Category Archives: Film

Three Film Reviews: “The Favorite”; “Roma”; “Struggle”

January 1, 2019

“The Favorite” (directed by Yorgos Lanthimos)

I confess I could use a good comedy right now. Linda and I watched Ernst Lubitsch’s “To Be Or Not to Be” on DVD a week or so ago, and I couldn’t figure out why I had not seen it before. It’s far superior to Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator,” and should be required viewing in every film history course. Carol Lombard was outstanding, and I found myself wondering if she had lived and kept working in Hollywood, she might have enabled Marilyn Monroe to have an actress to look up to and serve as a model for artistic excellence. Watching “To Be Or Not to Be” reminded me that it is possible to make a great comedy about current politics, and I could use the tempering reminder of a well-earned laugh at this point in Trump’s bloated tenure.

Of course, everyone’s historical period seems to possess its own make-or-break urgency. A film that is currently making its run at the Art Theater in Long Beach is “The Favorite,” which portrays the palace politics of the penultimate segment of Queen Anne’s reign. Her primary advisor (and lover), Sarah, The Duchess of Marlborough (played by Rachel Weisz), finds herself displaced by an upstart, quietly ambitious cousin, Abigail (Emma Stone) who rises from the ranks of scullery maid to console and heal the physical and psychic wounds of the monarch. “My side,” is the upstart’s response to an inquiry from the Whig leader about where her loyalties find their sinecure. We see a side of her that makes her less of our favorite by the end of the film.

“The Favorite” is divided into eight parts, if recollection serves me right. Each section has a title, so it seems as if this is an eight chapter novel, for which the Yorgos Langhimos has chosen to make use of a variety of cinematic approaches, including a wide-angle lens that creates a kind of fishbowl gaze at the royal mise-en-scene. The director has been quoted as saying that he was influenced by certain Dutch paintings in striving to provide this lushly blurred intonation. In other scenes, candlelight is used to generate a mood of intense personal self-reflection akin to the portraits of Georges de la Tour.

The musical score stood out for its fervor in dipping itself into the editing of the scenes. For the most part, the music emphatically bolstered the ambivalence of the shifting alliances and betrayals at the core of the narrative. In one chapter, however,the minimalism of the score found its efficacy diluted by over-extension, and in the final chapter the piano seemed overused as the submission of the “favorite” to aristocratic prerogative whirled into a kaleidoscopic collage.

Louis Montrose has observed, quite astutely, that “All representations of power are also appropriations of power.” In depicting the power struggles of Queen Anne’s court, “The Favorite” reveals how those who use seduction to gain power are comically distorted by the power imparted by that seduction.

When I was a graduate student, a professor commented that the “long eighteenth century” is usually the weakest link in a student’s preparation for Ph.D. studies, although many students find it to be the most fascinating instance of modernity’s ideological evolution. I certainly found it to be far more intriguing than I anticipated. I only wish that this film had been available back in 1997, and that a sequel that focused on Prime Miniter Walpole had come out the following year.

December 29, 2018: “Roma”

Although Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma” has generated considerable acclaim and is likely to get at least several Academy award nominations, if not win one or two, it has also been a flash point for shifts within the film industry. It is my understanding that the distributor of the film, Netflix, also was a major source of its funding, and “Roma” has consequently had an unusual patten of public exhibition. Instead of a limited release in “art houses,” followed by more suburban chain theaters, “Roma” has been available on Netflix for viewing alongside anyone who is binge-watching a series.

Linda and I walked over to the Art Theater in Long Beach two weeks ago to see “Roma” on the “big screen,” and I remain grateful that we did so; in fact, I’m not sure that I ever want to watch the film on a TV screen or a computer monitor. Given my age and that I am still working full-time, and have many unfinished projects, watching “Roma” on the small screen may not ever be a temptation. If so, it will remain one of my treasured memories. Even in the course of watching the film, I felt the nostalgia of recollection already at work. If someone wishes to sneer at what might be thought of self-indulgent sentimentality for one’s remote youth, then let them sneer. The palimpsest of the years spent watching Fellini and de Sica thickened as I watched “Roma,” and “depth of field” renewed its claims as a viable frame for a vision that allows those who are not given primary roles to surprise all onlookers.

Regardless of the number of awards it receives, “Roma” will no doubt be the subject of a fair number of conference papers at academic gatherings. “The abject” has not lost its keyword status, though its portrayal on the “big screen” may not be appreciated as it deserves simply because so few people will see it in that context and therefore expand their critique making use of that particular starting point.

Not everyone admires “Roma,” which refers to a specific neighborhood in Mexico City. (It is the equivalent of titling a film “Echo Park” or “Ocean Park” or “Venice,” if it were set in Los Angeles.) We had dinner with two friends the other night who said that if they had seen it in a movie theater, they would have wanted their money back. They did concede, however, that the image of the maid and nanny, Cleo (played with extraordinary subtlety by Yalitza Aparicio), holding herself in a difficult yoga pose while all the men around her flounder like inept novitiates was truly memorable. Such is the case, and underlines the case made by Ezra Pound a hundred years ago: “It is better to present one Image in a lifetime than to produce voluminous works.” Still spot on.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Struggle: The Life & Lost Art of Szukalski (2018)
Directed by Ireneusz Dobrowolski
Written by Stephen Cooper & Ireneusz Dobrowolski
Produced by Leonardo DiCaprio et al.

