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Saturday, October 31, 2009

Back at the Rink


This was my first chance since last February to pay a visit to one of my favorite places, Baker Rink (officially Hobey Baker Memorial Rink) on the campus of Princeton University. This is my tenth season of obsessively following the women's ice hockey team, and they had their first pair of home games. Last night they tied RPI 2-all, and just this afternoon they outlasted Union College 6-3.

Normally I like to get to the rink early. There are never too many people there, but about an hour before game time there are very few. Sometimes you see members of the opposing team running sprints down the corridors. The music is already on the P.A. system, usually of the classic-rock variety. A few of the Tiger players liked to come out on the bench, iPods tucked into their ears, to get whatever motivation it gave them, but those players have graduated and there don't seem to be any that do that this year.

The teams come out for warm-up at precisely forty minutes before the opening face-off. They go through their shooting and passing drills. Sometimes I sit right behind the goal during shooting practice, and the crash of the puck against the glass would wake the dead. After warm-ups the freshmen are the ones who have to collect all the pucks and bring them back to the bench.

Ice rinks have a certain smell to them. I think it may be the chlorine in the ice, because it's reminiscent of the odor found in swimming pools. It's a very comforting smell, and since the temperature is cool (by necessity) it can be the first taste of winter.

Baker Rink is named after Hobey Baker, who was an outstanding football and hockey player for Princeton in the 1910s. His skates, looking like they were dug out of a peat bog, are on display in a glass case in the lobby of the rink. Baker was an innovator, being the first to round the tips of his blades so he could pivot and circle much more effectively. He was an airman during World War I and died in a crash during a test flight. Just a few feet away from his display is one for Patty Kazmaier, who played during the 1980s. The daughter of Dick Kazmaier, who won the Heisman Trophy for Princeton in the early 50s, she was a big-time women's player when women's hockey was as obscure as could be. She died from a rare blood disease at the age of thirty. Even though Princeton is not a big hockey school, they have the distinction of both trophies bestowed in college hockey named after their players. The best men's player of the year wins the Hobey Baker Award, and the best women's player gets the Patty Kazmaier Award.

Baker Rink has been around since the 1920s. From the outside it looks like a church, fitting in with the Gothic architecture of the campus. The main doors are huge wooden ones that Martin Luther would be proud to nail his theses to. At night you can see through the glass doors from outside and see the scoreboard, which hangs above center ice, lit up like a Christmas tree. The inside of the rink is more suggestive of a barn, with the rafters painted a rustic brown. It's extremely cozy--the stands on either side of the rink only go back four rows. The ends have a few more rows, and there's a balcony that goes mostly empty that hangs over one end. If you go all the way to the top of the balcony you can't see the opposite goal.

As for this year's team, they are young and a bit undisciplined, but have a lot of talent. Unlike previous years, when a 2-1 game was an avalanche of scoring, this team can put the puck in the net. Unfortunately, the goaltending is inexperienced. If the goalies gel, this team could do some damage. No matter, I'll be going to the games. It's a pleasure just to visit old Hobey Baker Rink.

Friday, October 30, 2009

The Anthologist

The Anthologist is the third novel I've read by Nicholson Baker, but the first that wasn't giddily pornographic. Vox was the transcript of a phone-sex conversation, and The Fermata was about a man who could stop time and mostly utilized it to enact his kinky fantasies. The Anthologist has no sex, but it's hero is a distant cousin of the The Fermata's--he's a man obsessed, but in his case it's with poetry. Poetry that rhymes.

Paul Chowder, our narrator, is a poet of minor distinction who lives in Portsmouth, New Hampshire and is working on an anthology of poems that rhyme. He is struggling to write the introduction, and does almost anything to avoid the task, even to the point that his girlfriend Roz leaves him. In the meantime he battles wits with a mouse in his kitchen, goes blueberry picking, buys a new broom, gives a reading at a bookstore, and goes to a conference in Switzerland. But it's what is in-between that gives this book its pleasant bounce.

I'm something of a poetry numbskull. It's one of those things, like jazz, that I think I should like but somehow can't wrap my mind around. Baker, through the voice of Chowder, gives me an indication of why. Poetry, it turns out, is very mathematical (like music). We get an extended lecture on the meter of poetry, of how most great rhyming poetry is in four beats (iambic pentameter is not really the basic rhythm of English poetry), how important rests are, and what enjambing is. The book also could have been subtitled The Secret Lives of Poets, as Chowder relates all sorts of gossipy stories about them, mostly their miserable personal lives (lots of suicides--Lindsay did himself in by drinking Lysol).

I got a big kick out of this book, even though, as I said, poetry goes right over my head. When I try to read it my eyes slide off the page like a cheese off a cracker. I think my problem is that I just don't have the proper attention span--prose is easy to skim. You can't let your eyes wander down a poem and expect to feel the full effect. Therefore I didn't get a lot of the references that Baker makes to poets and their poetry. I mean I've heard the names--John Ashbery and Sarah Teasdale and Vachel Lindsay and Ezra Pound and so on--but I can't stop on a dime and recite their work. In fact, other than the work of Mother Goose I'm not sure I can recite any poem.

Chowder is an amiable companion. The irony of it all is that the slender novel is better than any introduction that Chowder could write. He's full of non sequiturs, my favorite being a chapter that begins, "God, I wish I was a canoe." He's also a needy, whiny kind of guy, obsessed with who gets published in the New Yorker, so much so that he makes their current poetry editor, Paul Muldoon, a character of sorts. Muldoon teaches at Princeton, and I see him around occasionally, so lines like these had amusing resonance: "He teaches at Princeton. He's probably there right now, talking to students. 'Hello, poetry students, I'm Mr. Paul Muldoon.'" Late in the book Chowder describes Muldoon being besieged in Switzerland. In a chat today on the New Yorker's web site, Muldoon confirms that is sometimes besieged, assailed, and once even stormed.

The book also cut pretty close to the bone. Chowder is in his fifties and realizes he is something of a disappointment. He is in debt and has no steady job. Although he is anthologizing a book of rhyming poems, he himself writes non-rhyming poems (he calls them "plums"). Someone asks him if he is putting together the book out of self-hatred and he agrees. When he tells a class that poetry is a young person's game he breaks into tears. As someone who is too close to fifty to contemplate and is not where I thought I'd be, the book got under my skin.

One of these days, when I have nothing but free time, I'm going to see if I can't sit down and read a book of poems. Chowder has all sorts of suggestions, most notably Mary Oliver.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Hit and Run


Hit and Run, another straight-to-DVD thriller starring actress and Princeton student Laura Breckenridge, is marginally better than Amusement, but suffers from the problems--the similarities to earlier films, and profound holes in logic. Breckenridge plays a college students who has had a few too many shots at a bar. On her drive home she swerves to miss something in the road. But she gets home okay and goes to bed. Then she hears noises from the garage. Turns out she ran into a guy, and he's still alive, skewered on her bumper. Oops!

Panicking, she ends up killing him with a golf club (she thinks) and burying him in a shallow grave. Of course in films like this people can be awfully tough to kill, and it turns that this guy (played by a good actor, Kevin Corrigan) has the kind of resistance that Wolverine has. Breckenridge and Corrigan have a battle that involves gardening shears, a bitten-off ear, and an electric plug jabbed in an eye socket.

You have to forgive two big problems in the story. One is that Breckenridge was so drunk that she didn't notice hitting a man, and then didn't notice on her bumper when she got home (the script calls for the lightbulb in the garage being burned out, but that still isn't enough). Then you have to believe that Corrigan could go through everything he did and still not only be alive, but to be superhumanly spry (at one point Breckenridge leaves knocked out cold and drives away, but somehow he ends up in front of her car several hundred yards away). There are also errors in the timeline that I won't go into here, but suffice it to say that the film's New Jersey seems to have very early sunsets.

Then there is the fact that this film borrows heavily from other films, notably I Know What You Did Last Summer and Stuck. Neither of those are great films, so this isn't an egregious crime, but you'd think that someone would be a bit embarrassed to rip another film off so blatantly.

But the film is stylishly directed by Enda McCallion, who exercises film-school chops by having such interesting shots as a point-of-view from the bottom of a toilet while someone throws up. Then there's Breckenridge, who may be in a disposable thriller but treats it very seriously. She is terrific in the scenes where she is dealing with her plight, coming close to a nervous breakdown. The films deals with some interesting moral conundrums, as she is the heroine but is extremely guilty of a crime, and Breckenridge handles that well. I only hope that she is called upon to use her talent in better projects in the future.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Indian Exiles

Tonight, weather permitting, is the first game of the World Series, if anyone notices. Major League Baseball's stubbornly stupid insistence on being the handmaiden of the networks has pushed the date further back than any other time in history. Coming will be the day that we have baseball on Thanksgiving. This isn't dumb just because the weather comes into play more frequently, it's also that the event becomes less relevant. The sports news is dominated this time of year by the likes of Brett Favre and LeBron James, and oh yeah, the World Series starts tonight. Who's playing again?

