Tuesday, September 30, 2008

#85 Paul Newman--pt. 2

To continue from last post. Before his real shot at stardom in Somebody Up There..., the actor was picked for his debut in the lush, formula-laden, god-and-sandals epic, The Silver Chalice. (And need I point out: the perfect kind of picture to watch in the exotic, palace-like surroundings of the Avalon Theater.) Most all of these, noted last time, were conflationary clones of Samson and Delilah meets The Robe--lots of action and slave-girl skin with a little sappy romantic "mush" and soppy (for the grown-ups) spirituality, from which us guys disgustedly averted our eyes.

The stars of TSC? NOT Paul Newman or even the wonderful Pier Angeli. No: the painted-pagan witch-goddess Virginia Mayo and the creepy Jack Palance as the sinister Simon Magus. SHE (and her dancing girls--invariably in these movies bare-foot-anklet-and-sequined-bikinis-with-transparent-veil-clad pin-ups) seduced us right down to the inside our pants; then HE scared them off. All this and Natalie Wood, too. I'll admit that the only scene I remember from a half-century ago with absolute clarity is when Christ-rival-manque' Palance, raving madly (and reminding me now of Frederick Forest's great "Blue Duck" character in Lonesome Dove trying to prove that Indians could "fly" by crashing fatally through the second-story jailhouse window), attempts to prove his divinity by jumping from a mile-high tower. Splat. Like the movie's box-office receipts. But great camp, looking back.

Newman had no such competition in his sophomore effort two years later. Though Steve McQueen debuted in it uncredited, and Sal Mineo had a small part, the movie-rendering of Rocky Graziano's autobiography was all Paul's, if you discount the beguiling Pier Angeli, matched up with him again by popular demand, no doubt. (Mandatory cosmic-convergence-trivia-diversion: James Dean originally picked for the part of Rocky Barbella...killed famously in car crash...replaced by method-actor-Dean-Brando-type = NEWMAN...Pier Angeli's ex-fiance' Dean the "only man I ever loved"...shortly before her suicide in 1971, age 40.) The plot? Think Rocky Balboa (ring-scenes and make-up, too), Stallone's rip-off of every fight-film ever made, and over and over again at that.

But for chacterization, look to the angst-ridden, failure-prone boxers in DeNiro's Raging Bull, or in the prototype, Brando's On the Waterfront (1954). The latter's blockbuster success, I'm sure, is what gave Newman his coattail-effect second chance by the studios. And unlike the one in TSC, his performance here was memorable for me, maybe because at thirteen I could understand the mature--face it: testosterone-centric-- themes that I couldn't quite "get" in OTW two years earlier. It's as if Newman explicated Brando for me. The actor could have in fact played Brando for the rest of his career, and been quite successful at it. But even here in SUTLM he brings that quintessential Newman touch, the Sly Rogue, the Mischievious Rebel, to the part of the not-quite-punch-drunk-yet boxer. Aided by the script (and the real-life story), the actor uses that intelligent blue-eyed glint to lend verisimilitude to the preposterous roller-coaster narrative. While getting beaten up most of the time, Rocky is really putting the con on the gangs, and then the gangsters and the boxing establishment, until his ultimate triumph. (It's interesting that in real life too, Graziano had a fairly successful post-pugilist career as a comic actor. I remember him as Marta Raye's quondam fiance' on her 50s TV variety show.)

It all came together (including his incredible, forever-marriage to his co-star, Joanne Woodward) for the actor two years later in The Long Hot Summer (his character's name explains it all--Ben Quick--even though I hated the movie about as much as I did that other Southern Gothic yuck-fest, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, though Newman's acting stood out like a "Brick" in that one. [Apologies to ghosts of Faulkner and Tennessee Williams])--and EXPLODED in The Hustler (1961), his defining role. And this may be unfair to him, but I think he played variations on "Fast Eddie" Felson for the remainder of his career...at least in his better performances (fill in the blanks, starting with Butch Cassidy). He even had to repeat the role in Color of Money to win the Oscar! So what? No actor has been more watchable, if indeed predictable. And did I mention he was also a pretty good human being? No need to. The enduring "shelf-life" of his filmic achievements may be exceeded only by his "Newman's Own" products and the good works they've spawned. Pace.

Monday, September 29, 2008

#84 Monday Mourning----Paul Newman

Yes, I'm back in the Avalon Theater again [When will he stop?!]. Because... that's where I saw the great Paul Newman's first two films--The Silver Chalice (1954), and Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956)--each of which, in wildly divergent ways, played a role in making him a star. I believe.

But first, I got to know the actor on TV, before and around the time of his movie debut. When he appeared on The Avalon's wide screen as Basil the chalice-maker, I recognized him from starring roles (I don't think he never had a bit part) in several of MY favorite mystery/horror shows of TV's early and mid-fifties: Tales of Tomorrow, The Web, and Suspense. But my parents, culture-grubbers that they were, made me sit through some of those "Golden-Age-of-Television" (mostly they weren't) live-action-drama shows like Playhouse 90 and US Steel Hour. Of course I'm glad they did, because that's where I saw Newman sharpening his acting chops (I presume he was, because I wasn't THAT discerning a viewer then--just people and faces). He was co-lead in Bang the Drum Slowly (later the movie with Moriarty and DeNiro), and played one of his two Billy the Kids: first in the TV Philco Playhouse "Death of..." and later in Arthur Penn's quirky directorial debut "The Left-Handed Gun" (1958--saw this one only recently), where he was truly arriving at his lovable-rebel persona. (Not a very good film, though, and did you know--I can't resist--that some of Penn's literally "sinister" symbolism is compromised now that it's been lately proved that Billy wasn't left-handed after all?--his famous gun-toting photo was reversed in processing.)

He wasn't quite there yet with a "Paul Newman" role in his motion-picture debut, The Silver Chalice. I took my quarter to the Avalon to see yet another wall-to-wall biblical epic (this was the era of The Robe, Quo Vadis, Demetrious and the Gladiators, David and Bathsheba [Susan Hayward randily indeed in her "bath"], Samson and Delilah, Ten Commandments, Ben Hur, etc.--saw 'em all and more) because...they were there, and because, besides Westerns, they were the action-movies cum skin-flicks of their day, much to the delectation of us peri-adolescent boys. This particular matinee was TSC, and I fell in love... not with Paul Newman, but with his co-star Pier Angeli (I was already in love with Natalie Wood, who played one of her usual juvenile roles in this picture), who to my mooney delight would co-star with him again two years later in SUTLM, which was to make him an A-list actor. She was great in TSC; he wasn't--or so I'm told. I wasn't paying that much attention (hey, I was 11), except that he seemed to fill the role assigned to him OK. But in fact, I have learned, Newman himself took out full-page ads the very day after its release to apologize for his performance in the motion picture! Public-spirited already, he was. I guess he learned what kind of role best suited him--certainly NOT the fraught, effete, and dreamy-eyed artiste he played in TSC. Rather, he chooses at least one-half of his future film-persona in his very next role as the boxer "Rocky" Barbella (Stallone plagiarized) in SUTLM: that of the irrepressible REBEL. I was a more sophisticated viewer of 13, and this time he sure did capture my attention, my lust for Pier Angeli notwithstanding. More to come.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

#83 Saturday Matinee--the Debate

Well, it came off, after all. It wasn't very good show-biz though, what with Jim Lehrer's attempts at stage direction: nagging shrilly throughout "Can you address that directly to Mr. Obama?"..."Could you turn to face him on that one?"..."Would you please (I'm trying to) mix it up a little bit here?" Mawkish and undignified. That's one of manifold reasons NOT to watch the live proceedings--sufficient to check excerpts and reviews. (Or best, DVR the thing.) But someone insisted, so I was exposed to all the raggedy edges of what is not, nor ever has been, a debate in the classical sense at all. Did you hear anything like "RESOLVED: A timetable for troop-withdrawal would end in disaster" followed by point-by-point argument (and then rebuttal on the other side: "No it wouldn't and here's why")? Or, RESOLVED: cutting taxes and spending would rescue the economy...and then rebuttal and so on? No. In fact you heard literally a bunch of these from the moderator: "What do you think about that, Senator?" and "What's your response to that?"...back and forth and back again. This inevitably led to to the garbled interruptions and over-talking that loses the audience and the POINT AT ISSUE as well...and fatally. Finally, in Oxford Union tradition perhaps, the audience should have walked their vote, yay or nay, through opposite exits to be counted. The networks did a little bit of this in studio with a gaggle of "Undecideds" after the fact, but....

