Category Archives: Film

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.

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:
“Actually striking the United States would be suicide. But the capability could help the North deter an invasion and wield increased global influence. “

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.



“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

8 17 17

Harry E. Northup

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.

“Going in Style”: The Politics of Masculine Critique

Sunday, March 26, 2017

“Going in Style”: The Politics of Masculine Critique

When Linda Fry, Laurel Ann Bogen, and I went to see “The Last Word” a week ago, the previews included the upcoming release of a remake, “Going in Style.” I was disappointed instantly. The original starred a trio of men, and the remake has recast it with three males. As much as I enjoyed the original film back in 1979. I equally remember my main problem with it. The story-line involves three old men who decide that the possible benefits of robbing banks would probably outweigh the penalties, given that none of them had much likelihood of serving even a small portion of any lengthy prison sentence. As a comic premise, it served its purpose, but let us consider that the majority of individuals who might entertain that option as a solution to their predicaments would most likely be women. Impoverished old women confined to bleak circumstances far outnumber men, and if the comic requires the unexpected, a trio of aging women would easily provide a multitude of punch-lines and gags using the same premise.

The gender shift I proposed in my critique of the first “Going in Style” did in fact show up in a middle-aged variant a year later. The success of “9 to 5,” which starred Lily Tomlin, Jane Fonda, and Dolly Parton, demonstrated that a comedy in which women took the law into their own hands was certainly a viable project. If one were to propose a remake, I would be more inclined to see this one in a theater rather than the upcoming release featuring Morgan Freeman, Alan Arkin, and Michael Caine.

However, given the patriarchal backlash in this country right now, it is not surprising that this remake of “Going in Style” blithely presents the crisis of masculinity as the bedrock for its antics. The context for this remake has been building for years. At the end of the last century, Susan Faludi’s Stiffed, for instance, examined the challenges that working men faced within the economics of gender. Nevertheless, to have three men react to the loss of their pensions by launching careers as senescent criminals only serves to distract us from the machinations of an aging baby boomer in the recent presidential election. Trump and his inner circle are giving us a new definition of “style” and they don’t intend the aftermath to be comic.

Eric Fryer and the Hot Stove League

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Eric Fryer and the Hot Stove League

For those readers of this blog who are not familiar with baseball terminology, the “Hot Stove League” is not a reference to a “league” of teams, but rather an almost archaic phrase that encapsulates fans of the game who must endure the winter with stoic curiosity. There is widespread agreement that the term originated during the second half of the 19th century in village stores of rural areas of the United States. Casual acquaintances, fellow churchgoers, and old neighbors would meet up on winter nights to speculate about the coming season, as well as to commiserate about the past season. At this point, with the United States still far short of 50 state composition, no major league team was more than a thousand miles away from its furthest competitor. Given the harshness of winter where the density of the clubs was distributed, the allure of tipping back on a chair in the vicinity of a warm stove must have been irresistible in an age with almost no technological connections. Needless to say, the term has little feasibility today. “” is a domain name on sale for $1,000, or so my search this morning turned up. I suspect the price will not go up in 2017. In fact, it will probably still be available in the next decade.

Nevertheless, the photograph of Three Rivers Stadium in the link above (and the off-stage image of the frozen river on the other side of the outfield walls) made me think of that term yesterday, and I celebrated my own version of it last night by watching Knuckleball, a film about the pitching careers of Tim Wakefield and R.A. Dickey. Much to my surprise, Linda enjoyed it quite a bit, too, in part because the film is not just about athletes, but an examination of what any meaningful undertaking involves: a willingness to persevere. The basic advice that retired knuckleball pitchers, such as Charley Hough, had for Wakefield and Dickey was that they had to believe that their best years would be when other pitchers had long been retired. I suppose one could describe knuckleball pitchers of the avatars of delayed gratification in professional baseball.

