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Friday, April 30, 2010

Empire of Liberty

This installment of the Oxford American History of the United States, by Pulitzer-Prize winning professor Gordon S. Wood, covers the early days of the country, from the ratification of the Constitution to the War of 1812. It's an often neglected but very important period of American history, as the nation was unformed at the time, and not quite sure what it was to become. It also wasn't a feel-good time, as there were bitter disputes, most notably between Federalists and Republicans, and the constant threat of war, either with England, France, Spain or all three.

What's striking upon the reading of the book is how nothing really changes. Though the founders were keen on not having political parties (they didn't want a standing army, either, and now both are inherent to the U.S. character), the differences between the Federalists, who consisted of Alexander Hamilton and John Adams, and the Republicans, notably Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, were sharp. Wood writes, "Except for the era of the Civil War, the last several years of the eighteenth century were the most politically contentious in United States history...As the Federalist and the Republican parties furiously attacked each other as enemies of the Constitution, party loyalties became more intense and began to override personal ties, as every aspect of American life became politicized. People who had known one another their whole lives now crossed streets to avoid confrontations. Personal differences spilled over into violence, and fighting erupted in the state legislatures and even in the federal Congress." Sound familiar?

It was the Republicans who would win out, and Wood titles many of his chapters accordingly, such as "Republican Reforms," "Republican Society," "Republican Religion," etc. Wood explains the demise of the Federalists: "The Federalist world could not endure. The Federalists of the 1790s stood in the way of popular democracy as it was emerging in the United States, and thus they became heretics opposed to the developing democratic faith." When once the term "democrat" was an insult, it later became a badge of honor, as simpler men who were not aristocrats were elected to office. Federalists could not never accept that Republicans believed all men were created equal.

All men except slaves, of course. As with all American history, the treatment of African Americans is a large stain. What I learned in this book is that slavery was on the brink of extinction at about 1800, but the invention of the cotton gin by Eli Whitney in 1805 inadvertently revived it, as all of a sudden cotton became a key crop in the South. The issue would not be resolved for another sixty years.

The book is comprehensive, and there are some parts that made me a little glassy eyed, but most of it was vivid and accessible. There are numerous moments of droll humor, such as how the founders dealt with creating traditions. I liked John Adams' confusion about the roll of Vice President: "He knew he was vice-president of the United States..but he was also president of the Senate. He was two officers at once, which perhaps, he said, was the reason the huge chair in which he sat was made wide enough to hold two persons." As to how to address the president, "Washington himself was said to have initially favored 'His High Mightiness, the President of the United States and Protector of Their Liberties."

Empire of Liberty is heavy on political history, with Washington, Adams, Hamilton, Jefferson and Madison the key players. Other characters make their mark, like Aaron Burr, John Marshall (the most important Chief Justice of the Supreme Court), and lesser known names like Fisher Ames. There are also chapters on religion which are relevant to today. Wood points out that the more remote places, such as the South, developed religions with more bizarre rituals, and that this was most decidedly not intended to be a Christian nation: "Most leading Founders were not deeply or passionately religious, and few of them led much of a spiritual life. As enlightened gentlemen addressing each other in learned societies, many of the leading gentry abhorred 'that gloomy superstition disseminated by ignorant illiberal preachers' and looked forward to the day when 'the phantom of darkness will be dispelled by the rays of science, and the bright charms of rising civilization.' Most of them, at best, only passively believed in organized Christianity and, at worst, privately scorned and mocked it...Jefferson's hatred for the clergy and organized religion knew no bounds. He believed that members of the 'priestcraft' were always in alliance with despots against liberty."

The book ends with a nifty chapter-length summation of the War of 1812. Wood boldly states, post-Vietnam and mid-Iraq, that it was the most unpopular war in American history. Indeed, many New Englanders openly aided the British, and considered seceding. The rising and falling stock of how the U.S. felt about England and France during the period was dizzying--the French were openly loved at the time of the French revolution, yet despised at around the time of the XYZ affair. Again, things never change.

Throughout the book it is never not fascinating how precarious this great experiment in democracy was. The union almost broke apart several times, and many of the great men of the time had very different ideas about what the United States would be. Many of those questions would not be answered for generations, and in certain aspects have still remain unanswered.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

35 Shots of Rum

Watching a film like 35 Shots of Rum requires some adjustment, especially for an American, who isn't completely used to films that are quietly powerful character studies like this one. There isn't a lot of action, instead it simply observes a handful of characters as they go through their days, interacting with one another and having small epiphanies. Once you realize that there won't be a catharsis, you can settle in and enjoy its simple pleasures.

Directed by Claire Denis, 35 Shots of Rum centers around Alex Descas as a widowed commuter train driver in Paris. He lives with his college student daughter, Mati Diop. A neighbor, Gregoire Colin, appears to be in love with Diop, but is restless, telling her that he stays in his parents' apartment because of his cat. When it dies, he decides to take a job in Africa. Nicole Dogue, a taxi driver, also lives in the building. She appears to have once had a relationship with Descas, and has known Diop since she was a baby.

One of the main themes of the film is movement, or rather lack of it. Though all our indirectly involved with transportation, they don't go anywhere, at least until Colin breaks up the "family" unit by announcing his emigration. Descas wonders why people would go anywhere when everything they need is at hand. When the foursome attempt to go to a concert, they encounter car trouble, and are taken in on a rainy night by strangers in a bar, suggesting home is where you are. The only trip taken by Descas and Diop is to Germany, where her mother was from and is buried.

Another theme of the film is being on the outside looking in. Many of the characters are black, and though nothing is made of this (there are few white faces in the film) one can't help but sense that they are outsiders in a European city (the only other Denis film I've seen, Chocolat, is about white Europeans living in black Africa). Dogue, who still obviously loves Descas, desperately wants to be considered part of his family, but is kept at arms length, while Colin is in love with Diop but doesn't seem to know how to tell her.

The film is stingy with information, and ladles it out judiciously. We never really know the extent of characters' relationships. There was something that happened at the end that I didn't even realize happened until I read the summary on Wikipedia. Even the title is obscure. Denis, in a supplementary interview, said there was a scene that fully explained its meaning, but she cut it because it was boring.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Paranormal Activity

During its run in theaters last fall, Paranormal Activity made news because it has become, by some measures, one of the most profitable films of all time. Made for $15,000, it earned over $100 million at the box office. However, it may be ideally suited for home video. Watch this late at night, when it's quiet, in creaky old house, and be prepared for a sleepless night.

To keep costs low, writer and director Oren Peli shot the film in his house. Actually, he didn't shoot anything, as the camera is either held by one of his two actors or sitting on a tripod. And Peli used his own house. Presented as "found footage," Paranormal Activity concerns a young couple who are experiencing the symptoms of a haunting. Katie (Featherston--another sign of an indie film is that the actors use their own names for characters) has been visited by some sort of phantom since she was a child, and it now seems to have followed her to her home in San Diego.

Micah (Sloat) purchases a camera to see if he can document the weird events. We then get a nifty structure--the interplay between the two (the film starts like a typical gonzo porno movie, with Sloat taping Featherston as she walks around the house, suggesting they have sex) and then the camera pointed at the two in bed. Each time we cut to the night scenes, the viewer is conditioned to get into a tense state, as we scrutinize the screen, waiting for something eerie to happen. At first it's as simple as a door moving on its own, or a bang from downstairs, but over the course of the film the dread amps up, like a piece of symphonic music building to a crescendo. By the end it's a legitimate fright-fest.

The film is let down by its cheap price tag. There are clumsy scenes involving a ghost expert, who lays out plot points without much rhyme or reason--he tells them it's a demon, not a ghost, and that leaving the house won't do much good. Of course this is to maintain the single set, and seeks to alleviate the viewer's notion that they should just get out of the fucking house. The actors, who auditioned via Craigslist, are barely above amateur status (they earned $500). Featherston fares better, and is more realistic in her reactions. Sloat, though, comes off as a tool, as he taunts the demon and basically acts like an asshole.

But for as simple as it is, Paranormal Activity is remarkably effective. It is very similar in spirit to The Blair Witch Project, but I found this one much more palpably scary. There are a couple of scenes that are exquisitely terrifying, including one that has Sloat poking his head into an attic at night. I hesitate to mention any more specifics, as it should be best appreciated without knowing what's coming.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Los Angeles

Thirty years ago this month the L.A.-based band X released their debut album, which was titled after their home city. It remains as fresh and alive as it was back then, with exciting instrumentation and an incendiary sound, visualized by the burning letter on the album cover.

I didn't discover X until their third album, Under the Big Black Sun, but I quickly got myself up to date and purchased their first two records (on vinyl, of course). The band was made up of John Doe on lead vocals and bass; Exene Cervenka on vocals; Billy Zoom on guitar; and D.J. Bonebrake on drums. Their sound was a hybrid of punk and rockabilly, and they were kind of lumped in with the hard-core bands like Black Flag and The Minutemen (they would try to champion this kind of music in their songs--"The Unheard Music" contains the lyric, "No hard chords on the car radio"). The music was up-tempo and pulsating, with Zoom's guitar often sounding like a chainsaw. Cervenka, whose look was a something of goth thrift store, provided vocals that were throaty and piercing. The music was infectious and went right to the gut.

