Hail, Caesar! (2016); d. The Coen Brothers

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That’s the official poster. Boring. I like this one much better.

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In comparison to Inside Llewyn Davis, Hail, Caesar! has an outlook on humanity that is damn near sunny. Inside Llewyn Davis’ was a well-observed portrayal of the coffee-house folk-music scene pre-Dylan, suffused with an existential bleak mood. (I loved it.)

Hail, Caesar! is not exactly a “well-observed portrayal” of Hollywood post-WWII (a mix of the 40s and 50s). It’s not a documentary, although real people – or versions of them – predominate. It’s not a straight satire or a spoof either. It’s a bizarre mix of heart, corniness, and satire. It covers a lot of things familiar to people who know the history of Hollywood: how the big studios operated, including their patriarchal control over their stable of stars. The power of gossip columnists like Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons, fearsome women wearing gigantic hats who made studio heads tremble. The screenwriters who went to Community Party meetings which then would come back and bite them in the ass during the Blacklist years. (In the Coens’ re-imagining of that dark era, those people made up a true Communist cell, taking their orders from the Soviets, sneaking Commie propaganda into Hollywood movies.) The kinds of movies made by certain studios, mass-entertainment, musicals and Biblical epics. Movies “we” may be ashamed of now (speaking generally), but which were the bread-and-butter of a different era.

But Hail, Caesar! does not approach its environment with cynicism. It’s not slick. It also doesn’t treat Hollywood with contempt, nor is it mean-spirited about an industry devoted to make-believe. It has an almost gentle view of all of the characters, one of the biggest surprises about it, as ridiculous as many of them are. Hollywood is made up of hard-working people who have weird useless gifts (lassoing, horse riding, swimming, dancing with bananas on your head) that have brought them an immense amount of luck and good fortune. There isn’t one Diva actor on the lot in the film. I appreciated that so much. In my experience working in theatre, Divas are rare. Divas stand out in your memory. For the most part, actors are hard workers, humble (they really want to please the director and do a good job, even the stars feel that way), and, yeah, somewhat silly, because who would have ever thought that an ability to twirl two guns into your two-sided holster could make you Box Office Gold? It’s insane, it’s play-acting, and actors feel very very fortunate if they get to the point where they can make a living at it at all. People who see actors as egotistical idiotic maniacs probably don’t know many of them personally. The Divas get all the press. The nose-to-the-grindstone people do their work and go home.

I’ve read that some people don’t find the film “laugh out loud funny,” but I laughed out loud throughout. Your mileage may vary.

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George Clooney plays Baird Whitlock, a dim-witted good-hearted alcoholic/womanizer movie star who spends the entire movie in Roman dress with a Caesar haircut. As strange as this might be to believe, he barely looks attractive at times. It’s hilarious. At one point, Josh Brolin (who plays Eddie Mannix, head of production at the fictional Capitol Pictures – based on the real-life Eddie Mannix – sort of) slaps Clooney across the face multiple times (there are a couple of 1940s movie-slaps in the film), and in between one of the slaps, Clooney stares up at Brolin in such horror and surprise that his mouth is open in a perfect circle, eyes bugged out of his head. I guffawed.

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Scarlett Johansson plays DeeAnna Moran, an “aquatic” star along the lines of Esther Williams, but with throwbacks to the 1930s Busby Berkeley years, with grandiose synchronized swimming numbers, filmed from the ceiling, so human figures in the water start to look kaleidoscopic and abstract, creating different illusions.

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The “By the Waterfall” number in Busby Berkeley’s 1933 film “Footlight Parade”. Those are human beings. Here’s the full clip:

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Esther Williams, “Dangerous When Wet” (1953)

Johansson’s voice in Hail, Caesar! is a brassy sassy New York accent (perfection), reminiscent of Jean Harlow’s voice: the tough-girl, the working-class New York girl, nobody’s fool, a gun moll voice. The first time you see DeeAnna Moran, she rises from the surface of the pool, engulfed in a spout of water from a pretend-whale beneath the waves. Dressed in a skintight green mermaid outfit, she does a high-dive into the center of the synchronized swimmers, and then, once the cameras stop rolling, swims off, her tail flapping in the waves, annoyed because the damn thing is too tight. “Did you have gas again?” asks an assistant on set, and she scoffs, “Did I have gas again … come on.” Turns out DeeAnna Moran is pregnant, doesn’t know who the father is, although she thinks she might be sure, and Eddie Mannix has come to propose a quickie-marriage to an appropriate gentleman, just to avoid the scandal.

Tilda Swinton plays twin-sister gossip-columnists named Thora Thacker / Thessaly Thacker, both based on Hedda Hopper. The hats Swinton wears, with deadly-looking feathers jutting off to the side, are not an exaggeration.

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Hedda Hopper

Thora (or Thessaly) stalk after Eddie Mannix across the Capitol lawns, threatening to reveal sketchy stories from Whitlock’s past if she doesn’t get an exclusive. The sisters are in ferocious competition with one another for scoops.

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Ralph Fiennes plays a director named, hilariously, Laurence Laurentz (and nobody in the film can get the stresses right on either of his names). Laurentz is an elegant man with a British accent who seems to make drawing-room comedies along the lines of William Wyler or a low-rent George Cukor, with a palatial set of a parlor, and a fancy-schmancy family sitting around having cocktails.

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Channing Tatum plays Burt Gurney, the song-and-dance man star of the lot, modeled mostly on Gene Kelly, who brought a man-of-the-people athleticism to his dancing, so different from the elegant Fred Astaire. Comparisons are odious. They were two very different dancers. Gene Kelly dressed in sailor’s middies, or the classic khakis/jeans rolled up and loafers. Very different from tux and tails.

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Vera Ellen and Gene Kelly, “On the Town” (1949)

Channing Tatum is not the dancer Gene Kelly was (who is?), but he’s charismatic, compelling, and yes, he can dance. Tap-dance, waltz, athletic leaps, fancy foot-work, the whole nine yards, he can do it. The first time we see Burt Gurney he is in a sort of On the Town type picture, shooting a frankly homoerotic number with a bunch of male soldiers in white sailors’ uniforms, bemoaning the fact (in song) that they have no dames. It ends with all of them dancing around with each other. I mean …

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Burt Gurney is another humble star, eager to do his best. But Burt is more complex than meets the eye. Oh, Channing. How I love that I get to live in the moment where I get to watch this improbable and fearlessly-old-school entertaining career develop and take wing.

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Josh Brolin, quickly becoming one of my favorite leading men/character actors (his performance in Inherent Vice is now a favorite), even though he’s been around forever, plays Eddie Mannix. Yes, he’s a tough-talking guy, strutting around keeping his artists in line. But he’s also so tormented by guilt he goes to confession once a day: Priest: “How long has it been since your last confession?” Eddie checks his watch. “18 hours, Father.” Tired sigh from the other side of the grille: “My son, that is too soon …” The touching part of this is that Eddie Mannix is not an overt sinner, no more than the rest of us. The biggest thing on his conscience is that he promised his wife he would quit smoking, and he snuck a few cigarettes and he feels genuinely bad about it. He is good at his job, but he is also being courted – heavily – by Lockheed, and Lockheed’s representative characterizes Eddie’s industry as silly, frivolous, a waste of time for such a talented man. If Eddie came to work for Lockheed, he would be set for life, in stock options, bonuses, salary, and he wouldn’t have to work until 11 o’clock at night. He wouldn’t miss his kid’s debut as shortstop on the baseball team. He wouldn’t think he was wasting his life in Make-Believe-Land. Mannix is torn. But he can’t stay torn for long, because he believes in the movies he’s making, he really does, and he also has to race around trying to find Baird Whitlock who has mysteriously disappeared from the set, calm down Laurence Laurentz, find a quickie husband for DeeAnna Moran, and a host of other problems that seem extremely urgent, absurd though they may be.

Brolin is extremely touching in this role. Very unexpected. Very well-written part.

And finally, because, for me, he is the big surprise of Hail, Caesar!, and one of the main reasons to see it (outside of the Coen Brothers, that is).

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Alden Ehrenreich as Hobie Doyle, the singing cowboy star, who came out of the rodeo racket because of his horse skills, and found himself a movie star. With a real “brand.” I’ve seen him characterized as some hokey-Okie, but that could not be farther from the truth. Yes, his accent is thick-as-tobacco-chew. Yes, he wears chaps, and barely ever sets foot in the studio because “his” movies are filmed out in the desert. Yes, he has a kind of wide-eyed openness that seems “innocent.” But watch closely. And watch what Ehrenreich does. Again, it’s a very well-written part. This isn’t an element that Ehrenreich has added on his own. It’s there to begin with, and he brings it out with such deep-down gut-level understanding of who Hobie is, and not only that but more importantly: what the role requires in order to tell the story the Coen Brothers want to tell. This is what team-playing actor-craft looks like. It also is an example of genius casting. Honestly, watching this relative newcomer you are seeing a Master at work. (Supernatural fans will probably not recognize him from “Wendigo,” he was one of the kids. Another Supernatural alum is wonderful character actor Robert Picardo who played the evil leprechaun in “Clap Your Hands” and plays the rabbi here, called in by Mannix with a bunch of other theologians to weigh in on the portrayal of Jesus in the upcoming Biblical epic. Ricardo provides one of the first laughs in the film, referencing the other religious guys at the table: “These guys are screwballs.”)

