R.I.P. Flaco


Photo: David Lei, via Associated Press

New Yorkers are in mourning for Flaco, the Eurasian eagle-owl, who has been living his best life in the Upper West Side ever since being “freed” from the zoo by some probably well-meaning vandal who slashed his cage. The Flaco sightings have been an amazing bonding experience for the city. He was spotted here, there, people posting pics, people gathering around, keeping a safe distance, but marveling at his beauty, his ferocious eyes, his glamorous appearance. There was a lot of concern, of course, about how he would fare out in the wild. I mean, he IS an apex predator, so you assume he knows his way around, but still: he’s been in a zoo. And now he has to navigate Manhattan. He was seen on various nocturnal murder sprees, surrounded by the carnage of his hunts, and people relaxed. He knew what to do. He’s got this. A number of the Twitter feeds I follow are bird-watching accounts – they’re lovely and soothing, and the “Here’s Flaco!” posts were always exciting. People would post: “I SAW FLACO TODAY” and post some amazing picture of his fierce terrifying face peering out from a tree in Central Park.

Flaco, a King of the Sky, flew into a building last night. There’s something very emotional to see so many people mourning an owl, having room in their hearts to mourn his passing, to celebrate his life. A beautiful owl who would show up on people’s terraces randomly, sometimes even peeking through their windows!! – or be seen perched in a tree in the park, or on top of a water tower, during his year of freedom. And people would post pics to social media, and the comments would all be about how beautiful he was, and New Yorkers hoping they could see him and people from Egypt and Moscow and wherever else chiming in about how gorgeous he was and how jealous they were, they wanted to see him too. Life – and people – are sometimes like this.

The NY Times obituary for Flaco is unexpectedly moving. Like this:

One poignant aspect of Flaco’s Manhattan life was that, as a nonnative species, he was destined never to find a mate. That did not stop him from trying, sometimes hooting into the post-midnight darkness for hours to establish his territory and declare his interest in breeding.

Flaco’s last reported hoots were heard from a water tower on West 86th Street east of Columbus Avenue at 3 a.m. last Sunday, according to David Barrett’s Manhattan Bird Alert account on social media.

Rest in peace, Flaco. You were a blessing.


Photo: David Lei’s Instagram

Posted in RIP | 4 Comments

“He is a good listener. When you have a good listener you have a good actor.” — Norman Taurog on Elvis

American director Norman Taurog was born in 1899, literally during the first gasps of cinema. What an improbable journey. He was born into a world before cinema had even cohered into an artform … and he ended his career helming 9 “Elvis Movies”, all of which were hits. Taurog’s final film was Live a Little, Love a Little, a completely forgotten “Elvis film” and a wonderful film – I keep pounding the drum for its rediscovery. I wrote about Live a Little in my piece for Film Comment about Elvis as an actor. I also discussed it – among other things – during my talk on Elvis’ movie career in Memphis.

 
 
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Posted in Directors, Movies, On This Day | Tagged , | 1 Comment

On This Day: February 22, 1980: “Do you believe in miracles? Yes!”

Member the good old days when Russia was our enemy? I miss that.

FIRST UP: For my column at Film Comment, I wrote about Miracle, the 2004 film about the “miracle on ice” – which turns 41 years old today. It went up a year ago, for the 40th anniversary. Many many thanks to Film Comment for accepting what is, perhaps, aside from the piece on Elvis’ acting career, the most Sheila-esque pitch on the planet.

Al Michaels:

It was a sliver of the Cold War played out on a sheet of ice. Here you have a bunch of fresh-faced college kids taking on the big bad Soviet bear, in the United States, in the Olympics. The confluence of events was so extraordinary it can never happen again. It was the greatest sports moment of the 20th century.

John Powers, Boston Globe:

The Americans were always amateurs, college kids, some of them, or recent graduates, who still played the game but certainly not at the Russian level. There was no way they could be competitive. And the feeling going into 1980 was they really haven’t got much of a chance, even though it’s here at Lake Placid.

Jim Lampley, ABC sports:

This was a case where for a few hours at least a magical coach got a magical group of kids to believe that they could do something that they really couldn’t do.

On the Soviet Hockey Team:

Dave Silk, forward, US 1980 Olympic hockey team:

64, 68, 72, 76, right up until 1980 – the Soviets were unbeatable in the Olympics.

Igor Kuperman, Soviet sports journalist:

It was a dynasty, definitely, for 10, 20, 30 years. Their main goal was to win every game, every period, every shift. There was one regular season when they won 43 out of 44 games.

Jim Lampley, ABC sports:

They played hockey the way we played basketball, with the same kind of control of the puck, the same kind of intricate offensive patterns, and of course the presence in goal of Tretiak – how could you beat ’em?

Boris Mikhailov, forward, Soviet hockey team, 1980:

Sport was tied with politics and any victory had big political undertones. Especially during the Olympic games when the General Secretary and everybody else was worried about how we would represent our country. Our task was only to place first.

