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Thursday, October 19, 2017

The First Transgender Playmate

The cultural news breaking now is that Playboy is featuring its first transgender Playmate. Ines Rau, a French model with a lot of credits, is the choice, and while I'm not quite sure how I feel, the reaction by both men and women is fascinating.

Actually, Playboy ran a pictorial of a transgender woman back in 1991, but she was not a Playmate (in the world of Playboy, a Playmate is more exalted--she gets the centerfold, which no longer has staples). This was significantly ahead of its time, and the decision to have Rau as a Playmate is quite a statement of support for the LBGTQ community.

Interestingly, she is in the first issue following the death of Hugh Hefner (who is on the cover, the first man to grace the cover without a woman rubbing against him). On Playboy's Twitter account, there are dozens (if not hundreds, I stopped looking) of outraged responses, saying Hef must be spinning in his grave. Here's the thing, though--I find it highly unlikely that Hef's successors waited for him to expire to put in a transgender Playmate. For one thing, Hef had already run a transgender model, and secondly, for a monthly magazine, the issue is put together far in advance. Clearly his death only about three weeks ago caused them to pull whatever cover they were going to use and replace it with Hef's picture, and it looks like they pulled ads in the front to insert a feature on Playboy's founder. I'll bet the editorial and production staff put in long hours.

The comments by men are pretty awful, many of them homophobic. I would imagine this is because those Playboy readers who started as boys masturbated to the pictures, and would never do that to a transgender woman. But here's the thing--if they didn't know she was born a man, they wouldn't make any protests, because Rau, though with a sharply angled face, is not out of the league of women who are Playmates. I suppose these guys' reactions are like picking up a hooker and finding out it's a man.

I read the feminist response on Jezebel. Feminists can have a hard time with Playboy. There are those who are adamantly against the exploitation of women, but that's cisgender women. Does it apply to a transgender woman? The comments on the story were full of confusion. I think the best comment was "Yay?" It's a huge step forward for transgender women, in that they are recognized as beautiful females, but at the same time they are now being objectified. What's a girl to think?

Many sane comments confessed that Playboy and Hefner have a complicated legacy. Yeah, Hefner may have been a misogynist (a feminist misogynist) but he and the magazine were always on the right side of social issues. They had black Playmates in the '60s, and many Asian and Hispanic Playmates. They've had Playmates in their '30s (old for Hefner) and Ivy League graduates. So, if Playboy is the enemy of feminism, at least it's been evenly spread.

So how do I feel? Well, if I were much younger I'd be a little put off--I would think I'm buying the magazine to look at naked women that I'd actually want to sleep with. But today, would I refuse a woman like Ines Rau? I'm not so sure. When you get to be my age you realize things like what sex a person was born doesn't really matter. I'm glad Playboy did this, even though they may have angered their base (and they might end up selling a lot of issues just for the curious).

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Sweat

Lynn Nottage is the first woman to win two Pulitzer Prizes for Drama. Her first win was for Ruined, which was set in the Congo. The setting couldn't be more different in Sweat, which is Reading, Pennsylvania. But there are certain similarities--they are both about characters who come to a certain desperation.

Sweat bounces between two time periods: 2000 and 2008. In the later year, we are introduced to two ex-cons who are out on parole. Jason is white, with racist tattoos on his face. Chris is black, once his good friend. They committed a crime together, but we won't know what it is until the end of the play.

In the year 2000, the action takes place in a bar, and all the regulars work at a factory. The bartender, Stan, was injured on the job, but the others, both black and white, mix easily due to their common place of employment. Cynthia, a middle-aged black woman, is trying to get a promotion to management. Her white friend, Tracey, also tries for it, but Cynthia gets it. When the company tries to restructure the workers' contracts, Cynthia finds herself in a bind--she wants to help her friends, but she has a job to do.

Sweat, which I suppose is named for the liquid expended working on a factory floor without air conditioning (the corporate office is cool) is a fine examination of the plight of the blue collar workers in the U.S. They are in a union, and when asked to take a sixty-percent pay cut, they go out on strike. Scabs are hired, including the bus boy at the bar, Oscar, a Colombian (this, as any savvy play-reader will predict, leads to trouble).

As with Ruined, Nottage does not display anything experimental. The plot is fairly simple--you know that the end will reveal the men's crime and that Oscar will be involved. But what Nottage does well here is depicting the world of the worker. I find it interesting that workers who are on strike would continue to buy drinks (one of the characters, Jessie, is clearly an alcoholic), and since I don't hang out in bars I don't know if that's how people talk in them--it seemed a little too stagey.

The characters, though, are very vividly drawn. The aforementioned Jessie, who is mostly seen passed out, like a character in The Iceman Cometh, has enough lucidity to express a long-held desire: "I wish . . . I had gotten to see the world. You know, left Berks, if only for a year. That’s what I regret. Not
the work, I regret the fact that for a little while it seemed like, I don’t know, there was possibility. I think about that Jessie on the other side of the world and what she woulda seen."

Stan, ruminating on instead of battling a company, maybe it would be best to just pack up and leave, says: "Sometimes I think we forget that we’re meant to pick up and go when the well runs dry. Our
ancestors knew that."

Since I'm not close to New York any more I didn't get to see this play, and perhaps seeing it would have made it more convincing. But the printed version does include the news of the day before each scene. It's not clear whether that is projected on a screen in the acted version.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

The Eyes of My Mother

The Eyes of My Mother, streaming on Netflix, is one of the more disturbing movies I've seen recently. It is not for the faint of heart, even though most of the violence is off screen. Maybe that's what makes it worst--we imagine it's far gorier than it could be depicted on screen.

I hesitate to detail too much of the plot, because I didn't know what was happening next. Suffice it to say that it's about a girl who grows up to a killer after witnessing her mother being killed. The girl, who is played as a child by Olivia Bond, is named Francisca after St. Francis of Assisi. Her mother was an eye surgeon back in Portugal. One day a door-to-door salesman comes by and asks to use the bathroom. Bad idea.

As an adult, Francisca is played by Kika Magalhãe. She misses her mother, and then her father dies (I think of natural causes, but I'm not sure). She brings a young woman home for sex, but that young woman freaks when Francisca tells her that she killed her father. In the clever editing the film employs, we see the woman saying she has to leave, and then we cut to Francisca scrubbing blood off the floor, and then wrapping some kind of meat to put in the freezer.

There are also chains in the barn, and the "Eyes" of the title has extra meaning. The film is shot in very stark black and white which makes for some interesting images, such a barn door opening revealing a child holding a teddy bear by the leg in silhouette.

What The Eyes of My Mother could be considered is an art-house Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Approach it with caution, because it should unnerve the most callous horror movie fan.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Harvey Weinstein

I don't know if anyone has ever had a swifter fall from power than Harvey Weinstein. Just a few weeks ago he was one of the most powerful men in Hollywood, and in the course of a few days he was accused of sexual harassment by scores of women, was fired from the company he founded, kicked out of the Motion Picture Academy, and is being divorced by his wife. Even his brother has spoken out against him. In the words of Garrison Keillor, "Wouldn't this be a great time for a piece of rhubarb pie?"

Weinstein has been the focus of the news media (the shooting in Las Vegas is already old news) and collective soul-searching. We have heard from a lot of women in the film business who have had harrowing experiences with the man, from A-listers like Angelina Jolie and Gwyneth Paltrow to actresses just coming up, like Sarah Polley, who wrote an excellent op-ed in The New York Times. She wasn't interested in acting enough to fall for his evil bargain, but how many have?

This has ignited a discussion of sexual harassment, both based on nothing but words (he asked some women to give him a massage or watch him shower) to the ultimate (Rose MacGowan has accused him of rape). Every bit of it was inappropriate, unprofessional, and possibly criminal, but what Polley said in her essay is both eye-opening and, in a sense, unsurprising: Weinstein is not an outlier.

Men who accumulate power, especially men who may not be particularly attractive, counterbalance their sad days in high school by treating women like collectible objects, like stamps or baseball cards. I have no idea what Weinstein'sex life was like as a teenager, but as an amateur psychologist I would suggest it was not stellar. Some guys get girls by learning the guitar, others produce movies, because both industries attract young women who are willing to do anything to get what they want. Of course, I want to believe that not all movie producers are like that, anymore than rock stars are, but when one becomes as powerful as Weinstein, and is treated with such deference, the repugnance oozes out.

Imagine being so powerful you could hit on Angelina Jolie and not be outed? I don't know the particulars, but she was clearly afraid to speak out, whether out of embarrassment or fear for her career. And, of course, that this society, who could have a hung jury in the Bill Cosby case, still is reluctant to believe claims of women who are harassed or assaulted. Cosby was for years a lovable performer--Weinstein has never been lovable, and because of his power more people seem to be willing to accept the truth. He also made a half-hearted confession/apology, blaming it on growing up in the '60s and '70s. Please.

