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Friday, February 28, 2014

Ghostbusters

The passing of Harold Ramis this week has had moviegoers marveling at how he was involved with some of the most iconic American comedies of the last 35 years, starting with National Lampoon's Animal House. Earlier this month I coincidentally looked back at Groundhog Day, which was his crowning directorial achievement. In his honor, I pulled Ghostbusters out of my collection, as I hadn't seen it in quite a while and this year marks its 30th anniversary.

Ghostbusters really was a phenomenon. I'm not sure it invented a genre--the action comedy--but it redefined it, as the film works as both a summer blockbuster, complete with big special effects and stuff blowin' up, and a sly comedy. Above all, the film hits the heights of cool, as the premise was irresistible--a bunch of paranormal researchers form a squad that will rid your place of ghosts.

The touches are all right, starting with the cast of characters. Bill Murray is the ostensible star, cementing his persona as the wisecracking guy who doesn't seem to care about things until the chips are down. Dan Aykroyd (who looks so baby-faced here) kind of takes one for the team and plays it straight, while Ramis, in his most prominent acting role, is the nerdy Egon Spengler, who is always serious and has a hobby of collecting spores, molds, and fungus.

The accoutrements are all perfect, too. The old firehouse used as headquarters, the old hearse as their vehicle, Annie Potts as their secretary, and the jargon tossed around about phantasms and vapors. Aykroyd, whose interest in the occult was the spark that lit the flame, did his research.

The film, even in in repeat viewings, is a joy. I still chuckled at many lines, including Murray saying "Back off man, I'm a scientist," or Ramis, who is resolutely deadpan, saying "I blame myself." The special effects and the overall look of the picture have a dated feel, which is to be expected, but some of the set pieces, such as the ghost in the library and the whole Stay Puft Marshmallow Man segment, are still fun to watch.

I think most of all, the film leaves us with a wish that there really were Ghostbusters, and they would be just like the guys in the movie. That's a kind of movie magic that's rare. Bless you, Harold Ramis, for your comedy gifts.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Oscar 2013: Best Actress: Woody's Women

In spite of what you may think of Woody Allen as a person, it can't be denied that he has written some great female characters. In fact, of the 23 performers he has directed to acting Oscar nominations (second only to William Wyler), 18 of them have been women, and five have won (Diane Keaton, Dianne Wiest twice, Mira Sorvino, and Penelope Cruz). That total will go up to six after this year's Oscars.

Two performers are nominated for Blue Jasmine, Allen's latest film. Sally Hawkins is unlikely to win for Best Supporting Actress, but Cate Blanchett, as a 21st-century Blanche Dubois, is a lead-pipe cinch. She's been the favorite since the film opened, and only the ruckus raised by the allegations of child abuse against Allen has cast any doubts. But I doubt this will have any effect at all. After all, this is the organization that gave convicted child rapist Roman Polanski an Oscar. Word is some voters have felt sympathy for Blanchett, since she's just an innocent bystander.

If for some reason Blanchett doesn't win, it could be any of three performers winning. I'm kind of surprised there isn't more heat around Amy Adams, as the con woman in American Hustle. Of the five, she's the only one not to have previously won, and she's 0 for 4. But I would imagine voters think she's young enough to win later. She has won absolutely no precursors (but then again, neither has anyone else).

Another dark horse is Judi Dench, in the touching portrayal of an elderly Irish woman searching for the son taken from her by the church in Philomena. This is Dench's seventh nomination, all after the age of 63. She has won, in Best Supporting Actress, for a role that was about 8 minutes long, so voters may want to add another one to her mantle.

Sandra Bullock, as the astronaut stranded in space in Gravity, has been mentioned in some blogs lately as yet another dark horse. This will only happen if Gravity really makes a sweep--if Bullock wins, Gravity may win every award it's nominated for. She won only four years ago, and the competition is too strong.

Finally, Meryl Streep, as the drug-addicted matriarch in August: Osage County. Streep finally got her third Oscar two years ago, and doesn't figure to win again until at least her 80s. Besides, the movie wasn't exactly beloved.

Will win: Cate Blanchett
Could win: Amy Adams
Should win: Cate Blanchett
Should have been nominated: Greta Gerwig, Frances Ha

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Treme

I've never been to New Orleans, but after watching the first season of Treme, the HBO series created by David Simon, I feel like I have. The series follows the lives of several New Orleans' residents in the months following Hurricane Katrina, but the major character is the city itself, which is a cauldron of American culture.

The Treme is a neighborhood just north of the French Quarter, and was the first community of free blacks in the nation's history. It was ground zero for much of the music that New Orleans birthed, which in turn was the genesis of many uniquely American styles of music, from Dixieland to jazz.

As the series begins, the city is still reeling from the storm. Some of the characters are returning from evacuated exile. Albert Lambreaux (Clarke Peters) is a "big chief" of an Indian tribe, that is, a club that wears elaborate costumes and dances on Mardi Gras. He is resolute on getting his tribe together and ready for the big day. Antoine Batiste (Wendell Pierce) is a trombone player who lives from gig to gig, dealing with an ex-wife (Khandi Alexander) and a new girlfriend and new baby. Alexander, for her part, is searching for her missing brother, who was arrested just before the storm and lost by the authorities. An attorney (Melissa Leo) is helping her find him.

Leo's husband is John Goodman, a Tulane professor and guardian of New Orleans' traditions. He is angry about the government response, and uses a new thing called YouTube to record angry rants. He is also struggling to finish a book about the 1927 flood.

Other major characters are Davis McAlary (Steve Zahn), a DJ and neighborhood gadfly, and his on-again off-again girlfriend, Kim Dickens, who is struggling to keep her restaurant in business after the storm. We also follow the fortunes of street musicians, played by actual musicians Michel Huisman and Lucia Micarelli.

In fact, musicians make up a large percentage of the cast. There are those that most people will recognize, like Elvis Costello, Dr. John, and Steve Earle, but a lot that are legends in the Big Easy but unknown elsewhere, such as Kermit Ruffins and Trombone Shorty. Allen Toussaint, something of the godfather of New Orleans music, makes a few appearances, and does John Boutte, who also sings the theme song.

The arc of the characters is somewhat slow and easy. Aside from the search for Alexander's brother, the struggles are in some way minor but at the same time major. Goodman's struggles with his book, along with his disappointment, lead him to a decision I found incongruous, and may have had more to do with Goodman leaving the show. However, the arc of Dickens' character, who decides to leave the city for New York, had much more resonance for me.

But what shines through most of all is the love of the city by those who live there. I learned all sorts of things, like what a second line is, and the tradition of the Indians (it was a bonding between African-Americans and the Indians, who shared a hatred for the white man), and you will likely get hungry after each episode, seeing all the rich sauces, the gumbo, the beignets, and the po' boys.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Ted Nugent

There's no better indication of how stranger than fiction American politics is then when a washed up rock musician and gun nut becomes front and center in the political forum. Yet Ted Nugent is just that, a person that Republicans of the Tea Party stripe have cozied up to, and now many of them are running for their lives from him.

I remember Nugent listening to classic rock in the '70s. Though Wikipedia states he has several hits, the only I knew was "Cat Scratch Fever," which is now running through my head like an unwanted guest (I can remember the refrain, but no other words from the song). I was surprised to learn that he was a member of the Amboy Dukes, who made the psychedelic hit "Journey to the Center of Your Mind," which the anti-drug Nugent didn't realize was a song about hallucinogenics.

Nugent disappeared from most of the airwaves, though he always maintained a following of fans of guitar rock, as he is proficient on that instrument. But later he became more well known as a gun and hunting enthusiast, taking on anti-gun and animal rights protesters, usually in crude language.

It was in this way, I think, that Nugent became a prize of the Republican Party. Not too many entertainers are right-wing. When Republican politicians have used rock songs, the artist usually objects (this has happened with Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, and others). So Nugent was a get, especially since he was the face of a key part of the party--the gun-loving white male who is afraid of other races.

But Nugent has since been a consistent embarrassment. He has made too many inflammatory comments to count, most notably saying, before Barack Obama's re-election, that if were elected, Nugent would be dead or in jail a year later. That earned a visit from the secret service. Later he would say that Trayvon Martin deserved what he got, and that George Zimmerman should sue Martin's family for emotional distress. Finally, what drove even conservatives like Ted Cruz and Rand Paul over the edge, was his referring to Obama as a "sub-human mongrel."

In their eagerness to embrace Nugent, Republicans overlooked many things. For one thing he shat his own pants to avoid the draft. Secondly, he adopted a seventeen-year-old girl because he couldn't marry her. He owns a ranch in Michigan for "canned hunts," basically places where men with small penises go to shoot wild game that are just standing here, waiting to be shot.

Nugent, despite his claims otherwise, is obviously a racist. He was dubbed "The Motor City Madman," but I think he may actually be mentally ill. I have no doubt he's sincere about he says--I don't think he does this for his career. Still, I'm sure many of his die-hard fans--racist, homophobic, gun nuts like himself, congregate. I'll take a wild guess and say that you can't find one non-white face at any of his shows. Here's a challenge--go to a Nugent concert wearing an Obama t-shirt. It may be a passive form of suicide.

I'm trying to think if there's an equivalent in liberal politics. There are a lot of performers who are vocally liberal or Democratic, some to uncomfortable extremes (Sean Penn comes to mind, as does Susan Sarandon). Bruce Springsteen is certainly active in leftist politics, but has never said anything as vile as Nugent has--I don't think he has it in him. Nugent is just an outlier, a person who has no reason to be famous other than that he believes things that decent people find offensive. I suppose people will still be paying attention when he starts back in on saying disgusting things about Hillary Clinton.