Alden Ehrenreich is so good he almost takes over the movie (and he’s not even featured in the poster!). His quiet charisma, and his quiet take-over (you keep waiting for him to come back – not that the film lags when he’s not onscreen, but his presence is felt always) is good and right, because the character’s trajectory shows the absurdity of what can happen in Hollywood, the beautiful convergence of strange-ness mixed with desperate measures that can alter someone’s life forever. It shows what happens when a so-called rube gets in front of the camera. There’s a scene with Hobie that reminds me of John Garfield in Michael Curtiz’ Four Daughters (1938), a somewhat genteel family drama that John Garfield, as “bad boy outsider”, strolls into and walks away with because he makes everyone else seem like cardboard cutouts.

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Our very first glimpse of John Garfield in “Four Daughters”. Hubba hubba.

Four Daughters was Garfield’s debut but you watch him (and he disappears halfway through) and think, “It is inevitable that that guy will become a huge star.” His performance pre-dates Brando by 10 years, but it predicts Brando. It opens up the way.

Watch, in Hail, Caesar! how Ehrenreich says the line, “It’s complicated.” He – and Hobie – KILL. IT.

Ehrenreich and Ralph Fiennes have one bit that is so funny I have no conception of how long it actually lasted, because I was laughing too hard. I’ll have to see it again to clock it. But it was so well done and so funny, on both sides, that I could have watched it for 5 minutes more.

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There are surprises throughout. The adorable Veronica Osorio plays Carlotta Valdez, a Carmen Miranda-type, known for doing sexy dances with bananas balanced on her head. She and Hobie are set up for a date by the studio, and she accompanies him to the premiere of his new cowboy movie. They don’t know each other and what on earth could those two people have in common? But they have fun together, are both sweet, doing their best to be entertaining to one another, and also have a good time on this totally manufactured date, that they actually connect. It’s beautiful. Who knows, they might decide all on their own to go on a second date.

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Frances McDormand has one killer scene. (Almost literally). She plays a chain-smoking film editor who hangs out in a dark room, splicing together the dailies, nearly setting the whole celluloid-filled room on fire, but flipping switches and cutting and re-rolling the film in an assembly-line automatic way that shows you this is all she does. All day. Every day.

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Jonah Hill shows up as a notary, a go-to guy when the studio is in trouble and needs someone to 1. rush through divorce papers at the 11th hour 2. go to JAIL in some cases, “taking the fall” for a movie star in trouble 3. pose as a foster parent. Whatever. He’s on call 24 hours a day. Hill is so deadpan that he seems to be barely there, but that’s what’s so funny about it.

There is a “study group” of show-business Communists holed up in a house in Malibu, discussing the dialectics of history, economics, the “means of production” and how Hollywood plays into it. How they are involved in the story you’ll just have to find out for yourself.

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Hail, Caesar! takes place in the space of a manic 24 hours; the timeline is compressed and urgent. Yet there’s an ease to the tone and rhythm overall. Scenes are allowed to breathe, behavior given space to flourish. It’s not manic for the sake of being manic. There’s a deliberate hand behind it (or … two pairs of hands), letting us get to know these people – not so much by seeing their hearts and minds – but by watching them work, watching them do what they are good at doing. Produce. Edit. Act. Swim. Write. Sing. Because that’s really all that matters to them.

I’ve quoted this Stella Adler gem before and it applies:

It is not that important to know who you are. It is important to know what you DO, and then do it like Hercules.

Every character onscreen is doing their thing, whatever it is, like Hercules.

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There have been a lot of lists “ranking” the Coen Brothers’ film. Ranking is not my thing. It creates a hierarchy of accomplishments as opposed to a sense of a still-unfolding career. What we are seeing – and have been seeing since the Coen Brothers arrived – is an extraordinary joint career developing over time, film after film after film, each one unique, some more successful than others … but that’s what Art is about. You don’t hit a home run every time you’re up at bat, and artists, even when doing their best, understand that better than most.

Hail, Caesar is not so much an homage to old Hollywood (although you can feel the directors’ love of those old forms, the Busby Berkeley stuff, the Gene Kelly stuff, the cowboy stuff) as a “spin” on some of those old familiar themes. The story reads as a “tall tale,” in a lot of respects. Show business is full of those. Read the gossip columns of Hedda Hopper, et al. They are creating the truth, and then that “truth” is passed on down. Hail, Caesar! has the feeling of gossip, passed down through the ages, clarity lost in the game of telephone. “Remember when Baird Whitlock was kidnapped? Did that actually happen that way?” “Remember Hobie’s first day of shooting that Laurentz picture? Were you there? I know someone who knew someone whose brother worked in the costume department, and he has some great stories.” “Remember DeeAnna Moran’s aquatic movies and what a huge a star she was? I wonder what ever happened to her …”

The film is not drenched in nostalgia, it’s too sharp for that. Its sharpness gives it its unique tone, both funny and fond, as well as its humor and absurdity. The pace never stops. The movies made at Capitol Pictures are made fun of – a little bit – but not entirely. If there’s one thing I can’t stand it is a condescending attitude towards films of the past, and the audiences who loved them. For example, in Hail, Caesar: you can totally understand why Hobie is a star when you watch him in a scene in one of his movies, sitting on the porch of a frontier shack, staring at the moon, strumming his guitar and singing. He’s riveting, and the scene is gentle, quiet, and archetypal in a way that is totally out of style now but you realize how essential it is, how difficult it is to achieve, when you watch it done really really well. You can understand why audiences would flock to see DeeAnna swim towards the camera in a mermaid dress, or Carlotta dancing around with fruit balanced on her head. If these people have one thing in common, it’s that they love what they do. Sugar-coated view of the industry? Not really. It’s closer to reality than you think.

Hail, Caesar‘s ultimate and unexpected gentleness means that you do not feel like you are spending two hours in the company of familiar stock types “play-acting” at being movie stars of a bygone age.

Instead, you feel privileged and grateful to get to hang out with that wacko sincere gang of hard-working screwballs.

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Rebel Without a Cause (1955); d. Nicholas Ray

For James Dean’s birthday: An essay I wrote about Rebel Without a Cause, when the new restoration was released theatrically in 2013.

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I first saw Rebel Without a Cause when I was the general age of the main characters in the film. Although I was a child of the 70s, and an adolescent of the 80s, it felt like it expressed to me what life felt like in those difficult years. I had it good. I had parents who loved me and supported me, friends, and everything else. But I was an intense and sensitive child, a sponge to the influences upon me (mostly gotten from literature and film). And the sense of yearning that comes with being a teenager, the sense of “divine dissatisfaction” (to quote Martha Graham) which can give even pleasing things an existential ache, reaches its high baroque stage in Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause. The film is baroque almost to the point of decadence, drenched in symbolic colors, and images evocative of the crucifixion and resurrection (the whole thing takes place on Easter weekend), and it mainlines into the mother lode of anxiety and frustrated sexuality that runs at such a heightened pitch in adolescents due to hormones and the fact that nobody at that age has enough life experience to know that “this too shall pass”.

(One small side note: I have read every book I can get my hands on about James Dean, about this film, etc. I know all the anecdotes, all the small cast members’ experiences, what the shoot was like. This is another thing that I had to almost forcibly get out of the way in order to even be able to see the film fresh. It comes with so many associations and stories attached.)

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Of course when Rebel Without a Cause was first released, it was touted as almost a sociological study of Juvenile Delinquency and what it signified in our culture, which does the film a disservice and misses some of its finer points. But that’s no surprise. The youth culture was exploding, and there were lots of teenagers hanging around in an era of new prosperity with money in their pockets, tons of leisure time, and so, naturally, lots of stuff started happening on a much larger scale, due to the sheer force of their demographic numbers. Elvis Presley was already starting that seismic shift down South, and while he wouldn’t explode to national prominence until the year following (1956), the process was well on its way. There were other harbingers of things to come, in movies like The Wild One (1953), with Marlon Brando’s famous rejoinder to the question, “Hey Johnny, what are you rebelling against?”: “Whattya got?” Newspapers and preachers and teachers-associations agonized over what was afflicting the nation’s youth. It was also an era of tremendous conformity on an almost invisible level, so all-encompassing was it. Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar is an opus to what that kind of institutional societal conformity can do to the individual. And it is true that one cannot exactly point to the problem. It is pervasive, Big Brother-ish in nature, a culture devoted to the illusion that we are all the same. If you have the time, I go into all of this in this post about Elvis Presley’s first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show in September, 1956, especially in the section where I discuss Dorothy Sarnoff’s appearance on the same show and what that showed about the absolutely fascistic propaganda-level of Gender Roles at that time. Pervasive. To see her back to back with Elvis shows you just how much he toppled. To quote Lester Bangs in his famous obituary for Elvis:

Lenny Bruce demonstrated how far you could push a society as repressed as ours and how much you could get away with, but Elvis kicked “How Much Is That Doggie in the Window” out the window and replaced it with “Let’s fuck.” The rest of us are still reeling from the impact.

