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Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Ariana Grande

Once again I'm delving into the world of teen culture. In my position as a potential high school teacher, I look at these trips as attempts to get to know my kids and what they like, but I must admit it makes my grumpy old man meter dance.

Today's object of inspection is Ariana Grande, the 21-year-old sprite who seems to be everywhere these days. My interest in her is obvious, and it's not for her musical talent. She's a mere slip of a girl with an I-Dream-of-Jeannie hairdo (those are extensions, I've read) who looks like every IAP (Italian-American Princess) I went to high school with and didn't give me the time of day.

Miss Grande seems to be continuing in the grand (no pun intended) tradition of diva behavior. Reports are that she has demanded she only be photographed from the left, and that she made all the guests leave a New York City hotel before she performed there. She was also caught wishing death to her fans, so she doesn't understand economics. But I suppose if I were 21 and put in this kind of situation I'd be saying some bizarre things, too.

Grande was (is?) an actress on a Nickelodeon show called Sam & Kat. This was a spin-off of a show called Victorious. I have not seen either show, so can't testify to her acting ability. Let me take a hunch and say she will never play Ophelia.

So what about the music? Well, I may trumpet the superiority of '60s and '70s rock and roll, but we had our turkeys (just listen to "The Night Chicago Died" or "Kung Fu Fighting" if you want proof). But I'm not sure there was a pattern of lowest-common denominator dreck as there is these days with these female singers. Grande seems to have a nice voice, if it hasn't been modulated, and she hits the high notes with aplomb. But her voice is completely without distinction. The great female vocalists could be identified immediately--you don't mistake Janis Joplin, Stevie Nicks, Chrissie Hynde, or Patti Smith for someone else. But the young women who are at the top now, like Katy Perry, Taylor Swift, or Grande, sound like they've come out of a blender.

Grande's songs are also completely without distinction. They sound as if written by computer program. I've watched pretty much all her videos, and the only song that any spark was "Problem," which has a nice beat, but it is ruined by Iggy Azalea's presence. That seems to be a trend now--a nice, if generic, song is punched up by someone rapping, which is like taking a dump on the song.

I'm just now listening to the songs on her new album, Yours Truly, and I haven't been moved to listen to one all the way through. The one I'm listening to now, "Daydreamin'," is the best of a bad lot. They are overproduced and completely uninteresting.

If I were a teenager today I would probably despair, being the one or two kids who actually listen to rock. I was heartened to day to hear a high school kid mention of his guitar playing that he's not as good as Jimi Hendrix. Yes! Hendrix lives on.

Monday, September 29, 2014

We Can Be Royals

The baseball playoffs are starting tomorrow and I'm kind of excited. It helps that my team, the Detroit Tigers, are in, but it's also nice that there are a few new teams in the mix, and it's the first time in I don't know how long that neither the Yankees nor the Red Sox are in the post-season.

We still have some usual suspects. For those who don't like the Tigers, they've now been in four years in a row, and the Cardinals, Dodgers, A's, Giants, and Angels are not exactly newbies. But the Orioles are back again after a long drought, the Nationals are back after a dip last year, and the Pirates, after many years of futility, have made the post-season now in back to back years.

But I think most people are talking about the Kansas City Royals. They had the biggest monkey on their back--not since they won the World Series in 1985 had they been to the post-season, and were pretty much a joke for much of that time (the Blue Jays, who haven't been since they won it all in 1993, are next in line). They are a young, hungry team with no big stars, and if it weren't for the Tigers I'd have loved to see them win the division. As it is, I'm glad they won the wild card instead of the Yankees.

The Royas will play the A's, at home, tomorrow night in the Wild Card game. The As, who dominated the AL West through the early going, barely survived to get the last playoff spot, even after adding Jon Lester and Jeff Samardzia to the starting staff. The Royals finished strong, and I'll pick them to win with the home crowd at their back.

The other Wild Card game features the Pirates and the Giants. The Giants have lately been good only in even years, taking the last two World Series in years ending in even numbers. I think they have the stuff to move on, if not to win it all.

In the next round, I like the Angels over the Royals, ending the dream. I'll be foolish and pick my own team over the Orioles, since the O's are young and untested, and missing some key players due to injuries and suspension. If they can keep Nelson Cruz in the ball yard (he burned them for six home runs as a Ranger four years ago) the Tigers starting staff should be strong enough.

In the NL, I like the Dodgers over the Cardinals, even if Clayton Kershaw can't start every game. I'll take the Giants over the Nationals, even though the Nats have the best record in the league. They have the air of another Washington team, the Capitals, who can never finish.

In the Championship series, I predict an all-Southern California series, with the Angels against the Dodgers. The Angels are too much for the Tigers, and the Dodgers will edge the Giants in a bitterly fought series. Then the Angels will take care of the Dodgers in five.

Check back here in about three weeks to see how badly I did.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

The Fearless Vampire Killers

This week I'll be taking a look at some of Roman Polanski's early films. I start with 1967's The Fearless Vampire Killers, which attempts to mix two genres--horror and slapstick comedy, and does not succeed. The film is largely unpleasant and never funny.

This has been attempted before, with better results. The best example is Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, which manage to very funny and a little scary. Young Frankenstein is the best horror comedy of all time, although I will grant that is not at all scary. But The Fearless Vampire Killers is neither funny nor scary.

The story is set in Transylvania. A professor (Jack MacGowran), called "the Nut" by his colleagues, is tracking down a certain vampire. He is assisted by a dim-witted fellow played by Polanski himself. This is mistake number one, because I've never heard nor read that Polanski is an accomplished physical comedian. Why he cast himself here, and showed off how painfully unfunny he is, is a mystery.

The two end up in a small village where garlic is strung everywhere. Their innkeeper is a lech who pines for the maid (Fiona Lewis), while has a daughter, a stunning redhead (Sharon Tate), who Polanski takes a shine to (of course, they would wed in real life). A Count, played with Christopher Lee sophistication by Ferdy Mayne, is in reality a vampire and makes off with Tate. Our two bumbling heroes attempt to rescue her by sneaking into the Count's castle.

I'm not sure what inspired Polanski here, other than to make a comic version of Dracula. Dracula is not called Dracula, but he might as well be. He has a hunchback henchman, but he also has a son, a fey blonde called Herbert. The climax of the film has the Count's many acolytes in a ball, which is somewhat interesting, but it doesn't make up for the sloppiness of the earlier portions.

The one thing I liked about the film is the score by Krzysztof Komeda, who would later do the score for Polanski's Rosemary's Baby. Komeda is the only one involved here who really got the point.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Small Town Heroes

Here's a record that threw me for a loop: Hurray for the Riff Raff's Small Town Heroes. I saw it recommended in a magazine, but had no idea what to expect. It turns out to be a gorgeous collection of folk songs that sound as if they were written in the 1930s, but instead are all written or co-written by the group's front woman, Alynda Lee Segarra, who is of Puerto Rican descent and from the Bronx.

I like everything about this record, from the vivid cover to Segarra's voice, which reminds me a lot of Michelle Shocked's. It's in a lower register, and at times has a smoky purr, but she's not a sex kitten. Her voice is mature and unstinting in its devotion to her songs.

The first song, "Blue Ridge Mountain," sets the tone. If you told me it had been written 100 years ago I would believe it. It's accompanied by a banjo and fiddle, and one can imagine it performed at a honky tonk in Appalachia. "Crash on the Highway," which follows, is another fine song of life on the road. As with a few other songs, Segarra references New Orleans, and since it is dedicated to "the people, musicians and ghosts of New Orleans," I imagine that's where she lives.

Other highlights include "The New SF Bay Blues," which includes this lovely lyric:

"A woman's heart it's made of solid rock
And if you love her
She'll give you all she's got.
Oh buddy, that can be an awful lot."

There's a murder ballad, a folk essential, in "The Body Electric," and what may be a tribute to Levon Helm in "Levon's Dream." The title song, about love and drugs, has this lyric:

"Oh baby girl, where did you go
I threw you out where the cold wind blows
Are you in Vidalia with your no good mom
I just couldn't watch you stick in your arm.

There was a time when I was in heavily into contemporary folk, seeing a lot of live concerts at The Bottom Line and Speakeasy. This album reminds me why I like folk music so much. Segarra is a major talent. I hope she one day plays Vegas.

Friday, September 26, 2014

The Son

The Son, by Philipp Meyer, is an epic story of Texas, told through several generations of the same family, from the early days of the Republic to the present. Other books like this have been written, such as James Michener's Texas and Edna Ferber's Giant (not to mention the supermarket books like Texas Rich), but I doubt any have been as good or unsentimental as this one.

The book is mostly told from the viewpoint of three people. First is Eli McCullough, who as a boy is kidnapped by Comanches. He is raised as one, and becomes a young warrior, even killing white men. Later, when the tribe is decimated by illness, he returns to the white world, becomes a Texas Ranger and kills Comanches, and then starts a cattle ranch. He will become obscenely rich, getting into the oil business. He tells his story in the first person, on the occasion of his 100th birthday in 1936.

