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Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Bedlam (1946)

Bedlam is the last of the B-pictures that Val Lewton produced for RKO (I've still got three to write about--somehow I've viewed them out of chronological order). Bedlam really isn't a horror film, it's more a social polemic about the need for reforming care for the mentally ill. But it does have Boris Karloff in full creepy mode.

Set in 1761, this is the only film I know of that gives writing credit to artist William Hogarth. The film was inspired by his series "The Rake's Progress," specifically the panel in which the Rake ends up in Bethlehem Hospital, which gained the nickname "Bedlam" (and is the source of that word today). The name of the hospital was changed slightly for the film, as was the chief physician, played by Karloff.

In those days, with almost no knowledge about mental illness, people were caged like animals and left to fend for themselves. The rich could take tours and look at them in their cages, as if they were zoo animals. Karloff, eager to gain favor with a nobleman, uses his "loonies" to stage a show for the upper class. One of the boys dies when he is completely covered in gold paint (which would do in Shirley Eaton in Goldfinger), but the swells just laugh.

The nobleman's "protege" (but probably his mistress) played by Anna Lee, pretends not to be moved by the lunatics' plight, but with the counsel of a Quaker (Richard Fraser) she campaigns for reform. When he finds out it will cost him, the nobleman refuses her, and she leaves him. Her campaigning makes Karloff nervous, and he ends up having her committed to the asylum she wanted to reform.

Things only get into the horror angle at the end, when Karloff, who we are patiently waiting to get his comeuppance, is captured by the inmates and put on trial. His ultimate fate owes a lot to Edgar Allan Poe.

I'm not sure much had advanced in mental health by 1946, as lobotomies were still regularly performed. But this film certainly does wear its concerns on its sleeve, and has a classic Karloff performance. I also wonder if Peter Handke saw this film before writing his classic play, Marat/Sade.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Isle of the Dead

Continuing my look at the films of producer Val Lewton, I turn to Isle of the Dead, a 1945 film directed by Mark Robson. It's not so much a horror film as a psychological drama, constructed on superstition and the fear of disease.

Set in Greece during the First Balkan War of 1912, Boris Karloff stars as Greek general. He's a strictly-by-the-rules guy--the first scene has him condemning an officer for his troops being late to the front. An American reporter (Marc Cramer) is alternately horrified and charmed by him, as Karloff is polite.

Karloff tells Cramer that his wife is buried on an island nearby, and Cramer accompanies him for a visit to her grave. When Karloff arrives he finds his wife's coffin desecrated, her body gone. He looks for an answer and finds a home occupied by a Swiss archaeologist (Jason Robards Sr.), who is hosting a few other people, including an English couple (the husband is played by Alan Napier, who would go on to be Alfred the butler on Batman), the wife's caregiver (Elizabeth Drew), and an old woman who is full of old superstitions.

The old woman tells Karloff that Drew is a vorvolka, a myth of Greek folklore that is something like a vampire. Karloff laughs her off. But then another guest, an Englishman, dies of plague, and Karloff realizes he must quarantine the island. The remaining guests either wait to die or the wind to change, which will kill of the fleas that carry the disease.

The result is kind of a cross between an old-fashioned English mystery, with a house full of guests, and a sinister horror film, with Karloff growing ever crazier, as he starts to believe the old woman about Drew. Cramer, representing good old-fashioned American instincts, protects Drew (and puts the make on her at the same time--go Yank!)

As with the other Lewton films, Isle of the Dead isn't really about scares but more about an overwhelming sense of dread. You might jump or scream while watching it, but it may stick with you long after it's over. The use of light and shadow is also impeccable.

Sunday, May 29, 2011


Sofia Coppola's 2010 film Somewhere begins with a sports car doing laps around a circle, an apt metaphor for the driver, a movie star named Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff). He travels a lot, but he doesn't really go anywhere. Most of the time he lives in a fancy hotel, barely alive, seemingly without a hint of introspection.

Somewhere is an attractive but unsatisfactory film. It's really a movie about ennui, which is tough to pull off without putting an audience to sleep. I didn't fall asleep, but I was amazed at how slow-paced it was, and how long some of the takes are. The film is 97 minutes long, but there's only about 3o minutes of actual action. Coppola, in the supplemental materials, said she was unconcerned with such things as story line. Well, that's brave, but bravery alone is not enough.

The film lacks other things besides a plot. Dorff's character is really a non-entity, who has almost nothing interesting to say. Perhaps he's based on someone Coppola knows, but it's clearly not on someone with any special wit or charm. Most of what we see Dorff doing is staring off into space, or deciding whether to bed a woman. We get not one but two scenes of him watching twin pole-dancers perform for him in his room (if this were really a Hollywood story, they would have been naked).

The only thing that gives this film any juice is when Dorff's daughter (Elle Fanning) arrives for visits. She gives a guileless, absolutely winning performance. The plot doesn't really advance--we see them play Rock Band, she makes eggs Benedict, they go on a trip to Milan and attend an awards show, they go to Las Vegas, but it all doesn't add up to much. They care for each other, but there's no real conflict involved. Fanning's mother, who has some sort of problem, leaves her in Dorff's care for a while, and the girl is concerned her mother isn't coming back, but that's about all the drama this film has.

This is Coppola's third film in a row about someone who essentially lives in a hotel (Bill Murray in Lost in Translation, and Kirsten Dunst as Marie Antoinette, where Versailles was a special kind of hotel). Clearly that interests her, and the hotel here, the Chateau Marmont, which sits atop the Sunset Strip like a sentinel of old Hollywood, is almost a character in the film. The concept of living in a place like that, where everything is available with just a phone call, must interest Coppola, but Dorff's character is so blank a slate that it's hard to get involved. Only at the end of the film does he have any insight, and at that stage it's too late.

Given Coppola's pedigree, I imagine there's a lot of verisimilitude in this film, but that doesn't make it gripping. A movie about an interesting bad-boy actor, like Robert Downey Jr., would have been far more interesting.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

The Body Snatcher

The Body Snatcher, from 1945, is a dandy horror picture from producer Val Lewton and director Robert Wise. Though it does not use supernatural elements, it's more in the tradition of the classic Universal horror style, going so far as to use two of their mainstays, Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi (and would be the last to feature both of them).

Based on a story by Robert Louis Stevenson and set in Edinburgh in 1831, the film springboards from the notorious Burke and Hare murders of four years earlier. Karloff, a cabman, has a sideline of grave-robbing to supply bodies to a medical school run by Henry Daniell. Russell Wade, as Daniell's assistant, is uneasy about accepting stolen corpses, but Daniell tells him that until the laws are changed (they can only use the corpses of the executed) it's a necessity for medicine to advance.

We know Karloff is a baddie early on when he robs a grave and kills the little dog keeping vigil on top of it. After that, though, the graveyards are kept well-protected. Wade, hoping to help a little girl with a spinal tumor, unwittingly prompts Karloff to murder when he says they must have a specimen. Karloff realizes this method is a lot easier.

The film makes great use of dark shadows, and Karloff is at the top of his game, with his smiling villainy. Daniell is also terrific. He made a career of playing smooth-talking cads, but in this role we see the full scope of the man. He's a concerned doctor, but he rationalizes and compromises too much, and it ends up costing him.

There's a chilling scene in which Karloff, looking for a warm body, follows a street singer as she goes under a bridge. She retreats into darkness, and the cab follows her, also being swallowed in darkness. She is continually singing, until a few moments after we see nothing, her song is cut off--brilliantly done.

Friday, May 27, 2011

The Emperor of All Maladies

The Pulitzer Prize-winning "biography of cancer" by Siddharta Mukherjee is surprising lucid, even for the layman, but I must admit there were sections where the succession of different doctors and treatments piled too high for me to comprehend. But I did come away with an understanding of how cancer was first discovered, what causes it, and how it might be cured.

Cancer was given a name by Hippocrates, based on the word karkinos, Greek for crab, because some of the tumors resembled the crustacean (and is why one of the signs of the Zodiac is so named). The first recorded mention of it is a papyrus from Ancient Egypt, where a queen named Atossa is described as having something removed from her breast. But then there is a long silence about it in the record.

The early physician Galen though it was caused by melancholy, or black bile, but eventually, through the study of anatomists like Vesalius, no such black bile was found in the body. Doctors began making connections--in 18th century England a doctor noticed a high incidence of scrotal cancer among boys used as chimney sweeps, and thus the idea of a cancer-causing agent, a carcinogen, was conceived. Marie Curie, who made great breakthroughs in the study of radium, contracted leukemia, and watchmakers, who painted watch dials with radium, had high incidents of tongue cancer, from licking their paintbrushes.

