Those pesky ads

18 Sep

old_style_tv_setPlease ignore any ads you see in this space.  The opinions expressed therein do not not reflect the view of the (for want of a better word) author.


A bewildering mash-up of US tax legislation and a really good short story by D.H. Lawrence

8 Feb

I didn’t want to bring this up, but there’s  no gettin’ ‘round the subject of the tax legislation that passed late last year. This topic deserves mention simply because those who passed it again repeated the same hackneyed pap they always repeat after passing legislation that mostly benefits the wealthy (that is, tax cuts that benefit the rich are just what us average folks across America need most.)


A press release from Representative Tim Walberg (R-Michigan) states: “With this bill, the typical family of four earning the median family income of $73,000 will receive a tax cut of $2,059.”1 This conveniently leaves out the fact that according to a non-partisan analysis, the average 2018 tax cut for people in the top 1% will be $37,000.2 (And if anyone takes issue with the line they’re being sold, members of Congress can always suppress the dissenting view.) 3 This “trickle down” theory was all the rage during the Reagan era, and Congress and the current White house have revived it again (not that they necessarily believe it themselves.)

However, I’m already off in the weeds.  All this policy wonk stuff doesn’t ultimately interest me.  Books and movies do, and as I read of the latest attempt to sell the American people on this shopworn idea, I kept thinking about D.H. Lawrence’s, The Rocking Horse Winner.

In this short story, an unhappy wife, an unlucky husband, two daughters, and a son, Paul are haunted by voices:

Behind the shining modern rocking-horse, behind the smart doll’s house, a voice would start whispering: “There must be more money! There must be more money!” And the children would stop playing, to listen for a moment. They would look into each other’s eyes, to see if they had all heard. And each one saw in the eyes of the other two that they too had heard. “There must be more money! There must be more money!”

Paul’s frenzied rides on his rocking horse allow him to predict the winners of horse races. His winnings are considerable; through his uncle and the family lawyer he arranges for a thousand pounds to be paid to his mother on her birthday for five years. The mother renegotiates the deal to receive the entire five thousand in one lump sum. Once again, D.H. Lawrence:

And yet the voices in the house, behind the sprays of mimosa and almond-blossom, and from under the piles of iridescent cushions, simply trilled and screamed in a sort of ecstasy: “There must be more money! Oh-h-h; there must be more money. Oh, now, now-w! Now-w-w – there must be more money! – more than ever! More than ever!”

The story is a good one, so I encourage you to read the whole text (and its subtext, for that matter.)  It’s often in anthologies or you can read it online 4.

In my humble opinion, real life will mirror fiction in the current round of tax cuts. The cuts will kick in, and instead of Shangri-La, the end result will be that those who benefit most will in a relatively short time go back to complaining how much they’re taxed. Big business will still grouse that US corporate tax rates are too high. Businesses will reward their stockholders, their workers not so much, the deficit will rise, and that will be that.

I’m not anti-tax; I actually like having good roads. The thing that rankles me is that not only did the Republicans (not trying to be partisan here – let’s face it, the GOP owns this one) pass the bill, they tried to sell the American people an obvious fiction.  I would have had more respect for ‘em if they’d have said “Hey America, guess what? The beneficiaries of this legislation will mostly be Big Business and the top 1%!  Your kids will end up paying for the resulting increase in the deficit! We did it!  Hooray for us!” Had they done this, I would have respected ‘em more.  Not much more – maybe 0.000125 % more. But more, nonetheless.


Outlander and The Three Amigos

9 Dec

Conchita: Carmen, tonight you are to be El Guapo’s woman. I am going to give you some hints about lovemaking with El Guapo.
Carmen: I would rather die first!
Conchita: Tell me, Carmen, do you know what foreplay is?
Carmen: No.
Conchita: Good! Neither does El Guapo.
“The Three Amigos”

We’re not gonna rehash what’s happened in the third season of Outlander ’cause the season finale is coming up and it’d take too long. (We won’t mention Clare’s ‘Mary Tyler Moore’ hair-do during the 60s or the touch of grey in her hair that seems to come and go once she hightails it back to the 18th century. Jamie’s aged too – we know this ’cause he actually has to wear spectacles sometimes.) We will however, discuss an aspect of the show that we’ve noticed every season that no one, as far as we know anyway, seems to be talking about.

