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Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Ain't Them Bodies Saints

Ain't Them Bodies Saints is a typical American indie--bleak, about downtrodden people, with occasional bursts of violence just to keep us awake. It is visually poetic, and reminds one of Terence Malick, although that is a double-edged sword.

The film concerns a couple, played dourly by Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara. They are both some kind of criminals, and participate in a robbery or something (much of the action is off screen, either a cinematic technique or a nod to budget). They are holed up in a cabin in a shootout with police. Affleck's brother is killed, and Mara shoots a policeman (Ben Foster). Affleck says they will give up and he will take the heat for shooting the cop. Sure enough, he goes to jail, she is acquitted, and she promises to wait for him.

But he doesn't want to wait, and busts out of jail. As he makes his way back to her the authorities search for him while he relies on the kindness of strangers (sometimes at the end of a gun). He visits an old friend (Nate Parker) and then his father (Keith Carradine). Bounty hunters are chasing Affleck, leading to the inevitable shootout.

Ain't Them Bodies Saints is technically accomplished, with terrific photography by Bradford Young. I also liked the way it was edited, without bogging down in too much exposition. But it's so downbeat that I found myself restless, and the lead characters don't exhibit much in the way of a personality. Affleck is a little more animated, but Mara is a complete blank. Foster, not knowing she was the one who shot him, spends a lot of time with her and grows to love her, but it's not clear whether she reciprocates this in any way or is just using him or what.

The film was written and directed by David Lowery, and I would be interested in seeing what else he does. Ain't Them Bodies Saints shows promise, even if it isn't ultimately satisfying.

Monday, June 29, 2015


Euphoria, by Lily King, could have been called Young Anthropologists in Love. It takes place in New Guinea in the 1930s, with a love triangle erupting amongst a married couple and another man. It mixes the life of embedded scientists and a kind of torrid soap opera.

Of course, when one thinks of women anthropologists in the '30s, one thinks of Margaret Mead, who may be the only anthropologist that a person can come up with off the top of her head. Indeed, King has fictionalized her story, along with her husband, Reo Fortune, and the man she would later marry, Gregory Bateson. King focuses on the period when she is married to Fortune (here called Schuyler Fenwick) and studying a tribe called the Tam (all tribes in the novel are fictionalized) and Bateson (called Andrew Bankson) has fallen in love with Mean (known in the book as Nell Stone).

I suppose it was for legal reasons that King changed the names of her characters, or perhaps it was because she changed key details, but anyone can suss it out, especially since Nell is famous after writing a book about the sexuality of young South Sea island children (Mead wrote Coming of Age in Samoa). So once we get the past the roman a clef nature of the book, I wonder, is it worth reading?

To be sure the prose is quite good and it isn't often we read about anthropologists in the field. I was interested in how they live with the tribe--it's not a fly-by-night operation--they stay for months. I was interested to read: "Anthropology at that time was in transition, moving from the study of men dead and gone to the study of living people, and slowly letting go of the religious belief that the natural and inevitable culmination of every society is the Western model." On a more practical bent, we get: "There is no privacy through a mosquito net."

The novel is mostly narrated by the character of Bankson, scion of a British family, who can't quite understand Stone's Americaness, yet he falls for her. It's hard to wonder if this is because she is the only white woman he has seen for years. She falls for him, too, but it seems mostly due to the unstable nature of Fenwick, who runs off with a tribesman for Australia, only to return in disgrace.

Euphoria (the title is what Stone feels when she first finds herself beginning to understand a new tribe) is an intellectual's novel that tickles the romantic bone. It works better as the former than the latter, as it is more through provoking that emotionally engaging. I fancied sentences like this one: "When only one person is the expert on a particular people, do we learn more about the the people or the anthropologist when we read the analysis?" than the sexual passages that finally bubble up when Bankson and Stone get busy.

This book was named one of the Ten Best by the New York Times. I thought it was okay, but that distinction is a vast over-rating. I think I'd rather read a biography of Mead.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Inside Out

I saw Inside Out yesterday and I'm still not sure about it. I did like it a lot; it's got heart and it's clever, like almost all Pixar films do. But I guess I was a little let down because of all the proclamations of greatness it had. It's a good film, but it's nowhere near the best of Pixar.

It follows a certain Pixar pattern, which we English teachers call "personification"--giving objects or abstract ideas human qualities. They did it with toys, insects, fish, cars, and now with the emotions inside a little girl's head. Riley is a typical little girl who, like everyone, has a variety of emotions in her brain. They are given names and form--Joy is the dominant, who is responsible for her happiness. But there's also Sadness, Fear, Anger, and Disgust. They each have a say in how Riley conducts her day.

The film gets quite detailed, and judging by the occasionally academic language, complex about emotion and thought, such as a trip through the area of the brain concerning abstract thought. There is also much talk about memories, which here are represented by orbs that correspond to the colors of the little emotions in her head. Some are happy, some sad, etc. The brain itself is mostly long-term memory--shelves and shelves of these orbs, some of which become obsolete and are taken away (such as all the presidents--I still have that memory).

When Riley turns 11, she and her folks move to San Francisco. Joy is determined to keep her happy, but Sadness keeps getting in the way, and they somehow end up getting sucked out of headquarters and cast adrift the rest of the mind. This leaves the other three in control of Riley, and she becomes impossible for her parents to deal with. She tries out for a new hockey team and quits upon her first mistake, and lashes out at her parents.

Meanwhile, Joy and Sadness, along with a long-forgotten imaginary friend, try to get back to headquarters to right her, even as aspects of her personality are crumbling.

Inside Out does a very nice job of representing how the mind works (I was reminded, though, of the more ribald way this is done in Woody Allen's Everything You Always Wanted  to Know About Sex). It also carries an important message that without sadness, joy kind of loses it's meaning, as the juxtaposition of the two that makes life a balance.

However, as an adult, this movie was a kind of horror film. Maybe its because I was having a bad day but it made me review my own emotions and the result was not great. I think it's imperative that an adult see this on a day when they are already happy--the film won't make them so. Children will probably delight in the bright colors and slapstick, and perhaps identify with Riley, but adults may leave needing to make an appointment with their therapists.

Still, this is a superb bit of animation. The voice talent is top-notch, with Amy Poehler as Joy, in what is perhaps the best voice work I've seen (heard) since Robin Williams in Aladdin. Phyllis Smith, who heretofore was only known for being on The Office, is great as Sadness (I loved the touch that she wears a turtleneck sweater--perfect apparel for someone who is perpetually in the dumps). Lewis Black, so great when he has breakdowns in his stand-up act or on The Daily Show, was the perfect choice for anger (Sam Kinison, of course, would have been the ideal choice).

Inside Out keeps the great legacy of Pixar alive. But you might want to take a Xanax first.

My grade for Inside Out: B+.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Supreme Pleasure

Years from now, it won't be possible to discuss the advances in civil rights for blacks without mentioning Thurgood Marshall. Similarly, Ruth Bader Ginsburg is key to the history of women's rights. But though both of those individuals became Supreme Court justices, it was their work as litigators that gained them that legacy. When it comes to gay rights, it will be a 79-year-old conservative Catholic man, Anthony Kennedy, who will stand tall.

Today's decision in Obergefell v. Hodges is a landmark decision, right up there with Brown v. Board of Education and Roe v. Wade. It will make for sweeping changes in the law, though, as usual, the law is catching up to personal opinion. A gay couple can get married anywhere now, and to judge by personal opinion polls, nobody really cares. There is the specter of the "religious freedom" lawsuits, in which clerks can exercise their religious bigotry to refuse to perform ceremonies, but as long as Kennedy is on the court it is doubtful those will be upheld.

It's been a good week for liberal court-watchers. As noted earlier, the justices ruled that Texas (of all states) can refuse to put the Confederate flag on license plates. Yesterday, the court ruled that the typo in the Affordable Care Act (Seinfeld connoisseurs referred to this as the "moops" case) does not invalidate the law, all but ensuring it's continued existence for some time to come. Today is the cherry on top of the rainbow-colored sundae.

I've never quite understood the opposition to gay marriage. As far as I can see, the only objection is religious, with some bizarre notion that heterosexual marriage is threatened by same-sex marriage. This argument carries absolutely no water, as 36 states already were performing same-sex marriages and civilization did not crumble. Gays have been fucking each other for thousands of years, and heterosexual sex keeps chugging right along. Why the hubbub about whether that tasteful couple down the street are legally married or not?

But the hue and cry from the right today is delicious. There is a pastor who threatened (promised) to immolate himself should the ruling go against him--let me give him the first match. Glenn Beck promises another 10,000 are prepared to die. Are they going to advance on the Stonewall Inn with flamethrowers? I have news for those who think this is the end of times--life will go right on the same as always, only we are now institutionally more tolerant than we were yesterday. And tolerance is a good thing.

