Follow by Email

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Ironclad

I'm a sucker for movies about medieval England, and Ironclad is better than most. Directed by Jonathan English, it tells the story of what happened after the petulant King John was forced to sign the Magna Carta. According to the film, he set about with an army of Danish mercenaries and tried to execute all of the barons who were behind the rebellion.

One such baron, an unrepentant Albany (Brian Cox), sets off to Rochester castle with a small group of warriors. Apparently this castle is the key to the entire south of England. The local baron (Derek Jacobi) lets him in, but soon regrets it. Not only does John's army surround the castle and lay siege to it, but his much younger wife (Kate Mara) has eyes for the hunky Knight Templar (James Purefoy).

What makes this movie successful is that it doesn't resort to anachronistic silliness like most do. I have no idea if the history is accurate, but the film feels authentic. Checking Wikipedia I see that trebuchets were used in that period, and the film does not stint in letting us see the damage a battle axe can wield.

The performances are okay--Paul Giamatti is a good choice for John, as that king has never had good press, and Giamatti makes a natural villain. Purefoy plays a grim man very grimly, while Cox is a little more animated. I spent the whole movie trying to figure out which young British actress was playing Jacobi's wife, only it turned out to be an American.

This film fits in nicely with those others of the period--it's no Lion in Winter, which shows John as a young man, but it will do.

Monday, October 29, 2012

At the Circus

At the Circus, a 1939 Marx Brothers film, shares a disc with Room Service. While it's not a top-tier film by the boys, it's much better than Room Service, and has some iconic sequences, perhaps none so much as Groucho singing "Lydia, the Tattooed Lady."

This film was directed by Edward Buzzell. The setting is, natch, a circus, run by a disinherited rich kid (Kenny Baker) who is in love with a horse trainer (Florence Rice). He owes money to an unscrupulous businessman (James Burke), who wants to take over the circus. Baker has the money to pay Burke off, but Burke has the circus strongman (Nat Pendelton) and the midget (Jerry Maren), steal the money.

Enter attorney J. Cheever Loophole, played by Groucho, who is hired by Antonio (Chico) to help save the circus. Along with Punchy (Harpo), the much-abused assistant of Pendleton, they try to find the money and save the circus. Toward the end of the film we are all glad to see Groucho with Baker's aunt, Margaret Dumont, and the two, who are so marvelous together, work their magic. Groucho tells her of the night when he drank champagne from her slipper: "It was two quarts. There would have been more, but you were wearing inner soles."

Unlike Room Service, this film allows for bits of business that the Marx Brothers were known for. There's a wonderful scene in the midget's house, which is made to fit his size. Groucho, Chico, and Harpo try to get him to confess, or at least offer up one of his cigars as evidence. But every time Groucho asks Maren for a cigar, Chico offers one of his own. There's also a scene in which Groucho tries to get the money from Burke's girlfriend, an acrobat played by Eve Arden. When she puts the money down her top, Groucho looks to the camera and says, "How will I get that money without getting in trouble with the Hays Office?"

The film was written by Irving Brecher, and has a few lines that are worthy of S.J. Perelman, such as when Groucho, who is trying to board the circus train in a rainstorm but it is perpetually kept off by Chico, who demands a badge, is pushed into a puddle. Chico asks if he's wet, and Groucho says, "Nonsense! If I was any drier I'd drown."

There are also the requisite musical numbers. Chico plays the piano, Harpo the harp (in a vaguely racist musical number called "Swingali") but Groucho's "Lydia" number steals the show. The song has had a long life through the years--it was heard in The Philadelphia Story the very next year--and it was written by E.Y. Harburg and Harold Arlen, the same composers of "Over the Rainbow" that very same year. If you haven't heard it, look it up on YouTube, it's worth it.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Room Service

William A. Seiter worked with the greatest of comedians. He directed Sons of the Desert, one of the best Laurel and Hardy films, which I discussed here. He also directed the Marx Brothers in their 1938 comedy, Room Service.

Working with comedians like these require a certain "get out of the way" attitude. He certainly did that in Sons of the Desert, letting Laurel and Hardy work their magic, often in slow, quiet gags, such as when a washtub is hurled from one room, we hear an "Ohhhh!" from another room, and then a cut to Hardy, his head impaled through the bottom of the tub, looking forlornly at the camera.

Room Service is far less successful. The film has the distinction of being the only one that the Marx Brothers did that was not written expressly for them. It was based on a play about a theatrical producer trying to put on his show while also trying to avoid paying his hotel bill.

The role suits Groucho, who is in his usual form, though at a much more sedate nature than usual. Part of the problem is that the action is almost entirely limited to the hotel room--a plot point requires them all to stay in the room lest they not be allowed to return. But the script really has hardly anything for Chico and Harpo to do. There aren't any complicated scenes of dialogue for Chico to mangle, and hardly any physical gags for Harpo. The only thing I laughed at in this film is when Harpo, after going several hours without food, sits down to eat, the fork in his hand working like a metronome between the plate and his mouth.

Also in the film are very young Lucille Ball and Anne Miller, though Ball isn't allowed to show any of her comic ability. I'm not sure if this is the worst Marx Brothers movie--there are some films late in their career which can be punishing to watch, but it's close.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

The Tiger's Wife

"Everything necessary to understand my grandfather lies between two stories: the story of the tiger's wife, and the story of the deathless man," writes Tea Obreht in her novel, The Tiger's Wife. The book is an amalgamation of the myths and realities of the frequently war-torn Balkans, set in the present day and the past, with tall tales that might just be true.

The book is narrated by Natalia, a doctor working with orphans. Her grandfather, a doctor, has recently died, but he was in a city where no one knew he was. Natalia goes off to gather his possessions, and recalls his life as a boy in the town of Galina, as well as the three encounters he has with a man who can not die.

The deathless man, though not in the title, is the anchor of the book. In a land where death is so omnipresent, he is a starting apparition. He tells the grandfather that he was cursed by his uncle, who is none other than Death himself. The grandfather does not believe him, and ties him with a rope and stones and sinks him in a lake. Even before he was shot and arose at his own funeral, asking for water. "It is a sad thing to see, because as far as I know, this man Gavo has done nothing to deserve being shot in the back of the head at his own funeral. Twice."

The other story, about the tiger's wife, takes up more pages. It starts with an escaped tiger from a zoo, presumably during World War II. It hides out in the forest around Galina. Obreht's writing is strongest when she relates the story of the tiger: "He had been born in box of hay in a gypsy circus, and had spent his life feeding on fat white columns of spine in the citadel cage. For the first time, the impulse that made him flex his claws in his sleep, the compulsion that led him to drag his meat to the corner of the cage he occupied alone, was articulated into something other than frustration. Necessity drew him slowly out of his domesticated clumsiness. It strengthened and reinforced the building blocks of his nature, honed his languid, feline reflexes; and the long-lost Siberian instinct pulled him north, into the cold."

Grandfather, as a boy, sees the tiger in the town's smokehouse, with the deaf-mute and much physically abused wife of the local butcher. When she becomes pregnant, the town believes she has mated with the tiger, and carries the devil's child, and becomes known as the tiger's wife. Grandfather and his mother treat her kindly, though, even helping her escape from a hunter, Darisa, who is said to be man and bear.

These tales, suffused with myth, are contrasted with the current day, and also the period of war during the Balkans during the 1990s. At the town of Sarabor, Grandfather meets the deathless man, just before it is to be bombed. The deathless man knows that the elderly waiter of the restaurant where they meet will die. Grandfather thinks he should be told, so he can spend his last moments with his family, but the deathless man disagrees. Later, Natalia will have her own meeting with this man, after her grandfather's death, and writing is so good that I almost held my breath while reading it.

I did find some fault with the book, though. It's not an ideal book for putting down and picking up a few days later, as I sometimes lost my place with what was going with Natalia after the long stories from the past. But it's still a very good read, exemplified by stirring passages of poetic writing. The book closes this way: "There is, however, and always has been, a place on Galina where the trees are thin, a wide space where the saplings have twisted away and light falls broken and dappled on the snow. There is a cave here, a large flat slab of stone where the sun is always cast. My grandfather's tiger lives there, in a glade where the winter does not go away. He is the hunter of stag and boar, a fighter of bears, a great source of confusion for the lynx, a rapt admirer of the colors of birds. He has forgotten the citadel, the nights of fire, his long and difficult journey to the mountain. Everything lies dead in his memory, except for the tiger's wife, for whom, on certain nights, he goes calling, making that tight note that falls and falls. The sound is lonely, and low, and no one hears it anymore." Lovely.

Friday, October 26, 2012

If Only You Could Cook

William A. Seiter's 1935 film, If Only You Could Cook, is classified as a screwball comedy (it's part of a collection called "Icons of Screwball Comedy"), but it really isn't. Screwball comedies require constant motion, and very few people move at much speed in this film. But it's an affable curiosity from the period, and stars one of the great performers of that genre, Jean Arthur.

The film starts by focusing on Herbert Marshall, the suave head of a automobile comedy. He's set to marry a woman he doesn't love (he has money, she has a famous family) and then he's shot down in a boardroom, who refuses to sign off on his futuristic auto designs. He takes refuge in a park, and finds himself sitting next to a young woman (Arthur), who is looking for a job. She assumes, given that it's the depression, that he's looking for a job, too. He plays along, and they find an ad requiring two people--one a cook, the other a butler.

