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Sunday, January 31, 2016

High Times

I've had occasion to think about marijuana this weekend. I am not experienced in this area. For regular readers of this blog, you know that my substance abuse is almost always food. I am an infrequent drinker and as for illegal drugs, well, I have never tried cocaine or any hard drugs, and only smoked marijuana twice, with no particular effect. I have the feeling I wasn't doing it right.

But this weekend I accompanied by girlfriend and her son to a doctor so that the lad could get his medical marijuana card. Here in Nevada, medical marijuana is legal, and now dispensaries are opening. My girlfriend's son is 14 and suffers from a variety of ailments, most notably anxiety, and the doctor said he would be a good candidate for treatment. I was kind of surprised that a kid that age could get pot legally, but he can and has. Dispensaries will even deliver it straight to his door. What a great country!

Though I do not use pot (on the car ride home we tried to think of as many euphemisms as we could: marijuana, Mary Jane, weed, reefer, grass, chiba, pot, the list goes on and on) I am firmly in the belief that it shoul be legalized. Now four states have legalized it, and I think that before long more and more states will do the same. While it does have it's deleterious effects, most notably it can temper ambition and may cause cardiovascular disease, it is certainly safer to use than alcohol, which has ruined many lives and families, and cigarettes, which are the greatest cause of death in U.S. history. Tobacco has never been banned here, and we tried with alcohol, a spectacular failure.

Prisons are full of people jailed for crimes dealing with marijuana, while white-collar criminals roam free. The priggishness of many Americans around pot is akin to our attitudes on sex--everybody condemns it, but everyone is also doing it. It is estimated that 100 million Americans have tried it, or more than one in three. To outlaw something so common is imprudent and illogical, and certainly making it legal for medical purposes is a no-brainer.

I have stayed away from it because it is illegal, as I have a fear of going to jail. I just know that if I ever tried to buy it it would be from an undercover cop or something. I also have asthma and don't like the idea of smoking anything, but I am intrigued by the idea of edibles--eating a sweet, and getting a sense of euphoria from it? That sounds great! She has offered me a chance to get a brownie, and I just can't turn it down. I have to know what that's like.

Cannabis has been used by people for millennia, even in prehistoric times. It has a practical use as hemp in making rope and paper, but has been used recreationally for a long time. The first recorded use was by the Scythians, who used the vapor in their steambaths. Many cultures, including Rastafari, use it in religious ceremonies. Why it became demonized seems something of a mystery, but in the early years of the twentieth century the U.S. made it illegal, and then propaganda films like Reefer Madness made it seem as if toking would make a person a wild-eyed maniac.

Statistics show that marijuana is not a killer, and that more die from ants per year than the plant which has been making people happy, including my young friend, for thousands of years. He may suddenly have an interest in wearing tie-dye or listening to the Grateful Dead, but so be it.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines

The Great Race was not the only film of 1965 about contests involving new technology in the first decade of the twentieth century. Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines, directed by Ken Annakin, is about an airplane race between London and Paris in 1910. Then it took over a day; today, for supersonic jets, it takes seven minutes.

I found this film to be in two distinct parts. The part before the intermission, which is about an hour and a half, tedious. It's the set up for the race, where all the characters are introduced. The race is the brainchild of a publisher (Robert Morley), who was encouraged to promote flying in England by his daughter's boyfriend (James Fox). The daughter is Sarah Miles, who wants to fly, but her father forbids it.

The race brings aviators from all over the world. Flying had only been invented seven years earlier, and there were no air forces yet, so these men were mostly dilettantes and daredevils. We get a lot of stereotypes: The French flyer (Jean-Pierre Cassel) is crazy about women, the Germans, led by Gert Frobe, are strictly by the book, the Italian is surrounded by his large family. The American is a cowboy (Stuart Whitman) who takes a fancy to Miles, so he and Fox become romantic rivals, while the villain is Terry-Thomas, who tries to sabotage the other racers.

The film is a comedy, and starts with a prologue featuring Red Skelton representing man's attempts at flight throughout the ages. It's not very funny, and I don't think I laughed once at the entire film, which mainly tries for yuks with people falling down or airplanes crashing (no one, of course, is hurt). People falling down is inherently funny, but you've got to do more with it, and this film just lays there, asking for us to laugh without giving us much reason to.

After the intermission I got interested, as it shows the race. The remarkable thing about Flying Machines is that reproductions of actual period planes were made and flown. There is a lot of terrific aerial footage, and it's easy to see how thrilling it must have been to be doing what was once thought impossible. Also, those people flew in the open air, and not very far off the ground. Fox, in the airplane he's flying, wears a cap and looks for all the world like he's taking a carriage ride around the park. It must have been exhilarating fun.

I would only recommend this film for aviation enthusiasts or a fan of a certain kind of British comedy.

Friday, January 29, 2016

What's New Pussycat?

Today the 1965 film What's New Pussycat? is known for being the first film to feature Woody Allen (who also wrote the script). In that way, it is a curious relic, and shows many of the traits that would come to dominate his films, such as a fascination with psychoanalysis, an unabashed obsession with beautiful women, and name dropping intellectual pursuits, such as a sight gag where men who look like famous artists such as Toulouse-Latrec and Vincent Van Gogh are sitting at an outdoor cafe. But at the time, no one could have anticipated Allen's future career, and instead it was a mildly confusing, if chaotic, sex comedy with a very famous cast.

The history of the film is pretty interesting. It was all Warren Beatty's idea, as he wanted to make a film about a lothario (gee, wonder why?). He brought Allen in to write the script, but Allen's part got larger. I've read that Beatty threatened to quit and producer Charles K. Feldman called his bluff, and he was out. He would later make the film he wanted with Shampoo. Instead, Peter O'Toole played his part.

O'Toole is a man who can't say no to beautiful women. He goes to see Sellers, a Viennese analyst, who is seen in combat with his large, Valkyrie-like wife ("I'm prettier than you are!" he yells at her). Sellers wears a Beatle wig and tight, mod clothing (his denim jacket in the last part of the film is ridiculously funny) and storms around the film. He listens to O'Toole talk of his insatiable appetite for women and they for him, and asks, "What is your problem?"

But O'Toole wants to settle down with his girlfriend, Romy Schneider. But he can't help himself, and finds himself in a strip club (where Sellers also is) and meets Paula Prentiss, who takes an overdose of sleeping pills every time she meets O'Toole. He also meets a patient that Sellers is in love with, played by Capucine. Meanwhile, O'Toole's friend, Allen, is in love with Schneider.

They all end up at a chateau for a last act of bedroom farce, with doors slamming, people hiding in closets, and O'Toole gamely making pratfalls. Ursula Andress literally drops from the sky (she's a parachutist) and the result is very typical of the time, with European girls in skimpy outfits being chased by rakish men. The film ends with a chase in go-carts.

I wonder what Allen thinks of this film now. If he hates Manhattan, as he said he does, then he must really hate this. It is directed with the wit of a whoopee cushion by Clive Donner, but as I watched it this time I kind of had a good time. There are some lines that show what Allen would become, such as Sellers calling one of his girlfriends "my little laxative" and Allen telling O'Toole he got a job at the Crazy Horse as a dresser for "20 Francs a week." "That's not much," O'Toole replies, and Allen says, "It's all I could afford."

What's New Pussycat? (the title comes from Beatty's phrase) is more interesting historically than as an entertainment. Sellers and Allen appear together in one scene, when the former wants to commit suicide in a Viking funeral. Here we have two of the great comedic performers of the 20th century in their only scene together. It's interesting to note that in Beatty's planned film, Groucho Marx was to play the shrink.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

The Space Program's Week of Sorrow

There's been a lot of press and social network attention paid to today's thirtieth anniversary of the explosion during liftoff of the Challenger, which killed all seven aboard (I'm horrified to read that they were not killed instantly, as originally reported, but likely survived several minutes until they hit the water). I'm reminded by friends of mine who are great space enthusiasts that the three tragedies that have befallen the U.S. space program--the Challenger, the fire that killed the three astronauts of Apollo 1 in 1967, and the disintegration of the Columbia in 2003, all amazingly happened within five days on the calendar. Truly, this is a week of sorrow for NASA.

I'm too young to remember Apollo 1, though my friend Bob, three days older than I am, remembers that The Flintstones was pre-empted with the news. An electrical fire, and the malfunction of an escape door, led to three men dying horrible deaths. One of the men was Gus Grissom, who was one of the original Gemini astronauts.

I certainly remember the Challenger, and today everyone old enough is having one of those "where were you" moments, especially those who were kids at the time, because of Christa McAuliffe, the teacher on board. Shuttle launches were not big news by then, but this one was, and many students watched on TVs at their schools. I was working as a copy editor at a publisher of legal books. I don't know how she knew--we were allowed to listen to radios there, that must have been it--but my co-worker Judy told me what had happened. It seems weird to say this, but in the absence of the Internet and smartphones you couldn't get news that quickly. I must have put on my Walk-man, and then I called Bob, who was my roommate at the time and a law student. "Turn on the TV," I told him.

There was a lot of talk of O-rings, and Ronald Reagan, the "Great Communicator," actually did a nice job of being consoler-in-chief. I recall that his aides came into the Oval Office and told him what had happened. "Isn't that the one with the teacher?" he asked, and regardless of politics, I feel for what the man had to go through. I also feel for those who watched the thing happen live, whether on TV or in person. The latter included McAuliffe's parents, who were being filmed, their puzzled reactions as they saw the bull-horned shape smoke cloud above them, knowing their daughter was dead.