As the years went by, X would become more and more countrified, until they didn't sound much like they did at the start. Los Angeles calls to mind the heady punk days of fuschia-mohawked youths in grimy clubs, and the best song on the record, "Sex and Dying in High Society," hearkens back to the days of Bret Easton Ellis (who mentioned the song in his novel Less Than Zero). The lyric goes, "You'd do anything to stay and keep your money boys, made of silver and gold, keep your Pekingese, Turkish cigarettes, and your lighter than looks like a gun. So you married your daddy, with a different name." Today this seems quaint, kind of like shooting fish in a barrel, but back then the punk musicians really were interested in puncturing any symbols of wealth and respectability, even if they were pampered rich kids.

There are many other pleasures on this record, including the title song, as well as a little ditty called Nausea, which goes: "Today you're gonna be sick so sick, you'll prop your forehead on the sink, say oh Christ oh Jesus Christ." There are straight ahead rock numbers like "Your Phone's Off the Hook" and "The World's a Mess; It's in My Kiss," and the slightly sinister "Johnny Hit and Run Paulene," which is about two young people in love and on drugs.

The CD of the album adds bonus tracks, including a demo version of their song "Adult Books," which appeared on their second album, Wild Gift, and two songs that highlight the rockabilly sound: Delta 88 and Cyrano De Berger's Back. As I've been listening for the past few days I am pleasantly remembering how much I enjoyed this band.

Monday, April 26, 2010

The Birthday Present

The Birthday Present, by Barbara Vine, is a different type of crime novel. For one thing, no crime to speak of occurs until the book is almost finished. For another, that crime, as well as the other violence that the book contains, happens off-page, and is described by someone who wasn't there. But it's fascinating nonetheless, and even as I was to the last few pages I wasn't sure what was going to happen next.

The title refers to the linchpin event. A member of British Parliament, Ivor Tresham, has a mistress, and they like to play kinky games. For her birthday, he hires two men to stage a fake kidnapping of her, complete with handcuffs and blindfold. Something goes wrong, and the woman and one of the actors is killed. Though Tresham has committed no crime, and is unmarried, he says nothing to the police, who assume that it was an actual kidnapping. Even later, when they further assume that the kidnappers were targeting the wrong woman, he says nothing. The narrator of the story, his brother-in-law, knows everything, but also keeps quiet.

Tresham, who fancies himself an English gentleman but is also a cad of the highest order, sweats this out for years. He ends up romantically involved with the dead "kidnapper's" girlfriend, and gives money to the other "kidnapper," who was so badly injured that he can't talk. But the mistress's friend, Jane, who was to serve as her alibi for the deadly evening, starts to feel that she is owed something for her silence. We see her diary entries, and as time goes by she becomes more mentally unstable.

Vine (a pseudonym for esteemed crime writer Ruth Rendell) has crafted a polished and terse novel, with very little flourish but a world of detail. The story, which begins in 1990, incorporates British history throughout, mentioning IRA bombings, the Bosnian crisis, and the rise of Labour after many years of Conservative rule. The narrator, Robin Delgado, loves his brother-in-law, but also sees him for what he is, and his narration is crisp. There a few McGuffins that float about, like a string of pearls and a gas bill, that make this in the classic style of a thriller, but because of the twists and turns this was a thriller unlike any I've ever read. Well done.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

The Young Victoria

The Young Victoria is a film that is difficult to write about. It's enjoyable and well-made, but doesn't reach out and shake the viewer. It has the aura of a Masterpiece Theater production, with terrific costumes, art direction, and makeup (all Oscar-nominated, with Sandy Powell winning for Best Costumes), and the acting is precise and nuanced. But I fear that by tomorrow I'll have forgotten the whole thing.

In one of the more bizarre collaborations you'll ever see, the film was co-produced by (among others) Martin Scorsese and Sarah Ferguson, and directed by Jean-Marc Vallée. It tells the story, as the title suggests, of the early part of Queen Victoria's life, when she was a teenage girl, the heir to the throne. We see a lot of the typical political maneuvering by her opponents and allies, and the love story between her and Albert, a German prince who was a pawn of the King of Belgium.

In terms of history, this is a nice story to tell. Victoria is best remembered today as a dowager in black widow's weeds, a dowdy old lady who was famous for eliminating sexuality in almost all aspects of daily life (even piano legs were covered). To see her as a headstrong young woman falling in love with Albert in spite of herself is a nice change of pace. I would imagine, though, that the woman would have been apoplectic to see herself depicted in a wedding night scene, as tasteful as it may be (but truth be told, the couple did have nine children, so she wasn't exactly abstinent).

Emily Blunt, as Victoria, is a great cog in the success of the film, as she presents Victoria as a complete human being. Rupert Friend, as Albert, is also quite good as a man who has to play second fiddle to his more powerful wife but still maintains his masculinity. It is not true that he was winged by an assassin, although I read that Victoria was the target of a startling number of assassination attempts.

Some of the palace intrigue is interesting, but some of it goes by in a confused haze. Jim Broadbent, as Victoria's predecessor, has a few fiery scenes. I didn't catch all of the chess moves that are attempted by Leopold of Belgium, who is Victoria (and Albert's) uncle. I guess he thought he could exert power in Britain if he matched them together, but because they ended up falling in love he couldn't manipulate them. Paul Bettany plays Victoria's first prime minister, Lord Melbourne, who is a sympathetic ally, though he eventually is cast aside by Albert. The problem here is that Melbourne was actually some forty years older than Victoria. Bettany is far younger than that. I imagine he was cast to give a hint of a romantic attachment between the two (their were rumors at the time that she might wed him) that would have been Hefner-esque with an older actor.

For history buffs The Young Victoria will go down easy, but there just isn't enough drama here to make a memorable film.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

The Lovely Bones

Anyone familiar with the work of Peter Jackson can see why he was attracted to adapting Alice Sebold's novel The Lovely Bones. The book tells the story of a teen-age girl who is murdered and then watches over her family as they deal with her disappearance, which slowly evolves into grief over her death. She resides in an afterlife that is vividly described, and given Jackson's fanciful work on films like Heavenly Creatures, The Frighteners and the Lord of the Rings trilogy, he jumped at the chance to create a vision of the girl's heaven.

The result is quite striking. The photography and production design are luscious to behold. There seems to be some Buddhist influence, as the central part of the girl's afterlife is a large tree that could be interpreted as a Bodhi tree. The film is saturated with color. It all looks great.

Unfortunately, Jackson seems to be less interested in the meat of the story, and the film ultimately is not very compelling. It hits most of the plot points in the book, but the result earns a shrug of indifference.

Saorsie Ronan gives a very assured performance as Susie, a typical teenager in Pennsylvania in 1973. She is lured to an underground bunker constructed by her neighbor, Stanley Tucci. He murders her (off-screen, thankfully) and her family: father Mark Wahlberg; mother Rachel Weisz; grandmother Susan Sarandon and a sister and brother cope with her disappearance (her body has not been found, but a hat and a great deal of blood point to a grisly outcome). Her case in investigated by an earnest detective, Michael Imperioli, but after several months pass it seems that she will never be found. Wahlberg becomes obsessed with conducting his own investigation, while Weisz has to leave, with Sarandon filling in for her. All the while Susie gambols in her heaven, attended to by another helpful child.

There are a few scenes that work, especially one in which Susie's sister breaks into Tucci's house looking for evidence, but it sticks out because it could be from any suspense film. The Lovely Bones, in least in the novel, attempted to be more about the process of grief. That doesn't really translate here. There's much more in the book about why the mother leaves, and a subplot involving a neighborhood girl who acts a conduit between dead Susie and her very live boyfriend gets cursory treatment in the film.

Jackson never finds the right tone in the film. There's an excess of gooey sentimentalism--heaven as a Hallmark card (much of it looks like those inspirational posters you see hanging in businesses) and a slapstick comic scene involving Sarandon's woeful attempt at parenting (she's one of those grandmas who wear furs and smokes like a chimney) is ill-considered.

Tucci received an Oscar nomination for the role, and I can't protest it, though I thought his work in Julie & Julia was more interesting. He has clearly given the role more shading than the writers did, as on the surface the character--a single man who builds dollhouses, has a really bad haircut, and a strange laugh--screams child molester.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Hot Tub Time Machine

My temporary job ended last week, so before I start my work for the U.S. Census Bureau next week, I had a week to myself. I had become so enamored with the lovely actress from Kick-Ass, Lyndsy Fonseca (who also has a spread in the current issue of Maxim) that I sought out her other current film, which ordinarily I would not have seen. Fortunately I went to the theater where I used to work, and thus saw it for nothing. That's about how much it is worth.

Directed by Steve Pink, Hot Tub Time Machine is another in a long line of raunchy comedies that relies more on bodily fluids than wit. Some films like this, such as Superbad and The Hangover, succeed beyond wildest expectations. Not so Hot Tub Time Machine, a film that seems to have started with a title and has added little else but a vulgarized retread of Back to the Future plot points.