Weinstein has his supporters: Donna Karan and Lindsay Lohan are with him, probably hurting their own careers, because why would any woman want a dress from an enabler like Karan? (Lohan's career is already dead). What remains to be seen is if there are men who years ago enabled Weinstein, like Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. This could make Hollywood sizzle like a cauldron.

I've been saddened to see women on my Facebook page write #me too; some of them I've known for almost forty years and I didn't know about it. It just makes me embarrassed to be a man.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Certain Women

I've seen almost all of Kelly Reichardt's films and enjoyed them all, but they will never be mistaken for a Fast and Furious film. Her films are slow and contemplative, but nonetheless gripping because the situations are fraught with emotional tension.

Certain Women, a 2016 film, is based on three short stories by Maile Meloy, all set in Montana. The three stories are played out consecutively, with short codas at the end. They intersect only briefly, but are all set in the same world.

Each of these stories end with a whimper, not a bang. If you've been raised on typical Hollywood films you might expect more vivid endings, but they are not, and the message here seems to be that if you're lonely, deal with it, and life goes on.

The first story features Laura Dern as an attorney representing a man (Jared Harris) who wants to sue his employer for an injury. She's been telling him that he can't, because he's already accepted an insurance payment. When a man tells him this same thing, he accepts it, but tells Dern he's going to shoot up his workplace. Instead, he takes one man hostage, and Dern is called in to talk him out.

The middle story has Michelle Williams as a tense woman on a camping trip with her jovial husband (who we saw having an affair with Dern) and her sullen teenager. She wants to buy a huge pile of sandstone from an old man (Rene Aubernojois), and butters him up, while the husband (James Le Gros) undermines her efforts.

Finally, in the best story, Lily Gladstone plays a lonely horse rancher who seems to have no regular human contact. On a whim she attends a class at the high school, that turns out to be school law, taught by a lawyer, Kristen Stewart. Stewart has a four-hour drive, both ways, while holding down a full-time job. Gladstone becomes smitten with her, having dinner with every night after class and giving a ride on a horse. But when Stewart quits the job due to the long drive Gladstone is determined to see her one more time.

Certain Women is a display of the little things in life that we deal with. Granted, Dern's story is more dramatic, and involves a gun, but the other two stories are simply wrought, with simmering emotions--there's more going on in what isn't said that what is.

The performances are terrific. Harris, an Englishman, does an American accent for the first time I can remember and it took me a while to recognize him. Gladstone, who won some awards for this performance, acts mostly with her face. There is a long scene in which she drives away with her last encounter with Stewart. Will she break into tears? What's written in her face speaks volumes.

Reichardt is not a director that is likely to tapped to direct the next Marvel film. She makes small, delicately filigreed films that don't make a lot of money (this one made more than a million, her highest grossing). But they deserved to be seen.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life

Most Americans, especially if they went to high school, know Shirley Jackson for her story "The Lottery," one of the most famous short stories in 20th century American literature. But did you also know she wrote eight novels (including one of the best ghost novels ever written, The Haunting of Hill House), and wrote popular domestic comedies about her four children, a precursor to Erma Bombeck? She also had written in her biography on a book jacket that she was a practicing witch.

Jackson, whose centennial was last year, receives a scintillating biography, subtitled A Rather Haunted Life, by Ruth Franklin. Based on her correspondence, Franklin has pieced together a full portrait of a writer who remains underrated, perhaps because she was not glamorous and died at the age of 48.

"Jackson’s brand of literary suspense is part of a vibrant and distinguished tradition that can be traced back to the
American Gothic work of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe, and Henry James. Her unique contribution to this genre is her primary focus on women’s lives," writes Franklin. Indeed, almost all of her work is seen from a female point of view, and are about women who feel like outsiders, as she did. She was born in California, but moved to Rochester, New York, as a teenager. She was awkward and overweight. After a short stint at the University of Rochester, she transferred to Syracuse University, where her writing talent started to blossom. She also met Stanley Hyman.

"Stanley closed the magazine demanding to know who Shirley Jackson was. He had decided, he said, to marry her." Hyman was a Jew from Brooklyn, and would go on to be a well-known critic and academic. He would also be far less than a perfect husband. He had frequent affairs. "Stanley had already made it clear that her recriminations were useless. The more she expressed her jealousy, the
less he paid attention." Yet, "she already believed that she could only love a man whom she found superior to her in every way."

Despite Hyman's successes, he would get lost in her shadow, as she sold many stories during the 1940s, mostly to The New Yorker (Hyman would be an occasional contributor for years). "The Lottery" would appear in that periodical in 1948, and would earn more mail that any other story they ran, most of it hateful. The story is about a ritual performed in a bucolic town square that has someone being stoned to death to please God and make sure the crops come in. People had never read anything like it.

Jackson would go on to write eight novels. Her last two are the most famous, The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle, which was published in 1962. After that she struggled with agoraphobia and could not write, but had begun writing a new novel when she died of a heart attack.

Jackson and Hyman were part of the literati, despite living most of their married lives in North Bennington, Vermont, where Hyman was a professor. They were good friends with Richard Wright and Howard Nemerov, and enjoyed parties, eating and drinking. Jackson had four children, though she loathed housework. This led to two books, Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons, that were comic essays about her family. Many people couldn't reconcile the writer who explored the dark parts of the soul with the light touch of her domestic books. She also wrote a book, fittingly, on the Salem witch trials, which earned her quite a bit of money. Her view of witchcraft, as it is today generally accepted, is that it represents female power and the male fear of it.

Franklin describes Jackson as someone besieged, either by Hyman or her mother, who after Jackson receive a good review in Time wrote to her how bad she looked in the photo. Jackson wrote a scorching retort, but never sent it. "Even at this point in her career, with six published novels and two popular memoirs, Jackson still felt she had to prove her worth to her parents. She never missed an opportunity to emphasize how successful she had become, reporting back to them on just about every lecture, reading, and conference."

This is a terrific biography, even if you haven't read any of Jackson's works. It is almost a dual biography of Hyman, who gets his own chapter, but it would be hard to separate them. I must say, though, that I still don't know who Jackson really was, emotionally speaking. I don't think this is a fault of Franklin, but that despite her letters and unfinished material, Jackson was a hard nut to crack. I suppose, given the mysterious nature of her writing, that that is appropriate.


Friday, October 13, 2017

Lust for Life

Lana Del Rey's new album, Lust for Life, dares to pinch a title from Iggy Pop, but the result is such a luscious, complex record that I'm sure Mr. Pop won't mind. The album is so layered that I gave it two weeks in the car, rather than my normal one.

I must admit that part of the reason I liked listening to this album over and over is that it's sexy. You could add this to your collection of music to be played during concupiscence. The title track has Del Ray breathily pleading, "Take off your clothes, take off all your clothes."

Del Ray co-wrote all of the tracks, most of them with Rick Nowels. There are sixteen in all, for 71 minutes of music. Normally an album that long would put up red flags, but I don't dislike any of them.

Most of the songs, as the title suggests, are about love. One of them "Cherry," also lifts from "Scarborough Fair" with a lyric "rosemary and thyme," but does substitute "cherries and wine" instead of parsley and sage. One of the better songs is "Coachella--Woodstock in My Mind," which is about her being at the festival in California while tensions were escalating with North Korea:

I was at Coachella
Leaning on your shoulder
Watching your husband swing in time
I guess I was in it
'Cause baby, for a minute
It was Woodstock in my mind
In the next morning
They put out the warning
Tensions were rising over country lines
I turned off the music
Tried to sit and use it
All of the love that I saw that night"

A similar sentiment is expressed in "When the World Was at War We Kept Dancing."

"Boys, don't forget your toys
And take all of your money
If you find you're in a foreign land
Boys, don't make too much noise
And don't try to be funny
Other people may not understand"

There are many guests on the record--The Weeknd, Sean Lennon, who sounds disconcertingly like his father, and Stevie Nicks, who certainly must be an inspiration for Del Rey. Their song is called "Beautiful People, Beautiful Problems."

"But we're just beautiful people
With beautiful problems, yeah
Beautiful problems,
God knows we've got them"

Those lyrics are a bit in tongue and cheek, as are those to "God Bless America--and All the Beautiful Women in It."

In another bit of artistic theft, Del Rey includes a song called "Heroin," which Lou Reed used fifty years ago. This is one is not about her taking the drug, but someone she cares about.