It helps that the big bad Yankees are back, for the first time in six years, and that they are playing the defending champs, the Phillies, in what should be a decent match-up. Both teams have murderous lineups and decent to excellent pitching. The only other time these two teams met in the Series was 1950, when the Yanks were in the midst of a five-season streak of titles. The Phillies were a young exciting bunch that were nicknamed the Whiz Kids, but their spark ran out in the Series, as the Yanks swept them in four. Both teams combined for sixteen runs in the entire series, a total which will be probably be reached in one of the games in this match.

The story for tonight's game is that the starting pitchers, C.C. Sabathia for New York and Cliff Lee for the Phillies, were Cy Young Awards winners for the Cleveland Indians, but baseball economics demanded that they be traded away. If I were an Indian fan it might be too painful to watch, imagining a rotation with both of these guys (who were only one win away from the World Series in 2007). In the normal insanity of baseball, Cleveland dealt these guys and then predictably got terrible, and the manager Eric Wedge was fired.

My prediction of an all-Southern California series was utterly wrong, so I'll stick with the favorite this year, picking the Yankees in six. The only weakness they've shown is a few cracks in middle relief, but they've excelled in letting the team make the mistakes that cost them victory. Both the Twins and Angels made numerous errors, both physically and mentally, and while the Phillies, with their experience, are less likely to do that, I still like the calm that the Yankees exude. It's as if they know they are going to win, and just have to wait for the inevitable. I'll take the Yankees in six.

Of course I am rooting for the Phillies. As readers of this blog know, my favorite team is the Detroit Tigers, my second-favorite is the Yankees' opponent. I must admit, though, that my anti-Yankee fervor has diminished. The current line-up has fewer players that inspire deep hatred. I still loathe Alex Rodriguez, and I could do without Joba Chamberlain, with his obnoxious fist-pumping and white stains on his cap (some guys use a sock, apparently Joba uses his hat). But on the whole they seem a decent bunch of guys, and it has been a while. My eight-year-old nephew, a big Yankee fan, has never experienced a Yankee championship, which seems impossible. If they do win, as I expect, life will go on for me as normal.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Amusement


This film is a good representation of the problems of the contemporary horror film. In pieces, it has some pretty good chills and some nice direction. But as a whole it is a complete mess, and as the credits roll you think to yourself, "Why did I waste my time?"

I Netflixed this one catching up with the film work of Laura Breckenridge (see my review of her stage performance in Bash from last week). Like many actresses who have some experience but have not achieved star level, she takes what she can get, and there's a lot of work for pretty young women in cheap horror films. Amusement was on the shelf for quite a while and then dumped into a straight-to-DVD release, and that's sadly where it belongs.

Despite it's title, it's not set at an abandoned amusement park. Instead, it's about a psychotic killer who loves to laugh. In three discrete scenes, we see three different young women tormented in archetypal horror situations: Breckenridge, along with her boyfriend, are driving on the highway and end up in a life-or-death struggle with a truck driver; Kathryn Winnick is babysitting two young boys and is creeped out by a life-size clown doll, who may just be alive; and Jessica Lucas looks for her missing roommate in a ramshackle hotel, the proprietor wearing a leather apron.

All of these scenes recall other films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or When a Stranger Calls, but I have to admit that director John Simpson has an eye for creating effective thrills and chills, particularly the middle section with the creepy clown. There's a great shot in which the clown is in the background, Winnick in the foreground. Simpson pulls focus on the clown, which slowly moves its head. If this film would have played in theaters, that would have been the scene where popcorn goes flying.

Unfortunately, this film makes no sense. It suffers from a familiar problem in these kind of films--the seeming invincibility of the killer. He is able to shrug aside puncture wounds to the throat and a fifty foot drop down a ladder, as well as having the foresight to be able to follow a car for hundreds of miles and get said car to pull off on a particular road. There's also the problem of the incredible killer's lair, in this case a massive underground bunker with huge cells (with walls that close in on each other), all built underneath a hillbilly's cabin. Yet somehow a police psychologist is lured inside.

So we end up with a hot-chick-in-jeopardy film that is from moment to moment gripping but adds up to junk. The ending is particularly groan-worthy, as the surviving heroine tells us in voice-over that she'll never forget what she went through. It comes across not only as a "duh!" moment, but also seems like the film just ran out of money at that point. That is a cool poster, though.

Monday, October 26, 2009

A Serious Man

Ah, the pleasure in settling into a theater seat to watch a film by Joel and Ethan Coen. Since their debut, Blood Simple (25 years ago!) I've seen every one of their films upon release, and aside from a few clunkers (even Joe DiMaggio struck out occasionally) I don't think anyone has a better track record over that time period.

There latest film, A Serious Man, may be their most personal. It's set in a Minneapolis suburb during 1967 among the Jewish community, which is where they grew up. And while parts of the film are raucously funny, at heart it's a grim fable, a contemporary spin on the Book of Job and a serious (natch) reflection on the nature of God and man.

The protagonist is Larry Gopnik, a mild-mannered professor of physics. He should be feeling good--his son is about to be bar mitzvahed, and he's up for tenure. But then everything starts to go wrong: his wife announces she's in love with another man (the supercilious Sy Abelman, played by Fred Melamed), the tenure committee is receiving anonymous letters casting aspersions on his moral turpitude, he's getting collection calls from the Columbia Record Club, he feels vaguely threatened by his Aryan neighbor, and his brother is arrested for soliciting in a gay bar.

Gopnik is at his wit's end, but takes this all passively, moving out to a motel (his moocher brother joining him) and seeks counsel. Being a somewhat spiritual man, he consults his rabbi, starting with the junior rabbi, who looks to be just out of school, working his way up the chain of command, but finding no solace anywhere (in the Book of Job, the afflicted man seeks the counsel of three friends). The two younger rabbis offer him bromides or a meaningless anecdote (a sequence involving a dentist and a secret message on a goy's teeth, a remarkable five minutes or so of filmmaking). The entire universe seems to be conspiring against him.

It's unclear what sets this off. The Coens offer a prologue, involving an old-world shtetl and a family possibly being cursed by a dybbuk (a wandering evil spirit in Jewish folklore), but Gopnik's crisis isn't as easily defined (and are the people in the prologue his ancestors? Again, unclear). He's tempted throughout by moral questions--should he take a bribe from a student--but his destiny seems pre-ordained. No amount of philanthropy would seem to help him.

The Coens view all of this dispassionately, in fact, they seem to be rooting against him. I know there are folks who don't like a film in which the creative team delight in tormenting their main character--this happens a lot in the work of Alexander Payne--but if done well there is a certain majesty to schadenfreude. What may be troubling in A Serious Man is that Gopnik in no way, shape or form deserves any of this, but then again neither did Job. This is the randomness of the cosmos--a man rolling snake eyes several times in a row. No reason for it, just the vagaries of chance.

So if this film may be distasteful to some, I enjoyed almost every second of it. To start with, the attention to detail is sublime, particularly of life in these United States in sixties suburbia. The poster, which depicts Gopnik as some kind of warrior doing battle with a TV antenna, is perfectly imagined. There are also magnificent touches like his son's friends, one with his shirt buttoned up to the Adam's apple, taking special relish in calling everyone a "fucker." Or the glassy-eyed temptress (Amy Landecker) who lives next door (while adjusting his antenna Gopnik spies on her sunbathing in the nude). Or the unmentioned leg braces on a confidant of Gopnik, whom we never learn the identity of. Or the almost mystical use of the Jefferson Airplane song, "Somebody to Love." I look forward to seeing this film several more times to discovering new touches.

The performances, mostly by unknowns, are terrific. Michael Stuhlbarg is Gopnik, and he brings a certain blandness to the project that a star couldn't have. Richard Kind, familiar to TV audiences, is the brother, who kind of reminded me of R. Crumb's brother in Terry Zwigoff's documentary, feverishly scribbling in a notebook while losing what little grip on sanity he has. Sari Lennick, Aaron Wolff, and Jessica McManus all do good work as the Gopnik clan, and in very small but exquisitely attuned roles are George Wyner as the second rabbi and Ari Hoptman as Gopnik's colleague on the tenure committee.

My only caution involves a reliance on gotcha-ism in the form of dream sequences, which is a bit cheap given the quality of the rest of the material. If I never seen another film in which something outrageous happens, only to be followed by a character bolting upright in bed, I won't be disappointed.

In reading up on Job this morning, I see that God spoke to Job as a whirlwind. This film ends with a whirlwind bearing down on a character. I'm going to have to think more about what this film is trying to say--are we at the mercy of an unfeeling deity, or are we in control of our fates? I fear the Coens suggest the former.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Hemingses of Monticello


Annette Gordon-Reed's The Heminges of Monticello won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. It's an exhaustive yet at times emotionally keen look at the family that served as the slaves of Thomas Jefferson during his lifetime at his home, Monticello. That he had a complicated relationship with them is an understatement, as one of them, Sally, was his mistress for thirty-six years, bearing him seven children.

Gordon-Reed has written about Jefferson and Sally before. In a previous book she outlined the case for his paternity of her children. If you are still suspicious of this fact (sort of the American history equivalent of doubting evolution) this book is not for you, as there is no equivocation about it--Jefferson and Hemings were lovers and parents. Instead, Gordon-Reed gives us a family biography, starting with Sally's grandmother, an unknown African woman who bore the children of a sea captain, named Hemings. One of the offspring was Elizabeth, who would become the matriarch of Monticello.