Rebel Without a Cause is one of those films that may be difficult to remove from its context, not to mention the fact that its young star, James Dean, died one month before its release. The impact of his death was seismic. Martin Sheen describes feeling like he was lost: who was there to look up to now as an actor? Elvis cried when James Dean died. Already, with East of Eden, James Dean had made an electric impression. And, creepily, the films kept coming after he passed: first Rebel, then Giant, Dean’s power resonating from beyond the grave. Dying young is a sure way to ensure immortality, but “dying young” cannot fully explain the impact Dean’s acting had on the youth of the time. It existed before he died, and that is important to keep in mind. His death just intensified what was already there.

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The other young stars, Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo, also came to untimely and violent ends, which may be gruesome to even dwell on, but it’s present in my feelings about the film. That knowledge hovers like a ghostly afterimage.

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There is a haunting quality to the movie, overall, a true strangeness that makes it far more than just a presentation of What Is Wrong With Kids Today? Rebel is not literal in any way, shape, or form. It doesn’t feel “ripped from the headlines” the way other films addressing similar topics did at the time. Instead, it tiptoes towards and around a bombed-out landscape of existential dread and fatalism, with a doom-ridden end-of-the-world awareness licking at that generation’s heels, following the bombs exploded in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Like Hamlet, another existential worrier, these kids in the film felt life was “weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable”. What does any of it matter anyway if some World Leader on the other side of the globe could push a button and vaporize us in moments? All of that seeps through the film like an invisible poison gas, inhibiting our relationships to one another, our ability to connect.

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Look at the framing there, the placement of the bodies, the barriers between them (and between us, we can’t see some of their faces), and yet the way they are framed connects them, almost against their will. Bound together.

It doesn’t matter that these are not kids from the wrong side of the tracks. As a matter of fact, that is one of the reasons why the film is potentially so disturbing if you are invested in the status quo because there is not an easy diagnosis. You can’t point the finger at what is wrong. Rebel Without a Cause is bold and dark enough to suggest that what is wrong is how our culture is set up in the first place, its intimacy, claustrophobia, and the premium it puts on fitting in, and also that what is wrong doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things. We are all made up of star dust and to star dust we will return. We are a blip on the radar screen of the universe. None of it matters. Perhaps loving one another and being kind to one another does matter (as Jim’s kindness to Plato shows, as Judy’s kindness to Plato shows), but it doesn’t alter the course of events, it doesn’t change a damn thing. The film is a vision of dark hopelessness, that startled me even more when I just saw it at a press screening last week. In that context, the most important scene in the film could be the field trip to the planetarium.

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Rebel is totally out of tune with anything that could be described as properly American. It’s totes French, in other words. Or should I say: Tôtes?

A great example of all of this happens on the night of the chickie run. The school thug, Buzz (Corey Allen, excellent), has been bullying Jim Stark from the first moment he met him. He responds to Jim Stark in what is obviously a sexually-threatened way, part of the homoerotic overall nature of almost every male interaction in the film. Now that’s deep subtext, but it’s there. Jim, as played by James Dean, has a quiet kind of power, and people project things onto him. Everyone does. Hopes, dreams, aspirations, resentments … all get poured at Jim Stark like a wave. This happens in every scene. He’s different, he’s quiet, he’s compelling, and also, he’s drop-dead gorgeous. People react to beauty in strange ways. We want to be that beautiful, but we are not, and so it can come out in envious ways. The film doesn’t shy away from those implications, the film doesn’t pretend that James Dean isn’t as good-looking as he is. Every shot, every image, every frame, is chosen to highlight his good looks in what amounts to blatant objectification. Buzz picks up on that. He has to lash out at it. He’s obviously attracted, too. EVERYONE is. So things come to a head between Buzz and Jim during the knife fight at the planetarium. The air between them crackles with hostility. That night, Jim shows up at the cliff wearing his red jacket. The two young men look over the cars for the race. The energy between them has shifted entirely. The rest of the crowd gathered are teenagers, still kids. These two are men. They know it. But they don’t know what “being a man” means. Their fathers have not taught them (a theme I’ll get to in a minute). So they have to make their own worlds, their own rules, because the grownups in their lives have failed them. The two of them are almost exhausted at this point, and talk to one another quietly as they look over the edge of the cliff.

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Buzz Gunderson: You know something? I like you.
Jim Stark: Why do we do this?
Buzz Gunderson: You’ve gotta do something. Don’t you?

That very well may be the most important and eloquent exchange in the film. It says it all. And so even with the whiff of nihilism and fatalism that seeps through the action, there is that doomed hope of connection. But it is, indeed, doomed. A lesser film would not have developed Buzz in the way that it did in that chickie run scene.

One of the major impressions I had this recent time seeing it is how overwhelming James Dean is on the big screen. It can’t be overstated. I have seen all of his films in the theatre and it’s something I recommend, if you can swing it. His spontaneity and his power is electric in a way that few actors have, and it may have been a tenuous talent, it may have emanated from some sort of “sick”-ness (as Elia Kazan suggested). Marlon Brando thought he was good but that he lacked discipline as an actor. He was young. He was 24 when he died. He had that “thing” that cannot be mimicked or faked, although that didn’t stop other young actors from trying. That “thing” is star quality. You want to see what it looks like? Watch Dean in Rebel. There it is. The “what if” that hovers around Dean can take away from the sheer fascination of what he was able to accomplish while he was alive. You have to almost get the Myth out of the way, the best you can, in order to actually perceive him at all. Seeing him in a dark theatre on a big movie screen is a great way to do it, because his authenticity is undeniable. I have seen the movie so many times I know it by heart. I held up a tape recorder to the television back in the day, so that I could listen to it and “re-live” the movie in my head, pre-VCR days. So I know every grunt, pause, aside in the film. And still, still, I found moments that surprised me, clutched at me, struck me. The famous moments like rolling the milk bottle around on his face (a spontaneous choice by Dean), and punching the desk (he actually broke his hand during the filming of said scene), and laughing when the cop frisks him. The famous opening scene where he drunkenly falls into the frame.

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(The opening moment where Dean drunkenly plays with a toy monkey, the camera seemingly placed below the pavement, is referenced overtly in Jeff Bridges’ drunk scene in “The Fisher King”, as well as the final shot in an episode of Supernatural “Plucky Pennywhistle’s Magical Menagerie”.)

These are the well-known ones, but it’s there in subtler moments, too. The way Jim seems to understand the nature of Plato’s love for him, and how instead of recoiling at that knowledge, it makes him kind. The look of pain that crosses his face when he sees his father (Jim Backus, wonderful) on the floor, in an apron, worriedly picking up the spilled food. And also the beautiful scene with the sympathetic police officer that opens the film, the man-to-man talk over the water cooler, when Dean really seems to be taking in what the police officer has to say. James Dean is riveting. His beauty just adds to his almost overwhelming effect as an actor. He’s a movie star.

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One of the things Dean does so well (and so naturally) is to have both a brooding interior energy as well as an extroverted sense of action and objective. His acting wouldn’t be the same if he didn’t have that blend, if he privileged one side over the other. The interior energy is the sense that he is always thinking, contemplating, musing, on another plane that has nothing to do with the script. It’s subtext. Dean plays it, never ever forgets to play it. And the sense of action and objective are what makes him thrilling and important as an actor, the way he kisses Judy gently on her temple, the gentle way he covers Plato up when he is sleeping, the way he manhandles his father (never forgetting that what he is feeling there is grief, as well as rage).

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These are actions coming from character and objective, the nuts-and-bolts of good acting as seen through behavior.

Some of the closeups of Dean are so beautiful they ache. You’re staring at something perfect. And when he puts on the red jacket for the chickie run, you still feel the thrill of danger, how startling he looks, highlighted by that red. It’s a warning signal, a red flag, a sign of his newfound stance against conformity, against the tweed-jacket-loafers “costume” he had been wearing in earlier scenes. No more of that. Set the individual free, society be damned. He will NOT grow up to be a henpecked dutiful husband, domesticated and shamed for his male-ness.

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Natalie Wood, as Judy, lives in rampant sexual confusion, which was seen as so explosive at the time that the studio execs were worried about some of the implications in regards to what the hell was actually going on with her father. This is key. Fathers are key to Rebel. Mothers are irrelevant. They are either scoldy-pants nonentities, or irresponsibly invisible. Fathers are the ones who have shirked their responsibility to make sure their children grow up whole and enter adulthood un-broken. Sex is the key to all of this. It’s the radical subversive underpinnings of the entire movie, and it’s there, powerfully, and yet acknowledged only from the side, almost afraid to address the reality of sexual politics in domesticated suburban homes, the threat/fear of incest, and what it means to a parent to see your child blossoming sexually. How this is handled is KEY to the child’s development.