As to winner and/or loser--the ISSUES won, and they were on Obama's side. I'm trying to be non-partisan as I can here, and I'll prove it by declaring the debate a TIE...in terms of, I don't know, call it emotional/empathetic dynamics. McCain succeeded in keeping Obama off-guard with his cranky-old-scold demeanor and feisty, schoolmarm-to-upstart-pupil approach, but he lost points for smug sarcasm. Even when on the listening end: watch him do the smirk-and-giggle shtick on split-screen shots. Al Gore lost a couple of his debates with Bush eight long years ago with the "sighing and eye-rolling" routine (can you blame him?--he was debating an idiot), which is equally off-putting for an audience. On the other hand, in the face of that, Obama scored mightily by just being COOL--that will be remembered over and above what was actually being said. At the same time, he lost some points by just being cool, and not getting on the old man HEATEDLY once or twice more than he did (which was really not-at-all to speak of). For example, how about repeating the following 12 or 15 times molto forte: "Listen to me, dammit--Surge-Schmurge...we shouldn't have been in this damn war that you John McCain voted for in the first damn place!!"? Profanity deleted, of course, but insinuated.

No matter. The issues won for Obama. The winning was in the broaching. "OK," says the moderator, "were gonna open up with the ECONOMY." Swish...from the 3-point line off-stage for Obama. "Now we're gonna shift over to THE WAR IN IRAQ." Swish...3 more points. And so on. It was a little disappointing that Obama didn't deliver the "slam-dunk" last night, but with the abysmal Bush/Cheney legacy to shoot against...he can't lose.

Friday, September 26, 2008

#82 The Bailout--the "Dismal Science" Gets Dismaler

No...I don't like it none.

First of all, as a Progressive Libertarian (or Libertarian Democrat or Left Libertarian or Quasi-Anarcho-Syndicalist maybe--I'll define some of this stuff sooner or later, I promise, dismally boring though it may be)--I'm enough on the Liberal side of the aisle (universal health-care, yes) to be all in favor of REGULATING financial institutions down to a fare-thee-well. This is simply a form of licencing, of policing entities that could pose a DANGER (fraud) to the public welfare--well within the parameters of governmental authority that we pay our taxes for. But OWNERSHIP? Nah...a little too Marxianish for me. Totally different color horse. Further, the bailout is touted as just a LOAN of sorts, wherefrom a profit might even be made "down the road." But really, we're BUYING--mortgages, notes, other assets and debits--which are subject to market vagaries like everything else. A pig in a poke.

Secondly, Who's getting the money? Not the most deserving, I'm afraid. CEO's and stockholders of these failed institutions are getting paid for failure. As if they haven't already been paid enough! To make the point, let's just look at some of those folks who got us in trouble in the first place, but got out before TSHTF and came up smelling...you know. Here are some infuriating examples provided by the AP: CEO of Merrill-Lynch, $66M severance package one year before failure and takeover by Bank Of America; CEO of Wachovia, $5M golden parachute; CEO of Citigroup, $16M parting gift. Most recently and outrageously?--biggest-bank-failure-ever WaMu CEO gets bye-bye pay of $18M for three weeks' work! These guys should have been simply FIRED, or maybe just taken around back and fired AT.

That said, it looks like some sort of rescue measure will pass the Congress. So...as long as they're gonna print some more money anyway--print some for me and mine while they're at it.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

#81 Obama/McCain Not-Debate Debate--A Limerick

May the thunder and lightning of your day, O Thunor/Thor, be sorely loosed upon the miscreant John McCain for his craven withdrawal from the first Presidential Debate at Ole Miss. Also this:

Mississippi Yearning

It's the latest in crass McCainery,

No matter his tries at explainery.

(No: Mass Debater;

Yes: Masturbater.)

We know it to be sheer chicanery.


Tuesday, September 23, 2008

#80 Political Economy--Bob Barr

That's the old name (and university degree--my old Dean had one) that blanketed just about everything from before-they-were-named Sociology, Anthropology, International Relations to... yes, money and government. A catch-all with gravitas, which I like.

Anyway, my Second Son said today that he was thinking of voting for the official Libertarian candidate Bob Barr (say his name fast: Do you hear something vaguely Elephantine?) for President. Not so fast. Take an example from the great Norse god Tiu, for whom THIS DAY is named: he fought the dreaded Fenris Wolf to a draw, but lost a hand in the struggle. The lesson should be perfectly clear. Don't pull that lever for Bob Barr. That goes for all you Myriad Readers, even though it would happily syphon votes from McCain/Palin, much to my delight. It's the principle of the thing. He's a neocon Republican through and through...OR at best/worst a faux Libertarian. And I say he brings shame upon us true-bluers.

But first, he's a hypocrite. Congressman Bob Barr was first to call for Clinton's impeachment when Lewinsky-gate became public, decrying the "moral bankruptcy" of the Presidency while (like Newt Gingrich) he was cheating on his second wife with his third. It was OK with Barr for that wife to get an abortion, while at the same time he was fervently pushing anti-choice legislation. Now, here in no particular order are some other very un-Libertarian stances he's taken:

--staunch supporter of "War on Drugs," even to prohibiting medical marijuana use
--voted for war in Iraq
--voted for Bush/Cheney Patriot Act
--led the charge against same-sex marriage, authoring the federal "Defense" of Marriage Act
--sponsored Pentagon ban on practise of Wiccan religion on military bases
--advocates licking whipped-cream off female body-parts (did it at a fund-raiser, early 90s)

I don't care if Barr has repudiated some of these (maybe not the last)--How in the world can you trust him? It doesn't help any that he is a former CIA agent. Is he really a Democratic MOLE infiltrating the Libertarians to draw votes from McCain? Given his chameleon past, I can almost believe it. So he apologizes for all of that--is that his Platform? Come on...the only thing he's been steadfastly Libertarian about is GUNS, and I could take or leave that as being about zero conseqentiality. (When I'm in power I would, for civilians, LICENSE them down to a squirrel-rifle.) He's at bottom a tight-assed Republican in ill-fitting Libertarian costume. The G.O.P booted him out, so he seeks the spotlight anywhere he can, and changes his spots whenever necessary to remain in it. A politician/narcissist. And he reminds me of TV's "little old winemaker" of times past. The only good thing about Bob Barr? (say it again fast)--he hates George W. Bush.

