Follow by Email

Friday, August 31, 2012

Train Dreams

Train Dreams is a novella that was first published in The Paris Review in 2002, but was then released as its own volume last year, and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction that was not given. It's a lovely, lyrical look at the American frontier, and how nature both kills and is reborn.

The book concerns Robert Grainier. He's not sure where he came from: "His eldest cousin, a girl, said he'd come from northeast Canada and had spoken only French when they'd first seen him, and they'd had to whip the French out of him to get room for the English tongue. The other two cousins, both boys, said he was a Mormon from Utah. At so early an age it never occurred to him to find out from his aunt and uncle who he was."

Grainier only knows that he arrived by train in the Idaho panhandle in the 1880s. He grows up to marry and father a little girl, and they live in a cabin on the Moyea River. At the book's outset, he is working on a crew making a bridge across the Spokane River, and taking part in a mob trying to throw a Chinese worker to his death for allegedly stealing. The Chinaman gets away, and Robert feels he has been cursed.

A forest fire wipes out his cabin and his family, but he moves back into it and anyway and rebuilds, watching the forest reclaim itself from the fire: "Animals had returned in what was left of the forest. As Grainier drove along in the wagon behind a wide, slow, sand-colored mare, clusters of orange butterflies expanded off the blackish purple piles of bear sign and winked and fluttered magically like leaves without trees."

A constant theme of Train Dreams is not only rebirth, but death. An old-timer who crawls into holes to detonate dynamite dies, but not as one would expect. Grainier finds a wounded man in a tree, who wants Grainier to tell his story. Grainier transports another man who has been shot by his own dog. An Indian gets run over by a train, his pieces covering a quarter mile of track.

Then there's a segment where Grainier encounters a "wolf-girl," a feral child seemingly raised by wolves. Who that child is not a surprise, but it is still a suspenseful, intriguing bit of writing.

The book is lovely, but since it really a super-long short story, it doesn't pack the emotional wallop of a novel. Grainier lives a long life (until the 1960s) but you can't get the arc of that life in such a short piece. Instead we see snatches of a life. The thing that is constant in his life are trains: "Now he slept soundly through the nights, and often he dreamed of trains, and often of one particular train. He was on it; he could smell the coal smoke; a world went by. And then he was standing in that world as the sound of the train died away."

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Cover Girl

From 1944 comes Cover Girl, directed by Charles Vidor, another pleasant but insubstantial film that hearkens back to another time, when magazine cover girls were famous, even those who appeared on "Farm Journal."

Rita Hayworth stars as a singer in a nightclub owned by Gene Kelly. They are sweet on each other, but neither has made the first move. When another dancer (Leslie Brooks) auditions for a magazine's fiftieth anniversary cover, Hayworth goes along, too, and despite Brooks' attempts at sabotage, Hayworth gets the gig, because the publisher (Otto Kruger) sees the amazing resemblance between Hayworth and an old flame of his (also played by Hayworth). It turns out the two are grandmother and granddaughter.

Kelly is jealous of Hayworth's sudden fame, even if it does drive up business. She is then wooed by a Broadway producer (Lee Bowman), and Kelly, deciding to let her go, forces her to quit. Of course all will turn out all right in the end, as with Du Barry Was a Lady, the message is that one should marry for love, not money.

The songs, by Jerome Kern and Ira Gershwin, are pretty forgettable. Kelly's moment to shine is when he dances with himself as a partner--his mirror image jumps out of a window and the two Kellys dance up a storm. Of course there are comic second bananas--Phil Silvers is Kelly's pal, and Eve Arden plays her usual sardonic character as Kruger's assistant.

Not a bad film, but certainly not a memorable one.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Stepfather

I understand that Mitt Romney received the nomination as the Republican candidate for President of the United States. I wouldn't know for sure, because, for my own well-being, I don't watch Republican conventions, which is merely a festival of lies.

The larger question is, who is Mitt Romney? A dilettante, who seems to have no principles, integrity, or courage. A man who wants desperately to be president, and will do or say anything to get it, including making a deal with the devil (in this case, the Tea Party). A man who has been rich all his life, and cares nothing about the poor or middle-class. A man who once got yuks by dressing up as a state trooper and pulling innocent people over (which is a felony). A man who strapped a dog to the roof of his car and insisted that the traumatized animal liked it (that dog would repeatedly run away).

As I follow the election, it's clear that this is a close election because of an anti-Obama segment of the population, people who are willing to believe lies of all stripe, whether they be the absurd birther lies or more subtle lies about Medicare or welfare requirements to work. The Republican mantra this year is that if a lie is told often enough, people will believe it. These same people have ignored the immense good Obama has done in his first term, from saving the economy, saving the auto industry (and by doing so, the economy of Michigan and Ohio), taking out Osama Bin Laden, and the Affordable Care Act, which has been turned into such a giant bogeyman it's hard for anyone to sort out the truth.

What will probably save Obama's bacon, despite the lies, is that Romney, try as he might, is just not lovable. If the Republicans had fielded a better slew of candidates, Obama might be trailing right now. I'm not sure who that would be, but surely if someone with the charisma of Ronald Reagan were around today Obama would be toast. But Reagan is dead and buried, and Romney, the great unknown, is running instead.

When I see friend and relatives post their right-wing propaganda on Facebook, it's all anti-Obama. Not one thing good about Romney. What's good to say about him? He was a successful businessman? Yes, by destroying companies and outsourcing jobs. At his tenure as governor of Massachusetts? Yes, by getting what is essentially Obamacare through. And also with the state being 47th in job creation. Nothing about Romney's background suggests he knows how to create jobs, other than by giving tax credits to the richest, which has been tried repeatedly and failed.

Romney doesn't even know what he stands for. In one day two statements about abortion exceptions for rape and incest came out; one from him, one from his campaign, that said exactly the opposite. At one time he was attending fundraisers for Planned Parenthood, now he's the inquisition. He says that a president should be required to have private sector experience, but he picks a VP candidate who has none, and is a career politician.

Make no mistake--if Romney is elected the poor in this country will suffer, and so will the middle class. Jenna Jameson, a porn star of some success, endorsed Romney, and she did so for a very good reason--she's rich. From the mouths of porn stars.

Who is Mitt Romney? He reminds me of a certain kind of character, the step-dad. He's the guy who dates your mom after her divorce. She probably wants to marry a guy with some material wealth, so she doesn't have to work two jobs. He's slick, and he bends over backwards to ingratiate himself with you. But something isn't quite right. He plays ball with you, but doesn't know the rules of the game.  He watches TV with you, but doesn't know who the popular actors are. He laughs at the wrong things. You can't put your finger on it, but there's something sinister about him. Then your mom marries him, and he gets all dictatorish on you. He tells you to cut your hair. He makes you throw out your Playboys. And he does terrible things to the family dog.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Du Barry Was a Lady

Gene Kelly was a supporting player in 1943's Du Barry Was a Lady, a vehicle for comedian Red Skelton, which also starred another famous redhead, Lucille Ball. Based on a musical by Cole Porter, it's fun and mildly amusing but hopelessly dated.

Set in a nightclub, Ball is a big star. She is courted by rich men, but is loved by the penniless singer and composer Kelly (why he's so poor when he has what seems to be a good job is left unsaid). She's also adored by Skelton, who is a hat check boy, but he's pursued by a cigarette girl, Virginia O'Brien.

When Skelton wins the Irish Sweepstakes, he's rich enough that Ball will marry him, even though she really loves Kelly. Skelton, a decent but dumb galoot, has no trouble with Ball not loving him, but he decides to try to obstruct Kelly by giving him a mickey. Instead, he drinks it, and has a dream that he is King Louis XV, Ball is his mistress, Madame Du Barry, and Kelly is a vigilante called The Black Arrow.

Most of the action, at least in the first two-thirds, is set in the nightclub and is basically a revue. Tommy Dorsey and his orchestra play, and there are comic songs that today are meaningless, such as a trio called the Oxford Boys, who impersonate famous bandleaders of the time. I doubt there's hardly anyone left alive would get a spoof of Kay Kyser. Skelton does a number about how he loves "Esquire Girls," but that magazine is hardly the place for cheesecake anymore. I did get a kick out of O'Brien's deadpan number about Salome (the way she pronounced her name, it sounded like salami).

The movie is really all about the last act, the dream sequence, in which everyone, even Dorsey, is done up in French finery and Skelton can pull out all the stops with slapstick. As directed by Roy Del Ruth, it's painless but hardly a lasting classic. A supporting character, a telegram deliverer, is well played by burlesque comedian Rags Ragland. I read about him and was saddened to learn he died at 40 of alcohol abuse. Frank Sinatra was at his bedside when the end came. Also in the cast was an impossibly young Zero Mostel, who I always assumed was born old.

Monday, August 27, 2012

For Me and My Gal

To celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of Gene Kelly, one of the great American film stars, I'll be holding a retrospective of his work right here at Go-Go-Rama, including all of his major films. A good place to start is 1942's For Me and My Gal, which was his film debut.

The top-billed star was Judy Garland, who was one of the few female stars of that or any era that can could be billed alone above the title. It was her first "adult" role, that is, in which she played a person who would was not considered a child.