We’re referring to the show’s sex scenes. OK, we admit -everyone’s talking about ‘em. We just did a Web search and there’s a whole lot of material out there. So, if everyone’s talking about ‘em how can it be that no one’s talking about ‘em? Well, there’s an aspect of these scenes that goes unmentioned, we think. We’re having trouble coming to the point because we’re Irish Catholic and we’re probably going to Hell or something just for broaching the subject.

We’re not talking about the rapy sex scenes with Black Jack Randall – those are just plain disturbing, in our humble opinion. We’re talking about the supposedly ‘hot’ and ‘romantic’ scenes between Clare and Jamie. OK, we’ll just blurt it out: Jamie is a minute man.


Neither does El Guapo

Remember when Clare married Jamie? On their wedding night, Jamie didn’t seem to have much, well, stamina. Clare comes into the 18th century via the 1940s. At that time, the sexual revolution was yet to be, but the show establishes pretty early on that Clare is not from the close-your-eyes-and-think-of-England school of thought. After returning to the 1940s, Clare waits ’til 1968 to do the time warp again and rejoin Jamie. So, coming from 1968 and being a doctor, Clare would likely have heard of Masters and Johnson and their work in human sexuality. Nevertheless, upon returning to the 18th century, Jamie’s minute man approach does not seem to faze her. We couldn’t figure out why she didn’t hit him upside the head and tell him to shape up.

A recent episode shows Clare and Jamie at sea. The ship has been becalmed for weeks – no wind and no rainfall. The crew are ready to throw overboard a man suspected of bringing on this bad luck. To save the man’s life, Jamie’s Chinese friend “Willoughby” buys time by launching into the story of how he left China. Willoughby’s diversion pays off – the sails fill with wind and the rain is not far behind. Then comes the “Hurray! The wind and rain are back! Let’s have sex!” scene. Clare and Jamie steal away below decks and with seemingly no foreplay whatever, begin having sex. This is romantic? Call us crazy, call us irresponsible, but we’ve always thought that a little lead-in was a good thing. We’re not sayin’ that sex scenes have to be long in duration, but there could at least be the suggestion that more than 30 seconds have passed before someone asks “How was it for you?”

Need another example? At the end of a recent episode, Clare has a fever and she’s besotted on Willoughby’s sherry-laced turtle soup. Then there’s the “I’m drunk and feverish! Let’s have sex!” scene. Is there any lead-in to this moment? Nope.

We weren’t going to say anything about it until our eldest adult daughter and her husband came to dinner at our house. She shared that she’d binge-watched Outlander during a bout of the flu. (She’s now into the middle of the second season.) We made some rather elliptical remarks about the curious nature of the romantic scenes, finally blurting out the same thing we blurted near the beginning of this post. (We blurt a lot.) “Oh yeah, Dad”, she said casually. “I noticed the same thing.” She had even pointed it out to her husband during a viewing of one of the episodes.

OK, so there you have it. We didn’t really wanna go there, but we hadda do it ‘cause everyone was talkin’ ‘bout how ‘hot’ the show is. In our view, though, Jamie and El Guapo have a lot in common.

Thor Ragnarok (and agonizing about the future of cinema)

5 Nov

Thor Ragnarok begins with our hero suspended in chains and speaking essentially to us, the audience. It’s not giving anything away to tell you that he soon breaks out and lots of action ensues. I1 saw the film with my wife, our adult daughters, and our son-in-law. They all loved the picture, as did I. TR has everything that we’ve come to know and love in a Marvel movie:

Humor? Check. Thor of the comics is (or at least was – I haven’t kept up) a stick-in-the-mud. Movie Thor is a fun guy. It also has a way of pulling the rug out from under you for comic effect, as when, later in the film – oops! – don’t want to give that away…
Big name stars? Check. Thor’s nemesis in this one is played by … well, you may already know, but I don’t want to give it away. Not only that, but there’s a really fun supporting character played by … oops, never mind…
Action? Check. TR is Action City.
Guest appearances by other Marvel heroes? Check. It’s almost a given.
Great special effects? Check.
A teaser after the end credits? Check.


