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Sunday, October 31, 2010

When I Have Fears

CBS' Sunday Morning had a Halloween-themed show this morning that had a number of interconnected stories that got me thinking a range of things, mostly to do with fear.

We all experience fear; it's essential to the survival of the species. Being fearless is being stupid--it's a fear of annihilation that keeps us from wandering onto a busy highway. But many of us are gripped by irrational fears, some of which interfere with our daily lives. The most common, I would guess, are acrophobia (a fear of heights) and claustrophobia (a fear of enclosed spaces), which both have a basis in the rational--you could fall from a great height, and you could be suffocated in a small space, though it is unlikely.

My mother has a fear of heights, which she claims was initiated by an incident on top of a Ferris wheel. Her father, while their carriage was perched at the apex of the wheel, rocked it back and forth in an effort to scare her. He succeeded, and it stuck for well over sixty years. In the family we gleefully recount when she had a batshit moment in, of all places, Mammoth Caves. When one is finished descending into the cave, the tourist leaves by climbing a large staircase, which is enclosed in chain-link fencing. We kids went right up to the fence to look out over the expanse of cavern, which was a cool sight. Mom freaked out, though, pulling us back, and almost losing her mind as we climbed.

I don't have any phobias to speak of. I get a little vertigo in high places (I especially don't like to look up when I'm at the top of a tall building) but I have no problem flying, or going to top of the Empire State Building. I don't have claustrophobia--when I was a kid I used to like to get away from it all by hiding in my closet, finding it comforting. I don't have a fear of public speaking (frequently cited as a more common fear than death), but I do find it very difficult to approach a stranger to initiate a conversation. I don't know if that's a fear as much as a lack of self-esteem.

Then there are the completely irrational fears, one of which was profiled on Sunday morning--coulrophobia, the fear of clowns. I don't understand this at all--I have what might be called coulrophilia, a love of clowns. I have been fascinated by clowns since I was a kid. But this disorder is certainly real, and has any number of psychological underpinnings. This fear has certainly been exploited by entertainment figures, from Stephen King to Insane Clown Posse.

Sunday Morning also did a story on nightmares. Fortunately I don't suffer from this. The older I get the less I remember my dreams, and it's very rare that I am disturbed by one. When I was a child I used to have scary dreams about dinosaurs, and this was way before Jurassic Park. Perhaps in my old age I have come to understand that humans are free of any threat from dinosaurs at this time.

Then there was a story on the afterlife, tied in with an interview with Clint Eastwood regarding his latest film, Hereafter. In my review of that film I wrote that the film didn't really offer any insights into what may be mankind's biggest mystery. I'm of the cold, scientific opinion that nothing happens to us when we die. There is no such thing as heaven, hell, a soul, or reincarnation. We are just a bunch of molecules, and we will experience as much after we die as we did before we were born.

But believing in an afterlife seems to be a basic human response. A scholar on the show talked about how selling an afterlife is a big perk for religions--the most popular religions have the most thorough explanations of afterlife. Consider Islam, which even throws in an afterlife with virgins.

Though I don't believe in an afterlife, I am fascinated by ghosts. I'm a sucker for those ghost hunter shows, and am always up for cemetery and other ghost tours. I suppose I, like almost anyone else, would like to believe that our deaths don't signal an end, and that we can stick around. Or, that we can contact those who have died.

But if I'm fascinated by ghosts, I would seriously lose my shit if I ever saw one. Most of those ghost hunter shows don't offer much in concrete evidence--random sounds, maybe an object that moves a few inches on its own. As minor as those things are, they really spook me. Watching some guy in a t-shirt on grainy film say that he just felt a cold spot gives me the willies.

Once, on a trip to Key West, I went to a seance. It was a tourist-type thing. A person paid to get in, and about a half-dozen of us sat around a table and a fellow took us through an old-fashioned seance. I spent most of the time trying to figure out how he did his various tricks (Sunday Morning also did a story on Harry Houdini, who spent the last years of his life exposing fraudulent spiritualists), but damn if it wasn't a scary experience.

So, what am I afraid of? The normal things: pain, poverty, the Tea Party. And ghosts.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Weeds, Season 2

The TV show Weeds has six seasons so far, but I'm way behind, and have just finished watching the second season. I've seen articles that the latest season was becoming too bizarre, a frequent occurrence when a show has outlived its original purpose, and the writers just start throwing weird plot twists at the characters. I can see the seeds of that in the second season.

Once again we are with Nancy Botwin (Mary-Louise Parker), a suburban widowed mother, who makes a living as a pot dealer. As season two begins, she goes into business with her associate Conrad (Romany Malco) as a grower. They rent a house and Malco, something of a horticulturist, endeavors to create a popular strain.

But Parker complicates things by dating a DEA agent (Martin Donovan). He knows what she does, but considers her small time and because he's attracted to her promises he will look the other way. Then there's Heylia (Tonye Potano), Parker's former supplier, who doesn't take kindly to betrayal, and an organized crime group of Armenians.

Meanwhile, Parker's friend Celia (Elizabeth Perkins) runs for city council against the popular incumbent, the perpetually baked Kevin Nealon. Justin Kirk plays Parker's louche brother-in-law, who is trying to get out of the service by going to rabbinical school, where he falls for a tough Israeli girl. Parker's two sons have their own travails--the older one gets his deaf girlfriend pregnant, and the younger goes through puberty.

Weeds is nothing if not entertaining, but even in its second season it began to drift from the beginning premise--a look at the conformities of suburbia. There is some of that, notably in Perkins' run for office (she wants to put up surveillance cameras), but mostly the show bounces along from one quirk to another. We have a character lose some toes to a vicious dog, two character fall into bed, despite their hatred of each other, and there's lots of smutty talk--so much that at times it seems like the work of sequestered teenage boys. A scene in which Kirk instructs the younger son on how to masturbate is a symphony of vivid euphemisms, and I doubt I'll ever forget the same actor stumbling into bed with his Israeli girlfriend only to see her wearing a large, black strap-on dildo. When Zooey Deschanel shows up late in the season as Kirk's kooky ex-girlfriend, the show started to buckle under the weight of its whimsy.

The show opens with a song, "Little Boxes," about the sameness of suburbia. This season the song was sung by different artists before each episode, from Elvis Costello to Englebert Humperdinck. It also ends with a humdinger of a cliffhanger, which means I'll have to rent season three.

Friday, October 29, 2010

It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown

I'm sure it had been many years since I saw the animated Halloween special, It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, before watching it again last night on broadcast TV. Of course, when I was a kid it was regular viewing, when Halloween was actually something I looked forward to, and the world of Peanuts enthralled me.

Like A Charlie Brown Christmas, The Great Pumpkin is a shimmering bit of Americana, a crystallization of just what was so great about Charles Schulz's comic strip. The core characters are Charlie Brown, Lucy, Linus, and Sally--small children weighted down with the existential problems of adults. In this tale, it is Linus' struggle with faith, a neat metaphor for almost any religion that worships the unseen and largely absent deity.

Although Charlie Brown is in the title, this show is really about Linus. He is full of truisms: "Never jump into a pile of leaves with a wet sucker," or "I've learned never to discuss three things: religion, politics, or the Great Pumpkin," and finally, after Sally, his supposed acolyte turns on him, shouting "I want restitution!" he states, "You've heard of the fury of a woman scorned? It's nothing compared with the fury of a woman denied tricks or treats."

There are other min-philosophy lessons as well. Charlie Brown's role in this special is to be at his Charlie Browniest, most especially the ritual of Lucy holding the football for him, only to pull it away right before he kicks it, causing him to land flat on his back. This was played out every autumn for decades. In the show, she tricks him with an unnotarized document. We also get two of his greatest quotes: "I had a little trouble with the scissors," when we see his misbegotten attempt to make a ghost costume, and the most culturally resonant line, "I got a rock." This line has come to symbolize the general sense of disappointment all of us feel at one time or another.

My favorite part of the special, and it was when I was a kid, too, was Snoopy's adventure as the World War I flying ace. I love Charlie Brown's narration of the tale, his snapping a salute as Snoopy, wearing goggles, heads out the door. I love the atmospheric animation and music as he heads across war-torn France, only to appear at the Halloween party, just in time to ruin Lucy's apple-bobbing--"My lips touched dog lips!" My favorite aspect of the comic strip was Snoopy's rich fantasy life, which contributed to mine. Although I never imagined myself flying a Sopwith Camel.

In the end, Linus reiterates his faith in the Great Pumpkin, as we must all maintain our basic faiths, no matter what they are (as Charlie Brown points out, he and Linus have "denominational differences"). Perhaps Linus is right, and Santa Claus is more popular because of better publicity, and somewhere on Halloween night, the Great Pumpkin appears in the most sincere pumpkin patch, a place I think we can all imagine.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Tom Tom Club

I was in Princeton Record Exchange, looking at their vast wall of discount CDs, when I found one that was a blast from my past. It was The Tom Tom Club's debut, self-titled disc, which I have on vinyl. For some reason it was in the folk music section, and at $1.99 sticker price I snatched it up.