Monday, September 22, 2008

#79 "Wee Folks"...The Movie--pt. 2

Picking up from Saturday's post: Caryn Lazar Amster's heart-touching memoir, The Pied Piper of South Shore: Toys and Tragedy in Chicago has all the elements of a good, even great movie. Character, action, even narrative structure could be taken mostly whole cloth to the screen by a good director and careful casting. Again, I think Mandy/"Manny" Patinkin would be ideal for the lead role, especially given his very personal connection with the story. He's aged appropriately since Inigo Montoya in "Princess Bride" (and since his second-best, in my opinion, award-winning Broadway role in Steven Sondheim's "Sunday in the Park with George" as painter George Seurat, along with another favorite of mine, Bernadette Peters. In fact, I'm putting the Showtime film version on my Netflix queue right now...but I do go on)--and could communicate very effectively the kind, avuncular personality that I imagine the real Manny Lazar must have been.

But Mandy and his costars would need more dialog than is provided in the book, though it's there, albeit in latent form. You can see that in a thematically wonderful scene (truth being always stranger than fiction)--laden with that astounding cosmic convergence that we seem to meet with all the time. Following the "main event" in the opening chapter, as we recall, the author flashes us all the way back to (both) family's roots in Russia; takes us through a kind of mini-chronicle of the trials of the modern-day Jewish Diaspora (a page-turner all the way); and at one point brings us up to the young Manny's first view of The Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor:
After two long weeks, the City of New York approached the Port of New York. As he peered through the ship's rail, eight-year-old Manny Lazarus caught sight of Lady Liberty. Who, he wondered, was this? Was it the statue of some famous military leader? [INTERCUT CLOSE-UP OF PEDESTAL/PLAQUE/POEM/NAME HERE] Not until much later did my father that a New York Jewish woman of privilege, one with the same name as his family, had written a poem about the Statue of Liberty in 1883. "The New Colossus" by Emma Lazarus ["Give me your tired, your poor..."] had been engraved on a plaque at the base of the great lady as if to welcome this newest Lazarus family to their new world. [emphasis and addenda mine]

How's that for built-in dramatic irony?! We are let in (visually in the would-be movie) on the the little secret that the great lady holds, and we already know another tragic one, the murder in Act I, unknown to the happy family on The City of New York. There's a bit more irony to come in a minute, but first: you can see the latent dialog in the scene above. In the movie, Manny would simply ask out loud what he was thinking. Perhaps to his father, or a curmudgeonly perfect stranger...whoever. Now the very next scene in the book could be a real cinematic treat. Here the family is going through the notorious Ellis Island routine, and have come to the business of getting the family surname "correctly" recorded:

The name of each person on the ship's manifest had to be found and transferred to the inspector's record book. In a moment of confusion or power, the inspector changed our family name from Lazarus to Lazar. Dad always said of the experience, "When we came to America, they made us drop the 'US.'"

And more bureaucratic indignities were to follow, of course, but this could have been the unkindest cut--the desecration of the family name, and, inferentially, of the tradition represented by another Lazarus a scene two before. And the the audience is aware, even if the actors are not. That's the definition of dramatic irony. In addition, some trenchant tragi-comic dialog could come out of this scene. Let's make Herr Inspector petty, peremptory, AND stupid (in his capacity he should have, after all, made the connection with Emma Lazarus across the way on Liberty Island)--and the confused verbal exchanges can ensue. For the sparkling screenplay, we'll get David Mamet (Glengarry Glen Ross, State and Main), who--get this--grew up on the South Shore!

Finally, the film adaptation, like the book, would have very satisfying "take-away value," as I like to call it, somewhat simplistically I guess. These are the lessons learned, the themes pondered, after leaving the theater. You've got a bunch of them here. One such strand would be covered in my would-be title, "Wee Folks." (In the tradition maybe of Todd Field's excellent "Little Children" 2006) Figuratively and indeed sociologically speaking, the shooter Thomas Gunn (seventeen for his first murder) and his gangland buddies are wee folks...bad ones--stunted and shrunken beings psychologically: brain-deprived and heart-starved souls in need of the kind of nurturing environment exemplified in the Lazar family, and by extension symbolized in the happy-happy spirit of TOYS. Buying, giving, sharing, cherishing--the whole megilla, if you will. They didn't have any of that, literally or otherwise. And to end on a mundane but topical note: GANGS and their depredations upon a peaceful society pose a clear and present danger TODAY. Take my word for it, right here in Raleigh--seemingly so far away in space and time from the "Toys and Tragedy in Chicago."

Sunday, September 21, 2008

#78 Sunday Sundries

Worst of the Week
  • Has to be the $700 Billion Bailout. Is Bush/Cheney a Socialist? A Pinko-Commie-Symp? My goodness, I guess so. We're now gonna share the wealth with the wealthy. And then get billed later anyway. The neo-con Republican de-regulators are gonna re-regulate--too late. Economics is the so-called "dismal science," and it now seems to be headquartered near the Great Dismal Swamp. Washington should regulate, yes, to guard against FRAUD (this, and FORCE, are the only two things in their varied manifestations that we should pay the Government to protect us from, thank you very much)--otherwise, let the free-market do its job.
  • Neglect of more important issues on the campaign trail--namely WAR in Middle East and the HEALTH CARE crisis. Presidents can't do much about the Economy, anyway, despite their great power since FDR--but even there, with all HIS tinkering, it was really, most agree, WWII that got us out of that really, really big Depression that some of you MRs have heard about. (But don't think THIS war will do like WWII: the former is strictly a "gearing-down" war from its beginning--though lasting now waaay too long--a war of depletion of ready reserves; whereas WWII was a "gearing-up" war, providing huge economic stimulus to an already sick economy. This one is simply draining us dry.) The only sure thing, statistically speaking, is that Democrats in the White House bring on some sort of mystical "era of good feeling" about the Economy after a Republican administration has somehow screwed it up. And then the Economy picks up again. So please Mr. Obama and Mr. McCain (even though YOU, sir, are exactly on the wrong side)--let's get back to debating the issues, these most dire issues, that you can actually do something about.
  • USA lost to Spain in Davis Cup tennis. We were defending champs. It's a great luxury in this life to be able to get a little bit SAD about something utterly inconsequential.
Best of the Week
  • Sarah Palin's approval ratings are dropping. On the other hand, according to a recent Baylor (Baptist) University poll, 55% of Americans believe in Guardian Angels. No, not the Curtis Sliwa variety. Make whatever connections you like.
  • Eldest son's birthday.
  • At least a couple of good things to say this week, compared to last, though still a stretch.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

