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Friday, June 30, 2017


I've read a few Louise Erdrich novels before, but I'm not sure which ones. I looked over the summaries of her novels and they sounded familiar. I think I've read The Beet Queen, for example. I suppose my confusion has to do with my own mental faculties and the fact that Erdrich's novels, with a few exceptions, all take place among Indians in North Dakota and Minnesota.

So as does LaRose, which won 2016's National Book Critics Circle award for Best Novel. It's a good book, but books about Indian reservations have taken on a certain template that often involves magic realism, with spirits and a respect for the old ways, and it's gotten a bit tedious.

The novel gets off to a bang, quite literally. Landreaux Iron, out hunting, mistakenly shoots a young boy he thinks is a deer: "When the buck popped away he realized he’d hit something else—there had been a blur the moment he squeezed the trigger. Only when he walked forward to investigate and looked down did he understand that he had killed his neighbor’s son." This is a terrible tragedy of course, but the hook (and Erdrich reveals in an interview that she heard a story of this really happening) is that Landreaux decides to give his own son, LaRose, to the grieving family, which is apparently a tradition among the Ojibwe.

This makes for an interesting plot. LaRose is the fifth by that name (the first boy), and Erdrich muddies up the story by adding the story of the first LaRose, a young Indian girl who marries a trapper (first they kill her "owner" by poisoning him, and then being pursued by his severed head). This is all fine, but seems to come from a different book. There are also interludes of old women telling folk stories that add color but not a lot of nourishment.

The best parts of the book are the way the families adjust to this confusion. LaRose's mother, Emmaline, and his new mother, Nola, are half-sisters who don't get along. Peter, Nola's husband, is a kind man, but his daughter Maggie is a bit of a flake who doesn't cotton to LaRose, at least at first. The boy, it seems, has something about him that makes him irresistible to everyone. He also has a bit of second sight, because when he goes to sleep at night at the spot where the boy was killed, he is visited by spirits. Nola is invariably depressed, and when Maggie catches her trying to hang herself she says, "God, Mom." Her voice came out squeaky, which made her even madder. "Are you really gonna use that cheap rope? I mean, that’s the rope we tied around the Christmas tree."

There are plot strands that take off in all directions. The local priest, a white man, is having an affair with Emmaline. Maggie is molested by a group of boys (LaRose, having a few Tai Kwan Do lessons, goes out to avenge her). LaRose's biological sisters, Snow and Josette, are volleyball players and enlist Maggie to play. This may be the first novel ever written with a a long, thrilling description of a girls' volleyball match. The climax of the story, involving a sad sack named Romeo, who blames much of his misfortune on Landreaux, is also thrilling and you may find yourself holding your breath while reading it.

Erdrich knows her location, though. She has observations about that part of the country like, "The one psychologist for a hundred miles around was so besieged that she lived on Xanax and knocked
herself out every night with vodka shots. Her calendar was full for a year," and "June. Between the two houses, maybe six billion wood ticks hatched and began their sticky, hopeful, doomed search. In that patch of woods, there was perhaps a wood tick for every human being on earth."

What I interpreted LaRose to be about is the unruliness of families. We have our biological families, and then we have the families we live with. Landreaux and Emmaline have taken in Hollis, Romeo's son. LaRose will shift between families, and appears to be blessed to have two instead of one. Some people have grown up with two families, such as shifting between parents and grandparents or aunts and uncles. I've seen that in my students, and it can be traumatic. But in Erdrich's book, perhaps indicative of the tribal mindset of Indians, it can be wondrous.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Le Deuxieme Souffle

The next film in by Jean-Pierre Melville festival is my favorite so far, an epic gangster/heist movie from 1966, Le Deuxieme Souffle (roughly translated as Second Wind). Again, as with many of his films, it takes elements of American films and gives them a distinct Gallic stamp.

There are a lot of things going on here, and it needs all of its two and a half hours to tell the story. We begin in media res, with three men breaking out of prison. But we are only concerned with one (but we don't know which one right away). He's called Gu, a notorious criminal (Lino Venturi) who goes back to Paris to join the old gang, namely his sister, Manouche (Christine Fabrega) and bodyguard Alban (Michael Constantin). At first we Constantin as just a bartender, but when gunmen burst through Fabrega's club's door, he proves a deadly shot.

That first bit is about illegal cigarette sales, and that fades into the background. There are many characters to keep track of, most of them interesting in a Dick Tracy-kind of way. My favorite is Orloff (Pierre Zimmer), the kind of crook who is smarter than the rest and isn't afraid of anything (it must take a lot of nerve to walk out of a room with your back facing a room full of gunmen).

Eventually Gru is approached by Orloff to participate in an armored car robbery that Orloff wants no part of. The film then takes on the qualities of the classic heist movie, with four men, each with their own job.

Through this all, a detective (Paul Meurisse) is on the job. He has found two thugs dead in a car, and recognizes Gru's modus operandi (they had been sent to shake down Fabrega, a bad idea when Gru is around). Meurisse is only a half step behind when the film ends satisfactorily--we can't really root against Gru: he's a vicious killer but he we spend so much time with him and he has a certain code that we can't help but start to like him--but law and order must be upheld.

This film is beautifully shot by Marcel Combes, both in Paris and in Marseilles (I've never seen a car going over a cliff that looked so well done) and Melville has full command of the pacing. When the film slows down, it does so for a reason and just makes you inch forward in your seat. We get a long scene of a man trying to find a place to hide a gun that he can get to quickly, and then another scene in which another man looks for that gun. It all pays off in one of those Mexican stand-offs that American noir is known for.

Le Deuxieme Souffle is one of the best crime films I've ever seen.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

The Spy Who Loved Me

My next Roger Moore James Bond film is The Spy Who Loved Me (inexplicably, Netflix does not have The Man With the Golden Gun), released in 1977. This is thought by many to be the best Moore Bond film, and it is certainly better than Live and Let Die. It also has many of the tropes we associate with Bond.

For one, the villain is a megalomaniacal shipping magnate who has a thing about living under the sea. He steals two nuclear submarines with the intent of blowing up New York and Moscow and starting a world war, with the intent of everyone living in a paradise under the sea. What his next step after the destruction is unclear. Of course, he relates all this to Bond, because no good Bond villain can keep his mouth shut.

The villain (played by Curt Jurgens) also lives in a fantastic lair. It's not underneath a volcano, but instead a crab-shaped structure that is out in the ocean. It is destroyed, of course, but we get a bonus with Jurgen's supertanker, which hides the subs, also being destroyed. He has lots of workers who wear red jumpsuits, and it brings to mind the Simpsons' episode where Homer unwittingly works for a Bond villain. Do they have health insurance? Did they answer an ad for the job? How many sick days do they get?

This film has nothing to do with the Ian Fleming novel except for the title, and that's how Fleming wanted it. The book isn't really a Bond novel--he only shows up two-thirds of the way through. So the titular "spy" who loves Bond is played by Barbara Bach, as the best Russian operative (Agent XXX, how original). They are antagonists but of course end up in bed, because no woman can resist Bond, even when she finds out that he killed her lover. She forgets this awfully easily.

The Spy Who Loved Me also introduced Jaws, played by Richard Kiel, one of the better henchman Bond faces. He's seven-feet-tall with metal teeth, and is one of the few henchman who reappears in another film (he's tough to kill).

The song, because a Bond film must have an opening credits song, is "Nobody Does It Better," by Marvin Hamlisch and Carole Bayer Sager, sung by Carly Simon, and it's a terrific one (it lost the Oscar to "You Light Up My Life," blecch!). Hamlisch also scored the film and cleverly includes themes from Doctor Zhivago and Lawrence of Arabia (the latter when Moore and Bach are walking across the Egyptian desert).

As Moore Bond films go, it is pretty good, with fine action, dry humor, and if not a plausible plot than at least one that fits the template. It also has a great moment for Brits. The pre-credit sequence has Bond on skis evading assassins. He jumps off a cliff, and deploys a parachute, which has a huge British flag on it. At the London premiere everyone cheered. It was said that even Prince Charles stood and cheered.

Monday, June 26, 2017

The Velvet Underground and Nico

Was 1967 the greatest year for popular music? The argument can certainly be made--it was the year of Sgt. Pepper (and the Magical Mystery Tour), Jefferson Airplane's Surrealistic Pillow, and albums by The Who, The Rolling Stones, The Moody Blues, Cream, the Byrds, The Animals, Love, and The Monkees. It was, of course, the year of the Summer of Love, and psychedelic music was the trend.

But I don't think it can be disputed that 1967 saw the greatest collection of debut albums in history. David Bowie, The Doors, Traffic, Leonard Cohen, Pink Floyd, The Grateful Dead, The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Procul Harum, The Electric Prunes, and Moby Grape, all first put out discs in 1967. Some groups didn't last long, some are still around, but they all made a lasting impression on the music scene.