Three friends, all creeping into middle age and profoundly unhappy, decide to take a vacation back to the ski lodge where they had a great time when they were young. John Cusack, recently broken up with his girlfriend, Craig Robinson, who gave up his music career and now works in a dog-grooming shop, and Rob Corddry, who's such a mess that he ends up accidentally poisoning himself with carbon monoxide. Tagging along is Cusack's nerd nephew, Clark Duke.

The resort, they come to find, is badly rundown, with a one-armed bellhop (Crispin Glover, surely a nod to Back to the Future), and a dead raccoon in the hot tub. They call down to have it fixed, and when it is they get in and weird things happen and they are suddenly back in 1986. To pave over script problems, they are also magically in their younger bodies. I wonder if this film sat on the shelf for the while, since they constantly mention that they are twenty years in the past (this includes a key plot point with Duke's conception), though in reality they are twenty-four years in the past. Of course, it's just a stupid movie. A very stupid movie.

So we get basically a rehash of Back to the Future, with the characters recapturing their youth without changing things (as they are warned by the hot tub repairman, Chevy Chase). We even have a scene where Robinson takes to the stage and plays contemporary music (as did Michael J. Fox in the original) and Duke has to keep himself from disappearing by making sure his conception occurs.

The problem is more than unoriginality, though. There's also a distinct lack of genuine laughs. I never did laugh, and smiled only a few times. There was a quick reference to John Cusack's role in Better Off Dead, and Robinson provides some good will with his nice performance (a reference is made to his member looking like "Gary Coleman's forearm"), but the rest is just nasty and unfunny, like a squirrel getting vomited on or a character covering his face in hand-soap to make it look like semen. Cusack sleepwalks through the film, and Corddry is a disaster. His character is all id, a foul, obnoxious cretin that has no shading. It's hard to believe he could function in society.

As for Lyndsy Fonseca? She looks great. The thirty seconds or so of her flouncing around in lingerie is the best part of the movie.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Battle Royale

Battle Royale made at least one list of the recent decade's best list, and I've heard a lot about it so finally got around to seeing it. I know it was a favorite of Quentin Tarantino's, who used one of its actresses in his own Kill Bill, Volume 1. I would characterize the film as a brilliant mess.

The premise is delicious and can't-miss. Japanese society is crumbling, and the youth are running wild. The government has instituted the "Battle Royale" program, which means that once a year, a random class of school children (who look to be about fifteen--they're called seventh-graders but look older than the U.S. equivalent of seventh grade) are drugged and transported to an abandoned island. They're each given a weapon (some are useful, like a machine gun, others are useless, like a pot lid) and turned loose for three days. The winner is the last one left alive. Now, this makes no practical sense. Since the kids have to have the whole concept explained to them (in a highly amusing videotape), it seems a poor deterrent. But that's okay.

So what we have is a combination of The Most Dangerous Game and Lord of the Flies. The kids make a mini-society. A group of girls domesticizes a lighthouse, while the tech-geek guys try to figure out how to hack into their captors' computer system. Two boys are ringers--one is a good guy, who once won the Battle Royale, and another is a lone wolf who signed up just for fun. There is the sexually loose girl who uses her beauty, and the two leads are the innocent kids who don't want to kill anybody. Watching over this is their teacher, who had enough of their rebellion and takes delight in tracking their deaths. I would imagine some teachers who watch this film will feel a little guilty in how satisfying it is.

The script, by Kenta Fukusaku, based on the novel by Koushon Tamaki, is great grisly fun. Title cards helpfully tell us who just died and how many are left. It plays like a fatal game of the reality show Survivor--the tribe has spoken, indeed. But the direction, by Kinji Fukusaku, is wanting. It's dark and confused and not very stylistic, and at times looks like a cheap drive-in horror picture. I kept wondering how someone like Tarantino would handle it. Also, the DVD version contains extra scenes, including a basketball game that frames the action, which is fine, but then a series of epilogues that do nothing but remind one unpleasantly of the never-ending Lord of the Rings: Return of the King.

I should add that I also found it difficult to tell all the kids from one another. I realize that's an ethnically insensitive remark, but there it is--all these kids are black-haired and dark-eyed. A few, like the lone wolf, are distinct because of hair-dye or other differences. I'm sure in Japan this was not a problem. A U.S. version, should one ever be made (one was scrubbed after the Virginia Tech massacre) would be able to make use of our ethnic diversity. Thank goodness for immigration!

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Barkleys of Broadway

Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers' tenth and final film together was 1949's The Barkleys of Broadway, which is also their only color film together. It had been ten years since they were co-stars, and Rogers was a replacement for Judy Garland, who was too ill to take the role. It ends up being a fitting swan song for the duo, with a story that parallels real life.

In a switch from their usual films, Astaire and Rogers are already married as the film begins. They are a famed musical comedy team, and we meet them as they celebrate a smash opening night. But in the limo ride home it's revealed they constantly bicker, with Astaire being a ball-buster and Rogers has a desire to try more dramatic work. She meets a snooty French playwright, Jacques Francois, who wants her to play Sarah Bernhardt in his new play. Astaire is incredulous, and the two split up. Their friend and composer, Oscar Levant, works to get them back together again.

What's surprising about this film is that it has real teeth. The arguments between the couple are not entirely comic, and they would have made a good episode of the Dr. Phil show. In real life, Rogers did long to shake the limits of musical comedy, and ended up winning an Oscar for a dramatic role in Kitty Foyle.

As these things go, The Barkleys of Broadway, directed by Charles Walters, and with songs by Harry Warren and Ira Gershwin, is passable entertainment. Astaire, who looked goofy in his younger days, grew into his looks, and Rogers is radiant. Levant, who specialized in the witty, sexually ambiguous third wheel, has a lot of good lines. He also has two chances to show off his piano-playing skills, banging out the "Sabre Dance" and Tchaikovsky's 1st piano concerto. The most interesting musical number is when Astaire dances solo, aided by dozens of pairs of shoes that appear to dance by themselves, an early and pretty effective use of green screen. In a very touching scene, the two dance to the Gershwin's ""They Can't Take That Away From Me, a reprise from their earlier film, Shall We Dance.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

A Gate at the Stairs

Book five of the New York Times Ten Best of 2009 is Lorrie Moore's novel A Gate at the Stairs. I am a long-time Lorrie Moore admirer, going back twenty-five years when I read her fresh, sparkling collection of short stories Self-Help. I was so enamored of her that I pinned a picture of her, cut out of the newspaper, to the cloth wall of my cubicle at work. In the years since I've read just about everything she's written.

Moore specializes as a short-story writer; A Gate at the Stairs is only her third novel. It follows a college student, Tassie Keltjin, as she is hired as a childcare provider, seemingly on a whim, by a restaurant owner who wants to adopt a baby. Set in a fictional Midwest town that is certainly a stand-in for Madison, Wisconsin (where Moore is a college professor), we get a collision of small-town America (Tassie grew up on a farm) and a kind of boho college-town ethos. As Tassie tells us early on about her culture shock: "Twice a week a young professor named Thad, dressed in jeans and a tie, stood before a lecture hall of stunned farm kids like me and spoke thrillingly of Henry James's masturbation of the comma. I was riveted. I had never before seen a man wear jeans with a tie."

Tassie gets deeply involved with her new employer, Sarah Brink, even to the point of going on meet-and-greets with prospective birth mothers. After a trip to Green Bay a baby of mixed race is adopted, and Tassie, who previously had no special interest in children, bonds with the child. Of course something will go wrong.

The language of this book is heavenly. Almost every paragraph has a sentence to die over. Her similes are inspired, whether about a roadkill squirrel: "It's soft, scarlet guts spilled out of its mouth, as if in a dialogue balloon" or snow: "the isolated patches of gray snow were like dryer lint." Then there is the amazing description of her boyfriend's member: "His penis was as small and satiny as a trumpet mushroom in Easter basket grass." As a writer of a lot of erotica, I've had to describe lots of penises, but that one takes the cake.

As wonderful as the writing is, I felt a sense of let-down while being carried along by the plot. Tassie is a wonderful narrator--drolly funny, with a kind of passive defeatism. She likes to use quasi as a prefix, and plays the bass. She and her roommate spend an evening writing songs, titling one "Summer Evening Lunch Meat," which she explains, "combining the most beautiful phrase in English with the ugliest, and therefore summing up our thoughts on love."

The title means many things, but I associate it most with one of those baby-gates installed by parents to keep their children from falling, because, as funny as it can be, this book has an overarching sense of melancholy. It takes place immediately after 9/11, and running throughout is reminders of the fragility of life. Tassie worries about her brother, who joins the military, and there's a subplot involving a character who may or not be an Islamic terrorist. Then there's Sarah's shocking reveal, which is ladled out bit by bit and and seems like something out of daytime drama.

Moore also makes great hay with the insufferability of a certain kind of educated liberal. There's Tassie's course load for her fall semester: Brit Lit from 1830 to 1930, Intro to Sufism, Intro to Wine Tasting (even though she's underage), a music appreciation course titled Soundtracks to War Movies, and a geology course called Dating Rocks. Sarah forms a parents' group of biracial children, and Moore transcribes the pretentious conversation, including one participant who repeatedly says, "Don't get me started on Islam."