#77 Saturday Matinee--"Wee Folks"... the Movie

Starring Mandy Patinkin as Emanuel "Manny" Lazar. Why not? He wrote the Foreword to the book, and I gave an imaginary GIFT yesterday--why not make up a movie? There is some method to this madness: I believe The Pied Piper of South Shore: Toys and Tragedy in Chicago (2005) by "Mr Wee Folks'" daughter, Caryn Lazar Amster (see earlier posts), is worthy of it. And so do many others, she tells me, who may have read it with more than a nostalgic eye. And I promised her a "review" from my bully blogospherical pulpit, so what better way than to translate a very readable book, by the way, into the medium of film. Maybe not, but here goes anyway, with apologies in advance to the author.
  • The three-part narrative of the memoir--kudos for self-written--lends itself to cinematic treatment. We we're talking about flashbacking the other day: well here, coincidentally, we've got another Before the Devil Knows You're Dead in the making. (Maybe the 83-year-old Sidney Lumet can hang on a little longer to direct!) We begin with the "Big-Heist-Gone-Wrong" event, then all the history that goes before, then the flash-forward to The Trial. (Lumet's 12 Angry Men or The Verdict again.) No need to tamper with this ready-made dramatic structure, thank you.
  • Character and action are of course REAL and thus also ready-made, but far from the Everyday. In fact, they are EXTRAORDINARY. Sufficient to quote from the back cover: When a gang assassin gunned down Manny Lazar, he died in the place he loved best: the Wee Folks toy store he and his wife, Belle, had run for a quarter-century....It is the story of this beloved retailer's death... But it's also a story of two children of immigrants, their American dream, and their richly diverse neighborhood, each falling prey to the brutality of gangs. The shooter's name was Thomas Gunn. Could a filmmaker ask for a larger-than-life cast of characters or a more gut-wrenching, tear-jerking story? Not.
  • Scene-setting would be easy too. The broader views of the people, their daily lives in the neighborhoods, and so on, are clearly and carefully drawn. But the author can also reconstruct the ferocious particulars in almost forensic detail. E.g.--The young man panicked, fired five shots, and tried to rush out of the store. Unfamiliar with its layout, he first ran up an aisle that dead-ended at one of the large plate-glass display windows, covered, as usual, with the nose-prints of wishful children. [Like those of my little sister and me in earlier days] Realizing he was trapped and terrified to launch himself through the thick glass, he frantically sought another way out....Two peach-colored display islands welded together stood between the gunman and the double glass entry doors. The islands stood five feet tall and, being made of steel, could withstand great weight. He attempted to vault over them but lacked the room for a running start [nice detail]. With the superhuman strength of intense fear, he began pulling the welded units apart, the metal slicing through his jacket into the flesh of his arms....merchandise scattering every which way. Mainly Barbies. And meanwhile poor Belle was cowering under the counter not knowing what was happening. Whew...what a skilled director could make out of that! And if it were a Sidney Lumet, he could also easily stage the courtroom-drama aftermath in Act III, right out of the riveting transcript-testimony.
  • All that's needed is dialog for the first two acts. I'll volunteer. It shouldn't be hard. The narrative speaks silent volumes already. Take this scene---No...let me continue with a Part 2 later.
N.B.-- an autographed copy of The Book is available (60 left of first printing) for $19.95 plus $5.00 shipping from: caryn120@comcast.net OR toll-free 866-507-4737. Proceeds go to a charitable organization.

Friday, September 19, 2008

#76 Friday Funnies--the "Plinth" [update]

Arrrrr.... But belay that. Nineteen September is "Talk Like a Pirate Day" and, tomorrow the 20th, my eldest son's birthday.

  • The former is celebrated annually by sea-raiding corsairs along the Moroccan coast, I think, and by folks who have, through carefully-deferred dental maintenance over the last ten years, lost a front tooth...like me. "Shiver me timbers" sounds so much more authentic with the acoustic hint of a whistle. The tooth had become decadent no doubt, like its owner, but it was a stealth attack--piratical if you will--the evidence of marauding Tartar-beings becoming known only after the fact (i.e.= in the palm of my hand). Admittedly: after using said frontal dentation as nature intended in time of need...as pliers. The tooth actually split laterally in half, the front part leaving behind its stumpy counterpart--and forensic clues to the crime. So like a true buccaneer, this Blogman needs to SAVE UP for a "peg-tooth"--a prosthetic...no, make that cosmeticappliance of some sort, just to make him more presentable in the marketplace. Or lacking that: a pirate costume and a stuffed parrot.
  • Birthdays are celebrated annually too, I understand. But tomorrow I inaugurate a new tradition in the gift-giving department, which I'll share with my MRs. For their birthday presents, all my sons and whoever else from now on will receive a "thought-gift"--after all, isn't it "not the gift, but the thought that counts"? So let's just take that to its reductio ad absurdum and make the damn thing TOTALLY IMAGINARY. Hey, it'll never wear out. And size and cost...no object. So I'll be giving my son a PLINTH--defined as a pedestal-like slab of stone, usually squared, beneath a column or pier; OR, in wood-joinery a flat member at the bottom of an architrave, dado, baseboard, or the like. That should explain it. Love the word. Borrowed from L. plinthus > Gr. plinthos = "stone"--but cognate in the language already (as often happens) from the Indo-European up through Germanic as our more familiar "flint." Rocky, not woody origins. My gift therefore will be a blue-speckledy granite slab 6' x 6' square and 3" high, to be viewed in the mind horizontally with a slight parallax, to get the full effect. Now this can exist purely in space, or it can be imagined in the back yard surrounded by rose bushes and a gaggle of mannequin pis statues--whatever. Such is the infinite UTILITY of the Thought-Gift.
  • Which...I hereby dub generically a plinth, for all time. In honor of its maiden voyage. Thought-gift = Plinth. And you are free to use the term as such, royalty-free, whenever you feel the pinch of hard economic times, or of your own native parsimony. "Sorry, Mildred, I can only afford a Camel-Caravan to Shangri-La this year. Next year a Date with George Clooney or that Breast Augmentation you've always wanted...I promise."
But you know what?--you can give a Plinth to anybody, any time of the year, and all the year around. Make somebody happy with a Plinth today. Failing that, try to come up with a word that rhymes with it. I couldn't. Or just try to pronounce its plural: "plinthes." Takes a pirate, maybe.
Update 9/21: Just thought of a rhyme that a pirate might enjoy: "absinthe"--the Green Fairy...to be quaffed while contemplating a Plinth.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

#75 Wednesday Words--Justice Brandeis and Sarah Palin

Here's a quote that I finally tracked down apropos of the GRAVE DANGER of someone like Sarah Palin ever getting even a little pinky finger involved in the government of our country--a fortiori and forfend the heart-beat-away HEAD OF STATE! Turns out to be from the distinguished jurist Louis D. Brandeis (though it sounds a lot like Marcus Aurelius):
  • Experience should teach us to be most on our guard to protect LIBERTY when the government's purposes are beneficent. Men born to FREEDOM are naturally alert to repel invasion of their LIBERTY by evil-minded rulers. The greatest dangers to LIBERTY lurk in insidious encroachment by men of ZEAL, well-meaning but without understanding. 1928. [emphasis mine]
Make that women of zeal, too, like the G.O.P. V.P. candidate. Instructively, Brandeis happened to be a Jew, whose ethnic ancestry bore the brunt of centuries of Christian discrimination and repression that still goes on. Just check with Mel Gibson. Haven't we had enough of the "God-told-me-to-do-it" mentality of Bush and echoed by Palin in her "task-from-God" speech about the war in Iraq to her cult-like church? I've covered enough of that in earlier posts, but like Bush/Cheney too, she'd like to peddle/meddle her "well-meaning" ZEAL right into our very lives. After all she's an evangelical...by definition a proselytizer/dogmatizer. Even from her scant position of power in Alaska, she has pushed for prayer back in public schools, creationism back in science classes, and for a continuation of "faith-based" abstinence-only sex-ed health classes. Look where that last one got her daughter. And she wanted to BAN "un-Christian" books from the Wasilla public library.

I consider the so-called Christian Right (once repudiated by McCain himself as "agents of intolerance"--how's that for cynical flip-flop) a clear and present danger to our personal and political freedoms. Hell, and I approved that word, the second-place candidate in the G.O.P. primaries for President, Pastor Mike Huckabee, wanted to amend the Constitution to more "conform with God's word." Scary. Theocracy stalks. And no doubt the wannabe VP supports the up-dated FISA (but now she'll have to be in favor of the even more radical Bush/McCain version that was luckily defused in the compromise amendment that--full-disclosure alert--Obama misguidedly voted for. See post 7/18)--which allows unwarranted eavesdropping on American citizens, not just foreigners, using the internet.