On Putting Together the US Olympic Team:

Herb Brooks, coach, 1980 US Olympic hockey team:

[The Russians] could execute at such a high level of speed – skating, passing, shooting, thinking – I tried to develop a team that would throw their game right back at ’em.

Bill Baker, defenseman:

There was a huge difference, I think, between the guys from out East and the guys from out West. They’d come in with their fancy clothes, talkin’ trash, and there’s us guys with a little bit of a different outlook on everything.

Dave Silk:

The Boston guys – we thought we were pretty savvy, and there were guys who didn’t lock their doors or left their wallets out in plain sight. You know, we thought, these guys are a bunch of hicks from the cow pastures.

Herb Brooks:

I wanted to blur the boundaries of our country, build a We and an Us in ourselves as opposed to an I, Me, Myself. Our spirit was going to be a big asset. And you can’t have that type of thing if you have pockets of individuals and there’s not those team-building exercises throughout the year.

Herb Brooks to the team:

“Gentlemen, you don’t have enough talent to win on talent alone.”

On the Tension of the Time
(Iranian hostage crisis, oil crisis, Russian invasion of Afghanistan, possible boycott of Olympics averted.)

Igor Kuperman, Soviet sports journalist:

Newspapers were full of articles blaming the Americans for everything, so an attitude for the entire Olympic team: Let’s show them who we are, let’s show them who are the greatest, let’s show them who are the strongest, and let’s show them on their soil.

February 12, 1980: Start of the Olympics in Lake Placid, Day 100 of the Hostage Crisis

The US and the USSR were in separate brackets, and nobody ever expected a standoff. They would only play one another if they both made it to the medal round.

Vladislav Tretiak, goaltender for the Russian team, one of the best to ever play the game:

We were anticipating getting the gold medals because we were the strongest team. The Czech team wasn’t very strong, the Swedes weren’t strong either. The Americans never really counted as an opponent. Therefore, there was nobody really to compete with.

The U.S. played Sweden first. It didn’t start off well. They were trailing 2-1 in the final period. Herb Brooks, wanting an extra man on the ice, pulled Jim Craig out of the goal, leaving it unattended.

Al Michaels, sportscaster:

I remember the US had several opportunities to tie the game and you just got the feeling, and of course as the clock ticks down, and now you’re under a minute … well, it’s not to be.

But with 29 seconds left in the period, Bill Baker scored.

Mike Eruzione, US team captain:

You always wonder – if Billy doesn’t score, what happens to the hockey team? Well, Billy did score.

Bill Baker:

I couldn’t believe it when it went in, you know?

John Powers, Boston Globe:

That was the biggest goal of the Olympics because if the Americans lose that game they’re virtually out of contention before the games even start.

Two days later, the U.S. played Czechoslavakia.

Mike Eruzione:

Many people said that the Czechs were considered the second-best team in the world and the only team that had a chance to beat the Soviets. Well, we pretty much dominated the Czechs.

This was the infamous game where Mark Johnson was injured from a cheap shot by a Czech player and there was a closeup of an enraged Herb Brooks on live television shouting out onto the ice in a cold controlled manner, “We’ll bury that goddamn stick right down your throat.”

Al Michaels:

I think that was one of the moments where a lot of people in this country said, Hey, pretty good little story taking place here. You have these fresh-faced kids, gotta keep an eye on these guys, and look at this coach, I mean, he’s right there backing his players.

John Powers, Boston Globe:

Now you’ve got a tie against the Swedes, you’ve got a win over the Czechs and you can sense it starting to build. You can sense the interest in America, they’re now taking notice of these kids, who are starting to turn this tournament on its ear.

Al Michaels:

So everybody is starting to look ahead to this prospective match-up against the Soviets, but before that, you have three other games. Norway figured to be the easiest of the games, and it was. Then you had Romania. And they won that game. Germany presented a little bit of a problem on Wednesday night, the last game prior to going into the medal round. Germany leads 2 nothing. Wait a second, what’s going on here, you don’t want this bump in the road, you don’t want it now. And the US was able to come behind and beat Germany. So they did all of the things they had to do. But then of course you had the spectre of the Soviets, just looming there.

Vladislav Tretiak, Soviet goaltender:

We were way stronger. Nobody ever doubted that. We were professionals and they were just students. Simply put, we did not respect their team. And you cannot do that in hockey.

Herb Brooks:

I kept whetting their appetite. Someone’ll beat those guys, someone’s gonna beat those guys. I don’t like how they’re playing. They think they’re better than they are.

Jack O’Callahan, U.S., defenseman:

Boris Mikhailov was as close to the Hockey Chief of the World as there was and Herbie starts teasing the guy all week. Look at that guy’s nose. Look at that guy’s face. Looks like Stan Laurel. And he’s insulting the guy. Look at Tikhanov, look at his head, he looks like a chicken. He’s laughing. Who do these Russians think they are anyway? Ha Ha Ha.

Herb Brooks:

“Can’t play against Stan Laurel? Piece of cake, guys!” To relax them, to keep them focused, and also plant the seed: Hey. Someone’s gonna beat those son of a guns.