As wonderful as this book is written I was let down by the story. I hope Moore revisits Tassie again, because she's a terrific voice.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Cinematic Titanic

Once upon a time there was a wonderful TV show called Mystery Science Theater 3000. It had a simple premise: a man and two robots made fun of very bad movies. It gained something of a cult following and ran (on two different cable networks) for over ten years--198 episodes were made. Over the years the cast changed. The creator, Joel Hodgson, departed mid-way through the run, and the first two voices of his puppets, Trace Beaulieu and Josh Weinstein, also left.

I was a devoted viewer of MST3K, as it is abbreviated. For a while I had to rely on a friend to tape it for me, as for a time I did not have the Sci-Fi Channel. Indeed, a sense of community was fostered out of the show, as the credits ended with "Keep circulating the tapes." I think I ended up seeing every episode, and even went to the feature film they made.

After the show ended, the various cast members continued working in show business. Hodgson's replacement, Mike Nelson, along with puppeteers Kevin Murphy and Billy Corbett (who were the second to voice the robots Tom Servo and Crow T. Robot, respectively) formed a service called RiffTrax, which enables people to download the wisecracking from their computers and play it while watching a movie on DVD (they do not limit themselves to bad movies). Hodgson, along with Beaulieu, Weinstein, and former MST3K writers and performers Frank Coniff and Mary Jo Pehl, are still goofing on bad movies with their enterprise Cinematic Titanic. The difference is that they continue to specialize in bad movies (acquiring the rights to the film) on either DVD or in a live show. I had the pleasure of seeing them do their thing this past weekend in New York City.

"Are you ready to see a shitty movie?" Hodgson asked as things got underway. Truly the film chosen was shitty, which he termed "the worst Filipino monster movie" ever made. It was Danger on Tiki Island, which had South Sea islanders sacrificing women to a monster that looked like the Michelin Man after a bad car accident. Hodgson and his mates took seats to the side of the stage, their scripts on music stands, and quipped as the film, glorious in its awfulness, was shown. The result was about ninety minutes of unabated merriment.

I love the whole concept, and I think they've succeeded at it because the riffing is never particularly mean-spirited, with a polite Midwestern quality. It's also rooted in a full-range of pop-culture references. During the film I saw there were references veering from Glenn Gould to Sylvia Plath all the way to Lady Gaga. They managed to slip in some references to current events--a lot of mentions of health-care reform, and even one to the volcano in Iceland. It would be difficult to quote many of the jokes out of context, but a couple that I remember: the leading man, an aging, chiseled type, is described as looking like "Robert Goulet after a Grand Slam breakfast," and a the sexually hungry leading lady is "hornier than Mrs. Roper." Another familiar tactic is to see a bizarre creature on screen and one of the cast cries out as if misidentifying them, thus when we see the monster up close Hodgson cries out, "Mickey Rourke!?"

I had a great time, laughing a lot and having a smile permanently plastered on my face. It makes me want to go back and watch old episodes of the show. Unfortunately, I have them on VHS (taped off the TV), and my VCR isn't hooked up anymore. Note to self, after winning lottery, buy a whole bunch of MST3K DVDs, and get some of the Cinematic Titanic ones, too.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Kick-Ass

I didn't hate Kick-Ass, but I didn't particularly enjoy it, either. I didn't find it morally reprehensible, but it certainly skirted the boundaries of good taste. I was never bored by it, but I found it only periodically suspenseful, not remotely funny, or the story engaging. As usually happens with love-it-or-hate-it movies, I was right down the middle on it, grading it (depending on the ranking system), a C, two stars, or five out of ten.

The film, directed by Matthew Vaughn and from a comic book by Mark Millar and John Romita Jr., concerns an average high school kid and comic book fan (Aaron Johnson) who wonders why no one has ever attempted to be a real-life superhero (he apparently has never heard of Captain Sticky.) His friends sensibly tell him that without superpowers, such a fool would almost certainly die within a day, but Johnson perserveres, purchases a Scuba suit, and creates a secret identity that provides the title. Indeed, on his first attempt to stop crime he is stabbed and gets run over by a car, but undaunted he tries again and his efforts in stopping an assault end up videotaped and on the Internet. He becomes a sensation.

This attracts the attention of two other superheroes, Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage) and his young daughter Hit Girl (Chloe Grace Moretz). It is here that the film kick-starts into an entertaining section and also earns the raised eyebrows. Moretz, as the pint-sized, purple-wigged Hit Girl, takes hold of the movie and doesn't let go. She enters the action dealing out gleeful carnage to the tune of the Banana Splits theme, and anyone who might have been dozing before this certainly will be wide awake after this scene. Moretz is foul-mouthed and kills without conscience, trained by her father in martial arts and a variety of weapons (we first see her Dad shooting her in the chest to get her accustomed to a bulletproof vest, and then being rewarded with an afternoon of bowling).

Cage, it turns out, is interested in revenge on a crooked cop and a crime boss (Mark Strong). Strong's son, a pencil-necked geek (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) creates his own costumed vigilante, Red Mist (complete with a Flock of Seagulls hairstyle). It's all very colorful, profane, and extremely violent (a man is microwaved to death, another is shot with a bazooka).

Where I thought this film failed was its unsuccessful attempt to meld two distinctly different styles--it was kind of like Sky High meets Kill Bill. The lighthearted tone of a nerd trying to be a superhero is viciously undercut by the bloodletting. It was like watching an episode of Saved by the Bell where Screech takes out an axe and kills everyone (I know that sounds like something you'd like to see, but be careful what you wish for). As for the hand-wringing about Moretz, I wasn't too troubled by it. I think the language is typical of any schoolyard in America. The one objectionable scene might be the one in which she gets pummeled by Strong. Watching a tween girl getting assaulted in a film that fundamentally is one long joke is disconcerting, but I don't worry about Moretz in the long run. Incidentally, I somehow missed her using the word "cunt", and I was waiting for it. I did catch her saying "motherfucker" and "cock."

Johnson lacks charisma, but that may have been the point, as he is supposed to be bland, though this makes Hit Girl the far more interesting character, and when she's off screen we naturally wait impatiently for her to come back. There's a subplot that has Johnson's school crush, the fetching Lyndsy Fonseca, warming up to him because she thinks he's gay, a totally dumb and pointless digression. Vaughn does make good use of Cage's increasingly idiosynchratic acting style--when he's Big Daddy he uses an Adam West-ian cadence, and when not in costume he sounds like a children's TV show host.

A couple of weird things--Elizabeth McGovern makes a bizarre, silent cameo as Johnson's mother (she drops dead at the breakfast table) and what's with Hit Girl's real name of Mindy Macready--a name shared by the troubled country singer? Was that in the original comic book? The name seems too unusual for it to be a coincidence.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Night Moves

Here's a great example of 1970s cinema, a scuzzy existential noir that takes you back to the days of mood rings and pet rocks. Almost everything about it, from Gene Hackman's porn-stache to the casual nudity to the existential ending, a boat endlessly circling in the water, suggests the heady times of the Ford administration.

Released in 1975, but shot two years earlier, Night Moves was directed by Arthur Penn from a script by Alan Sharp. While watching I was sure it was adapted from some pulp novel, but no, it's an original. It concerns Hackman as Harry Moseby, an ex-pro football player (this immediately dates the film--no one as small as Hackman could ever pass as a football player today) turned small-time private investigator. He's hired to find the wayward teenage daughter of a washed-up movie actress, and this leads him to the Florida keys. Meanwhile his marriage comes under strain when he catches his wife cheating.

The first two-thirds of the film meander amiably along, as Hackman follows leads but doesn't come into much trouble. He has an encounter with a sleazy mechanic (a young James Woods), and while in the Keys falls into a fling with Jennifer Warren. He finds the girl (a very young Melanie Griffith) and sends her back to her mother, and I was wondering what was going to happen for the film's last half-hour. It's only then that the bodies start piling up, and we get an ending involving a sea-plane that is an homage to North by Northwest.

It's fine for what it is, but Night Moves is nothing special. Penn directs with style, though the cinematography suggests a Quinn Martin TV show. The editing by Dede Allen is innovative. There are not jump cuts, per se, but we do get abrupt transitions from scene to scene, without the usual set-up. If I had seen this on the late show I would have thought it was trimmed for time.

The biggest problem with the film is the script. As I said, the action is back-loaded, and Sharp seems to have overdosed on Chandler, Hammett or Cain while writing it. The characters don't talk like people, they sound like pulp fiction archetypes. As Sam Spade said, "the cheaper the hood, the gaudier the patter."

Friday, April 16, 2010

Pretenders

Earlier this week I wondered who was cooler than Joan Jett. A possibility may be Chrissie Hynde, and in this week's trip down memory lane I point out that it's been thirty years since her band, The Pretenders, released their debut album. It sounds as great today as it did then.

Hynde, unlike Jett, was a seasoned vet when she formed the group. She was almost thirty when the first album was released. She grew up outside of Cleveland, but repatriated to England and worked as a writer for rock magazines before forming the group.

