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Friday, November 30, 2012

Requiem for a Snack Cake

I was in the supermarket the other day and going by the snack cake section I saw that the Hostess products were almost all gone--only the mini-muffins remained. No Twinkies, Ring Dings, Yodels, or Hostess Cupcakes. It was big news just a week or two that the company had finally gone under, and although surely some other food conglomerate will buy the rights to the names and recipes for these durable sweets, it stirred a nostalgic pang in some people.

It also raised the ire of people on the left, especially the increasingly loud voices that are fighting back for unionized workers, or those who want to unionize. If corporations are people, as the Supreme Court and Mitt Romney say, than Hostess is a roaring asshole. Blaming the baker's union for their financial problems, they also gave gaudy bonuses to their executives, even though they had gone through Chapter 11 bankruptcy twice.

Hostess has a firm foothold in American culture. The company was founded in 1930, and I doubt there's an American who hasn't consumed at least one of its products. As kids in the '60s we were fed Wonder Bread on an almost daily basis, even though it's probably one of the most unhealthy products there is (despite claims that it made children grow). But the snack cakes, especially Twinkies, are what the company is known for. Twinkies, the golden spongecake filled with cream, is purportedly able to last years without spoilage (it received a tip of the cap to that notion in the film Wall-E), and was used as a defense for the killer of Harvey Milk.

I was more of a Ring Ding man, or should I say Ding Dong (the two were competitors, until Hostess merged with Drake--both look like hockey pucks with a cream filling). I also liked Yodels and Suzy Qs. I haven't had any of those for years--the last time I bought a box of Ring Dings (or was it Yodels?) I consumed the entire package in one sitting. While working at a job a few years ago I was drawn to the insidious vending machine, which dispensed Hostess Cupcakes, both the chocolate and orange varieties. As Homer Simpson would say, "Droooooool."

Of course these products have zero nutritional value, but fuck they are good. It's kind of amazing that the human craving for fat and sugar, which was necessary when we were hunter-gatherers, still haunts us today (or at least me). As the nation faces an obesity crisis the momentary disappearance of these products is a good thing, but they will be back. We are hungry.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Pale King

The Pale King is an unfinished novel that David Foster Wallace was working on when he committed suicide. His editor, Michael Pietsch, pieced together the manuscript that was found afterward and had it published. It was one of the finalists for the Pulitzer Prize. It didn't win (none of the finalists were chosen), and a certain segment of the literary establishment put on a pout that now Wallace would never win a Pulitzer.

I've never read anything by Wallace before--a copy of Infinite Jest was lost in a flood. He's alternately loved and loathed, and I think I can see why. This novel, set in an IRS office in Peoria, Illinois, is alternatively brilliant and stupefying. But I think that was his intention. The Pale King, in essence, is a novel about boredom.

"The key is the ability, whether innate or conditioned, to find the other side of the rote, the picayune, the meaningless, the repetitive, the pointlessly complex. To be, in a word, unborable...It is the key to modern life. If you are immune to boredom, there is literally nothing you cannot accomplish."

The Pale King, in many ways, reminds me of Catch-22, except that it's the Internal Revenue Service, not the Army. The bureaucracies are similar, as is the structure of the book. It flits from character to character, each vividly sketched but not complexly developed. There is also no Yossarian, except if you count the author, who appears in the book, but not as himself. The author's note is chapter 9, where he identifies himself as the author, but nothing he tells us is true (Wallace never worked at the IRS, though he studied accounting and tax law to write the book). As is his wont, his narrated sections are heavily footnoted, which turns out to be a hassle when reading on a Kindle.

This book is unfinished, so it can't be subject to the same criticisms. As is, it is an interesting collage. Much of it is background on some of the IRS agents. One is Stecyk, and his chapter is hilarious, as it describes a boy who is such a goody-goody that it inspires blood lust in others: "The principal fantasizes about sinking a meat hook into Leonard Stecyk's bright-eyed little face and dragging the boy facedown behind his Volkswagen Beetle over the rough new streets of suburban Grand Rapids. The fantasies come of out of nowhere and horrify the principal, who is a devout Mennonite."

Then there is Toni Ware, a woman who comes from the wrong side of the tracks: "The neighborhood was one where people's dogs were going to bark behind their fences and people were sometimes going to burn their trash or keep junked cars in their yards." Chris Fogle was an aimless college student who, instead of finding religion, like his roommate's girlfriend, wanders into a tax accounting class by mistake and has a revelation. His chapter includes the gruesome death of his father, whom he had a difficult relationship, in a mass transit accident. "I remember my father wearing madras shorts on weekends, and black socks, and mowing the lawn like that, and sometimes looking out of the window at what he looked like in that getup and feeling actual pain at being related to him."

There is also a long dialogue, a tour de force, between an attractive agent named Meredith Rand and a Spock-like mystery man, ironically nicknamed Mr. X (short for "Mister Excitement"). Rand tells him about how she met her husband, who is dying, and she is intrigued by the calm consideration that X gives her.

Though the book has electrifying stretches like that one, it often seems like a joke--Wallace purposely writing long sections designed to induce the reader into a stupor. Lots of tax code, or a few pages describing people turning pages. Wallace's main section, when he is picked up at the airport and has a sweaty ride to town in a compact car with four other men, pushes the tedium to Olympian levels. Wallace goes on and on about how to improve the parking lot.

Wallace was a gifted wordsmith, though, using wonderful words like Cerberusian. This is a passage early from the book, that sets the tone, and at least lets the reader know that even if the book is often boring, it is always impeccably crafted: "From Midway Claude Sylvanshine then flew on something called Consolidated Thrust Regional Lines down to Peoria, a terrifying thirty-seater whose pilot had pimples at the back of his neck and reached back to pull a dingy fabric curtain over the cockpit and the beverage service consisted of a staggering girl underhanding you nuts while you chugged a Pepsi."

Tuesday, November 27, 2012


Caterpillar is a 2010 Japanese film, directed by Koji Wakamatsu, that takes a withering look at the militarism of his country up to and during World War II. This criticism is expressed with the story of a wounded soldier who is hailed as a hero, but his wife knows better.

During the Sino-Japanese War that was a prelude to the World War, a soldier, Keigo Kasuya, is horribly maimed. When he is brought home, his wife, Shinobu Terajima, is aghast--he is without limbs, his face horribly scarred. She shrieks and runs from the house, saying that that "thing" is not her husband.

But he is, and she is expected to take care of him. He is also deaf and mostly mute, almost reduced to a primitive life form. She realizes that all he wants is to eat, sleep, and somewhat perversely, have sex. She honors his request, mounting his torso, but his frequent demands for intercourse vex her.

The village proclaims him as the "war god," and he is paraded around like prize livestock, in his uniform, with his medals pinned to his chest. But soon Terajima realizes she has power over him. He can no longer beat her, as he used to, and she taunts his uselessness, likening him to the title insect.

This is not an easy movie to watch, but it's quite powerful. The lead performances are terrific. I don't how they managed to make Kasuya look like a quadruple amputee, but they did. Sometimes I wanted to look away, but couldn't.

Interspersed with this domestic tale is scenes of the local population celebrating sending men off to war, while the women form a civil defense league, all for the glory of the empire. Wakamatsu then ends the film with the numbers of the dead--the executed war criminals, the dead from the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and Tokyo. He, and his lead character, ask--what was it all for?

Monday, November 26, 2012

The Killer Is Dying

The Killer Is Dying, an unsatisfying bit of hard-boiled noir by James Sallis, is all atmosphere and no terra firma. The story of a hit man who has a terminal illness, it departs from the usual mystery by being written in a highly literary style, with multiple narrators and a lot of interior monologues. But this ain't no Raymond Chandler.

For one thing, I read the book and I don't even know whodunit. The hit man, who is called Christian, has a target, but someone else tries to kill him before he does. Insatiably curious, he tries to figure out who tried to kill the man. "Why he was doing it remained opaque, impenetrable. Not pride. Not honor. Certainly not a sense of justice. But there it was, the road before him. And finally the why didn't matter any more than the truth of whether or not his tremors had actually stopped." Of course, if the main character doesn't know why he's doing something, it's kind of difficult for us the reader to figure out, and thereby the whole book is kind of a waste of our time.

The book also follows the police investigating the case, notably a detective named Sayles who's wife is dying. Then there's a third thread, involving a teenage boy who has been orphaned and is living on his own buying and selling things on the Internet. I may not have read carefully enough, but I have no idea how he figures in all this. Sallis switches point of view from chapter to chapter, and without warning. There were many times I started reading and realized I had the character wrong. It would have been nice if he could have titled his chapters with the name of the person we're with.

The writing is often quite strong, with good lines like: "Every human interaction, even the most unremarkable, is an economic exchange, he thinks: each side wants something." But the off-the-grid hit man character, with no home, no possessions, and no family, is kind of a cliche by now.