The Columbia happened, if I recall correctly, on a Saturday morning, February 1, 2003. I was watching TV, and the news broke. Once again I called Bob, and got his wife, and broke the news (I also called to inform Bob about 9/11. He must cringe a bit whenever I call him). This crash was caused by insulation breaking off and tearing a hole in the wing during liftoff. On re-entry, the wing couldn't withstand the heat and the ship broke apart over Texas. My brother-in-law, a pilot, actually saw what happened from his plane that day.

These three tragedies cost 17 lives, but in the long run, their lives were not lost in vain, as it is essential for our species that we continue to explore space. We have a space station, but money and logistics have kept us from further human exploration. One day the Earth will cease to be. Man be long extinct by then anyway, but whatever animal or vegetable is dominant will have to leave the planet or perish.

The bravery of anyone who straps themselves on top of a rocket and is hurtled out of the atmosphere is incredibly brave, as anything can go wrong and there's little recourse for rescue. During this week, it's a good thing to honor those who died in the pursuit of knowledge.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

True Blood, Season 7

I've now watched all seven seasons of True Blood, HBO's Southern Gothic soap opera about vampires, werewolves, fairies, and other things that go bump in the night. It was time for the show to go--they introduced so many new characters over the past two seasons I had trouble remember who was who, and the storylines got more and more ridiculous--but I felt a little tear come to my eye at the very end. It's hard to follow characters for seven years and not feel a little something about them when they go.

This season basically had two storylines. The first, wrapped up halfway through the year, was a continuation of last year. Vampires afflicted with "hep-V," which seemed a clear metaphor for AIDS, were roaming the countryside, feeding their insatiable hunger for blood. The "good" vampires of Bon Temps, the epicenter of the show, got together to not only wipe them out, but also the concerned citizens who wanted to kill all vampires. I find this interesting. True Blood has always been a metaphor for the mainstreaming of gay culture, as vampires "came out of the coffin" in the first season and slowly gained acceptance. But here, it seems, the vampires who assimilate have always been held in higher regard than those who don't want to or can't. Discuss amongst yourselves.

The second plot thread involved the cure for hep-V, which turned out to be in the blood of Sarah Newlin (Anna Camp), the former evangelist's wife who sought to destroy all vampires. She is hunted by the dynamic duo of Eric (Alexander Skarsgard) and Pam (Kristina Bauer van Stratten), and then by a Japanese corporation backed by the Yakuza. Eric, who had hep-V, cured himself, but Bill Compton (Steven Moyer), the hero of our story, didn't want to. He preferred the "true death."

The spine of the show was always the on-again/off-again romance between Moyer and Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin), and it justly ended with it's conclusion. The last episode classically features a major death and a wedding, but I won't spoil it by saying who dies and who gets married. As it figures in a final season, some major characters bite the dust, but when you are a show about the supernatural some people just don't stay dead.

I've always admired the show's combination of gore, sex, and humor, particularly the latter. True Blood could have been classified as a comedy. I think the show is summed up by a shot late in the final episode, when Skarsgard has dispatched some of the Yakuza and has their bodies in the back seat of his car. His face is covered with blood, and he's listening to a rock song on the radio, his head bobbing to the beat.

There are some characters I will miss. I kind of got tired of Sookie, so self-righteous and always in the middle of things. Instead I was always pleased by the antics of her brother, the priapic man-child Jason, played by Ryan Kwanten, who deserved an Emmy (it was so weird hearing him in a round table on the features portion--he's Australian, and hearing his real accent was unnerving). I also liked the gruff but soft-hearted Sheriff Andy Bellefleur, played by the wonderful Chris Bauer. He officiates at the wedding at the end, and the bride happens to be a vampire who killed several of his children. Such is the nature of True Blood--forgiveness reigns supreme.

The show is unlike anything I've seen on TV or at the movies. Creator Alan Ball, who also made Six Feet Under (unseen by me) and wrote American Beauty worked wonders with the concept.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Oscar 2015 Predictions: Best Supporting Actor

"Would it help?"
It's time to kick off my predictions for this year's Oscars, which are being dominated by the #OscarSoWhite controversy. I've said my piece on that, so on to the actual awards.

The easiest acting categories to call this year are the men's. In spite of what I thought about six weeks ago, Sylvester Stallone in Creed would appear to have this sewn up. I wasn't even sure he would get nominated, given that he didn't get a Screen Actors Guild nomination and that, despite the nostalgia for Rocky, he went on with that character way too long and was in a lot of schlock throughout the forty years since he first played the character. Also, from what I've read, he's not exactly a beloved figure in Hollywood.

But it turns out nostalgia will take the day, if only because I can't really make a great case for any of the other nominees. If Stallone were to be disqualified for some reason I suppose the winner would be Mark Rylance, who plays Russian spy Rudolf Abel in Bridge of Spies. Rylance steals the movie, with his exquisite underplaying, and is a well-respected, three-time Tony-winning actor.

As for the rest, I can't make a case. This is Mark Ruffalo's third nomination, and of all the actors in Spotlight he has the big scene. He also does an accent. But the film just doesn't seem to be building a lot of momentum. Frankly, I thought Michael Keaton deserved it more than Ruffalo.

Christian Bale is the only actor to get a nom from The Big Short, as the highly idiosyncratic hedge-fund manager who sees the housing bubble bursting ahead of anyone. Bale has won before, or I'd give him more chance, as the character has a lot of quirks that garner attention.

As for Tom Hardy, as the villain in The Revenant, this is his first nomination, and I expect he'll get a lot more. He was something of a surprise nominee, and though I found his survival-at-all-costs amorality fascinating, I don't see him winning.

Will Win: Sylvester Stallone
Could Win: Mark Rylance
Should Win: Mark Rylance
Should Have Been Nominated: Benicio Del Toro, Sicario

Monday, January 25, 2016

The Steve Miller Band

My second post on the 2016 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees looks at the Steve Miller Band, which of course mostly means Steve Miller, as there were dozens of members of the band over the years and he is the only constant, also being the lead guitarist, vocalist, and songwriter. Miller got in on his try, which is kind of nuts, considering he started way back in the 1960s, and was a huge presence on the radio in the 1970s. I was surprised he wasn't in already.

Miller and his band fit a perfect groove for someone my age. After playing psychedelic blues in San Francisco, he changed course to play straight ahead, jangly rock and roll with the album The Joker, and the title track hit number one. The lyrics are permanently etched in children of the '70s frontal lobes:

"Some people call the space cowboy,
Some call me the gangster of love
Some people call me Maurice
'Cause I speak of the pompatus of love."

The "pompatus" of love was Miller's own coinage, and they even made a movie with that title.

In 1977 and '78 he had huge back-to-back albums which dominated the airwaves. Fly Like an Eagle made a hit of the ethereal title track and the jokey crime saga Take the Money and Run, which has some very tortured rhymes:

"Billy Mack is a detective down in Texas
You know he knows just exactly what the facts is
He ain't gonna let those two escape justice
 He makes his livin' off of the people's taxes"

The next album was Book of Dreams (I owned both of these albums, and think I got them from the Columbia Record Club). It was a terrific pop-rock album, with a couple of very well-crafted hits: Jungle Love and my favorite, Jet Airliner, a wistful song about leaving home that kind of gets to me:

"Goodbye to all my friends at home
Goodbye to people I've trusted
I've got to go out and make my way
I may get rich I may get busted."

Except for the exceptionally catchy Abracadabra, which was a hit in 1982, that was it, though Miller has continued to record and tour. I have been listening to a comprehensive greatest hits collection which has some earlier songs from his San Francisco days, such as Space Cowboy and Livin' in the U.S.A. . Perhaps most interesting is My Dark Hour, which features a co-writing credit and background vocals from Paul McCartney, and has the guitar riff that Miller would use years later in Fly Like an Eagle.

Even if Steve Miller's heights only lasted for a few years, it's amazing he was kept out of the Hall this long. Glad to see the wrong righted.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

The Great Race

The Great Race is one of those films I've seen many times, though never in a theater, and each time I see it I like it less. When I was a kid the pratfalls amused me, but now I see that though the film is dedicated to "Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy," is nothing like a Laurel and Hardy movie, lacking any subtlety.

Surely this must have been a labor of love for the director, Blake Edwards. The credit sequences make it seem like an old silent movie (a card reads, "Ladies please remove your hats") and the characters, two rival daredevils during the first decade of the twentieth century, are simplistic in their values. Tony Curtis is The Great Leslie, who always wears white, never gets dirty, and is accomplished at all things. Professor Fate (Jack Lemmon) dresses in black and tries to win by cheating.

Curtis proposes a road race from New York to Paris. If this seems far-fetched to consider, given the state of cars and roads in those days, it was based on a real race, although in that one the cars traveled part of the way by ship. Lemmon and his henchman (Peter Falk) knock out all the cars but Curtis' and that of Natalie Wood, who plays a suffragette and reporter.

And so it goes. Most of the race consists of three set pieces--a stop in a Western town, with an epic barroom brawl; a scene in Alaska when the racers must huddle up to stay warm, and a very long act in a fictional country where Lemmon's look-alike is the heir to the throne, and in a Prisoner of Zenda-like plot, is swapped for him. This scene ends with a huge pie fight, clearly a nod to the silent film comedians, but not very funny.