Marshall, figuring he needs a break from his life, helps her out, though she remains unaware of his true identity. They get the job, but the man who owns the estate is a gangster (Leo Carrilli). He's temperamental about his food, but soft-hearted, too, and because he loves Arthur's cooking, he ignores the warnings of his henchman (Lionel Stander) that something is fishy (he points out that Marshall sleeps on the porch, and waltzed into the office of the auto magnate without a problem).

All of this is served up very mildly--nothing zany here, folks. The closest to screwball comes when Marshall is kidnapped from his wedding by the mobsters, as Carilli has decided he will make him marry Arthur. I've never seen Marshall before--he's kind of a joy, very like George Sanders in his unflappable Britishness. Arthur, the queen of screwball comedy, gives it her all, though there isn't much to her part.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Seven Psychopaths

Toward the end of Seven Psychopaths, Christopher Walken asks Colin Farrell about his character's fascination with psychopaths, and adds, "They get kind of tiresome, don't they?" Yes, they do, and this wildly uneven film is evidence of that. Written and directed by Martin McDonagh, one of the best playwrights in theater today, Seven Psychopaths shows that McDonagh has yet to control his own indulgences, and it's a step down from his much better In Bruges.

Farrell plays an Irish screenwriter who has a case of writer's block. He has a title--Seven Psychopaths--but that's it. His friend, Sam Rockwell, gives him ideas to help him out, including telling a story about a man who stalks the killer of his daughter. Farrell, who wants to write about a serial killer who is peaceful (he lights upon "The Quaker Psycopath") and we see the fully realized segment, complete with Harry Dean Stanton in black coat and hat.

Meanwhile Rockwell is running a scam with his pal, Walken, in which they kidnap dogs and then return them for the reward money. They make a mistake in snatching the shih tzu of a mobster (yes, he's a psychopath) played by Woody Harrelson. When Harrelson's henchmen track Walken down, they are killed by a masked gunman who kills crooks, leaving Jack of Diamonds as his calling card.

Okay, where did McDonagh go wrong? Well, there's way too much going on here, for starters. In addition to this storyline, there's also a thread about a serial killer, Tom Waits, who carries around a white rabbit, and a Vietnamese man dressed like a priest. McDonagh seems to know his problem, as the film jokes about forgetting about these characters at the end. Perhaps Four or Five Psychopaths would have been better.

The film also makes an in-reference to the treatment of women, as Walken reads Farrell's script and says he can't write women characters. The women in this film are used horribly. Abbie Cornish is Farrell's girlfriend, and all she does is act like a bitch (which she is called several times) and then gets shot in a fantasy sequence while wearing a wet t-shirt. Olga Kurylenko, featured in the poster, has about a minute of screen time, before also being dispatched violently, and Gabourey Sidibe has one scene in which she pitifully begs for her life. The only female character allowed to have dignity is Walken's wife, played by Linda Bright Clay, but need I tell you how she ends up?

Seven Psychopaths also suffers from having been written and directed by someone who would seem to be a psychopath. I'm not suggesting McDonagh has mental problems, but the tone and pacing is so herky-jerky and undisciplined that psychosis could be assumed. Much of this derives from the character played by Rockwell, who is so over the top that one wishes he would get killed early on, but unfortunately he doesn't.

There is much to admire here. The script has a lot of diamonds, with some great lines of dialogue. Walken's performance is a thing to behold. He is an actor that freely indulges in self-parody (it's amazing to hear him intone "Fuck the police! Fuck 'em!") but he manages to do this while at the same time creating a character of depth. His speech at the end, regarding the Vietnamese character, gives the film an added weight that is appreciated, but is too little too late.

What the film needed was more rewrites and a director with a surer hand. Oh, and it also would help if it didn't rip off the basic idea of the TV series Dexter.

My grade for Seven Psychopaths: C.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Best American Short Stories 2012

"If a critic suggests that this anthology reads as if it was assembled by a heterosexual Caucasian male born during the Kennedy administration, I would have to plead no contest and throw myself on the mercy of the court," writes guest editor Tom Perrotta in his introduction to this year's collection of Best American Short Stories. Perrotta, who has written some marvelous stories, has chosen several stories that hew close to his style--a kind of drolly humorous look at hapless suburbanish Americans.

This is the third year I've read this recurring series, and I found that while I didn't dislike any of the stories, as I have in past volumes, I wasn't over the moon about as many as I have, either. In baseball parlance, there were a lot singles and a few doubles of the wall, but no strikeouts, and maybe only one home run.

The best story in the collection, by far, is Nathan Englander's "What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank," a twist on the Raymond Carver story, "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love," except that it focuses on Jewishness. A secular Jewish couple has an Orthodox couple over for the afternoon, and the resulting tension is deftly sketched out. The story begins with: "They're in our house maybe ten minutes and already Mark's lecturing us on the Israeli occupation. Mark and Lauren live in Jerusalem, and people from there think it gives them the right."

Other strong stories are "The Last Speaker of the Language," by Carol Anshaw, a comic romp through the lives of the desperate and underemployed. "Then, while she is sitting on the toilet, she sinks into the special sorrow of peeing while your mother is out cold on the floor next to you." Mike McGinnis' "Navigators," about a son that bonds through his father through a video game, really hit me as especially sad--I almost teared up while reading it.

There are a couple of vaguely science fiction stories. Stephen Millhauser, who often writes stories that could be made into Twilight Zone episodes, without the ironic endings, writes "Miracle Polish," about a man who buys mirror polish from a mysterious man and then becomes obsessed with looking at his image in mirrors. Eric Puchner's "Beautiful Monsters" concerns a world where aging has been stopped, and people remain as children forever, except for a band of aging adults who live in the wilderness.

Other strong entries are "What's Important Is Feeling," by Adam Wilson, a kind of riff on Truffaut's Day for Night, except the film set is in Corpus Christi, Texas. "Anything Helps," by Jess Walter, is a fascinating look at a homeless man, Kate Walbert's "M&M World" is about a woman who takes her two young daughters to the title store in Times Square, and the second best story is Angela Pneuman's "Occupational Hazard," which concerns a man having to deal with his co-worker's sudden death.

As I said, I didn't dislike any of the stories but a couple didn't really grab me. Taiye Selasi's "The Sex Lives of African Girls" is very long and I found myself confused while reading it, and while I usually like the quirky work of George Saunders, I found "Tenth of December," about a man set to commit suicide forced to save a boy from an icy pond, overwhelmed by style.

Other notable stories are Julie Otsuka's story of a child dealing with a parent's dementia in "Diem Perdidi," told in the second person, Alice Munro's look at women college students in the 1950s with "Axis," and a story of a girl obsessed with insects in Edith Pearlman's "Honeydew." It's a diverse collection, even if it is from a heterosexual white male born during the Kennedy administration.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Roberta

Over the next week or two I'll be taking a look at a few of the films by director William A. Seiter. To start, there's 1935's Roberta, a Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers film in which the famous pair are playing second fiddle to Randolph Scott and Irene Dunne.

Astaire is the leader of a band from Wabash, Indiana. They have arrived in France after being booked by the Russian owner of a nightclub in Paris. But he wanted Indians, with feathered headdresses, not Indianans. Scott, traveling along with the band, tells them he has an Aunt Minnie who is a famous dress designer in Paris, calling herself Roberta, and maybe she can help them out.

Astaire knows a girl in Paris, too, from back home. He's surprised to find her (Rogers) at Roberta's shop, posing as a Polish countess. She agrees to get his band a job if he keeps her false identity under his hat. It turns out that the band ends up getting a job at that same Russian's club.

Meanwhile, Scott falls for Roberta's assistant (Irene Dunne), while Astaire and Rogers fall in love as comic relief. The highlights of the film are surely their scenes together. They have a wonderful tap dance together, showing great chemistry as they kid around about the old days. Then they share another more elegant number together at the end of the film. Seiter, as usual in Astaire pictures, shoots the dance scenes all-in-one and in one shot--there's almost no cutting in these production numbers, which makes me wonder how many times they had to do it to get it right.

The film is charming and likable, though gets slowed down by Dunne's operatic numbers, where the camera merely is a long closeup. I had no idea that the standard "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" is from this film (actually from the stage musical on which it is based) and when Dunne sings it she really pours on the emotion.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Chico & Rita

It's nice that the Academy's animation branch doesn't fill the nominations entirely with Hollywood studio kiddie fare. As good as some films by Pixar and DreamWorks are, there are all sorts of animation out there that deserves acclaim. That includes Chico & Rita, a beautiful love story that is also a celebration of Latin music.

The film was directed by Fernando Trueba, who has directed live-action films (he won an Oscar for Belle Epoque) and artist Javier Mariscal. It starts in contemporary Havana, with an elderly shoeshine man. He trudges home after work, pours himself a drink, and finds an oldies station on the radio. It's playing a song that he recorded as a piano player. He's Chico, and the singer is Rita.

We then flash back to Havana in 1948, and one the film's greatest successes is that it makes this place and time look so inviting. Chico, along with his friend Ramon, are squiring American tourist girls, but Chico falls in love with first sight with a nightclub singer, Rita. She's with a moneyed American (there is a hint that Rita has a side trade as a "working girl") but goes off with Chico. Unlike most films distributed by Walt Disney studios, there is some animated sex and nudity. But when Chico's girlfriend shows up, Rita storms off.

