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Sunday, November 19, 2017

Wonderstruck

I was a bit wonderstruck watching Wonderstruck, Todd Haynes' latest film. One will immediately make comparisons to Hugo, which is only right, since they are both based on books by Brian Selznick, who writes the screenplay here. They are both films that approach magic realism without quite getting there, and romanticize places--in Hugo it is the Paris train station, in Wonderstruck it is The American Museum of Natural History, or more precisely, museums in general.

Wonderstruck tells two parallel stories about deaf children on the loose in New York City. The earlier is about Rose (Millicent Simmonds), who lives in Hoboken in 1927. She idolizes a movie star, Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore) and sees that she is going to be appearing live so she hops on the ferry for her first visit across the Hudson. She finds Moore, and a bit of a twist is revealed, but then leaves and looks for her brother Walter, who works in the Natural History Museum and has authored a book, called Wonderstruck, about the history of museums.

The later story is of Ben (Oakes Fegley) in 1977, who has been orphaned by his mother's death in a car accident (she is played briefly and luminously by Michelle Williams). She has never told him about his father, which seems cruel. Nevertheless, after he loses his hearing while being on the phone in an electric storm (the rumors are true!) runs away to New York based on a clue that he finds tucked inside a book--you guessed it, the book written by Walter.

The momentum of the story is finding out how these stories will connect, which is the weakest part of the film--the story is predictable and very thin. Also, having two deaf characters requires a lot of writing, which I suppose works fine in a book but is awkward in a film.

On the plus side, and it's a big plus, is the look of the picture. The 1927 portion is especially fantastic, with costumes by Sandy Powell and stunning black and white photography by Ed Lachman. Watching Simmonds explore the city creates an almost vicarious feel (Simmonds is actually deaf, but has a face that would launch a thousand ships). Often scenes of her looking at something in the museum are cut with Fegley looking at the same thing, still there after fifty years. His segment, in which New York was in not such a great shape (although I still think the Port Authority looks like that now) are in a kind of uncompromising color, but he finds a friend whose father works for the museum, and they hide out there in the night (sadly, nothing comes to life).

The ending, which winds up at the site of the World's Fair in Queens, isn't as poignant as it thinks it is (it involves a true life event that I won't spoil here, but if you know your New York history you'll figure it out). When Moore appears as another character in Ben's segment, it doesn't take a genius to put two and two together.

See Wonderstruck for the visuals, or for the nostalgia for old New York. Try to overlook the simplicity of the story.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

The Haunting

Since Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House is considered the best haunted house novel of all time, it follows that the film made of it, The Haunting, from 1963, is considered the best haunted house film (there was a remake, in 1999, which was roundly panned, though). I've seen a lot of ghost movies, and they are almost always bad, because either the ghost isn't real (the Scooby Doo syndrome) or because the makers of the film don't understand where fear comes from. The Haunting is actually somewhat meta in that it discusses where fear comes from: the unknown.

The film is fairly faithful to the book, with one great exception. A studier of the paranormal (Richard Johnson) has rented Hill House, which has a reputation of being haunted. He invites people who have had paranormal experiences to join him, but only two accept. One is Eleanor (Julie Harris), a repressed woman who has spent her entire adult life caring for her invalid mother and is thrilled to be invited anywhere. The other is Theodora (Claire Bloom) the bohemian and possibly lesbian woman who has a knack for clairvoyance. The fourth member of the party is Russ Tamblyn, a representative of the owners, who stands to inherit the property.

The Haunting's director is Robert Wise, who is known for musicals but this is some dandy direction. For one thing, there are no ghosts seen--everything is either heard or, possibly, imagined. Poundings on the walls, cold spots (which are tough to represent visually, but Wise does it), doors closing by themselves, long creepy hallways, all manage to scare the bejeesus out of the viewer. Wise used many tricks, such as wide-angle lenses and dutch angles, to create the feeling of dread. The exterior of the house, which is a placed called Effington Hall, was filmed with infrared to bring out the crevices in the stone.