For those who want a straightforward noir mystery, skip this one. There's hardly any action, and while the pall of death is not unusual for noir, this one is positively morbid.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Nostalgia for the Light

Nostalgia for the Light is a fascinating 2010 documentary by Patricio Guzman that takes a broad look at the Atacama desert of Chile as a gateway to the past. He does this by examining its role in astronomy, archaeology and, most emotionally, in its use by the Pinochet government during the dictatorship.

The Atacama is the only place on Earth that has absolutely no humidity; there is no flora or fauna. This is a boon for astronomers, for the sky is translucent, and several observatories have been built there. It is also useful for archaeologists, as relics and carvings from the past have been undisturbed by moisture.

Also, during the Pinochet regime, it was home to a concentration camp and a dumping ground for the "disappeared," the political prisoners that were murdered, with their families having no knowledge of their fate.

As the word nostalgia suggests, Nostalgia for the Light concerns itself with the past. Astronomy, in essence, deals with the past, not only in the search for the origin of the universe, but because life itself is lived in the past. As one astronomer explains, there really is no present--everything we experience has a delay, whether it's the eight minutes it takes for the sunlight to reach the Earth, or the nanosecond it takes for us to see and hear everything in our normal day. As I look at this computer, a few feet away from me, the image takes millionths of a second to reach me, thus I am looking into the past, albeit the ridiculously recent past. The present exists only in our minds, and even then there is a delay in processing those thoughts to make a decision about them.

For archaeologists, the Atacama has carvings of shepherds that are a thousand years old. But, as an archaeologists points out, the recent past is hidden. Chile used Indians as miners during the 19th century, in almost slave-like conditions. Mining camps were later used to house political prisoners. Thirty-thousand were tortured, and another 30,000 are estimated not to have come forward. The remains of the dead were either thrown into the sea or buried in the desert, and mass graves have been uncovered. But many Chileans do not wish to dwell on the unpleasantness of these events.

Guzman interviews women who have spent close to thirty years sifting through the desert to find the remains of their loved ones. One woman describes how she has found bits and pieces of her brother, another woman, now 70, looks for her husband. It's an interesting view that these women need the physical part of  their loved one for closure--the second woman says if she found her husband and then died the next day, she would die happy.

This film is unlike any I've seen. It veers effortlessly from science to basic human emotions, and takes the view that we are all part of the universe. Calcium that makes up our bones comes from exploded stars. Essentially, we are all stardust.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Silver Linings Playbook

As one example of why Silver Linings Playbook is an instant classic, I actually welcomed every appearance of Chris Tucker. David O. Russell, who directs and writes (based on a novel by Matthew Quick), tackles a topic that in lesser hands could be hopelessly maudlin, and turns it into one of the best romantic comedies of the last twenty years. The film is both raucously funny and deeply touching.

Bradley Cooper stars as a young man who is bipolar. He has been sprung from a mental institution after spending eight months there after beating the tar out of his wife's lover. He moves in with his parents (Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver), determined to win his wife back and find the silver lining.

Along the way he meets the sister of his best friend's wife (Jennifer Lawrence). She is also a young widow, a litany of mental quirks, though not institutionalized. The two bond over comparing antidepressants. But Lawrence, who has a history of promiscuity, throws herself at Cooper, who only has eyes for his wife (who, unfortunately, has a restraining order against him).

In Silver Linings Playbook, no one is completely normal, as no one is in real life. De Niro's character is an obsessive Philadelphia Eagles' fan, who was banned from the stadium for fighting (when he drops Cooper off for a game he tells him, "Don't drink too much! Don't hit anybody and you'll be fine") and believes in "juju," such as having the remote controls just so and clutching an Eagles emblazoned handkerchief like Linus with his blanket. Weaver is a classic enabler, and Cooper's friend Ron (Jon Ortiz) is under the thumb of his status-seeking wife (Julia Stiles, in a brief but lacerating performance). Cooper may need lithium, and Lawrence is a bundle of psychoses, but we can watch and realize we may be only one crisis away from full-blown mania.

The film is joyously humorous, even about its disturbing subject matter. Cooper wakes his parents up in the middle of the night to complain about the ending of A Farewell to Arms, which he has hurled out the window. In Lawrence's big scene, she explains that she is actually good juju for the Eagles, and De Niro, impressed, concedes that she is right. And then Cooper and Lawrence's dance is the best of its kind since John Travolta and Uma Thurman took to the floor in Pulp Fiction (a similar dance climax in Little Miss Sunshine did not work nearly as well).

All the actors are terrific, but Oscar nominations should be forthcoming for Cooper, Lawrence, and De Niro. Cooper manages to play a man who you wouldn't want to be around, but you can't help but root for. Lawrence also has a tightrope to walk, playing the Manic Pixie Dream Girl (emphasis on Manic), but in a way, Cooper is her Manic Pixie Dream Guy, and the two are perfectly suited for each other. Their scenes jogging together are beautifully written and acted. And De Niro is a guy I think everyone knows--a man who identifies with something as meaningless as a sports team, which substitutes for the inadequacies of his own life. I feel bad for the guy this year, as the Eagles really stink.

And, as I said, Chris Tucker is well used as Cooper's fellow inmate who has an obsession with his hair.

I didn't find a false note in the picture, or a moment when it wasn't totally absorbing. It's the best film of the year so far.

My grade for Silver Linings Playbook: A.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Film Socialisme

You've got to hand it to Jean-Luc Godard. For over 50 years he's been making films his way. He's never gone Hollywood, and as he ages his films have become more and more obtuse. He never seemed particularly interested in pleasing an audience, only himself, and I'm pretty sure only he can understand Film Socialisme, from 2010.

This is really a film collage, edited as if by blender, that doesn't so much tell a story as make an impression. The first half is set on a Mediterranean cruise ship, and the camera bounces around various passengers. There's a Russian woman after some Spanish gold stolen by the Nazis, an older man with a young girlfriend, and even Patti Smith. Godard, impish as ever, fucks with the rules--the sound often cuts out, no one is identified by name, and there are subtitles when no one is talking.

The next section involves a gas station in France. A TV crew arrives to film the people who live there--parents and two children. The girl stands next to the pumps, reading Balzac, a llama tied next to her. She refuses to talk to anyone who uses the verb "to be." There's a lot of philosophical bullshit.

Finally, we're back in the Mediterranean, visiting ports of call like Egypt, Greece, Naples and Barcelona. There is a great deal of discussion of Jews and Palestine, and references to World War II, including a lot of stock war footage. There are also clips from other movies, especially Eisenstein's Potemkin. I'm not sure of Godard's attitude about Jews, and given the opaqueness of this film I hate to cast aspersions. But I was a little startled about his inclusion of a bit that identifies all of Hollywood's creators as Jews. True, to a point, but so what?

Interestingly, the cruise ship that this was filmed on was the Costa Concordia, which sank a while back, the captain ignominiously disembarking in a cowardly fashion.

Thursday, November 22, 2012


After the first few minutes of Lincoln, I thought it was going to be a classic example of Steven Spielberg's moralizing and patronizing slathering of white guilt--a sequel to Amistad. It is January 1965, and the President is talking to black soldiers, one of whom complains about not being paid the same as white soldiers, or being able to be an officer. A few other soldiers start quoting the Gettysburg Address back to Lincoln, and the black soldier completes it. Hokey city!

Then the film gets didactic, as Lincoln, sensing the war is coming to a close, wants to push through the 13th Amendment, which would abolish slavery. We get all sorts of political chatter that would thrill wonks like Chuck Todd.

But then the film loosens up and turns into something great, as Lincoln the man starts to show up. The film is based in part on Team of Rivals, the popular book by Doris Kearns Goodwin. That book is subtitled The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. America's sixteenth president is now something of secular saint, but it is often forgotten that the man was an incredibly shrewd political animal, and that's the spine of this film. He's willing to do anything, even lying, to get the Amendment passed. As someone says late in the film, after the amendment passes in the House of Representatives, "The greatest thing of the 19th century, with corruption aided and abetted by the purist man in America."

Most of the film is rounding up bodies for the vote in the house. The amendment has passed the Senate, and while the Republicans have a solid majority, Constitutional amendments require a two-thirds vote. Lincoln, along with his Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn) reckon that lame-duck Democrats, with nothing at stake, may be able to have their arms twisted with patronage jobs. Seward employs three proto-lobbyists (an excellent trio of character actors--James Spader, John Hawkes, and Tim Blake-Nelson) to get the votes.

Meanwhile, the Lincoln family struggles. Mary (Sally Field) still hasn't gotten over her son Willie's death, and the eldest son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) wants to leave Harvard and enlist, much to his mother's objections. Field captures the mental impairment of the woman deftly. Most likely Mary Lincoln was bipolar, but there was no treatment for someone like that in those days except the madhouse, a place she is threatened with.

Looming over this film is Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln. At times I forgot I was watching an actor. Of course there is no film of Lincoln to know what he sounded like, but when I think of him speaking I'll now think of Day-Lewis. There have been other great performances Old Abe, including Henry Fonda, Raymond Massey, and Sam Waterston, but I think this one is the definitive one. Day-Lewis, taking the lead from Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner, portrays the central aspect of the man--he was cloaked in melancholy (speculation is that he suffered from depression) and that the White House was shrouded in grief, both from Willie's death and the pall of the thousands dead from the war.

