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Sunday, March 31, 2013

Philip Roth Unmasked

Those who read this blog on a regular basis know that Philip Roth is my favorite writer--I've read almost all of his books, which is saying something. He has been pretty camera shy over the years, and his severe expressions in his author's photos have been pretty intimidating. Therefore, this film, which is airing on PBS as part of the American Masters series, is called "Unmasked," though Roth is not the recluse that it might suggest. He has given print interviews, and written op-ed pieces. He's no J.D. Salinger.

But, since I can't recall ever hearing Roth speak, this film was a revelation. Directed by William Karel and Livia Manera, the film almost entirely consists of Roth, plus a few admirers and friends, giving talking head interviews. There are also cliched shots of him walking along the beach, or at his Connecticut farmhouse, and a lot of photographs.

Those who don't care for Roth, or have no knowledge of him, probably won't have a strong level of interest, but it might be worthwhile in that Roth turns out to absolutely charming. He's very candid about his life, though some areas aren't broached, such as his second marriage to Claire Bloom. The only comment about his first marriage is that it was "brutal and lurid," an enticing statement that has no follow-up. But otherwise, Roth goes into great detail about his parents, his work (Portnoy's Complaint grew out of his funny stories told to friends), his writing habits (he writes standing up), and assorted anecdotes about encounters with the public.

There's been something of a Rothmania going on, as he turned 80 this month and a few months before announced his retirement from writing fiction (this is not mentioned in the film--perhaps he came to that conclusion after filming). There is a bus tour of important Roth spots in his home town of Newark, New Jersey. Inspired by Joyce and Faulkner, who wrote about the places they lived but never returned to, Roth wrote many books about the Weequahic, Newark, and has had various stand-ins for himself, most notably Nathan Zuckerman, who he put in nine books.

Why did the press-shy Roth agree to this film? Perhaps that can be summarized in the opening scene, when he announces that he faces two calamities: death and a biography, and that he hopes death came first. In this way he takes the bull by the horns, and rather than writing a memoir, this film will suffice as a sketch of his life and work.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

The Invisible Woman

The notion that The Invisible Man series' popularity is due to an innate fascination with nudity bears the most fruit with The Invisible Woman, released in 1940. It has nothing to due with H.G. Wells' story, and is an outright comedy that was the only way, in 1940, for a woman to be nude on screen.

Virginia Bruce is the title character, a model who works for a horrible boss (Charles Lane, a venerable character actor who died only recently at over 100 years of age). She sees an ad in the paper: "Person wanted to become invisible. No remuneration." She answers it, looking for adventure.

The placer of the ad is an archetypal absent-minded professor, played by John Barrymore. He is sponsored by a rich playboy, John Howard, who has squandered his fortune on settling lawsuits with his various woman conquests. He is about to shut down the house when Barrymore tells him he has a million dollar idea.

The invisibility stuff leads to slapstick, as when Bruce visits Lane and scares him into being nice to the models. There's also a subplot involving crooks who wish to steal Barrymore's machine. They are to bring the thing to Mexico, where their boss (Oscar Homolka) wishes to use it so he can visit his home country (I guess he's wanted there, or something). There's comedy there, as one of the crooks is erstwhile stooge Shemp Howard. Adding to the slapstick comedy is Charlie Ruggles, as Howard's frequently put upon butler, who does some spectacular pratfalls. Also in the cast is Margaret Hamilton as Barrymore's housekeeper.

Romance enters the picture when Howard falls for Bruce, and can't wait to see what she looks like.

The Invisible Woman, written by Joe May and Curt Siodmak and directed by A. Edward Sutherland, is a harmless entertainment that was the kind of thing that was prevalent in the '40s. Years later an invisible woman would be played by Jessica Alba in The Fantastic 4 movies, but there is more sexual innuendo in this film than there would be sixty years later.

Friday, March 29, 2013

The Invisible Man Returns

The Invisible Man became one of Universal's stable of horror characters, joining Frankenstein, Dracula, The Wolf Man, and The Mummy. I'm looking at the DVDs in the Universal Legacy Collection devoted to the Wells character. But it wasn't a quick thing. The second Universal film featuring the character didn't arrive until 1940, when Vincent Price put on the bandages in The Invisible Man Returns.

This is a pretty good film, and addresses some of the problems that the original film had. Cecil Kellaway is excellent as the detective looking to track down Price, and he seems to have seen the first film, as he uses smoke machines to make Price visible. They still hadn't thought of using dogs or paint, though.

Price is the wrongly convicted man of a murder, and is hours away from his hanging. His friend, Dr. Griffin (John Sutton), visits him and gives him a dose of the drug his cousin Jack Griffin, had developed. This is the tenuous connection to the first film, and for some reason the drug is now called duocaine.

Price escapes and seeks to find the real killer. Given the paucity of characters, it's not hard to figure out that his cousin, Cedric Hardwicke, is the man. With the help of Griffin and his fiancee, Nan Grey, Price tries to capture and force a confession out of Hardwicke before he succumbs to what destroyed Griffin--madness.

Special effects had advanced some since 1933. In 1940, it was possible to show Price's figure shrouded in smoke, a neat detail. The matte process was still used for those shots when he is partially clothed, and at times the edges of the matte are exposed, but it's still effective. Of course, once again we are forced to confront the nudity the main character must endure--it's hard not to imagine him running around the woods in bare feet, or climbing a tree with his ball sack swinging.

This time the title character is supposed to be sympathetic. There's a touching scene near the end when he needs to take the clothes from a scarecrow, and talks to him as if he was real. As with the first film, Price is only revealed in a hospital bed, but his fate is much more happy.

One of the screenwriters was Kurt Siodmak, a Universal regular who created the Wolf Man character. Also in the cast is Alan Napier, later Alfred of Batman, this time playing a drunken mine superintendent. This is a fun vintage horror film.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

MAD Magazine Movie Parodies

There's an article in the current issue of Film Comment that brought back a lot of fond memories. Written by Grady Hendrix, it's a history and appreciation of MAD Magazine's movie parodies, which were my favorite feature of the magazine, except when they ran Al Jaffee's "Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions."

Hendrix covers the entire history of the feature, which began in 1954 with "Ha! Noon!" a parody of High Noon, to the present day. He accurately describes how teens, who were too young to see R-rated movies, could experience them in parody form. This was certainly true of me, as I read the magazine faithfully during the first half of the '70s. Before I ever saw The Godfather, I read "The Oddfather" (and "The Oddfather Part, Too"), the same with A Clockwork Orange and "A Crockwork Lemon," or The French Connection and "What's the Connection?" I also enjoyed the parodies of films I'd seen, such as "The Poopsidedown Adventure."

I was interested to learn that during the '60s and '70s MAD parodied some really obscure movies, like Bunny Lake is Missing, and art-house fare like Blow-Up. These days the parody is not even in every issue, and only covers mass-market films like Twilight and the Harry Potter films.

I was lucky to read MAD parodies at their greatest. They were drawn in those days mostly by Mort Drucker and Angelo Torres (both are still alive and kicking) and though the humor was driven by puns and toilet jokes, there was also a biting satire to them, mostly when they attacked the film and exposed plot holes (I remember they focused on a scene in Barry Lyndon when an actor with a supposedly amputated leg could easily seen to have tucked his leg through a hole in the bed). Much of their satire was on the marketing of films, which brought ire from publicists (film companies have never cooperated with them) but directors were usually honored, as George Lucas and Steven Spielberg have bought original art from the parodies of their films.

I was a huge MAD fan. I bought every issue for four of five years. I remember walking miles throughout Dearborn, Michigan, going from store to store to look for the latest issue. There were other humor magazines, like Cracked and the short-lived Sick, but MAD has continued to endure, although today they take advertising and have color. When I got to high school I discovered National Lampoon and moved on from MAD. I've picked up a couple of issues since then and it just isn't the same. You have to be about twelve to appreciate it. God bless that usual gang of idiots.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The Invisible Man (1933)

H.G. Wells' novel The Invisible Man was published in 1897, but it wasn't until 1933 that it was turned into a film. There were "invisible man" movies made in the silent days, by Georges Melies, among others. But the special effects hadn't been perfect enough until John P. Fulton perfected a matte process that enabled the "invisible man" to be shown partially clothed.

The film was directed by James Whale, who had made a sensation with Frankenstein in 1931. This film, which would launch a series of films in the Universal horror pantheon, followed some of the same structure as that earlier film--a scientist, mad with power, has gone off and done something amazing, but at the same time alienates his fiancee and terrorizes a community, with his creation ultimately destroying him.

After a dozen or so writers made treatments of the material, including John Huston and Preston Sturges, the eventual writer, R.C. Sheriff, stuck pretty closely to Wells' story (a good idea--the novelist had final script approval). The opening scene is exactly the same as in the novel--a stranger makes his way through a snowstorm to an inn in a small town. The first shot of his face, framed in a doorway, is done precisely the same way Whale did it in the first  closeup of the monster in Frankenstein--three shots, each progressively closer.

