehow resisted. I'll leave it in the book when I return it and let the next reader be tempted. On another day, I was playing computer solitaire and managed to win on my first try. I wondered what the odds were on winning. A few minutes later I picked up the book to read and in the first few pages of that particular chapter Murakami's narrator is also playing solitaire, and reveals that the odds of of winning are 25-to-1. It may be that this book contains many answers to life's mysteries.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Betrayal (Nerakhoon)

The final nominee for Best Documentary is The Betrayal (Nerakhoon), an elegiac story about a family of Laotian immigrants, directed by Ellen Kuras. The film took over twenty years to make, and the central character, Thavisouk Phrasavath, participates in the making of the film as a co-director, co-writer, and co-editor.

Phrasavath was a child during the Vietnam War, and his homeland of Laos was a neighboring, neutral nation. However both the U.S. and North Vietnam violated its neutrality, and the country was bombed heavily by U.S. forces (three million tons of bombs fell). The U.S. also propped up a friendly government and recruited men, such as Phrasavath's father, to fight for them. When the U.S. retreated, though, these men were left to their own devices, and the father is sent to a camp by the new communist government to be "re-educated." The family thinks he is dead.

Phrasavath escapes to Thailand by swimming across a river, and his family later joins him, though two sisters have to be left behind. They ultimately go to the U.S., Brooklyn to be exact, and suffer the problems of immigrants, as they live in cramped quarters, have no food, and the children ultimately are lured or threatened by gangs.

Kuras, who is a cinematographer by trade, having done films like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Blow, and Summer of Sam, has a painterly eye toward the film--it's really a poem of images. It's less a straightforward recounting of facts than a collage of memories, so it doesn't have quite the punch it might have in a different approach. There is some archival footage to set the scene--shots of Nixon lying to the American people, etc. but most of it is told through interviews with Phrasavath and his mother, a woman who has certainly gone through a lot in her life.

I haven't seen it in several months, but I can't find fault with the selection of Man on Wire by the Academy as the winner in this category. The Garden, Trouble the Water, and The Betrayal all exhibit causes that are far more relevant than Philipe Petit's antics thirty-five years ago, and Encounters at the End of the World offers the delicious idiosyncratic style of Werner Herzog, but Man on Wire seemed to me the most complete example of cinema, in story and image. But all five films are worth seeing.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Having Our Say

The McCarter Theater, which is my local regional theater, is celebrating twenty years with Emily Mann as Artistic Director. Accordingly, they are remounting a production of one of her most popular plays, Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters' First 100 Years. Mann wrote and directed, based on a book by Sarah L. Delany and A. Elizabeth Delany with Amy Hill Hearth. It was first done in 1995, before I moved here, so this was my first time seeing it.

It's not hard to see why it's so popular. The cast consists of two women playing sisters, who were born to parents who had been slaves, and who both lived to over 100 years old. They died in the 1990s, but both lived to see the play done on Broadway.

Mann wisely crafts the play as two elderly women hosting us, the audience, as guests in their home. They then tell the story of their lives, taking time out to bicker a bit and then prepare their dinner. One of the dishes is macaroni and cheese, and Having Our Say is something of a theatrical version of that dish--it's comfort food. Who wouldn't be charmed by funny women who had seen so much of American history, and who isn't moved by hearing their stories contrasted with multimedia images of the African-American struggle, from Booker T. Washington to Martin Luther King?

Having Our Say does suffer a bit from being too nice. One of the sisters, Bessie, who was one of the first black women to earn a degree in dentistry, is the more spirited, who was less likely to take guff from white people. She tells a chilling story of how she insulted a white man in a Georgia train station and felt she narrowly escaped being lynched. But aside from the occasional angry declarations, the evening is no more pointed than spending a pleasant afternoon with your elderly aunts. They are good company, but it's worlds away from spending an evening with say, George and Martha from Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, or the Tyrone family of Long Day's Journey Into Night.

The sisters lived their whole lives together (and never married), first in the south, then in Harlem during the jazz age. They knew almost every famous colored person of the era (they preferred the term colored, or Negro, rather than black or African-American), such as W.E.B. DuBois and Paul Robeson. I was most moved by their recounting of the excitement that their mother felt upon meeting Eleanor Roosevelt, who was their favorite "famous white person." The Delany sisters had quite a bit of white blood in them as it was, as they had a white grandfather who cohabited with their black grandmother (they were legally barred from marrying). As they put it, any white person who lived in the south likely had colored blood in them.

