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Tuesday, August 31, 2010

A Country of Vast Designs

History has been fickle with James Knox Polk, the eleventh President of the United States. In some ways, he was the most successful president, given his agenda. He told a cabinet member that he had four goals: to claim Oregon from the British, gain California from Mexico, reduce the tariffs, and establish an independent treasury. He accomplished all of this in one term, and expanded the size of the U.S. by 500,000 square miles, establishing the map of the continental United States as it is today (except for the sliver of the southwest known as the Gadsden purchase). He did this in one term. He would die at age 53 only months after leaving office.

But, as President Obama has learned, accomplishments only go so far if not everyone agrees that they are good thing, and Polk, like Obama, had vehement opposition. This is detailed in Robert W. Merry's book, A Country of Vast Designs, which is really a biography of Polk with special emphasis on his four years in office, from 1845 to 1849.

The title of the book comes from a line from Ralph Waldo Emerson: "America is the country of the Future. It is a country of beginnings, of projects, of vast designs and expectations." It was during this period that the term "Manifest Destiny" was coined, when Americans believed it was their divine right to conquer and settle all the land between the oceans.

Polk was the only president who had also been Speaker of the House, he was also the first "dark horse" candidate. When the Democrats met for their convention in 1844, he hoped to be named to the ticket as the vice-presidential nominee. The favorite was the former president, Martin Van Buren, but his opposition to the annexation of Texas, plus a rule that required two-thirds of the delegation's votes, doomed his chances. Polk had the support of his mentor, the former president Andrew Jackson, who lobbied for his nomination. For eight ballots the delegates were in a stalemate, until Polk was introduced on the ninth ballot and nominated by acclimation. He then went on to beat the Whig candidate, Henry Clay, who had already lost a presidential election twice.

Polk's administration would be dominated by first Oregon, and then Mexico. The U.S. and Great Britain squabbled over Oregon (today Oregon, Washington and Idaho), and war was discussed. Some wanted the land all the way up to 54.40, which today would encompass British Columbia. A compromise was eventually struck, and Oregon became U.S. territory, but at the 49th parallel.

Mexico was a different story. Throughout the years, it has been assumed that Polk waged war because he wanted California (which included Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Wyoming). Merry doesn't fully disagree, but does point out that Mexico, by refusing to acknowledge the independence of Texas, brought the war upon themselves.

The details of the war are enlightening and eye-opening. It was as if the U.S. were making a rehearsal for Vietnam. The Whigs, including Henry Clay, were against it (he would lose a son in battle). Polk was exasperated by his generals, as Zachary Taylor made a few bad moves, but would then score victories that would launch him to the White House a few years later. Polk would remove Winfield Scott as the head of the army, which Scott responded to with a childish tantrum. But eventually Scott was reinstated, and he scored a major victory at Mexico City, prompting the Duke of Wellington to call him the world's greatest soldier.

The palace intrigue at the White House was also toxic. Polk's Secretary of State, James Buchanan, would be a constant source of vexation, but Polk never fired him, even when he thought Buchanan was working against him. Buchanan does not come off well in Merry's eyes, nor does Taylor, who is repeatedly labeled as dull and without opinions on the issues of the day.

Another theme running through the book is how the seeds that flowered into the Civil War were planted. A backbench congressman, David Wilmot, introduced a proviso into the bill that would pay for Polk's war that would outlaw slavery in any territory acquired through the conflict with Mexico. Thus the war took on an entirely different slant that would not be extinguished for another twenty years.

Merry is even-handed with Polk. He is admiring of his accomplishments, but doesn't seem particularly impressed with him as a man. He sums up by writing: "He had embraced an American aspiration that many articulated but few could fashion into a concrete plan with serious prospects of fulfillment. And, though grit, persistence, and flexibility of action, he had turned that aspiration into a reality that transformed a nation. But that ordeal also magnified the man's weaknesses--his suspicious sanctimony, his inability to establish a culture of teamwork, his tendency toward transparently sly maneuvers, his lack of personality traits used by true political leaders to bend others to his will."

The book is best when in the vein--analyzing Polk as a man. It suffers when dryly going through some of the history. It also would have done better with maps--a book about a war should have plenty of them. But I did learn a lot from this book, and got a much better sense of who James Knox Polk was, and how little has changed in over a hundred and sixty years.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Three Sisters

Three Sisters is the only one of Chekhov's four great plays that I have never seen in a live production. But this weekend I gorged on it, watching two productions on DVD. Both are from 1970: one is from the British National Theater, under the direction of Sir Laurence Olivier, and the other is a production of the BBC, directed by Cedric Messina. Both have their estimable qualities.

In contrast with The Seagull, Three Sisters is labeled a drama, though a death by gunshot occurs at the end of both. Of course, as is famous with Chekhov, the death occurs off-stage, as most of the momentous events do in his plays. Instead we see the characters discussing these events, usually in a kind of tired stillness. It doesn't make for conventional excitement, but if one listens one is enraptured by the deep feeling of all the characters.

One character says: "We're not happy and we can't be happy: we only want happiness." He's right, because of all the characters that traipse through the house of the Prozorov's, only a select few achieve that perfect semblance of happiness. Certainly the three women of the title don't. Olga, the eldest, an old maid at twenty-eight, is a schoolteacher. Masha, in the middle, has become bitter from being forced into a marriage with a much older man, a schoolmaster who at first intimidated her, but now bores her. And Irena, the youngest, who dreams of returning to Moscow, where the girls were born and spent their childhoods. They were uprooted by their father, a brigade commander, who took them to the provincial town where they now live. Masha describes it thusly: "Knowing three languages in a town like this is an unnecessary luxury. In fact, not even a luxury, but just a sort of useless encumbrance, it's rather like having a sixth finger on your hand." They have come to consider Moscow as a metaphor for happiness, a Never-Neverland that perpetually remains out of their reach. They will go to Moscow as easily as they will go to the moon.

They have a brother, Andrey, who, as the play begins, is to become a professor. But he marries a local woman, Natasha, something of a country bumpkin. As time goes on, though, Natasha exerts her will, ending up controlling the household, as the sisters dither about Moscow. Masha begins an affair with the new brigade commander, Vershinin, who has a wife that periodically tries to kill herself. Masha's husband, the silly schoolmaster, who always is coming into a room looking for her, knows he is being cuckolded, but doesn't mind it, and insists he is happy.

There are other military men who frequent the house. One of them, Baron Toozenbach, is in love with Irena. In a foreshadowing of events that would shake Russia in a generation's time, Irena says: "Man must work by the sweat of his brow whatever his class, and that should make up the whole meaning and purpose of his life." The Baron resigns his commission to go to work, just to please her, but she resists his advances. Finally, though, she agrees to marry him.

At the same time, she is also loved by Captain Soliony, an odd fellow who is so socially inept that he hides behind bizarre, mordant comments (he tells Natasha, after she brags about her baby, that if he had such a child he would "grill it in a pan and eat it"). He and the Baron are always quibbling with each other, although the Baron, generously, tells Soliony he likes him. But in the last act the Captain challenges the Baron to a duel.

Hovering around the scenes is an army doctor, an old man who boards with the sisters. He loved their mother, and seems to be patiently waiting for death. He has a history of a trouble with drink, and in one scene manages to smash an heirloom and reveal Natasha's affair with the local politician.

Three Sisters is infused with melancholy. It's hard to know who's suffering is more keen. Perhaps it is Andrey's, who never gets his professorship and ends up a bureaucrat. As the play goes on, and years pass, he rues his marriage, and says, bitingly of his wife: "There's something about her which pulls her down to the level of an animal--a sort of mean, blind, thick-skinned animal--anyway, not a human being." But Natasha, even more than the schoolmaster, has achieved the happiness that the other characters can barely imagine.

Still, the play ends on a note of hope. The sisters, while the doctor sings a childish tune nearby, are determined to carry on: "We must go on living," Masha says, and then Olga, in a rhapsodic flourish, ends the play with: "Our sufferings may mean happiness for the people who come after us. There'll be a time when peace and happiness reign in the world, and then we shall be remembered kindly and blessed. No, my dear sisters, life isn't finished for us yet! We're going to live! The band is playing so cheerfully and and joyfully--maybe, if we wait a little longer, we shall find out why we live, why we suffer. Oh, if we only knew!"

The two productions are markedly different. Olivier's, in which he plays the doctor, is half an hour longer and more stately. Joan Plowright, his wife, plays Masha and Alan Bates is Vershinin. The one bit of license he takes is enacting the duel, and showing that the Baron, who knows that Irena will never love him, purposely allows Soliony to shoot him.

The BBC version is livelier. Anthony Hopkins plays Andrey, with Eileen Atkins as Olga and Janet Suzman as Masha.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Final Resting Place of Elsie the Cow

I live in the small town of Plainsboro, New Jersey (I know, my profile says Princeton, which is an adjacent town. Many people in this area say they live in Princeton, even if they don't, because it sounds more prestigious. I am not immune from that). There's not much notable about Plainsboro. As I noted in my article on the census, a lot of Indian-Americans live here--it's the second-highest percentage in any town over 1,000 people in the United States.

