He Shook It Like a Chorus Girl

37 years ago today, Elvis Presley died. Every time he performed, his “soul was at stake.” And so we will always miss someone like that. As Dave Marsh wrote in his Elvis book:

There is no explanation. And if one listens closely to songs like “Hurt” and “I Can Help” and “If I Can Dream” – if one listens clear back to “Mystery Train” and “Blue Moon” – that’s what is truly heard: A voice, high and thrilled in the early days, lower and perplexed in the final months, seeking answers where there are none, clarity where there is none, cause where is only effect.

Somewhere, out of all this, Elvis began to seem like a man who had reached some conclusions. And so he was made into a god and a king. He was neither – he was something more American and, I think, something more heroic. Elvis Presley was an explorer of vast new landscapes of dream and illusion. He was a man who refused to be told that the best of his dreams would not come true, who refused to be defined by anyone else’s conceptions.

This is the goal of democracy, the journey on which every prospective American hero sets out. That Elvis made so much of the journey on his own is reason enough to remember him with the honor and love we reserve for the bravest among us. Such men are the only maps we can trust.

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The Giver (2014)

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My review of the film version of The Giver, the Lois Lowry classic is now up at Rogerebert.com.

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Love Streams: “A Fitful Flow”, by Dennis Lim

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Yesterday was a good day in a very upsetting week. My copies of Love Streams arrived, via Amazon. It’s a major moment for Cassavetes fans, some of whom have never had the opportunity to even see what is considered his final film (never released on DVD until now.)

Dennis Lim has contributed a beautiful essay, included in the Criterion booklet, and it is now live on the Criterion site. Lim writes of Sarah Lawson (Gena Rowlands) and Robert Harmon (John Cassavetes), the two main characters in Love Streams:

The hopeless misalignment between these two almost soul mates, the sense of push-pull and perpetual interruptus in their exchanges, gives the film both a deep, lingering sorrow and the syncopated rhythm of a farce. The instability of the characters is contagious; the world itself seems mutable. Sarah’s hallucinations and visions—running Jack over with a car, trying to make her family laugh with joke-store props—repeatedly bleed into the film’s reality, never clearly signposted as fantasies. Adding to the dreamlike quality, some of the sets, like the nightclub and the train stations Sarah passes through, are bare-bones to the point of abstraction. And if there was ever any doubt that “realist” is too limiting a tag for Cassavetes, the comic register tilts fully into the surreal in the final act, when Sarah buys out an entire animal shelter and brings home two miniature horses, a goat, a duck, a parakeet, several chickens, and a dog named Jim.

I love his point that “realism” is too limiting a tag. Cassavetes has never, not once, struck me as a realist.

Lim also observes:

So many of Cassavetes’s other films are domestic disaster movies; the mood in Love Streams is post apocalyptic.

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Supernatural: Season 2, Episode 4: “Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things”

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Directed by Kim Manners
Written by Raelle Tucker

While Sam is pretending to be a grief counselor, he says, “Grief makes people do crazy things.” Indeed. That’s what these early episodes of Season 2 are all about.

Gordon blew the lid off of some of the nastier byproducts of grief and we can see Dean and Sam still reeling in the aftermath of that experience throughout “Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things.” Dean lowering the saw slowly onto the vamp’s neck in “Bloodlust” gave Sam an uneasy glimpse of his brother, of something very ugly and new. Normally, Dean keeps himself under control, and does the job that needs to be done, but isn’t a sadist about it. How he has managed that is one of the small miracles of his character. “Bloodlust” showed how easily those lines can blur, how easy it would be to go the Way of Gordon. It has its appeal.

Sam has been a pain in the ass since John has died, worry-warting over Dean as a way to deflect his own guilt and loss, but in this case, he’s onto something. Sam has extremely good instincts. He sometimes misses the mark, but in general, his worries are somewhere in the vicinity of right on target. This causes problems because nobody wants to be told “Here is how things are with you” before they’re ready to deal. The Winchester brothers are so damn on top of each other on a moment-to-moment basis that they are always facing things they’re “not ready” to deal with.

Continue reading

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R.I.P. Lauren Bacall

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This was the magazine cover that started it all. Howard Hawks was looking for a protege, a girl he could mold into his perfect woman who could play in those fabulous macho movies he made. His wife, “Slim” Hawks, saw 19-year-old Betty Perske on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar and showed it to her husband. Look at this girl. Look at how she looks at the camera. Is this kind of the girl you’ve been looking for? Betty was brought out to Hollywood for a battery of nervewracking screen-tests. She traveled with her mother. She had some acting training but nothing to the level required of her here. She just did what Mr. Hawks told her to do. He dressed her a certain way. He made her read the lines a certain way.

