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Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Them!

For the last film of my after-school class on horror movies, I chose Them!, which turned out to be a good choice because none of the kids had heard of it, let alone seen it, and though it's not in color it was made in 1954 and therefore more modern in tone. It also features giant ants.

Them!, directed by Gordon Douglas, is one of the prime examples of the atomic age fear films that imagined radiation causing all sorts of havoc. It really started in Japan (with good reason) with Godzilla, but soon there were giant praying mantises, giant tarantulas, and even giant rabbits (the anti-classic The Night of the Lepus). I think Them! is the best of them, as though it follows the traditional monster movie formula, it's suspenseful and even over sixty-years later the ants look pretty scary.

The film begins with two highway patrolmen in New Mexico finding a little girl wandering the desert. She's in shock and can't talk. They then find her family's trailer, ripped open. Later, they will find a store ripped open, the proprietor dead. One of the cops is James Whitmore, and in a stretch of believability he will be involved each step of the way, without even a scene of him telling the army that he won't back off. The same is true of FBI man James Arness. Do they teach New Mexico state cops to use flamethrowers?

After a footprint of some kind of animal is sent to Washington, a father/daughter pair of entomologists returns with a crazy idea; it's giant ants. The father is Edmund Gwenn, who believes that since the attacks were so near the atomic testing grounds in White Sands, that the ants are mutations. There is no mention of the scientific fact that ants that size would be unable to move, but this is only a movie. Two queens have hatched and escaped the nest. One is killed, but another finds its way into the Los Angeles sewer system.

The film is very heavy on the warnings of radiation. The last lines of the film belong to Gwenn: "When Man entered the atomic age, he opened a door into a new world. What we'll eventually find in that new world, nobody can predict." But since it's been now over seventy years and nothing once benign has grown to monster size, we can ignore the warnings of Biblical prophecy and concentrate on how well made this movie is for a B-movie that probably played in drive-ins. Like Jaws some twenty years later, the ants have an introductory sound--they chirp, like seventeen-year cicadas. Hear that sound and then seeing those large, bobbing heads can get under the skin.

Two actors found big fame as a result of this film. Walt Disney was casting his Davy Crockett film and watched the film to see Arness, but instead was impressed by Fess Parker, as a pilot who has been committed because he says he saw giant ants flying at him. Parker played Crockett, as well as Daniel Boone. But Arness did all right--John Wayne saw the film and recommended him to play Marshal Matt Dillon on Gunsmoke (a part Wayne had turned down). That show ran over twenty years.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

The Gap of Time

Hogarth Press is doing something very interesting, though some will probably find it a literary blasphemy. They are engaging authors of some renown to rewrite Shakespeare, or at least take a play and put in novel form. The first of these (I'm not sure if they're doing them all; the histories might not play well) is Jeanette Winterson taking a crack at The Winter's Tale with The Gap of Time.

Unlike modernizing a Shakespeare play in a production, putting it in novel form allows for more freedom, and the whole point is to change it, otherwise we would just be reading the annotated text. Winterson sets the story in modern-day London, for the most part. Leo Kaiser (our stand-in for Leontes) is the rich man who becomes insanely jealous of his old friend Xeno (Polixenes) and suspects that he has fathered the newborn of his wife MiMi (Hermione).

Winterson writes, in something of an epilogue, "The three possible endings are: Revenge. Tragedy. Forgiveness. Shakespeare knew all about revenge and tragedy." The Winter's Tale was late in his career, and the man was now writing about reconciliation and forgiveness, as he would in The Tempest. The Winter's Tale was Othello rewritten with a happy ending, and Winterson keeps that, but also seizes upon something else, as the title suggests, time.

One of the repeating themes of the book is the replaying of time--the moment in the film Superman when the Man of Steel resets time by flying around the Earth at high speed is mentioned many times--it's an interesting mixture of high and low culture. Winterson also notes: "The Winter’s Tale is a play where the past depends on the future just as much as the future depends on the past. The past in The Winter’s Tale is not history; it’s tragedy." Also, "The past is a grenade that explodes when thrown."

Though this book is not difficult at all, knowing the play will help get some of the in-jokes, especially the names of the characters. The baby born to MiMi (still named Perdita) is adopted by a man named Shepherd and his son, Clo (in the play they were a shepherd and a clown). Autolycus, the con man and trickster, is turned into a used-car salesman (Auto Like Us, get it?) and Antigonus, now called Tony, who takes the baby away from an enraged Leo, is not killed by a bear, as in the play, but by gunmen after his suitcase full of money.

I've never read Winterson before so I don't know if this is indicative of her prose or whether it's a new creation. It is melancholy, of course--the events of the first half don't allow for much happiness. The modern touches--Xeno is a designer of video games--at times seem whimsical, but the prose sings. "The streets fuzzy with light rain. The plastic peel-off shine of the pavements. The shimmer under the sodium street lamps. Cars queuing at the red light, wipers in rhythm, drivers with the windows down against the heat. Big guy in a van, his right arm resting on the rolled-down window, elbow out, letting the rain run in, scrubbing his forearm in relief across his face." If Shakespeare knew about cars he might have written something like that.

The second half of The Gap of Time, which deals with a grown Perdita and her love of Xeno's son Zel (for Florizel) isn't quite as gripping. Perdita for a moment worries that she's Zel's sister, but figures everything out on her own, and her meeting with Leo, under a ruse, without him knowing who she is, works beautifully. But the reveal rushes by (to be fair, it kind of does in Shakespeare, too). But there are still some great lines, and even a little comedy: "Perdita ran across the road. She’s lovely, thought Leo, watching her, and she has no idea that she is. His current date was a Russian lingerie model who Vaped during sex."

I'm up for reading more of these. The next one is a take on The Merchant of Venice.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Loving

Loving v. Virginia, from 1967, is well known to civil rights lawyers and civil liberties buffs like me. While I knew the basic facts--that an interracial couple had sued and their victory did away with anti-miscegenation laws for all time--I did not know about the lives of the plaintiffs. I thank Jeff Nichols for letting me know in his thoughtful and extremely understated film Loving (thankfully, the couple had an incredibly ironic last name--Lipschitz wouldn't have done it).

Richard Loving (Joel Edgerton) and his wife Mildred (Ruth Negga) lived in a part of Virginia that didn't have that much of a problem with mixed race marriages. We don't know how their families dealt with the relationship, but her family is accepting of him and mostly his mother is accepting of her. Who isn't accepting is the county sheriff, who gets a tip that they've gone off to D.C. to marry and when they get back they are arrested.

They accept a plea bargain that lets them avoid jail time as long as they get out of the state and don't come back at the same time. They sneak back for the birth of a child and get caught again, but are let go. Eventually Negga can't take city life and they move back to a different county in the middle of absolute nowhere. She decides to write to Attorney General Robert Kennedy, who passes on her letter to the ACLU (imagine such a letter to Jefferson Sessions, who probably still believes in anti-miscegenation laws) and she soon has lawyers tackling the case.

What makes Loving fantastic is what it's not. The Lovings were simple people, and I don't mean that in a pejorative sense. He worked construction, she kept house, and while literate, they were not highly educated and didn't have much to say. I think of one scene where Edgerton comes home to find a TV crew in the house. He doesn't like it, but Negga tells him she thinks it will help. In a lesser movie he would have given a speech about how they don't have to have their privacy invaded, ya da ya da, but the man was incapable of such a thing, and has nothing to say. His silence speaks more than a phony speech.

Dignity is a word that is thrown around a lot, and in the case of black people can be a double-edged compliment (Sidney Poitier was frequently called "dignified" by people who had no other compliment to pay him) but in Loving, these two people are dignified. They go through with it because they love each other. They will be helping a lot of other people (Negga seems more interested than that than Edgerton) but most of all is the simple truth that they love each other and want to live together as husband and wife like anybody else. Try to keep a dry eye when the lawyer asks Edgerton if he wants him to say anything on his behalf to the Supreme Court: "Just tell the judge I love my wife," is all he wants to say (though it's not shown, the lawyer did say that).

Nichols, writer and director of a number of equally quiet and thoughtful indies (Midnight Special being a loud outlier) turns out to be a perfect person for this assignment. That may hurt Edgerton and Negga for awards, because they have no big scenery chewing moments, (no "Oscar clip," as they say) but should be remembered. This film is also extremely timely, as it provided a basis for the recent gay marriage ruling (the unanimous decision by Earl Warren said that "marriage is an inherent right") and that so many of our rights are under threat of being rolled back that we could use a reminder of those who fought and won these rights in the first place.

Loving is one of the best movies I've seen this year. Every American should see it.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

White Christmas

The latest in the Broadway series at the Smith Center was Irving Berlin's White Christmas, and if one knows what one is in for, like I did, one can have a good time. I watched with a kind of goofy smile on my face, for though White Christmas is about as substantial as the artificial snow shot out over the audience at the end, it's a nice way to spend two and a half hours not thinking about anything troubling.