The pair then have an on-again/off-again relationship throughout the '50s. Rita is taken under the wing by a producer, who makes her a star and expects payment in return. He tries to end her relationship with Chico by paying Ramon to keep him away, such as sending him on a tour with Dizzy Gillespie in Europe. Eventually Rita's career ends up in tatters (she points out that she can't stay in the Las Vegas hotel where she performs), and there's a lovely coda at the end of the film.

The story here is kind of simple, but very effective. More evocative is the music. All types of jazz are featured, from bebop to the bolero. Several real-life jazz giants, such as Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Nat King Cole, and Tito Puentes, make "cameos."

The design is also superb. Mariscal is extremely proficient in presenting light--the scene in which the old Chico enters his apartment, the setting sun streaming through the blinds, is breathtaking. Mariscal also perfectly captures the excitement of Havana, New York, Paris, and Las Vegas.

Those who love post-war jazz and Latin music will lap this up, and those who don't will find themselves browsing through albums by these people on Amazon.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Rin Tin Tin

Anyone who has read any of Susan Orlean's nonfiction knows that Susan Orlean is a big part of it, as it is in her biography Rin Tin Tin, the Life and the Legend. He was the movie dog who was a sensation in silent films and then, though not the same dog, of course, on television in the 1950s. "I knew that I loved the narrative of Rin Tin Tin because it contained so many stories within it; it was a tale of lost families, and of identity, and also of the way we live with animals; it was a story of luck, both good and bad, and the half turns that life takes all the time. It was a story of war as well as a story of amusement. It was an account of how we create heroes and what we want from them. It laid out, through the story of Rin Tin Tin, the whole range of devotion--to ideas and to a companion--as well as the pure, half-magical devotion an animal can have to a person."

Orlean traces her fascination to a plastic figure of Rin Tin Tin that her grandfather kept on his desk. She worked for ten years on the book, enduring repeated questions of why she would want to write a book about a dog. Of course, it's not just about a dog--the first dog himself dies about a third of the way through. It's a book about what the dog represented.

The story of Rin Tin Tin begins with Lee Duncan, a young man from California in France as a soldier during World War II. In a bombed out house he found two orphaned German shepherd puppies, and brought them home. One of them died, but the other showed extraordinary ability. He could jump over twelve-foot fences, and showed almost human emotions on his face. Duncan took him around Hollywood, and eventually he made several films over the course of the silent era, and became one of the biggest stars in the world. Duncan was himself an orphan, and many of the films (and later the TV show) would have Rinty being the companion of an orphan, a meme that Duncan was especially attached to.

Orlean describes this time period vividly--almost any tale of this golden age of Hollywood is bound to enthrall. She writes, "Hollywood in the 1920s could be a dark place. Narcotics were common; directors and producers were a motley group that included tramps, medicine-show barkers, lumberjacks, and swindlers." Rin Tin Tin basically saved Warner Brothers, becoming their biggest star--he earned eight times what their next-highest paid star made, and was considered a bargain at the price. According to Orlean, he received the most votes for the very first Oscar for Best Actor, but was ruled ineligible as the Academy didn't want to go down that road.

When he died, a nation mourned: "[t]he death of the first Rin Tin Tin had been so momentous that radio stations around the country interrupted programming to announce the news and then broadcast an hour-long tribute to the late, great dog. Rumors sprang up that Rin Tin Tin's last moments, like his life, were something extraordinary--that he had died like a star, cradled in the pale, glamorous arms of actress Jean Harlow." Orleans points out that that stars were much bigger than they are today (think of the death of Rudolph Valentino) as movie-going, absent other diversions such as television, was much more popular than it is now: "By the middle of the 1920s, the movie business had grown into one of the ten biggest industries in the United States. Almost 100 million movie tickets were sold each week, to a population of only 115 million."

Orlean discusses other dog stars of the era, such as Strongheart, whose dog house was an actual house. "Why were animals so popular in film, especially so early in the history of movies? It was partly a matter of convenience: animals were available, didn't need to be paid, and could be directed and manipulated easily. Additionally, people are fond of animals, enjoy looking at them, and experience little of the self-consciousness they might have when viewing other people--the 'otherness' of animals makes them easy to watch."

When sound came in, Rin Tin Tin's stock dropped. He made some very popular serials, but after the first dog's death, Junior was not as talented. The role became that of a sidekick rather than a star, and by the forties, when dogs were being used in the war effort, his movie career was over.

Duncan continued to try to drum up interest. He was an interesting man, but Orlean admits he was an elusive figure. He was married twice, and had a daughter, but appeared to love his dogs more than them. His daughter Carolyn told Orlean, "No, there was never any rivalry. The dogs always came first."

Eventually Duncan interested a young producer, Bert Leonard, into creating a television show. The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin was hugely popular and, along with Davy Crockett, capitalized on the new marketing trend of merchandising. Among the items you could buy were a cavalry mess kit, uniform, hat, bugle, gun, and holster, pocket knife, telescope, walkie-talkie, beanie, pennant, brass magic ring, button, lunch box, thermos, wallet, slippers, jigsaw puzzles, and comic books. There were deals with Cheerios and Nabisco Wheat Honeys for coupons for other products.

During this time there was a big rivalry with Lassie, the beautiful collie that always saved the day. Orlean points out how the dogs were different--Lassie was a character created by a writer, played by a succession of (male) collies. Rin Tin Tin was an actual dog that played different characters. I was also amused by Orlean's description of how the Lassie show evolved: "In later seasons of the show, Lassie lived with a different family, whose young son, Timmy, is far more disaster prone, and in time is threatened by a tiger in the woods, trapped in a mine, nearly drowned in quicksand, exposed to radiation, menaced by an escaped circus elephant, poisoned by nightshade berries, chased by a rabid dog, carried off in a balloon, struck by a hit-and-run driver, locked in a shed by an armed robber, and nearly killed by dynamite carried by an escaped lab chimpanzee."

When Duncan died in 1960. Leonard assumed the task of carrying on the legacy of Rin Tin Tin. After being shown in repeats until the early '60s, he manages to revive the show in the '70s, and always tried to get interest in Rin Tin Tin films. For years he litigated against a woman who had received puppies from Duncan and was breeding Rin Tin Tin dogs, and had tried to be the official Rin Tin Tin brand. As Orlean reveals, that woman and one point had insisted, "I am Rin Tin Tin."

It's an interesting story, and Orlean makes several interesting digressions. Most of them concern the changing attitude about people toward dogs. Until World War I, dogs were considered workers, and rarely were simply pets, except for the very rich. The idea of a dog living in the house as a companion was outlandish. That attitude changed with the decline of agriculture in the U.S., and due to popular movie animals. Rin Tin Tin and Strongheart, both German shepherds, increased breeding of that dog, which hadn't existed much before 1900. Orlean points out that a German shepherd at the 1913 Westminster Kennel Club show sold for $10,000, the equivalent of $215,000 today. They were so over-bred that they began showing hip and eye problems, which returned when the dog became popular during the 1950s TV show. But then, after the use of German shepherds as police dogs (think of Bull Connor using them on civil rights protesters) the breed declined in popularity.

Orlean also touches on the use of dogs during World War II (the Nazis had long trained them for war) and goes as far afield as to mention the beginnings of the navel orange business in southern California. If I have any criticism of this book it's that she too often tries to explain why people loved Rin Tin Tin and, by extension, dogs. She says this several different ways, and toward the end of the book writes, "The lesson we have yet to learn from dogs, that could sustain us, is that having no apprehension of the past or future is not limiting but liberating. Rin Tin Tin did not need to be remembered in order to be happy; for him, it was always enough to have that instant when the sun was soft, when the ball was tossed and caught, when the beloved rubber doll was squeaked. Such a moment was complete in itself, pure and sufficient."

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Trust

Even though I found Trust, a 2010 film directed by David Schwimmer, to be moving and well acted and written, something gnaws at me about it. The film, a look at how a family is upended after a daughter is raped by an Internet sexual predator, certainly is not salacious, at least not to most of us. But an actual pedophile might find this film quite stimulating, and instructive.

Liana Liberato, in a stunning performance, plays Annie, a typical, if prettier than usual, fourteen-year-old. She has made a friend in an Internet chat room, their main shared interest volleyball. Annie's parents are Clive Owen and Catherine Keener, and all seems pretty good in their household, with Owen in particular seeming like the goofy, ineffectual dad. For her birthday, she gets a laptop. To Schwimmer's credit, there is no ominous music.

Annie then continues her chats with her friend, who calls himself Charlie. He reveals that he's really 20, not 16, and though this gives Annie some hesitation, she can't help but be flattered. He then confesses he's really 25, but by now they have extended their chats to be sexual in nature (we don't hear them, thank god). Then he flies into meet her, and she sees in he's in his 30s. Her first, correct, instinct is to run, but he plays on her insecurities, and lures her to a motel room. This scene, which is horrifying to most of the population, what with her in bra and panties, will also be masturbatory material to those the film is trying to condemn. I think the film would have been much more effective if this scene had been cut, and the rape more implied.

Annie's friend, trying to do the right thing, confides in a school administrator, and Annie's secret is out to her parents and police. The FBI is called in, but Owen tries to solve the case himself, going to pervert tracking websites. He becomes so consumed by this that he fails to comfort Annie, especially since she sees Charlie as her real love, despite being told he was just a predator.