The only reasonably historical aspect to Plainsboro is that it was once the home to Walker Gordon Farm, which was established in 1897. It became one of the most advanced dairy farms in the country, and was purchased by the Borden Company. At the 1939 World's Fair, they displayed the Rotolactor, a state-of-the-art milking machine. But since it was only operational twice a day, crowds began to dwindle. The people at Borden were looking for some kind of gimmick, and found one when children kept asking, "Where's Elsie?"

Elsie was an advertising character that was used in Borden print ads. A light bulb went off over the heads of the marketing department, and a cow was chosen to represent Elsie. Her name was You'll Do, Lobelia, a Jersey cow from Massachusetts. She became an instant star, paraded before the public, and even ended up in a movie. She was later given a husband, Elmer, who became the logo for Elmer's Glue. In 1941, she was injured in a vehicular accident and was then put down.

"Elsie" was buried somewhere on the farm, and a stone was put up. Walker Gordon Farm eventually went out of business, and in 2000 the land was turned into housing units (one of the roads is called Elsie Drive). When I'm ambitious, I take a walk on the trail around the subdivision, and beside a gazebo at the end of a cul-de-sac is Elsie's headstone. Technically speaking, it's a cenotaph, as it does not mark her actual resting place. That is somewhere out in the field. It is to be hoped that her bovine bones will not one day break through someone's basement wall.

Here is a snapshot I took today of the cenotaph. And so, in a town that has a large Indian population, it is ironic that Plainsboro's most famous resident was a cow.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Life During Wartime

Todd Solondz has created a sequel, of sorts, to his 1998 film Happiness. This film could have been called Forgiveness, because that's the condition he has on his mind, and it is repeated throughout like the pealing of a bell. Would you forgive a terrorist? Would you forgive your husband if he were addicted to crack, and to making obscene phone calls? Would you forgive your father if he were imprisoned for molesting little boys? Would you forgive your mother if instead of telling you the truth about your father, she told you he was dead?

The first word of the film is "Joy," and that is the pivotal character, played by Shirley Henderson (the character are repeated from Happiness, but played by other actors). She says she is happy, to her obsequious husband, Michael Kenneth Williams. They are out to dinner, and a seemingly pleasant dinner turns very ugly. It reminded me of the scene in Happiness in which Joy (then played by Jane Addams) has a dinner go horribly wrong with Jon Lovitz. In Life During Wartime, Lovitz' character is played by Paul Reubens, even though Lovitz committed suicide in Happiness.

In order to clear her head, Henderson travels to visit family in Miami, where Solondz makes the pastels of Florida as bleak as the grays of a Soviet gulag. Her older sister, Allison Janney, who was married to the child molester, is finally dating again, and falls in love with Michael Lerner. Her young son (Dylan Riley Snider, in a terrific juvenile performance) learns that his father is not dead, and that he raped boys. This man, played here by Ciaran Hinds, has just been released from prison and attempts to make contact with his children.

A third sister, Ally Sheedy, is a fragile screenwriter who lives in L.A. in a kind of luxurious prison. Henderson visits her, but this sequence of the film is the weakest. It's as if Solondz wanted three sisters for some Chekhovian balance, but it seems forced. It does allow Henderson to threaten to club Reubens on the head with an Emmy Award, though.

As with Solondz's other films, these characters are tremendously flawed but also incredibly endearing, inspiring loads of empathy. They have cringe-worthy conversations: Janney tells her twelve-year-old son about how Lerner "makes her wet," and a scene in which Hinds is picked up by a ravenous older woman (Charlotte Rampling) is as horrifying as it is riveting. She tells Hinds that her children have grown up to be a "pack of wolves, hungry for blood." The topic of forgiveness comes up, and she says she is not going to be a fool. Hinds wonders if she means that it's foolish to ask for forgiveness, but Rampling corrects him--it's foolish to expect forgiveness to be given.

In many ways I was reminded of the Coen Brothers' films, especially A Serious Man, as this one also climaxes with a bar mitzvah. They both share the blackest of senses of humor--as tragic as Solondz's characters are, they are also funny. Consider when Henderson is visited by a man who has killed himself (not Reubens) and he tells her she should put a bullet in her temple. "The mouth works, too," he adds generously. There's also the character of Lerner's son (Rich Pecci), a systems analyst, who politely tells Janney he doesn't expect anyone to find what he does interesting, not even specialists. He just does a job that allows him to live a low-overhead subsistence.

Though the characters finally seem to come down on the side of forgive and forget (except for the 9/11 terrorists--Snider says you can't forgive them, they're dead) the characters come down on different sides of whether one should go through life pretending. Henderson tells Reubens that wouldn't it be wonderful if there were a world where no one could pretend. But Hinds, when he meets his older, college-age son, responds positively when his son tells him that he has gone along with the lie about him being dead. "Yes, pretend, that's good," he says, walking out the door.

This film will surely be on my best of the year list. It is exquisitely written and acted. And I don't mean to use the occasion to take another shot at Inception, but I had to quote Stuart Klawans from his review in The Nation: "Wouldn't the world be wonderful if Inception were the film left to struggle through a two-week run in the art houses, and Life During Wartime got to be the blockbuster?" I concur.

Friday, August 27, 2010

The Doors

My Mount Rushmore of rock and roll would have some familiar faces: The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and The Who, but for the fourth selection I wouldn't go with the obvious choice of Led Zeppelin (I've never been big fans of them, for some reason) I would go with The Doors, the only American band in my pantheon. It came to my attention recently that though I have loved The Doors for years, ever since I discovered them as a teenager in the mid-70s, I have none of their stuff on CD. I only have two of their albums, their self-titled debut and L.A. Woman, on vinyl.


I remedied that by purchasing The Very Best of the Doors, a pretty comprehensive two-disc collection that covers most of the bases (the only song I miss is "The Soft Parade"). I've been listening to it the car for the last couple of weeks, and since I haven't heard a lot of The Doors lately on a regular basis, I've had some interesting reactions.

Being a big fan of The Doors isn't always easy, not even back in the day. They were popular among a certain "cool" crowd back in high school in the late 70s, but as I met new people I found that this admiration was not universal. Joe, my best friend in college, didn't like them at all, and mocked the pretentious lyrics--I remember that he derisively quoted the line from "Soft Parade" "The monk bought lunch" as a prime example--and as I've aged I can see his point. The larger-than-life persona of Jim Morrison, who was the poster child for rock and roll excess (which is saying something) and his mythic status as some sort of hipster poet has turned The Doors into something close to self- parody.

But fuck, I still think The Doors had some great songs. Yes, there go beyond the pale at times. "The End," memorably used by Francis Coppola in Apocalypse Now, doesn't hold up quite as well when you're almost fifty. But if you look past the fancy-pants Oedipus-inspired lyrics, it still is evocatively eerie. The same for their other eleven-minute-plus opus, "When the Music's Over." I'm still intrigued by lines like "The scream of the butterfly."

The rest of The Doors catalogue falls into some neat categories. They had some catchy, radio-friendly hits that still groove, like "Hello, I Love You," "Love Me Two Times," "Twentieth-Century Fox," "Touch Me," "Love Her Madly," and their biggest smash, "Light My Fire," which though ubiquitous on classic radio still makes me feel good.

Then there's the gutsy rock that The Doors did very well, typified by "Break on Through to the Other Side," "Five to One," the Willie Dixon cover, "Back Door Man," and their great rock and roll epic, "L.A. Woman," which if I had to name my top ten favorite songs would be right on the list. When I was in college and this song came on at a party I could be persuaded to sing along. Thank god there's no video of that. And how great is it that they covered the Brecht-Weill composed "Alabama Song (Whisky Bar)" from Threepenny Opera, and absolutely killed?

But I've found that while listening to this collection I'm drawn to songs that weren't hits, and were kind of a hybrid of beatnik jazz, blues, and Morrison's sinister, fucked-up spirituality. I'm thinking specifically of "The WASP (Texas Radio and the Big Beat), "The Changeling," "Peace Frog," and "Waiting for the Sun." These songs utilized Morrison's gift for the language, as well as The Doors distinctive sound, which was dominated by Ray Manzarek's almost-cheesy organ.

I've even found undiscovered treasures. From the album American Prayer, which the remaining Doors released a few years after Morrison's death, comes "The Ghost Song," which is Morrison reciting poetry to new music. The whole project seemed ghoulish to me, and I have never listened to it, but if it's like this, I may have to adjust my attitude--it's really good.

These guys were not about peace and love. The Doors were something else entirely, a piece of the 60s that was less about politics and more about the part of ourselves that we aren't proud of. Yes, they were closely tied to the drug culture, but when Morrison tripped he saw things that weren't bright colors. His view was as bottomless as his baritone voice.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Arctic Chill

Arctic Chill, by Arnaldur Indridason, is the first book I've ever read that's been translated from the Icelandic, which provides an interesting experience that is both good and bad.

Though set in Iceland, it's in many ways a conventional police procedural that touches on a sensitive subject to many Western nations--immigration. A ten-year-old boy, the son of an immigrant from Thailand, is found murdered. The investigators suspect that there may be a racial motive. Apparently Iceland, like many other countries these days, has people who are not happy with the mongrelization of the races. I suspect that it's even more touchy in a homogeneous country like theirs that has no history of large-scale immigration, like the U.S. or even Great Britain.