What is cancer? Basically it's our bodies working too well, a mutated division of cells that grows tumors. It is something of a modern disease, a symptom of civilization, as in past generations other diseases, such as tuberculosis, small pox, pneumonia or many others, killed people before they could ever get cancer. Mukherjee also adds: "We tend to think of cancer as a 'modern' illness because its metaphors are so modern. It is a disease of overproduction, of fulminant growth--growth unstoppable, growth tipped into the abyss of of no control. Modern biology encourages us to imagine the cell as a molecular machine. Cancer is the machine unable to quench its initial command (to grow) and thus transformed into an indestructible, self-propelled automaton.

Mukherjee covers the disease from all angles, from the evolution of treatment, with both chemotherapy (in which it was discovered that a drug and be a poison and a poison can be drug) and radiation (oddly, of course, radiation can stem and cause cancer), and methods of surgery. William Halsted pioneered the radical mastectomy in the 19th century, where he would not only remove the breast but most of the muscle around it, to keep the cancer from coming back. This was seen in later years as barbaric, and more precise lumpectomies became the thing to do.

He also covers the efforts to raise money and awareness for cancer research, such as the Jimmy Fund, founded in Boston around a little boy, a Braves' fan, who had cancer. The charity is now associated with the Red Sox (after the Braves left town), and the boy's name wasn't Jimmy at all--it was Einar Gustafson, a name far less marketable. He also talks about a socialite named Mary Lasker, who worked tirelessly for cancer research, and took out full page ads urging President Nixon to treat cancer as the U.S. treated landing on the moon.

Mukherjee is an oncologist, and interrupts his narrative every so often to talk about real cases he has dealt with, which puts a human face on the subject. He's also something of a lexicographer, outlining the derivation of certain words, such as oncology comes from the Greek word onkos, meaning "mass" or "burden," and palliative comes from the Latin for "cloak."

All of this is fascinating, but the best chapters were on the eventual linking of tobacco to lung cancer. It's been told before, but Mukherjee tells the tale in lively prose. Two studies came out in the mid-50s making the connection, when cigarette smoking was at its most popular--45% of Americans had the habit. Of course the tobacco industry fought hard, but they've been losing the battle ever since, especially when a court case proved that they withheld data that showed that they knew of the link and covered it up.

Cancer has declined precipitously in the last twenty years, mainly due to lower numbers of smokers and the development of cancer screening mechanisms, but Mukherjee doesn't see the possibility of a sure-fire cure on the horizon. But he certainly remains hopeful.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

I Walked With a Zombie

I Walked With a Zombie, from 1943, was Val Lewton's second picture, and as with Cat People it was directed by Jacques Tourneur. As usual, Lewton was given a title and then had free rein to create a story--this one has echoes of Jane Eyre.

Frances Dee plays a young Canadian nurse who takes a job on a Caribbean island where she is to attend to the wife of an aristocrat. He's Tom Conway (the psychologist in Cat People), who strikes me as the poor man's David Niven. Conway's wife seem to be catatonic--she wanders the halls of the tower connected to Conway's mansion, where Dee finds her and screams.

Conway has a half-brother, James Ellison, and it seems there was a love triangle between the brothers and the wife, and it's possible that the wife is now a zombie, both dead and alive (she is not in any way similar to the George Romero, brain-eating zombies we know today--she just stares straight ahead). Dee attempts to cure her by taking her to the locals who practice voodoo, to no avail.

This film has a lot of creepy atmosphere, but not a lot of frights. It is, however, very respectful of the Afro-Caribbean culture and voodoo in general. There's lots of talk how the island was populated by slaves, and their misery still haunts the place (a figurehead from a slave ship, a sculpted St. Sebastian, is a promiment bit of the scenery).

The only really unnerving aspect of the film is an actor named Darby Jones, who plays a tall, lanky, and scary-looking native, with bugged out eyes and a hungry look. He so resembles the current actor Orlando Jones I wonder if there's a relation.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Scarlet Street

The history of Film Noir is littered with poor dumb saps who end up wrapped around the finger of a conniving woman. The most famous are probably Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity and John Garfield in The Postman Always Rings Twice, in which both guys end up murdering for their femme fatale. But one of the most pathetic dupes in noir has to be Edward G. Robinson in the lesser known, but subtly powerful Scarlet Street.

Noir was inspired by the German Expressionists, and Scarlet Street was directed by one of the greatest of the German Expressionists, Fritz Lang. The DVD I saw has a terrible print, but I could still detect some of the genius of Lang, particularly of scenes on the shadowy streets of Greenwich Village, or the ending, with Robinson haunted by his own demons in a cheap hotel.

Robinson is Chris Cross, a meek, lovelorn cashier. At the film's outset he receives a gold watch for 25 years of service, and he gets tipsy on champagne. Walking through the Village on his way to the subway, he sees a woman being accosted. With impulsive bravery, he beats off the attacker with his umbrella, and becomes smitten with the woman, Kitty March (Joan Bennett). There are a few problems: Robinson is married to a shrew, and the man beating up Bennett was her boyfriend, Dan Duryea.

Robinson is a Sunday painter, and because he is reluctant to tell Bennett what he really does, she assumes he's a rich and famous artist. Duryea, not angry or jealous in the least, encourages Bennett to get money from Robinson. The old man is so in love with her that he steals his wife's first husband's insurance money. Later he will steal from his firm.

Things progress from bad to worse when Duryea passes Robinson's paintings off as March's. The ending comes as quite a shock, and though the film is an old one I won't spoil it here, except to say that there are a couple of deaths.

Robinson is very effective as the hen-pecked dreamer (he wears an apron while washing dishes, a cinematic representation of emasculation--see Jim Backus in Rebel Without a Cause). Bennett is also good as the reluctant golddigger. But I really liked Duryea, who though now largely forgotten, was a mainstay supporting actor in noir films of the 1940s, and starred in a very good one, Black Angel.

This film is further reinforcement that if you're an old, ugly guy, don't believe it if a young girl shows an interest, especially if she asks you for money.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011


I've crossed off another Oscar-nominated film off my list. I think the only one I have left is The Tempest (which was nominated for Best Costumes), excluding the Best Foreign Language films. Last night I saw Tangled, which had a Best Song nomination.

Tangled is Disney's 50th animated feature, and if you're doubtful of that, they include a special feature on the DVD that, in under two minutes, counts them all down with a short clip from each one. They don't, however, provide the titles, so there's that dubious era of The Black Cauldron, The Great Mouse Detective, and The Rescuers Down Under where I couldn't quite identify them all.

Tangled, while not in the league of films during the Disney renaissance of Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King, would certainly be in the top half. It's unusual in that it basically centers around three characters. The last film, The Princess and the Frog, suffered from too many characters, but this one has three human beings and one nonspeaking chameleon to worry about, which makes the action streamlined and less trying for an adult, as the goofy sidekicks are left out.

Based on the Grimm fairy-tale of Rapunzel, the film is about a mean old lady who kidnaps a princess because her hair has magic properties that keep her forever young. The old lady keeps her locked in a tower, and the girl knows no other life that what's in that tower. Her hair, which never must be cut or it will lose its power, has grown long enough to reach the ground from the tower window, and she uses it to haul her faux mother up and down. But Rapunzel, despite longing to visit the world, stays inside.

Then a roguish thief, fleeing the law (led by a horse who seems to think he's a dog) stumbles upon the tower and climbs up inside. After Rapunzel hits him over the head a few times with a frying pan, he agrees to take her out of the tower. The two will of course be attracted to each other, Rapunzel will find her rightful parents, and the old lady will be defeated, and none of that is a spoiler to anyone who has ever seen a Disney film.

The music, by the venerable Alan Menken, is pretty good. The nominated song, "I See the Light," should have won this year, even though Menken has already won something like eight Oscars. There's also a lively number in a rough-and-tumble bar where barbarians and thugs sing about their dreams--one fellow with a hook for a hand wants to be a concert pianist, another wants to be a mime.

The three principle voice actors are all fine, with Broadway star Donna Murphy doing a great job as the wicked old crone. Pop star Mandy Moore is Rapunzel, and Zachary Levi, previously unknown to me, is the thief.

I should add, from my position as dirty old man, that Rapunzel is perhaps the hottest animated character in a nonadult cartoon since Jessica Rabbit, and for my taste, she's even hotter. She looks like she should be strolling around the Playboy mansion. I also think the animator of her character has a foot fetish. She's always barefoot, gets a lot of close-ups of her feet, and they are just about perfect.