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He was developing a picture with Humphrey Bogart called To Have and Have Not, based on an Ernest Hemingway story. He needed a girl. A girl who could play a thief, a love interest, a girl who gave as good as she got. His dream-girl was “insolent”, the word he kept whispering in Bacall’s ear, a girl who could be AS “insolent” as Bogart. A girl who could keep up with the boys without sacrificing her femininity. He didn’t like silly women. He cast her in To Have and Have Not. She was given her new name: “Lauren Bacall.” Bogart heard the news and stopped her in the hall at the studio, saying to her, “We’ll have a lot of fun together.”

Truer words …

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Her debut in To Have and Have Not is one of the best film debuts in history. You cannot take your eyes off of her. It made her an instant star. Her first entrance is unforgettable. “Anybody got a match?” She, a virgin at the time, with almost no experience with men, had sexually explicit dialogue which was barely euphemistic:

Hot as hell. She was able to channel her nerves, her fear, into a cool coiled character, sexually knowing, unflappable, with a sizzling hot interior. This is the power of her imagination, as well as her total trust in Howard Hawks.

The nation went insane for her. So did Harry Truman.

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It was the start of a now-legendary career as well as the start of her marriage to Humphrey Bogart. They would appear in four pictures together, movies that changed my conception of what onscreen romance could be, should be.

There will be more to say. I’m reeling, frankly. I love her so much. She had a wonderful long life, and many phases of her career. She loved to WORK. She took RISKS. She sang on Broadway, when she couldn’t really sing at all. She appeared in weird Lars von Trier movies. She did not rest on her laurels. She worked, man. She liked to WORK.

I miss her already.

Here is an excerpt from her excellent autobiography (the first one). Here, she describes the whole To Have and Have Not buildup.

EXCERPT FROM By Myself, by Lauren Bacall

One day a couple of weeks before the picture was to start, I was about to walk into Howard’s office when Humphrey Bogart came walking out. He said, “I just saw your test. We’ll have a lot of fun together.” Howard told me Bogart had truly liked the test and would be very helpful to me.

I kept Mother up to date on developments, sending lists of people to call with the news – Diana Vreeland, Louise Dahl-Wolfe, Nicky de Gunzburg, Tim Brooke – with instructions to keep it to themselves. I couldn’t write to anyone – only Mother!

Call Fred Spooner – tell him I saved $48 this week and will try to do the same next week. Had to spend $20 on a new clutch for my car … Send me slacks … Send me this – that – everything … Sat opposite Bette Davis in the Greenroom the other day – she stared at me – maybe she thought I looked familiar – Ha! Ha! Went to dinner and to see Casablanca! – watching Bogie [whom I barely knew]. The picture isn’t scheduled to start until Tuesday now – but frankly I don’t think it’ll begin until a week from tomorrow [that would be the next Monday]. They have to change the locale from Cuba to Martinique. Political difficulties, because as it stands now, characters and story don’t reflect too well on Cuba. Have been working hard at the studio every day. I think I’m going to do my own singing! [I'd been having singing lessons every day.]

The picture didn’t begin until the following Tuesday. I had tested the wardrobe – hair – makeup. Sid Hickox had photographed them with Howard present, experimenting as he went, as Howard wanted me to look in the movie.

Walter Brennan had been cast in a large part, Marcel Dalio, Walter Surovy (Rise Stevens’ husband), Sheldon Leonard, Dan Seymour – of course Hoagy. I went into the set the first day of shooting to see Howard and Bogart – I would not be working until the second day. Bogart’s wife, Mayo Methot, was there – he introduced us. I talked to Howard, watched for a while, and went home to prepare me for my own first day.

It came and I was ready for a straitjacket. Howard had planned to do a single scene that day – my first in the picture. I walked to the door of Bogart’s room, said, “Anybody got a match?”, leaned against the door, and Bogart threw me a small box of matches. I lit my cigarette, looking at him, said, “Thanks,” threw the matches back to him, and left. Well – we rehearsed it. My hand was shaking – my head was shaking – the cigarette was shaking. I was mortified. The harder I tried to stop, the more I shook. What must Howard be thinking? What must Bogart be thinking? What must the crew be thinking? Oh, God, make it stop! I was in such pain.

