Follow by Email

Thursday, May 31, 2018

The Scarlet Letter

The first mystery is how I managed to wait this long to read The Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne, one of the premiere classics in American Literature. I was never assigned this book in school, even though I took a course on Hawthorne (we only read the short stories).

The second mystery is how anyone can say they really like this book. I mean, I can understand why it's studied, and why it has the reputation it does, but reading this book was tough sledding. Hawthorne writes in a jungle-dense style that went out with the horse and buggy. At times I read several pages and realized I had no idea what I just read.

Of course, The Scarlet Letter is about Hester Prynne, a woman living in Massachusetts Bay Colony. She has a child out of wedlock, and instead of being shunned, or even executed, she is forced to wear the letter A on her breast (it stands for adultery, although that word never appears in the book).

She and her daughter, Pearl, take up residence in an abandoned cabin and Hester does needlework for a living. She refuses to name the father of the child. She is married, to a man presumed lost at sea.

There are two other main characters, so the mystery of the book isn't hard to figure out. One is Revered Arthur Dimmesdale, a young minister who over the course of the book kind of loses his grip. The other is the old, misshapen doctor, Roger Chillingworth, who is most interested in finding out who the father is.

The themes of the book are guilt, sin, forgiveness, and the suffocating world view of the Puritans. Hawthorne's ancestor was a judge during the Salem witch trials, so he had a dim view of their rigid beliefs. Some of this comes through loud and clear: "Continually, and in a thousand other ways, did she feel the innumerable throbs of anguish that had been so cunningly contrived for her by the undying, the ever-active sentence of the Puritan tribunal."

But other parts lull the reader into a stupor. The prologue is Hawthorne describing the custom-house where he works. It goes and on and on and made me wonder what I was reading. Finally, he finds an object: "It was the capital letter A. By an accurate measurement, each limb proved to be precisely three inches and a quarter in length. It had been intended, there could be no doubt, as an ornamental article of dress; but how it was to be worn, or what rank, honour, and dignity, in by-past times, were signified by it, was a riddle which (so evanescent are the fashions of the world in these particulars) I saw little hope of solving. And yet it strangely interested me."

The character of Hester is difficult to discern. She quietly goes about her business, never angry, stoically serving her sentence. Pearl turns out to be precocious (she has the vocabulary of today's college professors) and even a bit wild, as if she were a creature of nature. In time, people almost forget why Hester's even wearing the A: "Individuals in private life, meanwhile, had quite forgiven Hester Prynne for her frailty; nay, more, they had begun to look upon the scarlet letter as the token, not of that one sin for which she had borne so long and dreary a penance, but of her many good deeds since."

In summation, I can appreciate The Scarlet Letter for its literary merit, but I didn't enjoy reading it. I would never want to do so again.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Roseanne Horribilis

The news swirling on the airwaves and through the Internet tubes this week is the spectacular downfall of Roseanne Barr. She revived her sit-com, which shot to the top of the ratings on broadcast TV. It had been renewed for a second season, but after a few bizarre, racist tweets, ABC pulled the plug.

This morning I read that she blamed Ambien for the tweets, but as the manufacturer states, one of the side effects of Ambien is not racism. The tweets began with an attack on Chelsea Clinton of all people, accusing her of marrying a nephew of Democratic donor George Soros. This is not true, which Clinton pointed out in a polite reply. Then Roseanne attacked Soros, restating the scurrilous rumor that Soros was a Nazi collaborator. This is also untrue (check out Snopes for the details), especially since Soros was just 14 when the war ended.

But the real damage came in a tweet about former Obama aide Valerie Jarrett, a light-skinned black woman. Roseanne's tweet: "Muslim brotherhood & Planet of the Apes had a baby=vj." The proverbial shit hit the fan. Reviving the ancient and ugly comparison of people of African descent to apes is just not acceptable in this day and age. Before a boycott of advertisers, and their eventual withdrawal could begin, ABC president Channing Dungey, a black woman, cancelled the show.

Their has been the predictable outcry from the alt-right about freedom of speech, and every time this happens it has to pointed out that the First Amendment only protects speech from being prosecuted by the government. It does not mean you don't have to suffer any consequences from an employer. It is ironic that this happens right after the NFL told its players that they couldn't exercise freedom of speech and had to stand for the National Anthem or hide in the locker room. By the way, almost thirty years ago Roseanne disgraced the anthem by grabbing her crotch and spitting after screeching her way through the song.

Roseanne has been a TV presence in the U.S. for over thirty years. She began as a stand-up comic, and coined the term 'domestic goddess." She has always claimed to be a representative of the struggle of lower middle-class women, but now that she's a multimillionaire I wonder if that can be true. It is not true that her show was the only representative of that demographic. The Middle, also on ABC, was a charming and gently humorous show about the financial struggle of a loving family. As far as I know, no one of that show (though Patricia Heaton is extremely conservative) ever made racist tweets.

What's really sad about all this is that a number of people have lost their jobs. Writers, actors, crew--all are unemployed. Those who have been heard from have all expressed their dismay at her tweets. Roseanne, after apologizing, blasted some of them. One writer has not heard from her and says he expects not to.

Donald Trump's reaction, predictably, was about himself, and how he didn't get any apologies from ABC like Jarrett did. I think most of the country is disgusted with the remarks, and defending them requires some intellectual gymnastics. Roseanne ran for president once (she actually got 61,000 some votes in the 2012 election running with the Peace and Freedom Party) so, given the climate right now, maybe she should do that again.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

The Golden Misfits

When the NHL announced that Las Vegas was getting a hockey team, most people scoffed. Another warm weather location? Some cited the woeful existence of the Arizona Coyotes, who actually had to be taken over by the league.

I thought it could work, because I live here and I know that locals are always looking for something to do (we who live here hardly ever go to the Strip). The Golden Knights have exceeded anyone's optimism--every home game was a sellout, and they have just won the first game in the Stanley Cup finals.

No expansion team in any North American major league sport as done as well. The 1967 St. Louis Blues, in their first season, went to the finals, but their whole division were expansion teams, meaning a new team was going to the finals no matter what happened. No such amenities were given to the Golden Knights, who some thought would be one of the worst teams ever assembled.

My relationship with hockey goes back many years, though I never played the game (I never learned to ice skate). I've always been a Red Wing fan, and enjoyed their long run of playoff appearances, including three Cups. I also watched a ton of games at Princeton. So over the years I've improved my hockey knowledge (I know the icing rule) but some of the niceties escape me, so I can't really explain how in the world a team of cast-offs (they call themselves the Misfits) managed to get so far.

From what I've read, the two key factors are speed and Marc-Andre Fleury. He's the three-time Cup winner that was let go by Pittsburgh because they had another goalie. Though injured during the season, he's been great, and at 34 years old doesn't seem to have lost a step. He's become the face of the team, and no doubt he has something to prove.

The speed part is interesting, because the tradition with NHL teams is to build around toughness. I remember Whitey Herzog, the old baseball manager, saying that speed had no slumps. That seems to be the case here. Vegas practices a breakaway style offense. One thing that it does do, though, is leave the defense lacking. Three of the goals last night were defensive breakdowns, leaving Capitals alone, with Fleury helpless.

What's great about this is that the whole city is excited. Last night almost one of every two TVs were set on the game. I followed the team during the season but didn't watch them--but I'e watched every game I could since then. I didn't know any of the players except for Fleury, now I know them all. I love James Neal and Reilly Smith and William Karlsson and Jonathan Marchessault and all the rest. There's no real big star, and they are emphasizing having fun on the ice.

People here are just going ape, and I love that people who never watched a hockey game in their life and are on the bandwagon. No matter if they win or lose this final, they have exceeded everyone's expectations, even their own. The important thing is to maintain a competitive team--if they go in the dumps the fairweather fans may abandon them.

Monday, May 28, 2018


Much to my disappointment, Solo is not the story of American soccer goalie Hope Solo, but instead another Star Wars spin-off. I was going to type stand-alone, but at the end of the film it's clear that they intend a sequel (given the soft box office, we'll see).