The complicated social fabric of slavery is the subtext of this family history. Captain Hemings did not want to see his children sold into slavery, but that was the law, and they were. Elizabeth was purchased by a John Wayles, who had three wives that all predeceased him. He then took Elizabeth as a lover, and she bore him several children, including Sally. Wayles was also the father of Martha Wayles Skelton, who would later go on to marry a certain Thomas Jefferson. When Wayles died, Jefferson, through his wife, inherited all his land and slaves. Martha struggled through several pregnancies, and finally died at a very young age. Jefferson vowed to her that he would never remarry. He kept that promise, but he didn't remain alone. Instead, he took as a concubine his wife's half-sister, Sally.

This is a difficult narrative to follow, and I can only imagine how difficult it was to write. The Jefferson-Hemings family tree has several interlocking branches. Every so often Gordon-Reed stops to remind us that the slaveholders and their slaves were related. She tells us how common mixing of the races was, particularly among masters and slaves, as well as the social conditions that were alive in the day. At times I forgot who was who (Gordon-Reed frequently referred to a person as "Hemings" and I forgot who she was talking about) and how they related to each other, but the overall effect was not diminished.

Jefferson and Sally Hemings first took up during his stay in Paris as a diplomat. In France, American slaves could leave their masters (Jefferson never bothered to register those he took with him, defying the law). At a critical moment in about 1790, Sally threatened to leave, but he made a deal with her: if she returned with him, he would free her children. Their first child was conceived in France, and she returned with him (as did her older brothers, Robert and James, the latter having been trained as a French chef).

Jefferson has been written about many times as a complicated figure, a man who preached liberty but kept human beings in bondage. Gordon-Reed has another go in this book, and she comes close to hitting the mark. He was a man who avoided conflict. He was not forward-thinking enough to advocate abolition, but he was kinder to his slaves than most, paying them wages. Of course they were still slaves, and if one of them ran away he had them tracked down. He thought of the black race as perpetual children, capable of having trades, but if they showed too much intelligence it was chalked up to their white blood. But toward the end of his life he was completely reliant on them. His daughters and other family members had to be completely aware of his relationship with Sally, and they tolerated it (Gordon-Reed points out that because he could not marry Sally, this was a godsend for Jefferson's daughters, because they need not fear a step-mother taking everything).

As to the nature of Jefferson and Hemings' relationship, Gordon-Reed does some nice tightrope walking. Was it love? Was it rape? She points out that even white women had little rights when it came to the marriage bed--there was no such thing as rape in marriage, as there was no such thing as rape in slavery. When Jefferson took up with Sally she was seventeen, he was forty-seven, and he was her owner, so it's difficult to rationalize it as a mutual relationship. But Gordon-Reed points out eloquently: "It takes a huge liberty with her life, however, to assume that she was raped, and that she knew she could escape from her rapist forever, and for a time actually asserted her right to be free of him, but nevertheless decided to return with him to Virginia to live out the rest of her life having more forced sex. That construction too easily uses the fact that she was born a slave (and a black person) to presume an irreparably damaged, completely cowed, and irrational personality over one who had the capacity to know her circumstances and to intelligently use her knowledge to assess the risks and possible rewards of taking a particular action--in other words, to think."

In addition to the Jefferson-Sally relationship, Gordon-Reed offers other interesting facets of the family's life. James, her older brother, is particularly interesting. He was trained as a chef, and Jefferson freed him (along with his brother Robert). But he ended up committing suicide, and Gordon-Reed's telling of it is heartbreaking. She also discusses how it was pretty much common knowledge that Jefferson had children with a slave (a rabid racist muckraker named James Callender wrote about it during Jefferson's presidency) and John Quincy Adams, a pillar of the abolition movement, wrote anonymous doggerel satirizing it. It seems that being against slavery did not mean one wasn't a racist.

The story ends bittersweetly. Jefferson did free his children (two of them, who were seven-eighths Caucasian, simply left Monticello and slipped into the white world). But Jefferson lived such a profligate lifestyle that he died deep in debt, and thus his estate had to be sold. His surviving legitimate daughter was left with nothing, and many of his slaves had to be sold, though friends and relatives did their best to keep families together. Sally was quietly freed, and outlived Jefferson by only nine years, in a rented house in Charlottesville.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Where the Wild Things Are


Maurice Sendak's book from 1963, Where the Wild Things Are, is one of those staples found on the bookshelves of tykes all over, and it is deceptively simple: a boy named Max, dressed in wolf pajamas, acts up and is sent to his room without supper. In his imagination his room fades away, and he is on a boat that sails to a jungle, where he meets some monsters. They dance and have a great time, and then he returns to reality, and has supper. It is ten sentences long.

Now the director Spike Jonze, teaming with writer Dave Eggers, have turned this tale into a padded film that reeks of modern psychiatry. I'm surprised Dr. Phil wasn't a consultant. Instead of being about the power of imagination, the film is about the frailty of family. You see, in the film, Max is the product of a broken home. His mother, Catherine Keener, worries about her job, and dates Mark Ruffalo, who seems nice enough. But something eats at Max, and he throws a spectacular fit (outwardly about his distaste for frozen corn) and when he bites his mother he runs out of the house and into the woods.

His fantasy takes him to an open boat on the high seas, and he lands on an island. He finds the wild things, large furry. horned monsters, engaging in destructive behavior. The rambunctious boy senses they are of a similar mind, and indeed Carol (voiced by James Gandolfini) is taken by him. Others are more suspicious, and suggest eating him. Max, thinking quickly, tells him that he is a king, and that sounds good to them, so they crown him.

The wild things are essentially overgrown children, and suffer from internecine squabbling. Their biggest issue is that K.W. (Lauren Ambrose) has left, enjoying the company of two owls. Carol is jealous of this. Judith (Catherine O'Hara) is prickly, and Alex (Paul Dano), a goat-like creature, is a bit of a nebbish. I find it kind of interesting that Max's imaginary playmates have such a litany of neuroses, perhaps an indication that Max needs to see a child psychiatrist. I don't think my childhood fantasies were nearly as Freudian.

Eggers, who was orphaned as a young man and raised his younger brother (as told in A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius) and Jonze have crafted a script that reflects the terror of a child facing separation. Whether it's his absent father or being told by a science teacher that the sun will one day die, poor Max seems to be in constant fear of being abandoned. Therefore he attempts to fashion his kingdom of monsters into a cohesive family, but it is beyond his skills (as it would be beyond anyones). This is a good idea, but I found it to be a labored and tedious point. The film, at just over ninety minutes, seems half again that long, and I was fidgeting like a six-year-old. The wild things are a major drag.

There are things to be admired. The first section of the film, with Max at home, is brilliantly crafted, and perfectly capture the mind of a hyperactive child. Also, it was a good choice to have the creatures not depicted as Jar-Jar Binks computer images, but as costumed actors (CGI is used for their facial expressions, and it's seamless). This choice, along with the fact that Max does not play with modern toys (not a video game to be seen) gives the film a timeless feeling, and aside from a brief shot of a computer it could have been set in 1963.

Then there is Max Records, who plays Max. Despite his cool name (how did his parents resist naming him Tower, Apple, or any one of a number of other names) he gives an authentic performance that never goes too far in cutesiness. When this little guy is called upon to shed tears it's absolutely heart-wrenching, and you wonder how someone that young can tap on to emotions so genuinely.

Though young Mr. Records is a fine actor, his character can be difficult to suss. Jonze and Eggers make the choice of changing one fundamental plot point of the book--instead of spinning his fantasy in his room, which is an internalization, he runs into the woods, an externalization (and also results in scaring his mother needlessly). One wonders what he was up to in the woods while he was imagining himself as king of the wild things, especially since it was night-time. Today's children are over-medicated, but I'm sorry to say that the thing that may benefit Max the most is a prescription to Ritalin.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein

When Francis Coppola scored a success with directing a faithful (relatively) adaptation of Bram Stoker's classic horror novel Dracula, he then set out to make its frequent companion, Frankenstein, based on the much earlier novel by Mary Shelley. He only produced, though, and let Kenneth Branagh, wunderkind of the British stage, direct and star. The result depends on one's mood, I expect.

I remember liking it back in '94 when it was released, but after just taking a second look I have to reevaluate. Branagh certainly manages to achieve a certain style--achieve is too mild a word. He grabs style by the throat and shakes it. It's as if he immersed himself in gothic literature and put everything he knows through that prism, and his film is a overwrought hyperbolic two hours of giddy excess. I suspect this was Branagh's goal, but is it something we want to see?

The film is an extremely faithful adaptation of the book, a story which fell into the mists of history when the popular James Whale rewrote Shelley in Universal-speak. That film is, of course, brilliantly iconic, but loses much of Shelley's point, as expressed in her subtitle, The Modern Prometheus. Yes, Colin Clive had a delicious god complex in the Whale version, but we lose the shadings of the creature, and we are reminded in the Branagh version that he was intelligent. He is played by Robert DeNiro, in an alternately wonderful and dreadful performance, one that has to be seen to be believed.