Directed by Busby Berkeley, the film is a tribute to the days of vaudeville, before movies had taken hold of the American imagination, and performers criss-crossed the country in trains, telling jokes, singing and dancing, juggling, and performing magic tricks.  Garland is one of the girl singers and dancers in a comic's act (George Murphy). Kelly is the headliner, a vain and egotistical singer and dancer who immediately puts the moves on Garland, disgusting her.

But when she realizes she and Kelly make a good team (they sing and dance to the title song in a coffeehouse) she leaves Murphy and joins up with Kelly. She falls in love with him, but he's enamored of a classy singer (Martha Eggerth). Eventually Kelly realizes he's in love with Garland, too, but World War I interferes with their plans of one day playing the Palace in New York.

Unlike the Warner Brothers films he was famous for, Berkeley spares us the intricately-choreographed chorines and focuses on character. For Me and My Gal has plenty of songs, but focuses more on character, and thus the last act of the picture, in which Kelly must atone for a selfish deed he commits, makes it emotionally resonant. The two stars have great chemistry (they would reteam for Summer Stock) and I got a little misty at the admittedly overly patriotic ending.

I'm always a little down on musicals because of their corny nature, and this was one has plenty of kernels, but it's also a solid entertainment.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

1Q84

1Q84 is a long novel, and it took me almost two months to read it, but not because it was a slog; it was the opposite--I read it slowly to savor every nuance of the intricate story, and every word of Haruki Murakami's beautiful language.

To summarize the book takes some doing. Basically, it is the story of two star-crossed lovers, and their chapters alternate throughout the book. We begin with Aomame (a name that means "garden pea"), a fitness instructor. At the outset, she is in a cab that's struck in a traffic jam on an elevated highway. The cab driver suggests she get out and take an emergency stairway. After doing so, she finds herself in an alternate world. The year she left was 1984; she calls her new world 1Q84. One tip off that she's in a new world is that there are now two moons in the sky.

Tengo Kanawa is a mild-mannered math teacher and aspiring writer. He's never had anything published, but has come close to winning a writer's contest, so is friendly with an editor, Komatsu. That editor comes to him with a proposition--an entry in this year's contest is terrifically inventive, but awkwardly written. He wants Tengo to rewrite it. The original writer is a 17-year-old girl, Fuka-Eri, who agrees to the scheme, and Tengo agrees to do it as well, despite his ethical objections.

That book, called The Air Chrysalis, will become the linchpin upon which the novel turns. Fuka-Eri is the daughter of the leader of a religious cult who are tapped into beings called "little people." Accordingly, the whole book is traced with a kind of pixie dust, full of coincidences and fantasy.

Aomame and Tengo met briefly, as ten year olds. He was kind to her, and they have never forgotten each other, so the book is pointed toward their reunion. But in the meantime, Aomame is more than a fitness instructor--she's also an assassin, dispatching men who are abusive to women. When she is assigned to kill the leader of the cult, she runs afoul of an odd and ugly little man, Uskikawa, who tries to track her down.

Murakami also write A Wild Sheep Case, and in that review I wrote that he reminded me of Tom Robbins, Kurt Vonnegut, and Raymond Chandler. That goes for 1Q84 as well. There's a nod to Chandler in metaphors like, "he was inconspicuous as a centipede in a cup of yogurt." But there's also the dry kind of wit found in Robbins and Vonnegut: "Smart presidents usually become the target of assassins, so people with higher-than-average intelligence probably did their best to avoid being elected." Or, "In kicking the balls, the most important thing was never to hesitate. One had to deliver a lightning attack to the adversary's weakest point and do so mercilessly and with the utmost ferocity--just as when Hitler easily brought down the France by striking at the weak point of the Maginot Line."

The book is also extremely sexual. Aomame has regular encounters with strange men--she prefers older, balding men with perfectly shaped heads--and Tengo has weekly assignations with an older, married girlfriend. Murakami occasionally wanders into Penthouse Forum territory, such as constantly describing Fuka-Eri in dirty old man language--she's beautiful, with large breasts. A key plot point has her sleeping with Tengo, and he comes inside her. "Tipping back his glass of white wine, Tengo recalled that he had ejaculated into the body of the beautiful seventeen-year-old girl now sitting across the table from him."

Of course, the book is also geared toward the literary among us. The title will bring up associations with George Orwell's book, and there are quotations from Chekhov: "There were too many questions. It was probably Chekhov who said that the novelist is not someone who answers questions but someone who asks them." A portion of Isak Dinesen's Out of Africa is quoted, and there is much talk about the indigenous people of Sakhalin. A story-within-the-story, about a town populated by cats, is also prominent, representing a place where a person can get permanently trapped.

There is much more to the book that I can't get to here. Suffice it to say that it's an absorbing read, and also lusciously romantic. I found myself looking up at the moon the other night to make sure there wasn't another one. As Murakami writes: "The moon had been observing the earth close-up longer than anyone. It must have witnessed all of the phenomena occurring--and all of the acts carried out--on this earth. But the moon remained silent; it told no stories. All it did was embrace the heavy past with cool, measured detachment. One the moon there was neither air nor wind. Its vacuum was perfect for preserving memories unscathed. No one could unlock the heart of the moon."

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Cul-de-Sac

Cul-de-Sac is a 1966 film by Roman Polanski that has been issued in a pristine copy by Criterion Collection. It is an odd film, at times quite intriguing, at other times at loose ends, but never boring.

The film begins wonderfully, with two men in a car. Or, precisely, one man is in the car, another is pushing it. They are both wounded. The man in the car is sitting on a machine gun. It appears they are escaping from a botched criminal enterprise, and are now on a road on the English sea coast. We never do find out what the job was, or how things went wrong.

The man pushing the car, wearing a sling, is Lionel Stander, the great gravel-voiced character actor. He goes off to look for help, not realizing the road they are on will be swallowed up by the tide. He finds an ancient castle, where a married couple live. He forces them to help him retrieve his colleague from the half-submerged auto.

There have been a number of films and plays about people being taken captives in their home by crooks, but this one is a rara avis. The husband is Donald Pleasance, a rich but noodle-spined man with a shaved pate. His beautiful and much younger French wife is played by Francoise Dorleac, who is first seen canoodling topless with a young man who lives across the bay. In their opening scenes together, Dorleac has Pleasance wear one of the nighties and puts makeup on his face, completely emasculating him.

Stander, by force of personality more than the gun he is carrying, keeps the two at bay, and awaits his boss, the mysterious Mr. Katelbach, to rescue him. During that time there is a psychosexual game of cat and mouse, and then guests arrive, and Stander is forced to play the role of a servant. It is here than Pleasance grows a spine, and eventually will confront Stander.

The film was shot on Holy Island in England, and the photography by Gilbert Taylor is striking, especially the use of the various extremes of light, either at dawn or dusk. Pleasance gives a very antic performance--at times it was difficult to understand what he was all about. Dorleac, who was Catherine Deneuve's sister, is very good as the trophy wife who has the husband wrapped around her finger. Her story is quite tragic--she died at the age of 25 in a fiery car crash.

While Cul-de-Sac is not classic filmmaking, it's illustrative to Polanski's later career, carrying the creepiness of Rosemary's Baby and the noir elements of Chinatown. It's worth a look.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Wuthering Heights

Sometimes you read a classic and you have to wonder, what is all the fuss about? I felt that way with Wuthering Heights, a Gothic romance by Emily Bronte, her only published novel, which was published in 1847.

The novel tells the story of two families, the Earnshaws and the Lintons, and the orphaned boy who grows up to destroy both of them. He is Heathcliff, a child found on the streets of Liverpool by Mr. Earnshaw. He brings him back to his home, Wuthering Heights, and is resented by Earnshaw's son, Hindley. But the other child of the family, Catherine, becomes his constant childhood companion.

Though Catherine and Heathcliff are in love, she chooses to marry Edgar Linton, who lives at the nearby Thrushcross Grange, because Heathcliff lacks the proper standing in society. This drives Heathcliff away, but he returns months later much richer. Catherine has died, though, and he marries Edgar's sister, Isabella, to get revenge.

That's basically the first half of the book, and the part that is covered in most adaptations. It goes on, though, with Heathcliff trying to arrange the marriage of his weak son, Linton, to Catherine's daughter, also named Catherine.

The problem I had with the book is the structure. It is told from the point of view of a maid, Nelly Dean, who is telling the story to a Mr. Lockwood, years after the fact. Lockwood is renting Thrushcross Grange, and has stopped by a snowy evening to meet his landlord, Heathcliff, who is an irritable old man living with a teen-aged girl who he eventually learns is his daughter-in-law. While staying the night he reads from the original Catherine's diary and thinks he sees her ghost.

So the story is narrated by Lockwood, who hears Nelly's story. At times Nelly is telling the story of another character, such as Isabella's misery at being married to Heathcliff. This remove puts everything at arm's length, and many events, mostly the deaths of major characters, happens off page.