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Judy’s father has rejected her once she started adolescence. He no longer gives her affection, he no longer kisses her, and he shames her for the fact that she is becoming a woman. When she tries to kiss him at the dinner table, he explodes. She’s too old for all that now. Old for what? Being loved by her father? By rejecting her, he throws her to the wolves of her peers where she will now strut and pose and “act out”, looking for acceptance in the form of sex. Easy enough with teenage boys. But, of course, that puts her entire future in peril. Judy doesn’t want sex, not really, she wants acceptance and acknowledgement. Having a 16-year-old daughter suddenly sprouting breasts and wearing lipstick is, of course, a disturbing and scary thing for a parent, I imagine. You want to protect your child. You don’t want to be inappropriate. But a daughter becoming a woman is the natural order of things, and she should not be shamed for it. But Judy’s parents fuck it all up. The mother is useless. The father is bound up in his fear of his own reaction to his daughter’s sexuality. This is something he cannot admit to himself.

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Strutting about with her “juvie” friends, it is clear that Judy is playing a role. Jim sees right through it, because he saw her crying at the police station. He doesn’t understand why she feels the need to “act” like that. It doesn’t suit her. Judy starts to realize that herself, through the long night in hiding with Jim and Plato, and a softness starts emerging, a softness that had been squashed by her father’s rejection and the careless treatment she probably received from boys for being the easy “Rizzo” at her school. With Jim and Plato she gets to be soft, caring, maternal. She gets to be receptive and open as opposed to over-it and tough. It is interesting to contemplate what will happen to Judy later, after the film ends. Maybe college will free her. But maybe not. I don’t have high hopes. Her father has been too instrumental in shoveling shame upon her head for no reason. It is unforgivable.

But in the Utopia she creates with Jim and Plato that lonely night, surrounded by the broken statuary and cracked concrete of an abandoned mansion, she is allowed to be strong, and she is also allowed to be a woman, with all the softness that that entails. Both energies are necessary to this world, none of it should be shamed out of existence. Conformity in gender roles is harmful because it stifles our natural responses, the way we WANT to be. Once things become prescribed by the culture at large, the only natural thing is to rebel against it. Judy has been forced into this position by her father. Mothering Plato is something she is good at. Loving Jim is something she is good at. Her “womanliness” is something to be treasured, not ashamed about. As well as her desire for affection (and sex). It’s part of life, it’s part of being human.

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And then there is Plato, played unforgettably by Sal Mineo. Plato was abandoned by his father, and his mother may have stuck around but she’s no better. Plato is raised by the family maid (Marietta Canty), who is the one who comes to pick him up at the police station, the one who tries to save him, the one who takes on the bullies tormenting him. Her love for him is sincere, but Plato needs a real family. From the first moment he lays eyes on Jim Stark in the police station, he chooses his new father.

But of course what really happens is that he falls in love with Jim, and it is played explicitly that way in the film, by both Mineo and Dean. There isn’t much hiding behind euphemism here, and it’s so refreshing. It’s not subtext, it’s text. Mineo plays it for all it’s worth. He follows Jim around with his eyes, and you can feel his heart palpitating in his chest, with love, lust, desire, idolization. And, beautifully, Jim senses that this is going on and is kind about it. He includes Plato, protects him, doesn’t shame him for having those feelings. I can’t even imagine what it must have been like to have been gay in the 1950s and see this film.

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We see Plato at his locker in school, watching Jim through the little mirror he has tacked up. Beneath the mirror is a photo of Alan Ladd. All we need is the image to understand everything about this lonely tormented young man. Later, when he runs away from Jim in the mansion, he screams out, “You’re not my father!” and I can’t even type out those words without tears coming to my eyes.

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James Dean is filmed throughout like a Christ figure, looming above the other characters in a dizzying way, his head dropped down onto his chest. With all of the symbolism of the colors (there was nobody like Nicholas Ray for drenching his films in symbolic colors), what I was left with this last viewing was the sensitivity of Dean’s acting, its openness to possibilities, its openness to ambiguity and silence. He is truly thoughtful. Onscreen. All of the flash and storm surrounding his death and the subsequent Myth of his short career should not take away from the accomplishment of the performance itself.

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The title of the film is accurate. There is no cause. What we have here is an awareness of mortality that has reached a deafening boom. How to live with the knowledge that we will die? How to live with the awareness that the world is going to end? The sensitive teenagers at the center of the film are baffled by the adults in their lives who seem complacent about such questions. What the hell is wrong with them?

At the end of the film, Jim introduces Judy to his parents. He calls her his “friend”.

I love that detail. Not “girlfriend”. It’s bigger than that, it’s kinder and more inclusive. Women don’t have to be slotted into roles: “daughter”, “girlfriend”, “wife”, “school slut”. Men and women can be friends, too.

His parents suddenly look in awe at their son, so confident, so himself. He is beyond them now. He is a man.

The end of the world buzzes through the film like static or white noise, the fuzz on the television in the middle of the night, something everyone in the culture could hear/sense but could not point to on a map. The teenage kids are treated to the spectacle of the world ending in a flash of fire while on the planetarium field trip, and of course all roads lead to the Griffith Observatory yet again in the final scene.

There’s one queasy moment as we approach the finish line where Jim’s parents look at each other and finally laugh, as though burying the hatchet, and to my mind it is the only cop-out in the whole picture. It was a bone thrown to the conformity-ridden culture, saying, “Hey, guys, you’re not so bad after all, we forgive you clumsy lunks.”

But nothing really can assuage the uneasy and disturbing forces unleashed through the film. Plato, holed up in the planetarium against the forces gathering outside, asks Jim if he thinks the end of the world will come at nighttime. Jim thinks about this. He really does. Then he answers, “No. At dawn.”

The movie ends at dawn. Good luck with finding Hope in any of that.

Posted in Actors, Movies | Tagged , , | 13 Comments

Happy Birthday, Elizabeth Bishop

Elizabeth Bishop is one of my favorite poets, and she actually didn’t write all that many poems throughout her life (compared to other poets who lived as long as she did). She was meticulous, picking and choosing every word she wrote with the utmost care (similar to Joan Didion, who agonizes over punctuation, and works on one sentence for weeks at a time). This, naturally, slowed Bishop down, in terms of output. She was not hugely famous during her lifetime, although famous enough to be Poet Laureate from 1949-1950, but since her death her reputation has skyrocketed.

Born in 1911 in Massachusetts, Bishop had a harrowing childhood. Her father died when she was a baby. Her mother was mentally ill and institutionalized. Elizabeth’s grandparents raised her after that, but then her father’s side of the family got custody and she was moved off to live with them. She didn’t really know them, she missed her grandparents, she developed asthma. She was one of those human beings who experienced complete despair from before she was 10 years old. To add to the confusion, her paternal grandparents realized she was unhappy, maybe felt she was too much to handle … whatever the case, Bishop was moved yet again to with her aunt (her mother’s sister). Bishop’s aunt was very poor, and the Bishop grandparents sent money for the care of Elizabeth. They lived in a tenement, in a terrible neighborhood. But Bishop’s aunt introduced her to poetry. So there’s that. Bishop was a sickly child (exacerbated by the grief and disorientation of being essentially an orphan, made worse by the fact that her mother was still alive – just locked up and she couldn’t see her). Bishop rarely went to school. So she was self- and aunt-educated. She ended up going to Vassar, thinking she would be a composer or a musician (music being her first love), but she had also started writing and publishing poems by that point. She started a literary magazine with classmate Mary McCarthy. She graduated from Vassar in 1934.

Because her dead father had been successful financially, she had a pretty big inheritance. She was independently wealthy. This fact also helped shape Bishop. Unlike a lot of other artists starting out, she never had to take a day job. She never had to teach or do other things to make ends meet. She was extremely shy, maybe even crippled by it (although her letters reveal that she was not a shrinking wall-flower personality to her friends and lovers: she was bubbly, funny, and irrepressible, with a great eye for the perfect anecdote.) She traveled the world. She loved to travel. She did not huddle in New York City like many of her fellow poets, who jostled for seats at the bar in Greenwich Village, forming a small community. She was out of the country. She lived in Brazil. She lived in Florida.

Introduced to Robert Lowell in 1947, they formed an intimate kinship almost immediately, starting up a correspondence that continued for the rest of their lives (it has been recently published and it’s amazing: Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence Between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell. It was a symbiotic artistic marriage.

Elizabeth Bishop wrote to Robert Lowell, after reading one of his poems.

“It took me an hour or so to get back to my own metre.”

I am interested in how the work affected each other. They traded drafts back and forth, they made comments and critiques. They were not just “fans” of each other. They took the other’s work seriously enough to really engage with it, be honest about what didn’t work. Lowell valued her input, and vice versa. Lowell was much more famous in his own day than Elizabeth Bishop. He was part of a “trend,” which helped, an openness and personal-ness in subject matter that was to become known as “the confessional poets,” the most famous being Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, who were in a later generation. (The two of them both took a class with Lowell, and the three of them would go out for drinks afterwards. Why can’t I have a time machine?