Monday, February 24, 2014

The Good Lord Bird

James McBride's The Good Lord Bird, which won the National Book Award, follows a familiar template in historical fiction. It looks at famous people and events through the eyes of a fictitious person. The other example that struck me was Thomas Berger's Little Big Man, which saw the  Battle of the Little Bighorn from the point of a view of an insignificant participant, telling the story in deep old age.

So too is McBride's story, which is told by a 100-year-old man. He is Henry Shackleford, who as a boy, dressed as a girl and was part of John Brown's army as he raided the armory at Harper's Ferry, one of the precursors to the civil war.

Henry is a boy when his father is killed in Kansas. He is now an orphan, and ends up dressing as a girl by accident. He is "freed" by Brown and his sons, who affectionately call him Onion. But he thinks the old man is crazy, and wants to leave and go back to his master. But Brown thinks of him as a good luck charm, especially after he befriends one of his sons before he is killed and ends up with a feather from an ivory-billed woodpecker, which Brown calls the Good Lord Bird. He watches as Brown and his band attack a pro-slaver household and murder the family in cold blood.

He has to stick with the female disguise, and after Brown is nearly killed, he spends time in a brothel as a sort of lady-in-waiting to a light-skinned black prostitute. He watches as a slave uprising is cruelly put down, and ends up back with Brown again. He travels with him as Brown tries to raise money, and ends up meeting Frederick Douglass, who drunkenly makes a pass at him.

Eventually Henry, still in a dress, ends up with Brown inside the armory where the last stand is made. As I read about Brown recently in Midnight Rising, the facts are true, but the circumstances are bent around Henry's actions. In the novel, it's Henry's failure to give Brown a password from a black railroad man that leads the whole thing to failure.

As I mentioned in that review of Midnight Rising, Brown is one of the most controversial figures in American history, a homicidal maniac who happened to be on the right side of history. McBride, in Henry's memoir, describes him vividly: "The Old Man stretched his lips in a crazy fashion. It weren't a real smile, but as close as he could come. Never saw him out and smile up to that point. It didn't fit his face. Stretching them wrinkles horizontal gived the impression of him being plumb stark mad. Seemed like his peanut had poked out the shell all the way."

Henry is also unstinting in listing Brown's faults, such as his desire for fame: "It was all 'bout him, him, and him. Nobody in America could outdo John Brown when it come to tooting his own whistle."

McBride's creation of the voice of Henry is full of aphorisms, similes, and cracker-barrel wisdom, such as "There ain't nothing gets a Yankee madder than a smart colored person," or "That woman was so ugly, she looked like a death threat." But there is more than comedy. There is feeling behind some of these jibes. such as the downfall of the raid: "By eleven A.M. the Old Man begun making one mistake after another. I say that now, looking back. But at the time it didn't seem so bad. He was delaying, see, waiting for the Negro. Many a fool has done that, waiting for the Negro to do something, including the Negro himself.  And that's gone on a hundred years. But the Old Man didn't have a hundred years. He had but a few hours, and it cost him."

I don't think this will change any view of those who regard John Brown one way or the other. From Henry's point of view, he is a crazy man, but he is also righteous, and despite wanting to flee from him due to the danger he is unable too. Brown is seen today as a martyr for black freedom, despite his questionable tactics, and this book gives us a fresh perspective on him.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

The Lone Ranger

As I was watching the mediocre but not terrible The Lone Ranger, I was wondering just why Jerry Bruckheimer and Gore Verbinski's attempt to do for the Western what they did for pirates (in Pirates of the Caribbean) didn't work. This film was a dud at the box office, snuffing out what I'm sure they thought would be another billion-dollar franchise. Instead it became something of a joke, with Johnny Depp wearing a crow on his head.

I'm not really sure. I'm old enough to remember the Lone Ranger TV show, barely, but the kids who wore the mask and yelled "Hiyo, Silver!" while playing in the yard are now collecting social security. But pirates weren't exactly a hot trend when that film came out, so I'm sure the creative team figured lightning could strike twice.

The film is, of course, an origin story. Depp is Tonto, telling a little boy (one of those now in his eighties) the story while working as a "noble savage" at a traveling fair. Some of this is true to the radio show, which began in 1933 (in Detroit, I'm proud to say). John Reid is the only Texas Ranger left alive after an ambush by outlaws, and he and his faithful Indian sidekick get vengeance for his dead brother, taking on a ruthless killer and the railroad baron behind it all.

The film makes some superficial mistakes that are easy to forgive--putting Monument Valley in Texas, or making the actor playing Tonto the real star of the film--but it's hard to put my finger on why it is so lame. Depp plays Tonto much like Jack Sparrow, a kind of Bugs Bunny figure that's always getting in and out of scrapes, and Armie Hammer, as the Ranger, is bland and pretty just like Orlando Bloom was in Pirates. But this film just doesn't have the magic necessary. It's way too long--two and a half hours--and it ways far too long for the payoff, which is the big action sequence set to William Tell's Overture. I'll admit, that got my blood pumping, but there was also a sense of "finally!"

Still, this film is not the atrocity that some have called it. It's lovingly shot--the opening image of San Francisco, with a half-finished Golden Gate bridge, then a pull back of a child letting loose a balloon on a Ferris wheel, is beautiful. I'm a sucker for action sequences on trains, and we get two in this film. And if the film is skewed toward Tonto, at least he gets a much fuller characterization than the old show gave him (Bill Cosby has a routine about how Tonto always got beat up in the radio show).  But overall the film just doesn't work. Maybe it's too meta--there's too much winking at the camera.

I should add that this another film that looks on big business as a villain. This is not new, despite the yammering on business cable channels. Fifty years ago in How the West Was Won the railroads were seen as destroying the way of life for Indians and the buffalo. In our collective psyche, we have tried to right wrongs committed over a hundred years ago, and despite the victories afforded in movies (of course The Lone Ranger defeats the evil railroad baron) the railroad did change the West, putting Indians in reservation and all but wiping out the buffalo.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Oscar 2013: Best Actor: McConaissance

In 1996, if you had told me that Matthew McConaughey would win the Best Actor Oscar in 2014, I would have nodded in belief, wondering if it wouldn't have been his second Oscar by now. He had burst upon the scene in A Time to Kill, and wowed everyone. A star was born.

But if you had told me the same thing six years ago, when he did a movie called Surfer, Dude, I would have snorted in derision. By then, McConaughey had wasted any good will and was doing a series of lame rom-coms, and his image was as a perpetually stoned, bongo-playing, shirt-eschewing slacker.

But the man made corrections. He took on better roles, starting with Magic Mike. This year he made three good movies, two of them--The Wolf of Wall Street and Dallas Buyers Club, nominated for Best Picture. The latter of which is the role he will likely a week from Sunday night.

McConaughey's transformation isn't the only factor that will lead to victory--he also deserves it. His portrayal of AIDS sufferer and activist Ron Woodruff is award-winning stuff, both in the changes to his body and his elemental rage. I found it a gripping performance, and will cheer his win.

This is one of those categories that makes me wonder what the vote tally will be. The interesting race here is for second, as there are three performers that could take that, perhaps easing the way further for McConaughey. Lately Leonardo DiCaprio, as the amoral Wolf of Wall Street, is generating some heat among Oscar ninnies. Perhaps it's because as he nears forty he's fully gone from teen heart throb to seasoned superduperstar. But he won't beat McConaughey.

Chiwotel Ejiofor gives a performance at least as equal to McConaughey's, as free man turned slave Solomon Northrup in 12 Years a Slave. He won the BAFTA, but perhaps that's because he's British. I would love to see a tie, actually.

Bruce Dern, as the befuddled old man in Nebraska, may generated some good will after a long career. He's 77, the second oldest nominee in the category, and would be the oldest winner (hard to believe he'd be older than Henry Fonda was, only 76 when he won for On Golden Pond). Dern, who is one of the last links to the rebellious old Hollywood of the '60s, has played the game, but it won't be enough.

The likely last place holder in this quintet is Christian Bale, as con man Irving Rosenfeld in American Hustle. This is not because of the performance, which is no less than any other in the group, and has the body transformation common in Academy favorites. But he won only two years ago, and his inclusion here was something of a surprise, coming in instead of Tom Hanks for Captain Phillips and Robert Redford for All Is Lost.

Will win: Matthew McConaughey
Could win: Leonardo DiCaprio
Should win: Matthew McConaughey
Should have been nominated: Tom Hanks, Captain Phillips

Friday, February 21, 2014

Bad Grandpa

When it comes to the makeup category, you get some odd movies nominated for Oscars. Over the years, cinematic atrocities like Heartbeeps, Bicentennial Man, and Norbit have attached the phrase "Oscar nominated" to their names. Now we have a film that begins with Jackass Presents to the list, Bad Grandpa.

I've never before seen a Jackass film, just not my thing. But in the interest of fairness, and because it was nominated for an Oscar, I took a look at this film, in which head Jackass Johnny Knoxville is made up to look like an octogenarian and behaves inappropriately while a hidden camera captures the reaction of clueless people.

At first I was not impressed. I was ready to turn it off after ten minutes. The plot, such as it were, has Knoxville, as Irving Zisman, being saddled with his grandson after the boy's mother goes to jail. He has to drive him cross country to his scumbag father. This is after Knoxville's wife has passed away (the corpse is played, stoically, by Catherine Keener). The old man is a horndog, and the first gag has him getting his penis stuck in a vending machine. Then we get the funeral, in which, of course, the coffin falls over.