Stephen Cooper, an internationally recognized authority on the writing of John Fante, turned his attention about five years ago to yet another neglected artistic figure, the sculptor Stanislaw Szukalski (1893 – 1987). I would have probably never thought about watching “Struggle,” a documentary initially focused on Szukalski’s lost artistic projects, if I had not first spent a few minutes every semester or so discussing the progress of the film with Steve, who served as one of the co-producers along with a host of “executive producers.” As I recollect our conversations in the Department of English’s mail room, one of the final tasks involved some filming on Easter Island; in fact, in retrospect, this aspect of the film’s production was so much the main topic that when I first heard about a screening of “Struggle,” I wondered what had happened to the project that Steve was working on that required location shooting on Easter Island.

It turned out that Easter Island is the resting place for Szukalski’s ashes, in large part because he believed that all human culture originated from that remote domain of vanquished sculptors. Every human civilization, according to Szukalski’s fantasy, is the result of a diaspora that launched itself from Easter Island, either before or after the Great Flood. I’m uncertain of Szukalski’s “Great Flood” chronology because I didn’t see how it made any difference which came first. I found Szukaski to be an artist who possessed great technical facility as a young sculptor, but who succumbed to fantasies of being a genius. In the course of the film, we learn that these fantasies in the 1930s included nationalistic fervor embedded in right-wing blood and soil ideologies.

The biggest mistake of Sukalski’s life was returning to Poland, his birth country, from the United States, where he was beginning to establish an artistic reputation, and attempting to become the singular master of imagining Polish national identity. Although the second half of the film includes interview footage in which he seems to renounce the anti-Semitism with which his artistic impetus became associated, it is difficult to overlook how the right wing in Poland in this decade appears to have appropriated his work in its contemporary programming.

The film itself seems all too much like a PBS documentary, heavy on still photographs that provide a bridge between favorable footage and the exculpatory exegesis of various critics. I wish more biographical detail had been provided: how exactly did Szukalski manage to escape from Poland after the Nazi invasion? What stories did he tell his screenwriter friend, Ben Hecht, about his time in Poland, in which he appears to have been associated with a fascist, anti-Semitic insurgency? (It seems telling that the film’s title echoes the title of Hitler’s infamous manifesto.) Did anyone involved with the film contact his former co-workers at Rocketdyne, where he is said to have been employed for several years? “Struggle” features the executor of Szukalski’s artistic estate, Glenn Bray, in the lead role of his posthumous advocate. Bray, in fact, probably deserves some formal credit for “Struggle” in that the film could hardly have ever come to pass without his hundreds of hours of video footage serving as an archival resource. No doubt much of it would make for tedious viewing. Szukalski’s proposed universal language of “Protong,” for instance, is sufficiently bizarre that if it were taken out of context, I can imagine its inventor being held for observation at a facility for the mentally ill.

At the end of the film, in fact, I found myself infinitely more inclined to watch a full-length documentary about Ben Hecht, and wondering how big a role Szukalski might play in it. Despite the passages from Hecht’s writing, which are read in the film, that record the strong impression Szukalski made on him, I suspect that any substantial documentary film on Hecht would only include a very small cameo appearance by Szukalski, and even that might be more than he deserves.

“Struggle” debuted last month in Amsterdam and this month in Los Angeles. It started streaming on Netflix on Friday, December 21.

(Post-script: December 31, 2018 — The original blog post about this film was considerably shorter, and primarily noted that the film would be available for viewing on Netflix. The review has intermittently been revised and substantially expanded during the past two weeks.)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stanisław_Szukalski

http://szukalski.com

The following critique of Szukalski deserves our close attention:
Who Is Stanislav Szukalski, the Obscure Artist Leonardo DiCaprio Is Trying to Make Famous?

In reading about Szukalski’s theories, I began to wonder what kind of metanarrative he might have come up with if current scientific discourse about Neanderthal DNA had been wide-spread knowledge at mid-20th century.

https://www.livescience.com/64296-neanderthal-dna-human-skull-shape.html

“Roma”: The Big Screen as “The Abject”

December 29, 2018

Although Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma” has generated considerable acclaim and is likely to get at least several Academy award nominations, if not win one or two, it has also been a flash point for shifts within the film industry. It is my understanding that the distributor of the film, Netflix, also was a major source of its funding, and “Roma” has consequently had an unusual patten of public exhibition. Instead of a limited release in “art houses,” followed by more suburban chain theaters, “Roma” has been available on Netflix for viewing alongside anyone who is binge-watching a series.

Linda and I walked over to the Art Theater in Long Beach two weeks ago to see “Roma” on the “big screen,” and I remain grateful that we did so; in fact, I’m not sure that I ever want to watch the film on a TV screen or a computer monitor. Given my age and that I am still working full-time, and have many unfinished projects, watching “Roma” on the small screen may not ever be a temptation. If so, it will remain one of my treasured memories. Even in the course of watching the film, I felt the nostalgia of recollection already at work. If someone wishes to sneer at what might be thought of self-indulgent sentimentality for one’s remote youth, then let them sneer. The palimpsest of the years spent watching Fellini and de Sica thickened as I watched “Roma,” and “depth of field” renewed its claims as a viable frame for a vision that allows those who are not given primary roles to surprise all onlookers.