Branagh is the title character, a medical student who wants to eradicate death, and through the use of electric eels and a large copper pot stitches together some dead convict parts (and the brain of John Cleese) to make his creature. He is immediately horrified by his creation (there is a subtext of lookism at foot here) and lets the thing run off into the cholera-ridden streets. Branagh returns to his happy Geneva home and his fiancee, Helena Bonham Carter, who was raised as his sister (there is also a subtext of incest).

The creature wanders the woods and takes refuge in the pig sty of a struggling farm family, where he, unseen, helps them out and vicariously learns to read and speak. When they see him, though, they are repulsed, and he runs off, sobbing. He vows revenge against his creator, and becomes like that movie cliche of the villain who seemingly can walk through walls. After killing a few of the doc's family members, he tells Branagh he will leave him alone if he makes him a mate.

All of this is told in flashback on an icebound ship in the Arctic, which is also part of the book, even though it seems like a fever-induced idea from a screenwriter. There is lots of fire, but the monster has no fear of it, and also lots of hammy declamation. My favorites are when Branagh channels Clive and says, "It lives!" or when DeNiro tells the world, "I will have my revenge! Frankenstein!" Part of the problem is that this whole concept has been perfectly parodied in Young Frankenstein, and whenever I saw Branagh with his open shirt and flowing locks I thought of Gene Wilder and laughed.

This is a handsome production, though. The photography by Roger Pratt is luscious, particularly a scene shot in an ice cave and Bonham Carter's fiery exit from the film, which is also a remarkable bit of stunt work by her double, Tracy Eddon.

Branagh is an interesting figure in recent film history. He scores big with Shakespeare--Henry V , his first film, remains his best, and his uncut Hamlet had merit and one of his best acting jobs was as Iago in Othello (though his Love's Labour's Lost is supposed to be a travesty), but outside of the Bard he has fared far worse. His film work has dried up lately, limited to supporting roles in a Harry Potter film and a weird Woody Allen impersonation in Celebrity. I imagine he has focused mostly on stage work, but one has to consider his film career a disappointment after the promise of Henry V.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Chicago Transit Authority


The band Chicago was huge when I was a kid in the seventies. They were very radio-friendly, and had a string of hits (20 top ten singles) that, over time, got more and more treacly, culminating in "If I Leave You Now," which I remember that the girls in my school liked, but not the boys. It's therefore useful to remember that when they got their start, Chicago was a hard-driving, bluesy, jazz-flavored acid rock band. They also had a longer name, Chicago Transit Authority.

They only had that name for one album, though, the eponymous one released forty years ago (protest from the actual Chicago Transit Authority was headed off by a truncation of the name--apparently the city itself didn't protest). The debut album was a double one, full of long, instrumentally heavy tracks, and when there were lyrics they were introspective and existential. A symbiosis of Jimi Hendrix and the big band sound, the album is one of the boldest rock debuts of all time.

Chicago is well known for their musicianship, particularly the lead guitar player Terry Kath (Hendrix claimed Kath was better than he was), drummer Daniel Seraphine, and a horn section of James Pankow, Leo Loughnane, and Walter Parazaider (how many rock bands had a trombone player, then or now?). The vocalists were bassist Peter Cetera and keyboardist Robert Lamm, who also wrote the songs that are remembered from this album: "Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?", "Beginnings," and "Questions 67 and 68." However, they weren't released as singles initially, and the album reached the top 20, based mostly on FM airplay. Also recognizable is the cover of the Spencer Davis Group's "I'm a Man," and frankly I prefer Chicago's version, which has a looser yet more emphatic feeling to it.

I was pleased by some of the tracks that were new to me. Lamm also wrote "Poem 58" and "South California Purples," which are reminiscent of Hendrix. There are also some long, more avant-garde interludes, including "Free Form Guitar," which is Kath noodling on his ax, and "Liberation," which closes the album with a true-to-the-age revolutionary spirit.

Speaking of "Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?"--I realize this song is about how trivial the mundane aspects of one's day is while the war raged in Vietnam, but if I stopped a guy to ask him the time and he gave me this response: "Does anybody really know what time it is? Does anybody really care? I can't imagine why, I don't have time enough to cry," I'd storm off, muttering "asshole" under my breath.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Exit Ghost


It has taken me two inexplicable years to get around to reading Exit Ghost, by Philip Roth, my favorite novelist. It is the ninth, and supposedly last, of his novels about his literary alter-ego, Nathan Zuckerman, and I have now read them all. It is a sterling piece of fiction.

The previous three Zuckerman books--American Pastoral, I Married a Communist, and The Human Stain--featured Zuckerman as a supporting player and observer of the tragedy of someone else. In Exit Ghost he returns to front and center. He is now 71, living in a hermit-like existence in a cabin in western Massachusetts. He is virtually cut off from the outside world, as he doesn't watch TV, read newspapers, or own a computer.

A urological condition compels him to return to New York City (he is incontinent, as well as impotent, from a bout of prostate cancer). He has not been in the city in eleven years, chased away by death threats, and likens himself to Rip Van Winkle upon returning. He is most amazed by the prevalent use of cell phones: "Every where I walked, somebody was on the phone. Inside the cars, the driver was on the phone. When I took a taxi, the cabbie was on the phone. For one who frequently went without talking to anyone for days at a time, I had to wonder what that had previously held them up had collapsed in people to make incessant talking into a telephone preferable to walking about under no one's surveillance, momentarily solitary, assimilating the streets through one's animal senses and thinking the myriad thoughts that the activities of a city inspire."

A chance sighting of a person from his past changes things. She is Amy Bellette, and was a character in the first Zuckerman book, The Ghost Writer. She was the student and mistress of Zuckerman's literary idol, E.I. Lonoff. In the current book she is 75 and a sufferer of a brain tumor. Jogged by the memory, Zuckerman impulsively answers an ad by a couple looking to swap their New York apartment for a rural New England retreat. When he meets the couple, he is smitten by the wife, a thirty-year old woman. Then a writer who is doing a biography of Lonoff tracks him down (he is the wife's old boyfriend) and Zuckerman is repulsed. He determines not to cooperate with what he finds to be a literary graverobber and even plans to do anything he can do to stop him.

There are many familiar themes that Roth recycles for this book, primarily the decrepitude of old age as one slides towards death. Roth, the same age as Zuckerman, has been examining mortality a lot lately--his recent novels Everyman, The Dying Animal, and Indignation have all featured characters facing or succumbing to the grim reaper. In addition, Zuckerman is suffering from some embarrassing maladies--he goes to a urologist so he can control his bladder, and not have to wear Depends. This, coupled with his impotence, make him feel less of a man (he is not in control of his penis). As the book goes on he, along with the reader, realizes he is also losing his memory, and he becomes an unreliable narrator.

There is also a political bent to the book. In a way, this is Roth's 9/11 book. Jamie, the young wife, is fleeing the city because of the fear of another terrorist attack. A pivotal scene takes place on the night of the 2004 election, in which he is invited to watch the election returns with the young couple. They are committed liberals, and their optimism is dashed as the results go sour. Roth, through the character of Billy, the young man, sums George W. Bush up from a quote from MacBeth: "A wayward son, spiteful and wrathful." Roth is a well-known liberal and allows Zuckerman to sum up the last generation or so of presidential politics: "I had campaigned for Stevenson as a college student and had my juvenile expectations dismantled when Eisenhower trounced him, first in '52 and then again in '56; and I could not believe what I saw when a creature so rooted in his ruthless pathology, so transparently fraudulent and malicious as Nixon, defeated Humphrey in '68, and when, in the eighties, a self-assured knucklehead whose unsurpassable hollowness and hackneyed sentiments and absolute blindness to every historical complexity became the object of national worship and, esteemed as a 'great communicator' no less, won each of his two terms in a landslide." Zuckerman's solution to this is to stop following politics.

Then there is the older man/younger woman trope. To his credit, Roth does not consummate the attraction, instead Zuckerman pines for Jamie, is politely rebuffed, and repairs to his hotel room to write a dialogue of fantasy. While it is poignant, it can stretch into a kind of pathetic neediness, and bears similarities to the recent films of Woody Allen.

This book has a lot of anger. Roth, who has been the subject of biography, vents a lot of spleen at biographers, who dredge up secrets in the interest of exalting their subjects. Zuckerman is a man who lives in a previous era, and perhaps has outlived his time, hanging on past his expiration date, pissing his pants and smelling like death. But then, toward the end of the book, Roth is uncharacteristically sentimental when he writes a tribute to George Plimpton. It's a strange interlude, but I would imagine Plimpton would have been thrilled to read it.

Roth does not kill off Zuckerman, but as he drives back to his solitude in Massachusetts we can be confident he is "crawling into my hole to die." Taken as a whole, the nine books about Zuckerman may be the greatest series of books involving one character in all of American letters.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Playboy After Dark

Over the past week or two I've been watching DVDs of a curious artifact in the history of American TV: Playboy After Dark, a variety show that was hosted by Playboy magazine's publisher and editor Hugh Hefner. They are fascinating time capsules.

The show had two incarnations. In 1959-60 it ran for one year under the name Playboy's Penthouse. The DVD collection contains a long, self-congratulatory yet revealing interview with Hefner in which he talks about the genesis of the show. His desire was to be the personification of the ideal Playboy man, and thus he remade himself to fit that image. The show was a representation of a cocktail party at his bachelor pad, with beautiful girls strategically placed like furniture and young men in tuxedos, listening to jazz and talking about the issues of the day.

