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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


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."

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

The Overnight

Adam Scott and Taylor Schilling have just moved to California. They have a toddler son. Scott is concerned, since he's a stay-at-home dad, that they'll have trouble making friends and he'll be lonely. One day at the park they meet Jason Schwartzmann, who seems like a great guy, even if he is wearing a hipster's hat. He invites the whole family over for pizza night, and they meet his charming French wife, Judith Godreche.

This is the opening of The Overnight, a comedy written and directed by Patrick Brice, and released in 2015. I'm having trouble getting a fix on what I think of it. It is funny in parts, if not laugh out loud funny, but it's raison d'etre, to be sexually shocking, seems almost quaint. If it wanted to be the Bob & Ted & Carol & Alice of the decade it's about thirty years too late.

The set up of the film is that the strait-laced Scott, who has issues about his small penis, and Schilling, who has never had another man than Scott, are uptight while Schwartzman and Godriche are free. She makes demonstration videos for breast pumps. He makes giant paintings of assholes (literally). They are like the ego meeting the id. And though this film has a short running time, we wait for the other shoe to drop, like secretly this wild and free couple are cannibals or something. But no, when the other shoe drops, it lands with the weight of a ballet slipper.

The Overnight is like porn for people who have never seen porn. Interestingly, there is more male nudity than female, for those of you who wonder if Jason Schwartzmann is hung or not, the answer is yes. The script is cagey--at every point that the straight couple get suspicious, the other couple does something to reassure them. Although when Schilling goes on a liquor run with Godriche and she stops at a Thai massage parlor to give a random stranger a handjob, you'd think Schilling would have had enough.

The cast is good, although Scott seems, with his role on Parks and Recreation, to have settled into the guy who always looks perplexed. I just wish this film had gone further out on a limb, instead of settling for the easy ending.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Days of Heaven

Getting back to Sam Shepard, he made his film debut in Terrence Malick's 1978 film, Days of Heaven, which I had somehow not seen until last night. It's a film that has been re-evaluated over the years, and is now considered a great film, especially the Oscar-winning cinematography by Nestor Almendros.

It was Malick's second film and took three years to make. Set in the Texas Panhandle in 1916, it's a love triangle, a kind of Arthur-Guinevere-Lancelot story in fields of wheat. A very naturalistic film, Almendros used mostly natural light, often shooting in what is termed "the magic hour," that time when the sun has set but there is still light in the sky.

Richard Gere stars as a steel-worker from Chicago who accidentally kills his boss. He, his girlfriend (Brooke Adams), and younger sister (Linda Manz) hightail it out to the West, getting jobs harvesting wheat on the large farm of Shepard, who is known only as "The Farmer." He seems to have inherited the land, because he lives alone and doesn't care much about it, even when he's told he's the richest man in the Panhandle. His foreman (Robert J. Wilke) runs things.

Shepard is captivated by the beautiful Adams. Gere overhears that Shepard is dying and only has a year to live. He and Adams have been traveling as brother and sister, so Gere encourages Adams to accept Shepard's proposal, since he figures he'll die and she'll inherit the money. But two things interfere with his plan--Shepard maintains good health, and Adams starts to fall in love with her husband.

When Shepard suspects that Gere is more than a brother, things come to a head, climaxing during a locust swarm and subsequent fire.

Days of Heaven is an exquisitely beautiful film. Shots of amber waves of grain, plus the main house (modeled after one in an Edward Hopper painting) are breathtaking. The story is a bit thin--there isn't much dialogue (Malick and Almendros shot it like a silent film), but it's short, so it doesn't get particularly boring.

This is one of Gere's first major films, and he's terrific, a scoundrel. Wilke doesn't trust them (he calls them con artists to Shepard's face, even after he's married her) and he plays the role very slippery. It's interesting that Shepard would go on to play many all-American cowboy types, but here is a meek, ineffectual man. He seems tentative, but when he gets angry he flowers into a great character.

Malick wouldn't make another film for twenty years (The Thin Red Line).

Monday, September 18, 2017


The biggest news coming from the opening weekend of mother! was that it received an F rating from Cinemascore, which is apparently hard to do. I saw the film yesterday, and it certainly doesn't rate an F (I'd give it a B), so what happened? One, it wasn't marketed properly--when people hate a movie, it's often because they didn't get the movie they thought they were going to get. mother! was marketed as a run-of-the-mill horror film, and it is not. Two, there's an old saying in theater that satire is what closes on a Saturday night. I'd say Biblical allegories would be included in that category. The truth probably is that most people didn't get it.

I'm not sitting here saying I'm superior, because I didn't get it, either. I could write about what I thought was going on, but I had no firm theory. It reminded me of other works, such as Edward Albee's play A Delicate Balance, where guests come to stay and don't leave, or Rosemary's Baby, but I read an interview in Vanity Fair with director Darren Aronofsky, who explains what it is. I'm reluctant to spoil anyone's encounter with it, lets just say that a sound understanding of Genesis is involved.

Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem star as a couple living in a big, beautiful house that she is renovating (She says she wants to make it a paradise--Garden of Eden?) He's a poet, so we know immediately this isn't reality because I don't think anyone makes a living solely writing poems, especially with a house that big. He's got writer's block, though. One day a stranger, a doctor played by Ed Harris, shows up. Barden invites him to stay the night, and Lawrence is incredulous. She's even more so when Harris' wife, Michelle Pfeiffer shows up. They are followed by their two sons, arguing about the will. One kills the other (this is the only Biblical reference I picked up on--Cain and Abel) and Lawrence is stunned that a funeral gathering is taking place in her house.