"I'm flying to the moon again
Dreaming about heroin
And how it gave you everything
And took your life away"

I feel like I've just scratched the surface talking about this record. Her voice, the production, the lyrics, all of them are great, and listening to it put me in a very pleasant state of mind.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Return to Red River

Some might find it audacious for Johnny D. Boggs to write a sequel to Red River, the classic 1948 film starring John Wayne and Montgomery Clift. Actually, he has written a sequel to the book that it was based on, and it's a solid, old-fashioned Western that could have been written in 1948.

The book picks up with Matthew Garth, who was played by Clift, as he manages the ranch he inherited from Thomas Dunson (who was played by Wayne). It's twenty years later. He married Tess Millay, the prostitute (although that word isn't used in the film or in this book) and has two sons, Lightning and Tom. The secret is that Lightning is not their natural son.

Garth, like Dunson twenty years later, is short on cash, and has to drive his cattle across the Red River and into Kansas. The book takes a little too long setting this up--I think the drive starts about halfway into the action.

"Longhorns. Some of these, no, probably almost every last one of them, a descendant of the first cattle brought to Mexico by Gregorio de Villalobos back in 1591, after Christopher Columbus had deposited some in Santo Domingo back in 1494. Around 1690, a herd numbering roughly two hundred had been trailed to a Texas mission near the Sabine River. Now Mathew Garth had to get these cattle to Dodge City, Kansas." This kind of stentorian prose and research is to reading like macaroni and cheese is to food. It's not great, but it's comforting, especially to those who like old Westerns.

The cattle drive, of course, is fraught with danger--a stampede, a fire, and someone following them. It may be Jess Teveler, wanted by the Texas Rangers, and who has something against the Garths. The ending provides the traditional showdown and gunplay.

Every once in a while a read like this is a great switch from literary fiction. Boggs is clearly a student of this genre. And any book that can have a passage like this is fine with me: "For more than five weeks, they had been wet, and they had been dry. Baking underneath a broiling sun or freezing in their soaking clothes after a cold rain. Mostly, they had been bone tired, aching, miserable. Awake before sunrise, then in a saddle till noon, a quick bite of food washed down with coffee, a fresh horse, and back in the saddle."

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

The Little Mermaid

In an odd but successful trend, Disney is taking their classic animated movies and turning them into Broadway musicals (or, making them into live-action movies, or both). One of those was The Little Mermaid, the 1989 film that revived the moribund animation department, and the first of the Howard Ashman and Alan Menken scores.

The movie was delightful, and the stage version is, well, okay. I saw it at the Smith Center on Sunday night, and there were many children in attendance, and it was geared more toward them, or the child within us all.

The production design and lighting are great at depicting an undersea world, and there are many characters who are flown on cables to make them look like they're swimming. In some cases it looks like the actors leave stage and are instantly harnessed--I hope they're safe.

The story is based on the fairy tale by Hans Christian Anderson, but with a happy ending. However, if you read into the story on a social and psychological level, it's about a girl who wants to deny what she is and become something else. She is Ariel, a mermaid who is fascinated by humans. Her father, the King of the Sea, Triton, hates humans, because he thinks they killed his wife.

Ariel has fallen in love with a human prince, whom she saved from drowning. She makes a deal with Triton's evil sister, Ursula, a sea witch with tentacles and two electric eels as henchman. If Ariel can get the prince to kiss her, she will be human forever. If she doesn't, she becomes Ursula's slave.

As usual with Disney, the most interesting characters are the supporting ones. In The Little Mermaid it's Sebastian the crab, played as a Jamaican Rasta man (in this production by Melvin Abston). He gets the two best numbers: "Under the Sea" and "Kiss the Girl." (Both songs were nominated for Oscars, "Under the Sea" won). There is also a seagull who has a problem with pronunciation (played by Jamie Torcellini). And Jennifer Allen is a hoot as Ursula, playing her as a campy diva.

The leads are fine. Diane Huey is Ariel, and she has a fantastic voice, and Eric Kunze is suitably bland and handsome as Prince Eric.

The production was beautiful to look at, but seemed to lack a spark. A slapstick number with a French chef, "Les Poissons," fell flat, and I just couldn't get into the story, since the message seems so retro. Also, other than those two Sebastian numbers, the other songs are pretty forgettable.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Imagine Me Gone

One of the finalists for both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize, Adam Haslett's Imagine Me Gone is one of those books that proves Tolstoy's line that "all unhappy families are different in their own ways." Of course, the first part of that quote is that "all happy families are alike," but there are no happy families in literature. I doubt there are any in life.

The book covers thirty some years in the lives of a married couple and their three children, using revolving narrators. John, the father, is a distracted Englishman, worrying about his career. His wife Margaret is a long-suffering mother, the kind of domestic goddess that still puts up Christmas stockings even after her kids are completely grown.

The three children are somewhat stock types: the manic depressive, the uptight gay guy, and the exceedingly normal sister. What they all have in common is that their lives are hijacked by the crazy one, Michael, the oldest, who pines over women he can't have and is in and out of hospitals.

This happens early in the book, so it isn't much of a spoiler--the dad kills himself. We don't know how, he just goes into the woods and doesn't come back. He has taken the children back to his native England for a few years, then returns to Massachusetts. I would imagine a suicide of a parent is something that one never gets over, but he isn't mentioned much afterward, as Michael becomes more depressed, taking a smorgasbord of pills.

The book has five narrators, but I kept looking forward to Michael's. Despite his neuroses, he's a hoot. One chapter is hilarious, as he is on a cruise and sends letters to his aunt that turn into a narrative about white slavery. He mentions that his younger brother Alec has gone missing on the boat: "Apparently, he’d been abducted by a child-prostitution ring down on deck 3. English, Russians, and he thought maybe Dutch. He was about to be sealed in a crate and smuggled to a Soviet resort on the Black Sea when he managed to secrete himself on the bottom of a curtained tea trolley that rolled him into the kitchens."

Michael also loves music--his only regular income is writing record reviews--and he meets the girl who will send him over the edge in a record shop: "I toured the remaining indie record shops on Saturday mornings when the new shipments arrived. It was on one such outing, after many dateless years, that I encountered Bethany. She had a tiny glistening nose stud, and a nearly shaved head, and was flipping through a bin of Aphex Twin. Need I say more?" Michael is attracted to black women, and attempts to enter a graduate program in African-American Studies. He admits, "romantically, I would have been a lot better off as a lesbian of color, that’s for sure."

Michael is so interesting that this makes the rest of the family a little dull. Alec is a writer for a political news outfit, and maneuvers his way through his first serious relationship (he also picks up a man on a train and gets a blowjob in the parking lot). Celia, the middle sister, has the least interesting life, even though she counsels troubled people. She has a boyfriend she's not sure about, gets pregnant, has an abortion, and fields Michael's frantic calls.

But I liked this family, and I felt for them. I'm about two clicks away from ending up like Michael, and the strain of a family member with mental illness is shown here in a clear light. The ending, which didn't pack as much of a wallop as it should have, indicates that a sibling with Michael's kind of condition sucks the vitality out of all other family members. But what is a person to do?

I appreciated the humor of the book more than I did the sorrow, and for that reason alone I recommend it. If you have a loved one who committed suicide or has a mental illness, it may be tough. Nobody's committed suicide in my family, and are mental illnesses are the kind that are high-functioning.

Monday, October 09, 2017

Tramps

There was an article in the Times about ten pretty good indie films Netflix has made for their platform, and I'd only seen one of them (Tallulah) so I added them all to my "watchlist" (the live-streaming version of the "queue") and took a look at Tramps, written and directed by Adam Leon. It's an okay film that is undone by cliches.

There are two parallel stories that have a boy and a girl meeting. At first they dislike each other (well, she dislikes him). They are involved in a caper, with some narrow escapes, and of course by the end she likes him. I think part of this taps into male fantasy, as there is no real chemistry between them and for them to run off together is inevitable but not authentic.

Callum Turner is Danny, a would-be chef. His older brother is a criminal who is to deliver a briefcase to a woman on a subway platform. Danny is driven there by Ellie (Grace Van Patten, part of the seeming endless Van Patten acting family). She is a kind of bruised figure, running from what we infer is an abusive boyfriend.

Turner fucks things up so they have to get it right, lest the underworld types who are behind this will anger, which involves them going to the Westchester suburbs to retrieve the briefcase. This is, I suppose, to contrast the world of the elite with their low-level existence (Turner lives in an apartment with his mother, who runs a betting parlor in it). He's the quintessential nice guy, she's the sullen girl, like the old Fiona Apple song (Van Patten is fine, but she seems to have taken tips from Shailene Woodley).

Tramps is only an hour and a half but feels longer--it could have been an hour easy. There are an incredible amount of trips on mass transit. Watching the film is like riding a subway that is taking longer than usual to get to its destination.