Yeah, life’s like that sometimes.

Superhero movies tend to be lavish affairs, with filmmakers going overboard to lay on fantastic visions of other worlds, alien creatures, and futuristic technology. TR delivers in spades on this score. Any Marvel fan will come away smiling.

Here though, is where I become curmudgeonly.  I have issues with the film – well, not with TR specifically, but with franchise films in general ( 007, Alien, DC, Die Hard, Dirty Harry, Marvel, Star Wars, Underworld, you name it.)

1. Franchise films soon become formulaic (or tend to, anyway.) We know that 007’s imminent demise won’t happen. The bad guy will leave the scene certain that Bond can’t possibly escape. Bond does, of course, and the first few times, this is great. After that, it’s fodder for an Austin Powers parody.

2. Franchise films have a need to top themselves. If a lot of stuff blew up in the previous installment, more has to blow up in the next. If a car and a tanker truck collide in the first picture, the next will feature a collision between a car, a tanker truck, a motorcycle, a train, a helicopter, and an airliner.

3. The first two points lead to the third – since they become formulaic and have a need to top themselves, they essentially become vehicles for telling the same story over and over, with minor variations.

OK, maybe I’m being too crabby. That’s part of the fun, right? We know going in what to expect, but we can’t wait to see how the filmmakers will tweak the formula, adding new parameters and permutations to well-established patterns (even if it’s Jar Jar Binks.) Doesn’t classical music follow this model? Haydn would have taken this as a given (no, not the Jar Jar part – the thing about variations on well-established norms.)
Too, production values in franchise films are generally high – these pics have big budgets and it shows on the screen. What’s not to like about a well-conceived, well-photographed cinematic roller coaster ride?

I’m left though, with a certain disquiet. I worry that big-budget franchise films will and perhaps already have, resulted in a dumbing-down of cinema in general. The buzz for such movies generally includes a breathless report of the millions it cost to make it and the box office receipts after its opening weekend. That is not, in my humble opinion. and perhaps yours too, any way to judge the worth of a thing.

OK, here again, I’m off in the weeds – I really don’t know where I’m going with this. Thor Ragnarok is not Pride and Prejudice and it doesn’t try to be anything other than what it is – a fun (if often violent) fantasy. Tell you what – see the picture, and I’ll sit here and moan and groan about the dumbing-down of cinema and the future of motion pictures as an art form. Deal?

1 We’re eschewing the editorial ‘we’ that we normally use for this one.

Bloodline: A Show That’ll Make You Hate Yourself in the Morning

9 Sep

We try not to watch the idiot box too much, but almost against our will we binge-watched Bloodline on Netflix. It’s the story of the Rayburn family, who run a prosperous inn on one of the Florida keys.  It’s the kind of show that makes you hate yourself in the morning – a high-powered drama with a lot of secrets, crime, violence, drug use, cussin’, and enough booze to float an ocean liner.


Crazy good actor Ben Mendelsohn as Danny

The story begins as eldest son Danny (crazy good Australian actor Ben Mendelsohn) comes home after being away for years. Danny’s arrival arouses mixed feelings in the clan, as he’s the family scapegoat.  Danny is a deeply wounded character with whom we sympathize despite his serious character flaws. (Just about every character in the show is deeply wounded and  has serious character flaws, and with a few exceptions, we sympathize with them, too.) Sissy Spacek plays Sally, the matriarch, and the late Sam Shepard is the crotchety patriarch Robert.  In addition to Danny, the Rayburn siblings consist of Kyle Chandler as Jon, a straight-laced police detective, Norbert Leo Butz as Kevin, a hot-headed, impulsive boat mechanic with really lousy judgment, and Linda Cardellini as Meg, a lawyer. The principals bring lots of acting chops to the piece, as do the supporting actors (Jamie Mc Shane, Chloë Sevigny, John Leguizamo, and Beau Bridges, to name just a few); there’s not a bad player in the bunch.  (The show has some bad actors in that they’re criminals, but even the bad actors are good actors.  By acting bad, they show how good they are and  –aw, never mind,  you get our meaning.)  The series also has some pretty talented directors, including Michael Apted, who directed an episode in the third season.


Talk about your crazy, mixed-up family …

We don’t want to reveal any major plot points, but suffice it to say that Danny is in hock to some nasty folks (whom we never see but apparently, they’re out there.)  Strapped for cash, he soon takes up with old friend Eric O’Bannon (Mc Shane). They starting stealing gasoline, then move on to more lucrative pursuits.  As the story develops, Danny begins using the inn as a conduit for nefarious activity.

We like the acting, we like the directing, so what could be bad about Bloodline?  It’s the writing. OK, the writing is not really bad – sometimes it’s even excellent. Nevertheless, we sometimes got the impression that the characters were doing what the writers wanted them to do, not what they wanted to do.  Sissy Spacek’s Sally is a case in point.  At times she’s written as a loving mother who views her family through rose colored glasses.  At other times, she‘s written as a cynical, tough-as-nails woman who’ll do anything to keep from being dragged down.  Another is Marco (Enrique Murciano)  Jon’s detective partner, who pursues an investigation that may implicate Jon with a zeal that seems out of step with his character.  There are reasons he’s turned sour on the Rayburns, but to us that still did not adequately explain his Javert-like behavior.  And in the third season, John Leguizamo’s character Ozzy has an epiphany that seems to come from out of the blue.

The writers use also use dream sequences to lie to the audience; scenes beginning with shocking plot twists turn out to be dreams.  Even this is OK if used sparingly, but this trick it used enough to be annoying.  In one such sequence, Danny has a woman friend who is his alter ego or a grown-up sibling who died in childhood or something, it’s just not clear.  The series’ penultimate episode is pretty much one long dream sequence.  It’s an intriguing piece of filmmaking, but it does nothing to move the story toward closure.  Our other gripe is that one episode contains a baptism scene that’s lifted from Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather. (Spoiler: Coppola did it better.)

The first season packs the most punch, as it’s the one where Danny most takes center stage. Ben Mendelsohn seems to channel Shakespeare’s Richard III, and he infuses Danny with edgy charisma.  The second and third seasons have their moments though, as when Ozzy walks into a store after a fight that has left him bloody and bruised  and casually asks the shocked clerk if the frozen soft drink he’s about to buy will turn his tongue blue.

Bloodline is a crime show with elements of soap opera and a dash of Greek tragedy.  During the course of the series, a prominent family is brought low by their own deceptions.  After watching the last episode, we switched to networks news and caught a story about Donald Trump, Don Jr., and Jared Kushner …


A Small, Beautiful Wall That Mexico’s Not Going To Pay For

4 Sep

We1 haven’t posted anything in for, like, ever. The reason for the hiatus is that we got involved in a household project. It’s axiomatic that any household project you tackle will take longer and cost more than you thought, and this one is no exception.

It started when we noticed that our crawlspace had no vapor barrier, which they’re apparently supposed to have. No one wants to think about crawlspaces and many people probably don’t even know what they are. (We sure didn’t.) They’re places in the basement for plumbing, wiring, ductwork and so forth.) If a house has one, it’s usually dark, dank, cramped, and perhaps a home for spiders, mice, and mold. In short, not a fun place – the stuff of horror flicks. A patio hot tub is much more fun to think about.

Anyhoo, “crawlspace encapsulation” is a term that’s all the rage right now, and it apparently means making it so the space is less dark and dank (it’ll still be cramped) and less likely to be a home for spiders, mice and mold. We got the usual estimates. One contractor noted that whoever built the house had made the area under the porch part of the crawlspace instead of walling it off like he should have done. He said, “It’ll be cheaper if you wall it off yourself using concrete block or plywood.” He’d said the magic word: CHEAPER!

Under the porch of a house


Never mind that we can scarcely hammer a nail without bending it, we were going to build a wall, and by gum, were going to do it ourselves! We’d be like Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo, hauling a ship over a mountain in the Amazon jungle (only instead of the Amazon jungle, we’d be in a dark, dank, cramped space in the basement and there was no ship – other than that, same difference.)

We soon learned that thinking about something is often a lot cooler that actually doing it. It one’s mind’s eye, everything is pristine, nails don’t bend, everything is plumb, and things go according to plan.

The crawlspace entrance is 3/4 up the basement wall; “convienent” had apparently not been a word in the builder’s lexicon. The interior has lots of fine gravel, and we had to dig a bunch of it out where the wall was going to be. Where there wasn’t gravel there was hard clay and that had to be dug out as well.

At last we could start actually building. There was a lot of grunting and groaning as we exercised muscles that we hadn’t used in years. At one point, we were convinced that we’d torn a rotator cuff (we hadn’t – we’re just hypochondriacs.) We cursed as we drilled holes in the concrete block that seemed to take forever. We measured twice and cut once and still screwed up the length of the cut. We used that expanding foam stuff to fill in cracks, made by those wonderful folks that brought you napalm.  (If you get it on your hands, the only way to get it off is for it to wear off, so don’t ignore the instructions like we did – wear rubber gloves!)

At last, we finished the wall. To us, it’s an engineering marvel comparable to the Great Wall of China. The crawlspace encapsulation guys are coming next week. We can’t wait to see the look of awe on their faces as they gaze upon the wonder that is Our Wall.

finished wall


  1. The author insists on referring to himself in the third person – a pretentious affectation to be sure.

Hey, Let’s Do the Limbo Rock …

17 Jun

We 1 and our spouse listened to some DVD lectures on utopian and dystopian literature, and all the usual suspects were there: Thomas More’s Utopia,  Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World,  Zamiatin’s We, and of course, George Orwell’s 1984. We asked Maryam (our spouse) if Bernard Wolfe’s Limbo was among the dystopian works. It was not. “How can this professor not include Limbo?”, we demanded.  Used to our irrational outbursts, Maryam merely smiled and said that she didn’t know how such an egregious mistake happened. Sheepish, we then realized we hadn’t actually read Wolfe’s book and hadn’t the foggiest idea what it was about. We set out to rectify that problem.

We first heard about Bernard Wolfe’s Limbo in college when we were editing lectures on utopian and dystopian works for broadcast on the campus radio station.  Using a razor blade, an editing block, and splicing tape (this was audio tape, in the days before digital), we soon became adept at removing long pauses, sneezes, ums, ahs, irrelevant announcements, and anything else that might interrupt the flow of an otherwise scholarly lecture. We remembered that one lecturer had said “Bernard Wolfe’s Limbo is a good book. It’s a good novel, it’s a good dystopian statement.” But was he right? Flash forward several decades – it was time to find out.

An inter-library loan later, we tore into the book, which soon started to bum us out. That’s not a criticism; Limbo is a dystopia after all, and any dystopia worth its salt is going to bum the reader out at some point. After our initial ennui  wore off, we had to admit that Wolfe’s premise is really clever.

Suppose, after a nuclear war, you found to your shock and surprise that a work you’d written 18 years earlier had become the basis of the culture in which you found yourself?  That’s the plight of Dr. Martine, Limbo’s main character.  As the novel unfolds, Martine finds both the Inland Strip (the former US ) and the East Union (formerly Russia) have interpreted his words in ways he hadn’t intended. That is all we can really tell you about the plot (and we worry that we may have already said too much, so forget the last several sentences!)


Works in the utopian/dystopian genre are really about the times in which they’re written, not the time in which they’re set. Limbo was published in 1952, but don’t let that throw you – in our humble opinion, it’s still very readable and relevant today. In an afterword, Wolfe describes the book as “a grab bag of ideas that were more or less around at the mid-century mark.” If the book has one weakness, it’s that at times the plot takes a back seat to the ideas in the book. Wolfe takes a heaping spoonful of Freud and adds Dostoevsky, Rimbaud, Malraux, Wilhelm Reich, and others into the pot. This material  enriches the book, but at times we found ourselves struggling to keep up with Wolfe’s multifaceted mixture.

So, we have to agree with the anonymous professor whose lecture we edited several decades ago: Bernard Wolfe’s Limbo is a good book. This book should take its rightful place in the canon of dystopian literature.

1. The writer of this blog has a habit of using the first person plural in lieu of the first person singular. This is an annoying affectation that this individual persists in using.

