Witness to a Legend: The Career of Gena Rowlands

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A couple of weeks back, I attended a QA with Gena Rowlands at the New School.

I wrote up the experience for Rogerebert.com. Tons of quotes, from her, from others, as well as from Tennessee Williams, who had a lot to say about Gena Rowlands. (I used some of his quotes in my video-essay on Rowlands for Criterion’s release of Love Streams.)

Here is the piece on Rogerebert.com: Witness to a Legend: The Career of Gena Rowlands.

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Bad Hair (2014); written and directed by Mariana Rondón

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A new movie from Venezuelan writer/director Mariana Rondón about a little boy who wants to straighten his “bad hair,” and how that desire has a ripple effect in his life. Painful, truthful. Highly recommend it.

My review of Bad Hair is now up at Rogerebert.com.

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The Best Fall TV Shows

from The Wall Street Journal. Cousin Mike’s show Survivor’s Remorse is listed (“one of the smartest comedies of 2014″), and my great friend Alexandra Billings’ show Transparent is on there too. As my friend Mitchell said to me, “Good LORD, we know some talented people.”

My heartfelt congratulations to the cast and crew of both series. They are wonderful shows.

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Supernatural, Season 10, Episode 6: Open Thread

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Catch you all later!

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Making a New Friend as an Adult: Looking Back

Allison and I met at a dinner party held at someone’s industrial loft/apartment out in Brooklyn, with the Brooklyn Bridge looming grandly in the windows. The loft was so big we played Frisbee, and at one point a person circled around on roller skates. It wasn’t a huge party, there was lots of space for in-depth conversation, improvisational in nature, going from topic to topic to topic. At one point, during a conversation about religion, things got heated. But not in an ugly way. It was heated in an engaged way. To quote Anne Sexton, these people are “my kind”. The party went on late, and I headed home via subway at an ungodly hour. Allison was also heading back into Manhattan, so we commuted back together. We sat in the echoing empty-ish subway station waiting for the train, continuing the conversation that had been going on in the loft. We talked about religion. We talked about the hotheads at the party and what we thought of their hothead-ness. We rode the train back home, talking the whole time, in that otherworldly intimate feeling that Manhattan at 2 a.m. can sometimes bring. Then we parted ways. See ya!

We would eventually become the best of friends, although I had no idea during that midnight subway ride that that would be the case, although I can see the birth of our eventual friendship and the form it so often takes in that initial conversation. Allison and I have always cut to the chase. We get to the Big Topics. We hash them out. We pull books down off of shelves to illuminate this or that point. We have spent hours discussing IDEAS. Of course, we have also spent hours discussing Celebrity Rehab. It’s a good mix. But there it was, that first night: who we would be to each other, what the friendship would be. I felt enriched by my brief time with her. I still remember that conversation and some of the things we said to each other.

It’s a funny thing, becoming really good friends with someone as an adult. I have friends whom I have known since I was three feet tall. We have grown up together. We have made it through changes, and alterations in our personalities. Oh, so once you were this way, and now you are THIS way, and let’s try to adjust. Sometimes you can’t make the adjustment. People drift apart. But I am fortunate to have friends who “knew me when”. I value continuity. But to make a friend in your thirties. A true friend. An intimate friend. I’ve only got a few of those, and I treasure those friendships so much. They still have the same improvisational quality (all good friendships must be in flux in order to survive). But you are more formed as a human being (hopefully). You, hopefully, know how to value a friend in a way that you might not have when you were 14 and took such things for granted. But still: it’s a leap to become really good friends with someone. It’s like deciding to date someone. Friendship, as I define it, takes time and attention. I am not interested in shallow friendships. I value my acquaintances, for sure, and do not require soul-upending depth from every interaction. But to become a True Friend to someone takes a moment of recognition, first of all, that that is where these two personalities WANT to go. And to become a True Friend means you have to take that risk. In my experience there is the same feeling inherent in first dates and flirtatious initial interactions. Will this person like me? If I tell them this thing about me, will they shrink away or judge? Only way to know for sure is to take the risk and share such-and-such thing and gauge the reaction. Is there a sensitivity to the details? Is there the capacity for inspired listening? Is there a simpatico sense of humor? All of these things reveal themselves in the initial moments of getting to know someone.

And in our first conversation, Allison and I were in sync. Perhaps not on our specific ideas (we often disagree), but in HOW we talk.

