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Saturday, June 30, 2018

Hell-On

Neko Case's seventh solo album, Hell-On, is another masterpiece. I believe I have five of her records and all of them are fine listening. This one follows a couple of ugly circumstances in her life. Her house in Vermont burned down, and she battled a newspaper that printed her home address, which of course can make a celebrity prone to stalkers feel very vulnerable.

The cover, which shows Case wearing a crown of cigarettes and a flame perched on her shoulder, probably refers to the fire. But if you look for meaning in her lyrics, it's not there. Her lyrics on this album are dazzling but mysterious. I could quote from all of them but I'll settle for two. This from the title and opening track:

"My voice is not the liquid waves
The perfect rings around a heron's legs
My voice is straight garroting wire
A stolen mile of fingerprints
Peeled the quiet from the dunes
Captured and re-spooled as ruin to be used
At a different time"

The mini-epic "Curse of the I-5 Corridor" appears to be about a woman who has decided not to go home with a man after much consideration:

"So I left home and faked my ID
I fucked every man that I wanted to be
I was so stupid then
Why should mystery give its last name
Baby I'm afraid
But it's not your fault
Maybe I should go
Home alone tonight"

"My Uncle's Navy" seems to be about an uncle of Case's who was a sailor and not a nice man:

"Deputized by the cruel god of children
No running water in his soul, just a hole
Echoed when he called your name from down the hall
His name was a command that cuts the ears off fightin' dogs
Then wipes the knife on his militia pants"

Musically, the songs are complex. The only song that can be called a standard pop song is "Bad Luck," which is a real earworm. Most of the songs were written by Case and Paul Ringby, but A.C. Newman, her partner in The New Pornographers, and Laura Viers also contribute to the writing. One song is written entirely by Eric Bachmann of Archers of Loaf. It's called "Sleep All Summer" and the way Case sings this poignant line: "Why won't you fall back in love with me" will break your heart.

Of course Case also has a fantastic and interesting voice. She belts, but also knows how to wrap certain words in a velvet cushion. I reiterate that right now she is my favorite female vocalist/musician/songwriter.

Friday, June 29, 2018

Red Dust

I've been fascinated with Jean Harlow for a while now. Despite the terrible rendition of her in this poster, she was a beauty, but styled in her time (so many women in old movies were made to look older than they were). She died at age 26 in 1937, and her burial place is in a closed off wing in a mausoleum at Forest Lawn. Her death shocked the nation.

Many of her films have slipped into obscurity, but Filmstruck has a number of them on hand. Most of the films she made were pre-code, so she was allowed to be more sassy and unclothed than later films. That's certainly true of Red Dust, where she even takes a bath, showing her bare shoulders and implying she's naked (it's nice to think she really was).

She plays a prostitute (though that word is never spoken) who ends up at a rubber plantation in Indochina. The place is run by the rough-hewn Clark Gable. He's not too happy about her being stranded there, until she makes him laugh with a joke about cheese and they presumably become intimate.

A young engineer (Gene Raymond) arrives with his wife (Mary Astor). They're from society, and are a bit put off by the rustic surroundings. Harlow, who is brassy and sarcastic, doesn't mix well with Astor, whom she calls "the Duchess." But soon enough, Gable and Astor yield to temptation, after he carries her back to her room through a rainstorm. Harlow isn't too happy about it.

The film, like Casablanca, is about a man who has not cared about much becoming noble. It's a great ending, especially the last line of the film, with Gable and Harlow together. "Roquefort or Gorgonzola?" Gable asks Harlow.

Gable and Harlow made six films together, and have great chemistry. She has some great lines, like: "I thought we might run up a few curtains and make a batch of fudge while we were planning on what to wear to the country club dance Saturday night." She has great comic timing.

The film has aged in some unpleasant ways. The workers on the plantation are called coolies, and are described as lazy. Gable's cook (Willie Fung) is a stereotypical Chinese person. I suppose he made a good living playing many characters like that.

Red Dust was directed by Victor Fleming, who went on to direct Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Fuck You, Anthony Kennedy

Progressives have absorbed a series of staggering blows from the Supreme Court in the last couple of weeks, and are punch-drunk. The knockout was when Anthony Kennedy announced his retirement after thirty years on the highest court of the land. Facebook was full of "We're fucked" memes.

It's true that progressives have a love/hate relationship with Kennedy, who was appointed by Ronald Reagan (after Robert Bork went down to defeat, and Douglas Ginsburg had to withdraw after admitting to smoking pot--how times have changed). Bork would have been much worse, as Kennedy was a reliable liberal vote on progressive issues. When the history of gay rights in this country is written, he'll be a prominent name, as he wrote decisions that banned sodomy laws and ensured gay marriage. He also voted to affirm Roe v. Wade.

However, he also wrote the Citizens United opinion, one of the worst of recent years (that says that corporations are people) and was on the wrong side of Bush v. Gore. As he went out, he was the deciding vote on five terrible decisions that erode at the rights of all Americans--allowing Ohio to purge voting rolls, allowing Texas to gerrymander to keep Republicans in office, allowing a baker to not have to serve gay customers, upholding Trump's Muslim travel ban, and to weaken trade unions by not requiring dues from those who do not join the union. Then he basically slipped out the door with both middle fingers raised.

All of this started with the Republican's unconscionable postponing the replacement of Antonin Scalia with Obama's choice of Merrick Garland. Presumably Garland would have flipped most of those cases, which would have made this a terrible week for Fox News, not MSNBC. Neil Gorsuch, who was given Garland's stolen seat, was part of the conservative cabal on all decisions. Now the court is an obvious political battle zone, with five nominees by Republican presidents and four by Democratic presidents.

Kennedy, whom I just read was buttered up and pushed out the door by Trump and his minions, like it or not, was the swing vote ever since Sandra Day O'Connor retired. Now there is no swing vote, just a wait to see who Trump will pick. It's supposed to be from a list of 25 names that was assembled by the Federalist Society and the American Heritage Foundation, both right-wing groups, completely eliminating any pretense of balance. Trump has stated he wants Roe v. Wade overturned, and if he gets his pick confirmed, this will probably happen sooner or later. The gay rights Kennedy enshrined are in peril, too. We may well go right back to 1954.

I mention that year because one name on Trump's list is Anne Coney Barret, who was just confirmed last year as a circuit judge even after declining to say whether Brown v. Board of Education was rightly decided. A fierce Catholic, she would certainly overturn Roe and send women back into the alleys to get coat-hanger abortions.

None of these 25 names is a David Souter or Harry Blackmun, a judge appointed by a Republican president who managed to turn liberal. These are scary conservatives, the kind that liberals tell stories about around the campfire. The name most mentioned is Brett Kavanaugh, who was a protege of Kenneth Starr. Kenneth Starr! Amul Thapar, who would at least bring diversity to the court as the first Asian-American on the court, once sentenced a nun to three years in jail for protesting.

No matter who it is, we are fucked, and it seems unlikely to stop it (the hope is that Senators Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins might flip if Roe v. Wade is threatened. Also, Jeff Flake and Bob Corker are lame ducks who owe Trump nothing, and who knows what John McCain would do). But we have a chance--elect a Democratic president in 2020 (who will immediately lift the travel ban) and hope that Clarence Thomas, who is morbidly obese, keels over dead. He would have to do it with a Democratically-controlled Senate, and early in the president's term, so we don't get the "the next president should appoint this justice").

So keep eating, Justice Thomas, and get out and vote, Democrats. Or The Handmaid's Tale will be real life.

And fuck you, Anthony Kennedy. Don't let the door hit you on the ass on the way out.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Experimental Film

"You could argue—as I have more than enough times, as part of my Film History lecture—that, no matter its actual narrative content, every movie is a ghost story." So writes Gemma Files in her interesting but uneven novel, Experimental Film. Set in Canada, it revolves around a film critic researching the first woman in Canada to make films, and a Slavic fairy tale character behind it all.

The context of the book is fascinating. Lois Cairns narrates. She is an expert on Canadian film (I must say that seems like a small subject). A woman named Iris Whitcomb made some films in the silent era about a Wendish myth, Lady Midday, who would show up at noon and sometimes cut your head off (Whitcomb is fictional, Lady Midday is a thing).

Cairns has an autistic son, and is constantly at odds with an experimental filmmaker named Wrob. She will also have a mysterious series of seizures. Files, through Cairns, gives a lot of info on early filmmaking: "Silver nitrate film, in particular, is the Schrödinger’s Cat of cinema—you can open the box once, maybe, take a look inside, but after that you kind of have to take it on faith it ever existed in the first place. But then, all film is illusion; it’s just an illusion that looks like the truth."

The book starts slowly--I wondered if it was a horror novel or not--but the last section moves swiftly and tautly. This is where the book turns to the supernatural, which almost seems like a mistake, since Cairns is such a logical character and she's led to understand that Lady Midday is real.