Regardless of the number of awards it receives, “Roma” will no doubt be the subject of a fair number of conference papers at academic gatherings. “The abject” has not lost its keyword status, though its portrayal on the “big screen” may not be appreciated as it deserves simply because so few people will see it in that context and therefore expand their critique making use of that particular starting point.

Not everyone admires “Roma,” which refers to a specific neighborhood in Mexico City. (It is the equivalent of titling a film “Echo Park” or “Ocean Park” or “Venice,” if it were set in Los Angeles.) We had dinner with two friends the other night who said that if they had seen it in a movie theater, they would have wanted their money back. They did concede, however, that the image of the maid and nanny, Cleo (played with extraordinary subtlety by Yalitza Aparicio), holding herself in a difficult yoga pose while all the men around her flounder like inept novitiates was truly memorable. Such is the case, and underlines the case made by Ezra Pound a hundred years ago: “It is better to present one Image in a lifetime than to produce voluminous works.” Still spot on.

“Struggle”: A Film about a Polish-American Sculptor

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Struggle: The Life & Lost Art of Szukalski (2018)
Directed by Ireneusz Dobrowolski
Written by Stephen Cooper & Ireneusz Dobrowolski
Produced by Leonardo DiCaprio et al.

Stephen Cooper, an internationally recognized authority on the writing of John Fante, turned his attention about five years ago to yet another neglected artistic figure, the sculptor Stanislaw Szukalski (1893 – 1987). I would have probably never thought about watching “Struggle,” a documentary initially focused on Szukalski’s lost artistic projects, if I had not first spent a few minutes every semester or so discussing the progress of the film with Steve, who served as one of the co-producers along with a host of “executive producers.” As I recollect our conversations in the Department of English’s mail room, one of the final tasks involved some filming on Easter Island; in fact, in retrospect, this aspect of the film’s production was so much the main topic that when I first heard about a screening of “Struggle,” I wondered what had happened to the project that Steve was working on that required location shooting on Easter Island.

It turned out that Easter Island is the resting place for Szukalski’s ashes, in large part because he believed that all human culture originated from that remote domain of vanquished sculptors. Every human civilization, according to Szukalski’s fantasy, is the result of a diaspora that launched itself from Easter Island, either before or after the Great Flood. I’m uncertain of Szukalski’s “Great Flood” chronology because I didn’t see how it made any difference which came first. I found Szukaski to be an artist who possessed great technical facility as a young sculptor, but who succumbed to fantasies of being a genius. In the course of the film, we learn that these fantasies in the 1930s included nationalistic fervor embedded in right-wing blood and soil ideologies.

The biggest mistake of Sukalski’s life was returning to Poland, his birth country, from the United States, where he was beginning to establish an artistic reputation, and attempting to become the singular master of imagining Polish national identity. Although the second half of the film includes interview footage in which he seems to renounce the anti-Semitism with which his artistic impetus became associated, it is difficult to overlook how the right wing in Poland in this decade appears to have appropriated his work in its contemporary programming.

The film itself seems all too much like a PBS documentary, heavy on still photographs that provide a bridge between favorable footage and the exculpatory exegesis of various critics. I wish more biographical detail had been provided: how exactly did Szukalski manage to escape from Poland after the Nazi invasion? What stories did he tell his screenwriter friend, Ben Hecht, about his time in Poland, in which he appears to have been associated with a fascist, anti-Semitic insurgency? (It seems telling that the film’s title echoes the title of Hitler’s infamous manifesto.) Did anyone involved with the film contact his former co-workers at Rocketdyne, where he is said to have been employed for several years? “Struggle” features the executor of Szukalski’s artistic estate, Glenn Bray, in the lead role of his posthumous advocate. Bray, in fact, probably deserves some formal credit for “Struggle” in that the film could hardly have ever come to pass without his hundreds of hours of video footage serving as an archival resource. No doubt much of it would make for tedious viewing. Szukalski’s proposed universal language of “Protong,” for instance, is sufficiently bizarre that if it were taken out of context, I can imagine its inventor being held for observation at a facility for the mentally ill.

At the end of the film, in fact, I found myself infinitely more inclined to watch a full-length documentary about Ben Hecht, and wondering how big a role Szukalski might play in it. Despite the passages from Hecht’s writing, which are read in the film, that record the strong impression Szukalski made on him, I suspect that any substantial documentary film on Hecht would only include a very small cameo appearance by Szukalski, and even that might be more than he deserves.

“Struggle” debuted last month in Amsterdam and this month in Los Angeles. It started streaming on Netflix on Friday, December 21.

(Post-script: December 31, 2018 — The original blog post about this film was considerably shorter, and primarily noted that the film would be available for viewing on Netflix. The review has intermittently been revised and substantially expanded during the past two weeks.)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stanisław_Szukalski

http://szukalski.com

The following critique of Szukalski deserves our close attention:
Who Is Stanislav Szukalski, the Obscure Artist Leonardo DiCaprio Is Trying to Make Famous?