The acting is exquisite. Lizzan Mitchell is the more refined Sadie, while Yvette Freeman is the feisty Bessie. Of course neither of these actresses are close to being 100 years old, but I thought Mitchell was more convincing as someone of that age--Freeman was more vital. She didn't look a day over eighty.

The set design by Daniel Ostling and lighting design by Stephen Strawbridge were also first rate. This was a satisfactory, if not middlebrow, evening of theater.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Trouble the Water

Another of the Best Documentary nominees that presses hot political buttons is Trouble the Water. Documentarians Tia Lessin and Carl Deal headed down to New Orleans a few days after Hurricane Katrina struck there in 2005, and in a stroke of cinematic serendipity they stumbled across Kimberly and Scott Roberts at a Red Cross shelter. They had found their story.

The cluster fuck that proceeded and followed the storm is well known to many around the world--an evacuation order was given, but no public transportation was arranged for residents who didn't have the money or vehicle to get out. The Roberts' stayed behind, and Kimberly, an aspiring rap singer, decided to document things on her video camera (she hoped to sell something to the media, or as she termed it, "white people"). The before footage, in which she wanders a Ninth Ward that is largely empty but still has many of her friends and relatives, is spooky given what we know is coming. She finds an uncle of hers passed out from drink on his front steps--he would die during the storm.

After the storm hits Kimberly keeps shooting even as she and her husband and neighbors have to go to the attic, the floodwater forcing them higher. A neighbor uses a punching bag as a floatation device to rescue other neighbors. When the waters recede, though, that's just the beginning of their problems. They try to find refuge in a Naval base that is almost empty, but the sailors there hold them off at gunpoint, saying they have to protect the government's interests.

Lessin and Deal document the struggle of survivors to get government assistance, and show quite clearly that those who are poor or black are easily forgotten. When the Roberts' finally get to Memphis to a cousin taking them in, the cousin tearfully realizes "if you have no status or no money, you have no government." A man who was living in a church as part of an addiction program is ineligible for funds because he can't prove New Orleans residence. The bureaucracy is as devastating as the rain and wind.

For all the outrage, the Roberts' are great characters, their optimism never flagging, mostly due to their faith and their family ties. A grandmother dies when she is abandoned at a New Orleans hospital, but we hear she had 76 grandchildren, and it seems they all take care of each other. Kimberly refers to all women in the neighborhood of a certain age as "Ma," and she takes care of them accordingly.

Try and watch this film dispassionately when the soundtrack plays 911 recordings of people calling for rescue, and they are told that no one can help them. One woman is trapped in her attic, the waters rising, and she is unable to break a hole in the roof. "So I'm going to die then," she tells the operator.

Monday, September 14, 2009

The Garden

The three films nominated for Best Documentary at the last Oscars that I haven't seen have been released on DVD in the past few weeks, so I'll be reviewing them here over the next few days. The winner, Man on Wire, and Encounters at the End of the World were reviewed here earlier this spring.

I start with The Garden, which is about a subject that gets hard-core liberals all hot and bothered, but has nagging questions that can spoil the overall effect. It concerns a community garden that was established in South Central Los Angeles, and was farmed by the nearby residents, almost entirely Latino, over about a dozen years. Then the owner of the property wanted them off.

The director, Scott Hamilton Kennedy, does an admirable job on two fronts. One is that he sets this up as a real nail-biting thriller. The farmers organize, with two of their number, a man called Tezo and a woman named Rufina, as their leaders. They enlist a civil rights lawyer to fight off the notice of eviction, and if you have no idea of the outcome, as I didn't, the film plays out with real suspense.

I also appreciated that Kennedy doesn't ignore the basic problem facing the farmers: they don't own the land. It was owned by a businessman, who sold it to Los Angeles for about five million dollars, but then the city sold it back to him for about the same amount. The big mystery is why--the city council approved the sale in a closed-door meeting, and the film implies ever so gently that the black councilwoman, Jan Perry, and a community activist, Juanita Tate, had ulterior motives. Nothing is proved, of course.

Their are a lot of layers to this film, which was shot over three-and-a-half years. There's the "black vs. brown" aspect of a district that is represented by an African-American woman but is over seventy-percent Latino (many are undocumented, and thus can't vote). There's also the tension within the farmers, as Rufina evicts some of them for breaking rules (such as selling crops for profit) that leads to one taking a machete to another.

As outraged as one might get over this, though, there is the indisputable fact that they don't own the land. The owner, Ralph Horowitz, is something of a prick as, according to the film, he asks for 16 million, and when the farmer's raise it (with help from the Annenberg Foundation) he refuses to sell, so he may be a certifiable asshole. But he does own the land. And I never got the sense of what the garden meant to these people. Yes, they certainly cared passionately about it, but I don't think the film fully expressed what the stakes were. Several times we are told that it fed the community, but we don't really see any evidence of it. Aside from the nice thing of having a garden in an otherwise depressed urban setting, what reasons are there for abrogating the rules of private ownership?