The musical is based on the 1954 film of the same name, which starred Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye, and features the song of the title. However, that song, by Irving Berlin of course, debuted in the 1942 film Holiday Inn. The stage musical opened on Broadway, to tepid reviews, in 2008, but has had a long life as a touring show.

This show is steeped in nostalgia, and I imagine the '54 film (which I haven't seen) was already nostalgia. It opens during World War II when two song-and-dance men hook up. Ten years later they are big stars, and meet a sister-act at a New York nightclub. One of the couples is instantly smitten, the other takes a little while longer. All  four end up at an inn in Vermont, which is run by the boys' old general (nothing like whopping coincidences in corny musicals) that is struggling because there is no snow (global warming back then?) The boys decide to put on a show to help him out, a plot device that is old as the hills. They're even doing it in a barn.

The book of the show is by David Ives and Paul Blake--I don't know why it took two people to write such a feeble book, which is full of old jokes and empty platitudes. What matters is the music, all of it written by Irving Berlin, and the dancing, choreographed by Randy Skinner, who also directs (he was the original choreographer of the Broadway show). The stand out numbers are the close of Act I with "Blue Skies," and the opening of Act II, "I Love a Piano," which has some amazing tap dancing. The show closes of course with the title song, but it's interesting that we only hear the chorus. The verse, which is hardly ever heard, is about a guy in Los Angeles who misses the snowy Christmases of his youth, but of course that wouldn't fit here.

As far as the cast goes, I acually recognized two of them. John Schuck, now billed as Conrad John Schuck, was a TV staple of the '70s (especially in his role on McMillan and Wife) and played Walt Waldowsky, the "Painless Pole" in the film version of M*A*S*H. Here he plays the old general. As his busybody concierge is Lorna Luft, who is Judy Garland's other daughter. If that sounds demeaning, Luft starts her own bio with who her mother was.

The leads are charming. Sean Montgomery and Jeremy Benton have to fill the giants shoes of Crosby and Kaye, respectfully, and they do the wise things and don't even try. They play it their own way, and there is no crooning to be heard.

Broadway musicals can comment on the times, or they can be simple escapism. White Christmas is the latter.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk (2016)

As the Beatles sang, "I just had to look, having read the book," Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, by Ben Fountain, was a terrific book, but Ang Lee's film gets the plot points but misses the bigger picture. The screenplay by Jean-Christophe Castelli can't hope to capture Fountain's descriptions of the decadence of a Thanksgiving Cowboys' game, but instead reduces it all to pedantic speechifying.

The film matches the book almost beat for beat. Billy Lynn (Joe Alwyn) is a nobody from Texas who finds himself a hero in the Iraq War. He and his company, "Bravo," are treated as heroes at the Dallas Cowboys Thanksgiving game. Their unctuous owner (Steve Martin, capturing Jerry Jones without imitating him) sees their story as something that can turn around the view of the war.

Meanwhile, Chris Tucker is an agent who is trying to pitch Bravo's story to the movies, and Billy's sister (Kristen Stewart, in her usual depressed state) wants Billy not to redeploy and get an honorable discharge.

There are flashbacks to the events of the war, when Billy was unable to save his Sergeant, (Vin Diesel), a Buddhist given to pontification. The surviving sergeant (well-played by Garret Hedlund) is a no-nonsense bullshit detector. The other guys of the company aren't as well-rounded, given time constraints. But Billy does get to make out with a Cowboys' cheerleader (Makenzie Leigh), who in the book was emphasized as an Evangelical.

The book succeeded, but the movie fails, to show how pageantry and meaningless spectacle does nothing to celebrate the troops' sacrifice, but only makes them political pawns and extras in their own celebration. Frankly, I thought if this movie ever got made they wouldn't get cooperation from the NFL or the Cowboys, since they are mocked so relentlessly in the book. They even keep the part where Destiny's Child is the performing musical act, and we get a view of the back of Beyonce (it would have been great had she agreed to do a cameo).

What Billy Lynn may best be remembered for is Lee's decision to shoot a version of it in 120 frames-per-second 3D, an odd choice for a dramedy. Of course, that is only available in five theaters world-wide. I saw the drab old 24 fps version. Maybe I should have made the drive to L.A. to see the other one, it probably would have much more exciting.

Friday, November 25, 2016

The Expos' Last Hurrah

Tim Raines
The Baseball Hall of Fame just released the ballot for the Baseball Writers Association of America Vote. With no obvious first-timers on this year's list, and a few players on their last ballot, it should be interesting, and regular readers should know this fascinates me to no end.

What's intriguing about looking over the possibilities is that the Montreal Expos, who haven't played a game since the 2004 season, may have their last gasp of immortality, as there are two players with a decent chance of going in who played most of their career for them. The Expos were never in a World Series, spectacularly blowing the lead in game five of the 1981 National League Championship to the Dodgers on a Rick Monday home run. But Tim Raines and Vlad Guerrero are on the ballot, and are probably the last two players who would go in with the Expos logo on their helmet.

Raines has a much better shot. He is in his tenth and last year on the ballot, starting with a modest 24 percent and working his way up to 69 percent last year. Players who hit the magic sixty percent usually get in eventually (it takes 75 percent to enshrine) so he figures to finally hit paydirt. I, however, would not vote for him. He's said to be the second-best leadoff hitter of all time (after Rickey Henderson) but he's far in Henderson's shadow. He doesn't have 3,000 hits, did not have a .300 batting average, but he is fifth all-time in steals, which I find to be a lesser important stat. He only led the league once in on-base percentage and never in walks. He did the league twice in runs. I think he was a very good player but not Hall-worthy.

Guerrero may be the first-timer who gets the most votes, but I don't think he'll get in this year. He may have had more success with the Angels, but he played half of his career for the Expos. He finished with 449 home runs, a .318 batting average (higher than Raines) and 1496 RBI, all Hall-worthy stats. He was the 2004 AL MVP, won eight Silver Sluggers Awards, and is 24th all-time in slugging percentage. I would vote for him, but he'll probably have to wait a few years.

Who else besides Raines gets in this year? Most likely Jeff Bagwell, who had 71 percent of the vote last year, so only needs to pick up a few writers. In an interesting coincidence, he also had 449 home runs, but 1529 RBI, and was a Rookie of the Year and an MVP (in 1994). He played his whole career for Houston, so was not exactly a household name, which has hurt him, along with a shorter-than-normal playing career (only 15 years). But in those years he averaged 34 homers and 115 RBI a season. He's 22nd all-time in on base-plus-slugging.

Of the remaining returning players, Trevor Hoffman is on the cusp. He received 67 percent last year, so figures to get in, but is it this year? With sure-fire first-timers in the next three years (Chipper Jones, Mariano Rivera, and Derek Jeter) Hoffman might want to get it done this year. He is second all-time in saves to Rivera, with 601. But like Bagwell he toiled in relative anonymity with the Padres for most of his career (Raines did win two rings with the Yankees in the late '90s). Should be close for him.

Then there's an interesting group, led by Curt Schilling, who is hurting his chances ever year by being more obnoxious than ever in his politics. It shouldn't matter, but it's hard to ignore his offensive Facebook posts. It's as if he doesn't want to get in. I don't think he deserves it anyway, despite being the ace of three championship teams. Same for Mike Mussina, who has 270 lifetime wins, but just doesn't do it for me.

Then there's the PED guys: Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds, and Sammy Sosa. Not going to happen.

One notable this year is Lee Smith, who is in his 15th and final year. His vote total has hovered between 29 percent and a high of 50, but he has gone down in recent years. He was the first to get 300 saves, and is third all-time with 478, but seems to have left in the dust so much by Rivera and Hoffman. Maybe he'll get in a Veterans' vote someday.

Finally are a quintet of hitters that all have their champions: Edgard Martinez, Jeff Kent, Fred McGriff, Gary Sheffield, and Larry Walker. Kent and Sheffield are probably hurt by moving teams so much (and Kent was not a well-liked teammate). Martinez probably won't get in because of his being a career DH, which won't stop David Ortiz.

Other newcomers of note are Ivan Rodriguez, a great-hitting and fielding catcher who will take a few years to get in, and Manny Ramirez, who would be a shoo-in were it not for being nailed twice for PEDs. He had 555 career home runs, but he may well hang around in limbo like Bonds and Clemens for his full ten years on the ballot.

Some guys on the ballot who probably won't even get the five percent necessary to remain but have interesting career tidbits: Mike Cameron, who once hit four home runs in a game; Matt Stairs, who has the record for most pinch-hit home runs (23) in a career; and Edgar Renteria, who had the game-winning hit in the 1997 World Series, made the last out in another, and was MVP in yet a third Fall Classic. Jorge Posada, who was an essential part of the great five-title Yankees, just doesn't have the career stats to get in.