In reading about Szukalski’s theories, I began to wonder what kind of metanarrative he might have come up with if current scientific discourse about Neanderthal DNA had been wide-spread knowledge at mid-20th century.

https://www.livescience.com/64296-neanderthal-dna-human-skull-shape.html

Long Beach Screen Test

Friday, June 15, 2018

On my way to the pharmacy a couple weeks ago, I was about to make a right turn at the corner of Junipero and Broadway when I spotted a film or TV production company with a panoply of reflecting screens elevated for maximum effect. The culture industry’s presence on any given street is not particularly remarkable in this region, but the height of one of the screens seemed unusual, and I parked my car and walked over to the park across the street from the Park Pantry. Things on the set were getting serious, for a man on a phone began asking people to stay away the area directly across the street from where a bus was parked. I didn’t stick around to see if I could catch a glimpse of the action. I had already seen the most interesting part.

Movie Screen Solo

Movie Screen Two

Movie Screen One

Movie Screen Full Sun

Burt Monro: “The World’s Fastest Indian” (Motorcycle)

Friday, March 2, 2018

“A miracle that all this speed waits in a lever for the pleasure of my hand.” — T.E. Lawrence, The Mint

It’s been quite a while since we’ve had any measurable amount of rain in Long Beach and I am grateful to be able to spend the morning at home, listening to its subtle rhythms. Last night, I took a little time off to watch “The World’s Fastest Indian,” which is a bio-pic about a land-speed enthusiast from New Zealand who set a record at Bonneville Salt Flats in the 1960s on his highly modified Indian motorcycle. Even though the film starred Anthony Hopkins as the film’s affable, eccentric hero, Burt Monroe, I had never heard of this particular film until now. As I watching it, I kept wondering how I had missed it. It certainly is not the case that the subject matter has never interested me. Though I have little time to devote to the subject now, I was intrigued by mechanical speed when I was young. I went out to the Ontario Speed Way, which has long since been demolished, back in the early 1970s, and saw the first instance in which a car did four consecutive laps at an average speed of 200 miles per hour. Even looking across the track, I could tell that that car was propelling itself faster than any other vehicle that day.

It turned out that the film had been first released in 2005, and its first showing in the U.S. was in February, 2006. I was rather busy at that point, teaching several classes at St. John’s University in Queens as well as teaching at Nassau Community College. In addition, I was on the cusp of being interviewed for the job I currently have at CSULB. No wonder this film pass unnoticed by someone who would have loved to have seen it on a big screen.

I suppose one could grouse about the nonchalant privileging of white male power. It is not fault of the character the film is based on that the motorcycle he mobilizes to honor “the gods of speed” is named in a flippant appropriation of indigenous people, but one wonders whether a Native American named Jake truly represents an encounter that happened in Monro’s sojourns in the United States.

On the whole, though, this tale of individual determination has many masterful touches. An unusual degree of empathy for the story must have inspired the casting agents. No matter how brief the parts, the entire cast of the film contributes to a mosaic of affirmation.

I was grateful, too, that Rupert had deigned to return to stay with us for the evening.

Joe Frank and “The Shape of Water”

Joe Frank — (Aug. 19, 1938 – January 15, 2018)

Back in the days and nights when I worked as a typesetter, it seems as if I had more time for my own writing and for reading and listening to what I was interested in. Among other places where I keyboarded for hours on end on a Compugraphic 7500, I spent ten years at Radio & Records, a trade newspaper for the music industry. In the production department, the radio was on almost constantly, primarily tuned to a station that played a lot of INXS and Depeche Mode, or so it seemed in the years when they were most popular. One shift was particularly long: Tuesdays started at 11 a.m. for typesetters, and went until 1:30 a.m. on Wednesday. Dinner was catered, and it was usually pizza eaten at one’s work station. One learned how strong a bond could develop when a crisis hit, and it took a 24 hour shift to get the paper to the printer.

Off the job, I could devote my energies to my writing, as well as projects such as the Gasoline Alley Reading Series, which I ran for two years with Phoebe MacAdmans, and Put Your Ears On, a cable-television poetry show I did at Century Cable. I also had far more time to listen to radio programs that I enjoyed than I do these days. One favorite show that I shared with many people who had grown tired of hearing about the eccentricities of the inhabitants of Garrison Keillor’s updated version of Winesburg, Ohio was Joe Frank’s program. In truth, I haven’t thought of Joe Frank for several years now. In fact, I don’t recall having listened to one of his broadcasts in the past twenty years. Back in the last decade of the past century, however, it was a special treat if life found one driving on L.A.’s freeways at night, and suddenly Joe’s voice was on the radio. If you were driving home, for instance, from a good visit with a friend, and it was a long drive, then the distances between friends in Los Angeles weren’t something to regret. One just eased one’s car into a right hand lane and drove at a steady speed, and let Joe’s voice ride shotgun.