The Tom Tom Club was a splinter group off of Talking Heads, featuring their rhythm section, the married couple Tina Weymouth (bass guitar) and Chris Frantz (drums). Adding a few other musicians, most notably guitarist Adrian Belew, they released this album in 1981. Fresh off of the Talking Heads release Remain in Light, which heavily explored Afro-Caribbean sounds, this album was a funky concoction of reggae, hip-hop, and just a little bit of punk, and it is as delightful now as it was back then.

I don't normally care how "danceable" music is. I would have been bad on the Rate-a-Record segment on the old American Bandstand, when teens inevitably said something like, "it's great to dance to." I don't dance, and look for other things when I listen to music. But I have to admit, there are songs on The Tom Tom Club that get me moving.

The album starts with two small masterpieces. The first cut is "Wordy Rappinghood," a tribute to language that is full of marvelous flourishes, including a refrain that ends with "Ti-yi-yay-yippie-aye-yi-yay," and has smart/dumb lyrics like, "Words to tell you what to do, words are working hard for you. Eat your words but don't go hungry, words have always nearly hung me."

This song transitions immediately into the big hit from that record, "Genius of Love," a gorgeous and hip-moving song that starts with the call and response, "Whatcha gonna do when you get out of jail?" "I'm going to have some fun," and then ends with Frantz shouting "James Brown!" as if trying to summon the spirit of the King of Soul. This song was included in the excellent concert film Stop Making Sense.

There a few other strong cuts on the record, including "Lorelai," and "L'Elephant," which is entirely in French.

The Tom Tom Club made a few more records, none of which made as big a splash as this one. I own the second, Close to the Bone, also on vinyl, and therefore useless to me with my current audio set-up. Perhaps one day I'll find that compact disc in a discount bin somewhere.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

A Long Time Coming

Though this year's World Series seems doomed to low ratings, and is surely making the executives at Fox gnash their teeth, I'm looking forward to it. The San Francisco Giants and Texas Rangers are numbers three and four, respectively, in the list of teams that have gone the longest without winning it all. The Cubs and Indians are one and two, but the Giants have never won since moving to San Francisco in 1958 (they last won in 1954, sweeping the Indians, highlighted by Willie Mays' catch off of Vic Wertz) and the Rangers have never won at all. They began life in Washington in 1961, as a resurrected Senators team (the old Senators, which were on the cusp of being a good team, had decamped to Minnesota to be the Twins), and then moved to Arlington in 1972. In fact, the entire state of Texas has zero World Series titles, after seventy seasons of baseball.

So for those who root for the downtrodden, this Series will be a pleasure. In fact, it may be tough to know who to root for. I'm torn, and may end up rooting for the home team in each game (I feel bad for spectators who have paid exorbitant prices only to see their team lose). I have a gut feeling, though, that I'll end up rooting for the Giants.

Usually I root for the American League (unless it's the Yankees), but there's something about the Giants that are appealing. They remind me a lot of the '88 Dodgers, in that they have a lineup of banjo hitters, but a solid pitching staff. Unlike that Dodgers team, the Giants don't have an obnoxious manager. They also have an assortment of oddballs, led by hurler Tim Lincecum, who looks a lot like the character of the Little League pitcher in Dazed and Confused (and has a pot bust to go with it). Closer Brian Wilson has the same name as a Beach Boy and also wears a beard that looks like a bad disguise, and when he closes out wins makes hand gestures from mixed martial arts. They have a roly-poly third baseman with the nickname of Kung Fu Panda, and a rookie catcher named Buster. They also have a few players, like Edgar Renteria and Juan Uribe, who have kicked around the majors for several years, and until seeing them in the playoffs wasn't sure I knew they were still in baseball.

The Rangers have good stories, too. Josh Hamilton is like Roy Hobbs, even though his Jesus stuff is a bit much. It's nice to see team president Nolan Ryan, who usually seems cranky, break into a smile, and I rooted for them despite their association with George W. Bush.

As far as predictions go, the Rangers have to be favored. They have a much more productive lineup, and though the Giants have a deeper starting rotation, Cliff Lee is going to get the ball twice. But I wouldn't be shocked to see the Giants eke this one out. They seem to have a lot of destiny in their favor.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Secret of Kells

Perhaps the biggest surprise when the nominees for last year's Oscars were announced was The Secret of Kells in the Best Animated Feature category. There, among entries from Pixar and Walt Disney, was a tiny picture from Ireland that had no general release in the U.S., and would ultimately gross less than a million dollars. It is finally on DVD.

What is most striking about the film is its distinctive visual style. It is simultaneously primitive and ornate, and has an almost dream-like quality to it. Some of it looks a lot like Saturday-morning TV, but I don't mean that in a pejorative sense, I just indicate that many animated films that are released in theaters are huge productions with dozens of animators. The Secret of Kells seems hand-drawn, even if it isn't.

The story is not quite as interesting. It is a fictionalized version of the creation of the Book of Kells, one the most famous illuminated manuscripts in history. We are introduced to the monks at Kells, an Irish village. Brendan is a boy, the nephew of the very stern abbot. An illuminator, Brother Aidan, shows up with his partially completed book, and Brendan becomes captivated by it and the process. When Aidan asks Brendan to get him some oak berries to make ink, he defies the rules and goes into the forest.

There he meets a fairy, Aisling, who helps him find the berries. Later he returns to nab a crystal from the cave of a nasty creature, and all the while the threat of invasion by the Vikings casts a pall over everything.

Even at only seventy-five minutes, The Secret of Kells seems long, as not much happens. The pleasure comes from the trippy animation, and a gentle mingling of Christianity and Celtic mythology (though we are among monks, there are no Christian buzzwords spoken). The voice-actors include Brendan Gleeson as the abbot, and Mick Lally, a popular Irish actor, as Aidan. I was sorry to see that he died this fall.

For review, the other nominees for Animated Feature were: Coraline, The Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Princess and the Frog, and Up, with the latter winning. I have no major quarrel with that, though if I had a vote it would have been for Fantastic Mr. Fox.

Monday, October 25, 2010


Hereafter is a tough film to review. It's not a bad film, by any means. There's nothing about it to make one angry, or compel eye-rolling or an inclination to walk out of the theater. I was never bored by it, but I wasn't engaged by it, either. I watched it in a state of passive acceptance, much as I might spend an afternoon sitting on a park bench, watching people go by.

I think the biggest problem with the film is that it doesn't really stick its neck out. The plot has three strands, all that deal with what happens to us after we are dead, but the answer, such as it is given, isn't particularly bold or original. I left the theater wondering what the point was. I learned nothing from it, and fail to see what excited the writer or director to make it.

The writer is Peter Morgan, who wrote The Queen and Frost/Nixon, two films I found engrossing, and the director is Clint Eastwood who, at eighty, surely has had some cause to ponder the mysteries of the hereafter. They tell the story following three protagonists: a French newsreader (Cecilie de France), who survives the tsunami in Southeast Asia, but is haunted by a vision she has when she is momentarily dead; a man (Matt Damon), who has turned his back on his career as a psychic, seeking a simpler life that doesn't involve him perpetually occupied with grieving people who want to communicate with their dead loved ones; and an English boy who has lost his twin brother (both boys are played by George and Frankie McLaren).

De France is so obsessed by her vision that she loses focus on her job, and instead of writing a book about Francois Mitterand, writes a book about what people see in near-death experiences (her exasperated publisher tells her that such a book would have to be written in English and marketed to Americans). Damon's brother (Jay Mohr), wants him to resurrect his successful career in giving readings, but Damon sees his ability as a curse rather than a gift. He meets a woman (Bryce Dallas Howard) in a cooking class, and when she learns of his former career insists on him giving her a reading. He tells her it will change their relationship, and he turns out to be right.

Meanwhile, the young McLaren boy, devastated by his brother's death, and in foster care because his mother is a substance abuser, makes the rounds of psychics in an attempt to contact him, and finds nothing but charlatans. It is inevitable that somehow he and Damon will cross paths, and, sure enough, all three characters intersect at a London book fair.

All of this plays dutifully, but without suspense. The opening scene, a recreation of the tsunami, is an outstanding bit of special effects, which gives the viewer a false sense that there will be more heart-stopping moments. There aren't. Instead, the characters go about their business with a solemn sense of purpose (this is one of the sadder Hollywood releases I've seen). Morgan doesn't attempt to answer the question of what lies beyond, except for some trite "heading toward a bright light" images. The film clearly states that there is a hereafter--Damon's character is not a fake--but doesn't have anything to say about it. I would imagine the conversations on drives home from the theater would be more interesting than the film itself.

My grade for Hereafter: C

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Rebel Without a Cause

It was during this week 55 years ago that Rebel Without a Cause, one of the most iconic films of the period, was released, just about thirty days after its star, James Dean, perished in an automobile accident. I've seen the film a few times, but watched it again this weekend.

The first thing that struck me was how incredibly dated it is, at least in its attitudes about juvenile delinquency. The JD film was a staple of movie theaters those days, and they were usually cheap exploitation flicks that preyed on the fears of the respectable classes about the lawlessness of the underclass. The teen-age culture was a relatively new things in those days, really only dating from World War II, when the combination of men at war and working women left teenagers (a word that only goes back to the 1920s) alone for the first time.

