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Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Blood in the Water

I like to think I'm up on my U.S. history, but if you're like me, you may not know much about Attica except that Al Pacino shouts it in Dog Day Afternoon. I did know it was a prison uprising, but I did not know that it was handled extremely badly by the government, with almost all the deaths attributed to New York State Troopers, including hostages, 43 in all with many more wounded.

Heather Ann Thompson's Pulitzer Prize-winning account, Blood in the Water, contains everything you need to know about the riot. "One might well wonder why it has taken forty-five years for a comprehensive history of the Attica prison uprising of 1971 to be written. The answer is simple: the most important details of this story have been deliberately kept from the public. Literally thousands of boxes of documents relating to these events are sealed or next to impossible to access."

Prison conditions in 1971 were not ideal (have they ever been?). Two weeks after an inmate's death emotions came to a boil, and the prisoners were able to take control of the prison. "The two COs watching over the A Yard group, John D’Arcangelo and Walter Zymowski, felt their knees go weak as a group of prisoners approached them and snatched their rings of keys. These officers watched helplessly as the group went over to the door to A Tunnel and, after struggling a bit to open the lock, flooded into the already cramped space to join in the fracas."

Many of the prisoners had been radicalized by either Islam or the current political situation. A list of demands was drawn up. "Observers," neutral people who would make sure there was no funny business, were called in (these included newspaper columnist Tom Wicker and politicians such as Herman Badillo). Meanwhile, the state police gathered outside the prison walls, chomping at the bit to rush in.

The first quarter of the book covers the siege. Demands were argued over. Black Panther Bobby Seale was brought in to talk to the prisoners. Some demands were unlikely to be met, such as being allowed to go to another country, but the sticking point was general amnesty, since one of the guards died after the takeover. Eventually Governor Nelson Rockefeller had enough and the police, along with the National Guard, went in. It was carnage.

Rockefeller and the state spun it that the prisoners had committed atrocities, when actually they tried to save the hostage's lives. The state police just started shooting, killing hostages as well as inmates. Prisoners were also tortured, and medical treatment was slow or completely lacking.

The rest of the book is about the investigations and trials that happened, some of them all the way up until the 2000s. Prisoners were charged with murder. Some were convicted, some acquitted. Then, a man named Marcus Bell, who initially worked for the prosecution, realized that the state was lying and switched sides. A lawyer named Elizabeth Fink worked on a suit brought by the prisoners against the state of New York, and won.

That prisoners won money for a riot they started outraged the surviving hostages and the families of the dead, who received a pittance. Another lawsuit was launched, and anger by these families against the prisoners cooled when they realized they had a common enemy--the state. These families eventually won some money, forty years later.

Blood in the Water is a long book, and full of details. It wasn't a slog, but certainly the action of the first part is more interesting than the seemingly never-ending trials of the last part. Those with only a fleeting interest should be warned away (this would have been an ideal book to be abridged by Reader's Digest). But the book does have dramatic arcs. Some people stand out as characters, such as Frank Smith, known as "Big Black," a prisoner who was tortured who fought for years for restitution, organizing the legal efforts and eventually befriending Dee Quinn, daughter of a guard who was killed.

Thompson's subtitle is "The Attica Prison Uprising in 1971 and Its Legacy." The legacy is not improved conditions in prisons. Nothing improved and prisons today are overcrowded and guards just as brutal. Instead, Thompson writes, "The Attica prison uprising of 1971 shows the nation that even the most marginalized citizens will never stop fighting to be treated as human beings. It testifies to this irrepressible demand for justice. This is Attica’s legacy."

Monday, December 11, 2017

The Disaster Artist

What is it about bad movies that we like so much? While watching The Disaster Artist, which is about the making of supposedly the worst movie ever made, I of course thought of Ed Wood, which was about the worst director ever. Bad films are used for fodder for what's called "riffing," whether it's on MST3K or in your own living room.

But it takes a special bad film to be celebrated. Just another Hollywood clunker won't do. They have to be cheap, and here's the important thing--they have to be made by people who think they are creating greatness.

That's the case of Tommy Wiseau, a mysterious creepy guy who made The Room, which I've never seen but now I don't think I need to. It plays midnight shows and by all accounts is terrible, but the passion involved in its production shows through, and people can't help but love it.

James Franco directs and plays Wiseau in The Disaster Artist, and while it's not as good as Ed Wood it has its pleasures, most of them involving Franco's performance as a genuinely weird guy.

The film also starts Franco's brother, David, who gets to play the thankless role of the bland guy, Greg, who is our entry into the film and Wiseau's world. He is in an acting class in San Francisco and is impressed by Wiseau's completely over the top rendering of the "Stella" scene from A Streetcar Named Desire. Despite Wiseau's inherent weirdness (he has some sort of accent, a kind of Eastern European/brain damage kind), plus a mysterious source of money, and it seems no other friends but Greg. They room together in L.A. and try to become stars. One of the film's faults is that it can't convince me why a normal guy like Greg would ever room with this guy, because I certainly wouldn't.

They both struggle, although Greg's good looks get him an agent. Wiseau has a hilariously vicious encounter with Judd Apatow, who in no uncertain terms tell him he'll never make it. So they decide to make their own money. Wiseau writes a script about a man betrayed by his girl. They hire a crew, including Seth Rogen as script supervisor, who has no idea what he's getting into.

The "making of" part of the film is very funny, but, like Ed Wood, you appreciate the effort Wiseau. Things do get ugly--people quit, and when Greg moves in with his girlfriend, Allison Brie, Wiseau acts like a jealous lover.

I think, although Franco as a director doesn't quite nail it, that the spine of the film is Wiseau's essential loneliness. The cast wonders whether the script is from his own life, and clearly he is coming from a place of deep pain. He is also wounded whenever it is suggested he has the look for villain roles. "I am not villain," he wails.

The film has to rest on James Franco's performance. With Ed Wood, there were hardly any normal people, with terrific performances by Martin Landau and Jeffrey Jones and Bill Murray. But The Disaster Artist is just Franco, and is basically like the "Springtime for Hitler" sequence in The Producers, with comic shots of people looking slack-jawed at what is going on. Rogen, playing his standard part, has a lot of good sarcastic lines, but it's Franco who makes the movie worth seeing. He deserves an Oscar nomination.

Sunday, December 10, 2017


A young woman, a vagrant, is found frozen to death in a ditch. Who is she? Where is she from? Where was she going? In Agnes Varda's 1985 film Vagabond, these answers are not easily forthcoming. As played by Sandrine Bonnaire, the young woman seems to have come out of thin air, or perhaps it's the sea.

We do know her name, it is Mona Bergeron. She is a drifter, going from place to place, "camping," as she calls it, although she is really homeless. It is winter, and she sometimes sleeps outside in a tent, but will crash with a kind person (or sometimes will squat in an otherwise abandoned house). She likes cigarettes, occasionally has sex with other drifters, and is not a particularly happy person.

Does she have a family? We can assume so. She says she was in secretarial school when she took off, but who knows if what she says is the truth. She is defiant, and unsentimental.

The homeless are an issue in almost every Western nation, and when we see someone and think about it we may wonder what their story is. When it's a young person, we might assume a runaway, mental illness, drugs. Mona does not seem to do drugs--she sometimes gives blood for money, which a heroin addict couldn't do. She is also not working as a prostitute--at one point, an actual streetwalker chases her away, saying the sight of her will lose business. Though film is not a medium for smell, we are told several  times that she reeks, and by the clothes she wears we can almost smell it.

This is a difficult film to watch. For one, we know she comes to a bad end, as the first image is of her corpse. Varda does not give us a wrapped-up explanation, such as her being "misunderstood," or any other tidy reason. She does give her a bit of mythology, though. The first time we see Mona, she is naked, emerging from the sea, like Aphrodite.

I've got a few more Varda films to see, but of her narrative films Vagabond is her strongest.

Saturday, December 09, 2017


Ian McEwan is one of my favorite authors. He's written about all sorts of things, from the deadly serious Atonement to the comic Solar. Of his books I've read, Nutshell is his most comic by far--it's a murder mystery told by a fetus.

Yes, our story is narrated by a fetus. It has no name, of course, but it has quite a vocabulary. The conceit is that the little fellow (he is male, I recall) has an education that would rival an Oxonian, and he hears everything and understands it. He can't see, of course, and at times that defies logic: how could he understand the concept of "purple?" But it's very funny.

The title comes from one of my favorite Shakespearean quotes, from Hamlet: "Oh God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space—were it not that I have bad
dreams." As the novel begins, our hero is in utero with his mother Trudy, who has broken up with his father, a poet, and taken up with his brother, Claude, whom the baby finds quite stupid. "And Claude, like a floater, is barely real. Not even a colourful chancer, no hint of the smiling rogue. Instead, dull
to the point of brilliance, vapid beyond invention, his banality as finely wrought as the arabesques of the Blue Mosque. Here is a man who whistles continually, not songs but TV jingles, ringtones, who brightens a morning with Nokia’s mockery of Tárrega." The baby realizes, to his horror, that they plan on killing his father.

