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Saturday, April 30, 2016

When the Levees Broke

Much like 9/11, Hurricane Katrina has been a marking point in twenty-first century America. Though it only affected one small portion of the country directly, it still reverberates through culture and politics, as a representation of the haves and have nots, and especially of the incompetence and failure of nerve of government.

In 2006, just a year after the storm, Spike Lee made a four-hour documentary for HBO, When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts. There have been many books and films about the storm, but as time goes on I think people will look to this for its thoroughness and Lee's boldness in pointing blame.

Of course, a storm is a storm, and there's nothing anybody could do about it. But Katrina, which became a category 5 hurricane and slammed into Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama, did most of its devastation after the storm left. That's when the levees, made by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, failed. That's when the cluster-fuck of trying to bring food and shelter to thousands of displaced persons, made the U.S. look like a country that didn't care about black and poor people.

You may wonder about the four-hour length, and indeed this could have been a two-hour film. But I think Lee was going for weight--in telling the story of twenty people, instead of ten, it adds to the groaning heaviness of the disaster. I watched it over two nights--watching it straight through may be too much for someone, who could give up all hope for everything.

Lee interviews many people, most of them residents of New Orleans. Wendell Pierce, an actor who is in the New Orleans-based series Treme, is one of them. Terence Blanchard, Lee's composer of several films, takes his elderly mother back to see her house, which has been ruined. Her tears will get to the hardest of men. Another person who is on Treme, Phyllis Montana LeBlanc, is the most visible and memorable person in the film, as she doesn't hold back in her anger (and occasional humor) describing her frustration. There's even a brief chat with Sean Penn, who volunteered after the storm.

But most of the people interviewed are the unknown residents who suffered greatly, losing their homes and loved ones. Some still look shell-shocked, some are righteous in their anger. One woman shows us her house, which is now just a foundation. Her friend is asked when she is going to get her promised trailer. "I guess when I give somebody a blowjob."

There were two great failures with Katrina. The levees, we are told, were completely unprepared for this category of storm, though they were supposed to be. The concrete slabs that abutted the mounds of earth were held together, as one expert puts it, by rubber bands. The water didn't so much go over them but knocked them down, putting 85 percent of the city underwater. If the levees had held, there would have been minimal flooding and life would have gone as normal for most folks.

Secondly, FEMA, under the management of Michael Brown, was woefully inadequate in providing services. Many people were herded into the Superdome, where they lived for several days in stifling heat and their own filth. Some were on the interstate ramps. People who tried to walk across a bridge to a neighboring parish were turned away at gun point. President Bush, who comes in for special enmity here, didn't put boots on the ground until after two weeks.

Many died in the storm, many by drowning. Lee doesn't hold back, and shows many of the bodies, floating face down in water, their corpses bloated and blackened. Somewhere around 1,800 people died, depending on whether they were considered to be victims of the storm. Some bodies were found long after the storm, in homes that had supposedly been searched by authorities, with large spray-painted zeroes, indicating no victims, on the side of the house. Here was yet more government ineptitude.

The third villain in the film is the insurance companies, who did everything they could to avoid paying out benefits. Many people had hurricane coverage, but not flood insurance, and the companies said that it was flood damage that was the culprit, and did not pay.

Lee also does a nice job of showing what a vibrant place New Orleans is. If this storm had happened in a run-of-the-mill U.S. city its impact would not nearly have been so great. It is a cultural melange of peoples, and though mostly black, has many different races (we do see the memorable clip of Kanye West saying that George Bush doesn't care about black people) and the birthplace of jazz. Though a resilient people, New Orleans has not retained all the people who left, and were evacuated to far flung places. One woman who was sent to Utah of all places has found a home and good neighbors.

There is a lot more to this story. Lee mentions nothing about the chaos of Memorial Hospital, or the shootings by police. But this will do.

Friday, April 29, 2016


My next commentary on the "other" Grammys is on the winner of Best Contemporary Instrumental, which went to a group called Snarky Puppy. Much as that name may suggest a punk-rock group, they are instead a fusion band led by Michael League, who writes all the music and plays bass. In reading about Snarky Puppy, they have tried almost everything and can't be pigeon-holed.

Sylva, the album that won the Grammy, finds Snarky Puppy teamed with an orchestra, Metropole Orkest of the Netherlands. The music, I guess it can be said, is orchestral jazz, with an element of big band, swing, or as it was once called, hot jazz. I have some problems with jazz, but usually only with stuff written after the 1960s. This sounds much more like it came from the 1940s, my favorite era of jazz.

Sylva, of course, means "woods," and the six-track suite suggests a trip through the forest. The capping number, "The Clearing," is a nineteen-minute celebratory work, maybe a celebration of that the person involved has made it out of the forest. The first few notes of the first track, "Sintra," are strings that suggest something dark and foreboding. Another track title is Gretel, who once had an adventure in the forest.

I don't know much about this kind of music, but I know what I like, and I like this. Often, when I hear instrumental music, I imagine that is a film score, and much of Sylva does sound like that. Then it's a matter of imagining what type of film it goes with. Given one of the tracks is "Atchafalaya," and the music is jazz, perhaps it's a story set in Louisiana, a state that has plenty of hard knocks but always seems to be celebrating. Just take a look at a jazz funeral.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Batgirl of Burnside

Although I don't invest as much time or money in comics as I used to, I still like to check in on them now and again. I had heard good things about the reboot of Batgirl, as part of D.C.'s "New 52" series. The first six issues are collected in Batgirl, Volume 1, Batgirl of Burnside.

Batgirl was first created in 1961, but the Batgirl we know and love, Barbara Gordon, daughter of Police Commissioner Gordon, debuted in 1967. Almost immediately she was a part of the camp TV series, played by leggy Yvonne Craig. Other than surfacing in the film lamentable film Batman and Robin, played by Alicia Silverstone, Batgirl has not had much media representation, but she's been plugging away in the comics.

In reading about the set-up to this series, she had been paralyzed after being shot by the Joker in Alan Moore's The Killing Joke. In Batgirl of Burnside, she has been cured by experimental surgery, and is attending college in the hipster community of Burnside (I think all major cities have a section like this--for New York, it's Williamsburg). Her powers, such as they are, are martial arts, computer genius, and an eidetic memory. At one point she is able to reconstruct the events at a party walking through the room and visualizing everyone there.

Written by Brenden Fletcher and Cameron Stewart, with art by Babs Tarr, Batgirl of Burnside puts the superhero in the middle of contemporary society, most notably social media. A website called Hooq, which is some sort of dating side, probably like Tinder, is at the forefront. Through this site Batgirl receives threats, and she is attacked by several underlings of a villain that seems to know her identity (they include the wonderfully named Dagger Type, an artist). Eventually she figures out that the villain is herself, a brain scan inside a computer that has gone sentient, and wants to wipe out all crime (this is similar to the character of Ultron in Marvel).

This is a breezy, fun read. The only other D.C. character of note who shows is Dinah Prince, aka Black Canary--no Batman in sight, although he looms as a presence. The artwork is well done, but man do they make Batgirl awful skinny--it's hard to believe she can pack any power in her punches or leg kicks. Of course she is also sexy, and starts dating a cop who doesn't know she's Batgirl, and thinks that Batgirl is a vigilante who should be locked up.

With the prevalence of comic book characters on TV, perhaps a Batgirl series is in order. They tried something similar several years ago with Birds of Prey, which didn't go over well, but with Supergirl being a hit, why not?

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

She Hate Me

She Hate Me may not be Spike Lee's worst film--I haven't seen them all--but it is surely his most ludicrous. A movie that starts out being about a whistleblower and then morphs into a strage, unsettling story about a sperm donor, it rarely seems authentic and, despite it's attempts to be fair to women (specifically, lesbians) it's an extended misogynistic fantasy.

Anthony Mackie is the whistleblower, a young VP at a pharmaceutical company. When his friend, a doctor who is working on a vaccine for AIDS, jumps out a window, he realizes there is serious ethical lapses at the company. He drops a dime, gets fired, and finds his bank account frozen (it's never explained how a corporation could monkey with someone's private bank account). Hard up for cash, he reluctantly takes up his ex's offer--impregnate her and her girlfriend.

Here is where the film gets goofy. The women offer him ten grand for his semen. There are attempts to explain why they don't go to sperm banks, but they are lame. Later, the ex (Kerry Washington) brings more lesbians for him to knock up, but it's six or seven women at a time. Even at my most virile, I don't think I could manage that many pops in one night. It's dumb.

Anyway, this parallels the story of his struggles with the SEC. He gets arrested, and his sperm donating becomes a cause celebre. One of the women he impregnates is Monica Bellucci, who turns out to be the daughter of a Mafia don (John Turturro, who is only seven years older than Bellucci). This makes no sense, except for a chance for Lee to once again explore his strange fascination with Italians.