Despite these concerns, I found the film gripping and heartbreaking, and a window into a strata of American population that is sorely under-represented in the media.

Sunday, September 13, 2009


I wouldn't be surprised if some enterprising Intro to Theology teacher screened 9 for his charges, but I would be if it were shown to film students. The film is loaded with religious allegory, but despite evocative animation the story is routine adventure.

Directed by Shane Acker, based on a short film of his that is unseen by me, the film is co-produced by Tim Burton, and I remember when I first saw the trailer for 9 Burton's name popped into my head before I saw his name in the credits. It has his visual fingerprints all over it. I'm not sure of the reason for this--did Burton influence Acker, or was Burton drawn to it because it tickled his sensibilities--but in any event this film looks a lot like Burton films such as Edward Scissorhands and the Henry Selick-directed Nightmare Before Christmas.

9 concerns a time just after the expiration of the human race, which have been destroyed by machines that were created as their salvation. This, of course, strongly smacks of the Terminator films, and there's also quite a bit of The Lord of the Rings in the story, as a small band of individuals go on a quest to save their kind (Acker was an animator for The Return of the King). Where Acker shows some originality is the characters themselves: they are dolls, about a foot high, made of burlap, with binocular lenses for eyes.

These dolls were created by the scientist who also invented the machine that destroys humanity. He makes nine of them, each marked by a numeral. The story begins when the last, 9, is created, and he stumbles into being. Soon he meets others of his kind, namely 2, an elderly inventor. When 2 is grabbed by a spidery robot and taken to a distant structure, 9 wants to save him, but the leader of the group, 1 (natch) balks. 1 is a representative of fundamentalism--when 9 asks why "the Beast" (surely a reference to Satan) is after them, 1 scoffs and says that these questions are pointless. 1 is at odds with the scientific 2, and is interested only in preservation, preferring to hide away and leave 2 to his fate.

9 influences 5, who is sort of the Samwise of the group, to help him, and they meet up with 7, the only female and a warrior who wears a bird skull as a helmet. But while trying to rescue 2, 9 awakens the dormant mother machine, and there's hell to pay.

Some of this is engaging, but I was gripped with a sense of impatience almost immediately, as if I've seen this all before. We're all familiar with the look of post-apocalypse--the perpetually dusky skies, the ruined buildings, the detritus of human existence such as old cars, newspapers, and broken doll heads. And though the film is very short and gets into the action right away, the core of the action is so simplistic--characters are attacked, some get taken, remaining characters go to the rescue--that a metronomic quality of the film overwhelms the theme.

What is most interesting about 9 is that theme, which is one of the most basic to humanity though it is relatively unexplored in films that play in multiplexes: who created us, and why are we here? The dolls of 9 struggle with this in different ways, with 1 choosing not to even think about, to 7 choosing to fight, to 9 questioning. With the character 6 Acker even references deeper meaning, with the character being fashioned out of what looks like mattress ticking that resembles the rags worn by those in concentration camps during World War II.

But all of that goes by the wayside when the mechanisms of the plot muck up the works. I give screenwriter Pamela Pettler a perverse sort of credit, because I wouldn't be able to type lines of dialogue such as, "We've got to go after them" (I believe this is said more than once) or "I started this, and I'm going to finish it." I'm not even sure small children would enjoy this film, as it is almost unrelievedly grim, and has an ending that is spiritually uplifting (it made me think of the end of Lars Von Trier's Breaking the Waves) but won't send kids out of the theater looking to buy action figures.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Pilgrimage to Woodstock Nation

"I'm going on down to Yasgur's farm, going to join in a rock and roll band," wrote Joni Mitchell, who did not attend Woodstock, but wrote the best song about it based on what her boyfriend, Graham Nash, told her about it. I didn't attend Woodstock, either, but the next best thing is making the three-hour drive up to Bethel, New York, where Max Yasgur's old dairy farm now houses an arts center and museum devoted to a rock concert that took place over three days there forty years ago.