Candid camera humor, like this and Borat, makes me squirm. It can be very funny, but I feel bad for the people involved, who are being made to look like fools. At the end of the film, during the credits, we get a little bit of the reveal, which was always part of the Candid Camera show, but here the camera cuts away in the middle of the joke. For example, Knoxville and the kid are shoplifting in a store and are angrily confronted by the manager. I don't see this as funny, and I wonder if the manager really appreciated being the butt of a joke.

However. By the end of the film I was a little more accepting. Knoxville is upstaged by the kid, Jackson Nicoll, who is only ten but has the chops of a pro. He is called on to improvise with passers-by and he's a natural. The end of the film has the best sequence, in which Nicoll is in drag and entered in one of those little miss pageants. The sexualization of those girls gets a good send up, as Nicoll performs to "Cherry Pie" like a stripper. The horrified reaction of the audience (the mothers put their hands over their darlings' eyes) just further points out the hypocrisy of the whole enterprise. Yes, this was done in Little Miss Sunshine first, but it's done better here.

So I didn't like this film, but by the end I had raised it from one star to maybe two. I won't see any more Jackass films, unless it's nominated for an Oscar.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

The Music of Pete Seeger

Five and a half years ago I wrote about Pete Seeger, and after his death last month at the age of 94 I didn't know if there was anything to add. But I did buy a recording of his, since I really didn't have much of him on CD, and I can think of a few more things to say. I was heartened to see that many of his recordings were completely sold out on Amazon.

For this post I'll focus not so much on the man, but on his music. Of course the two are intertwined, as he used his music to fight for his causes, from unions to civil rights to the war to cleaning up the Hudson River. To start with, he must have known thousands of songs. He worked with the Lomaxes, chronicling the folk songs of America, and for many of them he made new arrangements that exist today, such as for "John Henry," "Michael, Row Your Boat Ashore," and "Barbara Allen." The most famous of these is "We Shall Overcome," which he introduced to Martin Luther King Jr., and later became the anthem of the civil rights movement. Seeger's subtle touch was to change the world "will" to "shall."

Seeger, like a Johnny Appleseed of music, with his ever present banjo, also popularized the songs of his friend Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly (his song "Goodnight, Irene" was a smash hit in the '50s for Seeger's group The Weavers) and Phil Ochs.

But Seeger as a songwriter is not to be sniffed at. Some of them were reworked, such as "Guantanemara," a poem by Cuban revolutionary Jose Marti. It's almost impossible to listen to that song and not sing along. His other indelible hits are "Where Have All the Flowers Gone," "Turn, Turn, Turn" (with lyrics from Ecclesiastes, and made even more famous by The Byrds) and "If I Had a Hammer," another one that you can't help but singing to.

One of the few negative comments I saw in the wake of Seeger's passing was that his songs were so simple that sixth-graders could learn them. Well, duh, that makes a good folk song--the ability to learn in and pass it along, and make up new verses. Seeger, during his days on the blacklist, played at many schools, signing to very young children, and by doing so generated the folk revival. I know I sang "If I Had a Hammer" in school, along with "This Land Is Your Land," a Guthrie song that Seeger recorded. If only my school board knew that these songs were written by reds.

There are some great emotions stirred up by listening to Seeger. His song "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy," a parable about Vietnam, was the song he sang on his return to TV on The Smothers Brothers Show, and still has resonance. But the guy could really sing. "Wimoweh," an old African song, was transformed by Seeger into a hit (it would later be covered by The Tokens as "The Lion Sleeps Tonight"). When Seeger, in his Tarzan-like tenor, lets loose, it's magic. When, during "We Shall Overcome," he hits the high note on the words "some day," I get chills and tears.

Seeger lived an extraordinarily good life. If we had more like him it would be a better world. But, as "Turn, Turn, Turn" states, "there is a time to be born, a time to die." We got Pete for 94 years, and he has inspired many others along the way.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Twenty Feet From Stardom

The fourth Best Documentary Feature I'm reviewing is Twenty Feet From Stardom, directed by Morgan Neville. It examines, in loving detail, the world of backup singers, featuring prominently Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Claudia Lennear, Tata Vega, Lisa Fischer, and Judith Hill.

The film has all sorts of big gets to talk about this--it opens with Bruce Springsteen, and later has Mick Jagger sitting down for a chat, as does Sting and Stevie Wonder. But mostly it's the singers themselves who discuss their work.

Told in roughly chronological form, it begins with the introduction of black women singers, who were far more hip than the usual white singers (one clip is shown with Perry Como and some women who appear to be waxworks). Darlene Love was one of the biggest, with her group The Blossoms. They appeared on everything from "The Monster Mash" to "He's a Rebel," which they "ghost" sang--the record was credited to The Crystals, but Love and the Blossoms actually sang it.

Love was under contract to the mercurial Phil Spector, who controlled her career. She eventually quit and was cleaning houses for a living, but when she heard her song "Christmas (Baby Please Come)" on the radio in one of the houses, she decided to revive her career as a solo artist, and was eventually elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

The film then chronicles how British rock performers, like Joe Cocker and The Rolling Stones, used black backup singers to sound more black. Merry Clayton, a popular session singer, was the female voice on the Stones' "Gimme Shelter," which she performed after being roused from bed, in curlers. Claudia Lennear was the inspiration for the song "Brown Sugar," and Lisa Fischer has been on every Stones tour since 1989.

Clayton and Fischer have both had solo careers. Clayton recorded three albums, but none sold well. Fischer, who has an absolute dynamite voice, won a Grammy, but she says she waited too long for a follow up. She's still an in demand backup singer, working with Sting, as well as the Stones.

Other people interviewed are the Waters family, who have done everything from the theme to Growing Pains to Michael Jackson's Thriller to songs in The Lion King. Judith Hill, one of Michael Jackson's singers, made a name for herself by performing "We Are the World" at his memorial service.

What's interesting about this film is that it delves into what separates backup from lead singers. Some have broken out into stars on their own, such as Sheryl Crow and Luther Vandross (he was a backup singer for David Bowie's "Young Americans"). But over and over we hear that to make it as a solo artist, there is a certain amount of ego involved, a knack for self-promotion. Fischer, it is said, doesn't have that ego. Some of the backup singers are perfectly content with their role.

The film is marvelous, mostly for the music, but I liked how Neville took a subject that is aural and made it interest visually, using a lot of camera tricks without being showy. This film is a strong contender for winning the award in ten days.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Dirty Wars

The third of the nominees for Best Documentary Feature I'm taking a look at is Dirty Wars, directed by Richard Rowley. There have been many documentaries lately about the U.S. military abroad, but this one is an old-fashioned reporter-using-shoe-leather kind of story, with an intrepid journalist uncovering that the government was secretly targeting and killing people in countries without declared wars--even U.S. citizens.

Jeremy Scahill is our guide, and as the film began I was a little put off by his inserting himself into the story. He kept referring to his many years of war reporting, as if he were the second coming of Ernie Pyle. But eventually I put that aside and got involved in the story.

It starts with a raid by U.S. soldiers on a house in Afghanistan. They killed a handful of people, including two pregnant women. Of course the government denied any involvement (one of the witnesses saw the soldiers pulling the bullets out of the bodies to cover their tracks), but eventually an Admiral visited and personally apologized to the family, giving them a sheep in restitution. That was William McRaven, whom Scahill finds out is the head of JSOC, the Joint Special Operations Command, which was started in 1980 and is basically the White House's personal death squad.

This is a provocative film, in that it takes on Barack Obama from the left. He is portrayed as being no different than any Republican when it comes to the misguided war on terror. Scahill reports that Obama personally interceded to keep a journalist in jail in Yemen, and that he put a U.S. citizen, Anwar Al-Awlaki, on a hit list. Al-Awlaki was killed by a drone strike, and just a week or two his sixteen-year-old son was killed the same way.

It's all strong stuff, but here's the problem: it was not even-handed. Scahill, who started with Democracy Now! and now writes for The Nation, is a liberal muckraker, and god bless for him that. But I wanted to hear the other side. I felt like a juror who only heard one lawyer's case. Scahill interviews Al-Awlaki's father and mother, who said he was completely innocent. Indeed, it appears his greatest crime was to make "death to America" type statements on the Internet. But there could be more. Also, JSOC came out of hiding to proclaim their success in killing Osama bin Laden. Scahill begrudgingly gives them credit, but says he wasn't happy about it.

Where the film makes the greatest point is in outlining the regressive war on terror. Al-Awlaki, who preached against violence, was radicalized by his treatment by the government (Scahill does not point out he was arrested twice for solicitation of prostitutes, which may have furthered his exodus from the U.S.) But it is a point well taken, that bludgeoning a people is not exactly winning fans. For every innocent family wiped out by mistake by a murderous band of special forces, hundreds of opponents spring in their wake. One person interviewed describes JSOC as a "hammer in search of a nail."

With our troops still in Afghanistan after a decade, this has clearly been a failed policy. I have no problem with targeting Al-Qaeda leaders who are responsible for murder being targeted wherever they reside--this is a  global battlefield, as Scahill is told--but surely a U.S. citizen deserves a trial. It's all disheartening.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Oscar 2013: Best Supporting Actress: Battle of the It Girls

The only real race in the acting categories is in Best Supporting Actress, and it's between two women who have been dubbed an "It" girl. That, even though one of them won just last year.