The book, apparently one of a series about the main detective, Erlander, covers the police investigation, which also includes a woman, Elinborg, and a junior investigator, Sigurdur Oli, who has some interesting character traits that make for decent drama. Erlander is an older fellow who has two estranged adult children and likes to read about people who have harrowing experiences in nature. This is perhaps because, as a child, he was trapped in a blizzard and his brother disappeared and is presumed dead.

The drawback of the book is the dialogue, which may be a problem with translation. I found it simplistic and inauthentic. I wonder how a phrase in Icelandic could be translated as "hunky dory." The good part of the book is the incredible sensation of sorrow whenever it touches on the dead boy, a kid who was growing up in a world not of his making (the author is clear pointing out the boy was born in Iceland, but is still seen as an outsider). When Erlander looks through his schoolbooks or he is described walking home from school in the snow I couldn't help but get a lump in my throat. It seems that no the world over, it's hell being a kid.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Oscar's Honorary Awards, 2010

Some brush-stroke thinking on the winners of the next group of honorary Oscar winners, announced today:

I've never much first-hand experience with Kevin Brownlow, but I feel like I have because I know people who are big fans. My old friend Bob has read a few of his books, and I heard a lot about him when his restoration of Abel Gance's Napoleon played at Radio City Music Hall in the early 80s, as I believe Bob went twice (I did not, being a poor college student). My friend Paula, who wrote a book on silent-film star Evelyn Nesbit, is a friendly acquaintance of Brownlow's. Of course I should be more immersed in his work, as he's written books about Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd, and I have pretensions about being some kind of expert on silent film comedy. I'm tickled that the Academy would give an Oscar to a scholar, of all things.

The money behind Brownlow's work on Napoleon came from Francis Ford Coppola, who wins the Irving Thalberg Award. What an interesting career. Just a few days ago I wrote about my experience with Apocalypse Now, which capped a decade that Coppola just owned, with two Best Pictures (The Godfather and The Godfather II), and two more nominees (Apocalypse Now and The Conversation, which, amazingly, I have not seen), and a writing Oscar for Patton. But his career was badly damaged by the boondoggle that was One From the Heart, and though he has made some good films in the intervening years (I really liked his version of Dracula), he seems to me a bit of a melancholy figure. He would probably tell me I'm full of it, as he continues to work (he did have a ten-year period between directing jobs), make wine, and presumably enjoy his daughter Sophia's work.

Jean-Luc Godard was the enfant terrible of the French New Wave. Just few months ago I wrote about his feature debut, Breathless, and how it changed cinema. The first Godard film I saw was Masculin/Feminin, way back in college, but I don't remember a lot about it. I've also seen Band of Outsiders, which I enjoyed, and Pierrot Le Fou, which I did not. Contempt, another of his signature films, is perhaps the greatest example of a director luxuriating in the female form, this time of Brigitte Bardot, but is pretty obtuse. I haven't seen a post-1967 release of his (Weekend), but he has continued to make films, for good or bad. I really should put together a Godard film festival, but he's made so many films it's hard to know what to leave out. Netflix seems to have them all, God bless them. Already wags are speculating on how Godard will react to this indignity. I'm guessing he just won't show, but he might come and do something outrageous, which would be fun.

Eli Wallach would seem to getting the "Congratulations on Living This Long" Award. The man will be 95 soon, and though he didn't make his first film until after turning 40 he's made a lot of them, mostly as a supporting actor. He's best known, I guess, for his work in Spaghetti Westerns, an odd thing considering he's a Jew from Brooklyn. He was in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, and The Magnificent Seven. He was in Coppola's The Godfather, Part III and in Elia Kazan's Baby Doll (in both roles he played Italians). As far as I can tell he has not made a movie for Godard. He's also something of a raconteur, with great stories such as how he turned down the role in From Here to Eternity that would go to Frank Sinatra (and ended up being a legend that would make its way into The Godfather) and getting into a spat with Sergio Leone--Wallach gave up work to be in one of Leone's movies, but the director gave the part to Rod Steiger, instead. Wallach, enraged, said he would sue. "Get in line," Leone told him, slamming the phone down. It was the last time the two would speak.

Much has been made that these honors have been banished from the Academy Awards telecast, and instead are given at a non-televised ball sometime in November. But they will be acknowledged at the televised ceremony, and this way they get much more time devoted to them. I wish someone would televise it, though, for us movie geeks.

Congratulations all around, though. All four men are deserving.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Seagull

When I was in college I was moping about something and I must have been asked about it by my favorite professor. I said something dumb like, "I just want to be happy." She replied, "Oh, you're just like a character from Chekhov." When I started college, I had no idea who Chekhov was, aside from a crew member on Star Trek. Now I consider him one of the great dramatists in any language, though he only wrote five plays.

Over the next few weeks, I'm Netflixing what's available of Chekhov on DVD. There have been no major English-language film adaptations that I know of (although I read today that they are planning on making a version of The Seagull with the recent West End and Broadway cast, that includes Kristin Scott Thomas, Peter Sarsgaard and Carey Mulligan). Fortunately there are stage and TV versions that have been committed to digital storage. That is when talking about his four major plays--Ivanov, which I've never got around to reading, and is rarely produced, is unavailable on DVD.

I start with The Seagull, his first play. Anton Chekhov, who was a physician, is greatly acclaimed as a writer of short stories, and tackled plays later in his life. His first was this play, written in 1896. The debut was a huge flop. It was only until three years later, when Stanislavsky directed it at the Moscow Art Theater, that it became a sensation. And now, over a hundred years later, it is in some ways Chekhov's most heartfelt play, a comedy with tragic consequences, and characters who are so overpowered by their emotions that they can barely function. It also has a commentary on the nature of modern drama and the prestige of writers. For over-sensitive artistic types, it's manna.

I've seen the play in performance twice, which I discussed previously. Last night, I viewed a DVD of a production made in conjunction with the Williamstown Summer Theater. It is not a video of a stage performance, but instead was shot outdoors, in natural surroundings. Made in 1975, it stars Frank Langella, Blythe Danner, and Lee Grant.

The play concerns a celebrated actress, Irina (Grant), and her troubled son, Konstantin (Langella). As the story begins, Konstantin is eager to show his play to his family and friends. The star of his play is a neighbor girl, Nina (Danner, who at that age looked strikingly like her daughter Gwyneth Paltrow), with whom he is in love. His play is very experimental and symbolic, and when his mother, who has made her fame in the more bourgeois world of the theater, scoffs at it, he stops the play in a rage.

Irina is in a relationship with Trigorin, a middlebrow novelist who is constantly carping about his reputation: "When I die, my friends as they pass my grave will say, 'Here lies Trigorin. He was a good writer, but not as good as Turgenev".

The play is packed with themes of the most basic human nature. There is aging and death, mostly expressed by the doctor (Chekhov, being a physician, uses doctor characters as observers in more than one play), of mothers and sons (the relationship between Irina and Konstantin will make you feel better about the relationship with your mother). It has parallels to Hamlet and Gertrude.

There is also the theme of misaligned love, which became a Chekhovian trait: Masha is in love with Konstantin, who is in love with Nina, who falls in love with Trigorin, who is loved by Irina. Pauline, the caretaker's wife, is in love with the doctor, who announces he's too old for such things (he's 55). Medvedenko loves Masha, who begins the play by telling him why she always dresses in black: "I'm in mourning for my life. I'm unhappy." Ah, this is what my professor was talking about! Chekhov's characters, especially in The Seagull, think of happiness as some sort of condition that exists independently outside of their lives. Today we might prescribe Masha some Xanax, or at least shake her by the shoulders and tell her to snap out of it. But Chekhov's characters are doomed by their heart's desire, and no amount of psychotherapy can help them.

The central metaphor, and the one that really makes this play get under my skin, is that of the title bird, who is shot by Konstantin in Act Two and given to Nina as some sort of offering. Trigorin, who sees this, makes notes for a short story: "A young girl, like you, has lived beside a lake from childhood. She loves the lake as a seagull does, and she's happy and free as a seagull. But a man chances to come along, sees her, and having nothing better to do, destroys her, just like this seagull here." Trigorin is talking to Nina, and by the last act we realize that what he has done is tell her exactly what he is going to do to her--he will, for no more reason than that he can--ruin her life. She facilitates this with her girlish crush--she gives him a locket quoting a line from one of his books: "If ever you need my life, come and take it." The casual cruelty of this is breathtaking.

Konstantin, the young tortured artist, will never get over Nina, and their scene at the end of the play, when she repeats, "I am a seagull" are heartbreaking. After she leaves, he rips up his writing and goes into the next room to shoot himself, which I'm sure spoke to the tortured artistic soul that I was when I was twenty but seems a problem ending to me today. Still, this play is so vibrant with the tangles of human emotion that to watch it at any age is to feel empathy for all who struggle to find happiness.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Get Low

Watching Get Low is like listening to an elderly relative tell a long, entertaining story. It's only after it's over that you may realize it didn't make a lot of sense, but you may be so charmed by the experience you let it slide.