Much of the film feels derivative--Lemmon's Professor Fate is very much like Wile Coyote (and he would inspire the cartoon character Dick Dastardly). The film is pushed too much at us, as if Edwards were looking over his shoulder at us, saying "Isn't this funny?" I wonder if he felt scooped that Stanley Kramer had made the definitive epic comedy two years earlier with It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, which is far funnier.

There are a couple of laughs that I remember when I was a kid. One involves the evil Baron, Ross Martin, who flees a sword fight with Curtis by jumping into a boat, but he's so high up that he crashes right through it. But mostly the film has tired old gags. It also has something I've always been annoyed by--characters punching someone and knocking them out instantly.

The Great Race was nominated for five Oscars, and won for Best Sound Effects Editing.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

The Winter of Trump

Last summer I wrote about the ubiquity of Donald Trump's presidential campaign. As we near the Iowa caucuses I, like many others, figured he would have faded by now, victim to his almost daily outrageous statements. Surely he would be seen as the fraud he is, and stupendously unqualified to be president.

But no, his lead in the polls is even greater than it was then. Establishment Republicans, like Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Chris Christie, and John Kasich have not taken hold. Equally unqualified psychotics Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina have faded, as their facades have fallen. The only person that seems to stand between Trump and the nomination is Ted Cruz, who may be even scarier than Trump. Cruz is an ideologue and Christofascist, while Trump is just an egomaniac who can't even name a Bible verse.

This week the media got all excited when Sarah Palin, who I'm not sure even holds a job, endorsed Trump for president. John McCain, who is responsible for unleashing this monster on the American public, must really feel good about her endorsing the man who mocked him for being a prisoner of war. The New York Daily News, which has become the left-wing version of the New York Post, hits the nail on the head with this cover. Or, as put it, a "hot mess endorsed a dumpster fire." Palin's speech, with Trump standing by, looking like someone benignly tolerating a crazy aunt's toast at Christmas dinner, was predictably incoherent. "He's from the private sector! Can I get a hallelujah?"

This was an opera buffo for Democrats, who see this as furthering their own hopes for November. Reading the Times columnist's today, Gail Collins says the Republicans are coming to terms with a Trump nomination, while Ross Douthat makes suggestions for stopping Trump (bring up his unsavory business practices). The National Review is coming with guns blazing to stop Trump, whom they don't consider a real conservative.

I'm not sure it will work. Trump's supporters don't read anything, let alone the National Review. There may be truly nothing he can do or say that would put them off, and he seems to know it. He just said he could shoot somebody and his numbers wouldn't drop, and I think he's right. I think he could behead Adele and have sex with her skull and nothing would happen. After a speech full of lies and insults he probably goes backstage and tells his handlers, "Can you believe I'm getting away with this?"

I think Trump can get the nomination. And if he does, the Democratic nominee, whomever that is, will not be afraid to go after him, and every shady business deal will be fair game. He will get indignant, throw fits, and lose practically every voter who is not already for him. It will be an electoral disaster. Also in the Times today was an article about New Hampshire voters who can't stand him. They lukewarmly say they will support him if he is the nominee, but I imagine many will just stay home. Nominating Trump will be Republican suicide.

So is there a way to stop him? Some weeks ago there was blather about a brokered convention. I'm not sure what the rules about delegates are, but apparently they can vote for whomever they want. But who would be the alternative? Mitt Romney? Paul Ryan? Surely such a coup would outrage Trump supporters and lead to the kind of convention that would require arrests, the way a last brokered convention, in Chicago in 1968, occasioned.

Reasonable, sane Republicans: you just may be screwed. And it's your own damn fault. Instead of sitting there blaming Obama for everything, you have not come up with any good ideas. Saying no is not an idea, and it led to this.

Friday, January 22, 2016

The Pawnbroker

I mentioned earlier that Lee Marvin won the Oscar for 1965 for his broad comic performance in Cat Ballou. No disrespect to Marvin, but I wonder how he beat Rod Steiger for The Pawnbroker, who gives a fantastic performance, the kind that Academy members usually eat up.

Steiger plays Mr. Nazerman, who is runs a pawn shop in Harlem. He is a holocaust survivor, but lost his wife and children and is now just going through the motions. He is unmoved by his customers sob stories, and regards most of them as "scum." His employee (Jaime Sanchez) is eager to learn the business, but Nazerman doesn't pay him much attention. He spurns everyone, including a neighborhood social worker (Geraldine Fitzgerald).

His shop is a front for a local racketeer (Brock Peters). But when Steiger finds out that Peters' business is primarily prostitution (frankly, that's a bit naive on his part) he wants out, which is a dangerous move. Sanchez, angry that Steiger has rejected him as a surrogate son, helps a local gang plan a robbery. The tragedy that results leads to the film's most famous scene--Steiger's silent scream of agony.

The Pawnbroker was directed by Sidney Lumet (after it was turned down by Stanley Kubrick and Franco Zefferelli, and Arthur Hiller was fired), who had a way of making New York City look seamy. These mean streets are not romanticized one bit, and the black and white photography does not hide the grime. The film has many almost subliminal cuts, as Steiger flashes back to scenes in the camps, or on the train to them, when people were stacked like cattle. It was also the first film under the production code that featured female nudity, as Steiger is propositioned by a prostitute, which makes him recall watching his wife raped by Nazis.

This is a powerful film, if a bit dated. In context, one must realize it was one of the first to tackle the holocaust. In some ways, it reminded me of a much more recent film, The Visitor, which is also about a man awakened from a spiritual kind of death.

A couple of interesting casting notes: it was Morgan Freeman's film debut, and Groucho Marx was interested in playing the lead.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

The Deep Blue Good-By

When I read John D. MacDonald's Dress Her in Indigo some time ago, I thought I might give it a try and read all of the Travis McGee novels. So I went to the first one, The Deep Blue Good-By, and now I'm not so sure. I mean, McDonald is a great writer, a worthy successor to Raymond Chandler in the literary-crime writer. Not many writers can come up with a line like: "In appearance, it as though somebody bleached Sinatra, skinned him, and made Willy wear him."

But the book, which was released in 1964, is a relic from another time, and even for that time period seems excessively chauvinistic. McGee, McDonald's creation, is a throwback to, well, basically he's a caveman. The women in this book are pathetic creatures with hardly a thought in their heads, and desperately need rescuing. Or they are merely playthings for McGee.

This is the first McGee book and establishes certain things. He lives in a housebout, the Busted Flush, which he won in a poker game. He drives a Rolls that has been converted into a pickup. He disdains working for anybody, and while not a licensed private eye, does jobs that involve returning valuable things to their rightful owner, and he takes a fifty percent cut. He is tall and presumaby good looking, a man's man. McGee narrates the books, and describes himself thusly: "Travis McGee, that big brown loose-jointed boat bum, that pale-eyed, wire-haired girl seeker, that slayer of small savage fish, that beach walker, gin-drinker, quip-maker, peace-seeker, iconoclast, disbeliever, signifier, that knuckly, scar-tissued reject from a structured society."

The plot has McGee helping out a friend of a friend. She's the daughter of a dead man who spent time in prison. While in the lock-up, he had a cellmate, Junior Allen, who figured out that said man brought back a fortune in jewels and buried it somewhere. He figured out where and took it all, and went on to ruin two women's lives. McGee finds the second woman, who is a wreck. He nurses her back to health, and of course she falls in love with him. McGee finds the man and in a couple of well-written action scenes, disposes of him in the depths of the Atlantic. There are only a few jewels left, though.

As long as McDonald is writing the noir stuff, it's great. McGee is a worthy successor to Philip Marlowe, as if Marlowe had left L.A. and started wearing shorts and boat shoes. He's a great cynic, though of course secretly a romantic: "I am wary of a lot of other things, such as plastic credit cards, payroll deductions, insurance programs, retirement benefits, savings accounts,  Green Stamps, time clocks, newpapers, mortgages, sermons, miracle fabrics, deodorants, check lists, time payments, political parties, lending libraries, television, actresses, junior chambers of commerce, pageants, progress, and manifest destiny."

In short, he is a kind of that men used to want to be. Down the dock there is a permanent party going on, and McGee strolls down, finds a girl he wants, and takes her home for sex, as if he were buying a roll of paper towels. While nursing the other woman back to health, he doesn't touch her, but of course he is her white knight and she eventually wants him. And McGee views all women by their appearance: "After the promise of Gerry in clothing, her figure was a mild disappointment. She had high small breasts, and she was very long-waisted. The long, limber torso widened into chunky hips and meaty thighs and short sturdy legs." McGee, and perhaps McDonald, was pretty much a pig.

But if this antediluvian attitude toward women can be overlooked, we get stunning prose like this, describing rootless teenagers: "Bless them all, these forlorn little rabbits. They are the displaced persons of our emotional culture. They are ravenous for romance, yet settle for what they call making out. Their futile, acne-pitted men drift out of high school  into a world so surfeited with unskilled labor there is competition for bag boys in the supermarkets."

So, I'll see if I continue with this series. Maybe they get less andro-centric.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

The Collector

Alfred Hitchcock didn't have a picture out in 1965, but William Wyler, who made all sorts of films, filled in with the exceptionally creepy The Collector. Wyler turned down The Sound of Music to do it.