Monday, May 23, 2011

The Curse of the Cat People

Val Lewton knew how to keep moviegoers guessing--he made a sequel to Cat People in 1944, but it has no cat people. In fact, it has only one shot of a cat, but that was added weeks after production stopped because someone noticed there were no cats.

Instead he made an entirely different type of film that may have disappointed the horror fan, but it's very intriguing. It's more of a dark fantasy, with a ghost, a dark old house, and a mad but kindly old woman. I think it stuck with me more than Cat People did.

The same characters return. Kent Smith is Oliver Reed, now married to Alice (Jane Randolph). They have a young daughter, Amy, (Ann Carter, in an eerily dead-on performance), who is a dreamer and loner. Smith is worried that Amy is going to be consumed by her overactive imagination, which he believed happened to his first wife, Irena, and her cat people delusion (which of course was real).

Amy, longing for friends, makes one with a dotty old woman, a former actress. She dotes on Amy, but ignores her own daughter, insisting that her actual daughter died at the age of six. This naturally gives the daughter a sour disposition and a resentment of Amy.

But the real spookiness gets started when a ring given to Amy by the old lady turns out to have magic powers. She makes a wish for a friend, and gets one--the ghost of Irena (Simone Simon), who appears to her in the garden, dressed like a princess. When Smith finds out about this, he's naturally perturbed and doesn't believe her.

For a film from 1944, this film is remarkably adept at exploring the fantasies and dangers of childhood. I can't say enough about Carter, who was only seven when she made this film, but perfectly captures the kind of kid who would rather chase a butterfly than play with other children.

The film was co-directed by Gunther V. Fritsch and Robert Wise, yes the Robert Wise, who took over when Fritsch ran behind schedule. It was Wise's first directorial credit in what would a long, distinguished career.

Sunday, May 22, 2011


Inspired by reading about Cleopatra awhile back, I moved up the HBO series Rome in my Netflix queue and I have just concluded watching the first series. For the most part I enjoyed it, though I wasn't bowled over by it.

The series covers the period from when Julius Caesar (Ciaran Hinds) defeats the Gauls to a certain ides of March. The big names are all on hand, such as Mark Antony, Pompey, Cato, Cicero, Octavian, Brutus, and Cassius, but the focus of the series is on two common soldiers, Lucius Varenus (Kevin McKidd), a straight-arrow, and Titus Pullo (Ray Stevenson), a roguish miscreant. They are both members of the legendary 13th Legion, and keep finding themselves crossing paths with history.

As the series begins, Caesar has been waging war for eight years, and Varenus returns to his wife, who wasn't sure if he was dead or alive. She's had a child with her brother-in-law, but tells Varenus it's their daughter's child. Pullo drinks and gambles, but falls in love with a slave woman, and hopes to settle down with her, but things take a bad turn.

Meanwhile, Caesar is declared an enemy of the Roman people by his former comrade, Pompey. The two go to war, and Caesar, a military genius, wins despite being vastly outnumbered. Back in Rome, there's a subtler war going on, between Caesar's nice Atia (Polly Walker) and Brutus' mother Servilia (Lindsay Duncan), who was Caesar's mistress but is cast aside when Atia hires men to spread gossip about the affair.

Cleopatra appears in only one episode, when Caesar visits Egypt. She is played by a young woman who appears could have been in The Runaways, and is portrayed as the bewitching seductress that Stacy Schiff's book tried to eradicate. Nevertheless, in a bit of artistic license, it is suggested that the son borne to her by Caesar was really fathered by Pullo.

This is all mostly good fun, but at times the action dragged a bit. I found Vorenus to be an uninteresting character, mostly because Pullo is so fascinating. His character arc is most enjoyable, and he has the last shot of the season, which is very touching. The stuff with Caesar and the Senate is also very good, as Hinds brilliantly portrays the general turned tyrant, with an air of authority and composure. His epilepsy, a historical truth, is mentioned only once, and Hinds may have too good a head of hair to play Caesar, as it has recently come to light that he may have invented the comb-over.

The assassination scene is a risky thing to attempt, since most literate people know Shakespeare's play. The intriguing thing in Rome is that is Servilia who is pulling the strings. The writers do not have Caesar saying, "Et tu, Brute?" as Brutus lands the last blow, and the season ends before Mark Antony's funeral oration. I'm interested to see how they handle that in season two.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Cat People

Finally making it to the top of my Netflix queue is the Val Lewton Horror Collection, a set of nine brooding horror films that the producer made for RKO films during the 1940s. His first is probably his most famous, Cat People.

In 1942 RKO was reeling from the financial losses that Citizen Kane was piling up, and turned to Lewton to make a series of B-horror pictures. With Jacques Tourneur directing, they hit upon an interesting style of horror--all of it suggested, rather than seen (there's a scene in The Bad and the Beautiful in which Kirk Douglas, playing a producer, does the same thing after seeing the ludicrous costumes his monsters are supposed to wear).

Cat People thus is a much more psychological horror film, although it seems laughably tame to today's moviegoers, who are used to seeing blood-splattered gore. A remake of the film, released in 1982, added carnage (I still vividly remember the scene in which Ed Begley Jr. gets his arm ripped off by a panther), but if it were remade today we'd get CGI effects of a woman turning into a cat.

The story of Cat People is simple. A young Serbian woman (Simone Simon), is drawn to the panther cage at the zoo. She meets a stolid young man, named Oliver Reed (a delicious coincidence), played by Kent Smith. They fall in love, but she will not kiss him. She tells him stories about her old village, where Satan worshipers fled into the hills and became "cat people." She fears that she is one of them, and any emotion, whether it's anger, jealousy, or even love, will bring out the beast in her.

Smith marries her anyway, and in an unintentionally funny scene Simon tells him that she wishes she could be Mrs. Reed in every way possible. We later see they have separate bedrooms, so poor Oliver must have quite the set of blue balls.

Of course this is all about the fear of female sexuality, a rather quaint notion even for 1942. It also contains a typical, for the time period, mistrust of psychiatry, as she goes to see a doctor (Tom Conway), who is a silver-tongued masher. The feline connection is also used to blunt effect when Smith becomes involved with a co-worker (Jane Randolph), and the two women are, in effect, having a "cat fight."

This leads to Cat People's most effective scene, and the one in which it's best remembered for (the scene was duplicated in the '82 film). Randolph is alone in a darkened swimming pool, and hears something like the growling of a large cat. Nothing is seen except dancing shadows on the walls and water, but the lighting is so well done that we don't need to see a cat--the effect is accomplished in our imaginations.

Cat People was a big money-maker, and though it seems dated it has its charms. I doubt it would scare anybody today, but the techniques used are still relevant and intriguing.

Friday, May 20, 2011

The New Yorker Stories

The New Yorker Stories, by Ann Beattie, is just what it sounds like: a collection of all of her stories published in that august magazine, from 1974 to 2006. I think I went about reading it the wrong way, though it was from necessity; since I checked the book out from the library I had a limited time to read the 48 stories contained within, so I had to read them in bunches. Ideally, they should have been read one per day. When reading them in bunches, they tend to blur into one, negating some of the effect.

Beattie is known for a certain style--an eye surgeon's skill at portraying detailed sketches of life among a certain kind of quasi-bohemian slackers. This is very true of her 70s stuff, which has a hold over from the hippie 60s. It was interesting to see her work change over the years, as her last few stories were about older people dealing with elderly parents or irresponsible children.

As I look back over the book a few stories stand out. From the early work I enjoyed "Wanda's," in which a young child is sort of kidnapped by her father while staying with her mother's friend. In a similar vein, "The Cinderella Waltz" deals with a girl who lives with her mother, as her father has moved in with another man. The mother is friendly with her ex-husband's lover, and an interesting family dynamic is established.

Many of her early stories don't have much plot to speak of, but her later work is more complex, story-wise. "Second Question" is about AIDS, and heaves with empathy, while two terrific stories from the new millennium deal with daughters and their troublesome mothers. "Find and Replace" has a woman shocked to hear her widowed mother is going to move in with another man (and has a lot of computer jargon, which is interesting since when Beattie began writing stories there was no such thing as e-mail), and "The Rabbit Hole as Likely Explanation" has a woman trying to cope with a mother who has dementia from a stroke.

The last story, "The Confidence Decoy," is a wonderful shaggy-dog tale about a man and his strange encounter with a couple of moving men, and his son's girlfriend's experience on a crashed plane.