So, my votes would go to Bagwell, Guerrero, and Rodriguez. My gut is that Bagwell, Raines, and Hoffman will all get in. Vote is announced on January 18th.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Bell, Book, and Candle

This week's witch movie is of the sexy witch, in the 1958 hit Bell, Book, and Candle. Directed by Richard Quine and based on a play by John Van Druten, it stars Kim Novak as the witch and James Stewart as her unwitting target of affection.

While witches have been metaphors for homosexuals or independent women, in Bell, Book, and Candle they are indicative of the counterculture. Novak and her brother, Jack Lemmon, are really part of the Beat generation. She owns an African art store in Greenwich Village, and is a bit bored. She finds Stewart, her upstairs neighbor, interesting, so she bewitches him (using her Siamese cat, Pyewacket).

This breaks up Stewart's engagement with his uptight fiancee (Janice Rule). But she starts to wonder if what she did was really ethical, and tells him the truth.

Lemmon is terrific as the bongo-playing warlock, and there is a subplot involving Ernie Kovacs as a writer who is investigating the world of witchcraft. But Kovacs seems strangely subdued for a comedian, and the film as a whole doesn't gel. Novak is very sexy--she has a smoky voice that works perfectly--but Stewart overdoes his tics so that he seems like someone impersonating himself.

The creator of Bewitched acknowledged that this film, along with I Married a Witch, inspired that TV show, and again it's an example of a witch only becoming happy when she gives up her powers. Anti-feminism, or anti-counterculture, ruled the day.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Ten Thousand Saints (2015)

After seeing The Edge of Seventeen I took a look at Hailee Steinfeld's filmography and was reminded that she was in a film version of Ten Thousand Saints, adapted from a book I enjoyed. I always wondered what happened to it, and I found out it had a brief theatrical release and then went to VOD and obscurity. I found it on Netflix and streamed it, and it is a faithful and earnest retelling of the book.

I won't delve too deeply into the plot, as you can read that in my book review. It was directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, who made waves with American Splendor but haven't reached those heights since then, with The Nanny Diaries and Girl Most Likely (though I liked their TV movie Cinema Verite). What fascinates me is how some films that are perfectly fine get buried. Ten Thousand Saints made less than $60,000 theatrically but deserved a better fate.

The film is set in 1988, when the Lower East Side of Manhattan was a waste land and hardcore punk thrived. The book, and the film, are about Jude (Asa Butterfield), who lives a life of quiet desperation in Vermont. His wastrel father (Ethan Hawke) left the family and lives in Manhattan. On New Year's Eve Hawke's girlfriend's daughter (Steinfeld) pays a visit to Butterfield. She goes to a party and has sex with his best friend, Teddy, who dies that night after huffing freon.

She is carrying his baby, though, and with the help of Teddy's brother (Emile Hirsch) concoct a plan to pass Hirsch off as the father. He is a musician and part of the straight edge movement, which eschews sex, drugs, but not rock and roll. He's also a Krishna, and a closeted gay man. Steinfeld's mother (Emily Mortimer) does not approve.

These characters kind of embody a limbo of hopelessness, though a tacked on voiceover tells us that everything is okay (although the film mentions AIDS, it does not identify a character in the book as having AIDS). What the film seems to be really about is very bad parenting. The responsible mother is supposed to be Julianne Nicholson, as Butterfield's mother, but she makes glass bongs and doesn't seem to realize her son smokes weed by the bushel full and huffs turpentine. And Hawke is the perfect example of a bad father. He is a drug dealer, and when Butterfield comes to live with him he sets basically no rules, except a vague, "come home at night." If this film tells us anything, is that many of us survive in spite of our parents.

The performances are generally good, and the scenes of squalor of Alphabet City are right on. It's a little convenient that Steinfeld runs out into the riots of Tompkins Square Park, but most of the film feels authentic, even if my life was never that dangerous.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

The Best Science and Nature Writing 2015

I must say that this year's The Best American Science and Nature Writing wasn't nearly as frightening as past volumes--there were only a couple of stories about exotic diseases and few dire warnings about global warming or unavoidable earthquakes. Instead, this volume, edited by Rebecca Skloot, looked toward more of the fun or fascinating in science. There was even an article that made me think of Seinfeld.

But there were articles that were steeped in sadness, such as Barry Yeoman's "From Billions to None," which was about the extinction of the once plentiful passenger pigeon. And in "The Aftershocks" by David Wolman, there is discussion of earthquakes in Italy, and the admonition, "As scientists and engineers repeat almost like a rosary: earthquakes don’t kill people; buildings kill people."

Matthew Power, whose article on the poaching of sea turtle eggs in Costa Rica, "Blood in the Sand," has since died, and his participation in this article shows he lived a dangerous life. (He died of heatstroke in Uganda). Seth Mnookin in "One of a Kind" writes about a rare genetic disorder, and how parents of children who suffered from it came to find each other on social media. And Sheri Fink writes of "Life, Death, and Grim Routine Fill the Day at a Liberian Ebola Clinic." Rough stuff.

I found the stories about what we don't know fascinating. There are two articles about the human brain that are interesting. One is about memory: Michael Specter's "Partial Recall." I found it interesting that different memories are housed in different parts of the brain, and it is not really possible to erase bad memories. "These days we tend to think of memory as a camera or a video recorder, filming, storing, and recycling the vast troves of data we accumulate throughout our lives. In practise, though, every memory we retain depends upon a chain of chemical interactions that connect millions of neurons to one another. Those neurons never touch; instead, they communicate through tiny gaps, or synapses, that surround each of them."

Another is about curiosity, in the appropriately titled "Curious" by Kim Todd. What drives curiosity? "One of the things that makes us most curious is the suggestion that the world isn’t how we think it is, that our categories are the wrong ones, and the promise is that the answer to our questions will give us a different, fuller, better view."

There are several articles about animals: Sheila Webster Boneham;s "A Question of Corvids," concerning the increasing belief that crows are more intelligent than thought. "Crows. If gulls are the berserkers of birdkind, swooping and screaming and plundering, then corvids, including crows, are the strategists. They watch." "Spotted Hyena," by Alison Hawthorne Deming, is about the feared, vilified, and fascinating scavengers, while Elizabeth Kolbert's "The Big Kill" is about New Zealand's attempt to rid itself of feral mammals--they are not indigenous and cause havoc to bird life. Sarah Schweitzer's "Chasing Bayla" is a sad story about a whale that gets entangles in a fishing line, which happens all too frequently, and usually leads to the whale's death.

Two stories really stood out for me. One is Sam Kean's "Phineas Gage, Neuroscience's Most Famous Patient," which is about a man who, in 1848, had a steel rod go through his head. He lived, miraculously, but exhibited personality changes. "Most of us first encountered Gage in a neuroscience or psychology course, and the lesson of his story was both straightforward and stark: the frontal lobes house our highest faculties; they’re the essence of our humanity, the physical incarnation of our highest cognitive powers."

The other is the one that reminded me of Seinfeld. There was an episode in which Kramer and his friend Mickey work as actors for medical students. They act out symptoms and such. I never knew this was real until I read "The Empathy Exams," by Lisa Jamison, in which she recounts her time as a "Medical Actor," She intercuts her experiences as "Stephanie Phillips," who is suffering mysterious seizures, with her own experience of having an abortion. It's a powerful essay.

There are also articles about living with no light, living with too much light, exploring the sea floor, and our approach toward death. All in all, a fairly engaging volume this year.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Six Flags Magic Mountain

The author with Bugs Bunny
Amusement parks earn billions of dollars in revenue every year. Like most Americans, I have spent my fair share in them, but mostly when I was a kid. Yesterday and today I took my girlfriend and her boys to Six Flags Magic Mountain, a five-hour drive from Las Vegas in suburban Los Angeles. I have mixed feelings about this.

When I was a kid, I did my time in amusement parks. When I lived in suburban Detroit there was Bob-Lo Island, which was in the Detroit River between Michigan and Ontario, but is closed now. All I remember is taking the ferry to get there. Detroiters usually go to Cedar Point, a few hours away in Ohio, which is now one of the best parks for roller coasters in the country. I remember having good times there, but no specific memories.

In Philadelphia we visited Dorney Park, in Houston Astroworld. In 1978 or thereabouts I made my one and only trip to Disneyworld, when my grandparents lived in Florida. I feel bad for them now, having to go with each group of grandkids to that place all the time. We went during Christmas week, surely the worst time to go, and it was raining. I remember it being a miserable time, and though Space Mountain was great I'm not sure it was worth the two-hour wait.

In New Jersey we have Six Flags Great Adventure (Six Flags is a huge conglomerate that has bought up existing parks and inserted Warner Brothers character into them). I went in high school with some chums, and then again in 1989 with a friend. I was 28 then and it was about the age to quit going, unless you're with kids. That same friend and I did go to Universal Studios in the early part of this century, because we had free tickets. Most of that experience was spent waiting in line.