She becomes pregnant, and time passes. Bardem writes a poem that becomes so admired that people flock to the house to congratulate him. Thus proceeds the conclusion, that involves Lawrence giving birth and, well, let me leave it that. I will only say that it is gruesome, and there are a few things that just don't play in Peoria.

Even though I didn't understand it, I didn't have the visceral dislike that apparently most of America had. At least it was interesting, if obscure. The camera moves disorientingly, following Lawrence as she goes everywhere. The house is dark. The basement has what appears to be a magic tunnel. When Lawrence touches the walls, she senses some sort of presence. But it's not ghosts, it's something much more fundamental. Another clue is that she is always barefoot. The first and last lines of the film are "Baby?"

The performances are also strange. Lawrence, due to the nature of the role, has to be passive and reactive, while Bardem is purposely mysterious (there's a constant, "Why are you doing this?" and "I can't put them out" vibe between them). I wonder if Harris and Pfeiffer even knew what they were playing. Once you understand who Pfeiffer is supposed to be, it's sort of funny that she plays it bitchy.

I have to give Paramount Pictures the guts to spend 30 million dollars on this. I don't think they'll make it back, but I think it will find a home on VOD. If anything, it's a great conversation piece.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Paris, Texas

Harry Dean Stanton's only leading role came in Wim Wenders' 1984 film Paris, Texas, which was written by Sam Shepard. That film has lost two of its major parts in the last six weeks.

The film won the Palme D'Or at the Cannes Film Festival and is a favorite among the cognoscenti, though it did not do much business. It is a slow-moving film, relying as much on the imagery of the desert and neon signs as it is on plot. But it is a beautiful film, made great by Stanton, especially a monologue he has late in the film.

We see him first walking across the desert, with no particular destination. He wears a red baseball cap, and a well-dusted suit and tie. He collapses in a small town in south Texas, and his brother (Dean Stockwell), who thought he was dead, goes to get him. Stanton is mute, not telling Stockwell where has been the last four years, when he walked out on his family. Stockwell and his wife are now taking care of Stanton's son (Hunter Carson). Jane, Stanton's wife, has also vanished.

Paris, Texas is two road films in one. The first is when Stockwell drives Stanton to Los Angeles, where Stockwell lives. Slowly, Stanton comes back into the world of humans. He is like a small child, remembering little. He is awkward with Carson, but eventually they bond. When Stanton has fully retained his faculties, he decides to go looking for Jane (Nastassja Kinski), with Carson in tow, the second road trip.

Paris, Texas is a long film, and requires some concentration. I find these kind of films better on home video, where I can take breaks (when I saw it originally in New York City in a theater I was a bit bored). There are long takes, and the final scenes, when Stanton finds Kinski in a fantasy booth joint in Houston, have long uninterrupted dialogue.

Much of the film is about seeing. Characters are frequently looking, but not necessarily seeing. Stanton watches the airplanes with binoculars. Stockwell, after Stanton has run from their motel room early on, walks down a railroad. Stockwell looks down the tracks, and says, "What's out there?" The fantasy booths are such that the customer can see the girl, but she can't see them because of a one-way mirror. She does not recognize his voice at first, because later she says that all voices sound like his.

Paris, Texas is also about loss and redemption. Stanton asks how long he has been gone, and is told four years. His son is now eight. "Half a boy's life," he says, with the kind of line reading that gives you goose bumps. The film is really Stanton figuring out what he wants, and going to get it, which is in essence what all of narrative literature is.

As someone who is been in plenty of peep-shows, I must admit I've never seen one like the one in the movie, and wonder if they even exist. Girls enter a small room that is given some art direction. Kinski is first in a hotel room, then, during Stanton's monologue, a kitchen, which suggests domesticity, the kind that they lost. There also seems to be no rendering of payment. These kind of things sometimes bother me. Other than than, Paris, Texas is a great film.

Saturday, September 16, 2017


When Lorde's first album was a hit, there were many who couldn't believe she was only 17--her sophisticated song writing and deep, sensitive voice belied such a young age. She's back with her second album, only twenty, and this one, Melodrama, is better than her first, with a number of standout offerings that are both brilliant writing and vocalizations.

This is also the album of someone who's gone through a lot of pain, love-wise. I can only hope someone who is so young hasn't had this much heartbreak. "Liability" is one of the saddest songs you'll hear, at least until another one comes up later on her album. It's a song about being an outcast, and dealing with it in a resigned fashion:

"They say, "You're a little much for me
You're a liability
You're a little much for me"
So they pull back, make other plans
I understand, I'm a liability"

If that song makes you feel like Lorde is throwing a pity party, wait for "Writer in the Dark," which has got to be the best song I've heard all year. Yes, it's a break-up song, but it's so beautifully structured and sung that you may find your reaching for tissues. It recalls the best of Kate Bush and Bjork, as she zooms from that growl to a high-pitched pleading for love:

"I am my mother's child,
I'll love you 'til my breathing stops
I'll love you 'til you call the cops on me
But in our darkest hours,
I stumbled on a secret power
I'll find a way to be without you, babe"

I'm not sure telling someone that you'll love them until they call the cops is a good idea, but it's a great line.

So, are there any upbeat songs on this album? There are a lot of danceable numbers, some with bass that is so strong that it shakes my rearview mirror. That stuff doesn't interest me as much as the incendiary lyrics, such as this one from "Loveless":

"Bet you wanna rip my heart out \
Bet you wanna skip my calls now
Well guess what? I like that
'Cause I'm gonna mess your life up
Gonna wanna tape my mouth shut
Look out, lovers"

Yes, perhaps it's true that Lorde is twenty years old, but she's twenty going on fifty. Melodrama is full of anger and pain, and is also completely brilliant. Glad to say that Lorde is no one-hit wonder.