There are dozens of other characters, many of them the congressmen of the time. Most prominent is Thaddeus Stevens, a radical Republican of Pennsylvania who believed in complete equality of the races. He is able to compromise his beliefs (he believes in allowing blacks to vote) to help the amendment pass. Tommy Lee Jones, with crags in his face like a moonscape, is brilliant in the role, especially in a scene in which he easily persuades a congressman not only to vote for the Amendment, but also to change parties.

Others on the scene are a Republican fixer (Hal Holbrook), the Vice President of the Confederacy (Jackie Earle Haley, a dead ringer for Alexander Stephens), General Grant (Jared Harris), and Fernando Wood (Lee Pace), congressman from New York. Wood, as Mayor of New York City, had advocated for the city's secession from the U.S.

There are many historical details that ring true. Lincoln did love to hang out at the telegraph office, chatting with the soldiers. He also loved to tell stories to make points, much to the annoyance of those around him. He was a great wit--when meeting Spader, who understands what he is saying, he says, "What a joy it is to be comprehended." But back then many of those spoke in a flowery language lost to us. Stevens insults a colleague by calling him a "fatuous nincompoop," and how long has it been since you heard the word "ossified" or "petitfoggery" used in natural conversation?

What's most important about this film is that it does not indulge in the "moonlights and magnolia" attitude about the South. This film, and rightly so, sees the Confederates as traitors. I wonder how this will play among those who have the Stars and Bars on their pickup trucks, or refer to the Civil War as "the War of Northern Aggression." There is only brief shot of Robert E. Lee, shown in defeat.

Of course this movie is not a comprehensive study of Lincoln or the war. For that I recommend Ken Burns' documentary. But this is a thrilling film. When Lincoln, with bill passed in Congress, tells Alexander Stevens that "slavery is done" I felt a little chill up my spine.

My grade for Lincoln: A-.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Le Quattro Volte

Pythagoras had a theory called metempsychosis, which meant transmigration of the soul, or the reincarnation from one form to another. Michelangelo Frammartino has expressed this theory in his deceptive film Le Quattro Volte (The Four Times), which follows a soul from man to animal to vegetable to mineral.

You won't learn about Pythagoras watching the film--I read about that later, but I did pick up on subtle hints of it. The film has four sections, as one might expect. The first centers on an old goatherd. He dies, and just after his casket is walled up in a mausoleum, the action cuts to the birth of a goat. It doesn't take a Greek philosopher to presume that Frammartino is suggesting the old man has passed on to the baby goat.

The next section is almost a nature documentary, which could be called Goats! The baby goat gets left behind his flock, and wanders the forest, eventually settling into a sleep beneath a tree. The next thing we know, the tree is being cut down, so I guess the little kid didn't make it.

The tree is used in a ceremony of some sort, where it is stripped but all of its top branches, then adorned, and then allowed to drop, where everyone grabs at the trinkets. Finally, the fourth section has the tree cut apart, it's kindling put into a kiln, where it is turned to charcoal.

This is not a film for anyone with ADHD. It is very slow moving, and there is no dialogue. There are some mesmerizing scenes, such as a long, single take of an Easter procession, followed by one man trying to join the parade, but being stopped by a barking dog. This leads to a truck careening into the goat pen, but the camera turns away at that point, following the man and the dog, and the crash happening off screen.

Occasionally my mind wandered a bit during Le Quattro Volte, but most of it was interesting. It was filmed in Calabria, Italy, where Pythagoras had a sect. The film does not mention the Pythagorean theorem, which if I remember correctly, is a squared plus b squared equals c squared.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

A Cat in Paris

As I mentioned in my post on Chico & Rita, I love that the Academy's animation branch is willing to nominate films that are outside of the Hollywood studio system, and not necessarily for children. Chico & Rita, and A Cat in Paris, also nominated, would surely have never received DVD releases in the U.S. without the nominations, and I would have never seen them.

The DVD for A Cat in Paris has an English soundtrack with voices by American actors Marcia Gay Harden, Anjelica Huston, and Matthew Modine, but I chose to listen to the original French soundtrack with the English subtitles, just to keep it Gallic.

A brisk 65 minutes long, A Cat in Paris is about just what you think it would be. A cat, ostensibly belonging to a little girl named Zoe, has free reign of the city at night, and chooses to spend his time as the sidekick of a cat burglar named Nico. Zoe is mute, traumatized by the death of her father, a policeman. Her mother, a police superintendent, is tracking down his killer, a gangster called Victor Costa.

Things get perilous for Zoe when the new nanny turns out to be a mole sent by Costa. Nico ends up coming to her rescue, and there are numerous chases along the city's rooftops, and a climax at the Notre Dame cathedral.

The direction is by Alain Gagnol and Jean-Loup Felicioli, and the animation is very stylized, like the illustrations from a children's book. The heads and feet are drawn in an unusual style, as if the noses started at the top of the head and the feet were stuffed into high heeled shoes. It works, though, especially with the dramatic music, composed by Serge Besset.

The film is for all ages, but ideally for kids around 10 to twelve, I would think. It can be a little intense, but it's also funny, as the henchman of Costa are bumbling nitwits. But if I were a little kid, the scenes in which Zoe's mother imagines Costa has a vicious octopus would scare the bejeesus out of me.

I also have to say I'm not a cat person, but if I had a cat I'd want one just like Dino, the title feline.

Monday, November 19, 2012

The Sessions

The Sessions, written and directed by Ben Lewin, sounds like it could be the Cinemax version of a disease-of-the-week movie: a man who can only move his head and spends most of his day in an iron lung hires a sex surrogate so he can lose his virginity. Happily, the movie is much better than the premise, mostly due to a script that veers away from sentimentality (except at the end) and a performance by John Hawkes.

It is a testament to Hawkes that I find it impossible to believe it could be the same man who plays the menacing meth-dealer in Winter's Bone who plays the gentle, romantic poet in The Sessions, but there it is. According to the credits it's Hawkes who plays Mark O'Brien, a man stricken by polio as a child, who lacks muscle control (he is not paralyzed). He makes his living as a poet and journalist, typing out one letter at a time on a typewriter with a stick held tightly in his teeth.

When Hawkes hires a young woman as an attendant, he is stirred by passion. He falls in love with her, but while she loves him, she can't love him "in that way." He seeks guidance from his priest, and fortunately he has found the most liberal priest in America. He's played by William H. Macy, and you can tell he's forward thinking because he has long hair and wears a leather jacket.

Macy, after hemming and hawing a bit, gives Hawkes his blessing to see a sex surrogate, played by Helen Hunt. I would have gone to a hooker (Hunt explains that the main difference is that she caps her number of sessions at six to preclude romantic attachment) but O'Brien's Catholic guilt is enough that he has to do things the legal way. After a rocky start, including several premature ejaculations, Hawkes and Hunt start to develop feelings for each other.

There's a lot to like here. For one thing, I could easily empathize with Hawkes, who plays O'Brien as a dreamy romantic who has a hard time separating sex from love--he's bound to fall in love with any woman who will climb naked into bed with him. I think a lot of men feel like he does every day--and they aren't disabled. The emotions are so honestly and humorously expressed that the film charms you, even if you are a jaded cineaste who refuses to believe that a movie like this could possibly be any good.

Some of it is too good to be true--it's based on a true story (O'Brien was the subject of an Oscar-winning documentary) but I wonder how many rough edges have been smoothed over. Hunt, who gives a good if not spectacular performance, is at first extremely professional, but starts to lose her objectivity, even allowing herself to orgasm with Hawkes. Since the movie is from Hawkes' point of view, it plays into the common male fantasy of being so wonderful that even sex workers can't resist falling in love with him.

I also found Macy's priest too good to be true. I'm not Catholic, and I suppose it's refreshing to see a priest character who isn't a drunk or a pedophile (though we do see Macy toting a six-pack), but he's seems like a different kind of fantasy--a non-judgemental clergyman. I wonder what Barry Fitzgerald in Going My Way would have thought.

My grade for The Sessions: B+.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

One Touch of Venus

My discussion of William A. Seiter films ends with One Touch of Venus, a 1948 film that had an inexplicable long wait on Netflix. It really isn't much to shout about.

Based on a Broadway musical with the remarkable collaboration of Kurt Weill, S.J. Perelman, and Ogden Nash, the film version seems to have removed everything distinctive about those men. Most of the songs were jettisoned, and substituted with bland ones. Although there are few instances of some wit, it's a rather tired, stale farce.

Robert Walker plays Eddie Hatch, a dresser at a big department store. The owner of the store (the marvelously sophisticated Tom Conway) has just purchased a statue of Venus. Before the unveiling, Walker is fixing the drapes when he takes a sip of champagne and impulsively kisses the statue. After a bolt of lighting, it comes to life, looks like Ava Gardner, and is in love with Walker.