Directed by Aaron Schneider, the small, low-key film tells the story of one Felix Bush, a hermit in 1930s America (where exactly, I don't know--I'm guessing Missouri). As played by Robert Duvall, Felix is a larger-than-life figure, sporting a voluminous beard and inspiring bogeyman stories that have frightened more than one generation of the local townspeople.

After a one-time friend dies, Duvall gets it into this head that he's going to die, but he wants to clear the air first, so he decides to have funeral for himself before his death. When a preacher (Gerald McRaney) gives him no satisfaction, he is approached by the local funeral parlor, owned by the entrepreneurial Bill Murray, who sees nothing but the greasy wad of money that Duvall has. "Hermit money," he says, admiringly.

Of course, Duvall has a backstory that will be revealed in its own sweet time. A widow, Sissy Spacek, has a history with him ("We had a go," Duvall tells Murray, prompting him to nearly drive off the road). A black preacher, Bill Cobbs, holds some key information, but telling it too early would end the movie, so he hangs on to it. In the end we hear the story of why Duvall became a hermit, as does the whole town. If anything, the ending is a model of efficiency.

The good in this film can be traced entirely to the two main performances: Duvall and Murray. Duvall, who has specialized lately in wizened old coots, settles into Felix's skin like a warm bath. He's all flickering eyes and measured cadences. Mostly he speaks monosyllabically, but as Murray notes, he can be articulate when he wants to be. There's a presence about him that gives the film more oomph that it deserves. I'm guessing Duvall will be in the hunt for another Oscar this year, even if its for career approbation.

Murray's character is more interesting and more circumspect, which may go hand in hand. He's from Chicago, and has sold everything from horses to cars, so there's more than a little intrigue as to why he's ended up in a hick town as the funeral director. He's mercenary, but not without compassion. And of course it's Bill Murray, who can do more with a deadpan expression than any actor since Buster Keaton. You can hear echoes of Peter Venkman when he apologizes to a baby for swearing.

Schneider, who edits as well as directs, is not a particularly visual storyteller. Aside from an arresting opening image of a burning house, with a man on fire leaping out of a window, Get Low does not impress in its technical virtuosity. The climax is particularly clumsy, with a tight closeup on Duvall and obligatory cuts to the crowd. At times the editing seemed slap-dash and amateurish.

But on the whole I liked this film, probably because I liked the characters. It was a pleasant way to spend an afternoon.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Apocalypse Now

August 21, 1979. In just a week I'd be headed off to college for my freshman year, so I'm sure I was equal parts excitement and anxiety. I was spending a listless, job-free summer mooning over a girl that was out of my league. But on that day I had what I think was the most awesome movie-going experience of my life. I saw Apocalypse Now.

I hadn't seen too many films that couldn't be characterized as family friendly. My parents, as if taking orders from Jack Valenti, did not allow me to see R-rated films before I turned 17. I had seen a few since that birthday: An Unmarried Woman was the first, if I recall correctly, and I saw The Deerhunter in my local multiplex (only four screens). That April I had seen Manhattan, which had blown my mind. I had also been catching up with some of the great films of the earlier 70s on HBO, which at that time was a new thing (in those days they didn't operate twenty-four hours a day--they came on at about three in the afternoon).

I had not yet seen a film in New York City. In fact, I had never been to New York without some kind of adult chaperon, either my parents or a school trip. My friend, Bob (who is still my best friend), had seen in the paper that Francis Ford Coppola's long-awaited and much-anticipated film Apocalypse Now was going to open at the Ziegfeld Theater. Tickets could be ordered by clipping out a form in the paper and mailing it in (ah, the world before the Internet). We picked a good day and he sent it in with the money, and the tickets dutifully came.

Bob and I were, and still are of course, major movie geeks. In those days we used to talk movies non-stop (except when we were talking about baseball). We were certainly the only two kids in that high school who could name all of the Oscar-winning Best Pictures, and could name more than one movie directed by Orson Welles (not that there would have been too many who could name even one).

We took the bus into New York. He was an old hand at visiting the city, and we made our way to the Ziegfeld, which was (and still is, I believe) the largest theater in New York that regularly showed films (Radio City Music Hall is much larger, but no longer had a regular movie schedule). We got our programs (Apocalypse Now had no opening or closing credits) and settled in.

From the opening moments I was a goner. The sound of a helicopter flitted around our heads. Apocalypse Now was the first film to use stereo surround sound--a quadrophonic, six-track soundtrack that was the forerunner of today's 5.1. It was an instantly mesmerizing experience, especially when the music of The Doors kicked in, and the jungle foliage went up with napalm. Then, fading into Martin Sheen in that hotel room in Saigon, with the rotors of the helicopter intercutting with the blades of the ceiling fan. I was gobsmacked.

Then came the helicopter attack sequence, accompanied by Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries." Is this the most impressive ten-minute sequence I've ever seen? There is some competition, even from Coppola himself, such as the baptism scene in The Godfather, but that scene isn't nearly as long. Watching the film yesterday, even on my twenty-six-inch TV, still gave me goose pimples, as the copters come in over the waves, and the music pounds. I was amazed but not surprised to learn while watching the extras on the DVD that that scene took a year to edit, and had 130,000 feet of film (the entire film was 1.5 million feet of film).

I hadn't read the source material, Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness (I still haven't), but I could pick up the literary themes, especially that Sheen's journey was similar to Dante's Divine Comedy, a passage into the bowels of Hell. The crew of a patrol boat escort him, and they are in many ways the typical war-film types: the stern but kind Chief (Albert Hall); the unstrung Chef from New Orleans (Frederick Forrest); the surfer (Sam Bottoms); the kid (an unnervingly young Lawrence "Larry" Fishburne, only fourteen when filming began). As they make their way along the river, toward Sheen's assignment (the insane Colonel Kurtz) they encounter increasingly disturbing and hallucinatory scenes of warfare. The Playboy Bunny show. The bridge, where there is no commanding officer. The sampan, where people are slaughtered over a puppy.

Apocalypse Now was a major Hollywood news story, mostly for all the trouble it had gone through. Much of this is documented in Eleanor Coppola's documentary, Hearts of Darkness. The film had major cost over-runs, and was way behind schedule. The casting had major hiccups. Steve McQueen and Al Pacino turned down the part that Sheen would take, and then Harvey Keitel would be cast but then fired by Coppola. Sheen would have a heart attack during filming. Storms would destroy sets. Most figured it was a major boondoggle, but Coppola would screen an unfinished version at Cannes in May, '79. It was sensation, and share the Palm D'Or (with The Tin Drum). When it was released in August, it would do pretty good business, and end up being nominated for Best Picture, and win for Best Cinematography (Vittorio Storaro) and Sound (Walter Murch).

Ah yes, the sound. The legacy of this film, it turns out, is in the area of sound design. Most of the extras on the DVD are devoted to the sound, and how extraordinary it was. The film took nine months to mix, and was incredibly innovative. For all of its stunning images, Apocalypse Now is really a movie that rides on the crest of its sound.

The movie isn't the greatest I've seen--I don't think at the time I even considered it as such. In 2002 Sight and Sound magazine named it the greatest film of the last twenty-five years, and last year the London Film Critics called it the greatest film of the last thirty years. I would disagree, mostly because a great two-hour film was hijacked in its last forty movies by Marlon Brando as Colonel Kurtz.

Brando was paid an unheard of 3.4 million for about twenty days' work. He showed up grossly overweight, with a shaved head. Coppola and Storaro worked around this by shooting him mostly in the dark, with only his face illuminated. Some of his dialogue, echoing the poetry of T.S. Eliot, is riveting, but it grinds the story to a halt, and one gets the sense that everyone involved has no idea how to end it. Brando ends up like a kooky uncle giving an inebriated toast at a wedding, embarrassing everyone.

A few things I've learned in the last few days: the germ of the film came from co-screenwriter John Milius, who first had the idea in the 60s. The original title was The Psychedelic Soldier, but he changed it to Apocalypse Now as a reaction (Milius is a bellicose fellow) to the hippie slogan, "Nirvana Now." The original director was to be George Lucas, who finally passed on it to make Star Wars. What he would have done with it is a pretty tough thing to wrap one's mind around.

Coppola did make it, though, and he hasn't made anything since that approaches its brilliance. As for me, it marked a turning point in my attitudes about movies. As I've mentioned before, once I started at college I saw as many great movies as I could. Apocalypse Now, in some ways, was the start of it all.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

The Girl on the Train

This French film, directed by André Téchiné, is an intriguing but ultimately less than satisfying film that touches on many themes, including anti-Semitism and the thin line between truth and fiction. The best thing about it was its utter unpredictability--to someone who sees mostly American films, that are as predictable as the sunrise, it's very refreshing to see the European approach, which is to let a film unfold on its own accord, and exhibit behavior that is a lot like life.

The film centers around a young woman, played by Emilie Dequenne (a fine performance, and very easy on the eyes). She is something of a slacker, given to Roller Blading around town. Her mother, Catherine Deneuve, urges her to apply for a secretarial job with a law firm that is headed by an old love of hers. Dequenne has no appreciable skills, however.

She ends up being pursued by a cocky young college student who wins her heart. He gets her a shady job watching over an electronics warehouse. Meanwhile, we meet the lawyer's family, who includes his son, in from China for his son's bar mitzvah, and his daughter-in-law. The son and daughter-in-law are estranged but still attracted to each other, and the grandson is precocious.