The stranger, garbed head to toe, his face covered in bandages, excites the customers of the inn, but when he gets violent with the hosts he reveals his secret, and goes into hiding. The major difference between the book and film is that Sheriff has given Griffin a girl--Gloria Stuart (who would one day be in Titanic), the daughter of his mentor (played by Henry Travers, best known as Clarence in It's a Wonderful Life). His rival for Stuart and his colleague, Kemp (William Harrigan) is not heroic as he was in the book, but instead is a sniveling coward. Griffin attempts to make Kemp his partner, and reveals his plan of ruling the world.

Because Griffin has a woman, he shows more humanity than he does in the book, but he also shows much more megalomania. In the book, I believe he kills one person, but in the film it's hundreds, most notably by derailing a train. Kemp comes to an untimely and sardonic end, bound inside a car as it plummets off a cliff.

In the film, the invisibility is created with the use of monocaine, which Travers describes as a "terrible drug." After all, there isn't time in a 71-minute movie to go into all the discussion of optics and light refraction that the book does. The side effect is that it makes its user crazy, and Griffin really goes off the deep end, at one point dancing down a lane wearing only a pair of trousers, singing "Here We Go Gathering Nuts in May."

The film was a big hit, and Whale would have a few years of creative control at Universal. The film has many of his familiar touches, most notably a black sense of humor and a use of what is commonly known as "camp," which is often found in gay culture. For example, one of Whale's favorite actresses was Una O'Connor, who here plays the mistress of the inn. She is given to goggle-eyed over acting, and has at least three scenes where she is called upon to shriek like a banshee.

Griffin was played by Claude Rains, in his first American film. Of course, he isn't seen until the last shot, dying in his hospital bed. Boris Karloff was the first choice to play the part, but he left Universal over money. Whale chose Rains because of his smooth, theatrical voice, and he has a great maniacal laugh.

I've seen the film several times and it never fails to charm. The film was marketed as a horror picture, but it often plays like a comedy. I loved little touches like Rains sitting in a chair, in pajamas, crossing his legs, with of course no flesh showing. The most difficult shot was when he takes off his bandages while looking in a mirror. The photography was done by Arthur Edeson--how did I not know that he would later shoot The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca?

If you look quick you can see Walter Brennan and John Carradine in small roles.

Monday, March 25, 2013

The Age of Innocence (1993)

After reading the Edith Wharton novel, I took another look at Martin Scorsese's adaptation of The Age of Innocence, released in 1993. This was my third time seeing it, and it is just as great as I remember it. At the time, it was a huge departure for Scorsese, who had up to then specialized in dark stories of criminals and other assorted lowlifes (one exception being The Last Temptation of Christ). But as Scorsese was quick to point out, the actions of the privileged New Yorkers in the 1870s weren't much different than the characters Scorsese was used to--they were just more sophisticated. One friend of mine has called this film "Mean Streets in corsets."

I won't recap the plot much, as I have described it in the book review below. The film is extraordinarily faithful to the book, of course omitting some characters and scenes but adding nothing. Newland Archer, here played by Daniel Day-Lewis, is among the upper crust of society, but within him lurks the temptation to break free and follow his bliss. He is fortuitously engaged to May Welland (Winona Ryder), who is young, beautiful, and rich, but he really doesn't understand what love is until he meets May's cousin, the disgraced Countess Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer), who made a bad marriage to a Polish count and has come back home to New York to be in the bosom of her family.

But New York is just as cruel to her, with its unspoken rules and regulations. Day-Lewis points out certain things, such as the street she lives on is respectable, but not fashionable. Or that divorce, which she seeks, is favored by the law but not by society. The entire class walks a thin line, and deviating it from it can cause tumult and waves of shock.

Day-Lewis, who helps Pfeiffer navigate this, falls in love with her, and she with him. But he has unwittingly set them permanently apart, by talking her out of a divorce and pushing up the date of his wedding with Ryder. He thinks of himself as dead, but looks at Ryder's winsome face and imagines her dead. He decides that he will chuck it all and run off with Pfeiffer, but he underestimates Ryder, who will keep the marriage intact. Earlier she was shown winning an archery competition, a sly metaphor for her skill in maneuvering her clueless husband.

The screenplay, by Scorsese and Jay Cocks, is so true to the book that large sections of it are narrated by Joanne Woodward. Those who are not disposed to voiceover narration may be annoyed, but I found it enriching. Everything about the film is first-rate, from the costumes and production design to the cinematography by Michael Ballhaus. Scorsese uses a lot of crayons from the box, most deftly a moving camera, but it does not come across as over-directed.

What struck me about the film this time is how breathtakingly romantic it is. The scene in which Day-Lewis unbuttons Pfeiffer's glove and kisses her wrist has as much passion as any scene with two naked people. I mentioned in my review of Spring Breakers how eroticism has almost disappeared from mainstream films, and so has true romanticism. What we get now are characters who fall in love because the script says they do, but here the romance is palpable and excellently acted.

The Age of Innocence is one of Scorsese's best films, and one of the better literary adaptations ever made.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Spring Breakers

It's been over 24 hours since I've seen Spring Breakers, and I'm still at something of a loss to put into words how wondrous this film is. It's not exactly a classic, but in it's own way it's a minor masterpiece, a film that takes a completely negligible genre, written and directed by an enfant terrible, and turns it into something marvelous. It's as if Martin Scorsese made a Girls Gone Wild video.

The writer and director is Harmony Korine, who made a name as a very young man when he wrote the screenplay for Kids some twenty years ago. His last film was called Trash Humpers, which had homeless people having sex with trash cans. So it's something of a miracle that this film is actually playing multiplexes (for how long, I don't know--I was the sole viewer in the showing I went to).

The stars are young women who made their name on shows for teens: Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens on Disney Channel properties, and Ashley Benson on a show called Pretty Little Liars. But this film is distinctly not for teens, and credit must be given to these young ladies for stretching themselves. I would also like to personally thank them for appearing mostly in bikinis.

Those who have followed my reviews know I am partial to young, scantily clad women, and that is certainly a plus of Spring Breakers. But Korine has taken that and run with it, creating a beautiful and haunting film about a search for spiritual awakening. Yes, I said that right. At one point, Gomez says in a call to her grandmother that St. Petersburg at spring break is the most spiritual place she's ever been. That sounds like a laugh line, and to some extent it its, but it's also a truth of sorts, for Korine has created a spring break that is the site of a religious pilgrimage, an idyll that is roughly equivalent to Nirvana.

The film opens with a montage of shots of a Bacchanalia on the beach. Young, attractive people, drinking from funnels, frolicking like nymphs, the women bare-breasted, the men with six-pack abs. There are no frowns, no troubles, no worries, just unadulterated bliss.

Back at their college, four girls (the fourth is Rachel Korine, the wife of the director) are at college, sitting in a darkened lecture hall, the glow of laptops in front of every student. They want to go to spring break, but don't have the money. Three of the girls are kind of loose--Hudgens and Benson share penis drawings in class, while Gomez is a girl of faith (her name, clumsily is Faith). She is warned about the other girls by her Jesus-freak friends ("they have demon blood") but Gomez has known them all since kindergarten.

The three non-Christians decide on a bold plan: they rob a Chicken Shack with water pistols (normally used for squirting shots of spirits into their mouth) and use the cash to take a bus to St. Pete. I think the use of such a mundane city as St. Pete as the place that is over the rainbow for these girls is both funny and poignant. Gomez, though not participating in the robbery, goes along with them.

They party hard. I've never been on spring break, but I imagine it's like this--copious drinking and smoking dope (one fellow has fashioned a babydoll into a bong). One party gets raided, and the four girls, still in bikinis, are locked up, since they can't pay a fine. Enter Alien.

As bad as James Franco was in Oz the Great and Powerful he is genius here. Alien is a corn-rowed, gold-grilled drug dealer and rapper and pays the girl's fine. Gomez is immediately suspicious of his intentions, and bolts back home. But the remaining three become his molls, as he asserts himself against the drug lord of the city, Big Arch (Gucci Mane) and they become a crew of home invasion artists. The robberies are done in a montage set to "Everytime," by Britney Spears, whom Franco unironically claims is the greatest singer of all time.

Alien is such a great character. In a wonderful scene he shows the girls all his "shit," which includes machine guns, nunchakus, Calvin Klein fragrances, and Scarface on repeated on the TV, 24/7. The girls and Franco form a bond when, showing them the guns, they take them away, loaded, and make him fellate the barrels. This is what makes him fall in love with them.

When one of the girls is wounded in a drive-by, Franco and the remaining girls plan on vengeance. The girls wear bikinis, sneakers, and pink ski-masks, their girlish backpacks strapped on. The ending is a balletic bit of gunplay that recalls The Wild Bunch.