There are more strange scenes, such as one in which Frank Wills discovers the Watergate break-in, and is accosted by Nixon and his henchmen. The script, by Lee and Michael Genet, connects Mackie to Wills, I guess because they think Wills was mistreated because he was black. I don't know about that, I also don't see Wills as a hero or anything. He found a door with duct tape on it and called it in.

The film is not well acted and miscast (Woody Harrelson is not convincing as the CEO of a major corporation). The doctor who does a header looked very familiar to me, and then I saw that he was David Tennent, who played the boy Oskar in The Tin Drum. There are also many ladies of all colors playing the many lesbians who pass through Mackie's door.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016


I can trace my fascination with the "Gunfight at the O.K. Corral" to when I received the first book in the Time-Life series "The Old West." The first volume was called The Gunfighters, and the first chapter dealt with the shootout in Tombstone, Arizona Territory, on October 26th, 1881. I have the book in storage, but I still remember the drawing of the event, with each of the participants in each spot they occupied.

That was about forty years ago, and I've seen all of the films and read as much as I could about it. Now comes a hefty novel, Epitaph, by Mary Doria Russell. It is a novel, and according to her acknowledgements some of the events and dates have been altered, but it seems a well-researched book. It isn't brilliant prose--I think this book is more for enthusiasts than for the casual reader.

"To understand the gunfight in Tombstone, stop--now--and watch a clock for thirty seconds. Listen to it tick while you try to imagine one half of a single minute so terrible it will pursue you all your life and far beyond the grave." That's how Russell starts her tale, and it's full of the political shenanigans that were going on in Tombstone at the time. The fight itself was between the Earps, all lawmen of a sort, and their deputized friend, Doc Holliday, and "cow boys," the Clantons and McLaurys, but the reasons had a lot to do with politics. The early chapters of the book focus on Johnny Behan, a political boss, and his rivalry with Earp. Even back then, and that far west, there were squabbles between Democrats and Republicans, or as that translated, Rebs and Yankees.

As the story begins, the Earps are already in Tombstone. The only backstory Russell gives us is that of Josephine Marcus, who left San Francisco to join a theatrical troupe and ended up in Tombstone with Behan as his mistress. She would later join Wyatt Earp as his common-law wife for 45 years, and though she leaves the story for great chunks you can tell she is a favorite of Russell's. That can also be said of Holliday (Russell wrote a novel about him simply called Doc). He was a dentist, gambler, and gunslinger who comes across as the most interesting character in the novel. He is well read, knows Latin and Shakespeare, and is fiercely loyal. He is also consumptive, and through the whole book he is slowly dying.

Russell takes us almost day by day through the year or so before the gunfight. There is a stagecoach robbery, for which the Earps and Holliday are blamed. There is the side characters of Curly Bill Brocious and Johnny Ringo (yes, he really existed), and the details of life in a frontier town. All of the Earp women are featured--at that time Wyatt was still married to the laudanum addict Mattie Blaylock--and we get a great sense of the domesticity of the life out west, but also of the random and sudden violence.

The details about the shootout are still up for grabs, and Russell goes with what most of us know--that the Earps were in the right, though perhaps a little too forceful about it (Tom McLaury may have been unarmed). The book continues through the legal proceedings, as the Earps and Holliday were tried for murder, and then the vendetta that Wyatt takes after his brother Virgil is badly wounded and another brother Morgan is assassinated. Wyatt, as he has been portrayed in film (especially by Kurt Russell in Tombstone) was like an angered snake. He lived a long life afterward (he was never hit by a bullet) and died in old age in 1927.

I enjoyed this book, and even learned some new things (I hadn't known about Behan before, or if I did I forgot it). It is a long book, full of detail that may wear down a reader who isn't into Westerns, and even some that might, given that this is a historically accurate book (no black hats and white hats here). But if you're a Western history buff, and enjoyed Tombstone, you will like this book, because it doesn't veer much from that film.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Taxi Driver

It's the fortieth anniversary of Taxi Driver. Well, February 8th was the date it was released, but a few days ago the film's anniversary was celebrated at the Tribeca Film Festival, so I thought it would be a good time to discuss it.

This is at least my third time viewing the film, and it gets better every time. It is one of the best American films ever made, and push comes to shove, I would select it as Martin Scorsese's best film. It is still striking and relevant, even if New York City is far cleaner than it was 40 years ago.

From the opening shot of the yellow cab emerging out of the steam, Taxi Driver is like a fever dream, a hallucination. Our hero, or antihero, Travis Bickle, has problems with fantasy and reality. We don't know where he comes from--probably the plains or southwest, given his penchant for cowboy boots--but he is an ex-Marine, looking for a job that will take up the hours that he can't sleep.

"All the animals come out at night - whores, skunk pussies, buggers, queens, fairies, dopers, junkies, sick, venal. Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets," says Robert De Niro as Bickle, a man who fancies himself a white knight. But, as another character will say of him, he is a "walking contradiction." He has old-fashioned ideas about morality, but spends his time in the porno theaters of Times Square, as if he didn't know there were other kinds of movies. He is lonely, which is a spine of the film--the characters are driven by a kind of loneliness, whether it's Bickle or Cybill Shepherd's Betsy, the beautiful girl who takes a chance by going out on a date with him only to be taken to a Swedish sex film.

Amazingly, Taxi Driver was originally going to be set in Los Angeles, but New York has far more cabs, and the city at that time was a nightmare of crime and debauchery. Just a few years later I remember walking down 42nd Street between 7th and 8th and it felt like you were taking your life in your hands. Prostitution and drugs were everywhere. Bickle was absolutely right.

But Bickle is driven by something deeper than a citizen's outrage. He is probably schizophrenic--the script was in part based on the diaries of Arthur Bremer, who shot George Wallace--and show a mind ravaged by a lack of intimacy and simple human connection.

The script has Bickle in parallel situations--his pursuit of Shepherd (who had already played a shiksa goddess in The Heartbreak Kid a few years earlier) and his attempt at being the savior of Iris (Jodie Foster), a twelve-year old prostitute. His rage at being spurned by Shepherd is transferable--when his attempt at assassinating the candidate she works for fails, he turns his attention at Foster's pimp (Harvey Keitel) and other scumbags associated with her degradation. I was just talking to a friend who was at the Beacon Theater for the anniversary and she reminded me how there two diner scenes--one with De Niro and Shepherd, one with De Niro and Foster. In a certain way, his wooing of Shepherd doesn't turn out, but his "wooing" of Foster does, if we are to believe the epilogue of the film.

The ending--brilliantly shot. De Niro, his hair cut into a mohawk, engaging in the mocking small talk he uses in his mirror scene ("you talking to me?"), only now it's "Do I know you?" with Keitel. The carnage of three dead and De Niro wounded, out of bullets for a suicide. The cops come in, De Niro raises a bloody finger to his head to mime shooting himself, and then the breathtaking pan, shot from above, out of the room, down the bloody hallway, out into the street.

The comes the epilogue. Bickle is a hero for taking out a Mafioso and a couple of street thugs. Foster's father writes his thanks. De Niro is friendly with the other cabbies (who call him "Killer"), and then he takes Shepherd, now interested again, as a fare. She is photographed as an angel with billowing hair as he views her form the rearview mirror, congratulates her on the candidate's success, and dismisses her as he drops her off.

Many have interpreted this as a fantasy of Bickle's, or his dying thoughts. It's easy to interpret it that way, although Scorsese and Paul Schrader, the screenwriter, say it's not. Schrader says take a look at the last shot, with De Niro looking into the camera, from the rear view mirror (we see a lot De Niro's eyes, looking, judging. He tells a Secret Service agent he'd be a good agent, because he's very observant) and you can see he's a ticking time bomb--he's not done.

The acting in the film is great, starting with De Niro, who captures the contradictions, and improvised the memorable "Are you talkin' to me?" (De Niro, at the screening, says for forty years people are still saying that line to him). We can never be sure if he's some kind of autistic savant or a genuine dummy. He says he doesn't know what "moonlighting" means, but uses the word "venal." He acts like a country bumpkin with the Secret Service agent and the presidential candidate, but I'm sure that's an act. Does he really think that taking a woman to a porn movie is appropriate? We can't be sure.

He was nominated for an Oscar, and so was Jodie Foster. I found it interesting to read the other actresses who were auditioned--Mariel Hemingway, Linda Blair, Carrie Fisher, Melanie Griffith, Bo Derek (!), all of whom refused. Foster, who was already a seasoned pro, was deemed psychologically fit enough and found the experience fun and interesting. I imagine that Keitel, who had to perform a scene with her of romance and tenderness, probably found that more difficult than Foster did.