The screenplay is by Nelson Gidding, who had the idea to turn it into a metaphor. It would actually be Eleanor's breakdown, which is in a hospital, but she creates the haunted house in her mind. Jackson thought that would be a fine idea, but she assured Giddings that the book had real ghosts in it, so they stayed. Insread Harris is slowly consumed by the house--it's the structure itself that is the supernatural entity, hungry for a soul.

There are some minor changes that I scratch my head about: Johnson's character was named Montagu in the book, but is Markway here. Eleanor's last name was changed from Vance to Lance. Tamblyn's character Luke is much more urbane in the book--Tamblyn plays him as a spoiled, unpleasant brat, while Luke is a bon vivant in the book. The biggest change is the character of Johnson's wife, played by Lois Maxwell (Miss Moneypenny, of course). In the book she is a fellow spiritual investigator, but here she is a confirmed skeptic (you wonder how the two ever got married).

The Haunting is a great example of how not showing the threat is better, which was a trick of Val Lewton's (in such movies as Cat People) all the way up to Jaws (when Spielberg, by necessity, didn't show the shark until halfway through the movie).  The result is one of the scariest movies I've ever seen. Fright and gore are two different things, and The Haunting is a fright, with no gore. They don't make them like this any more.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas

I mentioned some six years ago that I thought that A Charlie Brown Christmas and Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas were the best Christmas specials ever made and I stick to that. Today, looking for something to show my students on the day before Thanksgiving break (we get a whole week off, hallelujah!) I happily found that the uncut Grinch, without commercials, is available for free on Vimeo, so I saw it twice today.

Like A Charlie Brown Christmas, which was produced the year before, the Grinch, debuting in 1966, was a testament to the anti-commercialization of Christmas. Dr. Seuss published the book in 1957, and I was interested to read that the Grinch may have been based on darker aspects of his personality. When the Grinch says he has been putting up with Christmas for 53 years, that's how old Seuss was when he wrote the book.

The story takes place in Whoville (which was also in Horton Hears a Who!) and Mount Crumpit, the jagged peak where the Grinch lives. He's a green humanoid feature with an extremely expressive face (the work here by director Chuck Jones is exquisite) who just flat out hates Christmas, mostly because of the noise, as it seems that most Who children receive some kind of musical instrument as presents.

So the Grinch and his unloved but loyal dog Max steal Christmas--they bundle up all the toys, decorations, food (even the last can of Who Hash), and other accoutrements of the holiday. The Grinch expects that he will hear wailing and moaning, but when he hears the holiday music just the same, he comes to an understanding that Christmas is not just gifts and trees and ornaments, but something more important.

Unlike Charlie Brown, the Grinch special never mentions Christ, but does represent the star as it rises from the singing Whos into the sky. A grumpy atheist such as myself, who still loves Christmas, sees this as perfectly fine, a message that states that Christmas is just a reminder that we should all love each other and that our lives are worth more than the latest gadget or video game that we find under the tree. In both viewings today, adding to the total of times I've seen it to at least twenty or more, I got a little lump in my throat at the end. I especially like when Cindy Lou Who gives Max, who still has a deer horn tied to his head, a slice of roast beast.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas has many pleasures and many mysteries. For one, I enjoy the glee in which the Grinch conducts his burglaries. He shoots ornaments like billiard balls, and operates a toy train as it disappears into one of his bags. He takes ice cubes, film out of a camera, and the log for the fire. Has their ever been a depiction of someone having so much fun committing a crime?

But then his transformation, when his heart grows two sizes and he is able to lift the sleigh over his head like Superman, is also brilliant. Poor Max, loyal to the end, tries to keep the sleigh from tipping over the mountaintop by grabbing hold of the Grinch's St. Nick jacket with his teeth.