What sustains the concept is the uproarious and absurdly erudite narration of the fetus. His first line is "So here I am, upside down in a woman. Arms patiently crossed, waiting, waiting and wondering who I’m in, what I’m in for." He gives us insight into a situation we've all been in but have no memory of, such as: "Not everyone knows what it is to have your father’s rival’s penis inches from your nose," or "How solipsism becomes the unborn."

Trudy is not one to have read all the literature on pregnancy, because not only does she have sex rather late in her gestation, but she drinks wine. But the little bugger doesn't mind: "I like to share a glass with my mother. You may never have experienced, or you will have forgotten, a good
burgundy (her favourite) or a good Sancerre (also her favourite) decanted through a healthy placenta."

This is funny stuff. The second half of the book, after the crime is committed, is the fetus listening to the investigation. In the end, before Trudy and Claude can escape, he does the only thing he can possibly do. It fulfills the mandate of endings: be unpredictable but inevitable.

Nutshell is a wonderful comic novel, McEwan writes giddily, as if he came up with the idea and finished in, laughing at his computer (or whatever he writes with). Hard to see how could they make it a movie, though.

Friday, December 08, 2017

Cleo from 5 to 7

Agnes Varda's 1962 film Cleo from 5 to 7 is one of the major films of the French New Wave, along with Breathless and The 400 Blows. It was existential film about a flighty young singer, which doesn't seem to go together and at times I found it confounding. It's more of historical importance than entertaining.

Varda, as the title indicates, shoots the film in real time, cheating a bit here and there during car rides. Each chapter is about five minutes long,and follows the time along perfectly. Cleo packs a lot into an hour and a half (it doesn't go all the way to seven o'clock), especially when I realize I can spend that much time doing nothing but laying in bed.

The time of the film is Cleo waiting for a medical test result. She fears she has cancer. The first scene is at a fortune teller, where she is having tarot cards read for her (interestingly, the shots of the cards are the only color in this otherwise black and white film). The reader sees only bad things for her, and withholds some information, which makes Cleo even more panicked. She meets with her personal assistant, Angele, and they go shopping for hats, but Cleo is only interested in black hats, even though it's the first day of summer.

From then on she goes home, meets briefly with her lover, who has no time for her, and then goes back out to meet her friend, a nude artist's model. "I'm happy with my body, not proud of it," she tells Cleo. They take a drive, and Cleo ends up in a park, where she meets a young soldier who is back from the Algerian War (this is a topic throughout the film, as it has to be--it would be like making a film about American in 1968 and not mentioning Vietnam). The soldier is a philosophical sort, who makes Cleo feel better.

Corinne Marchand plays Cleo, in what appears to be her only major role. She is a pop singer, and there is some horseplay when she is visited by her collaborators (composer Michelle LeGrand plays one of them). She also visits a movie theater, where she watches a silent short film in the manner of Harold Lloyd, starring Jean-Luc Godard and Anna Karina. Godard has been wearing dark glasses and it gives him a dim view of the world; once he throws him in the river he sees the world in a better light.

All of this can be said to be a commentary on mortality. I can't imagine what I would go through in Cleo's place, especially for one so young. She is preparing for a death sentence, while at the same time trying not to think about it. An entire life can go by in such a short period.

This was Varda's major contribution to the New Wave--the features that followed weren't as celebrated (or available) until Vagabond in 1985.

Thursday, December 07, 2017

Farewell, My Lovely

Another major Hollywood centenary this year is that of Robert Mitchum, who was born in 1917. While never included as one of the Hollywood greats, he was a reliable leading man who mostly played the tough guy with a heart. Interestingly, he died within a day or two of Jimmy Stewart. On their show, Gene Siskel said that Stewart was his favorite movie star, Roger Ebert said his was Robert Mitchum.

I'm going to try to sneak in a few Mitchum movies I haven't seen before the year ends. Many of his best films can be found on my site, such as Out of the Past, The Night of the Hunter, and The Friends of Eddie Coyle, as well as a few that I wouldn't say are great films: The Track of the Cat and The Sundowners.

I'll start with Farewell, My Lovely, an adaptation of the Raymond Chandler novel featuring Philip Marlowe. It had been made originally under the title Murder, My Sweet in 1946, but this is the kind of book that deserves a remaking every generation or two. Mitchum played Marlowe, much older than the character is supposed to be, but his basset hound expression gives credence to the claims that Marlowe is "old and tired."

The story is considerably different than the book and the first movie. It still begins with Mitchum telling the tale to the police in flashback. He had been hired by a mountain of a man, Moose Malloy (Jack O'Halloran, a former boxer) who is just out of the can and looking for his girl, Velma. As with many detective novels, a second job, involving a stolen jade necklace, will link together and end in a shootout on a yacht (in the book it's a beach house).

What is changed is interesting. For one, the concept of race is added, as Mitchum, going to where Velma last worked, is in the black part of town. Secondly, the character of Jessie Florian, the washed up dancer, is treated much more sympathetically. In the book, she has the face like a "bucket of warm mud," but here Sylvia Miles plays her with much more depth (she would earn an Oscar nomination for the part). Thirdly, the character of Jules Amthor, expert on jade, is changed to Frances Amthor, a madam. Finally, and perhaps most significant, the character of Anne, the "good girl," is cut completely.

Still there is Helen Grayle, the femme fatale, played sleekly by Charlotte Rampling. Also still there is much of Chandler's writing, much of it in voiceover by Mitchum.

In small roles are Harry Dean Stanton, as a crooked cop, and Sylvester Stallone, who I believe has no dialogue as a thug (he does get to shoot someone).

Farewell, My Lovely, directed by Dick Richards, isn't top drawer Chandler--it can't touch the original The Big Sleep or Murder, My Sweet. Mitchum was the only actor to play Marlowe twice--he would play him again in a remake of The Big Sleep set in London (!) a few years later.

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

Blue Jay

Having time on my hands that I didn't expect to have, I went looking for a movie on Netflix and landed on Blue Jay. Mostly I choose movies by time, because if it's no good at least its short.

The film was released briefly in 2016 before going to Netflix streaming, and is very basic: mostly two characters. It's more like a play than a film, though it has a few artful touches, such as being in black and white. Blue Jay was written by Mark Duplass, who also starts, and was directed competently by Alex Lehmann.

Duplass and Sarah Paulson bump into each other in a supermarket in their old home town. They used to date years ago, and have both come back for a spell. Small talk in the supermarket aisle turns into an entire night together, as they reminisce and almost rekindle the spark they had twenty years earlier.

For the most part I liked this film. Duplass plays a sad sack, while Paulson appears to be normal and successful (but of course she's not). The film even includes a ticking bomb: Paulson has bought ice cream that is in the trunk of her car. They keep referring to it, and my OCD was kicking in because I never would have left it in there. Lehmann might have added interstitial shots of the ice cream melting for suspense.

Paulson and Duplass find all sorts of stuff relating to their relationship in his mother's old house (she's dead, he's renovating) including, somewhat unbelievably, a cassette tape of them pretending to be married adults with children. Do couples in high school really do that? Duplass doubles down on this, with the two of them acting out that it's their twentieth anniversary. I found this to be ridiculous,

Of course there's a big reveal at the end that I won't spoil. At 80 minutes, Blue Jay (the film is titled after a diner that they visit) seems long, maybe because it's just the two of them and it's hard to stay interested in just two people for that long. Also, Duplass' acting is not up to Paulson's.

Tuesday, December 05, 2017

Crazy Rhythms

I'm working on a play. I haven't said those words in over thirty years, and it's good to say them. Once upon a time I was a playwright, and that's what I wanted to be, but like so many wishes and dreams, it didn't pan out. Since then I've written screenplays and short stories and one novel, but I think plays are the thing for me.

In coming up with an an idea, I decided to return to days I remember well: it's 1980, the day after The Empire Strikes Back opened. The setting is a comic book shop, but next door is a record store (selling only vinyl, maybe some cassettes).

The year 1980 was an interesting one, as I went over the list of releases that year. Classic rock was heaving its last breaths. Paul McCartney and Elton John both out new albums that years (fuck, they still are!), but to us college kids the future lay in new wave. I was never really into punk, I mean hard-core punk like The Sex Pistols and Ramones (although I have learned my proper respect) but I was very much into new wave. While Pink Floyd's The Wall still dominated many college dorm stereos, new groups like The Police and Talking Heads were gaining my interest.