Sunday, October 08, 2017

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

Would you believe that I had never before read any of C.S. Lewis's Narnia books? Somehow they eluded me during childhood. Well, I'm going to be teaching the book soon so I thought it appropriate that I actually read it.

Though this is the book that most people know of the seven-book series, it is not the first. Apparently the first book, The Magician's Nephew, has nothing to do with this one.

The book begins during the blitz in London. The Pensey children, Peter, Edmund, Susan, and Lucy, are sent to the country to stay with an elderly professor in a very large and mysterious house. They are exploring the house when they find a room that is empty except for a wardrobe full of coats. Playing hide and seek, Lucy hides behind the coats and finds herself in another world, where it is snowing. She meets a faun named Tumnus, and learns that she is in Narnia, where it always snows but is never Christmas.

Of course her siblings don't believe her, but the professor does. Eventually they all end up in Narnia, where the White Witch has cast a spell keeping it winter. She can also turn someone into stone. But a lion, called Aslan, arrives (I don't know where he was) and he and the children help defeat the witch in battle.

The book is often cited as a Christian allegory, as Aslan is killed but resurrects. But other than that, I didn't feel beat over the head by Biblical allusions, so I found it safe for atheists. But while it may be beloved by children, I find it spotty. It seems like a summary of a longer book. There is an interesting plot point when Edmund, hooked on the witch's Turkish delight, betrays his siblings (Judas?) Other than that, the plot is pretty weak.

My main trouble with the book is twofold: why did Aslan wait around for the Pensey children to show up before he did anything about the witch? Were they necessary to defeat her? Secondly, I'm not a fan of the way that war is the answer to the problem.

It's neat that the kids stay in Narnia, grow up to be adults, kings and queens, etc. and have forgotten about the wardrobe, until they accidentally come across it. When they go back into it, they return to the exact time they entered it, as children.

The book is so matter of fact that I'm struggling right now to think how to teach it. In a secular school I don't want to emphasize the Christian aspects of it. The writing itself is not florid at all; it's written as if someone were telling the story.


Saturday, October 07, 2017

Rock and Roll of the 1940s?

And so begins the annual and pointless arguing about who should be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, as eighteen nominees were announced. As usual, some are intriguing and some are head-scratching.

I think the most interesting nominee is Sister Rosetta Tharpe (pictured). She was a gospel singer, but played electric guitar--back in the 1940s. It is generally accepted that rock records (mostly called "race" records) didn't come along until the 1950s (Ike Turner's "Rocket 88" is often called the first rock and roll record), but Tharpe mixed her gospel with R&B. She even recorded a record called "Rock Me" in 1938. As an innovator, she will likely be elected, though I wonder how many of the voters have actually heard her records. She died in 1973.

There are no first-time nominees this year, and only two in their second year of eligibility. One of them, Radiohead, should be a no-brainer, but for some reason they weren't even nominated last year. I run hot and cold on them, but there's no question of their influence and achievement. The other new band on the list is Rage Against the Machine, which I think fall short.

Another no-brainer and first time nominee are The Moody Blues, even though they have been eligible for 28 years! The Hall has a distinct prejudice against progressive bands--their album Days of Future Past is considered the first progressive album ever released, but they had a lot of hits in '70s and have been a classic rock staple ever since. I suspect they won't be elected this time, but should be.

The Cars, who have now been nominated three straight years, should get in this year. I really liked them a lot. A band I did not like, Depeche Mode, may get in. Dire Straits, who dominated radio for a few years, probably didn't make enough albums to be elected, the same with The Zombies, who despite making one of the best psychedelic albums of all time (Odessy Oracle) only made two albums total. There has to be some longevity involved. It would be like electing Joe Charboneau to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

One of the gripes about the nominees is that some of them are not really rock and roll. Nina Simone was a great singer, but I would call her a jazz singer. But if Joan Baez can get elected, perhaps she will, too. And as hip-hop and rap are considered rock, there should be no reason that LL Cool J should not be elected.

The others are unlikely to be elected, although Bon Jovi is interesting. They were certainly huge in record sales, but not critically acclaimed. But Journey's election last year may justify their election. The Eurythmics also had some big hits, but again, didn't last that long.

Kate Bush, Judas Priest, MC5, The Meters, Rufus, and Link Wray, despite their respective brilliance, are probably non-starters. I'm very interested to see what happens with the J. Geils Band, who had a long career before their radio-friendly hits of the late '70s/early '80s, and are considered one of the best live bands ever.

I would vote for: The Moody Blues, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Radiohead, The Cars, and the J. Geils Band. I have no earthly idea who will be elected.

Friday, October 06, 2017

Oscar 2017: Best Actor

Taking a look at the movie calendar for the rest of the year, the Best Actor Oscar race looks unusually skimpy. Sure, there's Tom Hanks in a Steven Spielberg movie, but other than that the biggest stars didn't make movies this year of had flops. This has set up what is perhaps the easiest forecast of the upcoming Oscar campaign.

Because there's only one obvious nominee, I'm going take some very wild-ass guesses. In alphabetical order:

Chadwick Boseman, Marshall. Boseman, who has specialized in playing the great black men of the century (Jackie Robinson, James Brown, and now Thurgood Marshall) stars in a legal drama when the hallowed Supreme Court justice was a lawyer. Interestingly, it is not based on Devil in a Lemon Grove, a popular book about Marshall defending black boys for murder in Florida. This all depends on the impact of the film. If it doesn't open with a splash, Boseman will be forgotten, no matter how good he is.

Daniel Day-Lewis, The Phantom Thread. No one knows much about this movie, but we do know that Day-Lewis and director P.T. Anderson teamed for one of Day-Lewis's three Oscar wins (There Will Be Blood). Day-Lewis's announcement that this is his last film may help him get a nod, but he's said that before.

Domnhall Gleeson, Goodbye, Christopher Robin. Another actor playing a real person (author A. A. Milne), which the Academy loves. Gleeson, the son of Brendan Gleeson, has been in many good movies over the last few years, and again, it all depends on how the film is received. Looks like a weepie.

Hugh Jackman, The Greatest Showman. What's that, another real person? Yes, Jackman plays P.T. Barnum in a musical. Couple with Jackman's gritty finale as Logan earlier in the year, he really displays his range. He got a nod for Les Miserables, and if this film is a hit I think he's a safe bet.

Gary Oldman, Darkest Hour. It seems folly to announce a winner in October, but Oldman may have this sewn up now, playing Winston Churchill (yet another real person) in tons of makeup. Oldman was only been nominated once before, but has the kind of respect (imagine a man playing Sid Vicious and Churchill). The film has been by critics and Oldman has been anointed.

Other possibilities: Jake Gyllenhaal, Stronger; Michael Fassbender; The Snowman; Tom Hanks; The Post; Bryan Cranston; Last Flag Flying; Sam Elliott; The Hero.

Thursday, October 05, 2017

Sounder

Here in Las Vegas, it was the day after the mass shooting. School was still open, but my fellow 6th grade English teacher suggested we not teach today, just show a movie, as the kids may be unsettled. Actually, I think my students were fairly unfazed. But what movie to show? Since we are reading Bud, Not Buddy, about a black boy during the 1930s. I thought of a movie I haven't seen in years, but is also about a black boy in 1930s America, and is rated G, Sounder.

Sounder was released in 1972, and was nominated for Best Picture, but it was the year of The Godfather. Stars Paul Winfield and Cicely Tyson earned their only nominations, but the star of the film is Kevin Hooks, as David Lee, the son of a sharecropper who possesses above average intelligence and the desire to make something better of himself.

The setting is Louisiana, where Winfield and Tyson and their three children operate a farm for the town grocer. Life is hard--the opening scene shows Winfield and Hooks and their dog, Sounder, hunting for a raccoon. It's not for sport, it's for dinner, and when the raccoon eludes them Winfield is upset his family won't have meat. This upsets him enough that he purloins some meat from a local smokehouse, but is found out and arrested. Sounder, chasing the truck taking Winfield away, is shot by a deputy, and runs off in the woods.

Winfield is sentenced to a year of hard labor. The family, because Winfield is black, is not told where he is sent. A friendly white woman finds out and Hooks goes on a journey to find his father.

Sounder is a quietly moving family film. Today's kids might have too short an attention span to enjoy it, though my students seemed to tolerate it. The era's racism is subtle--most of it is expressed in that's just the way it is. The sheriff can't let Tyson see Winfield, because he's "just following orders." The family lives with it, but in a powerful speech, Winfield tells Hooks that he loves him but wants him to leave the farm, because he doesn't want his life to be mapped out for him. This is what the American dream used to be--one's children exceeded the success of their parents. This is not necessarily true anymore.