Questions for the adult viewer abound. We get to see a bit of the interior of the Grinch's cave. He seems handy--he has a sewing machine and knows how to use it, and his bed looks comfy. How does he make a living? Access to the cave is for daredevils only, so it is unlikely he commutes, and this was before the Internet. Of course, he isn't human (his only clothes are shoes, which are too tight) so perhaps his needs are different.

The Whos aren't exactly human, either. Cindy Lou (voiced by the late great June Foray) has antennae sticking out of her head. When she interrupts the Grinch's larceny he gets her a drink of water,which must be an homage to the burglar in the Little Rascals short in which Spanky thinks he's Santa and says, "Hey Santy, can I have a drink of water?"

The choice to have Boris Karloff narrate and do the voice of the Grinch was perfect. The singer of "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch," was the brilliantly named Thurl Ravenscroft, who was also the voice of Tony the Tiger. Karloff won a Grammy for the record album, the only award he ever won.

I have never seen the feature film starring Jim Carrey--what's the point, when the perfect version already exists? I am disappointed to see they're doing it again, this time with Benedict Cumberbatch. It will be released next year, but I will probably avoid it, and watch this timeless cartoon instead.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

A Gambler's Anatomy

I've read almost all of Jonathan Lethem's novels and they are different from each other, and they are all different from just about any other novels. A detective with Tourette's Syndrome. A detective who is a kangaroo. A city stalked by a giant tiger. And now a novel about a professional backgammon player who has facial surgery. I'm pretty sure that's a first.

A Gambler's Anatomy is the story of Alexander Bruno, who makes his living fleecing rich men at backgammon. As the book begins he has just fled Singapore, after losing all his sponsor's money. He has a big match in Germany, and is way ahead when he starts losing. Is he being hustled? He ends up passing out and wakes up in a hospital, where he is told he has a tumor right behind his eyes. He's off to Berkeley, his hometown, for specialized surgery performed by a surgeon who likes to have Jimi Hendrix music pumped into the operating room. It's all being paid for by a high school acquaintance, who happens to be a horrible person who owns most of the businesses on a hip street, along with a hamburger joint (make that slider joint) where the cook philosophizes for those in line.

Suffice it to say that A Gambler's Anatomy is something like a shaggy dog story. I don't how Lethem works, and it seems like he's just making this up as he goes along, but it is nonetheless enjoyable. The plot, naturally, teeters a bit, but the prose he uses is often funny and/or beautiful, as this man who enjoys a somewhat teetering existence is brought down low and then regains some of his dignity.

"Bruno had for his entire life associated backgammon with candor, the dice not determining fate so much as revealing character," Lethem writes. Much is spoken of Bruno, but it seems the more is said the less one knows. Backgammon is an interesting choice of games, because unlike chess, it relies so much on luck. "Bruno had always loathed chess for its ironclad hierarchies and the bullying invulnerability of its champions, their belief that they stood outside fate." The trick to enjoying this novel is to realize that Bruno is not sympathetic in any way. He endures a lot of hardship in the book, such as basically having his face taken off and put back on, and being reduced to living off the largess of a man he despises, but we are interested nonetheless.

That other character is Keith Skolarsky, schoolmate of Bruno's who is described as a "toad of a man." "The American, who had a posture like a question mark, was dressed in layers of baggy, unwashed black polyester, too tight on his paunch, and a windbreaker over black jeans and worn running shoes—a costume exhumed from some Dungeons & Dragons basement." But he's rich, and for some reason pays for Bruno's expenses. He has a voluptuous girlfriend, who Bruno is drawn to. Skolarsky, it turns out, isn't exactly a humanitarian, and Bruno will end up feeling imprisoned by him. Lethem describes Skolarsky's office as "worse than ill-furnished and generic. It was like something an unmarried super might throw together at the back of a boiler room, a refuge whose walls investigators would later pry apart in search of hidden bodies."