One group that I missed entirely was The Feelies, who are now thought of as indicative of that era, as much as Joy Division. They were from New Jersey (not too far from where I lived in 1980) and formed in 1976. From the cover of their first album, Crazy Rhythms, which came out just before in time to be mentioned in my play, they look pretty clean cut. And they were in response to punk, not part of it, so they get dumped in the huge rock pile called "post-punk." They are also labeled jangle-pop for their very loose and easy guitar work. To get into the mind-set of 1980 I listened to it this week.

There are a few interesting things about this record. One, they have some of the longest mostly silent intros I've heard. The first song "The Boy With Perpetual Nervousness," goes for many seconds without a sound, which made me think my CD player wasn't working. "Forces at Work," at over seven minutes, more like a prog-rock song than punk, the intro, with just some very minor tapping noises, goes almost two minutes.

They also do a Beatles cover that is better than the original, which is very rare. "Everybody's Got Something to Hide Except for Me and My Monkey" is one of the most punk songs the Beatles ever did, and The Feelies get it. A chugging guitar lick throughout and vocals that sound like they are coming from the next room are winners.

All the songs are fine here, including the very pop "Fa Ce-La," "Moscow Nights," "Raised Eyebrows," and the title track. Lyrically they are not great poets, but the title track (which ended up being the name of a record store in Montclair, New Jersey) does have some remnants of the era:

"Said it's time to go, well alright
I don't wanna go, I say alright
You never listen to me anyway
You're always talking, never much to say
You remind me of a TV show
That's alright, I watch it anyway
I don't talk much cause it gets in the way
Don't let it get in the way"

Monday, December 04, 2017

The Untouchables

In writing about Robert De Niro movies it may strange to include The Untouchables. De Niro is a supporting character, the mob boss Al Capone. But it has become an iconic De Niro role. The baseball bat scene. The crying turn to smiling at the opera. Or "I want him dead! I want his family dead!"

Really The Untouchables had two scene stealers. Sean Connery, in as much a thank you for all the Bond money as for the performance, won the Oscar for playing the straight beat cop who helps Kevin Costner's Eliot Ness beat Capone. He grinds out his line as if he were chewing gristle, and I couldn't tell if he was trying an Irish accent or just using his own Scottish one.

But he's fun. The Untouchables is a fun, flashy film, even if it is unhistorical and derivative. After all, that's what Brian DePalma is known for, right? He took the template of the old-fashioned gangster picture, made it look sleek and modern, and cast it well (Costner, the lead, is made blander than it would seem possible). But he's also a director who has other directors swimming around in his bloodstream. For Dressed to Kill he borrowed from Hitchcock, but in The Untouchables it's Sergei Potemkin. In the train station scene, which is a great set-piece, the baby carriage scene seems thievery more than homage.

The film is sumptuous in all its colors, and it's great sets and costumes. David Mamet's script is surprisingly sentimental--could he have really written the scenes with Ness and his wife and children? At least in the fight between Connery and the crooked police captain the "fucks' start flying out.

As for history, the TV show on which is was based was before the time of the demographic of the 1987 audience. I think they might have been trying to tap the Scarface crowd, and Paramount owned the intellectual property of the TV Untouchables. They went from nine Untouchables to four (was anyone else surprised that Charles Martin Smith's accountant character knew how to ride a horse?) and made a taut, wonderful story. And a story it was. Eliot Ness was real, Al Capone was sent up for tax evasion, and Frank Nitti was an enforcer for Capone, but Nitti did not fall into a car from a significant height--he outlived Capone and became his successor.

But no matter. The Connery character is completely fictional, and this is more like the Westworld version of T-men and gangsters.

And as for De Niro, the reason I watched it, this seems to be about the time he lets his inner spotlight-hugger comes out. Al Pacino would perfect it in Dick Tracy, and De Niro would do almost the meta thing in Analyze This, but his Capone is just great prosciutto ham. The little speech about teamwork in baseball before the punishment, or the way he wears his camel-hair coat down the stairs while calling Costner out on his threats. It's a star turn by a great star.

Sunday, December 03, 2017

Old School

My three year experiment in becoming a teacher has ended, and pretty much for the reasons that kept me from doing it many years ago. But more about that in a minute.

Three years ago last fall I came to Las Vegas after my good friend who lives here said that there was a shortage of teachers. I was temping and my prospects were dim and I've always been fascinated by Las Vegas so I jumped. I took a six-week course that enabled me to be hired by the Clark County School District, and I got a job teaching sixth grade English (six weeks is not long enough to learn how to be a teacher).

That was probably the first mistake. I had hoped to get a high school job, because my great character flaw is a lack of patience. So me trying to keep calm a room full of 11 and 12-year olds just wasn't a good proposition. But I had been looking for a job for a few months and took it, and I lasted two and a half years.

There was some good and some bad in those years. My biggest problem was classroom management, which is maintaining discipline through a consistent dispensation of rewards and consequences. But I just couldn't get it. No matter what I did the kids, being kids, were rowdy. Some were quiet as mice, but if you have two or three kids who will not do what their told, despite being sent to the dean, given detention, or having their parents notified, it will disrupt the class. I was both a softy and a meanie--I tended to look the other way on some things just to avoid problems, but when I did address something it inevitably involved yelling.

My third year through I thought I had improved, since the dean, who is on my permanent shit list, gave me a glowing observation. At the same time, though, she was recommending non-renewal, which meant it would be recommended to the Board of Education that I be terminated. This would likely keep me from getting hired anywhere else in the country. The acting principal suggested I resign, which would not indicate I did anything wrong, and try my luck elsewhere or at charter schools. After consulting with the union, they suggested the same thing, so I did.

I still thought I had what it took to be a teacher. I know my content backwards and forewords. The mistake I was making is that education is not the same as it was when I was a kid. I look back to my sixth grade teacher, who was a tough and strict man, and I don't think he would made it in this day and age. If kids talked he made them go sit in the hallway (verboten now--you have to be able to see all students at all times). He did not hit children, he grabbed them under the chin (he only did this to me once, when I lost a textbook). The principal paddled children, though, using a board drilled with holes that he called the "Board of Education."

Anyway, after a desperate summer of looking for work, including taking a job briefly at Dominos Pizza as a driver, I finally got a job at a charter school, teaching sixth grade again. I thought this might be different--it's more rigorous, does not push kids through grades like shit through a goose, and has a more structured atmosphere. At first it was great. The kids were like an oil painting, and I was able to handle things.

But then they, like kids do, got rowdier and rowdier. Remarks I made got back to my supervisor, such as when I called a kid a class clown and added, "Do you want a rubber nose and big shoes?" This was not taken well by the parent or my supervisor, although I thought it was a good line and perfectly appropriate for a kid who was purposely trying to disrupt the class (I didn't admit this, though). I was not allowed to write the names down of misbehaving students on the board, lest this stigmatize them. I could not say the word "hell." I did not use any other swear words, and I would never, ever, call a child stupid or dumb, but if they were not doing their work I let them know it.

Then I sent an email to a parent telling them their child needed an "attitude adjustment." I saw nothing wrong with this, but it went off like a bomb with administration. My psychologist, who used to be a school psychologist, thought there was nothing wrong with this. I was now an emotional wreck, walking on eggshells, fearing even making eye contact with my supervisor, who had nothing good to say about my work.

Thursday I had my semester evaluation, which couldn't have been much worse. I think the highlight was being told, as an English teacher, that I had the students reading too much. If you ask me, if a student had nothing else but a stack of books, if they read them they'd be educated. But no, there's all sorts of things you have to be aware of: Bloom's Taxonomy, Kagan Strategies, and then differentiated education for students with learning disabilities. I did acknowledge their accommodations, but was told I wasn't doing enough for them. I realized that according to my supervisor, I knew nothing. And maybe she's right. She did compliment me for not saying "hell" anymore.

That night I decided to resign, effective the end of the quarter. I have no other job lined up, but I do have some money coming my way that may enable me to retire. I'm certainly not going to teach anymore. I think I could teach college, or accelerated high school students, but you can lead a horse to water but you can't make them drink, and many of these kids don't want to drink.

Children are not the same as I was. They have very short attention spans. They are raised by mostly indifferent parents who don't discipline, and leave it to teachers. They have no respect for teachers. I was afraid of my teachers, at least until high school, when you could pal around with some but their was still respect. My sixth grade teacher, Mr. McLaughlin, who could be downright nasty (if he caught you chewing gum he'd make you sing a song in front of class while you threw it away) also had some fun with us. He'd show us movies and then show the film backwards (it was actual film, of course) which was always good for laughs. During the 1972 play-offs, when the Detroit Tigers were playing, he'd put the games on. And though he could be frightening, I learned. I grew up in an era when children could be hit or maybe even humiliated a little, and I turned out fine, in fact while I'm no genius, I think I'm pretty smart.

