February 2015: Viewing Diary

Two Days, One Night (2014; Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne). My friend Dan referred to the movie as a “Sunday school lesson” and, you know, I can see his point. But I found it absolutely riveting, one of the best portraits of depression, that’s for sure, that I’ve ever seen. I wrote about Marion Cotillard’s Oscar-nominated performance here. I was wiped OUT at the end of Two Days, One Night. I needed a nap.

Calvary (2014; John Michael McDonagh). Brendan Gleeson won Best Actor in the British Independent Film Awards. I thought he should have been nominated for an Oscar. The rest of the cast is excellent, too.

Supernatural, Season 2, Episode 13, “Houses of the Holy” (2007; Kim Manners). Re-watched in preparation for the re-cap, which is still pending. You know. February. I was kinda busy.

Supernatural, Season 4, Episode 1, “Lazarus Rising” (2008; Kim Manners). Watched in tandem with “Houses of the Holy,” due to the angel connection.

Supernatural, Season 4, Episode 2, “Are You There, God? It’s Me, Dean Winchester” (2008; Phil Sgriccia). Again, connecting it to “Houses of the Holy.”

Supernatural, Season 4, Episode 4, “Metamorphosis” (2008; Kim Manners). Along with the angel thing, started with “Houses of the Holy,” I was also interested in Season 4 because they started with the famed Red camera in Season 4 (and only used it until Season 6). There’s a reason why there was such a sharp drop-off of image quality in Season 7 when they went digital. But boy, Season 4 is absolutely cinematic: that camera is incredible.

Supernatural, Season 4, Episode 5, “Monster Movie” (2008; Robert Singer). One of my favorite episodes in the whole series.

Supernatural, Season 4, Episode 6, “Yellow Fever” (2008; Phil Sgriccia). Ditto.

John Wick (2014; Chad Stahelski, David Leitch). So excellent. Discussed it here.

Supernatural, Season 4, Episode 8, “Wishful Thinking” (2008; Robert Singer). The moaning teddy bear blowing his “brains” out is one of the stupidest funniest things I have ever seen in my life.

Supernatural, Season 10, Episode 12, “About a Boy” (2015; Serge Ladouceur). So good. Watched it twice.

What’s Your Number? (2011; Mark Mylod). I’d watch Anna Faris in anything. I think she’s quite brilliant. And Chris Evans is totally appealing. It’s kind of funny to see a man have to play a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, which is what his character is. His character makes no sense. He is merely a female fantasy. They’re good together though: I wish it had been more about the two of them together, becoming friends, avoiding the reality of their growing attraction. The movie felt too much obligation to its Plot. The one scene where the two get drunk, play basketball, and jump in Boston Harbor, etc., was wonderful, my favorite section in the movie. Anna Faris is so talented. I love her.

Supernatural, Season 4, Episode 9, “I Know What You Did Last Summer” (2008; Charles Beeson). Somehow, because of “Houses of the Holy” and the impending re-cap, I found myself unofficially giving Season 4 a re-watch.

Supernatural, Season 4, Episode 10, “Heaven and Hell” (2008; J. Miller Tobin). Killer episode.

Supernatural, Season 4, Episode 18, “The Monster at the End of This Book” (2009; Mike Rohl). Boy, Season 4 was good.

Supernatural, Season 4, Episode 19, “Jumping the Shark” (2009; Phil Sgriccia). The behavior in this episode, from all three brothers, is so rich that I almost pass out from too much sugar.

Supernatural, Season 10, Episode 13, “Halt and Catch Fire” (2015; John F. Showalter). Watched out in Los Angeles. I already can’t remember any of it.

Out in Los Angeles, I watched the first two episodes of Jinx. My brother was like, “You, of all people, have GOT to watch this!” It was a nice night in Santa Monica, after the filming of the movie. My nephew Cashel sat at the table behind us, Melody and Emmett were asleep upstairs, and Bren and I watched the two episodes. It is fascinating and I can understand why everyone has been telling me to check it out.