I really dug this film. I loved the hallucinatory nature of it. Visually it's stunning, with candy-colored photography by Benoit Debie. At times we just see images of spring break, with Franco intoning those two words as if they were a mantra. And yes, the film is sexy, with a Franco, Hudgens, and Benson engaging in a menage a trois in a swimming pool. Eroticism is a very difficult thing to pull off in movies anymore without seeming gratuitous, but this scene is both erotic, romantic, and tasteful.

The acting by the girls is adequate, without any of them distinguishing herself. I would have liked to know a little bit more about the characters other than Gomez. But I'm quibbling. This is a major achievement by a least likely director with a least likely cast in a least likely plot.

My grade for Spring Breakers: A-.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

The Invisible Man (Novel)

I believe I read H.G. Wells' The Invisible Man when I was a kid, but I've read it again and got quite a kick out of it. It's not exactly brilliant prose, but it's fun to read and has a great mad scientist at its center.

The novel was published in 1897, and, as with Wells previous two novels, The Time Machine and The Island of Dr. Moreau, there is a sense of the arrogance of science. In this novel, the character of Griffin (his name is not know until near the end) is an out and out psychopath, but it is not clear whether this is a by-product of his experiments or whether he was that way to begin with.

The book begins with a memorable scene, especially as depicted in the 1933 film version (I'll be discussing the Universal films in the series in the coming weeks). A stranger, wearing a heavy overcoat and gloves, a wide-brimmed hat, oversized dark goggles, and his head wrapped in bandages, arrives at an inn in a small Sussex town in the middle of a snowstorm. He takes a room, and arranges for his luggage, suitcases full of bottles, to be shipped there. He is nasty and short-tempered, but is left largely alone to his experiments. Eventually it will be revealed that he hides behind these clothes because he is invisible, which causes much consternation of the residents of the town, who are something of an English version of the citizens of Mayberry.

Griffin has made himself invisible by making his body unable to absorb light, but he can't reverse the process. "'I could be invisible!'" I repeated. "To do such a thing would be to transcend magic. And I beheld, unclouded by doubt, a magnificent vision of all that invisibility might mean to a man--the mystery, the power, the freedom. Drawbacks I saw none.'" But there are drawbacks, as Griffin discovers. Foremost, in order to be invisible, he must be naked, and then he runs out of money. After robbing a vicar, the townspeople discover his secret and he flees, enlisting a drunkard as his accomplice, and then tracking down his colleague from medical school, who listens to how he made the discovery and his plans for world domination. He is betrayed, and comes back to this man's house to kill him.

The last section of the book is pretty exciting, and though Wells mentions how Griffin knows he can be captured and stopped--the use of bloodhounds, or throwing some kind of liquid on him (this will be used in future films), Griffin manages to outwit his bumbling pursuers until he is apprehended and killed, his body once again becoming visible.

Wells was a man of opinions and philosophy, but this book is more of an entertainment, a page-turner with dry humor. For instance, "'The fact is, I'm all here--heads, hands, legs, and all the rest of it, but it happens I'm invisible. It's a confounded nuisance, but I am. That's no reason why I should be poked to pieces by every stupid bumpkin in Iping, is it?'"

One thing in the book that is not in the film is that Griffin is an albino, who already has no pigment in his skin. It would be interesting to know what kind of stigma that was in 1897. Otherwise, there is really no sympathy for Griffin. The reader hopes for his capture fairly early on, though it's amusing to read how he manages to stay at large so long.

Certainly Wells would have no idea how this character, and its many reincarnations, would become a standard theme in science fiction. The lure of invisibility is almost as prevalent as the ability to fly or travel in time.

Friday, March 22, 2013

American Tapestry

American Tapestry grew out of an article co-written by Rachel L. Swarms for the New York Times, in which First Lady Michelle Obama's family tree was researched. It was discovered that Ms. Obama had biracial heritage, and that a white woman named Joan Tribble, despite her family's misgivings, had a DNA test that confirmed that her ancestor, who owned Ms. Obama's great-great-great-grandmother, was the father of her child.

This slave's name was Melvinia, and she plays a major role in the book, which, as the title suggests, is a patchwork of stories regarding Ms. Obama's ancestors. "Melvinia's descendants would soar to unprecedented heights, climbing from slavery to the pinnacle of American power in five generations. Her great-great-great-great-granddaughter, Michelle Obama, would become the nation's first African American First Lady. Yet Mrs. Obama would take that momentous step without knowing Melvinia's name or the identity of the white man who was her great-great-great-grandfather. For more than a century, Melvinia's secret held."

The secondary theme of this book is inter-racial procreation, as Swarms points out that all four of Ms. Obama's grandparents had Caucasian blood. Swarms also points out: "Sex between white men and black women was a regular part of life on big plantations and small farms. Masters and their young songs, overseers, and others often preyed on their female slaves. Some white men wooed their enslaved women with small presents and promises of privilege. Others made no pretense of such pleasantries."
,
The book weaves the story of the various roots of Ms. Obama's ancestors, without regard to chronology. This can make it difficult to remember who is who, although there are helpful diagrams. Much of the book is the biographies of ancestors, such as Dolphus Shields, Melvinia's sons by her master, who lived for almost ninety years. Ms. Obama's relatives came from various parts of the south, such as Georgia and North and South Carolina, but they all ended up migrating north to Chicago.

While this book is passably interesting, it doesn't quite deserve it's book length. The article was probably much more to the point. Swarms repeats herself often, wringing her hands in type about whether Melvinia was raped or not. Part of the problem is that Melvinia didn't leave behind anything which indicated what she thought, so Swarms is left to speculate. She also writes in several different ways about how white masters took advantage of their slaves, not just in the paragraph above.

Perhaps what is the biggest problem here is that most of this has been told better elsewhere. The story of a biracial family was much more vividly told in The Hemingses of Monticello; the story of the migration of African Americans to the north was better told in The Warmth of Other Songs; and, quite frankly, Ms. Obama's family tree seems pretty typical of any family that came out of slavery, and can't compare to Alex Haley's groundbreaking Roots. There's nothing terribly dramatic here. The only ancestor who fought in the Civil War was a step-great-great-great-grandfather, and the rest were hard-working folks with nothing particularly distinctive about them. Sure, it's amazing that in five generations a family has gone from slavery to the White House, but for all of Ms. Obama's accomplishments, she is First Lady because she married well. Because Barack Obama is not descended from American slaves, Ms. Obama has become the subject.

But for those who are interested in reading about genealogical stories and the history of African Americans, this will be a must read. Unfortunately, Swarms is not able to go all the way back to Africa in her search.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

World on a Wire

Rainer Werner Fassbinder may be the ultimate cineaste director. When you're in a discussion about movies, if the person you're talking to starts talking about Fassbinder, it's almost a punchline. He was the darling of the erudite and anti-establishment types, and was amazingly prolific: he directed 40 films and 24 stage plays, yet died at the age of 37.

I saw a few Fassbinder films, though I don't remember exactly which ones, in college. Certainly I saw The Marriage of Maria Braun, and probably Lola and Veronika Voss, and maybe Lili Marleen. All of these were art house staples during the late '70s and early '80s. So I was surprised to learn that Fassbinder really wanted to be a director of mass appeal films.

World on a Wire in consistent with that wish. It is Fassbinder's only science-fiction film, though it is structured like a noir. It was made in 1973 for German television, airing as a two-part miniseries, and shot in 16MM to give it a really cheesy look. But it at its heart it is a movie about an existential crisis.

The film is set mostly at a research corporation that has developed an artificial world via computer, called Simulacron. The people inside this world are sentient. Ostensibly it is to be used to determine trends, since it based on the "real" world, they can observe this world and make estimates. The oily head of the institute, though, wants to make it available to a steel conglomerate.

The creator of the world, Vollmer, seems to have a nervous breakdown and dies. His second, Fred Stiller (Klaus Lowitsch) is promoted to replace him, but smells something rotten. He is really confused when the director of security vanishes during a conversation with him. Then he asks about this man, and no one acknowledges his existence.

Stiller delves deeper into the mystery, and at the end of part one discovers what most viewers will have figured out: the "real" world is actually a simulation itself. Knowledge of this is dangerous, and Stiller goes on the run, pursued by the law and corporate goons.

World on a Wire, despite it's shoddy look, is a decent thriller. As I said, it's more like a noir, with Lowitsch playing the Bogart role. But it's also got a touch of James Bond, as Stiller drives a sports car, is frequently in a tuxedo, and almost as frequently is bare chested. There are a couple of femme fatales--Barbara Valentin is Stiller's new secretary (who is spying on him) and favors outfits that are usually only found at adult film award shows. Mascha Rabben is Vollmer's daughter, whom Stiller will fall in love with.

