“I told you, Kellyanne! They all know each other.”

over-office-receptionThis is an amazing photograph, an immediate candidate for the Hall of Fame of “What’s wrong with this picture?”.

Setting aside the happy child’s body language, the delusional Donald probably imagines he is Atticus Finch, who has just finished defending poor one-armed Tom and is receiving a standing ovation from the segregated balcony. Which, unfortunately, makes Kellyanne an aging Scout with miniskirt and cell phone. Oh, well, I guess that’s what passes for grrl power these days among GOPers.

I won’t ascribe thoughts or feelings to the other folks in the picture, but I sure would like to hear them. Not just the angry ones but the derisive ones, too, hear the laughs over drinks. Oh, to be a fly on the wall, later!

This photographic record is yet more evidence why  “surreal” is the OED Word of the Year.

You Can Fake It After All

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When I read this morning that Mary Tyler Moore had died, my first thought was not of the TV series bearing her name, but of Ordinary People (1980), the extraordinary debut feature film by Robert Redford about repressed middle-class white Americans who find displays of emotion difficult and expressions of love nearly impossible.  In it, Moore gives the performance of a lifetime as Beth Jarrett, a beautiful, brittle, relentlessly positive Midwestern housewife who carries a not entirely healthy torch for her dead older son and who can’t forgive her younger son for still being alive. Donald Sutherland as her kind but unassertive husband, Timothy Hutton as the surviving son Conrad, and Judd Hirsch as Conrad’s shrink are also extraordinary.

I can manage happily without ever again seeing Moore as Mary Richards throw her hat slow-motion in the air to the strains of the relentlessly positive The Mary Tyler Moore Show theme song.  Not that I hated the show or thought ill of it. Quite the contrary. If I watched more TV and ranked it, it would score high. For TV, it was fairly close to life at times and a good place to start if you want a gentle introduction to 1970s America.

But it was TV – in the 1970s – and a “comedy” – so the characters are “survivors,” none of whom wind up in recovery or the mental hospital or jail, all of whom really love each other under the gruffness, whose darkest days are never that dark or last too long. And my viewing relationship with TV is an odd one. I look below the surface of the show to the writer’s well from whence it sprung, listen not to the actors’ words but to their subtext. In my distorted world, The Andy Griffith Show is about small-town loneliness. People in Mayberry are so lonely it aches. And – to my twisted mind – The Mary Tyler Moore Show was one of the saddest shows ever aired, every single one of whose characters is hanging on by their fingernails, unwilling to think too hard about anything, afraid to feel. Mary saddest of all.

And it is a small leap, really – barely a hop – from the almost real Mary Richards to the painfully real Beth Jarrett, hiding her hate and terror behind the makeup of normalcy, holding tight by her lacquered nails until they finally break – or her tortured son Conrad breaks them – and she can’t go on. Not one more step. Not in the company of her husband and surviving son, who have found their way to the real – and decided to live there – leaving Beth to run away, find others around whom she can pretend again, toss her hat in the air.

The “Last Tango” Twitter Storm

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According to some, our current time should be called the Post-Truth Era, which has brought us our first Post-Truth President aided by (among other things) dozens of post-truth “news” stories, articles, statements, and tweets.

The “Last Tango actress was raped” story, which went viral these past couple days, is a good example of what Post-Truth looks like, how it behaves, and how hard it is to combat.

Some facts before I continue:

No, ‘Last Tango in Paris’ Director Did Not Say Marlon Brando Committed Rape
3 December 2016 5:54 PM, PST | The Wrap | See recent The Wrap news »

The 1972 film “Last Tango in Paris” was pilloried across the internet this weekend over the belief that director Bernardo Bertolucci had admitted that a rape scene between stars Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider was an actual rape. But in an interview a decade ago, Schneider herself said that no sex of any kind took place during the scene, in which then-48-year-old Brando’s character uses butter to have anal sex with the 19-year-old Schneider. In fact, she said she felt “a little bit raped” by her director and co-star because they manipulated and coerced her into doing the scene, »
– Tim Molloy

I had to search for the Tim Molloy retraction article above. Every other publication (and social media, of course) went with the click-bait version that Bertolucci and Brando raped Maria Schneider on camera in a movie you’ve seen. And Bertolucci is finally coming clean after all these years.

Except, none of that happened. There was no rape. There was no real sex, consensual or otherwise. And the Bertolucci interview was from 2013, not now. Oh, and he didn’t say what those articles said he said. He said what Tim Molloy said he said.

There is an interesting discussion in this general area. Several actually. About power relationships (and abuses of same) in Hollywood and the wider world. About what is permissible in Art to obtain (or hope to obtain) a great performance. We could bring up the recent Profiles theater scandal. And talk about Balanchine. And that horrid studio director who made child actor Jackie Cooper cry on camera by telling him his dog had died. And the butter scene in Last Tango will be a good addition to that discussion. Along with dozens of other mindfucking directorial stunts from that era and before and after. We can talk about the psychic price of emotional coercion. And the extra responsibilities one should feel toward a young person that you’re about to turn into an overnight star.Truffaut clearly felt such responsibility, Bertolucci didn’t. He didn’t care about anything but his film.

I would love to have these discussions .. and many more on similar topics … and you’ll probably find that we agree on most of them. I’m not a fan of the tactics mentioned above. Or of the behavior. In the service of Art or personal pleasure or anything else.

What we can’t have is a discussion about rape in relation to Last Tango in Paris (1972). Because no rape occurred. And no sex happened, consensual or otherwise. It was rated X for nudity and language and adult situations as portrayed by actors. Not C for Crimes.