The second is the diary of Peter McCullough, Eli's son (and, ostensibly, the offspring of the title, though that could be debated). He begins his tale in the mid 1910s, when his family massacres a Mexican-American family to take their land. Peter is a different sort, and says: "How two men from the same stock might be so different...my father likely reckons my mother snuck off for congress with some poet, scrivener, or other nearsighted sniveling half-man. I have always seen myself as two people: the one before my mother died, fearless as his brothers, and the one after, like an owl on some branch, watching the rest move about in the sunlight."

Peter is disgusted with his father and his mercenary business practices. He takes up with a daughter of the slaughtered family, which disgraces his own relatives.

Thirdly is Jeannie Ann McCullough, the great-granddaughter of Eli. She is raised as a typical Texas girl, knowing how to ride, but is packed off to a New England boarding school, which she hates. She will, after her brothers are killed in World War II, take over the company, a woman in a man's world.

There is a lot here, and the best of it is Eli's story, at least for us Western fans. His time with the Indians and then later as a Ranger provide the highlights. I was reminded somewhat of Little Big Man, which is also about a white boy being raised by Indians, in that the Indians are always portrayed as the ones with common sense. "The white people are crazy. They all want to be rich, same as we do, but they do not admit to themselves that you only get rich by taking things from other people. They think that if you do not see the people you are stealing from, or if you do not know them, or if they do not look like you, it is not really stealing." Or, "this was the main difference between the whites and the Comanches, which was the whites were willing to trade all their freedom to live longer and eat better, and the Comanches were not willing to trade any of it."

I also loved Eli's comments on rangering and being a cowboy: "Rangering was not a career so much as a way to die young and get paid nothing for doing it; your chances of surviving a year with a company were about the same as not. The lucky ones ending up in an unmarked hole. The rest lost their topknots." "The life of the cowboy has been written about as if it were the pinnacle of freedom in the West but in fact it was a sleepless drudgery almost beyond imagination--five months of slavery to a pack of dumb brutes--and had I not been riding for my own brand I would not have lasted a day."

The linchpin of the novel is the massacre of the Mexican-Americans, who as Peter points out had been in Texas far longer than any white family. It becomes the stain on their souls, and old J.A., as she is called, will one day reap what the family has sowed. The ending, involving a simple Mexican vaquero with a complicated past, is very powerful.

The Son is not only a top-notch novel of the West, it also has profound things to say on the nature of white America and its ruthlessness in settling this country, which is something we white Americans should always feel a little guilty about.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

How to Marry a Millionaire

If Lauren Bacall was known for any film that did not co-star Humphrey Bogart, it was How to Marry a Millionaire, a mediocre peace of fluff from 1953 that also starred Marilyn Monroe and Betty Grable as three golddiggers.

Directed without much charm by Jean Negulesco, the film is in vibrant Cinemascope, but the story is wan and at times offensive. The three stars are models who rent a classy apartment in the hopes they will rub elbows with rich men. It's all Bacall's idea--she's just out of a divorce with a poor guy. She has a weakness for "gas pump jockeys" and wants to marry up. Monroe is a ditz who can't see a thing without her glasses, which she won't wear because she thinks they'll turn men off. Grable's character really doesn't have a defining characteristic at all.

Bacall meets a wealthy widower (William Powell), but is really attracted to Cameron Mitchell, who is richer than Powell but Bacall doesn't know it. Monroe gets hooked up with a fake oil sheik, but ends up with David Wayne (who is the apartment's owner). In the most tasteless portion, Grable accompanies a piggish businessman (Fred Clark) to his lodge in Maine (she thinks it's an Elk Lodge). She ends up falling for a simple forest ranger (Rory Calhoun). Though there is no hanky-panky between Grable and Clark, it has a kind of leering quality that isn't funny at all.

I did like some of the inside jokes. Grable, who in real life was married to Harry James, listens to his band on the radio. Bacall, telling Powell she loves older men, mentions that what's-his-name who was in The African Queen. "Love him!" she exults.

Though Bacall is terrific, one can't help feel that after the great noir films she did with Bogart, that she's kind of slumming here.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

True Blood, Season 6

True Blood just wrapped its seventh and final season. I'm one year behind, so I just watched season six, and while I understand the complaints about its deterioration (which seems to happen to all shows over the years) I still enjoyed it.

This year seemed a little scattered, as if the whole year wasn't thought out in advance. We start with the governor of Louisiana (Arliss Howard) cracking down on vampires and secretly creating a "vamp camp," where they are interred and studied like zoo animals. His partner in this is Sarah Newlin (Anna Camp), a religious zealot and one time bed partner of good ol' Jason Stackhouse (Ryan Kwanten). As I watched the show I imagined Bobby Jindal as the governor and this gave me pleasure.

Bill Compton (Stephen Moyer( ended last season drinking Lilith's blood (she was the original vampire) and becoming some kind of super vampire. He is impervious to the usual destructive forces, but Lilith gives him enigmatic instructions. He has visions of his friends being released into sunlight, and knows he must do something to stop that.

Meanwhile, our main character, Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin) finds out that the vampire who killed her parents, Warlow, is both a vampire and a fairy, and really saved her from her father killing her (she is a telepath, and thus abnormal). Warlow is played by hunky Rob Kazinsky, and is over 5,000 years old and is desperately in love with Sookie.

When vampires drink fairy blood, especially one as powerful as Warlow's, they are able to walk in sunlight. This creates all sorts of issues.

There are numerous other plot threads. Eric (Alexander Skarsgaard), the yin to Bill's yang, does battle with the governor, and along the way is forced to hold his sister (Lucy Griffiths) in his arms as she is dying. A few other characters bite the dust, including Terry Bellefleur (Todd Lowe) the PTSD-suffering short-order cook. Also, Sam Merlotte (Sam Trammell) has to extricate himself from a beef with werewolves, including pack leader Alcide (Joe Manganiello).

In truth, True Blood turned into a soap opera featuring supernatural characters, pretty much like Dark Shadows, but not as campy. It's still well aware of itself, and takes a lot of winks at the audience. In a particularly vicious scene, Camp murders another woman in a drag-out fight that ends with a high heel in the other's woman's skull. "Thank you, Jesus!" she cries, victorious.

But I found some parts of it tiresome. A plot line concerning Andy, the dim-witted sheriff (Chris Bauer) being the father to quadruplet fairy girls, who age twenty years in two weeks, a bit hare-brained (one of them survives to be another hot chick, Bailey Noble). We also get another sexy vampire, Karolina Wydra, who decides that Jason belongs to her. Sometimes there are just too many characters.

The characterization of Warlow left something to be desired, too. Is he good, is he bad? Well, a certain amount of complexity is nice, but he seemed to change from week to week, depending on the writer. On the other hand, I found Jason to be particularly entertaining this season, as he went from hating vampires to being their staunchest allies. I also loved Rutger Hauer as an ancient vampire king.

Yes, it is time for True Blood to go, but I have loved it for going on seven years.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Ozymandias

As I mentioned in a post a few days ago, my first teaching assignment in my student teaching will be Percy Shelley's poem "Ozymandias." I chose this for a few reasons: it's short (it's 14 lines long), it pertains to what the kids are studying now (the epic of Gilgamesh) and the first time I read it, however many years ago, I understood it right away.

Shelley wrote the poem in 1817, and it was published in 1818, perhaps in response to the British Museum purchasing a large chunk of a statue of Ramesses II (Ozymandias is an alternative name for him). It is one of his most famous works, and is frequently anthologized.

What I like about the poem is that it is so subtly ironic. In fact, it could be considered funny. Here we have a traveler to an ancient, dusty land who finds the ruins of a statue, thousands of years old (Ramesses II ruled about 1270 B.C., some two thousand years before the poem was written). The inscription on the statue proclaims the greatness of the king who commissioned it, but, as all things become, is now a faint memory. It's humbling but important to realize that everything is temporary, whether it is an empire, a mountain, or a person. As Kansas sang so many years ago, "all we are is dust in the wind."

In teaching the lesson I'm going to start with a clip of the ending of the very first Planet of the Apes film, which is one of the best shock endings of any movie. Of course, Charlton Heston, who all the time thinks he's on some distant planet (even though the apes speak English) finds that he is indeed home, on Earth, many years in the future. He knows this by coming across the ruins of the Statue of Liberty. I think this is instructive because it reminds us that even the mighty American empire will one day come to an end. We've been a world power just under 100 years. The Roman Empire lasted about six-hundred years. The British Empire, about three hundred. At their height, they never thought it would end. I think we can see an end, if only because the world is such a small place now.