February 22, 1980

The game was scheduled for February 22 at 5 p.m. No one had anticipated the wave of interest. 5 p.m. was definitely not primetime. The game was taped and they waited to broadcast it (which you could never do now in this day and age of Twitter, etc.)

Al Michaels:

So here in this most bizarre and freakish circumstance, you have a 5 o’clock game on a Friday where people are filing in to a building in daylight going to a semi-matinee. Little would anybody understand that it would be … maybe the most memorable sports event they would ever go to in their lives.

Good ol’ Al Michaels in his sharp Peter Pan collar, started off the broadcast with:

The excitement, the tension building, the Olympic Center filling to capacity. I am sure there are people in this building who do not know the difference between a blue line and a clothes line. It’s irrelevant. It doesn’t matter. Because what we have at hand is the rarest of sporting events. An event that needs no buildup, no superfluous adjectives.

Herb Brooks went into the locker room to talk to the players.

Mike Eruzione:

He told us we were born to be a player, we were meant to be here, this moment was ours.

Jack O’Callahan:

And he told that story about spitting in the eye of the tiger. This is OUR time, this is not THEIR time. Screw them, Stan Laurel, all those Russians. It’s OUR turn.

Here’s secret footage taken of Herb Brook’s speech that day:

Jim Craig, US goaltender:

I remember taking that first step and looking up and around and it was …. packed. Overflowed, flags everywhere. The intensity and the hatred is incredible. You don’t want to hit somebody against the boards. You want to put ’em through the boards.

Dave Silk:

You realized that the USA on the front of your sweater meant that you were playing for your country.

First Period

Zinetula Bilyaletdinov, Soveit defenseman:

The Americans were so strong in the first period, it was unexpected for us. They played very fast and very emotionally in all aspects.

The Soviets scored the first goal.

EM Swift, Sports Illustrated:

The Russians scored first, and you winced, and thought, Here it comes. But the US team took that blow, Craig made some key saves, and then Buzzy Schneider came down the left …

Slap shot. The US celebrate as if they won the game. As Herb Brooks said, “If you score a goal against Tretiak, keep the puck.” To underline this point, Al Michaels says during the broadcast, “That’s the type of goal you don’t expect somebody like Tretiak to give up!”

The Soviets scored again, but with seconds left to play, the Soviets made an error. It just goes to show you that Tretiak’s honest admission (“simply put, we did not respect their team”) was in operation in all the Soviet players. “These are just college students. The gold is already ours.” It’s still amazing to watch this footage because you can feel it happen. There are seconds left in the period. Literally. 4 seconds. And you can FEEL everyone on that ice (the Americans as well as Soviet) slacken. Oh well, the period’s over, nothing else can happen here, let’s go back to the bench. Except for Mark Johnson.

Mark Johnson knows that 4 seconds means 4 seconds. The period is NOT over.

Mike Eruzione:

Davy Christian has the puck. There’s about 5 seconds to go in the period. I stop to skate to the bench thinking the period’s over.

Jack O’Callahan:

And then I see Mark Johnson scooting up. He just didn’t stop playing. He was still playing. The Russians had stopped.

Mark Johnson:

I was going hard to the net, the defensemen just sort of let me go by, and I picked the puck up off a rebound and was able to put the puck in.

Zinetula Bilyaletdinov, Soveit defenseman::

We relaxed a little bit. We thought that the period was over and the horn would sound. Unfortunately, that was a big mistake.

Jack O’Callahan:

[Herb] had said it all week when he was teasing the Russians. “These guys think they’re gonna walk through everybody, look how cocky they are, they aren’t here to play hockey, they’re here to trade jeans and have a vacation and go home with the gold medal. They’re not serious about this.”

Astonishingly, the Soviet coach pulled Tretiak from the game.

Vladislav Tretiak, Soviet goaltender:

I went to the locker room and was preparing to play. But Tikhonov came in and said “Tretiak is playing poorly and will not play in the second period.” That was it.

Viktor Tikhonov, the Soviet coach:

[Benching Tretiak was] the biggest mistake of my career. Tretiak always played better after he gave up a goal. The decision was a result of getting caught up in emotions. After Tretiak gave up the rebound and let in the soft goal by Johnson, my blood was boiling. It was my worst mistake, my biggest regret.

Sergei Makarov, Soviet forward:

The whole team was not happy when Tikhonov made the switch. It was the worst moment of Vlady’s career. Tikhonov was panicking. He couldn’t control himself. That’s what it was – panic.

Second Period

The Soviets quickly scored another goal. Jim Craig worked overtime keeping the puck out of the net, it was save after save after save. Watching it, to this day, is a nail-biter. It’s AGONY. It’s like fighting off a tidal wave with a thimble. Herb Brooks worked to keep the players focused and relaxed. You can see him in the footage shouting at the line of players on the bench, “Poise and control! Poise and control!”

Mike Eruzione:

We were only a goal down. We’d been there throughout the Olympic games, we were down to Sweden, we were down to West Germany, this is no big deal, no big difference for us, just keep playing, keep going.