With that, we're back to Brandeis, believe it or not. For in his dissenting opinion (excerpt above) to Olmstead v. U.S., he was writing against a 5-4 decision in favor of unwarranted (telephone) wiretapping. (This decision was later overruled by the same Supreme Court, and stayed that way till the FISA update reared its ugly head.) How prophetic was that?

Monday, September 15, 2008

#74 Monday Mourning--Manny Lazar and the South Shore

Or: Sunday's Worst and Best of the Week Reconsidered. The news last week (38 years late) was both bitter and sweet, no less so than ASTONISHING. I learned of the untimely and cosmically ironic/tragic end of Emanuel "Manny" Lazar, "Mr. Wee Folks," as the kids called him--murdered by a young black man (and gang-member) only a few years past wee-folk and potential-customer age (had he not been a newcomer) of the generous spirit he snuffed out in the victim's own eponymous toy store.

In her book, The Pied Piper of South Shore: Toys and Tragedy in Chicago (2005), his daughter (an unbeknownst-till-now schoolmate of mine at Horace Mann Elementary, two-years ahead and thus an eternity apart) Caryn Lazar Amster, mentions that in the immediate aftermath of the murder she could look out the front display window and see the usual "nose-prints" of the curious and now-anxious "wee folks" for maybe the very last time. Some years earlier, those nose-prints could easily have been those of my little sister and me. For, coincidentally, before I had even read the passage, my now-grown-up little sister reminded me by phone of how we used to wishfully "press our noses to the glass," when I'd "baby-sit" her through the neighborhood, and, by the way, always stop for a Green River fountain-drink at Lazar's Drug Store (a cousin) nearby.

And the memories keep flooding back, because, interestingly, when I thought about the great little-red-wagon event, it was pretty much in relation to the magical world of the Avalon Theater. These other memories have become refreshed only after the fact, so to speak. YES...it was in the Wee Folks Toys, Hobbies, Crafts, and Furniture shop that we got my Mysto Magic Set and the Mysto Chemistry Set that I mentioned in the Steve Martin post (8/8). YES...and my first Lionel electric train--these being, I've learned, the most popular products in the Lazar inventory. Mandy Patinkin, whose most famous film role has been Inigo "Prepare-To-Die" Montoya in the "Princess Bride" (how appropriate is that, I ask you)--got his start as one of the foremost collectors of Lionel trains in the country at Manny's store--in fact, he wrote the Foreword to the book.

So, even though I still can't quite conjure up a memory of his physical presence (remember, he was more like an apparition to me than anything else on that theater stage), Manny Lazar's influence on my formative years was considerable. As it was for so many other wee folks on Chicago's South Shore-- and ON the South Shore itself. From what I understand now, his murder became symbolic, the spirit was gone, and it seemed to hasten the demise of an already-declining area, which not long after surrendered to gangland hegemony and reverted to slums.

Ominously, Caryn nee' Lazar has never gone back. I also understand that these neighborhoods south of Hyde Park have gradually become "re-gentrified"--maybe as a result of Barack Obama's community-organizing efforts. I intend to return to some more of this memoirage later, but I wanted to ASAP--once I got the news--blogofficially pay my long-delayed respects and condolences to the family of the Pied Piper of the South Shore. Pax.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

#73 Sunday Sundries

Worst of the Week
  • Not so much Hurricane Ike himself/itself, but those incredible blockheads who refused to evacuate--why?: some said "pets" forcryingoutloud--thereby needlessly delaying and overtaxing legitimate rescue and recovery efforts.
  • Not so much the scurrility of the political discourse of late--the former can be kinda fun, and, anyway, be ultimately self-defeating--but the inanity of the scurrility. Positively jejune. "The lipstick is analogous to what?" "The pig to which?" "How does the pit-bull fit in?" "Or was it a Basset-hound?"
  • Not so much the high gas prices--we're gonna have those forever--but the mind-boggling, virtually instantaneous GOUGE...and pump-panic. Caused us to cancel a planned, relatively short trip, in hopes that things would at least stabilize soon.
Best of the Week
  • I'm groping for one here, but, alas, it's just been a bad week all around. Too much of Arnold's "darkling plain, where ignorant armies clash by night"...and by morning, noon, and all over the place, it seems. More light in the world next week perhaps. Lux Esto.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

#72 Saturday Matinee--"Before the Devil Knows You're Dead"

What a catchy title (ha)--I first tried to bring it up on the IMDB with "Until the Devil..." and of course it didn't work. A tangential, very un-mnemonic title like that can be a detriment for any movie, especially when it's only a very good film and not a box-office blockbuster that's on everybody's lips...like Fargo. On the other hand, a mediocre film can be elevated beyond its true worth on the coattails of a provocative title like When Harry Met Sally or Oh Brother, Where Art Thou--the latter not one of The Brothers' best. And speaking of the Coen boys (Mr. and Mrs. Francis McDormand, if you will), gotta wait on Netlix for their current version of OBWAT/Big Lebowski with Brad Somebody.

But hold on...Isn't BTDKYD a Coen Bros. job? If you sat down in your multiplex seat or slid in your Netflix disc without paying attention to the credits--you might think so. It's classic CB: semi-good but stupid people with ethically permeable epiderms, who get involved in willy-nilly cupidinous schemes that initially "won't hurt anybody" (think Fargo or the totally comedic Raising Arizona), but which pull everyone ineluctably into the vortex of Hell. But no, shockingly, this is the work of an 83-year-old Sidney Lumet. But he's a totally linear-plot man, you're thinking. Chronological. Procedural. His touchstone in this regard was his very first break-through, 12 Angry Men (1957): perfect linearity in time AND space. Never a deviation from the clock (in fact almost real-time), and hardly from the jury-room (two-minute opening in the courtroom and two-minute coda on the courthouse steps). His great ones from that point on follow that moment-to-moment, this-place-to-the-next template: Failsafe '64 (Fonda again and where the ticking nuclear time-bomb is tantamount to star-of-the-show), and the later films: Pawnbroker (almost all action in Rod Steiger's shop), Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon (two Pacinos), Verdict (with Newman and another of his half-dozen courtroom dramas stretching back to his TV Studio One days), and Murder on the Orient Express '74. Loved 'em all. After the flop of The Wiz '76, he made forgettable movies like...I forget. Yet can you believe...here he is over 30 years later doing good things again. (Gives us Geezers hope.)

But BTDetc is totally uncharacteristic of the best of Lumet, you say. It for fair BOUNCES US ABOUT in time and space, so unlike those earlier successes. Not quite. (However, make no mistake about it, Myriad Readers: despite a great plot, a lot of Marissa Tomei in the flesh, and another incredible performance by P. S. Hoffman--this film will stand or fall on how well you take to the time-bouncing.) Murder....etc. had flashbacks. The Poirot interrogation of the various suspects seemed naturally to the viewer to require them. Likewise, in another, earlier, under-appreciated Sean Connery collaboration, The Anderson Tapes '71, Lumet throws the whole movie into flashback via the device of audiotape replay. (Don't ask me to explain.) First comes the everything-goes-wrong Big Heist, then the playback of events leading up to it. Sound familiar? BTD is TAT all over again, though I haven't seen any other reviewers take notice. The difference--a big one--is that TAT's time-jumping had some justification, like that of the Poirot investigation in the Agatha Christie movie. The time and space dislocations were tied to plot. (The very best example of THAT is the recent Memento, where plot IS flashbacking.) Unfortunately, here in BTD it just makes you dizzy. No organic, common-sense reason to be bouncing us around. By all means, Mr. Lumet, begin with the spectacular, nerve-jangling heist-gone-terribly-wrong scene (it is beautifully done), but then let the flashback start ab initio and proceed therefrom in chronological fashion. Maybe in your "director's cut"? Golly Wiz, I think the film would double in quality. My grade: B-.