The Imitation Game (2014; Morten Tyldum). I finally saw this one and am absolutely floored that this was nominated for Best Picture. (Side note on the Oscars: I do not treat them like a sporting event, because I understand that no one CAN actually win. It’s ART.) But The Imitation Game is extremely conventional, and actually pretty shoddy in its construction. The flash-forwards were handled in a very banal way, and there were scenes when I was confused as to where I was in time. I’m baffled, in general, by the film’s accolades, unless it’s just for the soppy sentimentalized reason that Turing was gay and persecuted for it. Fine, he was gay and persecuted: make a better movie out of his story. One of the billboards for the movie said something like: “HONOR THE MAN. HONOR THE FILM.” So if I don’t like Imitation Game, it means somehow I’m dishonoring Turing’s memory, or anti-gay or something? Please. I have read a couple of fantastic books on those code-breakers who worked on cracking the Enigma. Fascinating bunch. You’d never know it from The Imitation Game. The Imitation Game does not help us understand what the hell Turing invented, and HOW it worked. It does not care to show us his brilliance and analytical skills. It is more interested in his schoolboy crush on another boy, and his Aspie-ish behavioral patterns. Ugh. So condescending. I thought Benedict Cumberbatch was fine, although he over-acted a bit, and I actually enjoyed Keira Knightley, despite the fact that I am not a fan (especially in period stuff – I thought her best performance was in Bend It Like Beckham). Mark Strong can do no wrong. HUGE crush on that guy.

Still Alice (2014; Richard Glatzer, Wash Westmoreland). Pretty straightforward film, and also pretty conventional (faces blur out when the disease starts to take hold of her, yawn), but Julianne Moore is excellent. It’s all rather terrifying. And Kristen Stewart broke my heart a little bit. Her recitation of the monologue in Angels in America, and the WAY she did it? I felt like I was holding my breath the whole entire time. Go, Kristen Stewart. Have you read the great interview in Interview magazine? Patti Smith interviews Kristen Stewart. And my friend Dan told me: did you know that only ONE woman in their 50s has been awarded the Best Actress statue? That would be Shirley Booth for Come Back Little Sheba. The 50s is the blackout period for actresses, when nobody wants to see them, when parts dry up and disappear, so Julianne Moore’s win is significant in that way, small inroads being made all the time. And yes, she is excellent and heartbreaking. Thought Alec Baldwin was very good too.

Farewell to Hollywood (2015; Henry Corra, Regina Nicholson). A documentary I had to review for The Dissolve. I had to take a walk afterwards, saying to myself, “What the FUCK did I just watch.” I felt dirty. My review here.

Supernatural, Season 10, Episode 8, “Hibbing 911″ (2014; Tim Andrew). “Jodeo!” “Jodeo?” So entertaining.

Floating Weeds (1959; Yasujiro Ozu). It was a snowy day. I was home from Los Angeles. I canceled a couple of things because it looked too nasty out there to drive. I curled up in my armchair and popped in Ozu’s Floating Weeds. It’s such an amazing film. Funny and calm and poignant and then enormously emotional. It’s also a wonderful story about acting and theatre-folk, one of the best. That final family scene is such a killer. How did Ozu do it? His films are not flashy, his camera does not move, and yet within the formal structure of his stories … huge emotion is possible. It’s also so funny. I always look forward to the dame sharpening the razor with the leather strop, staring at her customer with dead eyes. She’s terrifying and hilarious.

Do You Believe in Miracles? The Story of the 1980 U.S. Hockey Team (2001; Bernard Goldberg). I own this one. I watched it on February 22, of course, but I watch it all the time. Goosebumps.

It Follows (2014; David Robert Mitchell). This one hasn’t come out yet but the buzz has already been deafening from Sundance and other festivals. Sometimes buzz is annoying. I try to tune it out. I have been assigned to review this one for Ebert. It opens in a couple of weeks. I won’t give anything away, all I can say is: the buzz, this time, was well-deserved.

Letter to an Unknown Woman (1948; Max Ophüls). What to even say about this movie. One of the most disturbing portraits of unrequited love ever put onscreen. Joan Fontaine. Amazing. Louis Jourdan – who just died – is heartbreaking, fantastic. The whole movie puts you through the wringer. And absolutely stunning to look at too.

The Widowmaker (2015; Patrick Forbes). I reviewed this documentary about heart disease for Rogerebert.com. It’s very effective and I learned a lot.