I will also point out that Shelley was one of the greatest of the Romantic poets, and along with Lord Byron, was somewhat akin to a rock star in his day. He was an outspoken atheist at a time when that sort of thing wasn't looked kindly upon (it isn't today, either). He was married to Mary Shelley, famous for writing Frankenstein (there are those who think he helped her with it, or wrote it himself). He lived fast and died young, drowning just short of his 30th birthday.

So, since it is so short and no longer in copyright, is "Ozymandias."

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Wonder Woman

I read an interesting article in The New Yorker today, "The Last Amazon," by Jill Lepore. It discusses the history of the comic book character Wonder Woman, in the context of the upcoming film Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, in which Wonder Woman will be featured, played by Israeli actress Gal Gadot.

The history of comic books featuring women is spotty, to be charitable. I can only think of two in lead roles, and they were both spectacular bombs: Catwoman and Elektra. There have many fans, of both sexes, who would like to see Wonder Woman, or some other female superhero, get her own movie. With the success of Hunger Games, Divergent, and Lucy, I think the time is right, and if the movie isn't directed by some hack and dumped in a bad opening weekend, a studio could just accidentally find themselves with a hit.

I was under a misapprehension about the creation of Wonder Woman. Somewhere along the line I thought I read that she was created as a male fantasy by some guy who was into bondage fetishism. That's not true--she was created by William Moulton Marston, a psychologist with a Ph.D. from Harvard. He wrote about how he thought the comic books were an excellent form for children (unlike Dr. Frederick Wertham, who nearly drove the industry into the drink with his hearings on the dangers of comic books for children in the '50s). D.C. publisher M.C. Gaines (the father of William, who later founded MAD) hired Marston as a consultant.

Wonder Woman first appeared in 1941, and she was not a pin-up come to life, but as Lepore writes, "comes straight out of feminist utopian fiction." Her origins lie with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the feminists and suffragists of the late 19th and early 20th century. Marston was related to birth control advocate and Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger, and was himself in a polyamorous relationship with two women: his wife Elizabeth and Olive Byrne.

The '40s were an interesting time for feminism. Shortages of men who had gone of to war made it necessary for women to take men's jobs, but when the men came back, they were forced back home or to their jobs and secretaries (this was even true of Wonder Women, who was in the Justice League of America, but served as its secretary, and her alter ego, Diana Prince, was also a secretary) and women who wanted to work or be independent were seen as somehow dangerous (as I discussed in my article on the femme fatale). Wonder Woman was handed over to new writers, and was somewhat defanged, eventually losing all her super powers and being just a very good fighter.

Wonder Woman was an Amazonian princess of Green mythology. Warrior tribes of women have been around for a long time, and existed right up to the present day, in sci-fi movies (invariably, Venus is populated only by women--they must have known they would be named for a goddess). Some of Wonder Woman's powers were connected to Marston's scholarship. He was one of the innovators of the lie detector, hence Wonder Woman's "Lasso of Truth." I'm not sure where the invisible airplane came from.

Though Wonder Woman has always been a knockout (in truth, I can't think of a female superhero who isn't pneumatically built) she has been a feminist icon since she was created. Ms. magazine made her their first cover subject. There was of course the cheesy TV show in the '70s starring Lynda Carter. I never saw an episode, and was interested to read that the first season took place during World War II, and the subsequent two series were switched to the present day. Unlike other heroes, like Batman and Superman, there has not been an animated version of the series.

Gal Gadot is a very fetching actress, though not quite as voluptuous as Wonder Woman usually is. I have no idea if she can act (I've only seen her in a Captain Morgan rum ad, though I understand she has been in many Fast and Furious films) but I hope the character is a hit. Girls deserve their own superhero to emulate. Let's have a Wonder Woman film soon.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Rome, Open City

One of the primary examples of neo-realism, I had my first opportunity to see Roberto Rossellini's 1945 film Rome, Open City. I have no idea what took me this long, since it is one of the key movies in film history, but it was worth the wait. It's a searing, powerful look at the Italians under Nazi occupation and the resistance fighters who battled them.

The film was made on a shoestring, since it was shot during the war and the Italian film industry was in ruins. Rossellini had had it with the Italian film industry, anyway. He managed to make it, shooting in the streets and using discarded film from the U.S. signal corps. He used many non-professional actors, including German prisoners as German soldiers.

He did have several professional actors in leading roles, though, including Anna Magnani and Aldo Fabrizi. Magnani plays Pina, who is engaged to Francesco, a printer who is churning out anti-Nazi newspapers. She already has a son, a scamp called Marcello who is running around with a one-legged boy who is fiercely anti-Fascist. She is pregnant with another child, and though she is unmarried she is not ashamed.

Fabrizi plays the parish priest, Don Pietro, a kind and humble man who is also a part of the resistance. He is approached by an engineer, Marcello Paglieri, who is on the run from the Gestapo, for assistance. Fabrizi believes it his duty to help people in trouble.

On the other side of the equation we have a typically urbane and sadistic German major who is tracking down Paglieri. He, along with a mannish looking woman, use Paglieri's girlfriend, a cabaret singer (Maria Michi) to get to him. She is showered with gifts to induce her to betray him, and there is even a hint of a lesbian relationship between her and the mannish woman.

While this is a gripping story, Rossellini is able to add some playful life in war-torn Rome (the script was co-written by Federico Fellini, and perhaps these were his touches). One involves Don Pietro entering an antique store to pass information and finding a statue of Jesus "looking" at a statue of a nude woman. He turns the statue of the woman, but realizes that her bottom is also naked, so he turns Jesus. Another is the troop of boys, led by the one-legged revolutionary. They go so far as to blow up a gasoline truck in the middle of the night, but these vandals for the cause are punished severely by their parents on their return for being out late at night.

But mostly Rome, Open City will stay with you for its tragic images. Magnani, after her fiance is taken away by the Gestapo, is shot down in the street chasing after him. Her son, in his altar boy's white gown, flies to her side, and Don Pietro, also in white, cradles her in a Pieta pose. Later, Paglieri is captured and tortured by the Nazis, and Pietro is made to watch. This patient man finally erupts, cursing them, and telling them they will be trampled in the dust.

The end of the film has Pietro being executed by firing squad. A fellow priest tells him to be brave, and Pietro says, "It is not hard to die a good death. What's hard is to live a good life."

Fabrizi gives a performance for the ages, and if you don't feel a lump in your throat during the last half hour of the film you aren't alive.


Saturday, September 20, 2014

A Sound of Thunder

Coming up is my first chance to conduct an English class all by my lonesome. I will be teaching two different levels--honors English, and "regular" English. For honors I will be teaching a lesson on the poems "Ozymandias" by Percy Shelley, and I'll write more about that in this place later. For the regular class, I'll be discussing the Ray Bradbury story, "A Sound of Thunder."

I chose this story because it is in the literature book the kids have and I know it pretty well. I think most people know it, even if they haven't read it, because it introduced a concept into science fiction literature that has become a staple of the genre--time travel causing present conditions to change by altering the past.

H.G. Wells was the first to really codify time travel literature with his novel The Time Machine. But he did not broach the subject of the time travel paradox, i.e., that the present could be changed by altering the past. This is a fundamental scientific principle that suggests time travel is impossible--if I went back in time and killed my father before I was conceived, would I cease to exist?

Bradbury, in "A Sound of Thunder," takes this a step further. The story is set in the future (still the future for us, 2055). A company uses time travel technology to take rich hunters back in the past to kill animals, and the biggest trophy is a tyrannosaurus rex. But they are sticklers--the dinosaur was about to die from a falling tree, and thus its death by gun would not change anything. But the hunters have to remain on a path and not touch so much as a blade of grass or any other animal. If they kill anything, it could change the entire map of time.

The story is a bit clumsy in how it changes things. Eckels, the hunter who accidentally steps off the path and kills a butterfly, comes back to find that everything is the same except for the conventions of spelling and a different man won the U.S. presidency. It's hard to wrap one's mind around the notion that the changes would be that precise, instead of humans having tails or lizard-like tongues (which occurs in the Simpson's parody, "Time and Punishment."

But I'm sure Bradbury used broad strokes just to get a point across at a time when we didn't automatically associate time travel with this concept. Since then it has explored in several novels and films, such as the Back to the Future trilogy, the Star Trek episode "The City on the Edge of Forever" and Stephen King's novel 11/22/63. It's a premise that is catnip for writers--if we could change time, should we? What would happen if we killed Hitler in the cradle?

"A Sound of Thunder" was first published in Collier's magazine in 1952, and reprinted in Playboy in 1956 (with the illustration above). So, yes, some people do read Playboy for the articles.

Friday, September 19, 2014

One Summer: America 1927

"Babe Ruth hit sixty home runs. The Federal Reserve made the mistake that precipitated the stock market crash. Al Capone enjoyed his last summer of eminence. The Jazz Singer was filmed. Television was created. Radio came of age. Sacco and Vanzetti were executed. President Coolidge chose not to run. Work began on Mount Rushmore. The Mississippi flooded as it never had before...Henry Ford stopped making the Model T and promised to stop insulting Jews. And a kid from Minnesota flew across an ocean and captivated the planet in a way it had never been captivated before."