A week ago I read the announcement that Joe Frank had died, and I took advantage of my access to search engines and listened to a couple of his programs, which can be found on his website. I picked them out at random, since I didn’t remember any particular titles of shows.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4qkKFWkCHRc

As is the case with many successful artists and writers, Frank knew that the “secret” is to find the prototype of content and form that can be identified instantly as having your signature. One walks around a corner at a museum and sees a sculpture of a horse made out of sticks and mud. “Deborah Butterfield,” one thinks instantly. Intoned with a resonance befitting the opening notes of a medieval prayer being chanted in a cathedral on the eve of a feast day, Frank’s stories remind me of a comment made by Jean Luc Godard, “Editing is the process by which contingency becomes destiny.” (Thank you, Amy Davis.) One knows that Frank is editing these stories as one listens to them, and yet one doesn’t feel manipulated. One trusts Frank, to a degree that is unusual in the co-dependent world of authors and readers.

In retrospect, thinking of having seen The Shape of Water about a week before Frank’s obituary brought him back to mind, I wish somehow that it had been his voice that had accompanied the opening images of that film. The Shape of Water is, of course, just a re-telling of The Beauty and the Beast, a realization that hit me about a third of the way into the film. Perhaps there is a way in which that binary is also at work in almost all of Frank’s work. Most certainly, the afterglow is just as haunting as that moment in Cocteau’s version, where the arms hold up their lamps in a tunnel of uncertainty.

May eternal sleep be a feast for you, Joe Frank.

“Lady Bird”: Winesburg, Ohio Palimpsest

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Note: For some inexplicable reason that I cannot fully account for (other than end of the semester exhaustion), an earlier version of this post entitled itself as “Lady Day” instead “Lady Bird.” Perhaps it reflected an aversion to the name chosen by the lead character. I have to confess that the entire time I was watching the film I kept asking myself why a young woman would choose a name that evokes a presidency mired in one of the saddest chapters in U.S. history. Claudia Alta “Lady Bird” Johnson (1912-2007) stood by and watched her husband and his political cronies empower Pentagon bureaucrats to go forth and drop more tonnage of bombs on Vietnam than were dropped in Europe in World War II. Ironically, in terms of the film, when “Lady Bird” visits the grandmother of another character, she sees a poster of Ronald Reagan in the old woman’s home, and says, “You’re kidding?” I feel the same way about the protagonist’s name.

A.J. Urquidi, the fine young poet who wrote to point out my gaffe, responded to the above comment with the following observation: “I sensed a political dread underpinning quite a few scenes. Ultimately, the film’s protagonist wants to be called Lady Bird as she fetishizes objects and concepts that sound “cool” even though she doesn’t know their true meaning or history. Since she begins every interaction/moral lesson in a state of ignorance/complicity, maybe her abandonment of the “Lady Bird” moniker by the time she starts her new adult life symbolizes the fulfillment of emotional maturity needed to move beyond the connotations of First Lady Johnson’s bad name (much like the maturity reached by the protagonist of Winesburg).”

And now for the main event:

The Art Theater on Fourth Street in Long Beach is a throwback to the days before the television industry and its successors caused the average cinema outlet to shrink to the size of the average vintage clothing store. I’m not sure how the place manages to stay open, other than its owners enjoy having an expensive hobby. Quite frequently, there are less than a half-dozen people at a screening, which makes it slightly awkward when something is laugh out loud funny and you end up hearing your amusement going for a roller coaster ride in hundreds of unmuffled cubic feet.

Lady Bird certainly has its funny moments, and enough poignancy to make it appeal to those who vote for the culture industry’s annual awards. No one, though, on the critical side seems to have noticed one of the most obvious debts the story owes: Sherwood Anderson’s one-hit wonder, Winesburg, Ohio. I teach the book as frequently as I can at CSU Long Beach, especially since it is no longer required reading in high school. The switch from a male protagonist in Winesburg to a female protagonist in Lady Bird is matched by a parallel switch in the parental figures: in Winesburg, the father is strong and the mother is weak. In Lady Bird, the mother upbraids the daughter relentlessly; the father is the one who wants his offspring to escape.

The desire to leave a “small” town is an old device for a bildungsroman. In fact, one wants to hand the heroine of Lady Bird a copy of Lucian’s autobiographical sketch, “My Dream,” in which he portrays himself as a youngster who regards the pragmatic approach of parental guidance as dead-end futility. Attuned to such a classic impulse as the desire to want more than others believe you are capable of, the lead actress does a fine job of oscillating between her revulsion at other’s self-imposed limits and a slightly incredulous naivete in terms of romance. It’s a layered role, since it involves more than a touch of the picaresque. As one critic observed, the picaro all too often succumbs to the temptation to lie, and “Lady Bird” as a young woman learns its consequences. Finally, I would note that one slight problem with the film is that the actress seems too old for her role, although her adamant commitment to her part overcomes that disparity.

It is harder for the setting to make up for its supposed deficiency. Sacramento, in 2002, hardly seems like “the sticks.” Granted, it undoubtedly has its class divisions. “Lady Bird,” as the heroine calls herself (in the manner that a very young girl bestows the name of “Tandy” on herself in Winesburg), chafes under the humiliations of coming from “the wrong side of the tracks.” But is coming from the wrong side of the tracks in Sacramento really as much a disadvantage as coming from a similar standing in Bakersfield or Hanford, California? Or Imperial Beach, in 1965?