Third Period

Valery Vasiliev, Soviet defenseman:

We were already celebrating. Nobody can skate with us in the third period.

But then Dave Silk comes down with the puck, shoves it toward the net and it pretty much lands right up against Mark Johnson’s waiting stick. Johnson easily scored and the score is now tied. 3-3.

Around this time, you stop being able to hear anything. Al Michaels is screaming over the roar of the crowd. Even Herb Brooks has lost his cool!

And 81 seconds later, with 10 minutes left in the period:

Mike Eruzione:

Puck bounces out to me, coming over. You know, as my friends say to me to this day – 3 more inches to the left, you’d be painting bridges.

Al Michaels:

And that’s when the building went crazy. That’s when sound had feel. I mean, that was like an earthquake.

Jim Lampley, ABC sports:

The atmosphere in that arena was incredible. The feeling, the sense … that they could DO this. They could actually pull it off.

Jack O’Callahan:

I sat down and I looked up and I went, 10 minutes. That’s a long time against these guys.

Jim Craig:

They could score in 10 minutes what would take us 60 minutes to score, and I knew that.

And so then began the longest 10 minutes in the history of recorded time. Nobody who watched that broadcast will ever forget it.

Mike Ramsey, defenseman:

Too much time. Too much time. We can’t hold them off this long. It was just a constant clock watch, shift by shift, shift by shift.

Al Michaels:

It went on forever. Time just stood still. It kept building and building and the clock kept winding down and it just got louder and louder.

Vladislav Tretiak:

Until the last minute I thought we would beat them. To lose? That was not possible.

It’s still thrilling to me to watch the footage of the final minutes of that game. Look at how CRAZY the fight is on that ice. Can’t you feel it? Everyone is clawing and scraping their way through each second. It’s ferocious, desperate, and NOTHING is a done deal.

Al Michaels:

And I’ll never forget we had that one shot of one of the Soviet players, his chin up against the top of his stick, and he had such a curious look on his face. I mean, it was almost as if he was enjoying this a little bit.

Zinetula Bilyaletdinov, Soveit defenseman:

We won so often that we no longer felt the thrill that the Americans showed. On the one hand it was great to see their emotions. But it was very bitter.

The following morning, the folks back in Russia got the news that their team had lost.

Igor Kuperman, Soviet sports journalist:

When the word got out that the Soviets lost and the game was shown and replayed, nobody believed in it. First of all, it’s lost to the Americans. Second of all, it’s lost to the Americans on American soil, and then – which is the most embarrassing – you lose to the college guys! Are they … drunk or what? What happened?

Vladislav Tretiak:

When you win the silver medal, it’s an honor. But not in the Soviet Union. When we arrived back home we wanted to quickly hide from the shame in the airport. In the streets people were saying How come you lost? And to whom? Some students?

Next, the U.S. had to play Finland, the final game of the medal round.

John Powers, Boston Globe:

It was still possible that if the Americans did not beat the Finns, that they would not only not win the gold, they wouldn’t win any medal at all, and Herb understood this.

Mike Eruzione:

We were excited, we were anxious, we couldn’t wait to get out and play. And Herb Brooks walked into the locker room and he looked at us and he said, “If you lose this game, you’ll take it to your fuckin’ grave.” Then he stopped, walked a couple of steps, turned to look at us again, and said, “Your fuckin’ grave.”

Despite the pep-talk, the game with Finland was shaky at first, and after two periods, the US were down 2 to 1.

Jack O’Callahan:

There’s no way that Finland is keeping a gold medal from us. We went out there in the third period and I think we just steamrolled them from the time they opened that door and let us out. They didn’t have a chance.

The U.S, scored three goals in the third period, winning the game 4 to 2, and winning the gold medal.

Barry Rosen, one of the hostages held in Iran for 444 days:

When we did come back there was a video put together by the State Department about what went on during the entire time that we were taken hostage, ending with the Olympic hockey game, and I can tell you that all of us as hostages watched that and applauded most for that one, more than anything else. For me, having just came out of Iran, it was one of the happiest things to really see. I spent 14-1/2 months in deep captivity and there I am exposed to this wonderful sight of Americans going crazy over a hockey game. I wish I had been there. That was my only regret. Captivity shows you the depravity of human beings. I think the hockey game shows you the apogee of how things can happen in life.

Source: HBO doc: Do You Believe in Miracles, Tretiak’s autobiography, America’s Coach: Life Lessons and Wisdom for Gold Medal Success: A Biographical Journey of the Late Hockey Icon Herb Brooks by Ross Bernstein and Mike Eruzione, and Wayne Coffey’s book Boys of Winter.

Posted in On This Day | Tagged , | 24 Comments

“I should like to make even the most ordinary spectator feel that he is not living in the best of all possible worlds.” – Luis Buñuel

Today is Luis Buñuel’s birthday!