One of the most, if not the most, influential debut that year was by The Velvet Underground. The band had been kicking around since 1964, with Lou Reed and John Cale forming a few different bands. Joined by Sterling Morrison and Mo Tucker, they were "discovered" by Andy Warhol, who was their manager and the nominal producer of the record (although he gave the group free reign). He did add German model Nico as a vocalist.

The album went nowhere, topping out at 171 on the charts. But, as Brian Eno said, "Only 30,000 records were sold, but everyone who bought one started their own band." The Velvet Underground were way ahead of their time, prefiguring punk, new wave, and alternative music.

Cale and Reed were both very experimental, and it was Cale who brought with him the droning sound of the guitars. I bought his record in vinyl about thirty years ago, played it once, and didn't like it. I think it was the droning--to me, droning is not music. I decided to give it another shot for its fiftieth anniversary and I was pleasantly surprised. The songs, for the most part, are much more melodic that I remembered.

The band almost sets the listener up as a fool with the first song, the cheerful "Sunday Morning," which almost sounds like a music box tune. Then things get darker, with the hard-driving "I'm Waiting for the Man," which is clearly about buying drugs:

"I'm waiting for my man
Twenty-six dollars in my hand
Up to Lexington, 125
Feeling sick and dirty,
more dead than alive
I'm waiting for my man"

Many groups had songs that were possibly about drugs, though it was denied, like the Byrds' "Eight Miles High" and the Beatles' "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds." The Velvet Underground didn't hide it. Reed also sings the song "Heroin:"

"Heroin, be the death of me
Heroin, it's my wife and it's my life, haha
Because a mainline into my vein
Leads to a center in my head
And then I'm better off than dead
Because when the smack begins to flow
I really don't care anymore"

But that wasn't the most controversial song on the record. "Venus in Furs," taken from the novel by Leopold Sacher-Masoch, is about S&M, with a cool Indian raga guitar sound:

"Severin, Severin, speak so slightly
Severin, down on your bended knee
Taste the whip, in love not given lightly
Taste the whip, now bleed for me."

But there are also straight-ahead garage rock songs like "Run Run Run" and "There She Goes Again," and Reed's beautiful "I'll Be Your Mirror." The album ends with "European Son," which is okay until it breaks down into about four minutes of feedback, which I don't find interesting or pleasurable.

I feel like I've turned a corner. I've listened to and read so many rock critics who sing the praises of the Velvet Underground and especially this album, and now I think I finally get it.

Over the rest of the year I hope to add more remembrances of albums of 1967, beyond the ones I've already written about (Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and The Who Sell Out, for example).

Sunday, June 25, 2017

White Material

Last week the New York Times published an article listing the best films of the century (so far). Why they chose the middle of 2017 to do this, I don't know, but I was pleased to see that I have seen 22 of the 25 films they chose, and the three outliers are easy to catch up with on Netflix.

The first is White Material, by Claire Denis, a director whom I'm fairly familiar. She grew up in Africa, and made the film Chocolat (not the bland one starring Johnny Depp) about her childhood experiences. She was reluctant to return to Africa for another story, but co-wrote a script with Marie NDiaye and directed Isabelle Huppert (the two had never worked together before) about the lingering colonialism there.

Huppert is the owner, with her ex-husband and his father, of a coffee plantation in an unnamed country (though it was inspired by events in the Cote d'Ivoire). Huppert is warned by almost everyone, including the French army, to get out, because a civil war is about to get very heated, and neither side likes white interlopers (they and there stuff are called "white material"). She is stubborn, though, imploring her workers not to leave, as it is only five days until harvest and she thinks the warnings are overblown.

Of course she is wrong, and the film is downward spiral of violence. She has a teenage son, a lazy good-for-nothing, who foolishly allows himself to be robbed (and possibly molested) by boy soldiers with machetes and spears. This triggers in him a volatile reaction. Huppert's ex (Christophe Lambert), goes ahead and signs away the plantation, but Huppert hangs on to the bitter end.

At first I had trouble with the film and it's timeline. It's told in flashback, and there are flashbacks within flashbacks. Eventually that sorts itself out, and we see the hopelessness of the situation--rebels versus army, and one isn't any much better than the other, with white people who have lived there all the lives, but really have no place there. There is also savage violence. Soldiers slaughter children in their sleep, and there is a breathtaking shot by Denis of passports lying on the ground, next to a man's head, and then a pan down to his fatal wound. Efficient, moving, and terrifying.

The more I see of Isabelle Huppert the more I realize she's one of the great actresses of her generation. She hasn't gotten the respect in the U.S. she deserves because she's made very few American films or films in English. Those she has have been monumental flops, like Otto Preminger's Rosebud and Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate, so she is sensible to be gun-shy.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew'd

I wasn't that crazy about Alan Bradley's second Flavia de Luce mystery, The Weed That Strings the Hangman's Bag, so I have fallen out of touch with the character. But I couldn't resist the latest, the eighth in the series, with a title like Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew'd. That's a line spoken by the witches in MacBeth, and this mystery does involve both cats and a presumed witch.

This book finds Flavia back in England at her home, Buckshaw (apparently she spent time in boarding school in Canada). It's still post-war England--I don't know if she's aged commensurate with the release of the books--I don't think so--so she certainly does run into a lot of murders. That's the problem with amateur sleuths--who would be Jessica Fletcher's friend on Murder, She Wrote? She must have had hundreds who died.

Anyway, Flavia is delivering a message for a friend on her trusty bike, Gladys, when she finds the intended recipient, a reclusive woodcarver, dead. He's upside down, strapped to a door. Of course, Flavia doesn't run and call the police. She examines the room first. As she says, "How could I tell Clarence that finding another dead body was anything but dreadful?
On the contrary: It was thrilling; it was exciting; it was exhilarating, it was invigorating; to say nothing of electrifying and above all, satisfying. How could I tell the dear man that murder made me feel so gloriously alive?" She finds several first editions by a children's author named Oliver Inchbald (clearly based on A.A. Milne), who mysteriously died on island, pecked to death by seagulls.

Flavia, a chemist, manages to interview several subjects and gets to the bottom of things. We really have to suspend our disbelief that an adult would answer her questions. In her family life, her father is ill in the hospital, and she's frustrated that she can't get to visit him.

The main thrust of the book seems to be recounting the poor life of Christopher Robin Milne, the son of A.A. Milne who resented being put in his father's books. Here Inchbald has a son who tells Flavia how terrible his father was: "Oliver Inchbald had beaten Crispian Crumpet? That golden-haired little boy of the storybooks? My mind almost gagged at the idea as my brain cells drew back in horror."

The "who done it" is a bit of a let down, but does involve Flavia being attacked by someone wearing antlers. Most of the pleasure of these books is Flavia's personality and gift of metaphor and simile: A few: "Not far from St. Paul’s Cathedral, the office of The Daily Telegraph was in a part of the city flattened by the Blitz. Even after ten years, blackened bombsites still remained scattered round the church like rotting teeth in the mouth of some ancient duchess." Another: "Carla Sherrinford-Cameron, her hands clasped together at her waist like lobster’s claws, was singing “The Lass with the Delicate Air,” and I found myself wishing I had thought to bring a firearm with me—although whether to put Carla out of her misery or to do away with myself, I had not quite yet decided."

The Flavia de Luce novels are what are known as "cozies," like the Jane Marple books or that series where a cat solves mysteries. They don't usually involve guns. I tend to like my mysteries with a noir bite and some nihilism. But, for a cozy, these books are near the top of what is being written these days. Well done, Flavia!

Friday, June 23, 2017

Romeo and Juliet (2013)

Any regular reader of mine knows I have a special affection for Romeo and Juliet, as I was in the play thirty-five years ago in college. I have seen every film adaptation I know of, and more than a handful of stage productions, both professional and amateur.

I had missed a 2013 film written by Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes, and directed by Carlo Carlei. It is, somewhat remarkably, set in Italy during the time period Shakespeare meant it to be. But right away I was thrown back on my heels. The prologue was rewritten, adding a jousting tournament between Mercutio and Tybalt. Mercutio is incorrectly named as of the house of Montague (he's neither Montague nor Capulet, which is why he cries out, "A plague o' both your houses!"). In effect, this Romeo and Juliet is the Cliff's Notes version, with words changed, many scenes cut, and amazingly, scenes added.