The record kicks off with "Precious," which betrays her Cleveland roots: "moving through the Cleveland heat," and even mentioning Howard the Duck. She also tosses off a few epithets, like "I was shittin' bricks," and "fuck off." Hynde clearly was no one to be taken lightly.

The album is full of hard-driving numbers that pulse with a combination of the punk ethos and old-fashioned rock and roll. "Up the Neck," "Tattooed Love Boys," and a magnificent song called "The Wait" highlight side one. As a rule I don't dance, but if any song could get me to my feet it would be "The Wait." I have no idea what Hynde is singing (she starts it off with a guttural wail), but it doesn't matter, as Pete Farndon's bass and Martin Chambers' drums create an impossibly catchy rhythm. I can't listen to this without bopping my head and turning my fingers into drumsticks, beating them against the steering wheel.

Side one ends with the only cover version, The Kinks' "Stob Your Sobbing," which displays Hynde's range on vocals, as in this song her voice is a more traditional female purr. This carries over to Side two, which begins with the plaintive "Kid," and eventually comes to the biggest hit from the record, "Brass in Pocket," a sassy declaration of sexuality--"gonna use my fingers, gonna use my, my, my imagination."

Side two also has a couple of down-tempo songs that I tolerate--"Private Life" and "Lovers of Today," before ending with one of my favorite all-time rock songs, "Mystery Achievement," which again I can't help but tap various body parts to. It's a longish song, but I wish it went on for twice as long, as it's a perfect little symphony of leather-clad rock.

Over the years, the Pretenders have had only one constant--Chrissie Hynde. Two of the bandmates, Farndon and James Honeyman-Scott, died of drug overdoses, and Hynde canned Chambers some years later. Though Hynde is pushing sixty she's still making the same kind of ballsy, straight-ahead rock and roll.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Shall We Dance

Shall We Dance, from 1937, goes back to the usual Astaire/Rogers pattern--fine comedy (this time from Edward Everett Horton and Eric Blore) and great composers (George and Ira Gershwin). It was again directed by Mark Sandrich. The problem with this film is that there isn't enough music, and as I watch these films I see the weaknesses of Astaire as a thespian (he puts on the worst phony Russian accent I've ever heard). It recalls the perhaps apocryphal scouting assessment of him after a screen test: "Balding, can't act. Can dance a little."

In this go-round Astaire is a great ballet dancer. He is called Petrov, but is really just Pete Peters from Philadelphia. His impresario is Horton, who tries to keep the image of him as a great Russian sacrosanct. Astaire has a crush on musical-comedy star Rogers, but when he tries to meet her she puts him off. He follows her on board the Queen Mary (there is a stalking motif in many of these films). Through a convolution of plot too difficult to summarize here, everyone comes to assume that Astaire and Rogers are married, which develops into some farce. The two have to end up getting married in order to get divorced (the easiness of divorce was something of another running theme in thirties films--I would imagine it went along with the opulent hotel rooms as something that middle America was unfamiliar with but fantasized about).

There are some recognizable Gershwin tunes, such as "They Can't Take That Away From Me," "They All Laughed," and "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off," which the starring duo perform in a charming dance on roller skates, ending with a pratfall. Ira Gershwin came up with the lyrics when he heard Astaire and Rogers pronounce the word "either" differently. I laughed out loud a few places at some of the comedy, including a wonderful scene with Blore on the telephone with Horton. Playing Rogers' manager is Jerome Cowan, in a role that seems to suggest William Powell. I loved his line about Rogers' putative fiance: "a Park Avenue cluck with the longest yacht and shortest chin in New York."

While not as accomplished as Top Hat or Swing Time, Shall We Dance goes down easy and is a pleasant way to pass a couple of hours.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Don't Know Much About History

Those who value history have taken a beating over the last month. The most recent example was Newt Gingrich standing before a rabid gaggle of conservatives and declaring that Barack Obama was the most radical president in history. I liked David Remnick's reply--"I thought George Washington was the most radical president in history. The only thing radical about Obama is that he is African-American and he's president."

Gingrich writes alternative-history novels, so perhaps he's slipped into one. That's no excuse for the governor of Virginia, who proclaimed April Confederate History Month but left out any mention of slavery. He recanted and made a half-hearted apology, but this once again brings up the bizarre fetishization of the Confederacy by some, and the notion that it was "The War of Northern Aggression." Whenever I visit Gettysburg and wander through the souvenir shops, the t-shirts and bumper stickers are overwhelmingly of southern sentiment, as if the war were still going on and it was a sporting event. Go team!

What Confederate apologists fail to grasp, or are too busy covering up, is that the war was, at its heart, about slavery. Sure, it was also about state's rights, but the right that the states of the South wanted was to have slavery (and have it imported into newly formed states in the west). Almost every issue that caused the war can be boiled down to slavery. Without it, there would have been no war.

Confederate soldiers were brave, in a fashion, but they were not heroes. Most of them were poor, dumb slobs who didn't own slaves and got sold a bill of goods by their leaders. Many of them were fine men, good and true, but they were screwed by history. That doesn't mean they deserve canonization, because, let's face it, they were traitors. Every person who takes arms against the government of the United States is, by definition, a traitor. And these traitors were fighting to uphold the enslavement of a race of people, and the treatment of them as sub-human.

I hate to bring out the Nazi comparison, but its apt. The Germans, to their credit, have done an admirable job in being ashamed of the Nazi period of their history. No doubt many German soldiers during World War II were decent men who didn't care a fig about Jews, but I imagine no one in German government is advocating a Nazi History Month. True, the planned extermination of millions of people is harsher than what the Confederates were up to, but only by degrees.

Here we are 165 years later and there are still people who are, in their minds, fighting this war. What can be the root of this, if it isn't racism?

Perhaps the most significant beating history is taking this spring is the one by the Texas school board. A bunch of yahoos, none of them professional historians, have taken out their anger at liberalism by mandating changes in textbooks. They want more attention paid to Ronald Reagan, less to Franklin Roosevelt. Less about Harriet Tubman, more about Phyllis Schafly. Gone is Thomas Jefferson as an Enlightenment thinker, in is Thomas Aquinas (this is apparently because of Jefferson's insistence on a separation between church and state, and not because he's become something of a Tea Party favorite for his quotes, "A little rebellion every now and then is good" and "The tree of liberty must be watered with the blood of tyrants and patriots.")

Of course to any sane person this is outrageous. I'm all for Ronald Reagan getting his due, but history class shouldn't be an arena where political squabbles get settled. And of course the school board of Texas, being a former Confederate state, wants the influence of slavery on the war elided, and Jefferson Davis to be taught equally with Abraham Lincoln. Davis, a man who was thisclose to being executed for treason, is now a hero to the clueless white bigots who have gained a chokehold on the school system of Texas. Maybe we should let them secede.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Follow the Fleet/Swing Time

Both of these Astaire/Rogers films are from 1936. Follow the Fleet is again directed by Mark Sandrich, but it makes some tactical errors in changing the pattern of the typical Fred and Ginger film. For one thing, Astaire, playing a sailor, is kept out of white tie and tails until the end of the picture. He's made to seem more like a regular Joe, smoking and chewing gum. It doesn't quite work--Fred Astaire was many things, but he wasn't an ordinary fellow. Perhaps more importantly, the sparkling troupe of character actors are gone. Instead of Edward Everett Horton, we get Randolph Scott, woefully miscast as the comic sidekick.

This time Fred and Ginger already know each other. He's in San Francisco on leave, and runs into her at a dime-a-dance club. They used to be partners in a dance act, but she turned down his proposal so he enlisted. She has a sister, a prim teacher (played by Harriet Hilliard, who would go on to greater fame as Ozzie's better half). She's attracted to Scott, but her librarian look leaves him cold, so Rogers gets her pals (one of them played by a platinum blonde Lucille Ball) to giver her a makeover. In the time-honored tradition, Scott sees her and all of a sudden is in love. But when Hilliard indicates she's interested in marriage he dumps her for a hot-to-trot divorcee.

The Scott-Hilliard plot really is the main one, and Fred and Ginger are window dressing. They have the usual dance routines, and there's some comedy (Fred accidentally puts bicarbonate of soda in Ginger's drink before a singing audition) but it all seems forced. If you happen to catch this on TV come back for the last ten minutes, when the two get into their evening finery to dance to Irving Berlin's "Let's Face the Music and Dance," which is a story in itself, with two people contemplating suicide finding meaning in terpsichory. Ginger wore a beaded dress that weighed thirty-five pounds, and in the first take (which is seen in the film) smacks Fred in the face with her sleeve. He said he saw stars.

Swing Time, which is perceived by some as the best Astaire/Rogers picture, was directed by George Stevens, one of America's great directors. In some respects it is the most accomplished of the films I've seen so far, but I don't think it measures up to Top Hat. Again, this has to do with what goes on between musical numbers.