Wednesday, October 04, 2017

Blood Work

Clint Eastwood has played a cop many times, most notably Harry Callahan. He plays an FBI agent in Blood Work, 2002 film he also directed, and while he's convincing, and the film is based on a novel by the great crime writer Michael Connelly, the film is merely competent.

Eastwood plays a celebrated FBI agent who always gets his man, but is stymied by a serial killer who leaves numerical clues. Eastwood spots the killer in a crowd surrounding the latest crime scene, and chases him, but has a heart attack.

Cut to two years later, when Eastwood has just had a heart transplant. He is retired and living on a boat. But a woman approaches him and asks him to solve his sister's murder. Why him? It's her heart that is inside his chest.

That's a good grabber, and we go through much of the usual--a couple of false suspects, and the killer is someone we wouldn't have guessed, for reasons that connect to Eastwood.

If the script is merely ordinary, Eastwood's direction is crisp. He is, of course, his stoic, grouchy self, but also shows his tender side with the son of the murder victim (who gives him an insight into the code of the serial killer, which expert decoders couldn't figure out).

Jeff Daniels plays Eastwood's boat bum neighbor in a very good performance (I don't think I've ever been let down by Jeff Daniels).

Blood Work, among Eastwood's many films, is not far from the bottom. But Eastwood hasn't made too many clinkers, so that's okay.

Tuesday, October 03, 2017

Casino Royale (1967)

Charles Kaufman, an agent turned producer, had an idea to make a James Bond film. He purchased the rights to Ian Fleming's Casino Royale--all the other Bond novels were in the hands of Albert Broccoli, whose offer was turned down. Initially Kaufman wanted Howard Hawks to direct and Cary Grant to play Bond. But instead of making a straight Bond film, he ended up making a "psychedelic movie." It's unclear if Kaufman even knew what psychedelic meant, he just knew it was popular.

The resulting film is a glorious mess. The film was directed by five different directors. There is more than one James Bond (by some count, there are dozens). The script is incoherent. Peter Sellers, who plays one of the Bonds, was fired (or quit) midway through production and had to be edited into or out of certain sequences. Yet it has its charms, particularly the sequence with, of all people, Woody Allen.

There are a lot of big-time actors in this who risk making fools of themselves. David Niven, who would have made a great Bond in the 1950s, plays a retired Bond. Leading intelligence officers from many nations, including John Huston, who directed his segment, William Holden, and Charles Boyer, ask him to come out of retirement because agents are dying and missing. He refuses until they blow up his house.

The gimmick is that Bond is replaced by other spies who take the name and number 007 (something that has been suggested to account for the fact that Bond never seems to age). Niven heads to Scotland, where SMERSH attempts to assassinate him (Deborah Kerr, a great actress, is forced to climb down a drainpipe).

The action then switches to Sellers, who is a Baccarat expert. He is trained as a new Bond, with the intention of playing Le Chiffre (Orson Welles) and beating him so that he loses a lot of money that belongs to SMERSH. Sellers wanted to play Bond straight, and is the least funny person in the film. Welles hated him so much that the two did their game at separate times.

Then comes a tedious sequence with Joanna Pettet as Mata Bond, who is supposedly Bond's daughter with Mata Hari. Considering Mata Hari died in 1917, this doesn't make much sense. Anyway, Pettet has an adventure that I've already forgotten.

The final sequence, directed by Val Guest, is the best, if only because it is revealed that the major villain is Jimmy Bond, Niven's nephew, played by Allen. Obviously Allen wrote his own lines, such as when he says to the beautiful Dalia Lavi, "We will run amok, or if you're too tired, we will walk amok." Jimmy's nefarious plot is to release a chemical that will make all women beautiful and kill all men taller than 4'6''.

The set for Allen's lair is terrific, a multi-colored series of corridors that truly makes the film psychedelic. But the ending is ruined by a farcical melee that includes cowboys and Indians and cameos by George Raft and Jean Paul Belmondo.

The best thing about Casino Royale is the score by Burt Bacharach, particularly the main theme played by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass. I think I could listen to it for several hours. There are also dozens of nuble young actresses, including a very young Jacqueline Bisset (here billed as Jacky) who looks absolutely delicious.

Also on the DVD is a kinescope of the very first appearance of James Bond, a teleplay starring Barry Nelson in a one-hour version of Casino Royale. Peter Lorre plays Le Chiffre. It's pretty boring, but knowing that Barry Nelson was the first actor to play Bond can be useful during trivia night.

Monday, October 02, 2017

Monkeys Leaving Backs

I feel a little silly writing about baseball when about 600 people were shot by a lunatic some ten miles from where I live, when Puerto Rico has been blown back into the stone age, and when we don't know whether Tom Petty is dead or not. But, the playoffs are starting tomorrow, my favorite sports time of year. Ten teams, and all of them, as we have seen from past years, have a decent shot. Except Minnesota.

The Red Sox in '04, the White Sox in '05, the Giants in '10, the Cubs last year. Slowly but surely the monkeys on the backs of the original sixteen Major League clubs have left and gone back to the jungle. All, that is, except for the Cleveland Indians, who have not won a World Series since 1948. They came tantalizingly close last year, and they are my pick to win it all this year, mostly for the reason that it makes sense dramatically. They also had an all-world September, setting an American League record for consecutive wins at 22. Of course, none of this guarantees anything.

I have the premonition that the Indians and Cubs will have a rematch. The Cubs are the third seed in the National League, but should take care of the Washington Nationals, because Dusty Baker is a terrible short-series manager and Max Scherzer is hurt. The Dodgers, who at one point were threatening to set the all-time record for wins in a season, ended up with 102, a worthy number, but in the post-LaSorda era have also found numerous ways to lose in the post-season. I think they'll beat the Arizona Diamondbacks (but just barely) but lose to the Cubs.

In the American League, the Twins have never beaten the Yankees in a playoff game, and aren't about to now, so the Yankees will play the Indians, a good series, and the Red Sox will play the Astros, a better series. The Indians will handle the Yankees, maybe in the full five games, and the Astros, with a rejuvenated Justin Verlander, will edge the Bosox. The Indians will then beat the Astros.

If the Indians do win the World Series, the onus will be on two of the first expansion teams. The Astros, once the Colt .45s, have never won a World Series, and neither have the Washington Senators/Texas Rangers. The Montreal Expos/Washington Nationals have never been in a World Series, the only team in MLB that hasn't.

I'm psyched. I'm going to root for the Indians, with the Astros as a back up. And since I live in the Pacific Time Zone I get to watch the games in their entirety. Play ball!

Sunday, October 01, 2017

Steely Dan

A few weeks ago Walter Becker died, yet another classic rock icon gone on to his reward, reminding us that we are older than we think. He was one half of Steely Dan (Donald Fagen is the other), a band that was ubiquitous in the 1970s and has been on the radio ever since.

When I learned of his death I realized I had never purchased any of their music. I think my brother had a vinyl copy of Aja. So I picked up an "Essential" collection, which had some mysterious omissions, such as "Josie," "Haitian Divorce," and "Big Black Cow," but all the rest of the songs that play in the soundtrack of a baby boomer's life: "Do It Again," "Dirty Work," "Reelin' in the Years," 'Rikki, Don't Lose That Number," and "Deacon Blues."

Fagen and Becker met as students at Bard College, and though many musicians have recorded with them, they are the only consistent members of Steely Dan (the name comes from a dildo mentioned in William Burroughs's Naked Lunch). They wrote all the songs, and they are far more intricate and complex than most rock music. This got them the label "The Thinking Man's Rock Band," a kind of horrible thing to have to live up to, but they certainly weren't writing for teeny-boppers.

Becker was the guitarist, Fagen the keyboardist and vocalist. Fagen's vocals are unmistakable and kind of thick, the opposite of mellifluous, but with an edge and a lot of soul. The only big hit he did not sing on was "Dirty Work," which was sung by David Palmer. It's kind of a perfect pop song, with a great hook and a great concept--a guy hates himself because he can't resist being the boy toy of a married woman:

"When you need a bit of lovin'
 Cause your man is out of town
 That's the time you get me runnin'
 And you know I'll be around"

A lot of the songs seem to be about real people and events. "My Old School" is about a drug bust at Bard (there are frequent mentions of Annandale, the town) and although I have no idea if this is true, "Reelin' in the Years" sounds like someone in one of their lives:

"You been tellin' me you're a genius
Since you were seventeen
In all the time I've known you
I still don't know what you mean
The weekend at the college
Didn't turn out like you planned
The things that pass for knowledge
I can't understand"

I think Steely Dan's masterpiece is "Deacon Blues," a song that asks why can't there be a name for the losers in the world. The lyric depicts a man who has come to understand who he is, even if that isn't someone perfect:

"I'll learn to work the saxophone
I play just what I feel
Drink Scotch whiskey all night long
And die behind the wheel
They got a name for the winners in the world
And I want a name when I lose
They call Alabama the Crimson Tide
Call me Deacon Blues"

Becker and Fagen broke up after about a decade, then reformed for two more albums in the '90s, one of which won a Grammy for Best Album. Though the bulk of their work is from the '70s, it sounds completely fresh, not at all dated. I think that's because the arrangements, which were influenced greatly by jazz, were not following any trends. There music was radio-friendly, but more sophisticated than much of the music of the era.