But those days are gone. Children are now treated like hothouse flowers, coddled, examined by endless standardized tests. If they are not engaged, it's the teacher's job to make them so, in some case enacting miracles.

All through school, and my memory may be spotty, I never remember any of my teachers being observed by administration. Certainly not Mr. McLaughlin. If he's still alive (he would have to be in his eighties) I'd love to tell him this story, and discuss teaching then versus now. But I'm done. I'm old school, and this leopard can not change his spots.

Saturday, December 02, 2017

Wait Until Dark

I'll be wading more into the films of fifty years ago (I've been doing so a bit at a time throughout the year) but now to the major Oscar nominees. Wait Until Dark, a taut thriller based on a play by Frederick Knott, earned Audrey Hepburn what would be her last Oscar nomination, as a blind woman fending off a trio of con-men and thieves.

Directed by Terence Young, the action doesn't open up much, but stays in the apartment of Hepburn and her husband, Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. On his way from Montreal to New York, he is handed a doll by a beautiful young woman. Turns out the doll is full of heroin, and a psychopathic criminal (Alan Arkin) wants it back. He hires two con-men, Richard Crenna and Jack Weston, to retrieve it.

The film's spine is that Hepburn is trying to become a completely independent woman, and is teaching herself to do things that many blind people don't do. She is at first taken in by Crenna's story that he is Zimbalist's old Marine buddy, and that Arkin is playing the aggrieved husband of a wife who has been murdered, possibly by Zimbalist. But Hepburn, no dummy, sees through their ploy, and it leads to a terrific last act with her facing off with Arkin in a darkened room, which gives her equal odds.

The film takes a while to get going, and a few things are questionable--why doesn't Hepburn just give them the doll once they find it? It means nothing to her, and they might go away (although perhaps she thinks Arkin will kill her anyway). Also, there's not that much heroin in the doll--I have no idea of street prices, but it seems like an awful lot of trouble.

Arkin, who has now entered the cuddly grandpa of his career, is quite a revelation as a sadistic killer. Quentin Tarantino tried the role in a Broadway revival in 1998 but it did not go over well. Arkin played the part laid-back, and it was only that he struck, like a cobra, that you saw how disturbed he was. A segment at the end of the film, when Arkin is soaked in gasoline and Hepburn keeps lighting matches, is particularly well done.

Wait Until Dark is a pretty good thriller that is good viewing on a Friday night.

Friday, December 01, 2017


"Even in the most desolate areas of American cities, evictions used to be rare. They used to draw crowds. Eviction riots erupted during the Depression, even though the number of poor families who faced eviction each year was a fraction of what it is today... These days, there are sheriff squads whose full-time job is to carry out eviction and foreclosure orders. There are moving companies specializing in evictions, their crews working all day, every weekday." So writes Matthew Desmond in his brilliant and important book, Eviction: Poverty and Profit in the American City.

This book copped the Pulitzer Prize and was one of the New York Times Best Books of the Year, but it's a tough read. Not because of the writing, but because of the subject. Desmond embeds himself among the poor of Milwaukee, following them as they move from place to place, applying for apartments that are not fit for human habitation. They are evicted for the slightest provocation by ruthless landlords, who are only business people. They end up in a cycle of poverty, paying up to ninety percent of their monthly income for housing, undermining themselves by bad choices or drugs, and children grow up this way, moving constantly, often not knowing where they will sleep that night.

Desmond covers the North Side, or the black part of town. One of the main people he follows is Arleen, who has two sons. Honestly I can't remember how many places she lives during the course of the book. He also follows Sherrene and Quentin, landlords (or slumlords, if you will), who are millionaires by buying up apartment buildings in the bad part of town. They are often rat holes, but if you call the city on them they'll kick you out. Here's just one example: "The Hinkstons’ rear door was off its hinges. The walls were pockmarked with large holes. There was one bathroom. Its ceiling sagged from an upstairs leak, and a thin blackish film coated its floor. The kitchen windows were cracked. A few dining-room windows had disheveled miniblinds, broken and strung out in all
directions. Patrice hung heavy blankets over the windows facing the street, darkening the house. A small television sat on a plywood dresser in the living room, next to a lamp with no shade."

He gives equal time to white people in a trailer park, who are often uncharitably called white trash. Their living conditions are equally disgusting, and the owner, known as Tobin, is quick to demand rent but slow to fix things. He has favorites, though, and you can make a deal with him, so when he brings in a professional management company the tenants are nervous. Desmond shadows a woman named Laraine, who is incapable of managing her money, and who ends up evicted with her belongings in storage, which she can not access.

Reading this book gave the willies. I'm a person who has almost always lived paycheck to paycheck, but I'm never been evicted, I've never had power turned off, and I've never not known where I'm sleeping on a given night. But as I read these horror stories I remembered the saying, "There but for the grace of God go I," because I felt like I was a few clicks away from that. Las Vegas is full of trailer parks and RV parks, and also residency hotels (apparently Milwaukee hasn't tried those), where I lived for about six months among drug dealers and prostitutes.

The common sense solution to this is to do a few things: enable the poor to have access to housing lawyers just like criminal defendants do, and to pump money into affordable housing. It's interesting to hear about the people like Sherrene and the sheriffs who put people out--how do the sleep at night? It's a job, but man. One guy evicted his own daughter.

As I write this the Senate is going about screwing the middle class, and poor people certainly won't be helped either. It's not necessarily a lack of work that is hurting these people--it's stagnant wages versus an increase in rent. As Jimmy McMillan says, "The rent is too damn high!"

Thursday, November 30, 2017

The Lovers

After the death of Jeanne Moreau last summer I had been meaning to get to this film, The Lovers, Louis Malle's second feature. Made in 1958, it is perhaps best known for being the subject of a U.S. obscenity case that went all the way to the Supreme Court, and to which Justice Potter Stewart said of obscenity, "I know it when I see it." He did not think The Lovers was obscene.

Today's audiences wouldn't think so, either. I thought it a bit of a bore, and the sight of two strategically draped naked people would be mild stuff for most (Moreau's nipple does make a cameo).

Moreau is a provincial woman who is married to a stiff, the editor of the local newspaper (they live in Dijon, and I kept thinking of mustard). Moreau takes off for Paris every chance she can get, supposedly to visit her friend, who is one of those women who doesn't have an original thought in her head and is concerned only with the latest fashions. But Moreau's real reason for going is to visit her lover, Raoul, dashing Spanish polo player. This is all implied, as Moreau and Raoul are never seen doing more than him kissing her hand.

Moreau's husband is so tired of hearing about them that he insists Moreau invite them both to their house for dinner. She knows this is going to be awkward, but can't refuse. On the way there her car breaks down and she's given a lift by a terse young man (Jean-Marc Bory). Because of his kindness, and because everyone knows one of his relatives, he's invited to dine and stay overnight.

The movie then takes an unbelievable turn. Moreau is out walking in the moonlight, having practically pushed Raoul out of her room (she and the mister have separate bedrooms). She bumps into Bory, and they exchange sarcastic remarks. Then, as if one screenwriter were hit over the head and replaced by another one, Moreau and Bory start exchanging words of romance. They take a boat ride, and then tumble into bed. The following morning they take off together, leaving her husband and lover aghast.

I didn't buy it, although the voiceover narration indicated that Moreau already had her doubts, but with no regrets. But I don't like films that have two characters showing no chemistry at all suddenly swooning, only because the script tells them they must.

Malle, for his part, does what a 26-year-old director should do when he has Jeanne Moreau--he uses her face. There are many closeups of her, including many key-lit shots in darkness that make her look ghostly. When you've got it, or her, flaunt it. Otherwise this is a pretty dull movie, the kind that was sensational 50 years ago but is now just ordinary.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

The Beaches of Agnes

In 2008, on the occasion of her 80th birthday, Agnes Varda made a documentary about her life, and stated it would likely be her last film. That didn't turn out to be true, thankfully, but this would have been a very fine send off. It is a collage of things in her life, woven in a chronological thread of her work and events in personal life, particularly her marriage to Jacques Demy, who you can tell she still really misses.

Varda doesn't do this in a boring manner. The opening sequence is men putting mirrors on the beach. As the title would suggest, beaches play an important part in her life. She grew up in Belgium and frequented the beach there. She lived in Sete (the location of her first film, La Pointe-Court), a fishing village, and even spent some time in Hollywood, and hung out at Venice Beach. The mirrors are an obvious symbol making a retrospective of their life.