Also terrific is Albert Brooks, who as Shepherd's co-worker gave the film comic relief. He clearly has a boner for Shepherd, and can't believe that a weirdo like De Niro could walk in off the street and get a date. It's very funny how Brooks spies on their conversation, his head poking around a column.

I also want to mention Scorsese's cameo, where he plays a Satanic-looking passenger spying on his wife in another man's apartment, and telling De Niro how he's going to kill her with a .44 magnum. This is the first gun that Bickle will buy.

If that weren't enough, the score by Bernard Hermann, his last, is magnificent. It's full of brass, including the romantic saxophone riff to represent Bickle. It runs counter to what we are seeing--a lonely man going mad in a small, dingy room, but accompanied by the kind of sax solo that we're using to hearing in love scenes.

Taxi Driver is an example of the perfect combination of script, director, cast, and social anxiety. It taps into our fears, both of immorality and decay and of loneliness. It is a masterpiece and an American classic.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

A Night in the Mountains

To celebrate my 55th birthday this weekend I spent the night in Mt. Charleston Lodge, a grouping of cabins facing that mountain, which is in the Spring Mountains, which is a recreational area and national forest. After living here for a year and a half, I still can't get used to having mountains in my view whichever way I look. New Jersey had mountains, but they were hills compared to these.

Nevada is a mountainous state, which might surprise some. It is thought of as a desert, but it is a desert with mountains. Las Vegas is in a valley, surrounded by mountains on all sides. Mount Charleston lies to the west, on the way to Reno.

The mountain, which is still snow-covered as of today, is the most prominent peak in Nevada, and the eighth so in the contiguous U.S. (this is measured by the peak to the lowest contour line around it). There are many recreation opportunities--Las Vegas head up here in winter for snow-related fun like skiing and sledding. In the summer it is routinely thirty degrees cooler than the stifling heat of Vegas, so is a great place to visit. The only thing missing is a body of water. If there was a lake it would be heaven.

That being said, it is great place. It only takes a drive of a little less than a hour. The elevation (11,000 feet) can be felt when the ears pop, both going up and going down. The air is clean and fresh, and the peaks stand like sentinels, impassively welcoming you.

I got a room with a really nice view (seen above). It was a tad cold to spend to much time on the porch, but I kept being drawn to it. If you look closely, there are residences in the photo, as there is a small town (technically part of Las Vegas) with a lot of second homes up in them thar hills. There's another thing to get should I ever hit it rich).

I have never had a problem with solitude. After a picnic lunch with my girlfriend and her kids, I was left to my own devices. There is no TV reception and no Wi-Fi, so I made do with my Kindle and a copy of Taxi Driver (which I will discuss tomorrow). My phone ran out of power and I realized I had no way to know what time it was, so I have no idea when I went to bed.

I had resolved not to spend any time thinking about work (I am a school teacher) so of course I dreamt about it. It was a troubling dream, too, about what to assign my students. So I woke up, on my birthday, in this beautiful place, in something of a bad mood.

I hope to go back again this summer, if only to beat the heat for a day or two.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Coming Soon to an ATM Near You

Big news in the world of paper money here in the States this week. They're going to put a black woman, Harriet Tubman, on the twenty dollar bill, evacuating the current guy, Andrew Jackson, who will be put on the back. This is huge news, not only because it's the first change in paper money since 1928, but because it is the first time a person of color or a woman will be featured on paper money.

Of course this has set off a firestorm, and the back story of this is quite interesting. There had long been pressure to put a woman on paper money, especially since the two tries on coins, Susan B. Anthony and Sacagawea, had been failures (ironically, Antony's one dollar coin became useful at peep show parlors in Times Square). This time they will not be creating a unit of currency, they will be using an existing one, and not only that, a very common one. Twenties are the common bill that is issued by ATMs.

But until the recent announcement, it was thought that a woman would be placed on the ten dollar bill, which is currently the domain of Alexander Hamilton, the first Treasury Secretary. Hamilton had slipped into obscurity, and was not a president, so he was going to go. But then Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote a hip-hop musical called Hamilton, which has become the hottest ticket on Broadway and just won a Pulitzer Prize. Booting Hamilton at this time seemed wrong, so Jackson became the fall guy.

Jackson is actually a better candidate for removal. Hamilton was an important figure in the founding of the nation, and wrote The Federalist Papers. Jackson was a backwoods soldier who owned slaves (granted, so did Washington and Jefferson) but was responsible for the deaths of countless Indians, including being responsible for The Trail of Tears, one of the most shameless episodes in American history. Ironically, he was against paper money in the first place.

Tubman, on the other hand, saved lives, on the Underground Railway and during the Civil War. Born into slavery (we're not sure of her birthdate), she is as good as any to be on the twenty, a selfless person who fought for her rights and others, but not with a gun.

Of course this has kicked up dust among reactionaries. The lunatic fringe has been heard from, calling her a "black gorilla" and saying that people won't carry twenties with her picture on it, as if people have been choosing their denominations based on who was on the picture before. Money is money. But even supposedly clear thinking people have made asinine statements, like why not put her on the two-dollar bill. I found a meme on Facebook that is really stupid--only presidents should be on money. Apparently they don't know that Hamilton and Benjamin Franklin, who is on the hundred, were not presidents.

In addition to Tubman, women will be featured on other bills, including a reappearance of Anthony, Marian Anderson, and Eleanor Roosevelt. They will be on the back of bills, though, which leaves a poor taste in the mouth. Also, these designs won't be seen until 2020, to commemorate the centennial of the women's right to vote. Fair enough, but why will it take until 2030 for the bills to circulate? We sent a man to the moon in less time.

I like what England does--they just don't have statesman on their bills, they have people from the arts and sciences, like Shakespeare, Darwin, and J.M.W. Turner. I think we should do that, too--why not Ernest Hemingway, Jonas Salk, or Winslow Homer on money? And why not change it up every generation or so? Why the insistence on making a home on currency something permanent?

Friday, April 22, 2016

Human Performance

I've heard about Parquet Courts for a couple of years--they're critic's darlings--but I hadn't actually heard much of their music. I decided to try their latest disc, Human Performance, and it's okay, with a couple of catchy numbers and loose, goofy feel to it that makes them sound like they're not really taking it all seriously.

Consider the opening track, "Dust," which is about, well, dust:

"It comes through the window,
It comes through the floor
It comes the roof and it comes through door
Dust is everywhere

In some ways this album sounds like a mixture of The Kingsmen and The Mothers of Invention, as there is a winking nonchalance, mostly in the vocals, which is credited to all the band members. Another song in that vein is "Captive of the Sun," which may be about sound equipment:

"My misophonia brought the faders up
Now she's military grade
In Dolby Surround
Around 5.1"

My favorite track on the album is the toe-tapping "One Man, No City," which is a guy struggling with his identity:

"Where I'm from,
No one lived there
I look back now--nothing's changed
Where I'm from now
Still no one lives there
Look back again and lock the door
I maintain, I still remain
One man solitary
And no city."

The sound is a kind of post-punk (a phrase that seems to be apply to every rock band these days) and garage-rock, with a jangly quality. There's some surf rock in there (especially the Spaghetti Western variety) and some shoegaze stuff, which doesn't work as well. The typical slow, dirge-like last song of the album is "It's Gonna Happen," and it doesn't really.

If I were in my twenties I'd go see this band live, as there is a fun that comes through, but of course I can't go to concerts anymore that start after 10 o'clock, and I'm betting these guys don't at least come on until eleven.

Thursday, April 21, 2016


I'm stubbornly insisting that I will someday "get" poetry. It's my blind spot as a lover of literature. I can read a poem and it is as if I don't understand the language. Therefore, I tend to like writers of light verse, or poets like Billy Collins, who write in conversational style.

To keep trying, I picked up Gregory Pardlo's volume, Digest, which won the Pulitzer Prize last year. It is somewhat reminiscent of Billy Collins, in that it has that droll conversational tone and also has mnay pop culture references. Some of the poems I didn't understand at all, but over all I liked it.

I knew I was going to like this when early on I came across this passage from "Problemata":

"I finally friended my brother.
It may be will never
speak again. Why speak
when we have this crystal ball
through which
to judge one another's lives?
I imagine this is what
the afterlife will be like.
I'm ghost, we say
instead of goodbye."

Also fantastic are "The Conatus Improvisations," which are mostly about cars and driving, though each poem has the name of a classical author, which I don't understand but I don't let it worry me. From "Heraclitus":

"Overheating cannot be blamed on a faulty idiot light.
The car in crisis, beached on the roadside and pouring
steam from its blowhole as you watch the rain melt
the windshield, the perfect screen for projecting a fantasy
dissolve that begins with your jalopy dropped from a barge
to be eaten by the reef like a dive site."