From Luis Buñuel’s autobiography My Last Sigh:

Connoisseurs who like their martinis very dry suggest simply allowing a ray of sunlight to shine through a bottle of Noilly Prat before it hits the bottle of gin. They claim that the making of a dry martini should resemble the Immaculate Conception, in which the generative power of the Holy Spirit is said to have pierced the Virgin’s hymen like a ray of sunshine through a window – leaving it unbroken. Another crucial recommendation is that the ice be so cold and hard that it won’t melt, since nothing’s worse than a watery martini. Let me give you my personal recipe, the fruit of long experimentation and guaranteed to produce perfect results. The day before your guests arrive, put all the ingredients – glasses, gin and shaker – in the refrigerator. Use a thermometer to make sure the ice is about twenty degrees below zero (centigrade). Don’t take anything out until your friends arrive; then pour a few drops of Noilly Prat and half a demitasse spoon of Angostura bitters over the ice. Shake it, then pour it out, keeping only the ice, which retains a faint taste of both. Then pour straight gin over the ice, shake it again, and serve. After the dry martini comes one of my own modest inventions, the Buñueloni, best drunk before dinner. It’s really a takeoff on the famous Negroni, but instead of mixing Campari, gin, and sweet Cinzano, I substitute Carpano for the Campari. Here again, the gin – in sufficient quantity to ensure its dominance over the other two ingredients – has excellent effects on the imagination. I’ve no idea how or why; I only know that it works.

Exchange from Whit Stillman’s great film Metropolitan:

CHARLIE: Do you know the French film, “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie”? When I first heard the title, I thought, “Finally, someone’s going to tell the truth about the bourgeoisie.” What a disappointment! It would be hard to imagine a less fair or accurate portrait.
SALLY: Of course, Buñuel’s a surrealist—despising the bourgeoisie’s part of their credo.
NICK: Where do they get off?
CHARLIE: The truth is, the bourgeoisie does have a lot of charm.
NICK: Of course it does. The surrealists were just a lot of social climbers.

From Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris:

GIL: Oh! Mr. Buñuel! I had a nice idea for a movie for you.
BUÑUEL: Yes?
GIL: A group of people attend a very formal dinner party and at the end of dinner when they try to leave the room, they can’t.
BUÑUEL: Why not?
GIL: They just can’t seem to exit the door.
BUÑUEL: But why?
GIL: When they’re forced to stay together the veneer of civilization quickly fades away and what you’re left with is who they really are. Animals.
BUÑUEL: I don’t get it. Why don’t they just walk out of the room?
GIL: All I’m saying is, just think about it. Maybe when you’re shaving one day, it’ll tickle your fancy.
BUÑUEL: But I don’t understand. What’s holding them in the room?


Luis Buñuel, by Man Ray, 1929

Posted in Directors, Movies, On This Day | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

“Really good fiction could have as dark a worldview as it wished, but it’d find a way both to depict this world and to illuminate the possibilities for being alive and human in it.” — David Foster Wallace

It’s his birthday today.

David Foster Wallace is hard to talk about. It’s painful. I say this as someone who did not know him, or have him in my life even in a peripheral way. I know someone who worked with him, who was his editor, who actually shows up – under a pseudonym – in one of DFW’s essays. The anguish this person feels at what happened is beyond words. So to talk about my pain as a reader/fan compared to the people who knew him makes me feel a little weird. But as a reader it’s hard not to get the feeling that something irreplaceable has been lost. He spawned many imitators. His writing was extremely commanding. He made huge demands on the reader. You must submit to his footnotes. They aren’t an interruption. They are the whole shebang. Stop trying to “get back” to the “main throughline”. There is no such thing.

I did not read Infinite Jest when it came out. I bought it but there it sat on my bookshelves, all 1200 pages of it, unread for years. Who the hell has the time for that? I didn’t even know what it was about, beyond something having to do with twelve-step recovery. Soooo THAT sounds like a barrel of laughs. I read his essays when I’d come across them, and then bought the collections.

But finally I read Infinite Jest. And, as so often happens, I discovered for myself what all the fuss was about. Poor Jonathan Franzen. Being Jonathan Franzen must be like Bing Crosby’s possibly apocryphal comment: “Frank Sinatra has a voice that comes along once in a generation, but why oh why did it have to come in mine?”

I want to point you to a really important piece by Christian Lorentzen, where he discusses DFW’s commencement speech that “went viral”, with all its pat little sayings of inspiration, and how this has made him a little bit more palatable to the mainstream. The commencement speech, though, is almost a false flag. It’s ANTI what DFW was normally about. Lorentzen’s piece is about who owns an artist’s legacy after they’re gone? The Rewriting of David Foster Wallace.

I consider DFW’s piece on David Lynch’s Lost Highway to be one of the best pieces of film criticism in the whole genre. It opened up possibilities for others: OH! We don’t have to do it like everybody else does it! We can write like THIS? Of course, we CAN’T “write like this” but his example still inspires.

Writing about books isn’t so much my thing anymore, but I had so much fun writing about Infinite Jest, and how Infinite Jest illuminated something for me about Marlon Brando – and I have spent decades pondering Marlon Brando – but Infinite Jest gave me an A-ha moment. A sort of, “My GOD, yes, that’s IT EXACTLY.”

So I wrote about Infinite Jest and Marlon Brando for Film Comment.