Zero Dark Thirty (2012; Kathryn Bigelow). Excellent film. I own it. Mark Strong again. “This is real … tradecraft.” I am mainly confused as to why I wasn’t recruited into the CIA out of high school.

Supernatural, Season 10, Episode 14, “The Executioner’s Song” (2015; Phil Sgriccia). Superb.

Lucy (2014; Luc Besson). Had missed this one on its initial release. Boy, Scarlett Johansson appearing in Under the Skin and Lucy in the same year? She’s doing everything right. Lucy is a thriller with a sci-fi twist, and has Besson’s stamp of expertise: he knows how to make a thriller. He knows how to film car chases (bless his soul: I love a good car chase). I also love any movie that involves French policemen, one of my little quirks. And Johansson is excellent. I loved her performance.

My Winnipeg (2007; Guy Maddin). Out now on Criterion, My Winnipeg is both a documentary and a memoir. It’s fictionalized, it’s a fairy tale, it’s a mythology, a mythologizing of the city where Maddin grew up, still lives there, cannot escape. I saw it in the movie theatre upon its first release and was captivated by it. Watching it it’s like you are lulled into a dream-state. There really is no other movie like it. And Guy Maddin cast the great Ann Savage, who hadn’t made a movie in … 50 years or something like that … to play his mother. Very glad Criterion brought this one out – it was very hard to find otherwise.

The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby (2014; Ned Benson). There are actually three films that go under the same title: “Them,” “Her,” and “Him”, each one telling the story from a different point of view, Rashomon style. I watched “Them,” and I really feel I need to see the others before I can make an assessment. The acting is very good. The story is extremely simple: a couple breaks up after a terrible event in their marriage. He starts to basically stalk her, unable to get over the ending of the relationship. She moves back home with her parents and tries to figure out what she wants to do with her life. I didn’t care for the scenes with Viola Davis, but again, maybe there’s more to it in the other two films. Definitely well worth a watch.

Touching the Void (2003; Kevin Macdonald). Based on Joe Simpson’s book of the same name, Touching the Void is a haunting and unforgettable piece of film-making. The re-creations are superb. The story harrowing. I’ve seen it before, but had just been discussing it with my cousin Mike, so I popped it in again.

The Great Man’s Lady (1942; William A. Wellman). Barbara Stanwyck, Joel McCrea, Brian Donlevy. I actually had never seen this one. It’s in my Barbara Stanwyck box-set and I have an eternal crush on Joel McCrea, and love Wellman’s films. It’s a heartbreaking film about a woman who basically sacrifices herself and her happiness so that her man can be successful and reach his dreams. This is touted as a valid course for a woman to take. That outrageous-ness aside, I found the whole thing to be a bit shattering. The film is full of misunderstandings. You wish these people would just TALK to each other. Brian Donlevy is wonderful as the gambler who befriends Hannah (Stanwyck), and loves her, and stands by her, even though she is married to another man. Another fantastic element of The Great Man’s Lady is the production design. My God! The film takes place in: Philadelphia, the Wild pioneering West, a fictional place called Hoyt City, San Francisco, Sacramento and Virginia City. Each location with its own feel, its own architecture. The level of detail in production design is awe-inspiring: you really feel like you are getting a tour of the development of America in the latter half of the 19th century. Stanwyck is great, of course. I love when she skins the rabbit with one quick slice of the knife.

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R.I.P. Leonard Nimoy

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While I was never a Trekkie, I watched Star Trek growing up in their endless re-runs and can barely separate out the television show from my actual real-life childhood. They are my memories. Star Trek was like The Brady Bunch in that way: always on, everywhere, background noise, constant. Others can speak about the role of Spock and what it meant to them (the elegies have been coming fast and furious, and there are some great ones out there! The emotion is so palpable!), how deeply the role of Spock has gotten into our cultural DNA. (Alan Sepinwall’s piece about Spock is fantastic.)

My deepest thanks to Jessica Ritchey, for linking to this clip, of Leonard Nimoy reciting Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy in Yiddish.

I met him one night at an event at the New School. He was there with director Stanley Donen. It was just a quick “Hi, how are you” kind of introduction, but he was one of those celebrities where it was impossible to believe that it was actually him, there in the flesh. His face, as Spock, with the ears and the eyebrows and the hair, is so much a part of our culture that seeing him outside of it, as just a regular elderly guy in a suit, laughing with Donen, that face, that look, is so distinct that it floated around in my head as I looked at the real-life guy. I thought, “Now THAT’S the role of a lifetime, if it’s an after-image forevermore.” And he handled it beautifully.