Fellowes has some hubris adding things to Shakespeare. He creates lines for Rosaline, the normally unseen love of Romeo's early in the play. When Benvolio learns that Romeo is now in love with Juliet, he thinks he might have a shot at Rosaline. None of this adds anything to the play, and just seems there to make people like Harold Bloom angry. I will admit that a scene between Lord and Lady Capulet, when the dad urges Juliet to get married ever sooner to Paris, makes sense--Capulet wants her to marry Paris before Paris backs out, and with Tybalt dead, the Capulet line is in danger of dying out.

But beyond that, Fellowes and Carlei don't really seem to understand the play. Did they not know that in essence, Romeo and Juliet is a comedy for the first half? It has all the elements of a  romantic comedy, with lovers and pining and wooing and all that stuff. It also has Mercutio, one of Shakespeare's greatest characters, the wise clown. Here, most of Mercutio is cut. I can understand that, as his banter with Romeo, and his antagonism of the nurse, is mostly puns that no one gets today. But if you have a good Mercutio, it doesn't matter, as just his manner makes you like him. Carlei cuts half of the Queen Mab speech, for goodness' sake, and all of the conjuring scene.

The play turns on a dime and becomes a tragedy when Tybalt kills Mercutio, but if Mercutio is pretty much a non-entity, as he is here, nobody cares. The creative team behind his version seems to think the play has no humor at all.

There are scenes that are usually cut that are kept in, such as almost the entire apothecary scene, and Romeo killing Paris in front of the Capulet monument. But one line is cut that is essential to the play. In fact, the play can be boiled down to two lines: "I am fortune's fool," which is left in, and "Is it e'en so? Then I deny you stars!" (in another folio, it is "I defy you stars!") Both indicate the nature of destiny in the play--when Romeo kills Tybalt, he is a puppet of his own destiny, but when he hears Juliet is dead, he decides to create his own destiny.

Now, to the cast. The name in this production is Hailee Steinfeld, who was nominated for an Oscar for True Grit. She proved she's not a one-trick pony with her fine performance in The Edge of Seventeen, but she wasn't ready for Shakespeare. She's cute as a button, but very wooden, especially in the balcony scene. There's no chemistry between her and Douglas Booth, a heartthrob as Romeo. Very good is Damian Lewis as Lord Capulet, and Paul Giamatti's performance as Friar Laurence really points out how much of this mess was his fault. Tybalt, I was surprised to learn at the end, was played by Ed Westwick of Gossip Girl. He makes for a very dashing villain.

This wouldn't be a terrible film for kids who are not ready to read Shakespeare, but just to get the story. For anyone who can read it, though, it's pretty much blasphemy.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

At the Existentialist Cafe

Philosophy is a subject I've always steered clear of-- I never took a course on it in college, and when I hear about it my mind kind of glazes over. But I read good things about Sarah Bakewell's At the Existentialist Cafe, and while there are chunks of it I still don't understand, she does a pretty good job of doing two things: explaining just what existentialism is, and putting us into the world of the people who espoused it.

What is existentialism? Bakewell jokes; "From the mid-1940s, ‘existentialist’ was used as shorthand for anyone who practised free love and stayed up late dancing to jazz music." Black turtlenecks and berets were their uniform (although she writes that before that, lumberjack plaid was the rage). Of its origins, she writes: One can ... narrow the birth of modern existentialism down to a moment near the turn of 1932–3, when three young philosophers were sitting in the Bec-de-Gaz bar on the rue du Montparnasse in Paris, catching up on gossip and drinking the house specialty, apricot cocktails."

These three philosophers were Jean-Paul Sartre, his companion and lover Simone de Beauvoir, and Raymond Aron. Sartre boiled down his theory to three words: "Existence precedes essence." If you, like I, still don't know what that means, Bakewell says that most of what Sartre wrote about what it was to be free. Or, "It is sometimes said that existentialism is more of a mood than a philosophy, and that it can be traced back to anguished novelists of the nineteenth century, and beyond that to Blaise Pascal, who was terrified by the silence of infinite spaces, and beyond that to the soul-searching St. Augustine, and beyond that to the Old Testament’s weary Ecclesiastes and to Job, the man who dared to question the game God was playing with him and was intimidated into submission. To anyone, in short, who has ever felt disgruntled, rebellious, or alienated about anything."

Existentialism grew out of something called phenomenology, which was taught by the German Edmund Husserl, who, along with the previous century's Georg Hegel, are the proto-existentialists. What is phenomenology? "It meant stripping away distractions, habits, clichés of thought, presumptions and received ideas, in order to return our attention to what he called the ‘things themselves’. We must fix our beady gaze on them and capture them exactly as they appear, rather than as we think they are supposed to be." In short, "phenomenologists describe," while "existentialists concern themselves with individual, concrete existence."

If that makes your head hurt, there is still much to enjoy about this book, which is full of a lot of gossip, quarrels, and affairs. In addition to the three French philosophers mentioned, Bakewell also writes extensively about Martin Heidegger, whom she calls "the twentieth century’s most brilliant and most hated philosopher." He wrote an influential text called Being and Time, but also was for a time a Nazi, and never repudiated the Nazi philosophy.

We also see Albert Camus, the author of The Stranger, one of the most read texts from the movement, who fell out with Sartre and Beauvoir over politics--he was dead set against any kind of violence. The wavering of these people about communism is almost comical--they like it, then they don't when they realize that Stalin is killing a lot of people. The invasion of Prague in 1968 finally ended it for them.

The heart of the book is Sartre and Beauvoir. They had a very long relationship--until his death in 1980--though they had an open relationship. He was five-feet tall and had a lazy eye, but was still a ladies' man. She had affairs with Nelgon Algren and Claude Lanzmann, and wrote what Bakewell considered the most important work to come out of the existentialist movement: The Second Sex, a revolutionary tract on feminism.

Other characters to cross the pages are Jean Genet, who was always with the underdog, and if the underdog succeeded to become top dog, he would change sides; Hannah Arendt, who in writing about Adolph Eichmann's trial, coined the term "banality of evil," and Colin Wilson, who at 24 wrote a publishing sensation called The Outsider, which was later found to be riddled with errors.

Before I read this book I knew very little about any of this--I've read No Exit by Sartre and The Maids by Genet, but not The Second Sex or The Stranger, not to mention Sartre's magnum opus, Being and Nothingness. But, as Bakewell reminds us, existentialism is all around us. Just think of any of a number of Woody Allen films.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017


Kirsten Johnson has what is kind of an unsung job: she is the cameraperson for documentaries. She's been doing this for twenty-five years, and took bits and pieces from the many films she's done and made a collage, Cameraperson, that she calls a memoir. It's strangely fascinating.

Johnson shot all the footage, but the films are from other directors. She helpfully puts up title cards as to the locations (but you'll have to stick around for the credits to see the films). They are from an amazingly broad set of circumstances. There is footage shot in hot spots like Bosnia, Darfur, Yemen, Afghanistan, and Colombia, but also in such comparitively genteel places as a Penn State football game (the first home game after the sex abuse scandal hit).

Johnson also includes footage of her life--her twins, and her mother, suffering from Alzheimer's disease. There is only one glimpse of Johnson, when her mother turns the camera on her while she is doing her hair.

While Johnson is the director and camera operator of Cameraperson, a lot of credit has to go Nels Bangerter, as the editor. There is a sequence toward the middle of the film that shows the scenes of great death--in Rwanda, Liberia, Tamir Square, etc., that are calm now. We see a pastoral place or quiet building and then get a total of dead. It hits you right in the gut.

The only film that I've seen from this work is Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11, on which Johnson worked as a camera operator. It shows Moore interviewing a soldier who tells Moore he would rather go to jail than be redeployed. He says he'd rather be incarcerated than kill poor people, another powerful moment.

Johnson has been all over the world for what must be a thrilling but dangerous line of work. It might strike someone that a "greatest hits" package of a documentary cinematographer, along with home movies, might be pretentious, but Cameraperson is anything but. Instead it shows great humanity.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

The Best Horror of the Year, Volume Eight

Once again Ellen Datlow has presented us a ghoulishly fun compendium of horror stories with her eighth volume of The Best Horror of the Year. One of the most valuable parts is her introduction (based on her Facebook page postings, it's not her favorite thing to do) which gives me ideas for reading throughout the year. Then it's on to the stories, which vary from the simply creepy, like Tom Johnstone's "Slaughtered Lamb," which only suggests carnage, to Ray Cluley's "Indian Giver," which describes it in detail.

Horror has a pretty broad definition. Not all of these stories have anything to do with the supernatural. A very disturbing story called "Lord of the Sand" is about what a man can do with an animal called the camel spider (it's a real animal, and pretty awful looking, but after checking on Wikipedia its largely harmless to humans), and our old friend the plague. Two of the best stories here may be about plague, but we're not really sure. "Snow," by Dale Bailey, has some folks in the Rocky Mountains hearing about an apocalypse of some kind and hoping to ride it out in the mountains, until one of them breaks a leg. In "Wilderness," by Letitia Trent, something weird is going on while passengers are delayed in the airport in New Haven. I mean, beyond what normally goes on in New Haven.