Bogart tried to joke me out of it – he was quite aware that I was a new young thing who knew from nothing and was scared to death. Finally Howard thought we could try a take. Silence on the set. The bell rang. “Quiet – we’re rolling,” said the sound man. “Action,” said Howard. This was for posterity, I thought – for real theatres, for real people to see. I came around the corner, said my first line, and Howard said, “Cut.” He had broken the scene up – the first shot ended after the first line. The second set-up was the rest of it – then he’d move in for close-ups. By the end of the third or fourth take, I realized that one way to hold my trembling head still was to keep it down, chin low, almost to my chest, and eyes up at Bogart. It worked, and turned out to be the beginning of “The Look”.

I found out very quickly that day what a terrific man Bogart was. He did everything possible to put me at ease. He was on my side. I felt safe – I still shook, but I shook less. He was not even remotely a flirt. I was, but I didn’t flirt with him. There was much kidding around – our senses of humor went well together. Bogie’s idea, of course, was that to make me laugh would relax me. He was right to a point, but nothing on earth would have relaxed me completely!

The crew were wonderful – fun and easy. It was a very happy atmosphere. I would often go to lunch with HOward. One day he told me he was very happy with the way I was working, but that I must remain somewhat aloof from the crew. Barbara Stanwyck, whom he thought very highly of – he’d made Ball of Fire with her, a terrific movie – was always fooling around with the crew, and he thought it a bad idea. “They don’t like you any better for it. When you finish a scene, go back to your dressing room. Don’t hang around the set – don’t give it all away – save it for the scenes.” He wanted me in a cocoon, only to emerge for work. Bogart could fool around to his heart’s content – he was a star and a man – “though you notice he doesn’t do too much of it.”

One day at lunch when Howard was mesmerizing me with himself and his plans for me, he said, “Do you notice how noisy it is in here suddenly? That’s because Leo Forbstein just walked in – Jews always make more noise.” I felt that I was turning white, but I said nothing. I was afraid to – a side of myself I have never liked or been proud of – a side that was always there. Howard didn’t dwell on it ever, but clearly he had very definite ideas about Jews – none too favorable, though he did business with them. They paid him – they were good for that. I would have to tell him about myself eventually or he’d find out through someone else. When the time came, what would happen would happen, but I had no intention of pushing it.

Howard started to line up special interviews for me. Nothing big would be released until just before the picture, and everything would be chosen with the greatest care. Life, Look, Kyle Crichton for Collier’s, Pic, Saturday Evening Post. Only very special fan magazines. Newspapers. I probably had more concentrated coverage than any beginning young actress had ever had – due to Hawks, not me.

Hoagy Carmichael had written a song called “Baltimore Oriole”. Howard was going to use it as my theme music in the movie – every time I appeared on screen there were to be strains of that song. He thought it would be marvelous if I could be always identified with it – appear on Bing Crosby’s or Bob Hope’s radio show, have the melody played, have me sing it, finally have me known as the “Baltimore Oriole”. What a fantastic fantasy life Howard must have had! His was a glamorous, mysterious, tantalizing vision – but it wasn’t me.

On days I didn’t have lunch with Howard, I would eat with another actor or the publicity man or have a sandwich in my room or in the music department during a voice lesson. I could not sit at a table alone. Bogie used to lunch at the Lakeside Golf Club, which was directly across the road from the studio.

One afternoon I walked into Howard’s bungalow, and found a small, gray-haired, mustached, and attractive man stretched out on the couch with a book in his hand and a pipe in his mouth. That man was William Faulkner. He was contributing to the screenplay. Howard loved Faulkner – they had known each other a long time, had hunted together. Faulkner never had much money and Howard would always hire him for a movie when he could. He seldom came to the set – he was very shy – he liked it better in Howard’s office.

Howard had a brilliantly creative work method. Each morning when we got to the set, he, Bogie, and I and whoever else might be in the scene, and the script girl woudl sit in a circle in canvas chairs with our names on them and read the scene. Almost unfailingly Howard would bring in additional dialogue for the scenes of sex and innuendo between Bogie and me. After we’d gone over the words several times and changed whatever Bogie or Howard thought should be changed, Howard would ask an electrician for a work light – one light on the set – and we’d go through the scene on the set to see how it felt. Howard said, “Move around – see where it feels most comfortable.” Only after all that had been worked out did he call Sid Hickox and talk about camera set-ups. It is the perfect way for movie actors to work, but of course it takes time.

After about two weeks of shooting I wrote to my mother – she’d read one or two things in newspapers about my not having the first lead opposite Bogart -

Please, darling, don’t worry about what is written in the newspapers concerning first and second leads. You make me so goddamn mad – what the hell difference does it make? As long as when the public sees the picture they know that I’m the one who is playing opposite Bogart. Everything is working out beautifully for me. Howard told Charlie the rushes were sensational. He’s really very thrilled with them. I’m still not used to my face, however. Bogie has been a dream man. We have the most wonderful times together. I’m insane about him. We kid around – he’s always gagging – trying to break me up and is very, very fond of me. So if I were you, I’d thank my lucky stars, as I am doing and not worry about those unimportant things. The only thing that’s important is that I am good in the picture and the public likes me.