And much to my surprise, I enjoyed Solo, which shows us the early days of Star Wars character Han Solo, now played by Alden Ehrenreich, who manages to capture Harrison Ford's smirk and cocky attitude. A lot of the movie is sop to Star Wars fanatics--how did he get his name, how did me meet Chewbacca, how did he get the Millennium Falcon, etc., but at the base is a solid adventure movie, one that reaches back to the serials that inspired George Lucas in the first place.

Han lives on Correlia, a planet that is full of dark alleys. He and his girlfriend (Emilia Clarke) salvage for the local crime boss (a large caterpillar called Lady Proxima). He longs to get away and be a pilot. He manages to escape, but Clarke does not.

Three years later he's in the Imperial Navy and runs across a band of crooks, led by Woody Harrelson. Reluctantly they take him and Chewbacca on (I won't spoil how they meet) and spend most of the move trying to get a shipment of coaxium, or hyperspace fuel. Harrelson works for a creepy guy with scars played by Paul Bettany, and there's a lot of twists, as you can't be sure who is gaming who.

"Trust no one," Harrelson says to Han, and if that line is familiar, it's the basis for the film. Director Ron Howard, who took over late in the game, directs with an obvious touch--he's no auteur--but at least he doesn't get in his own way. Some of the action scenes are too murky--I'm thinking of one where Han guides the Falcon through a maelstrom and they are almost consumed by a giant octopus, but for the most part the film is engaging, if not a little too long.

Most of all, Solo is fun. There are some pirates that dress like Oakland Raider fans, a wisecracking, four-armed pilot, the immensely talented Donald Glover as a young Landro Calrissian, and most of all a new robot, L3, who has the voice of Phoebe Waller-Bridge and is always in a bad mood. In a wonderful sequence, she tells Clarke that Lando is in love with her, but she doesn't feel the same way about her.

There's also a cameo by a character long thought dead. I imagine it will be spoiled before too long.

I also think Harrelson is the glue that holds the film together. He's really a terrific actor, something I wouldn't have thought while he was playing dumb Woody Boyd on Cheers. Lately he's done great dramatic work, in Three Billboard Outside Ebbing, Missouri, but he's also latched on to several franchises, such as The Hunger Games, The Planet of the Apes, and now Star Wars. A role in a Marvel film surely awaits him. Clarke, for her part (she looks pretty fetching), is now in two of the pillars of nerddom: Game of Thrones and Star Wars. Her future signing at comic book conventions is secure for the rest of her life.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

The Insult

One of the nominees for Best Foreign Language Film at the last Oscars, The Insult, from Lebanon, is a crackling good picture that shows how one little event can snowball into something that requires the president of the country to intervene. The nuances of some of the film will be clearer to those familiar with the politics of Lebanon, but this American got the point.

Directed by Ziad Doueiri, The Insult begins innocently when Tony (Adel Karam), a Christian, drips water on a construction foreman (Kamel El Basha) from his balcony. El Basha points out that Karam's gutter is illegally constructed, and offers to fix it for him. Karam, who has a hair trigger, smashes the gutter. El Basha calls him a fucking prick. So it has begun.

Karam wants an apology. El Basha's boss finally persuades him to apologize, but Karam lashes out. El Basha is Palestinian, and Karam says, "I wish Ariel Sharon had wiped you all out." Understandably angry, El Basha punches him, breaking two ribs. The case will go to court.

What started over a gutter ends up in the news. Both Christians and Palestinians are outsiders in Lebanon (Palestinians are not allowed to work there) and a hot-shot lawyer takes Karam's case pro bono. El Basha's lawyer is a young woman who turns out to be the other lawyer's daughter. Each man has suffered--El Basha was involved in something called Black September, when many Palestinians were killed. Karam was a child during the attack on his home town of Damour, in which many were massacred, and it was thought Palestinians were part of the attacking force.

The film illustrates how grudges are born and then not passed on to the younger generation. Karam's younger wife (Rita Hayek) can't believe his stubbornness. I think an American equivalent is how Cuban-Americans from a previous generation, who knew the evils of Castro, became fervent anti-communists and Republicans, while the younger generation, who grew up in America, tend to be more progressive and have no knowledge of Castro.

The last half of the film is a  courtroom drama that is exciting. I don't know the ins and outs of Lebanese law, but it's close to American (though the lawyers make speeches during examination of the witnesses, which wouldn't be allowed here).

I've seen four of the five nominees for Best Foreign Language Film at the 90th Academy Awards and The Insult is by far the best. I have yet to see Loveless, from Russia.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

A Night at the Opera

A Night at the Opera was a turning point in the Marx Brothers' career. There earlier films, such as Horsefeathers and Duck Soup, are the ones that purists prefer, as they are almost complete anarchy. But they weren't box office hits. In 1935 they signed with MGM, and studio head Irving Thalberg had some advice for them--"help the lovers get together." Thus their characters would be more sympathetic.

It worked, as A Night at the Opera was a big hit, although again, purists might not rate it as high. It is certainly their best MGM film, though, as it contains some of their most iconic scenes.

The plot, such as it is, has Groucho as Otis B. Driftwood, a shady business manager for Mrs. Claypool (the ever patient Margaret Dumont). She is a widow with eight million dollars, and wants to get into society. Groucho arranges for her to donate money to the opera, which is run by stuffed shirt Sig Ruman.

Meanwhile, Chico used to manage a young tenor (Allan Jones), who is in love with the leading lady (Kitty Carlisle). She is being pursued by the vain Walter Woolf King. He is cruel to his dresser (Harpo Marx). All the Marx Brothers conspire to help Jones become the star that he deserves to be and get the couple together.

There are the predictably slow musical numbers--you can go to the bathroom when Jones and Carlisle sing "Alone," and Chico and Harpo do their bits on their instruments of choice. The best bits are when Groucho and Chico go over a contract, with the "party of the first part" rap.

Otis B. Driftwood: It's all right, that's in every contract. That's what they call a sanity clause.
Fiorello: You can't fool me! There ain't no Sanity Claus!

Perhaps the most famous bit is the state room scene. Groucho has been given a room barely bigger than a closet on a steamship. Chico, Harpo, and Jones have smuggled their way on inside a massive trunk. Eventually several more people enter. A maid comes in to mop up and Groucho tells her she'll have to do the ceiling as that's the only open space. When Dumont opens the door everyone spills out.

I laughed most at a line when Groucho hears that Ruman is going to play King a thousand dollars a night for singing. Groucho says, "You can a record of  'Minnie the Moocher' for seventy-five cents. You can get Minnie for a buck and a quarter."

The film ends with Harpo swinging above the opera, while it is going on, like Tarzan. The boys manage to get Jones to replace King, and all is well.

The major change in this film from the others is that the boys project much more warmth, and only torment those guilty of pomposity and cruelty. There's a moment when Groucho delivers a note from Jones to Carlisle and she hugs him as if he were her grandpa. You didn't see that in the early films.

This was also the first film without Zeppo, who isn't missed, as he was never funny. Jones, on the other hand, for playing kind of a bland character, is very good as he chums around with the brothers. Carlisle, if you are a certain age, is best known for her later appearances as a panelist on To Tell the Truth. Both she and Jones did their own singing.

Overall I put A Night at the Opera as the fourth best Marx Brothers film, after Duck Soup, Horsefeathers, and Animal Crackers.

Friday, May 25, 2018

High Noon: The Hollywood Blacklist and the Making of an American Classic

"Shot in thirty-two days on a shoestring budget, with its famous star working for a fraction of his normal wage, High Noon was something of an afterthought for those who made it, a rush job to fulfill the tail end of an old contract. Yet it vaulted almost immediately to critical acclaim and box-office success. Its taut narrative, powerful performances, evocative theme song, and climactic shootout made it an instant classic." So writes Glenn Frankel in his book, High Noon: The Hollywood Blacklist and the Making of an American Classic.

I love reading about the movie business, especially the vicissitudes involved in how they come together. It is almost impossible to predict what movies will be successful based on their creative team or even what happens during production. High Noon is one of those films that had a certain alchemy involved--nobody expected much of it, but people are still watching it and talking about it today.