Lowell’s stuff was extremely confessional, talking about his hospitalizations for mental breakdowns (he was bipolar), and was seen as shocking at the time, although it was also hugely influential. In my opinion, as much as I love him, his stuff doesn’t hold up as well as Bishop’s. Her poems may seem descriptive and distant, in compared to Lowell’s searing tell-alls, but once you really read them, and get inside of them, you realize just how personal every word is, how exquisitely placed. The images she puts in your mind (her famous moose, the now-famous fish-houses and shoreline) stay there forever.

They never married. Lowell had many lovers, and a wife. Bishop stayed with one woman for many years (sadly, this woman committed suicide; yet another plot-point in the tragic story that was Bishop’s personal life, she was surrounded by mental illness from a very young age). But theirs was a soulmate kind of connection. Lowell did ask her to marry him, and her cooler head prevailed. But, they were each other’s “perfect reader”. Every writer needs one. Not a critic, not a gushing fan … but someone who is able to really hear not just the words, but the intent. Who can speak to the theme, the greater picture.

Bishop was solitary, with a small literate following. She wrote about fish houses and the beach and small observational moments. He opened up his psychology, pouring passion and unrequited feeling into his poems. Bishop had some serious reservations about Lowell’s work, which she shared with him. They worked FOR one another, over decades.

William Logan writes, in the NY Times review of their correspondence:

Their admiration even made them light fingered – they borrowed ideas or images the way a neighbor might steal a cup of sugar. Lowell was especially tempted by this lure of the forbidden, using one of Bishop’s dreams in a heartbreaking poem about their might-have-been affair, or rewriting in verse one of her short stories. They were literary friends in all the usual ways, providing practical advice (the forever dithery and procrastinating Bishop proved surprisingly pragmatic), trading blurbs, logrolling as shamelessly as pork-bellied senators (Lowell was adept at dropping the quiet word on her behalf). There was a refined lack of jealousy between them – that particular vice never found purchase, though in letters to friends they could afford the occasional peevish remark about each other. The only time Bishop took exception to Lowell’s poems was when, in “The Dolphin” (1973), he incorporated angry letters from his ex-wife Elizabeth Hardwick. ” –Art just isn’t worth that much,” Bishop exclaimed. She flinched when poets revealed in their poems too much of themselves, once claiming that she wished she “could start writing poetry all over again on another planet.”

These poets, in short, inspired each other. Lowell always seems to be stuffing her newest poem into his billfold, so he can take it out later like a hundred-dollar bill. Bishop saw immediately how strange and even shocking “Life Studies” (1959) was (its confessional style caused as violent an earthquake in American poetry as “The Waste Land”); but he noticed something more subtle, that she rarely repeated herself. Each time she wrote, it was as if she were reinventing what she did with words, while he tended to repeat his forms until he had driven them into the ground, or driven everyone crazy with them. Bishop was loyal enough to admire, or pretend to, even Lowell’s mediocre poems.

If Lowell and Bishop often seem to love no poems more than each other’s, as critics perhaps they were right. A hundred years from now, they may prove the 20th century’s Whitman and Dickinson, an odd couple whose poems look quizzically at each other, half in understanding, half in consternation, each poet the counter-psyche of the other. Their poems are as different as gravy from groundhogs, their letters so alike – so delightfully in concord – the reader at times can’t guess the author without glancing at the salutation.

Bishop finally settled down in Key West.

For a long time she was known as a “poet’s poet”, but her appeal is much broader than that. She’s up there with Robert Frost, a poet with whom she has much in common. Her work has that mix of grandeur and homeliness. You wonder how she does it. She writes about “small” things: the look of waves, a moose in the darkness, fishing rods, in the same way that Frost writes about “small” things – an axe, a snowfall, an apple. Yet nobody could say that these were trivial poets, or “surface” poets. They plumb the depths of the human condition itself, not by focusing on experiences with electric shock therapy, or family dramas (and some of the confessional poets are terrific, my faves, this is not an either/or kind of thing), but by excavating the meaning and grace and import in things, objects, nature.

Bishop’s poem “One Art” stands out as different from her others. It is directly personal. In it, she speaks in an “I” voice, rare for her. The poem’s form is formal, with set-up obvious rhymes and a sense of rhythmic repetition. You can feel the influence of her soulmate Robert Lowell in “One Art”, even though the expression, the poem itself, is all hers.

One Art

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

–Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

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Seamus Heaney, in a lecture he gave on Elizabeth Bishop, makes the observation that if you read “One Art” out loud, the person listening to you may not know that “Write” is not “Right.” They can’t see the word on the page. But it works as “Right” as well, like: “CORRECT it.” “RIGHT what has been made wrong.” Brilliant.

In the same lecture Heaney takes a close look at the way her language operates in “One Art”:

The first time “master” and “disaster” occurs, in stanza one, they are tactfully, elegantly, deprecatingly paired off. It wasn’t a disaster. The speaker is being decorous, good-mannered, relieving you of the burden of having to sympathize, easing you out of any embarrassed need to find things to say. The last time the rhyme occurs, however, the shocking traumatic reality of what happened almost overbrims the containing form. It was a disaster. It was devastatingly and indescribably so. And yet what the poem has not managed to do, in the nick of time, is to survive the devastating. The verb “master” places itself in the scales opposite its twin noun, “disaster,” and holds the balance. And the secret of the held balance is given in the parenthesis “(Write it!)”. As so often in Bishop’s work, the parenthesis (if you have ears to hear) is the place the hear the real truth. And what the parenthesis in ‘One Art’ tells us is what we always knew in some general way, but now know with an acute pang of intimacy, that the act of writing is an act of survival.

Marianne Moore was a huge influence and early champion of Bishop’s stuff. Moore wrote in re: Bishop:

Some authors do not muse within themselves; they ‘think’ – like the vegetable-shredder which cuts into the life of a thing. Miss Bishop is not one of these frettingly intensive machines. Yet the rational considering quality in her work is its strength – assisted by unwordiness, uncontorted intentionalness, the flicker of impudence, the natural unforced ending.

Moore said that Bishop was “spectacular in being unspectacular.”

Michael Schmidt, in his Lives of the Poets, writes:

Few poets of the century are as candid as Elizabeth Bishop. We know more about her from her poems, despite her reticence, her refusal to confess or provide circumstantial detail, than we do of Plath or Lowell or Sexton, who dramatize and partialize themselves. Bishop asks us to focus not on her but with her. Her disclosures are tactful: we can recognize them if we wish. Her reticence is “polite”. Given her vulnerability, she could have “gone to the edge”, as A. Alvarez likes poets to do, praising Plath and Lowell for their extremity. Instead she follows where William Cowper led, using language not to go to the edge but to find her way back from it; using poetry – in an eighteenth-century spirit – as a normative instrument. Even in her harshest poems, such an art is affirmative.

It’s a toss-up as to what is her best-known poem. There are two that seem to make it into the anthologies the most: “At the Fishhouses” and “One Art”. If you read these poems one after the other it is very difficult to not be in awe of her versatility. The voice used in each is so completely specific, and perfect to the subject matter.

Every time I read “At the Fishhouses” I am lulled into a quiet space, almost a dream-space where her images work on me in unexpected ways. I SEE that scene, but not one word is prosaic, or merely descriptive.

At the Fishhouses

Although it is a cold evening,
down by one of the fishhouses
an old man sits netting,
his net, in the gloaming almost invisible,
a dark purple-brown,
and his shuttle worn and polished.
The air smells so strong of codfish
it makes one’s nose run and one’s eyes water.
The five fishhouses have steeply peaked roofs
and narrow, cleated gangplanks slant up
to storerooms in the gables
for the wheelbarrows to be pushed up and down on.
All is silver: the heavy surface of the sea,
swelling slowly as if considering spilling over,
is opaque, but the silver of the benches,
the lobster pots, and masts, scattered
among the wild jagged rocks,
is of an apparent translucence
like the small old buildings with an emerald moss
growing on their shoreward walls.
The big fish tubs are completely lined
with layers of beautiful herring scales
and the wheelbarrows are similarly plastered
with creamy iridescent coats of mail,
with small iridescent flies crawling on them.
Up on the little slope behind the houses,
set in the sparse bright sprinkle of grass,
is an ancient wooden capstan,
cracked, with two long bleached handles
and some melancholy stains, like dried blood,
where the ironwork has rusted.
The old man accepts a Lucky Strike.
He was a friend of my grandfather.
We talk of the decline in the population
and of codfish and herring
while he waits for a herring boat to come in.
There are sequins on his vest and on his thumb.
He has scraped the scales, the principal beauty,
from unnumbered fish with that black old knife,
the blade of which is almost worn away.

Down at the water’s edge, at the place
where they haul up the boats, up the long ramp
descending into the water, thin silver
tree trunks are laid horizontally
across the gray stones, down and down
at intervals of four or five feet.