Many of the stories, as I look back on the table of contents, are forgettable, but again, I think that's because I had to rush through the book. If I read three stories in succession, by the third I was running out of steam. I did mark a few lines that made me stop and admire: "She...found that she didn't mind literature if she could just read it and not have to think about it," or similes like "The bartender passed by by, clutching beer bottles by their necks as if they were birds he had shot."

Beattie is also a stickler for detail. A typical opening is this one, from "Gravity:" "My favorite jacket was bought at L.L. Bean. It got from Maine to Atlanta, where an ex-boyfriend of mine found it at a thrift shop and bought it for my birthday. It was a little tight for him, but he was wearing it when he saw me. He said that if I had not complimented him on the jacket he would just have kept it. In the pocket I found an amyl nitrate and a Hershey's Kiss. The candy was put there deliberately." Those few sentences are so fraught with possibility it's hard to know where the story will go--it's as if the story were spring-loaded.

My advice to those who favor minimalist American short fiction is to definitely seek this book out, but savor it. Read a story every few days, but do read them in order, and follow the progression of an artist as she ages.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Glass Menagerie

I'm continuing my celebration of the centennial of the birth of Tennessee Williams by looking at his first hit, The Glass Menagerie (for those interested, my discussion of A Streetcar Named Desire can be found here). It is my personal favorite of his plays (though I can't say I've read them all, not yet), and his least controversial, probably the only one that could be on my school groups without an eyebrow being raised.

The play was first produced in 1944, though the major elements of it were contained in a short story that Williams wrote. It is intensely personal--the narrator is Tom Wingfield (Tom being Williams' real first name) and the character of Amanda Wingfield is modeled after his mother, and Laura is clearly his sister.

Tom describes the play as a memory, and in most productions the lines between reality and dramatic license are scrubbed. In the official published version, Williams includes the screen titles that were to be flashed onto a scrim, but he indicates these were not included in the original Broadway production. They are a bit much, such as when Laura is under stress we see the word "Terror!" on the screen--that is a bit much.

But what is so palpable about the play is the heartbreak that still can be felt, even almost seventy years later. The story is simple--Tom, now in the Merchant Marines, remembers a time in 1936, when he lived with his mother and sister. He worked in a shoe factory, but dreamed of becoming a writer (he would end up getting fired for writing a poem on a shoebox lid). Laura is a recluse, shy and considering herself a cripple (one leg is shorter than the other). She plays old records and tends to her collection of glass animals--her glass menagerie.

Dominating the action is Amanda, their flamboyant mother, who is trapped in a nostalgic past of the Old South. She constantly refers to the old days, especially an afternoon when she entertained seventeen gentleman callers. She tells Laura to be prepared for her own callers, though it's clear to everyone but Amanda that no one is going to call on Laura.

Amanda asks Tom to ask around at the shoe warehouse for a single man, and he finds one, Jim O'Connor, whom Williams describes as "a nice, ordinary young man." It turns out that Laura knew Jim in high school, and she had a crush on him. He called her "Blue Roses," mishearing her when she said she missed school because of pleurosis (Williams' sister, who was lobotomized and institutionalized, was named Rose).

The scene between Jim and Rose, when they sit and talk by candlelight (Tom has forgotten to pay the light bill) is so tender and emotional that it's almost too much to bear, especially when Jim tells her that he is engaged to be married.

Tom speaks of his father, who has abandoned the family but is represented by a portrait on the upstage wall, as a "telephone man who fell in love with long distances; he gave up his job with the telephone company and skipped the light fantastic out of town..." (Williams' father did not abandon the family, though he and his mother divorced when Williams was an adult, but his father did not approve of his career choice and the two were estranged for many years).

There is also just a hint of Williams' homosexuality, perhaps only visible in hindsight. Amanda asks him where he goes every night, and he says the movies, because he likes to see people have adventures. But one wonders whether that's a cover-up for something more debauched.

The original production starred Laurette Taylor, a celebrated stage actress who at the time was thought to be a hopeless drunk. She pulled it together, though, and her portrayal of Amanda was considered to be one of the greatest Broadway performances of the age. I saw the play on Broadway almost twenty years ago, with Jessica Tandy as Amanda and Amanda Plummer as Laura. I found Tandy to be a little stuffy in the role, but my memory of it is colored by my getting mugged just before I entered the theater.

It is difficult not to be moved by this play, particularly the last lines, which Tom speaks while Amanda and Laura are in the background, miming a conversation in candlelight: "Oh, Laura, Laura, I tried to leave you behind me, but I am more faithful then I intended to be! I reach for a cigarette, I cross the street, I run into the movies or a bar, I buy a drink, I speak to the nearest stranger--anything that can blow your candles out! (Laura, in the background, bends over the candles). For nowadays the world is lit by lightning! Blow out your candles, Laura--and say goodbye.... (She blows the candles out).

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Welcome to the Rileys

I liked Welcome to the Rileys. It's well acted, written, and directed, and has a heart to it. I was genuinely engaged in the plot and was unsure how it would end. I will admit, though, there is something unsavory about the whole thing.

James Gandolfini and Melissa Leo star as a couple who have been married for 30 years. They grieve for a teenage daughter who died in a car wreck. Leo has responded by refusing to leave the house, while Gandolfini has fallen into an affair with a waitress. When the waitress dies, Gandolfini is completely bereft.

A plumbing supplies salesman, he attends a convention in New Orleans and to get away from the glad-handing he ducks into a seedy strip club. He meets a dancer (Kristen Stewart) who appears to be too young, but to avoid conventioneers he accompanies her to the V.I.P. room. When he shows no interest in her sexually, she suspects him of being a cop.

In a nice movie convention, they run into each other at a diner and he drives her home. He finds she lives in squalor, and his paternal instincts kick in. She becomes a surrogate for his dead daughter, and he calls his wife, tells her he's not coming home for a while, and sets to taking care of Stewart.

Of course he doesn't touch her, despite her willingness. This is where my creep-meter kicked in. I have no idea of the motivation of writer Ken Hixon, but it sounds like a male fantasy dressed in sheep's clothing. As a guy who has spent more time than I'd like to admit in strip clubs, the idea of taking one of them home and being a sugar daddy is very appealing, especially if they looked like Stewart. Hixon, though, is careful to turn this into a movie about a different kind of family, but it's hard to watch without wondering how Gandolfini, despite assigning Stewart the role of his daughter, wouldn't have a temptation to touch her.

Also, his decision to enter the dark doorway of the strip club is never fully explained. Once in the place he has no interest in looking at the dancers, and his character is not established as that kind of guy, so why did he do it? Well, he had to, to meet Stewart, but it doesn't add up.

Aside from that, it's a well-done film. It was directed by Jake Scott, son of Ridley, who uses the New Orleans locations well. Gandolfini is his typically excellent self, and Leo is also good. In fact, this was the best performance she gave last year, much more interesting and subtle that the screaming and hand-waving she did in The Fighter.

But the revelation here is Stewart. Apparently she was cast in this role before Twilight, and it's the best performance I've seen her give. Her combination of anger and vulnerability as a sixteen-year-old runaway who strips and turns tricks is so raw and powerful it gave me goosebumps. When the Twilight series is over I hope she branches out and does more interesting work like this one.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Let Me In

I found the most interesting thing about the DVD of Let Me In on the supplemental materials. The director, Matt Reeves, spoke of how he was moved by the original novel in Swedish, Let the Right One In, by John Ajvide Lindqvist. Reeves said the book reminded him of his own childhood (sans vampires) and that Lindqvist was excited to have Reeves direct, since he loved Cloverfield.

No where in this seventeen-minutes Behind the Scenes was a mention of Tomas Alfredson, who happened to make the first movie based on the novel. The existence of the movie was completely glossed over. I wouldn't mind so much, except that Reeves has essentially made a shot-by-shot remake of that Swedish film.

Why do such a thing? Well, I guess it's for the people in the English-speaking world who don't want to read subtitles. Reeves really adds nothing to the story, except to Americanize it he embosses the story with a layer of the American zeal for religion. An early scene has Ronald Reagan (it's set in 1983) quote de Tocqueville about the passion in America's churches, and the young boy's mother is a Jesus freak. Of course, this stuff wouldn't play in secular Sweden.

Who is the boy? Well, he's a twelve-year old, Owen, and he's the kind of kid who's always playing by himself and getting picked on. He has a dark streak, and is attracted to knives. When a father and daughter move in next door, he makes friends with the girl, Abby, even though she says they can't be friends. She's never seen in daylight, and goes barefoot even in the snow.