I got the idea during the foofarah over the anniversary of the concert last month, but checking the Bethel Woods Art Center Web-site I saw that there was a lot going on there that weekend, and I didn't want to fight crowds (not a very good attitude for a Woodstock fancier). So I went today, when nothing special was planned (last week was an alpaca festival). Foregoing the soulless New York State Thruway, which was shut down on that weekend forty years ago, I took a route with no Interstates, which led me up into the extreme northwest corner of New Jersey, clipping the northeast corner of Pennsylvania, and then into rural upstate New York. There's not much there, just the gently sloping dells of cow country. There aren't even fast food joints or strip malls, just itty-bitty towns with antique stores and roadside vegetable stands.

The museum is really an elaborate audio-visual display, as there aren't many artifacts to speak of. The layout takes you through events of the sixties, including some amusing films about fashion and suburban culture (I snorted at a commercial where a woman so loves her Dove detergent that she kisses the bottle). Then there's a film about the evolution of music through the sixties, from Frankie and Annette to Dylan going electric to Hendrix and The Who, with of course The Beatles as the prime movers and shakers. Finally there's a large area devoted to the show itself, with the whys and wherefores that it ended up in Bethel (some of this is gone over in Ang Lee's film Taking Woodstock).

The design of the space helps hide the fact that you're basically just watching a lot of short films. One of them, about transportation (the clogging of the roads and how acts were helicoptered in) is shown inside an actual bus, made to look like the ones the Merry Pranksters used to get there. Two different films show music from the concert, with one providing seating in denim-upholstered beanbag chairs. I passed on those, figuring I would never get up if I plopped down in one.

After touring the museum, I drove the short distance to the spot where the concert took place. There's a monument, and then a spot where you can look at the hill where forty years ago half a million people gathered, making it the third-largest city in New York and, at the time, the largest gathering of humanity for one purpose in the history of the species. After the concert, old hippies kept coming to the spot, and locals tried to keep them away, even going to the extreme of covering the field with manure. Then someone got the bright idea that these hippies were becoming yuppies, and where there's yuppie tourism there's money. This wonderful place is the result.

The CD I have is the original triple-album released as a soundtrack of the film. There are other versions, such as the new six-disc boxed set with at least one track by all thirty-six bands that played there, but I'm not such a completist that I need that. Besides, not all the bands were on top of their game. The Grateful Dead, for reasons of nature and electricity, played in the dark, and there is no Janis Joplin on this version.

Culling sixty hours of music down to about two is tough work, but I think they got a lot of good stuff there. The best are the Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young set (it was only their second gig as a group), Santana's "Soul Sacrifice" (with an electrifying drum solo by seventeen-year-old Michael Shrieve), Joe Cocker's soulful cover of the Beatles "With a Little Help From My Friends," Sly and the Family Stone's funky set, and of course Jimi Hendrix closing the festival with a searing rendition of The Star Spangled Banner (which bleeds into "Purple Haze").

To me, this was the greatest flowering of music of the century. Not all the biggest acts of the time were there--no Beatles, Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Led Zeppelin, The Doors or whatever band Eric Clapton was in at the time. But the lineup for those three days was nothing less than awe-inspiring. I mean, The Who performed Tommy in its entirety!

The record is also a fascinating and amusing time capsule of an era. A lot of stage announcements are included, most by Chip Monk, such as his warning folks not to take the brown acid, or leading the crowd in anti-rain chants. Arlo Guthrie talks to the crowd using language that seems ridiculously quaint now, such as "far out," "can you dig it," and "I was rapping to the fuzz." Monk has the most poignant message to the crowd, when he tells them, "This is a free concert, but that doesn't mean that anything goes. Take a look at the man next to you--he is your brother. And you damn well better treat him that way, or we're going to blow the whole thing."

Mitchell's song concludes, "By the time we got to Woodstock, we were half a million strong, and everywhere there was song and celebration." For three days, amid thunderstorms and mud and shortages of food and sanitary facilities, the dream was alive, which was stunning considering the violence that had pocked America in the few years before it. Later that year, at Altamount, the dream would die, pretty much for good, but it's nice to hold onto when it lived.

Friday, September 11, 2009


Ah, suburbia. It's been the target of sharp-eyed social commentators, whether comic or tragic or both, almost since the first house was slapped together in Levittown. From Richard Yates to John Cheever to Picket Fences to Desperate Housewives, we seem endlessly fascinated with exposing the dark side of the American dream.

In 2005 Showtime debuted Weeds, which is ostensibly about a young widow who sustains her upper-middle-class lifestyle by becoming a marijuana dealer, but really it's another show about how twisted the suburbs are. We get the point immediately by the opening theme song, "Little Boxes," about the insidious conformity of suburban living.