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The public didn’t just like you, Lauren Bacall. They love you.

Rest in peace.

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Love Streams: Now Available

John Cassavetes’ Love Streams is now available for purchase, either from the Criterion site, or on Amazon, or Target.com, or wherever else. It’s release day!

It’s an exciting day, even with the sad news of Robin Williams’ death. A video-essay, written and narrated by yours truly, is included in the special features, and I focus on the genius acting of Gena Rowlands.

Critics Round Up did a compilation of critical responses to the film, well worth a look.

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R.I.P. Robin Williams

I was on my way home this morning from a screening (that had been canceled last-minute due to a problem with the print or something). I decided to swing by Caroline’s Comedy Club on Broadway and 50th on my way back to the bus. There was a small tribute to Robin Williams taped up on the outside wall. Pictures of him as Mork. A picture of Johnny Carson wiping tears of laughter from his eyes. A quote from Robin Williams:

“You’re only given a little spark of madness. You mustn’t lose it.”

The folks at the Comedy Club must have just put it up when they got to work that morning. Someone had placed some sunflowers beneath the taped-up photos. I am sure there will be more flowers placed throughout the day. Something about there being only a couple of sunflowers there made the moment even more emotional.

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Posted in Actors, RIP | 18 Comments

R.I.P. Robin Williams

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He came and spoke at my school. He answered questions. He was hilarious, of course, but also forthcoming. But what was extraordinary about him in person, and what is with me right now, on this very sad day, is how “in tune” he was with The Comedic. This is clearly not news, but it was almost a physical sensation being in his presence, that he was hearing things on a different frequency, he was in touch with his instincts, and he could feel the joke coming 20 minutes out. Billy Crystal said, “If I’m fast, Robin Williams is faster.” He was like a chess master, 20 moves ahead of everyone else in the room. It was absolutely dizzying to be in his presence and feel that almost supernatural ability ricocheting around the room. It FELT like pure anarchy and in many ways it was. But on another deeper level, he was the Maestro, completely controlling it.

Everyone is reeling from the news that he has apparently taken his own life. His despair must have been excruciating. He had battled substance abuse as well as depression (or, I have also heard, bipolar, which often goes hand in hand with substance abuse), and had gotten help, was in treatment. And yet still, the darkness overwhelmed. This is the insidious and tragic thing with mental illness. It is a MONSTER. Matt Zoller Seitz in his beautiful obituary wrote: “Anybody who’s dealt with these often-intertwined problems, substance addiction and depression, knows you don’t so much beat them as beat them back.”

I will treasure his performance in The Fisher King forever (it is one of my favorite movies). A friend of mine, who is a therapist, said that clips from that film were shown in a class she took on PTSD. That’s how accurate he got it. But his stand-up. My God, his stand-up. It’s an assault of genius. You wonder how anyone could live at that speed.

While there are so many films to talk about, some good, some not-so-good, I wanted to share this clip of Robin Williams doing a sketch on a Carol Burnett special. The sketch has to do with death and a funeral, so there is that eerie dovetail to it, but what I love about the sketch is that they do it twice in a row. And so you can see Robin Williams RIFF on a theme. Notice how the structure remains the same, and he does the blocking mostly the same, but in the second one, he goes OFF on the tangents that he felt come to life in the first time through. It’s almost like the first sketch was a “dry run.” That’s what I mean about Robin Williams feeling a joke 20 minutes out.

And it gets funnier … and funnier … and funnier …

There is much to mourn.

Be kind to one another out there. Be gentle. You do not know how others struggle.

Rest in peace, Robin Williams. Thank you for making us laugh.

Posted in Actors, RIP | 22 Comments

Blue Ruin (2014); directed by Jeremy Saulnier

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Blue Ruin is the little tiny engine that could. Written and directed, as well as shot, by Jeremy Saulnier (mainly a cinematographer), it was a dream project for him, something he managed to pull together with its integrity intact. There are no bankable stars in it. It stars Macon Blair, a virtually unknown actor (not anymore), who had grown up with Saulnier, the two of them making zombie movies together when they were kids. Macon Blair was set for the lead role in Blue Ruin. That was non-negotiable. And so of course when they went to cast the rest of the roles, the question would come up: “Who’s the star?” “Oh, some guy named Macon Blair and he’s best friends with the director.” You know. That sounds pretty sketchy. However. They developed the project on a shoestring, got some producers involved who helped finance, bridged the gap with a Kickstarter campaign, storyboarded the whole thing so there was no margin for error, cast the movie, and started filming in Rehoboth Beach (and a couple of other locations, mainly in Virginia, where both Saulnier and Blair grew up.)