However, a friendship was not born that night. It was an opener. Neither of us followed up on it, though. Neither of us suggested we should catch a movie sometime, grab some dinner. Maybe we knew we were in the presence of someone who would become Important to us, and it made us shy. That certainly happens. In retrospect, I can see that happening with many people who become truly great friends of mine as adults. Jen, Ann Marie. Our initial dealings with one another were very open, and yet with a shyness behind it, a sort of, “Hmmm, should I take the leap here? Because if I do, man, we will be friends for life.” Of course it’s not a bad thing to be friends for life, but if you’re like me, if you’re the type of friend who is loyal and true and devoted in an old-fashioned sense … then, yeah, you’ll hesitate before you let just anyone in. It’s a time commitment! You have to be sure!

I can still remember my first conversations with Jen, with Ann Marie. They were eloquent of who we would be to one another. But it took time to warm up to full-on Kindred Spirits.

But what is fascinating to me is that the entelechy was there in the initial conversations.

I’m not sure of the timing, but the true breakthrough for us came later. Our mutual friend Rebecca, the one whose party in Brooklyn it was, got married out on Block Island. Four of us New Yorkers who were all attending teamed up and rented a car together. They were: Felicia (still a good friend), a guy named John, and Allison. I knew Felicia through work (we both worked with Rebecca), and of course I had met Allison that one time. I did not know John at all. And it was one of those magic weekends that casts a long shadow. We all still reference it from time to time. Even though we all were there for Rebecca, some alchemical magic erupted between the four of us, due to the close proximity of our car ride as well as sharing rooms at the hotel on Block Island. By the end of the weekend, we had become inseparable as a group. We even went out together as a group a couple of times afterwards, because we hadn’t had enough. John was awesome. He was in his glory, hanging out with three women. Of course we tormented him by talking about gynecological functions in his presence, merely to tease him, and of course he did not disappoint, and reacted with, “Girls. Please! That’s gross!” Which, naturally, made us talk about tampons even more. The weekend was a beautiful one, Block Island was gorgeous, and there were many good friends gathered. And Allison and I, to put it mildly, hit it off. There was one moment when we actually, unironically, held hands and skipped across a field.

The breakthrough had arrived. And there was no turning back.

The overall feeling was: WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN ALL MY LIFE?

That was 15 years ago, maybe. I lost count. Since then, we have had many adventures. Some of them were actual (we went to Ireland together, for example), and some were just intellectual and emotional. Our favorite thing to do, as friends, is hole up in her apartment and watch movies and TV shows devoted to forensic pathology and murder. Our shorthand for this is “Blood Everywhere.” A couple of weeks will pass without us seeing each other and either she or I will email the other, “I’m feeling in the mood for a little Blood Everywhere. What’s your availability?” I have lost count of how many things she has introduced me to (movies, books, TV shows) which I not only responded favorably to but fell in love with to the nth degree. I love that aspect of our friendship.

There are the small moments I treasure. One time, we pulled out her dictionary and looked up famous people. We realized that you know you’ve really made it in the world when they actually include a picture of you in the dictionary. We played this game for hours. There was one day that glowed like a jewel, for no apparent reason, or no specific reason, it was just the accumulation of details, and we both still reference it. A beautiful crisp fall day when we went to go see Reds, playing in a movie theatre for its 25th anniversary. Allison bought a pizza and snuck it into the movie theatre, draping her coat over the box. “What does this look like?” she asked. I said, “It looks like a pizza box under your jacket.” But the whole day had this perfection to it, the weather, the feeling, the conversation we had afterwards about the film … our friendship and how it operates, in full force. Any time there’s a perfect autumn day, we will refer to it as “Reds weather.”

She knows everything about me that is worth knowing. She’s there for me. She is honest with me. She can cut me down to size and I usually appreciate it afterwards. I love how her mind works. It never ceases to fascinate me. I always want to know what she thinks about things. It’s usually not the expected. She has a very interesting “way in” to the things that engage her. I always want to hear about it. I still remember one dinner at a restaurant in Greenwich Village where we somehow started talking about Frankenstein, and Mary Shelley, and Allison happened to have done this whole term paper on what that book was about and how far-reaching its implications were. I still remember her telling me about that paper, telling me about how she thought about that book and how often it comes up in her mind. That was early on in our friendship and, again, contains the entelechy. This is not to say that there is not an emotional content to our friendship. As a matter of fact, these intellectual or philosophical discussions ARE emotional. It is how we get to know someone, it is how we are let into how that person’s mind works.

In many ways, that first conversation between us about religion on the echoing chilly subway platform has never ended. It is ongoing. It is a conversation we have never dropped, never let go of. It has taken on different forms, it has deepened, for sure, and there is always room for more Blood Everywhere. But it’s all part of the same organic phenomenon.