Cold dark deep and absolutely clear,
element bearable to no mortal,
to fish and to seals . . . One seal particularly
I have seen here evening after evening.
He was curious about me. He was interested in music;
like me a believer in total immersion,
so I used to sing him Baptist hymns.
I also sang “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.”
He stood up in the water and regarded me
steadily, moving his head a little.
Then he would disappear, then suddenly emerge
almost in the same spot, with a sort of shrug
as if it were against his better judgment.
Cold dark deep and absolutely clear,
the clear gray icy water . . . Back, behind us,
the dignified tall firs begin.
Bluish, associating with their shadows,
a million Christmas trees stand
waiting for Christmas. The water seems suspended
above the rounded gray and blue-gray stones.
I have seen it over and over, the same sea, the same,
slightly, indifferently swinging above the stones,
icily free above the stones,
above the stones and then the world.
If you should dip your hand in,
your wrist would ache immediately,
your bones would begin to ache and your hand would burn
as if the water were a transmutation of fire
that feeds on stones and burns with a dark gray flame.
If you tasted it, it would first taste bitter,
then briny, then surely burn your tongue.
It is like what we imagine knowledge to be:
dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free,
drawn from the cold hard mouth
of the world, derived from the rocky breasts
forever, flowing and drawn, and since
our knowledge is historical, flowing, and flown.

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Maybe I love it because the landscape is familiar to me, an East Coast girl who grew up 10 minutes from the vast heaving Atlantic. The fishing industry is part of the landscape of my childhood, and it’s all there in her language. Bishop makes it look so easy that it is hard to remember just how good she is.

But, for me, “The Moose” is her greatest poem. Somehow I had missed it, I was not familiar with it (it’s not as commonly anthologized, first of all) and for whatever reason, about 10 years ago Dad brought it to my attention. I think it was re-published in The New Yorker. A treasured memory is telling my dad I was getting into her, and how much I loved her, and he asked if I knew her poem “The Moose.” I didn’t. He pulled out a book (he always knew where the right books were), and read it out loud to me. My father had a gravelly voice, unforgettable, warm and grumbly, and he was wonderful when reading out loud. As much as I love “The Moose” (and I DO, it’s now in my Top Bishop poems), what I really love is that when I read it now, I still hear it in my father’s voice.

Poet Randall Jarrell said a great thing about Bishop:

All her poems have written underneath, I have seen it.”

Yes. That comment is what I think of when I read “The Moose.”

THE MOOSE

From narrow provinces
of fish and bread and tea,
home of the long tides
where the bay leaves the sea
twice a day and takes
the herrings long rides,

where if the river
enters or retreats
in a wall of brown foam
depends on if it meets
the bay coming in,
the bay not at home;

where, silted red,
sometimes the sun sets
facing a red sea,
and others, veins the flats’
lavender, rich mud
in burning rivulets;

on red, gravelly roads,
down rows of sugar maples,
past clapboard farmhouses
and neat, clapboard churches,
bleached, ridged as clamshells,
past twin silver birches,

through late afternoon
a bus journeys west,
the windshield flashing pink,
pink glancing off of metal,
brushing the dented flank
of blue, beat-up enamel;

down hollows, up rises,
and waits, patient, while
a lone traveller gives
kisses and embraces
to seven relatives
and a collie supervises.

Goodbye to the elms,
to the farm, to the dog.
The bus starts. The light
grows richer; the fog,
shifting, salty, thin,
comes closing in.

Its cold, round crystals
form and slide and settle
in the white hens’ feathers,
in gray glazed cabbages,
on the cabbage roses
and lupins like apostles;

the sweet peas cling
to their wet white string
on the whitewashed fences;
bumblebees creep
inside the foxgloves,
and evening commences.

One stop at Bass River.
Then the Economies
Lower, Middle, Upper;
Five Islands, Five Houses,
where a woman shakes a tablecloth
out after supper.

A pale flickering. Gone.
The Tantramar marshes
and the smell of salt hay.
An iron bridge trembles
and a loose plank rattles
but doesn’t give way.

On the left, a red light
swims through the dark:
a ship’s port lantern.
Two rubber boots show,
illuminated, solemn.
A dog gives one bark.

A woman climbs in
with two market bags,
brisk, freckled, elderly.
“A grand night. Yes, sir,
all the way to Boston.”
She regards us amicably.

Moonlight as we enter
the New Brunswick woods,
hairy, scratchy, splintery;
moonlight and mist
caught in them like lamb’s wool
on bushes in a pasture.

The passengers lie back.
Snores. Some long sighs.
A dreamy divagation
begins in the night,
a gentle, auditory,
slow hallucination. . . .

In the creakings and noises,
an old conversation
–not concerning us,
but recognizable, somewhere,
back in the bus:
Grandparents’ voices

uninterruptedly
talking, in Eternity:
names being mentioned,
things cleared up finally;
what he said, what she said,
who got pensioned;

deaths, deaths and sicknesses;
the year he remarried;
the year (something) happened.
She died in childbirth.
That was the son lost
when the schooner foundered.

He took to drink. Yes.
She went to the bad.
When Amos began to pray
even in the store and
finally the family had
to put him away.

“Yes . . .” that peculiar
affirmative. “Yes . . .”
A sharp, indrawn breath,
half groan, half acceptance,
that means “Life’s like that.
We know it (also death).”

Talking the way they talked
in the old featherbed,
peacefully, on and on,
dim lamplight in the hall,
down in the kitchen, the dog
tucked in her shawl.

Now, it’s all right now
even to fall asleep
just as on all those nights.
–Suddenly the bus driver
stops with a jolt,
turns off his lights.

A moose has come out of
the impenetrable wood
and stands there, looms, rather,
in the middle of the road.
It approaches; it sniffs at
the bus’s hot hood.

Towering, antlerless,
high as a church,
homely as a house
(or, safe as houses).
A man’s voice assures us
“Perfectly harmless. . . .”

Some of the passengers
exclaim in whispers,
childishly, softly,
“Sure are big creatures.”
“It’s awful plain.”
“Look! It’s a she!”

Taking her time,
she looks the bus over,
grand, otherworldly.
Why, why do we feel
(we all feel) this sweet
sensation of joy?

“Curious creatures,”
says our quiet driver,
rolling his r’s.
“Look at that, would you.”
Then he shifts gears.
For a moment longer,

by craning backward,
the moose can be seen
on the moonlit macadam;
then there’s a dim
smell of moose, an acrid
smell of gasoline.

Posted in On This Day, writers | Tagged , | 3 Comments

Happy Birthday, Charles Dickens

DICKENS MISCELLANIA: QUOTES AND APPRECIATIONS

Charles Dickens, “Hunted Down”:

I have known a vast quantity of nonsense talked about bad men not looking you in the face. Don’t trust that conventional idea. Dishonesty will stare honesty out of countenance, any day in the week, if there is anything to be got by it.

William Thackeray, after finishing the fifth installment of “Dombey and Son”:

“There’s no writing against such power as this – one has no chance! Read that chapter describing young Paul’s death: It is unsurpassed – it is stupendous!”


Letterhead for Charles Dickens’ literary magazine, ‘All the Year Round’, founded in 1859

Queen Victoria wrote in her journal two days after Charles Dickens died in 1870:

It is a very great loss. He had a large loving mind and the strongest sympathy with the poorer classes.

Michael Schmidt writes in Lives of the Poets:

[William Cullen] Bryant became a big noise in American journalism, a champion of liberal causes, and a catalyst. When [Charles] Dickens arrived in New York, he is reported to have asked on coming down the gangplank, “Where’s Bryant?”

Charles Dickens kept up a voluminous correspondence. He responded to fan mail, to reader questions, to any letter that came across his desk. In 1866, a woman wrote him about her desire to be a writer and if Dickens had any advice. Here is Dickens’ reply, dated December 27, 1866:

Dear Madame, you make an absurd, though common mistake in supposing that any human creature can help you to be an authoress, if you cannot become one in virtue of your own powers.

I love to hear about writers’ influences and inspirations. And so this quote from Dickens very much satisfies:

I don’t go upstairs to bed 2 nights out of 7 without taking Washington Irving under my arm.

Along those same lines, after reading the manuscript of Robert Browning’s “A Blot in the ‘Scutcheon’ in 1842, Dickens wrote:

“I swear it is a tragedy that MUST be played; and must be played, moreover, by Macready. There are some things I would have changed if I could (they are very slight, mostly broken lines); and I assuredly would have the old servant [Gerard] begin his tale upon the scene [II, i]; and be taken by the throat, or drawn upon, by his master, in its commencement. But the tragedy I never shall forget, or less vividly remember than I do now. And if you tell Browning that I have seen it [ms.], tell him that I believe from my soul there is no man living (and not many dead) who could produce such a work.”