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There are no stars in it, although, holy mackerel, Eve freakin’ Plumb is in it, and she’s awesome. Small part, but awesome. But other than that, no one is a name. They had a shoestring crew who worked miracles. It looks like there is so much money on the screen, but there isn’t at all. The lighting, the framing, the shots (they used a camera slider to get all of those subtle eerie camera movements), the mood, atmosphere … It looks as though it has been art directed within an inch of its life, and yet it hasn’t been. They filmed in their childhood homes for a couple of key locations. They used minimal lighting. The location scouting is superb, seriously, because they were able to utilize those locations in an artful and poetic way, turning an empty parking lot into an ominous moody portentous space, merely by using the available light at the actual location.

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Saulnier is a cinematographer by trade, although he had directed a couple of things which didn’t really work out, career-wise. That obviously will change now. But his cinematographer background shows in every setup, every shot, the camera moving stealthily, beautifully, and sometimes going to handheld, obviously a practical choice when filming a fight scene, for example, in a tight space, but also a stylistic choice. Everything is deliberate, everything is chosen, everything is in service to the story. Blue Ruin is not a mood-piece or a tone-poem, where Image is All. The story keeps you on the proverbial edge of your seat. It was unbearably stressful in certain sections. I had to watch some scenes with one hand placed over my eye. It reminded me of Blood Simple, in some respects, in that it is steeped in the genre tradition of the revenge film, and yet it is humanized, made fragile and ambiguous. The images are so beautiful you want to hang them on your wall and yet they don’t take away from the story. It is not a director showing off (not entirely). Every image serves that story.

From the first shot to the last. The spell is never broken. I wish I had seen it in the theatre.

Blue Ruin was not accepted to Sundance, and that was a blow. Things sort of fell apart for a while. But then they worked more on the final cut, honing, paring down, and that time was well spent. Blue Ruin was then accepted to Cannes, where it made its premiere. Surreal, for these guys who had basically had day jobs only a year before. Before the film had even ended at Cannes, one of the producers was called out of the screening by a couple of distributors who wanted to make a deal. The audience response was exhilarating. The film WORKS.

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I hesitate to say more. I went in not knowing anything about the plot itself. I knew about the movie, because you couldn’t possibly avoid hearing about it if you were tuned in to film news. Critics I respected were raving about it. It had no recognizable names in it. But the enthusiasm was catching. However, it was certainly a bonus, watching it without knowing one thing about the plot. I like to do that as much as I can. The film starts slowly, immersing us with the daily maneuvers of a homeless guy whose name turns out to be Dwight (this is Macon Blair). He has a long red beard. He sleeps in his car (a battered rusted blue Pontiac, the “blue ruin” of the title, and Jeremy Saulnier’s actual mother’s actual car). He rummages through trash on the boardwalk, eating people’s tossed-out French fries. He sits under the boardwalk looking out at the waves. He breaks into other people’s homes. Not to steal, but to take a bath. He is a ghostly presence, obviously cut off from anything other than sheer survival.

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That changes when a kindly cop, who knows him by name, takes him into the station to inform him that “Wade Cleland” is being released on bail. She wanted him to hear the news in a safe space. The reaction on Macon Blair’s face to that name, to the news she imparts, is so emotionally powerful, and yet so … buried beneath his exterior – the beard, the dirt, the abstract quality of his daily suffering … that you’re not sure what it all means. All you know is that a mine has been exploded from deep within this man’s memory banks. And everything changes. We don’t learn who “Wade Cleland” is for 10, 15 more minutes. The film is very careful in doling out its exposition. When it comes, it feels graceful. And most of it comes in the final third of the film. And even then, there are still blanks, mysteries.

It’s a revenge film that takes a very ambiguous stance towards revenge. Dwight is not a hero. He is damaged, perhaps beyond repair, by what was done to him. He has clipped himself off the line and floated out into space. His friend Ben (the wonderful Devin Ratray, who has had a hell of a year, appearing also in Nebraska, although he will always have my heart as the gentle sweet gay guy who cosplayed as Dean Winchester in “The Real Ghostbusters,” the “convention episode” of Supernatural) drove around town putting out missing posters, when Dwight disappeared. But now Dwight returns. The scenes between Dwight and Ben are BEAUTIFULLY written and full of unexpected and welcome character development. Ben lives in a cabin in the woods. He has a veritable arsenal in a locker. He was in the Marines. He is clearly a survivalist of some kind, although he does work in a bar. He is also a sweet and kindly guy, resourceful, concerned, and looking on his friend from high school with a mixture of baffled affection and truly deep morally-based concern. “I’m not helping you because this is the right thing to do,” he says at one point.