Being oblivious to most cable-TV series (I don't get Showtime, I don't believe I ever have), and bearing a serious crush on the lead, Mary-Louise Parker, it's somewhat amazing it took me this long to get around to seeing it. I rented the first season--ten half-hour episodes, and found it to be a mixed bag. Frankly, I wonder if there's anything left to say about suburbia, but at least series creator Jenji Kohan (her name sounds like a strain of pot) came up with a novel approach, giving us non-indulgers about as much information about cannabis as we could possibly want.

As the series begins, we are thrust right into it and it took me a few episodes to catch up. Parker is a forty-ish mother of two living in an upscale California suburb who is reeling from the untimely death of her husband. Through a connection of her ne'er-do-well brother-in-law, she buys pot from a family of urban blacks, who are run by a sassy, iron-willed woman (Tonye Patano) and distributes to her social circle, including her accountant, Kevin Nealon. Meanwhile she tries to raise her two sons, the younger one (Alexander Gould) bearing a lot of issues after his father's death. The specter of arrest constantly hovers, especially since Parker is so naive to the ways of the business, learning things as she goes from Patano and her nephew, Romany Malco, who has a crush on her.

Most of this is engaging, funny and a bit heartbreaking, but I do have some problems. Here is yet another series that has African-Americans in their new guise as sage, world-experienced givers of advice or counsel, with the requisite amount of snappy dialogue. When Parker visits their home she is frequently the butt of racist humor (she is called "Snowflake") that is a bit rankling. I mean, white people certainly deserve their share of racial denigration, but in the show it's winked at as some sort of cutesy behavior. I was once in a McDonald's in Inkster, Michigan and called "white lox" by a black guy--I didn't think it was so cute.

Then there's the character played by Elizabeth Perkins, who steals the show in many of the episodes. She is Parker's friend, the president of the PTA and a first-class bitch, and she seems to have wandered in from Desperate Housewives. But over the course of the first season I had to admit that the writers of the show, in concert with Perkins, made the character develop. In one episode we meet her mother, briefly but memorably played by Concetta Tomei, and we learn all we need to know about why Perkins is the way she is. Then the character is given breast cancer, a soap-opera-ish plot development, but it does allow the role to grow even further.

The strength of the show is Parker. She is one of those actors who is always good in no matter what she does that it's hard to understand why she isn't a bigger star. She is also, if you will excuse me, hot stuff, and one of the few actresses in my age range that I actively pant over. Another great performer on the show is Justin Kirk, who was Parker's co-star in Angels in America, but in that show he was gay, and on Weeds he is decidedly not. As Parker's man-child brother-in-law, Kirk is a live wire, disrupting the household (he has cyber-sex with his nephew's fifteen-year-old deaf girlfriend, he gets chased off of elementary school property selling t-shirts that read "Chris Died For My Sins", and bangs the mother of Gould's friend) like a human tornado.

I can count the amount of times I've smoked dope on two fingers, and neither time it did much for me, but this show certainly could make the mouths water of those who do. I don't like pot humor--one of the few movies I ever walked out of was a Cheech and Chong movie--believing in what Woody Allen said in Annie Hall about laughs garnered from the stoned not counting. But Kevin Nealon's performance as the perpetually baked accountant is endearing, and if you watch enough of this show you'll probably feel even more strongly about legalization.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Further Adventures of Los Straitjackets

I caught up with the latest album by Los Straitjackets, the best surf-rock band that wears Mexican wrestling masks. Actually, they're probably the best instrumental rock band currently in operation, and the surf sounds and Mexican wrestling touches are just gravy.

I discovered Los Straitjackets purely by accident. On my one and only visit to Maxwell's in Hoboken, they were the opening act, and when I watched this group in matching burgundy turtlenecks, gold medallions, and masks (the masks were of individual designs), I was intrigued, and when they broke into exquisite surf-rock, I was hooked. I bought their CD right then and there, and have followed them ever since.

The band is best when they perform instrumentals. A couple of their albums have featured vocalists, and it just doesn't have the same oomph. Fortunately their latest, dubbed The Further Adventures of Los Straitjackets, is pure surf instrumental. Each song is a blast, like the theme song of a movie I want to see.

There are basically two types of songs--the slash and burn, hard rocking number, such as "Cal-Speed" or "The Wild Mouse," or the cleaner, more melodic songs with the guitar that sounds like plinking water, such as "Challenger '64," or "Catalina." There are other influences as well that are common in this genre of music, such as the spy movie theme reflected in "Minority Report," the car-hop sound, evidenced with the fuzz bass of "Blowout," and the bluesy jazz sound of "Tubby," with a heavy saxophone.