Kennedy, the savior of the gay rights movement, has now authored the four key decisions in the court's history on this subject. First came Romer v. Evans, which invalidated a law denying gay people the right to bring discrimination suits. Then came Lawrence v. Texas, which invalidated laws criminalizing gay sex. Last year the ante was upped when he wrote the decision in United States v. Windsor, which threw out the Defense of Marriage Act. Today he completes hitting for the cycle, and strangely becomes the most effective advocate for gay rights in the nation's history. Tear down the Jefferson Davis statues and replace them with Anthony Kennedy.

Of course I don't agree with Kennedy most of the time, but I've found him to be fair over his close to thirty year career. And in social cases, he bends to the left. In fact, according to a chart in the New York Times, this was the most liberal year in Supreme Court decisions since the flower-power days of 1969, when Brennan, Marshall, and Black basically ran the show.

There are still dark pockets on the court. Antonin Scalia has become something like an ogre, living in a cave and throwing out mean, spiteful decisions. His dissent in today's case is something of a temper tantrum. Oh, but to be a fly in the wall of the conference on this case. Did he threaten to hold his breath if he didn't get his way? "The opinion is couched in a style that is as pretentious as its content is egotistic. It is one thing for separate concurring or dissenting opinions to contain extravagances, even silly extravagances, of thought and expression; it is something else for the official opinion of the Court to do so. Of course the opinion’s showy profundities are often profoundly incoherent. “The nature of marriage is that, through its enduring bond, two persons together can find other freedoms, such as expression, intimacy, and spirituality.” (Really? Who ever thought that intimacy and spirituality [whatever that means] were freedoms? And if intimacy is, one would think Freedom of Intimacy is abridged rather than expanded by marriage. Ask the nearest hippie."

In the ACA dissent, Scalia brought up his "jiggery-pokery" legal theory. Really, the man has completed his transition from mere right-winger to something cooked in a cauldron in Rush Limbaugh's laboratory.

Contrast that hateful bit of sputum to Kennedy's decision, which closes with a paragraph that will be quoted for hundreds of years:

"No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right."

I'd rather live in Anthony Kennedys' America rather than Antonin Scalia's.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

What Maisie Knew

What Maisie Knew is a very sly film. This 2012 film, directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel, updates an 1897 novel by Henry James about a young girl torn between two awful parents, and the surrogates that hold her life together. I waited for most of the film for another shoe to drop, but when it was over I realized it didn't need that shoe--the unfolding story was enough.

Maisie, as played nicely by Onata Aprile, is caught in a custody battle. Her mother (Julianne Moore) is a hard-boiled rock singer, her dad (Steve Coogan) an easily distracted art dealer. The child lives in luxury, with a Scottish nanny (Joanna Vanderham) and seems perfectly well adjusted.

Her parents split, and a judge awards them equal custody. But both are so narcissistic that she is frequently left in the lurch, and in the care of Vanderham (who has married Coogan) and Moore's new husband, a kind bartender (Alexander Skarsgard). As her real parents spin off into a world of bitterness and neglect, her step-parents prove to be the rock she builds beneath her.

I liked the way film progresses in economic terms. There are no cliched courtroom scenes, and exposition is minimal, as the film asks us to keep up. For example, Vanderham has moved in with Coogan before we've even realized it--no big scene to set it up. Moore retaliates by marrying Skarsgard, but this is also done off-screen. In a way, it contributes to the parents' characters' compulsive behavior.

The other shoe, so to speak, may not surprise some, but I'll withhold it here. This leads to a sunny ending, which might be too optimistic. That leads me to criticizing the characterization of Maisie--the child is eternally upbeat, without ever having a tantrum or seeming unhappy for too long. From what I've seen of six-year-olds, she's too good to be true, as are Vanderham and Skarsgard.

But as for Moore and Coogan, they give deliciously cruel performances. I don't know any actress who has a way with a line like Moore. She often plays good-hearted people, but give her a chance to play a bitch and she's damn good. I very much like Coogan as an actor. His best moment is when he's got Maisie and proposes to take her to England with him. As he explains it to her, he realizes it's not the best for her and withdraws it, and the pain in his face is lovely.

What Maisie Knew is a film about a child for grown-ups, and what it lacks for in scenery-chewing moments it makes up for in subtle, accomplished acting and filmmaking.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The Year's Best Dark Fantasy & Horror 2014

This is my first time reading a volume of The Year's Best Dark Fantasy & Horror and I'm hooked. Editor Paula Guran has assembled several spooky tales from across the span of the genre--whether it be ghost stories, vampires, werewolves, or sword-and-sorcery fantasy, this collection has it. While some of the stories are just okay, more than enough of them were terrific.

Possibly the most horrific story is "Blue Amber," by David J. Schow, which starts when police are called to investigate a human skin attached to a barbed-wire fence. They find themselves confronted by body-snatching insectoid beings. It reads like an episode of The Outer Limits, and it's not a coincidence, as Schow has written a book about that show. "In the movies, monsters who upset the status quo were always defeated by something ordinary and obvious, usually discovered by accident--seawater, dog whistles, paprika, Slim Whitman music. In movies, the salvational curative was always set up in the first act as a throwaway, sure to encore later with deeper meaning."

Another of my favorites is "Phosphorous" by Veronica Schanoes, about a nineteenth-century girl working in match factory. It's based on history--these girls frequently came down with cancer of the jaw. The girl in this story is helped by Irish grandmother, who has some magic that may reverse the sickness. For you werewolf fans, I highly recommend "To Die for Moonlight," by Sarah Monette, in which a librarian finds himself in a household with a family of the "cursed." Monette knows how to write an opening sentence: "I cut her head off before I buried her." Who can resist continuing to read a story that starts like that?

A story that will be popular with old film buffs is "The Creature Recants," which is a very clever piece that imagines that the star of The Creature from the Black Lagoon was an actual fish-man caught in the Amazon, not a guy in a rubber suit: "To think, he'd once been the king of his little world--the vast, dark lagoon, overhung with the boughs of enormous trees, and the mighty Amazon itself, where anacondas slithered through the algae-clotted water, caiman slid into the flood without a splash, their tails lashing, and catfish the size of Chevrolets trolled the mossy bottom...And here he was in Southern California instead, spending his days in waist-deep water and sleeping his nights in an oversized bathtub in a crummy apartment." The creature will end up falling in love with his co-star, Julie Adams, and taking career advice from Boris Karloff. It's my favorite in the book.

For mystery lovers there's "The Gruesome Affair of the Electric Blue Lightning (From the Files of Auguste Dupin)." Yes, this is a pastiche of Edgar Allan Poe's Dupin character. I've read many of these using Sherlock Holmes, but this story by Joe R. Lansdale is the first of this type that I've come across. As with "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," it deals with a simian, and a real-life scientist who lived in the Castle Frankenstein.

I've got two candidates for the creepiest story of the collection. One is "Event Horizon," by Sunny Moraine, which deals with some kids and a house that eats things. The other is "Dark Gardens," by Greg Kurzawa, a very chilling story about a man who moves into a dead magician's house and finds strange things, including an underwater cavern underneath the house. I'm not sure what was going on here--a lot of it involved mannequins, but I found myself spooked by it.

There are many other good stories, and just a few clunkers that I won't bother mentioning. For fans of this type of story, it's a great source of thrills and chills.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl was the big winner at this year's Sundance Film Festival, nabbing both the Grand Prize and the Audience Prize. Indeed, there is a lot to like about it and I give it a solid thumbs up. I just didn't like it as much as I wanted to.

I think the problem lies in the direction, by Alfonso Gomez-Ramon. He tries almost every directorial trick in the book, ranging from animation to tilting the camera sideways to whirling the camera 360 degrees to making images out of focus. The script, by Jesse Andrews based on his novel, is a winner, but Gomez-Ramon doesn't seem to trust it. It's as if he's looking over his shoulder at the audience, willing us to like the film (and him).

The story concerns a high-school senior (Thomas Mann) whose strategy for surviving is to get along with all groups but not belong to any single group, thus remaining as invisible as possible. He also avoids the cafeteria, depicted as a jungle of sorts, and instead eats lunch in his history teacher's office with his best friend, Earl (RJ Cyler). But he doesn't call Earl his friend, he refers to him as a "co-worker." Earl explains this later in the film, while both boys are high.

The plot is moved forward rather dubiously when a girl in Mann's school (Olivia Cooke) is diagnosed with leukemia. Mann's mother (Connie Britton) forces him to go over to her house to hang out with her. Now, without this there's no movie, but I wonder at the whole thing, since Cooke is a girl who has friends and shouldn't need just about strangers to come hang out with her.

A friendship forms between the two, and meanwhile she is shown the films that Mann and Cyler make. They remake classic films in a very stupid way, and snippets of these films are used as transitions, and are often quite funny (I laughed out loud seeing Cyler in a cowboy hat in "2:48 Cowboy.") A classmate that Mann has a crush on asks him to make a film for Cooke.