From Boethius:

"Used to be the battle of getting there was indeed a tortoise and
hare proposition full of K-turns in strangers' driveways."

Pardlo also has a long poem called "Alienation," in which the narrator has murdered his wife. It's a poem that is written in prose style, so I wonder if it really can be called a poem.

Other nuggets in the collection is "Raisin," about going to see a production of Raisin in the Sun starring Diddy, "Zoso," the name generally given Led Zeppelin IV, and a reference to a "Sherman Helmsley hairline," surely the only time that actor has ever been mentioned in a published poem. I also loved Pardlo's comparing quotation marks to "fingers flensing air like Thriller zombies."

As for what it all means, well, I'm just happy that I understood most of it. I'm afraid when it comes to poetry, that's a major step for me.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

While We're Young

There's always something to like in a Noah Baumbach film, and While We're Young is one of his best. It's a humorous but at times painful look at getting older and realizing you're not going to do everything you thought you could, and what constitutes failure and success.

Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts are a happy, childless couple in their forties. Their best friends have just had a baby. Stiller is a documentary filmmaker who has been working on his latest project for ten years, while his father-in-law (Charles Grodin) is a world-renowned documentarian who is about to receive a prestigious lifetime achievement award.

Into their lives come a couple in their 20s, Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried. He is also a documentarian, a hipster who wears wingtips (with no socks), a porkpie hat, uses a typewriter, and listens on to vinyl. She makes artisan ice cream. Energized by meeting a young couple, Stiller and Watts at first enjoy a breeze of youth, but then come to understand that there's something to be said for age and wisdom.

At first I found this film glib about youth vs. age--there's a montage in which the two couples are compared, with Stiller choosing a film on Netflix, while Driver pops in a videocassette. This is very obvious writing and directing. But Baumbach gets off that, mercifully, and starts to paint a more subtle picture. I found Driver's character to be the most fascinating--he's callow and manipulative, and just might not be ethical, but he doesn't care. He's what everyone hates about millennials. Driver has had a great couple of years--his weirdo on Girls, Kylo Ren, and now this guy--three vastly different characters.

Though Driver is interesting, Stiller is the main focus (I could have stood to see more of Watts, one of my favorite performers). Baumbach errs in giving Stiller some of his woebegone shtick--he's teaching a class and his PowerPoint doesn't work, he wobbles as he stands on Rollerblades in the subway, he pulls a muscle while bicycling. Still can be a good serious actor, but it's as if he can't (or his director won't) let the clown in him rest. A scene where he learns he has arthritis ("arthritis arthritis?") really resonates, and might have been even funnier had it been an actor who is not a comedian first.

Baumbach, who usually has eclectic casts, reaches into the music world. The friend with the baby is played by Beastie boy Adam Horovitz, and a historian in Stiller's movie is an unrecognizable Peter Yarrow. Charles Grodin plays the father-in-law, and quietly steals every scene he's in.

While We're Young is an engrossing film, and I'd be interested to hear how millennials view it.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016


Jauja is a 2014 film by Argentinian Lisandro Alonso. It is hard to describe, but can be traced to two standard works--Conrad's Heart of Darkness, and John Ford's The Searchers. It is a kind of Western, but set in Patagonia with Danes.

Viggo Mortensen, who is probably the reason this film got made, stars as a Danish military man in Argentina with his 15-year-old daughter. I'm not sure why he is there--surveying or something. The film opens with the image that is on the poster, which is very painterly, as is most of the film. It is not really driven by narrative but by images.

Anyway, Mortensen is worried about an Argentine officer having eyes on his daughter (when we first see him he is masturbating in a pool of water), but instead the daughter runs off with a young soldier. Mortensen goes after her, but is under threat from indigenous people and another officer who ran off and went native.

This is a very slow-moving film, and I must admit it put me to sleep. There are long stretches of nothing but Mortensen moving across the terrain, which is not particularly scenic. Then, in the last stretch of the film, time bends. He meets an old woman living in a cave and we get the idea that she may be his daughter. An epilogue set in modern times, with the same actress who plays the daughter, further confuses everything.

I saw Jauja because it was on a list of best films of the year in the annual poll of critics in Film Comment, and every year there are films like this--films made for critics that would stultify a general audience. I'm of two minds about them: I appreciate the originality and artistry, but damn they can be boring. How about some entertainment, too?

Monday, April 18, 2016

Therese Raquin

Therese Raquin, an 1867 novel by Emile Zola, has had a bit of airing lately. It was made into a film a few years ago, In Secret, and the stage version was produced on Broadway last season with Keira Knightley in the title role. The book itself is a good read, being mercifully short for a nineteenth-century novel, with very little fat. It's also a proto-noir, certainly inspiring writers like James M. Cain,

The title character is a young woman who is the child of a sea captain and an African woman. She is sent to live with her aunt, who has a meek son, Camille. Therese is basically raised to marry her cousin: "Therese was not consulted; she had always displayed such passive obedience that her aunt and husband no longer took the trouble to ask her opinion. She went where they went, she did what they did, without a complaint, without a reproach, without appearing even to be aware that she changed her place of residence."

She does marry him, and is miserable. Camille and Madame Raquin are unaware of her misery. She meets a friend of Camille's, Laurent, a struggling artist, and it's lust at first sight. They have an affair (pretty racy stuff for 1867, but it is French): "They contemplated one another for a few seconds. Then, with a violent movement, Laurent bent down, and pressed the young woman to him. Throwing back her head he crushed her mouth beneath his lips. She made a savage, angry effort to revolt, and, then all at once gave in. They exchanged not a word. The act was silent and brutal."

That word brutal is important, because Zola paints this pair as creatures of the jungle rather than civilized society. They finally decide to kill Camille, and on a pleasant Sunday take him out in a boat and dump him in the water. In order to keep suspicion at bay, they separate for a year, and eventually lose interest in each other.

But then, in a cruel twist of fate, Madame Raquin thinks that Therese should be remarried, and who would be a better husband than Laurent, their faithful friend. The pair, stunned by events, do get married but now pretty much hate each other. The guilt of killing Camille is with them--Laurent imagines his corpse in bed with them, and a scar on his neck from when Camille bit him during the murder continues to plague him. He begins to beat Therese, and when she becomes pregnant she maneuvers so he will kick her in the stomach until she miscarries.

Then there's Madame Raquin, who suffers a paralytic stroke and overhears that her beloved niece/daughter-in-law killed her only son. She attempts to tell others, but is too weak. She must sit by while these people have complete control over her. It makes for great drama.

Eventually Therese and Laurent decide they are going to kill each other. This is so noir, and the whole thing is reminiscent of Double Indemnity, minus the mother. Needless to say it ends badly for everyone.

I had never read any Zola before. He is best known for his role in the Dreyfus affair, when he wrote a letter called "J'Accuse," condemning the prosecutors of a Jewish officer for espionage. It was the subject of the Oscar-winning film The Life of  Emile Zola.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Everybody Wants Some!!

In baseball parlance, Everybody Wants Some!! is right in my wheelhouse. It is set in 1980 (the last three days of August, to be precise), when I was the exact same age as the characters. It is focused on baseball players (although I had a brief, ignominious baseball career, one year of Little League, I have always loved the game) and it has the kind of dialogue I love, a loose, rambling style in which characters talk about everything and nothing simultaneously.

Written and directed by Richard Linklater, he has called it a "spiritual sequel" to Dazed and Confused, his 1993 film about the last day of high school in a Texas town in 1976. In some ways it is also a sequel to Boyhood, which ended with Linklater's protagonist on his first weekend of college, where we begin here.

Everybody Wants Some!! does not have much of a plot. Jake (Blake Jenner) is the audience's way in to the world of these players, who live in donated houses off campus. He is a freshman pitcher (he finds that the hitters don't much care for pitchers) and he, and we, are quickly introduced to the menagerie of characters; McReynolds, the great hitter and preening cock-of-the-walk (Tyler Hoechlin); Finn, the loquacious philosopher (Glenn Powell), Willoughby, the California hippie and bong enthusiast (Wyatt Russell), and Autry, nicknamed Beuter (William Britton), the hayseed who is constantly on the phone with his girlfriend back home. Jake quickly fits in, mostly because he takes the ribbing and gentle hazing good-naturedly (a gag involves him unknowingly lifting his face ino the nether regions of another freshmen). They are all likeable and a gas to be around, except for Niles (Juston Street), the pitcher who claims to have thrown a ball 95 miles an hour and calls himself "Raw Dog."