My favorite Dickens? Oliver Twist was my initial “way in.” I read it when I was 11. Tale of Two Cities came next. Read when I was 15. I’m sure I read Christmas Carol I was a kid, and going to see Trinity Repertory’s annual production of it, it was part of the air I breathed as a child. But then came all of the others. Great Expectations. Dombey & Son, Pickwick Papers. David Copperfield. And, for me, the Grand Pooh-Bah: Bleak House.

L.M. Montgomery, author of Anne of Green Gables, wrote in her journal:

I first read [Pickwick Papers] when a child — there was an old coverless copy lying around the house and I reveled in it. I remember that it was a book that always made me hungry.”

George Orwell wrote an essay on Dickens, a fascinating vigorous analysis told in a scolding tone. Orwell was not noted for his sense of humor, and Dickens, above all else, is FUN. He should be FUN, George, remember? Still, it’s a must-read. Here are two excerpts:

The fact that Dickens is always thought of as a caricaturist, although he was constantly trying to be something else, is perhaps the surest mark of his genius. The monstrosities that he created are still remembered as monstrosities, in spite of getting mixed up in would-be probable melodramas. Their first impact is so vivid that nothing that comes afterwards effaces it. As with the people one knew in childhood, one seems always to remember them in one particular attitude, doing one particular thing. Mrs. Squeers is always ladling out brimstone and treacle, Mrs. Gummidge is always weeping, Mrs. Gargery is always banging her husband’s head against the wall, Mrs. Jellyby is always scribbling tracta while her children fall into the area — and there they all are, fixed for ever like little twinkling miniatures painted on snuffbox lids, completely fantastic and incredible, and yet somehow more solid and infinitely more memorable than the efforts of serious novelists. Even by the standards of his time Dickens was an exceptionally artificial writer. As Ruskin said, he “chose to work in a circle of stage fire”. His characters are even more distorted and simplified than Smolett’s. But there are no rules in novel-writing, and for any work of art there is only one test worth bothering about — survival. By this test Dickens’s characters have succeeded, even if the people who remember them hardly think of them as human beings. They are monsters, but at any rate they exist.

And here Orwell writes about Dickens’ gift for writing about childhood:

No one, at any rate no English writer, has written better about childhood than Dickens. In spite of all the knowledge that has accumulated since, in spite of the fact that children are now comparatively sanely treated, no novelist has shown the same power of entering into the child’s point of view. I must have been about nine years old when I first read David Copperfield. The mental atmosphere of the opening chapters was so immediately intelligible to me that I vaguely imagined they had been written by a child. And yet when one re-reads the book as an adult and sees the Murdstones, for instance, dwindle from gigantic figures of doom into semi-comic monsters, these passages lose nothing. Dickens has been able to stand both inside and outside the child’s mind, in such a way that the same scene can be wild burlesque or sinister reality, according to the age at which one reads it.

Christopher Hitchens wrote, in a book review of Peter Aykroyd’s biography of Dickens:

So I find the plan of my original enterprise falling away from me; I must give it up; there is something formidable about Dickens that may not be gainsaid.

Jeanette Winterson on Dickens in her essay “Writer, Reader, Words”:

Dickens is to me the most interesting example of a great Victorian writer, who by sleight of hand convinces his audience that he is what he is not; a realist. I admit that there are tracts of Dickens that walk where they should fly but no writer can escape the spirit of the age and his was an age suspicious of the more elevated forms of transport. What is remarkable is how much of his work is winged; winged as poems are through the aerial power of words.

David O. Selznick, independent movie producer, was a huge fan of Charles Dickens. He said later on in life that he could point out punctuation errors in new editions of Dickens’ novels, so well did he know all of those books. Here are two memos from Selznick (who was famous for his memos. In fact, they’ve been compiled in a hugely entertaining book: Memo from David O. Selznick : The Creation of “Gone with the Wind” and Other Motion Picture Classics, as Revealed in the Producer’s Private Letters, Telegrams, Memorandums, and Autobiographical Remarks):

To: Mrs Kate Corbaley
June 3, 1935

It is amazing that Dickens had so many brilliant characters in David Copperfield and practically none in A Tale of Two Cities, and herein lies the difficulty. The book is sheer melodrama and when the scenes are put on the screen, minus Dickens’s brilliant narrative passages, the mechanics of melodramtic construction are inclined to be more than apparent, and, in fact, to creak. Don’t think that I am for a minute trying to run down one of the greatest books in the English language. I am simply trying to point out to you the difficulties of getting the Dickens feeling, within our limitations of being able to put on the screen only action and dialogue scenes, without Dickens’s comments as narrator. I am still trying my hardest and think that when I get all through, the picture will be a job of which I will be proud – but it is and will be entirely different from David Copperfield.

My study of the book led me to what may seem strange choices for the writing and direction, but these strange choices were deliberate. Since the picture is melodrama, it must have pace and it must “pack a wallop”. These, I think, Conway can give us as well as almost anyone I knew – as witnessed by his work on Viva Villa! Furthermore, I think he has a knack of bringing people to life on the screen, while the dialogue is on the stilted side. (I fought for many months to get the actual phrases out of David Copperfield into the picture, and I have been fighting similarly on Two Cities, but the difference is that the dialogue of the latter, if you will read it aloud, is not filled with nearly the humanity, or nearly the naturalness.

As to Sam Behrman, I think he is one of the best of American dialogue writers. Futhermore, he is an extremely literate and cultured man, with an appreciation of fine things and a respect for the integrity of a classic – more than ninety per cent more than all the writers I know. He can be counted upon to give me literacy that wiol match. On top of this, he is especially equipped, in my opinion, to give us the rather sardonic note in [Sidney] Carton.

Here is another one of Selznick’s memos:

To: Mr. Nicholas M. Schenck
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Inc.
October 3, 1935

I should like also to call to your attention the danger of treating this picture [Tale of Two Cities] as just another [Ronald] Colman starring vehicle. Granted that Colman is a big star; that any picture with him achieves a good gross; A Tale of Two Cities, even badly produced, would completely dwarf the importance of any star … The picture is beautifully produced. If I do not say this, no one else in the organization will. It has been splendidly directed by Jack Conway; and Colman is at his very top. Further, bear in mind that the book of A Tale of Two Cities would without Colman have a potential drawing power equaled only by David Copperfield, Little Women, and The Count of Monte Cristo among the films of recent years because only these books have an even comparable place in the affections of the reading public. This is no modern best seller of which one hundred thousand copies have been published, but a book that is revered by millions – yes, and tens of millions of people here and abroad.

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Tens of millions. Indeed.

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The Books: Vamps & Tramps; “No Law in the Arena,” by Camille Paglia

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NEXT BOOK on the essays shelf:

Vamps & Tramps: New Essays, by Camille Paglia.

So I hesitated to even post this because it turned into a monster personal essay, but what the hell. I also hesitated to post all those Christopher Hitchens excerpts too, and they generated some awesome discussions. I don’t write about the culture wars here, or politics, or controversial topics. Or, I do, but it’s woven into other things. The Supernatural posts. The book excerpts. I have no desire to write about current events or hot controversial topics here. I like to talk about things I enjoy, not things that piss me off.

But like I said, what the hell.

Continue reading

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Happy Birthday, Laura Ingalls Wilder

Beloved American author, Laura Ingalls Wilder, was born on February 7, 1867.

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Her books are so much a part of my childhood that they don’t even feel like books, they feel like actual memories. I was 7, 8, 9 when I read them, and I LIVED them. Not only did I live them, but my mother made me a sunbonnet out of lilac-flowered material that I actually wore around the house (like Naomi Watts in I Heart Huckabees). Of course, at the same time that I was LIVING these books, a television series based on them came on the air, and the confluence was like a dream come true. Despite its bizarre and explosive ending, reviewed by my friend Betsy, the series captured some of the simplicity and beauty in the books. Laura, Mary, Nellie Oleson – we used them as reference points as kids. Whispering to each other about a classmate: “She’s such a Nellie Oleson”. Even now, that particular description would work for me. It would tell me everything I needed to know about a person.

Now, of course, a movie is a-comin’. The first person I needed to tell the news to was the aforementioned Betsy. There is one legendary moment in our friendship when we were in high school, at her house, long grown out of our Little House phase, we had moved into the B-52s and Devo, and we ended up watching an episode. We treated it like Mystery Science Theatre. Someone had fallen down a well, that I remember. We were actresses, even then, and we commented on how Michael Landon appeared to be working hard to squeeze out a tear. Listen, I love Michael Landon, but Betsy and I knew what we were talking about. As the episode came to its close, we both fell silent as we were watching. So-and-so was pulled out of the well, and I found myself quietly in tears. Betsy glanced over at me, and laughed in my face. I was like, “It got me! I can’t help it!”