The characters here are all very likable. I include Nick Offerman as Mann's father, who is a college professor that doesn't seem to teach any classes. He is always in a bathrobe, introducing the boys to exotic foods, like cuttlefish and andouille rabbit sausage. Almost everything Cyler says is funny, although at times, since he is an inner-city black kid, he's kind of treated like the exotic other.

But the film just tries too hard. There's a shot late in the film in which Mann is in Cooke's room, and it is milked for every maudlin moment that it can get. Though the boys' movies are funny, at times they weigh things down, and when we finally see the movie made for Cooke, it isn't all that great (this is a common problem in films or plays--when someone is creating something, it often is no great shakes, which lets down the whole enterprise).

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl has a lot of heart, and is often laugh-out-loud funny. But it's not the great film that some are heralding it as.

My grade for Me and Earl and the Dying Girl: B.

Monday, June 22, 2015

George Harrison: Living in the Material World

George Harrison was know as the "Quiet Beatle," and later he would be well known for his spiritualism, especially with Indian religions. But he was always behind John Lennon and Paul McCartney in terms of attention, and while Ringo played something of the clown, George's humor was keen and dry--just not terribly noticed.

In 2011, Martin Scorsese made George Harrison: Living in the Material World, a three-hour plus documentary that gives George his due. There are assembled all of the key people in George's life, starting with his two brothers, then Paul and Ringo, and musicians he has befriended and played with over the years, such as Eric Clapton and Tom Petty.

I happen to be reading a very long history of The Beatles now, so some of this information overlapped. John and Paul were looking for a guitarist for the band. Paul knew George, and took him to meet John, and that was it. At the time George was younger than those two, and looked even younger than that, with a great quiff of hair.

The film moves over the early years rather quickly. They played in Hamburg, got a record deal, and when their new producer George Martin asked the boys if there was anything they didn't like, George said, "Well, for a start I don't like your tie."

John and Paul were the writers, though, and George was lucky to get one song an album. He started to expand, especially when he began studying Indian mysticism. He learned sitar from Ravi Shankar, and then he and The Beatles visited the Maharishi in Indian (during that trip, their manager Brian Epstein died, which to George was some kind of sign). George would also get involved with Hare Krishna, but never to the extent of shaving his head and wearing robes. He did get a song of theirs on the pop charts.

It was at this time the strain was breaking The Beatles apart. George's talents as a songwriter were now blooming--"Something" was the first of his songs to be released as a single, and "Here Comes the Sun" remains one of their best songs, period. He had a backlog of songs.

The Beatles did go their separate ways, and George had some success as a solo artist, with albums like All Things Must Pass, and then a benefit--The Concert for Bangladesh, which won a Grammy for best album. He had stopped playing sitar, and returned to his roots as a rock singer.

The film covers, in agonizing detail, the break up of his marriage to Pattie Boyd, who then married Clapton. He describes how he had to tell his friend, "I've fallen in love with your wife." There is no mention whatsoever, though, of the lawsuit about "My Sweet Lord," which had the same melody as an earlier hit, "She's So Fine." I remember at the time that George told the court that neither he nor any of The Beatles knew how to read music.

There's a lot of great stuff here. George lived in a big old mansion called Friar Park, and his later years devoted hours and hours to gardening and planting trees. His second wife Olivia and son Dhani are interviewed (Olivia is a co-producer), and she tells the horrifying story of the man who broke into their house and attacked them.

There is also a lot of footage I've never seen before, including film of The Beatles, pre-Ringo. I was fascinated by a film clip of George and John on some British TV show discussing religion with a bunch of academics--John looks like he'd rather be anywhere else, but George takes them on.

In later years, George had numerous interests, including car racing (Jackie Stewart was a good friend), films (he mortgaged his house to fund the Monty Python lads for their film Life of Brian) and even had a bit of a comeback with the super-group Traveling Wilburys. But what comes across most is that he was a kind soul (but he did have a lot of anger, which is pointed out by many). Ringo tells the story that he visited him in Switzerland when George was on his deathbed, hardly able to do anything but lay in bed. Ringo had to go to Boston, where his own daughter was being treated for a brain tumor. "You want me to go with you?" he asked Ringo. Ringo has to wipe away a tear at remembering this, and says, "What is this, Barbara fucking Walters?"

This film is a must for any Beatles fan, as it gives the Quiet Beatle his due.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Terrorism in Charleston

The murders of nine people in a Charleston, South Carolina church are heartbreaking. But as soon as I heard the news this week, I couldn't help but wonder: how will Fox News spin this? And, true to form, the story here has become as much about the reaction to the crime as the crime itself.

Dylann Roof, a 21-year-old white supremacist and all-around loser, stepped into the Emanuel A.M.E. church. He sat for about an hour, listening and even participating in a Bible study group. He is said to have almost left, since the people there were so nice to him. But still, he took out his gun and said, "I have to do it. You rape our women and you're taking over our country. And you have to go." He then shot and killed nine people, all African Americans, including the pastor Clementa Pinckney, also a South Carolina state senator.

This is all terrible, and anyone with a heart feels it breaking. Not only must we hear about mass shootings on a regular basis, but we still have to put it up with this vicious kind of racism. And there is no doubt about it, this crime was racially motivated.

But the first reaction was that it was not a hate crime. Steve Doocy, host of Fox & Friends, was amazed that anyone could consider it a racist act, instead spinning it that it was a crime against Christianity. I have to stop and wonder if Doocy really thinks something so bizarre, or whether he, a good puppet, simply follows the marching orders of the brain trust at Fox. The mission over there at Bullshit Mountain (credit to Jon Stewart) seems to be that there is no more racism in this country. Tie this in with the epidemic of policemen shooting unarmed black people, and Fox is busy trying to sweep it under the rug.

In fact, I could build a case that Fox News and it's ilk caused this crime. Dylann Roof was not spawned in a vacuum. He has been seen in pictures wearing badges from apartheid South African and Rhodesia (his website is called "The Last Rhodesian"). In the picture above, he waves a Confederate flag. He hated integration, and wanted a civil war: "I have no choice. I am not in the position to, alone, go into the ghetto and fight. I chose Charleston because it is most historic city in my state, and at one time had the highest ratio of blacks to Whites in the country. We have no skinheads, no real KKK, no one doing anything but talking on the internet. Well someone has to have the bravery to take it to the real world, and I guess that has to be me."

Other reactions have been just as heartless or bizarre. Rick Perry initially called it an accident--oops! My gun went off during Bible study and I'm sorry! (Roof reloaded five times). Others, like Mike Huckabee, have taken the stance that if everybody was armed, this wouldn't have happened. This, even though study after study (and common sense) tells us that if you remove one gun, less crime would happen than giving out a thousand. Perhaps the most despicable response (among many) was NRA board member Charles Cotton's, who basically said that Pinckney got what was coming to him for supporting gun-free zones like churches. I wish nothing but horrible things on Mr. Cotton.

I doubt Roof would be considered insane--he was raised and formed his views in a culture that still harbors racism. And the symbol of that racism is the Confederate flag. While South Carolina governor Nikki Haley was talking about coming together and healing, not only will she address gun laws, but she will not do anything about the Confederate flag that flies near the state capitol. This issue causes a lot of grief; I wrote it about it back when and don't want to get back into it now, but I feel certain that anyone who displays a Confederate flag is not a fan of black people, and would like to live in an antebellum world.

There has also been a fuss about whether there is terrorism or not. Of course it is. We seem to have come to view terrorism as something only capable of being perpetrated by Muslims, or foreigners, or anyone other than white Americans. Timothy McVeigh was a terrorist. So was Eric Rudolph. So is Dylann Roof. Terrorism is defined as a violent act intended to instigate fear for ideological reasons. Roof wanted to start a civil war--how clearer could his ideology be? Instead, conservative talk-show hosts get all defensive, with Bill O'Reilly saying we shouldn't use this occasion to malign the country. What the fuck are you talking about? Going around with blinders on, about racism and about guns, is only getting people killed.

At least this horrible event may have some good--there are cracks in the Confederate flag support. The Republican presidential candidates ran scared, saying it should be up to South Carolina without answering the question (to his credit, Jeb Bush did have it removed from the Florida statehouse). Lindsey Graham, a South Carolinian, says the flag is "who we are," which I suspect would be denied by the vast majority of South Carolinians. To my great surprise, it was Mitt Romney (who no longer is running for anything, mind you) that stepped up and called for the flag's removal. A Republican legislator in South Carolina has introduced a bill to have it removed, and it should be heard right around the South Carolina primary. In a coincidence, the Supreme Court ruled that the state of Texas does not have to put the flag's image on state-issued license plates, despite the wishes of racist citizens.

There is also an effort afoot to have a Confederate-flag burning day. I don't feel that's necessary and I wouldn't want to take part in it, But I kind of want to see the reaction of the troglodytes who sport this flag, and the cowardly politicians who look the other way while it flies.