It becomes clear soon that she is a vampire, and that her father (Richard Jenkins) is a caretaker who goes out and kills people to get their blood. The relationship between the two is much more spelled out in the American version, which makes the ending much less ambiguous.

As I said in my review of Let the Right One In, this is a film about the despair of adolescence. Romeo and Juliet is used as a theme, but Abby's sexuality is, befitting an American film, not touched upon (the Swedish film gives a shot of her absence of sexual parts, which the American film only hints at). Abby becomes Owen's protector, and his bullies get their just desserts in a climax in a swimming pool, that is shot exactly the way Alfredson shot it.

Watching this film was different than watching most films, because it soon became clear that nothing was going to be different about it (I have faint memory of a scene with cats in the Swedish film that is missing here). Otherwise, every plot point is the same, and scenes are framed in exactly the same manner. It appears Reeves storyboarded using the original.

That isn't a crime, or a terrible thing. This film isn't any worse than the original. It's atmospheric, and the children (Kodi Smit-McPhee and Chloe Grace Moretz) are fine, though not quite as startling as the Swedish cast.

The only reason this film was made was to try to cash in, as will the upcoming Stieg Larsson adaptations. I have a feeling, though, that David Fincher won't cop out and make a shot-by-shot remake.

Monday, May 16, 2011


Okay, I laughed at Bridesmaids, and found it funny enough to give a passing grade. But as the film recedes in my memory (I saw it on Saturday) I find myself remembering the things that annoyed me more than those that amused me.

The talk about this film seems to center on how this is a raunchy, rude comedy that features women, and women seem to have responded in kind by attending in great numbers. Fair enough, but is it a mark of pride to know that women can projectile vomit and get diarrhea? It reminds me of the old Virginia Slims ads, that told women they'd "Come a long way, Baby," by being able to smoke cigarettes.

The film's heroine is Kristen Wiig, as a woman who is so pathetic it borders on the pathological. I've liked Wiig in many small parts, but to get the lead she had to co-write this one. We start by seeing her in sex scenes with Jon Hamm, and I suppose if I were a woman writing a film, I'd write that in, too. Anyway, Hamm is just a fuck-buddy, though she would like a relationship, even if he is an tool.

Wiig's best friend since childhood, Maya Rudolph, announces her engagement and asks Wiig to be her maid of honor. The conflict in the film will come when a more recent friend of Rudolph's, the seemingly perfect Rose Byrne, worms her way in and pushes Wiig aside. There is a funny scene in which the two try to one-up each other by giving speeches at the engagement party.

It's a good set-up, and there are plenty of laughs (the one I may have appreciated the most may fly under the radar of most--it's a reference to a Brady Bunch episode). But the film just tries too damn hard. Wiig, for example, is such a sad sack--over the course of the film she will lose her job, get kicked out of her apartment, get removed from an airplane, and ruin Rudolph's bridal shower. When Rudolph ends up kicking her out of her wedding, the sane audience member would heartily agree.

The film also does not completely avoid "chick flick" cliches. We get not one but two baking montages (Wiig is a terrific baker) and has an idealized Prince Charming (an Irish cop, in Milwaukee. of all places) who is perfect for Wiig if only she'd realize it.

I was also alternately baffled and charmed by the bridesmaid played by Melissa McCarthy, a rotund actress who plays the groom's brother. I think what was intended was an alternative to the usual fat-girl sidekick roles in films like these, and McCarthy ends up playing a ballsy, outspoken, crude, sexually hungry woman. Some of that works, and she has some great lines, such "I love my brother, but let's face it, he's an asshole." McCarthy gives it her all, but at times they push the envelope too far, such as her blocking the aisle on a plane in front of a man and raising her leg in a provocative manner. Really?

I should also note the appearance of Jill Clayburgh as Wiig's mother. This must have been her last film, and it's sad to watch, as she does not look well.

Bridesmaids is moderately amusing, with some genuine belly laughs. If women want to have their own Hangover, I suppose this will do, but somehow I think this won't end up being the most culturally significant thing to occur this year.

My grade for Bridesmaids: C+

Sunday, May 15, 2011

In and Out of Control

I love the sound of The Raveonettes, a Danish rock duo. I have just exhaustively listened to their 2009 album, In and Out of Control, and exult in being surrounded by the lushness of their sound, which combines the power-pop of 60s' Phil Spector with a kind of art-rock experimentalism of groups like The Velvet Underground.

One thing I really didn't catch while listening to it in the car, though, was what the lyrics were about. Most of the songs are up-tempo, but the subject matters are mostly dark and downright sinister. Some of the songs are obvious in this regard, such as "Boys Who Rape (Should All Be Destroyed)," a peppy number that comes down squarely on not giving rapists much of a second chance. But other songs that I thought were innocuous, like the sublime "Last Dance," is actually about a woman singing to her mate, who is a drug addict: "Everytime you overdose/I rush you to intensive care/Another sad-eyed stare/Before you disappear."

Some this gets heavy-handed, and the lyrics appear to have been endorsed by a civic group, such as "Suicide," an anti-suicide plea, and "D.R.U.G.S.," which closes with: "You're off your head, you look like a corpse/Milk-white face like the saddest moon." The song "Break Up Girls!" deals with domestic violence, but I find to be relevant and not patronizing: "Bunny Girls slapped found/You like boys to control you/Hit me please me strike me again/Sadistic girls I don't get you."

The Raveonettes are Sune Rose Wagner on lead guitar and Sharin Foo on bass. They have wonderful harmonies together, and Wagner's guitar, when utilizing extra reverb, makes some songs sound really cool, especially "Heart of Stone" and "Breaking Into Cars." But the best song on the album is the opener, the absolutely infectious "Bang," which has a more hopeful refrain of "Kids want to bop/Out in the street/Fu-fu-fun/All summer long."

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Catch-22 (the Film)

After reading Catch-22 again I thought I'd take another look at the film version, which was released in 1970. I saw it years ago, but with the book fresh in my mind it was interesting to see how the adaptation was handled.

It must have been highly anticipated, as it was directed by Mike Nichols, who was one of the pre-eminent Hollywood directors. The script was written by Buck Henry, who also wrote The Graduate.

The result was a critical and financial failure, with most people coming to the conclusion that the book was unfilmable. I would tend to agree, as it is very episodic in nature and most of the humor is verbal. Nichols and Henry, while attempting to assemble some sort of plot, jettisoned a lot of the comic set pieces, and the result is a dour, unpleasant war film that kind of misses what Heller was trying to say.

Most of everything in the film was in the book, but out of necessity of time there are dozens of characters cut. We have Yossarian, of course (Alan Arkin), and two of the evil colonels (Martin Balsam and Henry). Milo Minderbinder (Jon Voight) is featured prominently, and his bombing of his base turns out to be a major plot point.

What is lost is the Carrollignian quality of the absurdity of military bureaucracy. Clevinger's trial and the inquisition of the Chaplain (here played by Anthony Perkins) are cut. Instead the focus is on Yossarian's outrage over having to fly more missions. There are many shots of planes taking off, perhaps the producers not wanting to waste that they got the use of so many vintage aircraft.

For one of my favorite books to be turned into such a flat, humorless film is a damn shame. I wonder if it's possible to capture the essence of the book in something visual--maybe in a miniseries, but not in two hours. I did like Arkin, who expresses outrage well (as he would so wonderfully in The In-Laws).

There are also a number of young actors in the film before they were famous, like Martin Sheen and Bob Balaban, and a certain Arthur Garfunkel as Nately, who's not bad.

The film has had some reappraisals and appreciation in hindsight, but I don't share it. This thing was really a turkey. It didn't help that the far superior M*A*S*H was released the same year. It's kind of interesting that the TV show of M*A*S*H ended up being a better representation of Catch-22's theme--the futility of reasoning with the military brass.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Country Strong

As I engage in my strange obsession with seeing all films that receive Oscar nominations, I end up seeing movies I ordinarily would never see. Country Strong is one of them. I don't care for country music, at least the currently popular kind, with guys who have never ridden a horse wearing cowboy hats. I like old country, like Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, and Willie Nelson, but I think country was ruined by Garth Brooks and is now full of posers.

Anyway, my personal prejudices aside, there's no reason a movie about country music can't be interesting. This one is not. It seems like a vanity project for star Gwyneth Paltrow, allowing her to sing and go on mascara-running crying jags, and stumbling about in alcoholic stupors, as if begging for an award nomination (which she didn't get). What's fascinating is that the movie is almost stolen away from her by Leighton Meester. This film reinforced by little crush on her, and convinced me she can actually act.