The first films about this new class of young adult were mostly squeaky-clean (think of the Andy Hardy movies), but after the war, pulp novels and quickie movies about kids committing crimes were popular. The Blackboard Jungle, from earlier in 1955, was one of the first more prestigious films to tackle the subject, and Rebel Without a Cause upped the ante, casting stars and being filmed in CinemaScope.

It also did two profoundly different things from the usual JD film: it focused on the teenagers themselves, and their point of view, with the adults in the periphery and mostly clueless; and the kids were middle-class. Most assumed that delinquency stemmed from poverty and broken homes, but director Nicholas Ray wasn't interested in that story. The troubled kids of his film are from wealthy families.

Ray used a lot of research for the film, but one can't help but be bemused by its depictions of teenage hoodlums today. The film begins with Jim Stark (James Dean), drunk out of his gourd, hauled into a police station for public drunkenness (he finds a wind-up monkey on the street and playfully puts it to bed under a sheet of newspaper). From the opening scene in the station, it would appear that every night is busy, as there are several kids waiting to be processed. They include Natalie Wood as a girl who has a conflict with her father, and Sal Mineo as Plato, who is there with the family maid, since his mother is off on vacation. He's brought in for shooting puppies.

Wood and Dean talk with patient but firm Ed Platt (best known as the Chief on Get Smart), and are released to their parents. Dean's are his domineering mother (Ann Doran), and weak-willed father (Jim Backus). His biggest problem is with his emasculated father, who can't stand up to his mother (later in the film he's wearing her frilly apron). Dean wants a strong father, and ends up finding it with himself.

The film covers about twenty-four hours, consisting mostly of Dean's first day at a new school, which is quite memorable, in that he gets in a knife-fight; gets in a "chicken run," which ends with the death of his rival in a fiery auto wreck; falls in love with Wood; and gets involved in a shootout with police. All of this is handled without much subtlety, and one can't help but smirk with contemporary notions about the behavior of the teens. Yes, juvenile delinquency was a problem in those days, and was the fly in the ointment of an otherwise idyllic period of history (at least for white America). But you can't help but wonder what these people would make of the Crips and the Bloods.

If one steps back and views the film without that kind of prejudice, it's really very moving. Yes, the pop psychology and oatmeal sociology is obvious and simplistic, blaming the parents for everything. But at its heart, Rebel Without a Cause is a fine character study of three kids, all of them longing for family. When the three end up in abandoned mansion in a kind of surrogate family, with Dean as father, Wood as mother, and Mineo as son, the pathos is palpable and transcends the news-worthiness of the subject matter.

Above all, Rebel is shot by Ray expertly. He didn't know quite what to do with such a wide screen, but he managed it ably, with some terrific framing, especially in a scene with Dean on a staircase, between his mother at the top and his father at the bottom. The knife-fight and chicken scenes are thrillingly shot and edited, and the use of the planetarium, to suggest both the cosmic insignificance of our lives and the inevitably of death, is handled well.

The film is also well-acted. Wood and Mineo were nominated for Oscars (Dean was nominated that year for East of Eden), and Backus, who would later be best known as Thurston Howell III, is heartbreaking as Dean's dad (this time I caught an inside gag when Dean says a line as Mr. Magoo, who of course was voiced by Backus).

Being one of only three films that Dean would ever make, Rebel is the one that has most forged his legacy, with his iconic red jacket and blue jeans and his Brando-esque method acting (the scene in which he covers the toy monkey with a newspaper was improvised, but ended up being repeated when he covers Mineo's dead body at the end of the film). His line reading to his parents, "You're tearing me apart," never fails to give he a chill, and it's hard to watch his performance without wondering, "What if?"

If Rebel Without a Cause ends up being a snapshot of its time period that is not socially relevant today (they didn't know how good they had it), it is still a classic of its kind that bears viewing.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Aguirre, the Wrath of God

Daniel Grann's book, The Lost City of Z, makes a brief mention of Lope de Aguirre, the conquistador who went on a mad expedition to find El Dorado, and was the subject of Werner Herzog's classic film, Aguirre, the Wrath of God. I had never seen that film before (I'm woefully behind of Herzog's pictures), so thought it was a good chance to bump it up my Netflix queue.

The film, from 1972, starring the wild-man Klaus Kinski in the title role, has gained legendary stratus, and for good reason. It's a feast for the senses, but not in the usual sense. Yes, the lush foliage (the film was shot on location in Peru) is made good use of, but there's something more elemental about the way it looks. It's dreamlike in some ways, but in some ways it's brutally realistic.

The film begins with a procession down a mountain. It's 1561, just after Pizarro has conquered the Incas. The Spanish have heard the Indians speak of El Dorado, a city full of riches, so they set down the Amazon to search for it. They begin by descending from the Andes, where they are up so high that they need to pass through clouds on the way down. This procession, which could be seen as a descent into Hell (the Amazon region has been nicknamed "green hell") highlights the hubris of the expedition. Two women are on the trip--the mistress of Ursua (Ruy Guerra), and Aguirre's teen-age daughter (Cecilia Riviera), born aloft in sedan chairs by Indian slaves.

Pizarro sends forty men ahead by raft, led by Ursua, with Aguirre second-in-command. When some men end up stuck in an eddy, Ursua wants to rescue them, but Aguirre thinks he is crazy. They end up killed by unseen Indians, and when Ursua then wants to slow the expedition down, Aguirre has his henchman blow the corpses out of the water by cannon fire.

Eventually, Aguirre stages a mutiny. He proclaims that fat and lazy Guzman (Peter Berling) emperor, though he is still pulling the strings. As they make their way down the river, they are constantly bedeviled by Indians, and Aguirre goes ever madder, his men dying around him, until he his left alone on a raft that is swarmed by monkeys.

Though the film is conventional in its structure, what with a journey down a river and men of civilization thwarted by nature and indigenous peoples, there is something very different about this film. At times it seems hallucinatory, as when the men see the remains of a ship perched high in the trees. There is also the feel of a grindhouse film about it, what with the crude special effects used for some of the violence, especially when a man is beheaded and his mouth keeps talking.

The story is based on true events, but Herzog made most of it up. Aguirre did mutiny and lead a search for El Dorado, and did go on a murderous rampage, but he ended up drawn and quartered, his head displayed in a cage. This was Kinski's first film in what would be a long association with Herzog, and you get the sense that the part was perfect for him--perhaps too perfect. I did learn, though, that the film was shot in English, and later dubbed in German, with a different actor speaking Kinski's lines.

Friday, October 22, 2010

The Lost City of Z

My imagination is inspired by tales of explorers who go where no one has gone before, and few areas on Earth have been more inhospitable than the Amazon. Europeans searched, in vain, for El Dorado, the so-called city of gold, and even today there are indigenous tribes who have had no contact with civilization. One of the foremost explorers of the area was Percy Fawcett, who theorized that a great civilization existed deep within the jungle. He called this city Z.

Fawcett, along with his son, went searching for Z in 1925 and never returned. His fate is still a mystery, and has been to obsession of many over the years. An estimated 100 people have themselves gotten killed or disappeared looking for him. The latest person to fall under his spell is New Yorker writer David Grann, who has penned a nifty book on the subject, The Lost City of Z. It is a history of the exploration of the area, a biography of Fawcett, and participatory journalism, as Grann outfits himself and heads into the rain forest, hoping he can find out what happened to Fawcett.

Fawcett was a larger than life figure and, as many of the explorers of the day were, an amateur. An ex-army officer, he went on trips sponsored by the Royal Geographic Society, but didn't have any special training in archaelogy or anthropology (there were very few who were in the late nineteenth century). But he was a brave, steely fellow, and conducted many trips through the region in the early twenty century. He seemed to have an aura around him, avoiding severe disease, and managed to avoid conflict with Indians. Mostly he did this by doing the utmost to convince them that he was friendly. He instructed his compatriots never to shoot at them.

These expeditions were fraught with peril. There were the Indians, of course, who had a variety of nefarious ways to kill people, such as arrows laced with toxins taken from frogs. But consider this passage, about the incessant attack from pests: "The sauba ants that could reduce the men's clothes and rucksacks to threads in a single night. The ticks that attacked like leeches (another scourge) and the red hairy chiggers that consumed human tissue. The cyanide-squirting millipedes. The parasitic worms that caused blindness. The berne flies that drove their ovipositors through clothing and deposited larval eggs under the skin. The almost invisible biting flies called piums that left the explorers' bodies covered in lesions. Then there were the 'kissing bugs,' which bite their victims on the lips, transferring a protozoan called Trypanosoma cruzi; twenty years later, the person, thinking he had escaped the journey unharmed, would begin to die of heart or brain swelling. Nothing, though, was more hazardous than the mosquitoes. They transmitted everything from malaria to 'bone-crusher' fever to elephantiasis to yellow fever."