So this visit was my first in several years, and the first time I went with kids. I'm left pondering why these places are so popular. I guess there are two kinds--the "theme" park, like Disney's parks, which emphasize a state of mind over thrill rides. Walt Disney called his parks "the happiest place on Earth," and for some people they are, but I can't get past the corporate spit polish. I did enjoy a trip to Disneyland in the late '80s--it is a manageable size that doesn't require more than one day. But Disneyworld, with Epcot and all the other stuff, is like visiting a foreign country.

The other type of park is the "thrill ride" park. Cedar Point, King's Island, and few other places fit in that category. I haven't been to Cedar Point in over forty years, but I don't think it's crawling with costumed characters; it's for die-hard roller coaster enthusiasts. Magic Mountain is a bit of both. They've got Bugs Bunny and his pals, but they've also got more than a dozen roller coasters, each one more terrifying than the next.

If people go to theme parks to get away from their miserable lives and be reminded of the myth of the great America (Disneyworld and it's Main Street U.S.A. is an idealization that never really existed), the people who ride thrill rides are a different sort. There seems to be a fundamental need for humans to scare themselves. Recently there was an article in Glamour, I think, by a woman who couldn't understand why people liked horror movies, and in fact believed that no really liked them. Naturally she was excoriated by the Internet. People watch horror movies for the same reason they ride roller coasters--there must be some kind of endorphin released that makes us feel more alive. Horror movies are much more passive, though. The scares are all in the mind. Roller coasters, though, are much more visceral--you are actually hurtling through space and one little broken widget could send you plummeting to your death.

At 55, I am now officially too old for these kind of rides. I have long been unable to do spinning rides. About fifteen years ago I went to a third-rate park in Maine and my twin nephews wanted to ride that thing where you stand and hold some bars and the whole thing whirls around. They were too short to ride unaccompanied by an adult, so since I'm a soft touch I went on with them. As the ride began to spin, I realized I was going to die. So I stared at my feet and somehow survived, though I had to recover sitting at a picnic table until the world stopped spinning.

I stayed away from spinning rides, but even those that don't make me dizzy. I knew I was in for a rough time on the first night, where I rode nothing but the carousel, and I got a little woozy. Today I got a handicapped access (don't hate me) so I wouldn't have to stand in line, and went on one ride that does a big loop-de-loop. That wasn't too bad, so I tried the Batman ride, which is full of twists and turns. That one really made me dizzy, so for the next one I tried a simple water ride, which was more my speed. I ended on the Goliath, which starts with a 255-foot drop and then zooms around curves. But since there was no upside-down or spinning, it wasn't too bad. But I had had enough.

I'm afraid I'm going to be like my dad, who when he goes to these places finds a comfortable bench and people-watches. My days with roller coasters are over.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

The Edge of Seventeen

The teen film is a huge genre that breaks down into subgenres. There's the epic party genre, the homely girl takes off her glasses and gets the cute guy genre, or the observe, the nerdy guy gets the cute girl genre. The best teen films are those who avoid cliches and tell it like it is--that high school is a kind of hell.

The Edge of Seventeen, which does indulge a bit in the nerdy guy genre, is one of the better ten films of recent years, and reminded me a lot of Ghost World, in that both films are about a girl who just can't connect with her cohort, and when it seems like a long-time friend betrays her, she just about melts down.

Hailee Steinfeld is absolutely terrific as Nadine, who is 17 and has always felt inferior to her older brother (Blake Jenner), an Adonis who does everything right. Her mother, Kyra Sedgwick, is at wit's end, dealing with her husband's death and Steinfeld's difficult behavior. There's really only two people Steinfeld can talk to her--her constantly bemused history teacher (Woody Harrelson) and her BFF since second grade, Haley Lu Richardson.

Then, horror of horrors, Richardson hooks up with Jenner, and Steinfeld can't take it. Some sisters might thrill to their friend dating their brother, but to Steinfeld her brother is everything she hates, and she gives Richardson an ultimatum. Needless to say, it does not go well.

The Edge of Seventeen was written and directed, in her directorial debut, by Kelly Fremon Craig, who seems to remember what a minefield school was. Steinfeld's character, like Enid in Ghost World, is a precocious girl who has a terrific vocabulary but lousy social skills. She is narcissistic to the point of having trouble seeing the point of view of anyone else. But we root for her, maybe because of her intelligence (unlike a movie like Juno, though, Nadine is not given encyclopedic knowledge of punk bands or any other esoterica) or maybe just because most people can empathize with her being torn between family and a misguided self-righteousness.

There are a few cliches, such as Steinfeld being torn between the bad boy (Alexander Calvert), whom she mistakenly sends a pornographic instant message, and the nerdy good guy (Hayden Szeto). Who she will choose is pretty much a dead giveaway, and in a long-held fantasy of nerds, the guy who gets her does it with his art work.

But despite certain familiar tropes, The Edge of Seventeen is elevated by smart dialogue and a scintillating lead performance. This is Steinfeld's first real chance to shine since her debut in True Grit, and it is heartening to know that was not a one and done.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

The Nightmare Before Christmas

It's roughly halfway between Halloween and Christmas--there's still a lot of pumpkin spice around and people are already in line for Black Friday sales--so I thought it would be a good time to show my students The Nightmare Before Christmas. I actually found a film that many of them had not seen (it is from 1993) and one asked if it was a Halloween film or a Christmas film, and I truthfully answered, "Both."

Though directed by Henry Selick, this is from the mind of Tim Burton, and he envisioned it and produced it. It is, without much doubt, the best Halloween/Christmas movie (I think it's the only one) but it is also one of the best animated movie musicals of all time. It is kind of an anti-Disney film (interestingly, it was bought by Disney in 2006), the kind the Addams Family would love.

The conceit is that each holiday has its own town, with an entry through a doorway in a tree. We are first introduced to Halloweentown, and the first of Danny Elfman's wonderful songs (you can tell Elfman's music--I'm not a musical person but even I can hear his motifs--this song sounds a lot like the main theme from Mars Attacks!). The big man on campus is Jack Skellington, the Pumpkin King, who organizes Halloween every year. Only he has some ennui, and wants to change things.

He comes across Christmastown, and is amazed. In another great musical number, "What's This?" Jack's eyes are opened. He experiences snow, and joy. He wants Halloween to take over Christmas, but needs to get "Sandy Claws" out of the way. He employs three mischief-makers (Lock, Shock, and Barrel) to kidnap him, and we get my favorite song, "Kidnap the Sandy Claws," which has one of my favorite two lines of any song anywhere:

"Kidnap the Sandy Claws
Chop him into bits."

Kind of balances out all those super-sugary Christmas carols.

The three trick-or-treaters deliver Santa to Oogie Boogie, a bogey-man who is just a sack made of bugs and worms, and Jack realizes his error and saves the day, along with Sally, a rag doll who was made by the Evil Scientist, who looks like a duck.

What's great about The Nightmare Before Christmas is the complete depth of detail, especially of Halloweentown. It is a completely realized place, and despite the vampires and the monsters, seems like a place that would be nice to visit. I like the mayor, who is literally two-faced, the guy with an axe in his head, and especially the Evil Scientist, who consistently is outwitted by Sally until he finally makes his perfect match.

The sequence in which Jack fills in for Santa (which is reminiscent in a way of How the Grinch Stole Christmas) is great, too. That moment when the kid opens his present and finds a shrunken head is priceless.

The Nightmare Before Christmas has become a holiday classic, it just covers more than one holiday.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Lover, Beloved

Suzanne Vega discovered the writing of Carson McCullers as a teenager and has been obsessed ever since. So much so that she created a theater piece and accompany songs, which is now out on an album called Lover, Beloved: Songs From an Evening With Carson McCullers.

I have heard of McCullers but never read her, which I hope to remedy soon. Vega channels McCullers and has written songs that take the author's point of view. Vega even poses on the front cover in a shot reminiscent of one of McCullers' most famous photographs.

McCullers was labeled a Southern writer, and in a bouncy but bitter-tinged number called "Harper Lee," she bemoans that she's always compared to her. The number of authors mentioned in this song could fill a college semester, from Virginia Woolf to Graham Greene to Katherine Anne Porter. The bitterness comes from some writers getting more recognition:

"Darling Tennessee Williams
It's anybody's guess
Why 'Streetcar' made millions
And 'Wedding' so much less"

(One of McCuller's novels, Member of the Wedding, was made into a Broadway play that did not match the success of Williams' Streetcar Named Desire).

But McCullers resisted the "Southern Gothic" label and spent many years in New York, which Vega writes about in "New York Destination":

"New York is my destination
New York is where I'll be from.
New York is made for grander things.
Just. Like. Me."