This second half of the film is fascinating as Owen unravels. He's an ad man, and we subtly see how his campaign for teen fashion is in its own way contributing to the sexuality of little girls. Annie also becomes the victim of cyber-bullying, but this is not really followed up on.

I admire the intelligence and tact of this film, but am haunted by the realization that there are those among us who will see this film in an entirely different way. Men with this kind of sickness never see themselves as the monsters.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Source Code

It's hard to know what to write about a movie like Source Code, a 2011 film directed by Duncan Jones (who made the much more interesting Moon). It hits the target, but it doesn't aim very high, settling for reliable but mild suspense in a thriller touched with sci-fi elements.

Jake Gyllenhaal stars as a guy who wakes up on a train not knowing how he got there. A woman across the seat from him (Michelle Monaghan) refers to him by an unknown name. After a few minutes of complete disorientation (eight minutes, to be precise) there is an explosion, and he finds himself in some sort of capsule. He learns that he's on a mission--he's been inserted into the memory of a man who died on the train, with the purpose of finding out who the bomber is.

The film then has him relive those eight minutes, over and over, until he accomplishes what he has been set out to do. His contact through computer is Vera Farmiga, who has one of those "sitting at a console" performances, though she's a good enough actress to be somewhat compelling. As the film goes along we find out more about Gyllenhaal's situation as he pieces together who the bomber is.

Source Code isn't a great film by any means, but it hangs together fairly well. The performances by the principles (including Jeffrey Wright as the scientist behind the whole thing) are solid. The film's ending does counter everything about the explained science, but this is to satisfy the Hollywood insistence on a romantic ending.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Love Exposure

Well, I'll say this: I've never seen a film like Love Exposure before, and I doubt I ever will again. Directed by Sion Sono, this Japanese film from 2008 is a true original--a four-hour film about up-skirt photography.

Of course it's much more than that. It's also about religion, parent-child relationships, and love, but the peek-a-panty stuff is what I'll remember most. Not only is Love Exposure a wildly inventive and entertaining film, it also is whacking material for guys with fetishes for panties and cute Asian girls. I don't have either, but I now have an abiding crush on an actress named Hikari Mitsumisha.

The film centers around Yu (Takahiro Nishijima). We see him as a young boy when his mother dies, and his Catholic indoctrination, as his widowed father becomes a priest. All seems good, until an unbalanced woman (Makiko Watanabe) basically throws herself at the priest. They have an illicit relationship, but when she dumps the dad, he goes off the rails, and Yu endures confessions with his father, in which he has a hard time coming up with sins. So he sins to please his father. He ends up learning the art of up-skirt photography, by using acrobatics to get the perfect shot of a girl's panties. It's all absurd, of course, but it's funny the way he learns this art as if it were some ancient Oriental mystic ritual.

Meanwhile, we learn the story of Yoko (Mitsushima) and Kioke (Sakura Ando). Both are men-hating young women. Yoko ends with Watanabe, who is one of her father's lover. Kioke is a master manipulator, recruiting for a religious cult called the Zero Church. She manages to get Yu and Yoko to meet, though at the time Yu is dressed as a woman he calls "Miss Scorpion." Confused? It's not at all confusing while watching, but over the four-hour running time there are a lot of twists and turns. It's not a standard three-act film: there must be at least seven or eight acts.

Here's the good about Love Exposure: it's audaciously brilliant at times. The use of post-modern film techniques, such as subtitles, multiple viewpoints of the same scene, and allowing for long, rule-breaking things likeYoko, in tears, reciting the whole passage of Corinthians 13 from the Bible. There's something of Quentin Tarantino in this, surely, but Sono has a unique visual style (I haven't seen any of his other films). He also makes great use of music, with three themes: Beethoven's Seventh Symphony--the second movement, with its gradual building; Ravel's "Bolero," with a different sort of building; and a surf-rock riff (that takes it more into Tarantino country).

Here's what's not great about Love Exposure: much of the acting is completely overwrought. This may be a cultural thing, as I've noticed that some Asian cinema, particularly the genre stuff, has a lot of overacting (just think of the Saturday matinee monster movies). Nishijima is a particular offender, but I have the feeling this is the director's doing, for if any actor was that amped up a director would probably put a stop to it. Also, my age-old complaint about martial arts films comes into play here--when one person takes on a dozen or so attackers, why don't the attackers act as one, instead of allowing the sole person to fight them one at a time? After thousands of years, you'd think they'd have figured out this is not good strategy.

But I liked Love Exposure a lot, even though it killed off an entire afternoon. I immediately started Googling pictures of Hikari Mitsushima.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The Lock Artist

"I sometimes wonder how my life would have gone if not for that one old lock on that one back door. If it hadn't gotten stuck so much, or if Uncle Lito had been too lazy to replace it...Would I have ever found that moment?"

The Lock Artist is a pretty good thriller about a professional safecracker. Michael is a teenage kid who, after going through a trauma, does not speak. He finds a talent for picking locks, and that gets him involved in a prank played on a rival high school's quarterback. He then meets the girl of his dreams, but her father gets him involved in advancing his skills to opening safes and, since he is mute, he is a valued operative.

The story is narrated by Michael from prison. Alternating chapters take us from his beginnings to his current job in Los Angeles with professional con artists. Author Steve Hamilton creates a very interesting voice in Michael, a kid who cannot speak but has a very wry sense of humor. A couple of my favorite lines are him describing a local restaurant: "If you've ever eaten at a Denny's, just imagine that same dining experience except with food that's about half as good," or "Forget being a professional safecracker. Just open a clothing store in Beverly Hills. The working conditions are a lot better, and you'll make a lot more money."

The novel also goes into great detail about how lock-pickers and safecrackers ply their trades. Here's a tip for those of you have safes--don't use the factory preset combinations. Also, if you have a touch pad safe, don't leave fingerprints on the buttons.

Where the book excels is the fish out of water aspect to it--Michael is a kid who doesn't speak, but he's thrown in with all kinds of crooks, which makes for some droll situations, especially when guns come out. The romance with his girl, where they exchange comic book drawings (both are gifted artists) is kind of sweet, but a little too idealized. I wonder if Hamilton is reliving a crush of his youth, only this time he actually gets the girl.

The Lock Artist is valuable, though, for farming new ground in the sometimes tired crime novel genre.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Argo

Anthony Lane writes, in his review of Argo in The New Yorker, "We were wrong about Ben Affleck." This makes me think, where did Ben Affleck get his terrible reputation? Was it being thrown over by Jennifer Lopez? Was it not being as good an actor as Matt Damon (few are)? Or is it just his natural, handsome but goofy persona?

In any event, after his third film, each of which has been better than the last, Affleck can't be laughed at any more. Argo is a first-rate entertainment, probably the picture to beat for the Oscar. It won't be my favorite of the year (it doesn't supplant Moonrise Kingdom), but it's a sure crowd pleaser that manages to be both suspenseful and funny.

After the saturation of this film in the media, I don't want to waste too much space on a summation. The film begins crisply with the takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran in 1979, when students under the new regime demanded the return of the Shah for war crimes. For those of us old enough, this was the big news event of the time, but I never knew that six staffers made it out a back entrance and hid out in the Canadian ambassador's house for well over two months. The State department worked on solutions to get them out, dumbly coming up with bicycles. A CIA agent (Affleck) specializing in "exfiltation" is brought in. While watching one of the Planet of the Apes movies he comes up with the idea of flying the "house guests" out as a Canadian film crew on a scouting location.

This film could never succeed as fiction--it's too implausible. But it is true (up to a point). Affleck contacts a Hollywood makeup artist who he was worked with before on disguises (a very good John Goodman, who plays the real John Chambers, who won an Oscar for Planet of the Apes) advises him. They go to a producer (Alan Arkin), who takes on the challenge, even going so far as to get press coverage to convince the world that a science fiction film called Argo is going to be made.

This first part of the film is the better half. Affleck, along with his superior (a flustered Bryan Cranston), work up the chain of the command, dealing with Hamilton Jordan, the Chief of Staff (Kyle Chandler) and then the director of the CIA and the Secretary of State (when entering their office, Cranston tells Affleck it will be like talking to the two old guys in the balcony on The Muppet Show). Better than that are the scenes with Arkin and Goodman, as the world of Hollywood and government clash like plaids and stripes. Arkin gives the film an incredible life, as almost every line out of his mouth is gold.

After Affleck files to Tehran and encounters the house guests, the movie settles into a more familiar escape film. The guests aren't given much to do except look worried. The only one who really comes across with any discernible personality is Scooter McNair, as the one guy who doesn't like the idea. But the ambassador (Victor Garber), risking his own neck, is going to have to close the embassy, so it's either Affleck or nothing.

The film ends with white-knuckled, last-second rescues that cheapen the film a little, and as I understand it, deviate from the truth. It's exciting and well done, but after the fresh take in the first half, it's a bit of a let down. Affleck, though, shows a sure hand here and, as with The Town, he knows how to create suspense.

He also gives the film a '70s look, from the vintage Warner Brothers logo during the opening credits to Rodrigo Prieto's slightly faded, Quinn Martin Production look in the photography. There are lots of little touches, like the crumbled Hollywood sign, the use of Star Wars figures, the hits on the soundtrack that don't overwhelm the story, and the porn-star mustaches that give the film an authentic look. It's also a jolt to see a film that is set before the era of the mobile phone. One key scene would be rendered moot if only they had been invented.