This seems quaint now, but there is a very appealing aspect to the show, especially since the period is somewhat in vogue now, due to Mad Men. The first volume of DVDs contain two shows from this period. One of them is dominated by the talent of Sammy Davis Jr., who performs in his inimitable style. Hefner mentions in the interview that the show was not carried on stations in Southern states, because the show had whites and blacks intermingling as equals. The other, in retrospect, packs quite a wallop, featuring Lenny Bruce, Ella Fitzgerald, and Nat King Cole (who doesn't sing). Since the show is set up as a party, Bruce does his thing sitting on a sofa, surrounded by listening guests. Author Rona Jaffe is also a guest, discussing her new book, and Hefner shows a clip from the movie that was made from it (he shows it from a projector onto a screen on the wall). My favorite part was when composer Cy Coleman (who wrote the theme of the show) performs his new song, which was just about to be recorded by Frank Sinatra--"The Best Is Yet to Come."

The attitudes of swells of the late fifties are on full display here, including a snooty attitude toward rock and roll (the Playboy man of that time dug jazz). But when the show returned ten years later, rock was embraced, as it was the time of psychedelia. The name was changed to Playboy After Dark, no doubt because the Penthouse name had been co-opted by Bob Guccione, and the show now reflected the times, looking a lot like Laugh-In--lots of kaleidoscope images, girls in miniskirts, and men in ruffled shirts and medallions.

The shows were mixtures of comedy and music, with the emphasis on the latter, and since different styles were straddled there were some interesting pairings. In one episode a barefoot Linda Ronstadt belted out some country tunes, and then later joined smooth-voiced jazz singer Billy Eckstine for a duet on "God Bless the Child." Joe Cocker and the Grease Band were another musical guest. On another show Sonny and Cher, Vic Damone, and Canned Heat were all guests, and played a game with Hef in which they described what animals they would be (Sonny, with Cher giving him a malevolent stare, said he would be a cat).

The comedy sequences don't hold up well. Mostly they are visits by established talk-show denizens such as Louis Nye, Dick Shawn, and Larry Storch, doing mild bits that didn't seem that funny even then. Sid Caesar does some voices, and Mort Sahl talks about the politics of sex. A nadir is when Rex Reed, flamboyant in a white suit, does some improv with Patty Duke.

As with the earlier show, one of the later episodes is dominated by Davis. He joins Anthony Newley for a medley, with Bill Cosby vamping behind them, and then is surprised by Jerry Lewis and Peter Lawford. The standard show-biz schmoozing commences, with Davis, referring to men as "cats" telling Hef how much Lewis means to him, and then joining him for a song.

These shows are pretty fascinating, not only for the talent involved but what they say about times gone by. I've been reading Playboy for thirty-five years and am not about to stop, but I recognize its weaknesses. The editorial board may support feminism, but they can't eradicate the essential sexism of the whole enterprise, which is magnified by these shows. The models are adornment, with blank stares on their faces. In the later years Barbi Benton was Hef's girlfriend, and she is like an appendage, staring up at him with an admiring gaze that suggests she's been drugged or hypnotized. This also represents a time when Playboy was much more relevant--in one show Hef shows off a model of the DC-9 the company had purchased. That plane was sold long ago, as the magazine's circulation dropped (and continues to drop). At one time they sold seven million copies a month, several times what they do now.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Bash


In my quest to support local college theater, I managed to find a small theater in one of the colleges on the campus of Princeton University to attend Bash, two monologues by Neil Labute, performed by Princeton seniors. The monologues are two-thirds of a trilogy of one-acts by Labute, who is also a filmmaker who has made such controversial films as In the Company of Men and The Shape of Things, as well as being an accomplished playwright.

The one-acts that the students performed are called Medea Redux and Iphegenia in Orem. You may note that both of these titles refer to Greek myths, and both concern infanticide. Needless to say the evening of theater was not a laugh riot, but was considerably gripping.

Medea Redux was performed by Laura Breckenridge (pictured here, in a photo from The Daily Princetonian). She is an actress of some accomplishment, having done a few movies and some TV, most notably a multi-episode arc on Gossip Girl. She has returned to Princeton after a few years off, and there's something comforting about a performer serious enough about her craft that even after finding some success in lightweight TV fare she has done a difficult monologue about a woman who kills her own child in a theater in front of twenty or so non-paying patrons.

The monologue is done in an interrogation room. The woman sits at a desk, a tape recorder before her, and she tells the unseen detective about how she was seduced by a teacher, bore his son, and then many years later killed that son. Breckenridge holds an unlit cigarette in her twitching hand, immediately drawing the audience into the moment, waiting for the startling revelation that is sure to come (given that the name Medea is in the title, we can guess). Labute, basing his play on a Greek myth, immerses it in the contemporary, though, as the woman describes being taken on a school trip to an aquarium, age 13, and how the teacher pressed himself against her while was against the glass, a hammerhead shark swimming by. Pretty chilling stuff. Her dark eyes shining with moisture, Breckenridge is nearly flawless in her explication of the tale, though Labute offers little reason why the act is committed (the real Medea was pissed off at Jason, her errant husband, running off with another woman, and the parallel with this story doesn't jibe).

The second monologue is Iphigenia in Orem, performed by Adam Zivkovic. It is also in the form of a confession, except this time it's in a hotel room. Zivkovic is a young salesman who has persuaded a man he met in the cocktail lounge to come up to his room to hear his story. It is another chilling tale, involving a dead baby. The Iphigenia of myth was the daughter of Agamemnon, who was sacrificed to appease the Gods. In this story, set in the Utah suburb of Orem, the man has learned that he is to be layed off and, given an opportunity to save his infant daughter from suffocation in some blankets, does nothing, thinking her death will be a financial boon. Then he learns that his boss was playing a joke on him.

Zivkovic has given himself a tall order. The monologue runs for about forty-five minutes, and he doesn't quite have the pacing right. There are too many awkward pauses (perhaps he was struggling to remember his lines--at least that's what it seemed like it). But he had the character down, a young otherwise vigilant man (presumably a Mormon, given the location and his reference to not drinking) who carries with him a powerful secret.

It is thought that all the character in these one-acts are Mormon (there is a reference to Utah in the Medea monologue, and the full title of the trilogy is Bash: Latter-Day Plays), given that Labute was once a Mormon. To use mythic instances of infanticide to comment on a contemporary religion is certainly eyebrow-raising, but I'm not sure it has a deeper meaning than shock value, which is something that Labute specializes in. He's a writer who seems interested in angering his audiences as much as anything. I remember walking out of the theater livid at the end of The Shape of Things, but at the same time deep in admiration for Labute at how he was able to manipulate me. There's a little of that in Bash, but not nearly to that level. What we have here really are two descriptions of those who have committed what is generally regarded as the most horrific of crimes and, instead of an explanation for them, we have instead an examination of them, performed by one gifted actress and one talented actor.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Whip It


Whip It is the perfect embodiment of a directorial debut for Drew Barrymore. She is, for all her charm, not a particularly good actress. She doesn't have a big range, is not an elocutionist of any distinction, and has never shown a great depth--she won't be performing Chekhov any time soon. But her innate sunniness, along with a little-engine-that-could biography, have made her an appealing star.

Whip It operates in the same manner. The film is at times a technical mess, and is littered with cliches, but earns my recommendation based on an undeniable attitude and a winning performance by Ellen Page. It exists in a cinematic world that doesn't exist in real life, but very may well in Barrymore's imagination.

The film is set in the world of roller derby. The last movie I saw in this milieu was Kansas City Bomber, starring Raquel Welch, when I was twelve (I saw it in a double feature with Bless the Beasts and the Children). That may be the last studio film about a sport that is pretty much an anachronism now. It was popular in a pre-cable TV era, sort of a distaff version of pro wrestling, and was a forum for attractive but butch women to knock each other around for the blood lust of the audience. Whip It therefore has a unique challenge--it's about a sport that no one really remembers. I suspect more people know quidditch than they do roller derby, and the film has to take a few minutes to explain the rules.

Page plays Bliss, a high school girl in a nowhere town in Texas. Her mother (Marcia Gay Harden) pushes her into beauty pageants, where the mother excelled. But Page has eyes for the Bohemian culture of nearby Austin, and likes to wear ironic t-shirts and boots bought in a head shop. It's in that shop that she serendipitously grabs a flier for roller derby, and on a lark she and her friend (Alia Shawkat) attend.

I have no idea is there is really a roller derby culture in Austin or anyplace else, but this is where the film displays the most verve and creativity. The film is written by Shauna Cross, based on her novel, and she is either a creator of new worlds or a keen observer of a sub-culture. Lower middle-class women, many with tattoos and menial jobs, spend their limited leisure time engaging in a rough and tumble sport, in themed teams (the Hurl Scouts wear faux Girl Scout uniforms, the Holy Rollers in Catholic school-girl outfits) and vivid pseudonyms, like Smashley Simpson, Eva Destruction, and Bloody Holly. On what seems to be a strictly amateur basis, they perform in a warehouse for a small audience and then hawk merchandise after it's over.