The film stars Terence Stamp as a meek bank clerk who collects butterflies. He is out with his net and comes across an old house with an old Roman basement that gives him an idea. He has won a large football betting lottery, so buys the house. This allows him to fulfill a long developing plan--to kidnap a woman.

His target is an art student, Samantha Eggar. Stamp drugs her (with chloroform--I've always wondered about that. Where do you get it? When you buy it, aren't you automatically a kidnapping suspect?) and takes her prisoner. He promises to keep her only for four weeks, and does not want to have sex with her--he just wants her to fall in love with him.

Needless to say, this film will give you the willies. Stamp, who was something of a heartthrob, makes an effective psychopath, who rationalizes everything. Eggar shows great skill in going through the stages of her captivity, trying defiance and then being friendly, all the while trying to escape at every turn. When a neighbor comes over while she's tied up in bathroom, she lets the water run so it will alert him. In a very Hitchcockian scene, Stamp tries to get rid of the man as the water slowly runs down the stairway.

Based on a novel by John Fowles, The Collector is basically a two-character story about the nature of love and obsession. In a pointed scene, Stamp shows Eggar his butterfly collection, of which he is very proud, but she is disgusted by all the death. "How many butterflies have you killed?" she asks him, and he shrugs and looks around. It doesn't occur to him that by owning something, he has essentially destroyed it. It's a fairly obvious metaphor, but a good one. He also has trouble understanding the appeal of Picasso. He's a very literal thinker.

The film also has a very powerful ending, which I don't dare reveal here. Needless to say, it doesn't satisfy Hollywood expectations.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

The Danish Girl

The Danish Girl is a beautiful and touching film loosely based on the story of one of the first people to undergo gender reassignment surgery. Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander's performances, as well as the costume and production design, are all worthy of their Oscar nominations. But something just doesn't sit right with me about it. Tom Hooper, who by his third film now establishes a pattern as a genteel director of a Masterpiece Theater kind, isn't the right match for this material. It needed an edge, as the 1920s and transexualism were a dangerous match. I would have liked to see what Todd Haynes would have done with it.

Redmayne is a Danish painter of some reputation. He is married to Vikander, who is also a painter. They live a happy but childless life in Copenhagen. One day, while painting a large portrait of a woman, Vikander's model doesn't show up. She asks Redmayne to put on stockings and pumps and hold some diaphanous gown in his lap. He fingers the material sensually, and we can see the light bulb going off in his head. Later, Vikander will ask him if she caused what happened, and it's a good question, as the film implies that it does, though he denies it.

Later, they will play a game in which Vikander dresses her husband up as "Lily" and passes "her" off as Redmayne's cousin. They get a kick out of it, but Redmayne slowly becomes consumed by his alter-ego, and he starts to see doctors for a cure. Most want to lock him up or give him a lobotomy (he scoots out of the window of one doctor before he can be put in a straitjacket). He undergoes radiation treatment on his privates, which couldn't have been pleasant. Finally a doctor in Germany (Sebastian Koch) tries a radical new procedure on him.

The film is breathtaking beautiful. Hooper and his cameraman, Danny Cohen, have used a painterly eye to match their subjects. The point of the view of the artist is a main theme running through the film, as if people could create themselves, or recreate themselves, as objets d'art.

But Hooper, and his screenwriter Lucinda Coxon (the source material is a novel, not a work of nonfiction) seem so hellbent on treating Lily respectfully that the whole this is defanged. I think Redmayne is brilliant--at the beginning he is a delicate but not effeminate man, but slowly, like a chrysalis, he turns into a woman (and wears the clothes quite well--if someone wants to do a biopic of David Bowie, here's your actor). Vikander, in some ways, plays the more interesting role. She's the supportive, kinky wife (when she first discovers him wearing her underwear it turns him on), but realizes that if he becomes a woman she will lose "him," but out of love goes through it anyway.

Aside from the harrowing scenes at the doctors' offices, there isn't a sense of peril in the film that I think it needs. I imagine being a transvestite in the decadent '20s in Denmark was probably the place to be a transvestite, but it was still a risky thing to be. I think of the decadence expressed in Bob Fosse's Cabaret, which is needed here. The Danish Girl is the most wholesome movie about transgender persons that could ever be made.

Monday, January 18, 2016


With Joy, David O. Russell does Frank Capra, and it just doesn't work. In this tale of an example of the American dream working, Russell has given it a sprinkling of fairy dust, shown by two key scenes in which snow (in one case, artificial) falls on her. It recalls It's a Wonderful Life, but while that film was in a time and place where the American dream was thriving, Joy doesn't seem real. The American dream is dead.

Jennifer Lawrence stars as Joy, who is loosely based on Joy Mangano, who invented the Miracle Mop, sold it on home shopping channels, and made millions. I have no idea what her real story was, but here we get a distinctly Hollywood notion. For one thing, Joy's last name is never said, perhaps because Lawrence looks about as Italian as the Swedish Bikini Team. As good as an actress Lawrence is, she is miscast. She's supposed to be a put upon single mother, driven out of her mind by nutty family members and struggling to pay her mortgage. But there's not a line on Lawrence's face--not a single crow's foot. I agree with a reviewer who said Marisa Tomei would have made a good choice.

The spine of Joy is don't give up on your dreams. Lawrence plays the character as someone who normally suffers in silence, whether being casually insulted by her bombastic father (Robert De Niro), her nasty half-sister (Elisabeth Rohm), or a variety of business types she meets. The one who actually listens to her is Bradley Cooper, who runs QVC, and purrs to her like a character from Glengarry Glen Ross about the keys to selling (it's not the face, it's the hands). I liked this part of the film best, getting a glimpse into that whole world, where viewers are practically hypnotized into buying. I also really liked Melissa Rivers' brief but spot-on impersonation of her mother, Joan.

But the family drama stuff is badly paced and feels like forced eccentricity. Lawrence's mother, Virginia Madsen, spends all day watching soap operas, which we see starring real-life soap stars like Susan Lucci, and they don't feel right. De Niro, divorced from the mother, takes up with a rich woman, Isabella Rossellini, who seems to have strolled out of a Coen Brothers' film. Diane Ladd plays Lawrence's patient grandmother, but I just couldn't buy into the whole thing.

I also found some of the business dealing inauthentic. Without knowing what really happened, I find it hard to believe that Joy found her manufacturer was screwing her over by wandering through a door in a restroom, and the final showdown in a Texas hotel room is pure Hollywood and completely unbelievable.

I'd like to think the American dream is still available to everyone, but the growing income inequity is the U.S. has pretty much killed it off. Joy was lucky someone didn't steal her design, and her story is less about following your dreams than a stroke of sheer luck.

Beyond that, Joy seems unformed and not completely though out. During Russell's run, I've really only loved Silver Linings Playbook, and found The Fighter and American Hustle wanting. I'd add Joy to that list.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Happiness Is a Warm Gun

Guns, and the regulation or lack thereof, has been an inflammatory issue for as long as I can remember, and it doesn't seem like it will change any time soon. Unlike civil rights, there has been no movement on sane gun laws in the United States, due mostly to the National Rifle Association, the most effective lobbying organization in the nation. Also, there is an attitude about guns, particularly among white rural citizens, that defies description.

If I had my way, I'd take away everybody's guns. I can say that because I'm not running for anything. If I was running, the NRA would come down on me like a hammer. Also, there is the sticky wicket of the Second Amendment, which reads: "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed." If I had a time machine, I would go back to 1787, put on a powdered wig, and tell those guys that they are drafting one of those most brilliant documents in the history of man, except for that one, ungrammatical sentence. Are those two separate ideas? Or did they mean that the right of the people to bear arms is related to well-regulated militias. Because what they seem to be saying is that militias should be well regulated, but citizens rights should not be infringed. Just what the fuck did they mean?

I suspect, though I am not an expert on this, is that citizens had a right to bear arms in those days because they didn't want British soldiers riding into town and taking over. Today we have police, the National Guard, and the Armed Services, which are all heavily armed against invaders. Do citizens need guns to protect themselves? Against what, exactly? There are more people shot by toddlers in the U.S. than terrorists. The two yahoos in the picture above--do they really expect ISIS to attack the cleaning goods aisle at the supermarket, or are they just walking around with automatic weapons to compensate for their lack of masculinity?

I think the resistance to gun control, any kind of gun control, even completely reasonable background checks, stems from a distinctly American repulsion at being told what to do. I hear it, but in order to have a civilization, there have to be rules. We have a whole bunch on car ownership--got to have insurance, got to wear seat belts, got to pass a driver's test. Of course, we don't have Constitutional amendments giving us the right to drive cars (damn you, James Madison), so the argument goes.

I have come to accept that citizens have the right to own pistols and rifles and shotguns. But to me, machine guns are not necessary. I'm not against ranges where you can go and pay money to shoot them (they have them here in Vegas, and for a pacifist, I'm oddly attracted to them). Let's face it, guns are sexy. We've seen enough James Bond movies to fantasize about jumping around shooting a gun. But, let's use some common sense. Background checks of all purchases, gun shows included, should be required. I also think drug tests should be a requirement. Let's give these people who think welfare recipients should be drug-tested a taste of their own medicine.