Paltrow is a big country star in rehab. Her cold-blooded, bottom-line husband (Tim McGraw), who is also her manager, gets her out early. She has started an affair with an orderly (Garrett Hedlund), who also plays old-style country in small venues. McGraw, not liking Hedlund very much, hires him to be an opening act for Paltrow's comeback tour, because he thinks he can keep an eye on her. Also hired to be on the bill is Meester, who presents an innocent, beauty-pageant image and hopes to be the next Carrie Underwood. Hedlund, who doesn't like her (at first) calls her a "country Barbie," and she takes it as a compliment.

So then we get all the showbiz movie cliches. Paltrow breaks down in her first concert. Hedlund and Meester eventually become attracted to each other. McGraw and Paltrow wonder where the spark went out of their marriage. None of it is original, but Meester's character and performance kept me interested, as she gave a nice spin to the typical role of a person who wants fame at any cost. The character could have been a stereotype, but Meester gave her additional depth.

As for the rest, blah. I'm not sure why Hedlund is such a flavor of the month. Here and in Tron: Legacy he didn't show me much charisma.

The film was written and directed by Shana Feste, and oddly enough, co-produced by Tobey Maguire.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond

While reading the biography of Tennessee Williams, a screenplay that he worked on for a long while was mentioned. Called The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond, it was began in 1957 but never produced in his lifetime.

A filmmaker named Jodie Markell, a Williams aficionado, discovered the screenplay and it was released in 2009. It's full of familiar Williams themes, such as a strong yet vulnerable female lead, a disaffected man who doesn't know his own heart, and even a visit to a woman in a mental institution, echoing the real situation of Williams' sister Rose.

The story is set in Memphis in the 1920s. Fisher Willow (Bryce Dallas Howard) is a socialite, educated in Europe, but feels out of place in the strict world of her class. Her aunt (an unrecognizable Ann-Margret) wants her to make the round of debutante balls and "come out." Not wanting to miss out on her inheritance, Howard agrees, and turns to an old friend, Chris Evans, to be her chaperone.

Evans, the grandson of a former governor, has been reduced to poverty because of his father's alcoholism (it's his mother that's institutionalized). He agrees to escort Howard to parties, but comes to resent it, feeling like a hired hand. Howard is attracted to Evans, but he is not particularly attracted to her. I thought this might be due to repressed homosexuality, a common Williams theme, but the only inkling of that is when Evans slugs a man who gives him a funny look in the men's room.

The last section of the film is a long sequence at a Halloween party. Howard loses one of her aunt's teardrop diamond earrings, worth $5,000 each, and this sets off a chain of disturbing events. Evans flirts with a mean-spirited woman (an excellent performance by Jessica Collins), and Howard is urged to help an old, bed-bound woman (Ellen Burstyn, in a gripping cameo) commit suicide.

The ending is much more optimistic than Williams usually writes, and seems out of place. Also, Markell says on the DVD extras that Howard was the first choice for the role, and that she's the best actress of her generation. That's a mind-boggling statement, and I found Howard to be the weakest part of the film.

I did like this film, though. It's a must for Williams scholars and completists, but anyone enjoying a period drama with sharply-drawn characters should enjoy it.

Monday, May 09, 2011


Agora is an ambitious, sumptuous film that is far more cerebral than most films you'll stumble upon. I was sorry, then, that I didn't like it more. It was interesting, but it wasn't moving.

Set in the 4th Century A.D. in an Alexandria that is ruled by a weakening Roman Empire, Agora is the story of Hypatia, a woman who calls herself a philosopher, though she teaches more than that. She's got a bead on theories that wouldn't be proved for more than a thousand years by the likes of Copernicus, Kepler, and Newton.

She's loved by two men. One is her student and an aristocrat who later becomes prefect (Oscar Isaac); the other is her slave (Max Minghella). But she will never marry--as her father (Michael Lonsdale) points out, if she marries she would have to give up her science.

While all this is going on a seismic shift is taking place. Christians, once outlawed, have gained the upper hand, due to the conversion of Constantine. They have the gumption to start toppling the statues of Roman gods, and eventually force everyone to convert. Hypatia won't, though, and is branded a witch for her heretical views, such as a heliocentric solar system.

All of this is interesting intellectually, but I just never got into the film. Everything looks right, and Rachel Weisz is terrific as Hypatia (who was a real person from history). How many actresses get to play a scene where they get excited figuring out the Earth travels around the sun in an ellipse? This film could be screened in history or astronomy classes, with a spirited discussion to follow, but as a straightforward cinematic entertainment I found it dragged and grew frequently impatient.

I note on Wikipedia that some Christian groups objected. I can see why--they are depicted almost entirely without benefit, and as nothing more than an ignorant, intolerant mob.

Sunday, May 08, 2011


I was a big reader of Marvel Comics when I was a kid (hell, I was still reading them into my thirties), but I never took to Thor. He was just a bit too silly, and like Doctor Strange, it was just too weird for my tastes. I liked my superheroes more Earthbound.

So when I heard they were finally getting around to making a Thor movie, I didn't hold out much hope. He is pretty silly, wearing a cape and a Viking helmet, wielding a big hammer. Therefore I was pleasantly surprised by the result, which is a film that has its fair share of silliness, but is also brimming with old-fashioned fun.

The director is Kenneth Branagh, one of the unlikeliest pairings of director and subject matter in recent years. A man best known for Shakespeare has given Thor a Shakespearean gloss--there's a rivalry between two brothers to succeed an aging king--but this isn't dark stuff like a Christopher Nolan Batman film. Branagh has mercifully given the film a light touch, more like the Iron Man films, but with a better flair than Jon Favreau could ever hope for.

Thor is, of course, the God of Thunder and son of Odin, who rules Asgard. The Norse gods have withdrawn from Earth, leaving themselves as myths. Instead they hold an uneasy truce with the Frost Giants, a creepy bunch who can turn people to ice (Colm Feore plays their king, with a voice reminding me of Lurch from The Addams Family). Thor, who is heir to the throne, is bellicose, and is goaded by his brother Loki to defy Odin and attack the Frost guys. This angers Odin so much that he removes Thor's powers and casts him out of the kingdom.

He lands in New Mexico, where he meets a trio of scientists, led by Natalie Portman. This middle act, with Thor acting as a fish out of water, has its moments of humor, but it dragged in spots, as I kept waiting for him to get his hammer, which also landed in New Mexico, but was surrounded by a cadre of government agents. I suppose the length of time only made the impact more powerful when Thor does get his hammer--kind of like the moment in a Popeye cartoon when he finally eats his spinach.

Thor works for several reasons, primarily the humor, but also the romance between Thor and Portman is rather sweet and genuine. Portman, who has far less to do here than in Black Swan, may have been slumming by doing a comic book movie, but at least she's convincing as an astrophysicist.

The real surprise is Chris Hemsford as the titular God. He looks like a pro wrestler, and invests his part with a WWE-style swagger. Even while wearing the cape and helmet, he looks right (as Portman says to him, "It's a good look"). His sidekicks, the Warriors 3, plus Sif (who was Thor's wife in the myths) are fun (as someone describes them, they look like Xena, Jackie Chan, and Robin Hood) and I loved Idis Elbra as the stoic gatekeeper, Helmdall.

Anthony Hopkins is Odin, and he's at his most glorious hamminess. It all fits. Thor is not on the level of Batman Begins or Spider-Man 2, but it doesn't aim to. But it's much, much better than the ridiculous Fantastic 4 films, which treated their subjects with no seriousness at all.

My grade for Thor: B

Saturday, May 07, 2011


When I'm asked what my favorite book is, I have two answers: Portnoy's Complaint, by Philip Roth, and Catch-22, by Joseph Heller. Both were written in the 1960s by Jewish Americans from the greater New York City area, and both can be classified as black comedies. And now I can say I have read both of them three separate times.

I first read Catch-22 when I was about thirteen or fourteen. I'm sure I didn't understand it all (my father saw me reading it and was amazed, saying he tried to read it but couldn't get through it) but I immediately cottoned to its irreverent, humorous tone. I read it again in my early thirties, and was struck that time by the underlying sense of horror--the book is certainly not all laughs.