Here, let Maria Schneider tell you. Again. She stated that not only was there no actual sex in the infamous “butter scene,” but no real sex in the movie, period. “Not at all,” Schneider said.

Who starts these things? Who sat in a room somewhere, happened to see a three-year-old interview with Bertolucci who’s nearly 80 now and hasn’t made a film in years, decided to distort his statements just enough to get attention, then watched the Internet version of the Telephone Game spin out. Who does this? And what do they get from it?

I lost friends over this, by simply stating that the story didn’t happen the way they had heard it did. They were only Facebook friends, but, hey, in times like these we need all the friends we have.

And here’s a depressing thought. If it’s this hard to cry bullshit on fake 50-year-old movie gossip, how the fuck are we ever going to correct the record on stories of national import.

How will we ever get a real President again? One who’s sort of friendly to the truth. Who’s Post-Post-Truth.You know?

The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming!

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That’s the title of a 1966 Cold War satire starring Alan Arkin as the commander of a Soviet sub that accidentally runs aground in new England, causing mass hysteria among the town folk. American kids back then had “duck and cover” drills just in case Russkie atom bombs were launched during Civics class, Soviet Premier Nikita Kruschev could be seen pounding his shoe and saying “We will bury you” in a popular pre-cat-video meme, and the dicey (to say the least) Cuban Missile Crisis (Adios, Fidel) was a fresh memory for all.

We fought hot proxy wars with the Russia, the biggest of course being Vietnam. Southern California contractors got rich building missile system after missile system designed to protect us from the Russkies (and their little buddies, China) and stealth planes to spy on them. Devotees of spy stories are still talking about the Soviet mole who supposedly infiltrated the highest ranks of the U.S. intelligence services but was never found.

I could go on and on. But it’s fair to say that Russia is America’s most significant historical foe and – to young Republicans everywhere, especially in the Midwest and South – the most hated.

Now? Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump are besties and rightwingers in the Midwest and South cheer? They cheer some more when Russian propagandists flood the internet with false stories against the Democratic nominee, which FOX and other rightwing outlets pass along, And they seem to think it’s just peachy that Russian hackers (under the direction of their present-day KGB) plagued the Clinton campaign with dirty tricks for the better part of a year and set out to rig the general election in favor of their butt buddy Trump.

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Some of this stuff qualifies – by the way – as acts of war, but they have provoked no public outrage among the rightwing populace. And not much among the GOP faithful, traditionally Russia’s greatest opponents.Yeah, we know, the country isn’t Commie anymore, it’s mostly run by gangsters. But Putin isn’t Brando in his bathrobe during his retirement years. He’s John Gotti with a nuclear arsenal, a KGB that kills people overseas when it’s not busy hacking our elections, and military operations in Syria et al.

Putin’s a piece of shit. So it’s no wonder he’s attached himself to the biggest piece of shit to ever to run for public office in the United States of America. He wants Syria to himself. He has oil to sell and horses to ride shirtless. And he’s willing to cut good deals on hotels and the like in Georgia and other former Soviet regions that he rules gangster-style now instead of with tanks. Business is business.

I get all that. I just can’t figure out why no one in America seems to be upset about it. Especially the folks in those regions of America – many of whom favored Trump – who were historically most afraid of Russia. And alarmed by all the bad things Russia might do to us.

The Russians aren’t coming, they’re here. And they’ve done a bunch of bad things, not the least of which is installing their gangster-style business mole in the highest office in the land. And still no one’s upset. ‘Cause, you know, Mexicans. Muslims. Gays.

Welcome to Vladimir Putin’s America. Borscht, anyone?

Pick Flick

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I can’t write directly about what has just happened to us. It’s too big. And by “us,” I don’t only mean Americans. I mean the world.

(Just to name one consequence, the 2016 election ensures nothing will be done about climate change for four more years. Get back to me about building walls when entire nations become uninhabitable.)

But I watched most of Hillary Clinton’s concession speech this morning and I was struck again by the virtually impossible task of being a female American and running for higher office.

Even now. In 2016.

No one commented on Clinton’s hair or what she was wearing, but even I found myself wondering if she’d cry and what people would say if she did. What they will continue to say because she didn’t.

A man giving a Presidential concession speech – in 2016 – would be allowed to shed tears, be expected to when he gets to the part where he thanks his staff and family. He would be applauded for “bravery” in showing his emotions. No one would speculate on whether or not he had a vagina and fallopian tubes. And whether they disqualified him from leadership positions.

Further, men in public life are expected to “get things done,” which means cutting deals, trading tit for tat, compromising, holding your nose and making sure the check clears. Men are applauded for this behavior and even the good Christians in their midst concede Rome to the Romans as long as they are male.

If a woman does any of the things listed above, she commits two sins. The first is the sin of “corruption,” which is what “business as usual” becomes when it’s done by a high-profile female in American politics. The second – far weightier – sin is that of ambition. Also know as “pride” in the red states. Clinton made it clear that she considered baking cookies a secondary occupation at best, especially for a woman with any other discernible skills, and segments of Middle America never forgot and never forgave.

Which brings us to Tracy Flick in the 1999 movie Election. Tracy was ambitious to the point of ruthlessness, manipulative beyond the point of effectiveness, corrupt for realz, sexually suspect, and – worst of all – prideful. She had no time for cookies, but did make a mean muffin as long as it was big enough to contain her name in frosting letters.