Page, captivated by the world, decides to lie to her parents and try out, even though she's too young and has to regain her skating form by using Barbie skates. But she's fleet, makes the team, and adopts the moniker of Babe Ruthless. She bonds with her teammates, none more so than the motherly Kristin Wiig as Maggie Mayhem, and falls for a gangly indie-rock boyfriend (while they were wooing each other a teenage girl behind me sighed rapturously, "I like this guy!")

The cliches then start coming, fast and furious. They are of two types--the sports-movie cliches, where the once bad team finds their mojo and challenges for the championship, and the child-defies-parents-but-then-parents-come-around cliches. However even when I wanted to groan at them I was enchanted by the whole thing, and much of the credit has to go to Barrymore. She may not know how to transition between scenes, but all that time on movie sets has taught her how to earn her characters devotion. And, of course, she is good to her actors and lets them shine. Page plays a very different character than Juno. She's not especially bright or glib, just a girl who is trying to find an identity and escape her mother's shadow, and the camera loves her. If Bliss had decided to take up quilting there may have been a move in that.

Harden also is successful, walking a difficult line of being an overbearing mother without being a stereotype. Daniel Stern is the father, a good-ol'-boy who'd rather watch football than deal with a family crisis. He is also successful in taking a cliche--the parent who allows his child to spread their wings--and creating something interesting.

I find it interesting that Wiig, such a gifted sketch comedian, plays a character who is not funny, but she is very good. Juliette Lewis is Iron Maven, the villainous captain of the rival Holy Rollers, is effective, as is Andrew Wilson as the Hurl Scouts coach, and Jimmy Fallon as the louche ring announcer.

Another character in the film is the city of Austin which, as it did in films like Slacker and Death Proof, comes across as a easy-going Bohemian enclave in a state otherwise as red as a beefsteak tomato. To the kids in Page's town, it is something like the Emerald City, a place to aspire to, peopled by hipsters who indulge in cool pursuits and aren't bogged down in the petty concerns of middle-class suburbia. The Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, one of the most celebrated independent movie theaters in the country, makes a cameo. This film makes me want to go there.

Some may not be able to get past the obvious story points. Almost every plot turn of the script is obvious, there are no surprises. Yet in this instance familiarity brings comfort, and I left Whip It charmed and entertained.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Casey Parker


Casey Parker is a rarity among adult film stars--she's managed to make a significant name in the business while only appearing in nine titles. Nine! There are some girls who knock off 200 titles in the three-year span she made nine. I have eight of those titles, so a thorough study of her work is feasible.

Parker fulfills a very specific type in the pantheon of female types that men lust after: the beach bunny. She is blonde, with an upturned nose and a goofy giggle. Her golden hair hangs in straight tresses, and her all-natural body is lean and ridiculously sexy. She wears little makeup, and thus appears like a throwback to the hippie era. She further emphasizes the beach persona by being an adept surfer and has a tattoo of a seashell on her behind. In some ways she appears to have been conjured by someone with a very specific fantasy.

Eight of the titles she has appeared in are all produced by the same company, Shane's World (Shane, the founder of the line, was a performer who was once partner of Seymore Butts, and together they made some memorable films). The name of the company is a play on both Wayne's World, but also the Real World, because the films are basically a group of porn stars in a particular location, usually a vacation spot, goofing around, undertaking adventurous activities like bungee jumping, skydiving, and trapeze and, of course, fucking. Some of the titles are Casey's Pool Party, Casey Parker Lost in Puerto Rico, or Casey Parker's Winter Break. While I'm sure the intention was to attract the younger porn viewer, these discs are also immensely appealing to the older set, including myself, who are wistful about lost youth and relive it by watching young and attractive people have sex.

I first discovered Parker when a review copy of her debut, Casey Parker Is the Girl Next Door came my way. The film introduces her as a college student in Colorado who has sent tapes of herself to the company, which has then dispatched performers Johnny Castle and Roxy DeVille to bring her back to L.A. and sign her to a contract. She agrees, but tells them she is afraid to fly and so they have to drive her back. The film, by porn standards, is something of a masterpiece, as it drips with authenticity (and DeVille, another standout performer, indulges her hobby of giving handjobs to college boys). It was only when I met DeVille at a porn convention that she told me the whole thing was staged, which I should have known, but when I'm watching porn I can be led to believe just about anything.

Parker seems to have stopped making films, her last was in 2008. She seems to have concentrated on being a feature dancer in strip clubs. If there will be no more output from her, I can be content in her small oeuvre. Her sex scenes are gems, uninhibited couplings with boys with rippling muscles. She doesn't do kinky--it's just old-fashioned knocking boots, and will warm the cockles of my heart well into my old age.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Where Angels Fear to Tread

A few weeks ago I posited that E.M. Forster may be the novelist most well-treated by cinematic adaptations, but that was before seeing Where Angels Fear to Tread, directed by Charles Sturridge, and released in 1991. It is an example of the kind of stuffy British cinema that can make those who like their movies full of explosions roll their eyes--lots of tea drinking, women wearing their hair up, and an actor named Rupert.

Perhaps the Merchant Ivory team avoided this novel because it wasn't as good or easily adapted, but Sturridge (who directed the well-respected TV version of Brideshead Revisited) took it on. As with A Room With a View, this film deals with the contrast of England and Italy, seeing the latter country as an exotic place that awakens the slumbering spirits of the frosty Brits. Helen Mirren is Lilia, a widow who, as the film begins, heads for Italy, along with a chaperon (Helena Bonham Carter, a specialist in Forster adaptations). She is happy to get away, as she lives with the family of her dead husband, and they are a cold, reproving bunch. While in Italy she meets and falls in love with a younger Italian man, and her brother-in-law, Rupert Graves, is dispatched to stop the union. He is too late, though.

Mirren eventually becomes pregnant and dies in childbirth, leaving the son to her husband. The family back in England tut-tuts about this, but has no interest in the baby. But when Bonham Cater, the daughter of a vicar, goes to Italy to rescue the baby from being brought up non-English, Graves returns, along with his sister, Judy Davis, to attempt to secure the child, not out of any familial feeling, but so the family doesn't lose the moral high ground.

Of course all of this is unseemly. Davis, in particular, has it bad (she was also a Forster vet, so good in A Passage to India). I think she's one of the finest film actresses working today, but she is given a thankless role--a spinster who is wound so tight that she is ready to burst. There is nothing for Davis to do with this role but flounder, particularly in a scene where she attends an Italian opera and tries to shush patrons while they are shouting "bravas" to the diva. It's interesting to note that it was also this year that she gave a far different performance in Naked Lunch. Graves has a more interesting character to play. He is an uppercrust Englishman, full of prejudices, but he is also swayed by the sun and splendor of Tuscany. It his growth as a character that is the spine of the action.

Bonham Carter, who has long been typecast in roles that put her in a corset and hatpins, also has trouble with her character. I was never quite sure where she was coming from. It's a dour, listless performance, driven by the script. It is her action that carries the plot forward, but it's an action that is unaccountable for on the screen, so the audience can only be bewildered. Perhaps the class divisions of the time made it much more relevant to audiences at the time. Today, it's hard to see why a baby growing up Italian would be a bad thing.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Kiss Her Goodbye


It's been a while since I've read a Hard Case Crime novel, so I continue with Kiss Her Goodbye, by Allan Guthrie, an original set in gritty Edinburgh, Scotland (with a stop off in the Orkney Islands, a rare location for a pulp crime book).

The book details a few very rough days in the life of Joe Hope, who is university educated but works as an enforcer for a local loan shark. Though this is Scotland, baseball bats are at a premium, as they are the principal implements in Joe's line of work (apparently cricket bats aren't as effective). Joe has a daughter, a young woman, who has gone off to the Orkneys to work for his wife's cousin. But when she commits suicide that's just the first bad bit of news for Joe. When he goes off to Orkney to interrogate the cousin (after inquiring about a sporting goods store to buy a bat) he is arrested for his wife's murder. Someone has set Joe up.

The book is moderately engaging but doesn't quite hang together. Who is framing Joe is apparent from the outset, and thus the book is not as much a whodunit but a how-will-our-hero-get-out-of-this-alive situation. It's a trim length, but there's too much padding, particularly involving the cousin and his mooning over an assistant. What works best is the descriptions of the layabouts that make up most of the characters: Joe, his boss Cooper, and a prostitute Joe hangs with called Tina, who is also pretty handy with a bat.

The writing could have stood a stronger edit. There were too many times when the narrative shifted without proper transition. Still, a fairly effective crime story.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

She Stoops to Conquer

The second play of McCarter Theater's season is She Stoops to Conquer, a venerable piece from the eighteenth-century, a crowd-pleasing comedy by Irish writer Oliver Goldsmith. I saw this play over twenty-five years ago, when the drama department of my college put it on, and I'm amazed that I remembered practically none of it. This may be because of my faulty memory, or that the play is a gossamer confection that is amusing for a few hours and then dissolves upon careful contemplation.