 
 
Thank you so much for stopping by. If you like what I do, and if you feel inclined to support my work, here’s a link to my Venmo account. And I’ve launched a Substack, Sheila Variations 2.0, if you’d like to subscribe.

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“I love humanity but I hate people.” — poet Edna St. Vincent Millay

Edna St. Vincent Millay was born on this day in 1892 in Rockland, Maine.

edna_st__vincent_millay

“Boys don’t like me anyway because I won’t let them kiss me. It’s just like this: let boys kiss you and they’ll like you but you won’t … But I’d be almost willing to be engaged if I thought it would keep me from being lonesome … if I was engaged I would be going to the play tonight instead of sitting humped up on the steps in a drizzle that keeps my pencil point sticky. I’d be going out paddling tomorrow instead of practicing the Beethoven Funeral March Sonata. And I’d like to have something to do besides write in an old book. I’d like to have something happen to give me a jolt, something that would rattle my teeth and shake my hairpins out.” — Edna St. Vincent Millay, journal entry, 1911

Edna St. Vincent Millay was one of those rare poets who was a celebrity in her own era. A Pulitzer-Prize winner (the third woman to win in the poetry category) there was something about her – and her persona – that packed audiences into halls to hear her read, and it went beyond the novelty of her sex. She had worked as an actress, and she used this training in her consciously theatrical poetry readings. She created a persona. A Poet Persona. She was not in tune with her own time, and the Modernist onslaught on “old forms”. The Modernists were busy ripping themselves away from 19th century influences. A seismic shift. Then you read Millay’s stuff and you can’t believe she was a contemporary of Eliot, William Carlos Williams, et al. You would believe she was a contemporary of Charlotte Bronte.

Her preferred “form” was the deceptively simple (until you try to write one) and formally rigorous sonnet.

She was one of the most popular writers of her day. More often than not she is now treated as a footnote, particularly in the big anthologies of 20th century poetry. Her star shrank to a more manageable size, when compared with the blazing fireball suns of Eliot, Stein, Williams, etc. Strange how that happens.

More after the jump.

Continue reading

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#tbt Doc Abbott’s


Mitchell


Sandi


Me

As always, there must be a backstory.

There was an old rickety amusement park in our state – similar to Adventureland, if you know the movie – where you took your life into your hands on the rides, and pretty much everyone who lived in the state worked there at least at some point. Like, my friend Betsy worked the cotton candy counter one summer. I mean, this is just one example of many. Cut to: college. My friend Mitchell actually auditioned for the amusement park’s “entertainment” – actually I think I did too. Maybe we all did? No idea. The point is: Mitchell actually got cast. It was a big deal! He was cast as some douchebag called Doc Abbott, who stood on a little platform and made bad jokes, pulling out fake floppy fishes and shit like that. Low-rent Borscht Belt shit. So Mitchell is there at his first day of rehearsal with all the other cast members – dancers, “comedians”, whatever. And there was all this group stuff they had to do, besides their specialty acts. Meanwhile, Mitchell is mortified at the Doc Abbott script he’d been given. Like, it’s horrible stuff. Not even sitcom level. It’s like “take my wife, please” but not EVEN! He’s already thinking, “How the hell am I gonna get out of this.” As he is thinking this, a hot Rhode Island girl (it’s a type, think Mercedes Ruehl in Fisher King), wearing spandex tights, a bandeau, and leg warmers, was complaining about having to do all this OTHER stuff – skits etc. – and she whined, thick Rhode Island accent, “Allz I wanna do is dee-yance.” This was Mitchell’s breaking point. He didn’t return to rehearsal the next day. I think he basically just never showed up again. lol

But because Rhode Island is what it is, we would go there all the time, still, in the summer, to fuck around and buy underage beer and go on the flume. The whole Doc Abbott thing made it a little precarious: like, would they all be mad at him? (Of course they were!) Should we HIDE from management? Should we duck and run if we saw someone with a badge? It’s not like we were banned from the park but it was potentially awkward! I mean, he just never showed up after the first rehearsal! But to NOT go to the amusement park was NOT an option.

So one day, Mitchell, Mitchell’s sister Sandi and I went. It was a hot day. We drank beer. Nobody was 21. We went on the flume and got soaking wet. We had a ball. We were also basically hiding from any amusement park employees who might notice that the Doc Abbott deserter was strolling around in the park.

Then we saw it. The Doc Abbott stage where Mitchell was supposed to spend his summer barking out terrible jokes to an irritated drunk crowd. And so we did the only thing we COULD do.

Way to fly under the radar, kids.

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“I’m really confident. I had a perfect childhood. I had perfect parents and grandparents. They just love me, simply. So I have no fears.” — Mélanie Laurent

Today is the birthday of French actress and director Mélanie Laurent.