In addition, there are other characters of note, such as Garris Plybon, the philosopher king of Kropotnik's, the slider joint which competes with Skolarsky's Zombie Burger, even though Skolarsky owns both of them, and Madchen, a German woman whom Bruno becomes enamored with--the first time he sees her she is wearing a zippered mask and nothing below the waist, serving sandwiches at the German backgammon player's house.

A Gambler's Anatomy is a wonder of imagination and turns of phrase, and though the plot doesn't really hang together and doesn't so much end as stop, I enjoyed it because I just dig Jonathan Lethem. If you do, too, you should enjoy it also.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Bobby Doerr

Bobby Doerr died yesterday at age 99. That's a name now known to only the most hard-core baseball fans--he played with the Red Sox through the 1940s, along with Ted Williams, and was a gifted second-baseman, and a pretty good hitter. He was also, until he died, the oldest member of the Hall of Fame (he was inducted in 1986).

Heck, he was the oldest Major League player, period. Others have lived longer, but at the moment he was the oldest. He was the last player living who played in the 1930s (there are two others, not in the Hall of Fame, who are still alive after playing before World War II).

Of course I never saw Bobby Doerr play, but the evidence is clear that he was a great player. His batting stats were impressive but not super-duper: he hit .300 seven times, and batted in over 100 six times. But his defense at second base is what earned him the plaque in Cooperstown. He was said to have "soft hands," which is compliment for a second baseman, in that they soak up balls and rarely muff them. In fact, he set records for consecutive chances and games without an error.

In case you're wondering, the new oldest Hall of Famer is Red Schoendienst, another second-baseman with soft hands. In second place is Tommy LaSorda, the Dodger manager, who just turned 90, followed by Whitey Ford at 89. Baseball players are, on the average, very long-lived, much longer than football or basketball players. I'm sure it's because they do not take repeated blows to the head, and they are not freakishly tall, which tends to be a life shortener.

The Red Sox of those years were notoriously snake-bit, just as they would be for another sixty years. They came closest in 1946, when they made the World Series (their first since 1918) and lost to the Cardinals in seven games. The winning run for the Cards in game seven came when Enos Slaughter scored from first base on a single. Bosox shortstop Johnny Pesky momentarily held the ball to allow Slaughter to score. The Red Sox wouldn't be back to the World Series until 1967, and wouldn't win one until 2004. They've won twice since then, and Bobby Doerr was around to see it.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Sweet Home Alabama

Alabama is the first state alphabetically, but last in common sense and decency. Usually Mississippi is the anointed one when it comes to everything that can be wrong about a state, but they haven't (yet) nominated a pedophile to be a United States senator.

Of course, I mean alleged, but let's face it, as the winds of change blow people like Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, and Louis C.K. into the ash heap of history, why not Roy Moore, a man who took the stage after his nomination with a little gun and a big cowboy hat? This is the same man who has been removed from the Supreme Court of Alabama--twice!--for violating Federal law. He is part of a new and ugly trend of judges who deem that "God's law" supersedes man's law, which would make him a fine religious nut but not a judge or a senator.

Moore is now running in a special election for an Alabama senate seat that has been tainted all along. It belonged to Jefferson Sessions, who was denied a Federal judgeship for being racist, so ran for the Senate and won. He is now Donald Trump's toady Attorney General, at least until he is indicted. The governor of Alabama at the time, Robert Bentley, was being investigated for a sex scandal. He was entitled to replace Sessions, and chose Luther Strange, the Attorney General of the state, who was investigating Bentley. Strange subsequently lost the primary for the special election, perhaps because he was not crazy enough, which Moore is.