Friday, September 12, 2008

#71 Avalon--pt.3: The Little Red Wagon

Saturday mornings were the truly magical times at the Avalon, and it was on one of those mornings in 1952 that the resident Genie pulled a Radio Flyer out of thin air for this very young blogman right there on the very stage of the magical Avalon. "25 cents for 25 cartoons!"--shouted the TV and newspaper promos for the Balaban and Katz theaters (the former family also producing the fine character actor Bob Balaban, most notable lately in the Christopher Guest mock-movie ensemble, but also playing memorable roles from Jon Voight's homosexual "pickup" in Midnight Cowboy to Julia Louis-Dreyfus' frustrated, network-president suitor on Seinfeld--very recognizable, if you'll try to bring him to mind)--of which the Avalon was one among many B&K's in Chicago, including the eponymous one downtown in the "Loop." A shot of the Chicago Theater's huge marquee has always provided film-makers and documentarists a quick visual signal for "Hey, we're in Chicago now." As befitting, it was even grander than its neighborhood sisters, including even the Avalon, and often had the lock on truly first-first-run premieres, a week or two ahead of general distribution. This is why immediately upon finishing the original novel, Anatomy of a Murder, I couldn't wait. Up and out of the house and forty-five minutes by CTA bus...and "Elevated"...and subway (all for one dime)...until there I was in the around-the-block queue for the inaugural showing of the Jimmy Stewart filmic adaptation. Disappointed...but isn't that always the case when it's book-before-movie? AOAM got better with age, though, maybe mine.

But back to the Little Red Wagon--a small little story, too, but HUGE in memory, and, as it turns out, a story connected to a larger and larger one involving the entire South Shore in its final days, as we knew it. Anyway, arriving for the 10 o'clock cartoon extravaganza--and we're talkin' the nonpareil Warner-Bros. variety: nothin' but Bugs, Daffy, Porky, Elmer, and Pepe' le Peu--we pays our quarter, gets our ticket, and takes our seat for a couple or three hours of mesmerizing juvenalia that always ended too soon.

Then the drawing. Ticket numbers had to match maybe a half-dozen prizes, ascending in value from a yo-yo to a Schwinn. Didn't win the bike, but my number came up for the bright-red Radio Flyer. I was now that towheaded 9-year-old screaming "I got it! I won it!" over and over from the mezzanine. And "tow" I did for the 4 or 5 blocks home, and tow I did for my little sister till she didn't fit, and tow I did weekly for a pile of Southeast Economist's (a non-throwable-advertising-rag-and-free-to-every-home news-sheet) around my modest paper-route for several years. In fact, the thing never seemed to wear out--after many long years of use and repair, it was still around for garden-work at my parents' home in New Orleans, many miles and times away from its Chicago ground-zero advent.

But here's the interesting if tragic sidebar: the Genie who "materialized" that promotional wonder-wagon for me on the stage of the Avalon, and whose "Wee Folks Toys and Hobbies" was just up the street (and a regular hangout for little friends and relatives)--Emanuel "Manny" Lazar was shot and killed in a gang-related robbery...in his shop, in 1970...after doing what he was doing on that Saturday morning for 25 years. And I believe his/my Radio Flyer lived approximately that long, too. What a guy...and I learned about all of THIS just a couple of days ago, while researching some minor details about the Avalon and Stoney. Already now I've spoken with The Daughter, got her autographed book overnight, and will add more to this story later.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

#70 Thursday Thoughts

In no particular order...
  • I think I'm coming down with political paranoia. Anxiety verging on panic-attack precedes the TV remote-switch, the flip of the newspaper page, the click of the Drudge or HuffPost icon. They're out to get me. I don't know about all you Myriad Readers, but it's getting downright FRIGHTENING to tune in to the news lately. To tap into my last post for this analogy: I feel like I'm back in the Stoney, watching maybe Creature from...II, crouching/peeking through the seat-divide in front of me, heart-poundingly anticipating stunt-man Ricou Browning (later of Flipper fame) as the Amphibious Horror popping up yet again from the depths of the Black Lagoon to wreak havoc upon us all (especially the lovely Julie Adams). And when I knew it was just a split-second before the event--it was time to make my RUN...up that inclined aisle-way to the sanctuary of the lobby. Just for a minute or two till the danger was past. Meanwhile, I'd push those big, heavily-upholstered, swinging lobby-doors open at split-second intervals--just a slight, screen-illuminated SLIT--to make sure. Then return bravely to my seat. As for the political incarnation of the Black Lagoon: slimy, lizard-like creatures--corporeal and not, Republican and Democrat--are popping up from the depths by the split-second it seems: fully finned, gilled, webbed, be-clawed...and ready to terrorize the democratic process. And send me running to the lobby. Fill in the blanks.
  • One from Confucius: "In order to understand Death, you must first understand Life"--500 B.C. Maybe too big a leap, but I'm puzzled that Rapture-crazed evangelicals of the Sarah-Palin ilk bother to run for office, or even to vote...what with the End of the World just around the corner. To bring it about more quickly?
  • Peeve: Why can't TV and newspaper copy-writers get the spelling of "Whoops" vs. "Woops" (just an "oops" with a cute initial "w") RIGHT, when they mean one thing rather than the other? The former is a plural NOUN, beginning with a "breathy" wh-sound--an aspirated bi-labial phoneme (to get sexy about it)***--and meaning full-throated SHOUTING noises (or, more seriously, coughing ones, in the childhood disease), sounding like the word itself, as if coming from Arsenio Hall's studio-audiences of yore. The latter is almost a contronym in meaning: an Ejaculatory part-of-speech (to get even more sexier), beginning with the the UN-aspirated bi-labial, and signifying an inadvertent error, faux pas, screw-up, etc.--like the seemingly ubiquitous misspelling the word with an "h"when you don't mean shouting noises coming from Arsenio's audience. (***Lauren Bacall gives sort of a lesson in the aspirated bi-labial to an infatuated, soon-to-be-husband-in-real-life Bogie in "To Have and Have Not" 1944--Just whistle if there's anything you need [or some such]...Ya know how to WHISTLE doncha? Just put your lips together like this, and...blow.)

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

#69 Stoney/Avalon Theaters--pt. 2

Continuing from last post: once inside the sacred precincts of Avalon--ah, the magical name--the pint-sized votaries (whatever grown-ups were in attendance, if I recall correctly, would retreat to the two balconies for auditory safety) were served up the best of Hollywood, most always in double-feature form. Along with family/kiddie matinee-fare like Disney, Martin & Lewis, Francis the Talking Mule, your quarter-ticket offertory could expose you to the more edifying and prestigious High Noon, Ben Hur, Mister Roberts, African Queen, Shane, On the Waterfront, Picnic... to name a few of my favorites first seen at the Avalon, and which moreover wouldn't be available on premium cable or Netflix within the following few months, as they would be today. Had to see these classics then and there. I remember, indeed, that the advertising for D.W. Griffith's "Ten Commandments" scare-tactically warned that "This movie will never be shown on TV!" We believed him. (This was the period of all-out WAR between TV and the movie-people, who DID see their attendance numbers dropping.) But my goodness it was so CHEAP--in those good ol' days you could start at 10am and stay all day and into the night for the price of one ticket. No, they didn't hustle you out between shows.