Varda didn't make too many features, and many of them are unavailable (one of them, called Lion Love, stars Hair creators James Rado and Gerome Ragni, along with Andy Warhol starlet Viva, and they all appear to spend the entire film naked). She has made a lot of documentaries (her latest film is one, called Faces Places). We see scenes from almost all of them. She returns to La Pointe-Court to visit with some of the people there (she got a street named after her). She talks about being part of the French New Wave, her film Cleo from 5 to 7, and shows many of her photographs of other directors of the time (including a rare shot of Jean-Luc Godard without his sunglasses).

Later, we will see the process that went into her feature Vagabond, but much of the last half of the film is her relationship with Demy, who was a great director in his own right. He died of AIDS in 1991, and she doesn't shy away from talking about it. We meet her children, her grandchildren, and her doing some mundane things that in another's hands might seem frightfully self-indulgent. Varda gets away with it, because she seems like such a nice person, and damn it, she's a cute old lady.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Wonder (2017)

It occurs to me that a film like Wonder is one of the most difficult type of films to make. Crappy comedies and action films can succeed because of explosions and people who are amused by semen jokes, but family dramas, especially about sick or disabled children, usually are sunk by sentimentality, and end up in the old "Afterschool Special" category.

So I have to give props to director Stephen Chbosky and his co-writers, Jack Thorne and Steve Conrad, for making a family film that actually appeals to everyone in the family. I went with an adult and two teenagers, and we all enjoyed it.

I was eager to see Wonder because not only have I read the book, I taught it (it is a popular choice in fifth and sixth grade classrooms--perhaps that is one reason why it has overperformed at the box office). It is the story of a little boy with facial deformities who is leaving the cocoon of homeschooling and venturing into the dark jungle of public school. Middle school is difficult for any child, let alone one who has frightened other children with his face.

The film is structured around his first year in school, fifth grade. His parents (Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson) figure it's time, but Augie (played by Jacob Tremblay) is reluctant. He wears his omnipresent space helmet on his first day, but does take it off. He is tolerated, if not befriended, by most, except for an Eddie Haskell-type named Julian. But he does end up making a couple of friends, notably Jack Will, who realizes he isn't liking him out of pity--Augie is really a funny and interesting fellow.

The film, like the book, uses multiple points of view. We also get the perspective of Augie's older sister (Izabela Vidovic). Take a look at the poster and you'll see her problem--she's been pushed almost out of the picture. She says that Augie is the sun, and everyone else in the family revolves around him, but she loves him and puts up with it. But she's dealing with her own problems, such as the sudden coldness of her old friend, and a budding romance with a theater geek (a production of Our Town will figure in all this).

Wonder is remarkably faithful to the book, but there is one problem--in the book, we never truly know what Augie looks like. He says it's worse than you can imagine. Later, we get the technical term mandibulofacial dysostosis,which isn't going to help much unless you Google it. So all through the book, we imagine what Augie looks like. In the film, there is little attempt to hide it. We know what he looks like in the first few minutes, and it's not as horrifying as I imagined reading the book. Of course, he's had twenty-seven surgeries, leaving scars on his face, his eyes pulled downward, and ears that are like rosettes. It's enough to get you ostracized, but I don't think it would scare small children.

The performances are all excellent. Julia Roberts actually sets aside her star power. We do get one of her trademark laughs, but otherwise there is not much flash and it's good to see her play something other than herself. Owen Wilson plays a cool dad (we never find out what he does, but he gets to wear suits with sneakers). Tremblay, who follows his great work in Room, turns out not to be a one-film wonder. Despite the disruption that Augie creates, one might actually want to be in this family.

Wonder has a simple message: be kind. I can't think of a lot of movies that carry that message (I say it to students leaving my room). It's a well made film, and I'm glad it's making a lot of money, and I hope it gets people to read the book.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Playwright Martin McDonagh has brought his caustic wit to America. This is his second feature to be featured in the States (Seven Psychopaths was the first) but this film is rooted in the heartland, a fictional town called Ebbing, Missouri.

In The Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (an unwieldy title) McDonagh writes about the conflict between the mother of a murder victim and the local police department. In trailers, it appears as if the argument is favored toward the woman (played by Frances McDormand). But as the film goes on, we realize that defining the protagonist is not easy, since she is definitely in the wrong and her combatant, so to speak, Woody Harrelson, the chief of police, is blameless, and then leaves the picture halfway through.

As the title suggests, this film is about three billboards that are in disrepair on a largely unused road. McDormand, still seething after months of futile investigation into her daughter's murder, decides to rent the billboards and put up antagonistic, yet perfectly legal, messages to Harrelson and his department. Harrelson explains that he did everything he could, but the DNA has not matched anyone and there were no witnesses. McDormand doesn't care.

The person she riles up most is Sam Rockwell, playing a racist and dim-witted member of the force. He's angrier than Harrelson is, and plots with his mother (a wonderful Sandy Martin) about how to get at McDormand. McDormand is basically fighting her battle alone, as even her son (Lucas Hedges) and ex-husband (John Hawkes) are against her.

I thought the first half or so of the film was brilliant, as it shifted from comedy to tragedy, and sometimes in the same scene--just like life. But, especially when Harrelson leaves the film, it starts to unravel. Rockwell becomes the emotional heart of the film, and his character, though given a redemptive arc, is too cliched. And it does seem to be the worst police department ever--Rockwell beats a man senseless and throws him out a window, but does not seemed to be charged, and McDormand firebombs the police station with Molotov cocktails and despite a flimsy alibi is also not charged. Criminals, here's your place--this town can't solve anything.

McDonagh is a great playwright, especially his trilogy set in the Western Islands of Ireland. I'm not sure he has the Missouri thing down. Eventually the characters seem to talking at each other instead of too each other. The Hawkes character is a bad guy because he has a nineteen-year-old girlfriend. Peter Dinklage is thrown in as an admirer of McDormand's for some midget jokes. The one scene that really works is a flashback to the last words McDormand has with her daughter. That scene really stings.

With some rewrites this could be a great movie, as it is it's just okay. McDormand, despite playing a character who needs therapy badly, has locked down an Oscar nomination. Rockwell is getting buzz, but I think the better work is turned in by Harrelson, who actually seems like a real human being and not a cartoon character.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

The Library at Mount Char

The Library at Mount Char is I guess what you would call dark fantasy, and while it doesn't hold completely together, it certainly earns points for originality. Author Scott Hawkins has written one of those "us mortals don't know just who controls our lives," a bit like The Matrix, only it's not machines, but a mysterious god-like figure known as Father.

The opening sentence is a grabber: "Carolyn, blood-drenched and barefoot, walked alone down the two-lane stretch of blacktop that the Americans called Highway 78." Carolyn was once an American, but when her parents were killed she was "adopted" by the man (?) called Father, and she became a "librarian," that is an expert in her catalogue, which was languages. Other librarians were responsible for other catalogues, such as David, who was an expert on fighting and war, Michael, on animals, and Jennifer, on medicine. She was important, as Father's punishments for transgressions often involved killing, most severely by putting them in a bull-shaped barbecue and cooking them to a crisp.

Father has enemies, and is missing. That part is confusing, and I think purposely so--what Father is is sort of left to the imagination. Carolyn and her cohort have tremendous powers, sometimes excessively so. David, armed with just a spear, can wreak havoc, but can he really get into the White House and kill the president? Later, David will be killed, and rather easily, so this doesn't jibe.

The main plot thread is Carolyn involving an "American" named Steve in some sort of plan she has, which isn't laid out until the end of the book. There is also a Homeland Security agent, Erwin, who is a great character. Steve, who has a tie to Carolyn he doesn't remember, goes through great lengths to help her, even though he doesn't understand why. The most vivid is when he goes to Garrison Oaks, the Virginia suburb which is basically command central for the librarians. He is beset by every dog in the neighborhood, but saved by a couple of lions. Yes, this book is original.

The ending takes the book into metaphysics, with multiple universes and the library itself, which is incredibly large but invisible to humans. There is also the matter of the sun going out and being replaced by a dark sun, which provides heat but not light, which is a problem since plants grow on photosynthesis, so there are riots for food. At this point I shouldered on to the end, which seems to be set up for a sequel, not wholly satisfied but not angry either.

For fantasy and horror enthusiasts, The Library at Mount Char might provide a bigger bang. For me it was a minor explosion.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Lady Bird

Lady Bird is Greta Gerwig's first solo directorial effort, and it covers some familiar ground. It is essentially a teen movie, much like Sixteen Candles and others, but Gerwig is smart enough to avoid some of the pitfalls that those movies fall into. The film is sentimental but not too much, and nostalgic but happily so, and has a great performance by Saorsie Ronan.

Gerwig is from Sacramento, California, and apparently has mixed feelings about it. There's a title card at the beginning from Joan Didion: "Those who halk about the hedonism of California have never been to Sacramento," and later Ronan will call it "the Midwest of California." Gerwig has said this is not a straight autobiography, but she clearly knows of what she films, and we can assume that the title character, a free spirited high school senior, is the stand-in for the writer and director.