Also, the characters don't seem well-formed. Heathcliff is at times a mustache-twirling villain. "Then he drew his hand over his eyes, stood a moment to collect himself apparently, and turning anew to Catherine, said, with assumed calmness--'You must learn to avoid putting me in a passion, or I shall really murder you some time!'"

Of course the book has highly charged romantic language, such as hen Heathcliff compares his love to Edgar's: "If he loved with all the powers of his puny being, he couldn't love as much in eighty years as I could in a day. And Catherine has a heart as deep as I have: the sea could be readily contained in that horse-trough as her whole affection be monopolised by him. Tush! He is scarcely a degree dearer to her than her dog, or her horse. It is not in him to be loved like me: how can she love in him what he has not?"

But because Heathcliff is such a brute, I could never sympathize with him. He's like the mean old man next door who won't give you your ball back. This made the novel a chore to get through for me.

Wuthering Heights has been made into many films, most notably the one with Laurence Olivier in 1939. I have seen none of them. There is another coming this fall, directed by Andrea Arnold. I'll be interested to see if dramatization can put some zip into this otherwise sluggish material.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Bellflower

Bellflower, a film from 2011, is a real indie. For example, the gaffer is one of the producers. Although this film has a "let's put on a show" vibe, it's very accomplished for a debut film, written, directed, and starring Evan Glodell. It's fresh, original, unpredictable, but as one might expect in a debut film, it's also over-directed.

The setting is the seedy suburb of Los Angeles that gives the film its title. Woodrow (Glodell) and Aiden (Tyler Dawson) are childhood friends from Wisconsin that have moved to California. Like all the characters in the film, I have no idea if they had jobs, or were simply slackers. They live in homes and go out drinking and work diligently on building a flamethrower, so they must have some income.

The flamethrower idea comes from their shared obsession with the film Mad Max. They want to be ready for the apocalypse, and after building the flamethrower they want to customize a muscle car to have true post-apocalyptic awesomeness.

Woodrow is shy, Aiden is outgoing, so when the former meets a girl at a local bar during a cricket-eating contest, he shyly asks her out. She's Milly, who's kind of a mystery girl in this film. Played well by Jessie Wiseman, I never quite got a true picture of her. She lives with another guy (Vincent Grashaw, another producer), but their relationship is never spelled out.

Woodrow and Milly go on an epic first date--they drive all the way to Texas and back. But Milly tells him she will break his heart, and when things go wrong, they really go wrong. Milly's best friend Courtney (Rebekah Brandes) is involved, and when we find out she carries a gun in her purse, Chekhov's rule is invoked. Chekhov, as far as a I know, had no rule about flamethrowers.

Glodell's script is fine, capturing a kind of lifestyle that is certainly alien to me but seems authentic. He works too hard with film school razzle-dazzle that at times overwhelms his script; the ending is especially obtuse. But I really bought how the characters react to each other and though some of the actions are over the top in terms of normal human behavior, it seemed real.

The relationship between Glodell and Dawson is especially good--the connection with youth and a home far away, and a shared world that is part movie fantasy and part reaction to the humdrum nature of their lives. Again, it would have been far more realistic had we known what kind of jobs they had--in a film like this I always wonder how people pay for their booze and drugs.

But Bellflower is a striking debut, and I look forward to more films by Glodell.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Celeste and Jesse Forever

Rashida Jones is a very appealing performer, but that is stretched way beyond the breaking point in Celeste and Jesse Forever, a title that comes across as a threat. Fortunately, this dud is only about 90 minutes, but almost all of them are painful.

Jones and Andy Samberg are the title pair, a married couple who have separated and filed for divorce, but still maintain a close friendship. He lives in her backyard in a studio, where he lazily plies his trade as an artist. She's a trend anaylst and highly successful.

Friends are weirded out that they're still so close, and in the opening scene walk out on them at dinner because of it. This scene seemed completely phony, but then again, I might walk out on a couple that speak to each other in German accents.

Samberg will end up impregnating another woman, while Jones stews, realizing she made a mistake. She tries dating other men, but can't let her feelings for Samberg go. Meanwhile, there is a stupid subplot involving a teenage pop star (Emma Roberts).

This movie was like fingernails on a blackboard. The script, by Jones and Will McCormick, seems aware of romantic comedy cliches, but then goes ahead with them, like having Jones' boss being a gay man (Elijah Wood). There are some familiar memes, like the drunken wedding toast (I did laugh when Jones told a joke--"How do you get a nun pregnant? Fuck her," and then one person laughs and she says, "Thank you, Reverend"). Relationships are portrayed by montages (we even get the old taking pictures in a photo booth) and don't have the slightest ring of authenticity. Frankly, I don't know why Jones and Samberg were together, and I don't why they were breaking up.

Jones works very hard in this picture, being the load bearer, but can't hold it up. Samberg is really the second banana here, and is completely dull. Why cast a guy known for being a comedian and then have him play a guy who seems to have no personality?

The direction, by Lee Toland Krieger, is also annoying. For some strange reasons many scenes are shot with a handheld camera that seems to be held by someone with palsy. Several times I thought someone in the projection booth must have been knocking around the equipment. Krieger deserves a stint in movie jail for this.

Here's hoping Jones finds a better outlet for her talent. It would seem screenwriting is not a talent of hers.

My grade for Celeste and Jesse Forever: D.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Security

This is the first time on this blog I've had a chance to write about Peter Gabriel, one of my favorite musical artists. I became aware of him after he had left Genesis, when he was a truly odd bird, and when he was well into his solo career. In 1982, almost 30 years ago, he released his fourth album, which like its predecessors, was simply called Peter Gabriel, which made it tough to differentiate them. The record company in the U.S. showed pity and called the album Security.

Security, I think, is Gabriel's best album (barely beating out his third solo album) and one of the best records of the 1980s. It only has eight songs, but each one is a world unto itself. Mostly I like that the arrangement heavily emphasizes percussion. Fans of timpani, marimbas, and any other form of drum will glory in listening to this album, especially turned up loud.

The tone is set with the opening track, "Rhythm of the Heat," which is an inkling of the interest Gabriel would end up showing in world music. This song is heavily influenced by African drums, and the lyrics refer to Carl Jung's trip to Africa. This is followed by "San Jacinto," which is almost symphonic in structure. It has a long lead in, with a lyric about a native American despairing about the disappearance of his culture: "Indian ground, so far down/Cut up land--each house a pool/kids wearing water wings/drink in cool/follow dry river bed/watch scouts and guides making pow-wow signs/Past Geronimo's Disco and Sit'n'Bull Steakhouse/White men dream." When the chorus of "San Jacinto" hits, with full strings and orchestration, and Gabriel growling, "I hold the line," it hits like a thunderbolt.

This is followed by "I Have the Touch," a sexy song that is great for a dance floor, and then comes "The Family and the Fishing Net," a seven-plus minute song about, well, I'm not quite sure. Wikipedia says it's about a modern wedding compared with a voodoo sacrifice. Since Gabriel intones, "Headless chickens," I'll take their word for it.

Next comes one of Gabriel's most famous songs, "Shock the Monkey," which I think I could listen to on a loop for a great deal of time. The production, by Gabriel and David Lord, is just perfect, with use of keyboards, drums, and an assortment of other sounds, including background vocals. Periodically an electronically-altered voice shouts, "Shock!" and I can't help but shout along with it. I had always assumed it was about animal rights, and the monkey in question was in a test lab, but Gabriel says the monkey is a metaphor for jealousy. Okay, but it doesn't really matter.

"Shock the Monkey" is followed by the eerily uplifting "Lay Your Hands on Me," which would seem to be about the healing power of touch, but also has some creepy lyrics punctuated by sharp, gunshot-like beats on a timpani. "Working in gardens, thornless roses, fat men play with their garden hoses." Then comes "Wallflower," which is a heartbreaking ode to political prisoners, and can be seen as an anthem for Amnesty International. The song describes life in a six by six cell, but asks the prisoners to keep hope alive: "Though you may disappear/You're not forgotten here/And I will say to you/I will do what I can do."

The last song is the only one I have no love for. It's "Kiss of Life," is a standard dance rock number. It's an okay song, but stands out in this collection, and is a strange choice to end the album. After the emotional power of "Wallflower," it seems almost silly in comparison.

Gabriel has put out strong work since Security--his 1985 followup, So, was a smash it, but I'll still take Security as his best.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Orpheus Descending

Continuing my seemingly never-ending series on the works of Tennessee Williams, I turn to a play from 1957, Orpheus Descending, which was essentially a rewrite of play from 1940, Battle of Angels. The latter closed in Boston after a disastrous opening that included an abundance of smoke from an attempt at a stage fire--it drove many from the audience, those who hadn't left because they were offended on a moral basis.

Williams couldn't shake the play, and rewrote it, though it had only modest success. I saw it in a revival in 1989 starring Vanessa Redgrave. It has a great deal of emotional power, as almost all Williams' plays do, and revisits many of his themes, most especially examining the broken people who live in a uncompromising southern America.