Hillary Clinton was not guilty as charged of anything that I’m aware of. Not Whitewater, not Bengazi, not the stupid emails. Few people in American life have been so vigorously scrutinized and come up so clean. But the charges never stopped. As Clinton asserted early on, she was the victim of “a vast rightwing conspiracy” to smear her and remove her and the other Clinton from American public life.

In this latest election, the rightwing conspirators were joined by the more witless fringe of Berniebots, who accused Hillary (on non-news internet sites) of everything from being the brains behind the Trilateral Commission to sleeping with Sasquatch. It was irresponsible and dumb; it had an affect on the election. And, truth be told, a lot of the energy coming from that camp felt like garden-variety sexism. Which can comfortably stay sexist if your man is Trump but has to seek some other justification (however specious) if your man is Bernie Sanders, who made his own manly deals to be a Senator.

(Can you say no gun control, woodsy Vermonters? I can.)

Clinton found herself surrounded in 2016 by a lot of men (on her right and her left) who just weren’t comfortable with the fact she was a she. And had no way of thinking about her, judging her, characterizing her, except as some pants-suited grownup version of Tracy Flick. They demonized a good candidate – a good person, a good woman – and the world will now suffer mightily as a result.

Hillary Clinton bears no resemblance to Tracy Flick. They have no character traits in common. Except maybe pride. If pride is what we call it when a woman has the temerity to suggest she can do this job or that as well as a man can.

With all that said, in a race between Tracy and Donald Trump, I’d Pick Flick. At least Tracy possesses basic competence and only hates people who get in the way of what she wants.

Words. Just words. On this saddest of post-election days. “Ah, Bartleby. Ah, Humanity.”

 

There Was Nobody like Gene Wilder (1933 – 2016)

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The word unique gets misused a lot. You can’t be a little bit unique or more unique than someone else. Unique means one of a kind.

There was nobody like Gene Wilder before Gene Wilder. And, while I’m sure many tried, no one has ever been able to copy him. Do Gene Wilder. Have a Gene Wilder-like career.

He was in a number of good to great movies, including ones you forget he was until you see them again. Such as the 1974 film version of Rhinoceros that co-starred Zero Mostel. And, of course, Bonnie and Clyde.

But I think I’ll remember Gene Wilder tonight by watching Silver Streak (1976), not his best movie certainly but loads of fun and I haven’t seen it in a very long time. In it, He makes a credible romantic lead opposite Jill Clayburgh. While also holding his own comedically with Richard Pryor.

How many actors could do that? And both in the same film? Only one that I know of. Who is gone now.

Unique can’t be replaced. It can only be missed. I will miss Gene Wilder.

The word unique gets misused a lot. You can’t be a little bit unique or more unique than someone else. Unique means one of a kind.

There was nobody like Gene Wilder before Gene Wilder. And, while I’m sure many tried, no one has ever been able to copy him. Do Gene Wilder. Have a Gene Wilder-like career.

He was in a number of good to great movies, including ones you forget he was until you see them again. Such as the 1974 film version of Rhinoceros that co-starred Zero Mostel. And, of course, Bonnie and Clyde.

But I think I’ll remember Gene Wilder tonight by watching Silver Streak (1976), not his best movie certainly but loads of fun and I haven’t seen it in a very long time. In it, He makes a credible romantic lead opposite Jill Clayburgh. While also holding his own comedically with Richard Pryor.

How many actors could do that? And both in the same film? Only one that I know of. Who is gone now.

Unique can’t be replaced. It can only be missed. I will miss Gene Wilder.

We Loved the Earth but Could Not Stay

James “Jim” Harrison (December 11, 1937 – March 26, 2016) – Writer

“We loved the earth but could not stay” – a folk saying, the epigraph to Dalva.

I met Jim Harrison in 1994, when he was on a book tour for Julip, his short novel about a woman who sets out to get her brother released from jail. Oddly, Harrison (who had a reputation as a bit of a misogynist and a man’s man in the mold of Hemingway et al) was at his finest when writing not just about women but from a woman’s point of view. In my opinion, his greatest novel is Dalva (1988) – narrated by a middle-aged woman who longs for the son she gave up for adoption – and the best of his later works is its sequel, The Road Home (1998).  I remember being excited by his most famous and commercially successful novel, Legends of the Fall (1979), then losing patience and giving up halfway through. I don’t remember why, although I plan to reread it – finish it this time – as my celebration of its creator’s life. I feel certain the impatience I felt was my own fault and not Harrison’s and I think one reason I never returned to Legends of the Fall is the hammy hyperbolic movie made from it starring Brad Pitt and Anthony Hopkins both sporting really long hair. I quit on it halfway through as well but have no plans to revisit.

Back to 1994, where I am standing in a ridiculously long line at Dutton’s Brentwood – a holy place now gone, as are all the Dutton’s bookstores in Los Angeles, nearly all the bookstores period – holding my newly purchased copy of Julip for Harrison to sign. I didn’t care about autographs, I just wanted to see Harrison up close, thank him for Dalva, ask him a question.

Most of the people in line with me only care about autographs. They have shopping bags full of first-edition Jim Harrisons for Jim Harrison to sign, which would increase the value of Brand Harrison’s literary offerings in a collectible market gone mad because of the internet. The next year will see the start of e-Bay, but rare book dealers and their like are already publishing their inventories on line and all types of collecting have started to globalize and create cottage industries. Those industries, in turn, have spawned a new class of  bare-bones “entrepreneurs” who are(for the most part) making a marginal profit at a low investment. And a generous sampling of which are now crowded into the front room of Dutton’s Brentwood.  Vocal, grasping, in a hurry to get nowhere fast are this new breed,  collectors of books with no interest in reading books and exhibiting little evidence of ever having done so. They resemble the crowds of fans at movie premieres and Broadway stage doors, but devoid of purpose: fans with no  sense of fandom. Un-fans. In the future, bookstores will limit the number of books signed and insist that at least one of them be purchased at their store, but this effusion of ignorant ugliness is still quite new and as yet unchecked, barely understood.