So writes Bill Bryson in his free-wheeling and entertainingly informative book One Summer: American 1927, which, as the title suggests, focuses on one season in American history, give or take a few weeks. Though I think American history is rich enough that you could do this about almost any year, I must admit this one has a lot of highlights.

Bryson breaks the book into five parts, four of them dealing with one person or persons: Charles Lindbergh, Babe Ruth, Calvin Coolidge, and Sacco and Vanzetti. But intertwining through these stories are a myriad of others, and Bryson goes on some wonderful tangents, all the while keeping on a chronological course through the summer.

The book and the season start with Lindbergh's flight to Paris. Attempts to cross the Atlantic were many around that time, as there was a prize waiting for the first team to do it. Robert Byrd and other prominent aviators had planes that were being tested, while many others attempted it and were never heard from again. Lindbergh was completely unknown and did it alone, and pulled it off with an aplomb that was astounding. He would become the most famous man in the country, a national hero, and spend the rest of the summer on a tour of the nation. "It is impossible to imagine what it must have been like to be Charles Lindbergh in that summer. From the moment he left his room in the morning, he was touched and jostled and bothered. Every person on earth who could get near enough wanted to grasp his hand or clap him on the back. He had no private life anymore."

As for Ruth, Bryson chronicles his 1927 season, when he broke his own record for home runs by clouting sixty. Bryson doesn't spare on Ruth's excessive appetite, both for food and sex. As with Mantle and Maris and McGwire and Sosa in the future, it was a two-man race for a good part of the season, as Lou Gehrig actually had more home runs than Ruth as September began, but Gehrig's mother's illness took his mind off the game and Ruth hit 17 home runs in September. Bryson offers this bit of locker room confidential about the great Yankees: "By the 1930s, Gehrig would hate Ruth about as passionately as it was possible to hate a person. The fact that Ruth had reportedly by that time slept with Gehrig's wife would seem, not surprisingly, to have had something to do with that."

Calvin Coolidge was president, and in the summer of 1927 he was vacationing in South Dakota. Coolidge was a taciturn man, who seemed to want to do as little as possible (he had four-hour work days). "He was the least affable, gregarious, metaphorically embraceable president of modern times. Yet America came to adore him. Though he would spend the 1920s doing as little as possible--that was essentially his declared policy as president--he set the mood in the nation in a way few other presidents have. If the 1920s was the age of anyone, it was the Age of Coolidge."

He shocked the nation by announcing, in a tersely worded statement, that he would not run for re-election in 1928. His presumed successor was Herbert Hoover, Secretary of Commerce, who was responsible for many great things, including helping those in the devastating flood of the Mississippi earlier that year. But Bryson has some sharp words about Hoover's personality, which was unpleasant to the extreme.

As for Sacco and Vanzetti, they were arrested for murder during a payroll robbery on very flimsy evidence. But this was an after affect of a red scare, when anyone who was against the government was looked on with suspicion and prosecution. Bryson goes back to the Palmer raids and a series of bombings that were thought to be carried out by Italian anarchists. These poor souls, whose guilt or innocence is still hotly debated, ended up being electrocuted on largely circumstantial evidence.

There are a great many other characters who parade through the book. Boxer Jack Dempsey, who in 1927 lost the famous "long count" bout to Gene Tunney; Al Capone, who rubbed elbows with the politicians of Chicago (and whose brother would end up as a prohibition agent); Bill Tilden, tennis champion and seducer of young boys; Clara Bow, Al Jolson, the leaders of the temperance movement, the eugenics movement, and the Klu Klux Klan; Henry Ford, who shut down Ford to design the Model A and take a back seat to GM and Chrysler, and Philo Farnsworth, the man who invented television but has gotten lost in the history books. I particularly enjoyed this sub-heading of a New York Times article on the first broadcast, which featured none other than Herbert Hoover. "Commercial use in doubt," they predicted.

This book is like a bag of peanuts to the history buff--you just can't stop reading. It's written in a breezy style, and Bryson doesn't stint on his opinions and comes across as appalled as we are at some of the medieval thinking of some of these people, particularly the eugenicists, who fell into the trap of agreeing with the Nazis (this was the downfall of Lindbergh, who might have been president but for his anti-Semitism). In that way this is not scholarship, but it's damned interesting.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

The Notebook

Okay, so this is a movie I would never seen as a bachelor. But now I have a girlfriend, and after moving in with her she asked if I could rent this film, which she's always wanted to see. Anything for love.

The Notebook is not a good movie. It isn't aggressively terrible, but it has almost no depth and its characters are idealized. The strange thing is is that it was directed by Nick Cassavetes. His father John's films were the antithesis of this kind of slick, boilerplate dross.

The film is based on a novel by notorious bad writer Nicholas Sparks, who writes books for women. This film is really for women, too. My girlfriend cried and cried when it was over. I was dry-eyed, but I liked the way she responded emotionally to it.

Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams star in the story-within-the-story. In the present, James Garner reads their story to Gena Rowlands, a woman with Alzheimer's disease. We quickly figure out that Garner is telling their own story, which Rowlands has forgotten.

The story begins in 1940, when Gosling, a laborer, meets McAdams, daughter of a rich man, at a carnival. In a horrible meet-cute scene, Gosling climbs a Ferris wheel and demands she go out with him, or he'll drop to his death. Sure, I know lots of couples who meet that way. Later, Gosling charms her by laying down in the middle of the street. Somehow she finds this endearing.

They fall in love, though they fight a lot. Her family tolerates it as a summer romance, but when things get serious they pack her up and move her back to their winter home. She goes off to college, and Gosling writes her every day, but her mother (Joan Allen) intercepts the letters.

McAdams ends up engaged to a rich guy (James Marsden), whom she loves, but when she sees Gosling's picture in the paper she looks him up. He has bought and restored an eighteenth-century mansion. Why no one else noted the real estate potential of such a building is lost on me.

McAdams faces a choice, and of course we know who she'll pick. However, as Garner is reading the story, for one moment I had the fleeting hope that it was a twist--that Garner was actually Marsden grown up. That would have been a hell of a twist, but no, this movie was far too predictable for that.

The Notebook is the Hallmark version of romance, with golden sunsets and lakes full of geese, flying in slow motion. It's very pretty, but the sentiment is pretty simple. I know a lot of people, mostly women, love this film, and I suppose it's because they want to see their own lives with as much love as these two have. But the truth is that the love expressed here is a fairy tale, with no bearing on reality that a fire-breathing dragon. I suppose that's the difference between men and women--women want the fairy tale.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Goldfinger

Today is the anniversary of the release of Goldfinger. It was the third of James Bond series, but set the template for almost every Bond film to follow. It is the favorite of many fans, including me.

I've seen it several times, but I still enjoyed it watching it last night. I think one of the reasons I like it is, though the plot is as preposterous as any other Bond film, it remains in the realm of the possible. Auric Goldfinger is a nefarious criminal, but he's not one of these guys who is threatening to blow up the world and has a lair underneath a volcano. He simply wants to corner the gold market, a kind of pedestrian ambition. In fact, he thinks by radiating the U.S. gold reserve at Fort Knox that it will increase his worth by only ten percent.

And though there will be a big shootout at the end (which Bond is not involved in--he's handcuffed to an atomic bomb) the battles between he and Goldfinger are more cerebral. First, Bond exposes him as a cheat at gin rummy, and later bests him on the golf course. Those ideas would today be crumpled up into a ball at the treatment phase.

Goldfinger was the first Bond film to use Q division (it's so fun to see the exasperation of Desmond Llewellyn), and the pre-credit intro that has only tangential connection to the rest of the film. It wasn't the first to have a theme song with a lyric, but this particular song, by John Barry, with lyric by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley, has become indelibly linked to the series.

But most of all, this film has probably got more moments that have lasted the test of time. Consider when Bond strips off his frog suit only to reveal he's wearing a white dinner jacket (miraculously without wrinkles), or the Aston-Martin's panoply of weapons (the ejector-seat being the most memorable). Who can forget Shirley Eaton being murdered by "epidermal asphyxiation," i.e., completely covered with gold paint (how this was done without getting any paint on the bed or floor is a testament to the assassin's skill).

There are some great supporting characters, foremost the assassin himself, Oddjob (Harold Sakata). There are many wonderful second-banana villains in Bond films, including the recently deceased Richard Kiel as Jaws, but to me Oddjob, with his razor-edged bowler and stoic expression tops them all. As for Bond girls, I don't think Honor Blackman is the sexiest ever (she was the oldest, at 39, and while extremely beautiful I didn't buy the chemistry between her and Sean Connery) but she had the best name: Pussy Galore. And come on, Pussy Galore's Flying Circus? A team of acrobatic fliers, all beautiful blondes? That's so over the top it's funny.