I read both plays over the weekend, and the common thing about them is that they are set in a dry goods store in a small Mississippi town. The store is owned by a mean old cuss, Jabe, who is dying. His wife, who is at her wit's end, struggles to deal with her conflicting emotions, as she essentially hates him. She was thrown over by her beau and ended up with Jabe instead, who lives in the upstairs family quarters and knocks on the floor when he needs. This is described as sounding like death itself knocking.

Into town comes Valentine Xavier, a drifter wearing a snakeskin jacket. He is sexual by nature, without even trying. In Orpheus he plays a guitar signed by all the great musicians he's met, like Leadbelly, Jelly Roll Morton, and Woody Guthrie. He takes a job at the store, and he and the owner's wife form a relationship. Eventually, though, he is beset by the small minds of the town and made a martyr to his ways.

In Battle of Angels, Val is a man who is wrongly wanted for rape, a distinction that is removed in the rewrite. Also, he is given Christ-like imagery, as an old religious woman who has visions has painted his face onto the savior's in her rendition of the Last Supper. This is also excised from Orpheus Descending.

The most important change comes in the form of the lead female character. In Battle of Angels she is called Myra, and is somewhat shrewish. Val calls her rudest woman he's ever met. In Orpheus, she is known as Lady, and is the daughter of an Italian immigrant. She is much more robustly written, almost overly so, as if Blanche Dubois were on speed. This time, Val calls her the nicest woman he's ever met.

By making Lady Italian Williams upped the stakes, making her and Val outsiders. A backstory involving Jabe being responsible for killing her father--he was a bootlegger who made the mistake of selling liquor to Negroes--makes her life in the store even more miserable (she does not know this until the end).

There is an additional outsider, the character of Carole Cutrere (Cassandra Whiteside in Battle). She is part of the town's richest family, but is wayward, sleeping with men and behaving outrageously. She would probably be diagnosed as bipolar today, but in the time and place Williams writes of, she is cast out. She vies for Val's affections, but he spurns her, not appreciating being seen only as a hunk of meat.

Carole, though, has what is perhaps the best line of the play, near the closing, when she barters for Val's snakeskin jacket: "Wild things leave skins behind them, they leave clean skins and teeth and white bones behind them, and these are tokens passed from one to another, so that the fugitive kind can always follow their kind..."

The Fugitive Kind was the title of the film version, directed by Sidney Lumet, that I have not seen. I'll try to catch up with it in the coming days.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

The Last Metro

The last film I'll be discussing in my series on Francois Truffaut is 1980's The Last Metro, which was not his last film, but the last that is available on DVD. It is to theater what Day for Night was to film; a backstage romance that has the added element of being set during the Nazi occupation of Paris.

Catherine Deneuve is an actress of major accomplishment who is running her husband's theater after he flees the country. But quickly we discover he has not fled--he's hiding in the theater's basement. He is able to listen to rehearsals through a heating event, and gives notes to Deneuve who shares with them with the unknowing cast. As with Truffaut having his director character deaf in Day for Night, this is an interesting commentary on the limited power of the director.

The lead male in the play is Gerard Depardieu, who at first balks at taking the part, since the theater will not hire Jews. It is explained to him that they have no choice, or will they not receive permission from an unctuous arts commissioner. Depardieu and Deneuve are respectful to each other, but over the course of the film will fall in love, even while Depardieu secretly works for the resistance and Deneuve dutifully attends to her husband.

There are other subplots involving other members of the cast, including a lesbian designer, a gay director, and a stagehand who works wonders but dates a girl who ends up being a thief. The look of the picture is old-fashioned and luscious, evoking a period of time in which people went to the theater to stay warm, as they didn't have enough coal to heat their own homes. After the show, they had to make sure to catch the last train, or metro, home, so as not to defy the curfew.

When I saw this film the first time, back in college, I was knocked out by it, especially by the tricky ending. This time I found it more perfunctory. Maybe it's because I've seen a lot more "hiding from Nazi" pictures. Deneuve's husband (Heinz Bennent) really is no danger--the one time the Nazis come to look they easily hide him--instead this movie is really just a series of anecdotes that just happens to be set during 1942. It's hard to pinpoint the exact spine of the picture.

The film did receive an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film, and swept the Cesar Awards. It was one of Truffaut's most successful films.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

The Man Who Loved Women

The Man Who Loved Women is very carefully titled. There have been many films about womanizers, Casanovas, Don Juans, skirt chasers, Lotharios, etc., but Francois Truffaut's 1977 film is a different sort of film. His protagonist, unlike many womanizers, who secretly hate women, is the opposite. He really loves women.

Charles Denner stars as Bertrand, a not especially good looking man who has a way with women. We get this idea from the opening scene, which is at his funeral, attended only by women. But, as the film moves steadily along, we realize he does not seduce women like someone collecting baseball cards, he loves them like a child loves candy, and could no more stop pursuing them than he could stop breathing.

Over the course of the film we will see his many romantic adventures, as he is putting them all down in a book. We start with him going to great lengths to find a woman whose only feature he spies is her legs. He jots down her license plate number, and then crashes his own car in order to report the number to his insurance company get her name. When he finds out she has gone back to Canada, he shrugs.

We also see him in a strange relationship with a psychotic married woman who likes public sex. She ends up falling in love with him and shooting her husband, going to prison. When she gets out she shows up at his place, while he has another woman in bed. The solution? A threesome.

But all is not roses and rainbows for Denner. He is in a state of arrested development--there is no chance of him marrying or settling down--and several women call him on it. But when his book is purchased, his new editor (Brigitte Fossey) understands this, and sees that he is not an egoist--he is the exact opposite. He doesn't come on to women, as with the situation with the car, he connives to meet women indirectly. He spies a woman putting up a sign offering babysitting services. He hires her, and when she sees that there is no child she asks, "Where is the baby?" "I am the baby," he tells her.

This film was remade as a forgettable American film starring Burt Reynolds, and so many American films about this kind of thing miss the point--The Man Who Loved Women is not some expression of a male fantasy. Some may aspire to a life like Bertrand's, but in the long run he is unfulfilled and dies reaching for a woman's legs.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Love on the Run

Francois Truffaut ended his Antoine Doiniel saga with Love on the Run, in 1979. Truffaut said he was dissatisfied with the film, and though it has a certain charm, he was right. The film ends up being a summation of the films before, and doesn't offer any new insights into the character. As Truffaut pointed out, Antoine never evolves.

The film starts on the day of Antoine's (once again, Jean-Pierre Leaud) divorce from Christine (Claude Jade). They have amicably split, but Jade has had enough of his affairs and self-centeredness. Antoine is now living with a record-shop employee, Sabine (Dorothee). But when he runs into his old girlfriend, Colette (Marie-France Pisier) he impulsively hops on a train with her. She has been reading his book, a barely fictional account of his life, which has been told in the four previous Doiniel films.

The double-edged sword here is that Truffaut was able to use film clips from those films: The 400 Blows, Antoine and Collette (called Love at 20 in France), Stolen Kisses, and Bed and Board. When Antoine remembers something, we can see a film clip of it, as when he lies about his mother dying in The 400 Blows, or when he has an affair with a Japanese woman in Bed and Board. But having seen those films in the last few days, it has the effect of being a highlight reel, not a real movie. Antoine is still self-centered--Pisier tells him so--and his relationship with Sabine is based on a serendipitous, albeit romantic, coincidence.

The one spark here is that Pisier, who co-wrote the script, gives herself a subplot involving her defending a child murderer. Though I appreciate the attempt to give one of Antoine's woman a life beyond him, it sticks out like a sore thumb.

It's a shame the series ended on such a flat note. The closing credits are intercut with scenes of young Antoine from The 400 Blows, laughing as he spins around in a carousel. That's moving, but could have meant so much more with a stronger film.

Truffaut definitively stated that Love on the Run was the last Doiniel picture. Sadly, he died in 1984, so there was no chance to go back on that proclamation.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Story of Adele H.

In Two in the Wave it was pointed out how Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard's careers diverged and they broke their friendship. This can be clearly shown with Truffaut's The Story of Adele H. Godard couldn't make this kind of film if he tried. It's an old-fashioned costume melodrama, and bit fusty to boot.

The film concerns Adele Hugo, the daughter of novelist Victor Hugo (in films like this and The Last Station, which was about Tolstoy, it's kind of heartening that there was a time when novelists were the world's most famous people). She has followed the man she loves, Pinson (Ben Robertson), a British officer, to Halifax, Nova Scotia, in the hopes that he will marry her. He's kind of a drip, but our sympathy soon turns to him, as Adele is slowly revealed to be crazy.

So essentially this is a movie about a stalker. Adele, spurned by her former lover, writes her parents that they have married and her father places a wedding announcement in the local paper. This gets Pinson into some trouble, and he exposes Adele's lie. Eventually he is reassigned to Barbados, where she follows, walking through town in a tattered dress, completely mad.

While this film is technically proficient and has an excellent performance by Isabelle Adjani in the title role (she was nominated for an Oscar), at a certain point I came to the realization, why am I watching this? Why does Truffaut think this is an interesting subject? There really isn't much insight into Adele's character. Yes, she lives in her father's shadow, and had a sister who drowned, which troubles her dreams, but I fail to conclude how her story is different than any other woman in a similar situation.