Saturday, June 20, 2015


Today is the 40th anniversary of the release of Jaws, which, in addition to being one of the greatest adventure films of all time, is also a watershed film in the history of the business, being the first summer "blockbuster" and changing the way films are distributed. It also made the career of a fellow named Steven Spielberg.

My memories of Jaws are vivid. I am old enough to not only have seen it in its first release, I read the book first. I was fourteen when I saw it, when my dad took me. I was a little nervous, as there had been tales about the gruesomeness of it all. I do remember my stomach gurgling a little bit when Quint gets chomped, but managed to hang on to my lunch.

Even at that age I was a critic, and I remember writing a review of the film for a school class (some time later, since I did see the film in summer). I remember that I noticed how well they made changes to the book, which was really a potboiler (it's very similar to what Francis Coppola did with a bad book in The Godfather). The subplot of Hooper having an affair with Mrs. Brody, and the compression of time in the last act--in the book, the hunters return each night to the island, but in the film, they stay out there for the duration--made the film much more thrilling and gave the characters a desperation that is palpable.

The stories about the making of Jaws are legion. The Wikipedia entry is fascinating--Spielberg was thinking about doing Lucky Lady instead of Jaws (a dodged bullet if there ever was one) and actors like Robert Duvall and Lee Marvin passed. Charlton Heston was interested in playing Brody. When you read casting history like this for any film that turns out to be a classic you wonder if there's just a little stardust being sprinkled, because Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, and Richard Dreyfuss are perfect. I wonder if Dreyfuss basically invented the nerdy scientist's beard--it's the same beard that Paul Giamatti wears in San Andreas.

The most famous story is about the trouble with the animatronic sharks. They were another gift from the movie gods, as out of necessity Spielberg had to make do with the suggestion of the shark, a la Val Lewton and Cat People. This was enormously helped by John Williams' score, based on two notes that sound like a heartbeat (the shark's, or our trembling hearts?) That music, plus a shadow, or, at the end of the film, ominous yellow barrels, put the image of the shark in our heads. The fish himself only gets a few close-ups, including his famous debut, which prompts Scheider to utter the great line (supposedly ad-libbed) "You're going to need a bigger boat."

Another great speech is that of Shaw's as Quint recalling his experiences after the sinking of the U.S.S. Indianapolis, during which hundreds of seamen were killed by sharks. Carl Gottlieb, the ostensible writer of Jaws, gives most of the credit to Shaw, who was also a playwright, although John Milius takes some credit. This speech, along with the note-perfect second act, gives the film a Melville or Hemingway feel--man against nature, the leviathan, the perfect eating machine.

It's amazing to read that before Jaws, summer was the dumping ground for films. It was the first summer blockbuster. For example, The Godfather was released in March. But Jaws changed the game plan, altering the studio's way of thinking. Jaws, along with Star Wars, has left a bitter taste in many cineaste's minds, who bemoan that these good films gave way to a bean-counting culture in Hollywood that is more about making loads of money than actually making good films. In the following years, box office results would be published in papers other than Variety, and these totals were like the sports pages, removed from the quality of the film.

Jaws also changed marketing, as it had an extensive TV push and various tie-ins. It was released on 450 screens, a phenomenal amount for 1975. Before then, wide releases were usually for marginal-quality films, but Universal instead put it everywhere, upending the "road show" model that most prestigious pictures used.

The legacies of Jaws are many, and a mixed bag. It spawned some horrible sequels, for one. But who could have known that it would launch Spielberg to a status that no one in Hollywood had had before--the talent that ended up calling the shots. His great talent was evident then. He had made one release, The Sugarland Express, and a well-regarded TV film, Duel (he had also done some TV, notably an episode of Night Gallery). After Jaws, not only was his ticket punched, the keys to Hollywood were practically handed to him. But what was evident about Spielberg then, and still today (mostly) is his ability to tell a story on screen. His temptation to go sentimental was not yet on display in 1975, a plus (the fact that Matt Hooper survives was due to some stock footage shot of real sharks, not a dispensation for saving him).

After last night's viewing, I've now seen Jaws five or six times, and it holds up beautifully each time. It does truly seem to be a film that, like Casablanca, just fell together out of chaos to form a magical entity. Perhaps the most significant shot in the film in this regard is the two-shot of Scheider and Dreyfuss on the Orca, at night, as a meteor passes behind them. This was not a special effect--it was an actual heavenly body, coincidentally caught on film. What could auger better?

Friday, June 19, 2015

Treme, Season 2

I very much enjoy the HBO series Treme, having just finished the second season (I watch on DVD). What makes the series work is the very New Orleans-like way it has with its characters--a little slow (it's hot down there) with an emphasis on food and music.

The show, created by David Simon, was prompted by the city's devastation following Hurricane Katrina. The first season immediately followed the storm. This one starts 14 months after the storm, but there is still rebuilding, there are still damaged lives and open wounds. But through it all, there is an inherent optimism, fueled by a brotherhood that is mostly tied together by music.

There is a lot of music in the series. Not only do many jazz greats appear and play themselves, but other musicians, such as Shawn Colvin, John Prine, and Lucinda Williams make appearances. Two of the major plot threads are main characters starting bands, to mostly disappointing results.

One of them is Antoine Batiste and His Soul Apostles. Batiste (a great Wendell Pierce) is a trombone-player with a wife who wants him to get a steady job. He would rather start his own band, but finds it a constant challenge to keep things together, as musicians have other gigs and egos. He reluctantly takes a job as an assistant band leader at a high school, and ends up finding more satisfaction with young people.

The other band is The Brassy Knoll, a band started by the unsinkable DJ Davis. As with last season, Davis (Steve Zahn) keeps getting fired from his job at the radio station. He enlists his aunt (Elizabeth Ashley) to put up money for a record label. He assembles a great band, but finds that he's being squeezed out. He ends his days with the band by wearing the uniform of a typical white man (with sweater tied around his shoulder) singing "Sex Machine."

Other, more serious plot threads make up the rope of the show. LaDonna (Khandi Alexander), who stubbornly holds on to her family's bar, is attacked and raped. Toni (Melissa Leo) tries to recover from her husband's suicide, and deals with another case of New Orleans police malpractice--this time, did they shoot not one but two looters dead?

But the music can't be kept down. Delmond Lambreaux (Rob Brown), a son of New Orleans but a New York resident, is drawn back to the music of his roots, gets fascinated by early jazz and wants to cut a record mixing modern jazz with the New Orleans sound. He enlists many musicians (the real Dr. John and Ron Carter, for two) and his stubborn father (Clarke Peters) to lead traditional Indian chants.

As for food, we follow the story of Janette (Kim Dickens), whom last we saw leaving New Orleans, her restaurant padlocked. She's taken a job at a fancy restaurant in New York, but ends up throwing a drink in the face of the real-life food critic Alan Richman (a good sport). She lands on her feet, and what we could see all along seems to be happening--she'll come back to New Orleans. Apparently, once you live there it has a hold on you.

Many other people play themselves, including for New Orleans city councilman Oliver Thomas. In an extraordinary example of self-effacement, Thomas plays himself, who really did have to resign in disgrace for taking bribes. This is all part of a storyline involving Nelson (Jon Seda), a Dallas businessman who tries to take advantage of the storm to make money. He's a distasteful character and I'm happy to report he gets his.

Treme is exuberantly filmed television. Many first-rate film directors, such as Tim Robbins, Ernest Dickerson, and Agnieszka Holland helm episodes. The pacing is perfect, the acting top notch. At times it drifts into soap opera land, but that is not always a pejorative--these are characters we care about and root for (except for Seda's). I will definitely finish this series to its conclusion.

Thursday, June 18, 2015


What to make of Margaret, Kenneth Lonergan's wandering epic about a high-school girl? The film was shot in 2007, and not released until 2011, in the meantime having several cuts and instigating several lawsuits.

The DVD version I saw was 150 minutes, a long film, but there is a longer, 186-minute cut that I'm wondering might make the film better, if at least more comprehensible. It's at time brilliant, at times maddening, but never dull.

Anna Paquin stars as Lisa Cohen, a privileged white Jewish kid (in her own words) attending a private school on the Upper West Side. Her mother (J. Smith Cameron) is an actress in a Broadway play. The thread holding the long film together is a bus accident. Lisa, shopping for a cowboy hat, spots a bus driver (Mark Ruffalo) with just such a hat. She tries to get his attention, distracting him long enough to run a red light and hit a woman (Allison Janney), severing her leg and killing her.

Paquin tells the police that the light was green, but is tormented by guilt, and retracts her statement. She enlists Janney's friend (Jeannie Berlin) to try to sue the bus company, mostly to get Ruffalo fired. During all this, we see Paquin's struggles with her mother, who is dating a new guy (Jean Reno), and her strong opinions in school, particularly arguing with a girl of Syrian heritage about terrorism.