Fassbinder gives the film a lot of style without overwhelming it. There are mirrors everywhere, and during Vollmer's breakdown he asks a government official to look into a mirror and describe what he sees. Fassbinder does have fun with cheesy B-film conventions, such as absurd musical stings that accompany the hero learning things (usually while also turning his head). The notion that our lives are not "real," or are not unique, is not new, going back to such other things as Horton Hears a Who. But the script, by Fassbinder and Daniel Galouye, based on his novel, is fairly intelligent.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Ridiculously Early Discussion of Republican Race for President

The conversation about the 2016 presidential election began the morning after Barack Obama was elected to his second term. Most cried foul, after a withering process that came to an end the night before. Of course, political junkies couldn't help but raise the discussion, tossing out names on both sides, because it will be one of the those special years when there is no incumbent.

The Democratic race could be very easy to call if Hillary Clinton is in. Insiders say she is, despite her demurring. If she runs, a host of people (a lot of them women) will sit it out. Perhaps Joe Biden will run, which would be kind of foolish of him, but that would be Biden all over. If she doesn't run, we'll revisit this, as it will be a wide open contest.

The Republican race is already wide open, and after the CPAC conference of last weekend we can do a little tea leaf reading. The old saw is that Republicans go to the next in line, and that's largely true, depending on what "next in line" means. Basically, it means that Republicans almost always nominate a candidate who has run for president before. Since 1964, the beginning of the end of moderate Republicans, only two nominees had never previously run for president: Gerald Ford, in 1976, when he was already president, and George W. Bush. All others were battle tested.

So who, under these circumstances, would be next in line? The mind reels. Of candidates who have run, most would seem to have the sense to lay low or get jobs with Fox News. Perhaps Rick Santorum will run again, but it's hard to imagine a world where he could get the nomination. I don't think Mike Huckabee will ever run again.

What about Paul Ryan? You'll notice that "next in line" does not mean failed vice-presidential candidates. Since 1964, the only veep candidates, win or lose, that were nominated on their own were George H.W. Bush and Bob Dole, but both had had their own presidential candidacies before that (both in 1980). Names like William E. Miller, Spiro Agnew, Dan Quayle, Jack Kemp, and Sarah Palin have slipped into irrelevance (Quayle actually ran for president in 2000, but quit well before the first primary took place). Palin, after dithering, didn't run in 2012, and is now pretty much an entertainer more than a serious political threat.


That doesn't bode well for Ryan. Perhaps Republicans don't like the stench of failure. This isn't unique to them: the last president elected who had been a loser as VP on a previous ticket was Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who was the VP nominee in 1920.

Ryan, though, will probably run and be a viable candidate, as he continues to be a prominent spokesperson for the right wing. His budget is still hard-line conservative, i.e., cruel to the poor and disadvantaged. He will have supporters.
 
But some Republicans are sounding the alarm that Americans see them as narrow-minded, anti-immigrant, anti-woman, anti-minority, anti-science, and anti-gay. They are well behind the curve on some issues, such as gay marriage, and some gun control issues: 91 percent of Americans believe in the expansion of background checks for gun purchases, but all eight of the Republicans on the judiciary committee voted against it. These numbers can not sustain.

The reform candidate, should he run, and he appears likely to, is Jeb Bush, who spoke at CPAC to these issues. Bush will probably be the party establishment choice, and the recent tweaks to the electoral calendar--pushing primaries up front, so that it favors famous names with lots of money, helps him. His only big downside is his name--is it too soon, and will Bush fatigue linger?

Other than Ryan, I see two other candidates that will do some damage but will most likely be playing for VP. One is Rand Paul, who appears set to pick up the mantle of his father. But this Paul is not a libertarian--he's pure Tea Party. His recent stand against drones made him something of a name, and though I agree with him in principle, I choose to cynically believe that he wouldn't have made a peep had the president been Republican. His father did buck the party, especially on Iraq, but like Ron, Rand is full of weird ideas, and has ties to ugly racist and anti-government organizations.

The other possible candidate is Marco Rubio, who will be seen by some as the answer to the party's Latino problems. Rubio is firmly conservative, and while unsure of the age of the Earth, hasn't made too many other bizarre statements, at least not yet. He could get significant percentages in states like Florida, Arizona, and Texas, but he's likely to be running for Vice President.

There will be other names. Chris Christie is out there, but it's hard to see how the party will forgive him for praising Obama after Hurricane Sandy. There's John Thune of South Dakota, Mike Pence of Indiana, and who knows else. We can only be thankful that nutty Ted Cruz of Texas can't run--he was born in Canada.

My guess, at this early date, is that it will be Jeb Bush. But he won't be able to choose Rubio as his number two, unless one of them switches their state of residence (no elector can cast votes for president and vice president who come from the same state). I'm sure Jeb Bush has many residences he can choose from, so perhaps there will be a Bush/Rubio ticket.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Luck

HBO looked to have another hit on its hands with Luck, created by David Milch, who also created Deadwood, among other shows, and backed by Michael Mann, who served as executive producer and director of the pilot, and star Dustin Hoffman, in his first foray into television. The show was well-reviewed and watched, and was renewed for a second season.

But the show was abruptly cancelled before its first season was even over. Three horses died during the filming of the series, which is set a race track, and protests by PETA and other groups must have hit the mark.

I just finished watching that first and last season, and it's too bad they couldn't do it without horses dying, because it was terrific. The show was much more cerebral than other HBO shows, with limited sex and violence. It was a terrific snapshot of humanity as it passes through the day at Santa Anita race track.

The story basically has three threads, each centered around a certain horse. Hoffman plays "Ace" Bernstein, a gambler and underworld figure who has just been released from prison. He served a term covering up for his grandson on a drug charge, and was set up by rivals. He still has plenty of money, and plots revenge, starting by taking over the track and installing casino gambling. He has also purchased an Irish race horse, though because he is a felon he can't actually own it, so his driver and factotum (Dennis Farina) is the owner of record.

Another storyline features Nick Nolte as an old-time trainer who has the horse of a lifetime on his hands. He is a crotchety but gold-hearted man, and treats everyone kindly, except when crossed. He carefully nurtures the horse, and struggles to decide who will be the jockey--the experienced pro (Gary Stevens, a former jockey) or Kerry Condon, a young Irish girl.

Finally, with a lot of comic relief, are four "degenerate" gamblers who win a large jackpot and buy a horse together. They are a motley crew, and decide to live in side by side motel rooms to keep each other in sight. They hire Turo Escalante (John Ortiz) as their trainer--he is a gruff man who also trains Hoffman's horse, and is secretly the lover of the track's veterinarian (Jill Hennessy).

Over the course of the show, the three threads don't cross, so we wait for that to happen. In the meantime, the characters are sharply etched, and we get the whole rack track experience, from grooms to jockeys to trainers to owners. Other characters include Richard Kind as an agent of jockeys (of course they need agents, but it never occurred to me that such a profession existed) and a "bug" (a rookie jockey), Tom Payne, who struggles to keep his weight down. They all gather at the local watering hole, talking in race track slang in a sort of Damon Runyon-ish fashion.

Hoffman plays a different sort of role for him. He's a buttoned-down man, complaining about the size of his shirt collars and the thickness of his windbreaker. He's steely-eyed and measured, but given to explosions of rage. He becomes sweet on a woman running a charity for horses (Joan Allen), but has forsworn sexual relationships at his age. His moves against his rivals, the foremost being Michael Gambon, are like chess moves. He trusts only Farina, who knows how to be a bodyguard but has a kind of naivete about other aspects of life. Their quiet conversations end each episode.

I think my favorite part of the show was the gamblers. The most enjoyable character is played by Kevin Dunn. He's Marcus, a man restricted to a wheelchair and forced to carry an oxygen tank around because of a heart disease. He oozes bitterness out of every pore, and most of his lines are sarcastic insults, but it's a testament to the acting that a viewer can see the decent guy way underneath. The other gamblers are Jason Gedrick, who likes to take risks at the poker table, the would-be smoothie Ian Hart, and Richie Coster as Renz, the good guy who's always looking out for others. I was astonished to see in the extras that Coster is a British actor (so is Hart, but I knew that).

The horse race stuff is very well done. Of course, the season ends with Hoffman and Nolte's horse in the big race, and it's not a surprise that it's a photo finish, but it is excitingly handled (although, and this is the usual in horse racing movies, races don't last as long in real life as they do in the movies). Since the show was not renewed, there are lose ends that only Milch can answer. But if it saves horses lives, so be it.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is a Turkish film from 2011 by Nuri Bilge Ceylan. It's a contemplative (and at times boring) but often brilliant film concerning the search for a dead body.

The film has some stunning imagery, no more so that the first few minutes, when the lights of three vehicles are seen traversing the road in pitch dark. They are in the Anatolian steppe. At first we only see the cars from a great distance, and hear the dialogue, so we don't know exactly what's going on. Then the picture becomes clearer: it is policemen, a prosecutor, a doctor, gravediggers, and two men in handcuffs. The latter have confessed to a murder, and are trying to find the place they buried the body.

The banality of death is a major theme in this picture. When we finally see inside one of the sedans, policemen are engaging in idle chatter about yogurt. In the center of the back seat is a gaunt man, not participating. The camera zooms in on him. He is the murderer.