This causes all sorts of problems. First of all, the statue is now presumed stolen, and Walker is suspected. Secondly, Walker is engaged to Olga San Juan, and she's the jealous type. Conway will eventually fall in love with Gardner (he doesn't know she's Venus), though Conway's secretary, Eve Arden, is in love with him.

This bit of musical chairs tries to be charming, but it just doesn't work. Part of the problem is Walker, who was so good and indelible as the creepy killer in Strangers on a Train. This kind of nebbish just doesn't suit him, and it's kind of hard to believe a man would resist Gardner, even if she was a love goddess who was previously marble.

There are some things to like her. Arden plays the part she made famous, the sardonic single woman. It's kind of nice to see her finally get her man. She has one of the best lines in the movie. When Conway, preparing to seduce Gardner, says that Debussy has a way on woman, she responds with, "I always liked Buzzy Belew and His Musical Crew." Another good line is when Walker fantasizes about a life with Gardner and speculates on a life with her in a house in Ozone Park. That sounds like a line that could have been written by Perelman.

If this all sounds familiar, the film was remade as the 1987 film Mannequin.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is a film from Thailand by Apichatpong Weerasethakul. It won the Palm D'Or at Cannes in 2010. It is a frequently beautiful film, but it can also make you feel stupid, as you wonder that those people at Cannes saw that you didn't.

Don't get me wrong--I don't think of this as a case of the emperor having no clothes. There is a mystical hypnotism to this film, but to anyone like me brought up on a steady diet of Hollywood films, there's also a lot of WTF?

The film centers around a man named Boonmee who is dying of kidney disease. He is seen after by a sister-in-law, a nephew, and a caretaker who is Laotian (apparently Thais have a prejudice against Laotians, thinking they smell bad). One night at dinner Boonmee's wife, who has been dead for years, shows up. Then his son, who disappeared years ago, shows up, looking like Sasquatch. It seems he has mated with a creature called a "ghost monkey," and now wanders the forest.

The film then slips into different scenes, presumably the past lives of Boonmee, if we can trust the title. The most interesting sequence is of a princess, her face disfigured, who is born by litter to a lake. When she looks into the lake her reflection is of a beautiful young woman. She hears a voice, and it is a catfish. She gives him an offering of jewelry, and then she lies back and allows the catfish to have his way with her. Yes, that is not a typo.

The ending has a monk visiting the sister-in-law and a young girl in a motel room. He takes a shower, and then they go out to eat. Except they also stay in the motel, watching TV. Weerasethakul, in an interview, explains this as time splitting in two. Okay.

I suspect this film is more understandable to those who are Buddhist, and have a deeper understanding of Thai culture. Certainly Western civilization is also full of superstitions about spirits living side by side with the living, but this film is even more rooted in ghosts crossing over.

I didn't hate this film, but I didn't love it, either. I see it more as a curiosity, a chance to glimpse a different world and different type of movie-making.

Friday, November 16, 2012


Smashed is a fine, clear-eyed look at addiction and recovery, and avoids many of the overly sentimental pitfalls of films like this. It also takes a different look at the addict. In a film like Flight, the alcoholic character is resistant to treatment, denying there is a problem. But in Smashed, the character wants treatment, but has to deal with the enablers around her.

The film was directed by James Ponsoldt and written by him and Susan Burke. I appreciated its direct approach toward the main character, Kate,who is brilliantly played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead. She is a first-grade teacher who sips beer while showering in the morning and in the parking lot takes a swig of whiskey from a flask. She also parties every night with her husband (Aaron Paul), who doesn't see any problems. But Winstead does see a problem, after a series of incidents.

First, she throws up in front of her class. They ask if she's pregnant, and she sees a great cover up. But this gets back to her co-workers, primarily the principal (Megan Mullaly), and Winstead has to carry on the ruse, even enduring a baby shower. The vice-principal (Nick Offerman), confides that he knows she drinks, and that he is in AA.

Then Winstead ends up awakening on two consecutive mornings, outside, not knowing where she is. She takes up Offerman's offer and enters AA, finding a sponsor (Octavia Spencer). This part of the film is rushed--we don't see her going through any physical difficulties quitting. Did she just stop and everything was fine? No shakes, no hallucinations? It made it seem like sitting on a folding chair drinking warm coffee was enough to quit.

But when she gets sober, problems with Paul start. He's still living it up, and she seems like a drag in comparison. He says she's a different person, and this is ostensibly true--the relationship seems doomed. Her mother (Mary Kay Place), whom she seldom sees, is also amazed at her sobriety, even offering her a bloody mary when she asks for water.

So many films end with a character telling their story in an AA meeting, so it's nice to see what happens after that, especially with the people who the recovering addict knew as a drinker.

Smashed wouldn't be half the movie it was, though, without Winstead. There is nothing in her career that has indicated she has these kind of chops. Perhaps the best scene (her Oscar clip, if she gets nominated) would be one when she tries to buy booze in a convenience store and ends up stealing a bottle, after pissing on the floor. Another great scene, sober, is when Offerman makes a hilariously inappropriate pass on her.

Smashed is a spare film--it's under 80 minutes--but it doesn't lack for emotional impact. It's very well done.

My grade for Smashed: A-.

Thursday, November 15, 2012


Paul is a sweet, good-natured comedy that though only tangentially about Area 51, it is pretty close to capturing the spirit of UFO nuts and sci-fi nerds.

Simon Pegg and Nick Frost play a pair of British nerds who have visited Comic-Con, their life-long dream. Frost is a writer, and Pegg an illustrator, and they hope to publish a science fiction novel. After having a great time in San Diego, they map out a tour of UFO sites in the West, including Area 51.

Having been there, I know some of these scenes were filmed on location, including the exterior of the Little Ale'Inn, and then at the black mailbox (which is now white). While on Highway 375 (the "Extraterrestrial Highway") they witness an auto accident. The driver is a typical alien gray, who has been on Earth since 1947 and now sounds like Seth Rogen.

The two Brits help Rogen, who is called Paul, to his rendezvous with rescuers from his home planet (his time on Earth is coming to a close, and his brain will be removed). He speaks perfect English, and is crude and rude, which is funny for only a few minutes. Later these three will add Kristen Wiig, a Bible-thumping Christian, who is freed from her faith and loves learning to swear. I'm sure 13-year-olds would be in stitches.

This group is tailed by a variety of agents, including Jason Bateman and Bill Hader. Along the way we get all sorts of references to other sci-fi movies--the rendezvous takes place at Devil's Tower, and Sigourney Weaver appears as Bateman's boss (she is punched in the face by Blythe Danner, who says, "Stay away from her, you bitch"--get it?)

I didn't hate Paul, but it could have been a lot funnier and smarter. Or, it might have been better as a straight-out action film, and dispensed with all the poopy jokes.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

A Dark Matter

A Dark Matter, by Peter Straub, won the Bram Stoker Award for Best Horror Novel. As happens with me with horror books (except those by Stephen King), I just don't get it. To me, horror suggests that a book is scary. A Dark Matter is not scary. Straub is a big name in the horror world, selling many books. I've only read one other by him, Mr. X, and I found that as convoluted and dense as this book.

The book is narrated by a writer, Lee Harwell. Back when he was in high school, his future wife and a few other friends came under the spell of a guru named Spencer Mallon. These people, except for Harwell, took place in some kind of summoning of demons in a field, and one person was killed (and dismembered) and another completely vanished. A third person, who has a eidetic memory, was committed to an asylum, unable to speak anything but quotes from The Scarlet Letter.

Harwell, looking for a subject to write about, is interested in a serial killer from the old days in Milwaukee. This ties in to the event in the field, and he tracks down his old friends and tries to piece together exactly what happened.

As I read this book, I kept waiting for something to happen. It was a long tease, until the end, when Harwell's wife (also named Lee, so he refers to her by her full name, Lee Truax, or a nickname, The Eel, which is disconcerting). When we do find out what happens, it's in a kind of overwrought language that makes it difficult to picture what is going on.

Straub is a pretty good phrase maker, though. He had a few choice metaphors and insights, such as: "You know how guys with bow ties can sometimes give you this look, like you just farted and they hope you'll go away before they have to ask you to leave? Pity and contempt."

But Straub is in love with his own writing, and doesn't heed the command to writers, "You must murder your own children." There are gobs of unnecessary detail about meals and such: "After the better than acceptable soup came an uninspiring chicken. When arrayed on the breast of a dry and overcooked chicken, mushrooms and pine nuts do not join hands and sing."  Was this bit of information important to the story?

At the end, when The Eel meets the demons summoned by Mallon and his band, she meets one who speaks like one of the Bowery Boys. Straub here falls into a rookie mistake--he has the demon tell us great truths, which are really quite banal: "'You stupid human beings, the whole thing is right in front of you, but on you go, debating whether evil is internal or external, inherent in everyone or created by circumstance. Nature or nurture, I can't believe you're still debating that dim-witted opposition. The world is divided into two. You have evil within you, you contain evil, that's the basic idea." I think most of us get that, including the church.