Basically we are in these guys' company for two hours as they have an odyssey through the pop culture of the time. The music, as usual in a Linklater film, is spot on (I came home and immediately bought the soundtrack). Jake arrives in an Oldsmobile 442 with The Knack's infectious "My Sharona" playing on the radio. Later, the boys will sing along to "Rapper's Delight," and Willoughby, who favors Pink Floyd, will put down Van Halen (who provided the title) as corporate. The guys will visit a disco, where they wear floral-patterned shirts and tight pants, a country bar, where they will dance to "Cotton-Eyed Joe," and a punk venue, where the band sings a punk version of the Gilligan's Island theme song. The film ends with classes beginning, and the Cars playing "Good Times Roll." Perfect.

The only real plot thread is Jake's attempts to woo a girl, winningly played by Zoey Deutsch, as the kind of college girl that any guy would give their eye teeth for. What's great about their relationship is that it develops naturally, and you can see that they actually like each other, unlike films where couples only get together because the script demands it. Deutsch invites Jake to a party put on by her tribe, the theater arts crowd, and the team comes along. All the artsy-fartsy stuff is on display, like people dressed as Alice in Wonderland characters, but the players don't mock it or disparage it--they just go with the flow, and this bonhomie gives the film a kind of zest that defies you to dislike it.

The performers, to me, are all unknowns and all talented. I especially liked Powell, but he has the best character to play, a guy who pontificates joyfully on all subjects, and can be seen reading Kerouac while smoking a pipe. Russell, who is the offspring of Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn, makes a great stereotypical Californian, who sets the bong record for smoke inhalation and goes through his pitching motion in the nude. Hoechlin is the kind of guy who gets enraged at losing a ping-pong game, but has such a great swing that he can slice a pitched ball in twain with an ax (whoever taught these guys to play ball did a great job).

There are so many great lines in the film that I've forgotten most of them, and will have to see it again. A sure bet to be on my year's best of list.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

The Peanuts Movie

Peanuts, the most influential comic strip ever produced in the U.S., ran from 1950 to 2000, shortly before its creator Charles M. Schulz's death. Therefore it interesting that a film made in 2015 did fairly well. I guess that kids, born after the last strip was drawn, are still absorbing the trials and tribulations of Charlie Brown through some kind of osmosis. The strip is still syndicated, but in repeats only. Schulz wanted no one to continue it.

The Peanuts Movie, directed by Steve Martino, is a gentle, amiable film that may resonate more with baby boomers like me, who were reading Peanuts at its peak. In some ways it's like a "greatest hits" package, when a band plays it's golden oldies. There's the kite-eating tree, Charlie Brown being knocked off the mound by a line drive, Snoopy's use of the line "It was a dark and stormy night," and his battle with the Red Baron, Lucy's psychiatrist booth, her fear of dog germs, and Charlie Brown's obsession with the Little Red-Haired Girl. A post-credit sequence even throws in his attempts to kick that damn football.

What's different about the film is that we actually see the Little Red-Haired Girl. She moves into the neighborhood and Charlie is instantly smitten. He sees her as a chance to reinvent himself--she doesn't know all his past failures. He tries to perform a magic act, but ends up bailing to save his sister Sally's rodeo act. He does a book report for her on War and Peace, but it ends up being shredded by a model airplane (this reminds me of a week of strips way back when when Snoopy was reading the book one word per day, a momentous task). Then he gets a perfect score on a test, but discovers it was an error.

Meanwhile, we actually get the origins of Snoopy's writing habit and his obsession with the Red Baron. He finds a typewriter in a trash bin, and Linus' model airplane inspires Snoopy's tale. His story, saving a love interest of his own, Fifi, from the clutches of the Red Baron parallel Charlie Brown's pursuit of the Little Red-Haired Girl.

I showed this to my students and many were engaged. There is a simplicity to Peanuts that simmers above its complex underpinnings. How many things for children discuss psychiatry (glad to see Lucy has not raised her price--it's still five cents). Shulz always included philosophy, as these wee folks take on the burdens of adulthood. There's less of that in this movie, and more slapstick.

I also liked that we saw some of the old characters, like Frieda and her naturally curly hair, and Pigpen, who indeed can raise a dust cloud in a snow storm. Snoopy is always a joy, and I found it interesting that the relationship between dog and boy is different here--Snoopy actively helps and roots for his master. In the comics, Snoopy was barely aware of him, except when he brought out his dog dish, and referred to him as "the round-headed kid."

I see that a sequel is not a slam dunk, and it's up to Shulz's widow to allow Fox to make another. I hope she agrees, as in a world where kids are routinely playing Grand Theft Auto and Call of Duty, the world of Peanuts is a nice counter-balance.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Emerson, Lake, and Palmer

I have always been a fan of Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, a staple of classic rock radio, but when Keith Emerson died last month I realized I had never purchased any of their music. I remedied that with a two-disc collection and have been listening to it this week.

ELP, as they were also known, occupied a unique niche in rock history. They were a progressive rock band, and could be counted in the same category as Yes, Genesis, and Pink Floyd, but they were also more closely tied to classical music than any other rock group, and a lot of that was due to Emerson. He was the keyboardist, and many of the notable music he was involved with were "covers" of classic masterpieces.

Two of them were by Aaron Copland--"Fanfare for the Common Man," and "Hoedown," which was adapted from Copland's "Rodeo." Both are instantly recognizable (I recall that "Rodeo" was used in a commercial touting the wonderfulness of beef several years ago), and Emerson's dazzling work makes "Hoedown" irresistible. He also plays on a variation of Tchaikovsky with "Nutrocker"--you can guess what that comes from. They based a whole album on Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition," and borrow his "The Great Gates of Kiev."

Greg Lake was the guitarist and bassist, and his songs had their own particular stamp. He seems to be quite the romantic, and his voice, one of my favorites in the classic rock era, was to swoon to. Songs like "Still...You Turn Me On," "From the Beginning," and the crushingly gorgeous "C'est La Vie," are beautiful without being too syrupy. Perhaps the most recognizable ELP song is "Lucky Man," which Lake wrote when he was 12, and has the simple but universally true message that no amount of wealth can save you when you're in a war. He also, with the help of Sergei Prokofiev, wrote "I Believe in Father Christmas," usually hauled out by radio stations at Christmas, but which has very thoughtful words about the season:

"They sold me a dream of Christmas
They sold me a Silent Night
And they told me a fairy story
'Till I believed in the Israelite
And I believed in Father Christmas
And I looked to the sky with excited eyes
'Till I woke with a yawn in the first light of dawn
And I saw him and through his disguise"

The band was given to do things in a big way. Many of their songs are very long, and broken into several parts, with exotic titles. "Karn Evil 9" is another signature song of theirs, with the lyric: "Welcome back my friends, to the show that never ends." They have an almost twenty-minute long song with "Tarkus," and another with "Pirates." This kind of grandiosity has gathered critics. Some have called them pretentious, but I think rock is a pretty big tent and there is room for rockers who also dabble in classical motifs.

The band was short-lived. Their first album was in 1970, and they wrapped things up in 1978 (but did release two albums in the '90s, which completely went under my radar). Drummer Carl Palmer is considered one of the best rock drummers to ever pound the skins, and after listening for a week I can agree.

Emerson died by his own hand, apparently depressed that nerve damage to his hand would prohibit him at playing at his best. If that's true, that's a shame, because certainly he had more to offer than just playing keyboards. But sometimes the greatest of talents are also the most single-minded.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

No Coffee or Bananas, Please

When I was a lad I marveled at my grandfather, who could eat anything. I was kind of a finicky kid, so a person who liked everything was amazing to me. Of course, my grandfather grew up in hard times on a farm, when you ate what was put in front of you or you didn't eat at all. There was no fast-food alternatives, or filling up on snacking. Once I asked him if was anything I didn't like. He admitted, sheepishly, that he didn't much care for parsnips.

I've never had a parsnip, and I'm not sure I've ever actually seen one in the flesh. But, over the years, I've grown far less finicky. When I was a kid I was convinced I didn't like eggs or cheese. I didn't have a cheeseburger until I was in my 20s. Now I can't get enough of either of them. I can eat pretty much anything, but I do drawn the line at two items--coffee and bananas.

I don't know where my antipathy for coffee began. It wasn't drank much in my house--I don't think we had a coffee maker. I've never known my mother to drink a cup and my father only rarely, so it wasn't a presence in my life. But when I became an adult I ran into people who drank it like water. I remember a guy who used to fill up two cups at once just to save time. I've never liked the smell, and the few times I have tried it my disgust has been confirmed--it tastes like something burned in an engine. For a while when I was working at a company I found myself getting very sleepy in the afternoon, and after trying Five-Hour Energy and other remedies I figure maybe this whole coffee thing was just in my head. So I tried a cup, and it was awful. I had to put in about six creams just to make it palatable. No, coffee is not for me.