The battle is between Jennifer Lawrence, as the disgruntled New Jersey housewife in American Hustle, and Lupita Nyong'o, as Patsy, a much-abused slave in 12 Years a Slave. Lawrence, of course, won last year in the Best Actress category. If she wins this year she would be the youngest actor to have two Oscars by a long-shot (she's only 23). That she's even a contender here is testament to her incredible popularity, which is start to make me wonder if she made a deal on a crossroads in Mississippi.

When Lawrence was winning her Oscar last year, Nyong'o was an unknown, a Yale Drama school grad. Now she's on magazine covers and dazzling folks on the red carpet. Frankly, she seems set up for the win, especially since I think she deserves it. Her gripping acting in the scene in which Patsy is brutally whipped may be too difficult to watch because of her.

Yet Lawrence has won the Golden Globe and the BAFTA (but she did not win the BAFTA last year), while Nyong'o won the SAG award. I'm giving Nyong'o the edge here, because I stubbornly believe voters will think back-to-back awards will be too much, too soon for Lawrence.

The other three women don't figure to be contenders. June Squibb is certainly a crowd-pleaser. She's the 84 year old trooper (she was in the original Broadway production of Gypsy) who is the plain-spoken wife of Bruce Dern in Nebraska. But the nomination is the victory here.

Julia Roberts, one of the biggest stars in the universe, hasn't been nominated in 13 years, and picked one up for her role as the put-upon daughter of Meryl Streep in August: Osage County. I think it's Roberts best work in years, and the best performance in a so-so film, and while Roberts is certainly someone who could one day win another Oscar, it's not this year.

Finally there's Sally Hawkins, as the middle-class sister of Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine. She's another in a long list of performers nominated for Woody Allen films, and while Blanchett is a likely winner, Hawkins does not. Maybe another year.

Will win: Lupita Nyong'o
Could win: Jennifer Lawrence
Should win: Lupita Nyong'o
Should have been nominated: Lea Seydoux, Blue Is the Warmest Color

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Winter's Tale

If nothing else, at least Winter's Tale is not formulaic. I had no idea what was coming in each scene, and I read the book (though that was almost 30 years ago, and I have a feeling the movie makes liberal changes). It's gotten some pretty bad reviews, and I can't deny the movie is a mess, but it is so unusual and so unashamedly romantic that I admired it a little bit. It seems to be daring cynics to sneer at it.

The film was directed by Akiva Goldsman, one of the most middle-brow screenwriters in Hollywood. He has no more skill as a director than a writer, but he at least has Caleb Deschanel behind the camera, who bathes New York City in a kind of glow that reinforces its magical qualities. For in Winter's Tale, the city is place of wonders, from Central Park to the zodiac ceiling of Grand Central Station.

The story, set in 1916, concerns Peter Lake, a thief who, as a baby, was set adrift in a model ship by his parents, who were denied entrance at Ellis Island. He is raised by the king of the underworld, Pearly Soames, but Lake breaks from him, earning Soames' wrath, which means Lake is marked for death. He is saved by a white horse, which we later learn is Lake's spirit animal, and the equine leads him to his great love, a consumptive young woman.

This is just the beginning, and it will get stranger. How you feel about the movie will probably be tested when Will Smith shows up as Lucifer, wearing a Jimi Hendrix t-shirt and reading A Brief History of Time (this is 1916, remember). We get angels and demons, and henchmen wearing bowler hats, and then Lake, after being thrown off the Brooklyn Bridge, is still living in 2014, where he makes the acquaintance of reporter Jennifer Connelly and her cancer-stricken daughter.

I have no idea how audiences will respond to all this, as I can't think of another movie to compare it to. This is both good and bad--it's original, but it has no consistency of tone. The acting is kind of all over the place, too. Colin Farrell is Lake, and he leaves his usual tics behind and makes for a good hero. Russell Crowe, who as he heads into his fifties seems to be transitioning into villain roles (surely a Bond film is coming) and while he does chew the scenery, is effectively scary.

As the young consumptive, Jessica Brown Findlay is "impossibly beautiful," as Farrell describes her, but little else. Goldsman and Deschanel make excellent use of her physical attributes but she is more a collection of habits--she sleeps outside, to keep her body temperature down, she plays Brahms on the piano, she has a head of luxurious red hair--than an actual character, and Brown Findlay, as lovely as she is, doesn't make her into a living person, just an ideal.

While I wouldn't recommend this film to anyone, I didn't hate it, as at least it's not another stupid reboot, and those who like fantasy may well be enchanted.

My grade for Winter's Tale: C+.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Furnace Room Lullaby

"If I knew heartbreak was comin', I woulda set out running," sings Neko Case, my favorite female singer and my age-appropriate imaginary girlfriend, on her 2000 album Furnace Room Lullaby. Case, who began as a drummer, and hopped around North America, recorded this album in one of her stops, Vancouver, and it's almost straight up country, but with an indie rock twist.

For me with Neko it's all about the voice, and then the songwriting. I'm not a huge country fan, in fact I dislike most country, but she wears it well. The song has plenty of steel guitar and mandolin, and has a honky-tonk feel, but the songs are so well written and Case's voice, which can be as loud and penetrating as a foghorn, are what it's all about.

My favorites on the record are the cut-a-rug "Whip the Blankets," the melancholy "We've Never Met," and the devastatingly poignant title track, which ends the album:

"I'm wrapped in the depths of these deeds that have made me
I can't bring a sound from my head though I try
I can't seem to find my way up from the basement
A demon holds my place on earth 'till I die"

My favorite song is a tribute to Tacoma, Washington, which I'm sure there are not too many (Case has two songs on the record about that fair city). "Thrice All American" begins:

"I want to tell you about my hometown
It's a dusty old jewel in the South Puget Sound
Well the factories churn and the timbers all cut down
And life goes by slow in Tacoma"


Over the last 13 years Case has evolved as a songwriter, but this, her second album, is pretty strong. I can just play her records and luxuriate in the warmth of her voice--she could sing the phone book, so to speak--but it's a big plus that her songs are so terrific. 

Friday, February 14, 2014

Blue Is the Warmest Color

Blue Is the Warmest Color won last year's Palm D'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, but it seemed all anyone wanted to talk about were the graphic sex scenes. As someone who is steeped in pornography, these scenes weren't anything more than I'm used to, but I have to admit, for a mainstream film, they were quite eye-opening. But they perhaps obscure the fact that the film is astonishingly good.

Stuck home yesterday on a snow day, I decided to take advantage of the time off and watched this three-hour film OnDemand. I told myself I could pause it and watch it throughout the day. But I was surprised to find that it went by rather quickly, and I watched it straight through.

The film is a love story, but it is also about the awakening, both sexually and intellectually, of its main character, Adele (Adele Exarchopoulous). When the film begins she is a typical high school student, gathering with her friends to talk about boys. One such boy takes an interest in her, and they end up going to bed, but she's not exactly thrilled, and breaks up with him. When a girlfriend flirtatiously kisses her, something awakens in her. She spots a blue-haired older girl and is instantly smitten, and later finds her in a lesbian bar (this scene is great--Adele wanders in and is like Alice through the looking glass).

This blue-haired girl is Emma (Lea Seydoux), an art student. The two form a passionate relationship, and we see just how passionate. The sex scenes are distinct from the rest of the film--I have to wonder if there's an abridged version somewhere out there, because they could be cut without a disruption in the plot--but I think they are necessary. It's important to know that their love for each other is keenly physical.

As the film settled into its third hour, I was wondering if a conflict would arise, but it does, and how. The more accomplished and intellectual Emma encourages Adele to have a more fulfilling life (she has become a teacher of small children) and one can get a sense of tension. Eventually Adele has an affair with a male co-worker, and Emma throws her out. This scene, and the one in which they reconnect years later, are brilliantly written and acted.

But the acting by the principles is great throughout. Exarchopolous, not even twenty when she made this film, is a revelation. With her sad cow eyes, she seems like an orphan in a storm, longing for contact. When she tells Emma that she loves her and only her, we believe it, and recognize this feeling in our own lives. An early scene has Adele fighting with her friends, who accuse her of being a lesbian. She angrily denies it, and not to get into sexual politics here, she may not be lesbian--she just really loves Emma.

Seydoux, though a secondary character, is also fantastic. I've only seen her in a few things, including Midnight in Paris, and she's clearly a young actress on the rise. Her barely contained passion in the restaurant reunion with Adele, in which she struggles to keep her libido in check, is masterful.

So this film is a turn on, sure, but it's much more than that. The director and co-writer is Abdellatif Kechiche, who is to be commended for excellent work.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2013

I am not one who has a scientific bent, but I am fascinated by science. I just can never get too deeply into it, because I don't understand high concepts of math, and because I don't have the patience for the scientific method. But I did enjoy many of the essays in the latest volume of The Best American Science and Nature Writing.

The volume was edited by Siddhartha Mukherjee, who wrote the excellent The Emperor of All Maladies. He notes in his introduction that science is under attack: "The failure to acknowledge or understand the discoveries of science was not unique to Galileo's time. We have our own Sizzis and Delle Colombes today: politicians who deny the existence of global warming, even as glaciers shrink in Greenland and ice disappears from the Arctic...and advocates of creationism, who would see pseudoscience taught in the nation's schools, 164 years after the publication of Darwin's On the Origin of Species."

There are all sorts of dire warnings in the this book. In Sylvia A. Earle's "The Sweet Spot in Time," she writes, "a full 90 percent of all large wild fish (and many small kinds as well) have disappeared from the world's oceans, the result of devastating industrial fishing." Earle is a pioneer among aquanauts (the first woman to have that profession). But she's also hopeful: "Fifty years into the future, it will be too late to do what is possible right now...Never again will there be a better time to take actions that can ensure an enduring place for ourselves within the living systems that sustain us."