Seated behind a table at the head of the ponderous, sweaty snake – signing away and looking none too happy about it – is the author, our hero, Jim Harrison. His clothes are rumpled, his hair unkempt, his one blind eye staring off into space, and – even from a distance – he looks to me as if he’s been drinking. Possibly a lot. I alternate between taking peeks at him and trying to read Julip, which is good. But reading requires me to block out the obnoxious chatter all around me, emanating from the gaggle of shopping-baggers who all seem to know each other (not as friends, more in the manner of friendly competitors) as they trade notes on what they’d gotten for the new autographed Stephen King or brag about the Philip Roth first they picked up for a buck at a library sale. I hate them all and the only person in the crowd who mildly piques my interest is an Ichabod Crane fellow with stringy blond hair and a backpack who is standing two places ahead of me. The collectors in advance of and directly behind Ichabod Crane are giving him a wide berth and, before too long, I catch a whiff of why: he hasn’t bathed in awhile and this fact, combined with the backpack and his soiled army-surplus attire, leads me to surmise that he is homeless.  Probably a homeless vet.

A short time later, Ichabod Crane arrives at the signing table, where he fishes inside the backpack, comes out with a beat-up paperback copy of Legends of the Fall, and hands it to Jim Harrison. Crane is mumbling and I can’t hear what he’s saying, but I see Harrison’s face break into a smile and hear what he says back: “Finally, a reader!” There are a few more exchanges and then Harrison is inviting Crane behind the table, where he finds him another chair. Then he produces a bottle of whiskey and pours drinks for them both and they proceed to talk through two whiskeys for what must be twenty minutes. Quietly, intently, heads close together; if the man’s odor bothers Harrison he shows no sign. Meanwhile, the pretend book lovers all around me grow restive, begin complaining bitterly amongst themselves. Someone toward the back yells, “Hurry up.” Harrison ignores him and continues to talk to his reader, then – something agreed upon, some conclusion reached – their conversation is over. Harrison signs the man’s paperback and I see him press something between its pages, a phone number perhaps but more likely money, then they embrace and Crane is gone, out the back way. I never see his face.

I’m writing a play … and I need to stay in it, inside its world … which is why I haven’t written here for a time. But I saw that Jim Harrison had died and I wanted to remember him. I have another story … of the conversation we had when it came my turn in line … featuring the Jack Nicholson Endowment Fund. But that can wait for another day. Jim Harrison will be missed and I hope his best reader is somewhere safe and warm.

Sad to Hear Pat Conroy Has Died

Donald Patrick “Pat” Conroy (October 26, 1945 – March 4, 2016)

conroyHe wrote some very good books, four of which were turned into very good to great movies. Perhaps the best of these movies (Conrack, 1974) is the one you’re least likely to have seen. It was based on The Water Is Wide (1972), a memoir of his year teaching school on an impoverished South Carolina coastal island, and it starred Jon Voight as the young Conroy character. His fiction works The Great Santini (1976), The Lords of Discipline (1980), and The Prince of the Tides (1986) were also made into films and all four of his film adaptations featured wonderful performances. Conroy’s characters were recognizably real people who good actors could act.

My parents retired to South Carolina near Charleston shortly after I moved to L.A., so I’ve spent a lot of time in Conroy country – including his lovely adopted home of Beaufort, where the movie The Big Chill was filmed – and I know first-hand how well he depicted the colorful people and achingly beautiful places of that divided part of our nation.

big chill shotHe was also among the best poets of divided manhood (for want of a better term) for his whole generation. The generation of American men for whom the military and sports and other traditional male pursuits and roles were no longer sufficient to live a full and satisfying life. And certainly not enough to heal the wounds inflicted by those males (starting with their fathers) for whom traditional male codes of behavior were everything.

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A Combover in the Crowd

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Fear and Loathing on the Trump Trail, Part I

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Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow… Chick, Chick, Chick!… Somewhere Around Barstow… A Rose Is a Rose… A Guest Star Better Late Than Never… Barstow Redux… A Face in the Crowd?… It Can’t Happen Here!… And Now a Word from Our Sponsor….

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You have to look at it, you can’t help yourself; but you mustn’t look too long or too hard.  Bad things can happen if you do. Right now – in the moment of which I write – I’m focused on the fluffy front part of Trump’s hair (he’s facing the camera on a show called CBS This Morning) observing how a spun-sugar wave of it drifts down over his upper forehead and how it resembles nothing so much as baby chick feathers. It’s not just the consistency that invites this comparison, it’s also the color: a soft, seemingly back-lit hue of yellow-white that appears nowhere in Nature except on two-day-old chickens and the head of Donald J. Trump. It should also be noted that his front hair appears glued together to form a sort of uni-bang. If you lift up one part of the bang, the rest will follow.

I realize I’ve been staring when I begin to see stars and hear odd mechanical clicking sounds that drown out what the group of actors around Trump is saying. The cast of the TV show – two attractive women with good hair and an older man – are seated with The Donald around a glass table that has a stencil of the CBS trademark eye painted on it. I know I should know all the people around Trump – they’re important – but the only one I recognize (and it takes me awhile) is the man, whose name is Charlie Rose and who used to have his own show where he interviewed people for very low ratings very late at night.