In this film Astaire is Lucky Garnett, a small-time dancer and degenerate gambler (although the word degenerate is never used). He is late for his own wedding (to Betty Furness, who would go on to be a spokeswoman for Westinghouse in the early days of TV and then a consumer reporter) because he's caught up in gambling. He promises her father he'll go to New York and come back with a bankroll of $25,000 (a considerable sum in 1936, given the economic circumstances of the time). Along with his buddy, a magician played in a bizarre fashion by Victor Moore, Astaire heads to the big apple and meets Rogers, who is a dance instructor. As with earlier pictures, he is smitten, she is dismayed, especially when he gets her fired from her job. But he atones by showing her boss how great a teacher she is, in a number danced to "Pick Yourself Up." This number, a joyous tap affair, is frequently shown on clip shows, and is a delightful example of story-telling through dance, with the two ending the number with a leap over a gate, exiting out of the room.

As the film goes through the plot I got the sense they were just trying too hard, and impatiently waited for more dancing. It does include one of my favorite all-time songs, "The Way You Look Tonight," (winner of the Best Song Oscar), and one of their greatest dance numbers, "Never Gonna Dance," which features some magnificent camera work by Stevens and his cinematographer, David Abel. Again, the story is transmitted through the dance, as Rogers has refused Astaire and they dance their goodbye. Stevens uses the set, a sweeping double-staircase, and frames the pair brilliantly (at one point the two are at the far extremes of the frame) culminating in a breathtaking crane shot.

It was said that Fred gave Ginger class, and she gave him sex. There is some truth to that, as Astaire was hardly leading man material. In many ways he looks like Stan Laurel. As I see these films, though, I have great respect for Ginger Rogers, who is attributed as saying that she did everything Astaire did, only backwards and in high heels.

Monday, April 12, 2010

The Runaways

I know a guy who got Joan Jett to autograph his arm, and he then had a tattoo artist permanently etch it into his skin. I thought this was a perfectly rational and reasonable thing to do. After all, who is cooler than Joan Jett? The Runaways, written and directed by Floria Sigismondi, chronicles the brief and tempestuous life of Jett's first band, and though Jett's post-Runaways success is the only reason why the band is remembered today, her character floats on the periphery of the action, teasing us while telling a much more conventional story.

The story arc of The Runaways is that of Cherie Currie's. The film was based on her memoir, Neon Angel. And it's certainly true that she provided the drama of the Runaways brief existence, as she lived the standard VH1: Behind the Music template--plucked from obscurity, playing grimy gigs, hitting it big, and then spiralling into a haze of drugs. But all the while Currie's story unspooled, I kept savoring the moments about Jett, and wanted to see more.

Jett is an executive producer of the film, so her input must have been significant. Perhaps that is the reason that all mentions of her home life are absent. We only see her--a sexually ambiguous teenager who worships Suzi Quatro-- taking a guitar lesson and being told that girls don't play electric guitar. In a scene that seems too coated with pixie dust to believe she runs into record producer Kim Fowley at a club and tells him she wants to put together an all-girl band. On the spot he matches her with a girl drummer, and before long they have found Currie, who Fowley sees as a "little bit Bowie, a little bit Bardot" to be the sexy lead singer. Fowley, vividly played by Michael Shannon, is a slimy oddball who sees an opportunity to put together a band of jail-bait (Fowley is now a DJ for satellite radio, and coincidentally his show was on my radio as I drove home from the theater. He seems just as strange now as he was then).

Fowley may be a scumbag, but the girls take his best advice and harness an attitude--he tells them it's not about "women's lib, but women's libido." In another scene that seems to good to be true, he and Jett write the band's only hit, "Cherry Bomb," in about five minutes. They get a record contract and are a smash, but things get strained when Currie is marketed as a sex symbol. We get a variation on the time-worn rock movie line: "It was supposed to be about the music, not about your crotch!"

Though the script has all the cliches I ended up enjoying this film. True, I got bored about halfway through, but eventually I was won over, mostly because I liked being absorbed into the world of the seventies. Sigismondi and her cinematographer, costume designer and art director have created a palpable world, whether it's the grungy clubs, the pathetic trailer park, or the feathered hair and platformed sandals. When Currie, in a moment of inspired futility, participates in her school's talent contest by lip-synching to a Bowie song, I was right there, flashing back. The Runaways is a valentine to rock and roll and its excesses, and anyone who doesn't like or understand rock music would be completely lost.

Finally, I want to mention the two starring performances. Dakota Fanning is Currie, and she's terrific, although I must admit feeling uneasy about this young lady, who has been in films since she was not much more than a toddler, being so sexual. But she takes the cliched character and makes it her own. Kristen Stewart is Jett, and I was thrilled to see her display some of the charisma she'd shown before her superduper-stardom from the Twilight films. I had begun to wonder if Stewart could act at all, but she convinced me here, perfectly capturing Jett's look, sound, and demeanor, even in the way she hunches her shoulders, as if she's always playing guitar, even when she isn't carrying one.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

John Paul Stevens

An affectionate and heartfelt tip of the hat is due to Justice John Paul Stevens, who on Friday announced his retirement from the Supreme Court, just eleven days before his ninetieth birthday. In a time when the majority of the court makes bizarre decisions like finding that corporations have the same speech rights as citizens, it is important to honor a man who fought, in his own quiet way, for the rights of all people.

Stevens was a link to a different era. He was appointed in 1975 by President Ford, and more than ten years of seniority over the next most senior justice on the court. He had been the most senior justice for sixteen years, and ends up with the third-longest tenure of any Supreme Court justice in history (Stevens replaced the record-holder, William O. Douglas, who in turn replaced Louis Brandeis, who served a relatively brief 23 years). When he was appointed, Ford was interested in finding the best man (no women yet) for the job, and cared little about ideology. Stevens' confirmation hearings were held quickly, and untelevised (the last such hearings to be so shrouded in mystery). Amazingly, he was not asked one question about Roe v. Wade, which had been decided two years earlier. He was confirmed 19 days after his nomination, in a 98-0 vote. I think it's safe to say we will never see a unanimous confirmation of a Supreme Court justice, at least not in the next thirty years.

Appointed by a Republican, Stevens, over time, became the leading liberal on the court. This is partly due to Stevens' own evolving philosophy, particularly on the death penalty and affirmative action (he voted against it in the Bakke decision, but for it in the University of Michigan law school case). But I think this is mostly due to the court's tilt rightward. Long gone is the residue of the Warren Court, when unabashed liberals like Douglas, Brennan, and Marshall served. Today a careful moderate is seen as a shining beacon of liberal thinking.

Stevens, by all accounts, is a fine gentleman. He didn't give many interviews, but one has learned over the years that he favors bow ties, is a big Cubs fan (he was present at the World Series game in 1932 when Babe Ruth called his home run shot off Charlie Root, and confirms that Ruth did indeed point to centerfield before slamming the round-tripper) and is a model of politeness to advocates on a bench where none is called for. He was also, especially in the years following the retirements of Brennan, Marshall, and Blackmun, a strenuous voice for the interests of progressive thinking. He has a number of terrific notches in his belt, the most important perhaps his opinion in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, which put the brakes on the Bush administration trying terrorist suspects in military tribunals--Stevens actually believed that everyone deserves a fair trial--what a nut! The quote of his that most heard following the announcement was his dissent in Bush v. Gore: "One thing, however, is certain. Although we may never know with complete certainty the identity of the winner of this year's Presidential election, the identity of the loser is perfectly clear. It is the Nation's confidence in the judge as an impartial guardian of the rule of law."

Stevens' record was not completely unblemished, at least not from my vantage point. He authored the decision F.C.C. v. Pacifica, which dealt with George Carlin's "seven dirty words" act being banished from the airwaves, and he also dissented strongly in Texas v. Johnson, which established it was unconstitutional to pass laws banning flag-burning. Perhaps this was because Stevens was a veteran, he is now the only justice with military service. But he heartened old free speech geeks like myself with his dissent in ACLU v. Ashcroft, that found that filters guarding against child pornography were overbroad in blocking freedom of access to the Internet: "As a judge, I must confess to a growing sense of unease when the interest in protecting children from prurient materials is invoked as a justification for using criminal regulation of speech as a substitute for, or a simple backup to, adult oversight of children's viewing."

Stevens will be replaced, most likely, with someone of similar philosophy, but his shrewdness of building coalitions will be missed. As the most senior justice, he had the power of assigning opinions when in opposition to the Chief Justice. That task will now fall to Ruth Ginsburg, who hopefully will have learned some of Stevens wiliness.

So who will replace Stevens? The White House has taken a lot of the fun out of the guessing game by releasing the names of five people, all of whom were in the running last year, when Sonia Sotomayor was chosen. They are: Elena Kagan, Solicitor General; Appeals Court judges Diane Wood and Merrick Garland; Secretary of Homeland Security Jeannette Napolitano; and Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm. Apparently President Obama, flush with success after getting health care reform through, is not interested in flexing any muscle to push for a more liberal candidate, like Harold Koh or Pamela Karlan. This shortlist is clearly an indication that Obama is not interested in protracted battle in the Senate, which is a shame, because with 59 Democrats now in the Senate he could probably get through just about anyone he wants.

Instead he's going to play it safe. Many, including Scotusblog's Tom Goldstein, sees Kagan as a fait accompli. She's only 49 (remember, this seat has a propensity for longevity), and has been praised by Republicans. She's never been a judge, but was dean of the Harvard law school. Some liberals, including Salon's Glen Greenwald, worry about her stance on executive power (she's for it). That trouble me, too, particularly since Stevens was leery of it, but I'm going to take the attitude that as long as this pick is in Obama's hands, I'll be okay with whomever he decides.