Today is her birthday, and I am so glad that we both took the risk to become real friends. I am so glad that we took that fearless leap.

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One Of My Favorite Clips

Bobby Darin on The Judy Garland Show, singing “Michael Row Your Boat Ashore”.

My friends and I have memorized this entire performance. Every gesture, every hand-clap, every jaw-tighten, and, of course, the ferocious “MICHAEL” that closes it out. The random Poor Jud Is Dead set that you only see for 2 seconds just adds to the strange mythic power of it all. He’s so coiled and intense. He looks like he’s about to kill someone with his bare hands. Yet this is a spiritual. When he points and orders, “SING”, and then in comes the choir … well. I’ll row my boat ashore, I’ll row it to Nova Scotia, big boy, I don’t care. One hand in a clenched fist. Expressing so much, holding even more back. The soprano SCREECHING in the background.

I have seen this clip so many times I can’t even count, and it is now colored by the memory of all of my friends DOING Bobby Darin singing this song. My friend Jackie, for example, holding a glass of white wine, with her perfectly made-up face and gorgeously coiffed hair, shouting “MICHAEL” in a guttural voice at some party, as we all die with laughter.

So many memories bound up in one timeless performance.

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Tonight! Polish Filmmakers NYC Present Ida

Tonight I will be participating in a panel discussion at Columbia University about Pawel Pawlikowski’s brilliant film Ida (Wrote a bit about it here. So far, it’s the film of the year for me, albeit with some pretty stiff competition. It’s been a helluva movie year so far.)

The evening will start at 8:30 with a screening of the film, followed by a discussion with panelists Matt Zoller Seitz, Stuart Leibman, and myself. The discussion will be moderated by Dr. Michal Oleszczyk.

Here are the details for tonight’s event.

In any case, see Ida, whatever you do!

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The Books: Once More Around the Park: A Baseball Reader, ‘Distance,’ by Roger Angell

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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: Once More Around the Park: A Baseball Reader, by Roger Angell.

This long essay could be counted as a New Yorker profile of Bob Gibson, pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals from 1959 to 1975. Gibson was, famously, a very prickly individual with the press, and damn near unhittable as a pitcher. He had 17 strikeouts in a single World Series game. I am sure there are more fabulous stats out there, but I am not a sabermetrics aficionado (I wish I was – my brother and sister could rattle off a bunch of stats automatically). But the 17 strikeouts certainly sticks in the mind as an almost otherworldly accomplishment.

Gibson did not like talking with the press, or with members of other teams. Or even with members of his own team. He expressed discomfort with All-Star Games because he had to suddenly be teammates with guys he would pitch to a week later, and he didn’t want to be friends with them, he didn’t want to get close to them. He was an intimidating monster on the mound. Everyone talks about how frightening he was, and how scary/unforgettable it was to face off with him. I love his gravity-defying follow through. It’s like an attack.

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Continuing on with his obsession with pitchers, Angell wanted to know more about Bob Gibson, as a player and a man. Gibson did not have a cozy relationship with the press. He would answer questions bluntly, without the ingratiating quality that many expected (and there was probably a lot of unconscious racism in the reaction to Gibson’s arrogant demeanor as well). At one press conference after a game, Gibson was asked if he was “surprised” that the pitch he threw at one point ended up closing out the inning – or something like that – and Gibson’s reply was: “I am never surprised by anything I do.”

Why a bunch of baseball writers would be shocked, SHOCKED, by a pitcher who had an arrogant personality, I don’t know.

Listen, this isn’t Sesame Street. This is competitive sports.

Baseball is a team sport, but being a pitcher is a different sort of position. It can be seen as a big mystery to those of us who do not pitch at a major league level (which means the most of us), but that’s why Angell is obsessed with it, especially those who are masters at it, like Bob Gibson. Angell wanted to get to the heart of this very “distant” man. What made him tick? How did HE think about pitching? How did HE analyze what he did?

It’s an extremely lengthy essay (written in 1980, when Gibson was retired and living back in his hometown of Omaha, where he owned a restaurant). Angell goes into Gibson’s career, the impressive stats, the crazy talent. He talks to teammates, to get a line on who he was as a pitcher, what it was that made him HIM. (And that’s part of the excerpt today. I love it when athletes talk about each other.) And then Angell went out to Omaha and spent a week with Bob Gibson, following him around, talking, observing.

It’s a glorious essay. Here’s just a short excerpt.