But the supernatural is fairly represented. "Fabulous Beasts," by Priya Sharma, has something to do with snake-people (if that's the correct term--homo serpentis?) and "We Are All Monsters Here," by Kelley Armstrong, is a vampire tale. When you're not sure if it's supernatural or not makes things really interesting, like Stephen Graham Jones' "Universal Horror," which involves some friends playing a drinking game on Halloween when a certain child dressed as a mummy keeps showing up. Or "My Boy Builds Coffins," by Gary McMahon, which is exactly as the title describes it. These kind of stories, that don't spell everything out, can be frustrating for someone anal, but work well at suggesting the horror rather than ruining it with a half-assed conclusion.

The best two stories of the collection both spell everything out, to satisfy my more mundane instincts. "Black Dog," by Neil Gaiman, features his character from American Gods, Shadow Moon, walking across the English countryside (didn't we learn that no good can come of this from An American Werewolf in London?). This story, which will involve the Egyptian god Bast, is sort about whether you're a cat or a dog person, and kissing and feeling up a ghost. But Brian Hodge's "The Stagnant Breath of Change" is a real dilly. It's about a town that has made a deal with something called The Black Goat of the Woods with a Thousand Young so that nothing changes. Of course, this has repercussions unforeseen by the town fathers who struck the deal. It's a real chiller, and is a perfect way to end the book.

There were a few stories that didn't grab me. "Hippocampus" by Adam Nevill left me perplexed--I guess it's the aftermath of something terrible happening on a ship, and I have no idea what was going on in Stephanie M. Wytovich's "The 21st Century Shadow."

But I'd give a thumbs up to at least 15 of the 20 stories, a pretty good batting average. I highly recommend all of the books in this series.

Monday, June 19, 2017


Willie Nelson singing George Gershwin? Not a likely combo, but Nelson has sung almost everything in his sixty-plus year career. The resulting album, Summertime, won the Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album Grammy, and I would have liked to have purchased it even without that distinction.

But. I hate to come down on Willie Nelson, who is as much a music god as any this country has ever produced, but this album is about twenty years too late. Nelson, at 84, just doesn't have the pipes for some of these songs. The title track, for instance, is one of the most beautiful in the American songbook, especially when sung by someone with a superior voice (check out Audra McDonald performing it). Nelson almost speaks-sings it, and while this gives it a certain poignance, it doesn't do service to the song at all.

Other misfires are "Love Is Here To Stay" and "Someone to Watch Over Me." The livelier songs, which don't require as much range, such as "Somebody Loves Me," "They All Laughed," and "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off" work better (the latter features Cyndi Lauper), while pairing with Sheryl Crow on "Embraceable You" just highlights how much better a singer she is at this stage.

The orchestrations are terrific, though, and on a song like "It Ain't Necessarily So" Nelson is able to use his talents in phrasing and inflection to make it the highlight of the album.

I'm a fan of Willie Nelson and the Gershwins, but this album was a sad disappointment.

Sunday, June 18, 2017


Pablo Neruda was a poet and a politician. He ultimately won the Nobel Prize for Literature. But in 1948 he was hunted across Chile for being a communist.

That is the subject of Pablo Lorrain's 2016 film Neruda, which seems to be more interested in the policeman who is chasing Neruda. He is a Javert-like figure played by Gael Garcia Bernal, who would seem to be fictional, but narrates the film and gets most of the psychological examination.

Neruda, whose real name was Ricardo Reyes, was an internationally known poet who was in the Chilean senate in the Communist Party. The Chilean president outlawed communists, so Neruda had to go into hiding. Played by Luis Gneccho, Neruda was fat and balding, but was nonetheless a ladies' man and libertine, and perhaps a bigamist. But he was beloved by his supporters, who helped him go into hiding, where he managed to elude police for over a year.

Bernal plays a man called Oscar Peluchonneau, who is the son of a prostitute ("the son of a venereal disease," he says) who fancies himself the son of the founder of the Chilean police. He carries himself with utmost poise and dignity, and takes his job very seriously. When someone tells him he is his civilian superior, he says "I have no civilian superiors." His pursuit of Neruda is dogged, to the point where he is pursuing him over the Andes into Argentina.

Anyone with a glimmer of knowledge about Neruda knows whether he will get away or not, but I think Lorrain is more interested in the chase than in the possible capture. Indeed, Neruda's wife tells Bernal that he is also all about he hunt--that Neruda created him just to be in this fiction. The lines between fiction and fact are kind of fuzzy--is Bernal the son of the great man? Does he even exist?

Lorrain, who also directed the American film Jackie, likes to play games. He frequently cuts dialogues between two characters so that they shift locations in between sentences, defying physics. I suppose this could be to make the film less stagnant, or to give it a more dream-like quality. The film is also very dark, without bright color, perhaps signifying a dark chapter in Chile's history (there would be worse, as we get a brief glimpse of a young August Pinochet).

I found Neruda interesting, and there is plenty of his poetry. It can be a bit confounding, and I never rally bought Bernal as the policeman--he is too boyish. I needed the part to be played by someone about ten years older.

Saturday, June 17, 2017


Sonia Braga gives a bravura performance in Aquarius, a 2016 Brazilian film written and directed by Kleber Mendonça Filho. The film itself is sprawling and touches on many themes, and was politically controversial in Brazil, with many calling for boycotts. I don't know why this is, I guess you have to be Brazilian.

The film's main conflict is that Braga, a widow in her 60s, is the last hold out of an old, classic building on the beach called the Aquarius. She refuses all offers of a buy out, and stubbornly remains the last person in the building. The construction company that owns the place is represented by a grandfather and his grandson, who is the architect, who want to build the "New Aquarius." The grandson, handsome, well-mannered, and American educated, is revealed to be ruthless, and Braga tells him that with education not necessarily comes decency.

I liked this film, even though it has stray edges. A prologue with a younger actress playing Braga's character has her on the beach playing a new song to her family: Queen's "Another One Bites the Dust" (she is a music critic). At a party for her aunt's 70th birthday, we learn that the character has survived breast cancer, which I imagine is to let us know that if she can beat the big C, she doesn't find a construction company tough. But there is also a lingering on a cabinet that appears throughout the film, in which the aunt remembers having sex on. We don't see the aunt again.

It's simple to boil this film down to a tribute to the old and nostalgic. Braga could make far above market value for the apartment, and even her children wonder at her behavior. The company tries to get her out by throwing wild parties, smearing shit on the stairs, and even putting termites in the building. What is keeping her there? Memories?

I think a key scene is one in which an interviewer asks her if she dislikes digital music (her apartment is full of vinyl records). She replies that she has nothing against it, but to prove her love for vinyl, pulls out a copy of John Lennon's Double Fantasy. She bought it at a used record store, and inside found a clipping of an article from the L.A. Times interviewing Lennon just days before his murder. She says that this music is an object, something that can not be true of a download from iTunes. I know many people my age miss the action of holding a record album cover in their hands while they listen to a record. It's not even the same as a CD case.

So, is older better? Aquarius would suggest that it is, but this is only the case with architecture and music. I'm not qualified to speak to Brazilian politics.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Land of Mine

I have now seen every feature film that was nominated for an Oscar at the 89th shindig; the last one is the Danish submission for Best Foreign Language Film, Land of Mine. The Danish title translates to "Under the Sand," but for some reason they decided to throw in a bad pun for the English-language title.

Because the subject is mines. Land mines. We are in Denmark, just after the war. The occupying German forces have left. Prisoners of war, most of them boys conscripted late in the war, are forced to clear the beaches of mines left by the Germans, who thought that might be the spot for the Allied invasion. They crawl on their bellies, poking a stick ahead of them. Once the mine is found, they must gingerly de-activate it. Half of them will die or lose a limb or two.

Right away we are thrust into an interesting situation. Is this ethical? Moral? On paper it would seem so. Why should Danes risk their lives to clear German mines? This is certainly the attitude of the Danish command. They are watched over by a tough as nails sergeant (Roland Moller), who tells the boys he does not care if they die or starve (they don't have much food). There are about a dozen Germans, and they aren't delineated much--there are a pair of twins, and one who seems to be the smartest, who tries to engage the sergeant in discussion.

Eventually Moller begins to see the boys as people. He gets them food, even gives them a day off to play soccer. But the mines are out there, waiting, and tragedy will strike.

Land of Mine, written and directed by Martin Zandvliet, is at its heart nothing we haven't seen before--that all men are brothers, and that uniforms are a funny way of telling each other apart. It shows the folly of blaming farm boys for atrocities they had nothing to do with, and how the gruffest of men can soften (he owns a dog, so he can't be all bad).