Almost every boy who has played baseball has tried to throw two pitches at some point, even if they are not pitchers. In loosening up one’s throwing arm before a game, or in my case playing catch with my brother in the back-yard, it was impossible to resist throwing a spitter and a knuckleball. I had better luck with the spitter, which dropped about two feet as my brother was about to catch my pitch. “What was that?” he asked. “An illegal pitch,” I said, “and it’s too bad it’s the only one I can throw half-decently.” The knuckleball pitch really is a curiosity, since it moves slowly enough that its lack of spin is perplexingly half-detectible. It seems as if one should be able to keep track of its trajectory, but those who play the position of catcher know far better how little fun it is to be behind the plate with a knuckleballer on the mound.

I suppose that my blog has taken the knuckleball pitch as a metaphor for its approach. One never knows what the subject might be on any given day: poetry, visual art, music, movies, theater, electoral politics, urban transportation, or health care. Today, for instance, one might reasonably expect to find part three of my sequence of entries on Charles Webb’s poetics and poetry; instead, I am going to write about personal memories of baseball and being a fan of a current MLB player.

When my father finished up his 20 years of military service as an enlisted man in the U.S. Navy, he moved his baseball and personal memories. When my father finished up his 20 years of military service as an enlisted man in the U.S. Navy, he moved his family back to San Diego County, mostly because he loved the mild winters. My parents had bought a small three-bedroom house in Imperial Beach when he was stationed in that vicinity in the mid-1950s, and they had rented it out after he got transferred to Norfolk for the tail end of his military career. As we packed up our belongings to head back to the West Coast, I realized that my experience of being a fan of professional baseball was about to change for the better. The three hour time difference would allow me to wake up and read the final outcomes of all the games, and not just the ones played on the East Coast. The morning newspaper in Norfolk was printed long before the games on the West Coast were finished being played, and it was irritating to have to wait until after yet another game had been played before finding out about the day before. It was the last reason on a long list of why I hated Norfolk, Virginia; it turned out to be the only thing that improved in my life for almost a half-dozen years.

In my pre-adolescence, I was extremely fickle about my favorite team at any given moment. In the summer of 1959, during the final year of my father’s enlistment, I grew enamored of the Los Angeles Dodgers, mainly because I liked the out-of-nowhere quality of a young rookie relief pitcher named Larry Sherry, who was said to throw a pitch, the slider, I had not heard of before. His rhyming name and (at the time) exotic pitch were immediately alluring to an impressionable young fan, who had also admired players on the Milwaukee Braves as well as the Pirates and Yankees. Joe Adcock, Eddie Matthews, Hank Aaron. What pitcher would want to face those hitters, except for that own team’s staff, headed by Warren Spahn and Lew Burdette? Two years after the Braves had beaten the Yankees, I was cheering for the Dodgers, although I admired the White Sox’s ability to win a 1-0 game with an eighth inning outburst of a walk, a stolen base, a sacrifice bunt, and a RBI ground-out.

The majority of casual fans tend to favor specific teams, and will follow them faithfully decade after decade. Over the years, I have found that I take more pleasure in noticing the minor triumphs and frequent stumbles of the journeyman player, the “Everyman” of an athletic career that owes more to effort than talent. There were certainly plenty of such players on the local team in San Diego, a Triple AAA farm club that featured players such as Kent Hadley, who moved to Japan after 1961 season, and Harry Simpson, who ended his career playing for the Mexico City Reds. Have glove, will travel. One player who epitomized the journeyman status of professional baseball was Jim Pisoni, whose talent was sufficient to serve as a back-up outfielder for a couple of teams, but who ended his career in San Diego in 1962. Indeed, for every player such as Tony Perez, who went on to a Hall of Fame career with the Cincinnati Reds and the Montreal Expos, there are dozens who linger in the obscurity of Triple AAA record books. I remember seeing Perez play in San Diego, and he brought an electricity to the field that left no doubt where he was headed as a ballplayer. More typical was the career of Art Shamsky, who will always be in the record books as one of the players to have hit four home runs in four consecutive at bats (though in Shamsky’s case, not in the same game).