For nightmare fodder, there are two articles on deadly diseases. Michael Specter, in "The Deadliest Virus," acquaints us with H5N1 (the "bird flu"): "it has since killed 346 of the 587 people it is known to have infected--nearly 60 percent...the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918, which killed at least 50 million people, had a mortality rate of between 2 and 3 percent. Influenza normally kills far fewer than one-tenth of 1 percent of those infected. This makes H5N1 one of the deadliest microbes known to medical science."

David Quammen, in "Out of the Wild," writes about zoonoses--"animal infections that spill into people. About 60 percent of human infectious diseases are zoonoses." I read both of these articles in one sitting, which made me not want to leave the house.

I preferred the articles that were about nature. One about quantum mechanics was way over my head, and there was another about math that I can't even summarize. I liked Rick Bass's essay on his favorite tree, "The Larch;" Tim Zimmerman's "Talk to Me," about attempts to communicate with animals; Brett Forrest's "Shattered Genius," about his hunting down the reclusive mathematics genius, Grigori Yakolevich Perelman; Oliver Sacks' memoir of his experience with drugs, "Altered States;" and Keith Gessen's "Polar Express," an account of a trip on a Russian cargo ship through the Arctic Ocean.

Additionally, there were several nuggets of information worth sharing. David Owen, in his article "The Artificial Leaf," points out that many scientists are Grateful Dead fans: "The hypothesis was that a love for the Dead reflects an iconoclastic outlook that's conducive to innovative thinking, and that Deadheads share what Nocera now thinks of as a Garcian conception of open-source collaboration."

In astronomy, we learn from Alan Lightman, in "Our Place in the Universe," that "The prize for exploring the greatest distance in space goes to a man named Garth Illingworth, who works in a ten-by-fifteen-foot office at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Illingworth studies galaxies so distant that their light has traveled through space for more than 13 billion years to get here." Elizabeth Kolbert, in "Recall of the Wild," introduces us to the auroch: "There are more than 1.5 billion cows in the world today, and all of them are believed to be descended from the aurochs--Bos primigenius--which once ranged across Europe, much of Asia, and parts of the Middle East...Julius Caesar described them as being just 'a little below the elephant in size.'"

In "The Wisdom of Psychopaths," Kevin Dutton makes the perhaps obvious but important statement that "Traits that are common among psychopathic serial killers--a grandiose sense of self-worth, persuasiveness, superficial charm, ruthlessness, lack of remorse, and manipulation of others--are also shared by politicians and world leaders."

My favorite article was Nathaniel Rich's "Can a Jellyfish Unlock the Secret of Immortality?" He starts with the fascinating fact that a type of jellyfish, Turritopsis dohrnii, may be immortal. It is sometimes called the Benjamin Button jellyfish, because when it reaches the end of its life cycle, it reverts back to its earliest form of development, and starts all over again. That's enough to be interesting, but then he introduces us to Shin Kobuta, a marine biologist who specializes in hydrozoans, which include jellyfish. He's quite a character, something of a celebrity in Japan (he writes a jellyfish column for a newspaper), and a karaoke addict. He has even written songs about jellyfish, which can be found in the international database of karaoke machines.

All in all, this was an excellent collection, and that I was able to understand as much as I could is a testament to the lucid writing of the authors assembled.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Oscar 2013: Best Supporting Actor: 30 Seconds to Oscar

Over the next few weeks, leading up to the ceremony on March 2, I'll take a look at the top six categories in the Oscar race. I start with the easiest to call, Best Supporting Actor.

It's hard to envision a scenario that doesn't have Jared Leto, as the doomed transvestite Rayon from Dallas Buyers Club, winning. Now, if you had told me at the beginning of the year that Leto would win an Oscar, I would have thought you were crazy. He hasn't done much acting in the last few years, concentrating on his band, 30 Seconds to Mars. Many probably only know him for his role many years ago as the Holy Grail of high school boys, Jordan Catelano, on My So-Called Life. But he has swept the precursors, and the role has almost everything an Oscar performance needs: he cross-dresses (to great effect, I might add), has a lot of comic moments, dies, and has the requisite Oscar-clip scene, in which he goes to his disapproving father and asks for help.

The rest of the group can probably pass on writing speeches. Before Leto emerged as the favorite, it was Michael Fassbender as the evil slave owner Edwin Epps in 12 Years a Slave. It's an intense, and sometimes weird performance, but Fassbender has been eclipsed by Leto's string of victories.

Bradley Cooper gets his second straight nomination for a David O. Russell film as the tightly-wound, both in personality and in hair, FBI agent in American Hustle. I found the performance a little off-putting, but that may have been the writing, and I don't see this as Cooper's year.

Jonah Hill gets his second nomination as the hedonistic stock trader in The Wolf of Wall Street. It's a fascinating role, a man who is basically all id (and he gets to sport a prosthetic cock), and in a weak year he could be a contender, but not this year.

Finally there's Barkhad Abdi, the feel-good nominee. An amateur, he was plucked from the Somali community in Minnesota to play Muse, the leader of a band of pirates in Captain Phillips. His performance is both chilling and touching, but I doubt he has the juice here to pull off a victory. I hope he is able to continue a career as an actor.

Will win: Jared Leto
Could win: Michael Fassbender
Should win: Jared Leto
Should have been nominated: James Franco, Spring Breakers

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Cutie and the Boxer

The second Best Documentary Feature I'm taking a look at is Cutie and the Boxer, directed by Zach Heinzerling, which is a touching story of art and romance.

The film concerns the married couple Ushio and Noriko Shinohara. Ushio is something of a celebrity, an abstract expressionist who specializes in making sculptures of motorcycles or his "boxing" paintings. He makes those by attaching paint-filled sponges to boxing gloves and punching the canvas.

Noriko, who is much younger that Ushio, put her art career on hold to care for Ushio and their son. As Ushio puts it, he is the genius, and she is average, therefore he is the important one. But she is attempting to revive her career, making an autobiographical series of drawings about "Cutie" and her older husband, "Bullie."

Though Ushio is famous, he is not rich. He has to go to Japan to sell some sculptures, which he stashes in his suitcase. He comes back with an envelope of hundreds, as if he had just sold a kilo of cocaine. Noriko scolds him for selling them too cheaply.

The relationship dynamic between these two is the spine of the film. Though 21 years older, Ushio is basically a man-child, a former alcoholic (he had to quit when he became allergic), while Noriko is both a wife and mother figure. Many women would wonder how she lasted this long with such an incorrigible man, and she describes it as a constant struggle, but her love for him is apparent. When she tells him he should hire an assistant, because she does it for free, he thinks about this a moment, and then grabs her leg. "But I need you," he says.

A sideline to this film is a look at modern art. I am a big champion of it--I think Jackson Pollock is a great artist--but I'm not so sure about Shinohara. His boxing paintings take only a couple of minutes--he completes one, start to finish, during the opening credits to the film, and there appears to be little thought put into them. At one point, he makes a painting, steps back, and says to Noriko, "I don't know if it's good or bad, finished or unfinished." She says, "I don't think it's good."

While the bickering between the two is charming, this is ultimately a slight film, especially compared to The Act of Killing--you can't even compare the two. But it's a nice film. Just not Oscar worthy.

Monday, February 10, 2014

The Monuments Men

The Monuments Men is a war film for art history majors, and could have been called "The Really Nice Half-Dozen." It's in the tradition of the war film that features a small group of men on a mission, but it is a curiously slack narrative, a patchwork of scenes that don't build any momentum.

Directed by George Clooney, he also stars as an art historian who is aghast at what is happening to the great pieces of art that are either being obliterated by Allied bombs ("The Last Supper" was in a church that had three walls destroyed, the only one left standing the one that the painting was on) and stolen by the Nazis, so petitions the president to create a group of scholars turned soldiers tasked with protecting and retrieving and stolen art.

This is based on a true story, though the men in the group are fictionalized. I know nothing about it, but I'm pretty sure the true story was far more intriguing than the lackluster events portrayed here.

The members are shown being recruited in the opening credits. Matt Damon is the curator of medieval art at the Met. Bill Murray is an architect. John Goodman is a sculptor. Jean Dujardin is a French artist, and Hugh Bonneville is their point man in England (his specialty is unspoken). Bob Balaban rounds out the group, and I know he was based on Lincoln Kirstein, one of the founders of the New York City Ballet.

They are all either too old or to infirm to be actual soldiers, so we get a little comedy as they go through basic training, which is not very funny. Then the film gets going, as they criss cross Europe, trying to gain leads on stolen art or protect items that are sure to be targets for Hitler.

Here's one of the big problems in the film: I had no sense of their mission. Sure, it's easy to say that they were to retrieve stolen art, but when Clooney points at a map and says "You two go to Ghent," it's unclear what they're supposed to do when they get there. Damon is sent to Paris, and there's more comedy about his bad French, but why wouldn't they send the Frenchmen? Damon ends up meeting Cate Blanchett, a French woman who reluctantly was employed by a Nazi art thief, and Damon persuades her to help, and they have some nice scenes together. But other than talk to Blanchett, what was Damon doing there, exactly?

Secondly, at very few times do we see their expert knowledge in action. Clooney looks at a painting and says, "That's a Vermeer," which I think anyone with a decent liberal arts education could have done. Instead they get into a few shootouts (two men die during the film) but I would have liked more showing their artistic talents. It's like watching a Sherlock Holmes film without any deductions.