Some of the dialogue is priceless, too. We get some bad jokes, like Bond saying "Shocking" after electrocuting a bad guy. But I love when Bond, strapped to table with a laser beam slowly making its way to his privates, asks Goldfinger, "Do you expect me to talk?" and Goldfinger replies, laughing, "No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die!"

To me Connery is by far the best Bond. The character is best when rooted in the era when the books were written, when a man wore a homburg and there was still chauvinism in the air. We have to realize that by seducing Eaton, Bond caused her death, and essentially we are asked to believe that his incredible sex appeal got Pussy Galore to betray Goldfinger. Connery understood this, and was believable as both a tough guy and a man who knew his brandy.

Goldfinger was a smash hit (the theater it played at in New York had to run it 24 hours a day) and firmly established the character for five decades to come, for good or for ill. While the series has had its ups and down since then, I don't think it has surpassed this level, and doubt it ever will.



Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Lucy

For the second time in less than a year, Scarlett Johannson plays a character who disappears into the ether. In Her, she played an operating system, in Lucy, she is an actual human being who achieves 100 percent of her cerebral capacity. The film says that when we do so, we...well, I'm not sure what it says.

Johannson's Lucy is a girl living in Taipei and attending school. She's been dating some club rat (he sounds European) who finagles into her delivering a briefcase to some Chinese criminal. She ends up having a bag of drugs surgically implanted in her. When it starts to leak, she realizes she has abilities she never had before.

When the film was released in July there was some comparisons to Limitless, which was also about a drug that enhanced brain power. But this film, written and directed by Luc Bresson, is much more intellectually grounded. Limitless had the main character using his brains to play the stock market, while Lucy is able to read minds and manipulate matter.

I enjoyed most of Lucy, mostly due to Johansson's performance and Bresson's winking style. He uses stock footage of the animal kingdom to make his points, such as showing a gazelle being stalked by cheetahs when Johansson is surrounded by bad guys. The script is surprisingly intelligent, especially when Lucy tells brain expert Morgan Freeman that the only unit of measurement that matters is time.

The film offers plenty of mayhem for those that want it--there is a shootout in a library in Paris that offers more bullets than anyone could want--but the film kind of goes off the rails when Johansson is able to travel through time. At this point the film goes out of science fiction into Bresson's fantasies, I think.

At 89 minutes, Lucy is also briskly paced. Normally an action-picture like this would be a bloated mess, but Bresson wisely boils it down to essentials, and we're out of the theater in a reasonable time. Driving home, I took the film with me in my mind, looking around and wondering if what Johansson perceived is really the truth.

My grade for Lucy: B.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Kelly's Heroes

1970 was the year for counter-culture war movies. There was M*A*S*H and Catch-22, and also Kelly's Heroes, the other Clint Eastwood film Brian G. Hutton directed. It is a comedy more than a war film (though there are many dead) and casts a gimlet-eye on heroism.

Eastwood is the titular Kelly, who at the film's outset has captured an officer in German intelligence. When Eastwood discovers a gold bar among the man's possessions, he gets him drunk and finds out there are 14,000 more like it in a bank in a French town. The catch--it is 30 miles behind enemy lines.

Eastwood enlists the men in his platoon, plus a fixer called Crapgame (Don Rickles). He inadvertently brings in a fellow known as Oddball (Donald Sutherland), who has three Sherman tanks at his disposal. The only holdout is the tough as nails sergeant, Telly Savalas, but when Eastwood and the men convince him that they might as well die this way than any other, Savalas joins.

While this is a World War II movie, it is most decidedly a creature of 1970. Not only is their a pop song (sung by the Mike Curb Congregation) but the viewpoint is from the radical view. Savalas says to his men that no one should stick their neck out for anyone else, unless you're a hero, implying that none of them are. Though the viewer gets caught up in their mission, it is one strictly for greed, not for altruism. A key moment is when there is nothing between them and the bank except a German Tiger tank. Instead of shooting their way in, they simply offer the German tank commander a cut.

The biggest giveaway about all this is the role of Oddball. He's got long hair and a beard, and says things like "dig" and calls men "baby." He is a proto-hippie if there ever was one (although he has no trouble using his tank for mayhem). I'm quite sure there were no people like him at the time--even the Beats were not yet firmly established--but Sutherland, who of course was also in M*A*S*H, plays him as if it were the Summer of Love.

Eastwood is as stoic as ever, but I quite liked Savalas and Rickles, who is an under-rated actor. I also enjoyed the antics of a pre-Archie Bunker Carroll O'Connor, who plays a bumptious general who thinks the men are advancing toward the enemy out of patriotism, and wants to give them medals.

The movie has a little fun with Eastwood's reputation, by having he, Savalas, and Sutherland standing in the square of the French town like gunfighters, with faux Ennio Morricone music and jangling spurs.

Kelly's Heroes is pretty good fun, though it could stand some trimming. It still works as a war comedy, but it is better as a time capsule.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Oscar 2014, Best Actor: Genius at Work

Benedict Cumberbatch
Now that the Toronto Film Festival is concluded, the Oscar picture has come somewhat more into focus. There are no new pictures in the Best Picture landscape, although The Imitation Game, which won the Toronto's main prize, seems now like a safe bet for a nomination. That film also seems to have the frontrunner for Best Actor, one of a few films that feature brilliant British scientists (and one artist).

Here are my very early predictions for the Best Actor race, in alphabetical order:

Steve Carell, Foxcatcher: This film is gathering steam as a Best Picture contender, and there are three actors that could be vying for nominations. Carell is the focus, though, as a Du Pont heir who murders a wrestler. The normally comedic actor has been given a fake nose (an addition of makeup seems to help actors with Oscar) and unless this category gets overloaded, he should be safe.

Benedict Cumberbatch, The Imitation Game: Cumberbatch seems to be everywhere, and in just a few years has made himself a ubiquitous presence in film and TV. He just won an Emmy for his work on Sherlock Holmes, and has the man who cracked the German's code during World War II, only to be later arrested for being a homosexual, this seems like the kind of role the Academy loves.

Michael Keaton, Birdman: Keaton has had a strange career, with some incredible highs and some puzzling lows, but he has never had an Oscar nomination. That should change with this meta role, playing a washed up actor who was once famous for playing a superhero. If a Brit doesn't win this award, Keaton should.

Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything: Redmayne plays a young Stephen Hawking, at the time of his romance with his first wife. Playing real people is catnip to the Academy--would Hawking attend the Oscars if the film got nominated? I'm not sure if the film includes the beginning of his ALS, but if it does, it can't hurt Redmayne's chances.

Timothy Spall, Mr. Turner: Spall plays British painter J.M.W. Turner, and while this doesn't sound like thrill-a-minute cinema, there is a tradition of painters in films, ranging from Michelangelo to Andy Warhol. Apparently Turner was quite a curmudgeon, which probably gives Spall a lot of scenes to steal.

Also possible: Bradley Cooper, American Sniper; Ralph Fiennes, The Grand Budapest Hotel; David Oyelowo, Selma; Joaquin Phoenix, Inherent Vice; and Ellar Coltrane, Boyhood.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Where Eagles Dare

With the spate of big film industry deaths of the last month, one person who was largely overlooked was Brian G. Hutton, who directed two films starring Clint Eastwood. The first was Where Eagles Dare, released in 1968 and starring the unlikely pairing of Eastwood and Richard Burton in a big World War II drama.

Written by spy novelist Alistair MacLean, the film is full of twists and turns, and we never quite know who is on what side. It starts simply enough--a team of seven commandos are to infiltrate a Bavarian castle--Schloss Adler, or castle of eagles--and rescue an American general who knows the secrets of D-Day. But almost none of that turns out to be true.

Burton is the leader of the team, with Eastwood as the stoic American. By 1968, Eastwood was well-known for his Spaghetti Westerns, but Burton was by far the bigger star, and the story showcases him. Eastwood mostly gets to fire machine guns.

I've always liked "mission" war pictures, like The Guns of Navarone, but Where Eagles Dare falls a little flat. For one thing, we are told that the castle is impregnable, but Burton and Eastwood get inside easily enough. Two men manage to quite a lot of damage against hundreds of German soldiers, even blowing up a bridge, taking out communication lines, and destroying much of an air fleet.

This is also one of those films that doesn't have Germans speaking German. Burton and Eastwood are supposed to be fluent in German, so when they converse in German, it's English. German officers, as was usual earlier in the century, are once again portrayed as urbane and icy. The Gestapo representative is as blond as a butterscotch brownie and looks in-bred.

Still, the film has its moments of excitement, even if it does portray the Germans as completely incompetent. You would have thought the war would have been shorter if we had guys like Burton and Eastwood were on our side.