I'm not a big fan of fruit. I grew up in suburban America, where the fruit we ate came out of a can, so I'm predisposed not to like fresh fruit. But I can eat an orange or an apple, and can manage a peach or pair (though I prefer the canned kind, where I don't have to deal with things like pits or seeds). But I have never been able to eat a banana.

Bananas are insanely popular--their consumption is greater than apples and oranges combined. I can stomach things that are banana flavored, but the actual eating of that squishy fruit is impssible for me. Maybe it's the texture--it tastes, in the mouth, like something dead and rotting. I know they're great for you, but if you put a banana in front of me you might as well be laying a freshly-laid turd. This has made it impossible for to enjoy a banana split, or bananas on top of cereal. Just not going to happen.

I suppose we all have things that we don't like that would make other people shake their heads. My girlfriend is very finicky--doesn't like pasta or chocolate. I know a lot of people who don't like mushrooms, which I love, or sushi (that took me a while to try, and I love it). In fact, I can eat any sea creature, including squid and octopus. But no coffee or bananas, please.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016


I've been fascinated by the Milgram Experiment ever since seeing The Tenth Level, a tv-movie, in the 1970s. Milgram, who was something of a rock star in the psychological field, conducted experiments which showed, with little doubt, that people are pre-disposed to be obedient to authority, even when they are hurting others. He did this to try to explain the horrors of the world, which at that time was most recently Nazism.

In this docu-drama, directed by Michael Almereyda, Peters Sarsgaard plays Stanley Milgram, who is a teacher at Yale. In the early '60s, he conducted an experiment in which the subject was cast in the role of "teacher," while a confederate played the "learner." Whenever the learner got a question wrong, the teacher would give him an electric shock. Even after the learner cried out in pain and said he wanted to quit, the teacher would continue. Sixty-five percent went the whole way, and usually hated themselves afterwards.

Milgram was surprised to find these results, as he was told that very few people would actually continue under such conditions. But this may explain why soldiers and others can commit atrocities and then say they were "just following orders."

The film is interesting but is more informational than entertainment. Sarsgaard breaks the fourth wall often, and there are some interesting touches such as green screens with black and white backgrounds and a symbolic elephant (as the "elephant in the room") throughout.

Much of the film is Milgram defending himself from critics, who claimed he was a sadist for doing the experiments. The Tenth Level, which starred William Shatner as a version of Milgram, took that tack. Milgram rejected these claims. Amusingly, an actor plays William Shatner here and tries to mimic that actor's unique cadence.

I was interested to learn that Milgram was the one who came up with the "six degrees of separation" theory, as well as other studies in conformity, such as when a person looks up into the sky many people will stop and do the same.

Of course, most of us will watch this movie and think that we wouldn't go through with it, and would stop and exercise our free will. But we don't know for sure.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Republicans of Nevada: A Field Guide

I received an email from a liberal organization asking me to choose who was the most dangerous member of the Nevada GOP. I was not able to answer, because the bar is so high.

I've lived in the Silver State for over a year and a half and am still getting used to how the politics works here. The state went for Obama twice, and has a Democratic senator of great power (Harry Reid) and a Republican one of little power (Dean Heller). My congressional representative is a liberal Democrat (Dina Titus), but the other three are Republican. But this seeming levelness is misleading. That Nevada has any Democratic power at all is due to Las Vegas, which is mostly liberal and Hispanic. The rest of the state is Cliven Bundy country.

My initial answer to the question is Michelle Fiore, seen here in her family Christmas card, where all the family members are packing heat. Fiore is a state legislator who is running for Congress this year, and become something of a cause celebre, but for all the wrong reasons. Clearly she is a gun fetishist, she also supported the takeover of the Oregon wildlife preserve by the Bundy fils last year, and she is on the record for thinking cancer is a fungus, so oncology is not her field. She is, to put it mildly, a dangerous nitwit.

But her dangerousness has been challenged. Harry Reid is retiring, and running to replace him on the GOP side is Joe Heck, the congressman whom Fiore is seeking to replace. He is the frontrunner and establishment choice, but look! From the ashes of wacko candidates past is Crazy Sharron Angle. I've written about Angle before, long before I knew I'd have the chance to vote against her. Like a herpes breakout, she's reappeared to strike fear in the hearts of sane voters. I doubt her positions, such as armed insurrection, have changed much.

Heck is a kind of run-of-the-mill Republican, captive to big business and against the Affordable Care Act. He is especially tied to fossil fuel interests, voting against the regulation of greenhouse gases. But he appears to be sane. Also in this same boat is Senator Heller, who is pro-life, pro-oil, against same-sex marriage, etc. He's a back-bencher who has done nothing to be controversial.

He replaced, though, Jim Ensign, who went out in a fizzle of glory. Ensign, you may recall, had an affair with the wife of his good friend, and then spent a lot of money trying to cover it up, including giving the friend a job. Ensign resigned in grace, escaping prosecution, and went back to practicing veterinary medicine. I wouldn't trust him with my dog, though.

The current governor is Republican, Brian Sandoval. I will say this--if I have to live in a state with a Republican governor, I'll take Sandoval. He visited the school I work at a few weeks ago. He popped in on a few classes and my students and I were breathless with anticipation as he went into the classroom next to mine, I didn't get a chance to meet him. But for a Republican, he's not terrible. He's pro-choice and done some good things for schools. He's a major obstacle to solar power, though. Somehow his name got floated as a potential Obama pick for Supreme Court (clearly a ruse) and would be an attractive choice on a Republican ticket. I wouldn't bet against him running for president in 2020.

As decent as Sandoval is, though, he replaced one of the most hapless governors in Nevada history. Jim Gibbons. He was a one term and out guy, whose approval rating hit ten percent. Here, from Wikipedia, is a list of the reasons he was selected one of America's worst governors by the Committee for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington:

  • Violated campaign finance law by accepting illegal corporate donations 
  • Allegedly assaulted a waitress 
  • Overlooked ethical lapses of his appointee 
  • Misused state resources in pursuit of an extra-marital affair 
  • Endangered his state’s economy by threatening to reject federal stimulus funds 
  • Has been investigated for his conduct as a member of Congress
I don't know if Nevada leads the nation in corrupt and/or crackpot politicians. I mean, while Texas and Florida are part of the United States there will always be competition. It used to be that Nevada politicians had to be corrupt, because you couldn't get elected without being in bed with the gaming industry, which was run by the mob, but that has changed. Now you just have to be a gun nut, or at least an adulterer.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Midnight Special

Midnight Special, Jeff Nichols' fourth film, is two films in one. One of them is a very good drama about a father's love for his son. The other is science fiction, and it's pretty awful. Fortunately, the former is good enough to make me recommend the film, but be prepared for some eye-rolling.

The film starts with two men (Micheal Shannon and Joel Edgerton), and a small boy (Jaeden Lieberher) on the run, hiding out in a motel. Only over the course of the film do we learn details: Shannon is the boy's father, and he has snatched him from a religious cult, run by Sam Shepard. Edgerton is a childhood friend and Texas state trooper, who is a friend we all need, because he even goes so far as to shoot another cop. The boy has some sort of power that makes him wear swim goggles and stay out of daylight.

Shepard's henchmen are after the boy, as is the federal government, including a geeky NSA agent (Adam Driver). The kid is able to pull a satellite out of the sky, knowing it was spying on him. He also shoots light beams out his eyes, but it's unclear what this does.

Midnight Special is essentially a chase movie, with Shannon trying to get the kid to a certain spot at a certain time, with the coordinates and dates given to him by his son. The church thinks he's going to save them from the end of the world, and the government probably wants to use him as a weapon. All of this is pretty suspenseful.

However, the sci-fi aspects are kind of warmed over Spielberg (I thought of Close Encounters of the Third Kind many times during the film). Nichols' first three features dealt with the wordly, and were more accomplished, though Take Shelter has some connection to this one, given the fear that the lead actor (Shannon, in both cases) expresses. But I found this aspect of the plot to be childish and not well thought out. I have to keep this short to avoid spoilers, but the ending is pretty ridiculous, given it's similarities to Close Encounters, and even almost forty years later not up to that film's emotional power or special effects.

What does work is the relationship with Shannon and Lieberher. Shannon is one of our best actors, and the kid, while not given a lot to do, is very capable. The love between is palpable, and when the kid's mother, Kirsten Dunst, is added to the mix, if becomes a nice family drama.

If Midnight Special had left out the paranormal aspects I would have liked it a lot better.