So I give the first half two stars and the last half four stars, averaging out to a three. This reminded me of a film I saw a few months ago called Dawson City: Frozen Time, in which many films from the silent era were unearthed (all shot with silver nitrate). As Files writes: "In its purest form, done right, watching an experimental film is the closest you can come to dreaming another person’s dreams. Which is why to watch one is, essentially, to invite another person into your head, hoping you emerge haunted."

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

The Ladykillers

One of the best dark comedies ever made, The Ladykillers is also one of the best films to make Ealing Studios famous. For a while in the '50s (this film is from 1955) that studio made a series of droll, mordant comedies, most of them starring Alec Guinness.

Guinness stars here, as a master criminal. He has rented a house from a little old lady (Katie Johnson) and plans to use her in his robbery. His associates pretend to be playing classical music while instead they plot the crime.

In a touch of Warner Brothers cartoons, these so-called criminals are no match for Johnson, who is guileless yet imperturbable, like Granny in the Tweetie Bird shorts. She dotes on her parrots and has a thing about serving tea, but she manages to beat these crooks at their own game.

Co-starring with Guinness is Cecil Parker as the faux-British gentleman, Danny Green as the hulking ex-boxer, Herbert Lom as the vicious one, and Peter Sellers in an early role that is oddly bland. Ironically, Lom and Sellers would team up many years later as Inspector Clouseau and Commissioner Dreyfuss in the Pink Panther films.

Written by William Rose, and directed by Alexander Mackendrick (who also made Sweet Smell of Success, which couldn't be more different), The Ladykillers is a savagely funny film. At a certain point the gang concludes they must kill the old lady to keep her from talking. They draw matches to see who will do it. After that person fails, there is a cut to a hand holding four matches--brilliant. This film gets everything about black humor right, while amazingly, the Coen Brothers, who are also known for dark humor, got the remake completely wrong.

Guinness is a hoot. Wearing prosthetic teeth that make him look like Alistair Sim (who was supposed to play the role), he is perfect as a smart man who keeps seeing his brilliant plan go astray. He utters the marvelous line "What else could go wrong." Late in the film he admits his plan was done in by the human element.

The climax of the film, above a railroad tunnel, is equal parts Coyote vs. the Roadrunner and Spy vs. Spy. Somewhere in England there was a train full of dead bodies.

Monday, June 25, 2018

American Animals

Maybe you're like me and occasionally be in a bank or some other place with valuable things and take a look around and wonder how, if you were to rob it, what would your plan be? I, of course, would never do it, because I would never, ever want to go to jail, but in the 2018 film American Animals, some college students decide to give it a go.

Set in Lexington, Kentucky, this true story involves a young man who attends Transylvania College (the coolest name of a school in the U.S., if you ask me). Their special collections room in the library contains some very valuable manuscripts, the cornerstone being a first edition of Audubon's Birds of America, valued at twelve million dollars. The young man (played by Barry Keoghan) sees that it is very lightly guarded, and shares this information with his best friend, a loose cannon (Evan Peters).

Using Internet articles and old heist movies as their guide, they plan to steal the books. They end up recruiting two others. Though the audience can see how stupid this is, they want to escape their humdrum existence, and as Peters said, have a life like the ending of The Shawshank Redemption. Keoghan rightly tells him that only happens in the movies.

Written and directed by Bart Layton, American Animals is an examination of quietly desperate youth, who want to have adventures and a great life but have no idea how to do it. This might have made a crisp little crime drama--the robbery itself is masterfully suspenseful--but Layton decides to elevate it to being some kind of metaphor for the eternal chasing of the American dream. A painting of a flamingo in the book is a frequent image--Keoghan even imagines he sees one on a road late at night. I can only suppose that a flamingo represents the exotic, the coastal paradise that the boys long for.

American Animals also makes another mistake that I see all of the time--it references movies that are better than it. Reservoir Dogs gets a lot of mentions (Peters decides to give them names that are colors, including calling the macho driver the moniker of "Mr. Pink") and there's even a clip of Stanley Kubrick's The Killing. When I see or hear these references, it makes me realize I'd rather be watching those films.

I think Layton has a future as a director, but could probably use a stronger editor (the film is just under two hours but feels like it's half again as long) and can save the messages. If you want to send a message, we all know, call Western Union.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Three Comrades

Perhaps the most significant thing about Frank Borzage's 1938 film, Three Comrades, is that is the only film credited to F. Scott Fitzgerald. Based on the novel by Erich Maria Remarque, it is an interesting if superficial look at Germany between the wars, albeit with American actors.

Robert Taylor, Franchot Tone, and Robert Young are three German soldiers and friends. The film begins with the end of the war. The three buddies start an auto repair shop together. One day they are out driving in the country and meet a young woman (Margaret Sullavan). Taylor is smitten, and they begin a romance. Meanwhile, Young is involved in a political organization that is resistant to the burgeoning right-wing movement that will become the Nazi Party.

The dialogue, presumably Fitzgerald's, is snappy and erudite. I particularly like a scene when Taylor tells Sullavan about his non-existent travels in South America. The three of them together are always quipping, like a proto-Rat Pack (they also do a lot of drinking).

It's a good film aside from moments of excess sentimentality (the ending, which includes ghostly figures of the dead and choir music is way too much). Other scenes our handled much better by Borzage, especially a scene in which Tone, exacting revenge, tracks a man through snowy streets and shoots him outside a church, from which the Hallelujah Chorus can be heard.

There is another aspect that I found kind of creepy. Taylor marries Sullavan, but it's as if she married all three men. The other two dote on her, kiss her on the lips, and pretty much go everywhere she and Taylor go. Don't Tone and Young have love lives of their own? It plays almost like polyamory.

Sullavan received an Oscar nomination for Best Actress. I don't think I'd ever seen her before (she made only 16 films) and might now be more famous for being one of Henry Fonda's wives. She's very interesting here, almost as if she were another plane. When you first hear her cough you know what's going to happen yet she avoids some of the cliches of the dying woman type.

All in all, Three Comrades is worth seeing, if only for the depiction of friendship as it ought to be (more than it really is).

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Black Peter

So many directors choose themes of youth as their first film. Think of Francois Truffaut's The 400 Blows, or Federico Fellini's I Vitteloni. I suppose this is explainable in that this is what the director knows (often they are autobiographical) and they are cheap to make.

Milos Forman's first film, made in 1964, was Black Peter, about what we would call today a slacker. Petr has just acquired his first job, watching for shoplifters in a market. He is awkward at it, looking conspicuous, and when he suspects a man of stealing something he follows him all over town, but does not confront him.

At home, he has an overbearing father who specializes in criticizing anything Petr does. This dad likes to tuck his thumbs into his suspenders and strut around like an attorney talking to the jury.

Later, Petr goes to a party with a girl he likes. He runs into a kind named Cenda, who is a bricklayer's apprentice. He's kind of a rube, and Petr tolerates him with amusement (he even lends him money). Later, Petr's father makes Cenda show him his hands, and says to Petr that this is a real worker.

Petr is the kind of kid we might all have been at some point or another. He doesn't know what he wants, and one can imagine he turned into a revolutionary. Politics is not openly spoken of in the film, but the father sort of represents a government that is constantly watching people and nitpicking everything.

Black Peter ambles along, without much plot. It's not a great film but it shows signs of Forman's later greatness. I do wonder about the ending though. It doesn't as much end as it does stop.

Friday, June 22, 2018

Circling the Runway

Jake Diamond, J.L. Abramo's gumshoe in Circling the Runway, is an affectionate throwback to private eyes of the golden age. He's a loner, has a particular drink (George Dickel whiskey), has a sassy secretary, and a difficult relationship with the San Francisco police department. He enjoys classic novels--throughout this one he is reading Victor Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre Dame (in paperback). He also has a gift for similes and metaphors, though not close to anything of Philip Marlowe's: "His head felt the size of the Trans America Pyramid, point and all." "I walked into the office at ten minutes before nine. I looked like a million bucks. Green and wrinkled." "I decided I had as much chance of getting into Johnson’s good graces as Pete Rose had of getting into the Hall of Fame." And, "Johnson’s patience was being tested, and the sergeant’s patience was not an A student."

Johnson is Sergeant Roxton Johnson, San Francisco detective, investigating the murder of the district attorney. A flurry of bodies follows, involving some of the city's more colorful gangsters. A compendium of Italian names runs throughout, such as Carmine Cicero, Johnny Voglio, and a guy named Vincent Stradivarius, so of course he's known as Vinnie Strings.

Diamond is drawn into the mix to prove that a gangster's cousin isn't the one who killed a mutilated body found in the back of a stolen car. Through much of the book he kind of plays second-fiddle to Johnson and his boss, the beautiful Linda Lopez, who Johnson caught stealing a piece of evidence from the crime scene.