I think the greatest credit should go to the scriptwriter, Chris Terrio, who has crafted excellent dialogue that has the snap of screwball comedy and the jargon-filled lexicon of bureaucracy. This script should be a cinch for the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar.

I think the best thing about Affleck's burgeoning career is that all three of his movies are for adults. He hasn't yet yielded to temptation to direct a comic book adaptation or a gross-out comedy. His next film will be another adaptation of a Dennis Lehane book, the source of his first film, Gone, Baby, Gone. Based on this ever-improving track record, I'll be there.

My grade for Argo: A-.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Weeds, Season 4

For its fourth season, the Showtime comedy-drama Weeds shook things up. At the end of last season, the suburban California town of Agrestic, the setting of the show for three years, went up in flames. Pot dealer Nancy Botwin (Mary-Louise Parker), under investigation by the DEA, soaked her house in gasoline and hit the road.

She ends up in a beach town near San Diego called Ren Mar, setting up house in her dead husband's grandmother's house. She finds the "Bubbie" is on life support, tended to by her garrulous father-in-law (Albert Brooks). The show then takes some humorous twists to get some of the other characters from the show down there, namely Nancy's frenemy, Celia Hodes (Elizabeth Perkins) and her accountant and best customer, Doug Wilson (Kevin Nealon).

These changes are welcome, as the third season was just getting too bizarre. This season has its unbelievability, but it was more grounded, and finally Nancy faces her essential flaw--she's addicted to danger, and has ignored her children in the pursuit of her illicit business.

The arc of the season has Nancy working for a drug smuggler (Guillermo Diaz), who gives her a job as a manager of a maternity store near the border. It turns out that a tunnel has been dug between that store and Tijuana. Eventually she meets the big boss (Demian Bechir), who also happens to be the mayor of Tijuana. The two begin a sexual relationship.

Celia, beginning the season in jail, taking the rap for Nancy, eventually gets out and joins Nancy at the store. She becomes addicted to drugs and goes into rehab. Nancy's brother-in-law, the man-child Andy (Justin Kirk), starts a coyote business with Doug, wanting to be "gentler, kinder" movers of illegal immigrants. The show takes the attitude that there is nothing wrong with people entering the country illegally, and sends up deliciously the "minutemen" who guard the border, with an unrecognizable Lee Majors playing one such character.

Meanwhile, Nancy's sons, Silas (Hunter Parrish) and Shane (Alexander Gould) basically raise themselves. Silas enters a relationship with an older woman (Julie Bowen) while Shane starts a new school and gets a reputation as a bad-ass, earning him the admiration of girls who wear lip-rings.

At the end of the season, Nancy faces that she has been rationalizing her behavior (Hello!), especially when the tunnel starts being used for human trafficking. Of course there is a cliff hanger.

The balance between humor and danger is the best part of this show, as it is funny (an episode requiring the characters to sit Shiva for the dead grandmother is mordantly amusing) but there is violence lurking around the corner. One character has his skin removed with a belt sander. And I kind of feel bad for Latino actors. It seems they also have to play either drug kingpins or illegals. I guess as long as they get paid, they don't care.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Confessions of a Pizza Delivery Man

It's a tough economy. My profession was, for many years, a magazine editor. That business has all but dried up and blown away, especially for those of us over fifty who have no experience in the digital world. HTML? What's that? Kids out of college know what it is, and work cheap, so if there is a magazine that's still in print they'll hire some snot-nose punk rather than an aging wordsmith like me.

So what to do? Well, for now, I've still got some unemployment left and I've taken a part-time job as a pizza "delivery expert" for a national chain that shares its name with a game. I targeted that kind of job, because I thought it would be a relatively peaceful part-time job. I was part right.

Working at a pizza restaurant as a driver isn't quite as simple as I thought. At the place I work at, drivers are also expected to help out with everything else--working the oven, answering the phones, mopping up at night--but of course the core of the job is driving, and that's what I like. When I'm on the road, that means I'm not in the store, not in the middle of the insanity at busy times, answering the phones, shoving pizzas into box (and remembering to slice them).

When I'm on the road, I can listen to the radio (I've managed to keep up with the baseball playoffs that way) and am free to think. I can also make a game of it--I'm a secret agent, entrusted with a top secret package that must be delivered. I don't speed, but I can pretend like I'm zooming down some country road, trying to beat the time on the delivery slip. The company I work for gave up the "thirty minutes or less" business because of liability issues, but I still try to make that work, if possible.

Here are some things I've learned: if free pizza is offered, I take it, despite any desire to lose weight. This happens almost every night, as a person may not pick up their order or a mistake is made or the pizza makers may just be in a generous mood. Also, Indians don't tip. This is not a hard and fast rule, but a generality. I live in an area that has a high population of Indians, and they love pizza (they like it with jalapenos, especially). But word is around the store that they don't tip, and I've learned it's true. Some say it's a cultural thing, and I can believe that, but do they skimp at restaurants, too? I delivered a hundred dollars worth of pizza to a family having a party and the guy gave me a five-dollar bill as if he were giving me a bar of gold. That's a five-percent tip, which would be outrageous for a waiter. Perhaps they think the delivery charge is a tip--well, it is not. I don't get any of that.

Another thing--we get gypped on gas. Drivers get $1.15 for every delivery, whether it's around the block or ten miles away. I usually have to fill up my tank every second or third day, which means most of my tips go right back into the gas tank. The starting salary for a driver is $5.15 an hour, which means I basically live on tips. So, if you order a pizza to be delivered, and it arrives on time and is hot, tip your fucking driver at least ten percent, if not more.

My most interesting delivery was to a community college. I had to try to find this girl, and ended up wandering into a classroom. It was like something right out of Fast Times at Ridgemont High, which I mentioned to the teacher, who laughed. Why would someone call for a pizza to be delivered at a college, but not specify the building or classroom, or even that it was a college? And why do people call for pizza delivery but then not turn their porch lights on? I only have so many hands--maybe I should get one of those miner's helmets so I can see..

No, I have not been invited into the house by some lonely woman for sex, as has happened in countless porno videos. Sometimes a cute girl will answer the door and I am momentarily stunned, driving away with a fantasy where the girl asks me to come back when my shift is over, but sadly this has not happened. Maybe when I try my hand at cleaning pools I'll get more action.


Friday, October 12, 2012

The Dilemma

The Dilemma, a 2011 film by Ron Howard, is a dilemma unto itself. It would seem to be packaged as a comedy, but it ends up being a surprisingly nasty, dark-hearted film about honesty and the meaning of friendship, although it's attitudes about those things are somewhat twisted.

Vince Vaughn and Kevin James are bosom buddies who met in college. They now own a business making automobile engines--they have an idea to make an electric car motor that sounds like a gas engine, a strange kind of retro-engineering. But that's just background. James is married to Winona Ryder, and while at a botanical garden Vaughn sees her canoodling with another man (Channing Tatum, in full male bimbo mode). The rest of the film is Vaughn struggling with how to tell James the awful truth, bearing in mind that they have a big presentation with Chrysler coming up.

The film's overall tone is annoyance. It opens with the four main characters (Jennifer Connelly is Vaughn's patient fiancee) in a restaurant talking about whether one person can really know another. These kind of people and situations exist only in beer commercials, and the notion is doubled down when they all go to a hockey game wearing Black Hawk jerseys (it's a Vince Vaughn movie, so naturally it's set in Chicago).

The film, which talks about honesty, is dishonest in many ways, the most being that Vaughn does not tell Connelly what he knows, thus creating tension between them because she thinks he's gambling again (he's a recovering addict). The explanation for this subterfuge is never satisfactorily explained, mainly because Vaughn does what he does, including making a completely inappropriate toast at Connelly's parents' anniversary party, because the script demands it. In fact, Vaughn does so many stupid things that the central question of the film--would you tell your best friend that his wife is cheating on him? becomes lost in a jumble of inane slapstick.

The film is very hard on Ryder. She is portrayed as a villain--when Vaughn confronts her she responds with blackmail--and lets James off easy (he makes weekly visits to a massage parlor). She's a good enough actress to make her character interesting, the only such character in the film. Connelly is saintly--if I were here I would have kicked Vaughn to the curb the minute he suggested her mother might have made eyes at the pool boy.

The Dilemma is just unpleasant all around.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

The Custom of the Country

Continuing my acknowledgement of the sesquicentennial of Edith Wharton's birth, I now take a look at another of her gilded age novels, the 1913 book The Custom of the Country. Lesser known than her other great works (it has never been made into a movie that I know of), the novel is nonetheless a stinging and often mordantly funny chronicle of the social-climbing Undine Spragg, a girl from the Midwest who desperately wants the better things, but is never satisfied. At the end of the book, when we think we're settling into a happy ending, we read: "Even now, however, she was not always happy. She had everything she wanted, but she still felt, at times, that there were other things she might want if she knew about them."

Undine is a great creation, but certainly not a sympathetic one. She and her family come from the fictional Midwest city of Apex, but have moved to New York City for her to get into society. She has to learn the rules of the upper crust of New York, mostly from a nearly illiterate masseuse who works for her mother. These early chapters are often very funny as the protocols and standards are spelled out: "For four or five generations it had been the rule of both houses that a young fellow should go to Columbia or Harvard, read law, and then lapse into a more or less cultivated inaction." Or, "'Don't you know it's the thing in the best society to pretend that girls can't do anything without their mother's permission? You just remember that, Undine. You mustn't accept invitations from gentlemen without you say you've got to ask your mother first.'"