But the first thing I thought of today when I heard of Nimoy’s passing was of his lovely and touching performance as Golda Meir’s husband in the television event (member when we used to have those?) A Woman Named Golda. Ingrid Bergman played Golda Meir (and won the Emmy for it, and rightly so). A fascinating biopic, which showed her political journey, with her husband at her side (and then, not really at her side anymore). Their quiet and respectful intimate relationship is a huge reason why that movie works. Meir’s husband loves her. He is not a domineering husband, and doesn’t bitch and moan about why dinner wasn’t on the table. He was her supporter, her cheerleader, and yet … he missed her. She was gone so much. He wasn’t quite prepared to share her with everybody. But she needed to go where she needed to go. Over the course of the film, he needs to let her go. Nimoy and Bergman’s scene work is absolutely beautiful throughout, and the two of them both have to age about 30 years over the course of the film, and they do specifically and with very little fanfare. You believe that these two have been together for most of their lives.

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There were other non-Spock roles, and books, and music and poetry and photography … a lifetime as an artist. But it is for Spock that he will always be remembered. It is hard to even quantify that legacy, the mark he has made with just one role.

But today I thought of the sad and quiet domestic scenes in A Woman Named Golda, and how beautifully and gracefully Nimoy played support-staff to her powerhouse performance. Bergman needed the grounding mechanism of Nimoy’s performance: the guy who played that role needed to be earthiness personified, deeply connected to his emotions, a rock. Nimoy was.

RIP, fine actor.

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The Widowmaker (2015)

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I reviewed the new documentary The Widowmaker, about heart disease and the battle over prevention vs. intervention in the cardiology community, for Rogerebert.com. It’s a fascinating story.

My review of The Widowmaker is here.

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Happy Birthday, Johnny Cash

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Here he is on Tex Ritter’s Ranch Party, 1956 or so. Great guitar solo, too.

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Tennessee Ernie Ford and Johnny Cash together. “Sing it pretty, Ern.” This particular kind of ease and grace and humor no longer exists (at least not in performance-style), it’s a lost energy, specific to another time and place, and it is all the more precious for that.

Here he is, in 1956, at a Sun Records Show, singing “I Walk the Line.”

Here he is, with wife June Carter, singing “If I Were a Carpenter” in 1978.

He was authentic.

Always.

The culture still misses his presence.

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Coffee Break?

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The Dark Knight, on a bitingly cold day, stalking through Times Square.

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Farewell to Hollywood (2015)

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I reviewed the documentary Farewell to Hollywood for The Dissolve.

Have to call it like I see it.

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Love Me Tender (1956): The 4 Musical Numbers

I’m really excited about an upcoming piece I’ll have in the next issue of Bright Wall/Dark Room about Love Me Tender, Elvis’ film debut in 1956. I won’t go on and on here about it until the piece launches in March, but for now, here are the four musical numbers in the film, a Civil War-era ensemble drama. Elvis hadn’t wanted to sing at all in the movies. He was hoping to do more serious work. Naturally, though, Hal Wallis (his producer) had other ideas. The Elvis Formula Pic of the 1960s, that started with Blue Hawaii, was far in the future, and Elvis’ first four films – Love Me Tender, Loving You, Jailhouse Rock and King Creole exist in a landscape before the formula was nailed down. Fine films, all of them, the final three being frank attempts to deal with the reality of Elvis’ presence on the national cultural scene. Love Me Tender, though, is different. He is not the star, although his character, Clint, goes through a radical transformation, from tender gentle soul to raging villain bent on revenge. He is planted in the middle of an ensemble. He was a completely green actor. Wallis thought it would be best to sort of sneak him into the movies for his first try, put him in something where he didn’t need to carry it. Wallis had been hugely impressed with Elvis’ screen test, and compared his effect on the camera to that of Errol Flynn. In Love Me Tender, Elvis doesn’t even show up until twenty minutes in. Twenty. Long. Minutes, according to the screaming girls who flocked to the movie and waited, restlessly, for him to show up. The first time Elvis appears onscreen, he is a small figure far in the background, struggling behind a plow. In dirty pants, suspenders, and a floppy hat. Elvis? Is that you? People who went to the theatre to see Love Me Tender talk about the screams in the audience, the constant screams, so that nobody there could hear the dialogue at all. Mayhem!