Abramo keeps a lot of balls in the air, maybe too many. A subplot a creep stalking Diamond's secretary, Darlene Roman, is completely superfluous. The ending features one of the things I hate most in crime novels: the villain explaining everything he did, which I think is lazy writing. Also, the book has an odd structure where Diamond narrates his chapters, but the ones without him are in the third person. I preferred being in the company of Diamond, because even if he's not really hard-boiled, at least he's soft-boiled.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Blooms of Darkness

Blooms of Darkness, by Aharon Appelfeld, reminds me of those times we hear about a female teacher seducing an underage boy. Though we make not speak it aloud many men will inevitably think, especially if the woman is attractive, "Where was she when I was in school?" This is a sharp difference from when the genders are reversed--then the male teacher is a predator and the underage girl is a traumatized victim.

I'm not smart enough to figure out why that is; I guess there's a long literary tradition of boys being taught sex by older women. That's the case in Blooms of Darkness, when a young Jewish boy hides out from the Germans in a brothel.

Appelfeld, who passed away recently, is about the age of his hero, Hugo, in the book--11 through 13. He is a child in the Ukraine, the son of two beloved pharmacists. His father is dragged away to a concentration camp, and his mother is going to flee, but first she leaves him in the care of her childhood friend, Mariana, who is plying her trade. Hugo is kept in the closet, but Mariana comes to have great affection for him, and vice versa. "In recent days Hugo has felt an agitation in his body, and when Mariana hugs him, the pleasure grows stronger. It seems to Hugo that this is a feeling it’s forbidden to express openly, but when he is lying in Mariana’s embrace in bed, he allows himself to kiss her neck."

She calls him her puppy and speaks of herself in the third person, often like a simpleton. But Hugo is naturally entranced by her. Though it is not specifically described, it is clear that Mariana takes him to her bed for sex.

While the war is still going on the two have to sweat out searching Germans, because anyone hiding a Jew will be executed. Then, after the war, the two take to the hills to find a home, while the victorious Russians will kill anyone, including prostitutes, who were friendly with the Germans.

I have no idea if this really happened to Appelfeld, but the book feels like a memory, the kind where a young person remembers their first love many years later with the wistful patina of nostalgia. The writing is simple and straightforward, and is at times too treacly, especially when Mariana carries on. But she does have some rules for life; "Wait a moment, I forgot the main thing—a bathtub. In our house there has to be a bathtub. Without a bathtub, life isn’t life. You have to lie in the bathtub for  two or three hours every day. That’s the kind of life I foresee. What do you think?”

Blooms of Darkness is basically The Summer of '42 set during the holocaust. I suppose if one is going to be caught in such a bind, there are worst ways to spend it than in the closet of a whore with a heart of gold.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Immigration Man

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, "The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function." I guess that's how the U.S. has functioned, because we do hold two ideas at the same time. One is that we're a nation of immigrants, welcomed by the Statue of Liberty, a paradise where anyone, no matter how poor or what their background is, can be successful. The other is that we have always resisted immigration, especially if it is people that are not like us. Since the beginning, anyone who is not a white Anglo-Saxon has been harassed, discriminated against, and treated like dirt: the Irish, the Germans, the Italians, the Poles, the Hispanics, the Asians. African people, of course, were forced into slavery, and had their children sold away from them. Indians had their children taken away and put in schools to "civilize" them.

Therefore the recent atrocities committed by the government in detaining asylum-seekers and removing their children from them and put into cages should strike someone as nothing new. But it is horrifying that in this day and age it still has to be argued about. It is cruel and barbaric, and anyone who can't see that has been so twisted by either racism or xenophobia or both is swimming in a cesspool of immorality.

There has been a lot of misinformation about this policy. Like the women who are at the restaurant, and one says, "The food here is terrible," and the other says, "And the portions are so small," the alt-right has taken a position that this is no big deal and that this is the Democrats fault. So, basically, they are agreeing with Bill Clinton, who they say started this policy. No. The law they are talking about refers to removing children from unfit parents, not using them as a bargaining chip to get a folly of a wall built.

Jefferson Sessions, the elf that now is Attorney General, cited a Biblical passage justifying the policy. Besides the fact that we don't use the Bible to make our laws, the passage he used has been fodder for those justifying any bad law, such as slavery.

Beyond this is our national phobia about immigrants. Once upon a time they came by boatload and were processed at Ellis Island. Some of them stayed in cities, others went West. Some made it, some didn't. But many persevered, and about 40 percent of today's Americans are descended from those immigrants. I would say that worked out okay. A study shows that immigration actually helps the economy, because it increases consumerism and immigrants perform jobs that many other Americans won't do. But this study was killed the ghoul Steven Miller, who not only has one of the more punchable faces I've ever seen, but also to be evil incarnate. Saturday Night Live used to portray Steve Bannon as the Grim Reaper, I suppose Miller would be Lucifer himself.

The alt-right, which supports anything Trump does, has made some outrageous statements. Fox and Friends argued that they aren't cages, their fences made of chain-link. Ann Coulter said the children are actors (wow, there are a lot of Central American kid performers). Laura Ingraham said the concentration camps they are in are like "summer camps." Funny, when I went to summer camp my parents were allowed to pick me up, and we played games and shot arrows. How do they sleep at night, these people? Maybe they're not human.

President Trump has repeatedly stated that he can do nothing about it because it is the law. So how was he able to sign an executive order today stopping the policy? Something doesn't add up. And don't give him credit for ending a policy he implemented in the first place. The order does nothing for the children already separated from their parents (perhaps permanently), keeps the zero tolerance policy alive, and merely means that parents and children will be detained together, when they should be welcomed with open arms.

This country really can suck.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

The Incredibles 2

The Incredibles, from 2004, is considered one of Pixar's finest films (I rate it behind Toy Story 2, but reasonable people can disagree). Fourteen years later, we get a sequel, again written and directed by Brad Bird, who has won two Oscars for Best Animated Film, and just might win another for The Incredibles 2.

This is not to say that the sequel is as good as the original. At many points the film feels like it's trying too hard. The action scenes are so fast that I felt a little numbed by them. And the plot seemed recycled from other superhero films, including the original: what is the place for superheroes in our world?

The film picks up right from the end of the last one. Superheroes are illegal, and when Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) and Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) attempt to stop a bank robbery, they are admonished for wreaking destruction, and told the money is insured. Their funding is cut, and they are living in a motel. They seem resigned to getting regular jobs until a billionaire who loves superheroes wants to get the law changed. He needs just one hero to prove his point--Elastigirl.

So the film bifurcates. Elastigirl has adventures involving stopping a runaway train, saving an ambassador from a helicopter attack, and unmasking the Screenslaver, a villain who hypnotizes his victims through a screen. Elastigirl thinks it's been too easy, and savvy viewers will agree and have this figured out beforehand.

The other half of the film is the family's domestic life. Mr. Incredible has been reduced to taking care of the kids, and he discovers that the baby, Jack-Jack, has superpowers. Many superpowers. He can shoot lasers out of his eyes, erupt into flames, travel through different dimensions, and multiply into several Jack-Jacks. Much of this is shown off in an amusing fight with a raccoon.

The baby stuff is very funny, and I enjoyed hearing the little kids giggle at it around me. The action scenes, as I said, seemed old hat, though the animation is breathtaking. A whole new bunch of superheroes are introduced--my favorite is Reflux, who has such severe heartburn that he can vomit lava.

If there is an Incredibles 3, I hope they veer off in a different direction where the debate about the legality of superheroes is resolved.

One more thing: I haven't heard too much about this, but Elastigirl, in her costumes, has the kind of body that women have spent decades complaining about. She has a figure more ridiculous than Barbie, with possibly 44-18-44 measurements. The New Yorker's Anthony Lane did write about dads possibly feeling a little awkward getting turned on at a kid's animated movie. Of course, she is elastic, so maybe that's just the dimensions she wants to be.

Monday, June 18, 2018

The People vs. Larry Flynt

Milos Forman's third and last Oscar nomination for Best Director came with 1996's The People vs. Larry Flynt. The script was written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, who have written many scripts about real-life oddball characters (and also wrote That Darn Cat). This time they take on the bilious pornographer, Larry Flynt, who seemed to be in court as much as anywhere.

Woody Harrelson plays Flynt, who began his empire owning strip clubs in Ohio. He began a newsletter, which turned into Hustler, a magazine that broke several taboos. The script gleefully recounts some of them, such as a cartoon with Santa Claus sporting a large erection, or a pictorial with Dorothy getting gang-banged by the Scarecrow, The Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion (I remember that one--it was pretty hot).

Of course, in a nation first settled by Puritans, that did not go over well with bluenoses. Flynt was tried for obscenity and convicted, with the case overturned. "All I'm guilty of is bad taste," he cries at one point. Eventually he would be paralyzed in an assassination attempt, and go all the way to the Supreme Court in a battle with evangelist Jerry Falwell, whom Hustler parodied in a Campari ad stating that his first time was with his mother in an outhouse.

The film rests on irreverence, as Harrelson as Flynt evolves into a kind of First Amendment hellion. But I think the film is really a love story. Courtney Love is Althea, a stripper he married and stayed with until the end of her life (she drowned in a bathtub after an overdose, and she also had AIDS). The film ends with him, after his Supreme Court victory, watching videotape of her in happier, better times.