Once again, I'm disappointed by so-called horror novels. I'm drawn to them by the book description or even the covers, but invariably I'm let down. This happens with sci-fi, too.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Area 51

I remember the first time I heard about Area 51. I was watching a show on PBS, part of a series on "Great Drives." It was hosted by the actor Graham Greene. This episode was about Route 93, which runs from Las Vegas to Montana. He starts in Vegas (it was also the first time I heard the absolutely gorgeous cover of "Viva Las Vegas" by Shawn Colvin), and then made a side trip to the small town of Rachel, which is just a collection of mobile homes and a mailbox, belong to a rancher, which has come to be known as "The Black Mailbox." Nearby is the Nellis Air Force base, which includes the mysterious "Area 51." The whole thing grabbed my imagination like a dog grabs a shank of meat.

What is Area 51? It's a section of the base that is highly classified. Likely it is a testing ground for aircraft that are being developed, such as the Stealth or Blackbird. But over the years a lore has been created that one of two things are going on: alien spaceships are being reverse-engineered, and/or aliens themselves, or their remains, are kept there.

When you don't know what's inside a box, it's easy to imagine all sorts of things that are in it, and none of these can be disproved. Therefore an entire cottage industry has revolved around Area 51 (in addition to Roswell, New Mexico, where a craft supposedly crash landed in 1947). I'm not one of those types that believes in things like this--I certainly think there is life on other planets, the odds are too great, but I don't think there's sufficient proof to assume that any of these life forms have visited Earth.

But, as the poster in Fox Mulder's office read, "I Want to Believe." Thus I did a lot of research on Area 51 and ufology in general; the culmination was a script I wrote called The Black Mailbox. It is still unproduced, of course, but did get to the top 250 in the first Project Greenlight contest.

I was immersed in facts and lore about the place some ten to twelve years ago, to the extent of having survey maps of the area tacked to my wall. I still have a few bookshelves lined with volumes on the subject, from Jacques Vallee's books (he was the model for the Francois Truffaut character in Close Encounters of the Third Kind) to sensational books from the '50s with titles like The Coming of the Saucers and Flying Saucers on the Attack. I knew about Project Blue Book, the Majestic 12, black helicopters and the Men in Black (long before the movie of the same name).

I even visited the place, or got as close as I could. On my first visit to Las Vegas in 2002 I took a tour, which visited the black mailbox (now painted white). We went to the edge of the base, which has a sign that says photography is prohibited (of course I took a picture of the sign) and one could see a parked black SUV in the distance, waiting for someone to dare cross in. We had lunch in the Little Ale'Inn, a restaurant with a UFO theme. I loved it.

I also went to a UFO conference held in nearby Hamilton, New Jersey. It was fascinating, as I listened to a woman, with a completely straight face, talk about her multiple abductions by aliens, and listened to people argue about the niceties of the Roswell crash. Part of me called bullshit many times (one of the alien races mentioned by the woman was on Star Trek, for example) but you have to kind of admire the dedication and purity of these people. It's kind of like visiting a prayer meeting of evangelicals.

Much of this information has faded, but I was reminded of all this by watching a film the other day called 51, a Syfy Channel original. It's a crummy and shoddy film, and reminds me that there really hasn't been a good movie about the concept of Area 51. This one was bogus from the opening shot, which had a newswoman standing in front of a fence around the area--there is no fence (and it was an obvious green screen projection).

The plot concerns newspeople who are allowed to tour the facility. A colonel (Bruce Boxleitner) shows them the first level, but at the same time, an alien called Patient Zero escapes, freeing other, more deadly aliens (one of whom is a rip-off of the creature from Alien). It would seem that there only about a dozen soldiers on the base, as the aliens kill all but a few. Patient Zero is able to morph into replicas of those he touches, which saves on special effects.

Until my movie is made, the definitive Area 51 has yet to be made.

Monday, November 12, 2012


The James Bond franchise has existed for fifty years now, a kind of remarkable thing. That golden anniversary seems to have driven the latest film, Skyfall, which though the third Bond film starring Daniel Craig, in many ways it feels like a reboot (even after Casino Royale was a reboot).

James Bond is a brand, like Holiday Inn or Taco Bell. Like those establishments, when you step into one, whether it is in Kentucky or Timbuktu, you know what to expect. Skyfall is no different. The film has the requisite chases, exotic locales (Istanbul, Shanghai, Macao, and Scotland), a femme fatale, a preening, arrogant villain, and gadgets that are shown in the first half and then used in the second (although, as part of the joke, the gadgets are much more low-tech this go-round). It also has a bizarre death, this time by Komodo dragon.

But this Bond is also different--it has a fascinating subtext. Judi Dench, who has played the MI6 director M in seven films (this is her last) has become a more and more important character. When Bernard Lee played the part in the Sean Connery days, he appeared at the beginning, displayed wearisome eye rolls at Bond's cheek, and then was gone. In Skyfall, Dench has almost as much screen time as Craig, and her role, as a kind of Margaret Thatcher on testosterone, makes for a drama right out of Oedipus.

The film opens with Craig and his partner (Naomie Harris, who will be revealed to have a familiar last name in the film's closing moments) are chasing a bad guy through Istanbul. There will be motorcycles across rooftops, and then Craig will operate a front-loader on a moving train. But Harris accidentally shoots Craig, and he is presumed dead--kind of a nod to Arthur Conan Doyle trying to kill off Sherlock Holmes. After an idyllic period on an island, Bond returns, concerned about a threat that seems to be carried out by someone inside the organization.

That threat will be Silva, played by Javier Bardem, who seems to have read the manual on how to play a Bond villain. Bardem, who won an Oscar while wearing a bad haircut in No Country for Old Men, is forced to go blond here, and looks like the host at a gay nightclub. He is brilliant and arrogant and hams it up like nobody's business.

Bardem has a grudge against Dench, and is determined to kill her, even trying during a hearing on her effectiveness in Parliament. It all ends at a lonely manor in Scotland, which kind of shoehorns a back story for Bond (he's an orphan, you see, and they make the best recruits). Albert Finney pops up as the Bond's gamekeeper, and I wonder if this role was intended for Sean Connery, and if so, Connery rightly declined it, even though the crowds would have loved it.

Skyfall is full of winks like that to past Bond films. If Skyfall were the first Bond film a person had seen they might wonder at their neighbor laughing at the appearance of an Aston Martin, the scene with Q, the serving of a shaken martini, or that last name of Harris'. It just goes to show that even though this film is directed by an A-list director, Sam Mendes, and is lovingly shot by Roger Deakins, it's not really possible to deviate from what has made this series last. There are all sorts of lapses of reason in this film, but trying to find logic in a Bond movie is a fool's errand. Physics, biology, and even gravity is ignored, and it's best to just go with it.

But this film is notable for the relationship between Craig and Dench. She hardly has a kind word for him, and it was she who ordered Harris to take the shot that sent him into exile. But she is also sentimental towards him (as recognized by her supervising minister, Ralph Fiennes). As the role plays out, with Craig taking her to Scotland for her protection, it's almost a combination of lover/mother. It really gets uncomfortable at times, as Dench consistently treats him like dirt (she won't even let him stay at her palatial home), but he keeps coming back for more. Maybe Bond, who lost his mother at an early age, just wants to be a mama's boy.

Skyfall is not as good as any of the Connery films, but better than any of the Brosnans or Moores. It delivers exactly what you expect it to, along with dollops of psychology.

My grade for Skyfall: B.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Hardly a Man Is Still Alive

Deacon White
For the third straight year, I'm devoting Veterans' Day to a discussion of the Veterans' Committee finalists for election to the Baseball Hall of Fame. This year, the third year of the current system, covers individuals from the period of baseball termed "pre-integration"; that is, their careers began before 1946. Of course, these ten men are all long dead, and only two really are remembered by anyone living. Therefore it's much more difficult to assess their candidacies, since statistics can only tell so much, especially in pre-1900 baseball, when the game was far different.

But that won't stop me from contributing my opinion! The finalists are:

Samuel Breadon: Owner of the St. Louis Cardinals from 1920 to 1947, and during that tenure the Cards won nine pennants and six World Series. More importantly, he hired Branch Rickey and developed the concept of a farm system. With owners, it's tough to know whether their team's success is because of anything they do or dumb luck.

Bill Dahlen: Shortstop who straddled the pre- and post-1900 eras. When he retired, he was the lifetime career leader in home runs, but it was only 84. Still, that was more than anyone else. He had a lifetime .272 batting average, but did have some monster seasons in the 1890s, hitting .359 with 15 homers and 108 RBIs in 1894 for the Chicago Colts. It's very difficult to compare statistics from so long ago. Previously he has only been considered for election twice, and received less than two percent of the vote.

Wes Ferrell: Pitcher who played for a variety of teams, mostly the Indians and Red Sox. Has some nice stats: won twenty or more six times and 25 twice, led the league in complete games four times, in an era when they plentiful, but he won fewer than 200 games and had a lifetime ERA of 4.04. His brother Rick is in the Hall.