The film is almost an hour old when the signature event takes place. I knew something about that, since it was based on an actual event in France, but I'm reluctant to discuss it here because it comes quite of the blue. Suffice it to say that it ties all the characters together and revisits the Jewishness of the lawyer's family.

The Girl on the Train is a very rich tapestry of a film, and plays like a novel, but by the end I felt a little let-down. Perhaps it's because my film tastebuds have been ruined by Hollywood, but I needed more motivation from the characters, especially Dequenne's. Yes, I basically get why she did what she did, but the way the film just stops rather than ends left me with more questions than answers. This film would make for great conversation over coffee afterward, but I found it missing a key ingredient that would make it truly great.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Oscar 2010 Forecast: Apophenia

Apophenia happens when the mind makes meaningful patterns out of meaningless or random information. I first came across the term while researching the "Dark Side of the Rainbow" phenomenon, where people listen to Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon album while watching The Wizard of Oz and see all sorts of spooky parallels. I think it is also coming in to play while forecasting this year's Oscar race for Best Picture.

This is the second year of ten nominees, and since there is only one year of history to go on (there were also more than ten nominees back in the thirties and forties, a different era entirely) there is a tendency to think that patterns will be repeated: a sci-fi film, an animated film, a British film, an indie, etc. will be nominated this year, just like last year. Of course that's all rubbish, but it makes for more fun in thinking about it.

I've been poring over the releases for the rest of the year and have come up with my initial list of the ten movies I think will be nominated, but I have no confidence in it at all. Last year I got five right, and I would be hard-pressed to do that well this year. There aren't that many movies that are obvious Oscar-bait--a good thing, I suppose, in that the prestige films this fall all have either an edge or something about them that could be off-putting. Of course, many of the films on my list have not been released yet, or even seen by anyone, so they could royally suck.

In alphabetical order:

Black Swan (Dec. 1, Darren Aronofsky) I think the Academy might be ready for Aronofsky. He's had a couple of acting nominations from his earlier work, and the milieu of the ballet world might engage the Academy's PBS pretensions. It might still be too weird, though.

Fair Game (Nov. 5, Doug Liman) Has some good early festival word, and with Sean Penn and Naomi Watts in leads should attract a lot of attention. The Valerie Plame story isn't particularly hot now, given that administrations have changed, but Hollywood would love piling on Bush/Cheney.

Hereafter (Sep. 22, Clint Eastwood) Eastwood has gone two films in a row without a Best Picture nom, so this isn't a gimme, but it's hard not to include his films in an expanded field. This would appear to be some sort of ghost story, and horror genres are not usually loved by the Academy, but it might have the juice to get some.

Inception (Jul. 16, Christopher Nolan) This film has its detractors, including me, but it's a lock for a nomination in an expanded field, given its box office and water-cooler buzz. I don't see it winning, but it should also get a trunkload of tech nods as well.

The Kids Are All Right (Jul. 9, Lisa Chodolenko) I'm not as sold on this since seeing it, but it still may well end up being the best-reviewed indie of the year, and taps into the gay-marriage controversy (though that issue is not controversial at all in the film), which will let Hollywood feel good about itself. Will certainly get some acting and writing nods.

The King's Speech (Nov. 26, Tom Hooper) Could nab the "British" nomination. Colin Firth stars as King George VI, who is beloved by the British, and how he overcame his stutter. The most Oscar-baity film of the fall.

Never Let Me Go (Sep. 15, Mark Romanek) If The King's Speech doesn't get the "British" nomination, than perhaps this one will. Smashing-looking trailer, and another film that may have a supernatural element. My pick as sleeper of the year.

Secretariat (Oct. 8, Randall Wallace) Apophenia kicking in high here, figuring there will be room for another crowd-pleaser/critic-harrumpher like The Blind Side. That Seabiscuit also got a Best Picture nomination also fuels this prediction. Of course, if the box office is tepid, forget it.

The Social Network (Oct 1, David Fincher) Easiest film to call, but also has built-in worries. Are there still too many older Academy members who have no idea what Facebook is?

Toy Story 3 (Jun. 18, Lee Unkrich) Again, too soon to tell if there will be an animated film nominated each year, but this one would be nominated even if it weren't an annual thing.

There's a lot of other intriguing releases coming up, including films from James Brooks, the Coen Brothers, Alejandro Inarritu, Danny Boyle, David Russell, Woody Allen, Ed Zwick, Julian Schnabel and Mike Leigh that could be in play. Of films already released, it's not impossible for Scorsese's Shutter Island to break through. I think this year could be shaping up as a complete mystery, Oscar-wise, much like two years ago, when the winner, Slumdog Millionaire, was on no one's radar at this point.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Little Stranger

Sarah Waters' The Little Stranger can be most simply described as a ghost story, but that doesn't do it complete justice. For one thing, I'm not sure there's really a ghost here. The more complicated description deals with the end of a way of life that was typical in post-war Britain.

In many ways the book is a variation on Poe's The Fall of the House of Usher. A brother and sister live in a decaying mansion, and an outsider intercedes. But Waters avoids much of Poe's Gothic lyricism. The narrator of The Little Stranger is a doctor (we only know him as Dr. Faraday), who is no-nonsense and tells the tale without the baroqueness of Poe's narrator. But Waters' tale is just as creepy as Poe's, if only at certain points in the book.

Faraday has long been enraptured by a house called Hundreds Hall. His mother, a serving girl, once worked there, and he visited as a small child, even knicking a piece of woodwork. Years later he returns to administer to Roderick Ayres, the war-wounded scion of the family (Roderick is also the name of the Usher brother). The estate has fallen into disrepair, as the family's income has dropped precipitously. Faraday befriends the family, which also includes Roderick's sister Caroline and their mother.

Strange things begin to happen, starting with the family dog attacking a child. Mysterious smudges appear on the wall, and Roderick seems to be losing his mind. Faraday and Caroline form an attachment, but it is not clear whether Faraday is more in love with Caroline or her house. Waters' greatest trick in this book is to make Faraday's narration unreliable.

Faraday himself never sees anything strange--he always hears it second-hand, but his descriptions are hair-raisingly terrifying. Two sequences are very well done: when Roderick recounts watching as his shaving mirror moves toward him, and then when Mrs. Ayres is locked in the nursery and some being is dancing around on the other side of the door (a dead child is involved, but never directly implicated as the spirit).

Those who are interested in pure genre may be disappointed that Waters never gives us specifics on what is happening, but that works fine with me. I think her greater point is to express the change in the British gentry in the period following World War II, when estates were carved and sold for housing lots. Though this metaphor hangs in the book, the scares are there for those who want a book to read during a stormy night.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Lords of Finance

The ninth book of the New York Times Ten Best Books of 2009, as well as the winner of the Pulitzer Prize, is Lords of Finance, by Liaquat Ahamed. Subtitled "The Bankers Who Broke the World," it's a lively history of world economics from World War I to the Great Depression, and how the central bankers from the four great economies managed to trigger a financial collapse.

My greatest praise for this book is that I managed to understand it. I look on economics as a dog considers written language. Perhaps Winston Churchill put it best, when Ahamed quotes him as saying of economists: "If they were soldiers or generals, I would understand what they were talking about. As it is they all talk Persian." Of course, Churchill was the British Chancellor of the Exchequer at the time.

Ahamed structures the book around four bankers: Montagu Norman of the Bank of England, Benjamin Strong of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, Emile Moreau of the Banque de France, and Hjalmar Schact of the Reischbank. He follows them from the beginning of World War I and then into the 1920s, as they all became their respective countries most powerful bankers. Ahamed also includes figures such as economist John Maynard Keynes, who fought against the two things that contributed most to the depression: the gold standard and German war reparations.

Some of the chapters are above my level and I fought to understand them. I still don't quite understand how the gold standard works, but I know that it was a bad thing and was stubbornly held on to. But some of the chapters are riveting. He uses numbers well--consider this statistic on German inflation: In 1914, the mark stood at 4.2 to the dollar. By 1923, a dollar was worth 630 billion marks. This not only destroyed the German economy, but in some ways paved the way for the Nazi party to grow popular.

Another chapter that sings is the one on the stock market collapse of 1929. Ahamed paints a vivid picture of how playing the stock market was a huge fad in the 1920s: "By the spring of 1928, every type of person was opening a brokerage account--according to one contemporary account, 'school teachers, seamstresses, barbers, machinists, necktie salesmen, gas fitters, motormen, family cooks, and lexicographers.' Bernard Baruch, the stock speculator who had settled down to a life of respectability as a presidential adviser, reminisced, 'Taxi drivers told you what to buy. The shoeshine boy could give you a summary of the day's financial news as he worked with rag and polish. An old beggar, who regularly patrolled the street in front of my office, now gave me tips--and I suppose spent the money, I and others gave him, in the market."

Some thought that playing the market should be banned, that it was gambling, and that it ran counter to the American value of working hard for one's money. A surprising number saw the crash coming, perhaps most famously Joseph Kennedy who "decided to sell completely out of the market when in July 1929, having already liquidated a large portion of his portfolio, he was accosted by a particularly enthusiastic shoeblack on a trip down to Wall Street, who insisted on feeding him some inside tips. 'When the time comes that a shoeshine boy knows as much as I do about what is going on in the stock market,' concluded Kennedy, 'it's time for me to get out.'"