The play is built around a practical joke. A country squire, Mr. Hardcastle, is expecting the son of his friend, Charles Marlow, to visit from London. He is hoping to match the young man to his daughter, Kate. Mr. Hardcastle's buffoonish stepson, Tony Lumpkin, meets the young man and his friend, George Hastings, in the local saloon (where Tony often abides) and plays a prank--he tells them that they are miles from the Hardcastle abode, but an inn is nearby. That inn, of course, is the Hardcastle estate. When Marlow and Hastings arrive they treat Mr. Hardcastle like an innkeeper. When Marlow, who is notoriously shy around women of his own station, meets Kate, she pretends to be a barmaid (thus "stooping to conquer") and his brash impudent nature comes out.

This is all very funny, kind of a very old version of a certain kind of Broadway farce. There are deeper meanings, if you choose to look for them, such as the contrast between the country folk of England and the more foppish Londoners (Mrs. Hardcastle is a broad caricature of a woman who would like to be thought of as fashionable), and also a comic examination of the differences in social class. Marlow, besotted with Kate as a barmaid, tells her he can't possibly marry her, but of course when he finally finds out who she is all is fine. Also, Tony is waiting to come of age to gain an inheritance, and therefore feels he can act the clown with impunity. At the end of the play he is told that he is already of age (apparently birthdays weren't a big deal back then) and he suddenly changes.

The production is capably directed by Nicholas Martin, who has instructed the cast to act with broad strokes, which is wise in a play of this type. All of the cast excel, particularly Paxton Whitehead and Kate Nielsen as the Hardcastles, Brooks Ashmankas as Tony, Jessica Stone as Kate (I could visually Reese Witherspoon in a film version), and looking like Paul McCartney circa 1965, Jon Patrick Walker as Charles Marlow.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Agony of the Blown Save


The great thing about baseball is that it is a game that has been played essentially the same way for over a hundred years, yet new things happen all the time. And often, when something happens for the first time, it happens again mere hours later.

That was the case over the first round of the Division Series playoffs, which are all now concluded. Never before had a team won a series-clinching game after being down by two runs and down to their last out. The Angels did it on Sunday, getting to Boston closer Jonathan Papelbon, scoring three in the top of the ninth after two were out to sweep the Bosox. Then, the next night, the Phils, also down by two with two out, tallied three to end the Rockies' season.

In fact, all four series featured a blown save by an exalted closer. Had they all held serve the complexions of these series might have been much different. The bullpen horrors started on Thursday in game two of the Cardinals-Dodgers series. Adam Wainwright of the Redbirds had hurled a great game, and Trevor Miller got an out in the bottom of the ninth. The ball was turned over to Ryan Franklin with out out in the ninth with a 2-1 lead. He got a quick out, but leftfielder Matt Holliday played James Loney's liner off his cup and Loney ended up on second. Franklin would end up walking two and allowing two hits, including a bases-loaded single by pinch-hitter Mark Loretta to win it for L.A.

Clearly the goat was Holliday, but Franklin bears a great deal of responsibility. He could have bore down and got out of the inning and sent the series back to St. Louis even, but had a complete breakdown. The one thing a great closer can not do is lose the strike zone and put guys on. In any event, the Dodgers shut the Cards down in game three on Saturday for the sweep.

On Friday night in game two of the Twins-Yankees series, Minnesota closer Joe Nathan took the mound in the bottom of the ninth with a two-run lead. He let up a single to Mark Texeira and then Alex Rodriguez crushed a pitch to tie it. The Yanks would end up winning in the bottom of the 11th on Texeira's tracer home run to left. Had Nathan closed the door, the Twins would have gone to Minnesota even, and who knows?

On Sunday the Red Sox looked like they were going to escape a sweep, being up by as many as four runs. The Angels hung in there, though. Papelbon came in in the eighth with two on and the Sox up 5-2, but allowed a two-run single to Juan Rivera (the runs were not charged to Papelbon). But the Sox got out of it, picked up an insurance run in the bottom of the frame, and headed into the ninth with their closer on the hill and up by two. The Sox have had a history of coming back in series, beating the A's and the Indians after being down 0-2, so it looked like this was going to be a series after all.

But things turned sour, and again it was with two out. The big hits were a double by Bobby Abreu and then a two-run single by Vlad Guerrero, but walks again proved deadly. The Sox were also victim to a classic TV graphic jinx: mere seconds after the announcers told us that Papelbon had never been charged a run in a post-season game, the stat became obsolete (shades of the time in '85 when a graphic said that Ozzie Smith had never hit a home run left-handed, and then promptly did just that to propel the Cards past the Dodgers). The Angels closer, Brian Fuentes, did his job in the bottom of the ninth and Red Sox fans were doomed to another dismal winter (and weren't helped when the Patriots lost to the Broncos later that afternoon).

Finally last night, in a very entertaining game, the Rockies fell victim to bad-closer-itis. They had pulled a little magic of their own, coming back from a run down to notch three in the bottom of the eighth to take that dreaded two-run lead. They had their closer, Huston Street (I've seen his name misspelled as Houston Street, which is a byway separating Greenwich Village from Soho in Manhattan), on the mound. He got one out, and then Jimmy Rollins got an infield single. But he got the tough Shane Victorino. The key at bat was Chase Utley, and Street walked him, which turned out to be costly. Ryan Howard then crushed a double to right to tie it, and then Jason Werth volleyed a soft single to score Howard.

Four blown saves in this first round, but none of them belonged to beleaguered Phillies reliever Brad Lidge, who came in the bottom of the ninth to save it for the Phillies.

If one thing has changed in the century-plus of modern baseball, it is the use of the closer. In the old days, relief pitchers were either over-the-hill journeymen or young players. They were not specialists, and starting pitchers were expected to pitch entire games. That changed for good in the seventies, when Rollie Fingers and Mike Marshall came along. But the use of the closer evolved even further in the eighties, when a closer was really only asked to pitch one inning, and save totals mushroomed. The greatest closer of this latest era is Mariano Rivera of the Yankees, but it shouldn't be forgotten that he has been imperfect, blowing three saves in the post-season that cost his team a series: to the Indians in '97, the Diamondbacks in '01, and the Red Sox in '04. For all the greatness of Rivera, there are significant blemishes on his record. Being a closer is not for the feint-hearted.

I was three-for-four in my predictions, failing to anticipate the collapse of the Cardinals. I'll root for an all-L.A. World Series (given that the Series will go five days in November, I imagine it would make things a lot easier for everyone if that panned out). It's hard to justify imagining the Yankees not winning it all, especially since A-Rod is hitting (maybe Kate Hudson can bottle whatever she's giving him), but I'll go out on a limb and predict that the Angels can somehow do it. The Dodgers look awfully tough, and with Cole Hamels not looking sharp for the Phils, I think L.A. wins this rematch of last season's NLCS.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Jennifer's Body


The box office failure of Jennifer's Body was the story upon its release a few weekends ago. I caught it just before it seems to be on its way out of theaters (there were only two shows, one of them at 10:35 in the morning--AMC has a $6.00 A.M. show price that rocks, for those of us who have no family or social lives). It wasn't great, but I was into it and never bored. Why it failed is a question for those who study marketing, because I have no clue what makes the masses happy.

The focus of the marketing was all about the screenwriter, Diablo Cody, and one of the stars, Megan Fox, and both of them have been caught up in an absurd kind of backlash that I can't pretend to understand. With Cody it might be that would-be screenwriters, whom I imagine are legion in the L.A. environs, are jealous of an ex-stripper who scored big on her first try, with Juno. That and her dialogue contains an abundance of preciousness and pop-culture effluvia that defies reality.
Jennifer's Body has some of that--a line said by Fox, "Move on, dot org," will be the equivalent to Juno's "honest to blog"--but I found most of the writing to be smart and nicely off-balanced the horror.

Yes, this film is a horror picture. It has a comic tone, but there's no denying this a red-blooded fright flick, and as such it has more than its share of thrills and creeps. Director Karyn Kusama seems to have done her homework and channeled the best horror movies, from the Universal classics to Nightmare on Elm Street, and maybe even she or Cody read some of the books by Richard Laymon, who specialized in combining horror and teen sexuality. Jennifer's Body is not torture-porn, and may disappoint those who demand buckets of gore, but I found it to be evocative, especially a climax in an abandoned natatorium, which is beautifully shot by M. David Mullen.

The story is about two high school girls, played by Fox and Amanda Seyfried. The latter actress is really the lead, though she's frumped up in contrast to her more glamorous co-star. "Hell is a teenage girl," is Seyfried's first line of dialogue, doubling as tag line, and the spine of the piece is an examination of friendships between teenage girls, particularly when they have drifted into different social circles. Seyfried's Anita (known as "Needy") is the bookish, good girl, while Fox's Jennifer is a queen bee, a cheerleader and non-virgin (she's not even a "backdoor virgin," as she tells Seyfried,going to say that she had to sit on a bag of frozen peas). They were friends as a small children, and have maintained the relationship, however tenuous.

Fox drags Seyfried to the local bar (the girls live in the vividly named Devil's Kettle, Minnesota) to see a band she likes. The band is a great creation, the kind of band that is so calculating (they wear eyeliner and aspire to be "like that guy in Maroon 5") that they would probably would become popular. They are later described as "agents of Satan with really awesome haircuts." When a fire that is eerily reminiscent of the one in Rhode Island kills several patrons, the band, fronted by Adam Brody, lures Fox into the band's van. The next time Seyfried sees her friend, she's vomiting thick, black blood.