After watching the film, I felt like I had gotten a crash course on what it's like to live with a teenage girl. I have two sisters, so I remember some of it, but this was intense. Paquin's character is so obnoxious that at times you just want to throttle her. The naivete and idealism of teenagers (I remember it well) is on full display, and the fights with her mother are a good advertisement for birth control.

But at times the film settles into a rapturous joy, mostly the shots of New York City used as interstitial moments. I particularly liked shots of nighttime traffic, or of St. Patrick's cathedral reflected in a high rise. It's as if Lonergan is pulling back from this melodrama to remind us that there's a lot more going on in the world, and that Paquin's character is too myopic. She repeatedly tells her mother she doesn't care about anything, because there's too much suffering in the world. Berlin will later throw these words back in her face, telling her she can't go to pieces every time a dog dies.

The more I think about it, Margaret is really about the eternal battle between old and young. We get some scenes of Matthew Broderick as an English teacher telling a student flatly that he is wrong about a passage of Shakespeare's. Another student says that the world would be better if it were run by teenagers. At times Lonergan seems be saying that wisdom isn't all that it's cracked up to be, but then reverses himself: Paquin maintains that she does not like opera, but the film ends with her in tears at a production of The Tales of Hoffmann.

Paquin is magnetic in the film, playing a character you wouldn't want to really be around but still holds the film together magnificently. There is some evidence of  strange editing: two boys that Paquin is involved in disappear halfway through the film) and as I said, there might be more explanation of why she does the thing she does in a longer cut.

The title, by the way, comes from a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins, recited by Broderick. Naming things by such obscure references is a theatre kind of thing, and this one could stand another title. Once I knew the main character's name was not Margaret I kept waiting for an explanation of why it was called Margaret. It's a tad pretentious.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

It's the sesquicentennial of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, one of the most marvelous books ever published, and one that almost everyone knows. As Anthony Lane pointed out in his New Yorker article, at one time everyone had read it, and if they had any books in their house, Alice was one of them. Now perhaps people haven't actually read it, or not all of it, but so many aspects of it are embedded in our culture that we think we've read it.

I've read it many times. The blanket title for the two books about Alice that Lewis Carroll (Charles Dodgson) wrote is Alice in Wonderland, but there is no book with that title. The first book, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, sprung from a tale he wrote for a young friend, Alice's Adventures Underground. The story goes that he made it up as he and Alice Liddell and her two sisters punted down a river in 1863 (the same week the battle of Gettsyburg was bought). He then published it a book two years later, and three years after that, Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There, was published.

Today Alice is largely looked at as a children's book, but it has also been analyzed and interpreted in many ways--Freudian, Marxist, what have you. Of course, Carroll's intense fascination, whether sexual or not, with prepubescent girls has also fueled the scholarly discussion. Beyond all that, though, the book is both a simple pleasure and incredibly complex, full of puns, riddles, and poems that delight the senses.

Since there are two books, it may be helpful to delineate what's what. In Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, we have Alice going down the rabbit hole (a phrase that has come to mean entering a fantastic or, conversely, an unpleasant world). She meets the White Rabbit, the hookah-smoking caterpillar, the Cheshire Cat, and attends the Mad Tea Party. For the first half of the book, she is constantly adjusting her size, eating and drinking things that make her too large or too small. This could be interpreted as a girl's adjustments to the changes in her body.

What she wants to be is the right size to enter a garden, which could be another metaphor, especially for growing up or, if you want to take it further, sexuality. When she finally enters the garden, she finds the tea party, hears the tale of the Mock Turtle, dances the Lobster Quadrille, and later plays croquet with a pack of playing cards, led by the Queen, who's standard declaration to anything that disturbs her is, "Off with his (or her) head!"

Finally, Alice attends the trial of the knave of hearts for stealing some tarts, a trial that makes much mockery of the legal system. Finally Alice awakes for her dream, as she has fallen asleep on her outing by the river.

The Looking Glass is a better book, I think: It contains The Walrus and the Carpenter, Jabberwocky, Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum, and Humpty Dumpty. But I'll restrict this post to the first book, as it is the one I am celebrating.

"Curiouser and curiouser!" Alice says early on. Indeed, the book is a fantastic bit of whimsy and nonsense. She also says, in an early bit of meta, "There ought to be a book written about me." But what is the hold this book has had on us for 150 years? I find it to be full of details that provide stimulation to the senses. To me, the tea party is the central part of the book. It is a dizzying array of puns and circuitous language.

"'Have some wine," the March Hare said in an encouraging tone.

"Alice looked all round the table, but there was nothing on it but tea. 'I don't see any wine,' she remarked.'

"'There isn't any,' said the March Hare.'"

Later, the Mad Hatter lays down a riddle. "Why is a raven like a writing desk?" (One of my favorite literary phrases of all the time; it might make a perfect epitaph for me). Alice later asks him what the answer is

"'I haven't the slightest idea,' said the Hatter.

"'Nor I,' said the March Hare.

"Alice sighed wearily. 'I think you might do something better with the time,' she said, 'than waste it in asking riddles that have no answers.'" As you may see, there are those who think there are political allegories all through the work.

There are also some wonderful by groan-worthy puns. "'That's the reason they're called lessons,' the Gryphon remarked, 'because they lessen from day to day.' or, "The Mock Turtle said, 'no wise fish would go anywhere without a porpoise."' Groan.

The book has had an astounding legacy. It has been made into many films and been part of many others. It had a strong influence on rock music in the 1960s--one of its greatest fans was John Lennon, and many songs, most prevalently Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit," were influenced by it. The rock singers of the '60s saw the hallucinogenic quality of it, which Lewis Carroll couldn't have imagined, but a hookah-smoking caterpillar and a bottle that says "Drink Me" were catnip to the LSD generation.

Being as Dodgson was a mathematician, there are also sorts of arithmetical bits in the book, such as during the tea party we get the logical notions about inverse and converse equations.

Lastly I'd like to discuss the illustrations. There have been many editions of Alice, with many different illustrators. But none have improved upon the originals by John Tenniel, which to my mind are a large part of the appeal of the book. None beats the Jabberwock, a monster in a cardigan, but that is in Through the Looking Glass. In this book, perhaps the best illustration is the Duchess, the incredibly ugly woman holding a baby that turns out to be a pig. Tenniel had an influence on the writing. Carroll wrote a section about a wasp in a wig, but Tenniel said he could not draw such a thing, so out it went.

If I were playing Desert Island Books, the Alice books would be part of them, as they can be read an infinite amount of times with the similar enjoyment on each occasion. It's hard to imagine a world without them now.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

San Andreas

San Andreas is a film about how to repair your marriage through the use of a major catastrophe. It also is one of those movies that implies the deaths of thousands of people in a kind of awe-struck way, what I guess you could call mass-destruction porn.

Named after the fault that runs up the spine of California, San Adreas hearkens back to the disaster movies of yore. But in a switch, unlike the Irwin Allen films of the '70s (including Earthquake), San Andreas does not have a large, all-star cast, with one of those posters with small photos of all the recognizable actors. Those films jumped from actor to actor--one may be stuck in an elevator, or one may be incinerated while having an affair. Instead, San Andreas basically focuses on only three characters.

Dwayne Johnson is the big name here, as it were. He is a super-duper rescue helicopter pilot for the L.A. fire department. In a prologue, we see him and his team rescue a young woman from a a car teetering on the edge of an abyss. Forget about the team, though, as when the "big one" hits he completely abdicates his duties to the citizens of Los Angeles to save his ex-wife and daughter.

Before that though, we get Paul Giamatti as a seismologist who is developing a way to predict earthquakes. He happens to be right on top of Hoover Dam when an earthquake rocks it. In films, disasters like this only happen at recognizable landmarks. Giamatti has the sad task of giving us all the scientific info in grave tones, including, in a warning to San Franciscans, "God help you all." How he was able to give his lines without laughing is testament to his talent.

So we see L.A. destroyed, and Johnson (and his biceps) rescue his estranged wife (Carla Gugino). She's now living with an architect (Ioan Ruffud) who is building the tallest building in San Francisco (foreshadowing!) Johnson's daughter (played by Alexandra Daddario and her spectacular breasts) is up in Frisco when she's trapped in parking garage. Her would-be step-father abandons her, but a plucky young Englishman and his even pluckier kid brother rescue her, and try to get to high ground.

Meanwhile, Johnson and Gugino play a game of planes, trains, and automobiles getting from L.A. to San Francisco. This is all intertwined with some pretty great special effects of buildings crumbling, a cargo ship crashing into the Golden Gate Bridge, and the TransAmerica building falling over. (where's the shot of Alcatraz dissolving to dust?) I read an article on how scientifically accurate San Andreas is, and of course, not much. There is no concession to the way buildings are built in California now--they wouldn't topple like houses of cards. Also, an earthquake along the San Andreas would not cause a tsunami because it is not underneath the water.