Probably most American audiences (and international audiences, outside of France) were first introduced to the extraordinary Mélanie Laurent in her perfoƒrmance as the revolutionary Shoshanna in Inglourious Basterds. Laurent had been working for years in France, “discovered” by Gérard Depardieu when she was 14 years old. Inglourious Basterds, though, was next level. It had giant American movie stars like Brad Pitt, but it also included fascinating “new” faces – now much more famous beCAUSE of their inclusion, people like Michael Fassbender, Christoph Waltz, Diane Kruger and Mélanie Laurent. Laurent is unforgettable.

Shoshanna is the center of the film, from the first scene to the final scene, where she – or a silvery nitrate version of her – laughs maniacally at the Nazi brass gathered below her.

It was powerful, as an audience, to “meet” her through this role, as opposed to Tarantino casting a well-known American actress, someone already familiar to people. Most of us didn’t have any other associations with Laurent. We came to her pure.

I wrote an extended piece about the central scene, where Hans Landa (Waltz) lures Shoshanna to a meeting, a public meeting, and she has to keep up a cool front, not give away her plans, OR her background as a “fugitive”, OR her incandescent fury at being face to face with the man who ordered her family murdered. It’s such a brilliant piece of acting – and Tarantino knew it, and kept the camera on her without cutting away – so we could actually be a witness to her skill as an actress (Laurent’s and Shoshanna’s. It’s a scene ABOUT acting). The scene is a good object lesson for actors about trusting the moment, allowing make-believe circumstances to work on you (as opposed to the other way around). The piece I wrote is very actor-nerd-y and I am proud of it, so here it is.

Laurent has done other roles here and there (I really liked her in Beginners), but her interest in movies is more all-encompassing than just building a career for herself as an actress. She didn’t position herself to do a Marvel movie, for example. You can’t make more of a splash than she did in Inglourious Basterds: working with Tarantino was (and still is) a coup. But Laurent’s choices since show her seriousness as an artist, shows what she cares about. She decided to direct, and right from the jump she showed herself as a sensitive and thoughtful director, with a really interesting point of view (and good taste in material).


Breathe (2015)

A couple of her films didn’t get theatrical releases here – maybe the first one? I don’t know, but Breathe arrived in 2015, and I was assigned to review it. Having in mind the ferocious actress in Inglourious Basterds, it was thrilling to watch her direction – directing is almost more personal than acting. I loved Breathe – it really understands teenage girls – and I reviewed for Ebert.


Mad Women’s Ball (2021)

And then in 2021 came her next film, and what a thrill Mad Womens Ball was (here’s my review). I don’t mean to sound like an old fogey, but they don’t make ’em like that anymore. It’s an entertaining historically-based epic (adapted from a novel), and Laurent – who also acts in it – keeps the pace roiling and churning forward to the inevitable conclusion. It’s a very 1980s type film, the sort of thing Meryl Streep would have starred in. Mad Womens Ball is BIG, with BIG themes and a big cast, lots of period details, and a melodramatic tragic sweeping energy. I highly recommend it. Nobody really talked about it when it came out. This is frustrating. The world is so PACKED with “content” (evil word) and things vanish into the maw of online streaming … Nobody can stop long enough to look around and see what might be out there.

Last year, Netflix threw their power behind Laurent, helping her finance Wingwomen, a totally entertaining continent-spanning spy-heist flick, which I absolutely loved. It showed her special touch with interpersonal relationships, her attention to detail, her humor … but it also showed she could handle a massive undertaking on this scale. And it was just so well done. I adored it. Obviously, I’m a huge fan of her work.

I have been excited by Laurent’s career ever since Inglourious Basterds, and I admire her chosen path. You never know what she will do next, but you look forward to it anyway.

 
 
Thank you so much for stopping by. If you like what I do, and if you feel inclined to support my work, here’s a link to my Venmo account. And I’ve launched a Substack, Sheila Variations 2.0, if you’d like to subscribe.

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“I find it very difficult myself to make movies where I know right from the beginning what the end is going to be.” — Bob Rafelson

It’s his birthday today.

In 1965, television producers Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider placed an ad in the Hollywood Reporter:

MADNESS!! AUDITIONS Folk & Roll Musicians-Singers for acting roles in new TV series. Running parts for 4 insane boys, age 17-21”

Many are called, but few are chosen. In this case, the “4 insane boys” chosen were Micky Dolenz, Michael Nesmith, Peter Tork, and Davy Jones. The idea was to create a pop group for a situation comedy, with built-in limitless merchandising and/or concert and/or opportunities. Glee 40 years before Glee. Predicting the wave of manufactured boy bands which overtook the pop industry, again, thirty years later. The wild thing about the Monkees, which sets them apart, is they weren’t just “4 insane boys”. They could write damn good pop songs, songs that still get radio play today, still show up in movie soundtracks, they just came together again and put out an album I love. And that’s all that matters. Their songs are catchy, the lyrics are humorous, and there’s a strain of melancholy in their chord arrangements, plus great hooks.

The Monkees were the brainchild of Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider – launched into the thick of the mid-60s and … it worked.