Marty Marion: He's really tough to evaluate. Played 13 seasons during the '40s and '50s, mostly for the Cardinals, and was 1944 MVP (during a time when most players were in the military). His batting stats are average. The Hall's write-up of him says "considered one of the best fielding shortstops of his era." Well, do we have proof of that? Fielding statistics can be notoriously unreliable. He may have been the Ozzie Smith of his time, but at least Smith had a thousand more hits. Did have a great nickname: The Octopus.

Tony Mullane: Speaking of nicknames, Mullane had a great one: The Apollo of the Box. Forget about twenty wins--Mullane had thirty or more five straight years, but pre-1900 pitching stats are skewed. Still, he had 284 lifetime wins in 13 years, with an ERA of 3.05. Has to have strong consideration.

Hank O'Day: Talk about tough evaluation--O'Day was an umpire, and few are alive who saw him call a game, as he last umped in 1927. He umped 10 World Series, tied for second all-time, so certainly he was well-respected. Also pitched and managed for a few years.

Al Reach: In addition to a short playing career, Reach was an executive with the Phillies for twenty years, then established a sporting goods company and published the official guide of major league baseball. Al Spaulding is in the Hall, so perhaps that is why Reach is being considered. With no stats to consider, this is a completely subjective call.

Jacob Ruppert: It's kind of surprising he isn't in already, as he was the owner of the Yankees during their Ruthian years, from 1915 to 1939, which totals nine pennants and six World Series, but also was the most dynamic dynasty in baseball history. Before Ruppert (who bought Babe Ruth from the Red Sox), the Yankees were also-rans, but by the time he died they were the premiere franchise in American sports.

Bucky Walters: Had a nice pitching career, mostly with the Reds, winning 198 but losing 160, and an ERA of 3.05. Won twenty or more three times, including 27 in 1939. Good stats, but hardly worthy of the Hall.

Deacon White: We go way back in time for this fellow, who I had never heard of before. He played twenty seasons, ending his career in 1890. He hit .312 for his career, and was known as a great bare-handed catcher.

I have no idea who will be voted in. I would guess Breadon and Ruppert, as that is who I would vote for. I don't think any of the players will be voted in, as I don't think any of them have the greatness required. The results will be announced January 9th.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Destiny of the Republic

Of the four assassinated presidents, Lincoln and Kennedy got all the press. I doubt Bill O'Reilly will write a book called Killing Garfield, and that's good, because the definitive book on the Garfield assassination has been written by Candice Millard with Destiny of the Republic, which covers the promise of Garfield, his insane assassin, the incompetence of his medical team, the struggle by Alexander Graham Bell to save him, and the accompany stress endured by the country.

James Garfield was the 20th president of the United States, little remembered today. He was the last president born in a log cabin, and was admired for coming from the most abject poverty. He was president for only three months when he was shot in the Baltimore and Potomac railway station on July 2, 1881. He died two and a half months later. But Millard paints a picture of how giant of a man he was at the time.

He was a dark horse candidate, a congressman from Ohio and former Civil War general. At the Republican convention of 1880 the party was split between two factions--the stalwarts and the half-breeds. Mostly this split was due to the issue of civil service reform, with the stalwarts preferring the old spoils system. They were led by the ruthless senator from New York, Roscoe Conkling, who supported James Blaine for president. The half-breeds supported Ohio senator John Sherman. But after several ballots neither could gain the necessary votes for nomination. Garfield, who placed Sherman's name in nomination, ended up being the compromise candidate. He was forced to choose Chester Arthur, one of Conkling's men, as Vice President. Garfield then defeated Winfield Hancock in the general election.

Paralleling Garfield's story is that of Charles Guiteau, his assassin. When I was a kid we learned that Guiteau was a "disappointed office seeker," but the truth is that he was insane, full of delusions of grandeur. Millard writes, "Charles Guiteau was an unremarkable figure. He had failed at everything he had tried, and he had tried nearly everything, from law to ministry to even a free-love commune. He had been thrown in jail. His wife had left him. His father believed him insane, and his family had tried to have him institutionalized. In his own mind, however, Guiteau was a man of great distinction and promise, and he predicted a glorious future for himself.

After Garfield's election, Guiteau was a common sight at the White House. He wished to be named Consul to France, and in those days anyone could walk into the White House and have a seat. The president's secretary, John Stanley Brown, knew him by sight, and Guiteau even managed to corner Blaine, who had been named Secretary of State. When it became apparent that Garfield was ignoring him, Guiteau decided that a stalwart should be president. He shot Garfield, and then expected the army to free him and Arthur to pardon him.

Because of Guiteau's statements, the public did for a while believe Conkling and Arthur were behind it. Conkling, through a tactical error, lost his senate seat. He still believed Arthur would do his bidding, but Arthur turned the tables on him. Arthur is something of a sad figure in this book: "The thought of Garfield dying terrified Arthur. The vice presidency was a prominent but undemanding job that had suited him well. Now, however, with the president near death, Arthur's position had been suddenly elevated to one of far greater importance than he, or anyone else, had ever believed possible."

The second part of this book is about the care Garfield received. "Had Garfield been shot just fifteen years later, the bullet in his back would have been quickly found by X-ray images, and the wound treated with antiseptic surgery. He might have been back on his feet within weeks. Had he been able to receive modern medical care, he likely would have spent no more than a few nights in the hospital."

Millard clearly points out that Garfield did not directly die of the gunshot wound. She says that he would have better off untreated. The first mistake was when the doctor arriving on the scene probed the bullet wound with his unsterilized finger. Garfield would receive constant probings like this, and he would die riddled with infection.

Joseph Lister, a British physician (Listerine is named after him) had come up with the notion that bacteria led to infection. European surgeons took to his theories and countless lives were saved. For some reason, American surgeons were skeptical, even dismissive, laughing at the idea that unseen forces were responsible for death. Thus Garfield, treated by an arrogant and foolhardy Dr. Bliss (his first name was Doctor, an example of parental pre-ordainment), was doomed from the start.

He lingered for a few months. Inventor Bell, who was famous because of the telephone, tried to invent a metal detector to find the bullet. He was successful in the invention, but Bliss stubbornly only allowed him to use the machine on Garfield's right side, where Bliss was sure the bullet was. After Garfield died and the autopsy performed, Bliss was chagrined to find that it was, indeed, on the left side.

Bliss spent the rest of his career trying to defend himself. Arthur surprised everyone by being a competent leader who championed civil service reform (and denied Conkling a post as Secretary of State).  It was until President McKinley's assassination twenty years later, though, that a permanent bodyguard force was installed around the president.

What comes across most through this book, though, is Millard's admiration of Garfield, and the regret that he did not complete his term. He was quite a forward thinker--he advocated equal rights for black citizens. After reading this book, it does seem a shame he was cut down by a deranged man who should have been receiving psychiatric care. Now Garfield exists only as the answer to a trivia question.

Friday, November 09, 2012

The Walking Dead

As I mentioned in my post regarding Night of the Living Dead, zombies are hot. Maybe not as hot as vampires, but pretty hot, considering their place in horror literature is relatively recent. The Walking Dead, an AMC series that debuted on Halloween two years ago, is perhaps the height of zombie media.

Created by Frank Darabont, the series is based on a series of graphic novels, but Darabont freely confesses he was inspired by George Romero's films. Interestingly though, as with Night of the Living Dead, the word zombie is never mentioned. These are not the zombies of Haitian myth, but those who have suffered from a plague.

The first season, which I just finished watching, is set in Georgia. State trooper Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) is wounded in a shootout. When he awakens from a coma, all has gone to hell. He learns that "walkers" are those who suffer from an intense fever, die, and then come back to life, with minimal brain activity. Their only instinct is to feed on flesh. They can be taken out with a shot or severe blow to the head.

Lincoln, in a coincidence that is so whopping that it must be overlooked, is able to find his wife and son, who are camped out by a quarry with other survivors. His friend and co-worker, Shane (Jon Bernthal), thinking that Lincoln was dead, has begun an affair with Lincoln's wife (Sarah Wayne Callies). There is an assortment of others in the group, with the kind diversity of World War II platoon--a few blacks, an Asian, a family of Latinos, a redneck.

Meanwhile, society has completely broken down. The government has ceased to exist. When Lincoln goes to Atlanta to find help, he sees that it is over run by the dead.

Like most horror film staples, zombies can be metaphors for something else. They have been used to comment on consumerism, war, the over reach of science, etc. The Walking Dead goes beyond that. I think this series, at least the first season, is a contemplation of what it must be like to face the extinction of mankind. In the last episode, they go to the CDC (Center for Disease Control) and find the one scientist left who is working on a cure (Noah Emmerich). He tells them that there is no hope, and suggests suicide. But most of the group, unable to override the instinct of survival and hope, decide to carry on. Of course, this must be in order to have a second season.

Zombies have no special powers. They move slowly and have no intelligence. One zombie, even two or three, no problem. Their strength, and therefore their terror, is in their numbers. In The Walking Dead it becomes a matter of math--the "walkers" have no outnumbered the living, and once bitten, the living change sides. It's a frightening scenario.