Undine ends up marrying Ralph Marvell, from an old family, but she finds that he doesn't have as much money as she thinks he does, and they end up getting most of their money from her father. She decides to divorce him after having an affair with Peter Van Degen, the wife of Ralph's cousin. But her coldness to Ralph during his illness puts off Van Degen. She ends up in Europe and marries a marquis, but he, too, is cash poor, and refuses to sell his family's treasures, which she can't understand. In one of the great passages that highlights the difference between Americans and Europeans, the marquis explodes: "'You come among us from a country we don't know, and can't imagine, a country you care for so little that before you've been a day in ours you've forgotten the very house you were born in--if it wasn't torn down before you knew it! You come among us speaking our language and not knowing what we mean; wanting the things we want, and not knowing why we want them; aping our weaknesses, exaggerating our follies, ignoring or ridiculing all we care about--you come from hotels as big as towns, and from towns as flimsy as paper, where the streets haven't had time to be named, and the buildings are demolished before they're dry, and the people are as proud of changing as we are of holding to what we have--and we're fools enough to imagine that because you copy our ways and pick up our slang you understand anything about the things that make life decent and honourable for us!'"

Lurking through the book like a shadow is Elmer Moffat, who knew Undine back in Apex. We eventually learn that he and Undine were married for two weeks but her father had the marriage annulled. Elmer represents the typical American, he may say "ain't," but he has common sense and is good at business. He says, "Millionaires always collect something; but I've got to collect my millions first." He looks out for Undine, but also for her satellites. Ralph, needing money in order to keep his son by Undine, invests with Elmeer, but though the deal will make Elmer a billionaire, it is not quick enough for Ralph, and when Ralph learns that Elmer and Undine were married, it makes him take a dramatic step.

I found this book mostly a delight, although there are some soggy sections. But there are gems like: "'To slave for women is part of the old American tradition; lots of people give their lives for dogmas they've ceased to believe in. Then again, in this country the passion for making money has preceded the knowing how to spend it, and the American man lavishes his fortune on his wife because he doesn't know what else to do with it.'"

Or this description of a dinner party: "About them sat other pallid families, richly dressed, and silently eating their way through a bill-of-fare which seemed to have ransacked the globe for gastronomic incompatibilities; and in the middle of the room a knot of equally pallid waiters, engaged in languid conversation, turned their backs by common consent on the persons they were supposed to serve."

I suppose I'm fascinated with books and films about the idle rich, because I want to be among them. But of course they are so exasperating as characters. "If Mrs. Marvell were contemplating a Newport season it was necessary that she should be fortified to meet it. In such cases he often recommended a dash to Paris or London, just to tone up the nervous system."

The Custom of the Country may not be Wharton's most famous novel, but it is an enjoyable one, despite the frequent desire to thrash the lead character. But I suppose this makes us feel superior and allows us to tut-tut her, which makes us feel better.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Boogie Nights

After the disappointment that was The Master, I decided to take a look at Paul Thomas Anderson's first major success, Boogie Nights, which I hadn't seen since it was first released in 1997. After viewing it again, I still find it my favorite of his films, perhaps because it is about a subject that I'm fascinated by--adult films.

A bildungsroman about a teenage boy who believes that everyone has "one special thing" they're good at, the film takes us into the world of adult films during the era in which video was introduced. Mark Wahlberg is Eddie Adams, a busboy at a nightclub in the San Fernando Valley frequented by the x-rated industry. Director Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds) discovers Eddie, even before knowing that the kid has a giant cock. Eddie gets into the movies, and after changing his name to Dirk Diggler, becomes a big star.

The first half of the movie is all rainbows and lollipops for this crowd. Also featured are Amber Waves (Julianne Moore), a star and Reynolds' partner; Reed Rothchild (John C. Reilly), who becomes Wahlberg's best friend; Buck Swope (Don Cheadle), a black guy who's partial to cowboy culture; Rollergirl (Heather Graham), a high school dropout who never takes off her skates; and some of the crew, like William H. Macy, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Ricky Jay.

This crowd lives in an insular world, and are guileless and naive as children. There is no soul-searching about their business. They have pool parties and snort coke and fuck like rabbits. They take their work seriously--there's a great moment when Jay, the camera man, turns to Reynolds and says, "this is a real film." I remember reading, after the film came out, that veteran porn actor and director Paul Thomas saw the film and said, "Were we really like that?" I imagine they were.

The second half of the film, naturally, takes these characters to the dark side. It all hinges on the last night of the '70s, when video and the '80s are presented as the evil force that invades their lives. Reynolds maintains he will never shoot on video, but he does, and things take a bad turn. In reality, this did change the porn business--films with stories were on their way out, back to the old days when it was just a collection of scenes (this acquired the name "gonzo" in the parlance). In the porn biz, life expectancy is not long, and as these characters age and try to break free of their world closing in on them, they face hardship. Moore loses a custody battle for her child. Cheadle can't get a loan to start a stereo business. Reynolds tries gonzo films with Graham, and they have a humiliating experience. Wahlberg and Reilly try making it in the music business, with disastrous results.

The film climaxes with a metaphoric trip to hell for Reilly and Wahlberg when they agree to try to rip off a rich guy (Alfred Molina) in a terrifying scene. Anderson uses the simple tactic of another character lighting firecrackers, keeping our heroes and ourselves off balance every time one goes off. It is here that Anderson's use of period music seems so brilliant, using two cheesy hits--Night Ranger's "Sister Christian" and Rick Springfield's "Jessie's Girl" to offset the diabolic atmosphere.

Anderson's direction is nervy but successful. He makes great use of long tracking shots, and tips his derby to Martin Scorcese in the opening, which is the entrance to the club that gives the film its title, a nod to the Copacabana scene in Goodfellas. The ending is either an homage or a rip-off, depending on your point of view, of the last scene in Raging Bull. But as I watched this film again I marveled at how dynamic the camera work was--the cinematographer is by Robert Elswit, who colors the first half of the film with hues of the disco world, while the second half gets muddier and muddier. The production design, by Bob Ziembecki, and costumes by Mark Bridges contribute to the authentic world that Anderson has created.

I initially became aware of adult films at about this time, when you had to go to theaters to see them. The big stars were John Holmes, Constance Money, Marilyn Chambers, Georgina Spelvin, and Kay Parker. They were a different breed--not as attractive as today's performers, but embodied by a certain integrity of spirit that is lacking in much of today's porn. They really did think they were making real films, and thought of themselves as actors and directors. Whether Boogie Nights accurately captures that world or not, Anderson made a great achievement by tapping into that ethos and expressing it on film.

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

The War on Science

In my review of Frankenweenie, I mentioned a speech given by the ghoulish science teacher of the lead character, voiced by Martin Landau. He is addressing a meeting of parents, after one of their children has been injured during a science experiment. He doesn't defend himself well, basically calling the parents stupid and ignorant, and that he wants at the childrens' brains. He is, of course, fired. But there was a thread of truth in the speech, a clarion call for sanity that one doesn't expect in a Tim Burton animated film. Many people today accept the benefits of science, but somehow mistrust or outright condemn its practitioners.

"Science doesn't have all the answers," a parent says in the film Jesus Camp, a documentary about evangelicals. Of course, this parent had a house full of all the amenities that science has brought him, from the telephone to the automatic dishwasher. What is behind this animosity toward science? In Jesus Camp, it's a position that science must be antithetical to religious belief. Scientists work through hypothesis and experimentation. They don't guess, they don't chalk things up to faith or superstition. Clearly this rankles the blindly religious, who resent those who might make judgements outside of their religious beliefs.

It also seems to me to be about anti-intellectualism, which has been around since at least the post-war era. "Pointy-headed intellectuals" were to be mistrusted. Intelligence was valued, but not too much intelligence, for too much meant you were someone other, not a regular Joe. Using "high-falutin" words was perceived as talking down to someone. This is still strong today. Take a look at Rick Santorum's statements. He called President Obama a "snob" because he thought everyone should go to college (Obama did also include technical schools in his statement) and then said recently that the Republican Party doesn't attract "smart" people, as if this is a good thing. Inventors, who were once great heroes, can still be valued. Jonas Salk was a hero, and Bill Gates and Steve Jobs have attained a certain god-like status, but one saved lives, which almost everyone can appreciate, and the other two attained financial success, which is more appreciated that scientific prowess.

Part of what fuels this is the right-wing media, led of course by Fox News. Stuary Varney, of Fox Business, made a statement doubting the polls, which had Obama ahead of Romney. He called it "scientific gobbledygook," which is really a shockingly ignorant thing to say for someone who is supposed to be intelligent. The scientific gobbledygook in this case is mathematics. I wonder now that Romney's numbers have upticked whether Varney has changed his tune. This is the same thing going on with the antediluvian reaction to the unemployment numbers. When they are bad, they are on target, when they are good, it's fuzzy math.

Thanks to Rachel Maddow's blog, I've learned about the warriors against science on the House Science Committee. From the committee's web site, this is their jurisdiction: "The Committee on Science, Space, and Technology has jurisdiction over all energy research, development, and demonstration, and projects therefor, and all federally owned or operated non-military energy laboratories; astronautical research and development, including resources, personnel, equipment, and facilities; civil aviation research and development; environmental research and development; marine research; commercial application of energy technology; National Institute of Standards and Technology, standardization of weights and measures and the metric system; National Aeronautics and Space Administration; National Science Foundation; National Weather Service; outer space, including exploration and control thereof; science scholarships; scientific research, development, and demonstration, and projects therefor. The Committee on Science, Space, and Technology shall review and study on a continuing basis laws, programs, and Government activities relating to non-military research and development."