Then there were piranhas, or the more insidious carindu, a toothpick-sized fish that "strikes human orifices--a vagina or an anus. It is, perhaps, most notorious for lodging in a man's penis, where it latches on irrevocably with its spines. Unless removed, it means death, and in the remote Amazon victims are reported to have been castrated in order to save them." Shudder.

Grann, armed with this information, still is game, despite his lack of camping experience. He laces his story with that of Fawcett's, and it makes for compelling reading. Grann has some distinct advantages, starting with a satellite phone and motorized transport, but his description of slogging through a mangrove swamp, thinking he's lost, raises some gooseflesh.

The theory about the existence of Z has created a lot of controversy. Most thought Fawcett was crazy, that a civilization couldn't grow in such a hostile land. "Colleagues had once doubted his theory of Z largely for biological reasons: the Indians were physically incapable of constructing a complex civilization. Now many of the new breed of scientists doubted him for environmental reasons: the physical landscape of the Amazon was too inhospitable for primitive tribes to construct any sort of society. Biological determinism had increasingly given way to environmental determinism. And the Amazon--the great 'counterfeit paradise'--was the most vivid proof of the Malthusian limits that the environment placed on civilization."

Grann, though he doesn't discover Fawcett like Stanley found Livingstone, makes some startling finds that lead to a startling and moving conclusion. For anyone who is taken by true-life adventure stories, I heartily recommend The Lost City of Z.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Bob Guccione

Learning of the death of Bob Guccione threw me for a bit of a loop last night. You see, for eleven years I was a cog in his empire and, in retrospect, those were some of the best years of my life. It was, without a doubt, the best job I've ever had, and almost every day, as I struggle to find a permanent job, I wistfully recall how well suited for it I was.

I never actually met him. I saw him a few times, as a shadowy royal figure at parties. He worked out of his home, called "the House," a townhouse on East 67th Street that, at the time, was the largest single-owned private residence in Manhattan. My boss, the editor of the magazine I worked on, was the go-between between him and me, although mostly the business was run by his wife, Kathy Keeton. Some of my colleagues did have the gumption to go up and introduce themselves, and I never heard a bad word about him as a person--he was courtly and for the most part generous with his employees--until things went bad.

I started working for General Media, Inc., the company that published Penthouse, Omni, and many other magazines (I worked for Penthouse Variations) in 1987, when times were still good. Our Christmas parties were lavish, we occupied three spacious floors above Tower Records on the Upper West Side, and there were plenty of employees, some of whom probably didn't have that much work to do. But, as time went on, it became apparent that working there was like being in Shirley Jackson's story "The Lottery"--sooner or later your turn to get stoned would come up. We moved to smaller digs, then moved again (the company has moved twice since I've left). Parties became more modest--instead of at some swanky New York restaurant, we had chips and dips in the conference room.

Much of this surely had to do with the advent of the Internet, which hurt all print publishing outfits, especially those that were pornographic in nature. But, more than that, Guccione was a bad businessman. He had a $400 million fortune, and by the time his life ended last night it was almost all gone. He lost the townhouse. He sold off his country estate in upstate New York, he had lost the magazine that made him famous and rich. He had done this by making some colossally bad investments, and then throwing good money after bad--a casino in Atlantic City, some wild-eyed scheme to build a new kind of nuclear reactor--money down a rat-hole. They published an issue trumpeting nude photos of Anna Kournikova, only the pictures weren't of her, and they had to pull them off the stands. In a spectacular example of nepotism, his entire family worked there. Spin, the music magazine, was founded by his son as something of a gift. In the meantime, the work staff became smaller and smaller, and my time came in 1999.

After leaving I enjoyed a certain schadenfreude in Guccione's travails, but they have exceeded my imagination. He lost his fortune, but then lost his wife to cancer, and was living with family. Certainly he didn't deserve this, did he?

Guccione, in the long run, really isn't an important cultural figure, certainly not like Hugh Hefner, who today is seen by many as a cuddly sexual revolutionary and civil libertarian. The Rolling Stones to Hef's Beatles, Guccione was the dark, sinister twin. Playboy marketed its models as girls next door, while Penthouse did anything but. The models were heavily made up and costumed like women in a seraglio, the photography heavily filtered (there were a lot of jokes about Vaseline on the lens), the vibe exotic and just a little threatening. Of course, almost from the beginning Penthouse was more gynecologically revealing than Playboy, and ran pictorials with hard-core sexual activity. Many of the models that appeared in Penthouse were girls next door, but any aspect of that personality was scrubbed out of them during shoots. Today, nine times out of ten a Penthouse Pet is an adult-film star.

Over the years Guccione made desperate attempts to revive his fortunes. He started putting celebrities on the cover, but the issue with presidential candidate Jerry Brown on the cover must have been the lowest-selling ever. He went through a phase in which the models were urinating, and then introduced ejaculate, which further drove the issue behind the counter, if it was carried at all. We were constantly told, despite our shrinking staff, that good times were around the corner.

I think Guccione was a classic case of a man who, in some ways, was extremely lucky in that for a time, his fantasy captured the fancy of the public. He was new money--gaudy, gilded, brocaded, favoring women in costume (how often he had the models wearing bizarre headgear and thigh-high boots!), the epitome of bad taste. He carried it himself, with his silk shirts unbuttoned to his waist, leather pants, and gold chains dangling in his furry chest hair. But the fancy didn't last, and he spent years trying to grab it back, while spending at a furious pace, whether it was art work (his mansion was a treasure trove of modern art), or largess to the employees, which I was a beneficiary of. I used to get $600 for each set of "love copy"--the haiku-like text that accompanied pictorials, that were selected for publication.

In the end, Penthouse became a relic. It's still published, but on a much smaller level, and owned by the AdultFriendFinder people, an example of the tail wagging the dog (similarly, Playboy is still barely afloat because of its branding merchandise, not the magazine). His legacy, I would imagine, will be as a merchant of seediness, a man who should have had his own Turkish harem, and was undone by the march of time and his own crapulence.

Mostly, though, I remember the good times. When he could afford to be, he was good to his employees. Once, in 1993, he had the entire staff up to his country house, a marble, Italian-style palazzo on the Hudson River. He barbecued hamburgers and hot dogs, and we all had a good time. His four huge Rhodesian Ridgebacks patrolled the yard, as big as ponies. It occurred to me that there couldn't possibly be any place better to work.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Sag Harbor

Sag Harbor, by Colson Whitehead, is an absolutely delightful novel that must be drawn on personal experience--the details are just too wonderful. Set in 1985, it covers one summer in the life of Benji, a fifteen-year-old African American boy as he and his brother enjoy their vacation in their summer home in the Long Island town of the title.

With an anthropologist's eye, Whitehead explores the interesting community of black professionals who have settled in the former whaling port. We learn that during the 1940s, blacks bought up properties in the town, just a few miles north of the Hamptons. They have left their properties to their children. Benji, son of a doctor and a lawyer (he notes the parallels to The Cosby Show), and his brother Reggie are left alone during the week, taking part-time jobs and hanging out with their friends, going to the movies, trying to get beer, and looking to get with girls.

This novel is exquisitely written, in a kind of florid style that made me slow down to savor each word. Whitehead writes the novel from Benji's adult point of view, and drops in a few melancholy bits of information--his parents fight constantly (Dad drinks a bit too much), but mostly the mood is light and nostalgic. There are tons of references to the time period, from the fiasco over New Coke to the music of the period. Benji is an encyclopedia of pop culture--there are references as arcane as Barbara Carerra in Never Say Never Again and a deconstruction of The Road Warrior.

We can all look back at our childhood years and feel a sense of loss, but this one seems like a great childhood. One chapter details what it was like to work at the local ice cream parlor, another examines an epic BB-gun shootout, all leading to Benji's first kiss. You can open the book at random and find passages of virtuosity: "My mouth. Is it possible I haven't mentioned my mouth yet? My mouth was everything you have ever found repellent gathered together, piled in a cauldron, melted down by sadists into an abhorrent alley, and then shaped into clips and wire for placement on my teeth. I wore braces, you see, tiny self-esteem-sucking death's-heads all in a row, turning my smile into a food-flecked grimace."

There are also great truths in the book. I was stopped short by this one: "Over time I have learned that what makes a man is not his ideas or his words, what makes a man is the ability to squeeze out a ferocious stream of lighter fluid from a can and throw a match on it." Truer words were never spoken.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010


Perhaps rejuvenated by Youth Without Youth, which was about an older man who reclaims his youth after being hit by lightning, Francis Coppola seems to have his mojo back. I say this after seeing his most recent film, the assured and masterful Tetro. The old guy has still got it.

Shot in silvery black and white by Mihai Malaimare Jr., Tetro returns to a familiar Coppola theme—brothers. In some sense, Coppola has explored this theme all the way back to The Godfather, with the complex relationships between Sonny, Michael, Fredo, and Tom, and then again in the films based on S.E. Hinton's books, The Outsiders and Rumble Fish. In fact, I was noting many thematic similarities between Rumble Fish and Tetro, perhaps most striking the parallels of performance between Mickey Rourke as Motorcycle Boy and Vincent Gallo as the title character, Tetro.