Perhaps two-thirds of the film is the search for the body. The arrested man was drunk, and he only remembers a few flimsy details, and one place in this desolate area looks pretty much like the other. The group settles into a village for the night, where the mayor implores the prosecutor that his village needs a new wall for the cemetery and a morgue. When the power goes out due to the wind, the prosecutor suggests perhaps the money be better spent on improving the power.

Finally the body is found, and we settle into a procedural about the transportation of the body back to town and the autopsy. The group has forgotten to bring a body bag, and they have no ambulance, so they must fold the body into the trunk of one of the sedans.

At times this plays as boring as it sounds, but mostly it's quite gripping. The various men have various conversations, most of which are about their roles as men--the police chief hardly ever sees his wife, and has a disabled son; the doctor has been recently divorced; and the prosecutor tells a story about a woman who predicted her own death, and it becomes apparent that he is talking about his own wife. The doctor will unintentionally give him information that will rock his world.

Some of the photography is just stunning, such as a moment at the village when the mayor's daughter wakes the men to serve them refreshments. She is beautiful, and they each regard her as some sort of vision. It's not really sexual--it's more like a visitation by an angel. One of the men comments that her beauty is wasted in this god-forsaken village, recalling the lines by Thomas Gray: "Full many a flower is born to blush unseen, And waste its sweetness on the desert air."

The film drags on a bit too long (over two and a half hours) but I recommend it; just be wide awake while watching.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Pope Francis

This week a new Pope was elected, the first since I've started writing this blog, so I thought I'd toss my two cents in. I'm not a Catholic--I'm an atheist--so who the Pope is doesn't matter a fiddler's fart to me, but, and I think many non-Catholics can say this, the whole thing is fascinating.

Catholics, perhaps even more than other religions, love ritual, and perhaps there are no more theatrical rituals than those that surround the conclave that elects a new Pope. I mean, white smoke and black smoke? Whoever thought that up was a marketing genius. And the idea that 100 and something men go in there, knowing one of them is about to attain the kind of power that the rest of us can not even imagine, is really dramatic.

The winner was Jorge Bergoglio, the first Pope from the Western and Southern hemispheres, and the first Jesuit (the meaning of this eludes me, but it seems significant). He is 76, and not from the Curia (the inner working of the Vatican), both of which took by surprise those who thought the cardinals would go with a younger man and a bureaucrat. He took the name Francis, which many commented was unusual, given that it was a first. Two thousand years of Popes, and you'd think they'd be running out of names, but no, Francis was never taken. I heard an explanation of this that St. Francis of Assisi is such a big name that no one dared to use it again (sort of like there will probably never be a Peter II). The Pope said he used this name because of St. Francis' devotion to the poor, and also because he was known as a restorer of the church.

This is said to indicate the man's humility, but is it that humble to take a name that already has such a legacy? It would be like a politician changing his name to Abraham Lincoln. But that brings up a question--the Pope announced his name immediately, which indicates not much time for deliberation. Does every cardinal have a name secretly picked out, like you'd think about the names for your kids or pets? If we could use truth serum, could we get say, Cardinal Dolan to admit what he would use as his name?

Of course, this Pope offers nothing new in the philosophical department. He was supposedly a choice that prevented a Cardinal Scola, the favorite of reformers, from being chosen. But what does reform mean? Being an advocate of gay rights, woman as priests, and contraception is not going to get you high up the ladder in this organization. There are priests like this, and they usually are in trouble, not likely to get a promotion. These issues, plus the problem of sexual molestation, have kept the church in the dark ages, which has wreaked havoc on membership in the U.S. How many men are going to give up love and marriage to serve as a priest? That's why the profession attracts the sexually aberrant, in my opinion. The first thing that should be done to fix the Church is to allow priests to forgo that celibacy thing.

But they won't listen to me. By the way, if I became Pope, I'd choose the name Ringo. We've had Popes John and Paul, and a St. George, why should Ringo get left out?

Friday, March 15, 2013

Take Me Home Tonight

Take Me Home Tonight is a not very good but largely inoffensive film that is based almost entirely on nostalgia. It's the kind of movie that seems to have started with a song list, the script coming far late in the game. That, even though the title song, by Eddie Money, isn't heard in the film.

Directed by Michael Dowse with no particular style, the film was made in 2007 and sat on the shelf until 2011. It's set in 1988 during one night on Labor Day weekend. In the familiar "nerd chases prom queen" template, Topher Grace is a recent MIT graduate who can't figure out what he wants to do and works at a video store, much to the consternation of his cop father (Michael Biehn). He has heard that his high school crush (Teresa Palmer) is in town, and he tells his best friend, Dan Fogler (playing the archetype of the fat and obnoxious sidekick) that he will score with her. He runs into her at the video store, but whips off his store uniform and tells her he's working at Goldman Sachs.

There's a big party thrown that night at Grace's twin sister's (Anna Faris) dolt of a boyfriend (Chris Pratt). They will hit it off, but of course sooner or later he will have to tell her the truth, and most of the film is just treading water until that moment. There's a lot of '80s stuff in there, with the requisite hits by Wang Chung, INXS, and Men Without Hats. There's '80s fashion and hairstyles, though I am a few years older than these kids are supposed to be, so the nostalgia didn't wash over me in a golden glow.

There are not a lot of laughs here. Fogler is terrible. Grace and Palmer make an appealing couple, with Palmer, though not a great actress, at least playing a role that seems to have written with more depth than the usual bimbo in parts like this. The film's message--that you have to take a chance with life--is represented by Grace climbing into a large metal ball and rolling down a hill. So, basically, to get your life started, pull a Jackass stunt.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

The Age of Innocence (Novel)

I'm ending my tribute to Edith Wharton's sesquicentennial with The Age of Innocence, which she published in 1920 and won the Pulitzer Prize for (she was the first woman to win it). It is another of her looks at New York society, with not so much a gimlet eye as a sigh and an eye roll.

Set in New York in the 1870s, the book tells of Newland Archer, who has it all. He is rich and a member in good standing of society. He is engaged to the beautiful and rich May Welland. He has a job at a law firm, though he doesn't really need it. But something gnaws at Newland--the book is told from his point of view, and though he does not narrate, it's his thoughts that we hear.

Enter May's cousin Madame Ellen Olenska, who arrives in New York bathed in scandal. She has fled her abusive husband, a Polish count. Though she is one of Mrs. Manson's Mingott's grandchildren, she has become accustomed to European ways, and dares to attend a party thrown by Bohemians.

Newland befriends her, and persuades her, per the family's wishes, not to divorce her husband. It is acceptable to live apart, but divorce is scandalous. He feels a stirring in his soul when he's with her, and to overcome it he urges May to push forward their marriage. But he can't help it--he is in love with Ellen, and she with him, but by his own hand he has made it impossible to marry her.

The second half of the book is Newland and Ellen trying to stay away from each other. His marriage to May is dreary, while Ellen goes from New York to Newport to Boston to Washington. Newland subtly rebels against the constraints against him, and is ready to chuck everything to be with Ellen, until May reveals she is pregnant, which she has already told Ellen before the latter has fled to Europe. Checkmate.

The Age of Innocence, unlike House of Mirth, is not a critical view of the ways of these people, but more of an anthropological treatise, like Margaret Mead among the Samoans. Of course, Wharton lived among these people--she was born Edith Jones, the same Jones family that was responsible for the phrase, "Keeping up with the Joneses." The rules laid out in the book have a lovely comic tone.

"New York was a metropolis, and perfectly aware that in metropolises it was 'not the thing' to arrive early at the opera' and what was or was not 'the thing' played a part as important in Newland Archer's New York as the inscrutable totem terrors that had ruled the destinies of his forefathers thousands of years ago."

Other rules included: "It was not the custom in New York drawing-rooms for a lady to get up and walk away from one gentleman in order to seek the company of another. Etiquette required that she should wait, immovable as an idol, while the men who wished to converse with her succeeded each other at her side."

"Everyone in polite circles knew that, in America, 'a gentleman couldn't go into politics.'"

"No one in the Mingott set could understand why Amy Sillerton had submitted so tamely to the eccentricities of a husband who filled the house with long-haired men and short-haired women, and, when he travelled, took her to explore tombs in Yucatan instead of going to Paris or Italy."

"In the rotation of crops there was a recognised season for wild oats; but they were not to be sown more than once."

All of this is very funny, but Newland's predicament is also sad. He is a man trapped by his position, without the slightest clue of how to get out of it. He comes to the conclusion that "The worst of doing one's duty was that it apparently unfitted one for doing anything else." Being inside Newland's head can make for melancholy times, such as when: "The next morning Archer scoured the town in vain for more yellow roses. In consequence of this search he arrived late at the office, perceived that his doing so made no difference whatever to any one, and was filled with sudden exasperation at the elaborate futility of his life."