Fagen says that Steely Dan will go on. They were supposed to start a residency here in Las Vegas, so I suppose the show must go on. I may have to go check it out just to pay my respects.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Battle of the Sexes

Battle of the Sexes is an entertaining if utterly conventional film about one of the 1970s strangest events--the tennis match between the greatest female player at the time, Billie Jean King, and Bobby Riggs, a former champ who at 55 had remade himself into a carnival huckster. The film, directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris and written by Simon Beaufoy, is firmly on the side of the women, but strangely makes Riggs a sympathetic character and doesn't any answer any questions about either them.

It is 1972, and King (Emma Stone) and other female tennis players are enraged about receiving less prize money than the men. After failing to convince the head of the tennis association, Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman, playing the cardboard villain of the film) she and the others form their own tour, sponsored by Virginia Slim cigarettes.

Meanwhile, Riggs is pushing papers for his father-in-law's company. He has supposedly sworn off gambling, but plays tennis with others under weird conditions, like playing while holding the leashes of two dogs. When he wins a Rolls-Royce, his wife (Elisabeth Shue, nice to see her again) kicks him out. He comes up with the idea of challenging female tennis players to prove men are better.

Here was the problem with the King-Riggs match--nobody in their right mind would think that a male pro at the top of his game would lose to King or any female tennis player. Stan Smith, Rod Laver, or Ken Rosewall, top players at that time, would have destroyed her. Therefore the whole think was specious--King was playing a 55-year-old man. When Riggs plays and beats Margaret Court, another top player, King is forced to play him just to uphold the dignity of the women players, but all she's doing is beating an over-the-hill hustler.

The other major plot point is King's sexuality. A hairdresser (Andrea Riseborough) takes a shine to her and seduces her. King is married to the world's most patient man, but succumbs to her deepest desires, and not long after that would come out as a lesbian. I found this part of the film to be the least interesting, and a drag on the rest of the picture.

The match itself, which I watched live back in the day, uses much of Howard Cosell's actual commentary (Rosie Casals, here played by Natalie Morales, deserves her own movie). We get the groan-inducing cliche of cuts to the various characters watching, whether in person or on television. King beat Riggs rather easily, but Riggs did all right--for a few years after he was a ubiquitous presence on televesion.

Steve Carell plays Riggs, and I can't imagine anyone who was more suited for the role. He's terrific. Stone, with a brunette wig and round glasses, doesn't really look like King, but she's fine if not transcendent. I liked Alan Cumming in a small role as the flamboyant dress designer for the women's tour. He senses King is gay, and has a nice line that someday people will be able to love who they want without embarrassment.

Interestingly, the film makes no mention of the allegations that Riggs threw the match because of tremendous gambling debts. King denies it, as does Riggs' son, but there is evidence to suggest he did. Whether true or not, that would have made a much more interesting movie.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Hef

For a while it seemed like Hugh Hefner would never die. The man some other men considered the luckiest man in the world had made it into his tenth decade, still surrounded by beautiful women, puttering around his mansion, even after it was sold.

But Hef's time finally came this week, at age 91, and it's been interesting to read the commentary. There have been encomiums and brickbats, and that's only right, as Hefner's place in cultural history is a significant one, but also a controversial one.

I have been a reader of Playboy for about 45 years. I started like many boys, sneaking looks at my father's issues, wondering at the strange feeling I got looking at naked women. Unlike many men, though, including my father, my interest has not abated. I have purchased every issue of Playboy since 1979, and have continued to pore over each one like it was the Talmud.

It's well-known lore that Hefner created Playboy at his kitchen table with a loan from his parents. He became a multimillionaire, has reportedly slept with 1,000 women (I wouldn't doubt a higher number), and became the face of the sexual revolution. While there were many girlie mags in the '50s, Hefner did something more--he created a brand, and a philosophy to go with it. His pin-ups were the "girls next door," the modern man was a sophisticate (the bunny logo has always born black tie) and hedonism was the way to go. A famous line from his "Playboy Philosophy" was "We like our apartment. We enjoy mixing up cocktails and an hors d'oeuvre or two, putting a little mood music on the phonograph and inviting in a female acquaintance for a quiet discussion on Picasso, Nietzsche, jazz, sex ..." Frankly, I think discussing Nietzsche before sex would be off-putting, but over the years the magazine was a lifestyle bible for the man who wanted to be just like Hef. Gadgets, cars, clothes, stereo equipment--it was all there, with designs of the ideal bachelor pad frequently displayed.

Playboy and Hefner hit the big time in the sixties and  in the seventies the circulation hit seven million (it's less than a million now). He owned his own jet. Playboy Clubs flourished around the world. Despite his age, Hefner squired women young enough to be his daughter. He was like a modern-day Jay Gatsby, who remade himself into the perfect bachelor, with a rockin' mansion, working in a round, rotating bed, wearing a silk jacket and pajamas, smoking a pipe.

But then the Internet came along. Today a ten-year-old can watch free porn at anytime. Looking at Playboy is blase. For a while they even stopped printing nude pictures. Hefner continued to live his way, but became a parody of himself, an octogenarian with blonde bimbos on his arm, wearing a sailor cap, then finally, at 85, marrying a woman sixty years his junior.

Hefner is a bit like Janus--there are definitely two sides to him. His championing free speech and the work of black writers and artists is his defining legacy. His early television show, Playboy's Penthouse, featured black entertainers such as Nat King Cole, sitting right next to Lenny Bruce. This got the show banned in the South. Hefner didn't care. He ran interviews with Miles Davis, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X (interviewed by Alex Haley, who later turned that into a legendary book).

The other side of him, and even though I'm a devotee, I recognize it, is reducing women to objects. It's one thing to like to look at beautiful naked women, it's another to make it a commodity. The editorial thinking at Playboy bent over backwards to make us think they were feminists, but I don't believe Hefner ever got over his puerile adolescent lust. I have something of the same problem--I'm attracted to much younger women, and it's probably because I never stopped looking at Playboy. It's arrested development. Does anyone believe anyone age 25 would marry Hefner if he weren't a publishing magnate?

Susan Brownmiller hit him hard and right when she was on a talk show and derided him for putting cottontails on his waitresses. Not only was he objectifying women, he was making them look like animals. To be a Playboy Playmate requires not high I.Q., not particular talent, but the proper proportions and facial structure. Some may be smarter than others, but it doesn't matter when they're trapped in the 2D of photographs. As Tony Roberts says in Annie Hall, of women he met at the Playboy Mansion, "They're just like the women in Playboy magazine, except they can move their arms and legs."

Hugh Hefner was a huge persona in the story of post-war America. He grew up oppressed, and was determined to let American let it all hang out. In most ways, he succeeded. His success ended up diminishing his empire, as nudity and sexual freedom became the norm.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Nathan Coulter

I hadn't heard of Wendell Berry before he received a lifetime achievement award from the National Book Critics Circle. He was a poet and novelist who wrote several books about the fictional Kentucky town of Port William. I read the first, Nathan Coulter, which was published in 1960. It is a charming little gem.

Set in the late '30s, Nathan is a teen-aged boy living on his parents' farm. He helps with the work, but has plenty of time to have fun with his older brother Tom and his roguish Uncle Burley, who disdains work and has a shack on the river where he likes to drink whiskey.

The boys' mother dies, and they go to live with her grandparents. Later, Tom and his father will have a fight and Tom will go off on his own. The book ends with the grandfather passing away.

Nathan Coulter is very short and written beautifully, though without any pretense or flourishes. Nathan narrates it and he is a plain speaker. Here's Nathan on his mother's coffin: "The inside of the coffin looked snug and soft, but when they shut the lid it would be dark. When they shut the lid and carried her to the grave it would be like walking on a cloudy dark night when you can’t see where you’re going or what’s in front of you. And after they put her in the ground and covered her up she’d turn with the world in the little dark box in the grave, and the days and nights would all be the same."