Friday, September 12, 2014

The Eagulls

I've been spending some time listening to the eponymous British debut record by the post-punk revival band The Eagulls, and I like it quite a bit. Their sound is reminiscent of early-80s bands like The Buzzcocks and Feelies, with terrific hooks, snarling guitars, and a pounding rhythm section.

They are also a bit mysterious. There are no band credits on the album, no writer information, no lyric sheet. The vocals sound as if they were recorded under the bridge of the photo on the inside--full or reverb and completely unintelligible. I found some of them online, and they are smart and, being that the band is from Leeds, England, full of despair.

An example is from "Amber Veins:"

"Possessions pawned
Prickles of thorns
Plucked open
Pains false and forsworn
Forgetting all for
For what you take."

Or from the charmingly titled "Fester Blister":

"Find open pores
Eating up dirt, gathering gleet
Slowly they'll rot, slowly they'll weep
Trap all the nerves
Ensure it's cursed as it secretes
Retching won't stop, watch it turn green."

The music itself is mostly in a minor key, but at times is rather peppy. Most of the time, though, it has a panicky urgency. Stereogum describes it as "a proud piece of jittery brutality," and I think that sums it up perfectly. A track called "Soulless Youth" opens with loud alarms, like the countdown to a self-destructing spaceship, or perhaps the alarm sounded when someone is escaping from some futuristic death camp.

As to why they named themselves a homonym of one of those most loathed (by punks, at least) bands of the '70s, I imagine it's a joke, but it will make it hard to ask for them vocally. "You want the new record by the Eagles? They broke up a long time ago." "No, the Eagulls!"



Thursday, September 11, 2014

Dead Poets Society

I first saw Dead Poets Society when it was released 25 years ago and didn't care for it all that much, a decided minority. I watched it again for two reasons: the mourning for Robin Williams, and that I am embarking on a career as an English teacher. During the first class we learned about the four stages of a teaching career, the first one being fantasy. My fantasy is something like Dead Poets Society, minus the suicide and getting fired part.

Watching it again, I can see why it is loved. It is extremely beautiful to look at, with all the faux New England pastels (it was shot in Delaware), and it is an extremely well-constructed screenplay, with the students at different tiers of interest, each with a minor or major subplot, starting with Robert Sean Leonard and working downward. I admit I was grabbed by it, but after it's over it falls apart like a house of cards.

Williams is the new English teacher at a prestigious prep school. The year is 1959. The school is one of those that are so hung up on tradition you want to take a machine gun to the place (to do something continuously for the sole purpose of upholding tradition is one of the stupidest reasons to do something). We meet a few students, notably Leonard, who is very bright and his life planned out for him by his overbearing father (Kurtwood Smith), and Ethan Hawke, as a very shy boy who is brought out of his shell by Williams. Others include the daring Gale Hansen and Josh Charles, who falls in love with a girl who is already the girlfriend of a public school meatball.

Williams introduces unorthodox teaching methods, such as ripping out the introduction of their textbook, which grades poems on a graph. He wants the boys to think for themselves, and find the passion in their lives, most notably by teaching them the phrase "carpe diem," or seize the day.

The boys respond quizzically, and then enthusiastically, after they resurrect a club that Williams had when he was a student at the school--the title organization, which meets in a cave, where they read and discuss poetry. Given the uprightness of the school and the parents, this could only lead to something bad, and it does--the suicide of a student--and Williams becomes the scapegoat.

The problem with the film is not Williams' performance--he's terrific--but his role is so idealized. In fact, he's not a great English teacher. He might make a good life coach, but passion alone is not enough to study English. You do have to learn iambic pentameter and other things to fully understand poetry.

Also, the "follow your bliss" argument is pretty old and basic. Smith, as Leonard's father, is set up as such a villain that it takes me out of the movie. Norman Lloyd, as the crusty old headmaster, is given a bit more depth, but it would have been nice to have an authority figure that showed some areas of gray.

Still, it's great that any movie uses Walt Whitman and other poets as major elements. When Williams died, one of the most common quotes used was "O captain, my captain," and when Jimmy Fallon paid tribute by standing on his desk and quoting that line, it gave me a chill. When all is said and done, as the years go by, this may be the film that is Williams' most lasting legacy.


Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Big Sleep

Getting back to Bogie and Bacall, their second teaming was for 1946's The Big Sleep, an adaptation of the Raymond Chandler novel, directed by Howard Hawks. By the time was released, they were married, though the film sat on the shelf for a while (war films were being rushed into release after the war was over, lest they lose popularity).

I admire this film a great deal, but I will admit it has a complicated plot. Bogart is Philip Marlowe, who is hired by a General Sternwood, a millionaire, to take care of a blackmailer who has gambling debts signed by his wayward daughter (Martha Vickers). It turns out that that daughter, who appears to hit on anything in pants, is involved in a pornography racket (this is only alluded to in the film. It's much more clear in the book). While Marlowe is rescuing her from the home of a photographer, he finds that man dead on the floor.

More bodies turn up, and it leads him to a gambler, Eddie Mars, who has some sort of hold over Vickers' older sister (Bacall). She and Bogart fall in love, though he can't completely trust her (a common trait in film noir). By the time everything is over one still may not who killed who, and that extends to Chandler himself. When the makers of the film asked him who killed the chauffeur, he wasn't quite sure (I think it had to have been Joe Brody). All of it connects to a missing man named Sean Reagan, and the film leaves it quite open as to actually killed him.

The film's lasting legacy, aside from the chemistry between the two leads (she now had equal co-billing with him) is the dialogue. The screenplay is credited to William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett, and Jules Furthman, but some of the dialogue was written by Julius Epstein. Of course, much of it was transferred directly over from Chandler. The opening scene, in the greenhouse of Sternwood (he stays there because of health problems--he compares himself to a baby spider) is terrific. While Bogart is sweating, Sternwood enjoys watching him drink a glass of brandy, because he can't anymore. It is somewhat reminiscent of The Maltese Falcon, where honesty is appreciated. Sternwood asks Marlowe if he likes orchids. Most of us would answer yes just to get along, but Marlowe replies, "Not particularly," and Sternwood says, "Nasty things. Their flesh is too much like the flesh of men, and their perfume has the rotten sweetness of corruption."

Later, in Bogart and Bacall's first scene together, there is verbal sparring, and Marlowe says of his manners, which Bacall has just impugned, "I don't mind if you don't like my manners, I don't like them myself. They are pretty bad. I grieve over them on long winter evenings."

There are many more scenes like this, such as two visits to bookstores, when Marlowe acts like a gay man asking about a copy of the third edition of Ben-Hur, or when he charms a young book clerk (Dorothy Malone, in a very early role) into sharing some information and a bottle of rye with him. When she pulls the window shade down I prefer to think they also have a nice fuck, but I guess that is left to the imagination.

I consider this the best film made of a Raymond Chandler novel (the bar is set high--there's Murder, My Sweet, Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye, and the 1970s version of Farewell, My Lovely). This film has the snap and attitude of Chandler, the gloomy photography, and the menagerie of ne'er-do-wells. There's a certain viciousness to the film, but also a heart, as when Marlowe has to react to the death of Elisha Cook, Jr. (who was so memorable in The Maltese Falcon).

It is not the best private-eye film, though, and that title still belongs to The Maltese Falcon. In fact, it's hard to watch Bogart in this without thinking of that film, especially when he calls Bacall "angel," which he does to Mary Astor in the earlier film. Still, this is a classic film of the genre.


Tuesday, September 09, 2014

The Sleepwalkers

The reasons why Europe went to war in 1914 are both simple and complex. The reason I remember from school is that a guy shot an important person, and then countries went to war because they had alliances with each other. That's basically true, but of course the background is much more complicated.

Christopher Clark, in his book The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914, gives an exhaustive look at the whys are wherefores. At times I was much too overwhelmed by information--there are only so many Serbian and Russian names one can digest--but for the most part the writing is lucid and detailed.

Clark centers most of his book on the Balkans. That is where Gavrilo Princip shot Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary on June 18, 1914. But Clark takes us much farther back, tracing Balkan (as well as British, German, French, and Russian) history well into the 19th century. As Clark puts it, "The First World War was the Third Balkan War before it became the First World War."

Basically, it comes down to this: much of the Balkans were controlled by outside forces. When Austria-Hungary annexed Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia was outraged. A conspiracy, that led all the way to the top of the Serbian government, developed to kill the Archduke, the heir apparent to the Austrian throne.

Frank Ferdinand came on a visit to Sarajevo. "For Serb ultra-nationalists, both in Serbia itself and across the the Serbian irredentist network in Bosnia, the arrival of the heir apparent in Sarajevo on this of all days (St. Vitus Day, a big day for Serbia) was a symbolic affront that demanded a response."

Seven assassins allowed the Archduke's route. One managed to throw a bomb, which exploded behind the Archduke's car and injured some people. Amazingly, the Archduke went on his way, and delivered a speech. Princip carefully figured out where the route was supposed to go, and bided his time. The Archduke had planned on going to the hospital to visit the wounded, but the driver didn't get the info and continued along the published route. At some point, he went down the wrong street, and they had to push the car backward. This is when Princip struck, killing the Archduke and his wife.