But beyond that, the film has no consistency of tone, and Clooney appears not to have any passion for the subject. Sure, there are many (too many) speeches about how art is important, which is nice to hear, but I just didn't get the sense that Clooney, or his co-screenwriter and producer, Grant Heslov, had any defining purpose, other than it was a neat idea. It comes off as half-baked.

I am left wanting to learn more about the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program. It had many more members than six. Perhaps a good PBS documentary is in order.

My grade for The Monuments Men: C-.

Sunday, February 09, 2014

Beatlemania

It's not often you can look at a date on the calendar and say that it changed cultural history. One such date is February 9, 1964, fifty years ago today, when The Beatles made their American debut on The Ed Sullivan Show.

They were an instant sensation. The telecast drew 73 million viewers, or a 40 share, the largest viewing audience up to that time. It presaged "The British Invasion," where groups ranging from Herman's Hermits to The Rolling Stones dominated American pop radio. It also changed fashion and hairstyles--crew cuts were now out, and the "mop top" was in. For kids who couldn't grow their hair fast, enough, Beatle wigs were available, along with almost everything else that could be merchandised.

Looking back, this seems like a much more innocent time, and in many ways it was. But it was also taking place in a nation still reeling from the assassination of John F. Kennedy and embroiled in civil rights issues. The Beatles, a ray of sunshine from cloudy England, seemed like just the thing to cheer everyone up.

What makes that day more important, though, is that The Beatles, despite many critics, didn't go away. They became the most important rock band in history, and in fact, really transcend the notion of rock music. They weren't a rock band--they were just The Beatles. They took a hybrid of English skiffle music and American rhythm and blues and created something completely new--a professor of mine once termed it as akin to inventing a new color. Despite the proliferation of rock and roll at the time, no one was making music like that.

Not everyone agreed, especially the older set. Newsweek wrote: "Visually they are a nightmare, tight, dandified Edwardian-Beatnik suits and great pudding bowls of hair. Musically they are a near disaster, guitars and drums slamming out a merciless beat that does away with secondary rhythms, harmony and melody. Their lyrics (punctuated by nutty shouts of "yeah, yeah, yeah") are a catastrophe, a preposterous farrago of Valentine-card romantic sentiments." But the kids, who were enthralled, ended up being right. Sure, the songs were lyrically simple-minded, but the music was not a disaster--it was completely fresh and, for those ready to accept change, the future.

The Beatles also had a plus in that they were great personalities. I was listening to Beatle historian and DJ Chris Carter mentioning that they really introduced the concept of a rock band--not a singer with a backup group, like Elvis or Buddy Holly or Little Richard or Carl Perkins. The Beatles were democratic--and everyone knew all four of them--John, Paul, George, and Ringo (their names were put on subtitles as they performed on Sullivan). They also were ready-made types--the wit, the romantic, the mystic, the clown. They would use these personalities to dominate Western culture for the next six years, and basically would chart the history of the '60s, from the innocent days of the Fab Four to psychedelia.

Many though they would be a brief sensation, but we're talking about them fifty years later. That they would evolve from "Love Me Do" to the Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band in just three years seems miraculous, and I expect future generations will be talking about them fifty years from now. 

I'm too young to remember that night fifty years ago, but I'll bet two of my aunts do--they were about fifteen in 1964, the perfect age. I have dim memories of one my aunts playing her 45 of "I Wanna Hold Your Hand." I wouldn't get into The Beatles until I was about 8, when my father brought home a few of their albums. That began a love affair that's still going strong.

Saturday, February 08, 2014

Seinfeld

I had reason to think about Seinfeld this week. About a month ago, Jerry Seinfeld and Jason Alexander were seen filming at Tom's Diner, the upper-Manhattan diner that stood in for Monk's. Then Seinfeld hinted that there would a reunion of sorts. Of course, that turned out to be a commercial that aired during the Super Bowl, but it conjured up all sorts of memories.

It is my view that Seinfeld is the best network sit-com of all time. It's main rivals are Mary Tyler Moore, All in the Family, and M*A*S*H. The latter two went on too long, so the former is really the standard-bearer. Seinfeld went on perhaps a season or two too long, but I think it hit higher heights.

It's something of an anniversary for me and Seinfeld. Looking at the list of Seinfeld episodes on Wikipedia, the first one I ever saw was on February 13, 1991. It was "The Phone Message," during the second abbreviated season. That episode only drew 13 million viewers, but by the time it was over the audience would almost triple.

It's hard to think of another TV show that so captivated American culture (by this I mean white middle-class culture--Seinfeld was never big in the inner city). Before the Internet was so prevalent, before the advent of original series on cable television, NBC's Thursday night lineup was legendary, and Seinfeld was the cornerstone. Everyone I knew watched it. The cover photo by Entertainment Weekly, shown here, comparing them to The Beatles, was not a huge stretch.

The show was jokingly referred to as "about nothing," but it was really about everything. Even twenty years later, I will be in a conversation and hear about a situation and think to myself, "There's a Seinfeld episode about that." The show, an outgrowth of observational stand-up comedy, bathed in the minutiae of every day life, and was a kind of primer. How long to keep a greeting card? What is the proper etiquette for dipping a chip? How long should a shower last? How should one punctuate a note that says a friend had a baby? How long should one be friends before asking one's help in moving? Almost all answers to the annoying questions of hum-drum life can be found in one of the 180 episodes of the show that aired.

And there were so many catch-phrases that entered our lexicon. "Yada yada." "Serenity now." "These pretzels are making me thirsty." "No soup for you!" "Sponge-worthy." "I have hand." "Puffy shirt." And "close talker," "low talker," and "high talker." These are just the ones that come to mind in a minute.

The show also had a genius for the set-up. Most of my favorites were the ones that had unity of time and space, where the whole thing was in real-time in one setting. "The Chinese Restaurant" (the only episode that did not feature Kramer), "The Parking Garage," or "The Subway." I, like almost everyone else, also loved the most celebrated episode, "The Contest," which was about masturbation but never uttered the word.

The show also developed a large cast of characters, beyond the core four. Newman, played by Wayne Knight; Jerry Stiller, in a career resurrection as Frank Costanza; Bania, the comic with a passion for soup; Mickey, Kramer's pugnacious little person friend; and John O'Hurley as the gloriously vain and obtuse J. Peterman.

Today the show thrives in syndication, and usually I just stumble into one while channel-surfing. I can instantly figure out which one it is, and all it's various subplots, and it's like listening to a favorite song on the radio. Today, the show can seem dated. There are shows built around cultural artifacts like JFK, Melrose Place, and The English Patient, and that it exists in a white-only world where there was no Internet and no cell phones make it seem like from another (Bizarro) world. Perhaps future generations won't get the all the fuss. But I do.

Friday, February 07, 2014

Kiss

Another entry into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year, and perhaps the most controversial, is Kiss. At the same time, Kiss is the most popular act going into the Hall this year. So where is the controversy? Rock and roll snobs hate Kiss.

Kiss was formed in 1973 in New York, and their eponymous debut album was released 40 years ago this month. They have sold over 40 million records, and have 28 gold records, the most of any American rock band. But the argument against Kiss has always been that without their gimmick--the stage makeup--they are pretty much an average rock band. After listening to The Very Best of Kiss, I have to agree.

Certainly Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley, the main two figures in Kiss and the only men who have never left the band, are marketing geniuses. They hit on the idea of having a gimmick, and adding the kabuki makeup and giving each member of the band a comic-book like identity. The stage shows (I've never seen one) were full of pyrotechnics, fire-breathing, and levitating drum kits. The songs are simple, straight-ahead rock songs, the kind that fifteen-year-old boys respond to. They were big when I was in junior high--they looked kind of scary, which teenagers like.

But the music, well, it's mostly pedestrian. There is nothing interesting about it. They have a few good songs. "Detroit Rock City" is eminently listenable, and "Calling Dr. Love" is okay. Their biggest hit, "Rock and Roll All Nite," is catchy, even if the lyric is sophomoric. They also branched out to ballads. "Hard Luck Woman" sounds like a Rod Stewart song, and "Beth," another smash, written by drummer Peter Criss, is a pretty song, until you listen closely to the lyric and realize the guy is a dick--he's telling his girlfriend that he's rehearsing with the band, and will be there eventually.

The best song on the Best of disc is "New York Groove," which was on bassist Ace Frehley's solo album (in 1978, each member released their own). It has been used in many films as a perfect New York song, and it's hard not to tap your foot and sing along with. Interestingly, it's the only song from the four solo albums to make it to the Best of record, and was not written by a member of the band.

Kiss pretty much stopped being an important act in the early '80s, and since then have been on a never-ending nostalgia tour. They are a brand now, a merchandise powerhouse, even up to Kiss-brand coffins. I wish I could say that they are under-rated musically, but this is not the case. Kiss is all show.

Thursday, February 06, 2014

The Act of Killing

"War crimes are defined by the winners," is said in The Act of Killing, the breath-taking film by Joshua Oppenheimer, which is the first of this year's Oscar nominees for Best Documentary Feature that I'll be discussing. For indeed, throughout history, it's the defeated who are tried for war crimes, not the victors.

That is the situation in Indonesia. In 1965, the government of Sukarno, who led the country to independence, was overthrown by a military coup led by Suharto. In at attempt to block dissent, the government employed paramilitary groups and gangsters to exterminate anyone who was accused of being a "communist." Communist meant anyone who supported the old government, intellectuals, union members, and ethnic Chinese. The number of dead is said to be around one million people. Because it was anti-communist, it received support from the west, including the United States.