Mostly the Coulters have a connection to the land, where they farm tobacco. "Grandpa had owned his land and worked on it and taken his pride from it for so long that we knew him, and he knew himself, in the same way that we knew the spring. His life couldn’t be divided from the days he’d spent at work in his fields."

One of the reasons I was attracted to this book is that my ancestors lived in Kentucky, not too far from where the Coulters do. These could have easily been my relatives. They were farmers, too. Some of the book is very funny, and has the aura of stories that are passed down from generation to generation. One very funny set piece is when the brothers visit a carnival: "It was bad enough to know such things as eight-hundred-pound women and two-headed babies could be in the world without paying a quarter for it." They end up inside a burlesque tent where a woman takes off all her clothes. Another amusing section is when Nathan and Uncle Burly go raccoon hunting in the middle of the winter night. They stop for the night at Jig Pendleton's houseboat. He gives them some food, and Burley some whiskey, and they skin the raccoons.

One thing I'm puzzled by: Nathan never mentions school, even in the winter months. Could be that he had already quit school (he's probably about fifteen). I imagine a lot of boys did then so they could be a constant help on the farm.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

I read Mark Haddon's novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, several years ago. It was interesting because it was narrated by an autistic teenager, and thus was an attempt, largely successful, of showing the world through his eyes.

A few years ago, Simon Stevens adapted the book into a play, and this was a challenge because now the theater-goer would see the world through the eyes of an autistic teenager. This requires a lot of stage-craft: you probably won't be seeing this done in high schools, despite the age of the main character.

I saw the play at the Smith Center over the weekend and I was mostly impressed, but not completely bowled over. The play retains it's English setting, but the accents are all over the place. I'm not sure who was American and who was English. The actor who plays the boy's father, Gil Gillette, sounded like he was from a completely different part of England than everybody else. Of course, that's feasible, but it all sounded strange.

The play centers around Christopher Boone, who finds his neighbor's dog murdered with a pitchfork. After the police initially think he did it, he decides to be a detective like his hero, Sherlock Holmes (the title is from a Holmes story) and find out who did it. But he ends unearthing family secrets that his father tried to keep hidden. Christopher will end up going to London on his own, a feat that requires considerable bravery.

The set is as much a character as any of the actors. Lights flash, chalk magically appears on walls, and a train set is built on the floor. All of this helps us understand Christopher's being overwhelmed by things. His arrival in Paddington Station is a constant barrage of signs and lights. But he is also very smart (he knows a lot about astronomy) and he is able to find where he needs to go by a scientific method.

The theme of the play is lies versus truth. By his own admission, Christopher cannot lie, and he hates those that do. He doesn't like acting because it is lying. But he has been fed lies by the man he is supposed to trust, his father.

Adam Langdon plays Christopher in a role that I imagine is exceedingly difficult. He must play an autistic teen but also be very sympathetic (those around him, including his father, are frequently exasperated with him). The role is also a very physical one. Christopher hates to be touched, and Langdon expresses that well, and he is also a character who is constantly moving.

Some of the play bothered me. I found the direction by Marianne Elliott uneven. Some of the transitions were awkward, so much so that scenes seemed to be missing. I also disliked the ending note. One thing I remember distinctly about the novel is that the last line is Christopher thinking, "I can do anything." In the play, and I don't know if this was Stephens's choice or Elliott's, that statement becomes a question, which reduces its emotional power.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

The Constant Nymph

Joan Fontaine, whose centennial is this year, had three Academy Award nominations. Two of them are for films many film fans know--Rebecca and Suspicion. The third was for a film mostly forgotten now, The Constant Nymph, released in 1943.

The film is a typical '40s melodrama, set in the world of classical music. Charles Boyer plays a composer who goes to visit a mentor of his. The old man (Montagu Love) has four daughters, by different wives. The liveliest is Fontaine, always running from here to there, despite a weak heart (sharp chords). When the old man dies, some English relatives, including a cousin (Alexis Smith) take them in. Boyer, who has been told he doesn't feel emotions enough to be a great composer, falls in love with her and marries her.

This devastates Fontaine. We never really know how old she is supposed to be (Fontaine was about 25 at the time) but it seems like she is supposed to be a teenager. Therefore her love for Boyer is a little unseemly. He is more avuncular toward her than anything, but Smith gets jealous of her. Eventually Boyer realizes that Fontaine is his great love, but oops, too late!

The Constant Nymph is elegantly directed by Edmund Goulding, and based on a novel and play by Margaret Kennedy. She had enough power to have the film be only available to museums and colleges after its theatrical run, so the film was hardly seen for seventy years. Not that people were missing out on all that much. Boyer and Smith never seem like they're in love with each other, and as stated, the notion that Boyer and Fontaine would be a couple is uncomfortable in today's world.

Of note, Peter Lorre has a small part as one of the other sister's husbands. It's one of the few roles I've ever seen him in as a normal person. Charles Coburn is the girls' English uncle, and he's at his best British fusspots.

All in all, it seemed like a more modern update of Little Women. Four girls, one dies.


Monday, September 25, 2017

Below Her Mouth

Below Her Mouth is a lesbian-themed drama, but it's no Carol. It's more like Blue Is the Warmest Color, but on a much lower level. Basically it's soft-core porn masquerading as a defiant statement.

Erika Linder, a Swedish, androgynous model, stars as a lesbian who has just moved out of a relationship. She works as a roofer, and spots a girl in the neighborhood where she is working. This is Natalie Krill, who is very femme, and is also engaged to a man. She and a girlfriend stop into a lesbian bar, where Linder is hanging out, and Linder pounces.

After one kiss, Krill realizes she has desires for Linder (she masturbates in the bathroom by running the tap over her privates) and while boyfriend is away the two start up an affair. Boyfriend comes home early, and walks in on the two in the same bathtub, with Linder giving it to Krill doggy-style with a strap-on dildo. I might have asked if I could join them, but boyfriend storms off. Krill chases after him. What's a girl to do?

This is one of those movies that used to play late on Cinemax. It's pretty hot, if you like watching girls make out, and Linder has an intriguing look, even if she comes from the Kristen Stewart school of acting (that is, not much acting at all). The movie was made by a woman, April Mullen, but if you told me it was made by some cigar-chomping porno guy I would believe it, as it's much more of a male fantasy.

As for the title, your guess is as good as mine. The chin?

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Raging Bull

On the ESPN panel discussion show, Around the Horn, the writers were discussing their favorite sports movies. For boxing, some chose Rocky, some chose Raging Bull. The interesting thing about that is that Raging Bull is not really a boxing movie. It's a movie that features boxing, but director Martin Scorsese has clearly indicated that it's not a movie about boxing.

Released in 1980, Scorsese was reluctant to make the film. Robert De Niro had read Jake LaMotta's autobiography and urged his friend to make it, but Scorsese hated all sports, especially boxing. He finally decided to make it because he saw something of himself in LaMotta. He had just come through a period of drug addiction and realized that boxing was an allegory for filmmaking--every new film is stepping into the ring and bleeding.

LaMotta, who coincidentally just passed away, was a middleweight fighter from the Bronx who was briefly champion. He was known for his rivalry with Sugar Ray Robinson, and being a savage pugilist, moving forward, taking punches, and coming back in late rounds of fights in which he was losing. He was also known for his rage (hence the title) and his sad decline, in which he served a stint in jail for procuring and performed a nightclub act of reciting monologues. His life had an operatic arc, catnip for someone like Scorsese.

Raging Bull opened to mixed reviews, but has come to be acclaimed as one of the great American films at all times. Almost every critic, in retrospect, named it the best film of the '80s (even though it did not win Best Picture; it lost to Ordinary People) and along with Goodfellas is seen as Scorsese's masterpiece. We know we're in for a different kind of boxing film when the opening credits are set to Cavalleria Rusticana, with De Niro shadowboxing in slow motion, the black and white film diffuse and smoky. The film shows us his turbulent home life, with his long-suffering brother (Joe Pesci, a great performance) and his marriage to a woman he meets when she is fifteen (Cathy Moriarty).

These kitchen-sink scenes are brutal, perhaps even more brutal than the fight scenes, which punctuate the action. Scorsese and his cinematographer, Michael Chapman, are in the ring, close up, with blood and sweat flying. One of the most enduring shots is post-fight, with a closeup of one of the ropes, dripping with blood.

These scenes show how savage the sport is, but it's LaMotta's life that is a constant bit of savagery. He is a brute, frequently prone to fits of jealousy. When Moriarty mentions that his upcoming opponent is good looking, it sticks in his craw. Pesci will see Moriarty out for drinks with a local hood (Frank Vincent, who also passed away recently) and beat Vincent to a pulp. But he keeps the incident secret from De Niro, who then suspects that Pesci has been sleeping with her. He ends up beating up Pesci in front of his own children, which ends their relationship.