Once More Around the Park: A Baseball Reader, ‘Distance’, by Roger Angell

In the next week or two, I mentioned my forthcoming trip to some friends of mine – good baseball fans, all of them – and noticed that many of them seemed to have forgotten Bob Gibson’s eminence and élan, if, indeed, they had even been aware of them. In the history of the game, it seemed, as in his playing days, he already stood a little distance from the crowd, a little beyond us all. But then I talked about Gibson with some players – old teammates or opponents of his – and they responded more warmly.

Pete Rose, who talks in the same runaway-taxi style in which he runs bases, said, “I’m always afraid I’ll forget some pitcher when I start rating them, because I’ve faced so many of them. I started out against people like Warren Spahn, you know. But the best pitcher I ever batted against was Juan Marichal, because he threw so many goddam different kinds of good pitches against you. The hardest thrower of them all was Sandy Koufax, and the greatest competitor was Bob Gibson. He worked so fast out there, and he always had the hood up. He always wanted to close his own deal. He wasn’t no badman, but he never talked to you, because he was battling you so hard. I sure as hell don’t miss batting against him, but I miss him in the game.”

Billy Williams, now a coach for the Cubs, who hit four hundred and twenty-six home runs during his sixteen years with that team and two years with the Oakland A’s, told me, “Bob Gibson always got on with it. He didn’t stand around out there and look around the park, you know. You always got the same message from him: ‘Look, I’m goin’ to throw this pitch and either you hit it or I get your ass out.’ You like a guy like that. The infielders were never on their heels out there behind him. Everyone’s on their toes, and it’s a better game for everybody. I used to love the afternoon games at Wrigley Field when Gibby pitched against our Fergie Jenkins, because you could always plan something early for that evening. They hurried. Gibby was as serious as anybody you ever saw, and you had to be ready at all times. There was hitters that tried to step out on him, to break his pace, but if you did that too often he’d knock you down. He let you know who was out there on the mound. Made himself felt. He never let up, even on the hottest days there in St. Louis, which is the hottest place in the world. Just walked out there in the heat and threw the ball past people.”

Tim McCarver said, “He was an intimidating, arrogant-looking athlete. The arrogance he projected toward batters was fearsome. There was no guile in his pitching, just him glaring down at that batter. He wanted the game played on his own terms. He worked very fast, and that pace was part of his personality on the mound, part of the way he dominated the game. One of the things he couldn’t stand was a catcher coming out there to talk to him. In my first full year with the Cardinals, when I was only twenty-one years old, our manager was Johnny Keane, who was a fanatic about having a catcher establish communications with his pitcher. So I’d get a signal from Keane that meant ‘Go on out there and settle him down,’ but then I’d look out and see Hoot glaring in at me.” McCarver laughed and shook his head. “Well, sometimes I’d walk out halfway, to try to appease both parties!”

McCarver is an intimate friend of Bob Gibson’s, and he told me that Gibson was much the same off the field as on the mound. “Bob is relatively shy,” he said. “He’s a nice man, but he’s quiet. He doesn’t enjoy small talk. He doesn’t like to waste his time with anything that’s weak or offhand. He wants to deal from strength all the time. That’s why he projects this uppity-black-man figure that so many people in baseball seem to hate. He’s very proud, you know, and he had a ghetto upbringing, so you could understand why he was so sensitive to bigotry – up to a point. But we have a great relationship – me, a kid from Memphis, Tennessee, and him, an elegant, black man from Omaha. Any relationship you get into with Bob is going to be intense. He’s a strong man, with strong feelings.”

Joe Torre, the manager of the New York Mets, who played with Gibson from 1969 to 1974, is also a close friend. When I called on him late in June, in the clubhouse at Shea Stadium, and told him I was about to go west to visit Gibson, he beckoned me over to a framed photograph on one wall of his office. The picture shows the three friends posing beside a batting cage in their Cardinal uniforms, Torre, a heavy-faced man with dark eyebrows and a falsely menacing appearance, and McCarver, who has a cheerful, snub-nosed Irish look to him, are both grinning at the photographer, with their arms around the shoulders of Bob Gibson, who is between them; it’s impossible to tell if Gibson is smiling, though, because his back is turned to the camera. “That says it all,” Torre said. “He alienated a lot of people – most of all the press, who didn’t always know what to make of him. He has this great confidence in himself: ‘Hey, I’m me. Take me or leave me.’ There was never any selling of Bob Gibson. He’s an admirable man. On the mound, he had very tangible intangibles. He had that hunger, that killer instinct. He threw at a lot of batters but not nearly as many as you’ve heard. But he’d never deny it if you asked him. I think this is great. There’s no other sport except boxing that has such a hard one-on-one confrontation as you get when a pitcher and a hitter go up against each other. Any edge you can get on the hitter, any doubt you can put in his mind, you use. And Bob Gibson would never give up that edge. He was your enemy out there. I try to teach this to our pitchers. The more coldness, the more mystery about you, the more chance you have of getting them out.