This film is over twenty years old now and Flynt isn't so shocking anymore. You have to hand it to him, though, while Playboy and Penthouse are on their last legs as print magazines, Flynt's magazines are still going strong, and he's outlived Hefner and Guccione. The film paints him as a rival to those men, though he lives in similar gauche luxury.

The People vs. Larry Flynt is pretty much a straight-forward biopic with an affection for its subject, despite his outrageousness (at one trial, he wears a "Fuck This Court" t-shirt). The audience's stand-in is Edward Norton as his long-suffering attorney, who despite his misgivings sticks with him (and won the Supreme Court case). The prologue shows Flynt at about thirteen, selling moonshine to hillbillies--an old man buys a thimble-full of the stuff for two dollars--and Flynt isn't judgmental; he just wants to make an honest buck, and hits his father in the head with a jug for drinking up his profits.

Forman doesn't employ too many tricks here, as Flynt and Althea are larger than life as it is. He continues his use of amateurs as performers, starting with Love, who is really very good. It's a shame she didn't keep up with her acting career. In roles as judges or attorneys are James Carville, real-life civil liberties attorney Bert Neuborne, and Flynt himself as a judge who sentences the man playing him to 25 years in the penitentiary. Flynt's longtime friends and factotums at the magazine are played by Crispin Glover, Vincent Schiavelli (as Chester, whom  I suspect was the cartoonist behind "Chester the Molester") and Brett Harrelson, Woody's brother, as Flynt's brother, Jimmy.

Woody Harrelson received an Oscar nomination in what was the first part to really separate himself from the friendly, dim-witted bartender on Cheers. It is a tour de force as a man with no scruples and no taste who ends fighting for the American way. This film goes to show that the right to free speech is only as strong as we are willing to allow the most repellent people to use it.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Stagecoach

Before Stagecoach, Westerns were kid stuff, B-movies and serials that had simple plots and no complexity. But John Ford changed all that. Stagecoach, released in 1939, was something of a template for Westerns to come (many of them directed by Ford) which turned the Old West into a place of American myth, a metaphor the great experiment of democracy. The Western, like jazz or the musical comedy, is uniquely American. It also, not incidentally, was the first starring role for John Wayne, arguably the most American of all movie stars.

Stagecoach was based on a short story by Ernest Haycox, with a screenplay by Dudley Nichols. The plot is a basic structure that has been seen many times in many locations, such as Grand Hotel and Ship of Fools: a group of disparate people thrown together in one place. This one place happens to be the stagecoach across Arizona and to Lordsburg, New Mexico in the year 1880. On board are a cross-section of the Old West: a lawman, a soiled dove, a gambler, a dipsomaniacal doctor, a bloviating banker, a young woman traveling to see her husband in the army, a mild-mannered whiskey salesman, and an outlaw.

At first at odds with each other, they have to come together as the territory they are crossing is active with Apaches, led by Geronimo. They also deal with the young woman having a baby. Stagecoach is a film about redemption, and also of people being misunderstood, and comes together for a fine ending.

Wayne is the Ringo Kid, who has busted out of the pen. He wants to get to Lordsburg to kill the man who killed his father and brother. Curly, (George Bancroft) the no-nonsense marshal, who believes that Ringo is a good man, but has to arrest him. Claire Trevor is Dallas, the prostitute who is forced out of town by the blue-nosed ladies, who are also giving the boot to Doc Boone (Thomas Mitchell), who is always drunk, but happily so. He's even more happy to make the acquaintance of Mr. Peacock (played by the appropriately-named Donald Meek), who has a satchel full of whiskey samples.

Also on board is John Carradine as a Southern gambler who acts the gentleman but is actually a scoundrel (he's probably based on Doc Holliday) and a banker (Benton Churchill) who has embezzled money and plans on getting to Lordsburg before the telegraph lines are fixed. Finally there's comic relief with Andy Devine as the driver, Buck.

Many familiar Western tropes are here, some of the first time. This was Ford's first time filming in Monument Valley, where he would make many more movies. We get the cavalry coming to save the day, and the classic shot of the stagecoach in long shot, with a pan left to reveal a bunch of Apache ready to attack (the film was not enlightened about Indians, but they wouldn't be until the 1960s). There's also a showdown in the street, a man holding the "dead man's hand" (aces and eights), and two spectacular stunts by Yakima Canutt, one of them so dangerous that Ford swore he would never do such a thing again (Canutt falls between the team of horses and the stagecoach rolls over him).

The cinematography is by Bert Glennon, and though in black and white, captures the beauty of the terrain. There is also Wayne's star-making intro, when he has just cocked his Winchester having fired it, the camera zooming in on him (it does go out of focus for about a quarter of a second, but this is forgiven). Another shot really captured my attention. Wayne is in the foreground, watching Trevor walk down a corridor shaded in darkness, with the light at the end, which made me think of the last shot of The Searchers.

The love story between Wayne and Trevor is sweet, and also a bit forward-thinking. He doesn't know she's a whore, so he's immediately smitten, and she likes him, too. The others, particularly the young woman (Louise Platt) disdain her. But Wayne doesn't care, and she proves herself valuable when Platt has the baby. So does Mitchell, who has to sober up to deliver the infant. Mitchell won the Oscar for the role (he had a great year--he was also O'Hara in Gone With the Wind). So this film has several characters who are not what they appear to be.

Stagecoach is one of the greatest of Westerns and one of the best American films, period. I've seen it several times and watched last night as if it were the first time. That's what a great movie can do.


Saturday, June 16, 2018

Woodstock

The winner of the Best Pop Duo/Group Performance Grammy this year was Portugal. The Man. Despite the pretentiously punctuated name, I found their album, Woodstock, their eighth studio effort, to be very pleasing, and difficult to categorize. They are in the rock world, but are not guitar driven, with very danceable music with a bit of hip-hop thrown in.

They were founded by John Gourley and Zach Carothers while in high school in Wasilla, Alaska. Hopefully some day they'll be the most famous people to have lived there, supplanting the current person, Sarah Palin.

Although there are no songs on this record that I would want to skip, I want to discuss two tracks that I find to be perfect pop songs. One of them is "Feel It Still," which I had actually heard before through the world around me and didn't know was them. Gourley sings in a falsetto, the bass line is tremendous, and the song is punctuated by brass and saxophone that gives it a special oomph.

The other is the closing track, "Noise Pollution," which is the kind of song I could put on repeat for about an hour. It's a complex recording, with multiple layers. Gourley raps the lyrics, which contain a lot of French. Featured on the track is actress Mary Elizabeth Winstead, of all people. I can't listen to this song without moving my head.

Another great song is "Tidal Wave" which has a great hook, and "Number One" which samples Richie Havens' "Freedom," which was the opening song at the Woodstock concert (and perhaps a source for the name of the album).

Though not my standard cup of tea, which would have included guitar riffs, I found Woodstock a fine record and was glad to expand my horizons a little. This is definitely a band I would like to see live.

Friday, June 15, 2018

The Lodger

FilmStruck is featuring some of Alfred Hitchcock's early, British films and I'm stoked, because I haven't seen any of them before. I started with The Lodger, which is not Hitchcock's first feature, but it is the first one he made that is not partially or completely lost.

Made in 1927 and a silent film, The Lodger is about a serial killer on the loose in London. He calls himself "The Avenger" and snuffs the lives of golden-haired women. He always kills them on Tuesday. Blonde women are wearing hats or wigs.

A boarding house near the latest killing is home to a couple and their daughter, Daisy (June Tripp), who is a blonde. She is being courted by a police detective, Malcolm Keen, but she isn't having it. Then a stranger knocks on the door, looking for a room to let. He's creepy, with a scarf wrapped across his face and a weird look in his eye. This is Ivor Novello, who was a huge star in England during the '20s and '30s.

Keen doesn't like Novello, but Daisy and the lodger start to form an affectionate bond. Daisy's parents start to wonder if Novello isn't the Avenger, and despair at him taking her out on a date. Keen finds them sitting under a lamppost in an embrace, and he warns him not to touch his girl.

I'll leave it there, because I didn't know how it would end and even though the film is over 90 years old I don't want to spoil it. What I will say is that if has some of the same themes of future Hitchcock films, notably Shadow of a Doubt, when a kindly uncle visiting might be a murderer. It also has Hitchcock's most prevalent theme, the wronged man. A visceral image late in the film has a man dangling from a fence, the handcuffs on his wrist looped around a spike, with a mob coming after him.

Hitchcock was also influenced by German expressionism, with many distorted shots and shadows. There are some features that seem totally modern, such as the intermittent shots of a burlesque show marquee; "Golden Girls Tonight."