I can empathize with “Lady Bird,” though she seemed not to be aware of how lucky she was to have a counselor at school to talk to about going to college. Maybe the counselor was condescending, but at least someone thought she was capable of going to college. No one said a word to me about applying to a college when I was in high school. When I got my high school diploma, my name was not on the list of graduates who had received a scholarship to go to college. I had not applied for one. No one at my high school thought that I merited such assistance. If I had to describe myself as someone in Lady Birdy, I was much closer to “Lady Bird”‘s overweight sidekick, who of course is not invited to the prom.

Instead of a community college, though, I ended up at a small Catholic college in Moraga, California. How I ended up going to St. Mary’s College for a year and a half is one of those inexplicable somersaults in a life for which fate and free will alone cannot account. In retrospect, both “Lady Bird” and I had a prophet at work in a writer whose masterpiece deserves far more attention than it gets these days.

“The Distinguished Citizen” (2016)

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Hurricane Harvey has flooded close to 300 square miles of Texas in the past several days, and the damages will total far more than a hundred billion dollars. The congressional membership of Texas will no doubt immediately vote for federal aid, which was not their immediate reaction when parts of New Jersey were obliterated a few years ago. Those who support Trump see no contradiction whatsoever. After all, the level of flooding in Texas is reported to be an event that is likely to happen only once every thousand years, so it will be sometime before Texas needs this much help from the other 49 states again. Surely we can pitch in just this one time.

It’s hard to say how much longer California will exist in its familiar state. North Korea claims to have made yet another advance towards hurling a nuclear bomb at the United States. Most likely, North Korea would like the United States to recognize that it merely wants to join the MAD (Mutual Assured Destruction) club. This is to say that one country does not attack the other because the consequences of retaliation are too grim. The logic is hideous beyond any ethical defense, but even mentally ill societies have somehow managed to avoid harming each other in this manner so far. If some other perverse plan is in motion, however, we in California can rest assured that President Trump would be happy to sacrifice our entire state if it would enable him to become seen as a heroic commander-in-chief.

(For an extended consideration of this issue, see:
https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/08/22/world/asia/north-korea-nuclear-weapons.html?hp&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&clickSource=story-heading&module=first-column-region&region=top-news&WT.nav=top-news&_r=0
“Actually striking the United States would be suicide. But the capability could help the North deter an invasion and wield increased global influence. “
By WILLIAM J. BROAD, MIKA GRÖNDAHL, JOSH KELLER, ALICIA PARLAPIANO, ANJALI SINGHVI and KAREN YOURISH UPDATED SEPT. 3, 2017)

In the meantime, a major fire is doing its mountain rim walk in Los Angeles County yet once again; and the MLB team with the worst record last year (and one of weakest pitching staffs in the first half of the season that one could possibly assemble) somehow seems destined to play at least one postseason game during the first week of October. Bravo Twins! Bring back the Cow-Cow-Boogie of yesteryear!

The heat wave in Los Angeles County remains very debilitating, so much so that I gave up trying to write earlier this evening and watched a movie that Linda and I came across on Netflix: The Distinguished Citizen is a chapter-divided account of how a writer’s self-exorcism turns into rebarbative destiny. A Nobel Prize winning author who lives in an unusual degree of luxury in Barcelona, Spain, decides to revisit his hometown, which he left 40 years earlier just after his mother died. He also left behind at that time his girl friend, who has never ceased loving him. He discovers upon his return to Salas, Argentina that his best friend ended up marrying the girl friend on the rebound, and the story turns slightly incestuous in the manner of a Greek tragedy with sardonic comic overtones. Even if you have never written a page of a story, you will find this character’s attempt to reconcile the imagined distant past with the actual superficies of one’s origins to be a compelling drama.

The fictional writer, Daniel Montovani, is played by Oscar Martinez with pitch-perfect ability to register and interweave layers of benign amusement with nostalgic loathing. Montovani first begins to realize that his decision to break an unofficial vow and never return to his birthplace was a miscalculation when he arrives on a long flight from Barcelona to Buenos Aires. (Oddly enough, though he is scheduled to stay there only four days, there is not the slightest hint of jet lag, no doubt due to the long siesta he took on the plane after the captain announced his presence on the transatlantic flight, which he responded to by pulling a blue sleep mask over his eyes.) The man waiting for him at the airport has been well chosen: an oaf who directs him to a cheap, uncomfortable car (instead of a larger, sleek model parked alongside) for the seven hour ride to his provincial origins. “Six hours,” the driver informs him. “I know a shortcut.” The shortcut consists of veering onto a bad country road prone to causing a flat tire. Of course, the driver is too poor to afford having a spare. The driver also has no cell phone. They spend the night there, using pages from one of Montovani’s books to start a fire to stay warm during the chilly night as well as for toilet paper at the morning’s latrine. Around the improvised, nocturnal campfire, Mr. Montovani tells the driver one of his stories, reminiscent of Maupassant, about a pair of twins who yearn for the same woman. The Cain and Abel outcome has a twist, in Montovani’s rendition, and this story foretells the violent confrontation between Montovani and his best friend as they go pig hunting.