Technically, this film is brilliant. Thelma Schoonmaker, Scorsese's long-time editor, is at her best here, not only with the boxing footage, but also with the havoc of LaMotta's life. Chapman's cinematography is among the best ever done.

And of course there's De Niro. He won his second Oscar for this part, and it's one of the greatest ever put on film. His physical transformation (he gained sixty pounds for the later scenes) is well known, but his commitment to role goes even greater than that. His scene in the jail cell, in which he bangs his head and fists against the cinder block wall, make me wince every time I see it (I do wonder if he was actually hitting brick--the sound is clearly from a Foley artist, but the effect remains the same).

I've seen the film three times now and I've liked it more each time. The first time I saw it I was under-impressed for some reason (I remember it well, I saw it in an illegal double feature with Nine to Five--talk about a contrast). I was nineteen then, and identified much more with Ordinary People. I think what has improved it for me over the years is that I, too, can see some of LaMotta in me. He is an extreme, of course, but we all may have a bit of rage in us, a sense of not being fully respected, of being cheated on. It may be delusional, but it's there.

When LaMotta lost his championship to Robinson, he was beaten mercilessly, but after the fight, bloodied, he tells him, "I didn't go down, Ray. You didn't knock me down." And the last scene has De Niro, as a fat LaMotta, rehearsing Marlon Brando's "I coulda been a contender" monologue from On the Waterfront. A poignant moment, to be sure, but it also links two of the greatest performances in film history.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Best American Mystery Stories 2016

The 2016 edition of The Best American Mystery Stories is a fairly good collection, with some big names, but once again there is the ongoing debate with what a mystery story actually is. Series editor Otto Penzler writes: "While I love good puzzles and tales of pure ratiocination, few of these are written today, as the mystery genre has evolved (or devolved, depending on your point of view) into a more character-driven form of literature, with
more emphasis on the “why” of a crime’s commission than a “who” or “how.” It's interesting to note that the only story that has any connection to ratiocination is "Street of the Dead House," by Robert Lopresti, which is "Murders of the Rue Morgue" told from the point of view of the orangutan (this also appeared in The Best Dark Fantasy and Horror 2016).

So what we get is really crime stories, which is fine. There are some heavy hitters in this volume, including Stephen King, writing about a rural murder in "A Death" (I would have thought King would have given us a twist in this story, but the killer is known throughout) and Elmore Leonard, with "Something to Do," about a stand-off between a mild-mannered veterinarian and some scumbags. Chloroform always comes in handy. King, as usual, knows how to open a story: "Jim Trusdale had a shack on the west side of his father’s gone-to-seed ranch, and that was where he was when Sheriff Barclay and half a dozen deputized townsmen found him, sitting in the one chair by the cold stove, wearing a dirty barn coat and reading an old issue of the Black Hills Pioneer by lantern light. Looking at it, anyway."

Another good line is "I hadn't been thinking about killing Delwood. Not really. But you know how people sometimes have just had enough." That's from "Rearview Mirror," buy Art Taylor, about a couple on the move. They meet cute--she's the clerk in a convenience store, and he robs it and she gives him her number. "On September 12, 1994, in my second week of college, I killed Russell Gramercy," begins Brian Tobin's "Entwined," one of the better stories here. The narrator has killed a man accidentally in a car accident, and is of course guilt-ridden. But there's a great twist.

I also liked "Border Crossing," an homage to "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," but on the Mexican border, by Susan Thornton, and the very suspenseful "Christmas Eve at the Exit," by Kristine Kathryn Rush, about a mother and girl on the run from an abusive husband. Also full of suspense is Georgina Ruth's "The Mountain Top," set in the near future when a farmer and his wife deal with a pair of toughs. There's also a Western story in here, "Christians," by Tom Franklin.

I'm hard pressed to name my favorite story. I very much liked Evan Lewis' "The Continental Opposite," which revives Dashiell Hammet's old hard-boiled private eye, and "Fool Proof," by Bruce Robert Coffin, is also something of an homage, both to a part of Les Miserables and a Twilight Zone episode.

But I think the best this year goes to the opening story, "The Little Men," by Meghan Abbott. It's a hard story to summarize, but it's set in old Hollywood and captures the allure of that era. It's not so much the story but the fantastic writing that hooked me. And if you have ever thought you heard something scratching behind the walls, it will get you spooked.

So I guess the days of the whodunit and locked-room mystery are over, but writers are still putting their interesting stamps on the genre, and I'm eager to read them.


Friday, September 22, 2017

Coming Home

The Grammy Award for Best Bluegrass Album went to The O'Connor Band for their collection, Coming Home. My first few listens I thought the record was about as exciting as the title, which meant not much. But the more times I played the more I came to appreciate the best part of it--the voice of Kate Lee.

The band is a family--Mark is the father, a long-celebrated bluegrass musician, his son Forrest is on mandolin, his wife (by her youthful appearance she looks not to be his first) Maggie is on violin. Lee is married to Forrest, and she's the one that makes the band interesting. I mean, Mark O'Connor is a virtuoso on the fiddle, but when I hear her sing I just melt (it doesn't hurt that she's one of the most beautiful women I've ever seen).

The record has three different types of songs. Forrest's songs are the least interesting--bland and forgettable. Mark O'Connor highlights the instrumentals, such as the kick-ass version of Bill Monroe's "Jerusalem Ridge," another called "Fishers Hornpipe," and an elegiac piece, "Fiddler Going Home," which seems to be an attempt at reproducing the poignancy of "Ashokan Farewell."

Then there's the Lee songs, which she co-wrote. "Blacktop Boy" is very strong, with a fine lyric:

"Dressed to kill with a black shirt on
and a cool guitar
like Johnny Cash had crashed to Earth
from a fallen star."

Another, called "Old Black Creek" sounds as if it was written a hundred years ago and Lee's vocals are so mysterious and arresting that you get drawn into it. And the best thing on the album is her rendition of an old song called "Ruby, Are You Mad at Your Man?" The video of a performance can be found here. She can sure hold a note, and her charisma and appearance could make her a big star if she broke out of the bluegrass niche.


Thursday, September 21, 2017

Jerry Before Seinfeld

If you've seen Jerry Seinfeld's Web series, Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, you can ascertain three things about him: he likes cars, he likes talking about comedy, and he's incredibly nostalgic (the bittersweet episode with Garry Shandling just before he died is a case in point). His new Netflix special, Jerry Before Seinfeld, is dripping with nostalgia. He performed at the Comic Strip, a New York club where he made his first appearance, shows the house he grew up in, and even has a pair of his own Superman bookends on stage.

As a stand-up Seinfeld is a pro, almost a machine. What's most interesting about him is that he doesn't seem to be neurotic, which most comedians are. For the most part, he seems a normal human being. He tells us that he really doesn't care if the audience likes him or not. Of course, that's easy to say when you're a multi-millionaire.

Seinfeld carries the nostalgia to the point of doing the material he did at the Comic Strip forty years ago. I'm interested in what comedians think about doing old material. I've heard some say that once they do an act on television, they retire it forever. But some comedians, like Stephen Wright or Andrew Dice Clay, haul out old jokes like the Rolling Stones haul out "Satisfaction." Most of the material Seinfeld did in this special I hadn't heard, but a few things, like his joke about policeman beating up suspects and then making sure they don't hit their head on the top of the door I've heard before.

He begins the act with an amusing riff on the prepositions used living in New York. You live in the City, but on Long Island. You get on and off the train, but in and out of a cab. He's updated the bit to add Uber--you take it. He also, predictably, does a long riff on cereal. It's part of a longer bit on how growing up in the '60s was a wild time--no helmets, no seat belts. Parents didn't know where kids were, and he ate 100% sugar. He speaks of the cereal Cookie Crisp, which was actually chocolate chip cookies in milk.

Seinfeld also jokes about women's bathrooms and how come they have so many cotton balls when he's never bought one? Or how his parents moved to Florida, because it's the law. Another bit I had heard was his one about rooting for sports teams--we don't really root for the players, we root for the clothes. A player can leave and go to another team, wearing another shirt and suddenly he's the enemy.

We also get an insight into Seinfeld's almost scientific approach to comedy. He has kept all his notes from 1975 in an accordion folder (I don't believe he has the same folder, I had one that eventually dissolved). When all the notes are taken out, they seem to cover an area the size of a football field.

Seinfeld has suggested he is on the autism spectrum, which may explain his obsession with comedy and comedians. Nevertheless, he's done pretty well for himself. But, he does note he had a very normal childhood. "Would I have been a better comedian had I grown up in Peoria raised by prostitutes?" he asks, referencing Richard Pryor. "Definitely."