Incidentally, this film featured Hitchcock's first cameo. He is sitting at a desk in a newspaper office, his back to the camera. He took the place of a missing actor and a tradition was born.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Black Legion

I mentioned in my review of Terror in the City of Champions that even though I grew up in Michigan, I had never heard of the Black Legion, a Klan-like group that held sway for a few years during the '30s. It was a big deal back then, but no one remembers them now. Well, they made a movie about it, and it was also a big deal--it was nominated for an Oscar for Best Screenplay and won the National Board of Review's Best Film of 1937. But it too has faded from memory.

It is most notable for being the first starring role for Humphrey Bogart. He had made a splash the year before in a supporting role in The Petrified Forest as Duke Mantee, a brutish criminal. That film was directed by Archie Mayo, who also directs here. This time Bogart plays a family man who works in a machine shop. He is sure he's going to get a promotion, but it goes to a man named Dombrowski. Enraged, Bogart is inducted into the Black Legion, a secret society that wants America to be "One hundred percent Americans" only.

The Legion burns down Dombrowski's house and put him on a freight train out of town. They create mayhem everywhere, but do not kill anyone, unlike the real Black Legion. Also, "foreigners" in this film are white Catholics from Ireland or Eastern Europe--there is no mention or sight of blacks or Jews. I guess 1937 was too soon to bring up those issues.

Warner Brothers, who made the film, put out a lot of message films in those days, and it was one of many that were anti-fascist. Bogart ends up killing someone and while on the witness stand confesses, pointing out the other members in the courtroom, a dramatic moment. At the end, a wise judge instructs us on the meaning of the Constitution. We still need that judge.

Black Legion also, whether intentionally or not, points out how silly these societies are. When Bogart goes to his first meeting the man taking him in has a secret knock. Bogart chuckles at this. The men wear robes (they have to buy them, as well as buying a gun for $14.95). There's a scene in which the leaders go over the money they've made, and we can see that it's a financial opportunity for them as much as a political one. The robes remind me of Woody Allen's joke about meeting the Grand Wizard of the Klan: "You could tell he was the leader. He was wearing a contour sheet."

Bogart, as always, is terrific, as is Erin O'Brien-Moore as his wife, who sees the changes in him as he  becomes embittered by hate. It's a powerful film.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Hereditary

A recent article in The New York Times talks about a renaissance in horror films--never have their been so many character driven, adult-oriented horror films. Get Out, The Quiet Place, and now Hereditary are all getting adults into the theaters for horror, which was once the province of teenagers.

I've read more than one article by someone who states that Hereditary is the scariest movie they've ever seen. I can't go that far (I think I still have to go with The Exorcist) but it is one of the most disturbing films I've ever seen, and two days later it's still sticking with me. The ending, which everyone will be talking about (go see it before it's spoiled) is borderline silly, but director Ari Aster turns what could have caused giggles into gasps.

As with these recent sophisticated horror films, Hereditary has grander themes. You could call it Ordinary People with ghosts. A well-to-do family that lives somewhere in the mountains consists of mother Toni Collette, father Gabriel Byrne, older brother Alex Wolff, and little sister Milly Shapiro. Collette's mother has just died, and she has mixed feelings. They were estranged until mom moved into her daughter's house with dementia. At the funeral, Collette reads a eulogy that talks of her mother's "private rituals and private friends." And how.

I don't want to give too much away, but there is a gruesome accident that further unstrings Collette, She runs into someone at a grief group that shows her how to conduct seances. Pawing around in her mother's things she finds books on spiritualism and the occult. One page that's focused on is about King Paimon, one the kings of Hell. I think he'll become quite popular this summer.

The first half of Hereditary is somewhat slow, but not boring. Collette is an artist who makes miniatures, much like dollhouses. A sly edit in the opening credits suggests that the family lives in a dollhouse, which is open to all sorts of interpretations. The film also does not sentimentalize family attachments. Collette awakes from a dream where she tells Wolff that she never wanted him, and tried to have a miscarriage. Shapiro is an odd child that makes things out of cast-off objects. She finds a dead bird and calmly cuts its head off with scissors. That's only one of many decapitations, be warned.

Hereditary got a D+ from CinemaScore, which may mean it's too much for average audiences. But for those who pay attention and understand cinema, Hereditary should rank among the best horror films ever made. Collette deserves an Oscar nomination, and Alex Wolff is terrific. Shapiro is a very unusual looking child--I'm sure Aster probably saw a lot of children for the role and stopped dead in his tracks when he saw her.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Hair (1979)

Milos Forman, fresh off his Oscar-winning One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, turned to another landmark work of the 1960s--Hair. The musical that had exploded on Broadway reached the screen, and most thought it wouldn't succeed, given that the musical itself was largely plotless, and the hippie era was over.

But Hair turned out to be a fine film. Granted, anyone who had seen and loved the stage show had to do some adjusting, as the movie was given a plot. The character of Claude Hooper Bukowski, who in the show was one of the hippies, is here transformed into a kid from Oklahoma arriving in New York to be join the army. He falls in with the hippies roaming through Central Park.

There are many other differences, with different characters singing songs ("Easy to Be Hard", which in the show was sung by Sheila to George Berger about his lack of affection, is in the film sung by Hud's fiancee, whom he abandoned, along with his son). But one must put all those things away and judge the film outside of the musical.

In that sense, Forman succeeds in capturing the nonconformist hippies, who ended up conforming to their own fashion and attitudes. Free love is apparent, as Jeannie (Annie Golden) is pregnant, but doesn't know who the father is. The only explicit drug use shown is an acid trip by Claude. In reality, kids were shooting up in parks in big cities all over the country.

The other great thing about the film is Forman's staging of the music, with choreography by Twyla Tharp. The opening, with Ren Woods singing "Age of Aquarius," the camera circling around her, is magnetic. In the film, Woof (Don Dacus) sings the title song, in a prison. Another highlight is "Ain't Got No," one of the fiercest songs in the show.

Where the film fails was felt by show creators Gerome Ragni and James Rado, who claimed that the film portrayed the hippies as aberrations, and not part of something larger (much is made of the contrast between them and rich people when they crash a party). Perhaps because Vietnam was a fading memory by 1979, there isn't too much about Vietnam, even though Claude is going to be shipped out there. Draft cards are burned, but the hippies are basically shown as kids who don't want to grow up, rather than serious or knowledgeable about world events.

The cast is great. John Savage is Claude, Dorsey Wright is Hud, Beverly D'Angelo is Sheila. But the true star of the film is Treat Williams as Berger. He has a lot to do in this film, singing most of Claude's songs from the stage show. He is charming and mischievous, and I would have fallen under his spell just like Claude did. Though he has steadily worked since then, I thought Williams would have become a bigger star.

Some songs didn't make the movie, such as "Air," "Frank Mills," "My Conviction," and the centerpiece of the stage show, "Happy Birthday, Abie Baby," which has a black Lincoln who is assassinated by John Wilkes Booth.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Boarding House Reach

Here's a lesson on ignoring Amazon reviews. I have every album Jack White has ever been part of, whether it's the White Stripes, Dead Weather,The Raconteurs, or solo. I consider him the greatest rock musician of this century (so far). So when his new solo album, Boarding House Reach, came out I had every intention of getting it.

But then I mistakenly looked at the review on Amazon. It has three and a half stars, not bad, but 16 percent are one-star reviews. Uh oh, I thought. There's this: "I like White's work. I cannot like this. Self indulgent drek. Its a long time since I have heard so much self indulgent, discordant, noodling. It's like one of those contractual obligation records that artists used to do get away from a label back in the day," or "I don't even know how to describe how terrible this album is. It's almost like he's lost his mind. There's always next time I guess. I'll always be a fan...but what is going on here? I get that he's being experimental but fresh. Come on Jack."

Well, those two reviewers are entitled to their opinion, because I finally did get the album and it's great, just as good as any other Jack White release. Yes, it's weird, but wonderfully so. Some of it is like a trip inside his head, which is probably a very strange place.

The album contains some good straight-forward guitar-driven rock and roll, such as "Connected By Love," "Corporation," and "Over and Over and Over." There's a song with the title of Howard Hughes' favorite movie, "Ice Station Zebra," which says nothing about the film but does rhyme Caravaggio with Joe. There's also a song that features some experimenting with a synthesizer with the bizarre title of "Hypermisophonic."

The really weird stuff includes "Why Walk a Dog?" a song that proposes that dogs should run wild, I guess. White doesn't understand the evolution of dogs--they chose to be cared for by humans. They get regularly fed and have a warm place to sleep. White loves to give songs titles that don't appear in the lyrics, like "Ezmerelda Steals the Show," and "Abulia and Akrasia." This song is so out there that I'd like to print the entire lyric, which sounds like an exploding thesaurus:

"These are my demands
I renounce wholeheartedly
In this extreme abjuration
That which I repudiate so vehemently
Adamantly unrepentant
Implacable and intractable
I abdicate with inexorable pleasantry
In this solemn refutation
This most earnest repudiation
I shall not negate
That which I state irrevocably
But I do it so gently
That you cannot resent me
For this humble request of my company
So with time left permitting
And while we're still sitting
May I please have another cup of tea?"