But despite these familiarities, the subject matter is unique, and the tension gripping. I think even if I managed to make it through that ordeal the sight of a beach would be very unwelcome--I'd be afraid to step anywhere. Moller gives a very good performance, and Louis Hofmann, as the most visible German, is also good.

Just don't put a pun into a movie that is this serious.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

My Brilliant Friend

The Neapolitan novels by Elena Ferrante are a publishing sensation. A tetralogy about a pair of friends who grow up together in Naples, the books are huge worldwide bestsellers, and it certainly hasn't hurt that there is a mystery as to Ferrante is, since that is a pseudonym. I tried the first one, My Brilliant Friend, and alas, whatever has engaged her large readership eludes me. I will not need to read any of the other books.

"Lila appeared in my life in first grade and immediately impressed me because she was very bad." The narrator is named Elena Greco, and thus begins her friendship with the girl who is always smarter and more glamorous. In fact, for the entire book it seems that Elena is envious of her friend, who really isn't that great of a friend (she does scare off a boy who tries to molest her with a shoemaker's knife).

Elena is a sad sack narrator: "I did many things in my life without conviction; I always felt slightly detached from my own actions." She complains about her acne and though she is very good in school--in Naples in the '50s not many girls went beyond middle school, but she goes to high school, she isn't very assertive. She seems to live vicariously through Lila, and the book basically covers who the girls are interested in and finally ends with Lila getting married to a very rich man.

The characters, including the main duo, are not very interesting, and I got confused with all the different boys who go in and out of their lives--Nino, Pasquale, Antonio, Stephano--they all seemed to blend into one. I did know that Marcello was a bad one; he is the one who puts a move on Elena and later proposes to Lila, though she will have none of him.

It's all a soap opera, and not a very intriguing one, as much of it deals with the shoe business. I can't imagine what got people interested in it. The one thing it does succeed in is painting a picture of Naples of the era, of the way families were constructed and how girls were supposed to behave: "I said no because if my father found out that I had gone in that car [with a boy], even though he was a good and loving man, even though he loved me very much, he would have beat me to death, while at the same time my little brothers, Peppe and Gianni, young as they were, would feel obliged, now and in the future, to try to kill the Solara brothers."

I also found the relationship between girls and mothers interesting, as if the mothers were living through their daughters. "My mother, even if her wandering eye seemed to gaze elsewhere, looked at me to make me regret that I was there, in my glasses, far from the center of the scene, while my bad friend had acquired a wealthy husband, economic security for her family, a house of her own, not rented but bought, with a bathtub, a refrigerator, a television, and a telephone."

Other than these sociological insights, I did not find My Brilliant Friend very suspenseful or interesting. I am saved the time of having to go through three more books.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Bob le Flambeur

Perhaps Jean-Pierre Melville's best known film is 1956's Bob le Flambeur, a noir heist movie that is an obvious homage to American films, most notably The Asphalt Jungle (it is also very similar to Stanley Kubrick's The Killers, which was released the same year). This film has the elements of the heist film, but veer away from them slightly (the heist never takes place) to become more of a character study.

Bob Montaigne (Roger Duchesne), is a professional gambler and ex-con. He did time for a bank robbery, but is living straight, as straight as one can who makes a living playing cards and the ponies. He is described as "an old young man" and when he looks into a mirror he pronounces his face as that of a hood.

He has numerous friends and connections in the demi-monde of Montmartre section, which apparently at the time was seedy. He also is friends with a cop, whose life he saved. Bob has something of an honor code--when a crook comes to borrow some cash to go on the lam, Bob throws him out when he finds out its for pimping and beating up a whore.

He also has some proteges, notably a young hood (Daniel Cauchy) and a young woman he finds wandering the streets (Isabelle Corey). He takes an avuncular interest in her, though you can tell he might like to explore the relationship more. She shacks up with Cauchy, although it is clear that she will partner up with anyone who gives her a place to stay. This becomes a problem when she hooks up with the guy Bob throws out of his apartment.

When Bob's luck runs dry, he hears that a casino has a safe full of 800,000 francs. He then assembles a team, and this section follows time-honored traditions. They need a safecracker, some muscle, and a guy on the inside, a croupier who was once in the can.

It all goes wrong, as these things always do, through loose lips, and because of women. Cauchy brags to Corey about the job, and she tells the pimp. And the croupier's wife gets wind of it and reports it to the police.

But the plot seems less important than the mise-en-scene. Consider the opening shots, which are in gray light (the excellent photography is by Henri Decae, who worked with many of the French New Wave directors) of dawn. Few people are on the street, except for Bob, coming from an all-night gambling session, and Corey, presumably doing the walk of shame after a tryst. He notices her, but she doesn't notice him (she hops on the back of a motorcycle of an American sailor), and that the two will become entwined is a nice shot of the randomness of fate. There are many shots of dark shadows, and the costumes are all noir--raincoats and fedoras and tight sweaters on the girls. Being that it was a French film, there are also some brief shots of nudity.

The script is almost playful in its tip of the hat to American noir. Though a few people get killed, it doesn't have the existential dread of some heist movies (such as The Asphalt Jungle). Bob even gets a great last line--"maybe if a get a great lawyer, I will sue for damages."

As a creature of its time, Bob le Flambeur is misogynist. The character played by Corey, though extremely beautiful, is also extremely passive, a woman to be handed from man to man. The other major female character is the croupier's wife, who is a shrew. This is a film bursting with testosterone, fueled by images of Bogart, who would have certainly made the perfect American counterpart.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

The Mummy (1932)

Scared away by the horrid reviews, I passed on seeing the newest version of The Mummy. But I did not despair, for in my DVD collection is the original film, released in 1932, and directed by Karl Freund. It certainly does not have the action of the new film, it hardly has any action at all, but it manages to create an atmosphere of creepiness and dread that enthralls (and it's only 73 minutes long).

After the success of Dracula and Frankenstein, Universal chairman Carl Laemmle wanted to add a mummy picture to his stable of horror characters. There was no definitive text, unlike the others, so he commissioned story ideas. The discovery of King Tut's tomb in 1922 had captured the public's imagination, and Egyptian decor (including Hollywood's Egyptian Theater, which still stands today) swept the nation. There was also the added element of a so-called curse, which killed anyone who was associated with the discovery of the tomb.

Finally a script by John Balderston, who had adapted the plays of Dracula and Frankenstein, was made. Freund was the cameraman for such classics as Metropolis, The Last Laugh, and Dracula. He was noted for a moving camera (interestingly, at the end of his career he worked on I Love Lucy). This being the 1930s, when special effects where rudimentary, much of the action happens off-screen, letting the viewer imagine what is happening.

This starts in the opening scene. A tomb has been unearthed, and the mummy discovered has not been embalmed, indicating he was buried alive. The archaeologists determine that his name was Imhotep, and he was punished for sacrilege. They also open a box, which warns anyone not to open it lest they be cursed. Inside is a scroll that we later learn has a spell that can raise the dead. Imhotep (Boris Karloff, under eight hours worth of makeup) awakens. But we don't see him move. Instead, we see a closeup of his hand on the scroll, snatching it. The worker bursts into hysterical laughter seeing the mummy walk, but all we see is a few bandages dragging out the door.

Cut to a few years later. Imhotep now goes by the name Ardath Bey. He helps the archaeologists find the tomb of Princess Ankh-es-en-Amon, for the ulterior motive that he was in love with her. He had been buried alive when he tried to revive her dead body, now he wants to try again. But then he discovers a woman (Zita Johann) who looks uncannily like her. He realizes she is the Princess reincarnated, and instead of reviving her mummy, can simply kill her and immediately raise her from the dead.

For today's audiences, The Mummy may be very slow going. The joke about Mummy pictures was how could anybody be hurt by one, they're so slow. Well, Ardath Bey has certain powers that defy distance. He has a pool that can look into the past or present (he shows Johann her past life). He can look into it on a subject and by squeezing his hand give them a heart attack. And, of course, Karloff has one of the best stares in all of movie history. The key lighting on his eyes make his closeups very unnerving. "He's a strange one," one of the characters says about him. He has no idea.

This version of The Mummy is one of those romance across times, very much like Dracula (and the Dracula film made by Francis Coppola years later) that gives the monster some sympathy.

The rest of the cast is fine. Johann was an established stage actress who looks like Betty Boop; she later quit Hollywood, disenchanted with it. She marched into Irving Thalberg's office and asked him, "How can you make such garbage?" Thalberg replied, "For the money, Zita." Edward Van Sloan is, I believe, the only actor to appear in Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Mummy. He played Dr. Van Helsing in Dracula, and plays pretty much the same part here, the only scientist who believes in the supernatural elements of what is going on.