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And this is for the Supernatural fans who show up here for obvious reasons: As we all know, Devin Ratray played a sweet guy who was obsessed with the character of Dean Winchester from the fictional Supernatural books, and loved dressing up as the guy and role-playing as a fun escape from the mundanity of his own life.

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Devin Ratray in “Supernatural”

He is given a monologue at the end of that episode, with the camera pushing in on him, as he explains to a pissed-off and confused actual Dean (Jensen Ackles) what “Dean Winchester” means to him. He plays it absolutely sincerely, 100% heart, and it’s such a strange and beautiful moment, the feelings of the fans of the actual television show put into the mouth of this nerdy guy who may be judged by the outside world for devoting so much of his life to a fandom, but his monologue gives dignity and depth to the fan experience. He knocks it out of the park. And so I am always happy when he shows up in things, but I was particularly happy here because #1: It’s a great film. It premiered at Cannes. Boo-yah, Ratray, you go with your bad self. And #2: In Blue Ruin, he gets to play an actual Dean Winchester type of guy. A no-holds-barred tough guy. A guy who could survive in the woods by himself if he had to. A guy who knows how to do stuff, knows how to handle a crisis, keeps his cool. A guy who also has a moral compass and recognizes that his friend Dwight has lost his. What to do, what to do … He helps, but he makes it clear his feelings about it. Their final hug is poignant. It’s a great great cameo. I’m a big fan.

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We know how revenge films go. A man or woman has been wronged. They then turn the tables on their attackers. Sometimes the killing spree goes off the rails, as in Abel Ferrara’s cult classic Ms. 45 (I participated in a roundtable discussion with Christy Lemire and Susan Wloszczyna over at Ebert) where the lead character starts to get off on killing, and she doesn’t care who she kills, as long as he is a male. Or Charles Bronson’s Death Wish. Or any variation of Liam Neeson’s current career. When a man/woman takes the law into their own hands. A civilized society obviously cannot countenance that behavior. However, the thought of someone doing something to our families, and the thought of how we would react, how attractive getting revenge would be … it’s a universal emotion. It is something anyone can relate to. That’s why these stories are so popular and will always be with us.

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One of the reasons Blue Ruin is so good (and often so hilarious) is that Dwight is not particularly up to the task of being a revenge hero in a genre film. He is physically cautious, he seems completely surprised by the rush of adrenaline that floods his system when he has put himself in danger, and his physical pain is unbearable. He does not have a stiff upper lip. He is doing what he feels he has to do, but he is terrified the whole time. He is also resourceful, and cunning, and moves through his revenge plan with the same focus that he approached the trash bins behind the boardwalk in the opening sequence. It sucks, but he has to do it. Macon Blair is nothing short of extraordinary. There are moments where his fear was so intense that I couldn’t even look at the screen, and all that was happening was him hiding in a corner. That’s how real his fear is. And yet he isn’t a buffoon. His plan is a good one, and it’s actually quite evil. He knows he will probably not survive it. But it has to be done, otherwise the revenge cycle will never end. He takes it upon himself to end it.

Saulnier obviously has an excellent eye for casting the right people. Who would have thought of Eve Plumb as the harassed and pissed-off matriarch of a Virginia family which is part raging hillbilly and part McMansion strivers who drive around in a fleet of obnoxious white limousines? She’s awesome. Saulnier resisted the siren call of famous actors, and so we get to see new faces too, always a huge pleasure. Amy Hargreaves is superb in her two scenes as Dwight’s sister, who is trying to recover from what was done to her family, and yet the wounds are still there, all over her face, despite her neat elegant up-do. She’s awesome. Kevin Kolack, an actor/college professor, plays Teddy Cleland, the brother of the notorious “Wade”, and he’s really only got one scene, and it is unforgettable. He has a sudden spontaneous moment where he bursts out laughing and it’s so real I had to rewind it to watch it unfold all over again. Every small part is played to perfection.

There’s clearly a reason why hard-core film fans are loving Blue Ruin. Every single shot is a feast for the eyes. Every camera move, every color choice, even red neon takes on meaning and poetry in the way Blue Ruin is filmed. It’s even more extraordinary when you realize just how low budget this thing really was.