Repo Man

Yesterday we learned of the passing of Harry Dean Stanton, an actor of certain renown who hardly ever played the lead in a film. He was perhaps America's greatest charactor actor, a gaunt, craggy-faced man who frequently played characters of darkness and melancholy. I do not recall him ever playing a song and dance man.

One of his most memorable films is Repo Man, a 1984 film that has achieved cult status, I think mostly because of him. It's a mess, but a fun mess, a mix of explaining the lives of repo men ("the life of a repo man is always intense") and a science fiction story about aliens in the back of a '64 Chevy Malibu.

The film stars Emilio Estevez, back when he starred in movies (a check of Wikipedia shows that the hasn't made a film since 2010). He plays a punk who has quit his job and is just walking down the street when Stanton tricks him into repoing a car. Estevez, lured by the money and danger, takes up the profession.

Meanwhile, a mysterious man is driving a car with something glowing in the trunk. If you look at it, it reduces you to a smoldering pair of shoes. The government is after it, and so is a UFO researcher (Olivia Barash), who has struck up a relationship with Estevez. The car is listed with repo agencies, so Stanton's group, as well as their rivals, the Rodriquez Brothers, are after it.

Directed by Alex Cox, Repo Man is fun, even if it makes little sense. The film is full of little quirky things that you may or may not notice, such as a sign saying "Plate of Shrimp" after one character talks about how that phrase may pop into your head. The editing is anarchic, but the music, by Iggy Pop among others (the Circle Jerks also make a cameo) is wonderful.

Stanton plays Bud, a great repo man, who knows all the tricks and the code of repo men. Unlike many of his roles, he is fully in charge of who he is, and dedicated to his profession, so much so that he hardly ever sleeps. "Most repo men are on speed," he says.

The film may strike some as a precursor to the work of Quentin Tarantino, and I would imagine he was influenced by it, with the use of surf rock, and the mysterious glowing object in the trunk (which in turn came from Kiss Me, Deadly). Cox's career, though, after Sid and Nancy two years later, went nowhere. He's made films, but none I've heard, including one called Repo Chick, which I may have to check out.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Jesus' Son

Denis Johnson died this summer, and his most lasting legacy may be a slim volume of short stories called Jesus' Son, (the titled based on a line from Lou Reed's song "Heroin") published in 1992. The stories are all narrated by an unnamed drug addict and alcoholic as he stumbles through life, occasionally working as an orderly at a hospital but mostly looking to have a drink or get a fix.

When I read stories about down and out characters I'm partially horrified, as I have lived a sedate life in comparison. But these stories are very funny, and have some killer opening lines that require being in a museum of great opening lines. "I was after a seventeen-year-old belly dancer who was always in the company of a boy who claimed to be her brother, but he wasn’t her brother, he was just somebody who was in love with her, and she let him hang around because life can be that way." That's a great sentence.

The narrator is a passive sort, driven by his addictions and love, for lack of a better word. His relationships with the opposite sex are frequent but misguided, at times just two people crashing in the night. Here's another opening line: "I’d been staying at the Holiday Inn with my girlfriend, honestly the most beautiful woman I’d ever known, for three days under a phony name, shooting heroin." Later he says of that girl: "She was a woman, a traitor, and a killer. Males and females wanted her. But I was the only one who ever could have loved her."

Some stories stand out as comic masterpieces. "Two Men" has the narrator and his friend picking up a mute man and trying to follow his directions to drop him off, but they get stuck with him. "Emergency" is set at the hospital, where he and a fellow orderly are high. The shift ends with a man coming in with a knife sticking out of his eye (put there by his wife). The ER doctor has the narrator call to gather specialists, but his friend pulls the knife out in a moment of drugged haze.

The most interesting story is the last, "Beverly Home," in which our hero is staying in Phoenix, drying out. He attends AA meetings and has gotten a part-time job writing a newsletter for a long-term medical facility. "I was a whimpering dog inside, nothing more than that. I looked for work because people seemed to believe I should look for work, and when I found a job I believed I was happy about it because these same people—counselors and Narcotics Anonymous members and such—seemed to think a job was a happy thing." He describes dating a dwarf and a woman who is half paralyzed. But he is obsessed with a woman in an apartment he passes by to the bus stop. He peeps on her when she steps out of the shower, hanging from her bathroom window. Later he will try to catch her and her husband having sex. He concludes that they are Mennonite.

Mostly this character just likes being in bars. There are some lovely images of them: "I looked down the length of the Vine. It was a long, narrow place, like a train car that wasn’t going anywhere. The people all seemed to have escaped from someplace—I saw plastic hospital name bracelets on several wrists. They were trying to pay for their drinks with counterfeit money they’d made themselves, in Xerox machines."

I've read a few other of Johnson's books, but this book is unlike them, and feels more like Charles Bukowski or any other of a number of sketches of dipsomania. After all, a lot of great writers were drunks or hopheads, and Johnson was one of them. What makes him like Bukowski is that he sees the humor in it. I loved a moment when a character asks him if he wants to work, and the narrator honestly replies that he would rather have a drink.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Dark Money

Do we still live in a democracy? Or can a handful of billionaires literally buy elections, thus creating a plutocracy? Jane Mayer's excellent if scary book, Dark Money, examines the influence of the obscenely rich on politics. The answer seems to be that money talks.