The film begins with a young man, Alden Ehrenreich, arriving in Buenos Aires. He has looked up his much older brother, whom he hasn't seen in several years. The brother's common-law wife (Maribel Verdu), welcomes Ehrenreich, but Gallo, wearing a cast on his leg, is less enthused. Over the course of the film we learn how Gallo became estranged from his family, most notably his dictatorial father (Klaus Maria Brandauer), a celebrated orchestra conductor. But Gallo warms to his brother's presence, even after Ehrenreich behaves like a little shit, most specifically rooting around in his brother's effects to find his long-aborted novel, which tells the story of his relationship with his father.

Gallo's presence is a big surprise, considering how self-indulgent some of his films have been. According to the "making of" featurette, Gallo doesn't believe in rehearsal, but did so anyway, in a nod of respect to Coppola. I have to believe this helped Gallo find some restraint in the character, a man tortured by his past. He holds the camera almost effortlessly, his character brimming with a kind of desperate genius. I came away wanting to see him in more films, just not directed by himself.

The film does break down toward the end, dropping a big family secret on us like an Acme anvil. Ehrenreich is like a baby DiCaprio, but without the latter's charm, and several times I wanted him gone from the film. But the film looks great. The black and white photography is dreamy, as is the brief forays into over-saturated color, a nod to Michael Powell in some scenes of the ballet "Coppelia." It seems that Gallo took Ehrenreich to see The Red Shoes when they were young.

It's been a great few years for directors of later years, and there's no reason why Coppola, if he's interested, should keep making them. Judging by Tetro, he has a lot left to say.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Nowhere Boy

There have been no shortage of films about the proto-Beatles. There was the 1994 film Backbeat, and a 1979 TV film called Birth of the Beatles. Both of those films dealt with the interpersonal squabbles of the nascent group, with much of the focus on men who would not become "Beatles" (Stu Sutcliffe and Pete Best). Nowhere Boy, the debut film from Sam Taylor-Wood, goes deeper into the mists of Beatle history, giving us a few key years in the development of John Lennon.

Lennon was haunted by the relationship, or lack of one, with his mother, a good-time girl. He was raised by his Aunt Mimi, a strict woman. His father was a seaman who was long gone by the time Lennon was an adolescent, and this theme of abandonment crept into his music. The songs "Julia" and "Mother" are a couple of examples of this hole in his life being reflected in his music.

Nowhere Boy takes this story and turns it into a pretty good film. However, it must be pointed out that I come at this film as a Beatle fanatic, and some context is necessary to fully enjoy it. If you've never seen A Hard Day's Night, for example, you'll miss the homage to that film in the opening scene of Nowhere Boy. It could also be said that if this film weren't about John Lennon, it would just be an ordinary kitchen-sink drama.

The film covers Lennon (played by Aaron Johnson) from the age of fifteen, when his beloved uncle dies, to eighteen, when he's ready to depart with the band for Hamburg (at that point they are The Quarrymen--the word "Beatle" is never uttered in this film). Along the way Lennon reconnects with his mother Julia (Ann-Marie Duff), who he is surprised to learn lives only a few blocks away. She treats him like a sweetheart, enjoying a day at Blackpool where they could be mistaken for a couple. He is viewed with suspicion and annoyance by his mother's live-in boyfriend, with whom she has two daughters (as much as I know about the Beatles, I never knew he had half-sisters). Aunt Mimi (Kristin Scott Thomas), who though severe, dearly loves the lad, and Julia engage in something of a war for his affection. But even though two women are fighting for him, Lennon still feels basically unloved.

There are number of things pleasing to Beatlemaniacs. We see a quick glimpse of Strawberry Field, the word "walrus" written in John's notebook, and the sight of him being turned away at The Cavern club. I'll also never listen to the song "Maggie May," which is almost a throwaway on Let It Be, the same way again. But there's little to top the frisson of that fateful moment at a church fair when the words, "John, this is Paul," were spoken, followed by a handshake that would change the world.

Paul, played by the youthful Thomas Brodie Sangster (after all, Paul was only fifteen when he met John) was the more musical of the two, and had lost his mother to cancer. He suggests that they write their own music, and there's a lovely scene in which he listens to John sing "Hey Little Girl," the first song he would ever write (it's the only Lennon-McCartney composition in the film). The moment when George shows if his guitar-playing skill for John on a bus, earning his spot in the band, is less propitious, but then George always did short shrift.

The best part of the film is toward the end, when John and Paul, two motherless boys, embrace and console each on the street. By this time the emotional journey that John has undertaken has created the man he would become (and, to the credit of screenwriter Matt Greenhalgh, John is presented as the prickly and oftentimes difficult man he was). Johnson looks the part and does a great job of capturing the rebelliousness of the young Lennon, who has trouble in school and nicks 45s from the record shop. When he and his friends are influenced by Elvis, and start wearing blue jeans and pompadours, he really looks like John.

Thomas is also quite effective, playing the emotional anchor of the film. A scene in which she and Duff have a showdown over John, with a flashback to when Thomas first takes him into her care, is excessively melodramatic. Better are the subtler scenes, which vividly evoke England of the late 50s, when it seems that every British boy was listening to American rock and roll records and dreaming of stardom.

My grade for Nowhere Boy: B+

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Youth Without Youth

Francis Coppola, following The Rainmaker (thanks, Marco, for pointing out my error) did not direct a film for ten years. He came back in 2007 with Youth Without Youth, a film set in Romania, based on the writing of Mircea Eliade. It is a sometimes intriguing, sometimes impenetrable film, highlighted by lovely photography by Mihai Malaimare Jr.

The film stars Tim Roth as a professor of linguistics who has spent his whole career working on a book about the origins of language and human consciousness. The opening scenes are not very clear--a second viewing might clear some things up--but it appears that he was in love with a woman but lost her, and has regarded himself as a failure. At age 70 he is starting to crack up, and intends to kill himself. Then he is struck by lightning.

He wakes up in a hospital, unable to see or speak, but gradually he heals, and much to the amazement of his doctors, has gotten younger. He now appears half his age, and also seems to have powers. He can learn languages with ease, and communicates with another identity who is aware of his powers. Since this is Romania in the late 30s, the Nazis take interest, and there is some cloak and dagger stuff.

I was expecting this film to be more focused on World War II, but it ends up going by in a montage of newspaper headlines. Instead, the film then becomes a tale involving a woman that Roth meets in Switzerland. She, too, is struck by lightning, and speaks in Sanskrit, saying she is an Indian woman thousands of years old. She is played by Alexandra Maria Lara, who also plays Roth's earlier love.

The two form a relationship, and Lara regresses back into time, speaking languages long disappeared. It's interesting academically, and the love story between the two eventually gains some warmth, but it's much more of an intellectual exercise than anything else. As with Rumble Fish, nearly twenty-five years earlier, Coppola explores the issue that we are all "running out of time."

This film is not for casual viewing, and requires undivided attention. I probably didn't do it any favors by stopping it often to check out the baseball playoffs, which made it seem longer than its two hour, six minute running time. It isn't a bad film by any means, but calls for work by the viewer to fully appreciate it.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Walking Across Campus

Autumn is my favorite time of year for a number of reasons, one of them being its the best time of year to walk across a college campus. Luckily I have a good one near by, Princeton, full of Gothic architecture, and laid out like a medieval village.

On Fridays, when the hockey team is playing a home game, I like to arrive early. I park near the rink and then walk up the hill into town for something to eat, which necessitates cutting across the campus. This is always a pleasure. I love the atmosphere of a campus, and Princeton's is so, well, collegiate, that it can't help making me think back to my college days, and well as kicking in a fantasy that I became a college professor. Unfortunately, I'm about three bricks shy of a load in the intellect department to have attained that goal, and the first time a hot co-ed offered her body in exchange for a better grade I would have been a goner.

The Princeton campus is fun to explore. There's no particular rhyme or reason to how it is laid out, so you can walk across it several dozen times and never take the same route. It's dotted with interesting surprises, like the abstract statue in front of the art museum that, from a certain angle, looks like Richard Nixon. Or you can be walking along and suddenly find yourself in a spectacularly beautiful flower garden. I would think all four years of study would be necessary to figure out the best way from points A to B, and sometimes think of it as a video game, with hidden passageways. A few years I was talking to a student I had gotten to know and she confessed that she sometimes viewed the campus as an immense battleground, and what would be the best strategy? I was amazed at her statement, because I tend to think the same way, and used to imagine the strategy involved in a giant game of capture-the-flag on my old campus. We agreed that seizing the higher ground would be essential, but she didn't know about the network of tunnels underneath the school, so vividly portrayed in the novel The Rule of Four.

Princeton, though largely self-contained, is right across the street from the town itself. My school, Stony Brook, was a large modern university (built in 1959), and you had to have motorized transport to leave it. The only respite was a 7-Eleven across from the train station, which I footed it to many times. I had to take the bus to get to grocery store, and once my shopping bag broke, and I had to leave items on the grass outside the dorm and retrieve them item by item.