The film does have its moments. My favorite scene has Adele attending the performance of a hypnotist. She goes backstage and wants to hire him to hypnotize Pinson to marry her, but when she sees that he's a fake she storms out of the room.

This film won the Cesar Award, the French equivalent of the Oscar, but I didn't think it was all that great.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Ruby Sparks

The marketing material for Ruby Sparks suggests a light-hearted romp of a romantic comedy. However, the script, by star Zoe Kazan, is far more interesting than that, and at times is provocatively serious. As someone who calls himself a writer, and who has created female characters, this film really got to me.

Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, Ruby Sparks touches on a theme that is old as the hills--the creator's relationship with his creation. This goes back at least to the myth of Pygmalion, and pops in works like Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and a pretty good Twilight Zone episode. The creator has power and responsibility over his creation, but just how much is morally correct?

A very good Paul Dano plays Calvin, a novelist who has writer's block. He has one novel, written when he was in high school, that was a publishing sensation, but now he lives in a white-walled house in California and dotes on his dog, but struggles to write anything (we know he's a bit off-kilter, too, because he uses a typewriter).

His psychiatrist (Elliot Gould) suggests writing about a person who likes his mangy dog. Dano ends up having a dream about his idealized woman. Inspired, he writes reams about her, and is naturally surprised when he finds that she has come to life, and is living in his house. She is the title character, and is played by Kazan.

When Dano realizes he's not crazy, and other people can see her, he is overjoyed. After all, he has created her--she is girlfriend of his dreams. Everything he ever wanted in a girl is embodied in her. And just by typing a line, he can change her. But he decides she's perfect as she is and puts his manuscript away.

But, as any writer knows, a character soon slips out of the control of the author and takes on a life of her own. When the two start drifting apart, Dano goes back to his typewriter and makes changes, and the movie takes on a very dark tone. He makes her too clingy, depressed when he lets go of her hand. So he makes her happy, and she giggles like an idiot. When she strips down to her underwear for a swim with his friend (Steve Coogan), he overreacts, and exercises his omnipotence in a scene that is frighteningly effective.

Kazan's script is the star here. She obviously has heard of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, a character that is usually typified by a quirky, pretty girl who comes along to ease the young, tortured hero's pain, and whose role only exists in the film for that purpose. These women are usually created by lovelorn screenwriters, who have decided that if they can't find this girl in real life, they'll make her up. Kazan has turned that on its head, and quite angrily, I think, exposes that gimmick as misogynistic. Kazan wants us to know that female characters are people, too, and not objects, though that should be obvious.

While Ruby Sparks is an excellent depiction of writers and writing, it isn't perfect. The extraneous stuff is crudely drawn and badly handled. A scene involving Dano's mother and stepfather (Annette Bening and Antonio Banderas), as stereotypical new-agers, is awkward and unnecessary. I liked Chris Messina as Dano's brother--though Messina is a good-looking, successful man, I found the sibling relationship authentic--we don't get much of an insight into his character.

But overall, I enjoyed Ruby Sparks a great deal. Kazan, by the way, is very good in this part, but let's face it, she got it because she wrote the script (and is an executive producer). Otherwise, certainly, this part would have gone to Zooey Deschanel, the poster child for the Manic Pixie Dream Girls.

My grade for Ruby Sparks: B+


Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Day for Night

Francois Truffaut won only one Oscar--it was for the 1973 Best Foreign Language film, and the winner was Day for Night. He was also nominated for Best Director and Writer for the film. Aside from The 400 Blows, it is Truffaut's most acclaimed film.

By this time, it was clear that Truffaut was unabashedly a sentimentalist, and a lover of Hollywood cinema. The French title of the film is La Nuit Americain, or The American Night, which is a term for shooting a night scene during the day (the American phrase for this is, natch, day for night). By using the word American in his title, Truffaut clearly, even at the height of his game, was still acknowledging the influence of American movies on his work.

Day for Night is the story of a film being made, and it plays like an exciting adventure. Truffaut himself plays the director, who is dogged but not mercurial--there's a kind of business problem-solving aspect to him. He also, interestingly, is deaf, and wears a hearing aid on his sleeve.

The plot covers all the vicissitudes of making a movie, from insurance problems to temperamental stars to an actress who is pregnant to a cat not going for a saucer of milk to the death of an actor. Some of them are quite funny, especially embodied by Valentina Cortese as an aging star who hits the sauce a little too hard and can't remember her lines (Cortese was nominated for an Oscar, and the winner, Ingrid Bergman, said that she should have won).

Several subplots run through the film. Jacqueline Bisset is the English superstar who has just come off a nervous breakdown. Jean-Pierre Leaud is a love-struck actor who gets dumped by a script girl, and then locks himself in his room. He comes out, wearing just a nightshirt, and asks for money for a whore.

But the overall theme of the film is the siren call of cinema to those involved. Nathalie Baye, who plays Truffaut's assistant, can't believe that a person would quit a movie for a man: "I would drop a guy for a film," she says, "but never a film for a guy."  Truffaut, luring Leaud back to work, tells him: "Go back to your room, re-read the script, learn your lines, then try to sleep. Tomorrow we work. That's what matters. Don't be a fool. You're a very good actor. No one's private life runs smoothly. That only happens in the movies. No traffic jams, no dead periods. Movies go along like trains in the night. And people like you and me are only happy in our work."

Truffaut also seems to be interested in showing the sausage-making of film. We see how artificial snow is made, how a simple window dressing can stand in for an entire apartment, and how large crowd scenes are handled. Here, film is magic, but it's also nuts and bolts and work.

The film is dedicated to Dorothy and Lillian Gish, and Truffaut pays homage to the silent era with his treatment of Bisset. She's a perfectly capable actress, but Truffaut can't stop glorying in her face. And it's a great face.

There have been many films about the making of movies--screenwriters write about what they know, after all--and Day for Night may be the best one ever made.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Gumby

While visiting my brother this weekend, I had a chance to experience children's television. He has three kids; six, four, and two. The older kids mostly watch Nickelodeon and Disney, and these channels have inane situation comedies. I can't say that they are any more inane than the stuff I used to watch, but I tend to think they are.

But while channel surfing, I stumbled upon reruns of old Gumby cartoons, and while I was retreating into my past, my six-year-old niece seemed to be transfixed. Gumby was a big part of my childhood, and my younger sisters didn't remember him (my four-year-old niece insisted she did).

Gumby was a stop-motion animated show created by Art Clokey in the '50s. They were in production, I now learn, until the late '60s. The shows we watched were made around 1968. They are, in comparison with today's animation, primitive.

But strangely, they are absorbing. Gumby, of course, was a tall green bendable figure, and his main pal was Pokey, an orange pony. I had forgotten about other characters, like Prickle, a yellow dinosaur, and Goo, a blue mermaid. Mostly what I remember is that Gumby would jump into books, where he would be in the world of the book, or try to outwit the Blockheads, who were always into mischief.

As now, merchandising was a big part of Gumby. I had the Gumby figures, and I remember having a hobby horse with Pokey's head on it. My memory is fuzzy, but this toy may have been involved in getting caught in an antenna and pulling a TV set over. Even now I have pristine Gumby and Pokey figures, purchased at a flea market.

The Gumby cartoons are only a few minutes long, and have hardly any plot at all. One involved the Blockheads riding a Ferris wheel and using a fishing pole to steal carnival prizes. Pokey masquerades as a prize, and ends up clinging to the spokes of the wheel.

Clokey also invented Davy and Goliath, a stop-motion show that was created for a religious organization to teach good morals. I watched that show, too, even though it is far easier to mock. Gumby, though, is mock proof, despite Eddie Murphy's SNL sketches depicting him as a cigar-chomping curmudgeon. This was homage, not mocking.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Paul Ryan

After Mitt Romney announced that Congressman Paul D. Ryan was his running mate (on a Saturday, during the Olympics) there were a lot of raised eyebrows, and a lot of sports and game metaphors. One I heard was doubling down, since Ryan is most famous for his draconian budget, and the Republicans, as we know, talk a lot about cutting the budget, although they usually increase it.

I think the more apt phrase is the hail Mary, a desperation pass at the end of a football game. Or, keeping with cards, perhaps "all in" is the phrase, when a player shoves all his chips into the pot, in a win-or-go-home hand.

Ryan, at 42, is a hero of the hard right, and reports were earlier in the week that the Tea Party element of the party was pushing Romney to choose him. It's impossible to imagine what goes on in Romney's mind--I don't think he knows most of the time. So onecan't help but feel this choice was made for him, and that Romney is a puppet on the hand of a larger force, one that hasn't been able to fully embrace the once-moderate governor of Massachusetts, but forced his hand to make him more acceptable to fire-breathing conservatives.

As many writers pointed, this is the choice of a man who knows he is losing. Ryan offers nothing to the ticket that would woo undecided voters. He's meat for the carnivores to savor, but independents aren't likely to be swayed by him. For one thing, he's best known for advocating a privatization of Medicare, which basically ensures that Obama will win Florida. He's also a career politician (Romney said that presidents should be required to have run a business--Ryan has not). Ryan has no particular foreign policy experience. He is in a state that Obama is handily ahead in the polls (Ryan's unfavorables in Wisconsin aren't much lower than his favorables). What he seems to have done for the race is galvanize some sluggish parts of the left wing, like Hollywood.