Another song, "Get in the Mind Shaft," includes a spoken word opening about him finding a piano in an abandoned house. And I really love "Everything You've Ever Learned," in which White sings, in the style of a tent-revival preacher:

"Do you want everything?
Then you can have everything
What is everything?
Do you wish for nothing?
Then you will have nothing
Now that is something
Do you wanna see it all?
Well, you can just open your eyes
The one who is prepared, is never surprised
 Do you wanna question everything?
Then think of a good question"

This Jack White fan loves this record, and understands that musicians at his level don't want to repeat themselves. They push the envelope and expand their creativity. White had done this on Boarding House Reach.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

The National Nightmare Continues

For us Americans, Donald Trump has been a nightmare now for almost a year and a half. Now he's fucking around with the world economy, and the shit is hitting the fan. This photo sums up perfectly the situation: Trump, with arms folded, like a three-year-old refusing to eat his peas, while mom Angela Merkel is ready to smack him in the face.

I don't know too much about world economics, but I do know that Canada is our biggest trading partner and closest ally. They pose no national security risks. Yet Trump imposed tariffs on steel and aluminum which hit Canada hard. A communique was drafted that would ensure free and open trade between the participating nations. Trump, like a child taking his ball and going home, refused (and did go home). Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau lashed out, and Trump called him "dishonest and weak," and has threatened to break off trade with all of the G7 nations. Trump tweeted that the G7 went "great."

While damaging relations with our strongest allies, Trump's big idea was to readmit Russia to the group (they had been kicked out after invading Ukraine and annexing Crimea). Really, for someone already accused of being Vladimir Putin's puppet, this is not a good move. Its another sign that he is acting in Russia's best interest, and not in the United States'. (Russia doesn't have a warm water port, so I don't know where Trump will go once he is exiled from America for being a Russian operative).

All this is going on just a week or so after Trump said he could pardon himself, although, he added, he has nothing to pardon himself for. Forty-four years ago the Justice department told Richard Nixon he couldn't pardon himself. The issue has not been settled, but it's fundamental law that being a judge in one's own case would be a massive conflict of interest. Rudolph Giuliani, who once upon a time was a respected mayor of New York but is now a circus attraction, said that Trump could shoot former FBI director and fly in Trump's ointment James Comey and not be indicted. Imagine that--a prominent politician went on television and said that the President of the United States could shoot a law enforcement official and not be punished.

We are in strange days. Wake me when it's over.

Saturday, June 09, 2018

Terror in the City of Champions

I grew up in Michigan, as did my dad, my mom, and both sets of grandparents either were born there or spent many years there. Yet I'd never heard of the Black Legion, a kind of Klan knock-off, that murdered several people during the 1930s in the Detroit area. Tom Stanton writes about them in Terror in the City of Champions: Murder, Baseball, and the Secret Society that Shocked Depression Era Detroit.

I did know about the Detroit Tigers of the '30s, who won two pennants and one world championship, their first ever (they only have four total in almost 120 years). Erik Larson, with his book The Devil in the White City, kind of invented, or at least made popular, the juxtaposition of two stories linked by geography or something else. Sometimes, like with that book, it works. Stanton's book, while he covers both subjects well, can't convince that they had anything to do with each other except it was Detroit.

"Within a six-month period in 1935 and 1936, the Tigers, Red Wings, and Lions all captured titles as Detroit’s own Joe Louis reigned as boxing’s uncrowned champion. Detroit remains the only city to score the trifecta of a
World Series, a Stanley Cup, and an NFL championship in one season." Stanton (who wrote a fine book called The Final Season about the last Tiger campaign in Tiger Stadium) knows his baseball. He begins with the arrival of Mickey Cochrane, who had been a star catcher for Connie Mack's A's during their three straight World Series wins. Cochrane was hired by Tiger Owner Frank Navin to be player-manager. Cochrane is the through-line in this story. He was surprisingly sophisticated, loved to fly airplanes, but was also riddled with anxiety.

"By mid-1934 the legion had expanded in southeast Michigan to four regiments of 1,600 men in Detroit, one regiment in Highland Park, one in the downriver area south of the Ford Rouge plant, two farther south near Monroe, two north of Detroit in Pontiac, one or two in Flint, one in Saginaw, and possibly others. There were regiments in Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois as well." The Klu Klux Klan had flourished in Michigan in the '20s, but faded out, but the sentiments remained. A new organization started up, based on nativism. They were anti-Black, anti-Catholic, anti-Jewish, and anti-leftist. Men would be invited to a gathering and forced to swear an oath at gunpoint. Though Stanton's description of most of then make them sound hapless, like the guys who know tote around machine guns at the CVS, they were deadly. In Lansing, it was thought that Earl Little, father of Malcolm X, was murdered by the legion. Two of them killed a black man just because he was black.

Stanton alternates between these two stories, touching somewhat on Louis, who was antithesis of Jack Johnson and thus acceptable to white fans, and very briefly mentioning the Lions and Red Wings. I would have liked more about them, especially since the games are so much different now than then (no one wore helmets in hockey, and it football they were leather). I was interested to learn that the Red Wings had no American players--they were all Canadian, except for one Englishman.

The main thread through the Black Legion story is Dayton Dean, who was eager to prove his mettle and accepted many assignments to kill people, such as the mayor of Highland Park. Perhaps because of feet of clay, he never did, not until he and Harvey Davis killed Charlie Poole for erroneously believing he beat his wife (he was murdered in Dearborn, my home town. Why didn't I ever hear of this?) This murder finally brought the law down on the Legion, who had escaped punishment because it was thought many police and judges were members. The prosecutor of the case against Dean and Davis was an ex-member himself.

There's no telling how many people they killed--a sink-hole was rumored to contain at least seven bodies. The Legion faded away, but the racial attitudes remained. A popular clergyman, Father Coughlin, held sway on the airwaves with anti-Semitic rhetoric, aimed at keeping America out of the war in Europe. All of this went away after Pearl Harbor.

As for the Tigers, they won the pennant in '34 but lost to the Cardinals in a seven-game series (they just couldn't hit Dizzy Dean or or his brother Paul). They came back in '35 to beat the Cubs in the series. In addition to Cochrane, they had three other Hall of Famers on the squad--Hank Greenberg, Charlie Gehringer (I'm a distant relative of his), and Goose Goslin. The city was ecstatic about the victory. They were tough times in Detroit: "The Great Depression had devastated the whole nation, but Detroit had suffered more than most. The year had brought bank panics and closures, unemployment of 45 percent, winding food lines, burgeoning public-relief rolls, and severe wage cuts for surviving auto workers. Car sales fell by four million units between 1929 and 1932. Almost half the city’s population qualified for assistance, limited as it was." But the stands were packed for the World Series.

To fully enjoy this book you have to be a sports fan (preferably for Detroit teams) and a true crime buff, especially about secret societies. I enjoyed the book moderately, feeling Stanton straining at times for metaphors ("Rumors of trades swirled around Walker like Kansas twisters.") and relying on old-time sports reporting styles that went out with the transistor. I think his biggest success is giving the reader a very good insight into what living in Detroit during that time period was like.

Friday, June 08, 2018

The Quiet Ones

The Quiet Ones, from 2014 and directed by James Pogue, is a moderately successful horror flick, conjuring up a lot of dread and is decidedly anti-science. Academics, take heed: don't propose an experiment where you lock a girl in a room and play Quiet Riot to keep her from sleeping.

Set in Oxford in 1974, the film stars Jared Harris as a psychology professor who believes firmly that supernatural phenomena come from people's emotions. So he doesn't believe in ghosts, but he believes in telekinesis. He and two assistants and a cameraman (Sam Caflin) document the case of Jane Harper (Olivia Cooke), who is seemingly possessed by a girl named Evey. Harris thinks Evey is like a tumor in Cooke, and wants to isolate it and get rid of it.

Kicked out of Oxford (rightly so) the crew head into the country to an old house (of course). Jane is observed doing things like starting fires with her hands. Caflin starts to have feelings for Jane, and gets angry at how Harris is treating her. Needless to say, bad things happen.

Supposedly based on a true story, The Quiet Ones (don't know why it's called that) was engaging and had some standard horror tropes, such as hand-held camera shots during a blackout (the only light from the camera) and false scares (a crash is heard--it's just the two assistants having sex and breaking the bed). But I didn't find the film stupid--it at least attempted to ground itself in reality, and Cooke, who is fast becoming a star, is very good. She's got dark circles under her eyes and stringy hair, but she's still fetching.

If you're a horror aficionado check it out.

Thursday, June 07, 2018

Exit West

"We are all migrants through time," writes Mohsin Hamid in his melancholy novel Exit West, which uses a bit of science-fiction to express the viewpoint of the refugee, who are now used as political footballs when they just want to be safe.

In an unnamed country that could be Syria, Saeed and Nadia fall in love. Even though she wears a black robe, she's the one who smokes joints and initiates sex. He refuses, saying they should wait until marriage. "Are you fucking kidding me!" she screams.