But many did not get out, and the market went bust. At first it affected only the United States, and there was some schadenfreude from England and France, tetchy over the U.S.'s insistence on them paying back war debts. But soon the misery spread, even to places like Chile, where the country went bankrupt and three different premiers were sworn in in one day before the army took over. By 1932 things were extremely dire in the U.S.: "American corporations, which had made almost $10 billion in profits in 1929, collectively lost $3 billion in 1932. On July 8, 1933, the Dow, which had stood at 381 on September 3, 1929...hit a low of 41, a drop of almost 90 percent over the two and a half years since the bubble first broke. General Motors, which had traded at $72 a share in September 1929, was now a little above $7. And RCA, which had peaked at $101 in 1929, hit a low of $2. When, in August, 1932, a reporter...asked John Maynard Keynes if there had ever been anything like this before, he replied, "Yes. It was called the Dark Ages, and it lasted four hundred years."

Ahamed sprinkles the book with many wonderful anecdotes, such as how Franklin Roosevelt and his advisers arbitrarily determined the selling price of gold, and his chapter epigraphs reveal a great sense of humor. My favorites are Charles DeGaulle on the French: "Only peril can bring the French together. One can't impose unity out of the blue on a country that has 265 different kind of cheese," or Will Rogers: "If stupidity got us into this mess, why can't it get us out?"

Ahamed's greatest skill is making the men of this book seem human. The bankers are brought vividly to life, as are the world leaders who respond to them. He also does readers like me a service and summing everything up at the end: "The first culprits were the politicians who presided over the Paris Peace conference. They burdened a world economy still trying to recover from the effects of war with a gigantic overhang of international debts...More importantly, the debts left massive fault lines in the world financial system, which cracked at the first pressure. The second group to blame were the leading central bankers of the era, in particular the four principal characters of this book...Even though they...spent much of the decade struggling to mitigate some of the worst political blunders behind reparations and war debts, more than anyone else they were responsible for the second fundamental error of economic policy in the 1920s: the decision to take the world back onto to the gold standard."

Given the times we live in, this book is very relevant. Ahamed was writing in during the onset of the recent unpleasantness, and it's instructive to note that despite the objections of some, there were steps taken by those in charge (in both the Bush and Obama administrations) to avoid the disaster of 1929. Believe it or not, we dodged a bullet.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Ground Zero Mosque

I think the thing that I hate most about the right-wing of today is that they appeal to the worst of all of us. The idea to tinker with the 14th Amendment caters to xenophobia, while the controversy surrounding the mosque at Ground Zero is out and out religious bigotry, that has nothing to do with the ideals or values of America. It disgusts me.

The issue is a simple one: a Muslim organization owns a building in lower Manhattan. They want to build an Islamic cultural center. It happens to be a few blocks away from the former site of the World Trade Center. A commission has ruled that the building has no historical significance, so the owner has every right to tear it down and build whatever he wants. But of course in today's America things aren't so simple. The rabid right has seized on this and made a case out of it, a case that has no legitimacy whatsoever.

Let's look at the arguments against. For one thing, it's not a mosque, it's a community center. Number two, the men who flew the planes into the World Trade Center may have been Muslim, but they were an extreme fringe. It would be like saying the Klan represented all Protestants. In any event, we are not at war with Islam. Three, it is not at Ground Zero, it is a few blocks away. How far is far enough? Ten blocks? A mile? Ten? It should be noted that the "hallowed ground" surrounding Ground Zero contains a strip club.

The rhetoric on this has reached insane and bigoted heights. There are those who flatly state that any mosque is anti-American (believe it or not, some have called for the denial of any mosque to be built, anywhere). Newt Gingrich, who may be off on a quixotic race for the presidency, played the Nazi card and said that Nazis wouldn't be allowed to build anything near the Holocaust museum. That statement is offensive and wrong on many levels. For one thing, Nazis (or more correctly, neo-Nazis) would be able to build anything they like, as long as they owned the land. More importantly, to equate the entire nation of Islam to the Nazis is head-spinningly indecent. Again the right-wing, which professes to worship the Constitution and believe in freedom, is completely blind to it when they smell blood in the water.

I have also read the argument that we shouldn't have mosques near Ground Zero because you won't find temples in Mecca. Well, duh. Mecca, it should be pointed out, is not in the United States. Are these idiots saying we should adopt the religious freedoms of Saudi Arabia? The mind reels.

Many arguing against it are the families of 9/11 victims. I certainly feel for them, but there anger is misplaced. No one involved with this community center has anything to do with the men who destroyed those buildings. Moreover, we can not let a small group dictate what is built on the lower tip of Manhattan, especially when it is a clear violation of the First Amendment.

There have been some heroes on this, particularly New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, whose speech on the issue rang clear. President Obama was also forceful on the issue, at least until his handlers got a hold of him and he backed off. Amazingly, the Anti-Defamation League, which should know better, came out against it, and Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid, his eyes on the polls in a bitterly-fought re-election campaign, also took the coward's way.

We all have to relax and acknowledge that Islam is a religion, and it is not our enemy.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World may be the apotheosis of the amalgamation of video game culture, comic books, indie rock, and cinema. The question is, and I'm not sure of the answer, is this a good thing? Given the film's anemic box office on its opening weekend, it may end up being a blip on the radar, but it's not an insubstantial blip.

The line is drawn quickly, as the opening credits, set against a series of flashing bright colors, seems designed to drive the elderly out of the theater (or induce seizures in epileptics). What follows is so couched in self-conscious references (even before that, the Universal logo and theme is rendered as an old-style video game) and winking at the camera that a viewer alternates between enjoying the fun and wanting to punch those responsible. The film is ideally for the young, the kids who wear ironic t-shirts and have a shoebox full of Pokemon cards in the back of their closets. It also helps if the viewer has ADD, because this film isn't able to hold a thought for very long.

Our hero, played by Michael Cera, is a 22-year-old musician. The role is a variation on the kind that Cera specializes in, as this guy does seem to have success with the ladies (the band's drummer, the freckled and perpetually pissed-off Allison Pill, seems to hold a torch for him), but deep down this is quintessential Cera, a pigeon-chested geek with a voice like a deflating balloon. Unlike the characters in Superbad and Juno, Pilgrim is also a dick. As the film begins he is dating a high-school girl (Ellen Wong), but when he claps eyes on the rainbow-hued hair of Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who I've been missing since she was in the last Die Hard movie) he pursues her without breaking up with Wong.

This takes up about a half-hour, and we are introduced to lots of characters who fly by, such as Cera's gay roommate (Kieran Culkin) and sister (Anna Kendrick), plus the other members of the band and a taciturn record-store employee (Aubrey Plaza, in a variation on her character in Parks and Recreation). That is only the start, though. Once Cera and Winstead begin dating, he is challenged to a fight by one of her exes. He will have to defeat all seven of them to win her hand.

Edgar Wright directs, and if I had to choose one word to describe his style it would be busy. Busy, busy, busy, as long-forgotten comedian Billy DeWolfe used to say. There's so much on screen at any one moment that it's hard to process it all. There's the abundant use of graphics, such as to introduce the characters, or animating onomatopoeia like the old Batman show used to do (every time a phone rings, we see the words "RING" fly across the screen). The most thematic conceit is structuring the film as a video game, with Pilgrim's score and power totals appearing on screen after he defeats an ex. The games that it most reminiscent of are those that mimicked the martial arts. I never played those games, but when I used to waste time in arcades I could hear them in the background--I distinctly recall hearing the words "body blow!" over and over again.

For those who fancy video games as a kind of narrative art, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World may set you all a-tingle, and I did admire the commitment that Wright gave to the cause. But ultimately, even though I was amused throughout, the film had about as much substance as a spirited game of Pac-Man (we learn that it was originally called Puc-Man). There's just not enough meat to the story, and the business of the screen can only distract us from that so much.

But I did like a lot of it. It is frequently funny. I think my favorite sequence was when Cera battles Brandon Routh, who draws his superpowers from being a vegan, and the whole thing made be smirk mercilessly at the holier-than-thou vegans I've known in my life. A bit where the film suddenly becomes a sit-com, complete with Seinfeld theme and laugh-track, is also funny, but also seemed incredibly random.

The performances, aside from Cera's, are functionary. Culkin, emulating early Robert Downey Jr., plays up the gay-roommate stereotypes, and Winstead's main job is be as doe-eyed as possible. Jason Schwartzman shows up at the end and is properly smarmy.

I should add that the music is pretty damn good. Most of the songs are by Beck, but there's also some welcome oldies by Frank Black and Bob Dylan. In a movie about a rock band, that's an important thing not to get wrong. I've actually added the soundtrack to my Amazon wish-list.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Hannah and Her Sisters

There was some talk over at Gone Elsewhere over the relative strengths of the recent decades, film-wise. I mentioned that I have not seen as good a film in the last twenty-five years as Hannah and Her Sisters, which prompted fellow GE contributor Nick to see it for the first time. Discussing it made me want to see it again, even though I must have seen it a dozen times. I did so yesterday. It never fails to charm me.