Now if we wanted to see more dicey B through Z movie-fare we'd have to take the bus to the STONEY! This was the venue for great trash like Creature from the Black Lagoon I&II, Devil Girls from Mars, and the "best" of Ed Wood. The theater's plain, brick-and-mortar facade and warehouse interior suited its offerings--it had the look of one of those XXX movie-houses of the 70s and 80s. But wait--I've learned that it BECAME JUST THAT, sometime before it was demolished in the late 70s. But in my day it was a place to get scared stiff, so to speak. I think I ran to the lobby three or four times during the original "The Thing--from Another World," with James Arness as the Monster. And talk about cheap: under-12 at the Stoney was 15 cents, and your blogman could keep that price going till he was 15 or so. We had to pay our dime for the bus (transfer included) to get up to 69th and Stoney Island, and a dime back, but the thrill was worth the added expense (do the math). Because... get this: in addition to the scariest, first-run, double-feature trash of the 50s, the theater showed the very latest 30s and 40s cliff-hanging, action SERIALS, featuring the likes of Gene Autry, Buck Rogers, and Flash Gordon to keep you coming back for more...at the now late, lamented Stoney. And there will be one more installment of this exciting series, likewise.

Monday, September 8, 2008

#68 Monday Mourning--Avalon and Stoney Theaters

Only the Stoney is dead, but it's a good excuse to reminisce about my connection with the hey-day of Chicago movie temples, to some of which I made devoted offerings once-a-week or so as a callow youth. The Avalon in speciale. I mentioned this now-restored 1920s motion-picture palace in Saturday's post, and am drawn back because it had such a profound influence on my hard-wired devotion to the movies. And I mean deeply...comprehensively...well beyond film-buffery. I've seen just about all of 'em worth seeing, starting even before television reruns, when in the late '40s through the '50s, movies shared about equal billing with fledgling TV for our "silent generation's" viz-ed viewership. And a little kid with a good pair of legs or a dime for the bus and a quarter for the box office could see the best that Hollywood had to offer.

The Avalon was the "Queen of the South Shore" (Obama-country again) theater-wise, and only a few blocks from our apartment on Jeffery (and later our house on Chappel)--up past Horace Mann, my first grammar school...then left at Our Lady Of Peace (whose belfry was always visible from our 3rd story window) onto 79th St....then not quite to Sears (where my mother worked the jewelry counter for some years)...until finally there it was in all its so-called "Moorish Revival" glory...mosque-like turrets and all. My mother let me make this exotic journey alone when I was seven-ish with only the subsistence DOLLAR in my pocket to cover admission and concession (popcorn and Jujubes always). Thus was I treated once or even twice on any given weekend to the great movies of the fifties, most often matinee family-fare (though there were no restrictive ratings in those days), in first-run release.

The interior of the Avalon was no less grandiose than the name and the facade: winding spiral staircases, oriental rugs, tiled murals, grottoes, fountains, gigantic Wurlitzer organ and grand piano, faux be-jewelling everywhere, and glaring gargoyles on either side of the stage guarding the huge be-curtained screen (gone forever I guess is that show-time tradition of the slow and sweeping sideways furling of the curtain-layers, one at a time across the screen, till thinner and thinner and gone they finally let the full light of the movie's opening credits flood into the theater--what a rush). And the movies? More of this later.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

#67 Sunday Sundries

Worst of the Week
  • RNC in general. Tone. I don't think I'm being overly partisan here, but, from the excerpts I observed, the speeches, when they weren't larded with Republican platitudes (which one cannot overly condemn)--reeked of smug sarcasm. Why should should the drum-beat references to Obama's early work as a "community organizer" bring on the snarky giggles, as if an audience-prompter were flashed on. Well, I guess it was. The line was always delivered with the SMIRK signal--Giuliani's was the best and smarmiest. Must've learned it from you-know-who.
  • The Palin pick. Wow!--McCain and Company thought--a Christianist and a Feminist all in one! She was cynically chosen to appeal to undecided women and/or evangelicals--very dubious odds there--but she may appeal to the true idiots amongst them. Much more about her in a closer-to-home context later.
  • US Open tennis. Stupid seeding, bad theater. Why did we have to see at least one of the brilliant Williams-sisters inevitably eliminated--Little over Big as it turned out-- in the quarter-finals section of the draw? They both should have stayed in for another couple of rounds, leading perhaps to another exciting finale on the order of Wimbledon last.
Best of the Week
  • US Open tennis. As it turned out though, the sisters gave us a virtual finale, on the women's side. Two hard-fought, tie-breaker sets--7-6, 7-6 in favor of Serena--meaning (think about it) that they were exactly even in games, the margin of victory decided by only a couple of points in each of the tie-breaks. As for the actual final (delayed by OUR tropical storm Hanna) between Serena and Jelena?--the latter gave it a good shot, but she weren't no Venus. By the bye, Could all these girly-girly names get any prettier? Among other examples, the Russian Darina Safina came close to making the finals!
  • Hurricane-manque' Hanna. Lots of free moisture for a drought-ridden land. Minimal damage, but still a delight for the now-Gustav-crazed weather-guys.
  • GRANDPARENTS' DAY today, as if you Myriads weren't aware. I've got about half-a-dozen (grandkids, that is) and, in one of those cosmic synchronicities that delight us seemingly all the time--today is also the BIRTHDAY of one of my lovely daughters-in-law, Kim. She's been one of the donors, you know.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

#66 Saturday Matinee--"Eastern Promises"

Directed by David Cronenberg (2007)--courtesy of Netflix. Now, I had to be reminded when we watched his "History of Violence" (2005) that this was the guy who directed the great remake of the great "The Fly" (1958--"Help me! Help me!") with Jeff Goldbloom and Geena Davis some 20 years before HOV. What happened in between? Well, yeah, I guess he made some popular B-movie horror flicks (I think I saw '"Scanners") and had a "serious" failure with "M Butterfly." It appears, though, that only the last two movies have brought him back to form. But, unfortunately, they're one and the same movie. OK, not quite, but close. Consider: both are drenched in bloody murder and mayhem, of course; there's the Mafia (even more sinisterly clavern-like here by being and speaking-with-subtitles Russian in the London setting); there are the innocent family-people involuntarily entangled; and, reductio ad absurdum, we've got the SAME LEADING MAN--Viggo Mortensen (check-out the first syllable of his last name), giving an outstanding performance in both pictures, and nominated for an AA best actor for his work in EP. (First noticed him ten years ago in yet another remake, "Perfect Murder," an underrated redo--with Gwynneth Paltrow and the estimable and also-underrated Michael Douglas and lots of new twists--of Hitchcock's 1954 classic "Dial M for Murder" which I saw at the old Avalon Theater in Chicago in its original 3-D release, believe it or not, glasses and all. Viggo efflouresced as the supporting-role victim, this time, in the 1998 version.) And, bowing to the truth of the old cliche': his performance alone, in each case, is worth the ticket-price.

Anyway, resorting to my old academic/critical scale-of-value, I hereby give the higher grade of "B-" to HOV, and only a "C+ish" one to EP, if only because of that inevitable deja vue of the first movie interfering with the second (assuming you've already seen or heard about HOV)...and again: it gets the average-plus grade because I've always been a "hard grader/but fair," as my students used to say, and because, ultimately, unlike HOV, this movie ends with the love story unnecessarily and unsatisfyingly UNresolved. Yes, for all the his outrageous bloody action, Cronenberg gets my vote for anchoring both movies with audience-identifiable, romantic underplots. Viggo plays the good-guy/bad-guy "anti-hero" role in both, but there's a difference: in HOV his character was an actual bad guy before the movie begins, and he has to work through this inconvenient fact (with soul-searching and, yes, unbelievable violence) to get himself and wife and family back on track. Love Story resolved. But in EP, Viggo's bad-guy is a FAKE. Of course we suspected that the good-guy lurked under his murderous persona...but an unorganic, squeaky-clean one?! (No wonder Cronenberg begged the critics not to give away the ending, I hear.) He's an UNDERCOVER underworld bad-guy, finally becoming a "made man" by the Russian Vory V Zakone near the end of the story-arc. (Note: no problem with homages to Coppola and Scorsese here, but do I hear too many echoes of Mike Newell's "Donnie Brasco" in this movie?)