Sunday, April 10, 2016


Breathe (or in the French, Respire), was co-written and directed by Melanie Laurent, best known as an actress for her role as the vengeful theater owner in Inglourious Basterds. Her second film is a chilling psychological drama that never lets you get comfortable watching it.

The story of a high school girl and her new friend, the script is one of many about students that helpfully tells us what the movie is about during a class. The teacher asks the students, does passion increase freedom, or inhibit it? In this case the passion is the feeling Charlie (Josephine Japy) has toward the new girl in school, Sarah (Lou de Laage).

Charlie is inhibited, partly because her parents are breaking up (in the opening scene she overhears them arguing), partly because she just doesn't want to open up (her first sexual experience went awry because it hurt and she hasn't tried since). Sarah waltzes into her life and changes everything. She is extroverted, wild, and daring. She's also dangerous.

There have been a lot of films about the perils of a new friend, but this one plays it low-key (unlike the ridiculous Single White Female) but Breathe felt fresh, largely because of the performances by Japy and de Laage, and partly because the script made it all make sense. Charlie is in such a bad way that she clings to the friendship of the more glamorous Sarah, and Sarah, who is spectacular at telling lies, longs for the family life that Charlie has.

I also must say the ending is quite stunning. There is an undercurrent of menace running through the whole film, but it ends completely differently than I imagined it would. Laurent is a director to watch.

Saturday, April 09, 2016

Cartel Land

A nominee for Best Documentary Feature at the most recent Oscars, Cartel Land, a film by Matthew Heineman, is an interesting look at the hold that drug cartels have on Mexico and, according to some, on the U.S. side of the border with Mexico.

The film does not focus so much on cartels but on those who are trying to stop them, and the film divides its time between two groups--the Arizona Border Recon, a volunteer force of armed men and women patrolling the border, looking for illegals, and the Autodefensas, a volunteer group of Mexican men who are town by town taking back Mexico from the cartel stranglehold. What we have here is a study on vigilantism.

On the American side, the voice is that of Tim "Nailer" Foley, who lost a job in construction to "illegals," and that drove him down to the border. He believes what he is doing is good, and that he is standing up to evil. His take is that the cartels are behind the illegal immigration, and that there is an invasion, and that if only people could come down there and see it. Now, I'll take his word for some of this, but my first question is if he is concerned about undocumented workers taking American jobs, why doesn't he go after the companies that hire them, instead of the poor souls who are just trying to better their lives, risking themselves by getting into the country? Why isn't he concerned with companies that outsource jobs? Or is he just interested in playing soldier?

On the Mexican side, the focus is on Dr. Jose Mireles, a charismatic man who wants to drive the cartels out of the town of the state of Michoacan. Mireles is at first a hero, but internecine warfare takes over when the government tries to disarm the group. Of course, the government is in bed with cartels, who pay them off. By the end of the film the Autodefensas are absorbed by the government and Mireles is in jail. One of the final shots is showing a member of Autodefensas cooking meth.

Foley says that vigilante has come to mean a bad word, when it used to be good. He says that vigilantes are all not men wearing white hoods. He is never asked about what he thinks of Mexican people, though he does sympathize with immigrants he catches trying to cross. The problem with vigilantism, as seen in both the U.S. and Mexico, is that they are unaccountable. As Juvenal said, "Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?" Who will watch the watchers?

Cartel Land is a fascinating film that will provoke a lot of discussion. I'm still not sure what I think of Foley and Mireles.

Friday, April 08, 2016

Bela Fleck & Abigail Washburn

My second post in the "other" Grammy series is the winner of the Best Folk Album, the self-titled Bela Fleck & Abigail Washburn. The two are a married couple of banjo players. It's so nice for a couple to have something in common.

Fleck is a world-renowned musician, who is well known to cognoscenti if not the masses. Washburn is the vocalist on the album, and she has a lovely voice that reminds me of Shawn Colvin. Together they have made a very pleasing record, one that you will enjoy depending on that world--banjo.

The banjo is an instrument, like the bagpipes, I guess, that has both its enthusiasts and detractors. I am of the opinion that listening to banjo music automatically lifts the spirits, even if the song its playing is something of a downer. It was an instrument that came over from Africa, but has since been appropriated by white Appalachians, and is almost always associated with hillbilly music, such as the Flatt & Scruggs theme from The Beverly Hillbillies. In fact, Fleck was inspired to take up the banjo after hearing that music.

But is this folk music? I think most people associate folk music with acoustic guitars, coffee houses, and berets, and the banjo with bluegrass. The Grammys also have an "Americana" category, which this album could fall into. There are many traditional American songs here, including "Railroad," which we all learned in school as "I've Been Working on the Railroad." When we sang it in school, it was up-tempo, but here it's in a minor key, and I think that's a right choice as if I were working on the railroad, all the live-long day, I'd be tired and angry. They also incorporate a little "Oh, Susanna" in there for good measure.

There are a few instrumentals, written by Fleck, and a few songs written by Washburn, including "Shotgun Blues," a murder ballad that has the woman with the one with the gun:

"If I had a shotgun
And you were in the woods
I'd hunt you down and tell you
You're no good."

Fleck has a song called "What'cha Gonna Do" that suggests an old song about the levees breaking, etc. but could apply now to climate change:

"The land is broke, skies are too
What'cha gonna do, what'cha gonna do
Too late for runnin' when it comes for you
When the land goes under the water."

Whether or not this is truly folk music, I liked it quite a bit. It makes me wish I could play the banjo.

Thursday, April 07, 2016

The Door

The Door was first published in the original Hungarian in 1987, but only became available in English in 2015, and earned a spot on the New York Times ten best books of the year list. I found it to be frequently brilliant, but even for a book that's under 300 pages, I thought it overlong, and might better have been better served as a novella.

Magda Szabo's book is about a writer and her husband who hire a housekeeper. Sounds simple, but the woman they get is like a force of nature. Her name is Emerence, and she is an elderly woman and both the greatest housekeeper in the world and also the housekeeper from hell. The couple don't really hire her, Emerence chooses them. "'I don't just wash anyone's dirty linen,'" she tells them.

The narrator becomes obsessed with Emerence, trying to gather information about her or where she lives. No one is given admission to Emerence's house. She holds court on the front porch. When something is denied someone they become fascinated with what they can't see, and so it is with Emerence and her employer.

The couple become so reliant that on Emerence that she can insult them at will. When she does leave they are so bereft and helpless that they beg her to come back. Emerence sneers at world of the writer: "she had no use for culture. All she thought about was how much she could hoard, while doling out charity from a stolen christening bowl, and stupefy me, in the small hours of an anxious morning, with the sort of tale she must have heard from a fairground entertainer or found in a trashy novel in her grandfather's attic."

While the novel is exquisitely written: "There is something very appealing, not in the least bit sad, about an abandoned cemetery in summer," there is a central struggle to embracing the book. Would the reader, in a similar situation, put up with Emerence? Would someone willingly employ someone who frequently called them stupid or foolish, ridiculed their taste, and screamed epithets at them? I initially say no, but then again if that person made my life so much easier by running things I might just put up with it. The narrator frequently says how much she loves Emerence, and the feeling is mutual. Maybe love is expressed with a little more hostility in Hungary.

The last part of the book seems to drag. Emerence's health fails but she will not allow anyone in. Finally, while the narrator is being interviewed on a TV show, authorities break into the old woman's apartment and take her to the hospital. Her home is a health hazard, with a surplus of cats and rotting food, so many of her belongings are torched. The narrator is gripped with guilt for not being there at Emerence's shame, but I found this martyrdom a bit much and over-extended.

Still, this book is a fascinating read. I've never had a domestic, and this certainly makes me think about it. I'd like somebody to come in and clean up after me, but I'm not sure if I want someone to totally take over my life.

Wednesday, April 06, 2016

The Forbidden Room

Someone once wrote about a novel of Thomas Pynchon's: "It is easier to nail a blob of mercury than to describe this first novel." I feel the same way with Guy Maddin's 2015 film, The Forbidden Room, a phantasmagoria of images that defy summary but is a feast for the senses.

The Forbidden Room acts like a dream, moving from one story thread to the next with little transition. I didn't try to understand it so much as simply live in the moment, enjoying the droll title cards (Maddin's films are usually akin to silent films) and myriad visual effects. One word that keeps repeating is "amnesia," so perhaps the thing that is found in the forbidden room, wherever it is, is memory.

The whole thing begins with a man in a bathrobe (Louis Nagin) telling us how to take a bath. Then we are on a submarine, with four desperate men trying to save themselves. We know we're in for a head trip when they are joined by a saplingjack (an apprentice lumberjack). That then leads to his story, about trying to rescue a woman named Margot from a prehistoric band called the Red Wolves.