In addition to the characters in the love triangle, there is Mrs. Manson Mingott, long widowed and living north of 42nd Street, in what was those days the hinterlands. She has inestimable power, and wields it by making people come to her, as she is so obese that she can hardly leave her house: "The immense accretion of flesh which had descended on her in middle life like a flood of lava on a doomed city had changed her from a plump active little woman with neatly-turned foot and ankle into something as vast and august as a natural phenomenon." More powerful than her were the van der Luydens, at the top of the social heap, who only come into town and open their doors when they needed, as if they reside on high in Olympus. Or Beaufort, who lusts after Ellen, but is the ruined in a bank failure, and shunned by society. When his wife goes to Mrs. Mingott for help, it such a breach of decorum that it causes the old lady to have a stroke.

The Age of Innocence was written almost fifty years after the fact, and Wharton includes a coda of Newland Archer years later, when society has changed. Theodore Roosevelt is introduced as Governor of New York, giving the lie that gentlemen don't go into politics, and the new generation, such as Newland's son, don't go in for the boring realities of law or business, but more academic pursuits. Newland can't understand all this, but is secretly happy with it all.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Like Someone in Love

Like Someone in Love is like a puzzle that used to appear in children's magazines. There'd be a picture of a tree or something, and kids were to find the hidden pictures. This film, a seemingly simple tale of a young woman, an old man, and her boyfriend, compels one to watch it with laser intensity, with a magnifying glass.

Written and directed by Abbas Kiarostami, who is Iranian, it is a French-Japanese production, which is an indication that we have a truly global cinema. The first face to find in the picture is why is it set in Japan, rather than France, or Italy, or England, or America? What is the significance of the painting that two characters discuss at length, a portrait of a woman and a parrot, that was important in the history of Japanese art because it was the first done in Western style? What about the joke about married millipedes that no one seems to get?

I don't know what any of it means--maybe I'll wake up one night and shout "Eureka!" But in the meantime, I found this intriguing film to be richly rewarding, even if did leave me with many unanswered questions.

The movie consists of very long scenes. The first is in a bar, where Akiko (Rin Takanashi) talks to her boyfriend on a cell phone. She is lying to him about where she is, but she tells him she is not lying, the first indication that nothing may be what it seems about this. It is soon apparent that Akiko is a prostitute, as her pimp, an older man who looks less like a pimp that anyone Kiarostami could have found, talks her out of visiting her grandmother to pay a call an a special man.

She takes a taxi to the location, listening to the increasingly plaintive messages on her phone left by her grandmother. When she arrives, she is led to a small apartment over a noodle shop, where a kindly old professor (Tadashi Okuno) lives. He seems to be well into his 80s, an intellectual who has a push-broom mustache and walks with a shuffle. The two have a nice chat, and he wants her to have dinner, but she kittenishly goes to bed. Do they have sex? I don't know.

The next day, Okuno drops her off at college. Her boyfriend, Ryo Kase, berates her, and Okuno watches from his car. After a taut scene in which the two men steal glances at each other, Kase climbs into the car with Okuno, assuming he is Akiko's grandfather. Okuno plays along, without actually verifying this information, and they discuss Kase's intention to marry.

I won't go any further than that, because it's so rare to watch a film that doesn't follow a formula. After the quiet rhythms of the first ninety percent of the film, it ends abruptly, but there isn't a sense of being cheated. There is a certain inevitability of the film's progress that doesn't need to be seen, but only intellectualized as the credits roll.

The acting by the three principles is first rate. Takanashi, based on what I've read, is something of a teen star in Japan, so this must have quite a change of pace. She is both sexy, vulnerable, and determined--the look on her face while she passes a train station, looking at where her grandmother is waiting for her, is brilliant. The way she talks with Okuna, without revealing any inner horror at having to have sex with an octogenarian, is also well done.

I've seen two Kiarostami films now. Certified Copy was also a brainteaser. Like Someone in Love isn't that oblique, but it isn't a film that lays its cards on the table. They are held close the vest, which is completely refreshing.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Live By Night

There may be no other time period in American history that appeals to writers like the "Roaring Twenties," when Prohibition allowed organized crime to flower. The books, TV, and movies that cover it, and gangsters in general, is too large to even comprehend. In The Godfather it was the perversion of the American dream, but in Dennis Lehane's novel, Live by Night, he posits another reason: "this was why they became outlaws. To live moments the insurance salesman of the world, the truck drivers and lawyers and bank tellers and carpenters and Realtors would never know. Moments in a world without nets--none to catch you and none to envelop you."

Of course, it's a much easier life to live vicariously, as any day someone could put a bullet in your head. As Lehane has his characters say: "'I've got nothing against noble people, I've just noticed they rarely live past forty.' 'Neither do gangsters.' 'True,' he said, 'but we eat in better restaurants.'"

Live by Night is the story of Joe Coughlin, son of a Boston police detective, but one who always pursued the other side of the law. He starts as a common hoodlum, and gets busted for robbing a bank. He does time, and becomes the henchman of a fellow con, a Sicilian mob boss. He gets sent to Tampa to run the rum business there, and along the way faces a variety of enemies. But he has a soft spot that could get him into trouble. We know he will, because the book begins with his feet in cement.

Coughlin is an interesting character, in that he doesn't come up the old Jimmy Cagney way--he consciously chooses crime as a lifestyle. But his decisions are often colored by emotion rather than pure business, such as his love for a woman who is also the moll of a rival crime boss. When she dies he plots his revenge, which is why he aligns with the Sicilian. But he lets live a man who crossed him, out of a sense of loyalty, and when a young woman evangelizes and ruins his chance of opening a casino in Florida, he can't bring himself to have her killed.

Lehane admires Coughlin, even if he does kill others easily. Everyone Coughlin kills has it coming, especially in a turf war with the Ku Klux Klan. When his gang robs a U.S. armory, the only soldier killed is the one who tries to rape the woman who will become Coughlin's wife.

The book is fun, but at times the narrative gets away from Lehane. There's a bit too much violence, if that is possible in a book like this. The body count is pretty high, and he packs a lot into a relatively small space. But there are some fun, noir lines, like: "You get your retard from your mother, by the way. Woman couldn't win a game of checkers against a bowl of fucking soup," or "Joe sipped his lemonade. He wasn't sure it was the best he'd ever tasted, and even if it were, it was lemonade. Hard to get fucking excited about lemonade." A person is described as being "dead as Thomas Jefferson."

For fans of Prohibition-era gangsters, this will be manna. I liked it fine, though it could have used some tightening and maybe not so much romanticizing of the main character.


Sunday, March 10, 2013

Lefty Grove

I was watching ESPN yesterday and the topic of Mariano Rivera's retirement announcement came up. Two of the biggest nitwits on that network, Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless, debated Rivera's place in the pantheon of players. I won't get into that, though it's hard for me to put a player who plays only one inning per game high the list, even if Rivera is the best ever at what he does.

What got me slack-jawed was Bayless naming his best all-time starting pitchers: Bob Gibson, Sandy Koufax, Roger Clemens, Greg Maddux, and Randy Johnson. Now, nothing against those guys, and Clemens and Maddux are certainly top ten, while Koufax is a tough case given his short career. But I'm amazed that Bayless included no one pre-World War II, or even the Korean War for that matter.

No Walter Johnson, no Christy Mathewson, no Cy Young, no Grover Alexander. But the pitcher who I think gets the most short shrift on these lists is Lefty Grove, who is the best lefthander of all time and arguably the best pitcher, period.

I'm not sure why Grove gets overlooked. This is all terribly subjective, but the man did win 300 games (on the nose), and has he best winning percentage of anyone in the that club (his record is 300-141). His dominance in the late '20s and early '30s matches the streak of any pitcher, including Koufax: seven straight years leading the league in strikeouts, and nine E.R.A. titles. He is the only pitcher to strike out the side on nine pitches twice in a career. He won the pitching triple crown in back to back years in 1930-31, winning the MVP in '31 with a 31-4 record and 2.06 E.R.A., won of the best pitching seasons ever. One sportswriter said that Grove could throw a lamb chop past a wolf.

Grove was pitching on a winning team most of the time. The Philadelphia A's of that period were one of the most dominant teams in history, which certainly helped his win totals. But that works both ways--maybe the A's were that good because of Grove.

Was he better than other lefthanders like Warren Spahn, Koufax, Steve Carlton, or Randy Johnson? I would say so, but of course stats can be manipulated. He didn't pitch as long as some of those others--only 17 years, (he was a minor league sensation, and only joined the Majors in 1925, when he was 25). After his trade to the Red Sox in 1934 he wasn't as dominant, winning only 20 games once, but still with a sterling winning percentage.

These kind of arguments are part of baseball's charm, as there no proof of anything. But what gores my ox is when supposedly expert people reel off lists and don't bother to go any further back than the invention of television. Baseball, unlike some other sports, doesn't require one to have seen a player to evaluate him.