Now Moore has been accused by five women who, as teenagers, were accosted by him. The most serious charge seems to be by a once fourteen-year-old girl who Moore "dated" while in his 30s. There has been the usual hand-wringing by the far right, such as the old "why did they wait so long" claims, as if they know how traumatic it is to be sexually molested by someone. There has also been incredibly distasteful and offensive support of Moore. Sean Hannity, Fox New's resident blockhead, said that whatever they had was "consensual," seeming to forget that fourteen is under the age of consent and therefore can not legally be consensual no matter how much she wanted it, which she didn't. The prize for worst comparison went to Alabama state auditor Jim Ziegler, who compared Moore to Joseph, because of course Joseph was older than Mary, who was a teen. The last refuge of scoundrels is not patriotism, as Oscar Wilde said, but using the Bible to justify pedophilia.

Moore denies all charges, and said he didn't even know the women, which was easily disproved. However, sensing danger, much of the Republican establishment is calling for Moore to quit the race. They are afraid that Doug Jones, the perfectly reasonable Democratic candidate (he prosecuted the bombers in the "four little girls" bombings) might win. Their problem is that Alabama law states that it is too late for the candidate to be replaced, so if he does win, Jones would win by default. Some are calling for Strange to run as a write-in candidate, but that would also probably hand the seat to Jones. The possibility that Alabama, which hasn't had a Democratic senator in over twenty years, might turn blue is scintillating. It will be a tough go for Jones, though, as Alabama voters may still want a pedophile over a Democrat.

There are all sorts of ludicrous things surrounding this media circus. Keurig, a maker of coffee machines, dropped out as a sponsor of Hannity's show. In response, there has been a call to boycott Keurig, for boycotting a man who supported a child molester. Right-wing nuts have been destroying their Keurig coffee makers, which they have already purchased! A man was on CNN today comparing the act of sexual abuse of a minor to stealing a lawnmower. It looks like his hair was cut with a lawnmower.

The election is December 12th. Mitch McConnell, who like a broken clock is right at least twice a day, came out today and again called for Moore to drop out, saying he believed the women. But maybe he doesn't have to. An op-ed in the New York Times today said that even if Moore is elected, the Senate can refuse to seat him. That's a ticklish precedent to set, but would be funny. If so, new governor Kay Ivy would call another special election. Maybe Moore would run for it.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

The Battle of Algiers

Probably the most famous film to be screened at the 1967 New York Film Festival was The Battle of Algiers, a documentary-style drama by Gillo Pontecorvo that detailed the uprising by Algerians to earn independence from France. It is cited as one of the best films to depict guerrilla warfare, and I can't disagree, as there are many shots of hand-held cameras in the middle of turmoil, so it feels like you're right in the middle of it.

The film is framed as a flashback, as the French military has traced down the last of the FLN, the revolutionary group. He is played by Brahim Haggiag, who is first seen playing three-card monte in the street but becomes radicalized in prison (he watches a man being guillotined in the prison yard). He is recruited by the FLN, assigned to kill a policeman, but he is given a gun with no bullets, to test his loyalty.

The head man is played by Saadi Yacef, who was an actual FLN leader and is now an Algerian senator. The other key cast member is the commander of the French military, played by Jean Martin as a compassionate yet seriously competent man. He was the only professional actor used.

In light of what Arab terrorism is like today, this film may make the modern viewer, especially Islamophobes, uneasy, because essentially the Algerians are the good guys. Americans always tend to root for countries who want to break free the shackles of colonialism. It was the 1950s--why should they be ruled by another country? Aside from one man yelling "Allah Akbar!" there is no real Islamic content, though. The French are depicted as villainous, using torture techniques such as water boarding, blowtorches, and electrocution to get information. Not surprisingly, the film was banned in France for five years.

The Battle of Algiers also highlights three women who are part of the FLN. They hide behind burqas, or dress is Western style, all dolled up, to get past security checkpoints. A scene in which two bombs in restaurants go off, placed by the women, plus another at a race track, are played very realistically and raise the question--is the loss of innocent life worth independence? A character says that violence never wins freedom--it's the people that do.

Algeria finally won independence from France in 1962, as the film tells us at the tend. It was a bloody path.