Not only do Ingalls’ books work as great stories in and of themselves, but they portray the pioneer experience in such an immediate and first-hand way that it came to life for future generations. There I was, frolicking in the dirt of my backyard in Rhode Island, in the tired days of the late 1970s, with gas lines and Iranian hostages and tired-looking Presidents making weary speeches on television, that was my world, but because I had read those books I knew about the great plains, and covered wagons, and how medicine was different back then and what it was like to have no money so that one Christmas they each got a cookie, a shiny penny and a peppermint candy for presents. And the girls were thrilled about these presents, which seemed insane to me, but the way the book was written meant that I went into THEIR world, rather than expecting them to reflect mine. A huge gift for a young kid, better than a history lesson in school. Laura Ingalls Wilder described that one blizzardy Christmas so well, the snow piling up, the beauty of those simple hand-made gifts, that I, as a child, really learned something about the world reading that section. I remember thinking, (I must have been 8 years old): “They only got a candy-cane and a cookie? And a PENNY??? How could they have been happy with that????” But the WAY she wrote it made it clear that the entire thing was magical and exciting as the snow pounded against the log cabin windows. And so I got to have a realization when I was in third grade: “Wait. This is their Christmas. Times were really tough for them, and life was different for them. They were happy. They were happy.” I still remember the quiet realization I had, learning a lesson about … oh … materialism, and gratitude. I learned that my world was not the only world. That my time was not the only time.

Laura Ingalls Wilder was encouraged by her daughter (also a writer) to write down stories of her childhood. To get a glimpse of just how intense that relationship was, check out this fascinating New Yorker article about Rose Wilder. Quite a family psychodrama, and it seems far far removed from the fresh windy air and wide open spaces that make up the landscape and world of the Little House books. By the time Laura Ingalls Wilder started publishing, the entire world she described in the books had disappeared. Her first book Little House in the Big Woods was published in 1930. Lindbergh had flown across the ocean. There were railroads criss-crossing the country. Autmobiles. Telephones. Laura Ingalls Wilder straddled an enormous generational divide. Her books are the bridge.

My favorites were By the Shores of Silver Lake and The Long Winter.

I’ll close with an excerpt from Little House in the Big Woods that captures the home-spun evocative magic in these books:

When the fiddle had stopped singing Laura called out softly, “What are days of auld lang syne, Pa?”

“They are the days of a long time ago, Laura,” Pa said. “Go to sleep, now.”

But Laura lay awake a little while, listening to Pa’s fiddle softly playing and to the lonely sound of the wind in the Big Woods.

She was glad that the cosy house, and Pa and Ma and the firelight and the music, were now. They could not be forgotten, she thought, because now is now. It can never be a long time ago.

Happy birthday to Laura Ingalls Wilder, and thank you for making me see, as a young child, that things like log cabins and Pa and Ma and firelight “could not be forgotten”. Thank you for making that “long time ago” come to life for me, a young East Coast girl at the tail-end of the 20th century.

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Carl Perkins’ “Honey Don’t”: The Chord Change That Shook the World

Below is an exchange from the documentary “Good Rockin’ Tonight.” The documentary was a bit of a gimmick – at least Sam Phillips, guru of Sun Records saw it that way, but it’s very entertaining. It’s a celebration of Sam Phillips and Sun Records, and it features interviews with many of the Sun artists (Rufus Thomas, Billy Lee Riley, Scotty Moore, Sonny Burgess), and the “gimmick” part of it features current artists (Robert Plant, Rob Thomas, Paul McCartney, Third Eye Blind) recording songs made famous by the artists at Sun. So Paul McCartney recorded Elvis’ first song “That’s All Right.” Robert Plant recorded “My Bucket’s Got a Hole In It,” and on and on. Ben Folds chose Carl Perkins’ great song “Honey, Don’t.” “Honey Don’t” was written by Carl Perkins, and first recorded by him in 1955 – clip above – and, of course later it was recorded by The Beatles.

In the exchange below, Ben Folds talks to Jack Clement, the Sun Records engineer, about Carl Perkins’ song “Honey, Don’t,” the song Ben Folds had decided to record for the documentary. And why Ben Folds wanted to do it had to do with that one chord change (that comes after each line: “How come you say you will when you won’t” – ka-boom), the chord change that still gives the song an electric pop, a chord change seen as so weird at the time that people were actually afraid of it. What did it mean? Could you just … do that?

Jack Clement, Sun Engineer: I like that song. I was at Sun when ol’ Carl [Perkins] cut that. Sam [Phillips] was running the board. I hadn’t been there all that long. But I was there and I remember that song real well. I always liked that funny chord change in it.

Ben Folds: Yeah.

Jack: What key is that it in?

Ben: It’s in E. It goes from E to a C.

Jack: It goes to C. Right.

[Ben Folds demonstrates the chord change from E to C.]

Jack: That’s an ear-grabber, you know? I do remember everybody was excited about that song and they all liked that change from E to C.

Ben: That’s basically why I wanted to play it. It was kind of unusual for that time, I think. That’s a strange … It’s weird for now. Cool chords.

Robert Sledge, standup bass player: It’s an awesome song.

Ben Folds: Yeah, it’s a great song.

[Robert Sledge demonstrates the chord change in question.]

Robert: In an interview I heard that [Carl’s] guitar player said, ‘Man, you can’t do that. It’s just not right.” And Carl said, “I can do it.” The guitar player said, “It’s just not right. I don’t know if I want to play that.” And he did it anyway and made history. And it just goes to show you you’ve got to take some chances.

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Relationships In a Paragraph

1. He cooked me goulash involving beets. We listened to NPR and didn’t talk for over an hour. Calm cave-like silence broken only by the wash of cold rain on the window.

2. “God, that’s so weird. I just mentioned that song to you – and now it’s playing on the radio! Isn’t that so weird??” “Not weird at all. Sheer coincidence.” “Thanks for the sunshine, pal.” “Who loves ya, baby.”

3. We went to the famed Ear Inn, drank beer, and played hangman on the white-paper tablecloths. He drew me a cartoon explaining the Masons’ journey across the sea. He drew little boats on sharp little waves. Irish musicians played jigs in the corner.

4. He rolled his eyes when I tripped on a curb. I got dressed up for Easter and it confused him. When I cut up peppers for dinner, he would intervene impatiently and show me how to do it.

5. I lay in a hot bath, face puffy from crying. He sat on the toilet seat and read out loud to me from Peter Manso’s sneering biography of Marlon Brando. He got so angry when I looked both ways before crossing an empty street. “Sheila, take risks, goddammit. Your caution is holding you back.” I yelled, “Leave me ALONE.” Then we went and had some Ben & Jerry’s. Years later, after no contact for 3 years, out of the blue he left a message on my answering machine. “I just came out of a John Cassavetes movie. Why aren’t you here with me. Will you marry me? Call me back with your answer.” Click.

6. He used to be a Chippendale’s dancer. He did an imitation of one of his routines on our first date, and I nearly fell over laughing.

7. He took a nap during his brother’s wedding reception. I knew no one else there. I barely knew him. I went up to see how he was doing. He lay on a couch in his tuxedo, so asleep he seemed dead. He was tall, black-haired, green-eyed, gorgeous in an overblown Italian way. The party raged downstairs. I put my hand on his forehead. It was burning hot.

8. He walked me back to my house in Ranelagh, outside Dublin, where the Edwardian black iron gates gleamed in the rain. It was my birthday. We had met 5 days before in a pub outside Glendalough. We had spent the last couple of hours in a disco, talking about Sweden, police states, and the EU. Because that’s what you do in a disco. We turned onto my block, and he said, “Aw, aren’t these gates lovely?” I said, “They remind me of ‘The Dead’.” He stopped in his tracks, and said, “You. You understand us.” “Nah. I just read ‘The Dead.'”

9. We walked through the bird sanctuary during a snowstorm. His cheeks glowed with the cold. We held hands as we walked through the icy patches, and leaned against a wooden fence, staring out into the snow drifts. The next day in school, he acted as though none of it had happened.

10. We lay on our backs on the motel room bed. The sunset light was so molten-gold it was like liquid amber. We didn’t speak or touch. “Doesn’t this whole thing feel like a dream?” he said.

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Tumbledown (2016)

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I wonder what the critical consensus will be on Tumbledown. Will it be divided? Will some sniff at it, or think it too obvious, or reject Jason Sudeikis as a sincere leading man? Its obvious-ness and Jason Sudeikis is one of the reasons why I liked it. It works stealthily, this film, and is not an expected “rom com”. Ignore the poster. It’s actually about one of my favorite topics: Narrative. Who owns a narrative? Who “gets” to write any given narrative? Is there such a thing as objective truth? Who says what that truth is?

I liked it. Also, it was a pleasure to loop Ted Hughes into the review, because if anyone knew how hard it was to “craft a narrative” out of an imperfect record amongst the howling voices of others who think they OWNED the narrative, it was Hughes. .

I reviewed Tumbledown for Rogerebert.com.

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Michael Jackson’s Journey from Motown to “Off the Wall” (2016); d. Spike Lee

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Spike Lee’s new documentary about Michael Jackson (his second documentary about Michael Jackson) premieres on Showtime tomorrow night. It’s very moving. It’s about the work, and ONLY the work. It also made me bust out Off the Wall for the umpteenth time and listen to it start to finish.

I reviewed Michael Jackson’s Journey from Motown to “Off the Wall” for Rogerebert.com.

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