Writing about Kubrick Part I

5 May

OK, we haven’t posted in, like, forever.  Part of the reason is that we’ve wanted to write about one of our favorite directors for a while now, but we felt cowed by the task.  We wanted to be as methodical with this post as Kubrick was with his films.  Once you find yourself thinking that way, though, it’s a recipe for inaction.  Here goes.

We¹ remember where we were when we found out that Kubrick was dead.  We were driving back from Chicago with our spouse, Maryam, when the news came over the radio.  Back at the house, we called our friend, Diane (not her real name – she might not like us using her real name.) “Kubrick’s dead,” we said. We have no idea why we called Diane. She and her husband are mutual friends of ours, but she isn’t exactly a Kubrick fan. Diane handled the news with her usual candor. “Didn’t he make A Clockwork Orange?”,  she asked. “What a sick mind.”  We were not put off, and we went on to have a pleasant conversation about the deceased and his films.

We don’t think that Kubrick was a perfect director – he made relatively few films, and his very meticulousness often worked against him. (His penchant for repeated takes, 100+ at times, often put him behind schedule.) There are few strong women in Kubrick films,  and his worldview is often bleak (the world blows up at the end of Dr. Strangelove, for Pete’s sake, and it’s a comedy.) Not only that, he cut the last chapter of Anthony Burgess’ novel, A Clockwork Orange, one that changes the tone of the novel’s ending. Kubrick couldn’t write for sour apples and always wrote with a collaborator.

Nonetheless, more than any other director we can think of, Kubrick is in every frame of his films, though he never once stepped in front of the camera the way Martin Scorsese has occasionally done.  Don’t get us started about the way he moves the camera. Remember the scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey where Gary Lockwood jogs in the centrifuge of the spacecraft?  How ’bout the scene in Paths of Glory where the camera tracks though the WWI trenches? Danny riding his tricycle though empty hallways in The Shining? You’ve probably thought of a few that we haven’t.

Kubrick had budgetary control over his films that many directors would have given their eye teeth of have.  Vincent D’onofrio recalled (it’s on You Tube, we forget the name of the documentary) showing up on the set of Full Metal Jacket and seeing men sitting in a van who never seemed to leave it. “They’re from accounting,” Kubrick explained. “They’re not allowed to leave the car.”


When ya go crazy in a Kubrick film, ya gotta glower

OK, we’re all over the map here, but we suggest that you check out Fear and Desire, Kubrick’s first feature. The film’s been unavailable for years ’cause Kubrick found it pretentious and amateurish.  The picture’s not great (it sometimes feels like a Twilight Zone episode), but we like it because it foreshadows the Kubrick that was to come – a war theme,  and a scene that in its way prefigures the end of 2001. (Killer’s Kiss, another early effort, has a quick scene that predates the 2001’s light show, as well as a chase though a manikin factory.)

The real purpose of this post was to review Emilio D’Alessandro’s Stanley Kubrick and Me, but we’ll get to that next time.

¹ If you’ve followed this space, you’ll know that we refer to ourselves in the third person, an trite affectation to be sure, but we can’t seem to break ourselves of this annoying habit.

On viewing Fellini’s “La Strada” again

20 Feb

We saw Federico Fellini’s 1954 film,  La Strada  (in English, “The Road”) last night for perhaps the 3rd time. Repeated viewings of a film can reveal things that you hadn’t noticed the first time around, and with last night’s viewing, we saw something as obvious as a speeding Mack truck  that we had somehow managed not to notice on previous viewings.

OK, we’re getting a mite ahead of ourselves.  If you haven’t seen La Strada, and you want to see it free of anyone else’s opinion or perceptions, please stop reading this and by all means, view the film. (If so, we hope you’ll return to this post later.)

Have you seen the film? Great! Glad you’re back. If you’ve not seen the picture and you don’t care about spoilers, La Strada is the story of Gelsomina (Giulietta Masina) and Zampanò (Anthony Quinn), a traveling performer on a run-down 3-wheel motorcycle that doubles as a sleeping quarters.

As the film begins, Zampanò’s erstwhile partner, Rosa, has died. Zampanò turns up at Rosa’s mother’s home, where the mother promptly offers Gelsomina as Zampanò’s new partner for 10,000 lire. As for Gelsomina, well, nobody really asked her opinion.