Oh, and Smith is also an idiot. Rivera, top five in all history? No.

Saturday, March 09, 2013

Oz the Great and Powerful

In the 1930s, Walt Disney planned on making L. Frank Baum's book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, into an animated film. MGM beat him to the punch, though, and made a film in 1939 that you may have seen a time or two. Disney, probably pissed off (even though the 1939 film was not a box office hit) bought the rights to all of the remaining Oz books. But try as they might, Disney has not hit pay dirt on an Oz film. The Return to Oz from 1985 was a thundering dud, and the latest attempt, Oz the Great and Powerful, while it looks to be a hit, is a hollow and cynical film that seems to have no purpose but to make money.

Despite mediocre reviews, I wanted to see it if only because I was intrigued by the visuals in the trailer and it has the most attractive female cast in quite a while, at least until Spring Breakers opens later this month. And I was pleased with the opening credit sequence, which has a sense of history. And the film, which for copyright reasons couldn't make any direct references to the 1939 film, does pay homage to it, by opening with a square screen and black and white, switching to brilliant color upon the protagonist's arrival in Oz.

That protagonist is Oscar Diggs, a third-rate carnival magician. It is Kansas, 1905, and Diggs (James Franco) is scraping by, a self-absorbed Casanova who has no friends. While attempting to escape the clutches of the cuckolded strongman, Diggs hops into a hot air balloon, which is promptly sucked into a tornado. He crash lands in Oz, where he meets a beautiful young woman (Mila Kunis), who is a witch but looks great in tight leather black pants. He has fulfilled a prophecy that a wizard will arrive, become king, and make peace. Diggs likes this, especially when he hears there's treasure.

Diggs will later meet two other witches--Rachel Weisz and Michelle Williams--and it's a bit of a guessing game as to which one will turn pickle-green and become the Wicked Witch of the West. Diggs will have to overcome his selfishness and discover the good man inside.

It may not seem fair to compare this film to The Wizard of Oz, which is one of the most enchanting films ever made, and is firmly ingrained in almost every filmgoer's subconscious, but if you're going to have the onions to make a prequel to that film, you've got to take the lumps when your film comes up woefully short in the charm department. There's lots of blame to go around. Director Sam Raimi doesn't add much to a simple-minded script, and while the script avoids most references to the original (I liked that Diggs' old girlfriend is marrying John Gale, which means she just may be Dorothy's mother) it does adopt a similar structure. Diggs has only two sidekicks rather than Dorothy's three--a talking winged monkey dressed like a bellhop, and a doll made of China. As with the original, both have human counterpoints in the Kansas sequence, but unlike the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Lion, these characters aren't very interesting and offer nothing of distinction.

But perhaps the biggest problem is the acting. Franco and Kunis are the biggest problems. Both are so contemporary that they strike me as amateurs playing dress up. While Kunis has the classic look of a silent-film actress (George Hurrell would have made a wonderful portrait of her), neither she nor Franco has the chops to play such iconic characters, nor the diction. Diggs should have been played by someone far more silver-tongued. Rachel Weisz fares much better, while Williams is blandly pretty as Glinda, who still travels by bubble.

The film also is a little risque for a children's film. Not only is the womanizing of Diggs inappropriate, but the Wicked Witch's decolletage would have shocked Margaret Hamilton. The last shot is the Wizard in lip lock with Glinda, which makes me think uncomfortably back to the original. Billie Burke and Frank Morgan, together? Ewww.

Mostly this film, while it has some interesting production design, is just flat and uninspired. My brother, who has small children that love The Wizard of Oz, asked me if it was kid-friendly. I guess it is, but I'd hate for them to see this film. They should just watch the original again and again.

My grade for Oz the Great and Powerful: C-.

Friday, March 08, 2013

Super

As I've remarked before, there is a small subgenre of films about regular schmoes who attempt to become superheroes. Usually these individuals are of questionable sanity, and that goes for Super, a 2010 film written and directed by James Gunn.

Rainn Wilson is Frank, a sad sack short-order cook. He's married to Liv Tyler, who runs off with a drug dealer, Kevin Bacon. As anyone might respond to having Liv Tyler run off, Wilson is devastated. To rouse himself out of his deep depression, he takes cues from a religious program featuring a superhero and becomes his own, the Crimson Bolt.

This movie has some bright spots, but it is wildly uneven in terms of tone. At times it is a flat out comedy, and is pretty funny to see the out of shape Wilson running around in a red costume. But it's also extremely violent. Wilson begins to carry a weapon--a pipewrench, and when he hits people with it they react as people would react after getting hit with a pipewrench.

Gunn has assembled a pretty noteworthy cast for this little indie. In addition to Bacon and Tyler, Ellen Page stars as a comic book book clerk who becomes Wilson's sidekick, and she is more pyschotic than he is. I'm not sure what Gunn's statement is. Certainly there's an element of vigilantism run amok, as Wilson clubs people who butt in a movie line. I think this film would have worked better as a straight comedy, without the gore. The film ends with an elaborate shootout that has a lot of spurting blood and is just unseemly.

The concept of the superhero has certainly attracted the fixation of a lot of creative people in the entertainment industry. I kind of hope they get out of their system. There's only so much to say.

Thursday, March 07, 2013

Rush

Elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year was Rush, who had been eligible for years but finally got in. There was a lot of controversy about this, because even as band member Geddy Lee says, "You either love Rush, or hate Rush."

The band was formed near Toronto over forty years ago, and settled into its current lineup in 1974, when drummer Neil Peart joined Lee, the bassist and vocalist, and Alex Lifeson, the guitarist. They have always been recognized as accomplished musicians, with Peart right up there as one of the best rock drummers as all time. It's Peart's lyrics, though, that have divided rock critics and fans.

Starting as a heavy metal group that some compared unfavorably to Led Zeppelin, their early work was heavy on guitars and percussion. They also favored long, multi-part songs that showed Peart's interest in science fiction and fantasy. On the greatest hits album I've been listening to, there isn't much of that there, since those songs were not radio-friendly, but an example is "2112 Overture/The Temples of Syrinx." That title enough shows that Peart surely has read J.R.R. Tolkien and Frank Herbert, and the instrumental beginning samples Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture."

Rush would later use more and more synthesizers, and become a staple of classic rock radio. Songs like "The Spirit of Radio," "Limelight," "Tom Sawyer," and "New World Man" have, as the cliche goes, become the soundtrack to a certain generation, whether they like it or not.

So why the division about Rush? In the recent film I Love You, Man, two guys bond over their love of Rush, and it's meant to be somewhat comic. I suppose that it's cool to hate Rush because they appeal to nerds--one writer called Rush fans "the Trekkies of rock fans." The songs can be pretentious, though I admire their ambition. "Tom Sawyer" is a good example--it's not many mainstream rock groups that make literary references. Also, Geddy Lee's vocals are, well, they're quite distinct. He has a pretty high range that, when in full squeal, sounds like a person who has just inhaled an entire Macy's Thanksgiving Day balloon of helium.

I will say this, though--after listening to Rush's best of, I think they're pretty catchy. Some of the songs are kind of facile. A song called "Freewill" says, "I will choose free will." I think that's a tautology. If you are choosing free will, it means you already have it. "Limelight" is a basic song about being famous, and "Big Money" is yet another song by rich musicians about the evils of Mammon. But "Subdivisions," my favorite Rush song, has a great way of putting the pressures of being a teenager:

"Subdivisions
In the high school halls
In the shopping malls
Conform or be cast out

Subdivisions
In the basement bars
In the backs of cars
Be cool or be cast out"

That the word "subdivisions" is spoken by this deep, disembodied voice is a great touch.

So, I don't love Rush, and I don't hate Rush. I kind of like Rush.

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

How to Survive a Plague

How to Survive a Plague, directed by David France, was one of the nominees for the most recent Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. It was defeated by Searching for Sugar Man, but it is an excellent, unsentimental look at an instance when protest worked.

Ostensibly a history of AIDS activism, from the formation of ACT UP in 1987, the film chronicles how people with AIDS and their advocates had enough of government looking the other way as the death toll rose. A group of activists got together and did something about it, picketing pharmaceutical companies, the Catholic church, and governmental health organizations.

At the time, the opposition considered AIDS a result of behavior, which therefore made the sufferers less sympathetic, I guess. Jesse Helms went on the floor of the senate and declared that homosexuality was disgusting, and there was nothing "gay" about sodomy. Victims were stigmatized, with AIDS patients routinely refused treatment at hospitals, and research dragged its feet on looking for treatment.

But ACT UP's protests worked. First of all, they became knowledgeable about drug trials and the science involved, which has something to do with protease inhibitors. They drafted their own suggestions, which stunned the scientific community, because they didn't expect them to actually have a legitimate agenda.

The protests are shown here in archival footage, from the first one, at City Hall (this film comes on the heels of Ed Koch's death, and his most negative legacy is his avoidance of dealing with AIDS), St. Patrick's Cathedral in the middle of mass, the FDA, and the National Institute of Health.