And as for open-carry laws, they are nuts. I have to believe they are a nightmare for law enforcement. Just how is a cop who sees the two nitwits in the picture above supposed to know they are not about to shoot up the place? Tamir Rice, gunned down for carrying a toy gun in Cleveland, in a state with open-carry, was not breaking a law. Had he been white, he surely would be alive today. It seems that some police have made the distinction--if it's a black person with a gun, shoot first and ask questions later. A white person--go ahead and ask questions.

I have a solution, though. It worked somewhat in the 1960s, but would require some very brave people to implement it. When the Black Panthers were active, Ronald Reagan, then governor of California, pushed through gun control laws, because white people have always been scared of black people with guns (as Michael Moore showed in Bowling for Columbine, white America's obsession with firearms really is about fear of black people). If black people in Texas start carrying AK-47s to the 7-Eleven, white people may think twice about open-carry laws. Of course, those black people may just get gunned down by cops.

We have a few national diseases. Racism is one, and xenophobia is another. Ammosexuality, as it has been dubbed, has been around for years, but is now in epidemic form, as state legislatures have lost their collective minds, and allowed people from George Zimmerman to Ammon Bundy, guys you would cross the street to avoid, to become heroes to the wingnut class. The obsession with guns is a disease that we need to eradicate, as more and more innocent people are shot and killed.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

The Thing About Jellyfish

The next book I'm going to read to my students is The Thing About Jellyfish, which was nominated for a National Book Award. I think it will be good for them, but a little bit like peas are good for them. I'm not sure how they will like it, because it is almost completely bleak.

The story is about a seventh-grader, Suzy Swanson, who is going through a very tough time. Her former best friend, Franny, has drowned. She reacts so strongly that she has stopped speaking. She is what might be politely called a nerd, full of facts and figures, and has lately been obsessed with jellyfish. She becomes convinced that Franny was killed by one, a tiny species that is almost invisible, but has powerful venom.

Suzy studies jellyfish, and researches experts who might help her. She decides on a biologist in Australia, and plots running away from home to discuss her theory with him. Needless to say, Suzy is a very disturbed little girl.

The writing, by Ali Benjamin, is terrific, though despairing. It is narrated by Suzy, who tells us how she met Franny, became friends, and how their friendship dissipated. This part should be very close to home to many girls, as Franny gravitates toward the popular (and therefore, shallow) girls, while Suzy doesn't hide her eccentricities (when she is invited to sit with the popular girls, she chatters on about how sweat and urine are sterile). At one point, and I think all kids who have been outsiders have heard this, Franny asks Suzy, "Why do you have to be so weird?"

Jellyfish are an interesting subject, and this novel covers just about it all (it grew out of a nonfiction article Benjamin wrote). We learn that they have been around long before most other animals, and have survived every mass extinction, and are taking over the oceans because of global warming and over-fishing. Benjamin frames the novel in the steps of a science experiment, so kids who are into science would especially like it.

There is a heartwarming ending, but after teaching my kids Walk Two Moons, which is full of death, I wonder how my kids will take this.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Fuck tha Academy

Well, we can guess what Chris Rock's first joke will be about.

When I watched the announcement of the Academy Awards yesterday morning, I was first struck by the shocking omission of Ridley Scott as Best Director for The Martian. But then again, I am a white guy. As the day progressed, the big story was the total absence of people of color in the acting nominees for the second straight year. This drew a hue and cry from many quarters.

It seemed extra cruel that two movies about black America, Creed and Straight Outta Compton, each received one nomination--which went to white people (although, why didn't the Compton producers get black writers?) Though I certainly understand the outrage about this, I think that this is pretty trivial in the long run, especially when considering other things that affect the black community, like high incarceration rates, police brutality, and unemployment.

Before I sound like Bill O'Reilly, let me explain. The problem with so-called snubs is that people usually don't have the guts to say who shouldn't be nominated. The vacuous mannequins on Access Hollywood bemoaned that Will Smith should have been nominated for Concussion, but didn't say who he should replace. It's easy to say someone was screwed, but back it up and say who took their place improperly.

Secondly, the Academy Awards are selected by 6,000 people in the movie business, who hardly represent the pulse of America. Attempts have been made to make the membership more diverse, but what exactly does this mean? If there were more black members, Straight Outta Compton would have been nominated for Best Picture, because black people will automatically like it? Black people can't like Brooklyn? Also, what people protesting seem to be calling for is some kind of quota. If the voters didn't like Will Smith (I haven't seen the film, but judging by the trailer the performance is typically overwrought Smith), so be it. Maybe I'm naive, but I doubt voters checked in with each other and said, "Don't vote for any black people."

The problem is that there isn't more films written, directed, and featuring black people. If someday a larger percentage of films are about black people, made by black people, then the nominations will certainly increase. When most black films seem to be starring Kevin Hart or directed by Tyler Perry, well, don't hold your breath on the Oscars.

Okay, so what else did we learn from the nomination reveal? The Revenant was the big winner, with 12 nominations. But it did not get a screenplay nomination, which hurts it's Best Picture chances. Same with the next highest nominee, Mad Max: Fury Road. I love all the love it got, considering it's a sci-fi car movie, the fourth in its series (the last of which was thirty years ago) and it ended up being my favorite movie of the year. But it won't win Best Picture.

The rest of the Best Picture nominees were predictable, with Spotlight and The Big Short the only movies that are lined up for the win: they have the necessary director, screenplay, at least one acting nomination, editing, and a SAG nomination for Best Ensemble.

But back to Scott: when a director is shunned like that, it fucks up a prognosticator. This has happened a few times over the years, and every time the DGA, which is a great bellwethers for Oscar, has responded by giving their award to the passed over guy. This happened in 1985 (Spielberg for The Color Purple), 1995 (Ron Howard for Apollo 13), and 2012 (Ben Affleck for Argo). The shunned guy wins the DGA, leaving the Oscar race wide open. Although only in 2012 did the picture actually win the Oscar, which means if Scott wins the DGA it doesn't mean The Martian will win Best Picture. In fact, I think The Martian's chance are slim and none.

The other big story of the morning was Sylvester Stallone getting the call for Creed (instead of director Ryan Coogler or co-star Michael B. Jordan). He got a big hand at the announcements from the press, and a great reception when he won his Golden Globe. Will he win? I think so--but voters will have to hold their noses and overlook all the schlock he's done over the years. Also, buzz is that he's not a warm and cuddly guy. Should an Oscar go to the man who made Stop, or My Mom Will Shoot?

A few bits of trivia: Stallone sets the record for the longest gap between nominations for playing the same character, 39 years. He joins Paul Newman (Fast Eddie Felson), Peter O'Toole (Henry II), Cate Blanchett (Elizabeth I) and Al Pacino (Michael Corleone) as performers nominated twice for the same character. In Best Original Score, we have two octogenarians: Ennio Morricone, who has never won an Oscar in competition, gets nominated for The Hateful Eight at age 87, a record in this category, and John Williams, 83, gets his fiftieth individual nomination for Star Wars: The Force Awakens!

Speaking of score, also in this category is Thomas Newman, for Bridge of Spies. This is his fourteenth nomination, and he has yet to win. Also in the bridesmaid category is Roger Deakins, who just picked up his 14th nomination for lensing Sicario, and he is also without a win. Below the line talent don't generally get sentimental votes, because their names are not on the ballot, just the movie.

In the younger person arena, Jennifer Lawrence just got her fourth nomination by the age of 25, a record (previously held by Natalie Wood). Lawrence may be the new Meryl Streep, getting nominated for anything, even a movie, like Joy, that got tepid reviews, or at least the new Kate Winslet or Cate Blanchett, who each picked up their seventh nominations.

Things to look for on Oscar night: two directors have won in back-to-back years, John Ford (1940-41) and Joseph Mankiewicz (1949-50). However, no director has helmed back-to-back Best Pictures, and Alejandro G. Innaritu has a chance at both. His cinematographer, Emmanuel Luzbecki, stands a very good chance at winning his third Oscar in a row, which would be a record for the category. Oh, and for the first time in god knows when, Harvey Weinstein could not get a film nominated for Best Picture.

So, start guessing at how Chris Rock will skewer the Academy for their whiteness, send Harvey your condolences, and root for upsets and controversy to make the evening tolerable.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Inside Daisy Clover

I watched Inside Daisy Clover as part of my survey of the prominent films of 1965. It received a few Oscar nominations, notably for Ruth Gordon as Best Supporting Actress. But it is, quite simply, dreadful. The film offends taste at almost every level--badly acted, written, and directed.

The film was directed by Robert Mulligan, who also made To Kill a Mockingbird, but to look at his filmography that was kind of a fluke, as he mostly made bloated romances during the '60s. To judge from watching Inside Daisy Clover, it was directed by someone who has no sense of how to tell a story or pace one, either.

It's the cynical story of a young tomboy (Natalie Wood) in the 1930s who grows up in a beach town with her dotty mother (Gordon, who almost always played dotty). She dreams of becoming a star, and sends a record of herself singing to a movie studio head. He's Christopher Plummer, pretty much playing the same uptight prig as he was in The Sound of Music. He makes her a star, but also demands controlling every bit of her life, including putting her mother in a nursing home. With the help of a famous movie star (Robert Redford, in one of his first screen roles), she busts loose.