Lady Bird covers senior year of high school, 2002-2003. The film begins with the end of a college tour with Ronan and her overbearing mother (Laurie Metcalf), and to escape her mother's hectoring Ronan jumps out of  a moving car. She wants to go to the East Coast for college, somewhere like Yale but not Yale, because she couldn't get in there. She has a best friend (Beanie Feldstein) and attends Catholic school because she has a scholarship and her older brother once saw a guy get knifed at the public high school. Her father (Tracy Letts) is of fragile employment, and has more of soft spot for her idiosyncratic ways (to start with, her actual name is Christine, but she changed her name informally to Lady Bird).

Anyone who has ever gone to high school will recognize the arcs. She joins the theater group and gets a boyfriend (Lucas Hedges) who turns out to be gay (assume all theater boys are gay until proven otherwise). She then takes up with a cooler kid, who's in a band (Timotheee Chalamet) and gives him her virginity, but she is upset that he is not also a virgin. She will drift away from Feldstein and hang out with the popular girl (Odeya Rush) but will lie about where she lives, as she calls it, "on the wrong side of tracks.")

I think every intelligent, creative student has a story like this in them, and I'm glad to have watched it, but it doesn't really push the envelope. Lady Bird is enjoyable and authentic (I like the way it doesn't sugar coat the family's financial struggles) and there are some very funny lines. It doesn't reinvent the genre, but it is better than most of them. There are a few missteps--a subplot involving a priest (Stephen McKinley Henderson) creates questions that are never fully answered.

Ronan, who will probably get an Oscar nomination, is terrific. She is one of only three performers who have been nominated as a minor and an adult (the other two? Mickey Rooney and Jodie Foster) and is clearly a major star in the making, if she already isn't one. Gerwig, for her part, is a wonderful actress but now a multiple threat, and I look forward to future films from her.

Friday, November 24, 2017

The Best American Travel Writing 2016

Guest editor Bill Bryson, in his introduction to The Best American Travel Writing 2016, writes about learning about a mysterious lighthouse on a remote outcropping in the Scottish Hebrides, and after that immediately wanting to go there, even though it was quite difficult to do. I remember that feeling when I read about the Dry Tortugas and Fort Jefferson of the coast of the Florida Keys, which wasn't all that difficult to do but I understand the impetus. Finances and jobs and all that have limited my wandering for many years, but it's fun to be an armchair traveler.

This volume of the series was just okay, though. There weren't a lot of places written about that I would want to go to. There's even an article about North Korea (it may be my imagination, but it seems like there's one in every one of these collections) and a film festival there (Kim Jong-Il was a big fan). There are two articles about life above the Arctic circle, which is intriguing but I'll leave it to others to go there.

Frankly, most of the articles here are about the difficulty of traveling. Steven Rinella writes about various bacteria and parasites consumed in "Little Things That Kill You," and Michael Chabon writes humorously about getting lost in Morocco: "Nothing moves me more profoundly, I hasten to add, than discovering the extent of my own ignorance." A few of the articles are about environmental concerns, especially William Vollman's "Invisible and Insidious," about the radiation effects in Japan after the tsunami, which will convince most of us not to go there. Andrew W. Jones writes of a perilous journey from the Ukraine into Romania in "The Marlboro Men of Chernivitsi," when he and his girlfriend were persuaded to smuggle cigarettes.

The articles that had me thinking I'd like to go there were few and far between. I did like Patrick Symmes' "Peak Havana," about the Cuban city that I've always wanted to visit. I like his attitude: "But travel is best in the cracks, in the unexpected encounters between appointments, in the crucial subtleties revealed when—according to our expectations and schedules—nothing is happening."

The best written pieces aren't necessarily about places--Pico Iyer's "The Foreign Spell" expounds on the nature of being a foreigner. He notes: "the number of people living in lands they were not born to will surpass 300 million in the next generation." And Thomas Chatterton Williams writes eloquently about black Americans' experiences in Paris in "In Another Country." As usual, Patricia Marx is very funny as she looks at the plastic surgery craze in South Korea: "If you want to feel bad about your looks, spend some time in Seoul. An eerily high number of women there—and men, too—look like anime princesses."

Two pieces are about following in the footsteps of writers. Jeffrey Tayler does the Dostoevsky thing in St. Petersburg in "Fyodor's Guide," and the best article in the book is Paul Theroux's "Return of the Mockingbird." Theroux wrote a book about travels in the American south, and this part is focused on Monroeville, Alabama, the hometown of Harper Lee, who turned it into Maycomb in her book To Kill a Mockingbird. Theroux is generally regarded as the best travel writer in the business and this is evidence why. "In the Deep South, and Alabama especially, all the back roads seem to lead into the bittersweet of the distant past." He talks to many people who knew Lee, but he does not wish to disturb her (she was alive at the time of his visit).

So, I haven't made any imaginary travel plans based on this book. With Trump in office I no longer know if I can even visit Cuba legally, so Havana may have to wait. I want to have a drink at El Floridita, where Hemingway drank.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

The Florida Project

In the three Sean Baker films I've seen, he's dealt with people on the margins. In Starlet, it was an adult film actress, in Tangerine (famously shot with an iPhone) it was drag queen streetwalkers, and now in The Florida Project it is the occupants of welfare motels within spitting distance of Disney World. All of them have been empathetic--as I stated before, Baker loves his characters, roots for them, and you will, too, even though they may not be the people you think about every day.

The Florida Project centers around Moonie (Brooklynn Prince) and her mother, Haley (Bria Vinaite), barely more than a child herself. They are on some sort of public assistance, as the only work Vinaite does is buy wholesale perfume and sell it outside the swankier resorts. She also occasionally will turn a trick, which risks both her residency at the motel (ironically name The Magic Castle) and the descending of child services upon her.

The manager of the motel is Willem Dafoe, in a wonderfully subtle performance. We're used to seeing Dafoe in intense roles, but this one, as a man who is doing his job but also looking out for his tenants, is one of great skill. He may get angry at Prince and her friends for shutting off the power, but he also chases away a pedophile and has paternal feelings about them.

Prince, who must be about six or seven, is also terrific. I wonder at children this age if they are really acting or just behaving--at the end of the film she breaks into tears and I hope it wasn't because someone told her dog died or something. But then again, all acting is really just behaving, isn't it? No matter, because she appears perfectly natural as a scamp who gets into trouble because there really isn't anything better to do. When she and her friend Scootie burn down an abandoned house (they don't get caught, but Scootie's mother can see the guilt in his face) she breaks things off with Vinaite. She works, and even among the residents there can be a social strata.

The location, of course, is ironic in and of itself. The motels are candy-colored, and the kids are around gifts shops and ice cream stands. When Vinaite and Prince walk to the better hotels they go by Seven Dwarves Lane. But all of this Magic Kingdom stuff is meaningless to these kids, who could never hope to go there.

My only complaint about the film is the very ending, which takes the film out of the realistic and plunges it into magic realism (I won't give it away, but there are a couple of "wait a minutes" in this scene). Otherwise, The Florida Project is one of the best movies of the year.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

The King of Comedy

In 1982, two years after Raging Bull, Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese reteamed to make The King of Comedy. Scorsese was in a weird place, deciding he only wanted to make documentaries. Then he asked De Niro to make The Last Temptation of Christ, but De Niro wanted to make a comedy. He had the rights to a script by Paul Zimmerman that Michael Cimino was originally set to direct. Scorsese ended up making it. It bombed.

The King of Comedy, like Network and The Truman Show, was a film ahead of its time. It's attitude about celebrity--people being famous just for being famous, and the pursuit of celebrity by stalkers and autograph hounds--resonates even sharper today. I don't know that I had seen it since I saw it when it first opened, but it feels a little quaint given the society we live in now, with the Kardashians and Honey Boo Boo. It is still, though, a brilliant film, and is one of De Niro's best performance.

He plays Rupert Pupkin, a classic loser who lives with his mother, appears to be jobless, and dresses bizarrely (he is most reminiscent of the fashion choices of Pee-Wee Herman). He longs to be a professional comedian, but is too lazy and psychopathic to actually work for it, going to open mic nights and the like. Instead, he wants to start at the top, and manages to get into the limo of Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis), a Johnny Carson-like talk show host. Lewis brushes him off, telling him to call his office, but De Niro takes it seriously, being a pest and not being able to hear the word no from Shelley Hack as Lewis' secretary.

Along with another Langford stalker, Sandra Bernhard, they kidnap Lewis in order to get De Niro on the show. This works, and Pupkin gets his fame. In a coda reminiscent of Taxi Driver, De Niro largely goes unpunished, and society takes a beating.