There were divisions within ACT UP. The more scientifically minded of the group, led by Peter Staley, broke off, concentrating on a getting drugs to save his own life, versus the more grandstanding vision of other members. There's a great moment when Larry Kramer, long a face of AIDS activism, quells a disturbance at a meeting shouting repeatedly, "Plague!"

Anyone who lived in New York or other major cities in the late '80s and early '90s knew someone who died of AIDS. My friend Nick Bucci died in 1991. The "Silence = Death" posters, with pink triangles, were omnipresent. This film is a terrific snapshot of that era, and shows how committed people can get something done. Though there still is no cure, in 1995 a combination of drugs was discovered that can at least halt the progress of the disease. Peter Staley is still alive, having lived more than 20 years with AIDS. But did the inaction of people like Ronald Reagan and George Bush prevent his from happening earlier, which would have saved millions of lives? The film says yes, passionately.

Coincidentally, on the same day I saw this film, it was announced that a child with HIV has been cured, the virus completely eradicated from her body.

After the Oscars, there were some that grumbled that this film didn't win, and that Searching for Sugar Man wasn't an "issue" film. Every year it seems people think this award is for the best cause. It's not, it's for the best film. I applaud men like Staley and Kramer. This is a very good film indeed, and gives a lot of good information, but to suggest it should win because the cause is a good one is missing the point. Just sayin'.

Monday, March 04, 2013

Canada

How's this for a grabber of an opening paragraph: "First, I'll tell about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later. The robbery is the more important part, since it served to set my and my sister's lives on the courses they eventually followed. Nothing would make complete sense without that being told first." Now that's a book you want to keep reading.

So begins Canada, by Richard Ford. I have read three other Ford novels, all of them in the Frank Bascombe trilogy, so this is a departure for me in my Ford reading. But it bears certain resemblances to his other writing, which I will get into.

The book is narrated by Dell Parsons, who tells us about his fifteenth year, which is quite remarkable. He has a twin sister, Berner, and they live in Great Falls, Montana. The year in question is 1960. His father is an itinerant former Air Force captain, who seems incapable of holding a job; his mother is a bookish teacher. After the father, named Bev, owes some local Indians a lot of money in a beef scam, he plots robbing a bank. Bev and the mother, Neeva, rob a bank in North Dakota, and are quickly caught, leaving Dell and Berner alone until the authorities get their act together.

Berner runs off, but Dell is whisked out of the country by a friend of his mother's into a small town in Saskatchewan, where he will work for the friend's brother, a mysterious man who owns a hotel and arranges goose hunting expeditions. Dell will become fascinated by this man, and learn he has an event in his past that he will do anything to keep hidden.

Ford is a gifted writer, and Canada is a terrific book, but it does raise certain literary thoughts in my brain. Ford has been lumped into a subgenre called "dirty realism," or a kind of realism that centers on the mundane in at times numbing detail. Canada is beautifully written: "I could only see the bright gravel roadbed in the headlights with the dusty shoulder shooting by, thick wheat planted to the verges. It was cold with the sun off. The night air was sweet as bread. We passed an empty school bus rocking along. Our headlights swept its rows of empty student seats. Far away in the fields, cutting was going on after dark. Dim moving truck lights, the swirl-up of dust. Stars completely filled the sky."

But I did read the book with a sense of impatience. I wouldn't say the book was too long, it's just that by using the trick of letting us know what will happen, Ford does some serious tantalizing. The book does focus on mundane details, and in the first half, the one with the robbery, it seems like a man telling us a story who takes forever to get to the point.

The second half was much better paced, and has the added dynamic of a few more colorful characters, such as Charlie, the Metis hunting guide who is given to wearing lipstick, and Florence, who paints the drab scenery. But it does bring up a problem with flashback narratives like this--who can remember their lives from fifty years ago with such detail? It's something we forgive in literature all the time, but in this book it calls attention to itself, with Dell remembering the events of days fifty years later when most of us couldn't remember what we did yesterday. Sure, it's easy to remember big things, like the last time you see your parents in jail, or watching men get shot and then helping to bury them, but the in-between stuff would be to most of us a blur, unless we kept a diary, which Dell does not. It's a literary device that we often don't think about.

But I'm just making a point, and don't want to suggest that Canada is a lesser book because of it. Overall the book has a hanging cloud of sadness. Ford begins one chapter with: "Loneliness, I've read, is like being in a long line, waiting to reach the front where it's promised something good will happen. Only the line never moves, and other people are always coming in ahead of you, and the front, the place where you want to be, is always farther and farther away until you no longer believe it has anything to offer you."

Sunday, March 03, 2013

King Kong

It was 80 years today that King Kong premiered at Radio City Music Hall. The film is proof that special effects, which advance almost year, need not be state of the art to make a film work. By today's standards, the effects in King Kong are laughable (though, in some ways it was the Avatar of its day). Technology may advance the ways of telling a story, but the story itself is paramount.

The film has been remade twice, and neither film trumps the original, which tells the story of a filmmaker (very much like the co-director and conceiver of the project, Merian C. Cooper) who hires a tramp steamer to take him to an uncharted island in the Pacific Ocean. He has heard tales of some kind of powerful being, known only as "Kong," that keeps the islanders in fear, so much so that an ancient wall separates them from the domain of Kong.

Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) needs an actress for his film, but no agent will send one on such a mysterious trip. So he finds a woman fainting from hunger, Anne Darrow (Fay Wray) who jumps at the chance (after Armstrong, in a carefully worded scene, assures it will be "strictly business"--this was a pre-Code film, after all). After being seen as bad luck by the crew, she eventually becomes beloved, especially by Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot), the first mate.

The boat arrives at Skull Island through a thick fog, the sound of drums in the distance. Everything that Denham says was true, but an encounter with the natives goes badly when they want to buy Wray, offering six of their own women. It's commented that the natives don't see many blondes. After refusing, the crew slip back to their ship, but Wray is kidnapped, and offered to Kong as a "bride." That's when the big guy makes his debut--a giant gorilla.

In the second act of the picture, which I think is the best, the crew try to rescue her, while Kong carries her around like a Barbie doll. We find out that many previously extinct creatures live on the island, and often Kong has to kill them to keep Wray safe, most notably a Tyrannosaurus Rex. There is a visceral thrill to this section, as the sailors run for their lives from a Brontosaurus (a biological error--they were herbivorous) and when they are shaken off a log by an angry Kong. They fall to their deaths, and though it is obviously dolls falling and landing on the ravine floor, a sense of brutality still exists.

After Kong is captured, because he will not do without Wray, comes the memorable New York sequence, which is also heart-pounding. I especially think a scene in which the escaped Kong, looking for Wray, pulls an unknowing woman out of her bed, and, realizing she is not Wray, drops her to her doom, has real punch to it. The famous end on the Empire State Building, when Kong is shot by airplanes (in one of them Cooper and co-director Ernest Schoedseck play the pilot and gunner) still has tremendous emotional impact. As Armstrong says in the last in, "It was beauty killed the beast."

The film has been immensely popular since it was released. For years in was a Thanksgiving Day staple on WOR in New York, and it's surely one of the most viewed films of all time. The stop motion work by Willis O'Brien, which of course looks pretty silly today, was far ahead of its time, and wowed crowds in the '30s, and small children would still be pretty thrilled by it. But, there are some troubling aspects to the film.

As Quentin Tarantino pointed out in Inglourious Basterds (and he wasn't the first) there is a strong racial component to King Kong. Kong's journey mirrors in many ways the black American experience--taken back to America in chains, and then vilified for liking a white woman. I don't know what Cooper's thoughts were on the subject, but it's hard not to think that the fear of miscegenation lurks not so far beneath the surface of the film. The closeup of Kong when he first sees Wray reveals almost a lustful leer and he looks a lot like some of the depictions of blacks from the time, such as Uncle Ben and Little Black Sambo. The scene (which was cut out of the film after the Hays Code came in effect) of him undressing her and then sniffing his fingers seems to be of the same lustful provenance.

The depiction of the islanders, though pretty tasteful for the period, also carries some racial stigma. That they would offer six of their own women for Wray may be because she's unusual to them, but audiences of the time I'm sure couldn't help but think "that's about right."

Wray would also be remembered for her role in this picture (a person would be hard pressed to name another, though she was in Cooper's The Most Dangerous Game). Kong would go on to be a household name, not only appearing in remakes but in knockoffs like King Kong vs. Godzilla, which I remember seeing as a very small child in my local library. As with all great monsters, he is terrifying but sympathetic, and watching him fall from the top of the building leaves us with a profound sadness. When Denham pushes his way through the crowd to view the ape's corpse, it's kind of interesting, because one, I hope that the city is going to slap him with a huge fine and possible jail time for being the cause of this mayhem, and two, I wonder if has any remorse? Does he realize that he could have left Kong on the island, the balance between man and nature still intact?