Frankel also gives us two books in one: the story of High Noon came to be, and what was swirling around it: the investigation by congress into communist infiltration of the movie business. These two subjects are not randomly thrown together. Many people notice, and indeed the writer meant to convey, that High Noon is an allegory about the blacklist--namely, how one man can make a difference, even while he is betrayed by his friends.

Frankel centers the movie stuff around four men: The star (Gary Cooper), the writer (Carl Foreman), the producer (Stanley Kramer), and the director (Fred Zinneman). He gives brief but sharply etched biographies of each. Cooper is tough to get to know, because he didn't reveal much of himself. Frankel does sprinkle some salacious gossip in: "His fling with Clara Bow was the first of many in Cooper’s early days in Hollywood, with a list of actresses that included Evelyn Brent, Marlene Dietrich, and Tallulah Bankhead (who once famously told reporters, “I’ve come to Hollywood to fuck Gary Cooper.” Asked later how it had gone, she replied: “Mission accomplished.”)."

The original idea was Foreman's. He wrote a script about a lone man standing up for duty in the face of cowardice by others. But then he realized a short story called "The Tin Star" was very similar. Just in case, he bought the rights. He was working with Kramer's production company. Kramer, who is today remembered for making "message" pictures, hired Fred Zinneman, who had also made a picture for Kramer--The Men, which was also Marlon Brando's first film.

Cooper very much wanted to do it. His star had been on the wane. At first everyone thought he might be too long in the tooth to do it, and stars like Kirk Douglas, Brando, William Holden, and Charlton Heston were considered. But Cooper offered to take a pay cut (he ended up doing better by trading a paycheck for points). Frankel discusses the others in the film, but not nearly as much as Cooper. This was Grace Kelly's first major role, and Katy Jurado was a big star in Mexico. Character actors like Thomas Mitchell, Otto Krueger, and Harry Morgan (then credited as Henry) appeared, as did Lee Van Cleef in his first film role, as one of the Frank Miller gang. He had no lines.

A lot of infighting erupted when Foreman was called before the HUAC committee. He was named by a minor screenwriter named Martin Berkeley, who ended up naming a record 189 names. Careers had been completely ruined by this committee, and Frankel does a nice job of covering the whole story. Actor Larry Parks crumbled before the committee, and those who refused to cooperate became known as the Hollywood Ten, who all went to jail. Those who took the Fifth Amendment ended up not working again.

Foreman and Kramer fell out, and Foreman left the film before it was completed. He fled to England to work, and ended up working on the script for The Bridge on the River Kwai under a pseudonym. The script won an Oscar, but it was credited to the author of the novel, Pierre Boule, who spoke no English. The Oscar was restored to Foreman and his co-writer Michael Wilson just before Foreman died.

There was also a great deal of dispute over who was responsible for the film's greatness. Zinneman diplomatically said that it was a team effort, but reminded people he directed every frame. Kramer, who thought the film wasn't working out, ended up taking a lot of credit, perhaps more than he deserved, some think. Elmo Williams, the editor, claimed he saved it in the cutting room.

Frankel is not entirely objective: he creates heroes and villains. Cooper comes off very well. He was a Republican, and a member of the odious Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation for American Ideals. But when Foreman told him that he was called to testify, and offered Cooper a chance to leave the picture, he refused, telling him he loved the script and that Foreman was a good American. Less savory are Berkeley, who eventually became a full-time FBI informant, gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, and John Wayne, who boasted of forcing Foreman to leave the country (the two reconciled years later). "Wayne was especially dismayed that the movie portrayed churchgoers and public officials as cowards and hypocrites. He interpreted this as an attack on American values, which in many ways it is." But when Cooper won the Oscar for the role, Wayne accepted on his behalf, and said: "I’m going to go back and find my business manager and agent, producer, and three-name writers and find out why I didn’t get High Noon instead of Cooper." He didn't get it because he turned it down.

Every time I read about the communist witch hunts of the 1950s I get sick to my stomach. What a horrible time to live through--anyone who was to the left was suspect. Today almost everyone condemns what happened then, and despite the troglodytes who now run Washington it's hard to imagine something like this happening again (witness the huge outcry when Donald Trump said that football players who don't stand for the National Anthem should "leave the country." We still have idiots, but there are those who call them out). I was amused to read that the loyalty oath that members of the Screen Actors Guild were required to sign faded away in 1967 when the members of the Grateful Dead refused to sign it.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

High Noon (1952)

Three men gather on horseback in the open country. The soundtrack is a soft percussion, followed by a creamy voice singing, "Do not forsake me, oh my darlin', on this our wedding day." This is the opening of the iconic 1952 film, High Noon.

I've seen High Noon many times, but I decided to watch it again because I'm reading a book about the making of the film and its historical context, which I'll write about tomorrow. For now I'll just discuss the movie itself.

Gary Cooper is Will Kane, the marshal in a typical Old West town. He has just married Amy (Grace Kelly), and they are leaving town to open a store, as this is his last day as a lawman. But right after the ceremony he hears that Frank Miller, a vicious killer than he put in jail, has been pardoned and is on the noon train. Cooper, wrestling with his conscience, decides he must stay to defend the town. Kelly, a Quaker, doesn't understand why he just doesn't leave. He has a hard time describing it, but mostly it's his duty.

He expects to have a lot of deputies to help him, but he can't find any. His appointed deputy, Lloyd Bridges, is mad that he was passed over for the new marshal and quits. The judge who sent Miller up (a wonderful Otto Krueger) blithely packs his law books and says he will live to be a judge someplace else. The saloon is no help, as it has some of Miller's friends.

Next he tries the church (it's a Sunday morning), where the men debate whether they should help him. Overcome with cowardice, they say no. The mayor (Thomas Mitchell), who addressed the congregation by telling them that Will Kane made their town a decent place to live, betrays him saying gunfights in the street will turn away investment. He urges Cooper to leave town. Thus Cooper has been rebuffed by the law, the church, and commerce.

Miller is met by the three men from the opening at the depot, where Kelly is getting on the train to leave. Cooper is left all alone, best shown in a dazzling crane shot that pulls out from him to high in the sky, showing the empty street. He will take on four men, alone.

As I will discuss tomorrow, High Noon was not a typical Western. Those who don't like it could complain that it's simply Cooper running from one place to another to find deputies. The director, Fred Zinneman, said it wasn't really a Western--there are no spectacular vistas, no shootouts (until the end), no Indians, no cattle stampedes. He said it was a drama that just happened to take place in the Old West.

In fact, the writer Carl Foreman intended it as a parable for what was going on at the time in Hollywood--the blacklist. He saw parallels between the cowardice of the town and those who turned on their friends and named names at the HUAC committee. Some saw this immediately--John Wayne hated it and called it un-American.

But besides all that it's just a great picture. It is set in close to real time--the action of the film is the time it takes the story to play out. Zinneman ups the ante by frequent shots of clocks--they seem to be everywhere, and as the hands creep toward noon it amps up the suspense. He also includes one other recurring shot--the train tracks, stretching out toward the horizon, the tracks that will bring Frank Miller in to town.

The editor is Elmo Williams, and his work is exemplary (he won an Oscar for it). The best example of his work is when the clock strikes twelve. The train pulls in, its whistle blowing, and Williams quick cuts close-ups of all the principals. It's chilling.

Also wonderful is the music, by Dimitri Tiomkin. His score was revolutionary, as it wasn't the faux classical of most films of the type. The song "Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darlin'," is the motif running throughout the film (it's even played on the harmonica by one of Miller's thugs). It's still running through my head. He won two Oscars, for the score and the song (with lyrics by Ned Washington).

Also winning an Oscar was Cooper (his second). Producer Stanley Kramer thought he was too old for the part (he was 50, Kelly was 21) but his age actually enhanced the role, as the lines in his face were obvious and his gait was slowed (Cooper had a back injury). Kane is the embodiment of the Western hero--stoic and committed to the law. Cooper, who was not a trained actor, was parodied as a man who mostly said "yup," and "nope," and he doesn't say much in this film (he says seven words in the last ten minutes of the movie) but it fit Will Kane.