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One of the most elusive elements in film, and yet one of the most important, is mood. Without mood, you just have a stylistic exercise. You have pretty shots, framed interestingly, and the audience is left empty. Blue Ruin is STEEPED in mood. The mood is one of loss, dread, fear, and rage. All of these things are fearsome enemies, things that keep Dwight from realizing his goal. He fights with them all along the way. He is a compelling screen presence. I could not take my eyes off of him. Frankly, I almost couldn’t believe what I was seeing. This was true across the board, because you know how hard they had to work, how careful and specific they had to be, to get it right on the screen. There would be no time or money to create the movie in the editing room, there would be no re-shoots, there would be nothing extra. The movie is the movie. Saulnier had to capture it onscreen. He does.

I am not cynical, and I want everything to be good. I approach every movie from that perspective. But when something is this good, it makes you sit up and take notice.

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The Books: Essays of E.B. White, “Coon Tree”

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Next book on my essays bookshelf:

Essays of E. B. White

Obviously, E.B. White felt an affinity for animals, and observed them at close range, during his years running a small farm in Maine. You can feel that background knowledge in Charlotte’s Web, with the rhythms of the farm and its seasons dominating the animals’ lives, as well as the farmers in charge of them (“Time to kill the pigs,” etc.) Some of his best essays are these intricate and yet simply-told observational pieces about the behavior of the animals that he can see from outside his window. You know, the geese waddling down to the pond, the pigs, the two heifers he has in the barn. He takes care of all of these animals. It is his job as a farmer. So when it snows, he has to shovel a path for the geese so they can tromp down to the little iced-over pond for a morning walk. Close proximity to animals. You get to know them. You get to almost communicate with them. It’s not anthropomorphizing, although When E.B. White does anthropomorphize it is usually in the form of an analogy, which makes the moment extremely funny (example below: the raccoon like a woman who doesn’t have a baby-sitter and yet still has a date that night). Animals do what they need to do to survive. They also fight, relax, make noises, retreat, sleep, feel pain, they do all kinds of fascinating things. Anyone who has a pet knows that. My cat has a ton of emotions. She gets worked up, she relaxes, she gets startled, she chills out, she feels pleasure when she lies in the sun, her purr so loud I can hear it in the next room. She likes to be close to me. She needs to be in my lap. Until she doesn’t. She leaps off when she’s had enough. It’s all according to her needs. Writing about animals can be either way too cutesy or so clinical that you forget these are creatures who are alive. E.B. White somehow makes his morning chores at the barn sound like a delightful and very funny communing with all of these clamorous little beings who have needs that it is his job to meet. (He does laugh at himself for shoveling out a path for the geese. It’s like he’s their valet.) He is not sentimental about the animals. He kills the pigs when it’s time. It’s part of the job of raising farm animals. But he does describe himself as “impractical,” not in a reckless way, but in a way that you can see in the excerpt below.

There is such acute and sensitive observational power in this essay, which describes a mother raccoon who has made her home in the hollow of a tree outside E.B. White’s house. She has given birth in the hollow of the tree, and every night, around dusk, she crawls down the tree trunk and goes off into the darkness to hunt for food. White watches her routine. He memorizes it. “Oh, she likes to do things this way … and here is when she likes to have a nap …” and all of the little things she does that have great meaning, for her, and for the babies she is raising. She is just doing what a raccoon does, but later in the essay when one of the babies grows up and starts crawling down the tree, that baby does it differently than the mother. The baby does it how IT prefers to do it. So there is some individuality there.

I mean, this essay was written in 1956 and that raccoon pops off the page. She lives, she is now eternal.

There is more to the essay, as there usually is with E.B. White’s stuff, and that’s why his essays are so important and are studied in school. This is how you do it, basically. As the world of nature continues on outside his window, inside the house he and his wife are making improvements. They modernized the kitchen, putting in a new sink. He misses the old sink but they had to move on with the times. There are thoughts here about progress, and technology, all as that raccoon climbs up and down the tree trunk outside his window. Meanwhile, over the years, the hole in the tree starts to get larger, meaning it is disintegrating, losing its integrity. Soon it will not be a proper raccoon nest anymore. But that will be the raccoon’s problem to deal with. It’s not didactic. E.B. White never is. He does not lecture. He does not pontificate. He has too much humor for that.

It’s lovely. I love it because you are really given time to just be with the raccoon. Get into her rhythms, her concerns, her body language, what she does.

Here’s an excerpt.