Charlie Rose might still have his own show. I’ve fallen behind – in recent years – on my TV viewing, a failing which I hope to rectify this season. So far I’ve only missed the Election Show segments in Iowa and New Hampshire (where Trump finished third and first in the ratings) and it’s clear that Charlie and the other regulars on CBS This Morning are very excited to have him on as a guest star.  One of the female regulars (sorry, I didn’t catch her name, but she’s black, very pretty, and was costumed for this episode in an expensive belted dress) remarked, “Finally, live and in color.” The other woman (white, pretty as well, with long hair and a blue dress) indicated she was delighted and, although Charlie didn’t say anything just then, he nodded happily when the first woman quoted him as having remarked upon Trump’s arrival: “What took you so long?” Trump was gracious in response, congratulating everyone on their show and saying that he watched it. I think he lied, though: Trump is all about “winners” and the morning show on CBS is a loser. It only has an average 3.85 million viewers and trails the morning shows on ABC and NBC. But it was nice of Trump to say he tuned in and you could see how it gave the whole cast a lift.

 

snapshot cbsI’m trying really hard to focus on what everyone’s saying  – it’s important, for God’s sake, and I’m a professional! – but I’ve gotten caught up again in examining The Donald’s hair: there’s a different camera angle now and you see it in profile, the left side profile, and you can actually pinpoint the place where the part begins. Oooph! Suddenly, I can’t hear the voices on the TV over the noises in my head and I’m once more seeing stars, but – before it gets really bad – CBS switches to a different camera (without Trump in the foreground) and I’m able to shift my own focus to Charlie Rose. Rose used to favor red ties but he goes in now for light purple – almost a lavender – and his face now is the tired, slightly hangdog visage of the aging philanderer. Rose’s receding gray hair is slicked back and held tightly in place, as if his mother had wet it with spit and smoothed it down right before the show. But as I study his hair – and mentally contrast it with Trump’s – Charlie is stating that people are saying “Donald Trump has changed American politics” in New Hampshire, where he captured a 35 share using his own money and without having to thank a single sponsor. The camera guys switch back to a closeup on Trump and I quickly press pause.

FaceInCrowdOne reason I pause the podcast is because that thing is happening again … the optic flashes and the clicks, which are becoming more frequent and starting to overlap into a droning buzz … but also because something Charlie has just said to Trump reminds me of a scene from one of my favorite movies, A Face in the Crowd (1957). It stars Andy Griffith as an American TV personality named Lonesome Rhodes, who acquires political influence as his popularity with the viewing public grows.

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In the film – set during 1950s America – everything gets jumbled up: celebrity, power, business, sex, advertising, violence, politics, an ignorant poor populace, a rich ruling elite, all of it sprayed with a thin but scary varnish of latent fascism. As I’m writing this, I’m getting embarrassed: A Face in the Crowd has nothing to do with Donald Trump’s run for the Presidency and I can’t imagine why I thought it did in the first place. But memory is weird that way and the sequence that popped into my mind is the one after Lonesome Rhodes gets his first TV show, sponsored by a local mattress company who wants him to read their ad copy straight. Rhodes refuses – he makes fun of the Mattress Guy on air – and gets fired. His refusal to kowtow to his sponsor makes Lonesome Rhodes even more popular with the people, however. His fans break windows at the mattress company, burn mattresses in the street, and vow to follow Rhodes to bigger and better things.

Like I said, it’s an old movie that can’t happen now and certainly not here. And I was stupid for thinking there was any sort of connection.  A Face in the Crowd is fiction, the Trump Show reality-based. The movie’s hero started out broke and in jail; our hero got $200,000 straight out of college and as much as $200 million more when his father died. Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes is preserved on celluloid and in black-and-white. Donald “The Donald” Trump is live and in color.

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Coming Soon: Things get scary – in Fear and Loathing on the Trump Trail, Part II – and Randall Smoot has to go for a walk.

James Dean (2/08/1931 -9/30/1955)

dean monkeyI could write a book about James Dean. It probably wouldn’t be a good book, but it would be a long one. Dean spent his boyhood on a farm in the small town of Fairmount, Indiana, an hour north on I-69 from my own boyhood home of Indianapolis.  I don’t know for certain that the proximity of my growing-up place to Dean’s growing-up place explains why I so readily identified with the characters he portrayed in his three major films (East of Eden, Rebel Without a Cause, and Giant), but I’m sure it didn’t hurt.

james dean at homeAnd while the characters in Dean’s three main movies were quite different in some ways, they shared one big thing in common: all three young men had unloving, ineffectual, or nonexistent parents.  Dean’s mother died when he was nine and his father sent him to be raised by an aunt and uncle on that farm in Fairmount. I don’t know for certain that Dean’s estrangement from his birth parents by death and abandonment contributed to his effectiveness in essaying young men with similar wounds, but I’m sure it didn’t hurt. Here’s the deal. When you have no parents or shitty parents, you sort of have to raise yourself. Chance the not always reliable counsel of authority figures at school and in the community. Resist the more tempting types of peer pressure. Find family where you can.

It’s a treacherous, anger-making road and there’s always the risk you’ll do injury to self or others along the way. Like Jim in Rebel. Or that, like Cal in Eden, you’ll torture yourself needlessly by continuing to seek love where it can’t be found. Or that you’ll end up drunk and stunted, incapable of receiving love or giving love, like poor rich Jett in Giant.east-of-edenJames Dean ripped through acting the way he ripped through life. It’s hard to believe that he got as good as he got at the age of only 24 and difficult to imagine where he could have gone from there. Dean was a bright guy with aspirations to write and direct, so maybe that’s the direction he would have taken if his road hadn’t proven so short.acting dean

Charlie Starkweather Goes to the Movies

Spree killer commits three murders – on this date in 1958 – in Lincoln, Nebraska

For some reason, one of my bookmarked “this day in history” sites published the above blurb about 20-year-old Charles Starkweather – who (accompanied by his 14-year-old girlfriend, Caril Ann Fugate) went on a murderous 500-mile rampage across Nebraska that lasted nine days and claimed 11 innocent lives – as its lead item.  I was halfway through writing this when I realized that it’s tomorrow’s date – January 29 – when the last murder was committed and, later the same day, when the only event in this pathetic saga worth celebrating (Starkweather’s arrest) had occurred. But here I am today, with half the text written and my photos picked out, so I may as well finish what I started.

The Starkweather (with Fugate) killing spree was sensational news in 1950s America, receiving media coverage and social commentary at a level and volume similar to what the Columbine tragedy generated in more recent times. And the sex & death tale (I hesitate to call it a “love story”) of Charlie and Caril on the road has been the basis for numerous movies, TV movies, books, and songs including Terence Malick’s first film Badlands (1973), the number “Nebraska” off Bruce Springsteen’s 1982 album of the same name, and Oliver Stone’s super-duper gore-fest extravaganza Natural Born Killers (1994).

First, the sad facts, sanitized to reduce the extreme gruesomeness to outline form.  Late on the night of November 30, 1957, young Charles Starkweather robbed and subsequently killed a gas station attendant, who had refused to let him buy on credit a stuffed-doll for Caril Fugate.  He confessed the robbery to Fugate but told her someone else had done the killing, then about two months later – on January 21, 1958 – he argued with Caril’s mother and stepfather, who ordered him to leave her alone. Starkweather killed them both with his shotgun, then murdered Caril’s two-year-old sister with a knife. Fugate wasn’t there when the murders took place, but did help bury the bodies and fled with Starkweather several days later.  Seven more killings would follow, including the three deaths that occurred on this date of industrialist C. Lauer Ward, his wife, and their maid. Starkweather also killed the Ward family dog.

Dead people are all on the same level. – Charles Starkweather

Why did these things happen? Well, prior to further investigation, I think we should take Charlie Starkweather at his word. He got mad at people – in a general way – especially folks whom he thought were better than him or who acted as if they were. Their perceived superiorities – and his own manifold inadequacies – had Starkweather in a nihilistic rage that could only be relieved – he thought – by bringing down the objects of that rage. By putting them all on one level. By making them dead.

Like most serial killers – and I believe so-called “spree killers” are basically disorganized serial killers in a hurry – Charles Starkweather wasn’t 100% certain that killing someone would make him feel better. But then he murdered the gas-station attendant – the poor young man’s name was Robert Colvert – and, afterward, he felt great. Greater than great. Like a new man.  In an interview about the first killing, Starkweather claimed – I’m paraphrasing – that he had “transcended his former self to reach a new plane of existence in which he was above and outside the law.”

Yeah, okay, Charlie. I also think – again like serial killers – he got off on it. He shotgunned the males, but stabbed the women and girls up close. And he attempted, unsuccessfully, to rape the one young woman he killed. He also stabbed two of the victim’s dogs.  Which all sounds like something Richard Ramirez would have done.

Which brings us to my utter mystification that anyone – several anyones, some of whom are deeply talented – could think that a piece of shit like Charles Starkweather was a worthwhile subject for a film, a TV movie, a folk ballad, etc.; that he should be accorded antihero status; that his criminal, sick, coercive “relationship” with an adolescent girl (Fugate was 13 when they met) could responsibly be elevated to a “love affair.”

Let’s take Malick’s Badlands first.  In my memory, it is a great if emotionally sterile film. Visually, it looks more like America than almost any Seventies film I can think of; long lyrical stretches of it have me imagining that it was shot in Kodak color by photographer William Eggleston and his still pictures somehow made to move. Thematically, it is a quieter Breathless (1959), the Godard film that lies behind so many American New Wave flicks, and it also evokes, of course, Bonnie and Clyde (1967), which was directed by Malick’s mentor, Arthur Penn, and which announced said New Wave’s arrival.

If the real-life Starkweather/Fugate connection wasn’t specifically referenced at the time Badlands came out, it was certainly something Malick – at 27 – had thought about long and hard. He sought permission to do the film from Caril Fugate, who was still in prison at the time, as well as from her lawyer; and he offered to delay release of the finished film if they felt it would adversely affect Fugate’s chances for parole. But Malick had already sanitized or left out the worst aspects of Starkweather’s crimes, beginning with the murder of Fugate’s family. In Badlands, Kit (the Starkweather character played by Martin Sheen in one of his better young performances) only murders Fugate’s father and does so in partial reprisal for his killing the family dog. Left out is the murder of her mother and little sister. And, in real life, it was Starkweather himself who killed her dog.  The Fugate character, Holly (Sissy Spacek in a superb, aptly banal performance), is 15 not 13 when she hooks up with Kit, two years that make no difference in the law but do affect the ability of the audience to come along for the ride. And having adult actors playing Kit and Holly soon banishes the memories of Caril and Charlie, replacing them with Spacek and Sheen.