A few things I've learned from observing college kids: they seem impervious to cold, and they display great school loyalty. In no matter what the weather, I see kids darting out to do laundry or whatever in their shorts and flip-flops. I never wear flip-flops in the most ideal weather, so it amazes me that their lower extremities are exposed to the elements like this. On top they will invariably be wearing some kind of sweatshirt that has the name of the school on it. I suppose this is a kind of pride and loyalty, but it seems a little odd. When you wear apparel that is emblazoned with words or images, it seems to me that the intention is to tell the outside world something about yourself. Wearing a school sweatshirt while you're at that school seems obvious, like going to a concert wearing the shirt of the band you are seeing. Yeah, we kind of know you're into that band, seeing as you're at the concert.

The Princeton campus is old, but it is continually changing, even in the fourteen years I've been haunting it. There is always construction going on. Several years the tennis courts, right next to the rink and overseen by an incongruous pagoda, were torn down and replaced by a new dormitory, named for the donor, Meg Whitman, who is now trying to be governor of California. This dorm is built in the Gothic tradition of many of the other buildings, but another new dorm, named for its donor, Michael Bloomberg (his daughter went to school there) is more modern in design. I wonder how many more billionaire-politicians will build things on campus. The football stadium, simply called Princeton Stadium, has had its naming rights for sale for years. I've often day-dreamed about having the money to name it, but not for me. I'd name it for an illustrious alumni--no, not Brooke Shields, but Ralph Nader.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Oscar 2010 Forecast: Best Actor

When looking at this year's race for Best Actor, the pieces have fallen into place quite nicely, and it seems fairly easy to imagine that three or four candidates are close to being locks, and that there isn't a big pool to choose from beyond that. It's very much like a few years ago, when Ryan Gosling snuck in for Half Nelson, which shocked Nikki Finke even though half the world had predicted he would be nominated.

Here are my picks for the five, in alphabetical order:

Javier Bardem: Biutiful: Bardem seems to be admired by the Academy, and even though this is a foreign language film its gotten a lot of buzz for his performance, even if the film has divided opinion.

Robert Duvall, Get Low: The film didn't make that much of a splash, and Duvall didn't exactly edge into new frontiers as an actor, but he's gotten into that stage of veneration that wearing a bushy beard and doing that hillbilly accent should get him into the chase.

Jesse Eisenberg, The Social Network: Not the usual type of nominee, in that he's the almost hollow center of a swirling film, much like John Lone in The Last Emperor. But Eisenberg does have a number of scenes that call for both a verbal dexterity and a huge emotional response. With the hubbub the film has created (it's a lock for a Best Pic nomination), I think Eisenberg is in.

Colin Firth, The King's Speech: The early favorite to win. He plays a real person--beloved to anglophiles, which would seem to be legion in the Academy, and one who has a speech defect. And Firth is an actor who seems to be at the crest of his talents.

James Franco, 127 Hours: Would seem to be a film that is made for a Best Actor nomination--one man show, man against nature. Franco is a different kind of actor--one who does soap operas for fun, takes classes at Columbia, and just published fiction in Esquire. I think it's his time.

If not them, then who?

Jeff Bridges, True Grit--The most obvious of those I'm leaving out, but I do that based on numbers. It's incredibly rare for an actor to get a nomination for playing a part that has already won an Oscar: De Niro as Vito Corleone is the only one I can think of. But if the movie has the goods he could break precedent.

Ryan Gosling, Blue Valentine--movie's supposed to be a downer, but so was Half Nelson.

Michael Douglas, Solitary Man or Wall Street 2--Hate to say this, but his health could be a factor. And I think he deserves a nomination for Solitary Man, even if no one else saw it.

Paul Giamatti, Barney's Version

Mark Wahlberg, The Fighter

Sean Penn, Fair Game--I don't know if his role is award-worthy, but he's an Academy darling. He got nominated for Sweet and Lowdown and I Am Sam.

Thursday, October 14, 2010


Francis Coppola has made movies of almost every stripe, but the most atypical has got to be Jack, a gooey tale that features Robin Williams as a ten-year-old boy. Yes, you heard correctly. What's perhaps more surprising is that I did not hate it.

To be sure, Jack is treacly and obvious, but maybe I was just in the mood for corny Hollywood bromides. Or maybe it's that Coppola, who must have sat in his director's chair during the shooting of this and wondered, "How did I get here?" managed to pull enough rabbits out of his hat to make this film, if not good, at least not vomit inducing. Or maybe it's that Williams, aware that most people of good sense would run shrieking from a film in which he played a ten-year-old, summoned a great deal of restraint.

Jack, played by Williams, has a disease in which he ages at four times the rate of a normal person. Thus his mother, Diane Lane, goes into labor after only ten weeks of pregnancy, and by the time he's ten, Jack looks like a forty-year-old. He's kept inside the house by his parents, afraid that he'll be seen as a freak, and he's tutored by Bill Cosby, who urges them to let him experience the world. They finally let Jack go to school, and after some initial problems he becomes popular, especially considering how he dominates on the basketball court and his ease at buying dirty magazines (there's no mention of the other thing he could buy the kids--liquor).

But of course Jack never quite fits in. He gets a crush on his teacher (Jennifer Lopez) and when she tactfully turns down his request to go to a dance with him he has an attack of angina. He starts to realize the math and that he will not live all that long, and has a memorable night in a bar, where he flirts with his best friend's mom, Fran Drescher. All turns out okay, though, especially with the all-knowing Cosby helping out.

This film doesn't really say anything that Big, with Tom Hanks, didn't say much better, and that film went the extra mile and let its character get laid. But as a kid who always felt awkward in school, I appreciated certain touches, and until a maudlin ending, in which Williams, old and decrepit, gives his class's valedictory address, I didn't want to throw anything at the screen.

This film was released in 1996, and would be Coppola's last film for more than a decade. He's made a couple since then, which I'll get to next week. I'm sure he's glad this did not turn out to be his last film.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Bram Stoker's Dracula

After The Godfather, what is Francis Coppola's biggest box-office hit? It's Bram Stoker's Dracula, a 1992 film that earned about 215 million domestic. I've seen it multiple times, and took a look again last night.

With a script by James V. Hart, the film, as the expanded title suggests, is the most faithful screen adaptation of Stoker's novel. It also throws in some of the historical sources of the legendary vampire--he was a Wallachian prince, Vlad, who had a thing for impaling his enemies. Coppola and Hart make a few deviations from Stoker, the most important when they shroud the whole thing in the velvet of romance. It seems that Dracula did all this for a woman, and she kind of loves him back. This is not Stoker--the Dracula of his book is no matinee idol.

Though that may offend my purist sensibilities, this film is a joy to behold. The colors are beguiling, and the costumes and sets are Oscar-winning. Shot on soundstages, Coppola once again, as with One from the Heart, replicates a place and by doing so makes it not authentic, but instead suggestive of dreams (or in this case, nightmares).

Prince Vlad, played to the hilt by Gary Oldman, is a warrior who, after winning battle, loses his bride, who commits suicide when she falsely believes he is dead. The church won't give her a proper burial, and he defies god, and becomes an immortal member of the undead. When we pick up the story centuries later, he is buying up property in London, and also making good use of the solicitors sent to him. One of them, Renfield, (Tom Waits) is locked up in an asylum eating insects, and his replacement, Harker (a wooden Keanu Reeves) ends up a prisoner, fed on by gorgeous girl vampires (one of them is a young and luscious Monica Bellucci).

Dracula goes to London and finds Mina, Harker's fiancee, played by Winona Ryder at the height of her babealiciousness. She is a dead ringer for Drac's long-lost beloved, so he courts her, while also munching on her friend Lucy (Sadie Frost), turning her into a vampire. A specialist is called in, the vampire-hunting Van Helsing (Anthony Hopkins), and after seeing the bite marks on her neck knows that a vampire is in town. Hopkins spares no scenery to chew in his performance, and is the beneficiary of a great edit by Coppola, when he cuts from a beheading to Hopkins carving some rare roast beef.

This is all great gothic fun. The novel, of course, was about the Victorian attitudes about sex. There's a scene in the book in which Mina feeds on the blood from Dracula's chest that, with a few words changed, could be about oral sex. There's some of that in the film, but mostly it's a love story, as we are led to believe that Mina is Dracula's bride reincarnated, and he's really not such a bad guy. These scenes drag the film down, and seem to me to be a cynical way to make the film palatable for modern sensibilities.

But Coppola sure has fun with this. The early scenes in Dracula's castle, when his shadow doesn't precisely obey physics, are wonderfully spooky. There are a couple of nods to the Tod Browning 1932 film, as when Dracula says, "I don't drink--wine," and, hearing the howling of wolves, "Ah, the children of the night. What sweet music they make." Otherwise this film would have shocked 1930s audiences--there's plenty of sex and gore.

Dracula is one of the most frequently rendered characters in cinema, and this is the closest thing to being the definitive version. It's a feast for the eyes, as well as the ears--the creepy score by Wojciech Kilar is stunning, and the closing theme song, "Love Song for a Vampire," written and performed by Annie Lennox, is a perfect wedding song for a goth couple.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

True Blood, Season 2

I just finished watching the second season of HBO's series True Blood, and I'm a little conflicted. It was gloriously entertaining, with smart writing and pulse-pounding suspense. But it also stretched the envelope of outright silliness, with the climax taking place at a marriage ceremony with a god, with a large offering made of meat. I imagine the writers of the show sitting in a room, giggling, wondering whether they really could get away with this.