The film is full of similarities to Taxi Driver. Rupert Pupkin and Travis Bickle are both from the same gene pool, and it's hard to say who is crazier. Pupkin does not commit violence, but he threatens it. Would he really have the talk show host killed if his demands are not met? We are led to believe yes. Pupkin is a man who has watched television his whole life, who has a mock talk show set in his basement, with a cutout of Liza Minelli (among others) and has the ass-kissing lingo down to a tee.

The movie is remarkable in a couple of other aspects. One, it is probably the best acting Jerry Lewis ever did. He plays it completely straight, a simmering cauldron of resentment (he's not a happy man, judging by his eating dinner alone in his spacious apartment). When De Niro and the girl he's trying to impress (the real Mrs. De Niro, Diahnne Abbott) invade Lewis' country home, you may be tempted to watch through your fingers, as De Niro just can't believe that Lewis wants to throw him out. From their one meeting, he has associated himself as a friend of Lewis'.

Secondly, this is really the only great role that Sandra Bernhard had. Almost beautiful in her ugliness, she plays a rich girl who wants to have sex with Langford. While Pupkin gets on the show, she tries to seduce him in an improvisation that is just perfect (Lewis is encased in masking tape). I'm sorry that we don't learn her fate, as the last we see of her is running down the street in bra and panties, yelling Jerry's name.

The script also makes a bold choice in allowing us to see Pupkin's act. It's not good, but it's not terrible, and to show the sheep-like quality of audiences, they laugh at it anyway. You sense that with work, lots of work, Pupkin could have been a professional comedian--he knows all you can know from watching, such as timing. De Niro studied professional comedians (he also talked to his own stalkers) and would make another film years later playing a comedian in The Comedian (didn't see it, but it was roundly panned).

The King of Comedy is criminally underrated as both a film and a sociological statement. It was depressingly accurate in its prediction about celebrity and fame.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017


Mudbound is an odd word, but a perfect title for the film directed by Dee Rees and based on a novel by Hillary Jordan. The landscape, farmland in Mississippi, is frequently muddy, the characters, until a dramatic ending, are metaphorically stuck in mud, and the opening scene has two brothers digging their father's grave in mud, one of them almost buried in it. They find the skull of a slave, and one brother notes that their father would hate it if he knew he'd end up in a slave's grave.

Set right before, during, and after World War II, Mudbound deals with race. It is a bit like The Best Years of Our Lives as written by William Faulkner. Two families, one white, one black, will intersect. The black family are sharecroppers who have worked a farm for years and not gotten any closer to owning their own land. Their patriarch is Hap (Rob Morgan), a decent man who knows his place in society, and his dutiful wife (Mary J. Blige). He has a passel of children, the oldest being Ronsel (Jason Mitchell), who goes off to war and becomes a tank commander under Patton.

The white family are the McAllans. Henry (Jason Clarke) has purchased the farm that Hap and family work. He has dragged his cultured wife (Carey Mulligan), who was well into spinsterhood when married, to rustic surroundings. Henry's brother Jamie (Garret Hedlund) goes off to war and becomes a bomber pilot. The boys' father (Jonathan Banks) is an unrepentant bigot and all around horrible human being.

Mudbound is good in fits and starts, but suffers from some failings. One is the excessive narration. I'm not like Robert McKee, who believes there should be no voice-over narration in a film, but Mudbound's is far too much, and you can tell it comes from a novel. At one point, Mulligan pays for a doctor for Hap, and Blige, in a voice-over says something to the effect that she had never realized all white folks aren't the same. This is totally unnecessary, as Blige's face says everything we need to know. In most cases, if the acting, directing, and editing are good enough, voice-over isn't needed.

Secondly, this is well-trod ground. Does this film say anything new about racism and pre-civil rights America? Except for a post-war friendship between Hedlund and Mitchell (which gets them both in serious danger) not really. Mitchell finds that he is treated better in Europe than America, but we've seen that before in many forms. The last act, which is gripping, is nonetheless familiar, as the Klan hoods and noose come out of storage.

The acting is wonderful here, especially Mitchell, who I didn't recognize as the same man who played Easy-E in Straight Outta Compton, and Morgan. Banks is a superb villain, if one-note. Interestingly, I found Clarke and Mulligan's characters to be underwritten and therefore their performances wasted.

Mudbound was produced by Netflix. It will be interesting to see how much attention the Academy pays to it.

Monday, November 20, 2017

The Hall of Fame: Will Bonds and Clemens Ever Get In?

The Baseball Hall of Fame released their ballot for induction today, and there are numerous interesting questions. There could be quite a few inducted this year (meaning more than two) which has been the trend lately. This, without any of the those stained by PED use being elected (Mark McGwire is off the ballot and was passed over last year by the Eras committee). But Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, who everybody thinks but nobody has proved used steroids, have made moves up in the past few years. Will they ever get in?

First, let's talk about who will get in. Of the first-timers on the ballot, the one sure-fire inductee is Chipper Jones, the stalwart third basemen for the great Brave teams of the 1990s. Besides sharing my birthday, April 24th, Jones has inarguable HOF credentials, both in the old stats (468 homers, 2726 hits, .303 batting average) and new (career 85 WAR). Jones probably won't get the elusive unanimous vote, but he'll probably clear 90 percent.

Of the other first timers, there are two who deserve enshrinement but god knows if the writers will enact their unwritten rule on who gets in on the first ballot. Jim Thome has 612 home runs, good for eighth all-time, without any taint of PED use, and a 72.9 WAR. He should be in, and will be in, it's just whether it's this year or not. His Cleveland teammate, Omar Vizquel, should also be in. Perhaps only second to Ozzie Smith as a defensive whiz (and maybe even better) Vizquel also was a very good hitter, with 2877 hits. If they both get in, it will be a banner day for the Indians (both played for multiple teams, but spent the lion's share of their careers in Cleveland).

Other first-timers that probably will be one and done are Chris Carpenter, Johnny Damon, Liván Hernández, Orlando Hudson, Aubrey Huff, Jason Isringhausen, Carlos Lee, Brad Lidge, Kevin Millwood, Jamie Moyer, Scott Rolen, Kerry Wood and Carlos Zambrano. Damon is the one who has a chance to stick around for more years (that is, get more than five percent of the vote). He ended his career with 2769 hits. Had he reached 3000, we might be having a different conversation. He was a reliable player for a long time, but not a HOFer, to me. Jamie Moyer pitched for 25 years and won 269 games, twenty twice, but I don't think anyone thinks he's of the highest level. Also new this year are Andruw Jones, probably the most obscure of any player who has more than 400 home runs, Hideki Matsui, who will not be the first Japanese player inducted (that remains for Ichiro Suzuki, should he ever retire), and Johan Santana, who has the only Mets no-hitter, which may have ruined his arm.

Of the returning players, there are those who linger in a sort of limbo, getting enough votes to stay but not getting close to election. These are guys like Edgar Martinez, Fred McGriff, Mike Mussina, Larry Walker, and Curt Schilling. Each of these guys has a case--Jeff Kent and Gary Sheffield might have ruined it by playing on too many teams and having a difficult reputation. Schilling, though not the only politically conservative baseball player, has been so obnoxious about it it has certainly cost him votes. I don't think any of these get in this year.

That leaves the guys who I think will get in with Jones. Both Trevor Hoffman, second all-time in saves, and Vladimir Guerrero a great hitter, got more than 70 percent last year, which means they missed by just a few votes. Anyone who was received that many votes has gotten in eventually, and since there isn't a flood of obvious new players this year, they should get the necessary votes. Last year I mentioned that Tim Raines may be the last player to go in with an Expos hat--I may be wrong. Guerrero played eight years for Montreal, and six years for Anaheim. It will be interesting to see which hat he picks. No player has been inducted wearing an Angels cap.

And now, what of Bonds, Clemens, Manny Ramirez, and Sammy Sosa, who are PED guys? Let's look at the numbers. Bonds, baseball's home run king, has gone from 36 to 53 percent in five years, an indication that things are softening for him. Clemens, almost identically, has gone from 37 to 54 percent. Interestingly, Sosa barely comes back; in his five years he has gone down from 12 to 8 percent. Ramirez, who has the numbers to be a lock, got 23 percent in his first year.

It is thought that the Hall reduced the number of years on the BBWAA ballot from fifteen to ten years to get these guys off as quickly as possible. It would be a big embarrassment for them if Bonds and Clemens are inducted, as they might see a mass absence of past Hall of Famers. There are five years to go for Bonds and Clemens, I'm sure Major League Baseball is crossing its fingers. Of course, during that time, Alex Rodriguez will become eligible.

Again, my prediction is that Chipper Jones, Trevor Hoffman, and Vlad Guerrero get into the Hall of Fame this year.