"We must make our choice. We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few,but we can’t have both." That was Louis Brandeis, the great Supreme Court justice, about eighty years ago. The gap in income inequality has only grown exponentially since then, and once people become rich they want to stay that way. Mayer points out that these plutocrats dabbling in politics say they have the best interests of the country in mind, but amazingly those interests also align with their bottom line: "they argued for “limited government,” drastically lower personal and corporate taxes, minimal social services
for the needy, and much less oversight of industry, particularly in the environmental arena. They said they were driven by principle, but their positions dovetailed seamlessly with their personal financial interests.

Most of this book is about Charles and David Koch, owners of the second-largest privately owned company in America, billionaires several times over, with a vast number of companies (they are hard to boycott--they own companies as banal as Dixie Cups). But mostly they made their money in oil, which is why they fight tooth and nail against any politician who suggests that fossil fuels causes climate change. Their companies have been fined millions for polluting the environment.

The first section of the book is a biography of the Kochs and a few other "donors," like Richard Mellon Scaife. But the Kochs are interesting enough on their own. They are another example of how the lunatic fringe has become uncontroversial. Their father was a founding member of the John Birch Society, a group so radical what William F. Buckley was against them. Mayer has some interesting tidbits, such as: "Oddly enough, the fiercely libertarian Koch family owed part of its fortune to two of history’s most infamous dictators, Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler. The family patriarch, Fred Chase Koch, founder of the family oil business, developed lucrative business relationships with both of their regimes in the 1930s." Or that Charles Koch's favorite game as a child was king of the hill, which others said hadn't changed.

Money from conservative billionaires has created many right-wing thing tanks, such as the Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute. These are the hatcheries of extremely conservative ideas, mostly hinged on getting rid of regulations and lowering taxes, which of course helps billionaires keep and get more money. But actually backing candidates was something new. The Kochs initially weren't even Republicans, as they were not conservative enough. David, the richest resident of New York City (even more than Michael Bloomberg) was the vice-presidential candidate of the Libertarian Party in 1980, and as you recall, he was running against Ronald Reagan.

But as the Republican Party swung more to the Koch's point of view, they began funneling money toward candidates. The lid was blown off after the Supreme Court's infamous Citizens United case: "The Court held that so long as businesses and unions didn’t just hand their money to the candidates, which could be corrupt, but instead gave it to outside groups that were supporting or opposing the candidates and were technically independent of the campaigns, they could spend unlimited amounts to promote whatever candidates they chose. To reach the verdict, the Court accepted the argument that corporations had the same rights to free speech as citizens."

What's interesting is that this doesn't always work. Twice Barack Obama foiled the dark money men, much to their consternation. But they had great success in mid-term elections and, as Mayer points out in a late chapter, at the state level. North Carolina's blatantly racist gerrymandering produced a firm grip on the state legislature, where it has wreaked havoc since (it even tried to stop a Democratic governor from taking office).

The book was published before the 2016 election, but Trump does come up near the end--he blasted the Kochs, not going to their meetings where politicians go to be bought. Trump had enough money not to need the Kochs, but I imagine they are not unhappy with his policies.

The influence of money like this is clearly damaging American democracy, with the principle of one man, one vote. Since election cycles now last years, the need for money is paramount (the British do it right--announce an election and six weeks later it's over). The future seems doomed.

Mayer's book is easily accessible, even for someone like me, who knows nothing of economics. She maintains a hint of sarcasm as she points out the Koch's hypocrisy (their fortune grew leaps and bounds during the supposedly horrible presidency of Obama) and she gets into the story herself, after she writes a piece about the Kochs for The New Yorker, and discovered they were trying to find dirt on her.

The Koch Brothers, and those like them, are the biggest threat to Democracy since the Nazis.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017


I read Stephen King's It about thirty years ago, and I forgot a lot of it (I read the summary on Wikipedia and was aghast at how much was gone from my brain). I don't even remember if I saw the mini-series from 1990, although Tim Curry's Pennywise the Clown is now a ubiquitous example of coulrophobia. Therefore, I'm not sure if I realized just what It is until I saw the new film, directed by Andy Muschietti. It is a metaphor for puberty.

The decision to break this into two films, the first featuring only the children (the book divides into alternating viewpoints of the kids and their adult selves) streamlines things and makes the metaphor pop more. The children, all at about that age, deal with an evil entity that more often than not takes the form of a devilish clown. This clown feeds on the fear of children (much like Freddy Krueger) and what do children fear? Turning into adults.

The book was more detailed about the children's fears--it included mummies and werewolves, and there are none here, but I'm particularly struck about how the film treats the one girl, Beverly Marsh, played excellently by Sophia Lillis. In one scene she is in a drugstore, buying Tampax, so nervously it seems like the first time (she also swipes a pack of cigarettes). Her father, who is clearly molesting her, discovers her feminine hygiene product and asks her if she is still his little girl. Later, It will manifest itself as blood spewing out of her bathroom sink.

Becoming an adult also means turning on one's parents, and here three kids do so (we don't meet all the parents), two of them killing their own fathers, which seems very Joseph Campbell. The other, the hypochondriac Eddie, finds out his drugs are placebos and rebels against his Munchhausen Syndrome mother.

That being said, It is only an okay movie. There's a lot to chew on, psychologically speaking, but the direction is simple and repetitive. We get a scene, then a scare, a scene and a scare, a scene and a scare. Believe it or not, there is a limit to how many times a clown popping out of nowhere can scare you. But some scenes are absolutely top-notch, including the first one, when Georgie's boat goes down the sewer and we first meet Pennywise, as played by Bill Skarsgaard. He is terrifying, with his malevolent giggles, and the only problem I had was even a kid as young as Georgie would run like fucking mad, boat or no boat.