San Andreas is pretty dumb but fun, as long as you view it in the right circumstances. My girlfriend and her son enjoyed it, and I got into it, identifying all the cliches that abound (Johnson and Gugino had another daughter who drowned--foreshadowing!). Johnson may not be suited for Shakespeare, but he is perfect for lines like, "Let's go get our daughter."

My grade for San Andreas: C.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Cinema Verite

Forty years before The Real Housewives of Atlanta was An American Family, which aired on PBS in 12 installments in 1973. The brainchild of Craig Gilbert, who had made a film about anthropologist Margaret Mead, he thought that the typical American family would be just as interesting as Samoans.

The resulting film about the Loud family was a media sensation. The family, whose almost every waking movie was filmed by a camera crew, were criticized and pilloried. The film captured the end of the marriage between Pat and her philandering husband, Bill, and their eldest son Lance was the first openly gay person on television.

Sharon Springer and Robert Pulcini, who made the very good American Splendor before succumbing to hack work in things like The Nanny Diaries, tell this story in the 2011 HBO film Cinema Verite. It's pretty good, but I think just skims the surface of the impact the film had on the family and the country.

Diane Lane is the star as Pat, and she's very good, with Tim Robbins as the oily Bill. They had five kids, and the part where they accept Gilbert's offer (he's played by an overly hirsute James Gandolfini) is done quickly--I can't imagine how a sixteen or seventeen-year-old would agree to this, as at that age privacy is sacrosanct. They are not paid, and the proposal is pitched as something historical. But it's clear that Robbins accepts because of his ego--why else would a man managing several affairs invite a camera crew into his house?

I haven't seen An American Family--apparently it's not easy to find--but we see several bits of it with the actual Loud family. It is amazing how people let their guard down and forget they have a camera pointed at them. But while shows like The Bachelor and The Jersey Shore are incredibly manipulated, An American Family was not--largely. But the ethics of the whole thing is brought into question. Gandolfini falls a little bit in love with Lane, and tells her of one of Bill's girlfriends, which of course is a huge journalistic no-no. But then he wants his camera crew (Patrick Fugit and Shanna Collins) to film every ugly moment, which they are reluctant to do.

It would be more than twenty years before the strategy was tried again with MTV's The Real World, but none of the shows that have come since have had the style that An American Family did--The Real World, etc. is basically a collection of freaks and fame whores.  Seeing this film makes me want to see An American Family.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Fifty Shades of Grey

It's hard to know where to start to write Fifty Shades of Grey. I was interested in the entire book/film project because it is about sado-masochism, an area I am more than familiar with because of my days working in the skin industry. However, I did not read the book because I was warned away by too many reviews and essays lampooning its horrible prose. That would be time I could spend reading other books. But a movie is only two hours, and besides, it might be sexy.

It is a phenomenon of sorts. I saw many young women reading it, including two different teenage lifeguards at my pool. What drew them to the book must have been the taboo nature of it, which draws most boys to visual pornography (that, and something to whack off to--I doubt girls were reading this while masturbating). The world of S&M and B&D is a highly misunderstood one, and I have no idea if E.L. James' book was enlightening at all.

But as for the film, I found it much better than I thought it would be. The story of a mousy young woman who comes under the thrall of a tall, dark handsome billionaire has seeped into our pop culture, and while the film, especially at the beginning, panders to absurd fantasies, I found it got a lot right about the psychology of this lifestyle while at the same time not giving in and ridiculing it.

I give credit here to Sam Taylor-Johnson. She is not some hack (imagine if Adrian Lyne or Zalman King had directed this); her first film, Nowhere Boy, was a thoughtful look at the teenage years of John Lennon. She has clearly taken what may be literary garbage but dressed it up into something more profound. It's not a great movie, but I don't think it's the train wreck it could have been.

The early part of the film is pure romance-novel stuff, though. Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) is a virgin, a stereotypical English Lit major who doesn't know how to dress and drives a VW Beetle. She is substituting for her roommate when she interviews Christian Grey (Jamie Dorman), an absurdly-young billionaire who is at first amused by Johnson but then sees something, perhaps her submissive nature, that attracts him. His office is all chrome and steel (the very first image of the film is his dressing room, with a series of identical suits and and shirts and ties that differ only in their shade of gray). Women who look like models are his staff, but as he courts Johnson he tells he he doesn't do romance, and his tastes are more singular.

It turns out he has a "play room" in his penthouse suite that is full of state-of-the-art bondage and discipline accessories.  Johnson is a bit put off but is still attracted to him, and the rest of the movie is about him trying to get her to sign a contract and be his submissive. Wrangling over a legal document is not exactly romantic (but is straight out of Venus in Fur), but it did provide for a few laughs, such as when Johnson adamantly insists that "anal fisting" be stricken and asks, "What's a butt plug?"

While all this is going on I wondered if they would hit upon the central themes of the urge to be dominant or submissive. The most simple reason is to reverse one's role in normal life--most submissives are people who have power in their life, and seek to give it up in an attempt to free themselves, while dominants may be powerless people who seek to grab some in a sexual manner. But that's just the simple version. One aspect of the film I appreciated was that Dorman has a backstory that jibes with the psychology--he was seduced as a teenager and was a submissive. Many players in this world can slide between top and bottom.

I also liked the way the film showed that in some respects, it is the submissive who calls the shots. This is called topping from below, and Johnson does a nice job with how she toys with Dorman, making him frantic as he wants to sign that contract. They have vanilla sex, and she gets him to do things he never has done before, such as sleep in the same bed with her, or take her on helicopter rides (that Grey is a billionaire is a shame, because it brings money into it--does she secretly like that he can buy her first editions of Tess of the D'Urbervilles? It would have been more interesting if he was an average Joe).

The film treats S&M fanciers as odd but not freaks. But the end takes a sour twist (it is an obvious set up for the next film). She wants to know why he would want to hurt her, and asks to be shown the worst. He gives her "six of the best" with a belt, which is pretty mild in the S&M world, and she is horrified, and leaves him (the last shot is as the elevator doors are closing). But before that we get all sorts of soft-core porn with her in naked in bondage and being spanked or teased. The ending shows what a submissive would enjoy (I've known women who love getting whipped, and like to have welts to prove it). Clearly Anastasia is not a true submissive, which means what have we been watching all this time?

For those uninterested in this sexual variation, this film may be laughable. It is just soft-core porn, but like any genre, there are levels of good and bad, and this is good, for what it is. Dorman is no help--he is a model that has basic soap-opera-acting skills but rarely elevates beyond a himbo (it's hard to believe he's some kind of Mark Zuckerberg character). I did find it sexy--Johnson is blandly pretty, so it's not hard to believe she could be a virgin, and I bought most of her responses.

I am intrigued enough by the film to want to see the next one, but I still won't read the books.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Let Me Be Frank With You

Many thought that Richard Ford's third Frank Bascombe book would be the last, but a fourth emerged last year with the almost comically bad title Let Me Be Frank With You. Fortunately, the book is much better than the title, finding Ford's Bascombe to be retired from selling real estate, beaten the prostate cancer he had in the last book, and getting through a series of days a few months after Hurricane Sandy.

Bascombe is, like Updike's Rabbit Angstrom, a white male whose chronicles show a slice of American life over a tetralogy. In Ford's case, those books cover more than thirty years, from The Sportswriter to Independence Day to The Lay of the Land to now this one. Each one finds our hero at a stage of life that is kind of a plateau--the death of a child, being a divorced father, working at a business, and then approaching the end. What's great about Frank Bascombe is that he's great company, at least as a reader. As a husband and friend he can be kind of a dick, but he's so fucking funny and shares such interesting observations that we already knew to be true but had never said aloud, such as: "How many old acquaintances, neighbors, former teachers, fellow marines have we all caught a glimpse of in an unexpected place and dived in an alley rather than face for a second?"

Let Me Be Frank With You (oh, I hate that title) is really four short stories, all narrated by Bascombe as he deals with issues about loss and mortality. The first has him meeting with the man who bought his house on the Jersey Shore (Frank had sold it and moved back to Haddam, a thinly-veiled replica of Princeton, eight years previously). Frank, of course, dodged a bullet, as the house is a complete loss after the storm. The buyer wants Frank's advice, but coaxes him out to see the house, and almost implies that it's Frank's fault.

Next is Frank back at home at Haddam, and a black woman at the door. Turned out she lived in the house before, and wants to tour it. Frank is agreeable, and realizes this happens all the time. But she has a darker story--her father killed her mother and brother in the basement of that house, where she can't bring herself to go.