Zampanò is your basic bully, and while training Gelsomina to be his partner, he applies a switch to her legs for not following his instructions to the letter. He’s also essentially a one-trick pony; his act consists of breaking a chain fastened around his chest and performing a brief farce in which Gelsomina is a duck and he the hunter.

OK, so what was the big, obvious thing that we noticed on this viewing that we failed to appreciate on previous viewings?  This time around, we saw Gelsomina not just as the naif-saint of previous viewings, but as a woman trapped in a relationship with an abusive partner. (If you find yourself thinking “Duh!”, we understand.) We don’t get the sense that theirs is a sexual relationship – Zampanò thinks nothing of leaving Gelsomina stranded while he goes off with women, but it’s relationship nonetheless. To be fair, Gelsomina is not completely passive; she makes an attempt to leave Zampanò, only to be found and forced to stay with him again.

Zampanò joins up with a larger traveling circus, where he manages to get himself thrown in jail. While he’s in the hoosegow, Gelsomina has a conversation with The Fool, a tightrope walker (Richard Basehart).  In response to her lament that she feels useless, The Fool observes that even the pebbles below their feet have a purpose, adding that if one thing is useless, then everything is useless. Gelsomina, holding a pebble in her hand, is radiant. She seems to decide that The Fool’s meaning is that she should stay with Zampanò, as he needs her. Others in the traveling circus entreat her to join them and leave Zampanò behind, but she declines, despite their seeming a lot kinder and a lot less dysfunctional than Zampanò (which would not be hard.)

We won’t summarize the rest of the film, as we don’t want to completely spoil your viewing experience. This time around, though, we were left with some pretty disturbing questions: Why did Rosa die?  Was she ill or did the brute Zampanò hasten her demise?  Why does Gelsomina pass up a chance to join a more congenial group of people? (True, she’s a bit of an innocent, but still, ya gotta wonder.)

Now, this isn’t the first time we’ve failed to appreciate something obvious in a film.  We remember watching Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring with our spouse.  As the film ended, we reflected on the acting, the great cinematography, and the like.  We turned to our spouse, who was weeping.  She pointed out that the film was extremely sad – a young woman is brutally raped and murdered in the film. In our focus on acting, lighting, and photography, we had failed to see the forest for the trees.

So, in addition to providing you with new insights and things you’d not noticed before, sometimes repeated viewings of a film can show you how out of it you were on the first viewings.Nonetheless, on this viewing,  we again appreciated how Fellini frequently juxtaposes scenes of religion with scenes of show business. Even better, once again we were struck by Guilietta Masina’s expressive face.  With just a movement of her eyes, she can speak volumes.


Her face speaks volumes

Terrence Malick’s “Knight of Cups” and the difference between US and European movies

30 Jan

Knight of Cups is essentially a deeply personal student film made with a big budget, famous actors, and first-rate cinematography. This is not your conventional narrative – the film frequently works on the level of a collage. Christian Bale is Rick, a guy who, from what we can tell, is some kind of big deal in the film industry, though we never really know what his job is. Titles with the names of Tarot cards introduce characters and scenes. Early in the film, we see the title “The Moon”. We’re trying to recall what happens next (and we’re too lazy to put the DVD in the player again), but we think that next come scenes of Rick and a young woman cavorting by the sea or on an outdoor stage or something. It’s hard to remember, because during the course of the film, Rick frequently cavorts by the sea with people, usually women (we’re not using ‘cavort’ as a euphemism – a lot of excited jumping and dancing goes on.) The film shows us women who have come in and gone out of Rick’s life, including Cate Blanchett, who plays a doctor, and Natalie Portman, a married woman with whom Rick has an affair. There is also a dancer in a topless club (The “High Priestess”, if we recall correctly) that Rick takes to Las Vegas, and other women, apparently prostitutes, with whom Rick cavorts in a room (again, not euphemistically.)  Interspersed are scenes of Hollywood parties at too-opulent mansions and scenes of Rick’s adult life with his father (Brian Dennehy) and brother, which  consist mostly of lots of yelling between the latter two.