This last time I didn't dare read my original copy purchased in about 1975, since I'm sure the pages would fall apart in my hand, so I purchased the fiftieth anniversary edition (the book came out in October of 1961), with an introduction by Christopher Buckley and all sorts of scholarship in the back of the book.

For those who don't know, Catch-22 is the story of a bomber squadron stationed on the fictional island of Pianosa off the coast of Italy during World War II. The main character is Yossarian, a bombardier who is mainly concerned with staying alive. Along the way another approximately fifty characters are introduced, and the madness of the military bureaucracy blazes like a comet through its pages. This is ultimately expressed in the Catch of the title:

"There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one's own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and he could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn't, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn't have to; but if he didn't want to he was sane and had do. Yossarian was moved very deeply moved by absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.

"'That's some catch, that Catch-22,' he observed."

"'It's the best there is,' Doc Daneeka agreed."

The phrase Catch-22 is one of the book titles that has entered the English lexicon. The book was originally titled Catch-18, but earlier in the year Leon Uris published Mila 18, so Heller and the publishers scrambled to come up with a new number, considering 11, 14, and finally 22, which seems more appropriate given its palindromic nature. Heller later had to hear people who thought the phrase came first, and he appropriated it for the title.

This circular logic has its origins with Lewis Carroll, and Catch-22 does seem like an amalgamation of Alice in Wonderland and a hard-core war book like The Naked and the Dead. It permeates the book--in a chapter in which Yossarian falls in love with an Italian girl named Luciana, he wants to marry her. She tells him she won't marry him because he is crazy. When he asks why he is crazy, she tells him he's crazy because he wants to marry her.

Ultimately, Catch-22 boils down to the sinister, "They will do to us everything we let them do." The military, in many ways, is Yossarian's enemy. The Germans are mentioned, but Yossarian considers his commanding officer, the vain and bumptious Colonel Cathcart, his enemy, because it's the Colonel who is trying to get him killed by sending him on missions. Cathcart also keeps raising the minimum number of missions men must fly before they are sent home, until it becomes a Sisyphean exercise. At the start of the book it is forty, by the end it is eighty.

Yossarian refuses to fly more missions and says, in a key passage in the book "'From now on I'm thinking only of me.'

"Major Danby replied indulgently with a superior smile, 'But Yossarian, suppose everyone felt that way.'

"'Then I'd certainly be a damn fool to feel any other way, wouldn't I?'"

If a word cloud were made of the text, the words "crazy" and "love" would be prominent. Everyone is described as crazy, even the most sane, who are crazy because they are sane. Love is in the very first line, "It was love at first sight. The first time Yossarian saw the chaplain he fell madly in love with him." Yossarian is always falling in love with people, whether they are Roman whores or fellow soldiers, he wears his heart on his sleeve. He is so haunted by the death of a colleague, Snowden, whose blood stains his uniform, that he receives a medal wearing nothing, saying he will never wear his uniform again.

The book is full of memorable characters and scenes. My favorites are the Kafka-esque trial of Clevinger, who is told to be quiet, and to say "Sir," when he does; Major Major Major, who is resented because he looks like Henry Fonda, and decides he will see no one, and instructs his sergeant to never let anyone in his office while he is there, but to let them in when is not; Orr, who stuffs crab apples (or horse chestnuts, when he can find them) into his cheeks, Scheisskopf (literal German translation--Shithead) who rises from Lieutenant to General and has an obsession with parades, and Milo Minderbinder, the mess hall officer who ends up running a syndicate, managing to make a profit by buying eggs at seven cents and selling them at five. He ends making a deal with the Germans and bombs his own squadron, but is not disciplined because he is too valuable to the American war effort. The syndicate is the most important thing of all.

This book can be classified as a comedy, but it is full of horror. Characters die with sudden and unsentimental swiftness, particularly the pilot who is out on a raft and gets halved by the propeller of a low-flying bomber. The pilot of that plane, riven with remorse, then flies into a mountain. One of the last chapters, "The Eternal City," has Yossarian in Rome, without a pass, wandering the war-torn streets: "... a nursing mother padded past holding an infant in black rags, and Yossarian wanted to smash her too, because she reminded him of the barefoot boy in the thin shirt and thin, tattered trousers and of all the shivering, stupefying misery in a world that never yet had provided enough heat and food and justice for all but an ingenious and unscrupulous handful. What a lousy Earth! He wondered how many people were destitute that same night even in his own prosperous country, how many homes were shanties, how many husbands were drunk and wives socked, and how many children were bullied, abused or abandoned. How many families hungered for food they could not afford to buy? How many hearts were broken? How many suicides would take place that same night, how many people would go insane?"

Later in the chapter Yossarian finds his colleague, the clueless Arfy, who has just thrown a prostitute out a window, killing her. He is horrified and tells the chuckling Arfy that he will go to jail. Arfy scoffs, even as the sounds of police sirens come closer. Authorities bust into the room, but they leave Arfy alone--they arrest Yossarian for being in Rome without a pass.

When Catch-22 was released it received some marvelous reviews, but was not a bestseller. It was Heller's good fortune (and America's misfortune) that the Vietnam War followed shortly thereafter, and the absurdities of the military, and even the American way, were cast in a new light. The book went through more than thirty printings in paperback, "Yossarian Lives" bumper stickers were seen on cars, and Catch-22 was a certified classic. I'm sure in another twenty years, if I'm still around, I'll read it again.

Friday, May 06, 2011

Leaves of Grass

What a pleasant surprise Leaves of Grass turned out to be. I was imagining some kind of stoner comedy, but it turns out to be smart combination of a family drama and a thriller that may require some college to fully grasp it.

Edward Norton plays two parts--twin brothers. One is a professor of philosophy, and the opening has him lecturing on Socrates and his desire to control his life so there are no distractions. That, of course, is a tip-off that he will end up in a messy situation. Sure enough, his twin, who lives back in Oklahoma and has a thriving marijuana trade, connives to bring his brother home to use him as an alibi.

Once I got used to the gimmick of having Norton play two roles (and the special effects when he is on screen with himself are seamless) I really warmed to the film, especially when the plot takes twists that I had no idea were coming. Tim Blake Nelson, who also stars as the criminal Norton's loyal sidekick, directed and wrote the script, and it's the latter that really shines. It's a script I wish I had written.

The cast has a few other big names, with Susan Sarandon as Norton's mother and Richard Dreyfuss, channeling Robert Duvall, as a Jewish drug kingpin. I also very much appreciated the presence of Keri Russell as the professor Norton's love interest. She's mighty nice to look at, but I will admit her character, a high school teacher of English who can also catch catfish with her bare hands, is idealized and straight out of male fantasy. Any woman who can recite Walt Whitman while gutting a catfish probably exists only in the imagination.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

The Kindness of Strangers

This year is the centennial of the birth of Tennessee Williams. For my birthday I got a copy of the two-volume Library of America complete works, and I'm going to try to make my way through it. Of course I've read or seen, either on stage or the film adaptations, most of his major works, but the man was astoundingly prolific.

To get started, I thought I'd read a biography to get my bearings. Donald Spoto, who is a biographer best known for writing about film and theater celebrities such as Alfred Hitchcock, Elizabeth Taylor, James Dean, Marilyn Monroe and others, wrote The Kindness of Strangers in 1985, just three years after Williams' death. It appears to be the only one-volume biography of Williams, and is a compact, largely no-frills affair, but does offer some cogent commentary about his works, and points out warts and all.

Williams was born in Mississippi but raised mostly in St. Louis. His father worked in the shoe business, and disapproved of his inclinations toward writing (Spoto has the delicious fact that while working in the shoe factory he befriended a man named Stanley Kowalski). He was devoted to his maternal grandparents. His grandfather was a minister, and lived well into Williams' years of fame, living with him in his home in Key west.

After struggling through college as a journalism major, Williams went to New York with no money and ended up meeting an agent named Audrey Wood, who believed in him. After a few promising misfires, he struck gold with The Glass Menagerie, followed that up with Summer and Smoke, which was misdirected in its Broadway debut, and was later acclaimed in a revival. Then came A Streetcar Named Desire, and Williams was known as America's greatest playwright, and its richest. Fifteen of his works ended up made into films, but he didn't like most of them. Spoto quotes a friend saying, "And once, when he heard that the film of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was playing--which he hated--he went downtown and said to the people on line for tickets, 'This movie will set the industry back fifty years! Go home.'"