So what is the rationale for Romney picking him? I can't figure it out. Rob Portman might have helped in Ohio, and Marco Rubio might have helped in Florida and, as a Latino, would have been historic. One could see  the Ryan choice as bold, if you think it's bold to wander into traffic wearing a blindfold. In some ways, the Sarah Palin pick made more sense--at least, as a woman, she made the race more dynamic. Ryan seems to be just another white guy in a suit.

People don't know much about Ryan now, but already the left wing is defining him as a deficit hawk who is taking away grandma's Medicare and a devotee of Ayn Rand, whose philosophy basically can be summed up as "selfishness is a virtue." Ryan also presented the recent budget, which was roundly unpopular. So unpopular that moments after selecting Ryan, Romney distanced himself from it.

The choice of Ryan, whether its reckless or calculating, bold or cowardly, seems to be meaningless. I can't imagine him earning one vote that was previously intended for Obama. Perhaps Romney, knowing he's doomed, has decided to prepare for an "I told you so" in November, blaming his loss on the Tea Party. Ryan, unless he is a gaffe machine, would seem to be groomed now to be the right's candidate in 2016.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Bed and Board

Francois Truffaut's third feature in the Antoine Doiniel cycle was Bed and Board, from 1970. It is an absolutely delightful picture that made me laugh several times, and I always had a smile on my face. In some ways it is proto-Woody Allen romantic comedy.

Our hero, played by Jean-Pierre Leaud, is now married, to Christine (Claude Jade), his girlfriend from Stolen Kisses. They live in a tight-knit apartment building, where a number of endearing oddballs live, such as the man who won't leave his apartment until Marshall Petain dies.

Antoine and Christine are happy, though poor. She teaches violin lessons. He starts by working in a flower shop, trying to revolutionize a method of dying flowers. That doesn't work, so he ends up at a hydraulics company, steering miniature boats in a small-scale harbor. They have a baby son, and there's some comedy about what his name is. Christine wants Ghislain, but Antoine says that sounds like a baby who wears velvet knickers. He wants Alphonse, but Christine thinks that sounds like a peasant. Since Antoine fills out the paperwork, Alphonse it is.

It is at his new job that Antoine meets a Japanese woman, Kyoko (Hiroko Berghauer). The two enter an affair, though Antoine is quickly tired of it, as he has trouble sitting at those low Japanese tables and the two have nothing to talk about. Christine finds out about it (in a lovely scene involving opening flower petals) and kicks him out. Will true love conquer all?

Truffaut, as with Stolen Kisses, films this as a meringue, not getting heavy but just following his characters as they bounce through the pinball machine. There are a lot of little quirks and eddies, such as when an old policeman says of Christine, "I wouldn't lay her well, but I would lay her often." Jacques Tati makes a cameo, in full Monsieur Hulot costume. There's a running gag involving a fellow who owes money to Antoine, but every time they run into each other, Antoine is owed even more money. And there's a recurring appearance by a guy everyone calls "the Strangler" who turns out to be a TV comedian.

But the heart of the film is the buoyant and funny relationship between Antoine and Christine. If indeed Antoine is part Truffaut, there appears to be self-satirization, such as when Christine says of Antoine's biographical novel, "I don't like this business of writing about your childhood, dragging your parents through the mud. I don't know much, but one thing I do know - if you use art to settle accounts, it's no longer art." Antoine, who again is friendly with Christine's parents (he has a pleasant run-in with her father at a whorehouse) says, "I like all parents. Except my own."

Though the film could be seen as Truffaut's Scenes From a Marriage, it never gets very serious. Christine never really gets that mad at him, and there's always a sense that they will get back together. The film was intended to be the last in series, but ten years later Truffaut and Leaud teamed up one more time.

Friday, August 10, 2012

The Scorpio Races

The Scorpio Races is a young adult novel that bears some similarity to The Hunger Games, in that it is built around a competition that can be deadly. But instead of being political in nature, it is more grounded in emotion and a connection to nature.

I hadn't known, before reading this book, that there is a mythical creature known as the water horse. Celtic in origin, author Maggie Stiefvater has given them the ability to run on land and be tamed, to a certain degree. On an island that would appear to be off the coast of Ireland, every year on the first of November a race takes place, with mounts on top of water horses. The winner gets a lot of money, but there's a good chance of mortality, as water horses are carnivorous.

This is a well written novel, but at times I got impatient with it. Again, I'm reminded of The Hunger Games because we wait and wait until the competition, but in The Scorpio Races the race is wrapped up in one chapter. Instead their is a slow and inexorable relationship brewing between the two narrators. One is Sean Kendrick, who has won the race several times. He's a groom for the richest man on the island, who owns all the best water horses, and Sean has formed an attachment to the best of them--Corr. He wants to win the race so he can buy Corr from the owner.

The other narrator is Kate (Puck) Connolly. As the novel begins, her elder brother announces he is moving to the mainland. She then finds out that the family is a year in arrears on her house. She will be the first girl to ride in the race, but will do so on a regular horse, a small mare named Dove, who everyone mistakenly thinks is a pony. Everyone thinks she's nut to do so, but she needs to win to save her house. Another factor--she hates water horses, because her parents were killed by one.

The best thing about the book is the way Stiefvater sets a sense of place. I imagine the fictional island of Thisby is meant to be like one of the Aran Islands, or perhaps an island off the coast of Scotland, a remote place where everybody knows everybody. I'm not sure what the time period is meant to be--cars are rare: "Cars are never a good sign. Not many people on the island have them, and fewer still have a reason to come out here. Usually the only people who come this way are men who don't take off their hats as they hand over unpaid invoices."

And though the overall tone is somber, like the gray skies of an Irish November, there is a droll sense of humor: "Dory is what Mum used to call a 'strong-looking woman,' which meant that, from the back, she looked like a man, and, from the front, you preferred the back."

Though the romance between Sean and Puck is inevitable, I liked the way Stiefvater handled it. Indeed, she has structured her plot so that both our protagonists need to win the race, and we're not sure who to root for. But the ending makes perfect and logical sense.

The trouble I had with the book is the water horses themselves. I struggled through the first third or so of the book understanding the difference between them and regular horses, other than that water horses ate meat and could swim. Can they breathe underwater? Do they look different than horses; i.e., do they have webbed feet,fins or gills? They can be tamed, but, as we learn in one scene, they can come ashore and menace the local population. It would seem they are like lions or tigers in some respect, but I couldn't fully grasp their danger.

Still, this is a fairly good novel that at times plodded but at other times really sang, especially in the race chapter. "What it's like is a battle. A mess of horses and men and blood. The fastest and strongest of what is left from two weeks of preparation on the sand. It's the surf in your face, the deadly magic of November on your skin, the Scorpio drums in the place of your heartbeat. It's speed, if you're lucky. It's life and it's death or it's both and there's nothing like it."

Thursday, August 09, 2012

The Wild Child

From 1970, The Wild Child is a very interesting and compelling film by Francois Truffaut that examines a true story, an example of the "wild child," a human being that has lived without connection to any other people.

Set in the turn of the 18th century France, the film is about the Wild Boy of Aveyron, a feral boy of about eleven or twelve who was found living on his own, naked, surviving on what ever food he could find. No one ever found out his past, but assumptions were he was abandoned. He is taken to the society for deaf and mute children, though it is discovered he can hear. He is to be turned over to the asylum for idiots when a doctor (Truffaut himself) takes personal charge of the boy and seeks to teach him to be civilized.

The film is presented almost in a documentary style, as the plot mostly concerns the journal of Truffaut, who struggles to teach the boy, as well as coming to grips with whether he is doing the right thing. Over the course of the film we the audience must decide just what "civilized" means. Do we really need to eat with a spoon? Or wear shoes? At times the doctor doubts what he is doing, and wonders if Victor, as he names the boy, would be better off back in the woods.

The Wild Child is also visually interesting. Photographed by Nestor Almendros, who would go on to have a long and fruitful association with Truffaut, the film has the look of a silent--black and white, and with frequent use of irising. The lead performance, by a child named Jean-Pierre Cargol, is quite astonishing, and Truffaut said that he played the part of the doctor not out of vanity, but because he believed it would be better if he worked with the child without an intermediary.

The film can lead to fascinating discussion, as it also ties in with the Enlightenment, and the writing of men such a Rousseau and Montesquieu, as well as the work of naturalists and transcendentalists. Truffaut was inspired to make the film after reading about such cases throughout history, but the case of Victor happened at an interesting time in history, on the cusp of breakthroughs in scientific thought.

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Mississippi Mermaid

Mississippi Mermaid, from 1969, seemed to be an attempt by Francois Truffaut to make an Alfred Hitchcock picture, and he did not succeed. It has many of the elements Hitchcock used, but without the tautness and balance of the master. Instead it's kind of a mess.