Though Suharto is now dead, the government is still in place, and so those who committed the killings are seen as heroes. Oppenheimer, shrewdly, allows those who did the killing to re-enact the murders as they see fit. They decide to make a movie.

The result is one of the more bizarre and chilling films I've ever seen. In some ways, if it weren't so horrifying, it could be considered black comedy. The killers actually boast about their deeds, as if they were bragging about a particularly good game of golf. The central character is Anwar Congo, now a kindly old grandfather who at times resembles Nelson Mandela. He was a "movie ticket gangster," which meant he sold black market movie tickets. The leftist government banned American movies, which hurt his business. Thus, he was happy to do the bidding of the government, even if he probably didn't know what being a communist was.

Congo takes Oppenheimer to the places where he did the killing, and shows him how he hit upon piano wire to strangle his victims, because beatings resulted in too much blood. Congo makes an appearance on a local TV show and gets applause for his innovation, which is complimented on its efficiency and humanity to the victims. Later, a surreal musical number has Congo, to the tune of "Born Free," receiving a medal by the ghost of one of his victims, thanking him for sending him to heaven.

What's so amazing about this is how open they all are. Not only do they admit to killing, but about corruption. Oppenheimer tags along with another man who shakes down Chinese merchants. Another man runs for office, openly revealing that he wants to win so he can get money from local businesses. It furthers the notion of the "banality of evil," expressed by Hannah Arendt.

The killers decide to make a movie, based on their beloved Hollywood films. They get actors to play the victims, and here is where things get interesting. When someone plays the victim, all of a sudden they understand something, even if it's simply in the act of play. A child, used as an actor in the re-enactment of the burning of the village, continues to cry even after "cut" is called. Another man who is so caught up in the phony torture that he cries real tears. And when Congo himself plays a victim--well, I don't want to spoil it.

The film is a little long--it sags in the middle, when the repetition begins to weight it down--but the ending is startling and moving.

I will take a look at three of the films very shortly, as they are all available on DVD (one, The Square, is not available yet). It would be a good year for documentaries if any are as good as The Act of Killing.

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Queer

"When I lived in Mexico City at the end of the 1940s, it was a city of nine million people, with clear sparkling air and the sky that special shade of blue that goes so well with circling vultures, blood, and sand--the raw, menacing, pitiless Mexican blue." So writes William S. Burroughs in the 1985 introduction to Queer, his novel from the early '50s, which was not published for thirty years.

Today is Burroughs' 100th birthday. I've written about Naked Lunch, and I wanted to read something else by him for the occasion, and since I've also been reading about Mexico, this was a good choice, though it's not his first novel. In fact, this is something of a continuation of his first novel, Junky. The same character, Lee (based on himself--Jack Kerouac used the same name in his avatar for Burroughs in On the Road) is prowling around Mexico City, living off of G.I. benefits, hanging out in bars with other ex-pats.

The opening sentence of the book is "Lee turned his attention to a Jewish boy named Carl Steinberg he had known casually for about a year. The first time he saw Carl, Lee thought, 'I could use that, if the family jewels weren't in pawn to Uncle Junk.'"

It's no wonder why this book couldn't be published in the U.S.--it is explicitly about homosexuality and drugs. Burroughs has never been considered a "gay writer," perhaps because his alter-ego in this book is what might be consider a stereotypical self-hating homosexual. But it wasn't the time for a book like this. As Oliver Harris points out in the introduction, "This was not only the era of McCarthyism and the Korean War but the lavender scare, the Homintern conspiracy, and the demonization of homosexuality as un-American, viral contagion and threat to the health of the body politic."

The plot of the book, such as it, has Lee obsessed with a young American named Gene Allerton. Allerton is straight, but succumbs to Lee's patronage, and though repulsed by his advances, consents to sleep with him occasionally. He and Lee take a trip to South America, searching for a drug called Yage. Later, Lee will return to Mexico City, wondering what happened to his great love.

What I love about the Beats, including Burroughs, is their wonderful sense of humor and language. There are laugh out loud lines here, like "'I hear they are purging the State Department of queers. If they do, they will be operating with a skeleton staff,'" or "'Sit down on your ass, or what's left of it after four years in the navy.'" But he can also set a scene magically: "Lee was sitting with Winston Moor in the Rathskeller, drinking double tequilas. Cuckoo clocks and moth-eaten deer heads gave the Rathskeller a dreary, out-of-place, Tyrolean look. A smell of spilt beer, overflowing toilets, and sour garbage hung in the place like a thick fog and drifted out into the street through narrow, inconvenient swinging doors. A television set was out of order half the time and emitted horrible, guttural squawks like a Frankenstein monster."

I particularly loved a passage when Lee, feeling sorry for himself, spins tale of chess masters at the bar: "'Did you ever have the good fortune to see the Italian master Tetrazzini perform?' Lee lit Mary's cigarette. 'I say 'perform' advisedly, because he was a great showman and, like all showmen, not above charlatanism and at times downright trickery. Sometimes he used smoke screens to hide his maneuvers from the opposition--I mean literal smoke screens, of course. He a had a corps of trained idiots who would rush in a given signal and eat all the pieces. With defeat staring him in the face--as it often did, because actually he knew nothing of chess but the rules and wasn't too sure of those--he would leap up yelling, 'You cheap bastard! I saw you palm that queen!' and ram a broken teacup into the opponent's face. In 1922 he was rid out of Prague on a rail. The next time I saw Tetrazzini was in the Upper Ubangi. A complete wreck. Peddling unlicensed condoms. That was the year of the rinderpast, when everything died, even the hyenas."

Though the book is very funny, it's overall tone is melancholy. Burroughs writes that Junky was about a man who took power from his addiction, while Queer was a man disintegrated about it. There is also this plaintive line from the introduction (Burrough's accidentally killed his wife in a game of William Tell): "I am forced to the appalling conclusion that I would never have become a writer but for Joan's death, and to a realization of the extent to which this event has motivated and formulated my writing."

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

The Hunt

My first look at one of this year's Best Foreign Language Film is The Hunt, from Denmark. Directed by Thomas Vinterberg, I happened to see it, coincidentally, on the day I wrote my last post, about the accusations of child abuse about Woody Allen. The Hunt is about a man falsely accused of just such a crime, and how it ruins his life.

Vinterberg, one of the founders of Dogme 95, makes an interesting choice. We know from the get-go that Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen), who works at a kindergarten, is not guilty. If the film had been more ambiguous about this it would have been a totally different experience. As such, I watched the film first with dread and then with stomach-clenching horror at what he has to endure.

Children are subject to all sorts of evils in this world, but this reminds us that everyone is entitled to a presumption of innocence. Mikkelsen is recently divorced and seeking custody of his son. He was a teacher, but has taken a step down working for the kindergarten. He is very popular with the kids, particularly Klara, who is the daughter of his best friend (Thomas Bo Larsen). When he admonishes Klara for kissing him on the mouth and giving him a gift, she strikes back by telling the director of the kindergarten that Mikkelsen showed her his penis. She is armed with extra information when her brother showed her some pornography on the one Internet.

Everyone is inclined to believe Klara. The kindergarten director says that children never lie, an unbelievable statement. A man questions her, but asks her leading questions, such as "When did Lucas first show you his penis?" The entire community turns against him, even the local grocery, who refuses to serve him. His teenage son comes to visit and supports him, as done one of his friends, but he is a beaten man.

Like many of Hitchcock's films about the wrongly-accused, The Hunt crackles with energy and palpable tension. It's one of those movies that you almost talk back to, exhorting people to get real (Klara tells her mother that she was lying, but the mother rejects this). Then again, we may realize that if we were those people, we'd probably believe the girl, too.

Vinterberg's direction is crisp, and the script is heavy with metaphors. The title refers to the ritualistic hunt that Mikkelsen and his men go in, but it could also refer to a witch hunt. And early in the film, Mikkelsen enters the playground of the school, where he is playfully attacked by the kids. "There are too many of you," he says, fighting them off, which is exactly what he will have to do later in the film.

Mikkelsen gives a bravura performance, full of bottled, and then uncorked, rage (he won the Cannes Film Festival prize as Best Actor). As Klara, Annika Wedderkopp is remarkably poised. In the making of segment, Vinterberg recounts that she did not everything about the film, but just enough to get her through the part.

Monday, February 03, 2014

The Woody Allen Dilemma

I am second to none in my admiration of Woody Allen, the artist. Since I was in high school, I have devoured his work as a filmmaker, a stand-up comedian, a playwright, and a writer. In fact, I can trace my ambition to be a writer and a creative person to him. In my opinion, he is unequaled as a comic genius.

But is he a great man, as well as being a great artist? I have no idea. And there are hints that he is not. His relationship with his de facto step-daughter, though it has lasted for more than twenty years, gives many of us a bad taste in our mouths. And we are once again reminded of the accusation against him of sexual assault on a minor, as Dylan Farrow has written an open letter accusing him of such a crime upon her when she was seven years old, a charge Allen denies, and which he was never charged, let alone, convicted of.

I have no idea who is telling the truth in this matter, and only two people in the world know for sure--Dylan and Allen. There has been a firestorm of commentary on the Internet about this--whether a child can have a reliable memory, whether many choose to believe Allen because he is a white celebrity, etc. But I think what's interesting to me about this, beyond what Dylan and Allen are going through, is whether it matters to me as an admirer of his. Can we, should we, separate the art from the artist?