This is an interesting, though short, album that shows of Vega's song writing talent (she shares music-writing credit with Duncan Sheik and Jefry Stevens). She's long ago left behind the single-guitar folk style that she started with over thirty years ago, and Lover, Beloved is fully accompanied by a variety of instruments. The opening cut, "Carson's Blues," has a New Orleans quality, with accordion and a banjo ukulele (I didn't know there was such a thing). This song establishes what McCullers thought of herself:

"A wounded sparrow
Timid and shy
A fallen deer, that's what they call me
But I'm an iron butterfly."

I'm no expert on Carson McCullers, but I have to think she would approve. McCullers, who was born in 1917 (I'll be reading something by her next year for her centenary) lived her life in poor health and died at age 50. The last song is called "Carson's Last Supper," and is a beautiful tribute, which begins and ends with these lovely lines:

"I love the world
Sometimes it loves me
The love of my life
Is humanity."

Thursday, November 17, 2016

The Witches

This year marks Roald Dahl's centenary. Best known for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and James and the Giant Peach, I chose honor the occasion to read The Witches, tying in with my autumn exploring all things witchcraft. It's a drolly macabre book about a little boy and his grandmother tangling with an entire coven, and children leaning toward the ghoulish would love it.

The narrator of the book is orphaned and living with his grandmother in Norway, who tells him some marvelously gruesome stories about witches. She's something of an expert, and puffs a cigar while she talks about them. These are not fairy tales, we are told: "In fairy-tales, witches always wear silly black hats and black cloaks, and they ride on broomsticks. But this is not a fairy-tale. This is about REAL WITCHES."

It seems that real witches are bald, have gnarled hands, and no toes. So if you see a woman wearing gloves and a wig, look out. We are also told, flat out, "I do not wish to speak badly about women. Most women are lovely. But the fact remains that all witches are women. There is no such thing as a male witch." Many have accused Dahl of being misogynistic, but this disclaimer is right there.

Anyway, the boy and his grandmother move to England, and take a holiday on the seaside. At the same hotel is a convention of an anti-cruelty to children convention. The boy is hiding inside their meeting when he realizes he's surrounded by witches (they take off their gloves and wigs, you see). The head witch, who is short and with an Eastern European accent, has a plan to eliminate all the children of England--she will turn them into mice.

Our hero gets caught and does turn into a mouse, although he keeps his human brain and voice. He manages to get to his grandmother and they hatch a plot against the witches, which is described with breathless excitement.

Dahl's stories are usually unsentimental (he went through many personal tragedies) and darkly comic, and The Witches fits that bill, although the relationship between the boy and his grandmother, especially their pact together at the end, is a bit fuzzy but wonderful. The depiction of witches, which might seem not politically correct today, if firmly set in the fairy tale tradition (the Brothers Grimm were really sadistic). Very young children might well be scared silly, but for kids of about eight or above (all the way up to my 55) will enjoy the book immensely.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Arrival

There have been many films about what happens when the aliens arrive. Therefore, expecting one to be original and thoughtful, as well as having some genuine excitement might be unwise. I'm happy to report that Arrival, directed by Denis Villenueve, is a thinking person's sci-fi, and has a luminous performance by Amy Adams.

Arrival has a twist that I can not in good conscience reveal or even hint at, but the film as a whole is concerned with time. As with many sci-fi works (off the top of my head I think of the Tralfamidoreans in Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five) we learn that not all creatures experience time linearly. Let me leave it at that.

Adams plays a linguistics professor who is called on to help the whole military-industrial complex to communicate with aliens who have landed in seemingly random spots around the globe. Their ships look like giant contact lenses, they look like octopi (except with seven legs, so they are called heptapods) and their written language look like Rorschach tests. Adams is able to break the code but the bellicose Chinese are suspicious and threaten hostile action. Can Adams manage to save the day? Klaatu Barada Nikto!

Jeremy Renner co-stars as a theoretical physicist and Forrest Whitaker is a gruff colonel, but the film belongs to Adams. Once you understand the sequence of events, you will replay the movie in your head and realize that Adams has done a remarkable job in not giving it away. I am glad that she abandoned the Disney princess stuff and has done some very diverse work in the last few years, and this may be her best performance yet.

The "here come the aliens" movie this reminded me most of is Contact, which was based on a book by Carl Sagan, so it had some scientific chops. Arrival seems to be scientifically sound, although I don't follow Neil deGrasse Tyson's Twitter feed to find out what was not true or possible. But I wonder if any film has really captured what would happen if extraterrestrials were to make an appearance on Earth. Would we go apeshit? Would we head for the hills, or start shooting at them? Arrival suggests, and I would agree, that it would be science v. hysteria. Interestingly, this film makes no mention of religion, which The Day the Earth Stood Still was forced to do.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

What Next for Democrats?

Tulsi Gabbard
Just a few weeks ago people were talking about the end of the Republican Party. Now the Democratic Party looks on the ropes, especially in Presidential politics. We thought we had a stranglehold on the electoral college, but Trump and his scared white people broke though in the upper Midwest and now we're all screwed.

Hillary Clinton was so obvious a nominee this year that she scared off everyone except Bernie Sanders, so now the presidential prospects look barren. What should the Democratic Party do in the next four years? Go left? Probably. Clinton turned off a lot of Sanders voters and had a long history of scandals, both real and imaginary. She is now 69 and is unlikely to run again, and I doubt she could get another nomination. So where to?

Sanders is 75 and would be 79 in 2020. He is vague about plans for then, but it takes chutzpah for a 75-year-old man to make plans four years down the road. In my view, it's time to look not only left but young, perhaps in the futile attempt to capture lightning in a bottle twice, i.e., another Barack Obama.

Before that, in 2018, it is unlikely that the Democrats will retake the Senate. There is only one state they have a realistic chance at flipping--Nevada (Las Vegas and its Hispanics and unions flipped two congressional seats and kept a competitive senate seat--suddenly I live in a liberal area) with Dean Heller. Meanwhile, the Democrats will have a hell of a time keeping seats in red states like Missouri, North Dakota, and Montana.

So we have to hope we can make it to 2020 with at least some liberal Supreme Court members and look to the future. Wikipedia has a helpful and exhaustive list of possible candidates. I'll mention some of those and then make some choices of my own. I list their ages in 2020 in parentheses.

The Old Guard: Joe Biden (78) is done. Elizabeth Warren (71) is the most popular progressive right now, outside of possibly Sanders and would have beaten the pants off Trump. But I like her in the Senate and, again, too old.

The Usual Suspects: Sherrod Brown (68), a liberal senator from Ohio makes sense, and he may run, but I want to go younger. Andrew Cuomo (62), not too old, but has a sleaze factor that turns me off. He got too cozy with Albany Republicans. Tim Kaine (62), nobody likes a loser. No losing VP candidate has been nominated since Bob Dole in '96 (a full twenty years after he lost for veep) and one hasn't won the presidency since FDR. Kaine may well run, but I don't think he excites anyone, which is why he was a perfect VP nominee. Martin O'Malley (57), ran briefly in 2016, hard to imagine anyone getting in a tizzy about him.

More Sensible Candidates: Cory Booker (51), dynamic senator from New Jersey and seems to be clean. Oddly, that he is not married may be his biggest problem, though maybe not. Kirsten Gillibrand (53), senator from New York. Went more left when she left her more conservative congressional district and is an attractive candidate--looks like a lot of the women that got lost to Trump. Amy Klobuchar (60), meat and potatoes senator from Minnesota. More likely a VP prospect, and she's not a dynamic speaker, though I find her to be well-spoken and a solid liberal.

The Younger Set: Julian Castro (46), the former Secretary of HUD and mayor of San Antonio. Many thought he might be Hillary's veep, but I'm sure his lack of experience did him in. His problem will be what he does the next four years. He could take on Ted Cruz in 2018, but would likely lose and disappear into obscurity. Tulsi Gabbard: (39), a real diamond in the rough, and a leading spokesman of the far-left. A congresswoman from Hawaii, in the Army National Guard, and a Hindu. I'd like to know more about her. Her Facebook posts are mostly about concern for the TPP and drones in Syria. The Nation crowd love her, not sure about middle America. Keith Ellison (57), the only Islamic member of Congress, so that's one strike against him for some, but he is running for DNC chair and it would be great if he got it. If he runs for president I'm afraid it would be symbolic. Tim Ryan (47), rising star in the House, his district is a working class part of Ohio. He is making noise to take leadership from Nancy Pelosi, which may alienate some but may be a stepping stone.

The Freshman Class: At this time in 2004, Barack Obama was freshly elected senator. Four years later he was President. So, who among the new crop of Democrats are attractive candidates? Kamala Harris (56), new senator from California. African American and Asian, and mentioned as a Supreme Court candidate. Would probably make a lot of waves if she chose to run (a conditional that applies to all of these names). Maggie Hassan (62), new senator from New Hampshire and former governor. Though she's older she's a new face and a woman and managed to win a seat in a bad year for Democrats. Chris Van Hollen (61), new senator from Maryland, longtime Congressman. Tammy Duckworth, (52). Her story is hard to resist. Lost both legs in combat, beat back a yokel for her House seat, then easily dispatched an incumbent senator (albeit in a deep-blue state). She's a mixture of Thai and white. The only problem--she was born in Thailand, but to an American father. It seems to me that if Ted Cruz could run for president, born in Canada to an American mother, then she could, too.