Okay, where to start? First of all, Wood was a talent, but she can't pull off being a 28-year-old playing a 15-year-old. She was doomed from the start. Secondly, Wood's voice is dubbed, as it was in West Side Story, but the voice actress is not that great. Third, the film's timeline is all screwed up. She seems to be making the same movie that has just recently came out to great acclaim. How many movies has she made? It all seems to be one about her joining the circus, and it looks horrible. And then there's the relationship between Wood and Redford. Plummer points out to Redford that she's "jailbait," so Redford marries her, which is just as creepy. I suspect they didn't go with an actual teenager because it would have been a pedophile's dream.

Redford's character is a closeted homosexual, and Inside Daisy Clover is notable for having the first gay character who is not ashamed, disgraced, or suicidal. That is to be commended, but it's too bad it's in this horrible movie.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Baby, I'm a Rich Man

Millions of Americans, me included, have been taking flights of fancy the last few days. We've all got tickets to a lottery, and the jackpot is up to 1.5 billion dollars. It's the largest jackpot in U.S. history. The drawing is tonight. If no one wins, it will go up even higher.

Lotteries go back in history a fair bit, but weren't always on the up and up. It is a form of legalized gambling, and to give it the veneer of wholesomeness money goes to things like education. But it still gets knocked by a lot of people; some call it the "Poor People's Tax," because only desperate people play it. That may be true on a weekly basis, but I know some people who are quite wealthy who buy tickets when it gets this stratospherically high.

I like the lottery, though I only play when it gets very high. This was true when it was easy to buy tickets, in New Jersey, and especially so now, when it is not. I live in Nevada, which does not have a lottery system. With almost the entire state having legalized gambling, the powers that be don't want to lose any money to a lottery. So my girlfriend drove to Arizona (three times now) to buy tickets. Her wait was thirty minutes the last time. She is smart, because it's also a short drive to California, but in Primm, the first town over the line, the wait was five hours.

I understand the argument about lotteries. When people buy tickets instead of buying essentials, it's a bad thing, but it's like any form of gambling, or any addiction, really (I know people who buy cigarettes instead of food). What the lottery offers, at two bucks a ticket, is the ability to dream, which is not a small thing. If you bought a ticket for tonight's drawing, you're probably spending the money in your head. You're figuring how what will you buy, how much you'll set aside for family and friends, thinking about being completely debt free. Most of us would stop working with that kind of money, and could thus live anywhere. Where would that be?

With that kind of money, if you won the jackpot, you could do really outlandish things (the cash pay out is over 900 million). You could buy a plane. You could finance a movie (my dad and I want to make a remake of Shane--we get to pick the cast, and give small parts to ourselves). I could pay for the college education of everyone of my students. I could self-publish a book, or start a magazine and not care if anyone actually buys it. It would not be quite enough to buy a professional sporst team--maybe a minor league baseball team.

When I've been low, sometimes a big lottery jackpot gets me through the hard times. Sure, I don't win, and I move on. but for a few days that daydreaming is succor to my soul. As long as it exists, I have a way out.

Of course the odds are ridiculously small: 1 in 292.2 million. My odds of winning an Academy Award or being canonized a saint are higher. Also, there are the inevitable "winning the lottery ruins your life" articles. Some people have squandered fortunes, ruined families, etc. But those people weren't smart. I'm just the right kind of person to win, because I would know how to handle it, tee hee. And for those who say it won't solve my problems, well, it will solve all the financial ones. I'd rather have my problems living on the beach, everyday a Saturday, then not.

So, if you have a ticket, good luck--on winning the second-place prize. First prize is mine.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

David Bowie

I suspect many people, like myself, were listening to David Bowie's songs yesterday, and maybe even today. His death Sunday night took everyone by surprise--a collective gasp of humanity--and he was already discussed on social media because it had just been his birthday, number 69. He had just started making new music again, and the loss is like a crater in our souls.

Encomiums are all over the Web, and since I am no expert on music I can only write about what he meant to me. I believe his greatest hits album, Changesonebowie, was the first real rock record I bought that didn't involve The Beatles or their various members. It must have been 1976, when I was 15. I listened to top-40 AM radio, and may have heard of the kind of bands that scared parents but didn't listen to their music. It was when "Fame" and "Golden Years" broke through on the charts that Bowie showed up on my radar.

I remember buying that record, at Dearborn Music, and realizing I was taking a great leap forward. I held the album in my hand and wondered if should I continue. Thankfully, the image of Bowie on the cover was sedate, not like Aladdin Sane, with the lightning bolt on the face. I seem to remember my dad being somewhat taken aback when I arrived home with the record. He was a fan of some contemporary music (like The Beatles) but this was out of his sphere, too.

I loved that album, which had both "Fame" (co-written, I learned, by John Lennon) and "Golden Years" but also "Space Oddity," Bowie's first memorable song and perhaps the one most associated with him, and "Suffragette City," "Rebel, Rebel," and "Ziggy Stardust." (I previously wrote about that album, my favorite of his and one my favorites of all-time).

When my tastes shifted to FM and classic rock, I learned more about Bowie. I had his magnificent album Station to Station, and then Low, his first of the "Berlin Trilogy," which kind of threw me and everyone else for a loop, as he once again reinvented himself and became a New Wave artist. Later, he became most popular when he embraced MTV and performed danceable songs like "Let's Dance," his best-selling record ever.

He was also an infrequent but memorable actor. His film The Man Who Fell to Earth cemented the idea that he was like someone not from this Earth, or, as I read yesterday, the most human of aliens. I believe his last role was as Nikola Tesla in The Prestige, and more than one person, myself included, didn't even realize that was him as we watched.

Bowie was also important to the outsiders among us. I've been reading comments by many who were changed by his songs. "Rebel, Rebel," and it's line, "Not sure if I'm a boy or girl" affected many who were gender-confused. The supporting lines in "Rock and Roll Suicide"'--"Oh no, love, you're not alone," had to be succor to many. The most listened to Bowie song on Spotify since the news of his death his has been "Heroes":

I, I will be king
And you, you will be queen
Though nothing will drive them away
We can beat them, just for one day
We can be Heroes, just for one day

I have been trying to decide what my favorite Bowie song is and it's futile. I keep remember songs that I had forgot he did, like the theme from Cat People, "Putting Out Fire (With Gasoline)," or "TVC15," or "DJ," or maybe "Starman." If someone made me pick, I'd go with "1984," which begins with a funky wah-wah guitar and then soars off into science fiction.

David Bowie was a complete original, a weirdo in the best sense of the world, who literally changed the world. He was a rock star but also an artist, a man who never rested on his laurels, who always led while others followed.

Monday, January 11, 2016

The Revenant

After seeing The Revenant yesterday I called my dad, who is as big a fan of Westerns as I am. I mentioned that he might have a tough time hearing the dialogue, as he is hard of hearing and some of the characters have thick accents. But as I mentioned this it occurred to me that The Revenant is one of those films that pass what some call the true test of cinema--it can be understood even without dialogue.

Directed with majestic sweep by Alejandro G. Innaritu, shot with breathtaking beauty by Emmanuel Lubezki, and scored hauntingly by Ryuichi Sakamoto and Alva Noto, The Revenant is a film of the senses, even if film only provides us two senses--sight and sound. But the other senses kick in. We can almost feel the cold, taste the snow, and smell the campfires.

The story is of mountain man and fur trapper Hugh Glass. His story may or may not have happened the way we see it (it provided the story of an earlier film, Man in the Wilderness with Richard Harris). After an attack by Indians that decimates a company of trappers, led by Domnhall Gleeson, Glass (Leonard DiCaprio) comes between some cubs and their mother. He is mauled by the bear, and clinging to life is left with two compatriots, who promise Gleeson they will watch over him until they can return, or he succumbs to the wounds. One of these is a young Jim Bridger (that name is known to any student of the West), played by Will Poulter, and the scurrilous Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), who is always out for number one. Also staying with DiCaprio is his teenage son, whose mother was a Pawnee.

Hardy ends up killing the boy, while DiCaprio watches, helpless. Bridger is unaware of this, and Hardy tells him the Indians are nearby, and they must leave DiCaprio behind. Hardy fashions him a shallow grave and leaves him for dead. The rest of the film is DiCaprio, bent on revenge, dragging himself to civilization.

As mentioned in other articles about the film, it is brutal. DiCaprio's injuries are vividly rendered by the makeup artists, although even the supposed truth is more brutal--Glass had exposed ribs in his back, had a broken leg and set his own splint, and realized his wounds were festering so he laid against a rotting log so that maggots could clean his wounds. Instead we see scenes of DiCaprio helplessly head down rapids, hurtle off a cliff on a horse, hit some tree limbs, and then sleep inside that very same horse (now, of course, dead). He will encounter a Pawnee who helps him, and eludes the Arikara, who are looking for the kidnapped daughter of their chief.

The Revenant is an incredible visual experience. For a while I felt like I had never seen a movie before. The Indian attack is amazing, consisting of some very long shots (Innaritu, after Birdman, seems to love them). The choreography of this must have been intense, as the camera, standing in for us, is in the middle of it all. You may find yourself ducking arrows, even though it is not shot in 3-D. At one point the moving camera attaches itself to a moving horse, and I have no idea how that was done.

The other memorable scene is the bear attack. It is sudden, vicious, and I may not have breathed during it. The bear is CGI, of course, and that shows at times, but it doesn't alleviate the terror and violence of the scene.