The Mummy spawned a number of lesser sequels from Universal, but this film is the one to watch, especially if the new one leaves a bad taste in your mouth.

Monday, June 12, 2017

The Phantom of the Opera (Smith Center)

The ninth and last of The Smith Center's Broadway series happened to be the one I have seen before, The Phantom of the Opera. That was back in 1988, the year it opened, and it's still running, 29 years later. This touring company did a very good job of a musical that has its decided ups as well as downs.

What works best with The Phantom of the Opera is the whole Grand Guignol aspects of it. The opening scene, in which items are auctioned off at the now closed opera house, including the chandelier that tumbled onto the audience sets the stage, and when the chandelier is pointed out, it lights up with sparks and we get the familiar theme hammered out on the organ. It's kind of like a haunted house ride, and as long as that theme reoccurs every so often, all is good. The longer we go between these bursts of horror kitsch the more likely one is to nod off.

The story is loosely based on Gaston Leroux's novel, but more closely matches the 1925 Rupert Julian film. The opera house is said to be haunted, but it is not until the "opera ghost" takes special notice of a dancer called upon to sing the lead, Christine Daae, does he really make his presence known. He demands that she sing, and when she doesn't, he plays some horrible tricks, such as hanging a stagehand and sending that chandelier down (a stunning end to Act I).

Christine is torn between the dark romance of the Phantom, who takes her down into his underground lair, and sings her the best song of the show, "Music of the Night." But she's got a regular boyfriend, Raul, who points out that he's just a man and that he's not exactly mentally healthy. In the end, the Phantom kidnaps her, but is rescued by Raul, but he is not caught, setting us up for a sequel.

The spectacle is what works in the productions. The revolving sets are amazing, and the costumes grand. The key performances are great, too. They must be operatic singers, and Derrick Davis as the Phantom and Katie Travis as Christine are first rate (I much preferred her to Sarah Brightman in the original cast). What doesn't work, especially when you're in the nosebleed seats, is what the Phantom looks like without his mask.

I'm on the fence as to whether The Phantom of the Opera, with music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyrics by Charles Hart, is a great musical. Webber, one of the most successful composers for the stage ever, has an ability to create themes that won't let you go, and "Music of the Night," like "Memory" and "I Don't Know How to Love Him," are songs that will last forever. But I can't help but feel that the whole thing is too much kitsch, and there's a patina of commercialism over it. I imagine it's kept running for nearly thirty years because it's ideal for tourists, like visiting the Hard Rock Cafe. It might night not be great, but it's worth doing, even if so you can say you've done it.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Adam West as Batman

The news of the death of Adam West has shaken us Baby Boomers. West was by no means a superstar--I'm not even sure he was a good actor--but his signature role, as Batman on the ABC series of mid-'60s, is ground zero for nostalgia. As the stars of boomer TV shows slowly die out--Leonard Nimoy, Mary Tyler Moore, etc.--we are reminded that we are getting old, too. Could Adam West really have been 88? How old does that make us?

I'm on board with many of the remembrances of the Batman series. It ran from 1966 to 1968, so I would have been five to seven when it was on, but I know I was watching first run episodes, cause my father liked it, too (the magic was that it's camp attitude appealed to both young and old alike). It was aired twice a week, with each story taking two half hours, with a cliffhanger at the end of the first half hour.

Purists were upset at turning Batman into a campy sit-com, but it fit right in with the pop-art '60s. The use of dutch angles for the villain's lairs, the word ballons with onomonatopeic sounds for fisticuffs, and the arch dialogue, with the Dynamic Duo always maintaing the straight and narrow, was great stuff. As a pre-teen, I loved that show, and it was my introduction to superheroes, as I didn't buy comic books until much later. It was innocent; justice always prevailed, and Batman never needed a gun. He always out-witted his opponents (many of them left puzzles as clues) and was a scientific genius who always had the right gadget in his utility belt.

I haven't seen the shows in a long, long time, but observing clips in the wake of West's death show me they still hold up. Trying to get rid of a bomb (of course black and round with a fuse, like the anaarchist's bombs from the early cartoons) he looks into the camera, exasperated, and says, "Somedays you just can't get rid of a bomb!" The cluelessness of everyone who doesn't realize that Bruce Wayne is Batman, or the simple wordplay--one of my favorites was when Commissioner Gordon was on the phone with someone. We only hear one side of the conversation, as the Commissioner repeatedly says, "You don't say." Upon hanging up, he is asked who was on the phone. "He didn't say."

The villains were high camp, also. There were the core four: the Joker, the Riddler, Catwoman, and the Penguin, but a score more. A fun trivia game is to see who can name the most, including the one-show wonders, like Van Johnson as the Minstrel, Art Carney as the Archer, or Milton Berle as Louie the Lilac. My two favorites were Vincent Price as Egghead (even now when I say the word "exactly" I give it the Price pronunciation--"egg-zactly") and Victor Buono as King Tut. All of the actors seemed to be encouraged to go nuts with their portrayals, and more than a few seemed to choose the sexually ambiguous route.

West's success in the role was to play it completely straight, as if it were Shakespeare. His acting style was very similar to William Shatner's on Star Trek, though I believe West knew what he was doing while Shatner was just doing what he knew how to do. Unfortunately for West, aside from voice roles (he was a long-time fixture on Family Guy) he never latched on to another successful role. Supposedly he was offered James Bond, but turned it down because he thought the role should be played by a Brit. I don't know if that's true, if so, it was a bad decision.

But like many stars associated with only one role, West made the best of it. By all accounts he embraced his fixture as a camp icon, gracious to fans for all these years, and always in good humor about his role in pop culture. He certainly meant a lot to me during my childhood. Batman was taken back to its darker origins by Frank Miller and Christopher Nolan, and for those under fifty West is probably not the first Batman they think of. So be it. Time passes. But this little show and its cast remain a permanent part of my past, as well as millions of others.

Farewell, old chum.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Live and Let Die

With the passing of Roger Moore last month, there was a bit of a debate on who was the best James Bond. Many came out for Moore, mostly it was admitted, because that was the Bond they grew up with. It seems that along with pop music and Saturday Night Live casts, your favorite is when you were about 13.

If that follows, Moore should have been my favorite Bond, as I dutifully saw and enjoyed most of his seven Bond films. But I've always been an old soul, and I still prefer Sean Connery. Moore brought a different dimension to Bond--a more lighthearted, dapper, cheerful fellow. Unlike Connery, or especially Daniel Craig, you knew that Moore would never get hurt; he'd hardly muss his suit. Moore's Bond probably never had a negative thought in his life.

His first Bond film was Live and Let Die, from 1973. Moore had been originally tapped to play Bond back in the beginning, but supposedly his role on television, The Saint, created scheduling problems. After Sean Connery quit, and the one-and-out George Lazenby, Connery came back to play Bond in Diamonds Are Forever (my first Bond film). Then Moore was hired, after names like Adam West and Burt Reynolds were offered the part (both supposedly passed, because they thought the role should stay with someone British, a huge mistake for the recently departed West).

Live and Let Die was directed by Guy Hamilton, and was his third Bond film, but the series took a more comic and ludicrous tone. This one leaps on the trend of blaxploitation films of the era, with black gangsters, pimpmobiles, and other cliches and stereotypes, most prevalently voodoo. What are we to make of a scene where Bond heads to Harlem, the only white face in a sea of black people, as if he were strolling through Hyde Park, and almost every black person around him is working for the bad guys (even the taxi driver)?

We also get the trope, which had been used somewhat in the earlier Bond films but especially in the Batman TV series, of the villains setting up Bond to die and then leaving him to his own devices. Here we have him left with a pond full of crocodiles, or dangled above a pool full of sharks. At some point a viewer wonders, why just not shoot him in the head?

Live and Let Die does not hold up well. The big action scene is a speedboat chase through the waters of Louisiana. Not only are there many black stereotypes, but a white one is added--Clifton Davis as a redneck sheriff (Davis also died recently). Smokey and the Bandit was still four years off, but I have to believe Jackie Gleason's Buford T. Justice was an homage to Davis, and to whole redneck sheriff image.

The film was notable for acknowledging that black people existed, and Bond had his first black girl--Gloria Hendry, as a bumbling CIA agent turned traitor. She played the Bond girl that gets killed, of course. The main one is Jane Seymour, in her first role, as Solitaire, a psychic who loses her powers after Bond sleeps with her. Talk about complicated sexual politics!

The villain is Yaphet Kotto, as a diplomat from a small Caribbean country who is trying to corner the heroin market. He's pretty good, taking the role seriously. He does die in the usual bizarre way that Bond villains die, though, being forced to swallow a capsule of compressed gas that inflates him until he bursts. "He always did have an inflated opinion of himself," Moore as Bond drolly states.