The four musical numbers are clustered up in the opening half of the film. There are two songs sung on the front porch during a happy (and yet bittersweet) family reunion, and two songs sung at a county fair. The songs have a somewhat (somewhat) hillbilly feel (although, hilariously, Elvis’ actual band members – Bill Black and Scotty Moore, were rejected for the film because they didn’t sound “hillbilly” enough). The title song, “Love Me Tender”, was a Civil War-era ballad called “Aura Lee”, with lyrics changed. So there was some attempt to make the songs sound somewhat period-appropriate. He wasn’t singing rock ‘n’ roll, in other words. But come on, it’s an Elvis movie. If you’re a stickler for period-appropriate details in an Elvis movie, you’re, frankly, a bore. The point here is to revel in Elvis, in those full-body shots so we can watch him move, in the year 1956, when his fame exploded to national and international heights. There he is. Set free, revealed, unleashed. Two years later, he would disappear into the Army for two years, and, except for a fund raiser concert in 1961, Elvis disappeared from live touring until the late 1960s. If you wanted to see Elvis from 1960 until 1969, you had to go to the movies.

Despite the fact that Elvis did not want to sing in the movies, and had other goals and ambitions, none of that is apparent in his performance (indicative of his impeccable old-school professionalism, completely unacknowledged by a critical establishment that doesn’t really understand acting and performance. Elvis makes it look so easy that he is dismissed.). You never get the feeling that Elvis is “slumming.” He is never embarrassed. (And often, in reality, he WAS embarrassed by some of the movies, especially in the mid-60s, and only in two – Clambake and Paradise, Hawaiian Style does he betray his boredom. That’s a hell of a track record, people.)

He has a gift, and he is happy to share it. That is what I am present to every time I watch an Elvis movie, and it is a gift that should only generate the highest of praise.

More to come on Love Me Tender next month, and thanks to the editors at Bright Wall Dark Room.

In the meantime, watch those clips.

And be happy. Because that’s why he’s there.

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The Books: Finders Keepers: Selected Prose 1971-2001: ‘Earning a Rhyme,’ by Seamus Heaney

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On the essays shelf (yes, there are still more books to excerpt in my vast library. I can’t seem to stop this excerpts-from-my-library project. I started it in 2006!)

NEXT BOOK: Seamus Heaney’s Finders Keepers: Selected Prose 1971-2001.

Sometimes when writers discuss their methodology, the “why” of certain choices, they end up sounding dry and uninspired. It’s all a bit intellectual and self-serving. But, for whatever reason, I never have that problem with Seamus Heaney writing about his own work. The end result usually feels so effortless, so perfect, every word feeling found rather than chosen … that it is fascinating to hear him give a DVD-commentary about why he made that choice, and the many mistakes along the way to arriving at that choice. I am not a poet and I am also not an intellectual. I am cerebral, but not intellectual. So listening to Seamus Heaney discuss the derivations of certain words, the feeling behind a certain poem, and what that feeling dictated to him, the motivation that started him off, and how that ended up changing in the course of writing whatever it is … it’s all fascinating to me. He’s such an earthy writer, and I don’t just say that because his poems are filled with images of dirt and potatoes and insects. He uses words in a visceral way. Think of his first well-known poem, “Digging,” where he sits at his desk and looks out at his father in the yard, digging up the dirt with a spade. He feels a gulf between the “real” work done by his father, and the brain-work done by him, and yet at the end of the poem, he picks up his pen: “I dig with it.”

And that’s it. That was his attitude.