It was Kelly's first role, and if there's a flaw in the film it's her somewhat wooden performance. She was unhappy with her work, but it's not that bad--it just seems flat and uninspired. Far better is Katy Jurado as Miller and Kane's ex-lover, who runs the brothel and has triumphed over prejudice and sexism.

Tomorrow I'll write about the book, and the behind the scenes stuff.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Kaddish for Philip Roth

I was taken aback upon learning of the death of Philip Roth at age 85. The death of an octogenarian is not a tragedy, but he was my favorite writer, and though he had retired, it still made me feel good to have him on the planet. His last interview, with The New Yorker, was about his novel The Plot Against America, and how prescient it was about Donald Trump, and he said: "I found much that was alarming about being a citizen during the tenures of Richard Nixon and George W. Bush. But, whatever I may have seen as their limitations of character or intellect, neither was anything like as humanly impoverished as Trump is: ignorant of government, of history, of science, of philosophy, of art, incapable of expressing or recognizing subtlety or nuance, destitute of all decency, and wielding a vocabulary of seventy-seven words that is better called Jerkish than English.” We needed him.

By my count, I have read 23 of Roth's books. A few of his early novels remain unread by me, and I hope to get around to them. Of course I haven't read any of them recently, but some remain vivid in my memory. I have read Portnoy's Complaint three times (and it may be due for another read). Roth was chagrined that it was his most famous book, but it made him famous and quite an impression on America, since it is a testament to onanism. “I am the Raskolnikov of jerking off – the sticky evidence is everywhere!” After using a piece of liver to satisfy his sexual urges, Portnoy reveals: “So. Now you know the worst thing I have ever done. I fucked my own family's dinner.”

His next phase was the Zuckerman trilogy: The Ghost Writer, The Anatomy Lesson, and Zuckerman Unbound. I really loved The Anatomy Lesson, when Zuckerman has something of a breakdown and poses as a pornographer. Whether Zuckerman was an alter-ego of Roth can be debated (he is a writer who became famous for writing a dirty book), but he often blurred the line between reality and fiction, especially with The Facts (was it a novel or a memoir), The Counterlife, and Operation: Shylock.

In his sixties, he ascended the Mount Olympus of American letters with his American trilogy: American Pastoral (which won the Pulitzer Prize), I Married a Communist, and The Human Stain. The latter was the story of a college professor who is black but passes for white falsely accused of being a racist. He followed that with Sabbath's Theater, which won the National Book Award.

His last few books seemed to be concerned with death, a natural response to aging. In Exit Ghost he presumably kills of Zuckerman, while Everyman begins and ends in a cemetery, The Dying Animal has an older professor dating a much younger woman, The Humbling deals with an actor who has lost his talent, Indignation is about a young man killed in the Korean War, and Nemesis, his last book, is about the polio epidemic.

Some are not fans of Roth because they perceive him as a misogynist, which was also a charge leveled against him by his wife, Claire Bloom. There aren't a lot of sympathetic women in his books--I can't think of one offhand, except for the mothers. Certainly this argument can't be dismissed--in Portnoy's Complaint the major female character is called The Monkey and can barely read and write. But to be fair, this may be the attitude of his male characters, like Zuckerman, David Kepesh (in The Professor of Desire and The Dying Animal), and Mickey Sabbath. They're all sexually crazed pigs. They may be funny or interesting, but they're pigs.

After Portnoy's Complaint I would rank The Counterlife, The Plot Against America, and The Anatomy Lesson as my favorite of his works, but I liked them all. I must admit I started reading Letting Go, his first full-length novel, but never made it through.

Some of his books have been made into films, but none really captured the essence of his work. Most of his books have a narrator and we hear their thoughts, which never works well on film. Goodbye, Columbus, based on his first work, is probably the best. I've never seen the film version of Portnoy's Complaint (I don't believe it's on any platform). The Human Stain and Indignation are both okay. I have moved American Pastoral and The Humbling up in my Netflix queue.

So long, Philip. We have the texts. That's all we can ask for.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Lincoln in the Bardo

In George Saunders' first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, Honest Abe is only a minor character. The main characters are a multitude of ghosts that reside in Oak Hill Cemetery in Georgetown. On one night in February, 1862, Lincoln visits the cemetery alone to see his recently departed son, Willie, who has died of typhoid.

Bardo is a Buddhist term for the state of existence between death and rebirth. The spirits in the cemetery, for one reason or another, have stayed there, and don't realize they are dead. They call their coffins "sick-boxes." They move about and converse, but can not be seen by mortals.

This may remind you of Edgar Lee Masters' Spoon River Anthology, or the last scene of Thornton Wilder's Our Town, but Saunders gives his spooks a little more personality. The main two are Roger Bevins and Hans Vollmann, who are kind of the Huck and Tom of the group. I'm not completely sure of the details, but they try to keep Lincoln in the cemetery so Will can move on to the next plane (I think) by entering the president and trying to influence his thoughts.

Initially, the book is difficult to understand, but after a bit I got the rules and it became something of a page-turner. Saunders also quotes several nonfiction books to give us the background on Lincoln and Willie (I thought these were fictional until I recognized some of the works). Most may know that Lincoln was a sad man during the presidency--Willie was the second son he lost, and it devastated him. "The terror and consternation of the Presidential couple may be imagined by anyone who has ever loved a child, and suffered that dread intimation common to all parents, that Fate may not hold that life in as high a regard, and may dispose of it at will."

Though the book has the overarching sense of death, it can be quite lively in the interplay between ghosts. A married couple, the Barons, wander over from the poor person's cemetery, and their dialogue is full of profanity. The fence also does not keep out black people, including former slaves, so in death there is equality.

Lincoln in the Bardo is a very touching novel, and one can't help feel the emotions that run through it. Lincoln's sadness, and the ghosts' empathy, is extremely touching. "In the procession to Oak Hill Cemetery in Georgetown two white horses drew the hearse bearing the little boy who had known only happiness. But black horses drew the carriage in which sat the worn and grief-stricken President."

I checked and found that after Lincoln's death, Willie was removed and interred by his side in Springfield, Illinois. It should be noted that of his four sons, only Robert reached adulthood. The first lady, Mary Lincoln, endured a great deal of sorrow, and was probably clinically depressed.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Deadpool 2

"You're dark. Are you sure you aren't part of the DC universe?" Deadpool asks Cable, the villain in this installation of what should be a long-running franchise. This meta stuff is what fuels most of Deadpool 2, it's kind of as if the writers just did their own Mad Magazine parody.

Ryan Reynolds returns as the foul-mouthed, quipping anti-hero (the level of profanity approaches David Mamet level). Since we last saw him, he's been acting as a mercenary. In the grand tradition of Marvel's Uncle Ben, he lets a criminal escape, which comes back to haunt him. He tries to kill himself, but since he can't die he's taken in by the X-Men, who make him a trainee (again, the only X-Men available are Colossus and Negasonic Teenage Warhead. In a funny shot the other X-Men are seen hiding).

Then the main plot kicks in, which is borrowed gleefully from the Terminator films (Deadpool even calls Cable John Conner at one point). A teenage mutant who can shoot fire with his hands will grow up to be a mass murderer, and Cable has come from the future to kill him. Deadpool, showing heretofore unknown paternal instincts, wants to save him.

The plot is secondary in Deadpool 2--it's all about the gags. Some of them are very funny, as when Deadpool calls Cable Thanos (they are both played by Josh Brolin) or when Cable tells Deadpool he's not a hero, he's a clown dressed as a sex toy. In the mid-credit scene, Deadpool will shoot Ryan Reynolds before he can make the lamented Green Lantern film. A surprise cameo will show a famous actor playing a character called The Vanisher.

But all of this stuff doesn't add up to anything significant. There's a lot of yuks, but we really don't care about the characters. When Deadpool has a long death scene (he says he hopes the Academy is watching) we know he's not going to die--Deadpool 3 is certainly already in the works. How can you worry about a character who can't die? The only really interesting character is Domino, a chick who is extremely lucky. She calls it a superpower, though Deadpool doesn't. She's played by Zazie Beetz, expect to see her in the next film.