Luzbecki, who is likely to win his third straight Oscar (he won previously for Gravity and Birdman) has done wonders. You may think that anyone can shoot the beautiful scenery (it was filmed mostly in the Canadian Rockies) but Luzbecki does something more--the scenery is both beautiful and menacing, the gray winter a constant threat to life. I shivered a bit when I saw men walk through freezing water--the mountain men did it, but so did the actors--and you get the definite sense that life is precarious in such a situation.

DiCaprio is outstanding. He is the likely Oscar winner, even though it is a mostly silent part (he does say many more words that Jean Dujardin did in The Artist, though). Oscar wins are often a matter of timing--I can't say this is his best performance ever, though it is right there--but certainly the punishment he must have taken for this role will earn him votes. Hardy is also very good as a despicable person. We don't learn much about him, except that his father thought that God was a squirrel, and killed and ate it.

My only quibble is that the ending drags on a bit too long. The film is two and a half hours long and frankly, I needed to pee. We can guess the ending, though not how it happens. I was thinking to myself, "Just kill him so I can go relieve myself." But that's small potatoes. The Revenant is an outstanding work of art.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Cat Ballou

It's often been said that comedy gets short shrift at the Oscars, and I suppose that's true. Only three comedies have won Best Picture (You Can't Take It With You, Tom Jones, and Annie Hall), and as far as I'm concerned, only two purely comic performances have won Oscars--Kevin Kline in A Fish Called Wanda and Lee Marvin's in Cat Ballou.

I was only four years old when Marvin won, so I don't know what all the circumstances were. The other nominees were dramatic ones--Richard Burton for The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, Laurence Olivier for Othello, Rod Steiger for The Pawnbroker, and Oskar Werner for Ship of Fools. Steiger and Marvin were the only Americans, and only Olivier had won before. I've seen four of these performances, and Steiger's is the most obviously Oscar material.

But, Marvin's performance is great. He plays two roles (off the top of my head, I believe it's the only Oscar-winning performance in which an actor plays more than one role). He is both the cold-blooded killer Tim Strawn, who wears a prosthetic nose (it was bit off in a bar fight) and the gunfighter Kid Sheleen, once a hero of dime novels, now a drunken shell of a man.

The title character is played by a young Jane Fonda, before her trip to Hanoi (and what a beauty she was--and still is). She is a prim woman of the west, about to become a teacher. She is returning home after her schooling on a train and gets involved with a couple of bumbling outlaws (Michael Callan and Dwayne Hickman), helping them escape. Then, when she arrives at her father's ranch, she finds that he's being forced out by higher powers, who have hired Strawn.

Fonda, a fan of dime novels, hires Sheleen, and she's disappointed to see the drunken wretch who arrives. He can shoot for a few moments after he's had a drink, but then turns into a stumblebum. It's his drunken antics, with eyes rolling and physical contortions, that make him so funny. Marvin had spent a career playing tough guys, and his departure into physical comedy may have been the reason voters chose him.

Anyway, Fonda's father is killed (in one of the great gags of the film, Marvin mistakes the candles around his coffin for birthday cake and sings a rousing verse of "Happy Birthday to You") and Fonda and her "gang" rob a train to get back at the company that had her father murdered. Marvin cleans up his act and faces off against Strawn, and Fonda kills the company president and is scheduled to hang. All this is sung to us by a pair of buskers (Stubby Kaye and Nat King Cole) acting as a Greek chorus in a terrific ballad. I'm still humming it in my head, and singing "Wolf City, Wyoming."

Cat Ballou is very funny and is not be to taken seriously for one minute. Hickman is very funny, especially when he disguises himself as a drunken preacher ("I'm as drunk as a skunk"). One of the great sight gags is late in the film, when Marvin is atop his horse, leaning against the wall, the horse with his legs crossed. I believe this is based on a statue, but I can't find that information anywhere. If anyone knows the name of the statue, please comment. When Marvin accepted his Oscar, he said, "I think half of this belongs to a horse in the valley somewhere."

Saturday, January 09, 2016

Thirteen Days in September

Jimmy Carter's political life has taken interesting turns. He left office one of the most reviled chief executives in American history, but is now (mostly) revered as a humanitarian. His presidency was a series of missteps and bad luck, so much so that his greatest achievement, the brokering of a peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, kind of got overlooked. It happened in September of 1978, when Carter invited Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin to the presidential retreat Camp David.

The real-life drama is described in Lawrence Wright's Thirteen Days in September, a very readable and enlightening tome. Wright highlights how history brought three unlikely men together: Carter, a one-term governor of Georgia, was an unlikely president, and Begin was long on the fringes of Israeli politics, a Polish Jew who can be termed a terrorist for his activities resulting in hundreds of deaths.

Wright covers all the angles. Not only does he give us extensive biographical and psychological sketches of the three world leaders, but also of their entourages, particularly Moshe Dayan and Ezer Weizman of Israel, who were for a treaty, while Begin seemed to against it. Sadat is also an interesting figure, a man of great dignity and decorum, who was keen on making peace, but almost blew the whole thing.

There is also a great primer on the history of the conflict between the two countries, going back to Moses and Samson, right up to the founding of Israel in 1948 and the Six-Day War of 1967 and the Yom Kippur War of 1973. I lived through much of this stuff but after the reading the book I feel like I know now what I didn't before.

It was all Carter's idea: "Against the counsel of his closest aides and his own political interest, Carter had decided to risk everything. Camp David would not be about breaking a political impasse so that more talks could take place; it would be about creating a lasting peace agreement in the Middle East, with the signatures of all three leaders on the line." Carter's presidency was already in deep trouble, and it was like going all-in in poker.

Begin was the thorn in everyone's side. He balked at many things in the drafts of the agreement, most specifically about settlements in the Sinai peninsula, which Begin refused to discuss eliminating. Carter often accused Begin of being disingenuous about coming in the first place--he didn't seem like he wanted peace.

For an American, I think the most fascinating aspect of the book is the study of Carter. Today he is a cuddly grandpa, but he is frequently described as being a cold and ambitious person: "First of all, he was overly ambitious. He wanted to fix the entire problem if the Middle East. That was naive. He wasn't certain now that he could solve even a tiny portion of the conflict. His original vision--that Sadat and Begin could find their own solution to their problems--had failed. Their hatred and distrust for each other really did seem to be three thousand years old."

Furthermore, Wright describes many moments when Carter's anger erupted. The most dramatic moment was when Sadat, in a high dudgeon, was packing to leave. Carter accosted him: "Then let me tell you. It will mean first of all an end to the relationship between the U.S. and Egypt. There is no way we can ever explain this to our people. It would mean an end to this peacekeeping effort, into which I have put so much investment. It would probably mean an end of my presidency because this whole effort will be discredited. And last but not least, it will mean the end of something that is very precious to me: my friendship with you. Why are you doing it?" Wright then writes, "Sadat swallowed hard. Carter's cold blue eyes were only twelve inches from his." What a moment!

Begin finally caved and an agreement was reached. Wright thinks it might have been Carter's personally signing pictures for Begin's grandchildren, making the old warrior sentimental. In any event, though Carter was successful, it didn't help him politically in the U.S., as the failed attempt to rescue the Iranian hostages squashed any hope of his re-election.

Sadat would be assassinated by Islamic militants, his own people. But the treaty still stands: "The unresolved issues of Camp David have not gone away, but the success of the summit is measured by its durability. Since the signing of the treaty between Israel and Egypt in 1978, there has not been a single violation of the terms of agreement. It's impossible to calculate the value of peace until war brings it to an end."

Thursday, January 07, 2016


As baseball fans know, no player has ever been elected unanimously to the Hall of Fame by the baseball writers. Not Babe Ruth, not Ty Cobb, not Joe DiMaggio, not Ted Williams, not Mickey Mantle, not Willie Mays, not Hank Aaron (DiMaggio wasn't even elected in his first year of eligibility). We can add to that list Ken Griffey Jr., who received a record 99.3 percent of the vote, it was announced yesterday. He will be joined at this year's induction ceremony by Mike Piazza.

The reasons for this shortsightedness--all of the players listed above are no-brainers, obvious Hall of Famers--is perplexing and mysterious, like trying to fathom the mind of a dog. Writers of any stripe, especially sports writers, are a weird bunch, given to grudges, stubbornness, off-the-wall opinions and, historically, alcohol. I've often thought it bizarre that they are the guardians of the gallery that requires them to judge players on their character and integrity.

But they do, and it seems that no one will ever be unanimous. The three writers who did not vote for Griffey haven't been outed yet, and we can guess at the reasons. One, a ridiculous one, has been that because no one has gotten in unanimously, no one should. I doubt Babe Ruth will spin in his grave if someone does get in with 100 percent (he missed by eleven votes), but some writers have used this defense as if they were protecting the sanctity of Ruth and Cobb and Walter Johnson like that old knight protecting the Grail in Indian Jones and the Last Crusade.

Second, there is a group of writers who are disgusted by the PED era. One writer, whose name escapes me, said he will not vote for anyone who played during the period, which roughly runs from 1990-2010. This includes those who have not even a whiff of suspicion, like Griffey. The theory seems to be that no one is innocent. This writer, and those that think that way, can be understood, but it's sort of like burning the village down to get one offender.