The screenplay, by Andres Duprat, must have been a pleasure to read; the directors, Gaston Durprat and Mariano Cohn, make it look easy to have summoned empathic performances from Andrea Frigerio (as Irene), Gustavo Garzon (as Gerardo Palacios, the writer’s childhood friend) and an almost too charismatic performance as the couple’s daughter, Julia, by Belen Chavanne. Montovani, not knowing this woman is their daughter, spends the night with her, and at one point divulges his pleasure at scoring a groupie. Chavanne’s performance is so alluring, however, and her personality so strong that one finds it hard to believe that she is still in town, though she claims to want to escape as soon as possible. Perhaps this will take the death of her mother to give her egress, even as it required the death of Montovani’s mother to make use of his passport. It’s quite clear that the daughter will no more want to return to the town for her father’s funeral one day than Montovani did for his father. The scene in the bar in the chapter entitled “Volcan,” in fact, probably reveals how Montovani as a young man realized that his widower of a father had been less than faithful to his deceased mother, and that it didn’t take long for him to pack his bags and head to his version of Wittenberg.

If this were a novel, or a play, I could imagine an additional very tender flashback: a scene between Montovani’s mother and his young girlfriend. Set in this remote town, which is caught with perfect fidelity as to its austere limitations, it would have been a scene deserving of Chekhovian compassion. That one can imagine that scene for oneself is part of the reverberation of the film’s final scene.

On a much more mundane level earlier today, I had to rectify the haphazard work of those who have been working on the water pipe system on Molino Avenue the past six weeks. By chance, a man who pushes his paralyzed wife around in a wheelchair on a daily basis hailed Linda as she stood on the porch at mid-afternoon, and pointed to the manhole cover that was perched in eclipse mode over its proper slot. The rod that had lifted it out was still hooked into one of its peripheral notches, fortunately, so I was able to go out and slowly dial it around until it fit smoothly into its retaining circle. One always thinks that nothing would have happened if it had not been noticed, and rectified, and yet I remember all too well how my first wife suffered a badly broken leg because of a similar sloppiness by workers. It is hard to believe that anyone could walk away from a job and leave things in dangerous disarray, but it goes to show that as desultory as life seemed to be in the city I grew up in (Imperial Beach), an insidious indifference towards the vulnerability of others is an all too common trait.

To end on an upbeat note, though, I wish to thank our neighbors Jill and Geoff for helping us, early Saturday morning, loosen up the panel door of our electrical fuse box at the rear of the house so that we could get our electricity going again after it had gone out the previous night.

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“With Saintliness” — Harry E. Northup

Harry E. Northup is the author of many collections of poetry, including Eros Ash and Enough the Great Running Chapel, both from Momentum Press, as well as The Ragged Vertical, the images we possess kill the capturing, Reunions, Red Snow Fence, and East Hollywood: Memorial to Reason, all published by Cahuenga Press. He made a living as an actor for over 30 years, and appeared in a substantial number of films by some of the finest directors ever to work in Hollywood. He starred in the film, Over the Edge, which is enjoying a new surge of appreciation. He is also an activist in the poetry communities of Los Angeles; he founded and directed the Gasoline Alley Poetry Series in the mid-1980s, and has also organized poetry readings, such as a full-length presentation of Thomas McGrath’s Letter to an Imaginary Friend.

His poems have appeared in many magazines, such as Beyond Baroque NewLetters, Bachy, Momentum, ONTHEBUS, Barney, Pearl, Chiron Review, and Solo. New Alliance Records released two full-length compilations of his poems, recorded with producer Harvey Robert Kubernik. His poems have also been reprinted in several anthologies of Los Angeles poets, including The Streets Inside, “Poetry Loves Poetry,” Wide Awake, and Grand Passion.

I first heard Harry Northup read his poetry at the Wednesday night poetry workshop at Beyond Baroque in the early 1970s. Without Northup’s presence at the workshop, it is doubtful that it would have ever caught the attention of Lee Hickman at that particular time, and it is very unlikely that Hickman would ever have gone on to meet many of the poets whose work he went on the champion as editor of a series of magazines: Bachy, Boxcar, and Temblor.

The following poem first appeared in his blog, and is reprinted here by permission.

With Saintliness

With sainted water
With faraway canoe
With tremulous care
With sainted oars
With sainted light
With joy saintliness
With focused centre
With sainted arrows
With sainted circle
With sainted closing
With joining light
With saving hand
With sainted blemish
With circumference blue
With climbing saintliness
With joy eliminated
With saintliness diffused
With sainted hope
With closing hand
With sainted mouth
With joining hearts
With shining road
With long gone cascade
With sainted sound
With sainted search
With saintly doom
With connected light
With sainted substance
With light flowing down

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Harry E. Northup

https://timestimes3.blogspot.com/2017/08/with-saintliness.html

Terence Davies’s Biopic of Emily Dickinson’s Immeasurable Solitude

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Terence Davies Biopic of Emily Dickinson’s Immeasurable Solitude:
A Quiet Film that Quells the Passion of Dickinson’s Fascicles

Biopics of writers can prove to be even more treacherous than biographies. The latter has the advantage of including a great deal of minor detail. The mosaic of a life, within the trajectory of a published literary narrative, enables the chronicler to intermingle the events of the writer’s age with the daily circumstances of an author’s imaginary projects. The resulting textures enable us to understand the combination of “predestination and contingency” that make up a life, according to Robert Bresson.