The dominoes then started to fall. Russia, sort of like the big new kid in school who wants to get involved, stood behind Serbia, while Austria-Hungary sent Serbia an ultimatum that was almost impossible to adhere to. France was allied with Russia, and Germany with Austria-Hungary. Russia mobilized for war on August 1st, and Germany declared war, which meant they were also at war with France. Britain, who was considered keeping neutral, told Germany that they would keep out of it if Germany stayed away from France, but Germany went ahead and marched through Belgium, violating a treaty from 1839. Britain declared war.

Clark goes into the personalities of those involved, including how all the leaders were related: "By the turn of the twentieth century, the genealogical web of Europe's reigning families had thickened almost to the point of fusion. Kaiser Wilhelm II and King George V were both grandsons of Queen Victoria. Tsar Nicholas II's wife, Alexandra of Hesse-Darmstadt, was Victoria's granddaughter. The mothers of George V and Nicholas II were sisters from the house of Denmark. Kaiser Wilhelm and Tsar Nicholas II were both great-great-grandsons of Tsar Paul I. The Kaiser's great-aunt, Charlotte of Prussia, was the Tsar's grandmother. Viewed from this perspective, the outbreak of war in 1914 looks rather like the culmination of a family feud."

Every once in a while, like that, Clark will drop in a bit of drollery, such as this quote about Nicholas: "As an adolescent, he had shown little aptitude for the study of affairs of state. Konstantin Pobedonostsev, the conservative jurist drafted in to give the teenage Nicky a master class on the inner workings of the tsarist state, later recalled, 'I could only observe that he was completely absorbed in picking his nose.'"

But most of the book is deadly serious. The book ends as the powers begin war, leaving the carnage to come just a premonition. But Clark gives it to those who underestimated the war's longevity, or were hawkish, such as Winston Churchill. But he is not interested in a blame game: "The outbreak of war in 1914 is not an Agatha Christie drama at the end of which we will discover the culprit standing over a corpse in the conservatory with a smoking pistol. There is no smoking gun in this story; or, rather, there is one in the hands of every major character. Viewed in this light, the outbreak of war was a tragedy, not a crime."

Speaking of the 37 million civilian and military deaths that would follow, Clark says: "One thing is clear: none of the prizes for which the politicians of 1914 contended was worth the cataclysm that followed. Did the protagonists understand how high the stakes were?"

His last sentence somberly gives us the reason for his title: "The protagonists of 1914 were sleepwalkers, watchful but unseeing, haunted by dreams, yet blind to the reality of the horror they were about to bring into the world."

Monday, September 08, 2014

Marnie

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Alfred Hitchcock's Marnie, which many call his last masterpiece. I agree it's a masterpiece of technical filmmaking, but in some areas it hasn't dated well, and at times is quite ludicrous.

The film deals with one of Hitchcock's favorite themes--psychology. As with Spellbound, Vertigo, and Psycho, Hitchcock shows a fascination with psychoanalysis--the why of aberrant behavior. "You Freud, me Jane," Tippi Hedren, the actress in the title role, says at one point.

The first shot of the film is Hedren, from behind, carrying a canary-yellow valise. It is a grabber of a shot, what with the raven-black hair and her walking away from the camera on an empty train platform. It turns out she is a serial thief, who takes jobs in payroll departments under assumed names and works long enough to find the money and steal it. She has just liberated nearly 10,000 dollars from a tax firm when the film begins.

The entire film of Marnie is a psychoanalysis of her. We then see her visit her horrible mother (yet another older woman in Hitchcock's oeuvre who is monstrous). Hedren becomes jealous of the attention her mother shows to a young girl, and then frankly asks her why she doesn't love her. In a bit of dime-store psychology, we can assume that her kleptomania is a reaction to her feelings of not being loved by her mother.

But there are other disturbing attributes, such as her going into a bit of seizure whenever she sees red, and she has a lot of trouble with thunderstorms. She also, we will find out, is not only one of Hitchcock's icy blondes, she's downright frigid.

After she steals the money at the start of the film, she tries again, this time in a publishing house run by Sean Connery. He thinks he recognizes her from her previous job (he was a client) and hires her just to make sure. He is kind of turned on by her psychoses, and our clue to that is his passion for studying animal behavior. He is also something of an amateur psychologist (we later see him reading a book about the sexual behavior of criminal women).

Connery figures out Hedren is the thief, and in a bit of deviance that is rival to hers, he blackmails her into marrying him. It's a very creepy section of the film--she calls him out for what he wants--a zoo specimen. On their honeymoon, after she makes it very clear she is repulsed by the thought of any man's touch, he rapes her. Screenwriter Evan Hunter expressed his disapproval of the scene (we see a closeup of a zombie-eyed Hedren while Connery has his way with her) and ending up getting fired. He was later told by the eventual writer, Jay Presson Allen, that the very reason Hitchcock wanted to make the film was that very scene.

Hunter thought Connery's character couldn't be redeemed after that, but by god he's wrong--Connery ends up trying to crack the childhood trauma that reduced Hedren to a frigid, thieving woman, and he succeeds, in a climax that is alternately thrilling and ridiculous. Part of the problem is that Hedren just doesn't have the chops for the role, and her regression into her five-year-old self is completely unconvincing. Another problem is that, like Spellbound and Psycho, the psychology is just too neat and tidy. In reality, the mind just isn't that cut and dried.

But on a technical basis, this is one of Hitchcock's most virtuosic films. Every camera angle, every cut, every lighting effect just seems perfect. I will add the caveat that we get a lot of Hitchcock's main flaw--his use of process and matte shots. There are some scenes, particularly of a fox hunt, and then of a painted backdrop suggesting a ship, that are eye-rollingly funny. But aside from those, the film bristles with visual energy. There's a spectacular sequence with Hedren robbing a safe, and we the audience can see that a cleaning lady has entered the office. It is there that Hitchcock proves that we will root for the lead character, even if she is committing a felony--we don't want her to get caught.

Hitchcock also borrows from himself (in a scene from Notorious) with a crane shot that takes place during a party. Instead of focusing on a key, this time he zooms in on the arrival of a guest who is the last person Marnie wants to see.

Some trivia: future well-known actors Mariette Hartley and Bruce Dern appears in small roles. Hitchcock's cameo appears early in the film, when he exits a hotel room. Hitchcock conceived the film as Grace Kelly's comeback role, but she dropped out when the people of Monaco objected, especially since she would be playing a sexually deviant kleptomaniac. Connery wanted the role because he didn't want to be typecast as James Bond.

So, like Vertigo, Hitchcock has shown us is dexterity as a filmmaker, but also a disturbing look at his particular sexual fantasies.

Sunday, September 07, 2014

Dress Her in Indigo

One of the best writers of detective fiction was John D. MacDonald, who wrote 21 novels concerning Travis McGee, a "salvage consultant" who lives on a houseboat in Florida. He is tall, good-looking, and has an insatiable need to know the truth. MacDonald, much like Raymond Chandler, wrote in a very literary style, but happened to wallow in the genre of pulp fiction. I believe I read the last of his McGee novels, The Lonely Silver Rain, when I was a teen, so the second of his books I've read is one from 1969, Dress Her in Indigo.

MacDonald, who was born in 1916, takes on hippie culture in the book. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he takes a clear-eyed look at it, noting it's problems (drugs, hygiene) and it's nobler intentions (personal freedom, a scorn of hypocrisy). The book is set largely in Mexico, where many young people went to find themselves. McGee is trying to find out what happened to the daughter of a friend, who drove off a road in Oaxaca, killing herself.

McGee, along with his ever-present friend Meyer, head to Mexico to nose around. Though MacDonald's prose is excellent, it does have the dated, 1960s Playboy attitude about women. McGee scores twice, once with a voracious older woman we would today stereotypically call a cougar, and then a luscious senorita. This allows MacDonald to frequently write detailed descriptions of how women look: "She stood without moving. It was a lithe and lovely back. Droplets of water stood on her back and shoulders. Crease down the soft brown back. Pale down, paler than her skin, heaviest near the vertical furrow. The bikini bottom came around her just a little above the widest part of her hips, leaving bare that lovely duplicated tender concavity of the girl-waist, leaving bare two dimples in the sun-honeyed brown, half a handspan apart, below the base of her spine." Concavity of the girl-waist!

Leaving aside those breathless moments of analysis of the female, the book hums along with sterling prose, as McGee navigates, with the assistance of Meyer and a local investigator, the world of counter-culture ex-pats. It turns out there are two crimes to solve, and I must admit feeling a little smug that I figured one out--anytime a body has to be identified by what someone was wearing I smell a rat. Still, we get back to a little misogyny when the climax of the book involves McGee beating up on an older, nude, lesbian woman.