This show is very bloody. Every episode has at least a few zombies are shot in the head, or beheaded, or have a pick-axe shoved into their brain pans. As with Romero's film, the direction of this show makes the sight of one zombie, shuffling down a street at broad daylight, oddly unnerving. It's also a windfall for Hollywood makeup artists, as the zombies are all at severe levels of decomposition.

I'll definitely be checking out the subsequent seasons of The Walking Dead.

Thursday, November 08, 2012

Four More Years

It was a great election night in this corner. Not only was President Obama re-elected, but Democrats actually made pickups in the Senate, perhaps the craziest member of Congress, (I know, the bar is high) Allen West, was defeated, and marriage equality seems to have won all four ballot instances.

I spent election night working for the AP, fielding votes from town clerks in Massachusetts, who called in the vote results. We were not allowed to openly root for one side or the other, but TVs were set up so we could watch the returns. As Romney racked up an early lead, the fellow next to me, who calls himself a libertarian, seemed to see that as a good sign for the Republican. But all of the early states called were not surprises. It was only when Obama was declared a winner in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin that I started to feel better.

When Ohio was called, and bedlam erupted in Chicago, I had to quietly tell my colleague that Obama won, which shut him up. But I was supremely confident. I'd been reading the blogs of Nate Silver and Sam Wang, who both had Obama at over at a ninety percent chance of winning. The networks, all of them, kept calling it a toss-up, which was nuts. Yes, the popular vote was close, but you have to look at the state polls, which Silver and Wang were doing. Romney had a difficult electoral path to the presidency, and it turned out he lost every swing state but one (North Carolina, which was never considered to be likely for Obama). If Florida holds for Obama, Silver and Wang will be fifty-for-fifty in their predictions (plus D.C.).

So what does this election say? I think we can compare it to the race in '04. A vulnerable candidate was re-elected due mostly to the weakness of the challenger. Except to the most die-hards, Romney was never an inspirational candidate--he only represented the un-Obama, and that wasn't enough. He had no strong principles, and very little charisma. Obama remained personally popular, more empathetic (the hurricane helped) and things do seem to be getting better. Still, I think a stronger Republican candidate would have won. Who would that be? You got me. Of the original slate of candidates, perhaps only John Huntsman, the most reasonable of the lot, might have given Obama a real struggle.

What will the Republican party need to do? In watching some of the Shiva on Fox News, they blame Romney, but they also are tsking over the changing demographic of America. Bill O'Reilly laments that traditional America is gone, and what he means is that the white majority is gone. Boo hoo! So Republicans will have to reach out to Latinos and blacks and Asians. They can try by putting someone like Marco Rubio on the ticket (it would have been interesting to see what would have happened if Rubio had been chosen instead of Paul Ryan as Veep), or maybe Republicans need to try to reach out to the concerns of Latinos and blacks. Nominating a starched white plutocrat like Romney, who was never able to convince the poor and middle-class that he cared about them, was fatal.

I think it's also interesting that all the candidates who made gaffes about rape--notably Todd Akin of Missouri and Richard Mourdock of Indiana--went down to defeat. Clearly Republicans are behind the curve on women's issues. Few people, it seems, have the stomach to insist that women should be forced to bear their rapist's babies.

Already the networks are talking about 2016. The usual suspects on the Democratic side are Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, Andrew Cuomo, and a number of women senators, notably Elizabeth Warren, just elected as senator of Massachusetts (yeah!). On the Republican side we have Rubio, Jeb Bush, Bobby Jindal, Chris Christie, and Rand Paul, picking up his father's support. It's a long way to go--Republicans tend to go with the next in line, and that might be Paul Ryan. Democrats are more susceptible to go with someone we may not even be talking about now.

For now, Obama faces a difficult four years. Second terms are tough for presidents--just ask Bill Clinton. Times are still tough, but I'm a lot more optimistic given the result of Tuesday's vote.

Wednesday, November 07, 2012


Flight is Robert Zemeckis' first live-action film since Cast Away in 2000. Both films kick off with a plane crash, so Zemeckis is bucking to make the most films that won't be featured as in-flight entertainment.

Denzel Washington stars as Whip Whitaker, a self-loathing pilot. He awakens drunk with a flight attendant (Nadine Velasquez, in a scene that is sure to win awards from Mr. Skin). He has more booze, than a line of cocaine to make him alert. He has more booze on the flight from Orlando to Atlanta, but he manages to pull out of major turbulence.

Then something in the plane breaks, and he pulls off a spectacular maneuver to pull the plane out of a nose dive and glide it away from populated areas, with only minimal loss of life. He is hailed as a hero, but his blood toxicology report reveals alcohol and cocaine in his system.

I don't know this for sure, but I'm guessing screenwriter John Gatins was inspired by the landing of the jet on the Hudson River a few years. Captain Sullenberger was the hero du jour, and nothing since then has tarnished his reputation. But what if a supposed hero isn't such a nice guy, and though the crash is not his fault, he was shit-faced when it happened?

The answers as laid out in this film are fascinating. Washington is surrounded by a buddy and union official (Bruce Greenwood) and attorney (Don Cheadle), and hides from the public. He meets another addict in the hospital. She is Kelly Reilly, a young woman with a heroin problem. They take a shine to each other, and she holes up with him in hiding on his father's farm. He resists her attempts to admit his addiction, and he will have to face his own demons.

This is a pretty powerful tale of redemption, mainly because of Washington's bold portrayal. There is not much likable about him. He's alienated everyone with his drinking, except his booze and cocaine buddy, John Goodman (is he wearing the same bowling shirt from The Big Lebowski?) Whip is a perfect shit, but he is also a tortured individual, completely adrift. Washington does something interesting with his face, namely his jaw, which seems to recede as he realizes he's half a man. I loved a scene where he practically begs his friend a co-worker to testify that he did not appear drunk in the cockpit that day.

About that crash scene--what a doozy! Most of the action takes place in cockpit, and you feel like you're right in there with them. I'll have to check with my brother-in-law the pilot to find out if inverting a plane takes levels it out of a nose-dive.

Though Washington deserved accolades (he's certain to get an Oscar nomination) Reilly should not be ignored. I was amazed to find out she's British. She also does something interesting with her face--she is able to make her eyelid twitch. Granted, the relationship between the two is nonsense--they only get together sexually because the script calls for it--it doesn't mean the characterizations aren't intense.

My grade for Flight: B+.

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Paranormal Activity 3

The law of diminishing returns is evident in the Paranormal Activity series, as number 3, a prequel to the first two, shows no deviation from the template. There are a few scares, and the overall feeling of dread is nicely depicted, but there's almost nothing new to add.

The first two films dealt with sisters who were haunted by some sort of demon who wants the first-born male child in the family. In number 3, we flash back to 1988, when the girls are young. Kristi, the younger child, starts talking to an imaginary friend named Toby, who wants her to do something. This is all documented by the girls' mother's boyfriend, who has a wedding video business.

The insistence on having these films all shot as practical video is extremely limiting but can be effective. The boyfriend mounts a camera on an oscillating fan, so as we watch the camera pan back and forth, we tense up, waiting for something to see. As the film begins, it's always something small, like a chandelier swinging or a door closing on its own. Then, by the end, it's wholesale slaughter.

I have yet to see film number four, but hopefully it stretches the imagination a bit. In this film, as with number 2, the woman of the house is finally convinced something is up when everything in the kitchen flies out at once. We also have evidence that this demon does not like to be taunted, as when a friend and one of the girls play "Bloody Mary" in the bathroom.

The film was directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, but there is nothing distinctive about the direction, as it simply follows form. This "found" footage thing can all be traced to The Blair Witch Project, anyway. The act is getting tired.

Monday, November 05, 2012

The Select (The Sun Also Rises)

Last year a theater company called Elevator Repair Service staged something of a sensation called Gatz. It was a six-hour dramatization of F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel, The Great Gatsby. To be more accurate, the entire novel was read aloud. The production came to Princeton's McCarter Theater, but a $150 ticket price scared me off. That's a lot of money to pay for something that you might not like, and then have to endure for a quarter of a day.

This year the ERS is back in Princeton with another stage version of a classic American novel, albeit not reading the whole thing. The Select (The Sun Also Rises) takes one of the Ernest Hemingway's most iconic novels and puts it on stage, complete with bullfight.

The play, as with the book, is set in Paris and Spain during the 1920s, and captures the drunken waywardness of the "lost generation." The narrator is Jake Barnes (Mike Iveson), a journalist living in Paris. Iveson handles the bulk of the speaking--his memorization skills are impressive. His best friend is Robert Cohn, college boxer and would-be writer. He's also a Jew, which will become a distinction for him, and the treatment of him dates the novel some. It is largely left out of the play, and he is played by Matt Tierney less as the troublesome Hebrew than a perpetually baffled outsider.