I enjoyed Deadpool 2, but compared to other Marvel films it's a sugary snack. Those can be refreshing, but you don't want to make a diet of them.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Loves of a Blonde

Loves of a Blonde, from 1965, was Milos Forman's second film, but the first to put him on the map internationally. It went to many festivals, and earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language film.

Though it has many comedic moments, Loves of a Blonde is a very sad film, depicting loneliness. Hana Brejchov√° is the lead, a young woman working in a shoe factory in a small town where the women outnumber the men 16-1. The factory manager throws a mixer so the female employees can meet soldiers bivouacking nearby. This turns out to be a fiasco, as the soldiers are actually middle-aged reservists who are already married. (One of them tries to hide his wedding ring and it rolls to the feet of the woman he's trying to seduce).

Brejchov√° ends up with the young pianist, who takes her back to his room and, despite her reticence, makes love to her. He tells her she's angular, and she wonders what that means. He says a woman is usually shaped like a guitar, but she is like a guitar painted by Picasso. He invites her to visit him in Prague, but really he intends on never seeing her again.

But some time later, she shows up at his apartment with a suitcase. He lives with his parents, and in a kind of sit-com plot, they don't know what to do with her. They have no idea who she is. The father is kind, and offers to let her stay the night, but the mother is fiercely against the idea. When the pianist shows up, he recognizes the girl, but his mother won't let them sleep in the same bed, making him share their bed. Brejchov√° overhears their conversation and realizing they don't give a whit about her, she weeps and returns home.

While this film is regarded as a comedy, I found the last act almost painful the way Forman cuts between her, stoically taking all the fuss, and the bickering of the parents. The mixer scene also has a sense of desperation, as the girls are disappointed in what they have to choose from (they end up hiding in the lavatory). Watching this film may give you the idea that love is impossible to find.

Though that's not a happy take-away, Loves of a Blonde is still a well-made film, intriguingly shot by Miroslav Ondricek and co-written by Forman and Ivan Passer.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

The Gold Rush

By 1925, Charlie Chaplin was the most famous person in the world. It had been four years since his last feature, The Kid, and fans were waiting impatiently for his next. It would be The Gold Rush, and it was one of the highest grossing silent films. It was also a critical success, as today some cite it as his best film.

When the sound era came in, Chaplin continued to make mostly silent films (City Lights, Modern Times), but in 1942 he took a look at The Gold Rush and added a musical score and narration to replace the intertitle cards. This was his definitive version, and he destroyed his prints of the 1925 version. In the 1990s, piecing together bits from prints around the world, the 1925 version was restored.

After seeing the film Dawson City: Frozen Time, I wanted to see The Gold Rush, which is set during the Klondike gold rush of 1898. I had a choice of seeing both versions, and went with the '42, seeing as Chaplin thought that was his final say on the subject. It makes some changes to the original, but is still a masterpiece of comedy and pathos.

Chaplin utilizes his Little Tramp character, this time known as the "Lone Prospector." To start with, he seems woefully unequipped for such a venture, just in his normal suit of clothes. He's freezing and hungry, and comes along the cabin of a criminal, Black Larsen, who wants to throw him out. But they are joined by Big Jim, a kind man who has just found a lot of gold, but they are snowed in.

This first act contains one of the famous scenes of the film--the eating of the shoe. Chaplin boils his shoe and eats the leather, downing the shoelaces like strands of spaghetti. I particularly liked a simple but effective bit: Larsen and Jim are fighting over a rifle, and no matter where Chaplin tries to hide the gun is pointed at him.

Later the scene shifts to town, where Chaplin becomes enamored of a dance-hall girl, Georgia. She is being pursued by the much bigger Jack, but Chaplin ends up amusing her. While he is cabin-sitting for a prospector, she and some friends come over and they enjoy some time. He invites them to come over for New Year's Eve, but is stood up. He has a dream where they are all enjoying themselves, and we get the famous dinner-roll dance scene, where Chaplin sticks two forks in dinner rolls and does a little dance with them. If someone only knows one Chaplin scene, it might be this one.

The last act contains the cabin on the precipice scene. The cabin that Jim and Chaplin share blows to the edge of a cliff, and there's much comedy as they move from side to side inside, making the cabin teeter.

The Gold Rush is certainly one of Chaplin's better films (I'd put it behind City Lights and Modern Times) and it incorporates much that he is known for--the forlorn but plucky little man, beset by bullies but honest and with integrity, and therefore able to finally win the girl. He is also invariably polite, tipping his derby at every chance.

The 1942 film has the odd use of narration. The actors are not dubbed, but Chaplin himself declaims the dialogue. He might have been wiser to have different actors read for the various characters, but once you get used to it you kind of forget it.

I'm unfamiliar with the other actors. Georgia Hale played Georgia, and it is presumed that she and Chaplin had an affair. She didn't act after sound came in. Mack Swain (Big Jim) was a vaudevillian who appeared in many films for Mack Sennett's Keystone Studio. Tom Murray was Black Larsen, and he and Swain both died in 1935.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Visions of a Life

I've enjoyed listening to Visions of a Life, the second album by British band Wolf Alice. I initially was interested in the group because of their name (it's from an Angela Carter story), proof that interesting names and titles can get you business.

So what kind of group is Wolf Alice? Hard to say, because they excel in making each song on the record sound different. So many groups find one sound and then repeat it over and over again, but not this one. Wikipedia classifies them as "alternative rock, indie rock," which I guess covers a lot of ground. They show their range best, I think, with the transition from track 2, a head-banger called "Yuk Foo," in which lead singer Ellie Rowsell yowls, "I wanna fuck all the people I meet Fuck all my friends and all the people in the street" to "Beautifully Unconventional," which has a pleasant pop sound that recalls The Sundays.

Later in the record there is a lovely folk sound in "After the Zero Hour," and the title track is a seven-minute-plus psychedelic epic, with some great drumming by Joel Amey.

I do have a bone to pick with Wolf Alice, though. The lyrics are impossible to make out in the songs, but are printed in the liner notes. But they are printed in small white letters on a light gray background, thus necessitating a magnifying glass to see them. I suppose an eagle could read them, if an eagle could read. So I had to check out their lyrics on a web site. The songs are mostly about feeling unmoored and confused while in one's twenties (I can relate, if I can remember that far back). But if you want to write meaningful lyrics, try to make them clear in the mix, and beyond that, make them legible in the printed material. Here is a sample from the title track:

"Why do I feel so strange?
A nuclear family and friends my own age
I follow the rules, do what it says on the tin but
I'm still on the outside still looking in
Why was I born with itchy feet?
And why do I hate all the people I meet?
People's ideals give me the chills to the bone
I got 1 thousandmillion friends and I feel so alone"

It's a great record, though.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

I Saw the Light

Hank Williams' life was like one of his songs. He was an alcoholic, a philanderer, irresponsible, and even had spina bifida, which got him hooked on pain pills. He died of heart failure at the age of 29. Sounds like a good movie subject. But I Saw the Light is not that movie.

I can't blame Tom Hiddleston, who plays Williams. He does his own singing, and to my untrained ear sounds great. Elizabeth Olsen plays his first wife, who endured a great deal of stress during their marriage (and had an abortion) and she is wonderful. But the script and direction by Marc Abraham is woeful.

First of all, Abraham doesn't seem to know how to direct a film. It's disjointed and often leaves viewers completely in the dark. Characters aren't introduced, they just show up. Much of the time we don't know where we are, or what time period, although sometimes we get title cards that give us a precise date when it's unnecessary. There are black and white scenes with Bradley Whitford as Fred Rose, who was Roy Acuff's partner and Williams' friend, as if it were a documentary, but these are the only interview segments, which make them seem completely out of place.

But beyond that, the film just doesn't say anything. After seeing it, I don't have any idea what made Williams tick. It starts with his marriage to Olsen, so we don't get any idea how he was introduced to music or why it was important to him. What made him an alcoholic? Why was he a cheater? Why did his wife stick with him? It's a complete guess.

Fortunately the music is good. Williams is one of the few country artists I can tolerate, and we hear most of his most famous songs (but not "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry").

Maybe in another generation someone will take another crack at a Williams biopic that will work.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018


Kodachrome, a Netflix original, is an example of good actors trying to prop up a mediocre script. It's full of cliches: the road trip, the reconciliation of father and son, and the transformation of a bristly relationship into a loving one.