The third story has Frank visiting his ex-wife in a nursing facility, since she has Parkinson's disease. He feels a duty to her, as they shared three children (including one buried in a nearby cemetery who died as a child) but he can't stand almost anything about the visit. He describes her current beau thusly: "Buck's a large, dull piece of cordwood in his seventies, given to loose-fitting permanently-belted trousers, matching beige sweatshirts of the kind sold at Kmart, big galunker, imitation-suede shoes, and the thinnest of thin pale hosiery. Somewhere, someone convinced Buck that a sculpted "Imperial" and a pair of Dave Garroway specs would make him look less like a Polish meatball, and make take him more seriously, which probably never happens." There's a lot to love and contemplate in that passage. Yes, Frank's a snob of a sort, but so funny that you can't help but chortle in chorus with him, and that Ford drops a reference like Dave Garroway, who no one under fifty (really sixty, though I know who he was) would get. It's beautiful but challenging.

The last story has Frank shamed into visiting a dying old friend, and it's a horror for him from beginning to end: "Misery, I've learned, doesn't really love company, just like nature doesn't abhor a vacuum. Nature, in fact, accommodates vacuums pretty well."

Frank's dying friend has a deathbed confession to make, which Frank doesn't know what to make of. He finds comfort, after fleeing the house, or running into an oil-truck driver who he knows. The continuation of life, never ceasing, no matter who dies or not.

I have no idea if this it for Frank Bascombe. He's 68 in this book, so perhaps we'll see him again in his seventies. I hope so.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Tommy Roe

Tommy Roe is kind of an intersting footnote to '60s music. He was primarily known as a "bubblegum" singer, meaning there wasn't a particular edge to his music, both sonically or lyrically. He was known for three hits: "Sheila," "Dizzy," and "Sweet Pea," but he had enough stuff for a greatest hits album, which I've been listening to.

He was around at the same time as The Beatles, and it's interesting how the British invasion groups were influenced by American R&B artists, but then American singers like Roe were influenced by The Beatles, without the R&B edge. "Sheila," from 1962, is probably the hardest-edged on the album, as it begins with a kind of tribal drum beat. In fact, the best of Roe's stuff all begin with a distinct drumbeat.

"Sweet Pea" is from 1966, and is the kind of song that recalls playing 45 RPM records on a Close-and-Play. It is a great song, though, with a beat that seems to start off on the wrong note. For maximum effect, watch Samantha Morton dance to it in the film Jesus' Son.

Roe's lasting legacy will probably be Dizzy, a number one hit from 1969. It, too, begins with a solid drumbeat, but then adds strings, and each verse, which begins with Roes singing: "Dizzy, I'm so dizzy" moves up another key. I could put this song on repeat for quite a while.

There are a few other cuts on the album that I didn't know that are quite good, especially "Jack and Jill" "Hooray for Hazel," and "Heather Honey."

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Oslo, August 31st

There have been many films about addicts going through recovery. Oslo, August 31st is a day in the life on such person, a thirtysomething named Anders. While watching this drama, which though a mere 95 minutes was kind of tedious, I wondered about why there are so many films about this subject.

Certainly many addicts come from the world of the arts, especially writers. This film is based on a novel, although I don't know if it's autobiographical, and similarly I don't know if the director, Joachim Trier, has any such trauma in his past. But the crisis of identity among addicts appeals to the artist.

But do they appeal to the viewer? Oslo, August 31st was released in 2011 to almost unanimous acclaim, winning an award at Cannes and receiving 98 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. I will be in the two percent and say that while it is well-made, I found the main character extremely uninteresting and the whole thing smacks of solipsism and narcissism.

The main character is Anders (Anders Danielsen Lie). He is just about done with a rehab program in a group home. He has been given evening leave. He sleeps with his girlfriend, then wanders to a lake and makes an unsuccessful suicide attempt. He goes back to the home as if nothing had happened, has some group therapy, and then heads into Oslo. He visits an old friend, an academic who likes to quote Proust, goes on a job interview which he sabotages, and wants to meet with his sister, but she sends her girlfriend instead, which annoys Anders. Then he goes to a party, meets an old flame, steals from the coats on the beds, buys heroin, goes to a club, and then shoots up. End of story.

What made this film annoying to me is that Anders is extremely self-pitying. He's a whiner, calling himself a loser and being passive-aggressive with the suicide attempt. The job interview scene in infuriating, because he tells the interviewer that a gap in his resume is because he was a drug addict. The interviewer, while taken aback, seems perfectly willing to continue the interview and consider hiring him, but Anders won't let him, taking his application and leaving.

For some ridiculous reason I have never known any drug addicts, at least not closely, so I don't know if this is common behavior. I imagine it is--many people in this situation are there because of their own failings, as well as external circumstances, but that doesn't mean I have to watch them. I just wanted to slap Anders silly, which means I should never be a drug counselor, I guess.

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Lady Sings the Blues

Every time a movie is made about real people and events there is caterwauling by those who are experts that the film didn't get it right. Most of the time I am annoyed by this, as making a narrative film is not the same as writing a scholarly text. You have to condense story lines and characters so a film can follow certain dictates. But when a film about a real person is so egregiously wrong, as Lady Sings the Blues is, then you just have to point it out.

For her centenary, I'm reading a biography of Billie Holiday and am about half way through. It was written by Donald Clarke, who is not above taking a shot at the movie, claiming it as "the worst movie ever made." It's not that bad, considering the flow of sewage that courses through theaters every year, but for a biographer of the main subject I can see his point. About the only thing factually correct about this film is that there was indeed a singer named Billie Holiday. The rest is fiction.

I knew I was in trouble when the opening title card: "New York, 1936," came up, and then showed Holiday, played gamely by Diana Ross, is arrested for heroin. Problem: she wasn't arrested until about ten years later. In 1936 the hardest stuff she had was marijuana. It also has her beau, Louis McKay, as her rock, her knight in shining armor. Problem: she didn't even know McKay until years later, she had two marriages before him, and he was a rotten egg. I guess that Billie Dee Williams played him made have to be the hero.

Ross, who was nominated for an Oscar for the role, does the drug stuff to the hilt, but does not sing like Holiday. To do an impersonation might have been awkward, but Ross appears to have no understanding of what made Holiday great. She was a jazz singer, who used her voice as an instrument, Ross was a pop singer.

What's more, almost everyone else is fictionalized. Perhaps fearing litigation, the screenplay makes no mention of Count Basie and Artie Shaw, whose bands Holiday sung for. Instead she tours with the "Reg Hanley" band. There is also no mention of John Hammond, who helped discover her, or her lifelong friend Lester Young, who gave her the nickname "Lady Day." Instead, we get Richard Pryor as "Piano Man," a composite of the many piano players who accompanied her.

I could go on about the inaccuracies of this film. Part of the problem is that it was based on her autobiography of the same name, which Clarke refers to as "unreliable." But beyond that, it is just isn't that good. Directed with no particular flair by Sidney J. Furie, Lady Sings the Blues is a typical show-biz biopic, with the drug arrests played up for maximum mileage. Holiday was a great artist, but to judge by this film she was nothing but a victim--of drugs, of racism (a scene is shown of her witnessing a lynching, which makes a viewer think she actually wrote the song "Strange Fruit"--she didn't) and of a girlhood growing up in brothels. But there is nothing in the film that shows us what makes her tick. The movie seems to have made it because it was convenient to do so, not because anyone involved had a burning passion to introduce her to millions.

So, my recommendation is never watch this movie and instead get yourself some Billie Holiday albums and bliss out. Or, check out a clip on YouTube. It's Holiday's last television performance and it's with Lester Young. Two (prematurely) old lions, who still got it.

Monday, June 08, 2015

The Burning Room

I've read more than a few of Michael Connelly's books, but just a couple of those featuring Harry Bosch, his main character. Bosch is a jaded, almost-near-retirement detective working the cold case department. He's been assigned a new partner, Lucy Soto, a young Latina who has become something of a celebrity for shooting a couple of perps. Now they are investigating the death of a Mariachi musician, many years after he was shot.
This is The Burning Room, the latest Bosch novel, and to be honest, I kind of felt Connelly was just going through the motions. It's a procedural, heavily so, as many aspects of police work are explained. This can be great, as most of us have no idea how a typical police detective goes about his or her work, but at times it seemed mechanical.

Bosch and Soto determine that the Mariachi who was shot and died years later of his injuries was not the intended victim, and this leads them to Tulsa, Oklahoma and then a hunting range in the California hinterlands. Soto, though, has another case that fuels her. When she was a child she survived a fire that killed several other children, and the case is still open. When Bosch catches her copying the case files, he agrees to help her.

I will give Connelly one thing--in lesser hands, these two cases would have somehow connected to each other. In fact, I kind of waited for it, but no, these cases are independent. The arson case leads them to the desert compound of an anti-government nut and a convent hear the Mexican border. Neither of the cases wraps to their satisfaction.

Connelly, who used to cover crime for the L.A. Times, certainly has the authenticity down, but I didn't feel this book pulsing with any life. Bosch is kind of spinning his wheels waiting for retirement, dealing with an obnoxious lieutenant and trying to get to know his teenage daughter better. Soto is an interesting character, who is eager to learn the ropes but sometimes acts too impulsively.