It is in the tradition of kids' adventures movies that are constructed like World War II platoons--the stutterer (and leader), the funny kid, the hypochondriac, the fat kid, the black kid, the Jewish kid, and the girl, who is falsely rumored to be a slut. There is comfort in this, as it reminds us of better outings, such as Stranger Things (the excellently named Finn Wolfhard is in both casts). To me it hearkens back to teen lit like the Hardy Boys or The Three Investigators, where kids are smarter than adults and solve the problem with teamwork.

The children are all very good, particularly Lillis, who looks so much like Amy Adams that they will have to get Adams to play Beverly in the next film (Lillis has already played a young Adams in an HBO series). I also liked Jeremy Ray Taylor as Ben, the chubby kid, who writes a romantic poem to Beverly, is precocious enough to have researched and figured out that It comes out of hiding every 27 years, but is also enough of a kid to haplessly try to take his project home from school on his bike. The kid actors here convince you they're are kids, not miniature adults.

The art direction on the house where It is hiding is also well done. It seems in every neighborhood there is that abandoned house that every kid is fascinated by. This one looks like every house I ever had a nightmare about. Skarsgaard's make-up is great, and the special effects are great but don't over do it.

There are some logistical problems, such as if It is so omnipotent (he can make a slide carousel go berserk) than how can he be defeated by physical means (it seems to me that you can't beat up a demon with a baseball bat). But at least they don't include all of King's fooforall about the macroverse and the giant turtle that created the universe. They also, thank god, don't include the head-scratchingly wrong scene he wrote in which Beverly has sex with all the boys. Instead, this is reduced to a simple Sleeping Beauty-style kiss.

It is a pretty good horror flick, nothing more, but in this day and age when horror movies are as disposable as Kleenex that's no small feat. I will be very interested to see Chapter Two, and given the box office, there may be more chapters after that.

Monday, September 11, 2017

The Love Witch

Even more than time travel and teleportation, I think what we would most like to be true are love potions. Imagine, using magic to make someone have the hots for us. Of course, it's basically a greedy supposition, not much fun for the person being enchanted.

Case in point--The Love Witch, a 2016 film by Anna Biller. In this film, a woman who studies witchcraft, who was left by her husband (who dies mysteriously) and enchants her lovers who eventually die of some horrible mishap.

Here is the most mysterious thing about The Love Witch--it has a 96% positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes. People, this is not a good movie. It has terrible acting and terrible direction. Most of the good reviews cite that is a retro tribute to old-style Gothic horror films, such as what Mario Bava or Dario Argento made, but those weren't good movies. They have become cult favorites because they were so lurid and disturbing. The Love Witch has some nudity, but most of the women cover their breasts with their hair extensions, so it isn't even good soft-core porn.

Samantha Robinson, who appears to have no other credits, is quite beautiful, but gives a performance not made of wood but of stone. The only performance that I liked was Jeffrey Vincent Parise, as Robinson's first victim. The other members of the cast range from amateurish to competent.

Biller's thesis seems to be that the whole condemnation of witches is men's fear of powerful women. This is not a new idea (most of the women killed in Salem were land-owners) and she undermines it by making her villain a witch. She shows a kind of sex ritual, which I'm sure serious Wiccans would roll their eyes at, and her art direction (she also designed the costumes) has Robinson's room full of paintings of nude women, including one ripping the heart out of a man. This film doesn't forward the cause of witches in any way shape or form.

Maybe the critics who gave this film positive reviews were under a spell.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

The Piper at the Gates of Dawn

I'm a huge Pink Floyd fan, but strangely have never heard much of the era before Dark Side of the Moon, which ran from their debut album in 1967 to 1973. They released several albums during that period, but I have listened to none of them. Their debut, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, was the only album artistically controlled by one of their founders, Syd Barrett.

The Piper at the Gates of Dawn is considered to be one of the best psychedelic rock albums ever made, and Pink Floyd would continue expanding their musical sensibilities. Barrett wrote or co-wrote all but one of the songs, and wrote all the lyrics, except for one song by Roger Waters (who basically took over leadership after Barrett was fired).

As was common in psychedelia during the late '60s, many of the songs follow two tropes: space, or fairy tales. The opening track, "Astronomy Domine," refers to the planets, while an instrumental, "Interstellar Overdrive," is a nine-minute improvised song that surely must have sounded better on acid.

The other songs reflect Barrett's youth-minded interests. The title of the album is a reference to Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows, and a charming little ditty called "The Gnome" recalls the work of J.R.R. Tolkien. "Flaming" has lyrics about unicorns and buttercups. A song called "Lucifer Sam" is not about devil worship but about Barrett's Siamese Cat.

One of the songs that sticks with me most is the closer (on the U.K. version), "Bike," in which Barrett seemingly shows a variety of objects to a girl, including a bike and an old mouse named Gerald. There is actually a very sweet refrain, "You're the kind of girl who fits into my world, I will give you everything anything if you want it."

The U.S. version, which I don't have, has the only song that gets any airplay on classic rock stations from this period, "See Emily Play." It's as if the entire oeuvre of the band before their monstrous hit Dark Side of the Moon was just washed away.

Barrett was mentally ill, and spent some time in an institution. I guess he could be considered literally a mad genius. He was replaced by David Gilmour, but he was not forgotten--I remember a guy a year older in me in high school who was in a band and worshipped Barrett. The song "Shine On You Crazy Diamond," released on the Wish You Were Here album, is a tribute to him. He died in 2006 at age sixty.

Saturday, September 09, 2017

The Nutty Professor

Jerry Lewis' death a few weeks ago brought many tributes about his comic genius. I must admit that I am not a fan, but to be honest, I don't know if I had ever seen one of his movies. Maybe I saw The Nutty Professor or Cinderfella on TV when I was a little kid, but I don't remember them. My impression of Lewis was as the arrogant and smug host of the Muscular Dystrophy Telethon, which seemed to me to be as much about him as the kids ("Jerry's Kids," indeed).