Biopics, on the other hand, must compress a life into a few hours of images. In one of the opening scenes in A Quiet Passion, Emily Dickinson claims that she seeks a “compression of truth” in her poems. Terence Davies’s film falls far short of achieving an insightful compression worthy of its subject. On the whole, in fact, Mr. Davies’s account of Dickinson’s life misses the point: it’s not her life that should have been the subject of his film, but the life of her poems. “Dare you see a soul at white heat?” Despite being well-intentioned, the film misses not only the white heat of the poems, but the soundless, incandescent dots that encompass the life that produced those poems.

Despite the superb efforts of an outstanding cast, one only occasionally gets a glimpse of the mystic smoldering that inhabited Dickinson between 1860 and 1865, when her life was permeated with an enormous outpouring of poetry. A Quiet Passion in no way gives any sense of what it might mean for an individual to write hundreds of poems in a few short years. As I tell my students, she was producing a poem at the rate of one every three days, and often these were poems that would have been seem as supreme moments in an average poet’s life. To maintain this level of production is beyond the capacity of genius, which draws upon raw inspiration as much as rigorous intellectual calculation. Over the course of five years Dickinson performed as a vatic intermediary between some unfathomable Source and the language of her birth. Her translation of these diurnal elopements is perhaps beyond the capacity of our art to represent, and I suppose I should give Davies points for an earnest effort.

Nevertheless, Davies opts to provide comic relief rather than be faithful to the dominant tensions in Dickinson’s life. One can understand the temptation to provide a comic foil in a cinematic biography of an enigmatic poet. The Society for the Study of Oscar Wilde must be thoroughly enjoying this implicit homage to the master of the sardonic epigram. I can’t fault the dialogue as dialogue; it’s far better than the average play, but the caustic amusement generated by the conversations between Dickinson and her sister’s friend, Vryling Buffum, hardly compensates for the absence of T.W. Higginson and Helen Hunt Jackson from the account of Dickinson’s life. If the second half of A Quiet Passion begins to drag, it is in large part because we do not see Dickinson’s excruciating ambivalence about literary success. Helen Hunt Jackson pleaded for Dickinson to send a manuscript of poems to be published, and she demurred.

It is in the relationship between Dickinson and Jackson that one could have created a second half response to the cat-and-mouse pas de deux of Higginson and Dickinson in the first half. His famous rejection of her work does not deserve ignominy, but leaving it out almost defies the limits of credibility. Would one do a biopic of Arthur Rimbaud and leave out any mention of his letters to his former schoolmaster? Furthermore, I believe that the absence of Higginson and Jackson more or less cancels any dramatic possibility of explaining the fascicles.

A Quiet Passion depicts her creating fascicles on two occasions, but a person with only casual knowledge Dickinson will most likely have no idea of why Dickinson is being shown sewing pages together. On the first such occasion, we hear a voiceover reciting “I reckon – when I count at all –”, but there is no indication of what that poem might mean within the context of the fascicles. The fascicles themselves, it could be argued, become a refuge for Dickinson in which she can experience the entrance into the heaven of published poets. To show her reading the poems – after she has sewn the pages together – and then jotting down alternative words alongside some of her lines would have been to demonstrate the ongoing nature of her compositions, her openness to the recoiling of meaning within the arbitrariness of human life.

The choice of poems by Davies is quite peculiar. Poems that offer themselves as monologues practically begging for recitation, e.g., “I Felt a Funeral in my Brain,” are bypassed for minor work. It would be a little bit like shooting a biopic of Sylvia Plath and leaving out “Lady Lazarus.” Where are the extraordinary poems that reveal the hours spent in the garden, which is hardly employed for much more than a stage direction to enable Dickinson to spend some time along with Reverend Wadsworth, who is immediately importuned by Dickinson as to the value of her writing. If one wishes to demonstrate the confinement of Dickinson to an immurement of Personal Vision, then why not make use of “An Angle of a Landscape”?

The film concludes with the often reproduced photograph of ED as a young woman, along with her birth and death years. Call me a pendant, but the “cast” of her books should have preceded the actresses and actors roll-call. I would have like to have seen a bibliography of her volumes of poetry, concluding with the very recent Cristanne Miller’s Emily Dickinson’s Poems As She Preserved Them. In providing us access to Dickinson’s fascicles, Miller has done more pertinent and useful work on behalf of America’s greatest lyric poet than Davies’s atmospheric, scatter-shot film has any chance of accomplishing.

Final Sidenote: As any scholar of Dickinson knows, it is the biography of the poems that becomes a posthumous drama worthy of a film. The familial quarrels over her literary remains have had a parallel, if slightly more subdued, set of head-on collisions amidst the defenders and detractors of her poetry. Do not mistake me here: it is surprising how many dismissive remarks have been made about her poetry in the past century. In particular, her prosodic ear has been subject to a smear campaign on a scale that no other major poet has ever had to endure. If I can live long enough, I wish to devote a whole chapter in a book on prosody and rhythm to Dickinson’s capacity for metrical nuance.