Though he had many successes, including Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Rose Tattoo, Suddenly Last Summer, and Sweet Bird of Youth, his last great play was in 1964, with Night of the Iguana. From then on he kept writing, but baffled critics and audiences. He began to grow bitter and paranoid, turning on Wood and several other friends. He seemed to wander the globe, flittering from Key West (I made a pilgrimage to his house, now called Rose Cottage, on one of my visits there) to New Orleans to Sicily. All the while, he was hopelessly hooked on drugs and alcohol.

What I took away most from the book was how incredibly sad a life he led. He was haunted by his sister Rose, who was lobotomized as a girl and kept in an institution (she outlived him). Spoto details all the mentions of Rose, either as a name or as a flower, in his works. Of course the most famous incarnation she makes is as Laura in The Glass Menagerie, which for my money is one of the most beautiful, heartbreaking plays ever written.

Williams was a hypochondriac, always thinking he was dying and always saying his next play was his last, even as early as the 1940s. He took downers and speed, and washed them down with wine. When he died, at the age of 72, he choked on the cap from a bottle of pills. Spoto makes several references to Williams overwhelming sense of misery, perhaps this sums it up best: "He was withdrawing from work to the solace of drugs, and from people to the darkness of solitude. And with this unfortunate shift in the personal and professional bases of his life, a cycle of misery and despair and decreativity enveloped him through the end of the decade."

Is Tennesee Williams (Spoto covers the mystery surrounding his change of name--he was born Thomas Lanier Williams, but there is no definitive answer) America's greatest playwright? I don't know, but I can't argue against it. He has written about half a dozen true classics, and he was also a man who liked to shock his audience, covering taboo subjects like repressed homosexuality (Williams was homosexual, and didn't make much of a secret of it), castration, and cannibalism. But his plays were also tender and empathetic toward his characters, and if he lived a life of despair, it poured out through his words.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011


Ondine, a lush, dreamy film from Neil Jordan, is an okay film--nothing great, but not a bummer, either. But I can't help but leading off with a pet peeve of mine. Attention, studios: if you are issuing an Irish film on DVD, please use subtitles! I doubt I understood half of the dialogue in this film.

What I did understand was this: a fisherman, named Syracuse (Colin Farrell) but called Circus because he's something of a clown (and not because he's funny) hauls up his net and finds a beautiful woman in it. He revives her, and she is mysterious and does not want to be seen by anyone. He hides her in his mother's old house.

Farrell has a daughter who is gravely ill, and he tells her about the woman, but frames it as a fairy tale. The daughter (Alison Barry) concludes that she must be a selkie, a creature from Celtic mythology that is a seal that turns into a human. Suspicious, she goes to her hiding place and finds her, and they become close.

Eventually the woman, who calls herself Ondine, comes out of hiding, but that brings out a man who is looking for her. Barry thinks it must be another selkie, but Ondine's origins turn out to be much more prosaic, in an ending that kind of lets the air out of what had occurred earlier in the film.

As with almost every film set in Ireland, it's beautiful to look at. The photography of the seacoast in the County of Cork is by Christopher Doyle, and it's magnificent. Farrell is very engaging as the fisherman, and Alicja Bachleda is properly enigmatic in the title role. I do wonder about Jordan's inspiration for this film--what man wouldn't want to pull a woman who looks like a fashion model straight out of the sea?

Monday, May 02, 2011

Let England Shake

In contrast to PJ Harvey's last album, White Chalk, the songs on her latest disc, Let England Shake, are tuneful and melodic. It's only when you pay attention to the lyrics that you realize she's still singing about death.

As the title suggests, the album is something of a song cycle about Harvey's homeland, England. But there's not too much talk about rolling green hills or shepherd's pie--she' concerned with England's history of warfare. The time period doesn't seem to matter. "Battleship Hill" refers to an incident during World War I (perhaps Gallipoli, since a book on that subject is mentioned in the liner notes). But I have the feeling that any kind of warfare has gotten under her skin.

This is the England that Harvey writes and sings about, from "The Last Living Rose": "Take me back to England/& the gray, damp filthiness of ages/Fog rolling down behind the mountains/& on the graveyards and dead sea-captains."

Or in "The Glorious Land:" "And what is the glorious food of our land?/It's fruit is deformed children/What is the glorious fruit of our land?/The fruit is orphaned children."

I think my favorite song on the record is "The Words that Maketh Murder," which is foot-tapper, but when you read the lyrics it gives one pause: "I have seen and done things I want to forget/soldiers fell like lumps of meat/blown and shot out beyond belief/arms and legs were in the trees."

Let England Shake is a terrific record, and I listened to it several times. Someone who doesn't speak English might have a completely different reaction to it, thinking that it's just another above-average pop album. Harvey's voice is at its best, crystal clear and soaring at times, but the message is unrelentingly bleak. With all the wars that the U.K. and the U.S. are involved in right now, it's also strikingly relevant.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Citizen Kane

Citizen Kane was released seventy years ago on May 1, and I feel a little silly in even attempting to write about it. What's left to say? It's certainly the most written about film of all time, and generally acclaimed as the greatest movie ever made. What can I add to the discussion?

Instead of commenting on the history of its making, the supposed connections to William Randolph Hearst, or the smears by gossip columnists that doomed its reception, I'll write about what was going through my mind when I watched it for the most recent time, Saturday night. I've seen it probably half a dozen times, but this time listened to no commentaries, watched no extras. It was Citizen Kane, straight with no chaser.

I suppose the first time I saw it was in high school, on TV. I did see it at least once on a big screen in a film class I took. I think film academics drool over it so much because it is so amazingly visually interesting. Just consider the opening few minutes, when we get the "No Trespassing" sign (which also ends the film), and then the view of Xanadu. There are several perspectives of the building, even one reflected in water, but the placement of the light in the window on the screen never changes. And then the almost surreal death of Kane: the whispering of "Rosebud," the dream-like tumble of the snow globe, the nurse's reflection in a piece of its broken glass. Nothing in American movie history had ever been like it.

Welles is co-billed in the closing credits with Gregg Toland, his cinematographer (Welles lists himself last in the cast of characters). Toland is as much a hero of this film as Welles is, for his revolutionary use of deep focus. The scene most often cited is the one in which Kane, as a young boy, is seen playing outside in the snow while in the foreground his parents sign his life away to a banker. This is repeated throughout, and when deep focus was impossible, such as the scene in which Kane finished Leland's bad review of Susan Alexander's opera debut while Leland is deep in the background, the result was accomplished with an optical printer, splicing the scenes together.

There are so many other jaw-dropping visual moments: the tracking shot through the skylight at Susan Alexander's nightclub; the reflection of the dancing Kane in the window as Leland expresses doubts to Bernstein about the future; the legendary breakfast montage, to show the increased estrangement between Kane and first wife; Kane's rage after Alexander leaves him, when he trashes her room and then staggers through the hallway of mirrors. All of these were such master strokes of telling a story in visual means that its still exhilarating to watch them, even after many viewings.

But, here's my problem with Citizen Kane. I don't list it as among my favorite films, though it is vastly entertaining and flies by breathlessly. I admire Citizen Kane, but I don't love it. And I've always felt that it was because the movie, like the Tin Man, had no heart.

The spine of the film is that Kane is a man who had everything but then lost it. Fair enough, but just what are we supposed to make of that? Are we to have empathy for him? I certainly don't. There's also a title card at the beginning, after newsreel footage shows him being accused of being both a communist and a fascist, of his statement that he is nothing other than an American, which he later repeats in an interview. Is this Welles' summation of the American dream? Kane is a multifaceted fellow, but he never struck me as being a villainous representation of American capitalism. He's probably no better or worse than any other captain of industry. As a man he's not exactly a pillar of respectability toward women, but his heart always seems to be in the right place, such as his attempt to bring down the corrupt Jim Gettys and his loyalty to Susan, despite her flaws as a singer (of course, this misplaced loyalty ends up being a kind of cruelty).

Maybe this is intentional. After all, the entire film is a reporter (played by William Alland, whose face is never clearly seen) trying to find out who the real man is, chasing down the meaning of Rosebud and never getting the answer. The film is really a whodunit without a solution. (Quick story--when my friend Bob was in high school, he mentioned to a teacher that he was going to watch Citizen Kane on TV that night for the first time. The teacher promptly told him what Rosebud was. Bob is still mad about that).

Thus it's difficult for me to hold dear a film whose central character remains an enigma. I suppose I don't buy the conceit of what Rosebud stands for, despite Mr. Bernstein's speech about the girl on the ferry that he's never forgotten. Instead, I enjoy Citizen Kane as a masterpiece of visual storytelling, a terrific yarn, and a landmark of cinema history.