Although the Trump years will certainly be difficult for progressives, I look forward to new faces emerging, and encourage others to look past the usual names. Democratic nominees for president usually do come out of nowhere--we don't play the "next in line" game that Republicans often play. We did that this year and got burned.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Moonlight

The movie that Moonlight most reminded me of was Boyhood, though of course there are many differences. But it told one young man's story, from a boy of about ten to a man of about twenty-five, in three discrete sections. Moonlight uses three actors to play Chiron, aka Little, aka Black, but the effect is something of the same--the evolution of a human being. But unlike Boyhood, which told the story of a straight white kid with two parents in his life, Moonlight is about a fatherless gay black male, and his struggle for identity.

Written and directed by Barry Jenkins, based on a play by Tarell Alvin McCraney, Moonlight is set in Miami. The first act has Chiron, called "Little," being chase by a group of boys. He finds refuge in an abandoned building, and is found by Mahershala Ali as the local drug dealer. Ali, unable to get his home address out of him, takes him home and is mothered by Ali's girlfriend (Janelle Morae).

Eventually Ali takes him home and finds that the boy's mother (Naomie Harris) is an angry woman. Little hates her, and spends a lot of time with Ali and Monae. One night Ali finds that crack under his control has been sold to Harris, whom he confronts, but she will have none of it. Later, in a quiet scene that has the power of a mule kick, Little (played by Alex Hibbert), asks Ali what a faggot is, and whether he (Hibbert) is one. Then he asks Ali if he sells drugs, and if his mother takes them. The shame on Ali's face is heartbreaking.

Act II is when Chiron (now played by Ashton Sanders) is in high school. He has one friend, Kevin, but mostly is taunted by bullies. He's not exactly out, but everyone assumes he is gay. He and Kevin (Jharrel Jerome) meet on the beach and smoke pot. Though Kevin is ostensibly straight, he gives Chiron a loving handjob. But Kevin will betray him, and it leads to Chiron being led away in handcuffs.

In Act III, now called Black (a nickname Kevin gave him) Chiron is out of jail and living the life that Ali used to lead, dealing drugs in Atlanta. He gets a call from Kevin, apologizing, though it's ten years later. Chiron is inspired to drive back down to Miami to meet him in the restaurant where Kevin works. The scene is fraught with tension, as we don't know what Chiron has in mind.

Moonlight is intriguing but put me off a bit, partly because I went in with high expectations. The dialogue by Chiron is, and I'm sure quite intentionally, stiff and almost inarticulate. He says very little, and when he does talk he doesn't express himself. He's almost a supporting player in his own life story. At times his passivity will drive you crazy, but then he acts with rage and it's too much. I will say this, though, a decision not to give him any thought voiceovers was a good one. It lets us fill in the blanks.

This film won't be for everyone, whether or not it has a gay theme. It can be slow going, but it builds a quiet momentum. The third act I think is the weakest (though the two actors who now play Chiron and Kevin, Trevante Rhodes and Andre Holland, are terrific) because it can't match the fireworks of the first two acts, instead it just kind of smolders.

But despite my slight reservations, this is a very good film and is likely to be an Oscar contender. Expect nominations for Ali and Harris. She was reluctant to play yet another horrible black mother, which is too much of a cliche, but she is brilliant.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Meliora

The Grammy for Best Metal Performance went to Ghost, a Swedish band, for the song "Cirice," off the album Meliora. Defining metal, whether heavy or otherwise, can be a daunting and futile exercise. Most would say it started with Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, and Led Zeppelin, but few would call Zeppelin a metal band today. There are hundreds of types of metal--from thrash to stoner to symphonic to folk--so many types that it appears to have lost all meaning.

Ghost has more of the trappings of metal, specifically goth metal, than the sound. It's kind of like a person putting up a Beware of Dog sign when they have a cute little schnauzer. It can bite, but it's not that vicious. As you can see from the cover and the names of the songs ("Cirice" means church, and there also songs called "Absolution," "Devil's Church," "He Is," "Deus in Absentia" and "Majesty") that confuse the sacred and profane. Ghost is vaguely Satanic, but not outwardly so. They do wear horned masks on stage. The lead singer is called Papa Emeritus III and the band is A Group of Nameless Ghouls. But the songs recall not so much the sounds of Hell as top-40 radio in the 1970s.

The more I listened to it the catchier it sounded. It has much more pop than the old nasties like Judas Priest and Slayer, and I could even understand the words. "Cirice" is a terrific song, as is "Mummy Dust." The opening track, "Spirit," really sounds like something from classic rock radio, as it opens with what I believe is a moog. "Devil's Church" is a short instrumental with an organ, reminiscent of Elton John's "Funeral for a Friend." The last track, "Deus in Absentia," ends with a choir.

I have no idea if Ghost is putting us all on or is serious about their act, but it doesn't really matter, as the album is tuneful and fun. I doubt Pat Robertson would like it, but that's just another positive.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Paradise Sky

Nat Love was a real person, but bears little resemblance to Joe R. Landsale's character in Paradise Sky, a rollicking Western that showcases the travails of a black man in the post-Civil War south, and then in the Wild West.

I just looked at Nat Love's Wikipedia page and see that other than the nickname "Deadwood Dick," which was given to Love based on a dime novel character that had already existed, there is nothing true in Lansdale's book. But that doesn't lessen my enjoyment of it. As Nat says: "I can’t stand a damn liar and have no respect for one. But an artful exaggerator always gets my full attention and my undying respect."

Lansdale, who writes in all genres, starts his book in East Texas, where a young man named Willie in town on an errand for his sharecropper father, looks at the ass of a white woman. That woman's husband, Ruggert, will then pursue a life-long vendetta against Willie, who for several years hides out with a kindly white farmer, who teaches him how to ride and shoot. Willie will take the name Nat Love, and join up with the army and fight Indians, and then will spend time in Deadwood (running into the real-life Wild Bill Hickok) and then Dodge City. He will get his revenge as Ruggert further disrupts his life.

I don't know why Lansdale called this book Paradise Sky, as there no mention of a paradise or of the sky. But he has created a memorable character with Love, who narrates the book. We get all sorts of lifehacks, such as: "Be careful of women. They can cause you trouble," and "Bill once told me an Indian, even a deaf one, could hear a June bug fart under a bucket a half mile away," and "Bald barbers make me nervous" and "Banks and churches just about ruin everything."

Lansdale's dialogue is wondrous, and not only Nat gets good lines. Hickok's portion of the book is a dazzler, especially for a man who has been depicted in so many books and movies (Richard Matheson didn't think much of him in The Memoirs of Wild Bill Hickok, but played by Keith Carradine in Deadwood he was a stalwart). We do experience Bill's death at the hands of Jack McCall (and so does Nat). Hickok said of McCall:  "He came out of his mama’s wrong hole and she forgot to wipe. So there he is. But he is of no concern. I’ve played him in cards, and he’s a coward. You can tell a lot of things about a man by the way he plays cards." Bill also says of his wife, who was an acrobat: “I was charmed by her, for she is quite flexible,” Wild Bill said," but then adds, "Part of my departure might be due to the fact that despite her profession she is quite the lady and wouldn’t suck a dick if it were coated in peppermint oil."

Nat is a man of integrity and decency, and is always trying to do the right thing. And the book is consistently as funny as it is adventurous. I mean, come on, can you resist a book that begins: "Now, in the living of my life, I’ve killed deadly men and dangerous animals and made love to four Chinese women, all of them on the same night and in the same wagon bed, and one of them with a wooden leg, which made things a mite difficult from time to time." I dare you. This is one of the best Westerns I've read in a long time.

Friday, November 11, 2016

The Blair Witch Project

I couldn't write about witch films without including The Blair Witch Project, even though no witch appears in it. Released in 1999, film became one of the most successful films of all time, based on revenue versus cost, and though it wasn't the first to use the "found footage" gimmick it has been the benchmark for it ever since.

Directed and conceived by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez, The Blair Witch Project has no omniscient camera, and consists entirely of footage shot by three performers. The characters, named after the actors, are documentarians working on a film about a local Maryland legend called The Blair Witch. They interview locals, learning key information about a hermit who murdered eight children.

The bulk of the short film (80 minutes) is the time they go into the woods, and end up getting lost. This film is less about the supernatural than people losing their shit. The main focus is on Heather Donahue, who assures her partners (Joshua Leonard and Michael Williams) that she knows where she is. But then they continually go south and end up in a spot they were in before, already two days late, and they kind of go berserk.