It was short-lived but it worked. Go look up their chart rankings. It’s insane, considering the competition. In 1967, the Monkees had two of the top-selling singles. Bob Stanley, in his book Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!, which tracks the history of pop music from Bill Haley to Beyonce – devotes a whole chapter to The Monkees, for which he has an abiding affection. Stanley writes:

Ultimately, [the Monkees] affirmed the Brill Building–and, tangentially, Motown–as the secret motor of the best sixties pop, and also showed Monterey to be the decade’s great fulcrum of failure–dethroning the Mamas and the Papas (despite their role in setting it up), destabilizing Brian Wilson, and putting in their place all kinds of self-satisfied, underachieving acts.

The Monkees didn’t stroll into the doldrums of popular music. They cavorted into one of the high watermarks, and they crushed.

They paid a price, though. In a world where music was suddenly seen as thuper-therious and could maybe change the world, they were seen as Pre-Fab, phony, pretenders. As though everybody else was totally 100% organic and raised up from the dirt of authenticity. Puh-leeze.

To add some shading to this, Rafelson always had misgivings about what he was doing. He loved the Monkees, he hated them. On the strength of the television show, and the albums, Rafelson decided to write, produce, and direct a film starring The Monkees. It would be a break in style and feel from what made the Monkees the Monkees. Jack Nicholson (Rafelson’s great friend – we’ll get to him in a second) co-produced. Head was psychedelic and fragmented – following the trend of the year it was made (1968). It featured the Monkees being ground up into powder at one point. It ended with them being hustled into a truck and driven off the studio lot. Good-bye Monkees. So strange. But it essentially – and actually – killed the Monkees. (All of this pre-dates my existence. My first encounter with the Monkees was when they appeared on The Brady Bunch. I thought Mike Nesmith was THE BOMB. He was my favorite.)

So Bob Rafelson – a man who always did whatever the hell he wanted to do, because fuck The Man – killed his own creation.

Look at those taglines.

The Monkees are important but they were just a small chapter in this innovator’s career. In the 1960s, he and his co-conspirator Bert Schneider, founded BBS productions, an independent operation for television projects. BBS’ reputation has huge symbolic appeal, especially across the wastes of times. They were pioneers and very much a part of the rise of American independent film in the 1970s. In fact, they launched it almost single-handedly: Rafelson produced a super obscure film called Easy Rider. Jack Nicholson’s name will come up again and again in this story. As will Carole Eastman, who wrote Five Easy Pieces (Rafelson went to her with all of his scripts for notes/doctoring).

Head came after Easy Rider. Rafelson rode the whirlwind. He then directed the mighty Five Easy Pieces, one of the best American films of the 1970s (and it premiered in 1970, so it was all out there on its own). I would argue it’s one of the best American films, period. Co-written by Rafelson and Eastman, and starring Jack Nicholson – with an unforgettable Karen Black – Five Easy Pieces is one of the loneliest and most introverted and strange American movies. Strangeness like this has rarely been allowed in mainstream American film – and it ushered in a whole new world.

Rafelson produced Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show, another seminal film in the 1970s, and followed up Five Easy Pieces, with The King of Marvin Gardens, again with Jack Nicholson, although this time in counter-intuitive casting. Rafelson directed Stay Hungry, the remake of The Postman Always Rings Twice, again with Nicholson, opposite Jessica Lange. The 1970s were Rafelson’s decade. Work slowed down in the corporate-driven greedy 80s. But he left his mark.

A mark as indelible as the one left by Jack Nicholson playing the piano on the back of a flat-bed truck in the middle of a traffic jam.

The final shot of Five Easy Pieces was what flooded into my mind when I heard the news that Bob Rafelson has died at the age of 89. It is one of my favorite final shots in cinema.

Charles Higham wrote of the shot in The Art of American Cinema:

Rafelson and his cameraman László Kovács fix the scene in our minds forever: the filling station and its discreet restroom; the grey surrounding buildings; the dripping autumnal vegetation of the Pacific Northwest; the parked truck waiting to go to Alaska; the face of Nicholson, already aging and filled with premonitory shadows, fixed behind the windshield. Religion, love and family have all failed to work, leaving absolutely nothing at the end but a journey to nowhere.

I saw Five Easy Pieces at age 17, 18, and in many ways it’s never left me. The final shot is a vision of the world and life that felt very familiar – eerily, in looking back on it, since I didn’t have the life experience yet. I have the life experience now. The final shot requires an adult’s knowledge. Hard knocks knowledge. It’s not for kids. The world is empty and lonely and restless. Even as a teenager, something in me recognized it. I already knew that shot in my bones.

Bob Rafelson was right. About so many things.

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“If people want to know who I am, it is all in the work.” — Alan Rickman

It’s his birthday today.

When Alan Rickman died, I paid tribute to him for Rogerebert.com, including my memory of seeing him in the unforgettable Broadway production of Noel Coward’s Private Lives, opposite Lindsay Duncan. I still have the poster.

I cherish it, and cherish the memory.

 
 
Thank you so much for stopping by. If you like what I do, and if you feel inclined to support my work, here’s a link to my Venmo account. And I’ve launched a Substack, Sheila Variations 2.0, if you’d like to subscribe.

Posted in Actors, Movies, On This Day, Theatre | 9 Comments