Excerpt from Essays of E. B. White, “Coon Tree”

There are two sides to a raccoon – the arboreal and the terrestrial. When a female coon is in the tree, caring for young, she is one thing. When she descends and steps off onto solid earth to prowl and hunt, she is quite another. In the tree she seems dainty and charming; the circles under her eyes make her look slightly dissipated and deserving of sympathy. The moment she hits the ground, all this changes; she seems predatory, sinister, and as close to evil as anything in Nature (which contains no evil) can be. If I were an Indian, naming animals, I would call the raccoon He Who Has the Perpetual Hangover. This morning, conditions inside the hole are probably unbearable. The kittens are quite big now, the sun is hot, and the hole is none too roomy anyway – it’s nothing but a flicker hole that time has enlarges. So she has emerged, to lie in full view on the horizontal limb just under her doorway. Three of her four legs are draped lifelessly over the limb, the fourth being held in reserve to hang on with. Her coat is rough, after the night of hunting. In this state she presents a picture of utter exhaustion and misery, unaccompanied by remorse. On the rare occasions when I have done a little hunting myself at night, we sleep it off together, she on her pallet, I on mine, and I take comfort in her nearness and in our common suffering.

I guess I have watched my coon descend the tree a hundred times; even so, I never miss a performance if I can help it. It has a ritualistic quality, and I know every motion, as a ballet enthusiast knows every motion of his favorite dance. The secret of its enchantment is the way it employs the failing light, so that when the descent begins, the performance is clearly visible and is a part of day, and when, ten or fifteen minutes later, the descent is complete and the coon removes the last paw from the tree and takes the first step away, groundborne, she is almost indecipherable and is a part of the shadows and the night. The going down of the sun and the going down of the coon are interrelated phenomena: a man is lucky indeed who lives where sunset and coonset are visible from the same window.

The descent is prefaced by a thorough scrub-up. The coon sits on her high perch, undisturbed by motorcars passing on the road below, and gives herself a complete going-over. This is catlike in its movements. She works at the tail until it is well bushed out and all six rings show to advantage. She washes leg and foot and claw, sometimes grabbing a hind paw with a front paw and pulling it closer. She washes her face the way a cat does, and she rinses and sterilizes her nipples. The whole operation takes five to fifteen minutes, according to how hungry she is and according to the strength of the light, the state of the world below the tree, and the mood and age of the kittens within the hole. If the kittens are young and quiet, and the world is young and still, she finishes her bath without delay and begins her downward journey. If the kittens are restless, she may return and give them another feeding. If they are well grown and anxious to escape (as they are at this point in June), she hangs around in an agony of indecision. When a small head appears in the opening, she seizes it in her jaws and rams it back inside. Finally, like a mother with no baby-sitter and a firm date at the theater, she takes her leave, regretfully, hesitantly. Sometimes, after she has made it halfway down the tree, if she hears a stirring in the nursery she hustles back up to have another look around.

A coon comes down a tree headfirst for most of the way. When she gets within about six feet of the ground, she reverses herself, allowing her hind end to swing slowly downward. She then finishes the descent tail first; when, at last, she comes to earth, it is a hind foot that touches down. It touches down as cautiously as though this were the first contact ever made by a mammal with the flat world. The coon doesn’t just let go of the tree and drop to the ground, as a monkey or a boy might. She steps off onto my lawn as though in slow motion – first one hind paw, then the other hind paw, then a second’s delay when she stands erect, her two front paws still in place, as though the tree were her partner in the dance. Finally, she goes down on all fours and strides slowly off, her slender front paws reaching ahead of her to the limit, like the hands of an experienced swimmer.

I have often wondered why the coon reverses herself, starting headfirst, ending tail first. I believe it is because although it comes naturally to her to descend headfirst, she doesn’t want to arrive on the ground in that posture, lest an enemy appear suddenly and catch her at a disadvantage. As it is, she can dodge back up without unwinding herself if a dog or a man should appear.

Because she is a lover of sweet corn, the economic status of my raccoon is precarious. I could shoot her dead with a .22 any time I cared to. She will take my corn in season, and for every ear she eats she will ruin five others, testing them for flavor and ripeness. But in the country a man has to weigh everything against everything else, balance his pleasures and indulgences one against another. I find that I can’t shoot this coon, and I continue to plant corn – some for her, what’s left for me and mine – surrounding the patch with all sorts of coon baffles. It is an arrangement that works out well enough. I am sure of one thing: I like the taste of corn, but I like the nearness of coon even better, and I cannot recall ever getting the satisfaction from eating an ear of corn that I get from watching a raccoon come down a tree just at the edge of dark.

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