At an early age, therefore, I learned of the travails of any occupation, including the most glamorous one. Minor talents languish, no matter how much effort is put into it. The 10,000 hour rule does not translate into success, though it may draw a person some measure of admiration. I think of Ray Rippelmeyer, for instance, who never got to pitch an inning of MLB ball, despite several successful seasons for the San Diego Padres. Other players do manage to put together a very modest career that includes some playing time in the big leagues, and part of my fascination with the game is how it is like chess: the move of a single pawn at an early stage in the contest can shift the whole outcome.

My favorite player these day illustrates that kind of possibility. Eric Fryer is a back-up catcher who has played for several teams in the past half-dozen years, including the Pirates, the Twins, and the Cardinals. Last year, he played for both the Cardinals and the Pirates, and many Cardinal fans wish that the team had released Brayan Pena in mid-season instead of putting Fryer on waivers and allowing the Pirates to add him to their roster. Fryer had had an outstanding first half for the Cardinals, filling in for Brayan, who had injured his knee just before the season started. Brayan had a contract in place, though, and when he had finally appeared to be healed after the All-Star break, it was Fryer who was let go.

While Fryer “cooled off” considerably as a batter while playing for the Pirates, he nevertheless managed to get 15 hits in 74 at bats, including two doubles, one triple, and 8 RBIs. It was far better production than what Pena contributed to the Cardinals over the last three months of the season. In addition, Fryer patiently escalated the pitch count of opposing pitchers by drawing 10 BBs. From a fan’s point of view, a record of playing in 35 games in the second half of a season, and only racking up a .203 BA and an OBP of .291 in 88 PA (Plate Appearances) is hardly an adequate performance, even for a second-string catcher. And it isn’t. It was a weak second half of production at the plate by a AAA+ player who has played a back-up role for three teams over the course of six seasons and a career total of 124 games. Fryer’s lifetime batting average, by the way, is .250 exactly (63 hits in252 Abs, with a career OBP of .330.

And yet as the Cardinals cleared out their locker room at Busch Stadium and looked at the National League standing, they must have wondered if that one game difference in the Wild Card standing between their team and the San Francisco Giants might be attributed to the decision to waive Eric Fryer mid-season. If Fryer had played the entire season for the Cardinals, the odds favor an instance in which Fryer’s bat would have been productive enough to turn a narrow defeat into a narrow victory. The one-game difference bench player. Maybe two games, in fact. The irony is that statistical analysis would “prove” Fryer’s worth to be less than major-league caliber in the second half. The reality is it is very difficult to measure the exact worth of a player, especially when it comes to “small ball.” The following is a “small ball” instance of how Fryer might have made the difference on the Cardinals’ team in July, August, and September.

The case in point is nearing the homestretch of last season. On Sunday morning, August 28, 206, Eric Fryer’s performance during the previous seven games he had worked behind the plate for the Pirates was not what any manager of a Wild Card contending team would hope for. Clint Hurdle’s Pirates were only a game and a half behind the St. Louis Cardinals in the Wild Card race, with slightly less than three dozen games to go. Since being picked up on waivers by the Pirates in July, he had slumped badly at the plate. He hadn’t exactly broken out of that slump the previous night, and yet his at-bat in the fourth inning of Saturday night’s game with Milwaukee could be considered the turning point of the game. Fryer came to bat with runners on first and second, one out, and the Pirates down by a score of 5-1 in a ballpark that has been their graveyard for the past decade. With the count of two balls and two strikes, Fryer fouled out three consecutive pitches, and then drew two balls to walk the bases loaded, after which three singles, a Milwaukee error and a groundout scored five runs, and enabled the Pirates to take a lead they never surrendered.