The film also has noir elements, in that its protagonist is a man who acts stupidly over a woman. Jean-Paul Belmondo is a wealthy owner of a tobacco plantation and cigarette factory on the island of Reunion, which is located in the Indian Ocean. He has been corresponding with a woman he met through the classified ads, and they are to marry. When she arrives, she does not look like her picture--she's Catherine Deneuve--who explains that she did not want their relationship to be about her beauty. Belmondo can't complain--not only is she a knockout, but he lied about his monetary status, not wanting to attract gold-diggers.

The two marry, and I'm reluctant to go much further in the plot summary, because I didn't know what was coming, and it was enjoying to ride along with the twists. Suffice it to say that Deneuve is not who she says she is, and when Belmondo gives her access to his bank accounts we can tell this is a bad idea.

While Truffaut idolized Hitchcock, he just doesn't have a feel for this material. Belmondo, to use a more modern cinematic line, just can't quit Deneuve, no matter what she did to him. She's the equivalent of Hitchcock's icy blonde--I can't tell if Deneuve's mostly blank performance was on purpose or not. In any case, it's hard to sympathize with Belmondo's character, who continuously does stupid things. There's an incredible coincidence that occurs when Belmondo and Deneuve, without each other's knowledge, end up in the same seaside French city. Also, Chekhov's rule about a gun being introduced to the story is followed to the letter.

At a certain point in the story I stopped caring about these two, as he was so dumb and her motives were so ambiguous. I could swear, though, that the end of the film takes place in the same mountain cabin that Shoot the Piano Player did. Truffaut often put in little inside jokes--the novel that this film is based on, Waltz Into Darkness, by Cornell Woolrich, can be seen in Stolen Kisses being read by Antoine Doiniel. There are other isolated moments of whimsy, such as when Deneuve is changing her top while in a car, and another motorist gazes at her and drives off the road.

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Stolen Kisses

Director Francois Truffaut and actor Jean-Pierre Leaud would team to make four features and one short covering the adventures of Antoine Doiniel, covering 20 years. It was the longest association of an actor, director and character in cinema history.

The second feature was Stolen Kisses, released in 1968. Much more comic in tone than The 400 Blows, the film views Antoine after being kicked out of the army, struggling to find himself in a series of jobs.

This film is really a confection, not very substantial but with a lot of Gallic charm. This, even though it was filmed during the turmoil surrounding the dismissal of Henri Langlois from the Cinematheque Francais, which caused riots in Paris. The film is dedicated to Langlois, and during the opening credits we see the closed doors of the Cinematheque.

But Truffaut was not a political filmmaker. 1968 was one of the most turbulent years in world history, especially in France, but there's hardly a whiff of it here. The only direct mention is when Antoine's girlfriend (Claude Jade) mentions she has been to a demonstration, and he reacts as if she said she went to the moon. Truffaut was also a sentimentalist, and this is a delightful but insubstantial romantic comedy.

The opening scenes show Antoine being unceremoniously and dishonorably discharged from the army. He makes faces as his commanding officer dresses him down, reminding him he will be unable to get a civil service job; suggesting he may sell neckties on the street. Recalling Antoine's urge to roam from The 400 Blows, we hear how often he went AWOL.

As with Antoine and Collette, the short Truffaut made in 1962, Antoine's only family is the parents of his girlfriend. This time she's Christine, whom he wrote to in the army, but they seem to have settled into a friendship. Christine's father gets him a job as a night clerk at a hotel, but he gets fired when a private detective tricks him into opening a door to reveal a woman in the midst of adultery. The detective (pointedly name Henri) feels bad for him and gets him a job at his detective agency, where Antoine becomes the most hapless detective outside of Inspector Clouseau.

One of his assignments is to go undercover at a shoe store, to find out why the owner (Michel Lonsdale) is so disliked. He ends up falling for the man's wife, and, similarly to The Graduate, which came the year before, the two engage in an affair in which Antoine is bumblingly nervous, while the wife (Delphine Seyrig) is assured.

This film is like The Graduate in many ways, as it captures the uncertain time of a young man who doesn't quite know where he fits in. As with The Graduate, politics are of no interest to the young man--he's a misfit, not a revolutionary.

It's interesting that Truffaut chose to follow his character from a very serious film like The 400 Blows with such a slight picture. Antoine Doiniel was, as Truffaut says, "like me, but not like me." So one assumes that in 1968, things were going well for Truffaut.

Monday, August 06, 2012

Fahrenheit 451

Fahrenheit 451 was Truffaut's first film in color, and his only film in English (he was, for a while, attached to filming Bonnie and Clyde, which I would have loved to have seen). It is, of course, based on the famous dystopian novel by Ray Bradbury, in which firemen don't put out fires, they start them. They burn books.

Book burning is a particularly odious image, mostly associated with Nazis, but pops up every once in a while even in our freedom-loving U.S.A. The opening scene shows a squad of firemen, wearing kind of odd, Victorian-style helmets, riding a vehicle that is both futuristic and antique, to a home where someone is hiding books. Montag (Oskar Werner) is an expert at finding hidden books--false TV sets are a typical place. The firemen then gather the offending material and burn it.

In this society of Bradbury's creation, printed material is banned (the opening credits are spoken, not typed). Citizens are kept docile by drugs and TV, and told that books lead to unhappiness. Of course, what the government fears about books is that they have alternative ideas, but they have persuaded most that books are dangerous to their well-being.

Montag is in line for a promotion, but a few things start to happen. He meets a vivacious neighbor (Julie Christie, who also plays his vapid wife). Then he becomes intrigued by the books he burns. His captain, Cyril Cusack, says this happens to the best of firemen, but he insists that books are rubbish. But Montag starts to read David Copperfield, and then gets hooked. Soon his house is full of books.

Truffaut handles this high-concept material mostly straight, without filigree or tricks. There are a few inside jokes--in one bonfire, we see a copy of Cahiers du Cinema with Truffaut on the cover--but for the most part this is straight ahead science-fiction, and at times elegantly exciting. A taut sequence in which a woman is found with a hidden library, what Cusack calls the dream find of any firemen, is magnified by her insistence on being burned with the books, an image that Montag can not shake.

The science-fiction elements are handled somewhat strangely. As I said about the uniforms, though this is set in the future, we don't know how far ahead. For all I know Bradbury may have been referencing the increasing cultural illiteracy of his own time. A few things, such as wall-sized televisions, have the aura of the new, but otherwise there are no "Jetsons"-style gadgets, except for some jetpacks, which are shown in cheesy rear projection.

But this film is not about technical wizardry. Especially noted is a scene in a school, where children are drilled not in their ABCs but in multiplication tables (the old woman recites them mockingly while going up in flames). Which brings me to a question--are people taught to read? Montag stumbles through David Copperfield, reading as a first-grader might. But clearly he knows how to read--how was he taught? Are there no instruction manuals? Apparently not. It's a bit of a puzzle, but certainly nothing to impinge on the excellence of this film.

Sunday, August 05, 2012

Farewell, My Queen

A familiar plot device in historical dramas is to view world-changing events through the eyes of someone in the periphery, especially a servant. This device, a kind of "Upstairs, Downstairs" tactic, is used in Farewell, My Queen, a film by Benoit Jacquot, which gives us the behind-the-scenes look at the palace of Versailles in the days immediately following the beginning of the French revolution.

Lea Seydoux is Sidonie, who is a reader for the Queen, Marie-Antoinette. She is a girl of unknown origin, a mystery to the other servants. But she loves the queen, who is good to her, and enjoys being able to discuss literature with her.

The film begins on July 14, 1789, when the Bastille was stormed. The next day the palace is in tumult. A notice is passed around, with the names of those whom the revolutionaries want to behead, which includes the queen, and the queen's friend, a Duchess (Virginie Ledoyen). The queen tells Seydoux that she has a special love for the Duchess, which I think we are meant to assume is sexual.

The film ends when Seydoux finds out just what the queen thinks of her, asking her to make a sacrifice. The ending comes very abruptly, and I'm not sure what to make of it.

Though this film is about a subject as big as the French revolution, it's very small and intimate. Almost all of the action takes place in the palace, whether in the servants' quarters, the queen's rooms, or corridors. I found it to be only part of a film--somewhere there must be more--and as the screen went black I could feel a shared confusion in the audience.

Diane Kruger plays the queen, and this is only right, since Marie-Antoinette was Austrian. Kruger gives the character a properly spoiled regal quality--who else would need someone to read to her? At one point someone says of her, "she has never opened or closed a door on her own."

Seydoux is more of a blank slate, as her character seems to be just a reflection of the queen's. Another character comments how little she knows about her, and only at the end do we learn that she is an orphan. But the character is a black hole in the heart of the film, and it's difficult to work up any emotion about her.

Still, the film is sporadically interesting enough to warrant a slight recommendation.

My grade for Farewell, My Queen: C+.

Saturday, August 04, 2012

Sweet

Only those who lived through the '70s probably remember Sweet, a second-tier group that was a hybrid of glam bands like Queen and power rock groups such as The Who. They had a handful of hits during the decade, and though many of them can be described as cheesy, I have fond memories of them, so picked up a CD The Best of Sweet.