The second season allows us to move past a lot of the set-up of season one, namely that vampires are now open in society, though shunned by the religious right (an obvious parallel to homosexuality). Sookie Stackhouse, the psychic waitress, is now in a relationship with vampire Bill Compton. They have a new member of their household, the teenager Jessica, whom Bill was forced to turn into a vampire by the elders of his order (vampires, it seems, love hierarchy).

The season then spins off into three basic storylines: Eric, the brooding vampire and operator of the nightclub Fangtasia, enlists Sookie to use her psychic powers to find his "creator," who has gone missing in Dallas. Sookie's brother, the dim Jason, has let himself be recruited by a religious sect devoted to going to war with vampires, and Sookie's friend Tara has come under the spell of Maryann, a woman who makes Tara feel wanted, and has a penchant for hedonism. Too bad she turns out to be a supernatural being called a maenad, and she takes over the whole town and turns into Times Square on New Year's eve. And people show up dead with their hearts ripped out.

The religious right and maenad stories are parallel--characters who feel adrift finding solace in groups that say all the right things, but turn out to be nefarious. Michael McMillian and Anna Camp are the young married couple who run the Fellowship of Light, and unfortunately I don't think there's anything about them that is not realistic. I imagine, right now, there are plenty of Bible-thumpers ready to kill for Jesus.

The Fellowship story wraps up about halfway through the season, while the maenad plot covers the entire arc. Michelle Forbes is Maryann, and she's spooky good. When she does her thing the townspeople's eyes turn black and they start rutting with the closest person handy. It must be what the Playboy Mansion is like.

The show is full of lovely little moments. I liked how capitalism embraces the vampires--there's an airline devoted to their travel called Anubis (with coffins for daytime travel) and the vampire hotel in Dallas, with young people of different blood types on the room service menu and extra-heavy curtains to block out the sun, is called Carmilla (which was the name of the first vampire novel). The actors are all terrific--I enjoyed Ryan Kwanten as Jason, and Chris Bauer as the overzealous deputy Andy. Kwanten has a great line why he's so popular with girls--"I watch a lot of porn to learn things."

But the soul of the show is Anna Paquin as Sookie. Her character is so easy to root for--no matter what insanity swirls around her she keeps her bearings and behaves like Nancy Drew. When she has a showdown with Maryann, she leans forward and says, with an impeccable line reading, "What the fuck are you?"

All this and I forgot to mention Sam, who can turn into any animal at will. In the third season it seems we'll meet his parents, who are described as "evil," and we'll see more of Evan Rachel Wood as the Yahtzee-loving vampire queen of Louisiana (of course, the third season has already aired, but don't tell me what happens).

Monday, October 11, 2010

Never Let Me Go

Consider the lowly 1979 film Parts: The Clonus Horror, a movie so bad that it not only starred Dick Sargent (Darren number two from Bewitched), but was mocked by Mystery Science Theater 3000. Yet this repellent little film seems to have spawned two high profile films that have lifted its central premise: clones are raised for the harvesting of organs, so that they can be donated to others. This storyline was used (almost verbatim) in the Michael Bay fiasco, The Island, and now in the tony Mark Romanek feature, based on the novel by Kazuo Ishigura, Never Let Me Go.

Now, I am in no way suggesting that Ishigura had any awareness of Parts, and beyond the central conceit (a bit of science fiction that I'm sure our least ethical scientists are feverishly endeavoring to make science fact) the plots are not similar. But Never Let Me Go, in its own way, is not much better than The Island, just for entirely different reasons.

I bring up these earlier films because they are instructive as to how Hollywood and non-Hollywood (Ishigura is Japanese-British, screenwriter Alex Garland is British, though Romanek is American) minds approach the situation differently. The Island, and its progenitor, Parts, is all about resistance and rebellion. If you found out you were just a fatted calf, and your whole existence was to be on call to have your vital organs appropriated for someone else's use, what would you do? In American films, you escape, you fight back. In Never Let Me Go, you look meaningfully into the distance, and your best hope is that falling in love can buy you an extra couple of years.

Never Let Me Go centers on three characters, who are children together in an old-fashioned boarding school. We are told at the outset that most disease has been eradicated, and that the life expectancy is over 100 years. The children, who seem to have no parents, are frightened into remaining on school grounds by spooky stories. A new teacher, Sally Hawkins, is like an embedded spoiler, and she tells the kids their purpose--and their limitations.

Hawkins is never seen again for disobeying protocol, but the kids grow up to be Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley, and Andrew Garfield. They know their purpose, but are seemingly powerless to do anything about it (a few times they are shown passing electric wristbands by monitors--presumably this is how they are kept from escaping). They are allowed some freedom--they can drive, and they also have sex, which I would think would be frowned upon (unless of course clones can't have children) and they meekly await their fate. Mulligan is in love with Garfield, always has been, but Knightley has moved in to grab him.

This is basically it. We are doled out information spoonful by spoonful, but I still didn't quite grasp it all. I felt as if I were watching a foreign film without subtitles. The characters talked a lot about who they were "modeled" after--is this who they were cloned from? They also gave multiple donations, presumably until they gave up an organ they couldn't live without. There are too many "presumablys," though. Maybe I'm just too literal-minded, but I needed more answers than I got here. If you're going to make a film that has science-fiction elements, you have to fill in the science.

What ultimately drags down Never Let Me Go is its unyielding solemnity. Granted, it's not a pleasant topic, but these kids never seem to have any fun, aside from paging through porno magazines or watching sit-coms. This film could kill the best mood you've ever had, and take a bad mood and make it suicidal. The trappings of the film are all nice--the acting and the photography is fine, but jeez this film could have used a little lightening up.

The good reviews this film have received seem to be by those who have read the book, which I have not. I would imagine the novel went further into the details of the cloning program and just what went through these characters' heads, which the film can only do by long, baleful scenes of tree limbs swaying. It was almost enough to, god forgive me, long for a Michael Bay scene of highway carnage.

My grade for Never Let Me Go: C-

Sunday, October 10, 2010

You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger

Woody Allen begins his latest film, the charming souffle You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, with a juxtaposing pair of themes--the optimistic "When You Wish Upon a Star," and then the nihilistic quote from MacBeth--"a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, and signifying nothing." Allen's career is marked by the struggle between optimism and pessimism, with the latter usually winning out, and so it goes with his characters in this film.

Allen is back in London for this tale, which despite its fizzy overtones can be peeled back to reveal both a fear of death and, perhaps more frighteningly, a fear that one's life is being wasted. Gemma Jones is at her wit's end. Her husband (Anthony Hopkins), has left her after forty years of marriage. She tried to kill herself, and has seen an army of doctors, but she finds consolation in the counsel of a psychic (Pauline Collins). Her daughter, Naomi Watts, is pleased that she's happy, even if her mother sounds increasingly batty.

Watts is married to Josh Brolin, a novelist who has had only one success and is worried that he's a one-trick pony. He struggles to finish his latest book, but becomes distracted by the beautiful woman across the street, (Frieda Pinto) whom he spies on. Watts, meanwhile, becomes attracted to her boss, an art gallery owner (Antonio Banderas), who makes eyes at her while telling her how bad his marriage is.

Hopkins, trying to stave off the effects of age, has entered into a May-December marriage with Lucy Punch, an escort. We've seen many such age differences in Allen's work, and many of them are mind-bogglingly ridiculous, but this one he finally gets right. The two come together out of a basic need that avoids love--she for his wealth, he for her youthful sex appeal, but it becomes apparent to them both quickly what a mistake it is. The look on both of their faces as they realize what they've got themselves into is a primer on look before you leap.

The film is full of nice little moments like that. You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger is close in tone to his recent Vicky Cristina Barcelona, in that it has an unseen narrator (albeit this one is far less talky than Vicky's) and a kind of New Yorker short story vibe--those with PBS tote bags are the target audience. There are no belly laughs, but many smiles--Jones' increasing belief in the occult is a hoot, especially when she starts to believe in reincarnation (just a personal note--we can't all have been reincarnated--there are more people alive today than have ever died, just sayin'). Watts, one of my favorite performers working today, is marvelous as a brittle woman undone by the dyspepsia of her husband, and Brolin is equally up to the challenge, though I don't why his hair looks so blow-dried.

There are a few glitches in the production. I never did buy the Brolin-Pinto relationship. When he takes her to lunch and reveals that he's watched her undress through her window, she should have thrown her drink in his face and stormed off. I've never thought voyeurism was a legitimate seduction technique. And I'm sure William Carlos Williams rolled over in his grave when Brolin murders his "red wheelbarrow" poem by including a vulgar last line.

Most disturbingly, the film looks horrible. It's hard to believe Allen and Vilmos Zsigmond have teamed to make such a cheap looking film. But it can't just be a meager budget that has caused the camera to frequently be in the wrong place. And Allen, who usually knows how to use locations, makes London look like any city. The only landmark of note that we see is the Albert Bridge.