So I rolled up my sleeves and watched what is generally acclaimed his best film, The Nutty Professor, a take on the Jekyll and Hyde story. It's not terrible, and has moments of amusement, but it did not make me laugh once. What I found more interesting than the tired slapstick was the commentary on gender roles.

Lewis, who directed and co-wrote, plays Professor Julius Kelp (the inspiration for the Simpsons' Professor Frink, and a character type that Lewis played more than once). He is a hopeless nerd, a buck-toothed, socially awkward, accident-prone dweeb. But he is kind and good-natured.

When he is pushed around by one of his students (literally--the guy puts him on a shelf) he decides to try to improve his physique. There are standard jokes set at a gym. But as a scientist he is convinced that chemistry may change him. So he concocts a formula that turns him into the smooth, suave, arrogant, narcissistic Buddy Love.

Love arrives at the local college hangout and immediately begins to to seduce Stella Stevens, one of Kelp's admiring students. She is initially appalled at Love's egomania, but agrees to go park in her car. But when the formula starts wearing off, Love has to vamoose.

The Buddy Love character is the film's most daring creation. This was 1963, when Hugh Hefner was more famous than Betty Friedan. There has always been a maxim that beautiful women end up with assholes because decent guys are afraid to approach them (I've heard this from many Penthouse models). This is certainly true in The Nutty Professor--Stevens initially is reluctant, but because of his insistence and that he ignores her protests, she starts to like him. He also becomes a hit as a performer at the club. This is a less authentic plot point, as Lewis is not a very good singer.

In the end, we learn the lesson that we must like ourselves, or no one else will. It's a sweet ending, with a nice gag about Lewis' milquetoast father, Howard Morris, getting a hold of the formula.

I would like to add that Stevens is a sight for sore eyes. She was in the Marilyn Monroe/Jayne Mansfield mold (the first Playboy Playmate of the '60, natch) and has little to do here but stare wide-eyed. But she sure was a dish.

Lewis certainly was a giant figure in the culture, even if, like me, you hadn't seen one of his movies. After this one I'm not particularly interested in seeing any more. His comedy lacks subtlety and wit (the closest I came to laughing is when he is called into the college president's office and sits in an over-stuffed armchair and sinks). It is often joked that the French love him, so que sera, sera.

Friday, September 08, 2017

An Oscar for Hawkeye, Oddball, and Professor Jennings

The Motion Picture Academy announced the recipients of this year's Governor's Awards, known familiarly as Honorary Oscars. As usual, it is an eclectic quartet, and no one could be able to predict who is chosen. The one winner who is obvious is Agnes Varda, whom I will discuss a little later, but the most famous is undoubtedly Donald Sutherland. The other two are Owen Roizman and Charles Burnett.

Sutherland has been a well-known actor for almost fifty years, and has made 140 films, but has never been nominated for an Oscar. Though he was something of a star of the counterculture, as his performances as undisciplined soldiers in The Dirty Dozen, Kelly's Heroes, and M*A*S*H are three of his most prominent roles, he never faded into oblivion. He pops up in the strangest places, such as in the comedies Kentucky Fried Movie and National Lampoon's Animal House (the scene where blows Tom Hulce's mind and gets him high is a classic), and was a leading man in pictures like Klute and The Eye of the Needle. He appeared in one of the most controversial sex scenes of all time (Don't Look Now with Julie Christie--are they really doing it?), and was memorable in science-fiction roles such as The Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

The role that everyone thinks Sutherland was nominated for was his brilliant turn as Calvin Jarret in Ordinary People. Timothy Hutton (who won), Judd Hirsch, and Mary Tyler Moore were nominated, but Sutherland was snubbed. I think he was also snubbed for a very fine performance as Mr. Bennett in Pride and Prejudice. He has been ubiquitous as the voice for orange juice and airlines, and has reached new generations as the villainous President Snow in the Hunger Games films. He has always been an actor who specializes in quirks, which was what made his performance as a, forgive the pun, ordinary man in Ordinary People.

Agnes Varda, now 89 and still making films, was at the forefront of the French New Wave. Some consider her 1956 film, La Pointe Court, to be the first film of the Wave. She also made one of the standards of that genre, Cleo from 5 to 7, and Vagabond, a film I saw in the '80s. I recently saw her wonderful documentary, The Gleaners and I. In a stroke of coincidence, Film Comment has devoted its latest issue to her. Shockingly, she is the first female director to receive this award.

Owen Roizman is a cinematographer with five Oscar nominations but no wins (his five nominations came for The French Connection, The Exorcist, Network, Tootsie, and Wyatt Earp). Each of these films is very different from the other, with the first a gritty tale of New York City (with the famous car and subway chase) to the last, a pastoral Western. Looking over his films he did a little bit of everything, from Woody Allen's Play it Again, Sam to The Electric Horseman to The Addams Family.

Finally, Charles Burnett may be the most unknown to filmgoers. He is a pioneer of African-American filmmaking, making movies long before Spike Lee did. His most important film is The Killer of Sheep, a look at the lives blacks in Watts, Burnett's hometown. I have seen one other of his films, To Sleep With Anger. His only film for mass audiences was The Glass Shield, starring Ice Cube. He has made many documentaries with African or black themes, some of them for television.

I just read Michael Cieply's column on these awards and he's sorry that the Academy did not pick a "heavy hitter" for the ceremony. I have to wonder why that concerns him or the Academy, since the ceremony is not televised and is always a hot ticket, as it is one of the first occasions that would-be winners this year get to hobnob with voters. I think this group just does fine. I'm especially pleased for Sutherland, the kind of trooper who sometimes falls through the cracks.