Jason Sudeikis is a record company executive who loses his best band to another label. He is going to be fired, but talks his way into a last chance to sign a band that is about to break out. But he is visited by a young woman (Elizabeth Olsen) who is his father's caregiver. He's dying. But Sudeikis hates his father (Ed Harris), who is a famous photographer. Eventually he will agree to accompany them to the last place that develops Kodachrome film, in Kansas.

So here we have the road trip with father and son snapping at each other. Harris was a terrible father and a prick who speaks his mind. Of course they will start trying to bridge the gap, and I will admit their final reconciliation did bring a tear to my eye (I'm only human).

We also get the well-worn plot point of Sudeikis and Olsen not liking each other at first, but then ending up in the sack. This was as predictable as the sun rising in the east and setting in the west.

The film was saved by the fine performances of these three, especially Harris. It was a pleasure to see this veteran play an asshole. He is a photographer, and you can see how he thinks like one (the situation is true--a place in Kansas was the last to develop that kind of film). Although the reconciliation is contrived, both actors work hard to sell it.

The film was directed without much flair by Mark Raso, and written by A.G. Sulzberger, who happens to be the publisher of the New York Times. He might want to stick to journalism.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Whose Body?

One of the most renowned mystery writers of all time was Dorothy L. Sayers, who wrote ten novels and a number of stories featuring Lord Peter Wimsey, whom she described as a "cross between Fred Astaire and Bertie Wooster." I certainly got the Bertie Wooster part, as Wimsey is a great private detective but also something of a classic British twit, dressing idiosyncratically--"presently Lord Peter roamed in, moist and verbena-scented, in a bathrobe cheerfully patterned with unnaturally variegated peacocks"--and surrounding himself with antiquities and the niceties of life. In fact, the last line of the book, after the case is solved, is Wimsey calling on his somewhat robotic valet, Bunter--"The Napoleon brandy."

Whose Body? was the first Wimsey novel, published in 1923. We are introduced to Wimsey by some great metaphors, such as "His long, amiable face looked as if it had generated spontaneously from his top hat, as white maggots breed from Gorgonzola." He's the kind of guy who seems a pleasure to hang around with, an eccentric who is also comfortable with the lower classes. I was interested that he doesn't speak poshly, constantly dropping g's in his gerunds.

The case involves a corpse found in a bathtub, naked except for a pair of pince-nez. The bathtub belongs to a man named Thipps, who has no idea who the man is or how he got there. Wimsey's friend Parker, of Scotland Yard, is investigating the disappearance of a man named Reuben Levy, who bears a resemblance to the corpse, but is not him. Are they connected? (Of course they are).

Wimsey figures everything out, but there is a bit of regret in his ways, because he looks on it as a game. “That’s what I’m ashamed of, really,” said Lord Peter. “It is a game to me, to begin with, and I go on cheerfully, and then I suddenly see that somebody is going to be hurt, and I want to get out of it.”

Smart mystery readers who have read a lot of this may figure it out, but I didn't (I usually don't attempt to figure these out, as I would rather be surprised) but the British drollness is a pleasure to read. I would be glad to read the rest of the Wimsey novels.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Dawson City: Frozen Time

Dawson City, in the Yukon territory of Canada, was the epicenter of the Klondike gold rush of 1897-1898. It went from a native American fishing camp to a city of 40,000 almost over night. Few hit it rich by gold strikes, but the enterprising got rich by selling to the miners. That included entertainment, and Dawson City had a number of movie theaters, where silent films were a big attraction.

Dawson City was the end of the line in film distribution, and when it came time to send the films back the distributors didn't want them. So some films ended up in the Yukon River, some were burned, but a great deal of them ended up filling in a swimming pool, and weren't found again until 1978.

It is estimated that 75 percent of silent films have been lost. But Dawson City turned up a treasure trove of them. The films found, some in bad shape but still viewable, were restored. A total of 372 films that were thought to be lost find life again.

This is the subject of Bill Morrison's fascinating documentary Dawson City: Frozen Time. He tells the story of the films, all the while giving us numerous glimpses of those films. Usually they are given to us thematically--if someone talks about calling someone on the phone, we get scenes of actors on the phone, and so on. It's clever and must have been painstaking work.

These films have a ghostly quality. You may realize that everyone in them are long dead, but in addition to that the black and white nitrate film gives them an otherworldly look. It's like looking into the past.

A number of interesting people pop up during the film, associated with Dawson City. Fred Trump, the current president's grandfather, started the family fortune by running brothels (insert your own joke here). Future theater owners Sid Graumann and Alex Pantages spent some time here, the former working as a paperboy and the latter opening his first theater.

Today Dawson City has just a few thousand people and has a modest tourist trade. There is no movie theater. But, as this film shows, it was once a great place to see a movie.

Sunday, May 13, 2018


Marshall, a 2017 film directed by Reginald Hudlin, is a pretty good courtroom drama. But one has to wonder was this was the right film to make about Thurgood Marshall, the great lawyer and Supreme Court Justice?It takes place in 1941, when Marshall went to Bridgeport, Connecticut on behalf of the NAACP to defend a black man being tried for rape.

That's all fine, but the real spine of the film is the relationship between Marshall and a local attorney, Sam Friedman. The latter is not a criminal attorney, but gets pushed into sponsoring Marshall as an out-of-state counsel. The judge (James Cromwell) agrees, but with the stipulation that Marshall only work behind the scenes--he is not allowed to speak in court.

Basically, the film is about Friedman's character arc--at first he doesn't want the negative publicity. By the end, as we learn in a title card, he becomes a champion of Civil Rights legislation. Marshall, who is played firmly by Chadwick Boseman, is a bit of the "Magic Negro," who tells Friedman what to do and is resolute--even continuing the case after his wife has a miscarriage. We learn nothing about Marshall except that he's good at what he does.

There are better Marshall stories to tell, such as his arguing Brown v. Board of Education, or the Florida rape case that inspired the Pulitzer Prize-winning book Devil in the Grove. But instead, Hudlin decided to make a film in which Marshall props up a white man.

Okay. so I didn't get the movie I wanted, but what's there is fine. A wealthy woman (Kate Hudson) accuses her chauffeur (Sterling K. Brown) of raping her and throwing her in a reservoir. Marshall takes the case because Brown insists he is innocent. We get the usual courtroom drama stuff, such as leads that go nowhere, cat and mouse games played between lawyers, and grilling witnesses on the stand. It's good, and it has the serious background of racial discrimination.

Boseman, before he played Black Panther, played a lot of real-life figures, from Jackie Robinson to James Brown. He doesn't look like Marshall, but I could detect the gravelly voice of the man and what must have been extra confidence. Josh Gad, who plays Friedman, has the unfortunate task of playing something of a cliche, a Jewish nebbish who finally sees that discrimination against blacks is no less hurtful than anti-Semitism.

I recommend Marshall for those who like courtroom mysteries, but if you want to learn about Thurgood Marshall, you should watch a documentary or read a book about him.

Saturday, May 12, 2018


Like its star, Klaus Kinski, Werner Herzog's 1979 adaptation of Wozyeck is beautiful in its ugliness. The story, about a lowly soldier whose life sinks to the bottom, is depressing and without pity. But there's also something noble about the man, an everyman of sorts who is the victim of everyone around him.

The story is based on a play by George Blucher (which also was turned into an opera by Alban Berg, see below) and has been made into a few movies. This version is pretty accurate to the source material, and is done in scenes, like a play, without much intercutting. One scene, for example, at the end of the play is done by Kinski in one long take.

Franz Woyzeck is a private in the army. He's something of a whipping boy (during the credits sequence he is abused by an officer, made to do push-ups with not only a pack on this back, but the commander's boot on his neck). He shaves his captain, who calls him a good man but a man without morals.

Woyzeck has a child out of wedlock who lives with his mother, Marie (Eva Mattes). She is attracted to a drum major, who is blonde and muscular. Eventually she will succumb to his charms, and the drum major mocks and torments Woyzeck at a tavern.