The political background is important, and his feelings about language come from being an Irish person who grew up in Ulster. He grew up on a literal border, and would have to cross multiple linguistic/social/religious borders on his walk to school. He was not aware of what that would all mean when he was a child, but it was something he sensed. (He writes a lot about borders.) If you grew up with an Irish heritage in Protestant Ulster, especially in the 1960s, then everything is political. Your last name is political. Your religious ceremonies are political. Your funerals are political. Even if you were “just” a poet, and you loved, say, Robert Lowell (as Heaney did) … you couldn’t really be a Robert Lowell in Northern Ireland. Robert Lowell was a personal confessional poet, who grew up in the United States. That meant he was free to devote his imagination to himself and himself alone. The poets in Northern Ireland were not granted that space. You were thrust into the political limelight and even the most personal statements had political implications. It was part of the air breathed. Heaney knew that, understood that, accepted that, rejected it … You know, it was a lifelong process. There were times when he wanted to escape the “North,” and he did. But his heritage followed him.

The essay “Earning a Rhyme” is about Heaney’s translation of the medieval text Buile Suibhne (that’s “Mad Sweeney” to you). It was eventually published as Sweeney Astray.

He started the translation in 1972, dreadful times in Northern Ireland. Poets/writers who grow up in safety don’t feel the need to justify WHY they decided to work on a certain thing. You follow the art, right? But if you’re in the middle of a civil war, and you decide to work on a translation of a famous medieval text, written in Middle Irish, about an Irish king who goes mad and turns into a bird … The context is different. Heaney understands that context. In describing the process of translation, Heaney talks about how his own impulses changed, through the course of the work itself. It started out as a desperate attempt to retrieve a piece of the past that might somehow inform/help/contextualize the present-day conflict. It also might have just been an understandable desire to escape, to work on something ELSE, to take the burden off of himself of having to explain or describe the mood in Ulster at that time. It could be seen as a total retreat. Heaney talks about all of that.

But the work, once begun, started to engage him on an entirely different level.

Translation is an important (and, of course, political) act in Ireland. Brian Friel wrote a whole play called Translations, about the stomping-out of the native language, the total loss of continuity with their past and culture that the Irish endured. James Joyce was always aware that when he write, in English, he was writing in a language that his ancestors did not speak, that there was some other tongue he SHOULD have been speaking in. Hence, his genius. Language is political. And translation is personal. Heaney devoted himself to the story of “Mad Sweeney” with an urgency that you can feel in the following essay. What should the rhyme scheme be? Did he feel comfortable imposing himself on this text? How to work with that?

He also had before him the unforgettable example of Flann O’Brien’s great absurdist novel At Swim-Two-Birds, which re-imagines Mad King Sweeney, bringing him into a modern urban Dublin setting. Another attempt at integration, an attempt at closing the gap between the past and the present. If you are cut off from the wellsprings of your own past (as any conquered people are) … then the sense of disconnect can be shattering. Much of what Heaney tries to do, as Flann O’Brien tried to do in his outrageously hilarious way, is an act of reclamation. This is ours. This is a part of us.

Buile Suibhne is woven into the fabric of my family. It’s hard to even discuss because it’s so everywhere. When I first started my blog, I referred to myself as “Sheila A-stray”, echoing the phrase “Sweeney Astray” (which was the title of Heaney’s translation). Mad King Sweeney, as seen through Flann O’Brien’s eyes, was also part of the “allowance ritual” my dad put us through as kids. We each were assigned an Irish author (mine was Yeats), and had to memorize the titles of all of their works in order to receive a quarter. I described the allowance ritual in an essay that was published in the Irish Letters edition of The Sewanee Review in 2006, my first published piece ever. (And, not too shabby, a quote from my essay was on the back of the volume, right beneath a quote from William Trevor. Major proud moment for me.) The title of the essay was “Two Birds,” which had multiple layers of meaning, but really came from Flann O’Brien’s book. “Swim-Two-Birds” (Snámh dá Én), is a place in Ireland, out near Clonmacnoise (which I had been to when I was a kid, and many times since) where Mad King Sweeney, in bird-form, came to rest. I didn’t know any of this when I rattled off the titles for my dad in order to get my allowance, but it was a rich heritage given to me, and that was the purpose of the essay (as well as being a tribute to my wonderful father – who was still alive when the essay was published. Very happy about that.)

So anyway. None of this probably makes any sense, it’s all a wash of connections and contemplations … but that’s the thing with something like Sweeney Astray. It’s IN us. In many different forms. It was in Heaney, and he tasked himself with bringing it out, with working on a proper translation of it, while shopping malls and pubs were exploding in Ulster and London.