Now take a look at some of their Republican members. Paul Broun of Georgia made a statement the other day that would be fine in a megachurch, but not in the halls of government: "God's word is true. I've come to understand that. All that stuff I was taught about evolution and embryology and the big bang theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of Hell. And it's lies to try to keep me and all the folks who were taught that from understanding that they need a savior. You see, there are a lot of scientific data that I've found out as a scientist that actually show that this is really a young Earth. I don't believe that the earth's but about 9,000 years old. I believe it was created in six days as we know them. That's what the Bible says."

Also on the committee is Todd Akin of Missouri, who has his own interesting beliefs about human reproduction, believing that women who are raped can't get pregnant, and that doctors give abortions to women who aren't pregnant. Other committee members: Chairman Ralph Hall of Texas, who said of global warming: “I’m really more fearful of freezing. And I don’t have any science to prove that. But we have a lot of science that tells us they’re not basing it on real scientific facts.”

Let me quote Maddow Blog for others: "It's quite a panel. Rep. Randy Neugebauer (R-Texas), who drafted a resolution for Americans to 'join together in prayer to humbly seek fair weather conditions' after a series of destructive tornadoes and droughts, is also on the House Science Committee, as is Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), who suggested 'dinosaur flatulence' may have caused climate change 55 million years ago.

"They're joined by Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), who has characterized climate science as an 'international conspiracy,' as well as Rep. Sandy Adams (R-Fla.), who supports having public-school science teachers offer lessons on "theories that contradict the theory of evolution."

"Remember, the House Republican leadership makes committee assignments, and felt these lawmakers are the best qualified members to serve on the committee related to science."

"When we talk about a "Republican War on Science," there's no reason to consider that hyperbole."

This would be funny except that these are the men who are responsible for things like renewable energy, global warming, NASA, and making sure that the U.S. does not fall further behind in the development of scientists.This, from Timesfreepress.com: "Among wealthy nations, the United States ranked 23rd in science and 31st in math in standardized tests. Our high-school seniors competed poorly in advanced math and physics. We rank 27th in college graduates with degrees in science and math." This is really disturbing. Could a country like this have defeated Germany in Japan in World War II?

What's sad about this is that science should not be a political hot potato. What, exactly, is it about global warming that offends the religious? Nothing, I should think. It offends the oil and gas industry, which puts money in the pockets of right-wing legislators.

Monday, October 08, 2012

The Grey

The Grey is a perfectly acceptable but not transcendent man-versus-nature film that has a predictable template that has been used in all sorts of genre films--a group of people, hunted by some sort of opposing force, are picked off one by one.

The film, directed ably by Joe Carnahan, stars Liam Neeson, who has found a reliable career as an action star. He plays a sniper employed by an oil company in the extreme north of Alaska who kills wolves. I wonder how you end up with a job like that--Craigslist? The few scenes of life in a place like that (I assume it's a place like Barrow) are vividly etched, and Neeson's voiceover narration, a letter to this wife, tell us that the place is mostly made up of misfits.

Neeson has lost his wife, and momentarily puts his gun in his mouth. But he doesn't pull the trigger, and boards a plane for Anchorage (has he quit? On vacation? We don't know). The plane goes down, and there are seven survivors, and Neeson, clearly a man who knows his way around the wilderness, organizes them. When wolves show up, Neeson suggests they make for the treeline.

The film is tautly written and paced, and doesn't allow for too much drag. A person dies every ten to fifteen minutes, not all by wolf attack. The ending may be realistic, but I get the sense that the writers, including Carnahan, knew how to get themselves out of it.

I did find the animatronic wolves unconvincing. It looks like they didn't use any real wolves, at least not in any proximity to the actors. That's too bad, because at times it looks like the actors are wresting with Black Tooth (this reference will mean something only to those old enough to remember Soupy Sales).


Sunday, October 07, 2012

Oscar 2012, Best Actress: Young and Old

The record for the youngest person ever nominated for the Best Actress Oscar was Keisha Castle-Hughes, for Whale Rider, who was 13. The oldest nominee was Jessica Tandy, for Driving Miss Daisy at 80. Both of those records could fall this year, as the very young and the very old are prominent in this year's films.

This is one of the those years where very few of the big Oscar pictures have major leading female roles, so it's possible for women (or girls) from little-seen or foreign films could make it on the list. This makes the category difficult to handicap, because it's not known by me which films are aggressively marketing or not.

But here is my early pick for the nominees, in alphabetical order:

Marion Cotillard (Rust and Bone) This is one foreign language performance that could get traction, as Cotillard plays a trainer of killer whales in a romantic drama. Since Cotillard has already won, she might get more attention than had she not.

Jennifer Lawrence (Silver Linings Playbook) Lawrence actually is the second youngest to ever be nominated in this category, at 20 for Winter's Bone. Now a sagacious 22 and a big star, she is in a big fall release. From the trailer, it looks like a classic "manic pixie dream girl" performance, but she could go into the contest as the favorite to win.

Emmanuelle Riva (Amour) Riva, if nominated, would set the record for oldest nominee, as she is 85. She was a key part of the French New Wave (she was the lead in Hiroshima, Mon Amour, among others), and now could sneak in if Amour is as good as everyone says it is.

Maggie Smith (Quartet) Smith has been nominated six times previously, winning twice, and she's 77. But she's kept in the public eye all this time with her work in the Harry Potter films and Downtown Abbey. Quartet is a film about a retirement home for opera singers, directed by Dustin Hoffman, of all people. If the film gets any attention, Smith may be a contender.

Quvenzhane Wallis (Beasts of the Southern Wild) I can't find a birth date online for Miss Wallis, who so dominates this critically acclaimed film. She would certainly break Castle-Hughes' record, as I believe she is now eight years old. The question would be if she would break the record for lead actor, which is held by Jackie Cooper, who was nine when nominated for Skippy, or acting in any category, which is held by Justin Henry for Kramer vs. Kramer, who was just shy of nine. I think she's a good bet for a nomination, even though in the past children were often shifted to supporting categories. There's no way they can do that here.

Also possible:

Viola Davis (Won't Back Down)
Keira Knightley (Anna Karenina)
Helen Mirren (Hitchcock)
Naomi Watts (The Impossible)
Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Smash)



Saturday, October 06, 2012

Frankenweenie

Frankenweenie may be Tim Burton's most personal film. Based on a short he made in 1984, it gets to the heart of Burton's obsessions, and also brings back some actors he hasn't worked with in a while. While watching, I was reminded of some of his earlier films, as well as the influences that made him who he is. Oddly, though, it does not feature Johnny Depp or Helena Bonham Carter.

Shot in black and white (the first IMAX film to be done so), Frankenweenie tells the tale of Victor Frankenstein, a very obvious reference to the story and film of the same name. Victor is obsessed with three things: monster movies, science, and his dog, Sparky. He has no friends, and the film opens with his own handmade film, in which Sparky saves the day from a monster.

Sparky is accidentally killed, and Victor, inspired by his new science teacher (with the face of Vincent Price and the voice of Martin Landau doing Bela Lugosi) goes to work in the attic, reanimating Sparky with electricity. When the other kids in the neighborhood get wind of it, they all try it, unleashing a menagerie of monsters on the neighborhood. As with the Universal film Frankenstein, it all ends in a fiery windmill.

Frankenweenie is charming, and will appeal to anyone who shares a love of those old Universal films, Hammer films, or Japanese monster movies, as Burton tips his hat to all of them. There are all sorts of inside jokes, such as a turtle named Shelley, the boy who wants to help Victor, complete with hunchback, is named Edgar Gore (E. Gore, get it?).  The poodle next door, after a jolt of electricity, gets a white shock down her pompadour.The voice actors, including Landau, are Burton veterans, with Winona Ryder basically playing the character she did in Beetlejuice (but with the name Elsa Van Helsing, a reference to both Bride of Frankenstein and Dracula), and Catherine O'Hara voicing three different characters. Even Christopher Lee manages to get a cameo, albeit without any effort on his part.

The film looks and sounds great, with the puppets by McKinnon and Saunders, the photography by Peter Sorg, and the usual creepy score by Danny Elfman. However, I didn't love the film, I only liked it. The script, by John August, despite the jokes for adults, is kind of ho-hum. The ending, with the town overrun by monsters, is busy and doesn't make sense--why did these things happen to these animals, but not to Sparky? I will admit that watching sea monkeys turn into gremlins is funny, though. Also, the one non-white character, a Japanese boy, edges too closely into stereotype.

On the plus side, there's a great speech by Landau at a PTA meeting in which he scolds the parents for being ignorant and afraid of science. I think it's the first time I've ever seen Burton get political, which of course is insane because believing in science should have nothing to do with politics. But welcome to 2012 America.

My grade for Frankenweenie: B-.

Friday, October 05, 2012

Plus One

The 2012 Major League baseball regular season has concluded, and by all accounts it was an exciting one. There were seven no-hitters; three of them perfect games, a four-homer game by Josh Hamilton, and for the first time in 45 years a hitter won the triple crown, leading the league in batting average, home runs and RBIs. That player was Miguel Cabrera, who almost single-handedly willed the Tigers to the top in the American League Central.