The best tracks defy categorization. "Fortune Cookie" is a melange of styles that provides a dense pleasure, and "Teen Beast" is a terrific rock and roll song, with a pounding drum rhythm that is strongly reminiscent of Iggy Pop's "Lust for Life." The drummer, Jason Smay, is new and makes an instant imprint.

The music is fun, and so is the packaging. The inside of the CD jacket is a comic book which features the band members as superheroes. They have alternate identities, such as Smay being "Teen Beat" and long-time guitarist Danny Amis as "Daddy O-Grande." Only Eddie Angel keeps his own name, which I guess you would do if you had a name as cool as Eddie Angel.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Telex From Cuba

Cuba pre-revolution is catnip for writers and filmmakers, and with good reason, as Castro and his rebels stuck it to not only Batista, but to the foundations of American capitalism. It's a natural for storytellers. That's why I found myself disappointed with Rachel Kushner's novel on the subject, Telex From Cuba.

The jacket copy tells us that Kushner's mother grew up in Cuba during the period, in an American enclave in Oriente, the eastern-most part of the island, which was basically run by United Fruit since the American takeover following the Spanish-American War. Of course they ran it like a fiefdom, living in lavish quarters while the employees did long, backbreaking labor while living in squalor. Castro may be a son of a bitch, but it's hard not to root for him when you hear about what conditions were like for poor Cubans in those days.

Kushner's book is a game attempt, but I think falls short for a few reasons. For one, she tells the story from too many points of view. We hear mostly from the Americans who lived in Cuba, employees of United Fruit or a nickel mine. One voice is told in first person, that of K.C. Stites, who is a teenage boy and the son of the head honcho of United Fruit. He tells his story in a series of discrete anecdotes, sort of a Tom Sawyer in Cuba. His older brother has run off into the hills to join the rebels. Everly Lederer is a young girl, something of an outcast, whom K.C. has a bit of crush on. Then there's twin girls, who though American, have lived their whole lives in foreign countries. Kushner does do a nice job of giving us the sense of dislocation of these permanent expatriates.

Much of the rest of the book is given to a French adventurer and gun-runner, Christian de La Maziere, who was a Nazi collaborator. He ends up with the rebels in the hills as a kind of consultant. He's also in love, up to a point, with a mysterious go-go dancer and courtesan who lives in Havana. Kushner gives this character the name Rachel K, which is her own name and first initial, which creates interesting questions.

Secondly, I found the prose flat. As I said, it's a lot of separate incidents, which don't quite hang together. There's also a problem with the timeline. Most of the book takes place in 1958 and 1959, but there are some flashbacks to 1952. Some of the chapters have time stamps before them, but some don't, and I wondered where I was in time much of the time.

The end of the book, in which Stites recollects things from his retirement in Tampa, has a bit of poignancy, but not nearly enough. Frankly I found this book a yawn.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

World's Greatest Dad

This is the first of Bobcat Goldthwait's directorial efforts I've seen, but I was well aware of his comedy, having once seen him in person. He was something of a bomb-thrower, basing his comedy on saying something outrageous for the sake of outrageousness and not being particular sophisticated about it. There's some of that in that World's Greatest Dad, a movie on the whole I liked, but is awfully thin gruel.

The central joke is that an obnoxious teenager, who doesn't do anything much but jerk off to Internet porn, dies accidentally by autoerotic asphyxiation. His sad sack father, a schoolteacher and frustrated writer (Robin Williams), decides to cover up the cause of his son's death and makes it look like a suicide. He then crafts a suicide note that makes his son seem like a misunderstood genius.

Goldthwait pushes this as hard as he can. Daryl Sabara does a great job making his character reprehensible, and you can believe that a parent of his would question the concept of unconditional love. Sabara is rude, crude, and without a redeeming characteristic, yet I think I've known people like him. Williams gives one of those performances that makes you forgive his work in crap like RV, playing a mild-mannered poetry teacher with gracious humanity. I particularly liked a scene where he breaks down in sobs while looking at a newsstand filled with his son's favorite porno mags.

That being said, World's Greatest Dad is a 100-minute film that could have been half that. When Williams' ruse turns his son into a deceased hero, with kids wearing his image on t-shirts and listening to his favorite music (Williams tell them it's Bruce Hornsby, who is really his favorite singer) he realizes that his life is starting to become everything he dreamed of. His secret relationship with a pretty young art teacher (Alexie Gilmore, bearing a perhaps unfortunate resemblance to Shelley Long) hits its stride, and after he fakes his son's journal, he makes contacts with publishers.