If that weren't enough, Woyzeck is a guinea pig for a nutty doctor, who has had him eat nothing but peas for several months, so maybe we can guess why he's not feeling well.

Eventually Woyzeck cracks and I'll leave it at that, but I won't soon forget the expression on Kinski's face as he takes his revenge. Kinski usually didn't play characters this passive, but you can see the anguish in his face and movements. It's almost a silent performance.

Herzog's direction sets Woyzeck in a world of mud. The only flash of colors are in the captain and drum major's blue uniforms. Woyzeck and his wife live in drab brown. This makes for a film that is not particularly visually alluring, but is appropriate for the subject.

Woyzeck is a brisk 79 minutes. As I get older I realize that short films are usually better than long ones. People have to pee, and there is nothing unnecessary in it.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Iron Horse

Ray Robinson, not to be confused with Sugar Ray Robinson, was a magazine editor of publications that did not deal with sports, but nevertheless he wrote well-received biographies of sports figures from his youth. He died last year, and to pay tribute I read his biography of Lou Gehrig, titled Iron Horse: Lou Gehrig and His Time.

Robinson writes, in his introduction, "But through all the years of Yankee hegemony I preferred Gehrig, even as he played and lived constantly in the bulging shadow of Ruth." Mostly this is because Gehrig was sort of the white knight of baseball, compared to the raucous behavior of most ballplayers, especially Ruth. His opening chapter is about Ruth's "called home run" in the 1932 World Series, which is still argued about today. No one remembers that Gehrig, up next, hit a home run of his own.

Gehrig was born to German immigrants in 1903, and was something of a mama's boy. He went to Columbia and hit some memorably long home runs, and ended signing with the Yankees (John McGraw of the Giants took a look at him and didn't like what he saw, thus changing baseball history). He earned the first base job after the Yankees' Wally Pipp was hit in the head with a pitch in 1925. Gehrig did not relinquish the position for thirteen more years, or 2,130 games.

He was a prodigious hitter and worked to make himself a good first basemen. What one gets from the book that he was a perfectionist, sometimes breaking down in tears when he made a mistake. He played through many injuries, including a number of broken fingers. The streak was tweaked a little--sometimes he was lifted early, or just pinch hit. One game was cancelled by the Yankees president Ed Barrow because of rain, even though there wasn't a cloud in the sky.

After Ruth retired in 1934, Gehrig enjoyed some time as the greatest of Yankees, although in 1936 Joe DiMaggio came along and once again he was thrust in the shadows, and unfavorable press. "Lou’s difficulty with the press stemmed from his inability to master the art of small talk. Not adept at ornamental language or rhetorical flourishes, Lou had a tendency to speak in flat, un-dramatic sentences, much to the chagrin of reporters who wrote about the Yankees."

Robinson laments: "Ironically, Gehrig is now best remembered not for the committed way he played the game, but for the way he departed it on that lugubrious summer day in 1939 when he waved farewell to the fans at Yankee Stadium because he was stricken in the prime of life with an incurable disease." The last few chapters, when the perfectionist was mystified why his skill were deteriorating, are indeed sad. But his speech, which is now the centerpiece of the movie about him, The Pride of the Yankees, is a rousing finish to a great career.

Robinson, as noted, loved Gehrig, and takes every opportunity to take shots at Babe Ruth. He does mention the rumor that on a boat to Japan for a tour, Ruth and Gehrig's wife, Eleanor, had too much to drink and had sex, which she vociferously denied. "But for mere mortals, such as himself, Gehrig thought the rules had to be strictly obeyed; a man was not entitled to breathe too freely. He adhered to a moral code loftier, certainly, than the Babe’s, risking accusations from some that he was rigid, stuffy, and self-righteous. In his own self-abnegating way, he was a believer in dignified behavior. He was convinced others should share his sense of pride in being a New York Yankee.” Ruth attended Gehrig's farewell day, but Robinson notes that they hadn't spoken in years.

Gehrig was something of a sphinx, but Robinson does reveal certain details about him, such as that Eleanor exposed culture to him, and he particularly enjoyed operas and ballets. I also never knew that after he retired from baseball Mayor LaGuardia appointed him as a parole commissioner. He crossed paths with a young tough who would one day be known as Rocky Graziano, who credited Gehrig with helping set him on the right path.

Robinson's prose style is part baseball boilerplate part lofty academics. You'll be reading along to standard sports talk and then get a literary reference. This kind of pleased me, as sports writers are always pulling literary allusions out of thin air, which makes what they're writing about something greater than it is.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Cost of Living

When the Pulitzer Prizes are announced it always puts a bee in my bonnet--I need to see or read the winner for Drama. When I lived in New Jersey and the show was still running, that was easy, or if the play has been published. But Martyna Martyna Majok's Cost of Living is not playing in Las Vegas (surprise!) and has not had a publication yet. But! I found that there is an acting version available from Dramatist's Play Service, so ordered it and read it.

Majok is one of a number of women playwrights who have reinvigorated the American drama scene. Of the last ten Pulitzers for drama, half have gone to women, which is a positive development.

Cost of Living is not a reference to monetary conditions but just the basic cost of living, that is living our lives. There are two parallel stories, bot involving a "differently-abled person." (One of those people hates that designation, and calls it "fucking retarded"). One pair is a man and his wife. They are separated, but she has sustained an accident making her a quadriplegic. She is understandably bitter, as the man, Eddie, has left her for another woman but comes around offering his services as a caregiver (he's an out of work truck driver).

The other has a wealthy man with cerebral palsy, John, hiring a new caregiver. She is Jess, an immigrant's daughter who is also working two other bartending jobs. She's from the lower class, although she says she's a Princeton grad, while he is from the upper class. An attachment of sorts forms, as she must wash him, but it's not the attachment she thinks it is.

The other pair also have an intimate moment when Ani, the disabled woman, allows Eddie to work for her. He bathes her, and there are stirrings of their married life. At least until he runs into the kitchen and she slides under the water (temporarily).

I can't think of another play that deals so frankly with the disabled, and in the introduction Majok implores those who put on the play to use disabled actors, as the previous professional productions have done.

The dialogue in Cost of Living is smart, sarcastic, and frank (as Majok notes, the word "fuckin," is used frequently in New Jersey, where it is set. I found the last act, when the two stories intersect, the weakest part of the play, as it contains a decision that seems a bit half-baked. But otherwise, it's a worthy winner, and I would love to see it performed.

Wednesday, May 09, 2018


The next Grammy-winning record I'll write about is the one for Best Opera, which went to the Houston Symphony's recording of Albert Berg's Wozzeck.

Now, when it comes to opera, I have a gaping hole in my knowledge. I've always tried to get it--I went to a performance of La Boheme at the Met and enjoyed it, but there's something forbidding about it. Maybe it's that most operas are in languages other than English, or maybe it's the complexity of the music.

So I found myself way over my head in listening to Wozzeck. This is a twentieth-century composition. Berg was part of a new wave of composers that used atonal music--that is, without a key. The cliche about it is that it can sound like a cat walking across a keyboard. The liner notes mentions that at its premiere in 1925, "A number of the press foamed with rage, noting the absence of melodies." I didn't foam with rage, but the music didn't move me or inspire me. It's not La Traviata.

The opera is based on a nineteenth-century play called Woyzeck by George Blucher. I ordered a copy of the play so I could understand the plot, but when it arrived I realized it was in German. The play was unfinished at the time of Blucher's death, and there are many different translations and adaptations. Basically, Wozzeck is a sad-sack soldier who is cuckolded by his wife. He kills her then drowns himself. He also submits to medical experiments by a sinister doctor. So it's a comedy (not).

The vocalists are all top notch, of course, led by Roman Trekel as Wozzeck and Anne Schwanewillms as his wife. I won't give up on opera, but next time I'll try something simpler, like Carmen.

Tuesday, May 08, 2018


Tully has three acts that are all like different films. The first act is effective birth control, as it shows the horrors and drudgery of a pregnant woman (Charlize Theron) who already has two kids. One of them is a kindergartner who is repeatedly referred to as "quirky." (The words autism or Asperger's are never mentioned, but that would seem to be the case). The film opens with Theron brushing him to calm him down.