May I suggest that the Academy call on Liv Ullman and/or May Von Sydow some year, especially since Von Sydow is very old man. Neither of them have won Oscars, and their work with Ingmar Bergman is legendary. Just sayin'.

Wednesday, September 06, 2017

Blair Witch

Watching Blair Witch, the 2016 sequel to The Blair Witch Project, is like hearing a band cover another song. You think, "That's better than the original," but then you realize it may be better but it lacks the one thing the original will always have--originality. Blair Witch is almost a beat-for-beat remake of the first film, and it delivers more scares and has higher production values, but it lacks the novelty of the The Blair Witch Project.

The premise is that a younger brother of one of the missing of the first film is searching for what happened to his sister (she was played by Heather Donohue). He takes along a woman who is making a documentary about his search (not sure if she's his girlfriend or not), and a friend and his maybe girlfriend. Two locals tag along. There is instantly friction because two of the characters are black and the local has a giant Confederate flag on his wall (perhaps this will be the new movie code for a disreputable character).

So we've got double the characters, and they've got all the modern stuff, such as cameras in their ears with GPS, a drone with a camera for taking a look above the treetops, and a lot of information. But, of course, after one night in the woods they all become hopelessly lost, tempers flare, and one by one they disappear, until the climax at the spooky house where the first film ended.

Directed by Adam Wingard, I liked Blair Witch and found myself genuinely frightened by it, which doesn't happen often. First of all, I think the idea of shooting a flashlight out into a darkened wood is scary, because you never what you're going to see. The house, which is much more fully explored this time, is very well done, and there are tunnels underneath where someone gets momentarily stuck--a nightmare for claustrophobes. There are also glimpses of the witch herself--maybe.

The script, by Simon Barrett, also introduces time paradoxes. Does the witch have the power to alter time? It seems so, when the local hillbillies get separated and then are found again by the heroes. They are told they last met earlier in the afternoon, while the hillbilly says it's been five or six days.

Blair Witch is a solid effort for horror fans, and delivers on what the detractors of The Blair Witch Project said was missing. If there are any further films in the series, though, it might behoove them to try something a little different. Maybe a prequel about Rustin Parr.

Tuesday, September 05, 2017


My busy three-day weekend concluded on Labor Day with a trip to Zion National Park, which is about a two-and-a-half hour drive from Las Vegas. Located in southwestern Utah, it's one of those places that require constant neck-turning and the uttering of "wow."

I hadn't realized it was so close, so the notion of a day-trip never occurred to me, but my intrepid friend Lisa and her kids had me up before dawn and driving northwest. The highway takes you to Mesquite, then trims a corner of Arizona, and then up into Utah. We passed through some charming little towns, one called Hurricane, and since I doubt any hurricane has ever hit Utah, one wonders how it got the name.

The park is accessible by a bus that takes you to a number of different interesting points. We stopped at The Court of the Patriarchs, pictured above, which are three peaks named after Old Testament dudes Jacob, Abraham, and Isaac. Later we took a little walk up on an increasingly-steep incline to get to Weeping Rock. Lisa and I, old and feeble, made it about halfway. Finally, we took a walk to the Virgin River, which cut the canyon to begin with. I took off my shoes, rolled up my pants, and dipped my feet in. The water was clean and cool.

Some root beer floats at a nearby A&W was the perfect end to our trip.

Zion National Park was established in 1919. It was first called by its Paiute name, Mukuntuweap National Monument, but was later changed to what the Mormons had named it when they first settled there, Zion (which is another name for Jerusalem). The thinking went that people wouldn't go to a place they couldn't pronounce. They do have some Indian names left, like the Temple of Sinawava, which is a natural amphitheater named after the Coyote God.

If I were an expert hiker I could have tackled a few more challenging trails, such as Angel's Landing, which calls for a lot of stamina (the bus driver told us the day before there was a bottleneck at one place only four-feet wide, so people had to wait two hours in the blazing sun to get down). There is also a trail called The Narrows, which is when the river runs between two rock faces. This hike is in the river itself, gets very cold, and is only twenty feet wide in some places. Oh well, maybe in another life.

I haven't been to too many National Parks, since I've lived most of my life in the East and Midwest and most of their are in the West. I believe this is my fifth, after Mammoth Caves, the Dry Tortugas, Shenandoah, and the Everglades. I'm not sure if I've been to Biscayne Bay, I did go through that part of the country. There are 59 parks in all, so I've got some traveling to do.

Monday, September 04, 2017

The Clown Motel

Regular readers may know that I love both roadside oddities and clowns, so what better location than a day-trip than to The Clown Motel, in Tonopah, Nevada, about three hours from Las Vegas, on the road to Reno. I had seen the motel about three years ago during a visit, but couldn't get anybody to visit it with me until I found out a former classmate of mine at UNLV was into the macabre as much as I was, so she was my companion for the day.

The Clown Motel, as you might expect, is about clowns. When you walk into the lobby you are greeted with two walls covered with clown dolls and figurines. A life-size doll (the clerk on duty says she calls him Creepy) sits in a chair, with dozens of smaller clowns sitting in his lap. Each room has a clown on the door, and inside each room are paintings of clowns and more clown figures, in the bathroom, in the closet, everywhere.

You would think this would drive away business, and indeed it might, but it attracts a certain kind of person. The clerk wanted me and my friend to organize a Halloween party there, with everyone dressed as clowns, of course. My friend is actually thinking about doing it.