Bruce Springsteen’s acoustic album Nebraska has an understated, essentialist quality to it that seems to evoke Malick’s film more than the real life events. I liked it well enough when it came out, bought it, listened to it repeatedly. And I believe that the only line I might object to came from the film not from life. Springsteen has the Starkweather character sing: “I can’t say I’m sorry for the things we done/but at least for a little while we had us some fun.”  Which is what Martin Sheen says in his faked suicide record in the film. I don’t like the implied permission and enjoyment of the Fugate character, who I see as more of an additional victim of Starkweather than fellow perpetrator. She was so young when she came under a psychopath’s sway, was a model prisoner during her 17 years of incarceration, and has led a good and respectable life upon release.

I’ll save the filmic can of peas known as Natural Born Killers, which most decidedly would have affected Fugate’s chances at parole – not that Quentin Tarantino and Oliver Stone would ever ask permission or care – and which helped usher in an era of hyperkinetic ultraviolence that I (and American movies) could have done without.

In a postscript, and despite what I said just above, I don’t blame movies and songs for violence in the culture. There might be some connection between one movie or song and a heinous act, but we can’t establish that connection with any certainty or censor works in general on the hope of preventing all such acts in the future. Charles Starkweather copied his hair and clothes – and some of his manner – from James Dean, whose character in Rebel without a Cause would have been appalled by Starkweather and his behavior. James Dean as Cal in East of Eden might have been slightly more amenable, but that film is the Bible story of Cain and Abel filtered through John Steinbeck’s novel and Elia Kazan’s lens.

And we can’t very well go around blaming the Bible for murders, now can we?

“Tell Mike it was only business”

Abe Vigoda (February 24, 1921 – January 26, 2016)abe vigoda as tessio in the godfatherActor Abe Vigoda was fifty years old when he was cast as Salvatore Tessio, a crime family capo, in The Godfather (1972). In that film, Vigoda’s long face and mournful eyes appeared to conceal a world of thoughts and feelings that were rarely so much as hinted at, which seemed nearly impossible to read.

We believed Tessio’s long years of faithful, unprotesting service to the first Don. But we also – like Tom Hagen in the movie – received without surprise the revelation it was Vigoda’s character who had betrayed the new Don, Michael. We weren’t surprised because in the moment of revelation, we remembered Vigoda’s growing weariness in the part and knew it derived from the feeling of not being given his due. Yes, it was the smart move, as the character Tom Hagen said. And “it was only business,” as Tessio himself told Tom. But Vigoda’s weary expression and stooped shoulders gave us the deeper truth: Tessio had simply grown too tired not to be brave.

Abe Vigoda’s life as an actor had a similar beginning to the man he portrayed in his first widely noticed role. He had spent decades acting in New York theater and doing bit parts in TV and film, managing somehow to support his wife and child. But the part in The Godfather suddenly made him – in middle age – a recognizable name and all but seven of his 94 film credits were still to come. Vigoda was probably best known – in later work – for his role in the popular TV series Barney Miller and its spinoff series Fish. The other thing that long face and those mournful eyes had concealed was a wonderful sense of humor, put on full display in Vigoda’s comedic TV work.

The son of a tailor, Abe Vigoda grew up working class in Brooklyn. News of his death have been greatly exaggerated – and erroneously reported – since as far back as 1982, when CNN mistakenly referred to him as the “late” Abe Vigoda. While there is no reason to believe this most recent report is a hoax,  one can always hope. Vigoda is 94 years young.

Paul Newman – Director

Paul Newman (January 26, 1925 – 2008)

paul newman directingI might not feel compelled to write something about Paul Newman’s intermittent career behind the camera if it weren’t for Rachel, Rachel (1968), a criminally neglected “Sixties movie” that is also Newman’s first and finest as director. I saw it in the theater all those years ago and never forgot it. And, when it finally came out on DVD, I bought it and watched it twice straight through. It’s that good.

Newman’s second feature was Sometimes a Great Notion (1970, based on the Ken Kesey novel), which is only one of two movies Newman both directed and starred in. There are terrific scenes in that film, but overall it’s the kind of highly competent but mostly  uninspired work that you would expect from a director such as Stuart Rosenberg, who – not coincidentally, I would imagine – directed Newman in Cool Hand Luke and other studio features. Harry & Son (1984) – the second Paul Newman film in which he acted – is a likable mess. And his remaining three films are stage plays turned into movies starring Joanne Woodward, which one is tempted to assume were viewed as opportunities for husband Paul to spend time with wife Joanne and to remind the world what a great actress she can be.

If you need any reminders of Woodward’s talent, you couldn’t find a better place to start than Rachel, Rachel, which also stars Woodward as Rachel Cameron, a “spinster” schoolteacher who appears utterly incapable of asserting herself emotionally or of reaching for any kind of life she wants. This has the sound of standard fare, but not the way Newman directs it (from a script by Stewart Stern based on the novel by Margaret Laurence). And I think Newman entitled the film Rachel, Rachel because half the time his camera is on Joanne Woodward and the other half it’s inside her character’s head, where a goodly amount of rich fantasizing takes place. And since this is the Sixties, after all, Rachel (both of her) ends up going on a fairly wild ride.

Rachel-Rachel-WoodwardThe movie stands on its own – Rachel, Rachel is one of the finest and most emblematic American films of the 1960s – but it is also a love letter par excellence from husband to wife. Newman can’t take his eyes off Woodward and we can’t either. Comparisons are invidious, but other performances by American actresses from the same period that I liked as much although not more include Anne Bancroft in The Pumpkin Eater (1964), Barbara Loden in Wanda (1970), and Gena Rowlands in A Woman Under the Influence (1974).