This continues after she gives birth, when she has post-partum depression (she had pre-partum depression, too). Her husband (Ron Livingston) is a nice guy but useless, as his routine, Theron says, is to come home from work, kill zombies, and pass out.

During this act we meet Theron's rich brother (Mark Duplass), who suggests she get a night nanny--a person who will watch the kids while the parents sleep. Theron's middle class world is contrasted with that of her brother's, which is perfect and well-managed. A daughter's talent for the talent show is pilates, for example. That his wife is Asian seems to be pushing it into stereotype.

Theron finally gets the night nanny, the title character, (Mackenzie Davis), and we're into act two, which might be described as new-age Mary Poppins. Davis is young and thin and a free spirit who knows facts about all sorts of things and presents philosophical questions, such as since all our cells die and are replaced, are we the same person as we once were? She cleans the house spic-and-span and makes cupcakes and one can imagine that she did float in with an umbrella.

During this act, I was waiting for the other shoe to drop, and when it does, it thumps very loudly. The two women, who have bonded, go out for a night on the town. We get a twist ending that I didn't see coming--if you want to see this film, do it before it's spoiled for you, because it will make you reevaluate everything you've seen before. There's some controversy about it, and reasonable people can disagree whether it works--you either buy it or you don't. I did, because without it things don't make sense. It does introduce plot holes, but it's only a movie.

Tully was written by Diablo Cody, who has popped out three kids since she struck gold with Juno over ten years ago. It was directed by Jason Reitman. Both of them have curbed some of the preciousness of their previous work, and Tully is gritty and painful at times.

The best thing about it is the performance of Theron, who deglams and convinced me that she was a working class mom and not an internationally famous model/actress. A scene in which she removes a stained top, revealing her stomach after giving birth, prompting her daughter to ask, "Mom, what's wrong with your body?" is sure to get recognition laughs from any women who have given birth. Theron reportedly put on fifty pounds for the role (plus effective prosthetics) but more than her physical transformation, it's the deadness in her eyes, the casual refusal to hold her baby in the hospital, the anger at a nurse waiting for her to pee, that crystallize the difficulties that go along with childbirth.

Monday, May 07, 2018

The Thin Man

I was in the mood for a comedy so I searched the archives at Filmstruck and found that they were calling some films comedies that weren't really that funny. Then I came to The Thin Man, which is funny, and I have seen many times, but not recently, so I had an imaginary martini and put it on.

The Thin Man, one of the essential classics of Hollywood cinema, was made in 1934 quickly and cheaply. It was directed by W. S. Van Dyke and written by Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich, who were a married couple. It shows, because it is one of the best depictions of a married couple in love that we have.

Based on a novel by Dashiell Hammett (I read it when I was in a kid in one sitting), The Thin Man is a mystery, but that really plays second fiddle to the chemistry between stars William Powell and Myrna Loy. They are Nick and Nora Charles, respectively. He's a former detective, she's an heiress, so he's retired and enjoying the easy life. When she suggests he take the case of the missing scientist, he says "I haven't the time. I'm much too busy seeing that you don't lose any of the money I married you for."

The film is full of lines like that, such as when Nora says, "It says you were shot five times in the tabloids," and his response is "They never got near my tabloids." Or Nora, at the culminating dinner at the end, says: "Waiter, will you serve the nuts? I mean, will you serve the guests the nuts?"

There is a lot of drinking in this film, so it probably shouldn't be screened at an AA meeting. The very first thing we hear Nick say is his tutorial on shaking mixed drinks: "The important thing is the rhythm. Always have rhythm in your shaking. Now a Manhattan you shake to fox-trot time, a Bronx to two-step time, a dry martini you always shake to waltz time." Nora, catching up with him at the bar, finds that he has already had five martinis so she orders that same number, lined up in a row.

The mystery part of it doesn't make a lot of sense--Nick knows things just because he knows them. The body count is high for a comedy: three dead. And it ends with one of those corny gathering all of the suspects in one room tropes. But none of that is important.

There were five more films featuring the Charles', all with the "Thin Man" in the title, even though Nick Charles is not the thin man--that was the sobriquet for the first murder victim. Those are not as good as the original. I still enjoy watching Nick shoot Christmas ornaments off a tree with an air gun between his legs, or their beloved wire-haired fox terrier, Asta. Perhaps my favorite line in the film is when Asta, playing with a balloon, pops it. Nora, sad as can be, says, "Oh Asta your balloon busted."

Sunday, May 06, 2018

The Firemen's Ball

After a delay I'm getting back to my look at the films of Milos Forman. Next up is The Firemen's Ball, from 1967, Forman's last Czech film. He would go on to Hollywood, in exile, and the film, though seemingly a harmless comedy, was banned in Czechoslovakia "forever."

The Firemen's Ball is exactly what the title says it is. A volunteer fire company in a small city is having their annual soiree, and nothing seems to go right. A table full of raffle prizes is constantly being pilfered from (at one point, they turn out the lights to have the prizes replaced, but when they turn them back on there are more prizes missing), and the firemen have a torturous experience trying to put on a beauty pageant.

Forman used amateur actors, and one of the charms of the film is that there are no stars and no one of any particular beauty, which makes it realistic. Some of the men are missing teeth. The women gathered for the beauty pageant are a motley crew, but the men recruiting them or even more motley.

As to why this film was banned, it could be seen as a suggestion that the state is incompetent, but I think that's universal. Firemen had a better reason to be upset, as they are depicted as clueless bumblers. When there is a fire they can't get the fire engine unstuck from the snow so simply watch a man's house burn down. He's brought, in his sleepwear, dazed, to the ball and given raffle tickets. "I need money," he hopelessly wails.

Saturday, May 05, 2018

Miss Burma

For those looking for a history lesson on the nation of Burma (now called Myanmar) you might look in a history book. Or you could slog your way through Miss Burma, a novel by Charmaine Craig that tells the story of Burma from about the beginning of World War II, when it was a British colony invaded by the Japanese, to the mid-'60s through the eyes of one family.

The story begins with an Anglo-Indian Jew, Benny, marrying Khin, a Karen woman (Karens, I learned, are a distinct ethnic group from Burmans, who are the predominant group in Burma, and have been historically oppressed). They have four children, the oldest being Louisa, who wins the title contest and becomes a film star.

In between all this Benny is jailed as a political prisoner, Khin has an affair with a general named Lynton, who will later marry Louisa.

Sadly, much of the book is the women in the story using men to survive, which I'm sure was true but makes for depressing reading. There are a few historical people involved, namely Ne Win, who was a tyrant and, supposedly, kept Louisa as a mistress.

I started out liking the book, as I certainly don't anything about Burma and it was pretty interesting. But as the book wore on I cared less and less about the characters, and the politics got confusing. There are a couple of American CIA agents involved, and it was never clear to me what they were up to. Overall, the book feels like a romance novel that has aspirations of being literary.

Friday, May 04, 2018


So far I'm impressed with what I've seen of Olivia Cooke, who was in two recent films: Thoroughbreds and Ready Player One, and was very good in Me and Earl and the Dying Girl from a few years ago. I was in the mood for a dumb horror movie and she's made a few--they will be the little embarrassments on her resume after she hits it big.

One of them is Ouija, from 2014, which, no kidding, is based on the Hasbro board game. Hasbro, of course, had to give permission for the use of the board, but if this movie were true they might have quite the liability suit on their hands.

The movie starts with two little girls playing with the board, but nothing evil happens. We do here some important rules, though: don't play it alone, don't play it in a graveyard, etc. Flash forward several years, when the girls are in high school. Deb (Shelley Hennig) has played it alone and awakened some ghosts in her house. She ends hanging from the ceiling.

Cooke is her best friend and along with some friends try to figure out what happened to Henning. The ghosts are a ten-year-old girl with her lips sewn shut and her screaming mother, but just who is the bad one is left until the end of the film.

The film is directed by Stiles White without much flair. The scares are minimal, and the plot fairly obvious. When we spend a few seemingly pointless minutes with a boy struggling with a pool cover, we can bet he'll end up drowning in it before the end of the movie.

But I will say Cooke is very good, though she has to do some dumb things.