This, even though I don't think it's Woody Allen's best film (I actually rank it third, behind Annie Hall and Manhattan). But it's certainly he hasn't approached it since, and it's my choice for best film of the 80s, as well as the best movie in the last twenty-five. It's one of those films that tackles big subjects in small details, and manages to be uproariously funny as well as beautifully touching, with an ending that puts a tear in my eye.

From the beginning of the film, we're in Allen's world. Of course there's the signature font (Windsor EF light condensed) of his credits, with actors in alphabetical order, but also we get the strains of Harry James playing "You Made Me Love You." Allen's world is firmly steeped in the romance of the great American song book, and the film is chock full of songs by Cole Porter, Johnny Mercer and Sammy Kahn. There's also Bach and e.e. Cummings, for good measure. In fact, in one scene he contrasts contemporary music (he doesn't want to watch musicians who kill their mothers) with the genteel world of Bobby Short singing "I'm in Love Again" (gently sent up, but Allen clearly prefers this world).

We then meet the women of the title. Hannah (Mia Farrow) is a rock of stability, with younger sisters Lee (Barbara Hershey) and Holly (Dianne Wiest, winning an Oscar for the role). Lee is adrift, in a relationship with a much older man (Max Von Sydow), a misanthropic artist. Holly, a former drug addict, still has aspirations to be an actress, and frequently borrows money from Hannah, and then resents her for it. For her part, Hannah seems to have a compulsion to be needed by others, but her husband (Michael Caine, who also won an Oscar), begins to think that he is not needed by her. He is enchanted by the needier Lee, and the two awkwardly begin an affair.

Meanwhile, Hannah's ex-husband (Allen), a producer of a show suspiciously like Saturday Night Live and a hypochondriac, has a brush with death, which sends him spiralling downward into depression, as he can't come to grips with his own mortality. Allen's scenes give the film it's comic brio, especially in the sequences where he goes shopping for a meaningful religion. When I saw the movie for the first time in New York City, a full house exploded with laughter at a sight gag that showed Allen revealing his purchases to be an ideal goy: crucifix, prayer book, white bread, and mayonnaise.

There are some other great comic lines, too numerous to mention but these are my favorites: in discussing the philosophy of Nietschze, Allen recalls the German philosopher's theory of the repeated life, and adds: "Great, that means I'll have to sit through the Ice Capades again." Or when Allen asks his father why there were Nazis, and gets the reply, "How do I know why there were Nazis, I can't even work the can opener." Or when told that his sperm count is too low to father children, Allen asks if there's something he can do, like push-ups.

There's also great Chekhovian drama here, particularly the tension between the siblings. A scene where the three have lunch, the camera swirling around them, is brilliantly done, and I really sensed the authenticity in their relationship. He further mixes in the sisters' parents (Lloyd Nolan and Farrow's real-life mother, Maureen O'Sullivan) a pair of Broadway legends who are always battling.

The film delves deeply into the realm of love and death, two of Allen's favorite subjects (he once wrote, "I don't want to become immortal through my work, I want to become immortal by not dying.") Von Sydow's monologue about channel-surfing, where he reasons that the question isn't how something like the holocaust could happen, but why it doesn't happen more often, is funny, but also edged. And then there's the climax of the film, in which Allen finds salvation at a Marx Brothers' film, and is perhaps the best summation of why art matters and a must-see for anyone contemplating suicide.

Seeing the film age also offers other pleasures. There are lots of actors in bit parts who have become more famous; in one short scene we see Julia Louis-Dreyfuss, Lewis Black, J.T. Walsh and John Turturro. The film also is a glimpse of nostalgic New York. An architect (Sam Waterston), leads a tour of his favorite buildings of New York, and then there's a moment near the end of the film where Allen runs into Wiest at a Tower Records store, with the Regency Theater in the background. The Regency is now gone, as is Tower Records, and it so happens that I worked in an office right above that store shortly after this film was made. That was a magic time for me, and for Allen as well. Hannah and Her Sisters is one of my all-time top ten films, a treasure in my life.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Everything Is Illuminated

This quietly touching film from 2005 was directed by actor Liev Schreiber from his own script, which in turn was adapted from the novel by Jonathan Safran Foer. It covers familiar territory--a young American Jew goes back to the homeland to seek out his roots, which of course intersect with the atrocities of the Nazis, but I found it to be just off-beat enough to be interesting, with a very powerful final act.

Foer is played by Elijah Wood as a buttoned-up weirdo who has an obsession with collecting mementos, which he keeps in Zip-Loc bags. His ancient grandmother gives him a picture of his grandfather, long deceased, with a young pretty girl taken back in the Ukraine. Foer enlists the dubious assistance of a tour-guide company that specializes in American Jews searching for their roots in order to find that woman. The catch is that the company is run by anti-Semites, and his translator is a goofy young man who has a passion for hip-hop. His English is eclectic at best, using words like "proximal" instead of close and "repose" instead of sleep.

Wood searches for his grandfather's village in the company of this fellow, plus his irascible old grandfather and a demented border collie (named Sammy Davis Jr. Jr.). All of this starts to get to be too precious--the translator (Eugene Hutz) is a whisker away from beign one of the "Wild and Crazy Guys" but when the trio find the village, or what's left of it, the tone of the film shifts into one of wistful melancholy, and it works wonderfully. Of course the old grandfather (played wonderfully by Boris Leskin) has a secret, and Hutz reevaluates his attitudes about life in general.

Schreiber has a nice visual style. There are some lovely tableaus, including a farmhouse surrounded by a field of sunflowers. He also makes what must have been a difficult decision--Wood speaks only English, while the other characters, save for Hutz, speak only Russian (or Ukrainian, not sure which). That means whenever Haas is interacting with other characters Hutz must translate. That's a situation that could be trouble for a screenwriter, but Schreiber handles it well. Hutz translates when he has to, but there are moments when it is clear to the audience that Haas understands what others are saying.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Big Brother 12


Another summer means another wading in the pool of trash TV with CBS' Big Brother, its twelfth installment, in which a dozen or so vapid, preening strangers are put in a house, shut off from all outside media, and pitted against one another. Every week they vote out one of their own until there's only one left, who wins half a million dollars.

On the message boards, a lot of folks are complaining about this season, but I'm enjoying it. Yes, these are a group of stupid people, but that's pretty much par for the course. I think the objections stem around the dominance so far of the "showmance" between Brendon, a swim coach/PhD candidate, and Rachel, a Las Vegas cocktail waitress/chemistry student. There shared love of science and good looks propelled them toward one another, and they immediately bonded, clinging to each other and facing the wrath of the other houseguests. It was train-wreck TV, Rachel particularly, a bimbo with hair extensions a shade of red not found in nature, gigantic fake tits, and a passive/aggressive martyr complex. At first I thought she had the dim Brendon wrapped around her finger (he constantly told her "I love you," never to hear it in return), but the show interviewed his ex-fiancee last night, who told of his manipulation. Perhaps they deserve each other.

The other guests aren't quite so interesting. The winner should be Matt, a multi-tattooed musician who told the others his wife has a rare disease, a complete lie. He's in a four-man alliance, boyishly called "The Brigade," with Enzo, a walking stereotype of a New Jersey goombah, and two lunkish jocks, Hayden and Lane. There's also Britney, a catty but very funny beauty queen from Arkansas, and Kathy, a sheriff from the same state who has been nicknamed "Slothy" on the boards for her habit of doing as little as possible. If I were a career criminal I'd head for her town, because it appears there's little she could do to stop a perpetrator.

Of course there's a flamboyant gay man, Ragan, who alluded on live television to being tied up in West Hollywood. Already eliminated were Andrew, an orthodox Jew and podiatrist.

Last night Rachel was finally booted of the house. Brendon, her beloved, has vowed revenge, so things should get interesting. While watching this show I can feel the loss of IQ points, but I still feel superior to this crew. Rachel and Brendon have set the image of scientists back immeasurably (she doesn't even know what the word integrity means, and he doesn't know how to pronounce Neanderthal). The reason I watch this show and avoid others like it, such as the Real World or Jersey Shore, is that it is a game that requires strategy. Of course, watching people this dumb try to strategize is like watching gerbils play chess, but it's ideal for summer time-wasting.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Fourteenth Amendment Under Fire


We Americans have a reverence for our Constitution, almost bordering on the obsessive. This is on all sides of the political spectrum. Why? Because it's a damn great document, a work of genius. Which is why a shudder goes through me whenever I hear talk of Congress wanting to amend it. Nothing is scarier than the pinheads on Capitol Hill monkeying with the greatness of our supreme law.

So now we have the Dark Lords of the Sith (the Republicans) making noise about tweaking the Fourteenth Amendment, one of three amendments passed following the Civil War that codified rights for freed slaves. They don't object to that (maybe except for Rand Paul), but there's a nagging bit of prose that sticks in their craw: "All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside." This has been interpreted to mean that if you are born in the United States, you are a citizen, end of story.