Back in the day, I had a couple of their vinyl albums: Desolation Boulevard and Give Us a Wink. The first was Sweet at their highest, the second the start of their decline. The biggest hit they had was "Ballroom Blitz," and anyone who was listening to radio back then can recall the spoken opening by vocalist Brian Connolly, as he asks each band member if he's ready,and when he gets three affirmatives, shouts, "All right, fellas, let's go!" The song, which has been covered by many groups since, was written by Sweet's producers after an ill-advised concert in Scotland, in which they were forced off stage by bottle-throwing hooligans.

Their other big hit was "Fox on the Run," and this is an ideal example of a simple, yet sterling pop single. It's almost perfect in its construction, and because it doesn't try too hard, ends up being a blissfully enjoyable three-minute listen. Almost as good is "Action," coming off of Give Us a Wink. The problem with that album, though, was Sweet attempted to match the high concept gimmickry of Queen, and failed miserably. The album had an insert that you could move to wake an eye "wink," and many of the songs were pretentious.

Sweet's last hit was the extra-cheesy "Love is Like Oxygen," which I can't resist nonetheless. It hearkens back to their bubblegum beginnings, with a lyric like, "Love is like oxygen--you get too much you get too high, not enough and you're gonna die, love gets you high." After that, lead singer Connolly, who has a kind of full-throated manic voice common to hair-band singers, left the group. He died after years of hard living, and drummer Mick Tucker has also passed away.

Sweet did have a distinctive sound--driving rock and roll, with loud guitars and a steady bass section, which they copied from The Who, who were their idols, but most notably for their castrato-like backing vocals, which made them sound like Queen.

There were a few other good songs, like "Teenage Rampage," and the infectious "Little Willy," but Sweet were never a great band and don't have much of a legacy. But damn they are fun to listen to.

Friday, August 03, 2012

Deadwood, Season 2

Just got finished watching the second season of Deadwood, which, if not as enjoyable as the first, still had several sterling moments, and is again an example of how long-form television allows richer character development.

This season sees Sheriff Bullock (Timothy Olyphant) welcoming his wife (Anna Gunn) and son to Deadwood. She was married to his brother, and the boy is really his nephew. They have the kind of formality to their marriage that they call each other Mr. and Mrs. Bullock. Problem: he's in hot and heavy love affair with the widow Alma Garret (Molly Parker), and indeed she has become pregnant with his child.

Politics and economic maneuvering dominate the season, as the saloon owner and town poobah, Al Swearingen (Ian McShane, delicious as ever) maneuvers to have Deadwood annexed by Dakota, and plays a commissioner (Stephen Tobolowsky) like a fiddle. First Al must deal with kidney stones, and we watch in mutual agony as the Doc (Brad Dourif) inserts a catheter in his urethra. Without anesthetic, of course. In this season I learned the meaning of the word "gleat."

Another new face is that of Frances Wolcott (Garrett Dillahunt) an agent for millionaire George Hearst, who is in camp to buy up gold claims, after spreading rumors that they may be nullified. He also has kinky tastes, and ends up slitting the throats of three whores who work for the aborted brothel of Joanie Stubbs (Kim Dickens).

At first I found it hard to get accustomed to the rhythms of the speech--the writers of Deadwood have their characters speak in ornate prose, punctuated frequently by profanity. At times it seems like self-parody. But then again, it makes for some marvelous moments, usually spoken by the hapless mayor and hotelier, E.B Farnum (William Sanderson). I can't remember any of his lines in whole cloth, but I do remember one brief one, when he refers to Parker as a "haughty cunt."

The political wheelings and dealings are difficult to keep up with. I think it can be crystallized by Wolcott's phrase: "I am a sinner who does not expect forgiveness. But I am not a government official."

As usual, the acting is wonderful. Watching McShane expound is a thing of beauty, and Sanderson is a joy. At times Olyphant reads his lines as if from cue cards, but I think that's just the character.

One more season of Deadwood to watch.


Thursday, August 02, 2012

Jules and Jim

Sometimes it takes multiple viewings, and perhaps life experience, to fully appreciate a film. I first saw Jules and Jim in college, and then again about ten years ago, but I just didn't get the acclaim. This time, for whatever reason, I found it to be a beautiful and poignant examination of love and friendship.

Francois Truffaut's third film, from 1962, Jules and Jim takes place over twenty years, starting in 1912. Jim (Henri Serra) is a Parisian, Jules (Oskar Werner) is an Austrian, and they meet and become friends. Jim has lots of girlfriends, but Jules can't seem to find one. They visit an Adriatic island to see statues that they see in a slide show a friend shows them. They are struck particularly by a large bust of a woman. Later, that friend will introduce them to Catherine (Jeanne Moreau), who looks just like the statue.

Jules will fall for her, and tells Jim, with something of a wink, to leave her alone. Indeed, the two marry and have a child. The Great War interrupts their friendship, as the two friends fight on opposite sides. After the war, Jim visits the couple in Austria, where he finds the marriage coming apart. He and Catherine fall in love, and Jules accepts this, and three live together. Eventually Jim and Catherine come apart, and Catherine makes a desperate decision.

This film became kind of famous for being an example of a menage a trois, although technically it isn't, and the film is not all that salacious. Instead it displays how three people love each in a triangle, but not always at the same time. The strongest relationship is that between Jules and Jim, though there is nothing homoerotic about it. Their shared love of Catherine is just something else they have in common.

Truffaut's New Wave style is evident here. The opening montage, narrated, is a dizzying montage (the photography, as ever, is by Raoul Coutard) and the subtitles can hardly keep up. Indeed, the voiceover is omnipresent, and reminds me somewhat of the narration in Woody Allen's Vicki Cristina Barcelona, but unlike that film, here it never feels tacked on or unnecessary.

There is also an element of humor. The music, by Georges Delerue, would indicate that Jules and Jim is a farce, though it has a tragic ending. Truffaut explains in an interview that he did not want to make scenes too melodramatic, as this would have been a disservice to Henri Roche, who wrote the original novel. Because the writer told his story from a distance of time, the pain was lessened, and the humor was enhanced, and that is how Truffaut framed the narrative.

Moreau, with her wide mouth and penetrating eyes, was a major star of French cinema, and this is probably her greatest role. She is a difficult character, but really is ahead of her time, and she doesn't believe in a double standard. When Jim returns to Paris to say "goodbye" to some old loves, she decides to do the same. Jules later tells Jim that she believes a relationship should have monogamy of one partner, but not from her. While watching, she may be infuriating, but it's easy to see why these two devote their lives to her.


Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Shoot the Piano Player

Francois Truffaut's second film was Shoot the Piano Player, released in 1960. Though highly regarded today, it was a flop with the general audience. It was firmly within the French New Wave, as it employed voiceovers, jump cuts, and an appreciation for American film noir. I've seen it three times now, and though it doesn't seem like much while watching it, it kind of sneaks up on you and when it's over you've realized you've seen something magical.

Based on an American pulp novel, Shoot the Piano Player deals with Charlie (Charles Aznavour), a pianist in a bar. We will learn that he was a concert pianist by the name of Edouard Saroyan, but a personal tragedy led him to hiding his identity and raising his much younger brother, content with wasting his talent.

Stumbling into his life comes his older brother (a very funny Albert Remy), who, along with another brother, has fleeced a couple of hapless thugs, who are now chasing after him. The thugs (Ernest and Momo) use Charlie to try to get him to reveal his brothers' location, and while the overall tone is comic, the consequences are deadly.

Shoot the Piano Player, though on the surface a simple crime tale that can be summarized in two minutes, is nonetheless complex in its dealings with human themes. To start is the notion of what is to be an artist, as Charlie thinks of himself as one, though he squandered his talent. We see an extended flashback of his time with his wife (Nicole Berger), who is a waitress in a cafe. Charlie learns that she slept with an impresario in order to further his career, and though his inner voice tells him to forgive her, he can not, and this leads her suicide.

The film also deals with second chances, as Charlie enters a romance with another waitress (Marie Dubois). When the two of them are taken by Ernest and Momo, they seem to share a sense of adventure, as neither takes the thugs very seriously, even if they are armed.

Finally, this is Truffaut's tribute to film noir, though at times is parodic. The opening scenes see Remy fleeing from Ernest and Momo, but he runs smack into a lightpost. He ends up being helped by a good Samaritan, and the two have a pleasant conversation about marriage. Remy says he would like to be married, and the Samaritan says, "You say that like you mean it."

The end is a shootout outside a snowy cabin, which seems to be included as much for necessity as anything else. One character dies, their body elegantly skidding down a snowy slope.

Above all, the film is funny. There's one gag worthy of Mel Brooks--Momo (or was it Ernest?) says "If I am lying, may my mother keel over right this instant." We then get an iris shot of an old woman, keeling over. It's also sexy, with Charlie's next door neighbor, a prostitute played by Michele Mercier, showing off a spectacular set of breasts.

Aznavour was famous in France as a singer, known as the French Frank Sinatra. He has a perfect look for film noir, with beetle eyes, a bantamweight who is sure of himself, even with his personal demons. I was surprised to learn that in a CNN worldwide poll, he was named entertainer of the century, beating out Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan.