Archive for April, 2011


April 28, 2011

Y’know, I complain about everything because complaining suits me, and I’m alienated from most everything because that’s my nature. But it’s a frivolous and tiresome way to be, considering I’m a white guy in America in undeserved good health. I’ve seen and done a lot of interesting things, and right now, when loads of smarter and better educated people than me are barely making ends meet (or aren’t making them meet at all), I’ve got this cushy-ass office job that pays me more than a single guy needs to basically come in here and sit. But still, it’s all too easy to get caught up in my own shit and exaggerate the things I never had, and all that bonny crap…

What brings it to mind, almost every day, is this old guy who I always see during my last smoke break. He’s the busboy at the Chinese deli downstairs, and he’s gotta be 60 or 65 years old. He’s as frail as a bird, with thin little arms that look like they’re made out of balsa-wood, and he has a long sallow unhappy-looking face. He’s always out of breath because of his job, so I can see he has only a couple or three teeth in his mouth, but even if he had a full set of choppers he’d still be a homely little sonofabitch by our culture’s prevailing standards. I’m pretty sure he doesn’t speak English—he’s only grunted when I’ve said hello though I’ve heard him rattle on in Chinese with his coworkers. I never see him when he’s not working—he’s always straightening up the tables or stocking the cooler—and come 4:15 he has to stack up the aluminum tables and chairs on the patio, and then he drags that day’s garbage down the street and around the corner to the whole other side of the building, where the dumpsters are hidden. It takes him two trips, hauling these giant plastic trash cans brimming with refuse almost a full city block, while all the office workers with their nice clothes and laptops and gym bags make sure to dance their way around him.

I can’t blame them, I’d do the same thing—treat him like a pothole and jump right past him—if he ever got in between me and the subway when I was getting off work. But when you observe his routine day after day for a while, it’s impossible not to wonder how he views the situation. There’s an art academy a couple blocks south of here, and around this time of day a stream of students comes trickling down this way heading to Market Street, and lot of ’em are these 20-something chickadees who’re all just cute as a button. Is the busboy like me? Does he check the young girls out, too, even resignedly and from a distance? Does he even notice the office workers? Does he resent their jumping past him, or wonder why it is they get the laptops and nice suits while he has to haul the goddam garbage down the street and get in everybody’s way? Is he even half as bitter or discouraged as I’d be in his place?

At one point in Junior Bonner Steve McQueen says about his second-place lot in life “Someone has to hold the horses”, and the only thing that makes the thought bearable is the fact that most of life’s horse-holders are out of our sight, tucked away somewhere that lets us promise ourselves they aren’t too miserable or too tuckered out from the day to enjoy their loved ones, that something in their lives makes their existence worth the unholy grind. Carlos, the guy who works in the taquería by my house, told me once that he makes so many burritos he wakes up in the middle of the night to find his fingers making a rolling motion. Once I had a job I used to dream about, too, but I was fresh out of high-school then, with my whole wide life before me; Carlos is a full-grown man with a son already in middle-school. If I sometimes resent the distance between myself and Brad Pitt, what the hell must Carlos feel? And what goes through Brad Pitt’s mind when he sees someone like the Chinese busboy? Success at that level must come with its own level of dread, and I’m not saying that just because I hope it does.

Way Down, Below the Ocean

April 26, 2011

Man, it’s a beautiful day out there—one of those days I have to actively resist the urge to chuck it all and just take off, leave everything behind, and just go. It’s the first real spring day we’ve had, nice enough that I sat at home in my shorts for the longest time this morning, smoking cigarettes and just staring out the window even though it was sure to make me late. When I finally got moving I hailed a cab and the driver, a guy from Thailand if I had to guess, was playing Bach loud enough I had to yell out “Second and Folsom!” at him before I drifted off in the back seat. An Asian guy playing Western classical music while zipping me along in his cab through San Francisco…Well, that’s the 21st Century if anything is, but I’m tired of that, too. From the corner where my office is you can look down Second Street and catch a glimpse of the Bay reaching over to Oakland, with one toe-end of Treasure Island just jutting into the picture, and the fact that the view is blinkered on either side by a canyon of blank-eyed office buildings only makes it that much more like the end-point of a dream. That’s when that verse from “Henry’s Understanding” came to me:

& horribly, unlike Bach, it occurred to me
that one night, instead of warm pajamas,
I’d take off all my clothes
& cross the damp cold lawn & down the bluff
into the terrible water & walk forever
under it out toward the island.

It’s not like that, I don’t work like that, I know that the islands and Bach are just a coincidence, but I do need to get away, in some damn way or other. The fucking situation is wearing me down, and the dribs and drabs of other people’s bad news keep rolling in and bugging me, too. The way I’m feeling right now I don’t even need a car. I’d be happy to grab a duffel-bag stuffed with a couple of shirts and whatever book I’m reading, and make it out to some godforsaken stretch of highway where I’d just sit down, have a smoke and take a good, long look around me. It could be anywhere, really, I don’t care, just so long as the horizon gets out of my face for a while.  Y’know, I’m very nearly burned out here—

good stuff

April 25, 2011

A conversation between Cormac McCarthy, Werner Herzog and Lawrence Krauss that lives up to its billing.

Iamb, I Said #5

April 23, 2011

Ah, Are You Digging on My Grave?

“Ah, are you digging on my grave
My loved one?—planting rue?”
—“No, yesterday he went to wed
One of the brightest wealth has bred.
‘It cannot hurt her now,’ he said,
‘That I should not be true.’”

“Then who is digging on my grave?
My nearest dearest kin?”
—“Ah, no; they sit and think, ‘What use!
What good will planting flowers produce?
No tendance of her mound can loose
Her spirit from Death’s gin.’”

“But some one digs upon my grave?
My enemy?—prodding sly?”
—“Nay: when she heard you had passed the Gate
That shuts on all flesh soon or late,
She thought you no more worth her hate,
And cares not where you lie.”

“Then, who is digging on my grave?
Say—since I have not guessed!”
—“O it is I, my mistress dear,
Your little dog, who still lives near,
And much I hope my movements here
Have not disturbed your rest.”

“Ah yes! You dig upon my grave . . .
Why flashed it not on me
That one true heart was left behind!
What feeling do we ever find
To equal among human kind
A dog’s fidelity!”

“Mistress, I dug upon your grave
To bury a bone, in case
I should be hungry near this spot
When passing on my daily trot.
I am sorry, but I quite forgot
It was your resting-place.”

Thomas Hardy

“There’s a place for us…”

April 22, 2011

When I was compiling that list of Bogie and other depressing old man losers in my last post, I totally forgot to mention the very model of a modern middle-aged muddler. Bill Murray would’ve come to mind eventually just because he always does, but I was spurred to think of him last night thanks to Somewhere, Sofia Coppola’s remake of Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation.  By the way, movies blur together pretty badly for me nowadays so I made this little chart to keep those two straight in my mind:

                                             Lost in Trans.     Somewhere

Spectacularly pointless pole-dancing scenes:      0                 2

Fresh send-ups of film industry figures:          4                 0                                        0

Shots that go on way too long:                    0                144

Endings that leave you wondering where in
the hell this guy thinks he’s going:              0                 1

On-screen relationships that make it clear
Sofia is still working out some issues
with her dad:                                     1                 1

“I Can’t Give You Anything But Love”: Bad Bets & Old-Timey Titty Bars

April 21, 2011

I guess it was last Saturday night when I decided to take a break from Berlin Alexanderplatz and pop in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie—something I’ve been meaning to do for years. I hadn’t seen it since ’76, when I made it to the theater in time to see the original 135-minute cut that performed a very public belly-flop before it was withdrawn for recutting. That bit of alacrity on my part was mostly due to A Woman Under the Influence, a movie which—despite it being the definition of “emotionally exhausting”—thrilled me so much I saw it four or five times during its theatrical run. Lots of movies pull me back to them time and again, but A Woman cast a spell on me: when I came out of the theater the last couple of times I saw it, I felt pressed to literally express my appreciation to Cassavetes, Rowlands, and Falk, to the point that it seemed a part of the movie’s process. (I could be like that back then. The second time I saw Apocalypse Now, I was ready to quit my cushy oil-industry job and join the rebels in El Salvador. Now I’m just glad it was a Saturday night and the acid wore off before I did anything stupid.)

Chinese Bookie was a different story. When it was over I not only didn’t feel like wiring my thanks to John Cassavetes, I barely spoke to my buddy on the ride home. It’s not a movie that jazzes you up that way. When we first meet the world-class small-timer Cosmo Vitelli (that name alone may be my favorite thing in the movie), he’s just paid off his debt to a loan shark, and to celebrate he goes out for a night of gambling; then, when he loses his shirt again, he’s ordered to whack a rival mobster to rub out his debt. Cosmo makes his living from his L.A. nightclub—the Crazy Horse West—which is a hybrid affair, a topless bar dressed up as a cabaret club, although how it survives is a mystery: though it’s often packed, it’s also often empty, and even when it is packed the customers are unhappy with the show.

Clubs like Crazy Horse West are harder to find than Route 66 today, but when I was of titty-bar-going age a club very much like Cosmo’s place could be found on Market Square in downtown Houston. At some point in its checkered past the Moulin Rouge had probably offered entertainment that was both reputable and actually entertaining, but I only knew it as a rundown two-story brick theater whose roof was topped by a crumbling Dutch windmill that tilted to one side like a sad, dilapidated hat. The inside resembled a cavernous old barn, with several small tables and chairs crowded around a felt-topped stage, and the blinding white spotlights filtered through the strata of cigarette smoke before leaching away to darkness beyond the corners of the dance floor. The place was strung with tinsel and mirrors and threadbare velvet curtains, and white trellises curled with plastic ivy vines reached up to the darkened balcony that ran around the top of the hall, while some large planter boxes covered the floor in an irregular enough pattern that customers navigating their way to their seats regularly barked their shins on them.

Contra the usual strip-club, most of the patrons were as old as I am now, maybe even older. It was a mixed crowd, with a surprising number of women, by no means all of them hookers; even stranger, everyone dressed for the occasion, and they all behaved as if they were attending a real stage show, something in Vegas maybe. The thing is, the Moulin Rouge’s performers were barely worth putting your pants on. They were all on the order of off-key barbershop quartets, bad magic acts, and underpopulated Dixieland jazz bands—there was even one guy who’d climb onstage and spell out words fed to him by the audience. After the night’s straight act had finished, the announcer—powder-blue tuxedo, coiffed gray hair—would climb onto the stage and make a great to-do about whichever stripper was getting ready to come out next, trying to build anticipation for her by not shutting up about how great she was. Then, after an eternity, she’d finally come out, and the real show would begin…I remember one woman, 50 years old if she was a day, who appeared in a blonde beehive wig and backless blue sequined dress. She simply walked around the stage in her heels while Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is?” played on the PA system, slowly untying the strings around her neck and finally peeling the front of her dress down to her waist. Then she stripped off one of her elbow-gloves and methodically worked it around her neck like a snake until its fingers were spread across her left breast, and she looked down at the glove in coy surprise before shooting a saucy Oh, my! smile at the front row, where a line of tired old men stared back at her.

I can see now why I felt so flat that night in 1976: Chinese Bookie is one jammed-up movie. Cassavetes’ juices just aren’t flowing in moments like that cheesy phone call about “the Paris number” while other long passages—Exhibit A: the gangsters’ double-cross—burn a big fat hole in the screen. You can read Cosmo’s hopes for Crazy Horse West as a metaphor for artistic passion and commercial degradation, and while the idea that Cosmo’s headliner, the third-rate entertainer known as  “Mr. Sophistication”, is a stand-in for Cassavetes’ actors (or himself) is a tempting (if unflattering) one, it doesn’t explain why, whenever this important character opens his mouth, such boring things have to come out of it. Chinese Bookie might make a more resonant character study if Cosmo had even a teaspoon of talent, but instead he’s a clod whom we happen to catch just as he’s committing the last in what is undoubtedly a long line of fuck-ups. And what a clod he is: he fumbles the job when he tries to pin a corsage on his date’s dress, and even the stupidest of his strippers is turned off by his bush-league trumpeting of Dom Pérignon as “The best!” The Killing of a Chinese Bookie has other problems—a cookie-cutter shootout, a stiffly symbolic gunshot wound, and the racially awed shots of Cosmo’s black girlfriend. And while Ben Gazzara could ooze middle-aged defeatism like he invented the stuff, Bogart, Holden, Brando, Finney, and any number of unsung noir actors did, too, only their movies used disillusionment as a taking-off point—not the final destination.

With the kinks worked out of it Pat Garret & Billy the Kid might’ve been Sam Peckinpah’s greatest masterpiece, but fixing all of Chinese Bookie’s problems might still leave a movie that’s more fun to think about than it is to actually watch. Yet in 35 years I never did shake its sour morning-after vibe, and there’s something to be said for that. Douglas Sirk once said that you can’t make a movie about things but only with them, and in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie Cassavetes draws a picture of oppressiveness with little more than a rumpled tux and a bagful of hamburgers. That surely counts for something; I’m just not convinced how much.

Iamb, I Said #4

April 15, 2011

To Elsie

The pure products of America
go crazy—
mountain folk from Kentucky

or the ribbed north end of
with its isolate lakes and

valleys, its deaf-mutes, thieves
old names
and promiscuity between

devil-may-care men who have taken
to railroading
out of sheer lust of adventure—

and young slatterns, bathed
in filth
from Monday to Saturday

to be tricked out that night
with gauds
from imaginations which have no

peasant traditions to give them
but flutter and flaunt

sheer rags—succumbing without
save numbed terror

under some hedge of choke-cherry
or viburnum—
which they cannot express—

Unless it be that marriage
with a dash of Indian blood

will throw up a girl so desolate
so hemmed round
with disease or murder

that she’ll be rescued by an
reared by the state and

sent out at fifteen to work in
some hard-pressed
house in the suburbs—

some doctor’s family, some Elsie—
voluptuous water
expressing with broken

brain the truth about us—
her great
ungainly hips and flopping breasts

addressed to cheap
and rich young men with fine eyes

as if the earth under our feet
an excrement of some sky

and we degraded prisoners
to hunger until we eat filth

while the imagination strains
after deer
going by fields of goldenrod in

the stifling heat of September
it seems to destroy us

It is only in isolate flecks that
is given off

No one
to witness
and adjust, no one to drive the car

William Carlos Williams

“Saint Jack” (1979)

April 14, 2011

A not unsung, but barely sung, Peter Bogdanovich movie, taken from Paul Theroux’s novel and shot by Robby Müller in the streets and bars of 1970s Singapore, before it got Times Squareified. That sweaty, tawdry atmosphere is one of its long suits, as is Ben Gazzara’s technique-free performance as a hustling ex-pat pimp with a yen to operate his own whorehouse. Saint Jack’s attitude is unabashedly adult, both in its unsensational treatment of sex workers and its placing front and center Gazzara and Denholm Elliott (playing a visiting businessman becalmed by Jack’s lifestyle), mature leads whose species of manhood disappeared with the Korean War. (Depp and DiCaprio might pass as their sons but never their peers.) Gazzara has no big star-turn speeches. Instead he relaxes, blending in with the scenery and a rich array of non-professional actors; his easy, uncooked, fragrant vibe is a world apart from The Killing of a Chinese Bookie’s triangulated anguish, the difference between a blunt instrument and a paper airplane. Saint Jack’s quietly anarchic sense of humor also rates a mention: an amateur sex-show is choreographed, appallingly, to Shirley Bassey’s “Goldfinger”— the last time James Bond’s producers allowed their music to be used in someone else’s movie.


Why So Serious?

April 13, 2011

The very title of Movie Wars: How Hollywood and the Media Conspire to Limit What Movies We Can See tips us to the best and worst qualities of Jonathan Rosenbaum’s writing. Rosenbaum writes about serious subjects, and for better or for worse he writes about them seriously. When you read Orwell’s or Agee’s journalism, you can feel how, in every wording and punctuation choice, they made it an ongoing effort to write within what they considered to be the limits of their abilities. But writing over his head is something that Rosenbaum never worries about because his strengths rest almost entirely in his content; you don’t go to him for the snark, and nobody comes away from his prose thinking “Man, this shit really sings.” Writing is a job of work to him, and he’s uninterested in duplicating Kael’s ability to replicate in words an actor’s physical gesture, or Hoberman’s dashing historical deductions, or Farber’s ability to stand the language on its head; he’s got all the language, plain though it might be, that he needs to express his ideas. This refusal to spruce himself stylistically mirrors his Amish refusal to groom his physical image, and perhaps make himself, if not more telegenic, then just a little less weird, a little more presentable to the masses.

Here, by the way, is what a film critic is supposed to look like:

There just aren’t a whole lot of zingers in your typical Jonathan Rosenbaum essay, and this, as much as his refusal to shill for the studios, has put a cap on his fan-base over the years. And since nobody likes being told that they’ve been bamboozled, when Rosenbaum commits all of these crimes and then throws a black-chopper buzzword like “conspire” into the title of his book, it’s like he’s begging to be jeered at. [See the comments for this post for an important clarification of this point.]

I believe Rosenbaum is aware of all this, and that early on he consciously decided to take the plunge and put down what he thinks, in exactly the language it comes to him in, and let the chips fall where they may. I understand the decision (if indeed he made it), for leavening his style to increase his readership would put him on the same path as the eminently readable, consummately empty Anthony Lane. But film criticism that wants to improve the climate for making good movies is suffering from the same pinch that our political progressives have been suffering from for years: the need for an American idiom which doesn’t sound like cant, and whose logic will appeal to “regular people” (however you define them) and make them want better movies, too. So built-in is our resistance to earnestness that even the baldest description of the situation gets people like Rosenbaum labeled a Chicken Little, often by folks who in a slightly different setting might happily agree with his analysis.

Personally, I’m happy to have a Jonathan Rosenbaum around and saying the things he does; even when he says them in a counterproductive way, it’s better than having nobody say them at all. Since the videotapes of Robert Redford, Harvey Weinstein and Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. sharing a steam-bath and agreeing to suppress foreign and experimental films are apparently never going to see the light of day, much of the evidence for Rosenbaum’s case is necessarily anecdotal. But there are an awful lot of anecdotes to recount, to the point that the bottom-line truth of his argument seems irrefutable. What makes less sense to me are the people, many of them committed cinephiles, who respond to these arguments by freaking the fuck out about them with a faux sophistication masking itself as either cynicism (“It’s only a movie!”) or condescension (“Of course, the studios are jacking us around! Grow up!”). These denials sound just like the push-back of a Fox News anchor when a liberal gets too mouthy on his program—their only intention is to shut the conversation down, ASAP. Since many of the people who don’t want to engage with Rosenbaum’s argument (or its corollaries) are themselves liberals who in the past have been poked by conservatives with the same rhetorical stick, it’s—well, entertaining, I guess is one word for it—when they act like Bill O’Reilly and fight for a status quo which they know to be pathetic.

I’ve got some ideas why people respond to criticism of mainstream entertainment with such vehemence, but that’ll have to wait for my upcoming post entitled I Want My MAYPO! Last night I came across the chapter in Movie Wars dealing with the American Film Institute and its initial list (from 1998) of the “100 Best American Movies”, and it reminded me of just how many people, far from thinking about Rosenbaum’s position and pondering the evidence in favor of it, instinctively side with the suits and their lame-ass product the same way struggling members of the middle-class inexplicably identify with Wall Street investment bankers. It also reminded me of this thread from Salon’s Table Talk message board, just after the AFI list was announced. It preceded Rosenbaum’s book by a couple of years at least, but covers most of his major objections to the exercise, and it’s still a good, lively read, notable for two things in particular. One is that rarest of rarities, the Internet poster who having vociferously aligned himself with one position, does a little research, decides he was wrong, and then not only reverses himself, but does it so all can see. Remarkable.

But I was even more fascinated by the contributions of the NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen. The fact that he was a newcomer to Table Talk’s film discussions didn’t keep Rosen from trying to turn the thread into one of his seminars, with Herr Doktor tossing out “stimulating” thinking points for his captive students to mull over. As you can see, his presumption was actually exceeded by the bubbleheaded defenses he mounted on behalf of the AFI’s little PR gimmick. With his rhetorical questions handed down from Parnassus and shameless goalpost shuffling, he was like the anti-Jonathan Rosenbaum, and to this day I wonder what the miserable wienie hoped to accomplish. If he wasn’t a ringer for the AFI, he sure did a great impression of one; for the record, his game hits rock-bottom here.

Zen and the Art of Concentrating on a Frame of Flickering Light

April 12, 2011

Just by chance I heard that SF MOMA was showing Thom Andersen’s documentary Eadweard Muybridge, Zoopraxographer today—it’s about, you know, this guy:

—so I took advantage of things being slow round here to sneak off for it. It was being screened in something called The Koret Center, a name which made me picture some kind of film auditorium, and what with Los Angeles Plays Itself being the popular thing it is, I half-imagined Muybridge might draw, you know, 25 or 30 people, some kind of a decent crowd, if only because it’s rarely shown anywhere. Noop! Well, not unless three people count as a decent crowd (and that’s including the elderly gent just behind me who either passed out or died five minutes into it). In fact, “The Koret Center” turned out to be nothing more than an alcove set off to one side of a large room whose lights remained undimmed after the picture started, and which was staffed by a couple of kids who went on chatting in normal conversational tones through the first half of the thing. They did finally settle down, but it was just about then that a conference emptied out down the hall and its attendees came strolling through the room laughing and talking, and once they had passed through, a little girl about six years old suddenly materialized at m’ knee, stood gaping at the screen for a few seconds with her hands on my leg, then looked up at me and screamed. To top things off the movie itself was a scratched and faded New Yorker Video print. Ah, what the hell. At least I can say I’ve seen the damn thing now—kind of.

Adventures in Puberty #6: Peggy Lipton

April 7, 2011

“Indigénes” (2006)

April 6, 2011

I picked up Rachid Bouchareb’s Indigénes because I’ve become fascinated by all these movies—um, not too many of which issue from America, come to think of it—about the collision between Arabic/African/Muslim culture and Anglo Western culture. Part of it’s just fallout from 9/11 and some reading I did back then, combined with things like Bush’s endlessly repeated, endlessly pitiable claim that al Qaeda attacked us because “they hate our freedom”—a justification which in terms of balls-out brazenness tops the reasons of record for invading Poland and Panama. (Though not Iraq.) The culture clash has been sparking filmmakers since at least The Battle of Algiers in 1966; Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, Head-On, and A Prophet make up my favorite stops along the way since then. Those movies all take place during the times they were made in, but Indigénes is set during World War II, a war which seemed to have the same accelerating effect on both African-American G.I.s and the Africans who got sucked into the Free French army: an enlightened impatience brought on by exposure to a wider world that couldn’t be forgotten once the peace came.

Bouchareb’s movie is spread over the last two years of the war, and follows a platoon of Algerian and Moroccan troops as they go through training, then are thrown into action in Italy and Provence, and finally become the first French troops to enter Alsace near the war’s end. The men are expected to give their all without getting even the minimal respect in return: they’re passed over for furloughs and promotions, their mail is senselessly censored and withheld, and after the war even their pensions are made forfeit. Some of the situations look familiar because they’ve been recycled from other war movies, sometimes with great precision: a colonel who lies through his teeth, a climactic set-piece in which a handful of men must defend an important bridge, and most pointedly a coda in which an aging veteran visits the cemetery where his fallen comrades are buried.

All of these things play out with a wholly different feeling than they did in Saving Private Ryan and other WW II flicks because the context is wholly different. The platoon sergeant, for instance, despite having light skin and the misleading name of Martinez, turns out to be hiding a dark-skinned Arab mother, and something odd is afoot when the troops singing La Marseillaise with such brio are composed of these men. In one of the best scenes, the already demoralized Africans are promised a night of “dancing” which turns out to be a low-rent excerpt from Swan Lake; the group shot of their faces, echoing a moment from Grand Illusion, captures the process by which their initial puzzlement mutates into disappointment and finally outrage.

Indigéne can’t touch Haneke’s Caché as a study of the aftereffects of colonialism; indeed, its theme isn’t much more nuanced than “The French, they are a fucked up race.” But it worked on me, thanks in no small part to its five lead actors. (I took a particular shine to the puppy-faced Jamel Debbouze, who because of a boyhood accident plays his scenes with a disfigured hand tucked away inside a pocket.) Bouchareb himself handles a couple of the battle scenes amazingly well: an overhead shot taken from God’s own cloud makes the men on a rocky hillside look precisely like ants scrabbling over the earth. Even better, near the end there’s a moment when a battle plan has succeeded beyond all expectation, and the moment in which the men (and we) feel safe enough to let our guard down and savor the miracle extends far beyond the few seconds it actually occupies before the roof falls in on everybody’s head.

P.S. “Indigénes” means “natives” of course, but somehow by the time The Weinstein Company  released the movie here, its title had magically morphed into Days of Glory, which—since it concerns a group of men who’re treated like cannon fodder in all but the most literal sense—is tantamount to releasing Chinatown as And Justice for All.

Fassbinder’s “Lola”

April 3, 2011

The situation is a familiar one; the actress is Barbara Sukowa. (And that’s the original sound, by the way.)

Iamb, I Said #3

April 3, 2011

The Day Lady Died

It is 12:20 in New York a Friday
three days after Bastille day, yes
it is 1959 and I go get a shoeshine
because I will get off the 4:19 in Easthampton
at 7:15 and then go straight to dinner
and I don’t know the people who will feed me

I walk up the muggy street beginning to sun
and have a hamburger and a malted and buy
an ugly NEW WORLD WRITING to see what the poets
in Ghana are doing these days
I go on to the bank
and Miss Stillwagon (first name Linda I once heard)
doesn’t even look up my balance for once in her life
and in the GOLDEN GRIFFIN I get a little Verlaine
for Patsy with drawings by Bonnard although I do
think of Hesiod, trans. Richmond Lattimore or
Brendan Behan’s new play or Le Balcon or Les Nègres
of Genet, but I don’t, I stick with Verlaine
after practically going to sleep with quandariness

and for Mike I just stroll into the PARK LANE
Liquor Store and ask for a bottle of Strega and
then I go back where I came from to 6th Avenue
and the tobacconist in the Ziegfeld Theatre and
casually ask for a carton of Gauloises and a carton
of Picayunes, and a NEW YORK POST with her face on it

and I am sweating a lot by now and thinking of
leaning on the john door in the 5 SPOT
while she whispered a song along the keyboard
to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing

Frank O’Hara

Busy, Busy, Busy: “Downton Abbey”

April 1, 2011

While directing Gosford Park Robert Altman told his actors to forget about following Julian Fellowes’ script word for word; after getting in whatever plot points had to be mentioned, Altman encouraged them to simply behave in character while his camera floated around the set and his hidden mikes cherry-picked the best dialog. It worked like a charm. The peerless cast, fluent in body language, wound up telling much of the story through sheer physical attitude: important pieces of the characters played by Emily Watson, Richard E. Grant and Kristin Scott Thomas, for instance, could be gleaned just from the singular way each of them handled a cigarette.

Now Fellowes has been let off his chain with Downton Abbey, the upstairs-downstairs drama he created for ITV. Basically an extended version of  Gosford Park (minus the pomo tilt of Stephen Fry’s police detective), it’s the most expensive British TV series ever and a hit on both sides of the Atlantic. Set in “the stately home”—a fooking castle, it bloody well is!—of the Earl of Grantham, his wife, and their three unmarried daughters, the first season kicks off with the (offscreen) sinking of the Titanic and stops at the outbreak of World War I; in between it’s mainly concerned with the advent of two newcomers whose arrivals wreak different kinds of havoc with the Earl’s family and their stable of domestics.

Downton Abbey is everything you expect of a Masterpiece presentation—it’s fundamentally intelligent, well-acted, often gorgeous. But it was also a downhill experience for me. The decision to make Britain’s insane old entailment system of inheritance a pivotal element in the story was a brilliant one, and the first episode or two are full of quiet observations showing how painfully constricted life was—on the most relative basis, natch—for both classes. Mostly, though, Fellowes treats running-times like a racetrack along which he whips his characters, for in a near reversal of Altman’s strategy he foregrounds enough backstories, revelations, exposures, and challenges to choke Charles Dickens. It’s not enough for the oldest daughter to take a handsome young Turk into her bed, but he must drop dead in it as well—and then the stupidest of the maids must spot the woman and her mother spiriting the man’s corpse away. Meanwhile, the mysterious new valet is coping simultaneously with his bum leg, a backstabbing footman, an amorous housemaid, and a lurid scandal in his past—no wonder he keeps wandering off into corners for a good cry. There are also the two daughters who sabotage each other in ugly ways, a Bolshie chauffeur, a maid yearning to become a secretary, a treacherous lady’s maid, a labor riot, a stolen bottle of wine, an attempted murder, a miscarriage and—I kid thee not—a missing snuff-box and a rigged flower show. All this, and more, in less than seven hours of programming.

I say, old boy! Steady on! Leave something for the Battle of the Somme, why don’t you?

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