The witch angle really is a red herring, though it is effective as an overall atmospheric touch. Each night they hear noises, and after seeing this film you may not want to spend nights in the woods anymore. Just the shining of a light into the darkness of the woods is disturbing, as you never know what you might alight on. When they hear voices and laughter of children, and something shakes their tent, they really know something is amiss.

I liked the film a great deal, both on the original viewing and seeing it again. However, it was a polarizing film, as horror aficionados accustomed to more gruesome viewing were disappointed. It actually got nominations for the Golden Raspberry as worst film of the year. I disagree, thinking the film is very effective in creating spookiness without showing anything directly. The scene where they encounter stick men in the trees, or find the empty house in the middle of the woods, are chilling (I once was walking along a trail in a park in Princeton and came across an abandoned house and immediately thought of The Blair Witch Project).

Remember kids, what scares us the most is what we don't know, not what we know.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Doctor Strange

I had fun at Doctor Strange, the Marvel Cinematic Universe's fourteenth picture, mostly because it was a trippy outing, kind of a prolonged trip to an occult items store. But two days after seeing it, I've kind of lost the thrill, and in the long run it still had Marvel's typical strengths and weaknesses--a great sense of humor, but a fondness for mass mayhem and bludgeoning.

Doctor Strange the character has been around since 1963, but he was never a major player in the Marvel Universe. He had his own book, but mostly he just popped up in other superheroes titles when they encountered magical villains. But I always liked that he existed--it provided a counterpoint to the mostly scientific and technical angle of Marvel heroes--he didn't need adamantium, or Jarvis--he was just a fucking sorcerer.

This film is an origin story. Benedict Cumberbatch plays Stephen Strange, an extremely arrogant neurosurgeon. He is speeding along a road in a sleek sports car when he crashes and loses the use of his hands. He tries everything, but when medicine fails, he goes to Nepal, where of course everyone goes when they seek spirituality (actually, that would be Tibet, but the makers did not want to offend the Chinese--lots of money there, you know). He meets a woman called The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) who eventually teaches him about the other worlds of existence.

He's a fast learner, and will cross paths with a rogue sorcerer played by Mads Mikkelson, who wants to learn the secret of immortality (although this somehow gives him eye crud). Cumberbatch will fight him and his minions and eventually outwit some godly creature called Dormammu. With a doohickey that can control time, he will also save Hong Kong.

This is all good and exciting and held my interest, but it seemed superficial. Just like the Iron Man films throw around technical jargon, Doctor Strange uses metaphysical buzzwords. I hope a second film gives us more insight into just how you can make a sword of light out of thin air. Some scenes are very amusing in that Marvel sort of way--such as when Cumberbatch uses his astral body to fight bad guys while his friend (Rachel McAdams) operates on his corporeal body. I also hope the next film has him using his usual oath--"By the hoary hosts of Hoggoth!"

It's a good cast, also with Chiwetel Ejiofor, who I fear will be a villain in the next movie (his character, Baron Mordor, is an enemy of Strange in the comics). Cumberbatch, who I like because though he's a British actor with serious Shakespearean chops, takes on all kinds of roles, from Sherlock Holmes to the voice of Smaug, makes a terrific wizard and looks good in the Cloak of Levitation (comic geeks may get a nice little rush when he first puts it on, or rather, when it first puts itself on). The Sanctum Sanctorum looks great, too. Kudos to the productions design.

The special effects are very much like those that were in Inception--cities folding in on themselves, and shifting like rotating a picture in Photoshop. Frankly they didn't do a lot for me--but it takes a lot for special effects to be impressive, since it's just about all been done.

A tease tells us that Strange will interact with other Marvel characters. I would love to see him in a Midnight Sons film, that would include other supernatural heroes like Hellstorm, Morbius, Werewolf by Night, and Ghost Rider (but not Nicolas Cage, thank you). Doctor Strange was a member of that team and it would rock.

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

Revenge of the White People

In a concert shortly after the election of Ronald Reagan, The Weavers' Lee Hays, wheelchair-bound but still feisty, said it was like kidney stones: "This too shall pass." He was right. We lived through Reagan. We lived through George W. Bush. But there were consequences. Reagan tripled the debt. Bush nearly brought the nation to economic ruin, and started a costly, in both lives and money, unnecessary war. And now, with the inexplicable election of Donald Trump, we may face our biggest test. Will our democracy survive?

First of all, to people like Nate Silver and Sam Wang, fuck you. And every pollster who claims to be a professional. What are the purposes of polls if there so off the mark? Did that many people lie about who they were voting for, or do Trump's voters not have phones? This is the biggest error since Truman defeated Dewey, and you'd think in 68 years the technology would be better. Sam Wang had Hillary Clinton at a 99 percent-plus, and said he would eat a bug if Trump were elected. I wonder what kind he chowed down on?

As I watched the returns, and things soured quickly (really, she lost Wisconsin, the state that elected the first gay senator?) and I became going into a deep depression that may take four years to get out of, I had to wonder about the Trump voter. I have some in my family, and they are die-hard Republicans who would vote for Jeffrey Dahmer if he were the nominee. I think Hillary Clinton did everything she could and don't blame her at all. The only thing she did wrong was be Hillary Clinton, which was enough for some people.

But there's something more sinister going on here. Since when do we have a president who was endorsed by the KKK? Who has supporters threatening a race war if he wasn't elected? Trump won because he did something that perhaps no other Republican could have done--he ignited and captured the fear of white people, especially uneducated and racist, either plainly or casually.

White people, and I am one, are one of the biggest problems in this country right now. This nation will no longer be a white majority by 2050, and though I'll probably be dead but I'd like to see it. White people are so smug about their entitlements--"We created this country." Well, bullshit. There were people of all races here a long time ago. Just because only white men have been in position of power for over 200 years and oops! a black guy got in there doesn't mean that white people are suddenly disenfranchised. But that's how Trump whites seem to think. This vote is a backlash against Obama and his competence. Clinton, with her long history of scandal, got steamrolled by the hatred.

I do think, though we'll never know, that Obama, if allowed, could easily have won a third term. Perhaps almost any other Democrat could have beaten Trump, who is immensely unpopular. I don't know if Bernie Sanders could have, but Elizabeth Warren could have, or or any of handful of governors and senators without Hillary's baggage. Democrats thought they got lucky facing Trump, when it was the other way around.

I really don't know how I'm going to handle this. At least Reagan and Bush were governors and had some sense of how things work. Trump seems to be have a child's understanding of the world and civics (he doesn't know what the Supreme Court does, or how a bill is passed). Speaking of the Supreme Court, poor Merrick Garland can now forget about his life-long dream of serving at the highest court, and we'll see what monster Trump nominates, and hope that Ruth Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer can live for four more years.

Ideally, I would like to go into one of those nuclear fallout shelters, full of food and books and DVDs and just wait out the next four years. Every time I hear the words "President Trump" it's going to be like a knife in my heart. He'll be great fodder for comedians, and he'll fail spectacularly, but I'd rather sit out. It will pass, but it will be painful.

Tuesday, November 08, 2016

Alice Childress

I was a drama major and I like to think that I have a pretty good knowledge of American playwrights, so I'm embarrassed that I had not known who Alice Childress was before discovering that it is her centenary this year. She is probably best known for writing the novel A Hero Ain't Nothing But a Sandwich, but the huge bulk of her work was plays, and she was the first African-American woman to have a play professionally produced in New York City.

I picked up a copy of Selected Plays, that features five of her best works. It starts with a terrific one-act called "Flora," which shows a segregated railroad station--one half for blacks, the other for whites. A woman is sending her daughter off to New York to be an actress. She strikes up a conversation with a well-meaning white woman, who has contacts in the theater, to help her find a job. But when it turns out she means help finding her work as a domestic, the mother is insulted and devastated. It's a short, piercing work.

The next is "Gold Through the Trees," a revue of various monologues and sketches that represent the black experience in America but probably doesn't read as well as it plays. My favorite play was "Trouble in Mind," a backstage drama about a play about African Americans that is written by a white man and directed by a white man but with a predominantly black cast. It's set in the 50s, so there's a lot of tension--black actors are grateful for any parts, but the director is one of those guys who thinks he's progressive on race but at times is merely patronizing. The moment when the cast turns on him and calls him a racist, which shocks him to the core, is scintillating.

"Wedding Band" is a play that is set in 1918 and concerns an interracial relationship. With the release of Loving later this month it made reading it very timely. A black woman moves into a rowhouse in Charleston, South Carolina, and it is soon known to her neighbors that she has been seeing a white man for about ten years. Of course mixed marriages were illegal in the South, and she holds the dream of going to New York to marry him, but he comes down with influenza at her house and she meets his mother,and they exchange some of the most vicious epithets you're likely to hear.

Finally, there is a one-act called "Wine in the Wilderness," written much later and presented on television in 1972. It is more focused on black people see themselves--there are no white characters. An artist is painting a triptych about black womanhood. One third is an innocent black girl, the middle is the "Abyssinian maiden," who looks like a model. The third is to be the opposite, whom the artist describes as "She's as far from my African queen as a woman and still be female; she's as close to the bottom as you can get without crackin' up . . . she's ignorant, unfeminine, coarse, rude, vulgar. . . a poor, dumb chick that's had her behind kicked until it's numb."