The book doesn't get very literary. At times we get to hear Bosch's thoughts: "Bosch sat down on a bench and enjoyed the view like the other tourists on the promontory. But his thoughts were or murder and the kind of people who pay others to their competitors and enemies. The ultimate narcissists who think that the world revolves around only them. He wondered how many were out there among the billion lights that glowed up at him through the haze."

If you're looking to start reading Connelly's books, I wouldn't start with this one. I loved The Poet and Scarecrow and Void Moon (none of them are Bosch books, and all of them have a disturbing sense of evil in the villains that is missing here) as well as the two Lincoln Lawyer books. Start with those.

Sunday, June 07, 2015

The Ice Palace

The Ice Palace is a novel by Norwegian writer Tarjei Vesaas that was published in 1963. It is a very short, seemingly simple story, written as if for children but very much for adults. I can't say I liked it, but I was intrigued by it.

The story concerns two girls: Siss and Unn. Unn is new to the school where Siss goes, and the two girls have a kind of mysterious bond. Siss goes over to Unn's house, where she lives with her aunt. Their connection is almost magical, and I don't think it's a coincidence that the girls are about eleven, that time when they are on the cusp of pubescence. Unn suggests that she and Siss take off all their clothes, and though is there nothing carnal about it, even this innocent moment is electrically charged, as if some kind of exchange of souls was going on.

Siss is very happy to have made a new friend. But the next day Unn goes missing (we learn how she does--I think it might have been more interesting to have this chapter at the very end). Siss, even though she only spent one night with Unn, is distraught. She refuses to tell everyone what Unn said that night, though it might help find her. She keeps referring to a "promise." She does help the search teams, though, which include going to a place whence the title comes from, the Ice Palace:

"There was a waterfall some distance away that had built up an extraordinary mountain of ice around it during the long, hard period of cold. It was said to look like a palace, and nobody could remember it happening before."

Siss enters a depression, withdrawing from other schoolmates. The prose, while spare, is pumped full of meaning, sometimes too much so: "The bird, slicing up the desolate moors into shreds and spirals, was death."

Siss visits the ice palace and once imagines she sees Unn's face there. Later, she and her school friends visit as spring approaches:

"Bang! It exploded beneath them, in the foundations: an explosion of a blow or whatever it resembled. It might have been a hammer blow on a clock that needed one in order to strike. But it was a crack, a crack with destruction in the sound. In the impossible tension in which it stood, the ice palace had split apart somewhere. It was the warning of death."

Again, Vesaas points out his death metaphor. I think, though, the the palace, which harbors a secret that is known to the reader but no one else, is a also a metaphor for the girls' innocence. It has arrived unexpectedly, and when it departs will take away the special friendship of the girls.

The Ice Palace is a quick read, but I found it a bit stodgy and pretentious. Of course, this could be the translation, or it could be the Norwegian mind set. It is pretty cold there most of the time, and ice palaces may just be a state of mind.

Saturday, June 06, 2015

Leviathan (2014)

Once more I've seen a Russian film that makes me never want to go to Russia. I've commented before that Russian films, at least the ones that make to the U.S., are usually unrelentingly bleak, and paint the country as a haven for drunkenness and corruption. Leviathan is another one. Are there any happy Russians?

The title refers to a Biblical sea-monster that is discussed thoroughly in the book of Job, that put-upon fellow who endures so much from God. In this instance, Job has nothing on Kolya (Aleksei Serebryakov). A short-tempered auto mechanic, he is about to lose his house and land to the corrupt mayor (Roman Madynanov) in some kind of eminent domain situation, and is only receiving peanuts in exchange, not the true value of the land. He has enlisted his old army buddy from Moscow. Dmitri (Vladimir Vdovichenkov) to represent him, and his friend has dug up damaging information on the mayor, intended to blackmail him into raising his price.

But things go awry when Kolya's wife, Lilya (Elena Lyadova) casts an eye on Dmitri. In fact, the Biblical analogy here could be Adam and Eve, as temptation destroys everyone's lives.

The setting of the film is a fictional town of Murmansk, which I looked up to see is way the fuck above Scandinavia. A graveyard of ships lies in the harbor, and the skeleton of a whale (another form of a leviathan) figures prominently in the advertising. For fun the men of the town drink and shoot; drinking vodka is pretty much a standard activity. "What will it be, Kolya?" the store clerk asks him. "Vodka, what else?" he answers.

I suppose rage against the system is the core theme here, but I couldn't quite wrap my mind around why I was supposed to be interested in this. If it was a Hollywood film, Kolya would end up victorious over the mayor, but it's a Russian film, so instead there is a sense of futility and despair that is only rarely leavened by humor. They say the Germans have no sense of humor, but I wonder about the Russsians, too. I think they do, but are just too pissed off to express it.

The film was directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev and nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, but for all its excellence in acting and photography, the film was probably just too downbeat for people who mostly live in sunny Southern California.

Friday, June 05, 2015

On Immunity: An Inoculation

On Immunity: An Inoculaton, by Eula Biss, is a hybrid of a book. It is both an informative history of vaccination, and also a personal memoir of Biss' own experiences as a mother, as well as a daughter of a doctor. I think the combination works quite well, as Biss confronts the fears that have founded the anti-vax movement, and while she shoots down their arguments, understands those fears.

Biss shows that vaccination is not a new thing. The very first thing she discusses, and which is on the cover, is Achilles' mother, Thetis, attempting to immunize him in the River Styx. Those who know Greek myth know how that turned out. Vaccines, Biss points out, are precursors of modern medicine, not the product of it: "It was 'poison of adders, the blood, entrails and excretions of rats, bats, toads and sucking whelps' that was imagined into vaccines of the nineteenth century. This was the kind of organic matter, the filth, believed responsible for most disease at that time. It was also a plausible recipe for a witches' brew. Vaccination was fairly dangerous then. Not because it would cause a child to grow the horns of a cow, as some people feared, but because arm-to-arm vaccination could communicate disease like syphilis, as some people suspected."

At one time vaccinations were thought to be miraculous. The polio vaccine inventor, Jonas Salk, was hailed as a hero, mostly because polio was a real evil, not some long-ago problem like small pox or measles. Today, Biss points out: "Unvaccinated children, a 2004 analysis of CDC data reveals, are more likely to be white, to have an older married mother with a college education, and to live in a household with an income of $75,000 or more--like my child." Where did this mistrust of doctors in the upper-middle-class come from? The thesis that vaccinations cause autism come from a paper that is now totally debunked, but spread like demi-celebrities like Jenny McCarthy, these things become hard to be unlearned. Biss talks about talking with her mother friends, and they all have bits of info that make them suspect too many vaccinations. Indeed, there are many. They are now vaccinating for chicken pox, and Biss wanted to hold the line. But her doctor assured her it was necessary, if only to eliminate shingles in the child when it became an adult.

What is most important about vaccination is the community aspect. Biss' father, an oncologist, puts it best: "'Vaccination works,' my father explains, 'by enlisting a majority in the protection of a minority.' He means the minority of the population that is particularly vulnerable to a given disease. The elderly, in the case influenza. Newborns, in the case of pertussis. Pregnant women, in the case of rubella."

It's interesting to see Americans, in particular, react to a disease invading our shores. Whether it's H1N1, or Ebola, there is a hue and cry for vaccines. But for something like the measles, which has perhaps has come to sound quaint and benign, but is a killer and maimer, there is general mistrust.The history of smallpox is useful. "That vaccine is responsible for the worldwide eradication of smallpox, with the last case of natural infection occurring in the year I was born. Three years later, in 1980, the disease that had killed more people in the twentieth century than all that century's wars was officially declared gone from Earth."

Biss also discusses, fascinating for me, Bram Stoker's Dracula, and sees the vampire as a metaphor for disease. Remember in that book that he is coming to England, so Stoker is tying into both the fear of the immigrant (Dracula is given Semitic features) and the fear of contagion. He is not a romantic hero, as some films have portrayed him, he's just hungry, like a germ.

I also found interesting her discussion of the "war" metaphor. She quotes Susan Sontag often, whose Illness as Metaphor is something or a precursor to this book. We always talk about wars on things--drugs, poverty, and disease. But there's another wrinkle: "The metaphor of a 'war' between mothers and doctors is sometimes used for conflicts over vaccination. Depending on who is employing the metaphor, the warring parties may be characterized as ignorant mothers and educated doctors, or intuitive mothers and intellectual doctors, or of caring mothers and heartless doctors, or irrational mothers and rational doctors--sexist stereotypes abound."

That this book was written is indicative of the general anti-science atmosphere in which we are living. Where some people put more faith in a mystical super-being that proven medicine, or in the random ramblings of an Internet story that mountains of research. But there it is. I would recommend this book to anyone who is a parent or thinking about being one when it comes to vaccinating their child.