And apparently the script wants him to remain the quasi-KGB operative at movie's-end, for no good reason that I can see, since Viggo and Naomi Watts have obviously fallen in love...script-wise. Would Nickolai-the-spy really want to stay "in the cold" what with the now ready-made semi-Russian family of Anna and the formerly plot-crucial baby cavorting in the wings? I don't think it works. (Maybe I take too idealistically the supervenient--screw-the-details-- power of love.) However, based on the final shot, a shadow-saddened fade-out of the lone Nickolai, surely Cronenberg wants us to believe that his protagonist has made the WRONG choice ...for what that's worth. No fun ...sorry. EP is eminently watchable, though, if only for the "full-monty" fight-scene. Wait a minute ...is this really a chick-movie?

Friday, September 5, 2008

#65 RNC--Requiem for a Fallen Warrior

In the days and weeks and years before his speech last night, John McCain's thoughts must have been something like the following:

All right, I'm a genuine all-American hero--EVERYBODY agrees with that [
me too]. Why isn't that enough to be President? All that coinage I collected in Vietnam seems to have lost its currency since I cashed it in for the Senate. Lost its luster. The American people still owe me, though, because I can't really bring up my years in the Republican-controlled Congress, or my votes on the War, or domestic programs--we didn't HAVE any. Need to steer clear of that anyway, for fear of reminding people of the "Keating Five" (of which I was one) scandal and the billions-of-dollars S&L bust. Jimmy Carter, a usually well-meaning man and fellow navy-guy, said the other week that being a war-hero doesn't qualify one to be President. He's right, of course, despite what some of my supporters say, but it's all I got. OK: eight sentences for my 25 years in Washington, forty-three sentences for my 6 years in Vietnam. The rest, I'll tell my speech-writers, pad with Republican platitudes and promises, and fill in with FIGHT metaphors of one kind or another, because, you know...I'm a WARRIOR.

No, I didn't listen to the speech; read it instead. I don't blame him overmuch--surely he looks back on those POW days fondly, when his heroism was "innocent"... really...unsullied by the dross of cash-and-carry politics. But I guess he felt he had to try the hard-sell again. How much better would his speech have been (and I've given and judged not-a-few as a veteran Toastmaster) had he begun NOT with this:

I don't mind a good fight....had quite a few tough ones... and then go on about fighting for certain constituencies (Fight, fight, fight.... But how?) and later back again to his time in Vietnam--BUT RATHER with something like:

Look, I'm a fighter. A Vietnam vet. Former POW. You've all heard probably too much about all that. So let's put past history aside on this important night, and talk about the future. One thing is sure, though--put your minds at rest-- you know I'll wage HOLY WAR all the way to the White House, dammit! [cheers] But THEN...so empowered...it will be time to really DO THINGS for this country. Here are some of the foreign and domestic programs I intend to present to Congress...

Trouble is...he ain't got no programs to talk about, and he ain't got no Congress to give 'em to...anymore.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

#64 RNC--Bush/Katrina/Gustav

Running-mates abounding. The city of New Orleans was reluctantly "dredged up" to share the spotlight with the virtually washed-out hoo-hah in the Twin Cities, and it made me very angry...all over again. It's personal. N.O. became an adopted home town for our sons' grandparents from late sixties to early eighties, and was our perfect vacation venue once or twice a year. There is nothing quite like it for the Christmas holidays. Once over Lake Pontchartrain, it's summertime again, and one can walk free and sleeveless around the French Quarter, whose day-and-night delights are well enough known to anybody. (I'll just mention the following, for the kids' sake: we always made a stop at two ancient emporia--the magic store [shades of Steve Martin] on Canal, and the tin-soldier shop on Chartres.)

Fond memories, and, for a second time, they are sullied by Bush and Company. For McCain, of course, Gustav's destruction and body-count turned out to be too minimal for good theater, and to be even worse for McCain's keeping-the-White-House-at-a-distance strategy, because it allowed Bush to wedge himself in last night (he was originally cancelled altogether, I understand) for nine minutes of self-aggrandizing bullshit. (No, I didn't hear it--would you have expected me to watch?--but I read the transcript.) Reportedly, he was "furious" that a sitting President was accorded such pariah-like treatment by his own party, but he should have known that a lot of voters besides me would be "furious" at the bad memories he invoked of three years earlier. After Good Evening, it was the first thing out of his mouth: "As you know, my duties have me here in Washington tonight to oversee the Federal government's efforts to help citizens recover..."--and that was PRECISELY WHAT HE WAS NOT DOING during, or indeed well after Katrina hit in 2005. "Compassionate Conservatism," my ass. Katrina exposed Dubbya at his ego-centric best. No heart. I kept wishing fondly as we watched the tragedy unfold, that the flawed but big-hearted (and -brained) Bill Clinton could have somehow stepped in. And here was Bush back again somehow taking credit. You know what?--if McCain had won the White House starting in 2000 rather than Bush, even HE could have done better.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

#63 RNC: McCain/Palin/Gustav--A Wash

John McCain had his two surprise running-mates, Sarah and Gustav, on hand yesterday as the Convention almost got underway. The former had next-to-zero capital value, so he for sure had to capitalize on the latter. Problem: not enough dead bodies. Sangfroidly speaking, he just didn't have close to a Katrina-size disaster with which to show off his latent POW heroism. (I don't know...hopping in a boat looking for floaters in the bayou?--his team would have thought of something.) TV viewership was down to what one might have expected the Convention to be. Low. Not the minute-to-minute attention that Katrina commanded, where otherwise he might have had media exposure that even Convention coverage wouldn't have afforded.

It was a cynically grand-stand play, Plan-B-wise, but couldn't match Obama's 80,000 fans a week before--which, ironically, should have been the one RAINED OUT if a bunch of evangelical(=Republican) god-nuts had had their very public prayers answered...I kid you not. (They should've stuck to praying for lower gas prices, where they've obviously had more success with The Deity. What century is this again? Their public prayers for rain here in the drought-ridden Bible-Belt, on the other hand, may have a released a bit too much of His watery puissance--lots of flooding in NC and GA, and now some very moist hurricanes.)

Also not without some irony, McCain has chosen a wannabe VP with strong evangelical, creationism-in-science-class-prayer-in-school credentials. A mistake, because this is the ONLY constituency Gov. Palin will appeal to. Independent women-voters? Angry sisterhood-of-the-pant-suit Clintonites? No. Again, what was he thinking? Ms. Palin is not only anti-Roe-v-Wade; she's against abortion even in the case of rape or incest. Not so keen on contraception, either, it seems. Her teen-age daughter is out-of-wedlock pregnant. And here Palin may even lose the evangelicals. "Couldn't she have prayerfully controlled her daughter's hormones?...Didn't she enroll her daughter in the the Bush administration's faith-based abstinence-only program at school?..." you hear them asking. No doubt she did. Good luck. I wonder how her adamantine position on abortion might have shifted (or at least effected major soul-searching) if her daughter's pregnancy were NOT caused by the rather comfy-cozy, sort of keep-it-in-the-family, consensual, adolescent sex (as appears to be the case)? But rather, say, rape or incest?