On this goes, with the story sometimes looping back on itself. The one I can remember best is when a woman (Caroline Dhavernas) is riding a motorcycle and crashes. She breaks 47 bones, and is taken to a hospital called Bones Oracle. The doctor, who we are told has never taken more than 100 steps from the hospital, brings her back to health and falls in love with her. He is going to meet her by the waterfront and give her an engagement ring, but he's set upon by women dressed as skeletons, who bring him to a man called "The Skull-Faced Man," who tries to make him sign a form to defraud insurance companies. When the doctor resists, he is forced to wear a leotard that absorbs poison from the skeleton women's costumes. Got that?

There are also quotes from the Bible and John Keats and jokes, such as when Nagin asks, "What's the difference between a woman in church and a woman in the bathtub? The woman in church has hope in her soul." There's also a musical sequence called "The Final Derriere" in which a man (Udo Kier) has brain surgery to fix his obsession with butts--"I am plagued by bottoms," he says. Kier will later appear in the movie as a butler who is murdered by his boss (Mathieu Amalric) and his moustache has a dream about saving his family.

All of Maddin's films are true originals, though there is some dialogue. A few people appear that don't seem to do much, like Charlotte Rampling, but I believe we only see her face. She still gets a poster credit, though. So does Geraldine Chaplin, who plays "Madame Lust," who snaps a whip while laughing maniacally.

Tuesday, April 05, 2016


Immigrant stories seem to be popular with film directors. Maybe it's because they are usually viewed with hostility as outsiders, which I imagine most directors can empathize with. Immigration is a big issue in the U.S., but also in Europe, where natives have expressed their own xenophobia.

Mediterranea concerns men who emigrate from Africa to Italy, hoping to improve their financial lot in life. Writer and director Jonas Carpignano focuses on two men from Burkina Faso--Ayiva (Koudos Seihon) and Abas (Alassane Sy). They are ferried across the Mediterranean in a fashion much like Mexican and Central American immigrants are guided over the Rio Grande by "coyotes." Here the man who has taken their money refuses to pilot the boat, so Ayiva, hardly a seaman, takes the helm. They go through a storm but make it.

There is already an African community where they go, and meet up with Ayiva's uncle. They don't have work papers, though, and can not get a residence, so they live in a shantytown. But they get work picking oranges, and though have a few mishaps Ayiva becomes a valued worker by his boss, even be invited to dinner at his home.

But, of course, Africans are viewed with suspicion and intolerance by the locals, and the climax of the film involves a riot in which protesting Africans are assaulted by Italians, and the Africans fight back by destroying cars. Abas is severely injured, and Ayiva decides to go home.

I liked this film, though the story feels familiar, because at least the setting is novel. Ayiva's boss tells him how his own grandfather went to America and had it hard, and one of the great human failings, the inability to get along with other tribes, is reinforced. Xenophobia means fear of strangers, not merely hatred of strangers, and that is correct, because it seems that fear is behind the anger--fear of losing a job, fear of losing a national identity, fear of who knows.

Seihon gives a great, quiet performance as a man just trying to do right, is easy to root for. His dignity and perserverance are palpable, but we understand when he realizes its not worth losing one's life.

Mediterranea is a thoughtful, powerful film.

Monday, April 04, 2016

West of Sunset

If you were drawing a Venn diagram of my interests, West of Sunset would hit two of them--literature and movies. If it had featured baseball it would have been perfect. As it is, I was enraptured by this book, a fictionalized account of F. Scott Fitzgerald's last days, as a script writer in Hollywood.

I have to imagine that Stewart O'Nan would have second thoughts about writing a book from the perspective of one of America's great writers. The book is not in the first person, but it is always with Fitzgerald, as he heads west to earn cash, leaving his wife, Zelda, in a mental hospital in North Carolina and daughter Scottie is in boarding school. He is pained to be away from them, but falls into a relationship with Sheilah Graham, a beautiful young gossip columnist.

O'Nan seems to have done his research, as a look at Fitzgerald's filmography matches the story. In those days writers were hired like assembly-line workers, sitting in offices on the lot, being handed properties that they worked on sometimes by committee. It's a somewhat interesting notion--writers not coming up with new ideas, but taking an idea and creating something out of it, guaranteed pay even if the movie was never made. Fitzgerald would receive only one credit--a movie called The Three Comrades--but he worked on others, most notably Gone With the Wind, which he was brought in by David Selznick after he was let go by MGM. "Only in Hollywood could you be simultaneously fired and put on the hottest property in town."

Fitzgerald is the classic fish out of water. As O'Nan puts it, he was a Midwesterner who never fit in in the East, and then an Easterner who never fit in the West. "L.A. had never been his city, and as the glowing late night coffee shops and drive-ins slid by on both sides, he thought he understood why. For all its tropical beauty there was something charmless and hard about it, a vulgarity as decidedly American as the picture industry which thrived on the constant waves of transplants eager for work, offering them nothing more substantial than sunshine."

There are a lot of celebrity cameos. Fitzgerald is joined in the writers' bullpen by his old friend Dorothy Parker. He takes lodging in the legendary Garden of Allah cottages, where he befriends Humphrey Bogart. He is often as starstruck as anyone else would be, as in this trip to the studio commissary: "Right beside Ronald Colman, Spencer Tracy was tucking into a triple-decker club; next to him, her famous lips pursed, Katharine Hepburn blew on a spoonful of tomato soup."

Fitzgerald needs Hollywood, though, as his stories are not being bought as much as they used to be. Although he never says it, we can feel the degradation of being treated like a mere scribbler by producers and others, but he comes to a realization that despite his reputation and fame, he is no better than a scribbler. We feel for him, but we also tut-tut him, devoted to Zelda, but not above adultery. Zelda is described in pathetic terms, with her teeth cracked and extra weight put on.

Fitzgerald would work in Hollywood for a few years, until his death at 44 in 1940, which is the end of this book. He managed to bounce around studios, but almost put an end to it after a drunken trip to Dartmouth College with Budd Schulberg to research a film. Walter Wanger fired him on the spot. As O'Nan puts it: "Like a weakness for underage flesh or declaring oneself a Bolshevik, drinking was a pardonable offense in Hollywood, but not indefinitely."

I don't know much about Graham, but she is revealed to Fitzgerald as something of an impostor, a Jew from London with the real name of Lily Scheil, who rose from poverty, became a showgirl, got engaged to minor royalty and reinvented herself. Though the comparison is never spoken, we could wonder if Fitzgerald's attraction grew for her because of her similarities to a certain Jay Gatz.

This is a gorgeous novel, a must for fans of Fitzgerald are Hollywood in the thirties. Or, like me, both.

Sunday, April 03, 2016


As with The Great Beauty, Paolo Sorrentino's most previous film, Youth requires some getting used to. It has an odd rhythm to it, perhaps because or in spite of that it is about a composer and conductor. Scenes end abruptly, and there are surrealistic scenes that recall Fellini. In fact, I found this film to be something of an homage to 8 1/2, if not nearly as great.

Youth is carried by three excellent performances--Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel, and Paul Dano. Caine and Keitel play geezers and old friends (I tried to figure out how Caine, an Englishman, and Keitel, sounding like someone from Brooklyn, were friends as teenagers, but no matter) who are vacationing together in a spa in Switzerland. Caine is a retired composer who is adamant about not performing his most famous piece in a command performance in front of the Queen. Keitel is a film director who is working on his "testament" along with some much younger writers. Dano is a famous movie star who is chagrined that he is remembered most for playing a robot.

As the title suggests, the film is all about youth, old age, and mortality. Caine and Keitel commiserate about not being able to urinate, and Keitel can't remember if he slept with a girl they both liked. They have great chemistry together, and the best parts of the film are when they are just chatting. The plot contrivances, such as Caine's daughter (Rachel Weisz) being married to Keitel's son, who bas left her for real life pop star Paloma Faith (I only knew she was a real person after the film was over) are kind of a drag on the film.

I give Youth a slight thumbs up, as Caine is always interesting and his character is well crafted. Striding through the movie, with a stiff posture and a silver mane, he is a man who treated his wife badly, and hears it from Weisz as they lie side by side getting mud baths. His entire life has been music, but he gave it up with much of a second thought. Keitel is still brimming with inspiration, and when he finds out that his actress (Jane Fonda, in a scenery-chewing scene) can't do his film, he is crushed.

Youth has some other odd things about it. Soccer legend Diego Maradona plays himself, and he's morbidly obese (but still can kick a ball better than any of us), and there are dream sequences that are quite striking, such as Caine conducting a field of cows, and Keitel seeing all his leading ladies over the years.

Sorrentino remains a filmmaker of great imagination, but at times a very inscrutable one.