Of course, in this age of anti-immigrant fever, this had made the xenophobes angry. I've spent some uncomfortable time in the ugly world of the far right-wing, where they scream about "anchor babies," that is, babies born to parents who come here for the express purpose of making their children U.S. citizens. Some have even postulated that terrorists are doing it, planting their little seeds that they can take back to Arabic countries, indoctrinate them, and then send them back to blow themselves and us up, presumably. Or, more mundanely, these brown people from south of the border come up here and breed and then we have to pay for the schooling of these varmints. "I want my country back!"

I fail to see how this is a big problem. Estimates are that fewer than 10,000 babies fall into this category, a drop in the bucket. And it has yet to be proven that these children grow up to be some sort of menace. I thought the American experiment believed that all people are created equal, and that parentage shouldn't be entered into it. A bigoted poster reads, "Squat and Drop is no way to be an American." Well, actually it is. Except for naturalized citizens, we are all bestowed citizenship because we are born here--our mothers squatted and dropped. Some of us are born to Americans, some of us are not. It's all the same to me.

The absurdity of this is that the Republicans, during the Kagan hearings and at other times, declaim about respecting the Constitution, but man do they sure want to constantly change it. Whether it's for a balanced budget, stopping flag burning (there sure is a spate of that going on, isn't there?) or prohibiting gay marriage, the Republican Party can't keep from flapping their gums about taking a giant shit on the document. Leave it alone. Amendments to the Constitution should not be added to take away rights (see how well that worked with prohibition?), only to expand them.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Census and Sensibility

There was an article in the paper the other day that said that the U.S. Census Bureau came in well under budget this year. The Secretary of Commerce, the department that oversees the Bureau, said there were two main reasons: one, a fund set aside for natural disasters or epidemics that might interfere with the counting was not needed, and two, because of the high unemployment rate, the enumerators hired were more educated and experienced workers. That last bit made me swell with pride a little, as I was one of those enumerators.

Yes, I had one of those canvas bags, like the one seen above, and went door to door asking personal questions of unsuspecting people. On the whole, it wasn't terrible, but it wasn't a lot of fun, either, as every door I knocked on represented an address that had not sent their form back in (those who did so were not bothered). This meant mostly that the address had a new resident from when the forms were mailed (we wanted to know where people were living on April 1), or that the resident was not particularly interested in being a good citizen.

I learned some things over the course of my tenure. I spent most of my time in my own apartment complex, so for one thing I learned where some very attractive women live. Also, because my area is heavily populated by people from India, I found that they are much kinder and more hospitable than home-grown Americans. Though many of the Indian folks are not citizens (they are here on work visas, calm down, Tom Tancredo) they cheerfully gave me information, patiently spelling their complicated names.

I also learned the various ways people can be rude. One woman resolutely refused, and scoffed when I told her that she was required to participate by law. Another woman started giving me her information, including her name, but when asked her phone number (an invasive question, I'll admit) she said she didn't want to participate. When I informed her I already knew her name, she insisted on taking the form. I informed her that it was government property. We had quite a tense conversation, and I needed a drink when I got home.

The group I worked with were all great people and we did a lot to help each other. We came to know tough addresses by nicknames--I called one woman the "plant woman," because she had a terrace covered with potted plants, but never seemed to be home. I knew she had to come home some time to water the damn things. She lives just about 100 feet from my apartment, so one morning I walked outside and saw her door open. I ran back, grabbed my badge and tote bag, and finally was able to interview her. I called another fellow "mold guy" because he owns some sort of mold removal business. He was always telling me he was too busy (the whole thing takes less than five minutes) and gave me a phone number that he never picked up, leaving an outgoing message that announced that he did not retrieve messages from it. A co-worker inherited him, and finally got him on the phone after sending him a text message while he was at an airport.

There were also some eerie moments, such as when I drove down a long dirt road, fronted by No Trespassing signs, to find a boarded up farmhouse. It was like something out of a Stephen King novel. I half expected to see a mentally retarded boy playing a banjo. I didn't even get out of the car, marking it as "vacant" and skedaddling.

At least I never had a gun drawn on me, as a few census workers did across the country. Any hostility over the census I blame on antigovernment fervor, especially from the Tea Party, led by one of their idiot queens, congresswoman Michele Bachmann, who urged her constituents not to cooperate, because she had some sort of notion that the information would be used to round everyone up and ship them into concentration camps. I actually hoped that her constituents heeded her words, as one of the things the census figures do is determine how many congressman a state gets. If Minnesota, Bachmann's home state, lost a congressional district, it would likely be Bachmann's. Oh, delicious irony!

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Collapse

Just a little over a month ago, the Detroit Tigers sat in first place in the A.L. Central. The time at the top was brief, and since then they have gone on a precipitous slide that now finds them in third place, nine games out. Since the All-Star break, they have lost twenty out of twenty-six. Put a fork in them, they're done.

The reason for this collapse is primarily due to injury. The broken ankle sustained by slugger Magglio Ordonez (seen above) was the last straw, but Brandon Inge and Carlos Guillen also have spent time on the disabled list recently. Combined with an already weak bottom of the order (they have gotten very little production from the catcher and shortstop positions) and this spelled disaster. Brennan Boesch, a rookie phenom in May and June, has come back to reality, and the other rook call-ups haven't provided much spark.

The other thing that has cost them is the rickety starting rotation. I mentioned in my last post that they were winning despite a shaky staff, and that has caught up with them. Aside from Justin Verlander, who still has the annoying tendency to allow early-inning runs, no one has been consistent. Rick Porcello, so good last year as a rookie, has been horribly inconsistent, as has Max Scherzer, while Armando Galarraga and Jeremy Bonderman remind no one of Jack Morris. Even the bullpen, which has been the Tigers strong suit this year, has fallen on hard times. I watched last Saturday as they took a 4-2 lead into the ninth against the Red Sox, and Phil Coke couldn't hold it, allowing a bases-loaded three-run double to David Ortiz (Kevin Youkilis was walked, a risky move by skipper Jim Leyland, as supposedly you are not supposed to put the winning run on base). As Youkilis slid across home plate with the victory, I realized the Tigers season, for all intents and purposes, is over.

So what next? They will play the kids, and see what the future may hold. A lot of the higher-priced talent, like Ordonez, Guillen, and Johnny Damon, will likely be gone next year. Leyland and Dave Dombrowski have gotten extensions, and I'm all for that. But there will have to a refocus, as the only bona fides they will have coming back next year are Verlander and Miguel Cabrera (the Tigers' woes surely will cost him any chance of a triple crown, as there is no one to support him in the lineup). In the meantime, I will root for Tampa Bay. Or Texas. Anyone but the Yankees.

Monday, August 09, 2010

The Battleship Potemkin

I've been in the grip of one of my inexplicable bits of learning explosions--a topic grabs my fancy and I explore it from several different angles. This summer it's the Ukraine, a country I heretofore had little opportunity or cause for contemplation. But I've been reading a lot about it and have stacked my Netflix queue with films that pertain to it. The Twelve Chairs, discussed below, was based on a novel by Ukrainians. The Battleship Potemkin, one of the most important films of all time, takes place largely in Odessa, which is one of the great cities of the Ukraine.

It may sound strange, but as I was watching the film, made in 1925 by Sergei Eisenstein, I wasn't sure if I had seen it before. If I did it would have been in the one film class I took in college, but I don't think we saw the whole thing. I think I saw the few seconds of film that were revolutionary, in that they amplified the use of montage--stitching together individual moments that alone have no impact, but put together elicit an emotional response from the viewer. The scene in question was a Russian sailor, reading an inscription on a plate. Angered, he throws the dish to the floor. Eisenstein, instead of simply shooting the scene all in one shot, cuts it into several shots, from different angles, which makes the sailor's act seem all the more momentous and sweeping.

Eisenstein didn't invent montage, but he perfected it. He also was quite the propagandist, and The Battleship Potemkin is a good example of that. It is the true story of a mutiny on board a ship in the Russian navy in 1905. Sailors, disgusted by the rotten meat they are fed, revolt. They take the ship into port in Odessa, where they find sympathetic citizens. The leader of the revolt is killed, and they send him to shore wearing a sign that reads "Killed for a plate of soup." A riot takes place on the Odessa steps, but the Czar's cossacks, marching forward like automatons, fire down on the crowd, killing indiscriminately (that part is pure fiction). The ship is surrounded by a flotilla of naval vessels, but in the spirit of brotherhood they are not fired upon, and allowed to pass.

Of course this is all agitprop. But it also undeniably brilliant filmmaking. Despite the technological advances made in the 85 years since then, no modern director could improve on the Odessa steps sequence. Much of it has been borrowed and parodied since then, especially the sight of the baby carriage careening down the steps, but for the close to ten-minute running time it is masterfully done, with cuts from the panicked citizens to the robotic soldiers. Even more moving than the baby carriage is the scene in which a woman holds up her trampled son in the face of the onslaught.

There are some pieces of that don't work today. The middle section, which involves the dead sailor, is overly lugubrious. Much is made of the one mutineer who is killed, but not a tear is shed for the officers who are pitched overboard. But of course this was a film made in the Soviet Union, where equivocation could get you sent to Siberia.

The Battleship Potemkin is a must-see for anyone interested in cinematic history, as it contains the bare bones of film grammar that are still used today. But for people who don't care a damn about montage or the Kuleshov Effect, it's still a great action film.