The guy in the New Yorker seemed really ga-ga about the picture, but we weren’t as enthusiastic.  Halfway through the picture, it occurred to us that if the film stopped following Rick and instead chose to focus on another character, we’d have been just as happy.  This is not to say that the film is not worth your time – the cinematography is beautiful, and the film, though in our view not fully satisfying, is nonetheless intriguing.

The difference between American cinema and European cinema, in our humble opinion, comes down to the tendency of US movies to tell you too much, and the tendency of European movies not to tell you enough. We recently watched Orson Welles’ The Stranger (1946)  (and no, it’s not based on the Albert Camus novel of the same name) where Welles plays an escaped Nazi living in a small college town. He tells a fellow Nazi “You know how I gathered and destroyed every single item in Germany and Poland that might have served as a clue to my identity. Only my heart knows who I am…”  OK, we the audience are smart enough to have figured out that the guy probably did his best to cover his tracks before he split, so why do we need this line?  Or, if we do, why not ‘every single item in Germany’?  Do we really need to know that he destroyed stuff in Poland, too? Do we even really care?  Sheesh…


WTMI, Orson!

Contrast that with Antonioni’s Red Desert (1964) (which we’re not yet done watching)*, where we see the main characters partying in this horrible shack by the sea.  We don’t know why they’ve chosen such a horrible setting for their partying, the scene seems to go on forever, and we’re about halfway into the picture and nothing seeming to resemble a plot has really shown itself.

Now, the difference may have less to do with these films’ countries of origin and more to do with the decades in which the two were released – conventions in filmmaking changed between the two periods.  Nevertheless, we think that US pictures tend to give you too much info and European pictures tend to toss you in and leave it to you to figure it out.

*we’ve since finished watching the picture.

God Bless You, Fred Ianelli, Wherever You Are!

21 Dec

We’ve wanted to say “God Bless you, Fred Ianelli, wherever you are” for a while now but we didn’t for several reasons:

  1. Fred Ianelli is the name of an actual guy that we knew, though not well.  We weren’t (and still aren’t) sure about how he’d feel about our use of his real name (assuming he ever even sees this.)
  2. We thought that the gang down at Atheism, Inc. might boycott us if we invoked the Diety

We’ve long known from personal experience that sometimes a comment made during a brief encounter can make a big difference, as Fred’s did for us on a Friday many autumns ago.

We majored in Communications at a university in the Midwest. (Upon graduation, we were all set for a career in broadcasting in the 1950s – unfortunately, it was the late 1970s.)  Back in those halcyon days, we were taking this 400 level TV  directing class.  The first assignment seemed simple enough: theme music, fade in on a title card, cut to the talent (the person in front of the camera is called the talent, even if that person has none), let the talent speak about a subject, cut to an object or diagram, back to the talent,  more talking, fade out. The whole thing is over in 3 minutes.


All set for the 1950s

Each student was to direct a talent and also be the talent for another student’s segment. The chap slated to be our talent proved a bit elusive – he didn’t seem to want to meet with us, and the most we could get out of him was that he’d be talking about stereo stuff – woofers, tweeters and the like.  He said he’d refer to a diagram to augment his short spiel. The diagram worried us – graphics must be bold to be visible on camera. We offered to take his concept and produce the graphic ourselves, but he assured us that he would take care of its creation.

On the day of the class our worst fears were realized – far from creating a graphic that would show up well on camera, our talent had created an ill-defined diagram that we knew instantly would display as washed-out white with faint dark lines. It looked like a kid in grade school had made it. Oh, well, nothing to do but tape the segment. Needless to say, the result was underwhelming. In his critique, the instructor stressed that the graphic was poor and needed to be visible to the viewing audience. We got a C.

On the trek back to our dorm, we happened to encounter the eponymous Fred, with whom we exchanged a few words of greeting.  We mentioned our less than stellar experience in  the TV directing class, which he had also taken in the past. As we finished our tale of woe, we saw that Fred seemed really amused.  He clapped us on the arm and said “Don’t let them mindf**k you, my man! And that’s what they’re going to try to do.  Don’t let ’em.”  The “they” he was referring to was the entire Communications department at our august institution.  We realized that he was right, and it cheered us up immensely.  We’d taken the whole thing way too seriously. By the time we got back home, we were smiling.