The ending is kind of predictable, and Goldthwait pulls back his claws for a resolution that is morally correct but toothless. All along I was rooting for Williams to make the most of the situation, which I guess makes me a bad person. Goldthwait does score some points satirizing the reaction to teen suicide, but I'm not sure it wasn't said already twenty years ago in Heathers ("I loved my dead gay son").

Monday, September 07, 2009

The Gettysburg Address

Since I have family who live there, I've been to Gettysburg many times, and I've seen almost all of the tourist attractions that are there (and there are a lot). So it was nice, for my visit this holiday weekend, to have someplace new to go: the David Wills House, where Lincoln spent the night before he gave the Gettysburg Address.

The Wills House is right in the center of town, only a few hundred feet from the inn that my family owns, so it was easy for me to pop over. After careful restoration (for sixty years it was a drugstore), it is now operated by the National Park Service, and takes about half an hour to forty-five minutes to go through carefully. There are a few videos, and several objects to look at.

The story behind Lincoln's address, which is now perhaps the most famous speech in American history, is familiar to many. After the carnage at Gettysburg, hastily dug graves opened after rains, and the governor of the state of Pennsylvania convened a commission to look into a national cemetery to inter the soldiers (Union soldiers, that is). Wills, a local attorney, was named to the commission, and arranged for the purchase of seventeen acres on Cemetery Hill, the heart of the battle (and adjacent to Evergreen Cemetery, which interred citizens of the town). Eventually it would be dedicated on November 19, 1863, and Wills wrote President Lincoln to invite him to attend and "give a few appropriate remarks."

Much to everyone's surprise, Lincoln accepted. Presidents rarely left the capital in those days, and since Lincoln was involved in a civil war it was somewhat extraordinary of him to accept. He carefully drafted the speech (he did not write it on the back of an envelope) and stayed at Wills' house, where he finished it, despite being serenaded by enthusiastic crowds most of the night.

The main speaker was Edward Everett, a politician and renowned orator of the day. He spoke for two hours. Lincoln's address was ten sentences long, and took two minutes. It was not an initial hit. Newspapers, like cable news outlets today, were partisan, and several gave it an outright pan. The Chicago Times wrote: "The cheek of every American must tingle with shame as he reads the silly, flat and dishwatery utterances of the man who has to be pointed out to intelligent foreigners as the President of the United States." Another, using Lincoln's phrase "a new birth of freedom," wrote that the country did not need a new birth of freedom, "but a new president." But others were more complimentary, including Everett, who at times was very critical of Lincoln, who said, "I should be glad if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes." What isn't clear from the presentation at the Wills House is how, over time, the speech became as world renowned as it is today.

The speech had many structural sources, most notably Pericles' Funeral oration, as well as the King James Bible (starting with the use of the words "four score," recalling Psalms 90:10, which described the length of a man's life at "threescore and ten."

What is interesting to comprehend was how radical the speech was, considering how we accept it today. This is expressed in particular in the line, "all men are created equal." Of course that's in the Declaration of Independence, but it was a lie even then, as few who drafted that document would have recognized blacks and whites as equal. "All men are created equal" wouldn't have real meaning until the 1960s, but Lincoln was saying it, and meaning it, in 1863.

In essence, the speech redefined the purpose of the war, but it had an even greater purpose--it concisely defined democracy as "government of the people, by the people, for the people," and it's useful to remember that existence of democracy was in peril during the Civil War. It is difficult to envision democracy remaining, as we know it today, in a Confederate States or a United States should the war's outcome had been reversed.

After touring the Wills House (which includes the bed Lincoln slept in) I took about a fifteen-minute hike to the cemetery. I've been through it many times but it's always a worthwhile visit. I stopped by the monument to Lincoln, pictured above. Several pennies were lined up against it, and I dug through my pocket to find one to add. The spot where he gave the speech, or at least as close to it as possible, is now represented by the towering Soldiers National Monument. It's a place that should be visited by every American.

Saturday, September 05, 2009


After almost a year and a half, I have finally finished seeing all five of the films nominated for the Best Foreign Film Oscar for 2007. To sum up, they are The Counterfeiters, which was the winner, Mongol, Beaufort, 12, and finally Katyń. It's a tough call, given that all the films have their faults, but I'm going with Katyń as my choice for the win.

Directed by legendary Polish director Andrzej Wajda, Katyń is loaded with political ramifications. At the heart of it is a massacre of Polish army officers and intellectuals committed by the Soviets shortly after the outbreak of World War II. Once the Soviets seized control of Poland, they blamed it on the Germans. As Wajda explains in an interview, the story was twofold: the crime, and the lie.