But I had to marvel at some of the passages. The book is written in first person, with McGee narrating, and his conversations with Meyer are great fun. McGee tells Meyer at one point: "'Old friend, there are people--young and old--that I like, an people that I do not like. The former are always in short supply. I am turned off by humorless fanaticism, whether it's revolutionary mumbo-jumbo by a young one, or loud lessons from the scripture of an old one. We are all comical, touching, slapstick animals, walking on our hind legs, trying to make it a noble journey from womb to tomb, and the people who can't see it all that way bore hell out of me."

MacDonald, like Chandler, can come up with some wonderful similes: "Meyer shrugged, massively, slowly, expressively. He wore that inexpressibly mournful look of the giant anthropoid, of the ape who knows there is not one more plantain in the rain forest."

I think I'll try to read the entirety of the McGee series, at one book a year. That would make me 74 when I finish. A worthy goal.

Saturday, September 06, 2014

Moscow on the Hudson

Another Robin Williams movie that had somehow escaped my viewing was Moscow on the Hudson, which turns out to be a lovely, contemplative film from director Paul Mazursky, who also died this summer. It was Williams' first serious role, and while the film isn't exactly intense, it has a nice sense of place and a rich understanding of what it means to be an immigrant in America.

Williams stars as a saxophonist for a Russian circus. He is content with the miserable life in Soviet Russia (the movie is from 1984, pre-Perestroika), whether that means lining up to buy toilet paper or wondering if the KGB is going to take you away. His friend (Elia Baskin), a clown, tells Williams he's going to defect on their upcoming trip to New York.

Once in New York, Baskin chickens out, but Williams impulsively defects in Bloomingdale's. A security guard (Cleavant Derricks) takes him in, and he makes a friend with an Italian perfume saleswoman (Maria Conchita Alonso) and his immigration lawyer (Alejandro Rey). Mazursky does a nice job of showing what a diverse quilt New York is, and a scene when new citizens are sworn in should be shown to every nut that stands on the Mexican border with a gun.

While I enjoyed the film, it moves at a deliberate pace and once Williams gets established in New York it takes on a kind of fantasy approach, as he gets several different jobs (including a limo driver, which requires a license). The relationship with Alonso, which never quite clicks, dominates the second half of the film. However, after he is mugged, Williams wonders if he's really free.

This is how I liked Robin Williams--restrained. It is really a complex performance, and it's clear from this that he was an actor of some depth. If the world lost a clown with his passing, it is also lost a dramatic actor of great talent.

Friday, September 05, 2014

Popeye

The sad death of Robin Williams last month brought many encomiums about his comedic gifts. But I found his work as a serious actor more intriguing. I admired but did not love his zany persona on talk shows, etc., but in films that did not swerve into the mawkish (which they often did) I found his acting to be compelling, such as in his Oscar-winning role in Good Will Hunting.

There are a few significant films I hadn't seen, including his first major film role, as the title role in Robert Altman's 1980 film, Popeye. I had avoided this film for years, even though I've seen almost all of Altman's films. The negative reputation of this film is long-lasting--it is generally on a list of the most famous flops in history. Indeed, watching the film this viewer had the reaction--why?

In doing a little research I read that this film was an answer to the film version of Annie (also a flop), in that Paramount lost the rights to that Broadway show and looked for another comic strip to turn into a musical. But how they ended up with Robert Altman, famous for his naturalistic shaggy-dog stories, is a very good question.

Though I found Popeye to be tedious, incoherent, and an all-around drag, I do see what Altman was going for--a live-action cartoon. Whether this is a noble endeavor is another question. This kind of thing would be done much better (Who Framed Roger Rabbit?) and much worse (Scooby-Doo) but Altman had a vision, and he carried it out, but to less than pleasing results.

The story is pretty simple--Popeye rows into the port of Sweethaven which, in Jules Pfeiffer's script, is either a fascist dictatorship or a conservative nightmare (everything is taxed). The xenophobic citizens shun Popeye, but he does find a room at the Oyl's boarding house, where Olive (Shelley Duvall) is engaged to the town's bully, Bluto (Paul L. Smith). Popeye is looking for the father he abandoned years ago, and while with Olive one night, finds an infant in a basket, whom he names Swee'Pea.

The film, shot in Malta, has a wonderful production design, especially the rickety buildings of Sweethaven. The costumes replicate those of the cartoons, particularly the over-sized shoes, and Williams doesn't wear much facial makeup (he does squint to give that Popeye look) but does wear enormously padded forearms.

Popeye is a musical, and the songs were written by Harry Nilsson, and they are mostly pleasant but forgettable, except for Olive Oyl's "He Needs Me," which she sings when she realizes she's in love with Popeye.

Williams, who does seem the perfect choice, is curiously inhibited in the role, muttering most of his lines (as Popeye did in the cartoons), with most of the humor coming from his mispronunciation of words, mostly by adding a "K" (when he walks into a brothel, he ways, "Is this a house of ill repukes?"). There's none of the Williams improvisational genius on display, although Altman famously allowed his actors to improvise, so I don't know if Williams was handcuffed or not.

There has been some reappraisal of this film lately, wondering if it was unfairly judged. I say no. I was even let down by the ending, in which Popeye finally eats his spinach, but all he does is punches an octopus and Bluto swims away. Talk about a let-down.

Thursday, September 04, 2014

Iggy Pop

As I was driving through the beautiful Rocky Mountains, I wondered what the perfect music would be. Mozart? Vivaldi? Aaron Copland? Well, I didn't have those CDs on me. I listened to Nude and Rude: The Best of Iggy Pop.

Iggy Pop came late to me. He and his band The Stooges were one of the forerunners of the proto-punk movement, along with the MC5. Inspired by Jim Morrison, he did many outrageous things on stage, including rolling around on broken glass, vomiting, and masturbating. He was also the first rock singer to stage-dive.

The music was raw and heartfelt and dangerous. The first Stooges album is something of a classic of its kind. "I Wanna Be Your Dog" is the first of the chronologically-sequenced cuts on The Best of, and we also get songs like "I'm Sick of You" and "Nightclubbing," which despite it's jet-set title, sounds like a major drag (probably because of the drugs ingested).

But in the early '70s I was listening to top 40 radio, where Iggy Pop was definitely not played. To people who didn't know his stuff, he has ironically become a kind of cuddly figure, your punk great-uncle who somehow didn't die of heroin. Yeah, his stuff was never on commercial radio, but ended up being used in commercials. "Lust for Life" and "Real Wild Child" have been heard in advertisements, and "The Passenger" was featured in the film Up in the Air. At 67, Iggy Pop is now respectable.

I was interested to read about his association with David Bowie. Some of the big hits, including "Lust for Life," were co-written by Bowie, as was "China Girl," which Bowie later turned into a hit. The two seem very different and very similar at the same time. Both have that wavering kind of voice, and both have not shied away from androgyny. But Bowie always seemed unearthly (no wonder he was cast to play an alien) while Iggy is definitely of this Earth, a kid from Michigan who probably joined a band to pick up chicks.

"Lust for Life" has one of the best grooves ever put on vinyl, while "The Passenger" has a thoughtful lyric:

I am the passenger and I ride and I ride
I ride through the city's backsides
I see the stars come out of the sky
Yeah, the bright and hollow sky
You know it looks so good tonight

Of the stuff I was unfamiliar with, I particularly liked a recent Iggy song, "Candy," recorded in 1990 and featuring Kate Pierson on vocals.

So here's to Iggy Pop, born James Osterberg, a rock and roll legend and survivor. You made the Rockies even more interesting for me.


Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Death Rides a Horse

I end my Spaghetti Western festival with the one I think is the best of the lot--Death Rides a Horse, from 1967, directed by Giulio Petroni, very much in the style of Sergio Leone, even down to the close-ups of eyes.

The film is a tale of revenge, times two. We start with a gang massacring a family, leaving one survivor--a little boy, who grows up to be John Phillip Law, who spends fifteen years honing his skill as a gunfighter to get his revenge. We also see a prisoner (Lee Van Cleef) being released after fifteen years on a chain gang. He is also after revenge, from the men who set him up and betrayed him. Of course these two are after the same gang.

This is a wonderful film for those who love Western tropes, from shootouts in a dust storm to fast-draw contests to a man being buried up to his neck and left in the hot sun. The villains are oily (Anthony Dawson as a gambler is particularly repellent) and the good guys are true blue. Yes, Van Cleef is paying a good guy, sort of, and though he wants to get his revenge alone, he and Law come to a begrudging respect for each other.

Spaghetti Westerns didn't really change the Western, but they did take what was then a tired genre, which had been made so ubiquitous by TV, and re-invented it. They inspired today's filmmakers, most notably Quentin Tarantino, for good or for ill. But I must say, after seeing eight or nine of these films over the last few weeks I've had my fill for a long while.