This is the first year of an expanded playoffs. Normally I am against attempts to turn baseball into pro basketball or hockey, where the regular season is almost meaningless. But I must admit that the way baseball added this extra round should work great--one team from each league has been added as a wild card, and they will play the other wild card winner in a one-game, winner-take-all contest. Not only is there instant tension--no numbing three-game sweeps--but it penalizes the wild cards for not winning their division. A one-game play-in is notoriously subject to weird bounces, but it also forces the wild card teams to use up their best pitcher, while the division winners have time to set up their rotations.

Oddly, the winner of the wild card games will then be at home in the best-of-five next round. This goes back to the beginning of the wild-card era, when the first round was a 2-3 set up, with the team with the best record having the last three home games. This is not exactly a home-field advantage, for if the team on the road loses one of the first two games, they've automatically lost home-field advantage. Baseball, sensibly, went to a 2-2-1 set up a few years ago. I don't know why they've changed it.

As for predictions, well, I'm almost always wrong, but here goes. In today' games, I'll take the Orioles to eke out a win over the demoralized Rangers, who have just been embarrassed by getting swept by the A's. The Rangers will have rookie Yu Darvish on the mound, and have a far superior line-up, but I just sense an O's victory. In the NL, all signs point to a Braves win. Rookie pitcher Kris Medlin is unstoppable, and the Braves have won 23 of his starts in a row. Therefore, I'm going to pick the Cardinals in an upset, because there's nothing like the post-season to throw cold water on streaks like that.

For the next rounds, I'll take the Yankees over the Orioles, but in four close games. The Tigers will beat the A's in five. The As are super hot, but their starting rotation is all rookies. But if Justin Verlander loses game 1, the A's will win. The Tigers don't play well on the road, so really need to win the first two at home. A healthy Max Scherzer is also key for the Tigers.

In the National League, I'll take Washington over St. Louis in five, and Cincinnati over the Giants in four. For the championship round, I'll go with Cincinnati to win the pennant in five. In the A.L., look for the Yankees to beat my Tigers in six.

As I stated at the beginning of the season, I predict the Yankees to win it all. This is mainly because Kentucky won the NCAA basketball championship, and every time that has happened since the '50s the Yankees have followed by winning a World Series. Also, because I hate the Yankees so much, one of the best ways to ensure they don't win is by me picking them do just that.

Let the games begin!

Thursday, October 04, 2012

Tuesday, After Christmas

Tuesday, After Christmas, is a 2010 Romanian film by Radu Muntean. In some respects it's a small, intimate film centering around an adulterous affair. A summary doesn't do it justice, though, as it packs an emotional wallop that belies the simple plot.

Muntean's style is to use long takes. The opening shot is an almost eight-minute take of two lovers in bed, naked and snuggling in post-coital bliss. One is Paul, a somewhat rugged and older man. The other is Raluca, younger and blonder. All seems perfect for this couple, but we slowly realize that Paul is married to someone else.

The facts unfold slowly. Paul's wife is a lawyer, Ariana. They have a young girl who is getting braces. When Ariana insists upon visiting Paul and the girl on her dental appointment, we find out that Raluca is the dentist. As she explains the treatment to Ariana, the tension is thick, even though Ariana has no idea of her husband's affair.

Eventually Paul will tell Ariana of the affair and his intention of leaving her. This is another extremely long take, and displays some great acting. Mimi Branescu is Paul, and he and Ariana are sharing a typically mundane moment in the kitchen. Ariana (Mirela Oprisor) senses something wrong, but has no idea of the extent. Branescu, holding his coffee cup, takes a moment to decide that the time is now to confess, and you can see the thought process on his face. Oprisor then reacts, her world shattered, and, predictably, she is angry. She tells Paul that he is her greatest disappointment. Unlike other scenes of this type, for example Beatrice Straight's in Network (a scene which basically won her an Oscar) Oprisor doesn't yell, but instead eviscerates her apologetic husband with cold looks and quiet declarations.

The film then concludes with the two dealing with Christmas, as Paul's parents don't know of the breakup and proceed with the festivities as the two spouses suffer in silence.

Tuesday, After Christmas, is a small gem, a perfectly acted and tautly written film. Muntean's style, with long takes and few closeups, suggests a voyeur spying on the destruction of a family. I highly recommend it.

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

On October 13, 1962, one of the great achievements in American drama opened on Broadway. It was Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, a scathing document of four scorpions in a bottle, a play about marriage, secrecy, lies, and history vs. science. It would make Edward Albee a major figure in the American theater. It is also my favorite play.

However, I had never had a chance to see it performed. In high school, I repeatedly checked out the paperback version of the play from the Ringwood, New Jersey public library. Somewhere along the line I saw the occasionally brilliant but oddly structured film version by Mike Nichols (Albee, who did not write the screenplay, notes that the only addition was a line "Let's go to the roadhouse," for which the screenwriter earned millions of dollars).

But the Steppenwolf Theater of Chicago has shown great timing. They have brought their production, directed by Pam McKinnon with Albee's blessing (he recorded the announcement asking the audience to turn off their cell phones) to the Booth Theater on Broadway. It will open officially on the same day fifty years later, but I saw a preview last night.

"George and Martha; sad, sad, sad," is a line repeated throughout the action. There are many other repeated words and phrases that ping with alacrity: "Historical inevitably," "Snap!" "Flop," and "Plowing pertinent wives." The play as written in 1962 shocked audiences with its frank sexuality and vicious dialogue. Albee has apparently taken the opportunity to make things contemporary by adding a few F-bombs and a "motherfucker." But specific words don't shock anymore; what still shocks is the fierce emotion of the action.

George and Martha, not coincidentally named after America's first couple, are a middle-aged couple. He is a professor of history at a small New England college. He is 46 but looks older. She is six years older, a braying, vulgar alcoholic, and also the daughter of the college's president. "There are easier things," George says, "than being married to the daughter of the president of the college where you teach."

After a faculty party, they are visited by a younger faculty member, Nick, who teaches biology. His wife is a slim-hipped, mousy woman called Honey, who is already tipsy but proceeds to get plastered on brandy. All of the cast drink constantly--they make the ad men on Mad Men look like pikers. Perhaps someone could total up all the drinks consumed over the course of the evening--one would need an abacus.

While giving Honey a tour of the house, Martha mentions her and George's son, which angers George. She also humiliates him, by telling their guests that he is a "flop," a disappointment who is only "in the history department," he doesn't run the history department. Nick joins in the merriment, and George lashes back. He says they have played the game "Humiliate the Host," now it's time to play "Get the Guests." He then reveals to Honey a story Nick told him about her hysterical pregnancy.

More games, vicious in nature, will be played. In Act II "Hump the Hostess" takes place, when Martha seduces Nick right in front of George, who feigns indifference. But he hatches a game called "Bringing Up Baby," in which he will confront Martha about the nature of their son.

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf is three-plus hours of "total war." We get the impression that George and Martha have a miserable relationship; she tells George "If you existed I'd divorce you." But over the course of the play, and as we learn about their son, we see that they need each other desperately. They are both the driftwood that each clings to after the shipwreck. Nick and Honey, perhaps younger versions of them, are forced to peer into the void, and what they see is disturbing, especially when the fireworks turns to physical assault.

The play is scathingly funny, but also tragic in its plumbing of the depths of the human mind. George is threatened by Nick, who as a biologist George thinks is fiddling with human chromosomes, so everyone will one day be alike. George knows history, he repeats often, but wonders whether humans learn anything from history.

As for this production, I found it to be mostly excellent. The set, strewn with books, photos and bric-a-brac (a nice touch is the evidence of missing pictures on the stairwell) is well done by Todd Rosenthal. The direction by McKinnon is touch and go--I thought some of the second act dragged, but the third act is scintillating, edge-of-your-set viewing.

The actors are all good, though some more than others. Tracy Letts, the playwright of August: Osage County, which certainly owes a debt to this play, makes an excellent George. I did think he sounded amazingly like John Lithgow, but he inhabited the part of a man whom Nick thinks is spineless, but has hidden reserves of strength, and also of cruelty. Amy Morton is Martha, and it's hard not to compare her to Elizabeth Taylor, who won an Oscar for the film role. Morton is more of an Earth mother, stalking around barefoot in Act III like some proto-hippie.

The younger couple has mixed results. I loved Carrie Coon as Honey, which is easily reduced to one-note--she's a "simp," and she's drunk. There has to be more to her than that, though, more than just the wild dance she does in her stocking feet. Coon shows the complexity of Honey, and when George reveals her secret her pain is evident. As Nick, I found Madison Dirks bland, but the role calls for a certain colorness. He's a good-looking stud, and no match for the verbal pyrotechnics of George and Martha, but Dirks might have given the role a little sharper edge than what he did.

Leaving the theater you may have a vicarious hangover. The play takes place from 2 a.m. to dawn, with constant imbibing. It can give you that pain-behind-your-eyes feeling of staying up too late, but having to keep yourself awake and alert, struggling for words. As the characters throw around their one-liners and speeches, several of which are beautiful to behold, they come from a place that is not obstructed by alcohol, and may be amplified by it.

The title, repeated in each act, is a pun on the song "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf," and was first seen by Albee scrawled on a mirror in men's room in a bar. He made the literary gag into a metaphor for fear in general; as the play ends, George croons the tune softly, and Martha responds to the question of the song, "I am, George, I am."