The tension in the city is palpable, as militants are girding for war. Eventually it is a war zone, with death around ever corner. But then something miraculous happens: "Rumors had begun to circulate of doors that could take you elsewhere, often to places far away, well removed from this death trap of a country. Some people claimed to know people who knew people who had been through such doors. A normal door, they said, could become a special door, and it could happen without warning, to any door at all. Most people thought these rumors to be nonsense, the superstitions of the feeble-minded. But most people began to gaze at their own doors a little differently nonetheless."

Saeed and Nadia decide to take a chance. They go through a door, not knowing if they will be alive on the other side. But they are--they end up on the Greek island of Mykonos. There are many other "door refugees" as well, who live in a camp outside the old town. This is the plight of a refugee--no matter being removed from a dangerous place, they end up in a place where they are not wanted.

They move on to London, where they squat in an abandoned house with dozens of other refugees, mostly from Nigeria. The "natives," as Hamid refers to them, don't want them there, and the danger is there again. The house becomes something of a place of horrors: "The dead neighbor bled through a crack in the floor, his blood appearing as a stain in the high corner of Saeed’s sitting room, and Saeed and Nadia, who had heard the family’s screams, went up to collect and bury him, as soon as they dared, but his body was gone, presumably taken by his executioners, and his blood was already fairly dry, a patch like a painted puddle in his apartment, an uneven trail on the stairs."

The couple start to drift apart, finding other partners, but move on through another door, taking them to just outside San Francisco, where they camp with a view of the Golden Gate Bridge. Eventually they uncouple, a bittersweet ending.

I liked Exit West okay, but it didn't grab me. The prose is very simple, with mostly declarative sentences and limited descriptions. The resolution of the book makes sense, thematically, but left me unsatisfied. But it does raise interesting questions about just what one's homeland is, and why many people have a resistance to others living in their country. Nativism is nothing new, even in a nation of immigrants like the United States. It's somewhat telling that Hamid paints England as the country of violent resistance, while the couple seem to live in peace in the U.S.

Wednesday, June 06, 2018

RFK

Today is the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Robert F. Kennedy, Attorney General, Senator from New York, and carrier of the dream. He was shot by a Palestinian, Sirhan Sirhan, because of Kennedy's support for Israel after the Six-Day War (maybe). He was at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles celebrating his win in the California primary for President of the United States, a position his older brother John had held, who also died by an assassin's bullet.

I was only seven years old at the time, and have no recollection of these events. Anything I thought about Robert Kennedy was after he was dead. As with any person, he was complicated. He was a tireless supporter of civil rights, but also worked for the Joseph McCarthy committee. He was shy, but also ruthless in his attempt to bring Jimmy Hoffa to justice. He may have been the brains behind John, but didn't always get his way--he was fiercely opposed to the choice of Lyndon Johnson as John's vice-president.

What I do remember is visiting his grave on a family trip to Washington, D.C. when I was about twelve. We went to Arlington National Cemetery, and of course visited John Kennedy's grave, which is grand and has an eternal flame. Robert's grave is just a few yards up the pathway, an unobtrusive white cross, which seems to be trying to hide in plain sight.

My father's side of the family were big Kennedy supporters, and I imagine this was a shock to them (I was living in Toledo, Ohio at the time and must have been around them, as they lived about an hour away in Dearborn, Michigan, but I just don't remember). I do know that Andy Williams sang "Battle Hymn of the Republic" at his funeral, and said that he would never sing that song again. A few years later, the Democratic Party held a telethon, and Williams sang the song again. My great-grandfather was moved enough to donate twenty dollars.

I think RFK's shining moment was the improvised speech he gave the night of Martin Luther King's assassination, just two months before his own. He was campaigning in Indianapolis, and actually broke the news to the crowd, who gasped in horror. There were many riots around the country in big cities with large black populations that night, but many credit Kennedy with stopping any violence in Indianapolis. He said: "For those of you who are black and are tempted to be filled with hatred and distrust at the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I can only say that I feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling. I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man. But we have to make an effort in the United States, we have to make an effort to understand, to go beyond these rather difficult times."

Kennedy's death, as one would expect, raised all sorts of conspiracy theories. Some claim there was a second gunman, because on the recording they hear 13 shots, and Sirhan's gun only had eight rounds. Evidence was tampered with--one bullet hole was patched up before it could be examined. Whoever killed him they put an end to the dream that a Kennedy would lead us to the promised land (Ted Kennedy's run in 1980 just doesn't did have the same feel). The what ifs are tantalizing--Kennedy, though trailing Hubert Humphrey in delegates, could have won the nominations because most delegates were free to vote for who they chose. Maybe then there wouldn't have been the violence in Chicago. Maybe Kennedy would have beaten Nixon. Maybe...

Tuesday, June 05, 2018

Hamilton (The Smith Center)

Hamilton is the kind of cultural phenomenon that defies explanation. Lin-Manuel Miranda read a biography of founding father Alexander Hamilton and decided to write a musical about it. It became the hottest ticket on Broadway, and probably saved Hamilton from being removed from the ten-dollar bill. I finally got a chance to see the touring company here in Las Vegas.

It's great when something lives up to the hype. Hamilton is absolutely terrific, a masterpiece of writing, direction, and performance. It is never dull, and often thrilling, with also some moments that will bring a tear to your eye.

The story follows Hamilton from a young man in New York City. He was born on the island of Nevis to a prostitute. The opening lines are sung by Aaron Burr, who would be the yin to Hamilton's yang throughout their lives:

?How does a bastard, orphan,
son of a whore and a Scotsman,
dropped in the middle of a forgotten
Spot in the Caribbean by providence,
impoverished, in squalor
Grow up to be a hero and a scholar??

Hamilton, through hard work and being a favorite of George Washington (Burr sings "it must be nice to have Washington on your side.") Hamilton is Washington's secretary, and after the war is a delegate to the Constitutional Convention and writes most of the The Federalist Papers. Washington appoints him the first Secretary of the Treasury, and he marries Eliza Schuyler. Things are looking good.

Act II has bad news for Hamilton. He has an affair, and when Jefferson and Madison learn of it, they vow to keep it a secret, but Hamilton reveals all anyway in a public pamphlet. Washington decides to step down, and John Adams becomes president. But in 1800 Jefferson and Burr square off. Hamilton throws his support behind Jefferson, though the two have never agreed upon anything, and Burr, outraged, challenges him to a duel. If you don't know history, I'll stop there.

Miranda is a miraculous wordsmith. The actors have so speak and sing very fast, as the lines are full of all sorts of words you don't usually hear in musicals, like Icarus. There is a lot of exposition in the songs, but that works fine, because we learn what's going on and it doesn't seem like exposition.

The actors are people of color, playing white characters (the only white actor is the one playing George III, who has a song that sounds like sixties' pop, and appears as a fool). Miranda has said that they are playing Americans, and this is what America looks like today. I also think it's ingenious because he is telling the story of the founding of America, which was simultaneously built on slave labor, and using black and Latino culture as his medium.

Some of the characters are not treated well. Jefferson, who doesn't appear until Act II because he was in Paris (his introductory song is "What'd I Miss?") comes off as a vainglorious James Brown. John Adams isn't even a character, but takes his lumps, such as when King George hears of his ascendancy and says, "Good luck." Of course Hamilton is revered, though his weakness for women is noted, but he is credited with the creating the foundations of the American financial system.

As I watched this I noted similarities to Jesus Christ Superstar, which I saw on live TV on Easter. The real star of that musical is Judas Iscariot, and it can be said that the real star of Hamilton is Aaron Burr, while Hamilton is martyred. As Burr says, Hamilton lost his life, but he is the one who pays for it. Burr and Judas are peas in a pod.

The direction by Thomas Kail is magnificent, with choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler. The little things mean so much, as when Madison is walking off stage and does a little soft-shoe as he does so. The cabinet meetings are presented like wrestling matches, with Washington holding a mic like Michael Buffer, introducing the combatants, Hamilton and Jefferson, who agree on nothing (Jefferson wanted to help France fight Britain, Hamilton did not, and Hamilton won the argument). One of my favorite numbers is "The Room Where It Happened," about the 1790 compromise, in which Jefferson and Madison got the capital on the Potomac, and Hamilton got his financial system. Burr sings that there were only three people "in the room where it happened."

Another great song is "My Shot," which is a motif for Hamilton throughout. Given his ending, it's grim foreshadowing.

I don't have any trouble declaring Hamilton to be the best musical I've ever seen. I'd see it again tomorrow. I hope I live long enough to see the movie version.

Monday, June 04, 2018

Nashville Noir

For some reason I've become obsessed with Nashville lately, and I've never been there. Well, I was there one night with my family when we stayed at a Holiday Inn on a cross-country drive, but I didn't see any of the sites. Apparently it's like Las Vegas for country music fans, but it's not just country that's played there--Jack White lives there, and so does Daniel Auerbach of the Black Keys.