It seems that Fox's Jennifer fell victim to a botched Satanic sacrifice (that she was not a virgin is key) and has become a succubus, feeding on some of the boys of Devil's Kettle High. She starts with the football star and then a Goth boy (leaving him looking like "lasagna with teeth"). Seyfried suspects that Fox is not quite right, and the resulting showdown could be a metaphor for the mild-mannered girls of the world standing up to the popular crowd.

As for Fox, I haven't seen much of her acting. Mostly I've seen her in magazine pictorials, where she excels (she's also a gift to journalists for her exceedingly quotable interviews). A lot have slammed her for this and other roles, and while I can't disagree I wonder if she isn't getting a fair shake. The role of Jennifer calls upon two modes that aren't exactly conducive to Oscars: a superficial bimbo and then a demon-possessed succubus. Both of these modes require Fox to exhibit a kind of glassy-eyed soullessness that could be easily attributed to bad acting. Until she's called on to play something else (that doesn't require being second fiddle to giant robots) I'm willing to give her the benefit of the doubt, and continue to study the matter.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Naked Lunch

I have owned a copy of William S. Burroughs' Naked Lunch for years, but had been afraid to try it. I read a great biography of Burroughs several years ago, Literary Outlaw, by Ted Morgan, and he described Burroughs experimental writing style (in particular his "cut-up" novels). I've never been very good with experimental prose, so the book sat in my unread pile, patiently waiting.

I've been thinking a lot about the period, though (the book was first published in 1959), so figured no time like the present. As I expected, Naked Lunch is virtuosically brilliant, but throughout most of the book I had no idea what was going on.

Burroughs is one of those writers whose life was at least as interesting as his fiction, if not more so. The scion of the family that invented the adding machine, he went to Harvard but ended up a street hustler, a junkie, and one of the foundations of the Beat movement, being one of the triumvirate of himself, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. He wrote many books, but Naked Lunch remains his most famous work.

The book starts in a straight-forward manner, about a junkie named William Lee (clearly modeled on the author) who is trying to outfox the cops. The writing is bracingly honest about being a low life, with helpful annotations about the language of the streets: "I can feel the heat closing in, feel them out there making their moves, setting up the devil doll stool pigeons, crooning over my spoon and dropper I throw away at Washington Square Station, vault a turnstile and two flights down the iron stairs, catch an uptown A train."

Lee hightails it to Tangier, an international North African city, specifically the "Interzone." He goes to work for a Dr. Benway and a corporation called Islam, Inc. It's here the narrative completely collapses. Burroughs intended the chapters of the book to be discrete, read in any order, and the point of view shifts without warning. The characters, well, I'm not sure there were any characters, just descriptions. Some of the passages are extremely pornographic, polymorphously perverse dalliances both hetero- and homosexual. I'm not surprised it was censored. A chapter called "Hassan's Rumpus Room" reads like a Penthouse letter written in an opium haze: "Two Arab women with bestial faces have pulled the shorts off a little blond French boy. They are screwing him with red rubber cocks. The boy snarls, bites, kicks, collapses in tears as his cock rises and ejaculates."

Burroughs delights in the visceral, and the book has long been disdained as being disgusting and vile. He doesn't stint in talking about any and all liquids that emanate from the human body, particularly those that originate in the alimentary canal. At times he seems like a child who has discovered that discussing bodily functions gets a rise out of adults.

It was only natural that when a film version of the book was finally made, it was by David Cronenberg, who has made some disgusting films (or films that contain disgusting scenes). I took another look at the film just this weekend. I first saw it before it was released in 1991. I worked for Penthouse and somehow got a ticket to an advance screening. I remember distinctly that Allen Ginsberg was in attendance (he is a character in the film) and that after the film was over I was in the men's room, at the urinal next to one of the great poets of the twentieth century.

The film doesn't tell the story in the book, as the book has no real story. Instead Cronenberg wisely stitches together several of Burroughs' works as well as his life story, particularly the incident where he shot and killed his wife in a "William Tell act." Cronenberg turns it into a paranoid hallucination, with espionage and hybrid insect/typewriters.

Peter Weller plays Lee, who is an exterminator. His friends are Hank and Martin (stand-ins for Kerouac and Ginsberg), and he is married to Judy Davis. When he kills her in the William Tell act he flees to Interzone, and is involved in some sort of thriller, receiving instructions from the typewriter/cockroaches. There is also the Mugwump, mentioned in Naked Lunch, a creature that has no liver, and can only eat sweets. In the film, they emit a goop that gets people high. I should add that the roach powder is used as a narcotic. Cronenberg omits mentions of actual drugs such as heroin, choosing instead to make metaphorical references.

The rest of the plot is a little hard to summarize, but it's the kind of thing someone zonked out of their mind could make up. It's very vivid, but by the last act it becomes a little tiresome and the resolution falls flat. What works is the mise en scene. The title sequence is very reminiscent of Saul Bass, and Howard Shore's jazzy score is played by Ornette Coleman, who revolutionized jazz back in '59.

A bit of trivia: the rock band Steely Dan got their name from Naked Lunch. It's a kind of dildo.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Year One


Even a shitty movie like Year One can be instructive when it comes to tracing the history of comedy. This film hearkens to a kind of spoof that is probably best associated with Mel Brooks--a story set in remote history but with characters who speak in contemporary idioms. Brooks made several movies like this, but the germ of this probably goes back to Sid Caesar's TV show (for which Brooks wrote).

The film also has the old standard of the mismatched comedy pair. Jack Black is the bombastic, fat one; Michael Cera is the deadpan, skinny one. This trope goes back to the Greeks, but Black's brash coward has seen several incarnations, most significantly Bob Hope, and then in turn by Woody Allen in films like Love and Death.

Of course, all of these precursors make Year One look like a steaming pile of turds. Directed and co-written by Harold Ramis, it is an embarrassment, and I have to wonder what Ramis was thinking. Well, I'm sure he was thinking about making a spoof of Biblical pictures, but he ended up making one that is absent any humor. In looking over Ramis' career, I see that he's had as many flops (Club Paradise, Stuart Saves His Family, Multiplicity) as he had bona fide comedy classics (Animal House, Groundhog Day, Ghostbusters), so he can be termed inconsistent. But Year One may be his most repellent picture.

Black and Cera are the misfits of a village of hunter-gatherers. Black eats a piece of forbidden fruit, which gets him banished. Cera tags along, and the two have a symbiotic and antagonistic relationship (reminiscent of Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, Hope and Crosby et. al.). As they traverse the countryside they discover societies that are more advanced, and also characters from the Bible such as Cain and Abel and Abraham and Isaac (the only smile I got was with Hank Azaria's portrayal of Abraham, obsessed with chopping off foreskins and describing Hebrews as a "righteous people, but not too good at sports").

Eventually they are enslaved by Romans, and endeavor to rescue themselves and the women they pine after. There is some nice eye candy with Olivia Wilde (hubba hubba) as a princess, but this does not mitigate the overall slovenliness of the script, which relies mostly on fart/poop and gay jokes. The film would seem to have been written by thirteen-year-old boys.

I liked Michael Cera, who got the jist of what he was supposed to do, even if his lines weren't funny, but I've never really warned to Black's shtick. Watching him unemcumbered by any restrictions is not pleasant.

Friday, October 09, 2009

Barack Obama, Nobel Laureate

The news that President Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize goosed the national media today--it even drove back the "bombing" of the moon off the front page. From where I sit, the most entertaining aspect of this award is the reaction it is engendering, from both the right and the left.

To be perfectly frank, of course he doesn't deserve it. As one wag wrote, you don't give an Oscar to the film that looks like it's going to be the best, you give it to the one that actually is (hmmn, maybe that's a bad example). The Nobel committee seems to be voting on Obama's good intentions, or perhaps more accurately, that he is not George W. Bush. After eight years of a White House that wasn't interested in diplomacy, Obama seems like a ray of sunshine.

But the caterwauling of those who oppose this is amusing. The Nobel committee, those Scandinavian scamps, have excelled at poking the wasp's nest of the American right. In the past decade, they've given the medal to Jimmy Carter, Al Gore, and now Obama. Surely the Clintons will be next. It's getting hard for Republicans to take any solace here, as it's been a long time since Henry Kissinger won, and Theodore Roosevelt, if Glenn Beck is any barometer, isn't valued as a Republican anymore.

What will any of this really mean? Some say it's a bad thing for Obama, and further reinforces his status as a celebrity president in a cult of personality. It also highlights that he hasn't actually accomplished anything, as the stinging SNL skit last Saturday night lampooned. On the other hand, I think there are some Americans who aren't as extreme as the RedState.org folks who may value a president who is admired as a world leader. This won't help him get health care passed, but I don't think it can hurt. By the time he leaves office he really may have earned this award.

A quick word on Herta Müller, who won the Nobel for Literature. No, I'd never heard of her, either. The literature committee is notorious for being Euro-centric and rewarding unknown European writers over bigger names from North America, but also they've been pretty criminal in overlooking Asian writers. Nevertheless, this award, in the long run, means nothing but a nice windfall for the winner, plus a modest increase in sales in the back catalogue. I wish that Philip Roth, my favorite novelist, wins some day, but I imagine neither he nor I will lose too much sleep if the doesn't.