Of course, instead of drawing a walk that loaded the bases, Fryer could have swung at one of the five pitches he received subsequent to the two-two count and grounded into a double play, which would throttled the inning and left the score at 5-1. This is not to say that the Pirates would have gone on to lose the game. But it’s those fourth inning at bats that so often determine the course of a season. Probably every third game played by a team has such a moment within the first five innings; and Fryer’s most important AB on Saturday night exemplifies one of those “small ball” moments that can shift a season’s outcome. Most certainly, a similar performance with the Cardinals, if Fryer had kept playing for them all season, might well have landed that team in the post-season playoffs.

It should be added that in the second game of a doubleheader against the Cincinnati Reds on Saturday, September 16, Fryer had two official Abs, with a RBI, one hit, and a run scored. The Pirates won both games. In the game in which Fryer played, the score was 7-3, with a sacrifice fly RBI by Fryer and a walk in the ninth inning on which he then scored on Pedro Florimon’s double.

All of this was taken note of when the Cardinals decided to offer Fryer a minor-league contract for the coming 2017 season. He’s guaranteed a job yet one more year, and a journeyman professional ballplayer can ask for little more. His wife and he had twin sons in the middle of the last season, bulking his family up to five offspring, so another year of working as a professional athlete is mandatory. It’s a career that disrupts one’s family life, but making a salary of several hundred thousand dollars will certainly help provide for that family’s well-being in one’s absence. I wish him the best of luck. He has an earnest intelligence about his approach to the game that I admire and his gregarious self-discipline is inspiring.

I’ve never been a Cardinals fan, but if Fryer ends up being the primary back-up catcher to Yadier Molina, I might well put aside my aversion to a team associated with a family-owned brewery that I detest. Molina is truly one of the exceptional players in the game today. Last season, forced to take on catching duties above and beyond a normal pace, Molina still batted .304 and had an OBP of .358. Go ahead and call being his back-up catcher a second-rate career. I would call it a gratifying honor for a life devoted to learning a skill in which passion still matters.

Fryer is not the only journeyman who played with more than one major league team last season to sign a minor-league contract, in recent weeks, for the upcoming season. This kind of arrangement, in which a player is not on the 40 man roster of a team, allows teams to provide depth at various positions so that a sudden surge in injured players won’t catch them short-handed in mid-summer. Alex Presley signed with Detroit Tigers, for instance, and Erik Kratz signed with the Cleveland Indians, while Matt Hague has returned from a year in Japanese baseball to toil for the Minnesota Twins as a “depth” player. They both know that they might spend the entire season at Triple A, but due to the strength of the players’ union, at least they are being decently paid for remaining available as potential substitutes. Travis Ishikawa remains unsigned, however, and it’s possible that his career as a professional athlete is over. At least he has that glorious moment of hitting a championship game winning home run to savor in the transition to retirement as a player. Finally, now that Chase Lambin has retired as a player and started a career as a coach, I wonder who is the oldest player in the minor leagues to have never had a single at-bat in the majors? Chasing the dream, they call it. Here is a link to a more realistic appraisal of being a marginal figure in the show business of athletics: “They like you. They just don’t like you, like you.”

Laurel Ann Bogen — “Wings That Which Takes Flight”

When Charles Harper Webb was putting together his first anthology of Stand Up poets, one of his leading choices as a representative figure was Laurel Ann Bogen, whose performances of her poetry over the past forty years have made her a legend in Los Angeles poetry. Along with Linda Albertano and Suzanne Lummis, she has also recited her poems as part of the poetry performance ensemble, Nearly Fatal Women. Her new collection of poetry is a retrospective of her work, “PSYCHOSIS IN THE PRODUCE DEPARTMENT,” which will be officially published by Red Hen Press in April, 2016.

I have obtained her permission, as well as the consent of producer and director Doug Knott, to post a film adaptation of one of her poems, “Wings That Which Takes Flight.” Bogen’s voice is heard in the film, though she does not appear in it.