People want to think that the motel is haunted, but there have been no sightings or experiences. However, there is an old graveyard right next to it. It hasn't accepted anyone new since 1911, but it is kept up as some of the gravestones are new and flowers are placed on the graves. Many of the occupants died in a mine fire in 1911, and some others in a "plague" in 1908.

We also stopped in nearby Goldfield to take a look at the Goldfield Hotel, which is abandoned and said to be very haunted. My friend said she saw it featured on one of those ghost hunter shows. Her comment to me was, "If I had to commit a crime, it would be to break into that hotel." She's a keeper.

One of these days I have to stay in the Clown Motel to see if I get a peaceful night's rest. I may have to hurry--the motel is for sale, and who's to say the new owner will keep the clown theme. It's going for nine million dollars, but I'm afraid I'm a little short. If anyone wants to get together an investment group, please comment.

Sunday, September 03, 2017

La Silence de la Mer

La Silence de la Mer, or The Silence of the Sea, was Jean-Pierre Melville's first feature, released in 1949. It was based on a book that was published illegally during the Nazi occupation of Paris. The film, coming only four years after the end of the war, is a fair but also caustic look at the differences between the French and Germans. It's kind of like "Germans Are From Mars, French Are From Venus."

An uncle and his niece, (Jean-Marie Robain and Nicole Stephane) are forced by the Nazis to quarter a soldier in there house. He turns out to be Howard Vernon, an articulate lover of French culture. But Robain and Stephane never speak to him. Vernon doesn't seem to be bothered by this, and goes on and on while Stephane tends to her knitting and Robain to his pipe. They may be punishing Vernon, but he accepts it.

As a Frenchman who fought for the Resistance, Melville is somewhat sympathetic to Vernon but not to the entire German population. Vernon flashes back to a time when he had a girlfriend. They are sitting out in a meadow, and she says that nature is so beautiful. Then she is bitten by a mosquito and tears its legs off, one by one. In another scene, Vernon tells the silent couple the story of Beauty and the Beast, with the clear implication that the Beauty is France and the Beast is Germany.

Much of the film is a chamber drama with just the three characters. Later it will open up to include Nazis discussing how concentration camps are increasing their death rates (Melville zooms in on a portrait of Hitler during this conversation). Vernon is chided for his Francophilia. The other officers say that France and French culture must be destroyed.

So La Silence de la Mer is a very angry film, with Melville, understandably, still feeling the effects of the occupation. I expect those feelings never went away.

Saturday, September 02, 2017


After the success of Rebecca, Alfred Hitchcock and Joan Fontaine reteamed in 1941 for Suspicion. It was also the first of four films he made with Cary Grant, and was the highest grossing picture of that year. Fontaine won an Oscar, but just watching it again last night I marveled at the talent of Grant.

Suspicion is a great example of how Hitchcock slowly builds suspense. The movie is about an hour and a half long, and the first hour feels like a comedy. It's only very late that we, as an audience, feel like Fontaine is in trouble, and that's when she does, as the film is mostly framed through her eyes.

Fontaine plays a dowdy, bookish woman who seems well on the way to spinster-hood. Grant, a rakish playboy, takes an interest in her, and they fall in love and marry. It's only later that she finds that Grant is allergic to work, addicted to betting on horses, and has no money. Somehow he gets by on loans from others, and he is so charming and affable that no one ever seems to get mad at him.

He comes up with a scheme to buy and sell property with his school friend, the wonderfully named Beaky Thwaite (Nigel Bruce, perfectly playing a lovable English twit). Fontaine starts to suspect that Grant wants to kill Bruce for his money, and when Bruce dies in Paris she really gets worried. Later she intercepts a letter and finds that Grant tried to borrow against her life insurance, but she would have to be dead for him to do it. Throw that in with Grant's morbid interest in murder mysteries (he picks the brain of a neighbor, an Agatha Christie-like character) and paranoia swoops around Fontaine.

That the film goes from light-hearted comedy to dark thriller so subtly is Hitchcock's gift. He gives us clues along the way--early in the film, Grant and Fontaine go for a walk and a wind gust comes up and he grabs her arms. She reacts strongly, and he says, "What, did you think I was going to kill you?" Playing a Scrabble-like game, Fontaine makes the word "murder," which sends her into a fainting spell. The house where they live have semi-circular windows, which cast shadows that look like spider webs, with Fontaine trapped in them.

The ending is very controversial. Some say Hitchcock hated it, because he was forced to do it. In the book on which the script is based, Grant's character does kill Fontaine, but she writes a letter to her mother telling her she fears he is going to kill her, and asks him to post it. He does, not realizing he is implicating himself (letters are very important in the film, even Hitchcock's cameo shows him mailing a letter). But, because the studio did not want to have Cary Grant as a murderer, they changed it so all the fear was simply in Fontaine's mind, and they live happily ever after. I would have much preferred the other way.

Grant does play the role as if he is a killer, though. He's an actor who was always able to play light-hearted while seeming to have terrible, dark secrets. There's a dinner party scene with the mystery writer in which Fontaine watches his face as they talk about perfect murders, and he mentions poison. He seems particularly excited at the prospect of an untraceable one. Later, in perhaps the film's most famous scene, he brings Fontaine a glass of milk. He enters a darkened room, and carries it up the staircase, the milk illuminated. Hitchcock was able to do that by putting a small light in the glass.

Suspicion is one of the better Hitchcock films, despite the cop-out ending. Fontaine did win the Oscar (she was jobbed out of winning for Rebecca, so perhaps that's why) but Grant wasn't even nominated and he should have been (he was only nominated twice in his career and never won until an honorary Oscar). It is essential Hitchcock.