At first I found the film to be buckling under the weight of its own earnestness. Wajda, whose father died at Katyń, had wanted to make the film all of his career, but it was impossible to make until after 1989, when the Soviet system fell. Before that, anyone publicly denying the lie risked ending up in a gulag. Then it took him twelve years to come up with the perfect script.

The film begins with an intriguing scene that cleverly explicates the Polish predicament. Some people are crossing a bridge, fleeing from the Germans. At the other end of the bridge, people are rushing in the opposite direction, fleeing the Soviets. Truly these poor people were caught between a rock and a hard place, and amazingly for a film about World War II, it's the Russians who are depicted as the bad guys (although there's a scene in which the Nazis round up university professors and ship them off to a prison camp).

The script focuses largely on the women left behind, wondering if their husbands, sons or brothers are dead or alive. The main character, Anna (Maja Ostaszewska), perilously ventures to find her husband before he is shipped off to a prison camp. She then has to escape back to Krakow. A general's wife, Danuta Stenka, stoically tries to hold up, and after she learns her husband is dead struggles to keep from fighting against the Soviet authorities who insist that the Germans committed the crime. Another woman, Magdalena Cielecka, whose brother died there, stubbornly insists on having his tombstone engraved with the actual date of the massacre, rather than the Soviet fiction of a later date. It's telling that she is seen in a theater that is mounting a production of Antigone, the play by Sophocles which deals with a young woman who would rather be put to death than see her dead brother lie unburied on a battlefield.

There are some flaws to the film, though. I found Wajda's way of introducing characters abruptly a bit off-putting--one young man is introduced about half way through the film, focused on as a major character, and then killed off just as abruptly. I never was quite sure who Cielecka's character was supposed to be, and how she related to the others. Still, though, the film builds to a powerful climax. Wajda does not show us the massacre until the close of the film, cutting to it from the image of Ostaszewka's husband's blood-stained diary. It is here we learn, shockingly, that the prisoners were murdered methodically, one by one, as if they were cattle led through a slaughterhouse.

Friday, September 04, 2009


I haven't thought this through, but my favorite young rock musician (young meaning younger than me, which could still be pretty fucking old) is Jack White. He seems to be one of those musicians who has an exhaustive knowledge of what came before, but instead of reproducing it, he's innovating all the time. I don't have all of his output--I think there's a White Stripes album I don't have, and I also don't have either of The Raconteurs discs, but I recently purchased the album Horehound by his latest group, The Dead Weather, and I love it.

The group consists of White, vocalist Allison Mosshart of The Kills, guitarist Dean Ferlita of Queens of the Stone Age and bassist Jack Lawrence of The Raconteurs. White is the drummer, and he's quite accomplished (interesting that Meg White, who pounds the skins for White Stripes, is considered by some to be a terrible drummer). Horehound is a mixture of styles, but I think can most accurately be summed up as roots rock with a layer of the macabre, bearing influences as varied as Jimi Hendrix, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and Charles Gounod.

All of the songs, either by lyric or sound, have a sense of the sinister, which would make this a great record to play on Halloween. Some of the lyrics may make you out and out uncomfortable, such as from "Hang You to the Heavens": "I like to grab you by the hair, and lead you to the devil." Satanism and misogyny? And this song was written by the girl in the group. Or consider "I Cut Like a Buffalo": "You can hit me if you want to, do whatever makes you happy." This song is the only one written solely by White.

I didn't find a clunker on the record. I bought it just after seeing Taking Woodstock, and when I put in the car CD player it sounded appropriate, as the opening track, "60 Feet Tall," is acid rock, with Ferlita doing a pretty good Hendrix. "Treat Me Like Your Mother" has punk overtones, as does "Rocking Horse," with Mosshart sounding like Siouxsie Sioux, and Ferlita's guitar reverbing like Dick Dale's. Their cover version of Dylan's "New Pony" also fits right in, as that pony's name is Lucifer.

Then there's "No Hassle Night," which the producers of True Blood should snap up for their show: "I'm looking for a place to go/where the sun goes down/and stays down." The closing track, a long bluesy number called "Will There Be Enough Water," asks a very good question: "Will there be enough water/when my ship comes in?/And when I set sail/Will there be enough wind?"

My favorite two tracks are an instrumental, "3 Birds," that has the kind of jaunty spookiness that Gounod's Funeral March for Marionettes had (it was the theme of Alfred Hitchcock Presents) and makes me think of Poe--are the birds ravens by any chance--and "So Far From Your Weapon," a bruising thumper of a song that calls to mind all the dark places of the human pysche. This is a fine record, best played on a full moon, in the dark, with perhaps a single candle burning.