One thing that could prevent Kagan's appointment, and it's a delicate topic--her religion. She's Jewish, and of course that in itself is not an issue. But Stevens was the only Protestant on the court, and he leaves an octet that includes six Catholics and two Jews. The very notion that one day we may have a Supreme Court that includes no Protestants is mind-boggling. Would a Kagan appointment arouse sputtering protests from the evangelical wing of the opposition? Judge Garland is also Jewish, which makes me think that we can't rule out Diane Wood (I find no evidence of her religion, but she is not Jewish or Catholic). Wood is older (she'll be sixty in July), but is a former colleague of Obama's at the University of Chicago, and to hear legal scholars write about her, she is the most qualified of the shortlist, intellectually speaking. She is also the most liberal of the group, which pleases me. Furthermore, she offers a diversity of geography. Though born in New Jersey, she went to law school in Texas and now lives in Chicago. More than half of the current court hail from the northeast. If I were advising Obama (a bad thing to contemplate), I'd suggest appointing Wood now, and if he really wants Kagan to be on the court she could replace Ruth Ginsburg, who will likely retire in the next two years.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

The Gay Divorcee/Top Hat

While reading Morris Dickstein's Dancing in the Dark it occurred to me I had never seen a Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers movie. I am embarking on addressing that, and have now seen two of their films, The Gay Divorcee and Top Hat.

The two first appeared together in Flying Down to Rio, but The Gay Divorcee was the first film that paired them as stars. It was released in 1934, and Top Hat came along in 1935. In all they would make ten films together, and their names are iconic even to those who have never seen them, whether it be as examples of dancers, or just as a symbol of a kind of posh elegance that doesn't exist anymore.

The films have almost identical plots, which are gruel-thin: Astaire, playing an American dancer in England, meets Rogers and is instantly smitten, but she finds him annoying. He doggedly pursues her, and she acquiesces after dancing with him. But a case of mistaken identity leads her to believe he's a cad. All is set right, though, and the two dance in a big production number before getting married. The films also share a stock company of character actors: Edward Everett Horton as Astaire's fussy best friend, Eric Rhodes as a pompous Italian, and Eric Blore as a dutiful servant of some sorts (in Gay Divorcee he's a waiter, in Top Hat a valet).

The Gay Divorcee is a little racier. I'm not sure if it's pre-Code, but it has a few moments of eyebrow raising. Horton shares a dance number with Betty Grable called "Let's Knock Knees," a clear euphemism for sex if there ever was one, and after Astaire and Rogers share a passioned dance to Cole Porter's "Night and Day" she collapses in a chair and he helpfully asks her, "Cigarette?" The plot mechanism is that Rogers is seeking a divorce, and apparently in those days you could only get one by proving adultery, so a cottage industry had developed of men who would, for a fee, be caught in a hotel room with a woman (though no actual adultery took place). It's a shame this practice no longer exists, that sounds like a job I could do.

The Gay Divorcee seems, almost eighty years later, to be a charming artifact of yesteryear, that I watched with a smile but without much excitement. Other than "Night and Day," the only musical number worth remembering is the nearly twenty-minute production of "The Continental" (it would win the very first Oscar for Best Song). And may I add, respectfully, that those days were not kind to women's appearances? Rogers was only 23 when this film was made, but she looks ten years older, and the style of the time seemed to be to make women, no matter how young, look older and dowdier, by means of makeup and hairstyles.

Top Hat, though sharing a bare-bones plot and the same structure of comedy and dance numbers, is a far superior movie. Both were produced by Pandro S. Berman and directed by Mark Sandrich, but this one gets it right. Astaire is once again a dancer, and Horton is producing his show in London. He pursues Rogers, but she thinks he's Horton, who is married. They end up in Venice, and Astaire continues to pursue her, and they share a dance to Irving Berlin's "Cheek to Cheek," which is one of the most exquisite musical numbers in cinema history. Astaire insisted on his dances to be filmed in long takes, with the bodies of the dancers seen in full figure (as contrasted with those directed by Busby Berkeley, who used closeups and quick cuts). The result is silver-screen magic, with the two moving beautifully together, he in white tie and tails, and she in a feathered dress. And to give full credit to Rogers, the emotions that crossed her face during their musical numbers were perfect--they end the dance, and she's in love, but she still thinks he's married, and you can see every complicated emotion she's going through without her saying a word.

I'll be commenting on four more of their films in this space over the next week or so.

Friday, April 09, 2010

Rabbit, Run

In my remembrance of novelist John Updike, I mentioned that his greatest work, the tetralogy concerning Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom, I had read only the last two of the four books. I have now added the first book of the series, as it marks the fiftieth anniversary of publication this year. Somewhere along the line I purchased a second-hand copy of a yellowing, crumbling paperback (I noticed that it was published in the U.K.) and made my way through it, experiencing mixed thoughts.

Rabbit Is Rich is one of the best books I have read, and Rabbit at Rest was also very good. The first book is a different experience. I'm sure Updike had no intention of spending the next thirty years chronicling the life of his hero, a man who never shakes his high-school days as a basketball hero, and perpetually runs from his problems. Reading this book fifty years later, one has to adjust mentally back to 1960, as this book, for all its gifts, is not timeless.

Reading these books out of order creates interesting effects. Updike killed Rabbit off while playing a pickup game of basketball with teenagers, and I see now the irony of that, as Rabbit, Run begins with a 26-year-old Rabbit stopping to watch and then participate in a pickup game of basketball. He's living in his home town, on the outskirts of a mid-size Pennsylvania city (presumably something like Reading) and has a nothing job demonstrating kitchen gadgets. He's married to Janice, with a small son and another child on the way. When he comes home and finds Janice drunk and mindlessly watching TV, he tells her he's going out for cigarettes and runs.

What follows is the strongest part of the book, Rabbit's odyssey as he drives. He thinks he'll go south to Florida, but only gets as far as West Virginia before circling back. But along the way we get a terrific impression of 1959 America. Over the course of the tetralogy, Updike used his hero's story as a way into the culture of his country, and here is no different, as we get the names of the songs on the radio, the movies in the theaters, the sights and sounds of diners and gas stations.

Rabbit bunks with his basketball coach for a night, and ends up at having dinner with him and two women at a Chinese restaurant. He's vaguely attracted to one of them, Ruth, and follows her home. It turns out she's sort of a prostitute, and for fifteen dollars he spends the night with her, although she's not particularly crazy about him. We then get, for the cusp of the sixties, a fairly explicit sex scene, though in comparison to what Updike would later write it's pretty tame. But we do get a hint of Updike's use of bodily fluids in his prose, such as the magnificent sentence: "And on a tide of alcohol and stirred semen, he steps forward, in a kind of swoon."

Rabbit and Ruth play house for a few months, though Janice's family's minister tries to get husband and wife back together (Updike would specialize in the characters of ministers). When Janice goes into labor he returns to her (though not before flirting with the minister's wife) but a tragedy will once again change things, and the book ends memorably with Rabbit running, of course.

Reading this book for the first time in 2010 presents certain problems. Rabbit is a man rooted in his time, way before feminism. Any self-respecting woman would read this book with clenched fists, wondering why any woman would give him a second chance. Updike's treatment of women is not exactly enlightened, particularly in the character of Ruth, the bovine, sometime hooker who doesn't like Rabbit but gets attached to him anyway. And the dialogue doesn't seem right--stilted almost, as if the characters were aware that someone were listening to them.

For anyone interested in American literature of the latter half of the twentieth century, the Rabbit books are essential, and they are also interesting cultural artifacts chronicling the white middle-class male. But be warned that reading this first volume can be an uncomfortable experience.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Twin Peaks

In today's exercise in nostalgia, I point out that twenty years ago today, David Lynch's trippy TV series, Twin Peaks, debuted. It was unlike anything seen on television before, and for a while it gripped a certain segment of the population, including me.

I distinctly remember watching the introductory pilot film (as I remember, it was a Sunday night) and calling my friend to talk about it. She had also seen it and we were amazed. Perhaps only David Lynch could direct something that included a scene of a traffic light going through its cycle that seemed as exciting as an entire episode of The A-Team.

For those who are too young to remember, Twin Peaks was a murder mystery. A high-school girl, Laura Palmer, is found dead on a river bank, wrapped in plastic. FBI agent Dale Cooper (played by Kyle McLachlan) investigates, with distinctly bizarre methods. The town, snuggled in the Cascades, is populated by a great compliment of oddballs, such as a woman known only the Log Lady. The town's sheriff is a pillar of normalcy, but of course is named Harry Truman.

Lynch and his co-creator, Mark Frost, guided the show as if it were a hallucination, with Cooper having some strange dreams, the most memorable one involving a red room and a dancing dwarf talking backwards (in the interest of equal time, there was also one involving a giant who tells Cooper, "The owls are not what they seem.") In an homage to The Fugitive, Cooper began seeing images of a one-armed man, called Killer Bob, and watching the show gave one a thrilling but uneasy sense of dread. The show's success owed a lot to the music score by Angelo Badalamenti. Even today I can easily recall the eerie theme, and the finger-snapping jazz of the incidental music.