There's also simple dopiness. When Tom Seaver missed by five votes about twenty-five years ago one writer chalked it up to a brain fart. I guess that happens.

As for Piazza, this was his fourth time on the ballot, and the reasons it took him so long are also nebulous and stupid. He is the greatest hitting catcher of all time. Someone who is not used to the vagaries of the baseball writers may well ask, "Did he improve his statistics in the three years from the first ballot to now, even without playing a game?" No, but some writers, who take this little bit of power as if it were given to them by Zeus, have created a new category--the first ballot guy. Said writers, (one of them was Murray Klein of the Newark Star-Ledger) decided that some players deserved to get in on the first ballot and some did not. This is not something the Hall of Fame has determined, and there is nothing on the plaque that indicates what year they got in or what committee enshrined them. But writers, many of whom loathe and envy the players they write about, have decided to split hairs and make distinctions.

But enough about voting--let me talk about the players. As noted, both are eminently qualified. Griffey, in the steroid era, had 630 home runs, which ranks him fourth all-time if you take out the tainted (behind Aaron, Ruth, and Mays). He was a superlative centerfielder, often giving up his body to make the play.

Piazza was the only catcher to get 200 hits in a season, and was a better hitter even than Johnny Bench. He was an average-to-good catcher defensively, which cost him some votes, but was a team leader and will always be remember for having half of his bat thrown at him by Roger Clemens in the 2000 World Series.

I saw both of them play in person. I don't have any specific memories of Piazza, though I must have seen him many times while he caught for the Mets. Griffey I know I saw in game one and two of the 1995 ALDS, when he hit three home runs in losing causes (the Mariners would go on to win the series in Seattle, with Griffey galloping home from first on Edgar Martinez's double--as a Yankee hater it was a great moment).

Just missing this year was Jeff Bagwell and Tim Raines. Both have hit percentage numbers that suggest they will get in next year (it will be Raines' last on the ballot, which usually means a bump up). The only other first-year player to get significant support was Trevor Hoffman at 67 percent, which suggests he will get in next year or the year after. This does not bode well for next year's new faces, the most prominent of which are Manny Ramirez, Vlad Guerrero, Jorge Posada, and Ivan Rodriguez. Ramirez will likely be spiked for his connection to illicit substances, and the other three are worthy but probably not "first-ballot" guys. It will be an interesting vote next year, and certainly no one will get in unanimously.

Wednesday, January 06, 2016

Othello (1965)

The major garnerer of acting nominations in 1965 was Othello, which had four performers nominated: Laurence Olivier as the Moor, Frank Findlay as Iago, Maggie Smith as Desdemona, and Joyce Redman as Emilia (Findlay was nominated for Supporting Actor even though his part is larger than Othello's). It didn't win any, but it's a sign that the Academy has always respected top-shelf Shakespeare; it's as if they think that Shakespearean actors are inherently better.

They might not be wrong. Some great actors wouldn't be a right fit for the Bard--Henry Fonda and Jimmy Stewart, whose American accents are too strong, and Michael Caine, who never lost his Cockney. But Shakespeare requires the consummate skills of an actor, both in handling difficult language and in the incredibly complex characterizations.

This was the fourth Oscar nomination for Olivier in a Shakespearean role (and his last). It is also likely that it was one of the last times a white actor used blackface to play the part. In fact, to watch this film requires one to get used to the notion of a man looking like he stepped out of a minstrel show, the whites of his eyes set against coal-black skin; the pink of his lips gleaming when he smiles. But if one can get past that, this is a smashing production, and the type of film that should be done more often--it's the film of a play, a production put on by England's National Theatre, with minimal sets. If outfits like Fathom Events can put on the Metropolitan Opera at theaters around the nation, why not stage plays?

This Othello, directed by Stuart Burge, gives us a straightforward adaptation--no modern dress. Olivier is the Moor of Venice, a great general who has married Desdemona, much to her father's consternation. But Othello is so well regarded that the old man is told to chill. Iago, Othello's aide-de-camp, is furious over being passed over for promotion, so he schemes to destroy him by making him think that Desdemona has been dallying with an officer named Cassio (here played by a young Derek Jacobi). Iago is found out, but too late, as Othello has murdered Desdemona in a fit of jealous rage, and then kills himself.

As with most of Shakespeare's villains, Iago is the more interesting character, akin to Richard III. Iago comes up with most of the best lines, and introduced the phrases "heart on my sleeve" and "the green-eyed monster." He also has one of the most enigmatic lines in Shakespeare: "I am not what I am." Findlay, whom I have only seen in two other films, Richard Lester's Musketeer films, is thrilling in the part. Olivier, of course, is unparalleled. He alters his voice, lowering the register to make Othello seem more powerful. But damn that skin makeup.

Maggie Smith has endeared herself to so many in recent years, through the Harry Potter films and Downton Abbey, that it's hard to remember she was once young, and here she is a beautiful and sad Desdemona. Redman, playing Iago's wife Emilia, has one big scene, when she reveals his treachery, and she knocks it out of the part.

I would also like to mention Robert Lang, who makes an especially oafish Roderigo.

Tuesday, January 05, 2016

Notorious: The Life of Ingrid Bergman

This just concluded year was the 100th anniversary of the birth of Ingrid Bergman, one of Hollywood's great stars. In his biography, Donald Spoto, who has chronicled the lives of many in the entertaiment industry, chooses Notorious as his title. It is, of course, one of Bergman's greatest pictures, but it also serves Spoto's purpose in another area: for a tmie, Bergman was one of the most reviled figures in America.

She was born in Sweden in 1915 and orphaned at an early age, raised by aunts (one of whom was German and an ardent Nazi). She attended drama school and was an almost instant success. She became a star of Swedish films and one of them, Intermezzo, became a hit in the U.S., attracting the attention of producer David O. Selznick, who signed her to a contract.

While reading this section, one is forced to remember how things used to be: Selznick had exclusive rights to her. He could loan her out to other studios, but she worked only when he said and doing what he said. Also, Bergman had married a dentist, Petter Lindstrom, who negotiated all her business dealings. She had virtually no say over her career.

Over the decade of the 1940s she became a superduperstar. Of course, there was Casablanca. Bergman wrote to a friend: "'The picture is called Casablanca and I really don't know what it's all about.'" Despite the film's unprecedented success, Bergman did not enjoy making it: "Ingrid, who turned in a haunting performance, was miserable during the entire production, and no one had the remotest idea that the picture would become one of the most popular and enduring films in American history."

Other hits that decade were Gaslight, for which she won an Academy Award, The Bells of St. Mary's, in which she plays a nun, Spellbound, and the aforementioned Notorious, which Spoto concludes is her greatest film. Spoto notes: "It is no exaggeration to maintain that Ingrid Bergman was at this time the least controversial, most beloved celebrity in America. Indeed, the entire Western world was hurrying to add her name to the list of those most idolized and honored."

But Bergman's marriage to Lindstrom, mostly due to separation and separate lives, had calcified. She had affairs with photographer Robert Capa and musician Larry Adler. One day she went to the cinema and saw Rome: Open City, the groundbreaking film by Roberto Rossellini. She wrote him, offering her services as an actress. He was eager to take her up on it. She ended up, a few years later, leaving Lindstrom (and her daughter, Pia) to take up with Rossellini, and bore him an illegitimate child. The effect in America was catastrophic. Legions of decency everywhere denounced her, she was even pilloried on the floor of the U.S. Congress. Her career in Hollywood was over.

She made films with Rossellini, and had twin daughters with him (Isabella Rossellini one of them). She did a lot of stage work in Europe, and slowly attitudes changed. She was approached to do a film about Anastasia, who claimed to be the daughter of the Czar. By the time the film was released, all was forgiven, and Bergman won another Oscar.

Eventually the romance and marriage with Rossellini, who was jealous and a brute, fizzled out. But she had one more marriage, and several more triumphs as an actress, including the long-awaited teaming with Ingmar Bergman in Autumn Sonata and her last role, in a television movie as Golda Meir. By this time she was ravaged with cancer (she was a heavy smoker).

Bergman died in 1982, on her 67th birthday. Spoto notes: "Yes, it had been a good life: in seven countries and in five languages, Ingrid had appeared in forty-six movies, had made eleven stage and five television appearances, and had won every kind of prize her craft bestows. From the golden girl of Stockholm's stage and screen to the ill and wizened Golda Meir--how could anyone ever explain the sheer radiance of Ingrid Bergman, or her profound artistry?"

Spoto certainly tries. It's clear he is enamored of Bergman, sometimes a little too much.  He inserts his opinions far too often. He goes on ad nauseum on how terrible a movie For Whom the Bell Tolls is (it's not bad), but there is a delight as he goes all vicious on the morality police who condemned Bergman (mostly they were American; Europeans, even the Catholic church, couldn't have cared less). But he does get to the bottom of Bergman's gifts: "Ingrid Bergman seemed, in the final analysis, to have no formal technique, and neither an intellectual approach nor a critical analysis attend her preperation. She never partook of learned or pretentious conversations about the psychology of acting...The greatness of her achievements came not from academic analysis or psychological examination but from the rare gift of empathetic and imaginative awareness."

If that weren't enough, Spoto cites dozens of instances in which she acts as a perfect lady, not putting on airs, relatable, approachable, and what might best be termed a good egg. She certainly was a great performer, it's nice to learn she was a good, if flawed, person.