“I played against him before I played with him, and either way he never talked to you. Never. I was on some All-Star teams with him, and even then he didn’t talk to you. There was one in Minnesota, when I was catching him and we were ahead 6-5, I think, in the ninth. I’m catching, and Tony Oliva, a great hitter, is leading off, and Gibby goes strike one, strike two. Now I want a fastball up and in, I think to myself, and maybe I should go out there and tell him this – tell him, whatever he does, not to throw it down and in to Oliva. So I go out and tell him, and Gibby just gives me that look of his. Doesn’t say a word. I go back and squat down and give him the signal – fastball up and in – and he throws it down and in, and Oliva hits it for a double to left center. To this day, I think Gibby did it on purpose. He didn’t want to be told anything. So then there’s an infield out, and then he strikes out the last two batters, of course, and we win. In the shower, I say, ‘Nice pitching,’ and he still doesn’t say anything to me. Ask him about it.”

Torre lit a long cigar, and said, “Quite a man. He can seem distant and uncaring to some people, but he’s not the cold person he’s been described as. There are no areas between us where he’s withdrawn. Things go deep with him. I miss talking with him during the season, and it’s my fault, because I’m always so damn busy. He doesn’t call me, because he never wants to make himself a pain in the ass to a friend. But he is my friend. The other day, I got a photograph of himself he’d sent me, and he’d signed it ‘Love, Bob.’ How many other ballplayers are going to do that? How many other friends?”

Most ballplayers who are discussing a past rival or a teammate go directly to the man’s craft – what pitches he could hit, his arm, his range afield, or (with pitchers) his stuff and what he threw when the count was against him. But I had begun to notice that the baseball people talking about Bob Gibson all seemed anxious to get at something deeper; Gibson the man was even more vivid and interesting to them than Gibson the great pitcher. Bill White, the well-known TV and radio announcer with the Yankees, played first base behind Gibson with the Cards for seven years, and was then traded to the Phillies and had to play against them. “He was tough and uncompromising,” White told me. “Koufax and Dan Drysdale were just the same, with variations for their personalities – they had that same hard state of mind. But I think a great black athlete is sometimes tougher in a game, because every black has had it tough on the way up. Any black player who has a sense of himself, who wants to make something of himself, has something of Bob Gibson’s attitude. Gibson has a chip on his shoulder out there – which was good. He was mean enough. He had no remorse. I remember when he hit Jim Ray Hart on the shoulder – he was bending away from a pitch – and broke his collarbone. Bob didn’t say anything to him. I’d been his rookie for a while on the Cards, but the first time I batted against him, when I went over to the Phillies, he hit me in the arm. It didn’t surprise me at all.”

And, once again, Mike Shannon: “I think every superior athlete has some special motivation. With Bob Gibson, it wasn’t that he wanted to win so much as that he didn’t want to lose. He hated to lose. He just wouldn’t accept it.”

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Beyond the Lights (2014); directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood

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Go read my friend Odie’s rave review of Beyond the Lights over at Rogerebert.com. All I can say is: WHAT HE SAID.

I read his review nodding to myself the whole time, vigorously, in agreement. YES. It is that good!

I am a huge fan of the work of director Gina Prince-Bythewood, and had high high hopes for Beyond the Lights. One of my favorite romances is her Love and Basketball (I babbled about it here), starring Sanaa Lathan, a woman I have gone on and on about before. One of my favorite actresses. Love and Basketball is that total rarity: a romance for grown-ups.

And so is Beyond the Lights.

Read Odie’s review. Go see this film.

You don’t get to complain about the crap “Hollywood” puts out there if you don’t go and see a film like Beyond the Lights. It’s smart, touching, angry, vulnerable, with fantastic performances. It is the stuff many audiences beg for, sick to death as many of us are of superhero bullshit and movies aimed at a teenage male demographic.

But still: Beyond the Lights almost didn’t get made at all. That’s the marketplace today. It’s old-school Hollywood, it’s the kind of movie Hollywood itself used to specialize in. The fact that it is here, and that it is good as it is, is not a surprise, to those of us who love Gina Prince-Bythewood’s stuff, but it is a triumph. It’s in theaters now.

One of my favorite films of the year.

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The Homesman (2014); directed by Tommy Lee Jones

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The Homesman really got to me. A feminist Western. Disturbing, emotional, messy, strange.

My review of The Homesman is now up at Rogerebert.com.

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