Anyway, I wanted to read a book set in Nashville and found few to choose from. I decided on Nashville Noir, which is one of those books put together by a writer's group. These are not renowned authors, in fact I don't how many of them have actually been professionally published (and by that I mean paid).

As such, the stories have an amateurish feel to them. Two are parodies of noir. Parodies are easy to write, it's the real thing that's hard. The story they selected as best, "The Case of the Pinned Up Knickers," by Kathleen Kitty Cosgrove, is the worst, with tired metaphors and a ridiculous story. I didn't laugh once. A sample: "She grinned like the cat that swallowed a little yellow bird. I was tempted to grab her and kiss her, but she looked like more trouble than a big sack of trouble." Huh?

The other parody is by the editor, A.J. Lee. It's a clever title: "Phantom of the Opry," but I think he had more fun writing it than I did reading it. It's about the ghost of a country star hiring a private detective, and is admittedly in the style of Garrison Keillor's radio character, Guy Noir.

Another story, "Where Did the Girl Go?," by Angela Trumbo, mostly consists of her telling us how to smoke a cigarette: "An unlit cigarette dangles from the homicide detective’s lips while his right hand rummages through the pocket of his gray trench coat. As he reaches the bridge railing, he pulls out a square metal lighter. With a flick of his wrist, the lighter flips open and he touches the end of the cigarette to the open flame. The lid closes with a quick snap and he drops the lighter back into his pocket. He draws deeply from the cigarette several times as he stares down at the river flowing beneath the bridge." You'd think we never saw a man light a cigarette before.

By far the best story is "Red Lily and the Oriental Flower," by D. Alan Lewis. It's about a prostitute who is also a vampire--not exactly new--but he writes very well: "Darkness surrounds me but I feel as if the brightest flames of hell have wrapped around this tired and aching  body. Even with the clock showing three a.m., sweat pours out of me and fills my sheets. Sleep will not come this August night. Outside of my apartment window, three leaf-covered sticks sway with the wind, smacking against the wall." Now that's how you start a scary story.

I don't want to come down too hard on these folks; they have a dream and most of them have day jobs (if not all). I wish the stories were longer--they are limited to 2,500 words, and there are only eight of them, so none of them could really get to the heart of the story. And I must say I have no better picture of what Nashville is like. Except for those who write about country music, these writers could be describing any city.

Sunday, June 03, 2018

Sweet Smell of Success

Sweet Smell of Success is one of the great movies about New York City. It also has some of the best dialogue you'll ever hear, one of the most quotable films ever. You may want to take a shower after seeing it, though, because the two lead characters are amoral, but highly entertaining.

The film was written by Ernest Lehman and Clifford Odets, and directed by Alexander Mackendrick. Released in 1957, it bombed at the box office--I imagine people were turned off by the naked venality of it. But over time it has become regarded as a classic. I certainly think it is.

Sweet Smell of Success stars Burt Lancaster as J.J. Hunsecker (his company produced it) as a popular gossip columnist, along the lines of Walter Winchell (who wasn't happy with it). He has a lot of power--he can make or break someone--and relishes it. But he's also kind of twisted. He has a much younger sister who lives him and it's a creepy relationship.

Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) is a hustling press agent who constantly has to suck up to Lancaster to get items in his column for his clients. He is at Lancaster's beck and call, and Lancaster enjoys humiliating him, even making him light his cigarettes ("Match me, Sidney"). Lancaster has engaged Curtis to break up the relationship between his sister and a jazz guitarist (Marty Milner), but Curtis has failed, and is being punished by having no items printed, which is making Curtis' clients mad.

So Curtis has a new plan, which involves some twists and turns and doing some horrible things, such as pimping out his girlfriend (Barbara Nichols) to get an item in another man's column. When Lancaster decides he wants to ruin Milner, Curtis refuses an act, but relents when Lancaster offers him a plum role.

Everything about this film is entrancing. The black and white photography by the great James Wong Howe makes the city seem like another character. At one point Lancaster looks out at the lights of Times Square from this terrace, and you can tell he is thinking "This is my town." The lenses of Lancaster's glasses were smeared with Vaseline so that Lancaster wouldn't be able to focus his eyes, which gives him a blank stare that, given his actions, make him seem even more evil.

Both men are terrific. This was Curtis' first role that required good acting, as he had mostly been a pretty boy before. He's coiled with rage. A secretary who is Curtis' some-time lover is a classic brow-beaten woman, who loves him and stands by but takes constant verbal abuse. Lancaster, usually playing heroes, portrays one of the most despicable men in film history, but Curtis is no better. "I'd hate to take a bite out of you," Lancaster tells Curtis. "You're a cookie full of arsenic."

The one part of the movie I don't buy is Milner's character. He is acts like an Eagle Scout, with integrity ("What's integrity?" Lancaster asks). That's fine, but there's no way a jazz guitarist in the 1950s would be that righteous. They should have given him some other profession.

Don't watch Sweet Smell of Success to feel good about yourself. Watch it to see the lights of Times Square, and revel in the erudite patter of two human monsters.

Saturday, June 02, 2018

The Best American Plays of the Last 25 Years

Suzan-Lori Parks
The New York Times put out a special section yesterday naming the twenty-five best American plays of the last twenty-five years. If that seems arbitrary, it was set in motion by the first revival of Tony Kushner's Angels in America, which debuted in 1993, thus these are the best since then.

The Times theater critics selected the plays. They get cute about the method of election, and it does seem like they have checked off certain boxes: plays about African Americans, Hispanics, Asians, and homosexuals. Only seven of the plays are written by white men about white people. Ten are written or co-written by women, and six are by African Americans. This is a complete reversal of Broadway before the 1970s or so, when plays were written mostly by white men about white characters. But then again, many of the plays selected didn't play on Broadway. None of them originated there.

I have either seen or read eight of them, so I have some reading to do. For those I have seen in person, I agree with all but one.  My favorite of the period is August: Osage Country, Tracy Letts' scathing take on a dysfunctional family in Oklahoma. As pointed out in the piece, the family reunion plot is a reliable one, but Letts overloads the bitterness and anger that watching it is like watching an electrical fire. I have to quote Elisabeth Vincentelli's reaction to the end of Act II, because I had the exact same feeling: "When Barbara, the oldest and most conflicted sibling, ends a disastrous dinner by screaming to her mother, “You don’t get it, do you? I’M RUNNING THINGS NOW!” at the very end of Act II, it is one of the most satisfying exclamation points in modern theater. You simply could not wait to see what happened after that second intermission."

I also recall having a great time with Edward Albee's Three Tall Women, which was about his mother. I have a copy of the play, so I'd like to read it again. Also seen by me is Ruined, by Lynn Nottage, Clybourne Park, by Bruce Norris, The Wolves, by Sarah deLappe, and The Realistic Joneses, by Will Eno. That last one I saw on Broadway and didn't care for it, finding its oddities unjustified and silly for silly's sake.

Of those I read, I count Annie Baker's The Flick, about three ushers in a movie theater. It prompted walkouts because it runs three hours, much of it simply ushers cleaning up. I've also read. The only other one I read was their number one choice: Top Dog/Underdog by Suzan-Lori Parks. I'm sorry to say I read it so long ago that I don't remember much about it, which says more about my memory that the play itself.

The list includes a couple of plays that have firmly embedded themselves in our culture: Eve Ensler's The Vagina Monologues, which has been performed by almost every female star in the firmament, and The Laramie Project, by Moises Kaufman, which is about the martyred Matthew Shepard, a gay youth who was killed and left to die on a barbed-wire fence in Wyoming.

Another documentary-style piece on the list is Anne Deveare Smith's one-woman show, Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, commissioned and written following the riots after the Rodney King verdict. Others veer far from realism, such as Anne Washburn's Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play, about survivors of an apocalypse mounting a traveling show re-enacting Simpsons' episodes, and another credited only to The Wooster Group, an experimental theater group, House/Lights.

More conventional entries (at least in structure) are Wallace Shawn's The Designated Mourner, Kenneth Lonergan's This Is Our Youth, Stephen Karam's The Humans, and Richard Nelson's tetralogy, The Apple Plays. There are a few I know nothing about, such as Steven Adly Guirgis' Jesus Hopped the A Train, and Kristoffer Diaz's The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity.

There also had to be a play by August Wilson, whose cycle of ten plays about the African American experience in the 20th century is one of the great achievements in American literature. But the choice is not the better-known Fences, it is Seven Guitars, which I haven't seen nor read.

Another thing I noticed is that five Pulitzer-Prize winners are on the list, which suggests that that organization is fairly in line with the general critical consensus (unlike other awards, which will remain unspoken).

Some of these plays have reviews on the blog: August Osage County, Clybourne Park, Ruined, The Wolves, The Flick, and The Realistic Joneses. I'll try to read and comment on the other 21 plays over the next few months, either by reading them or finding film versions.. I'm looking forward to making new discoveries, and revisiting old favorites. What's clear about this list, no matter how it was chosen, is that it is a fair representation of American history, both of the last twenty-five years and before.