I'm going to take a look at Moore's Bond films over the summer, and I hope I'm more impressed. The only really good thing about this one is Paul McCartney's theme song, which I'd put right up there with "Goldfinger" as the best in the series. It was the first time a rock artist got the gig.

Friday, June 09, 2017

Leon Morin, Priest

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Jean-Pierre Melville, one of the key participants in the French New Wave. I'm a big fan of the genre, but somehow had only seen one of his films, Army of Shadows,  and that was ten years ago. Melville did not make a lot of films, and almost all of them are available on some form of home video, so I hope to get to all of them this summer.

I'll start with Leon Morin, Priest, one of three films Melville made set during World War II. This one is in a small town in the Alps, where a woman (Emmanuelle Riva), widowed with two children, works in the office of a correspondence school. When the town is occupied by Italian troops (wearing ridiculously plumed hats) she hurriedly keeps her children safe by baptizing them.

Riva is an atheist and a communist, and on a lark, finds a Catholic church and picks out a priest to pick an argument with. She chooses Leon Morin (Jean-Paul Belmondo). When she starts her confession with "Religion is the opiate of the masses!" she doesn't get the expected response. He actually opens a dialogue with her. This will lead to several discussions in his flat, where he lends her books and they debate the existence of God, among other things.

Meanwhile, the threat of Nazi occupation looms, although this may be one of the least-scary occupying films I've seen. Early in the film, Riva's Jewish boss shaves his beard, dies his hair, and gets false papers to hie it of town. We hear of someone disappearing but most of the action is about the daily life on the town and Riva's growing attachment to Belmondo. Due to his good looks he becomes a confessor to many women in town, including a bottle-blonde who is determined to snare him. He calls her a birdbrain and she becomes devout.

The point of climax comes when Riva reveals her feelings for Belmondo. I won't go any further, but I will say the Legion of Decency did give the film their approval (this was 1961, and while the film does explore the topic of lesbianism, it isn't too radical).

Much of the film seems like a debate inside someone's head, but Melville was an atheist Jew, not a lapsed Catholic, as Riva is. In fact, he said the film was not about religion. Indeed, though a hefty chunk of the film is a dialogue between the two main characters, there is something else going on, perhaps it's one of those instances when everything but the main topic is addressed.

The film, in a Criterion edition, looks great. Melville employs almost every type of transition there is, mostly fading to black, though there are wipes. He does this even though he is cutting from one scene with Riva and Belmondo to another scene with the same two characters (which is a bit disconcerting).

Belmondo, who was a huge start after Breathless, went 180 degrees with Leon Morin, Priest. Melville took one of the biggest sex symbols in France and put him in a cassock. This seems par for the course for Melville's sense of humor.

Thursday, June 08, 2017

What's So Funny About Peace, Love and Los Straitjackets

I've been a fan of Los Straitjackets for over twenty years now, since I discovered them as an opening act at Maxwell's in Hoboken. They play surf rock, with the added gimmick of wearing Mexican wrestling masks, but their sound has evolved to include almost everything but the kitchen sink. They once covered "My Heart Will Go On," from Titanic.

For their latest album, What's So Funny About Peace, Love and Los Straitjackets, all the songs are written by Nick Lowe, who is a perfect choice. Lowe has been around a long time and is a kind of rock musician's musician, never particularly a huge star but you've heard his stuff anyway. The title of the album refers to "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding," which Lowe wrote and Elvis Costello turned into a hit. Part of a band called Rockpile and a solo artist, Lowe once released an album called The Jesus of Cool.

Now a 68-year-old man with snowy white hair, Lowe is still writing and touring. Some of the songs on this record are very familiar. That title track is performed as kind of a bossa nova, while "Cruel to Be Kind" is arranged as a slow song, the kind that would end the prom. Some songs are right in Los Straitjacket's wheelhouse, such as "Shake and Pop" and "I Live on the Battlefield"--straight ahead rock and roll.

I imagine every Lowe fan will claim to miss a few of his songs. I wish there had been a version of "I Knew the Bride (When She Used to Rock and Roll)," "I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass," or my particular Rockpile favorite, "Teacher, Teacher." But Lowe's catalogue is too bad for just one album.

As usual, the musicianship on the album is superb, with long-time guitarists Danny Amis and Eddie Angel leading the way. If you're a Nick Lowe fan and don't know this band, fear not, they have done the maestro well. And if you're Los Straitjackets fans, this is another classic to enjoy, especially with the top down.

Wednesday, June 07, 2017

The Piano Teacher

Since I've been watching Isabelle Huppert movies, I thought I'd take a look at one of her most intense roles, that of a repressed piano teacher in Michael Haneke's 2001 film, The Piano Teacher. Teaming Haneke and Huppert, one should not expect anything light or fluffy, and indeed, this film is very disturbing and not for delicate viewers.

Basically The Piano Teacher is a character study of someone who has severe sexual confusion. Huppert is a fortyish teacher at a conservatory in Vienna. She lives with her harpy of a mother. The first scene has her coming in late and her mother (Annie Girardot) terrorizing her, searching her handbag. Huppert fights back, but ultimately is controlled by the emotions she feels for her mother.

Huppert is an extremely demanding teacher, and also a bit nuts. That she stops off at adult book stores to watch porno films isn't so bad, but she also likes to cruise drive-in theaters to watch people having sex in their cars. She also is into self-mutilation, as there is a scene in which she is in the bathtub and appears to cut her vagina, but I'm not sure what she was doing.

Her worst crime is when she sabotages a student, a teenage girl who has talent but Huppert finds to be a nervous nelly. She breaks some glass and puts in the student's coat pocket, so that she cuts her hand to ribbons, jeopardizing any future at playing.

Into Huppert's life comes Walter (Benoit Magumel), perhaps twenty years younger than her, an overgrown puppy who is always happy and does not take life seriously. He is turned on by her, and says he loves her. She humiliates him in a public restroom, making him masturbate in front of her, but later she will reveal to him that the relationship she wants is sado-masochist, with him being the dominant one. She wants to be tied up, beaten, anything he wants to do to her. He is repulsed.

I won't go any further, as the climax is very shocking and unpleasant, as one would expect from Haneke, who never takes it easy on his audience.

As someone who spent part of my career at a publication dedicated to those interested in S&M and B&D, I found The Piano Teacher interesting and somewhat accurate. What Huppert does is called topping from below, where she wants to be dominated but dictates how. When Magumel breaks the rules, the true nature of her masochism is revealed.

Huppert is amazingly good. She spends most of the movie with a scowl plastered on her face (I don't recall her smiling in the film, or laughing) and we can see the wheels turning inside her head. When true nature to Magumel, and begs him to beat her, the emotional response is acute.

The Piano Teacher is a gripping film, but ultimately it was unsatisfying (an ambiguous end, another Haneke trait, doesn't help) and difficult to watch. I would certainly not suggest it as a first date film, unless you met your date at the Hellfire club.

Tuesday, June 06, 2017

O.J.: Made in America

"I'm not black, I'm O.J.," is the one quote from O.J.: Made in America, the Oscar-winning documentary by Ezra Edelson, that resonates most. Another is by a childhood friend: "He was seduced by white society." O.J. Simpson, football hero, actor, television pitchman, sports broadcaster, was the most unlikely black man to become a hero in the never-ending racial conflict in these United States.

The film is almost eight hours long, but was made in parts. To be eligible for an Oscar it had to be shown theatrically all at once, and I marvel at anyone who sat through the whole thing in one sitting (the rules have since been changed). While the film is excellent, and will be the go-to document on the Simpson trial and race relations in Los Angeles, it is a very disturbing and depressing experience. No matter how liberal or nonracist you are, to watch black people celebrate the acquittal of a murderer who had no interest in black people is painful.

The movie is in five parts. The first is O.J.'s rise to glory. He grew up poor in San Francisco, was recruited to play football at USC (a mostly white school), and won the Heisman Trophy (there is a clip with Howard Cosell telling Simpson he is a person of great character). His pro career with the Buffalo Bills (he hated playing there--who wouldn't?) got off slowly, until he established himself as a superstar by breaking the single-season rushing record in 1973. That part ends when he meets Nicole Brown, a waitress at a trendy club. Before he even knows her, he tells his friends he will marry her.

O.J.'s success as a commercial pitchman was due, and it is frankly spoken, because he was acceptable to white people. He became famous for doing commercials for Hertz rental cars. He was not involved in the civil rights movement in any way, shape, or form. Some blacks called him an Uncle Tom, but O.J. just wanted fame, he was addicted to it. He could turn on the charm, too, which hid an ugly side. He was a womanizer, and a wife-beater.