Sunday, November 19, 2017


I was a bit wonderstruck watching Wonderstruck, Todd Haynes' latest film. One will immediately make comparisons to Hugo, which is only right, since they are both based on books by Brian Selznick, who writes the screenplay here. They are both films that approach magic realism without quite getting there, and romanticize places--in Hugo it is the Paris train station, in Wonderstruck it is The American Museum of Natural History, or more precisely, museums in general.

Wonderstruck tells two parallel stories about deaf children on the loose in New York City. The earlier is about Rose (Millicent Simmonds), who lives in Hoboken in 1927. She idolizes a movie star, Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore) and sees that she is going to be appearing live so she hops on the ferry for her first visit across the Hudson. She finds Moore, and a bit of a twist is revealed, but then leaves and looks for her brother Walter, who works in the Natural History Museum and has authored a book, called Wonderstruck, about the history of museums.

The later story is of Ben (Oakes Fegley) in 1977, who has been orphaned by his mother's death in a car accident (she is played briefly and luminously by Michelle Williams). She has never told him about his father, which seems cruel. Nevertheless, after he loses his hearing while being on the phone in an electric storm (the rumors are true!) runs away to New York based on a clue that he finds tucked inside a book--you guessed it, the book written by Walter.

The momentum of the story is finding out how these stories will connect, which is the weakest part of the film--the story is predictable and very thin. Also, having two deaf characters requires a lot of writing, which I suppose works fine in a book but is awkward in a film.

On the plus side, and it's a big plus, is the look of the picture. The 1927 portion is especially fantastic, with costumes by Sandy Powell and stunning black and white photography by Ed Lachman. Watching Simmonds explore the city creates an almost vicarious feel (Simmonds is actually deaf, but has a face that would launch a thousand ships). Often scenes of her looking at something in the museum are cut with Fegley looking at the same thing, still there after fifty years. His segment, in which New York was in not such a great shape (although I still think the Port Authority looks like that now) are in a kind of uncompromising color, but he finds a friend whose father works for the museum, and they hide out there in the night (sadly, nothing comes to life).

The ending, which winds up at the site of the World's Fair in Queens, isn't as poignant as it thinks it is (it involves a true life event that I won't spoil here, but if you know your New York history you'll figure it out). When Moore appears as another character in Ben's segment, it doesn't take a genius to put two and two together.

See Wonderstruck for the visuals, or for the nostalgia for old New York. Try to overlook the simplicity of the story.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

The Haunting

Since Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House is considered the best haunted house novel of all time, it follows that the film made of it, The Haunting, from 1963, is considered the best haunted house film (there was a remake, in 1999, which was roundly panned, though). I've seen a lot of ghost movies, and they are almost always bad, because either the ghost isn't real (the Scooby Doo syndrome) or because the makers of the film don't understand where fear comes from. The Haunting is actually somewhat meta in that it discusses where fear comes from: the unknown.

The film is fairly faithful to the book, with one great exception. A studier of the paranormal (Richard Johnson) has rented Hill House, which has a reputation of being haunted. He invites people who have had paranormal experiences to join him, but only two accept. One is Eleanor (Julie Harris), a repressed woman who has spent her entire adult life caring for her invalid mother and is thrilled to be invited anywhere. The other is Theodora (Claire Bloom) the bohemian and possibly lesbian woman who has a knack for clairvoyance. The fourth member of the party is Russ Tamblyn, a representative of the owners, who stands to inherit the property.

The Haunting's director is Robert Wise, who is known for musicals but this is some dandy direction. For one thing, there are no ghosts seen--everything is either heard or, possibly, imagined. Poundings on the walls, cold spots (which are tough to represent visually, but Wise does it), doors closing by themselves, long creepy hallways, all manage to scare the bejeesus out of the viewer. Wise used many tricks, such as wide-angle lenses and dutch angles, to create the feeling of dread. The exterior of the house, which is a placed called Effington Hall, was filmed with infrared to bring out the crevices in the stone.

The screenplay is by Nelson Gidding, who had the idea to turn it into a metaphor. It would actually be Eleanor's breakdown, which is in a hospital, but she creates the haunted house in her mind. Jackson thought that would be a fine idea, but she assured Giddings that the book had real ghosts in it, so they stayed. Insread Harris is slowly consumed by the house--it's the structure itself that is the supernatural entity, hungry for a soul.

There are some minor changes that I scratch my head about: Johnson's character was named Montagu in the book, but is Markway here. Eleanor's last name was changed from Vance to Lance. Tamblyn's character Luke is much more urbane in the book--Tamblyn plays him as a spoiled, unpleasant brat, while Luke is a bon vivant in the book. The biggest change is the character of Johnson's wife, played by Lois Maxwell (Miss Moneypenny, of course). In the book she is a fellow spiritual investigator, but here she is a confirmed skeptic (you wonder how the two ever got married).

The Haunting is a great example of how not showing the threat is better, which was a trick of Val Lewton's (in such movies as Cat People) all the way up to Jaws (when Spielberg, by necessity, didn't show the shark until halfway through the movie).  The result is one of the scariest movies I've ever seen. Fright and gore are two different things, and The Haunting is a fright, with no gore. They don't make them like this any more.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas

I mentioned some six years ago that I thought that A Charlie Brown Christmas and Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas were the best Christmas specials ever made and I stick to that. Today, looking for something to show my students on the day before Thanksgiving break (we get a whole week off, hallelujah!) I happily found that the uncut Grinch, without commercials, is available for free on Vimeo, so I saw it twice today.

Like A Charlie Brown Christmas, which was produced the year before, the Grinch, debuting in 1966, was a testament to the anti-commercialization of Christmas. Dr. Seuss published the book in 1957, and I was interested to read that the Grinch may have been based on darker aspects of his personality. When the Grinch says he has been putting up with Christmas for 53 years, that's how old Seuss was when he wrote the book.

The story takes place in Whoville (which was also in Horton Hears a Who!) and Mount Crumpit, the jagged peak where the Grinch lives. He's a green humanoid feature with an extremely expressive face (the work here by director Chuck Jones is exquisite) who just flat out hates Christmas, mostly because of the noise, as it seems that most Who children receive some kind of musical instrument as presents.

So the Grinch and his unloved but loyal dog Max steal Christmas--they bundle up all the toys, decorations, food (even the last can of Who Hash), and other accoutrements of the holiday. The Grinch expects that he will hear wailing and moaning, but when he hears the holiday music just the same, he comes to an understanding that Christmas is not just gifts and trees and ornaments, but something more important.

Unlike Charlie Brown, the Grinch special never mentions Christ, but does represent the star as it rises from the singing Whos into the sky. A grumpy atheist such as myself, who still loves Christmas, sees this as perfectly fine, a message that states that Christmas is just a reminder that we should all love each other and that our lives are worth more than the latest gadget or video game that we find under the tree. In both viewings today, adding to the total of times I've seen it to at least twenty or more, I got a little lump in my throat at the end. I especially like when Cindy Lou Who gives Max, who still has a deer horn tied to his head, a slice of roast beast.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas has many pleasures and many mysteries. For one, I enjoy the glee in which the Grinch conducts his burglaries. He shoots ornaments like billiard balls, and operates a toy train as it disappears into one of his bags. He takes ice cubes, film out of a camera, and the log for the fire. Has their ever been a depiction of someone having so much fun committing a crime?

But then his transformation, when his heart grows two sizes and he is able to lift the sleigh over his head like Superman, is also brilliant. Poor Max, loyal to the end, tries to keep the sleigh from tipping over the mountaintop by grabbing hold of the Grinch's St. Nick jacket with his teeth.

Questions for the adult viewer abound. We get to see a bit of the interior of the Grinch's cave. He seems handy--he has a sewing machine and knows how to use it, and his bed looks comfy. How does he make a living? Access to the cave is for daredevils only, so it is unlikely he commutes, and this was before the Internet. Of course, he isn't human (his only clothes are shoes, which are too tight) so perhaps his needs are different.

The Whos aren't exactly human, either. Cindy Lou (voiced by the late great June Foray) has antennae sticking out of her head. When she interrupts the Grinch's larceny he gets her a drink of water,which must be an homage to the burglar in the Little Rascals short in which Spanky thinks he's Santa and says, "Hey Santy, can I have a drink of water?"

The choice to have Boris Karloff narrate and do the voice of the Grinch was perfect. The singer of "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch," was the brilliantly named Thurl Ravenscroft, who was also the voice of Tony the Tiger. Karloff won a Grammy for the record album, the only award he ever won.

I have never seen the feature film starring Jim Carrey--what's the point, when the perfect version already exists? I am disappointed to see they're doing it again, this time with Benedict Cumberbatch. It will be released next year, but I will probably avoid it, and watch this timeless cartoon instead.