He has friends of his search for a model that fits that description and they bring up a woman, and the artist ends up falling in love with her as he paints her, and she spends the night. But when she finds out why she was brought up there, well, you can imagine.

The four straight dramas in this book could easily be put on today and be relevant, and it's a shame in during the 100th anniversary of her birth that no one has, as Alice Childress is a name that should be better known in American drama.

Monday, November 07, 2016

Hacksaw Ridge

After seeing Mel Gibson's films, here's one thing we can gather: he likes his religious served up with lots of violence. Despite his making The Passion of the Christ, deep down he's an Old Testament guy--an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth. In Hacksaw Ridge he tells the story of a pacifist with one of the most bloody battle scenes ever put on film.

But here's the thing--it's a great battle scene, and to show anything less violent would be a disservice to those who fought. Like Steven Spielberg's Omaha Beach in Saving Private Ryan, Gibson's Okinawa will go down as difficult but brilliant filmmaking. The only problems is that the battle only takes up the second half of Hacksaw Ridge.

Andrew Garfield stars as Desmond Doss, a real man who shunned violence. We see him hit his brother in the head with a brick as a child and feel bad about it, and he later takes away a gun from his drunken father (a very good Hugh Weaving) and swears from then on he will never touch a gun. When World War II breaks out, he feels it's his duty to serve, and wants to be a medic. But it turns out to be a medic you have to pass rifle training.

So we get old-fashioned scenes of Garfield being treated with contempt by his platoon-mates and his superiors, notably Vince Vaughn as his sergeant and Sam Worthington as his captain. Oh, and his platoon are standard-issue 1940s diversity, white-style: Italian, Pole, guy from Brooklyn, guy from Texas. Everyone will misjudge Doss as a coward, and everyone will look at him slack-jawed as the film ends.That and a sweet but inconsequential romance with a nurse (Teresa Palmer) make Hacksaw Ridge eye-rolling in its early stages, the kind of film they don't make anymore for a reason.

But then, after Doss is given permission to become a medic without holding a weapon (Weaving, a World War I vet, pulls a string), and the men try to take the titular place, the film goes into a place of horror and nightmare. They have to climb a rope ladder up a cliff and face the Japanese on top. By the time Doss and his colleagues go up, the Allies have been repulsed six times, but must take it. And so we see viscera--intestines, bodies blown to bits, stray legs, caved in faces, rats eating dead bodies, men set ablaze by flamethrowers, you name it. My sister asked me if her fourteen-year-old son should see it, and I warned her, it's not for the faint of heart, even today's kids.

Gibson knows how to do this. He doubles down on the viciousness of Braveheart, and even surpasses the gore of Passion of the Christ, which I liked but found one of the most violent films I've ever seen. You could either say he's a stickler for realism or a sadist, or maybe both.

In any event, Doss, sans firearm, manages to drag 75 wounded me to their safety. I'm not sure of the message though--did his faith carry him through, or was he incredibly lucky, for surely there were many men with faith who died on that ridge. What matters is that along with cinematographer Simon Duggan and editor John Gilbert, along with fine work by Garfield and Weaving, Gibson has made half of a very good film.

Sunday, November 06, 2016

The Limeliters

Glenn Yarbrough died this summer, and while he probably wasn't very well known to those under sixty, but to father's generation he was known as part of The Limeliters. My father had the record shown to the right. They were part of the folk revival, along with The Kingston Trio, and Peter, Paul, and Mary, and for a few years were wildly popular.

The other two members were Lou Gottlieb and Alex Hassilev. Gottlieb was the baritone and emcee, and on the live records showed off his comedy chops (introducing a sing-a-long, he says, "Our camp motto is: Clean Mind, Clean Body. Pick one."). Hassilev was the bass, and Yarbrough had a tenor with vibrato that sounded so heavenly it was hard to believe it was human.

They named themselves after a club in Aspen, Colorado, and released several albums in the early '60s before breaking up after a near-fatal plane crash, but re-teamed many times (later, without Yarbrough, who established a solo career). They played many folk staples, like "If I Had a Hammer," and had songs about whistling gypsies, the Spanish Civil War, lots of travelin' and wanderin'. But after listening to a two-CD set featuring four of their albums, I think they're strength lay in their comic songs.

For example, there's "Charlie the Marauder," an anti-suburb song about a man who moves to the suburbs and during a blackout enters the wrong house and kisses a woman who is not his wife. "Gunslinger" is about the psychological problems of Western villains: "Gunslinger, gunslinger, where did you go wrong?/ When you were a child were you forced to compete with brothers that you never could beat? /Did you always feel you didn't belong, Gunslinger?"

They sing a song about a communist, "Harry Pollit," but that ends with him going to Hell, so I don't think they were Stalinists. And perhaps the most outrageous song, given that it was performed in 1961, was "Vickie Dougan," about an actress and model who wore low-cut backless gowns, which created "another cleavage."

The Limeliters and their glorious harmonies and relatively innocent topics are like a conduit to another time, and for me is a connection to my dad, who also loved The Kingston Trio and Peter, Paul, and Mary. I was born during their popularity, and wouldn't mind taking a time machine to see them in concert. In just a year or two Bob Dylan would come along, who would unite folk music with rock, and as great he was (is) the folk scene hasn't been the same.

Saturday, November 05, 2016

Santa Fe Trail

As I wrote in my review of Midnight Rising: "John Brown is one of the most vexing figures in American history. Is he hero or villain? Traitor or martyr? Visionary or maniac?" That is reflected in Michael Curtiz' thought-provoking but occasionally cheesy Santa Fe Trail, which is not about the Trail at all, but instead about some famous Civil War generals before the war, and how they dealt with Brown.

Of course, very little is historically accurate. The main characters are Jeb Stuart (Errol Flynn) and George Custer (Ronald Reagan, horribly miscast), who graduate West Point together and are best buddies and rivals for the hand of Olivia de Havilland. In truth, Stuart and Custer didn't even know each other, and Reagan plays Custer as a complete blank, when in truth Custer had the most demerits of any Cadet in West Point history, and thus was very interesting. Also, Custer was not anywhere near Harper's Ferry when Brown was captured. And so on.

But the film itself is interesting because it is 1940, when there is starting to be an awakening of civil rights, at least in some parts of the country, but the film plays it safe often so as not to lose its Southern distribution. Brown, excellently played by Raymond Massey (who played Abraham Lincoln the same year) is presented as a religious nut, but one who happened to be on the right side of history.

Stuart is the hero of the story. He was a patrician Southerner who keeps saying the South will take care of things, which in the long hindsight of history, is not right. Action had to be taken to end slavery. He is contrasted with Van Heflin, a cadet who is drummed out of West Point for spreading Brown pamphlets. He later joins up with Brown but betrays him by giving Stuart the plans for the raid on Harper's Ferry. In reality, it was a botched train that screwed that operation up.

There is a great scene in which the men (all big names, like a supergroup of Civil War heroes), Stuart, Custer, Sheridan, Longstreet, Pickett, Hood, all visit an Indian woman who tells fortune. She tells them they will all be heroes in battle, but as bitter enemies. They laugh it off, but we know the truth.

Santa Fe Trail has many familiar tropes of the genre. There is comic relief with Alan Hale Sr. and Guinn Williams, and De Havilland plays the feisty (fictional) daughter of the real Cyrus Holliday, who advocated the building of the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe. Flynn and De Havilland were in eight films together, and he gets the girl here, but in reality Stuart married someone else.

Friday, November 04, 2016

Dead in the Water

This is another of those films that I added to my Netflix queue years ago and steadily moved up the path. I estimate that I added it after I watched Dominique Swain in the remake of Lolita, since Dead in the Water and another film she made, Tart, were next to each other in my queue.

Swain stars as a spoiled daughter of a Brazilian rich guy who reveals to her he's not so rich, and is being kept afloat and out of jail by the Brazilian counterpart to "Al Capone and Donald Trump," which considering what's going in 2016 was an interesting line. She is asked to take this man's son out for a boating excursion, along with Scott Bairstow, her boyfriend, and Henry Thomas, a friend who really is in love with Swain.

The film is something of a remake of Roman Polanski's Knife in the Water, with one extra person. Bairstow and Thomas catch the son making out with Swain, and throw him overboard and drive off to teach him a lesson. But then they can't find them, and each of the three start turning on each other.

Dead in the Water isn't a bad film, and it's not easily predictable (although the opening shot is a mistake and that gives away too much). There's a nice twist at the end, and the location shooting off the coast of Brazil is a novelty. It's the kind of movie that if you find on cable during an attack of insomnia would keep you diverted for an hour and a half.

And yes, Dominique Swain is hot.