Part II shows how often Nicole had to call police to their home in Brentwood. He beat her up several times. One of the responding officers was Mark Fuhrman, who found her sobbing in a car with a smashed windshield. She declined to submit a complaint. He told her, "It's your life." Another time Simpson was placed under arrest, but snuck out the back way. The charges went away. Roy Firestone, on ESPN, embarrassed himself by conducting an interview that suggested Nicole was as much to blame for domestic altercations as Simpson. I do hope Firestone is not on television anymore.

Interspliced with all this is the history of racial tension in Los Angeles. There were the Watts riots, the murders of innocent people by police with no justice, and finally the Rodney King incident. With racist chiefs of police, like William Parker and Daryl Gates, black people understandably felt as if they were less than citizens.

Then came June 12th, 1994. Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman, a waiter at Mezzaluna who had come to her house to hand back her mother's glasses, were viciously murdered by knife. The evidence was overwhelming against Simpson. His blood was at the scene, there's on his Ford Bronco, and a glove found near by his house, by Mark Fuhrman, had Simpson's, Brown's, and Goldman's blood on it. As Fuhrman stated, that meant those people had to be together, bleeding.

Simpson was ready to turn himself in but led the entire nation on a surreal car chase. The police, in the first mistake of many, did nothing to stop him but merely followed him, probably because he was famous (anyone else would have been boxed off and thrown to the ground, a gun to the back of their head, and handcuffed). It was clear at the time that Simpson realized what he had done, and was ready to kill himself. But then he talked to lawyers, and during a preliminary hearing, pronounced himself, "One hundred percent absolutely not guilty!"

He assembled the finest lawyers money could by, including Johnnie Cochran, well known for defending black victims of police brutality, and the legendary F. Lee Bailey. The televised trial was a soap opera lasting for months, making witnesses like Kato Kaelin famous. But the police and prosecution made many mistakes. The most egregious was that Fuhrman, by all accounts a good cop, had a history of racist statements. The race card (or the credibility card, as the defense called it) was played. The trial became all about Fuhrman.

The jury was predominantly black. They were insulted by the inclusion of Christopher Darden, seeing it simply because he was black. Darden also made a huge mistake by asking Simpson to try on the gloves. Simpson's team realized this would happen, and made sure he stopped taking his arthritis medication, so his hands swelled. There was sloppy handling of evidence. But no one could answer this--why would Fuhrman try to frame O.J., even before he knew if he had an alibi or not?

Simpson was acquitted, and even some of the jury admitted it was payback for Rodney King. What is incredibly sad about this is that it was not a victory for black justice, it was a victory for rich justice. If a white football player had been in the same position, he would have been convicted. What seemed to happen was jury nullification, although with some of the boners by the prosecution, it's not entirely incredible to vote to acquit.

The trial result showed that blacks and whites were as far apart as ever. Before the verdict, 70 percent of whites thought he was guilty, 70 percent of blacks. Many of his close friends and associates knew he was guilty, and Simpson admitted as much to his agent. That agent, after a civil trial that found Simpson liable for the deaths of Brown and Goldman, to the tune of 33 million dollars, took memorabilia in lieu of payment (including his Heisman Trophy). That would lead to the shocking denouement of his story.

Simpson, after the verdict, lived the high life. To avoid creditors, he moved to Miami (you can't lose your house in Florida) and began living with thugs. He acted like a man who could get away with anything. Therefore, when he heard that dealers were selling his memorabilia that he claimed was stolen, he went to Las Vegas and marched into a hotel room with an entourage carrying guns.

The result, with no Cochran, no dream team, and no backing from black leaders, was a 33-year sentence for armed robbery and kidnapping. Carl Douglas, one of the dream team, said anyone else would have gotten a two-year sentence, and this was now payback. Simpson, now close to 70 years old, is still in prison in a remote section of Nevada.

I can only say that from watching the film, that manages to talk to almost everyone involved (Cochran, of course, had died, and the only living person conspicuous by his absence is Darden) is that Simpson did kill Brown and Goldman, that's obvious, and karma is a bitch.

I lived through all of this. I listened with co-workers (all of whom were white) to the verdict being read. When we heard not guilty, we were stunned. My boss said it was just like being punched in the stomach. Seeing this film, and how the defense manipulated the trial (which was their job) shows how the justice system in this country is a joke (they took down all pictures of white people in his house and put up pictures of black people. Douglas said, "If he were a Latino we would have put up pictures of sombreros"). The only message is that justice is for the rich, and the poor, no matter what color, get the shaft.

Monday, June 05, 2017


Though it ended first-run episodes twenty years ago, Seinfeld is still a cultural phenomenon. I wrote about my opinion of the show here, so won't get into that again, but I will talk about Jennifer Keishin Armstrong's book, Seinfeldia, subtitled How a Show About Nothing Changed Everything.

Armstrong's book is two things: a history of the show, and a document of its legacy. The show was the brainchild of its star, Jerry Seinfeld, and his friend and fellow comedian Larry David. The birth came in a Korean deli. Seinfeld had been approached by NBC to do a show and he approached David to help him. They were looking at strange items in the store and David said something like, "This should be the show," meaning just he and Seinfeld talking. And thus it would be so.

Armstrong goes into casting--Seinfeld was always to play himself, while Jason Alexander was an established Broadway actor and Michael Richards knew David from Friday's. Elaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) wasn't even a character in the pilot--executives wanted a female character. But they might have had the idea of a Sam-and-Diane style relationship. But David and Seinfeld were against that. Their simple rule was: "No hugging. No learning."

It's interesting to see how the show developed. The idea was for the writers to tap into their own lives and write about weird things that happened to them. Then a whole new slew of writers would be hired for the next year, because a person only has so many stories in them. This is where many of the episodes came from: a writer would pitch the story to David and Seinfeld. If David didn't like it, he'd say "I see that on another show." Making Seinfeld laugh was the ideal.

Some of the ideas the writers came up with became cultural touchstones. Festivus was an actual holiday one writer's father created. "Ya da ya da" came from another writer. One writer's girlfriend was sensitive about her hands, and thus was born "man hands." They also used real people as characters, such as George Steinbrenner and J. Peterman. When a show about Soup Kitchen International gave birth to the Soup Nazi, a number of soup stores opened around New York City. One near my office was called "Soup Nutsy." How many TV shows can claim to have influenced the opening of businesses?

David left the show after the seventh season. Armstrong writes: David planned to write a film script now that he was free of Seinfeld. He sat in his office on the Castle Rock lot, trying to write, alone, and panicked: He had done the wrong thing. He missed his friends. He thought about everyone at Seinfeld getting ready to do the first episode of the new season. What had he done? Why wasn’t he with his friends? Why was he such an idiot? How could he have left the biggest show in the country to write this stupid script? What was he, nuts?"

The show changed somewhat with many others filling David's considerable large shoes. "As Seinfeld took over sole control of the show, it moved away from its everyday-life, observational, “show about nothing” bent and toward a more absurd, cartoonish approach. It lost David’s complexity and darkness and gained more of Seinfeld’s lightheartedness." But David would come back to write the finale, where Jerry and friends end up in jail for not helping someone who is being mugged. They were happy with it, but it got terrible reviews: "Seinfeld would go down in history, it turned out, as having one of the most memorable, most watched, and most hated finales."

Beside the tale of the show itself, Armstrong delves into the cultural meaning of it all. It was a show about Jews in New York City, though it appealed greatly to the heartland (although George Costanza had an Italian name, Alexander basically based him on Woody Allen). In fact, "In 1996, scholars at a Stanford University Jewish Studies symposium debated the show’s merits for their own culture." It also violated many rules of the sit-com. As mentioned, the characters did not learn anything: "Alexander and Louis-Dreyfus bonded in her earliest days on the set, mainly over their mystified reactions to the scripts. Why were there heated conflicts that were never resolved? Why didn’t the characters ever learn anything? What had they gotten themselves into?"

An early episode, set entirely in a Chinese restaurant, puzzled many NBC executives, who wanted to change it. It became one of the classic episodes, and soon the executives let David and Seinfeld do whatever they wanted. This was because Seinfeld as a major cash cow: "By 1997, Seinfeld had become the first television show to bring in more than $1 million per minute of advertising, something previously accomplished only by the Super Bowl." They led NBC to a position as the number one network. When Seinfeld decided to end the show, he turned down an offer of five million dollars per episode. He wanted to go out on top.

Seinfeld can still be found almost everywhere in syndication, or on DVD, or on demand. People never seem to tire of it. I haven't seen an episode in a while but if I stumbled across one I would immediately know which one it was: "pirate shirt?" "close talker?" "Soup Nazi?" and settle in for an enjoyable half-hour of comedy. Not that there's anything wrong with that.