The fulcrum of the play is Lady Brett Ashley (Lucy Taylor), the divorced woman of British peerage who has bobbed hair and takes many lovers. She and Jake are in love, but an unspecified war wound has made Barnes impotent. Cohn is immediately attracted to her, despite her engagement to a bellicose Scotsman named Mike Campbell (Pete Simpson).

The first act takes place in Paris cafe society, where much drinking is done. Cohn is attached to a shrewish woman, Frances (Kate Scelsa), who tries to get him to marry her. Brett arrives and Frances sulks and goes to England. The gang decide to the festival in Pamplona. Jake learns that Brett and Cohn have had an affair, which disturbs him. It also disturbs Campbell, who provokes Cohn. When Brett seduces a famous bullfighter, Pedro Romero (Suzie Sokol), it becomes the straw that breaks the camel's back, and Cohn lashes out at everyone in a bar room brawl.

Brett runs off with Romero, but eventually is in Madrid, alone and destitute. Jake rescues her, and they share a quiet taxi ride. “Oh Jake," Brett said, "We could have had such a damned good time together."Ahead was a mounted policeman in khaki directing traffic. He raised his baton. The car slowed suddenly, pressing Brett against me. Yes," I said. "Isn't it pretty to think so?”

I hadn't read the book in many years, so much of it was new to me, as I have a poor memory for plots. Under the direction of John Collins, this is certainly a theatrical experience, but I found it to be only intermittently riveting. All the stops have been pulled out to keep the crowd awake--in addition to the climactic bullfight, which has Romero dodging a large table adorned with horns--there are two terrific dance sequences (one is to a totally anachronistic French pop song).

There has also been a great deal of effort put into the sound design. Two of the actors themselves, Tierney and Ben Williams (who plays Jake's New York pal, Bill Gorton) take turns standing behind the bar of the set, which is dressed as The Select, a cafe in Paris. The sound effects are clever, and mostly involved with libation--clinking glasses, the pouring of wine, or the popping of Champagne corks. At times this takes on a cartoonish quality--the slugfest in Act 2 sounds as if it were straight out of Popeye.

The method of reading long portions of the book takes some getting used to. Iveson recites long passages of exposition, and then, when the dialogue begins, will include things like "I said."

The show also doesn't need to be three hours long. It is cut way down from the original, but the inclusion of many portions of the book seems more like a kind of self-imposed challenge rather than as a means of entertainment. The ending, when Jake finds Brett in Madrid, is extremely dragged out. I knew that last line, and I was kept waiting for it.

Sunday, November 04, 2012

Thanks for the Memes

Only two days before the election, so unless there's a massive cluster fuck like there was in 2000, it will all be over soon. Hang in there, people!

One thing I've taken from this election process is learning what a "meme" is. I'm not sure I had ever heard this word until a few years ago, and then I started confusing it with "trope," another word that people on the Internet seem to throw around to make them sound smart.

"Meme: An element of a culture or behavior that may be passed from one individual to another by nongenetic means, esp. imitation." So, basically, memes are catch-phrases, except now in this era of social media, they are represented visually. The word was coined in 1976 by Richard Dawkins, and if you look at the Wikipedia entry on the word you can make your head hurt reading all the academic ideas behind it.

The memes of this election have been particularly strong. The Etch-a-Sketch, pictured above, burned hot and fast this summer, when Romney's aide referred to it as a metaphor for changing his campaign strategy. For awhile, the toy (I had one when I was a kid) zoomed in sales.  Romney traveling to Canada with a dog strapped to his car has provided a more slow burning but consistent meme, with several cartoonists making hay with that over the years.

The debates really started the meme machine. Romney's mention of Big Bird in the first debate had wags working hard, incorporating Big Bird into funny pictures. My favorite was a picture of Osama Bin Laden's head on a plate for Obama, while Romney had the big yellow canary's head on his platter.

Then came "binders of women," Romney's half-ass and incorrect claim that he is all for women's rights in the workplace. Again, Facebook became flooded with jokes and cartoons based on the topic, and it became a popular Halloween costume--women wearing a huge binder around themselves.

The third debate briefly made "horses and bayonets" and the board game Battleship a meme, but it didn't seem to stick as well as the other two debate memes.

A few memes were pointed at Obama, such as "You didn't build that," but he didn't seem to suffer as much from foot-in-mouth disease like Romney did, and Romney was not able to zing him effectively.

Other things that seem unique to this election is the absolute hatred of anyone who appears to be some kind of detriment or turncoat. Chris Christie takes heat for praising Obama's response to Hurricane Sandy. A soup kitchen in Ohio loses donations after pointing out the hollowness of Paul Ryan's publicity stunt of washing already clean dishes. A pizza shop owner loses business after giving Obama a hug. All of these mentioned are examples of petulant vitriol by the right wing, but I'm sure there are those from the left. But it has been the right that has also challenged poll results, unemployment numbers, and suggested that there is rampant voter fraud. It's a kind of mind set that seems to think that this election is going to be stolen, and they are preparing their kind for some kind of "Obama's second term is illegitimate."

I do think Obama will win, but it's no sure thing. Nate Silver (who has received attacks from the right, one of them indicating his data is unreliable because he is not "manly") has Obama at an over 80 percent favorite right now. What's intriguingly possible is that Romney could win the popular vote, but Obama the electoral college. The irony of this would be too delicious for words. The right, which watched the left go through torture in 2000, would howl and call for the demise of the electoral college. Then Jon Stewart would play clips from 2000, when Fox News called the electoral college a good thing, because it aided their cause.

As fun as that would be, I would prefer Obama win both aspects of the election, just so we wouldn't have to hear the word "illegitimate" for four years. He won't have both houses of congress, so things will still be tough enough.

Saturday, November 03, 2012

Night of the Living Dead

I mean to watch this on Halloween, but a little rain and wind prevented that. Night of the Living Dead, from 1967, though very cheaply made, is a seminal film in the horror genre, as much as Frankenstein, Dracula, or The Wolf Man. As Curt Siodmak is to werewolves, George Romero is to zombies.

Here's the funny thing--at no time in the film is the word zombie mentioned. The word "zombie" is from Haitian folklore, or voodoo, a corpse reanimated from the dead. There was no instinct for these creatures to eat human flesh. Romero, taking mythology going back to Gilgamesh, took the notion of ghouls and gave it a contemporary spin, and ever since then we have been inundated with fiction and films about zombies. The "Zombie Apocalypse" is so ubiquitously mentioned it's almost as if it were a fait accompli.

The film, made for peanuts and grossing several thousand times its investment, was made in grainy black and white, and reminded me of a '50s stag film. But though it may look shoddy at first glance, Romero shows great skill with the camera, frequently using closeups that give it an expressionistic look. The editing is also skillful, perfectly accompanying the spooky music (complete with theremin, of course).

The story begins with a brother and sister (Judith O'Dea) visiting a graveyard to lay a wreath on their father's grave. The brother, who has no interest in being there, begins to tease his sister that a man in the distance is coming after her. He turns out to be right, as the man grabs the girl. Fighting him off, the brother is killed. The girl runs away and finds refuge in an abandoned farmhouse, where other people are also staying, including Duane Jones (who happens to be a black actor--according to Romero there was so social import to this). Also hiding out there are a man (Karl Hardman), his wife and daughter, who was bitten by one of the ghouls. There's also a young couple.

Outside stagger the ghouls, who we eventually learn were the recently dead brought back to life. They hunger for human flesh. The only explanation offered by news reports is that a probe from the planet Venus introduced radiation into the atmosphere. I imagine this is a dig by Romero at the military industrial complex, but the film might have worked even better had there been no explanation.

The survivors hunker down in the house. Hardman, clearly representing the twisted patriarchal American family head, wants everyone to hide in the basement, but Jones asserts himself and wants to stay upstairs, since the basement has no way out. Meanwhile, authorities learn that shooting the ghouls in the head stops them, so posses form, shooting their way across the countryside.

Eventually the ghouls over run the farmhouse, and those dead become ghouls themselves. In a very political ending, Jones, waiting for rescue, is mistaken for the walking dead and is shot to death by a lawman who talks like a redneck.

Night of the Living Dead makes for a good midnight movie, but it has turned into something much more. There are many interpretations of it, and I'm not sure they fit. Most have called it an anti-Vietnam War screed, depicting mindless violence. The use of Jones, a black lead in a film otherwise cast with white actors, was certainly radical, but Romero says he just gave the best audition. But a white actor in the role would have made it a much different movie. Conversely, feminists complained that O'Dea, who spends most of the movie near catatonia, is a very unfortunate depiction of women.

The film was condemned for its raw violence, but of course by today's standards it's pretty tame. But I will admit that a scene where the ghouls munch on the burned remains of a couple, one ghoul wielding the intestines like a lasso, was pretty intense.

Over the years, Romero has made several sequels (I've seen none of them), each  taking on the issues of the day. That's all well and good, but horror movies don't need to be political. I think they work best when they are truly supernatural, and the worst part of it is unexplainable. O'Dea, snapping out of her shock, reacts the way most of would, I think, by continuously screaming, "What is happening?"