It's an old problem. There have many geniuses who have been problematic. Picasso was a horrible man, Charlie Chaplin favored young girls, Ezra Pound was a Nazi. Does this mean we can not enjoy their work? Some people will make this distinction, and I can't say that they're wrong in doing so. But is it our responsibility, as patrons of the arts, to research the foibles of everyone we watch, read, or hear? Woody Allen may be a pedophile, but what about the many other actors, directors, painters, singers, musicians, etc. who may have skeletons in their closets? Sure, we know about Allen's accusation because he is far more famous, and we can't unlearn it, but ultimately, should it matter?

This extends even further than the artist's possible crimes. There is now a habit of choosing to boycott people we disagree with politically. My mother, for example, won't watch any movies with Susan Sarandon because of her leftist politics. I think that's kind of silly, as it won't hurt Sarandon at all, and may deprive my mother of watching a movie she might otherwise like. But I've probably done that myself. The instant I hear about some celebrity, like Jon Voight or Kelsey Grammer, make some asinine political statement, my appreciation for them goes down considerably. But I don't think I would take the step of refusing to watch a Frasier re-run. One separates the art from the artist.

I'm also troubled by rushes to judgment. I can understand why Ronan Farrow supports his sister, but for the casual person in the street, do we really have to be told over and over again that the accused are presumed innocent? Until I know otherwise, I have to presume Allen is innocent, while deeply sympathizing with Dylan Farrow's plight.

Maybe I'm being too cold-hearted in all this. Maybe I shouldn't be watching the films of Roman Polanski, who was convicted of a crime. Maybe I'm putting my selfish needs to be entertained ahead of the victims, alleged or not. But I don't think I'm wrong, and I've made my peace with it. The next Woody Allen that comes out, I'll be there in the theater.

Sunday, February 02, 2014

Groundhog Day

It being Groundhog Day this weekend I thought I'd take another look at the 1993 film of the same name, which though it was released to modest critical notices, has become something of a classic over time.

My view has also changed. I thought it was okay when I first saw it, but I join the chorus that now proclaim it one of the great American comedies, and Bill Murray's performance as one of the great comic performances. It has thoroughly entered the cultural lexicon, and is now probably better known than the rodent weather forecast that inspired it.

Murray is the egotistical weatherman, Phil Connors, who has to cover the groundhog festivities in Punxsatawney, Pennsylvania. He is accompanied by the winsome Andie MacDowell and the sardonic camera man, Chris Elliot. Murray is a diva and thoroughly unpleasant to be around. The crew ends up getting trapped in the town by a blizzard.

Then Murray realizes, when he wakes up the next day and it is again Groundhog Day, that he is stuck in a time loop. Each morning, no matter where he ends the night, he awakes to the song "I've Got You, Babe," and faces the same day.

What makes this film so great, in addition to Murray (this, along with Ghostbusters, most defines the Murray comic persona) is the script, by director Harold Ramis and Danny Rubin. Namely, given the concept, they completely and satisfyingly exhaust all the ramifications. At first, Murray takes advantage of the benefits--he is able to seduce a local woman, steals money from an armored car, and has a night on the town (I've often wondered how fulfilling a day one could have with a pile of cash--you couldn't get too far, but you could get to New York City, and that could be quite rewarding).

Then he tries to seduce MacDowell, but does it by being a phony, learning about what she likes then simply giving her what he thinks she would like. When that fails, he grows despondent and attempts to kill himself, but it doesn't work--he dies, repeatedly, but always wakes up as the clock turns 6 a.m. and Sonny and Cher come on.

Finally, the film takes a more Buddhist approach--the key to happiness is to become a better person, and Murray is allowed enough time (estimates vary on how long he is stuck in the loop--anywhere from 10 to 10,000 years) to improve himself, from learning to play the piano to trying to save the life of a homeless man.

The film offers several lovely nuggets. Stephen Tobolowsky, who has made over 200 films, is certainly best known as Ned Ryerson, the over-eager insurance agent. I was surprised to see a young Michael Shannon as a prospective groom. I love the scene where Murray, in pajamas and with a bowl of popcorn and a bottle of booze, watches Jeopardy and knows all the answers.

I do remember the effect it had on me when I walked out of the theater. Like some movies, it made me question what day it was. Luckily it was still today, and not yesterday.

Saturday, February 01, 2014

English Roses

I have a thing for British women. While I was watching The Invisible Woman last week I was reminded of this, as I pined mightily for Felicity Jones. There a host of young British actresses who are on my radar these days, including Emma Watson, Keira Knightly, Carey Mulligan, Jessica Brown Findlay, Emilia Clarke, and many others.

It doesn't matter if they're English, Scottish, Welsh or Irish, there's just something about them that stirs my loins. I am forced now to examine this, because it can't be appearance. There is really not a British look (there is an Irish look--red hair and freckles, which I love). I mean, there used to be--pasty skin and bad teeth. But diversity has hit the British isles--Naomi Campbell and Thandie Newton are British. The famed Page Three girls, such as Keely Hazell (pictured), Rosie Jones and Lucy Pinder, look more American than British, with their buxomness.

So what is it about British women that gets me? It could be the accent. Whether it's Cockney, Liverpudlian, or upper-class twit, just hearing that voice can be an aphrodisiac for me. Or maybe it's just the exoticism, without being too exotic. They are, after Canada, the closest to Americans we know. I am also English by heritage, but my people left England in the 1600s, so it's not like I have any longing for the old country.

It may just be a part of a larger Anglophilia that I have. I do like many things British. My favorite music is that of the British invasion. I love Shakespeare, Sherlock Holmes, the romantic poets, the books of Douglas Adams, Monty Python, and Bass Ale. I love tales of King Arthur, Agatha Christie, and the British version of The Office.  I have been to London, and would love to live there (an online quiz told me that, too). I do draw the line, though. I care not a whit about the royal family, the food is abominable, and I have yet to see an episode of Dr. Who.

Psychologically, I'm at a loss to explain it. It's not like I had a British nanny that I longed for as a child (though Mary Poppins was the first film I ever saw). I did have a romance with a British girl when I was in my early twenties. She was in high school when we met, and later, when she was in college, she stopped by my place on her way back to England. We had a fling, and she said she wanted to have a relationship, though that would be difficult seeing how she was going back to England. I saw her again when I visited England and she had changed, becoming more radical than even I am. I often wonder how she is now.

Was that the start of it? I don't know, but I definitely have a preference. This has manifested itself in a couple of different ways recently. I saw a trailer for a remake of Endless Love, a movie I would never watch. I did notice the young lady was quite the looker, though. I checked to see who it was--an actress named Gabrielle Wilde. And then--she's English! A beautiful girl, for me, became even more so. And consider Cara Delevingne. She's a fashion model that is known for her thick eyebrows and making out with Michelle Rodriguez at a Knicks game. She has a look that could place her from any country, and she has a French last name. So where is she from? England! She even has "Made in England" tattooed on the bottom of her foot. A mild fascination has now become an obsession.

Anytime I've met English women my heart beats a little faster. There are British porn stars, though not all that many that have become big here. The foremost is probably Roxanne Hall, who I met at a shoot for a fetish video in Brooklyn. She was everything I could have asked for, quintessentially English yet really dirty. She told me that even as a child she had wanted to be a prostitute or a porn star. She told me this while sitting next to me waiting to do a scene, and she was completely naked.

A recent poll indicated that England has the ugliest people in the world. I can see how that could be the perception, since the bad teeth and pale skin thing has become a cliche. But England has produced many fashion models and beautiful actresses, going back in my lifetime to the days of Julie Christie, Twiggy, and Jean Shrimpton, and later to Rachel Weisz and Sienna Miller. I've rhapsodized before about Kate Moss, and there were The Spice Girls, of course (my favorite was Baby Spice, natch). There are a whole bunch of prominent British models on the scene now, such as Rosie Huntington-Whitely, Lily Donaldson, Lily Cole, and Daisy Lowe.

And I love those actresses who have just wonderfully Dickensian names! Imogen Poots. Perdita and Honeysuckle Weeks. Rosamund Pike. And my favorite, Ophelia Lovibond.

Once upon a time I did something proactive about my thing for British girls. In the pre-Internet days, there were "introduction" services, that matched lonely hearts from different countries. Many were for Eastern European or Filipino girls, but I chose one called English Roses, which matched American men and British women. I sent in my picture and my data sheet and ended up corresponding with a few, including a Scottish policewoman and another woman from Newcastle (they are called "Geordies" and have an almost impregnable accent). I met her when she visited New York, and I took her out for pizza. She ordered the anchovies.

But the most meaningful introduction was with a woman named Elizabeth. She was Irish, but lived in London. We ended up talking on the phone quite a bit and we convinced ourselves we were serious about each other. She came to visit me and it was an interesting week, to say the least. It became apparent we were not ideally matched (she framed it as we were like "chalk and cheese"). My mistake was not recognizing that she wanted to get out of England, so me taking her to English or Irish places was the last thing she wanted to do--why come all the way to America to go to McSorley's Ale House?

When we visited New York City, she liked the big buildings of midtown, but didn't like Greenwich Village, my favorite part of the city, because it was too much like London. By the end of her visit we were hardly speaking, not out of anger but a kind of quiet resignation. I dropped her off at Kennedy Airport several hours before her flight, and never heard from her again (this was not upsetting to me). I think she just wanted some guy to whisk her off her feet and move to her the U.S., and me in my studio apartment in Jersey City wasn't her Prince Charming.

That was almost twenty years ago, but it didn't quell my interest in the women of Britain. Rule Brittania!