Still, I enjoyed the film and almost had a smile on my face. My grade for You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger: B

Saturday, October 09, 2010

Rumble Fish

During the 80s, when Francis Coppola was no longer a towering figure in American cinema, he made a lot of films for hire, seeking to relieve the debt he incurred for One From the Heart. He still, though, maintained a creative spirit, and that is evident in the films he made in 1983 of two young adult novels by S.E. Hinton. I wrote about The Outsiders a few years ago. Immediately following that film, he made another of a Hinton novel, Rumble Fish. It is both visually arresting and infuriating.

Coppola was outwardly making a European art film. It's as if Michelangelo Antonioni had been dropped in Tulsa, Oklahoma, but had also been robbed of the mystery that he brought to his films. The story, about aimless juvenile delinquents, is pumped full of allusion and metaphor, and doesn't amount to much, but Coppola stuffs it to the gills with "meaning."

Shot in exquisite black and white by Stephen H. Burum, Rumble Fish is frequently stunning to look at. However, the story just doesn't serve the visuals, and there are too many shots that scream "look at me!" I'm skeptical of any film that includes one shot of clouds racing by in a storefront window, let alone the three or four that are in this film. Coppola has made this a story about characters who are running out of time, so to reinforce that, we see clocks at almost every juncture.

The story concerns Rusty James (Matt Dillon), a juvenile delinquent. After a balletic rumble with a rival, in which he gets slashed by a piece of glass, he is rescued by his elder brother, called The Motorcycle Boy (Mickey Rourke), who at one time ruled the gangs of Tulsa, but has been gone for a couple of years. He went out to California to find his mother, but returned to the misery of his life in Oklahoma, with his alcoholic father (Dennis Hopper). Rourke, at 21, is seen as a something of a god by the youth of the town, for his Zen ways and worldliness.

Dillon is not as smart as his brother. He courts a local girl (Diane Lane), and is wistful about the end of the gangs, who have been broken up by heroin use. He still has something of a crew, that includes the squeaky-clean Vincent Spano and a Chris Penn and Nicolas Cage. Meanwhile a cop (William Smith), waits for Rourke to slip up.

There's not much action after that first fight. Dillon and Rourke hit the town, and Dillon and Spano get roughed up by muggers (which allows Coppola to have Dillon levitate over his body). Rourke seems to realize that his time is over, and he becomes fixated on some fish at the local pet shop--Siamese fighting fish that have to separated, or they will kill each other. He thinks the fish should be freed into the river. To make sure we don't miss the metaphor, the fish are the only things in the film that are in color.

So the film becomes mostly posing and attitude, but at times there are some brilliant individual moments, none so more than about a two-minute section that has Rourke and Dillon on a motorcycle, cruising through the late-night streets. The brothers have smiles on their faces, enjoying their time together, and the music, by Stewart Copeland, is a nifty composition involving car horns.

In fact, Copeland's score is the lingering aspect of this film. When I first saw it I rushed and bought the soundtrack album. The music is revolutionary in its way, made up mostly of percussion. The closing song, "Don't Box Me In," sung by Stan Ridgway, is one of the best movie songs I've ever heard.

Though Rumble Fish ultimately doesn't succeed as a whole, it has parts that I'll never forget. There's Copeland's music, Burum's photography, and, I must admit, Lane, who is the teenage girl of my dreams.

Friday, October 08, 2010

Robert Altman: The Oral Biography

I've always been fascinated by Robert Altman's films, if not overly fond of them. As I mentioned in a recent post, M*A*S*H is one of my favorite films, but of the other dozen or so of his films that I've seen, none of them have particularly bowled me over. They have, though, all of them, been profoundly interesting.

Altman, who died in 2006, lived a roguish life. He didn't make M*A*S*H, his first big film, until he was in his mid-forties, but then made about one a year until his death at 81. He kept this up despite his natural antipathy toward studio heads, and a pugnacious attitude that cost him more than one job. He was married three times, and had many children, though he was quoted as saying he cared more about his career than his kids. He imbibed to excess, at least until he had a heart transplant, which he kept secret.

Mitchell Zuckoff has taken Altman's life and turned it into an oral biography, which means that he uses his interview subject's own words. I frequently like this form (Edie, by George Plimpton and Jean Stein, is one of the best of them), but this one just didn't do it for me. Obviously, when an author chooses this form, he is entrusting everything to what his said to him, so if an interview subject isn't particularly interesting, there's no writerly tricks to make him so. The book suffers for that, especially in the early going, when Altman's childhood in Kansas City and his experience as a bomber pilot in World War II are raked over. Sorry to say, but those who speak on the matter make it all sound pretty dull.

Things pick up a little during Altman's early career as a director. He spent several years in television, on such shows as Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Bonanza, and Combat! His TV career came to an ignominious end when he was working for Kraft Suspense Theater, and gave an interview to Variety and said that Kraft Theater plots were as bland as their cheese.

He then moved on to films, and made a few small-budget films before getting M*A*S*H. As I mentioned in my post on that film, the Altman style would take shape then and there, with overlapping dialogue, large ensemble casts, lack of traditional plot, and the use of a zoom. What becomes apparent is that Altman was an incredibly instinctive director, almost Zen about things. When he made McCabe and Mrs. Miller, the climax took place in a snowstorm because it happened to be snowing that day. He was a guy who went with the flow, as if he were throwing I Ching and making it up as he went along.

Actors loved him (except, it seems, for McCabe's Warren Beatty). His philosophy was that character was an actor's job, and that's what he hired them for. He avoided talking to them about motivation or sticky things like that, giving them free reign. He also encouraged their ideas, which was why he wasn't incredibly popular with writers. Altman used the script as a jumping off point, and only looked at it for the first few days of the shoot.

Though Altman never stopped working, he did have peaks and valleys. After the successes of the early 70s his films in the last half of that decade became more and more eccentric. He made five for Fox that were little seen and less understood, like 3 Women and Quintet. He then hit a wall when he made the big-budget Popeye, which was received like a flop even though it actually made money (and was one of the top ten highest grossing films of the year).

After Popeye he was in the wilderness, directing plays and operas. It was therefore seen as a comeback, a word he hated, when he scored with The Player in 1992, and earned an Oscar nomination. He backed that up the following year with Short Cuts, and then again in 2000 with Gosford Park. He was now an eminence grise, and actors flocked to work for him--just see how many big stars turn in cameos in The Player.

As a human being Altman was a contradiction. Many talk of his two sides--sweet and sour. He was a generous man, but could be difficult to get along with. He absolutely resisted authority. Lily Tomlin has a story about a film she had in production that ended up permanently shelved after Altman punched out a studio guy because he wanted to trim minutes from an Altman film. He was also something of a reckless gambler, and cavalier with money. But he also seemed like he could be a lot of fun. Zuckoff lets a lot of people tell stories about how hard Altman could party. My favorite was when he and his wife attended the Academy Awards ceremony with a bag of pot brownies.

Through it all, even though Altman's flaws are readily apparent, I felt a grudging respect for him. That he never stopped working, and rarely compromised on his vision, is admirable. I think composer John Williams said it best: "One of the big contradictions was that he was always fighting with the studios but he sought acceptance. He sought praise of the establishment in his own way as hard or harder than other people did. He craved the approval of the people out here. His bad-boy-naughtiness character not to the contrary. He didn't want to play the game as he saw it being played."

Thursday, October 07, 2010

This Wicked World

This Wicked World, by first-time novelist Richard Lange, is an above-average thriller that makes good use of some Southern California locations, namely Hollywood and the desert around Twenty-Nine Palms. The protagonist is Jimmy Boone, a bartender at a tourist trap on Hollywood Boulevard, near the Chinese Theater, an area I've become well-acquainted with on a couple of trips to L.A., and is a location ripe for literary plundering. Those guys who dress up like movie characters and loiter around the Chinese Theater could generate volumes, I imagine.

But this book is more concerned with matters even seedier. Boone is an ex-con with a white knight streak. Once a successful bodyguard, he ended up in the can for beating up a guy he thought was molesting a little girl. When he helps out the bouncer at the bar, who moonlights as a private eye, he gets caught up in finding out why an immigrant died on an L.A. bus, with infected dog-bite wounds.

He follows some clues that lead him into the sordid world of dog-fighting, and to the compound of a criminal called Taggert. In separate chapters we follow Taggert, a fully-realized creation. In many books of this type criminals are portrayed as mentally deficient, and there are some of those here, but Taggert is not. He's a guy who escaped the Kentucky coal mines, did some hard time in prison, and now enjoys a kind of baronial existence in the California desert. He wants to make one last big score so he can retire, which, as we all know, never is allowed to happen in books or movies.

The action is taut and suspenseful, even though we may question Boone's actions, especially when he heads out to Taggert's place unarmed. To be fair, we know about Taggert and he doesn't, which makes for a kind "don't do that!" reading between our fingers. The final showdown is set in a rainstorm in a ghost town, which should interest film directors looking for excellent source material.

I have no idea if Lange intends to make Jimmy Boone a recurring character, but I would be up for revisiting him.