Here’s an excerpt about the genesis of the project.

Excerpt from Finders Keepers: Selected Prose 1971-2001, ‘Earning a Rhyme’ by Seamus Heaney

The Irish Literary Revival is by now, of course, a historical phenomenon. As are the Tudor Conquest of Ireland and the English colonization of North America. Yet in Northern Ireland in the late sixties and early seventies those remote occasions began to assume a new relevance. Questions about identity and cultural difference, which were being raised by Afro-Americans and Native Americans in the United States, were coming up again urgently and violently in Ulster; poets were being pressed, directly and indirectly, to engage in identity politics. The whole unfinished business of the England/Ireland entanglement presented itself at a local level as a conflict of loyalties and impulses, and as a result the search was on for images and analogies that could ease the strain of the present. The poets were needy for ways in which they could honestly express the realities of the local quarrel without turning that expression into yet another repetition of the aggressions and resentments which had been responsible for the quarrel in the first place.

It was under these circumstances that I began work in 1972 on Buile Suibhne, a Middle Irish text already well known because of Flann O’Brien’s hilarious incorporation of its central character into the apparatus of At Swim-Two-Birds. And Buile Suibhne is indeed strange stuff – the tale of a petty king from seventh-century Ulster, cursed by a saint, transformed by the shock of battle into a demented flying creature and doomed to an outcast’s life in the trees. But what had all this amalgam in verse and prose to do with me or the moment? How could a text engendered within the Gaelic order of medieval Ireland speak to a modern Ulster audience riven by divisions resulting from the final destruction of that order? The very meaning of the term ‘Ulster’ had been forced. Originally the name of the Irish province and part of a native Gaelic cosmology, it had become through Plantation by the English in the 1620s and partition by the British Parliament in the 1920s the name of a six-county British enclave that resisted integration with the Republic of Ireland, and indulged in chronic discriminatory practices against its Irish nationalist minority in order to maintain the status quo. What had the translation of the tale of a Celtic wild man to do with the devastations of the new wild men of the Provisional IRA?

My hope was that the book might render a unionist audience more pervious to the notion that Ulster was Irish, without coercing them out of their cherished conviction that it was British. Also, because it reached back into a pre-colonial Ulster of monastic Christianity and Celtic kingship, I hoped the book might complicate that sense of entitlement to the land of Ulster which had developed so overbearingly in the Protestant majority as a result of various victories and acts of settlement over the centuries. By extending the span of their historical memory into pre-British time, one might stimulate some sympathy in the unionists for the nationalist majority who located their lost title to sovereignty in that Gaelic dream-place.

I did not, of course, expect Sweeney Astray so to affect things that political conversions would break out all over Northern Ireland. I did not even think of my intention in the deliberate terms which I have just outlined. I simply wanted to offer an indigenous text that would not threaten a unionist (after all, this was just a translation of an old tale, situated for much of the time in what is now County Antrim and County Down), but that would fortify a nationalist (after all, this old tale tells us we belonged here always and that we still remain unextirpated.) I wanted to deliver a work that could be read universally as the-thing-in-itself but that would also sustain those extensions of meaning that our disastrously complicated local predicament made both urgent and desirable.

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A Master Class Scene

This scene could (and should) be studied from every angle possible (the directorial choices – that final shot! the closeups, the slow moving-in – the way the scene is written – its tempo and flow, as well as the four performances) because it works so well, looks so effortless and provides such an enormous emotional impact (understatement).

This scene is as good as it gets.

Posted in Television | 13 Comments

Happy Birthday, Luis Buñuel

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Today is Luis Buñuel’s birthday!

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, Bunuel’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:

MAN RAY: A man in love with a woman from a different era. I see a photograph.
BUNUEL: I see a film!
GIL: I see an insurmountable problem.
DALI: I see … a rhinoceros!

Again, from Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris:

GIL: Oh! Mr. Bunuel! I had a nice idea for a movie for you.
BUNUEL: 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.
BUNUEL: Why not?
GIL: They just can’t seem to exit the door.
BUNUEL: 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.
BUNUEL: 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.
BUNUEL: But I don’t understand. What’s holding them in the room?

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Screengrabs from The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972)

Posted in Directors, Movies, On This Day | Tagged | 2 Comments