Arthur Miller’s Fall from Grace

On January 23 – in 1964 – Arthur Miller’s After the Fall Opens on Broadway

I don’t require artists to be good people in order to admire their works – any more than I need inventors to be nice before I’ll utilize their inventions. If I found out tomorrow that Thomas Alva Edison was the biggest asshole who ever lived, I wouldn’t go back to reading by candlelight and never listen to another LP or watch another film.

That having been said, the ideal state of knowledge regarding the life of a great writer, actor, painter, etc., is total ignorance. Which is the approximate state of our knowledge about William Shakespeare, minus a few drinks he reportedly had with Ben Jonson and that “second-best bed” he left to his wife. But it’s human to want to know stuff about the lives of people whose work we admire and all too human for us to feel a twinge or two of disappointment (even anger) if those lives don’t quite measure up. Guess what? They rarely do. And, for even the most stalwart among us, curiosity can kill the cat.

marilyn-monroe-arthur-miller3I am not blissfully ignorant of playwright Arthur Miller’s life. Or of Marilyn Monroe’s. Or of their life together as a married couple, possibly the most famous pairing in American history of marvelous movie star Beauty with bespectacled intellectual Beast. I know a bunch of stuff about both of them – and their marriage – and while, as I’ve said, I’m usually pretty good at divorcing work from creator, Miller’s 1964 play, After the Fall, is an exception. I find it hard to disentangle the play from the lives depicted – not to mention their depictor – the play still pisses me off. And I don’t think that’s entirely my fault.

After the Fall portrays a successful Jewish lawyer named Quentin (bearing a remarkable resemblance to a successful Jewish playwright named Arthur) looking back on his life and loves and feeling guilty. One of his wives is named Maggie, a sexy secretary at Quentin’s law firm – gimme a break! – who is depicted as a drunken, pill-popping, self-hating slut who kills herself and who (to Miller’s surprise, he said, at the time) most people took to be Marilyn Monroe. Arthur Miller’s friend, Jackie Kennedy (pre-Onassis) – who was all about loyalty and not talking trash about the ones you’ve loved – saw the play and never spoke to Miller again. Fifty years on, it still feels self-serving, exploitative, more than a little smarmy.

It’s possible that After the Fall wouldn’t bother me so much if Miller had waited longer to write it, but the ink on their divorce was only dry a year, Marilyn’s ashes barely cold. Maybe if Miller had called the play something besides After the Fall … Eve made me do it, God, I swear, and she was the ultimate shiksha Eve to boot! … it would help. I think I might be less bothered, too, if he’d left his play merely personal … without the shadow of the concentration-camp guard tower in the background and the strained attempt to raise his own middle-aged, rather ordinary sins to the level of Mankind’s Fall from Grace.

All that having been said, I wish I’d seen the original Broadway production of After the Fall. Wish I’d been old enough to both appreciate it and be pissed off by it. The play was directed by Elia Kazan, another one whose life could color his work for me if I let it. It starred Jason Robards, Jr. (I miss him) as Quentin and Kazan’s future wife, Barbara Loden, as Maggie. Loden had been luminous three years before in Kazan’s movie Splendor in the Grass (1961) and she went on to write, direct, and star in Wanda (1970), one of the first great American films of the Seventies. See Wanda if you can.

Felliniesque

Federico Fellini (January 20, 1920 – October 31, 1993)

Felliniesque
/fəˈliːnɪˌɛsk/
adjective
1. referring to or reminiscent of the films of Federico Fellini.

By any measure, Italian maestro Federico Fellini was one of the greatest filmmakers who ever lived. There was never anyone like Fellini before him – or any films like his films – and I’m not holding my breath for another Fellini to come along anytime soon. The best that Fellini’s meager successors have ever managed is “Felliniesque.”

Federico Fellini, of course, is not the only film director to have his name turned into an adjective – Wellesian and Godardian come to mind – but none of the other names-turned-adjectives seem as evocative of the movies they describe. Nor is their secondary meaning (“reminiscent of”) so clearly an insult, roughly translating as  “failing to live up to the original.”

amarcord2

Movies described as Felliniesque – featuring, perhaps, a self-absorbed and self-reflective male hero in a world of Amazonian women with cartoonish boobs, random circus clowns, unexplained bursts of surrealism, and a scene toward the end on a beach – not only fall short of Fellini’s scenically but they fail altogether to capture his visual poetry.

fellini-bus-scene-8.5.pngI like some of Fellini’s movies better than others of Fellini’s movies, but criticism of them seems almost beside the point. Especially now that their orchestrator is long dead and gone to that great Criterion Collection in the sky. Fellini’s movies created a world that is recognizably our world but also other somehow, existing alongside as a kind of running poetic commentary on our world, on our experience of living in it, and of our occasional attempts (generally unsuccessful) to fashion that living into art. Not to mention that virtually any complaint against Fellini we might care to lodge has already been registered by one of his surrogate characters (usually played, sublimely, by Marcello Mastroianni).  The best example is Guido Anselmi in 81/2 (1963), who confesses: “I really have nothing to say, but I want to say it all the same.”

I’m grateful that Federico Fellini went on saying nothing for another 30 years and I’m surprised at how often I find myself returning to his later films (such as Fellini’s Roma, Amarcord, Ginger and Fred) and wishing there were more.

Fellini-Directing