And the cast! In a presage of Tarantino-esque career resurrection, Twin Peaks dusted off quite a few vaguely familiar faces and repositioned them for public scrutiny. Peggy Lipton, Jack Nance (from Lynch's Eraserhead), Joan Chen, Piper Laurie, and not one but two forgotten members of the West Side Story cast--Richard Beymer and Russ Tamblyn. We also saw David Bowie, Chris Isaak, and young Keifer Sutherland and David Duchovny (as a cross-dressing FBI agent). Another plus was the awesome array of female pulchritude, highlighted by the trio on this Rolling Stone cover: Lara Flynn Boyle, Sherilyn Fenn, and Madchen Amick, but that's not to forget Sheryl Lee, as Laura Palmer and her look-alike cousin, and in the second season, Heather Graham. Just a few weeks ago I was pleased to see Kimmy Robertson, who played the sheriff's secretary, show up in a Burger King commercial.

In those days before the Internet, Twin Peaks was true water-cooler TV, engaging the country without message boards and instant recaps. I can only imagine how it would be handled today--the most accurate comparison would be Lost, which has endless discussions on a full variety of Web sites (and I can't get enough of them). The difference between Twin Peaks and Lost is that the former clearly did not have an end in sight, and toward the end of the second and last season it was apparent that the creative team was just noodling, and the odd and quirky existed only to be odd and quirky, not contributing to a particular end. When Laura's killer was finally revealed, a nation yawned. When Billy Zane joined the cast, I think that was a sign that the magic was over. The feature film it spawned, Twin Peaks: Fire, Walk With Me, was dreadful.

Over the years other shows have tried to match Twin Peaks' mixture of serial and weird menace--a short-lived show called Push, Nevada comes to mind--but I don't think its bracing originality will ever be matched.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Cheever

Cheever, by Blake Bailey, is among the most exhilaratingly entertaining biographies I've ever read. I say that even though I came to the book without having read much by its subject (when I was a teenager I read his novel Falconer, but remember almost nothing about it). John Cheever was one of America's greatest short story writers, having published over 100 stories in the New Yorker, but he's not much remembered or taught today. But oh did he live an interesting life.

"I write to make sense of my life," he once said, which makes one wonder how senseless his life would have been without writing. Raised in Quincy, Massachusetts, he was born to to a father who wanted him aborted, was haunted throughout his life by his bisexuality, and nearly drank himself to death. He was cruel to his children, had a wife who almost completely ignored him, and had affairs with both men and women, including the actress Hope Lange. Through it all he wrote some of the most acclaimed stories of the century, most of them chronicling the vicissitudes and despair of the suburban set, leading him to be called the "Ovid of Ossining." He won all the major prizes, including the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. Perhaps most amazingly, his last years were something of a triumph, as he got sober, reconciled with his children, and achieved great acclaim among his peers.

All of that is dramatic enough, but Bailey's prose is so scintillating that the nuggets glisten. There are all sorts of great details, such as how Cheever never wore an overcoat, as his father suggested this made him look Irish (Cheever's father was on odd duck who read Shakespeare to his cat). I'm sure Bailey would give credit to Cheever, as much of the book is fueled by the man's journals, which Bailey read in their entirety (4,300 single-space pages). Cheever seemed to view his life with a droll shrug, and records events with a wit that can't help but attract the reader, despite him being, basically, a son of a bitch.

It's hard to summarize the man, but my favorite parts had to do with his long complicated relationship with John Updike, who once had to dress a drunken Cheever and take him to a symphony. The two were close, but Cheever, perhaps out of jealousy of his younger rival, wrote many biting things about him. Then there's the relationship with his wife, who at some point, perhaps because she knew he was tomcatting with men, turned away from him, both emotionally and sexually. After returning from a stint in the hospital, she told him, "It was nice while you were away to have a dry toilet seat."

The scenes depicting his alcoholism are harrowing. Bailey opens Chapter 33 bluntly: "Cheever seemed permanently impaired by alcohol. His face and extremities were swollen, his speech was slurred, and almost any kind of physical exertion made him dizzy to the point of fainting." That he sobered up after a stay at the Smithers clinic is a testament to his character, which often seems wanting, particularly his treatment of his daughter Susan, whom he constantly upbraided for being overweight and above all not his ideal of the princess-like daughter he imagined. Yet as boorish as he could be, I never didn't like the man, and couldn't help but tear up as Bailey reconstructs his funeral (he died of cancer in 1982).

I was also giddily pleased to see that Bailey includes what might be the avenue of Cheever's greatest posthumous fame--his mention on an episode of Seinfeld (for those who watched the show--it's when Kramer burns down George's fiancee Susan's father's cabin, leaving nothing but a box of letters--letters from Cheever to Susan's father, revealing their homosexual affair). Bailey interviewed Larry David, the writer of the script, who said of Cheever, "he was a well-known writer who was gay." Bailey adds, "One can only imagine how Cheever would have felt about being primarily known as a "writer who was gay," but there it is.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Coco Before Chanel

As I chase down the few remaining Oscar-nominated pictures that I missed in theaters, I come to Coco Before Chanel, which, as the title suggests, is a look at the early life of fashion designer Coco Chanel. As one would expect of a film about a fashion designer, the movie picked up a well-earned nomination for costume designer Catherine Leterrier.

Beyond the costumes, this film is a respectful, at times too-reverent examination of Chanel, who was dumped in an orphanage by her father, struggled to make it is as a singer, and then ended up revolutionizing women's style in pre-World War I France. But at the heart of it I found the film a little dull.

As anyone who has ever seen my wardrobe, I know nothing about fashion and have little interest in it. The film, directed by Anne Fontaine, does give the viewer a decent understanding of what made Chanel so revolutionary (she was the only fashion personality named in Time Magazine's Top 100 people of the century). In an era when women covered themselves with feathers and baubles to show their wealth, Chanel used the simplicity of men's fashion to stand out. Perhaps most importantly she did not wear a corset, which allowed women to have a measure of freedom, letting it all hang out.

But those things could be expressed in a documentary. This film is a narrative, and doesn't exactly crackle with drama. After a prologue in the orphanage, we pick her up as a singer in a saloon, where she meets a bumptious millionaire (Benoit Poelvoorde). She later shows up at his estate and kind of installs herself as a mistress. Later she falls in love with his friend, a British coal merchant (Alessandro Nivola) who encourages her individuality. Their relationship becomes complicated, though, and ends badly. That pretty much defines the conflict of the film.

Audrey Tatou is Chanel, and it is easy to see why the makers of the film would have abandoned the project without her participation. She looks a great deal like her subject and lifts the film out of its doldrums with an intense performance.

I read in the Wikipedia article on the film that there was some controversy about it because it did not address her collaboration with the Nazis. This is interesting, considering the film ends before the outbreak of World War I. Perhaps there are more movies to be made about this woman (indeed, there is one in the works about her relationship with Igor Stravinsky, who is not seen in this one).

Monday, April 05, 2010

Grover's Mill

Grover's Mill doesn't really exist anymore. The mill itself is long gone, and the town that bore its name is now barely a neighborhood--just a few houses and a lawnmower shop around a pond. But over seventy years, on October 30, 1938, Grover's Mill was the talk of the nation, thanks to Orson Welles.

Grover's Mill is now part of West Windsor Township, New Jersey, and just a few miles from where I live. I took advantage of some nice weather and took a hike to Van Nest Park, which is the epicenter of all things Grover's Mill. Erected there a few years ago is a monument to that night so long ago, when Orson Welles and his Mercury Theater aired a radio broadcast of H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds. The broadcast aired as a simulated newscast of a Martian invasion, and some (the total is in dispute) believed it to be true, and some panic ensued. Welles took a lot of heat for it, apologized profusely, but in some ways it made him a star.

Why Grover's Mill? I seem to recall, though I can't find verification of it quickly, that Welles (who moved the action from Wells' England to the U.S.) chose the town by sticking a pin in a map, but perhaps he was drawn to the similarity to the name of Thornton Wilder's Our Town--Grover's Corners. It's proximity to Princeton gave Welles the employer of his narrator, and it was close enough to major cities New York and Philadelphia to make it resonate. But for whatever the reason, the little crossroads in central New Jersey ended up mobbed with people, to see for themselves if there really Martians in their midst. A water tower, which still stands (just behind the lawnmower shop), was supposedly shot at by overzealous citizens, mistaking it for a Martian spaceship.

The monument was erected a few years ago, along with a Martian-themed celebration, in an attempt to generate some tourism and in the spirit of letting bygones be bygones. The plaque includes language suggesting that the October night of so long ago has taught the media responsibility, but that's a dubious statement. The bas relief sculpture is kind of cheesy, but in its own way kind of awesome, in that it's a monument to a community that got hoodwinked and embarrassed. "Fool us once," it seems to be saying. Some don't forgive so quickly. A friend's grandfather, who lived nearby, referred to Welles as an SOB for years.